Wednesday, December 17, 2008
There are probably a lot of factors behind the dearth of general science quizzes on the net, ranging from the fact that such a thing won't draw a lot of eyeballs or advertisers, to the fact that it would take a team of people to do it right, to the fact that that team is busy teaching or doing science already. There's also the fact that such a quiz would involve math, not everyone's favorite pastime.
Personally, I am ambivalent about such quizzes. On the positive side, they encourage scientific literacy. On the negative side, they encourage the belief that science is just a collection of facts to be memorized, rather than a systematic method to understand the physical world.
However, Jim muses that another reason is that while Americans give a lot of lip service to the value science and technology, what they really are interested in is whether Britney Spears is going to lose her kids.
Jim's right, of course. A Hungarian immigrant, a physicist, once told me that America has always imported her scientific talent, and not to worry that so few of my fellow countrymen study science. I refuse to accept that. But unfortunately he was not totally wrong. One surface manifestation of the problem is that we don't really give our kids role models and heroes who are scientists. One of the few ways in which I think the Soviet education system was superior to the American one is that every Soviet high school student could tell you who Euler, Lomonosov and Mendeleev were, while I'd bet not one American kid in ten could tell you who J. Willard Gibbs was. Ask kids who they admire most, and it's usually political figures or artists of some stripe. Of course those people are important, but there is no balance to the average American kid's pantheon of heroes.
Today we celebrate the anniversary of one of the great inventions of mankind. Elementary School kids may note this day, but I do not remember it being mentioned a single time in Middle or High School. That's a shame, because an in-depth study of the story of this anniversary holds a lot of lessons that go well beyond the fact that today you can sit in a metal tube hurtling 500 miles per hour through the sky five miles in the air. But that's pretty cool, too, and worth celebrating in its own right.
I admit I’m a geek*. When I see something like the Wright Anniversary pass by, I spend a little time marveling at the achievement of something that was previously thought impossible. Then I start to ask questions. By inclination, I’m a big picture guy, but by training, I’m a details guy. I have to remember to turn the training on, but once it’s on, it takes over. So the first thing I ask about the Wrights is: “why them, when the whole world over people were working on this problem?”. Like so many things in life, the answer is complex, and involves a little luck.
The first part of the answer can be found in this passage:
Prior to their famous 1903 flight, Orville and Wilbur had to rework the existing lift and drag tables which were found to be all wrong. New and correct tables had to developed by working with gliders and control designs to get more lift. Similarly, they had to design and build the first wind tunnel to validate their designs without jeopardizing life and limb in full-scale tests. Finally, they had to design the airplane propellers from scratch. This was because it quickly became apparent that an airplane propeller design cannot be adapted from a ship propeller design.
They were systematic thinkers, and they went through each step inventing the “enabling technologies” as we call them today, the things that you need in order to design and build an airplane: the drag tables, the wind tunnels, and the airscrews.
This is a key point that elementary school accounts gloss over. The Wright brothers created the first wind tunnel. That in and of itself is a significant achievement. It's also a great object lesson in the stepwise achievement of dreams. As Terry Pratchett put it:
"Are you listening?"
"Yes," said Tiffany.
"Good. Now ... if you trust in yourself ..."
"... and believe in your dreams ..."
"... and follow your star.. ." Miss Tick went on.
"... you'll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren't so lazy. Good-bye."
The brothers also realized that the existing knowledge of propellers was based on ship screws, and water behaves as a fluid quite differently from air:
The twisted airfoil (aerofoil) shape of modern aircraft propellers was pioneered by the Wright brothers when they found that all existing knowledge on propellers (mostly naval) was determined by trial and error and that no one knew exactly how they worked. They found that a propeller is essentially the same as a wing and so were able to use data collated from their earlier wind tunnel experiments on wings. They also found that the relative angle of attack from the forward movement of the aircraft was different for all points along the length of the blade, thus it was necessary to introduce a twist along its length. Their original propeller blades are only about 5% less efficient than the modern equivalent- some 100 years later.
The first props were only 5% less efficient than a model 100 years later! This is why the story of the Wright Brothers should be taught in depth to high school students. This is what Edison meant about 99% perspiration. The Wrights did not just dream, they paid attention to the details necessary to make that dream a reality.
Good things come to minds that think like that, when those habits of thought are combined with creativity. Unfortunately, that’s a rare combination. That’s why there are a lot more accountants than prize-winning scientists and engineers.
There was one more enabling technology that the Wrights needed, though. The engines of the day were primarily cast iron and brass - too heavy to push themselves and an airframe into the air, even with the Wright airscrew. The Wrights sent out to automotive manufacturers for bids on a lightweight (180 lbs) engine that could crank out 8 hp. The car manufacturers could not be bothered with piddling one-off custom orders at the price the brothers were willing to pay:
Immediately upon our return to Dayton, we wrote to a number of automobile and motor builders, stating the purpose for which we desired a motor, and asking whether they could furnish one that would develop eight-brake horse power, with a weight complete not exceeding 200 pounds. Most of the companies answered that they were too busy with their regular business to undertake the building of such a motor for us; but one company replied that they had motors rated at 8 h.p. according to the French system of ratings, which weighed only 135 pounds, and that if we thought this motor would develop enough power for our purpose, they would be glad to sell us one. After an examination of the particulars of this motor, from which we learned that it had but a single cylinder of 4 inch bore and 5 inch stroke, we were afraid that it was much overrated. Unless the motor would develop a full 8 brake horse power, it would be useless for our purpose.
So, the Wrights turned to the mechanic who built the engine that powered their wind tunnel, Charles Taylor:
In just six weeks from the time the design was started, we had the motor on the block testing its power. The ability to do this so quickly was largely due to the enthusiastic and efficient services of Mr. C.E. Taylor, who did all the machine work in our shop for the first as well as the succeeding experimental machines. There was no provision for lubricating either cylinders or bearings while this motor was running. For that reason it was not possible to run it more than a minute or two at a time. In these short tests the motor developed about nine horse power. We were then satisfied that, with proper lubrication and better adjustments, a little more power could be expected.
Taylor’s engine was a marvel. To borrow a line from Douglas Adams, the first thing I’d think in an aircraft powered by this engine is “please may I get out”:
What was missing from the 1903 Taylor engine is equally significant. There was neither a fuel pump, carburetor nor oil pump. Raw gasoline dripped into the cylinders from a tank mounted on the wing strut. Because it was not expected to run for long, the engine was pre-oiled.
The valves were not cooled, they ran red hot. Despite the fact that all those parts were missing, a cast iron engine would still have been too heavy. So the Wrights turned to a metal available in bulk only for about 50 years – aluminum (hell yeah, I’m Amurrican, what of it?**). But aluminum has flaws as a construction material: it melts at much too low a temperature, and it is relatively soft. By trial and error, the Wrights came up with an alloy strong enough and temperature-resistant enough to make an engine block out of. It consisted of about 8% copper, and pre-dated the systematic scientific discovery of such alloys by at least 3 years:
In 1906 Dr Alfred Wilma, a German metallurgist, discovered that aluminium alloyed with copper and heat treated correctly could be made far stronger. The alloy of aluminium with 4% copper is called Duralumin and the heat treatment process is called precipitation hardening. These alloys have typically low specific gravity (around 2.7) and high strength (450 MPa). They are limited by a maximum service temperature of about 660°C. Since then, other heat treatable aluminium alloys have been developed for aircraft use. These include a range of complex aluminium-zinc alloys which develop the highest strength of any aluminium alloy. These alloys have led to modern aircraft design where the skin of the fuselage and wings are stressed aluminium alloy members which reduces the overall weight.
Note the difference in the 1903 Wright alloy copper content and the 1906 Duralumin content. That right there is an object lesson in what David Foster was going on about here. You can’t steer a ship that isn’t moving, and Wilma was looking at Al alloys because of their aircraft applications.
As an aside, the metallurgy of these alloys is quite fascinating, and an example of nanotechnology that predates the current fad by about 90 years:
Metallurgists have long known how to make strong alloys, even without understanding their microstructure. First heat the constituents until they dissolve in one another, then allow the alloy to "age" for several days; one or more of the constituents may precipitate out of solution and form microscopic inclusions in the matrix, forming a considerably stronger alloy. Precipitation hardening has been crucial to aviation since the first powered flight- although the Wright brothers didn't know it.
