TIME Design

WATCH: The Science Behind the World’s Biggest Wooden Roller Coaster

Whether you can't get enough of them or can't go near them, roller coasters rely on some pretty nifty tricks of physics and design.

Your brain wants nothing to do with roller coasters—and for a wonderfully simple reason: your brain would very much like you to stay alive. So anything that’s designed to haul you up to the top of a very steep incline, drop you straight down, very fast, and repeat that process over and over again for a minute or two is something that elicits a simple, highly adaptive response in you—which pretty much involves running away.

That, at least, is how it’s supposed to work, but your entire brain isn’t in on the game. There are also thrill-seeking parts, adventurous parts, parts that like the adrenaline and serotonin and endorphin kicks that come from roller coasters. So while millions of people avoid the things, at least as many millions swarm to them, looking for ever bigger, scarier rides and ever bigger, better thrills. This summer they’ll get their wish, thanks to the opening of the appropriately named Goliath roller coaster, the biggest and fastest wooden coaster ever built, which just took its inaugural runs at the Six Flags Great America amusement park in Gurnee, Ill., about 50 miles north of Chicago.

Goliath is destined to be a tourist magnet, a cultural icon—at least until another, even bigger one comes along—and a lot of fun for a lot of people. But it’s also a feat of engineering and basic physics. And if you’re the kind of person who enjoys that sort of thing while hating the idea of actually ever riding on roller coasters—the kind of person I’ll describe as “me,” for example—there’s a lot to like about Goliath.

Modern roller coasters typically come in two varieties, wooden ones and steel ones—known unimaginatively if unavoidably as “woodies” and “steelies”—and coaster lovers debate their merits the way fans of the National and American Leagues debate the designated hitter rule.

Steelie partisans like the corkscrews and loop-the-loops made possible by the coasters’ bent-pipe architecture. Woodie fans prefer the old school clack-clack and the aesthetics of the entire structure. What’s more, plunging into and soaring through all the wooden bracing and strutwork necessary to keep the thing standing increases the sensation of speed because stationary objects that are close to you when you’re moving at high speed seem to whiz past so fast they blur. Steelies leave you more or less moving through open space, and that eliminates the illusion.

Goliath moves at a top speed of 72 mph, achieving that prodigious feat with the aid of a very simple fuel: gravity. As in all roller coasters, its biggest, steepest drop is the first one, because that’s the only way to generate enough energy to propel you through the rest of the ride—which is made up of steadily shallower hills. In the case of Goliath, that first hill is 180′ tall (55m), or about the equivalent of an 18-story building. The drop is an almost-vertical 85 degrees.

As test pilots and astronauts could tell you, such rising, falling, corkscrewing movement creates all manner of g-force effects. Most of the time we live in a familiar one-g environment. Climb to 2 g’s in a moving vehicle of some kind and you feel a force equivalent to twice your body weight. The maximum g’s Goliath achieves is 3.5. Get on the ride weighing 150 lbs., and for at least a few seconds, you’ll experience what it’s like to weigh 525 lbs.

But g forces can go in the other direction, too. With many roller coasters, the forces bottom out at about 0.2 g’s during downward plunges, meaning your 150 lb. one-g weight plummets to 30 lbs. That can give you a feeling of near-weightlessness. It’s also possible to achieve 0 g in a dive, which is how NASA’s famed “vomit comet” aircraft allow astronauts to practice weightlessness. On the Goliath, things go even further, with riders experiencing a force of minus 1 g.

“That means you’d be coming out of your seat,” says Jake Kilcup, a roller coaster designer and the chief operating officer of Rocky Mountain Construction, which designed and built Goliath. To ensure that that doesn’t happen, the Goliath cars are equipped with both lap bars and seat belts.

Though Goliath is made of wood, it does feature two so-called inversions—or half loops that take you to the top of a climb, then deliberately stall and plunge back down the same way. One includes a “raven turn,” or a twist in the track that turns the cars briefly upside down.

Even this much wouldn’t be possible on a wooden coaster if not for what Rocky Mountain calls its “Topper” track technology—a sort of hybrid of wood and metal. Most of the beams in the Goliath superstructure are made of nine laminated layers of southern yellow pine, steam-bent in stretches that call for curves and then kiln-dried. But the track itself also includes hollow metal rails running the entire 3,100 feet (or nearly a full kilometer) of the ride. The cars all have main wheels that sit on the rails as well smaller upstop and guide wheels that lock the cars to the tracks and keep them going where they’re supposed to.

“The Topper track gives a smoother ride than you get on an all-metal track,” says Kilcip, “and makes the overall roller coaster stronger than an all-wooden one.”

