Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Things Are Popping Over at Boca Chica

Only one thing actually popped: SN7.1 finally popped early this morning.  

The culmination of three nights and more than 20 hours of concerted effort, SpaceX was finally able to fill Starship test tank SN7.1 with several hundred tons of liquid nitrogen before dawn on September 23rd. With just an hour left in the day’s test window, SpaceX closed the tank’s vents, allowing its cryogenic contents to boil into gas and expand with no outlet. At 4:57 am CDT, SN7.1 burst, bringing its lengthy test campaign to a decisive end.

This video should start about 2:10 into the timeline, and a few seconds before the pop.  There's no real reason to watch more than about 30 seconds, IMO.  As for the test, there's no word on whether it performed as desired, or was excessively strong (such that they could make the metal thinner and save some weight); I'll say being excessively weak is unlikely, thinking earlier tests would have blown the tank if it was too weak.  Ordinarily SpaceX doesn't release specifics; those are tweeted by Elon Musk. 

Everything else out at Boca Chica is really hopping, though.

With the destructive test over, the totally new phase begins.  As commenter BillB and I wrote about on Monday, and as Teslarati writes about after this morning's test, it looks like Serial Number 8 will be wheeled to the test stand early tomorrow - or possibly a bit later if needed to finish configuring it for test.  A series of tests will ensue, and with reasonable progress, SN8 will hop to around 60,000 feet in the not too distant future.  I could see it making its big hop by mid-October.  Photographer Mary, Boca Chica Gal, took this photo of number 8 for today:  

As you can see, SN8 already looks quite different from the flying grain solos we've already seen (SN5 and 6); but it doesn't have a nose cone.  The speculation is just when that gets added.  

As of September 23rd, SN8’s twin aft flaps – large aerodynamic control surfaces meant to stabilize free-falling Starships – have been fully installed alongside ‘aerocovers’ that will protect each flap’s control mechanisms. The only hardware Starship SN8 is missing is a ~20m (~60 ft) tall nosecone, two smaller forward flaps, and the plumbing needed to access a smaller liquid oxygen “header” tank located in the tip of said nose.

At the moment, SpaceX has installed one Starship nosecone prototype atop five unpressurized rings – creating a full nosecone stack. That particular prototype has no liquid oxygen header tank, however, meaning that SpaceX would likely need at least a day or two to weld one of the noses with a header tank atop one of several finished five-ring sections. In other words, to transport SN8 to the pad tomorrow, there’s almost no chance that SpaceX will have time to finish and install a proper nosecone on the prototype, meaning that the company has chosen to test the Starship before that milestone.

It appears the answer is that they will test what they can without the nosecone.  This morning's successful pop of SN7.1 was followed by road closure notices for SN8’s transport to the launch pad around dawn tomorrow, September 24th, and another closure just labelled “SN8 Testing” set for September 27th, Sunday.

Another very interesting thing to note is that the first sections dedicated to a prototype Starship Heavy booster have begun their assembly in the shipyard.  The High Bay itself isn't quite fully assembled, but details like that don't seem to slow them down too long.  The first Super Heavy sections can be seen from around the 12minute 30 second mark through the end of this NASA Spaceflight video.  Valuable more for what they represent rather than how impressive they look.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Kiwi Rocket and Satellite Manufacturer Set to Launch From US Soil

We've met and talked about Rocket Lab, the New Zealand rocket and satellite startup, in these pages before.  Last summer ('19), I noted that they had signed a contract to launch from Wallops Island, Virginia.  Last week, they completed all their preparations for their first mission from Virginia and are now just waiting on a safety review from NASA before setting the date for their launch. 

The California-based company, which has launched 14 missions to date from its New Zealand site, just wrapped up a "wet dress rehearsal" at its Launch Complex 2 (LC-2), at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, Virginia. 

During the exercise, a Rocket Lab Electron booster was rolled out to the newly built pad, raised vertical and fueled. Mission managers then took a simulated countdown all the way to 0, to verify that all procedures will work as planned on launch day.

The topic of the safety review?  It's actually a review of a control system NASA is developing and not specific to Rocket Lab.  It's an autonomous launch abort system. 

The Rocket Lab statement also clarified that before a launch window is assigned for their first US-launched mission, NASA will first conduct its final development and certification of their Autonomous Flight Termination System (AFTS) software for the mission. The NASA AFTS, according to its Flight Opportunities webpage, is an independent subsystem for the agency's range safety operations. Using Global Positioning System (GPS) and Inertial Navigation System (INS), it can create flight termination decisions without human intervention. Basically, in the event the rocket swerves off course, the AFTS can issue a termination command to the launch vehicle.

Rocket Lab claims the addition of the new launch facility, officially the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, Virginia, gives them the capability to run to 130 launches a year, a rate that nobody maintains.  (Launch Complex 1, on New Zealand's North Island, is licensed for up to 120 flights/year by itself.)  The addition gives Rocket Lab two launch facilities in opposite hemispheres; Virginia and New Zealand.  There's no mention of how much overlap of orbital capabilities Virginia and New Zealand have and if one is markedly better than the other for some orbits, but it gives them more launch capability. 

Rocket Lab aims to greatly increase access to space with the 57-foot-tall (17 meters) Electron, which gives small satellites dedicated rides to Earth orbit. Those rides will soon go farther afield as well: Rocket Lab will use Electron and its new Photon satellite bus to send a cubesat to the moon for NASA next year, and the company plans to launch a private life-hunting mission to Venus in 2023.

LC-2 is designed to be a jumping-off point for U.S. government payloads. The upcoming mission, for example, will loft a microsatellite called Monolith for the United States Space Force, in partnership with the Department of Defense's Space Test Program and the Space and Missile Systems Center's Small Launch and Targets Division. 

Monolith will test how effectively small satellites can carry "large aperture" space weather payloads, military officials said late last year, during LC-2's official opening.

Rocket Lab's Electron just after the Wet Dress Rehearsal, Thursday September 17th.  

With the emergence of Rocket Lab as leader in the small sat launch sector, and SpaceX offering ride sharing for smaller payloads on its heavier lift vehicles, it's looking to me like the predicted shake out in the small launcher business may be happening by default.  I know there are other companies that are just about there, but it seems to me they'd better be pretty advanced pretty soon to get into that market.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Another Topic Sucking Up My Attention Span

While the temptation to wax eloquent over the Notorious RBG is at least as tempting as jumping headlong into a patch of poison ivy, growing in a fire ant mound, while nekkid, I have other things on my mind.  After watching or reading someone's take on the new environment we find ourselves in, I find myself trapped in the morass of looking into self defense/concealed carry insurance policies.  

You might expect there to be a spreadsheet involved, and there should be.  I just haven't progressed to that point because it's not even clear enough to me how to compare some of the plans.   

Let me give a short summary of what I've found, and if any of you have worthwhile input, please fire away in the comments!  Same goes for if you know of options I don't have here.  With any luck, this might prove to be helpful to others. 

