How to actually keep airplanes from blowing up

In light of the recent underwear bomber episode, and the equally ridiculous and useless rules set up by our bureauverlords to protect their jobs (the answer to government failure is... more government!), I thought I would weigh in on how to really keep airplanes safe. Allow guns on board.

I am quite certain that terrorist incidents would virtually disappear if we did this - just let anybody on a plane without screening of any kind. On an average flight, you would be almost guaranteed to have several retired military, law enforcement, and good ol' rednecks strapped and ready to waste a prospective terrorist or hijacker.

The first objection is, as usual from people who take what the government says without question, "we can't do that! Everyone would be shooting up planes." Right, and if heroine was legal I guess you would go stick a needle in your arm tomorrow. There is a growing body of research that suggests violent crime rates drop significantly when gun laws are softened. It's the age old truth that criminals with guns can usually avoid cops, and they are not afraid of citizens with knives. Didn't 9/11 show us that our elaborate security theater had done nothing less than make use mortally vulnerable to such treacherous weapons as box cutters? And did it not also show us that, given either a reasonable chance of success, or an overwhelming reason to try, ordinary citizens are our best defense against random acts of violence? Yes and yes.

The second objection is more rational, which is "but don't guns put holes in planes?" That one suggests some caution. After all, if the brave and intelligent Dutch tourist who stopped pantsbomber had been packing a .44, the cure could very well have been much worse than the disease. In that case, how's this for a compromise. Offer a course for military, law enforcement, and maybe ordinary citizens to become licensed "reserve air deputees." Once licensed, these deputees would be allowed to discreetly carry weapons on their person onto commercial airplanes. Of course, there would be a restriction on type of weapon - high-caliber handguns, explosives, rifles, and shotguns would be of little use in a close-quarters airliner fight. However, small caliber and non-lethal weapons like .22's and similar low-power handguns, tasers, mace, etc, would be allowed on. The key word is "discreetly" - the RADs would go through the same screening process as normal passengers, they would be required not to show their weapon to anyone, and they would be required to have their weapons on their persons at all times. The point is to make sure a terrorist can't know how many RADs are on a given flight, or where they are sitting.

The course would teach people the dos and don'ts of airliner combat. The course would cover small-caliber handguns, as well as non-lethal weapons like mace and tasers. Users would be instructed in an airliner mockup about things like where a small caliber bullet is least likely to cause explosive decompression, whether bullets will penetrate different types of partitions, what kinds of proximity effects a cloud of mace has, and so one. It might also cover such things as basic hostage situations, simple forms of non-verbal communication, ways to improvise weapons and/or create diversions with things commonly available in an airliner bathroom or galley, ways to contact the ground from the cabin, and steps to take in case of loss of crew. The class need not be especially long or expensive - probably no more than two days or several two-hour evening sessions should do - one could commandeer a derelict DC-8 in Mojave and shoot it full of any number of holes.

The worst case scenario is that several terrorists would take the course and be allowed on a plane with a gun. However, this is still better than the current scenario. First of all, there would be the requisity background checks. Anyone who took the course would be automatically red flagged by the FBI, and any commonalities where several people on the same flight took the same course, or were funded by the same organization, or have sketchy backgrounds, would come out. This would have stopped at least the Reids and Abdulmutallabs. Second, the worst that would happen is they would get on with a small gun - there would still be screening for explosives, large caliber weapons, etc. All this would not necessarily have stopped 9/11 however. But, potential terrorists would have no way of knowing how many other passengers were carrying weapons, or where they were. This is the most important line of defense. Terrorists are willing to lose their own lives; and if there is a 3.7% chance that they will go to jail because an air marshall happens to be riding then so be it. But if those odds went to close to 100% that there would be at least one and likely several people with the weapons and training to make every attempt at martyrdom as pathetic as pantsbomber, regardless of what kind of heat the terrorists were packing, then they will move on rather quickly.

There could, of course, be automated rules in place to put the odds even more in our favor. There would obviously be flags raised when an aberrant number of RADs chose a given flight. RADs could show up to the airport, and be either deputized (allowed to keep their weapon on their person) or demoted (with their weapon placed in checked bags or in safe storage at the airport police station) at random for their flight that day, so that no one could ever know whether he would be allowed a weapon on board for a given flight. Likewise, we could limit the total RADs on each flight to no more than 2% of passengers, or no more than 5 total RADs, or so on. We could arrange it so that the RADs on a given flight had a wide variety of birthplace, hometown, religion, ethnicity, and education, to reduce the likelihood of collaborators. RADs could be seated together without their knowledge, with air marshalls secretly seated around them, in any suspicious case. But this is all just working the odds. The point is, the program would open the RADs up to so much scrutiny that it would probably be unprofitable for a terrorist organization to attempt infiltration.

Fact is, the cops are never there when you need them. At any level of spending that won't kill mass air travel, we are not going to cover enough flights with air marshalls to make terrorists think twice.


A newer, Americaner space program

Early signs point to the Obama administration taking the Augustine Commission's advice and turning astronaut launch to LEO over to contract bidders like ULA and SpaceX. I'm sure the sausage making will be ugly and the result will be less than ideally appetizing, but it is the first big-ticket sign of a slow, necessary change in NASA that has been happening at least since SpaceX was founded in 2003(ish) and SpaceShipOne launched in 2004. Centennial Challenges, the COTS A-C program, and the ISS resupply contracts were earlier steps of increasing size. Humans to LEO would be a lot more long-term and carry a price tag that actually takes a bite out of key congressional districts. Of course, it adds the same amount in a much more efficient way to other congressional districts, but for some reason that is never included in the accounting.

Politically, space is not important. NASA is an $18B annual bargaining chip to buy off various constituencies. That's not surprising, in fact it is typical. It has led slowly and inexorably to a federal agency much like any other federal agency that is not directly accountable to the voters (ie, all of them). Absent other influences, this leads to one way of thinking:
1) People who fly are people who die. The general public is not interested or wowed by spaceflight, they could care less. Only bad things can happen for politicians when astronauts fly. To a lesser extent, this is also true of multi-million or -billion dollar satellites and probes as well. The ideal NASA program from a politician's point of view is one that spends the maximum amount of money on the minimum amount of flights. The result: massive overhead is designed into the programs. Overhead doesn't kill anyone. It doesn't do anything, in fact.

Absent other influences. There are always other influences, but until recently they have been small fries. It took enormous political capital to get Shuttle up, and no one is going to get behind something like that again. So what is currently leading the push toward commercial?

Former NASA administrator Michael Griffin saw it clearly when he railed about "the Gap" after the Shuttle was sunsetted. He reacted the wrong way, as do all politicians, by grasping tighter to the status quo and assuming he could steer funding and/or change the way a massive bureaucracy gets things done. But his assessment of the problem was correct. It is politically embarrassing to buy things from Russians.

Faced with this nationally important strategic fact, and a commercial industry ready and willing to come to the rescue, it seems likely that on the order of $5B will finally be skimmed of the NASA pork cream pie to actually get something done. The NASA boondoggle will still get their $5B annual to work on paper rockets - this time called "heavy lift vehicles" - that are not strategically important to most political careers. They can overrun the cost and schedule on these while never flying anything useful until the next sellable scam comes along. But the agency will finally be doing something useful with a real chunk of its cash, and that's a good thing.


Little people in the White House! Noooooo!

Following up on two reality-TV stars crashing the state dinner a month ago, we now have a story of two tourists who showed up to the WH on the wrong day and were invited to join a Veterans Day breakfast.

I for one don't see that this is an issue. I can't imagine how it could be. Are we really pissed off that ordinary Americans were able to get some candid face time with the President? Have we devolved to royal courts? I disagree with a lot of the things Obama does, but this is nothing but good. I've said for some time that the whole standing army/Praetorian Guard is a sign that a person has way too much power. Secret Services in good times turn into SS and NKVDs in bad times. Look it up.


The truth shall set you free...

Climategate, paradoxically, may lead to a renewed push and more money for climate science, and this is a good thing. Hear me out.

Climate science relies on extremely nonlinear models. When you rely on extremely nonlinear models, the rules for statistical analysis change completely. In a linear model, you can expect a small change in inputs to result in a small change in output. In a nonlinear model, even a minute, undetectable change can correspond to any of three states. If the system is overdamped, it will behave similarly to a linear model and the small change will not affect results greatly. If the model is chaotic, it will oscillate between some odd number of quasi-stable states (this is possibly what we saw with the last decade's level or cooling temperatures, the system was perturbed to another state). If the model is underdamped, then you're in trouble - the result will be highly unpredictable.