The story of the engine itself is fascinating. It was wrecked in a crash not long after the first flight, Since it was a custom job and none of its parts fit other planes, it was left with the other detritus of the Wrights’ shop:
Although the airplane was repaired and flew again, the crankcase disappeared and was not found until 1985 – 80 years later. The National Park Service at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina had it squirreled away and was not aware that anyone was interested in it.
As an aside - what kind on numbnuts did we have curating the Wright collection, anyway? Well, they seem to have got their act together, now, and have a nice little page devoted to the engine.
Once found, the NIST conducted some tests on the engine, confirming the alloy composition.
The history of the mechanic, Charlie Taylor, is a sad one. He left the Wrights (big mistake), and suffered a series of failed business deals which impoverished him. When Henry Ford created a museum of American industry, he was found in a California machine shop making 37 cents an hour. He went to work for Ford until WWII demanded skills for the war effort. Orville found him penniless again after his WWII service in an aircraft factory, having suffered a heart attack. Orville set up a trust fund that was wiped out by post-WWII inflation, and Taylor died in a charity ward.
Taylor’s working method and his post-Flyer demise struck me as an object lesson in what Prof. Dutch was going on about in this screed:
It is useful, however, to distinguish between tinkering and creativity. Tinkering consists of exploring relatively minor variations on known themes, or subjecting new stimuli to an array of already known techniques. Thomas Kinkade rarely creates and mostly tinkers. Babies tinker constantly. They put every new object in their mouth. Eventually they figure out that most things are not good to eat. When they develop motor control, they throw things. Serious curiosity consists of actively seeking new kinds of stimuli. Creativity consists of juxtaposing objects and ideas in new ways, and having a sound intuition for separating the significant result from the trivial.
There are inventors and there are tinkerers. Charlie was a tinkerer. I seriously doubt he would have invented the engine of his own accord, but once the Wrights set him to the task, he accomplished it:
Given the Wrights' reputation for detail, the seemingly straightforward task of recreating the original engine has proved to be surprisingly difficult. While Orville and Wilbur kept careful records of their wind-tunnel and flight tests, engine builder Charlie E. Taylor took a more casual approach. The cranky, cussing mechanic who ran the Wright brothers' Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop, and irritated their sister Katharine with his incessant cigar smoking, did his work on the fly. It wasn't carelessness. It was just the way Taylor preferred to work, says Howard R. DuFour, the author of Charles E. Taylor: The Wright Brothers Mechanician. "Charlie was the first aircraft mechanic in the world," DuFour tells POPULAR MECHANICS. "One of them--Orville, Wilbur or Charlie--would sketch out the part they were talking about on a piece of scrap paper. Then, Charlie 'spiked' these [scraps] on his workbench for reference in machining and assembling the engine." As the parts were completed over the next six weeks, these scraps of paper were lost, along with the details of the engine that would revolutionize transportation.
The lay public, and apparently Jared Diamond (among other sociologists of science) have a hard time distinguishing tinkerers from inventors. It is far, far better to be one of the latter than one of the former, and we rightly celebrate them (but, as I mentioned above, we don not celebrate them enough, or encourage our children to study their methods). I have a feeling that Charlie’s problems in later life were caused by his lack of systematic approach to business affairs and life in general.
A creative mind that is not systematic enough may be the polar opposite of an accountant, and exactly who you want in the machine shop, but unlike the accountant, such a mind also runs the risk of dying penniless and being memorialized posthumously. But philosophical ruminations aside, a lot of creative work is also catalyzed by the technicians and machine shop workers who build the stuff the inventors design. So stop for a moment and remember the Wrights, their work methods, and especially Charlie, the tinkering mechanic who gave us wings.
* Two little factoids stuck in my head, leading to this post. One, I saw a comment about the use of copper – aluminum alloys on a plaque attached to an early Wright engine at the WPAFB Museum. I also remember reading a Science article on the Wright Flyer crankcase by Gayle and Goodway back when I was in grad school.
** Some heathens put an extra "i" in aluminum:
The metal derives its name from alumen, the Latin name for alum. In 1761 L. B. G de Morveau proposed the name alumine for the base in alum, and in 1787 Lavoisier definitely identified it as the oxide of a still undiscovered metal. In 1807 Sir Humphrey Davy proposed the name aluminum for this metal and later agreed to change it to aluminum. Shortly thereafter, the name aluminium was adopted to conform to the "ium" ending of most elements, and this spelling is now in general use throughout the world. Aluminum was also the accepted spelling in the United States until 1925 when the American Chemical Society officially reverted to aluminum.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
The aircraft was a Lufthansa Airbus landing in a bad storm in Hamburg. According to this post on Flightaware, the winds were 33 gusting 49 knots, within limits, barely, maybe, for the Airbus
The recovery from that approach was pretty miraculous - I thought for sure he was going to take out some runway lights along with his undercarriage. According to the comments on YouTube, the copilot flew the approach and got into trouble and the pilot took over to execute the waveoff. Both were reportedly suspended by Lufthansa.
I guess the pilot deserves a lot of credit for saving the aircraft on the waveoff, but I didn’t think the overall approach was that good. His transition from the crab didn’t look that good, but giving him the benefit of the doubt perhaps there was a bad gust at that instant. I tend to transition from crab to “wing down top rudder” earlier than he did, to gauge whether or not it will be possible to track centerline without dipping the wing too much.
Most multiengine aircraft (especially 4 engine ones) have a bank limitation for landing to prevent dragging the outboard/upwind engine/prop and the max crosswind component limitation is based on that bank angle. Setting up earlier in the bank lets you compare your situation to the limitation to avoid this situation.
I've heard, but do not know for sure because I'm not qualified on the 'Bus, that you can't do a "wing down-top rudder" approach in the Airbus because the fly-by-wire flight control system won't allow you to cross-control like that. If that is true, it would mean you would have to kick out the crab at the last moment and try to maintain centerline. I've been in that situation in bad winds like that and tried that technique and had a very similar result - inability to maintain centerline followed by a quick waveoff.
The actual winds in this case must have been outrageous. I remember landing at Luqa, Malta (LMML) in an advertised 45-gusting-60 crosswind component - beyond the crosswind limits for the aircraft I was flying, but the operating manual stated that if you could maintain centerline without exceeding max bank angle, the approach could be continued. We landed and shortly there after a Condor (Lufthansa charter subsidiary) 757 showed up to shoot touch-and-goes. They did about 10 VERY impressive circuits - on centerline, perfect technique, in max-component-crosswind conditions, just for training. We were REALLY impressed with their skill and airmanship, if not with their decision to do it in the first place. They did it the way I describe - switching from a crab to a wing-down-top-rudder approach before the flare. In Boeings you can definitely do it.
Airbus passenger jets have a variety of unpleasant characteristics associated with the totally computer-controlled flight control system, and reportedly the Airbus consortium, in collusion with the French government allegedly has gone to considerable lengths to cover up those characteristics and blame the pilots for any flight-control-related mishap.
In 1988, an Airbus 320 crashed in Mulhouse-Habsheim, France while making a low-slow approach at an airshow. The pilot reported adding power to level off at 100 feet, but the throttle did not respond. The pilot then completely cycled the throttle but the aircraft settled into the trees at the end of the runway:
A lot of really strange things went on with the investigation of this crash. It looks like Airbus and the French government didn't want flaws in the A320 design to be revealed, and hung responsibility for the crash on the pilot, who was jailed.
This is a strange one, though. The pilot probably does bear some, if not most, of the responsibility. He was flying awfully low and slow for an airliner with passengers on board, and reportedly was surprised when he hit the trees, which would tend to contradict the statement that the throttles did not respond. The copilot has reportedly kept his mouth shut tight since the accident.
In other news: Nancy Pelosi reportedly wants her own VC-32.
The VC-32 is a 757, flown by the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force base, normally to transport the Vice President, or large government delegations (multiple members of congress, senior administration officials, etc) on overseas junkets/diplomatic missions, etc.
