Monday, June 21, 2010

A secret of college life... plus controversies and science!

GraduatingAdvice for college students and graduating high-shoolers. Reflecting on his son's graduation from high school, Science Fiction author David Brin offers inspiration and advice for students going on to college.

Broaden your perspectives and take full advantage of the wealth of educational experiences awaiting you during the next four years. The key is curiosity. Among several tricks offered: explore what is happening in those buildings on campus. Once a month, pick a building and randomly knock on doors! What’s the worst that can happen?  What’s the best?

This one has gone viral, with 5,000 hits in the first day! (Hint: you folks could also spread the word.)  Great (and highly unusual) advice for that bright young college-bound grad.

= OTHER NEWS... then controversy... and science! =

Back in 1985 I was the very first author in Bantam's (Randomhouse) science fiction line SPECTRA. Now this famed, accomplished publishing line is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Time flies and the future rushes upon us.  Congratulations Spectra!

250px-star_wars_on_trial_coverI’ve been on more than thirty television shows. I’ve had one novel filmed and others scripted. But now comes my first appearance on the big screen! The People vs. George Lucas” premieres June 23 at the Los Angeles Film Festival. I was interviewed for this provocative documentary -- along with many passionate fans and foes of the popular Lucasian universe.

I’ve already stated my opinion, as editor and ‘prosecutor’ in the book Star Wars on Trial, which offers every pro/con perspective in more detail - a real treat for fans of intellectual dissections of po-culture!   But for a lighter-fun scan, the movie is coming soon to a theater not too far away…

And yet-more podcasts! Especially for TedX Munich, I performed a 10
ambitiousproblemsolvingminute video talk entitled: “Ambitious Problem-solving for the Future” It's too easy to lapse into negativity/pessimism about the problems we face: war, political instability, economic trouble, global warming.  Indeed, vast inequalities of wealth exist across the globe. To keep things in perspective, we should recall that things were nearly always worse in the past. We must develop innovative problem-solving skills to face the complex world of the future – and to raise standards of living across the world. For the first time, the entire world community is able to communicate -- across borders and nationalities -- to share strategies and seek solutions. My favorite aphorism: Criticism is the only known antidote to error.  Identifying errors is the first step toward seeking solutions. But we must keep in mind the goal – to improve our civilization. Technology must be part of the solution.

And now exciting news that I predicted... Andrew Wade, an avid player in the two-dimensional, mathematical universe known as the Game of Life,  posted his self-replicating mathematical organism on a Life community website on 18 May. It sparked a wave of excitement.  And might I note that I foresaw this would happen, in my novel GLORY SEASON?  Someone log in and congratulate him, on my behalf?

 I think it is very important to have a clear, fact-based view of the state of the world.  It may seem superficially to be less caring, when I say that 95% of human beings have it better than their ancestors.  But the opposite is true. We can only attack the huge remaining injustices in the world if we first admit that past efforts have done some good.On the up-side, refuting the stylish cynicism that infuses everything from Tea Parties to “Avatar,” dig the facts: Professor Steven Pinker on the myth of violence: he charts the decline of violence from biblical times to the present. 

= A Transparency Issue in the News =

TransparentSocietyOn the other hand, I’ve long been a champion of openness, e.g. in my nonfiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?   In fact, I’ve long held that some millionaire could do more to save freedom and civilization than any other person on the planet, by funding an entirely new approach to encouraging whistle-blowers. (It really is a cool idea!) Indeed, I was generally approving of the endeavor known as WikiLeaks... an attempt to create a clearinghouse online for people to expose what they perceive as wrongdoing.  

Alas, the core person at Wiki-Leaks appears to be on the run from authorities who want to nail a member of the military who disseminated a large number of of classified documents from his post in Iraq. In fact, the matter is more complicated than it seems, at surface.  (I will opine further on this - informally - under "comments" below.)

