Wednesday, April 30, 2003


Major Hollywood Engagement

These days and nights, I keep strange hours (surprise, surprise).

My mom got some call from a Hollywood agent she met in Florida at a talent search. The dude said that she should send some "comp sheet" or something to his agency; I think a black & white glossy photo of herself. So maybe she'll be coming out to Hollywood to break into show biz or something. Oh, and the dude also asked for comp sheets of both my sister Natalie and her fiance Chris.

Oh yeah, my sister's engaged. No date set for the wedding though. Chris and she don't plan on getting married for at least a year.

There has been an interesting dichotomy of responses to this news. Most people she knows in Willis, Texas are rejoicing (Chris asked my dad's permission to propose beforehand). And nearly everyone I've told here has thought that to get engaged so young, and with only a high school education, is crazy. Typical responses: How can she know who she is? I mean, they'll both be changing so much between now (ages 18 and 19) and their mid-20s. Wouldn't it be practical to go to college first? (Oh yeah, college sure clarified everything for me...NOT.)

Though she is young, I think my sister is more mature than many women her age. She has a purpose, mission, compassion, drive, and moral clarity rarely found in the high school hallway or college dorm. She has known this young man for three years and they have grown quite close. They are very compatible, spiritually, in their life's goals, and general outlook on life. They seem a good pair who can grow together. So why not get life's journey started together sooner rather than later?

As most of the people who will read this have (perhaps purposefully) avoided marriage for years in pursuit of a career or their own worldview or something, an early decision for marriage might be difficult to understand. It's as if Willis and Pasadena are two different worlds, or at least two different cultures.

Plus, it's important to remember that they are not yet married. The engagement period is that time in which they prepare for their lives together, if indeed that is what Providence wills.

Democracy, Coke, and the LA Riots

On an obliquely related note, I've recently thought about how liberal democracy is ultimately unsatisfying. Liberty and equality will always be in tension, or, one might say, contradiction. Think about liberty and equality for a moment, and what they each entail.

Don't get me wrong. I think liberal democracy is better than the fascist and communist systems we've seen in the 20th century. But still, the dialectic continues. To quote Francis Fukuyama, "We need a trans-historical standard against which to measure democratic society . . . that would allow us to see its potential defects."

And I sure need a Vanilla Coke.

Speaking of politics, today is the 11th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots.

To quote Ice Cube, "April 29th, more power to the people."

Let's hope we never have a sequel.

Thursday, April 24, 2003


General Epistle: The Latest

I'm back in Pasadena and am doing well.

week, I had an interview for a position in the Dept. of
Aeronautics &
at Stanford Univ. Yes, it's getting to be that time when I leave the academic nest as it were and look for a job. I've decided I want to stay in academia. Academia is a very big place. (It's certainly not like being in Absentia.) As far as I know, Academia spans several continents and hundreds of cultures, but has no formal political center. I'm told the official language is English. (Esperanto, a neutral, international language, just isn't making a splash.) Some civil rights are respected, and I don't yet know what the Established Religion is. I will -- baring cataclysm - be
graduating in the near future, and therefore get to write applications and do interviews to become a more permanent citizen of Academia. It's actually quite fun. By the way, I'll find out more from Stanford in late May if they are still considering me -- there are seven candidates for the tenure-track professor position.

MelahnAt the seminar I gave last week, I ran into Melahn, a friend who transferred from Caltech to Stanford. (By the way, "Dr. Shane Ross" will be giving a Physics & Astronomy seminar at Cal State LA next Thursday, May 1 -- the special May Day edition!)
Heliopolis Space Colony We worked together on a space design project last year where the goal was to design a money-making, self-sustaining space colony. Then we pitched the idea to a couple representatives of a rich entrepreneur interested in space commercial development.

Well, we went to the Nuthouse in Palo Alto and had a grand time. This week, there may even be a party down here, in Pasadena, to celebrate, among other things, the existence of the Beastie Boys.

ColinI also met briefly with Colin. We discussed business, politics, sex, and cartography over a few beers and Philly cheesesteaks. We hung out at Brian's apartment near Lake Merritt in Oakland and took tests -- I learned that I'm only 16% gay, but Colin thinks I was cheating, deliberately picking ungay answers. (He scored somewhere in the high 20s if I remember.) We took the "Are you gay?" test again, this time taking the female version, and deliberately tryied to score as high a gay score as possible, but only scored a little over 50% gay. What are lesbians thinking? We don't know the half of it!