So the statistical bar for nonlinear systems is much higher than that for linear systems. In linear systems, you need to statistically correlate results to observations, and if they correlate better than the alternative then your model is better than the alternative. I am not a climate scientist, in fact I am not a scientist at all - just a lowly engineer. I am not familiar with the climate science literature so it's possible that all I am about to say is common practice, although it doesn't show from the CRU code and data. And I am at something of a hobbyist level at this chaos stuff, so all this might be completely wrong, but my take is as follows:

With nonlinear systems, you need to do more work. You need to be able to statistically isolate each combination of variables and determine whether its effect is overdamped, underdamped, or chaotic. If it is underdamped, you can just look at results. Ie, "With the measured CO2 concentration over the past N decades, we can say that the relationship to temperature is a*log_b(CO2) with P% error bounds on a and b of alpha and beta."

If the variable provokes a chaotic response, you need to isolate the periodicity of the system under various perturbations. In other words, if you find that CO2 level in the atmosphere leads to discrete but repeating jumps in global temperature, you can predict the effect a perturbation has within a given range of inputs - you can never fully predict what will happen when the period doubles or halves, because it may go nonlinear at any new level of CO2 concentration. If you can find two period doublings in the data, then you might even be able to project it forward or backwards several period doublings, because the level of input at each doubling and the discrete levels of output follow a rule of proportionality. But again, this is highly speculative because chaotic systems can go nonlinear (underdamped) at any time. In other words, if your input leads to chaotic outputs, you now have to bound your model to those regions where you can calibrate. At best you can venture a guess a period doubling or two ahead and behind, but again, the whole system could stop doubling in an orderly fashion and just go haywire. Obviously, this is a far greater task than with linear models - you go from correlating one set of outputs to one set inputs, to correlating every combination of input against every output and isolating discrete contributions for those combination. The statement you can make here is "For the last N decades of CO2 data, we can predict that the effect on T will follow one of the following curves [f1a(CO2),f2a(CO2), ... , fna(CO2)] within the range C1 to C2 with Pa% probability, and one of the following curves [f1b(CO2),f2b(CO2), ... , fnb(CO2)] from C2 to C3 with Pb% probability. We can also predict a relationship within the bounds [f1c(CO2),f2c(CO2)] for concentrations from C3 to C4, and [f1d(CO2),f2d(CO2)] for C0 to C1, with a lower degree of probability, and with an inverse probability of the system response devolving into noise."

Finally, if your variable ends up provoking an underdamped response, you're almost, but not quite, SOL. Your output will fluctuate unpredictably - it is indistinguishable from noise. You can do a couple things with this: you can again bound the input to the range where you can isolate the calibration data, and prove that the nonlinear response is bound as well - ie, "With the levels of CO2 we have measured over N decades, we can predict with P% confidence that the nonlinearity from these concentrations in the model will be no greater than 0.1%C." The other thing you can do is various tricks to linearize the model. In this case, you must prove that your linearized response is correlated with actual data BUT - you cannot predict what will happen to the portion of the signal from your nonlinear variables outside the envelope of observation. In other words, forecasting what will happen when CO2 levels reach 4X their current levels, and higher than at any point in the past where you have good data, is not meaningful.

The only way you can get a confidence bound in this situation seems to be by sensitivity analysis of your entire model - run each variable independently, and in every combination, through the full range of error for the variable. You are essentially looking for where the output falls off a cliff - either the noise goes way up or there is a discrete change. Then you look back at your calibration data and find similar trends in the data, and determine the probability that the actual climate conditions when those trends happened were the going through the same state change as the input conditions that caused the similar trend in the model. There may be several "similar" trending events in the model and in the calibration data, so at this point you need a lot of both to get a meaningful cross-section with which to check the nonlinear model response.

In summary, probably the most important point about the nonlinear system is that you need much better data, with much more rigorous analysis, than for linear systems. It seems like some of the techniques used by the CRU researchers - interpolating data between stations, correcting for movement of stations, smoothing averages over time - were fine for linear systems but grossly inadequate for nonlinear systems. Interpolation and correction errors can grow wildly (or in discrete steps) in nonlinear systems, and it is precisely the instantaneous variations in the data that tell you when a system has gone non-linear. When dealing with highly non-linear systems, you should be extremely wary of any trend predictions... often the best you can do is "And if we reach this point the outputs go completely haywire and six slightly different models predict six hugely different outcomes, so it's probably a good idea to not get to this point if we can help it."

Climate scientist will protest that what I am asking is impossible, and rightly so - you need data to do any experiment, and saying your data is invalid because we can find some degree of nonlinearity in the system where an arbitrary level of error leads to arbitrarily unpredictable results is the same as saying your experiment is impossible. True enough.

Which brings us back to the first point - climate science getting more money. There will now be a huge bias against using legacy data sets, especially unpublished ones, and so we will likely see a return to the raw data and a more persistent push to make that data less error-prone. The fact that garbage in is so much more damaging with nonlinear systems means typical statistical tools used for linear systems are not valid, and data fidelity is of utmost importance. I hope that this leads to a new push in the climate science world - and the scientific world in general - to completely reevaluate statistical and data gathering procedures for highly nonlinear systems. I have always thought that climate science should be nonlinear physics that happens to be dealing with a climate dataset. We will deal with more and more nonlinear systems problems as we move on towards K1 level of civilization, and if the outgrowth of Climategate is a new set of scientific methods to deal with them then we have all won.



Powerline blog has a story about a recent Fed forecast of a slow recovery for the economy. Well... duh. Put me solidly among those who aren't convinced there is a recovery - the current bump is very likely the result of massive and unsustainable deficit spending.

The reasoning behind the slowness is that banks aren't lending. Well... duh. Here's some of the things they are looking at:

1. The bailout kept a huge amount of bad investments in the banking system that should have been purged through bankruptcy and pennies-on-the-dollar sales last Autumn. The resulting revaluation would have been extremely painful (as if what happened instead wasn't...), but it would have placed real income in the hands of healthy institutions rather than keeping deflated balance sheets on life support. We would have probably lost a lot of "too big to exist" banks, and in their place we would have some new names and a few old names with right-sized financing capabilities. Instead, we have a bunch of flailing brontosauri - giant institutions on cash-swallowing life support keeping the mammals around the fringe.

2. Barney Frank won't shut up. The regulations bill coming down the pike is the typical DC disaster. Long after the public has realized that maybe banks were just operating under instructions from the FDIC, FMA, FHMCA, GMA, CRA, and the rest of the alphabet soup of agencies that so blatantly fell into the "irrational exuberance" trap (probably for kickbacks... but that only happens in Central America, right?), this congress is trying to create a veritable pterodactyl. Banks don't want to move when doing so could break the law in a year. It is quite clear at this point to everyone in finance, and not clear at all to most of the voters, that banks do what the government says. If the government says to lend to questionable borrowers, you either lend or you get pushed out of business. I don't even know if lifting the regulatory burden would do anything good... the industry needs to be weened slowly from the Federal teat. Instead, BF wants to do the opposite.

3. Business sucks right now. The stock market is back to neutral. Housing may be bottoming out, but that's like saying the Michael Jordan had a "bad night" when he scored only 35 - it's really back to where it should be. IPO regulations have all but killed the venture capital industry as an agent of growth. The American government is currently acting like one big barrier to entry. To top it off, American people are shocked into saving, which is good, but their savings are going to feed the flailing brontosaurus. Instead of contributing lending cash to institutions on good footing, they are contributing the disappearing money that should have been destroyed months ago in bankruptcy court. So yeah, investment isn't going too well right now.

4. The government is using all the credit. True. Any cash that is in the system - from foreign government or US banks - seems to be flowing directly to the Treasury. People with money are spending it on treasury bills, notes, and bonds, which is kind of like a self-fulfilling bet on another turndown... although, another turndown without inflation, which is very unlikely. The point is, there's so much "safe" government debt out there, why would any institution actually do the hard work of building a portfolio? This kills big companies, because they have to out-price government bonds. Yields grow, profit dies, and people get layed off.

