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Monday  September 15, 2008

The Coming of Another Dark Age?

Earlier today, while doing laundry in the apartment building's single washer and dryer (memo to self: Never again take such a rental.), I had the TV on for background noise. I happened to hit the Discovery Channel, and watched a piece about a lab group somewhere doing a test, in an anechoic chamber, of microwave power transmission. They turned on their transmitter, dialed it up, and lit up their test lamps array at the receiving antenna. The test lamp array drew 30 watts; no word on how much they put into the transmitter.

To prove that they were doing something real, they then hooked up the principal investigator's cell phone, in place of the test lamp array, and proved that they could charge the cellphone off of transmitted power.

Their next step would be to do it out in the real world, over a longer path.

I changed the channel, disgusted.

Excuse me, but didn't the Jet Propulsion Lab do that exact experiment, between two mountains several miles apart, over thirty years ago? I could SWEAR I saw photos of the equipment, and the lit-up test array, in a talk given at a gaming convention in Austin TX in the 1970s, by some guy named Jerry Pournelle.

It is bad enough that Our Children Can't Read. When our University researchers can't do a decent search for Related Work, something is VERY wrong. A coworker of mine some years ago, who held a Master's degree in Computer Science, told me that the single most important chapter in a thesis or dissertation is the "Related Work" chapter, and the most important skill learned in graduate school is how to do a proper literature search, to be able to write a competent "Related Work" chapter.

--John R. Strohm

Indeed. Boeing proposed space solar power a good forty years ago. The test was done with the Goldstone antenna, and the power beam losses were under 10% (as I recall); not as low as transmission line power losses, but not all that much higher either.  The test results were part of the Boeing proposal, which included Heavy Lift reusable VTOL rockets.



Education - High IQ versus Low IQ


Your observation in the VIEW entry for Sunday triggered a related realization for me. It's a human failing that we all have and is often manifested - just for example - in hiring practices, mostly subconsciously. Basically, high IQ people are trying to make low IQ people be just like them.

Regards, George



OpenSecrets | Update: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Invest in Lawmakers - Capital Eye

Look at the list -- you might find it amusing...



Hoo boy! Even I am surprised.


Hi Jerry,

I've been following the LA train crash from here in the UK. your comments suggest what I thought, in UK terms it was a SPAD, i.e. a Signal Passed at Danger. It would suggest that the line in question (and trains ) were not fitted with Automatic Train Protection which should stop a train after a SPAD. It also raises questions as to what, if any, train detection systems were in place. The history of rail signalling is long and revolves about learning from accidents. In general we work with either absolute block or a form of track circuit block working, common to both is the division of the track into sections or blocks, only one train is allowed in a block at a time. In absolute block working there is a signaller to release the train, in Track circuit working some form of detector provides the release*. There are some abstruse forms of single line working e.g. Tokens, Train Staffs and the classic "one train in steam" but all systems are to prevent collisions. As with the Channel Tunnel fire I am waiting for reports in the Rail press as these are generally better than the mass media It is good to see you getting better

Andrew Deacon

*The simplest track circuit is as follows 1) Isolate the rails from the earth 2) place a voltage across the rails with a switch in the circuit 3) complete the circuit with the wheels and axle of the train, causing the switch to close thereby driving an indicator (or in UK usage setting the signal behind the train to Danger) .As you can imagine a signal from the switch can be used for many things.

I will be much interested in what the rail press has to say on this. (See below)


Letter from England

The term fudge can refer to candy, faking or ambiguity, (slang) excrement, or as a verb, to dealing with something in a vague way, especially to conceal the truth or mislead. It is so characteristic of British governments that the term "British fudge" in a newspaper almost never means candy. Examples include the way the Government redefines the taxation rules at the end of the tax year and the way children's exam scores get 'adjusted'. Media regulation is another area.

Committee of concerned journalists story <http://tinyurl.com/4msfk8> Guardian story <http://tinyurl.com/3mujbc>


University degrees come under scrutiny:

BBC story <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7610576.stm>

Second BBC story <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7612806.stm>

The purpose of the UK university debated (London Times story) <http://tinyurl.com/6ps8zc  >


Do we believe this minister?

BBC story <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7609912.stm>


The UK now has the largest class sizes in the developed world despite massive spending on education BBC story <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7608749.stm>

BBC story on teacher suspensions <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/7613129.stm



Putin tells Britain that relations can only improve when the UK arrests and removes Russian dissidents. Russian dissidents get nervous.

London Times story <http://tinyurl.com/652rpx> Telegraph story <http://tinyurl.com/4lb8ps> BBC story <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7611482.stm>

Telegraph story  <http://tinyurl.com/4jzkco>


Money-saving move by MoD to dispose of HMS Victory:

Telegraph story <http://tinyurl.com/0>


Using anti-terrorism laws to spy on your own citizens:

Telegraph story <http://tinyurl.com/6xq7us>


Labour revolt led by women MPs:

Telegraph story <http://tinyurl.com/5hlocz> BBC story <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7615001.stm>


Aviation implosion:

Guardian story <http://tinyurl.com/3z8r63> London Times story <http://tinyurl.com/4q45wq> Telegraph story <http://tinyurl.com/53sfjr> BBC story <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7614974.stm>

London Times story on XL Leisure <http://tinyurl.com/5r4g85>


John Le Carre thought about defecting to the USSR:

London Times story <http://tinyurl.com/6xdunp>


I spent Friday dealing with hacker attacks on my research wiki. It was like whack-a-mole--as I patched each hole, I watched the access log as about a half dozen hackers tried to find others. Made me daydream about using that agency high energy laser system that allows them to nuke a specific IP address from orbit.

Telegraph story <http://tinyurl.com/4n6bj2>


Oh my--I suppose the West will just have to get along with the Russians until 2015, when we will have manned spaceflight again.

BBC story <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7612790.stm>


You want it bad; you get it bad:

Guardian story <http://tinyurl.com/3lcfrj>


We find we get harassed periodically because we don't have a TV:



Foreigners exploiting free hospital care in the UK, too:

Guardian story <http://tinyurl.com/55jo39> Guardian story about care for the elderly <http://tinyurl.com/6b4nlx> Second Guardian story <http://tinyurl.com/5ddpzn>



Harry Erwin, PhD

"If you can't be a good example, then you'll just have to be a horrible warning." (Catherine Aird)


"I doubted those results from day one."


-- Roland Dobbins


We have a LOT of mail about Sharia Law in the UK

UK adopts Sharia Law 

London Times story on sharia law courts in the UK <http://tinyurl.com/62wyh7

"Below target"--heart rehabilitation services in the UK <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7611985.stm

UK police tracking car use--records retained for 5 years: Guardian story <http://tinyurl.com/6f7otg>

Recession in the UK: London Times article <http://tinyurl.com/6bay4y

NHS to allow 'top-ups': Independent story <http://tinyurl.com/6dev2v

-- Harry Erwin, PhD


Britian adopts shaira law

Hi Jerry,

The sun just set on the British Empire.






Fox News Story: Britain Adopts Islamic Law, Gives Sharia Courts Full Power to Rule on Civil Cases


and so it begins …


This needs an essay, but the principle is simple: if your goal is diversity, then you will get diversity, and when you say "But we didn't mean THAT!" you will find it is too late.

America was not built on a principle of diversity. It was built on the principle of e pluribus unum; one could and was expected to learn how to be an American, whether you were born here or came as an immigrant. This was the Melting Pot, and it darned well worked. Incidentally, note the similarity to Rome which included in its founding legends the story of the Roman men and Sabine women; and even the men were not all descendents of the Trojans and Aeneas. Rome had no racial foundation; but everyone was expected to learn how to be and to act like a Roman. Much of this was in the minds of the Framers of this nation. They well understood that some states would be protestant, some Catholic, some Unitarian; that there were be diversities in views. Some of those diversities led to the Civil War, and the Reconstruction leaders, Garfield as an example, tried to build an actual nation. The result was pretty good, and we were able to absorb waves and waves of immigrants, some educated, most not, some rich, most poor, and build the Unites States and the American people.

