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…wants to be a Senator from Texas. First, he needs the Republican nomination for the seat to be vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison. Help him out, willya?

Williams is a person with as solid a set of conservative values as can be expected in any practicing politician, and more so than most. He’s been an able Railroad Commissioner who has always backed a reasonable balance between the needs for energy and environmental protection, which has put him at odds with the Feds more often than not. He’s a Texas politician, but isn’t part of the “my turn” line of Texas Republicans; that would be his most formidable opponent, David Dewhurst, the current Lieutenant Governor — think “John McCain” with smaller balls.

Williams’s proposals and policies have made him attractive to a number of people, but let’s tell the truth and shame the Devil, eh? His most attractive feature is that he isn’t attractive — he’s a big, bald, bullet-headed black guy who looks like something out of the old Warner Brothers cartoons we can’t see on teevee any more. He’s a graduate of USC, nobody’s cow college even if it isn’t an Ivy, and isn’t bashful about releasing his transcripts; he can get further into the nitty-gritty of the “awl bidness” and other forms of energy production than anybody not actually in the field and a lot who are; he’s got a stage presence that will remind you of Chris Christie, albeit with a different accent; his wife, who he’s kept out of his political career to the point of not having her picture on his Web site, is an honest-to-God engineer employed by a company that was no doubt overjoyed to have EEOC-repellent on staff but is famous for not suffering fools at all, much less lightly; but put him in a hoodie and low-slung pants, and three-quarters of the lily-white “liberals” would be cringing on the other side of the room. That’s not how he dresses, though. Imagine George Will with *ahem* color. And roughly twice the mass…

Look, it’s too damn bad that race is such an important part of American politics, but it is, and it needs to be allowed for. I would support Williams if he was green and had tentacles, simply on his record in the Railroad Commission and his previous offices, especially against Dewhurst, a Kennedyesque lightweight whose qualifications for office are that he’s paid his dues and now it’s his turn. But as a person with zero status to defend, I’m prepared to say what more-careful people carefully did not and do not say about Marco Rubio, Herman Cain, and others: it’s just fucking delightful to contemplate the prospect of shoving Williams up the Democrats’ noses. He’s everything Barack Obama pretends to be but is not — a genuine black American with the birth certificate, the psychic scars, and the high-school football jersey to prove it; a genuinely educated (rather than credentialed) person with no need to obfuscate the past; and a person who’s run a complicated enterprise for a long time, and done it quite well, thank you. And he’s a Republican. Send the man some money.

Vat-grown meat has been a staple (!) of the science-fiction diet for as long as I’ve been reading it, which is quite a long time. H. Beam Piper coined the neologism in the headline, so far as I know, back in the Sixties or earlier.

Now it looks as though it might become reality. At the moment no one seems to be funding the research as such, but I wonder if Dr. Mironov has used enough imagination in his search for backers. He seems to have concentrated on Government sources. Perhaps a fast-food chain might be interested? Some of them are quite dedicated to uniformity, and making meat to order would certainly achieve that.

Walter Russell Mead muses on the implications for climate change of factory-made meat. As a sometime provider of the on-the-hoof version, I’m a bit torn on the subject. Read the comments at Mead’s post.

Why is the Left’s program so persuasive? Richard Fernandez has an insight:

…she [Frances Fox Piven — ed] appears to believe that the European crisis is only apparent, being the result of the Man hiding the Stash. Find that stash and things become sustainable again.

Shanon Love expands on that point:

…there is always the implicit idea that somewhere there is this big pile of money that the rich business people are hoarding away like a squirrel with its winter store of nuts. Leftists tell everyone that all problems can be solved if we just use the force of the state to threaten the squirrels to give up their nuts.

There’s a unifying factor behind that; it is the dynamics of the hunter-gatherer band or tribe. Humans lived as hunter-gatherer-scavengers for many millenia, much longer than we have lived as anything resembling “civilized”. If there is anything at all to the notion of “evolutionary psychology” we would expect many of our attitudes and feelings to be derived from or related to the conditions such a band lived under.

It all comes down to food, in the end. The only form of wealth known to the hunter-gatherer band was food. Modern societies have many other types of wealth, but at the base it’s the same — people with more wealth can consume more. A hunter-gatherer band’s organization derives from two basic facts: lacking anything resembling technology the band cannot make food, only find it — nothing they can do will increase the supply; and human reproductive physiology dictates a division of effort.

Human females near parturition are much less able to exert themselves physically than either males or females who aren’t pregnant, especially when food is short; the birth process is traumatic; and human infants require a great deal of care during the period after birth in order for any of them to survive. That dictates the existence of a base point, a place where pregnant females can assemble and give birth and they and their recently-born offspring can be cared for. Others of the tribe must be assigned to stay at base to guard the females and assist when necessary in birthing. The remainder of the tribe or band must then range the countryside looking for food. Specific details vary enormously, but the division between base camp and rovers is constant.