Since 9/11, the Speaker of the House (Hastert and now Pelosi) has been provided with an Air Force VIP aircraft for "security" reasons, allegedly because the government became concerned about a terrorist attack against the Speaker him- or herself.
I don't think there has ever been any specific or credible evidence or information that terrorists even know who the Speaker of the House is, much less care enough to attack her. This looks like just another example of the "imperialization" of the federal government. Government officials gradually assign greater and greater perks and grandiose trappings of power to themselves, pretty much reflexively. It's nauseating, and disappointing. We deserve better, and should demand better, from our so-called representatives.
These days, with the approval ratings of pretty much all branches of government at all time lows, it looks like all these trappings of power are mainly intended to separate our elected officials from their angry constituents.
The whole thing is just disgraceful. Nancy Pelosi says she wants the very large jet so she can fly non-stop from Washington to San Francisco. That makes me wonder what she was flying before.
The 89th Wing doesn't fly anything that doesn't have the range to reach San Francisco from Andrews unrefueled, so that whole argument (that she needs the plane for the range) doesn't appear to make a bit of sense.
You can check out Speaker Pelosi making that claim on video, however:
"It's not a question of size. It's a question of distance. We want an aircraft that can reach California," Pelosi said.
According to the White House, Nancy Pelosi has only flown on military aircraft between San Francisco and Washington once since becoming Speaker, and that one time she flew a C-20B, which is a Gulfstream III with an unrefueled range of 4250 miles. It could fly from San Franciso to Washington, turn around and fly back to Chicago, and still have about a legal IFR reserve.
Reportedly Pelosi also requested an aircraft to carry her from Washington to Williamsburg, Virginia, for a political event, but was refused.
Pelosi's arrogance and hubris simply astounds me, and she's pretty typical of the creatures that inhabit Washington DC. It reminds me a lot of the Roman Empire, around the time of Caligula.
I guess its too much to ask for her to think more about doing her job, so maybe our economy might not be in the worst mess since 1929?
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Now for a serious post about outer space...
Constellation is the name of NASA's program to return to the moon, and possibly continue on to Mars, or even maybe other destinations in the solar system. It consists of two major components, the Ares booster system and the Orion crew vehicle.
The Ares system consists of two major components, the Ares I for launching the Orion crew vehicle into orbit, and the Ares V heavy-lift booster for launching major Constellation components into low earth orbit for on-orbit assembly and rendezvous with the Orion for subsequent deep space exploration.
The first thing that strikes almost anyone about the Constellation program is its uncanny resemblance to Apollo. The Ares I and Ares V boosters seem very similar in performance, size, and function to the Saturn Ib and Saturn V. (Perhaps they will eventually rename it the Ares Ib.) It seems almost impossibly retro.
NASA clearly recognizes the obvious similarity, and refers to Apollo five times on the Orion web page. They point out that Orion is much more advanced technology, despite the outward similarity, and has 2 1/2 times the internal volume of the Apollo command module, and referred to Constellation as "Apollo on Steroids" at the introductory press conference.
The Orion "crew exploration vehicle" (CEV) will carry 6 astronauts to low earth orbit, or four to the moon, will land ashore instead of at sea, and be reusable. It is NASA's final format to replace the space shuttle, which is a very disappointing decision.
The reason that the US space program ended up being based on missiles (specifically on the Nazi V2) is because the people at NASA who developed the program were Nazi rocket scientists. At the same time, the Air Force (with some NASA cooperation) was developing aerodynamic spacecraft - vehicles capable of using lift, instead of pure thrust, to escape the earth's atmosphere.
Although there were some additional technical obstacles with true "flying" spacecraft (mainly associated with the heat shielding), the potential advantages were substantial. There's a reason that United and Southwest fly airplanes and not rockets - they are a lot more efficient. You can lift a lot more payload with a lot less fuel than you can with a rocket.
The Air Force was already, by the early 1960s, flying to the edge of space in an aircraft, the rocket powered X-15. There was a huge and impassioned debate about the best strategy to launch payloads into space, via aircraft or rockets, with NASA and the Army on the side of rockets and the Air Force and much of the aerospace industry favoring aircraft. Ultimately NASA won out because of the enormous influence and persuasive abilities of Werner von Braun. Ironically, von Braun had proposed and advocated aerodynamic space vehicles at various times in his career, but had been employed by the Army's Ballistic Missile Agency (which became NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center) since WWII and was parochially aligned with the Army and missiles.
The Air Force had a "mini space shuttle" design by the late 1950s - the X-20 Dyna-Soar, but that program was scuttled by the political efforts of NASA and Werner von Braun, who claimed it would compete with and reduce resources available to the Apollo lunar program.
This was all very unfortunate. Von Braun originally proposed the moon mission be stages as an Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR), using re-usable boosters and spacecraft to deliver large quantities of material and components for a very substantial moon expedition. That model - which has been revived for Constellation - would have been very well served by simple, rugged, reusable aerodynamic orbital vehicles like the Dyna-Soar.
Officially, Dyna-Soar was killed by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1963 because he said "there was no significant advantage in controlled re-entry", the publicly-stated main difference between Dyna-Soar and the Gemini Program. But a tremendous amount of the real history of the Dyna-Soar is shrouded in secrecy.
Dyna-Soar was originally intended to serve as a global exo-atmosperic, hypersonic weapons platform, similar to a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS). It was a direct decendent of the Eugene Sanger's proposed Silbervogel, also known as Hitler's Amerika Bomber. Eugen Sanger, of course, was a colleague and competitor of Werner von Braun in Nazi Germany. The Amerika Bomber was the Nazi's planned unstoppable delivery platform for their nuclear bomb. The Silbervogel, which was designed in 1934 but never flew, looked a whole lot like an X-15. I think in my old blog I did a post comparing the designs of Sanger, the Horten brothers, and others in Germany in the early 1930s with the most advanced aircraft in the United States at the time.
United States, 1934:
Clearly there were very different things going on there.
What was going on in the early 1960's, however, was very heavily influenced by the cold war and the desire to contain the Soviet Union. Anything that could potentially prove to be an assymetrical advantage, such as a fractional orbital bombardment system or orbital reconnaissance systems, was very heavily classified.
The apparent promise of aerodynamic space vehicles, however - their ability to maneuver much more radically in orbit than NASA's capsules, their re-usability, and their ability to fly to any point on the earth and land in a very short time - made their seeming abandonment in the early 1960s, after the spectacular success of the X-15, very puzzling indeed.
While the publicly known history indicates it was NASA and von Braun's political persuasion that shifted the emphasis to rockets and away from aircraft, there have long been rumors that the space-planes simply "went undercover".
Those long-circulating rumors were ratified in 2006 by Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine, with a cover story claiming the existance of a highly covert space plane program, derived from the Dyna-Soar and known as "Blackstar". According to "Aviation Leak", as it is often known, the "Blackstar" program was a two-stage-to-orbit binary system based on not only the Dyna-Soar but also the cancelled XB-70 "Valkyrie" supersonic bomber. The Valkyrie served as the first-stage "mother ship" which lifted the orbital vehicle to around 100,000 feet for launch into space. Such a system makes a lot of sense as a much more efficient way to achieve orbit, in comparison to a multi-stage rocket.
The theory goes that the Air Force has had a space-plane program for many years, possibly since the mid-1980s, and many of the publicly-announced space plane development efforts since then, such as the X-30 National Aerospace Plane, were derived from, or used as cover for, the secret spaceships.
But if any of this is true, it's a really good secret. While there is plenty of evidence the Department of Defense spent billions on the 80s and 90s on very highly classified projects, there's no good evidence they bought any manned spacecraft with all that money. There is also solid evidence that the Air Force has flown something that goes very high and very fast since the retirement of the SR-71, but again there's nothing to say with any reliability its a space plane. An unmanned hypersonic demonstrator prototype may be a more likely scenario.
It should be remembered that there were several aerodynamic spacecraft proposed to replace the Space Shuttle. Lockheed's most recent proposal in 2006 looked pretty much exactly like the X-20X Dyna-Soar III.
