Supersonic Man

June 3, 2018

Trends in rocketry

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,science! — Supersonic Man @ 11:07 am

I’ve been taking an interest in the space industry and orbital rockets — a field which is evolving very rapidly nowadays.  So far this year we’ve seen the debut orbital flights of the Electron, the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 Block 5, and seen a new record set for the smallest rocket to put up a working satellite.  In the remaining months, we’re expecting the maiden flights of the Vector R, the Kuaizhou 11, the LauncherOne, and the Starliner and Dragon 2 crew capsules.  We just might see one of those capsules take live astronauts to the Space Station by the end of the year.  And the next couple of years will have plenty of action too.

With so much short-term activity, it may be hard to spot the longer term trends, but I think I can lay out a few here:

1.  China is rapidly overtaking Russia as a superpower in space.

China now has three different families of major rockets, and are planning a fourth which, if they pull it off, will be bigger than Apollo.  They also have three different types of small solid rocket in service.  They’re starting on their own space station, and will attempt next year to bring back moon rocks.  Their rate of satellite launches is comparable to that of market leader SpaceX, while Russian rockets are losing business.  Trying to compare budgets can be misleading when different currencies are used, but on paper, the Chinese are spending more.  Their level of investment and ambition is impressive.

The Russians, on the other hand, are struggling to consolidate programs and cut costs.  Their Angara modular rocket program (which was supposed to modernize their fleet) is in difficulty, and rival aerospace organizations are fighting over shares of a shrinking pie.  They’re trying to phase out obsolete systems such as the Soyuz, and finding them difficult to replace.  And they’ve alienated Ukraine, where some of the best rocket builders from the old days are based.  For small solid rockets, all they’ve got is one type which is made from recycled ICBMs, which they quit using in 2006 but are now trying to bring back.  Unless China runs into difficulties in the next few years, Russia will soon be the #3 spacefaring nation, if they aren’t already.

I would say a weaker Russia in space is a good thing, as long as Putin or anyone like him remains in power.  But for a bunch of Russian rocket experts to be looking for jobs, eager to be hired by dubious regimes, is probably not a good thing.

2. SpaceX is slowly decimating traditional aerospace companies who build large rockets, and nobody looks likely to beat them.

At first, SpaceX launched expendable rockets, just as everyone else did.  It took them years to develop a booster that could land itself dependably, then a bunch more time to show that these landed boosters could be refurbished into flyable condition, then more time yet to study the lessons learned from refurbishing, and upgrade the rocket so it can hopefully be reflown without needing an overhaul.  They still have not yet reached the point where they can launch a rocket, land it, wash off the soot, refuel it, and launch it again the next day, which is their goal.  They believe it’s close now, that their “Block 5” is the rocket that can do it… but they haven’t proven it yet.

And yet in spite of how the great cost savings promised by rapid reuse are still just a hope for the future, they are already undercutting the prices of all the traditional launch providers who sell large rockets, forcing them to lower their margins and reduce costs.  In fact, they have been for years.

Since a lot of launches are still done by governments, there’s a lot of inertia which keeps big government contractor rocket builders such as United Launch Alliance in business… but to the extent they’re exposed to the free market, they’re hemorrhaging customers.  This hits the Russian rocket builders particularly hard.  They haven’t got a path forward to cut costs with reuse.  Both ULA and the EU’s Arianespace do have such plans, though they will take years to implement, but as yet the Russians have nothing.  The for-profit parts of their space businesses are already shifting their investment from making rockets to building satellites, which is where the money now is.  The Chinese also have nothing yet, but in their case there seems to be a lot of willingness for the government to keep propping up uncompetitive rockets, including models that already have superior replacements in use, while also developing new ones.  That can’t keep up forever, but it shouldn’t have to: they’re looking at the question of reuse and are bound to figure something out eventually.

Speaking of the plans of ULA and Arianespace, what they’ve got coming is probably sufficient to match the price cuts that SpaceX has brought to the industry so far, but if rapid reuse works it will start a second round of cost-cutting, and it seems likely that both will remain years behind if they attempt to catch up.  The plans they have in the works now are conservative, and won’t be able to make a really dramatic difference in cost — they’re both aiming to recover only the engines at the bottom, while still discarding the rest of the rocket.  Those engines are the most expensive part, but they only account for around half of the total cost of a launch.  (Arianespace is also starting a small scale research program for vertical landing, just to see whether it’s a technique they might eventually want to use.)

So who is there who is in a position to compete?  Really, only one company is looking good right now.  It’s the one other company which has already implemented soft landings and reuse: Blue Origin.  They’re the only ones in a position to challenge SpaceX head-on.  But even they may struggle to compete, as their forthcoming New Glenn rocket is too big.  It’s going to be even more large and powerful than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy (which can orbit thirty tons and still land all three boosters).  And I note that when SpaceX first planned the Heavy, they thought it would end up doing half of their business, but over time, its role is getting smaller and smaller.  They are not finding many customers for such heavy lifting.  A lighter rocket with the same technology can probably offer a better price to the majority of customers.  The New Glenn also has a much larger, and presumably much costlier, second stage than the Falcon has, and they’ve got no plans for making that stage reusable, so that puts a floor under how low they can cut their prices.  And in general, Blue Origin has a more conservative engineering approach than SpaceX does, and this leads to much less aggressive cost reduction.

I think the only way that Blue Origin is likely to come out ahead is if either there’s an unforeseen boom in large heavy payloads, or if SpaceX develops a bad safety record while Blue Origin’s remains clean due to taking more time and care than SpaceX does.  That scenario is definitely plausible… but the safe bet is definitely on SpaceX.

Speaking of rockets that are too big, the shortage of heavy customers may leave SpaceX regretting the size of the fully reusable “BFR” system they plan to build in the next decade.  They might find that the most profitable rocket they could have built is just like a BFR but only a fifth as massive.  The dramatically low costs they say the BFR will bring might not materialize if the market for large payloads remains limited.

But even if the BFR proves to be too large, SpaceX still has the upper hand, because every other approach has a per-flight hardware cost floor that the technology can’t go below, while the BFR, if it works, could in theory fly for only the cost of the fuel.

