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The fact that I find it enormously disappointing and saddening to be so is perhaps ameliorative but does not excuse.

The original premise of the Civil Rights movement, and the underlying philosophy behind the creation of current civil rights law, is that if blacks were freed of invidious discrimination they would succeed to the same degree that whites do. This has not occurred, and that is the source of most of the more-severe dislocations and contradictions revolving around racial issues in modern American society.

There are of course many blacks who do succeed, which is sufficient to conclusively disprove the simplistic assumptions I and my fellows held as Holy Writ during my childhood and adolescence; it further demonstrates the validity of the charges made by Martin Luther King and others, that the laws and social structures we set up based on those assumptions were at minimum invidious, and more generally demonstrations that our prating about “liberty” and “opportunity” was hypocrisy leading to cruelty. Nevertheless, if you examine any society on the planet that contains both blacks and other races you will find blacks on the bottom of the social order, unless that ordering is upset by main force (as in Zimbabwe, South Africa, &c.) in which case the society as a whole drops to lower levels of achievement.

There are many and various explanations for this, mostly revolving around assumptions regarding lingering effects of past discrimination and/or deliberate and intentional conspiracy. The latter is simply fatuous. “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead”; the notion of a “conspiracy” involving a billion-plus people is untenable upon its face. The experience of Orientals is at least indicative that assuming “lingering effects” does not explain the situation. I own several “boys’ books” written at the turn of the last century, as depictions and/or exhortations of socially-conforming “good” behavior for young adults; in them, “the Chinese” are depicted as not merely inferior but as actively evil, and that attitude persisted, especially among my elders, right up to the mid-Twentieth Century. None of us today (including me) would find anything whatever odd about a person of oriental ancestry succeeding in any given field.

There is a simpler hypothesis that is sufficient to explain the entire pattern: that, statistically, the median black is somewhat less capable than the median for those of other ancestries. Statistics say nothing about individuals. The individuals forming any population occur in a statistical distribution; it follows that some black people have the capability to succeed, but that the “average” or median black person is less capable than the average for the rest of society, and therefore black people will be disproportionately found in societal roles requiring less ability. It is a perfectly normal, and in fact necessary, process for human beings to categorize based on gross characteristics when we have little or no direct experience, and those categorizations tend strongly to revolve around the median of the population being so categorized. We thus arrive at the stereotype “blacks are inferior” by a perfectly valid process that cannot be avoided.

It is ironic that this assumption, although never stated, lies behind “affirmative action”. The general population will inevitably conclude that “blacks are inferior” because it is true of the median black vis-a-vis the median of other groups. They will therefore tend to exclude black candidates for positions requiring ability, and this is both invidious discrimination, cruel to black people who can succeed in those positions, and a societal waste — we live in a complex and difficult society, and need every hand to the wheel. A process requiring the consideration of candidates who would otherwise be summarily dismissed because of unthinking stereotyping is thus of benefit to all concerned.

Unfortunately, affirmative action redounds to the benefit of society only if all candidates are held to the same standard. The actual implementation of the philosophy has been governed by egalitarians whose assumption is equal capability; it follows that statistically unequal representation of blacks vs. other groups can only be the result of some invidious process, which must be counteracted by forcing those making choices to accept blacks in proportion to their numbers regardless of actual ability. Since there are many such cases, this results in a statistical universe in which the median black is inferior to the median of other groups — which reinforces the stereotype of black inferiority, and creates additional resentment that ought to be targeted on the people enforcing the invalid assumption but actually falls on the individuals thus forcibly inserted into positions their ability cannot support, because they’re closest by.

That is the sum and substance of my racism. Make of it what you will.

I have no interest in either defending or attacking religion as a meta-subject. As with Norm Geras’s current essay on the subject, which responds to a piece by Derbyshire, that “debate” always ends up in the modern equivalent of “how many angels can dance on a pin-head?” There is another, perhaps more profitable, angle.

Societies can be thought of as analogous to organisms. Analogy is always suspect because exact analogies do not exist, and it is easy to fall into wrong thinking by following the analogy too far. Organisms have definite edges; it is possible to point to two points in space and say, “this is part of a wolf, and this is not.” Societies are much less well-defined, and merge into one another at the fringes. Still, though, we can and do think of and describe societies as identifiable subsets of humanity, as “nations” or “ethnic groups” or “tribes” or “cultures”, and at least some of the qualities of organisms apply to those identifiable subsets.

One of those qualities is evolution. Societies change by adopting new practices. If the new practice promotes success of the society and its members, the society grows stronger and larger; if a new practice is destructive the society shrinks and becomes weaker, and may disappear entirely. This is a reasonably exact analogue of the evolution of organisms, with the primary difference being that not all new practices follow the Darwinian model by appearing as random mutations; they can also be acquired, Lysenko-style, either by rational assessment of what is needed for success or adoption from an adjoining society seen as more successful.

Experience shows that the “rational assessment” is rarely carried out, and that when practices are adopted from adjoining societies it is rarely or never because they are rationally seen as success-promoting. From the point of view of the members of any society, the practices they follow simply appeared de novo; and, for the most part, neither the members of the society nor onlookers from outside it can define the specific success-promoting aspect of any particular practice. Societal practices appear to be arbitrary and lacking a rational basis. They must, however, be preserved; it is specifically the set of practices or customs the society employs that define it as contrasted to others, and it is those practices which have contributed to its success as a society.

This is the historical role of religion, and it seems plausible to suggest that it may be the origin of religion. Apparently arbitrary practices are codified into a rule-set, and taught to new members of the society as necessary practices. Neither the members of the society nor any putative observers can define the source of those rules, because they “just growed” as new practices were introduced and resulted in success or failure, nor can anyone define just why a particular practice promotes success and must therefore be preserved. The Rules are therefore attributed to some force outside the society — which is true, the force being the inexorable progress of evolution — and, with the urge to personify external influences which appears to be well-nigh universal, that force becomes Deity, the One(s) Who Must Be Obeyed.

