Category Archives: Points of Information

In Belize

After two flights and a two hour drive I am now with the rest of the expedition in the Maya Mountain Lodge near San Ignacio on the western side of Belize. Tomorrow we go on our first survey trip to Mountain Cow Cave, a popular wild cave that tours periodically visit. We are surveying it for the local authorities so they have a better idea of what they have and can better protect it.

My internet connection here is slow, so posting will be less than I would like. Also, we will be spending most of our time caving. So don’t expect a lot of posting for the next week. I shouldn’t say that, as then all my readers will flee, but I have to be honest.

Off to Belize

This Friday morning I am leaving for Belize for a week long cave expedition. I do not know if I will have the time or internet access to post as normal. Moreover, the days will be spent underground surveying and pushing new cave passages, so if I do any posting it will be in the evenings. In addition, some of us will also be heading to Guatemala for a day to visit the ruins at Tikal.

I have never been to Belize before. If I can’t post there I will definitely post my impressions of my travels upon my return.

Posted from El Paso, Texas.

Republican-led Senate passes spending bill larger than requested by Obama

Feeding the anger: A bill passed today by the Republican-led Senate included more funding that originally requested by the Obama administration.

Moving legislation and avoiding fights has been a top election year priority for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Kentucky Republican wants the GOP Senate to prove that Republicans can govern by avoiding a one-and-done omnibus spending package at the end of the year. But the energy and water bill received little fanfare from Senate conservatives. They complain that the measure, which funds the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Interior, spends $261 million more than even Obama requested.

Sen. Mike Lee described the legislation as “simply unacceptable in a time of rising debt and slower economic growth.” The Utah Republican told The Daily Signal that “we’re never going to get our nation’s rising deficits under control until we can stick to our previous agreements on spending levels,” referring to the limits set in the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Though Congress has not passed a budget resolution, the Senate started advancing spending bills at levels established in the 2015 Bipartisan Budget Act, which increased government discretionary spending by $30 billion above the 2011 caps.

Still Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., told The Daily Signal he’s glad the appropriations process has gotten off the ground finally. “This is the first time this appropriation bill has passed the Senate since 2009,” Lankford, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, explained. “To avoid last-minute continuing resolutions, backroom deals and omnibus bills, we must move bills through a regular order appropriations process.”

These guys just don’t get it. There is a reason that Trump and Cruz dominated their party’s presidential campaign, and it wasn’t because they were calling for Congress to advance big spending bills in Congress quickly.

Posted from El Paso, Texas.

Court rules against illegal Obamacare subsidies

Finding out what’s not in it: A federal court ruled today that the Obama administration had no legal right to issue subsidies to insurers that have not been appropriated by Congress.

The court was quite blunt about the White House’s illegal activities here:

Paying out Section 1402 reimbursements without an appropriation thus violates the Constitution. Congress authorized reduced cost sharing but did not appropriate monies for it, in the FY 2014 budget or since. Congress is the only source for such an appropriation, and no public money can be spent without one. See U.S. Constitution, Art. I, § 9, cl. 7 (“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law . . . .”). The Secretaries’ textual and contextual arguments fail.

Not surprisingly, the Obama administration rejects the court’s decision.

Airbus initiates smallsat launcher project

The competition heats up: Airbus has begun a project to develop a smallsat commercial launch rocket, competitive with Rocket Lab’s Electron and Virgin Galactic’s LaunchOne, aimed at the cubesat and nanosat satellite market.

The source for the story was unnamed, and also gave few details, so it is hard to know how real this is. What I gather however is that we might be seeing the beginnings of a long term split in the launch market, with one set of big rockets designed to launch human-related payloads, including humans, and a second set of small rockets focused on launching unmanned satellites.

ULA’s CEO explains why they are retiring Delta

Tory Bruno, the CEO of ULA, explained in an op-ed today why his company is discontinuing its use of Boeing’s Delta family of rockets and focusing exclusively on Lockheed Martin’s Atlas 5 and its eventual replacement, the Vulcan Centaur.

Delta is an amazing rocket, but it’s costly to produce. Its burnt-orange foam insulation has to be applied by hand. Its production line is bigger and more complex than Atlas’s. And its components are pricier.

Bruno’s purpose with this op-ed is to convince Congress to leave his company alone while they develop the new Vulcan rocket. Congress keeps proposing outlawing use of the Atlas 5 with its Russian engines, and Bruno does not want that, at least not until the Vulcan is flying. He is also trying to reduce his costs by discontinuing Delta, which in turn would allow him to lower prices for his Atlas 5 and compete more effectively with SpaceX.

Though I understand Congress’s concerns, I do find it sad that in modern America a private businessman has to lobby Congress for the right to run his company as he sees fit.

