August 30, 2013

"Setting national goals" is totalitarian malarky...

Space Experts: NASA Is Dangerously Adrift - Popular Mechanics:

In a call with reporters today, the founder and the current head of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., painted a bleak picture for the future of NASA's manned spaceflight program based on its current direction. Their comments came on the eve of Congressional authorization for the space agency's budget.

"The sense of drift or the sense of lack of consensus is still fairly serious" Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute, said of the political debate over NASA's course. Pace, who previously served as NASA's Associate Administrator for Program Analysis and Evaluation, was joined in a press conference today by John Logsdon, professor emeritus of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University and founder of the Space Policy Institute.

"I think what you're seeing in the current debate over priorities really is the residual of 40 years of a failure to reach consensus on what the U.S. should be doing in space and particularly in human spaceflight," says Logsdon, who also served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in 2003.

NASA's manned spaceflight program arguably has been without a clear mission since Apollo 17 returned from the moon in 1972, carrying the last crew to leave low-Earth orbit. The space shuttle, conceived during the Nixon administration, "did not have a larger strategic purpose," Pace says. "It was merely a capability." He argues that this build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy still holds sway today. Now, as before, NASA's focus is on building capabilities such as a new spacecraft and launchers and then figuring out that to do with them afterwards. "I feel like I'm listening to an echo from the Nixon administration," he says...

I think the Space Policy Institute is basically making the same underlying mistake NASA is making. They share the assumption that he US should have a space policy, and a "space program." That "space" is something done by government is never questioned.

I think the whole concept of "setting national goals" is totalitarian malarky. Industrial Age thinking. A ponderous idea that does not work any more. Our country's only broad goal should be to bring down the cost of getting into orbit, so that lots of people will be able to afford to get out of Earth's gravity well, and live in space. Then they will figure out what space is, and what it's good for.

And bringing down the cost of getting to orbit itself requires that government get out of the way. Especially NASA, which is lost in a dream of "programs," to be done by experts while all us little people watch on television. Pfooey. We should kill NASA and use the savings to help jump-start private space flight.

Posted by John Weidner at 8:24 PM

May 20, 2013

Mind-Bogglingly Dull!

My son Rob wrote:
I was watching a documentary from National Geographic, titled "Evacuate Earth". The premise of that documentary is: A neutron star is heading towards Earth, and in 75 years the Earth will be destroyed, so we must evacuate the Earth, and leave our solar system entirely.

Unfortunately... Their solution is MIND-BOGGLINGLY-DULL!! And from a Catholic angle, down-right evil. Their solution to this hypothetical problem is the following:

Have all of the governments of the world bring all the scientific and engineering minds of the world together, and build one single Orion-style spaceship in one location, this single spaceship will be a little larger than Manhattan, and take 200,000 or so people out of our solar system.

While this ship is being built, the next step would be to have government bureaucrats travel the world, and carefully look for people with genetic diversity to put on this spaceship.

This idea is completely idiotic... The idea is dull and boring! It's something an early 20th century industrialist would have approved of! It's something that Henry Ford would have loved! It is something that Richard Branson might puke at...

There's almost no mention of bringing down the cost of launching vehicles into space through increase of volume of traffic. There's no talk of private industry like SpaceX, Bigelow Aerospace, or Virgin Galactic taking on some of the burden. (They did indeed mention private companies building spaceships in that documentary. But the one ship that was mentioned exploded on the launch pad. The message was clear: Don't trust private companies as they'll screw up, government workers know what they're doing!)

How fast do you think we could lower launch prices in the situation put forth in that documentary?

There was some talk about far-out technology that might be used for propulsion, but thankfully they decided on the most practical means of getting large numbers of people into space: Project Orion.

One giant spaceship, organized by well-meaning government agents to take a small number of people (0.0028% of the population of the Earth), launched from a central location to parts unknown.

What about the rest of humanity? T.S.? The small number of people who would be selected for this spaceship would need to be "genetically perfect" to coin a phrase. Eugenics is never a good thing, and in the end it always ends badly.

Building just one single spaceship is also incredibly stupid for another reason: What if some end-of-the-world terrorists get together and try to destroy the ship? They justify their actions by saying "No should be allowed to escape judgement day!" What then?

Why not have hundreds of smaller Orion ships, that can carry millions of people altogether? Why not allow people like Richard Branson to build a fleet of Orion-style spaceships? How many ships do you think that man will build to save god-only-knows how many people just to satisfy his own delusions of godhood if he had access to the nuclear material to build them and money was no longer an object?

Heaven-forbid they ask shipping companies for help in building large spaceships. Heaven-forbid they ask the cruise-line industry about entertainment on their one single large ship, or how to manage large numbers of people in a confined space... Heaven-forbid they consult with anyone from the private sector! Those icky people are just in it for the money, unlike the pure-of-heart, head-held-high, altruistic government bureaucrats.

It is maddeningly frustrating to watch something like this... It had so much potential, but it was squandered...

This really reminds me of those complaints that one hears from time to time, that America has lost her "greatness" because we no longer do things like the Apollo Program. That's pure Industrial Age thinking; big government puts on some razzle-dazzle extravaganza, a few people do something exciting, and the rest of us are just spectators. And that's what "national greatness" is. Pfooey!

Posted by John Weidner at 6:47 PM | Comments (2)

September 29, 2012

A long-ago way of thinking...

Bruce Charlton's Miscellany: Human capability peaked before 1975 and has since declined: (Thanks to Ed Driscoll.)

...I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since.

This may sound bizarre or just plain false, but the argument is simple. That landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans. 40 years ago we could do it – repeatedly – but since then we have *not* been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.

Of course, the standard line is that humans stopped going to the moon only because we no longer *wanted* to go to the moon, or could not afford to, or something…– but I am suggesting that all this is BS, merely excuses for not doing something which we *cannot* do. ...

Apollo was the culmination of the Industrial Age. It happened during the 60's, which was exactly when a new age of the world was beginning, the Information Age. It is my theory that this had nothing to do with personal computers or the Internet, which were still in the future. Rather, it was a change in how people thought. (Link to my Info Age pieces, if you are curious.)

And what Apollo was mostly about was not technology or space exploration. It was about, "The whole nation pulls together." As in fighting a war. Which was the purpose; uniting us in the Cold War.

It worked at first. I was there. I remember us all swooning over the pictures of the first Mercury astronauts in Life Magazine. The Americans who didn't "pull together and feel the required emotions could probably fit in a football stadium. That was the real "success" of Apollo. That's what the big deal was. The technology was superb, but it was not "off the charts." It was intellectually comparable to the Manhattan project, the development of jet aircraft, or the creation of digital computers. (I'd say the first Plutonium bomb was a much bigger technological "reach." Maybe the biggest one ever.)

Apollo seems stupendous because it fits our mental picture of what a big project should be. Everyone moving together under the leadership of wise big government.

At the same time it was, on its own terms, a colossal failure. By the time we actually walked on the Moon, a large portion of Americans had begun thinking in a different way. They simply did not function in the group-mind fashion of ten years before. We did not pull together as a nation, and we were less interested in vicarious experiences by a few "official" explorers. After the first flights we lost interest in the Moon. Big top-down-management projects no longer seemed to make sense. Actually, they literally did not make sense, because people had changed. They were fragmenting and inventing wild new things and thoughts at such a pace that managing them top-down was like organizing cats. Nothing like Apollo has happened since, because such things don't work in the Information Age. (For the same reasons I predict confidently that CFPB and Obama-care will fail.)

The thing that was supposed to be the next Apollo, the Space Shuttle, was a mess. A clunker. It should never have been built. And it's real problem was spiritual--we didn't know what we wanted to do in space, and the Shuttle expressed our incoherence, The "magic" didn't happen. NASA kept pulling stunts to make the Shuttle exciting and "relevant," such as sending a teacher into space. Trying to re-capture the "astronaut magic." And failing every time. What America should have done was use subsidies to stimulate private space development; to turn loose individual genius, rather than collectivist genius. Which is starting to happen now. If there were some way to measure such things, I'd guess that a random year of Silicon Valley is as big a technological accomplishment as the whole Moon program. But people like Mr Charlton can't "see" it. It doesn't fit their template.

We will go back to the moon. But never as an Apollo-style government program. Rather, when cost-to-orbit shrinks to a certain point, we will see an explosion of private space happenings, which will result in thousands of people simply living in space. In orbit. And those people will start doing stuff. Starting businesses, businesses such as going to the Moon and shooting back materials to build more orbital stuff. They won't be wearing white space suits, and planting flags and gazing soulfully up to the stars. They will be more like a scruffy infestation of gold-rush miners.

(The book to read is Vacuum Flowers, by the supremely talented Michael Swanwick. Alas, he is infected with the nihilism common to our age, and like so many SF writers of my generation, writes beautifully but has nothing to say. But the kooky rabble inhabiting his space habitats are a valuable corrective to all those fantasy pictures of noble NASA explorers in their white space-suits.)

Posted by John Weidner at 3:44 PM | Comments (5)

June 9, 2012

My dislike of astronauts, part three...

[NOTE: Speaking of space, Rand Simberg writes: Only seven shopping days left until my Kickstarter project on space safety must be funded. I still need about $2800 by next Friday afternoon. Pass the word, via Twitter or whatever....

This is a worthy project. Part of the stagnation of our space efforts is due to an extreme emphasis on safety by cautious bureaucrats. He's asking for $10 (or more) contributions, and I'll do one. (With a twinge of bitterness, 'cause no one will ever kickstart my book.) Rand inspired my space thoughts long ago, and I owe him a debt. Here's a sample I saved from 2002. Read!]

UPDATE: This project is funded! Cool

Now, to the post...

Again, I don't really dislike astronauts. Just their symbolism. And for this yet another disjointed post, I start yet again with a quote from Terry. If he didn't exist I'd have to invent him! Terry wrote:

"Four reasons a nation might make this investment [in space] are national defense, scientific advancement, practical applications, and national prestige."

So, for which of those reasons did the federal government subsidize the building of the transcontinental railroads? Hmm? None of them, really. The reason, the goal, was to settle the west. And part of the same package was the Homestead Act, which subsidized settlers with free land. And the goal was further subsidized by the US Army, which fought the Indians who impeded settlement.

And underlying this goal of settlement was faith in the American people. Give the people opportunities, says the theory, and they will do great things. That's what Americans have traditionally thought.

But over the course of the 20th century a new idea slowly wormed its way into control. And that was the idea that elites, embodied in government, can do great things. That's how European nations have always worked, and it is a very congenial idea if you happen to fancy yourself as a member of the elite. You could also say it was the turning of America from a country into a nation, a development I despise. [Do kindly read my piece: I'm not a "nationalist".]

And it was an insidious idea, one that often produced attractive results, and often mimicked traditional American thinking, so it was able to infiltrate its way into our minds. That is, I suggest, the underlying problem with Terry's comments. He may be right, and I may be wrong, about the economics of space. Perhaps space will be up to government for the next century. But I'm seeing more clearly as I write about this, that the real issue to me is, is America a sort of "collective entity?" Or is she an assemblage of free men?

If the first theory is true, then when NASA sent astronauts to the Moon, "WE" had done something great. If the second theory is true, then Apollo, cool as it was, was just a precursor. A curtain-raiser. And the real story will begin when Americans start homesteading the Moon, or doing similar things.

Astronauts are for me a symbol of the first theory. They are a symbol of the idea that government accomplishes things, and us ordinary couch-potato Americans are spectators, basking in reflected glory.

I'm perfectly happy with government doing most of the spending for space at this point, if it's necessary. The real question is, where are we going? The GOAL should be for government to gradually get out of the way, as Americans find more ways to live in space, and make money off of space. And cheaper ways to get into space.

In Rick Pearlstein's excellent book about the Goldwater movement, Before the Storm, he enjoys pointing out that the Goldwater family fortune originally came from selling supplies to the Army in Arizona. With the implication that this somehow undercut Goldwater's message of small government and free markets. I would reply, "So what?" Arizona could not have been settled without long tough military campaigns. That's the proper job of government. The difference was that everyone looked forward to the day when the Army could mostly leave, and the people get on with building a state.

Today's fake-liberals would look at the Army as a wedge, to start gathering more and more federal control of everything in Arizona. They look at everything as a wedge. "Never let a crisis go to waste."

[The picture has nothing to do with current happenings. It's an illustration by John Schoenherr, for the book Mission Of Gravity, by Hal Clement. Found here.]

Posted by John Weidner at 3:10 PM

June 8, 2012

Bravo 308, or, Why I Hate Astronauts, Part Two...

Of course I don't really hate them. How silly of you to think so. I'm just trying to make a point and get your attention... (Again with thanks to Terry, at the previous post. I create pearls because of such gritty commenters.)

Anyway, I think people get muddled in their thinking about space, because they imagine that going to places like Mars or the Moon must be giant one-swoop affairs, where a huge rocket takes off from Canaveral, sheds several stages, and then proceeds on to Mars or Venus. Then heroic cosmonauts pick up some rocks, and reverse the process to get back home. Voila, a great moment in human history. Worthless little rabbits like us are awestruck that we are can witness such heroics on our TV's.

But there's a different way such explorings and what-nots might work out. Think about Antarctic exploration and science. Imagine that SF State University (next door to me) wants to do research in Antarctica. Do they build a ship? Stuff it with all necessities? Train some heroic Antarctic-nauts in simulators, to prepare them for the severe conditions? And do they then set sail for the antipodes all on their own?

Of course not. They pack a few boxes of gear and fly to New Zealand in comfort. Then, in a bit less comfort, they take take a C-17 to... Tah dah! MacMurdo Station, our Antarctic base. Where they will find bunkhouses and chow-halls, gyms, a bowling alley, and even a chapel. Plus helicopters and crawly-machines galore. And, especially, they find expert staff who will assist them in whatever crazy things they are doing.

I think that's what future space doings will be like. IF (the big if, the cosmic if...) IF we can get the cost of getting stuff up into orbit to maybe a tenth of what the Space Shuttle costs. Then we will soon see bases in orbit. How will that happen? Who knows. But there will space hotels for sure, and they will need permanent staff. There will be lots more satellites and space telescopes, needing servicing from time to time. Cripples who can afford it will want to move to space, where they can be fully mobile in zero gravity. There will develop a population. Things will start to percolate, and the result will be somethings like MacMurdo. The starting point for a thousand-and-one different projects. The base camp.

Think about all the fools who climb Mt Everest. (There were lines recently, leading to some deaths. Lunacy.) Well, that is very expensive. Comparable to what I suspect a trip to space will cost soon. Think of all the fools who buy huge yachts. They will be able soon to go to space soon, for comparable expenditure, and more prestige. All of these things will lead to people living in space to facilitate this stuff. Living in space-shacks and shanty-towns. Making homes out of empty fuel tanks and cargo containers.

How do I know about what happens in the Antarctic? Because an old family friend, Sandwich Girl, works at MacMurdo every winter (which is the Antarctic summer). Pictures here. Here's a bit from her blog... » Blog Archive » i'm back!:

...oh hi antarctica. It's me, sandwich.

i came down to the ice this season for winfly,* an early deployment that comes in august to help open the station for mainbody*. for 6 weeks, i worked in the BFC* getting gear ready and together for science groups. the night sky has been spectacular, the nacreous clouds incredible, the temperatures colder than i ever remember (-80F windchill? really!?), and the work has been busy and fun.

winfly has been mellow, but not boring. i've been working on some silly things for the craft fair, went on some walks, visited the pressure ridges*, took a nodwell* to castle rock, blew bubbles in -40F (they turn to a shredded papery substance), organized a balsa man antarctic regional event, re-created the bowling alley, chainsawed holes in the ice, watched the movie "the room" (wow. just wow), and saw a face-melting concert by colorful and talented local folk. mcmurdo, you are an excellent village full of wonderful people.

now is the time when winterovers leave, and the rest of the summer crew arrives in droves. this year is interesting, since there is a lack of bedspace in christchurch nz due to the massive quake last february. passenger flights come south only twice a week, instead of every other day. my science team, Bravo 308, arrived a couple days ago, so i have since moved from the BFC to the lab to help things get ready for our fishing season. [The scientists are studying fish.] i'll be here until mid-december. looking forward to more fun and fish, but until then, trainings....

Here's our friend...

Allie in Antartica
Posted by John Weidner at 8:23 PM

June 3, 2012

Why I hate astronauts...

(This grew out of my response to a comment by Terry in the previous post. Thanks Terry!!) I hate astronauts. Not, I hasten to add, personally—they seem to all be fine men and women. But the idea of the astronaut is one of the biggest scams ever invented.

