Saturday, February 1

Space

I often wonder how people younger than I am feel about the space program. I imagine that space would hold fascination for most people. But I am of a certain age. My dinosaur years—the period in childhood when interest in science and nature blossoms—coincided with Apollo. I saw the first lunar landing, albeit through the drowsy eyes of a barely-awake five-year-old; while I don't remember that event, I vividly recall the missions that followed, as well as the bitter disappointment when the Apollo program was terminated. Skylab was tame stuff by comparison.

Today's loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia naturally brings to mind that awful morning seventeen years ago when I stood, too horrified to sit, before the tiny black-and-white television in my college dorm room, watching as the images of Challenger exploding were played again and again. And, once again, timing: if the apex of the space program had occurred just as I was reaching the age to notice, so too the Challenger disaster coincided with my transition to adulthood. It was a loss of innocence at an age where such losses are all too common.

When I was a senior in high school, my friend Don and I passed spring break by driving to Florida, where we visited his grandparents in Cocoa Beach. Our arrival coincided with one of Columbia's early launches, and so we found a spot with a clear view across the bay to the Kennedy Space Center and watched. We were far enough away that the shuttle itself appeared tiny, a speck nearly lost amid the flames and smoke of launch, and I recall craning my neck to watch the ascent past the clouds, awed by the thought of where it was going and by the notion that it would return to make the trip again.

That day is now nearly 21 years in the past, and Columbia had made many such journeys before today's fatal reentry. Despite the rigorous scrutiny the shuttle received after every mission, it's natural to wonder if its age, and the enormous stresses to which it was subjected over the decades, played a role in its ultimate catastrophic failure. We'll find out, I suppose. But for one not affiliated with the space program, and not acquainted with the astronauts lost today and their families, this is more a day of reflection than a time to search for answers.

It is, I recognize, selfish and egotistical to personalize this event. The loss of Columbia is not about me. But while this event will not, I suspect, have the singular impact that the Challenger disaster did (except, of course, on the families of the lost astronauts, and on those involved in the space program), it comes at a more unsettled time, with war against Iraq apparently imminent and with North Korea engaging in nuclear provocation. Already the days have felt weighted with anxiety, and it's not surprising, perhaps, that I find myself looking inward as much as outward. I dreamed the other night that I was on an upper floor of the World Trade Center, struggling for breath amid the smoke and heat on that awful September morning; just as the building swayed and began to topple, I awakened, my heart racing, relieved that it had just been an awful dream, now ended. Eventually, I drifted back to sleep, only to find myself at the World Trade Center once again, this time fleeing down the steps to escape the fire above; just as I reached the lobby, in sight of seeming safety, the tower began its collapse. With such thoughts already weighing on my mind, today's tragedy adds to the load.

UPDATE: The event hit baseball blogger David Pinto in a much more direct way than it did me: he and his family knew Columbia astronaut Dave Brown. His post reflecting on today's tragedy is here.

(Link via Glenn Reynolds).

Thursday, January 30

Watch This Space

Barring something unforeseen, I'm going to go silent again for a few days, as I prepare for the relaunch of Cooped Up on a new platform at a new location. I'll be back on Monday for the grand reopening.

Wednesday, January 29

Explaining the Super Bowl

Goodness, is it possible that Oakland Raider coach Bill Callahan is that stupid?

A Few Thoughts on the State of the Union

It's no secret by this point that I don't like George Bush. I find him arrogant, willfully ignorant, dishonest, all too willing to favor his fatcat friends, and (like his father) badly out of touch with the lives of most Americans. But, knowing that this year's State of the Union address would be more significant than most, as the president would use last night's speech to restate the case for the coming war against Iraq, I watched. It was better than I expected, but I still came away from the speech troubled. My reactions:

* Michael Gerson is a remarkable speechwriter. The first segment of the speech—the portion devoted to domestic policy—was a mishmash of frequently contradictory proposals that won't hold up to close scrutiny. But Gerson and his team made it sound good. At a policy level, it was largely gibberish. But as rhetoric, it was effective. And that rhetorical effectiveness persisted throughout the address.

* At least for this one night, the president dramatically improved his delivery. With one or two exceptions early in the speech, gone were the odd, inappropriate smiles, smirks, and grimaces; gone, too, was the condescending, hectoring tone that characterizes so many of his public statements. For this night, at least, he looked and sounded presidential.

