THE VIEW FROM CHAOS MANOR
View 578 July 6 - 12, 2009
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July 6, 2009
I have a full agenda today, including a trip to Fry's to get a new monitor. I hope to finish the column tonight, so it can be posted by Wednesday morning.
There's a lot of news, most of it interesting. The most important news is from Honduras, where the army, the courts, and the legislature are united in opposing a change in the Constitution that would allow the country to have a president for life as they have had in Cuba and Venezuela.
Much of the world seems to see the expulsion of the president -- Constitutional and done with a supreme court warrant so far as I can tell -- as an attack on "democracy." That raises the question of what is democracy? Is one person, one vote, once, the usual formula in newly liberated African colonies, a form of democracy? Mugabe in Zimbabwe probably had a favorable majority well after his regime began to descend into corruption and confiscation. Napoleon III was elected President of the Second Republic before converting it into the Second Empire.
It is conventional to say that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, but there's not a lot of real evidence for that. Plebiscitary democracy can produce some really awful results. A plebiscite can legitimize almost anything. Is that democracy? I suspect those who are champions of democracy are actually in favor of constitutional rule of law, which is not the same thing. The United States was certainly not set up as a democracy. The Senate is thoroughly undemocratic and always was, as were the upper houses of all but one state legislature (Nebraska has always had a unicameral legislature) until the US Supreme Court found that their governments had been defective from before the adoption of the Constitution, and the Federal Government had to put things right. The result in California was to upset the balance between the northern and southern halves of the state, delivering much of the water from the north to the increasing demands of Los Angeles, as well as turning the state legislature into a system for spending all the revenue it could get while seeking more. Thanks, SCOTUS.
Democracy was just what the Framers feared, because there is always the temptation for the numerous have-nots to levy taxes on the haves. Taxation without representation is tyranny, we used to say. There were some who even then feared taxation with representation. Now it is easy enough to show great and outrageous inequalities, and to argue that the remedy is democracy, taxing away the privileges of the few for the benefit of the many. There is the observation that "the law in its infinite equality prohibits rich and poor alike from sleeping under bridges and stealing bread." All of this was addressed in 1787 when the Framers thought to protect the principle of consent of the governed by limiting what the central government could do (despite arguments from those like Hamilton who wanted it to do far more for economic development) in the hopes that protecting states rights would prevent the new republic from becoming a place where wealth was distributed by national plebiscite.
Enough, I suppose. I am not writing a diatribe against democracy; I am saying that one needs to think hard about what means by democracy. In Honduras there is an attempt to make it mean "one person, one vote, for one man for life." The Honduras Supreme Court, its army, and its legislature have said that it must not mean that. Given the location of Honduras it's probably inevitable that the US take a stand on this. Which side should we be on? And should we choose that by national interest or by some kind of political principle? And if the latter, what is that principle? Is it that a majority may choose whatever it likes? If there are to be limits on what the majority may choose, what shall those limits be? Of course these are not simple questions. They have been with us since Thucydides and Aristotle. Cicero wrote a lot about such matters.
The other major news is Sarah Palin's decision to get the hell out before the politicians destroy her. There's a lot of speculation about whether she intends to run for President in 2012. I think that the probability of success now that she has resigned as governor is so small as to make it exceedingly unlikely.
She's broke, she can't raise money to pay off her legal bills and still be independent of lobbyists, David Leatherman can joke about her daughter getting knocked up at a baseball game, there is no hint that the "ethics investigations" which require expensive legal defense will cease, and as far as I can see she's just tired of the whole thing. She has the ability to draw crowds and she has a natural instinct for doing the right thing. She's not an Ivy League graduate. She's not an intellectual but she's smart enough to learn about issues. When people do look at her they try to compare her to Ronald Reagan, which is perhaps unfair at this stage of her career. It would make more sense to compare her to Joe Biden. They ran for the same office.
For a number of reasons she became the target of an attack machine that has apparently succeeded in driving her out of public life. She'll make use of her celebrity status to raise some money, pay some debts, and try to set up her family income to allow some future choices, but I suspect she she will slowly fade out of the national scene. We will be the poorer for it. One might contemplate what happened to her while reflecting on what we mean by democracy. Would Leatherman still be on the air had he cracked jokes about one of Obama's daughters? Or even about Katie Cooric's daughter? Or Tina Fey's daughter?
