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.