First manned Starliner flight delayed

Boeing has revealed that the first manned flight of Starliner will be delayed until 2018.

This delay for Boeing is not really a surprise. Unlike SpaceX, the company had done very little actual development work on the capsule before winning its contract from NASA. They therefore have a lot more to do to become flight worthy. My one worry is their contract. If the contract is fixed price, as with the original cargo contracts awarded SpaceX and Orbital ATK, Boeing will have no incentive to delay, as they won’t be paid anything until they achieve specific milestones and will get no additional monies to cover the added costs of the delay. If the contract is cost-plus, however, NASA’s traditional contract system used for SLS, Orion, and almost every other boondoggle since the 1960s, then Boeing will be paid regardless of the delay, and NASA will also be on the hook for paying the additional delay costs, thus giving Boeing an incentive to slow walk the construction.

I think the contract was fixed-price, but am not sure. Anyone out there have an answer?

A Kuiper belt object turns out to be large

New observations of Kuiper Belt object 2007 OR10 have found it to be the largest unnamed object in the solar system, 955 miles across and about two-thirds the diameter of Pluto.

It also appears to rotate slowly, with each day about 45 hours long.

These results are decidedly uncertain, so don’t put much money on them. Nonetheless, the data continues to suggest that there are a lot of objects out there beyond Pluto.

Why Trump and Cruz dominated campaign

Three stories today illustrate forcefully why voters in 2016 chose Donald Trump first as their Republican presidential candidate, with Ted Cruz a very strong second, while rejecting forcefully the establishment standard-bearers such as Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich.

The first story shows video of Hillary Clinton baffled because a businesswoman’s health insurance costs doubled since Obamacare was passed. Watch the video. She can’t even consider the possibility that Obamacare is the cause. She in fact says it is “a big step forward” only to have hostile groans ripple through the audience. Later she bluntly says “”What could have possibly raised your costs $400? That’s what I don’t understand?” and members of the audience once again laugh at this blindness.

Everyone knows that Obamacare has been a disaster that is driving costs up. Clinton refuses to recognize that, which is why she is having so much trouble clinching her party’s nomination, and why people dislike her so much.

The second story is about an investigation being launched by Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota) and Senate Republicans into the squelching of conservative news stories by Facebook. Rather than figure out how to get some control over the budget, these clowns want to harass a private company. Facebook’s actions might have been politically motivated, dishonest, and aimed at censoring conservative viewpoints, but they were also entirely legal under the first amendment. As noted here, the Senate has no business investigating Facebook. The Republicans calling for this investigation should sit down and shut up. Moreover, by even focusing on this Thune is demonstrating why the Republicans who now run Congress have failed so miserably in garnering voter support.

The third story is an example why Cruz, and Trump, were successful and popular with voters In his return to Washington, Ted Cruz didn’t whine about his defeat by Trump, or attack or insult the voters. Instead, he focused in on why Trump and he did well.

“All across this country people are hungry for change. This election cycle should be a wake-up call to Washington, D.C.,” the senator from Texas said outside his office. “The frustration and volcanic anger with Washington was echoed throughout this election.”

If the Republicans had for example simply done what Ted Cruz has tried to do in Congress these past few years, get Obamacare defunded, even if it meant closing down the government, they might not now be faced with having Donald Trump as their standard-bearer. By refusing to fight for the things the voters wanted, they disqualified themselves in the voters eyes, which is why they lost.

Texas town regulates SpaceX engine tests

Nice rocket company you got here. It would be a shame if something happened to it: The city council of McGregor, Texas, has imposed new regulations and fines on SpaceX should it perform rocket engine tests at its facility there in a manner the council does not like.

Though the city council was entirely within its rights, and the ban on night testing make sense, in reading the list of fines and regulations I couldn’t help thinking that they will in the end only accomplish one thing: to drive SpaceX away. This regulation in particular stood out:

The actual launching of any vehicle into the atmosphere or into space is specifically prohibited at the McGregor facility.

This would appear to ban SpaceX from doing any more hover tests of the Falcon 9 first stage. For an innovative company like SpaceX to operate as it wants, it needs the freedom to operate as it wants. These restrictions could prevent the company from doing so.

Wyoming rancher beats EPA over stock pond

Good news: A Wyoming rancher who built a stock pond on his property, after obtaining all local permits, and was then hit by the EPA with gigantic fines totaling more than $16 million if he didn’t remove it, has won his case in court.

Under the settlement, Johnson’s pond will remain and he won’t pay any fines or concede any federal jurisdiction to regulate the pond. And the government won’t pursue any further enforcement actions based on the pond’s construction. The only conditions, according to Johnson’s lawyers, are that willow trees be planted around the pond and a partial fence installed to “control livestock.” “This is a victory for common sense and the environment, and it brings an end to all the uncertainty and fear that the Johnson family faced,” said Jonathan Wood, a staff attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation who represented Andy Johnson in his court challenge to the EPA, and in negotiating the settlement.

