Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

China

Do we still want to go to Mars?

Hot take: I dunno.

Before the U.S. put the first man on the moon, before the Soviet Union launched the first satellite, people thought aliens lived on Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor.

The belief sparked fear in some — and outright panic when Orson Welles broadcast reports in 1938 of a Martian invasion drawn from the novel “The War of the Worlds.”

But it inspired others to question: Are we alone in the universe?

“Perhaps the single, most consuming scientific question of the space program is: ‘Does extraterrestrial life exist in our solar system?’” rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun wrote in a 1969 proposal to send humans to Mars.

In the decades since, even after scientists concluded the aliens of science-fiction fame do not live on Mars, the Red Planet has captivated the world’s imagination unlike any other.

It’s been the subject of countless movies, books and TV shows. It’s been an inspiration for folklore. And it’s been a desired destination for dreamers — a barren, dusty terrain that could offer scientists a look at what may lie ahead for Earth.

But a human mission to the Red Planet was out of reach in the 1960s. And it remains elusive today.

Top NASA officials have tentatively aimed for a human mission to Mars in 2033, but even they admit that timeline is aggressive. NASA still needs to develop a spacecraft capable of transporting humans to Mars; a method of propulsion to cover the distance more quickly; and a surface-landing vehicle that can handle the Martian climate.

Can NASA get it done in 14 years?

“I don’t know,” replied Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

“It’s a function of how much (progress) the program can make,” he told the Houston Chronicle in April. “The technology and the hardware is reasonable, but can we get the budget? That I don’t know.”

Some question going at all. The U.S. already has successfully landed eight robotic missions on the Red Planet.

“It’s kind of questionable about what there is to be gained,” Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham told the Chronicle. “You have to find some rationalization and justification in order to spend what it costs to go to Mars.

“I think that’s a long shot right now.”

On the one hand, I think there’s a lot to be learned by planning and executing a manned flight to Mars. I feel like as much as private firms are now in the space business, the public sector needs to continue to have a strong presence, if only to ensure that the knowledge gained by space travel remains in the public sphere. On a strictly parochial level, someone is eventually going to do this, and I’d rather it be the US than China or Russia.

Against that, it’s fair to question the value of the knowledge we’d get from a manned flight versus an unmanned flight. This would cost a ton of money at a time when there are higher priorities. It’s far from clear that this is something the public wants, and this is one of those times when having the President get behind it would not help at all. (I felt a little queasy just typing that out.) The idealist in me would love to see this happen. The pragmatist is far from convinced.

Another look at the state of recycling

One part supply, one part demand.

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

Reducing contamination is largely considered the starting point for creating a more stable U.S. recycling market. And that means teaching consumers what they can and cannot put in recycling bins.

For example, a triangle with a number on the bottom of a plastic container does not automatically mean it’s recyclable. Nos. 1, 2 and 5 are widely accepted in recycling programs across the country. Garden hoses and plastic bags, which can get tangled in sorting equipment, are always prohibited. Food-stained cardboard boxes are considered contamination, too.

“If our customers are saying, ‘Hey, how can I help out the economics of my current program?’ The No. 1 thing they can do is get the contamination rate down lower,” Bell said.

Waste Management is investing in machinery to better reduce contamination. Optical sorters, for instance, can identify a specific material and then use gusts of air to separate that material from the pack.

[…]

Once the sorting process is improved, the materials will need more places to go.

Large household brands are helping create these markets. PepsiCo, for instance, announced in October that it’s seeking to use 25 percent recycled content in its plastic packaging by 2025. This goal builds upon previously announced goals such as designing 100 percent of its packaging to be recyclable, compostable or biodegradable.

Such policies pressure suppliers to incorporate recycled materials if they want to keep or win that company’s business. But more brands need to take similar steps if the United States is to find uses for all the materials recycled by neighborhoods, job sites and businesses.

“There is a lot of supply and there’s not a lot of demand for the material,” said Bell of Waste Management. “We’ve got to make sure the materials that people intend to recycle every day, that we’ve got a demand for that.”

The demand for plastic pellets made from recycled materials already is robust, said Robin Waters, director of plastics planning and analysis for the research firm IHS Markit. But equipment for collecting and sorting waste needs extensive upgrades to provide the high-quality used plastic fit for making plastic resins.

Other countries are addressing this, in part, with a policy called Extended Producer Responsibility. This policy requires companies creating consumer products to pay fees for the plastic products and packaging they produce. The money collected from companies goes toward things such as upgrading recycling equipment and processing plants.

Ultimately, the fees provide incentives for companies to use less plastic, different materials or more recycled materials.

“It’s a concept that hasn’t really hit the U.S.,” Waters said, “but it will be here in five to 10 years.”

