Old and New: Solar Flares, Education, and Other Threats to the Republic

Mail at Chaos Manor Saturday, 24 January, 2015

I have several computers doing Outlook 7 (and one doing 10), and the result of the stroke is that I am way behind on getting everything into one master machine and copy. It’s a bad mess, and I have so far only once got upstairs to the old master system. For one month this portable has been the only reliable system I could get to, but I have to have also a machine that will do virtual XP since my accounting programs run in 16 bit mode. A side effect of dealing with that has been the discovery of some forgotten mail of interest – by forgotten I mean long forgotten. Years sometimes. There is also some mail more recent that was neglected by my limited energy. I will from time to time insert interesting if old mail.


A Mild Defense of Justice Roberts

Dr. Pournelle —

Perhaps I am alone in this and I admit that I have not had a chance to read the majority opinion or the dissent and am operating upon news reports. However, the Chief Justice may have followed a good conservative judicial principle, namely that it is not the place of the Supreme Court to protect the people from bad laws, only those which are unconstitutional. The solution to bad laws comes via the ballot box and voting the rascals out.

That being said – this is a mild defense after all – I do believe that the courts and all others in this case have operated under erroneous assumptions which have unfortunately been enshrined in jurisprudence.

First, I do not believe that, " Article I, Section 8. The Congress shall have Power … To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with Indian Tribes, …," was intended to mean, "commerce and anything that may have an impact upon said commerce." We have heard a lot about Wickard v. Filburn in the past couple of years. That decision dealt with wheat but is equally applicable to your backyard vegetable garden. The premise could even be applied to a mandate as to when we rise and when we sleep — these determine how much power we use, a commodity sold across state lines (unlike health insurance) and something likely to be even more heavily regulated if our current path continues.

Secondly, there seems to be a belief that the ability to raise money via a tax is sufficient to justify spending that money on anything the Congress pleases. Publius repeatedly assured the people of New York that the Federal powers were few and defined while those of the States were many and undefined. Increasingly we see the undoing of that notion. I fear that the enumerated powers have become like an unwanted stepchild.

Salve Conservus,


Hamilton objected to a Bill of Rights on precisely that ground: if the power was not enumerated then the feds did not have it. The Jeffersonians won that debate, I think to our sorrow. And then came the 14th Amendment, which gave us penumbras …


We got this over two years ago:

Forced innoculations begin in California, as we said they would. But, we were called conspiracy theorists. I guess if you can look down the street and see the road is about to end and you’ll fall off a cliff that you are a conspiracy theorist if you suggest to the blind driver that he shoudl stop the car…. Do you get my frustration with the [m]asses now? I warn them time and time again and they stand there like lambs for the slaughter. If your kids are in public school then you might want to take them out. What do you think is next for your kids when they do this kind of crap?


I was listening to an interview with the woman just now. She said that, because she refused to vaccinate her child, the doctor called the police. THe police contacted her, leaving two notes on her door, showing up with child protective services, and even interviewing her neighbors when she was not on the premises! The cops came because she allegedly failed to show her ID to the doctor — as if the doctor can id people — and because she was "acting strangely". Of course, the doctor never asked for the ID — according to the woman — and she did nothing strange. Now, they are trying to find a way to take her kids. They were asking neighbors questions about her to see if they could find any reasons to take the kids.


Most Respectfully,

Joshua Jordan, KSC

Percussa Resurgo

The issue comes up again. It is not a simple one. We never questioned – or few questioned – the States’ power of quarantine, effectively house arrest for public safety. Inoculation/vaccination is a more personal intrusion. It is a State power, not Federal; whether it is an intolerable assault on liberty is a legitimate debate. Measles at Disneyland is a current subject. When I was young, everyone got measles; sometimes you might visit someone who had it so you’d get it over at a relatively convenient time, since you were going to get it. Now enough have inoculation that it’s not inevitable. Foreign residents do not have inoculations. They are in danger, and measles is dangerous to adults. It is Liberty vs. Safety again, and like terror the threat does not go away. It is not unreasonable to conclude that inoculation is a greater risk than remaining exposed, for an individual child; but you may endanger another child or an adult in doing so. And then there’s smallpox.


Kelp yourself to a beer ?

