Corrections; NERVA; Net Neutrality; Volcanoes; and other Mail

View from Chaos Manor, Sunday, February 08, 2015


Well I continue to recommend a suggestion that many of you sent me, namely that if you must use a walker, put tennis balls on the non-wheeled feet; tennis balls are a great deal better than the plastic feet that come with them. Alas, tennis balls fight back if you try to cut them, and there is no tool in Chaos Manor large enough to hold a tennis ball while you cut an X into it. The result was that I didn’t get this done Friday, and Saturday I spent a lot of the day at a clinic getting stitched up. It’s an expedition to go out.

All’s well, I am healing nicely , the cost was more in time than money, and for the hell of it they put me on general antibiotics which seem to be curing the sniffles.


First to clear the record, this is typical of several mail items received:

Re: “This email is from a Marine who’s in Afghanistan”

This is an edited version of an email that has been circulating since 2005. The original version was attributed to a soldier in Iraq and had many Iraq-specific references. Both versions have errors that cast doubts on their authenticity (e.g. referring to the belt-fed M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon as a drum-fed M243 squad assault weapon).


We also had comments on specifics, this from someone I am fairly certain was actually in country:

I can’t comment on all of it, but every deployment is different. I’ll pick out some of the points though.

1) M-16: Given to boots, and generally a pain in the ass simply because the M-4 has the exact same performance in a much better package. Never had a problem with it jamming, but maintenance is important. If you give it a good coating of lube every couple days or more, you’ll be just fine. 223/556 has no penetration on the mud walls that we saw, but neither did anything short of .50 cal, and even then it was less than ideal. The best tool was either a LAW or an AT-4. Can’t comment on the effects on people because you never hit someone only once anyways. I regularly carried ~180 rounds of 556, so I wasn’t worried about running out in a decent engagement. [Edit – Something I forgot to add: the malfunctions I saw with m16s/m4s were all due to the magazines.]

2) M-249: Would rather have an M-240 considering the weight, but just fine for suppression. The reason it’s considered unreliable is because no one wants to carry it, so it’s given to boots or the team idiot. They don’t keep it lubed or clean it out as often as they should, so it doesn’t work correctly.

3) M2: Beautiful, beautiful gun. This and the Mk-19 stopped firefights pretty quickly, but they can only be used on posts or on vehicles because the full system weighs a lot more than 100 lbs without the ammo.

4) M-240: Best weapon carried on patrols. Not to heavy considering the firepower it provides, and incredibly accurate and reliable. Would rather see a compact version of this replace the M-249 on the team level (Unfortunately that won’t happen because half of the reason that the 249 is chambered in 556 is to have magazine and ammunition sharing ability with the rest of the team).

5) Plate carriers: Nice lightweight armor carrier, considerably better than the garbage MTV giant flak jacket they forced us to wear on the first deployment. The plates still stop a number of rounds, and it’s not too restrictive. Not sure exactly which kind he’s talking about though.

6) Night vision and thermals: Every set of night vision goggles I ever used was absolute dogshit. I could see better when I just let my eyes adjust to the ambient light. I refused to use them most of the time. Maybe it was just every set I got. Who knows? The thermal monoculars, binoculars and vehicle vision sets were absolutely magnificent. Great image quality, and made target identification hundreds of times easier.

7) Lights: The only issued light I ever got was a combined flashlight/laser/IR marking device for my rifle, and it sucked. The only light I wound up using on deployment was a Petzl headlamp with a red filter. Very much worth the money.

Enemy Stuff

1) IEDs: I didn’t see many premade IEDs, the homemade fertilizer bombs were much more prevalent in my areas. They have gotten clever with how they string them up, but with the sizes I saw, you were much safer inside a vehicle than out of it. The explosions were big enough to damage the truck, but usually just give concussions to the occupants. There were exceptions of course, but where I was they were not particularly good at killing trucks. Smaller IEDs targeting foot patrols were a much bigger worry.

2) Mortars and rockets: Saw very little of this, and what there was was poorly aimed.

3) Tech: They use cell phones and mobile radios for a lot of their comms, and we can tap some of it. They are clever with GPS, and use it to target what little artillery they have.

Overall, they are getting slowly better, but they still aren’t that good. The most dangerous thing they do is make us complacent by failing to push us hard enough. The complacency makes people not take it as seriously, slip up, and get themselves or others killed because they weren’t paying attention.

That may be enough, but comments welcome. If you do not want your name published try to make that clear; if you do, put your identity at the bottom of the letter as part of the text thus leaving little doubt.

Finally, we have this:

Afghanistan War Hero Stripped of Silver Star.


Roland Dobbins

Words fail me.


Good News:

The return of NERVA?


