Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

Curiosity’s way forward

Panorama with balanced rock

As Curiosity moves up into the foothills of Mount Sharp the terrain is getting increasingly interesting. The image above is a panorama I have created from three Left Navigation Camera images posted here on Sunday evening. It shows what I think will be the general direction mission scientists wish to send Curiosity. (Note that the top of the leftmost mesa is not as flat as shown, as its top was cut off in the original image.)

Below is a Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image showing Curiosity’s present position from above. I have annotated it to show the general view as shown in the above image. I have also marked on both the location of the balanced rock first photographed on July 7.
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Getting and Installing Linux – Part 5

Running Windows programs on Linux:

An overview of WINE and Virtual Machine

by James Stephens

In addition to all the software available for Linux, Linux also possesses the ability to run Windows software using either WINE or in a virtual machine. This can be valuable in many ways, from running legacy software to running Windows and Linux on the same machine at the same time.

WINE is the open source implementation of CrossOver, which Apple users may already be familiar. It is essentially a translator: WINE sits between a Windows application and the Linux system, presenting what appears to be a Windows system to an application and generating Linux instructions for processing. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s pretty good. It’s fast and efficient, requiring little more resources then the application itself, making it suitable for older machines. When properly configured, Windows applications install as if in Windows and run on Linux like any other application. The backward compatibility of WINE is actually better then that of Windows itself. So if you have beloved but outdated software you can run it again with WINE. In my case that is a Windows 3.1 controlled audio mixing console. A lot of people like to play the old Windows 95 games. For more information including a list of compatible Windows software and performance assessments go to
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Getting and Installing Linux – Part 4

The Software Manager

by James Stephens

A computer is nothing more than a toy unless it has the tools you need to get your work done, and Linux has a great set of tools. Most distributions come loaded with the tools most people use every day, a full office suite, graphics and media packages and so on. If you want more, a world of software awaits at your fingertips via the Software Manager. Think of it as the app store for your distribution, with tens of thousands of official titles vetted and available for download, most free of charge. No longer are you left to the wilds of the Internet to find what you need.

Most Linux Software is functionally equivalent to that of Apple or Windows. Most open source titles are ported to all platforms including Linux. So if you use an open source title such as Audacity or VLC media player, just type its name into the Linux Software Manager search bar and you will find it. For propitiatory titles such as Photoshop just define what it does, image manipulation for example, and the Software Manager will suggest Linux equivalents like GIMP or KRITA. In addition Photoshop and some other Windows software run great on Linux using WINE – the Windows compatibility layer. More about that later.
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Angara’s status

The competition heats up: Work on the factories that will build and assembly Russia’s new Angara rocket appear to be nearing completion.

The article is an excellent overview of the entire Angara program. It also includes a number of interesting nuggets of information that might explain events of the past as well as Russia’s future success or failure of Angara.

For example, the repeated problems with Proton’s Briz-M upper station in 2012 could have been caused by the shift of much of its production from the Khrunichev factories near Moscow to a newly absorbed company located in Siberia. The move was made to take advantage of lower costs in Siberia while letting the company sell off land in Moscow.

Beginning in 2009, PO Polyot was to take responsibility for the production of the Briz-KM upper stage for the Rockot booster, as well as Rockot’s adapter rings and the payload fairings. Also, the manufacturing of all key elements for the Angara-1.2 version of the rocket would end up in Omsk as well. Additionally, the Ust-Katav Wagon-building Plant, UKVZ, would produce components for Angara and its KVTK upper stage, along with sections of the Proton rocket and the Briz-M upper stage.

As for Angara, the article suggests that Russia is struggling to make it as inexpensive to launch as Proton:
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Black racism and hate

Three stories today illustrate the growing hate, violence, and bigotry within the modern black power movement:

These are only a sample of the numerous similar stories in the past few years, most of which revolve around the generally racist Black Lives Matter movement, which only cares about black lives and gets very offended if you note that all lives matter. Consider for example the words of Babu Omowale, the “national minister of defense for the People’s New Black Panther Party” in the third link above:

We know that we are owed land, we are owed monies, we are owed restitutions and we are owed reparations.

In other words, blacks today must be rewarded and everyone else who is not black punished because of something that was done to someone else by someone else, a hundred years or more in the past. And the only reason blacks are owed reparations is because they are black, with everyone else who is not black guilty and therefore to be punished, even though no one today had anything to do with the past injustice of slavery.

While most blacks in America are ordinary people who don’t hate anyone and want to live their lives peaceably, the culture they live within is increasingly focused, like the New Black Panthers, on race and hate. That culture is also increasingly abandoning the ideals that made the civil rights movement a success and led to election of a black man as President of the United States, even though blacks comprise less than 15% of the American population.

