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Mail 568 April 27 - May 3, 2009







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Monday  April 27, 2009

Letter from England

From the UK, it appears to me that Obama is desperately trying to preserve judicial deference to executive branch decision-making. There is already blood in the streets, and there may be a need for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission before this is over.

The UK Budget was released, and it's 'soak the rich' (and everyone else). Labour has always liked to spend money; but finding the money is the hard part. The maximum tax band back in 1974 under Labour was 83%, and it was clear then that nobody with mobility, money, and sense stayed in the UK to be taxed. New Labour won in 1997 by promising to keep the 40% maximum tax band, so Blair and Brown had to find the money elsewhere. They did that by encouraging a financial services boom in London and turning a blind eye to risky investment practices. The inevitable has happened, and Labour is now living beyond its means. Taxes will go up, and services will be cut. I'm in a bind here, since my research grant goes up for renewal in July. Last time, approval was delayed by Brown's Treasury for three months until money became available; this time there may be no money. The Government is already refusing to allow universities to offer enough university places to meet the demand, and I suspect 30-40 universities may disappear over the next ten years <http://tinyurl.com/dg2wkx> .

Blair snipes from the sidelines and related stories: <http://tinyurl.com/caczr4 >  <http://tinyurl.com/d5tvkh>  <http://tinyurl.com/cczhss>  <http://tinyurl.com/dn77yw >  <http://tinyurl.com/dkef7e

Retired Gurkha soldiers anger over Home Office actions to prevent them from settling in the UK: <http://tinyurl.com/cj4pqt>  <http://tinyurl.com/cpcs5y

Perhaps this Home Office initiative will go away now that the money has disappeared: <http://tinyurl.com/d85cnm

Other Home Office stories: <http://tinyurl.com/cmvu5f>  <http://tinyurl.com/caayrn >  <http://tinyurl.com/dd8gkd

Independent comment on the crisis of Liberalism: <http://tinyurl.com/cwbktb

-- Harry Erwin, PhD, Senior Lecturer of Computing, University of Sunderland. Computational neuroscientist modeling bat bioacoustics and behavior. http://osiris.sunderland.ac.uk/~cs0her


A 3rd Party For Whigs

Why not try...The Whigs?


I thought it was a joke when I heard about it. In fact it is an interesting group. Organized initially by returning veterans of the current war it seems to be remarkably sane, in part because its organizers are under no illusions about the odds they face. Note that with most of the founders being military they like the idea of solving problems at the lowest level possible. The seem to be big advocates for federalism.

I particularly like their Science and Technology statement: "Exploration is in our blood. Whether it is the brain, the oceans, the wilderness or space, people have always been fascinated by the unknown. Perhaps more importantly, science has a way of bringing people together in a manner that no politician could ever dream. Science also has a way of transforming the economy. The Modern Whig Party supports the privatization of space and continued exploration of our oceans. Taking away the government monopoly and allowing capitalism into the exploration business will exponentially expand our technology base and further the growth of mankind."

On the debit side they have not one word about nuclear power and endorse the Pickens plan.

The owl is a nice touch though.

Very Respectfully, Ken Talton <http://modernwhig.org/


Alone? Or not?

Hi Jerry,

Without advocating a position one way or another regarding the presence or absence of ET's among us, there are a bunch of problems involved with either verifying or discrediting either position.

First, there is the scientific credibility problem. Let us suppose that Elvis really, truly DID appear in the living room of David Bond while Dave was winding down from a tough day of directing the Engineering and Technical Management of Wright Patterson AFB. Where the ET debris is reportedly stored. Elvis breaks into a stirring rendition of 'Blue Suede Shoes', does his traditional 'Thank you vurry much' at the end, and 'leaves the room' in a puff of smoke. Really. From the point of view of science it is irrelevant whether it 'really' happened or not. Scientifically, it didn't. Science works on repeatable, verifiable phenomena. Elvis in the living room is neither. If Dave goes into the office next day, calls a staff meeting, and describes the (actual) visit of Elvis with the accuracy traditionally attributed to a Xerox machine he would be lucky to be Director at quitting time the same day. The same with eyewitness accounts of UFO's. A person (or persons) sees something in the sky that cannot be readily identified and reports it. The report can be analyzed scientifically to identify a deliberately concocted hoax or a report fabricated out of whole cloth, or identify a known natural phenomenon that accounts for the sighting. Science can address the ET'ness of the reports only to the point of saying that if the objects are actually interstellar visitors they are either using technology based on scientific principles unknown to us at this time or are being piloted by beings with extremely long life spans. It cannot disprove--or prove--the existence of a real, genuine extraterrestrial UFO without a sample in hand.

Which brings us to the question of whether or not we collected samples of interstellar spacecraft--in the '60's--and 'reverse engineered' them. From my point of view, this is even more unbelievable than the 'fact of' interstellar spacecraft. If, in the 1960's, an iPhone had been transported back in time and dropped into the Monday morning staff meeting at Bell Labs, or any other lab on Planet Earth, the chances of 'reverse engineering' it and reproducing it would have been exactly zero. Never mind reverse engineering an interstellar spaceship based on scientific principles which our science says are not possible even in theory and built by beings whose mental processes may differ from ours more than the mind of an octopus differs from that of a grasshopper. Would you want to be the one to disassemble the little black box from the middle of a spaceship which you suspect can access energies and forces capable of driving said spaceship between the stars? The ONE data point that would make the salvage of such a space ship of incalculable value is that it would prove once and for all that interstellar travel IS POSSIBLE. . If the crew had simply landed on the Mall in DC, climbed out, handed us the keys, and started viewing the cherry blossoms, the chance that we could simply build copies and start touring the stars is VERY remote. The chance of reverse engineering a pile of crash debris from a ship based on scientific principles of which we are not even aware is even slimmer.

