Behind The Black Postings By Robert Zimmerman

Essays And Commentaries Archive

"The face of the sun is nearly blank."

Today NOAA posted its monthly update of the solar cycle, and as I do every month, I am posting it here, with annotations.

Before we take a look at that, however, there is other climate news that is apropos. The Daily Mail in the UK put out an entertaining article on Saturday with the headline “And now it’s global COOLING! Record return of Arctic ice cap as it grows by 60% in a year.”

The article is entertaining because, after illustrating the ice-cap’s recovery this year, it then notes the 2007 prediction by global warming climate scientists that the Arctic Ocean would be “ice-free” by 2013. If this isn’t a good example of the dangers of crying wolf, I don’t know what is.

I should emphasize that the ice-cap recovery this year does not prove that global warming has ceased. A look at this graph from satellite data shows that even though the Arctic icecap has recovered, it is still remains small when compared to the past few decades. The increase this year might only be a blip, or it could be indicating a new trend. We won’t really know for another five years, if then.

The article is also entertaining because it outlines the confusion that is right now going on behind the scenes at the IPCC. The next IPCC report is scheduled to come out next month, but no one agrees with its conclusions because it apparently ignores or minimizes the approximately fifteen year pause in warming that has now been documented since the late-1990s.

In its draft report, the IPCC says it is ‘95 per cent confident’ that global warming has been caused by humans – up from 90 per cent in 2007. This claim is already hotly disputed. US climate expert Professor Judith Curry said last night: ‘In fact, the uncertainty is getting bigger. It’s now clear the models are way too sensitive to carbon dioxide. I cannot see any basis for the IPCC increasing its confidence level.’ [emphasis mine]

It appears that scientists and governments are demanding approximately 1500 changes to the IPCC draft, which suggests its release will be delayed significantly.

Meanwhile, the Sun continues its lackluster and weak solar maximum.

Space agencies of the world unite!

On Tuesday NASA released what it calls a new “space exploration roadmap,” outlining the agency’s goals for the human exploration of space over the next few decades.

Normally I’d say, who cares? The space agency puts these kinds of PR roadmaps together periodically. None of them really ever mean that much. And in truth, this particular report doesn’t mean that much either. However, what makes this “Global Plan” interesting and worth mentioning is the participants who wrote it. It seems that NASA and the Obama administration didn’t do it alone.

Pigs in space

Today I have an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “No liftoff for these space flights of fancy.” It is essentially a more detailed reworking of my rant on the John Batchelor Show on July 30.

My point is that the federal space program mandated by Congress, the Space Launch System (SLS), is never going to go anywhere, and is nothing but pork that should be cut as fast as possible. (See my essay from November 2011 on how NASA and the federal government can better use this money to get more accomplished in space, for less.)

The comments to the article have generally been positive and in agreement. Those who disagree mostly question the $14 billion cost per launch that I claim SLS will cost. That number comes from John Strickland’s very detailed analysis of what it will cost to build, complete, and operate SLS. However, it doesn’t require much thoughtful analysis to realize that this number is not unreasonable.

Modern Journalism: Retyping press releases

This post is really about the monthly NOAA update of the solar cycle, but before I do that, I must note some really bad science journalism in connection with that solar minimum.

This week NASA released a poorly written press release describing how the Sun’s magnetic field flips whenever it goes through solar maximum, the period when sunspot activity reaches its maximum. The article gave the incorrect impression that this “flip” will be some grand singular and spectacular event and when it happens the consequences to Earth could be significant. Then it buried this most important little detail to the article’s final paragraphs:

My rant Thursday against politicians on the John Batchelor Show

On my Thursday appearance last week on the John Batchelor Show John and I devoted the entire segment to talking about the sad state of NASA and how the partisan bickering in Congress is not only failing to deal with those problems, that bickering is intentionally disinterested in actually fixing them. As I say,

What both those parties in Congress and in the administration are really doing is faking a goal for the purpose of justifying pork to their districts, because none of the proposals they’re making — both the asteroids or the moon — are going to happen.