The consequences of this will be exactly the opposite of what the Black Lives Matter movement and the New Black Panthers claim they want, a greater respect for blacks. Instead, these movements will isolate blacks and make them a target, an enemy to everyone else in the country. I can’t emphasize how mistaken and foolish this is. Unless the good people in the black community reject it soon and loudly, they — as well as everyone else — are going to suffer badly in future years because of it.

It never pays to view people by their race, ethnicity, or gender. What matters is what each person does. We are not races, ethnicities, or genders. We are each a human being, each with a soul and a potential to do good or evil. We should thus be judged as an individual. Everything else is irrelevant, and if you try to include it you are revealing yourself to be racist and a hate-monger.

Getting and Installing Linux – Part 3

UEFI and booting Linux on Win 8.1 & 10 machines

by James Stephens

Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) is intended to be a modern alternative to BIOS. Ideally UEFI-(Secure Boot) blocks malware from being loaded when the computer is booted by using digital keys which software must possess in order to be booted onto the computer. UEFI supplants the traditional BIOS and it’s post screen, appreciably shortening boot times but sometimes adding a few more steps to set up a computer to boot into Linux. If necessary UEFI-(Secure Boot) may be disabled to allow access to the BIOS and the booting of non-UEFI complaint operating systems, such as 32 bit Linux or legacy Windows, and set up the computer to boot into Linux as I described in the previous post. But I recommend using UEFI if at all possible.
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The terrorist murders in Dallas

Last night, during a Black Lives Matter protest, five policeman were killed and nine people (seven cops) were wounded by rooftop sniper fire. One shooter was killed, after police learned that “he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.”

This was clearly a terrorist attack, aimed very specifically at the police. It was clearly inspired and instigated by the hate being expressed during this election year by leftists and by the very bigoted Black Lives Matter movement, which really only cares about black people, and gets offended if you try to tell them that all lives matter.

Five years ago shortly after the Tucson shootings that badly injured Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, I noted in disgust the inflammatory language of the left. Even as they were demanding more civility from conservatives, they were also demanding the murder of conservatives. At that time I called on them to tone down their rhetoric.

This behavior must stop. Violent and angry rhetoric can and will cause violence. And it probably has, considering the fact that a large number of the random violent acts in recent years have actually been committed by deranged individuals with liberal, not conservative, leanings. This is not to say that I blame the left for this violence, but that the left has as much of a responsibility as the right to think carefully about what it says, before it says it. Otherwise, they might find that they have made their less rational followers more angry than they ever imagined, or can control.

Or as Michael York says to his NAZI friend at the end of this scene from the 1972 movie, Cabaret. “You still think you can control them?”

Sadly, in the five years since I have seen no effort at all by the left to tone down its rhetoric. If anything, they have notched it up, repeatedly expressing hate against conservatives and calling for increased acts of violence and oppression against them. Thus, we should not be surprised by last night’s attacks in Dallas. Nor should be be surprised if it gets worse in the coming months, as we get closer to the election. While the right wants to win in the voting booth, too many people on the left now seem to consider the idea of elections inconvenient and a problem, and also consider violence as a reasonable response should they lose at the polls.

A short but weak solar maximum?

On July 4th NOAA released its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in June. It is annotated and posted below.

June 2016 Solar Cycle graph

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

Not surprisingly, the time periods with no sunspots in June, including a 12 day stretch that just ended today, is reflected by the graph’s precipitous drop in June.

What is significant to me is the speed with which this solar maximum seems to be ending. Normally, weak solar cycles are also long solar cycles. The Sun not only doesn’t get as active, but the ramp up and down is extended, as is the period of the solar minimum. This is what happened during the solar minimum from 2007 to 2010. It was longer than normal, which meant that the solar maximum occurred much later than predicted by the 2007 predictions of the solar science communities (shown in green).

This recent stretch of blank days however is now suggesting that the solar maximum is going to end much sooner than the later 2009 prediction (shown in red). Even more astonishing, the numbers in June aligned with the 2007 high prediction, which would make this one of the shortest solar maximums on record!

I don’t expect these low numbers to continue. I expect sunspot activity to recover and continue, with the minimum likely occurring after 2018. If it does come sooner, however, that will once again be evidence suggesting we are heading for a Grand Minimum, with no sunspots for decades.

Getting and Installing Linux – Part 2

Obtaining and installing a Linux Distribution

by James Stephens

Almost any Linux distribution runs great on today’s hardware. But I’m writing this with aging computers in mind. With older computers it’s a good idea to know how much RAM (often referred to as physical memory) you have in order to select a distribution that will work well with your machine.

With Windows this can be shown by opening “System” in “Control Panel.” RAM or physical memory will be expressed in Mb or Gb. Once you know this, you are armed with the knowledge to select a distribution.

For machines with 512 Mb RAM and up I recommend a distribution from LinuxMint. For machines with under 512 Mb RAM I recommend Bodhi Linux 32 bit legacy.

