Bad Reviews

Stars of stage and screen have been dealing with bad reviews for a long, long, time. For restaurants, coffee shops, and bars, it’s a more recent phenomenon, thanks to on-line rating services. And now the ratings game is being applied to pretty much every business and profession you can think of, including service industries, teachers . . . even lawyers.

Bad reviews are so commonplace that there are collections of “hilariously bad reviews” on-line–like this one. But while outside observers might chuckle at an internet reaming, every one of those horrific reviews left a business owner, a cook, or a server really smarting, and worrying that the review will seriously harm their business. In fact, studies show that people do pay attention to reviews in deciding where to eat, drink, or hire an electrician, and a crushing comment might just make a potential customer decide to go elsewhere.

What should you do if you get a bad review? One PR agency offers tips about responding to reviews here. Their main teaching is to respond promptly and constructively to all reviews, good and bad, and view the review and response process as an opportunity to build customer loyalty and show that you value feedback. That means not replying to a bad review with flamethrower comments of your own, but instead responding in a way that shows that you’ve taken the criticism to heart, are glad the reviewer spoke up, and hope that they will come back to give you another chance after you’ve implemented improvements.

Nobody likes to get bad reviews, but it’s a reality of our modern world. My guess, too, is that pretty much every business, no matter how good they might be, gets ripped by someone who visited on an off-day or just has a negative attitude in general. Learning how to respond to the bad reviews is as much a part of operating a successful business as developing your business plan or setting up your bookkeeping system.

Learning To Read

Reading is one of the most basic capabilities that humans can learn. It forms the foundation for virtually all forms of higher learning, provides a gateway into a range of knowledge as diverse as the thoughts of great minds of the past, modern technology, sports scores, and cooking recipes, and touches just about every facet of our lives. And yet, how much do we remember about how we learned this crucial skill? Learning the alphabet, associating letter combinations with different sounds until something clicked and the basic words became ingrained in brain synapses to the point where reading because easy–for me, at least, it all is lost in the mists of time that occurred before we got to the books about Dick, Jane, and their dog Spot, which I do dimly remember reading. (“See Spot run! ‘Run, Spot, run!’)

Those of us who are beyond the kids in school phase of our lives might be interested in learning that the educational community is struggling with the issue of teaching kids to read. Time magazine has an interesting article about the ongoing effort, which is precipitated by some truly dismal statistics. Even before the pandemic, in 2019, only 35 percent of fourth-graders met reading proficiency standards, and the numbers were even worse for low-income, Black, and Hispanic students. Of course, the pandemic didn’t help matters.

The current dispute is about whether reading should be taught with a focus on phonics–that is, by drilling kids on how to sound out words, with all of the weirdnesses and exceptions you find in the English language (like way/weigh)–or whether kids who are introduced to reading will eventually figure out those rules on their own. The latter school of thought considers phonics to be boring. If I could remember this phase in learning to read, I’d probably agree that it was boring–but it worked for me, and for generations of kids.

Now the troubling test scores are causing educators, and politicians, to again urge the old school, phonics approach to learning to read. It might be boring for both teacher and student, they concede, but it evidently works–and that should be the acid test. And educators really shouldn’t be worrying about whether the methods they are using are boring, in my view. Much of learning math, science, and history involves rote memorization and repetition. It’s not thrilling, but it becomes assimilated in the brain, and when you are talking about the basics, that is what you are aiming for.

It will be interesting to see how the reading debate progresses–but if our schools aren’t taking the best, most likely to succeed approach to teaching kids how to read, we are failing to achieve the most basic goal of education, and leaving those kids unprepared to succeed in the modern world. That is just not fair, or right.

Thoughts From The Southern Route

Yesterday, when I approached the I-71/I-76 intersection, my inner Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry voice asked if I felt lucky, and I did–so I took the southern route. And sure enough, as I rolled along I-76 in Ohio, I-80 in Pennsylvania, and I-84 in Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut, my luck held up. The weather was perfect for driving–dry and sunny–and I made excellent time. It all changed, unfortunately, when I passed Hartford and entered Massachusetts.