Our latest goal is "diversity" and the result here will be about the same as it has been in Europe.

We seem to have no defense against the reductionism of the  Enlightenment. Rousseau has won over from Locke and Montesquieu, both of whom were among the favorite works of those at the Convention. Now I would wager you that there not five Congressmen or three Senators who have read any works of either, and I would also wager that most of our national leaders never heard of them. And who quotes either now?

Diversity will of course produce a unitary society of those vicious enough to act on their beliefs. Go look at South Los Angeles now for a picture of our diverse future.


For whom the bell curve tolls -

Hi, Jerry.

Just to show I'm not a completely left-wing Canadina loon, here's an article you might enjoy from Saturday's Globe and Mail. It's called "For whom the bell curve tolls" by Margaret Wente.


Here's the introduction.

"Whenever I write about higher education, I get letters like this: "A large percentage of our students come into college woefully unprepared. Close to half of our first-year students in business are unable to maintain a 2.0 average in their first year, the standard required for advancement and graduation. ... A large percentage have poor note-taking skills, below-average reading comprehension skills, and an inability to solve problems and complete projects without being given step-by-step to-do lists."

The letter comes from a teacher at a local community college, where the first-year attrition rate - to say nothing of the costs in money, time and student self-esteem - is depressingly high. We all think we know what's wrong. It's the public education system. They're handing out high-school diplomas to just about anyone who bothers to show up.

But the education system (for all its shortcomings) doesn't really deserve to take the fall. The real problem is the cult of educational romanticism, which holds that students' abilities are far more equal and far more malleable than they really are. Educational romanticism has led us to believe that every student can become at least average, and that the right teaching strategies can close the achievement gap."

I wonder if she reads your web site? Just in case she hasn't, I'm going to send her the link.

Regards Keith Soltys


Ebooks: the flexible future

Plastic Logic-- a company founded to commercialize electronics built on flexible plastic substrates-- demonstrated a prototype ebook reader (not yet named) and announced that it plans to ship this product in the first half of next year. You can read the press release for yourself.

This particular gizmo is very attractive. It uses a large, flexible electronic paper display based on technology from E Ink (the same company that makes the displays for Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader), but the device overall is remarkably thin and light.


Bill Shields




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Tuesday,  September 16, 2008

copyright cops

Dear Jerry:

I find the idea that the Feds would break into people's houses to enforce copyright law laughable; a real knee slapper. They don't even enforce the existing law. There are criminal penalties in the law but when I tried to get a little help from the FBI and the US Attorney on my cases, I was told --wrongly--by the former that it was strictly a civil matter and by the latter that they didn't have the resources.

You will note that all of the RIAA cases have been civil, not criminal. The only time a criminal case is brought is when there are headlines to be made and the defendant is someone small, with little power. It never goes the other way around, with a large corporation being held to account for infringing the copyrights of a small provider. Civil cases are also strongly discouraged by the Federal Courts, which are, under law, the only venue in which they can be brought. (It's called "Federal Preemption" ) . The courts do not want these messy complicated cases and there are an entire class of Magistrate Judges charged with seeing that they don't go to trial, but are settled. If they are not settled, then you get a result like the recent Rowling case, where she prevailed, but was awarded minimal damages under law.. She spent millions in legal fees protecting the Harry Potter brand, but she has it to spend. Most of those infringed do not.

Little wonder then that there are so few cases ever brought even to a civil trial. The playing field is very uneven and favors the rich, powerful and large media corporations. This would be an outrage if anyone cared, but the evidence strongly suggests that they do not. The fact that over 99 percent of the copyrights at issue in the electronic database litigations were not registered and therefore beyond the court's jurisdiction proves how few people are willing to take the basic effort required to acquired even minimal protection for their copyrights. Without registration you have no standing in court and therefore no way to enforce your rights. If you are not going to make the minimal effort, then the courts will not do it for you.


Francis Hamit

One does wonder why registration of copyright involves paying fees to private companies for ISBN numbers, and is more onerous than perhaps you suspect. When Victor Hugo drafted the Berne Convention on copyright he insisted that there be no renewals and a very simple method of doing the equivalent of registration. Copyright registration is easy for publishers and big studios and large outfits in general; but they are a colossal pain to individual authors.

You call that minimal effort. Now how would I go about registering my View, or comments on Mail?


How the Masters of the Universe Ran Amok and Cost Us the Earth.


-- Roland Dobbins



A battle over 'the next war'


-- Roland Dobbins

I could write an essay on this, and in fact over the years have written several. It has great bearing on the question of Empire and Republic. Empires need armies for occupation; republics need armies for defense.


India’s Novel Use of Brain Scans in Courts Is Debated.


- Roland Dobbins

There are a couple of really good science fiction novelettes in here...


Subject: Space shuttle

I read your bit Sunday about the booster rockets on the space shuttle and remembered this bit of net legend (I have no idea if it is actually true) :’’

The standard gauge of us railways is 4 feet 8½ inches. This is a weird measure so why did they use this ?

The first US railways were designed by English experts who build tramways and this was the size they used.

This was because the first carriages where made by tools and people who build horse carriages and this was the standard size between the wheels.

And the horse carriages had this size because that was in general the size of the ruts in the old English roads.

These ruts had that size going all the way back because the roads where build by Romans and that was the size of Roman war carriages.

And the roman war carriages had that size because that was the size of 2 horse buts.

Taking this a bit further you have the space shuttle and the booster rockets build in Utah. They have the size they have because they need to go through rail tunnels to get from Utah to Florida.

So the design/size of the technically most advanced mode of transport humans have yet build is based on the size of 2 roman horses arses.

---- Regards
Jan Holbech Larsen

It's time to reprint that legend, which may or may not be true -- I'm rather inclined to believe there is truth in it. But the reason the Recoverable Solid Boosters could not go from Utah to Florida by rail is the curve radius of the tracks, not the width of the right of way.

Hope things are well with you in Denmark.


Subj: Hey, Keed! You wanna buy som' NASA patents?




Rod Montgomery==monty@starfief.com


Subject: opinion piece on the surge in Iraqi



Very interesting.

Phil Tharp





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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

This was over in view but I put it here in case you missed it.

Rohrabacher Campaign

Dana Rohrabacher has done more for commercial space than any member of Congress, perhaps more than anyone in government. This election Dana has a tough opponent and needs to raise money for his campaign. Regardless of how one feels about the rest of his politics, losing Dana would be a huge blow to the commercial space industry. If returned to Washington Dana will continue to be the voice for those who believe a competitive space industry is crucial to our nation's future.

His campaign has set up a separate web page for those interested in space to contribute to his campaign.


I hope you pass this message onto your readers and if possible can make a contribution yourself.

Truly yours,

Rich Pournelle

I agree with every word of that. I do not often solicit money for candidates, and never for partisan reasons; but Dana has been important to the space program, and we need him.


I have a number of letters about train control and its cost. I intend to make this a column item, but we'll discuss it here first.

Train Control System

"So: will someone please tell me why they are telling us it will cost a billion dollars to revamp the train control system?"

Apply the waterfall software engineering model.

Require configuration control be kept at the railroad board level.

Specify a centralized system with ultra-slavish field nodes, and all of the communications *that* requires.

Specify ridiculous levels of reliability and redundancy, both in the central office and in the field, to give this centralized system a chance of actually working.

Specify a completely parallel autonomous system for field units, so that the system fails safe when centralized control breaks down anyway.

Institute a brand new, "independent" quality control organization to supervise all of this.

Have I missed anything?

Tony Evans



When the railroad agencies talk about some outrageous sum of money to fit all the trains with an automatic train control system, I’m sure that they are talking about using the existing “Automatic Train Stop” (or ATS) system that dates back to the 1930s or so, and is therefore an electromechanical system.

They would think in these terms because 1) it exists and is in use in limited areas and 2) railroads are very very conservative and very leery of any new technology. Develop something new, that is based on off the shelf technology and computers? Oh my! We couldn’t possibly do that.

