Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heav'n's all gracious King!"
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing;
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The bless├ęd angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song that they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Take heart, for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing.

For lo, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

"Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!" -- S. Claus
"God bless us, every one!" -- Tiny Tim

(Also, do take a moment tomorrow to remember the 364th birthday of Sir Isaac Newton.)

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election 2006 Post-Mortem


Finally, the consequences of the Bush Administration's mishandling of the war have come home to roost. But color me apprehensive, because I'm still not totally convinced that the Democratic leadership isn't totally eaten up with the galloping stupids. A few quick, day-after observations follow:

Numero Uno: Christian conservatives, realizing that Rove has been selling them a bill of goods, took their ball and bat and went home. I've been expecting this for a couple of years now. What finally tore it, I think, was the Miers nomination. Once it finally became crystal-clear that no one in Bush-land was really, truly serious about overturning Roe v. Wade, well, what else was there? They've had a year and change to chew on that, and we've seen part of the pay-out.

Numero Two-O: Middle America is still in the War on Terror, but they'd really prefer it was waged more competently. This was an obvious, stinging rebuke to the Bush Administration's handling of the war. SecDef Rumsfeld is resigning today in response. While that is a good start, the changes need to go farther. I'm not entirely sure how much farther, or what the changes should be. James Baker and company ought to serve up their report pretty soon now. Hopefully they'll make some helpful suggestions. More on that later.

Numero Three-O: Divided government is a good thing. We always seem to do best when the branches of government aren't all in one party's hands. So, I'm guardedly optimistic: we won the Cold War with a Republican President and Democrat Congress, after all.

Numero Four-O: But is Pelosi eaten up with the galloping stupids? I'm not sure yet. We'll see, come January, if she starts baying for investigation after investigation, and stumping up the fires for impeachment. If that happens, we're screwed. America has no interest in that sort of spectacle. Yes, there ought to be some investigation into how we got into this mess. But that's the work of a long afternoon. There was some misleading going on, but the deceived was Bush, and the deceiver is set to dance his last waltz at the end of a rope. Chewed bone, guys. Let's spend our energy figuring out how to go forward from here. But is Pelosi smart enough to know that? We'll see.

Numero Five-O: That the Republicans have lost Congress doesn't mean that we've lost the War on Terror. It means that we're liable to have to do some re-focusing. This may be a good thing.

You see, the fundamental truth is now just as it was when Lincoln first said it: there is not a Power on Earth that can so much as take a sip of the Ohio River without our leave. There's no way they can get here in Army-level strength unless we provide them with visas and transportation. They can harass, but they cannot conquer. Not without our help and consent, anyway.

And we've done some good work. Hussein's regime is toast. We booted the Taliban out of Afghanistan -- but we might have to put another push together to make sure that sticks. And, perhaps most importantly, we've put paid to one of the myths Al-Qaeda goes to sleep by: the myth that we'll run screaming from our first blood. Their playbook was based on our behavior after Vietnam, and especially Somalia. We've shown them now that, if the stakes are high enough for us, we'll come and fight them on their own turf. And beat them.

So ... one probable result of all this is that we're going to do some sort of re-structuring of forces, reducing the number of troops in Iraq. That's fine, it's the Iraqis' fight anyway at this point. We can't win it for them, they'll have to win it themselves. We might want to send some of those guys over to Afghanistan, to put the beat-down on the Taliban. Again.

But the main thing is that we've come to the point where we simply have to admit that some mistakes have been made, and that we need to have a frank and open discussion about what needs to be done next. That was never going to happen until the Republicans were dealt some kind of beating at the ballot box. Now, nursing a few lumps on their heads, they have to ask themselves how they came to this.

And now, we all need to be alert, and participate in the discussions to come. There are three main questions. I don't think they've been seriously discussed yet.

One: Who are we? What is America in this new world we find ourselves in? For fifty years, we were the chief opponent of international Communism, the arsenal of Democracy. What's our role now? And knowing that role, how best do we fulfil it?

Two: How do we deal with the threat posed by Islamic extremism? How do we continue to wage war against Al-Qaeda and its adjuncts?

Three: How do we help our friends and allies abroad to deal with that self-same threat? They're more aware of it than they were five years ago, that's for sure. And this threat's big enough that we all need to pitch in together, or we'll be torn up piecemeal.

But those conversations can, at least, take place now.

Despair is a sin. Remember, this enemy can only win if we lose our nerve.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Remember, Remember...

It's Guy Fawkes Day. Call me a sucker for any holiday that involves bonfires and explosions.

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot.
We know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

In other news, the verdict is in for Saddam Hussein in the Dujail massacre case, and it's no surprise: he's been sentenced to dance the hempen necktie jig. Appeals to follow, of course, but I'll raise a glass come the day. He was a thoroughly bad man, and won't be missed.

I would be less than astonished to find that the Fifth of November becomes a celebrated anniversary in Iraq, as well...

Saturday, November 04, 2006


I realized not too long ago that I've been in denial for several years. The thing that finally led me to that realization was stumbling across the World's Smallest Political Quiz.

I had always thought of myself as a centrist, more or less. And as a sanity check on the test itself, I asked a few friends to take it and let me know what it said. No surprises there. One came up Liberal (which he's always claimed), one came up dead-center Centrist, another scored Centrist leaning towards Libertarian.

Me? My scores came out 80/70, clearly Libertarian.

Which explains why I'm not entirely comfortable with the direction that either major national party has taken. Those of you who've followed along since the beginning know that I've identified myself as a Democrat. Despite that, I haven't been happy with a lot of the things happening in the party at the national level. There doesn't seem to be any movement in a positive direction, except that, just maybe, they're getting over their anti-military bias. (Kerry excluded, natch. Why on Earth did we have to run Herman Munster in 2004?)

And I'd still like to see them shed some of their baggage, so that they might actually become a viable opposition party to the Republicans again.

But, they're liable to have to do that without me. I'm done voting against people. I'm done with choosing the lesser evil. From now on, I'm only voting for candidates that I can actually agree with on matters of substance. And if that candidate isn't Democrat or Republican, so be it.

So, going forward, this white boy's voting Libertarian, unless someone gives him a real convincing reason not to.

And if the main thing you want from your Government is for them to leave you the Hell alone, you ought to come on over, too.

UPDATE: Orson Scott Card weighs in, over at Ornery American. Money quote:

"To all intents and purposes, when the Democratic Party jettisoned Joseph Lieberman over the issue of his support of this war, they kicked me out as well. The party of Harry Truman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- the party I joined back in the 1970s -- is dead. Of suicide."

Which, really, just about captures my feelings on the matter. The party that I once respected is dead and gone, replaced by a bizarre freakshow. The freakshow must end, if the American people are ever to trust that lot again with the Sword of the State. I'm not holding my breath.

Mind you, I'm not quite on board with OSC in re: voting Republican in this election cycle. I'm just a bit torqued off about the egregious incompetence with which the Republicans have run this war. We deserve better. And maybe, if they get a sharp rap on the nose, they'll deliver.

Election 2006: Governor? Texas has a Governor?

One of the most entertaining contests in all of politics is entering its last few days. The race for Governor of Texas is usually a pretty fun contest to watch for several reasons, not the least of which is because at least one of the poor saps inolved is under the delusion that he's running for a serious office.

You have to understand: the Governor of Texas has just about enough authority to choose his own toilet paper, provided that he can get the Lieutenant Governor to counter-sign for it. The way the Texas government runs day-to-day, the Lieutenant Governor actually swings more pipe. If you need something ram-rodded through the Legislature, the LG's your man. The Guv, he's just a moving target, drawing fire from the LG while he gets the work done. The awful truth is that you could shave an ape, sew him into a Brooks Brothers suit, and it might be months before anyone noticed the difference.

This tends to confuse most immigrants from states that have real Governors. Our constitution, you see, was written with the primary goal of infuriating Yankees. Hardly anything actually works the way you'd expect it to. And that's just how we like it. Some of us are of the opinion that inefficiency in government is a feature, not a bug.

Anyhow, here's the official TTS analysis of the candidates for Governor of Texas, in descending order of preference:

Kinky Friedman has, by far, provided the most entertainment. Not only that, his immigration proposal ("Five Mexican Generals") smacks of pure genius. Not for its details (which might have, um, most untidy side effects), but for the general idea that as long as illegal immigration isn't a problem for Mexico, they'll do nothing to curb it. Make it at least partly their problem, and they might pitch in to do something about it. As his official campaign slogan says, "Why the hell not?" I'm voting for Kinky.

Carole Keeton Strayhorn has a campaign slogan that says that she wants to "shake Austin up." That ain't what she's about. Not really. For some reason that escapes me, she absolutely hates Rick Perry. No, Strayhorn's real goal in running for Governor is to poke a sharp stick in Rick Perry's eye. And you know what? I can respect that. If Friedman weren't running, I might vote for Strayhorn.

