Sunday, May 31, 2015

So what's the Moon? Chopped liver?

I've been meaning to comment on this for a few days now, but other stuff keeps coming up. For that matter, this came up in front of other stuff that I've also been meaning to comment on it. C'est la vie.

Neil deGrasse Tyson
public domain. via Wikipedia
OK, so here's the story: The Space Reporter and just about everybody else has reported a 'plan' by Neil deGrasse Tyson to revitalize space. Just get the Chinese to leak plans of a Mars mission. "The US would just freak out, we'd all just build spacecraft and be there in ten months," he's quoted as saying.

"Neil deGrasse Tyson Advocates 'Militarized' Space Race to Mars" ran the headline.

What a lot of outlets that ran with this story failed to notice is that he was joking. It's tongue-in-cheek. He's communicating a desire, not a plan.

Yes, he would like to see the excitement and the focus and the urgency and the drive and the budget of the Apollo years.

No, he's not really advocating a militarized space race with the Chinese. At least I hope he's not.

This is one of the problems with being the Celebrity Brain. People take everything you say at face value. If Tyson advocated going half-shod and hopping on one foot to save shoe leather, you can pretty much bet that half the geeks in America (at the very least) would be making like Dufflepuds as they bounded to work the next morning.

--==ooOoo==--

The thing about the "space race to Mars" is that, as a way of expressing his desire for that climate of innovation goes, it's highly descriptive. But as an idea, it sucks the cosmic egg.

I'll refer you to some recent thoughts I've had on the subject of those glorified Apollo years, here and here. Basically, I've come to think that the Apollo strategy did at least as much harm as good. The Apollo project got us to the Moon. It was bold and adventurous. But it also sapped our budget and had us doing things that didn't make a whole lot of sense. And then we never went back. And we're all set to do the same silly exercise on another planet.

Everybody's chanting "Mars! Mars! Mars!" while ignoring the uninhabited bright orb next to us, which still can have great utility. You have to remember that though the surface of Mars isn't a complete vacuum, its atmospheric pressure averages around 0.6 kilopascals (0.087 psi). For comparison, the pressure at the summit of Mount Everest is 33.7 kilopascals (4.89 psi) and you'll die there. Mars' atmosphere weak enough that for habitation purposes you need to treat it much like a vacuum. Yes, it's different in that there is that thin atmosphere that will have to be accounted for, but we're still going to have to bring, make, and recycle our own air and food. Waste will have to become an obsolete concept.

And look, we happen to have this practical laboratory right in our back yard! The Moon is only three days away, near enough for a rescue, if push came to shove. Certainly near enough for near real-time conversations. It's subject to hard radiation bombardment, not unlike Mars. It provides a nearby platform for testing of long-term habitats. It has its own benefits, which may include mining, if we can get people away from the quaint notion that it's pristine, hallowed ground that Must Never Be Touched. It's an obvious, obvious, obvious waypoint.

But nope. When NASA unveiled their bold new plan for the future, their view of the Moon was "been there, done that"; with the lunar orbit being the goal of an asteroid capture mission, but no planned landings. No, seriously. When the plan was unveiled in 2010, President Obama made the lack of vision painfully public: "I just have to say pretty bluntly here, we've been there before," he said. [1]

As late as April 8th of this year... last month... the public plan was to attempt no landing there.


Meanwhile former NASA flight director George W.S. Abbey had been pointing out the same intuitively obvious things I just did. Whether Abbey changed their mind or they came to the realization independently, NASA's current vision includes extended visits to the lunar surface, but no permanent habitation. And it's the permanent habitation that they need to test before embarking on a trip to the Red Planet. Honestly, I'm sure NASA has known all along that they'd have to return to the Moon. But politicians set the goals and the budgets, and the best the engineers can do is quietly keep pressure on with internal studies and reports that reiterate the necessity of this step.

This fickle dependency is one of the reasons we really need to lose NASA in its present form. NASA is populated by "Leif Eriksons". They may have 'discovered Vinland', but they didn't go back and made no use of the discovery. We didn't need that for the Moon, and we don't need it for Mars. We cannot visit Mars with an attitude of "been there, done that" regarding the Moon. It needs to be "are there, doing that, daily".  It needs to be old hat. Routine. And for that to be viable the reasons need to be economic, not political.

Here's a dramatization of NASA's basic execution of any manned mission to anything: [2]
Geek 1: Yay! We went there! Isn't that cool?
Geek 2: Yeah, that sure was cool. REALLY cool!
Geek 1: Yeah, that was cool.
Geek 2: Yup.
Geek 1: *sigh*
Geek 2: *sigh*
Geek 1: Wanna do it again?
Geek 2: I dunno. Maybe a couple of times. I'm kind of bored.
As Popular Science magazine reminds us, the technology for surviving on Mars is far from ready. They go on to list numerous ways to die there. There are numerous ways to die here on Earth, too. The difference is that we have even more ways to survive.

The old kind of space race... the kind that yielded Apollo... didn't deliver the goods. With all respect to Tyson, a new space race built on that same militarized model won't either. The first place to apply our creativity and fortitude is in promoting a new kind of space race, with increased privatization and a slower but vastly more sustainable expansion plan; one based on results rather than timetables; logic rather than emotion; economics rather than politics.

--==ooOoo==--

In the meantime, as we wait for NASA and the world to get their shit together, click on over and download a free copy of Virtual Moon Atlas so you can scope out some prime real estate for your future summer cottage:






[1] I've only witnessed such a complete lack of intellectual attachment once before. While consulting for a multinational, I was tasked to design a Business Rules Engine. Realizing that it's far easier and cheaper to adapt proven technology than create it from scratch, I engaged a company who created a rules engine used by several autonomous deep-space probes. It was clearly flexible enough to do the work we were asking of it. Our only chore would be to create an interface that would take rules written in 'business-speak' and compile them in to a format usable by the engine. Piece-of-cake. The vendor's presentation highlighted their systems flexibility, and the fact that it was flexible enough to make a spacecraft capable of reacting to its own environment. The response of our CIO (recently a CFO) was to listen with disinterest and respond, "But we don't make rockets." I then designed an engine from scratch. Honestly, it cost more and did less.

[2] This, of course, is not entirely NASA's fault. Their current vision and mission statements really have little to do with the concepts of human travel and colonization. they are about the advancement of science, and frankly, right up until the unveiling of this poorly-conceived manned Mars mission, NASA could do almost everything they're tasked to do without ever putting a human ass in a rocket. Contrary to the old tasteless post-Challenger joke, NASA doesn't 'need another seven astronauts'. By the same token, when we're talking specifically about the exploitation of space as opposed to fact-finding exploration, we shouldn't rely on NASA. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Sexual Selection and the Reason We Have Men

Seen on my Reuters news feed:


I started out wondering why this is being reported as a revelation. Then having read it, I'm aghast at the reporting, which I find to be simultaneously sensationalist and naive. We begin with this:
Since in many species, sperm is males' only contribution to reproduction, biologists have long puzzled about why evolutionary selection, known for its ruthless efficiency, allows them to exist. 
Now British scientists have an explanation: 
Well, actually everybody else has had an explanation for years, and every else's explanation is pretty much the same as what's being reported here, so this unfortunate phrase just makes "British scientists" look like they're late to the party. And that's sad, because they're not.