As for the 'debunkers' conclusively 'proving' that interstellar spaceships are NOT flying around all over our skies by pointing out that if they were that they would be detected and tracked by our huge array of air surveillance sensors. Well, no, they wouldn't. Lets assume that there really are alien ships providing regularly scheduled sightseeing tours of the earth to residents of NGS 549672. And that they really are powered by reactionless drives and capable of accelerating and decelerating at hundreds of gravities, as reported. What would they look like to a typical air surveillance system? Essentially, they wouldn't. They wouldn't even have to have 'stealth' technology. They would BE stealth technology. They could be plated with a 100% reflective superconducting film and they wouldn't be seen. Or at least not recognized as something strange. If they were cruising around at normal speeds they would look like an airliner or something similar. If they were doing ET stuff, they probably wouldn't be recognized as a valid 'target'. Things in the sky traveling at extremely high rates of speed and/or changing velocity with accelerations of hundreds of G's simply wouldn't be recognized as a valid contact. In fact, modern systems would probably be even less likely to detect them than would the primitive systems of the '60's. For example, how would the MTI doppler FIR filter of an AN/SPS-49 react to the doppler from a Mach 10-20 ET tourist craft? Would the doppler shifted return be within the RX bandwidth at all? Or if the spacecraft were 50 miles out and not traveling radially, would returns that changed bearing by 35 degrees or so on successive 10 second sweeps be recognized as a valid contact? Or random noise? Our surveillance tools are very effective at detecting and tracking things that we expect to detect and track; not so hot at either if the objects are actually capable of the actions reported by observers.

Of course, if you want a really stupid opinion on the subject, and for some reason mine won't do, you probably want to go straight to the government source ( http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/technology/warp/warpfaq.html ) (Actually this approach works pretty well on any subject. If you are peak searching on stupidity, go straight to the authoritative government statement re the subject in question.):

From the above link:

"What about UFOs?

There is an expression that engineers use: "signal to noise ratio." It refers to the difficulty of getting the real signal, say a voice over the telephone, to stand out and be heard above all the noise and clutter that is also on the line. On the subject of UFOs the signal to noise ratio is so abysmal, that it does no good to listen.

That whole subject is really irrelevant to our own human quest to travel to space. If we humans are going to figure out how to build space vehicles, then WE have to build our own space vehicles. It doesn't matter if it has or has not been done by someone else. (I say that having a spaceship with Eta Carina plates on it parked on the White House lawn, with little green tourists waltzing around taking pictures and ignoring the bullets from the Secret Service, would matter quite a bit, scientifically speaking. Especially if they hopped back in, fired it up, and were observed passing the moon about 5 seconds after liftoff.)

Its been suggested that we might have something to learn by studying UFO stories. I disagree. First there is this signal to noise ratio problem. Even if the stories are correct, they are only as useful as science fiction. Science fiction can be useful to give you some mental picture to get you started thinking about the real issues, but it is no more useful than that. Even if UFOs were completely real, which is doubtful, and even if I had a film of one in front of me, it wouldn't be of much help.

For example, if someone in the previous century saw a film of a 747 flying past, it would not tell them how to build a jet engine, what fuel to use, or what materials to make it out of. (All true, but it WOULD tell them that 747's COULD INDEED BE BUILT.) Yes, the wings are a clue, but just that, a clue. To do real work, to really determine how to build the next generations of vehicles, we need our own information. There are plenty of possibilities for credible approaches emerging from our own scientific literature. It would be a waste of our limited time to go chasing down mere hearsay. "

Thus sayeth NASA.

Bob Ludwick


Subj: Sugar Labs - Pythonic platform for developing constructivist educational software


I'm ambivalent about constructivism.

On the one hand, I've seen reports that constructivist approaches to teaching math (for example) simply don't work.


On the other hand, how does a kid, who could become a Master Scientist, get in his (or her) 10k hours (as per Malcolm Gladwell's _Outliers_) of "doing science", other than by ... doing science?


And you don't "do science" just by reading textbooks and following recipes for "experiments" taken from cookbooks. You have to ask real questions of Nature and struggle to understand the answers, which are often unclear.

Or so it seems to me.

On the Gripping Hand:

Maybe constructivist approaches work better for some purposes, for some students -- like getting future scientists started on their 10k hours -- but not uniformly over all students and all purposes -- like maybe not for grounding all kids in the basics of arithmetic, or even for grounding future scientists in the basics of algebra and calculus?

Rod Montgomery==monty@starfief.com

Education is still primarily a parental responsibility. Recall that in the Roman Republic, it was considered more admirable to educate one's children oneself. Of course that was long ago.

The theory of public education is that requiring people to pay for other's education is justified because that is an investment: it makes the economy run better if everyone has some basic skills and basic understanding of their civilization. Democracy cannot operate when the people are without skills and understanding.

The problem here is described well by Charles Murray in his Simple Truths, Not everyone benefits from all education. Progress depends on the education of the top 20% or so of the population, while sustaining a society depends on find a productive place with dignity for the lower 50% of the population. Obviously this is an oversimplification.

Our present school system does not do either job very well in most places. The federalization of education has made things worse while spending more money.

But education of one's children remains a parental responsibility. Everyone should learn to do something well. That's what schools used to be for, but parents have always know this.


Escape from Hell

Dr Pournelle,

With Borders closing, my wife and I redeemed a gift card at our local store. Their entire stock was on shelves -- I was told nothing was in the back of their normal fiction inventory. I was able to pick up the last copy of Escape, along with Niven/Lerner's Fleet of Worlds, the latter in paperback. Escape from Hell is a good read. I enjoyed it more than my initial reading of its predecessor, which has stuck with me in memory and re-reads for more than 20 years and many moves.

