Tuesday, March 31, 2015

I realize we're entering dead horse territory here -- UPDATED

... and, as promised in the last post, we are approaching the end of this thread, but I recently came across this article from 2013 and since I haven't said much about those 200,000 applicants...

Private Mars Colony Project Undaunted by Application ShortfallRob Coppinger, SPACE.com Contributor   |   August 28, 2013 07:00am ET

Mars One opened its application process for potential colonists on April 22 of this year and set a deadline of  Aug. 31. Applicants have to pay a fee, which ranges from $5 to $75 depending on which country they live in. The fee for United States citizens is $38.

On April 10, Lansdorp told SPACE.com that Mars One expected to get 1 million applications. By mid-April, the foundation had 45,000 people registered for its mailing list and had received 10,000 emails from individuals. By early May, two weeks after applications opened, Mars One was claiming 78,000 applicants.

At the time, Lansdorp said in a statement: "These numbers put us right on track for our goal of half a million applicants," lowering the applications bar he had set a few weeks earlier.

By Aug. 22, Mars One had received about 165,000 applications, meaning the foundation could have a total of around 200,000 in hand by the Aug. 31 deadline. Lansdorp told SPACE.com on Aug. 23 that potential applicants should not be concerned about any perceived lack of qualifications: "We have the feeling that people feel that, 'If I’m not a pilot or I don’t have astronaut training already, how can I ever be qualified to go to Mars?' And actually, the opposite is true."

The average application fee is about $25, Lansdorp said, so 200,000 submissions would bring in about $5 million. That would leave Mars One $20 million short of what it would have gotten from 1 million applications (and $7.5 million shy of the $12.5 million that 500,000 applications would have brought in).

However, Lansdorp also told SPACE.com last week that the 165,000 included those that had not paid. He declined to say how much revenue applications had generated.

Now cut to 2014 courtesy of Elmo Keep.
Then there’s the company’s claim that 200,000 people applied for a one-way ticket. This incredible piece of information issued by Mars One’s press office was picked up with credulous haste by news outlets around the world. Even religious leaders made their opinions known, with the UAE-based General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment strictly forbidding Muslims from applying, as to leave the sanctity of Earth was an affront to Allah.

But Norbert Kraft, the chief medical officer, has told The Guardian he was sorting through 80,000 applicants, not 200,000. NBC News tallied the number of video applicants on the Mars One website and came to 2,782, each of whom paid an application fee of between $5 and $75. I ask Lansdorp if in the course of fact-checking this story he will allow me to see the list to verify the number. I ask where the 200,000 people registered their interest and if it was ever made public. His answer was…complicated.

“I don’t know if that was ever made public, but they have registered on our website for applying for our program,” he says. “Then there was a number of steps where people had the opportunity to drop out as that was exactly the point. The application process was kind of a self-selection that avoided us having to review all of them. The first step was paying the application fee. A number of people already dropped out there. Then there was a video that you had to make and questions that you had to answer. And that’s also where a lot of people dropped out, that they’re not lying in their motivation.”

I ask again if sharing the list would be possible to verify the figure.

“Of course we cannot share the details of the applicants with you because that’s confidential, private information that we cannot share.”

I offer that the names can be redacted in maintaining the privacy of the applicants before viewing the list.

“Ah, no. I’m not interested in sharing that information with you.”

He emails later, with an invitation to come at my own expense to Mars One’s office in the Netherlands and see the list in person, though cameras will not be allowed. “I will need to read your article before publication and reserve the right to deny you access to the list if I don’t like what you wrote.”

I tell him that of course that won’t be possible.
P.S. And the revision continues. Emphasis added.

From a Pakistani news site:
When Mars One, Dutch non-profit foundation, launched a program to establish permanent human settlement on the red planet, they never thought that they would be swamped with a flood of applications. Shockingly, 202,586 people signed up for this crazy, one-way trip to Mars, of which 100 made it to Mars One’s highly coveted shortlist.

I don't have time to blog about this

Techno Fantasies

or this:

Evolutionary Psychology Is Neither

Monday, March 30, 2015

No part of this project is credible

[Coming to the end of the Mars One mega-thread.]

One of the aspects of the Mars One story that I allude to frequently but probably don't emphasize enough is that there is no there there. Every component of the proposal collapses under scrutiny. 

One example I don't believe I've gotten around to is the selection process. 

Take a moment and think about this scenario. You are trying to put together a crew for a long, arduous, complex, insanely ambitious mission with virtually no redundancy. You want to do everything possible to minimize the risk of either a medical or a psychological crisis.

With health concerns in mind, you would probably not want to include a crew member who will be pushing 70* at the beginning of the mission in 2026.
In a decade or so, when most people her age will be retiring from their working lives, Elena Shateni, now 58, plans to be starting a new life planting the human flag on Mars.
While egalitarianism is admirable in principle, in a mission with limited resources and a small crew, there has got to be some level of specialization. Having one crew member lost or incapacitated threatens the safety of the rest of the crew and the viability of the entire mission.

And remember, we are talking about an ongoing mission. This means that crew members need to be performing at full capacity for years to come. It is entirely possible that septuagenarians and even octogenarians could stand up to these rigors and perform these duties. It is not, however, something you would want to count on.

Keeping costs low means avoiding unnecessary risk; it also means avoiding unnecessary drama. We can never say in advance how someone will deal with the stresses associated with physical danger, life in incredibly cramped quarters, permanent relocation, and isolation. We can, however, reasonably assume that certain groups will be at higher risk than others.
George Hatcher welcomed a guest at his Merritt Island home last week with 5-month-old daughter Io, named for one of Jupiter's moons, tucked in a baby carrier on his chest.

Inside, the NASA engineer's wife, Lorenia, took the baby and their 2-year-old son, Rafael, offered a small stuffed lamb and a Thomas the Tank Engine train for inspection.

Hatcher stretched out with Rafael on the living room floor to work on an animal puzzle, then played a game of "tickling spiders" and swung his son high up with his legs, to squeals of delight.

It's family time the 35-year-old father cherishes after a day at work at Kennedy Space Center. But he increasingly has reason to think about the day he might leave it all behind.
Hatcher recently advanced to the final round of 100 candidates vying to be selected as astronauts by the Mars One Foundation, which wants to establish a human settlement on the Red Planet in the next decade.
Mars One estimates it will cost $6 billion to get the first crew to Mars, a figure many consider optimistic.
[That last paragraph isn't relevant to this post but I just had to throw in the phrase "many consider optimistic."]

Even under normal circumstances, extended or indefinite separation from a child can be extraordinarily difficult on a parent. In times of crisis, it can be almost unbearable. Including parents in the selection pool greatly increases the chance of a mission-threatening breakdown.

These are not isolated cases. If you read over the profiles of the other hundred finalists, you will find a large number who seem obviously ill-suited for this kind of project. People who seem, perhaps not coincidentally, better suited for a reality show.

To get a sense of how this happened, it is useful to take a look at the application FAQ on Mars One's own website. Here's an excerpt;

Characteristic Practical Applications Resiliency
  • Your thought processes are persistent.
  • You persevere and remain productive.
  • You see the connection between your internal and external self.
  • You are at your best when things are at their worst.
  • You have indomitable spirit.
  • You understand the purpose of actions may not be clear in the moment, but there is good reason—you trust those who guide you.
  • You have a “Can do!” attitude.
The rest is not much better. Amateurish, badly thought out, with the language of a motivational speaker not quite covering the lack of any real plans.

Dr. Michio Kaku has perhaps the best quote (buried deep in what is otherwise an ABC puff piece):

“This has the atmosphere of a circus, where you have amateurs simply raising their hand, volunteering to be the first person on Mars.”

* "There is not an upper age limit to apply for the astronaut selection program. If the applicant enjoys good health and he or she has all the other characteristics needed for the mission he or she has what it takes to apply." -- from the website.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Against a stupid meme, the gods themselves contend in vain

One of the most discouraging things about following the coverage of Mars One (and of science and technology reporting in general) is seeing how little important revelations are allowed to interfere with a good ongoing story.

Take the popular journalistic sub-genre, the Mars One "how does it feel to be going to Mars?" interview. It is, largely by design, an almost perfect human interest story. It was also an extremely easy and inexpensive segment to produce.