Operating systems come in 32 bit and 64 bit versions. With the exception of replacing Windows 8.1 and 10, a 32 bit distribution will work on any computer. (More about Microsoft and UEFI later.) At one time a 64 bit opening system allowed the use of more memory then it’s 32 bit kin. But with modern 32 bit distributions this is no longer an issue. So if you want to play it safe choose a 32 bit distribution.

LinuxMint offers a choice of desktops and the website does a good job explaining the advantages of each. I would recommend LinuxMint 17.3 MATE 32 bit edition as most likely to work on any computer. But take a look at each of them and see which one you like. As long as you follow the minimum RAM requirements guidelines as listed in the description you will be okay.
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Getting and Installing Linux

After seeing the response to a number of my posts on the advantages of Linux (or anything) over Windows, one of my readers, James Stephens, offered to write a series of posts for Behind the Black, describing step-by-step the process by which one gets and installs Linux on a desktop or laptop computer. James is like almost every other user of Linux, self-taught and unafraid to play with the software. As he emailed me, “Over my long career I’ve had my hands in everything from vacuum tube televisions to sophisticated aerospace systems some of which are orbit today. I have designed and built recording studios, radio and television studios and serviced the equipment as well as the transmitters. But I must say I really enjoyed repairing televisions the most. I loved every aspect of the business and really enjoyed doing business with my customers.” At the present time James makes his living maintaining what he calls “a fleet of computers, Windows, Mac, and Linux.”

So, today we begin this series. If all goes as planned, James will be sending these to me on a weekly basis, whereby I will post them each Saturday. So, get one of your old unused computers out of the garage now and get ready to make it useful again, while simultaneously freeing yourself from Microsoft!

An Introduction

By James Stephens

Your phone your TV, most of the devices you use everyday use Linux. So too most of the world’s web sites including this one. So why not your PC? The purpose of this series, which we hope to post on a weekly basis every Saturday, is to at least in a general way acquaint you with desktop Linux and some of its advantages. More importantly, we hope to assist you with representative instructions for the installation and use of this most excellent computer operating system.

But first a few words of explanation.
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The Think Tank Culture of Washington

On Monday I attended and gave a presentation at the one-day annual conference of the Center for New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the space policy paper I am writing for them, Exploring Space in the 21st Century.

CNAS was founded ten years ago by two political Washington insiders, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, with a focus on foreign policy and defense issues and the central goal of encouraging bi-partisan discussion. For this reason their policy papers cover a wide range of foreign policy subjects, written by authors from both political parties. The conference itself probably had about 1,000 attendees from across the political spectrum, most of whom seemed to me to be part of the Washington establishment of policy makers, either working for elected officials, for various executive agencies, or for one of the capital’s many think tanks, including CNAS.

I myself was definitely not a major presenter at this conference, with speakers like Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), and Senator Joe Reed (D-Rhode Island). I was part of a panel during one of the lunch breakout sessions, where approximately one third of the attendees came to have lunch while we spoke about space. I only had ten minutes to speak, and used that time to outline (1) the influence SpaceX is having on the entire launch industry and (2) the vast differences in cost, development time, and results between the Orion/SLS program and commercial space. Not surprisingly, the aerospace people from the big established companies appeared to be somewhat uncomfortable with what I had to say, though the Airbus people liked it when I made it clear I thought that the U.S. should allow foreign companies to compete for American business, including government launches.

Their discomfort was best illustrated by the one question asked of me following my talk, where the questioner said that I was comparing apples to oranges in comparing a manned capsule like Orion, intended to go beyond Earth orbit, with the unmanned cargo capsules like Dragon and Cygnus, that only go to ISS. I countered that though I recognized these differences, I also recognized that the differences were really not as much as the industry likes to imply, as demonstrated for example by SpaceX’s announcement that they plan to send Dragon capsules to Mars beginning in 2018. After all, a capsule is still only a capsule. The differences simply did not explain the gigantic differences in cost and development time.

I added that Orion compares badly with Apollo as well, noting that Apollo took about a third as long to build and actually cost less. I doubt I satisfied this individual’s objections, but in the end I think future policy will be decided based on results, not the desires of any one industry bigwig. And in this area Orion/SLS has some serious problems. I hope when my policy paper is released in August it will have some influence in determining that future policy.

My overall impression of CNAS, the speakers, and the people who attended was somewhat mixed. Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area from 1998 to 2011, when I attended many such conferences, I found that things haven’t changed much in the last five years. Superficially, everyone was dressed in formal business suits (something you see less and less elsewhere), and they also got to eat some fancy food at lunch.

On a deeper level my impressions were also mixed.
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Russia’s continuing weakness in space

In the heat of competition: Russia this week announced new space agreements with both China and Europe.

