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Monday, August 30, 2010

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Monday  August 23, 2010

Playing as the Taliban

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

I noticed your notes on the fact that the latest Medal of Honor game allows gamers to play as the Taliban, and that this has generated controversy.

I frankly don't get it. If you're going to play Cowboys and Indians, someone has to be the Indians. Computer-controlled opponents just aren't the same. Even *I* can slaughter them by the hundred.

For that matter, just about any WWII sim , going back before computers to the days of Avalon Hill, allows people to play as the Nazis or even the SS. There have been Vietnam simulations that allowed one to play as the Vietcong.

And there was flippin' Grand Theft Auto, which allowed players to hold up convenience stores and murder prostitutes. A game that, though I have been computer gaming since 1982, have never played for that reason.

So what's so special about Medal of Honor? Why is it different from every other computer game in existence? What's controversial about games having two sides? Who knows, some of those gamers may join the armed forces and it might be very useful to have soldiers who can think like their enemy. Sun Tzu said something about "know your enemy and know yourself", if I remember correctly.


Brian P.

I understand the view. I suppose that rationally I should share it. After all, it's only a game. Yet even so, I find the prospect of a popular electronic game of this sort a bit disturbing. I would rather see measures that decrease the emotional distance between the Legions and the people.


A thought

You wrote:

"The next version of Medal of Honor from Electronic Arts allows you to play the Taliban, planting IE devices and detonating them with a cell phone. This has generated considerable controversy. One Iraqi war veteran has suggested that they let the game get really realistic by allowing players to bomb EA's corporate headquarters in Playa Vista."

That idea could be extrapolated into a whole domestic insurgency game -- and leads me to ask, you mean there isn't one already?






After a 55 day stretch of sunspots, the last month of which has seen quite a bit of C-level flare activity, the sun went spotless again on August 21st.

This 55-day stretch did not break the Cycle 24 records for flare intensity (M8.3, set in February) or daily sunspot number (77, set in May).

Even if the new spotless streak ends tomorrow, it is very unusual to have spotless days this far into a solar cycle. (See the chart of spotless days on the website.)

Note that, per earlier discussions, a dearth of total flares does not mean that unusually intense individual flares are impossible.



Who you write like

My daughter sent me this link: http://iwl.me/ 

It says I wrote like David Foster Wallace. I submitted a paragraph from your blog and it says you write like Kurt Vonnegut. I don't know whether that is a compliment or an insult. But it is, at least for me, amusing/fun.

Best regards, Paul Schindler

Amusing. But note what the site really is. It intends to be flattering... I chose some of my mail and submitted that to the system. It seems that most of those writing me write like Dan Brown, one like Mark Twain...  I certainly have some distinguished readers!


: Some Sobering Considerations


A most interesting series of thoughts:

Top Six Reasons Why the Economy Is Going Down

1. A “jobless recovery” in the U.S. is not a recovery. You can bail out the largest and most mismanaged companies and change the rules to allow banks to forgo reporting their mistakes, making national economic statistics look better. But that doesn’t change the reality that millions of people are out of work – since the crash, over six million more in the U.S. alone – and unable to find jobs.

2. Nor does it make it any less alarming that the rate of bank failures is well ahead of last year’s record (140), with 86 shuttered as of mid-June. Nor does it have the slightest effect on a myriad other harsh realities that politicians, as a group, are unable to face.

3. The EU’s massive rescue package has not, and will not, avert trouble in the eurozone. To the contrary, the situation continues to deteriorate, pressuring the euro ever lower and taking it to levels not seen since early 2006. In today’s global economy, what’s bad for Europe is bad for Asia and the U.S. Ominously, the Baltic Dry Index, a barometer of international trade that staged a feeble recovery following the 2008 crash, is falling sharply again <http://investmenttools.com/futures/bdi_baltic_dry_index.htm>  . With all due disrespect for the man, Alan Greenspan considered this his “must watch” leading indicator, and it has proved a good predictor of where the global economy is headed. That would be south.

4. Just as Greece exposed the extent of Europe’s problems with the PIIGS (and they thought the “Mexican Swine Flu” was a problem!), California seems poised to upset the whole U.S. applecart if it doesn’t get bailed out. It would be hard to maintain the illusion of recovery if the most populous state in the U.S. – with a GDP greater than Russia – implodes into a black hole. Illinois, New Jersey, and at least 43 others are just behind <http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=711>  , hat in hand.

5. From Obama’s attempted ban on drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, to the new financial regulations Congress has passed, to America’s flirtation with socialized medicine, it is clear that the U.S. has entered a new era of Big Government. Big Government, Big Debt, Big Deficits, Big Military… and surely soon: Big Taxes. One does not have to be an anarcho-libertarian to see this as a Big Problem delivering huge, negative unintended consequences.


 6. The real estate markets are still an unfolding disaster. May sales of new homes fell by 30% to a record low (seasonally adjusted 300,000 units vs. 800,000 “normal” sales) and dropped another 2.6% in June. Housing starts are down similarly, and previously more rosy stats have been revised downwards. A recent report from Florida <http://newsblaze.com/story/2010062806331500001.bw/topstory.html>  tells us that 81% of all loans in the state are “underwater,” and that nearly 40% of all Florida borrowers owe more than 150% of the value of their homes – just another hay bale in the wind. And the commercial real estate debacle we have been warning of has yet to hit the fan.

Read more: http://www.activistpost.com/2010/08/black-swans-need-not-apply.html 

Have you ever seen Pitch Black? Said the Muslim Holy Man: "The model predicted a lasting darkness." As Stan Lee put it, " 'nuff said".

-- BDAB,



ADD/ADHD and Ritalin in Sweden

Re the comments about ADD/ADHD:

A few years ago I did a MS in Business Education. One of my courses was Special Education. One of the class requirements was a paper and I chose to write mine on "The Use and Abuse of Drugs in the Treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder". I can send you the whole paper if you wish.

At the time, I was in maillist with a woman who is a special education teacher in Sweden. Naturally I asked her how they did it in Sweden. Here is what I wrote in the paper based on how she explained it to me:

+++ As mentioned before, Ritalin use is predominantly an American phenomena with over 90% of the total world production consumed in the US. Next to no information about Ritalin use in other countries seems to be available. However, it might be helpful to look at Swedish practice as regards Ritalin.

In 1968, Sweden effectively banned the general use of Ritalin due to potential problems. It is still used but only under rigidly controlled conditions. The process for treatment with Ritalin is:

1) The child is diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having ADHD

2) The treating psychiatrist will work with the patient and may try a number of different therapies to manage the ADHD.

3) If the patient does not respond to any of the other therapies, they may be referred by the psychiatrist to one of a very limited number of specialists. These are specially licensed psychiatrists and are the only ones permitted to prescribe Ritalin in Sweden.

4) Due to the limited number of specialists, the patient is placed on a waiting list.

5) When the patient's name comes up, a comprehensive examination takes place. This examination may take a week and will include examination of task completion at home, at school and specialized testing at the psychiatrist's office.

6) If the specialized psychiatrist feels that the patient will benefit from Ritalin, an application will be made to the Swedish National Board of Health.

7) The board will review the case and if they feel that Ritalin is justified, the patient will be permitted to receive it.

8) While taking Ritalin, the patient is carefully monitored to verify that the Ritalin is helping.

Given this process, it is easy to see why Ritalin use and abuse is so low in Sweden. I am indebted for the above information to my friend XXXXX, who is a special education teacher in XXXXXX Sweden. ++++

I redacted my friend's name and city. This was written in 2001 so may or may not still be correct.