5. Finally, the fundamental flaw has not been fixed, if anything it has been further fundamentalized and flawed. We as an economy are in a precarious spot. We charge 5x more for our time than anyone else. As protectionism slowly falls away, the problem will get worse. I know a lot of laborers, and I feel for them, but I honestly can't look them in the eye and say that they should really be able to work for 5x as much as an Indian or Mexican who is willing to do the same work. The US needs to continue to create new industries better than anyone else, it is regression to the mean for us. But we are choking that off with inane immigration policies that treat smart people like slaves and kick them out of the country, and treat hard working people like criminals and force them under the table where they lower wage rates for everyone. Not to mention all the things in 3) that are killing wealth creation. And when we do create wealth, our politicians sic on the creators legally, rhetorically, and financially. It's unsustainable.


Damaging climate science by defending it

Big news this week on the global warming front. A month or two ago, I said essentially that yes, we need to worry about global warming, eventually, but it is not an existential emergency and we don't know nearly the beginnings of enough yet to call it such. By contrast to, say, a 10,000 year meteor strike, of which we know most of the science yet spend pitifully little time, money, and political capital on, anthropogenic climate change provides way too many cushy jobs for people who want to call themselves scientists but don't want to do the work.

I ended by saying something like, humanity's waste heat will start being a problem in a few decades, and focusing on carbon is probably distracting from the main issue. I thought that might be a bit of a low swipe at an easy target. Turns out I was quite right. A group at the University of East Anglia's Hadley Climatic Research Centre was hacked this week, and their emails show a group of partisans who certainly seem more devoted to a cause than a truth. Refusing to release data to other scientists they thought were "not predictable," publshing refutations of criticisms without bothering to go back and look at the pertinent data and calculations, politicking to discredit the editorial staff and contributors to journals that hold a skeptical view.

This is, of course, unavoidable when a scientific group's proclamations get ahead of their evidence. It is an effect analogous to a government making bold proclamations about the future without the resources to make them happen, then resorting to muggery and lies when things go differently.

It is too bad really. We live in a world that is smaller every day, and we are within a few orders of magnitude of being a K1 civilization. When that happens, we will have control over the physical planet, able to harness as much power as the Earth itself puts out for humanity's means. It sounds vaguely u- or dys- topian, but it is not something that we will wake up able to do once we buy enough iPods. It is something that humans will achieve in small pieces. Looking at what the Earth has to offer, we are a long way from understanding or harnessing or affecting things below the surface. We can't affect the macro-scale inertial properties of the planet - its orbit, insolation, and so on. We are far from being able to regulate the oceans like we do, say, rivers and lakes.

No, our first tests are going to be the atmosphere and the biosphere. We must be able to managed the energy budget of the atmosphere, as well as the several chemical cycles that it participates in. Likewise, we need to be able to maintain a healthy and diverse biosphere. We are already well along on the latter, having stabilized most temperate forests, and hopefully we will be able to do the same things to better manage topsoil, tropical forests, and desert-prone regions. I am optimistic. The climate is the next hurdle, and we know pitifully little about it. Defending pet positions under the guise of science, using any tools other than open experimentation, hurts us all.


Questions from the HSF committee... a running monologue

Vision Restoration is a blog dedicated to... well, if I say it it will sound trite or corny or jargony. The "Vision" stands for W.'s Vision for Space Exploration, which was a very promising roadmap for building up the nation's civil spacefaring infrastructure in politically palatable chunks. The "Restoration" is because NASA lifers and congressrodents with NASA centers quickly gutted the positive parts and turned the whole thing into a long-running jobs program. Obama commissioned a panel to find out what the fuck happened, and they returned pretty much the same recommendations that the VSE people came up with 6 years earlier... and, for that matter, pretty much the same suggestions that a similar commission in 1994 came up with. Namely:
  1. NASA does not have enough money to do anything meaningful outside low Earth orbit (LEO), at least not the ways NASA has to do things thanks to aforementioned b's & c's.
  2. We will never develop the infrastructure and technology to change that fact unless NASA loses its literal deathgrip on the LEO launch and space-station market and lets commercial companies do what they do - try, fail, and then try better.
Vision Restoration has a series of Deep Questions for the HSF Committee in a sort of open-letter format. I'm just going to scat while I read the music.
"1. Are beyond-LEO exploration and fitting the budget really incompatible?

Two of the goals in the Committee's
charter were to fit the budget and to enable beyond-LEO exploration. However, only two of the options presented by the Committee fit the budget, and neither of these options enable beyond-LEO exploration in a meaningful time frame.
True enough. But let's be real: what is "meaningful time frame?" I would argue 4 years, maybe 6 if we're lucky. It took the VSE about 2 to get fully gutted, and that was with the same party in the WH and both HoC's. Apollo was essentially dead in the cradle after 9 years, and even that took an assassinated war-hero President followed by a spendthrift from the South who couldn't imagine his good fortune at having a massive industrial cock-off to throw money at his region. Either of the two budget-fitting options are going to lead the same place due to economical realities; one of them gets there sooner.

The big-ticket potatoes in the current Constellation soup are as follows:
  1. A medium-lift rocket to get humans into orbit (Ares I)
  2. A pod to carry those humans into orbit, and also into deep space (Orion)
  3. A heavy-lift rocket to lift supplies and the lunar lander (Ares V)
  4. The lunar lander (Altair)
Of these, there is only a pressing nationals need for #1, and the first half of #2. It is politically unacceptable and economic seppuku to keep buying rides to the ISS from Russians. These are what we're really deciding on. Everything else is gravy on the gravy train that is NASA jobs. The committee presented 5 options and 3 sub-options, but there were really only 3 realistic choices.
  • The first was the program of record. It is an "option" because DC might have just gotten to the point where they see literally no point to NASA beyond buying votes in districts with NASA centers. This would be a quick, silent kill of the US civil space program. It would continue on in budget alone, but American space capability would essentially be done until the military or private industry took it up.
  • The second was the second choice, with budget constrained to current sizes. It assumed that the civil human spaceflight program had some utility besides graft, and therefore it arranged for basic human spaceflight capabilities to LEO to be picked up by competent organizations (not NASA) on a fixed-price basis. At the same time, it still managed to throw the majority of taxpayer money down the rathole of a heavy lift vehicle we won't need for a hundred years, a deep space capsule that we can't launch, and a moon lander that... well, it's a fucking moon lander and we can't even get to LEO after 2011, so figure out how serious they are about that one.
  • The third option wasn't presented because it was as much a political fairy tale as #2 was a technical and economic fairy tale. It was discussed in some of the meetings by Jeff Greason and Sally Ride, though, and it was as follows: shut down NASA centers that design vehicles. Contract each vehicle out to 3-4 commercial vendors on the COTS model. This is how a private company would do things. Private companies probably aren't quite there yet. But it was what could be if this was a market.
"2. Why wasn't a Phase I EELV HLV or similar HLV included in any options?
...It also wouldn't be bad if a smaller HLV encourages us to perfect our skills at refueling, ISRU, reusable space-only craft, frequent low-cost launch, docking, and assembly. All of these skills may find productive use outside NASA exploration. Enabling such capabilities may prove to be more important than NASA's actual exploration itself.
That's an easy one. Because it might work. The committee knew, as anyone who takes an honest look knows, that HLV's are the exact opposite of what is needed. We need more launches. A lot more launches. Since there's no obvious demand for lots more launches, that means we need to launch smaller things, more. And that means that we need to pour our effort into on-orbit assembly, on-orbit propellant storage, and clustered smallsat technologies. A working HLV would destroy NASA. If they had an HLV, not only would they need the huge overhead required to maintain it, but they would need something to launch on it to justify the expense. And they can't pay for both the overhead and the mission.

