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Monday  February 21, 2011

Mark Eckstrum

Jerry -

I've heard comments about the case of the Tucson firefighter who declined to respond after the shootings there suggesting that he's an example of cold-hearted right-wing hatred. This report suggests that there might be another interpretation:

"Ekstrum said in the statement he was aware of the shooting from TV reports and became "distraught over the magnitude of how this would affect our country."

"Countless thoughts were streaming through my brain. ... I became distracted to the point of not being able to perform my routine station duties to such an extent that I seriously doubted my ability to focus on an emergency call," his statement said. "I decided for the best interest of my crew, and more importantly the citizens, to go home on sick leave and return to emergency work the next shift when I would be more focused."

Ekstrum added he "failed to communicate my situation to my supervisor correctly at the time of the incident." He said he realized the next morning that he shouldn't have refused the call. He then decided to retire.

Ekstrum's crew was not among the first called to the supermarket where six people were killed and 13 others wounded. But it was specially trained to handle large medical emergencies and was dispatched to assist 90 minutes after the shooting. The team was responding as a support crew with a large delivery truck with tents, medical supplies, water and cots used to assist those who were not seriously injured."


There's no question that he did the right thing by resigning.

David Smith

The question remaining being should he be permitted to retire with full pension, since he was working in a position in which such a call was what he was paid to stand by for. He was taking the chance that he wouldn't be called. One wonders if he ought not have been retired on disability a lot earlier. None of that is really my business or that of anyone other than Tucson voters, but it is something to contemplate in drawing up management policies for emergency responders. Firemen are paid highly and allowed to retire early because they are part of the price of insurance against disaster.  We are all better off if they are never called out at all; but we do have the right to assume that if they are called they are the people we want, and that they can and will perform their duties, and they are paid enough that we have every right to that assumption.  But that is another essay and another matter. Thank you for the elaboration.


Letter from England

I've been monitoring events in Egypt by phone--it's not over yet. Please pray for them. <http://tinyurl.com/68vosrs> <http://tinyurl.com/6xtwc9x>. Telegraph story on Lara Logan <http://tinyurl.com/6xmrjlp>

 Britain taught Arab police forces most of what they know about suppressing dissent. <http://tinyurl.com/64o8edj>

 This is actually a complaint about teaching phonics. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-12509477>

 Barclay's pays about 1% taxes on profits. <http://tinyurl.com/6bf8eu4> <http://tinyurl.com/6yq9pba>

 UK abandons racial considerations in placing adoptees <http://tinyurl.com/5tkhsps> <http://tinyurl.com/6z9vc2a>

 Student visa limits seem "better designed to cut recruitment than visa abuse". <http://tinyurl.com/5tgyxv6> <http://tinyurl.com/68amron> Government criticism of university fees <http://tinyurl.com/64ou25h>. (The maximum fee levels are not enough to cover costs.) Plagiarism in university applications. <http://tinyurl.com/5tsrvlb>


Why I use a Macintosh: Eccl 12:3 "those who look through the windows see dimly" (Crossan's translation).

Harry Erwin


Nika Rebellion?

Mr Pournelle,

I confess that I am surprised that none of the regimes that are under siege have emulated the example set by Emperor Justinian and Belisarious. Certainly there have been examples of these tactics being used in modern history. Saddam was not shy about gassing the Kurds and massacring Shia. The terror Famine under Stalin and the megadeaths under Mao during the cultural revolution are even more extreme examples. Oil reserves have always been sufficient leverage to dissude international protest from becoming more than an inconvenience. If Bush was still in the Whitehouse or McCaine or Palin had replaced him, the threat of direct military intervention would be credible. I can't imagine anyone viewing threats from Obama as being credible. Have Tyrants suddenly lost their brains or their testicles?

Jim Crawford.

Belisarius had troops that were willing to use steel against the revelers in the Hippodrome. He also had enough of them to overwhelm the enemy. Justinian had Belisarius (and also Theodora, a significant asset). It is not so clear that anyone in the Middle East other than the Hashemites have such assets, and it is not certain that there are enough loyal Bedouins to uphold the Hashemites: there were not when the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq was overthrown by the Ba'athists. The Baathist coup eventually fell under the leadership of its Party Internal Security manager, a chap named Saddam Hussein as I recall.

Rule with the iron hand demands that you actually have an iron hand, as well as the will to use it.


Cobol cabal will take over THE WORLD, 


Interesting advice – learn COBOL:


“All of the big four banks in Australia use Cobol, as well as 50 per cent of the tier two, all of the large insurers and 70 per cent of the second-line ones. Some 50 to 60 per cent of government agencies also use the language. But none of the young people coming into the industry seem to be learning it, or any of the other old languages, like Fortran or Delphi.” <snip>

“So while modernisation might be a good idea from the point of view of the users and owners of such systems, the actual advice we might give to a newly minted young shaver fresh off the programmers' production line might be: learn as many of these old languages as you can. Be the only youngster who can deal with them: they're not all going to move off these systems for decades yet (never, ever, underestimate the immobility of a large financial company) and your competition for the consulting jobs seems to be lining up for the graveyard. [emphasis added]

“The other impetus for this might be the consulting rates: $500 to $700 a day for straight Cobol programming seems to be the market rate.”

I wonder how true this is on our side of the pond?


I don't know any COBOL users or programmers, but that may be deficiency on my part.


Kepler Mission Results


Kepler's results haven't gotten nearly the press they deserve. You can go here:


and download the 12 megabyte file "Bill Borucki's Slides".

I guarantee it's worth the download. Even the most casual reader will never look up at the stars the same way again.

Once we start doing spectroscopy on those planets, which won't be long, evidence for a non-equilibrium atmosphere will be the smoking gun for life.

I still don't have any idea how we'll ever get to those worlds, but they're there....



'Egypt is a praetorian state.'


-- Roland Dobbins



'Boeing's goal, it seems, was to convert its storied aircraft factory near Seattle to a mere assembly plant, bolting together modules designed and produced elsewhere as though from kits.'


- Roland Dobbins


Automation vs. Jobs?


CNN.com recently put up the following article on the Watson AI -


You have written more on this subject in the last few days and in a recent comment to one of your mail posts, you said:

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

As a long-time science fiction reader (~50 years) and having worked a bit with computers (~40 years), I have noticed that change and wondered about it. Some 20 years ago, an acquaintance asked me what I thought the greatest challenge of the new millennium would be. I thought a minute and responded that it would be how to run an economy where no one had a job. That comment came largely from my understanding of the degree to which automation could eventually make most forms of gainful employment obsolete.

A key component of that last sentence was 'eventually'. It is rapidly becoming 'eventually'.

I now find that I keep coming back to that point when I read about how our economy is suffering from the export of jobs overseas. The bottom line seems to be that, regardless of whether the work involved in producing goods and services is given to machines or to distant people who are paid pennies per hour, the effect on our national economy is still the same. We have to figure out how to make an economy work where jobs are becoming scarce to non-existent.

And we'd best stop dragging our feet with this one...





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Tuesday,  February 22, 2011

Subj: COBOL Programmers

From Yesterday's mail:

... “The other impetus for this might be the consulting rates: $500 to $700 a day for straight Cobol programming seems to be the market rate.”

I wonder how true this is on our side of the pond?


Jerry: I don't know any COBOL users or programmers, but that may be deficiency on my part.


You know at least one (ahem) "C'est moi!" The State Treasurer's shop in North Carolina was totally COBOL and IBM mainframe when I went to work here 11 years ago, shortly after leaving California and LASFS (sob) behind. However, in the intervening time we've gone totally client server and web-enabled systems here, being a small and agile shop. I do burn a little at seeing criticisms of state employees as time-serving drones when I look around see what fantastic work this small and dedicated IT shop has achieved in very little time.

It may well be that the huge shops with the huge stockpiles of legacy code will be COBOL for some time to come, but I haven't heard of any offers in the salary ranges mentioned above. If I had, I might be tempted to jump ship, though it would take a powerful offer to lure me out of this beautiful part of the country.


Cecil Rose Raleigh, NC

I am not an anarchist, and I think that many state jobs should be civil service, protected from political interference. The problem is that if you add civil service protection to union collective bargaining you end with a perfect setting for the Iron Law to operate.

Public schools are a good idea and worked pretty well for a hundred years, and in fact were one of the main fires under the Melting Pot; but unionized public schools exist to protect the worst teachers (the best hardly need the protection). But that's another discussion.