The weak point of the sub-genre has always been the premise. The dramatic impact depended on treating the project as credible. Keeping that premise believable while maintaining journalistic standards has always been a challenge, but over the past few months, it has become almost impossible.

A quick recap of recent Mars One developments:

The interview process has been revealed as a sham;

The company that was to produce their show has left;

Their contracts with actual aerospace companies are on hold;

Their Nobel Prize winning supporter has admitted that their budget and schedule were overly optimistic by a factor of ten;

A study by MIT PhD candidates has shown that the proposed habitat would probably kill all of the colonists in a matter of weeks.

This should effectively kill off the sub-genre but it hasn't. The trouble is that, other than the whole not being true part, this is still a great story. So we get articles like this one from Steve Annear of the Boston Globe, which slips in just enough inconvenient facts to maintain a pretense.
A Stoneham man is one small step closer to being picked for an ambitious one-way mission to colonize Mars.

Peter Degen-Portnoy was selected as a semifinalist for the “Mars One” project, a nonprofit venture aiming to populate the distant planet within the next 12 years — a plan some say is far-fetched and unachievable.


“The whole thing is a dream come true,” Degen-Portnoy, 51, said. “I can totally see myself . . . in that habitat, working with my team and working every day to make sure our systems are functioning and our resources are sufficient.”

Two years ago, Mars One put out a call for submissions from people interested in volunteering their efforts to bring life to the Red Planet. The Dutch organization says it received more than 200,000 inquiries [There's also a bit of a story behind that 200K claim -- MP] before whittling the list down to 100 applicants last month. Degen-Portnoy made the cut. Known as “The Hundred,” the group consists of 50 men and 50 women from around the world.

If all goes well, the husband and father of five could make it to the last round of the process, and join 24 finalists for what Mars One says will be an intense training regimen to prepare for takeoff. Groups of four will then tentatively be launched into space every two years beginning in 2026, with the first landing planned for 2027, according to the Mars One timetable, an aggressive goal that has been challenged by researchers and the public.
Degen-Portnoy remains optimistic about the journey to the planet, despite skepticism about the feasibility of the mission. A recent independent study conducted by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pointed out how difficult it would be for Mars One to ship enough supplies to sustain a new civilization. One of “The Hundred” also came forward in a recent interview and called the selection process, financial stability, and goals of the mission into question.

Last week, Bas Lansdorp, chief executive and cofounder of Mars One, tried to put some of those concerns to rest, and invited criticism.

“At Mars One we really value good criticism because it helps us to improve our mission,” he said in a statement.

Even if nothing comes of the actual mission, Degen-Portnoy said the experience and his involvement so far have been worth it. “I have met some incredible people, and we spend a lot of time chatting in our social group, exchanging ideas, and also boosting and supporting one another,” he said.
The list of concerns is both incomplete (check out our last few posts) and comically understated. Lansdorp's claim of welcoming criticism is also good for a laugh. Still, it could be worse. Here's the opening to a recent report from a local NBC station in Philadelphia:
Sara Director has a bright future ahead of her here on earth, but the 26-year-old — originally from the Philadelphia suburbs — is competing for an opportunity to leave that all behind for a one-way ticket to Mars. Upon discovering she made it to the third round of candidates in the Mars One mission, there’s a 25% percent chance that Director will spend the rest of her life on the Red Planet, leaving family and friends behind.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

For some reason, this morning I found myself thinking about scams and hoaxes involving space exploration

That lead me inevitably to this New York Sun headline from 1835

At the Cape of Good Hope
[From Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science]

From Wikipedia:
The articles described fantastic animals on the Moon, including bison, goats, unicorns, bipedal tail-less beavers and bat-like winged humanoids ("Vespertilio-homo") who built temples. There were trees, oceans and beaches. These discoveries were supposedly made with "an immense telescope of an entirely new principle."
Eventually, the authors announced that the observations had been terminated by the destruction of the telescope, by means of the Sun causing the lens to act as a "burning glass," setting fire to the observatory

And from Mr. E.A. Poe:

About twelve years ago, I think, “The New York Sun,” a daily paper, price one penny, was established in the city of New York by Mr. Moses [column 2:] Y. Beach, who engaged Mr. Richard Adams Locke as its editor. In a well-written prospectus, the object of the journal professed to be that of “supplying the public with the news of the day at so cheap a rate as to lie within the means of all.” The consequences of the scheme, in their influence on the whole newspaper business of the country, and through this business on the interests of the country at large, are probably beyond all calculation.

Previous to “The Sun” there had been an unsuccessful attempt at publishing a penny paper in New York, and “The Sun” itself was originally projected and for a short time issued by Messrs. Day & Wisner; its establishment, however, is altogether due to Mr. Beach, who purchased it of its disheartened originators. The first decided movement of the journal, nevertheless, is to be attributed to Mr. Locke; and in so saying I by no means intend any depreciation of Mr. Beach, since in the engagement of Mr. L. he had but given one of the earliest instances of that unusual sagacity for which I am inclined to yield him credit.

At all events, “The Sun” was revolving in a comparatively narrow orbit when, one fine day, there appeared in its editorial columns a prefatory article announcing very remarkable astronomical discoveries made at the Cape of Good Hope by Sir John Herschell. The information was said to have been received by “The Sun” from an early copy of “The Edinburgh Journal of Science,” in which appeared a communication from Sir John himself. This preparatory announcement took very well, (there had been no hoaxes in those days,) and was followed by full details of the reputed discoveries, which were now found to have been made chiefly in respect to the moon, and by means of a telescope to which the one lately constructed by the Earl of Rosse is a plaything. As these discoveries were gradually spread before the public, the astonishment of that public grew out of all bounds; but those who questioned the veracity of “The Sun” — the authenticity of the communication to “The Edinburgh Journal of Science” — were really very few indeed; and this I am forced to look upon as a far more wonderful thing than any “man-bat” of them all.

About six months before this occurrence the Harpers had issued an American edition of Sir John Herschell’s “Treatise on Astronomy,” and I had been much interested in what is there said respecting the possibility of future lunar investigations. The theme excited my fancy, and I longed to give free rein to it in depicting my day-dreams about the scenery of the moon — in short, I longed to write a story embodying these dreams. The obvious difficulty, of course, was that of accounting for the narrator’s acquaintance with the satellite; and the equally obvious mode of surmounting the difficulty was the supposition of an extraordinary telescope. I saw at once that the chief interest of such a narrative must depend upon the reader’s yielding his credence in some measure as [page 160:] to details of actual fact. At this stage of my deliberations I spoke of the design to one or two friends — to Mr. John P. Kennedy, the author of “Swallow Barn,” among others — and the result of my conversations with them was that the optical difficulties of constructing such a telescope as I conceived were so rigid and so commonly understood, that it would be in vain to attempt giving due verisimilitude to any fiction having the telescope as a basis. Reluctantly, therefore, and only half convinced, (believing the public, in fact, more readily gullible than did my friends,) I gave up the idea of imparting very close verisimilitude to what I should write — that is to say, so close as really to deceive. I fell back upon a style half plausible[[,]] half bantering, and resolved to give what interest I could to an actual passage from the earth to the moon, describing the lunar scenery as if surveyed and personally examined by the narrator. In this view I wrote a story which I called “Hans Phaall,” publishing it about six months afterwards in “The Southern Literary Messenger,” of which I was then editor.

It was three weeks after the issue of “The Messenger” containing “Hans Phaall,” that the first of the “Moon-hoax” editorials made its appearance in “The Sun,” and no sooner had I seen the paper than I understood the jest, which not for a moment could I doubt had been suggested by my own jeu d’esprit. Some of the New York journals (“The Transcript” among others) saw the matter in the same light, and published the “Moon story” side by side with “Hans Phaall,” thinking that the author of the one had been detected in the author of the other. Although the details are, with some exception, very dissimilar, still I maintain that the general features of the two compositions are nearly identical. Both are hoaxes, (although one is in a tone of mere banter, the other of downright earnest;) both hoaxes are on one subject, astronomy; both on the same point of that subject, the moon; both professed to have derived exclusive information from a foreign country, and both attempt to give plausibility by minuteness of scientific detail. Add to all this that nothing of a similar nature had ever been attempted before these two hoaxes, the one of which followed immediately upon the heels of the other.

Having stated the case, however, in this form, I am bound to do Mr. Locke the justice to say that he denies having seen my article prior to the publication of his own; I am bound to add, also, that I believe him.