Andrew Jackson was a militia commander who had little education, and was not part of the colonial elite. He rose through merit and good luck to become the first "democratic" President, the people's president. He made mistakes. The comparison to Palin is tempting. She would certainly have been as good a senator as many we have in that august body, even if they are better "qualified" in having elitist credentials. And of course most professional politicians are far richer than the Palins.
I am hardly astonished that the mother of a Down's Syndrome child, with a son in the war zone, a single mother daughter (and there's a story we don't need to know), mounting debts, and no sign of relief would call it quits. Fighting the Chicago machine from Juneau is more than she wants to face.
I doubt that democracy has been well served by driving her from public life. I also doubt that this will be the last such incident.
Albert Jay Nock once said that it might be amusing to write an essay on how one might determine that one was entering a Dark Age. I think about that quite a lot lately. Despair is a sin.
We have the technology for survival with style. There are ways out of this. Certainly for mankind, and even for the West.
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|This week:||Tuesday, July
Los Angeles has come to a halt as we bury and commemorate Michael Jackson. I know this because my usual radio shows have been preempted by coverage of the events. I am pleasantly surprised to discover that the whole thing has been orderly. On a thousand or so people showed up at Staples Center without a ticket; there had been predictions of half a million, which seemed excessive but not entirely impossible. There were predictions -- even expectations -- of a riot. Thousands of Los Angeles Police were put on overtime duty at great expense (the city is broke and has a deficit budget). The police presence probably helped stem the expected flood of people. So did all the media coverage. And of course it's noon, not evening, so there are fewer people drunk.
The memorial is being shown on big screens everywhere except in Los Angeles, and that does seem to have calmed things down and prevented an enormous flash crowd.
In any event, it all seems a bit anti-climactic, but it has pretty well shut the city down.
Senator Al Franken has been sworn in. The Democrats now have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. The Republicans will have to use rational arguments in counter. Good Luck.
The United States continues to take a very odd stand regarding Honduras. I am having trouble understanding what may or may not be our current policy and how that is in our national interest. Doubtless Obama will explain at some point. Meanwhile he has managed to be civil to the current Russian regime although his remarks about Prime Minister Putin before he went to Moscow might have been taken badly.
Herman Kahn once said (about 1970) that the most significant fact about the Twentieth Century was that England and America spoke the same language; the most significant fact about the Twenty-first Century would be that Russia and America were both Caucasian nations. Of course much of the world has changed since then. We no longer have the Seventy Years War/ Cold War, and we never built a CoDominium as I described in one series of novels; immigration and fertility rates have changed things as well. Still, the US and Russia do have many common interests.
I have yet to have anyone explain to me why a US mutual defense treaty with Georgia or other countries peripheral to Russia is in the US interest. I am not sure what Georgia can contribute to our defense. I am not sure why the sovereignty or lack thereof of the nation of Georgia is worth the life of a Georgia Tech grenadier. Perhaps someone will explain it to me. Several have tried, but I failed to understand.
This just in:
I have mixed feelings about this. There are books out that I would like to see for the Kindle, but they are best sellers and selling for too much for Kindle to provide them. I'd be willing to put up with some ads in order to read the books on Kindle. This is actually an item for discussion in the column, but I've just finished the column and I haven't time to give it the attention it deserves. If it's still a live issue I'll get to it next month.
When paperback publishers began putting advertisements in books, authors raised a storm of protest. Harlan Ellison was particularly incensed by tobacco ads in his books. I can easily see that happening here.
July 8, 2009
The GAO reports that it's easy to smuggle bombs into federal buildings. One wonders what the response will be? We have already taken the people's house -- the Capitol -- away from the people after 200 years. One wonders what form of kabuki we will add now? Meanwhile, Francis Hamit, who has some experience in these matters, has some observations over in mail.
The July column is up at Chaos Manor Reviews. It tells the story of the death and resurrection of Roberta's system, along with other observations about technology. Go have a look.