The first describes a deal whereby Europe will pay Russia to use its Bion capsules to launch life science experiments. In addition, the article notes that Europe will continue its agreement with Russia to launch commercial Soyuz rockets from its Arianespace launchpad in French Guiana.

The second and third stories describe a variety of negotiations between Russia and China, whereby the two countries will work together in a number of ways, including the possibiliity that China will buy the same Russian rocket engine that ULA uses in its Atlas 5 rocket as well as maybe jointly build a heavy lift rocket with Russia. In the second article, Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, in touting the excellence of the Russian rocket engine, could not help taunting the United States.
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Exploring Space in the 21st Century

For the past two months I have been very focused on writing what I hope will be a somewhat influential space policy paper for the Center for New American Security, comparing the different approaches the federal government has taken in the past fifteen years toward encouraging a robust launch industry in the United States. Essentially the policy paper, Exploring Space in the 21st Century: How the American space effort since 2000, both private and public, is changing the global aerospace industry, compares the big government rocket launch programs like Orion/SLS and the Air Force’s EELV/ULA with the commercial rocket launch contracts that NASA has signed with companies like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada to get cargo and crews up and down from ISS.

The comparison is profound, and is devastating to the supporters of big government programs. Commercial space has literally accomplished ten times more in a third the time for a tenth the cost.

That bears repeating: Commercial space ($4 billion) cost one tenth that of Orion/SLS ($43 billion), took one third the time to go from concept to launch (5 years versus 15 years), and accomplished ten times more (22 rockets/capsules versus 2.5 rockets/capsules). In analyzing these numbers, I also took a close look at why the differences are so profound. Surprisingly, the high cost of Orion/SLS has little to do with its engineering challenges, nor is it caused by any significant overcharges by the contractors. The problem is more fundamental.

The paper also reviews the effect the competition introduced by SpaceX has had on the entire launch industry. Launch costs are dropping and innovation is increasing. This, combined with the lessons learned by NASA in commercial space, suggests that the future of getting into space looks quite bright indeed.

This policy paper should be ready for publication sometime in the next two months. On Monday, however, I will be part of a space policy panel at the Center for New American Security’s annual conference in Washington, DC., where I will give a short overview of my findings to a lot of major players in the upper echelons of the Washington elite community. Their response should be quite interesting.

Thus, I will be traveling to DC this weekend, and am not sure if I will be able to post much on Monday, since I very much wish to attend the entire day’s conference and listen to the other speakers, including Vice President Joe Biden. It is my plan to write about what I see once I get back.

The liberal response to terrorism: Disarm the innocent!

They say that insanity is the process where you keep trying to do the same thing over and over again, even though it fails each time.

The liberal, leftwing response to the tragic and horrific mass killing by an insane Islamic terrorist, who found comfort and support from that religion for his murderous ideas, is thus a good illustration of insanity.

That’s just three four examples, but there will be more. [I have added the fourth because it is so expected and must be noted.] The simple fact is that the terrorist in Orlando had gotten his guns legally in a state that has numerous gun control laws specifically designed to prevent such a man from becoming armed. Those laws did nothing to protect innocent people from him.

One decent person armed in that nightclub, however, would have stopped him in his tracks. Unfortunately, according to Florida’s same gun control laws, that nightclub was also a gun free zone. Only criminals and terrorists were allowed to be armed, because they are the only ones who don’t care what the law says.

As Ted Cruz noted in his statement concerning the Orlando attack. “Our nation is at war.” And you can’t win a war by disarming yourself.

Elon Musk sends a tweet and the world listens

The competition heats up: Yesterday Elon Musk sent out a tweet that simply repeated something his company has been saying now for several months — but with one slight additional detail — and the press went gaga.

What Musk said was that SpaceX hopes to reuse one of its used Falcon 9 first stages by September or October. Previously they had merely said they were aiming to do it before the end of the year. Since SES has offered one of its satellites for the job, and since it has had for months two such satellites scheduled for launch by SpaceX in September and October, this announcement by Musk is not really much of a surprise. Yet, the tweet was enough for all of the following mainstream news sources to gin up news-breaking headlines:

I am not really complaining. What I am really noting is how serious the world now takes what Musk and SpaceX are doing. They say they plan to do something new and revolutionary, and people sit up and take notice. And the reasons are twofold. First, everything they have said they were going to do, they have done. Musk’s announcement has to be taken seriously. Second, Musk owns SpaceX, and does not really need anyone’s permission to do this. He isn’t in a negotiation with numerous other players, as has been the case with NASA and its projects for the past half century. We know that if he wants to try something, the only things that could stop him are lack of capital and lack of good engineering, neither of which are an obstacle in this case.

So, be prepared for the first relaunch of a rocket’s first stage sometime this fall. And don’t be surprised if that isn’t the only new thing SpaceX accomplishes at the time.

Sunspot cycle update

NOAA today released its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in May. It is annotated and posted below.

