Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in Review, Part Two

[Part One of 2009 in Review can be found here, and Part 1.5 can be found here.]

It's been a very interesting year in science and technology. Of course, just about any year is these days. So much is happening, and in so many fields, that it's literally impossible for one person to keep up with it all. My list will be slanted by my own prejudices and interests. If you feel that I have omitted anything important, please feel free to add to the list in the comments below. Also, this list is in no particular order of importance. I'm not sure I'm qualified to assign that kind of importance, anyway.

The Limits of Peer Review: Peer review is an important part of the modern scientific method. When done right, it enforces logical rigor and correct methodology. It can expose important errors before they reach print. And it can keep a scientist from the embarrassment of stating something in public that turns out to be complete nonsense. But, like any other human institution, it's not perfect. Once a view, any view, has achieved "consensus" status, it's very expensive to a scientist's reputation to hold a contrary opinion. Peer review can then become institutionalized group-think. This is when the role of the contrarian can become most important. The health of science itself depends upon the professional heretic. We need to periodically review the things we believe to be true. We need to re-examine assumptions that may have heretofore been unquestioned. This needs to be done not once but continually, so that new evidence can be inspected and interpreted. My main point here is that a consensus isn't a destination, it's a temporary way-point. The fact that you have one doesn't mean that you can stop asking questions.

Polywell Marches On: There's not a whole lot being said in public, but the Polywell experiments in inertial electrostatic confinement continue apace. We will probably know in about a year if the effort is bearing fruit. We probably won't see any public announcements ... the thing to watch will be continuing contract awards. If the Navy keeps throwing money at it, they're probably making progress. I will be watching with keen interest. Fusion power plants are a transformational game-changer where energy policy is concerned. Hydrogen, being the most abundant element in the known Universe, is something we're quite unlikely to run out of anytime soon.

Fuel Cell Airplanes: Which is all well and good, since it is possible at least in principle to convert all of our ground-based transportation to electrically-powered vehicles. There's a big segment of our economy that does not address, though. What do you do about aviation? Can you come up with an electrical system that's small enough yet powerful enough to drive an airplane? The answer would appear to be yes, you can. This should not be a terribly astonishing development. After all, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s the Gemini and Apollo series of manned spacecraft derived all of their electrical power from fuel cells. It was just a matter of boosting the power-to-weight ratios enough to make them practical airplane powerplants. This provides an avenue for replacing all prop-driven engines with fuel-cell equivalents, eventually.

Water on the Moon: This has been speculated for the last fifteen years, at least, and so was not exactly news to me. But this year we actually got the first direct measurement of actual water, frozen into actual lunar craters, in the polar regions that never get any direct sunlight. This is more interesting than practical, generally speaking. Long-term, it's not a terrifically useful resource. Water frozen into sunless lunar craters over eons is basically a non-renewable resource. Some uses would be reasonable, like feed-stock for a closed-loop life support system. Feed-stock for rocket propellant, on the other hand, is just plain dumb. You don't base your logistics on a resource that you know that you're going to run out of. We've done that by accident with oil, we sure don't need to do it on purpose.

More Extrasolar Planets: They're finding more all the time, and the techniques are improving such that they're finding smaller planets. When they found the first extrasolar planets back in the early '90s, the only things they could find were gas-giant behemoths that would make Jupiter look puny; now, we're finding planets closer to Earth-size. There are enough of them to form a category: Super-Earths. Thirty have been found in all, four in 2009 alone. It is only a matter of time before we find a twin world to our own Earth, out there in the cosmos. Mind you, finding is one thing, going there another matter entirely. Don't expect to book a ticket, round-trip or one-way, anytime in the next couple of centuries.

The Coming Biotech Revolution: The panic news this last spring and summer was all about Swine Flu. This flu season, not so much; between the rapid development of a vaccine and the availability of Tamiflu, the pandemic has been rather less damaging than had been feared. There's a lot we still don't understand about molecular biology, but we're beginning to close some of the gaps. Between them, nanotech and biotech will be the transformative technologies of the next fifty years. One of the first fruits of biotech has been Tamiflu, which has made this year's flu outbreak much less scary than it might have been otherwise. And that's only the tip of the iceberg. It could well render our current concept of medicine obsolete. A hundred years ago, a doctor might have said, "Take two of these and call me in the morning" because he didn't know what else to do. A hundred years from now a doctor might say the same thing, but in that case, "two of these" will be a swarm of medical micro-robots that will go in and fix what ails you. Some of you reading this will be alive to see these things happen. Truly, some amazing days are ahead of us.

At the end of the day, if I have faith in anything at all, I have faith in the power of human ingenuity. Invenium viam aut facium is the motto carved on Robert Peary's headstone, "I shall find a way or make one," and it's a fit motto for the human race as a whole. I look ahead to 2010 and beyond with guarded optimism. Problems we have, and in plenty; but we also enjoy the benefit that ninety percent of all the scientists who have ever lived are alive and working today. We may not lack for problems, but neither do we lack for brainpower to find solutions. When I think about them, patiently and diligently piecing together the undiscovered secrets of science, I'm reminded that our best days aren't behind us. They are yet to come.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

[Ed. Note: I haven't given up on 2009 in Review, but am taking a short holiday break. Part One is here, Part 1.5 is here, and Part Two will be forthcoming shortly. Today, I'm sharing a repost about Christmas eight years ago. Enjoy!]

The story that follows is true. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

The year 2001 started out well enough, but with September began a bit of a slump, for reasons that should be obvious. Christmas left me with little to celebrate that year, newly unemployed and wondering what I'd be doing next. So, when we all decided to go to the midnight Christmas Eve service, that gave me something to look forward to. I had never been to a midnight service before. It promised to be something new, something wonderful, and something inspirational.

It lived up to the new part. I'm still not sure about the rest.

We had been attending the little Presbyterian church for about three months, maybe four. We had all enjoyed the experience so far. The interim minister had just preached his last service, and we were sorry to see him go. The new minister hadn't started yet. As I understand it, there's a list of pastors without regular commitments who will preach on an as-needed basis, and we had rounded up one of these. He came with good recommendations, and had done well with the earlier service. So, we settled in for a comforting, enlightening message about the Advent of our Savior.

Right away, it became apparent that something was simply not right.

You have to understand something about Presbyterians. They live and die by the Book of Order. There is a very specific sequence in which things are to happen within a service. You can almost set your watch by the order of worship. In, say, a Baptist service, the minister might well deviate from the plan if he thinks of something better; in a Presbyterian service you bloody well stick with it to the bitter end. It is simply the way it is done.

So, when the minister began skipping around within the order of worship, we suspected something might be up.

He called for the offering mighty early. He skipped around with the hymns, which flustered the choir director mightily. He even skipped a few hymns, I think. Parts of that evening are still a blur. But the staff rolled with the punches fairly well, and the thing hung together, up to the time he began his message. We settled back into our pews, expecting a sweet message on the miracle of Christmas, the birth of the Christ child.

Oh, no. It wasn't going down that way, not at all. Those poor, unsuspecting Presbyterians looked on in mute horror as the Right Reverend Punchy MacAngry regaled them with a fiery sermon on the Gospel of the Two-Fisted Fightin' Jesus.

"I hear all this talk about love, but no one ever wants to talk about SIN," he thundered from the pulpit. I thought this to be a decidedly odd way to begin a Christmas sermon. It went downhill from there. He went on to rant about his sister, who had apparently told him once that being a military chaplain wasn't a man's job. His response: "It takes more of a man to preach the Word of God than to be out WHORING AROUND!" I had never actually heard anyone curse from the pulpit before. Oh sure, I have heard ministers talk about Hell and damnation. But outright cursing is something I hadn't heard in that venue before that night. And the fist-shaking rage, the purple-faced profanity-laced tirades, which would not be at all out of place for a Marine Corps drill instructor, but not quite what you expect from a mild-mannered Presbyterian minister.

Me, I was bewildered and somewhat confused by all this. But I had been raised by a retired Senior Master Sergeant, cussed at by an experienced professional, and didn't take any of it personally. The other poor people in that room, who had not been so inoculated, stood transfixed like deer in headlamps. The white-hot profanity seared their ears like branding irons. When the tirade finally wound down to a conclusion, you could hear a pin drop.

The choir director somehow had the presence of mind to direct the conclusion of the service, Christmas hymns sung by candlelight.

It was more or less at this point that my sister-in-law's hair caught fire.

Part of our goal in going to the late service was to tire out the children so that they would sleep in the next morning. (A dismal failure, by the way. They woke up as early as they always do.) Problem was, they were so tired, they couldn't hold the candles without setting fire to themselves. She leaned down to help one of her kids hold it steady, and one of the locks of her hair dipped into the candle's flame. The fire wasn't big, thank God, but she had to beat it out or it would have spread.