See here for some background. We need to do a lot more to reduce the amount of waste plastic. It’s going to take investment in public education and recycling infrastructure. Should have done this a long time ago, but given that we haven’t we better get started on it now.

The recycling recession

Not good.

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

A joint report by the trade groups American Chemistry Council and Association of Plastic Recyclers estimated that plastic bottle recycling decreased 3.6 percent last year, dipping to 2.8 billion pounds in 2017. The decrease is partially due to containers becoming lighter weight, but also because the rate of bottle recycling hasn’t grown significantly in recent years.

In “an exceedingly difficult year for plastic bottle recycling,” the report said, about 29.3 percent of plastic bottles were recycled in 2017, down about a half percentage point from a year earlier. Over the past five years, the rate of plastic bottle recycling has remained essentially flat.

“Americans are continuing to recycle and recycling behavior continues to grow, however there is also more material continuing to go into waste stream and plastics are growing,” said Steve Russell, vice president of the plastics division of American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical and plastic makers.

The report is here. A big part of the problem is China scaling way back on the recyclable materials it accepts, which has created an oversupply problem even as the recycling rate has stagnated. There needs to be more capacity for recycling in the US to deal with this. Getting people to do recycling properly – basic things like not throwing trash in recycling bins, for example – would also help. It’s a big deal, because there’s already way too much plastic waste in the environment, and that has all kinds of bad effects. We need to figure this out.

“How Chinese Baseball Came to North Texas”

Fascinating story.

The Texas AirHogs are members of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball, a federation of twelve, mostly Midwestern, teams unaffiliated with Major League Baseball. Inning breaks are punctuated with water-balloon-toss competitions and mascot races. The level of play is good, but with more overthrows and rundowns than you’d find on an average night at a big-league ballpark. Admission starts at $8 for adults, the parking is free and convenient, and season-ticket holders like Green and his roommate, Sharen Norton, get treated like big-shots. The AirHogs’ general manager, J.T. Onyett, visits the pair every game and sometimes offers up the VIP amenities. When the temperature crept to 110 degrees earlier this summer, the AirHogs’ staff ushered Green, Norton, and a few of their friends up to a vacant air-conditioned luxury suite. “I love the Rangers,” Norton, a 62-year-old grandmother says. “But would they do that?”

Almost everything about the AirHogs’ existence feels folksy and draped in Americana. So it came as a surprise to the team’s small group of season-ticket holders when, at a meet-and-greet with team executives before the start of the season, Onyett told them that their little hometown ball club would be undergoing a first-of-its-kind experiment. Instead of fielding a typical American Association team of fringe prospects, has-been minor leaguers, and guys trying for one last shot at The Show, the 2018 AirHogs would, in effect, lease out the majority of their roster to players from the Chinese national baseball team. Ten veteran non-Chinese pros—five pitchers and five position players—would supplement the national team squad, acting as on-field ringers and off-field mentors.

The Chinese have long been afterthoughts in Asia’s baseball pecking order, lagging well behind their athletic and political rivals Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. Few people in China watch or play the sport; the development system is tiny, and the country has yet to produce even a high-minor-league-caliber player. (Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have all produced major-league stars.) But with baseball returning to the summer Olympics in 2020 after a twelve-year hiatus, the Chinese government saw a reason to invest in the sport. Shipping their players to North Texas to play one hundred games against American pros would be the first big step.

When Green and Norton first heard about the impending arrival of the Chinese players, they didn’t know anything about the history of Chinese baseball. But they did know about their team in Grand Prairie. The AirHogs had won the American Association championship in 2011, but lately, they’d been more like the Bad News Bears. The team hadn’t had a winning record since 2013, they’d finished in last place two of the past four seasons, and—with barely a smattering of fans attending most home games—it sometimes seemed like they might not be able to stay in business. So when Green learned that China, a nation of 1.4 billion, was sending the “cream of the cream” of their baseball talent, he couldn’t help but get excited. Norton was even more hopeful.

“I wondered what the other teams were going to think when we started bashing the pants off them,” she said.

When the AirHogs’ season began on May 18, Green and Norton quickly recalibrated their expectations. The Chinese national team players that arrived in Texas were young, inexperienced, and far from world-beaters. “They didn’t know what was going on. They would do some things that a Little League team would do,” Green said.

But in August, watching the AirHogs take on the Sioux City Explorers seventy games into the season, Green was pleased with what he saw on the field. “They’re really jiving,” Green said. “And the Chinese guys always run it out, which I like.”

