Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

barrelling down the slippery slope and gaining steam

The Human Rights Commissions in Canada are under the microscope right now due to the Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant trials (to call them trials, even though they take place in buildings with the word "court" written on the door, is preposterous) proceedings. And while public attention is focused on those two, there are still other proceedings going on all the time. The latest ruling, in the Rev. Stephen Boissoin case, states in part that
Mr. Boissoin and [his organization] The Concerned Christian Coalition Inc. shall cease publishing in newspapers, by email, on the radio, in public speeches, or on the Internet, in future, disparaging remarks about gays and homosexuals. Further they shall not and are prohibited from making disparaging remarks in the future about Dr. Lund [the complainant] or Dr. Lund's witnesses relating to their involvement in this complaint. Further all disparaging remarks versus homosexuals are directed to be removed from current websites and publications of Mr. Boissoin and The Concerned Christian Coalition Inc.
The ruling goes on; it is fascinating reading, if one is fascinated by venality.

The ruling admits that "...there is no specific individual who can be compensated as there is no direct victim who has come forward seeking redress", and yet Boissoin must pay Dr. Lund $5000 because "Dr. Lund, although not a direct victim, did expend considerable time and energy and suffered ridicule and harrassment as a result of his complaint." [emphasis mine] Boissoin is also on the hook for up to $2000 of the complainant's witness's expenses.

Boissoin said some nasty things in his letter, but did not incite violence; he did not shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater where no fire was present; he did not write that homosexuals ought to be killed; he did not do anything but express his opinion in a letter to the editor of a small-city newspaper. And for that, he is not only out of pocket for up to seven grand to someone who was not harmed in any way by his words, but he is forever prohibited from exercising his right to free political speech. If the text of the ruling is followed to the letter, then if Boissoin even says in private email correspondence that "Lund is an asshole", Boissoin will go to jail for contempt of court!

These Human Rights [sic] Commissions are an abomination in a liberal democracy. In these hearings there is no presumption of innocence; truth is not a defence; fair comment is not a defence; freedom of speech as guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not a defence; all costs for a legal defence are borne by the defendant but the costs for prosecution are borne by the government; no harm must be demonstrated in order for a conviction and subsequent financial compensation to the complainant; no rules of evidence apply; the cases may be tried in multiple jurisdictions simultaneously (Mark Steyn was exposed to of all things triple jeopardy, being tried in Ontario, BC, and soon in the Federal HRC); the complainant need not reside in the jurisdiction where the proceedings take place, nor even show up for the proceedings;"expert" witnesses do not need to have expertise in the field in which they testify, nor must their testimony actually be relevant; and the tribunal "judges" need not have any legal training at all, nor apparently any familiarity with the rule of law or the operation of a courtroom; there is no such thing as a speedy proceeding (Ezra Levant's case has been ongoing for over 800 days; Boissoin lost his case in November and the ruling came out on May 30). These HRCs are nothing short of kangaroo courts.

At one time, the HRCs were charged with redressing discrimination in things like housing and employment, but like a cancer they have spread to suppressing free political speech: Steyn's, Levant's, Boissoin's, and potentially even my own (I published the Danish Mohammed cartoons, like Levant, as well as an image of the Piss Christ "artwork"). Once, just once, I would like to have the slippery slope argument proven wrong. I won't hold my breath.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Taking the long view for conservatism in America

In discussing the upcoming US elections, Rachel Lucas exhibits some short-term thinking:
I do not believe you’re going to teach anyone a “lesson” by sitting this one out or writing in Fred Thompson or Sunny Lucas. I believe that way too many people are ignoring the forest for the trees and that in doing so, they’re going to have a hand in electing Obama. Some say that’s fine because if the country’s going to be “ruined”, better that it’s ruined by a Democrat, and somehow magically we’ll come up with a fantastic, “real” conservative in 4 years even though there is no one like that on the horizon and everyone knows it. Like I said, I think that’s a super-crappy plan.
This is perfectly reasonable, but only if one is operating from a certain set of axioms:
1) there are now and will only ever be two viable political parties in the USA, the Republicans and the Democrats
2) given the choice between a greater evil and a lesser evil, it is better to choose the lesser evil (or at least to try to prevent victory for the greater evil)
Joining the argument is Francis Porretto:
Shouldn't we act to preserve as much freedom as we possibly can, even if it means voting for Republicans who've collaborated in the expansion of the Omnipotent State?

In a word, no. The tipping point is upon us; further support of the GOP in its present configuration will produce net damage to what remains of our traditional rights. The idea that supporting the lesser of two evils is somehow morally obligatory has never enjoyed less logical or historical support.

...If conservatives want to compel the GOP and its candidates to conform to conservative principle, they must defeat the party's strategy. That means defeating the party overall [Porretto's emphasis], not merely any one candidate. Nothing else will get the party's kingpins to question their strategic decisions.
In response to those conservatives who are considering sitting this election out, and letting Obama (or God forbid, Hi!!ary) win the presidency, there are those who point out short term possible losses, such as a precipitous pullout from Iraq or immigration amnesty or the signing of Kyoto (by the way, the latter is extremely unlikely, as the Senate unanimously(!) voted against that during Clinton's last term in office) should the Democrats win this election. They also point out medium-term possible losses such as the appointment of left-leaning judges to the Supreme Court.

Those fears are valid, but shortsighted. America has been a slowly-boiling frog for the better part of a century, and one election is not going to reverse the bad decisions of the past century; certainly none of the major Presidential candidates inspires hope for a change of direction away from disaster. As far as I can tell, each of them will merely heat up the water a little more.

