Thursday, April 29, 2010

Puerto Rican Statehood

Have you heard the buzz about HR2499?  It's apparently true.  Time to annoy my representative again! 

The bill is being touted as a "non-binding resolution" (known in the private sector as "a waste of time and money") that says nice things about self-determination and other glorious concepts. 

But it's not.  In typical political fashion, it's a trick to railroad Puerto Rico into becoming the 51st state.  Go read the article.

Now if the people of PR wanted to become a state, I'd be delighted to welcome them into the Union.  The only thing is that they have voted many times and statehood is always voted down.  Last time was just a few years ago - late 90s if I recall.  This is a trick being run by a progressive party in PR and democratic nut-jobs in power to get PR statehood.  Why?  Apparently to ride the gravy train of Federal Benefits, and to add more progressive senators/congress critters. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

My Take on the Goldman-Sachs Hearings

Short form:  this is pure "Two minute hate".

Longer form.  Did Goldman Sachs do wrong things?  Probably.  The current economic collapse has many reasons, and the work of GS is just one phase.  In fact, in something this big, you can almost guarantee that corruption of both the government and private sectors are involved.  The root of the problem is the too big government and something called the Community Reinvestment Act, originally passed under the execrable Jimmy Carter.  The purpose of the CRA was increase home ownership among the under-represented (according to whoever decides such things).

The problem is, these people were not under-represented because of discrimination by the banks.  They were bad prospects.  In order to get the banks to loan to these high-risk customers, the, in the form of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, agreed to take responsibility for these loans.  In other words, the banks would get the profits, but the people (that is, we taxpayers) would take the risks and pay for the defaults.  What Goldman and the others did was invent ways to make money on these mortgages.

It's important to remember that up until 25 years ago, or so, mortgages were very boring things.  Lenders only lent money to people with established credit, who were not likely to default on their loans because it was their home.  Mortgages were considered among the safest of loans.  Yet another reason was a law known as the Glass-Steagall Act, which prohibited lenders - banks - from providing investment services.  If a large financial entity had both businesses, they had to be separated.  Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1987, and one of the consequences of this was mortgage lenders (banks) found ways to sell their mortgages as investment vehicles.  By now, everyone has heard of Credit Default Swaps, Collateralized Debt Obligations, and the other instruments used to spread these mortgages around.  Since mortgages had such a fantastic history of being very low risk, these investment vehicles found their way into retirement plans for lots of institutions and people seeking safety and accepting low ROI.

As the stock market crash of the late 90s was happening, those who could get out money (or had gotten out already) had to put their money somewhere.  The safest investment seemed to be real estate, and that gave rise to a real estate bubble.  Along the way, banks were hounded by groups such as ACORN, who allegedly followed bankers home to protest if the group deemed that enough bad-loan-risk people were not getting  mortgages.  I'm sure that everyone has heard the stories of people flipping houses for profit, and people being told not to worry because prices always go up. If there's anyone to truly feel sorry for, it's the earnest borrower who just wanted a home, and was talked into much more than they could really afford.  I can't bring myself to feel sorry for house flippers.

So, yes, Goldman probably did do wrong things.  But so did the Government Sponsored Entities (Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac), and so did the House Banking Committee, under Barney Frank and Chris Dodd. So did the Federal Reserve, the Secretary of the Treasury and more.  As Denninger has said, "where are the handcuffs"? 

People from Goldman-Sachs permeate the government.  It's probably why they do so well as a company.  I believe they are going along with the two minute hate so that they can pay penance and get ready for the next big money maker, Cap and Trade, which they believe will make them hundreds of billions per year, if not more. 

So the real purpose of the Two Minute Hate against Goldman is to distract us from wondering who else is involved and most of all, not look at them.  I'll believe they're serious about fixing things and not just putting on a show to distract us when I see Glass-Steagall reinstated, and when Barney Frank and Chris Dodd are in handcuffs along with the executives from Goldman, CITI and the others.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Belated Earth Day Post

My friend Bob over at has a good compilation of Earth Day quotes from the first Earth Day in 1970.

Go read.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

What's Wrong With Wellness? Weally?...

Wellness Programs in the near future? Cartoon from "In The Bleachers" by Steve Moore  

I work for a major corporation, the best in our industry by most measures.  Long, proud, heritage; that sort of place.  Despite that, we're a pretty ordinary large company, not that different from large American companies in very different fields.  Dear daughter-in-law works for a big pharma company and her corporate stories are more like mine than different.  Like most places, we're getting hammered by medical insurance costs, and again like most, we've signed onto one of those "Corporate Wellness" programs.  This is one of the latest fads to sweep the business community.  Like most fads, it has adherents, true believers, and skeptics.  Like most fads, again, it's overblown and accepted on faith. 