NASA's ideal is to only pay for one of them. Given the choice between overhead and mission, overhead is clearly the safer option. Missions can fail; the worst thing overhead can do is not succeed - at which it is very successful. NASA wants to pay people to design rockets that will never fly at anything beyond experimental capacity and flight rates. That is why the only serious HLV options were NASA-made. And if NASA senses themselve getting too close to an actual operational system, we will find that the requirements creep every higher. Unlike with medium lift, no private entities are in a position to call that bluff, and if I'm right about the economic drivers of space exploration, they won't be for at least a hundred years. So it's a nice, safe kitty.
"3. Should Earth orbit be included in the Flexible Path?
there are Earth orbits beyond LEO that could be useful for satellite servicing, remote sensing, and other purposes.
This is an interesting bit of foreshadowing. The answer is, of course, yes. Once there is an infrastructure in LEO, and some more long-term paper projects are inevitably cancelled in a fit of righteous congressional dollar-smelling, NASA will find itself in much the same uninspiring place as it finds itself now, only pushed out past the Van Allen belts. NASA will someday cling to MEO and GEO manned missions like it does today to LEO manned missions, after it fails miserably to even dent Lunar or deep-space manned missions. And once again, private industry will outpace NASA's capabilities there, just as it is currently doing in LEO. And then NASA or whatever or whoever plays the role then will bounce to the next place, maybe the Lagrange points or the Moon or NEOs, and so on ad infinitum. That may sound cynical, but it's the ad infinitum that is important.
"4. Should Venus orbit be included in the Flexible Path?
Cool idea. Obscure and over-reaching, but cool nonetheless. Let's tackle this one again in 2060. When I am... 80 years old. Sigh.
"5. What is the real goal of human space exploration?

The Augustine Committee's report states the following:

A human landing followed by an extended human presence on Mars stands prominently above all other opportunities for exploration.
I guess all government space committees have to come through with some sort of sci-fi geek vaseline like this. To their credit, the HSF committed kept it short. Their real stated ultimate goal was not Mars - it was permanent human settlement of space. Now that is a real goal. The concept of going to Mars, or even the Moon right now, is ridiculous and arrogant. We are not close. It is almost too bad we managed Apollo; it distorted everyone's view of what is really possible. You can climb a mountain, and you can build a road up the mountain. If you climb it, it will be quite quick and easy. But if you want to make it a routine, you have to build a road. And building a road is phenomenally, incomparably harder than climbing.

I love climbing mountains, don't get me wrong. And maybe it's the proper thing to do in space. Perhaps space is so hostile and foreign that living and working there is not a reasonable thing to expect to be able to do, ever. In which case, save up some money and take a trip to Mars, by all means. Or, you know, mortgage your country's future, whatever. Lots of suicidal people climb Everest. But if you believe that settlement and commerce are the true reasons for the frontier, then you need to start building that road. And that's not glamourous. It took a lot more work, and no doubt killed more people, to build the road from Kathmandu to Base Camp, than it did to climb from Base Camp to the summit. But without the first, the second was not possible.


In space no one can hear you pee...

The Orlando Sentinel has a piece on the breakdown of the ISS urine recycler, and how it might postpone a billion-dollar shuttle flight because it would mean bags of pee floating around. My first thought about this was how it points out everything that I hate about the Cult of Systems Engineering that rules American civil space exploration, and much of the space industry itself. Here is the problem:
  1. Politicians decide to take very big steps in space - rather than developing capabilities incrementally - because those seem more politically palatable.
  2. Big steps are expensive, so we only get to do it a few times - one urine recycler at one space station, rather than a dozen porta-potties at a dozen outposts.
  3. Since you have one of everything, it has to always work. More importantly, since there's only one of them, you don't have the option of six sigma or working out the kinks over time.
  4. Since you don't have that option, you need an army of bureaucrats (known by the euphemism "systems engineers") whose job it is to play the role of nature and nit-pick every inconsistency in results, test apparatus, interface (read: plug or bolt, literally), and so on.
  5. This is trading bureaucracy for causality. Instead of real-world shakeout, lots of people file enough paperwork to convince each other that the product will work.
  6. The result? Urine recyclers that don't work, falling foam that destroys multi-billion dollar space shuttles, a whole bunch of finger-pointing and denials, and more paperwork. NASA can't build a launch vehicle that blows up less than one time in 50... but I'd be willing to bet that every NASA employee can fill out at least 50 forms, perfectly, 999 times out of 1000, because they've screwed them all up once and got hounded about it.
So, kind aerospace industry non-expert, what is the alternative. I mean, this stuff is hard, right? Yeah, and so is keeping an airplane flying at 85% the speed of sound carrying a small town's worth of people 20 hours a day. And so is making a car that sells for $20,000 and but will run in all conditions for 200,000 miles before major overhaul. And so, for that matter, is making a million Dixie Cup that hold water, stay reasonably sterile, and won't spontaneously disintegrate or catch fire in a wide range of humidity, temperature, and better-idiot conditions. Engineering is hard. That's why we get paid the big bucks*.

There is another path. Some private industry is taking the path. Lots of people think space tourism is the killer app, but I tend to disagree. You want to fly enough to uncover gremlins, but humans are terribly fickle cargo. They have a habit of dying and leaving behind kin who in turn have lawyers. Their trips are often accompanied by TV cameras. Suborbital tourism makes a sense as a secondary market, but only because you've got room for bigger margins, and there are already a lot of safe small aircraft. People have already dies so that you may see black sky, in other words.

I think smallsats are the way to go for commercial business right now. They offer standardization in a repeatable package. So-called "cubesats," a standard form factor 10 cm on a side, are currently all the rave with universities, and companies are starting to develop standard power, data, and propulsion suites for them. You don't want to fly something for the first time, every time. Let Georgia Tech's solar array short out, so that yours doesn't have to. Orbital has built a successful business model of launching a bunch of smallsats with common form and systems on their own rockets. They are able to charge a premium of about 3X the market rate for the launch side of the service. Virgin Galactic is also very intent on the market, and for the life of me I cannot understand why SpaceX decided that Falcon I is a dead end for them... if anything I would have gone smaller, not bigger.

How about the human side? Everyone loves astronauts. A lot of us want to be one. The problems on that side are that, as we already established, humans make big, fragile cargoes. But the Russians have followed the incremental path. Their Soyuz rocket family has thousands of flights going back to the '50s, and they are remarkably reliable and inexpensive as a result. The point has been driven home by the fact that NASA will have to buy seats on them from 2011 until whenever NASA as we know it ceases to exists and embraces commercial American launch providers.

It all comes down to repetition. Six sigma will wipe the floor with systems engineering, every day and twice on Hump Day. A porta potty that works every time will beat a urine recycler that works when it wants to (and why would anything want to recycle urine?)


*I am currently unemployed. Hook a brotha up.


Meet the new boss (yep, another one of these)

I was told that the Obama administration would stop the abuses of civil liberties, the animosity toward the press, and the shady tracking of our email and web traffic. I personally chafed at the expansion of the Big Brother camera eye into our lives during the Bush administration, and I was definitely hopeful that Obama would move to repeal some of the vaguer parts of the PATRIOT Act. Or at least not use them by executive fiat.

But, apparently the Justice Department of this new, transparent administration, has no qualms about serving illegal subpoenas with gag orders about their existence to journalists. Between that, the hypothesized McCain-Feingold attack that the administration may or may not be setting Fox News up for, and the general crickets-chirping silence from the administration on repealing or amending laws that egregiously violate civil liberties, I'm realizing that Obama is no better on this matter too.


High prices, low service

William Voegeli's editorial in the LA Times takes a look at what, exactly, the state of California provides for it's tax largesse. The answer is that our services are actually significantly worse than lower-tax states all around. The extra money appears to be funneled into public employee unions and pensions, of which the Golden State has very lucrative ones indeed. I'm glad Voegeli found numbers, but it was something I suspected all along. I have lived in the high-tax states of CA, MA, and WA. I have lived in a low-tax state, NH. There was little or no tangible difference for me living in any of them, except NH had one of the best school systems in the country. But I'm a white, usually middle class, male.

I was asked a while back why I hate taxes so much. I gave some philosophical answer, but it might be better to turn it around. Why don't you hate taxes? If every payday someone came up to you, and said he would put you in jail unless you gave him 30% of what you make. Lets say you had no legal recourse against this guy. How long before you tried to kill him? When its the mafia, it's theft or at best protection money. When it's politicians and bureaucrats it's ...? This all comes around to a point. Politicians and bureaucrats are not exempt to human weakness. When you give them a monopoly on public money social services, like CA did in the last 30-40 years, they behave just like monopolists: they jack up the price, erode the quality of the service, and take the difference for themselves.


"Affirmative Action" at Ivy Leagues - what is the value?

John Stossel is not the first, and will not be the last, to call out the inequities of letting different races into competitive colleges. "Diversity" is a positive feature, because it is not academic achievement alone that determines one's position later in life. Evolutionary biology teaches us that monocultures are extremely vulnerable to perturbance, and an all-asian-and-white, legacy-children-from-Exeter-and-Andover student body is a sitting duck for any major cultural or sociatal shift. That is why it makes sense to admit athletes with lower test scores and grades - athletes tend to make significantly more money later in life (and then gift it their alma maters) than non-athletes with comparable admissions scores.

