In These Perilous Times

February 19th, 2013

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on February 13, 2013

“Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed – a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems – the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child’s natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the `comic’ magazine.”

— Sterling North, Chicago Daily News, 1940

“Video games are bad for you? That’s what they said about Rock n’ Roll!”

— Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Super Mario Bros.

In the winter of 1574, early in the days of English theatre, the Common Council of London issued a statement censoring and restricting theatrical performances within the city limits of London, complaining of their great popularity among youth and, as they described it, “the inveigling and alluring of maids, especially of orphans and good citizens’ children under age … and many other corruptions of youth and other enormities.”

While fears of plague and the resultant risk of large gatherings also played a role in the ruling, chief among the reasons for the declaration was the danger that this form of entertainment posed for the young, lower classes, and the overly susceptible.

This was followed by an outright ban within the city limits of London and further censorship, lasting until the Restoration era of the 1660s.

From the 1690s until 1710, both Pope Innocent XII and his successor, Pope Clement XI, following previous bans on female singers, whistling, and shouting during performances, outlawed opera entirely, a sinful and seditious form of music at odds with the morals and spirituality of the Church. The Teatro Tordinona, a place where “extravagance, gluttony, and every other most guilty form of intemperance triumphed, so that the resources of families were squandered, youth were corrupted, and pilgrims were scandalized,” was torn down, only to be rebuilt several decades later with opera’s later resurgence.

Pope Clement XI did however go lax on one previous Papal view: cats, traditionally seen as a symbol of Paganism and often exterminated as a result, were finally allowed back into the homes of God-fearing Christians.

With the popularity of jazz in the 1920s, so grew opposition to the so-called devil’s music (not the first to be labelled as such, and not the last). Within a decade, over 60 communities in the US (and Germany in its entirety) enabled prohibitions against the public performance of jazz, with the music seen as “the accompaniment of the voodoo dance, stimulating half-crazed barbarians to the vilest of deeds.”

Sixty years later, the 100th Congress of the United States passed Resolution 57, designating jazz as “a rare and valuable national American treasure.”

It never stops.

And then there’s film, immediately after its rise in popularity and again and again throughout its history, most notably with the moral censorship guidelines of the 1930 Hayes Code, which stated among its goals that “the important objective must be to avoid the hardening of the audience, especially of those who are young and impressionable, to the thought and fact of crime.”

Television, every couple decades since its invention. As FCC Chairman Newton Minow put it in 1961, a procession of “blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons.”

Comic books, particularly during the 1940s and 50s. Portrayals of superheroes, crime, and horror led to the 1954 publication of psychiatrist Fredric Wetham’s Seduction of the Innocent, an alarming screed warning of the dangers of lowbrow sequential art. This was followed by the formation of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in the same year, which held hearings on the potentially deleterious impact of comic books on young readers.

Role playing games in the 1980s. Dungeons and Dragons was believed by some to promote devil worship and suicidal behavior, with opponents often tying unfortunate events involving young players to the demonic influences of the game.

Don’t get me started on rock and roll.

So we arrive at the present, and with it a new target. Video games, a normative form of entertainment with over 90% of youth and the majority of adults playing, are the new opera, the new jazz, once again stimulating half-crazed teenagers to the vilest of deeds.

They’ve been connected to Sandy Hook (Adam Lanza was said to have played in his “underground bunker,” normally referred to as a basement), Aurora (James Holmes, alongside 10 million other players, was a fan of World of Warcraft, a fantasy adventure game), and the Virginia Tech massacre (shooter Seung-Hui Cho hadn’t played a video game since Sonic the Hedgehog in the early 90s).

During a press conference held the week after the Sandy Hook shooting, Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President of the NRA, called the game industry “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people.”

On January 12th, following outcry against the industry, the Vice President of the United States met with the heads of several prominent video game publishers as part of a task force looking at the role of video games in mass shootings.

Last week, Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, when asked about supporting universal background checks for gun purchases, replied that video games were “a bigger problem than guns.”

Never mind that murder rates have fallen in the United States over the past twenty years, while video game sales have skyrocketed.

Never mind that the largest video game markets in the world, per capita, also happen to have some of the lowest reports of gun violence.

Never mind that this same sort of hysteria has happened many times before.

During the rise to prominence of any new form of media or pop culture, there follows a cadre of misguided do-gooders, armed with misinformation and loose correlations, ready to lash out at any perceived potentiality for harm. They take to the streets with the notion of protecting the youth, publishing anecdotal evidence as fact, pointing to unrelated ties and exclaiming “This! This is that which we should repress, for surely it brings no good!”

When tragedy happens, the new medium is hoisted onto the platform, threatened and mocked, examined and dissected because somewhere, somehow, there has to be a link between it and our woes. Because it’s the easy way, because it’s the new, it must be at fault, lest we pause and find fault in ourselves.

Over and over again, until the new is no longer new and another arises to take its place.

Las Vegas Expanding Humanity’s Future in Space

February 4th, 2013

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on January 23, 2013

Bigelow Aerospace sits on 50 acres of land in North Las Vegas, just a few miles south of the Craig Ranch Golf Course. I park in the small lot just inside the gate of the complex, where I am directed into the nearby security building.