If you're not involved in one of these, beware.  The has set itself up to be even more invasively involved in your life through the health care takeover that recently passed.  You can expect to be forced into a plan like this soon, if you haven't already.  If you are deemed overweight, you may be put on a company-monitored diet, or sent to "fat camp" to loose weight.  If you are a smoker, you will probably be forced to take a smoking-cessation class.  You may think it's none of your employer's business if you smoke or eat bacon at home, but the thinks it's their business.  You may be financially penalized for not participating in a diet or stop-smoking class.  You may be denied care if you're a smoker or deemed to be overweight; that's routine in the UK, Canada and other countries with nationalized health care. 

Obviously, "wellness" - however imprecise that word might be - is a Good Thing.  The real question is if these plans actually improve health and cut costs.  The answer appears to be no.  There are just way too many conventional wisdoms that are wrong.  In a nutshell, all of the so-called indicators don't show so much that you are "well", they show that you're "young and healthy".  There is simply not enough hard evidence that taking a random group of adults, all of them products of an almost infinite set of life choices and genetics, and forcing behavioral changes on them will result in different health outcomes.  It's important to add that prevention, in general, drives up costs, it doesn't cut them.  This is pretty well known among those who study statistics. 

Take exercise.  Up until the mid 1970s, running and other forms of voluntary, adult exercising were pretty fringe behaviors.  Nowadays, admitting you don't exercise gets you looked at like some sort of Neanderthal.  This will be one of the first things they insist you do.  The reality, though, is that studies show only modest life extension, on the order of a few months, for a lifetime of exercising, easily less time than you spend exercising instead of something else you might prefer.  The other side of that is there is evidence of increased injuries and joint damage in sedentary adults who start exercising.  You could well argue that an arthritic knee or hip is better than a heart problem, but either chronic chest pain or a joint in need of replacement can make your life utterly miserable. 

If I may be a statistics geek, it could be that an adult who exercises regularly is part of a self-selected group that may well be different than the general population.  If these people have a lower rate of some illness, it might not have anything at all to do with the exercise; it could be another attribute of the people who self-select to be regular exercisers, or a large group of these attributes.  Taking the general population and having them start exercising may do nothing for them.  For example, in the early 70s someone did a statistical study that showed no marathon runner had ever had a heart attack.  Their conclusion was that running a marathon made you immune to heart attacks.  But when the running fad started, and people other than the self-selected marathoners of the 1950s and '60s started to do marathons, marathoners started having heart attacks.  Instead of the conclusion they reached, what they should have concluded was that the population of runners was different from the general population, and that some thing or combination of things in this group's lives prevented heart attacks. 

Now don't get me wrong: I have nothing against exercise if it's your choice and not something forced on you.  I started running in the late 1970s and at various times have been a runner, cyclist, and biathlete for over 30 years.  Like many 50-something runners, I had to have a knee cleaned out, and have been discouraged from running, so these days I cycle and lift weights.  I enjoy getting out and moving.  I just don't think that taking a bunch of sedentary people who have never done much exercise in their lives and making them active is going to do much in terms of making them healthier.  

You can hardly turn on the news without hearing that overweight people are less healthy than normal weight people so your Wellness program will probably measure you to make sure you're not overweight.  There are two problems: the first is defining "overweight"; the second is that most studies, and the strongest ones, point to an inverse relationship between weight and mortality (among mature adults), with obesity having a protective role - there's an excellent introduction here and virtually a homegrown encyclopedia here.  Those who grew up in the early to mid-20th century remember being compared to a set of height/weight tables originally developed by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.  These tables were eventually discredited for a variety of reasons.  The first was that there aren't really three well-defined frame sizes.  This is not to imply people don't come in different overall sizes, that's pretty obvious, it's just that there is no generally agreed upon standard for "small, medium, and large".  Another problem was that the basis of the charts was measurements of dead people at autopsy, who typically are not as healthy as living people (that was sarcasm, son).  The last 20-25 years have seen the rise of body mass index numbers, or BMI, used in place of those charts.  That's unfortunate.

What? What's wrong with BMI? It's exactly the same concept as the Met Life tables.   It's simply a height/weight table with one difference: there's no real mention of frame sizes so they give you a range you can be in, which many versions of the Met Life tables did, anyway.   There are only two pieces of information that go into BMI, weight and height (the definition is weight divided by height squared); it doesn't make it any more "scientific" if you measure in the metric system and square something.   All you're getting out is wt/ht.  If you pay attention to BMI stories, you know that almost any pro athlete or other fit, strong person, calculates to have dangerously high BMI.  When a cardiac patient can have a better BMI score than a combat-ready Navy SEAL, you need to throw away your scale.  If an underweight cardiac patient really does have a better long term health prognosis than an incredibly fit SEAL, we need to throw out pretty much everything else we think we know about "wellness". 