Immediately on the completion of the “Moon story,” (it was three or four days in getting finished,) I wrote an examination of its claims to credit, showing distinctly its fictitious character, but was astonished at finding that I could obtain few listeners, so really eager were all to be deceived, so magical were the charms of a style that served as the vehicle of an exceedingly clumsy invention.

It may afford even now some amusement to see pointed out those particulars of the hoax which [column 2:] should have sufficed to establish its real character. Indeed, however rich the imagination displayed in this fiction, it wanted much of the force which might have been given it by a more scrupulous attention to general analogy and to fact. That the public were misled, even for an instant, merely proves the gross ignorance which (ten or twelve years ago) was so prevalent on astronomical topics.

The moon’s distance from the earth is, in round numbers, 240,000 miles. If we wish to ascertain how near, apparently, a lens would bring the satellite, (or any distant object,) we, of course, have but to divide the distance by the magnifying, or, more strictly, by the space-penetrating power of the glass. Mr. Locke gives his lens a power of 42,000 times. By this divide 240,000, (the moon’s real distance,) and we have five miles and five-sevenths as the apparent distance. No animal could be seen so far, much less the minute points particularized in the story. Mr. L. speaks about Sir John Herschell’s perceiving flowers, (the papaver Rheas, etc.), and even detecting the color and the shape of the eyes of small birds. Shortly before, too, the author himself observes that the lens would not render perceptible objects less than eighteen inches in diameter; but even this, as I have said, is giving the glass far too great a power.

On page 18, (of the pamphlet edition,) speaking of “a hairy veil” over the eyes of a species of bison, Mr. L. says — “It immediately occurred to the acute mind of Doctor Herschell that this was a providential contrivance to protect the eyes of the animal from the great extremes of light and darkness to which all the inhabitants of our side of the moon are periodically subjected.” But this should not be thought a very “acute” observation of the Doctor’s. The inhabitants of our side of the moon have, evidently, no darkness at all; in the absence of the sun they have a light from the earth equal to that of thirteen full moons, so that there can be nothing of the extremes mentioned.

The topography throughout, even when professing to accord with Blunt’s Lunar Chart, is at variance with that and all other lunar charts, and even at variance with itself. The points of the compass, too, are in sad confusion; the writer seeming to be unaware that, on a lunar map, these are not in accordance with terrestrial points — the east being to the left, and so forth.

Deceived, perhaps, by the vague titles Mare Nubium, Mare Tranquilitatis, Mare Fæcunditatis, etc., given by astronomers of former times to the dark patches on the moon’s surface, Mr. L. has long details respecting oceans and other large bodies of water in the moon; whereas there is no astronomical point more positively ascertained than that no such bodies exist there. In examining the boundary between light and darkness in a crescent or gibbous moon, where this boundary crosses any of the dark places, the line of division is found to be jagged; but were these dark places liquid they would evidently be even. [page 161:]

The description of the wings of the man-bat (on page 21) is but a literal copy of Peter Wilkins’ account of the wings of his flying islanders. This simple fact should at least have induced suspicion.

On page 23 we read thus — “What a prodigious influence must our thirteen times larger globe have exercised upon this satellite when an embryo in the womb of time, the passive subject of chemical affinity!” Now, this is very fine; but it should be observed that no astronomer could have made such a remark, especially to any “Journal of Science,” for the earth in the sense intended (that of bulk) is not only thirteen but forty-nine times larger than the moon. A similar objection applies to the five or six concluding pages of the pamphlet, where, by way of introduction to some discoveries in Saturn, the philosophical correspondent is made to give a minute school-boy account of that planet — an account quite supererogatory, it might be presumed, in the case of “The Edinburgh Journal of Science.”

But there is one point, in especial, which should have instantly betrayed the fiction. Let us imagine the power really possessed of seeing animals on the moon’s surface — what in such case would first arrest the attention of an observer from the earth? Certainly neither the shape, size, nor any other peculiarity in these animals so soon as their remarkable position — they would seem to be walking heels up and head down, after the fashion of flies on a ceiling. The real observer (however prepared by previous knowledge) would have commented on this odd phenomenon before proceeding to other details; the fictitious observer has not even alluded to the subject, but in the case of the man-bats speaks of seeing their entire bodies, when it is demonstrable that he could have seen little more than the apparently flat hemisphere of the head.

I may as well observe, in conclusion, that the size and especially the powers of the man-bats (for example, their ability to fly in so rare an atmosphere — if, indeed, the moon has any) with most of the other fancies in regard to animal and vegetable existence, are at variance generally with alt [[all]] analogical reasoning on these themes, and that analogy here will often amount to the most positive demonstration. The temperature of the moon, for instance, is rather above that of boiling water, and Mr. Locke, consequently, has committed a serious oversight in not representing his man-bats, his bisons, his game of all kinds — to say nothing of his vegetables — as each and all done to a turn.

It is, perhaps, scarcely necessary to add, that all the suggestions attributed to Brewster and Herschell in the beginning of the hoax, about the “transfusion of artificial light through the focal object of vision,” etc. etc., belong to that species of figurative writing which comes most properly under the head of rigmarole. There is a real and very definite limit to optical discovery among the stars, a limit whose nature need only be stated to be understood. If, indeed, the casting of large [column 2:] lenses were all that is required, the ingenuity of man would ultimately prove equal to the task, and we might have them of any size demanded;* but, unhappily, in proportion to the increase of size in the lens, and consequently of space-penetrating power, is the diminution of light from the object by diffusion of the rays. And for this evil there is no remedy within human reach; for an object is seen by means of that light alone, whether direct or reflected, which proceeds from the object itself. Thus the only artificial light which could avail Mr. Locke would be such as he should be able to throw, not upon “the focal object of vision,” but upon the moon. It has been easily calculated that when the light proceeding from a heavenly body becomes so diffused as to be as weak as the natural light given out by the stars collectively in a clear, moonless night, then the heavenly body for any practical purpose is no longer visible.

The singular blunders to which I have referred being properly understood, we shall have all the better reason for wonder at the prodigious success of the hoax. Not one person in ten discredited it, and (strangest point of all!) the doubters were chiefly those who doubted without being able to say why — the ignorant, those uninformed in astronomy, people who would not believe because the thing was so novel, so entirely “out of the usual way.” A grave professor of mathematics in a Virginian college told me seriously that he had no doubt of the truth of the whole affair! The great effect wrought upon the public mind is referable, first, to the novelty of the idea; secondly, to the fancy-exciting and reason-repressing character of the alleged discoveries; thirdly, to the consummate tact with which the deception was brought forth; fourthly, to the exquisite vraisemblance of the narration. The hoax was circulated to an immense extent, was translated into various languages — was even made the subject of (quizzical) discussion in astronomical societies; drew down upon itself the grave denunciation of Dick, and was, upon the whole, decidedly the greatest hit in the way of sensation — of merely popular sensation — ever made by any similar fiction either in America or in Europe.

Having read the Moon story to an end and found it anticipative of all the main points of my “Hans Phaall,” I suffered the latter to remain unfinished. The chief design in carrying my hero to the moon was to afford him an opportunity of describing the lunar scenery, but I found that he could add very little to the minute and authentic account of Sir John Herschell. The first part of “Hans Phaall,” occupying about eighteen pages of “The Messenger,” embraced merely a journal of the passage between the two orbs and a few words of general [page 162:] observation on the most obvious features of the satellite; the second part will most probably never appear. I did not think it advisable even to bring my voyager back to his parent earth. He remains where I left him, and is still, I believe, “the man in the moon.”

Mike the Mad Biologist has a good post on tenure

I don't have time to discuss it now, but if you're following the discussion, you should check it out.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

At this point, the only things Mars One is likely to get into orbit are the wheels coming off of the bus

More background on the Mars One story.

From CTV News:
The Dutch non-profit group behind the project recently announced that it was pushing back the planned launch to 2027, due to a lack of funds for a robotic mission that was scheduled to precede the first human launch. The aim of the robotic mission is to test out the technologies required for human survival on Mars.

From NBC:

The Dutch-based Mars One venture is closing in on choosing its crews for one-way trips to the Red Planet, but will they be all dressed up in spacesuits with no place to go? Over the past week, there's been a string of reports that highlight the huge challenges facing Mars One.