There is one wildcard company which might challenge these two: Reaction Engines Ltd, makers of the SABRE engine.  They say they’ll be able to use it to make a single stage orbital spaceplane, but even if they don’t, a suborbital plane which acts as a substitute for a booster stage could end up being quite competitive.

Whether Blue Origin or Reaction Engines succeeds or not, I think the large rocket market is likely to see a shakeout.  The Russians are feeling it already, and ULA was wise to plan ahead for replacing their Atlas and Delta lines with the more competitive Vulcan.  ULA has had to shed employees, but I think they’re responding fairly well to the challenge, and the fact that their existing rockets have the best success record in the business may count for a lot.  They’ll never catch SpaceX on price but I suppose they should still have customers at the more premium end of the launch market, especially if human safety is involved.  In the end, though, even the survivors will probably have to downsize.  And a company like Orbital ATK, which has no idea how to do reuse and has no chance at winning on either cost or track record, might be completely out in the cold.

3. The shortage of small commercial launch services could easily become a glut… but the resulting balance could be vulnerable.

While SpaceX and its ilk get the attention with their big rockets, most of the satellites that people would like to launch don’t need a big rocket.  Rocket Labs’ Electron, with its capacity of around a quarter ton, is big enough to cover about two thirds of the commercial market, they estimate.

There are lots of older small rockets, many of them based on solid fuel missiles, but their costs per kilogram are usually uncompetitive with the otherwise less attractive option of waiting to hitch a ride as a secondary payload on a large rocket.  But now there are new companies such as Rocket Labs which aim to bring the cost of small launches downward.  The trouble is, there are too many new companies.  They’re cropping up in many different countries.  They can’t all get the dozens of launches a year that they will probably need in order to become profitable.  Also, the Chinese are rapidly commercializing their small solid launchers, at cheap prices.  Small-launch industry insiders are already starting to mutter the word shakeout, even though for the moment there is still a long backlog of unmet demand.

I will note that none of these small launch companies is yet offering anything truly revolutionary in terms of cost lowering.  They’re all just reducing costs incrementally.  None of them, for instance, has any solid plans to embrace reusability, except for one small outfit in Spain which is probably years away from putting up its first satellite.  If someone does, they could make this whole batch of companies uncompetitive.

Some of them are hoping that reduced prices will lead to increased volume, but the reductions being hyped just aren’t that dramatic.  It’s in the large launch market that such dramatic price cuts may have a major effect.  If SpaceX succeeds at rapid reuse, they could cut their prices far below anyone else’s without any sweat at all, giving them something fairly close to a monopoly on large non-governmental launches, or a duopoly if Blue Origin matches them.  (Or perhaps more likely, they could keep their prices higher so the market remains more open and competitive, but make a huge profit margin.)  But nothing equivalent is on the horizon in the small market.  They not only seem likely to spread their market too thin, but also to fall even further behind on cost compared to the option of piggybacking on large launches.

Conclusion: what the market is missing is a highly reusable small launcher.

If some company wants to disrupt SpaceX the way they disrupted the aerospace dinosaurs, the way to do it is to make a rocket which takes advantage of the latest advances in reusability, and applies it to payloads of under one ton.  It would not be all that expensive to develop; such a venture would be easily within the reach of some existing aerospace companies, or of the Russians.  But it may be out of reach of most of the small startups currently pursuing the light launch market.

Or it may not.  Rather than developing the complex systems that allow rockets to land themselves on concrete pads, a small booster might easily be recovered with a simple parachute, and if you can snatch it out of the air before it hits the ground or the drink, it might be very easily refurbished.  More than one small-launch company is adding parachutes to their boosters in the hopes that they might recover some intact, and at least one is waterproofing it, in the hope that it can splash down undamaged.  And if the empty rocket weights only about a ton, instead of the thirty or so that a heavy booster might weigh, then snagging a parachute with a helicopter or airplane is actually quite doable.  The Air Force has done it for years, and United Launch Alliance is planning to use this approach to recover their jettisoned engines.  This cheap lightweight approach might not sound technically impressive, but if done right it could mean a big price advantage for small satellite launches.

If light rocket reuse is as difficult as it was for SpaceX’s heavy rockets, then we might again be seeing one company push all others aside.  But if it’s much easier, as I hope it can be, then several outfits might do it and competition could remain wide open, while bring prices way down for small customers.  Solid-fuel rockets might become obsolete for commercial launches, because there’s no way to make them cheaper.

The one company that could easily and quickly bring full-blown modern reusability to the small launch business is Blue Origin.  They already have, in the New Shepard, a reusable booster stage of about the right size; all they need to do is create a second stage for it.

 

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May 10, 2018

if the solar system fit in a stadium…

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,science! — Supersonic Man @ 12:00 pm

(I wrote a post about this a few years ago somewhere else, but now I can’t find it, so I am redoing it here, and expanding it.)

How big is the Solar System?

Let’s start by assuming that we have some general idea of how big the Earth is.  If we fly from coast to coast in the United States, we’ve gone one eighth of the way around it.  A long day of driving in a car, say 500 miles, goes about one fiftieth of the way around.  So the Earth is very large compared to your local town or neighborhood, but it’s of a scale that can be grasped and managed with common means of travel, such as cars and planes.  Even preagricultural people sometimes traveled and traded over distances of a thousand miles or more, and that’s not tiny compared to the size of the Earth.

The Moon is a good deal smaller than the Earth, but quite far away from it.  It takes well over one second for a beam of light to travel from the Moon to the Earth.  The distance to the Moon is enough to wrap around the Earth nine or ten times (the Moon’s distance varies over that range during each month).  It’s the sort of distance that a junky old car might accumulate on its odometer after twenty or thirty years of driving — over a quarter million miles when the moon is furthest out.  People are capable of traveling such distances over many years, or in just a few days with our most powerful rockets.

To appreciate the scale of the rest of the solar system in comparison to this, let’s imagine a scale model, sized to fit into a big football stadium.  The scale of this model will be 1/100,000,000,000 of life size.

