Options on Iran; Our Abysmal Schools; Advancing Computer Technology; How Long Have We Known of the Color Blue?


Chaos Manor View, Tuesday, March 03, 2015


Slow day. The physical therapist was here today. I had to tell her about the fall yesterday, and she looked at the places where I have pains, called them sprains, and came up with tortures which made them better, but they are still sore.

Took Roberta out for dinner. Well, sort of. Went to Tony’s, a neighborhood Mexican place we both like, no tablecloths, unlimited quantities of pico de gallo, and everyone friendly. I’ve been to Hugo’s and a pizza place, since the stroke, but this was the first time since that we’ve been to Tony’s..Hasn’t changed.


Nothing unexpected in Netanyahu’s speech to Congress today. The President made a point of telling the world that he didn’t watch it, but he didn’t like it and there were no viable alternatives in it. All of which is true. There no viable alternatives we don’t know about, and none of them looks good. Over time the alternatives grew fewer and fewer – inevitably – and the ones remaining got more unpleasant and therefore less viable. One of the few remaining ways to stop Iran’s nuclear capability now is with massive military force on the order of the Iraq invasion, and this President isn’t going to do that. Another possibility is massive Israeli airstrikes against all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and that probably isn’t enough; it might take nuclear weapons, and Israel would hand anti-Semites everything they ever wanted if they did that. Joint Israeli-NATO air strikes might do it, but it would not be quick, and likely would need ground ops as well.

Massive economic warfare has a very low probability of success. It is too late for that. We have delayed far too long; can we now live with an Iran that has nuclear weapons? We’d better learn how. Mr. Obama may delay that day until after the next inauguration, but not much longer.

If there are other alternatives, I would much appreciate hearing them. What won’t work is friendliness. I wish it would.



U.S. millennials post ‘abysmal’ scores in tech skills test, lag behind foreign peers (WP)

By Todd C. Frankel March 2 at 10:21 AM

There was this test. And it was daunting. It was like the SAT or ACT — which many American millennials are no doubt familiar with, as they are on track to be the best educated generation in history — except this test was not about getting into college. This exam, given in 23 countries, assessed the thinking abilities and workplace skills of adults. It focused on literacy, math and technological problem-solving. The goal was to figure out how prepared people are to work in a complex, modern society.

And U.S. millennials performed horribly.

That might even be an understatement, given the extent of the American shortcomings. No matter how you sliced the data – by class, by race, by education – young Americans were laggards compared to their international peers. In every subject, U.S. millennials ranked at the bottom or very close to it, according to a new study by testing company ETS.

“We were taken aback,” said ETS researcher Anita Sands. “We tend to think millennials are really savvy in this area. But that’s not what we are seeing.”

The test is called the PIAAC test. It was developed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, better known as the OECD. The test was meant to assess adult skill levels. It was administered worldwide to people ages 16 to 65. The results came out two years ago and barely caused a ripple. But recently ETS went back and delved into the data to look at how  millennials did as a group. After all, they’re the future – and, in America, they’re poised to claim the title of largest generation from the baby boomers.

U.S. millennials, defined as people 16 to 34 years old, were supposed to be different. They’re digital natives. They get it. High achievement is part of their makeup. But the ETS study found signs of trouble, with its authors warning that the nation was at a crossroads: “We can decide to accept the current levels of mediocrity and inequality or we can decide to address the skills challenge head on.”

The challenge is that, in literacy, U.S. millennials scored higher than only three countries.

In math, Americans ranked last.

In technical problem-saving, they were second from the bottom.

“Abysmal,” noted ETS researcher Madeline Goodman. “There was just no place where we performed well.”

But surely America’s brightest were on top?

Nope. U.S. millennials with master’s degrees and doctorates did better than their peers in only three countries, Ireland, Poland and Spain. Those in Finland, Sweden and Japan seemed to be on a different planet.

Top-scoring U.S. millennials – the 90th percentile on the PIAAC test – were at the bottom internationally, ranking higher only than their peers in Spain. The bottom percentile (10th percentile) also lagged behind their peers. And the gap between America’s best and worst was greater than the gap in 14 other countries. This, the study authors said, signaled America’s high degree of inequality.

The study called into question America’s educational credentialing system. While few American test-takers lacked a high school degree, the United States didn’t perform any better than countries with relatively high rates of failing to finish high school. And our college graduates didn’t perform well, either.