So if BMI doesn't matter, does that mean weight doesn't matter?  Weight is a pretty crude measurement - it says nothing about the quality of the health of the individual.  To be crude, if you have a prosthetic leg, it might weigh much or much less than your natural leg.  The weight does nothing to predict your long term survival.  Composition undoubtedly matters more than weight.  Does fat matter?  Possibly.  If anything matters, percent body fat probably matters.  The total amount of lean muscle mass probably matters.  That's the difference between the sickly cardiac patient and the SEAL, not their BMI.  It's not what they weigh, it's what they're made of. 

But doesn't this fundamentally say we can't even define what "overweight" is?  This is science; we can't resort to the "art" standard here: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it".

If the intent is to give you a tool to determine your overall "wellness", BMI or weight are essentially useless.  An electronic body fat scale or other method of measuring percent body fat might be useful, but is there really good enough data to know how a certain value of %bf affects every possible race, nationality or combination?  In my world you would need extensive studies that map long term rates of disease  vs. % bf for all races, ethnicities and nationalities along with all of their diet compositions.  Not gonna happen in this lifetime.  

So let's skip over the weight issue and look deeper.  These are tools that you can't use at home - until that Star Trek tricorder is invented - but represent information you can get with a blood test under doctor's orders.  

The issues are not much less muddy here.  What are you going to measure?  Cholesterol gets measured pretty routinely, but would it make you feel better or worse to know that the reason we measure it is because we can?  Cholesterol was isolated early in the study of cardiovascular disease, and tests to measure it in patients were among the first.  There's a book in my list of recent and favorite reads called, "Good Calories, Bad Calories" by one of the best science writers living today (not my opinion; he has a stack of awards to back that).   He pretty much demolishes the idea that total cholesterol by itself is much of an indicator of anything.   Your ratios of  HDL ("good" cholesterol) to LDL ("bad") are more important indicators.   There are many others: HDL to Triglycerides, VLDL, other blood chemicals and tracers, that are more important than total serum cholesterol.  

Did you know that there is virtually no hard scientific data to back the wide recommendation for a 30% fat calorie diet - especially when opposed to, say, a 25 or 35% calorie from fat diet? Excellent summary here.  It is recommended because they really can't think of any reason to recommend anything different.  The 30% recommendation started before any research into effects of different percent calories was available.  Would it surprise you to know the dietary fat recommendations were political, not scientific?  Driven by democratic committee members, from George McGovern's presidential campaign?  In the intervening years, some of the alternative diets such as the ultra low, 10% fat diets have been studied and proven inappropriate for the general population.  There is woefully little science in any of the dietary recommendations that are common wisdom.  "Good Calories, Bad Calories" will also destroy any belief you might have that a healthy diet is a low fat/high carbohydrate diet.  It is probably the most important health-related book I've ever read. 

My favorite story in the wellness and health screening arena is that soon after I turned 40, I decided to get a physical and it included a cholesterol test.  It came back that my total cholesterol was moderately high, but my HDL was considered way too low.  They recommended that I do some exercise, perhaps walk around the block.  It struck me funny because I had ridden 100 miles on my bike over the weekend between getting tested and getting the results.  Clearly, the cause is not related to exercise.  Years later, my son (in his early 20s) was tested and had similar results.  The lipid profile we share is clearly genetic. 

I always think I'm not unique or special.  If I've experienced something like that, many others must have, also.  I believe that there must be thousands of other people who exercise, watch what they eat and do their best to "be well".  These people will be financially penalized for their genetics. 

So what's the big deal?  How can anybody be anti-wellness?  I'm not anti-wellness, I'm anti-intrusion into my life.  I'm adamantly anti-pseudo-scientific bullcrap, which is what most of the "wellness campaign" stuff is.  Adults should be responsible for themselves.  It is not the government's or your employer's responsibility to see if you do your daily exercises.  This is not Orwell's "1984", where you exercise in front of the cameras so they can verify you're doing it.  It's not even your insurance company's business if you exercise or pursue whatever roads to wellness you choose.  They are selling you a product.  If they told you that you could get a cheaper product if  you weighed less or smoked less, and you chose not to, they should just shut up, sell you the more expensive plan, and obey the contract you signed on to.  I suppose the biggest problem I have with these programs is that they treat you as if you're an idiot.  Like they are the first people you've ever come across in your life that have suggested exercise or weight control.   

Someone once told me the essential difference between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives believe in making their life choices while liberals believe in making your life choices:

If a conservative is a vegetarian, he doesn't eat meat.
If a liberal is a vegetarian, he wants all meat products banned for everyone.

If a conservative doesn't like guns, he doesn't buy one.
If a liberal doesn't like guns, he wants all guns outlawed.

In this situation it would be:

If a conservative thinks eating low fat and exercising is good, he starts eating less fat and exercising.
If a liberal thinks eating low fat and exercising is good, he demands that everyone be required to eat less fat and exercise more.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Reasonable Gun Laws

Ever notice how the Bradys and other anti-gun zealots always talk about "reasonable gun laws"?  They just want to pass just this one tiny, little, additional restriction.  It's for your own good.  Don't buy that?  It's for the children.

