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And Feed the Poor
Until there are no rich no more.

OK, done. Now what?

We don’t have freedom of religion in this country.

We can’t. Not “we don’t want to”, not “we shouldn’t”; can’t, as in “it’s impossible”. Not even antigravity impossible, either — current science says antigravity is impossible, but if scientists discovered something new it would be possible without contradiction. We’re talking “red and blue at the same time” impossible, a direct binary logical contradiction between mutual exclusives.

“Exclusive” is the key concept. Religions worthy of the sobriquet are exclusivist, declaring that theirs is the One True Way and all others are somehow defective[1]. This is almost, but not quite, always accompanied by a duty to go forth and teach the nations, bringing everybody to the One True Way. So far, so good. Each cat his own rat, and evangelizers are trying to do their targets a favor by helping them Get Right With God (however that particular religion envisions $DEITY). Evangelists may be annoying, but we don’t execute people for cutting us off on the freeway or laboriously counting change in the checkout line, either.

The trouble comes with religious practices. Every religion has God-commanded things adherents must do in order to remain within the religion, and some of those range from vastly annoying to destructive of societal cohesion. Islam, for instance, requires killing non-Islamics if they can’t be convinced to convert, and it isn’t the only religion that requires that. Baptists and Buddhists (among others) have to be alive to practice their faiths; if Muslims have freedom of religion, including killing infidels, the Baptists and Buddhists do not have such freedom. The contradiction cannot be resolved. If one group has freedom of religion, including religious practices, the others cannot.

There are lesser conflicts. Our society frowns on murder. There is more than one religion that either allows or demands sacrifice, including human sacrifice; by the tenets of the religion a human sacrifice is not “murder” but a sacrament; to the rest of us it’s unjustifiable killing. Again, the contradiction cannot be resolved because we have a mutually exclusive set of requirements.

What we do have in the United States and most of the West is religious tolerance. Private worship is just that, private, and nobody’s business but the worshipper’s; practices that don’t deviate too far from the societal norm are allowed, though they may be disapproved; practices that deviate beyond those bounds are forbidden on a secular basis. Adherents of some religions are forbidden to engage in some of the practices required by their faith, and thus do not enjoy full religious freedom.

But what sets the norms?

Religious practices, like most things, are created by evolution. Societies evolve just as species do. Practices arise within a society. Those practices either promote the success of the society, are neutral in their effect, or are damaging to societal success. Societies that adopt damaging practices fail to survive and perpetuate themselves, and so fall out of History, leaving few if any traces. Societies that adopt success-promoting practices survive, grow, and perpetuate themselves.

The phrase “survival of the fittest” is pithy, apt, and wrong. What evolution guarantees is survival of the fit enough in the context in which the species or society exists. All of the societies we encounter today have passed this test — the practices they have adopted are sufficiently productive of success that they are fit enough to have survived the tens or hundreds of millenia since human societies have existed.

None of the members of a society have, or can have, any clue as to where their practices came from. They arose spontaneously and at random; perhaps one of the members of the society, long ago, had a brainstorm or a bad dream, leading him or her to do something new. That new practice spread to the rest of the society and contributed to its success (as we know, because the society has survived[2]), but its originator is long forgotten in the mists of ailing memory. Lacking any knowledge of where the practices came from, the members of the society attribute them to God as Commandments. Religions have each their own set of societal practices, codified as the Orders of God because their source is evolutionary and therefore not evident.

There are several such sets of practices — religions — in existence today, all of them successful in terms of survival of the fit enough. One of them is Islam (“successful” is not synonymous with “nice”). Another is often simply termed “Christianity”, although it is a complex mélange of Judaism, founding Christianity, and Roman practice as modified by the historical Church and the so-called Enlightenment. Judæo-Christianity (for short) is currently far and away the best promoter on the planet of societies which feed their children and produce wealth and comfort in their members (although Buddhism comes close).

The United States is not “a Christian Nation”, but its Founders and the Framers of the Constitution were firmly embedded in the Judæo-Christian belief system. Some of the Founders were Believers, and some were not, at least as understood in modern terms. “Deism” is properly a specific religion with its own set of imperatives, but it does include acceptance of a set of practices as leading to success whether or not attributed to $DEITY, so it makes a reasonable catchall for the attitudes of the Founders, whether or not any of them would have described themselves as Deists — and it sits well within the Judæo-Christian tradition.

One of the significant components of Judæo-Christianism is the matter of sacrifice. It would be possible, with some work, to dig through the Pentatuch and derive a fundamentalist version of Judaism which permits or even requires human sacrifice, but Judaic tradition does not support such a thing (or even animal sacrifice) in its current incarnation(s), and in fact no such sect currently exists. The Christian tradition has no need for human sacrifice because sacrificing the Son of God suffices once and for all, and rejects animal sacrifice for many of the same reasons Jews do. This, alone, would go a long way toward serving as the basis for a cohesive society, and there are many other Judæo-Christian Commandments that are also supportive of societal success; “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” is somewhere near the top of that list.

Those are the norms. Religious practices which fall within the (rather broad) limits of the Judæo-Christian ethos are freely permitted; those which do not are deprecated or forbidden, and adherents of religions which require them do not have religious freedom. Atheism falls snugly under that umbrella — yes, atheism is a religion; nothing makes that more evident than evangelical atheists’ hysterical and forceful attempts to suppress visible religious practices, or, rather, visible other religious practices — so long as the atheists accept the practices as societal norms. That’s how the Founders saw it; when they spoke about “religious freedom” they meant freedom within the Judæo-Christian ethos, and they were dismissive (sometimes sneeringly so) of religions that did not fall within those limits. The structure they built was much more elastic than they themselves imagined, and today we can accommodate a much wider variety of faiths than they contemplated — but practices that are endemic to non-Judæo-Christian religions and contradict the Judæo-Christian ethos are not, and cannot be, accommodated. Attempts to do so are self-contradictory and destructive.