One other factor to consider, though, is that trains are a very very tough environment, subject to all kinds of temperature and vibration extremes, with only non-standard power supplies available, and operated at least some of the time by people who, while more than highly competent in their field, are the definition of ham-handedness when it comes to computer technology. Any electronics technology you use must be of Mil-Spec quality or better, and needs to meet the same sort of user interface standards for simplicity and ease of use, and durability standards, as are incorporated in systems intended for infantrymen in the field.

Googling “Automatic Train Stop” will find you a number of links that describe the system, which consists of components on board the locomotive as well as on the ground.

By the way, I’ve been using the Google Chrome browser for a couple of weeks now and have to say that I’m impressed. It’s very fast, and very easy to use, with Google and Wikipedia search built into the address window. Give it a try!


Karen Parker


Train crashes and airline crashes

The last two or three days the press has made much about the the fact that new technology could have prevented the crash. In fact, the technology existed over 50 years ago. I have a copy of "Audels New Electric Library", last copyright 1949, that shows a set of inductive coils, one mounted on a *steam* locomotive and the other coil trackside. When the trackside coil is shorted, through a relay from the red block signal lamp, a pulse is induced in the locomotive coil which, after some conditioning, makes an emergency application of the air brakes. To restore the locomotive to operation, the locomotive must stop, the engineer then breaks a seal on the air brake control, resets the unit, pumps up brakepipe air pressure and continues. And he has to fill out a report indicating why he broke the seal.

Rather than a question of new technology, it's really a question of whether we use the adaptability (and failings) of humans or the logic of two or three relays.

An even more fascinating story is the crash of Spanair 5022 on 20 August. The aircraft, an MD82 at Barajas Airport, Madrid, crashed on takeoff with 154 fatalities.

The accident appears to be a classic case of "all the holes in the swiss cheese lining up". The airplane taxied out to depart when the flight crew noticed an overtemperature alarm on one of the flight instrument probes. The probes are normally heated during flight to prevent freezing. Ground sense logic triggered by switches in the landing gear would normally turn the heater off to prevent overheating on the ground.

The aircraft taxied back to the gate where, after a fashion the alarm was declared a non-issue. The aircraft then taxied back to the runway and departed with the pilots failing to complete the pre-takeoff checklist. As a result, they did not position the flaps and slats in takeoff position. They rotated at something like 15 knots *below* stall speed, staggered around in ground effect and crashed. The last hole in the cheese was that the same ground-sense logic that overheated the flight instrument probe, had it been working properly, would have given the pilots a non-ignorable warning that the aircraft was misconfigured for takeoff.

Disclaimer: The final official accident report has not been released. This is a summary of information and observations that I have read to date.

As my flight instructor (and Southwest B737 First Officer) says. "There's three things that can kill ya on takeoff: flaps, trim and gas. No matter how well you did your checklist, check em again before you depart"


I suspect we have better technology now; the 1930's systems had to deal with steam engines. Not that electro-mechanical is necessarily bad, but we don't make most of those components now.

The airplane story is interesting so I have left it in,


Trains as WOW

What a great idea. However…

“in extremis cut the excitation power to the generator that runs off the train's Diesel engine, thus cutting the electric power to the wheels, and also the power that keeps the air compressor running”

Don’t do that. For big mile-long trains running down the Cajon Pass, the generator (actually, alternator) also supplies the excitation that allows the dynamic brakes to work. The wheel brakes will not stop the train by themselves.


"Sometimes it does take a rocket scientist..."

The problem with writing as you think is that sometimes you haven't thought far enough. I am sure I'd have come up with that problem if I'd actually had to implement a system. But Diesel Electric probably has better control mechanisms than massive solenoids and the stuff we needed to make steam engines work.


Train Control, VIEW FROM CHAOS MANOR, Tuesday, September 16, 2008

If you are referring to this story, the Federal Railroad Administration seems to be quoting a figure of about two billions for a _national_ system, the most intensely used 100,000 miles out of 140,000 miles, not for a Los Angeles system.




There are about 20,000 locomotives in the national railroad fleet, and about half a million freight cars, giving some idea of the scale of the problem. Making allowance for switches, sidings, crossing gates, double track lines, bidirectional signals, etc., the count of trackside devices on a hundred thousand miles of track might be something on the other of half a million as well. If you assume somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand dollars per device, the money is fairly well accounted for.

GPS-based systems are suitable for the more backwards and remote lines, the kind that only have a couple of trains a day, out in the desert somewhere. On lines like this, there may not be any signals at all-- they may still be using written train orders, the way they did back in the nineteenth century. However, GPS is not precise enough to tell the difference between two tracks, side by side, or to tell whether a train is clear of a switch by only a hundred feet. Additionally, in urban areas, tracks tend to run through tunnels, or in trenches, or to be shadowed by buildings, which may interfere with radio reception.

Automatic Train Stop is normally built on top of Cab Signals. The American quasi-standard system of Pennsy-type Cab Signals uses the rails themselves as a transmitting antennae, with a corresponding receiving antennae on the locomotive. Each signal has to be fitted with a transmitter which injects a radio signal into the rail.


My newspapers were telling me that Metro said it would take a billion to implement the system in the LA Metro system alone.

When I did model railroading in 1948 we had a Cab system, which controlled blocks of track. According to the NTSB expert in the papers this morning the Metro system today uses a Cab system to locate trains. That works -- except taht it cannot tell whether there are two trains in the same block of track. It can tell if a block of track is occupied. I would think a GPS system would be preferable, and I still have heard no objection to my basic idea that the Metro system is very similar to a Massive Multiplayer Role Playing Game.


IQ story

Hello Jerry,

I grew up in a university neighborhood. At the time of my little story, I was a psychology graduate student at a top university. In a class I was taking we were learning how to give and score IQ test (the WAIS in particular). First we practiced on our fellow graduate students. Then we went off campus to test ordinary adults. I still remember how sorry I felt for my first subject. He was missing so many easy items that I didn’t see how he could function at all. I wondered vaguely just how low his IQ was—he certainly seemed retarded or even perhaps mildly brain damaged.

Imagine my surprise when I finished computing his IQ, and it about 100.

He was average.

Name withheld by request

But average people buy houses, raise children, do much of the world's work, while high IQ people like us just managed to lose trillions and trillions of dollars by taking risks that ordinary people would think stupid...


Left side of bell curve

Dr. Pournelle,

I would say that many of us have regular opportunities to hobnob with a good cross-section of the bell curve-- my mother-in-law has many interesting tales of exchanges at the beauty parlor, and when my son and I visit the barbershop we have a similar experience. This may not rise to your definition of "hanging out with the left side of the bell curve", but I know that our conversations are often very substantive.

Another opening which some of your readers may share is church. I can't comment on any but those I have frequented, but at my church the leadership is mostly 2+ sigma to the right side of the curve, but many of the others are from the left side. I just stepped down from a 3+ year stint teaching elementary age kids in Sunday School. Between the kids and their parents I have had a good bit of hang time over a broad range.

Finally: my wife is a pediatrician and spends many hours of quality time one-on-one with parents and kids of all stripes. Sometimes very frustrating.

I mention all of these things to say that, although I have not brought up "The Wealth of Nations" in these conversations, neither have I noticed any real cultural rift. Most people have some sense of what they need to get on with. If the educational system made more practical and less self-serving recommendations, I think that a lot of people would make good choices about the type of training to get. (Credentialing is another matter, but not insurmountable.)

Regards, Charles T.

Average people buy insurance, buy houses, buy and maintain cars, and generally do pretty well; so of course we tell them they must take algebra in order to get a high school diploma.


Subject: Taleb

I have high regard for Taleb and have used his approach to make a lot of money in biotechnology.


-- Beware Outside Context Problems--Harry Erwin, PhD


Palin is a Heinlein Heroine

Again, you called it first:


"I submit that Sarah Palin is the most Heinleinian candidate for Vice-President of the United States in this country's history (indeed, possibly the only one other than Truman in 1944). "

-- Mike T. Powers


The Mess On Wall Street: Four Trillion Dollars Down The Drain.


-- Roland Dobbins


Financial System Meltdown


I would contend that the current financial system meltdown should be placed on the doorstep of the US Congress. Why do I make this contention?