The rovers’ ability to find food is entirely dependent on chance, modulo seasonal availability of food sources. They either find a bearing fruit-tree or not; they either find an animal they can kill or not; they either find a recent-enough predator kill that some meat is available and usable, or not. There is nothing they can do to make the food supply more available — they can develop technology to make animal killing or driving other scavengers away from recent kills easier, but they can’t put prey in easy-to-reach places or get the lions to kill an antelope and leave the leftovers; they can learn to identify plants that yield edible fruit, but the presence of food depends on season, weather, and the depredations (or not) of other consumers.

In any case, the rovers who find food must bring it back to base or the tribe dies. The pregnant females and infants must be fed if they are to survive; their caregivers have to eat, or they cannot sustain their efforts. A rover who greedily consumes the food he finds, instead of bringing it back for distribution among the sedentary members, betrays the band in a fundamental way, by challenging its reproductive success. The rovers must eat, of course, and again there is wide variation on how the food is divided between rovers and stay-at-homes, but most of the food has to be brought back to camp and shared. Bands where that didn’t happen died out because the females and infants didn’t get enough to eat and/or sufficient care during and after parturition, and the bands where it did survived and passed the imperative on to us, their descendants.

–which is the Left’s program in a nutshell, isn’t it?

Now suppose that a particular rover always comes back with food every time, and is conspicuously more healthy than the others of the band. It never occurs to the others that he might have found a way to produce food — at that technological level it’s impossible that he could do so. The only possibility is that he has found a place where food is always available, a “stash” in Fernandez’s terms, and can simply go and get some whenever it is convenient. By hunter-gatherer ethics he’s a traitor — he ought to either tell the other rovers where the stash is so that they can all bring food home, bring the whole stash back so that the whole band can feast, or some combination; in any case, the fact that he’s eating from the stash before bringing a portion back is unfair because the others can’t do that with their finds. The band resents that, and rightfully so. They are quite likely to argue with the lucky rover that he should conform to the proper ethic, escalating to violent demands if the greedy, selfish bastard doesn’t comply.

In a modern society, with technology available, wealth can be produced. But that doesn’t fit at all well with the hunter-gatherer ethos. The rover goes out, produces food, and brings some back to the band — but from the band’s point of view that’s no different from his finding the stash. They can’t see the production, and if they do they can’t understand it; it’s a fundamental rule of their existence that wealth, food, can only be found, not produced. This is why the Left is so hostile to “the rich”, and why they are so easily able to whip up resentment against “fatcats”. They intellectualize the attitude, but in the end it comes down to the hunter-gatherer-scavenger ethos present at some level in all people thanks to evolution: the producer cannot have made something out of nothing, so can only have found a stash of wealth, and is selfish for not sharing all of it with the others and greedy for taking part of it for himself before bringing some remainder back. If you can beat the secret out of him, everybody feasts.

The Left doesn’t mind interfering with production because they don’t believe it happens, and they are able to get others to follow their program because, at a deep emotional level, everybody feels that way. Some people are able to override their deep-seated, evolutionarily developed feelings about the matter; such people realize that production happens and should be encouraged, to provide wealth for everyone. Their arguments are unconvincing, because in the hunter-gatherer-scavenger ethos they’re all variants of “this guy has to control the stash”. “Progressives” aren’t progressive at all; they are harking back to the emotional needs developed by tens of millenia of evolution in the days when we were little more (if at all) more than animals bounding across the plains looking for something to eat.


Palin Derangement Syndrome continues to amuse, especially when she elides a lot of steps, preferring getting to her point over trying to educate people who (as we have seen recently) don’t even know the gulags ever existed. It is then inevitable that the leftoids will call her out as stupid — and get egg on their faces when the material left out comes to light.

To be clear: Sputnik was at best a Pyrrhic victory for the Soviet Union, and Sarah Palin sees us as the USSR in this scenario. Ridiculous? No, as a matter of fact it isn’t, unfortunate as that might be.

Those familiar with only recent history, and a distorted subset thereof at that, will no doubt be surprised to learn that, during the Fifties and Sixties, the USSR was regarded, at least provisionally, as a success story. It seemed clear that a society organized along rational lines, and thus able to place its attention where needed rather than taking a scattershot approach in which everybody was trying something different, would end up stronger and more successful. The Soviets had, after all, defeated the Nazis, come up with their own atomic bombs, managed to suppress revolts in the hinterlands, and in general acted like full players on the international scene; Sputnik was a wake-up call, but in reality no more than that. The science fiction writer Mack Reynolds wrote a long series of stories in which the USSR caught up to and surpassed the Western nations in living standards, including one in which a religious evangelist who sought to undermine the USSR by teaching them to hate consumerism, is co-opted by the Politburo because they, too, are concerned that Soviet society is becoming too luxe and decadent. When Khruschev made the famous “We will bury you!” speech, he wasn’t talking about grave-diggers, he was referring to the coming tidal wave of consumer goods from Soviet industry.