Instead, take the long view: if you have young children, what sort of America will there be by the time their children start voting? If Americans continue this gradual slide into larger "entitlement" programs, more intrusive governmental control over their daily lives, more artificial impediments on the economy, more porkbarrel spending, higher and higher taxes, more and more assaults on Constitutionally-protected rights - then their great-grandchildren will inherit a bankrupt country where freedom is something that their senile great-grandparents kind of remember but of which they cannot even fathom.

Continuing to reward the major political parties for their ever-leftward tilt, by continuing to elect them to office as the lesser of two evils, does nothing to prevent the nightmare scenario for your grandchildren. In fact, it assures that outcome.

Also, a merely symbolic abstention from voting on the part of a small but significant percentage of conservatives in this election isn't going to change the calculus. In four more years, after whatever havoc that either of the Democrat candidates may wreak, the Republican conservative base will find itself right back where it is today, with a choice between one or another set of crooks. Porretto's idea of shaking up the Republican Party by handing them an electoral defeat isn't enough in and of itself - they've suffered electoral losses before. So has the Democrat Party, including some huge losses, and they're still around.

However, all is not lost, at least not yet. The axioms that I inferred above from my interpretation of Rachel's point of view are not immutable laws carved in stone. Francis Porretto has a point about the invalidity of the second axiom; and indeed, if that first axiom is demolished then the second one has no validity at all - the choice would no longer be between the lesser of two evils.

So, to invalidate that first axiom, let's look at a little history. In the mid-1800s the Whig Party (whose members included Daniel Webster and a young Abraham Lincoln) candidate became president on two occasions, in 1840 with William Henry Harrison and in 1848 with Zachary Taylor. Obviously they were a major political party, capable of attaining the Presidency - and the Whigs are gone. The Republican party rose out of its ashes - two years before the Whigs were wiped out.

More recent history provides another example: let's look at what happened in Canada from the late 1980's to the present. The Progressive Conservative (how's that for an oxymoron) party had been sliding further and further left for decades, and was becoming indistinguishable from the Liberals. In the West, a new party - the Reform Party - was established as a grass-roots effort to restore true conservative principles to federal politics.

Reform's first MP was elected in a byelection in 1989, and support continued to grow as the party outlined and stuck to its conservative principles. By 1993, Canadians had had enough of the Progressive Conservatives, and obliterated the party at the polls - it dropped from 151 seats in the House of Commons down to 2 seats. Reform went from 1 seat to 52, nearly all in the West, and vote splitting between the PCs and Reform in Ontario handed control of the government to the Liberals. It took 13 more years, and some coalition building with the remnant rump of the PC party (which involved the merger of the two parties into the Canadian Alliance Party, and later into the Conservative Party), but in 2006 the Conservatives won a minority in the federal election.

In all it has taken nearly 20 years for the process, from a leftward-lurching-and-gaining-speed "conservative" party in power to a more rightward-leaning (and thankfully much friendlier to the USA) party in minority power; it is entirely possible that there will be a Conservative majority Parliament after the next election.

Of course, the analogy isn't perfect; the existing Conservative party is still to the left of the Democrat party - which should tell you just how far left the old PCs had swung. However, it can be done. It takes a lot of hard work to do it, and there are growing pains which involve weeding out some really extreme fringe elements that tend to latch on to new political movements.

But, it can't be done by a half-hearted effort, which is where I think that first axiom has tripped up Porretto - it isn't enough to defeat the Republicans to make them change their ways, you have to defeat them utterly and also have a conservative alternative waiting to take over the Republican base - you can't wipe them out and "fix" them, expecting a long term change, you have to wipe them out completely and be ready to start over before they are wiped out. If the conservative base in the Republican party actually wants to have a conservative representation in Washington, then they will have to form a conservative party and drain the lifeblood out of the Republican party. It is too late to do that before this election. However, if they start their grass-roots movement now, then by 2012 they will make serious inroads into the base of the Republican party.

The hardest part is convincing people that the nominally conservative party has truly abandoned its conservative base, and that a fresh start is needed. After that, you have to keep people's attention long enough, and consistently apply conservative principles along the way, to build your new conservative party up into a party that stands a chance of electing a President and/or a majority of seats in Congress and the Senate. If the USA follows Canada's example, that could take twenty years or more. Even if it takes two generations, the results for your grandchildren will be worth the effort.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Liveblogging Mars Phoenix landing

4:35 pm PST: The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has started the software that will allow it to track the Phoenix during Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL)

4:37 PST: expecting the MRO to start receiving data in 2 minutes 30 seconds

4:38 PST: why the hell is Mike Griffin at the JPL mission control, wearing a blue t-shirt and looking like he's doing something?

4:39 PST: cruise stage separation, a UHF signal has been received by MRO Mars Odyssey.

4:43 PST: MRO now has signal as well. Atmospheric entry in 1 minute 35 seconds

4:45 PST: by the way, all these times and signals received are about 20 minutes late due to light speed delay. If the Phoenix landed safely, then it already happened and we just won't know until 20 minutes after the fact. all those folks in JPL aren't actually doing anything right now, they're just watching

4:48 PST: peak heating, and yet we are still seeing a signal from Phoenix via Odyssey, even through the plasma generated by the ablation of the heat shield

4:50 PST: parachute deployment. The next big thing is separation of Phoenix from the parachute and ignition of its landing rockets

4:53 PST: it's plummeting

4:54 PST: touchdown signal detected. The numbers being called out by the guy at mission control suggested that it was falling much faster than it should have been, but so far it looks like it didn't lithobrake.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

selling space, part 1

It's funny how conversations can migrate from blog to blog. Over at Space Politics five days ago, Jeff Foust got the ball rolling by noting "that space ranks pretty low on the list of priorities of the general public (and, thus, fairly high on the list of government programs they would be willing to cut)". In the comments for that post, commentor James summarized why this is so:
Those who support the current lunar program often forget the opportunity costs. There are better ways to spend the same money on developing space. I’m 24 - with the current Constellation program plan, I’ll be in my mid 30s by the time we get back to the moon. If we operate the system for a decade or two after that, as is likely, all I can expect in my career is to see 4 people land on the moon twice a year. That is not exciting - nor is it worth the money. Maybe by the time I retire we’ll be looking at another "next generation system".