The current meltdown is, by and large, the result of the run up in housing prices and the subsequent collapse of the housing market.

The run up of housing prices was fueled by the availability of low monthly payment mortgages.

Many of these mortgages were made to borrowers with little or no documentation of the financial ability to pay.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac purchased and packaged and sold many of these low/no quality mortgages.

Purchases and packaging by these two quasi governmental entities encouraged the purchase of the packages as well as the independent purchase and packaging by private entities.

The Congress was warned many times, even before the run up in housing prices that Fan and Fred needed more control and oversight to prevent what has now occurred.

Congress, having been brought by Fan and Fred did not act.

The end of this story has yet to be written.

I believe that the ending will have two results.

The Congress will not change its ways.

The end will not be quite as bad as it looks today.

The current market for package mortgages has led to prices that are probably significantly lower than they will be in the long run. While it is not clear what percentage of mortgages are sub-prime and/or are currently under water it is, more than likely, less than is currently assumed. The mark to market requirements are causing much of the current capital shortfalls among the troubled financial institutions. As the housing market reaches bottom in the next 18 to 24 months the true value of these mortgage portfolios will become apparent. If it is greater than current values the crisis will be over and in the case of AIG, Fan and Fred may yield the government a substantial windfall on its bailout efforts.

Bob Holmes

That's a fair summary. And we may be sure that when Fan and Fred are privatized again they will be allowed to make political contributions and do lobbying, and transfer national assets to the executives. Even if they become "non-profit" the people running them will get a lot more than GS-15 salaries and pensions. Perhaps I am unduly cynical, but I doubt it. Once you give government powers, you may be certain they will be abused. The more complex the structure the more opportunities for corruption, and the more protective the system becomes for those who exploit it.

It's called Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy.






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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Frank v. Bernanke

Heard this on the morning business news driving in this morning: from the Int'l Herald Tribune: http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/09/18/
america/NA-US-Congress-AIG.php  ---

Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, the House Financial Services Committee chairman, said he was shocked to learn that Bernanke has the power to lend up to $800 billion. In the aftermath of the AIG takeover, Frank said Congress would consider setting terms for future government interventions.

"It has to be done, I think, in a reasonable way in a democracy, with some criteria," Frank said. "It shouldn't be one man with $800 billion."


Given what we know of Frank, I think the unstated addition to that statement is "...unless it's me." While I'm no fan of Bernanke, handing Congress that large a pot-o-money to be earmarked as suited them scares me far more.

Wishing you good luck on your continuing recovery.

-- Bob Halloran

See my comments in View.


Sharia Law in the UK, Diversity and Science Fiction

Dr. Pournelle,

For an interesting and compelling take on what a diversified society might end up like, see the excellent The Star Fraction by Ken McLeod, the subsequent books in that series were very good too.


Sharia law has been tacitly active in the UK for years, this move simply give a measure of legitimacy to the civil Islamic Courts. Criminal cases will still operate under UK criminal law.

The Jewish courts have been ruling on such matters for many years, and they are legally binding too, this is not such a big move.

However the usual scare-mongering from our generally retarded popular media will ensure another notch on the ratchet of racial and religious intolerance I expect.

Good to see you back on form. -- Richard Liggins

Senior Lecturer in Music Technology @ London College of Music, Thames Valley University

I may have been less than clear in my response to the first letter on this subject. I have no objection to private parties contracting to arbitration and settlement under other legal systems. I do object to people being forced through law to submit to such. Jewish courts use social means to force people to submit to their jurisdiction and again I have no objections; but the Muslim community has made it pretty clear that there is a substantial body of people, in England, who believe in "Sharia for everyone, or the sword."  I forsee a lot more of that.

Diversity doesn't work. It didn't work in the US. The Melting Pot did work. We have overfilled it, and now we are turning down the heat so that the globs in the pot don't melt.


Re: Educational Expectations


I think another issue with how high-IQ people think of education has to do with the fact that many don't believe in a natural and normal distribution of intelligence. Judging by my own experience, many otherwise very intelligent people actually believe that intelligence is an acquired skill and that if we could only address each student properly, everybody could matriculate at Harvard or MIT.

If one thinks about it, one cans easily discern symptoms of this type of thinking in how late 20th and early 21st Century education is organized and how educators are taught. It's pretty obvious that the values and methodologies of the modern educational establishment make sense *only* in a world in which every child's "blank slate" is of exactly the same size and adhesiveness.

To these people, it's not the students who are differently abled, its the educators and educational system. With that kind of thinking, one cannot create a multi-tracked, student appropriate system of education. It's just not a thinkable option.

Tony Evans

Murray calls this education romanticism. Education professionals study no statistics other than cookbook stat 101 which may or may not include "Student's t" but certainly won't have any real discussion of models.


Jerry P:

From the wires of the AP:Study: Remedial college classes cost billions

As I have grandsons who attended a country school in a mid-western state, and have had difficulties in the state university, this strikes home as I am assisting in their education. The problem seems to boil down to whether the standards of the high schools are too low or the standards of the university are too high. Factoring out what is going on is difficult. A certain level of student will not be able to meet the university pre-admission standards, what the university expects from a student leaving high school to know and be able to handle, and so in order to make every student feel comfortable, the high school dumbs down classes so that the students who leave don't know that they won't be able to handle college level work. But this seems to originate that "No child left behind" type of thinking.

The billions mentioned include those resources of parents as well as the costs of the colleges and universities. But in some manner the AP has only recently found out about this. Maybe it is time to rethink multi-tracking of students with realistic evaluation of their abilities to do college level work as well as to prepare those not on the college track for meaningful careers. I remember sons of a friend, one of whom was not interested in college and the other who was. As I had an engineering degree I was asked if there was any information that would help the non-college going son to get into electrical work.

A real problem in this is also that the building trades have a monopoly on a lot of jobs, and there is a long waiting list, and limited openings, which leads to job security for the unions etc. There are a lot of tentacles as the limits to building trades etc. tends to indicate a low job opportunity for those not on the college track. Also the educational establishment has a weak understanding of why there are few opportunities for carpenters and electricians, and think that every high school graduate will end up in the technology field or something like that. The limitations imposed by trade unions, lack of technical training in public schools, and unrealistic expectations of university educated teachers and administrators hamper the young people who could otherwise find productive education, training, and careers.



My wife's father, invalided from the mines in Idaho by silicosis, taught himself to be an electrician, passed the licensing exams, and worked in Seattle shipyards during WW II and as a contract electrician afterwards. One used to be able to do such things. Of course he was never in college. (And their house in Idaho was dynamited by the Pinkertons because of his union activities, but that's another story.)


'Community activists'.

See Tom Wolfe's _Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers_ for the canonical description.

-- Roland Dobbins

There is much to that; and certainly Wolfe was both prescient and damned amusing.


California union to seek Schwarzenegger recall 

Prison guards to Schwarzenegger: "You're fired!"

Why don't we just hand over the keys to the state of California to the prison guards? Might as well, judging by this latest power grab:

"California's prison guard union said on Monday it will seek the recall of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after he ordered a pay cut for its members amid the state's protracted budget deadlock."




 Cory Doctorow on "writing":

Glad to hear you are hale and back to fictioneering. Be careful out there:


:...a writer’s first job is to write the best book she can (and likewise, it’s not that she can ignore the commercial demands of the market, but they should not be her first job). The publisher’s first job is to care about the market."

I tend to think a professional (i.e. "commercial" or."regularly eating") writer's first job IS to write for the market. If a commercial writer is essentially a "professional gambler" (as Mr. Heinlein reportedly believed), then is not disregarding the market when writing a bit like a professional gambler not paying attention to the odds?

I've spent enough time in Las Vegas to know how well THAT does not work!.

Whenever I read Doctorow on writing as a profession, I tend to have this impulsive reflex desire to check my wallet.


Well, in my case, I have always written for the market -- Lucifer's Hammer sold millions of copies -- but in part that was to allow me to write what I thought would be effective. Mass market stories do have to be tailored for a wide readership and that means either that one must work very hard to include complex messages imbedded in a whacking good story, or be redundant, or -- anyway it's very difficult to do.