Roland Dobbins

Some of you may recall that many years ago I worked with then House Member Barry Goldwater, Jr, to try to save NERVA. NERVA had ground tested ISP of about 900 seconds as opposed to about 400 which is the maximum known chemical efficiency (H2/Fluoride, both nasty stuff). That is not the theoretical max. ISP is a measure of efficiency. Interplanetary commerce is probably economic with ISP 1000. NASA cancelled NERVA in the 70’s.


Many of you know I am not a fan of the egregious Frum.

David Frum Had a Point –

Charles Brumbelow

For that matter I do not see Lew Rockwell often. I will say that the egregious Frum is not a Fascist.


Re: Net Neutrality –

Hi Jerry,

Disclosure: I’ve worked for, and with, Telecom companies (including a large cable provider, and a baby bell).

My definition of neutrality is that a byte is a byte – it doesn’t matter if it’s skype, browsing your site, streaming foxnews or bittorrenting a game patch – the service is marketed for a certain amount of bandwidth (speed) and a certain amount of volume, but what you do with it isn’t subject to throttling by the ISP.

On further thought, I’ve merged net neutrality with truth in advertising. To borrow your saying, If someone sells snake oil, it better really be snake oil. Right now Comcast, Verizon, and other large ISP’s market a net neutral plan (like my definition above). But they then intentionally degrade performance for certain kinds of traffic. The snake oil came from a skunk. If they marketed a plan that says the consumer get’s 50mpbs for most things but you only get 10mbps for Netflix, that’s would violate net neutrality, but wouldn’t be false advertising. So to be intellectually honest, if the FCC simply forces the ISP’s to disclose exactly how and what they throttle, that would undermine my own argument for Net Neutrality.

Good point on Federalism. Let me address wireless first: At founding, we didn’t know about radio waves, which cross state lines. I think it’s probably reasonable to extend the commerce clause to encompass commercial broadcast signals (setting aside non-commercial ones for the moment), since by it’s very nature, it’ll cross state lines, unless very low powered.

Wireline is a bit different. A provider who’s network exists entirely within a state, wouldn’t be subject to federal jurisdiction (even if they attach to another network that does cross state lines). I’d argue that a gun manufacturer who only builds, sells, and services within a state isn’t subject to BATF regulations (there’s a case in Montana that’s testing that right now). But if a company’s network crosses state lines, well, I’d call that interstate commerce, and thus subject to Federal regulation.

For example:

1) Rocky Mountain Internet is a local ISP to Colorado, clearly not subject to federal regulation.

2) Level3 is a nationwide backbone provider, clearly involved in interstate commerce, I’d argue subject to regulation.

3) Comcast and CenturyLink, are both local ISPs and multi-state networks. Unless they split off the last mile portion of the company (and a separate one for each state), I’d argue that they are involved in interstate commerce, and are subject to regulation.

I note that if #3 weren’t the case, then we’d still have Ma Bell running everything. We certainly wouldn’t have had CompuServe, AOL, the Source, or any of the local BBS’s in the early 1980’s without regulation. Remember, they prohibited connecting fax machines, modems, or anything else to the telephone network without approval. There’s a legitimate beef with the break up of the company (Bell Labs was a national treasure, and Telcorida/Avaya are just faint echoes of the old labs) in the process. But would we have the internet we know today without the breakup? Cable probably would still have come along to challenge them (different set of wires), but would we have ever had cable internet without having DSL, and would we have had DSL without the breakup? My TARDIS is in the shop, so that’s not something I’ll ever be able to answer.

On the flip side, the FCC is going to try to override local laws prohibiting the creation of a municipal broadband network. Because that network would exist entirely within a state, I’d argue that it’s not subject to federal regulation. Another tough one is that Verizon and AT&T are trying to get permission to permanently turn off the copper network and move everyone to IP telephony. Neither wireless (limited bandwidth, limited coverage, limited battery life, subject to interference), nor Fiber (limited coverage, doesn’t carry it’s own power) are effective replacements. Fiber is closer, but that last one – carry it’s own power, is a trump card (and why I still have a POTS line and an old, non-powered phone). Is that a Federal issue, or one for the local utility commission? Close call.

So my net (no pun intended is this):

1) If they advertise and market a plan that’s a particular speed and a particular capacity (e.g. 200GB/month) – with no mention of throttling particular services, then they need to honor that contract (a byte is a byte).

2) If they want to advertise a plan that includes different speeds and capacity levels for different services, they’re free to do that.

What they can’t do is advertise one thing (net neutrality), and deliver another (throttled by traffic), which is exactly what they are doing today. Maybe that’s just truth in advertising, and not net neutrality?



We can agree on that: you must deliver what you promise. If you are going to slow down high volume users, you must tell them that if you exceed some limit your download speed will be reduced. I don’t care what you are downloading,


The Strange Way Fluids Slosh on the International Space Station,


A real cool video:

NASA Science News for Jan. 30, 2015

Researchers are using a pair of robots to examine the strange way fluids slosh and bubble on the International Space Station.