Mayl 2016 Solar Cycle graph

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

Though sunspot activity increased in May, the increase was not significant. The ramp down from solar maximum continues to track the 2007 low prediction for this maximum.

Meanwhile, the Sun continues its first multi-day string of blank days since 2011, now up to 3 days with all indications suggesting it will continue at least one more day. This early blank string, combined with the relatively fast decline in sunspots in the past two years, suggests that the solar maximum is ending sooner than predicted by the 2009 prediction (the red curve above), and that the next minimum will possibly be longer as well.

Billionaires propose big space plans

At separate interviews given during a media conference held this week in California, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos each expressed their thoughts about what they hope to accomplish in space over the next few decades.

First, Jeff Bezos outlined his belief that, in order to protect the Earth, humanity is going to have to eventually move its heavy manufacturing off the planet and into space. He thought colonizing the planets was a cool idea, but his focus remained with Earth, and using space as a way to protect it.

Musk meanwhile revealed his company’s long range plans for Mars, including their firm intention to send a Dragon capsule to the red planet during every future launch opportunity, beginning with 2018. Each mission will provide information needed to improve and develop their engineering so that they can hopefully send humans there by 2024.

A realistic appraisal of both men’s proposals will quickly recognize that they are probably overly optimistic. Bezos might be right that we should move our heavy industries into space, but he is not realistic to think this can happen soon, or is even possible. Musk’s company SpaceX might be laying the groundwork for the eventual colonization of Mars, but to think it will begin happening by 2024 is unrealistic.

Still, what both men are proposing are things that they are personally helping to make happen. Neither man has to get anyone else’s permission or approval to push these dreams. All they need to do is make sure the products they are building for accomplishing these tasks can also make money by providing services to others. Since this is exactly what both men are doing, they will likely achieve far more than anyone can imagine, even if the specific proposals they are putting forth now do not happen in their lifetimes.

This bright and very possible future is far different than the powerpoint proposals that NASA and big government have offered to us over and over again for the past four decades. Those ideas, while also ambitious, could never happen because they were dependent on the approval of too many other players, Congress, the public, the press, the bureaucracy. They were not founded on profits, so they became a drain on the economy instead of a source of wealth. The result was that we have gone nowhere and developed little new space technology in the years since the last Apollo landing.

Only now, with our renewed reliance on capitalism and profits, are we finally beginning to see the dreams expressed in those NASA powerpoint proposals coming to life. And it isn’t the government that is making them happen, but free individuals, with big dreams and the will to pursue them.

Expect there to be privately funded manned missions to Mars in the next decade. And expect there to be factories in orbit, far sooner than anyone expects.

Belize and Guatemala

During my caving trip to Belize last week, we reserved one day off to do some sightseeing. The goal that day was to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal, across the border in Guatemala about three hours from our resort in Belize.

Arranging this trip was not straightforward. We couldn’t simply get in our rental car and drive off. Locals have found it a bad idea to drive Belizean vehicles in Guatemala, as they are more likely to be attacked. So, the resort arranged for a Belizean driver to take us to the border, where it also arranged for us to be met by a Guatemalan tour guide with her own car.

On the way, we drove through several small towns of both Guatemala and Belize, as shown by the two photos below, with Santa Elena, Belize on top.
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Why I went to Belize

There are many reasons cavers decide to go to faraway places across the globe during their vacations. Some do it because they want to get out of the office. Some go because they like to see exotic sights and strange places well off the beaten path. Some go, like me, because they want the chance to see something new and unexplored. And we all do it because it is fun!

One doesn’t have to go to Belize to get these benefits. I could have traveled to England, Mexico, Hawaii, or any one of several dozen other countries to see the exotic, the new, and the unexplored. In fact, I have already done so in Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and Czechia (the new official name of the Czech Republic). Belize however was relatively close, the local population spoke English, I had never been there before, and most important, someone else was organizing things! When David and Eleanor Larson invited me to join their Belize project I decided this was a great opportunity to visit a strange and new place with a minimum of aggravation or planning. They had already done it, and I merely had to sign up and agree to do whatever their project needed doing. So, off I went.

Upon arrival, I soon discovered several very important additional reasons why this cave project exists. First there are the caves. They are grand and beautiful things, with very vast chambers filled with delicate and rare formations. The picture below, taken by fellow caver Laura Sangiala, shows one wall of the gigantic entrance room of one cave.
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A bibliography of my research into climate

The recent long and refreshing debate thread on the subject of climate change between myself and others on Behind the Black has prompted me to upload my bibliography of the research I did on climate change and the sun’s influence from 2002 to 2010.

This bibliography, which is quite long, can be found here. I have also added a link to it in the top menu just below the banner at the top of the page

Though I stopped adding new entries to this bibliography in 2010, my research has not ceased. I just don’t update the bibliography anymore.