Once I-84 emptied into I-90, and I turned onto I-495 to loop around Boston, the traffic got heavy and moved into the frustrating stop-and-go mode, giving rise to the two eternal questions for drivers. The first is: if there are no accidents and there is no road work, why does stop-and-go traffic, where you actually have to come to a dead halt on an interstate highway, happen at all? Why doesn’t traffic continue to move forward at a steady, if slower, pace? Is it that somebody changed lanes and cut someone off, producing a domino effect of braking that ultimately produced standstills farther back in the line of cars?

I guess that is more than just one question.

And the second question is: why does the lane I pick in stop-and-go traffic always seem to be the slowest lane? I tend to favor the passing lane, reasoning that it will have fewer cars moving back and forth, and no one entering from access ramps, but yesterday the left lane was the worst for stoppages by far. The middle lane was better, and the far right lane seemed to have the smoothest traffic flow, notwithstanding the people coming onto the highway. Is that always true, and if so, why? And why would the left lane ever be anything other than the lane that had the smoothest traffic flow?

Finally, there is the E-ZPass issue. Do you get one, or not? Toll roads, and the use of E-ZPass rather than depositing money to a toll booth attendant, is clearly a northeastern phenomenon, as the above map demonstrates. If you’re driving east, E-ZPass definitely makes things easier, as you can roll past interstate toll booths without stopping, knowing that someone somewhere is logging your movements and charging you electronically, and you don’t have to fume about the person in front of you who moves up to the toll booth without having their payment handy, causing even more delay. I’ve not gotten E-ZPass because I just don’t feel like I would use it much, and there’s something about it that just irks me from a privacy standpoint. But on yesterday’s drive it became clear that we’re being tracked, whether we use E-ZPass or not, because on many of the toll roads there are no booths and the signs announce that if you don’t have an E-ZPass you’ll just be billed–which means your car is being photographed and the license plate information is being used to send you a bill. E-ZPass doesn’t seem any more intrusive than that.

Jack Kerouac wouldn’t be able to drive anonymously on the tollways of the northeast U.S. in the same way he traveled incognito in On The Road. In the western half of the country, where there aren’t nearly as many toll roads, it might still be possible. I do find myself wondering, though, about a question that I don’t think was addressed in On The Road: when Jack Kerouac encountered stop-and-go traffic, which lane did he choose?

The Northern Route Or The Southern Route

Today I’m getting up early and driving back to Maine. That means I’ll be making a crucial choice: the northern route, or the southern route?

It’s the kind of tough, coin-flip decision of which road trips are made. The “southern” route takes me on I-76, on I-80 though northern Pennsylvania, then up I-84, past Scranton, to slice across southern New York and then head north through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. The northern route, on the other hand, takes I-71 to I-271 and then up to I-90 and follows it through northern Ohio, the stub of Pennsylvania where Erie is located, then past Buffalo and across the entire width of New York and pretty much the entire width of Massachusetts, too.

Which way to go? Do you take the risk of hitting a lot of traffic as you pass the Cleveland suburbs, Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany on the I-90 route, or is the bigger risk the crummy road conditions and inevitably crappy traffic in the Scranton-Wilkes Barre corridor or as you roll through Hartford, Connecticut? Do you take the I-90 turnpike toll road, dealing with the issues that arise when, like all Midwesterners, you don’t have one of those “EZ Pass” units that allow you to zip through the toll stations, or do you enjoy the pleasures of the freeway? Which route is more likely to have a disabling accident, or active roadwork that will back up the traffic for miles?

I’ve driven both routes, and it’s basically six of one, half a dozen of the other. They are so close in terms of distance and likely travel time that even the most careful analysis could be upset by simple bad luck. I won’t be deciding for sure until I hit the spot on I-71 for the I-76 turnoff and go with a gut check. At that point, I’ll ask myself, in my best Dirty Harry voice: “Well, punk? Do you feel lucky?”

Still Digging For Jimmy

This summer marks the 47th anniversary of the abrupt disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, the former head of the Teamsters Union. On July 30, 1975, Hoffa was last seen in a restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit; he was legally declared dead in 1982. Hoffa is one of the most famous missing persons in American history, right up there with Amelia Earhart. TIME magazine, at least, places Hoffa with Earhart on the list of “top 10 famous disappearances.”