All that technology provides a relatively brief ride—just 87 seconds long, which is not atypical for roller coasters. For plenty of people, that’s way too short—which is what Six Flags is banking on to keep the turnstiles spinning. For plenty of other people, it’s precisely 87 seconds too long. And you know what? I’m not—um, I mean, those people aren’t—the slightest bit ashamed to admit that.

TIME Opinion

Jenny McCarthy Doubles Down on Deadly

McCarthy's ad may have been pulled but the images have gone viral
McCarthy's ad may have been pulled but the images have gone viral

The legendary anti-vaxxer becomes an e-cig peddler, once more endangering children

Jenny McCarthy is apparently determined to be present at the birth of every possible bad idea. Let’s pretend–pretend—for a moment that there was anything at all to the dangerous junk McCarthy has been peddling in falsely linking vaccines to autism and a host of other ills. Presumably her goal would be to protect children, to keep them safe and well.

And so what does McCarthy now propose to do with that generation of kids whose welfare she’s ensured? Why, hand them over to the tobacco companies, of course.

In a jaw-dropping bit of make-a-bad-thing-worse reputation management, McCarthy appeared in a cringe-inducing commercial for blu eCigs—which has since been pulled from the company’s website—peddling the increasingly popular product. Shot in what is meant to be a club, McCarthy appears in a skimpy dress with a silent piece of beef-cake by her side, going on about the virtues of e-cigs, including the fact that “I can whip out my blu without scaring that special someone away—know what I’m sayin’?”

But here’s the thing McCarthy isn’t sayin': e-cigs are way, way too young a product for anyone to be able to say with certainty how safe or how dangerous they are. They may well be a gateway out of smoking for some people, a healthier alternative to traditional cigarettes. But they may certainly be a gateway in too—particularly for kids.

A study of electronic cigarette advertising from June through November of 2013 by the American Legacy Foundation found that Lorillard Tobacco Company’s blu brand spent more on marketing than “all other brands combined,” and that blu’s advertising was the most commonly viewed by teenagers, “with 73% of 12- to 17-year-olds exposed to blu’s print and TV ads.”

Worse, as my colleague Eliza Gray reported, advertising for e-cigs jumped 256% from 2011 to 2013, and more than 1.78 million middle school kids have tried them. No surprise since “last year 14 million kids saw ads for electronic cigarettes on TV [and] 9.5 million saw them in print.” And with e-cig brands sold in sweet tooth flavors like cherry and vanilla, it’s hard to pretend they’re not being marketed directly to consumers with immature palates—otherwise known as, you know, children.

At this week’s hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, e-cig makers got blowtorched by lawmakers who had already been through the lies and obfuscations from tobacco executives denying their deadly products were addictive, and are now hearing the same dissembling from the new generation of nicotine peddlers. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) was the most blistering, saying, “I’m ashamed of you. I don’t know how you go to sleep at night.”

It’s impossible to say how they do, but Jenny McCarthy, if her own words are an indicator, sleeps like a baby. “Now that I’ve switched to blu I feel better about myself,” she said. As the legendary U.S. Army counsel Joseph Welch might have put it, at long last, Jenny, have you left no sense of decency?

TIME Parenting

Breaking News: Having a Father Is a Good Thing

Hey dads, they like you, they really like you!
Hey dads, they like you, they really like you! Jekaterina Nikitina; Getty Images

A new book 'discovers' the obvious—and the headlines follow. Enough already with the wonder of the dad

Science has a deliciously entertaining habit of stating the obvious. For every ingenious, truly groundbreaking insight that has a researcher sitting bolt upright at 3:00 a.m. entertaining dizzy visions of an inevitable Nobel, there other insights—researched, peer reviewed and published—that you don’t exactly need a double Ph.D to figure out. And so you get studies showing that “Moderate Doses of Alcohol Increase Social Bonding in Groups” or “Dogs Learn to Associate Words With Objects Differently Than Humans Do” or the breaking story that opened with the tantalizing headline, “Causes of Death in Very Old People.” Um, old age?

But the thing about these studies is this: somebody had to do them. Science is nothing if not persnickety about proof, and if you don’t have the data, you can’t officially establish the case. So the work gets done and the box gets checked and progress marches on. It was with that in mind that I tried to read with equanimity a Father’s Day gift from The Washington Post, which led its review of Paul Raeburn’s book Do Fathers Matter? with the headline, “Yes Dads, You Do Matter.”

And so, too, I tried to embrace the idea that Raeburn’s book needs to exist at all.