I expect there are a lot of COBOL shops left. Microsoft used to sell a decent COBOL compiler, and there used to be a lot of pretty good introductory COBOL books; it's not a hard language to learn. And with modern fast computers it ought to be pretty fast.


I once was a pretty good COBOL programmer. On the one hand, I haven't used it in 35 years. On the other hand, it hasn't changed that much in 35 years! On the gripping hand, I am about retirement age, I'm not moving to Australia and $700/day is close to a pay cut considering that contract programmers generally don't get benefits and I do.

Pete Wityk


Current Chaos Manor mail

Dr. Pournelle,

Cobol programmer? That'll be me, been at it for over 30 years. I spent many years freelancing for large companies in the UK and in my experience there's a vast amount of Cobol code running the core processing for the major banks and many other large companies. It does it's job, it's well supported by IBM, and certainly in the case of the banks, since basic accounting requirements don't change there's never been the cost justification for re-writing it all. Yup, Cobol is alive and still kicking in mainframe land.

I'm looking forward to another in the Avalon series, those are among my favourites of your books.

Thanks for running your site. It gives an insight into news that we just don't see in the largely parochial UK media.

Ron Colverson

COBOL seems to have about the same status that it had when I paid much more attention to such matters. I had thought it would become more popular in the small computer revolution, but it never did. I had thought that one big effect of small computers would be a genuine programming revolution, with a great deal more being taught in the schools and done as routine work: on needn't be a college grad to do good programming, nor need one be a genius.

I am not astonished to find that COBOL is still around, but I had not thought about it for a while.


Interesting Times


This is not meant as a rebuke, just a soft comment. You said, "Interesting times continue. The Libyan armed forces are firing on the rebels. Some fighter pilots have defected planes and all to Malta, unwilling to fire on the revolutionary forces, either because they sympathize with the revolution or because they do not believe that the regime can win."

Is it too much to hope that maybe these were just two men with some simple human decency who did not feel that it was right to strafe people that cannot defend themselves? I don't care what regime people defend. Any regime that wants you to fly over your own country and strafe your own people is probably not worth fighting for. I hope our soldiers have enough decency to keep their oaths. But, if not, well we've seen how our veterans are treated so they'll get their desserts either way I suppose.


BDAB, Joshua Jordan, KSC Percussa Resurgo

There are mercenaries and mercenaries. I have known many, but most of those I have known aren't "real" mercs. "Real" Mercenaries would change sides for more money. Most of those I have known believed in the cause they hired out for, but couldn't afford to fight for free. "The Dogs of War" does a good job of telling the story of that kind of mercenary soldier. And of course Machiavelli considered most paid professional armies as "mercenaries" and warned republics against using them: they will ruin you, either by losing crucial battles (possibly even taking bribes to do so) or by robbing the paymaster. In the case of the soldiers holding up Libya and Bahrain and other Middle East regimes -- autocracies, despoties, dictatorships, as you will -- most are regular army troopers from foreign lands. One of the classic problems of despotic rule was that the soldiers tended to form attachments to the people. In some cases there were routine atrocities ordered by the despot so that his bodyguards would be hated by the people and thus fear a change in regime; there was then a delicate balance of terror, as with Caligula's Germans who were feared by the Praetorians, but who had to fear being stranded in Rome, far from home, with the people enraged against them. Eventually the Praetorians lured Caligula away from the Germans and slaughtered him.

And for thousands of years there have been soldiers of fortune who found that standing to arms behind a well polished shield in a glittering palace was a better way to live than actually fighting: less looting, but you lived longer. How many of those are among the standing armies of the Middle East is not known. The Egyptian Army is all Egyptians, officers and men, and retains a sense of military honor, but that is not true of Libya.

As Talleyrand told Napoleon, you can do anything with a bayonet except sit on it. Ortega's observation that to rule by Janissaries requires that you take into account the wishes of the Janissaries was known to every Sultan after Suleiman the Magnificent until the Janissaries were disbanded (and many slaughtered) quite late in the history of the Sultanate.

I had not intended to supply an exhaustive list of the possible motivations of those who have done well by the Libyan regime but are now abandoning it. There are the two Lt. Colonels who fled to Malta with their fighter-bombers; there is the Ambassador to China, and another UN Ambassador; there are others.

But I do not think that comparing those to our Legions is a fair comparison. GI Joe is a good soldier, and good soldiers seldom make good butchers; and often despotates require butchers in order to hold power. What we are learning now is whether that historic model is still possible. Probably not: it requires not only Praetorians and Germans, but also Secret Police.

Can one rule by force and little else? We don't know. One suspects that the real answer to that will be found in Havana.  What is the secret of the Castros? And then there is Venezuela. The secret seems to be in building Party structures rather than simply relying on the Army as Batista did. We will just have to see.


The case against Apple's absurd, overreaching, egregious behavior towards iPhone/iPad content providers.


-- Roland Dobbins


SUBJECT: Building a toaster from scratch

Hi Jerry.

An entertaining presentation on an attempt to build a toaster from scratch. It makes one appreciate civilization!



Mike Casey


Sable for President. (JP for Vice President).


According to the Washington Post the Hillbrook-Tall Oaks Civic Association in Annadale recently elected Ms. Beatha Lee as their new president. Ms. Lee was said to be interested in the neighbourhood, the outdoors, and recently oversaw a 26 acre estate. It was only when Ms. Lee promised, through her vice president, to rule with an even paw that the embarrassing truth began to emerge. Ms. Beatha Lee is a terrier.

John Edwards


Subject: Sinclair ZX81 teardown


Boy, this brings back memories…my homebrew computer club bought and built one of these when they came out back in ’81. We were all electronics geeks serving in the Navy in a small base in Japan back then. Waiting for the computer was the hardest thing…we even bought a video display board for it, and had to write the software to use it.

It sure was fun back then…new exciting technology, we all felt like we were on the edge of something huge…which, of course, we were.


Tracy Walters, CISSP



Nothing needs to be said.


-- Robert K. Kawaratani

And nobody wants that...


For most ... life was hard

Hi Jerry,

This Economist article has some interesting data on some soldiers slain in 1461. Their health appears to have been good, with strong teeth and bones:

“Yet as a group the Towton men are a reminder that images of the medieval male as a homunculus with rotten teeth are well wide of the mark. The average medieval man stood 1.71 metres tall—just four centimetres shorter than a modern Englishman. “It is only in the Victorian era that people started to get very stunted,” says Mr Knüsel. Their health was generally good. Dietary isotopes from their knee-bones show that they ate pretty healthily. Sugar was not widely available at that time, so their teeth were strong, too.”

node/17722650?story_id=17722650 (Warning: most of the article is concerned with the grisly details of their deaths – the section entitled ‘Who are you calling short?’ has the health data.)

So although life has been hard for most people in most times, there have been variations.


Dave Checkley

Actually, perhaps it shows the increase in quality of life following the Black Death, when people and labor were scarce and wages were higher. The average income for thousands of years was about $3 a day, but after the Black Death it went up for a while, until population rose again.


Pace Petronius, the Chinese model doesn't seem very hopeful, to me.


- Roland Dobbins


CCRKBA claims ATF complicit in gun-running

 Dr. Pournelle,

 The excerpt below is from a chain mail that I received from the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. In it they claim that ATF and DoJ are complicit in gun-running across the Mexican border.  I have no idea if it is true or not, but it would seem to be a very serious claim and thus headline news. Along the same lines as the poor coverage and analysis of the Lara Logan incident, I wonder why it got short shrift. If it is completely baseless, why isn't the anti-gun crowd jumping all over it? If there is some evidence to support it then, well, same question.

  CCRKBA is one of the biggest "pro-gun" lobbies in the country. A United States Senator is now involved. A federal agent is dead. Why does no one seem to care?

  "On December 14, 2010, Customs and Border Protection Agent Brian Terry was shot as he tried to capture heavily armed "bandits" targeting illegal immigrants trying to get across the border near Rio Rico, Arizona. He died the next morning.

b50b07c4b4581bc3b975ffafc1ffcdb3/agent-terry.gif>  It was a tragic incident that occurs frequently on our southern border, made all the more tragic because THE SEMI-AUTOMATIC RIFLE THAT WAS USED TO KILL AGENT TERRY WAS BOUGHT BY A CRIMINAL AND SMUGGLED INTO MEXICO UNDER THE WATCHFUL EYE OF THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF ALCOHOL, TOBACCO AND FIREARMS (ATF).

 Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) is now demanding answers on ATF's "Project Gunrunner." Hundreds of guns were allowed to be purchased along the border by alleged straw buyers, while ATF conducted its investigation and DID NOTHING. The ATF looked the other way while these guns slipped into Mexico into the hands of drug cartels, and then they blamed gun laws in the United States for the transactions.