Rick Perry does nothing for me. He's the kind of blandly handsome politician that's all too common these days, dull as dust. And what's with those commercials? Earth to Perry: you're running for Governor of Texas, not autitioning for a Land's End catalog photo shoot. But hey, if I ever need a model for outdoor wear, I know who to call. The sad and pitiful thing is, this dope's liable to win. But that's not the saddest thing.

Chris Bell is. The guys who actually looked at this chump and thought, "Hey, we've got a Governor here" should never be allowed within shouting distance of the political process ever again as long as they live. Not that anybody actually knows who Chris Bell is. You remember those old American Express commercials? The ones where some schlub that nobody ever heard of asks you if you know who he is? But that it's somehow all right now, because he's got this square of green platic with his name on it, embossed with silver letters and everything? They should have run that guy, but they didn't. Don't leave home without it, Chris.

And that's about it for Election 2006 here in Texas. Vote early, and vote often!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Nukes for Beginners

What with all the news about North Korea and Iran, I figured it might be worthwhile to go over some of the basics of how these things work. There's a lot of misinformation out there. And while there's a lot to be worried about, there's a lot going on that you really don't have to be so upset about.

Now, we all know about radioactivity, and how uranium and plutonium can be used in nuclear reactors to generate electrical power. Just about anything that can give off heat slowly can be goaded into doing it faster. But the devil's in the details.

To make uranium or plutonium go boom, you have to achieve critical mass. There are two ways of doing this.

The easy way is just to get enough highly purified metal in the same place at the same time. Collect enough highly enriched uranium in one lump, and it will explode all by itself, without any outside encouragement. That's how the Little Boy bomb worked. They had two parts of a sphere of uranium, and at the appropriate time, all they had to do was slam them together. The reason this approach isn't taken anymore is that it's all to easy for such a bomb to go off before you really want it to. It doesn't matter if the parts all come together on purpose or by accident, when they're united, it's flame on.

The hard way is to compress the metal so that, locally, it's dense enough to constitute a critical mass. This is somewhat tricky. It requires the use of specially-shaped explosives to squeeze down a sphere of already fairly dense metal in exactly the right way to produce the desired result. Do it wrong, and all you have is a very expensive mess.

What got me thinking about all this, is that NK claims to have designed and built a four-kiloton warhead.

It's freaking hard to build a small-yield weapon. Hard enough that, today, the US doesn't think it's even worthwhile. We've had a few, but only a few. Some, like the AIR-2 Genie nuclear air-to-air missile (Mk. 25 Mod. 1), were made obsolete by guided missiles. Others, like the Davy Crockett nuclear bazooka, were just plain stupid ideas to begin with. (What kind of idiot designs a bazooka with a blast radius that exceeds the range?) But by the late '60s, we'd given the whole lot up as a bad idea. The results don't justify the expense.

But ... if your missiles aren't all that big, you need a small payload if you're going to air-mail it to anybody. We had a similar problem in the late '50s, but we also had Edward Teller.

The easiest uranium bomb to build would be something along the lines of Little Boy: weighing in at something like 4 to 5 tons. The upside: you know it's gonna work, first time, every time. The down side: there's no good way to get it to anybody you think needs blowing up. Dragging a five-ton parcel across somebody's border is bound to attract all kinds of unwanted attention.

So: you have to think small. But that takes a lot of sophistication. It takes very meticulous scientific work, and extraordinarily precise machining. And you have to have done your preparation work right. If your metal isn't of the highest purity, it's all wasted effort. Reactor-grade won't cut it, not even a little bit.

Steven Den Beste had an article up a few days ago, referring to this issue. He was wondering if the North Koreans' plutonium hadn't been refined too hastily. Apparently, if you rush the job, you don't get the right mix of isotopes, and it won't catch.

And if their plutonium is, in fact, just plain bad ... well, they can test all they want. The bomb might make a big, awful mess, but it won't go "boom".

Now, setting one of these off in downtown Seoul would be horrible enough for any ordinary purpose. But it's not something that will inspire fear so much as it will inspire all-consuming homicidal rage. Somehow, I don't think that's the effect Mr. Kim was looking for.

So. Now, we wait to see if they're going to have another go at lighting it off. But can Mr. Kim afford another fizzle? Can his credibility afford it, what's left of it? Can he afford yet another spectacle that enrages what few friends he does have left in the world?

Be afraid, Mr. Kim, be very afraid: that next knock at the door won't be us, it'll be the Chinese secret service. And they won't be happy with you. No, not even a little bit.

UPDATE: Mr. Kim takes the hint, and sings a few verses of the Very Sorry Song to China. (Page down for the lyrics.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Now, This Is Just Sad

A few days ago, we all woke up to the news that North Korea had claimed that it tested a nuclear weapon.

It would appear that the operative word here is, in fact, test.

The word from CNN (and you can believe as much of that as you want to) is that NK had told China that the yield would be about 4 kilotons. Our guys, after looking at the seismic data, say that it looks more like a half-kiloton. Maybe less.

Now, that's just sad. Our first attempt was four times their claimed yield, and our first one worked. Granted, we had the finest scientists in the world working on it, and they're making do with used chewing gum and bailing wire, but still ... These are the big leagues, dude. Four kilotons doesn't even get you in the door of the game room.

In another piece I saw earlier today, Mr. Kim was threatening his neighbors with nuclear-armed missiles.

Memo to Mr. Kim: Before your ego starts writing checks your Army can't cash, do observe that if you're going to make that kind of threat, you need three things:

1) A working atomic weapon

2) A working atomic weapon that's small enough to put on a missile

3) A working atomic weapon that's small enough to put on a missile that is capable of leaving North Korean airspace. (By the way, in colloquial English, NoDong is the perfect name for a North Korean weapon system.)

You appear to be batting zero so far, sir. But do try again. It enrages your friends and amuses your enemies. And it wastes plutonium. Feel free to waste as much as you like.

My earlier statement stands: Your first shot had damn well better be a doozy, because you won't be getting a second.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Time and Tide Wait for No Man

Last time, I made a point that I didn't have time to elaborate on, but I probably ought to. It's not necessarily obvious, and it bears some reflection.

I said: "They (meaning revolutionary movements like al-Qaeda) have about ten years before they either (a) win, or (b) metastasize into fairly conventional criminal syndicates."

It's a pattern we've seen before, in organizations as diverse as the IRA in Northern Ireland and FARC down in Colombia. Both groups started as hard-core revolutionaries, both are now pretty well consumed with self-preservation. And most of that self-preservation takes the form of criminal activites that make their daily bread. And that's not the only place this trend is evident. You can also see it in labor unions, your local PTA, or NASA.

It's called the Iron Law of Bureaucracy.

I can't take credit for it, of course. Credit for this observation belongs to Jerry Pournelle, whose site I link above. But I'll restate it here:

Any organization has two kinds of people working for it. The first kind work for the intended aims of the organization. The second kind work for the organization itself. While organizations tend to be founded by the first kind, eventually they always end up being run by the second kind.

My observation above is a logical extension of this principle.

Any organization, any at all, needs its "organization" men. They're the ones who keep your books straight while the "true believers" are hard at work doing whatever it is that they're supposed to be doing. We've been treated to some stunning pictures from Mars this last week, from a pair of rovers that have far outlived their design lifetimes. Those would never have been possible without the efforts of the men and women who do the scut work of NASA, lobbying Congress for funding, reminding our representatives why their work is important.

But it's important to remember that the scientists and engineers don't run NASA. The bureaucrats do.

No organization is immune. And this has some interesting consequences for revolutionary movements.

Revolutionaries have a sticky problem. In order to overthrow the existing regime, they need the wherewithal to do it: guns, bombs, recruits, facilities. To get those, they need to have people on staff who can get that stuff for them, and manage it. In short, they need Organization Men.

While the movement is young, the original founders are still in charge, and their hand-picked men are in all the important leadership spots. So, all's good. And if they win, they will all move on to posts in the new order, so it's all still good. But if they don't win ...

That's when things get interesting. Revolutionaries have a way of coming to bad, violent ends. So, who ends up getting promoted, when the alter Kampfern start getting fitted for English hempen neckties?

You guessed it: the Organization Men. And why not? They've proven their ability to handle affairs, haven't they?

But here's the problem: they work first for the organization, then for its goals, in that order. Once you have a critical mass of Organization Men in the upper ranks, most of the activity of the group becomes geared towards support and maintenance, with only lip service being paid to the "real" cause.

I mean, what is FARC today but a glorified cocaine cartel? And when was the last time the IRA was politically meaningful? For most of the men in those groups, it's a paycheck, not about changing the world. Not anymore.

And absent a major victory, al-Qaeda is headed down the same road. It's an inevitability. And they're farther down the track than many Americans realize. Remember, they got their start in the early '90s, right after the first Gulf War. Say, fifteen years of organizational history.

And, in the last five years, they've suffered fearful losses amongst their True Believers...

You know, when I consider the amount of paperwork it takes to do anything really worthwhile over here, I can almost feel sorry for them.

