Saturday, February 27, 2016

Election 2016: Compromised Immunity

Voting has begun in the 2016 election cycle at long last. And we see once again why I should stay out of the prediction business, because I was sure Trump's campaign would run aground once actual votes had to hit the bottom of a ballot box. Although to be sure, his electoral performance does slightly underperform his polling ... small comfort for the campaigns that have gone under to the Trump juggernaut. The GOP still has a chance to reclaim the candidacy from the insurgency, but they'll have to act quickly and decisively in order to do so.

It's kind of like the situation they had in 2008, when Huckabee surprised everyone with strong showings in early states. The antibodies in the Republican bloodstream came out in force, then. They found someone to rally around who had a somewhat troubled relationship with the Establishment, but could nonetheless manage to work with them most of the time.

But the antibodies are much, much weaker this year. The capital-E establishment candidate has already folded his tent. Rubio is probably their best bet at this point ... but Rubio may not be able to gather a first-ballot majority at the convention. No one may be able to.

I've said before that contested conventions are like bunch sprints in pro cycling. They're great fun to watch, but they generally happen because someone screwed up. In this case, the establishment has lost control of the nomination process, allowing a complete outsider to mount a so-far successful insurgency. Can they claw it back before there's an all-out floor brawl at  the convention?

Time will tell.

And now, the numbers. I draw my polling data from Pollster, and I've begun to use the prediction-market aggregator Predictwise to see how the betting markets are doing.

The Democrats

Clinton: 48.2% poll, 93% prediction
Sanders: 42.5% poll, 7% prediction

The polling indicates a tightening race, but the betting markets have Clinton as a heavy favorite. There's a definite undercurrent of discontent on both sides in this election cycle. Pollster has a "right track/wrong track" poll on its front page, and that poll has been underwater for quite some time now. "Wrong track" is down from its financial-crisis peak, but it's still running about three-to-two in favor of people not being happy about how things are going. This is why Sanders is giving Clinton a run for her money. I'd be frankly astonished if Clinton managed to lose the nomination, but there's a non-trivial possibility that could happen. But Clinton will have to juke left to out-Bernie Bernie, and then juke back to the center for the general election. Doable, but there's danger for her in that the Sanders camp will do the GOP's oppo research for them. But on the other hand, Clinton has been around long enough that there's really nothing new to turn up. Unless you've been living in an isolated cabin for the last twenty years, you know who Hillary Clinton is, and you probably have already formed an opinion about her. Opposition research will be of scant use to the GOP if she does win the candidacy.

The Republicans

Trump: 38.0% poll, 79% prediction
Cruz: 18.5% poll, 1% prediction
Rubio: 17.1% poll, 18% prediction
Carson: 8.5% poll, 0% prediction
Kaisch: 8.5% poll, 2% prediction

The clown car has winnowed down to a five-man race at this point, which is actually a two- or three-man race, depending on how you parse the numbers. I think Carson's basically out. And while Kaisch is the adult in the room at this point, he's also basically out. Come Tuesday, I think one or both of them might pull the striped handle and punch out. At that point, the GOP establishment has a choice to make, and it's not an especially palatable one. I think that to some extent they've made peace with a Trump candidacy. They think he's someone they can cut deals with. Which may well be true: cutting deals is just about the man's only skill of measurable worth. So in the sorting algorithm, they'd rather have Trump than Cruz. Of course, the establishment would rather have a case of genital warts than Cruz, but that's beside the point. They'd really rather have Kaisch, because he performs best against Clinton in the polls. He even wins most of them. Rubio would be their second choice. He still loses most of them, but he's not the down-ticket calamity that Cruz might well be. What the establishment needs if they're going to get someone who's not Trump is for the race to down-select, hard, as soon as possible. The not-Trump vote is spread too wide, and if it stays that way, Trump carries a fat slab of delegates to Cleveland. Maybe not enough to win outright, but enough to force a scrum on the convention floor ... and enough support to threaten a third-party candidacy which would well and truly screw the GOP. So, they're either going to have to throw their support behind a preferred non-Trump guy now, or decide they can live with Der Donald. But they have to pick soon. Time's not on their side.

The General Election

Generic Democrat: 61% prediction
Generic Republican: 39% prediction

Like I mentioned earlier, if you look at Pollster's head-to-head general election polls, the only Republican that has a clear chance is John Kaisch. But the GOP does not appear to be willing to nominate a candidate who can win. They'd rather bask in the purity of their righteousness than have an actual chance to effect policy. It's not the choice I'd make, but ...

The most interesting match-up from a statistical point of view would be Rubio vs. Clinton, since the error bars basically overlap. That looks like a true toss-up. The least interesting ... well, I really can't pick just one. Basically, any of the match-ups where the error bars don't touch. A clear decision is a clear decision.

Anyway, if you're looking to put money down, I'd take 3-2 odds on Clinton taking the oath of office next January. Not sure I'm especially happy about that -- but it's looking like that's the way it's liable to shake out.

Depending on where you live, it's too late to vote early, but it's never too late to vote often. Either way, get out and vote!

Friday, November 06, 2015

Election 2016: Peak Trump?