 ATF's own agents say that sometime in late 2009 or early 2010, the Phoenix office of ATF began to implement a policy of "walking" semi-automatic rifles south of the border. One agent says, "The agency was not only looking the other way but actually facilitating trafficking, threatening and punishing agents who voiced objections, covering up trace information, the truth about the gun that killed BPA Terry, what I.C.E. knew, it goes on and on."

 The accusations against ATF and DOJ officials include:

 1.    They intentionally allowed to perhaps as many as 3,000 firearms "walked" across the U.S. border into Mexico.

2.    They instructed U.S. gun dealers to proceed with questionable and illegal sales of firearms to suspected gunrunners.

3.    They intentionally withheld information about U.S.-sanctioned gun smuggling from the Mexican government.

4.    One of the guns ATF allowed or helped to be smuggled into Mexico was involved in the death of CBP Agent Brian Terry.

5.    They are in tandem with the FBI, involved in covering up ATF and DOJ culpability in items One through Four."


 Matt Kirchner

Having grown up in the Old South, I was not brought up to have respect for the Revenoors, as the AT F was pretty well known in the 1930's and before. Their subsequent performances in enticing people to saw off a shotgun, their activities at Ruby Ridge, their shameful performance at Waco in which I saw, on live TV, a BATF agent firing an unaimed automatic weapon in the general direction of the Waco compound (spray and pray) at a time when it was known there were FBI and BATF agents attempting to retreat, and other such activities did not increase my respect for this organization. Doubtless there are dedicated and courageous agents in BATF but one seldom hears of them. One is more likely to hear of Lon Horiuchi and his ilk (even though technically Horiuchi worked for the FBI during his most notorious activities, he was under BATF orders at  the time).

I know nothing of this matter, but I admit a long standing distaste for the BATF, and I am not surprised to hear of wrong doing by this Iron Law organization.





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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hostis Humani Generis 

Dear Doctor Pournelle,

In rage, I read of the slaying of four American citizens on the High Seas by pirates, thirteen of whom were captured and are currently held in custody by these United States.

You ask "I wonder how long it will be before we have US Marines in yachts sailing off the Somali Coast."

One hopes soon.

I have A Modest Proposal.

The USS Enterprise,, CVN 65, is part of the task force that holds the pirates that committed this crime. Unless International Law has "progressed" to the point that Piracy on the High Seas is not a Capital Crime, it would be a simple matter to convene a Naval Tribunal on board Enterprise, with the pirates as defendants.

I would hope the phrase "hostis humani generis" still applies. Whatever consideration they receive should arise only from our Self Respect. Pirates have resigned from the human race. It has long been considered a special quality of crime, that requires a special quality of justice.

Assuming convictions are obtained, I imagine the Enterprise has engineers and carpenters able to build a simple thirteen place gallows. The flight deck would allow the entire crew to be mustered for the executions, as well as allowing prime seating for the next of kin of the victims of the piracy. They could be flown in, as this must be done quickly, if done at all.

As the Enterprise has an on-board television broadcast center, with state of the art facilities able to provide original programming for he crew, and with satellite uplinks to world wide networks and the Internet, it seems to me that we might Encourage The Other Pirates by recreating an Old English custom, often performed at Tyneside on the Thames, of hanging pirates in public, after a fair trial of course, and then displaying their bodies for a Good Time. Since, in these Enlightened Times, with out knowledge of Germ Theory and Publick Hygiene, it would not be practicable to leave the tarred bones of pirates on display for a year or two, we might instead better gain this end by acting so as to ensure that video of the hangings remains for a Goodly Time on the internet, at multiple sites, and is broadcast regularly, perhaps on the Pentagon Channel.

If the cure does not take, it could become a regular program.

How long do we have to wait for that one?

While I shall not hold my breath, I do have my popcorn ready. With butter.

Yes, I am vengeful. Yes, I enjoy my revenge. Yes, it is best served cold.

But some like it hot.


"They are placed beyond society, to be treated as wolves are. They may be killed without consequence by any man's hand." I wonder if the skipper of the Enterprise could simply hang the captured pirates? On the flight deck, with TV to be broadcast to Somalia, with the Stars and Stripes waving behind the gallows. But we are too civilized for such.

Still, with that much force in the area, might we not hunt down some mother ships and their flotillas?


RE: China

Roland Dobbins seems to have confused my observation that a social system that has lasted over two millennia WORKS, ipso facto, with APPROVING of the minutiae of current administration of said social system.

As for the heir apparent Mandarin of the PRC: what's the problem with him being uncorrupt, admiring America for its sense of good and evil, and saying in public -

Begin quote

"There are some well-fed foreigners with nothing to do, who point to China and make unnecessary accusations," Xi was quoted as saying by Hong Kong newspapers in a report that was censored within China.

First, China does not export revolution; second, we don't export hunger and poverty; and third, we don't make waves with you. What else can you say about us?" Xi said."

End quote

To have gone from the madhouse of the cultural Revolution under Mao to that, in under forty years, well, I think it speaks for itself as to whether a society has a stable keel or not.

The current PRC regime is less authoritarian than the Empire ever was. It is no worse than the overtly fascist Guomndang cabal, and that morphed into a liberal bourgeois republic on Taiwan, while under a literal state of siege.

I think the Chinese will do just fine. Would that I felt the same about these United States,

But perhaps they will morph BACK into a liberal bourgeois republic.


I was in negotiation with the University of Peking as I had been invited to be a guest professor for a semester, but as it happened the riots in the Square took place, and the Army was called in. I didn't think I wanted to be teaching if they were likely to shoot my students, so it all came to naught.


Unrest and Libya's Energy Industry | STRATFOR, 


It’s amazing what Stratfor tells us. For example, “Libya’s 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil output can be broken into two categories. The first comes from a basin in the country’s western extreme and is exported from a single major hub just west of Tripoli. The second basin is in the country’s eastern region and is exported from a variety of facilities in eastern cities. At the risk of oversimplifying, Libya’s population is split in half: Leader Moammar Gadhafi’s power base is in Tripoli in the extreme west, the opposition is concentrated in Benghazi in the east, with a 600 kilometer-wide (370 miles) gulf of nearly empty desert in between. This effectively gives the country two political factions, two energy-producing basins, two oil output infrastructures. Economically at least, the seeds of protracted conflict — regardless of what happens with Gadhafi or any political changes after he departs — have already been sown:”


Maps and details follow.




Lewis and Clark's air rifle, 


This is way cool. It’s about Lewis and Clark's air rifle:

This+is+just+to+cool+not+to+spread+around  [sic]

This is a must-watch video. I guarantee you’ll love it.



self-heated livable planets?


Here's a New Scientist piece about the possibility of life on free-floating interstellar planets: "Dorian Abbot and Eric Switzer of the University of Chicago calculate that rocky planets with a similar mass to Earth could remain warm enough to keep water liquid under thick, insulating ice sheets for over a billion years." The heat source would be the planetary cores.


Interesting in itself, but also because Abbot and Switzer's work should provide some insight into to the question you've asked about how core heat contributes to the Earth's overall heat balance.


Indeed that's a lot of heat...

It seems to me intuitively obvious that there's a lot of heat involved - you could toast a lot of marshmallows at Kilauea. More seriously, as I understand the theory of plate tectonics, most (if not all) of our geography's vertical relief is essentially heat-engine driven. A heat engine implies waste heat going somewhere, and upwards would seem to be the only long-term option. And then there are the steep temperature rises as mines are dug down a mere mile or two. I have the disquieting vision of our living on the crust of dross over a crucible full of molten metal...

It'd be interesting to see how Abbot and Switzer model the heat flow. I mean, *I* could cruise the internet for a day then come up with a wild-ass guesstimate that'd have a decent chance of being within an order of magnitude. One hopes they've done something more solid.

One question is, how well do we even understand the source(s?) of the internal heat. There was that idea a few months back that Solar neutrino flux might be affecting the internal heat production by affecting nuclear decay rates.

Culturally, we seem to be again coming back out of a wave of "everything worth knowing is known". Not a moment too soon, imho; the world, and the universe, seem readier than ever to apply a stiff dose of humility to those unable to supply their own.


I presume the climate modelers are aware of all this.


Cobol NOT taking over the world 


I spent a year looking for work back in 2009 with the assistance of my then-current employer. I had a number of interviews and discussions with banking conglomerates. Without exception, they wanted to hire C++ programmers, presumably because C++ allows fast algorithmic code to assist stock-broker quants.