Space News reports that the project's leaders haven't followed up on concept studies for robotic missions aimed at sending a lander and an orbiter to Mars in 2018. The Daily Mail says Mars One's deal with Endemol's global TV production team has fizzled out. Meanwhile, the Guardian quotes one of Mars One's initial supporters, astronomer Gerard 't Hooft, as saying the mission "will take quite a bit longer and be quite a bit more expensive" than advertised.

And (better late than never) from NPR:
Still, a Dutch venture called Mars One has captured the public's imagination with its plan to colonize Mars by 2025. Bas Lansdorp, the group's CEO, says they've been featured in major media outlets like CNN and the New York Times. "We've been on NPR — I think twice already," Lansdorp says.

"For some reason that I really cannot explain, I wanted to go to Mars and build a new human settlement there," he says.

Lansdorp believes the voyage will likely pay for itself because it will be a media spectacle. Everyone in the world will want to watch the whole adventure, he says. Mars One is planning a reality TV show with sponsorships and advertising.

"We expect it's worth up to 10 Olympic Games' [worth] of media revenue, which is $45 billion," says Lansdorp.

Of course, sponsors of the Olympics can be pretty confident that their games will happen. When asked how he responds to skeptics who say that Mars One is basically just a website and a marketing plan, Lansdorp says, "I think that the people who say that really haven't paid attention to what we've achieved already."
Lots of people applied to be part of the Mars One astronaut corps — paying a fee to do so. And the group has commissioned a couple of studies from established aerospace companies.

The Mars One plan calls for first sending out a small robotic lander in 2018. Lansdorp says he can do this more cheaply than NASA. But missions like that typically cost hundreds of millions of dollars. When told that it didn't sound like he'd raised anything like that amount of money, Lansdorp replied that "we don't need that kind of money yet because we're not yet building the actual lander. But these are the kinds of investments that we're currently in negotiation for."

How much has he raised? He won't say.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

If you're following the Mars One story, you need to read this

From Elmo Keep:

A Point-By-Point Response to The Latest Claims Made By Mars One

Rocket Boosters

Still collecting notes on the big Mars One post (see here, here and here).

One aspect of the story that I probably haven't spent enough time on is boosterism. As we try to reconstruct the journalistic wreckage of the collapsing story , it's essential to keep in mind the role that reporters' and commentators' attitude toward manned space exploration played. This is a story told, analyzed, and even critiqued largely by people who wanted it to be true.

Generally this attitude expressed itself in a "don't ask, don't tell" variant of confirmation bias: reporters for the most part simply did not go looking for details that would contradict the narrative. Occasionally, though, this lapsed into deliberate exaggeration, which brings us to Nobel Prize winning physicist, Dr. Gerard ‘t Hooft.

Dr. 't Hooft was an early and vocal advocate for the program (officially designated an "ambassador"). Here's an excerpt from his statement on the Mars One site:
"Mars One is an extraordinarily daring initiative by people with vision and imagination. All confronted with it will, like I did, respond with skepticism: This will never work. NASA has had ideas like this on the books for decades, American President Bush wanted to launch a manned Mars mission too, and it never happened. Too costly, too complicated, and too chancy, even for NASA!

But look and listen to this proposal properly! Problems are there to be solved. What is being put forward here is achievable! Here we have an enterprise that is financed exclusively by private firms, not the taxpayer’s dime. Rather than political mumbo-jumbo, we have real discussion with the general public. Only people who, like myself, are inspired by the project can contribute if they want. It will certainly be a spectacle worth watching. And, naturally, one thing stands front and centre: the technical feasibility.


This is when you ask me: aren’t you a scientist? What does science gain from this? Well, there are also scientific Mars missions. They cost a fraction of what this project will allocate. They are all robotic missions, but in the end science will be guaranteed to gain a great deal from human presence on various celestial bodies in our solar system. Universities don’t have the money for that. National governments have immediate priorities elsewhere. This project seems to me to be the only way to fulfill dreams of mankind’s expansion into space. It sounds like an amazingly fascinating experiment. Let’s get started!"
Perhaps even more telling is this 2013 interview from New Scientist reprinted here by Slate.

[emphasis added]
Govert Schilling: How did you get involved with a project that sells one-way tickets to Mars?
Gerard 't Hooft: The concept fits in with my own ideas about human exploration of space, which I described in my book, Playing with Planets. In fact, the co-founder and general director of Mars One, Bas Lansdorp, once attended one of my lectures. When he asked me to become an ambassador for Mars One, my first reaction was that it will take much longer and cost much more than they currently envision. However, after learning more about the research they had carried out, I became convinced that human flights to Mars could become a reality within 10 years. So in the end, I said yes.


GS: Wouldn't you prefer to be involved in a more scientific mission?
GtH: In a sense, this is a scientific project. There are many scientific questions that need to be addressed, and I am sure there will be plenty of scientific spin-offs, too. A lot of technological research on all aspects of the mission has already been carried out, and many of the major problems have been identified. One of the toughest problems is the radiation environment in interplanetary space. Then there needs to be research into the design of the space suits, the choice of the best location for the outpost on Mars, and the availability of water on the planet, in the form of ice. The plan is to grow food in greenhouses with artificial lighting, powered by efficient solar cells—this will involve a lot of interesting research. The most exciting question might be whether the whole idea is feasible at all. I welcome suggestions and queries from fellow scientists.

GS: How do you feel about being associated with a project funded by reality TV shows? Might you live to regret it?
GtH: Well, if people blame me for it, I have brought it on myself. However, this is the world we live in today—governments are not prepared to finance projects like Mars One, so the money has to come from some other source, and if it is a TV show like Big Brother or X Factor, then so be it.

Then again, I would rather not be involved with the TV show itself. And yes, at times I have asked myself what I have got myself into. After all, it does sound like a crazy plan. But so far, it is still fun, everything is still on track, and there do not appear to be any major obstacles. So I would tell my critics to let the facts speak for themselves.

GS: Would you encourage younger scientists to get involved?
GtH: It would not surprise me if it takes Mars One more than 10 years to put the first humans on Mars, and I can imagine it will cost more than the $6 billion currently envisioned. I have always been careful about those claims. If the project fails, my reputation may sustain some damage, but I am pretty sure I will survive that. Younger scientists, with their careers ahead of them, might run a bigger risk in that respect. Then again, I do not see how it could be held against you if you were to take part in technological design studies or in addressing various scientific issues.
In addition to the previously mentioned desire to believe which runs palpably through these statements, there are a couple of other aspects that should be noted. The first is the dissatisfaction with the pace of government-fund manned exploration. The second is the note of doubt that creeps in among the cheer-leading when the subject of budget and schedule comes up.

That was 2013. Late in 2014, bad news started breaking rapidly, most notably an extraordinarily damning analysis from students at MIT. That report appears to have been a trigger for this shift in tone [emphasis added].
The budget and timeline for plans by a Dutch organisation to colonise Mars are highly unrealistic, one of the project’s most eminent supporters has suggested.

Gerard ’t Hooft, a Dutch Nobel laureate and ambassador for Mars One, said he did not believe the mission could take off by 2024 as planned.

“It will take quite a bit longer and be quite a bit more expensive. When they first asked me to be involved I told them ‘you have to put a zero after everything’,” he said, implying that a launch date 100 years from now with a budget of tens of billions of dollars would be an achievable goal. But, ’t Hooft added, “People don’t want something 100 years from now.”
A recent analysis by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) identified crucial flaws with Mars One’s published plans and predicted that even if the astronauts got to the surface unscathed, the first person would suffocate within 68 days because of a lack of equipment to balance oxygen levels effectively.

T’Hooft, of Utrecht University, said he was concerned by the findings. “I understand the scepticism very well. People from outside will say ‘wait a minute, you have to be careful with what you’re doing and what you’re claiming’. Maybe there’s a need to reassess,” he said.

He added that the “proper thing” would be for Mars One to publish its own analysis to demonstrate that their own more favourable projections about life on the Red Planet were sound.

Despite being sceptical about the details, t’Hooft said he still supported the project’s overall goals. “Let them be optimistic and see how far they get,” he said.
Just to review, all three major stages of the Mars One proposal have turned out to be fatally flawed:

There was little chance of raising six billion dollars through sponsorships and reality shows;

There was even less chance of setting up a colony on that budget, let alone in the next ten years;

Even if the project could reach Mars, the technology is nowhere near where it would need to be to sustain the colonists.

