Archive for June, 2009

Geeks in Space

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Richard Garriott is a geek. He loves fantasy; he has two thin braids running down his back that, for pictures, he swings over onto his chest for maximum effect. Back in the 1980s, he developed a series of fantasy role-playing video games under the Ultima umbrella, making him, perhaps, the Henry Ford of gaming. He made a fortune, and he used it to build two houses in Austin, Texas, named after the home of the hero of his video games, Britannia Manor. (The one he lives in now, Britannia Manor Mark 2, is equipped with a set of secret passageways, artificial rain, underwater caves, an authentic 16th-century vampire-hunting kit, crossbows, armor, two skeletons, an observatory, and a lock of hair from a wooly mammoth.)

And, because Garriott is a geek, he has also used his millions to pursue his love of space. In 2000, he shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to be the very first self-funded tourist in space. But then the dot-com bubble burst, and he lost most of his money and had to sell his seat on the rocket. But Garriott loves space so much that, once he regained his financial footing, he decided to buy back that trip rather than resume construction on the still half-finished Britannia Manor Mark 3, the other casualty of the bust. This time, it would cost him $30 million—up from $20 million—and the training would take about a year out of his life, but it was space and, goddamn, it was worth it.

“It’s so important to see Earth from orbit,” he told me recently. “It’s a truly life-changing event.”

He says he has also noticed a pattern: All those other tech geeks thirsting for the same view. For instance, when Garriott finally went up, in October of last year, he was already Space Tourist No. 6. But Nos. 1 through 5 were all tech geeks, too. Space Tourist No. 1 was Dennis Tito, who bought Garriott’s first seat in 2001. Tito made his money by bringing mathematical analytics to money management. (He also had a bachelor’s in astronautics and aeronautics.) Tito was followed by Mark Shuttleworth, the Web-security millionaire; then came Greg Olsen, the optoelectronic millionaire; Anousheh Ansari, the telecom millionaire; and Charles Simonyi, the millionaire responsible for Microsoft (MSFT) Office. Google (GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin has reserved a flight but hasn’t yet found the time to go, and tech venture capitalist Esther Dyson just plunked down $3 million to train for five grueling months—including a tundra survival mission, a machete and all—just to be Simonyi’s understudy for his second flight, in March 2009. (Guy Laliberté, the tech-savvy founder of Cirque du Soleil, is the next space tourist, scheduled to go up on Sept. 30.)

And these are just the travelers. There is also a shadow NASA out there, made up of tech geeks who are investing their second entrepreneurial wind into beating NASA, Boeing (BA), and Lockheed Martin (LMT) by building lighter, faster, cheaper, and, amazingly, reusable rockets that will supplant the space shuttle when it is retired in 2010. First, there is Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon (AMZN), who in 2000 founded Blue Origin, a secretive company focused on making suborbital space tourism affordable and accessible. (First qualification for working there? “You must have a passion for space.”) There is also Armadillo Aerospace, founded by John Carmack, of DOOM and Quake fame. And there’s the Big Space Cheese himself, PayPal co-founder and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, whose space company, Space Exploration Technologies (or SpaceX), has become adept at scoring massive government contracts to build rockets that will make space deliveries of things like supplies and satellites for NASA and the Department of Defense. (Musk recently made his ultimate destination clear: Mars.)

So why do tech geeks love space? Though they may have the resources—a trip to space will now set you back some $45 million—this can’t be the full answer: You don’t see Donald Trump or P. Diddy signing up for an astro-mission. What makes it worth it for the tech geeks? Garriott, for one, has thought about this extensively. In part, he loves space because his father, Owen, was a NASA astronaut. But then there’s the social conditioning.

“There’s a documentary called Orphans of Apollo that’s stated this well,” he explained. “There’s a generation of us, who are the tech leaders of today, who were universally inspired to go into science and technology because of the NASA Lunar Space Program. And the reason the movie is called Orphans of Apollo is because, in many ways, we feel orphaned by the fact that the space industry has not done a good job of capitalizing on that momentum of what many of us believed were the first steps into space, carrying the mission of human space flight farther and farther into deep space.”

“The same kids who grew up wanting to be computer engineers are the same kids who grew up watching Star Trek, OK?” says Eric Anderson, CEO of Space Adventures, the Vienna, Va.-based company that facilitates space travel for civilians. (Garriott is on the board of Space Adventures, and Dyson and Brin were early investors.)

