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Mail 581 July 27 - August 2, 2009
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July 27, 2009
I recently attended a talk by Kirk Sorensen on Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors. A highly informative talk from an energetic speaker.
Here's the video link - it's long (82 minutes), but it is well worth watching:
I realize that it's hard to see the content of the slides in the video, so here's the link to the PowerPoint presentation that goes along with it:
I recognize that you (Jerry) probably know all about this. However, this was all new material to me. The highlights for me were:
1) We know that this will work - they built a prototype and ran it for five years back in the 60s.
2) We have lots of Thorium - enough for 50,000 years at our current level of energy use.
3) The Thorium reactor not only produces tiny amounts of radioactive waste, it can even burn up our existing stocks of nuclear waste produced by light water uranium reactors. (No need to store it in Yucca mountain).
Anyway, I thought that this might be something that you might want to share...
I am no expert on thorium reactors, but many readers are, and I am sure we will get mail on this. I do know that we have sufficient uranium nuclear fuel to sustain the economy for more than a century, by which time we should have other sustainable energy sources.
The great thing is not to lose your nerve. Earth will abide.
The West conquers all with her cultural weapons of mass distraction:
Or are these things the cultural/entertainment equivalent of the suicide bomber?
The West's cultural weapons of mass destruction will conquer Iran sooner rather than later, I suspect. If we don't waste our strength in foolishness.
Labour loses the Norwich by-election by a landslide. <http://tinyurl.com/lb7vfg > <http://tinyurl.com/mdqx8x> <http://tinyurl.com/lpo6m3> This had been a safe Labour seat.
Gordon Brown does not understand environmental issues. <http://tinyurl.com/msd82s >
Swine flu panic <http://tinyurl.com/nzh344>.
Yes, university funding is being cut for next year, despite the added student places. <http://tinyurl.com/nps6xj> <http://tinyurl.com/nsfqzn>
The thing to remember about Labour leadership is that they like to give people jobs--spending money on anything else is secondary. It makes for a lot of 'country club' organisations with little useful to do. Most experienced private sector managers would probably let about 20-30% of the air out and see where the real pain is after the dust settles.
The fox would have been among the chickens if this had taken place. <http://tinyurl.com/m7e92f > I remember there were a lot of Americans at that time who were already paranoid about the War on Terror.
Harry Erwin, PhD, Program Leader, MSc Information Systems Security,
University of Sunderland.http://osiris.sunderland.ac.uk/~cs0her
how to fire a teacher
A depressing but wholly accurate flow chart on How To Fire an Incompetent Teacher (New York State edition).
A depressing but not astonishing example of the Iron Law in action.
Dear Dr. Pournelle,
Mr. Scott Lowther publishes a periodical called the Aerospace Projects Review. In it, he has extensively researched articles about various canceled aerospace projects from days gone past. Several issues included articles about the infamous nuclear pulse propulsion system Project Orion.
The last article included details about a 1960's design for an Orion "battleship", complete with gun turrets, nuclear bombs, and landing vehicles.http://www.up-ship.com/eAPR/ev2n2.htm
Recently, Mr. Lowther teamed up with a company called Fantastic Plastic to make a resin model kit of the Orion battleship. It is due out late 2010. He has posted some works in progress of the CAD design on his blog:http://up-ship.com/blog/?p=3216 http://up-ship.com/blog/?p=3219 http://up-ship.com/blog/?p=3237 http://up-ship.com/blog/?p=3251 http://up-ship.com/blog/?p=3261 http://up-ship.com/blog/?p=3276
Great! Thanks. I'll be watching for it. I don't know that I'd call it infamous. Dyson estimated that an Orion could put an entire Lunar Colony safely on the Moon in one shot. The costs in fallout were actually rather low. But that was back then. There are better ways to use nuclear power.
Your Tax Dollars at Work -- Climate Money: $79 billion so far.
Just out, short, and well researched, with citations. This report has LONG been needed. It is a very important document, one that deserves wide distribution and media discussion.
Your tax dollars at work.... To generate MORE tax dollars by panicking the public into believing Gore's theory of Dangerous Anthropogenic Global Warming.
John D. Trudel
John D. Trudel, Consultant and Professor Emeritus, Inventor, Engineer, Author, and Novelist.
Saturn V Launch Views - High Speed Cams
Slow motion footage of a Saturn V launch, set to hauntingly lovely music.
The German A-4 (V-2) rocket, in 1942 was the first to reach space and massed 14 tons at ignition. The Saturn V, twenty-five years after, used over twice that mass, 30 tons of kerosene and liquied oxygen, to /prime/ it's five F-1 motors for ignition.
The majesty of what was, the loss of what might have been, the hope for what may yet be.
This is our legacy, this can be our future, if only we choose to make it so.
The most powerful machines mankind ever built.
I can't make this up
Surfboards, canoes, and dinghies to be reclassified as ships in the UK and subjected to the shipping laws. <http://tinyurl.com/nkx32l>
-- Harry Erwin
Here is a link to a story about Mark Helprin, a writer who seems to have some rather extreme views on his ownership of everything that he writes.
Other than the obvious statement that Mr Helprin hasn't bothered to check the law before asserting his "right" to absolute control over anything that he writes, my take on this is that extremists such as Mr Helprin are just as bad as the "all information should be free" crowd. In general, I find that people who take an extremists stand such as this are the ones who block a solution that results in everyone winning.
July 28, 2009
'A 400-year warm spell in South America fueled the Incas' rise, British archaeologists reported Monday, helping them build the largest empire that ever ruled the continent.'
'A 400-year warm spell in South America fueled the Incas' rise, British archaeologists reported Monday, helping them build the largest empire that ever ruled the continent.'