I got an A on the paper, BTW.

Feel free to print this or not, with or without my name, as you see fit.


John R Henry CPP

Apparently most of the Ritalin consumed in the world is prescribed in the United States.


RE: I think I've seen discussions like this at Chaos Manner

Dr. Pournelle, Having seen many discussion of the state of education here. I thought this might interest you. The link in the story takes you to Newsweek.


Quae nocent, saepe docent,

Douglas Knapp


Space Access Update #117 8/21/10 Copyright 2010 by Space Access Society

Contents This Issue:

NASA Exploration Funding: The Battle Continues - A Followup to SAU #115 "The New NASA Exploration Policy/An URGENT Call To Action SAU #116 "NASA Exploration Funding: An URGENT Call To Action"


NASA Exploration Funding: The Battle Continues

"No man's life and property are safe while the legislature is in session." - widely attributed to Mark Twain

This is a followup to our last two Updates, both of them urgent political alerts in the continuing battle over fundamental reform of NASA's human space exploration program. The good news is, with your help, the last round was a standoff. But the fight is far from over. It's once again time to get active, if we don't want to see these reforms sunk without a trace. And this time, we actually have a couple of weeks warning.

State of Play

The House NASA Authorization bill, HR.5781 was up for full House consideration, but was pulled back at the last second when it became clear there was considerable lack of consensus on major provisions. (To every one of you who called your Representative, thanks!) The Senate NASA Authorization, S.3729, meanwhile has been approved by the full Senate. Both House and Senate are now on recess till the week of September 13th.

The Senate version is not great, but is livable, with $3.9 billion overall Exploration funding split as follows: $1.6 billion for NASA development of a new in-line Shuttle-derived heavy-lift launcher, $1.1 billion for continuation of the Orion capsule, and $1.1 billion for the rest of Exploration. That last $1.1 billion includes reduced but still substantial funding for the Commercial Crew, Commercial Cargo, and other new space technology/exploration precursors we support. (S.3729 also fully funds Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research, under another account.) Close to a billion dollars of NASA exploration funding directed toward useful things is hugely better than we would have hoped for coming into this year.

The House version is extremely bad. HR.5781 is essentially a blueprint for the destruction of NASA human space exploration in the name of saving it. - Out of a total $4.5 billion Exploration funding, it devotes $4.2 billion to development of a new in-house NASA heavy booster (to be based on existing Ares work) plus a government-owned Station transportation system based on the Orion capsule. - It makes drastic cuts in funding for developing US Commercial Crew and Cargo to Station capabilities, to a small fraction of NASA's request. - It imposes "poison pill" requirements on potential US commercial crew services that neither NASA nor existing Russian crew service providers have to meet. - It zeroes Exploration Technology and Robotic Precursor Missions funding.

The gutting of Commercial Crew and Cargo budgets, and the Commercial Crew poison pills, will leave us spending hundreds of millions annually for non-US Station transport services for the forseeable future, and will leave us with no backup should those non-US services have technical or political problems.

The new House-mandated NASA heavy booster and Station-transport Orion get less funding than, but a similar schedule to, what the Augustine Commission already found unworkable for the old Ares/Orion. The issue of what Station-Orion would fly on (2015 operational goal) while waiting for the new heavy lifter (2020 goal) is not even addressed, never mind funded. The odds are extremely poor that these projects would ever amount to anything beyond never-fly jobs programs. Even if the new vehicles do eventually fly, NASA would still have no deep space missions to fly on them, due to this bill's effective starvation of all other Exploration precursor work.

Pursuing the path implicit in HR.5781 would reduce our nation's international commercial space competitiveness, would damage our national space technology base, and would destroy NASA's chances of moving out beyond low orbit in any meaningful way for decades to come.

What's Next

Our understanding is that they'll try to pass HR.5781 again right after Congress returns from this recess. There will be three opportunities to fix it: In negotiated modifications before it's reintroduced to the House, by amendment on the House floor, or by negotiations in the House-Senate conference committee that will reconcile the two versions. The process may move very quickly once Congress is back. We need to prepare the ground now.

Recommended Action:

Contact your Representative and both your Senators, and ask them to support the Senate version of the NASA Authorization bill, because the House version is unacceptably bad. Get as many of your friends as you can to do it too. Numbers count. We need to make as many of our Representatives and Senators as possible aware of our concerns in the next few weeks, before deals start being made on the final NASA Authorization bill. Start doing it now, don't wait till the last second. (We may ask you to do it again at the last second - a little repetition does no harm.)

Contact Info for Representative and Senators: If you know their names, you can call the US Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask for their DC office. If you don't know who your Representative is, go to http://www.house.gov/zip/ZIP2Rep.html  and enter your home zipcode. (You may need the 9-digit version.) For Senators listed by state, go to http://www.senate.gov/general/

Once through to their office, let the person who answers know you're calling about the NASA Authorization bill. They may switch you to another staffer (or that staffer's voicemail) or they may take the call themselves. (If you're calling after-hours or they're getting a lot of calls, you may go directly to a voicemail.)

Regardless, tell them you want (Representative/Senator TheirName) to support the Senate version of the NASA Authorization, because the House version has major problems.

Briefly give one or two reasons you support the Senate version... - it provides adequate funding for NASA Commercial Crew and Cargo - it supports US rather than foreign crew and cargo service providers - it provides some funding for new NASA exploration technology - it enhances our national technological competitiveness - it partially addresses the NASA problems pointed out by the Augustine Commission and begins to restore NASA's ability to usefully explore - it supports the President's NASA policy ...then a reason why you oppose the House version - see the bullet points in the HR.5781 paragraph above. Then answer questions (if any) as best you can, and politely sign off.

OK, that's the basic version. Some of you may want to get more involved in this effort than making a few quick phone calls. Letters and faxes are great! (Emails much less so; you know how much spam you get - now imagine the amount a Congressman gets. Better to phone than to email.) Keep letters to one page, state your basic point (Dear Representative/Senator TheirName, I am writing to request that you support the Senate NASA Authorization, since the House version is very, very bad...) in the first sentence of the first paragraph, then go into a paragraph or two of supporting detail, then politely wrap up. Faxes may be slightly better than paper mails in that they arrive faster and more reliably - if you are going to paper-mail a letter, do it early so it has time to get through the security checks.

And for you real self-starters out there, your Representative and Senators are on recess, and will probably spend some time back at home with the voters in the next few weeks. - You can show up at a "town hall" and get in line for the microphone with your request ready ("I'm worried about the future of NASA. I'm here to ask that you support the Senate version of this year's NASA Authorization bill, because the House version has serious problems") plus an example or two to give if you get the time. - You can call their local office and try to set up an appointment to meet your legislator (or an appropriate staffer) and spend a few minutes making the case in person. If you do, we strongly recommend you study up on the details, do the whole well-groomed businesslike and courteous thing, practice making your case in less than the allotted time, and unless they keep you longer with questions, depart on-time gracefully. - You can come up with some other way entirely to let them know what you, their constituent, want. We haven't come close to covering all the conventional effective methods here. Just remember though, if you're thinking of getting creative - keep it legal, keep it safe, make VERY sure it gets the point across unmistakably clearly - we've seen way too many political messages delivered so cleverly that nobody else can tell what the message is - and make SURE it doesn't make us all look like flakes (way too easy when we're talking space) or annoy people counterproductively. (Simple parameters, yeah, we know...) Then let us know how you did it!