But once again, after many years of signaling that the Space Shuttle would be replaced with something truly versatile and innovative, NASA decided to go back to the 1950s with Werner von Braun's rocket-and-capsule format.
What the heck? After all the work done on aerodynamic space vehicles, hypersonic pulse-detonation-wave and aerospike engines, advanced composite heat-dispersing materials, and digital flight controls, we're going to chunk it all and build "Apollo on steroids".
Is there something I'm missing here? The Apollo redux will use von Braun's original Earth Orbit Rendezvous, which is tailor-made for a rapid-turnaround, highly efficient aerodynamic lift platform. What you need to do is make a lot of trips to orbit to assemble the parts for your deep-space exploration vehicle, which could be boosted in pieces on existing launchers. You create a new "space shipyard" to exist as the permanent launching point for further exploration, which you can get to easily by launching an aerodynamic vehicle from a two-stage-to-orbit system like the rumored "Blackstar", or cancelled Dyna-Soar. Why do you want a new Apollo system for that requirement? It just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.
One of the angles that might explain it is the desire for safety. The loss of Columbia and Challenger revealed just how dangerous the aerodynamic Space Shuttle is, while the Russians early-60s vintage Soyuz capsules are tried and true. In many ways, the Soyuz system is much superior to either Apollo or the Space Shuttle, and certainly it's proved its worth. The first Soyuz flew in 1966, and the United States will rely on Soyuz for access to the International Space Station in between the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2010 and the first flight of Orion, which is hoped for 2014, but given the US Government's record in recent years with this sort of thing, may be fantastically optimistic.
Regardless of the format or direction NASA wishes to take in the manned spaceflight program, it may be that almost anything associated with space exploration could be very hard to pay for in the coming years. Its looking like the government isn't going to have the money to pay for much of anything "optional", because of steadily increasing non-discretionary costs and steadily decreasing revenues.
President-elect Obama initially said he would defer Constellation to pay for improvements in education, but has since changed his position, saying he would ask for additional funding for NASA to accelerate development of Constellation.
It is very interesting that Obama did a near "about face" on NASA, and it is somewhat hard to determine what motivated the change. The most obvious and likely cause was the desire to win votes in Florida, which hosts much of NASA's infrastructure. Another scenario is that Obama became aware of the difficult and potentially embarrassing situation the country will face when the shuttles are retired and NASA must contract with Russia for access to the space station. A more improbable scenario is that Obama was briefed on how NASA's development of Constellation interrelates with some possible classified military space program.
But the apparent ultimate reality is that NASA wouldn't be planning to build a new version of Apollo if it had any better ideas. Given the record of the government in recent decades (since the 1960s) for building anything new and innovative, perhaps NASA is making a very smart decision by keeping the technological risk to a minimum.
But wouldn't it be great if we could recapture the spirit and the energy of NASA's "golden age", and strive to do something really new and exciting?
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Only a skilled game butcher should mess (term used advisedly) with road kill. If the integuments between the upper and lower body cavity are ruptured–typical in a car encounter–the meat is essentially poison, shot through with fecal bacteria. Despite what you’ve heard, the Dodge Ram is not the hunting weapon of choice.
And a question for all you people more experienced with wildlife than I am: I thought real Coyotes are solitary hunters. The Coyotes around here seem to have more wolf-like facial features, and they hunt in packs. The common wisdom is that they interbred with Canadian or Western US wolves as they migrated East. Anyone know anything about that?
I had one of those things walk right over my patio the other day, eyeing me through the sliding glass door. I'm keeping the rifle handy as winter approaches and I keep hearing them pull down deer closer and closer (within 500 meters) of the house. One was howling so close to my house about 2:00 AM the other day that he turned on my motion sensor light at the edge of the drainspout. They are getting too comfortable with humans for my comfort.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
Apropos of the political season, I've been studying the restrictions on various items in various states around the country. I was inspired by this page on Amazon.com saying New York and California ban anything vaguely associated with the famous but actually-pretty-marginal Japanese martial art of Ninjutsu. (For a comparison, read up on Daitō-ryū_Aiki-jūjutsu, a non-marginal Japanese school).
Many people may be aware that New York and California ban possession of nunchuku*. Nunchuku, for those unfamiliar, are two short sticks connected at their ends with a piece of string or rope. The story linked above describes a case in California where the police came into the home of a martial arts instructor and demanded he surrender all his connected sticks. Subsequently he pled no contest to a single count of possession of nunchuku and was sentenced to jail.
(* In California, martial arts schools, but not individuals, may possess two small sticks connected by string.)
Remind me not to even visit California. Like my partner John, I practiced martial arts for many years and somewhere around the Adios Airways HQ I have several pairs of practice nunchuku - lightweight plastic, covered with foam rubber, couldn't hurt anyone if they tried. Those could get me 1 year in jail for each pair in California (or New York, where Eliot Spitzer demanded the manufacturers in Florida and Georgia turn over the names and addresses of all their customers who had purchased the linked-sticks in New York).
Reading the California penal code (section 12020), I discovered that not only nunchuku, but also:
The good news is that I cannot find any actual language in the California penal code that bans socks, whether or not they are Ninja Socks.any metal knuckles, any belt buckle knife, any
leaded cane, any zip gun, any shuriken, any unconventional pistol,
any lipstick case knife, any cane sword, any shobi-zue, any air gauge
knife, any writing pen knife, any metal military practice
handgrenade or metal replica handgrenade, or any instrument or weapon
of the kind commonly known as a blackjack, slungshot, billy,
sandclub, sap, or sandbag.
I don't even know what a "slungshot" is, but it would seem that California intends to ban slingshots (although that would be an interesting legal case: Little Billy v. the Government of the State of California over possession of a slingshot, not a "slungshot".)
I didn't know what they meant by a "shobi-zue", but research indicates it is a stick with a blade attached, AKA a spear. (John maybe you can help - as far as I can tell, the term is jibberish in Japanese or Chinese). I'm not sure where they get their definitions of these things, so a traditional spear (with a sharpened wooden point) might still be OK, but my guess is they'd put you away for possession of an indian-style spear with a flint arrowhead. The same source indicates that a "slungshot" is not a slingshot, but a different type of weapon no one has ever heard of.
Additionally, California's section 12020 bans sandbags (?!? - I guess they don't have hurricanes out there. No wonder they have such problems with mudslides.), saps (a broad category meaning "anything heavy with which you might hit someone"), and "billys", which apparently can mean any stick. No visiting California with the cut-off broom handle I use to close my hurricane shutters!
Cross-checking New York law reveals a very dangerous place to possess a stick, two sticks connected with string, or a sandbag as well:
A person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree when:If Little Billy visited New York with his toy cap pistol he'd be in deep doo-doo. Also New York is much more specific - his slingshot is definitely illegal, as would be a "slungshot", if anyone knew what it was.
1) He possesses any firearm, electronic dart gun, electronic stun gun, gravity knife, switchblade knife, pilum ballistic knife, metal knuckle knife, cane sword, billy, blackjack, bludgeon, metal knuckles, chuka stick, sand bag, sandclub, wrist-brace type slingshot or slungshot, shirken or "Kung Fu star"; or
(2) He possesses any dagger, dangerous knife, dirk, razor, stiletto, imitation pistol, or any other dangerous or deadly instrument or weapon with intent to use the same unlawfully against another;
What's the point of all of this? It's that some very bad laws sometimes get made, and subsequently otherwise non-criminals get punished for breaking said bad laws. Those laws are almost never un-made - usually quite the contrary: every time prosecutors are able to get a plea out of aforementioned non-criminals, more bad precedents are set.
Compounding this problem is the "shadowing", where various things that aren't actually prohibited (like Ninja socks) are lumped together with things that are, including by law enforcement:
Attend a PTA meeting or a high school football game with a small buck folding knife in your pocket or handbag, or even a tiny pocket knife on your key chain, and you are subject to the same legal disqualifications meted out to murderers and rapists. If there is even a small pocket knife in your pocket or car when you drive your child to school, or perhaps exercise your right to vote (many jurisdictions' plots are located in school buildings), various rights which you may have thought to be "inalienable" may be in jeopardy...My concern is that the incoming government, both congress and the executive branch, overtly state that they wish to broadly expand the power and role of the federal government in our lives. That means more laws, which inevitably means more bad laws that will never get un-made.