There is a lot more, but you get the idea. Our high schools are awful. And now the rot has spread to many of our colleges. We have sown the wind for decades; we now reap.

There is much we could do, but we will not do it. We will continue to mandate programs from the District of Columbia with its terrible schools, imposing new theories on Podunk, Iowa and East Misery, Missouri. We will continue to act as if anyone believes that the solution is more money. And the schools will get worse.

Alas Babylon.


Subject: Could IBM’s brain-inspired chip change the way computers are built? (WP)


Could IBM’s brain-inspired chip change the way computers are built? (WP)

By Amrita Jayakumar March 2 at 7:00 AM

The human brain is a powerful supercomputer, but it consumes very little power.

The brain is also excellent at processing information efficiently — billions of neurons are deeply connected to memory areas — which gives us the ability to access the data we need to make a decision, quickly make sense of it and then resume normal operation.

That fundamental structure is what sets us apart from machines. It’s the reason we can think and feel and process millions of pieces of data in a fraction of a second every day, without our heads exploding.

Computers don’t work this way.

For decades, they’ve been built to perform calculations in a series of steps, while shuttling data between memory storage areas and processors.

That consumes a lot of power, and while computers are good at crunching huge volumes of information, they’re not so good at recognizing patterns in real time.

With funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and partnerships from national laboratories, engineers at International Business Machines created a chip last year that could imitate the structure of the human brain, in the hope that it would lead to a more efficient model of computing.

The result has the potential to transform the way computers are built in the future, according to IBM, while consuming as much power as a hearing-aid battery.

IBM’s long-term goal is to build a “brain in a box” that consumes less than 1 kilowatt of power and yet can quickly identify patterns in large data sets, said Dharmendra Modha, IBM’s chief scientist for brain-inspired computing.

Applications for this technology range from national security to disaster response. That’s why IBM’s team and scientists from Lawrence Livermore, Oak Ridge and other national laboratories took a trip to Capitol Hill last week to demonstrate the technology before lawmakers.

Devices powered by the chip could be used to perform biosecurity checks by sifting through biological samples to identify harmful agents, or power autonomous spacecraft, or monitor computer networks for strange behavior, scientists said.

IBM’s flagship supercomputer, Watson, which is built on today’s computer architecture and consumes large amounts of power, exemplifies linear calculation, Modha said.

In contrast, the chip has the ability to recognize or “sense” its environment in real time, similar to what humans do with eyes and ears.

For instance, the chip has been used to play a game of Pong by “looking” at the ball and moving the paddle to meet it.

Again there is much more. Clearly, while the average and even above average schools continue to deteriorate, there are still sources of well trained innovative development scientists.

One of my advisors comments:

Designing and scaling up the hardware is the easy part. Figuring out how to use it is difficult.

It’s been about 14 years since the first GPU with reasonably flexible programmability (NVIDIA’s GeForce 3). It didn’t take long before people started using it for general-purpose computation (I hosted a panel at the first conference on this topic— see the panel slides), but the process of co-evolution continues. Computer scientists influence the evolution of GPU programming models, and GPU designers offer new ways to build programmable hardware.

The same process has actually been underway with neural networks for five times as long, since that concept dates back to 1943. Neural networks were basically all software-based for the first several decades, but hardware entered the picture at least 20 years ago (from IBM!). Progress has been very uneven, but I have to assume that if commercial applications for simple neural networks were forthcoming, we’d have seen them by now.

IBM wants to make very complex neural networks, but I don’t know how they intend to configure them (the equivalent of “programming”), and I don’t know if any of their proposed applications are truly better served by neural networks than they might be by distributed processing (separate small CPU cores spread throughout a robot or vision sensor or whatever). Much of what makes the human brain valuable is encoded in its configuration, the way that its sensors and actuators are pre-wired into the brain’s structure. It took an awful lot of trial and error to work out these elements, and I don’t think anyone would claim the result is particularly optimal; in many ways, it’s barely functional.

Still, I don’t mind that IBM is working on this problem. It could turn out to be hugely valuable. I think it’s just too early to say.

A sentiment I tend to agree with, but we must understand that while computer power probably follows an S curve (ogive), we are on the exponential part of it, and probably can expect a thousand fold increase in computing power at least. I tend to believe in more.