I intend to elaborate in writing on this subject in the next day or so. In the meantime, here is the audio of that appearance [mp3] for you all to download and enjoy.

Note that I specifically talked about the following stories during this appearance:

The Sun has a maximum and no one notices

On July 8 NOAA released its monthly update of the Sun’s sunspot cycle, covering the period of June 2013. As I do every month, this graph is posted below, with annotations to give it context.

After a brief period of renewed but weak activity during the last three months, the Sun’s sunspot production has once again plunged, dropping back to the levels generally seen for most of 2012.

As predicted by some solar scientists, the Sun seems to have produced a double-peaked maximum, though the second peak appears at this time to have been remarkably wimpy and brief. It is still possible, however, that this second peak is not over and that we might see another burst of renewed activity in the next month or so, based on the Sun’s past behavior during the ending stages of the previous solar maximum in 2001 and 2002. Nonetheless, from all appearances it looks like the Sun has shot its load and is in the process of winding down from a solar maximum peak that occurred back late 2011.

What is especially fascinating about this is that when that peak occurred in 2011, no one noticed!

Doing the Grand Canyon Right

The Tonto Plateau

The one thing about the Grand Canyon that attracts hikers is its intimidating nature. People feel challenged by its large size and depth, and want to prove to themselves that they can do it.

The irony of this to me is that it is that intimidating nature that generally causes most people the most problems. People worry about the climb out. They worry about the heat. They worry about the lack of water. And they worry about vastness around them.

All of these things — the climb, the heat, the lack of water, and the vastness — must be dealt with. Each has caused the death of many visitors. Each could kill you if you are not prepared. In fact, one or all of these factors are probably the primary causes behind all of the approximately 300 rescues that occur each year at the Grand Canyon.

Yet, none of these factors is actually the biggest obstacle for most people trying to climb in and out of the Canyon. Instead, it is the worry about these things that causes people the most difficulties.

At the rim 2

We have returned from inside the Grand Canyon. We hiked out on Tuesday, doing the climb up in what is for us record time, arriving at the rim at 12:30 pm after 7 hours of hiking. We were down at Phantom Ranch for two full days and three nights, doing some really spectacular day hikes each day. I will post some further details, with pictures, once I get home.

We are still touring about here in northern Arizona and will be until Sunday. Right now I am sitting in the patio of the motel at Grand Canyon Caverns, about two hours west of the national park. This morning we drove down to the Colorado on the Hualapai Reservation, using the only road on the south rim that reaches the river. This weekend I will be participating in a long term cave dig project here at this somewhat famous commercial cave. The dig has been going on for years in cooperation with the cave’s owners. This will be the first time that I will contribute to the project.

At the rim

The Grand Canyon from our motel room

After a 5.5 hour drive we arrived at the south rim of the Grand Canyon and checked into our hotel. You can see the view from the window on the right. Not very spectacular, but then, you don’t spend much time in a hotel room on trips like this.

Tomorrow we take the shuttle bus to the North Rim, where will spend another night in the lodge there. On Saturday, we hike down on North Bright Angel trail, and will stay in a cabin at Phantom Ranch for the next three nights, doing day hikes from the bottom of the canyon on Sunday and Monday. We will hike then up on Tuesday, coming up Bright Angel trail to the south rim, completing our first rim to rim hike. Once we check out of our hotel tomorrow, we will be out of contact with the internet until we return to the south rim. I hope the world doesn’t fall apart in the interim.

This will be Diane’s third trip to the bottom, and my fifth. I can’t express how happy I am to be back. This is truly one of the grandest spots on Earth.

