All posts by Rand Simberg

Look Ma, No Pilot!

[Warning, long space policy post]

That seems to be NASA’s current attitude, and just one more reason that the Space Launch Initiative program should be hauled up to the top of the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Cape and hurled off the roof.

They’re proposing (as was the case with X-33) that the new launch system be designed to be flown unpiloted, and have a separate, separable crew module when it has to carry people.

This notion of manned vs. unmanned launchers contains many myths. Even people who are supposedly expert often don’t quite understand the issues involved.

One of those myths goes back to the Challenger disaster. Prior to it, Shuttle had been taking up commercial satellite payloads, as part of NASA’s efforts to get the flight rate up, and thus reduce their per-flight costs. This had the incidental effect of severely damaging, and in fact almost destroying, the nascent commercial launch industry at the time, since the private developers were competing with a government-subsidized system.

After the Challenger disaster, an edict was laid down that Shuttle would no longer fly commercial payloads. As is usually the case when the government does the right thing (banning commercial payloads which were injuring the commercial launch industry), it was for entirely the wrong reason. The rationale was, instead, that “never again should our brave astronauts risk their lives doing things for which they’re not required” (launching satellites).

The thinking here is that since commercial satellites can be launched on unmanned launchers, they should be launched on unmanned launchers. Never mind the fact that Shuttle launches are rarely single purpose, or that the costs may be lower (though in fact they weren’t really–only the price was). At the heart of this thinking, of course, is the notion that spaceflight is dangerous, and intrinsically so. So since any human spaceflight is risky, we should restrict it to those purposes for which it is required that humans be aboard.

This would be a reasonable enough position, if it were true that a) spaceflight is inherently dangerous and that b) having humans aboard doesn’t increase the probability of a successful mission.

Now for Shuttle, both of those assumptions may be valid, though for assumption (b) there were a number of cases in which crew checkout of the satellites prior to deployment might have been the difference between success and failure, even more so if the mission were designed with this capability in mind.

But there’s no reason to think that it will be true for any future space transport.

Despite this, as always, the generals are fighting the last war, and NASA thinks that one of the problems with the Shuttle was that it was designed to fly crew on every flight, and are thus incorporating that “lesson” into the SLI program–by designing it to be capable of unmanned operation.

There is another factor that drives this decision. It’s called “man rating.” This is a concept that everyone who is familiar with space programs thinks they understand, and that very few, in fact, do. The myth here is that vehicles designed to carry people are intrinsically more expensive to design, build and operate, because they are “man rated.” Now in the case of the next-generation Shuttle envisioned by NASA, even without a crew, the vehicle will still have to be “man rated,” because it’s meant to carry passengers in a separate module in the payload bay, so they won’t get the cost savings that conventional thinking would indicate by not “man rating” it.

But the very notion that a space transport, even one that carries pilots and passengers must be “man rated”, or that it will cost more than one that doesn’t carry crew or passengers, is yet another myth.

To understand why, it’s necessary to understand what man rating really means, and why it’s therefore inapplicable to the new launch systems envisioned. And in fact, here’s a shocking bit of news, to people who don’t fully understand the concept–the Shuttle is not man rated.

A couple of years ago, I posted the following contribution (with some minor edits) to an FAQ over on sci.space.policy, which set off a rousing two-hundred-plus post thread/debate, but not one that ultimately changed my basic thesis.

Q: What is man rating, and what are its implications for the cost of designing, manufacturing, and operating a launch vehicle?

A: Man rating is a process by which design and operations of an expendable launch vehicle are analyzed and, if necessary, changed to reduce the chances of injuring or killing any person who might use it for transportation, relative to its design and operations prior to such analysis and modification.

It evolved as a practice in the 1960s, when, in our hurry to get to the Moon, we used existing ballistic missiles as the basis for our launch systems, rather than develop new space transportation systems from scratch (the Saturn was an exception to this).

The premise was that because these systems were designed to be used only once, and would be used en masse and redundantly (to lob warheads at folks to kill them and break their stuff), their individual reliability was sacrificed to a degree, in the interests of globally minimizing the overall cost. The reliability of the individual launch systems that resulted from this philosophy was deemed unsatisfactory for putting people on top of them (even for the early astronauts, who were test pilots at Muroc and Pax River, and riding on top of a tested guided missile was probably the safest thing that they’d ever done in their interesting careers).

