Friday, December 14, 2018

Another recently relevant repost

A few months ago we did a post on how certain shows achieve a remarkable longevity, and as a result, bring in a tremendous amount of money. We didn't, however, say how much.

From Marketplace:
Fans of the hit TV show “Friends” were relieved last week to see the sitcom’s 236 episodes will continue streaming on Netflix through 2019. This was made possible by the behemoth of a streaming deal between Netflix and WarnerMedia, which cost the former $80 million to $100 million, according to some reports, to continue licensing the show for 2019. However, some media sources are saying the deal could continue for multiple years after that.

Netflix has licensed “Friends” exclusively since 2015, but the new agreement will remove the exclusive part, allowing WarnerMedia to broadcast the show when the movie and TV company launches its own streaming service next year.

It’s now been more than 14 years since the show’s last air date, but the series is still raking in the dough. That got us to thinking: Just how long has “Friends” been a major moneymaker? So, let’s do the numbers on one of the most successful sitcoms of all time.

The cast’s per episode paycheck wasn’t the only dough they were receiving from the show. After season six was over and it was back to the negotiation table, they all started receiving a portion of the show’s syndication profits.

Today, all six of them still receive 2 percent of syndication income, or $20 million each per year, since the show still brings in $1 billion annually for Warner Brothers. Plus, now that the Netflix deal is going through, Aniston, Cox, Kudrow, LeBlanc, Perry and Schwimmer can expect to see even more on their checks from Warner.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Shows with legs – – more background on the Netflix thread (and an excuse for a Friday post of MeTV promos)

I've probably spent too much time on this thread already, but one of these days I ought to do a post on just how problematic the Netflix exclusivity model is, how it goes against the well-established but deeply weird economics of certain nonrival goods. (When increasing supply increases demand, things get very strange very quickly. Insert highly appropriate Twilight Zone reference here.)

For now, we'll focus on one specific corner of the topic, television shows that maintain a viable and highly lucrative syndication presence for decades, often actually growing in popularity since their initial run. I'm not talking about programs that form the basis for reboots or reunions or sequels, but of shows where the original episodes continue to draw large viewerships.

We could have a long interesting discussion on the psychology behind the appeal of the familiar. You probably coulld even come up with a few pretty good research topics on the subject, but I want to keep the focus on the business side. Television became a national mass medium in the late 40s. Within its first decade, it started producing shows like I Love Lucy and Perry Mason, now both over 60 years old, which would continue to maintain a surprisingly steady audience to this day.

The return on investment of these programs is stunning. With a handful of exceptions, all of the following shows turned a nice profit during their original network run. Everything since is gravy.

I Love Lucy

Perry Mason

Leave It to Beaver

The Twilight Zone

The Andy Griffith Show

The Adams Family/the Munsters

Bewitched/I Dream of Jeannie

Star Trek




The Cosby show (until recently)/Roseann (until recently)

Golden Girls



The Simpsons

.Married with Children

Law and Order/CSI/NCIS

And many others.

Nobody understands the economics of these shows better than Weigel Broadcasting, the company that almost single-handedly developed the entire terrestrial superstation segment of the industry. One of the keys to their extraordinary ratings success has been their knowledgeable and affectionate treatment of the material and their respect for their audience.

From Chicago Magazine:

Still under family ownership more than 40 years after its inception, Weigel Broadcasting stands as the last independent television outfit in the city and one of the last in the country. So while the network affiliates in town (WBBM, WMAQ, WLS) blare forth with new, expensively created fare, Weigel’s channels beam with Sabin’s intuition and pluck. “Neal is doing the best television in Chicago with the least amount of resources and the toughest obstacles,” says the former Chicago Sun-Times columnist and local television/radio sage Robert Feder.

Nowhere does this come through more than in their stations promos.

Here's Carl Reiner's reaction to one.


Here's more from Feder on Weigel's promos.

And here are a few more favorites to close the week.

[And yes, I believe that may be the same set.]