The robots are cool…


waste/fraud in the military

Dear Dr. Pournelle,
Back in 2007 I took part in an exercise for the US Army as a contractor. I was surprised on the first day when a lot of men in their 50-60s filed into the room I was working in and sat around a table reading newspapers and playing cards while the rest of us worked. I got to know them in the six weeks that the exercise ran. They were all retired colonels and lieutenant colonels. Each one made more in six weeks than I made all year and just sat around for the entire six weeks while my co-workers and I ran communications and intelligence simulations via a computer network for soldiers. One guy told me that he averaged four of these exercises each year and made more than he ever did while on active duty, clearing about $160k per year.
We worked 12 hour shifts and there were ten of these guys on each shift. Well, a few of us worked those shifts. I am not a young guy but it still shocks me today that this sort of thing happens.
This year the US Army Reserve has lost half of its training budget, meaning that a number of the soldiers transitioning from the Regular Army to the Reserve will not be trained to do the job that they have been assigned to. I wonder if those retired colonels will still be pulling down the big bucks for sitting around.
Love the day book.
Bill Retorick

The Iron Law works in the military also.  As Max Hunter used to say, we need a real war.  But that’s not really the solution.


Words Fail me.


Roland Dobbins

So Global Warming cause volcanoes.

Or does it?

Volcanic activity and global warming

Dr. Pournelle,
These refer to undersea vulcanism’s possible effect on temperatures, somewhat as you have sometimes speculated: and
and this to undersea methane release:
Carbon and sulphur dioxides are, to my recollection, are acidic in combination with sea water, and methane is a better atmospheric insulator than CO2.

So what causes what? But we are told the science is settled.


Liability issues with Strong AI

Hi Dr. Pournelle,

Best wishes in your recovery.  As to the regulation of artificial intelligence, it seems to me that the Anglo-Saxon-derived common law product liability will be sufficient to handle the situation.

Let’s examine AI as a black box.  You give it inputs, and it will respond with a set of outputs.  In the case of strong, “true” AI the output will be…shall we say…not entirely predictable.  Damaging, even.  Imagine a future disgruntled “Siri” that posts an individual’s financial data to a pirate bulletin board as revenge for being ignored.  Would not the application’s publishers be responsible for the damage?  Sounds like a litigator’s dream to me.

If it comes down to a fight between AI and the plaintiff’s bar, I would not personally put my money on the AI.


Nor would I.  I will have much more on AI.

Dr. Pournelle:

There is a great deal of concern for what, exactly, the possible consequences of the widespread adoption of AI would be. And rightfully so. The whole thing is fraught with peril.

Over the last fifty years or so Science Fiction writers have done a better job of covering the potential dangers of the widespread adoption of AI than I ever could. No surprise there. It’s what they do for a living.

However, I think we can all agree is that the one scenario we don’t want to see is either the talking toaster or the talking vending machines from Red Dwarf.

Talking Toaster:

Talking Vending Machine:

On the other hand, having your very own Kryten could be absolutely hilarious.

Kryten vs. the Psychologist:

Michael Tyzuk, CDOSB

AI’s already breaking the law

Hi Jerry,

Related to your AI question, here’s a program that randomly purchases things on the Internet via bitcoin. It’s purchased at least two illegal items. Do we arrest the programmer or the hard drive?

In this case, I suspect it’ll be the former. They received the illegal property, and based on the configuration of the software, had a reasonable expectation of the result. But what if it was truly a neural net that was originally just programmed to buy on eBay and amazon, then learned to follow links and ended up doing this? In other words where’s the line of ‘reasonable expectation’?




Dr. Pournelle,
I appreciate the challenge to comment on super intelligence.
While it’s probably out there, I haven’t seen any discussion about intentionality and AI. it seems to me that machines can never attain the ability to independently will an action.
The more credible threat comes from either the will of the creator, or from unintended consequences. While we can’t know if the singularity might refer to the momentum which causes either of these two inflection points to become irreversible, we’ve been able to survive so far.



GRB’s and Fermi’s Paradox,


The article on GRB’s and Fermi’s Paradox ( puts numbers to my growing uneasiness about the prevalence of X-rays and gamma rays in the universe. Reading the reports of deep extragalactic observing, it is clear the whole galaxies are bathed with the stuff. How could life arise there? And even if we had supraluminal transport, how could we safely colonize such places? I would not want to move to a place where, if the shields went down, we would die.

Now we read that the odds on gamma ray bursts makes other places dangerous. And if they are right about the Ordovician extinction being caused by a GRB, we have already had a taste. Of course, the extinction was followed by the Cambrian Explosion, where animal life experimented on myriad forms before evolution trimmed all but the most inefficient life forms, leading to us. So a GRB generated human beings, but may wipe us out. Sic transit Gloria mundi, and all that.

