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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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David Frum: Overcoming Governmental Barriers

Question: How can barriers to progress be overcome in government?

David Frum: When people talk about government, they talk about it in terms of all the new things they would like to see it do, paying very little mind to all the things it's already doing. And so the tendency is for government to become like a coral reef. You know, a coral reef is supposedly a living thing. But what it really is, is a thin veneer of living things attached to the carcasses or the skeletons or the mass.

So much of the U.S. government is like this giant dead mass that sits there doing functions that were considered necessary in the 1960s and the 1920s, or even well back into the 19th century, and it is so tremendously hard to alter their way.

So we end up simply, then, applying another layer of new life, new growth on top of all that has gone before; and it's just too difficult to question what has gone on before. One of the greatest obstacles to getting things done are all the things that formerly got done. 

Even in this tiny little area of the executive office of the president, which is a very small part of the government, there are probably about twice as many people there as there needs to be, and the result of that is not just that you waste a few dollars on salaries, because again, in the scheme of things, it's not so much, it's that everybody is going to twice as many meetings as they need to do, every arrangement is twice or squared, because it can be exponential, you have four people doing the work of two, then eight doing the work of four, and so it multiples.

The presidency would be much more effective if presidents hired half as many people as they do in their personal office; so why don't they do it? Well, the answer is, most of those people have worked on the campaign, the president owes them a little something or they're friends of people, or they're people whom you're grooming for some future leadership role, and so the decision to incorporate them, any one person, always points to a yes answer even though the collective answer should be a no answer.

So you multiply that by all the trillions of dollars the government consumes and you see why this machine can't move, or moves very slowly and often very incompetently.

But the idea that some kind of inspirational leader can make it work better, I don't believe that. I think that making it work better is going to require constant retooling from inside that is dedicated to getting rid of the dead mass.

Question: Basically the reduction of government…

David Frum: I even think on this question of effectiveness, that reduction is; because that makes it sound like some of the things the government does are done by computers and machines and involves sending out checks.  Social Security, whether it's a good program or bad, it doesn’t become any less efficient as it gets bigger. The same number of people can send out 15 million checks as can send out 30 million checks; it's more money, it's not more work.

But the multiplication of programs, they often can be quite; small programs are the ones that tie the government up in knots the most.

One of the classic instances in the area of education, we have this dazzling array of programs. The federal government doesn’t spend so much money on education. The United States as a whole, as a society, spends an enormous amount, but the federal share of it is quite small. What the federal government does is it has teams and individuals working on concepts layered one on top of another going all the way back probably to the Teddy Roosevelt administration with the thickest stratum, with the Johnson administration, and now this new stratum from the [George W.] Bush administration, and they're working on contradictory goals, they are tripping over each other's feet, they are competing with one another.

And they eventually solve their bureaucratic problems by coming to kind of treaties of understanding and saying the way this is going to work is you run your program your way, and I will run my program, which tries to do exactly the opposite, in my way, and you and I will preserve our friendly relationship even though our two programs are constantly crashing and bashing against one another and compromising the other's even hope for effectiveness.

Question: Is a Manhattan Project needed to restructure the government? 

David Frum: We've had those in the past. After World War II, President Truman invited President Hoover to run a great commission to retool and reorganize the U.S. government, and it did some good. It introduced some degree of rationality, and periodically those things have worked.

Most recently we've had the introduction of the Department of Homeland Security, which tried to rationalize some of the functions of government that are now, at last, after some couple of hundred years, you have both immigration and customs in the same bureaucracies. You used to, when you entered the United States, go through two checkpoints, one for immigration and one for customs, and now you go through one, so that's useful.

I think it requires, though, and this goes back to your question about leadership, to make government effective requires a constant commitment to management as a core value. And almost nobody in public life really sincerely feels that, because first the people that go into public life tend to be people that are not managers, and second because good management so often gets in the way of other things that people really care about more.

 

Recorded on: May 5 2008

 

 

 

Frum talks about reducing bureaucracy and getting stronger decision makers.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth.

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

NASA
Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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