Category Archives: Business

The Wright Anniversary

It’s been 111 years. On the centennial, eleven years ago, I wrote three pieces. One at Fox News, one at TechCentralStation (which later became TCSDaily), and one at National Review on line. Unfortunately, the latter seems to have suffered from link rot. I’m trying to find out if it still exists on their server.

[Evening update]

National Review has resurrected my other piece.

Friday’s Barge Landing

Here‘s the SpaceX press release. Note that no government agency is funding them to do this. It’s actual internal R&D, a rarity in this industry, at least up until now. Also, if NASA was doing this, they’d spend billions up front on analysis. In contrast, SpaceX is flying, and failing, and improving, and flying again, and failing and improving. They may not land on Friday, but they’ll be a lot closer to being able to do it.

[Update a while later]

Why the CRS-5 mission could change everything.

Our Dependence On Russian Engines

continues:

“Certainly the NDAA places future restrictions on the use of the Russian engines for national security space applications. Our application is in civil space. There’s a long history of U.S.-Russian cooperation in civil space, dating back to Apollo-Soyuz in the 1970s at the height of the Cold War. Since our immediate objective is in civil space supporting the International Space Station, it’s got a slightly different twist or perspective than supporting national security space. NASA already relies on cooperation with its Russian partner in other ways to execute the ISS program [including] crew transport. Certainly it would not make sense to restrict the use of engines manufactured in Russia on a program that’s already inherently dependent on cooperation between the United States and Russia.”

In other words, civil space isn’t important. We cooperated with the Soviets during the Cold War, but we were never dependent on them. I assume this means more INKSNA waivers.

NASA’s Drift

A $350M monument to it.

I talked to Farenthold about this a few months ago, but I actually see SLS/Orion as a bigger and more dangerous waste of funds, because unlike a test stand that will almost certainly never be used, they have the vague appearance of utility to those who don’t understand the program, and will be harder to kill.

My Uber Experience

Well, so much for my first (and possibly last) try.

I had a 6AM flight out of Reagan, staying in a hotel in East Falls Church, a ten-minute walk from the Metro. Unfortunately, I learned last night that the Metro doesn’t start running until 5AM, and the first train wouldn’t get to the East Falls Church Station until 5:10, upon which I’d have have at least a 27-minute trip to the airport, not counting time to switch trains in Rosslyn. In other words, I had to find a different way to the airport.

I’ve never used Uber, but it’s, shall we say, been in the news, and a Washingtonian friend recommended it in a DM on Twitter. I signed up last night, downloaded the app, and opened it up to check it out. It gave me a search window, into which I typed the hotel address. It came up on the map, but with no indication what to do next. I tapped on the screen and instead of asking me for a destination, it jumped to a different departure address a mile or so away. I dragged the “pin” back to where it needed to be, and it finally opened a new window to destination. I put in “DCA” and it came up with a reasonable fare and time, and said that there was a car two minutes away, and did I want to go? Since my flight was several hours away, I ignored it, but left the app open in the hope it would still be ready to go in the morning.

OK, come time to leave, I open the app, and it insists on starting from scratch. OK, I’ve got a few minutes, I can do this again. But this time, the map comes up in a smaller scale, not showing me the neighborhood, but most of the district and north Virginia suburbs. I try to focus it with my fingers, and all it does is move the departure point to some random address, without a scale change. Finding the right address with the “pin” is like trying to locate and pick up a single atom with salad tongs. I type in the address, at which point it goes to the right place, but once again without asking me where I want to go. If I touch anything on the screen, it once again changes the address to some random location in northern Virginia. This goes on for fifteen minutes, amidst much cursing (I’ve moved outside of the hotel lobby to spare the ears of anyone else up at that ungodly hour). Finally, panicked, I give up, and ask the desk attendant to call me a cab, which he does.

The cab arrives about quarter after five and gets me to the airport at 5:30. I’d checked in by phone when I got up, but my mobile boarding pass wasn’t TSA pre-check (as I usually get, though I’ve never actually signed up for it). This turned out to be the fatal blow, because the regular line was very slow. I got to the gate just in time to see the plane being pushed away.

Bottom line, had to rebook. Good news: they put me on a non-stop to LA that arrived about the same time as I would have if I’d made my original flight through Chicago. Bad news: I had to pay $75 out of pocket for the changes (I could have stood by for free, but I would have had crummy seats, and not necessarily gotten on the flight at all).

I said I had used Uber “possibly” for the last time. It’s possible that my problems were a result of my flaky phone, so after I’ve replaced it, I may give them another chance. But not before.

The Fatal Conceit

of Jonathan Gruber:

The Times reassuringly described Gruber as “the numbers wizard at MIT,” who has “spent decades modeling the intricacies of the health care ecosystem.” Gruber has “brought a level of science to an issue that would otherwise be just opinion.”