Easter was spent with a gaggle of relatives in Oakhurst. The inaugural event was the Saturday "Easter Egg Hunt," as they say in this country. It took place in the "backyard" of my cousin Cory's place. Her daughter, Hannah, is 7, and son, Conner, is 5. Plus my cousin Willie has a daughter, Jaecie, who's 4. (All ages approximate and subject to change.) I found some eggs, but didn't tell anybody.

And now I'm wrestling with issues like strength, battles of pure prestige, Pharisees, engagement, duty, honor, and country.

But here's a thought that a recent blog by Slade made me think of...

How many terms for "steal" can you think of? Slade thought of hork. Some terms I've used are snake, gank, jake, abscond, hoik, nyoink, gaft, scoff, bogart, pilfer, swipe, filch, thieve, purloin, and heim.

(Snow is an important element of Eskimo culture. They have over thirty words for snow...)

Okay, get back to work, ya rapscallions!

Monday, April 14, 2003


Responding to Iraq

How do we respond to what's been happening in Iraq? I've felt anger, resoluteness, responsibility, joy, uncertainty, anxiety, and respect for those willing to sacrifice their lives for principles they believe in.

How does God respond? I doubt he is anxious or uncertain. Is he angry? He holds the authorities accountable, and Paul said he's the one who gives worldly authorities their power. He will judge them according to why they waged this war. And only God knows if the war is truly just, since his is the the standard of justice. I believe he sees into the heart of every soldier and judges them individually, independent of why the war was waged.

As a son of Abraham, I am called to be part of the blessing to all nations, the seasoning which can make life bearable in difficult circumstances. So the war has made me think about my role in God's plan of reaching the nations with blessing, with the Good News of Jesus. One way to play a role is to reach out in generosity to neighbors. Another is to give to foreign aid to places, like Iraq, which need resources right now to maintain health and stability. Another way is to go to a foreign country and give my time and person. And preceding all these things would be prayer.

Friday, April 11, 2003


One Tin Soldier


Dennis Lambert & Brian Potter ©

Listen children to a story,

That was written long ago

'Bout a kingdom on a mountain,

And the valley far below.

On the mountain was a treasure,

Buried deep beneath a stone,

And the valley people swore

They'd have it for their very own.


Go ahead and hate your neighbor,

Go ahead and cheat a friend.

Do it in the name of heaven,

You can justify it in the end.

There won't be any trumpets blowing,

Come the Judgment Day.

On the bloody morning after,

One tin soldier rides away.

So the people of the valley,

Sent a message up the hill,

Asking for the buried treasure,

Tons of gold for which they'd kill.

Came an answer from the kingdom,

"With our brothers we will share,

All the secrets of the mountain,

All the riches buried there."

Now the valley cried with anger,

"Mount your horses, draw your swords,"

And they killed the mountain people,

So they won their just reward.

As they stood beside the treasure,

On the mountain, dark and red,

Turned the stone and looked beneath it,

Peace on Earth was all it said.


Go ahead and hate your neighbor,

Go ahead and cheat a friend.

Do it in the name of heaven,

You can justify it in the end.

There won't be any trumpets blowing,

Come the Judgment Day.

On the bloody morning after,

One tin soldier rides away.

Thursday, April 10, 2003


The Source of Morality for the Non-religious

I want to address the problem of being able to measure the morality of
someone who does not purport to hold themselves to a holy writ as a
standard. Some people claim to have "personal moralities," and of course there is secular law, both of
which try in some way to fill the niche of religious moral codes, with
varying degrees of success. Alas, what is legal, what is moral, and what
you can get away with, are three very different things. What you can get
away with is the only "morality" imposed by the world at large, but a
society in which that was the rule would be no society at all.

I can think of at least one main difference between the morality of the religious and the
morality of the non-religious, where here I'm talking about people who
take their religion seriously, not just those whose self-identification
with a religion is href="">more
cultural and social than relgious
. The difference is that the morality
of the religionist (at least monotheists) is based on institutions,
traditions, and in particular, on documents which, in theory, can
be agreed upon by all co-religionists of that faith, which serve as a
common basis for their morality. And even non-co-religionists can read
the same documents and measure the standard of the religionists' behavior
against the stated morality of the religion. In other words, there is an
authority to which both the religionist and the non-religionist can refer
with regard to the morality of the religion. This permits one to criticize
a Christian or Muslim, because the moral teachings they supposedly adhere
to are well documented.