I like to look at two different kinds of data during election seasons. One of those will be the polls, obviously. This far out, the polls aren't always going to tell you anything tremendously useful, but they do get a sense of what the people who are paying attention are thinking. The other thing I like to look at are the prediction markets. These two sources tend to converge as the event draws closer. But this far out, it sometimes looks as if they were describing two entirely different contests.

Like now, for instance. Looking at the polls, it's all about Trump versus Carson. But Vegas loves them some Rubio. The intriguing question here is, why? (More on that later.)

The other question -- and I think this one has an important bearing on what kind of primary we're looking at -- is ... well, where is Rick Santorum?

Remember, the GOP's usual modus operandi amounts to "It's His Turn." A shocking number of Republican nominees were the runner-up the last time around. Let's look at all of the races in the last seventy years or so, and see what the trend tells us:

1952: Eisenhower (Taft)
1956: Eisenhower (inc.)
1960: Nixon (VP)
1964: Goldwater (Rockefeller)
1968: Nixon (Reagan)
1972: Nixon (inc.)
1976: Ford (inc.)
1980: Reagan (Bush the Elder)
1984: Reagan (inc.)
1988: Bush the Elder (Dole)
1992: Bush the Elder (inc.)
1996: Dole (Buchanan)
2000: Bush the Younger (McCain)
2004: Bush the Younger (inc.)
2008: McCain (Romney)
2012: Romney (Santorum)

Re-elections don't count, so we can discount 1956, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1992, and 2004. Nixon in 1968 is sort of unusual, but Nixon could claim a form of seniority in having been both a Republican VP and nominee. Excepting those, we have a fairly strong string of the prior runner-up taking the top spot in the next available election. Reagan in 1980 was the runner-up in both 1968 and 1976. Bush in 1988 was the runner-up in 1980, as well as the VP of a still-fairly-popular President. Dole was the runner-up in 1988, as was McCain in 2000 and Romney in 2008.

And Santorum? According to Pollster, he's sitting at 0.5%. Which means that the existence of Santorum supporters cannot be proven by any known statistical science.

This is going to be like 1964 or 2000: a year where they GOP throws "It's His Turn" onto the dust-heap, and does something else. What we don't know yet is whether 2016 will be more like 1964, or more like 2000. In 1964, there was an ideological struggle within the Republican party. in 2000, they'd been out of the White House long enough to want a winner, ideology be damned. Or, maybe, 2016 ends up being a little bit of both. The Goldwater-Reagan era of conservatism is over. This may be the year we find out what will take its place.

The Republicans

The interesting thing about this chart from Pollster is that it appears that Trump has hit at least a temporary ceiling. I'm actually surprised that he appears to be truly serious about seeking the nomination. I'd pegged this for a vanity project. It may still be a vanity project. And for a while, his poll numbers skyrocketed with no end in sight. For now, at least, it appears he's hit a hard ceiling of support. Time will tell if this is a fluke, or if it's for real. But when we turn to the betting markets, such as PredictIt, we see another story emerge:

Rubio: 0.49
Trump: 0.24
Cruz: 0.23
Bush: 0.17
Kaisch: 0.12
Carson: 0.11
Christie: 0.08
Fiorina: 0.07
Paul: 0.06

Yes, the Vegas bookies do love them some Rubio. And his polls don't totally stink -- he's in third behind Trump and Carson. He's well-positioned to heat up once the real voting starts in January. January is always when the vaporware candidates fold up like cheap suits. But Rubio strikes me as kind of an empty suit. I'm going to have to take a closer look at this in the coming weeks to months, because clearly they're seeing something in him that I don't.

The Democrats

Well, this isn't particularly interesting. You can look at the PredictIt numbers if you care to, but they're giving nearly four-to-one odds in Clinton's favor. Either the bosses have made the tactical decision to clear the decks for Secretary Clinton, or it's just that everyone is scared spitless of the Clinton machine. "It's Her Turn" seems to be in full effect, though; and it doesn't particularly matter why. If you're a Democrat, get used to the idea that Clinton will be your nominee. She's just about going to have to deliberately try to lose the nomination to fail to get it. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is still achievable for her ... just not especially likely.

Voting begins in 87 days. Remember, vote early, and vote often!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Spy Satellite That Was Never There

One of the problems with the early series of spy satellites was simply this: Every photo frame counts. And many of the photographic frames returned by the early CORONA satellites were of cloud-covered sites. It was accepted as a risk that the weather wouldn't always cooperate. The automatic control worked well enough that pictures were only taken during daylight, but whether the actual meteorological conditions would allow collection of useful intelligence was something that would only be known once the film capsules were recovered and developed.

What they really needed was a way to determine -- in real time -- if a target's lighting and cloud cover would allow a useful picture to be taken. And in the early 1960s, the only way that was known to actually do that was to have a man on the scene to make that call.

This was the genesis of the project that became known to the public as the military's Manned Orbital Laboratory. To the public, it was a military space station for scientific research and experiments.

It also had another designation, one kept a close secret for many years. Its actual payload was called Key Hole 10, or DORIAN. It was in development from 1963 to 1969, when it was cancelled.

Why was it cancelled? Not necessarily because it was big and heavy -- its successor, KH-11, wasn't exactly slim or cheap. It was because computers and communications had become good enough that the "man on the scene" could be a technician in Sunnyvale, California; as opposed to an astronaut in orbit.

Details were few and far between. Even up to a few years ago very little was known about its actual layout. Little by little, that began to change.

