End of Mission: Farewell To Cassini

 Subsitute “Cassini” for “Yoshimi” and this really, really works. 

If you’re up right now, you should be tuned into space.com, or NASA, to watch live coverage of the end of Cassini (or, more accurately, the Cassini-Huygens missions).

As it is on, streaming live, the scientist on the air is saying “this is our last image of Enceladus”, limned against an alien sky, that alien world which Cassini showed us might have the conditions for life, and if it doesn’t have life yet, it could so in the future. It could so long after we’re gone. The universe goes on.

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Actual picture of a moon of Saturn

This blog is officially pessimistic about the future of humanity, and the discoveries of Cassini certainly make it clear that we barely exist in this vastness, but it also reminds us that we do. That we’re here. That we all have the enormous and impossible privilege of living in a time where we send satellites to Saturn, where they can take pictures of incredible alien worlds, distant and ringed by the debris of billions of years.

It’s only a few minutes until we get the last signal from Cassini, a decades-long mission whose data will give scientists materials for decades. The discoveries they have made, and will continue to make, teach us about the workings of the solar system, and the universe, and our place in it, our tiny and remarkable spot in this far, remote ring.

Cassini has been dipping into the rings of Saturn for a few months, ready for its final plunge, and even now is learning more about this austere and bizarre planet. It’s scoping out the atmosphere, giving us data on what Saturn actually is, even as it arcs toward its own death.

It’s impossible not to ascribe heroic motivations to the little guy, giving us knowledge about our own small place until the moment it dies. Its antennas will be sending us messages until the last moment of annihiliation, a beautiful goodbye.

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These are the actual rings of Saturn

Think about Saturn. It’s the first world you knew that was recognizeably alien, because it is so weird. Mars is the stuff of myth and legend, of course, and the hellscape of Venus is horrifying because it demonstrates how cosmically close we are to being nothing but brimstone, but Saturn is pure science fiction. It’s the world that looks most different from ours.

Our planet doesn’t have rings. Neither do any of the other planets. Saturn is strange. It shows the vastness of the universe, even in our solar system. Even in the nearness of our orbit. It has the debris of crushed planets and infinite, infinitesimal dust born billions of years ago, coalescing elliptically and spinning endlessly without any concern for our pettiness. It is, and it isn’t, in a shudderingly inhuman way.

Yeah, but goddamn, we have a satellite there right now, for about seven more minutes. It is traveling, the broadcaster tells me, at 75,000 miles an hour “breathlessly toward the end of mission.” What an achievement! What an impossible accomplishment.

And think of it. In six minutes it will transmit its last messages. Those will take less than an hour to transverse our solar system, far more distance than any human has ever experienced. They’ll run through the cold empty spaces, giving us its last gasp of knowledge, sending us information even after it burns and dies so far away from everyone who has ever cared about it.

Two minutes now.

It is plunging. “The spacecraft is losing the battle with the atmosphere.” It’s being pulled into its final throes. 30 seconds. It is about to be turned briefly into fire, and then nothingness.

“Signal from the spacecraft is gone, and in the next 30 seconds, so will be the spacecraft…I’m going to call this end of mission.”

And so it is over. The spacecraft is gone, even as its last lonely messages shoot across the 746 million miles that separate our worlds at their closest. Those 746 million miles that make the difference between our literature and nothingness, between everything you’ve ever known and the deadness of eternity. Between your memories and a planet that doesn’t care, doesn’t recognize, and doesn’t know anything you’ve ever felt.

But isn’t that exciting? In the smallness of our lives people sent a satellite to Saturn, looked at the seas of Titans, the gullies of an alien moon, the watery plumes from the south pole of Encedalus. We’ve learned more about the universe in the briefest candle of our time here than anyone in humanity’s short history.

So maybe there is hope. We’re short-minded and stupid and do dumb stuff all the time, and we seem to be rushing toward catastrophe. Maybe in a billion years the life that might yet develop on Encedalus will send a probe toward earth, or whatever name they’ll give it, plucked from their own shoaled mythologies, and maybe discover in the wreckage that there was once a civilization here.

Maybe they’ll see that we had weapons of fierce and terrifying power, and that we had covered our lands in plastic, and that we choked the seas. And maybe they’ll see that we built structures that touched the sky. Maybe they’ll see that we couldn’t sustain this wild gift we stumbled upon. But maybe they’ll see something else.

Maybe they’ll find a buried record of what humans accomplished even as we rushed toward our own end. Maybe they’ll see that brilliant, dedicated people created a small bleeping hero that touched their home somewhere in the distance of time, in the past that seemed dead to them. And they’ll understand that their place in the infinity of space is as small as ours, but also understand that, in a real sense, it is all-encompassing. It is all they have, and all they’ll ever have. And maybe that will change them.