It’s not that the book isn’t a good, solid piece of science journalism. It is. And it’s not that Raeburn isn’t a good, solid science reporter. He’s been in the game a long time and is the media critic for MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

The deeper question is: are we not yet past this? It’s a question Raeburn himself raises but seems to answer with an emphatic no simply by having written his book. There seems to be no killing the idea of dad the extraneous; dad the superfluous; dad, who’s nice to have around the house but only in the way that air conditioning is nice to have in the car — it makes things more comfortable, but you’ll still get where you’re going without it.

It’s as if the steady shrinking of the Y chromosome over the ages is somehow being mirrored by the dwindling relevance of the parent who carries this dying scrap of DNA. That vanishing Y, as recent studies have established, has been both arrested and overstated, but not before giving rise to headlines like “As Y Chromosome Shrinks, End of Men Pondered.” And that bit of silliness came from NPR, not, say, TMZ.

The idea of the father’s expendability has been exacerbated by the persistence of the doofus dad stereotype, something else Raeburn addresses: the well-intentioned bumbler who is still a staple of kid-targeted TV (thank you, Disney Channel). He’s the guy who can’t quite boil an egg and can’t be trusted to go shopping, but is eventually bailed out by mom or one of the kids, who set things right. Eyes roll, dad looks abashed and hilarity ensues. Except it’s not really funny—though not because it’s profoundly offensive or causes deep wounds to the sensitivities of a newly defined oppressed group. There’s enough elective umbrage at large already without adding one more voice of grievance to one more cable news show.

It’s just … off, somehow—like Jay Leno’s cringe-worthy performance at the 2010 White House Correspondent’s dinner, during which he made jokes about President Obama’s courage because (wait for it!) he invited his mother-in-law to live in the White House. There was a time, maybe, when the mother-in-law as harridan image was an apt—or at least fresh—source of humor, but that time is long past. Ditto dad as dunce.

Raeburn’s book is guilty of none of this. It’s stuffed with studies showing the vital role fathers play in their children’s lives from the moment of conception, through the mother’s pregnancy and onward. But there’s still a sense of wonder that comes with it. “The discovery of the father is one of the most important developments in the study of children and families,” is a nice line. But is it true? Is this really something that needs “discovering?” And do fathers really need a new book and a major newspaper reminding them that “You Do Matter?” Not on Father’s Day at least. And certainly not on one in the 21st century.

TIME Children

Why Polio is Doomed and Gun Violence Isn’t

It's hard to spot the heroism—but it's there
It's hard to spot the heroism—but it's there Randy Plett; Getty Images

It shouldn't take too much courage to stop a scourge that is killing children. Washington's gun cowards could take a lesson from the heroes battling polio

A century ago, the quickest way to diagnose polio was with the belly button test. A doctor would ask a suddenly feverish, bedridden child to lift her head from her pillow and look at her belly button. If she couldn’t do it—if the muscles in her neck and stomach and pretty much anywhere else could no longer contract and lift the way they should—the odds were that the news was bad. Within the day, the child would be paralyzed.

There has always been a particular ugliness to polio—a virus that robs a child of the simple ability to move at what should be the most restless, kinetic, exploratory stage of life. Mercifully, in most of the world that ugliness is gone—though not everywhere.

Meantime, in the U.S., a new kind of horror has taken polio’s place: the school shooting. This one also strikes at children and defies what should be one of childhood’s givens: that school is a place for learning, a place for play, a place that counts as a so-called safe space, even before we became a nation that required such formally designated asylum zones.

Both polio and school shootings are acts of violence—one viral, one human. But only one, polio, is doomed to lose, as I realized yesterday when I attended a briefing by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative at U.N. Foundation headquarters in New York, just a day after the latest school school shooting, this one at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Ore.

The big players at the polio conference were familiar names: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the international consulting group Global Health Strategies. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the progress that is being made to eradicate the last case of polio anywhere on the planet—making the disease only the second one, after smallpox, to have been vaccinated into well-deserved extinction.

The polio hunters are tantalizingly close to their goal: In 1988, polio was endemic to 120 countries and claimed 350,000 people—overwhelmingly children—each year. In 2013, there were only 416 cases worldwide and the disease was endemic to just three countries: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But the year-to-date-numbers are higher in 2014 than they were last year, thanks mostly to attacks on polio workers by extremists in Pakistan and unrest in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere, which is allowing the virus to slip across borders.