= And Now Lighthearted (intellectually satisfying) Fun! =

Go read some of ther terrific “fanfic” or fan-generated fiction out there. Here’s a great example: futurist/scholar Eliezer Yudkowsky’s ongoing series/novel that is both a tribute to - and deconstruction of - J.K. Rowling’s fantasy universe.  HARRY POTTER AND THE METHODS OF RATIONALITY poses an alternate world in which Harry is a genius, not only at magic but also the muggle wizardries of math and science. Oh, and his step-parents, instead of being cartoony/silly villains, were wise, decent and smart.  (In other words, Dumbledore did not commit a horrific crime, but put him with the best muggles he could find, duh?)  The result is a fiercely bright, logical and infuriatingly immature 11-year old prodigy who is loyal to science and progress and the Enlightenment, unleashed on poor Hogwarts School, vowing to up-end that is corrupt, horrific and insular society that is Magical Britain.

orig-11091641It’s a terrific series, subtle and dramatic and stimulating.  I liked especially hearing the vocal rhythms of Maggie Smith in dialogue with Professor McGonnagal. And I (naturally) I loved the dissing of Yoda! Yudkowsky gets it, and lots else. Smart guy, good writer. Poses hugely terrific questions that I, too, had thought of... and a number that I hadn't.  Enjoyed all references to the enlightenment.

I wish all Potter fans would go here, and try on a bigger, bolder and more challenging tale.

= And see Comments for more... =


David Brin said...

Down here in comments, one can be forgiven more easily for dashing off impressions, rather than the results of studious thought. Here's an impulsive, first impression of the wikileaks imbroglio.

It’s easy to leap to sympathize with a young soldier who sees himself bravely  calling out immoral behavior by Army brass.  But the sliding scale of civil disobedience is shifted quite a bit when you’ve taken an oath of obedience in the military, which simply cannot function according to the same standards as we do, in civilian life.  Indeed, that is one of the reasons we have fiercely determined that the military shall always be subordinate and subservient to our elected civilian leadership, so that the needfully-closed military process will always be subject to supervision by those who are charged with more open accountability. 

Hence, while the young aoldier may have uncovered faults - (and none of what I am saying applies, if the matters truly do turn out to have been heinous) - his baseline duty lay in “leaking” the video footage and other matters to older/wiser/qualified heads outside of the chain of command, but still within the community of those who are trusted as capable of discretion.  Is there such a path available to officers and enlisted men and women, whose consciences bother them?  I know there was talk of “ombundsmen” back in the Vietnam era. If such paths exist, are they widely known?  Are they sufficient and effective to let an officer or enlisted person vett a questionable act or document without despoiling his or her career?  or inviting retaliation?  If so, the soldier should have received instructions.  If not, then it is long past time.  And if this one fellow turns out to be a true hero, well then.
Are you surprised to hear “Mr. Tranparency” talk about pragmatic methods to BOTH ensure bottom-up accountability AND hierarchical discipline/discretion?  Hm.  Well, if you are suprised, then you never read The Transparent Society.

It’s a complicated world.  And navigating this minefield will take smart people of goodwill.  Not eager, well meaning fools, acting out good-intentions without either common sense or proportionality, or proper attention to self-preservation.

Arcane Designs said...

The argument Prof. Pinker makes is a very interesting one, but the statistical approach of tallying deaths immediately sends me back to Dave Grossman's book 'On Combat'. Therein, he asserted that our statistics about violent deaths have grown less reflective of actual violence in societies because of advances in medicine.

If you apply that theory with prejudice, it says that we are no less violent than before - but now many more attempts to kill other human beings fail because the victims survive the injuries inflicted upon them.

It could also correspond with the decline in violent deaths with the onset of the enlightenment - which also accelerated the advance of medicine (if I remember right.)

That said, personally, I think Pinker's on the right track to suggest that violence is decreasing through time, but the statistics he's using potentially should be adjusted medical technology in much the same way financial charts are adjusted for inflation… It suggests that the decline of violence is not nearly as steep as he'd like to demonstrate.

I also wonder if it would be fair to think about other forms of death to argue against the decline of violence. To give a hypothetical example, a business owner finds his business outmatched, taken over in a hostile acquisition, and his company is broken up and sold in fractions. He can't endure the despair of watching his life's work undone so he commits suicide or drinks himself to death over a few years.

Is that an absolutely non-violent death? It doesn't have the specific incidence of violence, but other humans have aggressively out-competed and marginalized him unto the point of death… but they have left it up to that individual to do the deed. Undeniably, this is a preferable thing to outright murder, but I'd ask exactly how different is it? There's something similar in the spirit of the two processes of sending an individual to death by different means.