I make it available partly as a reference to my readers, and partly as a document to show that I base my opinions on solid research. I might not be a climate scientist, but I have made sure that I have a solid understanding of the science before speaking publicly about it. I think it wise that more people do the same.

Why Russian aerospace will not compete

The fallout from the scrub and one day delay of the first launch at Vostochny, while Vladimir Putin was there and watching, has generated an investigation and the suspension of one designer.

The official goal of the commission was to find causes of the failed launch attempt and to check the completeness of tests leading to the incident.

However given a minor technical impact of the delay, the investigation likely had the primarily political nature, namely it was aimed to demonstrate to the Kremlin that the industry problems were being dealt with. Moreover, Rogozin also made a decision during the work of the commission to suspend the responsibilities of Leonid Shalimov, the designer general at NPO Avtomatika, which supplied the hardware allegedly responsible for the incident. Rogozin summoned Shalimov to Moscow on May 6, apparently to present the results of the investigation. [emphasis mine]

When you develop any new system or cutting edge technology, things are certain to go wrong. This is the one certainty that I will admit to and gladly embrace, and to which good designers, scientists, and engineers all agree. Vostochny is brand new. It stands barely finished. No launch had ever been attempted there before. For there to be a one day delay because of a minor engineering issue is hardly a sign of poor workmanship. Instead, it suggests the people who built it did a reasonably good job, even as many of their managers ripped them and the project off.

What we see here is an industry that is being run not by people who understand the business, but by distant politicians whose only interest is power and control. Can you imagine any manager in Roscosmos anywhere being willing to approve the start of a radical new engineering project, faced with pressure from Putin and these power-hungry politicians in Moscow? It won’t happen. Until there is a change and the politicians let go of their control of this industry, Roscosmos is going to take the safe route every single time.

Nothing new is going to come from Russia’s aerospace industry for a very long time.

The stupid party, part 2

Update: Thomas Sowell chimes in, expressing some of the same thoughts I do below.

As we approach the Indiana primary next Tuesday, it appears that we are also approaching the moment of truth for Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and the Republican Party. And not surprisingly, that party appears ready to once again shoot itself in the foot, as it did in 1996, 2000, 2008, and 2012.

Polls show that the race is very tight, though the momentum seems to be favoring Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, national polls as well as the analysis of most political insiders say that Trump will lose to Hillary Clinton in November, while those same polls and insiders say that Ted Cruz has a far better shot at winning the national election.

In other words, it looks like Republican voters are going to pick the weaker of the two candidates for their nominee.

Pretty dumb, eh? What makes it even dumber is that even the slightest honest appraisal of the political beliefs of Donald Trump quickly reveals himself to be a RINO, a liberal Democrat with many ties to the corrupt political establishments of both parties. In addition, his political positions both before and during the campaign have revealed himself repeatedly to be a liberal Democratic in all things except illegal immigration, and even here he has shown indications that he will go soft once in office.

Trump is not a corrupt lying politician like Hillary Clinton. He would definitely be a better choice than her. Moreover, the insiders and the polls might be wrong about his chances against her, but I do not think so. Trump’s primary election results suggested to me that he has the support, like Mitt Romney, of a large minority of moderate Republicans and moderate former Democrats (concentrated in the northeast) that will not translate into a majority in the general election. If anything, he has set himself up to be a nice target for the press to destroy, once he is the Republican candidate.

For the Republican Party to favor him over Ted Cruz, a committed conservative who has repeatedly proven his willingness to stand up for these ideals, even under terrible fire from the press, the left, and the Republican leadership that really doesn’t want the right to win, is either madness, or it shows that the country in general no long believes in the ideals that founded it.

I’m not sure which it is, but either way, the future does not look good.

Money for space

The competition heats up: Three stories today about investors putting money into different space related business ventures are worth consolidating into one post, as they all indicate the same thing.

The first story involves a takeover by SES of the O3b satellite constellation that provides internet service globally. They already have 12 satellites in orbit, and have plans to launch 8 more by 2019. A partial list of their customers (Digicel Pacific, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, American Samoa Telecom, Speedcast, Rignet, Bharti International (Airtel), Timor Telecom, CNT Ecuador, Entel Chile and NOAA) illustrates the solidity of the company’s success, which is also why SES is spending $20 million to own it.

In the second two stories we find investment capital being committed for two different and unusual space-tourism-related companies. World View plans to launch high altitude balloons with passengers, taking them up 20 to 30 miles for a several hour journey on the edge of space. That they have secured an additional $15 million in investment even as their deal with the city of Tucson is being challenged in court indicates the confidence the investors have in their business.

SpaceVR is even more interesting. They plan to launch smallsats with cameras providing a 360 degree view, and link them to virtual reality headsets here on Earth. Consumers will then be able to experience being in space, without actually going. Though the press release does not specific how the product will be sold, it suggests that they are aiming for the education and museum market.