- Roland Dobbins
A strange story.
Chrysler destroying history?
I find this hard to believe, but really dumb and scary.
Dang! I hate it when accountants are running big companies. Both accountants and lawyers should be kept locked in corporate basements and only allowed enough chain to make recommendations. When the MBAs take over the board, that is the doomsday bell for a company. All innovation has to grind to a halt in the name of ‘safety’ and ‘fiscal responsibility’.
E.C. "Stan" Field
I found this short clip of John Conyer's discussing the health care bill quite disturbing.
“What good is reading the bill if it’s a thousand pages and you don’t have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?”
-- Roland Dobbins
But in fact most of those who vote on the bill will not have read it at all.
Some neat photos taken from the ISS recently, including some amazing active volcano shots taken during and immediately after an eruption.
Begin enviro-whacko rant…
As usual, in just a few hours the volcano probably spewed more CO2, particulates, and other harmful “unnatural” gases into the air than the US will create in a decade. I’m sure Al Gore has a plan to figure out how to make me pay more taxes to cover volcano emissions, and for a small fee he will surely help us distribute the tax revenue on clever ways to convert thousand-year-old rainforest into inedible corn cropland.
Come to think of it, the particulates and the resulting increase in cloud density are probably going to cause localized cooling from that volcano. An ice age scares me a lot more than global warming so I think I’ll go vent an old auto A/C Freon canister into the air outside. Every little bit helps when combating runaway global cooling, right?
Has Global Warming Stopped?
I am not sure what to make of this article:
Manzi makes 2 major points:
1. Global surface temperatures have not increased in the last 10 years
2. This is not a long enough time to falsify (he uses this term) AGW
This reasoning seems to me to turn scientific thought on its head. A good theory must be able to explain all valid data. If the theory is at odds with the data, the theory is at best incomplete and at worst flat wrong. Scientifically, all it takes is one specific exception to disprove a general theory.
Try to imagine you are in a freshman science lab, and you are trying to explain the results of your experiment. You confidently write up a conclusion that explains all but the last few data points, declaring that since your theory explains most of the data, the last few points are not sufficient to disprove your theory.
I assure you that when I was in college and grad school, that would have been considered utter drivel.
Why are the AGW modelers able to get away with it?
Because there are trillions of dollars at stake. I tried to cover this years ago in my essay on the Voodoo Sciences. And the next letter is relevant.
Project Syndicate - Bjorn Lomborg on the hysteria in the climate change debate
Makes a number of interesting points....that I read here *first* <grin>
p.s. Haven't heard much about Sable lately. Hope all is well!
Regarding your PS, Sable is fine. She still insists on walks, although in the hot weather she begins to regret it after a mile or so. Then she's pretty flat in a cool part of the house for the rest of the day until evening. Siberians are all right in hot weather as long as they don't have to do a lot of running in the heat.
An exchange in another conference:
Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man
On 7/26/09 5:18 AM, Jason wrote:
We should create the word "technoethicist", which would be the computer equivalent of "bioethicist", and, like the latter term, really be a synonym for "fool". (In the sense that the term is used in the Old Testament--connotation of "morally defective" as well as "silly".)
These are "problems" that mankind desperately needs to "create", not "solve"!
As a software guy, I am not "worried" about any of this happening in the lifetimes of anyone on this forum.
This is of course the main debate over "the singularity", which Kurtzweil believes will happen in three decades or fewer: when computers become aware and are able to evolve through Lamarckian rather than Darwinian means. Smart machines design themselves to be smarter. What's the need for humans?
China web users outnumber US population,
How's this for news that will disturb your breakfast:
The mean IQ of Chinese in China is 105, which predicts that much use will be made of this connectivity, providing there's any freedom to do so. See below for comment.
This article briefly talks about a great “green” engineering effort on some USAF bases. Although the article is short on details, it sounds like they install sheets of perforated metal on the outside of buildings in cold climates, the panels get warmed by sun (including reflections off of snow on the ground), and incoming air gets heated by the panels up to 40 deg above ambient as it is pulled into the building environmental control system. The system is completely passive and ought to last nearly forever.
That sort of smart engineering is certainly something to cheer about, as it comes in a time where it’s hard to separate the good ideas from the criminally stupid because of all the rhetoric being tossed around. Maybe next we’ll start painting the roofs here in TX white. I’ve seen neighborhoods in San Francisco where a bunch of people in older flat-roofed houses have a few inches of white spray-on foam applied on top of the original tar roof. Although it’s not “ugly” in my opinion, it does take some getting used to in areas where you can see the white rooftops.
I have a son who has some developmental disabilities. I love him and enjoy every day with him. I cannot express the horror and revulsion I felt upon reading this.
You have pointed out on several occasions that unrestrained capitalism would lead to markets in everything, including human life. I agree.
This, on the other hand, is a logical outcome of unrestrained collectivism.
Everything for the State. Nothing against the State. Nothing outside the State. Welcome to the future. See also quality of life years and health care.
For a PDF copy of A Step Farther Out:
July 29, 2009
Congress: Unsafe At Any Speed?
John Conyers, quoted by many: ""I love these members, they get up and say, 'Read the bill'...What good is reading the bill if it's a thousand pages and you don't have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?"
Many are saying "oh, Congress doesn't even read these bills!" But what concerns me is the idea that even Congressmen admit that they have no idea how the laws they pass will actually be put into practice. Maybe they can cut the size of the bills down, but what good will that do if it's still up to a regulatory bureaucrat as to what the law actually means and how it gets enforced?