The answer to any writer's financial problem is "write a best seller." but that's a bit like Will Rogers saying the solution to the submarine problem is to boil the Atlantic.

In my case and at my age, I have instituted the Platinum Subscribers who, if I get enough of them, will let me write what I think is important while still paying attention to the market -- but not pay exclusive attention to the market which is what I'd have to do now given the state of my health and finances.

It's always a dilemma for writers. I am hoping the platinum subscriber will help me do that. (This is not to say that the other subscribers are not important; they let me keep this site open, and I would not be able to without the patrons.)


WJ Williams on DRM



I'm for whoever owns the work releasing it with whatever conditions he wants. People can accept or reject it on that basis. If he says, "You can only read it once, and it's gone," as William Gibson did for one of his stories, then that's fine.

In the case of my own works, my print publishers buy electronic rights along with everything else, and if they choose not to use them, or to use them with restrictions, then that's all right by me. They paid for that privilege. I bought a new car this year with the money they paid me. That's groovy...

...Giving away stuff for free is fine, but you have to be famous first before that will help your career. Cory Doctorow isn't famous because he gives his work away: giving his stuff away works for him because he was already famous.

**** excerpted/forwarded by: -- Mike T. Powers

I may have posted this before but in the Internet redundancy does little harm.



For platinum subscription:

Platinum subscribers enable me to work on what I think is important without worrying about economics. My thanks to all of you.

Patron Subscription:






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Friday,  September 19, 2008



Your Mac/iPhone woes.

The reason you have problems with the Mac, sir, is because you don't touch it for weeks or months, then you sit down and start messing about with it, and the moment you're confronted with something you don't understand, instead of doing what everyone else in the world does - i.e., a Google search to find relevant information to solve the problem - you get frustrated and then let it sit there for weeks and months again, and curse it because it isn't a Windows box.

A 3-word Google search for 'iphone not authorized', which takes about 3 seconds to complete, yields the following link:


The irony is that you once wrote that there would come a time when the answer to just about any question would be at everyone's fingertips; now that your prediction has come true, you don't seem to be willing to take advantage of these capabilities.

Back to the Mac - if you want to learn how to use the Mac, you need to *use* it, sir.

In terms of the performance problems you experienced - I access iTunes internationally from my MacBook, and I have zero problems. Perhaps you've a bad cable (remember Pournelle's Law?) or some other connectivity issue.

But the bottom line is that if you aren't willing to invest a modicum of time to learn to use the Mac, you'll never get anywhere with it. I use my Mac every day; as a result, I don't experience the kinds of problems and frustrations you experience.

If the Mac works for me, it can work for you, too - if you're willing to *use* it and learn from the experience. If you aren't willing to do that, you should probably just sell it or give it away, because you'll never get anywhere with it, and it will only be a constant source of frustration for you, because OS/X Isn't Windows, And Never Will Be.

Macs don't suck, and they aren't broken, and they don't perform poorly, or people like me wouldn't buy them and happily use them. Cursing the Mac because you aren't willing to learn how to use it - and, by implication, taking the stance that those of us who're very happy with our Macs are too stupid to know any better - doesn't help anyone, least of all you or your readership.

Roland Dobbins

Guilty sort of; but note that (1) I still do use the Mac, and (2) while Google knows everything I have another weapon: my readers know everything, and even look things for me. Which might open me to a charge of laziness, but in the present case I plead extraordinary circumstances.

I did spend a couple of months using the Mac for nearly everything. Unfortunately they were the wrong couple of months: that was the time I was getting hard x-ray treatments every day, and while at the time I didn't notice the effects, they came soon enough. It's clearly time to repeat the Mac Exclusive Experiment, and in fact to go further; and that's in the plan for the year.

But I have lost about a year, and it's going to take time. I have books to finish, two new books to plan and propose, and I still have to make a living, which I can either do by going out and finding journalistic assignments that pay off quickly (I have just undertaken a book review because the pay was good) or by doing essays for this site to interest more people in subscribing (and that's been working but it takes work); and all that while digging out from the biggest mess you can imagine, with every flat surface in my part of Chaos Manor covered with stuff, the valuable mixed with junk mixed with stuff that some people would find valuable but which is no longer useful to me. And I still have to promote my existing books. Which is not meant to sound like whining: I can cope. But I do have to set priorities, and paying the bills takes precedence over learning more about the Mac.

Anyway I'll get part of a column out of this incident, and your reminder is timely and useful; thanks. Now I need to get back to work.

By the way, the actual solution to the not authorized problem is given in about the tenth return from Google, and took three plus minutes to find after I decided to try Safari and Google on the iMac 20.


Subject: Installing Apps on Iphon


Your experience matches mine. With me, it's the damn password for iTunes. As I've mentioned, I've been buying TV episodes and movies on iTunes for a couple of years. They all download on to my "slow", only 4 core, MacPro to a 750GB WD silent series (or whatever they are called, they are really quiet) disk drive that serves my Apple TV boxes. This setup has been bullet proof.

When I bought the iPhone 3G, and Mobile Me came to life, this all changed. For some reason, Apple assumed that iTunes on all of my computers, hand held or otherwise, should work against my .mac (mobile me) email password. From that moment on, my iTunes video server could no longer download any content from Apple. Wrong password (and email account). I eventually got that fixed, but now I cannot use the same credentials to download apps to my iPhone. Nor, it appears, can I use the Mobile Me account credentials.

The other one that is driving me nuts is time machine. I also shared another WD 750GB drive on my poor old 4 core MacPro to be used by it and my 8 core MacPro as their time machine backup drive. After months of successful operation, the 4 core MacPro refuses to use the drive for it's own time machine backups because the drive is not big enough! It was big enough for months, I did not change anything, and yes, I did exclude the iTunes share and the VMWARE virtual machines from the backups, it just does not work anymore.

So yesterday, I found WD 1TB external my book hard drives with firewire 800 ports on sale at Fry's for $235.00. I decided I would give each MacPro their own Time Machine drive. I plugged it into the 8 core MacPro and changed it's time machine preferences to point it to the new drive and let it go. It did it's initial backup thing, and I left running all day. Last night, I put the machine to sleep and went to bed. This morning I woke it up to start work. One of the first messages I got was, "Time Machine Error"! I told it to try again and it worked. Not a big deal, but a PIA.

Apple makes really good hardware and software. They truly have to go out of their way to screw up. I guess that happens.

Phil Tharp

Aha. So now I don't feel quite so bad. Phil has lots of Apple equipment and is pretty well a guru. Indeed I'd simply have asked him if this problem hadn't surfaced at 4 in the morning.




Per your comment about CEOs of failed companies jumping out the eighth floor window: I think we need to treat the Fannie and Freddie former CEOs the way the Chinese will treat the CEOs of their milk companies. But we are more civilized. Sigh. Perhaps we can give them a golden parachute, just wire it shut.


Well maybe the CEO's of Fred and Fan can get jobs with recipients of their lobbying largess while they were destroying not only Fred and Fan but the entire banking system. In fact, I'll bet reasonable sums that will happen. Arr. We should be making them walk the plank!


Golden Parachutes

I have been amused by the idea of forcing the CEOs of Fred and Fan out of an airplane giving them parachutes made of actual gold...




Re: iTunes store difficulties

I hate to say it but... Apple's error messages are just as obtuse as Microsoft's - even more so in some cases, which means that though things generally run smoother than most people's Windows systems (though with a little care, attention and maintenance I've had many Windows boxes go for months on end without any problems), when things do go wrong, it's that much more frustrating to figure out what's going on.

Glad it's working for you! There are some rather neat things, many of which are free on there. My son is fond (of course) of the games, but there are many other things - I'm rather fond of Starmap (astronomy) and YouNote (lets you take notes in many forms - audio, photo using the camera, text, scribbling on the screen with your finger...)

Monty Hayter

YouNote sounds like precisely what I need!  Thanks!  And once again I feel a little better about being stupid...