T’Hooft probably didn't know much about television and the intricacies of entertainment accounting and it seems likely that he initially took the word the Mars One people about the state of the habitat technology, but when it came to budget and schedule, t’Hooft knew he was misleading people, even if he believed it was for a good causee.

Monday, March 23, 2015

First class tickets for ships that have sailed

[A quick side note. Bob Chipman, a film critic and pop culture historian whose work I enjoy and which I cited recently is no longer with the Escapist. If you want to keep up with his work, you can check out his blog here.]

The following is a nice example of putting popular culture in a business context. It also relates to an ongoing discussion I've been having with Joseph.

Joseph and I were discussing this very point about collectibles a few weeks ago as part of a larger conversation about investments and compensation, specifically cases where people made decisions in the hope of events repeating despite the fact that they were almost certainly a one time payoffs.

Growing up in Arkansas my go-to example is the Walmart millionaire box boy. Years before the stock took off, Sam Walton's wife convinced him to start a program that rewarded employees with either stock or stock options. When the boom came, a number of long-term employees found themselves very well compensated. As a result, virtually everyone in the area either knew someone or knew someone who knew someone who had become a millionaire from working a fairly low-wage job at Walmart.

These stories floated around for decades. They helped enourmously with morale and recruitment. People will tolerate a great deal for the possibility of a multimillion dollar payday down the road, but of course the boom was a one time event. By the time that people heard about the multimillionaire box boys, the last one of these had already been minted.

Joseph and I both saw a similar phenomenon working for you high-growth company in the early part of the millennium. The corporate folklore was filled with examples of people who had either gotten tremendous payouts from stock options or who had gone from the bottom to the top ranks of the company with shocking speed . Interns and secretaries who had become millionaires and vice presidents in the space of a few years.

For the most part, these anecdotes were true but that was largely beside the point. A few years earlier the company had been a start up now it was a major corporation. The career path and compensation associated with that particular transition were huge but there was no way they could be replicated once the company had arrived.

Of course, these stories didn't just spread by themselves. The companies in question did their best to make sure their employees knew that in the past there have been big pay offs . The result was a kind of false compensation. "We are not saying that your menial job here will lead to great wealth and position, but it has happened before." It is probably not a coincidence that Walmart's increasing labor problems seem to have picked up steam as the legends of millionaire cashiers faded.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Annals of unintended consequences

This is Joseph.

One issue with high stakes tests, regardless of who they are evaluating, is that there is a huge advantage to be gained by cheating.  Transparency and social norms are usually the big tools here. 

However, when it goes wrong, it can go very, very wrong

Just one more thing to consider with educational testing.

Enhanced prototype demonstrations

I've spilled a lot of pixels criticizing tech reporters both for a lack of skepticism and historical perspective, so I highly recommend this article by Peter Baida which shows that the tendency to confuse good PR for innovation goes back to the very beginnings of American manufacturing.

Eli Whitney’s Other Talent

Though it took him a long while to master the art of musket making, Whitney was quick to master the art of obtaining extensions from government authorities. Part of his technique was to insist upon the revolutionary nature of the production methods he was developing. As early as July 1799, he explained to worried officials that his factory would embody a “new principle” of manufacturing: “One of my primary objects,” he wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, “is to form the tools so the tools themselves shall fashion the work and give to every part its just proportion—which when once accomplished, will give expedition, uniformity, and exactness to the whole....In short, the tools which I contemplate are similar to an engraving on a copper plate from which may be taken a great number of impressions perceptibly alike.”

This is a description, and an elegant one, of the principle of “interchangeable parts.” If machine tools make parts of a weapon (or other product) so “perceptibly alike” that broken parts can be replaced without special fitting, then the parts are said to be interchangeable.

Though Whitney spoke of adopting a “new principle” in his factory, not even his most ardent defenders credit him with discovering the principle of interchangeable parts. Years before Whitney contracted to manufacture muskets, a Frenchman, HonorĂ© Blanc, was making musket firing mechanisms (“locks”) on the interchangeable system. Thomas Jefferson saw a demonstration of Blanc’s work in 1785: “He presented me with the parts of fifty locks taken to pieces, and arranged in compartments. I put several together myself, taking pieces at hazzard as they came to hand, and they fitted in a most perfect manner.”

If Whitney did not introduce the principle of interchangeable parts, might he not have been the first American to make practical use of the principle? Modern researchers have tested the Whitney firearms that survive, with results that astonished those who had grown up believing the Whitney legend. The tests showed that, in some respects, the parts of Whitney’s firearms were not even approximately interchangeable. Moreover, many parts of Whitney’s muskets are engraved with special marks—marks that would only be necessary if the manufacturer had failed to achieve interchangeability.

These discoveries raise another question. An episode that figures prominently in the Whitney legend is a demonstration that he made in Washington in January 1801 before an audience that included President Adams and Presidentelect Jefferson. “Mr. Whitney,” Jefferson later wrote to James Monroe, “has invented moulds and machines for making all the pieces of his locks so exactly equal, that...the hundred locks may be put together as well by taking the first pieces which come to hand.”

In view of the deficiencies of the firearms that survive, how are we to explain the demonstration of 1801? Merritt Roe Smith, one of our foremost authorities on the history of arms manufacture, concludes that only one explanation makes sense: “Whitney must have staged his famous 1801 demonstration with specimens specially prepared for the occasion....it appears that Whitney purposely duped government authorities...[and] encouraged the notion that he had successfully developed a system for producing uniform parts.”
So far, so bad, but there’s more! “By his tenacity he so perfected the manufacture of arms that with the subsequent adoption of his system...the government saved $25,000 annually”—so says the Dictionary of American Biography, which goes on to give Whitney credit (as do Nevins and Mirksy) for an invention of exceptional importance in the history of manufacturing: “Of the various machines designed and used by Whitney only one is known to exist. This is a plain milling machine which was built prior to 1818, and is believed to be the first successful machine of its kind ever made.”

It’s bad enough to discover that you can’t count on the things you learned in the seventh grade, but you know you’re really in trouble when you realize that you can’t count on the Dictionary of American Biography. In “Eli Whitney and the Milling Machine,” published in the Smithsonian Journal of History in 1966, Edward A. Battison concludes: “There is no evidence that Whitney developed or used a true milling machine.” The so-called Whitney machine of 1818 seems actually to have been made after Whitney’s death in 1825. The first true milling machine was made not by Whitney, Battison suggests, but by Robert Johnson of Middletown, Connecticut.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Elmo Keep's other must-read on Mars One

I don't have time today to do more than post a few quotes, but it's definitely something you should read if you've been following this story.

Mars One Finalist Explains Exactly How It‘s Ripping Off Supporters

But eventually Joseph — who is actually Dr. Joseph Roche, an assistant professor at Trinity College’s School of Education in Dublin, with a Ph.D. in physics and astrophysics — found himself on the group’s shortlist of 100 candidates all willing to undertake the theoretical journey. And that’s when he started talking to me about the big problems he was seeing with Mars One.

It was difficult for him to break his silence, but he was spurred into speaking out by the uncritical news coverage. Many basic assumptions about the project remain unchallenged. Most egregiously, many media outlets continue to report that Mars One received applications from 200,000 people who would be happy to die on another planet — when the number it actually received was 2,761.
“When you join the ‘Mars One Community,’ which happens automatically if you applied as a candidate, they start giving you points,” Roche explained to me in an email. “You get points for getting through each round of the selection process (but just an arbitrary number of points, not anything to do with ranking), and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them.”

“Community members” can redeem points by purchasing merchandise like T-shirts, hoodies, and posters, as well as through gifts and donations: The group also solicits larger investment from its supporters. Others have been encouraged to help the group make financial gains on flurries of media interest. In February, finalists received a list of “tips and tricks” for dealing with press requests, which included this: “If you are offered payment for an interview then feel free to accept it. We do kindly ask for you to donate 75% of your profit to Mars One.” [Bold in original.]
So, here are the facts as we understand them: Mars One has almost no money. Mars One has no contracts with private aerospace suppliers who are building technology for future deep-space missions. Mars One has no TV production partner. Mars One has no publicly known investment partnerships with major brands. Mars One has no plans for a training facility where its candidates would prepare themselves. Mars One’s candidates have been vetted by a single person, in a 10-minute Skype interview.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Another Mars One update

I'm chipping away at a longer piece on Mars One, which means I'll be recycling some of my notes...

