Observations on Free Trade; The Poverty of Education; End of Discussion of EmDrive; and other matters.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

If a foreign government had imposed this system of education on the United States, we would rightfully consider it an act of war.

Glenn T. Seaborg, National Commission on Education, 1983



Richard is here with our grandson, so things are thin this week.

The discussion of the EM drive is sort of over: there’s not a lot left to say, but we’ll do a kind of Postscript. A reactionless drive remains impossible under any theory at present accepted, and thus is a good example of what Descartes called an extraordinary claim when he said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”—a phrase made popular by the late Carl Sagan. We clearly do not have extraordinary evidence, and if the Chinese do they aren’t showing it. Not being fools, it is unlikely that China would pay the expense of orbiting an EmDrive without that, yet they claim to have done so. They also claim they have positive results, although that is a bit vague.

Given the costs – low – of a ground test that should produce extraordinary evidence, it would seem very reasonable to me to pay for two or three independent experimentum cruccii at the National Laboratories. Yes, they have other important work to do (or should) but constructing an EmDrive is within the capabilities of any university physics department and some high schools, while hanging it in a swing and feeding it power is within the capabilities of nearly any competent person. Isolating it from air currents and magnetic influences is a bit harder, but needless if it doesn’t hang off vertical in the swing, and something that anyone would think worth the expense if it did hang off vertical and stay there for hours or days as long as power be supplied.

The ultimate test would be for an EmDrive to cause a satellite to change orbits without losing mass; but that would be expensive, and wouldn’t be tried until it showed thrust without mass loss in swing tests on the ground, conducted in progressively more isolation from air current, magnetic influence, and “bobbing” which can happen if you have an immovable anchor like attachment to the ground. Think about bobsleds. They do work, you know. You can bob in boats for that matter.

You can “pump” in a swing but it is fairly obvious that you are doing so. You cannot make yourself hang off vertical without visible motion.


Russia and the United States
Dear Mr. Pournelle;
You wrote “Of course we have never tried to interfere with Russian internal politics, not even when the Soviet Union governed Russia. Our Voice of America and other efforts were nothing of the sort.”
Of course we did. I approved then. I would approve now. If my loyalties were to Russia, I might approve Russia’s present actions. But they aren’t.
Russia and the United States are, at the least, rivals. There might have been a window of time after the fall of the Soviet Union when that could have changed. But it wasn’t, and here we are.
They are in addition rivals caught in an oligarchic and kleptocratic system which I find appalling. So: do I want them to win? Do I want them, even, to gain influence?
Of course I don’t. And I certainly have no reason to believe that Putin’s Russia will behave like parfait gentle knights. If they were NOT engaged in actions to our detriment, I would be surprised.
Is Russia, or is it not, trying to do us an injury? Seeing this through an American politically partisan lens would be truly imprudent. I do not CARE whether looking at Russian hacking gives comfort to the Clinton campaign. That battle’s done, and my side lost. What I care about, is the future of the United States.
Allan E. Johnson

When the Soviet Union fell, we might have made it clear what our roles  — the US and Russia – might be. One obvious fact is that we had common interests in curbing certain Chinese interests. Another is that the US had no interest in most of the Turkestans, nor did Russia.

Came the Balkan crisis, the United States had no real interests at stake, but we chose the anti-Slav side. History is not a long suit with most of the cookie pushers, but someone at State might have realized that the Russians have always been pro-Slav, but apparently that lesson never got to the top, and probably isn’t taught in Arkansas schools. Kosovo at the end of WWI was mostly Slav – Serb – and there has never been a single legal immigrant from “Muslim” Albania into Kosovo. The US pressured the Serbs into giving Kosovo to the “Albanian majority.” None of this escaped an obscure KGB Lt. Col. who was then working his way up in the Russian White Palace to become Boris Yeltsin’s heir and successor.

While we were at it, we bombed the Chinese offices in Belgrade, and dropped the bridges on the Lower Danube, thus bankrupting most of the lower Danube newly free nations.  We proclaimed ourselves the champions of democracy, but we used bombs to ruin the economies of nations emerging from the WTO and the rule of the nomenklatura. I’m sure they learned their lessons from this.