Maybe we’ll briefly meet, ghosts across time, a fading signal rushing bravely through the darkness.

Maybe, this isn’t the end.


Surprise! Scott Pruitt’s EPA Uses Bad Economics on the Clean Water Rule


In the Aftertime, when our descendants are fighting over the last scraps of arable land, this fucking Okie hump is going to be one of history’s primary villains.

Scott Pruitt is not an honest man. He has one core belief–that extraction industries (and really any industry) should be able to do whatever they want to maximize profits. His ancillary beliefs–that there should be no regulations, that labor or environmental protections are evil, that climate change is a hoax, that we the poor and undeserving should choke on the ashes of capitalism–all flow from that.

All of his dishonesty and petty idiocy come from this. He’s an industry shill who literally copy-and-pasted comments extraction flacks wrote for him about EPA regulations he was fighting (before he was put in charge of the damn thing). He forces his department to self-censor the truth or lose their jobs (many choose the later). He replaces scientists with industry goons. He’s says it is “insensitive” to talk about climate change being a cause of more powerful and destructive because he knows it is inarguable, and so hides behind a veneer of compassion for environmental victims his whole career proves a lie.

He’s one of the primary disasters of the Trump regime, coming in close behind or ahead of Sessions, depending on where you stand on things. I’ll consider them tied. It flows from the top, of course. Just like in Pruitt’s EPA, dishonesty has begun to affect the noble institution with every one of his idiotic appointments.

We can see that inherent dishonesty in a recent review of the Clean Water Rule of 2015 (this is also known as Waters of the United States Act, or just WOTUS). The administration has been trying to overturn these regulations, which changed what water could be regulated by the federal government. The definition was expanded to include many irrigation channels and small streams.

To many, this was big government intrusion at its worst. And to be fair, I find that argument sympathetic. Irrigation channels often run on private land. The problem, of course, is that they don’t end there. Water seeps into aquifers or it runs rivulets of phosphate into lakes, creating murderous algae blooms, or it is just wasted. But, more regulations could be onerous to farmers, who already eke out a meager existence.

Who was on their side? Well, nearly everyone.

President Donald Trump made repeated campaign promises to repeal WOTUS, which is opposed by a variety of industrial sectors, including agriculture, iron and steel manufacturing, home builders, and mining groups. Industry associations representing those sectors argue it would trigger requirements to obtain costly federal permits to dredge wetlands and streams that they say fall under state and local laws already.

Now, some argue, maybe we should protect wetlands more. It’s a compelling argument these days. So who knows what to do? But no fear! That’s why the EPA commissioned a study. And they found that the economic burden would be super expensive. There’s just, well, one problem. From the Commies at Bloomberg.

The Trump administration was sloppy in how it estimated the economic impact of a proposal to repeal an Obama-era water pollution regulation, relying on data and assumptions that industry previously criticized, according to economists and regulatory analysts interviewed by Bloomberg BNA.

Chief among their complaints was that the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used recession-era economic data and failed to account for some of the benefits of leaving the 2015 Clean Water Rule in place. Their economic analysis even drew criticism from David Sunding, a University of California-Berkeley agricultural economist who was hired by industry groups to counter theanalysis the Obama administration used to back its regulation.

“I am not normally this dismissive, but this is the worst regulatory analysis I have ever seen,” Sunding told Bloomberg BNA in telephone interview.

It’s worth repeating that Sunding had been hired by industry groups, in large part because he criticized the conclusions of the Obama administration, saying they had used faulty data to overstate the benefits. But then the Trump admin under Pruitt used the same numbers to come up with even worse results.

When the program was first proposed, it was under one set of economic conditions (coming out of the recession). That skewed the benefits, because it started from an artificially low baseline. But Pruitt’s EPA used that same baseline, and ignored any benefits. Bloomberg can explain.

The Trump administration used the 2013 estimates as a starting point, assuming that the costs of that regulation would be avoided by a repeal and the benefits of the regulation would be foregone. The proposed repeal was estimated to result in $162 million to $476 million in avoided costs, while the estimated foregone benefits range from $34 million to $73 million per year.

In the 2013 analysis, the EPA estimated the annual costs of implementing the water jurisdiction rule to range from $133.7 million to $277 million, but those costs were outweighed by annual projected benefits of between $300.7 million and $397.6 million.

The EPA’s 2017 approach drew the ire of economists because no recent permitting data was used to estimate the economic impact of the proposed repeal. Instead, the analysis used data from fiscal years 2009 and 2010, a time when U.S. economic activity was at its lowest since World War II, particularly in the manufacturing, residential, and commercial development sectors.

Basically, the Obama estimates might have been wrong, but the Trump ones were almost deliberately misleading. Or, knowing them, not almost.