I think that I'll probably miss Borders, if only for the competition they provided others with a brick-and-mortar presence.

I'm looking forward to more on Rick Galloway. Please keep them coming.


Despite the near stealth of the launch, Escape From Hell has sold fairly well and those who read it have like it.  Thanks.


Subj: Build your own copy of Colonel Falkenberg's desk?!


Rod Montgomery==monty@starfief.com

Of course I described that desk some years ago. It seemed pretty advanced then...  See The Prince.


Gored again 

Bear in mind that there has been at least talk about suing Gore and the company that is making him so much money off CO2for fraud.


GORE before Congress last week: I’m not saying that you have, but he gave them that information and committed a massive fraud that ended up hurting most of all the people who trusted him. Senator Warner made reference in his opening statement to the story on the front page of the New York Times this morning, absolutely incredible. The largest corporate carbon polluters in America, 14 years ago, asked their own people to conduct a review of all of this science. And their own people told them, “What the international scientific community is saying is correct, there is no legitimate basis for denying it.” Then, these large polluters committed a massive fraud far larger than Bernie Madoff’s fraud. They are the Bernie Madoffs of global warming. They ordered the censoring and removal of the scientific review that they themselves conducted, and like Bernie Madoff, they lied to the people who trusted them in order to make money. And the CEO of the largest . . .

BARTON: I will stipulate that CO2 concentrations are going up. there is no debate about that....

GORE: It is on the front page of the New York Times today, by Andrew Revkin. They themselves conducted review and found a science about it’s valid. And to the point you made a moment ago: they verified in their own studies that man-made global warming is raising temperatures and causing this crisis. Like Bernie Madoff, and they lied about it in order to make money. And they themselves profited. The ceo of the largest got a onetime payment of $400 million. Now, again, those who have trusted them and believed them are due an apology. These corporations ought to apologize to the American people for conducting a massive fraud for the last 14 years.


Here is the actual key quote from the GCC report from Revkin’s article:

“The potential for a human impact on climate is based on well-established scientific fact, and should not be denied. ”


Here it is in context:

” The potential for a human impact on climate is based on well-established scientific fact, and should not be denied. While, in theory, human activities have the potential to result in net cooling, a concern about 25 years ago, the current balance between greenhouse gas emissions and the emissions of particulates and particulate-formers is such that essentially all of today’s concern is about net warming. However, as will be discussed below, it is still not possible to accurately predict the magnitude (if any), timing or impact of climate change as a result of the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. Also, because of the complex, possibly chaotic, nature of the climate system, it may never be possible to accurately predict future climate or to estimate the impact of increased greenhouse gas concentrations.”

Interesting. no?

== Source for the quotes: Prof. Roger Pielke, Jr.


Nature Mag. Creates online educational publishing

In order to offer online educational material with some credibility Nature magazine has created Scitable, "A free science library and personal learning tool brought to you by Nature Publishing Group, the world's leading publisher of science." Currently the site "concentrates on genetics, the study of evolution, variation, and the rich complexity of living organisms." It also offers the ability to create groups for people studying the same topics.

The site is currently free, but I'm sure that will change in the future. It will probably give the textbook printers a run for their money.


Tim Boettcher


Even for a California congresscritter this is just breathtaking.

From an interview on NPR of Henry Waxman (D-CA) as relayed by Tavis Smiley:

“We’re seeing the reality of a lot of the North Pole starting to evaporate, and we could get to a tipping point. Because if it evaporates to a certain point - they have lanes now where ships can go that couldn’t ever sail through before. And if it gets to a point where it evaporates too much, there’s a lot of tundra that’s being held down by that ice cap..”



Mr. Ludwick's letter ( http://www.jerrypournelle.com/mail/2009/Q2/mail568.html#ETI ) reminds me of an editorial in Analog in the sixties, "Unidentified Flying Observations" I think it was titled. Campbell pointed printed various photos of aircraft, and non-aircraft, and asked rhetorically 'If these had been available to scientists in the 1890s, would they have proven anything, or made flight possible?' Probably not. And when it comes to spacecraft from another star, it's more like asking 'If drawings of aircraft had been available to stone-age New Guinea highlanders in 1890, would it have advanced their technology?' Aside from proving 'It CAN be done!', no.

All of which leads to my position on UFOs: "We're in the book." If they want to get in touch with us, they can. If they don't, there ain't a damn thing we can do about it. So, until the real-life version of The Day the Earth Stood Still occurs, fuggedaboudit.


Stephen M. St. Onge




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Tuesday,  April 28, 2009

Swine Flu, Spectre


It is ironic that the swine flue outbreak is occurring so soon after I'd read the teaser chapters for John Ringo's forthcoming book "THE LAST CENTURION". Aside from it being a flu virus but swine rather than avian, the fact that the disiese is so lethal to 20-45 year olds rather than just children and the elderly is alarmingly similar to the scenario in the book. So far the observed lethality rate is Mexico is about six percent. THis doesn't sound to serious until you do the math. Normal flu viruses generally infect about half the US population each year. 150 million people infected times six percent lethality rate equals nine million fatalities. Not fatal to civilization but would have a serious economic impact on retirement systems that are already imploding do to demographic trends.

Also on Drudge it is reported that Senator Arlene Spectre is switching from a RINO republican to a Democrat. THis pretty much eliminates any chance that there will be any effective checks or balances on Obama short of the Supreme Court. If you're a white, middle class American, it is now time to bend over and grab your ankles because we are going to have wealth redistribution in the name of racial retribution.