Realizing that the Russians were no longer seeking our friendship, we began to ring them with NATO allies, including Estonia, much of which is suburbs to St. Petersburg.  This was not unobserved in Moscow.

That is where US Russian relationships start, and Obama-Hillary Clinton have done little to improve those relations.   Were you the new Tsar, what would your reaction be?  We say we have no ambitions against Russia; would you believe that?

The defense of Estonia rests on “massive retaliation at a time and place of our choosing” in case of Russian invasion of the Baltics. So long as SAC existed, that was a frightening but believable threat.  Now? What are our capabilities?

What does Russia have that we want? Why, then, do we ring them with bases, and threaten nuclear war over the Baltics? Are we reliable?  Is our word good?  But then we abstain from a UN resolution condemning one of our long term allies. Just what is our policy, and were you the Russian Tsar what would you believe Russia’s best course might be?

We chose the Moslems in the Balkans.  The Russians have not forgotten that.

“There might have been a window of time after the fall of the Soviet Union when that could have changed. But it wasn’t, and here we are.”

Might I suggest that it is very much in our interest to change that situation; but to do so without looking like a paper tiger? Not an easy thing to do…

Russia and the United States

You’ve given me insight into the events surrounding the fall of the Soviet Union that I did not have at the time.  Thank you.

Considering this:  yes, it would certainly be reasonable for the new Tsar to distrust the United States and distrust our intentions.  And I agree:  changing this would be very much in our interest.

But I don’t see any realistic way for this to happen.  (In a similar vein, I’d much rather we were allied with Iran, which at least has a civilization, rather than Saudi Arabia, which has oil and Wahabists.  But I don’t see that happening in the next few decades either.)

President-Elect Trump has expressed a desire for a new strategy regarding Russia; which has some appeal.  But I am inclined to think that new strategy will turn out to be “Let the Wookie win.”  It seems to me that Vladimir Putin is more strong-willed and more ruthless than Donald Trump, and will demand cash on the barrelhead while paying in nice letters.  Why should he not?  Again, it is reasonable for the Tsar to distrust the United States, and I don’t see how the election of Donald Trump changes that.

On the contrary:  from what I know of Mr. Trump’s business career, he has scooped up rather a lot of money by, shall we say, renegotiation.  (The less flattering term is flim-flam.)  Business bankruptcies, each of them paid for by people who worked for or trusted him; promises to regulators which were immediately abandoned once he had his casino permit; huge proposals for a golf course in Scotland which he now wants to renegotiate into a subdivision.  While flim-flam can be quite successful, the problem is that it stops working once people notice.  And I rather think Putin will have noticed.

Again:  I can’t fault the Tsar for distrusting the United States.  My concerns regarding present Russia are on a different basis.  But neither do I expect the Tsar to place American interests ahead of his own.  And I think he’s rather good at pursuing his interests.


Allan E. Johnson


I do expect the Tsar to be alert to his own interests, and the Trump team to be expert at reminding him of them. We do have common interests with the Russians, and in fact very few real conflicts. It is in the Russian interest to keep Iran from upsetting the world; to bring about some kind of peace and stability in Syria; to establish warm water ports in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf; and to challenge China over hegemony over Russian and Chinese Turkestan. China’s goal may be to gain more than a sphere of influence over the Turkestan republics; Russia does not want that.

And Russia could use a mutually lucrative partnership in developing her Far Eastern holdings.

You do not like Mr. Trump. I was not fond of either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton. Or for that matter Mr. Kerry. I see no point in continuing the discussion or the merits of Mr. Obama’s successor other than to say I much prefer him either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton.


The Wall Street Journal has “improved” their on line edition, so I cannot find the piece in today’s Business and Finance section that I see in the printed edition. It’s at the end of the Business section “3-D Printing Fuels Demand for Powdered Metals”, and it’s not really worth reading since the title says all they seem to know: we can make large objects by printing them with powdered metals, and we’re beginning to print a lot of other metallic stuff from cobalt, aluminum, nickel, etc. Demand for these continues to grow, and has outstripped supply.

Richard pointed this out to me this morning, remarking that it seems to make free trade all the more necessary.

Perhaps. It’s also a new job source. The problem is that it’s not a source of jobs for the average high school graduate except perhaps in mining, and probably not even there, because our education is so dismal. We need engineers.

