Category Archives: Essays And Commentaries

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.

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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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Orion: construction in slow motion

Today NASA announced completion of the welding of the next Orion capsule, a job that this story said took about three months to do 7 welds. The story also noted this:

After putting on the finished touches, NASA plans to ship the vehicle to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) aboard NASA’s Super Guppy airplane on or about Feb. 1. At KSC, engineers working inside the Neil Armstrong Operation and Checkout Building (O & C) will spend the next two years outfitting Orion for launch in late 2018 by installing all the systems and subsystems for its inaugural flight to the Moon and back.

Overall this is the third Orion capsule that NASA has built, following the Ground Test Article (GTA), which did not fly, and the EFT-1 capsule which successfully launched just over one year ago on Dec. 5, 2014. [emphasis mine]

Three months to do 7 welds. Two years to outfit a capsule. Wow! At that pace they might launch before the end of the century.

Seriously, this is an absurdly slow work pace, illustrating the wasteful nature of the SLS/Orion program. Orion’s budget these days is about $1 billion per year, with a total cost expected to reach $17 billion by the time the fourth capsule is built and launched in 2023, for a project first proposed in 2004.

In other words, it will take NASA and Lockheed Martin almost 20 years to build four capsules for the cost of $17 billion. That is absurd. Compare it to commercial space: The entire budget for all the commercial crew contracts, including both cargo contracts and the manned contract, is about half that, and will produce four different vehicles, all of which will be built and flying by 2019 at the latest. And in the case of Dragon and Cygnus, more than a dozen capsules have already flown.

Is there no one in Washington with the brain power to read these numbers and come to a rational decision about SLS/Orion? It costs too much and isn’t getting us into space. Moreover, at its pace and cost it isn’t doing anything to help the American aerospace industry. Better for Congress to put money into other things, or save it entirely and reduce the deficit and thus not waste it on this pork barrel garbage.

Unfortunately, our elected officials today not only don’t have brains, too many of them are downright corrupt. They prefer to bankrupt the nation for their own petty gain rather than do things that might help the nation grow.

The Palin endorsement of Trump

I usually avoid posting much about campaign stuff, as most of it is foolish childish blather. To me, what is important is what politicians actually do when they are in positions of power, not what they say while they are campaigning.

However, Sarah Palin’s endorsement yesterday of Donald Trump requires a few words, because this is an action by Palin that confirms a great deal about her (not Trump) that I have thought since the day she resigned as Alaska’s governor. To paraphrase one headline, yesterday’s endorsement was a Reality TV Star Endorsing a Reality TV Star.

Sarah Palin, the host of “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” and “Amazing America with Sarah Palin,” has endorsed the star of “The Apprentice” and “The Celebrity Apprentice”

This article is more blunt:
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Sunspot decline continues

NOAA’s monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in December, was posted earlier this week, and I am posting it here, as I do every month, with annotations to give it context.

The decline in sunspots continues, tracking closely the rate of decline predicted by the 2007 and 2009 predictions (the lower green curve and the red curve) but the overall solar maximum has been far shorter and less powerful than predicted.
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Recovered Falcon 9 first stage undamaged

Recovered Falcon 9 first stage

The competition heats up: In an Instagram post, Elon Musk has revealed that the Falcon 9 first stage that successfully landed vertically after launch is in its hanger and is essentially undamaged.

Elon Musk: “Falcon 9 back in the hangar at Cape Canaveral. No damage found, ready to fire again.”

Musk’s post included a higher resolution version of the picture on the right, showing a close-up of the stage near its top. This image reveals that, despite some minor paint damage and dirt, this section of the stage does appear whole and ready to go. Even the landing fins are folded and appear undamaged.

Musk’s post also suggests that the stage is ready for its first post-launch test firing, which underlines how unique this opportunity is. No one has ever had a functioning first stage available for testing after it had been launched and returned to Earth. Past assumptions (an important word) have always said that the stress of launch would damage it enough that it wouldn’t be cost effect to reuse it. SpaceX’s engineers now will have an opportunity to find out if that assumption was true or false. I strongly suspect they will find that this assumption was false, that it was used as a bugaboo by the small-minded to discourage just this kind of effort by SpaceX.