That’s part of the reason the group assembled yesterday—to review their plan to push back against the resurgence, a plan that is breathtaking in its scope: there are the 105 million doses of oral polio vaccine that have been administered in and around Syria; the 3,176 hard-to-reach communities in Nigeria that are now being reached by health care workers bringing oral vaccine; the 2,000 health camps that have been held to educate and vaccinate in the ground zero state of Kano in northern Nigeria and the 10,000 more that are planned; the millions upon millions of children in 126 countries who will be receiving at least one dose of the injectable form of polio vaccine, which uses a killed virus and thus eliminates even the small risk of the weakened virus used in the oral version escaping into the wild.

And then, of course, there is the sheer, literally death-defying brass of the vaccine workers who regularly trudge into the Pakistani tribal areas, knowing that some of the workers who have come before them have been gunned down in drive-by shootings, and that every day they go out with their vials of drops there is a risk they won’t come home. But they go all the same.

Eradicating a viral disease is nothing less than an act of hunting molecules—protein particles so simple they don’t even qualify as technically alive—and destroying them anywhere they are hiding in the world. That’s an almost surreally difficult thing to accomplish, yet that’s what the Gateses and Rotary and WHO and others have decided must be done. And so they’re doing it.

And then, on the other side of the decency and courage arc, are the gun cowards. They are the American legislators who dare not cast a vote that will anger the National Rifle Association; the governors who walk away from the problem even as the children in their states—whose welfare they have sworn to ensure—are being murdered; the political parties that, if they acknowledge the problem at all, consider it too radioactive to take up this year, this session, this electoral cycle.

“‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says the Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens,” wrote The Onion, in a brilliant riff on the what-can-we-do faux-helplessness of the political class. But in case they’re really wondering, here’s what they can do: they can think less about locking down their base, expanding their majority, dodging the 30-second attack ad and more about the simple safety of children. Because here is a hard fact: there are babies and young people alive today who will be dead soon because of the choices now being made. If that isn’t enough to turn an election night victory into ash, America’s politicians are beyond help.

TIME human behavior

Rick Perry Is Not a Neanderthal, Says Rick Perry

Pointing the way to crazytown
Pointing the way to crazytown Pool: Getty Images

The Governor of Texas and possible presidential aspirant compares homosexuality to alcoholism—and that was just the beginning of his scientific know-nothingism

Scoring a zero on any test is harder than it seems. Unless you leave the answers entirely blank, mere guesswork and randomness suggest you’re going to get enough things right to put a few points on the board. So kudos to Governor Rick Perry for managing an impressively perfect goose egg on a recent lightning round of science topics.

Perry’s latest amble through know-nothingism came at a Q&A in San Francisco on Wednesday, and the biggest headline from that fumble-fest was his comparison of homosexuality to alcoholism. Now, a prudent man might stop to reflect on whether, if you’re going to say something so colossally, head-spinningly wrong, San Francisco is really the venue you want to choose. But never mind. The moderator asked the governor whether he believed homosexuality is a disorder, and the governor swung at the pitch.

“Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not,” said the thrice-elected leader of a state of 26 million people, “you have the ability to decide not to do that. I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way.”

So where to begin? With the comparison of sexual orientation to what is often a fatal disease? With the airy reference to “genetic coding,” which whatever the governor thinks the term means, reveals almost no familiarity with the deep and smart research that’s been done in recent years on the biological roots of any one person’s sexual orientation? Or with the belief that it’s healthy or even possible for a gay man or woman simply to “desire not to do that.” You’re a heterosexual, governor. How would a lifetime of “not doing that” work for you?

Perry doubled down on dumb when it came to the topic of “reparative therapy,” the all-but-universally condemned practice of trying to convert people from homosexuality to heterosexuality. The draft platform of the Texas Republican party endorses the dangerous faux-treatment for “patients [sic] who are seeking to escape from the homosexual lifestyle.” When Perry was asked if the therapy works, he demurred, saying he doesn’t know. Fine, but you know who does know? The American Psychiatric Association. And you know what they have to say about it? This:

“The American Psychiatric Association opposes any psychiatric treatment, such as ‘reparative’ or ‘conversion’ therapy, which is based upon the assumption that homosexuality per se is a mental disorder, or based upon a prior assumption that the patient should change his/her homosexual orientation.”

For the record, blood-letting, rattle-shaking and leeching won’t work either, so the Texas GOP probably wants to keep them out of the platform too.

Perry next pivoted—inevitably—to global warming. He began by stating his opposition to carbon caps or taxes, which he insists would “strangle” the economy — a powerful argument, if economists agreed with him (they don’t), and if cap and trade hadn’t worked extraordinarily well to control the sulfur dioxide that led to acid rain, which it did, during the boom times of the 1990s.