Arguing about whether religion is “good” or “bad” is therefore effort poured into spinning the hamster wheel, getting nowhere with extreme vigor. The Rules remain arbitrary and capricious; they must nevertheless be codified and enforced, or the society adopts practices that do not promote success and consequently fails. The forces that promote success or failure are not at all obvious, apparent, rational, or reasonable; they appear to come from some outside source, and such outside forces are inevitably personified by individual human beings. Religion therefore appears, willy-nilly, in every society. It is amusing to see environmentalists declaring themselves rational and scientific while promoting the myth of Gaia, the Mother Earth. It is somewhat less amusing to see the Left striving to obfuscate their personification of the Inevitable Progress of Economics, as explicated by the Prophet Karl.

One corollary of that error is the assumption that since The Rules are arbitrary they can be modified at will. God does not exist; it follows that His Rules are invalid, and societies may do as they please. This ignores the evolutionary aspect (which, in most cases, is in fact the goal of those proposing New Rules). The practices or customs of any particular society are, by definition, those that led it to be sufficiently successful to exist in present time, just as the attributes of an organism are the ones that led to its species being successful enough to survive to be seen. Evolution takes a long time to work; random mutations may cause an organism to possess a trait that leads to failure by some subtle effect, so it may persist for a long time even though its species will eventually die out, and random alterations of societal practices may have some side-effect that will eventually destroy the society even if they result in short-term advantages.

That, in turn, leads to a thought: What makes us think our ideas are entirely new and unprecedented? Humans have lived in more-or-less-organized societies for many, many millenia, and while our predecessors didn’t have access to the information we have accumulated over that time, there is no reason to suspect that they were our intellectual inferiors. There is therefore no reason to suspect that our new, liberal, Progressive notions didn’t occur to somebody a long time ago; the only reason we might have to assume that this is the case is that no precursor society exhibits those practices. That might also result from those ideas being adopted by societies which did not survive and are therefore not present for us to refer to, while those societies that did not adopt those practices grew, thrived, and are therefore visible in the present day.

Early humans, lacking fangs, claws, or an abundance of fast-twitch muscle, had to live by their wits, thus conserving “intelligence” as a trait of the human species. There are distinct morphological differences between male and female human beings, but they are insignificant beside the difference between a human being and, say, a saber-toothed tiger, and there are almost no intellectual differences between men and women, certainly as far as raw processing-power goes. It “stands to reason” (haaaark, spit!) that a species that survives only by employing intelligence would necessarily employ all the intelligence it could put to bear on the problem of survival, and female human beings represent at least half of the available supply of intelligence. And, yet, no society which has survived to the present day allows full emancipation of women with consequent full use of their intelligence as a promoter of survival and success — in fact, the norm is “patriarchy”, denoting near-complete exclusion of women from the decision-making process except as secondary influences on men. Might it be that Evolution, whether or not personified as $DEITY, is trying to tell us something?

One person can end the “birther” controversy with two signatures. If Barack H. Obama signs the request form (or letter) to the State of Hawai’i to release his long form birth certificate, and signs the accompanying check for the associated fees, the controversy dies — assuming that the long form certificate doesn’t contain anything damaging.

Obama has chosen not to do that. His publicly stated reasons are that the resulting theories and allegations of conspiracy make his political enemies look foolish and futile, and with the able and enthusiastic support of the Press, so far that’s been fairly successful; but, as Da Tech Guy points out, it’s resulted in an undercurrent that has been growing and sprouting legs, and Donald Trump is exploiting it, for whatever reasons he may have.

This is another case of Barack Obama adopting George W. Bush’s tactics. Bush and his circle never attempted any really vigorous pushback against the charges of the leftoids regarding Iraq. They thought the patent stupidity of the charges themselves, and the clear partisan demagoguery that was going on, would be sufficient to deflect them. It turned out to be a miscalculation, because even some of Bush’s supporters began to assume that with all that smoke and mirrors, there might really be a genuine fire somewhere.

Trump is an unusual case: clearly a political outsider, with a record of political contributions and activity that is at least superficially contradictory, and not a Hollywood or music star with clear leftoid leanings, he nevertheless has enough name recognition, and has attracted enough attention in the past, that the Press is pretty well forced to give his blather some publicity. One of the main things he’s done with that is to bring the birther controversy out in the open. It’s always been an amusing contradiction: the most enthusiastic and vocal AWOLers, the ones whose fixed position was that no disclosure of Bush’s past was sufficient, are the very ones least likely to publicize birtherism, or any other investigation of Obama’s murky past, beyond offhand dismissals of it as stupid and crazy. Some would call that “infuriating”. I choose to be amused.

The Press can’t afford to dismiss The Donald out of hand, and are more or less forced by their own lust for celebrity “news” to publicize his views. Putting them out in the open has had the interesting result that, as with Bush and Iraq, some of Obama’s supporters are beginning to believe that there might be some there there. It shows in their increasing shrillness on the subject, the rise in the number of trolls and mobys denigrating the notion, and a few interesting Modest Proposals.

You can reinforce that. Simply refuse to be drawn into debates over whether or not the “certificate of live birth” is sufficient, or any of the other blather and smokescreens being thrown up to obscure the subject. Obama could end it with two signatures and a modest expenditure; there are lots of people who would pay the fee for him if he’s short; he doesn’t do it, and the question is “why not?” Refuse to be drawn into side issues. Obama could end it easily. He doesn’t. There aren’t any more valid points to be made in the debate.

Donald Trump would not be my first choice for President. He might not be the first of the second million choices. We demonstrably can do worse, and in any case for now and the foreseeable future I am an “against” voter — I will vote against Obama, Democrats, and the Washington Establishment, without looking too closely into what I’m voting for. If that results in an Obama of the opposite polarity, just as damaging as he is but with right-related policies, I’m willing to live with it. For now, though, the main value of Trump is as a rabble-rouser who can in fact get a tall enough podium to have his voice carry to the rabble he wants to rouse, and for that I thank him.