What’s the point of any of this for someone my age?
Then Jon Goff of Selenian Boondocks picked up on this point and expanded upon it further:
If our current approach to space development was actually putting in place the technology and infrastructure needed to make our civilization a spacefaring one, I’d be a lot more willing to support it. Wise investments in the future are a good thing, but NASA’s current approach is not a wise investment in the future. It’s aging hipsters trying to relive the glory days of their youth at my generation’s expense.

Patience is only a virtue when you’re headed in the right direction and doing the right thing. If Constellation was truly (as Marburger put it) making future operations cheaper, safer, and more capable, then I’d be all for patiently seeing it out.

While Constellation might possibly put some people on the moon, it won’t actually put us any closer to routine, affordable, and sustainable exploration and development. I have no problem with a long hard road, just so long as its the right one.
Now the conversation shifts to SpaceRef, where yesterday Dennis Wingo argued that NASA has done a terrible job at selling space to the American people for forty years:
There is a principle in the entrepreneurial world that if you present a business plan to an investor that does not meet their criterion for funding, you dont get funded. The same principle applies to government spending with the congress, executive branch and the people fulfilling the role of the investor. Our national space agency has been trying to sell a business plan to the American people for almost forty years that they have continually decided not to fund. The investor has continually given feedback to the NASA entrepreneur with little or no indication that NASA has listened.

...It is quite clear to those of us who have been involved with NASA since the beginning of the SEI era that its successor, the VSE is in trouble. The fact is that NASA ignored both the president and the executive branch organization (OSTP), that helped to come up with the VSE in the first place. The problem is not the rocket, it is the plan of what we do when we get to the Moon. While there are many who would strenuously argue that the transportation architecture represented by the ESAS study as implemented with billions of dollars of taxpayer money is the wrong one, in the end, this argument misses the greater point.

The point is that there is virtually no plan at all to carry out the truly remarkable plan to use resources derived from the Moon for further exploration. The epitome of the divergence from the vision as laid out by the president is the statement by the NASA administrator that all we need is a good map, to get back to the Moon. There are statements that encapsulate all the problems of a plan, and this statement is the one that made it clear that NASA has no interest in carrying out the VSE as envisioned by our elected leadership and why in the competition for federal resources, NASA is losing.
And this brings us to a piece written earlier today by Mark Whittington:
The main problem with Wingo's critique of the way VSE is being pursued is that it fails to understand the proper role of government in opening the space frontier. It is not the role of NASA to build the infrastructure that would take him, you, and me to the Moon and beyond, no more than it was the job of Lewis and [Clark] to build a transcontinental railroad. Government agencies are not very good at building transportation infrastructures. The history of the space shuttle should give pause, if nothing else, to those who think otherwise.

Instead it is one role of NASA to help to enable that infrastructure. How does VSE do that? The answer lays in a NASA program that Wingo fails to mention: the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS) program. For a modest [sum], COTS seems on the verge of leveraging the ISS to enable the establishment of a true commercial Earth to Low Earth Orbit transportation industry. Companies like SpaceX, Orbital, and even Lockheed Martin are actually building space craft that will take cargo and people to and from LEO. Even the sub orbital barnstorming efforts (i.e. Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, etc) are bending metal and testing actual hardware.

So, using the COTS model, it would seem very reasonable to suggest that ten or fifteen years later, someone would suggest a similar proposal for NASA's lunar base. If private industry by that time already has years of experience going to and from LEO, it would not be much of a stretch to suggest that we could shortly see private flights to and from the Moon.
Of course, with this kind of conversation going on I cannot help but to throw in my two cents.

First of all, I have to take exception to some of what Mark wrote. "Government agencies are not very good at building transportation infrastructures." The existence of the interstate highway system and the multitude of airports and shipyards across America and the streets and subways within cities, nearly all government-built, suggests that Mark is dead wrong on this. In Canada and many other countries the railroads were government-built, too. Transportation infrastructure construction and maintenance is one of the primary functions of governments at all levels throughout the world. This is done because such infrastructure is an economic necessity: without that infrastructure in place, the transportation of goods and people becomes prohibitively expensive and the economy simply cannot support itself. No transportation infrastructure means no economy which in turn means no tax base to operate the government in the first place. As much as I have railed against governments in the past, and as much as I would like to see an absolute minimum of government in any form, the existence of government-built transportation infrastructure is a fact which cannot be ignored, nor dismissed as Whittington has.

Secondly, I find Whittington's example of COTS to be disingenuous. SpaceX is taking advantage of COTS because the money is available to offset their development costs, however they were going to do what they are doing anyhow, regardless of COTS. They saw that there was a potential for a market in space transportation irrespective of NASA's plans. And when one really gets down to brass tacks, the existence of SpaceX is due to Elon Musk's personal dream of going to Mars. There's something in it for him personally.

And then to bring Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, who have nothing whatsoever to do with COTS or anything else that NASA is doing, into the mix is rubbish. Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos are not developing suborbital spaceflight because of something of NASA is doing; they are doing it because they think that a market exists, of people who have spent most of their lives watching NASA and the Russians thoroughly explore low earth orbit while their own personal experience in space keeps getting pushed further off into future generations. Bezos and Branson and a lot of others have recognized that people want to go into space, even if only for a period of a few minutes, and they are looking to get in on that market. They have recognized that they can make viable businesses taking people to space - in short they can make money by providing a service that people want. For Bezos and Branson and Carmack and lots of others, there is something in it for them, and they are willing to gamble their personal fortunes based on that potential.