Mars One Suspends Work on Robotic Missions by Jeff Foust — February 18, 2015

WASHINGTON — A private organization that recently selected finalists for one-way human missions to Mars in the mid-2020s has quietly suspended work on a pair of robotic missions, putting into question plans to launch those spacecraft in 2018.

Mars One, a Dutch-based nonprofit organization, announced in December 2013 it was starting work on two robotic missions it planned to launch in 2018 as precursors to its human expeditions to Mars. One spacecraft would orbit Mars and serve as a communications relay, while the other would be a lander to test technologies planned for later crewed missions.

At that time, Mars One announced it had selected Lockheed Martin to begin work on the lander mission and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) to start work on the orbiter. Mars One awarded contracts to each company to perform concept studies of the planned missions.

“These missions are the first step in Mars One’s overall plan of establishing a permanent human settlement on Mars,” Bas Landsorp, Mars One chief executive and co-founder, said in a December 2013 press conference here announcing the missions. “We believe we are in very good shape to make this happen.”

However, both companies confirmed with SpaceNews that, since the completion of those study contracts, they have not received additional contracts from Mars One to continue work on those missions.

“SSTL delivered the concept study for the Mars One communications system last year,” SSTL spokeswoman Joelle Sykes said Feb. 16. “There are no follow-on activities underway at the moment.”

“Lockheed Martin has concluded the initial contract with Mars One in which we performed mission formulation studies and developed payload interface specifications to support the selection of a payload suite for the 2018 Mars robotic lander,” the company said in a statement Feb. 17. “We continue to maintain an open channel of communications with Mars One and await initiation of the next phase of the program.”
Those plans, though, may depend on the progress Mars One makes on its robotic missions, and there time is of the essence. Lockheed Martin noted in its statement that its proposed Mars One lander is based on a “very mature” design used on NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander mission launched in 2007 and the InSight lander it is building for launch in March 2016.

Despite that heritage, the company said, “we would have to start construction very soon to launch an InSight clone in the 2018 window.”
Another area of concern was funding. The original plan was wildly ambitious, requiring Olympic-level profits from a proposed reality show, but the company had managed to line up an experienced partner to produce the show. Now even that is in question.

No more 'Big Brother' on the red planet: Endemol axes plans for reality TV show that would record life of Mars One explorers - but a documentary will still be made


Last week Mars One announced a list of 100 people who will train on Earth for a one-way mission to the red planet in 2025.

But the venture's accompanying reality TV show - which was to be made by the makers of Big Brother to document their training and new lives on the red planet - has been shelved after the companies were 'unable to reach an agreement on details', MailOnline has learned.

Instead, Mars One is working with a new production company to record the colonists' progress.

It is unclear whether the breakdown in communications may blow a hole in Mars One's already tight $6 billion (£4 billion) budget because TV rights were expected to help finance the majority of the mission.

So far less than $760,000 (£496,000) has been donated to cover the estimated total cost, and time is of the essence.

However, Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and CEO of Mars One, told MailOnline that the idea of a television programme providing a hefty chunk of funding was a 'big misconception'.
'Media exposure is one of our business cases. Funding for the mission will come mostly from equity investors,' he said.

'The return on their investment will come when the first crew leaves or even when it lands: that's when the revenues from the media exposure are much larger than the cost of the mission.'
He said the documentary will 'involve more people in our adventure,' but declined to name the production company that will make the programme.

Initially, there were plans for Endemol to make a reality TV programme documenting the selection process and training of the colonists.

It was to be made by Endemol-owned Darlow Smithson Productions (DSP) and was dubbed 'Big Brother on Mars'.

But DSP told MailOnline: ‘DSP and Mars One were unable reach agreement on the details of the contract and DSP is no longer involved in the project.

'We wish Bas and the team all the very best.’

It is unclear when the decision was made, although Endemol originally said that the first installments of the TV show would air in early 2015.

Lansdorp also told MailOnline: 'We have ended our cooperation with Endemol because we could not reach agreement on the details of the contract.

'We have contracted a new production company that will produce the documentary series for us. 
'They have already produced the trailer on our Youtube channel and progress is good.'

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Mars conversation I'd like to be having

As a bit of an antidote for all the accumulated bile of the last few Mars One posts, I'd like to recommend this IEEE paper from Ian McNab. I'll admit it lost me on the curves a few times, but on the whole it's remarkably readable.

From the introduction:
In the past 40 years, mankind has ventured into space using well-established rocket technology involving liquid fuels and/or solid propellants. This approach has the advantage for astronauts and fragile payloads that the rocket starts slowly from the surface of the Earth with its full fuel load, and, as the fuel is burned off, the altitude and speed increase. In addition to minimizing the aerodynamic and aerothermal loads, this provides relatively modest accelerations—maximum values of a few “gees” are used for human passengers. Because only a small fraction of the initial mass reaches orbit, rockets of substantial size are required to place tens of tons into near-Earth orbit. Offsetting these remarkable successes is the very high cost of burning chemical fuel with a modest efficiency in a rocket engine to get out of the Earth’s gravitational well. Present estimates are that it costs $20 000 to get one kilogram of material into orbit. Unless alternatives can be found, it seems likely that mankind’s ventures into space will be limited to a few adventures that can only be undertaken by wealthy nations—the science-fiction writer’s dream of colonizing the planets and stars may be unaffordable.

Proposed solutions fall into four general categories: better rocket propellants; the space elevator; gun launch from the Earth’s surface; and laser launch. Although these options will not be discussed in detail, a few comments are appropriate. First, there appear to be no acceptable alternative rocket propellants that can offer substantial improvements compared with present choices. Second, although the space elevator seems to have great promise as a concept for the future, its practical realization awaits the development of a material that is strong enough to be able to carry its own weight (and that of the payloads it will lift) from the Earth’s surface to geosynchronous orbit. Third, estimates indicate that to launch payloads of less than a ton with a laser would require multigigawatt lasers far larger than any presently in existence
[Having concluded that gun launches are currently the most viable option, McNab starts drilling down into the details.] 

If the launcher is sufficiently long, the acceleration can be reduced to a level that is compatible with present component technology, although the acceleration forces will not allow people or fragile payloads to be launched with feasible launcher lengths. Guns may therefore be limited to launching robust packages such as food, water, fuel, and replaceable components. This may be an important support function for the International Space Station (ISS) or other missions

A disadvantage of gun launch is that the launch package has to leave the gun barrel at a very high velocity ( 7500 m/s) through the Earth’s atmosphere, leading to a very high aerothermal load on the projectile. The reentry vehicle community has successfully developed techniques to overcome this situation (when traveling in the reverse direction), and it seems possible that similar techniques can resolve this problem, either through the use of refractory or ablative nose materials or by evaporative cooling techniques. The mass of coolant required for this appears to be acceptable, as discussed below. The second concern for a gun is the size of the package that can be launched. Unless a very large gun can be built, the payload launched into orbit per launch will be a few hundred kilograms, which will require a large number of launches per year. For example, to provide 500 tons/year to orbit would require 2000 launches/year—a little over five per day on average. An infrastructure in space for handling this traffic and distributing the payloads will have to be created. Issues to be addressed will include decisions on handling or recycling the nonpayload components that reach orbit.
I don't want to get into whether or not we should be spending more on space exploration, and I certainly don't want to argue the merits of this proposal (that topic would take me out of my depth almost immediately). For now, I want to stay meta and discuss the discussion.

Let's think about the question of why so many reputable news organizations are devoting so much coverage to Mars One and so little to other, better aerospace stories such as this one.

What do I mean by better?

For starters, this is a credible proposal from a well-established authority published in an IEEE journal, and, based on my experience, it's an idea that other engineers in the field are not willing to dismiss out of hand; they may not consider it practical, but they do take it seriously. (For example, JPL was looking into using orbiting railguns to launch small interplanetary probes as far back as 1988.)

And we really are talking about a game-changer here. If McNab's estimates hold up, we're talking about reducing launch costs by considerably more than an order of magnitude. Even if we factor in the need to use traditional rockets for people and other delicate cargo, that cost reduction is still enough to shift the underlying economics of all space-based enterprises, ranging from asteroid mining to tourism to, yes, interplanetary colonies.