I am able to read the English language, so I'm not too upset about the notion of long, detailed documents. What concerns me is the idea that these documents aren't long because they're detailed--they're long because they're filled with meaningless, effectless boilerplate. The few lines which actually affect things are surrounded by a mess of polysyllabalate adjectival modifiers and laundry lists of "age, race, sex, religious belief, sexual orientation" repeated every time a pronoun is used. Determining how the law actually works, who it affects, and how it affects them is left up to someone sitting in an office on K Street, whose closest connection to electoral accountability is that their boss's boss's boss is appointed by the President.
-- Mike T. Powers
It don't matter. The Iron Law will prevail, and in health care that will be very serious.
Thought you might find this article interesting:
laser lightcraft article
. And I note that Brazil is able to enjoy equatorial launch sites on land. It makes me wonder if an expiring aircraft carrier could be loaded with reactors and lasers so that it could be a spacecraft launch platform. And for something different, I hope the press attention to the recent impact on Jupiter is a good sign for the upcoming Lucifer's Anvil!!
Laser propulsion will happen some day. The numbers work. It's tricky, but it can be done. Once we have access to space, many limits vanish.
Yesterday you said, "The mean IQ of Chinese in China is 105, which predicts that much use will be made of this connectivity, providing there's any freedom to do so."
This made me wonder, "If they had similar freedoms, how would Chinese use the Internet?" Would they use it like Americans, to watch porno and waste the work day on Facebook? Would they find a more constructive use for this tool? Will the Internet foster an e-business boom in China, or will they fall prey to Nigerian 419 scams? If America is a guide, five years from now the average Chinese web surfer will be downloading smut in his bedroom, making e-friends on social networking sites, and hoping that the relative who died in the Nigerian car accident really did leave him five million yuan.
The Internet showed such promise back in 1995. With few exceptions, the web has devolved into a colossal time waster. (One of those exceptions is Chaos Manor, of course!) Maybe I'm just grumpy this morning, but I see this bombardment of media and entertainment and spam as a kind of sludge clogging up our lives.
I spent a week in Mexico last month. No internet. No cell phone. The resort did have Internet access. So did some Mayan ruins. Net access was all over Cozumel, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen. I made the effort to stay away from anything with a keyboard. I hadn't felt that relaxed in probably two years. We came back and it was back to the grind. I do think that the net stresses you out. This constant bombardment of "information" (for lack of a better term) will only get worse.
This is not the flying cars and cities in space I dreamed of in my childhood. It is largely… junk. While I know and enjoy the advantages the communications boom bore, I see too much of the afterbirth. I appreciate being able to check my bank balance at any time, book a vacation to a foreign country, read newspapers from London and Moscow, and research the libraries of many universities. I don't appreciate the byproduct.
I'm ranting, aren't I?
Do you see things in our e-world getting better? What do you see in our technological future? No, I don't want you to spend the next three weeks coming up with a vision, but just a thought off the top of your head. Am I too cynical? I don’t believe I am.
I should get back to work, seeing as I'm writing you with my company e-mail account. I have a manual to write. Woo hoo… the new peanut sorter.
I too have mixed emotions, but universal communications have economic effects. Big ones. They also have political effects -- but they don't shield you from bureaucracy and runaway statism. Just ideologies.
Arthur Koestler predicted the end of totalitarian states would come through unrestricted free discussions within the totalitarian state. It looked as if that were happening with the fall of the USSR, but now one wonders. We have free discussion, but liberty is suffering, bureaucracy rises. This isn't the totalitarian state of the USSR, but it's getting more and more inclusive and less and less easy to counter. Of course De Tocqueville warned us...
Subj: The Security Circus is only the warm-up act! [shudder]
Reminded me of Karl Marx's observation, that everything in history occurs twice, once as tragedy, another time as farce.
In this case, it looks like the farce came first.
Rod Montgomery== monty @starfief.com
Subj: The Asteroid Threat - Jupiter as Gitmo?
So if we give everyone food, we have to starve some of them?
Health Care Will Not Reform Itself by Halvorson sets a brilliant framework for the current debate. He presents a very convincing case that quality improvements alone, which do require that doctors conform to set protocols, will produce enough savings to pay for covering the uninsured. BTW, Halvorson is CEO of Kaiser Permanente.
It depends on how much food we have. If we're in the crisis rowboat that everyone assumed in the 70's then yes: some will starve. You choose which ones. Reagan overturned the era of limits that Carter tried to get us to accept, and the Green Revolution reduced famine for a while, but we still face shortages: and in health care, we do not have the resources to provide everything that everyone wants. Look at England and Canada for examples.
I don't want my doctor to conform to set protocols. For example, in my case, they could not tell what tumor I had in my head. They assumed they knew what it was, but there was no way to get a biopsy (would raise quality of life issues, the neurosurgeon (who it turned out had read all my books) said). The protocols say if you don't know what you're treating you probably shouldn't treat it; but Kaiser went ahead and zapped me with 50,000 rad of hard x-rays. And lo! It worked.
Halvorson is clearly worth listening to; but who sets the protocols? Does that not depend on the load on the system? And see below.
July 30, 2009
Charlie was flippant with his statement, "So if we give everyone food, we have to starve some of them?" and you answered that it depends on how much food we have.
You didn't go far enough. It also depends on how we get our food, what we produce as food, and where it is produced. I submit that health care is substantially similar.
By the way, I work for a Medicare Part B contractor and have for 18+ years. The colloquialism about 'making sausage' is highly appropriate.
Health Care: Protocols
The fundamental problem with requiring conformance to accepted medical protocols is that it requires accepting a certain number of entirely preventable adverse outcomes (translation: deaths). The good doctors know that there are cases where the accepted protocols are not enough, and they know when to break the rules.
