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« Heresy | Main | The Power Of Multiplication »

Goliaths Beware

I read Glenn's new book on the plane back from California on Friday night (it was a red eye, but I have trouble sleeping on planes unless I'm very, very tired).

There won't be a lot new here to anyone (like, for instance, me) who has been reading the TCS columns on which much of this is based, over the past few years. The basic theme flows throughout--how new technologies are empowering individuals, disempowering the large companies and bureaucracies that have been viewed as the future for the past couple centuries, disintermediating goods and services, and making cottage industries more economically viable.

Examples presented (among many others) are blogs taking down big media (Rathergate is cited), musicians marketing and selling music without big record-company contracts, passengers fighting back on September 11th and the "American Dunkirk"--the spontaneous evacuation of lower Manhattan using private vessels to ferry people across the rivers. He also talks about upcoming revolutions in technology, such as life (and in fact, youth) extension.

Even if you are familiar with much of this through reading Instapundit, it remains worthwhile to pull it all together in one place. Interestingly, the one part of the book in which the theme seems to be subsumed, at least to me, was the section on space (already reviewed by Jesse Londin). It starts off very promising, with the chapter titled "Space: It's Not Just For Governments Any More." And he does discuss the need for tourism and private activities, and prizes. But his obvious interest in the general topic of the future of space pulls him astray from the general message of the book, as he wanders off into terraforming, space elevators, etc. While these are interesting topics (at least to me, and many readers of this web site), it's not clear how they relate to empowerment of individuals through advancing technology. They're certainly unlikely to be achieved through a grass-roots, disintermediation approach--it will take a Goliath of some kind to construct them, one suspects. Perhaps the point is that they're technologies which, once developed, whether by Davids or Goliath, in themselves might ultimately empower individuals to become space colonists.

If that was the point, I suppose that it's a useful one, but we're a long way from either of those kinds of capabilities (though space elevators are probably more feasible in the next few decades than terraforming Mars). I would have liked to see more discussion of the near term, and how we can do more with existing technologies, as space-enthusiast Davids, to slay (or at least get the attention of) the Goliath that is the federal space policy establishment (and yes, the problem is much bigger than NASA).

There's also one technical error (in my opinion). In the section on Orion, he claims that chemical rockets don't scale up well, whereas Orion does. I suspect that this guy would be surprised to learn that large chemical rockets are harder to build (though they're certainly harder to raise the money to build). In fact, I'll shock many long-time readers by saying that heavy-lift vehicles do make sense, with this caveat--they must have a large market (the failure of ability to imagine one on the part of investors, whether government or private, was Sea Dragon's downfall). Larger vehicles have less proportion of their weight as "overhead" (e.g., avionics, controllers, valves and plumbing, etc).

That quibble noted, though, I do highly recommend the book. It is indeed thought provoking (and I'm sure that my thoughts would have been far more provoked had I not already been thinking about these things for the entire young millennium). Those who are unfamiliar with these topics will find some interesting linkages between seemingly disparate trends, and much to ponder about the future directions of those trends. For only seventeen bucks plus shipping, as a valuable glimpse of the future, it's a bargain. But it could be an even better deal--Amazon should bundle it with a slingshot.

Posted by Rand Simberg at February 06, 2006 12:20 PM
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Excerpt: There have been quite a few reviews of Glenn's Reynolds Book An Army of Davids. I haven't written mine because I seem to be the only person who pre-ordered the book that hasn't gotten it yet from Amazon. When it...
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Tracked: March 10, 2006 07:29 PM

Sooo, when do we get to see a book with 'Rand Simberg' as the author?

Posted by Greg at February 6, 2006 09:23 PM

It would probably be better to say that the Orion idea doesn't scale *down* well: the mechanical engineering of the shock absorbers -- turning the discrete pulses into a tolerably surging acceleration -- gets easier as the mass goes up.

Posted by Monte Davis at February 7, 2006 07:20 AM

It would probably be better to say that the Orion idea doesn't scale *down* well...


Posted by Rand Simberg at February 7, 2006 07:24 AM

Well, both George and Freeman Dyson have made the scaling argument; I deferred to them.

Your bigger point on the space chapter is right: I probably got carried away with the discussion of Orion, which I just think is cool. I did try to make the point, though obviously not clearly enough, that Orion, the product of a low budget, small scale design effort, was a kind of Army of Davids approach even though the result was rather Goliath like in terms of size.

Posted by Glenn Reynolds at February 7, 2006 10:18 AM

The small scale design effort for Orion did not actually produce a working vehicle (a very rudimentary proof of concept model, akin to Goddard's rocket, was flown). To design and build an actual full scale working Orion would have been a herculean effort.

Posted by Paul Dietz at February 7, 2006 11:28 AM

Actually, Orion was run by a squad of Davids, or at best a platoon. Actually building a working model would have taken an army that would have rivaled that which built Apollo.

Posted by Mark R. Whittington at February 7, 2006 02:23 PM

Chemical rockets have a major drawback that Orion rockets do not - the highly limited per-stage delta-V. The normal designs for rockets make it difficult to achieve even 10km/s of dV from a single stage.

Orion designs, which combine ISPs above 3000, high density solid pulse units/inert reaction mass, and the option of easy "on site refueling" using ice from Saturn's rings, Martian poles, or other sources to supply the reaction mass for a return trip, would allow FAST trips to Mars/Jupiter/Saturn, where you would not have to worry about minimum transfer orbits and launch windows.

Posted by Charlie at February 8, 2006 02:21 AM

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