And this brings us back to the point raised by James in the comments at Space Politics. In all of the grand plans that NASA is putting forth, in their desire to maintain the huge Shuttle workforce by developing brand new rockets when adequate commercial alternatives already exist, in their plans to send a handful of people to the moon fifteen (or twenty? thirty? the schedule keeps slipping) years from now, whose goal would be apparently to merely to have repeated history but "on steroids", what is in it for the rest of us?

What compelling reason is there to even justify the continued existence of NASA beyond the fulfillment of the commitment to the international partners in the ISS? Why should American tax dollars go to pay for anything that NASA does? What can justify the opportunity costs if - after the completion of the ESAS implementation of the Vision for Space Exploration - we are no closer to being a spacefaring society than we were in 1972?

If NASA wants to receive yearly increases in their budget, even if only to keep pace with inflation, then what exactly are the advantages to the American taxpayer that NASA's plans provide? How does the expenditure over the next few decades improve anything for American society, in a way that an alternative expenditure of those same funds could not?

Of course, it is not enough for me to simply complain that NASA is doing it all wrong. There are things that NASA could be doing differently, to make themselves relevant and to show the American taxpayers that there is a benefit to the agency's expenditures that greatly exceed the opportunity costs, to show average people that there's something in it for us. However, this post is already excessively long, and so my solutions are going to have to wait for another blog post.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

credibility shredding

There was an uproar in the blogosphere last last week over the senior art project of one Aliza Shvarts at Yale university. She claimed that the art project was the result of nine months of repeated artificial insemination followed by self-induced miscarriage. Apparently her thesis advisor saw nothing wrong with this as an art project, nor did the School of Art director of undergraduate studies.

Now Yale won't allow her to display this "art" at an exhibition unless she admits it is a work of fiction; she continues to insist that it's the real deal.

Let us set aside for a moment the grotesque idea that a university insists that a student lie about her project. Let us also set aside the obvious health and biohazard issues, and the standard requirement for a Human Subjects Committee review of any study involving the use of human subjects (even oneself) which was obviously not followed. Further, let us also for a moment set aside the abhorrent nature of this supposed "art".

Instead, I want to look at how an incident like this affects Yale. This was completely boneheaded on the part of the thesis advisor. It suggests that there are absolutely no standards for the senior art project, presumably a requirement for the degree. This implies that there are no standards required in order to obtain an art degree at Yale. And if there are no standards required for that degree, then of what intrinsic value is any degree from Yale?

This is only one incident, but at Yale recently there have been other examples of appalling lack of judgement on the part of the faculty. Remember when they admitted the Taliban propaganda chief as a student? Stupid, stupid, stupid. And this sort of idiocy is not limited to Yale, either.

There is a reason that parents are willing to shell out a premium to send their little darlings to top schools; those schools have a reputation for top-quality educations, which translates into higher career earnings. However, a reputation is a fragile thing. In order to maintain a reputation as a top school, the school has to actually consistently deliver a top quality education. If this is the sort of thing that passes for an education at Yale, then their degrees are not worth much at all. They are certainly not worth the two hundred grand that Aliza Shvarts' parents paid.

Put yourself in the position of an employer: "oh, you graduated from Yale? that school with no academic standards? Gee... yeah, we'll call you. Thanks for coming." Really makes you want to send your kids there, doesn't it? And to shell out huge bucks to do so, too, right?

Friday, April 04, 2008

Sunday, March 30, 2008

i'm still here

Yeah, I'm still kicking about. I've just been super busy this last month; it's been all I can do to post a space video of the day every day at Space Feeds. Hopefully I'll start blogging regularly again soon.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

D and D

Gary Gygax recently passed away, at the age of 69. He was a true innovator in the world of games, and his Dungeons and Dragons is still played the world over. I haven't played the game in many years, but I still have my dice (3d6, 2d10, d4, d8, d20) around somewhere.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the game was making up a character. If you have about 20 minutes, you can answer this survey and figure out what D&D character you would be if you were transported into the D&D universe. Here are my results:

You Are A:

True Neutral Human Wizard (6th Level)

Ability Scores:
Strength- 16
Dexterity- 17
Constitution- 16
Intelligence- 20
Wisdom- 15
Charisma- 13

True Neutral- A true neutral character does what seems to be a good idea. He doesn't feel strongly one way or the other when it comes to good vs. evil or law vs. chaos. Most true neutral characters exhibit a lack of conviction or bias rather than a commitment to neutrality. Such a character thinks of good as better than evil after all, he would rather have good neighbors and rulers than evil ones. Still, he's not personally committed to upholding good in any abstract or universal way. Some true neutral characters, on the other hand, commit themselves philosophically to neutrality. They see good, evil, law, and chaos as prejudices and dangerous extremes. They advocate the middle way of neutrality as the best, most balanced road in the long run. True neutral is the best alignment you can be because it means you act naturally, without prejudice or compulsion. However, true neutral can be a dangerous alignment because it represents apathy, indifference, and a lack of conviction.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Wizards- Wizards are arcane spellcasters who depend on intensive study to create their magic. To wizards, magic is not a talent but a difficult, rewarding art. When they are prepared for battle, wizards can use their spells to devastating effect. When caught by surprise, they are vulnerable. The wizard's strength is her spells, everything else is secondary. She learns new spells as she experiments and grows in experience, and she can also learn them from other wizards. In addition, over time a wizard learns to manipulate her spells so they go farther, work better, or are improved in some other way. A wizard can call a familiar- a small, magical, animal companion that serves her. With a high Intelligence, wizards are capable of casting very high levels of spells.