The current project of liberalism is about turning people into rabbits. (This is not intrinsic to liberalism; it's just how liberalism has evolved. Regular readers of Random Jottings will understand why.) Passive, conformist rabbits. Dependent on big government, and always agreeing with the current liberal fads. And in this task they are making splendid progress. Humans are shrinking all around us. But there is always the problem that some rabbits are going to dimly remember that men should aspire to higher things than mere comfort and security. So the astronaut was invented, to be a sort of proxy human being, and to look like what all of us should be--strong, brave, visionary.

The astronaut has carefully scripted pseudo-adventures, with every "bold" move planned by bureaucrats. After which we are hit with propaganda about how these are daring human adventures that "enlarge the human spirit." Bullshit. And are leading somewhere, although this is always vague and undefined. My guess is that they are by design never going to go anywhere, because that would raise too many questions about what we humans are, and where WE are going. And as an extra absurdity, NASA and the various bureaucracies have a mania for safety. They are terrified of anything going wrong, and generating bad publicity. So the bold adventures "to infinity and beyond" are almost paralyzed with timidity! Crazycakes.

The current policy of paying entrepreneurial companies like SpaceX to get stuff into space are due to the usual reason. Socialism has run out of other people's money. That and, I suspect, that the reality of the Information Age is seeping in. The big government/NASA/astronaut paradigm is pure Industrial Age thinking, and has got to be just looking silly to a lot of younger people.

I despise everything about this. My heart is with the raggedy-assed guys who used to light out for the territories with a rifle, an ax, a bag of corn meal and a scalping knife. They've been kept out of space so far, but the walls are starting to crumble. Those tourist hotels in space, for instance, are going to need staff. I imagine they will be like the people who staff our Antarctic bases. (the Weidners happen to know one of those. Check this out. To enlarge your spirit.) They won't be rabbits. And they will be living in space.

But the thing is, you can be a brave adventurer just living your own humble life. It's a matter of attitude. And you can live your life with the attitudes that could make you ready for some wild adventure, should one present itself to you. (I think I have a bit of this attitude, though I can often be quite timid. For instance, Charlene and I both dream of being colonizers on Mars. And we both had the same reaction of keen envy when a friend was offered a job with the American occupation in Iraq. "Not fair! I want to go!")

So why, you may be asking, have I put these rambling disjointed space thoughts under "Sunday Thoughts?" Am I crazy? It's because this is really a religious question. To be "strong, brave, visionary" is much the same as the Christian concept of "attaining the full stature of Christ." That's what we are here for. That's what Christian faith is about. It's not about "going to Heaven;" it's about becoming adopted sons and daughters of God. Which is to say, awesomely brave and strong and bold. Sexy!

Today's Epistle reading... Paul's Letter ("epistle" is another word for letter) to the Romans, 8; 14-17

Brothers and sisters:
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear,
but you received a Spirit of adoption,
through whom we cry, "Abba, Father!"
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit
that we are children of God,
and if children, then heirs,
heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,
if only we suffer with him
so that we may also be glorified with him.

So, "A spirit of slavery." A "liberal rabbit." Much the same, I think. N'est pas? So, amigo, are you ready? Or are you a rabbit? Are you ready to move to a tunnel on the Moon? If the need arises? Hmm? Or to die in the defense of Truth? If the need arises?

Are you ready? Or should the bold deeds be left to "astronauts?"

[Note: My space thoughts mostly derive from Rand Simberg, who is the go-to guy on this.] A recent example of his thinking...

Transterrestrial Musings - Fending Off A Space-Alien Invasion:

Does the U.S. have the needed weaponry?
Obviously, it depends on the nature of their technology, but I'd say no.
As long as we avoid becoming a spacefaring civilization (as we have been for decades, de facto, with our insane space policy) we will always be on the defense. We need to be able to take the offensive against a space-borne attack, and we don't even have proper picket lines up in the solar system, which means that there's a good chance that by the time we find out about them, they'll be at our front door, and it will be too late....

So who mans "picket lines" out past Jupiter? Astronauts? Ha. Too expensive. Bureaucrats? Rabbits? No way. Too soft. Probably it will be some wacky Jacksonian Protestant cult monkeys. They'll do it for free.

Posted by John Weidner at 10:17 PM

June 2, 2012

Socialistic Republicans may find it hard to reverse Obama's free-market policy...

Credit where it's due, Obama has gotten one thing right.

SpaceX Dragon returns to Earth:

...Musk, the billionaire behind PayPal and Tesla Motors, aims to launch the next supply mission in September under a steady contract with NASA, and insists astronauts can be riding Dragons to and from the space station in as little as three or four years. The next version of the Dragon, for crews, will land on terra firma with "helicopter precision" from propulsive thrusters, he noted. Initial testing is planned for later this year.

President Barack Obama is leading this charge to commercial spaceflight. He wants routine orbital flights turned over to private business so the space agency can work on getting astronauts to asteroids and Mars. Toward that effort, NASA has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in seed money to vying companies.

NASA astronauts are now forced to hitch rides on Russian rockets from Kazakhstan, an expensive and embarrassing outsourcing, especially after a half-century of manned launches from U.S. soil. It will be up to SpaceX or another U.S. enterprise to pick up the reins. Several companies are jockeying for first place....

One of the tortures for us conservatives for all my life has been the need to work within the Republican Party. Nice chaps and all, but trapped in the Blue Model. This during decades when we sensed a need to get beyond that, to start working with the new Information Age world that was emerging. This wasn't really conscious, mind you. But I'm theorizin' that this was what was happening under the surface. What we call "conservatism" is very much a new product of the new age. As Rick Pearlstein put it, "the most successful youth movement of the 60's was Youth for Goldwater."

And there is hardly any area where Republican obtuseness shows better than in their support of the "State Socialist" model of space exploitation. Giant companies symbiotically joined with giant bureaucracies. Well, the failures of the Space Shuttle program have taught us a lesson about how well that works. And if it's Obama who get it, rather than the supposed party of free markets, well, more power to him.

(This picture has nothing to do with SpaceX; it's the old Delta Clipper. Symbol to me of lost opportunities and squandered decades.)

From the memoirs of Fanny Kemble...

...While we were acting at Liverpool an experimental trip was proposed upon the line of railway which was being constructed between Liverpool and Manchester, the first mesh of that amazing iron net which now covers the whole surface of England and all the civilized portions of the earth. The Liverpool merchants, whose far-sighted self-interest prompted them to wise liberality, had accepted the risk of George Stephenson's magnificent experiment, which the committee of inquiry of the House of Commons had rejected for the government. These men, of less intellectual culture than the Parliament members, had the adventurous imagination proper to great speculators, which is the poetry of the counting-house and wharf, and were better able to receive the enthusiastic infection of the great projector's sanguine hope that the Westminster committee...[Thanks to David Foster at Chicagoboyz]
Posted by John Weidner at 9:12 AM

January 8, 2012

Mars colony thoughts...

Putting Scientists on Mars in Permanent Colonies (Thanks to Rand):

...Eminent physicist Paul Davies has a proposal for you: a one-way ticket to the Red Planet. As it's typically conceived, a round-trip Mars mission would take about two years and cost at least $80 billion. But you could cut 80 percent of the expense, Davies says, by nixing the return and initiating a permanent Mars colony. The hard part, he says, isn't subsisting in a hostile environment millions of miles from home but changing the Space Shuttle-era culture of timidity. That's starting to happen, though: The NASA Ames Research Center teamed up with Darpa to put $1.1 million into a study of manned interstellar travel. Even so, no one's going anywhere, Davies argues, unless we can bring the price down. To do that, the ticket has to be one-way.

Wired: Who would sign up for a mission with no return?

Paul Davies: That's the least of our worries. About 1,000 people volunteered after I wrote about this in the Journal of Cosmology. Of course, most are starry-eyed adventurers, not serious scientists who want to be on Mars to do great science....

This makes perfect sense to me. I'd be up for it if I did not have a happy family. Our "official" culture would hate it, because it is a culture devoted to destroying souls by means of fostering selfishness and dependence on the welfare state. It would be reflexively opposed for the same reason defending oneself with a gun is hated by liberal nihilists.

Another cultural idea that needs to be overcome is the author's own idea that space has to equal scientific research. I'd say that the real reason for space colonies should be to enlarge the human spirit. And that "starry-eyed adventurers" should be preferred! And since the starry-eyed types would surely be picked for intelligence and general competence, they could easily collect scientific data, or perform experiments. Or be scientists, without being filtered by our usual credentialism. Which I suspect is a dying artifact of the Industrial Age.

Actually, the idea that scientists are some sort of specialized and exalted caste that can do things no one else can is just silly. 95% of what's done by the average scientist could be picked up by a smart amateur in a year or two. We have seen it happen in the climate debates. (Link, link.) Actually, I'd argue that 95% percent of the people labeled "scientist" aren't really scientists at all. They are just technicians. A scientist is a truth-seeker. That's what the word really means. How many of our current white-coat-wearers would follow a truth faithfully if they knew it was going to, say, get Republicans elected? Or cause the scientist to fail to become tenured? Ha.

Davies says, "But I think it's unethical to send young people, since there are serious health risks. You need highly trained scientists with a life expectancy of less than 20 years." Is this true? He doesn't mention any specifics. I'd guess he means radiation risks, which I would think could be overcome. Space travel itself would pose problems, but I imagine that any Mars base would be mostly underground. One could dig trenches with explosives, assemble pre-fab tube-sections, and then fill over using more explosives. I wonder if the various minerals that can make cement are available on the Martian surface?

I would venture to say that the assumption that only older people should go to Mars is not so much a practical necessity, but rather a result of the vertigo that many people seem to feel when thinking about outer space. It is frightening because its possibilities are limitless. We shrink space to our psychological size by limiting it to fabulously expensive and inefficient government-only exploration and science.

Alas, if one thinks about space colonies, then the number one question that should be asked can't be asked. At least not in the context of the liberal/secular worldview most associated with space and the natural sciences. And that question would flow from Mark Steyn's apophthegm, here, that "There aren't many examples of successful post-religious societies." Well, actually, folks, there are none. It doesn't seem to work.

If one is actually contemplating space colonies, and not old age homes for scientists, then the book to read is How Civilizations Die, by David P. Goldman (AKA Spengler). Because we are in fact surrounded by dying societies, and it would be grossly impractical for anyone to ignore this factor. It would be bad engineering. Demographers are in complete agreement that reproducing at sustainable rates is most closely related to faith. (More specifically, faith that has discovered how to live with modernity. Faith that is just an attribute of a sheltered pre-modern culture won't do it. Those crash when exposed to modernity. Think Islam, or Ireland.) Read the book, and think.


Posted by John Weidner at 3:10 PM

December 6, 2011

Can't I vote for "None of the above?"

Recent comment by Mr Gingrich:

The people who get on their computer to access the internet to send a note to their friends about the dangers of big government are using a device developed by the U.S. government — a computer, with an interface developed by U.S. government grants, what we then called the (Defense Department's) Advanced Research Projects Agency, in order to access a worldwide system (also) developed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency.

This is stupid in SO many ways.

1. Research into promising new technologies is not the sort of thing conservatives are worried about. Especially if the technology is then passed on to the private sector. But government tends to grow inexorably, even in technology research. And to cling to control. As witness NASA. We should be developing and colonizing Space right now, but we can't because of the stranglehold of government.

2. DARPA was not trying to create the Internet. It was simply trying to link a few dozen computers so that they could be used more efficiently. DARPA was funding numerous computer projects at various universities, and had to buy fabulously expensive new computers for each project. They wanted a simple way for a researcher in one place to use a computer in another.

3. If there had been a government project to create the--tah dah!-- "world communications project of the future," it would almost certainly have failed. As I recall there were such attempts, ponderous and official, and the Internet simply grew so fast that they slipped into irrelevance.

4. When the Internet started to explode in the 1980's, many of the early users hated what was happening. They wanted bandwidth to be reserved for the important things they were doing and not squandered by a frivolous public. If government had still been in control, who can doubt that it would have tried to strangle change?

Posted by John Weidner at 8:17 AM

October 13, 2011

Emblematic of a whole bunch of stuff...

One good thing about the colossal economic mess we are in is that it shines the harsh light of reality on all sorts of rubbishing ideas. One of which is wind power. I expect to be hearing a lot less about that in the future. Actually, the people who promoted wind power could reasonably be called mass-murderers, since the billions of dollars spent on it could have surely have saved hundreds-of-thousands of lives if used wisely.

Wind turbine FAIL – school left holding the bag for £53,000 | Watts Up With That?:

...An eco-friendly school has been left £55,000 out of pocket after its wind turbine broke – with governors admitting that it was based on "completely unproven technology".

The company that installed the turbine has gone bust leaving the school with a pile of scrap.

The Gorran School in Cornwall revealed its 15 metre turbine in 2008 which was designed to provide it with free electricity – and sell any surplus power to the National Grid.

The system was seen as a green blueprint for clean, sustainable energy for schools nationwide and received grants from various bodies including the EDF power firm.

But soon after being installed the wind turbine became faulty and after a few months seized up – showering the school's playing field with debris.

Since then the school has been locked in a battle with suppliers Proven Energy which has now gone into administration leaving the school with little hope of any money being returned – and a pile of scrap in their field....

One might be tempted to feel sorry for them, except that one knows darn well that any wind-power skeptics would have been made to feel distinctly unwelcome in their school. Like most liberals they do NOT want both sides of the story. One can imagine how puffed up and self-righteous they must have been over their stupid turbine. And think of the unrelenting brain-washing of the students that surely went on.

Posted by John Weidner at 5:03 PM

July 7, 2011

Google+...possibly interesting...

I hate Facebook, and don't even look at my account anymore. But Google+ sounds intriguing.

Google+ is Awesome. Facebook Maimed, Twitter Mortally Wounded? :

...In Facebook, you cannot friend someone unless they friend you back. And once that person does friend you, for the most part they see all of your updates and you see all of their updates. The result is a privacy nightmare and a news feed filled with everybody's junk. Most of us have not fully appreciated these glaring problems at Facebook because until Google+ came around there was no other game in town to show us how bad they were. Now we know better.

Instead of treating all of your friends as equals, Google lets you put them into different groups, called circles, such as "friends", "acquaintances", "family", "sports fans", and so on. These circles represent a powerful innovation. They allow us to send more personal updates just to our closest friends instead of forcing us to share with all of our hundreds of acquaintances. This simple task is not easy to do within Facebook. Furthermore, Google+ allows us to chop up our incoming news stream based on what circle they are coming from, so that we can focus on just the updates from our family or just the updates from our coworkers...

My real problem is that I'm such an oddball, the stuff I really want to publish doesn't grab anybody. The nice thing about a blog is that I know I'm not imposing. No one has to read, not even friends and family. So I probably won't get into this new thing.

It's like, you know, people post on Facebook about their trip to the pizza parlor... and then about what they are going to order... and then about how it tastes. And I'm thinking, "What is the underlying philosophy here? What does pizza symbolize? How should we think through the process of choosing toppings?" Somehow, mysteriously, those musings don't seem to be a "fit" on Facebook.

I'd guess they won't fit on Google+ either.

Posted by John Weidner at 8:29 AM

June 10, 2011

What do you get for your secret stealth tax?

This is from Great Britain, but I'm sure things are similar here... Richard Littlejohn: The answer, my friend, ain't blowing' in the wind — Climate Realists:

Following the revelation that we're all paying a secret stealth tax to subsidise so-called renewable energy sources, it seems like a good time to check out exactly what we are getting for our money.

At midday yesterday, wind power was contributing just 2.2 per cent of all the electricity in the National Grid. You might think that's a pretty poor return on the billions of pounds spent already on Britain's standing army of windmills.

But it's actually a significant improvement on the last time I checked the wholesale electricity industry's official website. At the turn of the year, the figure was 1.6 per cent. During the cold snap the turbines had to be heated to stop them freezing and were actually consuming more electricity than they generated.

Even on a good day, they rarely work above a quarter of their theoretical capacity. And in high winds they have to be turned off altogether to prevent damage. Britain's 3,426 wind turbines produce no more electricity than a single, medium-sized gas-fired power station.

Any sane individual would conclude that wind generation is hopelessly inefficient and horribly expensive and stop throwing good money after bad.

But when did sanity ever have anything to do with government policy?...
Posted by John Weidner at 9:18 AM

April 19, 2011

Very pretty star map...

Take a look at 32 Nearby Stars, by Krystian Majewski. It's a charming grid representation of every star within 14 light years of the sun. You can move it with your mouse, and hovering over a star gives you its name.

Posted by John Weidner at 6:52 AM

December 17, 2010

Weird stuff goes into your watch-band...