First came the leaks. Nothing says locked up forever. Alert enthusiasts pored over publicly-available pictures -- there always were some -- and made some educated guesses based on what was known about its size and weight. The external dimensions were known, for example. And the payload capacity of its Titan IIIC booster were also fairly well-documented. From that, you can figure out what it could and couldn't lift into a Sun-synchronous orbit from Vandenberg AFB. Little by little, more information came out.

And then, NRO recently declassified a whole bunch of material.

This makes for fascinating reading.

For one, even nearly fifty years later, there are labels and even whole pages still redacted. We can speculate why, but the obvious conclusion is that even so many years down the road, those might give away currently-relevant capabilities.

For another, even though they settled fairly early on an entry hatch through the modified Gemini heat shield, and even did a flight test to make sure it would work, they always had a "Plan B" for the astronauts to get back in the return capsule.

Yet another, the original MOL was just the beginning. There were follow-on plans for version capable of being resupplied in-orbit, using uprated Large Diameter Core (LDC) Titan boosters.

In the end, though, the Nixon Administration decided the juice just wasn't worth the squeeze. A TV camera and an encrypted radio link could let a ground-based technician decide what was worth spending a frame of film on, obviating the need for a crew. Soon the film capsules themselves would be rendered obsolete.

But that wasn't the end of the military space station. As the Soviets often did, they decided that anything the Americans spent that much money on was worth trying at least once. The space stations Salyut 2, 3, and 5 were actually Almaz military reconnaissance stations. The two key differences between Almaz and MOL were that the Almaz stations were serviced by Soyuz capsules launched separately, and that the Almaz stations were armed. Not that it made that much difference. Having lost one station to launch failure, and finding that the two flown versions didn't actually do that much, they dropped the idea as well.

In the end, though, the longest-lasting legacy of the MOL program were the men selected to fly it. Seven of them were selected by NASA when the project was cancelled. Six of them became Space Shuttle pilots and commanders, one became a mission specialist. One of them, Richard Truly, became Administrator of NASA between 1989 and 1992. One of the MOL astronauts not selected by NASA, James Abrahamson, would go on to run the Strategic Defense Initiative from 1984 to 1989.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

What Might Have Been...

There's a considerable amount of confusion about when World War II began. Depending on whom you ask, you'll get a different answer, and most of them will be wrong. They'll be wrong for honest reasons, because what made it a World War didn't come along until fairly late in the game.

The Pacific War began first, in 1937, when Japan invaded China. Then the European War began in 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. But those were separate conflicts until 1941. No, that doesn't mean I'm arguing for December 7th. That's when the United Stated entered the Pacific War. But the two theaters didn't join fully until the 12th, when Germany declared war on the United States. Only then did it become a truly worldwide conflict, with all of the coordination that implies.

It's far easier to determine when World War II ended, though, right? Sadly, no. The Pacific War didn't end by treaty until 1952, the European War wasn't sorted out fully until 1990, and Russia and Japan still haven't signed a full and complete peace treaty.

As anyone who's gone through a break-up or divorce can attest, endings can be messy.

Still and all, for our purposes, this is the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. As ugly as it was, and it was the bloodiest war in the history of humanity, it could have been worse.

What if we really had to invade?

Half a million Purple Heart medals were manufactured in anticipation of the casualties from Operation Olympic, scheduled to begin on November 1, 1945. The landings on X-Day would have made D-Day look like a warm-up. Fourteen divisions were scheduled to hit the beaches on that first day. They would be supported by the Third, Fifth, and Seventh Fleets, over two thousand ships total, including over fifty aircraft carriers. They would also be supported by the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth, Thirteenth, and Twentieth Air Forces; fourteen bomber groups, ten fighter groups, over a thousand B-29 Superfortress bombers and a similar number of B-17s redeployed from Europe.

This is the fury of an industrial nation made manifest. Armaments in quantities utterly unimaginable today. Granted, that's due in part to modern munitions being so much more precise, but the raw, distilled, purified rage implied by such numbers is more than a little frightening. When Halsey once claimed that by the time he was finished, Japanese would only be spoken in Hell, the man wasn't exaggerating for dramatic effect.

Estimates varied widely. But taking Operation Olympic, together with its follow-on Operation Coronet scheduled for March 1946, the invasion of Japan could have cost 1.4 million American casualties, with 400,000 dead. That's the low end. At the high end, 4 million American casualties with 800,000 dead, and about ten million Japanese fatalities from combat, disease, and starvation.

Understand that this was the piece of paper Truman was looking at as he made his decision.

Understand that this was the responsibility that fell to him when Roosevelt died.

Understand that we have struck no new Purple Hearts since 1945. We are still awarding medals intended to have been given out between November 1945 and January 1946.

Understand ... that as bad as it was, it could have been far worse.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Mystery Continues

I've been meaning to write something about the disappearance of MH370, except that there's not a whole lot to say. What we don't know dwarfs what we do. With so little information to go on, speculation runs rampant ... and who's to say what's right?

That's still mostly true. At least, it's true until new facts surface.

Perhaps "surface" is an unfortunate word choice in this case. Last Wednesday, an interesting piece of debris washed up on the shores of Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. It's the right size and shape, and more importantly it bears the Boeing part number for a flaperon on a Boeing 777 airliner. News agencies were careful not to go too far out on a limb with this, and only said it might be from MH370.