Apple's empty promises 

Jerry, you wrote "But it does kindly offer me the option of not being warned again. Isn't that informative? "

In my experience, I wouldn't count on their keeping that promise. On my office PC I have iTunes installed to manage my music library and manage podcasts. That's all I do with it. Every time I start it it presents me with the dialog offering a new version to be installed. Since the new versions only add itunes store functionality, I decline the offer and dutifully check the "Do Not Remind Me Again" box, a request that iTunes consistently ignores as it pops up the dialog the next time I start iTunes. I suppose that it's just Apple figuring that I have left my senses by refusing their magnanimous offer and I couldn't possibly mean it when I say NO!

Another bone to pick, why can't this simple player app "remember" where in my music library I left off last time I used it? Why do I have to manually find, by using the last time played datestamp, where to resume play?

Glad to hear your recovery is progressing nicely, if not as quickly as one would wish,


Well, I have to say that Windows may be better at annoying me than the Mac. But they do compete.


0430: Sleepless in Studio City. (Mac Woes)

<grin> About half your trouble is you go back and forth between Windows and Macs, usually justifying it based upon a handy need. Heck, you ought to just kick back and relax, and admit you like using both platforms, and forget finding a need to justify it! :)

As for speed, well, a Quad 6600 is a lot faster than an iMac 20. Even when the Quad is running Vista. More than twice the processing power, and (I think) more than twice the memory. Compare the Quad6600 to a fully decked out MacPro and the speed differences invert. Perhaps that would be true even with the MacPro running Windows...

Glad to see you back on the road to health and well being. Just keep doing what you do and don't forget to have fun at it.

And... it is OKAY to admit you like Windows as well as Macs - the Macs won't care. :) :) :)


Well the Mac might not care (although I have some evidence that it does, these things are smarter than you think) but I know the Mac enthusiasts will!  But actually I am finding Vista quite usable provided that you give it better hardware.

My ultimate goal is a Big Mac Pro with 8 processors, 8 GB memory, 2 23" screens, and both Vista and Mac OS X running it. I will also keep a large Vista built on an Intel Extreme foundation, since I do often work at two computers. But that's a goal that will take a time to fulfill because I need to get some work done (and revenue coming in) first.


yes MS is weird

Dear Jerry:

"That did it and the problem is fixed; but I have yet to find anything that tells me I should have done that. When I downloaded the program from the iStore it asked for my .mac user name and password and I gave it. How was I to know I had to go to the Mac Menu, pull down STORE, and "authorize" my computer?

And they say Microsoft is weird?"

YES Microsoft IS weird! Did you see those Gates/Seinfeld ads (already canceled)? It doesn't get much weirder than that.

As for your problems with authorization, blame DRM and the record companies, not Apple. Steve Jobs has long been an advocate of DRM-free music on iTunes, and without the terms specified by the record companies there would be no need to authorize your purchases and devices (although Apple would probably still make you do so, to be honest, so they could mine that data).

In any case you are able to have a total of five (5) computers authorized to play your iTunes content for each iTunes store account. iPods (of which an iPhone is one) are linked to one computer. In other words you can sync your iPhone iTunes content to ONE machine, but that machine can support as many iPods/iPhones as you'd like. Clear as mud, and not very convenient, right? Blame the record companies, not Apple.

All the best (and do NOT forget to watch DOCTOR HORRIBLE'S SING ALONG BLOG which I sent you the first 2 episodes of a few months back),


Somehow I am not surprised that one of my favorite Mac guru/expert/enthusiasts would say that... And I understand about DRM, but how did RIAA make them have such incomprehensible error messages?



Dr Pournelle

Boy, when you run hot you really do run hot.

You have posted five topics in the last two days that gave me significant pause to think. (My favorite was "The Fourth Quadrant.") I wish I had the time to address them all.

Congratulations, sir! You're back in form.

Live long and prosper
 h lynn keith

[I wondered why the baseball seemed to be getting bigger. Then it hit me.]

Well, that makes me feel better....


Oath of Fealty


I know this is making the rounds, but it made me think about the diving board in "Oath of Fealthy!"

Glad that you're beginning to feel 100% again!


Maybe not 100% but up to 90 anyway. Thanks.


NASA to hold press conference on the state of the sun


From 'wattsupwiththat ( http://wattsupwiththat.wordpress.com/ ) :


NEWS: NASA to hold press conference on the state of the sun


19 09 2008

This is unusual. A live media teleconference on the sun. Even more unusual is this statement:

The sun today, still featureless <http://sohowww.nascom.nasa.gov/data/realtime/mdi_igr/512/

The sun today, still featureless

The sun’s current state could result in changing conditions in the solar system.

As you may recall, I posted an entry about the Ulysses mission
back on June 16th and the findings of a lowered magnetic field in the sun, from the JPL press release then:

Ulysses ends its career after revealing that the magnetic field emanating from the sun’s poles is much weaker than previously observed. This could mean the upcoming solar maximum period will be less intense than in recent history.

We live in interesting times.

Dwayne Brown

We do indeed, and it's a world of Black Swans. But of the two events, Global Warming or Global Cooling, which is the worst? Which needs more preparation? One insures against the worse likely disaster. One might also insure against less likely but even worse disasters... In California Earthquakes are the thing to fear most, but we do get tornadoes.


what was old is new again - rediscovering the albedo effect

Jerry, Looks like the albedo effect has been found again. I think I remember you talking about this since 1994, when I first found your column in Byte magazine. The nice part of this solution is that we can always re-paint everything black once these guys figure out we are heading towards Global Cooling due to solar output decline. Anyways, take a look if you need a break from writing:





Jim Laheta







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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Wil McCarthy on the Black Swan (from another conference):

At heart, THE BLACK SWAN is really a technical treatise, not a social one. There's a lot of window dressing to make a full book out of it, and Taleb clearly enjoys ripping on people in colorful ways, which IMO makes the book a lot of fun to read. But in some ways this detracts from the simplicity of his core message:


It's one of those observations that, in hindsight, seems blindingly obvious. And yet, for the financial community to get their heads around it could take generations. Power laws are not taught in finance class!

-- Wil McCarthy <http://www.wilmccarthy.com >   

Engineer, Columnist, Author, etc.
 "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed" -- Francis Bacon


David Friedman on Taleb,the Black Swan, and current economic conditions:

I asked my old friend David Friedman (an economist professor of law at Santa Clara University) his views on the current economic mess.

>Two queries: Have you any take on what's happening in the >economics/finance world,

Not a lot. Part of it pretty clearly is what happens when the government, at least implicitly, guarantees firms against the downside. But my interests as an economist aren't mainly the economy, so I don't know enough to offer predictions.

> >And > >What do you think of Taleb's works?

I haven't read them. Looking at the piece you link to, I certainly agree that statistics is a tricky field and can be used to draw mistaken conclusions or prove what the researcher wants to prove. I discuss that a little in _Future Imperfect_, in the context of specification searches--analyzing the data in lots of different ways, each reasonable, but then only reporting the way that gives the result you want.

His turkey graph corresponds to a point I remember my father [Milton Friedman, Nobel economist; JEP] making many years ago, I think in the context of gambling on the future value of the Mexican currency. Each year for many years, you could make money by betting on the peso--buying one year futures, then selling them for a higher price when the year was passed. The reason was not that the futures market was irrational but that devaluation was a rare event. So you would make a little money each year for fifteen years, then lose it all on the sixteenth when the Mexican government devalued the peso. More generally, there are real problems in using statistics to predict things if you don't know the form of the underlying probability distribution, which is part of his point.

A different version of his point about binary vs non-binary risk ... . A long time ago, a friend who ran an investment newsletter discussed with me an idea for evaluating investment advisors. Let each of them give the newsletter a series of buy and sell decisions, the newsletter would keep track of the results and report which one would have done best over (say) a six month period. I pointed out that the sensible advisor wouldn't bet to maximize the expected return but to maximize the probability of a high return--and the fact that one advisor won his bet wouldn't tell you how good his advice was.

Taleb sounds bright and interesting, and his basic point about what sorts of problems statistics is more or less useful for seems right, but I would have to read more to say more. Since I have no involvement in the sorts of applications of statistics he is criticizing, I don't know how fair his criticism is. He never seems to say just what black swan he believes showed up to cause the present problems.