I might note that the Soviets used the term “science” for their own “scientific” planning commission. I drew little comfort from Professor Gruber’s scientific-planning credentials, especially when I learned “he’s the only person you can go to for that kind of thing.” Gruber, aided by his brilliant MIT graduate student assistants, is a one-man Gosplan, the name given to the Soviet Union’s state planning committee. That is not much of a recommendation. Science is better served by competing ideas not by a one-person monopoly.

Both Gruber and the USSR’s Gosplan planners believe their planning is “scientific” and executed by “the best of the best.” Both types of planning commissars suffer from F. A. Hayek’s “fatal conceit”—the belief that we can plan incredibly complex economic systems. As Hayek pointed out in his writings, such “scientific” plans inevitably fall apart under the weight of unintended consequences.

Actually, I’m not sure they’re all unintended.

Putin’s Kremlin And Oil

He’s losing the price war:

Well before Crimea, European nations resented Russian natural gas price gouging. The Kremlin used pricing threats to bully Ukraine, Poland and even Germany into political concessions.

After the Crimean travesty, the Baltic States and Poland demanded alternative gas supplies. The Obama administration quietly agreed to permit U.S. gas exports and the development of a liquefied natural gas exporting facility.

American LNG supplies might reach Poland in three years. That’s good news. Here’s the bad news: Putin has three years to exploit E.U. divisions and politically split NATO.

Or he had three years. Enter Saudi Arabia. America’s “fracking” success challenges Saudi global oil dominance. What’s the price point where fracking becomes unprofitable? Estimates run from $55 to $70 a barrel for oil. The Saudi oil ministry intends to find out and says it will not cut production. The market will determine price.

Though Russia can strangle Ukraine by denying gas supplies, the stunted and corrupt Russian economy survives on energy sales. Without its cash crop of oil, and gas, Russia is a big cabbage farm with a second-rate armaments industry. Cabbage, tanks, ICBMS and nuclear weapons mean Russian is not quite a petro-emirate writ large, but the cruel analogy has instructive utility.

If Russian nukes mean open war with Moscow is too risky, then attacking the Kremlin’s cash generator is war by appropriate means.

The question is, how long will the Saudis be able and/or willing to try to break the US energy industry? Regardless, OPEC is dead. Which is bad news not just for Russia, but Venezuela and Iran. It’s a shame that the administration has been doing almost everything it can to hamstring us.

My Cell Phone

I have a Motorola Droid Global 2, almost four years old. I haven’t seen any reason to upgrade it, but it’s starting to flake out on me (sometimes won’t boot).

So I guess it’s off to the Verizon store to see if they have any new models with keyboards (they’ll take my keyboard away from my cold dead fingers).

[Update Tuesday morning, with much-needed rain in LA]

So I went to the store, and it turns out that no one puts keyboards on smart phones any more. The only way to get one is to buy a “basic” phone (that is, all it does is voice and text). So my options are to give up the keyboard with a new phone, or…go buy a replacement on Ebay, where they’re going for about $25. Or I could look for a more recent (but not current) phone with a keyboard, so I could at least get some improvement.

Seattle’s $15 Minimum Wage Law

…is having exactly the effect that anyone who understands economics or how a business works would predict:

In Seattle, 42 percent of surveyed employers were “very likely” to reduce the number of employees per shift or overall staffing levels as a direct consequence of the law. Similarly, 44 percent reported that they were “very likely” to scale back on employees’ hours to help offset the increased cost of the law. That’s particularly bad news for the Seattle metro area, where the unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds is already more than 30 percent — due in part to Washington state’s already-high minimum wage.

Perhaps most concerning about the $15 proposal is that some businesses anticipated going beyond an increase in prices or a reduction in staffing levels. More than 43 percent of respondents said it was “very likely” they would limit future expansion in Seattle in response to the law. One in seven respondents is even “very likely” to close a current location in the city limits.

You don’t say.

Orion

Eric Berger has the latest installment of his series on NASA’s drift (which is likely to become a book, I think):

NASA’s rank-and-file believe America wants a space program pushing outward, and upward.

“We don’t think of our jobs here as white-collar welfare,” Kramer said. “We have a real passion for what we do.”

Of course you don’t. You have to motivate yourself to go to work. But that doesn’t make it untrue.

I weep to think what that billion dollars per year could be doing if applied to something useful.

[Update a while later]

I should note that I have worked on many projects that I considered a pointless waste of money, because it was my job assignment. While I’m probably more cynical than most, I did eventually tire of helping Congress waste the taxpayers’ money, which is why I quit the mainstream industry two decades ago.

Facebook

Seven reasons why I made a Thanksgiving resolution to leave it.”