I expect Poul Anderson will propose a toast in Valhalla tonight to the authors of An Engineered Microbial Platform for Direct Biofuel Production from Brown Macroalgae who report in <i> Science</i> today how to turn seaweed into beer:

Here, we present the discovery of a 36–kilo–base pair DNA fragment from Vibrio splendidus encoding enzymes for alginate transport and metabolism. The genomic integration of this ensemble, together with an engineered system for extracellular alginate depolymerization, generated a microbial platform that can simultaneously degrade, uptake, and metabolize alginate. When further engineered for ethanol synthesis, this platform enables bioethanol production directly from macroalgae via a consolidated process, achieving a titer of 4.7% volume/volume and a yield of 0.281 weight ethanol/weight dry macroalgae (equivalent to ~80% of the maximum theoretical yield from the sugar composition in macroalgae).

Had the Vikings known of this, they might have bypassed Greenland and Vinland, and made directly for the Sargasso Sea.

Russell Seitz


The Price Of Higher Education


It looks like the collapse of the economy, budget cuts, and the unwillingness of the middle class to take on more debt has finally put a hole, albeit a small one at this point, in the higher education price bubble (http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/08/01/13070188-colleges-freeze-reduce-tuition-as-public-balks-at-further-price-hikes?lite).

Kevin L Keegan

Sent in 1912. As you can see, nothing stops the inevitable rise in cost of education – nor the fall of what is delivered. The ruin of education is the greatest threat to the Republic, far more deadly than terror. It steals all hope. And there is no stopping it; we cannot eliminate Federal Aid To Education and give one or two states a chance to go back to better times. And comes now free community college, relieving the high schools of any obligation to teach ANYTHING.


Orange County, FL & oranges


Mr. Cordelli bemoans the lack of citrus groves in central Florida, and places the blame on global cooling. But there are two other very important factors at work: population growth and citrus canker.

Population growth, of course, is a little easier to study. Thanks largely to Uncle Walt, the population in the four counties that more or less make up modern Orlando has seen astonishing growth in the last 50 years, and all those people have to have somewhere to live. In many cases, formerly productive farmland has been converted to housing, so citrus groves and cattle land has been lost. Wikipedia says that the city’s population in 1960 was about 90,000, and the 2010 Census estimate for the four county region is about 2,100,000 with a population of 2,800,000 in the larger Combined Statistical Area. (Actual Census Bureau data seems to be much more difficult to wade through. Alas.)

Citrus canker is a bacterial infection which harms the health of the trees, and renders the fruit displeasing to the eye such that it simply can’t be marketed. The Florida Department of Agriculture’s approach to eradicating it has traditionally been to burn all trees within a specified distance, This has been applied not only to commercial groves, but also to residential trees, so if someone 1500′ from me has an infected tree the State will send someone into my back yard to cut down & burn my lemon tree.

Andy Preston

Panama City Beach FL http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orlando,_Florida


link to a 5 year old citrus canker report:


1986 article on tree burning, and opposition to same:


Andy Preston

Sent in 2012


Current 2015


My wife found this story this morning:

Scientists slow the speed of light


A team of Scottish scientists has made light travel slower than the speed of light.

They sent photons – individual particles of light – through a special mask. It changed the photons’ shape – and slowed them to less than light speed.

The photons remained travelling at the lower speed even when they returned to free space.

The experiment is likely to alter how science looks at light.

I wonder if this is the same kind of confused reporting we saw in the report about the "disappearing pulsar."

I am glad to see you continue to recover.


Hugh Greentree

Is this interesting?

Jerry Pournelle

Chaos Manor


Based on just the newspaper article, I would call it another attempt to sensationalize a rather mundane result – the well known fact that diffraction applies to single photons.

Call a "mask" a mask; it’s still a diffraction grating on some scale.

One hint is that it refers to the delay of the second photon as being millionths of a meter, rather than in femtoseconds. Diffraction patterns are geometric positions, not elapsed times.

The Preprint is available here:


The language is more technical and much less flowery, but the conclusion is the same.



Subject: Statistics

Took a graduate class in statistics, called Random Processes in the EE

department. It was great. It was also hard. But then, it was the EE


Phil Tharp

      Alas most climate scientists did not. Engineers have to work with

      the real world..