The question I would ask is not what the cause of these policies is, but what is the effect? We have a generation and then some of diversity admissions programs. What has the effect been? Have the diversified schools benefited in any objective measure, and which measures? Do African American Ivy graduates go on to make more money, or start more non-profits, or file more patents, or win more elections than white ivy graduates? Do hispanics Ivy graduates acheive executive positions, or sell more albums, or publish more journal articles, or defend more cases, than their asian brethren?

I never understood the use of race as a stand-in for diversity. I understand cultural diversity - Economics, religion, ethnicity, country of origin, whether you were raised by one or two parents - these all are huge contributors to value systems and learned experience that can make a community of any kind more resilient. A school enriches itself by bringing in new perspectives; but it enriches itself more by bringing in the white South African ghetto superstar than well-educated, upper middle class black South African. Without evidence to the contrary, I believe using race as a stand-in for diversity is lazy, divisive, and counter-productive.

Good news... but you can't put it in your pipe and smoke it

The White House released a memo to federal prosecutors and top DEA executives today that told them not to prosecute medical marijuana users so long as they were in full accordance with conflicting state laws. A breath of fresh air for marijuana activists, and one of the things I thought Obama could realistically do to make his presidency suck considerably less.

But, similar to his empty words on every other promise he has chosen not to break outright, this is pretty empty. As a first policy initiative, it's fine, but if it is not followed by real change it is a limp carrot next to the deadly stick of the Drug War. Things it doesn't do:
  1. Prohibit federal prosecutors from prosecuting cases... it just makes it a low priority
  2. Prohibit the DEA from investigating and permanently seizing property of suspected drug users without actually charging them with a crime
  3. Make the people who use or sell medical marijuana lawfully any less vulnerable to the next rex publius
  4. Similarly, it does not make the actions of users and sellers legal - things they do now even if prosecutions cease for a few years can still be used against them in court down the road

The ruling seems nice enough, but it essentially estabilishes precedent that the Drug War is completely at the favor of the whims of the Executive. If it goes to the Supreme Court, it will be struck down as both a legal defense and a policy measure, because it essentially tells the DOJ and DEA to ignore Congress. In other words, it is typical of Obama: it is a nice propaganda measure with no teeth, the unintended consequences will probably end up being worse for those who support it than the status quo, and he will probably stand pat and consider his job done now that he's given a flowery statement.

It need not be terribly damaging politically either - Obama could simply introduce a bill with edits to existing drug bills that essentially suborns federal regulation to state regulation in drug cases when the two are in conflict. It could be pushed as a state's rights issue and would likely have a sizable number of Republican co-sponsors. This is pretty weak, and dangerous, if the administration does not follow it up with an actualy policy or legislative push.


I'm sick of being right all the time... no, seriously.

The WSJ has an article today about the origins of the housing bubble. The main point: so-called "predatory" lenders needed to sell their mortgages to someone. They did not hold them like normal banks, but instead securitized bundles of them and sold them to larger institutions.
"Mortgage brokers had to be able to sell their mortgages to someone. They could only produce what those above them in the distribution chain wanted to buy. In other words, they could only respond to demand, not create it themselves. Who wanted these dicey loans? The data shows that the principal buyers were insured banks, government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the FHA—all government agencies or private companies forced to comply with government mandates about mortgage lending. When Fannie and Freddie were finally taken over by the government in 2008, more than 10 million subprime and other weak loans were either on their books or were in mortgage-backed securities they had guaranteed. An additional 4.5 million were guaranteed by the FHA and sold through Ginnie Mae before 2008, and a further 2.5 million loans were made under the rubric of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which required insured banks to provide mortgage credit to home buyers who were at or below 80% of median income. Thus, almost two-thirds of all the bad mortgages in our financial system, many of which are now defaulting at unprecedented rates, were bought by government agencies or required by government regulations."
This requires a little mental gymnastics to understand correctly, because it is not intuitive. Normally, we think of demand coming from the consumer, but for firms that only lend it is the other way around. Their operating cash comes from businesses UP the chain, not loan interest. Therefore, they are really selling in reverse, to the banks, and their "product" is the value added by pulling a group of mortgage borrowers into a securitizable group.

The point: if wonky demand for bad mortgages was not created by the federal government, these companies would not have been able to sell their product. They would have either had to stick to traditional, safe mortgages, or else they would not have existed in the first place. Companies like Countrywide were probably originated because banks wanted to subcontract a layer or two of risk from the bad mortgages the federal government was forcing them to take. A kind of, "we know when the Countrywides fail that we have a sales cycle or two to purge our own toxic assets and lobby our congresspeople for a bailout." It worked for most of the big banks, and who can blame them for doing it? They were damned if they did, damned if they didn't.


A possible general algorithm for quantum computers?

Exciting news comes from MIT via Next Big Future: a general algorithm for quantum computers which solves linear systems of equations. This is big news, since recent years have shown significant progress in overcoming technical challenges of quantum computing, but the lack of a general linear algorithm that was demonstrably faster than digital computers threatened to confine QC to a small set of somewhat esoteric problems like code-breaking and database search. Digital algorithms for linear systems take on the order of N steps to solve N equations, where this algorithm takes on the order of log(N). Not a big difference for small matrices, but enormously better as the matrices grow in size. A general linear algorithm that is faster than digital algorithms for the same thing is promising, because linear systems underlay virtually everything modern computers do well.
MIT researchers present a new algorithm that could bring the same type of efficiency to systems of linear equations — whose solution is crucial to image processing, video processing, signal processing, robot control, weather modeling, genetic analysis and population analysis, to name just a few applications.
A gotcha, of course, does exist. Namely, once the result is determined it is in a quantum superposition, so it takes order-N steps to read it out. Two possible solutions present themselves to my uneducated mind: the read-out step may be something that can be done massively in parallel; i.e. by entangling the "result" qubits and sending them to N readers which can be purpose-built cheaply to just be able to query a set number of qubits in a set way. The second way is working with the problem rather than around it. Many or most matrices a digital computer sees are either highly sparse (consisting overwhelmingly of zeros), and/or most of the answers are trivial. This can be exploited using digital computers in parallel. For instance, a finite element analysis might be run on a digital computer with a few million nodes, and simultaneously on a quantum computer with trillions of nodes. Then the digital computer could direct the quantum computer to only query the nodes with high stress concentrations to bring them to the higher quantum resolution. Similarly, systems can be set up so that the pertinent variables are in a known location. A market forecast, for instance, might take into account trillions of variables to forecast a stock price in the last row of the results vector.


Sunday Sunday Sunday

An addendum to the unintended consequences post I wrote about Cash for Clunkers. Turns out, in addition to incentivizing low mpg cars, it also tanked home and durable goods sales!

I am firing up the job search process. I hope for a job in an exciting engineering firm. I'm prepared to be waiting tables in 6 months. Apparently the unemployment rate for young people hit 50% after the minimum wage was upped... unintended consequences, ahem. "'There is no assistance provided for the development of job growth through small businesses, which create 70 percent of the jobs in the country," Angrisani said in an interview last week. "All those [unemployed young people] should be getting hired by small businesses.'" Young people voted for Obama by a landslide... but unions and rich guys bankrolled the campaign that roped them in. The kicker is that the same young people whose lifetime earnings are being destroyed are on the hook for the trillions that weren't handed out to them. Fool me twice, no doubt.

NFL season is on, and I'm watching the Pats hang on in the second half against Atlanta. Tom Brady is... well, he's stinking the place up. Just like week 2 against the Jets. But you can tell a good TEAM by whether it collapses in tough situations or not. And they are not. The defense has only allowed 10 points in the first 53 minutes, despite missing middle linebacker Jerod Mayo. And Randy Moss... well, thank god for Randy Moss. Wes Welker is out of the game, and Moss is making some outstanding plays to keep the ball in the offense's hands (even if it can't punch it into the endzone). And, the Ghost is kicking them through the uprights.

Chris Baker just scored on a long bomb thanks to ridiculous pass protection. Niiice.


The ACORN files

Well, I finally got around to watching the ACORN prostitution vids... okay, it was the Daily show version of them. I've got to say, until they went into the Salvadorean child prostitutes, I was totally with ACORN on this one. Prostitution should not be a crime in the first place, and bureaucracy is reprehensible in the second place; using one against the other strikes me a enormously satisfying.

