‘Not What Commander in Chiefs Does’

Now, I think it’s wrong to assume President Bush is an idiot. I mean, there’s some reason, perhaps invisible to those of us who never get to meet him or see him in action behind the scenes, that he got where he is. I mean, beyond the privileged background and unwavering support of partisan zealots and big corporate interests. But tonight’s “debate,” which is about halfway over as I write, is a great example of why so many people, me included, keep concluding he’s a nitwit. Never mind the baseless conclusions he continues to argue for on Iraq and terrorism and security. The phrase in the post title is just one example of the constant tangle he found himself in when contending with basic spoken English and logical argument during his appearance with Kerry. He seems so ill at ease, so hesitant and uncertain about how to phrase his responses, so dependent on falling back on the charge that Kerry has been inconsistent in his positions. I’d say Kerry got the better of him — just spoke more clearly, thought well on his feet, didn’t lose himself (much) in his dangerous, tortuous prolixity.

Of course, the way things are today spinwise and swing voter-wise, no one will really win this debate when it’s all over.

X Prize: The Launch

We got up at 3:30 a.m., had some motel-room coffee, then drove from Tehachapi to Mojave and got there about 4:30 or so. Plenty of time to hike around the runway area, see how many people had shown up overnight (not an overwhelming number) and get ready for the big event. I won’t get into all that now, other than to say how remarkable it is to watch someone roll by on a runway a 7 in the morning and watch them glide back to Earth from space at 8:30. One guy I’ve been talking to at Mojave Airport — Stuart Witt, the facility’s general manager and a former Top Gun pilot who has done test flights, too — said a couple of times over the last few weeks, “Everybody’s assuming this is a done deal. It’s not. It’s risky business.” Knowing that, it’s moving to look up into the sky and see this little glider coming back intact and to hear the pilot radio in how beautifully the craft is handling.

So that’s that, for now. Except to offer a couple pictures that Garth shot during the event (used with his permission).

I drove back from Mojave in one butt-numbing shot (it’s 340 miles; and while I don’t find Interstate 5 horrible and ugly the way many do, it’s not really a fun drive). I’ll head back down for the second prize launch, which still looks like it will happen early next week.

X Prize Eve: 09.28.04

In Tehachapi tonight, about 20 miles west of Mojave on California Highway 58, if you’re map-inclined. The town sits in a broad valley amid the peaks of the Tehachapi Mountains, the barrier standing between the lower end of the Central Valley to the west and the Mojave Desert to the east. Didn’t see much of town tonight — got to our motel (I’m here with Garth Patil, a friend from what I’ll call a past work project to avoid a long digression).

Spent the day at the Mojave Airport (which, since it has an FAA license for suborbital space launches, some in town call the Mojave Spaceport). There’s a different feeling now from the June launch. It seemed like many fewer people were showing up at the RV encampment next to the air strip. There was no press conference and no access to the principals at any point during the day. So I guess I’d say there’s something of a muted, anticlimactic feel around the event so far (I’m sure that’s not the feeling for Burt Rutan’s team or for the X Prize people — they’re about to see a big payoff for a lot of work).

Garth and I did manage to crash a little party that another space-launch startup, Xcor Aerospace, was holding in their hangar along the airport flight line. We got to go in and meet a bunch of the local aerospace people and get a rundown on what Xcor is doing (their primary longterm project, if they can get fully financed: developing a suborbital space plane to do “inexpensive” tourist launches (the company they’re working with, Space Adventures, has said they’ll sell tickets for $98,000 apiece; that compares to the $208,000 proposed by Virgin’s Richard Branson for flights on a future spaceplane based on Rutan’s design and technology). In any case, if we are going to have a space tourism industry — and eventually, we will — this is one of the places the hard work of creating it is happening.

We have a 3:30 a.m. wakeup call. That’s six hours and six minutes from now, so I’m going to close right here. More tomorrow.

X Prize: Next Stop, Mojave

Cimg1357_2I’ll be out in the Mojave Desert the next couple of days covering the first of the launches for the X Prize. If you haven’t been following the X Prize, you’ve been missing my peerless coverage at Wired News. Well, I wish it was peerless, anyway. The X Prize is a worldwide competition offering $10 million to the first privately financed group than can launch a three-man mini-spaceship on a suborbital flight to 100 kilometers (suborbital means you fly up and return to Earth without going into orbit), then do it again within two weeks. The prize offer expires at the end of the year. Despite having 26 teams sign up for the prize — a somewhat deceiving number, as only a handful have ever flown anything of consequence — the contest has come down to a single team: American Mojave Aerospace, headed by designer Burt Rutan and funded by Bill Gates’s old high school and college buddy (and my old employer, at a great remove, when I was at TechTV), Paul Allen. They plan to try their first launch Wednesday morning, and the weather down in Mojave looks like it’ll be fine (the wild card seems to be early-morning winds that aren’t necessarily friendly to Rutan’s SpaceShipOne space plane.