...thus proving once again that these silly surveys have no bearing on reality whatsoever. Good thing they're fun.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Wishing Their Problems Away

This New York Times article inadvertently suggests that some of the top level people in NASA are using hope rather than sound engineering practice when it comes to designing the Ares-1 rocket, which will be the US government's replacement for the Space Shuttle.
Still, Mr. Lyles said there would be no need for a full-scale redesign. Additional analysis has indicated the problem is not as severe as first thought, and the two vibrational frequencies may turn out to be far enough apart, more than 10 percent, that nothing needs to be changed at all.
If fixes are necessary, rocket scientists know what to do. A shock absorber could be added between the first and second stages, or the structure could be modified to change the resonance frequency.
Why is this a problem, you ask? Observe this video of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Since 1940 this bridge has been an object lesson to engineers of all stripes. It is inconceivable that the engineers at NASA are not aware of this bridge and the issue of resonant frequency. It is further inconceivable that they would assume that a ten percent difference in the resonant frequencies of the solid rocket booster and the second stage would be enough to save them from the same fate as Galloping Gertie.

It is not trivial to change the Ares rocket to eliminate the resonance caused by the natural operating frequency of the solid rocket booster. The shuttle gets away with it because its 4-stage solid rockets are attached at top and bottom to the side of the external fuel tank, which acts as a strongback for the shuttle stack and dampens the vibrations from the SRBs due both to the strength of the materials of the tank and the dual connection points. On the Ares, the second stage is balanced atop a brand new 5-stage solid rocket booster; there really is only one attachment point, a ring at the top of the solid rocket. To damp out the oscillation "by adding a shock absorber" means adding a lot of mass between the SRB and the second stage or (worse) an even larger mass between the second stage and the Orion crew module.

The Ares-1 is overweight as it is; NASA still has to cut a ton from the mass of Orion in order to get the Ares off the pad, even though most of the weight of the safety systems has already been stripped from the design. In some cases the safety systems are single-string. That's brittle design - a single failure equals disaster.

The other option is to modify the design of the rocket to change the resonant frequency. The problem is that such a resonance is inherent to the design of any solid rocket booster. As the New York Times article points out, an SRB is like a pipe in a pipe organ. As the fuel burns, what remains behind is a hollow tube with a lot of air moving through it. No matter what solid rocket booster design NASA goes with, they still have the same issue of a resonant frequency. If they change the booster significantly (and many engineers would argue that adding a fifth segment to the booster is already a huge change), then they end up with completely different hardware than was used on the space shuttle; in other words, an entirely new, untested rocket, with no commonality to the existing shuttle system.

When Wernher von Braun put astronauts atop the Saturn V rockets, he wasn't guessing that the system would work. Every component and subsystem was thoroughly tested beforehand. With the Ares-1, they have eliminated much of the testing under budget pressure and the assumption that it is all legacy hardware from the shuttle system. Any redesigns to change the resonant frequency of the "Stick" will mean that they basically have to start over with a clean sheet (negating the efforts of the past three years and pushing back the first launch of Ares by that much) and test all components of the system as well as all subsystems (adding more dollars and years to the project). This is the very "full-scale redesign" that Garry Lyles of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center dismisses out of hand.

There are other solutions, of course. For the upcoming moon missions, there will be two launches per mission: one Ares-V to launch the bulk of the hardware and fuel, and one Ares-1 for the crew. If instead the mass of the launches are divided up into two nearly-identical rockets midway in size between Ares-1 and Ares-V, then NASA can avoid the resonance issue by having two SRBs attached top-and-bottom to the sides of the strongback of the rocket and develop one rocket instead of two, using far more legacy (spaceflight tested) hardware. This is the essence of the DIRECT 2.0 proposal.

Another approach is to ensure and even expand the funding for the Commercial Orbital Transportation System teams. In comparison to the vaporware produced so far by NASA on the Ares, SpaceX has actually produced - from a standing start - two new rocket engines, and already started doing test flights. They have spent over the last five years about what NASA spends every eleven days. That's cost effective. Assuming NASA does not choke off COTS, then at the very least SpaceX will beat the Ares to orbit - and they may do so even if NASA kills COTS in the cradle. If that happens, then there will be no need whatsoever for Ares, and NASA will have wasted billions of dollars and years of effort for no actual results at all. And, if NASA assures funding for or even expands COTS, then there will be more than just SpaceX ready to provide rides to orbit for NASA astronauts.

Yet another approach is for NASA to actually do what it is supposed to do as a government agency - develop technologies that are not yet commercially viable but which lead to infrastructure improvements that make space access easier and more economical for everyone. Jon Goff has already written a lot about that, particularly about orbital propellant transfer and other technologies necessary for a spacefaring society.

And finally, NASA can go with existing launch systems like the Delta or Atlas. So what if they are not "man rated"? As Rand Simberg has pointed out many times, that qualification is artificial and not one of the rockets that NASA has ever used to fly men into space has ever met that qualification - "man rating" is simply a cudgel used by NASA as part of the not invented here syndrome.

For NASA, relying on hope that the system will work simply isn't good enough. Wishful thinking is no substitute for good engineering practice.

It is time for NASA to realize that the definition of "hindsight" does not include "inserting one's head in a very uncomfortable place". The Ares-1 "Stick" may be Mike Griffin's pet project, but that doesn't mean that its obvious shortcomings can be ignored any longer.