Stacy McCain goes postal on the class warriors: (h/t Reynolds)

Contrary to all the class-warfare demagoguery pouring forth from Democrats and the media (but I repeat myself), conservatives do not oppose tax increases because we are beholden to the rich. Rather, the question is whether wealth does more good when it is invested in the private sector, to create jobs and economic growth, or surrendered to the federal government as taxes to support the metastatic growth of a pestiferous bureaucracy.

There’s a problem with that. See the bolded part? Leftoids don’t believe a word of it — it’s practically the definition of a Leftist, most especially including Democrats.

Leftoids don’t believe in production. Wealth simply is — it exists, out there somewhere, put there by forces beyond the ken of mortals. “The Rich” are people who have discovered some, purely by chance, and are fiendishly refusing to share with the rest of the tribe. One of the posters at Chicago Boyz first introduced me to the term “the seekrit stash”, the pile of wealth that’s out there somewhere, jealously guarded by its discoverers to keep it away from the People. Kurt Vonnegut called it the Money River, an endless supply of cash flowing freely through obscure faraway canyons, to which The Rich lead their offspring and a few selected friends, that they may slurp vewy vewy quietly, so as not to attract the attention of the Poor People who might be nearby.

Leftoids don’t even believe in production when they’re doing it. Spend any time at all with a UAW member, and it will finally dawn on you that he doesn’t seriously believe he’s producing cars. He’s getting a paycheck, and all that nonsense with tools and bolts and hunks of metal that they have to do on the shop floor is just meaningless hoops the nasty, tightwad rich bastards in Teh Management make them negotiate before they’ll hand out the money. That’s also why they don’t, in general, give a damn whether or not they build good cars. “Building cars” is just an excuse used by Teh Rich to force Teh Workers into an awkward, demeaning, inferior position before coughing up the dough, and it ain’t faaaaair.

Sensible people know that, in an industrial economy, wealth — the stuff that keeps us fed, clothed, housed, and (sometimes) healthy — is produced, and think the producers should get first dibs on the product. We also know that the means of production are themselves produced, and that production (of either final products or means of production) costs money. Leftists don’t believe any of that, and it’s a waste of time trying to explain it to them — wealth simply happens, people who have some just happened to find it by chance or by being led to the Seekrit Stash or the Money River, and anything you say to imply that that isn’t the case is simply evidence of being “…beholden to the rich.” Running dogs of the capitalist oppressor used to be the nicely colorful phrase. They don’t say it much any more, but I guarantee you that’s what they’re thinking.

That’s why Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize-winning economist, can come out with what he considers perfectly sensible advice (and yes, he really does think so) that ends up being purely looney. He has, in fact, noticed that if you spend money in certain ways you get more money back — but because he doesn’t believe in production, or in the necessity for the means of production, to him any large amount of spending is “investment”. Give it to Teh Poor, give it to the Government to implement regulations, or give it to the private sector to build factories, it’s all the same — and the last alternative makes Teh Rich richer, so it ain’t faaaaair.

Ann Coulter wrote a book entitled How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must). My advice is, don’t bother — it wastes your time and annoys the pig. When you try, their eyes glaze over and they start mentally substituting Marxist shibboleths for what you’re saying. Eventually the pressure will build to the point where they bleat “But that’s not faaaaair!” and the “debate” ends. And, as with “raaaaacist!”, remember that there are five “a”s and an obligatory exclamation point in “faaaaair!”

Our belovéd Lege is thinking about raising the speed limit on certain roads here in Texas to 85 MPH. The proposal has passed the House, and now goes to the Senate for approval. It’s attracted a little attention nationally, but no huge splash — which makes sense; we already have Interstates out West with 80 MPH as the posted limit.

In a perfect world, posted speed limits would be a stupid regulation from a safety standpoint. The only thing that actually makes sense is maintain a safe and reasonable speed, which takes in all the factors — weather, vehicle and road conditions, and the capabilities of the driver. Posted speed limits encourage idiocies like people driving 60 MPH on an icy road in traffic; when the inevitable crunch occurs, they point at the sign and protest, “Hey, it’s 65 here! I was well under the limit!”

Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world. “Safe and reasonable” runs up against the fact that most people have truly lousy judgement of things like momentum, and don’t think much about vehicle maintenance beyond whether or not it starts in the morning; and it leaves the whole mess up to the discretion of individual police officers, which is a great way to get arbitrary oppression institutionalized. Posted speed limits are about the only suitable compromise, but they ought to be set according to reality, which as a rule they are not. I could easily show you several places where Texas “Farm to Market” tertiary roads cross the Interstate; the speed limit on the wide, flat, open, divided, limited-access four-lane is 65, and the sign on the narrow, near-shoulderless, two-lane road infested with farmers pulling hay balers at 10 MPH says 70 in the daytime. That sort of thing encourages people to ignore the limits, because they’re obviously set by people who don’t know what the f* they are doing.

Increasing the speed limit always draws the ire of well-meaning nannystaters, subtly or blatantly encouraged by people with skin in the game, predominately local Justices of the Peace (who see their speeding-fine revenue vanishing) and insurance companies. The insurance companies point out, quite reasonably and truthfully, that higher speeds result in more accidents, and that even if that weren’t true the accidents that do happen will be more severe. Momentum goes by the square of the speed, so a change from 80 to 85 MPH is a 6% increase in speed, but a 13% increase in accident severity — for which they have to pay. The rational answer to that would be to let them price it out; people like me, who drive old cars with minimum insurance coverage, should have to sign in blood that they’d keep the speed down, and people with proper equipment and plenty of money should be able to pay for the privilege of going as fast as they like.

What I propose is an extension of that principle. There’s no particularly good reason to put a speed limit below 65 or 70 MPH on the open Interstate, especially out West where “open” is ironic understatement, but allowing speeds higher than that tends to increase accidents and accident severity because of the “icy road” phenomenon — people who don’t have good cars and/or aren’t good drivers will go that fast anyway, because they don’t have the knowledge and judgement to determine a “safe and reasonable” speed and trust Big Brother to put reasonable numbers on the sign. So set the posted limit relatively low, and introduce a new class of licensing.

