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Monday  December 20, 2010

Letter from England

Arctic weather here. Last year it stopped the Eurostar from running and ruined our Christmas vacation. This year may be more of the same. We will know Saturday. 

UK migrant cap held unlawful: <http://tinyurl.com/2aw3no9>  <http://tinyurl.com/29wgfls>  The home secretary had illegally bypassed parliament. 

Criticism of reading education in the UK: <http://tinyurl.com/22q78qk>  

NHS productivity has fallen each year since 2000: <http://tinyurl.com/2aashhj>  

US dislikes European positions on human rights: <http://tinyurl.com/38lqpf5

Harry Erwin

Merry Christmas. Enjoy the warmest year on record, if you can get outside to enjoy the snow.



I'll be the first to agree that eReaders are the future of textbook publishing, especially in K-12. Some of those kids look like humpback whales when they're carrying their bookbags, and that can't be good for developing bodies.

But I was in graduate school when the great change occurred, and I was part of a lunch gang with several faculty who were writing a new textbook at the time. I got the blow by blow daily about the ins and outs of the textbook process.

The big lesson is that changes in the tax code have unintended consequences. When I took intro physics in 1977, my textbook was Halliday and Resnick second edition. First edition had been published in 1963. That's a pretty long revision cycle.

But part of the Reagan revision of the tax code involved shifting textbook taxes from sales to inventory. In publishing, the setup costs are high and they are amortized over the entire press run. So long as you don't pay taxes on books stashed in a warehouse, it is to your competitive advantage to have a massive press run on books that won't change much over time, and then dole them out over a number of years. But if you owe taxes on all those books sitting in the warehouse, that's no longer so smart.

So these days, typical revision cycles are 2-3 years. Press runs are very short and fixed costs are therefore amortized over much smaller numbers of sales. That has the added benefit of sticking a stake in the heart of the used textbook business.

My 1977 copy of Halliday and Resnick cost $22. Today's costs $199. And that's not right.

-- Dr. Paul J. Camp
Physics Department
Spelman College

I believe this is due to a Supreme Court ruling, Thor Power Tools, rather than Congress. But yes...  Now are electronic copies to be taxed at the full worth of the intellectual property even though no physical copies exist? and where are the electronic copies resident if they are backed up across state lines...


I do not usually break into a letter to insert answers, but you did insist on wide coverage...

: Three things

 "It's flood watch in Los Angeles. But in Britain they have climate change" 

 Area of the surface of the earth: 510 million km(2)

Area of the surface of the UK: 243 thousand km(2)

Percentage of the area of the earth the entirety of the UK represents: .04  Not 4% -- .04%

I would have thought you need to add the North Atlantic and North Sea, and across north Europe and North Asia. It is a bit odd that all the hot weather happens in places with few thermometers. But perhaps we are too sensitive to what's going on in our worlds. If the IPCC were to publish a chart showing where they get measurements, and what percentage of the annual average that area represents, it would quiet a lot of questions. 


 From your correspondent Phil:

 "(T)he gaping hole in his argument is why not drastically shrink the federal government? We could start with the department of education, move on to the EPA, and the FDA and ... Don't get me going. We could shrink federal spending by 50%. That should help the deficit."

 It would, but eliminating those budgetarily trivial departments won't do it.

 The US Federal government has been described as, "an insurance company with an army."  That's been especially true recently.

 http://www.wallstats.com/deathandtaxes/  <http://www.wallstats.com/deathandtaxes/


Total budget, both "discretionary" and not-so: $3.8 trillion

Military/security: $895 billion

Social Security: $730 billion

Medicare: $491 billion

Medicaid: $297 billion

Debt Interest: $251 billion

Veterans' Benefits: $68 billion

Sub-total: $2.7 trillion, or 72%

Not insurance, not army, aka Everything else: $1.1 trillion, or 28%

 One could eliminate all non-security spending, and not "shrink federal spending by 50%." Dept. of Education?  $50 billion -- 3.5% of the discretionary budget, or 1.3% of the whole thing.  EPA? $10 billion, or 0.7% of the discretionary budget.  FDA? $2.5 billion, or 0.2% of the discretionary budget.

 Anyone who thinks we can cut more than 50% of the budget without touching the insurance or security components is living in their own private universe.

 We appear to be out of money. I suppose one way to go about it is to say, well, this is all trivial. A billion here, a billion there, none of that adds up to real money.  Some think somewhat differently...



 "I expect some of you are weary of this discussion, but there are trillions of dollars at stake here, and I think it's important to know just how much confidence we can have in the Believers who tell us it is necessary."

 Does it matter?

 I'm not (just) being glib here.  Everything I've seen of the regulations your "Believers" want boil down to doing more with less.  Last I heard, that's the textbook definition of productivity.  Why is encouraging that bad?  Let alone, many "Believers," both here and abroad, won't buy our products without some sort of "carbon neutral" (or mitigating) stamp.  Isn't selling consumers what they want just good business?