Those who were not interested in C++ were looking at C#/ASP.net or Java / J2EE for web or database access. They were intended for rapid data retrieval and presentation in a web form format.

I never had a single request cross my desk for a COBOL programmer. In addition, the language in and of itself is not as important as the goodies attached to it these days -- are you writing against a .NET framework? How will you interoperate with other systems? What if you want web access? What libraries will you be using? How will that information be secured? Are you using a database? What database is it and how are you tuning it? Is this a traditional program, or a .DLL?

To my mind, the biggest bottleneck in data retrieval is the database itself. This is why DBAs are paid six-figure salaries. I once knew a man who could cut a 1-hour query to a six-minute query simply be restructuring the SQL SELECT statement used to gather the data. Understanding the ins and outs of the database , correctly configuring the database for your needs, building the appropriate indexes and table clusters to optimize retrieval, are the most important things to take into account for your database needs, and the choice of language does not enter into it.

COBOL, to my mind, does not allow easy use of current technologies, or even ones that are twenty years old. Good luck building a web form or accessing an SQL database or using an ActiveX control with the language. It's main use, I suspect, is for people who bought '70s Big Iron and legacy technology which is too expensive to convert to modern systems. That would also account for the high consulting fees -- no one is learning the old stuff, so those who know it can command high hourly rates.

A quick scan of COBOL job openings on careerbuilder bears this out; the openings are limited compared to those with modern languages and skill sets.

I would therefore urge a young developer to learn object-oriented languages and to pay special attention to web services and architecture. Also app development for smartphones and Ipads. That is the future of computing. Cobol is the past. That is my professional opinion based on 17 years as a professional software engineer.


Brian P.

Oh I never thought that COBOL was taking over the world, I was rather surprised that it was still around. Yet: I believe that  COBOL like language should be developed. The real computer revolution will come when computer literacy is as common as literacy.


California high-speed rail 

Your tax dollars at work-



The lobbying plan has raised concerns among project critics and state Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach): They question whether the California High-Speed Rail Authority should be spending taxpayer money to muster political support.

In one e-mail made available to The Times, Roelof van Ark, chief executive of the rail authority, issues directions to a representative of Thompson Public Affairs in Sacramento, which represents an association of rail companies and advocates: "Trust that you are also helping to ensure that (the high-speed rail) industry and labor are out in full force to flood any negative contributors."


High speed rail across the San Andreas does not make a lot of sense from the beginning.


PlanetQuest: Exoplanet Exploration 

Dear Jerry,

Here is a more user friendly source for the KEPLER mission:


Stars discovered to have planetary systems- 442

Planets discovered.- 528

As to how we'll get to the stars- Generation Ships (Slow Boats) require no new science. Gerard K. O'Neill in the seventies designed Space Habitats that, with the addition of an independent, long lasting power source and ion engines, are essentially Generation Ships. It's engineering.

Slow Boats do require courage, though. Only the bravest of the brave will consign their lives, fortunes and posterity to such an endeavor.

Fortunately, the human race still seems to have avoided a courage shortage.

Or we can ship frozen embryos with an AI nanny and Womb-Bots. That requires some new biology, but we're within a generation of that.

We'll get to the stars, one way or t'other. Guaran-(Expletive Deleted)- teed,


Learn Chinese. But there's still some power left in the United States. We'll see. And Solar Power Satellites remain quite practical.



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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lack of Policy[maker]


In my threat analysis course, I read that one of the hallmarks of a failed state is a point where policy makers fail to make critical decisions. Policy makers would--generally--pass on immediate problems to the following group of policy makers that would replace them. The statement also said that policy makers may avoid making decisions entirely. First, we had state legislators running away from the state and failing to make the voice of their constituents heard. By being absent, they are undermining public trust and respect in them and in their offices. Second, we have this happening at the national level:


With the clock ticking to a March 4 government shutdown, you might imagine the Capitol would be buzzing with lawmakers seeking to cut deals, make impassioned speeches and do everything they could to strike a deal on spending.

You’d be wrong.

House lawmakers stayed until 4:41 a.m. Saturday to finish up a spending bill to keep the government open, and sent it over to the Senate — only to be met with an empty chamber. Senators had closed up shop two days before and went home for a 10-day break to honor George Washington's birthday.

“We will do our work, but where is the Senate? They’re on vacation,” said Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Montana Republican and member of theHouse Appropriations Committee who ran part of the floor debate over cutting spending for the new health care law. “Here we are knocking up against a March 4 deadline and they’re missing the deadline again.”

Indeed, the corridors of the Capitol have been empty this entire week, with both the House and Senate adjourned, leaving their leaders to try negotiations through press releases, Twitter messages and telephone conference calls.



We need sensible energy policy. We need sensible education policy. We also need to get the Greek concept of arete--being the best that you can be; being called by the community--back into the United I don't see such congress critters--and their failure to make decisions we compensate and pension them to make--supporting our present Mission Essential Task List

As an aside, what is this about twitter? Are these congress critters living in the Middle East? Are they going to start some sort of Velvet Revolution via social networking services from their smart phones? Why are congress critters using social networking services to conduct negotiations? This would be satirical and cartoonish if we saw it on the television and here it is! I feel bad for the Boomers, they must be very afraid. And if not--*switches to Yoda's voice*--they will be...


BDAB, Joshua Jordan, KSC Percussa Resurgo


Fiscal responsibility, Alberta style

Dr. Pournelle,

The Province of Alberta ran into debt problems in the late '80s and early '90's due to excessive government spending. The solution was drastic spending cuts across the board (including the sacred cows of health and education) which made Premier Ralph Klein VERY unpopular with a large portion of the electorate. I remember the various unions being especially vociferous in their attacks on him and his policies. A brief study of his political biography leads to several conclusions about how a government can restore fiscal sanity. http://thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0004346

1. Be upfront and blunt with the electorate about the need for drastic financial cuts. 2. Bring in balanced budget legislation. 3. Slash government spending across all departments, nothing excluded. (I think Klein did 25% across the board.) 4. Shrink government and lessen regulations.

It takes a very strong and unique leader to take these unpopular steps. How many state governors have the will to fight the good fight?

Darryl Sukkau

P.S. Clan and Crown was the first of your books I bought. Blew me away.


About new nuclear plants?

Hello Dr. Pournelle: I was a kid in Nevada during the height of the above-ground nuclear testing. My Dad worked at one time or another, at both of the Nevada test sites. I grew up an married a Navy submariner. Within 5 years, he went from third class radioman to Chief, and was transferred to nuclear boats. On my own hook, working outside the home while he was out at sea a lot, I worked, mostly in aerospace and the Space Program, but also during the 34-year career, for two separate companies which built nuclear power plants. Once, I thought they were the best thing to come down the pike. Now, I am unalterably opposed to them. And we have two companies, one French and one Japanese, who want to build 104 more new plants, all of them east of the Mississippi. (Well. One in Texas). And they want Uncle Sam to guarantee the loans for said plants, in case they have cost overruns, or fail to perform as designed. Never mind, blowing up. I fought Yucca Mountain, along with other far more educated and capable persons than myself. I have all the articles I gathered, and the one I wrote. How do you stand on the topic?

Very best wishes,

Penny McCracken Fallon NV

I have been strongly in favor of building nuclear power plants to the number required to get 90% of our electric energy from nuclear, and making it cheap; I have not changed that view for forty years or more. The Japanese design is as I understand it one developed in America when we were the dominant nation in nuclear.

I see no reason to oppose Yucca Mountain other than that is is needless; recycling nuclear waste is a much better thing to do. The residue can be stored in any desert, say at Fort Irwin; the only danger from the stuff would be theft, and that would not be a simple matter.

For a lot less than we spend on "stability" in the  Middle East the US could have something approaching energy independence, and tell the Middle East to drink their oil.


Cairo, Madison, and Libya

Some commentary on events in Cairo and Madison by David Warren: The mob & after http://www.davidwarrenonline.com/index.php?id=1245

Iran is different from Egypt, in the sense that the military autocracy and the Islamists have been, since 1979, one and the same. For some reason that escapes me, the Obama administration, and European allies copying their lead, turned their backs on Iranian demonstrators. They then gave full attention to Egyptian ones, echoing their demands. Odd, when you remember that the Iranian regime is our mortal enemy, and the Egyptian one our imperfect but indispensable ally.

