Category Archives: Technology and Society

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.

Jerry Pournelle

He apparently suffered a minor stroke. From his son, Alex:

Jerry had a small stroke. He is recovering well at a local hospital. Prognosis is good, though they’re running more tests and he’s expected to stay at least another day or two.

“He felt well enough to call Mom [Mrs. Pournelle] from the hospital.

“Thank you for your thoughts and prayers. More updates when we have them.

I saw him a few weeks ago, and he seemed to be doing as well as a man his age who has recovered from a brain tumor could be expected to. Best wishes for a rapid recovery.

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


“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.

PC Question

No, not political correctness — personal computer. I’m doing a mobo/processor upgrade. I notice that almost all the AMD processors have Radeon graphics built in. I assume that in order to take advantage of this, I have to have a mobo with video support? I’ve been operating off an old PCI express card for years, and have no problems with it, but if I can get significant performance improvement from the new built-in GPU, it might be worth spending a little more for a video mobo. I don’t do any heavy graphics, but maybe it would be nice to go to full HD and fast processing.

[Update a few minutes later]

OK, all the boards have video outputs, so when it says it has no on-board video support, that just means that it has no dedicated graphics chips, and relies on the processor, right? So the GPU built in to the CPU would work, and be better than my old PCI express? Or is the separate card better because it has its own memory?

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.

Another Sat Fat Study

No, you don’t increase your saturated fat by eating saturated fat. It’s the carbs, stupid:

The fatty acid called palmitoleic acid, which is associated with “unhealthy metabolism of carbohydrates that can promote disease,” went down with low-carb diets and gradually increased as carbs were re-introduced, the study said.

An increase in this fatty acid indicates that a growing proportion of carbohydrates is being converted into fat instead of being burned by the body, the researchers said.

“When you consume a very low-carb diet your body preferentially burns saturated fat,” Volek said.

“We had people eat two times more saturated fat than they had been eating before entering the study, yet when we measured saturated fat in their blood, it went down in the majority of people,” he said.

The finding “challenges the conventional wisdom that has demonized saturated fat and extends our knowledge of why dietary saturated fat doesn’t correlate with disease,” Volek added.

You don’t say.

Also, how the mindless theory of calorie counting has harmed public health.

[Update a while later]

Nine lies about fat that have destroyed the world’s health.


I’m not as excited about this flight as NASA and its booster want me to be, certainly not enough to get up at 4 AM. It just passed apogee, and things seem to be going well.

Meanwhile, PBS (with Miles O’Brien, of course) is the only major network to look at the serious programmatic problems. Lori doesn’t hold back.

[Update a while later, as the post-flight presser is about to start]

The Empire strikes back, briefly, but it won’t last:

The Orion launch has been be a triumph of engineering, hiccups and delays aside. But the Empire may not love the sequel. SpaceX is planning a historic launch of its own next year – the rocket is called the Falcon Heavy. Yes, Musk named his rocket after the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars, and he promises it will take twice as much payload into space as the one Nasa launched on Friday, and at one-third the cost. So far his claims about SpaceX have come true, and soon he’ll be fighting, with the lobbyists and the politicians who play favorites, for satellite contracts worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Combine that kind of force with Elon Musk’s capsule full of actual people returning to space – under a Nasa contract to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station – and you have a private startup that can beat Nasa or any other government agency back to the moon, if it so chooses.

And so far, it does seem to so choose, though Elon will try to skip the moon and go straight to Mars, unless someone pays him for a lunar mission.

[Update a few minutes later]

No Sarah Zhang, Orion is not the answer to our space stagnation, it’s a continuation of it.

[Saturday-morning update]

Lori on MSNBC.

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.

Orion’s Mission

Paul Spudis deflates a lot of the hype about this week’s flight. The notion that this is a significant part of a Mars architecture is, and always has been, ludicrous.

[Update a while later]

Sorry, I’ve solved the problem of the missing link.

[Update a few minutes later]

More from Joel Achenbach:

You don’t need an advanced degree from MIT to grasp that this is a very stately, deliberate program, one free of the sin of haste and the vice of urgency.

Has there ever been a piece of human space hardware developed so slowly?

Or so expensively?

Serious question: Is it not a fact that Orion is the costliest capsule in human history?

Yes, it has lots of bells and whistles that the Apollo capsules lacked. This one has XM/Sirius radio built in, butt-warmers in the seats, four-way adjustable mirrors and Big-Gulp-sized cup-holders. It’s got a guest room, a fully stocked bar, a laundry room and 24-hour concierge service. It’s a really nice spaceship!

…Orion could, in theory, be used for such a mission, but it’s a single piece of what would be a complex array of technologies and hardware. Yes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, but only if you keep walking, and are seriously committed to the journey — no pretending or arm-waving allowed.

(I drive to the store and buy an onion. I drive home and cut it up and put it in a big pot on the stove and then go watch television. Someone asks me, “What are you doing?” and I answer, “I’m making gumbo.” And the someone says, “What about the garlic, the peppers, the celery, the fresh okra, the andouille sausage, the grilled chicken, the fish, the shrimp, those special blended peppers you always use, and the roux, not to mention the fresh French bread on the side?” I answer, “I can’t afford that right now.”)


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.

ClimateGate, Five Years Later

Thoughts from Judith Curry on the legacy:

By the time 2011 rolled around, my ostracization by the climate establishment was pretty complete, so I redefined (broadened) my academic peer group to include physicists, social scientists and philosophers (not to mention the extended peer community developed on my blog). I found this much more stimulating and interesting than circled wagons of the climate community.

To assess the personal impact of Climategate, I’m trying to figure out exactly where my head was at prior to Climategate in 2009. Wherever; I’m not sure it matters anymore. In 2014, I no longer feel the major ostracism by my peers in the climate establishment; after all, many of the issues I’ve been raising that seemed so controversial have no[w] become mainstream. And the hiatus has helped open some minds.

The net effect of all this is that my ‘academic career advancement’ in terms of professional recognition, climbing the administrative ladder, etc. has been pretty much halted. I’ve exchanged academic advancement that now seems to be of dubious advantage to me for a much more interesting and influential existence that that feels right in terms of my personal and scientific integrity.

Bottom line: Climategate was career changing for me; I’ll let history decide if this was for better or worse (if history even cares).

I think history will judge her well.


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.