Employers Facing Engineering Talent Shortage


For the eighth consecutive year, engineers are included on the annual list of the U.S. Top 10 Hardest Jobs to Fill, according to ManpowerGroup. As a result, Experis Engineering (a division of Manpower Group) released an extensive report that provides more information about the demand and supply relationship in this industry.  Some of the most interesting tidbits are listed below:

Across all industries, roughly 32% of U.S. employers say they struggle to fill positions. However:

  • 82% of employers who hire engineers struggle to fill open positions
  • 95% of employers plan to hire engineers in 2016, but 20% of employers are not confident their efforts will be successful


This is not uncontroversial; there are lots of articles about it, and not all agree that there is a shortage of trained engineers, and certainly the schools will not agree that it’s their fault.

When I first came to Boeing in the 1950’s, something like half the engineers at Boeing did not have engineering degrees, and a smaller but reasonably large percentage had never been to a college or university: they had come to work as draftsmen and learned engineering on the job, eventually becoming certified. Boeing gave money to the University of Washington, and increasing numbers of engineers came out of engineering school; it was clear that the then-current generation of non-degree engineers would likely be the last; but that was the engineering establishment that built the Flying Fortress and then the SuperFortress, the Strato-Fortress (better known as the BUFF or B-52), and Boeing’s civilian aircraft including the 707, the first commercial jet. By then most engineering candidates took some math from the local community colleges, but there were still non-degree engineers, some high schools still being able to teach sufficient math through calculus.

I doubt there are any engineers under 50 who don’t have a degree now. And there is a growing demand for special visas to import engineers from Europe and Asia.

Richard also pointed out that in addition to the workers, big manufacturing jobs require a supply of parts and subassemblies; do we have the people to do those jobs?

I’ll say this: we could. The US has not suddenly had an epidemic of poor protoplasm. As late as World War II, the Army found that the vast number of illiterates enlisting had never been beyond fourth grade, and some had never been to school at all. Now there are illiterates who have graduated from high school, and the literacy rate overall is down quite a way from what it was in the 1940’s when nearly everyone left school able to read; even the village dullard, a 15 year old girl still in my fifth grade class, could read; she didn’t understand much of what she read, but she could read. (Later she married an Italian POW assigned to work on her parents’ truck garden, so the story ends better than you might expect; she, her parents, and the young man who wasn’t sent back to Italy at the end of the war were all happy with the result.)

It is unlikely we can reform all the local schools, many of which exist to allow people to pay their union dues, but returning control of the schools to local districts and removing the iron lock on credentials held by the obviously incompetent departments of Education might help. Indeed, allowing companies like Boeing to have decent apprenticeships and on-the-job learning would be better than what we have.


Space Exploration

I think I understand and can even agree with the reasons Mr. Bouldin is so ‘down’ on your reporting on EM drive experimentation, but at the same time the little I understand about physics, and the published reports of the hazards to the human body on extended space ‘voyages’, simply enforces my belief that, absent any Dilithium crystals, some ‘new’ propulsion method is going to be required before any vision of manned venturing beyond low Earth orbit is practicable. In particular, while many concepts such as solar sails, etc., stress long-term acceleration, I see very little on how to decelerate a given vehicle so that productive work can be accomplished.
One of the lessons I took to heart in a prior life was management by objective (observing, of course, prescribed limitations). It strikes me that there is too little discussion of just what the objective in this case is. There is a time when the powers that be have to recognize that the ultimate objective, however defined, is governmentally unmanageable and, all else being equal, it is better to back off and let the dreamers and entrepreneurs have free rein. This is essentially what England and the Royal Society did to encourage the development of a chronometer accurate enough to enable the mariners to determine their longitude, obsoleting the then usual practice of latitude sailing. See http://www.waterencyclopedia.com/Mi-Oc/Navigation-at-Sea-History-of.html.
At our present stage of technical knowledge, the millions and billions of years involved in any extra-solar-system exploration (or colonization?), given the current state of propulsion technology, would almost certainly seem to legislate fatally in any such government effort. And to what end? I remain skeptical about ‘asteroid mining’, and have a most difficult time envisioning any economic demand that is currently unmet. The ‘visionaries’ such as Elon Musk are amusing, but little more. To me, the question is how much money is the government willing to spend to expand the knowledge of the educational and scientific community? Is there a reasonable expectation of ‘payback’, either governmental or private?
According to the media, NASA is trending towards robotic exploration, to the exclusion of manned missions. Is this a clue?
Darryl Hannon

We have no present strategy of technology. We need one. Technology (as opposed to new scientific principles) can be created on demand; we’ve done it. (X programs help.)