TikTok+LunaTik Multi-Touch Watch Kits by Scott Wilson— Live from China: LunaTik Manufacturing — Kickstarter:

If you want to see some interesting technology, take a look at the video at the link. Especially the kneading of Silicone like pasta dough (About 5 minutes in). Hypnotically strange.

Posted by John Weidner at 9:03 PM

November 27, 2010

Don't bother reading SF...

Charlene recommends...

Mystery Surrounds Cyber Missile That Crippled Iran's Nuclear Weapons Ambitions:

...The target was seemingly impenetrable; for security reasons, it lay several stories underground and was not connected to the World Wide Web. And that meant Stuxnet had to act as sort of a computer cruise missile: As it made its passage through a set of unconnected computers, it had to grow and adapt to security measures and other changes until it reached one that could bring it into the nuclear facility.

When it ultimately found its target, it would have to secretly manipulate it until it was so compromised it ceased normal functions.

And finally, after the job was done, the worm would have to destroy itself without leaving a trace.

That is what we are learning happened at Iran's nuclear facilities -- both at Natanz, which houses the centrifuge arrays used for processing uranium into nuclear fuel, and, to a lesser extent, at Bushehr, Iran's nuclear power plant.

At Natanz, for almost 17 months, Stuxnet quietly worked its way into the system and targeted a specific component -- the frequency converters made by the German equipment manufacturer Siemans that regulated the speed of the spinning centrifuges used to create nuclear fuel. The worm then took control of the speed at which the centrifuges spun, making them turn so fast in a quick burst that they would be damaged but not destroyed. And at the same time, the worm masked that change in speed from being discovered at the centrifuges' control panel.

At Bushehr, meanwhile, a second secret set of codes, which Langner called "digital warheads," targeted the Russian-built power plant's massive steam turbine....
Posted by John Weidner at 7:07 AM

November 15, 2010

A common statistical deception...

By Ramesh Ponnuru - The Corner - National Review Online:

The liberal columnist assails the Speaker-to-be for asserting that we have "the best health care system in the world." Boehner's assertion isn't one I'm especially interested in defending, but Cohen's attack is mistaken. Cohen's top reasons for thinking we have a crummy system are our relatively low life expectancy and our relatively high infant mortality rate.

As conservatives and libertarians have pointed out time and again, the health-care system is not the reason for these statistics. Here's the way I put it a couple of years ago: "In this country, a premature delivery followed by death would be counted toward the infant-mortality rate; not so in some other countries. And whatever we think of our health-care system, it is not to blame for the fact that America has a lot of car wrecks and homicides. When health economists Robert Ohsfeldt and John Schneider adjusted for these factors, the U.S. had the highest life expectancy of any developed country. (And they didn't correct for obesity rates, which would make our advantage look even bigger, just like our waistlines.)"

I've never heard of a "liberal columnist" going to another country when they have a serious health problem. (Though Obama's workin' on it.)

Posted by John Weidner at 6:10 AM

October 1, 2010

"San Francisco... still the awesomeest!"

My daughter sent me the link to this video (with the above subject line) about the San Francisco Fire Department's wooden ladders. They are handsome things I've seen a thousand times, and never given any thought to...

Ladder Shop for SFFD from AdamKaplan on Vimeo.

Posted by John Weidner at 7:14 AM

July 9, 2010

Lefties must destroy Haitians in order to save them...

Green Menace — The American, A Magazine of Ideas:

...The peasant groups are indigenous in theory, but not when it comes to money, as they rely on U.S. donors for funding. Corresponding sympathetic demonstrations were held in the United States. Groups marched on the Gates Foundation in Seattle (the group is not properly mortified by biotechnology, hence the protests); protesters burned genetically modified seed in Chicago and organized a march in Missoula, Montana; and the Organic Consumers of America sent out 10,000 emails protesting Monsanto's magnanimity.

Doudou Pierre, whose title is the "national coordinating committee member for the National Haitian Network for Food Sovereignty and Food Security," explains the protests this way: "We're for seeds that have never been touched by multinationals." The idea of local seed is driving the protests, as writer Beverly Bell explains: "Haitian social movements' concern is not just about the dangers of the chemicals and the possibility of future GMOs imports. They claim that the future of Haiti depends on local production with local food for local consumption, in what is called food sovereignty."

Hybrid seeds will increase yields over open pollinated seeds, whether purchased fertilizer is applied or not. This is why U.S. farmers adopted hybrids a generation before the widespread availability of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. One in four Haitians is hungry and, even before the earthquake, the average caloric intake in the country was far below United Nations-recommended levels. But that, of course, is of no consequence when compared to the importance of planting seeds untouched by multinational hands. Better starvation than accepting gifts from a company as evil as Monsanto...

Just another in the long list of liberals killing people in service of their ideas. Usually niggers in distant places that can't be seen from San Francisco or Ann Arbor...

Posted by John Weidner at 6:33 AM

June 22, 2010

"The poetry of the counting-house and wharf..."

How are these two things the same?

From the memoirs of Fanny Kemble...

...While we were acting at Liverpool an experimental trip was proposed upon the line of railway which was being constructed between Liverpool and Manchester, the first mesh of that amazing iron net which now covers the whole surface of England and all the civilized portions of the earth. The Liverpool merchants, whose far-sighted self-interest prompted them to wise liberality, had accepted the risk of George Stephenson's magnificent experiment, which the committee of inquiry of the House of Commons had rejected for the government. These men, of less intellectual culture than the Parliament members, had the adventurous imagination proper to great speculators, which is the poetry of the counting-house and wharf, and were better able to receive the enthusiastic infection of the great projector's sanguine hope that the Westminster committee...[Thanks to David Foster at Chicagoboyz]

The Space Review: Individuals pick up the space development torch:

...Wealth follows a Pareto distribution where 80% of the wealth is owned by 20% of the people, 64% of the wealth is owned by 4% of the people, and so on. At $1 million and more, there are about 110 times as many people as at $30 million and more. So if wealth continues to double every generation and the price of rocket development shrinks modestly, so that ten percent per year growth continues, there may be millions of people who can afford to develop a rocket in fifty years time—about the same number as the 8.6 million millionaire individuals in 2009.

The increase in the population of potential financiers in the last 50 years is likely to be the main reason that rocket development is now becoming a personal pursuit. In addition to Elon Musk’s orbital venture, many people have used the proceeds from other businesses to fund suborbital rocketry in the past 10 years (and perhaps orbital in the future), including Paul Allen, Jeff Bezos, John Carmack, and David Masten. As successful developments conclude, the pursuit may become more popular and competitive. Keeping up with the Joneses amongst yuppie rocketeers may someday mean launching settlers to Mars....

By the way, I wrote back in 2006:

Having these proud-as-Lucifer dot-commers competing with each other to get into orbit is just too utterly cool. "Last guy into space is a girl!"

Well, it seems to be working...

Delta Clipper experimental rocket
That fascinating might-have-been, Delta Clipper. Image from

They are the same because many of the real poets are, then and now, entrepreneurs.

Posted by John Weidner at 8:03 PM

June 14, 2010

Worse than we can imagine?

The Oil Drum — Deepwater Oil Spill - A Longer Term Problem:

...First of all...set aside all your thoughts of plugging the well and stopping it from blowing out oil using any method from the top down. Plugs, big valves to just shut it off, pinching the pipe closed, installing a new bop or lmrp, shooting any epoxy in it, top kills with mud etc etc etc....forget that, it won't be's done and over. In fact actually opening up the well at the subsea source and allowing it to gush more is not only exactly what has happened, it was probably necessary, or so they think anyway.

So you have to ask WHY? Why make it worse?...there really can only be one answer and that answer does not bode well for all of us. It's really an inescapable conclusion at this point, unless you want to believe that every Oil and Gas professional involved suddenly just forgot everything they know or woke up one morning and drank a few big cups of stupid and got assigned to directing the response to this catastrophe. Nothing makes sense unless you take this into account, but after you will see the "sense" behind what has happened and what is happening. That conclusion is this:

The well bore structure is compromised "Down hole".

That is something which is a "Worst nightmare" conclusion to reach. While many have been saying this for some time as with any complex disaster of this proportion many have "said" a lot of things with no real sound reasons or evidence for jumping to such conclusions, well this time it appears that they may have jumped into the right place...

This makes me queasy. We may be at just the beginning of the problem.

To every lefty environmentalist wacko who blocked drilling in ANWR or blocked extraction of tar sands or oil shale, who blocked development of nuclear energy...we've left a pistol and whiskey in the study.

Posted by John Weidner at 6:36 PM

May 1, 2010

On the oil rig explosion...

Some pictures and numbers I find amazing... The Gulf oil rig explosion – on the scene photos:

...The rig belongs to Transocean, the world's biggest offshore drilling contractor. The rig was originally contracted through the year 2013 to BP and was working on BP's Macondo exploration well when the fire broke out. The rig costs about $500,000 per day to contract. The full drilling spread, with helicopters and support vessels and other services, will cost closer to $1,000,000 per day to operate in the course of drilling for oil and gas. The rig cost about $350,000,000 to build in 2001 and would cost at least double that to replace today.

The rig represents the cutting edge of drilling technology. It is a floating rig, capable of working in up to 10,000 ft water depth. The rig is not moored; It does not use anchors because it would be too costly and too heavy to suspend this mooring load from the floating structure. Rather, a triply-redundant computer system uses satellite positioning to control powerful thrusters that keep the rig on station within a few feet of its intended location, at all times. This is called Dynamic Positioning.

The rig had apparently just finished cementing steel casing in place at depths exceeding 18,000 ft. The next operation was to suspend the well so that the rig could move to its next drilling location, the idea being that a rig would return to this well later in order to complete the work necessary to bring the well into production.

It is thought that somehow formation fluids – oil /gas – got into the wellbore and were undetected until it was too late to take action. With a floating drilling rig setup, because it moves with the waves, currents, and winds, all of the main pressure control equipment sits on the seabed – the uppermost unmoving point in the well. This pressure control equipment – the Blowout Preventers, or "BOP's" as they're called, are controlled with redundant systems from the rig. In the event of a serious emergency, there are multiple Panic Buttons to hit, and even fail-safe Deadman systems that should be automatically engaged when something of this proportion breaks out. None of them were apparently activated, suggesting that the blowout was especially swift to escalate at the surface. The flames were visible up to about 35 miles away. Not the glow – the flames. They were 200 – 300 ft high....
Posted by John Weidner at 9:11 AM

March 3, 2010

So, what happens when the bio-tech equivalent of Moore's Law kicks in?

This is very interesting tech, but my guess is that it is even more interesting that portrayed, because the technology sounds like stuff that can get cheaper and cheaper, and simpler and simpler. Like, you know, computers do. Or digital cameras, or flat-screen TV's, or smart phones. And could head in the direction of home machines that can take a drop of your blood and report on your blood sugar or cholesterol levels. And send the results to your physician, who will see graphs of her patient's conditions, wit warning flags if something needs attention, or prescription dosages need tweaking.

What's missing? You and me buying our medical diagnoses like we buy other consumer goods.

Technology Review: Personalized Medicine on the Spot:

A new device can rapidly test biological samples for genetic variations that could cause dangerous reactions to some drugs. By Erica Naone

Different people can react to drugs in different ways, and in some cases the response can be predicted from their genes. For example, the drug warfarin, often used to prevent blood clots, can cause dangerous bleeding in some patients. Researchers have identified two genetic variations that can increase this risk.

Tests for this type of individual genetic variation have been available for a long time, but in many cases they cost too much and take too long. Nanosphere, a startup out of Northwestern University that's based in Northbrook, IL, hopes to change that. Its Verigene system, which takes just a few hours to analyze DNA from blood or other material, allows doctors to test for genetic variations without having to send samples out to a lab.

A single-use cartridge uses a combination of chemical reactions to isolate fragments of DNA from a patient sample and test them for specific genetic characteristics. The top half of the cartridge is discarded after this process is complete, leaving a prepared glass slide behind.

To help keep track of samples, a bar code is printed on the test cartridge and the underlying slide.

The necessary ingredients for the chemical reactions used to process the DNA are stored in wells located around the edges of the test cartridge. After the DNA is extracted from a sample, the machine uses air pressure and mechanical valves to release the ingredients from the wells as needed. Strands of DNA that are complementary to the target sequences are used to bind those sequences to the glass slide below the cartridge, as well as to gold nanoparticles that will allow the DNA to be detected when exposed to light. The cartridge washes away any excess DNA or nanoparticles and then sets off a reaction that coats the remaining nanoparticles with silver, which makes it easier to scan for them.

A DNA sample is loaded into the port shown here. Sonic energy, applied when the cartridge is inserted into the machine that processes the samples, breaks the DNA into small fragments and separates it into its two complementary strands so that it can be captured on the surface of the glass slide.

After the chemical reactions have finished, the target DNA remains on the surface of the prepared glass slide, tagged by silver-coated gold nanoparticles. The Verigene's reader can read the slide by shining light into it and measuring how that light is scattered by the tagged DNA. The system can be used to look for single or multiple genetic targets....
Posted by John Weidner at 8:42 AM

January 30, 2010

Even your old grandma can do it...

Fraser Speirs on the iPad.

... I fear this January-26th thinking misses the point.

What you're seeing in the industry's reaction to the iPad is nothing less than future shock.

For years we've all held to the belief that computing had to be made simpler for the 'average person'. I find it difficult to come to any conclusion other than that we have totally failed in this effort.

Secretly, I suspect, we technologists quite liked the idea that Normals would be dependent on us for our technological shamanism. Those incantations that only we can perform to heal their computers, those oracular proclamations that we make over the future and the blessings we bestow on purchasing choices.

Ask yourself this: in what other walk of life do grown adults depend on other people to help them buy something? Women often turn to men to help them purchase a car but that's because of the obnoxious misogyny of car dealers, not because ladies worry that the car they buy won't work on their local roads. (Sorry computer/car analogy. My bad.)

I'm often saddened by the infantilising effect of high technology on adults. From being in control of their world, they're thrust back to a childish, mediaeval world in which gremlins appear to torment them and disappear at will and against which magic, spells, and the local witch doctor are their only refuges.

With the iPhone OS as incarnated in the iPad, Apple proposes to do something about this, and I mean really do something about it instead of just talking about doing something about it, and the world is going mental....

Is the radical simplicity and ease-of-use of the iPad the real point? As a Mac user I've seen this aspect growing for a while now. Especially in the way all those apps that begin with an "i" work together. I don't actually like it very much; it always makes me feel cranky and rebellious. I never download pictures from my camera into iPhoto, I'd rather arrange my own folders.

But as soon as I get into some aspect of computing that I'm not familiar with, the same ease-of-use is liberating. I recently helped start a group in our parish that wanted to put podcasts of sermons on the web site. It seemed like an impossible mountain of technical juju to climb, and we assumed we would have to recruit "experts". I wanted to be my own expert, but I didn't have the time. I kind of jump-started things by making a sample podcast in Garageband. Then clicked one button to put that into a "blog" in iWeb. Then clicked another button and uploaded it to my iDisk.

I hated working in an Apple environment that assumed I was a "lifestyle" person (iWeb I mean, not Garageband, which I recommend.) But I loved being able to whip something up myself in a hour, and send a link to the group to see, and make them think, "Yes, we can do this.". (Here's a link to our website. The most recent podcast is on the right, and the podcast page is linked on the left. Not fancy, but a start.)

Posted by John Weidner at 7:54 AM

January 21, 2010

Formidable graphics work...

My daughter sent me this link,

Here & There — a horizonless projection in Manhattan. Take a look!

It really gives a feel for the shape of the town, both close-up and distant. It was apparently a difficult thing to put together, but considering how Google Maps and Google Earth are now integrating 3-D models of buildings, one can imagine that in the not-to-distant future you will be able to see such projections from any point like you see "street views" now.

Here's a video, in much less detail...

Here & There in Manhattan from schulze on Vimeo.

Posted by John Weidner at 9:03 AM

April 6, 2009

Anybody remember card catalogs?

My daughter sent me this...

"Google Classic" postcard

It's pretty funny, but also interesting to me because, well, that's the way it was...

Back in the misty past, like the 1980's or 90's. Back before the earth began to cool, there used to be a service for searching for rare and out-of-print books. You would go to a used-book store and ask for something. They would offer to search for a book they didn't have, for a small fee. Then they would mail in the query which would be printed on a weekly list that was mailed to all subscribing stores. Booksellers all around the country—or maybe the world—would peruse the list and try to spot something they had in stock. Then they could send a card to the store that searched for it, and they in turn would contact you with an offer.