Caution is all well and good, but exactly one 777 has gone missing. One more than none, and one less than two. If you find such a part floating around the ocean, where might it come from? You get three guesses, and the first two don't count.

Now, we can't say a whole lot just yet. It's only one piece, after all. But its condition tells us a great deal indeed. It allows us to put some reasonable bounds on what might have happened.

First of all, we can once and for all discount and discard all those loony theories about terrorists hijacking it and flying it to a hidden airbase. The fact that fragments are washing ashore means it went down over water. I never could make myself take that option seriously, anyway. The Boeing 777 is an enormous airplane. You'd need eight thousand feet of runway to land it, and 45,000 gallons of fuel tanks to refuel it. Good luck building such a secret airfield without the NRO finding out about it.

No, that never even made bad sense. Nor did any of the other hijack/misdirection theories. The people who might have been able to pull it off lacked any visible motive, and the people with motive had no means.

So, it went into the water. But not on a steep, nose-dive trajectory. That kind of impact would have destroyed it utterly. It's in relatively good condition, no obvious deformation. That argues for some kind of horizontal entry, most likely after fuel exhaustion. Leading, of course, to the question of how it got there. There is certainly no shortage of theories.

What keeps tugging at my attention, though, is what we do know about the plane's path. It went incommunicado shortly after signing off with Malayan ATC, and shortly before they were supposed to contact Ho Chi Minh ATC for enroute clearance.

I wish I could remember precisely where I saw this -- odds are better than even it's someone James Fallows at the Atlantic was corresponding with at the time -- but it reminded me of one key fact. Pilots always have an alternate airfield in mind. No matter where they are in their flight plan, they always know the closest airfield they can make for if something hits the fan. And MH370 made a beeline for Penang, the closest airfield at the time that could accommodate them.

The question becomes: Why?

I'm having a hard time convincing myself that it was anything but a fire in the cockpit, possibly an electrical fire of some kind. In that case, standard procedure is to turn off anything that might be feeding the blaze. Radios, transponders, whatever; if it draws power it's got to go down, until you have the fire under control. The right turn at Penang confused me, though. Then, I went and did some digging. Not much, Googling for "penang approach chart" turns up all kinds of useful information. The details are here if you should care to see for yourself. The pertinent bit is shown below.

At first glance, then, it looks as if they set their autopilot to make a beeline for the BIDMO meter fix, and then join the inbound traffic for runway 04/22. They might even have programmed their autopilot to make the base leg turn ...

Under this theory, they failed to control the fire, and were no longer conscious when they got there. I'd even hazard a guess that no one onboard was. There are no airtight bulkheads on an airliner. Toxic air will get to everyone eventually.

Or it might have been decompression. We had a similar event, on a smaller scale, back in 1999 when Payne Stewart's private plane lost pressurization, and sailed across country until fuel exhaustion.

But this leaves one question unanswered: why did it turn south? If, indeed, it did turn south? Its last known course was more or less towards India. It had to have made a left turn in order to end up in a position for one of its parts to wash ashore on Reunion.

We still don't know. We won't know that until after we find the wreckage ... and we might not know even then. 

We may just have to get used to not knowing. While all questions have answers, we are not promised that all answers will be revealed.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The End of the Beginning

Fifty-six years, six months, and fourteen days.

That sounds like a long time, and in terms of a single human life, it is. But in terms of humanity's lifetime, it's barely a blink of an eye. And I think that's the proper context, because it's the length of an era that ended today. By the time I finish writing this, I expect that we will have heard, one way or another, about whether or not the New Horizons spacecraft survived its encounter with Pluto. That encounter brings to a close the first era of humanity's exploration of the Solar System.

I place the beginning of this era on the first of January 1959, with Luna 1's flyby of the Moon. Luna 1 had been intended to hit the Moon, not fly by. But since these were early days yet, barely more than a year after the very first Earth satellite, rockets and guidance systems weren't all that reliable. Nevertheless, it became the first man-made object to enter heliocentric orbit. It's still out there, somewhere.

Venus, being the closest planet to Earth, was an obvious choice for our first planetary mission. Mariner 1 was intended to be the first, but again, guidance systems were still fairly new and not entirely reliable. The range safety officer had to hit the big red button when the Atlas-Agena booster decided it wanted to go for an unplanned excursion. They'd learned a thing or two, though, and in those early days they tended to plan these missions in pairs. If one of them didn't work, the other one probably would. And so it was that Mariner 2 became the first to fly by Venus on the fourteenth of December in 1962.

Staying with the pattern, the next target became the next farthest planet from Earth: Mars. And the script looks remarkably similar -- Mariner 3 was intended to be the first, but ... No, it wasn't the guidance system this time. This time, the payload shroud failed to open properly, and the spacecraft couldn't get any sunlight on its solar cells. The spacecraft limped along on battery power for a bit, then died, and drifts in eternal Solar orbit. Again, though, this is exactly why they planned these things in pairs. Mariner 4 came off without a hitch, and flew by Mars exactly fifty years ago today, returning the first-ever close-up pictures of another planet.

From 1965 to 1973, there was a bit of a drought of "firsts", partly because Project Apollo soaked up a bunch of time, money, and talent... But also because the next steps were going to be really difficult. And besides which, they had something pretty clever in mind, and had to wait for the right opportunity.