After the last hymn, the crowd filed out in silence. Not the respectful silence following a solemn service like, say, Good Friday, but the stunned silence of the witnesses of a massacre. Not a word was spoken, until we were in the car, on the way home. Then, I think I turned to my wife and asked, "Did I imagine that, or did he really go there?"

And so it has come to pass that re-telling this story is now part of my family's Christmas tradition. A very surreal ending to what had been a pretty dismal autumn. Sometimes the things that happen make no sense, no sense at all, but you just have to get through them anyway.

Life does, after all, go on.

More Christmas cheer can be found in a piece by David Sedaris. Part One can be found here, Part Two here, and Part Three here. Or, if you would prefer not to patronize YouTube, the transcript is here.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

2009 in Review, Part 1.5

Part One is here.

There are a few late developments that fit into the "domestic and foreign affairs" bucket that I didn't get around to last time. There are three things in particular that I'd like to touch on before moving to Part Two.

The President's Style: The one thing you must understand about this man is that he's a ruthless pragmatist. Nothing that he does makes any sense at all unless you realize this. He's a liberal in his heart of hearts, sure enough, but he's also keenly interested in what can actually be done. He seems to recognize that the perfect is the enemy of the good. This is unusual in a liberal politician. It's unusual in modern politicians, period. We've become accustomed to "my way or the highway" stonewalling. I won't necessarily agree with everything that he does, but I do like the way he uses the process to let Congress define the zone of possible agreement.

The Coming Republican Crack-Up: I've been expecting one for a few years now. The Reagan coalition amongst social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and national security conservatives is falling apart at the seams. The only remaining question is: who's going to be in control of the GOP apparatus when the dust settles? We probably won't know until after 2012, but one possibility intrigues me. What if the Tea Party crowd bolts the GOP entirely, and makes a run of it as a real third party? I hear grumbling along these lines. I don't know if it's going to get any traction, but it could. A weak Republican party becomes less attractive for conservative politicians, from organizational and fund-raising standpoints both. There comes a point when a third party might well make sense. Long odds, I agree, but it could make life very interesting for a few years.

Epic Fail, Military History Department: Speaking of the Tea Party, Michelle Bachman recently compared them to the Light Brigade, immortalized in the famous poem by Tennyson. I wonder if anyone ever told Rep. Bachman that Balaclava was a defeat, not a victory? Probably not: the Crimean War wasn't what you'd call important, and isn't studied much unless you're a history buff or an officer candidate. I fear that most of my knowledge thereof comes from George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series rather than from actual history books. Still, Balaclava provides a good study in how not to draft orders. Depending on who you talk to, the fault lay with the overall commander Lord Raglan, or his adjutant Brigadier Airey, or the courier Captain Nolan, or the cavalry chief General Lucan, or with Lord Cardigan who actually led the charge. The truth is probably some combination of all of the above. We will probably never know. Of the five men involved, only Captain Nolan had knowledge of the process from end to end, but since he ate a cannonball during the charge, he was unavailable for comment afterwards. The end result of Raglan's vague, poorly-drafted order was that a brigade of cavalry charged into a valley fortified with cannon on three sides, to attack the battery at the far end; the result was pretty much what you'd expect. In any case, a Balaclava experience isn't anything I'd want to see happen to a group I had fond wishes for; one must therefore assume that Rep. Bachman didn't really understand what she was talking about. Mind you, the Charge was awesome, in the same sense that the attack of Torpedo Squadron Eight at Midway was, and the Spartans' last stand at Thermopylae; but I'd rather not re-enact any of them. But if the Tea Partiers really want to re-enact the British Cavalry at Balaclava, more power to 'em.

Friday, December 11, 2009

2009 in Review, Part One

Now that the first decade of the 21st Century is drawing to a close, it is a good time to look back and take stock of the year's important events. By "important" I mean what I think people will look back on in twenty years, not what the howling heads on cable news label newsworthy. The two are occasionally related ... But I assure you, in twenty years' time, L'Affaire Woods will only be of interest to trivia completists. So, on with the show: Part One will cover domestic and foreign affairs, and Part Two will cover science and technology.

Obama Administration, Year One: Graded R, for work-in-progress. No matter who takes office, the Presidency has a very steep learning curve. Obama has done fairly well so far. Not necessarily exceptional, but still more or less what I thought I was buying last November. While no plan ever survives contact with reality, he's rolled with the punches, and moved the chains. He understands that politics is often the art of the half-loaf, as opposed to "my way or the highway." It's an approach that moves both faster and slower than people realize. For example, while Obama has not gotten his health-care overhaul through Congress yet, he's gotten closer to that goal in his first year than any President since Truman ever did.

Financial Crisis: This is probably what 2009 will be remembered for most by historians of the future, as the worst year of what some have been calling the Great Recession. But bear in mind that, only a year or so ago, some were fearing an actual depression as opposed to a recession. It's too early to say that a corner has been turned, but even so there's reason for guarded optimism. While the stimulus didn't work as well as its planners had hoped, it did work somewhat. And while many were outraged at the Wall Street bailout, it was a necessity at the time. Taken together, those two measures returned a sense of stability to the financial markets. The next few years may well be tight, and credit will probably never again be as easy as it was five years ago. But at least the money is moving again. And, as inventory is drawn down, hiring will rise as demand for production increases. With luck, the worst is over.

Cleaning Up The Mess: Closing the prison at Guantanamo has proven rather more complex than it had been assumed at first, which didn't really surprise me. But we're moving in that direction, and moving forward on trials for detainees still in custody, which is a very good thing. The trials will expose for the public record what was done to the detainees while in our custody. The torture that was condoned under the Bush Administration is a stain upon America's honor. The stain can only be washed clean by the disinfecting power of sunlight. I wish that it were not necessary to say that, but the actions of Bush and Cheney forced it upon us. The sooner we face up to that and acknowledge what was done in our name, the better.

Winding Up, Winding Down: While we are winding down our commitment in Iraq, we are also winding up our presence in Afghanistan. In my opinion, this is overdue by at least two years. We don't want to be in Afghanistan forever. But at the same time, we also need to make sure it doesn't turn right back around and become a nation-sized terrorist training camp. That, at least, is still an achievable goal. Looking back, I think people will mark this as the year Afghanistan moved back to the front burner. It's still to early to tell if the shift was just in time, or too late.

Our New Best Friend: I think it's telling that Obama's first state dinner wasn't with one of our neighbors or with a long-time ally, but with the Prime Minister of India. Our growing partnership with the world's largest democracy is our most important relationship with a developing country. Though our cultured differ, we are alike in that we are both former British colonies; and through India's inherited British-derived institutions, we are more alike than different in many ways. India will graduate into major-power status sometime in the next hundred years. They will be a very important friend to have when they do. It's good to see that we're still building on the foundation laid by the Bush Administration's State Department. It's one of the few things they didn't screw up.

The Right Doubles Down On The Crazy: The Reagan Coalition continues to disintegrate. The Republicans managed to lose a seat in New York that they had since ... well, basically since there was a Republican Party, and the social conservatives hailed that as a victory. They have no economic program except for tax cuts, they have no foreign policy besides mindless belligerence, and have more or less run off the serious economic conservatives and the serious national-security conservatives. There are a few serious-minded Republicans out there, but they're keeping a low profile while the Tea Party fanatics run wild. It will be interesting to see what happens. Will the fanatics finally purge all opposition from their party? Or, will they decide they don't need no stinking Republican Party, and opt for going it alone? If that happens, look for a three-way race in 2012. Or 2016. Either way, that will probably mark the nadir of the right's descent into madness.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Video Del Fuego, Part XXIV

I'm not sure any translation is necessary:

Do I really need to say, "Don't try this at home?" Anyone with two brain cells to rub together ought to know that joyriding a medieval siege engine is an express train to Hurtville, especially if you should miss the net.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Storytellers, Advocates, and Scientists

There are basically three ways to present facts to the public.

The Storyteller is only interested in facts insofar as they make a good story. He doesn't need to be right, he just needs to be plausible, and even that only long enough to finish the story. We, the public, will happily suspend disbelief of things we know to be untrue for the sake of entertainment. Indeed, some of our highest-paid citizens are actors who facilitate such storytelling. We don't castigate storytellers for "lying". Rather, it's proverbial that facts should never get in the way of a good story.

The Advocate is only interested in facts insofar as they provide evidence. To prove his point, the advocate needs evidence to support his argument, and he needs to suppress or discredit evidence to the contrary. In this the advocate is being neither dishonest nor mendacious, he is simply doing his job. Paired off against another advocate, it is the jury's job (or the public's) to decide whose case stands up to reality better.