[1] Buddhism, which has a Prophet but no Deity, is treated as a religion in Law. Close enough for Government work is exactly right.

[2] Compare and contrast the Anthropic Principle, as discussed previously.

There are two answers to that question, Mr. Reeves. (Via Instapundit).

First: One of the basic human drives is to be the Boss. It’s the result of evolution working on the fact that human beings are relatively weak compared to animals, and can accomplish more in groups than as individuals or even the sum of individual efforts. Operating in groups requires coordination, so that the individuals in the group are aligned with the group’s goal. We call that coordination “leadership” or “management”. The group’s leader is quite properly regarded as having created the extra value resulting from group effort over that of the sum of individual contributions without leadership, and is rewarded for that contribution by an increment of wealth, including availability for sex.

However, there’s little or nothing there for evolution to work on as regards individuals. Group organization has evolved over time, and one of those factors is that groups are somewhat better able to select leaders which will make them successful, but the leader has more opportunities to reproduce than the members regardless of whether the group is ultimately successful or not. That means there’s a weak correlation (if any) between ability to manage or lead and desire for a leadership position.

Government, once in place, provides an ample set of positions carrying with them the trappings of leadership, including the ability to boss people around. However, Government is, and has always been, arranged so that its Chief is the one carrying the can for failures. Individuals below the Supreme Leader can always blame Teh Leader for failures, so they are not selected against for management or leadership failure. The drive to be Boss exists, like every other human attribute, in a distribution, with some feeling it strongly and some weakly if at all; Government therefore disproportionately attracts those with a strong drive to be important (“fire in the belly”, in the memorable phrase) but does not negatively select for inability to do something effective with the leadership position once it’s gained.

It’s another corollary of the principle behind Gresham’s Law and the Peter Principle. Government, over time, becomes populated with individuals with a strong drive to be Boss but little or no ability to perform the duties of Boss. It might almost be a definition of Government that it is composed of people who would stop at nothing to become Boss, but have a feeble or no ability to manage or lead. It should not be surprising that the result is expensive and ineffective.

Second: Note that the activities promoted or supported by Government tend to be things that the society doesn’t need or want, or doesn’t any more. Rail transportation sits somewhere near the top of that list, and may serve as an exemplar. Rail transportation is somewhat more efficient in terms of resources expended than individually-directed vehicles — but the latter are enormously more flexible, both in terms of where the source and destination of goods might be and in the ability to expand or contract the system according to the need for transportation. Society therefore cheerfully pays a relatively small penalty in efficiency to gain an enormous increment in flexibility.

One of the aspects of leadership ability is time-binding, the ability to recognize change and adapt to it. Since the individuals populating Government are ineffective leaders, they will fail to recognize social change and attempt to preserve the existing system. They are therefore eager to subsidize things the society no longer wants or needs, or no longer wants or needs to the degree they exist, and that’s always expensive because it involves shifting resources by fiat from the capability society wants to the legacy capability being preserved; in this case, society wants flexibility at the expense of efficiency, but Government tries to preserve rail at enormous expense. As more and more societal changes occur, and the feeble “leaders” in Government try harder and harder to stifle them rather than get out in front of what society wants, the things sponsored by Government become more and more expensive — and other things perforce become less expensive, because Government is siphoning off resources that would otherwise be used to support them, and if they are to exist at all they must do so on fewer resources.

The problem is made more acute when there is an idealistic or ideological basis for the things that work less well than what society develops on its own. Individuals in Government then have not only their innate tendencies, but a strong motive to declare that the Old Ways are Good For You and the new ones are Bad. Those individuals who do have leadership ability will then exert themselves to see that the population is compelled to do what’s Good For Them, and that transfers more and more resources to Government, leaving non-Governmental activities even more parched for resources. It is thus inevitable that Government becomes more and more expensive, while non-Government activities become cheaper or fail to exist at all.

Rand Simberg gets caustic about O’Reilly:

He opened his show tonight with the question: “What will be the unintended consequences of the Japanese earthquake for America and the rest of the world.”

It is a little amusing. As Simberg points out, it posits that the death and destruction we see on teevee was intended, and brings up mental pictures of a lair somewhere, with high-tech gear in the background and a villain selecting the proper target for the Earthquake Machine (while stroking a white cat, no doubt).

But I’m inclined to give O’Reilly at least a partial pass. Teh Newz learned from its inception that what sells is titillation, and when there’s death and destruction they race to get the bloodiest possible pictures and most breathless possible accounts, so as to attract the most eyeballs to the Depends™ ads. The result is a tearing rush to get something, anything, on the air, and in the process it’s probably pretty easy (indeed, almost inevitable) to make infelicitous word choices.

There will, in fact, be consequences that aren’t immediately obvious from the event itself. Big changes and momentous occurrences always have ripple effects that pass through society along paths that aren’t immediately evident, and an earthquake that size, affecting that many people and that much property and infrastructure in a critical nexus of world society and economy, definitely counts as a “momentous event”. We don’t really have a word or phrase in English that directly expresses that concept; “side effects” is correct but doesn’t carry the connotations of “consequence”, “unintended consequences” implies intent which doesn’t exist outside the fevered brains of conspiracy theorists, and “unforeseen consequences” brings in the equally laughable notion that earthquakes like that are foreseeable — which once again introduces the piggy-eyed, cat-petting villain, except of course he didn’t cause it, he just knew it was coming and didn’t warn anybody. (No doubt he intends to collect the insurance payout to finance the next step of World Domination®.) O’Reilly needed something short and immediate, and made a bad choice because there aren’t many good ones.

It does raise an interesting question: what side effects or un-immediate consequences can we expect from the earthquake? I can offer one of them: lots of poor brown people are going to go hungry, and you (and I) are going to be a bit chillier than we would really prefer.