From the other side, the reality was quite different. The Politburo had only the weakest notion of the wants and needs of the people of Moscow, let alone Novosibirsk, and were blinded by their ideology to boot; the result was failure to support needed development, waste on an incredible scale, and redirection of resources in unproductive directions at the behest of bureaucrats, who quickly perceived Ric’s Rule #2 (see sidebar) and found themselves in a seller’s market for bureaucratic favor. Behind the façade, the Soviet Union was Tsarism reincarnated, with a few dvoryanstve nomenklaturin enjoying first-world lifestyles on the back of the narod, and allocating resources according to whim guided by ideology instead of utility or need.

In general, a farmer will know which crops are suitable for his land and what type and quantity of fertilizer is appropriate, and even nearby farms may have quite different capabilities and requirements. When crops, fertilizer amounts, and harvest time and method are specified by a faraway bureaucracy, the bureaucrats have no way of knowing, and still less any way of acknowledging, the varying capabilities and requirements of the different fields; they are compelled by circumstance to make broad assumptions and lump cases together, resulting in prodigious wastage. That principle is also at work in industry and science. Tight central planning of a large, variegated enterprise is a loser, not a winner, and the USSR stands as the exemplary or canonical example of how it can and does go wrong.

The nomenklatura were concerned that the weakness of the Soviet economy not become apparent, so they concentrated on visible achievements — rocket technology as exemplified by ICBMs and, yes, Sputnik, providing aid to their Fraternal Socialist Brethren such as Castro, and building a formidable military presence. Resources devoted to those ends had to be diverted from the weak economy, which weakened it further. The important fact about the American space program was not that it caught up to and exceeded Soviet capability; it was that the Americans did it out of pocket change — expenditures on Mercury, Apollo, etc., were huge in absolute numbers, but never required diversion of significant scarce resources from the consumer economy to support them. The same was true across the board. The United States could build aircraft carriers and ICBMs, deploy hundreds of thousands of troops and their equipment to Viet Nam, and send high-flying planes to take pictures of the Rodina, and suffer at worst some inflation and market distortion. The USSR could achieve much less than that, and that only by prying the last handful of grain from the most miserable peasant.

Sputnik was the opening shot in a campaign to convince the World that the USSR was strong and confident. It actually succeeded in inspiring Americans to meet the challenge — which they did without seeming to sweat. That set the pattern for the next three decades, in which every time the Soviet Union achieved something the United States matched it effortlessly, and the continual attempts to get on top eventually exhausted the Soviet economy to the point where the regime itself was no longer able to continue.

What Sarah Palin, and many of us on the Right, see is the United States moving in the direction of the Soviet model. Forget “socialism”; the issue is strong central planning and control — a bureaucrat in Washington will decide what farmers will plant, what goods will be made in factories, whether and when people may travel and how much fuel they may use, what medical care will be provided, and how much salt may be used on a hamburger. This cannot help but weaken the economy, as it has in every case where it was tried throughout the history of the World. A “Sputnik moment” would consist of our issuing a challenge to competitors who are able to meet it, thus forcing us to continually reinforce the challenge when we must scrape the barrel of our resources ’til the staves gleam as if sanded to support that reinforcement, leading to our eventual inability to support ourselves, let alone defiance of the World. And no, we don’t need one of those.

Railroads are an artifact of steam technology, and steam technology was and remains a transitional technology.

A steam engine is an example of a heat engine. In a heat engine, one adds energy to a working fluid, then exploits some characteristic of the fluid to extract the energy as useful work. In almost all cases the working fluid is either a gas or a substance that becomes gaseous when energy is added, and the characteristic exploited is the tendency of a gas to expand when heated. Add energy to the gas — heat it — but trap it and prevent it from expanding. Deliver it to a mechanism where its expansion is allowed provided it moves something mechanical. As it expands, the gas becomes cooler — the energy put into it has been extracted. Voilá: Heat from the energy source has been turned into mechanical motion, which can (for example) turn a shaft and move a vehicle.

Soon after the possibility became apparent, a Frenchman name of Carnót worked out Da Rulez for heat engines in general, which is that the efficiency of the process is absolutely determined by the ratio of the temperature of the gas when it enters the mechanical part and the temperature when it leaves. Aha! you say. The machine can be infinitely efficient if the temperature on exit is zero! Well, yes, but part of that definition is absolute temperature. Zero Celsius freezes water, but it’s possible to get lots colder than that; there is still energy in the fluid at zero Celsius. That leads to the concept of absolute temperature. When the absolute temperature is zero, the fluid contains no energy, and it’s the temperature in absolute units that is used to calculate efficiency in the Carnót cycle.

Steam engines have two working fluids: the combustion products from burning the fuel must be transferred to the water to make steam, and the steam is then delivered to the part that extracts the energy as mechanical motion. That means there are two steps in which efficiency must be calculated; that means a steam engine is inefficient, and that, in turn, means that it isn’t very powerful for a given size and cost. Railroads are a way to make a big, expensive, not-very-powerful prime mover useful. A train, with hard wheels running on a hard rail, has the lowest friction (and therefore loss) of any land transportation device. If friction is low, a relatively weak but persistent prime mover can eventually get the load up to speed, because it is working against inertia and not friction, and that inertia persists, so the device keeps moving. The same is true — even more so, in fact — for boats if the speed is low.