I err on the side of WOTUS, clearly. But it is worth looking into. We do need to know the impact of everything we do. Scott Pruitt sort of agrees. He thinks we should know the negative impact of any regulation. He doesn’t really care to know any of the benefits, or care about the long-and-short term destruction of our environment. That sort of impact doesn’t matter.

The only impact that matters is if business is happy. For some reason they don’t, or won’t, see the ground crumbling beneath their feet. They don’t see the flames licking up the sides of the house. They feel the lash of the storm, but assume it is passing, or pretend their boat can get out of the way. Theya re depserate and greedy murderers, and Scott Pruitt is their chief enabler.

If we’re lucky enough to have history in 100 years, his name will be cursed.

Wednesday Good Reads: SETI, El Faro, and Labor


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“Go to the one about organized labor, Madison


A few good reads from the last few days. What’s stopping you? You have nothing to lose, and everything (or, well, three things) to gain.

Searching the Skies for Alien Laser Beams, Marina Koren, The Atlantic

Some scientists believe that the best way to find alien life is to look for pulses of laser beams shot out across the dark eons. While SETI doesn’t always get priority for telescope use (understandably), researchers have found a workaround: poring through data collected by other observations and looking for anomalies. Of course, this presupposes that aliens have seen our planet, want to send some form of contact, and have also decided that laser pulses are the best way, but that makes some sense. It’s easier than sending, like an expedition, and it isn’t really committal (“Oh, jeez, sorry, we were sending that to Rigel 7.”), but there’s something very romantic about it. It’s like being at camp and blinking your flashlight across the lake, wondering if there were campers over there, wondering if you were somehow making a connection through the darkness.

(Granted, I doubt the aliens are hoping, as we campers did, just to make contact with girls, but the general principle holds.)

Democrats and Labor: Frenemies Forever, Erik Loomis, Boston Review

I don’t think there is anyone concerned with labor and with unions (the only thing that can bring back any form of rough economic equality) that isn’t frustrated with the Democrats. Even a very pro-labor government like Obama’s saw labor decline. But as Loomis argues, deciding the abandon the Democrats is ridiculous. A labor-driven third party can’t work, and the Republicans are fully committed to destroying what’s left of unions.

Loomis diagnosis how, oddly, the grassroots/progressive liberal wing helped to strip unions of their power, which accelerated the Democrats no longer needing them as much for votes, and relying on small donors/huge corporate cash, which pushed them toward unfettered free trade, which helped destroy the unions. It’s a complicated story where good guy/bad guy is pretty blurry, but there are ways to get back. The alliances that shattered unions can be used to build them back up.

Other unions have embraced grassroots activism to elect liberal and friendly Democrats. The latter is unions’ best answer if combined with committing as many resources as possible to organizing. Because, paradoxically, unions have little choice but to continue tying their fate to the Democratic Party. Indeed it is even more important now than five decades ago. Even though Democrats have helped create their demise, unions’ only chance against a full-on war with the Republican Party is a moderately favorable relationship with the Democrats acting as a kind of political bulwark.

The whole thing is worth the read.

‘I’m a Goner’: El Faro’s Last Hours as Ship Sails Into StormJason Dearen, AP

The El Faro was nearly 800 feet long and could carry 31,000 tons. It wasn’t one of the neo-Panamax megaliners that are transforming global shipping, but it was a beast. It also had bad boilers which could hurt its engine, and old-fashioned lifeboats that were essentially useless in a big storm. On Oct 1st, 2015, it

On Oct 1st, 2015, it rushed headlong into a big storm. Hurrican Jaoquin, near the Bahamas, a Category 3 with winds up to 130 mph. Battered by waves, unable to turn, the ship broke up and sank, taking its crew of 33 with it to the bottom.

In the AP, Jason Dearen crafts a story out of transcripts recorded on the bridge, and they tell a harrowing story of calm professionalism over growing terror. The list of things that went wrong is terrifying and maddening. The ship listed a bit, which meant the parts that brough oil to the engines didn’t quite reach the reserves, which made the pumps not work, which brought on more water. It couldn’t steer into the waves, and so was pummeled by them, hundreds of feet high. They couldn’t even call for help, since the company that owned the boat (the one that signed off on the boilers and the lifeboats) had an answering service set up after hours. There was no way to contact them directly (though it might not have mattered in the face of a hurricane, that’s still pretty cold).

They do their jobs and try to figure it out. But eventually, there is no way out. The ship is sinking. Some panic, some try to just find the next way to survive. None do. It’s a terrible story, written with a modest and removed reserve, which heightens the true natural terror. And that boat, that human immensity, carrying with it the dreams and memories of dozens, disappears, swallowed unremarkably by a roiling sea.


