Day 1.002: Sea-Science In Super-Comfort

In this age of crippling wealth disparity and with the zeitgeist-du-jour trending toward treating capitalism with a derisive scoff, dare I devote a day’s typesmanship to exploring superyachts? Yes, the superyacht is a thing, and no, I can’t afford one either. And while my desire to poke my attention into the sparkling crannies of a billionaire’s plaything is pretty close to nil, the Earth 300 has tickled my interest. I mean… just look at that thing.

The first thing you’ll probably notice – after the gargantuan black orb of doom perched upon its back – is the lack of lounging decks, hot tubs and polo fields like you’d normally find aboard a watercraft for the stupid-rich. No, the Earth 300 is a proposed palace of science. If built, this would be the Starship Discovery of research vessels. Working on board would be like performing experiments and studying marine species in the Playboy Mansion, albeit with fewer bikini-clad girls swimming through the grotto.

Maybe. We’re not entirely sure about that. More below.

The largest yacht in the world, pictured above because I like including something to scowl at in all of my articles (see Tom Brady yesterday), is 590 feet long. It’s owned by the royal family of Abu Dhabi (of course), and while I’m sure it has hosted many wild parties akin to what you’d see the bad guy throw in a James Bond film, it really contributes nothing to the world of science. If Earth 300 gets built, it will make this luxury vessel look like a boat for ants. Really, really wealthy ants.

Earth 300 will be 300 meters long, so about 980 feet. It would house 450 passengers working in 22 laboratories on all sorts of ecological and oceanological mysteries. The observation deck will swing out on a cantilever, and that big glass marble on its back will be a 13-story “science sphere”. What happens inside a massive water-bound science sphere? Science!

I imagine it’s going to be a big motorcycle Globe of Death thing… but with science!

This monstrous craft is set to be powered by a molten salt reactor. I was hoping this actually involved really, really hot salt and that its fuel reserves would be measured in shakers. But alas, this is just a fancy way of saying it will run on atomic power. From what I can gather, a molten salt reactor won’t spew out a bunch of radioactive fumes, as these get absorbed by the molten salt. Great idea, though they don’t expect the technology to be ready until the end of this decade or perhaps beyond. In the meantime, the Earth 300 will be built with some other eco-friendly power source with plans to retrofit it once molten salt reactors are all invented and ready to deploy.

The article I found on molten salt reactors gets into far more detail than I can possibly make interesting. In the list of ‘Disadvantages’ to the technology, they note that a modified molten salt reactor could be used to create weapons-grade nuclear material. So a particularly crafty batch of Somalian pirates could board and conquer the Earth 300 and use its propulsion system to turn themselves into the next global nuclear power. Cool!

All they have to do is modify this thing. Easy!

The Earth 300 will cost around $500-700 million to create, which is why we’re looking at maybe having one of these things, not a fleet of them. Entrepreneur Aaron Olivera has already dropped $5 million just to create the design. Actual construction has yet to begin, but when the news of this massive vessel dropped back in April, Olivera was confident they’d be splashing forth and saving the environment by 2025. Yacht-maker Ivan Salas Jefferson insists they will be “making science sexy” with this superyacht. As if science isn’t sexy enough – have you seen the tuchus on Neil Degrasse-Tyson? Come on.

So what can we compare this to? Is there any other ginormous slab of modernist architecture out there, combing the waves for the secrets of how to save our sad little self-destructive human race? Well… not really on this scale. The closest comparison to Earth 300 also lies in the realm of the theoretical, though as far as conceptual floating labs go, the SeaOrbiter is pretty bad-ass.

Standing 51 meters high (31 of those below sea level), the SeaOrbiter is more of a floating sea-base than a superyacht. Think of it as the Death Star of the sea, but with a massive laboratory instead of a planet-destroying cannon, and staffed with marine biologists instead of stormtroopers. It would also deploy underwater robots to explore the seabed beneath it, so if that doesn’t bump it into the realm of badassery, nothing will.

The estimated cost of this glorious structure was only pinned at about $53 million – a bargain by massive floating science vessel standards. Construction was due to start in 2014 but as of today it’s still only floating around on paper. Except for the “eye” of the station – that’s the pointy thing on the top. That was slapped together in 2015 with the intent of shipping it off to Cherbourg until the rest of the station is put together. Maybe.

It strikes me that a superyacht meant for the decadent kibbitzing of the ultra-wealthy stands a lot more chance of being built than one meant to undertake ecological research. I don’t know how deep Mr. Olivera’s pockets are, but it’s going to take some serious moneybags to get the Earth 300 off the ground and into the sea.

Like, Rich Uncle Pennybags money.

Once it’s out there though, the Earth 300 should be fine. This is because in addition to the scientists and their trusty assistants, the vessel will also be hosting up to 20 VIPs in super-luxurious cabins. This could be Puff Daddy, Guy Fieri or maybe the guy who played Newman on Seinfeld, assuming NBC paid him justly. The cost will be $3 million per luxury trip, and the celebs (or random wealthy folks) will be encouraged to participate in the science. Because what could go wrong with that? This is where we might find a bevy of bikini-clad girls – up on that top deck with the best view of the ‘science sphere’.

Whatever – those are the folks who will keep the Earth 300 afloat and in business, assuming it ever finds its way into the ocean. For now we can dream of superyacht luxury being laid out for scientists looking out for our collective welfare instead of oil-rich princes who live in excess at the expense of our collective welfare. Dreaming’s better than nothing.