Go read the rest, you’ll enjoy it. As was the case with Rinku Singh and the “Million Dollar Arm” experiment, the population of China is so great that the talent pool for baseball would be very deep even if the sport only developed in a limited fashion. Bringing the Chinese national team here to get their feet wet amid higher-level competition was a super idea, one that I hope leads to something bigger. Now I want to take a road trip to Grand Prairie and see these guys for myself.

“Nixon in China” returns to HGO

This is very cool.

It’s been three decades since the Houston Grand Opera presented John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” the company’s beloved world premiere that changed not only how modern political operas were viewed but signified an audacious move by HGO to put its stamp on the operatic world. 6 This Friday, “Nixon” returns to HGO for the first time since its initial run in October 1987. 6 For all the production’s nostalgic, celebratory sheen, “Nixon” still has resonance. Changes in the United States’ racial, political and artistic attitudes since that initial premiere mean that it remains a hotly relevant opera worthy of both consumption and debate. 6

And that it’s opening on the Inauguration Day of President-elect Donald Trump feels, if nothing else, like an interesting coincidence. The opera examines U.S.-China relations as China commands headlines and dominates Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric.

“Nixon in China” was the first modern opera to study an American president – and is being resurrected at a time when the U.S. grapples with what presidency means.

“The fact that (the opera) continues to be performed widely bears evidence of its continued relevance in contemporary society, as well as its quality,” writes Timothy A. Johnson in “John Adams’s Nixon in China: Musical Analysis, Historical and Political Perspectives.”

[…]

Adams says he doesn’t know how audiences interpret “Nixon” nowadays. More muted responses to the Nixon portrayal, he suggests, might simply indicate just how fiery politics – and discussions on race, China and the Republican Party – have become. Nixon, and how we feel about him, serves as a way to measure the current moment.

“If you look at what’s going on politically now, Nixon doesn’t seem so bad,” Adams says.

Lots of things from the past don’t seem so bad right now, but that’s a discussion for another time. I remember when “Nixon in China” premiered, and while I can’t claim to be a big opera patron, it sounded fascinating to me. I’ll get my chance to find out this time, as my wife and I have tickets for this production. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about the politics of this going in. I’m still in a muddle of emotions and denial about everything that’s happening right now. Musically, though, I can’t wait. And how cool is it that it was the Houston Grand Opera that premiered this work? As I recall from back in the day, this was the first such premier in a long time. Have you seen a production of this before?

Yao Ming elected to Basketball Hall of Fame

Congratulations!

Yao Ming

Ground-breaking former Rockets center Yao Ming has been elected for inductions in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, a person with knowledge of the voting confirmed on Wednesday.

Yao, the first player taken in the 2002 draft who became a bridge to the NBA’s successful outreach into China, was an All-NBA second-team selection twice and third-team pick three times before foot injuries cut his career short after playing parts of just eight NBA seasons.

One of the world’s most popular athletes, Yao, 35, was nominated by the Hall of Fame International Committee, automatically making him a finalist. His selection, first reported by Yahoo Sports, will be officially announced on Monday, with Yao saying he considered the timing of his initial eligibility coming in the year the Final Four and Hall of Fame announcement are in Houston to be “destiny.”

“Of course I’m very excited and very honored to be nominated by the Hall of Fame,” Yao said during the All Star weekend in Toronto. “The Hall of Fame is a symbol for basketball people on the court or off the court. For myself, I’m so excited and (appreciative) of the committee for choosing me.”

[…]

“He’s truly a global basketball icon,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said said in February. “His career was cut short, and I think he didn’t achieve everything he wanted to the floor. But I have no doubt that over a long life, he’s going to end up probably having as great an impact on this game as anyone who has ever played.”

Here’s the Yahoo story referenced by the Chron. ESPN reminds us of Yao’s impact:

He was the league’s first Chinese star, and NBA merchandise sales and television ratings in China mushroomed during his career. In 2007, a game his Rockets played against the Milwaukee Bucks, featuring Yi Jianlian, was broadcast on 19 networks in China and watched by more than 200 million people in the country, making it one of the most-watched NBA games in history.

Here are Yao’s career stats. Hard not to imagine what might have been, if only his body had been a bit more durable. Congratulations to Yao Ming on this well-deserved achievement.

Terra Cotta Warriors

I got a chance to get a sneak peek of the Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit at HMNS last week, and it was awesome. I confess, I knew nothing about this beforehand; Tiffany, who has a vivid childhood memory of a National Geographic edition from around the time of their discovery, was much more familiar with them and was greatly excited about getting to see them. I came away very impressed, both with the exhibit itself, which was really well done, and with the idea of this imperial afterlife army, and the sheer amount of manpower it took to create. Amazing how much of what we can still experience from ancient history is a testament to ego and megalomania, isn’t it – pyramids, coliseums, etc – isn’t it? Anyway, if you’re like me and are wondering what the fuss is about, go here and get an idea, then buy some tickets and see for yourself. If you already know about them, well, just go buy the tickets. It’s totally worth it.