I cannot think of a parallel authority for the morality of the
non-religious person. By what measure would his or her conduct be
considered moral? Would his or her conduct be measured against the moral
code of a religion to which he or she does not ascribe? Would it be
measured against the law of the nation in which he or she is a citizen? Or
if not by the law, at least the "traditional" morals of the nation? Would
it be measured against some "universal morality," an invariant subset of
the moralities of all existing cultures and value systems? But
certainly the set of moral prescriptions of this universal morality would
necessarily be small, e.g., don't murder, don't lie, etc. I doubt a
universal morality would be very substantive. Any 'meaty' morality would
have to be a morality composed of morals taken from particular
philosophies or religions.

Would the conduct of a non-religious person be measured against a
personally determined morality? Unless the moral code to which the
non-religious person is trying to live up to is clearly stated somewhere,
I don't see how he or she can claim to be moral. I'm not trying to be a
smart aleck about this. I think it's a very serious issue and it needs an

Monday, April 07, 2003


Why should we engage in manned space flight?

Motivated by a question by Jenny Smith's brother Joey, I started to write some ideas about this question. This is a first attempt at an essay.

To echo the words of NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe, the space agency
needs "not an either/or but a combination" of unmanned and manned flights. President Bush's new budget for NASA gives about $5.6 billion to space and Earth science (unmanned missions) and human space flight -- meaning the International Space Station and the shuttles -- gets $6.2 billion.

Unmanned missions have one crucial advantage over human space flights, one this is ever in our mind after the Columbia tragedy of two months ago:
Failures are embarrassing but not fatal. Furthermore, robots don't need
astronomically expensive safety systems, so the dollar loss is less when a spacecraft goes awry.

Some unmanned missions are important for purely scientific reasons, like
the Hubble observatory. But others are seen as 'scouts,' which are paving
the way for future human explorers. Several missions to the Moon, Mars,
or more exotic places like asteroids and Jupiter's moon Europa, have as
part of their plan a determination of places which would be best suitable
for human presence.

But let's get to the crux of your question: 'Why should we
even engage in manned space flight?'

Motivation. Like it or not, we live in a world where people are
motivated by manned space flight. It's part of our desire to explore and
adapt to exotic places where we (biologically) "don't belong". If we
remove this motivation, less will be accomplished because people will be
less motivated. It is difficult to measure the dollar-worth of motivation,
but it is significant. Without manned space flight as a goal, I would
expect NASA's budget to be cut by a large fraction.

Research. Unmanned space probes still have limitations. Humans can
conduct valuable field studies far better than any probes. Manned space
travel has offered a wealth of biological and medical information that can
directly help humans on Earth. Although unmanned probes and satellites
are very useful to space exploration, manned space missions are essential
to developing a thorough understanding of a particular region or planet.

Field Studies.Astronauts are able to conduct field studies, which
require observation in the field, the creation of a conceptual model, and
the formulation and testing of hypotheses. Field study is not a simple
matter of collecting data: it requires the guiding presence of human
intelligence. Human intelligence is needed throughout a field study, as
the requirements might call upon humans to change their course to fit
their needs. For example the Mars Pathfinder discovered an unusual,
silica-rich type of rock, but because of the probe's limitations, NASA
could not determine whether this composition represents an igneous rock,
an impact breccia or a sedimentary rock. Another example was the USSR's
unmanned Luna missions, which brought back moon rocks during the 1970s.
Although the Luna missions were much cheaper than the Apollo missions, the
results were virtually incomprehensible because the Luna robots picked up
rocks indiscriminately; the Apollo missions had the knowledge and insight
of the geologically trained astronauts to decide which rocks were of
scientific interest and which rocks were not. Fields studies, which
require human presence, can be of great value to the scientific community.

Medicinal Research.Another benefit of manned space travel is the
medicinal research that can be conducted. Manned space exploration offers
valuable research into many medical fields, such as bone loss,
cardiovascular alterations, sleep and human performance, and muscular
atrophy. Outer space is a distinctly different environment compared to
anywhere on Earth, and the effects of microgravity and days that last an
hour and a half give researchers many opportunities to study how the human
functions under these conditions. The research that is performed in outer
space helps people on Earth with many different medical conditions,
including osteoporosis, heart disease, sleep disorders, muscular atrophy,
and numerous other related illnesses. Manned space exploration offers many
benefits to the people of Earth through scientific research in medicine.