Third Anniversary

This past weekend Behind the Black celebrated its third anniversary. I did it by posting very little, as the news in space, to my mind, has been very quiet, while the news in politics and culture has been very depressing, something I am growing tired of reading. It seems to me that freedom is dying, both in the United States and worldwide, being chipped away bit by bit until no one alive knows what the word means anymore.

Moreover, on July 4 Diane and I will head north to the Grand Canyon (our third trip together to the bottom) for ten days vacation, so expect posting for that time period to be very light or nonexistent.

I do intend to post until then and once I get back. If you have liked what I have written and posted these past three years, then please consider the idea of contributing to the website. The tip jar is in the right column, near the bottom.

And if you really want to find out the moment I believe American society began to die, you might want to consider reading the new ebook edition of my first book, Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8. The book tells the story of one of our country’s grandest achievements, and how that triumph ironically ended up teaching an entire generation all the wrong lessons.

Close-minded politicians everywhere!

Despite the repeated news in recent weeks that the evidence for global warming is slim, or at least confused, today we have two elected officials and one appointed official screaming that the sky will fall if we don’t do something, including spending billions of dollars of other people’s money.

First we have our friend Al Gore, who was in Washington, DC to speak at an environmental event put on by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island). Whitehouse you might remember was the senator who, even before the injured and dead had been counted from the terrible Moore, Oklahoma tornado, started blaming Republicans for the tornado because they weren’t doing more to stop global warming.

The red tape of the space bureaucracy

“An article in the Economist today has some chilling conclusions about the difficulties faced by the new commercial space companies.

Although the cost of developing new space vehicles, products and services is high, just as much of a burden can be imposed by such intangible expenses as regulatory compliance, legal fees and insurance premiums.

The article points out the heavy cost to these new space companies caused by insurance requirements and government regulation, including the ITAR regulations that restrict technology transfers to foreign countries. However, this paragraph stood out to me as most significant:

Then there is the question of vehicle certification. The first private astronauts and space tourists may soon take to the skies in new launch vehicles, and the FAA has initially agreed to license commercial spacecraft without certifying, as it does for aircraft, that the vehicles are safe to carry humans. The idea is that specific safety criteria will become apparent only once the rockets are flying and (though it is rarely admitted) an accident eventually happens. This learning period will keep costs down for makers of the new spacecraft, even if significant compliance expenses are likely when it is over. The exemption was meant to have expired last year and was extended to the end of 2015. Commercial space companies are understandably keen for it to be extended again. “In the dawn of aviation, planes had 20 to 30 years before significant legislation applied,” says George Whitesides, the boss of Virgin Galactic.

Back in 2004 I noted in a UPI column the problems caused by these regulations, even as they were being written. (I had also done something at the time that few reporters ever do: I actually read the law that Congress was passing.) Then I said,

The Sun makes the scientists look good -- for now!

NOAA today released its monthly update of the Sun’s sunspot cycle, covering the period of May 2013. As I have done every month for the past three years, I have posted this latest graph, with annotations to give it context, below the fold.

For the third month in a row, the Sun has shown increased sunspot activity. Though the total activity continues to remain well below all predictions, it appears that the Sun is going to produce a double-peaked maximum, as predicted by some solar scientists back in March. Be aware however that this prediction isn’t based on any real understanding of the physical processes that produce sunspots but is instead based on the fact that the Sun has sometimes done this in the past. If you asked these scientists why the Sun sometimes produces a double-peaked maximum they will wave their arms about but will really not be able to tell you.


The 2000th show

Tonight David Livingston will air the 2000th episode of The Space Show, what has become the world’s leading media outlet for the discussion of space exploration and the aerospace industry.

The Space Show began in June 2001, and in the ensuing dozen years David has interviewed almost every single big mover in the business of space exploration. I myself have been honored to appear on his show more than thirty times, a fact for which I am deeply grateful, since there are people far more important than I in this field.