“The EPA never identified any environmental problems with the pond,” Wood told FoxNews.com. “In fact, it’s been a boom for the environment.”

Though he won his case, because there apparently was no cost to the EPA for attacking him it is really the EPA that has won. In the future I expect them to use their ability to impose fines more widely in even more egregious situations, knowing it will cost the agency nothing and might gain them more power. It will worth it, since the only way to stop them would be to hire lawyers and spend a lot of money in court.

NASA uses computer model to find exoplanets

Garbage in, garbage out: Using statistical computer modeling only, NASA today announced that they are certain that almost a third of Kepler’s candidate exoplanets are really exoplanets.

Analysis was performed on the Kepler space telescope’s July 2015 planet candidate catalog, which identified 4,302 potential planets. For 1,284 of the candidates, the probability of being a planet is greater than 99 percent – the minimum required to earn the status of “planet.” An additional 1,327 candidates are more likely than not to be actual planets, but they do not meet the 99 percent threshold and will require additional study. The remaining 707 are more likely to be some other astrophysical phenomena. This analysis also validated 984 candidates previously verified by other techniques.

This is actually a stupid announcement. They haven’t learned a damn thing from this statistical analysis, but are merely saying that because Kepler found a lot of candidates, a lot of those candidates must be real planets. Worse, NASA is also implying here that confirming some of these candidate exoplanets by hard observations is now really unnecessary, since they can do it statistically.

This smacks of the corruption that has ruined much of climate research, allowing a computer model to replace actual observations. Big mistake. But I also suspect this announcement occurred for the same reasons: NASA wishes to justify its work and its funding, and thus decided to make a big deal about this very minor statistical analysis in order to puff up the discoveries of Kepler, even though there is no reason to do so.

I expect a lot of mainstream news organizations to write big puff pieces extolling this announcement in the coming days, which will once again prove that almost no one in journalism today has the slightest ability to apply their own independent analysis to the press releases they receive.

Harvard researchers discover that Obamacare isn’t working

Finding out what’s in it: A Harvard research study has found that the program in Obamacare designed to improve hospital care has had no effect, and essentially is not working.

Or, to put it another way, in exchange for increasing regulations and cost, we have gotten nothing in return.

Gee, I seem to remember a lot of unwashed, uneducated rubes from the backwaters of flyover country saying loudly that these programs in Obamacare would not work, back in 2010. Too bad these brilliant Harvard experts considered themselves too smart to pay any attention.

Computer simulation models Sun’s magnetic field during grand minimum

The uncertainty of science: A computer simulation, run for six months on a supercomputer, suggests that during grand minimums in the Sun’s solar cycle, when there are no sunspots for decades, its magnetic field remains strong but descends into the star’s interior.

I think this statement by the leader of the science team is most informative:

‘The Sun as such is impossible to replicate on present-day computers – or those of the near future – due to its strong turbulence. And indeed we are not claiming that this modelling would really be the Sun. Instead, it is a 3D construction of various solar phenomena by means of which the star that runs our space climate can be better understood,’ Käpylä explains.

More problems at Khrunichev

Construction of the second Angara rocket, built by the Russian organization Khrunichev, is behind schedule by at least three months.

[T]he reason for the lag is the delay with the supply of components, as well as the production setup in Omsk, the long period of checks and the lack of certain equipment for testing. In Moscow, the units will pass additional testing and the carrier rocket will be assembled, after which the launch vehicle will be transported to the Plesetsk cosmodrome (Arkhangelsk region) for the pre-launch preparation.

It is interesting to note the circuitous route the rocket’s parts must travel before launch. Kind of reminds me of the way Congress distributed SLS, and how ESA distributed Ariane 5, in order to spread the wealth and put pork in as many places as possible, regardless of how it increased production cost.

Meanwhile, the delay suggests again that Khrunichev’s quality control problems, seen repeatedly with launch failures of its Proton rocket, have not been solved with the new Angara rocket.

Iran completes another ballistic missile test

Does this make you feel safer? Iran has successfully completed another ballistic missile test with a rocket capable of reaching Israel and most of the Middle East.

And does the Obama administration response below ease your mind?

The rogue nation conducted the test in defiance of a United Nations resolution that calls on Iran to cease work on its ballistic missile program. “Iran has to abide by U.N. resolutions with regard to ballistic missiles tests, and if they have violated or not been consistent with those resolutions, that clearly would be a concern for us,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said.

New analysis says it ain’t aliens at strange star

The uncertainty of science: A new analysis of old star data has concluded that KIC 8462852, also known Tabby’s Star and subject to random fluctuations that no scientist can explain, has not dimmed by 20% in the past century.