If you have a more-efficient engine, you can squander part of that efficiency on overcoming friction and still be more efficient overall. One way to do that is to only use one working fluid, and the obvious way to do that is to do away with the intermediate step and use the combustion products directly. Early engineers couldn’t do that because the temperatures are very high, and they didn’t have materials that could stand up to them or ways to overcome the problem. Gas turbines use materials that can stand the heat — the exhaust from a turbine (a jet engine, for instance) is still hot, but the ratio of absolute temperatures between the flames entering the turbine and the exhaust is high, so the machine is relatively efficient. Reciprocating engines, like what’s in your car, do it a different way. The temperature at the instant combustion occurs is very high; the resulting hot gases push the piston down, and the gases are exhausted at the end of the stroke at a relatively low temperature. It’s efficient, and the fact that combustion only occurs occasionally means that the mass of the engine can average out the temperature, so you can use fairly ordinary materials to make it.

The greater efficiency of internal combustion engines means they can be smaller and cheaper, and that some of that efficiency can be used to overcome the friction of a simpler (and therefore less expensive) travelway. A railroad is horrendously expensive — it must be level and straight and made of materials that are hard to handle, because it’s built to reduce rolling friction and mash hills down to the point that a weak prime mover can handle the load. It’s also terrifically complex, because allowing rails to cross while maintaining the necessary straightness and smoothness is a hard problem, and because it’s a restricted resource, making scheduling cumbersome and expensive. Roads are much cheaper: the materials are easier to get, they can cross with no trouble, you can add or subtract vehicles without complex scheduling, and it isn’t necessary to go to such great lengths to move mountains around to keep them level, because the engines that run on them are relatively more powerful.

That, in turn, gives flexibility. Roads are cheap enough that they can go almost anywhere, even right up to your very doorstep — imagine the expense of putting a train track up to where people could board the train a few steps from the door! They don’t have the crossing problem, because the designers need not go to elaborate lengths to keep crossings from losing power. We accept a loss of efficiency in the system as a whole in order to achieve flexibility, which makes the overall transportation system more efficient. That’s why people everywhere go for the automobile like a pack of rats as soon as they become available.

The only reason railroads persist at all is that no matter what you do a weak engine is cheaper than a powerful one, and the rails were already in place, legacy of the steam era. Train engines are remarkably powerful in automobile terms, up to some tens of thousands of horsepower compared to the pitiful few hundreds in the most powerful car — but the car only pushes a couple of tons around, where the train engine moves as many as a hundred rail cars, each over a hundred tons of vehicle and cargo. The rail system can be maintained relatively cheaply, and the engines are relatively cheap, so trains continue to be useful — but if we were starting from scratch, with no transportation system at all, nobody would ever build a railroad! It’s just too inefficient from an overall transportation-system perspective to carry the stuff to a train depot, load it on the train, let the train move it awhile, then offload it and transfer it somehow to the people who need the stuff. Trains are useful if the volume and mass of the stuff is great enough to make it practical to build a “door-to-door” system — multiple tons of coal from mine to power plant, for instance — and not otherwise. European passenger rail still sort of works on the margin because Europeans live closer together, so it isn’t all that far from home to the train depot; the transshipment problem is less. North America is much more thinly populated, so it is (on the average) a much longer way from home or factory to the rail facility. Even in Europe, though, it makes no sense to go five kilometers to the railroad, ride the train ten kilometers, then go five kilometers to the destination; the automobile covers the ten kilometers directly and at less expense.

High speed rail is even more absurd. The cost of building the rails goes by the cube of the speed desired: a railroad built for 60 MPH is eight times as expensive (well, not quite) as one for 30. That means that there can’t be many of them, which makes the transshipment problem thornier, more cumbersome, and therefore more expensive. There’s also a subtle difference with profound implications: in a road system with automobiles, the users buy the rolling stock. That gets too complicated to add to an essay on transportation efficiency, but it’s a very important factor.

Put it all together, and trains make no sense except as a legacy system still in use for a limited purpose. Why, then, do people call for more of them?

Building a railroad is a big job, using lots of workers, materials, and machines. Trains are big and complex, and there are always people who find big, complex systems fascinating. The efficiency of the railroad itself can blind people to the transshipment, crossing, and scheduling problems. Add it up, and you have something damned near irresistable to politicians — the project is obvious to everybody, so the politician can be seen as “doing something”, and by skilfully exploiting the romance (big, cool stuff) and handwaving the system efficiency losses (onloading and offloading take place out of sight, thus simply don’t happen for lots of people) the pol can make the project look worthwhile. For a statist politician, one who believes in (or cynically exploits  the perceived value of) centralization, the train is even more attractive because it’s One Big Central Facility Everyone Must Use. The depots are also choke points, making it easier to check up on what and who gets transported.