Energy is fundamental. Energy grows our food and brings it to us; energy keeps us warm in winter and (in developed countries or among the rich, at least) lets us be cool, and therefore productive, in the hot summertime. For some reason opaque to me there is large and growing hostility to energy production in all forms, and nowhere is it shriller or more fervent than in opposition to nuclear power. Reactors are dangerous, no doubt about it, and the consequences when they break can be dire, but since the beginning with Stewart Brand and the anti-nuclear “movement” the projected dangers seem all out of proportion to the actual circumstances.

Japan uses a lot of nuclear power, as a consequence of its lack of oil, coal, and other energy sources. Several reactors in Japan have been damaged by the earthquake; it’s difficult to cut through the fog of breathless hysteria consequent to figure out just how badly. My usual procedure is to discount the first newz “bulletins” by about 90% and take at least the first week’s commentary with a truckload of salt, but even doing that the situation looks bad.

Reynolds gets an email describing the inevitable result:

Here’s what’s not happening, however, from the Wapo right now:

“The explosion at the reactor is certain to rattle confidence in nuclear power in Japan, victim of the only nuclear weapons explosions and where people have long been sensitized to the dangers of radioactive releases. In the United States, it will deal a severe blow to advocates of a nuclear power renaissance.”

Yup. Expect a new wave of “peaceful protesters” hurling firebombs (and worse) at nuclear power plants and their supporters, and for the Obama administration to seize upon the situation with the same delighted alacrity they displayed with the oil-platform blowout. The question isn’t whether operating licenses for nuclear power generators will be yanked and the plants shut down as a precaution against similar problems here, it’s how long it will take Sibelius & Co. and the good folks at the (Anti-) Energy Department to get the forms filled out. We all, it appears, will be required to live on “renewable” energy, which is to say little to none and that undependable, except of course that the New Nobility will get as much as they need to go about in style, telling us how privileged we are to have them protect us. Billions for windmills, and not one erg for air conditioning — or for tractors to cultivate food. Or home heating. Or electricity to run the Internet, for that matter.

The British have already been told that the days when they could flip the switch and expect light and heat are over. That ripple from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami is coming soon to a Presidential podium near you.

Daphne has a good point in the context of Iowahaw’s dissection of Krugman’s column about educational achievement:

One of the frustrating aspects about being a Texan is the constant need to correct ignorant myths about my state and its people. No, we don’t all ride horses to work, holster guns, drive pick-up trucks or speak with a slow twang while checking the back forty fence lines before heading down to the ranch house for a meal of steak and beans. A few rare Texans are still living that life, but not many.

Now Daphne, as I understand it, lives in Austin. Texas’s capital city has its own unique flavor, as does any city, but down in its bones it’s just another college/government town. You wouldn’t go far wrong, at least as a first approximation, if you thought of it as Madison, Wisconsin with less cheese, snow, and bratwürst, and more fire ants, sunburn, and enchiladas. The majority of Texans now live in urban or semi-urban surroundings, in Austin, San Antonio, Houston, El Paso, and the Fort Worth-Dallas metropolitan area, which includes many competing jurisdictions but can be thought of as one big metromess. Daphne’s viewpoint is that of an urban American with a Texas flavor.

So this is predictable, but disappointing:

The progeny of our impoverished Hispanic and illegal populations will eventually overwhelm the state’s decent public school system with their inherited lack of high intelligence, astronomical rate of teenage pregnancies and general disregard for any education past the eighth grade. Forget outflanking Mississippi, our test scores will be comparable to those in Central America ten years out.

That may well be correct as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. When urban Texans go to Mexico they visit Cancun, Cabo, or the west coast resorts now popular because Acapulco has been “spoiled”, or fly into Mexico City and take a cab to a hotel in the city center, like other urban Americans; unlike some urban Americans they might nip across the border to Matamoros, Ciudad Acuña, or the other cities along the Rio Grande/Bravo, though as the violence escalates that’s becoming less and less common. México is more complicated than that. A foreigner whose experience of the United States is New York, Disney World, and the South Side of Chicago would have an equally correct-but-incomplete view of America.

México is full to bursting with low-level professionals and entrepreneurs. The Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana churns out graduates in engineering, science, medicine, and business-related things like accounting from five campuses, and dozens of local schools do the same; more importantly, despite having a nominally socialist Government since at least the Twenties, México’s “safety net” is almost nonexistent because they have never been able to afford it, with the result that remarkable numbers of people get their income from “small business” on a level that makes an American pizza parlor look like General Motors. Mexican law, especially tax law, recognizes that fact — mini empresas and micro empresas enjoy special status, including much less onerous tax and reporting provisions and a much smaller regulatory burden than anything the United States allows or will even tolerate. A person who manages a lower-middle-class lifestyle by standing in the street hawking cheap Chinese toys to passing motorists, as many do, is likely to have a better grasp of marketing, inventory control, and the other necessities of business than many an American with a BS in Business Management.

It is those people who are most oppressed by México’s absurdly oligarchic social system, and out here in the hinterlands those are the ones we get. It may very well be that immigrants to urban Texas are predominately the poor and uneducated who go directly to various forms of welfare; I have no direct experience. My town has fewer than twenty thousand people, and the whole county scarcely more than twice that; the Mexican immigrants who come here are hustlers, in the best possible sense of the term. They find and get jobs, often in the informal, cash, under-the-table economy that is becoming ubiquitous, apply generations of experience in getting along with less to their new environment, and after a year or so the median immigrant has a better car and a nicer house than I do (which doesn’t take much, but still). Not uncommonly, the guy trimming shrubs or finishing concrete is a degreed engineer, accountant, or doctor who has more in common with the Greatest Generation, the Americans who lived through the Depression as adults, than with Boomers like me or our successors — work hard, save money, keep a low profile, and you can prosper in a modest way. He very likely has a lower opinion of the ignorant índios who come expecting streets of gold and the Big Rock Candy Mountain than the most bigoted Anglo.