Without getting into detail, it involved improving the reliability of the missile by using higher-quality components, adding in redundancy and testing in critical subsystems, getting lots of signatures, and ensuring that there were ways for the astronaut to semi-safely abort from a launch gone bad (in the words of Mitchell Burnside-Clapp, President of Pioneer Rocketplane–“attempted suicide to avoid certain death”).

What does it not mean? It does not mean having systems/subsystems that permit people to be carried on board, such as cockpits, and life support. A man-rated Titan remains man-rated without the Gemini capsule that goes on top of it.

It also does not mean federal certification of a vehicle to allow it to legally carry passengers, which is more about testing and paperwork than about vehicle design per se.

This tradition continued into the development of the Shuttle in terms of design philosophy, though because large portions of the system were reusable, it started to lose some of its meaning.

The Orbiter itself is fully reusable (albeit with high maintenance costs–some would characterize it as “rebuildable” rather than reusable). And in fact, I am going to surprise (some) people here and say something good about the Shuttle, or, at least about the Orbiter.

It is a damned reliable vehicle.

It has never had or caused a catastophic failure. It has rarely caused a mission failure, most of which are caused by failures of the payloads themselves. In fact, perhaps someone can correct me, but I cannot think of a single instance in which a mission failed because of an Orbiter system/subsystem (other than vague recollections of some being somewhat shortened due to fuel cell or APU or similar problems). The one case where we had an on-board propulsion problem was caused by a faulty sensor, and the vehicle still made orbit.

The single event where we lost an Orbiter was due not to the Orbiter, but to one of the semi-reusable ballistic missiles that we had attached to it. Thus, I don’t count it against Orbiter reliability.

In that spate of delays where the system was shut down in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s for hydrogen leaks, this was again a feature of the fact that we were crossfeeding from an expendable system–it had little or nothing to do with the Orbiter design per se.

Shuttle should thus give us great confidence that fully-reusable space transports can indeed be quite reliable. In fact, based on its performance to date, it should be clear that reliability is not the issue for a reusable launch system, as long as we have adequate performance margins. The only issue is cost of operations and turnaround, which cannot be addressed with the existing Orbiter–they will require a clean-sheet design.

For all this reliability, each Orbiter cost on the order of two billion dollars, and now would require several years of time to replace (with additional billions for reclimbing the learning curve and retooling). We only have four of them, and they are *all* needed to keep to scheduled plans.

Now for a thought experiment for those who are worried about “man rating” space transports. Ignoring the crew module (which as I said, is not relevant to whether or not the Shuttle is “man rated”), I challenge anyone to tell me how the Orbiter would be designed or manufactured differently, in terms of reliability or capability to deliver payloads, if it didn’t carry crew on board.

[End Usenet excerpt]

My point is that a reusable vehicle represents a significant asset in itself, and that it has to be reliable, regardless of whether it has a crew, and regardless of the value of its payload, even human payloads.

Now, as I said, this is a secondary issue in the case of the intended output of the SLI program, because it’s meant to be a Shuttle replacement, and must of necessity be capable of carrying people.

But I will argue that, for a space transport, a piloted vehicle will be lower cost, and more reliable, than an unpiloted one. Were it otherwise, Fedex would automate their aircraft and remove the crew.

There are a couple reasons for this. When things go bad, there are some situations in which having a pilot on board will allow the vehicle to be saved. It’s often argued that this could be done remotely, but there’s nothing like being on the scene, and feeling what’s happening, to control a vehicle. Also, a remotely-piloted vehicle is vulnerable to a communications loss in a way that a piloted vehicle is not.

But the most important reason is that the ability to get FAA approval for flights of such a vehicle will go much more smoothly if the flight testing, and flight operations, are performed in a regime with which the regulators are familiar–i.e., piloted aircraft.

There were two potential development paths for space transportation. One was to take existing aircraft, put rocket engines on them, and gradually expand their performance envelope to the point at which they were capable of routinely flying into space. This was, in fact the evolutionary path that we were on in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

However, in our rush to beat the Soviets to the Moon, we short circuited this path, and in fact, cut it off altogether with the end of the X-15 program. Instead, we put men on top of munitions, because they were available, we knew how to build them, and we could do it quickly. As a result, all government-funded launch vehicle development (including Shuttle), has been right down the groove worn originally by Apollo and the early military and NASA unmanned space programs, and we seem to have trouble getting out of it.