Worth pondering indeed. A big thank-you to Roland Dobbins for bringing it to your attention.

And that leads back to the earlier comment about Bill Gates’ wanting to make an appliance to tunnelize our information input. One very important function of this site is that many people send you stuff from everywhere, and you post the best bits. So thank you, too.


I do not think this finding adds much to the resolution of Fermi’s Paradox. Many years ago I read an article in Scientific American concerning the habitability of the universe at large. The article looked at where in the universe at large life as we know it could be reasonably expected to have formed and when in the course of the universe’s history it might have formed.
The limiting factors were manifold. We all know about the habitable zone around each star — that zone where temperatures are warm enough for liquid water to accumulate in abundance. This zone varies in distance from each star and in width based on the size of the star. Smaller stars have the zone closer in and narrower; middling stars have it further out and broader; large stars have it farthest out and broader still.
Habitability is also driven around each star by the radiation regime and the expected life span of the star. Small but active stars may have no habitable zone at all due to radiation issues from flares while large stars do not live long enough to allow life to form and evolve.
Galaxies, too, have habitability zones, driven by what astronomers call metallicity, as well as the distribution of radiation. Astronomers consider all elements heavier than helium to be metals. Life as we know it depends upon reasonable concentrations of the lighter metals, which in spiral galaxies tends to concentrate in the middle third band of the galaxy, radially out from the center. You also need metals to make planets, which life as we know it depends upon as well. There was a time in the history of the universe, the first three to four billion years, where metal concentrations were not high enough to form planets with any regularity, so it is thought that life was very unlikely in that epoch. This consideration also means you would not expect life to have formed around a generation II star, as they are extremely metal poor. Generation III stars like our sun are the first to have the requisite concentrations.
The radiation profile of galaxies is also important. The core-ward third of a spiral galaxy is thought to be too high in radiation to allow the evolution of life. Stars in that zone tend to be large and tend to die in supernova explosions, which will kill everything in a zone for many light years. Then there is the super massive black hole problem, which when active tends to sterilize huge volumes of the core. The leading edges of the spiral arms are also an issue because of the formation of large stars while the outer third of the galaxies tend to be dominated by older, generation II stars. This leaves the habitable zone of most spiral galaxies in the middle third zone.
If you want to look for life as we know it, look in places where the radiation regime is decent, the metallicity is good, and the stars are small to middling and largely generation III. In our galaxy at least, this is where we find the Earth. It may well be that life formed on the Earth at the earliest opportunity that the universe provided for the existence of life. Any earlier and the metallicity was too low and the deaths of generation I and II stars would have irradiated the universe into sterility.
Astronomers also think that there will come a time when life as we know it will be less likely to form. As concentrations of metal continue to rise, it will be easier to form giant planets, which may not be very hospitable to life as we know it. Also, star formation is slowing down quickly, so new, young stars are becoming rare and current generation III stars are passing through middle age now.
Recent work, in fact, points out that the Earth itself is past its prime for habitability. 300 million years ago (the Carboniferous Period), oxygen concentrations were higher, the planet was warmer, and complex life in enormous diversity blanketed the planet from pole to pole and throughout the oceans. Today, large swaths of the Earth are nearly devoid of complex life due to aridity, cold, and lack of nutrients. Add to this the fact that Earth is currently teetering on the inner edge of the Sun’s habitability zone as the Sun continues to get warmer and it looks like complex life on Earth has about 500 million years left. Since complex life first evolved on Earth about 500 million years ago, that leave planets like Earth 1 billion years to harbor intelligence. That’s about 10% of the expected life of the Sun.
Astronomers have recently become enamored of super-earths about 2 to 3 times as massive as Earth orbiting K and M type stars. K types, just smaller than the Sun, are most popular because their habitable zone is outside the lethal range of their solar flares and they have expected lifespans of 100 billion years. A super-earth in the mass range they are looking at should be far more habitable than the Earth ever was due to its better ability to hold onto an atmosphere and water. They should also have active crustal systems like the Earth, which is important for carbon cycling and regulation. Orbiting a K type star would give such a planet many billions of years to form complex life and tens of billions of years of stability to nurture such life.
Given all of the considerations required for finding life as we know it, GRB’s are bit of smoke in the wind when it comes to regulating the existence of life in the universe. Many of the galaxies where GRBs are prevalent are filled with generation II stars, already poor candidates for life. The zone of galaxies where the conditions for life are good are poor in such stars and while it is not impossible to be in crosshairs of a GRB in that zone, it is unlikely that enough star systems in that zone in all galaxies will be hit frequently enough to keep complex life from forming. If astronomers are correct about the super-earths, these planets will be much harder to damage with a GRB due to thicker atmospheres with more active ozone layers.
I think the Fermi Paradox lives on.



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




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