To begin with, there seems to be a couple of approaches to the whole business.  One appears more like conventional insurance; they have a list of benefits and expense amounts that they'll cover up to like you might read in your medical insurance plan.  The example that I found first is Second Call Defense - as in the number you call after you call 911.  They plainly list out coverages, like this:

Immediate Cash for Bond up to $5,000*
Immediate Attorney Retainer up to $5,000
Aftermath Site Clean-up up to $1,000
Legal Protection - Criminal
Criminal Defense Protection up to $50,000
Legal Defense & Indemnity - Civil
Accidental Shooting Protection up to $50,000
Civil Suit Defense Protection up to $500,000
Civil Suit Damages Protection up to $50,000

That's a snippet, not everything they say.  There are different levels of protection for differing premiums.  I don't see anything about a deductible, but I see those limits as hard numbers.  Say you end up getting charged in a criminal case: they'll pay a retainer to an attorney of up to $5,000 and the most they'll pay for your defense is $50,000.  If your defense costs add up to $75,000, the other $25k is out of your pocket. 

The larger number of plans (at least, plans I've found so far) aren't insurance and don't list maximums they'll cover.  The big names are probably CCWSafe and the Armed Citizens' Legal Defense Network.  CCWSafe is endorsed by Andrew Branca of The Law of Self Defense and probably best known for his book by the same name.  CCWSafe's website includes this note in the description of their various plans:

Note that our company is a legal service subscription plan - not an insurance company - and we are therefore not bound to conflicts and issues related to insurance company products. CCW Safe is designed to indemnify the expenses arising from a covered incident, regardless of the final trial outcome.

 Their description of coverage says things like:

  • Access to our 24-hour Emergency Hotline
  • Critical Response Team onsite response
  • Bail coverage to $500K
  • Vetting of attorneys by National Trial Counsel
  • Unlimited attorney fees covered upfront
  • Unlimited investigation fees covered upfront
  • Unlimited expert witness fees covered upfront

Again, just a snippet.  

Just as CCWSafe is associated with giant legal name, the Armed Citizens' Legal Defense Network (ACLDN) is associated with Marty Hayes.  They appear to be run by a board consisting of recognized leaders in self-defense training including Massad Ayoob, and John Farnam.   

Like CCWSafe, they say they're not an insurance company, but it's difficult to see exactly what you get for your annual membership.   Yes, they'll help with bail; yes, they'll set you up with a network attorney, and so on, but they're not relatively simple direct statements like CCWSafe's.

If you read here regularly, you've probably seen in the right column that I'm a long time member of Florida Carry, a group dedicated to lobbying and trying to influence the state legislature to do the right things.  Florida Carry recommends U.S. LawShield.  They appear to be a network of attorneys, and I find it difficult to find what their benefits are, too.  Their website simply says:

  • 24/7/365 Attorney-Answered Emergency Hotline
  • Unlimited civil & criminal defense litigation coverage
  • Coverage for all legal weapons

They won't tell me more if I don't register on the website, and I object to that.

Finally, there is a program from the US Concealed Carry Association (USCCA), called SHIELD.  They have several levels of program for presumably increasing premiums/costs: Gold, Platinum, and Elite.  For example their lowest level lists these benefits:

  • $100,000 in Self-Defense SHIELD protection for criminal defense, bail bond funding and attorney retainer
  • $500,000 in Self-Defense SHIELD protection for civil defense and damages
  • Retain your existing criminal defense attorney or choose one from the USCCA Attorney Network
  • Protection following the self-defense use of all legal weapons of opportunity
  • Up-front funding for criminal defense and bail bonds
  • 24/7/365 access to the USCCA Critical Response Team hotline

While I'm not a member of USCCA and this is just a gut feel, I've always gotten the impression that this insurance is one of a couple of their reasons for being.  They regularly have gun giveaway contests to pad their mailing list and I unsubscribed to reduce the amount of SPAM I get every day.  

All of them emphasize education and training.  All of them have some training-related benefits in their coverages including books, videos, podcasts, seminars and more.    

What say?  There will be a spreadsheet, and I promise to post it.  

My summer, shorts-and-fishing shirt carry Sig P238.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Another Weekend Ketchup

I've been a bit scarce around here since Friday; yesterday, we attended a going away party for some dear friends who moved over to the far side or Orlando from here, so about 90 miles away.  In the big picture sense, not that far, but still far enough so that we won't see them every couple of weeks like we're used to.  The party took some prep time yesterday, and lasted longer/later than expected.  Today has been catching up.  So a couple of smaller post topics that are interesting but don't need a longer post.

It's not really news, but just to confirm it, the end of solar cycle 24 was marked last December, and we're now firmly in cycle 25.  NASA and NOAA made the announcement on the 15th.  The number of cycle 24 spots has been in decline, and while the first cycle 25 spot was seen over a year ago, the cycle 24 spots seem to have stopped.

“How quickly solar activity rises is an indicator on how strong the next solar cycle will be,” says Doug Biesecker of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, co-chair of the Solar Cycle 25 Prediction Panel. “Although we’ve seen a steady increase in sunspot activity this year, it is slow.”

Unfortunately, that leading sentence is a bit of a problem.  You see, according to, as of today, the sun has been spotless 30 days.  For the year, the sun has been spotless 186 days, or 70% of the year.  Not exactly a gangbusters start.   

Last Thursday, the 17th, SpaceX had scheduled the launch of their next bunch of Starlink Internet satellites.  The launch was scrubbed with something like 10 minutes left in the countdown.  It was quickly rescheduled for the following day, and almost as quickly scrubbed again.  It took at least another day for us to find the reason: the booster recovery drone ship was unable to remain stationary in the ocean currents off the southeast coast.  

The major reason for the strong currents going out of range that the ship's thrusters can handle is the effects of Hurricane Teddy in the Atlantic basin, southeast of Bermuda.  A second consideration is that being close to the fall equinox, tides and tidal currents are higher than normal - even more so with the moon close to being a New Moon on the equinox as it is.  Last Thursday, the day of the mission scrub, the hurricane was quite far from Bermuda:

For reference the drone ship (in this case, Just Read The Instructions, JRTI) is deployed northeast of Cape Canaveral, about 350 to 400 miles out.  That puts it around the latitude of the Georgia/South Carolina border.  The storm is still south of that latitude; it's due east of Cape Canaveral as of the 2PM update. 

[in a tweet...] Musk revealed that SpaceX means for its drone ship “thrusters to be upgraded for future missions,” an obviously intuitive response to drone ships being overpowered by ocean currents. There’s one simple problem, though: drone ship Just Read The Instructions, the same ship currently unable to hold its position in (admittedly strong) ocean currents, completed extensive upgrades just a handful of months ago.

JRTI now has thrusters bigger than those on her sister ship, Of Course I Still Love You, so I'm assuming JRTI was sent on this flight because it can withstand higher currents than OCISLY.  Both will need to be upgraded.  

My guess is that JRTI will be able to handle the currents later in the week.  By Wednesday, Teddy will be in the Canadian Maritime Provinces headed for Greenland and the Atlantic basin will be calming back down.  We'll also be on the other side of the equinox, with the moon approaching first quarter next weekend.  All of those seem to line up for lower currents. 

Finally, over in Boca Chica, Starship prototype serial number 7.1 is still intact. They have yet to actually test the prototype to bursting, but have gone through several other tests with cryogenic loads.   The next tests are scheduled for Monday night through Tuesday morning.  Tropical storm Beta is currently making news in the Gulf, but the southernmost portion of the Texas coast, where SpaceX is located, is not under tropical storm watches or warnings and it should be possible to do the tests.  

This is SN7.1 last Saturday.  At the moment, the camera framing is different, but 7.1 looks the same.