 C'mon, Jerry... You used to work for Boeing.  Why do you want to give Airbus such a big PR victory?  Or favor Toyota and Nissan over Ford and GM?

 Your view of the effects of CO2 elimination and promotion of "green" technology where green jobs historically cost about half a million each to create is not mine. And I remain stubbornly dedicated to looking at science as a way to know something, not as a PR trick. I expect I am in a dwindling minority on that.



 OK, more than three.  To wit:

 "Someone must be thinking about questions like this. Who?"

 Oh, you eternal optimist, you.

 -- Hal

=Presumably you do.


Paging Hari Seldon . . .



Missing Black Holes Cause Trouble for String Theory:


But I thought it was all sewn up . . .

I love it when folks go out and get real data.


But all that is settled by consensus! Who needs data?


Political Security

Dear Dr. Pournelle:

You write:

<< The worst damages we will sustain from Wikileaks will be what we do to ourselves... <snip> ... The damage, Teller used to say, from failure to have internal circulation of information is always worse than the damage from leaks, since the enemy is going to spend as much effort as needed to find ways to get the information he want: then he knows it and vital parts of your establishment do not. >>

Julian Assange agrees with you and Teller, and has said so:


The difference is that he wants to maximize, not minimize, self-defeating bureaucratic self-censorship. His theory is that Wikileaks poses a Prisoner's Dilemma to any conspiratorial institution; either open up internal communications and become vulnerable to a whistleblower, or censor away both leaks and efficiency. Since they cannot trust themselves, they must censor themselves, and therefore dumb themselves down. Thus freedom of the press works against the Iron Law.

Therefore press freedom is opposed by the Iron Law's beneficiaries. They will say, for instance, that releasing the information endangers National Security; but what is at stake is not national security; it is "Political Security", which I define as the job security of the political class. Political security is a result of the Iron Law as applied to national security bureaucracies.

Political security is often confused with national security, especially by the political class; but in truth they are not the same. Political security and national security are two, not one, especially when the political class thinks they are one, not two.

- Nathaniel Hellerstein




Obviously our military have become part of a grand social experiment. They had become "nation builders" (whatever the Hell that means) and now they are to serve as examples for the rest of society. Well, to form a rather poor metaphor: whenever an organization puts EXCELLENCE into the back seat, EXCELLENCE jumps out and hitchhikes, and MEDIOCRITY takes the wheel. I'm glad that my time of service is long past, it was bad enough being in the '70s Army (I remember when they changed the name of one of the training ranges from "quick kill" to "quick reaction". Probably now it's "quick compassion."

--the other Ed


: Latest idiocy from TSA

Dear Dr. Pournelle:

I thought this might interest you.


As someone or other is fond of saying: "The country is in the best of hands.".

Regards, Tim Scott


: Apple Assembly Jobs


I suspect that the non-existence of Apple assembly jobs in high unemployment regions of the US has little or nothing to do with the skill or training of the potential workers, or even their work ethic. (Although your points about education/training, etc., are correct).

First of all, it seems likely that the massive scale of Apple's production means that its labor costs are hundreds of millions of dollars less per annum in Asia than if it had to pay even just half of the US minimum wage.

Secondly, even if the Chinese workers lived in a region that used actual US dollars as the medium of exchange, the per capita money supply would likely be so low that all local prices, including wages, would be greatly depressed as compared with the US.

Finally, it would normally be possible to employ capital to increase the effective productivity of US workers so that they (less of them) could earn a US wage. In the limit, a single worker could control the entire Apple production with a machine that had only a red and a green button to push. But even possible machines aren't going to be practical because of Apple's very short production cycles. There's just no development time for the machines as the production will be unlikely to run as long as a month unchanged. New models every few months.

Only prison labor would work in the US.

Best of Luck, Don

Don Lloyd

As I have tried to say: there are consequences to Free Trade and global competition. One of them is that you must have an education system that allows rapid changes in what the work force does. We don't have that. It's possible we can't have it. That brings up policy questions.

This is not Lake Woebgon. No one acts as if they believe that.


Fatal Wikileaks

Serving Officer writes:

"Software that alerted a human's attention when there was excessive downloading or a unit began too much attention to things outside of their area of operations would be a logical response, but I expect overkill instead."

Well, considering that Manning's job was to integrate information, *everything* would be in his area of operation, and who's to say how much downloading is "excessive"? Is multiple gigabytes in a day excessive? I use that much moving CAD models around.

Ultimately, all security depends on the humans involved being willing to make the security work. Someone can always open a gate, unlock a door, hide a spy in their car trunk, print out a document and stuff it in their socks. The only way to ensure security of human actors is to make the penalties for breaking security extremely harsh, which is why I think that Manning ought to wind up *under* the jail.

-- Mike Powers

Actually Manning's job was meaningless, which is one reason he did this.




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Tuesday,  December 21, 2010


 Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

--Robert Frost, Fire and Ice.



 Note:  This is out of London.