Thursday, December 13, 2018

At last, a political scientist protagonist

From This American Life:

Ben Calhoun

This election cycle, it wasn't strange for voters to have to wait for races to be called. Seems like there were so many squeakers. Among the squeakiest, still unresolved a month after the election, North Carolina's 9th congressional district. The district is this long stretch of eight counties along the state's southern border. It's so gerrymandered, it looks like a hockey stick.
In that district, a Republican former Baptist pastor named Mark Harris narrowly beat his Democratic opponent. The Democrat was this Boy Scouty, former Marine named Dan McCready. The margin of victory in that race-- 905 votes-- crazy close, but a win.
Until the North Carolina State Board of Elections had a meeting-- the board is four Democrats, four Republicans, one unaffiliated member-- and the board decided in a bipartisan unanimous vote not to approve the results in the ninth congressional district.

Michael Bitzer

That late Tuesday afternoon decision by the board not to certify the ninth really kind of sent shockwaves through the state.

Ben Calhoun

This is Michael Bitzer, PolySci professor at Catawba College in North Carolina.

Michael Bitzer

To say, this is something that looks pretty serious.

Ben Calhoun

Trouble in River City.

Michael Bitzer


Ben Calhoun

Bitzer says he can't remember this ever happening before. It turns out, behind this bipartisan emergency break-throwing-- voter fraud allegations, specifically funny business with mail-in absentee ballots. So Bitzer did what PolySci professors do in a crisis like this. He dove into the data, downloaded it from the state. And in it, he saw one thing that didn't look like the others.
One county, Bladen county, only 19% of the people voting by mail were registered Republicans. But among the mail-in ballots, the Republican candidate got 61% of the vote. Mathematically, this just seems super unlikely. He'd have to win all the Republicans, and all the independents, and some Democrats.
Normally, professors quantify how unusual something is in statistics, standard deviation and that kind of thing. But I have trouble following that.

Ben Calhoun

If you were Luke Skywalker in this situation, how big was the disturbance in the force?

Michael Bitzer


Ben Calhoun

For those slightly less nerdy than Professor Bitzer and myself, that's the planet that gets destroyed by the Death Star.

Ben Calhoun

The destruction of a planet?

Michael Bitzer

Yes. And just eyeballing it, this is not normal.

Ben Calhoun

So Bitzer writes a blog post explaining what he was reading in the data that most people had not. Then it spreads rapidly through the internet. And then around the same time, news starts to trickle in.
There's stories of voters who say there were people coming and telling them to give them their mail-in absentee ballots before they filled them in. And they handed them over, and then they don't know what happened to their ballot.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

For the name alone...

From Wikipedia:
We Were Promised Jetpacks are a Scottish indie rock band from Edinburgh, formed in 2003. The band consists of Adam Thompson (vocals, guitar), Michael Palmer (guitar), Sean Smith (bass), and Darren Lackie (drums). Stuart McGachan (keyboards, guitar) was a member of the band from 2013 to 2015.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"Global, U.S. Growth in Smartphone Growth Starts to Decline"

Excellent article on the state of the smart phone market by Jake Swearingen of New York magazine. There's nothing particularly surprising about the story it tells. When first introduced, the iPhone integrated and made fully portable some of the most popular and important technologies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, PCs and the Internet, GPS, digital cameras, and cell phones. The result was an incredibly appealing product with an abundance of low hanging fruit for improvements that would keep people rushing out to buy each new model for a while. Inevitably though, these improvements started approaching the asymptote of discernibility. As the author points out, you often have to hold them side-by-side to tell the difference between your old phone and the new and considerably more expensive upgrade. The S-curve levels off and improvements in functionality start taking a second-place to reductions in price.

What is surprising about this story is that so many people found it surprising.

But just like every Scorsese movie, the party ends. Smartphone growth began to slow starting in 2013 or 2014. In 2016, it was suddenly in the single digits, and in 2017 global smartphone shipments, for the first time, actually declined — fewer smartphones were sold than in 2017 than in 2016.

Every smartphone manufacturer is now facing a world where, at best, they can hope for single-digit growth in smartphone sales — and many seem to be preparing for a world where they face declines.