I think gun sales laws are too restrictive now. I think the whole setup of only being able to go to an FFL who can only send it across state lines to another FFL just perpetuates a protected market and doesn't do much good for anybody other than FFLs. I'll freely admit that a gun, because it is a "deadly weapon" may warrant some restrictions that, say, an iPad shouldn't get. I'll also freely admit I'm not sure where to put those restrictions.

Let's start here: any adult can walk into a sporting goods store in most places and walk out with a shotgun or a rifle with no waiting period. But if I wanted to buy an AR-15 or a Mossberg 500 from the factory or a store in another state, why does it have to go through an FFL's hands? Why can't I order a rifle or shotgun from an online gun store, or even an kind of "online superstore" and have it shipped to my house? What advantage is there to shipping it to an FFL?

I read that the number of assault rifles involved in crimes was 0.1% or some tiny number like that. I'll take a bet that the number of crimes involving rifles like a Remington 700 or other hunting rifle is dang near zero. The number of crimes you'd prevent is meaningless, so all it does is provide an income to FFLs to do the transfer. It protects the small shop. In consumer goods, your local camera shop, say, really does have to compete with the big guys in New York. Gun shops don't have that. I can see how gun shops might really like this setup. They get an easy few bucks for filling out the form and "receiving" your shipment, but I don't think there's any value added to you or society. If I owned a gun shop, I'd watch prices at the big online shops like Bud's or Impact and put my prices around midway between their price and the price with the shipping cost and FFL fees on my end.

If there's a 3-day waiting period for a handgun (without your CWFL), why can't you order a pistol from Bud's and wait 3 or 4 days for UPS to deliver it? What advantage is there to sending it to an FFL instead of to you? With today's computer security, you could verify age, do an NICS check - anything the local shop can do - online. The whole idea of that 3 day wait was a "cooling off" period, so a hothead doesn't go buy a gun in a moment of anger and then go kill someone (personally, I have a hard time believing there were large numbers of that sort of crime anyway). Fine -- how does waiting 3 days to pick up a gun in your city differ from waiting 3 days to get it delivered by UPS or FedEx?

Can't guarantee security, can't guarantee that criminals won't order guns online? Criminals don't have any problems getting guns now, how is this really different?

I realize this is pipe dream stuff that has a snowball's chance in Florida of ever passing, but our current system really doesn't make sense to me. Like I say, I realize guns are deadly. But so are kitchen knives (how many crimes involve those?), pocket knifes, and on and on, up to cars and trucks. I also realize there's a big group that thinks laws are too free now. We should advance this as a counter-proposal if we ever get to negotiate.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Invasions Continue

The invasions of your personal liberty by the nanny state continue.  Today it was announced that the FDA plans to limit the amount of sodium in food.  It's for your own good.  Think of the children. 

What's the problem?  Only that there is really no particular reason to reduce sodium consumption in the population as a whole.  There might be a small number of people who would benefit from it.  If there is, they should avoid salt.  The FDA wants the rest of the country to give up what they think tastes good for a small group of people who might be affected.

No, salt consumption does not raise blood pressure.  That's a myth that was disproven years ago.  I thought the final word was in 1997, if not before:

'Public health recommendations must be based on proof of safety and benefit. Even if a low sodium diet could lower the blood pressure of most people (probably not true) and both the diet and the change in blood pressure could be sustained (not established), this alone would not justify a recommendation to reduce sodium intake.
 'For such advice to be responsibly given there must be evidence that the change will improve and not impair health. While the advantage of a lower blood pressure, at any level, is well established, it is not true that every method to lower blood pressure would necessarily improve health. Some techniques to lower blood pressure, like giving short acting calcium antagonists, may not be safe.
'All interventions aimed at enhancing or extending life by manipulating a single mechanism inevitably produce a variety of effects, some of which may not be advantageous. Extrapolation from mechanistic thinking demands evidence that the sum total of all the effects of the intervention — and not just one, such as lowering blood pressure — will help and not harm; and particularly here since the target is the whole population.

'A low sodium intake produces many effects, not all of which are salutary. The integrated impact of these effects remains to be established. The scanty evidence directly linking sodium intake to morbidity and mortality is not encouraging.

'Unfortunately, we simply do not know whether a universal change in sodium consumption will cause benefit or harm. Insufficient evidence — for good or ill — is not a sturdy basis for making health policy. Gratuitous exhortation, reflecting the hopes of even the most well meaning authorities, is no substitute for data. Toward this end, a good start would be to collect and analyse further observational data linking sodium intake to subsequent morbid and fatal outcomes.'

'The important question that emerges from these papers is why the combined intellects of so many distinguished epidemiologists should maintain that the evidence incriminating salt in hypertension is so convincing when clearly it adds up to very little.'  Michael Alderman, President of the American Society of Hypertension, Department of Epidemiology and Social Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine,Br Med J 1997; 315: 484-5 .  Linked from a good summary article at Second Opinions

Did you get that?  This Doctor, President of the American Society of Hypertension, said that we don't even know that if we tell the public to cut their salt consumption that it won't hurt them.  So the can't even say, "cut your sodium because even if it doesn't help blood pressure, at least it won't hurt you"; we don't know that.  But the FDA is going to do it anyway.  