Let’s look at how each part of the solar system would appear at this scale.  The Sun, which hangs over the middle of the fifty yard line, is a bit over half an inch across — about 14 millimeters, to be more exact.  It’s the size of an olive.  Mercury, the innermost planet, has an eccentric elliptical orbit around it which is eighteen inches (46 cm) from the sun at its closest, and twenty-seven and a half inches (70 cm) at its furthest.  The planet itself is a practically invisible speck, only one five hundredth of an inch across, or a twentieth of a millimeter.  Venus, the second planet, circles our olive-sized sun at a distance of about three and a half feet (108 cm), so its orbit crosses the 49 yard line on each side. The size of the planet is about 1/200 inch, or an eighth of a millimeter, a speck which is probably big enough to see if you get close enough.

The Earth’s orbit is found at a distance of a bit under five feet (150 cm) from the sun.  And the orbit of the Moon makes a little circle around the Earth.  The distance from the Moon to the Earth, which in real life is up to a quarter million miles, and is the farthest distance that any human being has ever voyaged, is only about 5/32 of an inch, or 3.9 mm, in this scale model.  The entire circle traveled by the Moon around the Earth is barely half as big across as the Sun is.  It would fit inside a pea.  The distance to the Sun is almost four hundred times as large.  The diameter of the Earth itself in this model is about 1/200 of an inch, the same as Venus, and likewise would be a barely visible speck.  The Moon, being smaller than Mercury, would be very difficult to see.

Mars circles seven and a half feet out (2.3 meters), and is about 1/400 inch or 1/16 of a millimeter across — a dust speck.  The asteroid belt spreads in a hollow disk around the sun, with the bulk of it starting about ten feet out, and then it thins out at a distance of around eighteen feet (3 to 5.5 meters).  None of the individual asteroids are big enough to see.

Jupiter, the largest planet, sits a little over 25 feet (7.8 meters) out from the Sun.  Its orbit crosses past the 42 yard line on each side of midfield.  The planet itself is plenty big enough to be more than a speck: it’s 1.4 millimeters in diameter, or somewhat under one sixteenth of an inch — the diameter of the head of a pin.  If the Sun is an olive, Jupiter might be a large poppyseed, or a small millet grain.  It has a number of moons, the four large ones being Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.  The orbit of Io sits about 5/32 inch (4 mm) from Jupiter, and the orbit of Callisto is about 3/4 inch (18 mm) out.

Saturn is 46 feet (14 meters) from the sun.  Its orbit crosses the 35 yard line.  It’s smaller than Jupiter, but if you include its rings, it looks bigger.  You might model it with a small flat sesame seed.  Its major moon Titan sits half an inch (12 mm) out from the planet.  Uranus is much further out, 98 feet (30 meters) from the Sun, so it nearly reaches the 17 yard line, and on the sides it spills over the out-of-bounds line into the sidelines.  Its diameter is half a millimeter, so you might represent it with a grain of fine sand.

In this model, the orbit of Neptune, the most remote true planet, has a span that just about reaches the one yard line, but can’t quite reach the goal lines, orbiting 148 feet (45 meters) from the sun.  Its size is about the same as sand-grain Uranus.

From this you can see that the Solar System is very empty.  Besides the olive-sized sun, everything else on the field is just some specks which, all added together, wouldn’t amount to a grain of wheat.

Now the Sun and all the planets pretty much fit onto the playing field, but that’s not the whole Solar System.  Beyond all the planets are a number of icy bodies, large and small.  They constitute a sort of second asteroid belt.  It’s called the Kuyper belt.  Pluto is one of these icy bodies, and it isn’t even the biggest one.  As far as we presently know, it’s the second biggest.

In our scale model, the Kuyper belt fills the rest of the stadium, beyond the playing field.  Pluto is down in a good low seat right near the sidelines, and some of the others are way up in the cheap seats, hundreds of feet from the field.

The light of the Sun doesn’t reach up there very well.  It casts a good bright illumination in midfield, but the goalposts are pretty dim, and in the top row of the seats you can’t see much when you look away from the sun.  If I have this figured correctly, at this scale, it puts out about five thousand watts of light.  But don’t compare that to a 5000 watt lightbulb — your ordinary traditional bulb puts out mostly heat, so the 100 watt lamp in your living room is only emitting about ten watts of actual light, and if you use a modern bulb such as a compact fluorescent, it will say “100 watts” on the box while only actually using about 25 watts.  The Sun puts out at least three quarters of its energy as visible light.  Think of it more as a 5000 watt welder’s arc than a 5000 watt lamp.

One thing this idea of an arc lamp in a football stadium fails to convey is how slow the light is.  You have to remember that the light from our tiny Sun takes minutes to reach Earth just five feet away, hours to reach Neptune, and most of a day to reach the upper seats.  If there were a snail crawling around on the grass, it might well be moving at several times the speed of light.  And the fastest rockets never approach even a thousandth of that speed.  (The fastest moving objects we’ve ever launched into space, or will launch soon, are solar probes that drop inside the orbit of Mercury.  That inward fall can give them a speed dozens of times faster than, say, the Apollo moon rocket.)

There’s more stuff beyond the Kuyper belt, also consisting mainly of icy bodies.  But I don’t really count this as part of the solar system.  This is where long period comets come from (short comets, such as Halley’s, come from the Kuyper belt).  This zone is called the Oort Cloud.  It’s found out in the stadium’s parking lot, and some thin parts of it probably extend out into the surrounding city, perhaps miles from the stadium.  While the Kuyper belt is similar to the asteroid belt in that it mainly lies in the same plane as the orbits of the planets and rotates in the same direction that they do, the Oort cloud is spread in all directions, and appears to have no net orbital direction shared in common among the various objects.  For all we know this spread of icy bodies may extend throughout the space between the stars, and not constitute a part of our own solar system at all, except to the extent that the Sun’s gravity causes a thickening in nearby parts of it.

Speaking of other stars, how far away is the nearest other solar system?  It would be about 250 miles away at this scale… about the distance you might find between your hometown football stadium and that of a rival team in the next state.  For instance, the distance between Cleveland and Cincinnati, or Green Bay and Minneapolis, or Chicago and Detroit.

April 11, 2018

What do Nazis have in common with pickup artists?