If you’ve bought flagship phone in this year, you likely won’t need to buy a replacement until the next decade. “Most people have more phone than they can handle, or need,” says Gartner senior principal analyst Tuong Nguyen. “It’s similar to what you saw in the PC market for while — people had really powerful PCs but they barely used it for anything. It’s the same with phones.”

Your smartphone camera is good to great, and you mainly share those photos on social media, where photo quality doesn’t matter much anyway. Barring a few high-end 3-D games or technologies like augmented reality, your processor can handle everything you throw at it, and will for a while. Your screen is bright and sharp, and while there may be slightly better screens out there, you’d only be able to tell by holding the two phones side-by-side. Durability has vastly improved; waterproofing is now standard on smartphones, so a brief dip in the sink or toilet doesn’t mean you need a new phone, and the weakest links in smartphone hardware — batteries which tend lose their ability to hold a charge over time and screens that crack and shatter — have improved.

As the market reaches maturity, smartphones are verging on becoming a commodity — a fate the major smartphone manufacturers like Samsung and Apple desperately want to avoid.

“Commoditization is the normal cycle for most products,” says Willy Shih, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. “When the first Xerox plain-paper copier came out, they were really cool and Xerox became a fabulously successful company. But then their patents expired, and other companies like Canon came in and introduced low-cost office copiers. Now, copier machines are a dirt-order commodity.” Think very hard about your own office — can you name the brand of your office copier?

Or take televisions, another commodity where consumers show little brand loyalty, allowing for upstarts like Vizio, TLC, and Hisense to strip market share away from established players like Sony or Panasonic — which, of course, had displaced established players in television like Magnavox or RCA.

“Once you get driven into the commodity space, you start to think, ‘Oh, I’ve just got gotta come up with the next great feature that will cause people to buy my product over the others,’” says Shih. “But at some point, you way exceed what consumers need or are willing to pay for. And then you become a commodity.”

Monday, December 10, 2018

Our annual Toys-for-Tots post

A good Christmas can do a lot to take the edge off of a bad year both for children and their parents (and a lot of families are having a bad year). It's the season to pick up a few toys, drop them by the fire station and make some people feel good about themselves during what can be one of the toughest times of the year.

If you're new to the Toys-for-Tots concept, here are the rules I normally use when shopping:

The gifts should be nice enough to sit alone under a tree. The child who gets nothing else should still feel that he or she had a special Christmas. A large stuffed animal, a big metal truck, a large can of Legos with enough pieces to keep up with an active imagination. You can get any of these for around twenty or thirty bucks at Wal-Mart or Costco;*

Shop smart. The better the deals the more toys can go in your cart;

No batteries. (I'm a strong believer in kid power);**

Speaking of kid power, it's impossible to be sedentary while playing with a basketball;

No toys that need lots of accessories;

For games, you're generally better off going with a classic;

No movie or TV show tie-ins. (This one's kind of a personal quirk and I will make some exceptions like Sesame Street);

Look for something durable. These will have to last;

For smaller children, you really can't beat Fisher Price and PlaySkool. Both companies have mastered the art of coming up with cleverly designed toys that children love and that will stand up to generations of energetic and creative play.

*I previously used Target here, but their selection has been dropping over the past few years and it's gotten more difficult to find toys that meet my criteria.

** I'd like to soften this position just bit. It's okay for a toy to use batteries, just not to need them. Fisher Price and PlaySkool have both gotten into the habit of adding lights and sounds to classic toys, but when the batteries die, the toys live on, still powered by the energy of children at play.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Oklahoma, school funding, and the meta-perceptions pre-thread (proto thread?)

One of the questions I would love to see some social science researchers dig into is the apparent increase in people not only espousing extreme and even offensive beliefs (particularly on the right), but assuming that these positions are acceptable and in some cases widely held. I don't have enough background to intelligently discuss the topic, but I do (as always) have some theories, some involving social media and social norming, others focused on the conservative movement's media strategy and its sometimes unintended consequences.

Coming out against the very concept of publicly funded education is certainly an extreme position. Oklahoma Republicans basically looked at the Kansas experiment and said "hold my beer" and are now facing the same backlash as the other states that recently tried this combination of supply-side economics and Randian social policy. Opposing increased funding for schools under these conditions is politically risky; opposing funding period would seem to be suicidal, but Lopez and presumably the rest of the county party leadership appear to consider this a mainstream Republican position.