Until we develop something that cuts down interplanetary travel times we’re not going to have much manned exploration and development in cis-lunar space. Fortunately we don’t need new scientific principles to cut those times. NERVA would do it if we don’t have something better. As to demands not met, we in the West may not have any, but there are a lot of others who consider our poverty wealth beyond dreams; and it remains true that 90% of the resources available to mankind are not on this Earth… (See “Survival with Style” in A Step Farther Out).


Dear Dr. Pournelle:
I’m with Chuck Bouldin’s skepticism about the EM Drive. Reactionless? I don’t buy it; basic physics are involved. Reacting against Unruh radiation? Well… maybe. My favorite theory is that it’s an axion thruster. But of course this is all speculation.
Raise a satellite’s orbit with it or it’s polywater.
– paradoctor

There are far less expensive ways to prove or disprove the EmDrive principle.

“Like the recent buzz over faster than light neutrinos, this will almost certainly (and in my mind, at least, that means something like 6 9’s likelihood) turn out to be either fraud or experimental error.”

I find it annoying that intelligent people think they know things to 6 9s likelihood. We just don’t give enough room for the possibility that we’re missing things (Black Swans). We’re not _usually_ missing things if we’re expert, but we sure miss them more than one time in a million. A whole lot more.


EM Drive proof

Dear Dr. Pournelle,
Would not NORAD’s satellite tracking data quickly show any objects in NEO that are under acceleration, violating the Law of Gravity?
Surely you and yours could quickly find out if the drive’s output isn”t detectable by current USAF sensors.
If the USAF can’t, couldn’t amateur observers create a wiki to credit or discredit the satellites being under power with a few weeks observation of its orbit?
best of wishes for your wife,
Happy New,
Peter F.Foley

Not if the Chinese didn’t want us to notice it. Fortunately we needn’t orbit an EmDrive for a crucial test.

Reiteraitng on the EM drive 


A few points on the EM drive:

(1) Having looked at a couple of the papers, the inventor’s proposed mechanism is nonsense at best, and does seem to incorporate perpetual motion (in that the claimed induced velocity is added to the velocity of photons inside the tube, ignoring the speed of light limits among other irregularities).

(2) The claimed thrust is orders of magnitude greater than one would expect from a photon thruster (through escaping RF emissions or thermal emissions from heating of the surface), even more so because that calculation was based on directing the total input power into the emissions, ignoring the fact that the device should be radiating into 4pi steradians (or at least have both forward and backward emissions along the long axis of the tube).

(3) I’m not prepared to dismiss “reactionless” drives in the sense that such a drive is providing thrust not by expelling mass but by creating energy fields which react with the external environment; but there is nothing about the device that suggests that this is plausible other than by coupling of residual electromagnetic forces (or by somehow ionizing and manipulating air, which of course would yield zero detectable flux in a vacuum), and any other such mechanism would have long since been detected through it’s perturbations of other electromagnetic technologies. (e.g., if it’s somehow reacting with the “quantum vacuum,” why doesn’t every BNC cable at a turn or crimp generate such forces?)  This means that if the thrust is real and due to escaping energy, the energy must be coupling with relatively high momentum and low kinetic energy – e.g. low velocity ion flow away from the surface.

(4) Unless the inventor is keeping some trade secrets, the proposed technology could be reproduced in most college, and some high school, electronics or physics labs and shops, for a few hundred dollars and equipment and overhead in hand. Arguably nobody feels it’s worth wasting their time because they believe the points above invalidate the technology. (I haven’t tried or suggested it because I don’t have equipment in hand.) The same is true of the big five aerospace companies in the US and many smaller companies; either nobody has stepped up, or they tried it and failed and kept quiet…

For what it’s worth….