It seemed impressively efficient at the time. Similarly, at the public library I used to fill out a one-page form and pay a couple of bucks to do an inter-library loan request. Now I can, via the SFPL's web page, search a wide variety of libraries in the region, and click to request a book. (Don't use the service if you are absent-minded. They charge a dollar a day for late books.)

Posted by John Weidner at 7:56 AM

April 2, 2009

It's unlikely you have one of these gadgets sitting in your garage.....

...But probably somebody does somewhere. Anthony Watts (His blog Watts Up With That? is an indispensable source on the subject of global warming) writes....

Readers: Your help needed to recover old satellite imagery:

...As WUWT readers know, I covered a fascinating project on 3/31 here showing how a team of dedicated technical archaeologists are trying to get old AMPEX 2" reel to reel data recorders functional again so that they can recover thousands of moon and earth images from the 1960's that would otherwise be lost to history. There is a current scientific interest in the images, as some may help determine the extent of polar ice during those years.

I've offered WUWT as a vehicle to help find parts and manuals. You may have access to these things and not know it. Ask around, especially with the old-timers in your department, and check your dusty basements and storage areas. - Anthony...

...The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP), is a NASA ESMD funded project to recover the original Lunar Orbiter analog data which was recorded on an Ampex FR-900 2" video instrumentation recorder. As far as we know, we have the last surviving drives of this type in the world. We have retired Ampex engineers working with us on this project but the FR-900 was a limited use machine (exclusively the U.S. government at the FAA, USAF, NASA).

What we need is to find any possible source of documentation (we know about the Stanford Archive and have been there many times) for the FR-900 or the possibility of actual machines.

There are similar machines with the numbers FR-901, FR-902, FR-950 that are close enough that we can use any information on them....
Posted by John Weidner at 3:54 PM

April 1, 2009

I suspect this is a bit silly...

Crew in Moscow to Simulate Part of a Flight to Mars -

...In a small step in the direction of Mars, the international crew is embarking on a simulated flight to the planet to test the limits of human tolerance for the isolation and monotony of interplanetary travel.

"It is really like a real space flight without the weightlessness and the danger to our lives," said Sergei N. Ryazansky, a cosmonaut-in-training who will lead the mission. "On the inside, we will have a lack of incoming information, so it’s the science of sensory deprivation."...

... On a mission to Mars, astronauts will have to contend with communication gaps of as long as 20 minutes.

"Working in such conditions requires that a person be able to check himself, evaluate his condition in relation to the crew and in relation to mission control and be able to correct himself," said Boris V. Marukov, the experiment’s director and a former crew member on the International Space Station. "He will be a psychotherapist for himself."...

I'm pretty sure there are no technical reasons why a Mars crew could not have high-bandwidth communications with Earth. Un-manned flights don't have them now because there is no need to add the extra weight and power-requirement.

So a Mars mission could communicate with all the Internet tools we have today, except for the delays. Those would be frustrating, but I don't think we are talking "sensory deprivation" here. And anyone who has children nowadays learns that Internet communications can provide a lot of our human needs for closeness and conversation. If my daughter is bored and discontented I'll suggest she invite some of her friends over. "Whatever happened to Susie?" I'll say. "You two used to be such good friends." And the answer is likely to be, "We still are; I see her on Facebook.." And they do--they even post little videos (probably mostly giggles and words-not-in-complete-sentences).

You could run a small business while flying to Mars. Or "meet" people of the opposite sex. Or be active in political debates. You could upload the latest movies and music. Read the NYT.

Even being physically present with people can be different these days. Charlene and I will sometimes sit on the sofa, each of us active on our laptops. Even sending each other e-mails, because that's a fast way to send a link to an interesting web page! Last year we were sitting together, and I read an interesting product review, clicked to, and ordered her birthday present with "One-Click." And she didn't even know.

I have Internet friends I've never met in person. Some of them are commenters on this very blog. And aren't blogging and commenting themselves just a sort of time-delay conversation?

Posted by John Weidner at 6:25 AM

October 16, 2008


If you are interested in tools, machining or manufacturing, you will want to watch this video about how the new Macbooks are made. The bodies of the laptops are individually milled, with exquisite detail and precision, out of solid blocks of aluminum!

Unbelievable. Future ages will NOT look back on us as barbarians devoid of art. They will just disregard the nihilist sludge that is seen in "modern art" museums, and focus on our technological poetry...

Posted by John Weidner at 6:39 PM

August 20, 2008

To understand the Left, read Lewis Carroll...

So who's blocking "alternative power?" "Renewable energy?" Greens. Leftists. Democrats. No surprise there; once you abandon the use of logic, anything is possible...

WSJ, August 18, 2008: Wind Jammers

In this year's great energy debate, Democrats describe a future when the U.S. finally embraces the anything-but-carbon avant-garde. It turns out, however, that when wind and solar power do start to come on line, they face a familiar obstacle: environmentalists and many Democrats.

To wit, the greens are blocking the very transmission network needed for renewable electricity to move throughout the economy. The best sites for wind and solar energy happen to be in the sticks -- in the desert Southwest where sunlight is most intense for longest, or the plains where the wind blows most often. To exploit this energy, utilities need to build transmission lines to connect their electricity to the places where consumers actually live. In addition to other technical problems, the transmission gap is a big reason wind only provides two-thirds of 1% of electricity generated in the U.S., and solar one-tenth of 1%.

Only last week, Duke Energy and American Electric Power announced a $1 billion joint venture to build a mere 240 miles of transmission line in Indiana necessary to accommodate new wind farms. Yet the utilities don't expect to be able to complete the lines for six long years -- until 2014, at the earliest, because of the time necessary to obtain regulatory approval and rights-of-way, plus the obligatory lawsuits.

In California, hundreds turned out at the end of July to protest a connection between the solar and geothermal fields of the Imperial Valley to Los Angeles and Orange County. The environmental class is likewise lobbying state commissioners to kill a 150-mile link between San Diego and solar panels because it would entail a 20-mile jaunt through Anza-Borrego state park. "It's kind of schizophrenic behavior," Arnold Schwarzenegger said recently. "They say that we want renewable energy, but we don't want you to put it anywhere."....

"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Posted by John Weidner at 8:14 AM

July 22, 2008

Thoughts to think by the gas pump...

The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management today published proposed regulations to establish a commercial oil shale program that could result in the addition of up to 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil from lands in the western United States....

...The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is only publishing proposed regulations at this time because the Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2008 prohibits the agency from using FY2008 funds to prepare or publish final regulations. The President has called on Congress to remove the ban on finalizing oil shale program regulations...

...The largest known deposits of oil shale are located in a 16,000-square mile area in the Green River formation in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Shale formations in that area hold the equivalent of up to 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Federal lands comprise 72 percent of the total surface of oil shale acreage in the Green River formation....

That is to say, in plain English, that Democrats are blocking the extraction of petroleum in the US. How much petroleum? 800 billion barrels...what does number that mean? Hmmm? Well children, the human race has used, to date, about 1 trillion barrels of oil. So the Green River Formation, by itself, is equal to about 80% of all the oil we've ever used on earth. Arabia ain't in it!

Posted by John Weidner at 3:26 PM

July 18, 2008


Like many people who started reading blogs "back in the beginning," I miss Steven den Beste. He used to throw splendid doses of cold water on various areas where fuzzy-thinking is common. One of them is alternative energy sources. He's posted a summary that is worth reading, if you think wind power or some such is in the near future going to take away our need for power generated by coal, oil and nuclear. (den Beste has serious health problems, by the way, that's why he now limits himself to lightweight blogging.)

....I don't blog about that kind of thing anymore. I never enjoyed blogging about energy, anyway, because for too many people "alternate energy" is more about religion than about physics. They believe that if we are just creative enough, we can overcome fundamental physical limitations -- and it's not that easy.

In order for "alternate energy" to become feasible, it has to satisfy all of the following criteria:

1. It has to be huge (in terms of both energy and power)
2. It has to be reliable (not intermittent or unschedulable)
3. It has to be concentrated (not diffuse)
4. It has to be possible to utilize it efficiently
5. The capital investment and operating cost to utilize it has to be comparable to existing energy sources (per gigawatt, and per terajoule).

If it fails to satisfy any of those, then it can't scale enough to make any difference. Solar power fails #3, and currently it also fails #5. (It also partially fails #2, but there are ways to work around that.)

The only sources of energy available to us now that satisfy all five are petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.

My rule of thumb is that I'm not interested in any "alternate energy" until someone shows me how to scale it to produce at least 1% of our current energy usage. America right now uses about 3.6 terawatts average, so 1% of that is about 36 gigawatts average.

Show me a plan to produce 36 gigawatts (average, not peak) using solar power, at a price no more than 30% greater than coal generation of comparable capacity, which can be implemented at that scale in 10-15 years. Then I'll pay attention.

Since solar power installations can only produce power for about 10 hours per day on average, that means that peak power production would need to be in the range of about 85 gigawatts to reach that 1%.

Without that, it's just religion, like all the people fascinated with wind and with biomass. And even if it did reach 1%, that still leaves the other 99% of our energy production to petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.

The problems facing "alternate energy" are fundamental, deep, and are show-stoppers. They are not things that will be surmounted by one lone incremental improvement in one small area, announced breathlessly by a startup which is trying to drum up funding...

It's impossible to argue with most of the people who talk about "alternate energy;" They want to believe, and just don't hear anything like this. Plus, most people can't think. The average person, even with a university degree, can't think clearly about these things, and doesn't want to. For instance, the concept of scaling is basic to all technical discussions. But how many people will even understand, not to mention respond intelligently, if you tell them their favorite scheme "won't scale?" (It doesn't have to be a technical subject; there are things that work in small groups but not in large groups. Or small countries, but not large or diverse countries.)

Posted by John Weidner at 9:25 AM

June 30, 2008

Neat things happening...

I use Google SketchUp Pro, a marvelous 3-D drawing/drafting program, in my work, and back in March of 2006 when Google bought SketchUp I speculated on what was cooking:

...So maybe the plan is to model every building on earth, and incorporate them all into Google Earth! Then you could take a virtual stroll down any street, enter any (public) building....Links and databases could be associated with places..."walk into" a restaurant, and see the menu, the hours, maybe even make a reservation for a specific table that has a nice view...

Well, that seems to be just what's going on. I just noticed this post on the Official Google SketchUp Blog:

....With our new Google Cities in 3D Program, we've made it easier for communities to "get themselves on the map". The program provides a way for local governments to share whatever 3D data they have, allowing them to appear in the 3D Buildings layer of Google Earth. Sound interesting? This post on the Google LatLong blog has all the juicy details....

Posted by John Weidner at 9:33 PM

March 21, 2008

Just routine air-transport....

This is interesting to me. The V-22 was mired in controversy and problems for so long, that I kind of assumed it would never be operational. And yet here it is, working away, hardly even being mentioned. Cool.

I wonder how well it is actually working out? The concept is awesome, and I've always tended to think that even if cost a mint, and failed to meet expectations, we should be pushing ahead with it in order to learn enough to build better models later. And of course it fits well with "small wars," which is all we have now.

V22 transports Iraqi troops
Iraqi army soldiers from the 27th Iraqi Infantry Brigade, 7th Iraqi Infantry Division, prepare to go on a patrol March 18 in the Hawron Wadi, which is just east of Baghdad, after exiting a MV-22 Osprey. The Iraqi army has been training with Marines and Navy SEALS to conduct helo-borne operations such as patrols and cache sweeps. While on patrol, the soldiers looked for any signs of insurgent activity and talked to locals to see if they had seen anything unusual. GUNNERY SGT. JASON J. BORTZ / MARINE CORPS. From Frontline Photos, 3-19-08

Posted by John Weidner at 10:15 AM

February 16, 2008

For world peace, poke a thumb in their eye...

From the Daily Mail: Bush branded 'cowboy of space' after decision to shoot down malfunctioning satellite...

President Bush was branded a cowboy last night amid claims that his decision to shoot down a failed satellite could spark a confrontation with Russia and China...

...They warned the president could provoke a new arms race in space by brandishing America's military power.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, called the move "regrettable".

And in a jibe aimed at the President he said: "Clearly someone in the administration who has the instincts of a cowboy has decided this is the perfect excuse to rattle our sabres and show the Chinese that we have the same capabilities."....

Rattling our sabres is good. It will promote peace. Looking weak and indecisive will tend to lead to war. I suggest we should try to make the debris fall so as to make shooting stars over Peking...

US Cruiser fires SM-3

(Image purloined from Neptunus Lex. Thanks. )

Posted by John Weidner at 11:45 AM

January 29, 2008

Competitive in the $50-a-barrel range...

Charlene recommends this piece on flex-fuels, by Bob Zubrin (thanks to Glenn)...

...In light of this, a top priority of U.S. national security policy should be to break the oil cartel. This imperative has been apparent since the 1973 oil embargo, but nothing effective has been done. However there is now a way to break OPEC.

What is needed is for the Congress to pass a law requiring that all new cars sold in the United States be flex-fueled - able to run on any combination of alcohol or gasoline fuel. Such cars are existing technology - in fact about 24 different models of flex-fuel cars were produced by the Detroit Big Three in 2007, and they only cost about $100 more than the same car in a gasoline-only version. But, since alcohol fuel pumps (such as E85, a fuel mix that is 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) are nearly as rare as unicorns, flex-fuel cars only command about 3 percent of the new-car market.

The reason E85 pumps are so rare is that gas station owners don't want to dedicate one of their pumps to a kind of fuel that only a few percent of the cars can use. If we had a flex-fuel requirement, however, then within three years of enactment there would be 50 million cars on the road capable of running on high-alcohol fuels. Under those conditions, E85 and M50 (a 50 percent methanol, 50 percent gasoline fuel mix; flex-fuel cars can use any alcohol, including methanol) pumps would start appearing everywhere.

But most important, this would not just be happening here. By requiring that all new cars sold in the United States be flex-fueled, we would be forcing all the foreign car manufacturers to switch their lines to flex-fuel as well, effectively making flex-fuel the international standard. So there would be hundreds of millions of cars worldwide capable of running on alcohol, forcing gasoline to compete everywhere against alcohol fuels that can be produced from numerous sources. This would effectively break the vertical monopoly that the oil cartel currently holds on the world's fuel supply and keep prices in the $50-a-barrel range, because that is where alcohol fuels become competitive.....

I'm a bit doubtful, myself. There's no mention of how much energy, perhaps from petroleum, it will take to make the alcohol. And what this might do to food prices. What's the per-barrel price of alcohol now?

Posted by John Weidner at 7:56 AM

January 10, 2008

Internet battle areas....

This is from an e-mail that Jonah Goldberg posted at The Corner:

...I know this is terrible, and I feel kind of like a kid separating flies from wings, but believe it or not, there's a sort of conservative underground that's banging on the Amazon 1-star ratings of your book to the point where Amazon is taking them down. And I love it! I mean, they're just disapppearing them. Amazon. Deleting. Liberal comments. About a Conservative (transcends Conservative, I got that) book. Un. F***ing. Believeable. And I speak as someone who's been commenting on Amazon, lo these many years.

In the last day, enough people have rated uninformed 1-star reviews badly enough that Amazon is taking them down. Simply disappearing them. Again, I have to say it, I can't believe it.....

"Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in the Industrial Age anymore." People write SF books about a near future when Cyberspace is the main arena where people interact and things happen. But the reality creeps up on us, and nobody quite notices how curious it all is.


Posted by John Weidner at 9:21 AM

December 3, 2007

Biter bit...

Reading this, I have to smile, thinking about how Leftists and Democrats worked SO HARD to help their Communist allies, and to turn the people of South Vietnam over to slavery and torture and death, and what happens? NOW, when they are working hard to turn the people of Iraq and Afghanistan over to a similar cruel fate, here is a Vietnamese person (not the only one, by the way) who is filled with gratitude towards the Great Satan, and is helping others in their hour of need...

On the nights when no mortar shells fell, Anh Duong listened to the Saigon crickets. More often, though, the girl lay by her open window, her hair damp against her cheeks, and wondered, as the lights from flares flickered on the leaves of a plum tree, if the next Viet Cong rocket would smash into her house.

"Why would you want to randomly blow up civilians?" Duong remembers thinking.

Now, at age 47 and living in Maryland, Duong is still grappling with the question, trying to apply bedtime lessons from Vietnam to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Duong is known as "the bomb lady" around the Pentagon and as the engineer behind America's first thermobaric, bunker-busting explosive. A 5-foot-1-inch suburban mother of four, Duong has become, according to Thomas A. Betro, director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, "one of the most important weapons-developers of the modern era."