Nor should the Mexican educational system be despised. My friend Arturo has two sons, and has often shown me their schoolwork. México is deeply racist, in the sense that social status is inversely related to melanin content, but has never had much in the way of institutional racism codified into Law; as a result of that their schools have not been modified by political correctness or the necessity to achieve equality of outcome despite aptitude and preparation (or lack thereof). The curriculum Arturo’s kids matriculate in has more in common with what I experienced half a century ago that with modern American pedagogy, and it’s sink or swim. Fifth-graders are doing algebra, learning English, and can find Botswana or Beluchistan on the map — and if they can’t, they don’t get “socially promoted”. The Mexican twelve-year-old following Papá and Mamán down the aisles of Wal*Mart almost certainly has a better grasp of math than the high-school senior coming the other way, and may very likely be able to name more States of the Estádos Unidos on an unlabeled map.

I really, really wish that more Americans, and particularly more Republicans, understood that. The Democrats are working very hard, and largely succeeding, in an effort to, in effect, replicate the Mexican oligarchic system here, with the difference that the padrónes are to be “public servants” whose wealth and power comes from taxpayers rather than the controlled, corrupt, but ultimately private system found south of the Border. The dependency, the consequent control, and the resultant lack of any real opportunity for social mobility is the same. Republicans who made that point, and emphasized that they were in favor of equality of opportunity and social mobility, could make real inroads into a large minority, if not a majority, of Latin American immigrants, illegal or otherwise. Texans, long accustomed to dealing with Hispanics on a day to day basis, are well-positioned to lead that effort. It’s too bad that urban Texans tend to share with other urban Americans the (somewhat modernized) picture of the Mexican as sleeping it off under a big hat in front of the cantína, with a patient donkey nearby.

We need some logger rhythms. (We pause briefly while you ROFL.)

Generations of students have rejected logarithms because they’re just too hard. It used to be true, too — actually calculating a logarithm is extremely difficult, and has always been relegated to specialists who did little else. Those specialists created “log tables” that could be used to look up logarithms, but using those was an intricate task because the tables were necessarily made as short as possible, in order to keep from using up all the paper and ink in the world to print them, and finding the logarithm of the number you were looking at in the table took a good bit of error-prone ingenuity.

That’s no longer the case. Calculators abound, and in all but the cheapest getting the accurate logarithm is a matter of pushing a button. Call up the Windows Calculator, choose [View] –> Scientific, and what comes up has two buttons for logarithms, [log] and [ln][1]. Put in an ordinary number, press [log], and there’s the logarithm. Put in a logarithm and press [Inverse] [log], and there’s the ordinary number.

There’s a tsunami of numbers washing over us — budgets, test scores, polls, prices, and a thousand other things. The people who calculate and publish them are anxious to make points, and use all kinds of tricks to emphasize the differences they think are important. Logarithms can help you cut through the fog, because

Logarithms tell you if the difference is important.

The logarithms most people encounter in normal life are the Richter[2] scale for earthquakes and the “decibel” scale for sound (and a lot of other things). Earthquakes are reported directly as logarithms, decibels are logarithms multiplied by ten to avoid using the decimal point. In both cases, the important fact is that a difference in the second digit doesn’t matter much, where a difference in the first digit matters a lot — the difference between a 5.2 earthquake and a 5.3 is barely detectable to the folk who encounter it, but the difference between a 5.2 and a 6.2 is really significant, and 7.2 breaks things and kills people; the difference between 82 decibels (abbreviated dB) and 83 dB is just barely noticeable, 92 dB goes from “loud” to “really annoying”, and 102 dB is “possible hearing loss”.

Logarithmic scales have a starting point or “origin”, but unlike plain numbers (“linear scales”) the origin point doesn’t matter for purposes of comparison between two numbers. The decibel scale was created with exactly that in mind. The researcher tested a lot of people, figured out the minimum loudness difference they needed to say one sound is louder than the other, and assigned that as 1 dB. Remember that decibels are logarithms multiplied by ten, and go to your calculator; put in o.1 and press the [Inverse] and [log] buttons. The result is a long number, 1.2589 and a lot more digits. Round it off to 1.26; in order for most people to hear the difference in loudness, the actual difference in sound power has to be about 26%. The base point, or zero dB, was set at the softest sound most people could hear at all, but that’s arbitrary.[3]

The ratio in power between the minimum audible sound and permanent hearing damage is about 1,000,000,000,000 — one trillion. That’s a big number, cumbersome to use; what’s more important is that it can be misleading. A difference of 26% is 260,000,000,000 or 260 billion, which looks like a really big difference. Convert to dB, and it’s 120 dB (one trillion) versus 121 dB (one trillion 260 billion). Now the difference looks trivial, and it is. You’re already bleeding at the ears at 120 dB, and adding one more decibel is barely noticeable, either to you or to your doctor.

Now let’s apply that principle to the national debt and deficit cutting. The deficit is roughly one and a half trillion dollars. [log] gives 12.17, or about 122 dD (decidebts). The proposed budget cuts amount to about 60 billion; [log] gives 10.78 or about 108 dD. $60 billion sounds like a lot of money, and it is for you and me, but 122 – 108 = 14 dD, which doesn’t look like much — and it isn’t. An engineer would say that the smaller number is “down” or minus 14 dD from the larger one. Put -1.4 into your calculator, [inverse][log]: 0.0398, or less than 4% of the basic problem. If you’re bleeding to death, stanching the wound by 4% won’t help you much.

Similarly, let’s look at Iowahawk’s educational difference numbers as expanded by Michael Pollard, taking only one line cuz I’m lazy:

2009 4th Grade Math

White students: North Carolina 254, Texas 254, Virginia 251, Wisconsin 250, Georgia 247, South Carolina 245, (national average 248)

North Carolina 254, [log] 2.405, 24 dE (“deci-educations”)
Texas 254, [log] = 2.405, 24 dE
Virginia 251, [log] = 2.399, 24 dE
Wisconsin 250, [log] = 2.398, 24 dE
Georgia 247, [log] = 2.392, 24 dE
South Carolina 245, [log] = 2.389, 24 dE
Nat’l Average 248, [log] = 2.394, 24 dE

How remarkable[4]. There is no difference at any level that makes a difference.