All three stories prove that the modern investment community, normally very adverse to high risk endeavors, is increasingly finding that the financial benefits of space travel and anything related to it are worth the financial risks. This fact can only lead to good things for the eventual development and exploration of space.

Moreover, the third story once again demonstrates the value of reducing the cost to get into orbit. SpaceVR’s idea is a very good one, but it couldn’t have happened before SpaceX forced a reduction in launch prices. Beforehand, no one could have afforded to buy the product because of the high cost to launch the satellites. Now, because the launch price is affordable, it can be marketed at a realistic price.

In other words, lower the price, and you increase the number of customers able to buy your product. I expect the rocket business to boom in the coming years.

The Orion fantasy

There is a commercial space conference going on in Colorado this week, which explains the plethora of breaking stories from the new commercial space companies both yesterday and today.

Two stories today from Aviation Week, however, are more about the old big space industry and the old way of doing things, and both reveal the hollow nature of that entire effort.

Both stories are about work Lockheed Martin is doing in connection with its Orion capsule, and both try to convince us that this capsule is going to be the central vehicle for the first missions to Mars.

Function starts in the bones of the spacecraft,” [Mike Hawes, Lockheed Martin vice president and Orion program manager,] said in an April 12 interview at the 32nd annual Space Symposium here. “To be a deep space spacecraft, you have to build differently than you would if your requirements were to stay in low Earth orbit and be quiescent at the International Space Station for a few months. That’s driven Orion from the beginning. Any architecture you look at needs a crew capability, a long-term design requirement. So, you can debate a lot of different missions, but you need that fundamental capacity we have invested in Orion.”

I say balderdash. Orion is an over-priced and over-engineered ascent/descent capsule for getting humans in and out of Earth orbit. Spending billions so it can also go to Mars makes no sense, because its heat shield and other capsule technologies for getting through the Earth’s atmosphere are completely useless in interplanetary travel. Moreover, such a small capsule is completely insufficient for a long Mars mission, even if you test it for a “1,000 day” missions, as Hawes also says in the first article. To send a crew to Mars, you need a big vessel, similar to Skylab, Mir, ISS, or Bigelow’s B330 modules. A mere capsule like Orion just can’t do it.

Eventually, it is my hope that Congress will recognize this reality, and stop funding big space projects like SLS and Orion, and instead put its money behind the competitive private efforts to make money in space. Rather than trying to build its own capsules, space stations, rockets, and interplanetary vessels (something that NASA has repeatedly tried to do without any success), NASA should merely be a customer, buying the capsules, space stations, and interplanetary vessels that private companies have built, on their own, to make money, on their own.

Consider for example Bigelow’s B330. Each module is about as big as Skylab or Mir, and costs mere pennies to build and launch, compared to those government-designed stations. Moreover, Bigelow can build it fast, and repeatedly. Similarly, Orion has cost billions (about $16 billion when it makes its first manned mission in 2021 at the earliest) and will have taken 15 years to build. SpaceX built Dragon in seven years, Orbital ATK built Cygnus in five years, and Boeing is going to build Starliner in about four years, all for about $10 billion, total.

The contrast is striking, and though ordinary people with the ability to add 2 plus 2 can see it, it takes Congressman a little longer (as they need to use their fingers to count). Sooner or later they will get it, and Orion and SLS will disappear. Bet on it.

Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater

Curiosity's traverse

The Curiosity science team recently released a new Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image, showing Curiosity’s overall route since its landing on Mars in August 2012. I have posted a reduced version on the right.

Similarly, on the Curiosity website you can view this more detailed map of its traverse route. This map is updated regularly as Curiosity continues its climb up Mount Sharp.

Neither of these maps is to me very satisfying or useful, however. Neither shows the overall location of Curiosity within Gale Crater. Nor do they give one a sense of how far it is has come on its climb up the mountain. In fact, it is very unclear how close the rover actually is to the peak from either image.

Thus, I decided to do a little research to get some better context of Curiosity’s position and its overall journey.
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Monthly Solar Cycle update

NOAA released on Monday its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in February. I am once again posting it here on Behind the Black, as I have done monthly since 2010.

February 2016 Solar Cycle graph

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

The change in this month’s graph is so small that you will have to look real close to see it. Essentially, the February sunspot activity dropped only a tiny amount from January’s numbers, though it did drop. As such the decline from solar maximum continues to track perfectly the decline predicted by the low prediction of the 2007 predictions. This prediction success should not be taken very seriously, however, since that same prediction expected the solar maximum to begin two years earlier than it actually did.

The Obama-like promises of Trump

During an interview on CNN yesterday, Donald Trump was asked about Obamacare and the insurance mandate. The first words out of his mouth were “I like the mandate,” which is what most conservative websites are focusing on.