      Jerry Pournelle

      Chaos Manor

Re: Statistics

I’m actually beginning to question the computer science degree and the computer engineering degree which is supposedly half computer science half electrical engineering. Nether degree requires the level of math or physics I had to take. I’ve worked with several of these engineers over the last few years and while smart, they don’t have the more in-depth knowledge I got in math or physics or chemistry for that matter. I wonder if that explains the political trends of Silicon Valley over the last 20 years? I.E., they did not have to take vector calculus.

Phil Tharp

I cannot know, but I can suspect that deterioration of education has much to do with modern politics. The US is in debt for more than a year’s domestic production and the deficit grows. No one seems to notice. Productivity grows – which means more is produced by fewer people, and less demand for unskilled work. Even burger flippers can be automated out of a job: so our remedy is to raise the minimum wage so that the unskilled cost more; they know little from school and it costs a lot to hire them as apprentices; and no one seems to care.

The schools continue to teach less and cost more, as the robots get cheaper and smarter. Anyone can see this but they pretend not to.


‘And so the bureaucracy (and its hangers-on) does not exist to serve the public, but the public exists to serve the bureaucracy.’



Roland Dobbins

The Iron Law in action. More and more we are ruled by a civil service. Would a spoils system be worse? Civil service means protection for the unproductive – for their lifetimes. And no one dares to care.


Predestination – everything I’ve seen tells me that it was approached with utmost respect. However, I will probably not go to see it.

There are just some short stories that do not grow sufficiently well to become novels; like a bansai, they lose their beauty when forced to grow too large. "Nightfall" was deserving of every accolade accorded to it – as a short story. As a novel, well, so-so, I wish I’d waited for it to show up in the local used bookstore. We won’t mention the movie…

I wish we could get some animators on the level of, say, Murasaki, to take on some of the great short stories.

Richard Skinner


Dear Jerry,

I was a high school student when Barry Goldwater was campaigning for the Republican nomination. I was thinking of him this past week: while I don’t support his politics, he was a very important and forward-looking politician who perceived that the Republic was being undermined from within. I’m not talking about a fifth column or conspiracy theories. I feel that the outliers of our history are often the most important–because they tell us the truths we would like to ignore. With God’s Blessings for your continued work and on your household.

Rev. Phil Ternahan, Navy retired.


Dr. Pournelle,

Recently you have commented about EMPs (including solar flares) as something we do not need to spend a great deal of time worrying about. I would appreciate comments from you and your readers as to why this is not one of the more serious threats to our nation as I have seen a number of articles from legitimate news sources in the last couple of years that indicate our US electrical grid could be crippled for 18 months to two years by an electro-magnetic pulse attack, a Carrington class solar storm, or even from coordinated terrorist attacks on power stations and a transformer manufacturer (the terrorist attacks would have to be at peak usage).

Quote from testimony by:

(Congressional) Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack http://www.empcommission.org "The electromagnetic fields produced by weapons deployed with the intent to produce EMP have a high likelihood of damaging electrical power systems, electronics, and information systems upon which American society depends. Their effects on critical infrastructures could be sufficient to qualify as catastrophic to the Nation."

Other links:

Assault on California Power Station Raises Alarm on Potential for Terrorism April 2013 Sniper Attack Knocked Out Substation, Raises Concern for Country’s Power Grid


Scientists say destructive solar blasts narrowly missed Earth in 2012


Near Miss: The Solar Superstorm of July 2012 http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2014/23jul_superstorm/

Experts Warn Civilian World Not Ready for Massive EMP Caused Blackout http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/04/21/experts-warn-civilian-world-not-ready-for-massive-emp-caused-blackout/

Report: US Could Be Plunged Into Blackout by Minimal Attacks http://time.com/23281/report-u-s-could-be-plunged-into-blackout-by-minimal-attacks/

States work to protect electric grid from solar storms and nuclear attacks http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/04/07/states-work-to-protect-electric-grid-from-solar-storms-and-nuclear-attacks/

Q&A: What You Need to Know About Attacks on the U.S. Power Grid http://blogs.wsj.com/corporate-intelligence/2014/02/05/qa-what-you-need-to-know-about-attacks-on-the-u-s-power-grid/

Solar Storm Risk to the North American Electric Grid http://www.lloyds.com/the-market/tools-and-resources/research/exposure-management/emerging-risks/emerging-risk-reports/business/solar-storm

How a solar storm two years ago nearly caused a catastrophe on Earth http://m.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2014/07/23/how-a-solar-storm-nearly-destroyed-life-as-we-know-it-two-years-ago/

Do Solar Storms Threaten Life as We Know It?