This article notes that Musk has previously said it costs $60 million to build the first stage, but only $200K to refuel it. Since SpaceX says it charges about $70 million per launch, that first stage is most of SpaceX’s cost for each launch. If the stage can reused later, the cost of later launches will thus plummet incredibly. Assume they can only reuse the stage once. Amortized over only two launches the cost is still cut by almost half. More importantly, the ability to reuse will be an incentive for them to build the stage right the first time, so that it can be reused multiple times.

I repeat: The importance of this breakthrough has not yet sunk in. It is going to change the entire aerospace industry and everything we do in space.

Update: I have corrected the post above, which originally incorrectly stated that the picture showed the stage near its base.

Confusion in Russia’s space program

Today Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin appeared on Russian television where he tried to explain the government’s plans for the Russian space program.

He failed, miserably.

First he denied reports from yesterday that the government has cancelled all Moon missions in its still not-yet-finalized proposed ten-year plan for 2015 to 2025.

“We are not dropping the lunar program. Rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated,” Rogozin said during an interview with Russia’s Rossiya-24 television channel.

Despite this denial, he did not provide any details on what Russia plans to do in connection with the Moon during the next decade. Nor did lay out his 10-year plan, which still remains unapproved or finalized despite the fact that its first year is about to begin. Instead, he began describing a new government space project, the development of a super-heavy rocket he dubbed “Fenix.”
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The coming bright age

As regular readers of Behind The Black know, I routinely report on the depressing state of western culture, where our intellectual academic community appears more interested in standing with their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears yelling, “La-la-la-la-la-la-la-la!!!” as loud as they can so they can avoid learning new things or hearing facts that might disturb their tiny little bubble of incorrect assumptions. Such behavior is comparable to the close-minded thinking that caused the medieval dark ages, when the search for knowledge died and Roman culture withered. It took a thousand-plus years for western civilization to come out of that shadow and begin to grow again.

The success of SpaceX yesterday to vertically land the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket while also successfully putting eleven smallsat satellites in orbit however that gives me hope that a dark age is not coming. Despite living in a time when freedom is denigrated, when free speech is squelched, and when oppressive regulation and government control is the answer to every problem, the enduring spirit of the human soul still pushed through to do an amazing thing.

SpaceX’s success is only the beginning. The ability to reuse the engines and first stage will allow them to lower their launch costs significantly, meaning that access to space will now be possible for hundreds if not thousands of new entrepeneurs who previously had ideas about developing the resources of the solar system but could not achieve them because the launch costs were too high. In fact, the launch of Orbcomm’s smallsat constellation by this Falcon 9 demonstrated this. Not only is this company proving the efficiency of smallsats, they now have a launch vehicle, the Falcon 9, that they can afford to use. In the past Orbcomm would have been hard-pressed to finance its satellite constellation using the expensive rockets of older less innovative launch companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX however is not alone in revolutioning the launch industry. Blue Origin has also demonstrated some of the same launch capabilities as SpaceX, vertically landing its first stage. In competition these two companies and their armies of brilliant and creative engineers are going to make it possible for the human race to explore and colonize the solar system.

Even as old Earth sinks into increasing regulation, oppressive rule-making, and tyrannical close-mindedness, the explorers of the solar system, led by this new American launch industry, will break away from that morass. Hopefully, the new space-faring societies they create out there amid the stars will, like the settlers of North America in the 1600s, help re-establish freedom for future generations back here on Earth.

SpaceX lands the first stage!

The competition heats up: SpaceX has successfully vertically landed its first stage after putting 11 Orbcomm satellites into orbit.

If you go to the SpaceX website they broadcast the whole thing live. And people are going crazy there right now.

I am sure they will post the video at the SpaceX website and youtube channel later today. The link to the full broadcast of the launch and landing is here. The landing sequence begins at about 25 minutes in, a little less than four minutes after launch.