“Technology entrepreneurs are the ones with the technical curiosity, the desire to do new things and explore new territory,” says Dyson. “And this is the ultimate new territory. There was a belief once, too, that America was something new and unnecessary.” Dyson believes we will eventually be colonizing other planets. Like Garriott, she also has space in her blood. In the late ’50s, her father, physicist Freeman Dyson, worked on using nuclear pulse propulsion to vault rockets into space. Esther was 7 at the time, and she recalls thinking that, naturally, one day, she would get to travel in one.

Now, these techies-made-good finally have a way to get to space. If they have the means, they come to Anderson. “Entrepreneurs take calculated risks,” Anderson says. “They’re willing to spend their life and time and money doing things that they know might fail.” And he’s willing to help them try for a slice off the tophis is a private company, and he would not reveal the terms of the contracts—though most of money goes to the Russians, who do all the heavy lifting. (Currently, there are no space-tourism flights leaving from American soil, and, according to a NASA spokesman, there won’t be for some time.)

The Russians, on the other hand, have been all too happy to oblige. Once the vanguard of space exploration, they suffered their own version of Garriott’s bubble bust. In 1991, the Soviet state fell and with it went the massive state subsidies for their space program. In 2000, Garriott and Anderson approached the Russians to see if they wanted to profit from this decaying part of their infrastructure, too. After the obligatory pooh-poohing, the Russians agreed to sell one seat on the three-seat Soyuz rockets they send up to the International Space Station. (NASA also buys seats on the Russian rockets, for $51 million per seat, which is still cheaper than building their own or sending up the space shuttle, which also happens to have a worse safety record than the Russian-made Soyuz.)

Space Adventures forks over most of the hefty fee to the Russians, who take the Space Tourist up to the International Space Station for about a fortnight. (The tourists themselves insist on being called “Space Explorers.”) Before they go, however, each space tourist must train for five months (900 hours) in the isolation of Star City, a secret hamlet just outside of Moscow that only recently started appearing on maps. There, working alongside Russian cosmonauts and some American astronauts, they work to attain “user level” proficiency in all things rocket: communication, emergency, life-support, electronics, and rocket-propulsion systems. It is all in Russian. (Dyson speaks the language; Garriott had a translator.) They undergo turns in the centrifuge and are subjected to endoscopies and colonoscopies. They are sent on zero-gravity “parabola” flights, which are fun with a caveat. (“The Americans try not to make you sick,” says Dyson. “The Russians try to make you sick.”) There’s survival training in the wilderness, including a bout in a tiny space capsule stranded at sea in which you have less than 90 minutes and very limited space to change out of your spacesuit. Garriott says he emerged black and blue, having failed on his first attempt: The capsule heated up so much that his core body temperature became dangerously high.

For the people who weren’t sufficiently athletic or eagle-eyed to become astronauts in the first place, completing this training is no easy feat. Nor is space a cakewalk. Once in orbit, blood becomes more concentrated and pools in your head; muscles atrophy and bones lose calcium. Back on earth, cosmonauts have to be lifted out of the landing capsule, essentially paralyzed for days.

“It’s no joy ride,” says Dyson, who is still waiting for the price to come down before she uses her successfully completed training in space. “It smells. It’s noisy. It’s the same people every day. The food gets repetitive. It’s lonely.”

But for the tech geeks, it is part of the fun.

“Now that I have been to space, and I have survived the second market crash, I hope to restart Britannia Manor Mark 3!” Garriott wrote in a recent e-mail. “Plus, of course, I plan to get back to space ASAP!”

Geeks in Space [The Big Money]

LeBron James Not Dennis Ross

Friday, June 19th, 2009

An over-earnest doozy from the Times today. Describing the move of veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross from the State Department to the White House, the Times writes, helpfully:

David Makovsky, Mr. Ross’s co-author in the just-published book Myths, Illusions & Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East (Viking), offered a different possible reason: “Dennis Ross is the Lebron James of Middle East diplomacy,” Mr. Makovsky said.

While the comparison is somewhat strained, the larger point is as valid as any of the other theories meant to explain Mr. Ross’s move from Foggy Bottom to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Confusion averted.

What To Make Of The Russian Media’s Reaction To Iran?