The larger problem, Perry suggested, might be the climate scientists themselves, who take the position that, “You either believe this all the way, or you’re a Neanderthal.” But here’s the thing—for the billionth time—the scientists never, ever speak in absolutes like that. There is no “all the way” when it comes to prescriptions for solving the climate crisis, no universality even about exactly how the problem will unfold over the next years and decades and centuries.

What is scientifically proven is that greenhouse gases lead to global warming and human beings are significant drivers of that problem. The “debate,” like it or not, is over on that score. But the rest? Scientists are the first to say there is lots of wiggle room in their models and their predictions—a lot more than the ideologues on the right who call the whole thing a hoax and stop talking there.

Perry’s time as governor is limited—he leaves office after this year—though his presidential aspirations are currently unknown. The damage he and others like him do, however, endures. There is only so long America can go on embracing scientific rubbish and the politicians who traffic in it—at least if we expect to continue be a leading nation in an increasingly sophisticated world. Perry, for his part, just flunked his leadership test.

TIME space

No, NASA Is Not Launching a Flying Saucer

Flying saucer? Nope—but cool all the same
Flying saucer? Nope—but cool all the same NASA/JPL-Caltech

Simplified science is not always good science, and NASA's planned test flight of an updated system for landing on Mars doesn't have to be sold as something it's not

Never mind what you’ve been hearing, NASA is not launching a flying saucer in Hawaii soon. You could be forgiven for thinking that, because NASA has been busy telling anyone who will listen that yes, it is launching a flying saucer in Hawaii soon. That’s a shame, because what’s really going on is deeply cool without the oversimplifying hype.

The mission, which was set for Wednesday but was scrubbed due to weather, will take off from the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai and is all about figuring out new ways to land on Mars—which is not easy. If you’re trying to land on an alien planet, you want either a big fat quilt of atmosphere—think Earth or Venus or the Saturnian moon Titan—which means you can just dive-bomb on in, throw out a parachute and down you come. The best alternative is to have no atmosphere at all—think the moon—which means you don’t have to deal with problems of atmospheric friction and aerodynamics and can simply use rocket power all the way down. Mars is—literally—the worst of both worlds. Its atmosphere is only about 1% as dense as Earth’s, which is more than enough to cause all sorts of drag and heating problems but not nearly dense enough to support a full parachute landing.

That’s part of the reason the Mars landings that have taken place so far have been such an improbable mix of hard science and whimsy: Remember the airbags that swaddled the first three rovers as they bounced down—rather than touched down—in the Martian soil? Remember the Curiosity rover being lowered to the surface on cables from a hovering “sky crane,” a sort of cosmic marionette that seemed like madness until it turned out to be genius?

Nice stuff, but it would be nicer still of we could do things a little more easily. And so engineers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have developed what they’ve dubbed the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD).

The LDSD, in fairness, does look flying saucer-ish. It’s a 20 ft. (6 m) diameter dish that is part hard shell and part inflatable bladder. A massive balloon (“big enough to fill the Rose Bowl,” says project manager Mark Adler) will lift the vehicle to an altitude of almost 23 miles (37 km). At that point the balloon will be jettisoned and a rocket motor will kick in, carrying the LDSD to a peak altitude of 34 miles up (54 km), or about the upper limit of the stratosphere.

“The thickness of the air up there simulates the atmosphere of Mars,” says Adler. And that’s the whole point.

Once the rocket burns out, the vehicle will arc over and begin plunging toward the ground. At that point it will be moving at Mach 4, or about 3,000 mph. As it enters thicker air, its speed will slow slightly. Until that point, the inflatable bladder will have been empty, but at Mach 3.8 it will fill with gas, creating a sort of doughnut surrounding the hard shell which will increase its overall diameter from about 13 ft. (4 m) to its full 20 ft. That drag will cut the descent speed nearly in half, slow enough for a massive parachute—110 ft (33.5 m) across—to open safely. About 45 minutes later, the vehicle will splash down in the Pacific—an elegant dress rehearsal for a real Mars landing except, of course, for the landing in water part.

JPL scientists have been keen to get the LDSD flying for a long time, especially since NASA’s long-term Mars plans include a robot sample return mission and, further down the line, crewed missions. All of that requires much bigger spacecraft and much more robust landing systems. “We’ve been using the same parachute design for 40 years,” says Adler. “The last time we did a test like this was 1972.” There is already a larger, 26 ft. (8 m) version of the LDSD that will push the limits even further.