The Democratic Party’s disconnect from reality

Three stories today once again illustrate better than anything the leftwing Democratic Party’s profound disconnect from reality:

The first story is a new poll of the public’s opinions on the subject of gun control and the idea of banning “assault weapons” (whatever those might be). Not surprisingly, the public opposes future bans, and the trend lines show a continuing and nonstop shift away from gun control and towards gun rights that has been on-going since the 1990s.

A majority of Americans oppose banning assault weapons for the first time in more than 20 years of ABC News/Washington Post polls, with the public expressing vast doubt that the authorities can prevent “lone wolf” terrorist attacks and a substantial sense that armed citizens can help. Just 45 percent in this national survey favor an assault weapons ban, down 11 percentage points from an ABC/Post poll in 2013 and down from a peak of 80 percent in 1994. Fifty-three percent oppose such a ban, the most on record.

Indeed, while the division is a close one, Americans by 47-42 percent think that encouraging more people to carry guns legally is a better response to terrorism than enacting stricter gun control laws. Divisions across groups are vast, underscoring the nation’s gulf on gun issues.

The second story describes how, despite the above very broad and obvious poll numbers, ninety-one House Democrats today introduced a bill to ban the sale and manufacture of “assault weapons”. In announcing the bill, its lead sponsor, David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island), made this vague effort to define “assault weapon”:
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New spectacular images of Pluto

Pluto's mountainous shoreline

Many cool images! The New Horizons science team has today released new images from the spacecraft’s close fly-by of Pluto.

These latest pictures are part of a sequence taken near New Horizons’ closest approach to Pluto, with resolutions of about 250-280 feet (77-85 meters) per pixel – revealing features less than half the size of a city block on the diverse surface of the distant planet. In these new images, New Horizons captured a wide variety of spectacular, cratered, mountainous and glacial terrains.

I have cropped and lowered the resolution of the image above to fit it here. Make sure you click on the link to see it and the other images. As they note,

In this highest-resolution image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, great blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust appear jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. Some mountain sides appear coated in dark material, while other sides are bright. Several sheer faces appear to show crustal layering, perhaps related to the layers seen in some of Pluto’s crater walls. Other materials appear crushed between the mountains, as if these great blocks of water ice, some standing as much as 1.5 miles high, were jostled back and forth. The mountains end abruptly at the shoreline of the informally named Sputnik Planum, where the soft, nitrogen-rich ices of the plain form a nearly level surface, broken only by the fine trace work of striking, cellular boundaries and the textured surface of the plain’s ices (which is possibly related to sunlight-driven ice sublimation).

Today’s release also includes a short animation of a faint distant Kuiper Belt object, assembled by four images taken by New Horizons. The images don’t show much more than a streak of light, but the feat of imaging this object by a spacecraft billions of miles away in this manner is breath-taking.

Arm yourself

As usual, yesterday’s mass shooting in California caused President Obama and the entire left to go into spasms demanding more gun control. A gunman shows up at a random site and begins shooting innocent unarmed people, and the first instinct of the left is to disarm more people so that vicious murderers will have more unarmed people to nonchalantly murder.

I say, it doesn’t matter whether yesterday’s killers were Islamic madmen, right-wing madmen, left-wing madmen, or plain-old madmen. What matters is that they had an easy time killing lots of people, because those people decided to remain unarmed and helpless in the face of violence.

I say, arm yourself. Get prepared so that if you find yourself in such terrible circumstances you can fight back and possibly survive, and in the process maybe save a lot of other lives as well. The likelihood that there will more such killers, most of whom will likely be Islamic terrorists because that is whom we are presently at war with, is quite high. To sit helpless and not prepared for battle is the height of foolishness.

You are personally responsible. You cannot depend on the police or government to defend you. You need to be prepared to defend yourself.

Arm yourself. The next time a killer shows up there should be ten free Americans capable of stopping him or her in their tracks, before anyone innocent dies.

Mainstream media outlet notices possible news!

Last week President Obama signed the revisions to the Commercial Act that is being touted as allowing Americans property rights in space.