The Scientist's job is to explain the facts -- all of them. Not just the ones that fit a pet theory, but the outliers, too. To analyze the totality of the data available, and glean from them the underlying principle at work -- this is the scientist's proper task. The honest scientist follows where the data lead, come what may.

The thing that gets us into trouble is when individuals begin confusing the roles.

I am, of course, talking about the recently-leaked e-mail exchanges between the leading scientists that supported the theory of anthropogenic global warming.

Color me unimpressed. Maybe that's because I've always thought the hockey-stick graph was nonsense. That particular hobby-horse has always reeked of scientists straying into advocacy. The fact is, there has always been a considerable amount of variability in Earth's climate. Within the written historical record, it has been warm enough that the southern tip of Greenland made good economic sense as a way-station between northern Europe and Vinland. Within the written historical record, it has also been cold enough that the Hudson River froze sufficiently solid to drag artillery across during the Revolution. And when you get right down to it, we just don't know what caused either the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice Age. Indeed, as of the early 1970s, the climate buzzword was "Next Ice Age", because if you look at the longest-term climate trends, we're due one any day now. (Well, maybe any century now.) If anything, we may well be in a slight cooling period. The current Solar cycle, Solar Cycle 24, has been abnormally quiet. The last time this happened, the Little Ice Age may have been the result.

The honest answer is, we just don't know.

In my opinion, global warming is bad science, and has always been. As a theory of climate change, it cannot explain either the Medieval Warm Period, nor the Little Ice Age, and if you bring up either of those two at a climate conference you will face vicious personal attacks.

This doesn't mean the climate change itself is bad science. And this is what I find most frustrating about the whole affair.

The CO2 concentration data is clear and incontrovertible: the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are at simply absurd values based on the deep-drill ice core data. We don't know for sure what that's going to do to us. We probably shouldn't wait too long to find out. But we do need to quantify what it's really doing.

But as clinching as the CO2 data was, it wasn't sexy enough. It didn't stoke enough fear. So, it's entirely possible that a group of scientists yielded to the temptation to become advocates, and cooked the data a little so that they could be sure to "find" the right answer. And now that the shenanigans are coming out in the open, their eagerness jeopardizes everything they've worked for.

In a sense, this revelation changes nothing. We're running an open-ended experiment on elevated CO2 concentrations, and that is probably unwise. Even discounting global warming (which, generally, I do), there are plenty of good reasons to reduce CO2 emissions. The brown haze that hangs over most of our cities is one. Impoverishing Islamic extremists is another. Making Hugo Chavez shut up and deal with his own country is yet another. Reducing our need for oil tankers is another still. We need to transcend fossil fuels, and transition our economy to other energy sources. As I've said before, this won't be easy. But it won't get any easier if we wait.

In another sense, this revelation makes the transition that much harder to begin. It hands ammunition to the people who think we don't need to change anything at all. This is the price paid when a scientist dabbles into advocacy. The most powerful thing about the scientific method is the way that the truth always points to itself. You may try to diddle with the data, and you may succeed for a while. But it always comes out. And when it does, you run the risk that the revelation will set a match to everything you've built.

I think it would have been far better if they'd played it straight, and built their case on the CO2 data alone. We might be no closer to an answer, but we'd be no farther away either. And the science itself would have been trustworthy, through and through.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Ballad of Acceptance Test

I've been busy enough to wish I was triplets. But sanity should return to my schedule in a few weeks. Until then, I leave you with a ballad that should apply to all engineers working through the acceptance test phase of a project:

Friday, November 06, 2009

Friends and Foes

The day after a huge event is always a bad time to ask big questions, like "What does this mean?" You're too close, you haven't had time to think on it yet, the emotions are still too raw. But it's always the first one that comes to mind. And if past crises are any guide, someone will leap immediately to their favorite answer straight away, and learn the wrong lesson. We don't know why Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire on soldiers at Fort Hood yesterday, and indeed we may never know; he's in a coma and might well never regain consciousness. I will neither ask nor attempt to answer that question. There are a few other thoughts rattling around in my head that I want to chase.

First: I think we should contrast the oath of service that an enlisted person takes versus the oath that an officer takes. Upon induction, enlisted personnel take this oath:

"I, (name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."

Officers, upon commissioning, take this oath:

"I, (name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God."

They're the same, up through the bit about "true faith and allegiance." That's where they diverge. The enlisted person swears to obey orders, while the officer swears honest intent to do a good job. Interestingly, the officer does not swear to follow orders. He's expected to, and can get in a whole lot of trouble if he doesn't, but it's not in the oath of commissioning. But the important part is that the officer swears that he accepts his responsibilities freely, and without reservations.

Here's the thing: an officer cannot -- CANNOT -- have any higher calling than his commission. Nothing in this life can come before bearing true faith and allegiance to the United States. Nothing. It's a hard road, and one not everyone can follow. After much soul-searching, I found that to be true for me, and I left the AFROTC program after my second year.

The honorable thing for an officer to do when he finds that he cannot carry out his assigned task in good conscience is to resign his commission. Simply that. It may carry unpleasant consequences. Those consequences may be quite severe, depending on circumstances. But that's what an honest man with honest intent would do in that situation. It is no one's fault but Hasan's that he did not choose this path.

Second: The usual suspects have swarmed out of the woodwork, alternately bellowing that it's all about religion, or that religion had nothing to do with it. Horsefeathers, the lot of 'em. You'd have to be outright delusional to think religion had nothing to do with it, given that he shouted an Islamic slogan prior to opening fire. There is a religious dimension to what's happening, but it's not as simple as Islam versus the West. At the end of the day we have to remind ourselves: what are we fighting for? It's the same old fight, just a new phase. Andrew Sullivan puts it quite well: "We are fighting to retain an open democracy, where all religions can coexist, where religion is separate from politics, where toleration is a civic virtue." There are world-views, both within radical Islam and within some of the more backward strains of Christianity, to which this is anathema.

This is the shape of the enemy: men for whom Church and State must march side-by-side, in perfect lockstep. One of the great geniuses of the American experiment is the way by which we prevent the bloody murder that often happens when different faiths rub together. It wasn't too terribly long ago that members of different Christian denominations in Europe were slaughtering one another wholesale. Even today, the wrong answer to the question "Protestant or Catholic?" can earn you a beating in Belfast. The doctrine of separation of Church and State is the wall that keeps that insanity out. The Church cannot use the State to enforce its will, and the State in turn cannot interfere in matters of conscience.

The fight we have joined is to preserve this idea. It is anathema to bin Laden, who believes in an Islam that is both Church and State. But we have allies, even within the Muslim world. Take Turkey, for example: a majority Muslim nation, yet with a strong, secular government. And we have allies at home: good, hard-working, honest men and women of all faiths who simply want to live their lives and raise their families. In this crisis, we must resist with all our strength the temptation to over-react. The enemy is not the man down the street who prays differently than you do. The enemy is the man down the street who insists that everyone pray exactly the same way he does.

The task before us? Discerning the difference between the two. And that won't be easy.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Video Del Fuego, Part XXIII

Today, Video del Fuego once again lives up to its name, with the NASA TV feed of Wednesday's Ares I-X launch:

Which goes to show you that even an underpowered rocket looks pretty darned impressive, close-up.

The Rockets' Red Glare

At 11:30 Eastern Time on Wednesday, NASA's first new rocket design in nearly forty years began a brief test flight, flying some 25-30 miles high and 150 miles downrange. The first stage was mostly a complete Ares I first stage, with the upper stages being all boilerplate ballast. Performance-wise, everything looked all right, from what I can tell. The prototype first stage did pretty much what a first stage has to do: lift the stack up above most of the atmosphere, and accelerate it to somewhere around Mach 5. What I'm curious to find out is how the vibration loads worked out. Preliminary design revealed some vibration problems early on, presumably the prototype incorporates some kind of vibration absorber. It'll take some time to spin the data down, though; it may be weeks before they know, and weeks after that before the report comes out. And it'd be nice if Ares I had enough lifting power to haul a six-man Orion capsule into orbit, being that the International Space Station has a crew of six... Still, a job well done for the Ares crew. But that's not the only interesting thing happening over in NASA-land.

Unless you've been paying close attention, you won't have known that the Augustine Commission has released its final report on America's manned spaceflight program. It's an interesting document. Basically, it outlines two problems: selection of goals, and marshaling the resources to achieve those goals. The two are related, in that the amount of resources you allocate determines what kinds of goals you can accomplish.