All of this is what makes NASA’s insistence on using the flying saucer rubric (even if they hedge and put the term in quotes) and the media’s happy parroting of it, here, here, here and elsewhere so unnecessary. Yes, it’s hard to sell science to a taxpaying public, especially when it’s expensive science. But simplifying it, candifying it—turning it into a little sweetie that goes down easy—does nobody any long term good. What NASA is actually doing in Hawaii is test-flying a very early version of a Mars vehicle that will climb dozens of miles in the sky, auger in at 3,000 mph and safely parachute into the ocean—using a balloon the size of a stadium to get the job done.

The facts, in this case as in so many other cases, seem nifty enough. So let’s stick to them.

TIME Artificial Intelligence

Why I’m Not Impressed By the ‘Thinking’ Computer

Sorry brainiac, you're not fooling anyone
Sorry brainiac, you're not fooling anyone Laguna Design; Getty Images

A machine finally passes the legendary Turing test and convinces users they're communicating with a real person—but the achievement is less than it seems

Huge news for people raising 13-year-olds who can’t get enough of that particular hell. Now there’s a computer program that can simulate the experience too!

That’s the headline that has set the computer world buzzing, as word comes out of the Royal Society in London that for the first time, a computer has passed the legendary Turing test, which had stood unmet since 1950. Named for computer pioneer Alan Turing—who famously declared that if a computer were ever developed whose behavior was indistinguishable from a human’s, the machine must then be said to be capable of thought—the test required at least 33% of human subjects to be fooled into thinking they were conversing with a human during a keyboard exchange with a computer that lasted five minutes.

So one computer finally achieved that, posing as a 13-year-old boy named Eugene Goostman who, like most kids, likes candy and hamburgers, and, like fewer kids, is the son of a gynecologist. That means he might have picked up a disproportionate amount of information about medical arcana or have other bits of knowledge more or less unique to him, but would otherwise be unremarkable. And that, in turn, pretty much describes the clumpy, uneven knowledge base of most kids—which was the whole idea. As Vladimir Veselov, “Eugene’s” developer explained, this allowed the program to “claim that he knows anything, but his age also makes it perfectly reasonable that he doesn’t know everything.”

But here’s the thing: the point of the Turing test is not so much to give the computer a pop quiz on medicine or current events, it’s to create a program that can follow the thread of a conversation in a believable way. And if you’ve chosen a 13-year-old as your model for that, you’ve set your bar pretty low. I’m raising a 13-year-old even as we speak, and I can tell you there is no age group on the planet as adept at the art of the unresponsive non-sequitur as hers. If I ask her if she’s done her home work, the answer could just as easily be “yes,” “no” or “tapioca.” If I ask what she wants for dinner she will hear that question—I’m sure she hears it—and then respond by complaining that her sister is annoying her. These are, you will note, technically answers. The fact that they are answers that have nothing to do with the question I asked seems not to be relevant to her.

Not that a computer modeled on my 11-year-old would be any more responsive—unless it was a computer built with eyes that could roll on cue whenever I say something the program considers embarrassing, which would be more or less all the time. And certainly, a 14-, 15- or 16-year-old computer program would be little better, since it wouldn’t be required to do much more than send out remote commands to slam doors and then sit in utter, world-weary silence no matter what you said to it.

So nice try, Turing guys. But if you really want a meaningful win, you’re going to have to aim a little further up the age spectrum. If you don’t believe me, ask my daughter. I predict her answer will be “purple.”

TIME Opinion

Here’s What’s Behind Washington’s Strange Mars Report

The Red Planet: Don't pack yet
The Red Planet: Don't pack yet NASA& Getty Images

Washington breaks the headline-making news that the U.S. is not ready for a crewed Mars mission. Why this is all about one Senator's career

Correction appended June 5, 2014

Here’s something that will surely come as a surprise: America is not yet able to go to Mars. I know, I know, I’m disappointed too. I was sure we had the rocket on the pad, the crew selected and the quonset huts waiting on the Martian surface, ready to welcome the new American settlers.

What’s that? You didn’t think we had all that nailed down? You may then wonder why the National Research Council (NRC) just released a 286 page report making that point. The headline-making thrust of the study is this:

Pronouncements by multiple presidents of bold new ventures by Americans to the Moon, to Mars, and to an asteroid in its native orbit, have not been matched by the same commitment that accompanied President Kennedy’s now fabled 1961 speech—namely, the substantial increase in NASA funding needed to make it happen.

Stipulated. Space travel ain’t about coach seats. It costs lots of money—but that’s something most people knew without being reminded. Still, you can read the rest of the blue-ribbon NRC report here—or at least a PDF of it. A bound, paper copy, which wouldn’t keep you shackled to your computer for 286 pages, will cost you $47. This might also leave you wondering why U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) raced to issue a triumphal statement the moment the report was released, announcing in its opening line that the study was the handiwork of, well “U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.” Perhaps U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson would like to front you the 47 bucks then.