Neither Western nor Arab mass media can be so easily blamed for their own effective bias, since they cannot easily enter Iran to report. It is only because Egypt presented the more open society, that its government was so vulnerable. The ayatollahs continue to imprison, torture, and hang leaders of the Iranian uprisings, but this is hardly reported. Whereas, in Egypt, a demonstrator knocked down by a charging camel triggers a planetary avalanche of outrage.

Yankee mobs http://www.davidwarren

[Governor Scott] Walker has assumed responsibility in a state with a very "progressive" history, and as we have seen in Europe, the wealthier the vested interests, the angrier they become.

+ + +

The Unity of Libya Regarding Ed's comment about Libya being two oil-producing regions separated by barely inhabited desert, I recollect that the Roman provinces were divided in just that way: the Pentapolis of Cyrenaica (incl. Crete) in the East and Proconsular Africa (incl. Tunisia) in the West. In medieval times, Tripoli was typically ruled from the Maghreb, usually from Tunis or even Morocco (Almohads, Hafsids, etc.) while Cyrene was ruled from Egypt (Ayyubids, Mamluqs, etc.) A single local polity embracing both Tripolitania and Cyrene did not emerge until 1714 when the Emirate of Tripoli broke free of Ottoman rule.


Obama no longer surprises me much. He is not a very deep thinker.


TSA Harasses 9-yo Boy and Other Train Passengers After Their Trip




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Friday,  February 25, 2011

Argument from Implied Authority

Penny McCracken saying she worked "for two separate companies which built nuclear power plants" implies but does not say she was in that part of the companies and thus implicitly has an informed opinion. I suspect almost any large company in the aerospace industry will have some link to some nuclear work.

I have found anti-nuclearists regularly claiming to have worked in the nuclear industry while being ignorant of the subject. Mrs McCracken is probably not inventing here but her argument would have been stronger if she had actually produced some argument against nuclear, apart from the Japaneseness of a producer, rather than making an argument from implied authority.

Neil Craig

I have no idea why she opposes nuclear power; but then I don't hear many rational arguments on the subject, As I relate in Step Farther Out, California's leading anti-nuclear "Small is Beautiful" leader used to boast that "The only physics I ever took was ExLax." I do not hear many rational discussions of the   demerits of nuclear power, and except for Access to Energy there aren't many explications of the reasons why nuclear power is desirable. As I said before we invaded Iraq and continue to say, had we put the estimated war cost of $300 billion into US energy development we would not have to worry so much about the Middle East. As it happens the cost was -- surprise! -- a multiple of the $300 billion, with no real end in sight. I would prefer private energy development, but the TVA provides a model of a Federal energy agency that actually works. The important thing is that energy prices are a major factor in economic growth, and everyone knows it.

It is not my job to marshal the arguments against nuclear power. The anti-nuclear people are so successful in the wonderful American public school system that it is now simply assumed that educated and intelligent people are against nuclear power. This is a great accomplishment, for which the American people have paid a great deal of money, and will continue to pay it in pensions to those who achieved it. So it goes.


The Law of Least Usefulness

Dear Dr. Pournelle:

This email refines the Peter Principle by adding a time-minimization law; this I then combine with the Iron Law of Bureaucracy, and from this derive the Law of Least Usefulness.

The Peter Principle states that any employee in a hierarchy tends to rise to his level of incompetence, when he then stays; therefore hierarchies tend to accumulate incompetent employees. Dr. Peter's logic is impeccable; but more can be added to it.

For there are many positions within the hierarchy where the employee can be incompetent; and perhaps many other positions where the employee would be competent, above that employee's equilibrium level. Of all the possible incompetence levels, the employee achieves the first one in line, and then stops.

Therefore the employee not only achieves an incompetence level, he or she does so as quickly as possible .

I call this the "Speedy Peter Principle", namely: Any employee in a hierarchy tends to rise to a level of incompetence, and do so as quickly as possible.

Now consider the Iron Law of Bureaucracy: Any bureaucracy tends to be ruled by those who put the bureaucracy's interests ahead of its purpose.

The Peter Principle says that hierarchies tend to have incompetent staff; the Iron Law says that hierarchies tend to have corrupt leadership; and to these we can add a time-minimization law: this yields the "Speedy Iron Peter" (SIP) Principle: Any hierarchy tends to become corrupt and incompetent as quickly as possible.

Let Usefulness = Competence + Integrity + Time : then the SIP Principle implies the LOLU: the Law of Least Usefulness.



Cool effect with two cans and some sand.

Hi Jerry.

An unexpected physical affect when trying to burry some cans in the sand:



Mike Casey


Perfect answer

Hello Jerry,

I just read your response to Penny McCracken and given its brevity, you couldn't have said it better.

One additional thing should be made clear however.

While Penny and many other 'grass roots' protesters are both sincere and adamant in their objection to Yucca Mountain, the handling of nuclear waste is an excuse for the organized opposition to nuclear power, not a reason.

As you are aware, the opposition to nuclear power is to the power part, not the nuclear part. EVERY form of energy exploitation meets with vehement opposition, always instigated by the same individuals and organizations. With nuclear, since the actual production of energy has a history (at least outside Communist countries) of being clean and safe, the opposition is focused on waste disposal while blocking all efforts to reprocess the spent fuel and make the problem essentially go away. The true agenda is made especially obvious when sites like Yucca Mountain are blocked because they cannot 'guarantee' absolute safety against all conceivable catastrophe, natural or manmade, for 100,000 years, while the waste awaiting the approval of Yucca is being stored in the open air, with no obvious consequences to anyone.

While Penny is clearly not an idiot (quite the contrary, based on her history and her letter) as 'idiot' is usually defined, I think that in the context of 'fighting Yucca along with others far more educated and capable than herself' the term 'useful idiot' would apply. Maybe it would help if she would investigate the curricula vitae of those august individuals and groups 'leading the charge', rather than just soldiering on in the shadow of their brilliance.

Bob Ludwick


The Mob is in Trouble


While I share your disgust with the tactics being employed in Wisconsin and Indiana by the losers of the elections to nullify the results, I'm not so pessimistic. In the past, discussions of how big government should be and how much citizens should pay in taxes to support it have been abstract. While defense contractors and Wall Street bankers were vilified, public employees were viewed as sympathetic. My impression is that most tax payers and voters are beginning to view the Unions, the Democrat politicians and more importantly the public employees with increasing hostility. Most believe govt spending is excessive and now realize that public employees are by far the biggest expense. The public employee Unions can riot all week, but the tax payers who are far more numerous can counter riot on the weekends. Also, if the losers of an election insist on nullifying the ballot box, a significant number of citizens will decide that it is not illegitimate to resort to the bullet box. The police might take a dim view of that. However; given all of their whining about how they are outgunned by the criminals when officer homicide rates have been at historic lows, I don't think most police would have the scrotum to fight a civil war.

Jim Crawford

I do not think the US is in danger of that kind of street fighting -- yet. But economic despair can lead to a number of changes. And the quality of the schools needs to be factored in. Not many know the relevant history.


Must Be Said


This event could not pass without my comment:

<snip> King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced financial support measures, worth an estimated SR135bn ($36bn), in a bid to avert the kind of popular unrest that has toppled leaders across the region and is now closing in on Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi.

The measures include a 15 per cent salary rise for public employees to offset inflation, reprieves for imprisoned debtors, and financial aid for students and the unemployed. </snip> http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/b02f1ffa-3f62-11e0-8e48-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1Er5cELt6

So the King--in his infinite magnificence and wisdom, praise be unto he who makes the desert winds blow--decided to give back some taxes to the people. That's a fairly clever strategy--for him personally, I mean. Any sane king with the money these guys should hold would have a copious supply of wealth that will all be squandered anyway. As an aside, I am not sure the last ditch effort to get into banking is going to save the House of Saud. However, with much cash the king can appease the mob for a time--likely long enough for the king to pass through the veil and join the dead. This is why I suppose this king is making a wise decision.

This king does not have the presence the old king did. When you saw the old one, he felt like a king. This one still feels like a prince, and I am not noticing most of the other princes--save for Bandar Bush. I wonder what the rest of the leadership in the House of Saud looks like and I wonder if they will have the resources to appease the crowd when they get to be King Abdullah's age. This could be the end of OPEC. Of course oil prices will go up in the short term, possible 200 dollars a barrel. Gas prices could be 4-5 USD by the end of the year, and new fields could open here increasing oil company profits. But, the end of OPEC could be the end of expensive oil. Let's keep our fingers crossed... --------

BDAB, Joshua Jordan, KSC Percussa Resurgo

My advice would be to do what it takes to be energy independent; even if that means some belt tightening while we do it. It will still be less expensive than the kind of imperialism we seem doomed to engage in now.


re: 'Learn Chinese'

Dear Dr. Pournelle:

In the last of your responses to Petronius on Wednesday (http://www.jerrypournelle.com/mail/2011/Q1/mail663.html), where he suggests that we build century ships to the newly discovered planets, you in turn suggest: "Learn Chinese."