<snip>Piers Corbyn ... seems to get it right about 85 per cent of the time and serious business people - notably in farming - are starting to invest in his forecasts. In the eyes of many punters, he puts the taxpayer-funded Met Office to shame. How on earth does he do it? He studies the Sun. He looks at the flow of particles from the Sun, and how they interact with the upper atmosphere, especially air currents such as the jet stream, and he looks at how the Moon and other factors influence those streaming particles. He takes a snapshot of what the Sun is doing at any given moment, and then he looks back at the record to see when it last did something similar. Then he checks what the weather was like on Earth at the time - and he makes a prophecy. I have not a clue whether his methods are sound or not. <snip>

Piers Corbyn believes that the last three winters could be the harbinger of a mini ice age that could be upon us by 2035, and that it could start to be colder than at any time in the last 200 years. He goes on to speculate that a genuine ice age might then settle in, since an ice age is now cyclically overdue.

<snip> The question is whether anthropogenic global warming is the exclusive or dominant fact that determines our climate, or whether Corbyn is also right to insist on the role of the Sun.<snip>

Nods: Drudge.

Solarcycle24.com. The Solstice Spotless Streak persists.

And CONUS Today http://www.intellicast.com/National/Radar/Current.aspx?region=default



Of course as noted elsewhere, Britain is a small part of the world's land mass area, but there is other evidence that it may be getting colder, not warmer, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. As for me, I'd rather have it hotter than have the Ice return. Being covered with a kilometer of ice is a serious inconvenience, even if it only extends partway into California.

'Piers Corbyn believes that the last three winters could be the harbinger of a mini ice age that could be upon us by 2035, and that it could start to be colder than at any time in the last 200 years.'


-- Roland Dobbins


Do note that we have considerable evidence that Britain went from deciduous trees to under tens of feet of ice in under 100 years the last time the ice came back, and we are technically in a remission of an Ice Age due to continue for millennia. I presume there are people studying that cycle although they don't get much press now.

And there is http://www.thegwpf.org/the-observatory/


Where was Manning's boss 


I still maintain that a contributing cause of the security breach was the RIF of intel officers who, as part of their core job description, ensure vault security and oversee the activities of their minions. We fired a bunch of them a few years back, so no wonder there was no effective oversight and vault security was lacking. Where was Manning's boss and the vault security manager? On the street because she (he) was fired and not replaced?

You might recall from a while back I said the exact same thing about the nuke fiascos, where we should have expected nothing else but failure from our nuclear warriors when those nuclear warriors are first and foremost finance, personnel, supply, and records management experts. Being a competent nuclear warrior seems to be a distant secondary duty compared to the admin workload a modern USAF nuke warrior faces every day, because they fired all the support forces to save money. Guess what - you cut corners with a nuclear armed military and you get cut-rate performance. Duh.

What will be the next incident resulting from people failing to do very difficult jobs because they spend their time doing everything BUT that job? How much damage will be caused the next time a minion commits treason because he does not have an appropriate level of supervision and the in-place controls (like vault security) rely on people who were RIF'ed in a previous year?

My bet is on comm infrastructure because they have centralized network administration without maintaining a competent workforce in key positions. My "proof" is repeated botched software upgrades/updates and an inability to automatically track something as simple as if a network user has accomplished annual computer based security training. Believe it or not, a decade after implementing online training for information assurance, compliance is tracked by printing out a certificate and hand-carrying it to the help desk. If they can't even automatically track online network security training and botch relatively simple admin tasks like updating antivirus software, what else are they fouling up?

Another serving officer who has been there (nuke warrior) and done that (vault and computer network security).


Education, Manufacturing, and the Left Side of the Curve 


According to Wikipedia peak employment at the Hoover Dam was 5,251 in 1934. I find myself wondering how many people would work on it if we were building it now. Road building is often mentioned in the context of boosting employment and stimulus spending, but surely we don't build roads in the way we did during the Great Depression. Suppose that production of every consumer item used by Americans were moved to the United States. Surely much of this work would be highly capital intensive and that our need for skills training would be increased. It isn't clear to me how much it might benefit willing individuals who have difficult picking up the skills.

"Starting in the late 1970s, the labor market turned ferociously against those with less education and in favor of those with more. This was not Ronald Reagan's fault, nor George Bush's (either one), nor Mitch McConnell's. It just happened. And except for a brief shining moment during the Clinton boom, the Great Disequalization has continued unabated to this day.

You might have thought that the government would push back against this trend, but you'd have been wrong."

I'm not sure if the author means that the government should push back by making education less beneficial to earnings or by pushing for more education.

-- Mike Johns

Education experts always mean there must be more education, meaning more spent on education experts and building education empires.

In my judgment there needs to be a lot less 'education' and a very great deal more training in skills appropriate to the vast majority of the population. Perhaps there ought to be special studies programs and students in them, but there is only so much need for departments specializing in Gay, Lesbian, and Transvestite studies, Black Studies, La Raza Studies, Viking Studies, Scythian Studies, Muslim Studies, Sociology.... You may add to the list as you choose. We need more engineers and scientifically educated scientists, statisticians who understand statistical inference, and so forth, but one doubts there are great numbers of people who would benefit from such among the populations excluded from universities because they did not finish Algebra II in high school. One suspects that large numbers of students could leave high school without passing Algebra II and still be highly useful citizens of the Republic, and possibly earn more than the average engineer. It certainly was the case when I was a Boeing that master mechanics out in production lines made better money than my supervisors.  When I was designing experiments that needed complex instrumentation, the experimental mechanics from the shop were able to accomplish miracles for me. They couldn't have designed the experiments nor would they have wanted to, but they were sure important.