Friday, September 18, 2020

A Ham Radio Series 14 – The Self-Policing Aspect of Ham Radio

After my last post on radio, an anonymous comment complained that something they’d like to see available in the ham universe isn’t there, and thought it was because hams are eager to report anyone who uses illegal technology so that the offenders can be loaded onto the trains to some metaphorical Auschwitz-style camp. 

The communication security situation doesn't appear to have changed since the seven year old post. Nobody will openly build a crypto add-on gadget, because too many hams will spend too much effort snitching on them. Hams won't quite push you into the ovens with their very own hands, but they will alert the enforcers if you try to get out of the line to the ovens.

I think this is missing the point entirely, but that's easy for an outsider to do.  Could it be they don't want to send you off to the ovens, they’re just trying to protect the ham bands?  Or someone might not talk about what they’re experimenting with because they don't want to get fined or their license revoked?  Remember, we're not talking BLM or antifa here, normal hams can get fines.  Better to not talk about the crypto system than draw attention to themselves.  The ham bands aren’t full of whacked-out haters looking to get rid of everybody else, but hams are very accustomed to people using the bands without a license or not following the band plans, causing interference problems.  

For as long as I can remember, hams have been trying to keep other users out of the ham bands.   Go listen to the bottom 100 kHz of 10 meters; if propagation is open you'll hear fishing boats chatting, mostly in Spanish.  Before the fishermen, it was “sliders” that would come into the 10m band - sliders were CBers whose radios had VFOs and weren't just channelized only for the Citizen's Band.  If you hear anyone talking between 28.000 and 28.100 they’re not supposed to be there – it’s allocated for CW and narrowband data pretty much worldwide.  Having all communications unencrypted makes the jobs of both the FCC and the ARRL Volunteer Monitors (formerly the Official Observers, OO) easier, among other things.  Prohibiting encryption makes it practical to understand everyone on the bands so both the FCC and the other hams know the stations they’re monitoring aren’t using the frequencies without a license.   

If you create a voice scrambler, it’s going to sound noise-like, but in a narrowband signal (so the radio can handle it).  That will stand out like a sore thumb.  Hams will start looking for it expecting it to be some sort of Cable TV (data) leakage or some piece of equipment that’s broken.  They’ll especially go looking for the signal with direction finding equipment if it’s tying up a repeater or popular frequency.  Interference from other services or broken equipment happens all the time.  

Hams are self-policing because the spectrum auctions the FCC has held prove that spectrum is worth real money to companies and there's a widespread feeling that if we become more of a pain than we're worth, the FCC will sell the spectrum to some other entity.  Or the cities/counties/states who rely on ham radio for disaster communications will do their best to direct the FCC enforcement group to the person violating rules.  

It’s a self-consistent system that makes sense.  The FCC allocates portions of spectrum to different services, and virtually all services pay fees for that access.  If nothing else, they pay for their license.  The regulatory agency needs to know if everyone is playing nice.  More important than that, they need to know whom to contact to shut down a station when that station is is putting a transmitter spurious product on some important frequency like 121.500 MHz: the aviation emergency frequency.  By its nature, radio doesn’t respect borders, so interference between states (and across borders) is routine.

Now you can argue that the old way of allocating frequencies is outdated in the age of frequency-agile radios and should be scrapped.  Everyone with every type of license could use the entire 2 to 30 MHz HF band, for example.  I don’t see how that could work with many of the services they regulate, but let’s say the FCC does this.  The problem is the whole world uses frequency allocations by service like the US does and having services on known bands, similar all over the world, makes interoperation between countries more feasible.  Changing this worldwide would obsolete every radio on earth, from shortwave listeners, to marine radios, to aircraft to physical therapy machines.  If you want to change spectrum allocations for the entire world, remember big wheels turn slowly and there are no bigger wheels than all the governments of the world.  

It may be that your desired invention is out there, but nobody talks about it because they don't want to be targeted by FCC enforcement.

If you want to do those experiments though, I'll tell you what to do.  Go up above 1 GHz where the bands are big and spread out, and do your experiments up there.  They’re lightly used in much of the nation, so you can experiment to your heart’s desire.  Thanks to a combination of technical reasons, your chances of being monitored are minuscule.  If you want an HT to play with, they exist for the 1.2 GHz band, the most heavily used of all the microwave bands, with the possible exception of 2.4 GHz where ham allocations overlap the WiFi band.  In current production I see the Alinco DJ-G7T. There are other, older models out there in the used market.  

It goes without saying to avoid repeater channels, which make it easier to be heard over bigger areas.  You can look on one of the repeater directory websites (or buy a book) to see if there are any 1.2 GHz repeaters in your area and avoid those.

You might want to go higher than 1.2 GHz.  There are ham hacks to some WiFi routers.  While that's a crowded band, you might not attract as much attention if your spectrum and coding aren’t exactly the same as everyone else.  Up at 10 GHz there are no HTs but commercially made gear is available.

At 10 GHz, normal frequency uncertainties make finding anyone to talk with difficult.  A 1/2 part per million TCXO, those are good for ham gear but used to be rather expensive, puts two people as much as 5 kHz apart at 10 GHz.  If both are on SSB, they might never hear each other.  It's a good place to experiment because being randomly overheard isn't the issue most hams have on 10 GHz; they have a hard enough time hearing someone who they aren't working hard to set up a contact with.

Once you get the hardware and software working, you can move it to any band it fits in.  

In the early days, the ARRL monitors - the Official Observers - were advertised as our friends.  They tune the band listening for signals with problems and let you know if your signal was one.  This cartoon emphasized that if you had something wrong with your station, it would be better to get a note from your OO instead of the pink slip from an FCC monitor.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Color Revolution

Let me lead by saying that while I said I didn't feel comfortable with the subject last night, I did several hours of reading and digging into the subject, enough that I think I can be conversant.  Not at all an expert, but maybe I can help a little.  As I said then, if you really want to come up to speed, the article on Revolver is worth the time to read.  

I find that everyone is all over this story.  That article on Revolver links to two more pieces in a three piece series (so far).  The Burning Platform has a piece, linked to three others.  A simple web search brings up many people saying we're in the battlespace prep phase of a Color Revolution here in the US, starting no later than Election Day.  Glenn Beck has devoted hours of radio air time to interviews with people who know about the tactic, and put an hour special show up on YouTube last night. 

The Revolver article talks about the originator of the concept, with this introduction:

This combination of tactics used in so-called Color Revolutions did not come from nowhere. Before Norm Eisen came Gene Sharp—originator and Godfather of the Color Revolution model that has been a staple of US Government operations externally (and now internally) for decades. Before Norm Eisen’s “Playbook” there was Gene Sharp’s classic “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” which might be justly described as the Bible of the Color Revolution. Such is the power of the strategies laid out by Sharp that a Lithuanian defense minister once said of Sharp’s preceding book (upon which Dictatorship to Democracy builds) that  “I would rather have this book than the nuclear bomb.”