The HTA and the Times

The New York Times wrote an editorial about the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). Unfortunately, they seem to have misunderstood what all the fuss is about.

As many parents, and ultimately manufacturers, learned the hard way, the Bush administration did not make the safety of toys and other products a priority. That led to the recall of millions of toys — some because of lead paint, others because of hazards such as small and powerful magnets that children swallowed. The Obama administration now has an opportunity to fill that regulatory gap by appointing new leadership for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Last year, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, giving new authority and resources to a shockingly understaffed agency. The law has been described, accurately, as providing the safety net that consumers assumed they already had.

Unfortunately, the commission has yet to implement important aspects of the new law. The delay has caused confusion and allowed opponents to foment needless fears that the law could injure smaller enterprises like libraries, resale shops and handmade toy businesses.

One of those opponents is the Handmade Toy Alliance, which includes my cousin Jill, who makes her blogging debut with a response to that piece.

Our issue with the CPSIA has nothing to do with an inability to provide safe toys. It has to do with the inability to cost effectively prove that we have safe toys. We must also point out that this law is not just about toys, but rather all products intended for children aged 12 and under.

We must also take issue with the following statement, “The law provides ways to address such concerns without undercutting its new and vitally important protections against lead or other toxic substances in children’s products.” Unfortunately, the law does not address our concerns. We agree that it is vitally important to have protections in place to keep toxins out of our children’s environments. Many of our member businesses began their companies as a reaction to the toy recalls. They take extra care in researching the products they make and carry in their stores, and are completely involved in the production process. Rather than supporting these businesses, the law requests costly third party redundant testing that would effectively put thousands out of business. If large corporations are all that stand after this law is implemented as is, then who is truly served?

The stay of enforcement does not negate the lead limits or phthalate ban. In fact, the CPSC was quick to point out in their press releases that they do not have the authority to override the limits. Therefore, manufacturers still need to comply with the letter of the law.

She was a lot gentler with them than some other people, but I think she made her point just fine. Welcome to the blog world, Jill!

Handmade Toy Alliance wins a stay

Some good news from last week for the Handmade Toy Alliance – they got a one year reprieve on enforcement of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

Federal regulators on Friday postponed some testing requirements that would have forced many companies to pay ten of thousands of dollars to check children’s products for lead content, giving manufacturers and retailers a one-year reprieve.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission deferred the deadline, originally Feb. 10, by which manufacturers and importers of children’s goods needed to test every item to ensure it didn’t contain more than 600 parts per million of lead. They also have an extra year to test for phthalates, chemicals often used in plastic.

[…]

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was passed by Congress last year after dozens of toys were recalled. It called for manufacturers to test products by Feb. 10 and for retailers to dispose of products that had not been tested by that date.

The two-member commission voted to stay those requirements for a year, after toy makers, publishers and clothing manufacturers voiced their concerns. The commission had already clarified a portion of the law that could have forced thrift stores to dump all of their children’s clothing; the move in effect exempted them.

Also on Friday, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said he was planning to introduce legislation next week to exempt some small businesses from the law and require the commission to distribute a compliance guide, among other things.

The commission has been bombarded with thousands of calls, e-mails, letters and visits from people upset about the law, Martyak said. Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) and Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) also sent the commission a seven-page letter chastising it for the “great deal of confusion and misinformation” that had arisen over the law.

The industry is still waiting for guidance on whether toys and clothing made from natural materials will be exempted from the law entirely. And there are exceptions to the stay: Manufacturers still must test products for small parts that may break off, lead content in children’s jewelry and lead paint. They also must ensure that cribs conform to standards set by the law.

“It looks like a positive step, but there’s still a lot of legalese,” said Dan Marshall, founder of the Handmade Toy Alliance, which was created to inform small toy companies about the law and advocate for them.

You can see a copy of the stay order here (PDF). This is good news for the craftspeople, but it’s only a delay, not a resolution. If nothing happens, they’ll be in the same position in a year’s time. Congress has a lot of work to do this year, but I hope they make time for this as well.

One of the things that may perhaps come out of this experience is a better understanding of how laws intended to regulate big businesses need to take into account the way smaller businesses operate as well. This Business Week article discusses that, while this DC Examiner piece takes a more cynical look at the sausage-making process that led to all this. And finally, where there’s crime there’s defense attorneys, and so we have Mark Bennett examining the criminal liabilities under the CPSIA. May it never come to that for the HTA’s stakeholders.