I have been following the news coverage of this event, and even though there have been many articles incorrectly pushing the above spin, only today was there a news story that finally noticed that these touted property rights would violate the Outer Space treaty.

The content of the second link above, though it notices the possible violations to the Outer Space treaty, is also still a pitiful example of journalism. It is very clear from reading the article that no one involved in writing it (the article’s byline is CBC News) ever read the newly passed law. I have, and found that nowhere in it does it actually grant Americans property rights in space. What it does do is demand that the executive branch support that idea and write a number of reports and studies to demonstrate that support.

The goal I think of this new law is to begin the political process towards the U.S. eventually pulling out of the Outer Space treaty. Congress is essentially stating that it doesn’t agree with the language of that United Nations treaty, and it wants the U.S. government to begin the process of either getting it changed, or preparing to pull out. (The treaty does provide language allowing nations to pull out. You give one year’s notice, and then do so.)

It would be nice if journalists who write about this subject did the simple and easy research necessary for reporting it intelligently.

Until they do, however, I guess people will just have to come here (written with a grin).

A developing new astronomical mystery

Radio astronomers in Australia have recently detected a number of new mysterious radio bursts, dubbed fast radio bursts because of their nature, coming from outside our galaxy whose cause presently has no clear explanation.

An unprecedented double burst recently showed up along with four more of these flashes, researchers report online November 25 at arXiv.org.

Fast radio bursts, first detected in 2007, are bright blasts of radio energy that last for just a few milliseconds and are never seen again. Until now, astronomers had cataloged nine bursts that appeared to originate well outside the Milky Way. Yet, follow-up searches with nonradio telescopes for anything that might be pulsing or exploding keep coming up empty.

This mystery is similar to that of gamma ray bursts (GRBs), which were first discovered in the 1960s. About once a day there would be a short burst of gamma ray energy coming from scattered random directions in the sky, but no other radiation in any other wavelength. For decades astronomers didn’t know if the GRBs were coming from just outside our atmosphere or from billions of light years away. Finally, in the 1990s they pinned their location to the deaths of stars in distant other galaxies. As noted by one scientist at a conference, “GRBs signal the daily formation of a new black hole.”

Fast radio bursts are more intriguing. Because of their wavelengths and random locations on the sky, astronomers seem confident that they are occurring outside the Milky Way. However, in the eight years since their discovery only a handful have been detected, making it extremely difficult to study them. Nonetheless, they are significant because they signal some cataclysmic event far away, likely the death of a star in a way not yet understood or predicted. Finding out what that event is will produce important information about the evolution of our universe.

It just might take decades for this new mystery to be solved. Stay tuned!

Blue Origin lands first stage rocket vertically

The competition heats up: Yesterday Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin did its second test flight of its New Shepard suborbital rocket and capsule, and successfully recovered the rocket’s first stage, landing the stage vertically using its rockets.

As Jeff Bezos wrote at the link:

Rockets have always been expendable. Not anymore. Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket.

This flight validates our vehicle architecture and design. Our unique ring fin shifted the center of pressure aft to help control reentry and descent; eight large drag brakes deployed and reduced the vehicle’s terminal speed to 387 mph; hydraulically actuated fins steered the vehicle through 119-mph high-altitude crosswinds to a location precisely aligned with and 5,000 feet above the landing pad; then the highly-throttleable BE-3 engine re-ignited to slow the booster as the landing gear deployed and the vehicle descended the last 100 feet at 4.4 mph to touchdown on the pad.

When you watch the video you’ll see that we took the liberty of engineering all the drama out of the landing.

I have posted video of the flight below the fold.

SpaceX has been attempting this with its orbital Falcon 9 rocket for the last two years. They have come very close, hitting their target and almost landing. They plan to try again in December. Blue Origin however has beaten them to it, even if they have done it with a suborbital rocket.This demonstrates unequivocally that the concept is sound and that a rocket’s first stage can be recovered. It also demonstrates that of all the rocket companies in the world, SpaceX and Blue Origin are in position to dominate for at least the next decade. I am very confident that SpaceX will succeed in its efforts to recover its first stage. I am also very confident that Blue Origin’s plans to upgrade New Shepard into an orbital rocket/capsule will proceed quickly.