The next generation of launch vehicles will arise from the first evolutionary path, which is being picked up again by companies like XCOR, and Pioneer Rocketplane, and some of the X-Prize contenders. NASA and its conventional contractors are institutionally incapable of following such a path–there’s far too much bureaucratic inertia, and this bizarre notion of building an unpiloted reusable vehicle is just more evidence of that.

Gay/Liberal Intolerance

Instantman has been running several long posts on the Pink Pistols (a gay gun-rights group), and their interactions with the NRA. It’s interesting to read the whole story, but what struck me about it was the intolerance of the gay and liberal community.

From one of Glenn’s correspondents:

I would say there is a consistent bias in the media, both gay and straight but particularly gay, in the way that gun owners and their views on GLBT people are represented. But I don’t think it’s so much a reporting bias as an editorial bias. Now Steve writes an article on the NRA convention. It says what happened, calls out a speaker who was inappropriate, and talks about the Pink Pistols, giving fair coverage to the point that most gun owners are not homophobic. Steve has done his job. But PlanetOut has never before covered the Pink Pistols in any other context. We’ve been the fastest growing gay sporting organization in the country, probably the fastest growing gay group, and we’ve had a pitched legislative battle with a lesbian senator whose most notable achievement was to amend gun- control legislation to allow arbitrary discrimination against anyone, including gay people, and particularly women and the poor (and who was subsequently endorsed by HRC). During that time, news media from the Wall Street Journal to the Washington Blade covered the Pink Pistols, but PlanetOut was nowhere to be seen. Hmm.

Continuing along that line, I note that I never read an article in the gay media like “Gay gun owners say NRA members pretty friendly to them”. We got positive coverage in Gun Week and Guns & Ammo. Does PlanetOut report that? “Gay gun group praised in Guns & Ammo” is just as important a headline as “At NRA gathering, speakers ridicule gays”, isn’t it? Everyone expects Schlussel to mouth off, so is that really bigger news than a gay-friendly gun group getting great coverage in gun media and being invited to speak at lots of pro-gun events, which many gay people claim is impossible?

I found it interesting (but no longer surprising, particularly after the Dr. Laura deal), that the gun rights people seem to be much more tolerant of gays, than the gay and liberal community is of gun activists. It really shatters the stereotypes, and further highlights the hypocrisy of their ongoing demands for “acceptance” and “tolerance.” Don’t expect to read about this in the mainstream press…

I’m My Own Grandpaw

In addition to cribbing my schtick about Punxatawney Yasser on Thursday (it was probably a case of great minds thinking alike…), normally-sensible James Taranto went off on a rant yesterday–he seems to be a Kassian queasitarian.

On one issue, however, Fukuyama is right and the libertarians are nuts. That issue is reproductive cloning, the manufacture of babies that are genetically identical to an already living human being. Libertarians pooh-pooh objections to reproductive cloning on the grounds that, as blogger Josh Chafetz suggests, a clone is no different from an identical twin.

But this is fatuous. A pair of identical twins are siblings, equally situated toward each other. By contrast, if a man clones himself, he is the “father” to his clone, responsible for his care and upbringing. Libertarians say there’s no need to outlaw reproductive cloning because it’s unlikely very many people will want to practice it. That’s probably true, but those who would are probably those we would least want to. After all, what kind of egomaniac wants to raise a carbon copy of himself?

Well, that might be true. But the fact that some of us don’t think that someone would make a good parent hasn’t, heretofore, resulted in state sanctions against it. Mr. Taranto is entitled to his opinion as to whether people who want to clone are definitionally unfit parents, but I can’t see any basis in law for it.

To understand what’s wrong with reproductive cloning, consider the proscription against incest–a remarkably resilient taboo, having survived the sexual revolution unscathed. Even libertarians, who defend the right of consenting adults to do everything from prostitution to polygamy and snorting coke to freezing dead relatives’ heads, have never, so far as we know, championed a man’s “right” to sleep with his adult daughter.

Well, actually some have…

And what’s his problem with freezing dead relative’s heads? Why is it all right to burn them, or let them rot, but not freeze them? Oh, I know. It makes him “queasy.”

Incest horrifies us because it violates the boundaries that define the most fundamental human relationships, those on which both social cohesion and individual happiness depend. The relationship between parent and child, or brother and sister, is fraught enough without introducing the elements of sexual possessiveness and jealousy that a love affair entails. If children result from an incestuous union, the family tree becomes a horrific tangle, in which parents are also aunts, uncles or grandparents.