Kate and I went down to SpaceShipOne’s successful space launch in June — the picture is of SS1 landing, with a chase plane in the background. It’ll be interesting to see whether there’s the same level of excitement — the same kind of crowd — for this event. More later from the desert.

More Berkeley Walks

It struck me when I wrote the other day about Berkeley’s off-street pathways that there’s a group here dedicated to their restoration and preservation. It’s the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association. The picture on the group’s homepage, by a local artist named Karen Kemp, features the same sort of jumbled steps that I was trying to photograph. It’s not actually the same path — plenty of Berkeley’s paths and stairways look this way.


Interesting historical footnote from The Writer’s Almanac, which notes that Sept. 26 is the anniversary of the first televised presidential debate, Kennedy vs. Nixon, 1960. I vaguely remember Mom and Dad watching the debates on TV, though I have a clearer memory of other parts of the ’60 campaign, such as the Democratic Convention on TV from Los Angeles, Mom being a Democratic precinct captain, the giant Kennedy poster in our front windown, and Mom and Dad taking us to shake Kennedy signs at a Nixon rally in Park Forest the weekend before the election (though here’s another reason to love the Web: here’s a transcript of his prepared remarks, delivered Oct. 29 — or 10 days before the election instead of the weekend preceding the vote. More on that memory later, I suppose).

Anyway, after 1960, debates weren’t held again until 1976. It’s not terribly surprising if you think about it: Nixon was running in two of the following three elections; in ’68, he probably didn’t want any part of an exchange that had proved so disastrous in his previous run; in ’72, he simply didn’t need to debate. Interesting that an event that has become a fixture — though obviously flawed and less and less useful as it devolves into a piece of spin theater — took so long to catch on after the 1960 experiment.

Happy Birthday, JB

Hey, it’s John Brekke’s birthday. He’s 98 percent of the way done with his first half-century of excellence.

Happy Birthday, John!

Berkeley Walks

Berkeley is filled with scores of walkways laid out in the middle of its regular blocks. Most are in the hills neighborhoods where the street pattern is curved and irregular to follow the contour of the land. One afternoon earlier in the week, I was following a wandering course home from some unnecessary errand or other and wound up on a section of the Tamalpais Steps. I took the first picture trying to capture how the sections of stairs slant at different angles. I didn’t get that so well and will have to go back when the lighting isn’t so challenging for my little digital camera.

But there’s still a little bit of a find in the picture. If you look at the large version of the image, there’s a piece of paper tacked up on a fence to the left of the walkway. I didn’t notice it when I took the picture. But as I continued up the walk, I saw it. It turned out to be an impromptu poetry posting. A few people around town do this. It’s as unexpected and pleasing as the walks themselves.

Why Not Jeb?

To dabble for a moment in dark speculations: I just got done watching Jeb Bush doing his “OK, everyone, another hurricane is coming” thing on TV. Every time I hear him, I wonder: Between the two brothers, why is he not the Chosen One? He sounds smarter and more thoughtful than his brother; Jeb, logical thought, and the English language do not appear to be irreconcilable entities. After giving his statement in English, he flipped over into Spanish; though he was speaking from a statement, it appeared he was making some extemporaneous remarks, too. That’s always impressive to an English-only type like me.

Anyway, I’m sure not hoping that we have to contend with a third Bush in the White House. But given what the ordinary person like myself can see (and maybe I have to start reading the Bush family histories out there), it seems rather extraordinary that the seemingly more limited of the siblings made it to the top. Or made it to the top first, at least.

X Prize Update: da Vinci Delay

Monday I plan to go down to Southern California to cover Burt Rutan’s first X Prize flight for Wired News. I had been debating going up to Saskatchewan at the end of the week for the planned rocket launch by da Vinci Project. The launch was supposed to happen next Saturday, Oct. 2, and I had gotten a motel reservation in Kindersley, the launch site. But Wired News wasn’t too keen on paying for me to go up there, so it was going to be a matter of going on my own dime or trying to report it over the phone or something (the latter being a rather lame excuse for covering this kind of story). But the da Vinci Project, whose plans have drawn lots of skepticism (as I noted in a post in early August), made the decision easier for me, announcing last night that they’re postponing their flight. Wired News posted my story on the delay about an hour ago.