In both cases, the companies will then move forward, capable of recovering and reusing significant parts of their rockets, thus making it possible to significantly lower the launch cost and thus charge their customers less. No one else is in this position, or even close to it. The launch market will belong to them.
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Trump’s real weakness

While Donald Trump has remained the leader in every poll for president since he entered the campaign, it still remains to be seen whether Republican voters will give him the nod when actual voting begins in the primaries. I have tended to believe that they will not, and I base this on Trump’s essential lack of understanding of the small government principles of conservatism. Though it is very clear that Trump has rejected the left and the big government ideas of the Democratic Party, it is also clear that he really doesn’t really believe in small government either. This story quoting a Trump speech from yesterday illustrates this very well:

Speaking during a town hall meeting in Iowa Thursday, Republican front-runner Donald Trump told the crowd the way to make college affordable for students is “to start some governmental program. … Well the only way you can do it is you have to start some governmental program and you have governmental programs right now,” Trump told the crowd.

Click on the link to read the whole quote, which also illustrates the generally incoherent way in which Trump speaks. His incoherency however, is not what hurts him here, but his easy acceptance of the idea that government is the solution.

Don’t get me wrong. Trump is by far a better candidate than any of the Democratic Party options, and he would do a far better job then them as well. His business experience in the real world will make him a better president, and is also likely the reason he now generally favors conservative solutions. Nonetheless, when voting time comes I think the Republican voters are going to move away from him.

The uncertainty of climate science

For the past five years, I have been noting on this webpage the large uncertainties that still exist in the field of climate science. Though we have solid evidence of an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we also have no idea what the consequences of that increase are going to be. It might cause the atmosphere to warm, or it might not. It might harm the environment, or it might instead spur plant life growth that will invigorate it instead. The data remains inconclusive. We really don’t even know if the climate is truly warming, and even if it is, whether CO2 is causing that warming.

While government scientists at NASA and NOAA are firmly in the camp that claims increasing carbon dioxide will cause worldwide disastrous global warming, their own data, when looked at coldly, reveals that they themselves don’t have sufficient information to make that claim. In fact, they don’t even have sufficient information to claim they know whether the climate is warming or cooling! My proof? Look at the graph below, produced by NOAA’s own National Centers for Environmental Information.
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Epic monuments and power

More Mexico City traffic

Being in Mexico on a sightseeing trip, it is of course necessary to visit some famous churches as well as some Aztec ruins. On Thursday we headed out to do both, though we first had to slowly work our way through Mexico City’s never-ending bumper-to-bumper traffic to get where we were going.

When we got there what struck me the most about the two different tourist sites we visited was how much they resembled each other, despite being separated by almost 1500 years and completely different cultures and religious beliefs.

The old Basilica

Our first stop was to see the Basilica of the Guadalupe, located in northern Mexico City. To understand the significance of this site it is important to know the background. According to the story, which is not documented in any writings by clergy at that time, in 1531 native Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin had a series of visions of the Virgin Mary, speaking to him in his native Aztec tongue. In those visions she told him that a church should be built at a specific spot in her honor. Initially his vision was rejected by the clergy when he told them about it. When the Virgin Mary began to work miracles, however, including having her vision miraculously appear on the front of Diego’s cloak, they came to accept the visions and proceeded to build that church as requested. The result was the Basilica, where Diego’s cloak is still housed and is on display for all to see. Juan Diego himself was canonized as a saint in 2002, the Catholic Church’s first indigenous saint from the New World.

The significance of these events for the Catholic Church in Latin America is hard to measure.
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Crowded Mexico City and colonization of space

This week Diane and I are in Mexico with friends doing some sightseeing. As is my habit, I can’t just enjoy the sights I have to ask a lot of questions while trying to get an impression of the place, its culture, its environment, its atmosphere, and its politics. Not surprisingly, the answers to some of those questions pointed me upward beyond the surface of the Earth. To understand why, read on.

