The Challenger Disaster — 24 years later

on the Boing-Boing blog reminded me that today is the
24th anniversary of the Challenger shuttle blowing up right
after takeoff.

I was working at Computervision, and heard about it on the
radio on my way to work. My most vivid memory from that day is
going into a co-worker’s office, where the radio was on, and
hearing about the children in Astronaut Christa Macauliff’s
class having watched it live. The co-worker, a father of three,
was visibly crying at the idea of 8 year old children coming
face-to-face with death in that way.

My memories of the congressional hearings are fairly vague, but
I did really enjoy the chapter about them in Richard Feynman’s
autobiography, What
do you care what other people think?

My third Challenger-related memory is from the Spring of 1990,
when I was standing in line in an airport behind two Republican
women. This was when I thought then-President Bush was going to
be in trouble at the next election, because one of the Republicans
was going on about his lack of leadership, and one example she
cited was that she hadn’t felt anything when he was talking
about the Challenger.

More about bashing the babies

In my post
about Psalm CXXXVII
, I said:

I think it’s important to remember that it isn’t just songs about not singing songs that war produces, but people who actually want to kill babies.

I just read something that suggests another point of view on
this. I’m reading Wolf
, a novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell, who
was an important figure in the government of Henry VIII.

The troups of the Emperor Charles haven’t been paid in long
enough to make them angry, so they run through the streets of
Rome, raping and pillaging and doing a certain amount of killing
people who are in the way of the raping and pillaging. But
Cromwell, who has been a soldier, is sceptical of some of the
propaganda describing what they’re doing (written by people in

Thomas More says that the imperial troops, for their enjoyment, are
roasting live babies on spits. O, he would! says Thomas
Cromwell. Listen, soldiers don’t do that. They’re too busy
carrying away everything they can turn into ready money.

So another thing war produces is people who tell lies about
what’s going on, so that people will believe there are babies
being killed and run out and kill or fund the killing of the
alleged baby-killers.

New Cambridge Public Library Building

[Cambridge library]

I finally got to the new building of
the Cambridge Public Library
, which opened in November,

It’s really pretty nice. Of course, it helped that it was a
sunny day — I’m not sure it would be as cheerful at night or on
a cloudy day. But just having enough space does make a lot of
difference to how pleasant the seating areas are.

One of the problems with the old library was that it was hard
to find things. The new one has a pamphlet with diagrams of
what’s on each floor. It was still a little hard to figure out
that the “L” floors were underneath the main floor in the
“Glass” building rather than in the “Stone” building, but after
I realized that, I had no trouble finding the fiction collection.

I didn’t check out the meeting rooms or the lounge areas. I
did sit down in the “New Books” area and check that my Nokia 810
could connect easily to wireless.

It’s obvious just by looking at the fiction collection that a
lot of old books have been deaccessioned. When I found only two
books by Elizabeth
on the shelf, I checked the catalog. It lists three
of her books as being in the Cambridge library, but all of them
seem to (for now) be in the Minuteman Library Network.

One problem with life in Cambridge recently has been that while the main
library building has been closed for the renovations, the old school
building used as a substitute home didn’t have enough air
conditioning to be a good place to go on a hot summer day. It
looks like this will solve that problem.

I’ve always liked the Richardsonian Romanesque old building,
but it clearly didn’t really have enough space, and I’m glad
it’s been joined by a pleasant new building. When the decision
was made to make an addition rather than move the main library
to a new site, a lot of people felt that a Central Square site
would have been more accessible to more people, both in terms of
where people live and where the public transportation goes. I
understand that point of view, but I’m glad the old library is
still there. (For me, Central Square is a little closer, but
not enough to matter.)

If you want technical discussion of the architecture, here’s an

Death of retail politics

Here are some observations about the recent special election
for senator in
reports that people who normally were asked to stuff envelopes and
make phone calls in Boston were ignored in the recent senate

Here’s a story from a Fall River Democratic activist about her
attempts to help Martha Coakley on the morning of the election:

Anyhow, Coakley headquarters was in the carpenter’s local office,
there was one carpenter’s official. one would-be local-boss and one
carpetbagger from the national democratic party. And they wanted me to
go out canvassing door-to-door. I told them I offered to do that last
week, they refused. They ignored that and made the set speech about
how the face-to-face contact will make all the difference. I told them
it might have last week, but after this last weekend they are all going
to slam the door in my face. I asked them whose idea all the attack
ads were, there were ISSUES they could have brought up. They said they
hadn’t watched them. There were Brown people standing on corners with
signs on my way down there, I offered to stand on a corner with a
sign. They said no, they said I had to go door to door. I said give me
something in my neighborhood, they said they would. They forgot
though, by the time they got the packet together they gave me
something in the other end of the city. It took them 40 minutes to get
the packet
together, it still didn’t have a clipboard or a pen. In that time 3
union people came in, from New Bedford, who
milled around a while and then were sent back to New Bedford, And two
long-time dem stalwarts, both of whom were as mad as I was, and who
both thought with me that standing on the corner with signs was the
closest thing to useful we could do. And were told absolutely
not. Signs don’t vote. Which is true.