So in the end, building railroads is a political stunt not based on real economics. Keep that in mind when people start floating the notion.

China has a stealth fighter plane, and various people are expostulating over it. The meme in the last couple of days is that the Chinese stole the technology from an F-117 that went down over Serbia. It’s getting most attention in the destrosphere; the few sinistropherians who have noted it are pooh-poohing the development and the concern.

Guys, guys. One of the reasons you/we have trouble dealing with the leftoids is that the problem with their ideas and ideals are so often correct at the root; it’s just that extending them is generally an exercise in reductio ad absurdum. It’s not that the J-20 isn’t a threat; it is. It’s overblowing the threat and assuming that the only way the durn Chinks could have come up with it is to steal it that’s ridiculous, a reductio ad absurdum from the other direction.

One of the more entertaining Rocky & Bullwinkle sequences is the “Banana Plot”, in which a scientist has invented the Hush-A-Boom, an explosive that destroys things without making a sound. Our Heroes must deliver the secret to the Proper Authorities, and are pursued by Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, who are trying to steal it. Between the pratfalls, it’s an able sendup of the sort of spy fiction that posits a Secret Weapon whose plans must be found and delivered to HQ, or protected from spies. Seek it out and watch it, lest ye re-create the pratfalls in real life.

In the long term there are no technical secrets, no, not even the atomic bomb. The secret of the atomic bomb wasn’t that it was possible, or even how to build it — that could be, and was, derived from the physics. The “secret” was that the United States was rich enough to build the enormous, and enormously expensive, facilities necessary to tease out the details and produce the necessary materials. Keeping a lid on the details was worthwhile, because it slowed the opposition down enough to get ahead, but physics is the same for everybody. People with access to the materials can build an atomic bomb; it’s a hard problem in engineering, but there are lots of good engineers.

Same with “stealth” fighters. (The US military prefers “Low Observable”, which more accurately describes it.) “Stealth” simply means that it’s hard to find it on radar, and takes advantage of the way radar works by controlling reflection. Reflection, as a concept, has been known since Og the cave man admired his visage in a pool of still water, and after some millenia the notion is fairly well understood, by Chinese as well as Americans.

Reflection happens when an electromagnetic wave/pulse/photon hits a surface that conducts electricity at a scale comparable to the energy/wavelength of the incoming energy. The incoming energy creates an electric current, which creates a new electromagnetic wave equal and opposite to the arriving one. Radar sends out a pulse of electromagnetic energy, which is reflected by the airplane and returned to sender; the return pulse is detected, and the detector — receiver — exploits various tricks to tell where the plane is. If you don’t want the radar to “see” the airplane, arrange it so that reflection doesn’t happen, or the reflection is too weak for the receiver to detect, or goes somewhere other than back to the place the pulse came from.

One way to do that is RAM, Radar Absorptive Materials whose surface isn’t particularly reflective but which are partially conductive. The pulse goes in, and instead of creating a new outgoing pulse it is turned into heat that wisps away on the airstream. Two problems: RAM is, for all practical purposes, foam plastic with conductive material inside — the familiar black or pink stuff, used to keep chips from being static zapped, is also RAM. It’s fragile and not very strong, not exactly the stuff you’d really like to make an airplane of! Worse, the whole point of RAM is to let the pulse in and dissipate it, and if it isn’t thick enough for that to happen it’s partly transparent, and the inside of the airplane is full of metal surfaces at right angles.

So the “secret” of the F117 is straightforward, and no secret at all: the outside surfaces are set at angles that tend to reflect the incoming pulse away from the transmitter instead of back to it; those surfaces are made of RAM, which absorbs some of the incoming energy; the inside structure is made at odd angles to avoid corner reflections; and outside structures, like inlets and exhausts for the engine(s), control surfaces, etc., also meet at odd angles, so reflections off those don’t happen or are weakened. And hey, I’ve never even seen an F117, and I can tell you that. To imagine that Chinese scientists couldn’t figure it out is jingoist at best, racist at worst.

Puzzling over bits and pieces of a crashed or shot-down stealth fighter might offer clues as to little bits of technique to accomplish the necessary goals, but the guys at LockMart didn’t think of everything, that I can guarantee. They’d be just as thrilled to get bits and pieces of a J-20, so they could see what the Chinese thought of that they didn’t — and I can guarantee that things like that exist. Don’t give the leftoids ammunition by assuming The Other Guys are stoopid. They aren’t. They can both have the idea in the first place and work out the technical details for themselves, because physics is the same for everybody. Memorizing the formula for Hush-A-Boom, and keeping it away from Boris and Natasha ’til you get it back to headquarters, is likely to be harder than coming up with it in your own lab.