Then again, not really. They are welcome, and more than welcome, to as much self-induced agony as they can muster. I wonder if anyone's ever translated Robert's Rules of Order into Arabic? That ought to put a couple of handfuls of sand in the gears...

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years?

Has it really been five years?

I have to confess: I haven't been watching the news today. Partly because I've been waiting on a phone call from the air-conditioning repairman, but mostly because I didn't want to hear it. The endless on-and-on by the talking heads, mumbling sonorously and decorously about the anniversary of the tragedy.

Which shows how truly and deeply they just don't get it.

When a good friend gets cancer, that's a tragedy. Somebody flying a fully-loaded airplane into a building is an act of war.

I remember quite cleary my thoughts and feelings that day. I remember hearing about the first plane crashing, and wondering how it could have happened. Accidents do happen, after all. During WWII, in heavy fog, a B-17 ran into the Empire State Building. I was still wondering about the odds of something similar happening today when the second one hit.

I don't believe in coincidences.

More to the point, I knew who was responsible, and more or less where he was.

I knew who Bin Laden was several years before 9/11, knew that he was responsible for the '93 WTC bombing, and knew that he was enjoying the hospitality of the Taliban. Putting two and two together wasn't exactly rocket science. It took me all of about ten seconds.

The only question remaining to my mind was, how do we respond?

On the whole, I think we've responded appropriately. We've used considerable restraint. In my angrier moments, I sometimes think that turning the whole region from the Jordan River to the Hindu Kush into a solid field of Trinitite might not be such a bad idea after all. But cooler heads have prevailed.

We smashed the Taliban. There are still a few remnants around today, but they aren't running the country anymore.

We smashed Al-Qaeda's training and supply infrastructure. Now that the training camps are gone, every casualty they suffer is expenditure from capital, not income. They haven't been totally destroyed. It's damn hard to totally destroy a cell-based organization. I'm reasonably sure it's a practical impossibility. But things like this have a relatively short shelf life as revolutionary movements. They have about ten years before they either (a) win, or (b) metastasize into fairly conventional criminal syndicates. They've shot their wad, and have nothing at all to show for it. Five years ago, they were the supermen of the Arab street. Now? They're rather less popular, especially since someone did the math and realized that most of Al-Qaeda's victims were other Muslims. Own goals never win friends or influence people.

We smashed Saddam Hussein. He had precisely bugger-all to do with 9/11, but Iraq's bizarre neither-fish-nor-fowl status simply had to be resolved sooner or later. Removal of his regime allowed Iraq's re-entry into the realm of nations. What becomes of it in the long run is, of course, up to the Iraqis. They can still make a total hash of it. But, they've got something like a fighting chance now, which is more than they had before.

Five years on, we haven't done as well as we might have, but we have done better than some have feared. In this "the glass might be half full but the damn thing leaks" world, that's about as good as anyone can hope for.

A few thoughts for the day:

StrategyPage has some thoughts on how far we've come since the attacks five years ago.

OpFor fires up the way-back machine, recalling September 11th, 1565, and the Battle of Malta.

And a neighbor here on Blogspot recalls yet another September 11th, the Battle of Brandywine, from the Revolutionary War.

Stout hearts, citizens. They cannot win unless we lose our nerve.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

It's Official

The votes are in, and it's a sad day indeed for Pluto.

At a stroke, poor Pluto goes from being the smallest planet to not even being the biggest dwarf planet.

But on balance, this new classification is a good thing. And even though astronomers have said that this definition only applies to our own solar system, I think it might be useful for classifying extrasolar planets as well. That is, once our technology is good enough to resolve such distant objects with sufficient accuracy.

The new definition categorizes a planet not just by size and shape, although it has to be big enough to pull itself into a spherical shape. It also has to be big enough to clearly dominate its region of space. This, in the end, is what kicked Pluto out.

Pluto does not dominate its region of space. Pluto is locked in orbital resonance with Neptune, which is clearly the dominant partner in that area of the Solar System. Several other objects in the Kuiper Belt are also in a 3:2 resonance with Neptune. Be that as it may, it clearly establishes Pluto as ruled rather than as ruler.

So, now we know. The arguments are over. But, I've got a sneaking suspicion that even now, after the votes have been counted, that the status of Pluto will still be good for an instant riot at any astronomers' gathering. Pluto's supporters will have to lick their wounds for a while, but they'll be back, and spoiling for a fight. Just you wait and see.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Downsizing? Supersizing? Ah, the heck with it...

Apparently, the draft resolution I mentioned the other day has been received with all they joy and good cheer that Osama bin Laden might expect if he were to drop in on the White House for a social call.

You may remember that in my first post on the subject, I said:

If it were up to me, I'd re-classify Pluto as a Kuiper Belt object. It has a lot more in common in terms of both composition and orbital elements with that group than it does with any planet. To be a planet, an object really has to have formed within the star's major accretion disk, and I'm not sure that applies to the KBOs.

Apparently, a Uruguayan astronomer by the name of Julio Angel Fernandez used logic like this to send the new proposal off with a shot of grape. Rather more than a shot of grape, actually; after a rebellion within the orbital mechanics community, the new proposal bore a striking resemblance to Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow after the Feds ran out of ammo.

Didn't I say that this question was good for an instant riot? Just add astronomers and stir...

The thing that kind of stinks about this is that we have a brand-new space probe sailing on its way to something that might not be a planet anymore by the time it gets there ... which is just as well. Somebody needed to get close-up observations of Pluto before its atmosphere froze, anyway.

It's still worth doing, even if Pluto gets demoted. Besides, the bloody thing's already on the way. It's not like we can haul it back in.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Downsizing? Supersizing?

Back in the day, if you wanted to start a fist-fight at an astronomers' convention, all you had to do was ask a random passer-by, "Is Pluto really a planet?" The ensuing scrum would have been good for hours of entertainment.

Which is why I found this news item so interesting.

For years, the controversy has largely been swept under the rug. Pluto was an odd duck, all right, but for years after its discovery, scientists thought it was more or less the same size as Earth. This was proven wrong later. The problem is, Pluto doesn't quite fit.

For one, it's orbit is very eccentric. For another, its orbit is steeply inclined relative to the orbits of the other eight planets. Also, it's composition is more like the moons of the outer gas giants, or the other Kuiper Belt objects, than the other outer planets.

There's been a low-level war seething just below the surface in the planetary science community. Most don't really care all that much, but there are a handful of hard-line partisans on either side of the question. But the thing that really tore it was last year's discovery of a large Kuiper Belt object, tentatively named Xena.

Xena, you see, is larger than Pluto.

Yeah, that tears it, all right. Because if Pluto is a for-real planet, Xena just about has to be, too. And if Xena isn't, then how do we justify Pluto?

Besides, just what is a planet, anyway?

As it turns out, that's probably the real question. Nobody really knows. But the pressure's on for them to figure it out.

We may end up with a compromise system, which has the virtue of being more accurate, at the expense of not being as simple. Planets would be classified by their type: rocky core, like Earth; gas giant, like Jupiter; and maybe a third category, ice balls like Pluto, Charon, or Xena.

If it were up to me, I'd re-classify Pluto as a Kuiper Belt object. It has a lot more in common in terms of both composition and orbital elements with that group than it does with any planet. To be a planet, an object really has to have formed within the star's major accretion disk, and I'm not sure that applies to the KBOs.

But then again, I'm not really a scientist. I'm just an educated amateur, who's enjoying the show.

UPDATE #1: A firm definition of "planet" appears to be in the works. To summarize, by the new definition, a "planet" is defined as any roughly spherical object orbiting the Sun with both a mean diameter greater than 500 miles, and a mass greater than 1/12000th that of Earth.

The list of newly-promoted planets would include both Charon and Xena, as well as the largest asteroid, Ceres. That would bring the Solar System to a total of twelve planets. Note that Charon is included even though it and Pluto orbit one another as they both orbit the Sun. This is becuase the center of mass of the Pluto-Charon system is not within either of the two. But it would exclude the Moon, since the center of mass of the Earth-Moon system lies within the Earth.

Time to go re-publish a whole bunch of encyclopedias and textbooks, boys...

UPDATE #2: Go here to see the Wikipedia article on the re-definition. There's a whole bunch of candidates that I'd forgotten about. Cold, miserable places like Sedna, Quaoar, and several others. Including, I note with interest, Vesta and Pallas, some of the other large asteroids from the Belt.

Maybe there are other more important things going on in the world. But I don't much care. This is still very, very neat.

UPDATE #3: As reported in the Wikipedia link above, the proposed definition comes up for a vote on August 24, in Prague. Mark your calendars.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Crow: It's What's For Dinner

Things aren't looking so good for our man Floyd.

The "B" sample test turned up positive, pretty much like everyone expected it would. But that's not the real problem. As we discussed last time, there are problems with the T/E ratio test. No, what's got Floyd's essentials well and truly trapped in the mangle is the isotope test.