David Brin said...

Sorry Arcane, that sounds like the silliest reach for a rationalization I have ever heard.

It is blatantly obvious that 95%+ of the human race has never experienced an invading army, come to pillage their city. Yes, some have, and we are more sensitized to those horrid events because of television and media and education and an advancing conscience. But to ignore that obvious fact -- compared to the historical record of relentless depredations, is just silly.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Dr Brin

You passed a comment about the European Bachelors degree being shorter and more specialized,

Having worked in the USA part of the reason the US degree is longer is the unfortunately poorer "high school" education (One of the reasons I am in New Zealand with my family rather than America)

This I feel in part is due to the fact that students can avoid "hard" subjects at an early age
If I had been given the ability to avoid certain subjects at age 12 I would have - to the detriment of my education

Another reason is "Sport"
I went to Glasgow University - there were 10,000 Scottish students but no "Jocks"
The biggest sport (Rugby) would attract a crowd of forty or fifty people - mostly friends and relatives

Universities are for education - not COMMERCIAL sport!

I studied Mechanical Engineering but I was able to take a wide range of courses from Ocean Studies to Astronomy to Nuclear Engineering
No conceivable career path but great fun!
(four year degree)

I was not required to take a "Humanities" option - If given the opportunity I should have - better for meeting girls- but I can't think of one that would have been as much fun as the ones I did.

I wish I had been given your advise about opening doors then - I am sure I would have found some amazing things

gwern said...

> I know there was talk of “ombundsmen” back in the Vietnam era. If such paths exist, are they widely known? Are they sufficient and effective to let an officer or enlisted person vett a questionable act or document without despoiling his or her career? or inviting retaliation?

As the Roman legal maxim went, no man should be judge in his own case.

Any ombudsmen within the military can be expected to quickly lose their effectiveness by virtue of being in it.

I think particularly of the JAGs; that we hear of JAGs being persecuted for actually trying to defend their clients in Guantanamo only highlights that they were expected to do a _pro forma_ job.

Arcane Designs said...

Which part - or both?

rewinn said...

To be fair to our military, they are given contradictory instructions by their civilian leaders.

Our law forbids firing upon rescue vehicles, and our orders to them mandates firing upon rescue vehicles ... not in so many words, perhaps, but we have long passed the point where we can pretend it's not a predictable result of the rules we give them.

In theory, the troops should obey the law and disobey the orders, but we train them to obey orders.

The predictable result is madness, as we have seen. Certainly the troops bear personal responsiblity for their actions, but we sent them there and therefore have the greater responsiblity.

David Brin said...

Yes Duncan, that is the standard explanation for the 4 year US bachelor's degree... and sorry, it is a truly awful, baseless and silly rationalization.

The proof is simple. Four years is the NORMATIVE time for a US degree and three years is the normative time in Europe. But in fact, US students, on average take a few months more than 4 years to reach completion -- some of them need another year, even two.

In Europe, the average student takes five years or more to graduate. Some take ten. And it is not uncommon for some "students" to matriculate for 20 years. And mind you, this is being allowed and encouraged to specialize, without any breadth requirements at all.

This "explanation" of bad American high schools is counterfactual but it has credence in the world of stereotypes. In any event, really, is it necessary as an explanation? The extra normative year of curriculum is right there, in the graduation requirements. A full year of classes outside your chosen major. (and no... a different KIND of engineering doesn't cut it. You are supposed to do that out of interest.)

All over the world, universities are shifting toward this approach -- because American universities are still the best on the planet.

Look, I see plenty of problems with US public schools. I have three kids in high school, right? But this paradox. "awful high schools" and the best universities in the world - demands clearer thinking than caricatures.

Stefan Jones said...

Simplest explanation for many, but not all, of America's educational achievement problems:

An awful of the kids who are going to high school and college now are kids who would have dropped out or kicked out up to, say, 1945.

These were a largely "invisible" population, because they were poor, minorities, or otherwise marginalized.

And, speaking in the voice of someone from back then, "so what?" There were plenty of factory jobs and grunt jobs to absorb the legion of dropouts or never-wents. Barely-literates could make a living, raise families, and swear they'd raise their kids to do better.