There's one other very effective way you can help out, if you can be in Washington DC for a few days around the start of the week of September 13th: Some of our DC colleagues are very likely to be organizing citizen lobbyist visits on Capitol Hill early that week. We plan to support their efforts. More on that as soon as we know more.

What it comes down to is, if we care about US space commercial and technical competitiveness, if we want to see NASA with some hope of going new and interesting places anytime soon, we need to keep at this, and we need to get more organized about it. To that end, if you do make a call, send a letter, or otherwise deliver the message, afterwards please email us at space.access@space-access.org, with "contact" in the email title, and describe briefly who you contacted, how you contacted them, and what (if any) response you got? (If you don't want to go onto our mailing list for Updates, be sure to mention that.) Thanks!

Now go get 'em.

= = = = = = = =

Space Access Society's sole purpose is to promote radical reductions in the cost of reaching space. You may redistribute this Update in any medium you choose, as long as you do it unedited in its entirety. You may reproduce sections of this Update beyond obvious "fair use" quotes if you credit the source and include a pointer to our website.

 _= == = = = =

Space Access Society http://www.space-access.org  space.access@space-access.org 
"Reach low orbit and you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System" - Robert A. Heinlein


Letter From England

P!=NP proof is probably incorrect. See <http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/post.aspx?bid=349&bpid=25616>


I spent a day in Northern Ireland as an external examiner for a PhD. They didn't have far to fall in the current downturn--60% of their economy was already Government jobs. There seem to be plenty of well-qualified people, but there isn't much capital investment--we're seeing the same thing in the North East. It appears the payoff for low-risk short-term investment in London is sufficiently high that very little money is going into longer-term investment elsewhere in the country.

 Malware apparently contributed to fatal air crash <http://tinyurl.com/2ves3g8>. Suppose they were to chase down the guy responsible for the malware and jail him 8)...!

 UK police force now requires underwear to be inconspicuous and of an appropriate colour... <http://tinyurl.com/3xcbxvd>. Could you imagine what Monty Python would do with that?

 Crash scam becoming popular in the UK <http://tinyurl.com/32wpr2b>

 UK navel-gazing about research and education:

 A-level results continue to rise: <http://tinyurl.com/2v4slrl>. This may not be due to easier tests--remember the Flynn Effect.

 Six students per place: <http://tinyurl.com/2vy8ome>

 Youth opportunity in the UK in decline <http://tinyurl.com/32vdm6p>.

 Blaming low social mobility on poor parenting rather than social class. <http://tinyurl.com/34n35hf>.

 THE editorial comparing the holes in the ground occupied by California and the UK <http://tinyurl.com/33qmoea>

 Secret list of 'banned' A-level subjects not accepted by top UK universities <http://tinyurl.com/37fq7zq>

 THE opinion piece on research <http://tinyurl.com/2vwgoys>


Harry Erwin, PhD

"Old age and treachery will beat youth and enthusiasm."


An Officers View on The Iraq Reconstruction


Pretty much how I thought it was going pre-surge.

If I doubted that the Iraqis were any more committed than my own superiors to outfitting and training their army, the answer came after a long presentation to the Iraqi army battalion’s executive officer, offering suggestions on his logistics operational plan. I concluded by asking what he thought. “My plan is that you should care for all of our logistical needs,” he said. “Why?” I asked. The Iraqi executive officer replied, “You broke our country. Now, you fix it.” The essence of a failed policy did not get any clearer than that.

. . .

I returned home in September 2005, grateful and safe, but stripped of the illusions I had taken with me.

. . .

I believed in my mission, and I wanted the Iraqis I was training to run their own country. But this wasn’t an American priority, and I left Mosul feeling that my efforts were either erased or ignored.

That’s not to say that the men who died in Iraq died for nothing. They were doing their jobs. But the Bush administration disgraces their memories by stating that our only option is to prolong a losing policy. If I learned anything from the lessons I was charged with teaching, it’s that a good military leader examines costs and benefits and adjusts his course accordingly. Yet this administration refuses to learn from its mistakes, level with the soldiers fighting its war, and bring the sad American chapter called Iraq to a close.


David March

The above was written in 2006, well before the election.

It is one view. It is not much different from what I said would happen when I opposed going into Iraq in the first place, and very much opposed staying there. A Republic had no need of an extended stay in Iraq. A competent Empire would have built an army of auxiliaries and set up a puppet ruler. A competent Empire would have paid attention to priorities, got the oil pumping again, built a native army to keep order, and kept the Legions in fortresses to rule the native cohorts and vexillations whose task was to tame the people. It would not have been pretty, but it would have been preferable to Saddam and his psychopathic sons. It was also a policy that requires money -- the kind of money that could only be generated by Iraqi oil. We could never pump enough oil to make Iraq profitable, but we could pump enough to keep energy prices low, and thus make the US economy boom.

I predicted that our policy would be incompetent Empire, and I have seen little to change my views. The incompetence began when Bremer was sent in: neither competent nor capable of learning, he may be the most incompetent proconsul since Roman time .

In 117 the proud emperor wisely elected to withdraw from Mesopotamia, and died in retreat in Cilicia. His adopted son and successor, Hadrian, returned Mesopotamia to Parthia the following year. “Thus it was,” wrote Dio, “that the Romans, in conquering Armenia, most of Mesopotamia, and the Parthians, had undergone severe hardships and dangers for naught.” But as historian B. W. Henderson put it, “it was very wise to abandon what could not be kept.” Mesopotamia resumed its former status as a prosperous part of Persia. The citizens of Rome didn’t suffer from the loss of a couple of briefly-held eastern provinces, or the revival of Parthian power up until that empire’s fall over a century later. Nor did it suffer when Hadrian, on the island of Britain at the other end of the empire, elected to build his famous barrier between Rome and “barbarian” Celtic tribes. Hadrian’s Wall, marking the boundary of Roman Britain, denoted the realistic recognition of the limits of imperial power.

We are neither withdrawing from Iraq nor leaving behind a stable ally. The story is not ended.

God save the Legions.


Rich Getting Richer

I notice that the article by Dr. Saez, Director of the Center for Equitable Growth at Berkeley, is based on the IRS income data. Three points should be made.

First, his frequent and unfavorable references to ex-President Bush may hint at a tendency to read the data in a certain way.

But the second is more important. The IRS income series is compiled by household, and it really does make a difference if that household consists of a married couple with both employed. A large part of the increased "share" of earned income by the top percentiles has been at least in part an artifact of intact double-income families rather than of Scrooge McDuck wallowing in his cash vault. On the contrary, an enormous proportion of the lowest-earning households are comprised of single-parent families, primarily headed by women abandoned by men anxious to avoid fatherhood responsibilities. A simple thought experiment suffices: imagine three people earning equal incomes, save that two of them are married to each other and the third lives alone. The married family will account for twice as much income as the single family, yet with no necessary injustice in the "distribution" of wealth. This does not mean that there is no income inequity -- there will always be such differences due to all sorts of factors, ranging from dumb luck to diligent work to desire to pursue happiness rather than money, etc. Some people may prefer to be artists selling their pottery out of a van and living free. It would be grossly unfair to force them to be stockbrokers, to the peril of their souls. I saw no evidence in Dr. Saez's paper that he addressed that issue; but is it symptomatic of his class to treat a class as if it were monolithic in its makeup.