Most of this crap doesn’t bother me, because I don’t really “use” Facebook much. My blog posts get auto-posted there, but I could count the number of times I’ve manually updated my timeline (if indeed I can recall them, which I can’t) on one hand. I guess that for many less tech literate, Facebook became a substitute for a blog, but I’ve never needed one. And I find Twitter much more useful as a link mine.

Obama’s Immigration Speech

It was blatherskite:

As an act of rare semantic derring-do, this was a towering achievement. As a political speech, I don’t think it was very effective. It puts one in mind of the debate in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which ends when one side manages to prove that black is white — and gets themselves killed at the next pedestrian crosswalk.

To be honest, it’s not clear to me that the president was trying to be persuasive. He seemed, rather, to be triple-dog-daring Republicans to jump off the bridge with him, and if history is any guide, they will probably oblige. But there’s a real risk that Democrats will come to regret having the president jump first.

Reportedly some of them already are. He may have created a wedge issue for his own party.

Gruber The Grifter

Why you don’t want to let “intellectuals” anywhere near power:

Unfortunately, contemporary Washington is calibrated to defer to experts who defer to politicians, providing an intellectual Praetorian Guard for the constant growth of a leviathan. As Denver University professor David Ciepley noted, “Starting in the First World War, and much more so during the New Deal and World War II, American social scientists became part of the autonomous state themselves, helping staff the mushrooming government agencies.” The closer that intellectuals get to politicians, the more weaselly they usually become.

Playing off Mr. Gruber’s derision of average Americans, one wag suggested a new acronym — L.I.E. — for Low Information Experts. Mr. Gruber and many other professors have gotten rich by pretending that government is far more competent than it actually is. Economist Robert Skidelsky, writing about the history of modern socialism, observed that “the collectivist belief system existed independently of the facts of modern life.” The same is true of the academic cadre who profit by vindicating endless government interventions that breed chaos and dependency.

I’d like to think that people will take a lesson from this (particularly with regard to climate models), but history doesn’t make me hopeful.

SLS Engines

They still have no idea what they’re going to do after thye run out of SSMEs.

As I noted on Twitter:

[Afternoon update]

XCOR/ULA

An interesting milestone:

Mojave, CA, November 20, 2014 – XCOR Aerospace today announced it has completed the latest test series for the liquid hydrogen engine it is developing for United Launch Alliance (ULA). This is an important milestone in the long-running LH2 (liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen) program. It is also a step toward running the engine in a fully closed cycle mode.

In its most recent milestone, XCOR successfully performed hot fire testing of the XR-5H25 engine’s regeneratively cooled thrust chamber,with both liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants supplied inpump-fed mode, using XCOR’s proprietary piston pump technology.

“This test marks the first time liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen have been supplied to a rocket engine with a piston pump,” says XCOR Chief Executive Officer Jeff Greason. “It is also the first time an American LH2 engine of this size has successfully fired liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen together in pump-fed mode. We are happy to be making solid progress on the engines. This will also bring us to a new phase in our plans for orbital flight.

“ULA has an ongoing effort to develop rocket engines for our next generation upper stage, and we are thrilled to see that progress continuing with XCOR,” added ULA Vice President George Sowers.

Upcoming test series will fully integrate the nozzle with the engine and piston pumps. Fully closed cycle testing will follow soon afterwards and will complete the sub-scale demonstration engine program.

The XR-5H25 engines are being developed under contract to ULA as potential successors to the Delta and Atlas series upper stage engines currently used. These engines will also help power orbital launches.

I suspect they’ll find it useful for their own launchers as well.

The Grubergate Insider Problem

A long but useful essay from Megan McArdle.

We have a similar issue in the space industry. I see all the hype about the upcoming Orion flight, and as an industry analyst (though not quite an insider) I know that it’s nonsense, but it’s hard to get people to realize that NASA officials are often forced to dish nonsense to placate rent-seeking congresspeople; as outsiders, they are still in awe of the government agency that put men on the moon four-and-a-half decades ago.

There is also this:

…when I see journalists saying that Gruber’s revelations don’t matter because he’s just kind of awkwardly saying something that everyone knew, I get a little jittery. I am not “everyone,” and neither are any of those journalists. We’re a tiny group of people with strange preoccupations who get paid to spend our time understanding and explaining this stuff. The fact that we may have mentioned it once to our readers, in the 18th paragraph, does not mean that readers read it and understood what it meant. (In fact, if you actually interact with your readers, you’ll be astonished at how little they remember of what you told them, especially if you didn’t go out of your way to headline it. Their minds are already crammed full of information that they need to, you know, live their lives. So they tend to take away a few big bullet points, not the piddling details.)

I see the same thing when I argue with people on Twitter, or in comments — we often go around in circles because they seem to have forgotten some previous point I’d already made, or read what they wanted to read instead of what I actually wrote. The dismaying thing is that these are often people who love space, but they end up being cheerleaders for things (like SLS/Orion) that are roadblocks rather than enablers.