Mrs. Graybeard made the salient observation that we shouldn't call this a Nanny State.  A Nanny has the best interest of the kids at heart.  This shows the doesn't really have our best interests at heart.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Why I Carry

There have been some unpleasant turns in life lately, so while I'm sitting around hospital waiting areas writing a long post, here's something I've been meaning to talk about.

If you ever get into honest conversations about self-defense and concealed carry with people who are moderately interested but not rabidly anti-gun, the question of why you carry will come up.  The gun bloggers pass around a wonderful story, said to be true, about a sheriff in a party or semi-formal situation being asked by a nice old lady, "I see you have your gun, Sheriff.  Expecting trouble?"

To which the sheriff replies, "No, mam.  If I was expecting trouble, I'd bring my rifle".  The vast majority of concealed carriers know you don't carry because you're expecting trouble.  You carry for the same reason you have a spare tire in your car.  It's better to have one and not need it than need it and not have it.

Katrina is the seminal moment for me.  I live in the hurricane zone and all my life, every stinkin' year, at the start of hurricane season some somber commentator would predict what would happen if a big storm hit New Orleans.  All my life they were saying what would happen and they were exactly, 100% right. And what did we get?  The result of 50 years of planning and practice, going into smooth motion, like an NFL team doing an off tackle run, or a dance troupe doing their best routine?  No, we got an enormous cluster, er, um, .... charlie foxtrot... with out of town looters taking everything they could grab; police abandoning their post to protect their families; local looters taking, not just food or water but also TV sets; police joining the looters; out of area police disarming citizens who were fully prepared for the storm and armed to protect themselves from the looters, and much, much more. 

Leaders?  These guys couldn't lead a bunch of dysentery-racked gringo tourists in Tijuana to the bathroom. 

It was because of Katrina, Ike, and to lesser degree the three or four hurricanes we had here, that I decided I'd better get armed and learn to defend my family and myself.   My house survived three hurricanes in a single season without a dime's worth of damage (I did lose a wood fence, but that doesn't matter much).  The area was full of toothless guys with chainsaws driving around in pickup trucks offering to do work for you.  Stories went around that if you didn't answer the knock, they came back after dark and helped themselves - especially in the areas where even more people evacuated than around where I live.

Another saying the gun bloggers pass around is "I carry a gun because a cop is too heavy". Or "when seconds count, police are minutes away".

Fundamentally, people arm themselves because they are self-reliant, and don't want to depend on an all-too-undependable government to protect them.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Risk and Reward

Managers and engineers tend to take different view of risks.  I work in a pretty risk-averse field, highly regulated, where if we shipped something that turned out to be defective, we have to make public recalls.  

So I'm facing a decision that involves some risk.  We are doing a "next version" of a product I'm developing and the chance to make things better shows up.  If it works, we'll save a few dollars on every unit we ship.  If it doesn't work, the effort to change the product is probably thrown out.  Or we'll be late on shipments.  Either way it costs real money.  

If it works:  I save the factory - and all of us - a few bucks per box.  Maybe $5.  Pure profit.  Hey - would you turn down $5 if someone offered it to you with no strings?  

If it fails:  it costs tens of thousands of dollars and they leave my severed head on the flagpole outside as a warning to others not to take risks like that.
Hmmmm.   $5 vs certain death.   That's a tough one.  
Like Scott Adams says on risk vs reward:  
For a manager:  Success: you get tons of money.  Fail: someone under you gets laid off.  
For an engineer:  Success:  you get a handsome certificate, suitable for framing.  Fail: think  Space Shuttle Challenger, Columbia, Hyatt Regency walkway.  Money lost, possibly large numbers of people die.    
Tends to give you a different view of the whole risk/reward continuum.  

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The End of the Manned Space Program

Image credit to cartoonist Michael Ramirez, of the Investors' Business Daily.

People in my age group have certain common memories.  We all know where we were when John F. Kennedy was shot and we all know where we were when Neil Armstrong's took mankind's first steps on the moon. 

Another memory shared by everyone I've ever talked with about it is that we all can remember thinking back around the peak of the Apollo program that we would have a permanent moon base by the end of the 20th century and that we would have gone to Mars by now.  Instead, we've spent the last 30 years with the Space Shuttle and building the International Space Station.  Instead of a trip to a new and exciting place we've gone around the block for 30 years.  A Mars mission might be a dangerous trip, but we have still managed to kill plenty of our best and brightest driving around the block.  Later this year, the last flight of the Shuttle will occur, and the US will be without a manned launch capability for the first time since the early 1980s.  Over 6000 workers will be laid off.  It is hard not to view this as a massive loss of national prestige with China, India, Japan, the EU and others trying to develop or actively developing manned flight.  It is not hard to imagine Russia, under Vladimir Putin, shutting off our manned access to the ISS, and by default, taking it over. 