For Duong, who was honored recently as one of the federal government's top civil servants, producing tools for U.S. troops is a way of life. After years of pioneering explosives for the Navy, she now creates systems to help identify terrorists.
"I don't want My Lai in Iraq," Duong said at the Pentagon, where she works on anti-terrorism issues as a science adviser. "The biggest difficulty in the global war on terror -- just like in Vietnam -- is to know who the bad guys are. How do we make sure we don't kill innocents?"

Duong's most recent innovation, the Joint Expeditionary Forensics Facilities (JEFF) project or "lab in a box," analyzes biometrics. It will be delivered to Iraq at the beginning of 2008, the Navy said, to help distinguish insurgents from civilians.
"The best missile is worthless if you don't know who to shoot," Duong said.....
Posted by John Weidner at 11:43 AM

December 1, 2007

Kindles at Fahrenheit 451

Here's a different view of the Kindle...

Kindle can light up your life November 29, 2007 BY ANDY IHNATKO

So here's what Amazon went and did. Metaphorically, the company invented a humanoid robot capable of autonomous action. Every day at 4 a.m., it gets in your car and drives all over the state, buying fruit, milk, butter, eggs and other staples straight from the farm. By the time you wake up and trudge into the kitchen, there's a steaming plate of waffles waiting for you, made from scratch, and topped with fresh-picked strawberries and whipped cream.

It's one of the most awesome consumer products ever. It might even be a landmark moment in technology. ... and Amazon is promoting it as a $399 waffle maker....

Sounds like it might be cooler than I imagined. Apparently the Kindle includes unlimited free web browsing over Verizon's EVDO network! (Odd. So what do the people who are paying Verizon for data access think about this?)

If, by the way you are thinking of buying one (Or anything else from do click one of my links, such as the link below...So Random Jottings will get a little baksheesh!


Posted by John Weidner at 8:49 AM

November 23, 2007

"both bug-crusher and discretionary hat"

Steven Poole on that new e-book reader, called the "Kindle," from Amazon....

....I here propose a minimal list of features that any really successful ebook device must eventually have. Feature parity with physical books, after all, is surely a reasonable baseline demand. So here is what the electronic book of the future will be like.

1 It will have an inexhaustible source of energy and never need recharging.

2 It will have resolution as good as print. (No, Amazon, really as good as print.)

3 It will be able to survive coffee and wine spills, days of intense sunlight, dropping in the ocean, light charring, and falling completely into two or more pieces, while still remaining perfectly readable afterwards....

He's got more. Including:

...13 The ebook will function, morever, as both bug-crusher and discretionary hat. Placed on my face, it will make a soft roof against the sun on the beach.....

Posted by John Weidner at 4:47 PM

October 23, 2007

Death of a thousand cuts...

Thanks to Michelle:

GAO Forest-Thinning Study Sparks New Controversy
Written By: James M. Taylor
Published In: Environment News
Publication Date: July 1, 2003
Publisher: The Heartland Institute

Supporters of President George W. Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative have a new study to cite as proof reforms are needed in the federal government’s forest management effort. Opponents of the President’s plan disagree, saying the study proves current procedures are working.

The study, released by the General Accounting Office (GAO) on May 15, found most federal forest-thinning proposals subject to third-party comment were appealed by environmental activists.

The GAO examined 762 U.S. Forest Service (USFS) proposals to thin forests and prevent fires during the past two years. According to the study, slightly more than half the proposals were not subject to third-party appeal. Of those proposals subject to appeal, third parties challenged 59 percent.

Appeals were filed most often by anti-logging groups, including the Sierra Club, Alliance for Wild Rockies, and Forest Conservation Council. According to the GAO, 84 interest groups filed more than 400 appeals of Forest Service proposals. The appeals delayed efforts to treat 900,000 acres of forests and cost the federal government millions of dollars to address.

Forest Service officials estimate they spend nearly half their time, and $250 million each year, preparing for the appeals and procedural challenges launched by activists......
Posted by John Weidner at 3:13 PM

August 23, 2007

Everyone else is out of step...

Brian Tiemann speaks up for English measurements, against metric. I tend to agree. Now that the English are pretty much extinct, and we Americans have assumed the job of being what England was, I think we should hold firmly to our traditional measurements.

.....What people love to point out about the metric system is that its measures are based on fundamental units taken from the natural world; but really, that's hardly an argument at all. What good is it that the meter is supposed to be the circular length from the pole of the Earth to the equator with the decimal point moved over a bunch of times? Some French guy thought that the dimensions of the Earth should for some reason be the basis for all length measures, and by doing a bunch of number-juggling he found that he could get it down to an almost usable length, something we'd been calling a "yard" forever, but which was formerly made up of three of a much handier unit: the foot, which describes something you can hold in your hands and divide up with your fingers, not something you have to measure with a stick that you have to keep in your closet or behind your desk. What, in the real world, does that have to do with how far it is from the North Pole to the equator on this lumpy, imperfect sphere of rock we live on, anyway? Why do we have to work with wonky units like "decimeters" if we want something that kindasorta resembles a hand-holdable length unit?

And for that matter, who cares if a cubic decimeter of water is a kilogram? Is that really any easier to remember than any other arbitrary conversion, or any easier to calculate? I remember having to refer to the table of decimal conversions in the back of my science books to figure out just how many places to move the point left, and then right, in order to arrive at the answer—and trying oh-so-hard to convince myself that the very act of trundling up and down that chain of powers of ten somehow proved how much easier the metric system was to grasp in the human brain. I wish I'd realized at the time just how far from that "ideal" the reality really was: that I could have saved plenty of time and space in my brain by jettisoning those useless "shortcut" decimal conversion factors and simply doing the appropriate multiplication or division operation. Or, better yet, using one of those newfangled calculator dealies we were all taking to carrying around. Funny how we never made decimal-place errors when we were multiplying things by 5280 instead of trying to remember whether we were supposed to move the dot up 8 or 9 places....

I dare-say in my own work I'd make fewer mistakes using the metric system. But it would not be worth it. Compromises with ugliness—especially if it's French—can be bad for the soul...

..."Then on her quarter, with the patched inner jib, that's the Hope: or maybe she's the Ocean -- they're much of a muchness, out of the same yard and off of the same draught. But any gait, all of 'em you see in this weather line, is what we call twelve-hundred-tonners; though to be sure some gauges thirteen and even fifteen hundred ton, Thames measurement. Wexford, there, with her brass fo'c'sle eight-pounder winking in the sun, she does: but we call her a twelve hundred ton ship."

"Sir, might it not be simpler to call her a fifteen hundred ton ship?"

"Simpler, maybe: but it would never do. You don't want to be upsetting the old ways. Oh dear me, no. God's my life, if the Captain was to hear you carrying on in that reckless Jacobin, democratical line, why, I dare say he would turn you adrift on a three-inch plank, with both your ears nailed down to it, to learn you bashfulness. The way he served three young gentlemen in the Med. No, no: you don't want to go arsing around with the old ways: the French did so, and look at the scrape it got them into....
-- Patrick O'Brian,
HMS Surprise

Posted by John Weidner at 10:09 PM

July 27, 2007

Death can strike at any moment....

The explosion at Scaled Composites is a big deal for our family, because my brother-in-law works there. Fortunately, he was not there at the time it happened, but if he'd been at work, he would likely have been close to the blast. Pray for the dead and injured!

Here's my post on the time we were there to watch SpaceShipOne win the X-Prize...

Posted by John Weidner at 11:58 AM

July 25, 2007

Save a billion lives, get no respect...

"Norman Borlaug has saved more lives than any person currently living. Indeed, he may have saved more lives than anyone who has ever lived."

Naturally, Leftists and "Helpists" and Greens hate him, and hinder his work.

Do read this piece on Borlaug, The Most Important Person You’ve Never Heard Of, by Pejman Yousefzadeh. My dad, who was a horticulturist and farmer, knew about this stuff, and I remember him telling me when I was young that the starvation we heard about in various Third World countries could be avoided. I didn't quite get it then; the idea that the world's population was doomed to expand faster than the food supply was just too pervasive. I thought he was foolishly optimistic, but it was the simple truth.

Pejman includes a quote from an InstaPundit reader:

...It's not because he spent his life serving the poor, per se. Press accounts are filled with stories about those who serve the poor. It's that Mr. Borlaug didn't serve the poor by giving away other people's money, or by demanding that other people give away their money. He served the poor by DEVELOPING TECHNOLOGY, which in the view of the press is just as evil as making money, if for no other reason than someone makes money from the developed technology.

Think about it: You seldom see accolades afforded all the brilliant researchers at GE Medical Systems, Pfizer, Merck, Glaxo, Medtronic, or you name it, for precisely the same reason...

I think that's part of it. But I think it's more than that. Borlaug gets no credit, because he solved the problem. Journalists will laud you for helping the poor, as long as they stay poor! They love Mother Theresa, but she didn't upset the "natural order" of things. If she had found some way of lifting poor people into middle-class affluence, and they stated buying cars and computers and eating KFC, and imagining they were equals of the elitists in the helping bureaucracies, she would have been an object of scorn.

Posted by John Weidner at 7:19 AM

July 18, 2007

Charming new idea...

John McBride, at Ars Technica:

...Microsoft has filed another patent, this one for an "advertising framework" that uses "context data" from your hard drive to show you advertisements and "apportion and credit advertising revenue" to ad suppliers in real time....

....The application, filed in 2006, describes a multi-faceted, robust ad-delivering system that lives on a "user computer, whether it's part of the OS, an application or integrated within applications."

"Applications, tools, or utilities may use an application program interface to report context data tags such as key words or other information that may be used to target advertisements," says the filing. "The advertising framework may host several components for receiving and processing the context data, refining the data, requesting advertisements from an advertising supplier, for receiving and forwarding advertisements to a display client for presentation, and for providing data back to the advertising supplier."

....It would inspect "user document files, user e-mail files, user music files, downloaded podcasts, computer settings, computer status messages (e.g., a low memory status or low printer ink)....

....The patent makes no mention of any method by which an actual user might exert control, nor does it mention very real privacy or security concerns....

Such an exciting future we have ahead of us. Any day now our computers will just buy stuff for us (printer ink! drugs that enhance!) and then every day will be a wonderland of surprises. But alas, not for me. I'm just too parochial and stick-in-the-mud. A cyber-Mennonite. Maybe I should purchase one of those "Windows" machines, and get a life!

Posted by John Weidner at 6:08 AM

July 10, 2007

Dreamliner...Go Capitalist oppressors!

Boeing recently rolled out the 787 Dreamliner, which they hope to start flight-testing in August or September, with first deliveries next May.

One thing that's really neat is the the carbon fiber composite fuselage is stronger than an Aluminum one, so the windows can be significantly bigger (27 cm by 47 cm, with a higher eye level) and the cabin pressure can be higher (6,000 feet instead of 8,000). Also the cabin humidity can be higher, because composites are not subject to corrosion!

So look forward to future air travel that's, well, not fun, but less of a misery!

Boeing Dreamliner cabin interior
Richard Branson, left, and Jim McNerney, chairman and chief executive of Boeing Co.,
pose inside a display of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner after a news conference in Chicago.
Photo: AP
Posted by John Weidner at 8:27 AM

June 11, 2007

I don't pay much attention to automobiles... I wasn't sure what to think yesterday when we saw a Prius with a spoiler. Is that not somewhat odd?

Posted by John Weidner at 9:30 AM

February 3, 2007

Maybe we're all gonna die, but life sure is funny....

Peter Burnet , on reports the US may deal with global warming by deploying giant mirrors in space or by reflective dust pumped into the atmosphere....

....This is just tooo...delicious. Imagine you are a greying environmentalist who has spent decades musing about biological Armageddon with the sandals and fruit juice crowd. From youthful rebel you have matured into learned sage and now are perhaps a mightily-respected academic or consultant. You have read hundreds of turgid tomes on the looming destruction unrestrained growth will wreck, and written a few yourself. You have spent thousands of hours in seminars and conferences with the like-minded, debating how you, the intellectually anointed, can save Mother Earth by convincing everybody to “fundamentally change their way of thinking”.

Your initial pragmatic concern over specific ecological threats has long ago morphed into a comprehensive secular version of The Fall that leads you to lash out indiscriminately against cows, cars, perfumes, plastics, airplanes, prepared food, smokestacks and just about everything else people want in order to squeeze a little enjoyment and comfort out of life. But you know comfort and enjoyment must go, along with freedom, because otherwise we’ll all soon fry/freeze. You have mastered using a veneer of brow-furrowed concern to hide your delight in each item of worrisome news and your growing excitement about the day the dark forces of American capitalism will be overthrown and you will be called by the powers that be to help them outlaw, plan, regulate, restrict and undo us all back to the 18th century.

You’re almost there. The battle against the Bush-led forces of reaction and selfish madness has been tough in recent years, but the tide has turned and the smell of victory is in the air. The IPCC and the UN (the only sane voices on climate, as on everything else) are about to release the definitive work on climate change. (How could so many volumes be wrong?) It will take all doubt and all questions off the table. Even big business is wavering. The enemy is squirming and circling his wagons, while you sharpen your arrows for the final kill that will vindicate your entire life’s work and earn you a well-deserved prominent place in the progressive Pantheon.

And then the U.S. Government throws some brilliant nerdy crew-cut from Texas into the spotlight to tell everybody there is no problem--all we have to do is put lots of his special balloons and droplets into space and the problem is solved. “Can do!”


You'd have to have a heart of stone not to laugh thinking of their agony if we did that simultaneously with winning the Iraq Campaign...Let's see if we can get the timing just right...

* Update: And even richer, suppose the US actually started to launch space-mirrors, or to seed the seas with nutrients. Think of all those AlGores instantly flipping and declaring that the science behind Climate Change isn't what it's cracked up to be!

Posted by John Weidner at 4:37 PM

December 6, 2006

More than awesome...

NewScientistSpace: It is a feat millions of times more impressive than finding a needle in a haystack. The new Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has spotted about a dozen spacecraft on the Martian surface and, incredibly, taken pictures of such sharpness that scientists have been able to identify individual rocks that were first photographed by the Viking landers in 1976.

The new series of pictures released late on Monday show both of the Viking landers, never spotted from orbit before, as well as their nearby heat shields and backshells. These are the top and bottom covers of the capsules in which the rovers decended through the Martian atmosphere to land...

You can see a Viking parachute still lying where it fell 30 years ago!

Thanks to Alan Sullivan...

Posted by John Weidner at 12:44 PM

November 6, 2006

Interesting tid-bit

This was an aside in a post by Orrin Judd,

...Richard Rhodes was on NPR's Studio 360 just yesterday explaining how half of all the nuclear plants in the US are burning nuclear material from decommissioned Soviet warheads, making it one of the only government programs in history that pays for itself, not to mention that it disposes of an environmental threat and replaces burning coal and gasoline and whatever...

I had never heard that. But Rhodes ought to know about this stuff, having written this (excellent) book...

Posted by John Weidner at 5:31 AM

October 27, 2006

Awesome pics...

...of a Space Shuttle launch seen from from 60,000 feet.

(Thanks to Brian Tiemann)

Posted by John Weidner at 1:31 PM

October 21, 2006

"Freedom of action in space"

One of the reasons I get very impatient with those conservatives who say that Bush and the Republicans have "let us down" is that there are lots of cool things happening that they never acknowledge, or put into the balance-pan to weigh against those things they don't like. Such as this:

WASHINGTON—U.S. President George W. Bush has quietly signed a new National Space Policy that asserts his country's right to deny access to space to anyone "hostile to U.S. interests."

The policy also rejects future arms-control agreements that might limit U.S. flexibility in space.
The document characterizes the role of U.S. space diplomacy largely in terms of persuading other nations to support U.S. policy, encourages private enterprise in space and emphasizes security issues.

"Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power," the document, a revision of the U.S.'s previous space policy, asserts in its introduction.

The Bush administration bluntly denied the revisions were a prelude to introducing weapons systems into orbit.

"This policy is not about developing or deploying weapons in space. Period," said a senior administration official, who asked to remain unnamed....(Thanks to Orrin Judd)

OF COURSE we will have weapons in space. It's impolitic to mention it, but somebody's gotta be the cop. And it will have to be us. Just as, right now, we are the cops on the global sea lanes. China or Japan can be confident that slow vulnerable oil tankers will creep across the sea towards them unhindered because the United States Navy won't tolerate anything else. And it won't be something we have any choice about; these tasks devolve on the strongest power like-it-or-not. In the 19th Century Great Britain guarded the freedom of the seas. They declined, we rose, and the job fell to us.

...There was a note of caution, however, from Michael Simpson, president of the International Space University in France.