Los Angeles got through the funeral and celebration of Michael Jackson without a riot. I confess I had sort of expected one, but I'm glad we got by without. I heard some radio coverage of the ceremonies -- I could hardly avoid it since that preempted just about every local radio and TV station -- but nothing I'd be qualified to comment on. I've never been a fan of his form of music and entertainment. The first time I ever knew of his existence was at Disneyland in some kind of pre-ride entertainment (probably Space Mountain). There was a video of Jackson saving the Earth from aliens or something of the sort. I'm told that was the Captain EO video, one of the most popular videos of all time. It was impressive enough that I remember its existence, but not so much that I recall details. I understand that there is a controversial commemoration resolution in Congress, opposed by at least one member on the grounds that Jackson ought to be condemned, not commemorated. I haven't much comment on that, either. Everyone I know seems to have a firm opinion about what Jackson did or did not do regarding teen age boys. Put me down as honestly not knowing. The only thing I am sure of is that a jury was unanimous in acquitting him despite vigorous and expensive efforts by the county District Attorney. De mortuis nil nisi bonum. RIP.
Of course I don't really believe that one should never speak ill of the dead. (How could I? Niven and I wrote both Inferno and Escape from Hell and we certainly spoke ill of some dead people while showing redemption for others.) Indeed, my feelings regarding McNamara are strong enough that it's probably better if I don't express them.
I was a cold warrior. I believed -- still believe -- in containment as a strategy regarding the USSR. If containment was going to work we had to do some containing. Land wars in Asia were the least attractive ways to do that, but by opposing them in Asia we were less likely to have to fight in Europe where the stakes were higher and the consequences of loss so much greater. No need to review the Cold War and its strategy. The Cold War was very costly: it cost the American people many of their liberties, mostly because there was a faction that said "We'll let you fight the war, but you have to give us a bunch of social changes that require us to create government agencies." Those agencies have become bureaucracies subject to Pournelle's Iron Law. We continue to pay those costs. In my judgment, if we had not contained Communism, the expansionist faction within the USSR would have retained power, the Cold War would still be on with many Soviet power centers in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and an increasing besieged garrison mentality in the US; and we would still have all the tensions stemming from having 26,000 nuclear warheads aimed at the US.
I don't fault Kennedy and McNamara for getting us into Viet Nam. I fault McNamara for micromanaging the war in a way that made it far more prolonged and costly than it needed to be. It was all summed up in one session of the TV News Analysis show I co-hosted with Les Crayne a very long time ago. Our guests were Allard Lowenstein and McGeorge Bundy.
Lowenstein: "Jerry, you want to win it and get out." (I nodded.) "I just want to get out," Allard continued. "Your friends there" (indicating Bundy) "want to lose it and stay in."
To which I had little reply. I had experience of that earlier when I was doing operations analysis of the Viet Nam war in the mid-60's. The rules and micromanagement from McNamara were legendary.
Robert McNamara, RIP
July 9, 2009
My day started with the alarm clock, not my favorite way to wake up. Today was my appointment with the California Department of Motor Vehicles to get my driving license renewed. Given all the jokes about DMV I was prepared for an ordeal.
I made my appointment last week on line. That took well under five minutes. I was offered 10:20 AM Thursday (today) as my first shot, and took it. Since I'd have to take the written driving test again, and I had heard horror stories about DMV "service", I figured I should be there with plenty of time. It's usually about a 15 minute trip, but I left here at ten after nine, took surface streets with no problems other than a stretch of single lane traffic on Vanowen due to city water and power work, and got there a bit before ten. There was a line at the non-appointment window, no line at the appointment window. Actually both were the same window, but with two clerks. I grabbed a license manual -- which had an Auto Insurance Specialists advertisement on the back so I suspect they paid for the manuals, probably saving the state some money -- and looked for a seat. The nearest one was quite a long way from the window. I suppose I could have registered then, but it was still before ten, so I didn't. I read through the manual looking for gotchas -- how many feet before you turn into a driveway must you signal? That sort of thing. At five after ten I went back to the check-in window. By now there was only one clerk serving both the non-appointment line (maybe twenty people) and the appointment line (two ahead of me).
Still, it didn't take very long to get to the window, and about then the clerk was joined by another who dealt exclusively with the non-appointment line. I handed in the printed appointment form, was given a longer form to fill out, and an appointment number of F-34. I filled out the form and waited. That took a while. I noted they were calling out numbers beginning with G, and went back to the appointments window, where the clerk very politely told me that was no problem, they didn't call them out in order.