We have plenty of education. We need skill training for those who don't need 'education'.


Flash Mob

Dear Dr Pournelle:

Loved the Food Court Flash Mob, Hallelujah Chorus link.

[ Food Court Flash Mob, Hallelujah Chorus

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXh7JR9oKVE&feature=player_detailpage ]

I presume that's the same one the WaPo talked about in their article:

'Flash mob' results in Calif. mall evacuation, http://www.washingtonpost.com/

Your buddy, Larry Niven, must be grinning from ear to ear.

Mike Houst

I have no data on which this was.


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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What should the ~154M people on the 'left side' of the bell curve in the US actually *do*? - 

Dr. Pournelle,

We just learned from the 2010 census that the population of the US is 308M people. Roughly half of those people - 154M of them, are below 'average' (IQ 100). Here's my question; in a US economy that is trending ever further away from 'manual labor' work like manufacturing and towards high tech and higher education, what are those 154 million people supposed to *do* for a living?

Here's a datapoint. I listened to a spot on NPR the other day comparing and contrasting two steel cities in the US, Harrisburg, PA and Gary, IN. The thrust of the piece was that Harrisburg is going through an economic rebirth by focusing on so-called "Meds and Eds" while Gary continues to be tied inextricably to US Steel, which is the major employer there. One thing they mentioned caught my ear - US Steel contends that their site in Gary is making as many tons of raw steel per year now in 2010 as they ever did at the peak of steel production, just after WWII. At that time (let's call it 1948-1950) the plant employed 60,000 people in Gary. Today (if we take them at their word) they produce the same amount of product with only 6,000 employees. That's a 90% increase in efficiency. Also keep in mind that the census in 1950 reports that the population of the US at that time was only 154M people, so they only had half the number of people to employ in the first place.

A quick thought experiment. Let us assume that the amount of goods consumption per person is roughly equal in 2010 as it was in 1950 (not true, but this is a first approximation). Let us also assume that the production of those goods have gone through roughly the same 90% improvement in efficiency as the US steel plant in Gary, IN. That means we can meet consumer demands in 2010 (roughly twice what it was in 1950) with 20% of the employees. But we have double the population of people that are suited for that sort of job. This is of course completely ignoring offshore manufacturing. As a nation, what are we to do? Those people are not worthless. They deserve gainful and meaningful employment, but as far as I can tell, we have nothing for them to do.

To me, all of this points to The Welfare State, The Widening Gap Between Rich and Poor, Redistribution of Wealth, and many of the other unsavory social trends we seem to be seeing today. Unfortunately, all the seemingly clever ideas I've ever come up with for fixing things are completely overwhelmed by the numbers stated above.

As you say, Despair is a Sin. Maybe I'm missing something; do you have any better ideas?

With no irony at all intended, I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas.


Mike Smith

The first thing one needs to do is recognize that there is a problem. The second is to have a realistic assessment of just what qualifications are needed for what jobs. I went to the Fashion Square Mall the other day. It was hard to find anyone in sales. Sales clerks at a mall at Christmastime don't need higher education; they do need a number of skills, but none of them require a college prep education.

It's certainly true that job requirements change as our industrial base changes.

Science fiction used to look at the problems of coming automation. We don't do that so much any more.

Once we recognize that there is a problem, we need to look at just what we are teaching to whom. Trying to shove everyone through college is probably not the answer. Our academic model is broken.


Subject: Education

Dear Dr. Pournelle,

I do have an old friend, Mitchel L. Ammons, PhD (Education), retired, who has always agreed with your ideas on secondary education. At one time he set up vocational classes for a school district that was ready to expel unruly students for ruining the education of the remainder of the student body. He explained to the group that this was their last chance, they could either learn from him, or be expelled and turned in to the police.

Mitchel had helped build his family home while in high school. He also bought and maintained his own Lincoln automobile, acquired a red light and siren permit as fire department policeman,, and bought, maintained and flew his own airplane, all by the time he was seventeen. He is still licensed to teach any course in any secondary school in the state of Texas.


William L. Jones


Climate Modeling 

I was just curious if I could find any information on some of the questions you have been posing lately, and ran across this when looking at the BOINC based BBC ClimatePrediction.net process. This is a Seti@Home like process that made use of grid computing to do some pretty interesting modeling.

Their results were blasted about in the press without the hedges and qualifications that the actual results were released with - as well Hadley was involved and we all know that some folks there were not above tipping the data to produce the results they wanted to achieve.

However, the modeling process is pretty interesting, and based upon what I assume to be pretty valid models. Using the slab approach to the ocean effect of surface temps is what I think begins to provide some information on your questions.