One of them got a packet the same time I did, not in her neighborhood
but in a tough part of town she didn’t feel like going to. I went out
with her and grabbed a sign as I was going. We stood out front
discussing the situation for 5 minutes, 50 cars went by, ONE honked
encouragement to me standing with my Coakley sign. She and I both
decided we weren’t going to do the canvassing.

I will mention that for all the money they collected nationally for
this campaign, they didn’t even have a coffee pot in the office. Or
donuts, let alone something nutritious. They had a big bag of tootsie
rolls, and some little bags of pretzels. They blew all their money on
attack ads and robocalls.

They’re trying to launch canvassing today so they can claim they did
it when the machine hands out the next round of jobs. This campaign is
going down in flames.

I’ll stand out with my sign at a busy corner at lunchtime for an hour
or so. But that’s it. Hope you’re having fun.

The polling place I work at is in a large assisted living
facility. Any campaign that’s serious about doing retail
politics in Cambridge goes there and talks to the residents.
Since people have a lot to think about when they’re moving, they
often haven’t registered to vote at the assisted living place
and are still registered at their old address. A competent
campaign would have either gone there before December 30 with
some registration cards and helped people fill them out so that
they can vote in the comfort of the room next to the dining
room. A competent but dilatory campaign would have gone there
the week before and helped people get absentee ballots who
needed them. Neither of those things happened.

I saw nobody holding signs for either candidate on election

Neither campaign office answered their phones when people
called for rides to the polls.

The Brown campaign did have observers at both my polling place
and the count. The ones at the polling place claimed to have made some effort
to get one of the voters who needed a ride a mile away, but
didn’t actually get him a ride. (He ended up taking a cab.)

Note that none of the places I’ve reported information from is
a place you would expect a Republican retail political
organization, so the Brown Campaign may well have had a very
good organization somewhere else. But if Martha Coakley didn’t
have one in Cambridge, Boston, or Fall River, she didn’t have
one. Those are places a Democrat running statewide has to win
big, because even a badly run Republican campaign gets votes in
a lot of the other places.

A lot of the voters expressed relief that they were no longer
going to be getting the robocalls and having to watch the TV
ads. So the wholesale politics is probably just annoying
people, and not really changing their minds.

Part of the global explanation for all of this is that the
retail politics in Boston and Fall River (not Cambridge) is
usually done by the party machines, which apparently sat on
their hands for this one. Part of the explanation for that may
be that the Catholic Church is part of what runs the machines,
and they aren’t enthusiastic about candidates as aggressively
pro-choice as Coakley. But people like Kennedy and Kerry and
Patrick do something to get around this, and Coakley didn’t do it.

One of the things I’ve always said about politics in
Massachusetts is that the Massachusetts Democratic party is nothing like as
healthy as the Massachusetts Republican party makes it look. I
hope we manage to find a senate candidate in the next 3 years
who understands this and knows what to do about it.

Massachusetts Senate Race

We’re having an election on Tuesday, to decide who gets the
senate seat that’s vacant because of the death of Ted

For some reason candidates seem compelled to tell the voters
they will vote independantly of their party leaders in some
unspecified circumstances. This clearly not true. There are 100
senators, and on the major votes that get reported in tne papers,
almost none of them cross party lines. The two candidates in
Massachusetts have not demonstrated any more capacity for
independant thought than dozens of the current senators have,
and they won’t cross party lines, either.

This means that the election is essentially an UK-style vote on
the party in power. If you want the seat to stay voting
Democratic, you should vote for Martha Coakley. If you want the
Republican leadership to have another vote, you should vote for
Scott Brown. If you seriously believe it doesn’t make any difference whether the Democrats or the Republicans get the seat, you should stay home.


This movie is set in Prague in 1988 at the end of the communist regime. It’s a heart-warming look at the effect of politics on personal relationships.
It’s the European kind of good movie, with subways that look like subways and apartments of starving musicians that don’t look like Hollywood sets. I particularly enjoyed the view of the scary escalator in the subway station from the point of view of the 5 year old boy.

Food Stamps

There’s a long
on the front page of the New York Times this morning
about the increasing use of food stamps.

It does mention that it’s been government policy over the last
three administrations to encourage the use of the program, but
completely leaves out (or maybe postpones for another article) the
changes in eligibility requirements that have enabled the
increased numbers of people to use it.

I think the article would lead a casual reader to believe that the
people in Orange County who are getting the food stamps now
could just as well have gotten them ten years ago, except that
they’d have been embarrassed to have their neighbors see them
using the stamps in the checkout line.