It's hard to keep the characters straight because they bounce back and forth, only seemingly having worked in the Bill Clinton or Obama administrations and being Trump haters seems to unify them.  One of Gene Sharp's disciples, Michael McFaul, served as ambassador to Russia under Obama.  McFaul is now one of the group apparently organizing the Color Revolution against the US.  He put together this list of the seven pillars needed to support a Color Revolution (my notes):

1.  Need to start with semi-autocratic regime, not fully autocratic – gives them the ability to say, “he’s a fascist”
2.  Unpopular incumbent leader
3.  United and organized opposition
4.  Effective system (control of media) to convince the public voting was falsified; plants the ideas before the election
5.  Mainstream media to push falsified vote message.  Currently doing battlespace prep
6.  Political organization to flood the streets, protesting election fraud; “thousands to millions in the streets”
7.  Divisions among regime’s military and police – so that they fight each other instead of stopping the attacks in the street.

McFaul put out this tweet that's emphasizing the last pillar.  Concerned that people were seeing it that maybe shouldn't, he deleted it.  But the Internet is Forever:

If you look around, there's battlespace prep everywhere.  A group called Momentum, veterans of Occupy Wall Street - training people to do occupy tactics.  They're training communist groups like BLM and the Sunrise Movement (Green New Deal commies).  You might recall a group called Axios was in the news last week (week before?) talking about how there could be a “red wave” on election day that they overthrow with mail in ballots.  Another group is called Fight Back table.  Their role is “occupy shit, hold space, shut things down – for weeks or months” 

There's more.  You may have heard of a group called the Transition Integrity Project (as in transition after the election).  As always, the name is the exact opposite of what they want.  They feature John Podesta and Bill Kristol,  so it’s “bipartisan.”  Advisors from the Clinton/Obama/Biden teams are war gaming civil war.  In the war game, John Podesta played Team Biden.   He proposed that California, Oregon and Washington (“Cascadia”) secede from the country unless Republicans agree to reform the country: eliminate electoral college, divide California into five states so they have 10 senators, make Puerto Rico a state.   All of which will ensure a conservative will never be president again. 

The Obama administration ran the Color Revolution in other countries.  Sometimes it worked, others it didn't.  I think the highlighted portions of this text, from the Revolver article, sums it up pretty well.  

Considering the people behind the Color Revolution in the US, and the number that have worked for the US at various times, the whole revolution seems to be the Deep State revolting against the American people.  They are mounting a Color Revolution to ensure the American people don't interfere in the election.  As always, they know better than you what you need or want, so shut up and let them rule. 



Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Getting Old Rocket Upper Stages and Satellites Down

Tough choice tonight.  I find myself with two paths in front of me.  One is to go down the path of the color revolution against the US that is apparently in process right now.   Down that path, I really don't know much.  Not enough to write authoritatively.  I've been listening to people talk about it but I'm not where I could write authoritatively about it.  I'd recommend you read that linked article, but that's about it for now.

Or I could go down the path of a novel little story about space technology I ran into from Microwaves & RF magazine's website.  Since that's a decidedly techy story about space, two of my main labels, I'll go that way.

Researchers at Perdue have been working on a way to get dead satellites and rocket upper stages out of orbit.  This is a drag sail, sort of a parachute that will be deployed at the end of life.  Even as high as 400 miles, there's a minuscule amount of atmospheric drag; the drag sail uses it to bleed velocity off the satellite or upper stage, getting it to eventually re-enter the atmosphere, over “months or years.”

“High-value orbits around Earth are getting congested,” said David Spencer, a Purdue adjunct associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics and the mission manager for the Mars Sample Return Campaign at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “If we don’t get satellites or other launch vehicle components out of orbit, then eventually highly utilized orbits are going to become unusable for other space systems,” he said. “Drag sail technology is designed to launch with a host spacecraft or launch vehicle and deploy at the end of the host vehicle’s mission. The drag provided by the Earth’s atmosphere will accelerate the vehicle’s deorbit.”

Dirt simple concept.  The trick is the drag sail is going to be a tightly packed until it's needed to drag the satellite down, so it needs to survive being packed tightly and work after a long time in the hostile environment we call low earth orbit.  Lots of missions, especially deep space missions to other planets, have requirements like that.  

The drag sail, called “Spinnaker 3,” is named after its 3-m-long booms. It is not the first drag sail to be launched into space, but it is the first to be large enough to deorbit the upper stage of a launch vehicle. The Alpha rocket launch for Firefly Aerospace is being planned for an orbiting altitude of about 200 miles. The Spinnaker3 drag sail is capable of deorbiting rockets and launch vehicles at altitudes of 400 miles or more above the Earth. Spinnaker3 (see the figure) employs 3-m-long carbon fiber booms that pull out a sail with an area of 194 ft.2 The sail employs a fluorinated polyimide material called CP-1, produced by the company NeXolve Materials and designed to withstand any deterioration effects of monatomic oxygen in low Earth orbit.

The drag sail self deploying.  Purdue photo. 194 square feet is 13.9 feet on a side, which goes nicely with each of those four “arms” being 3m long.  As usual, more at the Purdue site linked there than the Microwaves & RF excerpt of it. 

The options for getting something down from a densely populated Low Earth Orbit are pretty much something like this or some sort of thrusters.  The idea of getting upper stages down have centered on having enough fuel left over to de-orbit the upper stage.  As the article points out, that's pounds of fuel instead of payload and rocket makers don't like that trade.  A bigger drag sail on something like the upper stages of vehicles that put satellites up higher might have its place, too.  Or a combination of some sort of thruster to bring the satellite down from its service orbit to a lower altitude where the drag sail could bring it down the rest of the way. 

As the article points out, it's getting crowded out there, especially in the “high-value orbits.”  The easy and cheap access to orbit that has been developing for the last decade will only increase that crowding.  It's getting to be past the time to pay attention to reducing the amount of stuff in orbit.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Got Past The Roadblock In The Shop

In the continuing saga of building my first internal combustion engine, I posted last week about encountering a problem with making a spring and having it come out the right dimensions.   I've managed to get past that roadblock by making yet another fixture and another spring.  

This is the third fixture and the sixth spring.  The fixture is 1/4" drill rod, turned down to .155.  Then the fixture is taken off the lathe and over to the big mill where it's drilled through in two places; on the left a 0.040" diameter through hole, and on the right, it's drilled larger (.073) and tapped for a #2-56 screw.  Back to the lathe where the wire was wound freehand (I think you'd guess that) while turning the chuck by hand and the loose end clamped under the screw on the right.  The longish loose end is clipped and into the toaster oven for heat treating.  

The end result fit the previously made parts better than anything so far.  

That's the intake valve assembly, with the spring retainer on top and a piece of temporary wire through the valve that holds it in place.  The fixture is in front of them.  I had a spring from an old project that was just about the ideal size for the exhaust valve and that one just needed to be cut to length. 

Intake on the left, exhaust on the right. 

The next puzzle was the exhaust pipe (since there's nothing in the pipe it seems wrong to call it a muffler, like I did before).  The tricky problem here was cutting off a thin-walled (about 0.015" thick) piece of bronze pipe that I made by drilling a 0.344 hole into a 0.375 bar.  Not just cutting it off; cutting it off at a 30 degree angle.  Two problems stood out: the first would be holding the work at the proper angle, and the second would be holding the pipe tightly enough to withstand cutting forces while not crushing it.  