A third point, curiously overlooked, is that the truly wealthy are seldom those who work for wages. Studies of income distribution apply only to those who have incomes. Those who simply _have_ privilege and wealth -- vast properties and the like -- do not show up on that particular radar screen. Their own income may be trivial. Their servants might be paid directly from the trust, for example; so it is the maid's income, not the master's that winds up on the IRS tables.



You may have seen this a ka-jillion times already, but here it is again.


It's a link to a blog that discusses the LA Times apparently trying to link teachers to performance! With statistics that already exist but the LA County Unified doesn't report! This appears to be legitimate public service?! And the Teacher Union are organizing a boycott?!



Thanks again for the site; just started reading it again more (and re-upped the sub., too) after hearing you on TWiT. I hope you do more of those! Picked up "Oath of Fealty" in a used bookshop just the other day also...interesting how it in some ways presaged the "gated communities" and other items of latter-day "civilization". The discussions on taxes and "social contract" must have seemed weird in the 80s? Funny too how wireless comms. and the "mainframe" model of computing were "missed" in that era of S.F. Next up: "The Gripping Hand"...you and Niven do rip along at a good pace you know?


Jay R. Larsen BA, MBA





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This week:


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Tuesday,  August 24, 2010

Solar Activity affects Radioactive Decay rates?

Current models for radioactive decay have been challenged by, of all sources, the sun:

On Dec 13, 2006, the sun itself provided a crucial clue, when a solar flare sent a stream of particles and radiation toward Earth. Purdue nuclear engineer Jere Jenkins, while measuring the decay rate of manganese-54, a short-lived isotope used in medical diagnostics, noticed that the rate dropped slightly during the flare, a decrease that started about a day and a half before the flare.



On the practical side, this could be an important predictor of flare activity.

On the theoretical side, it could result in new theories and particles.

On the SF side:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...'

- Isaac Asimov

We do not have a real understanding of how sunspot minima affect global climate. Perhaps they don't. but it sure seems so. As I have said many times, we need to find out what's going on before wrecking the economy to fix something we don't really understand.


Exciting news: "The strange case of solar flares and radioactive elements" buffy willow

"When researchers found an unusual linkage between solar flares and the inner life of radioactive elements on Earth, it touched off a scientific detective investigation that could end up protecting the lives of space-walking astronauts and maybe rewriting some of the assumptions of physics."






The Party is Over


Wow, Gate's said it all:

"The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of savings and restraint," Gates said. "Toward this end, I am directing that any new proposal or initiatives, large or small, be it policy, program or ceremony, come with a cost estimate. That price tag will help us determine whether what we are gaining or hope to gain is really worth the cost."


A culture of endless money was able to take hold only because there was an abundance of money--or at least enough money for such a culture to manifest. This line "must" be replaced implies a lack of choice, which I infer to mean the available resources for the the military are--or will be--scarce enough to force sensible spending. Sensible spending is something I have never seen in my entire life. We are starting to sound like some country I would hear about on the news as a child. The America I know does not worry about such foolish things as budgets and disagreeable economic data.

It seems to me that when our persuasive powers declined, we resorted to military force to effect the agenda of the day. Now it seems to me that our military powers are declining. The dollar declined--and continues to decline. China passed Japan as the number two economy, China passed the United States as the number one consumer of energy and is expected to pass the United States and become the number one economy within a year or two.

When the Boomers get old, it is going to be most difficult to look at one of them and not ask them how it feels to have presided over the collapse of the greatest empire this planet has ever seen. We can't look to them for answers and we certainly cannot look to those creatures coming out of the High Schools now for leadership. As I see it, we need to work on training the future generations to get their act together as soon as possible--and we have to pray that we survive the curse of the generations to follow. This is the gloomiest news I've seen in years, Jerry. Our military power is in decline. That hits home for me.

-- BDAB,


Imperial overreach. The Republic built the wealth. It requires a return to the republic to replace that wealth and pay for the recent adventures.


Big expensive school 


I think the thing that disturbed me the most about the Taj Mahal school with the weird excrescence on top was its proposed enrollment: 4200 elementary students. That makes this building nothing but a high tech prison for children. And think of the human hierarchy you will be paying for: the bigger the building, the more layers of supervision and management you need. Just the number of CCTV monitors (cameras and people to watch the screens) needed to keep perverts from having their way with the children will be staggering.

California. Such a happy land.

Ed (escaped 1968)


More on the Taliban 

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

Ready for your afternoon serving of pure, unadulterated rage?


Amazing, isn't it? The Taliban are being used by the ISI as a sock puppet for a proxy war against us.

What's even more rich is that they have been eliminating moderate Taliban leaders who are interesting in negotiating a peace while releasing hardliners. And what's even better? They're using Americans to do this.

It's pretty clear that no victory is possible in Afghanistan until we dispense with the charade that the Pakistanis are our allies.

Isn't there a very large country just to the southeast of Pakistan that also has a problem with radical Muslims and a much greater concern for regional security than we do, since they actually live there? Hmmm....


Brian P.

I think the first instance of people of that region using Westerners to help with local disputes was when Alexander the Great came for a visit. And his Army refused to go any further.


By Their Own Sword...


"If MERS [Mortgage Electronic Registration System] is not the title holder of properties held in its name, the chain of title has been broken, and no one may have standing to sue. In MERS v. Nebraska Department of Banking and Finance <http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ne-supreme-court/1016162.html> , MERS insisted that it had no actionable interest in title, and the court agreed."

"...what MERS did allow was the securitization and shuffling around of mortgages behind a veil of anonymity. The result was not only to cheat local governments out of their recording fees but to defeat the purpose of the recording laws, which was to guarantee purchasers clean title. Worse, MERS facilitated an explosion of predatory lending in which lenders could not be held to account because they could not be identified, either by the preyed-upon borrowers or by the investors seduced into buying bundles of worthless mortgages."

Charles Brumbelow

Fannie Mae knoweth not what she owns...



Dr. Pournelle --

I appreciate your recommendations of books. I would never have found The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes had you not written about it. It is, indeed, an excellent, if rather frightening, read I would also not have delved into The Federalist without your frequent reminders. In college I had read sections and been given a summary of the rest by an honest professor and felt myself familiar with its arguments and principles. Ah, the power of ignorance through education because God, or the Devil, is surely in the details. It has become my current "study book". One line, among many, has stood out to me of late:

"But as the plan of the convention aims only at a partial union or consolidation, the state governments would clearly retain all the rights of sovereignty which they before had, and which were not, by that act, exclusively delegated to the United States." [The Federalist, No. 32]



: For Your Amusement 

Possible evidence for cyanobacteria in carbonaceous meteorites believed to originate from comets. <http://www.panspermia.org/hoover4.htm

-- "Truth is the intersection of independent lies." (Richard Levins, 1966)

Harry Erwin, PhD


'Zombie ants' controlled by parasitic fungus for 48m years 

Dr Pournelle,

There has to be a story in this:


Although I suppose Brian Aldiss sort of covered it in Hothouse with the Morel.

Best regards,



Dr Alun J. Carr

School of Electrical, Electronic, and Mechanical Engineering University College Dublin Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland

I think I first heard of these from Jack Cohen some years ago. Thought of writing a story around it or including in Legacy of Heorot but never did. Thanks


Imperial Presidency

You wrote "The Imperial Presidency has advanced a great deal since the days of Harry Truman."