“There is no fascist like a liberal in charge of something.” — Anon (by choice)

My son liked computer games, especially “first person shooters”, from the day he first encountered them, and while he was living at home I tried to follow along, in a perhaps-misplaced attempt at “being friends with your children”. My attempts were not met with much success, partly because my reflexes aren’t fast enough to cope with what are also called, with justice, “twitch games”, but in large part because of the issue of instructions.

Twitch games don’t, as a rule, come with instructions, whether console or as programs for general purpose computers. When they do, it’s generally a small (and easily lost) flyer, or (more recently) a “help” file incorporated into the program or device, associating keystrokes with on-screen actions. Reading it and memorizing the key-action association introduces a delay into the reaction loop of the player, who must decide what to do, remember the keystroke that produces that, and then hit the key. Twitch games require a much shorter OODA loop; the proper keystroke has to be in muscle memory, so that the decision-action step is as nearly instantaneous as possible. Successful players learn by pressing keys, seeing what happens, and incorporating that cause-effect into their reflexes. It helps that most game designers stick with the same set of keystrokes for the same or analogous actions, but it’s still a matter of cut-and-try. It’s all remarkably frustrating for an old fart whose formative years impressed “RTFM!” as a (or The) Prime Directive.

What’s incredibly, damnably frustrating is that practically everything new has to be learned that way! Cell phones, MP3 players, iPods, ebooks, you name it, all have either very few buttons, each with a cryptic ideograph or no label at all and each with multiple functions depending on what other buttons or combinations thereof have been pressed, or a multiplicity of buttons presented the same way — and pushing the wrong button at the wrong time can result in embarrassment, expense, or (occasionally) damage. The designers, each and every one of them having grown up with learning new devices by the try-it-and-see method, build things to accommodate “Nintendo mode learning”, and instructions, if they exist at all, are sketchy, incomplete, sometimes contradictory or simply wrong, and in any case can only be accessed by the proper combination of keystrokes. You can’t RTFM, because TINFM[1].

This is a complaint, or perhaps it’s a wail of despair, not a serious objection. It’s all a matter of contemporaneity, of being part of the times, and a (young) person who can pick up a new and unfamiliar model of cell phone and, within a minute or so, be texting their friend in Ulan Bator and forwarding a stack of images and snatches of music along with the message, would likely be puzzled beyond comprehension by which part of a single-jack to grab. The new skill is relevant to their lives; the older one is not. Time marches on, like it or no, and the only comfort for us left-behinds is that their children will almost certainly be learning things they “don’t get”. Good ‘nough fer ’em, the geezer grumps. Daddy felt the same way — can you crank-start a Model T?

It does cause problems sometimes. A lawyer specializing in school-related cases ruefully notes that it will be necessary to learn texting in order to put proper attention to cases involving its use (or abuse). All I can say about it is, if you tough it out you’ll manage to absorb perhaps a quarter of the total; that will simply have to be enough, or you’ll have to pass those cases along to a younger partner. Clarence Darrow probably had the same problem with telephones, electric distribution, and them newfangled horseless carriages.

[1]There Is No F*ing Manual

Researchers for the Navy announce a significant achievement on the way to producing a Free Electron Laser or FEL. rdbrewer at Ace of Spades passes on the news, and Ace, umm, gets excited. The press release isn’t very informative — in particular, it isn’t clear what “producing [electrons] from thin air” means; I don’t believe in perpetual motion machines, so the energy has to come from somewhere — and I haven’t tried to track down more information.

FELs are interesting to me because they really aren’t “lasers” at all. The inventor, one John Madey at Stanford University, called them that because they produce light at a fixed wavelength, and that’s what lasers do, but the principle of operation of the FEL is quite different.

Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation, and electromagnetic radiation is peculiar. There exists[1] such a thing as an electric field, which is really a stress or modification of space within a certain area; there also exists[1] such a thing as a magnetic field, which is a different modification of spacetime. If you move an electric field you get a magnetic field, and if you move a magnetic field you get an electric field; scientists long ago decided that this means that the two types of space-stress, which seem different, are really the same thing looked at from different directions.

It’s possible to inject energy into space in such a way as to create a moving magnetic field. That field produces a moving electric field, which produces a moving magnetic field, which produces… that’s electromagnetic radiation. The little zone of space containing energy alternating between electric and magnetic is called a photon, which can be thought of as a thing, a particle[2], that moves through space at the speed of light. The rate at which the magnetic and electric fields alternate — the frequency — can be changed, and since the photon always moves at the speed of light[3], you can pick one of the two fields and find its strength varies with distance. At one point, the magnetic field (for instance) is strongest; move a bit, and first it’s less, then it comes back to its original value farther along. The distance between the two maximum strength points is the wavelength.

There exist[1] electrons, zones of space that contain a permanent electric field surrounding a point[4], and there are ways to make electrons move. Moving electrons moves the electric field, which creates a magnetic field, which creates, etc. etc. The least-effort way to do that is a transmitting antenna. There are materials in which electrons can move fairly freely. If you take a piece of such material and move electrons in it, that creates photons, electromagnetic radiation, and there’s an effect rather like a spring. If the antenna is the right size the electrons get to the end and bounce back, so you don’t have to expend energy forcing them to move through the material. Electrons oscillate, bounce back and forth, losing only the energy that goes into space; on each bounce you can touch them up with a bit more energy to compensate for the energy radiated, lost as photons, so they keep bouncing back and forth.