My solution: make a fixture by drilling a 3/8" hole in a piece of 1x2 pine, 30 off vertical, slitting the piece of wood in half along the 2" dimension vertically, and then clamping the wood around the pipe.  Move the combination onto the Sherline mill, clamp it in the vise and cut it off with a thin slitting saw. Like this (at setup):

You can see a wood screw at top left, one of two screws clamping the front and back pieces of wood down around the pipe.  After lining up the edge for the cut this way, I moved the pipe to the left side of the saw blade (in this view) and made a cut.  The blade was too high, so I lowered the saw blade about half its thickness and made the cut again.  Closer, but still a bit short of the right depth.  Lowering the blade one more time, got me the right cut.  

What's left?  I don't know.  I've gone through the drawings a few times, and I think I've made everything that goes into the engine.  If there are missing parts, they would probably show up best if I go through the box of completed parts and try to put it all together.  I suspect I'll cut a handful of custom washers and spacers.  I know I need a set of ignition points, which the plans call out as: (1969 DODGE CHARGER, 383, 4BL, W/SINGLE POINT DIST.)  I have a couple of auto parts stores within a couple of miles of home.  Time to go get those.  

Monday, September 14, 2020

Chinese Launch Drops Booster Near a School

Last November 27th, I posted a piece saying among the things I'm thankful for is that the Rocket Ranch 35-ish miles north of here doesn't drop boosters with poisonous propellants on me, like the Chinese launchers do over there.  This week we get another close look, courtesy of social media coverage and citizen reporters who got the film out.  This was covered last Tuesday in Ars Technica, where Eric Berger brings the details.  

On Monday, a Long March 4B rocket launched from China's Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center carrying a remote-sensing satellite. This 50-year-old spaceport is located in north-central China, about 500km to the southwest of Beijing.

As often happens with the first stages of Chinese rockets launching from the inland Taiyuan facility, the spent Long March 4B booster fell downstream of the spaceport. In this case, it landed near a school, creating a predictably large cloud of toxic gas.

The reason this is an issue is the Long March 4B, and other rockets regularly launched from the Taiyuan site are fueled by Hydrazine (fuel) and Nitrogen Tetroxide (NTO - oxidizer).  The combination is an efficient and good fuel.  The drawback is that they're highly toxic and highly corrosive.  

Check out this image taken from an observer near the school:

I honestly don't know what a fatal dose of that gas would be, but I'd be running upwind from that.  The full video embedded at Ars shows the booster falling and some shots of the damage. Worth the 40 seconds to watch.  There was no release of a number of injuries or fatalities from the booster or the gas.

The combination of hydrazine and NTO is well known in rocketry and used in modern craft like the SpaceX dragon and crew dragon capsules where it's the fuel for the emergency abort system.  Other than small-volume, limited-use systems like that, the last US rocket to use hydrazine-NTO for an entire stage was the Delta II which used it to power the second stage.  That rocket's last launch was in 2018.  It's not widely used in the world.   

Yet the majority of China's launch fleet is powered by hydrazine fuel and nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer. This includes its human-rated Long March 2F rocket as well as the widely used Long March 4 family. All of these rockets, with their toxic first stages, launch over land and have caused numerous incidents over the years. These fuels are cheap and relatively easy to use, and it would have been natural for China to use them in the 1980s and 1990s when these boosters were developed. But their use continues unabated today.

As I noted in that post last year, China has decided to start investigating grid fins, like the Falcon 9 uses, which could give them the ability to avoid dropping rockets on schools, but that R&D project doesn't seem to be out of compassion for their citizens.  It appears to be related to a desire to master the technology to reuse rockets like SpaceX has done, not to protect citizens.  China has been launching rockets for more than 30 years, and grid fin technology has been known the entire time.  It's only now that SpaceX has made the technology useful and dependable that they're interested in it.

The Long March 5 uses kerosene and liquid oxygen, just like the Falcon 9, much less poisonous in the event a booster crashes into a populated area.  So it's not like they don't know how to use that fuel system.  

Oh, by the way, the Long March 5 is launched from the Wenchang Spacecraft Launch Site, not the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center.  Wenchang launches out over the ocean.  The only schools it affects are fish. 

Credit: Xinhua/Liu Qiaoming via Getty Images 

This shows the launch of another Long March 4B from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in Taiyuan in north China's Shanxi Province in April, 2019.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

A Ham Radio Series 13 – What Do You Do With Ham Radio?

I thought I’d switch gears here from being fairly deep into the technical side to the general side.  I see regular references to clubs putting together programs to help new hams out.  There’s a perception that “too many” new hams get a license and never get active on the air because nobody helps them get started.  I don't know how many that is, but it seems to be a shame.  

Let me start by saying I sure can’t tell you how every radio you could possibly buy will work, but I can offer some help about ham radio in general.  

So let’s begin with what do you do with ham radio?  I refer to ham radio as a thousand hobbies with the same name and only one thing in common: communications.  

By communications, I mean generally meeting and talking with other people; the really old ham term for talking is rag-chewing, which you can see if you can visualize how your jaw might move chewing on an old, tough rag.  The chats can be local or across the world.  Worldwide contacts tend to be more or less exchanging signal reports and fairly formulaic bits of information.  This is partly because of language differences, if there are any, partly because stations from “rare” countries (rare is defined as any country you personally haven’t worked (contacted) and want to) tend to attract crowds (pileups) of guys calling rudely and partly because of an international regulation that says contacts between hams in different countries should be about things so trivial that recourse to commercial communication isn’t necessary.  That law is because in many countries, the government controls the phone, telegraph and internet and doesn’t want to lose revenue.  

I’ve never heard of anyone being prosecuted for violating that but maybe it happens overseas.  
Basic contacts, are kind of formulaic; there’s the exchange of callsigns, so that each side is sure whom they’re talking with, signal reports of readability and strength, or for Morse code (CW) Readability, Strength and Tone (RST), then usually location (QTH) and name.  The same basic contact exchanges are used for every mode, from voice to the most exotic digital modes.  There are common abbreviations and prosigns in ham radio that are helpful to know.  You may see a long table of abbreviations beginning with a Q such as QSL, QTH, QRP and more.  Some of them are far more common than others but it's helpful to keep a list near your radio when you're getting started, to minimize confusion.  

There are many digital modes in ham radio; some are more suited to this casual conversation than others.  Some radios only require a USB connection to the computer to use any of these modes; others might require analog sound in and out of the computer so many ham shacks have a computer in them these days.  Those radios that require an analog interface generally use a small piece of hardware to connect them; things like the SignaLink USB or RigBlasters.  

Last year, during repairs of the lightning damage to my station, I wanted to be able to get my backup radio working quickly.  The main station radio would do digital modes by USB, while the backup required analog audio.  My modification involved getting one SignaLink USB and two cables for the radios, so that I could change one cable that plugs into the SignaLink and switch radios.  

The conversational modes include radioteletype (RTTY), the oldest keyboard mode in ham radio, PSK31 and other Phase Shift Keying modes, FSK (frequency shift keying) modes including Multiple Frequency Shift Keying (MFSK) modes and those mentioned in this seven year old post.  In these keyboard modes, conversation is in free form text and you can type messages as long as you want.  The modern digital modes that allow copying very far below the noise level (of the entire audio bandwidth), like WSJT FT8 are much more restrictive of the number of characters sent because they limit the times of each side of a contact. There are many programs that will decode these modes for you (other than FT8). A very popular program is called fldigi which I've used a few times in the past.  For the last several years, I've been using one called DM780 that comes with Ham Radio Deluxe, but that's not a free app.