The fundamental fact is this: the United States is willing to spend between half to one percent of the Federal budget on space flight. Not more, and not less. The spectacular failure of Von Braun's post-Apollo plans was entirely due to his failure to realize this fact. No one today has that excuse. Over the last 35 years, the give-and-take of politics has quite firmly established what the American public is willing to pay.

Nevertheless, given that the current budget is at the low end of that range, there is room for some growth. And some growth is necessary, if we want to explore beyond Earth orbit. Basically, the FY2010 baseline budget won't allow any operations beyond Earth orbit. You just can't get there from here. But a modest increase -- and, relatively speaking, one half of one percent is a modest increase -- will provide enough resources to develop the vehicles and technologies to enable meaningful, useful exploration.

Mind you, I don't think that a flags-and-footprints jaunt would be either useful or particularly meaningful. But, exploring the far side of the Moon, where no one's been yet, or exploring the polar regions where we've recently discovered water ice... These are well worth doing. So would a flyby of a near-Earth asteroid, which would give us more information about a class of celestial objects that we really need to know more about.

I don't especially care how we go about doing it. I prefer the "Flexible Path" options outlined in the report, because that seems to give us a sufficiently flexible infrastructure to do whatever we want to do. That would be a better way to spend the taxpayers' money, in my opinion. The irony is that Ares I isn't part of any of those options. Ares I isn't part of any of the options, aside from the "program of record" entries. As I said earlier, Ares I is sadly underpowered, and the project probably isn't long for this world. The report makes that fairly clear. But the ultimate goals aren't in any real danger, since there are other rockets that can do the job.

Now, the decision rests with NASA management, and with the White House. They will have to take the recommendations of the Augustine Commission under advisement, and figure out how we go forward from here. We know where we are. We know where we want to end up.

Now, we have a better idea how go get there.

[Addendum, 1Nov09: Mr. X over at Chair Force Engineer has a wealth of recent posts about the Ares 1-X launch, the Augustine Commission report, and the Constellation program in general. Well worth a look.]

Friday, October 16, 2009

Texas Chooses a Governor (Sort Of)

Fall is my favorite season in Texas for a number of reasons. We like to say that we only have two seasons, Summer and Winter, separated by thunderstorms. That's not entirely true. Fall is different from both Summer and Winter. It's God's way of saying He's sorry for the soul-destroying fury of the Summer sun. Once the thunderstorms are out of the way, the weather is simply marvelous. The sky is a pristine dome the color of fine Toledo steel, there's warm sun and cool breeze in perfect measure, and the plant life begins to take a well-earned rest from the labors of Spring and Summer. But those aren't the only reasons I look forward to Fall. For one, that's when football season starts again. And for another, in odd years, it's when the primary season gets underway. Every even year, we're either electing a President, or a Governor.

The office of Governor in Texas is, by design, fairly weak as most states go. The executive powers that some states vest in a strong Governorship, we split up between the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor. They're elected separately, and have occasionally been from different parties. That makes for interesting news, when the Governor has one set of ideas and the LG has something completely different in mind. This tends to confuse recent arrivals from other states. Well, at least other non-Southern states; I think most Southern states have a similar set-up. I say jokingly that Texas' Constitution was written with the primary purpose of infuriating Yankees, but that's not too terribly far from the truth. That it kind-of, sort-of works is an unexpected benefit.

So, I'm always interested to see who lines up to pay a very steep price to win a job with less authority than your average Wal-Mart manager. This year's race looks very interesting indeed, at least on the Republican side.

The two leading challengers on the Republican side are the incumbent Governor, Rick Perry, and the current senior Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison. This is a very interesting contest. Not from a policy standpoint ... from a social standpoint. You see, Perry is a Texas A&M alum, while Hutchison went to the University of Texas. If you know anything at all about the rivalry between those two schools, you know this is gonna be a good one. It's old-money versus blue-collar, patrician versus plebeian. The University of Texas has always seen itself as Texas' premier, flagship University, while Texas A&M has always resented that status. Given that Hutchison was a cheerleader while she was at Austin, and Perry was a yell leader down at College Station ... the alumni networks may well have an effect on the outcome of this primary. Plus, you just know this race is going to start at least one fistfight at a sports bar.

With that out of the way, here are capsule reviews of each candidate:

Rick Perry: What I said about him last time still stands, more or less. Except that he appears to be busying himself by quashing an investigation into a case where it looks like we might have executed an innocent man. This is certainly not going to look good on his resume, to the extent that Republican voters actually care about this sort of thing, which is not much.

Kay Bailey Hutchison: Mostly harmless, as Republicans go. I have to say, I do like her notion of limiting Governors to two terms. Usually it's not necessary, since we get tired of the bums after a while, but Perry has hung on for an unconscionably long time. If she turfs him, I won't cry.

Larry Kilgore: He served in the U.S. Air Force, and was stationed at Cheyenne Mountain. The confinement evidently drove him stark raving mad, which explains his fervent support for secession. Dude, please. The legality of secession was decided in the famous case Davis v. Lincoln by Judge Ares Slayer-of-Men at Appomattox Court House in 1865. Have you really forgotten how it worked out for us last time? Did you think that it somehow magically became easier now that the Union has atomic weapons? Do you really want the garrison at Fort Hood to roll out and explain the finer points of the consequences of secession to you via 120-mm smoothbore? Dumbass.

Debra Medina: Dunno. But, being CEO of a medical consulting firm, I think she's got a bee in her bonnet about health care reform. God alone knows how she thinks that being Governor of Texas is going to help with that.

And now, the Democrats:

Kinky Friedman: Ah, my main man, back for another try, this time as a major-party candidate. The question is, will the Democrats of Texas take him seriously? They ought to. Aside from Friedman, the field looks pretty sad and pitiful. And you have to admit, a campaign for Governor of Texas can't have many slogans better than "How Hard Can It Be?" and "Why The Hell Not?" Unless I get an outstanding reason not to, he's who I'm liable to vote for.

Hank Gilbert: He's a rancher, and ran for Agriculture Commissioner back in 2006. One may assume that was a post he was eminently suited for. But I wonder how that expertise is supposed to translate to Gubernatorial excellence. For one, managing the Legislature is less like herding cattle than it is like herding cats; and for another, that's the Lieutenant Governor's job anyway.

Tom Schieffer: Now, he looks like a fairly capable ... Oh dear God, no! Look, we already had one Governor who used to own the Texas Rangers. The thing is, the Rangers stink on ice. Sure, they start the season strong, but come August, the funk of failure begins to loom over Arlington like a storm cloud, and that train's never late. Anyone whose main claim to fame is owning that particular goat-rope is someone you don't want to elect as dog-catcher, much less any post of significant authority. Oh wait, we're not talking about a post of significant authority, are we? Well, he might just do in a pinch.

The primaries are on March 2, 2010. Remember, vote early, and vote often!

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Wheels of Justice

Much has been written about the recent arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland, and about the ongoing extradition proceedings that may lead to his sentencing in California for a thirty-year-old rape case. I think just about everything has been said. There's nothing to add about the natural disgust most of us feel for what he did thirty years ago. Nor is there anything to add about the disgust most of us feel about the glitterati springing to a convicted rapist's defense. The transcripts and court documents are there for those who wish to acquaint themselves with the facts. What he did isn't a matter of spin, opinion, or belief; they are accountable facts and matters of public record. But one question looms large for me, and has gone mostly unanswered.

Why Switzerland? Why now, and not ten or twenty years ago?

In international affairs, Switzerland is like the eccentric rich uncle that shows up for holiday dinners, but otherwise doesn't get involved in family disputes. They maintain diplomatic relations with just about everybody, and do trade with just about everybody, but for most of the last five centuries have stayed out of wars or contentious relations with their neighbors. Not that they've gone pacifist: for most of the Middle Ages, Swiss pikemen were Europe's name-brand mercenaries, and in the modern era Switzerland's reserve army consists of damn near the entire adult population. Still, prosecutors the world over have long cursed Swiss privacy laws, and the Swiss authorities haven't really been super-diligent about looking for fugitives within their own borders. If you made it to Switzerland, you were a free man as long as you kept your nose clean. And if your money made it to Switzerland, so far as anyone else was concerned it essentially ceased to exist.

Recently, this has begun to change.

It's difficult to say with certainty when, or why, but it's clear that the Swiss electorate has had something to do with it. In 2002, they narrowly approved a referendum enabling Switzerland to join the United Nations as a full member. A similar referendum had gone down by a 3-to-1 margin only sixteen years earlier, in 1986. To me, that seems like the watershed. Then, earlier this year came the stunning news that Swiss authorities would begin to cooperate with tax fraud investigations in the United States, something that would have been utterly unheard-of ten years ago. And now, we see similarly unprecedented cooperation in an extradition case for an international arrest warrant.