First of all, this wasn't a study about why men exist. It was a study to determine whether sexual selection provided fitter offspring than random pairings. In plain language, if all the ladies and gents get their pick of mates, does the population fare better than if they have no choice?  Common wisdom says it does.

The team conducted a 10-year-long experiment that would either support or disprove some of the many explanations that exist. This isn't an ah-ha! moment. This isn't a momentous discovery. They were doing the long and tedious work of real scientists. Of course, this doesn't look revelatory, so the reporting "fixes" that and makes them look more silly than diligent. And diligent they were. This is a tour-de-force of number-crunching as the team performed detailed inspection of generation after generation of beetle. Their aim was to provide empirical observations. It's one thing to say "it makes sense that this is what happens". It's another thing entirely to watch it happen.

If you'd like to read it, here's the paper as published in Nature: [HTML].
And here's the full report, including a description of the experimental methods: [PDF]

It would have been nice if Reuters had written an article that was directly related to the study on which they're reporting. Somehow they jumped from "sexual selection" to "why do men exist?"

The use of the word "scientists" brilliantly illustrates the problem I decried in my last post. It's generic and says absolutely nothing about the researchers. Nowhere are the team's credentials related. We are six paragraphs into the story before we learn that it was conducted by professor Matt Gage, I had to look him up myself, which makes this pretty crap-tastic reporting. Gage is a professor of evolutionary ecology at the School of Biological Sciences at East Anglia University. It shouldn't be that difficult to give the man some credit if you're going to quote him.

I looked around to see if other news outlets used the same generic "scientist" label. They do. Even The Washington Post headline editor played the same tune in a story that is far more detailed than Reuters'. I'm happy to say that the WP reporter had a solid handle on the subject, and provided a link to the paper in Nature. Please read the WP article, as it has a number of quotes from Gage that might enlighten what I'm about to write.


Let's have sex

Now, the EAU study was concerned with the benefits of sexual reproduction in a purely mechanical way: what effect do these (re)combinations have on the genome? That's one aspect of sexual reproduction, but not the only one; and not everything can be adequately described in terms of numbers, and some of the propositions offered seem a little shaky to me. The study is good... empirical studies are "just the facts, ma'am"; it's the assumptions that make me skeptical.

For instance, a great many quotes are expended concerning the "wastefulness" of sexual reproduction. I don't find that to be a terribly profound observation. For instance, the WP reports:
"Almost all multicellular species on earth reproduce using sex, but its existence isn't easy to explain because sex carries big burdens, the most obvious of which is that only half of your offspring -- daughters -- will actually produce offspring," lead author and UEA professor Matt Gage said in a statement. "Why should any species waste all that effort on sons? We wanted to understand how Darwinian selection can allow this widespread and seemingly wasteful reproductive system to persist, when a system where all individuals produce offspring without sex -- as in all-female asexual populations -- would be a far more effective route to reproduce greater numbers of offspring."
That thing Gage said right there... that's not what the study tested. The study's about sexual selection, and that presupposes the existence of sex. It doesn't really say anything about why we have sex; at best, it tells us why we shouldn't have forced marriages.

But why we have sex, and more specifically, why we have sexes... that's admittedly more entertaining. So let's put the study aside and talk about that instead. And as I'm not pulling down any grants, we might as well idly speculate while we're at it.


Sex is more diverse than you think

Hermaphrodites impregnating each
other. Nobody's on top.
I'm not exactly sure why Gage excluded hermaphrodites from his thinking. Hermaphrodites are neither female nor male. Or they're both, depending on your point of view. They do have sex, and therefore genetic diversity, but both partners can have children. They even get the perks of sexual selection. If we really want to question why men exist, hermaphrodites present a stronger argument than asexual populations because it eliminates a variable. The question becomes "why have males when you can have all the benefits of sexual reproduction without them?" 

The weak anthropic principle leads me to challenge the very assumption that sons are wasteful. We observe that most animals have two sexes; therefore having two sexes must be advantageous. The question is how.

All life started out by reproducing asexually. Around 3.6 billion years ago there was no sex, and that was the state of things until about 1.2 billion years ago. But once sexual reproduction appeared, it quickly dominated. In only the last billion years, life on Earth has gone from single-cellular lifeforms to all of the diversity that has ever lived, gone extinct, or given rise to new forms. Asexual reproduction lost a two-and-a-half billion year head start. While it's still common, it's only so among plants and the simplest forms of animal and single-celled life. What appears to be "waste" must in actuality be an investment.

That's not dust; those are spores.
You don't get more prolific than that.
via Wikimedia Commons
Investments that look wasteful are commonplace in nature. No matter how wasteful it appears, it has paid off if it produces one more generation. Billions of spores can be released from one (asexual) fungus. Likewise, some animals can produce many more offspring than could ever be expected to survive, most of which are simply eaten. Plants do the same, casting seeds upon the wind, many of which will be eaten or fall on infertile ground [1]. These organisms don't look at it as an investment, of course. That's anthropomorphic thinking. But the organisms that weren't prolific... that weren't wasteful... are now extinct, as they didn't produce enough offspring that survived until reproductive age for their species to continue.

But being prolific is only one strategy for survival. We find many more. You'd be hard-pressed to think of one that hasn't been attempted by some organism somewhere on Earth [2].

Rather than being prolific, some organisms have few offspring, but zealously protect them to adulthood. This is the norm among the most complex species. I think it's worth pointing out that the 50% "sex tax" only applies to those organisms that don't engage in parenting; and that these are the same organisms that tend to be highly prolific. Numbers ain't everything.

When parenting is added to the mix, the "sex tax" disappears, as the parents can not only protect the young, but through behavioral roles they can do so while still providing food and security for themselves. The lower birth rate is offset by a higher survival rate. This is independent of the genetic advantages found by Gage and his team. The concepts of family and community are important factors, be they applied to a den of foxes or a human family.

But you don't really need men for any of that.


It's raining men

The first sexual organisms were hermaphroditic, but as with sex itself, once the male/female paradigm was reached, it quickly dominated the animal kingdom. The more complex an organism, the more likely it is to have differentiated sexes.

Gage describes males as pretty much useless after they've donated sperm, but keep in mind that this applies only to those cases where the males disappear after impregnating the female. In those cases, genetic diversity alone is the payoff. So why isn't hermaphroditic sexual reproduction the norm? Like everything else, sexual roles and physical dimorphism aren't completely accidental. They're shaped by environmental pressure and the need to produce and raise offspring. So there must be some advantage to having some segment of the population that doesn't have children.

We can guess. Setting aside the advantages of "sex", we're looking for the advantages of having "sexes". And it doesn't really have to make sense; it just has to work well enough to survive natural selection.

Fuck bacon.
In males you have a class of organism that can not only breed with multiple partners at the same time, but which never itself becomes pregnant, so that those not engaged in breeding are always free to forage and defend the breeders. While the females have the children and most often are the ones who nurture and care for them; males, in general, tend to be more aggressive and adventurous [3]. They tend to engage in dangerous activities that have high potential payoff.  They "bring home the bacon". Again, I challenge the assumption that producing males is "wasteful". Rather, they enable a population to engage in survival strategies that have high individual risk in such a way that they present a very low communal risk. But the individual risk yields high communal benefit.