Enceladus Discoveries Demonstrate That Life (Almost Certainly) Exists


The caption as the NASA site reads, blandly and beautifully, “Color image of icy Enceladus.” It sounds like the beginning of a poem that somehow explains everything. Someone write it. 



Could there be life under the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus?

NASA announced on Thursday that its Cassini spacecraft mission to Saturn has gathered new evidence that there’s a chemical reaction taking place under the moon’s icy surface that could provide conditions for life. They described their findings in the journal Science.

“This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in a statement.

However, the scientists think that because the moon is young, there may not have been time for life to emerge.

Don’t let the last paragraph get you down. Thrill, instead, at the possibilities. And thrill, even more, at the certainties. Because while Enceladus might not have life, the last sentence contains within it the seeds of a glorious “yet”, and with that, the possibilities explode like the limitless universe.

Let’s just take Enceladus, and assume that its youth has left it so far lifeless. But the idea that life could develop there, given time, expands our perceptions in both directions. Think of the idea that there could have once been life on Mars, or even on Venus, even just the merest microbes that were entirely annihilated with the slightest shift in orbit.  Life developed over millions and billions of years, while the earth was lifeless, or as the first microbes emerged from a chemical sludge, and then disappeared. Entirely. Our centuries seem so vain compared to that eonic drama.

And then go forward: after we’ve wiped ourselves out and the earth starts to rebuild from our folly, maybe life will slowly bloom on Enceladus. It might not happen, but it might. It might spark to life and then fizzle out, unsuccessful. That has probably happened billions of times across the universe.

But the point is, it has happened. One of this blogs secondary yammering points has been that we’re past the point where any reasonable person could think there isn’t life outside of earth, or that there hasn’t been, or that there never will be. Mars once had water. Enceladus has the primary conditions for life. There are seven nearby planets that are the right distance from their star to contain life.  There are40 billion Earth-sized planets orbiting in the habitable zones of Sun-like stars and red dwarfs in the Milky Way.” Just the Milky Way! There are two trillion galaxies in the observable universe. There are more things than can be contained in even our most outsized vanities.

The universe is far too big, and far too weird (look how weird Pluto is), to think we’re the only place this has happened. But that’s not so bad. We’re probably the only place where that weird chemical sludge whorled and zapped up the exact combinations that led to sequoias and dinosaurs and tree sloths and Tilda Swinton, and that’s awesome. We get to have Warren Zevon and playoff hockey. Neat!

None of this is to say that, given the size of the universe, and the certainty that we aren’t alone, that our problems are lessened. Because, functionally, we are alone. It’s not like any jerkass Enceladusian microbes are going to FedEx us a care package, much less a solution to our crippling frailties. The fact that we know that life certainly started in other places, even in our solar system, and was wiped out, a fate that will absolutely befall earth, should be enough to dim our self-destructiveness and work to make better the time we have. One would hope, anyway.

I’ve argued that since we are past the point where life in the universe can plausibly be doubted, even without definitive proof, something will slowly alter in our morals. It won’t happen overnight. It will be a generational thing, much like the Copernican “discoveries” began the slow erosion of Popish authority. Our perceptions of ourselves will change. And I think it could be for the better.

We might realize that far from being special, we’re lucky. We’re enormously lucky to be here, as a planet, as a species, and as individuals. Stretch back to the beginning of time and trace the events that led to your parents meeting. It’s impossible. So much could not have happened, and so much didn’t happen to other potential beings, other potential species. A wrong turn on a Sunday means your great-grandparents never chanced into each other or that you were just too far away from the sun to be warm, and so you’re a lifeless void.

It’s wild, these possibilities created by an endless universe. Maybe if we recognize that, if we recognize this glorious chance that lets us drink champagne with the ones we love, we won’t be so vainly self-destructive. If only we have time.

(Note: for a good scientific explanation of Enceladus, read Calla Cofield’s piece at Space.com)

Water Wednesday: Wisconsin’s Walker Woes and Things That Don’t Begin With W. Like Lake Erie



I’m sure there’s a metaphor here somewhere, but my first thought is: whoa! A deer in Lake Erie? What the hell? Image (and explanation) from Cleveland Scene

A quick rundown of some top water stories, which remind us that while we can impact nature, we’re really not in charge. 

I realize that there is a weird-seeming contradiction in saying that we can bring great change to nature, but that we’re still at its mercy. But when we say “great change”, we don’t mean permanent. The earth will eventually repair itself, and time will smooth over our cataclysms. We just won’t be here. But you want the real image? Imagine a 7-yr-old jamming a hatpin into his mother’s ankle. He can do that, and cause great damage, but really, the storm will redound upon him.

So let’s start this week’s “hey, who cares about clean water?” news with Wisconsin.

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