3D Printing Everywhere from Lab to Factory (EE Times)

Cars, lab equipment, DIY nearly anything

R. Colin Johnson

3/1/2015 10:04 AM EST

PORTLAND, Ore. — Printers that print three-dimensional (3D) objects were invented as a way to enable kids to make cool toys for themselves. But now dozens of companies are making industrial-sized versions capable of making production quality products — such as the Local Motors car — and custom parts for laboratories that used to have be to go to the machine shop.

“The first question we ask when we conceive of new part for an experiment is if we can print it ourselves on the 3D printer,” said Alex Millet, a visiting student from Puerto Rico who works with professor Andrew Zwicker, head of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).

According to Zwicker and Millet 3D printers have become a crucial piece of laboratory equipment, allowing them to make one-offs of practically any piece of laboratory equipment (except lenses and other glass parts). 3D printers build up layers of plastic, metal, ceramic or organic materials. The piece is merely designed using a computer aided design (CAD) program that transfers instructions to the 3D printer — telling it when and what to “extrude” to form each layer of an object — with 100-micron accuracy.

The biggest advantage — except low cost — is the speed at which experiments can be accelerated, since the 3D printer can one-off custom parts in a matter of hours — including the CAD programming time — instead of sending the plans off to a machine shop and waiting days to get the part back.

Before using the 3D printer, Zwicker’s team tested its parts for resilience to heat, pressure, stress and strength, finding them adequate for most laboratory experiments — including dielectric insulators for electrodes. Funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science under its Fusion Energy Sciences program.

Local Motors
Beside labs, now even mass production is being switched to 3D printing, a capability not unnoticed by Chinese manufacturers, who are investing heavily in the manufacture of 3D printers. But is China’s large, relatively inexpensive workforce working themselves out of a job by making 3D printers?

One company trying to short circuit the exploitation of cheap foreign labor is Local Motors, which is promising to open 100 microfactories to make its vehicles locally in every country where they will be sold, each customized to meet the needs of local residents.

They are also building a Mobi-Factory in the back of a semi-trailer so that vehicles can be produced in-place in remote locations that cannot support the expense of a permanent micro-factory. So far they are planning on three models, the Rally Fighter (pictured), the Racer and the Cruiser, all manufactured by the same 3D printer from different CAD files.

Local Motors U.S. factories will be introducing the Rally Fighter to the commercial market later in 2015 using the 3D printer to make both its body and chassis. The electric car will use motors and other drive train parts from Renault. The company also will allow engineers and partners — and eventually even consumers — to go online and use its CAD tools to produce customized vehicles with features that fit their particular application. Currently Local Motors has micro-factories in Phoenix, Ariz and Las Vegas, Nev. with Washington D.C. next on the list.

— R. Colin Johnson, Advanced Technology Editor, EE Times


The Color Blue

I present comments; I have no expertise in this matter ;


I need to research this some more,  but the assertion that ancient Hebrew did not have a word for the color blue may not be correct.

The third paragraph of the Shma (daily prayer starting with,  “Hear O Israel,  the Lord is our God,  the Lord is one) makes reference to tassels (called tzitzit) on the prayer shawl (called the tallit). This paragraph of the prayer is a quote from Numbers 15:37-41.  The paragraph includes a direction that the tzitzit are to include a blue thread.

This suggests at least one source dating from at least 400 BCE (and perhaps older) referring to the color blue.

Hugh Greentree 

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

I read your mail on the color blue with interest. [Yesterday] Doing some reading of my own, I find it is espousing the ‘relativist’ school of color theory. It is by no means the only one. There is a ‘universalist’ school as well, one that relies on human biology.
It is a fascinating question; can they really not see blue until they have a word for it? Then who first invented the word?   Or is it that they can see the difference but literally don’t have the language for it? If you have the words “black” and “white” but not “gray” in your dictionary?  How would you describe gray?  As lightish black?  What if you’re not given any choices and can only choose one answer, as on a multiple choice test?


Brian P.

In Exodus 24:10 (English Standard Version): “and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” The sapphire stone referenced is Lapis Lazuli, a very beautiful blue stone. No matter what folks may think of what happened to the Elders of Israel in this account, the significant side event is the reference to a pavement that was blue. It was noticed, it was a familiar color like unto Lapis Lazuli and this comes from antiquity. The word blue may be recent, but folks have noticed likeness for quite some time.