James Crawford


The dream of European socialism

Around cities there are places that have been dubbed "bedroom communities." They have no real industries of their own, but the people there work elsewhere. The communities have the primary purpose of giving people a place to live, and there are services like shops, schools and hospitals. You will not see steel being made, wood being milled, electricity being generated.

They work, because somewhere else, all the noisy and necessary work of technological civilization is being done. Bedroom communites are very nice places to live, but it's screamingly obvious that if all of America fell into this category, things would go seriously wrong.

Many nations in Europe that stand as glowing examples of socialist success are what might be called "bedroom nations." A lot of what they buy off the shelf was developed in more capitalist nations. What was the last great world-changing technological advance that came out of Europe? And how many have there been overall over the past thirty years? Most of all, they lie comfortably in a social spending hammock made possible by the U.S. handling most of their defense issues over the past half century.

Moving the U.S. over to the lineup of bedroom nations can't possibly work, any more than a restaurant can give everybody who comes in the senior discount. Or to put it another way, you can live in your parents' basement, but not if they decide to quit their jobs and move down there with you.

Tom Brosz


Jerry: When I showed this quote to my fellow lab rats, some were laughing so hard I thought they would need medical attention.


From Congressman Henry Waxman, who is pushing (or maybe bribing
for-cap-and-trade-bill/>  ) the carbon cap and trade bill through congress. From an interview on NPR as relayed by Tavis Smiley <http://www.pbs.org/kcet/tavissmiley/
archive/200904/20090413_waxman.html>  :

“We’re seeing the reality of a lot of the North Pole starting to evaporate, and we could get to a tipping point. Because if it evaporates to a certain point - they have lanes now where ships can go that couldn’t ever sail through before. And if it gets to a point where it evaporates too much, there’s a lot of tundra that’s being held down by that ice cap..”

and do please check out the submarine-at-the-pole photographs:



Thuktun!  Somehow, I suspect you or Niven had already seen this, Tim.


 Heh. Thuktun indeed!


Busting Bank of America, 


Revisionist history already:


"The cavalier use of brute government force has become routine, but the emerging story of how Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke forced CEO Ken Lewis to blow up Bank of America is still shocking. It's a case study in the ways that panicky regulators have so often botched the bailout and made the financial crisis worse.

In the name of containing "systemic risk," our regulators spread it. In order to keep Mr. Lewis quiet, they all but ordered him to deceive his own shareholders. And in the name of restoring financial confidence, they have so mistreated Bank of America that bank executives everywhere have concluded that neither Treasury nor the Federal Reserve can be trusted."

. . . and on from there. Whee!



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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"What was the last great world-changing technological advance that came out of Europe?"

Hi Jerry,

Tom Brosz asks "What was the last great world-changing technological advance that came out of Europe?"

There's been a few. The world wide web http://public.web.cern.ch/Public/en/About/Web-en.html  , is the most obvious. I don't think many people would deny that was probably the amongst biggest "world changing" invention of the last 30 years, which puts Europe well ahead in the "Ryder Cup" of invention! :)

But for slightly less obvious inventions, Pekka Janhunen's electric solar sail is pretty cool. Erick de Clercq's work in anti-viral drugs is astounding, saving millions of lives. Alain Porte's work on aero-engine nacelles is part of the reason that the A380 has engines which generate 50% less noise than its competitors. Torben Vestergaard invented the Lifestraw, an instant water purifier that won the 2008 Saatchi & Saatchi Award for World Changing Ideas. Doug Anderson invented the optos scanning laser ophthalmoscope, which has now been used to treat over 15 million patients. All Europeans, working in Europe.

It makes a nice slogan to imply, as Tom does, that Europeans don't invent anything. But it's no more true than saying "all Americans are imperialists" or whatever slogan the left is using these days. I don't want Americans to live like us Europeans, but neither do I want us to live like you. The idea that there's one perfect one of organising people is one I'll leave to the utopians - and we all know what happens when *they* get into power...

All the best, Ian.

Transparency and subsidiarity. Local control. Them's my principles and I'm sticking to them.


Climate Models in IPCC 2007

I was reading The history of climate modeling here: http://www.aip.org/history/climate/GCM.htm  when this paragraph caught my eye:

The IPCC pressed the modelers to work out a consensus on a specific range of possibilities to be published in the 2007 report. The work was grueling. After a group had invested so much of their time, energy, and careers in their model, they could become reluctant to admit its shortcomings to outsiders and perhaps even to themselves. A frequent result was "prolonged and acrimonious fights in which model developers defended their models and engaged in serious conflicts with colleagues" over whose approach was best.(111) <http://www.aip.org/history/climate/GCM.htm#N_111_>  Yet in the end they found common ground, working out a few numbers that all agreed were plausible.

It kind of explains why all the IPCC models get similar results.

Joel Upchurch

Which needs no comment...


The IMF and the Iron Law

Aside from the maneuvers cited relative to financial manipulation and ethics, this is yet another text book case of the Iron Law at work. Anywhere but the UN, this would probably count as embezzlement.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) deserves credit, figuratively speaking, for cleverly manipulating the financial troubles of emerging and low-income nations to procure a fresh infusion of capital for itself.


John Witt


Survival Books


I read online, “Notes from a Survival Sage”, March 1983 - with great interest as I am researching the best books to have in my library should a national catastrophe occur. You stated in the column, “ In my last column (Sept./Oct. '82) I began a discussion of vital books. It is absolutely necessary to build up one's survival library, and I will, in the next year, spend a lot of time on this subject.” It’s been 26 years and hopefully you have found the time to compile that list and I am just unable to find it. If there is a link to the list I would appreciate it or if the list isn’t online a note on how to obtain it would be appreciated.