Of course, everyone's getting all weewee'd up here because ACORN is 40% funded with government money. Congress de-authorized them, but why was a group that is overtly political, and accused multiple times of voter fraud getting federal funding in the first place? And why is prostitution the breaking point? Do we really think, as a society, that a woman selling her body for money is worse than voter fraud? Really? As long as government is allowed and encouraged to fund nebulous things like "community organizations," this is inevitable. And now everyone who was "organizing" is off in the background instead of right where we know they're a bunch of partisan hacks. And it's happening on both sides. De-funding ACORN without getting rid of all federal funding for community organizers is like curing smallpox by popping a pustule.

Young people & health care reform

I am a 20-something with several 20-something friends. Most of them want universal health care. So I asked them a question: do you expect to get more when you retire out of Social Security and Medicare than you put in in the 50 years until then? No, they said. Even if you are for the *concept* of universal coverage, if you don't see it realistically being solvent when you're over 50 and likely to need it; then you're an idiot for supporting it. I just lived for a year in the Netherlands, which recently reformed its health coverage from a universal single-payer model to a mandated coverage model because the single-payer model went bankrupt in about half the span of a normal career. All those people who paid 65% taxes for the first 20 of their productive years, and barely used the service, are now being forced to buy insurance at market rates.


Some good 912 Tea Party reports

Shadow's World has the best one I've seen so far, with a "Forrest Gump" shot off towards the monument and over a dozen great photos.

Here is a video that shows the march in time-lapse from the centerline on PA Ave, and also gives a clear shot from the Capitol steps showing crowds pretty much as far as you can see clearly (there was a section of the mid-Mall roped off for another function), and spread out to either side of the reflecting pool.

Transterrestrial Musings has a comment string up with some BoE crowd estimates, and there is a Google Doc to the same effect - ironic, since Google News didn't cover the event. But I guess that's the whole point about waking up from the corporate media dream and finding it was a nightmare. Suffice to say that "tens of thousands" in the AP article is foolishness... estimates range from 240,000 to 450,000 (the latter is from an actual "people counter" whatever that is) for the march, and 350,000 to a cool million on the Mall.


Why capitalism fails...

I bit on this article in the Globe today expecting it to be a statist diatribe to go with its headline. But it was actually a well-written article from the standpoint of economic history. It tells the story of the work of Hyman Minsky, who blamed capitalism for "instability" - which is like blaming the population of San Quentin prison for "breathing." You can probably check in on the alternatives to find out how stable they turn out over the course of decades. Say Soviet Union 1991 or Rwanda 1994.

This instability is caused by the ever-loosening concept of risk in the economy during good times, which leads to a "euphoric economy." When the crash comes, as it always does, investors pucker up and we get the death spiral we have all heard about. This is all true, of course, but the alternative is worse. The idea Minsky advocated was to have a Central Bank as lender of last resort, or the government as employer of last resort, in a financial crisis. The problem is, "crisis" is a highly subjective and politicized term. Was the 2002 recession a crisis? Whether it was or not, Minsky's "solution" was imposed to level out the stock market's fall. The Fed became the lender who pumped money into the economy. And it worked! The stock market recovered. It also blew up the dollar bubble, which led to the housing bubble, which led to the credit bubble.

Both Minsky and Keynes, and now people like Krugman and Tom Friedman, found fault with laissez-faire capitalism. Both devoted their career to understanding it, and offering solutions. Laudable by any standard. Unfortunately, both also commited the fatal flaw of socialism: in the absence of any rational solution, they made one up and called it government. It is there in Minsky's work just as it is in Keynes'. Keynes said government can bolster employment, and Minsky said government can bolster lending, but what they really meant was "some fairy tale figment of my imagination can bolster _______." They just went with "government" because you can fool more of the readers into believing it is real.

Problem #1: government is not above the rules. The Fed making loans to prop up bad bank debt on the expectation that the economy will keep growing and bail the country out is exactly the same thing, writ large, as the bankers taking on bad loans in the first place on the expectation that the price of housing (or stocks or a currency etc.) will keep going up. Same with the government of Keynes, as the provider of emergincy jobs. It is the same as a business going out and hiring for no good reason out of the kindness of its heart. It leads inevitably to deficits and massive debt, and there is nothing special about government debt. It's a transfer from the profit/loss account to the balance sheet, and it eats away future growth just as surely as interest payments from the bad times eat away at profit in the good times for a business.

Problem #2: government is below the rules. Keynesian stimulus works, if you can pump lots of jobs up almost immediately - say, with a program that is always around where people can just show up and work for a minimum wage if they don't have a job (makes a good case for replacing unionized government employees, at least) - then you can ease the lows (and the highs) somewhat. But as we've seen with this stimulus, that never happens. The money is fought over for months until after it is needed, then it gets passed into the hands of cronies and usually recycled into the election coffers of the people who voted for it. But this is not due to some imperfection in his math or some bad apples in government - this is the fatal flaw of every statist who imbues the government with a higher economic nobility than the market. In real life it turns out to be quite the opposite. Same thing with the Fed bowing to congressional or presidential pressures to ease the money supply during election years. The government is made up of people, and the are no better than the people who make up the market, but they have the power to make unilateral decisions, unlike the people in the market. And the only reason they have that power is because they have the guns.

Million Man March... crickets

Today, somewhere between 350,000 and 2 million (DC police: 1.2M) marched on Washington DC to protest out of control government spending, corruption, and infringement of Constitutional restrictions on federal power. Libertarian and right wing blogs have videos of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall packed with people.

Here is a list of what I could find for mainstream coverage (19.30 Pacific):

ABCnews.com: 2nd headline. Runs a version of AP article which claims a crowd of "thousands."
msnbc.com: Top story. Same AP article, 10's of thousands. Includes an excellent video that lets the people tell their story.
cnn.com: Top story. CNN actually wrote its own article to go with the AP one, asking who will be the leader after this? The same question was asked after April 15, then after July 4th. They don't get it.
Google News: Nothing. Very surprised about this. 5th story on the "US" tab, with the first being coverage of Obama's Minneapolis speech... attended by 15,000.
Yahoo!: Nothing. nada.
Foxnews: 3rd story. Adapted the AP article.
lemonde.fr: 4th headline
aljazeera.com: 2nd headline, runs AP article
telegraph.co.uk: nothing
nytimes.com: Sidebar near top. They even wrote their own article.

I have been hearing about mainstream media bias. I remember the Million Man March, which may have been smaller than this, was trumped up for weeks before hand and reported live by most major cable news outlets. I can't say if that was the case today, and I'm not sure if any difference is due to news organizations just not being nearly as well-capitalized and relevant as they used to be, or some form of bias. From just these front pages though, it would seem they are reporting the Tea Party movement, or at least begrudgingly channeling AP sources on the matter.


Lawyers, or, why doesn't anybody like me?

The Volokh Conspiracy has a post about how lawyers are held year after year among the lowest esteem of any profession. The writer of the post theorizes about the reasons, including that people don't like people who defend murderers, or they have been at the wrong end of a legal decision. I have no problem with a fair fight, and I would want and expect a lawyer to put aside any qualms to defend me.

My problem with lawyers, in other words, has nothing to do with what they do in the court room, and everything to do with what they do out of it. Lawyers become politicians, or lobbyists, and they ensure that the field is not a fair one. My wife and I are writing up our post-nup together. My mother think's that it's irresponsible to consider that our marriage might end. I think it is irresponsible that the only contract most husbands and wives enter into was one that was written by divorce lawyers.

Having recently served on a jury, I am amazed by how easily and quickly ordinary people can divorce the consequences of their decisions from those decision. If we had a representative mix of representatives - some teachers, engineers, doctors, police officers, soldiers - then our legislature would be far less likely to do the same.


Climate Change and Kardashev

John Tierney at the New York Times has a piece about the geoengineering. I've posted before my thoughts on climate change: it is not an isolated circumstance that can simply be reversed. It is part of a natural progression of civilization to eventually reach a point where it has control over the climate of a planet. Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev codified this in his Kardashev scale, which classified civilization by the amount of power they could harvest and use. A "K1" scale civilization uses power on the order of a planet (presumably insolation plus internal sources). K2 uses the power output of a star, K3 of a galaxy, and so on. Best estimates put us a little above K0.7 right now. One of the hallmarks of a K1.0 civilization is ability to control global weather patterns. It is virtually a requirement sooner or later, and since we're almost to K1.0, we better do it sooner.