If one wishes to learn to speak Mandarin Chinese, may I suggest this:


In addition to giving free PDFs and MP3s of the rather extensive public domain Foreign Service Institute course in Mandarin, it also gives links to lots of supplemental material, not limited to the MIT OpenCourseWare Mandarin Course, and the Defense Language Institute courses in Mandarin and Cantonese.

Of course, if you'd rather learn Cantonese, so as to be more comfortable speaking with natives of Hong Kong Luna (when that gets operational), may I suggest this:


More generally, http://fsi-language-courses.org/Content.php has put together a large set of FSI language courses for forty-three (yes, 43) different languages, from Amharic to Yoruba.

And if that is not enough for you, I've recently found a website where one can download the materials from a number of Defense Language Institute courses:


Of course, it might also be reasonable to learn how to read Chinese, but at present I have not been able to find good and free online resources to do so. If you or your readers are interested, though, and if that changes, I would be happy to share what I find with you, and them.

Hoping this e-mail finds you well, I am

Very truly yours,

Bernard Brandt



COBOL and Fire Fighters


Your commenter Brian P wrote

"A quick scan of COBOL job openings on careerbuilder bears this out; the openings are limited compared to those with modern languages and skill sets.

I would therefore urge a young developer to learn object-oriented languages and to pay special attention to web services and architecture. Also app development for smartphones and Ipads. That is the future of computing. Cobol is the past. That is my professional opinion based on 17 years as a professional software engineer. "

With respect, I've made a fine career in systems administration by not following the herd. When 'the future' was NetWare, I had a series of well-paid positions working with Banyan VINES. Then I was told 'the future' was Windows NT and I jumped into the supposedly dying world of unix. Being contrary has kept me employed and well-compensated since 1991.

There is an economic principle here whose name escapes me - but think of firefighters. You've got your basic city and county guys, anyone who is physically able can do the job. The pay is low. Next up your specialized jobs, HAZMAT, smoke jumpers require more experience, more education. Pay is better. At the pinnacle was Red Adair. There was only one of him, and he could command whatever price he wanted.

-- Brian Dunbar Geidus

"Display some adaptability"

Well, I haven't been advising people to learn COBOL -- indeed I haven't thought  about it for a while -- but I woujld like to see more work done on developing easier to use programming languages. There used to be a lot more effort directed at that.

Half the people are below average. That probably does not apply to those who read this site...


Pace Petronius, redux.

I've spent a lot of time in the Middle Kingdom [China], and I've a pretty good feel for the country and its culture.

1. There's more to life than 'stability'.

2. Except for the part about revolution, the rest of the 'heir apparent's' statements are patently false (Google News is your friend).

3. My objections are about far more than 'minutiae'.

I fear that he's correct in his apparent belief that this model is in fact the future of the human species. I'm just glad that I'm more than halfway through my probable lifespan, so that I hopefully won't have to live long enough to see it become a reality.

-- Roland Dobbins

History has a habit of surprising us, and selling the US short has never been a way to get rich. The American people remain, if somewhat submerged.


Evolution of Mental Disorders 


You wrote:

<quote> I have long intended to write an essay on the subject. Hereditary schizophrenia makes no evolutionary sense. Senile dementia might even have a positive effect since in times of food scarcity one ought to have the good grace to die when one's grandchildren reach adolescence, or sometimes even earlier. Dementia praecox -- juvenile dementia -- has an enormous evolutionary burden, so much so that one suspects infection rather than genes are at work. Infections can run in families too. <end quote>

That's puzzled a number of people, but I think a lot of these puzzles can be addressed in terms of cost/benefit analysis.

There's a story: two men walking in the forest are confronted by a hungry bear. One turns to run. The other shouts, "What are you thinking? You can't possibly outrun a bear!"

The reply? "I don't have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun *you*."

Evolution comes up with solutions that are good enough", not ideal. Evolution doesn't pick the ideal solution unless it's forced to, or unless the absolute best solution is the first "good enough" solution it stumbles across in its random walk across the fitness graph.

So the mutations that cause sickle-cell trait are preserved as a way of protecting against malaria, even though some of the population will die from sickle-cell anemia. On balance, more of the population survives to reproduce, and the gene continues.

In other cases, stuff happens, and it costs more in resources to prevent the marginal cases than would be gained. I believe the error rate in copying DNA is about one per million base pairs. It's that low due to various proofreading and error-correcting mechanisms. More hardware could reduce the error rate further, but would consume resources better spent elsewhere.

If Cochrane's notions of "overclocking the brain" are true, we have a situation where the population derives benefit from a certain number of individuals with higher intelligence, and this benefit outweighs the cost of a smaller number who die young from certain hereditary diseases. Could the same thing be happening with autism and schizophrenia?

Homosexuality would appear to be evolutionarily disadvantageous. By definition, if you don't pass on your genes, your fitness is precisely zero. (And yes, homosexuals do reproduce, though probably at a lower rate than the surrounding population.) Maybe there's a benefit to having a small fraction of the population carry any genes that predispose to homosexuality. Or maybe it's the result of a genetic glitch that hasn't been worth the resources to fix over evolutionary time. I don't know, and I don't think anyone else does, either. Maybe autism and schizophrenia are glitches that occur in human brains, and the mechanisms that prevent them are "good enough" in an evolutionary sense.

This also applies to various conditions that represent the extreme ends of a normal distribution. Most people are distractable to some extent, and people with ADD are more so than most. Maybe we need a certain number of very distractable people (successful entrepreneurs have a high rate of ADD), or maybe it's just not worth the resources needed to narrow the range.

Or, maybe it wasn't worth the resources to fix the problem and the problem later turned out to be a useful answer to some other issue -- a lot of evolution involves "exaptation", adapting an existing structure to serve a novel function.

Evolution, like every other scientific principle I've encountered, is very simple in concept, but can be fiendishly difficult when you get in to the details.

.................Karl Lembke



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Saturday, February 26, 2011

'When it came time to change the codes, an aide admitted they had been missing for months.'


-- Roland Dobbins

I am not sure I believe this story. It is likely that the communications associated with the permissive link -- the electronic signal that enables missile wing commanders to own their weapons -- have changed since the days when we designed them, but unless the whole system has enormously changed it is not possible for the President to "have" or "lose" these codes. That is: the President must give certain orders and codes that indicate that the orders come from POTUS, but the actual encrypted codes are not anything he would "read off" or otherwise be personally associated with transmission. These are the codes that enable the connections between the launch consoles and the missiles, and also arm the birds. In these days of thumb drives they are almost certainly different in physical form from what was designed in the 1950's and 1960's when the silos were built, but it is unlikely that they will resemble anything like a message that can be read over the telephone by the President.

If I seem vague I intend to be, although as I say, I doubt that anything I knew in those days has much relevance for the procedures used now. Also not that in those times, and one presumes now, there were alternate ways for the President to communicate with CINC SAC (Dropkick in those days) and for Dropkick to enable the birds. We no longer have Looking Glass -- a SAC general officer in an airborne command center; it did not land until a relief command center was airborne and well away from Omaha -- but one suspects that the concept has not vanished. Decapitation of the United States and thus paralyzing the nuclear retaliatory force was one of the attacks that the system was designed to survive; say a suitcase bomb detonated during the State of the Union address.

By Clinton's time the US was no longer so concerned about such matters. The USSR was in fragments, the Soviet Strategic Rocket Force had stood down much of the nuclear force aimed at the United States, and the danger of a decapitation attack was low; even so, whether or not the President was unconcerned, the officers who job it was to implement the SIOPS hadn't been relieved of that duty, and no one I know who found himself in that command chain took the assignment lightly. (And of course there were redundancies and checks built into that, too; we used to game the system to see if we could find improbable scenarios in which the US would be attacked but unable to retaliate, as well as those in which a madman got into the that chain of command.)