This reduces the chances that the fluctuations are caused by the slow accumulating construction of a Dyson sphere by an alien civilization, as some have proposed, but it still does nothing to explain the star’s random changes in brightness.

Judge rules White House showed “bad faith” in global-warming case

A federal court has ruled that the Obama White House was stonewalling in its refusal to turn over global warming documents requested under the Freedom of Information law

In this most recent case, the Competitive Enterprise Institute was trying to force the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to release documents backing up Director John C. Holdren’s finding that global warming was making winters colder — a claim disputed by climate scientists. Mr. Holdren’s staffers first claimed they couldn’t find many documents, then tried to hide their release, saying they were all internal or were similar to what was already public.

But each of those claims turned out not to be true. “At some point, the government’s inconsistent representations about the scope and completeness of its searches must give way to the truth-seeking function of the adversarial process, including the tools available through discovery. This case has crossed that threshold,” the judge wrote.

The judge also ruled that they will now proceed with “discovery”, in which the courts will force the administration to release documents, under penalty of contempt.

The article also notes that this is the third time the courts have been forced to go this route with the Obama administration. For some reason, they seem to be stonewalling a lot of Freedom of Information requests. And that doesn’t even include the stonewalling the IRS did in the Lois Lerner IRS scandal.

Facebook routinely suppressed conservative news

Even as Facebook claimed that its trending website, listing the stories that are supposedly the most popular, curators of that website have now admitted that they routinely suppressed conservative stories, just because they were conservative.

Facebook workers routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, according to a former journalist who worked on the project. This individual says that workers prevented stories about the right-wing CPAC gathering, Mitt Romney, Rand Paul, and other conservative topics from appearing in the highly-influential section, even though they were organically trending among the site’s users.

Several former Facebook “news curators,” as they were known internally, also told Gizmodo that they were instructed to artificially “inject” selected stories into the trending news module, even if they weren’t popular enough to warrant inclusion—or in some cases weren’t trending at all. The former curators, all of whom worked as contractors, also said they were directed not to include news about Facebook itself in the trending module.

Facebook can do what it wants, but it is important to note the dishonesty here. They claimed their trending site objectively listed stories according to their popularity on Facebook, but when conservative news became popular, Facebook managers then stepped in make sure no one knew that. In other words, the organization lied to its members.

Note also that this is only further evidence that the last thing anyone should do is rely on one source for their information. Get it from multiple sources, with multiple perspectives, so that you increase the chances that you will get it all.

Sunspot activity crashes

The monthly NOAA update of the solar cycle was released yesterday, showing the Sun’s sunspot activity in April. It is annotated and posted below.

April 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.

After four months of steady decline matched exactly with the low prediction from 2007 (the lower green line curve), in April sunspot activity plummeted to the lowest level seen since January 2011.

This decline shouldn’t surprise anyone. The now ending solar maximum has been the weakest in a century and, as noted here, it is now more than a year since the last X-class solar flare, the most powerful kind, with this solar maximum seeing only 45 X-class events, compared to 126 during the previous solar maximum.

As I have noted repeatedly, the big question now is what will happen during the next solar cycle. Will we get another weak solar cycle or will the sun’s sunspot activity recover? Or will sunspots vanish and will the sun enter a grand minimum, with no sunspots for decades? At the moment no one knows, though some solar scientists favor the latter.

Saturn’s moon Epimetheus

Epimetheus

Cool image time! The picture on the right was taken by Cassini on December 6, 2015, and shows the asteroid-like misshapen moon, too small (only 70 miles across) for gravity to force it into a sphere. Behind it, filling the frame, is gigantic Saturn.

If you look close, you can see one crater that appears elongated, as if the impact was only a glancing blow.

Long March 7 heads to spaceport

The competition heats up: The first of China’s new generation of rockets, Long March 7, is now on its way to its spaceport for its first launch next month.

The first flight of the 53-metre-tall Long March 7 will take place in late June, according to CASC’s Yang Baohua, and will test the design and performance indicators. The 600 tonne, 3.35m diameter rocket will carry a scaled-down version of a new Chinese re-entry capsule for human spaceflight, chief designer of China’s human space program Zhou Jianping revealed in March.

The article provides some good detailed information about China’s new rockets, noting that this rocket has been designed to launch manned and cargo spacecraft into orbit, making it the equivalent of Russia’s Soyuz rocket. The more powerful Long March 5, set for launch later this year when it will put China’s next space station prototype into orbit, will be their equivalent of Russia’s Proton. In both cases, however, they will be better than Russia’s rockets, more advanced and upgraded with greater capabilities.

The article also makes note of China’s new Wenchang spaceport on the coast, which took six years to build.

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