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 12:11 am

When the Nazis came to Charlottesville, one thing I noticed in the news coverage was that some of them were using the jargon of the “red pill” movement — a jargon which originated in the world of pickup artists.  How did that happen?  I decided to look into the connections, and learn a bit more about the hidden history of these new reactionary movements.  I ended up learning more than I wanted to know about today’s young racists.  Here’s what I’ve managed to put together. Surprisingly, a key figure linking the two groups is professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos — not someone I ever thought would do anything consequential.

(more…)

November 14, 2017

do the ten commandments model virtue?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Supersonic Man @ 1:44 pm

The appalling Roy Moore, the teen-perving judge who made a name for himself by defending the presence of the Ten Commandments in the courtroom, has been in the news a lot lately. And this makes me think… are the Ten Commandments even a good model for virtuous behavior?

Let’s lay out a list of virtues and see which ones are and are not supported by the Commandments.

This list is a combination of virtues enumerated by various sources, from the Catholic Church to the Boy Scout Law and Oath to various self-appointed virtuists such as the hypocritical scold Bill Bennett and the off-grid inventor Jaimie Mantzel.

A virtuous person is, we suppose (in no particular order):

a. Honest, Trustworthy, Honorable, and Truthful
b. Fair and Just
c. Prudent and Temperate
d. Humble and Modest
e. Generous, Charitable, and Helpful
f. Diligent, Industrious, and Productive
g. Responsible and Self-Reliant
h. Courageous and Steadfast
i. Healthful, Fit and Strong
j. Alert, Attentive, and Engaged
k. Imaginative and Creative
l. Purposeful and Goal-Oriented
m. Dutiful toward community obligations
n. Dependable and Loyal (when appropriate)
o. Friendly, Courteous, and Considerate
p. Hopeful and Cheerful
q. Kind, Compassionate, and Empathetic
r. Loving
s. Obedient to law and applicable rules
t. Patient, Forbearing, and Tolerant
u. Clean, Decent, and Inoffensive

I need to add a couple more — some virtues which those who compile virtue lists always manage to omit:

v. Intelligent, Knowledgeable, Intellectual, and Thoughtful
w. Skeptical, Critical, and Questioning of dubious ideas

We often act as if intelligence, knowledge, and intellectuality are accidents which people are blessed with at random. They are not. Having a strong intellect is not much more a whim of chance than having strong biceps is. We all differ in our innate gifts, but in the end, you are the one responsible for developing and maintaining both your mental strengths and your physical ones. And the same goes for avoiding being gullible and recognizing the smell of bullshit.

So which of the above virtues do we find in the Commandments?

I, other gods:  n and w, but only for a special case
II, graven images:  (none)
III, name in vain:  maybe d and u, a little
IV, sabbath day:  (none)
V, honor parents:  m and n, but only for a special case
VI, killing:  b, c, q, s, and t, but only for a special case
VII, adultery:  a, c, n, r, and s, for a different special case
VIII, stealing:  a, b, c, g, m, and s, for another special case
IX, false witness:  a (fairly full support)
X, coveting:  g (fairly full support), also some b, e, and f

So the only virtues on the list which the commandments strongly model are honesty and self-reliance. Several others get partial support, a bunch more get some tangential implicit support related to a special case, and some get nothing. Which virtues are entirely unmentioned in that list, having not even the thinnest of connections to the Commandments? That leaves h, i, j, k, l, o, p, u, and v. Many of these are valued elsewhere in the Bible, but not here.

And really, only six of the ten commandments are relevant to good ethical behavior: the first four are just for maintaining conformance to dogma and orthodoxy. I do not consider such conformance to be virtuous.

August 27, 2017

Downsizing, into a larger home

Filed under: life — Supersonic Man @ 11:51 am

So it looks like we’re going to be moving soon from a house to an apartment.  And this is going to require some downsizing, and letting go of a significant number of physical possessions… even though the apartment has more square feet than the house did.

This is because in the apartment, everything has to be indoors.  This is not one of those complexes which offers people a storage closet down in the parking garage.  Imagine if all the stuff you keep out in the garage, in a shed, or just outside in the back yard had to come inside and fit in your closet space.  That’s what we’re facing.  Or rather, what I’m facing, as most of this junk is mine and not hers.  The only major bulky item that’s more for her than for me is a hammock frame.

There are some things we’ll be glad to get rid of, like our old clapped-out washer and dryer, and our window air conditioner.  We might get a few bucks for these.  Our little microwave too.  The patio table can go, along with the hammock, and maybe someone will pay a bit.

After that, I start realizing what I’ll have to give up… and it’s not that the stuff is very important or valuable, it’s that it represents capabilities and options.  If you have tools and junk, you can use handy-man skills to make things and accomplish stuff which are otherwise out of reach.  I value having the skills and inventiveness to make some good use out of tools and junk.  But the older I get, the less real use any of this comes to, and the less economic value this stuff is likely to hold for the future.  And that means there isn’t a good case to make for keeping this stuff around, competing for valuable closet space with all the stuff which is just as important in an apartment as in a house: the folding chairs and sewing machines and snowshoes and toolboxes and bicycle racks and ice chests and etc that have to be put somewhere.

So what I want to do in this post is just make myself a list of some of the stuff that I probably need to let go of, and have a little moment of sadness over the capabilities which I will be giving up, letting myself depend on the services of others in cases where I would formerly be able to do for myself.

One annoying thing is that we might live in a place with a yard again in the future, and at that time, we’ll want some of this back, and will have to buy it new.  But the cost of that is not enough to justify renting storage for years.

Some “garden” items might be able to hang on in our little porch/balcony… a stone Buddha, a colorful chicken-shaped flowerpot… and there’s a little handmade outdoor table we could keep… but probably won’t.

On to the list:

Long-handled gardening tools.  A shovel, two rakes, a hook, a “hula ho” weeder.  Some of those are quite worn, but the hook tool is almost new.

A big wide push-broom, and a telescoping paint-roller pole, which had uses well beyond painting.

An electric string-trimmer (weed eater).  Maybe the 75 feet of extension cord to power it.

Midsize gardening tools: loppers, shears, and a couple of one-handed digging/chopping tools, one with a telescoping handle.  It might be possible to store these away without taking up too much space, but they’ll have competition.