In my personal case, I am alive right now because a very good primary care doctor in Dallas in mid-1993 chose to break protocol, and hospitalize me when the accepted standard of care called for outpatient treatment. He didn't have to answer to an HMO review committee, I was sick enough that he could justify hospitalization if the insurance company tried to argue with him, and he knew my brother's wedding was a few days off and I was NOT going to make it to the wedding unless I was treated aggressively.
As a result of his decision, I was already in the hospital, with IV access and on oxygen, when I crashed, instead of being 15 minutes by ambulance away, not including 911 response time, and they already knew everything they needed to know. (There is also the question of whether I would have figured out to call 911 in time...)
In all probability, the standard protocol would have killed me. Unfortunate, but these things happen...
This is far beyond the piddling record-keeping automation Obama&Co. are pushing:
The basic tech has only been around since, oh, the 1980s.
When Weed first developed and demonstrated this, the nurses loved it -- and a lot of docs hated it, because it threatened their rice-bowls.
We can build computers much faster than we can train people.
Nurses are much cheaper and faster to train than docs.
Nursing schools can ramp up production much faster than med schools.
Rod Montgomery==monty@ starfief.com
One of my earliest BYTE columns was about Larry Weed. This was the era of Ezekial, CP/M, and the Z-80 Chip. I'd been doing the column for about a year when I was asked to be guest of honor at a convention of Computer Using Physicians, I believe over at Harvard School; somewhere near here. Dr. Weed was one of the speakers. We met the next day to hike up my hill, which he insisted on doing backwards: hiking backwards was better for the back.
At that time the Computer Using Physicians were a small but active group. Weed had a number of points about check lists and diagnostics. Some young physicians were afraid that the computer would replace them. There was a lot of ferment and comment about a diagnostics program called Tieresius, I believe (after the blind prophet in the Odyssey).
I was enormously impressed by Larry Weed. We corresponded for a few months after that meeting, but as often happens we both had other interests and the correspondence faded away. I now wonder why I haven't heard a lot more about this matter. It would seem to me that a really good medical history program would be enormously useful in medicine, and that we aren't doing anything like enough of what we can do now that machines on each desk top are enormously more powerful than the Z-80's with 64k KILOBYTES of memory...
More on this another time; it ought to be an open topic. Perhaps there's a whole world out there I have lost touch with?
Continuing the health care debate:
Couple of points on the debate.
Can we find another term than "Insurance". How on Earth can you insure yourself against something you have? It's complete nonsense. If you have, for example, as my wife has, bad allergies that need non-over the counter medication to control through the summer and leads to asthma attacks - you can't insure against that. I have genetic tendency towards hypertension - if father, mother, both grandfathers counts. The medication isn't pricey, but I'm lucky. Charles Stross the SF writer needs a bucket load of meds to control his hyper-tension.
So should "pre-existing" conditions be out of pocket? Or do we accept that there needs to be a way of risk hedging across populations to make treatment affordable?
I also keep reading about rationing of healthcare as you see in Canada and the UK.
But I'm still struggling to see the difference between the rationing of healthcare on grounds of medical need versus ability to pay. Ignoring, for a moment, that in the UK at least you can purchase actual insurance against the need for surgery or a medical emergency.
However, why on Earth do people keep reverting to the UK as an example? The UK spends less that virtually any other industrial nation on healthcare. How about some comparisons with the French, German, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian or other similar countries with universal care (mostly provided through a mixture of private and public money) who offer apparently superlative care for less money that the US spends?
Rationing by money vs. need: this is the fundamental question of liberty vs. equality. Take two people who need expensive health care, say a month of radiation therapy for an inoperable brain cancer. You have facilities and staff to treat one. How do you choose? If one of them can pay (at least part of the expense) and one cannot, does this matter? Do we use a random number generator? Does it matter that one is a street person with no criminal record and the other a semi-retired professional with no criminal record? Do we choose the younger street person over the older person still working part time? And so forth.
Your right to treatment is someone's obligation to pay. Neglect where you got the right: where did the other part get the obligation?
Liberty would say let it be paid for by the consumer, who is welcome to apply to charitable institutions or beg in the streets. Equality would say both must have treatment (extreme equality would say neither if not both; we will not allow the rich to buy what the poor cannot afford). How do we choose? Clearly the United States will choose neither of those extremes; but the devil is in the details of compromise.
I see that no one has remarked on the Thorium reactor idea brought up Monday. During my 25 years at Los Alamos, I worked on a variety of projects and among them was a subcritical Molten Salt Reactor concept based on Thorium and driven by spallation neutrons from an accelerator (In the old days, Los Alamos was always looking for novel, mostly crazy, ways to employ accelerators). I cannot find the old report that we produced (it does not appear to be an LA-UR as the LANL library has no mention of it) and I cannot find any of my supporting materials. As a result, my comments are from memory:
1. Thorium for 50,000 years of nuclear power does not sound unreasonable. We do have a great deal of it, and using it in a thermal breeder is not difficult. You get U-233 as the fissile material. Of course the lawyers and politicians that worry about proliferation do not like U-233 especially in a Thorium environment.
2. The molten salt reactor is attractive as you can implement on-line reprocessing where you divert a portion of the 'liquid' core stream and remove waste and excess fissile material. You may also add other materials such as fissile material, fertile material, and waste to be burned if you chose. Despite that, I don't much care for piping that nasty stuff around; my favorite heat transfer fluids are water and Helium. Again the lawyers and politicians won't like the on-line reprocessing aspect.