Several other journalists are already present, along with a guard. After examining and recording IDs, we’re given badges and presented with the rules. No weapons allowed. No recording or photography outside the designated press areas. Keep your badge visible at all times, and always stay with an escort.

The guard hands us each a map. Guest parking and press room are highlighted green, unauthorized areas, AKA the rest of the complex, are bright red.

We’re shuffled back outside. An SUV idles nearby as another guard explains that we’ll be following him to the interior parking lot. We get back into our cars and caravan a quarter mile down a road called Warp Drive, into the sprawling complex.

In the summer of 1961, just months after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth, a team of engineers at NASA and Goodyear Aircraft Corporation completed their two year project: to develop and prototype a new design of space station, a large inflatable donut that could be tucked within a rocket and launched into space, where it would then expand to a full diameter of 24 feet. Once pressurized, the rotating torus would serve as a way station for astronauts and transport vehicles as they journeyed to the moon and beyond.

Unfortunately, the proposed plan, alongside other 2001-style spinning habitats, nuclear-powered stations, and massive orbiting spheres, never made it farther than the prototype stage before it was shuttered. Serious consideration of an inflatable space station design was shelved, and wouldn’t be revived for another thirty years.

With the development of the International Space Station in the 1990s, inflatable designs were back on the table. NASA proposed TransHab, an inflatable cylinder with a 27 foot diameter, intended to serve as a habitation module for crew based on the ISS. Unfortunately, cost overruns and controversy mired the project, and in 1999 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act banned NASA from further developing TransHab. But there was hope embedded in House Resolution 1654 — an explicit exception stated that, while NASA themselves could not develop the inflatable station, they could lease such a model from commercial sources, provided the costs and safety risks were in line with with previously established guidelines.

Enter Robert Bigelow.

After hearing of the failed project in 1999, Las Vegas native Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites hotel chain and an avid space buff, reached out to NASA, eventually landing exclusive development rights to the technology. He brought on engineers from the NASA project to consult with his team, including TransHab lead developer William Schneider, and, bolstered by an eventual $250 million from Bigelow’s own coffers (with an additional $250 million pledged), development of an inflatable space module was once again underway.

Bigelow Aerospace has signed a $17.8 million contract with NASA, insignificant money when compared to the cost of the overall project, but a huge win for the private company. It has taken over a decade of development time and the launching of two test modules (the Genesis I and II, both currently in orbit) for Bigelow Aerospace to gain the space agency’s trust.

The milestone-based contract is for the roughly spherical 13 foot Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which in 2015 will be launched onboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule, connected to Node 3 of the International Space Station, and expanded. There it will live for two years, undergoing environmental studies and experiments, serving as an uninhabited test bed for future module deployments and laying the groundwork for Bigelow Aerospace’s next major project: their own commercial space station.

Earlier this year, Bigelow Aerospace and Hawthorne, California based SpaceX began a joint effort to secure customers around the globe for Bigelow’s proposed 2016 Alpha Station, a space station comprised of two BA 330 inflatable modules, the big brothers of the BEAM module, each capable of supporting a crew of six. Private and national crews to the station will be ferried at costs between $25-36 million per seat, with a minimum stay of 60 days in orbit and access to the station’s shared research facilities.

Beyond the Alpha Station, Bigelow Aerospace is in talks with NASA to make use of the BA 330 in ongoing ventures, and foresees a future where their inflatable habitats are used in Lunar and even Martian exploration missions.

Some of us linger for a bit once the media advisory is complete, chatting with the engineers and NASA representatives, wandering around the spacious press room that serves as Bigelow’s museum to the future, the floor filled with scale and full size mockups of inflatable modules, capsules, space stations, and terrestrial bases. It’s amazing that this place is in Las Vegas. Most people have no idea that Bigelow Aerospace exists, let alone that its facility is only minutes from downtown. Why is that? I mean, hell, they’re building space stations in there.

As Mike Gold, the Bigelow Director of Operations, admits, the company has been in heads down mode for several years, and public awareness has not been a priority.

The Bigelow Aerospace website, framed within a model of a BA 330, is woefully outdated, and the company has played no visible role in the recent growth and portrayal of Las Vegas as an up and coming tech hub.

Unlike NASA and SpaceX, who’ve both been incredibly successful in the online space with their outreach programs, Bigelow Aerospace does not maintain a Facebook page, nor do they have any sort of presence on Twitter.

Robert Bigelow himself is notoriously secretive, once claiming to have never sent an email, instead preferring more direct (and secure) methods of communication. Until recent years, he did not allow pictures of himself to be printed. Perhaps this sentiment is woven into the culture of his company as well.

Still, Bigelow Aerospace is doing incredible things, and deserves to be on your radar. In two years, when you see the news of the launch, when the module expands and inflates for the first time, revealing the red and blue Bigelow logo emblazoned across its side, remember one thing: that little piece of space station was born in Las Vegas, Nevada.