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Republican leadership in one of Oklahoma's most populous counties has sent a letter to the state's lawmakers calling for an end to government-run public schools, or if that is too much, to at least find alternative funding sources for the system besides tax revenue.

Other GOP leaders have rebuked the letter, saying its views are outside the state party's mainstream, while looking toward next year's legislative session, when classroom funding is likely to again be a major focus.

Andrew Lopez, Republican Party chair for suburban Oklahoma City's Canadian County, signed the letter sent last week. It requested that the state no longer manage the public school system, or at least consider consolidating school districts. Public schools should seek operational money from sponsorships, advertising, endowments and tuition fees instead of taxes, the letter says.

The letter itself can't force policy changes, but the swift criticism from fellow Republicans shows continued grappling for power in the state's dominant political party. Education funding played a big role in this year's legislative elections following a spring teacher walkout that closed public schools throughout Oklahoma for two weeks. Several Republican lawmakers who opposed tax increases for teacher salaries were ousted, including some targeted by a key GOP House leader and an out-of-state super PAC.

Oklahoma Republican Party Chair Pam Pollard said Lopez's letter doesn't reflect the party's position.

But Lopez said the GOP lawmakers are betraying party principles, including through increasing the size of government. His letter also called for abolishing abortion and eliminating unnecessary business-licensing agencies.

"In government we have a system that says we believe it's a good idea to take (money) from you by force to educate other people's children," Lopez said. "That doesn't appear to be a fair deal to me."

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Some mid-week retro-future

From the Internet Archive's Galaxy Magazine collection.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

After the swans and tipping points – – a few quick and half-assed thoughts on post-relevancy.

I think I've made this point before, one of the advantages of a blog like this is that – – due to the flexibility of the form, the ability to respond to events in real time, the small and generally supportive audience who often provide (either through the comment section, off-line exchanges, or online multi-blog debates) useful feedback, and both the freedom and the pressure that come with having to fill all the space – – it can be and ideal place to collect your thoughts and try things out.

Post-relevancy is a topic we might want to come back to. It's interesting on at least a couple of levels. First, there are the individual responses to the realization that they are no long an important part of the discussion. Some simply keep rolling out their greatest hits, at some point descending into self-parody and essentially becoming their own tribute band. Others (though there is considerable overlap here) become bitter and desperately seek out validation for their new or often "new" material.

[I'm mainly thinking of public intellectuals in this post, but there are certainly comparable examples in other fields of entertainment. Dennis Miller is probably the first name to come to mind but certainly not the last.]

I saw a couple of things online recently that got me thinking about this subject. One was a nasty Twitter exchange between Nate Silver and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Here's a taste.

I might be a bit more measured in my tone (Silver has a way of going off on twitter), but, if anything, I'm inclined toward even harsher criticism. Maybe what we should take away from this is not that Taleb has gotten less interesting, but that perhaps he was never all that interesting to begin with. Maybe the ideas that made him famous were never especially original or profound, merely repackaged in a facile way to impress gullible and shallow journalists.

Speaking of Malcolm Gladwell. This article from Giri Nathan of Deadspin pulls no punches (given the context, I'm obligated to use at least one sports metaphor) when describing just how tired Gladwell's shtick has become.
Again, these are just a few selected highlights. The conversation went on for a very long time, and any person who spent any of the last decade gassing up Gladwell’s pseudo-intellectual yammering should be forced to listen to it. Tune in next time to hear the phrenology takes of a hopped-up thinkovator barely suppressing his self-satisfied laughter.

A couple of songs came to mind while I was writing this. The first while I was dictating the title. The first few words suggested a vaguely remembered tune. The rest of the line doesn't work with the rhythm. I could have tweaked it to make it scan (after the swans have flown past, after the points have tipped), but that would've been too obscure even for me.