Try it with some of the numbers you encounter. It’s a great way to cut through the fog and see what (if any) real differences exist.


[1] They’re both “logarithms”, but done to different “bases”. They give different numbers when pushed, and the difference is hyper-important to mathematicians, but both make the same comparisons; pick one and stick to it, and you’ll be fine.

[2] Now replaced by the “Moment Magnitude” scale. The difference is important to people in the business, but when reading the paper or a blog it doesn’t matter.

[3] Not really, but close enough to be useful. The Wikipedia article is much better if you care to wade through it, but it will just confuse a lot of people.

[4] The nice way of saying “Ain’t that some shit?”

Start with basic numbers.

Your typical semi carries a payload of a little over twenty tons. It requires a full-time operator,  has a 500 HP (370 kW) engine,  and gets 5 to 6 miles to the gallon.

A “standard” boxcar carries a payload of 125 tons. A train of 100 cars thus carries 12,500 tons of payload, has three engines each of 4000 HP for a total of 12,000 HP (9,000 kW), and requires two operators. Its fuel use is hard to discover — nothing really apposite turns up on the Internet.

Fortunately the Federal Railroad Administration has commissioned a beltway bandit [ACTHUNG: .pdf] to reduce the numbers to something that makes them easy to compare. Trains nowadays use about 2.5 gallons per 1000 Revenue Ton-Miles, so our 12,500 tons of freight burns 31.25 gallons per mile or 0.032 miles per gallon. From the same report, trucks nowadays are getting around 120 ton-miles per gallon, which is 8.3 gallons per 1000 ton-miles. The train is thus a little over three times as efficient as the truck in fuel alone. The train also requires only two operators, thus 6,250 tons per person. At 20 tons each, it requires 312 (and a half!) truck drivers to move the same load.

So we ought to be using trains for everything, right?

Not so fast, bub.

Look back at the numbers. The truck has 25 horsepower per ton, because it needs it as it goes up hill and down dale on rubber tires. The train only has 1 horsepower per ton of payload — that’s how it gets its fuel efficiency: it’s moving a much bigger load with a comparatively much smaller engine. This is why we have railroads in the first place. The first prime movers were steam engines, and steam engines are heavy and not very powerful compared to internal combustion, and use more fuel. In order to move any useful load at all, they had to reduce rolling resistance as much as possible and eliminate as many hills as they could. The lowest possible rolling resistance comes from a hard wheel on a hard surface, thus steel wheels on steel rails. (There are harder materials, but they’re expensive and have drawbacks like brittleness. Steel on steel is the best compromise.) As for hills, the “ruling gradient” — the steepest hill for “normal” train tracks — is 1.5 to 1.8 percent, that is, less than two feet of rise per 100 feet of travel, and the maximum that’s ever been used regularly without special provision is less than 6%. By contrast, the ruling gradient for Interstate highways in hilly terrain is 5% with short exceptions up to 8%, and there are a few places where the road goes up ten feet per hundred feet. The trucks don’t like it and use a lot of fuel going up, but they manage without the extraordinary mechanical systems trains need for steep grades.

So, increase train horsepower, right? Two problems: the train only has a three-times advantage in fuel use to start with; doubling the horsepower doubles the fuel use and halves the advantage. There’s also a problem: friction, or, rather, not enough friction. Steel on steel has very low friction, which means it’s hard to convert horsepower to forward motion without the wheels slipping. Even with one horsepower per ton the train has to dump sand on the rails to get enough friction to climb a fairly steep grade, or even to start all those tons of load moving. A train with even two horsepower per ton would probably just spin its wheels, converting both wheels and rails into scrap — and would only have a 1.5 times advantage over the truck in fuel usage per ton moved.

All that means train tracks are hideously expensive. The rails themselves are cheap, and the ties they sit on are hardly less so, but that’s not where the expense comes in. The expense is in moving all those tons of dirt to flatten out the hills. It can’t be just plain dirt, either. The train is so heavy that ordinary soil would just squeeze out from under it; the fill material for a train track has to be crushed rock that’s not only heavy, it has lots of corners to hang on to the next piece. Even then, it still creeps out from under. The railroad has huge, expensive machines that literally pick the track up and shove more “ballast” underneath it to compensate for the movement, and to gradually fill low areas so as to eliminate as many grades as possible.

And it gets worse. The pressing need to eliminate grades, because the train has such low power, means that there are only a few places where train tracks can be built at all — and those places have already been found and put into intensive use. We literally cannot build any more railroads, because there’s no place to put them where there isn’t already one! In fact, if we had to start over we couldn’t build the ones we have now — imagine the Sierra Club’s reaction to a plan calling for dynamiting huge chunks of the mountains to level them out for a rail line. For one thing, every little dell and alp in hilly terrain has a different microclimate and thus different trees, insects, etc., living there, which some environmentalist is going to define as a different species. We probably won’t be building any more major roads, for the same reason, but there’s a lot more excess capacity in the roads we have now than in the rails.

Railroad usage is totally constrained by the slowest train using it, because trains can’t pass (“overtake”) one another without expensive and elaborate provisions. At this point we hit friction again: low friction between wheel and rail means long braking time and distance. The absolute minimum interval between trains is the distance needed to stop if the train in front has problems. Stopping distance is proportional to the square of the speed, and (approximately) the square of the gradient — double the speed, four times the stopping distance; if it’s coasting down a 2% grade, multiply by four again. That’s a long, long way, and given the necessity to follow contours to minimize grades the train’s driver is almost never able to even see the train in front, much less judge whether something a mile or more away is moving fast enough that it isn’t necessary to stop, or if a stop is possible in time. Very few trains ever go over about 70 MPH/110 KPH, and a lot of train tracks go through urban areas where their speed has to be held down to as little as 25 MPH/40 KPH or less; even then, the occasional driver of a car or school bus finds out that trains don’t stop very fast, even for children or pretty girls. Slow trains can bunch up at shorter following distances, but  it doesn’t make sense for trains to run at high speed in open country if they then have to stop and wait for the train ahead to clear the town.