It’s not uncommon to try to listen for these modes and not hear anyone.  Sometimes you can try to call a CQ with one of these modes – if everyone is listening for someone else, nobody is calling.  I just tried to find a current and detailed list of frequencies for all digital modes, with no luck.  I would suggest if you want to find where to listen (or call) in some mode that you search the web by the mode name.  For example, if you want to search for PSK31, don't search "digital modes", search "PSK31 frequencies", or even more specifically, such as "PSK31 40m frequency." 

A sub-branch of just plain communications is certificate chasing or “wallpaper collecting” (the certificates are on paper, after all).  There are very common and popular awards, such as working 100 recognized foreign countries (DX Century Club or DXCC with endorsements for certain bands or modes), Worked All States, VHF/UHF Century Club (100 Maidenhead grid squares) and other certificates that show some accomplishment.  The range of certificates to collect go from these "Major Awards" to very small, very limited areas, like working some number of hams in one small area of an overseas country.

The second main branch of communication is doing it for public service and disaster communications.  In addition to running out of space in this post, I’m rather ignorant of the details of this because it’s one of those aspects I’ve not done anything with.  I’d start with the American Radio Relay League’s page and start looking around.  

Screen capture of fldigi demodulating psk31 by Tony, EI2KC.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Small Space New Wrap Up

Small Launcher Startup Astra Loses One in Test Launch

The last time I mentioned small launcher startup Astra was back in March, when they just missed the DARPA challenge by less than a minute.  Unfortunately, there's not much word on what happened but in a video of the launch you can see the first stage fail after about 30 seconds, and then the vehicle starts tumbling.  It falls back to the ground and explodes on impact.  Astra says the first stage looked good but that's putting a happy face on it.  The mission hoped to make orbit but Astra said the mission's main goal was to test the first stage and since it didn't complete its mission that's got to be a disappointment.  As I expected, both Elon Musk and Rocket Lab's Peter Beck offered encouragement via Twitter almost immediately.

Scott Manley, one of the more popular video channels on space topics, has a video on the subject

SpaceX Pressure Test of Starship Prototype SN 7.1 NET Monday.

The original road closure for the pressure test was Friday, but that was cancelled early in the day.  It's not unusual for a scheduled test to slip; the unusual part is they didn't reschedule for the weekend.  SN7.1 has been on the test stand since Wednesday.  After SN6's successful hop test on Thursday the 3rd, SN6 was brought back to the "shipyard" (the area where the vehicles are stacked and built) on Tuesday, 9/8.  SN7.1 was then brought to the a new test stand in the area SN6 hopped from the next day.  At 2013 local here, the system is being worked with a group of guys on and around the test stand.  

The road closure Monday is from 9PM to 6AM Tuesday, so overnight.  I'll look for video Wednesday morning. 

SpaceX Releases an Unusual Video of Last Sunday's SAOCOM-1B launch.

They've released video shot from the cameras on the first stage as it returns to the drone ships before, but the novelty of this video is it's the entire mission from the perspective of the first stage, with sound from microphones attached to the booster.  It's at about 4x normal speed, so it only takes 2:19 of your time. 

NASA's SLS Achieves Important Milestone

I rag on the SLS as much as anyone, so I'm going to tip my hat to them for completing an important milestone test last week.  On September 2nd, they ran a complete burn test of the Solid Rocket Booster that will be used on all versions of the Space Launch System.  See the NASA video here

I know at least a few of you are thinking, "wait - those are the Space Shuttle SRBs; why do they need to qualify them?"  The original supplier of the solid fuel for the boosters has gone out of that business or they're not making that mix anymore, so the new supplier needed to be qualified.

There you go - three stories that are each too short to make up a post, but keep up with what's happening.

EDIT 1106 PM EDT 9/12:  Not quite sure how it happened, but as pointed out in the first comment, the video link to the SLS booster test somehow ended up at a video I never watched.  

Friday, September 11, 2020

Was Sturgis Really A Superspreader Event?

Every so often, I start pulling on a thread and find things I think others might find to be interesting.   Often, it’s in reaction to something that makes me say, “that’s funny” or “that can’t be right.”  That was the case this week.  It starts with this cartoon from Steven Breen at who has been in these pages before. 

If that’s not clear to you, the story is that some group did a computer simulation, which they called a study, and concluded that the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, was a Covid-19 superspreader event that led to about 275,000 “cases” of the virus costing the country over $12 billion dollars.  If you look around you’ll find several numbers for their conclusion.

I didn’t cover anything about the Sturgis rally, but my blog brothers in Miami (and elsewhere) at Gun Free Zone did - along with others.  From what I heard, the event was truly “largely peaceful” and while the riders there, given their strong independent streak, didn’t necessarily follow the lockdown mantra, the number of cases was more like 260 than 260,000.  That's a big difference.  So what gives? 

I was able to find a link to the paper so that I could see what they did.  To say it’s unconventional in its approach is a vast understatement.  Given the factor of a thousand, three orders of magnitude difference, between the reported cases by South Dakota Public Health (which counts people in other states) and the paper, it seems that the true number has to be closer to the lower bound.  Even if it’s 2,750 instead of 275,000 it’s a lot of cases but the approach and results are wrong. 

To begin with, the paper was by four economists:  Dhaval Dave, Andrew I. Friedson, Drew McNichols, and Joseph J. Sabia all associated with various universities and published in something called the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, so I’ll call it the IZA paper and pronounce that “eye zah”.  All of these authors are not particularly trained in any aspect of virology, epidemiology or any medical field that I can tell.  Of course, that applies to me, too.  

So where does the data come from?  How do they get this result?  The abstract of the paper summarizes their method as using cell phone data to track all the phones at the rally and then track them to their home counties around the country.  Then they used the number of positive test results in those counties from the CDC and attribute all of those increases everywhere in the country to coming from Sturgis.

First, using anonymized cell phone data from SafeGraph, Inc. we document that (i) smartphone pings from non-residents, and (ii) foot traffic at restaurants and bars, retail establishments, entertainment venues, hotels and campgrounds each rose substantially in the census block groups hosting Sturgis rally events. Stay-at-home behavior among local residents, as measured by median hours spent at home, fell.  Second, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a synthetic control approach, we show that by September 2, a month following the onset of the Rally, COVID-19 cases increased by approximately 6 to 7 cases per 1,000 population in its home county of Meade.

I’m going to concentrate on two words in their description: synthetic control.  When I read that, I have to admit to never seeing that term before, and apparently it was a technique developed in 2010.  A picture is probably a thousand words here, so here’s a plot from the IZA paper. 

The plots show the number of Covid cases per 1,000 residents in Meade County (containing Sturgis), Meade and the counties that border it, and finally all of South Dakota.  The control line is the blue and their data form CDC is the red.  What the “synthetic control” means is they took the growth rate in the number of cases and extrapolated it was just continuing to increase at the same rate.  

How do they know that the positive cases in those counties weren’t going to go up more than the extrapolated increase regardless of whether people attended the rally?  Isn’t it reasonable to ask “what else could have caused this effect?  What else was going on?” 