My knowledge of biology is somewhat scanty, as discussed earlier, but this much I do know: there are subtle chemical differences between naturally-produced hormones and the synthetic varieties. I know this, because I take fistfuls of vitamin supplements, and like to know something about what I'm shoveling into my cake hole. For instance, there's a minor difference between synthetic Vitamin E, and the stuff your body produces naturally. But it's not a big difference, and it has the same chemical function that the natural stuff does.

Likewise, there are subtle chemical differences between synthetic testosterone, and the genuine, natural article. They're not produced by the exact same chemical process. This induces very minute differences in composition, differences that are detectable by gas chromatography.

Which means that, unless something truly extraordinary is revealed, it's likely that there really was some synthetic testosterone in Landis' body when he took those tests.

It's a monumentally stupid thing to have done, if he really did do it. I don't know of anyone who thinks that a testosterone boost could have done any good to improve single-day performance. And if he won big, of course he was going to be tested. Did he think they'd miss it? That by some miracle it wouldn't show up?

There's a long appeal process to churn through before this is well and truly done. But it's not looking good, not at all.

In any case, I like to think that I'm man enough to eat my crow when it's called for. The performance that I'd hailed as a triumph of iron will is probably due instead to better living through chemistry. I'm disappointed by that, I really am. And I'm still hoping against hope that, somehow, there's vindication at the end of the road. But I wouldn't bet more than pocket change on it.

Pass the Tabasco, would you, pal?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Fear and Loathing in Paris

And here I was, more or less ready to shut up about cycling for about a year, when ...

I really don't know what to make of this, yet. Right now there's not a whole lot of real data. And what there is doesn't really add up. Except, of course, that the French have their panties in a knot over those despised Americans winning 11 of the last 21 Tours.

The French total over this span may be counted on one hand, after having first inserted that hand in a running wood chipper. Hint: "one" is way too high.

The issue, of course, if Floyd Landis' urine test following his spectacular comeback on Stage 17 of the Tour de France. The "A" sample showed what they claim to be an abnormally high ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone in his urine, an indication of the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Well...

It's times like these that I really regret not having paid more attention to biology. I skipped it in high school, in favor of an extra year of chemistry. I will quite happily mix dangerous chemicals, breathe harmful fumes, pick glass shards out of my chest and renew my long and intimate relationship with Bactine; but knives and dead frogs are right out. Which is a pity, because I'm having to climb an awfully steep learning curve, here. Because I only have the vaguest notion of what testosterone actually does, and had never even heard of epitestosterone before. So: to Wikipedia! (And other places.)

As it turns out, both testosterone and epitestosterone are synthesized in the body from androstenedione. "Aha," I say to myself, "I've heard of that bugger before. Wasn't that the goop Mark McGwire used to take?" Over the long term, androstenedione use builds bigger muscles, and promotes recovery after exertion. No one's quite figured out what epitestosterone does, yet. It doesn't seem to have any effect one way or the other. But in most people, it's produced in about the same quantity as testosterone, from the same chemical, by more or less the same process. Think of it as a chemical version of donut holes. Normally, you end up with about as many donuts as holes, right?

So: an elevated T/E ratio is taken as an indicator that someone's been fiddling with their body chemistry illicitly. There are a couple of problems here, though.

One: It's a ratio. It's not a measure of the absolute quantities present. The obvious interpretation of an elevated T/E ratio is that someone has boosted the amount of testosterone present in the system. But it can also mean that some process has abnormally depleted the amount of epitestosterone. I don't know that anyone has really looked in detail at the physiology of someone who had such a spectacular "crash" the previous day, and recovered naturally overnight. We don't know yet if we're talking about a normal, natural process, or evidence of cheating.

Two: Testosterone abuse is very much a long-term sort of thing. There's bugger-all that it can do for you overnight. Sure, it can build muscle and all that, but that takes weeks. Not hours.

So, I'm waiting for more results. Not only for the test on the "B" sample, but for a more thorough chromatography test, which will tell us definitively if the hormones in the sample are of natural origin, or are synthetic. If it's all natural, and provably so, the only shame to be had here is for the French, who just need to sack up and be more manly. Not that it's in their national character, but they can at least be seen to have made the attempt.

I may end up eating my words, but so far, I trust what Landis is saying. He seems confident that the evidence will clear him. I think we ought to give him that much of a benefit of the doubt.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I'm Shocked! Stupefied! Stunned!

This just in:

Lance Bass comes out.

More stunning revelations:

Pope Benedict XVI: "Confidentially ... I'm Catholic."

Troy Aikman: "Yeah, I threw a couple of footballs around."

Liz Taylor: "Just between you and me, this isn't my first marriage."

You may remember that Bass tried to raise $20 million for a trip to the International Space Station. Funding fell through when investors realized that they were, in fact, paying for a round trip.

Mind you, I care not a fig for his lifestyle choices. Boy Bands, though, are an abomination. I despise the insipid, overprocessed lyrical war crimes they perpetrate upon the public, masquerading as music. They are nothing but a marketing contrivance that converts good, worthwhile plastic and aluminum into soon-to-be-landfill CDs. For such grievous offenses against humanity, vicious taunting is the least that he deserves.

Not that I really wish him any ill. It's fine if he ends up living happily ever after, so long as I don't have to listen to him sing about it.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been


Last year, we saw the last ride of the man who is arguably this generation's most dominant professional cyclist, Lance Armstrong. And I said about a year ago that I'd be looking forward to this year's Tour, because for the first time in many years, it'd be a wide-open race. I had no idea how right I'd be.

First off, we had no notion of what the outcome of the Operation Puerto investigation would be. I'm assuming, of course, that the investigation was underway a year ago. Things like that don't spring up overnight. But I think everyone was surprised at how widespread it was, and how many major cyclists were caught up in it. This included everyone's favorites for the top two podium spots: Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich. Me, I was kind of hoping it'd be Basso's year. He seemed a likeable chap. Still does, really. I hope the allegations are false, in his case. But that might not be the way to bet.

Still -- nine of the top contenders knocked out, before the first crank of the pedals. And one victim of collateral damage, since Alexandre Vinokourov's team was disqualified for not having enough riders qualified to start.

So it was a weird year, right from the start. Maybe that contributed to the crashes in the first week, which is always dangerous. But no clear leader emerged. This race tied the all-time record for the number of lead changes. Truly, it could have been any of a half-dozen or more men. But in the end, the real surprise was that it ended up being a man who is going in for hip replacement surgery later this fall: Floyd Landis.

Not that you could tell from his riding that he's got hip trouble. He had a really bad day last week that seemed to put him out of contention, but that had nothing to do with his hip. But everyone had written him off. You just don't make up a ten-minute deficit in the mountains. It simply is not done.

Someone must have forgotten to tell Landis. Because that's exactly what he did, the very next day.

Virtually everyone who witnessed that ride called it the most amazing thing they'd ever seen. I would tend to agree. It was an amazing display of diamond-hard will, an uncompromising unwillingness to accept failure. No one could touch him. He broke away from the peloton, even broke away from the riders who tried to follow, and rode the Alps alone. They tried to reel him in. Tried, and failed.

Yesterday's time trial sealed the deal. He didn't win the time trial, but he didn't have to. He just had to hang a few minutes on the two guys still ahead of him as of yesterday morning. Which he did, handily.

So now, the crown that Lance Armstrong left at the finish line a year ago has been picked up by another American, in a ride that people will be talking about for years to come. It was fun to watch, and it'll be fun to watch again next year, as Floyd Landis tries to become the first man to return to professional cycling after undergoing hip replacement surgery. Bionics comes to professional cycling!

Man, you just gotta love it. You absolutely can't make this up.

Mark your calendars: Next year, it starts in London. July 7, 2007. Who's gonna take it all the way home? Will Floyd Landis become another testament to the miracle of modern medicine?

There's only one way to find out ...

Monday, July 17, 2006

Thought for the day...

Hezbollah's epitaph, if one is ever written, ought to be Fatum Iustum Stultorum: "Righteous is the destiny of fools." They've named the game, open war, and it's a game that Arabs have sucked at since, well, just about forever. The last Middle Eastern commander who gave a Western army the right-about was Saladin. And he was a Kurd, not an Arab.

You can argue advantages in technology, if you like. You can even argue training, which I think comes closer to the mark. But I think the real reason Israel is liable to hand Hezbollah a splendid drubbing from one end of the Bekaa Valley to the other is this: Israel has proper sergeants, while Hezbollah does not.

With that, here's a bit of food for thought, from one of my favorite poets:

The 'Eathen, by Rudyard Kipling

THE 'eathen in 'is blindness bows down to wood an' stone;
'E don't obey no orders unless they is ‘is own;
'E keeps 'is side-arms awful: 'e leaves 'em all about,
An' then comes up the Regiment an' pokes the 'eathen out.

All along o' dirtiness, all along o' mess
All along o' doin' things rather-more-or-less
All along of abby-nay, kul an' hazar-ho,
Mind you keep your rifle an' yourself jus' so!