Finally, rail guns are cool. All Mars One has to offer is cheesy artist conceptions. With railguns you get video like this:

This is, of course, just one example. There are any number of fascinating stories about aerospace research. Why do they go unnoticed while Mars One continues to make the cut? Here are my guesses:

1. Bullshit does not count against you. As Elmo Keep spelled out in painful detail, every aspect of this story collapses under inspection, but even after Keep's expose, the stories kept coming;

2. People love a bargain (i.e. there's a sucker born every minute). I've noticed a number of cases recently where an unrealistically low price seems to make proposals more newsworthy (this example jumps to mind);

3. Everybody loves a messiah (even a Galtian one). Entrepreneurs and market forces are also easy pitches these days, while stories of public action and collective sacrifice fall out of favor. Of course, even in the Sixties, space was a tough sell (even as we were sending men to the moon, people were suggesting that the money would have been better spent down here), but now even the suggestion that we as a society would take on something expensive and challenging seems oddly quaint.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Corporate PR vs. Beat Sweetening -- different but not that different

Brad DeLong recently provided an interesting complement to our ongoing flack-n-hacks thread (which Andrew just joined). Just to review, we were talking about how PR firms (the 'flacks' in question) provide leads, leg-work and even finished  copy in exchange for favorable coverage. DeLong uses this embarrassing Politico puff piece of Stephen Moore to examine the way journalists trade favorable coverage for access and scoops (which is, more or less, Politico's unofficial mission statement).

This piece is what my old next-door office neighbor Jack DeVore, then Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen's Assistant Secretary for Public Relations, called a "beat sweetener": the point of such an article is not to inform the article's readers about some person regarded as either being influential or typical in an interesting way, but rather to burnish the reputation of the subject. As such, it omits key parts of the story and so misleads the readers in the interest of achieving that goal. The hope is that the subject of the article will at some future point then open up and preferentially dish to the reporter who has done him the favor of burnishing his reputation.

That is it. No observations about publishing the wrong numbers. No observations about how Stephen Moore has been a huge backer of Sam Brownback's Kansas tax-cut state revenue disaster. Nothing about how Herman Cain' 9-9-9 plan blew up in his face because no analyst who could add could get it to work arithmetically no matter how many thumbs they put on these scale. No critical quotes from anybody about the quality of Stephen Moore's analytical work--which would have been the easiest thing in the world to get. In fact, no positive quotes at all from any economist about Stephen Moore as an economist or an analyst.

So the message I get from this is that there is, still, an enormous need for publications and platforms that will call a spade a goddam shovel, afflict the comfortable, entertain-along-with-informing rather than entertain-instead-of-informing, and be trusted information intermediaries in which the words on the page are there to inform you about what is what rather than to mislead you in the hope that those in whose interest you have been misled will at some point in the future dish the writer a scoop.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

I don't have time to discuss it today...

but you should definitely check out this post from Dean Dad if you've been following the higher ed side of the education reform debate.

Public Matters: A Response to Kevin Carey

Friday, March 13, 2015

More on the rise of PR

Living in North Hollywood, one gets plenty of notice of the upcoming Emmy season. Perhaps even more then with the Oscars, this award show is preceded by a blanketing of the neighborhood in "For your consideration" billboards. You can get a rough but reasonable idea of who is spending what by looking at how many billboards you see for different shows and different networks.

Per show, at least, there seems to be a huge disparity between Netflix originals and virtually everybody else. Billboards for House of Cards or Orange Is the New Black are all over the place. By contrast, I don't recall seeing an Emmy ad for Orphan Black or Justified or even the Good Wife. On this per show basis, it would certainly appear that the Emmy-season outdoor advertising budget for Netflix is many times larger than that of its nearest competitor.

I don't want to get into the question of whether or not this is a good business decision on the part of Netflix and I certainly don't want to open the topic of which awards were deserved. Instead, I want to tie this into the previous post on the rise of PR and the decline of journalism.

I read any number of pieces about how winning Emmys meant that Netflix had "arrived." As far as I can remember, none of these articles mentioned the disproportionate level of marketing it took to win these awards. Of course, omitting context is a common sin, particularly when the details undercut the standard narrative (adherence to the standard narrative is pretty much the prime directive of modern journalism), but there is an added layer of conflict of interest here.

The practice of letting interested parties research stories and even write copy is as old as typesetting, but there is reason to believe things have gotten much worse. What was once an occasional lapse now appears to be the norm.

Modern journalism is now basically row upon row of glass houses. Stone-throwers have become decidedly unpopular (check out the NYT's attitude toward Nate Silver). Even if a reporter wasn't beholden to some publicist, he or she would still face considerable pressure from colleagues and editors not to make a big deal of these questionable relationships.

I realize I seem to pick on Netflix a lot, but I really don't have a serious problem with the company.  My problem is with the way today's journalists cover business, neglecting due diligence, allowing conventional wisdom to outweigh facts, and letting companies write their own version of reality.

Netflix just happens to be a great example.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

A premature diagnosis of cost disease?

After cuts in state funding, the most popular theory to explain the rapid increase in college tuition seems to be cost disease:
Baumol's cost disease (also known as the Baumol Effect) is a phenomenon described by William J. Baumol and William G. Bowen in the 1960s.[1] It involves a rise of salaries in jobs that have experienced no increase of labor productivity in response to rising salaries in other jobs which did experience such labor productivity growth. This seemingly goes against the theory in classical economics that wages are closely tied to labor productivity changes.
I've never felt entirely comfortable with the way this explanation fits (or fails to fit) the data. It always seemed to me that the tremendous increase in very low-priced adjunct labor would more than balance out the flat productivity gains.

If this post by Paul Campos of Lawyers, Guns and Money is accurate, the theory is even more at variance with the facts that I thought. ( Campos also has some interesting things to say about the drop in state funding explanation.)
Everyone is aware that the cost of going to college has skyrocketed since [fill in any date going back to the middle of the last century]. Why has this happened? This post is about one possible explanation, that turns out not to have any validity at all: increases in faculty salaries. In fact, over the past 40+ years, average salaries for college and university faculty have dropped dramatically.

Salaries have increased, sometimes substantially, for a tiny favored slice of academia, made up of tenured professors at elite institutions, some professional school faculty (business, law, medicine), and most especially faculty who have moved into the higher echelons of university administration. Such examples merely emphasize the extent to which the economics of the New Gilded Age have infiltrated the academic world: the one percent are doing fabulously well, and the ten percenters are doing fine, while the wretched refuse of our teeming shores will adjunct for food.


Average salary for all full-time faculty in degree-granting post-secondary institutions (this category includes instructors and lecturers, as well as all ranks of professors) in constant 2012-13 dollars:

1970: $74,019

2012: $77,301

These figures, of course, give a very incomplete picture of the economic circumstances of the actual teaching faculty in America’s institutions of higher education.

One of the more astonishing statistics regarding the economics of our colleges and universities is that, despite the fantastic increase in the cost of attending them, there are now on a per-student basis far fewer full-time faculty employed by these institutions than was the case 40 years ago. Specifically, in 1970 nearly 80% of all faculty were full-time; by 2011, more part-time than full-time faculty were employed by American institutions of higher learning (note that the former category does not include graduate students who teach).

While comprehensive salary figures for part-time faculty aren’t available, it’s clear that their salaries are on average vastly lower than those of full-time faculty (and of course when it comes to who does the bulk of the actual teaching at many schools, the designations “full-time” and “part-time” have a distinctly Orwellian flavor). If we assume that “pat-time” faculty earn one-third as much as their full-time counterparts — and this seems improbably optimistic, given that the average compensation for part-time faculty for teaching a three-credit course is around $2,700 — that would mean that in 1970 average salaries for college and university faculty were nearly 30% higher, in real dollars, than they are today.

This an astonishing figure, given that, in the last 40 years, tuition at private colleges has more than tripled, while resident tuition at public institutions has nearly quadrupled.

You guys can write this post yourselves -- I'm tired


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

More Martian musings – – reality shows and diet pills

Given all of the renewed attention to the Mars One project, this might be a good time for a quick little catch-up essay.

Maybe it's just me, but there are a few extremely salient points that have a way of being neglected in this conversation.

First, manned interplanetary spaceflight is almost certain to be very expensive and the cost for setting up permanent self-sustaining colonies is almost certain to be many times more so.