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

As we continue to pick apart the dubious Iranian election returns, it’s worth considering their very different treatment in Russia, which has long sought to play the lion tamer in the nuclear tug-of-war with Tehran. For starters, the mainstream Russian press has taken the official election results largely at face value, referring to Ahmadinejad as the “winner” without the slew of qualifiers that pad the term here. Only Tuesday, when the ayatollahs announced a partial recount, did some Russian papers label the election results “shaky.” Today, the fourth day of protests, what coverage there is (many papers have dropped the story) is a bit more urgent, focusing on a growing threat of real upheaval (Kommersant, the main national daily, leads with “Iran Finally Remembers the Revolution”). The tone, though, is still one of strict objectivity: Here’s who won, here’s who people hoped had won, and here’s the official data.

Why has the Russian press largely sidestepped a skeptical analysis of the election returns? One answer is that the Kremlin always feels as if it has to be at center stage and, for that, it needs Ahmadinejad and his antics. This explains why the hard-line Pravda depicted Mousavi’s supporters as sore losers and quoted a Russian Iran expert as saying that “the protests will not yield anything. …We can firmly and definitively call Ahmadinejad the elected president of the country.” But what’s surprising is that even fiercely liberal outlets like Novaya Gazeta (Anna Politkovskaya’s paper) gladly accepted the results. On Monday (it is published Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays), it described the elections as lively and “wondrous.”

Though it’s impossible to generalize, there’s one fairly obvious explanation for such uniformly accepting coverage: This just doesn’t look like a rigged election to Russians, because Russians don’t rig their elections; they engineer them. Last year’s choreographed election, remember, was carried out with no room for error: no debates, with one candidate’s message drumming ceaselessly on state-owned media for months, and, when the vote finally came, returns spiked conveniently at all the round numbers. It’s a low standard, but, given the fact that local governors aren’t even elected in sham elections anymore, anything with more than one pre-ordained candidate and a modicum of friction seems like a free and fair election to Russians.

And so, though the press is reporting extensively on the protests and dashed hopes of a thaw, it is also questioning whether the Mousavi-ites are as representative as the Western press implies. The centrist Moskovskiy Komsomolets, for instance, compared the green protests to the recent unrest in Moldova: “Without much of a base and without much chance of success–but with a lot of noise.” Even Yuliya Latynina, an opposition columnist for the liberal, pro-Western Ezhednevniy Zhurnal, was not surprised that, in a country full of the pious and “simple poor,” Ahmadinejad swept to a resounding victory. “The elections in Iran demonstrate one simple thing, evident even to Aristotle and Plato, but often forgotten by devotees of democracy,” she wrote. “Democracy is one of the most imperfect forms of government if the poor get to vote.”

But there may be a quick about-face in the coverage, as even the Kremlin seems to have taken a cooler stance toward Ahmadinejad and his landslide. Some of the press’s coverage has surely been influenced–though not overtly–by the fact that Ahmadinejad has been a Russian ally because he has been a constant irritant to American ambitions in a region Russia historically views as part of its sphere of influence, and because that irritant lets Moscow play the needed and important salve. Now, though, the winds are changing. Obama has taken a less militant tone with Tehran and with Moscow. Medvedev, lately showing more sleight of hand than his predecessor, seems to have finally picked up on the world’s extreme skepticism about the election results and the growing seriousness of the unrest in Iran.

Here’s what happened: Slated to arrive in Yekaterinburg on Monday for the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit (Iran is an observer in the group, which is a sort of answer to NATO in Asia), Ahmadinejad postponed his trip because of the situation at home. When he finally arrived yesterday, Ahmadinejad found that his two-hour tete-a-tete with President Dmitri Medvedev had been canceled due to the president’s “overly-saturated schedule.” Instead, he shook hands in front of the cameras with Medvedev, whose spokesperson insisted that this fleeting encounter was nothing more than a flicker “on the sidelines.” As Gazeta noted in its main headline on Iran of the day, “Ahmadinejad Can Wait.”

What to Make of the Russian Media’s Reaction to Iran? [The New Republic]

How to Steal a Million

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

New blog post, in RUSSIA!:

Today, a Moscow court issued an arrest warrant for Igor Popov, the deputy to the artistic director of the venerable, historical, mythical Moscow Art Theater, founded by Constantin Stanislavski in 1898 and home, once upon a time, to Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov.