Curves follow the same rule. Doubling the speed gives four times the side force, requiring four times the curve radius to keep the train on the tracks. In hilly areas, where the train has to follow the contour to minimize the gradient, there are sharp curves where the train may have to go as slowly as 15 MPH/23 KPH so it doesn’t turn over, and the gradients are steep enough that it may not be able to slow down for the next curve if it speeds up between. Train speeds aren’t controlled by horsepower. They’re controlled by stopping distance, curve radius, and reaction time.

In song and story, trains used to go faster. That’s true, but not by all that much — 100 MPH/160 KPH was about the limit, roughly a square-root-of-two difference from today’s maximum. That was only for passenger trains, and meant that the freight trains, which topped out at 50 MPH/80 KPH, had to either use a different track or stop altogether on a siding to let the “varnish” through. It was also in an era when people didn’t care as much as they do now about accidents, and tended to assign responsibility to the victims — if you got run over by the Twentieth Century Limited, it was because you weren’t paying attention. There’s no way that attitude would be possible today.

Which brings up accidents. If a truck falls over, we’ve lost twenty tons of freight and the road is closed for a few hours. If a train derails, we lose twelve thousand tons at one blow, and can’t use the rail line again until it’s rebuilt, which can be weeks or months — and the trains can’t go around, because there are a limited number of tracks, all of which are already close to capacity.

A limited number of tracks means limited access to rail shipping. The railroad can’t go everywhere; it’s too expensive and too dangerous. Loads, or passengers, have to be taken from their origin point to the rail terminal, removed from that transport (probably a truck or an automobile), and loaded onto the rail car; when the train gets to its destination terminal, they have to be offloaded from the train, loaded onto local transport, and taken to their actual destination, where they have to be offloaded again. More subtly, very few people need to ship twenty tons at once, let alone 125, and a passenger is of course much less than that. Even with trucks, there’s a big, complex “consolidation” and “less than load” industry devoted to combining small shipments into truckloads for efficient carriage. If the minimum unit for transport is six times as big, the matter becomes even more cumbersome, inefficient, time-consuming, and expensive.

So trains are somewhat more efficient than trucks, but not all that much more, and there can only be a few of them running in highly restricted corridors. There aren’t going to be many more railroads, because building them is ferociously expensive both in money and in environmental degradation. They aren’t going to go much faster than they do now, because getting them to do that would require even more ferocious expense to straighten out curves and get rid of interaction between trains and people, cars, etc., in urban areas, and even if we did that the problem of stopping wouldn’t go away; in fact, it would get worse. A single accident brings the whole system down, which may mean nothing moves at all for a long time. Limited access means complex and expensive means to consolidate loads and get them to and from the rail terminal. If we had it to do over from scratch, if railroads hadn’t been invented in the first place, no one with any sense would propose such a stupid idea.

“High-speed rail” for passenger service is all that, squared. We do have the existing railroads, and given that they’re here already they do yeoman service in transporting large loads long distances. Converting them for high-speed passenger use would displace the existing freight onto the highways, because there’s no way for 50 or 70 MPH freight trains to share tracks with TGVs. Passengers would have to go from their homes to a strictly limited number of rail terminals, and again from the rail terminal to their real destination — and they already have to do that to go by air at twice the speed. A single accident would shut the whole system down for an extended period; a car or truck wreck hardly impacts the system as a whole, and even an airplane crash only slows air travel down in the worst case, and only for a few hours. High-speed rail has to be completely separated from everything else: no grade crossings allowed, because the train isn’t going to stop and people going across wouldn’t have time to see the train coming before being squashed, and elaborate fencing the entire length of the line, to keep animals and fools off the tracks.

Most proposals for high-speed rail posit entirely new rail lines, to avoid the displacement problem. It’s clear that that hasn’t been thought through. If there’s a satisfactory place for a rail line, there’s already a rail line there; building a new one requires Herculean effort, and if it has to be level enough and have large enough curve radii to accommodate higher speeds, it’s going to mean moving a lot of rock and dirt. The Californians think they can build 800 miles of high-speed rail for $60 billion, or $750 $75 million per mile, by consolidating it with existing rail corridors. The only possible explanation for that is too many bong hits per bureaucrat. They’re already fighting the Sierra Club over how to get it through the hills to the San Francisco Bay area; when the good folks in Los Altos and Mountain View discover that it means replacing the existing rail line — which they already hate; it’s ugly and disrupts traffic — with a ten-foot rock and concrete wall topped by chain-link and razor wire I, for one, expect fireworks. That’s nothing, though, compared to the reaction when the Greens find out how they’re going to get it through the Tehachapis and into Los Angeles, which could easily cost three-quarters of a billion $75 million per mile just for lawyers.

[ed. note: There was a time I could do arithmetic. Commenter Murgatroyd has pointed out that that is no longer the case. Corrections above.]

It’s a stupid plan. Or it’s a different plan. It’s already been suggested that the goal isn’t high-speed rail, it’s a big-money project that’s an easy target for graft. If you’re moving sixty or a hundred billion around, losing a million here and a million there is easy to ignore, and even a few tens of millions can be covered up in the overhead. If that’s the real point, the projects make sense from the point of view of the people proposing them; whether or not any benefit would actually accrue to the population in general is then irrelevant. Is that cynical enough?

The caracoling in Mad City has drawn attention away from the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-133, delivering supplies to the Space Station, including the necessary parts to make the new room usable. That’s as it should be. In the original vision for the Shuttle it was supposed to be a utility vehicle for getting people and things into space, used so often that individual missions were relegated to brief mentions in the inside pages of the paper, next to the lingerie ads. As we all know, it didn’t work out that way. “Turnaround” for the orbiters has from the first been an elaborate, expensive matter, so much so that NASA was more or less forced to try to make each trip dramatic and newsworthy. Having the Shuttle shoved off the front page by political shenanigans fits the original idea much better.