Truth About Solar Storms

And what they mean for humans here on Earth.


I am very heartened by your return am subscribed to your site. I greatly value your views and insights, and have been a fan since Byte magazine, which I would buy to read your column.

Jan Stepka

I have never said we should not prepare for solar flares, and indeed have often said the opposite. From observations of aurora in Alexandria, it seems a major flare hits Earth about every 150-200 years, and since the last was in 1859 we are due and past due. There are many SF survival novels about the threat, which is quite real. Of course government does not seem to care.


Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today Show How Far American Educational Standards Have Declined


Good to hear you are improving, best wishes. My niece posted a pointer to this interesting article on thefederalistpapers dot org website and I thought you might be interested.

Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today Show How Far American Educational Standards Have Declined <http://www.thefederalistpapers.org/education-2/middle-school-reading-lists-100-years-ago-vs-today-show-how-far-american-educational-standards-have-declined>

Middle School Reading Lists 100 Years Ago vs. Today Show How Far American Educational Standards Have Declined BY JASON W. STEVENS

There’s a delightful and true saying, often attributed to Joseph Sobran, that in a hundred years, we’ve gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching remedial English in college.

Now comes even more evidence of the steady decline of American educational standards.

Last year, Annie Holmquist, a blogger for better-ed.org, discovered a 1908 curriculum manual in the Minnesota Historical Society archives that included detailed reading lists for various grade levels.

According to her research, the recommended literature list for 7th and 8th graders in Minnesota in 1908 included the following:

Lobo, Rag, and Vixen; Ernest Thompson Seton Evangeline, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Harold, Last of Saxon Kings; Edward Bulwer Lytton Tanglewood Tales, Nathaniel Hawthorne Courtship of Miles Standish, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Rab and His Friends, John Brown Gold Bug, Edgar Allan Poe Stories of Heroic Deeds, James Johonnot Stories from Dickens, Charles Dickens Old Ballads in Prose, Eva March Tappan Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson Captains Courageous, Rudyard Kipling Essays from Sketch Book, Washington Irving Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Washington Irving Grandmother’s Story of Bunker Hill and Other Poems, Oliver Wendell Holmes The Spy, James Fenimore Cooper Stories of the Olden Time, James Johonnot Adventures of a Deerslayer, James Fenimore Cooper The Young Mountaineers, Mary Noailles Murfree Harris’s Stories of Georgia, Joel Chandler Harris

Source: Minnesota Educational Association, Course of Study for the Common Schools of Minnesota, 1908? Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

And also according to her research, the recommended literature list for 7th and 8th graders in Minnesota in 2014 (at one of the area’s finest districts, Edina Public Schools) included the following:

Nothing But the Truth, Avi

A Step from Heaven, An Na

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain Homeless Bird, Gloria Whelan The Breadwinner, Deborah Ellis Uprising, Margaret Peterson Haddix Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson Touching Spirit Bear, Ben Mikaelsen The Last Book in the Universe, Rodman Philbrick The House of the Scorpion, Nancy Farmer The Diary of Anne Frank (Drama), Goodrich & Hackett Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury Of Beetles and Angels, Mawi Asgedom Call Me Maria, Judith Ortiz Cofer

Source: Edina Public Schools per Google

What’s most interesting, however, is Ms. Holmquist’s very thoughtful analysis of the results.

From better-ed.org:

“In examining these lists, I noticed three important differences between the reading content of these two eras:

“1. Time Period

“One of the striking features of the Edina list is how recent the titles are. Many of the selections were published in the 21st century. In fact, only four of the selections are more than 20 years old.

“In comparison, over half of the titles on the first list were at least 20 years old in 1908, with many of them averaging between 50 to 100 years old.