We can do very rough order of magnitude calculations to see the problem. Let's say, worst case scenario, we dump enough CO2, CH4, CFCs, PFCs, sulfohexanes, and water vapor into the atmosphere to warm it 10 C in the next 50 years. This would, by most accounts, qualify as catastrophic climate change. Let's assume we changed the atmospheric chemistry all at once, for simplicity of calculations.

According to Wikipedia, the Earth's atmosphere weighs 5e18 kg. Let's assume the specific heat is 1039 J/kg.K, equivalent to N2 gas. This is equivalent to capturing 5E22 joules in the 50 years, or put another way, it is equivalent to having an electric blanket over the entire earth heating at a rate of about 3E13 watts. It's probably several times bigger, actually, because the oceans and crust will also warm (not as much, but they are far more massive), and the earth will radiate at a slightly higher level. Let's say 1E15 watts is a reasonable estimate. It doesn't change the argument.

Why is this important? Current human primary energy generation functions at the rate of about 16 TW, or 1.6E13 W. This rate has been doubling very roughly every 25-40 yrs for the past century - actually, it doubled very quickly when a country goes through its industrial revolution, then more slowly afterwards. Much of the world is about to go through or is going through mass industrialization now, so let's say the average is 30 years for the next couple centuries. Again, because we're dealing with exponential functions, it doesn't change the conclusion, only the date. For reference, K1.0 is 1E16-1E17 W of primary energy available, or about 1000x what we use today, but we will have to be able to control the Earth's climate well before then.

The reason why is that all primary energy eventually turns into heat. Some of it goes to lifting building materials, some goes into light to which the atmosphere is transparent, but most of what we create goes in short order directly to heat. Power plants dump heat in water bodies and cooling towers, power lines radiate resistive heat, pumped water falls downhill to water crops, light bulbs and computers get hot, cars, trains, boats, and airplanes rub against the ground, water, and air. Even if there is no greenhouse effect, in less than a two centuries (179 years by the figures above), humankind will be producing 1e15 W of primary energy. It seems like a long time, but 200 years is about two long human lifetimes. It is conceivable that children alive today will know people in their old age who will be alive then. It is likely that most of the nations of the world will have similar names, cultures, norms, and borders in 200 years. It is highly unlikely that any drastic change in human nature will occur.

This is, of course, Malthusian, and Malthusian arguments usually run up against scarcity. But what scarcity is there in energy? We can reach 1E15 W with proliferation of breeder reactors, which are currently operational in Japan and France. We can probably get there on coal, oil shale, and oil sands. We can definitely get there with methane hydrates. Minerals are unlikely to run out in that time; we have barely scratched the surface of Earth quite literally, and there is a molten core of iron below our feet. And keep in mind that this energy level threshold is vastly overstated; it is merely the energy required to heat the Earth's atmosphere 10 C in 50 years (along with the crust and oceans to a lesser extent). We start having warming noticeable in a human life span, say 1 C/century, after less than two doublings, or about 50 years off. 50 years! That's about how long it has been since the concept of global warming came about. 50 years ago man had put satellites in orbit and detonated the H bomb. Mix in some greenhouse gases, a big volcano or two, and a couple solar maxima, and you are likely to get some short-term equivalent that looks awfully scary well before that. It is entirely conceivable that we had just that in the 1990's, with a record-setting solar maximum.

So I am not denying anthropogenic climate change. On the contrary, I am saying it is inevitable. Even with the cleanest possible energy, it will start happening within most of our lifetimes simply from the waste heat of civilization. Atmospheric carbon is the canary in the coal mine. We could completely fix that problem by, say, switching over to breeder nuclear reactors or bringing fusion power and electric cars to maturity. However, that would only delay the problem. Energy efficiency can slow the process, but it only (slightly) postpones the date. A global dark age might put it off indefinitely, but then we'll have bigger problems; and depending how far civilization regresses it could make things worse - imagine an 1880s-level civilization of 15 billion people, burning coal and having babies at an alarming rate. It has taken some 25 years to get some form of somewhat functional carbon legislation passed in Europe. Optimistically, it will take another 25 to do similar things around the world. By then the problem will have moved on.

We do have to learn how to control the level and mix of gases in our atmosphere. I suspect this will come mainly when urbanization and industrialization re-greens most of the Earth as it has done in the US and Europe, and when genetic engineering creates versions of today's plants and algae that are extra good at sequestering carbon. However, this is not enough. We need to be able to engineer the heat budget of the Earth writ large. We are near the lower limits of atmospheric greenhouse gases, water notwithstanding since it is important to keep at a certain level for rain. Our other options are not very numerous.
  • Move energy generation off-planet - this helps get rid of the 20-50% of the heat that comes from power plants themselves, but doesn't change the fact that all the rest is dumped into the biosphere. In other words, it changes the date but not the conclusion.
  • Capture and dispose of waste heat - this might be done by using heat-loving microbes to create chemical compounds in endothermic reactions, which would then be shot off-planet and burned elsewhere, with the ash returned. This is horribly inefficient, and requires relatively high-quality heat.
  • Move the Earth away from the sun - this is well beyond the capabilities of a K1.0 civilization, simply put.
  • Limit solar insolation - this is the only real alternative. The possibilities range from the near-term (painting roofs white, cloud seeding), to the far-off (massive sunshades, breaking up asteroids to make rings, reflective mirrors).
Controlling the atmospheric composition is one ingredient for a K1.0 civilization to master, but it is a fine-tune knob. We are making barely-perceptible changes to Earth's climate, but I don't think people realize just how soon those changes will become inevitable and very apparent, and through what means. I don't believe politics can do much more than create awareness and change local output; technology and demographics are, as always, the major factions here. The current focus on limiting carbon emissions through regulation is hype at best, and head-in-the-sand hand waving at worst.


Unintended consequences strike again!

My parents recently turned in their 1990 GMC minivan for a Sebring, getting the full $4500 dole for the clunker, and matching funds from the government again through its Chrysler storefront, for a total of $9000 off a $26,000 sticker price. My dad felt a little bad about the welfare aspect of the thing, but getting 35% off a major purchase helped salve the wound. Especially considering that he was already put on the hook for some several hundred dollars by the Obama administration when they (illegally) took over the car companies; and he's also on the hook for his $3000 or so contribution the bailout that is probably funding the financing of his car. He probably doesn't break even on the exchange if you add in enough pork.

My aunt and uncle heard about this, and decided to turn in their Sedona to trade up. Turns out, by the binary and arbitrary cutoffs, it gets 1 mpg too much. Now, some math. Let's say they got the car in 1999 for simplicity. Say they drive 15,000 miles per year. And say the Sedona gets 21 mpg, and the cutoff is 20 mpg. They would have saved about $1000 over the ten years on gas at $3/gallon. So, thanks to government changing the rules, my aunt and uncle lost $8000 by buying a fuel-efficient car. In fact, they could have bought an Escalade at 13 mpg 10 years ago and come out even! No doubt that will make them think twice next time they are in the market for a new car.


I regret that I have but one LA Times to not read

I am happy that there is little outcry about the rumored death of newspapers. At the purest level, the rumors are quite exaggerated. There will still be newspapers after this depression is finished, only fewer and less consequential. The root cause is the internet, which has made distribution of information virtually free. Can't compete with that, and why would you want to?

However, the death throes give a nice chance to dance on the graves of the worst parts of the industry. Never waste a crisis, eh? The worst thing about newspapers is the bias. From psychology today:
"Most journalists take a number of psychology, sociology, political science, and humanities courses during their early years in college. Unfortunately, these courses have long served as ideological trainingprograms—ignoring biological sources of self-serving, corrupt, and criminal behavior for a number of reasons, including lack of scientific training; postmodern, antiscience bias; and well-intentioned, facts-be-damned desire to have their students view the world from an egalitarian perspective. Instead, these disciplines ram home the idea that troubled behavior can be fixed through expensive socialist programs that, coincidentally, provide employment opportunities for graduates of the social sciences. Modern neuroscience is showing how flawed many of these policies have been—structural differences in the brains of psychopaths, for example, help explain why remedial programs simply helped them become better at conning people."
Right. I went to a school with very rich schools of science, liberal arts, and engineering. As far as I can tell, what school you graduated from is a fine predictor of your political ideology. The students who took mostly engineering courses (and those who took our "quantitative economics" course) are not necessarily conservative or libertarian, but they are critical - when pressed, they question the means of a policy and independently assess the likely consequences. They are the types of people who you argue with, and you leave the argument having gained perspective.