Monday, February 11, 2008

blood on their hands

Click on these two images for background information. Is there any substantive difference between these two cases?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Scrolling Blogroll, redux

A while back I posted the code necessary for the scrolling blogrolls in my sidebar. Recently Rob Singleton had some questions about how to implement these scrolling blogrolls himself. The problem is that he is using different blogging software than I am, and my previous instructions didn't make sense with his type of template. So, I have come up with a simplified version of the scrolling blogroll code, which can be implemented in pretty much any web page at all. To add a scrolling blogroll to your own blog or website, just copy the code in the text area below and paste it into your website or blog template code. In the case of a blog, that would likely be somewhere in your sidebar code, anywhere you like. Then, make changes to the code to customize it for your own site; the comments within the code should help guide you with the necessary changes.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Moving the Goalposts

A few days ago, I wrote a blog post directed at Mark Whittington that said:
There is no double standard at work here. SpaceX used its own money for the Falcon-1 tests. NASA is using taxpayers' money for the obviously flawed-from-before-starting Ares. The difference is not subtle.
Mark Whittington replied that
Technically, he is correct that SpaceX used private money for Falcon 1 tests. But it also is using public money to develop the Falcon 9/Dragon launch system. So, using Robot Guy's logic, one ought to gove SpaceX the same benefit of a doubt--or lack there of--as NASA.
Perhaps I ought to have included more of Mark Whittington's original statement, as based on his reply one might think I was making an apples-to-oranges comparison. Here's the full paragraph from Whittington's original post:
Even in the commercial area, technical problems crop up. SpaceX's Falcon 1 have had two launch failures, for example. SpaceX's engineers have ascertained the causes of these failures and are fixing them. It is noted that no one who is having Internet vapors over the Ares is having the same over the Falcon. There seems to be, perhaps because of a double standard, more of an understanding that problems will occur in rocket development in the private sector than at NASA.
Clearly Mark was comparing SpaceX's (self funded) Falcon 1 launches to NASA's (taxpayer funded) work on Ares. He was not referring to the Falcon 9/Dragon launch system (and thus, neither was I), which admittedly is being partially funded by NASA and thus by taxpayers. He was referring to Falcon 1.

So yes, by all means, let us hold SpaceX to the same standard as NASA - or rather, let us hold NASA to the same standard as SpaceX. Let NASA pay for its mistakes out of its own pocket without dinging the taxpayers for its failures... what's that? NASA doesn't have money of its own? Then perhaps we should hold NASA to the same standards to which NASA holds Rocketplane/Kistler.

Whittington goes on to say:
...the bald, unsupported statement "obviously flawed from the start Ares" (I wish someone would offer some actual evidence to support that)
I had left the support for that statement out of my original post because I thought it was so obvious that further explanation was unnecessary. One could look at the Aviation Week article discussing the thrust oscillation problems, which are going to happen with any solid rocket motor first stage. One could point to the weight problems and schedule slippage. One could keep going, but I suspect that anyone who has been following NASA closely over the last four years would have to know about the problems with Ares/Orion. Any other assumption beggars belief.

Friday, February 01, 2008

what's in it for me?

A few weeks ago Leonard David pointed out a National Science Board report which among other things stated that
Scientific research ranks about on a par with mass transit (38%) and well ahead of space exploration (14%) and assistance to foreign countries (10%) in the proportion of the U.S. population favoring increased spending.
Leonard David called this a "kick in the head for space fans".

Well, it might be a kick in the head for NASA, but the U.S. space agency is not synonymous with "space", and the lack of enthusiasm for increased funding for NASA is not synonymous with a lack of enthusiasm for space projects.

At one time, Americans could be convinced that NASA == space, but that time is long past. When the Collier's articles by Wernher von Braun, Willy Ley, Fred Whipple, and others were published in 1952-54, people paid attention. When the Russians launched Sputnik, people sat up and took notice. And then came Kennedy's speech:

Well, that got people excited. And that race to the moon gave people more than the impression that NASA == space. It gave them hope - hope that one day they too could go to space. How many kids went into science and engineering because of the work that NASA did in the eight years following the Kennedy speech at Rice university? I can't quantify that, but I bet it was a lot. And, in the years during and immediately following the Apollo missions, people were excited about the apparent progress, the seemingly inexorable movement of man into space.

2001: a Space Odyssey
showed routine flights into space to a gigantic wheel-shaped space station, multiple bases on the moon, and a manned voyage to Jupiter. In 1968 these seemed plausible enough, certainly not laughable. There were proposals to build enormous space colonies ("L5 by 95!"), and it seemed as though nothing could stop us. We were going to be a spacefaring civilization, and in a hurry. In the 1960s and 1970s kids could realistically dream of a career as an astronaut.

Thirty-five years after the last man set foot on the moon, it seems that we are further than ever from becoming a spacefaring civilization - that is, at least with NASA as a driving force. NASA is in fact going backwards, struggling to recover ground that was won nearly four decades ago after having wasted the intervening period going around in circles. A kid today has a greater chance of winning the Powerball lottery than of being a NASA astronaut. Why bother doing something as hard as science or engineering if the chance of a payoff is so remote?

Why is support for NASA so low? Perhaps it is because one can only rest on one's laurels for so long. One needs to actually do something in order to engage the public and convince them that you are doing something worth their tax dollars. And, if all you are doing is putting a handful of government employees into low earth orbit a few times a year, then convincing people that you are indeed doing something worthwhile is a pretty tough sell.

