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September 7 - 13, 2009







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Monday  September 7, 2009

Amazon Patent Application for Ads in e-books

Hi Jerry,

I am curious about your reaction to U.S. Patent Application No. 20090171750, in which Amazon proposes a system for automatically embedding ads in ebooks, based on the subject matter of the book, page, or paragraph. Sounds like a good way to ruin a book, as far as I’m concerned. But I see it only from the reader’s point of view, and I wonder if you would consider commenting on this in the Chaos Manor mailbag or column.


Harold Gregory

We expect advertisements in magazines including those that publish large chunks of prose. Novelists used to publish in magazines and serial rights have been important in science fiction. Having said all that, I'd hate to see ads suddenly appearing in my Kindle.


This isn't going to format well, but it should suffice. The numbers seem higher than I had expected, but I don't spend much time thinking about this.

Physician Compensation

 Dr. Pournelle --

 You wondered about physician salaries.  Today I found the information below on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website.  The numbers are dated (2005 -- is Congress operating on such old information?) but should give a better idea of salaries.  While some seem somewhat higher than the Reps and Sens., members of Congress, as you pointed out, get significant perquisites while the figures for physicians below include all compensation and don't include costs of health and malpractice insurance.





From the Bureau of Labor Statistics website


http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos074.htm#earnings <http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos074.htm#earnings>


"Earnings of physicians and surgeons are among the highest of any occupation. The Medical Group Management Association’s Physician Compensation and Production Survey, reports that median total compensation for physicians in 2005 varied by specialty, as shown in table 2. Total compensation for physicians reflects the amount reported as direct compensation for tax purposes, plus all voluntary salary reductions. Salary, bonus and incentive payments, research stipends, honoraria, and distribution of profits were included in total compensation.


Table 2. Median Compensation for physicians, 2005


Specialty                                       < 2 yrs in Specialty                      > 1 yr in Specialty


Anesthesiology                                 $ 259,948                                       $ 321,686


Surgery: General                                $ 228,839                                  $ 282,504


Ob-Gyn: General                              $ 203,270                                     $ 247,348


Psychiatry: General                            $ 173,922                                   $ 180,000


Internal Medicine: General            $ 141,912                                       $ 166,420


Pediatrics: General                             $ 132,953                                      $ 161,331


Family Practice (w/out Ob-Gyn)        $ 137,119                                    $ 156,010




 (NOTE) Source: Medical Group Management Association, Physician Compensation and Production Report, 2005.


Self-employed physicians—those who own or are part owners of their medical practice—generally have higher median incomes than salaried physicians. Earnings vary according to number of years in practice, geographic region, hours worked, skill, personality, and professional reputation. Self-employed physicians and surgeons must provide for their own health insurance and retirement."


“My farm is now more like an oil field, and I have gotten nothing for it.”


- Roland Dobbins


The Myth of Technological Progress.


- Roland Dobbins

I don't really agree with this. Many of the technological capabilities that existed in theory in 1959 were not really available to anyone. I recall the Iliac, the most powerful computer in the world.. My iPhone is more powerful now, and it is in my pocket. That's quite a change. I could give other examples -- including the fact that I'm here.  Ah, well.


More technological progress?

"It is very sad when every man with a camera enjoying a Sunday afternoon out in the park with his children is automatically assumed to be a pervert."


--- Roland Dobbins

But we must be politically correct.


There Is No Such Thing As Nuclear Waste


I read your comment about nuclear waste and would like to amplify on them. Of course, the actinides can be used as fuel in a breeder reactors, but I found an interesting thing when I looked the fission products and checked to see what the end products of the decay of these isotopes would be. I found things like xenon, zirconium, neodymium, molybdenum, cerium, ruthenium, barium etc. There wasn't anything that didn't have commercial applications and some of them are quite valuable. There is no good reason to throw any of this 'waste' away. It should be stored until it appreciates, so to speak.

There is actually immediate applications for some of the radioisotopes. They can be used in medical applications like the therapy machine they used to zap your tumor or as tracers. There are commercial applications in metrology applications like thickness gages or in radioisotope electrical generators that can be used provide electric supplies for decades without maintenance.

I'm reminded of the meat packers' adage: "We use everything but the Squeal".

Joel Upchurch


The Office Supply Trebuchet.


-- Roland Dobbins


"Something is going on here that is not on the surface that they would bring in 3 government agents in contact with him over and over again."


- Roland Dobbins


A World Without Books?


When I see a Prep School giving away the books in its library and saying that we are head toward a World without books I am seriously worried.

What is to become of our Culture and Technology if a catastrophe should wipe out the technology needed to display the digitized information?

It may be time to start a project similar to the seed storage in Norway that preserves our culture and technical knowledge in a form that can be easily deciphered without technology. Something akin to the Rosetta Stone needs to be stored as well.

Bob Holmes



Did anyone run the numbers? - I was playing with some numbers...check me, have I forgotten something?

I guess I must be on the wrong page... A vehicle at 15 mpg and 12,000 miles per year uses 800 gallons a year of gasoline. A vehicle at 25 mpg and 12,000 miles per year uses 480 gallons a year. So, the average clunker transaction will reduce US gasoline consumption by 320 gallons per year. They claim 700,000 vehicles - so that's 224 million gallons / year. That equates to a bit over 5 million barrels of oil. 5 million barrels of oil is about ¼ of one day's US consumption. And, 5 million barrels of oil costs about $350 million dollars at $75/bbl. So, we all contributed to spending $3 billion to save $350 million. How good a deal was that??? They'll probably do a great job with health care though!!