The next pair of probes to launch were Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, bound for Jupiter. "Wait," you may ask, "isn't Mercury closer?" Well, sure. But Mercury is also really, astoundingly fast. And that makes it a fairly tricky target. They had an idea, but they weren't 100% sure it would work. Anyway, the Jupiter launch window opened up first in any case. In December of 1973, Pioneer 10 gave us our first close-up look at the biggest of the planets, its system of moons, and its terrifyingly powerful radiation belts.

But we hadn't given up on Mercury. No, even though we'd have to do some pretty fancy work with a pool cue to get us there. Mariner 10, the last of its series, launched in November of 1973, and pioneered a technique we'd use again and again in the future: the gravity assist. We couldn't build a rocket powerful enough to fling a probe by Mercury -- well, we could, but no one was willing to allocate a Saturn V to the mission -- so we'd hitch a ride by Venus and steal a small bit of its momentum to get us the rest of the way. This gives us a twofer: two planetary visits for the price of one. Four, actually; Mariner 10 flew by Mercury three times. First in March 1974, then again in September 1974, and again in March 1975.

This proved good practice for the main event. Remember Pioneer 11? Pioneer 11 followed up its Jupiter encounter with an encore at Saturn in September of 1979. But even that was merely a warm-up. Another pair of probes were coming through, and in scientific terms they were armed for bear.

Bar none, the single spacecraft that broke more trail than any before or since just about has to be Voyager 2. Both Voyagers flew by both Jupiter and Saturn. And both were launched at a very fortuitous moment ... a moment when the four giant planets line up in such a way that one trajectory can link them all. Voyager 1's Grand Tour was cut short, though, to give it more time to give Saturn's moon Titan a close-up look. It would be left to Voyager 2 to take it all the way home. In addition to Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 2 flew by Uranus in January 1986, and Neptune in August 1989. No one has been to either one since.

After this, there was another period of drought ... for much the same reason. The outer planets are hard to get to. It would be almost a quarter-century before we finally got around to finishing out the initial reconnaissance of the Solar System. Dawn has been cruising around the Asteroid Belt for quite some time, first orbiting Vesta before flying over to take up station around Ceres. I won't dwell on that, though, especially since I've so recently written about it.

Which brings us to what we've been watching this last month or so.

Pluto has been, at most, a vague blob. What we didn't know about it was ... well, about everything. Once we'd found its moon Charon we could get some idea about its mass, but we were never entirely sure how big it was. Or precisely what it was made of. Or what it looked like. But even if we never hear from New Horizons again, what it's already found has utterly revolutionized our knowledge of the outskirts of our system. Even if we can't call it a planet anymore, there can be no doubt that these are worlds. Even if we never get another byte of data, what's already been gathered will keep scientists busy for years.

I don't have to write any more about that hypothetical though. Because we have a hard lock on a healthy ship. And over the next sixteen months, at an agonizing 4K bits per second, New Horizons will empty its tape recorders into our data banks.

I can scarcely imagine what it's seen these last twenty-four hours.

Soon, I won't have to.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Puzzlement of Discovery

The defining exclamation of scientific discovery isn't "Eureka!"

Sometimes it works out that way. "Eureka" -- from Greek meaning, more or less, "I have found it" -- is supposedly what Archimedes exclaimed upon realizing, while sliding into his bath, that displaced water may be used to measure the volume of a solid object. He'd been having a dispute with a goldsmith, you see, and suspected he'd been cheated. He needed to find a way to prove it, and a solution presented itself to him.

"Eureka" moments are far more common in engineering than in science, actually. Inspiration for the solution for technical problems tends to strike at the weirdest moments. I've had them at the gym, in the shower, and while walking across the street to a convenience store.

But moments of true discovery? Those aren't marked with glad shouts. Those are more often marked with puzzled murmurs. Not so much "Eureka!" as "What the heck did we just see?"

We're seeing one of those unfold in real time. Dawn is settling down into its science/mapping orbit around Ceres. And Ceres is proving to be a very puzzling place.

The $100,000 Question here is: What are those shiny bits? No one really knows for sure. The closer we get, the better and clearer the pictures are, but so far that hasn't brought any real clarity. One article I read compared them to Las Vegas at night, as seen from space. No one takes that interpretation seriously, mainly because Ceres is a damned odd place for ET to build a casino.

There's no real proof yet, but most people have a sneaking suspicion that what we're looking at are ice sheets. And not just those two bright spots, they're starting to show up all over Ceres' surface. Which may mean ...

... that there's just a thin layer of dusty rock on top of a thick layer of ice.

If that's the case ... this is a find of unimaginable value. Gold in them thar hills? Feh. Don't bother me with such penny-ante stuff. Water is important.

If humanity is to have a future away from Earth, we'll have to find somewhere to get water. Beyond the obvious, water can be electrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen. We need the oxygen to breathe, the water to drink, the hydrogen can provide power via fusion (once we figure out how to do that), and hydrogen and oxygen together can be used as rocket fuel ... or, the water itself can be used as the working fluid for a nuclear thermal rocket. But all this hinges on finding a place to get water that isn't prohibitively expensive.