I have to feel sorry for Damaris B. Sarria. She writes a blog entitled How I Am Becoming An Astronaut - and she's doing it by working for NASA. She's not in the astronaut corps yet, and it is sad to say but if NASA's present course is continued then she will never become an astronaut. The agency already has far more astronauts than it will need for the shuttle program, some of whom will never be launched into space. By the time that the Ares series of boosters is finally developed - the schedule slips by more than a year every year - NASA will have had to defend its funding and indeed the entire raison d'etre of US Space Exploration Policy through several presidential administrations and congresses. At the current rate of schedule slippage, budget woes, and obvious problems with the Ares it is a crapshoot whether NASA will even exist in 2020, never mind be sending anyone to the moon.

But, as I said, NASA is not "space". Robert Bigelow has already done something that no government space agency has ever done: he has two space stations in orbit simultaneously, right now. Elon Musk of SpaceX has developed two completely new rocket engines and begun launching rockets, from a standing start five years ago, using the amount of money that NASA consumes in about eleven days. Burt Rutan has put two people into space (only spending about what NASA spends every 14 hours), and is developing a bigger craft capable of carrying paying passengers into space as early as next summer. Google has put up a $30 million prize for a lunar robotic rover, and private companies are lining up around the block to compete for that prize. There are over 80 private space companies at my last count. And even in the realm of government space activity, the cool cutting-edge stuff isn't being done by NASA; it is being done by the Pentagon in partnership with the Space Frontier Foundation.

Support for space hasn't died; it has shifted from an increasingly irrelevant NASA to the private sector. There is a good reason for that. People can see that the private sector work in space has potential to offer them. There's something in it for them - they once again have the possibility of going to space themselves. They have the possibility of making money on space. And, they don't need to go through an ossified government space agency whose glory days were over before most people alive today were even born. It is no wonder that support for increasing NASA's budget is so low.

Whittington swings and misses

It was so predictable. Rand writes something that points out some of the shortcomings of NASA's implentation of the Vision for Space Exploration U.S. Space Exploration Policy and Mark Whittington, in his usual rebuttal, gets something completely wrong:
It is noted that no one who is having Internet vapors over the Ares is having the same over the Falcon. There seems to be, perhaps because of a double standard, more of an understanding that problems will occur in rocket development in the private sector than at NASA.
There is no double standard at work here. SpaceX used its own money for the Falcon-1 tests. NASA is using taxpayers' money for the obviously flawed-from-before-starting Ares. The difference is not subtle.

Update: An anonymous commenter (whom I am certain I have met before on Rand Simberg's blog) saw fit to use a scatological rhyme for Whittington's name in a comment on this post. The rest of the comment had some good points, but I simply will not tolerate such juvenile name-calling on my blog. Anonymous, if you choose to re-post your comment without the ad hominem, then I will allow it through moderation. Otherwise, not.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Edith Harsch

I just received an email from my mom informing me that Edith Harsch died on January 21st. She was 92 years old.

I probably first met Mrs. Harsch in 1974, when I began elementary school. She was my second grade teacher in 1975-76, and attended the same church that my family did. I'm a little hazy on this part, but I think she was my Sunday School teacher for a year or two as well.

She was my favorite teacher, and I want to tell you a little bit about her. From what I recall based on many-years-old conversations with various people, she began teaching at the age of 15. That would have made her a 45 year veteran of teaching by the time I was in her class. I'm pretty sure she continued to teach long past the normal retirement age, too, so I would estimate that she taught between fifteen hundred and eighteen hundred students over the course of her career.

Her name was pronounced "harsh", however she was anything but. She was one of the sweetest ladies I've ever known. And, she took a personal interest in all of her students. I recall missing the bus one day, and deciding to walk home (nine miles - what the heck was I thinking?); I must have been six or seven or eight years old at the time. She went out looking for me, found me, and drove me home. I know that my sister Wendy had a similar experience a few years later, under slightly different circumstances, and I vaguely recall my other sister Heidi perhaps having a similar experience (but I can't be sure).

I was a fairly smart kid when I was in her class, and my buddy Collin was also pretty smart - a lot of teachers wouldn't have known what to do with the two of us. Mrs. Harsch recognized that Collin and I were getting quite a bit ahead of the class, so she made up a bunch of flash cards with multiplication and division questions on them, and had us teach each other arithmetic. We got a year or two head start in math compared to our contemporaries because Mrs. Harsch fed our thirst for knowledge.

Being in the same church and having attended her class, I saw a fair amount of Mrs. Harsch (and vice-versa) during my childhood. When I last saw her three years ago she remembered my name, my sisters, my parents... but I would be willing to bet that she remembered the name of every student she ever had.

That meeting three years ago is something I'm going to remember for a very long time. My mom had asked me to help out with cooking for some church function, and I did. Mrs. Harsch was there, and when it came time to eat she corralled me and insisted I sit beside her to eat.

While we were finishing up eating the meal I mentioned to her that she was my all-time favorite teacher. I don't think I'll forget the look on her face. She positively beamed, and I thought she might even cry. - but rather than crying she took a fork full of the cake from her plate and proceeded to feed me as if I was still a small boy. I let her.

Edith Harsch was almost like a third grandmother to me, and I loved her and will miss her a lot.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Monday, January 14, 2008

The HRC must go

OK, now this has me really pissed off. A couple of years ago, there were a dozen cartoons featuring Mohammed published in a Danish newspaper. A few months later, some imam decided to incite riots over these cartoons, so he added a few more of his own and then told people how offensive they were. Well, the members of the "religion of peace" used that as an excuse to riot and kill a bunch of people who had nothing whatsoever to do with the cartoons. This is absolutely psychotic behaviour.

The Western Standard magazine chose to publish those cartoons, too, just to show people in Canada what all the fuss was about. The cartoons were newsworthy - after all, people were dying because of the riots supposedly incited by the cartoons - and yet of all the newspapers and magazines in Canada, only three other publications published any of the cartoons, other than the Western Standard (and one of those subsequently recalled every copy that they had printed). I myself published one of the cartoons on my blog. Here is the entire set of twelve cartoons (with a tip of the hat to Kate):

That's it. Those twelve cartoons, which are pretty darn tame, are the reason that more than 100 innocent people lost their lives.