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Tuesday,  September 8, 2009

On Ice Ages


Wikipedia has a nice bit on ice ages. It doesn't even appear very politicized yet:


I especially like the Holocene temperature chart, which shows the clear end of the last ice age at 10,000 B.P. -


- and the temperature variations since. In particular, it looks as if we're not back up to the temps the earth had 4500 to 8,000 years ago.

What was especially, er, cool was the additional text and images that accompanied the link from a single image:


Very educational.

I also liked this bit: "At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union (December 17, 2008), scientists detailed evidence in support of the controversial idea that the introduction of large-scale rice agriculture in Asia, coupled with extensive deforestation in Europe began to alter world climate by pumping significant amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the last 1,000 years. In turn, a warmer atmosphere heated the oceans making them much less efficient storehouses of carbon dioxide and reinforcing global warming, possibly forestalling the onset of a new glacial age."

That would certainly explain why the increase in CO2 began before the industrial age - it's those dratted rice farmers.

Then there is this: "Maureen Raymo, William Ruddiman and others propose that the Tibetan and Colorado Plateaus are immense CO2 "scrubbers" with a capacity to remove enough CO2 from the global atmosphere to be a significant causal factor of the 40 million year Cenozoic Cooling trend. They further claim that approximately half of their uplift (and CO2 "scrubbing" capacity) occurred in the past 10 million years."

And: "There is evidence that greenhouse gas levels fell at the start of ice ages and rose during the retreat of the ice sheets, but it is difficult to establish cause and effect (see the notes above on the role of weathering). Greenhouse gas levels may also have been affected by other factors which have been proposed as causes of ice ages, such as the movement of continents and volcanism.

"The Snowball Earth hypothesis maintains that the severe freezing in the late Proterozoic was ended by an increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and some supporters of Snowball Earth argue that it was caused by a reduction in atmospheric CO2. The hypothesis also warns of future Snowball Earths.

"William Ruddiman has proposed the early anthropocene hypothesis, according to which the anthropocene era, as some people call the most recent period in the Earth's history when the activities of the human race first began to have a significant global impact on the Earth's climate and ecosystems, did not begin in the 18th century with the advent of the Industrial Era, but dates back to 8,000 years ago, due to intense farming activities of our early agrarian ancestors. It was at that time that atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations stopped following the periodic pattern of the Milankovitch cycles. In his overdue-glaciation hypothesis Ruddiman states that an incipient ice age would probably have begun several thousand years ago, but the arrival of that scheduled ice age was forestalled by the activities of early farmers."

Further: "Some scientists believe that the Himalayas are a major factor in the current ice age, because these mountains have increased Earth's total rainfall and therefore the rate at which CO2 is washed out of the atmosphere, decreasing the greenhouse effect.[33] The Himalayas' formation started about 70 million years ago when the Indo-Australian Plate collided with the Eurasian Plate, and the Himalayas are still rising by about 5 mm per year because the Indo-Australian plate is still moving at 67 mm/year. The history of the Himalayas broadly fits the long-term decrease in Earth's average temperature since the mid-Eocene, 40 million years ago."

And much more. They even cover the solar output, which is supposedly increasing 10% every billion years. But that wouldn't explain why the earth was warmer during the Mesozoic.

Reading through it all, one gets the idea that our climate is complicated. I also got the sense that its purported self-stabilizing properties are perhaps overblown.

Cool stuff, eh?


Of course climate is complicated, which is why I would not want to bet the farm on the predictions of current models; and in my view, ICE is the worst case. The worst warming predictions don't have consequences as severe as being covered with a kilometer of ice. Last time it got past Seattle. You really don't want that much ice.

We also know that when the ice comes, it comes fast. One Belgian lake went from deciduous trees to being under a hundred feet of glacier in less than a century. The last Ice Age didn't get all the way south. We really don't want to live on Snowball Earth...


For a PDF copy of A Step Farther Out:



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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Letter from England

Diane and I cycled 48 miles from Bamburgh to Berwick and back this weekend to celebrate our anniversary. It was a good ride despite the rain and the swamp between Holy Island and Goswick.

 This story on Friday said a lot about current UK politics: <http://tinyurl.com/mjc666  >

 It looks like the UK may be joining China. <http://tinyurl.com/l3t2np> <http://tinyurl.com/l3t2np>. One problem with such a law is that it isn't clear how the innocent could defend themselves.

 It's dangerous to take on the authorities in the UK. <http://tinyurl.com/lfkcel  >

 Secondary school pass marks are being set absurdly low in the UK <http://tinyurl.com/mn28t7  >


"If they do that with marks and grades, should they be trusted with experimental data?"

Harry Erwin, PhD


General Sir Richard Dannatt was the target of a Labour smear. <http://tinyurl.com/lhtak6  > Questions about the Ministry of Defence <http://tinyurl.com/lqbq7s>

 My mail hasn't been arriving <http://tinyurl.com/mmkdhp>

 Labour has lost interest in its goal of 50% of school leavers having post-secondary education. How big the university cuts will be is the subject of speculation--somewhere between 2 and 20% next year. A large number of 18-year-olds decided to wait a year before applying to university, but it appears many programmes will be filled by next Easter. <http://tinyurl.com/naa4dr> <http://tinyurl.com/myox7h>


Beware Outside Context Problems-

-Harry Erwin, PhD



Article and nice pic of a habitable moon around a gas giant. Feasibility of discovering such. Great story setting.




Health insurance purchase mandate 


One aspect of the health "reform" which seems a given is to mandate the purchase of health insurance, with a stiff penalty for failing to do so. This got me thinking about comparable items which are already required. Certainly auto insurance is required--if you want to operate a motor vehicle. Or performance on a bar exam--if you want to be a lawyer.