“Older is not necessarily better, but the books on the first list suggest that schools of the past were more likely to give their students time-tested, classic literature, rather than books whose popularity may happen to be a passing fad.” [Emphasis original]

This observation probably rings true for many students and parents of students today. I keep a pretty good eye on regular high school and college reading lists. Although the occasional older “classic” makes an appearance now and again, I’ve been surprised to find how many teachers actually assign Harry Potter, the Twilight series, Stephen King, and The Hunger Games for classroom reading.

And when I ask these teachers WHY those books are selected, the answer is always the same: Because those are the books that are popular today. There’s a greater likelihood that the student will want to do the reading and enjoy it as well.

The result, of course, is that Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Chaucer are relegated to the trash-heap. In school, students are reading the same books they would read at home (if they read at all), and thus never encounter the classics because they lack good help from a good teacher.

Good teachers do not assign Twilight.

More from better-ed.org:

“2. Thematic Elements

“A second striking difference between the two book lists are the themes they explore. The first is full of historical references and settings which stretch from ancient Greece (Tanglewood Tales) to the Middle Ages (Harold, Last of Saxon Kings) to the founding of America (Courtship of Miles Standish). Through highly recognized authors such as Longfellow, Stevenson, Kipling, and Dickens, these titles introduce children to a vast array of themes crucial to understanding the foundations upon which America and western civilization were built.

The Edina list, however, largely deals with modern history, particularly hitting on many current political and cultural themes such as the Taliban (The Breadwinner), cloning, illegal immigrants, the drug war (The House of the Scorpion), and deeply troubled youth (Touching Spirit Bear). In terms of longstanding, classic authors, Mark Twain and Ray Bradbury are the only ones who stand out.

It’s good for children to understand the world in which they live, but as with any area in life, you can have too much of a good thing. A continual focus on modern literature narrows the lens through which children can view and interpret the world. Would it not be better to broaden their horizons and expose them to a balance of both old and new literature?

To summarize the point, American students are not being taught about America.

University students who major in social studies education are not being taught about America.

I’ve talked to several of these types of students who want to teach American history at the middle school or high school level. So, these are our future teachers. And I always ask the same question: When was the American Revolution?

Usually, I am met with dumb stares. Hardly any of them answer correctly: 1775-1783. This is because, for the most part, students who will eventually be teaching American history are not required to take a class on the American Founding. Again, these are our future teachers.

Finally, Ms. Holmquist makes one final observation:

“3. Reading Level

“Many of the books on the Edina list use fairly simple, understandable language and vocabulary familiar to the modern reader. Consider the first paragraph of Nothing But the Truth:

“Coach Jamison saw me in the hall and said he wanted to make sure I’m trying out for the track team!!!! Said my middle school gym teacher told him I was really good!!!! Then he said that with me on the Harrison High team we have a real shot at being county champs. Fantastic!!!!!! He wouldn’t say that unless he meant it. Have to ask folks about helping me get new shoes. Newspaper route won’t do it all. But Dad was so excited when I told him what Coach said that I’m sure he’ll help.

“On the other hand, consider the first paragraph of Longfellow’s Evangeline:

“This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight, Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic, Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.

Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.”

“The first example uses simple words and a casual sentence structure, while the second uses a rich vocabulary and a complex writing format. Naturally, some might look at the second selection and say, “Good grief! How do you expect a child to understand that?!?”

“But that’s the whole point. Unless we give our students challenging material to dissect, process, and study, how can we expect them to break out of the current poor proficiency ratings and advance beyond a basic reading level?”

This, I think, is Ms. Holmquist’s most important point: Our children are not being taught how to read, which really means they are not being taught how to think.

Even classic works written in their native language–English–often appear to students like a second language. This is because they have never been challenged before.

And I sympathize.

The first time I read Hamlet, for example, I filled my book’s margins with notes and scribbles, none of which had anything to do with actually thinking about the book. I was struggling even to keep up with Shakespeare’s plot.

In other words, I had to teach myself how to read before I could even begin the much more difficult task of learning how to think.

Our students are simply not learning these skills in school.

What do you think?

Are these major problems for our students today? Is Ms. Holmquist on to something with her research and analysis? Or was Hamlet’s mother, the Queen, correct when she said: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Thanks for all the years of good reading,

Paul Evans

I think the destruction of our education system ranks with solar flares as the major threat to the Republic and the government does not understand that because the Iron Law guarantees that it will not.

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people":

First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.





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