Call it the “unlimited permit”, and model it on the concealed carry laws. The vehicle has to pass a real, stringent inspection for things like brakes, tires, steering accuracy, and the like, instead of the present “inspection” system, which amounts to “yup, all four wheels are there, that’ll be $14.50, please.” Cars that make the grade get a special license plate, perhaps with a different-colored background to make it easy for the police to distinguish them from the general ruck, or a distinctive medallion to attach to a standard tag. Drivers have to pass a serious course in how to go fast safely, including skidpad action and familiarity (perhaps using simulators) with how things go at high speeds on the highway. People who pass that course then pay a moderately exorbitant license fee, and get special placards to be displayed fore and aft for the edification of law enforcement, and which they’re required to remove when lesser drivers operate the vehicle. An “unlimited” driver in an “unlimited” vehicle then is subject to the safe and reasonable rule; how fast he or she can go is between him or her and the insurance company. Crucially, drivers with “U” permits would be held to a much higher standard than everybody else. Lapses in judgement like whipping around school buses at eighty or going 60 on an icy road would incur penalties much more severe than for drivers with lower grades of license, ranging from loss of unlimited privileges to jail time, because they’re supposed to know better than that.

People would go for it like coyotes after a deer carcass, especially those whose jobs keep them on the road a lot. From San Antonio to El Paso is over 550 miles of damned near nothing but flat straight road, and takes seven and a half hours under the present limits; cranking it up to 100+ cuts two full hours off that time, and that would be worth a lot to some. It could easily become a modest but significant source of revenue, especially if you extended it to people with out-of-state driver’s licenses. They’d still have to pass the inspection and the course, but could stop in at the Welcome Station, show the paperwork, and pick up their license medallions and placards, thereafter driving fast if they cared to. How much would the testing staff at Car & Driver pay for the privilege of driving Ferraris at full bore without having to deal with annoyed Department of Public Safety troopers? You tell me, but I’ll bet it’s a lot. It would, after all, be deductible as a business expense…

The best effect of that, though, would be better driver education for more people. An unlimited permit would be like catnip to young drivers — at age 20 I would have jumped through some pretty tight and fiery hoops for one — but to get it, they have to pass the course in how to do it safely, including how to decide whether the car they propose to crank up to warp factor 9.2 is suitable for that application. That would be an enormous advance over the present system, in which a 16-year-old demonstrates the ability to keep it between the ditches and is handed a permit to do 80 (or, now, 85) in whatever car they can buy or borrow. It doesn’t take much road experience to realize that literally anything which would encourage people to learn more about driving, cars, and speed would be an improvement over the way we do it now.

Ain’t gonna happen, of course. But a fellow can dream.

Addendum: It occurs to me that requiring a vehicle inspection means the permit isn’t truly unlimited. Call the inspection-required form “S”, for “Speed”; the course for Unlimited includes how to inspect the vehicle for suitability, including accepting the liability incurred thereby. You wouldn’t get many of those, but the ones you did get would be really good drivers.

Elon Musk is a really bright guy. He agrees with me.

No, I don’t think Musk or anybody at SpaceX has ever heard of me or knows (or cares) who I am or what my opinions are; still less do I pretend to have the chops to design a rocket. Still, I do try to keep up from a (hopefully intelligent) layman’s point of view, and I like to think that if I’d followed up on my teen-age dreams of becoming a rocket scientist, I would have avoided Apollo-thinking and come up with something like what SpaceX produces. Their current and proposed output conforms so closely to my current set of prejudices and opinions that it’s like one of us was reading the other’s mind.

Right at the top: they’re burning kerosene (and liquid oxygen, of course), not hydrogen. The single most useful metric for a rocket, overall, is specific impulse, or Isp, which is a measure of how efficiently the rocket uses its fuel. Isp depends on exhaust velocity, and exhaust velocity depends on how “hot” the fuel burns and how heavy the combustion products are (lighter is better). NASA is fixated on using hydrogen for fuel, because hydrogen-oxygen is the hottest fire with the lightest combustion product possible with the chemical elements that exist. The Space Shuttle, burning hydrogen and oxygen in a very high-tech engine, achieves an Isp of 450 or so, somewhere close to the limit for chemical fuels. I don’t have a good number for a kerosene-oxygen rocket, but I’d guess it has to be below 400 (but not by much). NASA wants the most for the least, so for them, hydrogen is the way to go.

It comes at an awful cost. Hydrogen is the lightest element, and is dreadfully difficult to get cold enough to be a liquid. Even as a liquid it isn’t very dense, so the fuel tank has to be big. The molecule of hydrogen is so tiny that the concept of “tank” isn’t really applicable — the stuff will leak (actually seep) through solid metal, and on the way combines with the metal to form hydrides, which are weak and brittle; this is one of the factors controlling the life of a nuclear reactor, which produces hydrogen as part of its functioning. Producing and storing liquid hydrogen is expensive, complicated, and hazardous to all concerned. Then there’s the matter of fuel pumps.

Oh, yes, rockets have fuel pumps. A portion of the fuel/oxidizer mixture is diverted to run a motor, usually a turbine, and that motor drives the pumps. So with liquid hydrogen, on one side we have the hottest fire possible — and a few inches away, we’re pumping huge quantities of a substance so cold most materials shatter like icicles when it touches them! Now you know one of the reasons the Space Shuttle Main Engine is so darned expensive.

With kerosene many of those problems go away. No doubt a rocket needs something more pure than what you’d get by whistling up a Diesel-fuel tanker or the Jet-A truck from the airport, but the stuff is very similar and can be handled by the same sort of machinery. Just being able to store the fuel in an ordinary tank and pump it with gear you can order from a catalog translates into big savings in per-launch costs. The rocket will be heavier, because kerosene is heavier than hydrogen for the same amount of energy, but it will actually be smaller, because the kerosene needs a smaller tank.