Does that sound stereotypical and sexist? Well duh... we're talking about biology, not politics. Sexual roles aren't something to run from: they're natural.

via Wikimedia Commons
Honeybees, for instance, have found such utility in a non-breeding population of risk-takers that they have evolved a third sex (or caste) to do specifically that. Worker bees are female in name only. They are infertile, neither providing eggs nor sperm. Within the caste they specialize by age. Young ones build and maintain a hive, but as they age, they begin to forage. Beyond 21 days of age that's all they do. Meanwhile the queens have sex and babies and the drones do nothing but look for sex.

Wired magazine describes sex as the "driving force of evolution". Meh. Sex is a product of evolution. Sex is evolution eating its own tail. Sex provides the raw material of evolution faster by recombining DNA, but we'd get raw material from mutations anyway.

Evolution isn't driven by mere reproduction; it's driven by survival.

If Gage is accurately phrasing the question he's researching (the why and how of it), I think the answer is obvious. "Why should any species waste all that effort on sons?" Because sons are useful in helping the members of a species survive to reproductive age. The utility of men doesn't stop at ejaculation. Higher organisms prefer diverse sexes because sons become fathers, not sperm donors.

This diversification of the sexes led to families and communities: prides of lions, pods of whales, packs of dogs, herds of cattle, flocks of geese, villages of humans.

Like every evolutionary advance, the fact of males is an accident. But organisms that have discovered the utility of males preferentially select for it. Presumably, if that utility didn't exist, then it would not be selected.

more hermaphrodites
So how do we test this? I'd say to start by looking at species that have little to no real opportunity to adopt behavioral roles. And when we look at flowering plants, which are sedentary, we do indeed see that though they are sexual, they are overwhelmingly hermaphroditic. Most flowers contain both male and female parts; some, like the holly, have male and female sexes, but they are in a distinct minority. When behavior is removed from the mix, hermaphrodites win.

So far, it looks plausible. What do you think?



[1] Trees do the same with their sperm, casting billions of grains of pollen into the wind in a valiant attempt at impregnating as many cars as possible.

[2] Other sexual strategies:
  • In some species males are literally parasitic. They don't have a real existence beyond being a sperm delivery system. Anglerfish males attach to the females so completely that they share a circulatory system. For all practical purposes, they become one organism.
  • In addition to true hermaphrodites like earthworms, there are animals that can change their sex. A number of fish, such as wrasses, can do this.
  • Actually, any living thing that swaps DNA and recombines it to make children, no matter the method, is engaging in sex.
[3] Yes, I know all about seahorses. They're an exception.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

IFU Science

Note: This essay is entirely opinion. There's nothing scientific about it. I'm going to ramble a bit. AND I'm going to use bad words. F-words. Lots and lots of F-words. And it will probably change as I think about it some more



Today's label isn't for anyone in
particular. It's for all the researchers
who authored all of the studies with
all of the bogus results as reported
in The Lancet.
Getting Slashdotted today is the following question: Can Bad Scientific Practice Be Fixed?

Let's start off answering this directly: Duh. Of course it can.

Bad practices can always be corrected. The key to doing that is examining and teaching good practices. Of course, what we'd like to do instead is ask how the bad practices came about in the first place. To do that, we need to know what the problem is; and that's that as many as half of the 'scientific' studies out there are simply wrong. The British Journal The Lancet posits that 'something has gone fundamentally wrong with science' [PDF].

This is, to put it bluntly, bullshit.
(Before I move on let me point out that The Lancet is a medical journal, and the observations made in the linked paper presumably refer to the practices of medical researchers. However, I'm looking at it in a broader context, as I've noticed some trends that have made me uncomfortable for a while now. In fact, several previously drafted topics found their way into the essay you're now reading.)
What has happened is that something is fundamentally wrong with the scientists that we churn out. Scientific practices aren't wrong; rather, they're not followed. The Lancet points out that the scientists are not 'incentivised' to be right; as if a scientist should need incentive to strive to be right. Instead, it appears, these people we call 'scientists' are being paid to produce sensationalist popular fiction.

And there's the key word: 'popular'.  Not as in 'widely accepted'. No... more like 'entertaining' and 'socially relevant'. Well, any true sociologist will tell you that sociology has very little to do with hard science. Popularization has nothing to do with valid results. But we're caught up in a "science bubble" where innovation is aggrandized and overvalued, not terribly unlike any other "bubble" that eventually leads to hardship and correction.

The Cult of Science

To me, this is well illustrated by the phrase "I Fucking Love Science".

I really don't want to trash on the website IFLScience.com, because it's their mission to report on the latest in science. To some degree they play the hand they're dealt. But the way they and others do it... at least part of the time... is part of the problem.

via Wikimedia Commons
Let me give you an example. I picked this story off their home page today because I've spent a lot of time armchair-researching pyramids, so it interested me. Amazing Drone Footage Of Sudan's Mysterious & Forgotten Pyramids. The first thing you should notice is that this isn't really about the pyramids. That's something that National Geographic will talk about at a later date. No, it's about flying RC helicopters with cameras on them. They're called 'drones' now out of a desire for coolness, but people who are older than 12 should know that they are simply radio controlled helicopters. And that's the story... that 'drones' are being used to take pictures. Now, if we're very lucky, the more serious people at National Geographic will ignore the tools and focus on what they're trying to do with them.

And yes, I noticed that there is a little smidgeon of info about the pyramids so you know where on the globe they might be found. But even this is in horrible English. Observe: "Standing tall for over 3,000 years, National Geographic has used drones to newly explore the tops of these little-known pyramids..."  Sorry, but National Geographic has not been standing tall for over 3,000 years. And yes, I'm going to be a grammar nazi at the moment, because grammatical errors (and I've made some whoppers) are more easily forgiven if there's some message beyond "l have a really cool camera".

Actually, that's part of my point. If something is recorded with a drone, the story is automatically about the drone. It's not just a problem in science, either. Engineering suffers from the same failing. For instance, if something is made with a 3D printer, no matter how trivial it would have been to simply sculpt it, then the story is about the 3D printed widget, emphasis on the 3D printing. 3D printing has become a magic phrase. This has come to such a head that NASA has announced a competition to award a prize for the best 3D printed lunar habitat. Now, if it were me, I'd want the best, most innovative habitat. Full stop. This would allow teams to get truly creative and come up with something that's economical, utilitarian, and opens the door to 'outside the box' thinking. Not here. NASA simply defines the box and forces the would-be competitors into it. Pretty sad. It's actually sadder when you realize how the love of a buzzword can broaden a definition into near-unrecognizability. By current standards a popcorn ceiling might be considered '3D printed', just as an RC helicopter is now a 'drone'.

3D printed lunar habitat. 3D 'printer' shown on right
illustration by Jeremy Liu via YaleScientific.org

Actually, engineering suffers from the further failing of being constantly mistaken for science. A lot of what people 'fucking love' is stuff, not science.

