Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Why We Still Need Mister Rogers


First, a confession.  I never really got Mister Rogers, at least while he was performing in his children’s television show.  Maybe it’s because I was very young when PBS, in the guise of its predecessor (NET), was still a primordial ooze of Physics professors writing long equations on chalkboards, grainy British programming, and a cooking show where a quirky lady taught viewers how to turn a calf’s foot into aspic.

When Mister Rogers launched in 1966, it took a while to understand that he was something different and, once paired with Sesame Street in late 1969, something better for children to watch than Soupy Sales or Bozo.  By then I had outgrown my Mister Rogers moment, so only later did I come to appreciate who Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was and his impact on so many people.  Now, after reading Maxwell King’s The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers (Abrams Press, 2018), I have come to understand that we need people like Fred Rogers more than ever.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Will Gettysburg Be Forgotten?

Here's a reflection on Gettysburg and historical memory from the August 2018 issue of Preservation and Progress. For the online issue, see here, pages 3 and 4.

Those of you who visited with us in Topsfield earlier this year will remember Dr. Matthew Moen.  He's pictured below, speaking at Trinity Church along with our friend from the Gettysburg National Military Park, Chris Gwynne.  Matt's note on civility is on pages 10 and 11.

There's lots going on at Gettysburg.  Enjoy the issue!



Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Last Battle is the Biggest One


A few hundred yards along Stone Avenue, just off Chambersburg Road on the Gettysburg battlefield, stands a bronze statue dedicated to John Burns (1793-1872).  The inscription includes a report from Major General Abner Doubleday who wrote that Burns, though a civilian and seventy years of age, “shouldered his musket and offered his services” on the first day of the battle, joining the skirmish line of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers. When the 150th retired from the field, Burns fought alongside the Iron Brigade in some of the most intensive action of day one.  He was wounded three times and carried home to recover.

John Burns was a veteran of the War of 1812.  He had already served his country.  But neither this prior service nor his advanced age mattered when the Civil War invaded Gettysburg.  As gunfire erupted, he grabbed his ancient flintlock and powder horn, more Ichabod Crane in his “swallow tail” coat and black silk hat than Johnny Yank.  Insisting to Union commanders that he knew how to shoot, this citizen-warrior was provided a modern rifle and bravely traded fire with Confederates until he could no longer stand.

What would possess a 70-year-old veteran to put his life on the line? Perhaps it was Burns’s recognition that the single greatest fight of his life, to preserve the American union, had begun.  It did not matter if he had already served his country.  It did not matter that he was entering his seventh decade of life. Burns opened his door, listened for the gunfire, and then walked toward the battle.


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Food Foolish #8: What About the Birds?

Photo: Mark Thiessen/National Geographic Creative

Whenever I present Food Foolish to a live audience, I always try to end on a hopeful note, saying that if we are smart and diligent, we can reduce food waste. And when we’re successful, the result will be good for everyone: less hunger, reduced carbon emissions, a stable agricultural footprint, more available fresh water, and greater food security for populations around the world.  Nobody loses. 

I usually see people nod in agreement until one evening at a local college, someone asked, “What about birds?” 

“Birds?” I asked. 

“What,” she explained, “would happen to birds that had come to depend on landfills if we stopped wasting food?”

It was a good question.  In the United States and other developed countries, much of the food we waste shows up in landfills.  Unfortunately, I had no answer at the time.  Recently, I decided to try to figure it out: How dependent are birds on human food waste, and what happens if we reduce it—as so many individuals, corporations, and governments are now committed to doing?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Theranos and O-rings: A Note on Disaster Avoidance


On a cold Florida morning in late January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger lifted off from Cape Canaveral.  Just over a minute into the flight the vehicle blew apart and disintegrated, killing all 7 astronauts.  The immediate cause of the failure was a breach in a joint of the solid rocket booster resulting from O-rings that had stiffened and shrunk in the cold.  The maker of the O-rings was Morton Thiokol.

The evening before, knowing that temperatures at launch time could be as low as 30F, NASA and Thiokol representatives conducted a lengthy conference call.  NASA had an ambitious flight schedule and wanted to launch.  Thiokol engineers knew that the O-rings might fail in the cold and came armed with data.  There was shouting, maybe some table pounding.  NASA pressed.  The Thiokol engineers dug in.  Management backed its engineers.  "We all knew if the seals failed the shuttle would blow up," one engineer remembered.

 
And then something happened.  Thiokol management caved, overruling its engineers.  The launch was approved.

I sometimes think of this reversal as a “Morton Thiokol Moment”—when you absolutely, positively know the right thing to do but let yourself get talked out of it anyway.  Maybe it's pressure.  Maybe exhaustion.  Maybe the other side is so adamant that it creates a bit of doubt.
 
The next day, the inevitable happened.  "When we were one minute into the launch,” a Thiokol engineer recalled, “a friend turned to me and said, 'Oh God. We made it. We made it!'  Then, a few seconds later, the shuttle blew up. And we all knew exactly what happened."