Today we toured the inner parts of Mexico City, both on foot and by bus and subway (or the Metro as they call it here). I have spent considerable time in many of the world’s major cities, growing up in New York and visiting at length Moscow, Kiev, Prague, London, Chicago, Los Angeles and others. Mexico City has many of the same features you’d expect for this kind of big city, lots of people, lots of traffic, lots of buildings packed tight together, and lots of wealth and poverty sitting side-by-side.

Mexico City traffic

Mexico City however to me seemed to be most crowded and the most packed of any city I have ever visited or lived in. Its size and population probably rivals that of the entire New York metropolitan area, but somehow the traffic and crowds and architecture seemed more piled on top of each other with far less breathing room.

First was the traffic. Everywhere we went it was wall to wall vehicles. The major highways were never quiet, even at night. Nor could I see much difference between midday and rush hours. The picture on the right shows us heading from in from an outer neighborhood where we were staying to take the subway into the center of the city. Not only was it bumper-to-bumper, but if you look out in the distance the road is bumper-to-bumper as far as the eye can see. My host Alfonso added at one point that in order to avoid this traffic many people routinely leave for work before 5 am and come home after 8 pm. Schools have multiple shifts, including ones at night.

A side note: The tall rectangular structures in the foreground are not buildings. This is a work of art, five several hundred foot tall cinderblock structures supposedly forming a hand pointing up, with the thicker yellow tower in the front representing the thumb.
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Pluto’s meandering canyons

canyons of Pluto

Cool image time! In scrolling through the new raw images downloaded from New Horizons today I came across an image, one of several, that showed what clearly appeared to be meandering canyons carved by flowing liquid.

To show it here, I have cropped it and reduced its size somewhat, highlighting the most interesting features. As you can see, the largest canyon not only appears to have a dark floor, it cuts right through an older crater. Smaller canyons do the same thing. In addition, many of the craters seem to be ponded with the same dark material that floors the canyons, while some of the smaller canyons show tributaries that come together, just like rivers. Are these flows of liquid nitrogen?

I eagerly await the conclusions of the scientists, who are probably only slightly less baffled by these features as I am.

Be sure and check out the full image, as well as the other raw images. The data continue to come in from New Horizons, but the science team is no longer under the same kind of public pressure to make announcements or hold press conferences. There are gems hidden there that are worth looking at, even if they are not as yet accompanied by any scientific analysis.

The coming dark ages

I decided today, after one of my readers, John Harman, sent me a link to a very blunt but accurate piece describing the sad state of modern American culture, that it was necessary to explain why I had posted nothing here on Behind the Black on Thursday, even though I was home all day doing what I usually do, scanning the web for interesting stuff.

To begin, you might want to read the essay that John sent me, entitled Wimp Nation: Poised to Fall. It sums up the cultural situation quite nicely.

The United States has become a nation of weak, pampered, easily frightened, helpless milquetoasts who have never caught a fish, fired a gun, chopped a log, hitchhiked across the country, or been in a schoolyard fight. If their cat dies, they call a grief therapist. Everything frightens Americans.

Read it all.

You then might want to read this story about Hillary Clinton’s testimony and questioning on Thursday in front of the House Benghazi committee. Here too the author captures the sick intellectually dishonest nature of America’s political culture.

What we discovered is this: The White House and Clinton apparently knew that the Benghazi attack was the premeditated work of Islamic terrorists before the bodies were cold. She and the administration nevertheless proceeded to propagate a falsehood that advanced the president’s preferred political narrative just six weeks before a tightly-contested national election.

As I noted to John, Hillary Clinton’s testimony wasn’t news, it was a joke. What did we learn? She is a liar? That’s news? What was worse, as the author of the article noted, were the reporters willing to make believe this wasn’t so.

Then there are these two stories:
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Solar ramp down jumps slightly

My original post about NOAA’s October update to its monthly tracking of the Sun’s sunspot cycle contained an incorrect graph. For reasons I do not understand, the first graph they posted did not include the data for September, thus creating for me the illusion that little had changed in September. I am now posting the correct graph here, below the fold, with annotations to give it context.