The young recruit is 'aughty - 'e draf's from Gawd knows where;
They bid 'im show 'is stockin's an' lay 'is mattress square;
‘E calls it bloomin' nonsense - 'e doesn't know no more -
An' then up comes 'is Company an kicks 'im round the floor !

The young recruit is 'ammered - 'e takes it very hard;
'E 'angs 'is 'ead an' mutters - 'e sulks about the yard;
'E talks o' "cruel tyrants" which 'e'll swing for by-an-by,
An 'the others 'ears an' mocks 'im, an' the boy goes orf to cry.

The young recruit is silly - 'e thinks o' suicide.
‘Es lost 'is gutter-devil; 'e 'asn't got 'is pride;
But day by day they kicks 'im, which 'elps 'im on a bit,
Till 'e finds 'isself one mornin' with a full an' proper kit.

Gettin' clear o’ dirtiness, gettin' done with mess,
Gettin' shut o' doin' things rather-more-or-less;
Not so fond of abby-nay, kul, nor hazar-ho
Learns to keep 'is rifle 'an 'isself jus' so !

The young recruit is 'appy - 'e throws a chest to suit;
You see 'im grow mustaches; you 'ear 'im slap 'is boot.
'E learns to drop the "bloodies" from every word ‘e slings
An' 'e shows an 'ealthy brisket when 'e strips for bars an' rings.

The cruel-tyrant-sergeants they watch 'im 'arf a year;
They watch 'im with 'is comrades, they watch 'im with 'is beer;
They watch 'im with the women at the regimental dance,
And the cruel-tyrant-sergeants send 'is name along for Lance.

An' now 'e's 'arf o' nothin', an' all a private yet,
‘Is room they up an' rags 'im to see what they will get.
They rags 'im low an' cunnin', each dirty trick they can,
But 'e learns to sweat 'is temper an' 'e learns to sweat 'is man.

An', last, a Colour-Sergeant, as such to be obeyed,
'E schools 'is men at cricket, 'e tells 'em on parade;
They sees 'im quick an' 'andy, uncommon set an' smart,
An' so 'e talks to orficers which 'ave the Core at 'eart.

'E learns to do 'is watchin' without it showin' plain;
'E learns to save a dummy, an' shove 'im straight again;
'E learns to check a ranker that's buyin' leave to shirk;
An' 'e learns to make men like 'im so they'll learn to like their work.

An' when it comes to marchin' he'll see their socks are right,
An' when it comes to action 'e shows 'em how to sight.
'E knows their ways of thinkin' and just what's in their mind.
'E knows when they are takin' on an' when they've fell be'ind.

'E knows each talkin' corp'ral that leads a squad astray;
'E feels 'is innards 'eavin', 'is bowels givin' way;
'E sees the blue-white faces all tryin' 'ard to grin,
An' 'e stands an' waits an' suffers till it's time to cap 'em in.

An' now the hugly bullets come peckin' through the dust,
An' no one wants to face 'em, but every beggar must;
So, like a man in irons, which isn't glad to go,
They moves 'em off by companies uncommon stiff an' slow.

Of all 'is five years' schoolin' they don't remember much
Excep' the not retreatin', the step an' keepin' touch.
It looks like teachin' wasted when they duck an' spread an' 'op -
But if 'e 'adn't learned 'em they'd be all about the shop.

An' now it's 'Oo goes backward? " an' now it's " 'Oo comes on?
An’ now it's Get the doolies," an' now the Captain's gone;
An' now it's bloody murder, but all the while they 'ear
'Is voice, the same as barrick-drill, a-shepherdin' the rear.

E's just as sick as they are, 'is 'eart is like to split,
But 'e works 'em, works 'em, works 'em till he feels 'em take the bit;
The rest is 'oldin' steady till the watchful bugles play,
An' 'e lifts 'em, lifts 'em, lifts 'em through the charge that wins the day!

The 'eathen in 'is blindness bows down to wood an' stone;
'E don't obey no orders unless they is 'is own.
The 'eathen in 'is blindness must end where 'e began,
But the backbone of the Army is the Non-commissioned Man !

Keep away from dirtiness - keep away from mess,
Don't get into doin' things rather-more-or-less
Let's ha' done with abby-nay, kul, and hazar-ho;
Mind you keep your rifle an' yourself jus' so !

Note: abby nay Not Now, kul Tomorrow, hazar-ho Wait a bit.

(The emphasis in the second-to-last verse is the Editor's, not the author's.)

Friday, June 30, 2006

Don't Make Me Open This!

Have you ever wondered what the North Korean Air Force's worst nightmare looked like?

Well, wonder no more!

(Warning: link leads to a rather large picture. Large, but well worth it.)

This one frame contains more heavy iron than most countries have in their entire Navy, and more tactical fighters than most countries have in their entire Air Force. Most of it can be relocated just about anywhere on pretty short notice. And for those who sit on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by ocean ... well, sucks to be you.

If Mr. Kim gets feisty, he'd better make his first shot a damn good one. He won't get a second.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


"Zed's dead, baby. Zed's dead." -- Butch Coolidge, 1994

"Soon. It'll be soon. Al-Qaeda's credibility runs out like the sands in an hourglass. Their political capital's spent, their monetary captial, likewise. Their top leaders are on the run, and have to be lucky every day for the rest of their lives. We only have to be lucky once." -- Me, 2005

As it turns out, that's more or less correct: Al-Zarqawi was lucky every day, except for that last bit at the end, when the USAF left a brace of 500-pound greeting cards on his doorstep.

I'll skip the gloating, for the most part. There's a sense in which this changes nothing of substance. While he was a prime instigator, and while there's no obvious successor, the pot of crud that he stirred up is still swirling. Be that as it may, though, there's also a sense in which everything has changed.

Point the first: He was dimed out by someone within his own organization.

This opens up one of two possibilities. One, that someone under him had the thought that he was doing the cause more harm than good, and would be more useful than a dead martyr than as a live (and somewhat less than competent) leader. Or two, that someone under him coveted the top job and decided to let Uncle Sam's Speedy Delivery do the heavy lifting. In either case, serious schisms are evident within the enemy ranks. This is something that alert intel or spec-ops guys could exploit.

Point the second: The first ground troops on the scene were Iraqi.

This is important for a couple of reasons. First, they had enough on the ball to be the first to the party. Second, the overall commanders had enough confidence in them that they wouldn't muff the job. Both speak to the increasing maturity and effectiveness of native Iraqi forces. They've come a long way in the last couple of years.

Point the third: The strike yielded absolute fistfuls of intelligence data.

Whatever Z-Man had with him, we've got. Whatever he was using for contact info, we've got. Did he keep a Rolodex, Dayrunner, little black book? Guys in green suits are reading those even as we speak. Did he keep any kind of financial records with him? They're being analyzed, and the data is being fitted into existing patterns. Were I the new Number One in AQI, I'd be feeling a bit insecure right about now.

Point the fourth (and last): Now, it's all up to the Iraqis.

Now that the new government has been seated, sworn in, and gotten down to business, the ball's in their court. We can't win this. Which isn't the same as saying it can't be won, mind you; but, as of this point, we must transition to a supporting role. The end of this story can't be written in English by an American hand, it must be written in Arabic by an Iraqi. It is still too early to tell if the ending will be happy or tragic. There's still a host of opportunities for failure. But most of the decisions are out of our hands, now. The only decision left us is how much and how far we are willing to support the new government.

But, for better or worse, there's one insurgent who won't see the final outcome. Good riddance!

Thursday, April 20, 2006

RIP, Scott Crossfield

Some sad news today. Scott Crossfield died earlier today when his Cessna went down in Georgia.

I must confess to conflicting emotions, here. On the one hand, it's sad to see him go. He was one of the greats. First to Mach 2, first to fly the X-15, a true pioneer of aviation. And he stayed active well into his retirement. But ... you have to know that he'd have hated living long enough to have to hang up his scarf. To a man like that, flying is like breathing.

Vaya con Dios, Mr. Crossfield. It's all VFR from here on out, and not a medical examiner in sight. And if that isn't Heaven, well, what is?

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Seven Warning Signs

I found a rather interesting article while reading Jerry Pournelle's site, titled "Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science".

Mind you, I'm not really a scientist. I'm an engineer by education, and a code monkey by vocation. Ten years of grad school convinced me that I really only know three things for sure: Conservation of Mass, Conservation of Momentum, Conservation of Energy. Everything else is speculation. But ... there's a heck of a lot of utterly bogus "science" going on out there. Someone has got to flange up some sort of BS detector. I tried, once, to do something like that. It ended up being one of those projects that never quite went anywhere.

What I was getting at was this: no one ever really teaches the scientific method anymore. Oh sure, they mention it in passing at some point in most science classes. But they never go much deeper than that. Science is almost always taught as a body of stuff to be memorized, not as a way of thinking.

I have some practical knowledge of why this is the case. It's freaking HARD to get the little buggers to do ANY independent thinking. And a proper treatment of the scientific method is a pretty rigorous exercise in independent thinking.

The problem is, people confuse assertion of "new" facts with actual science. How are they to tell the genuine article from total baloney?