High schools, freed from educating a sizeable fraction of kids who weren't motivated or had learning difficulties, probably did turn out more capable grads. Many could get higher-level factory jobs right out of the gate.

Those lucky few who went on to college didn't need remedial English and math courses.

That kind of system wouldn't work now. The demands of the modern workplace are too high. Barely-literates are barely employable.

I do think some kind of two-tiered high school system is required. One would be the familiar academic track; the other for kids who plan on learning a career skill at a community college or technical school.

The challenge there would be to make sure that the career track schools would get the same funding, high-quality staffing, and respect as the academic track schools.

Joel said...

Are you familiar with Jeff Vail's discussions of a hypothetical open-source military?

I don't think they're worth betting all of our lives on, of course, but is an interesting exploration of just how needfully-closed the military process is.

As I understand it, his argument has two basic parts. Tactically, a faster loop between observation and action might make up for the lack of secrecy in bottom-up operations. Strategically, better processing efficiency or a potentially larger scope of perspectives (arguably a feature of some non-hierarchical systems) might give an open operation an informational advantage even if its opponents have the potential to access all of the same information.

Stefan Jones said...


The first page of Patrick Farley's revamp of The Spiders is up:

'refrou': Delicious cajun dish. Catfish and . . . oh, damn, my mouth is watering.

DFB said...

I believe an ombudsman does not exist. The key would be to ensure a military culture where it is OK to approach the ombudsman. It would need to be a truly independent arm of the department or in a separate agency able to take such reports. Perhaps, that role belongs with Congress.

That said, an ombudsman would likely not make a difference in the Wikileaks case. I think Manning's leak is the convergence of two separate but equally troubling aspects to our current government: (1) culture of secrecy; and (2) unchecked executive with a corrupted chain of command.

The culture of secrecy is troubling. In its quest for secrecy, the Executive branch over-classifies documents and other items that may be embarrassing, counters policy goals or arguments, do not fit within goals, anger constituents, etc. Case in point is the collateral murder video allegedly leaked by Manning and posted by Wikileaks. It was classified because it makes our soldiers look bad. See:

I think the culture of secrecy is the result of an imbalance in our government, similar to that which occurred during the Vietnam era and Nixon Administration. The Executive branch is too strong while our meek Congress sit back and do not balance its power. The judiciary has been mostly supportive of the strong executive powers. Unlike the Vietnam era, the press has been severely weakened and sit on stories to appease the Executive branch or blindly cheerlead bad action. There is evidence that a Washington Post reporter saw and had access to the collateral murder video soon after the event. The NY Times sat on the illegal NSA Wiretapping for more than a year.

The military is part of that strong Executive branch and its chain of command all report up into the White House. The Obama Administration has been very aggressive at plugging leaks of every kind lately, going after the leakers and press they leak to. See

During one of my law school classes, an Army JAG who teaches at an officer training school spoke about human rights and the duty of individual soldiers. It was more classroom discussion than lecture. The JAG said that every soldier has a duty to disobey orders that would violate the laws of war and uniform code of military justice, particularly human rights abuses or murder. At the time, the story of abuses at Abu Ghraib had just broken and there were tributes in the news to military whistleblowers from My Lai so he used those incidents as his examples. His bottom line was that soldiers have a duty to report such abuses up the chain of command or to JAG. The thing I asked him about but he could not answer is what happens when the chain of command or JAG are too corrupted or afraid to take action. I might finally get that question answered.

btw: word verification - "brinism" :-)

rewinn said...

By complete coincedence, I attended a SROE (Standing Rules of Engagement) CLE Tuesday (hosted by the WSBA's Legal Assistance to Military Personnel Section). We passed around a couple of the blue cards our troops are periodically issued outlining when and how and at who you can "engage".

I don't doubt that people are trying to do the right thing, both as individuals and as an organization. However, at the same time, we are putting them in places and giving them orders that ensure the wrong thing will happen. If you are given an illegal order, it is your duty to refuse BUT you will then be tried to determine whether the order was in fact illegal, and if you lose .... you lose big. Couple this with the bonding that occurs at the unit level which, in my admittedly limited observation, appears to override merely intellectual processes such as legal reasoning, and you have a recipe for fatal errors.