But this is saying that your basic right to be alive is subject to regulation by the government. The nearest they've come so far would be income tax--and that at least required a constitutional amendment.

I guess it's a simple statement of how far an individual's relationship to their government has come. But isn't it at least worth a note in passing?

Andy Valencia

If everyone has a right to have someone else pay his doctor bills, does this not imply that government, which will enforce that right, has a right as well as the power to regulate such matters and make you contribute? You don't get something for nothing.

This all sounds like Bismark and the origins of Fascism. Mussolini, I have to reapeat, was an ardent socialist until the day he died. He did not consider Italian Fascism antithetical to socialism. (I also note that he was not anti-Semitic, and there were Jews in very high ranking positions in the Italian Fascist government until the German came in.)


Canadian waiting times


The former head of the Canadian Medical Association thinks wait times are a big problem and his numbers are even higher than those that caused offense before.


I hear different stories about Canadian waiting times. If the purpose is to apply a floor it may be a good scheme. I am not sure who sets prices. I do know that the funding sets the waiting times. 


Jerry: You said: "Legislators probably are not paying off education loans nor are they paying for malpractice insurance."

Considering the consequences of their actions, it would be nice is someone other than the taxpayers was on the hook for legislative malpractice! And I would gladly pay my fair share of legislative education costs, if it could be proven to have any value at all.

Chris C


Did Anyone Run the Numbers Revisited

A reader writes: "Did anyone run the numbers? - I was playing with some numbers...check me, have I forgotten something?

I guess I must be on the wrong page... A vehicle at 15 mpg and 12,000 miles per year uses 800 gallons a year of gasoline. A vehicle at 25 mpg and 12,000 miles per year uses 480 gallons a year. So, the average clunker transaction will reduce US gasoline consumption by 320 gallons per year. They claim 700,000 vehicles - so that's 224 million gallons / year. That equates to a bit over 5 million barrels of oil. 5 million barrels of oil is about ¼ of one day's US consumption. And, 5 million barrels of oil costs about $350 million dollars at $75/bbl. So, we all contributed to spending $3 billion to save $350 million. How good a deal was that??? They'll probably do a great job with health care though!! "

I'm not sure how useful this calculation is. The tax payers didn't spend 3 dollars to save 35 cents / year. The tax payers spent 3 dollars to save the beneficiaries of the plan 35 cents / year.

If we do want to calculate an "our cost vs. their benefit" number, then another approach is to consider the individual transaction and consider the retail cost of refined fuel at the point of delivery rather than the cost of a barrel of crude. We spent between $3,500 and $4,500 per individual (ignoring the loss in administrative fees), to save the individual 320 gallons of fuel per year. If we assume $3 / gallon gas, then the payback time is between 3.6 and 4.7 years assuming that we aren't paying interest to service the debt on the $4,500. This assumes that the average clunker was going to last that long in the first place.

There are other complications. The newer cars will require fewer repairs, further benefiting the program participant (though perhaps not the auto repair industry), but on the other hand he had to buy a new car, when he might have purchased a newer used car. People also tend to drive more miles when their fuel economy improves.

I think the administration would argue that the value of the fuel savings isn't the point. It's to give the economy a push through Keynesian spending. Another goal is to reduce CO2 output even though in those terms, the cost/benefit is even more hopeless.

-- Mike Johns

Note that only a tiny part of the stimulus has been spent. Keynesian stimulus spending has been tried many times, and doesn't seem to work well, but the usual answer to that is that not enough was spent. One would think the amounts approved for the stimulus would be more than enough if the theory be sound, but apparently they aren't really going to try it, at least not until next election year.


Analyzing HR 3200 as a piece of software


Thought you might be interested in this. I've been analyzing HR 3200 (Health Care Reform) as if it were source code. It has profound problems with (a) being understandable, (b) being predictable, and (c) being reversible (once it's deployed). Here's the first part:


-- Bruce F. Webster

An interesting approach.


Subj: Caching books

Bob Holmes suggests that

>>It may be time to start a project similar to the seed storage in Norway that preserves our culture and technical knowledge in a form that can be easily deciphered without technology. Something akin to the Rosetta Stone needs to be stored as well. <<

Know anyone in Tujunga who has a septic tank? 8-)

Rod Montgomery==monty@starfief.com


The Myth of Technological Progress

"I don't really agree with this. Many of the technological capabilities that existed in theory in 1959 were not really available to anyone. I recall the Iliac, the most powerful computer in the world.. My iPhone is more powerful now, and it is in my pocket. That's quite a change. I could give other examples -- including the fact that I'm here. Ah, well. [JEP]"

There are two comments to the above

The Takimag article appears to have been inspired by this piece:


Can you be persuaded the thesis deserves some more discussion? Mr. Nordmann contends there has been a pronounced flattening of the technological yield curve since the late 1950s. I've thought the same about a great many fields. It's as if Future Shock stopped occurring at the same moment the Tofflers propounded the idea. You yourself have adduced overwhelming evidence for stagnation in space flight technology since the mid-1960s, and contemplated possible reasons for this.

Is this because of physical limits? Or did something happen in social organization to inhibit further progress at the same rate as in the past? Did the expansion of Drucker's Corporate State instinctively act to choke off innovation?