I've attached the PDF, and the web link for it. It is relatively light reading, but it does identify the techniques and processes they used, which seem pretty sound in and of themselves. I trust Hadley not at all, and I think the results were popularized in a way to spread the most FUD.



It is interesting, and the sort of thing we used to do to test model sensitivities to input data. Noting how models respond to perturbations is an important part of model generation, and modern computers give abilities to solve a number of these in finite time. I applaud them.

A cursory reading has not shown me that they discuss the problem of confidence in primary data, but I admit I have not read it closely. This paper is the sort of thing that the IPCC and its academic supporters ought to be discussing with the educated public; now I would like to find one on data collection and combination, complete with perturbation tests of various data sets to see just how sensitive the final numbers are to various parts of the collection process.

Perturbation analysis discloses potential flaws in models by showing where the models break down. Finding ways to prevent absurdities in models is a great step in making good models. Refining models is a very good thing. The question is whether the models are sufficiently predictive to base policy decisions on.

This was carried out by applying a correction to the surface fluxes in the same way as we do for conventional flux adjustments that account for perturbations to the atmospheric physics. The additional flux adjustment accounting for ocean perturbations is referred to as a flux readjustment in Faull (2005) and Faull et al. (in preparation) and in the rest of this paper. The evidence suggests that the flux readjustment by and large works; although there are unrealistic aspects to the readjusted climatology, we generally find the readjustment of heat and freshwater fluxes gives rise to a relatively stable base climate. Under transient forcing, the flux readjustment technique reproduces a climate response closer to that of the same model version with a full ocean spin-up than to that of the unperturbed model (Faull et al. in preparation). It should be noted that the linearity assumption only holds for physics perturbations to the fast components of the coupled model, such as the atmosphere and land-surface scheme, since their adjustment time is short; by contrast, the adjustment time scale of a physics perturbation to the ocean is too long for such a linear correction to be useful.

Adjustments to models is good; but this discussion doesn't give me great confidence in the ability of the models to predict reality -- and says little about what "reality" means, in the sense of the data gathering techniques used to get the criterion measures.

From the conclusion:

Preliminary results examining the control runs suggest that the experiment and, especially the new technique (Faull et al. in preparation) for dealing with the somewhat random energy imbalances inherent in the random combination of physically perturbed atmospheres and oceans, seem to work reasonably well; these results are discussed in much greater depth in Faull (2005) and Faull et al. (in preparation).

This is certainly a justified conclusion when the question is whether the models ought to be continued; whether it is indicative of the level of confidence needed for adopting policies with enormous economic implications is subject to discussion.

Thanks for this. It's a good paper, and a good discussion of how the models are refined. Now we need one on this level on the primary data.


IBM Many Bills 

If you have not seen this, you might want to go and explore it. It looks to me to be an endlessly fascinating, and perhaps really *useful* tool for anyone who wants to get ahold of facts about what our legislature is really doing.

It's like feeding the elephant, every little tidbit leads to more and more interesting things... :)





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Thursday, December 23, 2010

North Pole Volcanoes

Dr. Pournelle --

Study finds Arctic seabed afire with lava-spewing volcanoes

July 25, 2008


“Explosive volatile discharge has clearly been a widespread, and ongoing, process,” according to an international team that sent unmanned probes to the strange fiery world beneath the Arctice volatile discharge has clearly been a widespread, and ongoing, process,” according to an international team that sent unmanned probes to the strange fiery world beneath the Arctic ice."

"They returned with images and data showing that red-hot magma has been rising from deep inside the earth and blown the tops off dozens of submarine volcanoes, four kilometres below the ice. “Jets or fountains of material were probably blasted one, maybe even two, kilometres up into the water,” says geophysicist Robert Sohn of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who led the expedition."

Apparently there is a volcano under the Arctic ice. Do they have an impact on Arctic ice? Some researchers say they don't. I don't yet know enough about the situation to venture a guess.


I have seen the secular press reports of the volcanic activity under the Arctic. I have seen little discussion of the heat effects, It does seem to me that heating water from the bottom is more effective than heating it by shining lights on it or blowing warm air across it: that is, heat introduced from volcanism is 100% absorbed, while much solar radiation is reflected back into outer space even with increased CO2 in the atmosphere to absorb most of it. Of course the devil is in the details: how much is the relevant question.

We know that volcanoes on land tend to cool the Earth by injecting reflective materials into the upper atmosphere; no doubt the Iceland eruptions had a good bit to do with the current very cold weather in northern Europe. The Year Without A Summer was after all caused by Tamboura.


education and youth

Dear Jerry

As a former member of our local information technologies trade association I've taken part in several task forces addressing the expansion of our tech export business, in that respect our association and industry have been fairly successful to the point that we now find ourselves in need of more trained personnel, given that our country is small and that math based disciplines like engineering have a small following we found ourselves in a quandary, where to recruit new personnel? (not just engineers, also programmers and analysts).