In the 47 years since Hoffa vanished, the FBI has spent a lot of time, and done a lot of digging, looking for him. An interesting article this summer by a current Harvard Law School professor recounts the high points of the extensive, long-running, and so far totally fruitless search for Hoffa’s presumed remains. As the article explains, over the last 47 years a rogue’s gallery of criminals, with the kind of nicknames you would expect if you’ve watched The Sopranos, have claimed knowledge of what happened to Hoffa and where he can be found. Their stories have differed, placing Hoffa’s remains in Florida swamps, in the concrete under Giants Stadium, in a Georgia golf course, and at various locations around Michigan. The FBI has investigated the claims, often to the point of digging, and nothing is found. The most recent, nine-month-long investigation focused on a former landfill under the Pulaski Skyway in Jersey City, New Jersey, and the FBI reported just last month that the effort came up empty.

Based on the record, it’s probably only a matter of time before another colorful character claims to have been involved in Hoffa’s disappearance, identifies a new spot, and the FBI gets out the shovels and does more digging for Jimmy. But after 47 years, it seems like the trail must be awfully cold. Whoever actually knew what happened to Jimmy Hoffa hasn’t talked about it, and unless we get a verifiable deathbed confession, we’ll probably never know. But at the FBI, the shovels are still at the ready, just in case.

End Of The Stick

When I took drivers’ ed in high school, the classes themselves (taught by the phys ed teacher, of course) provided basic instruction on the rules of the road and touched on the existence of both manual and automatic transmission cars. That’s when I first was introduced to the mysterious functioning of something called a “clutch”–which, when you think about it, is an odd yet evocative name for an automobile part. In those days during the early ’70s, most cars came in manual and automatic options.

My in-car drivers’ ed classes, though, were taught in an automatic transmission car, so the mysteries of the “clutch” and the “stick shift” were left unexplored. And during my driving career, which is now approaching the 50-year mark, I think I’ve driven a manual transmission vehicle twice–once when I drove out west in a van, and once when I used a rental truck to move from city to city. Each time, I muddled through the stick shift process without really getting the hang of it, and was pretty much glad when the adventures ended and I could go back to the automatic world.

In the battle between automatic and manual, automatic transmissions have triumphed, and manual transmissions are increasingly rare–and soon will be no more, according to a recent article in The Atlantic. A sign of the decline of the stick shift is that in 2000, 15 percent of the new and used cars offered by CarMax were manual transmission vehicles; in 2020, that figure was 2.4 percent. Only about 30 of the hundreds of new vehicles for sale in the U.S. have a manual transmission option, and there are reports that even more manufacturers will be dropping that option in the near future. Even with sports cars that you associate with stick shift driving, automatic transmissions have had their way; in every year since 1970, for example, sales of the automatic versions of the Corvette have surpassed the manual option. After the last manual transmission car rolls off the assembly line, stick-shift aficionados will have to find their clutching pleasures in the used car market–but don’t be surprised if they buy up the last brand-new manual transmission vehicles first.

If you talk to a manual transmission driver, you’ll find there is a deep attachment between them and their stick shift. People drive a stick only by choice these days, and when they explain why they sound like the faithful trying to convert you to their religion. A manual allows you to really be in control of your car, they’ll say, or they will argue that manual drivers are better and safer than automatic drivers, because the need to constantly clutch and shift makes them much more attentive to traffic and road conditions. Really, though, you get the idea that they really just like fiddling around with the stick shift and that weird extra pedal, and for them driving their car is just like playing with a fun toy every morning.

It’s curious that manual transmissions have hung on as long as they have; after all, other throwbacks to the dawn of the automotive era–like hand-cranking the engine–have long since been tossed to the side of the road. The staying power of the stick shift is a testament to the true believers. It will be tough for them when we reach the end of the stick.

Life Habits Of The Rich And Famous

CNBC recently published an interesting article by a writer who interviewed 225 millionaires to evaluate their habits and analyze common themes. He found that the interview subjects all fell into one of four categories: “saver-investors,” “company climbers” who work for a company, climb the corporate ladder, and ultimately secure a senior-level position, “virtuosos” who are very good at what they do and are paid accordingly, and “dreamers” who follow their passion and do things like form their own businesses or write books.