See also http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/

Note that http://www.theaustralian.com.au/
1225942048077   says

Without the codes it would have been impossible to begin the launch sequence for a retaliatory or pre-emptive nuclear strike, an officer formerly in charge of the President's "nuclear football" told The Times yesterday.

but if that's the case, things changed a very great deal from the 1960's when, as I said, one of the contingencies planned for was decapitation of the United States. POTUS is an obvious point failure risk, and any rational deterrence plan has to take that kind of attack into account; it if were possible to neutralize the entire deterrent by that single attack, then that kind of attack would be almost inevitable, would it not? One of Herman Kahn's scenarios in Thinking about the Unthinkable was the situation in which it was known that all the missile commanders and SAC pilots had a temporary disabling infection -- say flu -- and the incentive that would give to the Politburo.

And I am very happy that I no longer have to think about that sort of thing every day. I'm particularly glad I don't have to think about it during another Cuban Missile Crisis. It was no fun then. It would be less so now.


a small silver lining? - 


Mideast unrest shows need for alternative fuels: Navy Secretary

(Reuters) - Oil price rises spurred by spreading unrest in the Middle East underscore why the U.S. military should reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, said U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

Every $10 increase in the price of a barrel of oil adds more than $300 million to the U.S. Navy's annual fuel costs, said Mabus, the former governor of Mississippi and the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia under former President Bill Clinton.

I have been reading but not writing as my life at work and at home has taken a turn for the crazy busy. I wish you well.

R, Rose

A small silver lining?


Last November this article predicted price parity between oil and algae-oil to happen, with plenty of tax credits, in about 10 years. If things go on as they are now, I am betting it will happen a lot sooner. I would actually be in favor of tax credits related to building the facilities to make in, but, think the industry could become self-sufficient quickly.

I also expect that Global Warming True Believers will challenge this technology as it is oil, just from a different source.


"The current cost of a barrel of algae biofuel ranges from $140 a barrel to $900 per barrel."




SUBJ: Seattle restaurant puts TSA workers on no-eat list

"Great storms announce themselves with a gentle breeze." - Oliver Cromwell


Seattle restaurant puts TSA workers on no-eat list


'Weapons of Cultural Mass Destruction...'

The weapons of cultural mass destruction (Levi's, music, etc.) that you discussed have definitely had an effect.

It's interesting to note that the *medium* that carried them, and became a conversation, instead of consumption, has had just as much of an effect, I believe.

It's starting to look like the first mistake the various stripes of autocrat made was allowing people to discuss matters (particularly what the people DON'T like) outside of surveillance. Said surveillance might not be there because the media were considered unimportant, or because of the massive effort required to monitor. Either way, people stopped being afraid of constant scrutiny, and that led to free thought, which led to free speech, which led to demands for rights.

We can only hope that the result is more open societies in that part of the world. In a few generations, it could even reduce the pressure on Israel, if the current passions can be reined in for a while. I've read articles that put forth the idea the Islam is going through it's equivalent of the Protestant Reformation, with all the discomfort such a schism involves. Would be kinda nice if energetic Muslims decided that Islam should be in their hearts, rather than in the government, and started acting as a moral force, especially since such moral force is behind a lot of what's going on in the Arab/Muslim world right now.

Just some thoughts rambling around a particular topic...hopefully coherent enough to read with some enjoyment.

As you so often write, "We live in interesting times."

Best Regards,

Doug Hayden


Subject: What will jobs be like when everything is automated?

My guess is that goods will be cheap. And even a part time babysitting job will pay well enough to support a family.

Cynthia Allingham

We can hope. Marx described something like that as the end of history. But for most of history, well more than half the people in any society (with a few exceptions) lived on the modern equivalent of $3/day.  Think of a $100/Day subsidy, and the serfs are all robots.


Subject: Energy

On getting oil at the homefront…the past two years my son (who is a roughneck on an oil rig) has been pretty steadily employed in Wyoming and North Dakota. We’re getting a lot of roughnecks commuting up here from Texas to work. And my wife was given 160 acres of tribal land in Oklahoma by her Grandfather at her birth over 50 years ago. We tried to get oil companies interested in it (there are wells all around the land) but were never able to. Suddenly, about two months ago, we received (and accepted) an offer from a company to do exploration there.

It seems oil at home has got some serious focus again. Now, if we can just get the interest back in nuclear power. Whenever I speak of it, I’m almost universally met by the statement “but what do we do with all the waste?” The opponents of nuclear power have convinced a lot of people that nuclear waste is a huge untenable problem, and that reactors are horribly unsafe. It’s really odd that people ignore all the active reactors around the world (including the the U.S. Navy) that have an outstanding safety record, and that they’ve never actually quantified how much waste there is, and how we can go about handling it….they just ‘know’ it is a problem.

Tracy Walters, CISSP


Subject: The future of American electricity

Though we no longer live in Nebraska we still receive the Rural Electric magazine. This month had a frightening article on the future of electricity prices. Starting on page 12 in the article Red Tape describes the various actions taken to shut down coal power plants, the Clean Air Transport Act, Coal Ash declared a hazardous waste and cooling water intake requirements all told 1/3 of all U.S. electricity capacity may need to be retired. Imagine your electric bill 3 times higher than it is today.




That was an incredible column today. I would like to comment:


I think some of the answer has to do with what, for lack of a better word, I’ll call crisis-ism. This is a condition in which you don’t know you’re in crisis because you’re always in crisis, you’ve always been in crisis, and you’ve always gotten through, so what the heck. Crisis-ism is the inability to apprehend that this time it’s different, that this time the crisis is an actual crisis.

There are senators and congressmen who’ve been on the hill for 10 and 25 years, and from the day they walked in, all they heard about was the budget crisis. “This spending will kill us.” But it never did. So maybe it wasn’t so bad, and, ergo, isn’t so bad. They are inured to warning. You can tell them 10 different ways that we’re in crisis and they’ll think, “Some think-tank guy told me that 20 years ago, and we’re still here.”



Two words: "intelligence failure". We are looking at an intelligence failure of epic proportions. The author of this column outlined what we in the analytical trade call "cognitive bias". In this case there is inter alia a historical bias at work. The safest whether prediction is that tomorrow's weather will be like today's. So, like in a Hollywood war movie, in the end America will win and America will be good and everyone will rejoice and there may even be singing.

Like it says in the opening of Hagakure, "negligence is an extreme thing". We are not dealing with critical thinkers on Capitol Hill. As new data comes in, these people assimilate the data within the context of their existing schema and cognitive biases. Why should they think critically or undertake analysis? They have a support staff that does stuff like that, right? Well, I wonder why these congress critters aren't listening to them.


BDAB, Joshua Jordan, KSC Percussa Resurgo


Navy tests BIG honking free electron laser


This bad boy can burn through 20 feet of steel per second. It is a free electron laser, with tunable output wavelength. Boeing has been given a contract to build a weaponized version.

While this thing was intended to shoot down cruise missiles, it seems to me it probably would also have application against surface ships.

They don't say what the beam divergence is. (I'd be very, very surprised to learn it was unclassified.) Beam divergence x power density = range. Given decent beam divergence specs, and "good enough" targeting capability, this thing would have a basically unlimited range (although limited to line-of-sight, obviously).

One can almost envision a device that could incinerate an individual tinpot dictator, in the middle of giving a rabble-rousing speech, out of a clear blue sky. Codename "Sword of Jehovah"? (What did they call the laser satellite in "Diamonds Are Forever", anyway? "Goldeneye" isn't all that appealing to me, and Pierce Brosnan is not James Bond 007 the way Sean Connery, Roger Moore, or even George Lazenby were.)

And the beautiful part is that there is no credible case whatsoever for calling this a Weapon of Mass Destruction: it is a Weapon of PINPOINT Destruction. They're the best kind.

--John R. Strohm


X-Class Flare Bounces Off North Pole


Charles Brumbelow


laser cat bowling 


It’s exactly what it sounds like, bowling with lasers and cats. Gotta see this one. Disclaimer – neither the cat nor the laser were harmed while making this video.




Heriditary insanity -

Hi Jerry,

You recently made the comment, "Hereditary schizophrenia makes no evolutionary sense". True enough for disorders that 1) appear before reproductive age, and 2) inhibit reproductive activity. Hence the argument that homosexuality isn't genetic - it allegedly is 'from birth' and would definitely inhibit reproduction.

If we look at it in those terms, some disorders (e.g. a psychopath who rapes women), will actually increase the propensity for that particular disorder (assuming it's genetic) to propagate. That's one of the reasons that I would never ban abortions for rape victims.

Other disorders may not have an onset until the 20's or 30's (if I remember correctly, schizophrenia often appears in the 20's). While today that's the prime reproductive years, for the majority of human history (and before), it's past at least the early portion of reproductive activity.



It is not an evolutionary advantage to have a madman for a mother or father during your early years. A mother with dementia praecox will not help you grow to maturity.