Day 47: The Texucation System

originally published February 16, 2012

How do I write an article about the education system in Texas without making derogatory jokes about the 43rd president or country music? Probably not going to happen, but I’ll try.

There are a number of entries about education in Texas. The first that caught my eye was something called ‘No Pass No Play’. No, actually the first thing I noticed was an item called ‘PEIMS’, because I thought it said ‘PENIS’. But it’s just a database that creates reports for the government, so not particularly interesting.

But ‘No Pass No Play’ has a bit of a story. In 1984 Governor Mark White asked Texas businessman and future rouser of rabble Ross Perot to head up a study on public education. The results of that study were not worthy of an article on Wikipedia, apart from this one: Perot noticed that a number of athletes and marching band musicians were flunking.

Pictured: a bunch of slackers.

The No Pass No Play rule says that any student participating in an extracurricular activity has to have a passing grade, or else they don’t play. A passing grade is apparently considered to be 70% in Texas, which makes me wonder how George W. Bush managed to… whoops. Almost slipped up there.

But really, 70%? When I was in high school, that would have been a low B. 50% counted as a pass. I guess educational standards are just that much higher in Texas, which makes me wonder why they listen to so much country mu – oh crap, I just about did it again.

This policy, which was adopted between semesters of the 1984-85 school year, worked. Failing grades dropped from 16 to 13%, and 23 out of 26 school districts reported an improvement. Maybe the other three districts just had a problem with the curriculum.

“Gun Use” was discontinued as a part of the kindergarten curriculum, for example.

And this brings me to my next gem of a subject, the hallowed grounds of the Texas Education Agency, or TEA, which stands for Trouble, which rhymes with Bubble, which starts with B, which rhymes with C, which stands for Controversy. It’s almost like it was planned that way.

TEA oversees the Texas school curriculum, which you may have read about in the news in the last few years. Maybe you heard about Christine Comer, the Director of Science in the curriculum branch of the TEA, who had to resign in 2007 because of a single email.

Name doesn’t ring a bell? Check this out. In October, Comer sent out an email to a public forum, advising people to check out a talk by philosophy professor (and noted pro-natural-selectionist) Barbara Forrest in Austin. This blasphemous act pissed off Lizzette Reynolds, the deputy commissioner for statewide policy and programs. You see, TEA employees are supposed to remain publicly neutral on the issue of evolution vs. creationism.

Hint: one of these places is pretend.

To be clear, the person in charge of the science curriculum in Texas is not allowed to express an opinion on which is more science-y, evolution or creationism. Seriously. Even just to say, “Hey, this lady is interesting. Check her out.”

Reynolds called the email “highly inappropriate”, and “an offense that calls for termination”.  Comer was placed on administrative leave right away, and within two weeks of the email, she resigned.

The national media jumped on this scandal, and for a while in late ’07 it became the big story, finally giving us relief from stories about the Queen’s anniversary and the controversial ending to The Sopranos. Most of the (goddamn Liberal lamestream grumble grumble) media spoke in Comer’s defense. But when she sued for wrongful termination, she got nothing.

Of course by then most of us were back to arguing the merits of this scene.

Dentist Don McLeroy, who was indicated as a prime example of the rampant religious conservatism in the State Board of Education, probably because he was vocally displeased with the 11-4 vote back in 2003 to purchase textbooks that did not champion creationism, was made chairman of the State Board of Education in 2007.

To reiterate (mostly because it’s almost too insane to be real), almost a third of the people who are in charge of what kids get taught in Texas wanted textbooks that taught the science of the Earth being created in six days. I’m not ragging on anyone’s faith here, but faith is faith and science is science. God, Jesus, Allah and Krishna aside… there’s a lot of science behind evolution and the planet being 4.6 billion years old. I’m just saying that science class should focus on science. The kind that scientists produce.

The TEA also got into a spitting-scuffle over their social studies curriculum. They decided that it was important to have conservative topics taught as a part of history class. For example, students should be taught that new documents verify that Joe McCarthy’s claims of communist infiltration in the US government were valid. I don’t know, because that’s important? Because it justifies the witchhunts? Also, they wanted to downplay that pesky little church-and-state separation that Thomas Jefferson fought for. Other items to be downplayed: Martin Luther King Jr., Abe Lincoln’s role in the Civil War, and slavery. States’ rights and Confederate leader Jefferson Davis’ role in history were to be emphasized.

All music classes must devote at least one month to teaching the theme song from The Dukes of Hazzard.

Some of the criticism is also directed at TEA’s attempts at ‘impartiality’, in that TEA’s idea of history exams would come down to memorizing dates and people, rather than asking students to critically analyze and discuss the events that occurred. The amendment to require all history classes to be taught by Howard Hesseman never squeaked through.

Of course if you aren’t happy with the education system in Texas, and if you live in the state (possibly because you are an aspiring country singer), you could always home-school. Texas has some of the fewest restrictions on what constitutes home schooling in the country. The TEA has no authority over home schooling, neither does the local school district. There are no minimum hours or days of instruction, no achievement tests for high school grads… in fact, you might not even need a proper home, or even a kid for home schooling.

It’s clear that Texans need to demand a little more from their education system. It seems that Don’t Pass Don’t Play is actually one of the bright spots in their educational history.

That is, unless you can get your 70% by simply answering “God did it” on all your exams.