Extrapolation off the end of hard data is not a control.  A controlled trial is one in which there are two groups as closely matched as possible in every aspect; one group has an experimental treatment given to it and the other does not.  Further, when using animals or especially people, the control and experimental subjects should not know which group they’re in – that’s called a blind study.  In the best medical studies of drugs and other treatments, neither the experimental group nor the experimenter giving the drug should know which group is which.  That’s called a double blind study (some treatments can’t be double-blinded because everyone can see which they're getting).  The reason this is the gold standard way of experimenting is the design totally eliminates any known way for the difference between the two groups to be caused by anything other than the treatment. 

This is not a controlled experiment; synthetic control apparently means no control.  They think they monitored people who went to Sturgis.  Let’s say they did, but they have no way of knowing if those people are the people who came down with the disease or the people who spread it.  They associate two variables; (1) cell phones that were in or around Sturgis and then went somewhere else, and (2) an increase in Covid 19 cases in those “somewhere else” places.  If someone who never came in contact with a traveler to Sturgis, or any intermediate contact, came down with the virus their experiment is incapable of knowing that.  It’s an associational study, no better than the junk science I’ve railed about so many times before. 

This is how we get the correlations that say things like eating table salt is correlated with a positive relationship with your Internet Service Provider, or that eating egg rolls is highly correlated with owning a dog (that isn’t in the egg roll).

Steven Green, sometimes known as the Vodka Pundit and who writes for PJ Media, found a couple of remarkable data points.  Where does the figure of almost $12 billion come from?  Their CDC data said these counties had some number of new cases.  Remember, when they say “case”, it means a positive test result and does not mean the person was sick or actually even had the virus, given the reliability of some tests.  They then simply multiply the number of cases times a number they pulled out of, well, their IZA. 


(source Tweet)

As of Wednesday, the Public Health Officials have attributed one fatality to spread from Sturgis. 

Note that the study supporting $46k per Covid case is only on the IZA website and has not been replicated.  That’s a big red warning flag.  The warning about the “methodology is suspect at best” is especially applicable to it costing $11k to treat an asymptomatic case.  Need I remind everyone that people with NO symptoms are not sick, don’t think that they’re sick and need NO treatment?  For $11,000 per patient to treat asymptomatic people, I’ll treat as many as you can send. 

My takeaways on the study are that it doesn’t show much of anything.  Their tracking of cellphones using anonymized data is new, but the position resolution isn’t good.  Phones were tracked to “Census Block Groups” which appear to be too big to precisely locate a given bar or restaurant, but could certainly tell if a phone went to Sturgis from Minnesota or North Dakota and back.  CBGs are not uniformly sized.  In the end, we know that phones were in Sturgis, tracked around the event and then to somewhere else.  It’s the linking of the phones to the statistics in the CDC case rates that’s the weak spot.

The weak spot in the technique appears to be the synthetic control group.  They tried to match the population density and “urbanicity” of the control curve to Meade County within some limits (which seem reasonable) and they conclude that Sturgis had an increase in the rate of positive tests, but that’s not controversial.  What’s controversial is the number the state claims vs the number claimed in the IZA paper.  The outrageous claims aren’t in Sturgis and Meade County, the outrageous claims are whatever allows them to say there were 275,000 cases that track back to Sturgis.  I simply don’t see how they can say that.

I’m stuck where I was a couple of paragraphs ago.  Tracking the phone from Sturgis to (pick a place) and then saying there was some number of positive tests in that place doesn’t mean the phone’s owner spread the virus or had anything to do with it.  It simply means the phone was in both places.  I don’t see how causality can be linked like that.  One can say something along the lines of, “do you think it’s a coincidence that all those places had higher numbers of cases after people came back from Sturgis?”  I’d have to say “it could be.”  The issue is that’s what real controlled experiments do for us; they allow us to know for sure, rather than create these elaborate castles in the air.  

Proving a result isn't a coincidence is what statistical testing is all about. 


Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Spinning My Wheels in the Shop

I see my last shop date was August 19th and here it is August 40th, so it has been way too long.  

There weren't too many parts to make to complete the intake/exhaust valve stack at that point, just a couple of valve retainers, and a couple of springs.  First, I had to press fit the valve cages into the stack of aluminum slices that make up the intake and exhaust manifold, cut the valves to length and grind them against their valve cages.  

The valve retainers are fiddly little parts; 1/4" diameter shoulder (1/32" tall) and then a 3/16" diameter by 1/16" long nub that sticks into the spring.  When it's assembled the stack-up looks like this (red arrow pointing at the intake valve retainer).

And the two valve retainers fresh off my manual lathe looked like this.  Crappy surface finish!

Pressing the valve cages into the aluminum and cutting the valves off were easy peasy.  

I've been stuck on the springs for at least a couple of weeks.  I've only made a couple of springs before but they didn't have a critical size like this.  I've always followed the step by step instructions on Dean's Photographica and they've worked but what's happening is that I wind the wire tight on to a piece of round bar, and they expand in diameter.  Say it's wound on 3/16 rod; they expand to 1/4" and the retainer falls into the spring (or screws itself down the wire ramp).  I can't seem to get the spring to a usable diameter.  It needs to be 3/16" inside diameter to fit over the valve cage and it can't be so big that the retainer falls into it.  I've tried winding onto a smaller diameter rod, but that one hardly expanded at all.  At this point, I have three that are too big and one that's too small. 

I thought my best chance would be to wind it on a 3/16 drill rod and clamp the wires securely.  To clamp the wires, I'd cross drill the rod and tap it for a couple of #2-56 screws.  Then it's clamp one end of the wire, count out the number of turns, and wrap the far end of the wire around the far screw, before putting it in the oven for heat treatment.  

I should point out that while this is on my Sherline lathe, that's just because the rod is held in the lathe chuck.  This isn't done under power: I turn the chuck by hand to put the wire on.  After the heat treatment, this one opened up to around .220, still just a bit too big.  The valve retainer slipped into the spring.

I haven't tried the exhaust valve spring, but I have some springs I bought back in the GB-22 project days and one looks like it just needs to be cut to length.

Plan B is to remake the valve retainers to be 3/8" OD with a 1/4" nub to fit inside the spring.  I don't think it matters and I've spent too long here.

Meanwhile, I'm making the muffler and searching the drawing to make sure there aren't parts left I haven't made.  I put in a hardware order to be sure I had everything to put it together and ordered an RC airplane carburetor.  I'm getting close to being able to put it fully together, if I can figure out how. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Early College Covid Indications - Lots of Positive Tests, Nothing Bad

Author Daniel Horowitz, writing for the Blaze, summarizes the news on the COVID-19 front and it all seems like good news.  As of September 4th, over 11,000 college students have tested positive for the virus, although that was using the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test noted for a high false positive rate.  There have been zero hospitalizations and zero fatalities.  Sounds like good news all the way around, as we're in something like Day 200 of the 15 day shutdown to Flatten the curve. 

Remember the goal of flattening the curve? Ensuring that hospitals weren't overrun? Well, what do you call a scenario where thousands of cases result in zero hospitalizations? I'd call it the ultimate flat curve – or downright flat line. Yet rather than recognizing the detection of mild cases among college students as portents of good news, universities continue to sow panic for no good reason.

Dr. Andrew Bostom, a cardiovascular and epidemiology researcher, posted a spreadsheet on twitter of all the positive tests in 17 state university systems as of September 4.  Clearly a small sample of all the colleges in the nation, but the data looks like this:

 Since it's a PCR test, prior experience says the majority of those are false positives.  