* I remain deeply ambivalent about Iraq, not simply because war is a terrible thing (though it is) but because of the dramatic shift in approach to the use of military force that an invasion would represent, particularly if it takes place outside the ambit of the United Nations. Measured against that is Saddam Hussein's continued defiance of the obligations he assumed following the 1991 Gulf War, and the danger he poses to his neighbors and to his own people. Last night's statement of the case for military action was the most effective the administration has yet presented, laying out in some detail the various ways in which Hussein has evaded his obligations and the dangers that those evasions present. There was the occasional odd clanking or thudding sound—the invocation once again of the infamous aluminum tubes, which most outside the administration have concluded are not related to nuclear weapons, did little to inspire confidence. On the whole, though, the presentation was the most coherent and persuasive that the administration has yet set forth—not that that's saying much.

* What persuasiveness the last portion of the speech had was undermined, however, by its joinder to the first portion, which, however nice the words may have sounded, maintained the fundamentally dishonest approach to economic issues that has characterized Bush since the 2000 campaign. The tone was set at the very outset: "We will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, to other presidents, and other generations." This, coming from a man who has presided over the transition from surpluses to enormous deficits in two years, with deficits extending indefinitely into the future, simply boggles the mind. As does the solution: tax cuts. Tax cuts, you see, increase revenue: "Lower taxes and greater investment will help this economy expand. More jobs mean more taxpayers and higher revenues to our government." Sigh.

The sense that Bush was playing fast and loose with numbers was hard to avoid. He said at one point that under his tax plan, "[a] family of four with an income of $40,000 would see their federal income taxes fall from $1,178 to $45 per year." Could that possibly be right? If it is, the editors of the Wall Street Journal must be fuming this morning, because the president's plan would create a whole lot more of those "lucky duckies" who don't pay federal income tax. Which raises the question: if working families earning $40,000 per year wouldn't pay income taxes (or would only pay $45 per year), and if those with incomes in the top five percent would see large reductions in their taxes, who is going to pay the $1.2 billion for the proposed hydrogen fuel program? Who is going to pay for the AIDS Africa initiative (which in itself is a good idea)? Who is going to pay the enormous transition costs that would be imposed by the planned transition to privatized social security? And who is going to pay for the coming war against Iraq?

Given the enormous gaps in logic in the domestic portions of the speech, it's reasonable to wonder whether the portions focused on Iraq were similarly flawed. The president and others in his administration have repeatedly asked for our trust when it comes to Iraq: they have strong evidence of Hussein's complicity in terror, they have strong evidence of his possession of weapons of mass destruction and his progress toward nuclear weapons, but that evidence is too sensitive to be released to the public; we have to trust them. But it's difficult to grant that trust to an administration whose domestic policy positions are so plainly founded on fundamental dishonesty. Quite simply, the Bush administration hasn't earned our trust. I'm reminded of Ronald Reagan's approach to weapons reduction treaties with the Soviet Union: "Trust, but verify." And if they won't let you verify, don't trust.

Tuesday, January 28

The Conspiracy Strikes

Oh, no! They've got Ann!

Oooh, That's Gonna Leave a Bruise

Madeleine Begun Kane has expanded her repertoire to include sharp-edged political cartoons. This one is my favorite.

Good Wine, Bad Bunny: A Follow-up on Rabbit Ridge

Following my wine of the week post Sunday night, a reader wrote to question my praise for Rabbit Ridge. It seems that, tasty though the wines may be, Rabbit Ridge has been neither a good corporate citizen nor a good neighbor. In 2000, Sonoma County sued the winery for erecting and maintaining various buildings without proper permits and for exceeding the production capacity of its winemaking facility. And in 2001 Rabbit Ridge agreed to pay a substantial fine to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms following allegations that the winery had mislabeled 43,000 cases of wine. Following its dispute with Sonoma County, Rabbit Ridge is in the process of relocating to Paso Robles; although it will maintain its tasting facility in Healdsburg, the rest of its properties there are for sale.

I still like the wines. But in light of this information, I'm afraid I have to cross Rabbit Ridge off my list of favorite wineries.

Monday, January 27

The Void

My post a few minutes ago knocked Pippin off my front page. Sigh. I miss my puppy.

Bugs Bunny Reconsidered

I'm still digging out (literally as well as figuratively—I spent an hour this morning clearing two inches of snow from my driveway in near-zero cold), so I haven't had much of a chance to organize my thoughts about our impending invasion of Iraq, or much else for that matter. The invasion is certainly coming—the administration has invested so much political capital, and has moved so many troops into position, that nothing short of a coup against Saddam Hussein or a catastrophe elsewhere in the world can avert an attack. To back down now would embolden America's enemies and deeply humiliate the American government on the world stage—and as much antipathy as I feel for the current administration, I can't hope for that.