Those were interesting times. I was an editor of SURVIVE Magazine, and I took the matter seriously. Some of my colleagues moved to rural areas, such as the Rogue River area in Oregon. I feared nuclear war -- the threat was very real -- but I also thought the best way to survive a nuclear war was not to have one, and I thought my work on SDI was the best contribution I could make; so while I had friends with survival retreats who would welcome me and my survival company colleagues, I stayed where I thought I could be most effective, but I continued to write about survival tactics.

That was a long time ago.

I fear that most of my survival work from that time, including the reading list,  is not very relevant now. Technologies change, the threat changes. A Central Nuclear War is not the major threat to civilization now. I am trying to think about the situation and come up with a new list of both books and skills one ought to be familiar with, because it is not impossible that we will slide back into a Dark Age. Once again the best way to survive a disaster is not to have the disaster, but in this case, I am not sure that anything I can do will be relevant to that. On the other hand, I have to make a living, and aside from subscribers there is no income in spending time on survivalist preparations. It's  a lot of work, and it goes slowly. Thanks to subscribers I can pay some attention to the matter, and I do, but I do have to make a living.

But alas, I don't have that list. Many techniques have changed radically since 1983. There have been advances in hydroponics. Weapons laws have changed drastically. The financial situation is -- well, weird, so its hard to know what you will own if things get worse. The descent isn't likely to be sudden with collapse of local governments, and government power will be a major factor: governments are subject to the Iron Law. They will endure, and they will protect themselves and collect the revenue: that is, they will survive.

I see I am beginning to ramble. The short answer is that I don't have the list, and it wouldn't be that relevant now; but I will give some thought to the matter. Thank you.



Hi Jerry,

You say one should not trivialize the use of torture, but you nonetheless do so. Possible violations of national and international law aside (and this issue is not so clear cut), there are two reasons why torture should be unacceptable to any civilized nation.

1. Practically: Torture does not work. It produces false confessions and false information. If you are using it to establish guilt, extracting a confession actually tends to *reduce* the likelihood that the person is guilty. This is all well-known and well-documented. Anyone involved in interrogation who does not know this is either incompetent or shockingly uneducated.

2. Ethically: If we let the barbarians bring us down to their moral and ethical level, then they have already won, as they will have destroyed those aspects of our civilization that make it arguably better than theirs.

Furthermore, consider the explanations: officials claim to have adopted methods from SERE without realizing that SERE is a torture-preparation program. Is that credible? If they did not just "look the other way", then they demonstrated astounding incompetence. Perhaps we should not talk of war crimes, but rather simple malfeasance?

This is yet another area where the urgent desire to "do something" led to catastrophically wrong decisions.



It is not a trivial question to ask what one would do in the case of the ticking time bomb. As to the practicality, that is certainly under dispute, but there have certainly been cases where extreme measures, justified or not, have resulted in positive results and better intelligence. Of course torture can produce false results; that hardly implies that hard interrogation never produces useful results.

Congress can make the law very clear including pains and penalties for ignoring the law. It can define what is and is not torture. The need for such clarity must have been apparent at least to those who introduced various bills outlawing certain practices (most of which failed in previous years).

Applying new interpretations retroactively seems to have little upside and very grave consequences.


Home Office colluded with Phorm on legal advice 

When this happens in America, we start looking for the quid pro quo: http://tinyurl.com/coysfb 

-- Harry Erwin, PhD, Program Leader, MSc Information Systems Security, University of Sunderland. <http://scat-he-g4.sunderland.ac.uk/~harryerw> Weblog at: <http://scat-he-g4.sunderland.ac.uk/~harryerw/blog/index.php>


Mandatory sex education for 5-year olds in England 

See <http://tinyurl.com/dzj4yk

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







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Thursday, April 30, 2009

“I stand firm that it was a very well thought-out and useful resource for kids.”


--- Roland Dobbins

Why am I not surprised?


_Inferno_ video game.



- Roland Dobbins

Anyone want to go have a look? I haven't.


This says worry.

In Cyberweapons Race, Questions Linger Over U.S. Offensive Capability--Series http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/28/us/28cyber.html 

U.S. Steps Up Effort on Digital Defenses By DAVID E. SANGER, JOHN MARKOFF and THOM SHANKER

This article was reported by David E. Sanger, John Markoff and Thom Shanker and written by Mr. Sanger.

When American forces in Iraq wanted to lure members of Al Qaeda into a trap, they hacked into one of the group's computers and altered information that drove them into American gun sights<snip>.


This says relax.

Cyberwar: Battle is joined

Apr 23rd 2009   

A behind-the-scenes conflict appears to be under way--but not the sort you might think

IT IS the new frontier for military and intelligence activity: cyberspace. For years military experts and computer scientists have speculated about the possibility of a nation's infrastructure being attacked using computers, rather than bombs. There have been dark warnings of the danger of a "digital Pearl Harbour"--an unexpected strike in which digital attackers shut down America's electrical grid or air-traffic control systems, or hack into nuclear-power stations and cause them to overheat. In recent years such concerns have been heightened by the first real examples of large-scale cyber-attacks--on Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008. In each case, government websites were brought down by a deluge of traffic, apparently from Russia. The actual damage done was minimal, but it has all added to the sense of urgency, in America in particular, about the need to protect critical infrastructure from such an attack.

In the past few weeks there have been alarming reports that America's systems have already been infiltrated. On April 8th the Wall Street Journal quoted "current and former national-security officials" who warned that "cyberspies" from China, Russia and elsewhere had broken into the systems that control America's electrical grid and had installed software that could be used to disrupt it. And on April 21st the newspaper said foreign hackers had penetrated computers containing data about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Does this mean America is suddenly under attack, and that war has broken out in cyberspace? <snip>


Subject: Dealing with Toxic Assets

It seems to be an intractable problem. If you write down the assets to more realistic levels, you will most certainly drive the economy deeper into a hole, producing the Second Great Depression. The polar opposite approach is to inflate away the debt. The current administration seems to be walking a knife edge, trying to avoid either outcome. Assuming they can maintain that balance indefinitely, I think we get stagnation, with a recovery always just over the horizon. None of the three alternatives is particularly attractive, and all will put enormous strains on our political system.