Second, the superiority of manned versus unmanned spaceflight is, for now, almost entirely symbolic. This does not mean that there are not certain specific economic and scientific benefits associated with manned spaceflight nor does it mean that manned spaceflight is a bad idea. It just means that, given current technology, sending explorers to Mars is something that, in the final analysis, we would do because we choose to as a society. This is even more true with sending colonists.

I actually don't have a problem with this kind of argument. At the risk of some muddleheaded nostalgia, I like the idea of leaders standing up and asking the people what kind of country we'd like to live it. Though I am not a huge fan of JFK, I greatly admire both the rhetoric and the sentiment behind "not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Which brings me to my main objection to Mars one.

Without delving too deeply into the promise and the limitations of businesses like space X, when it comes to the kind of massive operations we're talking about here, we really only have two choices:

The first is to decide this is something we want to do and that we are willing to spend a considerable amount of money it would take to do it;

The second is to wait for a technological breakthrough which will change the underlying economics, with the understanding that this breakthrough may not come through in our lifetime.

I don't want to wait into that debate right now but, if landing on Mars is important, then it is a debate we need to have.

Though every major aspect of the Mars One proposal is laughably unrealistic, it resonates with people because it gives us an out. We can sit around and enjoy dreaming about how exciting the future will be without actually having to make any of the tough choices or do any of the hard work to make it exciting.

The idea of sending people to Mars just by watching a reality show is analogous to the idea that you can solve a lifelong problem with obesity by taking a miracle diet pill. I suspect that most of the people who try these products know on some level that it is foolish to trust the unlikely and unverified claims of late night TV pitchmen but the desire to believe outweighs their judgement.

Buying a proposal for a space program from a reality show producer isn't all that different.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Decline of Journalism and The Rise of Public Relations

Any comments to a recent post, Andrew Gelman brought up a point that I want to dig into a bit more, at least briefly, the connection between the decline of journalism and the rise of public relations.

Here's my take: there is clearly a powerful relationship here though the direction of causality gets a bit complicated and goes both ways. For a variety of reasons, including but not limited to downsizing, an increasingly insular culture, and a shift to a star system that serves to hollow out the middle of the profession, journalism became both less diligent about maintaining quality and hungrier for free content (an appetite greatly expanded by online forums). While things changes were happening, companies were also growing more experienced at measuring and manipulating public opinion.

The decline in journalism created an extraordinary opportunity for corporate PR departments. News stories that portrayed products and companies in a favorable light were both more persuasive than traditional advertising and considerably cheaper.

While we are on the subject, my biggest concerns about the role of PR in modern journalism are not the question of accuracy or bias, though both of those are important. What really concerns me is the way these outside influences determine what does and does not get covered and the lack of awareness (or at least acknowledgement) on the part of the press. More on that coming later.

Monday, March 9, 2015

MOOCs and the Eugen Weber Paradox

As always seems to happen when I have other things I need to be doing, all sorts of interesting threads have started popping up and saying "Blog me! Blog me!"

Case in point, Erik Loomis of LGM has gotten back on the MOOC beat. I've got a couple of original posts on the subject in the works, but first I want to bring an old post from the teaching blog back into the conversation. It addresses what I think may be the fundamental questions of the ed-reform-through-technology debate:

After over a century of experimenting with educational technology, why have the results up until now been so underwhelming?;

And how will the new approaches being proposed fix the problems that plagued all of those previous attempts?

The Eugen Weber Paradox

If you follow education at all, you've probably heard about the rise of online courses and their potential for reinventing the way we teach. The idea is that we can make lectures from the best schools in the world available through YouTube or some similar platform. It's not a bad idea, but before we start talking about how much this can change the world, consider the following more-serious-than-it-sounds point.

Let's say, if we're going to do this, we do it right. Find an world renowned historian who's also a skilled and popular lecturer, shoot the series with decent production values (a couple of well-operated cameras, simple but professional pan and zoom), just polished enough not to distract from the content.

And if we're going to talk about democratizing education, let's not spend our time on some tiny niche course like "Building a Search Engine." Instead, let's do a general ed class with the widest possible audience.

If you'll hold that thought for a moment...

A few years ago, while channel surfing in the middle of the night, I came across what looked like Harvey Korman giving a history lesson. It turned out not to be Korman, but it was a history lesson, and an extraordinarily good one by a historian named Eugene Weber, described by the New York Times as "one of the world’s foremost interpreters of modern France." Weber was also a formidable teacher known for popular classes at UCLA.

The program I was watching was “The Western Tradition,” a fifty-two part video course originally produced for public television in 1989. If you wanted to find the ideal lecturer for a Western Civ class, it would probably be Eugen Weber. Like Polya, Weber combined intellectual standing of the first order with an exceptional gift and passion for teaching. On top of that, the Annenberg Foundation put together a full set of course materials to go with it This is about as good as video instruction gets.

All of which raises a troubling question. As far as I know, relatively few schools have set up a Western Civ course around "the Western Tradition." Given the high quality and low cost of such a course, why isn't it a standard option at more schools?

Here are a few possible explanations:

1. Medium is the message

There are certain effects that only work on stage, that fall strangely flat when there's not an audience physically present in the room. Maybe something similar holds with lectures -- something is inevitably lost when moved to another medium.

2. Lecturers already work for kind words and Pez

Why should administrators go to the trouble of developing new approaches when they can get adjuncts to work for virtually nothing?

3. It's that treadmill all over again

You probably know people who have pinned great hopes on home exercise machines, people who showed tremendous excitement about getting fit then lost all interest when they actually brought the Bowflex home and talking about exercise had to be replaced by doing it. Lots of technological solutions are like that. The anticipation is fun; the work required once you get it isn't.

This is not a new story. One of the original missions of educational TV back in the NET days was to provide actual classroom instruction, particularly for rural schools.* The selection was limited and it was undoubtedly a pain for administrators to match class schedules with broadcast schedules but the basic idea (and most of the accompanying rhetoric) was the same as many of the proposals we've been hearing recently.

Of course, educational television was just one of a century of new media and manipulatives that were supposed to revolutionize education. Film, radio, mechanical teaching machines, film strips and other mixed media, visual aides, television, videotape, distance learning, computer aided instruction, DVDs, the internet, tablet computing. All of these efforts had some good ideas behind and many actually did real good in the classroom, but none of them lived up to expectations.

Is this time different? Perhaps. It's possible that greatly expanded quantity and access may push us past some kind of a tipping point, but I'm doubtful. We still haven't thought through the deeper questions about what makes for effective instruction and why certain educational technologies tend to under-perform. Instead we get the standard ddulite boilerplate, made by advocates who are blissfully unaware of how familiar their claims are to anyone reasonably versed in the history of education.

* From Wikipedia
 The Arkansas Educational Television Commission was created in 1961, following a two-year legislative study to assess the state’s need for educational television. KETS channel 2 in Little Rock, the flagship station, signed on in 1966 as the nation's 124th educational television station. In the early years, KETS was associated with National Educational Television, the forerunner of the current PBS. The early days saw black-and-white broadcasting only, with color capabilities beginning in 1972. Limited hours of operation in the early years focused primarily on instructional programming for use in Arkansas classrooms

More on Mars One -- I expect this from ABC News but Sheldon?

There's been another wave of PR in support of the privately funded "Mars mission" Mars One (and yes, I do need to use quotation marks). There have been news stories, interviews with applicants who did or didn't qualify for the "mission," (NPR, how could you?) and even fictional characters like Castle and, sadly, Sheldon Cooper ("The Colonization Application").

Just to review, not only is this mission almost certain never to happen, but every major aspect of it collapses under scrutiny.

The funding goals are wildly unrealistic, the budget estimates are comically optimistic, and what little technology has actually been proposed is so badly designed that, according to an MIT study, it would be likely to kill all the colonists within a few months. I am pretty sure Howard would have pointed all of these things out to Sheldon.

You could also find some these objections in this piece from ABC, but you'd have to look closely because the reporters buried them as deep as possible, just far enough from the end to allow Mars One CEO/confidence man Bas Landorp have the last word.

Obviously this is a fun story, a lottery where anyone can become a colonist to Mars made even more dramatic by the twist of being a one-way trip. I also get that this is a story many probably most of us would like to believe. That is a high enough standard to justify a hook on a TV episode, but it is an embarrassingly low one for major news outlets.