The second, from the great and still relevant Joe Jackson, obviously came to mind when talking about greatest hits.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The politics of that pile of old comics -- repost

The response to the death of Stan Lee has been truly remarkable, particularly when compared to his collaborators Steve Ditko and even more notably Jack Kirby, who had a longer and more influential career as a creator. Though we should not entirely discount Lee's carefully crafted persona as the longstanding face of Marvel, his notable work as a writer and editor was largely limited to the Silver Age of comics.

Lee's cultural and commercial impact has been immense, but many of the tributes have still managed to praise him for things he didn't actually do. Part of this has to do with our increasingly dysfunctional attitudes toward fame and success that, among other things, tends to concentrate all of the credit for a collaborative accomplishment on to whoever has the best name recognition.

The bigger part, however, is probably due to the extremely personal relationship that many of the eulogizers have with the medium. Given the impact that comics, particularly the superheroes of Marvel and DC, have had, the genre would seem to be an ideal starting point for a discussion of politics and culture, but it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain critical detachment when discussing a work that means a great deal to you. It requires serious and sustained effort to keep yourself from seeing significance and profundity that aren't really there. This by no means is limited to comics; it may well be worse with popular music.

A lot of this comes down to the tendency to confuse what Pauline Kael might call good trash with great art. This is not to say that comic books and other media and genres such as audience pleasing comedies, spy novels, TV shows, top 40 songs, etc. can't aspire to something higher. Not being a self-loathing middlebrow, I have never bought into the mid-cult bullshit and I will go to the mat for the artistic quality of popular creators such as Buster Keaton, Will Eisner, John LeCarre, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, not to mention TV shows like the Twilight Zone, NYPD Blue, Doctor Who, the Americans, etc. but (once again channeling Kael) we shouldn't try to convince ourselves that everything we like is a work of artistic importance.

Along similar lines, when a work means a great deal to us, there is a natural desire to see its creators as kindred spirits, sharing our worldview and championing our deeply held beliefs. While Stan Lee is in many ways a tremendously admirable figure, the attempt to reinvent him as a progressive icon has always been an embarrassing retcon, even by comic book standards.

The politics of that pile of old comics

As mentioned before, writer and historian Mark Evanier is arguably the go-to guy for pop culture when it comes to both comics and television. One of his areas of particular expertise is the career of his friend, Jack Kirby.

The following excerpt confirms some assumptions I've had about the politics of Silver Age Marvel.
So when someone asks what Captain America would have felt about some topic, the first question is, "Which Captain America?" If the character's been written by fifty writers, that makes fifty Captain Americas, more or less…some closely in sync with some others, some not. And even a given run of issues by one creator or team is not without its conflicts. When Jack was plotting and pencilling the comic and Stan Lee was scripting it, Stan would sometimes write dialogue that did not reflect what Jack had in mind. The two men occasionally had arguments so vehement that Jack's wife made him promise to refrain. As she told me, "For a long time, whenever he was about to take the train into town and go to Marvel, I told him, 'Remember…don't talk politics with Stan.' Neither one was about to change the other's mind, and Jack would just come home exasperated." (One of Stan's associates made the comment that he was stuck in the middle, vis-a-vis his two main collaborators. He was too liberal for Steve Ditko and too conservative for Kirby.)

Jack's own politics were, like most Jewish men of his age who didn't own a big company, pretty much Liberal Democrat. He didn't like Richard Nixon and he really didn't like the rumblings in the early seventies of what would later be called "The Religious Right." At the same time, he thought Captain America represented a greater good than the advancement of Jack Kirby's worldview.

During the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings, Jack was outraged when Ollie North appeared before Congress and it wasn't just because North lied repeatedly or tried to justify illegal actions. Jack thought it was disgraceful that North wore his military uniform while testifying. The uniform, Jack said, belonged to every man and woman who had every worn it (including former Private First Class Jack Kirby) and North had no right to exploit it the way he did. I always thought that comment explained something about the way Kirby saw Captain America. Cap, obviously, should stand for the flag and the republic for which it stands but — like the flag — for all Americans, not merely those who wish to take the nation in some exclusionary direction.
We've already been over Ditko's Randian views.