Second, they aren’t using solid-propellant boosters. Solid propellants are excellent for rockets that have to be stored for later use, and be dependable when uncrated — air-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, and ICBMs that have to wait in their silos (or aboard a submarine) for a long time and go off on command. If you want something storable and dependable, a solid is the way to go — but the main advantages of solids are things that don’t make any difference to a satellite-launching rocket. For that you need something light and powerful. In a liquid-fuel rocket, only the engine has to take the awful pressure and heat. In a solid, the whole thing is the “engine”, and has to be tough enough to stand the gaff. That translates into something heavy, and the Isp of a solid doesn’t go much above 250, if it gets there. Solids are referred to as “strap-ons”, and if that makes you think of heavy breathing and substitutes for the Real Thing, you’re pretty much on target.

The SRBs on the Shuttle are a political concession, not a technical advantage. There have been several proposals to replace them with liquid-fuel boosters, either kerosene-oxygen (for simplicity) or hydrogen-oxygen (for commonality with the rest of the fueling), and for the same weight and size the result would have been up to a 40% improvement in booster performance; in one report I saw, the Executive Summary concluded with a laconic statement to the effect that there were no technical barriers to the replacement. It was not to be, and solids were also an integral part of the (now-failed) Ares program, and not the least problematic part. This is one of the reasons SpaceX has a real advantage. If the U.S. Government builds a rocket, it will have solid-propellant boosters; Musk doesn’t have to answer to Sen. Hatch, so he and his people are free to use what makes sense technically.

Third, they use multiple small engines instead of one (or a few) big ones. Falcon-9 has nine engines, thus the name; Falcon-Heavy starts out by being three Falcon-9s strapped together, and might well be called “Falcon-27”. There’s no doubt that multiple engines means greater cost — but it also means that they’ll make enough engines to run something like a production line, and since each engine is relatively small the parts can be handled by normal production machinery, or even people, and that translates into “economies of scale”. The Shuttle only has three engines, and there have only ever been five of them; counting test articles and the like, there have still never been more than about twenty space shuttle engines, and they were extremely high tech, so they had to be hand-made one at a time. Falcon-9 has already flown twice, so SpaceX has already built (and flown) more rocket engines than the entire Shuttle program.

That’s huge in terms of reliability, in two ways. First, the way you get good at doing something is to do it over and over — practice — and building rocket engines is no different. They can control the quality at every step, and become thoroughly familiar with all the processes necessary to get the product out the door. That often falls down in the case of consumer products, because the metric there is how fast you can push them out and sell them. In a rocket-engine factory, with fewer time and money constraints, they can apply the full force of modern manufacturing and quality-control techniques, and let practice make perfect. As noted, eighteen SpaceX engines have actually flown, and none of them failed. To be fair, I don’t know that any Space Shuttle engines have failed, either — but SpaceX manufactured those engines; NASA built theirs one at a time, with an army of craftsmen and inspectors SpaceX didn’t need, and didn’t pay for.

The second advantage of multiple engines is redundancy. There is no bean-counter in the whole wide world who can’t prove to you, with reams of statistics and innumerable PowerPoint slides, that One Big [whatever] is more cost-effective than many little ones. They’re right, too — right up to the point where the One Big [whatever] hiccups, whereupon we learn once more why putting all the eggs in one basket is a sub-optimal procedure.

Shuttle has three engines, plus the two SRBs which don’t quite add up to a fourth. If one engine fails, there’s no choice but to abort — it can’t go on if it loses a quarter of its total thrust. Falcon has nine engines. If one craps out, that’s only an 11% loss in thrust — and the rest still have the same amount of fuel available. If that happens after it’s well on its way, it might not even mean loss of the mission. The same amount of fuel means the same amount of “change of motion”, and a little less thrust just means the rocket has to burn longer to achieve the same final speed. There’s even the possibility that the engineers have sandbagged a bit, that the engines can throttle up a little above their designed power level, and that might mean nobody but the engineers controlling it would ever notice the burned-out pod. Falcon-H will have twenty-seven engines. If one croaks, that’s less than 4% loss of thrust, and the mission goes on as scheduled with hardly a hiccup.

This factors into the debate about safety, euphemized as “man-rating”. SpaceX has already launched an unmanned capsule, similar to the Mercury/Apollo ones, and recovered it successfully on the first try. This isn’t good enough; if people are to be stuck atop a rocket to go into space, their capsule must have an emergency system to yank them away in case things go to worms. This sounds quite plausible, and the arguers in favor can pull on heartstrings with ease — but Falcon’s redundancy means things are much less likely to go wrong than they are with big-engine designs running on hydrogen; the only case in which an escape system might be useful is an explosion on the pad, and that’s enormously less likely with kerosene fuel. So why the insistence? Well, an escape system is an ideal application for solid propellant rocket motors. Sen. Hatch still has his fingers on the purse-latch, even if his grip isn’t as tight as it was.

And just to air-check this reasoning: ‘way back in the Fifties, while idling his time away in one of Stalin’s less-uncomfortable labor camps, Sergei P. Korolev did the preliminary designs for what later became the Vostok/Molnya/Soyuz series of rockets. They all have multiple motors instead of one big one; they all run on kerosene and liquid oxygen; they don’t use SRBs. Taken all together, there have been something like two thousand seven hundred flights of those rockets, with so few failures that the Russians have separate memorials for each such, and if you buy a ride to space from the Russians, either for tourism or to go man the Space Station, that’s what you’ll ride. According to the European Space Agency, the Soyuz launch vehicle is the most frequently used and most reliable launch vehicle in the world. Folks, that’s what you call a “track record”. It makes sense to build on and improve what’s been demonstrated to work, no?