Ejusdim generis - Latin for "the same kind." It is common technique in writing laws to specifically list various prohibited items followed by a general inclusive term. For instance, you may find a statute which prohibits "any dagger, dirk, switch-blade, gravity knife, buton knife, cutting instrument the blade of which is exposed in an automatic way by switch, push-button, spring mechanism, or other such implement". Under the rule of ejusdem generis, "other such implement" could not legitimately be read to include for instance a drop point fixed blade hunting knife. In other words, the drop point fixed blade hunting knife is not of the same kind or class as the specifically listed items such as the dagger, dirk, switch-blade, military knife or fighting knife, etc. However, you must be careful. In construing a New York statute prohibiting the possession of a dagger, dirk, dangerous knife, razor, stiletto, automatic knife, butterfly knife or any other dangerous weapon, an ice pick was found to be a "dangerous weapon" under the principle of ejusdem generis.
Wouldn't it be great if they could occupy themselves with the Ninja Rights Agenda instead?
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
"It is time for the government to declassify records that are more than 25 years old and to provide scientists with data that will assist in determining the real nature of this phenomenon," ex-Clinton aide John Podesta said Tuesday.
A Pentagon spokesperson could not be reached for comment regarding the requests for information.
John Podesta is the chief of President Obama's transition team. Could this mean that President Obama will finally insist the government come clean with the American people about the decades-old coverup of its relationship with our space brothers?
But Podesta was the Chief of Staff before - does the President's own Chief of Staff not qualify for the "Majestic" clearance??
During the Reagan administration, it would seem that the President's senior advisors (which would seem to include then-Chief-of-Staff Jim Baker) were included on "The Briefing":
Transcript of classified tape recording made at Camp David, Maryland during a presidential briefing regarding the subject of UNIDENTIFIED FLYING OBJECTS and EXTRATERRESTRIAL VISITATION of EARTH. President RONALD REAGAN was present. The recording was made between March 6 and 8, 1981.
WILLIAM CASEY: Mr President, good morning. As we discussed in February, this briefing contains some very sensational and some very, very classified information. I am not sure, oh, well, I'm not going to make a decision on who you want in the room. That will be your decision, Mr President...
PRESIDENT: Well, it will be entirely up to you, Bill. I guess everyone must be cleared for this briefing of information, is that not correct?
WM CASEY: Well, it appears everyone is, but as you will see Mr President, this stuff is pretty high up on the food chain. We call it ATS or "Above Top Secret." This stuff has its own classification and markings. We have a special container, special printers and copiers for this stuff. Every word of this material is printed on special paper then placed inside special covers. The caretakers have taken special efforts to protect all of this stuff from being released inadvertently or copied by some unauthorized person.
PRESIDENT: OK, Bill, I guess we need ADVISER #1, you, ADVISER #3 and Caspar here. I think ADVISER #2 and Michael can leave.
According to the Serpo web site, the little grey space aliens have been among us at least since Roswell, and more interestingly, we sent our own exchange officer-astronauts back to their planet in Zeta Reticuli in 1965. That would make for quite an interesting briefing, don't you think?
But John Podesta was the White House Chief of Staff for 3 years and he hasn't heard it? Or he has heard it and he thinks the American people should be told, but can't say that exactly? It's an interesting logical conundrum. Either he really knows the truth that the extraterrestrials are among us, in which case he would probably be obligated not to tell (or talk about it), or he really doesn't know, which, since he was in a position where he probably would know, probably means that ET is not among us.
If President Obama tells the American people all about the captured alien spaceships, I'll vote for his re-election.
If the government really knew about something as Big and Important as space aliens living underground in rural Nevada, landing (or crashing) their spaceships all over the place, abducting all sorts of otherwise normal people (and livestock), and perpetrating some kind of truly unfathomable galactic conspiracy on us poor dumb sheeple, however, I really think it would leak.
Perhaps the question is whether Obama's selection of Podesta as his transition chief a signal to the space brothers that change is coming?
Unfortunately I hear Barack Obama is not a fan of outer space, which could be worse for NASA (and their efforts to return to the moon) than for the space brothers. (Although later he reportedly flip-flopped - somewhat mysteriously.)
Reportedly candidate Obama was offered an unofficial version of "The Briefing" because UFOlogists don't think the keepers of the secrets will read him in even when he is the President. That's an interesting scenario: the Secret Government decides President Obama is not a good risk and decides not to "read him in". The legend goes that happened with Jimmy Carter.
Few remember this history, but Jimmy Carter came into office promising to declassify all US government information related to UFOs. Fewer may know that he did, in fact, get quite a bit of UFO information declassified, but none of it revealed any concrete evidence about the space brothers' notoriously poor airmanship (constantly pranging their saucers into the New Mexico desert), or any other solid information of anything else extraterrestrial.
The election of Barack Obama would seem to have a lot of parallels to that of Jimmy Carter - the country is in a period of economic turmoil and like Carter, Obama campaigned on a platform of radical change. Unlike Carter (and unlike some of the other recent Presidential candidates), Obama seems disinterested in the subject of The UFO.
Almost every new Presidential administration (although maybe not G.W. Bush) brings hope from the believers that there will be new revelations about our space visitors. Subsequently there is always disappointment that no such revelations are forthcoming. The logical explanation for this disappointing outcome is that the government just doesn't have any juicy secrets to reveal (about the space brothers, anyway) - which might be because either (a) it really doesn't know what's going on, (b) there really are no alien space brothers plowing their saucers into the scrub-brush in New Mexico, or (c) (my bet) both.
So although John Podesta may really be a rabid X-files fan, my expectations are low.
The truth is out there! But my money is on it staying way out there.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
I commemorated Veteran's Day by reading Lone Survivor, by retired Navy corpsman and SEAL Marcus Luttrell. HM1 Luttrell is known in special operations circles as "The One", because he was the only survivor of Operation Redwing, a mission in Afghanistan in 2005 to capture or kill Ahmad Shah, a major Taliban commander in Kumar Province. It was one of the most gripping and emotional war stories I've read in a long time, and I strongly recommend it to everyone.
Petty Officer Luttrell pulled very few punches in his account of his experiences, making some very pointed comments about how those who would send Americans to war should have the courage to make the tough decisions to back up the troops. He referred to being more afraid of the mainstream media than the enemy, and described how his team, led by posthumous Medal of Honor winner LT Michael Murphy, decided to release three Afghan goatherds who had discovered their team unharmed. LT Murphy (who had the ultimate decision) knew that his team would be tried and convicted in the media if they killed the goatherds to prevent their own compromise. That decision (backed by Luttrell) almost certainly cost LT Murphy and two other members of the team (Petty Officers Matthew Axelrod and Danny Dietz) their lives.
But it was probably the right thing to do, and it illustrates why we should remember those who serve our country all the time, not just today. Most folks will never have to make life-and-death decisions like that because there are those like Murphy, Luttrell, Dietz, and Axelrod who are willing to make those sacrifices and those kind of impossible decisions for the rest of us.
In general, I think most Americans do appreciate the sacrifices of our veterans, and do want to honor and support those who served. I don't get the same vibe from many of our leaders and elites, however, and the country's record on this score is not always that great.
You'd think that our military leaders, at least, would want to take care of the troops who voluntarily put their lives on the line, but even that is often not the case. Far too often I've seen military leaders sacrifice their troops for momentary convenience or political expediency.
War demands courage and sacrifice from leaders as well as ordinary grunts. If I have any prayer to remember our fallen comrades on this remembrance day, its that our leaders will find it in themselves to be as selfless and courageous as the ordinary Americans they lead.
Special thanks to all the Reservists who have other things to do, and go anyway.