Here’s what’s behind this particular bit of space kabuki. The NRC study was mandated by a piece of 2010 pro-NASA legislation that Nelson co-sponsored with former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson. Why the common cause between the Democrat and Republican in the first years of the hyper-partisan Obama era? Geography. He’s from Florida, she’s from Texas, the twin lode stones of the American space community. The 2010 bill provided multi-year funding for NASA at a level sufficient to keep at least a slow-walked manned program going. Under the plan, NASA would aim for deep space destinations, while private industry handled the low-Earth orbit work. The report that was just released appears to have been tucked into the act as a sort of time-released capsule that would open in a few years and remind people that if we really want to achieve all of this cool stuff the funding spigot would have to remain open. And which two states would get a lot of that money again?

In fairness, the report’s conclusion is well-taken. As recently as yesterday, I spoke to Greg Williams, a policy chief in NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations division, and asked him why it’s taken so many years for NASA’s new heavy-lift manned booster to be built and why it will take so many more before it actually carries people. The Saturn V moon rocket, by contrast, took its first, unmanned flight in November 1967, and 13 months later had the Apollo 8 astronauts orbiting the moon.

“Look at the funding curve back then,” Williams said. “It was always going up. We’ve been doing this work on what amounts to a flat budget.”

But lack of cash, plus lack of commitment is what’s always been the difference between the do-it-now ethos of the old Space Race and the do-it-eventually-(maybe) ethos of all the space endeavors that have come since. For Nelson, who, as a member of the House in 1986 leveraged himself a ride aboard the space shuttle Columbia—one mission before the Challenger crew died in an explosion during launch—this is little more than a big kiss for home state voters anxious to keep the space coast going.

A strong case can indeed be made for why we should go to Mars, both in terms of pure research and human inspiration—which counts for something. And a self-evident case can be made that if we want to do it within the lifetimes of any person on the planet today, we need to pay for it. Space isn’t cheap—never has been. But you don’t need a Senator tending his home fires to demand a book-length report telling you that’s so. “This affirms that the mission to Mars is a go,” Nelson said in his statement.

No, it doesn’t. But his 2018 re-election campaign may already be underway.

An earlier version of this story failed to mention that the PDF of the report is free.

TIME celebrities

Viewpoint: Why America Won’t Forgive Lance Armstrong (for Now)

2013 Harpo,Inc

Some celebrities bounce back from scandal; some never do. Armstrong looks like a longshot

There are popular celebrities, there are unpopular celebrities and then there are the walking dead. You know the walking dead when you see them: they look like Mel Gibson, still striving for drunken charm in an L.A. County mug shot, after getting picked up on a DWI charge that included anti-semitic slurs directed at the police. They look like Seinfeld’s Michael Richards, caught in a racist, career-wrecking rant during a stand-up performance in 2007. They look like John Edwards—whose name alone still makes half the country want to throw crockery while the other half just never, ever wants to have to think about him again. (I’ve written about Edwards before: ‘Why We Love to Loathe John Edwards‘)

There is no end to the number of American celebrities who have found themselves in this netherworld, brought low by crime, sex scandal, Wall Street finagling or just plain nuttiness (we’re looking at you, Charlie Sheen). Now, Lance Armstrong has landed in that same low place. The seven-time Tour de France winner—stripped of his titles for using performance-enhancing drugs and exposed as having apparently lied and intimidated others into keeping his secrets—is about to do what so many disgraced figures do, which is to seek redemption through the TV confessional. And Armstrong—who has never done anything by halves—is going straight to the high priestess: Oprah.

Armstrong’s goal, of course, is forgiveness, a public absolution that will allow him to resume his career as a competitive athlete—this time in triathlons—and regain some tarnished measure of his lost good will. Sometimes it works: Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, Michael Vick—who ran a dog-fighting ring—managed to bounce back. Eliot Spitzer got a TV gig after frolicking with prostitutes and resigning as governor of New York, and is said to be flirting with a run for public office again. Mark Sanford, who stepped down as South Carolina governor after disappearing to hike the Appalachian Trail in his Argentine mistress’s bed, just announced his candidacy to reclaim the seat he once held in Congress. Even Richards has earned a bit of sympathy and is easing back into the public eye on TV and in web videos.

(MORE: Why Lance Armstrong Couldn’t Stop Himself (And Still Can’t))

Other times the reclamation act is hopeless: Gibson is finished, especially after his vile and unhinged phone rants, caught on tape by his estranged wife. O.J. could clear rooms even before he was sentenced to 33 years in prison for a low-rent robbery in 2008; now, mercifully, he seems to be out of sight for good. And as for Edwards? Best for him to stay indoors. Armstrong’s prospects of avoiding their fate depend on a lot of things—some within his control, but some utterly outside them.