I know approximately what has happened, and when,, but I am no closer to understanding why. Why, after close to 500 years of patiently minding its own business and politely telling the rest of the world to sod off, are they suddenly acting ... well, normal? Sure, I could point to a sea change in the Swiss electorate, but why did that happen?

There's a fascinating story in there that some journalist could write, if they could be pried away from the lurid details long enough to do the legwork. But lurid details are where the money is. And so, the question remains...

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Fishy Tale

"But man was not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed, but never defeated." -- Santiago

There was a small to-do a while back, I forget precisely how long, when a European scholar on the committee that awards the Nobel prize for literature said that no current American authors need apply. The remark raised my hackles at the time. It's a cottage industry for European intelligentsia, looking down their noses at those ignorant Americans. But now, having surveyed a few of the more prominent American authors from the first half of the 20th Century, I kind of see his point. There aren't many current authors who are fit to hold the pen of a Steinbeck, or a Fitzgerald.

Or a Hemingway.

The Old Man and the Sea was one of Hemingway's last books, and some say it was his best. The plot is simple: an old fisherman in the middle of a slump goes out alone, hooks a giant fish, and fights to get his prize back home. But glossing over it like that misses the much larger point: a man's not beat until he decides that he's beaten. As long as he refuses to yield, he's still in the fight.

You might think this an odd theme for Hemingway to explore, given the way he checked out. I tend to give him a pass on that. In those days, they didn't understand depression very well, or how to treat it. The electroshock therapy was slowly destroying his brain. The man simply wasn't in his right mind, there at the end.

In any case, the theme of endurance runs through the book. At virtually any point, Santiago could have cut his losses and come home. He could have given up fishing right at the start. He could have given up before going far out to sea, or when he realized what a big fish he'd hooked. He could have given up at any point during the chase. He especially could have given up when the sharks came, and began devouring his prize bite by bite. But he didn't. As he said, a man can be destroyed but not defeated. He came home with prize basically worthless, that no one would pay any money for ... but a legendary one, that every other fisherman would envy.

The phrase "nothing ventured, nothing gained" rolls so glibly off our tongues that we scarcely realize the truth of those words. Nothing great was ever achieved without cost. No worthy goal is ever gained without hard work and persistence. Santiago's lesson for us is that when life gets hard, we face a choice. We can either take the easy way and quit ... or we can face the challenge, and show the world what we're made of.

The verdict: highly recommended. There are few finer books that a young man could read.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Epic Fail, Joint Address Edition

"Captain Sobel! We salute the rank, not the man."
-- Major Richard Winters, 506th PIR

People who complain about the lack of civility in politics generally don't remember how it was back in the old days, when fistfights on the floor of the House weren't particularly uncommon. Or, the way Lincoln's opponents compared him to an ape. Politics has always had an ugly side ... but, generally speaking, we've always had a modicum of respect for the Presidency itself. Even when we didn't especially like the man holding the office.

But, sadly, that appears to have changed.

Joe Wilson is a disgrace to the Congress, to his party, to his home state of South Carolina, and to the traditions of the fine nation he purports to serve. Hang your head in shame, sir! Hang your head in shame.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Call of the Weird

We commonly use "Left" and "Right" to describe people's political views. This usage stems from the time of the French Revolution, where it actually described where the delegates actually sat when the National Constituent Assembly was in session. As a valid descriptor of political philosophy, that was when it was most current and most valid. It's still an adequate description for most people. Most of us can identify as either liberal/progressive, conservative, or somewhere in between. But not all. Not every political philosophy maps uniquely onto the left-right curve.

There are a couple of different ways to represent this. The one I like best was devised by Jerry Pournelle while he was writing his Ph.D. dissertation in political science:

The first thing I'd like to stress about this is that "irrational" isn't necessarily an insult in this context, it simply means that the person in question doesn't believe that the problems of society can be solved by reason. "Rational" means that the person in question does believe that reason can be applied to the problems of society. And it's not a true/false distinction, everyone is on a continuum from one to the other. Likewise, "Statism" isn't an insult, it simply means that he or she believes that government is, itself, a positive good.

The nice thing about this representation is that you can uniquely place just about every political philosophy you ever heard of. The odd thing is that people looking across an axis, say, Democrats and Republicans, tend to think that the guy on the other side is crazy. Equally strange is that looking across a diagonal you don't necessarily get that same sense, even though they're just as far away from you as the guy across the axis. I'm not sure why that is. It's a very interesting insight, though.

The Nolan Chart is rather less useful, because it doesn't quite map every philosophy uniquely. However, it does come with an on-line test. It's useful for a first approximation of where you stand. Not that most of us need a quiz to figure that out ... Anyway, I took it again today, and here's the result:

I tend to wander, depending on exactly how I'm feeling that day, but I'm usually within a tick of that spot. I could be either Democrat or Libertarian with little heartburn. I was a Democrat precinct chair in '02, and voted that way in the last two elections. I may yet go back.

Now, the question is, why Libertarian?

My basic view on government is that of Jefferson: that government governs best which governs least. Minimalism describes my creed probably better than any other term. People will always misuse and abuse authority, so they should be given as little of it as possible. This is the point where my views are most congruent with the Libertarian Party. As I've said before, I love my country and I support my government, but that doesn't mean I trust them much. That said, minimalism isn't necessarily all that practical in a country that is, after all, the third most populous nation on Earth. It was doable when we were a smallish agrarian nation. But it's a recipe for anarchy when we're standing shoulder-to-shoulder, all 300 million of us. Now, I'm looking for a balance point between the freedom of the individual and the health of the society. I'm not sure where that is, but I'm fairly sure that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have a complete lock on it either.

But I'm not a hard-core Libertarian. There are a lot of areas where I don't especially agree with them. The thing that kept me away from them for a long time was, well, a basic stinginess I sense from them. Their economic policies are at best strange, and at worst, stone barking mad. Their basic approach towards adversity is that you should man up and get over it. While that's a nice idea in principle, sometimes it just can't be done in practice. Not everyone is that resilient or resourceful.

However, they're fairly harmless. It's not like they're ever going to get enough of a majority to do anything. If we were to group people on a Nolan chart, they'd probably look something like this:

Most people, I'd venture to say 90% or so, would spread along the middle, roughly according to the Law of Thirds. (That's 1/3 Right, 1/3 Center, 1/3 Left.) Of the other ten percent ... well, I can't imagine too many people down at the bottom corner of the chart. Kim Jong-Il, maybe. Or Doctor Doom. Or just about any of James Bond's villains. But no one that actually works for a living. No, the truly weird have one and only one true home: the top corner. Never mind that they'll have about as much luck selling their platform to the electorate as they'd have selling ice to Eskimos. They're made of sterner stuff. In the abstract, I admire that kind of stubborn resolve ... but I'd rather spend mine on something I can actually accomplish.

And just right now, that "something" is helping my daughter with some homework. It's a great life if you don't weaken...

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Job Gone Bad

Today in my ongoing project to re-read books from high school literature classes, it's John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

If you're like me, this was your first exposure to the character of Lenny:

Not that those old cartoons aren't art in their own right -- they are -- but prolonged exposure to Mel Blanc's nigh-perfect imitation of Lon Chaney's portrayal of Lenny from the 1939 movie version makes it really, really hard for a young man to take the book seriously. Which is a pity, because the book is worthy of serious thought. But be warned: it's not a fun, light read.

The writing isn't as tight as Fitzgerald's, but given that Steinbeck chose to present the story mostly through conversations between characters, I suppose that can't be helped. It's an effective storytelling device, though; it pulls you quickly through a story that becomes quite unpleasant and uncomfortable. The quickness is a saving grace. The territory the book covers would be unbearably grueling if it lasted much longer. My wife said that reading Steinbeck leads to suicidal thoughts, and I won't say she's wrong.

The one thought that occurred to me as I was reading this was: life was ugly before Welfare. Think on it. If this story were to occur today, there's at least a chance, maybe even a good one, that Lenny would be a ward of the state. He'd have gotten treatment, help to learn how to live within his condition, and a measure of supervision. Back in the day, family or friends had to do all of that. As long as they could do so, all was well. But when that ran out ... You're basically up the creek without a paddle, a boat, or a life preserver.

I've always been of two minds about this issue. I tend towards minimalism in government. That's because I don't trust people with lots of power and/or authority. Also, if freedom is to mean anything it should also mean the freedom to fail. But failure shouldn't be final -- there should be a safety net, so that you can learn from your mistakes and do better next time. There's a balance point somewhere between benign neglect and smothering supervision. Finding that balance point is extremely tricky, and while I don't think we've found it yet, we're certainly closer than we were when this book was written.