At a slight tangent, involving a simpler error ... . In my experience, most non-statisticians who talk about confidence intervals and related ideas have them backwards. They think that a .05 result from an experiment or statistical analysis means there is only a .05 chance that the theory is false. In fact, what it means is that if the theory is false (in a particular way, the null hypothesis), there is only a .05 chance that the evidence it is true would be as good as it is.

My standard example is to pull a coin out of my pocket and, without examining it, flip it once. The theory is that it's a double headed coin, the null hypothesis that it's fair. It comes up heads. The probability that it would come up heads, thus supporting the double headed hypothesis, if it's a fair coin is only .5. It doesn't follow that the probability that it is double headed is .5.

I've now read the essay you linked to, and see nothing to disagree with, aside from the factual claims about how people have been acting, which I don't know enough to judge. His point about moral hazard is actually one I made in _Law's Order_, in explaining why a firm large enough to self-insure might choose to buy insurance instead. The manager in charge of a single factory has an incentive to take suboptimal precautions against fire, since fire is a rare event. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the $10,000 he saves makes him look good, gets him a bonus or promotion. One time out of a hundred the factory burns down, the company loses $10,000,000, and he gets fired and goes to do something else. By insuring the factory, the company transfers at least some of the decisions to the insurance company, which it can trust more than it can trust its own employee.

One of my phrases for my kids is "redundancy is your friend."

-- David Friedman www.daviddfriedman.com


September column part 1 

I liked _Old Man's War_ too. He doesn't feel like an imitation of anyone else--there are faint echoes of Heinlein, but Scalzi is very much his own voice.

He did make one historical error, or at least one of his characters did. Don't know if you noticed.

On the subject of tools for poor writers ... . The least expensive version of the Acus Aspire One costs $330, with linux, word processor, WiFi, a usable keyboard, and it weighs two pounds. At some point I'm going to get one--probably the HD version--for traveling.

-- David Friedman

The Aspire does look like a good minimum system. I continue to like: the HP TabletPC, and the Mac Book Air, with the Air the best production portable writing machine I have ever used. Both are of course high end tools for successful (or those who are sure they will be successful) writers. They aren't cheap, but they're sure good. For research you can't beat a good TabletPC with OneNote.


Dear Dr. Pournelle,

In regard to the issue of automatic train control you wrote “there must be 20 small game design companies that could build it nearly in their sleep”

Railway safe working involves a whole slew of issues far removed from game design. Operating a model railway is, from a safe working point of view, very different from the real thing. A model railway operator generally has a bird’s eye view of the track, communication with other operators (if any) is not much of an issue, the trains stop instantly when power is removed and the worst that can happen is a damaged model.

On the prototype the driver often has a very limited view, communications can be a nightmare, the braking distance may be several miles and worst case involves hundreds of deaths.

A train control system must offer an incredibly high level of reliability in a physically harsh environment, deal with breakdowns and vandalism (signals have shown false greens because shooters have put bullets through the electronics), fail safe (i.e. stop trains if in doubt) and yet still allow a high level of traffic. This translates into a lot of money and writing the software is only a very small part.

Even the dead mans handle, supposedly a tried and true technology, has major issues as illustrated by the accident at Waterfall (NSW) in January 2003 (see http://www.cityrail.info/general/waterfall.pdf for details). If you require the driver to continually press against a spring you risk him getting RSI – not a good idea in today’s litigious society. Make the spring weak enough to avoid RSI and the device won’t trigger when a heavy driver collapses.

Locomotives in NSW are fitted with a vigilance control which requires the driver to press a button once every 60 seconds. Some ingenious souls got around this by building a mechanical device (powered off the windscreen wipers) to press it for them.

Let’s look at stopping a train at a signal. You can fit a device at the signal to apply the brakes if a train passes it at stop. Brunel’s GWR was doing this back in 1902. This is a good added safety feature but it isn’t perfect. You can still collide with an obstruction which is within braking distance of the signal.

You say “Okay, I’ll put the sensor far enough in front of the signal that the train will stop by the time it reaches the signal”. This raises all sorts of issues if your railway carries trains with widely varying braking characteristics but let’s put that aside and assume all trains are similar. You have now effectively double blocked your line since each block now has a trailing block which must be kept clear of traffic if the first block is occupied. This means you’ve just halved your carrying capacity – probably not a good idea if it’s a densely trafficked commuter line struggling to cope with peak times.

How about we put a really smart computer on each train, give it full knowledge of the track (grades, curves etc) and fix it so it can stop the train at a signal? Such systems require input so they know the status of signals ahead. This input can be either intermittent (which leads to reliability problems – if I don’t hear anything do I assume nothing’s changed) or continuous (very expensive). Sending signals through the rails might reach the wrong train because the target train is on a rusty section of track. Radio signals can be lost if the train is in a black spot.

By the way, you’ll need military grade encryption for your communication system or some hacker will cause a train wreck just for the fun of it.

Queensland Rail has been experimenting for quite a few years now using a Swedish developed system called Ericab. Ericab’s problem (common to all such systems) is that it must err on the side of caution when braking a train and so tends to undershoot the stop. This is a major issue when pulling into a passing loop as the rear of the train may foul the main. The driver, of course, can restart the train and creep up to the signal but as it costs around $400 to stop and restart a typical freight train this is to be avoided if possible.

QR’s solution is to add a switch so that the driver can disable Ericab and avoid the undershoot. So having spent millions of dollars on an automatic train control system we add a $2 switch to allow people to turn it off. (Use of which led to a head on collision in 1994)

There’s also the question of what happens when foreign trains want to use your tracks (never mind the enthusiast’s special hauled by a vintage steam loco). They might get a touch upset at having to mount expensive boxes on their locos and get the crews certified in their use – especially if they already have boxes for their own system, one which is incompatible with yours.

Oh yes, most of these systems are protected by patents so be careful choosing a supplier. If you get locked into his system he’ll be able to charge you whatever he likes. Unless you are going to roll your own, in which case you’ll need a multi million dollar research budget and be very careful you don’t infringe existing patents.

Finally, the key issue in most railway accidents is not technology corporate culture. What is management’s attitude to the accident that started this discussion? If it’s “People have died. How dreadful! What can we do to ensure this doesn’t happen again” then upping the technological safeguards might be part of a solution.

On the other hand, if it’s “People have died. Quick! Ring the lawyers, we need to cover our butts!” then I submit no technology, no matter how sophisticated, will be of much use.

Yours faithfully,

Graham Saint

Golly. You mean the map is not the territory?

At the moment they have a block signal system that can tell when a block is occupied but cannot tell if there are two trains on the block, and they say that GPS is not accurate enough, so they shouldn't change what they have. Everything they might add to the system won't be tested and proper and perfect.

And the result was the crash.

As I said, that accident could have been prevented with a Mac Book and GPS in each train. That's what, $2,000 a train plus a server that can run what amounts to World of Warcraft.

The perfect is always the enemy of the good.

As to the politics of the situation, I always thought one should have a candidate to change to before rushing out to say "I want change."  Railway safety isn't really my specialty, but common sense is; and if I can see solutions that are nearly good enough, and those are being ignored, I do wonder if it's not time for citizens to enter the discussions even if we're not experts and we don't see how to do it perfectly.

The perfect is always the enemy of the better.