3. The idea of burning up our existing nuclear waste is not realistic unless physics has changed. You can run ORNL's ORiGENx code as I did or similar irradiation codes to look at what happens over a long period of time. Many of the lighter radioactive isotopes do "burn up" faster than they would if left alone, but the Actinides just don't go away. Actinides just become other Actinides. You can recycle the Actinides into other cores ad infinitum if you choose or you can dispose of them in a repository such as Yucca Mountain. As a result, I cannot see the need for a waste repository going away. You may recall some years ago there was intense interest in Accelerator Transmutation of Waste (again spallation neutrons) that rapidly faded away; the problem was again that the Actinides stick around. Perhaps there is new technology that is better these days, but I doubt that transmutation physics has changed.
Again the above is from memory, and I may be out of date, but perhaps the above is a useful contribution to the discussion on the Thorium reactors. In this context, it is also probably time to address the proliferation aspects. Breeding new new nuclear fuel, which is easy to do especially, I think, in a thermal breeder (without any need for an accelerator!) is necessary for our future, our children's future, and our children's children's future. We need to get over our irrational fear of having new, undiluted fissile material available before our landscape is littered with useless, decrepit windmills and crop-land consuming solar panels.
The point being that humanity does have resources; given freedom we will make use of them.
Regarding nuclear wastes: at worst, they can be made into glass and dumped into the Mindanao Trench, where they will be subducted into the Earth's core. Of course they will be gone forever.
After 600 years the nuclear wastes are actinides and are no more dangerous than the ores they came from. If we want them again there are other ways to get rid of them including stacking glass bricks in the Mojave at Fort Irwin. Surround them with three concentric rings of fences with Deadly Force warnings and detectors and let the military forces in training at Irwin do target practice on intruders.
Apparently the consensus is breaking down. One would think that those afraid of CO2 would welcome nuclear power, but I have seen little movement in that direction and Yucca Mountain is closing...
Again, the global warming would still be a racket since no one ever argues for a method to specify what the optimal temperature of the planet is, not to say whether the cure is less than the cost.
July 26, 2009
A Case Against Precipitous Climate Action
The notion of a static, unchanging climate is foreign to the history of the earth or any other planet with a fluid envelope. The fact that the developed world went into hysterics over changes in global mean temperature anomaly of a few tenths of a degree will astound future generations. Such hysteria simply represents the scientific illiteracy of much of the public, the susceptibility of the public to the substitution of repetition for truth, and the exploitation of these weaknesses by politicians, environmental promoters, and, after 20 years of media drum beating, many others as well. Climate is always changing. We have had ice ages and warmer periods when alligators were found in Spitzbergen. Ice ages have occurred in a hundred thousand year cycle for the last 700 thousand years, and there have been previous periods that appear to have been warmer than the present despite CO2 levels being lower than they are now. More recently, we have had the medieval warm period and the little ice age. During the latter, alpine glaciers advanced to the chagrin of overrun villages. Since the beginning of the 19th Century these glaciers have been retreating. Frankly, we don't fully understand either the advance or the retreat.
For small changes in climate associated with tenths of a degree, there is no need for any external cause. The earth is never exactly in equilibrium. The motions of the massive oceans where heat is moved between deep layers and the surface provides variability on time scales from years to centuries. Recent work (Tsonis et al, 2007), suggests that this variability is enough to account for all climate change since the 19th Century. Supporting the notion that man has not been the cause of this unexceptional change in temperature is the fact that there is a distinct signature to greenhouse warming: surface warming should be accompanied by warming in the tropics around an altitude of about 9km that is about 2.5 times greater than at the surface. Measurements show that warming at these levels is only about 3/4 of what is seen at the surface, implying that only about a third of the surface warming is associated with the greenhouse effect, and, quite possibly, not all of even this really small warming is due to man (Lindzen, 2007, Douglass et al, 2007). This further implies that all models predicting significant warming are greatly overestimating warming. This should not be surprising (though inevitably in climate science, when data conflicts with models, a small coterie of scientists can be counted upon to modify the data. Thus, Santer, et al (2008), argue that stretching uncertainties in observations and models might marginally eliminate the inconsistency. That the data should always need correcting to agree with models is totally implausible and indicative of a certain corruption within the climate science community). <snip>
The entire paper with footnotes is worth your time if you are involved in this debate. And there is no debate at all on what would be an ideal climate.
JPL Asteroid Watch.
-- Roland Dobbins
You said: "when computers become aware and are able to evolve through Lamarckian rather than Darwinian means. Smart machines design themselves to be smarter. What's the need for humans?"
If humans learn to modify our own DNA, then we could also "evolve" rapidly. As with everything human, I cringe at the follies and anticipate the triumphs that might ensue.
After doing that thought experiment, I suspect that Lamarckian evolution has its pitfalls in addition to its advantages. In competition (if it is to be competition between man and machine), it is easy to imagine one's opponent as infallible--we see our own weaknesses, and think our strengths to be easily countered. It is important to see our competitor's strengths and weaknesses, in addition to our own. Machines are not infallible, and men are not weak.
That is indeed true. We are more likely to get to the singularity through biochemistry than through physics/computer science. There are many SF novels on this theme. There is also the meme of combining biology and physical enhancement as in the Sauron cyborgs of my War World series. Thank you for the reminder.
July 31, 2009
Dear Dr Pournelle,
I would like to comment on the option of speeding up human evolution by learning to modify our DNA. It is certainly true that we can get enormous speedup over what random mutation followed by selection will do. However, it does not seem to me that it will be feasible to modify DNA 'in-place' to make an existing human smarter: Brain development happens mainly during childhood, and modifying the genes after maturity will have no effect. Similar things are true for other tissues. There are sharp limits, then, on what can be done to improve an existing human; and that means it will take twenty years to see the effect of your changes - you have to raise the prototype! (Not to mention that there are some ethical concerns here. Just how many failed experiments do we want to do, when each experiment is a living human - perhaps one smarter than the experimenter, even?)