I think it is more important to focus on Trump’s entire answer, which goes on for about two and half minutes. (I have posted the video below the fold, so you can listen for yourself.) As noted at the first link above,

Trump doesn’t have a freakin clue as to what he’s talking about. What he’s obviously done is extract a few focus group tested themes, like “dying on the street,” and “get rid of the lines,” and he simply says these over and over with connecting verbiage. The plan Trump refers to, the one that apparently suspends the idea of supply and demand and guarantees everyone a free lunch, simply does not exist. In the tech field it is a concept known as vaporware.

During Trump’s answer, he notes the dishonesty of Obama for making wild promises about Obamacare that were outright lies (‘If you like your plan, you can keep your plan. Period.” and “Obamacare will cut costs by $2500 per family.”). Trump then proceeds to spout his own wild and unrealistic promises about what he will do about healthcare when he is President. And they sound to me as dishonest and incoherent as the promises Obama made. Both set of promises remind me of school elections when I was in junior high school, where candidates would promise free ice cream at every break and soda machines in the halls. Such promises are silly, childish, and unrealistic, and the voters should try to be mature enough to see that.

Trump might be a better choice than Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, but for Republicans to pick him as their nominee is insane. We can certainly do better.
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The stupid party

The nickname for the Republican Party for the past few decades has been that of the “stupid” party. Why it has this reputation can be explained in numerous ways, from how its leadership in Congress routinely gets hosed in negotiations with Democrats, from how its Presidents since Reagan have routinely allowed liberals from the Democratic Party to dictate policy, from how the party since 2000 has routinely picked losers as its Presidential picks, and from how it has squandered every election victory it has earned since the day Ronald Reagan retired in 1988.

I think two stories today demonstrate that the stupidity is not limited just to the party’s leadership. In the first, we find that in every poll taken comparing a head-to-head election with Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz does better than Donald Trump.

Polling has consistently shown Cruz to have an advantage over Trump in this regard: Fox News found that Cruz would fare 4 points better than Trump, beating Clinton by 7 points (50 to 43 percent) to Trump’s 3 (47 to 44 percent). NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found that Cruz would fare 6 points better than Trump, losing to Clinton by 4 points (49 to 45 percent) to Trump’s 10 (51 to 41 percent). And Quinnipiac found that Cruz would fare 5 points better than Trump, tying Clinton (at 45 percent apiece) while Trump would lose by 5 points (46 to 41 percent).

Nor should we be surprised by this. Trump might sound good now, but when he has to face Clinton (or anyone) in the election, his negatives, which are yuge (to coin a phrase) will sink him. Meanwhile, Cruz’s smart campaign strategy and his remarkable skill at debate make him a wonderful candidate. To paraphrase what he has said numerous times on the campaign trail, I can’t wait to get him in a head-to-head debate with Clinton or Sanders. He will make them look like fools.

In the second story, we find that Trump is crushing all opposition in South Carolina. Cruz comes closest, but even his best poll there so far has him losing by a good margin.

It appears no one is considering the eventual election. Instead, Republicans appear posed to pick a cool reality television star who happens to have a lot of money, merely because he is a cool television star that happens to have a lot of money.

There is madness here, and that madness can only lead to the kinds of villainy that eventually led to the deaths of millions, in places that also put their faith in strong personality cults.

The long decline to solar minimum

On Monday NOAA released its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in January. As I have done every month since 2010, I am posting it here with annotations to give it context.

What strikes me about this month’s continuing and steady decline in sunspots is how much it illustrates the long and steady nature of the ramp down to solar minimum, even for cycles that are very active. If you look at the ramp down during the previous solar cycle on the graph below the fold, it took four full years to reach solar minimum from a comparable sunspot level to what we have today.
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Two thoughtful endorsements of Ted Cruz

While cable television and the general media goes nuts of the childish feud between Donald Trump and Fox News, Ted Cruz today got two different endorsements that not only supported his nomination for president, but also outlined in detail two completely different reasons for supporting him.

The first, at the website Legal Insurrection, outlined Ted Cruz’s consistent and long term history as a trustworthy constitutional conservative. Not only does the article review Cruz’s history in the Senate, where he did whatever he could to fulfill his campaign promises (often prevented from doing so by his own Republican caucus), the article also looks at his background before becoming a senator. Its conclusion?

In short, Cruz has a long (dating back to his early teens) record of being a conservative in both principle and action.  He didn’t bound out of bed one day, put his finger to the wind, and decide to become a conservative (as was charged against Mitt Romney, among others); he’s always been a conservative. [emphasis in original]

Conservatives have been complaining for decades that they can’t get a reliable conservative nominated to run for president. With Cruz, we actually have that chance, and he will be running against the weakest Democratic candidate since George McGovern.

The second article outlines Cruz’s particular advantages for cleaning out the bureaucratic corruption in the Justice Department and elsewhere in the federal government.
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