The space program is personal for me.  I live near the KSC, and while I've never worked on the Cape, Mrs. Graybeard was there for 10 years including time on the Shuttle program.  Many of our closest friends have spent much of their careers launching Shuttles.  I have worked on unmanned and scientific research missions, at subcontractors, which is where most people agree the most bang per buck of new science comes from, and I worked at a subcontractor on systems for the ISS that never flew.  Beyond that, I'm also a product of the Sci-Fi of the 1950s and 60s, books by Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke; books full of the promise of space travel, colonizing other planets, making our way into the galaxy.  I've followed every Star Trek series, seen every Star Trek and Star Wars movie, and pretty much every other space-travel oriented movie or TV series that was better than grade B.  Being without a manned space program bothers me. 

The President has canceled the Constellation moon program that was currently under way, a program based largely on reuse of existing technology and approaches.  In its place, NASA is to open an office to work with private sector companies to develop manned access to space.  In principle, this is a good thing; the private sector is always more efficient than government programs.  As it is, the private sector runs all unmanned launches on the Cape, except for those that are military programs launched by the Air Force.  For those far from this area, there are two sides to what used to be called Cape Canaveral.  The Kennedy Space Center, which is the manned side, is located mostly on Merritt Island with its actual launch pads at the north end of Cape Canaveral.  Locals refer to the island and "cape side".  Unmanned launches are on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station property, which is all cape side.  Deltas, Atlases, and some Titans are the bulk of unmanned launch vehicles, and are all commercial launches. 

In principle it's a good idea; in practice it will be 10 years or more before we have a manned program, and it will be old tech, nothing new.  One thing that has become apparent to workers on the Cape is that experience matters, and all of these companies try to hire people experienced at launching rockets successfully.  The days of developing new launch vehicles and techniques in a few years are over. 

Like most of our national problems, this one isn't new.  The shuttles were intended for 20 year lifetimes and they are going on 30.  That means we have known as a nation that we had something that needed to be replaced but ignored the problem (we are pretty good at ignoring problems).  Presidents have given lukewarm mandates for programs beyond the shuttle, but nothing has really progressed.  The launch of the Ares-1 suborbital test flight, above, is the only actual flying hardware for a new manned program since the development of the shuttle.  And it's essentially a shuttle solid rocket booster with some fancy instrumentation on it. 

Should NASA be involved in this sort of program?  Frankly, I don't know.  I believe a project like the ISS is not something NASA should be doing: it's too routine, too commercial.  The truth appears to be NASA needed a mission for its shuttle, and the ISS is a natural fit.  NASA should be leading edge; developing new technologies, like hypersonic transports, cheaper ways to orbit, things with long payback periods that companies probably would not invest in.  NASA is now institutionally risk-averse.  They've gone from "The Right Stuff" to arthritic bureaucracy, but that's natural for a government organization that is hung out to dry when something goes wrong (see Hubble Space Telescope, Challenger, Columbia...).  There may not be a commercial reason to go to Mars, so NASA should do that.  There are certainly commercial and scientific reasons to go to the moon and set up a permanent base for many things: science research (the far side of the moon is an ideal place for giant telescopes, radio and optical) and mining (Helium 3 can be mined on the moon and may be the next great fuel). This seems like a place for an industry/NASA team to figure out how to do such things.  

If you've read my earlier postings, you'll know that I think current government spending levels are  unsustainable and the only way out is massive spending cuts - on the order of 50% of the fed.budget. I think an actual collapse of the US is not out of the question, and an economic collapse may even be considered "likely".  Given that, how can I reconcile a desire for manned space flight? 

Look, Mongo just simple engineer.  I can't solve all the problems in the world. But it seems to me that one of the main problems we have in trying to cut the budget is that everyone has some favorite program they refuse to see cut.  There are legitimate things for the federal government to do, and defense is one of them.  Anyone who doesn't see the defensive advantages to a good space program frankly doesn't understand much about military strategy. 

Perhaps some of the money that's going to things that are clearly not government duties (health care, prescription drugs, bank bail outs, auto company takeovers, student loan takeovers, bull crap global warming studies, and on and on) could be used to keep a manned space program while we try to replace the shuttle.  A short term and long term solution, if you will.  Short term, the shuttle is a clunky old vehicle, but it works.  Like most sane people don't throw out an old but running car when the budget is tight, the shuttle can still fly.  No one sets foot on board without knowing they have a roughly 1% chance of dying; I'll bet you find plenty of people willing to go.  Long term, we get a different manned program; preferably with newer, higher tech.  Longer term, we work on that Mars mission.  And if a collapse occurs, all bets are off, and everyone will be too busy trying to survive to worry about national prestige. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

QoTD - Obama's Nuclear Policy Edition

HT to Borepatch...