We decided to go to high schools and visit classes at the point where the students make a choice on their career path, that is two years before they finish high school, they are 16 years old and those who wish to pursue a career in science or technology (please note that this includes bio sciences and medicine) take a path with significantly more math and science (including physics and chemistry) than do those who want to go into the humanities.

So we started visiting high schools, we formed a pool of volunteers who would visit those schools all over the country, the idea being that practitioners of engineering and programming would tell tales of what it's like to work in the field and point out how much of those students´ everyday life is surrounded by the products of hi tech.

My personal experience, and most of my colleagues´ was pretty much disappointing, the lack of interest, apathy, "wise guy" replies, where on a level that none of us expected, let me point out that I'm 54 years old and have three children of whom the youngest is 23, so I've been "out of school" for quite a while, but I have younger colleagues, some very much younger, and none of us expected to find such a poor environment and response.

The high school I went to is located in a middle class area and the kids going there are not from economically distressed areas, nevertheless the response was depressing, out of a group of about 70 persons (three classes worth) only three or four exhibited any interest, thus I believe that the malaise you perceive in the LA area (and perhaps much of the USA) might be much more widespread than you believe.

I offer no solutions, indeed I believe that the only solution that would actually work is to have those kids' parents place a higher value on education, this might prove hard to do. From personal experience I know that getting my own children to value knowledge was a long struggle and demanded a sustained effort. It was ultimately successful but that doesn't mean I was not concerned for quite a while....

One last comment, when I asked "what kind of career do you want to pursue?" the overwhelming answer was, "the one the pays back the soonest" the underlying subtext was "and the one that takes the least effort".

Happy Holidays

Ariel Fabius
Montevideo Uruguay

Through eighth grade I went to schools that had two grades to a room, 20 - 25 pupils per grade, and the teachers had 2-year Normal School degrees. No one in my family had a 4-year college degree. My first two years were in Catholic grade schools, after that it was Capleville public school, and my classmates were farmers' kids. Discipline in all those schools was strict, and corporal punishment was legal: I didn't get whacked often, and learned to discipline myself despite the urge to interrupt, talk too much, get bored and cause trouble, etc. High school was Christian Brothers and we were, or pretended to be, terrified of the Brothers who were rumored to have bashed several kids with roundhouse rights although I never actually saw any such thing. We went through the motions of discipline: we stood when the teacher came into the room, and stood until dismissed at the end of class. I never saw any discipline problems. On reflection I suspect that classroom order was as great a factor in my getting a decent college prep education as anything. In any event I was exempted from introductory English and math on arriving at college (after my stint in the Army).

For my first 8 years I was mostly in a rural red earth farming area, and all my friends lived out there. I don't recall any emphasis on education in my family, but we did have an Encyclopedia Britannica.

I do believe that discipline is a major key to education.


Pogo, etc.

Dear Dr. Pournelle:

 I note that you do not have a youtube clip for Pogo's carol (deck us all with Boston Charlie)

May I recommend this: http://www.youtube.com/

And in something in the spirit of "Grandma got run over by a reindeer", I suppose this is not too bad: http://vimeo.com/2399404 

Wishing you and yours a scary solstice, a happy Christmas, and a good new year, I am

Very truly yours,

Bernard Brandt



Naked emperor and a conspiracy of silence


Naked emperor and a conspiracy of silence, another bit from Spengler:


As usual, he cuts to the meat of the matter:

“America is exceptional - utterly and absolutely exceptional - because the rest of the world depends on American guns, American money and American mediation in a way that no other country or combination of countries possibly might replace. Any other power that suffered the setbacks that America sustained during 2010 under the Barack Obama presidency would have been pushed off the top of the hill. The reason America still has diplomatic currency to spend in Asia as well as actual currency to borrow demonstrates its indispensable role: no one, least of all Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao or Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, wants America to fail.

“That is why a conspiracy of silence surrounds the observation that the emperor is naked. But the facts are depressingly clear.

“After one trillion dollars and 5,000 casualties, America will leave Iraq with nothing to show for its Quixotic commitment to build a nation in the Mesopotamian sand.” <snip>

“Russia is holding America's feet to the fire over ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) nuclear weapons treaty which - stripped to essentials - forces the world's only first-rate power to deal with a vanquished second-rate power as equals. Russian surface-to-air missiles and other technology remains an instrument of blackmail against the US.” <snip>

“America's capacity to punish Pakistan for its ongoing support of the Taliban as an anti-Indian force in the region has reached the vanishing point. "If America cut off spare parts for Pakistan's F-16's," an advisor to former Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal observed, "they'd be flying Chinese planes the next day".

“China wants Pakistan to continue to maintain pressure on India, and has visions of a warm water port on the Indian Ocean linked by rail to China.” <snip>

North Korea, Venezuela, our economic difficulties with Germany and Asia. Then:

“Never before in the course of strategic events have so few done so much damage to so many in such a short period of time. The "few", to be precise, are Obama and the tiny coterie of advisors through whom he runs the government. Obama was true to his baffling words before the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2009: "No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation," Obama told the United Nations on September 23. "No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold." <snip>

“Those who wanted an end to US hegemony will get what they wished for. But they won't like it.” <snip>

He goes on to say why.