In September numbers showed a slight jump in sunspot activity, though once again nothing so significant as to change the overall trends. Moreover, the correction doesn’t change what I wrote previously in any way: the rate of decline seems to have transitioned down from the 2009 prediction (red curve) to the 2007 weak prediction (lower green curve). This doesn’t real mean much, as the sunspot number can still vary up and down considerable before we reach solar minimum in two or three years.

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Back from a weekend underground

Bob Zimmerman underground

The picture on the right will explain why I have been silent posting since Friday. I have just returned with five friends from three days of caving in New Mexico, doing some wild caving plus my first visit to Carlsbad Caverns since 1992, guided by a local caver who has been helping me with my cave survey project in Arizona.

New Mexico probably has the largest concentration of truly large and spectacularly decorated caves in the entire world. I’ve caved there previously, but this was my first trip driving from Arizona. We went to two wild caves, one of which I had never visited before and a second that I had seen during my 1992 trip. The picture shows me in the latter, standing above a large clear pool near the back of the cave with some giant flowstone speleothems all around me.

The new cave contained a room dubbed Speleogasm, because every formation there, of which there are too many to count, is completely festooned with helectites and sodastraws in a mad protrusion that no geologist can as yet explain. Nor is there any way to describe it adequately or photograph it successfully. To witness it you need to go, requiring the specialized caving skills that include the techniques and equipment required to rappel and climb a 40 foot rope.

As always, the advantages of learning how to do this successfully is the reward of seeing things that few ever see. It is why engineers and scientists strive so hard to get planetary probes to distant planets. And why humans want to travel to the planets. For me, getting inside a remote and beautifully decorated cave will just have to do.

How the Republican Party might break-up

Devin Nunes (R-California), a establishment Republican supporting Kevin McCarthy (R-California) for House Speaker, said today that any Republicans who don’t vote for McCarthy should be kicked out of the party.

Nunes is talking about the final House-wide vote for Speaker. First the Republicans vote in private among themselves, picking their nominee. McCarthy is expected to easily win that vote. Then the entire House votes. Some conservatives are threatening to not vote for McCarthy in that House-wide vote in order to extract greater influence over the entire party. Nunes wants them ejected from the party if they do that.

I have also read another story, the link to which I can’t find now, where establishment Republicans want to codify what Nunes is saying, so that any Republican who voted against McCarthy in the final vote would be kicked out of the party. If this happens, then we might very well see the Republican Party split, something that I increasingly see as a possibility. Right now the party is trying to be too big a tent, including conservatives and many moderate Democrats who find the modern Democratic Party unacceptable. (This is one reason why the Republican presidential field is so large.)

Should the party split, we might also eventually see the withering away of the Democratic Party, which today is very corrupt and far too leftwing for most Americans. If the Republicans split into conservative and moderate wings, many of those disenchanted Democrats would move to the moderate Republican faction. The result would be to cut off the corrupt modern Democratic Party from the reins of power.

I am of course being hopeful and naively optimistic. A more likely scenario would be for the Republican Party to split in such a way that the unified Democrats, still corrupt, would take over.

Guess where?

Pluto lake

I found the image on the right while trolling about on the various raw image sites for NASA’s planetary missions. No press release yet, and maybe there never will be one. I do know the scientists involved in this particular mission are right now drooling over the details available in the full resolution image, which I have cropped and reduced to fit on the right. Take a look and you will drool as well.

Want to know where this is? I bet you have already guessed, but if you need help, click on the “read more” link below, where I have also added some comments.
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Decline to solar minimum

Last week NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in August. As I have done every month since 2010, I am posting it here, below the fold, with annotations to give it context.

The sunspot count continued its decline, though dropping only a small amount. Regardless, the decline continues at a rate far faster than predicted or is usual during the ramp down from solar maximum. If this rate of decline should continue, we will reach solar minimum sometime late in 2017, two years earlier than predicted (as indicated by the red curve).