"On the one hand, it worries people like me who would really love to believe that space will be a place where we don't take our combat and our history of conflict with one another," Simpson told the Star's Scott Simmie.

"The concern, and where the rest of the world has got to get involved, is how do you decide what is a threat, and what is really the legitimate use of space by someone else?"...

Geez, how hard is this stuff to understand? You are legitimate if you are in the Axis of Good. That's International Law now. Just watch what America and Australia do, and do the same.

"International Space University in France." And what the heck is that? I probably don't want to know. I bet they are planning a new Airbus consortium, to overtake us in space...

Posted by John Weidner at 7:55 AM

August 14, 2006

On and on and on....

Apparently people are still claiming that the moon landings were faked. Rand Simberg links to this page, debunking their arguments with easily understandable physics and logic...

Bad: When the movies of the astronauts walking and driving the lunar rover are doubled in speed, they look just like they were filmed on Earth and slowed down. This is clearly how the movies were faked.

Good: This was the first new bit I have seen from the HBs, and it's funny. To me even when sped up, the images didn't look like they were filmed in Earth's gravity. The astronauts were sidling down a slope, and they looked weird to me, not at all like they would on Earth. I will admit that if wires were used, the astronauts' gait could be simulated.

However, not the rover! If you watch the clip, you will see dust thrown up by the wheels of the rover. The dust goes up in a perfect parabolic arc and falls back down to the surface. Again, the Moon isn't the Earth! If this were filmed on the Earth, which has air, the dust would have billowed up around the wheel and floated over the surface. This clearly does not happen in the video clips; the dust goes up and right back down. It's actually a beautiful demonstration of ballistic flight in a vacuum. Had NASA faked this shot, they would have had to have a whole set (which would have been very large) with all the air removed. We don't have this technology today!...

It's well worth reading just to review or learn some interesting physics. What's discouraging is that this stuff will not have the slightest effect on the other side...they will just go on making the same claims until the die off. It's like arguing with leftists. There's no argument, because they won't answer your points, or defend (or even clearly define) their own.

Posted by John Weidner at 10:09 AM

July 6, 2006

well, we are not the smallest...

Here's a nifty page, The Size Of Our World showing the relative sizes of the planets and stars...

thanks to Jimmy Akin...

Posted by John Weidner at 4:04 PM

Awesome, awesome...

Finally we find out something about the mysterious Blue Origins..

The public space travel business is picking up suborbital speed thanks to a variety of private rocket groups and their dream machines.

Joining the mix is Blue Origin's New Shepard Reusable Launch System. It is financially fueled by an outflow of dollars from the deep pockets of billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder of

Having these proud-as-Lucifer dot-commers competing with each other to get into orbit is just too utterly cool. "Last guy into space is a girl!" But what really interested me about Blue Origin is this:

...Blue Origin's spaceship is patterned after Department of Defense/NASA work on the single-stage vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing Delta Clipper Experimental (DC-X) and Delta Clipper Experimental Advanced (DC-XA). It was repeatedly flown in 1993-1996 at the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Among a list of distinctions, a 26-hour turnaround was achieved between the DC-XA's second and third flights - a first for any rocket. The flight program ended in July 1996 with the DC-XA suffering severe damage due to a landing strut – one of four—that failed to extend. The unbalanced vehicle tipped over on its landing pad and caught fire. Due to lack of follow-up money, the program was ended....

Delta Clipper was one of those might-have-beens that just breaks your heart. The wretched Shuttle sucks up millions of dollars a day even when, as usual, it's not flying at all. DC cost nothing in comparison, but died for lack of funds. And lack of interest on the part of the commissars.

And now Delta clipper rises again! Yay!

Delta Clipper experimental rocket
Delta Clipper. Image from

Posted by John Weidner at 10:35 AM

June 9, 2006


My son sent me this link:

Record meteorite hit Norway
As Wednesday morning dawned, northern Norway was hit with an impact comparable to the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima...

....Farmer Peter Bruvold was out on his farm in Lyngseidet with a camera because his mare Virika was about to foal for the first time.

"I saw a brilliant flash of light in the sky, and this became a light with a tail of smoke," Bruvold told He photographed the object and then continued to tend to his animals when he heard an enormous crash.....

I must assume that our government is aware that a large meteoritic impact would have an appearance very similar to the explosion of a nuclear bomb...blinding flash, mushroom cloud ascending into the Stratosphere, deadly X-Rays, etc. Don't push the Button right away, George...

Posted by John Weidner at 10:34 AM

June 8, 2006

Maybe we'll get our flying cars after all--minus the car...

Pretty neat stuff...

Daily Mail:....Now German company ESG has developed the strap-on rigid wing specifically for special forces use.

Resembling a 6ft-wide pair of aircraft wings, the devices should allow a parachutist to glide up to 120miles, carrying 200lb of equipment, the manufacturers claim.

Fitted with oxygen supply, stabilisation and navigation aides, troops wearing the wings will jump from a high-altitude transport aircraft which can stay far away from enemy territory - or on secret peacetime missions could avoid detection or suspicion by staying close to commercial airliner flight paths.

The manufacturers claim the ESG wing is '100 per cent silent' and 'extremely difficult' to track using radar.

Once close to their target landing zone, the troops pull their parachute rip cord to open their canopy and then land normally.

Weapons, ammunition, food and water can all be stowed inside the wing, although concealing the 6ft wings after landing could prove harder than burying a traditional parachute.

ESG claims the next stage of development will be fitting 'small turbo-jet drives' to the wings to extend range even further....

Apparently some parachutist used home-made wings to "fly" across the English Channel! Of course these gadgets will probably soon pass into general use and be used by terrorists. C'est le Guerre....

The article has a picture. (Thanks to Jimmy Akin)

Posted by John Weidner at 10:32 AM

March 17, 2006

I'm a bit dazed...

The most important software I use is the stupendous program SketchUp, by @last Software. And @Last has just BEEN BOUGHT BY GOOGLE!!

What does it mean? I hope it means good things, although we all of us have had the experience of seeing a cool program bought by a big rich company, and then they do nothing with it and it ends up on the bone pile. But Google's a pretty cool savvy crowd, so hopefully things will work out. @Last has always been run on a shoestring, and hasn't been able to afford certain "frills and extras," like advertising. so this could be great for SketchUp.

SketchUp can be used for many things--I use it to design cabinetry--but mostly it's used by architects. It's awesome for modeling buildings. So maybe the plan is to model every building on earth, and incorporate them all into Google Earth! Then you could take a virtual stroll down any street, enter any (public) building....Links and databases could be associated with places..."walk into" a restaurant, and see the menu, the hours, maybe even make a reservation for a specific table that has a nice view...

Here's a screen shot (at screen resolution, rather fuzzy) of some current work. This one is past the "design" stage, but anything you see is totally plastic, and can be easily manipulated...I can select a face of a rectangle and "pull" it out, or grab one edge and "pull" that, turning it into a trapeziod-thingie. That crown-molding was made by drawing a profile, and then selecting a line for it to "follow."

SketchUp example
And it's a totally 3-dimensional environment. There is no 2-D view. I can rotate the plan with a push of my mouse so I'm looking from underneath, or behind or above...Zoom in or out like flying. Instead of being a "fly on the wall," I'm a fly that flies all the time...

Posted by John Weidner at 10:12 PM

November 9, 2005

Awesome technology

Take a look at this book scanning machine. I knew that Google and Amazon and others were scanning books, but I never had any notion how they did it. Coolies? Magic? This is better.

Found on this interesting post at Long Tail, about the long tail of books...

Posted by John Weidner at 9:34 PM

November 8, 2005

Totally awesome...

Totally Wow! Take a look at this scale representation of our Solar System, with each pixel equalling ~1,000 km! A fubsy little planet like Earth is just lost in the vastness. You can hardly find it unless you use the cheats...

(Thanks to wohba, via Dean)

Posted by John Weidner at 7:29 PM

August 10, 2005

Then have a flyoff.....

Great rant by Jerry Pournelle:

NASA spends a billion and can't fix the problem of foam dropoff. Give me a billion and 3 years (and exemption from the Disabilities Act and some other imbecilic restrictions) and I'll have a 700,000 pound GLOW reusable that will put at least 5,000 pounds in orbit per trip, and be able to make 10 trips a year for marginal costs linearly related to the cost of fuel. Give me $3 billion and I'll have a fleet of the damn things. Once they're flying we can work on getting the payload weights up. Give me $5 billion and I'll have the fleet plus one that's set up to go Earth orbit to Lunar Surface and return to Earth orbit as often as we like (each trip costing about 10 flights Earth to Earth orbit to refuel it). Costing: 700,000 pounds of fuel at $2 per pound times 4 as a guess. Throw in other stuff and the marginal costs are maybe $10 million a flight Earth to Earth orbit, so about $100 million to go back to the Moon.

Now, as a backup in case single stage is the wrong way to go -- and I can be convinced that it is -- hand another $1 billion to Burt Rutan and let him try his air lift first stage approach. Then have a flyoff. Hell, go mad: give me a billion, give Burt a billion, hand a billion to each of the remaining big aerospace companies, and give a billion to NASA. That's $5 billion, less than the annual cost of the Shuttle program -- have you noticed that the program cost is independent of the number of Shuttle launches? NASA will waste its billion, the two aerospace companies will futz around with studies that end up requesting $20 billion each and produce nothing but paper, but you may be sure that Rutan and I will both have some flying hardware...(Thanks to

Read it entire.

Come to think, I could do more with a billion than NASA does! And my commission would only be a few tenths of one percent....

Posted by John Weidner at 8:13 PM

July 11, 2005

Ka-boom. Repeat 200 times.

My son Rob showed me an intriguing video. It's a re-imagining of Project Orion, on a contemporary mission to Mars.

Of course no one savvy enough to read Random Jottings needs to be reminded what Project Orion was...

Posted by John Weidner at 8:28 PM

June 28, 2005

Too late to market with the Better Mousetrap...

I just had a really good idea. A really really good idea...But then my first Google hit revealed that hundreds of people had already had that same neat idea:

BBC: Visually impaired people are now increasingly able to join in the video gaming fun thanks to an ever-expanding range of audio games. More games are being made which do not rely on sight They even have the potential to turn into new gaming genres in their own right which could start to appeal to sighted gamers.

But, compared with the millions of copies of PC and console games sold every year, the market for audio games is still relatively tiny.

"My guess is that about 3,000 audio or blind-accessible games are sold a year," said Richard van Tol who jointly runs Audio Games.Net, an information site for fans and developers.

"Loads of blind people have computers but not many of them know about audio games."

There are currently about 50 commercially available titles on the market, with perhaps three times as many freeware and shareware options. Like their graphics-based cousins, the games come in many varieties - adventure, arcade and so on...
Posted by John Weidner at 12:27 PM

June 25, 2005

EV-DO...A name that breathes mystery...romance...adventure

I found this article by David Pogue, on EV-DO, very interesting. It probably won't affect me much, though my new phone is EV-DO, 'cause I never go anywhere. But when we get it here in the Bay Area, Charlene's Treo is going to really hum...assuming she wants to pay for the service. (Rumors here have it already emerging in downtown SF, and other spots, like outbreaks of a new disease.)

...It's a relatively new cellular data network called C.D.M.A. 1xEV-DO, which, as you surely knew, stands for Code Division Multiple Access Evolution-Data Only. No wonder Verizon Wireless, the earliest and largest adopter of this technology, just calls it the BroadbandAccess plan.

To get your laptop onto this very fast wonder-net, you need a special cellular card that slides into its PC-card slot. Novatel and Kyocera have recently given the blossoming EV-DO future a big thumbs-up by releasing new cellular cards for laptops running Windows (and, with a little tweaking, Mac OS X).

EV-DO offers two addictive benefits. First, it's cellular. You don't have to hunt down public hot spots; an entire metropolitan area is a hot spot.

Second, EV-DO means sheer, giddy speed. EV-DO is a so-called 3G (third-generation) network, the fruits of $1 billion in Verizon development. And when your laptop or palmtop locks onto a good signal, you can practically feel the wind in your hair.

How fast is that, exactly? Verizon claims you'll be able to download data at an average of 400 to 700 kilobits per second (kbps), which turns out to be true. That makes EV-DO at least five times as fast as the rival technology offered by Cingular and T-Mobile, called EDGE (70 to 135 kbps), and about seven times as fast as Verizon's original data network (still available), which it calls NationalAccess (60 to 80 kbps)...

Verizon is leading in EV-DO, with Sprint just getting started. You can buy cards for your laptop, and newer phones may have it. However it's only fast downloading; uploading is not improved.

But what always flabbergasts me is how such fabulous, sexy, scintillating new technology can be sold with such banal names. Verizon is, I hear, hosing out about FOUR BILLION DOLLARS A YEAR to roll this service out, and yet the best name they can come up with is BroadbandAccess!

Apple would have come up with something enticing, like they did with Firewire (elsewhere known charmingly as IEEE-1394). Maybe QuickSilver, or Zap-Lightning, or June Bug, or something. And I'm not just thinking in terms of taste; it's worth money. Verizon will doubtless be spending millions on advertising to try to get people interested, and to get them to remember a totally forgettable name. Makes me want to scream. Spitball would be a better 'bout Phaeton, LightSpeed, FastBall, Seabiscuit...Jeeze, they should hire me. My rates are very reasonable...

I bet the bozos spent 50 Grand on focus groups, so that lack-wits could agree that "BroadbandAccess" was a winner. Phooey.

Posted by John Weidner at 9:45 PM

June 19, 2005

New Gadgets...

We just moved our cell-phone service to Verizon, from T-Mobile, and got new phones for the whole family. Charlene has the awesome Treo 650, and I have an LG VX8000. (Now there's a brand name to capture hearts and minds! LG, whatever the hell that is, must be a company run by engineers. Good phone, but idiotic marketing.) It's a picture phone, and here's a picture of Charlene's Treo, displaying, tah dah...Random Jottings! She actually woke me up this morning to show me my blog on the Treo.

Charlene's Treo displaying Random Jottings

So far we are very pleased with Verizon.

Posted by John Weidner at 4:30 PM

June 13, 2005

Watch the watchers...

This article by Max Borders in TechCentral argues that street cameras are not really a violation of civil liberties...

...Indeed, what is the difference between a cop sitting in his patrol car monitoring the streets (and you) whilst eating a Bavarian crème and that same cop sitting in a control room doing the same? You may respond that, in one instance, the cop is not visible to you. But there is nothing to say that cops can't monitor people while obscured by alleyway shadows. In fact, they do it all the time. Would anyone argue that this is a civil rights violation?...

TMLutas counters:

...It's not a bad piece but misses the real problem of the cameras, they make the state too strong. A society where everything done by an individual in public is captured, stored, collated, and attached to a personal file makes it too easy to keep tabs on dissidents, on the loyal opposition, even on personal enemies of those in power....

I think they are both missing the real issue. I think David Brin got it right, in The Transparent Society, when he argued that street cameras are going to happen. They are just too effective, and people's desire for safe streets is so strong, that they are inevitable. Therefore, what civil libertarians should be pushing for is the right to watch the watchers! There's no reason why the same camera technology should not allow us to watch the cops in the control room. (And, civil liberties aside, they would do a much better job of the watching, if they knew we were looking over their shoulders, and could tell the world that Officer Muldoon was busy dunking his donut and didn't even notice the mugging on the screen in front of him.) And maybe citizens should be able to watch the streets also.

Another issue that could be pursued with profit is where, and how long, the recordings are to be stored. Hizzoner the mayor should not be able to collect juicy clips of his political opponents visiting low dives. Perhaps those concerned with civil liberties should be pushing for the feeds to be stored where they are not available, except by court order if they hold evidence of a crime or accident. And they should be erased after a set time.

We are inevitably going to have less "privacy" in public spaces just because of the ever increasing amounts of information that is being captured. The Internet is a sort of public area, but this blog post, though it will probably be read by only a few hundred people, is available to the world, and is possibly being stored in ways I've never heard of, and could be used against me in the future. But the privacy of "big city anonymity" is actually not the norm in history. Most people have lived in small communities, where almost everything is known about everybody. A certain amount of that is coming back, whether we like it or not.

Posted by John Weidner at 12:32 PM

June 7, 2005

kids straight off the plane...

Nice story from Jay Manifold:

Early evening, St Patrick's Day. Science Night at Della Lamb Elementary in downtown KC: seven spoken languages amongst the student body; at least a third of the kids are straight off the plane from some of the deepest hellholes on Earth (refugee camps in Somalia, Sudan, etc), still learning to use plumbing and electricity....