Such a procedure could still lead to enormous change over a century; but it does not follow that this is comparable to the evolutionary timescale of a computer which can modify its code at electronic speeds! Let us suppose we have an AI which thinks as slowly as a human programmer; it might take it a week to optimise any particular subroutine, trying out this and that modification in a simulator. Then it blits the changes into memory in a few microseconds, and begins to think 5% faster for its *next* optimisation. And a week is rather a generous estimate, here; electrochemical synapses are fantastically slow compared to transistors.
There is a very significant difference between "faster than evolution" and "as fast as a computer". The two should not be confused.
As an aside - I realise the request is unusual - could you please tone down the interestingness of your site for the next week or two? I'm in the throes of finishing up my dissertation, and could do without the distraction. :)
There are also ethical concerns, of course. Engineering the human genome gives great power and great responsibility. For some of the concerns, see C. S. Lewis The Abolition of Man. Who decides what is an improvement? Once again, hard cases make bad law -- or bad ethics. Yet surely there are genes that we do not want in the pool. Deciding on which are desirable and which ought to be eliminated will not be easy.
Robert Heinlein looked at the edges of this in Beyond This Horizon more than 60 years ago, but in this case the genetic engineering was fairly primitive, and the effects not so profound as we now believe possible. His society was one of "better" humans -- smarter with faster reaction times, free of bad teeth and various other heredity-related diseases; a libertarian society that kept "normals" (humans without genetic improvements) on welfare as they were not competitive.
The real consequences of genetic engineering will be a lot more profound than that.
As to your request, I hope I can't manage that.
--- Roland Dobbins
Everything that Talin said about Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR) is quite true. There are technical reasons to prefer an LFTR over an Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), but both are so superior over anything we use now that it seems like nitpicking. Both produce about a GigaWatt-year of electricity per ton of fuel, so producing all the electricity that the United States needs would only take a few hundred tons per year or only a few grams per person. An IFR can burn spent fuel from a light water reactor or depleted Uranium. We have 728,000 tons of depleted Uranium stockpiled. That is enough to supply the whole world with electricity for a hundred years.
The story is similar for Thorium. For reasons I don't know, the United States mined huge amounts of Thorium and refined it and never used it and buried it again and it is still waiting for us to use. We have power for centuries without reopening a single mine. We have reserves to last us for tens of thousands of years. The Thorium cycle is simpler and cheaper and doesn't produce materials suitable for bombs, so we can humor the people that think a commercial power reactor can be used to produce weapons.
To paraphrase a man you turned me on to many year ago in Byte Magazine,Dr. Petr Beckmann. It is time to stop worrying about the risks of nuclear power and start worrying about the risks of not using nuclear power.
PS: In the category, things that make you go hmm. Kirk Sorensen is the 4th person to do a presentation on Thorium at Google since November. Maybe they are thinking about building their own power plants
Competitive Advantage and other Thoughts
One thing forgotten about in your commentary, is that one of the most commonly cited reasons why Ford, GM and Chrysler moved much of their plants to Ontario, was because Ontario had ‘free’ healthcare and the US did not. It was cheaper to employ people in Canada, because the huge costs of giving those workers equivalent care in the US was so exorbitant.
One must not forget that the massive consolidation efforts by the health care industry in the 90’s and 00’s, led to millions of people being stricken of their health benefits in order to save costs. The same people who owned and run many of the medical corporations are the same people who own the banks in the US and operate with the same care.
A common complaint I hear, is that people don’t want a faceless government bureaucracy running healthcare. But right now a lot of healthcare in the US is run by a faceless corporate bureaucracy, answerable to hedgefund managers and sovereign wealth funds.
I don’t know if in the Canadian system you would have survived or not. I think you would have and be surprised. When it comes to life threatening stuff its pretty quick, the system often fails at the lower end, like a hip replacement and non-essential services, where care is rationed.
But imagine you had a HMO or other substandard health care plan. Do you think you would have lived under those conditions? Your opinion is reflected that you have a premium health insurance, which is good for you, but the fact that 10’s of millions of Americans have no way of ever getting that level of care, or even the equivalent level of care I get must be of some concern.
Im just broadening the discussion, Im of the opinion that the US is not ready for the system we have, and Im certain there are better out there. I don’t know if you can afford it, but I don’t think saying, ‘It aint broke so don’t fix it’, is the answer either.
When supply is low, prices rise...in a free market. Healthcare is largely a third party payor system where prices do not always reflect the realities on the ground. Primary care physicians frequently do not have the freedom to raise their prices. These prices are set by government entities like Medicare and by large insurance companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Consider price controls on gasoline when oil is in short supply. The price does not reflect the real scarcity of the commodity. Since price is not allowed to rise and communicate to the consumer the reality of the situation, something else must ration the commodity: Soon, the fuel stations are out of gas and motorists have little choice but to cut back on commuting. And because the price is controlled, there is no incentive for oil companies to engage in exploration.
Primary care is in an analagous situation. Patients often have to search for some time to find a primary physician who will accept them and they may have to wait a long time for an appointment. And medical students will not go into primary care if they can make much more money and repay their school loans sooner as specialists. You get what you pay for.
Opting out of the third party payor system is an option, but the tax system incentivizes third party payor insurance and the physician who is brave enough to try to start a cash-only practice is likely to discover that patients will not pay the full price for an office visit when the option to pay merely a copay exists - http://www.modernmedicine.com/modernmedicine/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=494109
Admittedly, the third party payor system is perhaps the root of the high cost of healthcare, but the reality is American healthcare is not likely to adopt a libertarian, market-oriented model, at least not in the immediate future. Even the most ardent supporters of such a model admit it is more dream than reality: http://www.reason.com/news/show/135081.html
While I would prefer to see MiltonFriedmanCare rather than ObamaCare, I still contend that more primary care is needed for any reform to be effective.