I can't recommend this book to everyone. It's a harsh read. Horrible things happen to people that don't deserve them. But if you think you can take it, go for it. But follow it with a chaser:

You've got to maintain an even strain. Moderation is good in all things, including serious thought.

Friday, August 21, 2009


The Dog Days of Summer are upon us, the time of the year in Texas where God turns the oven on "broil" and goes away to do something else for six weeks or so. Mostly I try to stay out of the sun as much as possible. If I could hibernate my way through August, I would. But I can't, so here we are.

The relentless fury of mean ol' Mr. Sun has sapped most of my desire for deep thinking, but I do have a few quick thoughts:

(1) There's a part of the health care debate I find grimly amusing. Everyone says they're against rationing, but rationing is precisely what's going on already. It's simple, really; when you have a finite good and a near-infinite demand, you will have rationing. There's simply no other way. Health care is in finite supply: there are only so many doctor-hours in any given day. And it's also in near-infinite demand: who doesn't want to live longer and healthier? So, the question isn't whether or not to have rationing, the question is what kind. Currenly, by and large, we ration health care by the ability to pay. On the other extreme of the spectrum you have a pure first-come, first-served system. I find both extremes unsatisfactory. I'll go into the details another time, but the basic idea is that you almost never find the optimum point on the extrema of a curve. The balance point is almost always somewhere in the middle. The fallacy of the excluded middle is a perennial favorite in American politics.

(2) As part of my effort to reduce my need to consume health care, I have been spending more time in the gym. I am by no means a fitness expert, but I do have to say that, so far, the StrongLifts 5x5 program has been excellent. I've been doing it for about five weeks now, and feel magnificent. Better than I have in years, as a matter of fact. You do have to take care that you do the movements properly, or you're liable to hurt yourself; but that's the point of starting light and working your way up. Highly recommended.

(3) Apropos of this item I wrote about back in June, CNN has a piece today on the outing of anonymous bloggers. No need to repeat myself, except to say that anonymity brings out the Inspector Detector lurking within your opponents. With a handful of exceptions, it's more trouble than it's worth.

(4) Finally, The Augustine panel, appointed by the Obama Administration to review NASA's near-term human space flight plans, will report its results soon. It remains to be seen if the Administration, and NASA's leadership, take the recommendations as a plan of action. This may be NASA's last chance to regain the initiative in the manned space sector. Lately, most of the interesting headlines have been coming from private industry, not from government laboratories. This can change, but only if NASA is willing to change the way it does business. Can they? Will they? The next few years will tell the tale.

That's about it for now. Is it September yet?

Friday, August 07, 2009

Now What?

December 17, 1903: First powered, controlled heavier-than-air flight.

October 4, 1957: Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite.

April 12, 1961: Vostok 1, flown by Yuri Gagarin, carries the first human into Earth orbit.

July 20, 1969: Eagle, flown by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, land the first human beings on the Moon.

August 7, 2009: Now what?

It's a fair question. In the forty years since the days of Apollo, we've done a lot of things, some of them pretty great. For all its problems, the Space Shuttle has carried more humans into space than any other vehicle in history. We've explored our solar system with increasing sophistication and confidence. But where do we go from here? What should we be doing? At the end of the day, what's it all for?

In my opinion, any discussion of human spaceflight must begin with this realization:

Human spaceflight is entirely pointless unless we, as a people, intend to expand into the Universe and make it our home.

Let me spend a few minutes talking about the benefits of such expansion. I'm not going to pretend that it'll solve all of our problems, but there are two or three in particular that it can solve. Three of the major problems that we face as a civilization are a shortage of clean, sustainable energy, a shortage of material resources of all kinds, and the lingering problems associated with large-scale industrialization. Each of those can be addressed, if we're established Up There.

First, energy. One of the problems associated with making solar power practical is the fact that it's so dependent on the availability of sunlight. Clouds interfere with it. Shorter days in winter do, also. But I know of a place where the Sun shines almost all the time, save only a few hours twice a year. It's also a place where there are no clouds, ever. This place can be found 23,000 miles above the Earth's equator. Solar arrays can be built there, and power can be beamed back down to Earth via microwaves. The capital start-up costs are significant, but once built the energy itself is almost free. Relatively cheap, clean energy in a sufficiently abundant supply will change things. Imagine energy universally available, with blackouts being a thing of the past. It could happen...

Second, resources. Name the metal, and it's available in million-ton quantities in the asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. And available without destroying a biosphere, without any environmental consequences whatsoever. (When the environment consists of hard vacuum, there's not a whole lot you can do to it...) Wars have started, and still start, over scarcity of resources. Why fight, though, when you can just wander over and grab some? An end to scarcity will change things. Gold may never be as cheap as tin, but neither will it be worth fighting over.

Third, manufacturing. Most of the expense of space travel is involved with clawing our way out of Earth's gravity well, and getting back down again. Given that most of the resources available in the solar system aren't on Earth, there's no reason our factories should be here, either. The factories will naturally migrate to where the energy and resources are. That's always been true, and it'll still be true in the future. Once our energy and resources are coming from space, it will make sense for the factories to be there, too. Essentially, this could mean the end of pollution. Imagine clean air and clean water for everyone, everywhere. It could happen...

Now the question is, how do we get from here to there?

The first priority has to be building an affordable, economically sustainable infrastructure for spaceflight. Apollo is a bad model for this. As great an achievement as it was, it was still a one-off surge effort. We don't need any more of those surges. Simply put: NASA's job shouldn't be to put a man on Mars. NASA's job should be to develop the technology that will allow the National Geographic Society to send people to Mars. We need to develop the technology to allow the Carnival Cruise Line to sell excursion packages to see Halley's Comet close up, the next time it comes through. This sort of thing is happening. It's happening in NASA, to be sure; but it's also happening at Scaled Composites, at SpaceX, at Virgin Galactic, and a dozen other companies looking to cash in on a new and lucrative market. This part, I don't worry about as much as I used to. I'm pretty sure we'll make the tools in time.

The other problem is legal. I've talked about this before, a couple of years ago, and much of this will be a repeat. The basic problem is that, as the laws stand, there's no real way for an individual to assert property rights. Given that, risking money on an extraterrestrial resource venture is a really, really bad bet. I don't really care how we clear that particular hurdle. But one way or another, we have to establish some legal framework for guaranteeing the legal rights of companies to own factories, mines, and the like out there away from Earth. The only way we've been able to do that to date is by asserting national sovereignty over the land in question. Possibly we can work out some other kind of deal. Again, like I said, I don't care how we settle that, so long as we get it settled. It's an impediment to our progress as a civilization.

We have a choice between two futures: one where everyone in the world can enjoy our standard of living, where the poorest of us will be richer than the kings of antiquity ever dreamed; and one where declining resources doom us all to equality in poverty. I know which one I'd rather live in, and which one I'd rather bequeath to my daughter, and to her children. As Jerry Pournelle often says, it's raining soup Out There, and it's about damn time we started making some bowls.

We can do this.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nick's Wild Summer

This post is the third in what I'd originally intended to be an on-going series, re-reading some of the required books from my high school literature classes. Re-reading 1984 proved a very illuminating experience, but re-reading The Scarlet Letter was every bit as much fun as beating myself in the head with a drywall hammer. I have to admit, that experience dimmed my ardor for the project ... and now, a year and a half later, I'm plowing back into it with The Great Gatsby.

If you haven't read this one yet, by all means, do it. It's quite good.

Plot and story aside, Fitzgerald's writing is tight. He wastes no words. The edition I read tips the scales at a scanty 180 pages, while modern novels can ring up eight to ten times as many. Without being eight to ten times better, I might add... And, despite the direct, no-nonsense style, he still manages to paint quite a detailed picture. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what good writing looks like.

I also enjoyed the story. The basic idea as I see it is a treatment of class and social mobility in America. Jay Gatsby, Nick Carroway, and the other "new rich" lived in West Egg, while the "old money" aristocracy lived in East Egg. They're basically like oil and water: they go together, they move together, but they really don't mix. Which sets up the central tragedy -- Gatsby fell in love with Daisy, who married into the "old money" aristocracy. He had dedicated himself to the goal of becoming rich enough to move among the established families as an equal, without realizing that you really can't. That group, you have to be born into.

Some bits of the story look, well, odd to a modern reader. Take the racial attitudes as an example. Tom, Daisy's husband, is quite un-self-consciously racist, and pretty much assumed that everyone he talked to was as well. "It's all scientific stuff; it's all been proved," Tom would say. A modern reader might wonder how someone could say that in polite society ... but then, you remember that this was written in 1925. That sort of thing was common, and one must say, broadly accepted as true. On the other hand, Fitzgerald has these things being proclaimed by one of the book's least savory characters. So even then, you could see the tectonic plates of opinion shifting, ever so slightly.