Popov was apparently on the verge of embezzling 36 million rubles (a hair over $1 million USD now that the ruble’s been on fire sale) earmarked for the renovation of the historic building in the center of Moscow. He had been in charge of overseeing the contracts and the funds, which he demanded be transferred to a shell account whence he could remove them for pocketing purposes.

Reactions at the Theater have been varied. Artistic Director Oleg Tabakov, a People’s Artist and the voice of the famous cartoon cat Matroskin, is apparently cooperating vigorously with the authorities.

A spokesman for the theater told the press, however, that all this arrest stuff seems to be a bit much. The money hasn’t been stolen, the renovations continue apace — what’s a little attempted embezzlement between friends? “It doesn’t strike me as beneficial to the theater’s health,” he said.

Illegal, schmilegal.

How To Steal A Million [RUSSIA!]

Phone of Justice

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Today, I received an odd emailing from The Nation, with the following subject line: “Dick Cheney called…he wants his empire back.” I thought it would be a rant about, well, Dick Cheney. Instead it was an odd call to arms — to switch phone companies:

Dear Nation Reader,

Did you know that AT&T contributed the legal maximum to the Bush-Cheney campaign, twice? I didn’t. But I do know that there’s a cell phone company that shares your progressive values, and I’m hoping if you’re not already a Credo Mobile customer that you’ll quickly become one by following the links below.

All best,
Peter Rothberg
The Nation

Now, we all know traditional media outlets like The Nation, founded in 1865, are struggling to stay afloat. I also know that, in America, we like to think we vote with our credit cards. (On its site, Credo Mobile advertises its donations to Planned Parenthood and Greenpeace, and ticks off political stances — “stop global warming,” “reform political campaign financing” — as if they’re features of a cellular plan.) But this, for such a progressive, left-leaning magazine, seemed, well, an odd choice.

More on this later.

The Missing R

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Yesterday, the New York Times had an interesting story about the vigorous bounce-back of so-called developing markets, focusing exclusively on the BRIC countries. Industrial production has picked back up in China, car sales are on the rise in India, and Brazil’s stock market shot up by 41% in the last three months.

The notable blank in the piece was, of course, the R. Russia slipped past almost without mention.

So to fill in the gap, I’ll draw on a recent investors’ note sent out by the Eurasia Group, whose Russia analyst has just returned from a research trip. As has been widely reported, the economic situation in Russia has calmed significantly since the calamity that was fall and winter. This, however, is due largely to the rally of commodity prices — namely oil — in the last few months. Given that, Russia could have made it into the Times. But there are significant risks of further destabilization. Apparently, Russian banks are sitting on a huge pile of non-performing loans, and no one knows just how many of them they have:

Current official statistics of 3-5% understate real conditions, and while state banks forecast 10% by the end of the year, private bank analysts in Moscow say the real level could reach 30%, forcing the state to undertake a massive recapitalization.

Then there’s the fact that there is a struggle brewing between liberals and the “strong men” over now in-play assets, consumer prices have sky-rocketed, unemployment is still high, and that the Kremlin’s economic team, even with some very competent technocrats in charge, seems content to simply bob back up on rising oil prices without undertaking real, structural reforms.

Perhaps this is why the Times didn’t mention Russia in its things-are-looking-up panorama, though including one slightly more shaky example would have made for a more believable, well-calibrated piece.

I’d Like to Buy a Vowel

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

Last night, I went to a cocktail party on the humid terrace of the Maritime Hotel, in Chelsea. Nouriel Roubini, the host and the subject of a profile I wrote for The New Republic, floated around what he called “a smart, finance-oriented crowd,” explaining his latest prediction: a W-shaped recovery, like what we saw in the 1930s. This latest bounce in the stock market, he says, is nothing but a sucker’s rally. Sometime at the end of 2010, we may see a second dip — thus the W shape.

Interesting, this. Roubini originally went against the optimists, who said it would be a short, V-shaped recession; it would, he said, look more like a U. Then things got really, really bad and he changed his mind: a prolonged L-shaped recession. Then things improved a bit, and he went back to U. Now he’s toying with a W.

Clearly, this is a fluid, evolving situation, but this pin-balling around the alphabet is, to me, only the latest, most funny explanatory crutch in a field chock-full of helpful, meaning-killing clichés. In any case, SmartMoney offers a good explanation for the different shapes, though they leave out the hypotheticals I’d most like to see: a Q, say, or a B.