Chuck Fenton

Dr. Pournelle,
Perhaps the Jews learned to see Blue before the rest of the world? I don’t read Hebrew, but per Wikipedia, the description of Tzitzit comes from the book of Numbers 15:38
“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, that they shall make themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and they shall put on the corner fringe a blue (tekhelet) thread.”
Also per Wikipedia Tekhelet appears ~48 times in the Tanakh, and was obtained as far back as 1400 BCE and was described as the color of turquoise. I don’t know how this fits in with “when did we begin to see blue,” but perhaps the Torah and the existence of Sanai turquoise mines need too be reconciled with the theory?


Being one of countless men stricken with red-green color “blindness,” I see blue as one of the two colors most clear (the other being yellow).

To me, there are shades of red and green which are indistinguishable from each other in natural sunlight, but which are as different as black and white under lighting of different spectra. There are shades of green which are indistinguishable from grey under natural sunlight.

Looking at an aeronautical chart, I can’t tell the difference between blue and magenta lines unless there are lines of the other color close to the one I’m looking at (in which case they are sharply different and identifiable). Due to this, my FAA medical certificate prohibits me from flying at night (when, ironically, color differences are more

apparent) or from airports which are controlled by colored lights from the control tower (in other words, “no nights and no lights”).

I’ve never seen “deep blue sea” as being blue. It’s almost black to me.

Shallow water, such as La’ie Bay, is clear with color patches in it, some of which are blue. The dark paint favored by Navy-warbird owners is definitely blue, even against the background of the “non-blue” ocean itself, while people with normal vision say that the paint and the ocean are exactly the same color. Thus, planes which are all but invisible to them are as obvious to me as if they were painted yellow!

Even when colors are seen, color vision is largely a matter of interpretation. At what point does red become pink? Why is there no equivalent of “pink” to describe an equally diluted intensity of green?

Ancient people SAW blue, but it was so pervasive that they couldn’t describe it any more than we can describe the taste of salt. They didn’t have a word for “gravity” either, but they were still fully aware of its existence! Once the Egyptians began creating blue dyes, that color needed its own definition.


Regarding Blue, Words, and Cognition.
The Russian language has two words for blue: синий (navy blue) and голубой (sky blue). An English speaker confined to the nouns would be forced to call both colors “blue.”
Does the ancient lack of a word for “blue” mean the ancients couldn’t “see” blue? Ancient Greek had no word for “velocity,” but their natural philosophers were certainly aware of change of location over time. They just couldn’t discuss it compactly.Sort of like English-speakers discussing Gemütlichkeit.

I really have no conclusions, and I am certainly not a Biblical scholar. I am mildly color blind and my father was more so.  We know that adult lactose is a fairly recent development (25,000 years or so.) I am inclined to agree with Mike Flynn, but I don’t know how recent a development is color blindness – or the lack of it.


And that is enough for tonight. My sprains are not painful but they are annoying. More tomorrow.


Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




Pledge Drive Ends. Office 365 Problems. Grandmaster Larry Niven. When did we begin to see blue? and more.

Chaos Manor View, Monday, March 02, 2015

It has been a long day. The Internet sort of went down – it was very slow – and that played hell with my programs. Office – including Outlook and Word – wouldn’t work on the Surface Pro 3 because Microsoft couldn’t authenticate Office 365;  this because we weren’t connected to the Net. Well, we sort of were, but apparently not well enough. If Office – Word, Excel, Outlook, – is at all critical to your operation this would be a good time to consider alternatives. They intend to stop selling it one day, and they will only rent it, and if you cannot get on the Internet to authenticate you are dead. I have my own copies of Office on the Mac and my big machine, but doubtless they will die off as this trend continues.

Office worked once I got the Internet back, although I had to authenticate each program I had attempted to open.  Apparently once a program learns .  If you have the program running and lose networking capability nothing happens other than you access to the cloud; you Office 365 works, at least those programs that have authenticated; but new ones don’t.

I think that’s going to cost Microsoft a lot of money, but perhaps they will reconsider.


I fell down on the stairs trying to go up and reset the cable modem and router, but all’s well. Later Eric was over and by then things worked after reset upstairs (which I didn’t do; Roberta won’t let me go up there)

It’s dinner time. Back later.