I’ve been to Florida reasonably often, but somehow never managed to get to the Cape to see a rocket launch, though I did do the tour once when nothing was visibly happening. My brother John (RIP) went once, and was most impressed. (He was also a NASCAR fan, and loved loud noises.) Now it looks like I’ll never get the chance, at least for Shuttle. If this mission goes off without disasters Endeavour will do STS-134 in April; if they can find enough loose change behind the couch cushions Atlantis will do STS-135 sometime this summer. That’s it. No more Shuttle.

Many people are lamenting that. Chuck Gannon on Facebook wails, what reason validates the decision (or apathy) that has let this capability slide away from us? He concludes that it’s truly unfortunate, and many agree. For myself, I’m not so sure.

Let’s face facts squarely, boys and girls: Mercury/Apollo was a publicity stunt. It may very well have been a necessary political stunt; at that time, it wasn’t at all clear just how destructive of wealth a full-on socialist system would be, and many people took Nikita Khruschev at his word. Khruschev wasn’t threatening war, he was promising that the Politburo would deliver such prosperity to the Russian people and their fraternal socialist brethren that the West would be eclipsed by the tide. As part of the accompanying propaganda the USSR was doing very well at what can only be described as a Potemkin space program, with lots of visible spectacular achievements, and it was important for international prestige that the United States establish that it could do it bigger, better, and with flashier paint jobs. This was duly accomplished, and although the budget for it was huge by any other standard, in comparison to the GDP or even the Government budget of the United States it was trivial. The United States could go to the Moon on pocket change and walking-around money; the USSR never got there at all, despite depriving its people of many comforts in order to try.

It might have been better if American politicians of the time had noted that Nikita Sergeyevich was being squired around in a ’57 Packard with Cyrillic badges. The Soviet Union, from inception to end, was like the Western towns in old movies — tall imposing front, little better than huts behind the façades. There is no doubt the space program was a magnificent achievement, but it came at a cost that wasn’t measured in money and hasn’t really been accounted for to this day.

When 1960 rolled around the United States’s aeronautical industry was varied and vibrant; jet passenger planes were fully on-line, there were experiments with ducted-fan and Coanda-effect fliers, and the several manufacturers seemingly came out with something new every week. Space, too, was getting a lot of attention: the Air Force was experimenting with lifting bodies and beginning Dyna-Soar, X-15 missions were regular, and there were dozens if not hundreds of other projects going on. Of particular interest to me are Project Pluto and SNAP, attempts to use nuclear reactors instead of chemical rockets — no, it wouldn’t have irradiated anybody; the stuff coming out would’ve been water, which doesn’t get radioactive, although Pluto was a nasty concept. In engineering labs and “skonk works” from Long Island to San Diego, scientists and engineers and techs were thinking about space and how to get there, and many of them were building models and looking for funding for the real thing.

But we had to get to the Moon, and we had to do it right away, and all of that, all of it, got sacrificed to meet that goal. Mercury/Apollo was a huge challenge, barely doable with the technology of the time; NASA lured (or shanghaied) as many of the top people as possible for the crash program, and the contracts they let for the parts that weren’t within their capability brought most of the other aerospace manufacturers into the program — or destroyed them if they didn’t go along. A truly gigantic fraction of the total aerospace expertise in the United States got diverted to the official space program, and a sizeable chunk of Canada’s as well, all buoyed up on a flood of Federal funding. The other projects got miniaturized, slowed down, or ended totally. The only way to get to space was with a NASA meatball emblazoned somewhere.

I don’t believe many — possibly any — of the scientists and engineers and techs and support people realized what was going on at the beginning. They were all either starry-eyed at the prospect, or grumpy realists who were paid to make it work and would do so if possible, and almost all of them were susceptible to the romance of the proposition. The clues came early, and we all, scientists and fanboys alike, missed them. There was going to be a Moon base — no, too complicated to do in time; the guys would just go and come back. There was going to be a Space Station, probably not a huge wheel like in 2001 but building toward that — no, too slow and too expensive; we’ll just build a great big rocket to get them up there at once. The ultimate futility of Mercury/Apollo can be summarized in a single sentence: It left nothing behind that was usable later. Even the leftover Saturn rockets, towering achievements of power and grandeur, were too big and too expensive to use for launching probes, and were broken up or used as museum displays.

When the movie’s finished, the sets get broken up and trashed or stored so they can be re-painted for another one. That’s where we were in 1969. We had film and video tape of American footprints on the Moon, surrounded by junk that was of no use to anybody, and enormous installations on Earth that had no purpose but to support single-use equipment that had no purpose going forward. Meanwhile all the other projects, the ones intended for incremental achievement of things that might have been used over and over, were dead and gone, dusty relics in the backs of hangars and closets. It was the biggest, most extravagant movie ever made. Now it was done. What now?

Engineering and design departments at aerospace manufacturers, now missing the flood of money they’d adapted to, started cutting back, and one by one the manufacturers themselves started falling. Projects that had once been cheap and quick — Lockheed built the SR-71 from scratch in four years, and came in under budget — turned into long, drawn-out, often futile wastes. NASA had had to get a complex task done quickly, and do it with as few mistakes as possible; they set up a bureaucracy to support that, and procedures that had to be followed, including by contractors. Aerospace firms adopted them perforce, and (because they worked, at least at first) extended them to their other lines. In the Fifties, engineers would make up drawings and the shop would start bending tin. In the Seventies, it all had to be done with PERT charts and planning meetings and part certifications and inspections at every point, NASA style. The product wasn’t airplanes, it was reports about airplanes, reports that had to predict the future — and since that isn’t possible, it meant backtracking and re-doing and more reports.