No, James.

Incest horrifies us because we’ve been bred to have it horrify us. It’s called an evolutionary adaptation. For the reasons you state, but more importantly, for reasons of the probability of genetic unhappiness resulting from inbreeding, those earlier humans (and their non-human ancestors) who mated with siblings, parents, and children were less successful than those who didn’t. The folks (and pre-folks) with a natural repugnance to incest had a better chance of passing on their genes, so most people (and other animals) alive today have a more-or-less strong version of that genetic trait.

The implication of this is that a natural revulsion developed in more natural times might not necessarily be valid in the modern world, in which we have more control over our genetics, just as religious dietary proscriptions developed by nomadic desert peoples might have little utility in a world of health inspectors and refrigeration.

Feelings are generally just our genes’ way of getting us to do what they want us to. We’ve overcome them in the past (by, for example, teaching that rape is wrong and developing systems of morality in general), and there’s nothing holy about the anti-incest feelings, or anti-cloning feelings, either. We have to evaluate the morality of it in the context of our value system–we cannot just “go with our gut.”

Cloning raises a similar set of problems. Suppose a couple decide to produce a “son” by cloning the husband. Who are the resulting child’s parents? The man and his wife, who are raising the child? Or the man’s parents, whose coupling produced the boy’s genes? Suppose instead of cloning himself, the man clones his father. Suddenly he’s his own grandpa.

Now he’s confusing two separate concepts–genetics and legality.

Many people have legal children who share none of their genes (it’s called adoption). Many people have people who share some or all of their genes for whom they have no legal responsibility whatsoever (e.g., identical twins, or an anonymous sperm donor). Certainly the law is going to have to catch up here, as it did with things like surrogate motherhood, or in-vitro fertilization, but surely he’s joking if he thinks that a man cloning his father, and raising the son, literally makes him a legal grandfather of himself.

Parentage and responsibility to raise children is determined not solely by genetics, but by intent and action. Mr. Taranto needs to untangle these concepts in his mind before he’ll be able to discourse on them usefully.

If that’s not enough to make you queasy, consider this scenario: A 30-year-old couple produce a “daughter” who is a clone of the wife. Two decades pass, the girl grows up, and her middle-aged “father”–with whom she has no genetic kinship–suddenly finds himself face to face with a young woman who is not just hauntingly similar but identical to the woman with whom he fell in love when he was young.

No, not literally identical. Even identical twins aren’t literally identical, in the sense that there are no physical or personality differences between them. Genes aren’t a blueprint–they’re a recipe. The cook (in this case the environment of the womb, and the environment in which the child is brought to maturity) can have a lot of influence over the final product, even if the recipe is followed. Twins are identical because they are produced identically. But it would be surprising (at least to me) if a child bred in a different womb, and raised by different parents in different times, would be the same person as her genetically-identical mother. I don’t know about Mr. Taranto, but I fall in love with people for much more than their physical attributes.

But even it she were literally identical, it is certainly fodder for an entertaining soap opera, but assuming that a woman is foolish enough to engage in such an endeavor with her husband, why should the state prohibit it? I still await an answer other than the state of Mr. Taranto’s stomach.

Reproductive cloning is a monstrous proposition, for reasons that have little to do with the debates over genetic engineering and over the cloning of embryos for medical research. Responsible advocates of scientific progress would do well to be relentless about making this distinction.

I agree that the distinction should be made–there are certainly vastly different ethical issues involved in the two cases. But I simply fail to see it as the intrinsic monstrosity that Mr. Taranto does. Now I suppose that I’ll make him queasy.

But the fact remains that, when the state chooses to interfere with people’s freedom, we need a more compelling reason than “yuck.” I haven’t yet heard one from either Mr. Taranto, or Professor Kass.

I’m My Own Grandpaw

In addition to cribbing my schtick about Punxatawney Yasser on Thursday (it was probably a case of great minds thinking alike…), normally-sensible James Taranto went off on a rant yesterday–he seems to be a Kassian queasitarian.

On one issue, however, Fukuyama is right and the libertarians are nuts. That issue is reproductive cloning, the manufacture of babies that are genetically identical to an already living human being. Libertarians pooh-pooh objections to reproductive cloning on the grounds that, as blogger Josh Chafetz suggests, a clone is no different from an identical twin.