Bob Newbell, M.D.
Controlling Health Care Costs -- First Things First
There appears to be a great National interest in controlling health care costs. In order to do this effectively it might be worthwhile to understand how and where spending on health care takes place and how costs might be reduced without reducing the quality of the health care provided.
There has been a lot of talk about how malpractice suits increase the cost of health care without increasing the quality of care. This is undoubtedly true, but exactly how are these suits increasing costs?
Malpractice Insurance premiums are one cost. I would postulate that an even larger cost is the ordering of unneeded tests and procedures in order for the attending physician to avoid the perfect hindsight of a Tort Lawyer.
Step one in controlling health care costs should be a change in Tort Law to the British System where the prevailing parties legal costs are borne by the losing party. This should go a long way to eliminating "frivolous" or nuisance law suits that are filed because it is less expensive for the Insurance Company to settle rather than defend against the suit.
Step two is to provide some realistic cap on Malpractice awards.
Step three is to offer incentives to Primary Care Physicians who take the steps necessary to maintain the good health of their patients. (There is also the necessity of providing Primary Care Physicians with reimbursement rates that are high enough to encourage newly graduated MDs to enter the field of Primary Care. This is currently NOT the case.)
Step four is to build on the concept of informed purchase that has taken its first struggling steps with Health Savings accounts and high deductible catastrophic Health Insurance. (When the patient is paying for it directly, the appropriate questions will usually be asked regarding cost and benefit. This is particularly true when fairly expensive tests such as MRI and CAT scans are involved. Given the choice of taking Ibuprofen to reduce the swelling of a sprained knee and seeing if it will heal over time or paying for a scan and arthroscopic surgery would be a no brainer for me.)
Will any of this happen? I give it a snowball's chance in a very hot place. The American Electorate needs to wake up to the fact that the critters that they are sending to Congress don't really give a rat's behind about the voters. Most of them are brought and paid for by one or another special interest. As I thought when Sotomayor was nominated to join the Supremes, "Don't look at what she has said. Read her decisions. Then make up your mind." The same applies to a Congress Critter.
Lester Thorow (MIT economist) gave a good lecture on health care over a decade ago at a Boston annual meeting of AAAS; part of his discussion included malpractice insurance costs.) Given the relationship between the Democratic Party and the Trial Lawyers Association, there was little chance of reform then, and less now.
As you observe, it's hard to keep costs down when the recipient and the payer are not the same. The demand for a free good is infinite, which means spending control through rationing, not through rational economic decisions. Once we determine that someone else is obligated to pay for your health care -- i.e. that you have a right to it -- everything changes.
Regarding Sotomayor, I find few of her decisions questionable and her bias toward local control actually favorable. It hardly matters: her confirmation was assured. My proclivity is that the President gets to choose whom he wants within reason. She's certainly within reason.
According to the news last night, the Japanese government called in all the major trading houses and ³suggested² that they develop an investment strategy for renting agricultural land in Central Asia, Central and South America, and Africa. The stimulus for this was the disturbing fact that a Korean shipping company had signed a 99-year lease for land in Madagascar. Companies were told to factor in water resources and the impact on the local economy.
I¹m sure the Obama Administration noticed the Korean move and immediately developed an analysis of the disparate impact it would have....
It was short piece and I don't have details, but I would guess that government analysts are projecting that as Chinese and Indians get richer they will want to eat more and that will cause agricultural prices to rise and there will be a bidding war. Rather than making money, I suspect the Japanese are thinking primarily about ensuring a stable food supply.
Already, the Chinese are buying luxury foods and outbidding the Japanese on certain delicacies.
About 10% of Japanese farmland is idle, so they recently changed the law to allow corporate farming (provided, of course, the local people agree to it--Japanese, ever sensitive to people's feelings, wouldn't want to upset rural voters).
All of which may provide some insight into what's going on in Japan. They have land, a decreasing population, and no inclination to allow immigration. Those who look for "stable" societies ("stasis" is sometimes a better word) ought to look into Japan's sustainability.
-- Roland Dobbins
Dear Dr. Pournelle:
Re Gates and Crowley: the professor over-reacted, and the policeman over-reacted. The smart thing for Gates to do, once he had proved who he was, was to keep his cool, memorize the cop's badge number, politely escort him out, and keep his racial indignation - however justified by history - to himself. And the smart thing for Crowley to do, once Gates had proved who he was, was to keep his cool, apologize politely for the inconvenience, ignore the old man's rants, leave the area, and keep his class resentments - however justified by economics - to himself. As is, Gates stupidly dissed a cop - no street smarts there! - and Crowley stupidly arrested him, for the non-crime of rudeness. It was not Cambridge's finest hour.
Aside from racial profiling, and ivory-tower cluelessness, this is about a constitutional issue. Who is the boss? The boss gets to be bad-tempered, demanding, rude and unreasonable. The servant must be polite, cool-headed, yielding and reasonable. Is the policeman, in a citizen's house due to a misunderstanding, the boss, or is the homeowner the boss?
- Nathaniel Hellerstein
Until the homeowner identified himself, the cop was "boss", responding to a suspicion of burglary. The instant that it was established that this is the homeowner, the owner is "boss". As I understand it, the policeman attempted to withdraw and went outside as soon as homeownership was established. The homeowner then followed him outside and continued to berate him. Apparently this is the view of the other police and neighbors who observed the incident. But surely it's all taken care of now through the teachable moment of the beer summit. What was taught is not clear to me.