Lumber.  There isn’t very much of it, but it feels disempowering to have none.  Likewise for scraps of pipe and odd bits of plumbing supplies.

A shop-vacuum, and a couple of extra attachments.  It’s a very small one, but no less useful than a big one.

Jack stands and ramps, for getting under cars.  No more changing my own oil or brake pads.

A come-along winch.  Admittedly I got no real use out of this.  The same goes for the stationary bicycle stand I recently obtained, which is redundant as the new place has a gym.

An ugly plastic bird-bath, with gravel in the base for weight.  And a plastic flamingo if anyone wants it.

A 25′ drain snake.  This, unfortunately, has gotten some use.

A filtering water pump that has been used with a hot tub.

Assorted chemicals for outdoor or automotive purposes.  These will have to be culled.

Not an outdoor or garage item, but there’s a terrible battered old electric guitar that ought to go.  I have affection for it because it’s “so bad it’s good”.  Or wait, did I already get rid of that?

Then there’s the crappy telescope.  I can let that go if needed.

A pack frame.  I’m very unlikely to ever backpack again, and even hanging on to tents and sleeping bags may now be getting marginal as something we can justify.  And a barely used bear-canister.

A bookshelf, for paperbacks only, that I made from scratch out of cheap unstained pine.

Then there’s stuff which I definitely want to keep, but may require defending if someone hard-headedly practical challenges them… things like saws and hammers, old electronics supplies, a bass guitar, an ancient Amiga, LP records… I’ve already culled my books, and hope to hold the line there.

We’ll buy a few new things also, such as an upright vacuum and a small desk.  We might buy an easy chair, but only if we lose a couch.


[update] Arrgh, looks like it’s time to give up my big stereo and excellent Infinity speakers… if I can find a buyer for them. Shedding a small tear for the speakers.  Also the karaoke machine that we got for free and used only a couple of times.  There’s a glut of those, it turns out.  There’s some stereo equipment which I could keep but won’t, just because it’s not in good condition anymore: a turntable and a pair of nice bookshelf speakers.  Both have succumbed to a decay of their soft parts.

One couch is going.  The so-bad-it’s-good electric guitar appears to have disappeared in the previous move.  But on the other hand, we decided to play it safe and keep the drain snake.  Whee.

[update 2]  Ordered a recliner.  Keeping the good speakers after all, but selling my synthesizer keyboard, with its stand.

[Update 3]  We ended up backing out of the first rental lease and signing a different one.  The new place is smaller, but does come with a 5×7 foot storage locker.

August 25, 2017

ten percent of our brains

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,science!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 9:40 am

If it were really true that we use only ten percent of our brains, then being granted the ability to use all one hundred percent wouldn’t really make a dramatic difference. It would be like comparing a desktop computer from 2017 with one from about 2005. Sure, the new one is better, but definitely not as much better as you’d hope it would be. They still both do basically the same things, and they’re both still probably hampered by running Windows.

I think there’s some metaphorical truth to the idea for a lot of people, though, because if they don’t get a good strong educational start, the majority of people don’t really have any chance of developing the intellectual side of their innate capabilities. I’m pretty convinced that most of the differences we see between people in “intelligence” have nothing to do with one person being born with a better brain than another. If you’re going to develop into a brainiac, you need to start very early and you need support for it, and most people around the world simply never get that opportunity. It’s only when drawing comparisons between people who have had those advantages, and are already part of a privileged minority, that you can even start looking at innate differences in talent.

August 20, 2017

“Everyone is a little bit racist.”

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:19 pm

You may have heard that quote. I am quoting it because I believe it’s true.  There is no dividing people into two groups, one racist and one not.  It’s a spectrum, and what matters is not what feelings or assumptions you start with, but what behavior you end with.  Let’s look at some sample points on this spectrum — some levels of racism:

Level 0: innocent.  This is where small children start out — unaware that race is a problem.  Maybe it’s possible to maintain this into adulthood in circumstances of major social isolation, but I don’t think I’ve ever personally seen an example of that.

Level 1: responsible.  We are all liable to sometimes forming snap judgments based on first impressions, and race is often a factor that plays into this.  But we can compensate for this by taking a moment for a second thought, to double-check our initial thoughtless reaction and make sure we’re being fair-minded.  This may not sound very impressive, but for most adults, this is about the best you can expect.  People in this category may be “allies” of minorities, or not.  Some may have come a long way in overcoming bad ideas from their upbringing, while others have had no need to.

Level 2: in denial.  This is probably where the majority of people fit, on most days.  This is where you land if you react to prejudicial snap judgments by rationalizing them instead of reconsidering.  Frequently accompanied by the idea that racism is largely historical, or confined to a few extremists — that it’s a distant external problem.  Racism at this level isn’t going to burn crosses, but it can produce frequent calls to the police about “suspicious” characters, or some extra strictness from the police themselves.  This mild racism can be enough to make a big difference in how difficult it is for some people to land a job or rent a place to live.  So even though the acts committed by any one individual seem minor and excusable, they can add up to a large negative impact on the lives of minority citizens.

Level 3: asshole.  This level is for people who sometimes show active racist behaviors, such as taunts and trolling and harrassment with racial epithets.  Generally these are people who are habitually unpleasant or obnoxious in other ways as well, or who have long lists of people whose lives they disapprove of.  Most often, such people are still in vigorous denial about racism, despite having numerous examples readily visible in the mirror.

Level 4: deplorable.  Finally, we come to those who have adopted racism as a guiding philosophy, and who actively evangelize it as an ideology: the Nazis, Klansmen, Neo-Confederates, and other racial separatists.  Many are fanatical True Believers, and as such, are capable of horrific violence for their cause.

Again, the point is not that people are divided into groups, who fit one label or another.  Any one person can and does slide up and down this scale, plus or minus a space over the course of a day, or larger shifts over months or years as they are exposed to different ideas.

And note that one’s position on this scale may have very little to do with the intensity or severity of their prejudices, particularly in the middle part of the scale.  Some can have major race-based fears and handle them well, and others might have minor ones but handle them badly.