OK, back. Also watched the season finale of Downton Abbey.

It is now public that Larry Niven will receive the Grandmaster Award at the next Nebula Awards ceremony.  It’s long overdue in my judgment. I have not vigorously argued in favor – Past Presidents have a part in choosing who gets it – for obvious reasons. I won’t say it’s about time because there are other deserving candidates, but wasn’t designed to be a competition but rather an honor deserved. Robert Heinlein won the first one.


No one could see the color blue until modern times  (BI)

Paulo Philippidis / flickr

This isn’t another story about that dress, or at least, not really.

It’s about the way that humans see the world, and how until we have a way to describe something, even something so fundamental as a color, we may not even notice that it’s there.

Until relatively recently in human history, “blue” didn’t exist, not in the way we think of it.

As the delightful Radiolab episode “Colors” describes, ancient languages didn’t have a word for blue — not Greek, not Chinese, not Japanese, not Hebrew. And without a word for the color, there’s evidence that they may not have seen it at all.

How we realized blue was missing

In the Odyssey, Homer famously describes the “wine-dark sea.” But why “wine-dark” and not deep blue or green?

In 1858, a scholar named William Gladstone, who later became the Prime Minister of Great Britain, noticed that this wasn’t the only strange color description. Though the poet spends page after page describing the intricate details of clothing, armor, weaponry, facial features, animals, and more, his references to color are strange. Iron and sheep are violet, honey is green.

So Gladstone decided to count the color references in the book. And while black is mentioned almost 200 times and white around 100, other colors are rare. Red is mentioned fewer than 15 times, and yellow and green fewer than 10. Gladstone started looking at other ancient Greek texts, and noticed the same thing — there was never anything described as “blue.” The word didn’t even exist.

It seemed the Greeks lived in murky and muddy world, devoid of color, mostly black and white and metallic, with occasional flashes of red or yellow.

Gladstone thought this was perhaps something unique to the Greeks, but a philologist named Lazarus Geiger followed up on his work and noticed this was true across cultures.

He studied Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible. Of Hindu Vedic hymns, he wrote: “These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again… but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs… and that is that the sky is blue.”

There was no blue, not in the way that we know the color — it wasn’t distinguished from green or darker shades.

Geiger looked to see when “blue” started to appear in languages and found an odd pattern all over the world.

Every language first had a word for black and for white, or dark and light. The next word for a color to come into existence — in every language studied around the world — was red, the color of blood and wine.

After red, historically, yellow appears, and later, green (though in a couple of languages, yellow and green switch places). The last of these colors to appear in every language is blue.

The only ancient culture to develop a word for blue was the Egyptians — and as it happens, they were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.

If you think about it, blue doesn’t appear much in nature — there are almost no blue animals, blue eyes are rare, and blue flowers are mostly human creations. There is, of course, the sky, but is that really blue? As we’ve seen from Geiger’s work, even scriptures that contemplate the heavens continuously still don’t necessarily see it as “blue.”

Russell Mondy/FlickrIs the sky really blue? What does that mean?

In fact, one researcher that Radiolab spoke with — Guy Deutscher, author of “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages,” tried a casual experiment with that. In theory, one of children’s first questions is “why is the sky blue?” So he raised his daughter while being careful to never describe the color of the sky to her, and then one day asked her what color she saw when she looked up.

Alma, Deutscher’s daughter, had no idea. The sky was colorless. Eventually, she decided it was white, and later on, eventually blue. But it wasn’t the first thing she saw or gravitated towards, though it is where she settled in the end.

So before we had a word for it, did people not naturally see blue?

This part gets a little complicated, because we don’t exactly what was going through Homer’s brain when he described the wine-dark sea and the violet sheep — but we do know that ancient Greeks and others in the ancient world had the same biology and therefore, same capability to see color that we do.

But do you really see something if you don’t have a word for it?

A researcher named Jules Davidoff traveled to Namibia to investigate this, where he conducted an experiment with the Himba tribe, who speak a language that has no word for blue or distinction between blue and green.

Vidipedia/Himba color experimentNamibian tribe member participates in a research project.

When shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue, they couldn’t pick out which one was different from the others — or those who could see a difference took much longer and made more mistakes than would make sense to us, who can clearly spot the blue square.