That said, the manner in which the president and his team have squandered the post-9/11 goodwill of much of the world is truly remarkable. The administration seems to be approaching the coming war in much the way the Bush campaign handled the closing days of the 2000 campaign, and in much the way the administration has handled many domestic issues: be bold, act confident, look like a winner, and support will fall in line. And to some extent, it seems to be working here: an article that Glenn Reynolds notes today suggests that many Arab governments no longer oppose military action against Iraq. But there's no denying that our drive toward war has also aroused the anger of large numbers of people, not only in the middle east but also among our allies in Europe.

Several months ago, extrapolating from a post of mine, Glenn suggested that America should pursue a strategy based on the question: "What would Bugs Bunny Do?" The notion was that if we acted unpredictably, oddly, and a bit dangerously, it would give pause to our enemies, throw them off balance, and make it easier to counter them. And to some extent, this has worked with regard to Iraq. If the administration had not been as forceful and as belligerent as it was last fall, there's little reason to think that Iraq would have agreed to readmit inspectors or, once readmitted, to be less obstructionist than they have been in the past. But this behavior has consequences. It may scare off the bad guys, but it can make bystanders and sometime friends extremely nervous. Adam Felber made the point very effectively a few days ago:

[R]outines like "Crazier Than Thou" are useful only in a one-on-one, late-night confrontation. I don't do it at dinner parties. Yes, there are crazy people at dinner parties. And yes, it might theoretically be desirable to make a certifiable and annoying dinner party guest avoid me, thinking, "I'm gonna go elswhere - that dude's crazy. He's capable of anything." But being a somewhat rational man, I realize that when I am at a party there are other people in the room - friends, colleagues, people with whom I will still be in touch long after the host's cousin's insane husband (for example) has faded from memory. In short, it's rarely to my advantage to make a large group of friends and colleagues believe that I am a raving lunatic, a loose cannon with no regard for generally accepted rules of conduct. It's a little bit of a social and professional handicap when the people in your life believe that you have utterly taken leave of your senses.
* * *
Unfortunately for us all, the international community is much more like a dinner party than it is like a deserted subway car at dawn. When the world's only remaining superpower begins behaving like a ritalin-deprived Hulk Hogan, everyone at the party becomes understandably nervous. And if Saddam eventually makes an excuse and departs hastily, we won't be thought of as heroes - we'll be left with awkward silences, destabilized relationships, and a bunch of terrified and alienated ex-friends glancing at their watches and making sotto voce arrangements to get together another time, without the Crazy Guy.

Allies like France and Germany haven't behaved particularly well in the past week, particularly in their ambush of Colin Powell last week. But we haven't been behaving well, either. And the consequences of this rift will extend beyond the present rift, with strong potential for negative ramifications for all concerned.

Sunday, January 26

Wine of the Week
Rabbit Ridge Estate Reserve Rabbit Ridge Ranch Zinfandel 1996

About a decade ago, when the zinfandel revival was still in its early days, there was a simple rule of thumb: if the winery's name began with "R," the wine was probably pretty darn good. There were the big three: Ravenswood, Ridge, and Rosenblum, wineries that had kept the model of superb zinfandel alive during times when most people thought of Sutter Home as the archetype of the varietal. But there were also others: A. Rafanelli in the Dry Creek Valley, Renwood in Amador, and Rabbit Ridge.

Rabbit Ridge is one of my favorite wineries. This is so in large part because of the tasting room in Healdsburg. There, for a small fee, the full range of Rabbit Ridge wines—and it truly is a full range—is available for tasting in a pleasant setting with good-natured staff. The wines are rarely profound, but they are almost uniformly well made, tasty, and true to their varietal character; you could, if you wished, spend most of a day here, and never taste a bad wine.

The 1996 Rabbit Ridge Ranch Zinfandel is a nice step up from Rabbit Ridge's regular Sonoma bottling (the low-end Barrel Cuvee bottling tends to be too light for my taste). It also typifies the winemaker's preference for balance and purity of fruit over maximum extraction and exotic flavors. The wine's aromas wouldn't be out of place coming off a warm blackberry dessert. The flavors are pleasingly full without being overbearing, featuring layers of pure ripe blackberry with hints of spice on the long finish. The wine is strong enough to stand up to rich dishes, but balanced enough that it pairs nicely with a simple vegetable-beef soup. This could easily stand as a benchmark Zinfandel, a standard against which others could be measured. It's not the best Zinfandel I've ever had, but it's very, very good, and when I think of Zinfandel, this taste is what springs to mind.