The most important factor for affecting how a person moves forward or backward in their behavior is probably the social expectations of the people around them.

But don’t take this to mean that the way to make someone act better is by lecturing them.  If you really want to bring someone to see another point of view, it’s important to listen to them more than you talk to them, and let them express the feelings or anxieties or bad experiences they may be carrying on the subject.  And when you do speak, you want to be offering them an option, rather than making a demand.

Because when social pressure comes in a hostile form, it’ll probably have the opposite of the desired effect.  If you do listen to people at level 2 or 3 talk about race, one thing that often comes up is how much they dislike and resent hearing the word “racism” brought up as a belligerent finger-pointing accusation.

I don’t personally know who’s doing this kind of accusing, but some of my friends see it happen, and they affirm that yeah, it ain’t helping.  Maybe that behavior arises from having one foot in the responsible level and the other in the denial level, so you want to project and externalize the problem.  That’s just my guess, I can’t say.

As for the level 4 deplorables, I don’t think there’s much point in listening to them or engaging with them.  They’ve created a fantasy world where they believe each other’s made-up stories, so that’s all you’re likely to hear from them.  They’ve embraced evil, and there aren’t really very many of them, so socially, we can just write them off.  If you’re trying to bring back someone important to you, I wish you the best, but for the rest of them, I think the best form of communication would probably be for them to be hit in the face by Captain America’s shield.

August 15, 2017

Nazi free speech

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 1:17 pm

The nazis among us like to complain that we’re stifling their right of free speech. Here’s a reminder about some forms of speech which, by court precedent, are not and never have been protected by the First Amendment — types of speech which nobody has a right to make:

1. Fraud, false advertising, con artistry, and other forms of deceitful promise for personal gain.

2. Libel, slander, and defamation. This includes not only attempts to damage reputations, but also taunts intended to provoke a violent response — “fighting words”.

3. Threats, intimidation, attempts to create panic (e.g. “fire!” in a crowded theater), or other means of trying to coerce people through fear.

4. Incitement of others to carry out violent or criminal acts.

5. Sedition — advocacy of overthrowing the government by force.

The courts may, for many of these categories, require strict or narrow conditions before ruling them to be unprotected and criminal forms of speech, but the point is that you do not have a right to deceive, a right to slander, a right to threaten, or a right to advocate violence.

If nazis and other racial supremacists think they have a right to advocate their point of view like the rest of us, well, let’s see if they can actually do so without committing any slander, making any threats, inciting any violence or insurrection, or making any fraudulent promises. Since their actual program for society involves defaming large groups of people, using lots of violence and threats of violence, and overthrowing at least some parts of the Constitution, the only way they could advocate it without mentioning these would be by lying.

Nazi speech is sometimes suppressed, but if they think their rights of free speech are being violated, they’re wrong. They never had any right to this form of speech.

May 18, 2017

is bribery addictive?

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 7:06 pm

When I see politicians getting caught taking bribes, I have often been struck by how much they were willing to sell out for how little cash, and by how determined they seemed to stick by their bribers even when it was hopeless to defend them. And I’m beginning to think that for some politicians, taking bribes is about more than just the value of the money.

Consider the Keating Five scandal. Thirty years ago last month, Charles H. Keating, Jr. of the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, which was insolvent and under investigation as part of the savings and loan crisis then occurring, bribed a bunch of senators from western states. He gave a total of $1.3 million in campaign contributions to Alan Cranston (D-CA), Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), John Glenn (D-OH), John McCain (R-AZ — yep, the maverick himself), and Donald Riegle (D-MI). In return, they called off regulators for a while, which allowed his S&L to crash far more severely than it would have with earlier intervention, costing taxpayers $3 billion.

We could make some interesting speculations about the psychology of someone like Keating himself, whose attempts to pretend his bank was OK bought him nothing but a five year prison sentence, but I want to concentrate on the other end — the bribees. They reacted in some quite different ways.

It’s important to note that the bribes were not an immediate offer, like “Promise to do what I want and I’ll sign this check.” None of them were overtly selling their vote to the highest bidder like a Rod Blagojevich. Rather, they were spread out over several years. Keating had been making large campaign contributions to these and other politicians for some time, and also cultivating some of them as personal friends, particularly DeConcini and McCain, since he lived in Arizona. He would offer them his jet to fly their families to the Caribbean with, and things like that. And after a while, some of them started to think of Charlie Keating as a really great guy.

The key moment was when the five senators arranged a meeting with four bank regulators. Keating apparently intended the meeting as a show of force, to let the regulators know they were outgunned. But those boys were made of the right stuff, and did not back down when faced with five senators asking them to leave Charlie alone. The case the senators were making was about deregulation: they decried what a shame it was that a prosperous business could be ruined by overly strict rules and oversight. In response, the regulators told them that they were not going after Keating to manage his business for him, but to stick him with criminal charges as a predatory scumbag crook.

It was at this point that John McCain realized he’d made a mistake. He’d already felt dubious about the meeting, and when he heard this, he was chastened. He apparently decided then and there that he and Charlie Keating were through, and mostly kept his mouth shut for the rest of the meeting. The incident eventually inspired him to push the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. In short, he responded rationally, choosing a more correct course of action on the basis of new information.

But Alan Cranston reacted quite differently. He ended up getting the strongest censure of any of the senators because he kept right on trying to defend Lincoln S&L until it went bust in ’89. He continued to make public displays of personal friendship toward Keating. Regulators continued to attest that members of Congress such as him were obstructing and hampering their work. Then, when finally being grilled about it by the senate, Cranston accused them all of being just as guilty of such practices as he was, which didn’t win him any popularity points. The mess would certainly have cost him re-election if he hadn’t already announced his retirement.

Why was Cranston so persistent in defending Keating, after he was informed that the man was crooked? It was not a rational action. One cannot logically expect a slipshod and corrupt bank to keep making further bribe payments year after year. Such a business model is not sustainable, at least not once criminal investigation is seriously under way, so if he’d given it one minute’s thought, he can’t have reasonably expected that the big payments would keep coming.