So I think that all in all this current deal is a big bag of nothing. The reason to worry about the defense of the country isn't because this agreement would theoretically make it harder to defend. Rather, the problem is that Obama doesn't seem willing to defend it, agreement or no agreement.

Just because you have a CCW, pack a .45, and shoot perfect scores doesn't mean that you won't end up dead in a dark parking garage with your unfired pistol in your hand.

Word.  Anyone with any personal defense training will tell you your most important weapon is between your ears.  If you're not willing to defend yourself, right now, the rest doesn't matter. 

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Black Swan Approaching

I'm going to pick up on a thread from over at Tam's VFTP about how the US is pushing China to re-value their currency in a way we like.  I'm not going to talk about the hypocrisy of the US telling other people how to manage their economies when ours is a certifiable basket case.  I'm going to point out the error of linear thinking, that we get cheap plastic junk from China, Inc. and we don't make things here.  There is a black swan coming. Since the book by that name, the term "black swan" is used by a lot of people for events that go largely or completely unpredicted and that come along changing everything.  An example might be the 9/11 attacks, or the Christmas tsunami.  You rarely get to see the black swan events before they hit, but this one is 100% predictable.  (BTW, I don't get anything if you click on that link to the book at Amazon or buy it - this blog is entirely self-funded.  No handout cups here). 

The black swan is desktop 3D printing.  See for example a video from Electronic Design magazine.  
from this years' Consumer Electronics Show, about a kit version (2 video parts) or the Rep Rap project for an open source project that has been going for years. 

Right now, you can buy a 3D printer that will make plastic parts in a 4x4x6 envelope for under a k-buck.   High end industrial systems go in tens of k-bucks.  Yeah, for a thousand dollars it's a kit and the only ones playing with them are hardware geeks, but it's entirely open source and that means all the forces that make digital stuff half the price and twice the performance in a couple of years are at play. 

That means that in a few more years, the price will be $500 and the envelope bigger.  That means all the stupid plastic junk that comes from China will be made at your home, cutting out a massive chunk of the trade imbalance.  It will progress from there.  If the TEOTWAWKI doesn't come along and complicate things, I'll guess that by no later than 2020 when you need a toaster or other small home thingy, you'll either download a freeware set of plans or buy the plans like you do other intellectual property, (maybe from an iPrint store - yo Apple, I said it first - I'll sell you the name!) then print it out at home.  Some assembly certainly required. 

Closest thing to a Star Trek replicator on the horizon.

In the meantime, if China were to suddenly shut us off in retaliation, virtually everything is made in the US in some quantity except the cheap crap these printers can make.  (What?  No more bamboo umbrellas for our drinks??)  Heck, there's something like 25,000 people with a home/hobby CNC machine shop that could start a cottage industry making pretty much anything.

And you know what?  Shutting us off may be harder on China than on us.  We lose our source of the bamboo umbrellas in our drinks and plastic crap, but they have millions of people trying to move out of the crushing poverty of subsistence farming in the countryside into the cities.  Get a day job (instead of the life job of subsistence farming).  Enjoy just a touch of western prosperity.  Personally, I have always believed that this phase of cheap products was a stopgap for China; it gets them jobs building things, gives them practice and a place to ship their education, and gets them set for when their great middle class takes over buying their national production.  

As you might gather from my profile, I'm an electrical engineer.  I've worked in the manufacturing sector here in Florida for 35 years, and I'm tired of everyone saying we don't manufacture things in the US.   Yes, our leviathan has taxed the bat crap out of manufacturing and just about driven it all overseas, but there is a lot made in the US.  Electronic systems of all kinds - largely industrial and military for sure, but there is a big, vibrant sector here.  Spend some time at the National Association of Manufacturers and look at their videos from manufacturers all over the US.  

It's not often you see a black swan coming.  Even more rare that you can find one to invest in.  No, I have no connection with these folks or anyone in that business.  My work depends on you flying somewhere for vacation or business or just to go somewhere.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Nothing Like A Few Hours on the Range

Mrs. Graybeard and I got a few hours of range time outdoors today, on a beautiful clear blue April day.  That's me working on a hundred yard target.

It has been spring in Central Florida for a month now, and the nastiness of summer is approaching quickly so we don't know how many more chances we'll get for some good time outside.  Some years, spring lingers until Memorial Day around here, with days in the mid 80s and nights in the 60s.  Other years, days reach into the 90s by early May, and the pattern of daily thunderstorms starts by the end of the first week in May.  The NWS says this February and March have been exceptionally cold for us; I think of that as lucky and hope our luck holds.  Northerners get melancholy in the fall because the wonderful summer weather that they have enjoyed is coming to an end and the dreary winters are approaching.  It's the opposite here in Florida.  I get melancholy because the awful summer is approaching. 