Mammals and Cows

People who 'do science' are scientists. Now, here's a word that carries almost zero information, so I'm increasingly wary when I see it. In various contexts with various accuracy the word 'scientist' can refer to an agronomist, an anthropologist, an archaeologist, an astronomer, a botanist, a chemist, a climatologist, a crackpot, a criminologist, a cytologist, an economist, an engineer, an epidemiologist, an ethologist, a geneticist, a geologist, a geographer, a marine biologist, a mathematician, a meteorologist, a microbiologist, a paleontologist, a physicist, a phytologist, a politician (seriously), a programmer, a psychologist, a roboticist, a 'rocket scientist', a seismologist, a sociologist, a zoologist; among many, many more.

The thing is, consulting an astronomer is pretty useless if the topic is cytology. Nevertheless, that's exactly what the media do. This is pretty much guaranteed to confuse a lay audience about the concept of 'domain'. An expert is only an expert within his domain. Pick a popular science program and you'll see the same handful of famous faces picked for name recognition rather than expertise in the subject at hand: Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, etc.. These are highly respected in their fields; but are often called upon to opine on subjects well outside of their fields. While their broad experience gives them familiarity with a number of disciplines, it's still necessary to differentiate those times when they are speaking as experts from those times when they're speaking as people who fucking love science. This is rarely done. Isn't it possible that they set the bar for that budding scientist who grows up believing that the road to superstardom and fortune is that sensational discovery that puts his name in the paper and his face in front of a camera?

To further muddy the waters, the Science Council, a UK organization, lists 10 kinds of scientist as follows:
  1. Explorer
  2. Investigator
  3. Developer/Translational
  4. Service provider/operational
  5. Monitor/regulator
  6. Entrepreneur
  7. Communicator
  8. Teacher
  9. Business/Marketing
  10. Policy maker
I think they're improperly expanding a label that only applies to the 'S' in 'STEM' with all of STEM even more egregiously than did the list I gave earlier. From the point of view of communicating the scientist's actual credentials, this is useless.

Using the generic term 'scientist' is like using the word 'mammal' when what you mean is 'cow'. It's technically correct, but it doesn't tell you a damned thing about the milk.

In popular culture we cultivate a Gilligan's Island stereotype of the 'scientist' as inaccurate as any 1950s B-movie portrayal. And this is how scientists portray scientists. Is it any wonder that the science itself has gotten sloppy?

If you ask me, we need fewer people who fucking love science, and more people who fucking understand science.

Putting it in practice

We do have, in my completely unsubstantiated opinion, throngs who just fucking love science, who don't properly employ the scientific method, and who are competing with actual scientists for funding. Since their sensationalism actually works, scientists are forced to modify their tactics to compete. As The Lancet notes, "...scientists are incentivised to be productive and innovative" as opposed to being right. The words "productive and innovative" give me pause.

It seems intuitively obvious to me that at some point in every topic our knowledge will have been optimized. At that point, every innovation can only make things worse. Furthermore, the closer we are to optimized knowledge, the fewer useful innovations remain. The upshot of this is that the more we know about something, the more a new idea about it is likely to be a bad idea. This is one of the reasons why 'revolutionary' ideas have such steep obstacles to acceptance: they have replace all of the knowledge we've already amassed.
Example: Tic-tac-toe (noughts and crosses) is a solved game. We know everything there is to know about it. On his opening move X must play the corner. Everything else is a bad idea. Furthermore, between two strong players there is never a winner. There can be no useful innovation in gameplay according to these rules. 
 Our knowledge doesn't have to be complete to be optimal. Optimal is simply "the best understanding given the facts at our disposal". That which is optimal may change, given new facts. Optimal can also mean that for all practical purposes our knowledge is complete even when it factually isn't. Thus, even though Relativity was a revolutionary revision in our understanding of Gravity, it has no practical effect on the study of ballistics, where Newtonian formulae are still applicable.

--==//oOo\\==--

Simply having a bad idea isn't unscientific. The scientific method is supposed to catch them. The problem lies in publishing results that are unsubstantiated or irreproducible. You should have been very careful in constructing your tests so as to ensure this doesn't happen. If your carefully constructed tests don't yield the results you were depending on, then shame on you. You shouldn't have been depending on specific results. By this I mean that there's no such thing as a scientific experiment that's a failure. A scientific experiment tests a hypothesis; it yields a result; that result is what it is. You take the result and look for explanatory conditions in the experiment. Finding none, you revise the hypothesis. Having a hypothesis and carefully disproving it is science.

With the scientific method, properly applied, you can't lose. You can spend an entire lifetime testing hypotheses, never proving a single one correct, and you'll have done the world a service by having disproven a thousand bad ideas. Sounds pretty useful to me. But this isn't "productive" in the usual economic sense. That's because the usual economic sense attempts to mis-apply performance indicators to Science that are more appropriate to Engineering. It's another side-effect of lumping all of STEM together.

Perhaps we shouldn't do that anymore. Science and Engineering, to me, have a relationship analogous to that of Artistry and Craftsmanship. They can be combined, but they are distinct. And it is no slight to the craftsman if you do not call him an artist. Indeed, there are plenty of artists who are terrible craftsmen. Likewise, being a scientist doesn't make you an engineer; and there's nothing wrong with being an engineer, so why call them scientists? By maintaining this distinction we can divorce ourselves of the notion that scientists must produce in the manner of engineers. And with patronage, not percentages, we can remove pressure from those whose focus should be pure research.

The Lancet asks "Would a Hippocratic Oath for science help?" and I think they're onto something. Absolutely there should be an indoctrination into an ethic. The scientific method itself is that ethic. Somehow it should be impressed upon those budding scientists until they live it and breathe it; and that has to be done in school by constant reinforcement, and in professional life by the strictest standards and consequences for failure. It's what will keep science, science.


Friday, May 22, 2015

Equality of Justice for All


In this country it has long been held that a person's beliefs are unassailable; however, he is responsible for his actions. No more. We all now know that in progressively liberal America the distinction between thought and deed is disappearing. Bad thought is punishable and good thought is rewarded.

There are serious problems with this. Once you allow that you can legislate thought, then it's a trivial matter to ignore that major mistake and instead focus on which thoughts should be regulated.  This isn't a slippery slope fallacy; it's reality. The Right already wants to mandate particular religious expressions. The Left already wants to mandate particular social expressions. The nature of their mistakes is identical; it's only the implementation that differs... and that, only slightly. Both extremes advocate legislation that is identical in nature to sharia law, while simultaneously denying that it's anything like that. This inability to see the similarities is a peculiar mental aberration, but far too common.

But let's face it: sharia law is not merely the application of religious laws of behavior, but of belief and intent. Were it just a matter of behavior, the application of one set of standards vs. another is arguable. Relativists would say that there is nothing to prefer one standard over another. In fact, fundamentalist Christians often hold up the Ten Commandments and other Old Testament law as being a justification for legislation, but such justification must be summarily discarded due to the First Amendment; otherwise there could be no logical reason for not using sharia law as well.

In practice, nobody's really a relativist. We in the West have historically preferred classically liberal laws that preserve the autonomy of individual thought. So we denounce slavery and promote religious freedom, including the freedom not to practice religion at all. Without true freedom OF religion we wind up with a kind of secular tyranny that prevents everyone from practicing equally.