The Seven Warning Signs look to be a great place to start.

I'd add two broad principles to the list, though. They're important enough to deserve that treatment. The two principles are key to the scientific method: Falsification, and Repeatability.

Falsification: We don't know the strength of a steel bar because we've got some magical method for knowing the strength of a crystal lattice. We know the strength of a steel bar because we've bent the damn thing until it broke. Bent it U-shaped, stretched it until it snapped in two, twisted it until it gave way. Do that a few thousand times, and you will know without having to ask whether a given bit of stainless steel alloy will do the job you're asking of it. It's the same with a scientific theory. The accumulated tests that prove it true don't count. It's the tests built specifically to prove the theory false that make or break it. If you can't design such an experiment, there's something wrong with the theory. And, usually, what's wrong with such a theory is that it can't predict anything worth knowing.

Repeatability: You have to be able to describe the experiment completely enough that another experimenter can do what you did, and see the same things you did. If you can't, you probably don't understand what's going on as well as you think you do. If you won't, you've probably got something to hide. For us third-party observers, repeatability is a key thing to watch for. If other researchers are having a hard time reproducing "remarkable" new results ... there might not be anything to report, after all. It's when other people in the field report that they can repeat the experiment successfully that you know something interesting might be going on.

Armed with this information and a healthy dose of skepticism, you'll be better equipped to separate the real deal from the baloney. Now, if we could just get this out to the general public ... But that may be too much to ask.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Space Travel for Dummies: Hands-On Tutorial


For those of you who care to download and configure some software, we can do a bit of a walk-through of a trip into orbit.

[NOTE: There are newer versions of Orbiter and its add-ons available. The new version of Orbiter is available here, and a selection of add-ons are available here.]

First, you want to download Orbiter from here. Orbiter, for those of you who don't know, is a freeware spaceflight simulator. It's fairly realistic, and if you're into that sort of masochism, it can be as realistic as you want it to be.

There are some add-ons we want, from Dan's Orbiter Page. Scroll down a bit, and click on the icons for Orbiter Sound and Delta Glider III. Basic Orbiter has no sound, and sound is a neat thing to have. As for DGIII, well, it has a couple of features the basic Delta Glider lacks. First, you can use the config tool to change up the paint job if you want. Second, and more importantly, it has an auto-pilot function. This makes life so much easier. I can hand-fly an ascent to orbit, but not to an accurate orbit. I can get into space, but if you're relying on me for an accurate rendezvous, you're SOL. With the autopilot, we have a fighting chance.

Now, let's fly.

From the start-up screen, you'll want to select the DeltaGliderIII folder, and Earth Scenery, and from that, the ascent from KSC to ISS. We aren't actually going to attempt a rendezvous, but we'll use that profile as a starting point.

When you get to the cockpit, use the left arrow key to go over to the orbit display. You'll see a grey circle, a green ellipse, and a bunch of numbers down the left-hand side. The grey circle is the Earth's surface, the green ellipse is your trajectory, and the numbers describe various things about your orbit. You won't need any of the numbers for this tutorial, so you don't have to worry about them unless you want to. The pictures on this display tell the story. If you're really interested, I'll have some definitions at the end of the post. One thing you'll want to do, though: punch the key on the upper right side of the panel. It'll change the reference of the display to ship-centered.

Now, hold down the right arrow key to get to the other display. Hit "SEL" to get the list of displays available. Take a look at what's available, but where you eventually want to end up is the Map display. It'll show your ground track, and the ground track of a selected target, if available.

Now that we've got that settled, let's program the autopilot. On your keyboard, type P903S43, then Enter. This loads the ascent autopilot, and then puts it into standby mode. You can activate it by hitting the "E" key. You don't want to do that just yet.

Now, if you hit F8, you get the HUD view. This is the view I like to fly from.

Hitting F1 toggles the external view. From here, you can hold down the right mouse button, and find an external view that you like the looks of. You can also use the scroll button, if you have one, to zoom in and out.

We're done setting up. It's time to light off our engines and get underway.

From the cockpit view, hold down the key and the <+> key on the keypad. Release both keys after full thrust is achieved. Now comes the trickiest part of the whole flight. If you've gotten the sound files in, this will be pretty easy. You'll hear a voice say, "80 knots." Don't do anything yet. Then, he'll say "V1." You still don't want to do anything. But stay on your toes. Shortly after V1, you'll be going fast enough to take off. The cue for that is when he says, "Rotate." The number keypad serves as a joystick. <2> pulls back, <8> pushes forward, <4> and <6> roll left and right. When you get the rotation signal, use <2> to pull back, but not to more than a 20 degree climb. Once you've left ground, tap "G" to raise your landing gear. Then, you can tap "E" to engage the autopilot. Once that's done, you can sit back and enjoy the ride.

This takes us to about T +30 seconds, referring from the time we started our engines.

The autopilot isn't particularly aggressive. It takes about forty seconds to turn to a 43-degree heading, and level the wings. Once it does that, it starts pulling up into a steep climb, a pitch attitude of 65 degrees. It reaches that attitude about two minutes into the flight. Remember, to get into orbit you have to do two things: gain altitude, and gain speed. Generally speaking, you gain altitude first, to get out of the thick, dense air near the surface.

While you're doing this, you'll probably notice that the green ellipse on the left display isn't changing much. Gaining altitude doesn't change that situation very much. Your trajectory is still what we call a degenerate ellipse. If the ground weren't in the way, your path would go straight down to the center of the Earth. This will change in a few minutes, though.

At about T +200 seconds, three minutes and change, the autopilot begins to rein in the climb. You've hit about 100 kilometers in altitude, so you can begin to bend over sideways to build up speed. But you don't do it all at once. It's more efficient to execute a "gravity turn": you turn a slight bit off of your climb, and let gravity pull your path towards the horizontal. It's a neat trick, but it only works if you have little to no air resistance.

But look over at your left-hand display. Now, the orbit begins to fill out. It changes from a degenerate ellipse to a normal ellipse. As you gain speed, you gain energy, and this is expressed as a bigger orbit.

Now, look to your right. The map display shows your ground track mostly in pink. That's the "underground" portion of your trajectory. If you ever try to shoot a Moon landing, that'll come in handy. Where the green trace ends, that's where your path intersects the surface. (If you spend a bit of time learning how to use these displays, there's little to no actual cipherin' involved in flying this thing. Which is a good thing, becuase most rocket jockeys aren't mathematicians.)

At about six minutes into the flight, the autopilot has brought the pitch attitude to zero. It's all about the speed, now. The magic number is about 7,700 meters per second. You're not near that yet, but you're getting closer all the time. The ellipse on the left-hand display is growing visibly.

Now is a good time to do a bit of sight-seeing. Again, F1 toggles between inside and outside views. You can look back at Florida, and south to the Bahamas. The scenery is pretty good.

At about nine minutes, the autopilot will do something that might surprise you at first. You're getting close to your target altitude, so the autopilot pitches down to soak up excess vertical speed. Don't worry about it if that happens. It means you're almost done.

And then, at T +580 seconds, the engines shut down, the autopilot terminates, and you're in a stable circular orbit.

As I've said earlier, this is the easy part. Landing is much, much trickier ...


Here are some definitions of some of the terms on the Orbit display. I haven't defined all of them, just some of the more important ones.

SMa: Semi-major axis. This is one-half of the total distance, end-to-end, of the long side of the orbital ellipse.

SMi: Semi-minor axis. This is one-half of the total distance of the short side of the orbital ellipse. This is almost never used except to compute the eccentricity.

PeD: Periapsis Distance. The Periapsis is the point of closest approach to the Earth's center. If it's less than the Earth's radius (6,378.137 km) then your trajectory intersects the Earth's surface at some point. If unprepared for said intersection, you're going to have a bad day.

ApD: Apoapsis Distance. The Apoapsis is the highest point on an orbit.

Rad: Radius. This is your current distance from the center of the Earth.

Ecc: Eccentricity. This is a number, 0 to 1, describing how flat your ellipse is. Zero describes a circle, one describes either a degenerate ellipse or a parabola.

T: Total orbital period in seconds. This is how long it will take to go around and come back to your starting point. For a low circular Earth orbit, it's about an hour and a half, give or take.

PeT: Time to periapsis. This is how long you have to go to reach periapsis. It's important for timing orbital maneuvers: if you want to raise your apoapsis, you need to do your burn at periapsis.

ApT: Time to apoapsis. This is how long you have to go to reach apoapsis. It's the same deal: if you want to change your periapsis, you have to do the burn at apoapsis.

Vel: Current velocity. 'Nuff said.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Space Travel for Dummies, Part 4


Now, we come to the really hard part. It's worth mentioning that while nobody has actually ever died IN space, a total of nineteen have cashed in their chips going and coming. Breaking that down, it's seven on the way out, twelve on the way back. It's a very, very tricky thing to do, and it's easy to find yourself well and truly up the river without a paddle.