He has other delightful observations like this one:

"But now, when considering highly complex ­phenomena—in cellular processes, in chips containing billions of transistors, or in programs numbering hundreds of thousands of lines of code—even the experts must take a great deal on trust. That is because they have no choice but to study such ­phenomena using a cross-disciplinary approach. These experts greet extraordinary claims made from within their own disciplines with skepticism and even indignation. But they can find it very hard to maintain such methodological vigilance in the hothouse atmosphere of a high-stakes collaboration in which ­researchers want desperately to believe that their own contributions can have wonderfully synergistic effects when combined with those of experts in other fields. And so, modest researchers recruit one another into immodest funding schemes."

The best description I've seen yet of the institutional pressures that produced "Global Warming Science".



I agree that the original author seems too eager to dismiss enormous changes as "incremental improvements". Incremental improvements that allows a room sized computer to control your car's anti-lock brakes is a difference in degree so vast as to be a difference in kind. We probably will see more good stuff come out of biotechnology and nanotechnology. But isn't there an essential truth to the notion that perhaps most developments in the last fifty years were theoretically possible in 1959. Sometimes it seems to me like the hardware used in the first Gulf War was the realization of the technology that first appeared on a limited basis in WWII.

Isn't there something to the notion that our horizon of possibilities hasn't been keeping up? What are the big scientific discoveries that offer grand visions of engineering wonders fifty years from now? Physics seems to be a field in which it takes increasingly vast energies to make discoveries. At some point we will need a particle accelerator that circles the equator. How likely is it that such discoveries will result in a gizmo that is useful in a commercial sense?

Considerable effort has gone into coming up with a feasible test for the predictions of string theory. If we can't come up with a practical way to test it, it seems unlikely that we can exploit it, because such an application would essentially be the test we seek.

Mr. Locklin argues that the reason for this is because modern technologists aren't as good as the old ones. This strikes me as unlikely. Supposing the average technologist isn't as capable as the ones in 1959, surely if there are more technologists now than ever before in human history, a few outliers should be able to outshine the technologists from 1959.

It seems to me that a more likely explanation is that the technology curve is s-shaped and that the scientific discoveries that drive it also come less easily. It really does take an army of people to invent a new jumbo jet, and more computing power than a slide rule can deliver.

Mike Johns


Robert Bussard used to say that we've done all the easy stuff. Technology goes in S curves; this is easily demonstrated. As to the size of accelerators, I chaired a AAAS panel in Houston Lo! these many years ago, on the actual limits to knowledge. One of the papers presented was on that subject...

The Iron Law applies in the sciences as well as elsewhere; and the huge grant system tends to build bureaucracies. How could it not?





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Thursday, September 10, 2009

On the Slowing or Otherwise of Progress

There are certainly governmental/socially induced brakes which were less prominent in the past. You have discussed how, if government invested in space, via X-Prizes we could have colonised the system by now. We could also have cheap nuclear electricity worldwide& I think an international grid. The only thing preventing the widespread use of modular housing & GM plants (for food & other things barely under discussion) is government regulation. I am convinced that without damaging regulation western economies would be growing faster than China. Even if government was always this parasitic & I don't think it was, then the growth of government produces stronger brakes.

On the other hand

For a decade world AVERAGE growth has been 5%. 30 years ago when Japan & Singapore were growing at nearly 7-10% this was an "economic miracle" but it is becoming commonplace. Increasing growth rates alone suggest to me we may still be on the lower side of the S curve. See world growth rates http://www.geographyiq.com/ranking/
ranking_GDP_real_growth_rate_dall.htm  This suggests that while particular highly visible new technologies get stamped on the underlying rate of progress is not only continuing but increasing. We also see Moore's Law & strength of materials increasing fast (Clarke originally posited a space elevator in the 22nd century yet we are within reach of having materials to build one now).

Because they are starting from a lower base it is not surprising that the fastest developing countries are not revolutionizing technology but as they reach western levels we must expect they will (eg South Korea becoming a leading nuclear reactor manufacturer). If this means the eclipse of the West, which I regret, it means good things for the human race.

Neil Craig

I tend to agree. In the stories and novel that make up EXILE -- AND GLORY! I postulate that we would be a lot further into space in 2010 than we are going to be, despite political problems and a depression. There's no real reason we couldn't be where I thought we would. On the other hand, there are no technological reasons why we can't get there yet. In my stories I assumed a bit more freedom than we have now.



Plateauing of technical advances? Three thoughts.

1. I was going to link to an article about where the brains are going, but now I can't find it. Oh, well. The gist: In the US, engineers are no longer going into aerospace, but into electronics and biotech. That's where the money is, after all. So we should not be surprised to find advances slowing in fields where management I having a hard time scrounging up competent help. Look for advances in fields where the brains are.

2. Some fields have hit plateaus because they have to wait for other technology to catch up. Consider agriculture: McCormick reapers, then wait decades. Then the internal combustion tractor. Then a decade or two wait, then pesticides and liquid fertilizers produced in factories. Although genetically modified crops may not find lots of takers, computer-controlled crop tending is on the horizon.

Automobiles have been using gasoline engines for more than a century. Finally we have had computer-controlled combustion and even new forms of propulsion - had to wait for the batteries, you see.

Of course, some fields may simply reach a climax design. I'm thinking of jet airliners. But maybe new tech will push them forward.

3. Many people miss the forest for the trees. Remember pay phones? Remember sitting by phones so as not to miss important calls? Cell phones reduced that big time. Remember seeing so many cars on the side of the road? Electronic ignitions have really cut into that.

I can call my wife from the grocery to ask if something I am looking at is the right something. When I have a question, I jump to the Internet. Kids are all over texting. Progress is happening all around us, and it's speeding up, not plateauing. When I consider adding a medication, I drag out my iPod Touch and check the potential interactions with ePocrates. Oh, no. No progress there.