And finally, Falcon-H will have a feature that delights me because I didn’t think of it: cross-feeding. When they put three Falcon-9s together to make a Falcon-H, they’ll add pumps that transfer fuel and oxygen from the outer two to the middle one. That makes the outer ones partially into fuel tanks, but with engines of their own. When taking off from the ground, a rocket needs lots of thrust to lift the weight, and in the dense lower atmosphere it needs thrust to overcome air drag. Once it’s well away from the ground and passes out of the thickest parts of the atmosphere, the need for high levels of thrust goes away; at that point it becomes a matter of fuel remaining and how much mass it has to push, and if it needs to go faster it simply burns longer because it isn’t lifting weight off the ground or shoving air aside. So when the boosters have burned their fuel and passed some along to the center rocket, they fall away (less mass to push, less drag in the little bit of air remaining at that altitude) and the core section goes merrily on, with plenty of fuel left to satisfy the Need for Speed by burning as long as it needs to. How much fuel gets transferred to the middle “stage” will depend on the mission, where it’s going and how much weight it’s lifting, but the ability to make the tradeoff will itself make the rocket more flexible and useful.

And that’s the only real innovation. Falcon-9 has been demonstrated; it works. There is no reason to believe three of them hooked together won’t work, and the rest of it is tried-and-true technology (much of which was invented by NASA and its contractors, which is how it’s supposed to go). Booster separation goes all the way back to WWII “drop tanks”; there are always details, but the basic idea is familiar, even old-fashioned. Falcon-9 has a second stage, a smaller rocket that goes into action when the big one has finished its work; that, too, is well understood, invented by Konstantin Tsiolkovski and developed to a fine art by Korolev, von Braun, and a host of engineers since space programs started up. If cross-feeding works it’s a significant innovation, but for me (and, I’ll bet, for a lot of engineers) it’s a facepalm thing — “Now why the [expletive] didn’t I think of that?” This is not to say the engineers at SpaceX didn’t work both hard and smart — they did and have, but it’s a matter of getting their version right (which is hard enough), not striking off into the Wild Blue Yonder.

Now all SpaceX needs is customers. NASA needs to service the Space Station, and right now the Russians are the only game on the planet; if Musk can get them to buy some Falcon-9 flights to deliver consumables he’ll have money to go on, in addition to what he can get from private customers (TV satellites, etc.), the Air Force, and the spooks at NSA’s National Reconnaissance Office. If the escape system can be built and tested, allowing Falcon-H to lift people, SpaceX can compete with the Russians for crew delivery and space tourism, too. Just don’t be too terribly surprised if Falcon-H sports a pair of solid boosters (in addition to everything else) some time in the future. It needs them like a competition motorcycle needs training wheels, but the Government is still the customer with the most money — and if it must have something on it that’s made in Promontory, Utah, I’m sure Musk and the other clever folk at SpaceX will be able to find a way.

Postscript: Simberg has a series of reports on the recent Space Access Conference. On one of the panels, Clark Lindsey talks about history:

By Apollo 17, things had gotten frozen in space, including attitudes (space is expensive and always will be, and only government can do it)…. Institutions were frozen as well — had gotten locked into Big Project mode by Apollo.

I think I’m entitled to preen a little. Modestly and decorously, of course.

So you’re not good with tools, eh?

Oh, not everybody, of course, and if I’m misjudging you, feel free to go elsewhere. But I get it a lot from intelligent people — “Oh, I’m just not handy. When I try to do things it just turns into a botch.” Their screws end up with the heads stripped out, their nails get bent and go in crooked, and their saw cuts meander all over the place (should they be brave enough to try using a saw in the first place).

But I’d be willing to bet that the problem isn’t that you’re bad with tools. It’s that you don’t have any tools.

Yesterday I had occasion to use a “tap”, which in this context means a device for making screw threads in a hole, so I borrowed one from my boss, who used to run a big machine shop and has a lot of the leftovers. Here it is, along with the handle it’s used with:

3/8-24 UNF Taper Tap and Tap Handle

3/8-24 UNF Taper Tap and Tap Handle

That’s it, at the bottom. The thing at the top is the interchangeable handle; the square part of the tap goes into the chuck, so you can turn it. To use the tap, put the tapered part into the hole (which has to be pretty exactly the right size) and turn as if you were screwing it in. When the straight part starts coming out the back, the hole’s tapped properly.

Now look closely at it. The first thing you should notice is that it’s shiny, but not glittery chrome-plate shiny — it gleams rather than sparkling. That’s because it’s made of good metal and polished, not plated. What you can’t see is that even the thread-cutting part is equally polished, as is the tapered entry section. Polished metal slides smoothly, and when it cuts it leaves an almost equally polished surface. As a result, the only effort required to use it is the actual effort of cutting metal — there isn’t any drag or friction. Using it is easy.

I could have bought one at the hardware store, of course. It would have cost about $30, and I would have been awfully tempted by the one beside it that was only $12. That one, too, would be shiny, but it would be plating, not polish; the cutting part wouldn’t be polished, so it would be a lot harder to use and the threads it made wouldn’t be as smooth and accurate. If I didn’t know Jerry that’s the way I would have had to go, and it wouldn’t have bothered me a lot because I’ve done a lot of thread-tapping in the past, and I know how to compensate for the deficiencies of the tool. If you don’t have that practice, if you tried to use the cheap one you wouldn’t do a good job — you might even break it off in the hole, which is a huge problem.

And that’s the problem you have with tools. When you need one, you look at the rack and think, “Well, I don’t do this very often, so I don’t need to invest a lot of cash. I’ll just get the cheap one.” That’s exactly backwards. A skilled craftsman can make do with cheap tools when it’s necessary, but an unskilled or unpracticed person, one who doesn’t use tools often, should always get the best ones available. Tools wear out, too, and become damaged in use. A skilled craftsman can compensate for that, and in some cases can fix them. As a person new to the work you should throw worn or damaged tools away, no matter how much of a pain in the wallet it might be.

One of the biggest things is screwdrivers. You’ve got a screwdriver, right? — tucked away in a utility drawer or somewhere out in the garage. Go fetch it (I’ll wait… ) Now look at the point.