But this is fatuous. A pair of identical twins are siblings, equally situated toward each other. By contrast, if a man clones himself, he is the “father” to his clone, responsible for his care and upbringing. Libertarians say there’s no need to outlaw reproductive cloning because it’s unlikely very many people will want to practice it. That’s probably true, but those who would are probably those we would least want to. After all, what kind of egomaniac wants to raise a carbon copy of himself?

Well, that might be true. But the fact that some of us don’t think that someone would make a good parent hasn’t, heretofore, resulted in state sanctions against it. Mr. Taranto is entitled to his opinion as to whether people who want to clone are definitionally unfit parents, but I can’t see any basis in law for it.

To understand what’s wrong with reproductive cloning, consider the proscription against incest–a remarkably resilient taboo, having survived the sexual revolution unscathed. Even libertarians, who defend the right of consenting adults to do everything from prostitution to polygamy and snorting coke to freezing dead relatives’ heads, have never, so far as we know, championed a man’s “right” to sleep with his adult daughter.

Well, actually some have…

And what’s his problem with freezing dead relative’s heads? Why is it all right to burn them, or let them rot, but not freeze them? Oh, I know. It makes him “queasy.”

Incest horrifies us because it violates the boundaries that define the most fundamental human relationships, those on which both social cohesion and individual happiness depend. The relationship between parent and child, or brother and sister, is fraught enough without introducing the elements of sexual possessiveness and jealousy that a love affair entails. If children result from an incestuous union, the family tree becomes a horrific tangle, in which parents are also aunts, uncles or grandparents.

No, James.

Incest horrifies us because we’ve been bred to have it horrify us. It’s called an evolutionary adaptation. For the reasons you state, but more importantly, for reasons of the probability of genetic unhappiness resulting from inbreeding, those earlier humans (and their non-human ancestors) who mated with siblings, parents, and children were less successful than those who didn’t. The folks (and pre-folks) with a natural repugnance to incest had a better chance of passing on their genes, so most people (and other animals) alive today have a more-or-less strong version of that genetic trait.

The implication of this is that a natural revulsion developed in more natural times might not necessarily be valid in the modern world, in which we have more control over our genetics, just as religious dietary proscriptions developed by nomadic desert peoples might have little utility in a world of health inspectors and refrigeration.

Feelings are generally just our genes’ way of getting us to do what they want us to. We’ve overcome them in the past (by, for example, teaching that rape is wrong and developing systems of morality in general), and there’s nothing holy about the anti-incest feelings, or anti-cloning feelings, either. We have to evaluate the morality of it in the context of our value system–we cannot just “go with our gut.”

Cloning raises a similar set of problems. Suppose a couple decide to produce a “son” by cloning the husband. Who are the resulting child’s parents? The man and his wife, who are raising the child? Or the man’s parents, whose coupling produced the boy’s genes? Suppose instead of cloning himself, the man clones his father. Suddenly he’s his own grandpa.

Now he’s confusing two separate concepts–genetics and legality.

Many people have legal children who share none of their genes (it’s called adoption). Many people have people who share some or all of their genes for whom they have no legal responsibility whatsoever (e.g., identical twins, or an anonymous sperm donor). Certainly the law is going to have to catch up here, as it did with things like surrogate motherhood, or in-vitro fertilization, but surely he’s joking if he thinks that a man cloning his father, and raising the son, literally makes him a legal grandfather of himself.

Parentage and responsibility to raise children is determined not solely by genetics, but by intent and action. Mr. Taranto needs to untangle these concepts in his mind before he’ll be able to discourse on them usefully.

If that’s not enough to make you queasy, consider this scenario: A 30-year-old couple produce a “daughter” who is a clone of the wife. Two decades pass, the girl grows up, and her middle-aged “father”–with whom she has no genetic kinship–suddenly finds himself face to face with a young woman who is not just hauntingly similar but identical to the woman with whom he fell in love when he was young.

No, not literally identical. Even identical twins aren’t literally identical, in the sense that there are no physical or personality differences between them. Genes aren’t a blueprint–they’re a recipe. The cook (in this case the environment of the womb, and the environment in which the child is brought to maturity) can have a lot of influence over the final product, even if the recipe is followed. Twins are identical because they are produced identically. But it would be surprising (at least to me) if a child bred in a different womb, and raised by different parents in different times, would be the same person as her genetically-identical mother. I don’t know about Mr. Taranto, but I fall in love with people for much more than their physical attributes.