And phones with cameras catching people in embarrassing rants. And soon cops will be mounting head-cams, and not only to keep them honest. Do you think Professor Gates would have launched into the rant that got him arrested if he had been staring at a camera?

At an L5 conference at an LAX hotel in the early 1980's Art Kantrowitz asked my dad what he thought was the greatest advance he had seen in his life. My dad said he was astonished at the power available to the individual. A single person had immense power, he thought.

And that was nearly thirty years ago. It's gotten immensely more true since then.


As I have said. In A Step Farther Out I said that technology had expanded what I called "real" rights, such as the right to get across country in a day, to have teeth into old age, to communicate across vast distances, rights that the wealthiest and most powerful could not have had fifty years before...


The Myth of Technological Progress 

It seems to me the vast bureaucracies enabled by the recent industrial revolutions have themselves become the chief impediments to progress. A current example is this collection of White House appointed "space experts" from the government-science, government-educational and government-industrial complexes.


They admittedly know of no way to significantly lower launch costs and they also can't see any point in men returning to the moon. And they also want to keep Shuttle flying longer to the ISS.


Prizes would do it. A prize for a truly reusable space ship... But NASA will not do it again. You might get the Air Force to do it black. It would cost a lot more than a prize, but it might be possible. Not as a NASA program.


Bill Gates Keeps Pumping College Financial Bubble  


Promoting the superiority of mainframe computers over the PC is the only thing I can imagine that would be more at variance with his actual career.

"Only one-third of American high school students graduate with the skills necessary to succeed in college and the nation's workplaces, he said."

At least half of this is correct. Although this Harvard drop-out cannot credibly claim a "college degree" is mandatory for business success. Gates' own life could reasonably lead one to believe that overstaying in contemporary American colleges is the real error. The one-third of students Gates cites is the population of interest. Do they have the necessary skills because of or despite the programs they went through at school?


The Higher Education Establishment defends its right to take on more and more public money while charging higher and higher tuition. One wonders why we fund these places. It's no mystery why their faculties want them kept going.


Dan Alderson Reincarnated?

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

Is it just me, or has the young Mr. Wil Wheaton managed to channel Dan Alderson in this photo?


Next year in Luna City,

David K. M. Klaus


On 9/11

As some of you may be aware, "The Won" is seeking to desecrate 9/11 as a "Day of National Service" instead, with the excuse that "We need to move on".

I recall, years ago when we were toppling the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar whining to some journalist that we should "Get over it!".

To which my response must be not only "No!", but "Hell No!!!".

Like many, I was at work on that day, learning of it when co-workers told me to check out CNN on the internet, and watched it play out, watching with horror when the buildings collapsed with so many still inside.

The next day, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, normally a fairly angry liberal wrote a column ( reproduced at WTC Trbute http://www.forgotten-ny.com/WTCtribute.html  "We'll Go Forward From this Moment" ) in which he observed (among other things)...

"Let me tell you about my people. We are a vast and quarrelsome family, a family rent by racial, social, political and class division, but a family nonetheless. We're frivolous, yes, capable of expending tremendous emotional energy on pop cultural minutiae -- a singer's revealing dress, a ball team's misfortune, a cartoon mouse. We're wealthy, too, spoiled by the ready availability of trinkets and material goods, and maybe because of that, we walk through life with a certain sense of blithe entitlement. We are fundamentally decent, though -- peace-loving and compassionate. We struggle to know the right thing and to do it. And we are, the overwhelming majority of us, people of faith, believers in a just and loving God.

Some people -- you, perhaps -- think that any or all of this makes us weak. You're mistaken. We are not weak. Indeed, we are strong in ways that cannot be measured by arsenals."

And concluded with ... "So I ask again: What was it you hoped to teach us? It occurs to me that maybe you just wanted us to know the depths of your hatred. If that's the case, consider the message received. And take this message in exchange:

You don't know my people. You don't know what we're capable of. You don't know what you just started.

But you're about to learn."

THIS is how I'll remember 9/11, for a VERY long time to come.

-- Paul Gordon




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Friday,  September 11, 2009

What Technological Progress

I think what Taki was trying to get at was the radical nature of the changes that have or have not taken place. The Kano Principle divides innovations into three categories:

1. Delighters. If they are absent, we don't miss them because we never expected them. If they are present, they surprise and delight. This is what Dafydd ab Hugh calls the "Gosh Wow!" and others call "Sensawunda." An example was color TV when it was new.

2. Intensifiers. These are more-is-better. Tuning knobs to get rid of the "halo" around faces and keep the people from looking green. Then the knobs migrated to the back of the set because they weren't needed as often. Then they disappeared because they were not needed at all. The garish colors of the first sets have given way to more realistic and stable colors.

3. Dissatisfiers. If these are present, they merit a shrug. So what? It's supposed to be that way. If they are absent, they create dissatisfaction. There was a time when turning on a TV and actually seeing a picture was Gosh Wow. Now it's damn well what we ought to see.

So you and Taki are both right. He says that there are few Delighters popping up these days; you say that there are many improved Intensifiers. The iphone is quantitatively better than the old Bell phone and the Iliac; and sometimes quantity is a quality all its own. But Taki's main point is that people of 1959 knew what computers were and they knew what telephones were. And the satisfaction we have that they have gotten better, smaller, faster, etc. is as nothing compared to the astonished delight of having them at all. The teenager is in many ways progress over the toddler; but the baby is a sudden delight.