It is difficult to measure the significance to space of David Livingston’s effort during these past twelve years. When the Space Show began, SpaceShipOne had not yet flow, the X-Price had not yet been won, and the idea of private space and space tourism were considered wild and absurd ideas. Twelve years later, these ideas are now common knowledge and are likely to be main path for the human race into space. By giving a forum to supporters of commercial space, the Space Show under David’s leadership made this paradigm shift possible.

Thank you David! When the solar system is finally settled, the colonists should remember that without his important contribution their journey to get there would have been far more difficult.

The Sun shows a bit of life

It is that time again, buckos! Yesterday NOAA released its monthly update of the Sun’s sunspot cycle, covering the period of April 2013. As I have done every month for the past three years, I have posted this latest graph, with annotations to give it context, below the fold.

For the second month in a row the Sun’s sunspot output increased. The result is that April 2013 saw the most sunspot activity in more than a year, since December 2011.


Private space is winning

Today I attended an space industry conference here in Orange County, California, sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Unlike the Space Hackers conference which also occurred today and to which I was also invited, this was not a New Space get-together, but a standard aerospace event which included a lot of old time engineers from the big old-time companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Most of the talks today were engineering related. For example, one described in detail the engineering advantages of building ion engines and solar sails at the molecular level, nanotechnology to the max. Another talk, which I found astonishing and exciting, was an analysis of the orbital mechanics of getting to Mars. This analysis found that using constant acceleration as low as .01 G it would be possible to get to Mars in weeks, not years, and without the necessity of waiting for the perfect launch window. You could launch almost anytime. Though we don’t have engines that as yet can provide this much constant low acceleration, these numbers are not so high as to make it impossible. With some clever refinements, it might be possible to come up with propulsion systems capable of these constant Gs, and to do it in the near future. If so, it will open up the entire solar system to manned exploration very quickly. Not only will we be able to travel to the planets in a reasonable time, the constant Gs would overcome the medical problems caused by prolonged weightlessness.

It wasn’t these interesting engineering presentations that got my juices flowing however. Instead, it was presentation on public policy issues that completely surprised me and made me think the future of the American aerospace industry is really going in the right direction. This significant take-away was further reinforced by the audience’s reaction to my lecture in the evening.

A rocket reveals a fundamental truth about America

Yesterday, Orbital Sciences successfully completed the first test launch of its Antares rocket, developed, designed, and built in less than five years under a commercial contract with NASA to provide cargo to the International Space Station. The launch went like clockwork, perfectly, with no hitches at all, something that is quite remarkable for a new rocket on its first launch. Kudos to the engineers at Orbital Sciences for a job well done!

Besides demonstrating the skill of Orbital Science’s engineers, however, this successful launch illustrated in stark reality a fundamental fact about the culture of the United States that continues to allow it to stand out from the rest of the world, even as a large percentage of the present generation of Americans are doing their darndest to try to destroy that culture. Moreover, that fundamental cultural fact is basic to human nature, not just the United States, and if we recognize it, it will provide us all the right framework for what to do and not to do in trying to maintain human societies, both here on Earth as well as in the future in space.

In order to understand the true significance of Orbital Sciences’s success yesterday with Antares, however, we must first review the capabilities of the world’s launch industry. I am not going to list all the rockets capable of putting payloads into orbit, only those that are successfully competing for business in the open commercial market.

The Fantasy of Extreme Weather

This week there were three stories describing new research proving that global warming is going to cause an increase in the number and violence of extreme weather events. Each was published in one of the world’s three most important scientific journals.

Sounds gloomy, doesn’t it? Not only will extreme heatwaves, cold waves, and droughts tear apart the very fabric of society, you will not be able to drink your soda in peace on your next airplane ride!

However, one little detail, buried in one of these stories as a single sentence, literally makes hogwash out of everything else said in these three articles.

The weak solar maximum continues

Late last night NOAA released its monthly update of the Sun’s sunspot cycle, covering the period of March 2013. As I have done every month for the past three years, I am posting this latest graph, with annotations to give it context, below the fold.