You might see where that line of thought goes, as we actually have that sort of tyrannical pressure today from folks who would impose legislation that is based on a principle of "freedom from religion". These people, even when not required to participate in a religious practice, claim that they are "offended" by the sight of such practices, and pretend that their "offense" is more important than someone else's liberty. They could, in actual fact, just sit back and watch someone else practice a ritual or pray with whatever level of interest or disinterest as they prefer. This is just as a Christian might watch a Jew lighting a menorah without being inclined to convert to Judaism. But they don't. They'd rather control others and impose their own practices on others. "Secular sharia" is a disturbingly accurate label for this.

Militant Muslims want universal Islam; fundamentalist Christians want a Christian government; Activist atheists want not just a secular State, but a purely secular Commons. All of these... every single one... is unconstitutional. We can constitutionally pass no law that either establishes a religion or prohibits its exercise. Of course, there will always be those who "interpret" the Constitution differently, but this has thus far proven always to be motivated by frustration that this clear provision is pretty damned inconvenient for those who want to do the controlling. And that's exactly what it's intended to be. That's not a "flaw" of the Constitution: it's a feature.

So why this discussion of religion? Because religion is a pure matter of belief and is thus easily illustrated. But the same principle holds true for other systems of belief:

For example:

Three men -- Al, Bob, and Joe -- are separately walking the paths of Central Park. All three are attacked by muggers. All three are beaten equally severely. All three receive similar medical treatment. All three of the attackers are caught and successfully prosecuted. Bob and Joe's attackers each receive sentences of 7 years; Al's attacker receives a sentence of 25 years. 

Why the difference? Because the prosecutor points out that Al's attacker is anti-homosexual, and Al is gay. Al's attack, therefore, is prosecuted as a hate crime. Though Bob and Joe were as equally damaged as Al, in New York they will not receive equality of treatment under the law.

But wait! Joe is also gay!  The offenses against him and Al were identical and their injuries were identical. Why doesn't Joe deserve the same justice as Al? Answer: because Joe's attacker is also homosexual. Thus, not only does Joe not get equality of justice, but his attacker avoids the harsher penalty under the law. It is emotion and belief and nothing else that raised Al's attack to a first class felony.

If this sounds like unconstitutional violation of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause, that's because it is.

Until recently if you asked any lawyer what is the purpose and importance of determining motive in a case, he would tell you that it is to establish the desire of the suspect to accomplish the crime: the "mens rea". It's extremely difficult to eliminate reasonable doubt if your suspect had no demonstrable desire to commit a crime. But once you demonstrate desire, means, and opportunity sufficient to gain a conviction, the sentencing would be based on the actual criminal act. But with the advent of hate crimes, that's no longer true.

We have hate crime laws not for redress of the acts that are perpetrated, but for the thoughts that motivated those acts. If we were punishing the act, then those laws would never have been considered, much less passed. We already have laws against assault, battery, libel, slander, etc. We have always had them. They have always covered the acts in question. It has always been possible to prosecute under those laws.

Hate crimes punish thought

Again, we already know that given the opportunity to punish dissenting thought, people grab at it. This is another case. No slippery slope. Fact. Past tense. Been there, done that. And those that support and pass such laws are in the same conceptual category as those that commit the offenses! Yes, would be Thought Police, you make a place for yourself in the company of the Loony Left, the Radical Right, the fundie Christians, the militant Muslims and all the other would-be tyrants who want to control how you think. You do this because you've been taught that it's OK to control thought. You validate their practices. The only argument is over who gets to pull the strings. You do what they do and bitch about them wanting to do it.

It's terrible when someone beats you up because you're whatever it is you are: Black or Jewish or Gay or Hispanic or a woman or Irish or Polish or Native American or short or rich or poor or weak or shy or homeless or any of the other things that people can and have gotten beat up over. It's just as terrible when someone beats you up for no particular reason other than you were there. It's positively chilling when someone beats you up not because he hates you, but because he just enjoys it. I can justify no reason whatsoever to prefer one of these over the other, or to punish one more strongly than the other. 

Hate crime legislation serves no purpose but thought control, which is itself abhorrent and unconstitutional. When it comes to the law, equality should mean Justice for all, not Justice for "just us". This is why "hate crimes" are every bit as abhorrent to a classical liberal as sharia is to an atheist. They invoke images of George Orwell's 1984... which is where we get the term "thought police".

It is SO easy... so very, very easy... to live and let live. To be tolerant of the differences that exist between others and yourself. And yet you, America, can't bring yourself to do that very simple, very adult thing. You're a nation of spoiled brats who all want your own petty way and can't stand it if someone else hurts your widdle feewings by not agreeing with you. PLEASE grow up. Or at least have children who will go beyond the limited maturity of your own pathetic, pitiful arrested development.

It is a sad state of affairs when we live in a country that has abolished slavery of the body only to promote slavery of the mind. But here we are, in the good old USA in exactly that predicament.




Postscript: Shortly after writing this I was studying the Halliwell Manuscript [link], a masonic poem written circa 1390. In it, I found these two lines of verse:

"If thou wilt not thyself pray
Hinder no other man by no way"

Honestly, if we want to be thought of as "more enlightened" than the people of the Middle Ages, then in some respects we as a society are going to have to up our game. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Poe's Law

This:
This Girl Just Trolled The Entire Internet By Acting Like A Stupid Liberal [PODCAST]
-- The Libertarian Republic

Lead to this:



Lead to this:

It seems to me that Poe's Law provides a very useful method of gauging one's own sanity, as measured against the public norm. Otherwise, you could be a loon and never know it.

So if your most serious pronouncements are met with the Fry Face as people try to figure out whether you're being serious, consider that at the very least you appear to be a loon to those people around you. Adjust yourself accordingly:


Sunday, May 17, 2015

An Open Letter to Web Designers

WEB DESIGNERS:

When you pop up a giant "LOVE ME!" box on top of an article to which I've been linked, then I'm instantly and completely uninterested in whatever's under it. Time to close the browser tab.

If your article is worth liking, then I will click the LIKE link at the bottom of it. If it's not worth liking... as in, you put a giant freakin' fence in front of it... then I won't.

If you post a LOT of really good articles, then I'm very much inclined to subscribe to your feed. If you put a giant freaking fence in front of the first thing I see, I guarantee I will NEVER subscribe to you.

That's how it works. I'm pretty sure I'm not alone, either. The Internet's a big place, and nobody really has time to indulge your self-absorbed fantasy of being the sole-source-of-really-cool-shit.


Look, I get it... I really do. Your website is a business, and more "likes" means more clicks, and that means more views, and that means more revenue from advertisers. You don't use banner ads anymore because people say they don't like them, and because people Adblock the hell out of them. But you've replaced them with something a thousand times worse. Instead of displaying something ugly, you've decided to actively chase off readers by acting in equal parts desperate and pushy.

Instead of Adblock, their response will be a new blocker -- a tease blocker -- which will warn them of sites that do exactly what yours does. I can say with confidence that you will lose this escalation of arms.