I suppose an ombudsman could do no harm. That's part of the role of the Chaplin, and no doubt it sometimes works, but I have been told that sometimes troops are reluctant to take things to channels because the risk of retaliation is severe. For example, it is not unknown for the victims of MST (Military Sexual Trauma) to themselves be prosecuted for making allegations. There is also the problem that the (possibly) wrongdoers may be your bunkmates, armed to the teeth, trained to violence and guarding your back ... not a situation in which everyone would feel comfortable narc'ing on them.

I have no idea what the right thing to do in any particular case may be, but the basic problem we have at this time is the strategic direction given by the civilians to the uniforms.

Unknown said...

(In other words, Dumbledore did not commit a horrific crime, but put him with the best muggles he could find, duh?)

Interesting analysis.... There's a surprise for you in Chapter 17!

I love Yudkowsky's Dumbledore. Rowling's Dumbledore infuriated me by scheming and plotting in secret, often deceiving the other characters on his side, and leaving them puzzling about what he was doing (the biggest example of this being his planned death). Yudkowsky's Dumbledore seems to be hiding his plotting behind a veneer of insanity, so any action that doesn't make sense is attributed to madness... or, he actually is insane!

Tony Fisk said...

Spiders are go, eh? (well I'll give Mr Farley marks for promptness!)

By coincidence (can you spell 'wikileaks'?) the ABC had an interview this morning (Jun 22) with Dr Peter Bowden.

Researcher and teacher in ethics - including advisory work for the United Nations, World Bank and other international agencies

He also has a special interest in Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblowing)

(I haven't heard it yet.)

Tony Fisk said...

Rowling's Dumbledore infuriated me by scheming and plotting in secret

I think Rowling intended Dumbledore's behaviour to be infuriating to the reader.

blomp: a blimp whose field tests suggest that it needs further work...

Nicholas MacDonald said...

Interesting article from John Michael Greer... with discussion of David in the comments!

"Waiting for the Millennium: Part 1: Peak Oil Goes Mainstream"

"Part 2: The Limits of Magic"

In the comments:

Joel: "David Brin is the only other blogger I've read who acknowledges just how important magic was to the solidarity of Hitler's followers, and how incantatory the Tea Party is.

A debate between you and him would be fascinating. Well, it would fascinate me, and probably bore both of you terribly."

JMG: "I enjoy Brin's SF, though of course you're right that he has the common rationalist habit of despising what he's never taken the time to understand."

My own thoughts on the article, and Greer's works in general:

Greer, while he doesn't call himself a "doomist", is obviously on the very pessimistic end of the Peak Oil debate. While he claims that he's being a clear-headed Cassandra surrounded by people headed off a cliff of wishful thinking, I detect a fair bit of his own wishful thinking in his arguments. He pretty much writes off everyone else's energy math except his own, and favors a very steep "declinist" position- that, coincidentially, will bring about the sort of new agrarian society that he, as a Druid and a romantic, longs for and works in preparation for. He's also highly America-centric, completely ignoring other countries which maintain modern industrial bases and standards of living on far smaller per-capita energy expenditures and are enacting long-range plans to deal with coming shortages (foremost being China, but the other countries of East Asia are similar). His whole argument amounts to "No, we can't, and we'd better not even try for fear of making things worse." Unlike many eco-romantics, however, he's very clear about what this will mean in practice- you can see his science fiction work-in-progress for a view of where he sees things headed:

I, for one, find his future and it's consequences both ghastly and unlikely. He underestimates the resourcefulness with which people would react during a time of steep decline to preserve our culture, science and knowhow. He ignores existent second and third-world nations which have working "intermediate technologies" that can be run for a long time to come while we build an industrial base on a sustainable foundation. He also seems to ignore the simple fact that the first stages of the industrial revolution- in fact, everything existent when Karl Marx wrote "Capital"- was created with energy inputs that could be sustained by renewables for thousands of years to come. There's no need for our society to look as primitive as the 13th century, when the sophistication of the early 19th century was possible without a drop of oil.

In short, I have a lot more faith in our society than he does. In a world with more educated minds than any time in history, networked globally under a universal language. A world where our largest nations are training scientists, engineers, and knowledge workers by the millions. A world where all the resources of humanity are rapidly being brought to the table and laid out for all to see. Whether or not they'll come up short of what we need to survive... well, isn't that the question?