Isn't this the way free markets work? There is always a price to be paid for excess, and we are coming off a 25 year binge of excess. The only real question is in what form the punishment will be delivered.

CP, Connecticut


A Washington Post editorial sounding like Pournelle

Emphasis is mine:

"Now, in a single week, President Obama has eliminated two-thirds of that successful-but-not-sufficient national defense troika (the author’s troika is rendition, interrogation, and UAVs) because his personal ideology -- a fair gist of which is "If the world likes us more we are more secure" -- cannot tolerate harsh interrogation techniques, torture or coercive interviews, call them what you will. Surprisingly, Obama now stands alongside Bush as a genuine American Jacobin, both of them seeing the world as they want it to be, not as it is. Whereas Bush saw a world of Muslims yearning to betray their God for Western secularism, Obama gazes upon a globe that he regards as largely carnivore-free and believes that remaining threats can be defused by semantic warfare; just stop saying "War on Terror" and give talks in Turkey and on al-Arabiyah television…" Link is here


R  .

Is reality creeping into the Post?


Predator losses

Jerry: Undersecretary John Young takes the USAF to task for Predator losses.


Also, Reg article:  <http://www.theregister.co.uk/

The USAF won't implement "auto-land" capability, so they've lost 1/3 of their Predator fleet.



Subject: Torture doesn't work

Jerry, one of your correspondents sent some comments regarding torture below:

1. Practically: Torture does not work. It produces false confessions and false information. If you are using it to establish guilt, extracting a confession actually tends to *reduce* the likelihood that the person is guilty. This is all well-known and well-documented. Anyone involved in interrogation who does not know this is either incompetent or shockingly uneducated.

I don’t want to label myself as incompetent or shockingly uneducated, but I’d beg to differ on this conclusion. Having been in an environment where I did intelligence gathering for Special Ops people, I can state unequivocally that properly used, torture does work (and yes, I’ve been through SERE school). The key is knowing what level to apply. In construction, if you use a hammer, you don’t beat a nail into submission and make a hole in the wall, you use enough force to get the nail into the wall with minimal damage to the surrounding material. It works the same in applying force to get information. Sure, if you beat the heck out of a guy and threaten his life, he’ll tell you whatever you want to hear. It’s all a matter of degree, and it takes a professional to do it right.

2. Ethically: If we let the barbarians bring us down to their moral and ethical level, then they have already won, as they will have destroyed those aspects of our civilization that make it arguably better than theirs.

Agreed, but this argument has been used for years to justify doing nothing in response to severe aggression. I don’t believe in an eye for an eye, but there are cruel, violent people in the world who deal in pain and suffering, and understand little else in response. Nobody likes it (well, that’s an overstatement, there are sick individuals on both sides), but sometimes you have to act. Most of America in their nice three bedroom homes with cable TV don’t have a glimmering of understanding what has had to be done to let them keep that home safe. There are a lot of not-nice people out there who really would like nothing better than to see chaos in the streets of America and as many of us dead as possible.

And I should add that the above opinion is shared by many of the people I have worked with over the years….I’m not one voice in the wilderness.



Torture is pointless if the information being sought is not verifiable, as in your reader's example of someone being tortured to confess to a crime for which no other confirming evidence exists or can exist.

But it seems to me that torture is not only justifiable but ethically necessary if the information being sought is both sufficiently important and verifiable, and if a strong preponderance of the evidence indicates that the person to be tortured in fact possesses the information needed. The hidden nuke with the clock ticking down is the classic example. Or the situation where the guy was caught on camera snatching a little girl, whom it was believed he'd buried alive with a limited air supply.

It's important that those who advocate torture under appropriate circumstances be willing to assume personal responsibility for that action. Under either of those two scenarios, I'd be willing personally to clamp the electrodes to the guy's testicles and crank up the juice. And for those who'd let the nuke detonate or the little girl suffocate merely to avoid offending their own tender sensibilities, I have nothing but contempt.

-- Robert Bruce Thompson 


A Chilling Effect on U.S. Counterterrorism, 



Well, now you know you're not the only one to say so.



Arguing about torture

Hi Jerry,

Recently I've seen several people online, one an experienced military interrogator, who object to torture on moral grounds but feel they can also trump the argument that it produces usable information.

I'm surprised to see them take that approach because they're implicitly accepting the proposition that the results are relevant to their case. This has the effect of making the moral question secondary -- when by far the most wordage is devoted to denying the productivity of that kind of interrogation, that makes it the primary focus for the reader.

A number of Americans held as POWs and physically abused have written about the experience (one just ran for President) and expressed shame about the information they yielded under interrogation. Their accounts make that abuse sound morally repugnant rather than ineffective.



Extraordinary hypotheses require extraordinary proofs. The principle applies to much of human behavior. Any objective study shows that extreme interrogation can be effective in many cases if the objective is to gain information. Clearly one can be made to confess to anything. Sometimes, though, such confessions include other information, such as where bodies are buried.

As to what is torture, different courts have ruled quite differently. It was once held that questioning a man all night was torture, and the evidence -- the child's body discovered as a result -- excluded as evidence in the trial.

Congress has the power to define what practices are to be forbidden or employed. Whether there ought to be such laws is worth debating. I can think of scenarios under which we might very much regret having such laws. Would finding a nuclear weapon hidden in Manhattan be worth waterboarding?