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The terrible political consequences of Iran deal to the Democratic Party

Several stories in the news today outline for me the terrible political consequences faced by the Democratic Party by their support for the nuclear deal with Iran:

This quote from the middle article however highlights how bad the consequences for the Democrats will be:

if Obama is left with a deal that is opposed by a majority of either the Senate or the House, the Democrats will be stuck with it. They will then be on the defensive with every hostile move Iran makes with the $150 billion the mullahs are going to get.

Like Obamacare, only Democrats are going to support this Iran deal. They will own it entirely. Thus, the first time Iran does something to violate the treaty or to use the $50 billion or more of cash they will get for signing the deal to promote terrorist attacks, it will be Democrats and only Democrats who will share the blame.

Yet, like Obamacare, the Democratic Party seems oblivious to these political risks. Come hell or high water, they are, as described in the first story, working as hard as they can to get the votes to sustain an Obama veto and make this deal law.

As much as I want these Democrats kicked out of office, I think having the Iran deal approved will be worse for the nation and the world. It will immediately dump billions of dollars into the hands of Iran’s radical terrorist leaders, surely resulting in more violence against many innocents across the globe. And it will announce to the world our willingness to allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, which will almost certainly instigate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and probably prompt Israel to attack Iran, possibly with its own nuclear weapons.

None of this is good. Better that the Democrats should save themselves the political cost and oppose this horrible deal.

Unfortunately, I am not hopeful. The track record of today’s Democratic Party is that of a group of people willing to put ideology ahead of everything, even if it means they will lose elections like crazy afterward. I see nothing to make me think they will do different here.

Our only option afterward then will be to throw them out of office. I pray that come 2016, the election results will make the Republican landslides of 2010 and 2014 look like mild rebukes in comparison.

The wild Martian terrain

Yardangs on Mars

This week’s image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter illustrate well the wild and mysterious geology of the Martian surface. I include cropped sections from two images here, just to give you a taste. Go to the link to do your own exploring.

The image to the right is a cropped and scaled down version of the original image, so the details are not easily seen. Make sure you look at the original. The strange yardang ridges, all aligned alike, rise up out of a relatively smooth plain.

Yardangs are formed when a surface that is composed of materials of differing strengths (i.e., of both harder and softer materials) is shaped by the abrasive action of sand and dust carried by the wind. In this case, and given the proximity of the Apollonaris Patera volcanic center, we think that these wind-carved deposits are comprised of volcanic ash and pyroclastics that erupted from Apollonaris when it was last active in the not-too-distant geologic past. Over time, the softer materials (likely volcanic ash) were eroded away, leaving behind the harder materials in the form of elongated ridges that are parallel to the direction of the prevailing wind. The end result is a stunning, out-of-this-world display of yardangs, sculpted with the artistic chisel of the Martian wind.

That’s the theory, anyway. The actual geological process that formed these ridges is probably a lot more complicated.

The image below the fold illustrates the on-going surface activity on Mars.
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Ten years after the Russians did it, NASA finally produces lettuce in space

Lots of news stories today about yesterday’s lettuce feast on ISS, where a Japanese and two NASA astronauts chowed down on lettuce grown in a NASA-built space greenhouse, ten years after the Russians did it with the American-built and still working LADA greenhouse.

Almost all the stories below, however, fail to note that earlier effort, and instead make the false claim that this NASA experiment is the first to grow lettuce in space.

Only the last article, written at an alternative space news website normally focused on the collection of space memorabilia, gets it right, noting that the Russians did it more than a decade ago and have since then been regularly growing lettuce, peas, and radishes on ISS — and eating them. (They also link to the 2003 Air & Space article I wrote on this very subject.)

Meanwhile, take a scan of all the important mainstream news outlets above, none of whom did the slightest bit of research or fact-checking so they could find out that NASA’s experiment now is not the first, and in fact is more than a decade behind an earlier co-operative effort between the Russians and Utah State University.

This should make you wonder if maybe their other news research is as sloppy.

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