Funny you should pick that example. I distinctly recall listening to historian David McCullough narrating the audiobook of his biography Truman and, when telling about Truman's last day in office, remarking that on the drive away from the White House it was the first time in 8 years he'd had to stop for a red light.


In case it was not clear, I certainly meant no derogation of Harry Truman, who would never have closed the streets around the White House...


Shrinking The USMC

Worth your read.


David Couvillon Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired.;
Former Governor of Wasit Province, Iraq; Righter of Wrongs; Wrong most of the time; Distinguished Expert, TV remote control; Chef de Hot Dog Excellance; Collector of Hot Sauce; Avoider of Yard Work

Historically the Marines have been the Navy's muscle ashore, and the Navy belongs to the President as opposed to the Department of War which belonged to the Congress.


And the Union's response?

Dr. Pournelle --

You have no doubt seen the article in the LA Times:

Who's teaching L.A.'s kids? http://www.latimes.com/news/

My wife, a teacher at an LAUSD high school, commented midway through her reading of the article that she wished that she could get this kind of feedback on her effectiveness as a teacher.

Does the teacher's union see the method described as a way to identify teachers who need help to adjust their classroom techniques? Of course not. This afternoon the president of UTLA, A. J. Duffy, sent out a recorded message to all members which attacked the article and the LA Times and called for teachers to cancel their subscriptions and boycott the newspaper.

And some people wonder why it's hard to change the system.

No name, please.

The purpose of the public school system is to make sure that bad teachers are paid from tax money for the rest of their lives. That is certainly what the system puts as its first and irrevocable goal. It is well established that about 10% of the teachers produce over half of the horrible results. Firing the worst 10% would double effectiveness while saving money. Not that the institutions care. And the voters are intimidated by credentialism.





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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

LAUSD Teacher Rankings

Dr. Pournelle,

The last time this subject came up, I was intensely critical of the teacher effectiveness models that had been proposed. I am happy to see that the recent work by Richard Buddin for the LA Times corrects the deficits noted in earlier studies. I finally feel that the evidence supports the conclusions.

If one were to forge ahead and try to improve the public schools given this information, the biggest stumbling block seems to be sheer number of poor teachers who would need to be let go. This would be a challenge both because the teachers and their unions would object, and because you would need to find replacements that we still don't know how to predict whether they themselves would be good teachers. However, given that in the LA Times study, Buddin did not find any effect on class size, perhaps an easier path is to not replace the poor teachers, but instead place extra students with the most able teachers, and increase their compensation.

This would be an ideal followup study, to see whether you could place extra students with a teacher who did well and have that teacher maintain their effectiveness. My observation of the public schools here in Arizona is that the primary driver of smaller class sizes is discipline problems, but as you have noted, we could deploy retired gunnery sergeants to good effect.

-- Benjamin I. Espen

I would wager that we could find effective teachers to replace the 10% that would have to be let go. Of course that would require evaluating the new teachers on some performance based criteria rather than "credentials" which are nothing more than proof of payment of bribes to colleges of education, and the ability to sit through boring and often useless classes without running screaming into the afternoon; or to endure countless expensive "workshops" which are another way of paying tribute to the educationists who run the school system.

But in fact they don't have to be replaced. If we were simple to fire the 10% worst teachers (and 10% of the administrators who would be rendered redundant) and apportion their work to those left, the result would be a great improvement, instantly, while saving money. It is only if we try further improvements that we might have to consider replacing those who have been no more useful than non-functioning broken parts hanging on a machine and getting into the gears.

Since the purpose of the school system is to take money from taxpayers and give it to incompetent teachers -- that is certainly what they put as their first order of business whatever they say their purpose is -- there will always be great reasons why we cannot fire the 10% who turn education experience into a nightmare for many students and cause about half the dropouts from high school. No one who cared beans about the kids would defend some of the horrors that go on in the system perpetrated by teachers who can't be fired.

In this economy there are engineers, market analysts, all kinds of educated people who could do a better job of teaching than our worst 10% and would would be pleased to have a job. As friends have observed, educating the young is a rewarding experience. Teaching used to be a profession. Profession is defined as being composed largely of those who do the work not for the money but for the love of it. "The Professions" used to be Medicine and Law, neither of which were seen as paths to wealth. Those who wanted to get wealthy went into trade. Teaching was also a profession. Of course those old class distinctions are long forgotten now. Ah well.


LA Times does something useful? 

You may have seen this a ka-jillion times already, but here it is again.


It's a link to a blog that discusses the LA Times apparently trying to link teachers to performance! With statistics that already exist but the LA County Unified doesn't report! This appears to be legitimate public service?! And the Teacher Union are organizing a boycott?!



Thanks again for the site; just started reading it again more (and re-upped the sub., too) after hearing you on TWiT. I hope you do more of those! Picked up "Oath of Fealty" in a used bookshop just the other day also...interesting how it in some ways presaged the "gated communities" and other items of latter-day "civilization". The discussions on taxes and "social contract" must have seemed weird in the 80s? Funny too how wireless comms. and the "mainframe" model of computing were "missed" in that era of S.F. Next up: "The Gripping Hand"...you and Niven do rip along at a good pace you know?

Jay R. Larsen BA, MBA

Thanks for the kind words.


Re: Medal of Honor

On the one hand, you could suggest that a highly-realistic depiction of armed combat could well be a useful tool to *stop* people lightly turning to force of arms. (After all, haven't people always said that the best way to stop wars is to make everyone fight in one? EA makes this possible for the low, low price of $59.99!)

On the other hand, "time bombs" have been part of games like Medal of Honor since...well, since EA's own "Battlefield 1942", albeit they were depicted as bundles of dynamite straight out of a Roadrunner cartoon. (A popular tactic was to load up a jeep with six or seven bombs and then drive it into an enemy tank. Gamers, displaying that keen sense of tact they're well-known for, dubbed this the "Jihad Jeep" attack.)

On the gripping hand...even Battlefield 1942 didn't go so far as to have an "Auschwitz" level.

-- Mike T. Powers


More on Medal of Honor

Jerry -

I've shared the discussion about the latest release of the shoot-em-up "Medal of Honor" game with my son. He served in the 101st Airborne pre-9/11 and has recently returned to service as a 68-W (combat medic). While he hasn't (yet) deployed, I think that his response is probably shared by at least some others in the Legions:

"I haven't seen or played the game, but here's my perspective. It's probably aimed more at 15 year old kids than at returning vets. If you're a vet who's had one/ several bad tours where you or friends saw lots of heavy combat, you probably shouldn't be playing a video game like this at all, either Allies or Taliban. If you're a 15 year old kid who just likes blowing shit up- you're normal. If you're someone here in the US and you like the idea of blowing up the good guys, i suggest you keep your interests quiet, lest the returning vets get a hold of you before the feds do."

David Smith


Occupation army 

Regarding an American Foreign Legion, there are a million Indian army veterans available for recruitment, and they can be Hindu, not muslim, and we will not have to worry about bringing to America trained muslim soldiers after their terms expire. Company regiments worked for the British Empire for along time.

Darryl Miyahira, Honolulu, Hawaii.

It would not be hard to arrange to hire Gurkhas. Indeed, we already do. Hiring several regiments would be simple enough. A competent empire would do so. The question is, how involved in world policing ought we to be? The Balkan excursion did nothing in our national interest while exacerbating our relations with Russia. I have already commented on out interests in Afghanistan and Iraq. Empire is expensive and we have not learned how to make it pay.