My old history teacher, John Lukacs, said much the same thing in a book of his, The Passing of the Modern Age (1970). Paraphrasing from memory: Between 1870 and 1920, they daily lives of people in the cities of the Western world changed more than they ever had before ... or after. To our grandfathers, telephones, radios, automobiles, airplanes were an old hat. Today our airplanes have no propellers and our radios have pictures, but this is less radical a change than the change from the piano in the parlor and story-time around mother's easy chair to the radio or the change from a world of no airplanes to a world of airplanes; from horse-wagons to automobiles; from messenger boys to telephones.

I once did a chart of US Patents per 100,000 people and noted that after 1920 it began to decline. What this might mean, I don't know; but it could be the Heroic Age of progress is over, and now it's just sodbusters and shopkeepers.

Mike Flynn

The simple comment remains Doc Bussard's: we've done all the easy stuff.

Of course that also interacts with the availability of new equipment and instruments. Faraday didn't need an oscilloscope or cloud chamber. Hubble didn't need a modern computer. Now, as we look into the Mach principle and search for gravitons we need all kinds of instruments that no one dreamed possible when I was taking university physics...


Thirteen things that don't make sense

New Scientist: <http://tinyurl.com/ahbbbo>

Thirteen MORE things that don't make sense   

New Scientist: <http://tinyurl.com/mg8xa3>

 -- Harry Erwin


J. Bronowski - Knowledge or Certainty 

The late Jacob Bronowski on the dangers of certainty in human affairs.


Would that every climatologist and advocate of "change:, "reform" and "progress" might watch this regularly, and remember: A perfect response to a certain public act of hubris displayed upon the national stage this past Wednesday eventide.

" I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." - Oliver Cromwell


The trend seems to be in the other direction.


Combat Outpost - Afghanistan

You have to see this. Harrowing video

(WARNING - Strong Language in parts. They are, after all, U. S. Marines under fire.)


Forget the Big Stories from the Big Bases. In this report from a small Marine outpost in the Afghanistan hills, you get a feel for what it is like for the men on the ground in Afghanistan.

It looks more like World War One on the Western Front than anything else. Right down to the trenches. The Marines in this outpost are in the valley, and the Taliban in the hills.

Two quotes are important:

"You're the first reporter. in over eight months, we've seen out here."


Reporter - "Who's gaining ground here?

Marine - "They are."


The King of Afghanistan has never been more than the Khan of Kabul. Attempts to unify the Afghanistanis are always resisted. The country produces nothing we need. We want only that it not harbor our enemies. There are a hell of a lot better ways to accomplish that than occupation. The security of Pakistan is a far greater national interest. Just to be sure I am clear, occupation of Pakistan is NOT the proper way to accomplish this. Bombing people and killing their relatives is seldom a good way to make friends and influence people. Sometimes killing their enemies is a way to make friends, but note our success in making friends with France by doing that.

For more on this see below


They knew

Dr. Pournelle,

I found this very interesting.

"You don't know my people. You don't know what we're capable of. You don't know what you just started. But you're about to learn."

THIS is how I'll remember 9/11, for a VERY long time to come.

-- Paul Gordon"

To the contrary, I think that the perpetrators of 9-11 knew precisely what they were starting and got exactly what they wanted ie for us to invade Muslim nations and rally people to their cause. They knew it would take something the magnitude of 9-11. Instead of going directly after the perpetrators and killing them, we toppled governments and set up puppet regimes, just like they knew we would.

Who doesn't know who?

Matt Kirchner Houston, TX

P.S. I hope Mr Gordon realizes that most people have already forgotten 9-11.

My advice was to build monuments and invest in nuclear power plants and other domestic energy sources; it would have been cheaper than the war. Of course no one listened. The Bushes have always been suspicious of Reagan's people.


Blog post by Matt Rogers that is well worth reading.

This Capital Weather Gang blog entry is written with considerable trepidation given the politically-charged atmosphere surrounding human-induced global warming.

I am a meteorologist with a life-long weather fascination. As I'm sure you know, meteorology is an inexact science due to the large number of variables involved in predicting and understanding the weather. I frequently say that weather forecasting is a humbling endeavor, and I have learned to respect its challenges. From this perspective, you might be able to better understand why I wince when hearing pronouncements such as "the science is settled", "the debate is over", or even the "the temperature in the 2050s is projected to be..." I realize that forecasting climate and weather are different, but both involve a large number of moving parts.

There are numerous reasons why I question the consensus view on human-induced climate change covered extensively on this blog by Andrew Freedman. But for this entry, I scaled them down to ten:


-- Robert K. Kawaratani


On decorum during a Presidential address to a joint session

Dr. Pournelle,

The need for decorum runs both ways. Recall what the president said just prior to the outburst from the Congressman:

Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.

There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false – the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.

The president, in his imperial wisdom, called Sarah Palin a liar (carefully not naming her, but we all know that's the reference. He also demeaned those in opposition (like ME!!) by putting up a straw to explain that we oppose it because we're some sort of evil. Now we must choose between decorum or letting the truly evil win?

Can't afford much, but I'm sending Joe Wilson some money.

-- Robin Juhl


Health Care


From http://www.jerrypournelle.com/view/2009/Q3/view587.html:  "The system will entitle millions to have someone else pay their doctor bills. Can we afford this?"

First off, I'm a Canadian, so that is the source of my perspective on this. Consider someone asking you these questions:

The system will entitle millions to have someone else pay for their highways. Can we afford this?

The system will entitle millions to have someone else pay their firefighting bills. Can we afford this?

The system will entitle millions to have someone else pay their search and rescue bills. Can we afford this?

The system will entitle millions to have someone else pay their national defense bills. Can we afford this?