But even it she were literally identical, it is certainly fodder for an entertaining soap opera, but assuming that a woman is foolish enough to engage in such an endeavor with her husband, why should the state prohibit it? I still await an answer other than the state of Mr. Taranto’s stomach.

Reproductive cloning is a monstrous proposition, for reasons that have little to do with the debates over genetic engineering and over the cloning of embryos for medical research. Responsible advocates of scientific progress would do well to be relentless about making this distinction.

I agree that the distinction should be made–there are certainly vastly different ethical issues involved in the two cases. But I simply fail to see it as the intrinsic monstrosity that Mr. Taranto does. Now I suppose that I’ll make him queasy.

But the fact remains that, when the state chooses to interfere with people’s freedom, we need a more compelling reason than “yuck.” I haven’t yet heard one from either Mr. Taranto, or Professor Kass.

I’m My Own Grandpaw

In addition to cribbing my schtick about Punxatawney Yasser on Thursday (it was probably a case of great minds thinking alike…), normally-sensible James Taranto went off on a rant yesterday–he seems to be a Kassian queasitarian.

On one issue, however, Fukuyama is right and the libertarians are nuts. That issue is reproductive cloning, the manufacture of babies that are genetically identical to an already living human being. Libertarians pooh-pooh objections to reproductive cloning on the grounds that, as blogger Josh Chafetz suggests, a clone is no different from an identical twin.

But this is fatuous. A pair of identical twins are siblings, equally situated toward each other. By contrast, if a man clones himself, he is the “father” to his clone, responsible for his care and upbringing. Libertarians say there’s no need to outlaw reproductive cloning because it’s unlikely very many people will want to practice it. That’s probably true, but those who would are probably those we would least want to. After all, what kind of egomaniac wants to raise a carbon copy of himself?

Well, that might be true. But the fact that some of us don’t think that someone would make a good parent hasn’t, heretofore, resulted in state sanctions against it. Mr. Taranto is entitled to his opinion as to whether people who want to clone are definitionally unfit parents, but I can’t see any basis in law for it.

To understand what’s wrong with reproductive cloning, consider the proscription against incest–a remarkably resilient taboo, having survived the sexual revolution unscathed. Even libertarians, who defend the right of consenting adults to do everything from prostitution to polygamy and snorting coke to freezing dead relatives’ heads, have never, so far as we know, championed a man’s “right” to sleep with his adult daughter.

Well, actually some have…

And what’s his problem with freezing dead relative’s heads? Why is it all right to burn them, or let them rot, but not freeze them? Oh, I know. It makes him “queasy.”

Incest horrifies us because it violates the boundaries that define the most fundamental human relationships, those on which both social cohesion and individual happiness depend. The relationship between parent and child, or brother and sister, is fraught enough without introducing the elements of sexual possessiveness and jealousy that a love affair entails. If children result from an incestuous union, the family tree becomes a horrific tangle, in which parents are also aunts, uncles or grandparents.

No, James.

Incest horrifies us because we’ve been bred to have it horrify us. It’s called an evolutionary adaptation. For the reasons you state, but more importantly, for reasons of the probability of genetic unhappiness resulting from inbreeding, those earlier humans (and their non-human ancestors) who mated with siblings, parents, and children were less successful than those who didn’t. The folks (and pre-folks) with a natural repugnance to incest had a better chance of passing on their genes, so most people (and other animals) alive today have a more-or-less strong version of that genetic trait.

The implication of this is that a natural revulsion developed in more natural times might not necessarily be valid in the modern world, in which we have more control over our genetics, just as religious dietary proscriptions developed by nomadic desert peoples might have little utility in a world of health inspectors and refrigeration.

Feelings are generally just our genes’ way of getting us to do what they want us to. We’ve overcome them in the past (by, for example, teaching that rape is wrong and developing systems of morality in general), and there’s nothing holy about the anti-incest feelings, or anti-cloning feelings, either. We have to evaluate the morality of it in the context of our value system–we cannot just “go with our gut.”

Cloning raises a similar set of problems. Suppose a couple decide to produce a “son” by cloning the husband. Who are the resulting child’s parents? The man and his wife, who are raising the child? Or the man’s parents, whose coupling produced the boy’s genes? Suppose instead of cloning himself, the man clones his father. Suddenly he’s his own grandpa.

Now he’s confusing two separate concepts–genetics and legality.