Hi Jerry,

In case no one's mentioned it Gizmondo is running an old picture of you in your pajamas for a column "Creativity May Favor the Smelly and Unkempt"


They do have a link to the old <2006> column it came from:


Take care,

Robert Hickey

Ah well. I doubt it will bring in new readers, but perhaps...


Seeing your article about suspending teacher tenure prompted me to respond with a thought:

I am a long time state level employee in the midwest. It pains me sometimes to see the vitriol hurled at all public employees, because my particular agency has a lot of really dedicated, knowledgeable people. But I understand the ill will every time I deal with a self-important bureaucrat that thinks he knows more than me.

Long ago, I executed a permitting program for the state to meet a federal deadline. I was young and unfettered with the knowledge of the limits of what I was allowed to do within a bureaucracy. It was my first supervisory position and I was allowed to hire about half my staff brand-new. Everyone assumed I would fail, but I was determined to get the job done on time and within budget. So I did. I stole people from other programs and got new hires from colleges where I had contacts. Only about half of my hires were successful people who did what needed to be done. The others were what you would call a "typical government worker" within a year. Of my successful people, half became frustrated or received tremendous offers from industry and left within 2 years. As for their replacements- only half were the quality that I wanted because I had to hire someone, anyone or we'd lose the position. My bosses would rather have a useless drone than wait for an achiever. I wanted to get the right person no matter how long it took. I was constantly interviewing people and not being as effective a manager as I wanted to be. I woke up and realized it had been this way at the other agencies I had worked for.

From this, I created a corollary to your iron law- The half life of a new governmental program is 2 years. Every two years, half of your effective people leave. Half of the replacements are "typical government workers" who never leave. Within 10 years, the government program is useless since 3% of staff will be effective workers.

Proudly, I finished a 3 year job in about 2 years and left when I saw what was happening. I still work for my state in another agency. What sets this agency apart is that every 10 years or so, our tax is voted on by the state populace at large. Knowing that you will have to make it through three votes to complete a career sharpens the mind to provide excellent customer service and not waste taxpayer monies lest you wind up with bad press before the election. I advocate that all taxes have an 8 to 10 year sunset. I believe this would greatly motivate public employees to provide better customer service.

A corollary to the Iron Law.

It certainly has the immediate look of truth...

We cannot do without state workers, but we cannot do without responsibility either, and the civil service system as it has eveolved (or degenerated) from the original premise has not proven to be correct.

How can one have careers in civil service, get experienced people to do the jobs, be fair to them -- and avoid what we see as the result?


LA Times study and bad teachers

Hi Jerry,

The focus on improving the quality of teachers overall is a good one but as usual the media is ignoring the role of parents and the community in educating children. It's going to take more than money to get good teachers to stay in inner city schools.

I've had several friends who went into teaching and left after a few years, burnt out. One woman was teaching in Chula Vista (in San Diego). She was young, bright, motivated and not after a big salary. She lived up in University City (near UCSD, a very nice neighborhood) so had no issues about where she was living and was excited to teach inner city kids.

She left after three years. Every year I could see her being more and more worn down by the kids and the situation. She was teaching second grade and she had to take knives away from some of the students.

If people in poor/inner city areas want their kids to have a good education they've got to tell their kids to go get that education and support them in doing so. It doesn't take a college degree to help your kids get a good education. Feed them breakfast, tell them to respect the teachers, make them do their homework, don't beat up the kids who are doing well. Don't go down and threaten the teacher when your child gets bad grades.

Schools would probably benefit from giving more power to the teachers to discipline and also hiring more male teachers. Young women wind up scared to death in our inner city schools. Separate out the kids who are causing the most trouble and send them off to reform school.

And before anyone writes me off as being an out-of-touch elitist, I grew up very poor, in the Tenderloin of San Francisco, with a single mom. My mother didn't even attend high school. However, she did work hard to make sure that I went to school, did my homework, respected others, etc. We used to use a friend's address in a different neighborhood so that I could go to a better school. Many of the kids from the Tenderloin that I grew up with did not make it into their thirties due to drugs and gang violence.

This problem, incidentally, is happening all over. I recently met an American woman here in Tokyo who was teaching English in the Japanese public school system. She was assigned to a middle school in a working class neighborhood and she said the kids were terrible, disregarding her and not wanting to learn.

Dave Smith

If parents supported discipline in class it would not be a Blackboard Jungle in the inner city. If the school authorities believed in justice they would impose discipline. An inner city kid trying to learn cannot do so if the classroom is disorderly. No one can. Those who try to learn must pay tribute to those who want to disrupt the school, and the school system apparently sympathizes with the disruptive who extract tribute from the others.


The Erosion of America's Middle Class...


"Many Americans are beginning to realize that for them, the American Dream has been more of a nightmare of late. They face a bitter reality of fewer and fewer jobs, decades of stagnating wages and dramatic increases in inequality. Only in recent months, as the economy has grown but jobs have not returned, as profits have returned but poverty figures have risen by the week, the country seems to have recognized that it is struggling with a deep-seated, structural crisis that has been building for years. As the Washington Post writes, the financial crisis was merely the final turning -- for the worse."

Charles Brumbelow

Empires, competent or not, are seldom ruled by middle class. The English Nation of Shopkeepers had a fair amount of self rule while permitting the King and upper classes to conduct war and foreign policy; and acquired an empire in a fit of absent mindedness. India paid for much of the upper and officer class, leaving England to be governed largely by justices of the peace -- who were often retired officers. You see the system in operation in novels from Jane Austin on. You also see the underside of it in Dickens.

But until 1860 there was no real effect of the industrial revolution and most of mankind including the English lower classes had the same standard of living as the average human had for 100,000 years. In America it was a bit different, but America was exceptional. And American exceptionalism is not politically correct. The notion is being eradicated and is no longer taught in our public schools.

Despair is a sin.


Kudos and Concerns


I do not tap into the primary infostream often i.e. I do not watch television, I do not listen to radio, and I do not read periodicals regularly. I tap the internet. It brings me what I want, when I want it. So, lately, when I turned on the radio or the television just to see what is happening in the primary infostream consensus, I see Meg Whitman doing an excellent propaganda campaign. Her information warfare skills are incredible. The adds do not seem to impose, though they are the most cut-throat and negative advertisements I've heard in years. They are succinct and they are convincing. I would not be surprised if her strategies--amplified by technology--got her in power.

Onto other matters. This seems most interesting to me:

LOS ANGELES – Next month's opening of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools will be auspicious for a reason other than its both storied and infamous history as the former Ambassador Hotel, where the Democratic presidential contender was assassinated in 1968.

With an eye-popping price tag of $578 million, it will mark the inauguration of the nation's most expensive public school ever.

The K-12 complex to house 4,200 students has raised eyebrows across the country as the creme de la creme of "Taj Mahal" schools, $100 million-plus campuses boasting both architectural panache and deluxe amenities.

"There's no more of the old, windowless cinderblock schools of the '70s where kids felt, 'Oh, back to jail,'" said Joe Agron, editor-in-chief of American School & University, a school construction journal. "Districts want a showpiece for the community, a really impressive environment for learning."

Not everyone is similarly enthusiastic.

"New buildings are nice, but when they're run by the same people who've given us a 50 percent dropout rate, they're a big waste of taxpayer money," said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution who sits on the California Board of Education. "Parents aren't fooled."

At RFK, the features include fine art murals and a marble memorial depicting the complex's namesake, a manicured public park, a state-of-the-art swimming pool and preservation of pieces of the original hotel.