Water is abundant here on Earth. But you have to lift that out of Earth's gravity well, boosting it ten kilometers per second to punch through the atmosphere, up to altitude, and then up to orbital speed. Then you have to boost it from low Earth orbit to wherever it is you need to use it.

Incidentally, this is why the movie Elysium never made any sense to me. Anyone with the technical savvy to build an orbital habitat would know better than to get their routine supplies from down here. The delta-V costs will simply eat you alive. But I digress...

Or maybe I don't? Because the problem is, if you can't get water from Earth, where do you get it?

Well, lots of places. Jupiter and Saturn have plenty of icy moons. Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus, and each of those have about as much water as Earth does, in the form of ice. The problem is, though, you have to lift that ice out of either Jupiter's or Saturn's gravity well, and that ain't exactly cheap. You're better off doing that than lifting it from Earth's surface, but not by a tremendous amount.

Ceres, now... In terms of delta-V, getting to and from Ceres isn't that hard. It takes a long time, but doesn't take much fuel. Remember that Dawn flew from Vesta to Ceres on about a fistful of rocket fuel. And fuel is the long pole in this particular tent. An enormous ice supply, located in the middle of the Asteroid Belt, is a Godsend for would-be colonists. It makes a ludicrous fantasy into ... well, still a very difficult enterprise, but at least one that's within shouting distance of feasible.

Or, it could all be smoke and mirrors. Something else entirely. Soon, we'll know for sure, one way or another.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Election 2016: Too Damn Early Edition

The clown car is now complete.

Of course, there's exactly zero chance that The Donald stays in the contest long enough to actually file disclosure papers with the FEC. He's got thirty days to do that, plus two more or less automatic 45-day extensions. With four months to play with, that takes us to October, by which time he'll have pulled the plug. In the meantime he gets exactly what he wants: the opportunity to strut and preen in the spotlight while people paid toadies pretend that he's meaningful and significant.

This does a disservice to the real candidates in the race. Candidates of substance, of experience, candidates who have real policy achievements they can point to. Whether or not those policy achievements were good things or not is open to debate. But people like Scott Walker, Rick Perry, and yes, even Mike Huckabee have earned a place at the table. Feckless nitwits like Trump haven't.

Be that as it may, though, it's that time again. Time for America's political parties, all across the spectrum, to club together and figure out who they're going to put forward for the office of President of the United States.

The stakes are high ... though not necessarily for the reasons you think. Yes, all the usual things are at stake: Supreme Court nominations, legislative action, the normal stuff. But there's also a historical dimension.

Whoever wins in November 2016 is going to get an absolute boatload of unearned credit.

Why, you ask?

Check out a time history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, plotted on a logarithmic scale:

I'd like to draw your attention to the behavior since 1940. From 1940 to about 1965, there was a period of fairly steady expansion. Then from 1965 to about 1985, a period of leveling-off. From 1985 to 2000, another expansion. Since 2000, another leveling-off.

There are policy explanations, of course, and proponents of the policies in effect during expansions will surely tout them. But there are also longer-term cycles at work, and developments that political policy has little to do with ... and we're primed for another expansion. It will probably get underway sometime between January 20, 2017 and January 20, 2021. The party of the occupant of the White House will try to claim the lion's share of the credit, earned or otherwise.

So the question remains ... who will that someone be?

For now, the Democratic Party's contest looks simpler, so that's where I'll start. (Numbers from Pollster. To keep the lists to a manageable size, I'll omit anyone under the 2% threshold.)

Hillary Clinton, 59.5%. While party unity can be a good thing, there's such a thing as too much unity. There needs to be at least some fractious debate during a primary, or the candidate is weakened. But that's beside point anyway. My issue with Clinton is the same as my issue with Jeb Bush -- there's been a Clinton or a Bush in the Presidential conversation since 1980. 1980! Two families have dominated Federal electoral politics for nearly forty years. This. Is. Not. GOOD. If you don't want an oligarchy, you kind of need to stop voting for oligarchs.

Bernie Sanders, 12.2%. Clinton's token opposition from the Left. I say "token", because I don't believe Sanders can pull enough support from the "center" part of the Democratic center-left coalition to win.

Joe Biden, 11.2%. Biden may make a race of it yet, but it's even odds that he decides to hang 'em up. The man is understandably heart-broken just right now, and may not have the fire and the thunder left for a hard campaign.

The Republican Party's list is considerably more active, and more interesting to talk about.

Marco Rubio, 11.7% No, pay attention. This isn't a continuation of the above list. It's just that there are a heck of a lot of Republicans going for the brass ring, and really, at this stage the polling really doesn't tell us much. The people at the top of the field probably have the "legs" to make a real challenge of it, but it's going to be a hard slog.

Jeb Bush, 10.9%. See? This is what I was going on about with Clinton above. We just can't seem to quit 'em. Although to be fair, as a former Governor, he's earned a right to be in the conversation. But I don't have to like it.

Scott Walker, 10.6%. And there's not a whole lot of daylight separating the top spots. Walker and Bush are duking it out for the "Seasoned Republican Governor" spot, while Carson and Rubio are still in the mix.

Ben Carson, 10.2%. And even amongst these four, their supporters only account for about 43% of the response field. It's going to be a wild ride, just like last time, with a succession of also-rans peaking and flaming out all through the Summer, Fall, and Winter.