If it’s one designed for slotted screws, is the blade, the very extreme end of it, flat and straight and the same thickness all across? Are the edges of that part sharp and well-defined? Well, no. The end is sort of narrow and round… what you have there isn’t a screwdriver. It’s a dull poniard, suitable for plunging into somebody’s back — or into your hand when the thing slips, as it will. Furthermore, you probably had no idea that the concept of “fit” applies to screwdrivers, but it does. The blade should be thin enough to just go in the slot of the screw, with little if any slop or rattling around, and it should be wide enough to go at least two-thirds of the way across the screw, preferably all the way. That’s why the heads of the screws always turn out scarred and distorted, and the screwdriver keeps slipping off and marring the rest of the work, if it doesn’t actually plunge into the base of the thumb you’re using to hold the piece. The screwdriver doesn’t fit the screw, and in any case it’s round-pointed instead of sharp. It doesn’t help that the screws you’re trying to turn came with the thing you’re trying to assemble, and are therefore cheap, which means they’re made of soft metal that distorts easily even with a good screwdriver. You haven’t a chance with the thing in your hand.

If your screwdriver is for cross-slotted screws, it’s almost certainly a “Phillips patent” tool. Phillips screwdrivers come in sizes, and there’s a reason for that. Screws are also made in sizes, and using the wrong driver sometimes works but usually doesn’t. Sizes go from 000, triple zero, all the way up to #7; the ones you’re likely to encounter are #2 (most common) and #1 (for small stuff). Try to drive a #2 screw with a #1 driver, and it rattles around and you can’t get much force on it; put a #2 into a #1 screw, and the point barely catches, so when you try to twist it just breaks the corners of the slots off. Every household should have good-quality #1 and #2 Phillips screwdrivers, and know the difference, because with the right screwdriver the job is relatively easy, and with the wrong one it’s ‘way hard and may not be possible.

Like with the slotted-screw driver, the very ends of the point should be flat and straight and have sharp edges. Your cheap screwdriver is probably smooth on the edges, which makes it almost certain that if you try to put much force on a screw it will slip out and do damage. In both cases, “straight-slot” and Phillips, the point should gleam like polished metal, not sparkle with plating. Manufacturers know you see “shiny” as a desirable attribute, so they do as much as they can to make the cheap stuff glitter, but the plating is soft and slippery, and makes the problem worse, not better.

Throw the cheap Phillips screwdrivers away; if you want to stab somebody, your kitchen knife drawer has much better tools. Relegate the straight-slot screwdrivers to opening paint cans, prying things too small for a real crowbar, and chipping crud out of grooves. Go to the hardware store, go down to the expensive end of the display, and select:

One 1/4″ straight-slot driver;
One 3/8″ straight-slot driver;
One #2 Phillips screwdriver; and
One #1 Phillips screwdriver.

As you pick them out, remember the above: the business ends should be straight and polished (but not plated) and have sharp edges. That assembly will set you back around $30 – $40, which seems like a lot for something you hardly ever use, doesn’t it? Don’t flinch or waver, though, because that’s the point. Someone who uses tools every day can compensate for bad or worn tools. If you don’t have that experience you don’t know how to compensate, which means you need the best tools you can get. And who knows? — once you discover that you can, in fact, do simple jobs if you have the right tools available, you might decide to tackle more complicated stuff and discover, in the process, that you really are fairly “handy”. You might even be inspired to go hunting for a decent pair of pliers!

The New York City Health Department must obey fairly stringent rules in their new building. It’s healthy for them. (via memeorandum) “[H]ow not to have any fun, not even one bit, in the office”, The Village Voice snarks. The Weasel Zippers congratulate Ms. Obama. Doug Powers at Michelle’s observes that what goes around, comes around. Ed Driscoll at Pajamas notes that the Mayor’s staff is, umm, less restricted, and the Jawa Report proposes a blood test for illicit use of frying oil.

I’m with Doug, and think it should be a general principle: employees, including senior officials, at regulatory agencies should be subjected to the most extreme form possible of the edicts and ukases they enforce so enthusiastically. For instance, no EPA building, employee, or official should be permitted the use of solvents or heavy metals in any form, or engage in or benefit from any activity that emits carbon dioxide (we can except breathing, if they can fill out the application forms before they pass out).

The rule could be extended to “environmental protesters” and the like, not to mention advocates of higher taxation. You first, motherf*ers.





Prof. Za’arshi (zi of the explanation of the Blackbird Incident) is amused and alarmed that we have discovered the remnant radioactivity on Mars. Fortunately for zi’s peace of mind Mars was never anything but a remote base with a few installations concentrated in a few places, so we’re unlikely to find much even if we investigate the craters. Mind you, if anybody was outside the base when it was plastered with nukes, there are probably a goodly number of (ahem!) interesting artifacts scattered over the Martian surface, but we’re unlikely to find them with battery-powered, remote-controlled rovers.

Briefly: Sixty-five million years ago there was an interstellar war. Just who the other participants were isn’t clear, but the intelligent race of the Professor’s planet was one of the belligerents — and was utterly wiped out, to the point of extinction of practically all land-based life, which is why zi and his fellow sophonts look like octopi. They evolved from ocean-dwelling molluscoids who were among the few survivors of the war higher than an amoeba, and have as little in common with their predecessors as we do with the dinosaurs.

Earth was involved as collateral damage. The war involved both nuclear weapons and asteroid bombardment, but the weapon of choice is The Bomb because it can be delivered quickly by ship, as the Enemy outpost on Mars discovered. Hitting things with rocks is a fine way to destroy them, but it’s a slow process leaving plenty of time for anti-asteroid measures, including diversion. If the Chicxulub object had been allowed to hit Mars it would look very different today. Nobody ever intended that it hit the Yucatan, but when you’re in a hurry and trying to defend yourself otherwise-undesirable things become likely. Think of it as a stray round in a firefight.

Current scholarship suggests that Earth-human life evolved from the genetic material of the Enemy, none of whom actually survived but whose blown-up remnants drifted to the surface and began the long, slow process of rising from the muck. Arguments from genetics are of no account. All of us in this volume of space have the same biochemistry, and (within broad limits) the same genetic base. Why that should be is still a mystery, but it’s at least suggestive that the Professor’s home planet had a Cambrian Explosion that exactly coincides with ours, plus or minus a million years or so.