Applications. If manned space flight can be made routine, cheap, and
easy, suborbital flights might become routine cheap and easy. How much
would you pay for a ticket to Australia on a one hour flight? There is
almost certainly a large market for suborbital flights, if we can make the
cost and danger sufficiently minimal. Organizations such as the X-Prize
Foundation have been actively promoting the development of manned space
vehicles by private industry to be operated on a commercial basis. The
X-Prize challenge is to construct a vehicle capable of sub-orbital flight
with three passengers, with the constraint of only allowing 10% of the
vehicle dry mass to be expendable, and a turn around of 14 days to
re-launch. There is also the possibility of more space tourism. We've
already seen two examples of multi-millionaires paying about $20 million
for a visit to space about the ISS. In a recent survey, about 30% of
Americans, Japanese, and Europeans said that they would be willing to
spend a quarter of a year's salary for a trip into space. So if the price
for a ticket to spae could be lowered, this market could have tremendous
potential. (see

War. We have never had war in space, but if war comes, any space-faring nation or coalition of nations will desire the upper hand. One important question is: are humans helpful
to war in space? The answer at the moment is possibly yes. Currently
computers have a very limited ability to plan and cope with unforeseen
events. They will cease functioning if they fall out of communication and
they are possibly even prone to subversion. Humans are much more adept at
coping with unforeseen and inimical conditions. (see

Capability. There is some difficulty in assessing the value inherent
in having a capability. The cability to send men into space is inherently
valuable, just like any other capability. Some unforeseen problem might
arise requiring men in space. While this value is difficult to assess, it
should not be ignored.

Manned space travel has evolved considerably since Yuri Gagarin became the
first man in space on 12 April 1961. In the past forty years, there were
manned missions to orbit, to space stations, behind the moon, and even to
the moon's surface. Manned space travel offers the opportunities for
scientists to conduct valuable field studies, as well as helping medical
professionals better understand the human body. Unmanned probes and space
satellites can still be used for many functions such as preliminary
reconnaissance missions to collect general data on a planet or region of
space, but they cannot replace live humans who can use intelligence to
conduct much more detailed and ambitious studies. It would be foolish to
discount the uses of both unmanned space probes and manned space missions
entirely. It is important for the scientists at NASA to consider the
advantages and disadvantages of both manned and unmanned space missions to
accomplish their desired goals.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003


Weapons of Mass Destruction: From Nonproliferation to Pro-proliferation?

Nonproliferation or counterproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is ultimately unenforceable. For now, the U.S. and the West seem committed to a hold-down policy which, in the end, is bound to fail.

The proliferation of nukes and other WMD is a consequence of the diffusion of power in our world, as Pakistan, India, Iraq, N. Korea, and other nations seek to balance the power of the recognized nuclear powers. Unfortunately, WMD are seen as the great "equalizer." For example, many non-Western political leaders and military chiefs believe that if they have enough nuclear weapons, the United States won't fight them.

In due time, U.S. policy may shift from countering proliferation to accomodating proliferation and perhaps even promoting proliferation in a way that serves U.S. and Western interests.

The only thing which might keep nukes from being used is a MAD-like pact (mutually assured destruction). I don't see the weaker nations willing to give up their nukes for a "progressive" reason like "it's bad for humanity" or something. In the mid-term, in their eyes it's good for them (the rest of humanity be damned), since they believe that if they have enough nukes, the U.S. and other major powers won't be able to militarily interfere in their affairs anymore. They see the development of WMD as the price one pays to determine one's own destiny, and can we really blame them? I mean, we were the ones who started this trend.

This all makes me think of Dune, where the Great Houses had tons of nukes, but (by some pact?) refused to use them.

Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter
On another note, the only possible good spin-off of all this nuclear research ("earth penetrators" and such !!!) that I can think of is for space development. It may be useful to have powerful tools to, say, split apart asteroids for mining, or for some new kind of deep space propulsion.

NASA may be embarking on a revamped nuclear propulsion research effort which the space agency is calling Project Prometheus. In fact, one of the future space mission concepts I helped design, the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter or JIMO is an ambitious mission to orbit three planet-sized moons of Jupiter -- Callisto, Ganymede and Europa -- which may harbor vast oceans beneath their icy surfaces. JIMO would orbit each of these moons for extensive investigations of their makeup, their history and their potential for sustaining life.