Jim Woosley

The only thing I have to add is to remind us all that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and we cannot fund tests of every extraordinary claim; but in my judgment the costs of testing this claim are low, and there’s enough evidence that something funny is going on to warrant an experimentum crucis. Otherwise I haven’t any disagreement with Dr. Woosley.

Em-Drive Redux

Dear Doctor Pournelle,

I liked some of what Chuck Bouldin wrote re: Em-Drive. I went a bit “Tom Swift” in my own post on the matter, and of course The Daily Mail source for some/much of this information on Em-Drive raised red flags for me, but over all I am still modestly hoping there is something to it all.

My enthusiasm for the matter is based not on a love of nontraditional methodology or a dislike of “Settled Science, but rather on a desire to get the Human Race out there. Solar sails, MHD drive, Ion Drive, Nerva, ORION Bang Bang”, throwing rocks from a catapult (don’t laugh, it would work, you just need a really large asteroid to start with, and wind up with a really small one when you arrive at your destination) does not matter, if it GETS US OUT THERE!

Conquering the galaxy is not an irrational goal, and any possible method of facilitating that is worth investigating. If it gets humanity of its’ collective ass from Low Earth Orbit, and motivates people, excites people, works up the urge to Go Out There And Get Moving, then it is a Good Thing.

I noted Gravity Waves as one of the “whacked out ideas” that Bouldin admitted actually proved to be true. Well, in 1979 I took a class in Cosmology at the University of California, Irvine. The teacher was Doctor Valerie Trimble. One of the assignments was to write a paper on alternate explanations for observations of the universe, such as the three degree Microwave Background radiation. As part of such a paper, I referred to the at that time unreplicated results Doctor Joseph Weber got in his original gravity wave experiments done at the University of Maryland in the mid-60s. Most of his peers had come to the conclusion that is low-signal to high-noise ratio had led him down a false path.

What I did not know was that at that exact time, Weber was a visiting professor at Irvine and that his presence had caused a minor stir among some of the more Establishment members of the Physics department.

Doctor Trimble pointed out that the matter of Gravity Waves was still under consideration, an open question,, though of course controversial.

She was generous, though I had been mildly critical of Weber’s work, and gave me an “A”. In closing, she mentioned that Weber was the husband of one Valerie Trimble, Ph. D.

So perhaps weber did not detect Gravity Waves in the sixties, or maybe he did. But we now know they do exist, and can be detected, even measured.

I hope for something similar with Em-Drive. But even if its all moonshine, I want humanity to get out there.

In a universe of random chunks of rock that can kill a planet deader than dead, with gamma ray bursters that can strip an earth-like planet to bare rock in a day, stars that can collapse a couple of centimeters and send out a burst of EMR that will do the same, and throw in an occasional Type 1a supernova that will fry 90% plus of all life on a any earth-type planet within a hundred light years, what is it that is so hard to understand about the need for any technological race with aspirations to more than transitory status as such to get onto as many planets around as many stars as possible as soon as possible?

So yeah, the thought of something maybe making that a bit easier got me excited. Dang me and hang me, but I won’t apologize for that.


Well said.

Hi, Jerry –

More news on the EmDrive reactionless drive.  The International Business Times is reporting that the Chinese government has been funding research into the EmDrive since 2010, and that it is currently conducting tests in space to validate its usefulness in the environment.
“Chen confirmed that Cast has developed a test device of the EmDrive and that tests to verify that the device can actually fly are already being carried out in low-Earth orbit. This ties in with information sources in the international space industry gave IBTimes UK under condition of anonymity that China already has an EmDrive on its orbital space laboratory Tiangong-2.”

Read more on the story here:

It’s also reported – but not in this story – that Shawyer is working on a supercooled version of the EmDrive which will increase the thrust by several orders of magnitude.  I find this intriguing, in that interstellar space hovers around 2 degrees absolute.  Despite the insulating qualities of total vacuum, it may be that a supercooled version of the EmDrive might prove relatively easy to achieve for probes headed for distant stars.