The Professor’s race doesn’t consider humans the Enemy, but having observed the devastation of land-dwelling life on their own planet they’re inclined to be cautious. “Warlike” and “violent” don’t come into it — if anything, their history is nastier than ours in that respect. (One of the reasons they began exploiting the land and building spaceships is that nuclear explosions in the ocean leave unpleasant effects that tend to linger.) However, if humans are descended (however distantly) from the Enemy, it’s best to take precautions, so they’re careful to avoid discovery and/or contact as they study us. All that business with Cthulu was a matter of renegades evading the regulations, long since settled by executing or jailing the perps. We have nothing to fear…


Stacy and Joy are still at it, reinforced by Cynthia, Darleen, Gerard, and a host of others. I haven’t kept up closely with the hoo-raw, largely because I was saddened at the beginning by clear evidence that the Alinsky method of “debate” has taken over, even on supposedly “rightist” or “conservative” arguments.[1] Lost in the verbiage is what I take to be Stacy’s original point.

Let’s take an analogy, as a way of backing off a bit: We on the Right are fond of pointing out to Leftoids that the founders of Progressivism, particularly Margaret Sanger, were vicious racists, eugenicists, and advocates of State power, so much so that when Adolf wanted to establish a regime along those lines he adopted their philosophy wholesale. This, we say, taints the whole Progressive movement; any self-declared Progressive cause should at minimum be examined closely for Sangerite influence before being publicly proposed, let alone adopted.

In exactly the same way, modern feminism was founded and defined by some of the most rabid Socialists and Communists to be found anywhere. If a conservative or Rightist wants to adopt “feminist” as a label, she must at minimum check the details of her proposals against the doctrines of the Marxist International. Failure to do so, and to modify the proposals, results in advocating Progressivism whether or not that is what was intended.

Joy and others wish to adopt the “feminist” label in part as a political ploy. Women overwhelmingly vote for those who advocate women’s rights, and in large part that rôle is taken by those who declare themselves feminist. A person who wants to advocate women’s rights from a conservative perspective therefore wishes to attach the “feminist” label to herself, to attract those voters. It is, to my mind, a policy doomed to failure for many reasons, but it’s definitely a game worth the candle if it can be made to work, even partially. Trouble is, separating the “women’s rights” components from the general psuedo-Marxist garbage is a process more nearly resembling isotopic separation than mere sorting, and to date I haven’t seen anything like a systematic approach to the effort.

The big thing to watch out for is egalism, the assumption of interchangeability. An egalitarian society would allow anyone to try out for the part, but apply the same rules to all who make the attempt. At the moment, the very Planck interval, at which you start thinking of and defining the trivial tweaks, minor modifications, and insignificant accommodations necessary to insure “fair competition”, you have abandoned egalitarianism entirely and shifted over to seeking political advantage in support of an egalist ideal. If modifications are necessary and possible, they should and will be made by those who gained admittance and demonstrated performance under the original criteria. Some changes may not be possible without damaging or destroying the functionality of the group, and if those are made by decree from outside they will inevitably fail to take into account conditions not immediately apparent (or whose existence is denied). That cannot fail to be destructive.

I don’t participate in rodeo, being too lily-livered, but I enjoy watching it, especially bronco-riding. The rules are trivially, even brutally, simple: get on the horse while it’s trapped and unable to object; when it is freed, stay on its back for eight seconds. If you can do that, you can then proceed to technique that gains points, most of which is things designed to irritate the animal even further and therefore make staying on more problematic.

There are no female bronc riders at the professional level. This is not because of some cynical, Patriarchal scheme to exclude Teh Womyn — a woman who could succeed in the sport would be (if nothing else) an enormous draw for crowds seeking novelty, and the organizers and promoters would fall all over themselves to get her out there and publicized; if she was reasonably pretty (for which read, did not cause dogs to howl at twenty paces) she could essentially write her own ticket. There have, in fact, been a few attempts along those lines, but all of them foundered on one point: the promoters don’t decide, the horse does, and the horse doesn’t give a damn for politics, promotion, or egalistic ideals. A person who can stay on for eight seconds, at least sometimes, is a bronc rider; a person who cannot isn’t; genital polarity is irrelevant, but ends up important as a byproduct of the conditions.

So, modify the sport, right? Surely the animals can be trained… well, of course they can, and are. The rodeo business long ago ran out of native talent; bucking horses are trained, and the training regime is just as intensive as that for a well-mannered riding horse (though more dangerous for the trainer). Some of the trainers and many of their assistants are women, who ride the horses as they are being trained to dislodge their riders and take their falls like anybody else. If women were to compete in the arena, we have a ready-made population of females who know the technical ins and outs as well as any man does. It still doesn’t happen — because the horse decides. Stay on him for eight seconds, and you’re a bronc rider; stay on him for eight seconds while continually pissing him off to the extent possible, and you’re a winning bronc rider; the judges issue the grade, but the horse makes the decision.

Change the training? Already been done. It’s called dressage — demonstrating skill at horse-riding and training by doing all manner of improbable tricks. Women compete, and win, in dressage on a regular basis, almost to the point of taking over the sport. But it ain’t bronc riding, and it ain’t rodeo. Changing the rules didn’t change the sport or the conditions of entry and success; it generated a new sport, leaving the terms and conditions of the original intact.

If you’re a conservative who wishes to adopt the “feminist” label, watch out for analogies to the bucking bronco. There are activities which are exclusively or predominately male for sound physiological and psychological reasons, and if you demand that women be accommodated in them — and especially if you advocate changes to the activity to accommodate female participation — you belong on the Progressive Left with Sonntag and Friedan, regardless of whatever else comes out of your mouth or off your keyboard.

[1] I am anyway suspicious of “debate”[2], which depends on cherrypicking, hair-splitting, and verbal gymnastics to “win”; adding personal attacks, continual changes of subject, and “drilling down” to overcome minor points by force majeure and pretending that settles something just adds to my contempt.

[2] Possibly because I’m not quick-witted enough to do well at it.

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When I Posted

April 2011