Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Hot hot news: Return to Flight, and other ephemera

What's happening Today, Right Now?

Space Shuttle Discovery is in its scheduled 3 hour hold before launch; as Countdown 101 will tell you, T-3 Hours and Holding typically lasts a couple hours, and during that scheduled hold the inertial measurement unit gets its preflight calibration, and the Merritt Island Launch Area (MILA for short) tracking antennae are aligned. This is the final series of holds; there's another important one at T-20 minutes, and yet another at T-9 minutes. Each one lasts at least a certain length of time, varying on outside conditions, specific circumstances, and technical decisions. Some of the earlier holds, such as the one at T-11 hours, which lasts 12-13 hours, last much longer than these last few.

In my only two experiences of waiting for T-0 liftoff, I was very frustrated by the tendency of the Shuttle Countdown Clock to inch downwards and then stop for scheduled or unscheduled holds. Both were for Shuttle Columbia's next-to-final launch; the first attempt was scrubbed due to a last-second (literally!) spike in a sensor reading in the hold; when the next window was attempted, lightning within 10 miles prevented the launch from ever getting closer than T-9 minutes, as I recall. They won't come out of that hold when there's a weather hold, is my understanding. I believe that the First Lady and First Daughter were present at the VIP viewing station at Cocoa Beach, like me, at that second attempt. I wound up watching the launch itself on a t.v. set at home.

The mission after that, Columbia was lost. [update: I mean, the next time Columbia flew. Columbia's next and final mission was STS-107. She was lost upon reentry with all hands aboard, see and for the whole sad story of February 1, 2003; it was the second total loss of a shuttle in flight and also the second such loss in my own lifetime.]

[correction to the update: Man, I can't get anything right. As the two above Wikipedia links indicate, Columbia's next-to-last successfully completed mission was STS-93, commanded by Eileen Collins, which launched in July 1999. Its final completed mission lasted from March 1-12, 2002, mission STS-109. The final, incomplete mission was STS-107, Columbia's 28th mission. The mission numbers are not chronological because each mission represents the objectives and tasks of a specific mission planned out in advance; the actual order of missions launched depends on such factors as technology (the parts, supplies, tools and payloads must be assembled together) and logistical considerations (which misison is more urgent, how can the limited and even scarce resources of NASA best be used). Even with duplication, multiple shuttles, and many many millions of dollars, this is still a shoestring operation. Launching three shuttles simultaneously (all three in orbit at the same time) would almost certainly overwhelm NASA's capacity to monitor, communicate, and coordinate the missions. We are not yet a real spacegoing nation nor world. We're still exploring our own local neighborhood. I should break this out as a separate post on Space exploration, shouldn't I.]

Eileen Collins, the first female shuttle commander, was on board when I watched Columbia's two aborted launch attempts. She successfully commanded the mission that took the Chandra X-Ray Observatory to orbit. Now she is about to begin another mission as commander, aboard the Discovery as NASA makes its heralded Return to Flight. Google news is full of Discovery coverage; NASA has a real live countdown clock you can watch, holds and all, at Launch Coverage (the other clock, running down to estimated time of launch, is counting down to six hours as I write this).

In other news: Bernie Ebbers is getting sentenced today. You remember him? CEO of Worldcom, which was a bigger fraud than Enron?

Subsidiary rant:
You remember Enron? It led to the effective demise of Arthur Andersen LLP? You remember Arthur Andersen? They were criminally charged with knowingly shredding their client's incriminating documents?

You might recall that the Supreme Court overturned their conviction on the important technicality that the jury charge was worded in a way that may have - may have! - allowed the jury to convict even if they did not in fact believe that AA acted with a sufficiently culpable state of mind, under the statute.

Of course, if AA hadn't been charged, they'd have been sued out of existence by Enron stockholders, suing on their own losses and on behalf of the company that should have been prevented from committing the vast frauds which made it so apparently profitable, and so monumentally criminal. If AA had been charged appropriately, it would have been convicted and its life as a corporate entity probably terminated. If AA's jury had been asked, "Are you convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Arthur Andersen or its responsible agents had a culpable state of mind when they ordered the document destruction," people would not today be talking about the firm being "overcharged" or about prosecutorial abuse of discretion.

End of subsidiary rant.

So: Bernie Ebbers. Already found guilty of perpetrating massive fraud - I mean, really massive. Do you know how big $1 billion is? Can you imagine a fraud that size? That's not WorldCom. WorldCom was an $11 billion fraud. ELEVEN. Anyway, the poor victimized former CEO will experience a book, perhaps thrown at him, later today.

In other news... Karl Rove: still free, despite probable cause, based on the media coverage I've read, that he committed a federal felony - or possibly treason during wartime. I'm not the prosecutor, of course, but if Fitzgerald (who is) knows something I don't, I'd love to hear it.

The Lefty Blogs are, of course, all over it. The Righty Blogs are, with some exceptions, pretending that this isn't happening. The same sort of thing, in other words, each time an event of dubious importance involves these persons of merely political importance, and there's a political benefit for one side and a political cost to the other. The partisans line up, beat each other up, and then nurse their grudges until the next political football comes along. I'm not much better, but at least I know I'm doing it.

In that same vein:

Excellent article the other day by Judge John Carroll, Professor of Law at Cumberland School of Law, Samford University, about the curse of the correct jury verdict.

This article deserves its own post. Unable or unwilling to provide said post, I hereby offer you the link. Scrushy case suffers the 'curse' by John Carroll, Monday 04 July, 2005, the Birmingham News.