Many of them could be false positives, insignificant viral loads, or the dead RNA of a virus that passed weeks ago still being carried around in the student's nasal passages. There is no metric for any of this being monitored in the testing. The irony of the University of Arizona using positive testing of benign cases as the baseline for such draconian measures is that so many of those tests turn out to be false positives. Out of the 13 positive results among members of the university's athletics department last week, 11 of them turned out to be false upon retesting.

That false positive rate (11/13) is  85%, so if we did a worst case analysis and assumed 90% of these college students were really negative, only 10% (1,100) were really positive.   Since it's such a small sample of students and schools, I have hope there really are 11,000 positives out there, although the more people who have had the virus and developed antibodies to it the more likely we achieve "community immunity." 

As always with this situation, the real thing to be afraid of is the State.  

Last Monday, Ohio Health Director Lance D. Himes signed an order requiring even students who test negative to be isolated in a quarantine house on campus. It includes asymptomatic individuals or even those merely "exposed" to a COVID-positive individual. They'd be barred from exiting the quarantine house without written permission from a health official, and individual universities would decide whether parents are even allowed to visit them. This is a mandate for de facto prison – all for an "epidemic" built on false or notional positives with no health risks beyond the ordinary bugs that spread on campuses every year.

By sending your children to Ohio's public colleges, you are essentially sending them off to jail, because it's nearly impossible for them not to be quarantined. Ohio State University is conducting mandatory random testing of 8,000 students each week via their "surveillance testing program." Based on everything we know about false positive or old dead viral RNA, it's a near-certainty that the testing will net dozens of people every week. Now, this order will force numerous friends and dorm-mates to be confined as well.

Because of the amount of latitude variance that the US covers, we bridged two zones in R. Edgar Hope-Simpson's curves of influenza epidemic extent vs. time of year (which has empirically worked for related viruses well - in the sense that it "rhymes," not duplicates). In the first quarter, the worst places to be were high latitude - the sun was low in the sky.  As the sun moved to return to those northern states (April through September), the problem moved south, but the overall numbers of deaths were lower than in the winter; again, similar to Hope-Simpson's work on Influzenza. 

The summer isn't over, so the story hasn't played out, but the following plot shows data as of Sept. 7th. 

(Source: Ivor Cummins in Twitter feed of The Ethical Skeptic.)

This plot is busy, but straightforward.  The top, gray, bar graph is the number of positive tests (they use the word "cases," which I disagree with using since the tests have such high false positives).  Zero is the red line in the middle and reflected below that red line, so that bigger numbers go farther down, is the number of deaths.  They both use date for the horizontal axis.  You can see, for example that in the spring the number of confirmed cases isn't terribly different from the number of deaths.  Because of the CDC screwup on tests, we didn't test people unless we were pretty sure they had the disease. You can see that change completely starting in June when the number of tests tripled while the number of deaths increased but not as much.  Since the peak around the start of August, both positive tests and deaths have been decreasing. 

The obvious good news is that CDC-reported Covid deaths are as low as they were in late March, and headed lower.  Graph at William M. Briggs, "Statistician to the Stars".  Since Gov. Cuomo and other northern governors already killed off the most vulnerable in their states, that high death rate is unlikely to repeat.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Laborious Day 2020

It has been one of those days where I just can't get things done - or done right.  As usual, more details when I'm a bit less pissed off about things.  

In the interim, please accept my most favorite photo of the last few months.  

Excaligator - heh.   

Sunday, September 6, 2020

How Can the CDC Impose a Moratorium on Evictions?

The first I heard about this was in a comment last Tuesday night by Divemedic to my post on Property Rights.  A little earlier, he had put up a post on his own blog on the subject.  (You do read him, don't you?)

President Trump's CDC today issued an order that prevents landlords from evicting tenants from residential property, as long as the renter makes less than $99,000 a year. The order states that the tenant is still required to pay rent. Well, if I can't evict them, just how am I going to do that?

The CDC's order went into effect on Wednesday and will remain in effect for the rest of the year.  The subject has naturally triggered a lot of reaction from those of us who want a smaller government and has been written about in a variety of places, such as Reason and the Foundation for Economic Education, FEE.  

Under what power does the CDC; the Centers for Disease Control, have any control over the living arrangements of anyone in the country?  Renters sign a lease with the landlord and agree to pay rent when it's due.  In many cases, like Divemedic's, the landlord is just another small business, not some faceless multinational corporation that can absorb losses for a long time.  The landlord has to pay his expenses on the rental property, typically a mortgage and property taxes.  So the bank is going to demand on time payment from the landlord who is going to either pay out of pocket or lose the property.  The bank likewise has some real expenses due to its written loans, too.  Why is it OK to support the renter but not care if everyone else in the chain loses money?

For legal justification, the Trump administration cites one vague law that says during a pandemic the CDC director “may take such measures to prevent such spread of the diseases as he/she deems reasonably necessary, including inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, and destruction of animals or articles believed to be sources of infection.”
“All of these measures are localized, and limited to prevent the spread of an infection in a single building or location,” wrote constitutional law professor and Cato Institute scholar Josh Blackman. “None of these examples are even remotely close to a nationwide moratorium on evictions. This action is far beyond the scope of delegated authority.”

I don't see a single word, let alone phrase, in that quote from the law that applies here.  Those renters aren't spreading any disease, and being unable to pay rent because their job ceased to exist doesn't sound anything like, “inspection, fumigation, disinfection, sanitation, pest extermination, and destruction of animals or articles...”

Rep. Thomas Massie, a libertarian-leaning Kentucky Republican, said, “[this is] transferring control of private property from the lawful owner to the renter, [and] is possibly the most socialist action our government has taken in decades” and “The CDC order is an affront to the rule of law, and an emasculation of every legislator in this country - state and federal.”  Massie is joined by fellow Kentucky Republican, Senator Rand Paul, who added, “CDC does not have the authority to do this.  It's dangerous precedent and bad policy.”

The, with their shutdown orders, have trashed the lives of millions of Americans as they trashed jobs and entire businesses.  I've even heard libertarians say that in a situation like this the is responsible for harming those people and should essentially pay people damages to offset the harm they've done.  The fact they can't arrange the money to pay those damages is a sign of the dysfunctionality of the government.  In March, they came to an agreement bloated with pork and stupid spending, increasing the deficit by $2 trillion; a few weeks ago it looked like a leaner $1 trillion bill was on the horizon, but that fell apart.  They can't reach an agreement because Nancy Antoinette is still speaker and controls the house.  She won't give up the Evil Party's $2 trillion worth of giveaways to leftist causes, which would make it a $3 trillion bill.  Those who think spending $1 trillion is serious money seem to have won the day and blocked those with the Modern Monetary Theory/AOC's “you just pay for it” mindset.

Even John Maynard Keynes said printing money out of thin air was something to be done in bad times and not all the time.  While I'm a "sound money" guy - I strongly believe in a commodity standard, whether gold or silver or some other limited hard asset - I've said many times that I think a fiat dollar like we have could work.  Our leaders and central bankers would have to not play politics with the dollar, not use the printing press to buy votes, not try to change the dollar's value to tweak other countries and they would have to live within a constrained budget.  They should not be allowed to print money to fund foreign wars or the welfare state.  The only difference is that our legislators would have to be grown up, mature leaders.  

In other words, we're screwed.  

 (Tami Chappell/REUTERS/Newscom)