Partly by circumstance and partly by design, the Los Angeles Unified School District <http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100822/
ap_on_re_us/us_taj_mahal_schools#>  has emerged as the mogul of Taj Mahals.

The RFK complex follows on the heels of two other LA schools among the nation's costliest — the $377 million Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, which opened in 2008, and the $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School that debuted in 2009.

The pricey schools have come during a sensitive period for the nation's second-largest school system: Nearly 3,000 teachers have been laid off over the past two years, the academic year and programs have been slashed. The district also faces a $640 million shortfall and some schools persistently rank among the nation's lowest performing.


And, last--but not least--Philly requiring bloggers to pay $300 for a business license: http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion

-- BDAB,


Tax the Internet. Tax speech. Why not?






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Thursday, August 26, 2010

My mind is wandering. Apparently I put Thursday's mail in the Wednesday slot, and I am not sure what has happened to Wednesday. We'll catch up eventually.

Rome and Carthage finally sign peace treaty



Spengler: Why don't Americans like Muslims? 


Spengler asks, Why don't Americans like Muslims?


"The least religious part of the American public has the most favorable view of Islam as a religion, while the most devout part has the least favorable view. For liberals (and especially for non-religious liberals) all religions are equally bad, or equally good. They all worship some kind of flying spaghetti monster, in Richard Dawkins' infelicitous phrase, or they all seek a vague sort of "spirituality".

Devout Christians have a radically different experience of religion. They believe that God loves everyone and act on this belief. More than 100,000 of them serve as missionaries overseas, many in parts of the global south where no other Westerners venture. Their charities are the last resort of the desperately poor.

Evangelicals give US$3,600 per capita per year to charity, the most of any group except for Jews; a quarter of them tithe. Their charities show pictures of the world's poorest on late-night television, and they risk their lives to deliver help where no one else will. The largest such charity, ChildFund (formerly Christian Children's Fund) has the lowest overhead ratio of any such organization in the world. And they are more likely than other Americans to have served in the armed forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.

The elaborate rationalizations offered by the liberal elite for Muslim violence do not impress them. "Root causes" do not explain what they see on television news. Pentecostalists do not perpetrate suicide bombings against Catholics, the way that Sunni and Shi'ite kill one another in Iraq, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries.

A million and a quarter Americans have rotated through Afghanistan and Iraq, moreover, and what they have seen horrifies them. For the first time, very large numbers of Americans have had direct exposure to the Muslim world. American servicemen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are the main source of Americans' first-hand knowledge of the Muslim world." <snip>

"The elaborate rationalizations offered by the liberal elite for Muslim violence do not impress them. "Root causes" do not explain what they see on television news. Pentecostalists do not perpetrate suicide bombings against Catholics, the way that Sunni and Shi'ite kill one another in Iraq, Pakistan, and other Muslim countries.

A million and a quarter Americans have rotated through Afghanistan and Iraq, moreover, and what they have seen horrifies them. For the first time, very large numbers of Americans have had direct exposure to the Muslim world. American servicemen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are the main source of Americans' first-hand knowledge of the Muslim world." <snip>

"Iraq is the first American war in which soldiers stationed overseas are not fraternizing with the locals." <snip> He then contrasts the lack of Iraqi brides vs Vietnamese brides, etc.

"Never in American history has the gap been greater between the experience of ordinary Americans and the picture of the world drawn by the intellectual elite. Hollywood has not distributed a film about Muslim terrorists for a generation. The major media go out of their way to portray Islam favorably. But when a line is drawn in the sand over a public gesture to Islam, we find a seven to three margin against." <snip> The line in the sand is the WTC mosque.

"Most Americans do not confuse a God of love with whatever radical Muslims might worship."

As usual, his whole piece is interesting indeed.



Mark Twain writes like.... James Joyce

Submitted Mark Twain's "Letter to the Secretary of the Treasury" to the "who I write like" site. Amusingly, Mark Twain is deemed to have written in the style of James Joyce.

Joyce's "Lotus Eaters" received more reassuring results. He apparently wrote like himself.




I went to that website and submitted ten writing samples to their automated text parser.

 In order of my first submission sequence, it said I write like:

 1) Harry Harrison

2) Arthur Clarke

3) Cory Doctorow

4) Dan Brown

5) Raymond Chandler

6) Arthur Clarke

7) H.P. Lovecraft

8) H.P. Lovecraft

9) Arthur Clarke

10) Charles Dickens

 The first five were samples of personal e-mail correspondence wherein I told an anecdote from my personal experience.  The second five were samples from my official e-mails as an IMSO.

 The parser returned three instances of "Arthur Clarke" and two of "H.P. Lovecraft"; one of everybody else.  I fed each writing sample into the parser twice and in a different order the second time.  The parser assigned the same author choice both times to the same sample of writing I submitted for parsing.

 I beg leave to doubt that my prose is in the same league as that of the seven authors cited above.

 Best regards,

 Rodger Morris


Just recall what that site advertises








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Friday,  August 27, 2010

Note that Thursday's mail got posted in both Wednesday and Thursday's slots.


Tech Connected Chinese and Japanese Lose Writing Skills


When I was living in Korea--the first time--I was an MP. During that time, I learned to speak, read, and write Korean. The reading and writing part took about a week. It does not take learn to learn to write Hangul, its building the vocabulary and getting the pronunciation correct that takes time. When I was soaking up the Korean culture, I read a lot of Korean apologists and propagandists trying to convince me that North Korea was evil, Japan were a bunch of bad guys who used to be evil, the United States was okay but we aren't so sure, etc. When reading one such book about how great and wonderful Korean society is and how it is going to the save the universe from all its woes, the author spoke about how the Korean writing system was superior to the Japanese and Chinese systems.

He cited certain considerations to back up his point--which I mostly agreed with at the time, based on certain of his arguments, despite the fact that most of what the author wrote was baseless propaganda. One of his arugments it that Korean has fewer characters. When not using hanja (Chinese characters), this is true. Koreans make far less use of Chinese characters than Japanese do. There are few daily Chinese characters used in Korea today, save for in the Newspaper and other--more traditional--circles. Korean actually has fewer characters than the English alphabet. As one can learn the system in a week, and it does follow a logical pattern, I would agree that it is much easier to learn and retain than the Japanese or Chinese writing systems. The Japanese system consists of four alphabets: hirakana (to write Japanese words in Japanese), katakana (to write foreign words in Japanese, kanji (Chinese characters, and romaji (English alphabet). So to learn to write Japanese you must learn four alphabets--all of which, save romaji, are larger than the English alphabet! Moreover, none of these systems follows a pattern similar to Korean in both ease and simplicity. The Chinese alphabet contains thousands of individual characters, many with several meanings--in many cases more than 10.

Another point that he made was that, on a keyboard, Korean fits better than Chinese or Japanese. He also stated that Chinese and Japanese people would need to hit several more buttons than Korean people would to say the same thing. Thus, he argued, Korean people would be more efficient technologically. I bought that as well.

A personal consideration on these matters came to me when I started to type Japanese on my computer for a business I was doing in Japan. You see I cannot write Japanese, but I can read some of it. I can speak a great deal of it. Most of the Japanese words are spelled phonetically--though sometimes there are extra consonants and so one must be careful. However, in words where I knew the phonetic spelling, I could type into the keyboard and get the word in hirakana. I could then open a kanji menu and select the appropriate Chinese characters. For example, "ninja" in Japanese is actually "ninjya". When I type in ninjya I will get some words in hirakana. I would then type enter, and look for the approriate kanji--in this case the single 'nin' character that is "blade" combined over "heart" and another character meaning "person". As I can type Japanese well enough, I probably will not bother to learn to read and write it.