I also knew that Lee, who is a bit of a revisionist, had overstated some of the progressive positions he had taken on issues like racism while downplaying the red-baiting and sexism. Marvel apologists have also tried to explain away the more reactionary aspects of these stories but they are pretty difficult to ignore and it appears that most of them can be credited to Lee. (Kirby never had Lee's gift for self-promotion or reinvention and he preferred to let his work speak for itself -- always a risky approach in a collaborative medium.)

For more thoughts on the subject, check out this piece by one of my favorite critics/pop historians, Bob Chipman (more from Chipman later).

 You should note that the red-baiting version of the character was done by Lee with no involvement from Kirby.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Having a wonderful time...

For years, whenever you saw a list of the top rated original cable shows, there would be a foot note that would say something like "excluding sports and children's programming." The reason was that an accurate list would have been nothing but sports and kids shows, and about half of those ten would have been different airings of SpongeBob SquarePants.

SpongeBob was, for a while, arguably the biggest thing on cable:

Within its first month on air, SpongeBob SquarePants overtook Pokémon as the highest rated Saturday-morning children's series on television. It held an average national Nielsen rating of 4.9 among children aged two through eleven, denoting 1.9 million viewers. Two years later, the series had firmly established itself as Nickelodeon's second highest rated children's program, after Rugrats. That year, 2001, SpongeBob SquarePants was credited with helping Nickelodeon take the "Saturday-morning ratings crown" for the fourth straight season. The series had gained a significant adult audience by that point – nearly 40 percent of its 2.2 million viewers were aged 18 to 34. In response to this weekend-found success, Nickelodeon gave SpongeBob SquarePants time slots at 6 PM and 8 PM, Monday through Thursday, to increase exposure of the series. By the end of that year SpongeBob SquarePants boasted the highest ratings for any children's series, on all of television. Weekly viewership of the series had reached around fifteen million, at least five million of whom were adults.

Seldom has television success been more richly deserved. SpongeBob, particularly in its early seasons, was a wickedly funny show. Playfully surreal and subtly subversive with an aesthetic that recalled the great Max Fleischer cartoons of the 30s. Holding it all together was the wonderfully offkilter sensibility of creator and initial show runner Stephen Hillenburg. There was always an unexpected rightness about his choices, like staging the climax of the pilot to the wonderfully obscure "Living in the Sunlight" covered by tiny Tim.

Here's the original  Maurice Chevalier.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Some cool old airplane pictures for a Thursday

Steam powered airplanes were the very definition of a technological dead end, but you have to admit they had style. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

More perspective on the atomic age mindset.

In an earlier post, we discussed Willy Ley's observation that, from a 1930s standpoint, a successful moon landing seemed far more of a reach than an atomic bomb, suggesting that the modern usage of "moonshot" – – committing yourself to the an ambitious bordering on impossible objective – – would actually apply better to the Manhattan project.

It's useful at this point to consider just how rapidly this field was advancing.

From Wikipedia (pay close attention to the dates):
In 1932 physicist Ernest Rutherford discovered that when lithium atoms were "split" by protons from a proton accelerator, immense amounts of energy were released in accordance with the principle of mass–energy equivalence. However, he and other nuclear physics pioneers Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein believed harnessing the power of the atom for practical purposes anytime in the near future was unlikely, with Rutherford labeling such expectations "moonshine."

The same year, his doctoral student James Chadwick discovered the neutron, which was immediately recognized as a potential tool for nuclear experimentation because of its lack of an electric charge. Experimentation with bombardment of materials with neutrons led Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie to discover induced radioactivity in 1934, which allowed the creation of radium-like elements at much less the price of natural radium. Further work by Enrico Fermi in the 1930s focused on using slow neutrons to increase the effectiveness of induced radioactivity. Experiments bombarding uranium with neutrons led Fermi to believe he had created a new, transuranic element, which was dubbed hesperium.