Worse, from the point of view of the Senators and Congresscritters and their hangers-on, the flood of money dried up. Bureaucrats battling for budget in a permissive environment can find many creative ways of directing the funds they control as is needed to firm up support for their efforts; the funds weren’t there any longer, but the NASA bureaucracy was firmly in place, and like any bureaucracy was unbudgeable without atomic weapons, or at the very least a ninja raid. Within NASA there were still a majority of people who believed in space and space exploration, but they had learned The Procedure too well and had become tech-oriented bureaucrats. They set off to build the Space Shuttle, but ran into two roadblocks: The Procedure had become too cumbersome, and they had no Grand Story to tell.

A lot of the commentary about space laments the lack of a grand story, not least within NASA itself. They kept trying the publicity stunt approach ‘way past the point where it had succumbed to the Law of Diminishing Returns, trying to build a new Grand Story that would get them back to the glory days of Apollo and near-unlimited funding. Bluntly: It didn’t work, and it shouldn’t have. If space is useful at all — which I think it is, but there are those who don’t agree — it has to be utilitarian. It can’t depend on a Grand Story to keep it afloat. It’s just my job, five days a week, a rocket man, Elton John sang, and that’s the way it has to be, or it’s just a stunt, too expensive a stunt to do with public funds.

And there was The Procedure, which by then had become Holy Writ. NASA proposed the Space Transportation System, and the aerospace firms responded — with reams and reams of paper and stacks and piles of Vu-Graph® slides, because PowerPoint hadn’t been invented. Corporate bureaucrats delivered bureaucrap to NASA bureaucrats, who dutifully digested it and produced more bureaucrap. It was delightful — things were getting done! Look how busy we all are! — and it was expensive — hey, it takes a long time to do due diligence on something this complicated — and it took a while to realize that no metal was getting bent. Even the supportive Congresscritters looked at rooms of people filling out forms instead of hammering on shiny titanium or big roaring flames, and had a hard time supporting it. No Grand Story and nothing actually getting built translated into funds gradually drying up.

It was in this atmosphere that Shuttle was developed, and you can see the traces of Apollo in every step. It was supposed to be small, so we could have lots of them and use them often; no, it needs to be big for lots of plausible reasons. It was supposed to be flown, like an airplane; no, that’s too complicated, we need to spend a lot of money building computers to control it. It was supposed to be metal, with a disposable, renewable ablative coating; no, that doesn’t fit the ideal of “reusability”, so the belly has to be exotic ceramic. It was supposed to have a “flyback booster”, a big thing that carried it partway to orbit and came back to land and be used again; no, if the orbiter’s big the booster has to be gigantic and we can’t do that, so it got whittled down, first to a disposable booster, then to bigger (and more expensive) engines on the orbiter so the booster didn’t have to be so big, then finally to solid rockets that the builders promised (faithfully, cross my heart and hope to die) would be cheap and reliable. Echo answers hollow…

Meanwhile the little projects, the incremental projects, the Dyna-Soars and SNAPs, never got started again. NASA didn’t have a Big Story for the general public, but it had an internal Big Story: make shuttle work. If there was money for space, Shuttle got it. The scientists who wanted probes cried out with loud and plaintive voices, and got enough diverted to JPL, etc., to do some wonderful things, but they were sucking hind tit and knew (and resented) it. When Shuttle went operational, it got worse, not better. Every time it landed it had to be rebuilt from scratch, for all practical purposes — the super duper last-forever tiles, no two the same size or shape, had to be inspected one by one (without breaking them, mind you, and you can ruin one with your thumbnail), and often enough taken off and reglued, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Cynics grumped that it would be cheaper to build a Saturn and throw it away every time, and I’m not sure they were wrong, but NASA had the bit in its teeth. Shuttle was reusable, and reusable was the only way to go, and they had a not-so-small army dedicated to making it reusable, broken or no, and every cent they could scrounge went to support that effort. Small incremental projects? We’ve got no time or money for that piddly shit.

Now it’s over. Instead of bitching about President Obama “yielding our dominance in space”, you should be breathing sighs of relief. (It’s not his fault anyway; the Bush Administration decreed it, and like everything Barry-O does that actually works, he just went along.) The Ares component of the Constellation program was a hopeless-from-the-start attempt to re-use Shuttle components in a new configuration and save all that lovely pork; the deader it is, the better off we are.

In the meantime, surprise surprise! Suddenly we have a various, vibrant aerospace industry, coming up with new and different ideas and trying them out. They’re mostly shoestring operations or sucking a little of the fat out of LockMart or Boeing, and none of them can manage the pure echoing thunder of a Shuttle launch, so they’re not going to be the lede on the seven o’clock news very often. They have funny names, Xcor and Bigelow and Armadillo (Armadillo!) and more. Some of the things they try work, and some of them go down in flames; when s*t happens, they try again. They all use The Procedure, but in the early, streamlined version that actually did put a man on the moon, not the cumbersome, all-paper-no-rockets version that turns Research and Development into alternate ass-kissing and ass-covering.

Bottom line: We just pissed away fifty years. It’s 1961, and there are dozens of little space-oriented things going on, some of which might work, some of which surely will not — but we won’t know which is which until we try them. The new guys don’t need or want a Grand Story; what they need and want is a trickle of help. If NASA went back to what it was in 1961, doing research available to all comers and helping choose (and fund) likely things to try, a fraction of the budget for Shuttle would keep the new little guys fat and happy. On the other hand, trying to shove everything they do through 300 E St. SW will strangle them in the cradle. Let’s not do that. When Discovery comes back, let’s shove a steel pylon through its guts and stand it up in front of the Air & Space Museum like the obsolete fighter planes that used to grace the entrances to Air Force Bases; Endeavour can go up similarly outside the Cape (superfluous vowel and all), and Atlantis can go to Pasadena, where the probe scientists can sneer at it.

It pisses me off. When I was thirteen I expected to be able to go to the Moon, or at least the Space Station, before I kicked the bucket, and that isn’t going to happen, because we have to start over. So let’s do start over, hmm? And do it right this time, bit by bit ’til it’s a business, not an extended Hollywood extravaganza with a Federal bureaucracy designing the sets. Ad astra per aspera! (per pecuniam was a dead end.)

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March 2011
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