The most common habit people in the four groups shared–besides working at something, which obviously is the basic foundation for each of the groups–was the habit of saving money. 88 percent of the millionaires interviewed said saving was a key part of their financial success. And the savings process itself involved three common themes: automatic saving of a significant part of income, investment of their savings, and frugal lifestyles. Reaching millionaire status using these techniques can be a slow process–it took the millionaires who were interviewed between 12 and 32 years to accumulate their nest eggs of between $3 million and $7 million–but the process worked.

There are a lot more millionaires now than there were during the era of Thurston Howell III and Lovey, the “millionaire and his wife” on Gilligan’s Island. It is estimated that 20 million Americans have reached millionaire status, producing 13.1 million households–more than 10 percent of the total number of households in the U.S.–that have assets of at least $1 million. About 20 percent of the millionaires inherited their wealth, but the rest made their money, in whole or in significant part, through their own effort and hard work.

Not everyone wants to become a millionaire, of course–but if you do, the statistics show that it is a reachable goal that can be achieved with work, a long-term focus on saving and asset growth, prudence, and the good luck to avoid serious illness or unprovoked job loss.

Road Radio

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to the radio for an extended period. This weekend’s air travel mishap, and the resulting need to drive from Bangor, Maine to Columbus, Ohio, changed all that. I got a substantial diet of radio offerings as I rolled through Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio.

Some things about radio have changed, dramatically, and some have stayed the same. If you’re looking for NPR or classical music, for example, you’re going to want to look around the low end of the FM dial, just as you always have. (Good luck finding classical music, though; I tried, again and again, and regrettably there doesn’t seem to be much of it on the airwaves these days.) Sermons and church music tend to be clustered there, too. If you’re looking for sports or aggressive political talk, on the other hand, you’ll want to switch over to AM. (I stuck to FM until I got to Ohio, when I decided to risk brief exposure to political screeds in search of some coverage of the Buckeyes, Browns, and Guardians.)

Popular radio–that is, everything you’d find above 92 on the FM dial–seems to have gone through a consolidation phase, in two ways. First, in different states you’ll find that five or six formerly independent radio stations based in different cities and towns have jointed together and become one station playing the same content that you can listen to at various channel settings as you drive along. These consolidated stations tend to have generic names like “The River.”

And that phenomenon has produced the second form of consolidation: there’s a lot less content variety on the radio than there used to be. Classical music and jazz aren’t the only victims. A local station in the past might play “Polka Varieties” featuring Frankie Yankovic, or crop reports. You’re not going to get that any longer. Flipping through the radio dial on my journey produced a lot of soulless modern country stations and mushed together “classic rock” options that might play songs from the ’60s to the ’90s. And the “classic rock” stations seem to have the same playlists, too. I heard Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust no less than four times during my drive. and got heavy doses of Bon Jovi, Cheap Trick, and Heart, too. Surprisingly, to me at least, I didn’t hear a single Beatles tune until I got to Ohio and tuned in a Youngstown station that was playing Let It Be.

And here’s another thing: there don’t seem to be actual, live DJs anymore–at least, not on Friday night and Saturday. I didn’t hear what seemed to be a live voice on any station until I turned to a sports station in Ohio. Most of the stations seemed to be going with totally recorded playlists. If you’re aspiring to be a radio DJ these days, good luck.

I’ll be driving back to Maine next weekend, as part of the continuing fallout from modern air travel hassles. Already I’m bracing myself for more airings of Living On A Prayer and I Want You To Want Me. It’s not the greatest music in the world, but it beats the political craziness. And that’s about the best you can say about the state of road radio these days.

Irrational “Rebooking“

Traveling by air seems to get worse by the day. Yesterday I experienced a new variation in irrationality that made the travel experience worse than ever.

I was flying from Bangor. Maine to Columbus through D.C. After checking the monitor in Bangor and seeing everything was a “go,” I got a text message that the D.C. to Columbus flight had been abruptly cancelled for some unstated reason. When I was digesting that unhappy bit of news, I got the message that the airline had “rebooked” me on a flight leaving this afternoon, meaning I’d have to find a hotel room near Reagan National and spend the night. I’ve had that happen before. What made this “rebooking” even more ridiculous was that it had me flying today from D.C. to Asheville, North Carolina—away from Columbus, if you consult your map—then flying from Asheville to Charlotte, and then finally from Charlotte to Columbus. A three-legged trip, with all of the attendant risk of delays and more cancellations, that would get me in a day later than planned, with a hotel hassle to boot? That’s a “rebooking “ only in the most absurd sense of the word.