August 1, 2009
One of the reasons Japan has a problem with agriculture, and thus is buying up land overseas, is a byproduct of the greatest, most successful land reform project in history.
In the period 1947-49, under the aegis of the Supreme Commander Allied Powers (General of the Army Douglas MacArthur), 38 (thirty-eight) per-cent of the arable land in Japan was transferred from landlords to the farmers who worked it. By 1950 three million former tenant peasants had become owner farmers.
This was a conscious, and successful, attempt to ameliorate what was seen by the Allied occupiers as the anti-democratic effects of the old rural social system of Japan.
The postwar Japanese constitution was designed so as to leave the actual mechanics of representation for the legislature to determine. It does not describe how representatives are allocated, or anything much other than requiring it to be "democratic" in nature.
In other words, the system allows the worst sort of what in America would be called "gerrymandering", or the establishment of what would be called in England "Pocket Boroughs".
Until 1996 it was not uncommon in Japan for one legislative district of the lower house of the Diet to have as many as five times the representatives of another. A decision of the Japanese Supreme Court in that year ruled that no district might have more than a three (!) times the representation of another.
Since the Liberal Democratic party (q conservative party in actuality) has drawn much of it's support from the new rural class of owner farmers, and since that party held virtually uninterrupted power from 1958 to 1990 (losing only three parliamentary elections,. all in the period 1976-83) they naturally fine tuned the election laws to give as much representation as possible to rural districts.
That's one big reason why ten per cent of the arable land in Japan lies fallow. The land reform law restricts the ownership of land largely to working farmers. Since this system of farmland ownership has become entrenched in the political structure of Japan, changing it is a political "hot potato".
A typical example of the "Law of Unintended Consequences".
Of course, if Honda keeps on improving those creepy walking robots to the point where one can stand in knee deep water all day, and stoup to plant rice seedlings, perhaps we will have a new class of Japanese Robot Managing Farmers.
Until, that is, the robots start demanding Land Reform!
"Land To The Processors!"
Subj: President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology - inaugural webcasted meeting 6-7 Aug 2009
and in particular
The indication that it's to be webcasted is at the end of the Federal Register notice:
>>It took longer than expected to find an available and accessible meeting location near the White House which could provide the enhanced webcasting services necessary to keep the meeting open and transparent to the public.<<
I wonder whether anyone will suggest a study leading to a recommended portfolio of X-programs and Prizes?
How about a study of the extent to which the "Theory of Anthropogenic Climate Change" is really a scientific theory, as opposed to a synthetic religion?
How about a study of how to make sure "consensus science" doesn't stifle skeptics?
Excellent suggestions but one wonders if they'll come up. It's more likely to be kabuki, I fear.
Is Kaiser An HMO?
Reader David March asked you to "imagine you had a HMO or other substandard health care plan. Do you think you would have lived under those conditions? Your opinion is reflected that you have a premium health insurance, which is good for you, but the fact that 10's of millions of Americans have no way of ever getting that level of care, or even the equivalent level of care I get must be of some concern."
The last time I looked, Kaiser Permanente WAS an HMO. Wikipedia thinks so. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaiser_Permanente - "In 1977, all six of Kaiser Permanente's regions had become federally qualified health maintenance organizations. Some believe then-President Richard Nixon specifically had Kaiser Permanente in mind when he signed the Health Maintenance Organization Act of 1973, as the organization was mentioned in an Oval Office discussion of the Act."
It sure looks like one to me here in Los Angeles. Thrive!
The Weirdest Object in the Solar System?
--- Roland Dobbins
Note that they don't patrol in Arizona, where they might spot and be forced to report actual border violations.
- Roland Dobbins
Subject: Austrian town installs cameras
If you don't get a chuckle out of this one, you're taking life too seriously.
There's an Abott & Costello routine in this somewhere!
Subject: Your Thoughts On Education Seem To Be Shared By Many
"Lamacchia isn't anti-college, but one of his firm beliefs is that not every good job requires a four-year degree, and not every kid needs to get one. Since he launched the site in 2003, he says, "I've heard from lots and lots of teachers who agree with me. They write things like, 'It's about time someone said this! But don't use my name.' "
I'm not anti-college but I certainly do not believe that all Americans have to become indentured servants in order to survive, and that's what we are headed for. Restrict the numbers going to colleges and make them cheaper. What we are doing makes them less useful and more expensive.
Scotty was right (sort of): Transparent Aluminum
Michael J. Totten: The Future of Iraq, Part IV
Michael Totten interviews an Iraqi about the future of Iraq:
Long, but interesting.
|This week:||Sunday, August
Any of your other readers might be interested in:
Centuries-old sketches solve sunspot mystery.
--- Roland Dobbins
49 days to Mars?
--- Roland Dobbins
Classic paper "On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B"
I need to archive my documents at work to avoid losing the bunch in an upgrade. While checking for things to thin out I ran across this. I hunted up a link online and now forward it to you. I have no doubt you are familiar with this, but feel it bears re-reading.
As you say, a classic. Thanks for the pointer and reminder.
It seems that Larry was right in predicting organlegging:
And not just in the third world, but in New Jersey, where I live.
But wait, New Jersey is . . .
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IF YOU SEND MAIL it may be published; if you want it private SAY SO AT THE TOP of the mail. I try to respect confidences, but there is only me, and this is Chaos Manor. If you want a mail address other than the one from which you sent the mail to appear, PUT THAT AT THE END OF THE LETTER as a signature. In general, put the name you want at the end of the letter: if you put no address there none will be posted, but I do want some kind of name, or explicitly to say (name withheld).
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