There weren't enough chairs. I stood by a group of chairs that had a good view of the screen where they show the appointment numbers and window to go to. After a few minutes two people got up, whereupon two guys with handlebar mustaches, aged maybe 50, rushed past me to grab the seats. This so shocked a Latina (about 30 I would guess) that she got up to offer her seat to me. I didn't want that, so we both stood in front of the empty seat while the two seat grabbers tried to look elsewhere. After a bit someone else took the empty seat, they called the number for the nice Latina who'd tried to give me her seat, and another seat opened up. At which point I noted that there was one and only one duplicated appointment number: F-33. But both F-33's were directed to the same window. Then came a spate of B and G numbers, but eventually came up F-34 and a window back on the other side of the room.
The clerk there took my form, and was kind enough to speak loudly enough that I could hear. I don't hear as well as I should, and that was compounded by something else: There was a chap about 40 standing at an empty window (Window 10, actually) along the counter pretending to be a disk jockey doing a show about being at the DMV. He had a loud and actually pleasant "radio" voice, and his jokes weren't all that bad. Of course no one paid him any attention at all. He kept on doing this all the time I was at Window 8.
The clerk showed me where to sign and date the form and check a box I had omitted, took my $28 and gave me a receipt, and directed me to "Camera One" which was, of course, back on the other side of the big room. At this point I couldn't restrain myself. I said "I keep hearing jokes about this place, but you people have been very pleasant and efficient, and I want to thank you." I suspect she was a bit taken aback, but it was all true. There was only one Camera window, marked Camera, but I assumed it must be Camera One. Once again a pleasant black lady (all three clerks I had dealt with were black ladies) took my picture, got an electronic thumbprint, and directed me to the testing room where a young Latino (20's I'd guess) handed me the multiple-choice form. Five minutes later that was it. I was done. It was ten minutes to eleven.
Now I've heard horror story jokes about California DMV for years, but I certainly found no basis for them in today's experiences. It was a sufficiently pleasant experience that I took the trouble to go thank both the lady at Camera One and the younger clerk at the appointments window.
Amazon lowered the Kindle price today. The PC World take on it is interesting. I haven't a strong view on this other than the obvious. I continue to use the Kindle for a lot of my reading. I'm sad that Evanovich's Finger Licking Fifteen is not yet available for the Kindle. In any event, PC world's analysis is a good starting point for thinking about this.
There's more news about Chrome, Google's netbook operating system. This is what, the third iteration of "network computing"? As I noted in the current column, under 30% of the US is broadband connected; I'd think that a serious limit. If you're not network connected, then network computing isn't going to fly. Which implies that places that have some reason to restrict network connectivity -- some businesses and banks, possibly schools -- may have second thoughts about giving up local autonomy for work in the cloud.
At one time the buzz phrase was NC, which we presumed meant Network Computing. I remember years ago during the first spate of NC hype -- back when the browser developers were promising to put Microsoft out of business by making the operating system irrelevant -- Bill Gates saying he didn't know what NC meant, but it certainly meant that it was Not Compatible. In those times Gates still thought that Microsoft was primarily an operating systems company. I recall a press conference at which he said "I went to all the applications publishing companies and asked them to write applications for Microsoft Windows. They wouldn't do it. So I went to the Microsoft Applications Group and they didn't have that option." And that, in a nutshell, is why Microsoft began heavy investment into becoming an applications company. At that time, you may recall, Office didn't exist, Excel had been developed for and only ran on the Mac, and Word was as popular on Mac's as PC's.
Anyway, there's more on Google and Chrome here:
July 10, 2009
Mostly working on fiction today. I seem to be a bit under the weather. I'm sure I'll be back in form shortly.
It has been a long day. Apologies.
July 11, 2009
I've been a bit under the weather. I also have a plot problem. It's being solved but it is taking time and attention.
I've never met John Derbyshire, but we've corresponded and I am usually quite fond of his writings. I was taken aback by his latest article in National Review. He writes about the upcoming anniversary of Apollo 11 -- and calls it a folly. A magnificent folly, but a folly.
Of course it's a shock to me. I worked on Apollo although I was out of the aerospace business by July, 1969; I was at that time Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles and involved in political activities including electing Congressman Barry Goldwater, Jr. Young Barry got on the Space Committee, and managed to keep NERVA going for a few years. In any event I was at a political yard party in Tolucca Lake when the Eagle landed; but I spent a good ten years working toward getting us to the Moon, and while I can't say my part in the effort was ever decisive, I was instrumental in developing the human factors data on which the Apollo moon suits were designed and chosen. As I told John Campbell, Jr. (editor of Analog Science Fiction) I pr0bably cooked more people than any cannibal. That would have been in the 1950's. I also interviewed with McDonnell Aircraft and met old man McDonnell in his big corner office overlooking the airport outside St. Louis. He liked to see the airplanes roll down the runway and take off, and told me he wasn't really interested in getting to space although his company had the Gemini contract.