....I found the Moon. It took a while. Magnification was maybe 30x; the disk subtended about half the field of view. A fat crescent with some Earthshine and high-relief features in the Southern Highlands and along the coastlines of Mare Serenitatis and Mare Tranquillitatis.

An African girl, maybe 7 or 8 years old, steps up. Swathed from head to foot in some kind of robe, which is just as well, because it's not warm and there's a strong breeze. I think how strange this environment must seem to her, and wonder how many family members she has lost, and how many people have died before her eyes. She is utterly silent. I point to the eyepiece, and she leans in for a look.

Three seconds later she has leaned back, eyes wide, looking directly into mine -- and grinning from ear to ear, brilliant white teeth gleaming in the darkness. She gazes at me, and then, instead of stepping away, she leans over for another, longer look. Only then does she leap away to find a friend and share the wonder. It occurs to me that some members of the next generation of scientists may have unlikely origins....


Posted by John Weidner at 1:55 PM

May 30, 2005

What an age we live in!

Darius Peterson III, right, gives the thumbs-up to his dad, Maj. Darius Peterson, after receiving his diploma from Liberty County High School in Hinesville, Ga., on Saturday. Maj. Peterson and fellow 3rd Infantry Division soldiers watched the ceremony via video teleconference from Iraq.
From Army Times
Frontline Photos, May 23, 2005

Lewis Levine / The (Hinesville, Ga.) Coastal Courier / AP
Copyright 2004 The Associated Press

Posted by John Weidner at 1:38 PM

February 4, 2005

shared space

Here's more on the new Dutch approach to traffic management (Blogged here previously), which is about to be tried in London's Museumland area...

...The idea of "shared space" is to denude a street of most of its conventional markings and features and create a different urban landscape in which motorists and pedestrians are put on an equal footing, so to speak. Drivers start to behave in a very different way amid the new uncertainty, moving slowly, making eye contact with pedestrians, and becoming aware of much more than whether the lights have gone red. Or so the theory goes.

Evidence from Dutch towns is impressive. Safety records have improved, local officials report, and accidents, when they do happen are far less serious, because of the slow speeds.

Yet overall cross-town speeds are no slower than before, because intersections are far more fluid and snarl-ups are rare...

Actually this is something we've all experienced. Imagine you're in the parking lot at the end of the ball game, and you slowly drive forward while people stream all around you. No one gets hurt. And the bit about overall speed being no slower rings true to me. City traffic often seems to me to move faster than traffic in the suburbs, where you may have three lanes in both directions, but you have to wait at each traffic light for the North-South traffic, then the North South left-turn lanes, then the East-West left-turn lanes...torture.

Posted by John Weidner at 2:57 PM

January 6, 2005

Mobile phones...

Any recommendations for cell-phone service? Our family plus Charlene's firm share a T-Mobile account, and we are not thrilled with it. We will likely switch when the contract ends.

We are not power-users, we tend to prefer things that are simple and just work without fuss. Though I might want to get a camera-phone. Since starting blogging I seem to see a lot of the oddest things, but never while carrying a camera...(This is one of them. I had to go home and come back with camera)

Posted by John Weidner at 9:51 PM

December 21, 2004

I like these notions...

Wired has a fascinating article on a new theory of traffic engineering...

...We drive on to another project Monderman designed, this one in the nearby village of Oosterwolde. What was once a conventional road junction with traffic lights has been turned into something resembling a public square that mixes cars, pedestrians, and cyclists. About 5,000 cars pass through the square each day, with no serious accidents since the redesign in 1999. "To my mind, there is one crucial test of a design such as this," Monderman says. "Here, I will show you."

With that, Monderman tucks his hands behind his back and begins to walk into the square - backward - straight into traffic, without being able to see oncoming vehicles. A stream of motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians ease around him, instinctively yielding to a man with the courage of his convictions...

It's about getting rid of traffic signals, crosswalks, road-markers...all the stuff that tries to make traffic flow faster and keep it away from pedestrians. It turns out this can be safer—situations that seem dangerously ambiguous force drivers to think, to slow down, and to move with care.

...The old ways of traffic engineering - build it bigger, wider, faster - aren't going to disappear overnight. But one look at West Palm Beach suggests an evolution is under way. When the city of 82,000 went ahead with its plan to convert several wide thoroughfares into narrow two-way streets, traffic slowed so much that people felt it was safe to walk there. The increase in pedestrian traffic attracted new shops and apartment buildings. Property values along Clematis Street, one of the town's main drags, have more than doubled since it was reconfigured..(thanks to Orrin Judd).

I'm a very urban person, and intensely aware of how some streets are pleasant to walk along and have flourishing businesses and restaurants. And others aren't. And the difference has a lot to do with cars. Ocean Avenue, the commercial street in my neighborhood, has heavy traffic and has never flourished. Nearby West Portal Ave, which has slow-moving traffic, and isn't a thoroughfare you would take to get somewhere else, is the most pleasant shopping-street on this end of town. Reading the article makes me think about how people often cross West Portal in the middle of the block, and how it feels rather acceptable to so so, because it's a pedestrian-friendly street.

* Update: Here are some pictures of Oosterwald.

Posted by John Weidner at 9:07 PM

December 13, 2004

You should always carry one of these...

On the subject of convergence (of our various digital gadgets) I've tended to favor the theory that our mobile phones will eat everything else. Some of them already include cameras and PDA's, and they are starting to be web-browsers and collect e-mail. And it seems like I've heard rumors of MP3 players.

But there's another multi-purpose tool that we tend to carry that already covers many that's psychologically ripe for the golden convergence...will this surprise entrant win the race for the digital future?

Swiss Army Knife with USB flash drive
Yes, folks, it's a Swiss Army Knife with a USB flash drive! Here's a story about it...

Posted by John Weidner at 9:42 PM

December 5, 2004

Fixed, I hope...

If you like repairing things, you should be aware of a great site,

Our Maytag dryer started making an ugly grinding noise. On my own I couldn't even figure out how to get it open. But the site had a nice picture, which with a mouse-over shows larger views of the various parts, and explanations of what they do.

I took off the front bulkhead, and spent some time rotating the drum, trying to locate the sound. (A little patience is very important...take your time, things will seem bewildering at first.) Eventually I noticed that one of the pads the drum glides on was worn away, and the metal underneath was shiny with scraping. A few more clicks, and the part is ordered, and will be shipped tomorrow. 'Till it comes, we will be living like hardy pioneers, hanging our clothes on an improvised clothesline...

* Update: The new parts worked just fine. They had to be installed with pop-rivets, which is OK with me. Our dryer is running smooth and quiet...
Posted by John Weidner at 2:42 PM

November 13, 2004


Some cool new technology hits the battlefield...


Until recently, that meant popping their heads out of [Stryker] vehicle hatches to check out the terrain, then ducking back in to view a dashboard computer showing friendly and enemy forces on a digital map compiled by the Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade and Below battle management system.

Commanders made these checks a grueling 70 to 80 times each hour, said Bruce Westcoat, market segment manager for aerospace and defense with MicroVision Inc. of Bothell, Wash.

“Physically, it was very taxing,” Westcoat said. “Mentally, it was distracting to have to go down in the vehicle and lose the terrain view.”

But now Stryker commanders use wearable technology that lets them keep their eyes on the battlefield most of the time while patrolling dangerous terrain. The technology—a Nomad helmet-mounted device developed by Microvision—provides a see-through computer display that officials say is improving safety, accuracy and efficiency...

Posted by John Weidner at 5:17 PM

October 10, 2004

Beep beep beep...

Here's a nice article on the high-tech biggies who are getting involved in space travel. There are more of them than I realized...

Since Anousheh Ansari was a little girl, she dreamed of exploring space. Then she became one of the most successful female IT entrepreneurs in history and decided to do something about it.

The Iranian-born electrical engineer made a fortune at the height of the Internet bubble, selling start-up Telecom Technologies to Sonus Networks for an estimated $440 million. In May, she joined the growing ranks of IT luminaries jumping into the space race, lending her name and undisclosed financial backing to the $10 million contest now known as the Ansari X Prize challenge...

Hopefully it will become so much the fad, that any silicon gazillionaire who lacks a credible rocket venture will feel like a failure and a laughingstock, and will be afraid to leave his house lest the other kids laugh at him. Or her.

Posted by John Weidner at 9:25 PM

October 4, 2004

We're back!

We were at Mojave Airport this morning, and watched SpaceShipOne win the X-PRIZE! It was Awesome! Much more thrilling than I had expected...

SpaceShipOne being put on its cart
Here's the spacecraft after the flight, being put on its's so light a couple of guys push down the tail, and the cart is rolled under it. The chap with the beard and the khaki pants, by the nose, is my brother-in-law, Bud McClure. He was photographing some tape (which has different colors that burn off at different temperatures) on the pink thermal protection system, which he designed (along with the environment control system, plus many other odd jobs like engine simulators and trajectory code.)

His mind is already on SpaceShipTwo, being built for Bransen's "Virgin Galactic"...

John weidner and Evelyn Weidner with pilot Brian Binnie
Here's me, and my mom, Evelyn Weidner. On the right is the pilot, Brian Binnie, and I've forgotten who the other guy is. But next to his chin you can see the colored tape, partly etched away by heat. Bud said the heat was just as he had calculated.

The three chase-planes
These are the three chase-planes, which worked at different altitudes...

The most exciting moment at Mojave we didn't get on film, (unless it's on our video, which I haven't had time to mess with). The mother ship, White Knight, carried the spacecraft to 49,000 feet. This took about an hour, and we would catch glimpses of it and a chase plane as they circled ever higher. At the end all we could see were two contrails, very high. Finally the moment came to detach SpaceShipOne. Two contrails split off to either side, and a new one appeared going straight up! Fast! In about a minute it went to what looked like 5-times the height gained in the previous hour. Shortly after that it was announced that the required altitude to win the prize had been exceeded, also breaking the height record set by the X-15 in 1963 (107.9 kilometers).

White Knight, with SpaceShipOne, taxiing out
Here's White Knight, the mother-ship, with SpaceShipOne attached beneath, taxiing past us. They look like the most improbable of contraptions, and one wonders why it doesn't all collapse, and if this is just a hoax. Then they just take off, like it's no big deal. And suddenly they look rather graceful. The cool clear high-desert morning was a pure delight for me, though my family seems to find the desert a sort of Purgatory to be escaped from...

Alas, my son the pilot is busy at college, and he had to miss this. One of the most delightful things was the informality of it all. SpaceShipOne was towed back to the hanger behind that white truck you see above. Nothing was gold-plated, nothing was bureaucratic or pompous. Nothing was NASA...(Or as Rutan says it, "Nay-say.")

One's the cockpit...
Cockpit of SpaceShipOne

Posted by John Weidner at 4:44 PM

September 28, 2004

Wild blue yonder...

By the way, the Weidners will be heading down to Mojave this weekend to watch, if all goes well, the second launch of SpaceShipOne. We have a ticket courtesy of my brother-in-law, who is an engineer at Scaled Composites, (and already, I gather, doodling plans for SpaceShipTwo!)

I hope to blog some good pix...

Posted by John Weidner at 11:47 AM

September 8, 2004

"These were the first, tentative space vehicles"

If you are interested in space, a new article by Rand Simberg is a must-read...

As Tom Wolfe chronicled in The Right Stuff, while Lyndon Johnson was declaring that our nation wouldn’t go to bed by the light of a communist Moon, and while the German refugees from Hitler’s rocket program were in Alabama developing the vehicles that would eventually take us to the Moon, there were rocket planes flying in the Mojave Desert, released from B-52 bombers. They sundered the skies, probing the upper reaches of the atmosphere and even temporarily leaving it. These were the first, tentative space vehicles, and had they not been interrupted by the urgency of beating the Soviets to the Moon, their successors might have continued. They might have flown higher, and faster, and faster yet, until at last they flew fast enough to defy the gravity of the Earth and reach orbit.

That might have been another road to space, a path not taken—one that might have provided a more incremental, affordable, and reliable approach, instead of one in which we put small capsules on unreliable and expensive munitions, and hoped for the best....

Here's a little more from the essay:

....Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, as an employee of a major government aerospace contractor, I participated in and managed several studies relating to future launch systems. These so-called “space transportation architecture” studies evaluated and compared alternative conceptual launch systems.....

....As we looked at all the combinations of architectures and models, we discovered something interesting. While some vehicle design concepts were clearly better than others, they were all extremely expensive per-flight for the low-activity scenarios, and they were all much less expensive for the high-activity scenarios. Using the space shuttle as a reference, we developed a notional architecture that had sufficient facilities and vehicles for a hundred shuttle flights per year. (That sounds ridiculous today, since there have never been more than nine shuttle flights in a single year, but in fact the shuttle was originally intended to fly once a week.) Surprisingly, the per-flight costs that we estimated were much lower than the actual shuttle costs at the time. The same was true of other launch concepts we studied. The cost per-flight or cost per-pound varied dramatically—in some cases by a factor of ten....

The subject of space seems to accumulate more myths than any other. I've long suspected that many people are unconsciously frightened by the utterly limitless vastness that confronts us. And so we cling to concepts that assume that space travel will always be rare, expensive, and under the control of cautious bureaucracies...

Posted by John Weidner at 9:03 AM

August 14, 2004

another small step...

Lance Jonn Romanov writes

Japan Deploys Solar Sail Film in Space

ISAS succeeded in deploying a big thin film for solar sail in space for the first time in the world.

ISAS launched a small rocket S-310-34 from Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima, Japan, at 15:15, August 9, 2004 (Japan Standard Time). The launch was the culmination of a historic new technology, the world-first successful full-fledged deployment of big films for solar sail.

A solar sail is a spacecraft without a rocket engine. It is pushed along directly by light particles from the Sun, reflecting off its giant sails. Because it carries no fuel and keeps accelerating over almost unlimited distances, it is the only technology now in existence that can one day take us to the stars...

It was just a brief experiment, but very pleasing to contemplate...

Posted by John Weidner at 12:48 PM

August 7, 2004

"riding on top of everyone else's platform"

Drunkenbatman has a fascinating essay called Convergence Kills, about where Apple might be heading with its new technologies. He argues that convergence (the gradual merging of all our digital gadgets into one) is going to take the path of mobile phones eating everything else. Why? Because your phone is the one thing you always carry. Phones are already turning into cameras and PDA's, and also Internet browsers. Apple has just partnered with Motorola to include their music technology into the next generation of phones, which will work like iPods, though only holding 15 songs!

Apple has claimed that its iTunes Music Store is mostly a loss-leader to sell their very profitable iPods. Maybe it's the other way around:

There's an old adage about magicians; if you want to learn the trick, close your ears and open your eyes. Well it might not go exactly like that, but that's the lesson I took from it.

When people are talking, you have a natural inclination to look at their eyes, and if they're doing something with one hand chances are you really need to be watching the other if you want to see what they're really up to. In other words, watch the hands. And Apple is particularly adept at misdirection...
. . . . . . . .

...Apple is playing towards that exact same endgame, but with a twist: they're creating a new light-DRM [Digital Rights Management] platform that is riding on top of everyone else's platform. iMacs, Windows, mobile phones, everything. Google is also creating a platform riding on the backs of other platforms... except its based around becoming the access point for all things internet. Apple wants that, but for DRM content.

They weren't kidding around with their vision of the computer as a hub for your digital life, they just forgot to mention that the hub will come with a lock. And guess who owns the keys? (Thanks to Joe Katzman)

Apple has a head start, but a lot of other players will be trying to do the same thing...Good luck.

My next cell-phone will have a camera for sure. I'm always seeing odd things and wishing I had a camera handy. And look at this--one inch hards drives for phones! It's coming.

Posted by John Weidner at 10:29 AM

July 11, 2004

"Instead of boxes, you get rooms..."

Do take a look at this article on inflatable space habitats, being created by businessman Bob Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain...

...To understand just how revolutionary Bigelow's projected cost savings might be, consider the International Space Station. By 2010, this troubled project will have cost a total of $50 billion, will be 10 years behind schedule and will contain about half of the habitable work space that had been planned, around 550 cubic meters. Just two of Bigelow's planned modules will exceed the entire work space of the ISS, but since the modules will cost around $100 million apiece, the savings become obvious. Two hundred million dollars vs. $50 billion is quite a difference, enough of a difference to entice other private companies into the new space race.

"More space at a cheaper price allows companies to do large-scale things," NASA's Miller says. "Instead of boxes, you get rooms, for experiments, for equipment, for manufacturing. The next generation of medicines, the next generation of materials and technology could all come from the zero-gravity environment. This is where people are going to make a lot of money. And that will really accelerate the science and create direct benefits for humans on Earth."...

What's really interesting is how Bigelow's company is now partnering with NASA.