But how relevant is the story today? Somewhat relevant ... and somewhat not. Social mobility in America is a generational process. A son of a working-class family can become a professional, and in turn his children can move another rung up. But you can't make that leap in a single lifetime, not without some fairly extraordinary circumstances. But on the other hand, education is a much more potent leveling force now than it was in the early 20th century. The fact that the sons of working-class families can become college-educated professionals, and do so with some regularity, is a thing that would be unheard-of a hundred years ago. I am, by and large, accepted in society based upon how I behave, not on who my parents were. Education opens doors.

And the doors it can't open? What of them? For some people, that becomes an endless, unscratchable itch. And that's sad: if you define yourself by what you can't do, or what you can't have, you doom yourself to a life of misery. But even today, there are plenty of people who destroy their lives trying desperately to bash that door down. Most of us don't go there. We're content with the opportunities we've had, and continue to have. Sometimes we may dream of what might have been, but at the end of the day we're content in our own lives.

In the end, that's what Nick did. At the end of that wild summer, he decided the East wasn't for him, and moved on with his life. Nick walked away from the locked door that Gatsby died trying to break down.

Final verdict: Highly recommended. Great writing, memorable characters, and a pretty fast read, too. They don't write 'em like that anymore...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Sick and Tired

There's been a lot of noise lately about health care policy. Congress is liable to pass some form of health care reform, probably in the form of universal health insurance for all Americans. Which is a nice goal, although it kind of misses the point, in my opinion. To an extent, it matters that everyone should be covered such that they can have routine access to doctors, affordable medicines, and so forth. But simply addressing the issue of who pays won't fix the underlying problems. That's only one side of the equation. The other side also needs attention, otherwise overall costs will continue to soar out of sight.

To illustrate some of the problems, allow me to relate a recent experience. Over the last several years, I have been suffering from cataracts. Well, "suffering" is probably too strong a word. It was a nuisance more than anything else. But it was something that really had to be taken care of sooner rather than later, so my eye doctor and I scheduled lens replacement surgery for this last January.

The day rolls around, and I go to the hospital for my procedure. There's some paperwork to fill out, and I pay my share of the cost beforehand. Then, a few hours later, I went home with a bandage over my eye and a thundering headache. But a week later, I was seeing more clearly than, well, ever. I was, and still am, thoroughly happy with the result.

Then the bills started coming in. Apparently, everyone involved with the procedure is an independent contractor, and has to get paid separately ... complete nonsense, if you ask me. Anesthesiologists are the worst. Near as I can tell, they only do their books once a quarter. So here we are, six months later, and I still can't say with certainty that I'm free and clear.

Like I said, complete nonsense. And it's nonsense that drives up the overall cost of doing business, I'm sure.

So, changing who pays the bills won't make a bit of difference unless some other changes go through as well. Here's a short list of my suggestions:

(1) Coordinate record-keeping. For crying out loud, guys, this is the 21st Century, here! Why in the world can't you all get together beforehand, settle up charges ahead of time, and present the customer with a single bill at the point of sale? We have the technology to do this. It's not even particularly hard. The patient's privacy is never endangered. What's more, it saves everyone time and trouble -- doctors and hospitals get paid faster, not slower, and the customer is free and clear. This alone would save immense amounts of time and effort in paper-pushing, and time is money.

(2) Tort reform. A non-trivial fraction of that doctor bill goes towards paying malpractice insurance premiums. Lawyers bear part of the responsibility for the ballooning costs of health care. Now, if the doctor truly did screw up, he is and should be liable ... but on the other hand, if he followed best practices and used good judgement, he ought to be left alone. We've gotten too sue-happy, and that needs to be dialed back quite a bit.

(3) Prevention. A lot of the health problems we are seeing these days are, in fact, preventable. Mind you, we can't mandate diet and exercise, but we can do more to encourage them. Tax credits for gym memberships, for example. And reduced rates on health insurance if you actually go more than four times a week. Granted, it's hard for someone working two jobs to find the time, but most of us aren't in that position. Most of us can find the time, if we really want to, and at the end of the day, your health is ultimately your responsibility. With a real push for prevention, with incentives, future pay-outs for health care can be reduced substantially.

There are probably other items you could add to this list. But my point is that focusing on the front-end financial part only solves half of the problem. If you ignore the other half, the system as a whole stays broken, which makes all the hard work fixing the first half wasted effort.

And we don't really have that kind of time, or effort, to spare.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Eagle Has Landed

Forty years ago today, a three-hundred-sixty foot tall tower of aluminum rose slowly on a pillar of flame, arcing away from the coast of Florida across the Atlantic. At its top rode three men, beginning one of the greatest adventures in the history of mankind. They were riding the most powerful machine ever built by human hands, not on a mission of conquest, or of destruction, but of exploration and discovery. Over the next week or so, those of you who remember will probably take time to savor your own memories of those days. Me, I was an infant at the time. But nevertheless, I was born on one side of a historical chasm. For most of human history, our world had gotten steadily smaller. On that day in 1969, though, mankind's world became much larger.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about today. Better writers than I will say these things, and probably say them better. Today, I wanted to talk about the also-rans. In the decades leading up to Apollo 11, there were a lot of different ideas thrown about as to how to get people up to the Moon, and bring them back again safely. Naturally, I probably won't be able to list them all, but I'll try to hit the high points.

Pride of place really has to go to Jules Verne. In his famous novel From the Earth to the Moon, Verne tries to write a serious story about a voyage to the Moon and back, based upon the best knowledge of the day. He dealt with the challenges and hazards the best he could, based upon the science known to him at the time. Sadly, it wouldn't have worked. A gun launcher big enough would have smashed its human passengers flat. But for inanimate cargo, a gun launcher might still become workable. Gerald Bull worked on the concept for years trying to find backers. Unfortunately, he chose poorly. Israel's Mossad took umbrage at his working for Saddam Hussein, and Bull contracted a fatal case of acute lead poisoning.

The next group of people to think about the problem seriously was the redoubtable British Interplanetary Society. They began to work on their design in 1937, publishing their results in July 1939. The only engines they had experience with were solid-fuel black powder rockets, so their design made use of those. It's an ... interesting approach. And it might even have worked. By clustering a whole bunch of solid rockets, and throwing them away as they burn out, they figured that they could achieve the velocity necessary. Sir Arthur Clarke worked on this project, so I have some confidence in the numbers. However, they got one thing dreadfully wrong. They assumed they'd need a heat shield on the way up, that they would discard after launch, but not on the way down. We know now that's totally backwards. So they'd have landed on the Moon just fine, but would have burnt to a crisp on the way back. Pity... But the parallel-cluster-staging idea they proposed didn't entirely die. The Russians used a variant of parallel staging on their R-7 rocket. And there was a private German attempt during the '70s, OTRAG, that used a very similar arrangement with liquid-fuel segments instead of solid. Near as I can tell, it ought to have worked. I expect that's why there was so much pressure on the German government to get it shut down.

The next serious design came after World War II, once German rocket expert Wernher von Braun relocated to the United States, and began working for the U.S. Army. Von Braun wrote a series of articles for Collier's in the 1950s, beautifully illustrated by Chesley Bonestell, describing the near-future exploits of man in space. Von Braun's moonship was gigantic, massing nearly 4,000 tons -- yes, that's right, 4,000 tons -- in low Earth orbit. The expedition would consist of three such ships, carrying a total of fifty men to explore Sinus Roris for six weeks. We who are children of the electronic and computer ages might well ask why the heck so many crew were necessary ... but you have to remember, back in those days, all electronics were vacuum-tube based, and things often broke. You had to carry along repair technicians. And you had to have three shifts of crew, since you had no automatics to watch over things while the crew slept. Also, no one knew if any man-made material could even withstand re-entry from Lunar distances ... so, the vehicle had to brake its way back into Earth orbit entirely on rocket thrust. Most of the ship's volume was taken up with fuel tankage. Needless to say, as splendid as the illustrations looked, this was a totally impractical plan. Ah well, back to the drawing board ...

Von Braun was nothing if not persistent. By the end of the '50s, he had another scheme hatched, and this time he had official Army backing. Project Horizon was intended to build a base upon the Moon capable of supporting 12 soldiers. The Horizon LERV lander was a much more realistic vehicle than his early '50s design. It still required fueling in-orbit, but no longer required assembly; the LERV was launched all in one piece by a Saturn II rocket. The lander was capable of carrying 10 to 16 men, and/or 22 tons of cargo. The plan was probably overly ambitious. The plan called for a 1965 landing, but most likely could not have landed any earlier than the 1970s, given the technical problems to overcome.