May we remember not just your service, but your humanity. This one's for Phuong:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
— John Gillespie Magee, Jr
Saturday, November 8, 2008
Eric surmises that my hair-trigger is due to peculiarities of my background, and indeed it is, although not for the reasons he cited (he’d be surprised how little of the non-juveniles of RAH I can stomach based on RAH’s poor grasp of economics – my second graduate degree is economics-related, and RAH can make me twitch rather fast in that regard). I was a double major in grad school Russian Literature and Physical Chemistry. I left the study of literature because of the ascendancy in the late 80s and early 90s, of the anti-rational post-modernist and post-structuralist elements. (Eric, I know you’re going to take exception to that characterization, but you’re just going to have to wait for that debate until NaNo is over – the post is coming).
Ben’s hyperbole in “The Big Idea” almost exactly matches rhetoric that is used to offer false hope (via “native” traditions) to patients via post-structuralist arguments. In some cases, patients buy these arguments and forgo Western treatment altogether. Eric makes the comment that:
To take such an argument seriously would be gobsmackingly stupid.
Argument" in my case being that someone in the West would seriously argue about the superiority of non-Western medicine from an academic perspective. Unfortunately, that is not the case:
"The philosophical work of Deleuze and Guattari proves to be useful in showing how health sciences are colonised (territorialised) by an all-encompassing scientific research paradigm – that of post-positivism – but also and foremost in showing the process by which a dominant ideology comes to exclude alternative forms of knowledge, therefore acting as a fascist structure."
This is an actual quote from an actual peer-reviewed piece of literature in Nursing, which is the scientific discipline most infected by the disease of post-structuralism. It’s used to make the argument that pre-modern medicine is just as valid, or in some cases more valid, than Western medicine. Ben – this is close enough to your statement about Western thought not seeing the picture, plus your mention of medicine, that it led me to misidentify you. I have met people - “educated” people – who espouse the ideas in your “Big Idea” for real. Those were not strawman arguments I was making, I've heard people at MLA meetings actually claim that modern medicine has suppressed known cures from native traditions. The fact that this kind of woo has infiltrated Nursing hurts patients.
I run into this shit professionally all the time, in fact I can’t get to work in Manhattan some days without running into a cult that claims this kind of mystical medical woo while maintaining that my kids are part of an alien plot. So yeah, my intellectual shotgun is sawed-off and the sear’s been filed down to give me a hair trigger. Point taken, I’ve kept my finger in the trigger guard since the Wagner thing, and now I’ll engage the safety.
And Jeri – no, given the real world consequences of actual freaking nurses suggesting that patients try alternative therapy first, it’s not cruel to go after the intellectual justification for that dangerous attitude wherever I see it. In fact it's a dereliction of intellectual duty not to. It's not the novel I went after, it actually sounds like a fun read, if taken in the spirit it's intended. What I went after was, what looked like to me, promotion of an anti-rationalist worldview. But, as Eric and Nathan pointed out, I’ve got to make sure my targets are properly identified.
--End of Update - Hyperbolic misinterpretation to follow:
I promised Nathan I'd have a piece about stupid on the Net that needs refuting. Well, here it is. My tolerance for stupid after the Wagner affair is still zero. Hence the pissy tone below.
I am a civilizational patriot. Unfortunately, a large swath of Western Civilization’s intellectuals seems to have no idea just what exactly has brought about the modern world they see around them. The anti-rational (as opposed to anti-intellectual, because what I’m talking about is part of a larger anti-rational movement that is alive and well in intellectual circles) movement in society disturbs me because it is indicative of the failure of our educational system to inculcate the values and ideas that brought Western Civilization out of the muck of the Dark Ages.
I’m talking about dreck like this from new author Benjamin Parzybok:
However, during the writing of the book I moved to South America. The magic of the place was deeply infectious. Walk from your apartment to the grocery store and you’ve tread over a bedrock of forgotten civilizations. The town in which I lived was built on top of an Incan town, the Incans built over the top of the Cañaris, the Cañaris conquered and built over those that had been there before. Who knew how many mysterious layers lay below that?
All of this was lost knowledge. Which of these civilizations had a cure for cancer? Which had surmised the essential building blocks of the universe or spoken in a language that allowed access to an entirely different part of the brain?
What. The. Hell? Cure for cancer? Surmise the building blocks of the universe? And did we discover a third hemisphere of the brain? The stupid, it does burn.
How does Parzybok think that the wonders of modern life got to be that way? Magic? Take the history of even one small advance that I’ve written about before. In 1856 a young graduate student was messing about with coal tar derivatives, systematically, if empirically, and hit upon the world’s first synthetic dye. This pushed even more attention to the young field of Organic Chemistry, and a very bright German scientist hit upon a theory that gave synthesis a firm theoretical underpinning:
It was not long after Perkin's original feat that Kekule and his structural formulas supplied organic chemists with a map of the territory, so to speak. Using that map, they could work out logical schemes of reactions, reasonable methods for altering a structural formula bit by bit in order to convert one molecule into another. It became possible to synthesize new organic chemicals not by accident, as in Perkin's triumph, but with deliberation.
From that work, Paul Ehrlich used derivatives of Mauvine to selectively stain microorganisms for identification in the microscope, and he developed the first stain that selectively identified TB, and he later went on to develop some of the first good theories of immune function based on that same work. In fact, he is considered one of the fathers of immunology.
A few years later, in 1909 he and his student Sachihiro Hata, using a derivative of one of those same dyes, cured syphilis:
Ehrlich began an exhaustive search for an arsenic compound that would be a "magic bullet:" kill the microbe but not the person with the disease. In 1909, after testing over 900 different compounds on mice, Ehrlich's new colleague Sahachiro Hata went back to #606. It didn't do much for the sleeping sickness microbe, but it seemed to kill another (recently discovered) microbe, the one which causes syphilis. At that time, syphilis was a disabling and prevalent -- though little talked about -- disease. Ehrlich and Hata tested 606 over and over on mice, guinea pigs, and then rabbits with syphilis. They achieved complete cures within three weeks, with no dead animals. In 1910 the drug was released, called Salvarsan, or sometimes just 606. It was an almost immediate success and was sold all over the world. It spurred Germany to become a leader in chemical and drug production. And it made syphilis a curable disease.
The cure for syphilis did not come from some human-sacrificing, superstitious pre-moderns experimenting with herbs. To say nothing of a cure for cancer. Just how many pre-modern civilizations recognized the commonality of the disease we call cancer, rather than looking at it as a disease of various organs? Exactly ... zero.
If pre-moderns had medicine at all, it was based on plants, and, well, let’s look at the oldest such tradition in the world, China. If anything is “there” to be found in pre-modern medicine, odds are it would be in that ancient tradition, older and more advanced than any society in South America. Chinese skeptics don't seem to think so:
The argument from antiquity in favor of TCM usually goes like this: it’s been around N-thousand years (replace N with your favorite integer between 1 and 5) and so it must have worked well! The truth of the matter is that TCM has no scientific basis and has been developed over the years on a foundation of very flawed understanding of the human anatomy and physiology. Historically, the pathetically low cure-rate of diseases plaguing the Chinese population with access only to TCM resulted in the evolution of a hyper-superstitious culture bent on seeing ghosts and goblins around every corner and behind every bush, too ready to take another life away. The inefficacy of their medical treatments throughout history, in my opinion, is responsible for the Chinese culture’s obsession with superstitions associated with maintaining good health and longevity. The list of superstitious do’s and don’ts are especially long when it came to childbirth, prenatal and postnatal care.
Stopped-clock-right-twice-a-day rules of thumb are pretty much all any pre-modern society ever achieved. Almost all pre-modern cultures emphasized social harmony over material progress. At most, like the Arabs, they kept freethinkers as pets of the aristocracy, but the networked link of researchers with a widespread challenge of received wisdom is a uniquely Western phenomenon, and it is why successful modern non-Western cultures such as Japan and China take on something of a Western character, even while preserving something of their own. Despite its advanced organizational features, Chinese “scientific” thinking suffered from the same malaise that all pre-modern “scientific” thought suffered from:
However, I may point out here already one of the characteristic traits of the history of ideas in Chinese medicine. Whenever antagonistic sub-paradigms emerged within one of the major paradigms, the resulting contradictions appear to have been solved only rarely, if ever, in a manner familiar to the historian of medicine and science in the West. Although we may witness, in the literature, sufficient traces of heated argumentations between schools propagating opposing views, after a while the issue was resolved neither in the dialectical sense in that a more advanced synthesis was created out of thesis and antithesis nor in a (Kuhnian) revolutionary sense in that a more recent paradigm achieved prevalence and dominated a subsequent era of “normal science” until it was replaced by the next paradigm. The unique feature of the Chinese situation – and this should receive more attention form historians and philosophers of science – is the continuous tendency toward a syncretism of all ideas that exist (within accepted limits). Somehow a way was always found in China to reconcile opposing views and to build bridges – fragile as they may appear to the outside observer – permitting thinkers and practitioners to employ liberally all the concepts available, as long as they were not regarded as destructive to society.