Sometimes people go into denial about their past habits of behavior being no longer viable. They refuse to admit that they could have made a mistake, and therefore insist that what they did before must still be correct. And sometimes people get caught up into a sunk cost fallacy, and believe that if they’ve put a bunch of effort into something which is not working, they need to see it through until it’s resolved, rather than write off the effort as wasted. Some people tell themselves that everyone is doing exactly what they are doing, and perhaps can’t imagine trying to choose another path, because then they would (they suppose) be alone and isolated. All of these psychological factors may play a part in why someone who’s taken bribes will sometimes keep trying to continue their corrupt behavior even after it can no longer do them any good. But I think for some people, there may be a much simpler explanation.

Charlie Keating knew that the way to get influence was not just to pay money, but to make powerful friends. He patted their backs, blew smoke up their asses, did them favors, and gifted them with luxuries. And of course, he helped them get re-elected. That was the purpose of the bribe money: it was paid to their campaign organizations, to help them stay in office after the next vote. He made them feel like he really cared about them and really wanted to help them. He validated their beliefs that America needed their leadership.

I think for some politicians, receiving a bribe has more meaning than just getting free money. It feels like friendship, even when not accompanied by back-slapping and smoke-blowing. It’s like getting ten “likes” on your social media post — it makes you feel appreciated and listened to. It lets you know that in a world full of criticism for everything you do, somebody’s on your side and supporting your beliefs.

When a politician starts out, he has regular friends. But if they ever ask anything of him legislatively, he often has to disappoint them. Things may grow more distant. I think it must be pretty easy for a politician, on a semi-conscious level, to start feeling like his true friends are the new crowd rather than the old — the people who support him, rather than asking him to support them. It must be easy to start feeling like “Now I know who my real friends are.”

I think it may be quite often that politicians end up standing by those who bribed them because they are misapplying the virtue of remaining loyal to their friends. They fail to separate the quid-pro-quo relationship from true friendship, and may even become genuinely willing to make personal sacrifices for the sake of another, because of that sense of loyalty.

Put all this together, and those who take bribes can, I suspect, become addicted to the experience of being paid for their influence, even when they don’t need the money. It feeds the parts of their brains that crave true friendship, even while cutting them off from the genuine experience.

Even when bribery is not exposed as such, I think this helps explain why many politicians will, when confronted with an ugly public controversy, double down on supporting the wealthy and powerful interests who are being protested. Sure, there may be gross abuses occurring, such as violent attacks on peacefully assembled environmental protesters, but the people who are building the oil pipeline or paper plant or nuclear reactor are their friends, dang it, and those smelly hippies are not. So even when the controversy reaches the point where the way to win the next election is to change sides, and the lies supporting the project have been thoroughly exposed (the Keystone XL would supposedly create 28,000 jobs, for instance), they would rather go down fighting for a crooked policy than betray those friendships.

And now to apply the theory. I think this may be why Donald John Trump so adamantly refuses to back away from Vladimir Putin. Clearly, if a rational person were in Trump’s position right now, or eight months ago for that matter, the logical course of action would be to distance himself from Putin and pretend to be very independent and skeptical of him. But Trump won’t do that, no matter how bad it looks to be seen publicly kissing Russian ass after what a stink has been raised over it.

Donald Trump probably has no true friends, and may never have had one. His personal philosophy, which he received from his dad, allows no room for genuine trust, and if he has never showed a sign of genuine caring for other human beings, it hasn’t been in public. I don’t know if you could call him a sociopath, but he is certainly a major narcissist, who views other people in terms of what he can get out of them for himself. So his definition of friendship is based on a simple criterion: if you help him and give him things and support his ego, you’re a friend, and if you thwart him or insult him, you’re an enemy. And based on this separation, he follows one simple rule: friends are to be buttered up and catered to and indulged, but enemies are to be viciously attacked, to make them regret crossing your path.

Though not a man known for any capacity to form intimate connections, many have spoken of how solicitous Trump is when relating one on one to someone he wants to be friendly toward. He’s attentive, he’s generous, he makes himself pleasant, he makes sure you get to enjoy the best of whatever is available where you are. In conversation, he may drift into bragging about himself, but he at least makes an effort at pretending to be interested in what you’re saying.

(This may help explain Trump’s success as a ladies’ man. In his youth he had quite a reputation for dating women who seemed to be out of his league. Part of it was that he didn’t care if he was shot down twenty times before finding one who’d say yes, but another part must be this habit of scrupulous attention to the other person’s wants. If he doesn’t know what it is to care about another person, he has worked out a pretty good system for faking it.)

Such an attitude is tailor-made for someone who both gives and accepts bribes, of course. He has even boasted of it, at least in cases where he’s the payer and not the recipient.

Trump, as far as I can tell, sees everything in terms of friends vs. enemies. Despite, or perhaps because of, the hollowness of his experience of what friendship should be, he allows the judgment of friend vs enemy to dominate all his decisions. If a friend does something awful or unpopular, he stands by that friend, and if an enemy does something admirable, he cuts them down for it. According to anonymous rumors, Trump was taken completely by surprise at the outrage which followed his firing of James Comey from the FBI. His logic was simple: Comey is not my friend because he refuses to tamp down the Russia investigation for me, and therefore he is also not the friend of my fellow Republicans. But he is also not the friend of Democrats, because of the way he undercut Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Therefore, since he is nobody’s friend, nobody will miss him or stand up for him. It apparently never occurred to him that people would be aghast at the firing for reasons having nothing to do with whose ass Comey did or did not kiss.

So, are the Russians his friends? Yes. In 2014 Eric Trump was talking to a golf reporter, and said “We don’t rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia.” (He now denies saying it.) And Don Jr. said in 2008 Russian money was “pouring in” and constituting “a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets”. The Wall Street Journal recently revealed one such deal: a Trump Tower in Toronto which was financially bailed out by the Russian bank VEB, which has been described as “essentially controlled by Putin”. When a lawsuit embroiled the Trump Soho project, it came out in court that much of the funding was from Russia by way of an intermediary in Iceland. American banks haven’t been willing to lend to Trump for a long time, and Deutsche Bank, the last European holdout to treat him as an acceptable loan risk, wasn’t doing enough, so it makes sense that he would turn sharply toward Russia once the opportunity arose. (And even Deutsche Bank is now being implicated as a go-between for Putin, and accused of laundering money for Russian gangsters.) Trump and his family have now been traveling regularly to Russia for decades.