But the Himba have more words for types of green than we do in English.

When looking at a circle of green squares with only one slightly different shade, they could immediately spot the different one. Can you?

Vidipedia/Himba Colour ExperimentWhich square is the outlier?

For most of us, that’s harder.

This was the unique square:

Vidipedia/Himba Colour Experiment

Davidoff says that without a word for a color, without a way of identifying it as different, it’s much harder for us to notice what’s unique about it — even though our eyes are physically seeing the blocks it in the same way.

So before blue became a common concept, maybe humans saw it. But it seems they didn’t know they were seeing it.

If you see something yet can’t see it, does it exist? Did colors come into existence over time? Not technically, but our ability to notice them may have…

For more fascinating information about colors, including information on how some “super-seeing” women may see colors in the sky that most of us have never dreamed of, check out the full Radiolab episode.

I think I would never have thought this possible, but having thought about it, the argument is reasonable, perhaps compelling.


SanDisk Squeezes 200GB Into a Tiny microSD Card (BT)

Stop for a second and take a look at the fingernail on your baby finger. That’s roughly the size of a microSD card that can now hold a whopping 200GB of data thanks to SanDisk. Remember when USB flash drives with a full gigabyte of storage were mind-blowing? We were so foolish back then.

Available sometime in the second quarter of 2015, the new microSDXC card uses the same technology that SanDisk developed for the 128GB microSDXC card it introduced last year, but with an improved design allowing the company to increase storage capacity by 56 percent. The new card also boasts transfer speeds of up to 90MB/sec, but once available its $400 price tag might be a little hard to swallow—even if the card itself isn’t.

Too bad there’s no slot for it in the new Galaxy S6. [SanDisk]


Google AI Now Self Learning (gizmodo)

Google scientists and engineers have created the first ever computer program that is capable of learning a wide variety of tasks completely independently, in what is a giant leap towards true general artificial intelligence.

The AI, or as Google refers to it the“agent”, has learnt to play almost 50 different retro computer games, and came up with its own strategies for winning completely without human input. The same approach could be used to control self-driving cars or personal assistants in smartphones.

This research was conducted at a British company the Google acquired a few years ago called DeepMind

Demis Hassabis, who founded DeepMind said:

“This is the first significant rung of the ladder towards proving a general learning system can work. It can work on a challenging task that even humans find difficult. It’s the very first baby step towards that grander goal … but an important one.”

And continued to draw comparisons with IBM’s DeepBlue chess computer.

“With Deep Blue, it was team of programmers and grand masters that distilled the knowledge into a program. We’ve built algorithms that learn from the ground up.”

Google have provided a video (below) that shows DeepMind learning to play a classic Atari game

(source Guardian)


Wonderful to see you fit and in full voice on TWiT Sunday evening (tis on late – 23:00 here in the UK). Do hope Leo has you on again in the near future. You two both agree and disagree on many things and Leo doesn’t often get called out so you’re a refreshing guest on the network.
I note the extensive Q&A here on Iran, Israel, Saudi, etc. and thought I’d add my 2pence.
Having just returned from a 12 month long technology consulting job in Kuwait, and before that spent two years in the Magic Kingdom and traveled all across the region I can say that things look different from the inside than they perhaps do from the outside.

The struggle had long been painted as a Israeli v Palestinian conflict and now is pitched as a very complex hydra headed Sunni v Shia conflict. I see it as a simpler situation. It now boils down to an old fashioned regional battle – a Riyadh v Tehran power play – with each side employing proxies of various stripes to fight their battles. All these troubles in a post-Saddam world are due to the main two protagonists in the region. It’s not about religion. It’s about regional dominance.

Rather than ‘NATO boots on the ground’ we should be using all our soft power to knock heads together in the two respective power centers and force them to smoke the peace pipe and to call off their dogs. And if that fails, we should at least be talking up the conflict in public to make it clear where the problems actually lie.

The furor over Bibi’s speech to Congress is one big distraction and has nothing to do with the real issue at hand.

Again, great to see you’re well again.
Best regards,
Jeff Wolfers

Thanks for the kind words.


Net Neutrality, Feb 27, 2015

What if the normal mode of business competition in public utilities is sabotage? I am attaching a contemporary picture of the Battle of Havant, a right-of-way dispute between two English railroad companies in the year 1858.