Not long after that I got out of human factors and into operations research where I spent the rest of my aerospace career. My last aerospace assignment had to do with the Apollo mission, and I was one of the mission planners for Apollo -- 19, I think it was. Of course there was no Apollo 19, which is why I was no longer in aerospace by July, 2009, having spent several years as a professor and as head of the Pepperdine Research Institute doing Air Force strategic studies.
It's a shock to realize that many people can't remember a time when mankind had not been to the Moon. Those who grew up after Apollo do not, I think, realize just how tremendous an accomplishment the Moon landings were. Apollo 11 was the second most complex activity in human history; the most complex took place on the 6th of June, 1944. D-Day involved even more people doing even more tasks than Apollo, but nothing else we ever did equals those actions, at least for events that happened in one to several days. Moreover, when Kennedy said we were going to the Moon, most of those who had to make it happen were certain that it couldn't be done in under ten years. Chris Kraft was one of them. Werner von Braun said he could make it happen, and it would not have happened without him, but the actual credit for getting the mission accomplished on time goes to Lt. General Samuel Phillips. To General Phillips this was a mission, and it was his job to make it happen. He was not building technology or trying to make the United States a spacefaring nation.
Years after Apollo I had a conversation with John R. Pierce, Chief Technologist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. John said that we'd made a mistake. In Heinlein's future history, we go to the moon in stages first developing sub-orbital capabilities, then satellites, and finally went to the Moon; and we should have done it that way this time.
At the time I got somewhat angry in my disagreement with him, but it's pretty clear John was right. He really meant that we should have learned to build space ships, real reusable ships that could fly suborbital, then orbital, then be refueled in orbit -- rather than developing a big disintegrating totem pole that could only be used once. I think he was right, and we may have to do it all over again before we can become a space-faring nation. Indeed, I said as much as Chairman of the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy when we wrote the report "America a Space Faring Nation," and later when we submitted the proposal for SSX which became the DC/X, an actual reusable space ship (although it never got to space). If you're interested in that, it's in the SSX Concept and other papers referenced in there.
Apollo didn't have to be a folly. There were plenty of ways to follow on with real development to become a space faring nation. Lyndon Johnson, not my favorite President, understood how decisive space supremacy could be. Reagan understood the value of space. Bush I wasn't interested, and we got DC/X only because Dan Quayle was chairman of the National Space Council and Bush let Quayle have his way, sort of, only there weren't funds for the full SSX.
As to why we ought to be a spacefaring nation, I've said it many times and in many places, but it's worth saying again: 90% of the resources easily available to mankind are not on the Earth. They're in space. I said all that in A Step Farther Out and it's still true.
I've been trying to find a way you can buy a copy of The Lightship, which I remember being performed by Cynthia McQuillan who I think wrote it. I have heard it performed by Leslie Fish as well. I did find the lyrics, and they say it all:
I have it on a very old tape.
Apollo became a magnificent folly; but it need not have been that at all. It's still raining soup out there in space, and we are hunting up forks instead of making soup bowls.
(And see next item on space power. Discussion continues next week.)
Subject More on Space-Based Power
A little more on space-based solar power. What do you think of these efforts?
-- Dwayne Phillips
I think that almost anything is cheap compared to what we are doing. We send trillions to the middle east, we are playing goofy games with cap and trade, we throw money in directions that will not bring us energy cheap or expensive: for a lot less than the stimulus we could build a TVA in space. We got TVA out of the Roosevelt recovery program.
July 12, 2009
I took the day off. Sort of.
This is a day book. It's not all that well edited. I try to keep this up daily, but sometimes I can't. I'll keep trying. See also the weekly COMPUTING AT CHAOS MANOR column, 8,000 - 12,000 words, depending. (Older columns here.) For more on what this page is about, please go to the VIEW PAGE. If you have never read the explanatory material on that page, please do so. If you got here through a link that didn't take you to the front page of this site, click here for a better explanation of what we're trying to do here. This site is run on the "public radio" model; see below.
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