The liberal arts students (and qualitative economics grads, whatever that is) on the other hand, usually end their arguments with vague pleas. "We have to do something," "Someone has to help those who aren't as fortunate as us [always with the implication that they know who should help and they can identify who is less fortunate]," and "While their policies might be similar, I don't see how you can say that Obama is like Bush." I don't know if they are just arguing with axioms with which I am not familiar, or if they really don't know how to think critically, but this is generally the depth of the conversation. It is frustrating, so I usually avoid it. We talk a lot about sports and girls.

Those are basic enough. The odd category is scientists. One would think that scientists and engineers share perspectives more often than not. In fact, I find engineers to be much more broad-minded. Engineers know more stuff. This is not to say they are smarter. It makes sense when one considers that engineers generally have to make stuff work. It doesn't matter how. A good engineer thinks outside the box, taking experience from other fields. The Wright Brothers beat the Smithsonian because they were good at building light mechanical things quickly - they owned a bike shop, after all. If you drive cross country, you may notice that pavement color changes. That is because civil engineers have to use whatever dirt and rock is available in the region. And so on. Scientists, on the other hand, are studies in compartmentalization. Their job is not to work with confounding factors, it is to eliminate them. One of the great challenges of a successful science career is resisting the temptation to specialize yourself into obscurity. Some do it by actually broadening their horizons - they attend lectures and read journals of tangential subjects, or else they start entrepreneurial incubators to feed back more R&D funds. But the usual strategy is to find a racket. Latch onto a funding source and push the research into more and more obscure territory. So it is often the case, when talking politics with these people, that they have very strong opinions about science and education funding - and little else. They are smart, and they can argue you into a corner to dectuple the NSF's small-grant spending, but they are reduced to almost liberal-arts like platitudes everywhere else.


Movie Night

Gemma and I had stolen movie night last night, where we save money by stealing a movie and watching it. Actually, every night is stolen movie night for Gemma, but since I find about 95% of movies to be a waste of the part of my life I spent watching them, we strike a once-a-week or so compromise.

The movie was Sunshine Cleaners, starring Amy Adams and some other people. I thought it was a very good movie. The plot is a single mom who starts a crime-scene cleanup business so she can get her son out of public school, where they want to put the (intelligent but weird) boy on drugs and in special ed classes. Anyway, this is basically the vehicle that allows the woman to finally cut ties with her high school baggage, and it helps her family get over some nasty stuff in the past too. What I liked about it was that it wasn't a lottery ticket - I mean, getting an in on cleaning up dead people ain't exactly winning American Idol. Instead, the various characters taking on responsibility and risk and was their vehicle towards freedom and happiness.


I exist on the border of a group of people called transhumanists. Now, this tag is about as good as "The String Cheese Incident" for a group of people who want to be taken seriously. These people don't really see chemical, mechanical, genetic, electronic, etc. modifications of the human body and mind as bad per se. They see them more as part of a trend of "helping out nature," which has been going on since the first cave man drank fermented fruit juice, it's just that now it has science applied to it rather than the much slower tool of natural selection. Of course, we can sit and argue that athletes on PEDs are "helping nature" give them heart attacks in their late 40's. The point is, this makes more sense if you consider it as something of a strange (but not necessarily inherently bad) cousin to vaccines, shark-skin swimsuits, implanted electrodes for Parkinson's sufferers, and Oscar Pistorius.

Many people I know have had reconstructive knee surgery, a procedure virtually erected on the ruined careers of athletes. Today it seems like a no brainer distinction of health vs. unfair advantage, but at some point not too long ago the question about whether to have someone try and repair your knee, or try to continue playing on 75% of a knee, was not clear. HGH is one very interesting area - it promotes healing and and a lot of things we associate with youth, so it's a possibility that everyone will take HGH derivatives after major injuries and surgeries at some point in the near future - or even as a preventive therapy for old age. It is accepted therapy for some illnesses already. At some point soon, Rodney Harrison may stop being a cheater and start being an early adopter. Corticosteroids are similar - use them to promote joint repair while training, and you are a cheater. But you're an idiot if you are riding the Tour de France on preventable saddle sores.

At some point in hindsight a given form of doping may look like raw cheating. Then again, the same therapy the same number of years down the road may be hailed as preventive medicine that adds years onto quality of life for millions of people. Somehow that has to be sorted out, and if professional athletes want to be lab rats for the rest of us, I guess I'm okay with that. And in the end, while the efficacy of any individual treatment is unclear, the line is going to move so that today's performance enhancers are tomorrow's medicine or recreation or body enhancement or personal adornment. So I'm okay with athletes doing PEDs, but I think full disclosure should be the rule. That way they could at least be studied in a scientific way, and the asterisks can be turned into footnotes.


Innovation in Health Care

Reason's Ronald Bailey had an interesting article about what a market for health care would look like. I think they leaned far too much on profit incentive in their arguments as usual - most physicians are not out to make a buck. However, taking the profit motive out actually strengthens their argument. Currently, we have a medical system that is enabled and fostered by excessive regulation and price-fixing. The system is driven by entities that do not have patient health in mind; insurance companies are highly profit-driven, and government agencies are driven by the two-headed monster of bureaucratic stagnation and get-re-elected corruption. These evils sit between the physician and patient, sucking 30% off the top of care in the form of "overhead" and "Medicare contributions," respectively.

Most doctors want to make enough to cover expenses and live comfortably, like the rest of us, but they also overwhelmingly like to help people. Look at veterinary care: prices are reasonable and care is accessible, despite similar education costs to medical school. So, profit motive or not, doctors left to their own devices and left with their own decisions weighing budget and care will make the best possible decisions for their clients.

But the comment I found the most was near the end of the post:

Prostate cancer patients can evaluate and choose between options like watchful waiting, various radiation therapies, surgery, and soon, a new biotech immunological treatment. Information gathering would take no more time than the current wait for a follow up appointment.

Finally, one would expect that competition would spark that virtuous cycle in which innovation progressively drives down costs, just as it has in so many other areas of commerce. Medical care would become ever more affordable and thus reduce the perceived need for government intervention on behalf of the poor.

My father is an avid skier, and the almost-inevitable occured back in the early 1990's: he blew out his ACL and meniscus in the bumps on Sunday River's White Heat. After consults with physicians, he realized his choices:
  1. Physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around the knee, which would allow ambulatory movement but would mean that strenuous exercise would slowly destroy his knee.
  2. A painful and costly operation that was only partly covered, which involved cutting an incision along the knee, flipping the knee cap, cutting a piece from the patellar tendon, and grafting it into the ACL spot. This would be followed by several months in a lower-body cast and extremely painful healing of a wound that was prone to infection.
Those were the obvious choices at least. But my father read up on some procedures that his orthopedist referred him to, and found that there was a technique called "arthroscopic" surgery that was coming along in a few years. It wasn't covered yet, but all he had to do was wait. He opted for #1. He kept up his skiing and took up biking to keep the leg muscles strong. His knee popped out on a regular basis, until in 1997 he could stand it no longer and got the surgery.

But by May 1997 that surgery was a fraction the cost it was when he first got hurt. What's more, the practitioners had started to clean up other damage while they were in the knee - so they could essentially fix whatever damage he had done to his cartilage by playing on it for those years. They also were trying out various options for new ACLs, so instead of needing the graft harvested from his body, meaning another surgery wound, he got a cadaver's ACL. The surgery was so unintrusive that he literally watched it as it went on, because local anesthesia was sufficient. He was out of bed by weeks end on crutches, and he was on skis again by November with the help of physical therapy. He had missed one epic July 4th weekend in Tuckerman Ravine.

That level of innovation is what is possible in a market-based health care system. Those surgeries were perfected on rich people and professional athletes, out of pocket. Arthroscopic knee surgery began in earnest in the early 1980's, part of a long line of experimentation - mostly failures or ambivalent outcomes. I simply cannot see such a technique becoming affordable and common in a decade or two under a single-payer system of medicine. What government board does not shut it down after failures of silk, carbon, goretex, and about 10 different types of harvested connective tissue?