Perhaps you should look at the examples of people who don't piss off their audience. Randy Cassingham is a pioneer in the commercialization of the Internet with his newsletter, This is True. Every issue of This is True is delivered with an ad, not separately linked or embedded, but within the body of the text. It's boxed in its own paragraph, and the box is labeled "Advertisement". I read those.

Going back further to TV and radio, shows like Burns and Allen found ways of earnestly thanking their sponsors, and working a small testimonial into the body of their show. People didn't mind because back then, audiences were composed of adults who knew that what they were watching on the stage was a play, and not reality. Here's a playlist of 99 Burn and Allen episodes. At the 14 minute mark in episode 1 you'll see what I mean. That's the setup. Four minutes later you get the payoff for that joke.


Your audience don't mind a bit when you acknowledge sponsors in your content. And we love it when you post genuinely interesting things that people will want to re-post and link. We will work to bring you traffic willingly if you're worth it. But this in-your-face nonsense just tells us you're not.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The X Commandments


Here's a graphic I saw today reposted from Political Insider's Facebook page.

What we're talking about.
This is one way they're commonly represented.
(reproduced under Fair Use for the purpose of education and political commentary)

This hits my commentary button because it opens up a lot of room for discussion... probably more room than Political Insider intended. And certainly, with conclusions that they probably don't intend.

My first response is, of course; which ten? Those who have read through the books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, aka the Pentateuch or Torah) know that if you count up the commandments in those books you get a number more like 613. There's also a bit of disagreement on how to number the particular ten that are paraphrased in the graphic, or whether it's even ten. Might be eleven. Here's another common way of splitting them up, quoted in more detail:

Here's one way of splitting them up. Click to embiggen.
via Wikimedia Commons

So what's the Fifth Commandment? Is it "Thou Shalt Not Kill"? Or is it "Honor Thy Father and Mother"? It doesn't really matter; Exodus doesn't number them, and both are sound advice.

My second response is to go back to that number 613. Six hundred and thirteen. That's a lot of commandments. It raises the obvious question of what's different about these ten that inspires drum-thumping among Christians, many of whom are only casually acquainted with their own religion. Why these ten? Why not ten others? Why are these sacrosanct while the prohibition against pork is calmly and quietly forgotten? If one insists that these must be kept, isn't it hypocritical to ignore all of the others that appear in the very same books since all of them were commanded by God?

Why don't more Christians ask these questions?
Why don't more know the answers?

I've touched on some of these before [in "Skeptical about Skeptic Bias"], but it's probably worth just stating it plainly: God gave these commandments to the Jews to be kept by the Jews. The Bible states it in no uncertain terms: "And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today." (Deuteronomy 5:1-3)
(In other words, the Law was literally for those people within earshot and their direct descendents. The rest of humanity... Gentiles, including Muslims... is held to a different standard, that of the seven Noahide laws. Muslims may disagree. Heck, a good many Christians disagree; but I'm presenting my perspective here, and that's heavily weighted in favor of what's actually written in the book.)
As to why these ten are commonly singled out even though all are commanded by God, the reason is pretty clear. These commandments are actually recorded in two places (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5), but they're commonly quoted from Exodus 20. When we look at the chapter just prior to that, chapter 19, we see that God told Moses that he had three days to get the people ready; that God Himself would come down in fire and cloud so that everybody could see and hear Him. After they witness the thunder and lightning and fire, cloud and smoke, these particular commandments are the ones that Moses relayed. They're the ones for which everyone was present. 

They didn't actually hear the words; that much is plain in Exodus 20, but they heard God's voice in the rumblings and the thunder. Nor are these the only commandments given at that time; Moses was also instructed to make animal sacrifice and in the proper building of an altar, and many others followed. But these ten are in a convenient group in a very dramatic passage. Other than that, they're of the same importance as all the others. As Jesus spoke to his Jewish followers:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:17-19)
Hmm. It seems pretty clear to me that if we were held to the Old Testament commandments, then picking out ten and ignoring the rest would earn one a well-deserved charge of hypocrisy. Predictably, that's exactly what happens. And just as predictably, atheists and other non-Christians start throwing back verses about pigs and shellfish and stoning and all manner of things.

Oy veh.

But again, these are commandments given to Jews. Jesus had a broader message, applicable to both Jews and Gentiles, and it was basically in two parts, with a corollary.
Part 1: Love God. 
If you love God then surely you're not going to put others before Him; you're not going to use his name as a curse, and you'll set aside some time to honor Him.
Part 2: Love your neighbor. 
If you do this, then surely you wouldn't do any of those things that would do him harm.

When Jesus says "on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" in Matthew 22:36-40, you'd think it would be obvious why. The corollary is found in Matthew 7:12. We call this the Golden Rule. You know, the one about doing unto others as you'd have them do unto you. It's a fantastic rule; a great rule; it's how you treat people you love. It's immediately obvious that it covers every bit of ground in the secular portions of the Ten Commandments. Who wants to be disrespected, murdered, cuckolded, robbed, lied about, etc.? Nobody. So nobody should do those things.

So... back to Political Insider's question: "Should the Ten Commandments be posted in public places?"

Well, as an American who values freedom of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment, I recognize that some people have a problem with the first three (or is it four?) of those commandments, and can understand their unease at being judged by people who insist upon them. They feel that they may face the Christian analog of sharia law; and in some cases they may very well be right.

As a conscientious Christian, of Jewish descent, it doesn't bother me in the slightest if they're not posted, because they fully represent neither the inclusiveness nor the comprehensive nature of my religion. They are intended for a specific People and they list specific offenses which represent only the tip of the iceberg, whether we're talking about Old Testament Law or the kinds of offenses humans may perpetrate on one another. Given my druthers, I'd post something that far better represents both my religious faith and my secular convictions, the Golden Rule:
Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.
Whereas the Ten Commandments were intended for a People, these words of Jesus were intended for all people, to be spread as part of the Great Commission. The statement is thoroughly Christian; yet thoroughly every-other-religion-on-Earth. It eloquently defines fair treatment under the law. It leaves not a single offense behind, and not even the most die-hard atheist could reasonably object to it.



About the title: "X" is the Roman numeral ten. However, in algebra, "X" is used to denote a variable quantity. Since the un-numbered commandments in Exodus 20 might be counted as ten or eleven, I think this double-duty title is most appropriate.



Update: Just to make it clear, as a conscientious Christian, it doesn't bother me a bit to see the Ten Commandments posted, either. I do, however, recognize that by referencing "public places" we're really talking about government space, and this country is not mine alone. I'm perfectly happy to respectfully and courteously share.

Super-powers and Sociology

If you're reading this, the chances are that you have a superpower. You might not think it's much, but anyone who's color-blind marvels at your ability to simply look at a banana or apple from a distance and tell if it's ripe.

Realization of this got me thinking about superpowers in general, and the way they're depicted in comics, television, and the movies. Superman, for instance, is often involved in storylines where he loses his powers for one reason or another. It's as if they think that Superman has a bag of powers that he might accidentally leave at the bus stop.

Try this experiment. I want you to peer at a bunch of apples and use your "scarletvision" to find the ripe ones. Easy-peezy. Now shut off your scarletvision. No?