There's an odd little factoid about the first Space Shuttle mission that I find amusing. Both John Young and Bob Crippen were wired with medical sensors, recording heart rate and other parameters. Crippen, the rookie, recorded his highest heart rate during the launch. He wasn't too excited about re-entry and landing. Young, the veteran, took launch in stride. His pucker factor soared to its heights during re-entry. Obviously, he knew something Crippen didn't.

In short, it's the launch problem in reverse. You need to lose 18,000 MPH of speed and a couple of hundred miles of altitude without getting anything important broken, bent, or burned.

Easy to say, harder to do.

The first part is the easy part: you need to adjust your orbit so that the low part dips back down into the atmosphere. It doesn't take all that much fuel. You tap your maneuvering thrusters for about a minute or so, firing the jets out in front, soaking up a little of your orbital speed. Then, you start to descend. If there were no atmosphere present, your lowest approach would be about fifty miles up. But, there are a few billion air molecules standing in your way...

The basic idea is that you use friction and pressure drag to slow your vehicle down to a more manageable velocity, so that you don't have to use fuel to do the job. The problem is that your vehicle can only stand so much deceleration stress and thermal heating. There's a fairly narrow corridor, expressed as an altitude-versus-speed plot, that you can safely fly in. Too high, and you don't get enough deceleration, and skip back out into space. Too low, and it's a race between thermal stress and G-loading. One of them's gonna kill you, it's just a question of which one gets there first.

It's vitally important to keep control all the way through re-entry. Early ballistic capsules maintained control by putting the ship into a slow roll during re-entry. Kind of like a quarterback's spiral, only slower. More modern versions add active, computer-controlled guidance for extra control. Winged vehicles like the Shuttle can use their aerodynamic control surfaces once the dynamic pressure gets high enough. But if you lose control before you get down below Mach 1, you're in for a whole world of hurt. Vladimir Komarov found this out the hard way on Soyuz 1, when his capsule began spinning too fast. The parachute lines snarled up when they were deployed, and the Soviets were saved the trouble of cremation. They didn't find many pieces bigger than a soda can after the capsule struck the ground.

And then there's Columbia, which gamely tried to fly along missing its left wing for a little bit. A piece of icy foam tore a hole in its heat shield during launch, which let super-hot gases inside to romp and play with the aluminum wing structure during re-entry. It sagged, melted, and eventually let go. Parts were found in six or seven states.

Not that those are the only problems to be had. Soyuz 11 ran into a bit of trouble on its way back from Salyut 1. Russia very nearly scored another first on us. And it must be said, they did have the first space station. We, on the other hand, had the first space station crew who were able to brag about it afterwards. You see, a cabin purge valve had become stuck open during re-entry. It let all of the air out of the capsule, and the crew weren't wearing space suits. The predictable thing happened.

Coming down onto an airless world is just as exciting, but in a different way. Because there's no air, you have to burn enough fuel to do the deed. It's a more predictable process, since you can cipher out beforehand how much gas you need to bring along. They nearly got caught short the first time. Neil Armstrong landed on fumes. But they got better, and more precise, with each successive landing. It's interesting to note that while the computer was in control during most of powered descent, every final approach was flown by hand. No one trusted the guidance well enough that far down. Having had the chance to work with the algorithm, I can't blame them. It has an evil tendency to bend over sideways and burn for the horizon when the time-to-go gets short.

We seem to have lost a bit of the knack, though. The Mars Polar Lander had a senior moment during landing, and cut the engines about a hundred feet off the deck. Back to the drawing board...

Everyone says space is a dangerous place. That's rubbish. Getting there? Dangerous. Coming back? Really dangerous. Being there? Mostly harmless. Well, except for the time the oxygen converter caught fire, or when they rammed themselves with a cargo tug, or when the toilet stopped working... But those are stories for another day.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Space Travel for Dummies, Part 3


If you've been following along, by now you know the basics of how to get into orbit in the first place, and how to move around in Earth orbit once you get there. Which will do as far as things like going to the space station or putting a new satellite up go, but sometimes you'd like to step a bit further out. It's not all that much different than what we've already been talking about. You know the old saying, "What goes up, must come down?" Well, it's not always true.

If you throw something hard enough, it won't be coming back.

Let's revisit our good friend Superman up on Mount Everest. He still has a few baseballs left, and intends to put them to good use.

If you remember, last time he threw the ball a little harder than he had to in order to achieve a circular orbit, and put it into an elliptical orbit. If he puts more muscle into the throw, he can get it to sail higher and higher into the sky. The orbits get bigger and bigger, and they take longer and longer to get back to their starting point. Starting from 90 minutes, the orbit times extend to two hours, three hours, six hours, and longer. Then, you start measuring the orbits in days, not hours. They blast up to ten, twenty, a hundred thousand miles high. Eventually, he starts going home after he throws, coming back a couple of days later for the catch.

He's got one ball left.

He winds this one waaaaaaaaay back, and lets it go. It leaves his hand at over 36,000 miles per hour. If he weren't Superman, the shock wave would knock him down. Then, he packs up his stuff and goes home. He's done.

This one, you see, isn't coming back to Earth. Ever.

Here's what's happening: Gravity loses strength at the square of the distance from Earth. But, gravity can only drain your speed away at a linear rate. Most of the time, that's enough. It saps all of your vertical speed and pulls you right back. But if you're going fast enough, gravity can't suck speed away quickly enough, and no matter how far away you get you've always got a little speed left over.

So, that last ball Superman threw will sail across the Solar System forever. It's in a permanent Solar orbit, and probably won't ever come back to Earth.

This is an important principle, because that's what lets us leave Earth and strut our funky stuff across the Solar System. While gravity extends everywhere, it's not infinitely powerful, and can be overcome with enough effort. Sometimes, you even get to cheat a little bit and make gravity work for you.

That's the essence of what they call the gravity assist or "slingshot" maneuver. It's a way that you can get a speed boost and direction change for free, if you line everything up just right.

Ordinarily, changing speed and direction takes energy. And the only practical tool we have right now for doing that is a chemical rocket. Which means you have to bring along fuel to do it. Since you have to bring along fuel, you have to bring along fuel tanks, and that drives up the ship's weight.

That's bad. As the current NASA administrator, Mike Griffin, once wrote: "Spacecraft, like turkeys, are bought by the pound."

But, sometimes, you get to pull one over on Mother Nature. Here's how it works:

Imagine a skater, carrying a grapnel hook on a bungie line. He wants to round the corner, but doesn't want to expend the effort to turn his skates. So, he throws out his line, hooks a pole, and swings around.

By timing your approach and direction just right, you can swing around a planet just like the skater swung around the light pole.

As you fall in, coming from behind and below, you speed up as the planet pulls you in. As you speed away, the planet's gravity isn't able to suck your speed away quickly enough to get it all back. Basically, you've stolen a tiny bit of the planet's orbital momentum, and used it to speed up and change the direction of your orbit.

We've gotten pretty good at this. Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, all of them went through numerous slingshot encounters to achieve their missions.

And that's about it for basic orbital maneuvers. Once you escape Earth orbit, getting to and from another planet in the Solar System works just the same as getting to and from something in Earth orbit. You burn in the direction of travel to gain energy and go farther out, and you burn against the direction of travel to lose energy and go in.

Which brings us to a trick question. Remember this: you can amaze your friends at parties, because almost no one ever gets the right answer the first time.

Here's the problem: you've got a package of dangerous waste that you want to be rid of forever. You've got two options. One, drop it into the Sun, and two, send it into interstellar space.

Which one is easier?

Sending it into interstellar space, of course.

This stunned me the first time I heard it, but the numbers absolutely work out.

Earth's orbital velocity is about 30 kilometers per second. As a rule of thumb, escape velocity is about one and a half times orbital velocity. So, once you've escaped Earth, you have to gain about another 15 km/sec to achieve Solar escape velocity.

But to drop something straight down, you have to shed ALL of your orbital velocity. So, to drop something into the Sun means you have to find a way to shed a full 30 km/sec.

It's a hard fact to swallow, but I assure you, it's true.

Next time: How the heck to we get back home?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Space Travel for Dummies, Part 2


"East takes you out. Out takes you west. West takes you in. In takes you east."
-- Larry Niven, The Integral Trees

Once the main engines shut down, things get quiet. Not completely quiet. That would be bad. There's a constant hum and rattle of pumps pumping and motors whirring, but if that ever stops, breathing is liable to become just a little bit difficult. But the rumble of the main engines has stopped, which means that you've reached a stable orbit.

Now what?

Last time we took a look at how you get into orbit in the first place. Now, we're going to look at what you can do once you get there. It's not enough just to get into space. You need to know how to get around, so that you can go where you want to go, not just bore holes in the sky.

Let's rejoin Superman back on Mount Everest, where he just caught a baseball that he threw all the way around the world. What do you think would happen if he threw it just a little bit harder? There's only one way to find out ... He pulls another ball back, this one farther still, and lets it rip. Just like the other ball, it never touches the ground, but unlike the other ball, its path takes it not on a level path around the world, but slightly upwards. By the time it reaches Brazil, it's several miles higher than the first ball's path. But, it starts to fall closer to Earth after that. About two hours later, Superman catches it when it comes back.