As with any spring, the size of the antenna controls the bounce rate. If the antenna is big, it takes a (relatively) long time for the electrons to get to the end and bounce back to where their energy can be replenished. The electric-magnetic fields swap (relatively) slowly, so the photon[5] created has a large wavelength. As it turns out, this relationship is directly proportional. By tuning — making the antenna a specific size — it’s possible to produce photons of any wavelength. However, it’s at this point that you hit the first major snag.

Remember that the photon isn’t really an object, a thing, it’s a zone in space containing energy[6] expressed as electric and magnetic fields. It turns out that the relationship between how much energy is stored in the photon and what you might think of as its size is backwards — the more energy the photon has, the smaller it is[3]. Light has a high frequency, a short wavelength, and therefore more energy per photon than radio, which has low frequency and a long wavelength. If, as with a lot of explanations, you think of the photon as a particle, an object or thing, this is confusing. That’s why people prefer to talk about “waves” at low frequency (or energy) and “particles” at high energy (or frequency).

The inverse relationship means that if you want to produce photons of light you need a really, really small transmitting antenna, so small that it stops being a piece of material and starts being individual atoms. Fortunately for us, it turns out that atoms have electrons around them, and those electrons are confined to specific energy states. Every electron has the same energy, but if they’re “squeezed” into small zones more energy can be stored, just like identical springs can have different amounts of energy stored in them by compressing them differently. Chemistry is what happens when atoms swap electrons with one another, and moving electrons cause moving electric fields which cause moving magnetic fields which cause… in some cases the electrons have enough stored energy that when they move a photon with enough energy to be “light” results, and that’s the earliest and easiest way to make light. Set up the right chemical reaction, and the moving electrons emit useful photons: fire.

That works backwards, too. If a photon with the right amount of energy arrives, its energy can be stored as electron-squeeze. When the electron “springs back” its energy is released as a photon identical to the one whose energy was stored. Pump energy into a bunch of atoms, and some of them store energy in their electrons. It turns out that a passing photon of the same energy can “trigger” the electron to release its photon, so if you trap your atoms between two mirrors to insure that there are lots of passing photons, you build up a syndrome where the stored energy is released as photons which release more photons. That’s how a laser works.

If you simply pump a lot of energy into a collection of atoms, they start moving faster and faster until they start shedding electrons, and the moving electrons produce photons. That’s incandescence, as in light bulbs.

The trouble with dealing with atoms is that it isn’t efficient. Atoms have many electrons, all with different amounts of energy, and pumping energy in results in photons of many different energies, most of them too low to be useful as light. In an incandescent light bulb we simply live with it, pumping in enough energy that at least some of the photons have enough energy to be visible; in a laser we carefully select atoms that have electrons of the right energy level and painstakingly insure that the right electrons get swapped around, but it’s still only a minority that do what we want. It would be really handy to have an antenna the size of a light-wavelength, so that we could use the spring effect to create light efficiently. Nothing is small enough to use for an antenna, though.

But remember that, at root, it’s all just electrons moving back and forth to create magnetic fields, which produce electric fields, and so on. It turns out to be possible, in fact relatively easy as such things go, to produce a “beam” of electrons — a bunch of electrons moving together, more or less in the same direction — and the more energy you put into the beam the faster the electrons move[7]. If you then wiggle the beam back and forth, like waving the end of a hose to make the water stream wave, the electrons are moving sideways to the direction of the beam. Moving electrons produce photons, and if you trap the photons with mirrors they’ll come back and make the electron beam wiggle harder — a “Free Electron Laser”, so called because the electrons are “free” in space rather than being bound to atoms. It isn’t really a laser as such, because the photons aren’t triggering the release of other photons that are bound up with the electrons in atoms, but the effect is analogous.

It takes excrutiatingly exact arrangement of the apparatus. Remember that the size of the antenna controls how fast the electrons bounce back and forth to produce photons. The equivalent in the FEL is to make sure the wiggle happens at the right rate, and that the photons returned by the mirrors are synchronized with the wiggle to make it bigger, instead of just randomly pushing or even canceling the motion. If it can be made to work, it would be a method of efficiently producing light of any desired frequency (color) in amounts dependent only on how much energy can be pumped through the system, and that’s a sort of Holy Grail in the technology, especially if you want to build a weapon.

A weapon is a device for pumping enough energy into its target to disrupt its functioning. The problem with making a weapon out of light is that it’s absorbed by the atmosphere, and the absorption depends on the exact composition of the atmosphere, which changes according to weather and the amount of energy already absorbed. Your death ray isn’t of much use if it’s absorbed by the air before it hits the bad guys. Theoretically, an FEL can be tuned instant-by-instant to change the wavelength it emits, in order to get past the atmosphere molecules that were affected an instant ago — which would mean the energy gets past and on to the target. The “breakthrough” described in the press release appears to be a way to get the electrons and the photons better synchronized, which is a big deal. It’s too early to tell whether or not it’s a big enough deal.