There were no rental cars available in D.C. for a one-way ride to Columbus, either. Fortunately, I drove to the Bangor airport, so the obvious answer was to drive back to Columbus. That’s why I’m writing this from a Homewood Suites room in bucolic Southington, Connecticut.

Sure, gas is expensive, and driving takes time. But given the airline shenanigans I’ve experienced lately, my circle of preferred driving range keeps getting wider.

Tom Brady’s Parenting, And Other Clickbait Curiosities

If clickbait is consciously geared to attract the most clicks from the most people–which is what you would expect, right?–it’s become increasingly clear that I am totally out of step with the mainstream of computer users. I say this because not only am I personally not enticed by the vast majority of clickbait, I can’t even understand why anyone would be tempted to click on this stuff. That is a pretty sure sign of “Old Fart” status.

This reality was crystallized for me when I went to the Google search page on my phone, which features an ever-changing roster of clickbait pieces, and the lead item just below the Google search bar was “Tom Brady Opens Up About Parenting: NFL World Reacts.” This article captured two of the leading clickbait concepts that I’ve identified: it involved a leading sports figure, and the notion of “reaction” to some statement that presumably must have been controversial or otherwise worthy of note. In fact, the only clickbait concepts it was lacking was (1) some celebrity who is unknown to me wearing a bikini or body paint, (2) a strange crime or odd random incident, (3) a “weird trick” to address some health issue, and (4) how the story of a celebrity who has dropped out of public view “keeps getting sadder.”

But, really, who would care about Tom Brady’s views on parenting? The guy is a leading contender for Greatest Quarterback of All Time, of course, but is there something about his family life that makes it particularly compelling stuff? And why would we care about how other people associated with the NFL are “reacting” to whatever Tom Brady had to say? For that matter, why does anyone, other than politicians who are up for election, care about how people are “reacting” to anything? The “reactions” typically just consist of tweets, which always seem to strive to be sarcastic and don’t have much to do with real life.

It would be interesting to know whether the piece about Tom Brady’s parenting thoughts (which I didn’t read, of course) has been a successful clickbait effort, or a failure. If it has garnered a sufficient number of clicks, be prepared for a piece about how Tom Brady has bared his soul about being a dutiful son, or the sports world’s reaction to Lebron James’ thoughts about the importance of eating a good breakfast.

“No Politics” Facebook Groups

If, like me, you are a fan of Dilbert and The Far Side comic strips, you can join a Facebook group in which fellow fans share vintage strips so you can get your daily laugh at the antics of the pointy-haired boss, Wally, Catbert, mad scientists, women in beehive hairdos, and cows. It’s great–until you notice that what is supposed to be a feed of enjoyable comic strips has also become a free forum for people to vent their political spleens, and those notices of new group postings that you are getting are taking you to purely political rants.

That’s what happened to the Dilbert Facebook group that I originally joined. Very quickly, the political postings overwhelmed the posts that actually had something to do with Dilbert. So I quit the group, reasoning that I get a sufficient diet of different political memes and viewpoints from the group of Facebook friends on my news feed, without needing to add whatever screeds might be posted by strangers who have joined what is supposed to be an innocent cartoon enjoyment forum. Fortunately, I was able to find a group formally titled “Dilbert (no politics)” to give me my Dilbert fix without the political overtones.

I get that, for many people, politics is all-consuming, at whatever point on the political spectrum they are on. Still, it seems weird to me that we need to form specific “no politics” Facebook groups to prevent intrusions into groups dedicated to comic strips, or sports, or cast-iron cooking, or needlepoint. You would think that people would realize that the groups aren’t formed for that purpose, and the audience isn’t really keen to have strident politics injected into their fun. Does anyone really think people might change their political views due to a diatribe posted in a Facebook group focused on some non-political topic? I’m guessing that most people react as I do and just leave the group, shaking their head at the notion that Facebook groups can become political battlegrounds and wondering at the fact that, these days, it seems harder and harder to get away from politics.