One of the basic difficulties in interpreting traditional Chinese medical terms and concepts today in a Western language results directly from this syncretistic trait of Chinese medical history. Identical terms were often used to denote very different concepts, and at no time was a standardization attempted which might have led to a dominating or stringent interpretation of even the core concepts by a majority of dogmatists and practitioners.
The confrontational nature of Western society is a good thing. It roots out bad ideas faster (not immediately, but faster than in any other known culture). The most successful non-western cultures copy this. It’s a feature, not a bug.
Idiots such as Parzybok who repudiate the best of Western culture in our intelligentsia are ingrates. The 30 million or so Chinese mothers making their kids study Western classical piano have none of the white-guilt problems that cause overeducated fools in the West to repudiate what’s good about their heritage – they know what works when they see it.
And I do see someone making a gobsmackingly stupid remark such as “Which of these civilizations had a cure for cancer?” as repudiating the best of Western Culture. How exactly, does Parzybok think that the anti-biotics that took syphilis from being a life-threatening STD to a curable annoyance came about? People like me do not sit in the lab talking about the fundamental interconnectedness of things and how if we found just the right plant from some aborigine, all illness would disappear. Cures come from cold, hard, logical study of the world around us.
No other culture managed to inculcate the ideals of skepticism in such a wide swath of its citizens (alas, not wide enough, but still…) that was necessary to incubate the philosophy that became the modern scientific method. This shows that Parzybok, in all of his taxpayer-funded “education” has not absorbed enough information in class, or had enough sense to absorb it on his own, in order to be able to outline exactly how the modern world came about, or how (and why) we know what we know. His knowledge of science is no different from a knowledge borne of religion – taking information on authority – and once he takes it into his head that the authority is to be questioned, he has no idea how to determine a reliable authority from a huge crock of cow manure:
It was here that I arrived at another ‘big idea’ - that myth is a word modern society makes up because the reality seems incomprehensible within a western-minded framework of civilization. Modern society essentially negates the possibility of the real story. Through this new lens I began to question all of history and mythology, trying to sort out the what ifs if certain parts were inverted.
Uh, no. Not at all. If by “real story” Parzybok means the superstitious mis-mash that Chan Yau-man was talking about in his essay on TCM, well, not just no, but hell no. We scientists are fighting the same fight against the Creationists as we do the purveyors of non-Western woo. There is rational thought based on evidence, and there is superstition in the Demon-Haunted World. There is no in-between.
Parzybok lives in the tradition of Rousseau, and falls prey to the same idealizations that gloss over the nasty, brutish and short lives of the pre-modern.
It was during this time that myself and a few friends took a trek deep into the Andes accompanied by a mule to a place the locals warned we’d be killed, a moonshining, smuggler’s village accessible only by a two day journey on foot. There were no roads, no electricity, no cultural invasion, and that separation from ‘civilization’ seemed to enable a special kind of reality there. It was a truly idyllic place, where fish were kept in water holes in your front yard, where weather seemed to crash in in every incarnation, all at once (the village elevation was 12,000 feet), where you kept hundred gallon barrels of moonshine in your bedroom and started off the day siphoning a plug or two. There was a healer. There was a deaf girl who’d invented her own signs to communicate with others in the village. There were sheep in the hills and the men spoke to their horses. Legend and history were inseparable.
Yeah, a “special kind of reality”. One where polio and tuberculosis were deadly, rather than historical curiosities. I wonder how much good that “healer” was in the face of cancer? Not very? I guess evil old Spanish had erased that healer’s connection to the ancients who did know how to cure cancer.
Parzybok is a mental adolescent of the type Lileks was talking about here:
One of the dumbest lines in cinema is one of the most famous: asked what he’s rebelling against, Marlin Brando’s character in the “The Wild Ones” says “Whaddya got?”
Oh, I don’t know. The Pure Food Act, antibiotics, an industrial infrastructure that makes it possible for you to ride your bikes around, paved roads, a foreseeable successful conclusion to rural electrification, sewers, the ability to walk into any small café and order a Coke and know you won’t be squitting your guts out 12 hours later into a hole in the ground alive with squishy invertebrates. Little things.
The fact that there are so many Parzyboks running around today is part of what the Chinese call the third generation problem. The third generation in a rich family, or a rich society, forgets where it came from. Asians recognize this instinctively because their historical (but not modern) view of time is cyclical, rather than linear:
When a man is bringing up a household he has to be capable enough himself, and work hard. This is true in business or any other activity. Whereas the father starts from scratch, the second generation doesn’t have to work so hard or have to face such travails. Still the son knows how hard the father struggled, and is able to carry on the business. Then comes the third generation boy, with no recollection of the difficult life of his father or grandfather. The grandson is very well educated, extremely cultured and sophisticated. He is superb in calligraphy and uses it to paint a sign: “House for rent”
—- Alvin Coox interview with Colonel Sumi in Nomonhan p.61
The infiltration of “woo” into Western thought is pernicious, and especially dangerous in the sphere of medicine. While I fully realize that Parzybok has written a book using magic realism, his musings when asked about the underlying philosophy of his book reveal a huge ignorance about the culture that created enough material wealth for him to aspire to be a paid teller of tales that denounce that very culture. It smacks of ingratitude. And in my book, ingratitude ought to be one of the seven deadly sins.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
What I've mostly come up with is that, in general, people are just people. People are mostly the same the world over, and they are mostly good. The world is more good than bad, and mostly everybody is just trying to get by. The minority who isn't so good, however, is vastly over-represented among politicians and political types.
My experience has been that great men and women are not all that smart (perhaps smarter than average, but not smarter than average among the elites that they generally come from), and are not motivated by altruism, any intellectual agenda, or even ideology. They are almost never motivated by what they say they are motivated by, which is, or should be, a red flag early on.
There are some who are born and raised to greatness (George Bush is a pretty good example, as was Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy), others who achieve greatness through sheer ambition (Barack Obama, Bill Clinton), and still others who achieve greatness through random luck and chance (Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower). The last category, and the largest, is those who achieve greatness through steady, consistent effort (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, perhaps Reagan).
A lot of it is about energy. Read the biographies of great men and very often you will find they existed with minimal rest, striving through the night while others were asleep. Often what makes people great is they simply try harder. In all most all cases you will find that great people try very hard.
Just trying hard will not make you great, however. There are plenty of people who strive endlessly yet remain obscure or mediocre. Some of those obscure and mediocre hard workers are a lot smarter than the famous and powerful politicians. Just being smart and working hard isn't enough either.
Several years ago I was talking about this factor with a somewhat great man (a political appointee in the Reagan and both Bush administrations). We were discussing another friend, who was nominated for a higher position. My friend reflected that a lot of political success had to do with "command presence", as he termed it, an intangible quality of leadership that inspires "followership".
I've heard a lot about leadership over the years: what it is, who has it, how you develop it, how you practice it. There are a lot of things anyone can do to be a good leader: pay attention and listen to your subordinates, be firm, fair, and consistent, communicate conscientiously, set a good example. But there are intangible qualities in some leaders that inspire followership regardless of the "by the book" traits. A lot of that is what my friend meant by "command presence".
Barack Obama seems to have a huge quotient of this intangible quality. My experience with John McCain was that he didn't have much of it, although he was pretty diligent about practicing the conventional tenets of leadership. I think this may be a very sigificant factor.
Unfortuantely, history (and the military, from what I've seen) is chock full of guys who were really bad leaders but had phenomenal command presence. Adolph Hitler is the guy who comes most immediately to mind because there is plenty of film of him, but I expect many other notorious historical figures were similar.