Extraordinary circumstances.


A Very tempting trip


What do you all think? I received this from a friend and I'm thinking of going.

 His message:

"I found a Somalia cruise package that departs from Sawakin (in the Sudan) and docks at Bagamoya (in Tanzania). The cost is a bit high but it seems well worth it. What I found encouraging and enlightened is that the cruise is encouraging people to bring their own high powered weapons along on the cruise. If you don't have weapons you can rent them right there on the boat. They claim to have a master gunsmith on board and will have reloading parties every afternoon. The cruise lasts from 4-8 days. All the boat does is sail up and down the coast of Somalia waiting to get hijacked by pirates. Here are some of the costs and claims associated with the package:

$800.00 US/per day per person, double occupancy (4 day minimum).

- M-16 full automatic: rental $25.00/day ammo at 100 rounds of 5.56 mm armor-piercing ammo at $15.95

- Ak-47 rifle: no charge. Ammo at 100 rounds of 7.62 mm com block ball ammo at $14.95

- Barrett M-107 .50 cal sniper rifle: rental $55.00/day. Ammo at 25 rounds 50 cal armor piercing at $29.95.

- Crew members can double as spotters for $30.00 per hour (spotting scope included). [see testimonial suggestion below]

- They offer RPG's at $75 bucks and $200 for 3 standard loads.

- Mounted mini-gun available @ $450.00 per 30 seconds of sustained fire.

- Free complimentary night vision equipment.

Meals are not included but seem reasonable. Coffee and snacks on the Lido (top) deck from 7pm-6am.

They offer group rates and corporate discounts, and even offer a partial money back if not satisfied.

Text from the ad:

"We guarantee that you will experience at least two hijacking attempts by pirates or we will refund half your money including gun rental charges and any unused ammo (mini gun charges not included). How can we guarantee you will experience a hijacking? We operate at 5 knots within 12 miles of the coast of Somalia. If an attempted hijacking does not occur we will turn the boat around and cruise by at 4 knots.

"We will repeat this for up to 8 days making three passes a day along the entire length of Somalia. At night the boat is fully lit and bottle rockets are shot off at intervals and loud disco music beamed shore side to attract attention. Cabin space is limited so respond quickly. Reserve your package before April 29 and get 100 rounds of free tracer ammo in the caliber of your choice."

Here are a few testimonials:


"I got three confirmed pirates on my last trip. I'LL never hunt big game in Africa again." ----Lars, Hamburg, Germany

"Six attacks in 4 days was more than I expected. I bagged three pirates and my 12 yr old son sank two rowboats with the minigun. PIRATES 0, PASSENGERS 32! Well worth the trip. Just make sure your spotter speaks English. There was some confusion who we were shooting at one point." --- Ned, Salt Lake City, Utah USA

"I haven't had this much fun since flying choppers in NAM. Don't worry about getting shot by pirates as they never even got close to the ship with those weapons they use and their crappy aim--reminds me of a drunken 'juicer' door gunner we picked up from the motor pool back in Nam." ----"Chopper" Dan, Toledo, Ohio USA.

Seems like a nice outing, doesn't it? ;)

Good grief! And I suppose next trip will include taxidermy services? And there's ten stuffed heads in my trophy room right now....


YouTube - Steve Eves' Saturn V Launch, 


A 10% scale Saturn V launch:


Watch while you can. I'm sure amateur rocketry will be outlawed soon, because it is a bureaucratic inconvenience.



the invasion of the swine snatchers

Hello Dr. Pournelle:

I just have to ask, am I the only one who sees our Mexican invasion policy as surreal? The latest is that Americans are being warned not to travel to Mexico, due to the swine flu outbreak, and it has been suggested that we test air passengers flying in from that country. So while we are doing all of these things, thousands of illegals swarm across the border every day. No one talks about this, of course, as no one has talked about a number of outbreaks of diseases that had been wiped out in this country decades ago; but are somehow being reintroduced. So while border guards will not let an American tourist bring an orange across the border, due to health concerns, a blind eye is being turned to a massive uncontrolled influx of human beings. When these people cross the border, they cross with all of the bacteria, protozoans, and viruses that make Mexico such a healthy place to live. Latest news is that the swine flu originated in Perote, Veracruz, south east of Mexico City.

The warnings about Mexico do not come from the surgeon general – our president has been too busy campaigning to bother to appoint one. Someone may want to mention to him that the election is over – imagine his delight when he learns that he won. Rather than the surgeon general, these warnings have come from the office of homeland security. So is this a terrorist attack – a bit of bio terrorism to concern the office of homeland security? Does this make Mexican illegals terrorists? Does it matter? Is it any less dangerous than if it had been done intentionally? An old saying that I have seen a number of times on your site, tells us “Never ascribe to malice, that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” Yet, there comes a point, where incompetence and carelessness reach a level at which a lack of concern bordering on contempt and malice becomes a real possibility. The term, criminal carelessness, has been coined to describe this level of incompetence.

There is a certain threshold beyond which incompetence becomes malicious and criminal. There are a couple of manifestations of this. The first is an incompetence derived from carelessness, and contempt. This is the guy who backs into you car, because he can not be bothered to check his mirror, or doctor who forgets to ask about allergies before prescribing the medication that lands you in the hospital with an allergic reaction. More commonly, it is the guy who does not care about his neighbors, enough to shovel his walk or keep his dog on a leash. Eventually someone is hurt, either through a fall, or by a dog attack. In all of these cases, the harm was not intentional; but culpability still exists – all should have known better, and did know better. They simply didn’t care enough to bother, or allowed themselves to be distracted.