While the Sun’s output of sunspots increased in March, it did not do so with much vigor, with the numbers still far below all predictions while also showing an overall decline since a single strong peak in October 2011.


Science and sequestration in context

On March 21, the House accepted the continuing resolution proposed by the Senate for the year 2013. This continuing resolution will fund everything in the federal government though September of this year, and includes the cuts imposed on March 1 by sequestration.

As it always does, the journal Science did a specific analysis of the science portion of this budget bill. As usual, they looked only at the trees, not the forest, comparing the budget changes up or down for the 2012 and 2013 years only, noting how those changes will impact each agency’s programs. As usual, Science also took the side for more federal spending, assuming that in each case any cut was sure to cause significant harm to the nation’s ability to do cutting edge science.

I like to take a wider and deeper view. Below is a chart showing how the budgets for these agencies have changed since 2008. They give a much clearer perspective of the consequences of sequestration and the cuts, if any, imposed by Congress on these science agencies.

We made it.

Getting to the Window in the Santa Catalinas is a challenge, mostly because of the 4000 foot elevation gain. In the past two years Diane and I have made three previous attempts, all of which were aborted because we simply either ran out of time or energy.

Today, we left very early in the morning, and because we are right now in very good shape, made it with little trouble, completing the entire hike in just under eleven hours. Some pictures below the fold.

More fraud in climate science

Fraudalent data

Steve McIntyre, the man who had demonstrated that Michael Mann’s hockey stick graph was a fraud, has now demonstrated that the work of a group of climate scientists attempting to resurrect it is even more fraudulent. It seems that in order to recreate the illusion of warming in the past four hundred years, the scientists, led by geologist Shaun Marcott, changed the dates on a series of ocean cores in order to get the results they wanted.

McIntyre found that Marcott and his colleagues used previously published ocean core data, but have altered the dates represented by the cores, in some cases by as much as 1,000 years.

Most significantly, the scientists made no explanation for changing these dates. It is as if they wanted to hide this decline, y’know?

The chart on the right, by McIntyre, illustrates the fraud. The black line shows the temperature numbers of the ocean cores used by Marcott. The red line shows the temperature numbers, as originally published in the scientific literature, for these ocean cores.

The discrepancy here is so egregious that it screams at you. More important, as John Hinderaker says,

Visiting a nuclear missile silo

a fuel line for the Titan missile
A fuel line for the Titan missile.

Last week my oldest friend Lloyd and his wife Denise came to visit Diane and I here in Tucson. One of Lloyd’s requests was to visit the Tucson Missile Museum. This museum is built at the site of one of the now disabled missile silos built in the 1960s as a means for launching nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. Fifty-four silos total had been built and operated, with eighteen of those silos scattered around the Tucson, Arizona area. When the U.S. signed a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviet Union in the 1980s these silos were then shut down and sold. Some became private residences. Others remain buried and abandoned.

One silo, however, was kept as intact as allowed by treaty and made into a museum in order to preserve this artifact of history. Because Diane and I happen to know Chuck Penson, the archivist at the museum, we were able to arrange an augmented tour of the facility. Below are some of my pictures as Chuck took us down into the deepest bowels of the silo.

The budget battle at NASA

Two stories today highlight not only the budget problems at NASA, but also illustrate the apparent unwillingness of both Congress and Americans to face the terrible budget difficulties of the federal government. In both cases, the focus is instead on trying to fund NASA at levels comparable to 2012, before the Obama administration or sequestration had imposed any budget cuts on the agency.

It is as if we live in a fantasy world, where a $16 trillion dollar debt does not exist, and where money grows on trees and we can spend as much as we want on anything we want.

We don't need no solar maximum

It is that time again! Today, March 4, NOAA released its monthly update of the Sun’s sunspot cycle, covering the period of February 2013. As I do every month, I am posting this latest graph, with annotations to give it context, below the fold.