Source: [Cuthbert] Hamilton Ellis [1909-1987, Fellow of the Royal Society of Art, Associate of the Institute of Locomotive Engineers], _The Pictoral History of Railways_, 1968, p. 17

A utility company’s plant, like that of a railroad, is inherent extensive, in the sense of being distributed over the landscape, and being practically impossible to guard. They already have problems with metal theft, ie. druggies (meth-heads) stealing things like manhole covers and selling them for scrap. Fierce competition might very well translate into paying the Bloods and the Crips to put the rival network out of action.

Andrew D. Todd


The pledge drive is over, but you can still subscribe.  I won’t be bugging you about that for a while


Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




Pledge Week ends. TWIT this Afternoon. Interesting Week

Chaos Manor View, Sunday, March 01, 2015


Pledge week ends tonight. Thanks to all of you who subscribed. Of course you can subscribe anytime, http://www.jerrypournelle.com/paying.html 


Subj: It’s going to be an interesting week

I’ve been wondering what Bibi Netanyahu was planning to say during his address to Congress this week. I had assumed that his purpose was to take an appeal for aid to the American people, bypassing a President whom he know will ignore him, and what he believes is the existential crises of ISIS and Iranian nukes staring him in the face.

Reading the article about this leak, another thought gelled: knowing that the Obama Administration had leaked every plan Israel has formulated for the past six years to attempt to stop the Iranian nuclear program, knowing the relationship that the Obama administration has maintained both towards Israel and towards Moslem groups in the Middle East, knowing the intense opposition that the White House is bringing to bear against Bibi’s speech, is it possible that Bibi is aiming higher:

Is it possible, perhaps even probable, that Bibi’s objective is to reveal the international crimes of the Obama Administration, of the White House and Democrat leadership, in a way that even the rank-and-file Democrats of the House and Senate cannot ignore or wish away. Is is possible that Bibi’s objective is to lay the case for Obama’s impeachment that the Republican leadership refuses to touch, because there is no way politically that they can bring the Democrats to consider impeachment if they bring the charges.

All I can say is, we’ll see.

Unlikely that sort of bombshell, but Israel is in a pickle. We are fast approaching a point where the only to stop the Iranians from acquiring Hiroshima bombs – several of them – is air power, and there is some question of whether Israel can accomplish that – at least without nuclear weapons. The White House is sure they cannot; some in the Pentagon are not so sure.

It is definitely going to be an interesting week.


Subject: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel

A major conflict in the Middle East remains beyond U.S. interests.

The talks with Iran indicate this. Israel has, for years, wanted pre-emptive strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities — much like it did with Iraq. The main problem with this policy is that Iran’s infrastructure is well dispersed and well-protected. Not only can we not guarantee that a strike will disable the capability, it seems likely that such a strike will not accomplish this objective.

Thus, we need a process to slow down or handicap the capability since we cannot be certain that we will disable it and a failed attempt could create the scenario we wish to avoid in disabling this capability. Hence, the Geneva talks — or so the story goes. Other factors drive the United States to these talks e.g. a resurgent Russia. Whether U.S. interests exist in Ukraine is irrelevant, certain policy makers see U.S. interests in this and they’re positioning accordingly and I maintain this also drives an interest in the Geneva talks. Other factors also influence this impetus.

An Israeli media source ran with the story that Obama threatened to shoot down Israeli airplanes if they were to attempt an attack on Iranian facilities.


I suspect U.S. policy makers assume that Israel would fly over Iraq to make these strikes. What if they flew over Saudi Arabia?


[Saudi intelligence and defense officials] had asked for a private meeting with Pardo [Head of Mossad], at which he was offered the reassurance that the Chinese rockets that Israeli spy satellites had spotted in Saudi Arabia’s desert were only there to protect their country from an enemy they both shared — the Republic of Iran.

Prince Bandar added they both knew that their countries shared concerns which at times put them at odds with the United States. The crown prince felt the Iran threat had reached a stage where it must be handled.

That began the start of several meetings which had taken Pardo to Riyadh and Amman to meet with both the royal princes and senior Saudi military officers. By November, a mutual cooperation had been agreed that Israel could use Saudi air space to launch air attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities and for Israeli drones, rescue helicopters and tanker planes to be positioned over Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea and have refuel facilities at various Saudi airfields.