David Brin said...

wow Tony, good description...

Marino said...

OT, but showing how much sci-fi became mainstream:

today in Italy we hold the nationwide state examen at the end of the HS courses. The first day is devote to a test in Italian language and literature, and one of the proposed arguments is writing an essay on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, under the title "Are we not alone"?; students were given texts from Kant, Hawking et al. to comment and debate in said essay.
So, sci fi has gone mainstream...
(pity I'm no more a student, approaching the big six-oh... I bet I had mentioned the Uplift universe for sure)

Tacitus2 said...

My own advice to kids on their way to the Freshman dorms is more to the point:

1. Don't get drunk and fall off of a hotel balcony.
2. It is the expectation of Mrs. T. and myself that any grandchild of ours will be raised by two parents who are married to each other. Plan accordingly.

Of course, I address the motivational issues earlier. When they are mulling the college option I tell them that if they know what they want to do, then go straight at it. Adversity has never stopped a member of our clan from attaining his goals, and frankly, after generations of this the Universe no longer seems to be bringing the A game. (sample size insufficient to judge outcomes for females in our family).

But, if they do not know what they want to do, seriously consider taking a year off. Work. Save up some cash. Get a backpack and see europe or central America. A moderate stretch of seeing the world as it is should induce some clarity.

The risk of course is that you end up with a backpacker bum, ever on the move to the next indulgent beach. Its a variant of the horrid infantalization of our young adult population, and one that seems especially risky for males.

But so far so good, the one who went straight to college is conquering his niche of the world, and the one who took time off to do something else (and something very impressive in its own right) is now filling out college apps.


Acacia H. said...

The one bit of advice I have for people headed off to college (seeing I've no kids of my own and likely won't unless the stars align unexpectedly) (okay, so I'm a cynic) is this: no matter how lousy you feel, no matter how behind you are on your homework, never. skip. class.
Naturally, if you have a vital project you're working hard on and if you don't pass it in on time, you can make an exception. But in that case, you're still doing something school-related.

Every class a kid skips is the equivalent loss of a grade in the class - from an A to an A-, a B- to a C+, and so on. This was pointed out in a seminar called "Where There's A Will, There's An A" and I noticed that this is very very true.

Hell, I passed half my classes just by showing up. Though Calculus II was almost the death of me and I only passed that one because the third time I took the class, the professor said "anyone who takes Calc II three times deserves to pass." (I got a C-. Which means I failed and was given a sympathy grade. ^^)

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

Unknown said...

I've always thought it would be nice to have a two-part college education. Have the first part be the broad liberal arts foundation. This is the part where you broaden your mind, lose your provincial attitude, drink and party, gain confidence, pick up some political causes, have a series of high spirited flings with members of the opposite sex, or if applicable, come out of the closet.

Then you work in a factory for three years.

Then you go back for your math and science classes and work like the rest of your life depends on it.

Tony Fisk said...

Wikileaks update: Assange seems to have come out of hiding, according to this BBC article

Acacia H. said...

Well, John Glenn has joined into the armchair discussion concerning the retirement of the space shuttle, insisting that we need to keep the Shuttle running until we come up with a replacement. He also states his reluctance on relying on private industry to put people into space because they're not proven. Never mind the fact that NASA has blown up more than its share of rockets on the pad, and lost a number of astronauts. And hey, let's not worry about the fact that the space shuttle was proven to be unreliable after losing two of the craft.

His math is also a bit odd. Apparently it costs about the same to keep the shuttle running (I believe it costs $200 million per month to keep the shuttles operational) as it does to send astronauts into space through Russia (at $51 million a pop). Hmm. I didn't realize we were sending four people into space a month using the Russian rockets.

I'm sorry... I mean, I understand concerns about private rockets and the like. But Glenn's math is wonky and he doesn't seem worried about the potential loss of life if we lose yet another shuttle due to either debris from launching the craft... or debris in orbit smacking into the shuttle and breaking tiles. You have to wonder what matters more to Glenn: a thousand government contract jobs to keep the flying bricks flying, or the lives of our astronauts who are at risk when they fly on those overgrown bathtubs.

(And why don't we just automate them? They mostly fly themselves. The Russians had their own version of the shuttle that flew remotely. So if we need the shuttle that badly, just build a robotic one to do the job far safer.)