Putting Pressure On Pickleball

Pickleball is the increasingly popular new sport that is apparently easy to learn and fun to play for people of all ages. (I say “apparently” because I haven’t played it yet.) Now, however, some people are wondering if pickleball can somehow save American society. The New Yorker, for example, has published a piece entitled “Can Pickleball Save America?”

Yikes! That’s a lot of pressure to put on what is supposed to be a simple recreational sport!

Why are some people focusing on a sport that you play on a small court with paddles and a kind of wiffle ball? The underlying premise is that American used to be a much more social place. Americans routinely were involved in multiple social activities–like bowling leagues, civic associations, charities, fraternal societies, sewing circles, book clubs, and church groups, among others. This was true for generations; in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic book Democracy in America, observed that America was a nation of joiners. But recently, that joining activity, and the social engagement it fostered, has withered away to the point that a book was written about the sad phenomenon of Americans “bowling alone.”

And that’s where pickleball comes in. The sport’s broad accessibility, the zeal with which pickleball fans have recruited new participants, and the intrinsically social nature of the game, with players facing each other only a few feet away, raised hopes that pickleball could rekindle the joining spirit that de Tocqueville found and convert a nation of lone bowlers into a more community-minded society. And underlying that notion, I think, is a hope that if more Americans got out and interacted with each other, in settings that don’t involve politics or tweeting, perhaps our politics could become a bit less divisive and a bit more community-oriented, too.

So, can pickleball get us back to the America of yore, or will other, familiar forces like money, professionalism, and branding splinter the pickleball community, and thwart any hopes of the sport saving the country? The New Yorker article suggests that the jury is still out, while the pressure is on. It’s an interesting read. Pickleball has a lot going for it, but the forces at play are powerful ones. Those of us of a certain age remember when people thought the internet would be a tool that would allow for enhanced participation in society through a friendly exchange of ideas. How did that turn out?

Share And Share Alike

Are there limits to the “sharing economy”?

This week the Washington Post ran an article on people renting out their backyard swimming pools by listing them on Swimply, which the article described as the “Airbnb of aquatic recreation.” The article talked about how much families enjoyed frolicking for a few hours in a nearby, rented pool on a hot day, without having to worry about the cost and upkeep and maintenance and hassle of owning their own pool. And, of course, pool owners can make a nice amount of money on the side by renting out their backyard oases.

With swimming pool rentals, we seem to be exploring new frontiers in the “sharing economy.” There have always been rentals of vacation houses; apps like Airbnb just moved the process on-line and made finding and booking the rentals a lot easier. Similarly, Uber and other ride-sharing apps built on the existing taxicab concept. But renting out your backyard swimming pool while you are there seems like a distinctly novel step. Some might say it seems to cross a clear personal privacy line; others presumably just accept it as the logical next step in our increasingly gigged-up economy.

People can do what they will with their houses–within the framework set by zoning codes, homeowners association rules, and the need to keep neighbors from getting out the torches and pitchforks, of course–and if they want to rent out their pool, why should we care? Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t want to rent out my pool for a few hours; I wouldn’t feel comfortable with it, and wouldn’t want to bear the liability risks or the clean-up duties. Nor would I want to rent some stranger’s pool on a hot summer’s day. It seems different from swimming in a hotel or country club pool; those pools are designed to accommodate visitors and are professionally maintained for that purpose, whereas renting somebody’s personal pool means you are going to a residential neighborhood, crossing a stranger’s lawn, and invading their space. The fact that you are doing so with their permission for a fee makes it legal, but it doesn’t make the concept any less weird in my view.

I wonder if there are any limits to the sharing economy. Do people whose homes have high-end kitchens stocked with the best appliances and cookware rent them out to aspiring chefs? Do people with fancy gardens offer their fragrant and flowery comforts for a fee to people looking for a new place to hold a bridal shower or a genteel tea party? Are yard tools, bicycles, lawn tractors, and family pets available for a fee?

Homes used to be viewed as the inviolable sanctum sanctorum. Now they increasingly are seen as a revenue-generating device.