Certainly the Canadian system is not perfect, and I am not advocating that the U.S. adopt it. It just seems strange that a basic and decent level of health care is not considered a right. Of course, the key is to properly define 'basic and decent'. For example, dental care is not considered as health care in Canada - those without a dentel plan either pay or do without, and for many that means they do without. I suspect there are many U.S citizens who 'do without' for much more than dental care, and who live with pain or discomfort because of it. And of course some die.

Greg French

Nova Scotia

The consequences of not being able to afford roads is that we don't have roads. If we can't afford fire fighting then towns and cities will burn. If we can't afford search and rescue, people will drown or be lost in the woods. If we can't afford national defense we will be unable to intervene in overseas adventures, and if someone invades we will lose the war.

The consequences of not being able to afford something generally dictate the urgency of raising taxes or cutting less vital spending so that we can afford it. I don't understand the purpose of the questions. Canada gets along without much in the way of national defense. Had the US taken my advice on invading Iraq we would have spent a lot less than the cost of the war on developing domestic energy supplies including nuclear plants. We'd almost certainly have enough to invest in some kind of $250 deductible health care policy for nearly everyone in the country while lowering tax rates -- and we might or might not have avoided the current depression.

But we cannot now afford to bash down the curbs and put in ramps for the handicapped. So we don't do that.

There are many desirable things we can't afford. There are many other things government can do and perhaps we can afford but which may not be the right thing to do.

The proposed system adds millions of people including illegal aliens to those who are entitled to have someone else pay their medical bills. Can we afford this?  And, the question not addressed, should we put this obligation on those who will have to pay? If so, under what principle? I am prepared to believe there may be such a principle, but perhaps it ought to be stated?

And see below


Firemen and Healthcare

Dr. Pournelle,

Your rhetorical question in the View on Thursday is right on the mark:

Apparently we are not all entitled to having the curbs bashed in and ramped, nor even to deployment of all the fire protection services we already have in place. Perhaps this is a different principle from health care? http://www.jerrypournelle.com/view/

If we insist on regarding healthcare as a right, we will continue to have problems. Neither can we frame the issue in terms of compassion, for neither political rights nor human suffering know bounds. The provision of healthcare is clearly dependent upon our ability to pay, individually or collectively. A true right, like the right to confront one's accuser, is not a matter of money, but rather if an accusation is made and a trial is to be conducted, you simply place the accused and accuser together in the same forum. All the elements already exist, one must simply do what is required. Healthcare, on the other hand, requires a lot of time and expense to train doctors and prepare equipment, and is thus dependent upon external factors that may or may not be conducive to the service in question even existing.

Healthcare is indeed like police and fire services, it has become a predicate of civil society, and we require its provision to function. By way of example one might consider the cost of lost work in a manufacturing enterprise such as the one that employs me. We institute mandatory programs of simple stretches and exercises for assembly line workers because it helps to prevent lost time due to repetitive motion injuries. This is clearly for the benefit of the entire enterprise, especially since we are self-insured. The question about healthcare ought to be: how do we provide healthcare in such a way as to preserve the advantages of our society such as personal freedom and relatively free markets while expanding care to cover the polity more completely. This not a matter of rights, but rather of the common good.

If seen in this manner, we could establish reasonable limits, just as the fire department is not normally liable if your house does in fact burn down, nor the police liable if they fail to prevent the burglary in your home. Policemen and firemen do indeed try very hard to prevent these things, but perfection is neither possible nor expected. The purpose of healthcare is really to preserve order in society, and seen in this fashion the guiding virtue is not justice, but prudence, which is in part the art of the possible.

-- Benjamin I. Espen

As an investment in public order this may well be justified; but that is not the debate I have seen.


Fossil fuel: Now without the fossils,


Fossil fuel, now without the fossils:


"More bad news for the Peak Oil doomsday cult. Russian boffins say they have proved that fossil fuels can be created synthetically by replicating the high pressure, high temperature conditions found in the upper parts of the Earth's crust . . . Under conditions of the upper mantle of the Earth's Crust, methane reacts to produce ethane, propane and butane. It means fossils aren't needed to produce oil and gas."

Dig deeper. Hmm. Reminds me of a preacher or two.


I met Tommy Gold at AAAS meetings and I was impressed with his arguments, as was Dr. Possony. Neither of us are geophysicists. I have always thought that the biological "fossil fuel" theory of the origins of petroleum were a bit deficient in evidence. Of course Gold's theories were also mostly theoretical. If this is experimental evidence for a non-biotic origin of oil that's good news.


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This week:


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Saturday, September 12, 2009

I took the day off.






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CURRENT VIEW     Saturday

This week:


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Sunday,  September 13, 2009     

Oberg on space flight

I highly recommend this commentary on manned space flight by James Oberg. And it contains some startling ideas. Plus an amusing dig or two at politicians.




I keep wondering what kind of cake th' dog likes.

We don't always agree, but usually we do, and in any case Big Jim Oberg is always worth paying attention to.


'Five years ago the idea that the private sector might have been capable of transporting cargo and people reliably into low Earth orbit was viewed as crazy.'


-- Roland Dobbins


Joe Wilson's Outburst


What Rep. Wilson shouted during President Obama's speech might have been embarrassing for the Republican's, but it seems to have been successful in casting a spotlight on the issue of health care for illegal immigrants.


Joel Upchurch

We can but hope.




Pat Buchanan's commentary on "reaping the whirlwind"


Is America coming apart?

We sow the wind and reap the whirlwind; it is not too late to recover. Rome did not fall in a day. It was a long time from Marius to Augustus.