We started off putting a few hundred more rounds through my XD sc (see below).  We brought our S&W 22A and traded off guns, both of us shooting both the 9mm and the .22LR.  Then, for the first time in both of our lives, we went to a 200 yard range to try precision rifle shooting.  This is bench rest shooting, only; no prone shooting, no standing.  Our rifles were my Nylon 66 in .22 Long Rifle, the first gun I ever "owned" in my life (of course, when you're a kid, mom and dad "own" it) - I've had it since 1969 - and our AR-15, a High Standard outfitted with a BSA "Sweet 223" scope.  The AR started out as their model HSTX6551, but I've since removed the plastic forearm and replaced it with a quad picatinny rail. 

My dear old Nylon 66.  I've taken this to several ranges in the last year since we've gotten serious about self-defense/self-reliance.  Virtually everyone who sees it says either, "Isn't that a Nylon 66?  I used to have one of those - sure wish I never sold it", or "You've got a Nylon 66!  I still have mine, too".  Remington made somewhat north of a million of these semiautomatic 22 rifles from about 1960 until about 1980 and you still see them at shows all over Florida.  Typical price for one of these brown ones would be about $350.  When I took it out of the closet, the disintegrating cardboard box said $49.95.

After checking the rifle zero I set up a couple of months ago at 50 yards and finding it was still good, I started working 100 yards.  It was really pretty easy to hit on the circle at 100 yards.  Of course, my targets are 8" across, so that's not a very challenging target for you expert riflemen, but we're getting started.  Mrs. Graybeard joined the fun, too.


When we weren't shooting the AR, we were shooting the Nylon 66, at 50 yards with iron sights, tearing targets to ribbons.  This is one after a mess of shooting, covering one target and ventilating the new one.  I also shot lots of other targets still left out on the club range. 

The real adventure was 100 yards and 200 yards.  Mrs. Graybeard and I shot to 100 and probably put 120 rounds downrange between us.  The targets ended up looking like this:

Then I decided to go for 200 yards.  We had the range to ourselves, so I took the hike down to set up the targets.  With the scope limited to 12x, I couldn't tell if I was hitting these Caldwell targets, but there was a large Casey target that had fallen to the dirt some time ago, and wonder of wonders, actually stuck to the backing paper.  I could see this one.  Took me a while, and I emptied out a few 30 round mags before we called it a day.  I knew I was near the target and hit it a few times, but didn't really see it well until I walked back down the 200 yards.  

I know that's pretty trivial to you expert riflemen, and I know a lot of you could do that with something less than a 12x scope.  But I've never tried to do benchrest shooting before, let alone out to 200 yards.  Here in Florida, there is hardly any need for shooting that far - it's not like you're going to shoot an elk on the next mountain ridge 1000 yards away - and hardly any place to practice it.  Probably the main reason we joined our gun club is access to this 200 yard range and a "high power rifle" range that extends to 600 yards. 

So it was a very nice day on the range, getting some "group therapy".  I took today, Good Friday, and yesterday off just to relax a little.  Beautiful day, fresh breezes, and the smell of gunpowder.  What could be finer?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Guess I'm Just an Enemy of the State

Thomas Jefferson, certifiable genius, would be an enemy of the state today.

Monica Crowley (that's Dr. Crowley to you) summed it this way in the Washington Times yesterday:

If you have small-government, traditional values, you may be considered by your own leadership to be an enemy of the state.

Last spring, right after President Obama was inaugurated, the Department of Homeland Security released its report "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment" under number IA-0257-09. Being a curious guy, I read it. Let me save you some effort if you haven't read it; it's virtually a fact-free document. There are no statistics cited - certainly not the level of statistics I would look for in engineering - no evidence cited, no references, no bibliography, nothing of any substance - except for a few references to Timothy McVeigh and a few crimes that could arguably be linked to rightwing "Movements". It's argument from the position of "because I said so", not the way scholarly or even legal arguments are made. You could just as authoritatively argue that these were isolated crimes with nothing in common. They use the phrase "rightwing" to mean "hateful" as if there is no hate anywhere else in the political spectrum.

Compare that to "LEFT-WING EXTREMISM: The Current Threat", issued in 2001 by the US Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, under number ORISE 01-0439 and you get an entirely different paper. Instead of being printed on fancy graphical backgrounds, it looks like a research journal article: plain white backgrounds, double-spaced. Every paragraph with claims is footnoted. There's four full pages of bibliography.

The 2001 DoE paper looks like a scholarly research paper done by professionals (it is credited to a Ph.D. author). The 2009 DHS paper looks like an 8th grader's assignment, hastily written in a few minutes but made to look pretty in PowerPoint. (Mrs. Graybeard's rule for presentations to stupid managers: use landscape format with pretty backgrounds and you can say anything).

It doesn't take much research to realize that most of the violent demonstrations have been organized by left wing groups. Whether its protesters at economic summits, environmentalists or just having SEIU beat up people for you, these are not "small-government, traditional values". Perhaps the administration should look at little more closely at their fellow travelers for true "enemies of the state".