Actually, even more interesting is the cultural change: Guys make their first billion, and nowadays, instead of focusing on the America's Cup or the Kentucky Derby, they head for space! This, if I may use an oft-misused phrase correctly, [see Word-Note here] is a sea-change.

Afterthought: It might become some kind of high-tech macho one-upmanship thing. Paul Allen's a Microsoftie, so imagine Larry Ellison or Scott McNealy deciding they just have to compete?

(Of course I blogged the same inflatable habitat idea here, way back in 2002, but no matter. I won't dispute priority; it's progress that's important!)

(Thanks to Will Collier)

Posted by John Weidner at 12:22 PM

May 3, 2004

Good news...Halliburton/KFC merger announced...

From The Japan Times Online :

Toshiba Corp. and General Electric Co. have applied for permission with the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct a feasibility study on building a nuclear plant in Alabama, company sources said Sunday.

The two electric giants are hoping to land the contract following a Bush administration decision to once again support the construction of nuclear power plants, according to the sources...(via Judd)

Even if it doesn't get built, it will siphon off energy from the Ultras that otherwise would go to helping the terrorists win. Sort of like the papier maché airplanes widely used in WWII to attract the bombs and bullets of attackers.

President Bush should immediately announce the construction of ten new nuclear plants, and a proposal to merge Halliburton and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then smash the terrorists while nobody's looking...

Posted by John Weidner at 9:19 AM

March 21, 2004

New technology...

Take a look at this video! A 36 ton truck hits an innovative new barricade at 50mph. The barricade (unlike the truck) appears unharmed.

(Thanks to Dean)

Posted by John Weidner at 7:36 PM

February 28, 2004

Dragon Ladies

U-2's were in the news when I was a little boy, when Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. So I find it amazing and delightful that those odd and beautiful planes are still defending Freedom's Wall. Here are some pictures, taken at an "undisclosed location" in Southwest Asia.

Posted by John Weidner at 8:37 PM

February 1, 2004

"booster configurations vary"

Jay Manifold speculates with the sort of speculations that go to my head like wine (or it could be the hot-chocolate-with-copious-dollop-of-rum that Charlene just made with the bain marie she recently scored for a mere frizzle on eBay) Speculation: Why not replace the Hubble Space Telescope with multiple small cheap space telescopes???

...I infer that a relatively simple space-based telescope should cost about 150 times as much as a ground-based amateur telescope of the same size. Grazing over to this page, I note -- after wiping the drool off my chin -- a price of $10,749 for a 25" 'scope. Once again applying the cube-of-aperture relationship, then multiplying by 150, I arrive at a figure of only $6.3 million for a 1-meter telescope in space.

Well, er, except for launch costs....

- - - - - - - - - - -
...Notwithstanding that the above are approximate figures -- the asking price is rarely obtained in the current depressed launcher market, booster configurations vary, and performance varies significantly by orbital altitude and the latitude of the launch site -- we may reasonably expect to pay no more than $12 million for the launch. I note that one of the least expensive vehicles, the Dnepr, could launch several such telescopes at once if they could somehow be fit inside its payload fairing.

I conclude that less than $20 million could put us well on the way to launching one or more space telescopes before Hubble ceases operation. Compare perhaps half a billion dollars for the cancelled Hubble-maintenance Shuttle mission....

A small space telescope could still do the job of a much larger earth-based telescope. I have no idea how time on the Hubble is allocated, but I can feel confident that it isn't used for out-of-the mainstream projects. Sort of like the early mainframe computers�there was no way to be playful or inventive with them.

Think of Jay's project as the equivalent of the coming of the mini-computer...

Posted by John Weidner at 8:27 PM

January 20, 2004

Platinum asteroids...

John Kalb wrote a comment to the "What use is a newborn child" post below, that made me think. (I hope he will be flattered by that and not mind that I think he's wrong.)

The issue is that space will only become a source of resources in the distant future. No one doubts that there are valuable minerals on the moon and Mars, but the cost of bringing them back here now would be prohibitive, and it will stay that way until at the very least we have factories on those planets to refine whatever raw materials we find there and then send the finished products back.

China's rhetoric about mining the moon's riches for the benefit of humanity is just that. For now, the only place in space of any strategic or economic value is low Earth orbit.

First of all, the idea that minerals and resources are what we are short of, and need to go hunting for, is wrong. It's a holdover from the Industrial Age, when coal or oil or iron ore were limiting factors to a nation's success. But the more we enter into the Information Age, the less important they become. Which is why their prices (adjusted for inflation) have been falling for the last hundred years or so. And why, despite dire predictions, we don't run out of any of them�in fact we find our reserves growing. And why the countries that specialize in providing them tend to be among the poorest. All this is a byproduct of the Information Age and its technology. NOTHING we are doing now is hindered by lack of minerals!

[To help understand this, reflect on a similar change that happened when Humankind went from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age. The previous limiting factor had been agricultural production. Countries were often stopped dead in their tracks by famines. And all progress was limited because most people were of necessity poor peasants and farmers. And armies were limited by the number of available peasant recruits. Once industrialization hit, all was changed and agriculture was no longer a bottleneck. Industrial nations don't have famines. And they are able to drastically reduce their farm populations and put those people to more productive work, while producing more food�often to the point of awkward surpluses. And Krupp's cannon trumped any number of infantrymen on the battlefield.]

Even if (getting back to question of space), even if there are platinum boulders ready to be plucked from low orbit which will pay for NASA's budget, that's not the point. That wasn't Pedro's point. John is thinking like those 16th Century chaps who though the New World would "pay off" in gold and silver. There was a lot of gold, but in fact (to name just one of many many items) the humble potato was a far more valuable discovery, allowing Europe's population to increase by tens of millions. And the ideas that have emerged from this hemisphere are incalculably more valuable yet.

Spain took the lion's share of the silver, and it impoverished her. Japan, a country with no resources, adopted a collection of American ideas on business management, and used them to become stupendously wealthy. Ideas, inventions, wisdom, increased human happiness and potential, those are the payoffs from new worlds. And there's no way to predict when and where they will happen.

Businesses need to consider short-term payoffs. As a nation, we should be pushing ourselves into space because we need to grow�our souls need to grow. There will be payoffs from that, probably bigger than we can imagine.

Posted by John Weidner at 8:27 PM

Of what use is a newborn child? --Franklin

Pedro writes

[Lefty-blogger discussing Bush Space Plan asks:] "WHAT'S THE PAYOFF?" Holy rocket ship to the moom, batman, some of you people need to read a little less narcissitic literature and dig into some rock-'em sock-'em science fiction. 'What's the payoff?' Are you freakin' kidding me? How about the resources of an entire freakin' planet? No wait, one extra planet, one extra large satellite (the moon), a couple of little ones (Mars' moons), plus the asteroid belt thrown in as a bonus. PLUS the spin-off technologies. But how can you ask "What's the payoff?" when we're talking about an entire planet? NASA = bloated gov't, OK, we can fix that, and it's a valid point. But "What's the payoff?"
If you gotta ask, it probably means you don't really want to know. Reminds me of how our Great Plains region was once thought of as the "Great American Desert." And Alaska was "Seward's Icebox."

Posted by John Weidner at 7:11 AM

January 18, 2004

But some of us are looking at the stars...

Mike writes, (concerning Lileks's Space musings)

...Oscar Wilde said a wonderful thing: �We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.� That one works for me on more than one level today. The right hand holds the sword, the left hand holds the sextant. Beautiful - and inspiring in its own right. James, once again I most humbly tip my hat to you.
I'm not enthused about the Space Initiative, because I think giving NASA the job is really a way a making sure that the big scary space genie stays in the bottle.

BUT, I am pleased with it because it is a great big thumb o' the nose to the Jimmy-Carter-turn-down-the-thermostat types who will whine that we have problems here on earth to solve first. This is the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA you're talking about here, and we can fight a war, grow the economy, shoot bricks into space AND stillspend more to exacerbate our social problems than all the little countries put together.

And it's not really very big, budget-wise. Space has been running less that 1% of the Fed budget. The cost is a bit of a bullshit issue. (Anyway, how come no one says "we need to spend money solving social problems before we subsidize professors to deconstruct James Joyce?" Or before we subsidize sugar beets?)

I have a heartfelt desire to see smaller government, but not because I think we can't afford more. Those deficit snivelers have rocks in their heads. Our economy is going to grow far faster than our debts. It's been doing that for several centuries now. Remember what happened the last time we had a tax-cuttin' President? Fellow named Reagan? To this very day we hear whinging about how he increased our national debt by 1.3 Trillion. Sounds ombinous, but not one of those lying-with-statistics crybabies ever mentions that our national wealth grew by 17 Trillion in the same period!

Posted by John Weidner at 4:50 PM

Light'n out for the territories...

Moira writes

...The daughter and I were discussing Bush's space-speech on the way to Tae Kwon Do lessons yesterday. After disposing of the pragmatic issues we moved on to the dreams. She enthused about being an astronaut and walking on Mars, I owned that it was a mournful realization for me that I would never leave the earth. I added that I would die a happy woman if she were ever able to do so, or, really, if I could see the first solid attempts to light out for the territories. But never to leave home at all! The human race living in its parents' basement apartment forever. That's a melancholy notion...

Posted by John Weidner at 12:56 PM

January 17, 2004

New realm in the air...

Rand Simberg points to an interesting article by Greg Klerkx, The Citizen Astronaut

...These days, unfortunately, the shuttle is not the best advertisement for space travel of any kind. More important, NASA has never really accepted the idea that space travel should be for anyone but professional astronauts. The agency did all it could, for instance, to stop a businessman, Dennis Tito, from visiting the International Space Station in 2001.

Underlying NASA's resistance is a fundamental disdain for sullying the human space flight enterprise with the brassy sheen of commerce. But this is backward thinking. Was Charles Lindbergh any less inspirational because he was, to put it bluntly, an aerial privateer chasing a cash prize?

President Bush's Mars initiative neatly places NASA's goal of exploration in the public spotlight. Now the agency needs to allow the rest of us to participate.... (Klerkx has a new book out also, Lost in Space : The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age. I'm going to take a look at it.)

It's not just commerce they disdain, the bureaucrats don't want to share space with the common man. They are elitists. It's no accident that elitists of all stripes are attracted to government. Only the state can overrule the marketplace.

It's worth keeping in mind how we dealt with a similar situation, with a new realm in the air where private enterprise was slow to grow to a self-sustaining size. In the 1920's the US Government used airmail subsidies to greatly expand our then tiny airlines, and encourage the creation of larger and faster planes. I wrote a post about it here; it's a very interesting bit of our history. The gist of it was that we subsidized capacity. The airlines with airmail contracts got more money if they flew bigger planes, even if there wasn't mail to fill them. In effect this was subsidizing the carrying of passengers, and of course the development of bigger planes.

But, one important thing�the US government didn't try to decide what the "goal" of airlines should be! That was good, because we really didn't know enough to decide. For instance, the transports that were created in the 30's were vital to us in WWII. But the Air Force was totally uninterested in them. If government masterminds had tried to save resources by allocating them according to a master plan for airplane development, the results would have been far worse.

Posted by John Weidner at 9:01 PM

January 13, 2004

Space thoughts 2

Wretchard writes:

....Whether Europe, Asia or America will first find the key technology necessary to make interplanetary travel an economical reality cannot be foreseen. Yet history suggests that the answers will be found by those who are looking for them....

.... Maybe the challenge is not to put men on Mars by a date certain, but the subtly different one of making investments to ensure that any technological breakthrough can be exploited rapidly and without hesitation. Clearly the day will come when nations will expand beyond the confines of the planet and our task is to be ready to mount the first real breeze for the distant shore....

"to mount the first real breeze for the distant shore". Yes

One of the points of his post was that there is no way that there is going to be reasonably priced space travel anytime soon:

....Rocketman points out that no available engine technology can boost payloads into space in economical quantities. Current launch costs are on the order of $8,000/lb, a number that will have to be reduced by a factor of ten for the habitation of the moon, the establishment of La Grange transfer stations or flights to Mars to be feasible. This will require technology, and perhaps even basic physics that does not even exist. Simply building bigger versions of the Saturn V will not work....
I would respectfully suggest that maybe, just maybe, that isn't true. One thing that is overlooked is that neither launch vehicles nor the launch process itself has ever been subject to the ruthless cost-cutting of mass production! In the manufacturing sector, reducing costs by a factor of 10 is routine. Happens when things go from small scale production to large scale. Launch vehicles have always been produced in small batches, and most of their components are produced in small batches. And they are built by companies that are totally geared to produced small quantities of expensive planes and rockets for government agencies rather than the marketplace.

No only is manufacturing in small lots very expensive, but development costs must be amortized over a small number of units. (It LOOKS like we are spending a lot on developing our spacecraft, but in fact I suspect spacecraft research is on a starvation diet. If we were producing any spacecraft in large quantities, management would instantly decide that more R&D would be a good investment.)

Think of those "factor of ten" objections. Imagine that (yes, I know this is visionary and won't happen�don't bother to chide, it's just a thought experiment), imagine that a certain size of launch vehicle could reasonably be built and launched for $50 million each. Imagine that our government, (or some other entity with deep pockets) offered to buy vehicles+launches for only $5 million each. BUT, with a commitment to buy 400 launches a year for 10 years....I wonder if they would have any takers?

Most people have no idea of the cost-cutting that goes on behind the scenes in, say, the automotive industry. Every nut and bolt is scrutinized for possible cost savings. Every supplier is ruthlessly squeezed to lower prices and then lower them again. And they in turn squeeze their suppliers. Robots replace ever more workers. Software schedules the ordering and movement of every part, so they arrive at the factory just hours before they are due to be used.

I have a "hunch bordering on a certainty" that that "factor of ten" problem one hears of so often could be quickly solved by pure brute force. Won't happen of course.

Posted by John Weidner at 12:55 PM

Space thoughts 1

Alan pours scorn on a suggestion that the Space Initiative could help solve the problem of bone-loss in the elderly...

....Poppycock, a senior citizen might say. The idea that medical research could be facilitated in space would not withstand any honest cost-benefit analysis. This argument is simply a scam to sway an important voting block in favor of more high-flying pork. Make no mistake: at present the manned space program is no more than an engine for expropriating and spending money. If we want to learn about the cosmos, we are simply wasting resources when we send humans into space. If we want to learn about human physiology, earth is the place to do it....
We've been hearing arguments like that for decades. NASA has long pushed the idea that "spin-offs" will justify their budget. It's total balunkey, Any spin-offs are dwarfed by what would have happened if that money had just been given to good research labs.

But the whole argument is wrong on a deeper level. We can't plan what we should do in or with space, because we don't know what space IS.

We are like 16th Century Europeans becoming aware of a New World in the Western Hemisphere. We dream of cities of gold and a Northwest passage. But it's a certainty that what we will find will be the equivalent of tobacco and maize and potatoes and steamboats and geysers and the US Constitution and a "new birth of freedom." We don't know what space is, and we won't find out until a lot of people can go there. Go there with time and resources and freedom to experiment and invent and just be crazy dreamers. Freedom to try crazy things that will get some of them killed.

Posted by John Weidner at 12:50 PM

December 27, 2003

"Men of iron, ships of aluminum"

at Spacedaily I found this article comparing the problems of space vehicles like the Shuttle with the problems of Zeppelins and other rigid airships.

...the great rigid airships have a lot of lessons to teach us about how technologies rise and fall. In particular, the problems that eventually killed the large airship are almost exactly the same as the ones that currently bedevil our space launch vehicles -- especially the Shuttle...

...High Unit Cost -- The low lift/volume ratio of hydrogen and helium meant that airship designers had to make their craft very large to get useful amounts of lift. Even an X-zeppelin had to be large and expensive. In sharp contrast, the winged aircraft of the same era were so cheap that X-planes were thrown together by bicycle mechanics in barns and garages...

Narrow Design Base -- There were never more than four independent airship design teams active at one time, and most of them were heavily dependent on Zeppelin Corporation design data acquired by purchase, espionage, or reverse-engineering of crash wreckage. (During this Golden Age of Aviation, there were dozens of airplane design teams at work, exploring every possible idea for improved performance.) The USA is now down to two major players in the launch vehicle market, with the Ariane team the only active overseas group not dependent on old US or Soviet technology transferred during the Cold War.

Among the other similarities: Narrow Contractor Base, Mammoth Ground Support Equipment, Safety Trade-Offs, Low Flight Rate, Publicity Spotlight, Fanatical Promoters...

And the one that really made me both smile and wince: Inappropriate Traditions. (read it)

Posted by John Weidner at 8:46 PM