Read this article! See if it applies to you. Are we all hurting the legal system, by playing along with the (stupid, stupid) media? Read the whole thing!

[update: the countdown clock is now at 1 hour 54 minutes and counting. Exciting! We're headed on toward the next scheduled hold, currently Go for launch. Try to catch it on t.v. if you can!]

[update to the update: Scrubbed, of course. Today's launch is postponed, and NASA's most officialest explanation is that the cause is "an issue with a low-level fuel cutoff sensor onboard the vehicle. The sensor protects an orbiter's main engines by triggering them to shut down in the event fuel runs unexpectedly low. Mission managers are currently assessing the problem. More information will be announced as it becomes available. " The non-official countdown clock proceeds towards 3:51 pm EDT July 13, but when it hits that, nothing happens. The official clock reads 0h 0m 0s (those're zeroes, for those inclined to read unintended sexualist slurs from hours, minutes, and seconds) with a note that "today's launch has been scrubbed." To me, that means "try again later, maybe tomorrow, at the soonest." As of an hour ago, all the news media still thought it was a go. Therefore, this post is timely. Woot! Relevance.]

Also updated: Bernard Ebbers, ex-CEO of WorldCom, has been sentenced to 25 years in prison for his role in the fraud that ruined the company he "built into a Telecommunications Giant before his fall from grace." The largest U.S. corporate bankruptcy in history is your legacy, Bernie. The federal judge, Barbara Jones of the Southern District of New York, told you that you "w[ere] clearly a leader of criminal activity in this case," as she sentenced you. Shame on you.


At 11:25 AM, July 14, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

re Judge Carroll's comments about the curse of the correct jury verdict: I'd suggest that the honorable judge is correct, except that he's pulling on the end of an enormously long string. The string runs through the media's level of competence and reliability, relationship that the media has developed with its audience, and the public's attitudes toward expertise and authority.

Competence: When's the last time you read, watched or heard anything (something you already know well) in the media and found the information to be correct, complete, accurate and unbiased? I'd stipulate that old-fashioned history writing often had its weaknesses, but the values were honored more often than today.

The relationship with the media: What does it tell us, that people respond to surveys by saying that they know and trust the talking heads and media figures? Does anybody really believe that a TV talking head or a journalism major understands the core and details of a technical or social or legal or ... issue?

Attitudes toward expertise and authority: Americans (and people in other societies) have long had a healthy disrespect for authority, but in recent decades, this has been exacerbated by the exposure of individual authority or expert figures' personal shortcomings and mistakes of understanding and expertise.
Add to this the universal chutzpah of folks who figure they're as capable and entitled as anyone to judge, decide or recommend on matters of public policy, law, sports, society or anything. (Why would anyone bother to go to a university to get an advanced degree, when anybody knows enough and is entitled to opine on any topic?)

Judge Carroll's error would seem to be that his focus is too narrow and too near.

Sherlock's bro'

At 11:45 AM, July 14, 2005, Blogger Eh Nonymous said...

Thanks for the comment.

There's nothing wrong with tugging on long strings; in this case, he's pointing to a concrete case of the Stupids which the media is complicit in, and which legal practitioners (such as your humble blogger) should avoid falling prey to.

We lawyers obey rules of ethics, rules like "Do not speak to jurors in your case outside of the presence of the Judge and opposing counsel until after the verdict" and "Do not speak to jurors currently involved on *any* case before the verdict about the case itself" - both of those are crimes, too, if done with too much gusto - but also general rules like respecting the authority of courts and judges, honoring the legal profession, and not needlessly disrespecting each other. These are not rigidly enforced; every year many many lawyers court or suffer contempt for their too-free expressions of disdain for the forum or their adversaries. Hm. Courting Contempt would be a good title for a post.

I agree with the general scorn for "The Amurrican People" - in my experience, Persons are good, People I Know are intelligent and not foolish, and People En Masse are herds. That includes me; I don't claim to break any rules of probability when it comes to what I eat, what I buy, where I go (I was at Live 8, for example; herd mentality in action, although I was smart enough not to walk up the middle of the street when the grass next to the sidewalk was much less crowded).

Now, a discrete and relatively more educated subsection of the population, lawyers, could be taught (or forced, or otherwise incentivized) to accord greater respect to juries, and to communicate that respect publicly.

We could do this, for example, by making examples of idiots like the prosecutor in the Blake case, who for reasons not beyond comprehension, but certainly beyond the pale, called the jury stupid, see Beldar's excellent post at Trial Lawyer Sour Grapes.

Now, this is bad lawyering. It's bad public relations, it's bad for the legal system, hopefully it's bad for the jerk who said that about conscientious jurors.

Juries have a hard job. They have to sit there and observe and sit in judgment as lawyers and judges and witnesses do their thing. Their responsibility is almost total; their burden is heavy, their pay is very very light, and the inconvenience is not inconsiderable. People who sit through jury service are, by and large, the most honorable servants of society. Some are probably biased, despite the voir dire process; a few may be stupid, or angry, or unable to follow the judge's instructions, or unable to comply with the law. Most such are struck, but it happens. Nevertheless, to insult a jury's intelligence - not in the usual way, as Li'l Kim did to her lasting regret, by trying to present them with a story contradicted by video evidence - but by literally _insulting_ their _intelligence_ is to make a foolish and contemptible attack on our jury system.

I will blog the jury system itself later on; let it stand for now that jurors themselves should not be attacked for doing what they do: hearing the evidence, weighing the facts and credibility thereof, and making determinations based on the applicable burdens of proof. It ain't easy.

At 6:08 PM, November 09, 2005, Blogger Antonio Hicks said...

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