In 1938, German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, along with Austrian physicist Lise Meitner and Meitner's nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, conducted experiments with the products of neutron-bombarded uranium, as a means of further investigating Fermi's claims. They determined that the relatively tiny neutron split the nucleus of the massive uranium atoms into two roughly equal pieces, contradicting Fermi. This was an extremely surprising result: all other forms of nuclear decay involved only small changes to the mass of the nucleus, whereas this process—dubbed "fission" as a reference to biology—involved a complete rupture of the nucleus. Numerous scientists, including Leó Szilárd, who was one of the first, recognized that if fission reactions released additional neutrons, a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction could result. Once this was experimentally confirmed and announced by Frédéric Joliot-Curie in 1939, scientists in many countries (including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union) petitioned their governments for support of nuclear fission research, just on the cusp of World War II, for the development of a nuclear weapon.

First nuclear reactor

In the United States, where Fermi and Szilárd had both emigrated, the discovery of the nuclear chain reaction led to the creation of the first man-made reactor, known as Chicago Pile-1, which achieved criticality on December 2, 1942. This work became part of the Manhattan Project, a massive secret U.S. government military project to make enriched uranium and by building large production reactors to produce (breed) plutonium for use in the first nuclear weapons. The United States would test an atom bomb in July 1945 with the Trinity test, and eventually two such weapons were used in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

From the perspective of well over a half-century later, the advances in nuclear energy obviously represent a very sharp S curve. At the time, though, there was an entirely natural impulse to extrapolate along a linear or even exponential path.

In August 1945, the first widely distributed account of nuclear energy, in the form of the pocketbook The Atomic Age, discussed the peaceful future uses of nuclear energy and depicted a future where fossil fuels would go unused. Nobel laureate Glenn Seaborg, who later chaired the Atomic Energy Commission, is quoted as saying "there will be nuclear powered earth-to-moon shuttles, nuclear powered artificial hearts, plutonium heated swimming pools for SCUBA divers, and much more".

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Space exploration is hard.

Yes, I realize that's probably not the most controversial claim I'll make this week, but in this age of hype and bullshit, it's important to occasionally remind ourselves of these basic facts. This is what we go through to put an unoccupied payload roughly the size of a minivan on Mars.

NASA's Mars probe lands Monday after 'seven minutes of terror'

For the eighth time ever, humanity has achieved one of the toughest tasks in the solar system: landing a spacecraft on Mars.

The InSight lander, operated by NASA and built by scientists in the United States, France and Germany, touched down in the vast, red expanse of Mars’ Elysium Planitia just before 3 p.m. Eastern on Monday.


The interminable stretch from the moment a spacecraft hits the Martian atmosphere to the second it touches down on the Red Planet’s rusty surface is what scientists call “the seven minutes of terror."

More than half of all missions don’t make it safely to the surface. Because it takes more than eight minutes for light signals to travel 100 million miles to Earth, scientists have no control over the process. All they can do is program the spacecraft with their best technology and wait.

“Every milestone is something that happened 8 minutes ago,” Bridenstine said. “It’s already history.”

The tension was palpable Monday morning in the control room at JPL, where InSight was built and will be operated. At watch parties around the globe — NASA’s headquarters in Washington, the Nasdaq tower in Times Square, the grand hall of the Museum of Sciences and Industry in Paris, a public library in Haines, Alaska — legs jiggled and fingers were crossed as minutes ticked toward the beginning of entry, descent and landing.

At about 11:47 a.m., engineers received a signal indicating that InSight had entered the Martian atmosphere. The spacecraft plummeted to the planet’s surface at a pace of 12,300 mph. Within two minutes, the friction roasted InSight’s heat shield to a blistering 2,700 degrees.

Grover released a deep breath: “That’s hot.”

In another two minutes, a supersonic parachute deployed to help slow down the spacecraft. Radar was powered on.

From there, the most critical descent checklist unfolded at a rapid clip: 15 seconds to separate the heat shield. Ten seconds to deploy the legs. Activate the radar. Jettison the back shell. Fire the retrorockets. Orient for landing.

One of the engineers leaned toward her computer, hands clasped in front of her face, elbows on her desk.

“400 meters,” came a voice over the radio at mission control. “300 meters. 80 meters. 30 meters. Constant velocity."

Engineer Kris Bruvold’s eyes widened. His mouth opened in an “o.” He bounced in his seat.

“Touchdown confirmed.”

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Kevin Drum makes a good point

This is Joseph.