He had me shaking my head. When Obama hit the national scene, I thought of him as Jimmie Carter Junior. Now I see how wrong I was: you’d have to mix the worst elements of Carter and Woodrow Wilson to get someone near as toxic.

Ah, well. Despair is a sin.


Carter was a bit smarter than Obama, but he had far less self esteem and confidence.


Subject: Ice Cube Neutrino Detector at South Pole


Tracy Walters, CISSP

Holy moley, its BIG.


: flash mob question

Dr. Pournelle,

The original flash mob Hallelujah chorus you posted about took place in Canada on November 13. The Washington Post story was about a similar (but larger) event in northern California.

--Matt Knecht


Yes, that became obvious quickly. The moral of the story is don't let anyone know in advance.


A few random thoughts

Hello Dr. Pournelle,

I was pleasantly surprised to see you mention Tim Powers' novel Declare last week. That's one of my favorite books, but I seldom hear it mentioned. I just accidentally picked it up while browsing through the library, and, as a result, looked up his other books as well. Thanks.

You've written quite a lot lately about those who don't need, and won't really benefit from a college education. I teach at a community college, (the same one I attended in the 1960s), and what seems a bigger problem is that the work world has changed so dramatically. When I went to OCC in 1966, several of my classmates went through the 2-year electronics program, and got jobs working at the hundreds of local electronics and aerospace companies in Newport, Huntington and Long Beach. My first job was creating and etching custom integrated circuits for Babcock Electronics. Now, all of those companies are gone, along with the entry-level and assembly jobs that my school's vocational programs prepared students for.

In a lot of ways, I feel like James Lee Burke's character, Dave Robicheaux as he longs for the world that he grew up in, a world that seems to have disappeared. When my newly married folks moved to Costa Mesa in 1952, they could support themselves, including buying a house and going to school at night, on the money my mom made as a car hop at De Murels and that my dad made as a night watchman. The working people that I knew in the community, the school janitor, the milkman, the postman who lived across the street, all made enough to support their families, usually with only one breadwinner. My parents were unusual since both of them worked (as school teachers) once they graduated. The "wealthy" in town were those who owned the local businesses.

I often hear that the manufacturing jobs that disappeared starting in the 1970s are gone for good, and are never coming back. When I hear that (and, when I believe it) I find it hard not to despair. I really can't see how it can be in our best interest to have a country where we don't make anything, and, where the most successful segment of the population consists of those who can manipulate incomprehensible financial instruments in inexplicable ways. I, personally, would be willing to spend more for goods and services if I was hiring people in my state and community. That just turns out to be very hard to do (which I found out when I tried to find a bicycle that was made here in the US).

On another topic, I'd like you to know that one of my treasured papers I've kept in my files from the 1980s was a hand-written reply I got from you to a letter I'd sent to Byte about the Apple III. I was always impressed that you'd take the time to personally respond.

-- Steve

Of course we could create an economy in which there were more jobs, but we can't do it with regulations, minimum wage laws, Free Trade and International Economy, and a capital sytucture that demands growth rather than profit.


The Flawed Legal Architecture of the Certificate Authority Trust Model


Rod Montgomery==monty@starfief.com


Thor Power Tools Ruling

Dear Jerry:

As I recall, this never rose to the level of the Supreme or any other court. It was an IRS administrative ruling on how inventories were to be valued and the issue was that businesses could no longer write off the old ones over a period of years to recapture the costs. The issue was not taxes per se but depreciation, which is cost recovery. Under the Thor Power Tool rule you carry the inventory in the warehouse at the full cost or you dump it. The result of this ruling for publishers is that slow-moving stock gets sold off to remainder dealers as "scrap". The author receives no more royalties and those copies go into the marketplace in direct competition with the books we do make money on. Carrying inventory in storage costs money, regardless. So short sighted MBA types , in an effort to reduce costs, write down these assets and give them away for pennies. The result is no more backlist. The entire traditional publishing system which seeks to jam every channel with books very quickly and expects half of them to be returned is ecologically anf fiscally unsound. Everyone loses.

This is why, despite the higher per-unit cost, many publishers are going over to print-on-demand. Minimal inventory and all customers can be serviced quickly. Of course ultimately this will mean the end of all those cheap bargain books.

We are going over to print-on-demand when the current stock of offset copies is gone. We have already raised the prices to cover the higher per-unit cost. That ripples through because while the discounts to sellers and distributors remains the same, the amounts needed to cover that cost rise proportionally. The suggested retail price is now $22.50 instead of $18.95, but we don't make any more money at that price. The Kindle edition with the special formatting will be $9.99 and we expect some foreign language rights sales soon as well. We are open to licensing the book for a mass-market paperback, which will probably be the same price or less than the Kindle edition. Those will be offset, but probably "cover rips" rather than returnable. The royalty won't be much but the sales will be massive. You'll see it in grocery stores.