Rob H.

Tim H. said...

Rob, I like about half of your argument, Shuttle costs entirely too much to refurbish, and the decision to go with thermal tiles instead of inconel and a metallic heat shield still haunts us, but a commercial successor will not be inexpensive, or risk free. Mind you, SpaceX looks like the way to go, for now, but it's another small step. When the fare to LEO is less than the price of a small car, we can call it serious progress.

Acacia H. said...

Please note, I stated that I understand Glenn's reservations concerning private industry sending people (and materials) into space, not that I agreed with him.

Here's an interesting question: could a smaller and more viable cargo-carrying space shuttle be built that is able to carry wide loads similar to the current space shuttle? With life support systems removed, the shuttle should be smaller and significantly less expensive to operate (and you could even include the ability to launch humans into space in the cargo-hold, possibly in a capsule similar to the Dragon and Constitution systems).

We could even abandon the existing tile structure and utilize a solid-piece heat shield (possibly utilizing some of the current spray technologies to coat the robotic craft); the coating could even be renewed after the craft returns to Earth should it be sufficiently damaged (unless of course spray technology isn't able to cope with such repairs, risking the coating peeling away from damaged regions).

I could even imagine a long-term job for some of these robotic shuttles: put an ion drive on them for LEO work and have them chase down some of the larger or more dangerous debris, capture it, and once the cargo hold is full, return to Earth with all that junk. (And then bill the companies that left the debris in orbit.)

Rob H.

David Brin said...

If you have three commercial entities launching people, then a tragedy doesn't freeze everything. You investigate, scream some blame, fix problems... while the other guys keep launching.

It's time.

Marino said...

David Brin said...
If you have three commercial entities launching people, then a tragedy doesn't freeze everything. You investigate, scream some blame, fix problems... while the other guys keep launching.

It depends on wether the said entities use also different vehicles.
If a plane is found defective after a disater, all airlines using it usually land them and they are recalled for mantainance.
And the market for launchers and spacecraft won't be the classical market with many participants and low barriers to entry, but quite the opposite. So, probably two out of three will use the same launcher the same way most airlines use either Boeing or Airbus planes.

Tim H. said...

Yes!, Three would be ideal. If it happens Wall $treet may immediately start planning mergers and shut downs of "Excess capacity", in the name of "Efficiency", what is their attachment to collectivization?

"ingin", the destiny of stuffed olives.

Tyler August said...

SpaceX, ULA, and Rorcozmos means three vendors, even if none of the smaller companies spacecraft plans ever make it off the ground.
Not all of those players are in the USA, so Wallstreet might have a harder time 'collectivizing' them.

Here in Canada (not exactly outside of Wallstreet's reach) PlanetSpace still seems to be developing its Silver Dart spaceplane (FDL-7 lifting body with an all metal TPS, what they should have done for the Shuttle in the first place); last I heard they were doing atmospheric flight tests with quarter-scale UAVs... though it's a slow-burn development right now, and they were teamed with Lock-Mar and ATK for their COTS bid, so who knows when, if ever, it'll see orbit.

You've also got billionaires like Jeff Bezos and his ever-mysterious VTOL program, who aren't likely to be bought out easily.

All in all, I'm cautiously optimistic about the prospects of a diverse launch market in coming years.

Acacia H. said...

I've been watching the resurgence of fiscal conservatism in the European Union lately with some curiosity; in many ways this is a test of Keynesian economics. The European nations are struggling to climb out of the global recession that the banking industry ignited with their greed and foolishness. These same banks that insisted they needed to be bailed out are now trying to suck as much money as possible out of the nations by lessening their credit ratings so they can charge higher interest rates for loans.

At the very time when the global economy needs money to be injected into it, the money is being drawn away by the banks. And my money is on a double-dip recession striking the European Union as the lackluster economic recovery flames out due to a lack of fuel (money). (I'd even be willing to bet that some in the finance industry are betting on this happening and are trying to benefit from this - similar to the policies which allowed bankers to make money off of defaulted loans.)

Sadly, even should this happen, I suspect that the new-found fiscal conservatives among Republicans will claim that it was a fluke, and that Keynesian economics is mistaken, even if the U.S. manages to stay out of a second recession through its own borrowing habits.