[1] or maybe not, but if you pretend such a thing exists you can make useful devices. Physics is weird, down deep.

[2]or not, but once again, if you pretend (“assume”) that, you can build something that works.

[3]why? Nobody really knows. It just happens.

[4]there’s no corresponding “thing” for magnetic fields[3], which is inconvenient.

[5]or photons — the process creates many of them.

[6]”energy” is an abstraction with no independent existence — things move, and we call whatever made them move “energy”, but all we have to deal with is the motion.

[7]not really, of course — they can’t go faster than light — but the faster they go the more energy they have, which is all same-same as “speed” as far as what we want to do goes.

A guy in Massachusetts responded to Rep. Gifford’s being shot with a snide remark to the effect that that left 534 to go — something many people have said or heard in private conversation, and it probably isn’t unheard of on the Internet, though I haven’t seen any myself. Ho, hum, right?

Except that Travis J. I. Corcoran is a gun dealer owner, and Massachusetts and Fed cops descended on his store him, confiscated his stock guns, and got his ISP to “403 Forbidden” his Web site. Dustbury , Roberta X, and others around the blogosphere have taken notice, with the gun blogs in the lead (as might be expected), and it’s getting a little attention from the MSM.

Borepatch notes, inter alia:

It’s not like there isn’t a ton of case law on how the First Amendment applies to threats of political violence. Arlington will lose this, if it ever gets to trial. Post Heller and McDonald, they’ll lose even worse. Idiots.

The problem is — no, they won’t. Oh, I reckon Massachusetts and the Feds will lose the case, but neither the cops and agents who did all that nor the supervisors who sent them there will lose anything whatever. Massachusetts taxpayers, and likely general American taxpayers, will pay Corcoran some (probably large) amount of money, Corcoran’s lawyers will latch onto a goodish chunk of it, and the people who invaded an American citizen’s home and confiscated his possessions will get, at worst for them, a couple weeks suspension (with full pay) and chiding notes in their files, probably not even that — and life will go on. For them.

That’s wrong. It used to be, and ought to still be, that the people who did the damage pay the penalty. It’s still mostly true in criminal law, but civil law has been so distorted by the “deep pockets” concept that genuine tortfeasors (lawspeak for “bad guys”) who happen to be Government employees rarely lose a dime, or a minute’s sleep, over it. Employees of private businesses who lose on those grounds generally lose their jobs if the company thinks they really did the deed, but apparently Government employees can do no wrong — it’s the taxpayers who hired them (and who may be as outraged as anyone at their employees’ behavior) who end up paying. It seems to have started with Civil Rights suits in the Fifties and Sixties, but it’s metastasized.

Corcoran himself seems to be keeping his cool over the incident, suggesting that people donate to their Church instead of to him. I do have a suggestion for him, though:

Sue the bastards personally.

That is: get a list of the people who participated in the raid, whether on the ground or by ordering or supervising from the office. Sue them, each and severally, using John and Jane Doe for those the agencies won’t name, for a modest amount by court case standards — fifty grand or so, something that would be lost in the rounding errors for a Government agency but will hurt like Hell if a private individual loses it — plus a proportionate share of Court costs and lawyer fees, plus the totality of any and all amounts the individuals are compensated by their employers for their loss. Make them pay, rather than enjoying a windfall at taxpayer expense. If the agencies try to burden the taxpayers, take the money and enjoy it.

Is that possible? Damifino. I’m not a lawyer. But if it could be made to work, it would send up a red flag for cops and Government agencies everywhere — if your supervisor tells you to do something that’s unconstitutional or otherwise out of line, and you go ahead and follow the illegal order, you can be hurt, personally, in your own precious self and pocketbook, rather than getting a week’s vacation and a little praise with faint damns[1] and getting on with life as if nothing had happened.

As I said, I have no idea if it’s possible or could work. But something needs to be done to restrain the epidemic of police and Government intrusion on people’s private lives on little or no ground, and making the individuals involved personally responsible for their misbehavior would go a long way toward getting that started.

UPDATE: Commenter GuyS clarifies: Simple ownership of a firearm requires a license in Massachusetts, and Mr. Corcoran is a gun owner; the post has been edited to reflect actual conditions, with strikeouts for replaced text.

The excuse for armed intervention is that Corcoran’s tacky remarks call into question his qualifications to be a gun owner. IMAO the intervention itself calls into question the qualifications of any and all participants, direct or indirect, to participate in American citizenship, but that’s just me.

Read Can’t Hark My Cry’s comment, and weep.

[1]I am indebted to Spider Robinson for that phrase. I hope he didn’t copyright it.

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When I Posted

January 2011