So the Russians have not just been friendly to the Trumps, they have been great friends indeed. The Trump financial empire might well have collapsed years ago if it weren’t for Putin’s cronies propping it up.

There are those who believe that the Russians have “kompromat” on Trump, and can blackmail him or threaten him with ruin, and this is why Trump is so steadfast toward them. I am not persuaded by this theory… I don’t see Trump being afraid of such a thing, or see him getting where he is now from a position of being intimidated or cowed. I don’t think he’s even scared of the idea of their banks cutting him off: he is now forging new business “friendships” every day all over the world, using the Presidency as an incentive for all sorts of wealthy interests to do him financial favors.

I think it really is just as simple as Trump viewing the Russians has his friends. He has lived by a code of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” all his life, and he can hardly change his habits now. After all, he’s seventy years old, and his brain may not be as sharp as it used to be. I doubt he can imagine any other way to go through life. What he’s done so far has brought him everything he ever wanted, so it would be impossible to believe it’s the wrong approach. I think he would view turning his back on the Russians as being untrue to himself. There’s a good chance he won’t ever be willing to do it, even if it costs him the Presidency.

After all, he doesn’t enjoy the job anyway.

May 10, 2017

no Apollo

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 9:21 am

If NASA had not been hurried into building the Apollo mission by the “space race” against the USSR, how might we have arrived at the Moon? Space development might have proceeded a good deal more slowly and less expensively, building on the X-15 rocket plane experiments. I think that program would eventually have arrived at something fairly close to the Space Shuttle. If you solve all the problems of the X-15 one by one to make it orbit-worthy, it would have had to be much larger and blunter, because any adequate heat shield is going to be around four inches thick, and that doesn’t scale down for something skinny or pointy. That sounds a lot like the shuttle to me.

So let’s say we were trying to send a mission to the moon using space shuttles. The shuttle itself can’t go there even in you fill the cargo bay with fuel, and that would be wasteful anyway, as you don’t need most of its bulk. So I think the bits that actually go to the moon would be much as they historically were in Apollo: a lunar module, command module, and service module. Why not just stick those into a shuttle bay?

The shuttle’s cargo bay is 60 feet long and 15 feet across, though for a cylindrical cargo the cross section needs to be a bit smaller, as the space isn’t fully round. The mass limit for a flight to low orbit is a hair over 30 English tons, or 27.5 metric tons. (I don’t think any real flight ever exceeded 83% of that capacity.) What can we work out based on these limits?

You can’t fit all three modules into one shuttle-load, but they’ll go in two loads, if you make the lander a bit less broad and gangly. One would be the command module and lunar module, and the service module would be the other. And we might have to trim a bit of weight from the service module, like maybe take out the heavy batteries and put them in the other load. This means the service module would have to be mounted to the command module by shuttle astronauts in space suits, which would be inconvenient, but doable. Alternately, you might cram the three modules into one flight all preassembled, if their fuel were in another. This would mean at least six operations of astronauts pumping dangerous fluids into various tanks spread throughout the modules. It might also mean assembling the lander’s legs from some inconveniently compact from.

Now you need a rocket to send the set toward the moon — one rather like the S-IVB third stage of Apollo, which used the majority of its fuel to lift the three modules out of low orbit and fling them toward the moon. This rocket was a bit too large to fit into a shuttle bay, but we can reduce its size by at least 25%. Its weight is no problem, if it’s empty. But the fuel would take three additional shuttle loads. Historically this rocket weighed 10 metric tons empty, and pushed a 45 ton payload. The required delta-V is 3.1 km/s. It burned around 75 tons of hydrogen and oxygen to accomplish this. It used about 30 tons more to finish lifting Apollo into low orbit around Earth during launch, which would not be needed in this case.

So the mission would require six shuttle launches, starting with one to put up the booster with maybe the first splash of fuel in it, and three more to fill it up. Then the service module would be brought up, and attached to the booster. The command and lunar modules would come up last, along with the astronauts who will ride in them. That last shuttle could stay in orbit for a couple of weeks to await their return.

It might be better to bring the fuel up in the tanks that will be used instead of needing to pump it from one tank to another, so maybe the booster would just be a framework that fuel tanks would be bolted into. Such a framework might be folded smaller for transport. This would require additional assembly in space, possibly employing double digit numbers of shuttle astronauts over several flights.  But if everything were prepared well on the ground, the task should not be difficult or dangerous. And if the orbits were well planned, the booster stage could be recovered into Earth orbit, and either refueled for another mission, or if necessary flown back down for refurbishment. As SpaceX has demonstrated with their Falcon landings, once a booster is detached from its payload and has mostly empty tanks, a small amount of remaining fuel can accomplish quite a lot of maneuvering, so I don’t think it’s implausible that its engine could return it to low orbit with the last of its fuel, especially if it discards some dead weight such as empty tanks.

The command module might not need to splash down into the ocean. But it might still need a heat shield, just to brake in Earth’s atmosphere enough to slow down into an Earth orbit, so a shuttle can pick it up. Or, this somewhat risky air-braking might be avoidable by making the service module larger and giving it more fuel. (Perhaps it also could use bolt-in tanks. Add at least one more fuel-hauling flight to the schedule in this case.) An ocean splashdown might be the emergency backup option if the rendezvous fails.

I’m sure this sounds a lot more awkward and inconvenient than the Apollo’s comparatively simple process of just launching one big rocket, but it would have been vastly less expensive. Most of the parts would be reusable instead of disposable. The only part that absolutely could not be reused is the bottom stage of the lunar module. Apollo cost us at least $20 billion per landing, in today’s money; this would cost perhaps a quarter of that — and I’m sure if we made this a continuing operation, we would have found ways to lower the costs further. Instead of just six trips to the moon, we might have continued doing dozens. We might never have stopped.

However, I do worry that this process might have exposed astronauts to greater risks. Lots of opportunities for something to go wrong up in orbit, and lots more shuttle flights. As we have seen, those shuttles were not the safest things to fly in.

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