Subject: Biggest solar flare in years set to blast earth's atmosphere; could impact GPS, power grids.


Tracy Walters, CISSP

Bit late on posting this.



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CURRENT VIEW     Saturday

This week:


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Sunday,  February 27, 2011     



The Google rules are not all that secret, save for members of the general public. I've read regular articles in 2600 (The Hacker Quarterly) on how to manipulate meta tags and exploit Google algorithms. This is why when you typed "Miserable Failure" during the Bush II administration, you could see whitehouse.gov. I think "WMD" was another one that did that. But, these reasons are not the reason for Google's change, in my opinion.

Google, which owns youtbue, censors material in the United States. I've watched them reset counters on controversial videos, disable accounts without cause, and generally act in the same way paypal and ebay do with unilateral policy application sans an appeal process. And, if I may be so bold, I am sick of American citizens braying at me about how Google doesn't do that. Oh, so they only do it in China? They would never do it here? I apologize, but my patience for lazy thinking is lower than usual. Google censors, anyone with the capacity to check this knows it is the case--period. Anyone who says otherwise is naive or deceptive--period.

I think their latest algorithm changes are in response to recent manipulations by alternative media outlets. Alex Jones, for example, would give keywords and tell his millions of listeners to put certain search terms in Google. This would put the term on the top of Google trends. This allowed alternative media to control what was popular, and it was amazing how the corporate media started covering the issues that were at the top of the trends reports. While I cannot prove a positive correlation at this time, I have a hypothesis that we will see a shift in corporate news after these new algorithms go in. It will be interesting to observe.


Most Respectfully,

Joshua Jordan, KSC
 Percussa Resurgo

Whatever their rules, I included the California Mystery Launch incident to make a point: something that is easily settled if you see the a full analysis can spring back to life if most of the traffic keeps the analysis hidden.


Bedbugs and the United Nations

Hello Jerry,

A 6 min, 45 sec video on the subject:


The man knows something about 'making his point'.

Bob Ludwick


Subj: Christian Brothers have two charter schools in Chicago


>>...God or no God? For his part, Mike Fehrenbach didn’t see the charter undertaking as a challenge to the brothers’ mission, which he believed was “about offering people an opportunity for a future worth living.” They could do this by exemplifying Christian and Catholic values; they didn’t have to preach them. (This was not unknown territory for the Christian Brothers. In many countries they ran secular schools; in Indonesia, in fact, they operated a Muslim school.)<<

Rod Montgomery==monty@starfief.com




This is an important article, in my opinion:


Casadaban was conducting laboratory research on the bacterium that causes the plague when he became sick. The germ was genetically weakened and considered harmless to humans. It was considered so safe, Casadaban’s work with the live plague bacteria wasn’t noted when he fell ill, according to the CDC. A professor at the university for 30 years, by all accounts he had followed the proper safety protocols, the report said.

Casadaban’s research focused on describing the chain of cellular events that occurs as a person is sickened by the plague bacterium, called Yersinia pestis. Scientists suspect that Casadaban may have harbored a previously unknown vulnerability to the laboratory plague strain that was revealed only in his death.



This is not the only lapse in bio security. There are often delivery trucks that crash with deadly viruses inside. There are facilities not cleared to handle level four materials and work that are handling the same. Safety violations seem to be a norm. This is a valid point, I think. People keep saying, "well, that's only a few extreme examples" or "that does not represent the sum and substance of the process". Yeah, and other than the horrible things he did, Charles Mason was an alright guy. Those horrible crimes are only a few extreme examples of his overall behavior. Give me a break.


BDAB, Joshua Jordan, KSC Percussa Resurgo


A Researcher's Wishlist.

Jerry, This is a wishlist that a technologist would find it hard to quarrel with. Spend between $5 bn. and $10bn. on the following:- Processors and operating systems. Chip process technology. 4G wireless networks. Nuclear fission power plants. Water pollution control and treatment. Aircraft design and construction. High-resolution satellite imaging. Manned spaceflight and lunar exploration. Such are the of the plans of the Mainland Chinese government where a dollar buys more than it does in the US. I lifted this story from The Register.


. John Edwards

But who allocates the resources?


re: About new nuclear plants?

All the French reactors currently in service were based on a PWR Westinghouse design licensed in the late 60's. The new EPR is a direct offspring.


Jean-Louis Beaufils, Paris


Subj: OODA Loops in the SmartPhone Wars


>>[T]he average lifetime of Android handset products has been falling over time; 3 years as recently as 2007, it’s now down to 6-9 months. Unstated in the article is that to sustain that pace, development cycles actually have to be shorter than that. If you look at the pace of announcements from (for example) HTC, it’s clear the development time of the more nimble Android players is actually down to approaching 90 days. ...

What is certain is that single vendors going it alone will not be able to match this pace. They won’t have the SoCs and they won’t be able to match the number of engineer-hours going into the software. Their development and production costs will be higher. Consequently, they’ll be more risk-averse and unable to make decisions on a fast turnaround even if their technology permitted it; their OODA loop will never be able to tighten as much as Android’s.

All these problems – all of them – are predictable consequences of having a business plan stuck to a huge heavy blob of closed-source software. That is the weight that will ultimately drag down and kill Android’s competitors.<<

Rod Montgomery==monty@starfief.com


Flying dune buggy, 


Here you go. A flying dune buggy: 


A fun vid. The designer/builder is the son of a missionary. The Ecuadorian jungle tribe that killed his father adopted him. This STOL dune buggy is his way of getting them transportation – by way of selling the things here. Fascinating story. Fun aircraft.



British Interplanetary Society

Dr. Pournelle,

I think you ay find the following interesting. It is a short discussion of the history of the British Interplanetary Society. With an discussion of the BIS’ 1939 proposal for a moon landing.


Richard York


“I went back to my village but everyone knows what happened to me. So it has made it difficult for me to find a wife there.”


--- Roland Dobbins


Cold Fusion Again


Some Italian scientist has demonstrated a 10KW reproducible experiment. There is a huge buzz within the cold fusion fraternity. There are some articles on it on the PESWIKI website.

Bob Justice
 Flightline Liaison Engineering

All the information I have is on the PESWIKI website: http://peswiki.com/index.php/News 

This Rossi guy claims to be fusing nickel and hydrogen into copper and energy. Which sounds ridiculous and impossible I know. But he readily admits he doesn't really understand how it works. Much talk of mysterious catalysts. The US DOD seems to be involved somehow but little information on that.

There was a gaggle of Italian scientists at the demonstration on Friday and nobody yelled "Fraud!". The thing that impresses me is this thing really boils water and he has to keep pumping water into it. Poor old Pons and Fleischmann just barely got some warm water but this thing really cooks.

Bob Justice




<http://townhall.com/columnists/walterewilliams/2011/02/23/democracy_versus_liberty/page/2>  I would also submit that all too often people also confuse democracy with liberty - as if they were synonyms.


David Couvillon Colonel, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, 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; Avoider of Yard Work

democracy was not the object of the Convention of 1787. A republic that derived its powers from the consent of the governed was. The Venetian Republic was discussed frequently (Ironically the Serene Republic was ended and looted by Napoleon and his French Republic soldiers not many years later). Democracies tend to limit freedom and liberty, in favor of equality, particularly egalitarianism in property. Preserving the right to property under a democracy is one of the primary problems of political science. Democracies work best in small uniform countries and city-states. But to know that one need to know history, and our public schools don't teach that and are taught by teachers who were taught by teachers who knew little history.

Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free. In theory we all know that.

Government by street crowds is probably not a good way to govern a republic either.


Subj: If they will not work, let them also not eat?


>>State senators who miss two or more session days will no longer get paid through direct deposit. They’ll have to pick up their checks in person on the Senate floor during a session.<<

Rod Montgomery==monty@starfief.com

One wonders when the Wisconsin Senate will change the rules to declare a seat empty if no one reports for, say, 80 days.


Somewhat Reasonable- ‘The Heretic’: A Play About Global Warming Skepticism and (in essence) Johnny Ball Buffy Willow

Hi Jerry,

I thought you might find this interresting. I'll try and get to see that play if it's still running when next I'm in London


Med venlig hilsen / Best regards,

Jan Holbech Larsen Chief Technical Manager


CBS News on Egypt


I just heard this snippet on CBS News in a voice over, I think (but am not certain) by the same reported on the scene appearing in the footage:

"The people of Egypt, virtually enslaved for 30 years..."

I suppose the people of Iran would have something to say about that intellectual level of reporting.

Regards, George













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