Regarding the piece posted 911 memorializing 9/11:

It seems chic now, on both the left (Speaker Pelosi) and the right (Mr. Will), to say that the time has come to withdraw from Afghanistan.

And if we don't have a viable military objective from remaining, there is a part of me that might agree with that statement.

But in reflection (and application) of your lessons here about Vietnam, I respectfully submit that in both Iran and Afghanistan we have forgotten a fundamental lesson: An enemy must be not only beaten, but broken; and if not broken, the enemy will reassemble and attack, again and again, until the United States gets tired and gives up.

Whatever civil objectives we wish to achieve in Afghanistan, it is essential that we remain until the Taliban is broken as a power. Not as a minority entity in submission to the other warlords, but totally broken as an entity, it's adherents scattered, disunited, and individually under the social control of different ones of the remaining warlords.

The consequences of Vietnam were severe, and America tore itself apart over them. But should the Taliban survive as an entity, it is guaranteed that one day -- not tomorrow, probably not next year, but I would lay even money before the end of the current decade -- they will seek to revenge their humiliation by an attack that would make 9/11 look like a schoolyard brawl. Probably in collaboration with their various nuclear-capable neighbors.

On 9/12, one of my best friends said, "this will not end until the entire Middle East has been reduced to green glass." Should that next attack occur, this end becomes significantly more likely (submitted for your consideration, Colonel Tom Kratman's Baen novel Caliphate http://www.webscription.net/chapters/
1416555455/1416555455.htm?blurb; or, more probably, Dan Simmon's "Time Traveler's Tale" from his web site in April 2006 http://www.dansimmons.
com/news/message/2006_04.htm).  And the United States may become something much like unto the most improbable fantasies of the left during the Bush II presidency.

It is certainly arguable that we should not have diverted ourselves from breaking the Taliban by taking out Iraq, but that is neither here nor there. In both cases, we have had a strategy that has mistaken the first flush of victory for the achievement of that lofty goal, and in both cases we have left a more or less unbroken and unbowed remnant of the enemy behind. And unless we as a nation begin to execute a security policy that is substantial, not kabuki theater, while still respecting individual liberties, we will suffer the consequences.

Unfortunately, while that might have been possible under some of the Republicans, it is certainly not possible in the short term under the current Administration. And that statement does not begin to consider the certainty of an increasing number of my correspondents that the current Administration has, by the pre-inclination of several of its leaders, already capitulated to the certainty that they will allow Sharia law on American soil.


What we want from Afghanistan is that it not harbor our enemies. We do not need the place to be a democracy, we don't need it as a trade partner, we don't need Afghanistan as a market. They make nothing we want other than opium. What we do want is for Afghanistan not to harbor our enemies.

There are many ways to prevent the return of the Taliban that do not involve sending occupation forces to enforce the rule of the Mayor of Kabul over the rest of the country. The USSR could not do that. Britain could not do that. Afghanistan has been breaking the teeth of would-be rulers since the time of Alexander the Great.

The invasion of Iraq was folly. Sending in the special forces to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan was a master stroke. Having done that, we did not need to send in occupation forces to try to force the unification of the country under Kabul. We gained a great deal of respect and friendship by driving out the Taliban. We then substituted ourselves for the USSR in an attempt unify a place that has no unity.

We didn't kill Bin Laden. That's unfortunate. He has been driven into a traveling exile.

The strategy of Bin Laden was to draw us into land wars in the Middle East. Has that succeeded?


Mr. French 


I found it hard to let the Mr. French's letter pass without comment. Hence...

When someone pays for highways, he gets to use them as much as the millions of other highway users who may pay more or less. In fact, since highway funding is at least in principle tied to fuel taxes, people pay in some proportion to that they use.

Public, tax-funded fireman are a public safety necessity in crowded cities. If one structure catches fire, it poses a danger to other nearby structures (remember Mrs. O'Leary's cow, or the now more likely boloid, that started the Great Chicago Fire). Also, paying for the fire department is a component of fire insurance. That said, there are many rural areas where the population depends on volunteer fire departments which are supported by subscriptions, donations, the occasional public or private grant, and, yes, sometimes, direct billing for services rendered. These departments may often respond to a fire at a residence of someone who has not supported the fire department and cannot or will not pay -- but nobody pretends that their brave actions are anything other than a charity in those cases.

Perhaps things are different in Canada, but in the United States the vast majority of search and rescue activities (in terms of applied manpower, and not including certain hazardous situations requiring special training) are performed by volunteers; again, as a public charity. In some cases where the person requiring rescue was particularly negligent, they have been billed for the time of those "public servants" who were involved in the activity.

Finally, national defense is a public good (or at least it was when we had it, under two of the last three Republican administrations) from which every person paying taxes will benefit.

Excluding public health issues related to sanitation, hazardous materials incidents (to include terrorism), and infectious disease, health care has traditionally been viewed a private contract between the provider and the customer, or patient (in fact, to the extent that has changed for various infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, the transition has been effective precisely because the patients desired more personal privacy than could be permitted under traditional standards of public health management). It is NOT obvious that, for example, I have any obligation to pay for your X-rays, any more than you have an obligation to pay for my type 2 diabetes treatments, except for the mutual obligation that we have undertaken -- involuntarily -- through the promise that Medicaid is an insurance program that all citizens pay into during their working years with the expectation that we will receive all necessary health care after retirement (an assumption which is admittedly by all breaking down). I might be more than willing to help you out of a desire for charity, or vice versa -- but there is no intrinsic reason why federal government should play a role in that process.

Meanwhile, precisely because we have to treat AIDS as a private disease, one significant contributor to health care cost increases is the increased component of disposable materials for every patient.

More Later,






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