For starters, there’s the redemptive power of truth-telling—the big card Armstrong hoped to play by arranging the Oprah sessions. That strategy may turn out to be of limited value to him. Patty Briguglio, CEO of MMI Public Relations in Cary, NC, echos a couple generations of crisis management experts when she counsels, “Tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth.” Unfortunately, she says, “Armstrong didn’t do any of those things.”

That matters. Sanford and Spitzer copped to their misdeeds the second they were caught and they still have at least a pulse as a result. And before you say they had no choice in the matter since there was no denying the allegations, consider that both Edwards and the pants-less Anthony Weiner tried to fudge the truth even when it was too late—with Weiner claiming that his Twitter account had been hacked, which was why that way-too-candid picture of him was making the rounds on the web. Armstrong has reportedly told Oprah that he started doping in the mid 1990s, which means he’s been lying for close to 20 years—and excoriating anyone who dared suggest otherwise. This falls a wee bit short of Briguglio’s “tell it fast” standard.

“This is a long-term betrayal,” she says. “I don’t know if you’ve seen anyone wearing a bracelet for Livestrong [Armstrong's cancer charity] lately, but I haven’t.”

With the long-term nature of his lies, Armstrong did something else public figures should never, ever do: he made his supporters feel foolish for standing by him. Say what you will about Clinton, no one was surprised when his White House affair was revealed, and while his “I did not have sex with that woman” lie may have caused some of his fan base to peel away forever, most people just rolled their eyes and reckoned that, yes, he probably did have sex with her. When it turned out they were right, they could applaud themselves for their prescience. The same was true in a darker way of Richard Nixon, whom everyone figured would go on to commit some kind of high crime one day. Armstrong’s stubborn denials in the face of all the doping rumors persuaded a lot of his fans to put aside their misgivings and believe him. Now they find he was duping them all along—something they may never forgive.

(From the Magazine: What Makes Us Moral?)

It also doesn’t help Armstrong that the very talent that made him famous and earned him fans—his cycling—now turns out to have been at least partly artificial. Vick’s dog-fighting crimes didn’t change the fact that he was a terrific quarterback, and after he served his prison sentence he found a place on a new team. Martha Stewart may have done time for insider trading, but her recipes still work. Randy Moss, the San Francisco 49ers’ wide receiver and serial misbehaver is similarly the real deal on the field, and that helped him a lot. In a story about Moss just today, The New York Times wrote:

He squirted an official with a water bottle and mock-mooned the Green Bay crowd while celebrating a touchdown. He shouted down a team sponsor, loudly disparaged a post-practice meal in front of Minneapolis restaurant owners who catered it, and got into an altercation with a Minneapolis traffic cop. He sulked his way out of Minnesota, Oakland and Tennessee.

“I play when I want to play,” he once said, inspiring predictable condemnation from the punditocracy.

The fact that Moss has survived, the Times argued, is due in no small part “to the fact that his talent was sufficient to buy him multiple chances.” We will never know if Armstrong ever had the talent, thanks to the performance-enhancing drugs he is finally admitting to using.

(From the Magazine: Armstrong’s Ahab)

Finally, it helps to be likable. Clinton’s rascally charm allowed him to perform all manner of PR jujitsu that a lesser pol couldn’t have begun to pull off. Tiger Woods, similarly, has never been short of a sort of agreeable sweetness—and his genuine-seeming contrition after his marital scandal, not to mention his painful unease during the press conferences that followed, bought him a lot of public sympathy. Armstrong, like Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens—likely dopers all—has exhibited only defiance and disdain over the years. His Oprah mea culpas might simply not be enough after all this time.

But if there is one very powerful asset Armstrong has that the others don’t, it’s Livestrong. The charity does genuine good, and Armstrong, as a cancer survivor, has earned equally genuine admiration for his decision to devote so much of his time to helping other people battle the disease. “He needs to put every bit of energy he has into Livestrong,” says Briguglio. “That’s his legacy. That’s how he’ll be remembered.”

For a man hooked on competition and the do-what-it-takes ethos that tolerates even cheating, public do-goodism may never have the same thrill as crossing a finish line. But bicycle races and endorsement contracts don’t save lives; Livestrong can. Choose wisely, Lance. We may never love you again, but over time—perhaps a lot of time—we may yet remember how to respect you, even if it’s not for your talent on a bike.

MORE: Can it Get Any Worse For Lance Armstrong?

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