And NextBigFuture has a very in depth article regarding the Cannae drive, another reactionless drive being developed by its inventor, Guido Fetta.  Theseus Space will be launching a demonstration cubesat in 2017 intended to demonstrate the technology.  You can read this very extensive piece at

I wish that we had investigated these concepts 15 years ago, instead of mocking them for 15 years.  This is not a mistake that the Chinese Government made.  And we haven’t really started earnest development, even yet.

But, just maybe, we’ve started to start.  I guess that’s something.

Regards, Charlie

Peer review or it didn’t happen.

absolutely backwards
Engineering and technology were around long before peer reviewed academic papers.
A successful orbital test trumps any academic papers.
How many academic papers were there that rockets could not work in space in the 1920s and ’30s?
It would be very reasonable for China to consider the successful engineering of such a drive to be something that would be a dramatic benefit for them, and not want to give away all the details of how to make it work.

David Lang


Syria: Iran And Russia Count Their Winnings,


This is a current summary of events in Syria:


What I find interesting is that Turkey has built a 900km concrete wall. Can’t be done?


Aw come on, you know nobody can build that big a wall in under a decade. After all, we couldn’t…


detailed review of the situation
Ron M



Politicians and business leaders must make full economic calculations of the impact of the new Little Ice Age on everything — industry, agriculture, living conditions, development.”



Roland Dobbins

But there’s this consensus that we don’t need to worry about that…


Obama speeds up influx of ‘refugees’ before Trump





President Barack Obama is speeding up the “refugee” resettlement process before he turns over the White House keys to his successor, President-elect Donald Trump – in an effort to boost the numbers so high that it is now projected that they will exceed his target of 110,000 for this fiscal year by nearly 600.

According to the Refugee Processing Center, the Obama administration has already welcomed 23,248 individuals to the United States as “refugees” through the first 11 weeks of the 2017 fiscal year – almost doubling the 13,786 who were accepted for the same period in 2016.[snip]


Japan to smack space junk with 2.3K-foot whip


Tracy Walters


That was the week that was

Dear Doctor Pournelle,

In catching up with Chaos Manor after a short vacation, I offer my observations on a few matters discussed this past week:

Russians are not westerners. They have a different culture. That anyone thinks they are “just like us”is evidence of either a lack of education or of a morbid surplus of Milk Of Human Kindness and resultant Mental Diabetes. You can file such people in the same folder as those who believe in unicorns and fairies under toadstools, or that All People Want The Same Things (and Of Course those are Good Things That Will Make The World A Better Place For All!)

Countries have interests, not friends. Donald Trump knows this. Vladimir Putin knows this. Some Republicans know this. Look for Democrats that know this in the same place you will find those unicorns and dancing fairy folk.

I suspect Donald J. Trump has played a bit of high stakes poker. He knows a lot about bluffing, and/or spoofing the other players into believing you are bluffing when you actually are holding what players call “The Nuts”. By the way, some of the best poker players I have gone up against were Russian. Hmmm.

I would trust anything Julian Assange says about as much as I would Putin. He’s not in this game to make the United States a better place.

At this point he is deeply compromised, probably being blackmailed by at least three different Intel.agencies.

Watch closely who the Norwegian Parliament decides to give the “Peace”

prize too. I suspect it will be a not very subtle |Flip of the Finger”

to the incoming president. Expect some fireworks around this one.

In closing, perhaps some of the Democratic hysteria was catching, as I note all of the extended hand wringing over the now settled Electoral College vote. Time and past time for all to take a deep breath, and return to reality now that The Donald is safely elected? If someone begins to write about a possible dispute when the House verifies the vote, I think I may just collapse from nervous exhaustion.

Just kidding.

Merry Christmas, and may you and yours fare well in the New Year!



Zumwalt-class DD

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

I’m sorry to hear about your hearing loss. While that gets fixed, you can read this article on the catastrophic failure of the Zumwalt-class project.


The programs has dropped from 32 planned ships to 3, at a cost of $7 billion each. For comparison, a NIMITZ-class, a generation ago, cost

$6.2 billion.

The major difficulties appear to be that both stealth and a minimum crew complement added greatly to the cost while simultaneously taking away from more normal mission capabilities.

Between this and the F-35, I think we’re going to have to re-evaluate how we do procurement. The stuff we’re building is quite simply too expensive to be produced in quantity, which we will need if things ever get serious again.


Brian P.




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



Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.