It seems likely that the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf is going to devastate the Gulf ecology, with Sargassum algae and the sealife that dwells in it becoming befouled by the oil and washing ashore. The problem is that this algae buds to reproduce... which means that a widescale dieoff of the algae will affect the Gulf for years. What's more, the Sargassum also is drawn by the Loop current into the Atlantic... which means that even if the oil itself remains in the Gulf, we could see the Atlantic fisheries taking a hit as a result.


Finally, scientists have been able to measure the speed of winds on a hot Jupiter (HD209458b) orbiting a star over 150 light years distant. I have no idea how they can determine the speed of winds on an object that cannot even be directly observed, but it is truly amazing what they're doing these days in astronomy.

Rob H.

aw said...

RE: death rate

Our prosperity allows us to support crippled survivors of violence. However, if too many survive, society will be unable to support them and new decisions will have to be made: Don't save victims of violence?

Acacia H. said...

Now that is the ultimate taxation question: will we see politicians state "we need to raise taxes to pay for the medical bills of victims of violence. Unless of course you want to just let them die... and imagine for a moment that this victim was your sister... or mother... or wife... or daughter."

I think it would be more difficult to cut funding to assist victims than it would be to cut Social Security. I mean, who wants to be painted to be a complete monster?

Rob H.

matthew said...

@Robert -
I don't know, the ability of the Libertarian / Tea Partiers to rationallize cuts in government spending that they themselves (or their sister, or nephew, or neighbor) have benefited from is deeply amazing. The medical bills resulting from violence could just be seen to be the responsibility of the abuser; if one cannot be found it is the "invisible hand of the market" yet again. A strawman, I admit, but one rooted in experience in argument.

"abiling" - libertarian aid to the Saudi oilgarchs

Marino said...

The link I posted on Afghanistan didn't paste in full, so it's not working, and this is a tinyurl of it:

and here it's the article in Foreign Policy, you have to look for the original to see the pics, that showed a country not so much different from, say, Southern Italy in the '50s. Yes, I understand it was a airbrushed and prettified portrait, but...)

Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan...
Record stores, Mad Men furniture, and pencil skirts -- when Kabul had rock 'n' roll, not rockets.

On a recent trip to Afghanistan, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox drew fire for calling it "a broken 13th-century country." The most common objection was not that he was wrong, but that he was overly blunt. He's hardly the first Westerner to label Afghanistan as medieval. Former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince recently described the country as inhabited by "barbarians" with "a 1200 A.D. mentality." Many assume that's all Afghanistan has ever been -- an ungovernable land where chaos is carved into the hills. Given the images people see on TV and the headlines written about Afghanistan over the past three decades of war, many conclude the country never made it out of the Middle Ages.
But that is not the Afghanistan I remember. I grew up in Kabul in the 1950s and '60s. When I was in middle school, I remember that on one visit to a city market, I bought a photobook about the country published by Afghanistan's planning ministry. Most of the images dated from the 1950s. I had largely forgotten about that book until recently; I left Afghanistan in 1968 on a U.S.-funded scholarship to study at the American University of Beirut, and subsequently worked in the Middle East and now the United States. But recently, I decided to seek out another copy. Stirred by the fact that news portrayals of the country's history didn't mesh with my own memories, I wanted to discover the truth. Through a colleague, I received a copy of the book and recognized it as a time capsule of the Afghanistan I had once known -- perhaps a little airbrushed by government officials, but a far more realistic picture of my homeland than one often sees today.

A half-century ago, Afghan women pursued careers in medicine; men and women mingled casually at movie theaters and university campuses in Kabul; factories in the suburbs churned out textiles and other goods. There was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead. All that has been destroyed by three decades of war, but it was real.

Anonymous said...

"Arcane Designs" suggests that in tracking historical trends in violence, one should take into account advances in medical technology that reduce morbidity and mortality from the violence that occurs.

This seems one-sided. Should one not also take into account advances in weapons technology that increase morbidity and mortality from the violence that occurs?

The Monster said...

A quibble: In the fanfic, Harry isn't raised by "step-parents", but his aunt (mother's sister) and uncle. They are therefore "adoptive parents".

A step-parent is someone who marries one of a person's actual parents.