In modern fiction, Superman's powers can be turned on or off, and this just seems totally illogical to me. Why should Superman need to "turn on" his X-ray vision? X-rays are part of a continuous spectrum that includes visible light. In these enlightened times we surely realize that X-ray vision must work the same as any other vision: by detecting the ambient X-radiation in the environment.

Some suggest that Superman can simply ignore his X-ray vision. OK, try it yourself. Just ignore your scarletvision and see the world as your color-blind friends see it.

Didn't work? Imagine that.

When Superman was first introduced his powers were part of who he was. Today they're not; they're something that he has. He was super-strong; now he has super-strength. He was invulnerable; now he has invulnerability. He was super-fast; now he has super-speed, etc. And what he has can be taken from him. That just doesn't make a lot of sense. If, as in the Golden Age, Krypton were a heavy gravity world, then it accounts for both Superman's strength and remarkable resilience. But those things really can't be taken away, can they? This is no mere weakness; rather, an instant and temporary change the molecular structure of his muscular fibers. Sounds unlikely to me. If Superman sees through objects via the normal method of having some equivalent to rods or cones that are sensitive to X-rays, then what could make those temporarily disappear? It's sort of amazing that in many respects  the depiction of Superman was more plausible in the 1930s than it is now in the more "scientifically advanced" 21st century. Vision is an exception, really, as in early depictions Superman was known to ruin film with the X-rays coming from his eyes. So it wasn't perfect, but on the whole it was more rational. Comic-book science has never been exemplary, but this makes me wonder if this is a merely ignorance, or is something else at work?

This bit about having powers rather than being powerful isn't limited to Superman, of course. In a recent episode of The Flash, they used the old trope of a power-inhibiting field while transporting supervillains. The X-Men comics, of all places, is the very one where you'd expect this trope to be subverted, as mutants are by very definition what they are.  But... no joy. Not only are power dampeners commonplace, not only do they work on mutants; but there's even a mutant called Leech who is a living power dampener, whose very presence will un-grow fur instantly. Get that...? Fur is a 'power' that is maintained by whatever  magic permeates the comic-book aether:

From "X-Men: The Last Stand" (2006)
Copyright by Marvel Entertainment and 20th Century Fox
Reproduced under Fair Use for the purpose of political commentary

So what gives? I haven't quite decided yet. But I expect that it has something to do with the social conditioning of the writers, combined with the onus of having to build a mythos on a topsy-turvy legacy foundation. The social aspect may be the assumption that people in positions of power got that way not through innate ability, but by the 'things' they were given. It seems to fit, at least in my initial pondering. Some supers (like Superman) have powers thrust upon them; some (like Spider-Man or The Flash) receive them through sheer luck; some (like the X-Men or Aquaman) are born into them. And some people deliberately reach for power. Typically, these are the villains, like Lex Luthor. Lex doesn't actually have any superpowers except his intellect; but he makes up for it with tech.  

In general, the less someone wants their extraordinary abilities, the more likely it is that they'll be heroic. Not even Tony Stark is an exception here. How was Iron Man born? As a life-saving portable power supply/magnet to keep the shrapnel away from Tony Stark's beating heart. To get to the tech, Stark had to undergo a Frankensteinian transformation (which is mostly forgotten in recent appearances). 

It's interesting to see the typical conditions in which heroes lose their powers and how they get them back. Typically, they're lost through selfishness, as in the movies Superman II and Spider-Man 2 (Both Clark Kent and Peter Parker wanted a normal romantic life) and The Fantastic Four (Ben Grimm wanted to regain normality). Thor lost his to hubris. How do they get them back...? Through selfless sacrifice. Always. It seems to me that the more this trope is used ("it wasn't you, it was your powers... now give something back.") then the more science and common sense must be flushed away to make it work. I personally am not fond of what I see as a trend in moral interpretation that undermines altruism (doing what's right simply because it's right) in favor of a moral imperative (serving the community because you owe society a debt). And as we see, over the years this subliminal message that "it's not yours" has escalated from those things that are clearly abstract (super powers) to those things that are clearly unalienable (even the hair follicles on a person's body!).

Certainly, heroic stories exist to communicate certain ideals of morality. Modern storytellers like to think they're weaving complex tales with multi-dimensional characters. Still, I can't help thinking that the underlying message is a lot simpler than even the authors believe.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Could private spaceflight have happened before now?


UPDATE: Scroll to the bottom for a very cool update.

In response to an earlier post, Reflections on First Orbit, Caleb left an insightful comment. I'm  reproducing the entire thing here because it really is insightful and you should consider the whole of it:
I agree with you about the benefits of having the government step back and letting the private sector take over. Government regulations have no doubt held back space progress (much as they currently are for alternative nuclear power plant approaches). Granted, anything moving fast enough to be in orbit is moving fast enough to cause considerable destruction, so I get the reasoning behind wanting to limit that.

But for the sake of discussion, I'll raise another question (to which I don't know the answer): how much of the previous lack of private sector investment in space is due to government regulations compared to lower costs of entry? Manufacturing and engineering processes, material sciences, computer power... have all improved considerably since Apollo. Not only does a smartphone have more computing power than Apollo, but we have an improved ability to gather real time digital telemetry (not just cool videos!) from rockets, better AI control software that takes up less mass, higher fidelity computer simulations to weed out bad designs before ever building a prototype, lightweight carbon composite materials, the ability to 3D-print complex rocket nozzles (that would take who knows how long to build using traditional methods), and the accumulated wisdom of the past fifty years to draw on.

All of this has been slowly lowering the capital investment required to enter into spaceflight. Granted, the reduced government regulations are essential too, but a lot of these technology advancements are in fields only tangentially related to spaceflight (computer miniaturization, and manufacturing process, for example), and maybe this infrastructure had to be developed *before* private access to space could be made cheap enough to attract investors?

Or at least that's something I've been wondering about; I could be wrong. But it seems to me like a lot of the loosening regulations have come after the fact, as a response to the private sector finally saying "OK, this is something we're ready to do now," rather than the other way around. 
Great points, and they cover a lot of ground. You made me think.

I'm going to assume you meant to say "higher costs of entry" is what kept space investment from happening.

I'm then going to counter with the proposition that the costs of entry were not actually higher, relatively speaking. Rather, the goals were loftier.

You'll often see a tally of the expenditures for Apollo, for instance, with the message being that only government could have amassed this sum and targeted it for this purpose. On one level, I could simply accept that the massive government expenditures in spaceflight were necessary and that this was the only way to make it happen. On that level, I would point to the example of the Louisiana Purchase. Though it was a bargain, Napoleon having sold vast tracts of what was to him worthless, it was still a large expense for its day. And having purchased and secured the lands that would become 15 new states, the US Government granted tracts of land to homesteaders who settled and worked it. Whereas it was the government that acquired the land, it was private enterprise that tamed it.

But this would overlook the fact that NASA's every effort in the 1960s following Kennedy's famous speech was aimed at the immediate goal of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth. It wasn't suborbital flight. It wasn't orbital flight. It wasn't a space station, orbital manufacturing, or even satellite launches, though we got some of those things. Those huge expenditures were for the purpose of zipping through those milestones and ignoring others to get to the Moon. And when that was done, we were a country whose adrenaline was spent.