Once again, the Sun has shown a complete inability to produce sunspots, at the very moment it had been predicted to be rising towards its maximum in the sunspot cycle. The numbers in February plunged from the tepid rise we saw in January to below the crash we saw in December. Right now, when the Sun is supposed to peaking, it is instead producing sunspots in numbers as low as seen in 2011, at the very end of the last solar minimum.

Building a real Peace Forest in Israel

Dedication to the Peace Forest
One of the plaques inside the Peace Forest

Just after the 1967 war, a strip of land in Jerusalem that had been part of no man’s land after the city was divided following the 1948 war was turned into a Peace Forest to symbolize “the hope for peace and serenity between all Jerusalem’s residents.” Located on a hillside that overlooks the city, the Jewish National Fund sponsored a campaign to have the site landscaped elegantly, with a promenade and a series of architectural observation points, each designed differently as if their architects were competing with each other for the most creative structure.

In 2003 my oldest nephew was married from the highest point on this hillside, just above the Peace Forest, with the entire city of Jerusalem as the backdrop. At the time there was a catering hall at this location, and it seemed to them to be a perfect place to tie the knot.

Bigotry in Israel

It is often claimed by those who oppose Israel that it is an apartheid state that imprisons its Arab population, both in Israel itself as well as in the West Bank and Gaza.

Like much that is said about Israel, however, this claim has little to do with reality, and in fact, as I said yesterday, turns reality on its head.

Inside Israel, Arabs have the option (though some have decided not to take it) of becoming full citizens. Thus, not only are Israeli Arabs among the most prosperous Arabs in the Middle East, they have more rights under the Israeli democratic government than most Arabs in every other Arab country. They can vote, and have even served as elected members of Parliament.

Compare that with the way Arabs treat their religious minorities. Jews are of course forbidden. Christians meanwhile are fleeing the Islamic Middle East because of its persecution of non-Muslims.

The HOAs of Israel

What is a West Bank settlement? If you read the press, it is a place where Israeli Jews have moved in and stolen the land of Arabs in order to occupy their land unfairly. It is a place where Arabs are forbidden, where apartheid has been established against the indigenous population.

Not only are these statements false, they actually turn reality on its head.

In my two visits to Israel I have stayed or visited four different West Bank settlements, and in each place my first impression was that I was visiting a typical American gated community, a suburban community run by a home-owner-association (HOA). You enter by driving through a gate where an attendant waves at you as you go by. He doesn’t stop you, because he either knows you or he has profiled you and sees no reason to ask you any questions. Once inside the roads wind about, passing individual homes or apartments. At the center of the community is a recreation center, often with a pool and library, where events are held and people go for entertainment.

Alon Shvut
The gated community of Alon Shvut, south of Jerusalem in the West Bank.


The weak solar maximum continues

On February 4, NOAA released its monthly update of the Sun’s sunspot cycle, covering the period of January 2013. As I do every month, I have posted the latest graph, with annotation, below the fold.

Not surprisingly, the sunspot numbers in January showed a recovery and rise from the steep plunge in December. What is surprising, however, is that the rise is not very much, barely bringing the sunspot number for the month back to the weak numbers we’ve seen for most of 2012.

Hitchhiking and supermarkets in the occupied territory

In my visit to Israel this past week, I spent almost all my time in the West Bank. In all, I have now either stayed in or visited a total of four West Bank settlements. In addition, while there I also did some sightseeing in Jerusalem and elsewhere. From this short experience I have gleaned some very fascinating facts, many of which are very surprising, though they shouldn’t be as they are facts that in many cases are fundamental to understanding the long-running and seemingly unsolvable Middle East conflict.

In the next few days I will post a series of short essays describing my experience and thoughts, with this essay being the first.

First and foremost, the assumption everyone makes about the West Bank and Israel is that it is a very dangerous place, especially for Jews. This assumption is entirely false. It is so false it is downright laughable.

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