The original edition will stay in print for at least six more years because it's the first in a series and we have the 150th anniversary years of the Civil War starting very soon. Actually, with print-on-demand , it need never go out of print. No inventory, which is also true of all the e-book editions. All of our future print editions will be print-on-demand, which means they will not be cheap, but since what we sell is not a fungible commodity, we expect people to pay full value.


Francis Hamit Brass Cannon Books

Thor Power Tools vs. Commissioner of Internal Revenue was decided by the US Supreme Court. It says that you can't write off inventory just because you can't sell it; thus if you keep unsold books in the hopes that a market will appear in future, they are property and can't be written off just because they aren't selling now and cost money to ship and store. The Congress could have changed the law that let the IRS set its own rules (in contrast to standard accounting rules that let Thor write off unsellable inventory), but it did not. Congress could have acted at any time since, but it has not.

The result is that paperback books that are not sold are stripped and destroyed (although some end up in a black to grey market that costs authors dearly). Whether it is in the public interest for the government to require actual destruction of property before it can be deducted as an expense has never been debated.

SF writer Kevin O'Donnell Jr. explains  this very well in an article in the SFWA Bulletin. http://www.sfwa.org/
bulletin/articles/thor.htm . Neither I nor any of my friends of any political persuasion have ever been able to get Congress to consider that all this has done to publishing and author revenues. Those Congresscritters who do get interested find that they are opposed by the revenue collection lobby and there is no powerful lobby in favor of Congressional overturn, largely because it is so little understood.


". . . these meteorites would have contributed to the amino acid inventory of the early Earth and other planets in our solar system, including Mars."


--- Roland Dobbins


Cold winters here but ...

While it's cold in Europe and much of North America, it's way warmer than normal in the Artic.


" At the same time, warm air is flowing into the Arctic to replace the cold air spilling south--temperatures averaged more than 10°C (18°F) above average over much of Greenland so far this month."

BTW, while there may be issues with the accuracy of numeric measurements of temperature, these measurements aren't the only indicator of climate change. You might want to take a look at Tim Flannery's The Weathermakers sometime.

Regards Keith

I would be astonished if it were not warmer in the Arctic given that the dairy farms of Leif the Lucky have been emergring from under the Greenland ice. Greenland used to be green, and there were lots of vines in Vineland, and we can expect that to happen again as the Little Ice Age ends.

The Earth has been heating since before 1800 (with a setback in eighteen hundred and froze to death after Tamboura). Human activity has almost undoubtedly contributed to that heating. The question is how much, and to what accuracy we can measure these events. We have a warming trend that has been going on for some time. We need to know more about it.

I do not think the delegates to the IPCC conferences in Denmark and Cancun have shown great understanding of this.



Evidence about climate change...


"More tubes [of drill cores] lie on the floor of the lab, soon to be put through the machine. In one, a 4-inch stretch of mud reflects a century-long wet period around 400 years ago, in what is known as the Little Ice Age. Deeper samples should corroborate other documented events such as the volcanic eruption of Santorini about 3,500 years ago."

Charles Brumbelow


Electronics assembly work in the US

I've worked in the California electronics industry for the last 40 years. We've always done some assembly here. I think the problem is marshaling and then disposing of the resources needed to build several million iPhones as they go through their life cycle.

The US in general and California in particular make it very difficult to reuse both people and facilities at the level needed to build consumer gear.

There's no good answers. I can build 200 widgets and the premium of building in the US is easily folded into the product cost as it will be a low- volume, high-markup item. If I want to build 2 million widgets, the $1 per unit I save by going to China becomes a big deal.

I would also point out that electronics assembly is boring, repetitive work at low pay. Even in the US, the work is dominated by Asian immigrants.

-- http://www.jkmicro.com Embedded Dos, Linux and Windows Controllers Since 1995

Repetitive boring work is precisely what is done well by the skilled as opposed to the educated. Shop work requires learning discipline and care, not higher mathematics or finance theory or voodoo economics.

And none of this is discussed when we talk about free trade.

If you add cost to a product through regulations, perhaps you ought to equalize that with a tariff?


Read more: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424

Tech Supply Chain Exposes Limits of Trade Metrics

The Wall Street Journal article demonstrates the way that technology and economics do not make a simple metric.

The Taiwanese company is accounting for 3.6 percent of the "wholesale" cost of the iPhone. That is not what it is going for at retail, which is even more interesting. The same may be found in a lot of other imports where the added value is spread over different companies, countries, and continents.



 read book now




CURRENT VIEW    Thursday


This week:


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Friday,  December 24, 2010

Do Pterosaurs Still Exist on Papua New Guinea?


--- Roland Dobbins


"The program has served its purpose and thus we have decided to retire the program."


--- Roland Dobbins

And Merry Christmas. Microsoft Genuine Disadvantage...


"They have a long tradition of overestimating their capabilities."


-- Roland Dobbins

Yea, verily.







 read book now





This week:


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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, commonly called Christmas

Merry Christmas to all









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CURRENT VIEW     Saturday

This week:


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