Now, what's going on, here? In a word, it's all about energy. Neglecting atmospheric friction, the energy of an object in orbit is constant. If we start with an object in low Earth orbit, and give it just a slight kick so that it goes a little faster, its orbit is no longer a circle, it's an ellipse. The low point on the ellipse touches the original circular orbit. The high point on the ellipse sticks out just a little bit.

Consider the opening quote from The Integral Trees. It's a pretty good description of how basic orbital maneuvering works. Going East -- adding speed to your trajectory -- takes you Out -- farther away from Earth. Going Out takes you West -- as you climb up, you trade speed for altitude, and end up going a bit slower. If you left another spaceship back in your original orbit, if you look down, you'll see it pass under you. Going West -- taking speed away from your trajectory -- takes you In, or closer to Earth. This works the opposite way: you take a little bit of energy away from your orbit, and start to lose altitude. But now you're trading altitude for speed, and you'll pass anything you left in your original orbit. Which brings us -- you guessed it -- to the last bit: "In takes you East."

These facts are the foundation of the art of orbital rendezvous. You don't catch up to another spaceship by burning your engines constantly until you match position. No, what you do is enter a higher or lower orbit, and wait. At just the right time, you make an orbital adjustment burn, and match trajectory with your target. The actual math is a lot more complicated than that, but that's the general idea. You spend most of your time in space waiting for the right time to make these maneuvers.

The other thing is, you're not always in the same orbital plane as the spaceship you want to dock with. The way you want to handle this is to make sure you launch into the right orbital plane to begin with. That's why you hear about "launch windows" all the time. It's possible to change your orbital plane once you get into space, but plane change maneuvers drink fuel like nobody's business. You never want to do one unless you have to. It's always easier to make sure you get the plane right the first time around. But if you do have to, the way you change the plane of your orbit is that you fire your rocket at right angles to your current direction of travel. That is, instead of firing ahead or behind, you fire your rocket sideways.

In any case, now that we've gotten ourselves into space, we know how to move around and get where we want. Next time, we'll talk about going a little farther out: to the Moon, and beyond.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Fear and Loathing at Wal-Mart

There's been a trend afoot at major retailers for quite some time now, and it really torques me off.

I really, really hate being treated like a crook.

At first it was the CDs. I don't think there was ever a time when they weren't packaged in such a way as to prevent use by their legitimate owners. That, at least, has gotten a bit better. Back in the day they used this industrial-strength Kryptonite stick-um that would never, ever come off the case. These days at least you can get the goo off. But it still takes two or three minutes of dedicated, painstaking effort to open the damned thing. All because the retailers are convinced that everyone entering their store is just aching to exercise a bit of five-finger discount.

Buy a clue, dolts. Not everyone is a thief.

The latest offense was, I suppose, at least partly my fault. Naive rube that I am, I dropped $20 on a new watch at Wally World without bringing along my Gerber Multi-Plier, acetylene torch, and other assorted cutting tools.

I remember a time when you could buy a watch, take it out of the box, and you were done. Not so. No, now the damned thing is secured to its packaging with not one, not two, but THREE nylon straps. Nosiree, no one's walking away with one of these babies without a fight!

But what of the poor consumer who just wants a way not to be late for something important? There's nothing for it but to use your teeth and car keys in ways that neither God nor General Motors really intended.

Now, I don't object to a bit of active loss prevention here and there. They've got a right to get their fair due for their merchandise, and I've known one or two people in my time who'd steal for sport, to say nothing of necessity. But surely, in the modern day, there are less offensive ways of doing it? Some way that won't actively diminish my enjoyment of the product?

In my more optimistic moments, I envision a day when store security can rely on RFID tags on all their merchandise. If you try to walk off with something, it'll cry out for help all by itself. You won't have to watch the merchandise. It'll watch itself.

In my more pessimistic moments, though, I imagine that the damned sadists LIKE doing this to me. They ENJOY your pain. "Welcome to Wal-Mart, shopper. This head-vise is a preventive security measure that we only extend to our most valued customers." "Oh, that boot to the groin was just a courtesy detail." "Molten sand enema? Anyone?"

On-line shopping looks better and better all the time. At least that way, I can be sure to have all my tools at hand when I have to open the damned box.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Space Travel for Dummies, Part 1


For years now, I've threatened to write a book on space travel, but have never made the time to do the deed. There's a niche to be had, for a book somewhere between kids' picture-books and professional-level textbooks. I have a couple dozen pages of notes, somewhere. Provided that they haven't been thrown away in a cleaning binge.

Anyhow, it probably ain't gonna happen. So, I'm going to do the next best thing. I'll collect those thoughts here, in a series of posts. I'm not sure how many posts it'll be.

First off, let's talk about falling. Not just any kind of falling. This is falling with panache, daring, and style. Any fool can fall and hit the ground, but it takes great skill to fall ... and miss.

Imagine, if you will, Superman standing on the summit of Mount Everest with a pile of baseballs. Let's say that he picks one up and throws it. It flies eastward a bit, before smacking into the peak next door. He decides that was a pitiful effort, picks up another, and heaves it a bit harder. It flies over the next mountain, and lands somewhere in eastern Nepal. We can't see it from where we stand. It's gone a bit around the curve of the Earth. Still not satisfied, he picks up another ball and throws it with more force. This time, it plinks into the Pacific, somewhere north of the Phillippines. He keeps repeating the process, dunking the next ball off the cost of Ecuador, and then skipping it across the ground somewhere in Brazil. Then, at last, he pulls one back and lets it go ... and it never quite touches the ground. It screams through the sky, twenty-five times faster than sound, always falling but never hitting anything, until, about 90 minutes later, Supes turns around, and THWACK! He neatly traps it in his catcher's mitt.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is called an orbit.

It doesn't matter what's doing the orbiting, or what it's shaped like. It could be a baseball, a '57 Buick, an Orange Julius stand, or the Eiffel Tower. If you can drag it a couple hundred miles straight up, then set it moving sideways at 18,000 miles per hour, it will circle the Earth indefinitely.

The other thing to notice is that the Earth's gravity is still in full force. There's no such thing as Zero-G in Earth orbit. We sometimes use the word, but it's sloppy. Better to say "free-fall", because that's what's really happening. Something that's in orbit around the Earth is falling all the time. But it's going so fast, that the ground curves away before it can hit. Yes, it is possible to fall and miss the ground. All you need to pull that trick off is a bit of speed.

The next question is, how do you do it?

Well, remember, there are two things you have to do. First, you have to lift it up outside of Earth's atmosphere. Second, you have to accelerate it to orbital speed. It's pretty tough to do both at the same time. It's incredibly tough to try to do it with only one set of engines.

It ought to be fairly obvious that the "lift" job needs a really powerful, high-thrust engine. It's not as obvious what the "accelerate" job needs. For that, we'll have to look at two equations:

[1] V2 - V1 = Ve * EXP (M1/M2)

V2 and V1 are the final and initial speeds, respectively. Ve is the exhaust speed of the rocket, and M1 and M2 are the initial and final weights of the rocket. The other equation is:

[2] P = Ve * T

P is the power produced by the rocket engine, and T is the thrust.

Now, here's the sad and sorry fact: for chemical rocket engines, P is pretty much fixed. Energetic chemical reactions all produce about the same power level. There's not a whole lot of difference there. Where they are different is in how fast the exhaust moves. An engine with fast-moving exhaust gives us a better top speed. We see that from [1] above. But, looking at [2], we see that when Ve is big, and P is fixed, then T has to be smaller. Going the other way, if we want lots of T, we have to live with less Ve, and not as much speed.

But, because we have two different jobs to do, we need both kinds. Look at the Shuttle, for example. The solid rocket boosters aren't too terribly efficient, but they're absolutely swimming in thrust. When they light off, the Shuttle leaps off the pad with force and authority; as long as those SRBs are burning, you're going somewhere. When they're done, the Shuttle's main engines take over. They're not super-powerful, but they're about as efficient as chemical rockets get. Now that the heavy lifting's done, they can bend over sideways and start building up some speed.

Just about every modern rocket system uses the same scheme. The Ariane 5 uses parallel staging like the Shuttle, with solid boosters flanking a hydrogen/oxygen core stage. Others, like Russia's Soyuz rockets, use clusters of kerosene rockets to do the lifting, before handing over to a more efficient upper stage for orbital insertion. There was a proposal in the '50s to use balloons to take a rocket up out of the dense layers of the atmosphere, and shoot it into space from there. It was never tried, so far as I know. It wasn't a bad idea, and might have worked. Other proposals use a large 747-type plane as a mother ship, carrying a rocket plane piggy-back to 40,000 feet or so, before the rocket plane separates and flies into space. Also not a bad idea, but there are some kinks to work out.

That will do for an introduction. Next time, we'll figure out how to get around in space once we actually get there.