Naturally, this challenge was not going to go unanswered. The Space Race wasn't merely between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., it was also between the sister services within the Department of Defense. There was a joke going around right after the launch of Sputnik. A junior Army officer ran up to a general and said breathlessly, "Sir! They've launched a satellite!" The general, startled, demanded "Who?" "It's the Russians," the junior officer replied. "Thank God," said the general, "for a moment, I was afraid it was the Navy." Both of the other major services were also getting into the game.

The Air Force's entry in the Moon derby was Project Lunex. Sometimes, I think this is the one we should have tried to do. But with the direct-ascent lander, and the lifting-body re-entry vehicle, it was probably a bridge too far, technically speaking. They also would have had a 12-man base as a goal, and thought they would be able to make a first landing in 1967. It's a fundamental law of engineering that everything costs more and takes longer, so I don't think they would have hit that goal. Early to mid 1970s would have been more like it. Still, that's a neat-looking lander.

The Navy also got into the lander business, albeit briefly. They never actually had any official plans for a base, but of all the military programs of the era, the Navy is the only group that got as far as building actual test hardware. The Navy SLV got as far as a test-stand prototype. But they got no farther. In 1961, the Kennedy administration cut all of these shenanigans short, and made the command decision that there would be one and only one American moon program, and that would be the Apollo program, run by NASA.

Which leads us to a partial answer for one of the perennial questions surrounding the Space Race: Why did Russia fall behind, when they had such a commanding lead in the early '60s? One answer is just this: they didn't have one Moon program. There were two or three going on simultaneously. Mostly, you had a bureaucratic knife-fight between two design bureau chiefs, both of whom wanted to be in charge: Sergei Korolev, and Vladimir Chelomei. If they had worked together they might well have beaten the Americans to the Moon, but they despised one another. A second problem, somewhat more serious, is that the Russians didn't get a firm go-ahead for lunar lander work until 1964 -- when the American design effort had been going full-blast for at least three years.

Korolev's first entry was a 1963 design he called L3. What happened to L1 and L2, we may never know. Korolev played his cards close to his vest, a habit learned the hard way via the Gulag. (This was another problem with the Soviet system, by the way; they had a penchant for wasting their best talent by throwing them in prison for stupid reasons.) This version never actually got official backing. Instead of making real progress on this design, Khruschev instead had him waste time on the Voskhod series, stunts of no real engineering value.

Meanwhile, Chelomei wasn't idle. He was pitching a different rocket and lander entirely, based upon his work for the military. is first design was the LK-3, based on his proposed UR-700 booster. With time, his design would mature to the somewhat more polished LK-700. Both were direct-ascent designs, which both suffer from the problem common with direct-ascent designs: you need a freaking ginormous rocket to lift it. Mind you, the UR-700 would have qualified, but it never got built.

But Korolev wasn't exaclty idle, either. Once Khruschev got sent to the knacker's yard in 1964, Korolev finally got a real go-ahead from the Soviet government. He had to return to the drawing board, and he had to come up with a plan that would work quickly. His final lander design was the LK, the closest thing the Soviet Union would ever have to the Apollo LM. But they started too late, and were never able to gain the resources to test things out properly. The N1 rocket Korolev needed for the mission never quite worked properly. Had he lived long enough, Korolev probably would have made it work; but he died in 1966. As it was, the N1's first stage was a plumber's nightmare, with thirty engines in the first stage alone. There were more powerful engines available, but they were designed by this chap named Chelomei, you see... The N1 was test-fired four times, none of them successfully.

For von Braun, though, the third time was the charm. With the creation of NASA in 1958, his Redstone team transferred to the new agency all at once. He brought his Saturn designs with him. The final evolution of that series was the mighty Saturn V, a towering beast taller than a football field is long, and as heavy as a World War II destroyer. On the morning of July 16, 1969, he watched from the firing room as his rocket rose into the Florida sky, bearing the astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins on their rendezvous with destiny.

And our world would never again be the same.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Return of the King, Part II

As a team, Astana has been fairly dominant in the race so far. They have four riders in the top ten, and three in the top five. It is expected that one of Astana's riders will take the leader's jersey pretty soon, now that the race has gone into the Pyrenees. What no one knows yet is which of Astana's top riders it will be: Alberto Contador, or Lance Armstrong.

This is something the team's director Johann Bruyneel needs to sort out sooner, rather than later. If a serious rivalry for team leadership festers, the team's performance could suffer accordingly, and neither rider will win. If one thing is clear, in order to win the Tour, the lead rider simply must have the total backing of his team.

The thing is, having two really good riders is a massive advantage. Your rivals cannot focus on a single rider. If you give chase to one, the other can make a break for it. Then, you try to chase him down, and the first rider scoots off. That constant change-up of speed can exhaust riders faster than just about anything, especially on a climb. The down side to having two really strong riders is ... well, they both want to win.

Right now, Contador and Armstrong are just about even on time: Contador rode a better time trial on Stage 1, and launched a late attack today to hang a few minutes on his rivals; but Armstrong took advantage of rough side-winds during Stage 3 to keep contact with a breakaway group. Not only are they about even on time, but it's probably fair to say that they're about even as cyclists. Contador is younger and stronger, and a better climber; but Armstrong has years and years of experience as a guide.

Bruyneel has an unenviable job ahead of him. He has to decide which man should take the lead from here on in. And he has to decide quickly. Making the decision will definitely put an end to one man's ambition, but failing to make the decision could be worse.

Of course, there's also the outside chance that this "controversy" is a put-on, a sham orchestrated amongst Bruyneel, Contador, and Armstrong to psych out the other riders on other teams. I wouldn't put it past them. It's already a fairly psychological sport. Head games are part of the package.

Still, we'll be able to see it play out on the road for another two weeks. Seven days down, fourteen to go...

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Return of the King Continues...

Today, in Monaco, a 15-kilometer individual time trial kicks off the 96th Tour de France. This is, arguably, the world's most grueling athletic contest. There are events that are more famous, and that bring in more money, but there are none that demand more of its participants. Between now and July 26th, riders will spend every day in the saddle, excepting only two rest days. One hundred eighty riders will start today. Only 140 or so will end up at the finish line in Paris.

I enjoy riding, but that's not why I love to watch the Tour. The scenery is magnificent, for a start. And I enjoy the subtlety of the riders' tactics. I like to see a small group of riders break away from the main group to try to win an advantage, although this almost never works. The heroics in cycling are different than in other sports. Case in point: back in February, we all marveled at James Harrison returning an interception 100 yards -- 100 yards! -- for a touchdown. For a linebacker, that was a heroic performance. But that took less than a minute. Last July, in the climb of L'Alpe d'Huez, the Schleck brothers executed a masterful rope-a-dope on the peloton while their teammate Carlos Sastre took off ahead of the main group, winning a lead he would maintain all the way to Paris. That was also heroic ... over a brutal climb lasting several hours. And they do this every day for three weeks.

The Tour isn't just about being fit enough, or strong enough. It's also about having the mental toughness to face down the pain and exhaustion. It's about finding the outside of the envelope of human endurance.

This year's race is ... interesting. Four former winners are in the mix, each looking to add to their totals. And two are on the same team, adding to the interest. Alberto Contador wears the top number for Team Astana, but it remains to be seen if he's riding for the win, or riding support for his new teammate, Lance Armstrong. We just don't know yet, and probably won't know for another week. By the time they hit the Pyrenees in the second week, we might have a better idea. But they can't delay that decision too long. They can't afford to waste energy, not with two other former winners nipping at their heels.

Carlos Sastre and Oscar Pereiro are each looking for another win, for Cervelo and Caisse d'Epargne respectively. And you discount Team Saxo Bank at your peril ... Sastre jumped ship last year, but the Schleck brothers are still there. The team boasts three national road-racing champions, and the Australian sprinter Stuart O'Grady. Those four teams are the ones to watch. No one knows who will win, of course, but if I were betting, I'd bet on one of those four teams.

Everyone's looking pretty good so far. Armstrong looks really good -- strong, good form, you'd never know from looking that he'd been away for a couple of years, much less that he'd broken a collarbone this spring. But the day's not done. And it's going to be a long, hard three weeks. No one knows that better than Armstrong. What he gives up in age, he gains back in experience, and he's going to give these youngsters a run for their money.

Ride hard, boys: the King has returned!

[Addendum, 4Jul09 2:17PM: Astana has four riders in the top ten after today's time trial, establishing them as the team to beat for right now. Further, Contador turned in the best performance amongst his teammates, making a fair opening bid for overall team leadership. I still think Armstrong has a good chance, but I would still not be terribly surprised to see him ride in support of Contador should he prove the stronger rider.]