Well, something very interesting is happening in Japan and China. It seems the Korean propagandist was right in more ways than he realized:

Like every Chinese child, Li Hanwei <http://topics.breitbart.com/Li+Hanwei/>  spent her schooldays memorising thousands of the intricate characters that make up the Chinese writing system.

Yet aged just 21 and now a university student in Hong Kong, <http://topics.breitbart.com/Hong+Kong/> Li already finds that when she picks up a pen to write, the characters for words as simple as "embarrassed" have slipped from her mind.

"I can remember the shape, but I can?t remember the strokes that you need to write it," she says. "It's a bit of a problem


Hmm, "its a bit of a problem". Well, I'd say so. I stopped writing in 6th grade because I have horrid penmanship, I don't care to improve it, and the computer has excellent penmanship and I can make words come out of it faster than I can write them. The written language that can keep up is Arabic. If you want to impress a religious Arab--and he asks you why you have an interest in learning Arabic--you could raise your finger in the air like a Priest and say, "So the law can be spoken and written at the same time." Ooooooh, they tend to love that line! :) Make sure you have a smile on your face--especially if you are not a Muslim. This will--hopefully--demonstrate respect and friendship along with demonstrating an effort at understanding something about the culture that most outsiders never do. But, I have digressed.

I thought it was interested that technology was having such unintended consequences. The first thing I thought was, what happens if Asia becomes technologically dependent and a solar storm--of great enough intensity to fry electric circuits--hits? Sure it will put most of us back in the stone-age, but imagine being unable to keep records? Why, there would be no tyranny--I say this because the more totalitarian a government becomes the greater its penchant for papers, records, identification, and paperwork tends to become. Of course, tyranny does not require record keeping. But, I would argue the record keeping facilitates tyranny--while at the same time offering a possible critical vulnerability. On a more practical note, I would think there would be another dark age in Asia if a solar storm fried the circuits there, and those who were literate would take over again--like the Priests of old. Ah, education, I'm glad I have one. =) And, let's hope that if the huge solar storm does hit, that America is unaffected by it as much as it possibly can be unaffected by it.

The Eagle totem must maintain its position relative to the Panda totem! =)

-- BDAB,


Fascinating. Thanks


Sun and radioactive decay

Dr. Pournelle-

If the small variation in the distance from the earth to the sun experienced as throughout the year is enough to cause measurable differences in the decay rates of radioactive materials, wouldn’t we have also seen this in the Voyager spacecraft? They are powered by the decay of plutonium-238, and both spacecraft are currently around 100 AUs from the sun. According to the Wikipedia page, their power cells are currently generating around 58% of their power at launch, which is higher than was expected considering equipment degradation. It seems if distance from the sun was impacting the decay rates it would have been noticed.

-TJ Williams

Cassini uses PU decay for power too. But the power generated is all we can measure; and the power is proportional to the difference in temperature between the PU and the outside of the craft. But the further from the sun the colder and thuse the more power generated; only the further from the sun the less solar radiation and thus the less power generated. Oddly enough the two just about cancel out. Result: not proven. One way or another.


Silicon-32 decay rate

Wow, this is interesting. If this observation holds up and is due to neutrino stimulation this could lead to new technologies. This could be orders of magnitude more sensitive than those big vats of cleaning fluid underground in mines. Perhaps even neutrino based communications. Has anybody tried puting a sample next to a nuke reactor going at full bore?

Speaking of neutrinos, do you realize that a typical nuke reactor is blasting out 40-100MW of neutrinos? With all the staff perhaps only couple dozen meters from the core. If that was EMR they'd all be pretty toasty! The solar constant at the suns surface is about 40MW/m^2.


Someone should try this experiment. Of course neutrinos is a theory, not established by any crucial experiment. Oh -- another discovery is that there may be a Carb0n 14 decay variation as a function of solar activity, explaining the odd 200 year cycle in carbon 14 dating. The wiggles in Carbon 14 dating are annoying. But there is a 200 year sunspot cycle.

Understand this may all be errors in measurements; but it's getting more confirmation all the time. Rutherford's simple exponential decay looks to be wrong. That may be enough to change nuclear theory. It may also lead to new technologies.


Nuclear physics

Dear Dr Pournelle,

you summarise our knowledge about nuclear decay thus: "What I did learn was that we can't predict when a given atom will pop because we don't really know why it pops. I don't think that has changed much." You are mostly correct, but theory has advanced somewhat. (I recently completed my PhD in particle physics, which is not the same as nuclear physics, but the overlap is sufficient that I know a little about large objects like nuclei.) As I understand it, alpha radiation can be explained in terms of quantum tunneling. A helium nucleus is a particularly strongly bound (and therefore stable) state; consequently, a large nucleus is likely to have some of its nucleons in that state at any given time, even though they're being given a considerable buffeting by the other nucleons. Such an internal helium nucleus is bound (just as the rest of the nucleons are) by the attractive strong force; however, if it got far enough away from the rest of the nucleons, the strong force would be out of range and electromagnetic repulsion would take over. Thus, the alpha particle is caught in a classic potential well. Short and long distances are both energetically allowed; *medium* distances, where the strong force is still within range and is pulling the particle back towards the center, are forbidden. In such a case, if you know the shape of the potential barrier, you can calculate the average time to breakthrough just using the Schrodinger equation and undergraduate QM. (You can think of the helium nucleus bouncing off the nuclear wall X times per second, each time with some small and calculable chance of breaking through.) So that part's well understood, at least for alpha radiation.

However, because the strong force is mathematically intractable, and unstable nuclei have so many constituents anyway, we are unable to calculate the shape of the barrier from first principles, and must fall back on empirical measurements and curve-fitting. As mentioned I'm not a nuclear scientists, but I recall from classes some years ago that there are empirical models with a modicum of predictive power - you can get the numbers for, say, elements 80-90, and that'll allow you to predict elements 91-99 with reasonable accuracy. (Numbers for illustrative purposes only; not to be taken literally or internally; use at your own risk.)

With this model in mind, I can make a first-pass, handwaving guess at how the Sun might affect things: If a passing neutrino were to give the alpha particle a kick, its chances of tunnelling might be improved. I must hasten to add, however, that I'm not a theorist, and it's very possible that someone has already run the numbers on that process and found the effect negligible. I'll be following this closely.


Rolf Andreassen.

You have gone well beyond the limits of my knowledge here. I'm still at the "that's funny" stage...


Mars approach hoax

Good Morning:

Best I can tell, the Mars approach story (as big as the moon) is a hoax.



John John Harlow, President BravePoint

Yes of course, I have no idea why I put that in here. We all know that Mars never gets as bright as Venus, and the Full Moon is hundreds of time brighter than either, and that's obvious to anyone older than five; why I thought it might be amusing to include that I can't think. Probably I was distracted by something else and posted it on mental autopilot. I knew it was silly and I was sure everyone else would know it was silly, but what possessed me to put it up is one of those curiosities that introspection doesn't seem to solve. Ah, well. I don't have such lapses often.







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Saturday, August 28, 2010

I had errands and then the Writers of the Future Awards and dinner.






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CURRENT VIEW     Saturday

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Sunday,  August 29, 2010   

I had a book signing and took the day off.




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