Many people have legal children who share none of their genes (it’s called adoption). Many people have people who share some or all of their genes for whom they have no legal responsibility whatsoever (e.g., identical twins, or an anonymous sperm donor). Certainly the law is going to have to catch up here, as it did with things like surrogate motherhood, or in-vitro fertilization, but surely he’s joking if he thinks that a man cloning his father, and raising the son, literally makes him a legal grandfather of himself.

Parentage and responsibility to raise children is determined not solely by genetics, but by intent and action. Mr. Taranto needs to untangle these concepts in his mind before he’ll be able to discourse on them usefully.

If that’s not enough to make you queasy, consider this scenario: A 30-year-old couple produce a “daughter” who is a clone of the wife. Two decades pass, the girl grows up, and her middle-aged “father”–with whom she has no genetic kinship–suddenly finds himself face to face with a young woman who is not just hauntingly similar but identical to the woman with whom he fell in love when he was young.

No, not literally identical. Even identical twins aren’t literally identical, in the sense that there are no physical or personality differences between them. Genes aren’t a blueprint–they’re a recipe. The cook (in this case the environment of the womb, and the environment in which the child is brought to maturity) can have a lot of influence over the final product, even if the recipe is followed. Twins are identical because they are produced identically. But it would be surprising (at least to me) if a child bred in a different womb, and raised by different parents in different times, would be the same person as her genetically-identical mother. I don’t know about Mr. Taranto, but I fall in love with people for much more than their physical attributes.

But even it she were literally identical, it is certainly fodder for an entertaining soap opera, but assuming that a woman is foolish enough to engage in such an endeavor with her husband, why should the state prohibit it? I still await an answer other than the state of Mr. Taranto’s stomach.

Reproductive cloning is a monstrous proposition, for reasons that have little to do with the debates over genetic engineering and over the cloning of embryos for medical research. Responsible advocates of scientific progress would do well to be relentless about making this distinction.

I agree that the distinction should be made–there are certainly vastly different ethical issues involved in the two cases. But I simply fail to see it as the intrinsic monstrosity that Mr. Taranto does. Now I suppose that I’ll make him queasy.

But the fact remains that, when the state chooses to interfere with people’s freedom, we need a more compelling reason than “yuck.” I haven’t yet heard one from either Mr. Taranto, or Professor Kass.

More Gray News For Gray

Reader Kenneth Summers emails:

This Oracle thing is really getting to be fun–even the SF Commicle (www.sfgate.com) is getting in on the action. Gray has canned one technoguru, suspended another, called in the CHP to stop the shredding, and denied that a check dated two months before the contract signing but delivered five days after has anything to do with it. Lawmakers are calling in the Feds, and apparently no one has yet figured out why the state needed more licenses than it has employees (I don’t remember the numbers specifically, but I think it was 275,000 licenses that I heard about). Even the terminally-incompetent California Republican Party should be able to make some hay with this mess.

Yes. Let’s see if the new LA paper can shame the Times into covering it properly as well.

My only fervent hope is that he takes Larry Ellison down with him. I’m sure that you are certainly familiar with the antics of Dumpster Diving Larry, who has transcended the term “Limousine Liberal” and is in the realm of “Lear Jet Liberal” (okay, “Gulfstream Jet”). He is truly the Michael Moore of Silicon Valley.

Ouch.

[Update at 1:22 PM PDT]

Here’s a link to the story at Computerworld.

Mars Needs Erin Brokovich

There’s some evidence that the Red Planet has (relatively) high concentrations of hexavalent chromium.

So, let me get this straight. They’re talking about going to a planet that has an atmosphere with the density of a light-bulb interior, temperatures that range from frozen air to boiling platinum, a radiation environment that will turn your offspring into Godzilla and theirs into Rodan, red-dust storms with three-hundred-mile-an-hour winds, and they’re going to worry about some trace chemicals in the dirt?

When did we become such a nation of wimps?

On His Way Out?

People in the Middle East don’t like losers.

While the anger seems to be about the perception of selling out to the Israelis, if this results in the downfall of the old terrorist, it presents an opportunity for a more rational Palestinian leadership.

Stealth Good News For Simon

The story that the California media doesn’t want you to know: Gray Davis is in big trouble. The only poll that’s been publicized has been the Field Poll, because it’s apparently the only one that shows him ahead.

The problem is, the Field Poll doesn’t poll likely voters. It polls registered voters. And even then a majority don’t support Davis. When an incumbent can’t get majority support from registered voters, its time to start polishing up the ol’ resume.