Mike Huckabee, 8.8%. That said, while we're going to see some shake-outs from the Top Ten, I kind of suspect the Top Five will all be around for the Big Show in January. They've all rounded up enough financial support to make it through Super Tuesday, at a minimum.

Rand Paul, 8.4%. Sadly, I suspect Senator Paul will likely be one of the casualties. I say "sadly" because while I don't always (maybe even often) agree with him, I respect him. I respect a legislator who has the fortitude for an old-school, hold-the-floor filibuster. But since he doesn't have a "pocket billionaire" funding his campaign, he probably won't be able to go the distance.

Ted Cruz, 6.2%. So, we're all agreed now that "natural born" is perfectly well satisfied by jus sanguinis? By having an American parent? Sweet.

Chris Christie, 4.3%. He's not the lowest-ranked former governor in the race ... but he soon will be.

Carly Fiorina, 4.2%. I'll admit, I haven't paid much attention to Fiorina's policy views. I was too busy paying attention to her spectacular ineptitude at Hewlett-Packard. She took over an industry giant that made the finest hand-held computing devices known to Man, and left a smoldering pile of wreckage. Yeah, that's the kind of executive experience we really need in the Oval Office...

Rick Perry, 2.7%. Do not discount this man. His performance in the 2012 campaign debates was a bizarre anomaly. Expect him to bide his time, and quietly collect support from the flame-outs as they occur. He'll have swapped places with Christie on this list by the end of the summer.

Rick Santorum, 2.2%. In a normal GOP year, "It's His Turn" is powerful mojo. As the 2012 runner-up, you'd expect Santorum to be polling higher this time around ... except that this is no ordinary year. They've been out of office long enough for panic to begin brewing. The GOP is going to go one of two ways. They're either going to go for electability, or they're going to go for an ideological firebrand. I'm not sure Santorum fills either bill.

John Kaisch, 2.1%. OK, so Christie has room yet to fall to get to lowest-ranked Governor on this list.

The Donald, 1.9%. I include Captain Combover just to indicate that the bucket has clanged noisily off the bottom of the well. And there isn't any water down there. Well's dry, folks.

And that's where we are. The Democrats don't have enough candidates, and the Republicans have too many. It's liable to still be that way this Fall, when things begin to heat up in earnest.

And remember, as I always say: Vote early, and vote often!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sesquicentennial, Part L: Epilogue, Part 5: What Have We Learned?


"What have we learned, Palmer?"

"I don't know, sir."

"I don't &#!*@%$ know either. I guess we learned not to do it again."

-- Two CIA Officers from Burn After Reading

Fifteen decades later, what have we learned? Not nearly as much as the price on the box says it's worth, that's for damn sure.

The price ... the price was high. High enough to be nearly incomprehensible today. Even in purely monetary terms, it was staggering. Direct wartime costs amounted to $2.3 billion. Veterans' benefits -- benefits that, mind you, we were paying into the 1970s and 1980s to some wives and children -- amounted to $3.289 billion. Interest payments on the debt incurred during wartime came to $1.2 billion. The Federal debt at the end of the war stood at $2.7 billion, indicating that just about all wartime expenses were met by borrowing.

That's some serious cash. That's the Manhattan Project, Project Apollo, and just about everything in between, all rolled together. When you consider that the net worth of all slaves was in the neighborhood of $3.5 billion in 1860 dollars, it would have been cheaper -- far cheaper -- to buy out the slaveholders' interests. Cheaper, and far less bloody. Which brings us to the other kind of price.

Nearly three million Americans saw combat. Of those, over six hundred thousand died. About half that, three hundred thousand or so, were wounded. Right about a quarter of the South's men of military age were dead.

So ... what have we learned? I can hope that we have at a minimum learned not to do it again. But seeing all the Tea Partiers bleating "Secede!" at the least provocation, I despair of even that much.

But despair is a sin. The lessons are there, for those that care to look. I'm not going to pretend like I've got it all figured out -- I strongly suspect no one does --  but a few things have become clear to me over the last five years.

First, and this is no real surprise, the Lost Cause is utterly bankrupt intellectually. It hasn't the remotest basis in fact. Of the points listed in the article, the second is only tangentially true, and the fifth irrelevant. The others are hogwash, delusional fantasy, or outright lies.

(1) Southern commanders seemed better than their Union counterparts, but only because the South enjoyed the early advantage of putting their best officers in key posts.
(2) The Union's superiority in resources and manpower -- true, but this covers up the real reason.
(3) The loser's bleat -- we only lost because we were robbed. Buy a clue: Longstreet was right about Pickett's Charge, and Lee damned well ought to have listened.
(4) Horsefeathers. States' Rights to do what? The seceding States were perfectly clear why they seceded. This is an after-the-fact face-saving lie.
(5) Irrelevant. "Treason doth never prosper, what's the reason? For if it prospers, none dare call it treason." We say the American Revolution was justified, because we won. Secession failed, and therefore wasn't.
(6) I've actually never met anyone who could claim this with a straight face. We've made this much progress -- as recently as fifty years ago, a lot of people in the South took the hogwash that "slavery was a benign institution" more or less seriously.