The other type of malicious incompetence is demonstrated by the guy who is in over his head, and just won’t give up. While this seems very honorable and heroic, it is hard to admire, when this guy wrecks your engine because he just doesn’t have the ability to be a decent mechanic, and refuses to give up. In some cases, this kind of thing actually is considered to be criminal in the literal sense of the word, as when people impersonate doctors, and treat patients.

So, what kind of incompetence is responsible for our current “policy” in regards to illegals? Well, both kinds, I think. Of course, true malice is out there too, and not all of these people are unaware of the damage that they are doing – much of it has been quite intentional.


The obviously useless information contained in this pointless message is actually valued by the drones which make up this organization, and has been deemed privileged, confidential, and far too important for the likes of you. If you are not the intended recipient, and you are reading this, you are in big, big trouble, and we will make you very sorry. Huge shadowy figures will enter your house, late at night, and tear the Do Not Remove Under Penalty Of Law, tags from all of your mattresses. In order to prevent this, and even more dire consequences, you must: (i) delete the message and all copies, before reading, and long before reading this warning; (ii) do not disclose, distribute or use the message in any manner (we will know if you do); and (iii) notify the sender immediately. In addition, please be aware that any message addressed to our domain is subject to archiving and review, for the amusement of bored persons other than the intended recipient. Further threats, warnings, and disclaimers are shown below. Have a nice day.


The information contained in this message is proprietary and/or confidential. If you are not the intended recipient, please: (i) delete the message and all copies; (ii) do not disclose, distribute or use the message in any manner; and (iii) notify the sender immediately. In addition, please be aware that any message addressed to our domain is subject to archiving and review by persons other than the intended recipient. Thank you.




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Friday, May 1, 2009

Subject: A very tempting trip

Dear Jerry –

Aww, come on, Jerry. Surely you realized that the message was fake. Just read the testimonials: 4 attacks in 6 days? My kid sunk two boats with the minigun?

However, could you please get your correspondent to pass on the URL? As an email pass-along it would be priceless.


Jim Martin

This is one of several similar messages.

I have to confess I never for a moment thought that "the trip" was anything but a joke. I suppose there might be societies in which one might advertise opportunities for hunting human beings as prey, but we have not yet reached that. Shipping and insurance companies are unable to agree on mechanisms for sending in Q ships (warships that appear to be unarmed merchants) with highly trained crews; I thought it pretty obvious that no one would ever seriously offer this opportunity to tourists. Sorry your leg came off in my hand. But it may be a commentary on the times that anyone would believe that a real story.

I don't have a URL for the original message, and I suspect there is none.



Owing to various distractions, I forgot that yesterday was Walpurgis.

Legend has it that this date commemorates a being whose function in the Universe is the creation of strange and wonderful worlds, which he then populates with eerie and fascinating creatures. He also has a great sense of humor and excellent taste in women.

Happy birthday, Larry.


e pur si muove

I overlooked it myself.


Out-of-Print Books


This thought occurred to me this AM while cogitating on e-books and the many discussions of same and intellectual property rights on your site.

What got me thinking about e-books was my recent purchase of a Nokia N810 "internet tablet PDA", which turns out to be quite an acceptable e-book reader. Probably too small for a person with your eyesight problems, but fine for folks with good close vision.

First...in today's internet world, there is no reason for ANY book to ever be "out of print". Second...SF writers would like to make more money. Third...I need more SF to read. Soooooo.........here's my notion.

Why doesn't the SFWA set up a website selling e-books?? Set it up as a "non-profit", with the profits over operating expenses going to the writers. This would be only for OOP books, or "public domain" books, plus any others that the writers themselves might choose to allow to be sold through the mechanism. I would LOVE a "one-stop-shop" place to download SF, and one that I could be assured has all the IP "ducks in a row" for me to do so.

If there is any organization qualified to work through all the legalisms to get the IP rights "right", it has to be the SFWA.

Anyhow, bend a brain cell or two over this and let me know what you think.

Much enjoy your website. It has some of the most astute commentary available on the web.


This has been proposed in SFWA discussions, but the problems outweigh the benefits. An author's association has no real business trying to compete with publishers, and the publishers are beginning to get their acts together. As eBook publishing becomes more profitable, there will be more eBook publishers. The Google Grab started with the intention of getting out of print works into print. Google's focus was on a real problem, orphan works that are under copyright, but no one including the copyright owner knows who owns the copyright and thus can grant permission to put the book up as an eBook. Unfortunately the method they chose to 'solve' the problem was to copy everything and wait for authors to object. That put a huge burden on copyright owner who knew very well what copyrights they owned, and didn't want Googe as their publisher or agent.

Thanks for your kind words.


FERC Chief is utterly mad - 

Hi Dr. Pournelle,

The chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Jon Wellinghoff, J.D., would appear to be stark, raving mad. As reported in Power magazine <http://www.powermag.com/POWERnews/1895.html> , Wellinghoff said “I think baseload capacity is going to become an anachronism,” and “Baseload capacity really used to only mean in an economic dispatch, which you dispatch first, what would be the cheapest thing to do. Well, ultimately wind’s going to be the cheapest thing to do, so you’ll dispatch that first.”

This is a statement that Senator Lindsey Graham, with uncharacteristic understatement, described as "if we follow his advice we may be marching into madness”.

This is frighteningly similar, at some levels, to the thankfully fictional episode of the allocation of railroad cars to carry grain (or not) in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Wellinghoff is clearly unfit and unqualified to head FERC and would, in a sane administration, be given the sack post-haste.

By the way, thanks for the reminder - I just renewed my subscription. I'd like to encourage all readers of your site to do so. We need you focused on fact and fiction, not finance.

Bill Hembree










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Saturday, May 2, 2009

I took the day off






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Sunday,  May 3, 2009      

I spent today doing administrivia and working with the Mac...




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