I don’t know anything about eligibility requirements in
California, but I looked at the Massachusetts ones 8 years ago
when I ran out of unemployment compensation and was going to
have to start dipping into savings.

At that time, in Massachusetts, you couldn’t get food stamps if
you had more than $600 in a bank account (including an IRA with
penalties for accessing it before you were 59 1/2), or a car
worth more than $2000. $600 is less than a month’s rent for
most people in Massachusetts, and a car worth less than $2000 is
probably going to lead you to miss work several days a year. The combination of the car worth less than $2000 and the less than a month’s rent in the bank is likely to tempt you to put off fixing your brakes when they break.

I was becoming increasingly alarmed as I read the article about
all the counties where nearly half the residents are eligible for
food stamps, so I googled for the current requirements in

It turns out that some time in the last eight years, they’ve
stopped asking you about assets at all unless you’re also
getting certain other means-tested benefits. So I would
probably have been eligible 8 years ago, and all those people getting the food stamps
may well have enough money to pay their rent and fix their brakes.

Corporate bureaucracy

A dog park friend works as a web developer at some corporation
that believes a computer is a computer is a computer.

So the computer they buy for everyone works quite well for the
people who use one browser and a wordprocessor and maybe
a spreadsheet and maybe a mail client.

But if you do web development, you have to test on lots of
browsers, and often have lots of windows open in each, and an
editor with numerous windows open.

So the way he tells the story, he had requested numerous times
that he get more memory on his computer. And then one day he
realized that he could double the amount of memory for $10, and
he had that much in his pocket, so he did it. And then they
yelled at him for not following the proper procedure.

Why is there more street cleaning in Cambridge than there used to be?

Cambridge used to clean the streets once a month from April to
November. A couple of years ago, they extended that, and now
they clean in December as well.

I was chatting about that with a group of longtime Cambridge
residents, and one of them stated as an absolute fact that this
was because of global warming — that the leaves used to be
finished falling by November, but now they’re still falling so
they need to do the last streetcleaning later. She might have
expanded this theory to include that another reason they don’t
clean in the winter months is that it can’t be done with deep
piles of snow in at the sides of the streets, and global warming
might have led to fewer large snowstorms in December.

Someone who was on the City Council or in the Department of
Public Works might be able to answer this question
definitively. My impression is that the streets always had
leaves in them all through the winter because of the ones that
fell or blew after the November cleaning, and what’s changed is
the demographics of Cambridge residents, who are now more likely
to complain about leaves in the gutters.

New England weather is so erratic that I don’t think a
climatologist would really care to predict the effect of global
warming on the amount of snow in December. It wouldn’t surprise
me at all if it went up instead of down.

Roman Polanski

I know every other blogger weighed in on this a few weeks ago,
but I had Wanted
and Desired
, the documentary about the original trial, in my
Netflix watch now queue, and I wanted to see it before I
pontificated. I got around to watching it last night.

I was pretty sure the current difficulties Polanski is in
aren’t an example of the creeping police state mentality that
the cases of Gates
and my
seem to be, since this involves someone who has
actually been convicted of something. But I couldn’t tell from
the news reports what the actual story about plea bargains and
time served was.

If you’re interested, you should watch the documentary. But
the short version is that he was indited on a series of
charges, and the one he was willing to plead to was “unlawful
intercourse”. This is less serious than rape, but can still
lead to a 20 year sentence in state prison.

The sentencing problem the judge faced was that there were
enough issues with the conduct of the trial that he didn’t want to give a sentence that would
be appealed. But he thought Polanski should serve some time in
jail. The only sentence that couldn’t be appealed was the 90 day
“evaluation”, which in Polanski’s case took only 42 days.

The judge was outraged that he had achieved only 42 days in
jail and was trying to bargain for more time in jail when
Polanski decided he didn’t trust these bargains and left.

The documentary focuses on the views of the two principal
lawyers in the case, the prosecutor, who looks a lot like Robert
Redford, and the defense attorney, who looks something like Sam
Waterstone. Of course, what you really want is the point of
view of the victim and of Roman Polanski, both of whom are
interviewed, but understandably don’t want to talk about the
more painful aspects of the issue.

My gut opinion is that this is not the way to protect 13 year
old girls from being exploited by older men. This isn’t an
example of random police power, but certainly does indicate that
the intersection of the courts with the media and the political
system can lead to undesirable results for both victims and

So if Polanski manages to not come back, I won’t be outraged by
any miscarriage of justice. If he does end up coming back, I hope
any additional sentence can be mostly time served in the Swiss
jail, which I would guess is a lot more civilized than the
California State Prison. (I’m not the only person who thinks
that — the reason the 90 day evaluation got done in 42 days was
that the prison officials were concerned that they wouldn’t be
able to protect him.)