Be that as it may -- down here in the South, you will always and forever run into people that will say the Civil War wasn't about slavery. A small part of me sympathizes. It's a hard thing to admit that your great-to-the-Nth grandfather fought for an evil cause. No one likes to think that. Nonetheless, it's true. Well, individual soldiers fought for a whole bunch of reasons. In the end, he ends up fighting for the man on his right and his left, because that's the way you come through with a whole skin. But their officers, their leaders -- as I've said before, and repeatedly, they were crystal clear about why they did what they did. Secession was about slavery. To believe anything else is to ignore everything the secessionists themselves said or wrote.

Second, this experience has reinforced a saying I learned many, many years ago during my days as an officer cadet: Amateurs study tactics, professionals study logistics. General Scott's overall strategy for the Union was shrink-wrapped around logistics: secure the Ohio River valley and its railroads, secure the Mississippi, isolate and starve the enemy. It set a pattern we still follow. It was more or less irrelevant whether or not the Tiger was ten times better than a Sherman, because there was always an eleventh and twelfth Sherman. We seek to ensure adequate arms and supplies for our own soldiers, and just as diligently seek to deny the same to our enemies. If you've got plenty of food, ammo, and gas and your enemy is scrounging; well, that may not be victory, but you can sure see it from here. Had they ever been able to get England off dead center, and use the Royal Navy to guarantee free navigation to Southern ports ... but that was never going to happen. It was a faint hope until late summer of 1863, but a dead one afterwards. In any event, the South wasn't crushed by numbers, or the perfidy of some of its officers, it was strangled by a slow, patient encirclement. Just as General Winfield Scott intended.

Third, and this came as something of a surprise, the battles themselves were far less interesting than I thought they'd be. After a while, they all began to run together. That said, you do see a difference between how the armies moved as the war progressed. Early on, they'd just run pell-mell at one another. Then, in late 1863 or early 1864, they began to emphasize flanking movements and de-emphasize frontal attacks. That was an interesting development. Officers began to realize the power of the weapons they commanded, and how they must be employed on the battlefield. And you begin to see in the siege of Petersburg in late 1864 and early 1865 a microcosm of what would happen on a continental scale only fifty years afterwards. Even then, though, the movements and decisions between the battles were, and are, what have a lasting effect. As Sun Tzu once said, a battle is won or lost before the armies ever see one another. It's purely a pity Master Sun's wisdom wasn't widely available in 1860.

Fourth, and last, it's not really over. As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, it is still up to us to carry on the work left undone. It is still up to us to see to it that the words "all men are created equal" have real weight and meaning, and isn't just an empty phrase. That "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are things that each and every one of us can have and use. There are some who, upon realizing this, say that the war can still be lost.

I shun such defeatism. Rather, let us work to see to it that we truly experience a new birth of freedom. Six hundred thousand ghosts demand it. They expect us to take up the standard, worn and frayed though it be, and not rest until we've done our part such that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the Earth.

It's a worthy goal. And a life worthily spent. Truly, what more can a man want?

[Ed. note -- and that's a wrap. Thanks for taking this journey with me. In coming months, I'll be taking a spin through the articles, doing some light editing and fixing broken links.]

Monday, May 04, 2015

Sesquicentennial, Part XLIX: Epilogue, Part 4: The Curious Case Of Dade County


"Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historical facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." -- Karl Marx

And then there was the time, late in the War, that a county seceded from Georgia.

With respect to Georgia, Dade County defines remote. In the mid-19th century, swamps and forests make it impossible to reach Dade County by a road entirely within Georgia. You had to go through either Tennessee or Alabama to get there. And it's not like Dade County actually had anything worth having. For that matter, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia had a bit of trouble remembering to whom Dade County actually belonged to begin with. The County government thought it belonged to Georgia, though, and when Georgia's demand for troops became too onerous, Dade County adopted an Ordinance of Secession, and bolted.

There's no record that the Georgia Legislature ever noticed. To be fair, they were preoccupied with more pressing matters, such as being where General Sherman wasn't. Time passed.

The war ended. The Confederate armies surrendered, and the soldiers went home. But Dade County either forgot -- or deliberately declined -- to re-unify with Georgia. Maps of Georgia would commonly have a notch in the corner, where Dade County ought to have been. Beyond that, no one really cared.

More time passed.

Men from Dade County volunteered to fight in the armies of the United States, first against Spain, and then against the Kaiser. A few oldsters thought that funny, since so far as any of them could remember, they weren't strictly speaking part of the United States.

Still more time passed.

Someone decided that it'd be nice to have a road to Dade County that lay entirely within Georgia. The discovery of coal deposits probably had something to do with the decision. They built it. The citizens of Dade County paid Georgia taxes. Just about everyone had forgotten the unpleasant secession business, and men from Dade County again volunteered to fight for the United States against Germany and Japan.

It was more or less at this point that a county historian discovered the old ordinance, in a disused file cabinet.

The government of Dade County, circa 1946, was astonished to learn that they were still, legally, in a state of rebellion against a government that now held a global monopoly on atomic weapons. This was an ... alarming realization, to say the least. But hey, late reunification is better than never, right? They promptly adopted an ordinance of reunion, with both Georgia and the United States, and sent it along to President Truman.

Truman was a good sport about it. All's well that ends well, as they say. And now that Dade County is safely and legally reunited with Georgia, the map of Georgia is once again whole, and properly pointy in all the right places. No one would ever again leave Dade County off.

Ummm ... guys?