I don't think that was the proper approach to tame space. In fact, I argue that it was over-reach. Kennedy wanted something dramatic; so he reached for the Moon. The Moon was reached, but not acquired. After only six manned exploratory landings, we haven't been back. Thus, my previous post focuses on the lack of progress once the political goal was achieved. That having been done, politicians lost interest in the more mundane tasks of taming Space. We kept up the momentum for a little while, but it didn't take many setbacks to reduce us to passengers to near-Earth orbit on Russian rockets.

I submit that without that massive and expensive government exercise in one-upmanship, we would, with a slower start, be far closer to the visions of 1950s speculation. The 1950 George Pal movie Destination Moon gave us an early glimpse of that vision. The first 15 minutes of the film adequately portray the mindset of America, I think, before that mindset was changed by the progressive dominance of Statists.


The idea of that time was that the government would rely on private industry to provide the technology for such travel, as it did with automobiles and air travel. While this fictional example also jumps straight to the Moon for storytelling purposes (it is called Destination Moon, after all) it's clear that the expectation was that industry would do so for economic reasons, even if they were expected rather than clearly known in advance. It was a form of prospecting. The fact that the government poured billions into the actual Moon landing is a clear indication to me that the economics were not yet right for it. A great deal of that effort was pure waste.

However, the desire was there. A 10-year-old watching Destination Moon would be a 25 year old young scientist, engineer, or mathematician in 1965, the year Intelsat I first launched. This was the first geosynchronous communications satellite as proposed by Arthur C. Clarke in 1945, and the first privately built object placed in orbit. We were going to go to space anyway. And the current work being done by SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, etc. are very much along the lines of what could have been done in the 1960s if the Moon had not eclipsed everything.

And if the Hollywood presentation doesn't sway you, here's Wernher von Braun himself in 1955 explaining the road map to a lunar mission. Look at vast gulf between that and what Apollo delivered in its extravagant haste:


The Fog of Present Thinking.

We like to think that because we do things in a certain way that those things have to be done in that way. Usually the reason for it gets no further than "because that's how it's done." It's understandable to limit our thinking to the boundaries of our own experience. So I often encounter the argument that certain technologies are needed for spaceflight.

By 1962 we had transistor computers, disk drives, and importantly... customers for computers. The computer revolution was well under way, and NASA was just another customer. But we didn't really need anything more advanced than those computers for space travel, as demonstrated by the fact that we actually did it. Going to the moon was a mostly analog enterprise. Our parents planned the Moon shot with slide rules, and the bulk of that computational planning was necessary because of the complexity of a landing, second take-off, docking, and return to Earth well ahead of an economically feasible schedule. It takes far less effort to calculate a suborbital or orbital flight.
Links:
Motherboard: Faking the Moon Landing (not a hoax site)
Realclear.com: The Surprisingly Basic Technology of the Moon Landing
But today we think "Hey, we need computers," because we now include them in everything from toasters to greeting cards. But I'm fortunate to have been professionally active in the period when digital processing was in its ascension and the analog processing of the time in question was dominant. Much of my expertise was analog. For example,
  • Telephones are digital now. But they don't have to be. The key components of Bell's telephones (and all of them for the next century) were a battery and carbon.
  • Terminal emulators are called "emulators" because they emulate the workings of an electromechanical teletype machine. Our ASCII, EBCDIC and UNICODE are derived from the Baudot codes used by those mechanical devices.
  • Signalling was commonly transmitted, not through digital codes, but through analog pulses and frequencies (SF, FSK, DTMF, and pulsed current, for example.)
  • Photographs were transmitted by wire in 1842. Modern faxes began in imitation of an electromechanical process.
This tendency to lean on electronic computers overlooks and under-utilizes the vast potential of the organic computer carried in the cranium of every human pilot.

Likewise, 3D printers are no panacea. 3D printers allow us to construct things in one piece that traditional techniques would assemble from multiple components. Even then I argue that welding components together is not conceptually different from what a 3D printer does when it slowly builds up a model, layer upon layer. You want to count how many components are in a 3D printed object? Count the layers. Every time I critically examine a list of things that are "not possible to produce" without 3D printers, the list is effectively reduced to zero items. 3D printers make for cheaper modeling because you don't have to tool up for a single item. But the biggest result of expensive modeling is that your planning becomes so much more careful.

Higher tech isn't always an improvement. Spaceship One's rocket burns a mixture of rubber and nitrous oxide because this choice of fuel is dense, cheap and stable. Much more so than the liquid rockets of the 1960s. As a result, this tiny engine achieves suborbital altitude. But it uses no technology that couldn't have been obtained in the 1960s had not one entity been calling all the shots.

Look at any new car lot. Electronic fuel injection, ABS computer-controlled brakes, fuel and filter monitoring sensors, emission controls, GPS positioning and navigation, OnStar, satellite radio, collision detection, rear-view camera, an iPod dock, on-board wi-fi... etc. Your car is capable of astonishingly accurate telemetry and tracking to the point where some cars today are capable of driving themselves. Cars are built this way because the features sell, the manufacturers find them to be profitable, and in some cases because the government mandates them. But not one of them... not a single one... is there because it's necessary.

Ultralight Aircraft
Photo by Heather Ray.
Likewise, a cloth wing strapped to a lawn chair and small engine with a fan can get you airborne. Very little is required for air travel once the principle is known. All of the safety features and scalability naturally acrete. The economic barriers to new tech are primarily finding the principles. Once they're known, then advancement rapidly and naturally follows.

My point is that spaceflight didn't actually require any of those things that today are commonly considered to have lowered the cost of entry. Cost of entry wouldn't actually be lowered because those things wouldn't have actually been used... certainly not to the degree that they are relied upon today.

On the other hand, until the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, US Government policy flatly forbid anyone but NASA from launching a rocket into space; and afterwards, it remained highly regulated [pdf]. Money doesn't buy your way past that barrier.

In other words, while the technological barriers were non-existent and the economic barriers readily overcome, the barrier of government regulation was insurmountable. And once it was lifted it left behind a climate of regulation and calcified thought processes that we're only now overcoming. And even that is happening slowly. Today... this year... the U.S. Government believes that it has the actual authority to "license" (i.e. control access and permission) the operation of individuals working on another planet. Here's a link. And they think that this is a progressive and wonderful step at de-regulation. In the 1950s they would have been laughed at for being completely deluded. And now it is we the citizens who have been deluded into thinking that we need their permission.

I maintain that if we had followed the natural path of free enterprise, we would very likely have a permanent presence on the Moon today, and that commercial space flight would be routine. Arthur C. Clarke's vision of the world of 2001: A Space Odyssey might have actually happened in 2001.



UPDATE: Talk is cheap. As a demonstration of what I'm talking about... that manned spaceflight doesn't actually require all of the complexity that we've been indoctrinated to think it does... Copenhagen Suborbitals has begun an amateur space program. This is not wishful thinking; it's the real deal, as documented in this episode of Spaced Out.

So seriously, I'm all done with insistence from any quarter that this must be a government-first activity. That's the way it happened in history, but there is no evidence of any sort to support the idea that it must have happened that way, or even that it was the best way to approach spaceflight.