The situation in the Middle East just got a lot more complicated and, perhaps, more rides on these talks than we might suspect. What would the Middle East look like if Israel attacked Iran with Saudi help?

After all, the House of Saud are not the natural rulers of Saudi Arabia; their dominance is a historical fluke.

So, what happens if Israel moves forward and fails? What does Iran do? What does Saudi do? What does Turkey do? What do the rest of the world do? Matters in the Middle East look more interesting with each passing day.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Most Respectfully,

Joshua Jordan, KSC

Percussa Resurgo

The Hashemite King of Jordan is the most “legitimate” pretender to Arabia – although he does not pretend to the position.  Turkey abolished the Caliphate in the 20’s, and the last Sultan has died, although there are pretenders.

ISIS has a qualified pretender to Caliph (he is from the right tribe) but to rule by that reasoning he must make all Shiites apostates, worthy of death.  That’s a lot of apostates. He also


Leonard Nimoy, RIP.


Roland Dobbins

I never knew him although I did know Roddenberry. I’ve nothing to add, except that we know the young man who is to have the part of Spock in the Star Trek opera – but I know nothing about that, either.


I will have more after TWIT. Good afternoon.


Running cars on water

A real quick Chem eng analysis suggests the aluminium route to hydrogen in a car is not going to fly.
Converting aluminum oxide to aluminum metal takes lots and lots of electricity – Wikipedia says the best plants use 46MJ/kg, but the chemical energy of aluminium metal is only 31MJ/kg. (67% efficient)
Then in the on board step
2Al + 3H2O -> Al2O3 + 3H2 the aluminum has chemical energy of 1675 kJ/mol (converted to mol terms from weight terms earlier), but the 3 moles of hydrogen released only has 857kj of chemical energy (50% efficient). To make matters worse the other 50% will be released as heat in the liquid bath. A typical car uses ~20kW of actual running power, so at 50% efficient there will be another 20kW that needs to be removed from the water bath, which makes quite the kettle.
Multiply the two steps together and the process is only 33% efficient at turning electricity into hydrogen.
I’m pretty sure that the liquid metal really is mercury. It’s why they don’t let you take mercury on planes. The issue will be that now you have alumina contaminated with mercury that I doubt any aluminium refinery is going to be happy to have to deal with.
The upside is the energy density is not bad – roughly 8MJ/kg with perfect conversion and no boiling losses – compared to gasoline at 50MJ/kg not great, but most batteries are well under 1MJ/kg.

Jesse Huebsch

Running on Water

Hello, Jerry –

The original post on the subject almost certainly referred to the use of gallium with aluminum to generate hydrogen.

Jerry Woodall (then of Perdue, currently UC Davis) made a splash in 2007-2008 with his announcement of the use of a gallium/indium/tin alloy for this purpose. A good example of his recent thinking is http://www.istc.illinois.edu/about/SeminarPresentations/20120405.pdf , although a somewhat less sanguine appreciation can be found as part of a 2010 DOE report http://www1.eere.energy.gov/hydrogenandfuelcells/pdfs/aluminum_water_hydrogen.pdf

I was introduced to the reaction during an evening spent with John Campbell in the fall of ’68, so the idea has been around for a while.

Woodall skips over a few problems:

1) His process will not operate reliably below 10 degrees C (he depends on the alloy, which has melting point of 10 C, to maintain a supercooled state for lower temperatures), and completely ignores the problems associated with keeping water from freezing below 0 C, which would seem an obvious difficulty for any vehicle operating north of the Mason-Dixon line.

2) Per the DOE report, recycling of the spent aluminum would require an expansion of US aluminum refining capacity by roughly an order of magnitude if all vehicles in the US are converted.

3) The mechanics of replacing the spent aluminum oxide with new aluminum is less trivial than one might think, given that the alumina is in the form of sludge and scum, rather than a nice, solid brick or ingot, while the GaInSb alloy will form a puddle in the bottom of the reaction vessel.

But it is an intriguing idea, and has the virtue that the materials involved are not terribly toxic (as opposed, for instance, to mercury).


Jim Martin

Which tells us about as much as we can know from this distance,


Good night.  TWIT 499 is up.  Live long and prosper.



Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.