In contrast, not all Presidents have this intangible quality, although more have it than don't. Ronald Reagan had loads of it, but he was an actor, and I'm convinced it's a lot about acting. It's also a lot about charisma, which is a pretty in tangible quality as well. JFK and Eisenhower had it, although they were very different and had very different styles. Jimmy Carter had very little, Nixon didn't seem to have much, Ford seemed to have more than Carter or Nixon, and George HW Bush had very, very little of it. I get the impression that George W. Bush has more than his father, but not as much as Eisenhower or JFK, much less Reagan. FDR had lots, and I'm fuzzy on Truman. He was so modest that it was hard to tell, but I still suspect he had quite a bit.
So, reflecting on history, it would seem that this intangible quality of charismatic leadership is a powerful advantage for those who would be powerful. It can be used for good or ill, and it's totally separate from the individuals character or qualities as a human being. You can be the worst monster in history and have stunning command presence, and get people to commit genocide on your behalf. Or you can use that power to help make the world a better place.
I don't think we have any idea how the new President-elect will govern. Is he driven by a desire to improve the world and help people, or by a desire to accrue power and wield it to massage his own ego? I surely have no idea, although among politicians I've noted about 10% in the "help the world" category and about 90% in the "egomaniacal" category. And you surely can't tell by what they say or their public personae, because the most egomaniacal are also usually the best actors. (The great exception of all time to this maxim is Ronald Reagan.)
What I've seen is that the best politicians are the one who never let their guard down, who never let their real personality or their real feelings show through the mask. That makes judging them really darned tricky.
So my point is that I have no idea what we can expect for the next few years. My unscientific analysis suggests that the more charismatic the President, the more likely he is to be re-elected (and that simple rule applies to almost all other positions of leadership as well). Real humanity and honesty are liabilities among politicians, which is unfortunate for us ordinary folk. But the better the politician, the harder it is to tell what kind of person they really are, and currently we're dealing with one of the best natural talents that I've ever seen.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
But CW’s last post did get me to thinking about Cosmos. Carl Sagan inspired me to look into fundamental science as a career when I was about 10. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that my father was a meteorologist and my mother was a grade school teacher pretty much sealed my fate in a technical career when I was born (by temperament, not by their urging – I can not remember a time when they said “you ought to do this or that”, ever – but then I never talked about majoring in literature, either). But the pre-teen naturally begins to look past the parents for role models, and Sagan provided a broader canvas on which I could paint my dreams.
In high school, the large brushes of childhood were replaced by the fine drawing instruments of adulthood, and the canvas began to look like something real. My high school chemistry teacher channeled my energy into the exact branch of science I was to follow into graduate school – Physical Chemistry.
So, having completed my training in the late 90s, I came back home to the house I grew up in and chanced upon the companion book to Cosmos, sitting up in the attic. I re-read it with the critical eye that had seen Sagan crash and burn through his Nuclear Winter to Nuclear Autumn backpedaling, on into his hugely improvident predictions of environmental disaster from Gulf War I. Sagan is an object lesson in avoiding the personality cult in science, and in the need to doubly scrutinize what public science figures say when they are talking outside of their field of expertise. But Sagan was always big enough to admit his errors of fact, if not his errors of public persuasion, or the emotional drivers that led him to cherry pick his models and violate Feynman’s directive to try to poke holes at one’s own theories.
So I still read Sagan with interest. In re-reading Cosmos, I came to the passage criticizing Star Trek. Now, I am second to none in being quick to point out that Star Dreck is not real science fiction, being as I am an aficionado of Hard SF. Hell, I enjoy a good Spider Robinson story more than a “Kirk Does the Green Alien Chick” story, and Spider sure as hell ain’t hard SF. But Sagan’s particular criticism was yet another example of a very smart guy talking out of his posterior orifice because no one around him told him he was full of it. And, in my usual wandering style, I have some to the point of the post, and the connection to CW’s.
Sagan’s criticism was that the likelihood of two alien races meeting each other at the same level of technology is so small as to be infinitesimal, and that the more advanced race, if warlike, would quickly conquer the more backward one.
The problem with this is that Sagan modeled his technological progress on a smooth function. It doesn’t matter if one takes a linear or non-linear approach to modeling technological progress, I think it is a form of temporal bigotry borne of living in the 20th century that would lead one to look at the pace of technological progress as anything other than a series of step functions, or more accurately, a series of sigmoidal curves.
Technology is based on physical phenomena. Another great physicist who liked to talk out of his posterior orifice, Ernest Rutherford, once famously said that all science was either physics or stamp collecting. Stamp collecting is highly underrated by people who work on mathematical models all day. Without careful observations of physical phenomena, theory would be so much mathematical masturbation. And technology does not progress in the long term without the discovery of new physical phenomena.
As CW and I have noted before, the pace of fundamental progress in the physical sciences seems to have slowed in since the 1930s. The main advances since the 1930s have been in biology, which has taken the fruits of the gains of quantum mechanics and applied them to living systems. What the latter half of the 20th century has been in terms of technological progress, is using the gains of the past 150 years to do exciting things, such as going to the moon, or making computer networks. Neither of those relied on much new science, however. What they mostly relied on was wealth – having the infrastructure available to afford such luxuries.
For example, computers could have been networked in an “Internet” of sorts back in the 1960s, with terminals spread out to at least public libraries. The expense was too great, and attachment to information in books too great, so that the Internet needed to wait, not just until the invention of the PC, but until people got comfortable enough with the PC to have enough of them to cheaply network.
The pace of change in the modern world still seems to be accelerating, but that is because the pace of discovery in the past did not allow the human race to catch up to all of the implications of the previous discoveries. Some new technologies will come of nanotechnology – but not as many as people expect (I hold nanotechnology patents, I know what I’m talking about, here), just as the Human Genome project hss not yielded the results that HGSI was promising in the middle of the tech bubble. These things take time to work out.
We are now approaching the flat part of a step, or more accurately, we are at the second inflection point of the sigmoidal curve that makes up our step. Progress will still be made - the first derivative is still positive, but the second derivative is now decreasing, not increasing. And that is what is wrong with Sagan’s picture of the progress of technology. Once a race has mined and exploited all of the physical phenomena that are there to be discovered in their corner of the Universe, the flat part of the step will cover a long, long time indeed.
It may be that a race will need to get close to quasars, or black holes, or objects yet undiscovered, in order to observe a phenomenon that lends itself to revolutionary technology such as the one at the NP junction that led to all the stuff I’m using to communicate with you right now. I think that the probability of two races meeting while on the flat part of a curve is much, much greater than what Sagan expected.
The trick, the duty, of a race living in the “flat time” is to inculcate the kind of love of discovery that will allow that race to take advantage of new observations when and if they are made, and not dismiss the new science and technology as too disruptive. If humans are any example (and I think we are – fundamental evolutionary processes, even on silicon or germanium based life forms, will not be much different if something sentient is to evolve on another world), then sentient beings tend to get fat, dumb, happy, and conservative when not pushed by their environment to learn and grow.
I think what worries CW and I is that we see signs of a waning in the will to explore. Even if space colonization is economically unfeasible right now, the desire to do what we can do has been lost in NASA bureaucracy. Books about space exploration abounded when I was in elementary school. Now they are lost in a sea of Dora the Explorer. And she's exploring what exactly? I now look to the private sector to rekindle the sense of promise I felt as a kid looking at the plans for the Shuttle. Little did I know at that young age that the Shuttle itself represented a lowering of expectations. You can also see those lowered expectations in peripheral things, such as our literature and architecture. We have become, in many ways, a smaller people.
I’ve seen a lot of idiots talking recently about the cost of the LHC – yet that is the one great hope we have right now of discovering something new that might re-ignite the sense of progress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mind you, I don’t think it will any time soon, but it might. That is worth a lot of coin of the realm to attempt to capture. And so I come to a final, political musing. Like the Coalition, I am determined to make Obama my president, too. The brightest spot I see (not the only bright spot, just the brightest) is his commitment to science. Let’s all push forward on that frontier, and rekindle the imaginations of our children.