Routinizing Spaceflight, And The Cislunar Void

In case you’ve missed it, there’s been some interesting recent news on the space front, in several different areas. It indicates that real progress has been made in “routinizing” spaceflight–that is, getting to the point where spaceflights have become a normal, expected occurrence, rather than a once-ever-six-months national TV phenomenon–as we get ready to tackle the next step in the development of our extraterrestrial neighborhood.

For now, the routinizing news is all about SpaceX. Today, that company is set to complete its 32nd launch of 2022, which will break the record the company set in 2021, even though the year is barely more than half over. With its fleet of reusable and reliable Falcon 9 rockets and tested launch systems, SpaceX has carried crew members and cargo to the international space station, seeded a bunch of Starlink satellites into Earth orbit, performed missions for the Department of Defense, and made forays into space so commonplace that they don’t get much attention, except from the space nerds (like me) among us.

Here are some interesting statistics: in 2022, SpaceX has launched a vehicle, on average, every 6.4 days and has taken 300,000 kg of material and people into low Earth orbit, which means that SpaceX has done more than all other countries and companies in the world, combined. SpaceX plans to make about 50 launches this year and is basically leading the way to routinized spaceflight, all by itself. That means spaceflight will become even more routine–and, by definition, cheaper–as SpaceX’s competitors ramp up their launches and activities in the coming months, as they plan to do.

This is good news, and an important platform on which to build as space development moves to the logical next step, when we venture beyond low-Earth orbit into cislunar space, which is the area beyond geosynchronous orbit out to the surface of the Moon. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently issued a request for information about developing U.S. strategy for development of cislunar space, and some responses have urged that commercial entities should lead the way. That is, the governmental role shouldn’t be to do everything, as it did in the ’60s space program, but instead should be to clear the way for commercial companies like SpaceX to apply their creativity, engineering prowess, technological savvy, and venture capital to lead the development effort. With many companies focusing on cislunar space, and the government helping to coordinate their efforts, development and further routinizing of spaceflight is much more likely to happen quickly. That will set the stage for an early return to the lunar surface and the Moon bases that were forecast in 2001.

Those of us who are creatures of habit know the value of the routine. That is true for spaceflight as well, and will continue to be true when cislunar space is the focus. What SpaceX has done is impressive, but it also allows us to glimpse the possibilities.

A Death-Defying Childhood

I’ve read articles about the extreme heat they’ve been experiencing in Great Britain, Europe, and parts of the U.S. and was thinking about a time-honored way to beat the heat from my childhood: taking hearty drinks of water from a garden hose (and, most likely, putting my thumb over the water flow and spraying my brother and sisters and some of the other kids lined up for refreshment). For some reason, garden hose water always seemed to be cooler than water from the faucet, and of course it was messier, which was part of the fun.

But then I learned that drinking from the garden hose is no longer seen as a viable way to cool off. Indeed, to read some evaluations of the practice, you would conclude that a simple gulp or two from the hose is courting certain disaster. For example, one website article emphasizes “Do not drink water from the hose” and states that garden hose water contains bacteria and mold and also “typically contains” toxic chemicals like lead, antimony, bromine, organotin, phthalates, and bisphenol A, some of which come from the material used to manufacture the hose. These substances, the article explains, can disrupt the endocrine system and are linked to liver, kidney and organ damage.

Perhaps most significantly, the article notes that the substances can “lower intelligence” and “cause behavioral changes.” That explains a lot, doesn’t it?

It’s hard to imagine that those of us who routinely guzzled water from garden hoses on hot summer days in the ’60s and ’70s survived such risky behavior–but then, it was part of a pattern. Kids in our neighborhood back then did things during the process of what the adults called “playing outside” that would probably be viewed as death-defying now, like climbing trees, playing “demolition derby” on our bikes, damming up dirty creeks and looking for snakes, salamanders, and tadpoles, using hammers and rusty nails to create poorly constructed clubhouses, hurling water balloons at each other’s heads, jumping off rocks, and riding bikes down steep hills at top speeds without a helmet, to name just a few. And yet, somehow we survived them all, and drinking from the garden hose, besides.

It’s sad to think that some kids these days don’t get to experience the simple pleasure of drinking cool water from a garden hose, and the frivolity that inevitably accompanied it.