The words to describe such behaviour - rioting and killing innocent people over freakin' cartoons - include such terms as barbaric, insane, sociopathic, deranged, idiotic, stupid, and so forth. In short, these people are batshit crazy.

If the Western Standard had not published the cartoons, then a great many Canadians would have had no idea what all the controversy was about - they would have just figured that the Muslims had gone completely off their rocker. But after seeing those cartoons, Canadians could see that it was much worse than that: that the Islamic world was completely insane even before the cartoons were published. But, that is not what has me so pissed off. Instead, I'm angry about the subsequent actions of the Alberta government.

You see, some Saudi imam currently living in Canada took offense to the Western Standard's publication of the cartoons. So, instead of - for instance - writing about or speaking out against the publication of the cartoons, he called the Alberta Human Rights Commission and insisted that this government body force Ezra Levant, the publisher of the Western Standard, to apologize.

Well, one could excuse this Saudi for not knowing about such esoteric concepts as Freedom of Speech or Freedom of the Press. However it is absolutely inexcusable for the government to use its power - to subpoena Ezra Levant, to force him to waste his time appearing before this quasi-judicial commisssion, to force him to pay lawyers for his defence - simply for the "crime" of exercising his political freedom in Canada. And yet, that is exactly what happened. Levant taped his appearance before the commission (in reality, just a single bored bureaucrat - what was that line about the banality of evil?) and posted excerpts on YouTube. Here are those excerpts:

Now, I am an Albertan just like Ezra Levant. I also published one of those cartoons when the riots occurred and republished them all today. Although Ezra Levant is the one sitting before the commission, wasting his valuable time and money on lawyers, I may as well be sitting in the chair right beside him, for I am guilty of the same "crime" as he is, exercising my constitutionally-protected rights to free speech.

You know, I could make up my own cartoon, one which would be so offensive that members of polite society would shun me. That is their right, just as it is my right to make up and publish such a cartoon. The government legally has nothing whatsoever to say about it, and cannot censor me. I even seriously considered making up just such a cartoon (one involving the devil, Mohammed bent over a barrel, and 72 male pigs - use your imagination). However, my readership is low enough as it is, and I don't want it to go to zero. That is the way it should be. I publish what I want, people read it if they want to. If I go too far across the line of good taste, then I lose readers. The government has no say, nor should it have any say, in what I publish.

It is inexcusable that this quasi-judicial body has the power to force publishers like Ezra Levant or columnists like Mark Steyn (who is, by the way, next up before this kangaroo court) to appear before them simply for having exercised their constitutionally-protected and fundamental human right to free speech. It is doubly offensive that this star chamber is presided over by activists rather than judges, that the rules of evidence do not apply, that the motion to dismiss does not apply, that accusers can bring multiple suits and abuse the process with no consequences or cost to them, that the accused cannot choose to have more than one lawyer present - in short, that the rule of law and jurisprudence, not to mention 800 years of common law, are completely ignored.

Look, you want offensive? This is offensive:

That's the Piss Christ, supposed "art" which is merely a crucifix immersed in a jar of urine. Remember the riots, the more than 100 dead, the conviction of the artist in a kangaroo court, due to this craptacular, truly blasphemous "artwork"? No? Maybe that's because people in the Western world understand the concepts of civilization and Freedom of Speech. Maybe it is well past time for people in other parts of the world to grow the fuck up, too. And I know for certain that it is long past time for the abomination of the quasi-judicial Alberta Human Rights Commission to be disbanded - never again should the government use its power to punish people simply for exercising their fundamental rights to free speech. I hope (as does Ezra Levant) that the HRC rules against Levant or Mark Steyn - that way, this case can go to a real court, and be fought all the way up to the Supreme Court. Should it go that far, then the "human rights" commissions are done for, and good riddance.

Finally, here's a personal note to Syed Soharwardy, the POS that lodged this complaint against Levant with the AHRC:

This is how it is done in a free society. If someone writes or says something you don't like, then you write or say something in response. If people agree with you, then you win the argument. If they don't, then you lose and STFU. Using the government to silence your critics is the act of a coward. If I have the opportunity, I will call you a coward to your face. Luckily, I have the advantage of being right - and you'll still be a coward and a weasel. This is our system in free Western societies. If you don't like it, then either run for political office and try to change our laws from within our system, or go back to whatever third world hellhole (and there's a reason that it is a hellhole, while Western societies are not) you came from and wallow in your ignorance and stupidity and fear and cowardice. Jerk.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Yulia Tymoshenko topless photos

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post expressing my admiration for the very pretty Yulia Tymoshenko, the current prime minister of the Ukraine. Since then, that post has become by far the most popular post on this blog. I would estimate that more than half the traffic to Robot Guy is to that one blog post. So, I decided to do a little experiment: at great expense and personal risk, I have obtained these topless photos of Yulia Tymoshenko. That's right, topless photos of Yulia Tymoshenko. I am betting that this post is going to receive thousands of hits, just a prediction. So, if you want to see topless photos of Yulia Tymoshenko, just scroll down. If you're at work, your company probably has some sort of prohibition against viewing topless photos of gorgeous women, so keep that in mind before scrolling down the page.

And now, without further ado, I present for your edification four topless photos of Yulia Tymoshenko. Enjoy.

See? Yulia Tymoshenko, topless. What did I tell you? You get what you pay for.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

A two-part Carnival of Space

Music of the Spheres posted the Carnival of Space this week, check it out here and here.