A Bad Thing: First Chinese Carrier Aviators


September 19, 2008: China announced that its first class of carrier aviators had begun training at the Dalian Naval Academy. The naval officers will undergo a four year course of instruction to turn them into fighter pilots capable of operating off a carrier. China already has an airfield, in the shape of a carrier deck, built at an inland facility. The Russians have warned China that it may take them a decade or more to develop the knowledge and skills needed to efficiently run an aircraft carrier. The Chinese are game, and are slogging forward. Earlier this year, the Russian aircraft carrier Varyag was renamed the Shi Lang (after the Chinese general who took possession of Taiwan in 1681, the first time China ever paid any attention to the island) and given the pennant number 83. The Chinese have been refurbishing the Varyag, one of the Kuznetsov class that Russia began building in the 1980s, for several years now. It is expected to be ready for sea trials by the end of the year. The Varyag has been tied up in a Chinese shipyard at Dailan since 2002. While the ship is under guard, it can be seen from a nearby highway. From that vantage point, local military and naval buffs have noted that some kind of work is being done on the ship. The only visible signs of this work are a new paint job <http://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htnavai/articles/20080919.aspx##> (in the gray shade used by the Chinese navy) and ongoing work on the superstructure (particularly the tall island on the flight deck.) Many workers can be seen on the ship, and material is seen going into (new stuff) and out of (old stuff) the ship. The new contracts are believed to be for more equipment for the Varyag, in addition to the non-custom stuff already going into the ship. Originally the Kuznetsovs were conceived of as 90,000 ton, nuclear powered ships, similar to American carriers (complete with steam catapults). Instead, because of the cost, and the complexity of modern (American style) carriers, the Russians were forced to scale back their goals, and ended up with the 65,000 ton (full load ) ships that lacked steam catapults, and used a ski jump type flight deck instead. Nuclear power was dropped, but the Kuznetsov class was still a formidable design. The thousand foot long carrier normally carries a dozen navalized Su-27s (called Su-33s), 14 Ka-27PL anti-submarine helicopters, two electronic warfare helicopters and two search and rescue helicopters. But the ship can carry up to 36 Su-33s and sixteen helicopters. The ship carries 2,500 tons of aviation fuel <http://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htnavai/articles/20080919.aspx##> , allowing it to generate 500-1,000 aircraft and helicopter sorties. Crew size is 2,500 (or 3,000 with a full aircraft load.) Only two ships of this class exist; the original Kuznetsov, which is in Russian service, and the Varyag. Currently, the Kuznetsov is operating in the Mediterranean. The Chinese have been in touch with Russian naval construction firms, and may have purchased plans and technology <http://www.strategypage.com/htmw/htnavai/articles/20080919.aspx##> for equipment installed in the Kuznetsov. Some Chinese leaders have quipped about having a carrier by 2010 (this would have to be a refurbished Varyag). Even that would be an ambitious schedule, and the Chinese have been burned before when they tried to build new military technology in a hurry.


Sorry about the formatting, but I don't have time to reformat today. I usually just ignore really badly formatted mail unless it's important (and frankly I don't read a lot of it). The proper format is given here many times: two carriage returns between paragraphs. I don't care if you mark line ends, but it's better if you don't. But double space between paragraphs.


Fannie, Freddie, Bear Sterns, and AIG

Since the government has taken over these firms, their executive team now works for me, the American taxpayer. Paulsen has already said he intends to replace the management of these firms. I don't want these greedy sob's to get one more cent of my money for years of mismanagement, and for running their companies into the ground. How about if we promise them immunity from prosecution in return for tearing up their severance packages?

 Rich Graff Troy, OH


Ships That Won't Sail.


-- Roland Dobbins

We used to be able to build a ship a day. And they worked, or we sent them out and the officers and crews made them work. But that was in a less diverse country I guess.


Rosenberg sons acknowledge dad was spy.


-- Roland Dobbins

It has long been the view of those best informed that Julius -- who proudly called himself Stalin's Soldier -- was guilty of high treason, but Ethyl was less so; and that the death sentence for Ethyl was intended to force Julius to cooperate with the counter-intelligence authorities in exchange for a pardon for her. That offer was given to Julius right up to the time of the executions, but he was adamant.

I was concerned about the ethics of that situation at the time and I signed a petition to commute their sentences to life; which got me a question on my security clearance for Top Secret some years later, but that's another story.


Case closed: The Rosenbergs were Soviet spies.


-- Roland Dobbins


Viking Age triggered by shortage of wives?


- Roland Dobbins

Well -- yes. But there were unforeseen consequences. Vikings raided Ireland for slave girls. Nest thing they knew -- and they never quite knew how it happened -- the Irish girls were wives, not slaves, and shortly after that a celibate priest was telling them when they could sleep with their wives. It was called civilizing the Vikings, and it worked so well that the Normans -- Frenchified Danes (from Skene which is now part of Sweden) hired by the French to keep the other Vikings out of the land that became known as Normandy -- became one of the most religious people of the age, and endowed monasteries and other religious institutions.

The shortage of women was probably more related to "childbed fever" and the general state of hygiene and health in Viking villages than female infanticide; so far as I know, Vikings were overly protective of women and there is no archeological evidence I know of for female infanticide. There were Viking heiresses, and they where highly sought after, but most men went a-viking in order to find wives because there wasn't a lot of land. Or so I have been told about my ancestors.



We have seen this story before, but it does no harm to repeat it:

Why the wall street problems scare me 

Dr. Pournelle,

This old explanation of the U.S. tax structure and liberal politics explains exactly why the Wall Street problems scare me, even in what *should* be an “up” economy, absent the mortgage crisis.


Suppose that every night, ten men go to their favorite bar for beer. The tab for all ten comes to $100 for ten pitchers. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this:

* The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing. * The fifth would pay $1. * The sixth would pay $3. * The seventh $7. * The eighth $12. * The ninth $18. * The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59.

So, that’s what they decided to do. The ten men drank in the bar every night and seemed quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner threw them a curve.

“Since you are all such good customers,” he said, “I’m going to reduce the cost of your nightly tab by $20.”

So, now drinks for the ten only cost $80. The group still wanted to pay their tab the way we pay our taxes. So, the first four men were unaffected. They would still drink for free.

But what about the other six, the paying customers?

How could they divvy up the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his ‘fair share’?

The six men realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody’s share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being ‘PAID‘ to drink beer!

So, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man’s bill by roughly the same amount, and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay.

And so:

* The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings). * The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33% savings). * The seventh now paid $5 instead of $7 (28% savings). * The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% savings). * The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% savings). * The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% savings).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to drink for free. But once drunk and outside the bar, the men began to compare their savings.

“I only got a dollar out of the $20,” declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man “but he got $10!”

“Yeah, that’s right,” exclaimed the fifth man. “I only saved a dollar, too. It’s unfair that he got ten times more than me!”

“That’s true!!” shouted the seventh man. “Why should he get $10 back when I got only $2? The wealthy get all the breaks!”

“Wait a minute,” yelled the first four men in unison. “We didn’t get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!”

The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up, took the $10 and gave each person a dollar.

The next night the tenth man didn’t show up at the bar, so the nine sat down and drank without him. But when it came time to pay the tab, they discovered something important. They didn’t have enough money between all of them for even half of the tab!

And that, boys and girls, journalists and college professors, is how our tax system works. The people who pay the highest taxes get the most benefit from a tax reduction. Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up to pick up the tab anymore.

On the other hand, we have a situation of much greater gaps between average pay and the pay of the top executives, who are often rewarded even as they are fired for ruining the company (and the investors, and those who worked for the company for normal pay). It is one thing to defend property; it is another to set up a system in which those who do most of the work for the company are ruined by the decisions of those making 100 times as much as they do.

Too much concentration of wealth produces a very unstable situation: who will defend the wealth? In old Rome the Emperor had to distribute bounties to the soldiers at frequent intervals....

The alternative to government by force is self government, but self government is not likely to be enthusiastic about enormous discrepancies in wealth and reward. Taxes, on the other hand, enrich government while giving to the masses bread and circuses and whatever the management thinks they ought to get...


Bailout Costs 

The S&L crisis and the 1990s Resolution Trust Corporation cleanup cost the gummint $200 billion in today's dollars. Since foreclosure rates now are about 5 times higher than during the S&L crisis, a minimum estimate of $1 trillion is very reasonable.

And that straightline comparison is an optimistic best case. It depends on the assumption this new RTC II will be operating in economic conditions very similar to those of the 1990s. Those conditions were the end of the Cold War, oil falling to the equivalent of $25/ barrel, the mother of all stock bull markets taking off and the Boomer Generation reaching the peak of its earning power.

Since the macroeconomic environment is a little more challenging now (tongue in cheek), there are reasons to believe RTC II won't recover as much money for the gummint as RTC I did. Taxpayer costs can therefore be expected to reach higher than $1 trillion.







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