There has been a lot of concern about recent comments by Hillary Clinton about Europe curbing refugee admissions.  Kevin Drum looked at just how many refugees Europe is actually taking and compared it to a reader survey about how many refugees the US should take in:

I don’t want anyone to take my survey too seriously. It’s obviously just a casual thing. However, I think it’s fair to say that the responses are almost entirely from a left-leaning readership, and even at that a solid majority thought the US shouldn’t take in more than half a million refugees in a single year. Adjusted for population, Germany took in nearly ten times that many.
This is a growing problem with mass population displacement.  It strains any system to take in a lot of refugees.  Wanting to be compassionate is very important and we should not allow xenophobia to interfere with saving people who need to be saved.  But it opens up a very important conversation about how one deals with extremely large population displacement and, in a democracy, there may be a limit to the rate that the populace is comfortable with integrating at once.  If climate change drives a longer term issue here, then we need to think about ways to smooth out the process.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Roy Clark and friend

Seems like an appropriate way to kick off the weekend.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

"As God as my witness..." is my second favorite Thanksgiving episode line [Repost]

If you watch this and you could swear you remember Johnny and Mr. Carlson discussing Pink Floyd, you're not imagining things. Hulu uses the DVD edit which cuts out almost all of the copyrighted music. [The original link has gone dead, but I was able to find the relevant clip.]

As for my favorite line, it comes from the Buffy episode "Pangs" and it requires a bit of a set up (which is a pain because it makes it next to impossible to work into a conversation).

Buffy's luckless friend Xander had accidentally violated a native American grave yard and, in addition to freeing a vengeful spirit, was been cursed with all of the diseases Europeans brought to the Americas.

Spike: I just can't take all this mamby-pamby boo-hooing about the bloody Indians.
Willow: Uh, the preferred term is...
Spike: You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not goin' around saying, "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it." The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.
Buffy: Well, I think the Spaniards actually did a lot of - Not that I don't like Spaniards.
Spike: Listen to you. How you gonna fight anyone with that attitude?
Willow: We don't wanna fight anyone.
Buffy: I just wanna have Thanksgiving.
Spike: Heh heh. Yeah... Good luck.
Willow: Well, if we could talk to him...
Spike: You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.
Xander: Maybe it's the syphilis talking, but, some of that made sense.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Fifty years late and the Russians are the ones doing it, but otherwise...

That was fortuitous timing. We just ran a post on Willy Ley (circa 1959) discussing the possibility of using nuclear powered rockets for space exploration. Now we get thee following announcement.
Speaking with reporters, Vladimir Koshlakov explained that Elon Musk and SpaceX pose no real threat to the group’s plans. Musk, Koshlakov says, is relying on technology that will soon be antiquated, while Russia is looking towards shaping the future of spaceflight.

The Russian researchers say that their nuclear-powered rocket platform will be able to make it to Mars seven months after launch, and that its reusable rocket stages can be put back into service after just 48 hours.

“Reusability is the priority,” Koshlakov reportedly said. “We must develop engines that do not need to be fine-tuned or repaired more than once every ten flights. Also, 48 hours after the rocket returns from space, it must be ready to go again. This is what the market demands.”


“Elon Musk is using the existing tech, developed a long time ago,” he noted. “He is a businessman: he took a solution that was already there, and applied it successfully. Notably, he is also doing his work with help from the government.”

That last paragraph is a bit of Musk-trolling but it's consistent with a point I've heard repeatedly from engineers in the field. While SpaceX has made some serious advances, the underlying tech is decades-old, dating back at least to the lunar lander.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The point that no one wants to make about the bad news from Facebook.

This was the year that a lot of people woke up to what Josh Marshall among others had been pointing out for a long time, that while all of the tech giants have accumulated and sometimes abused an extraordinary amount of power, Facebook stood alone as a genuinely bad actor doing a great deal of damage to a wide array of stakeholders.

What's notably absent from all of these analyses is an acknowledgment of the role that the press played in building and maintaining the myths of Zuckerberg and others as tech messiahs. Major news outlets and venerable publications, particularly the New York Times, willingly helped spread the bullshit. We should never forget that when Silicon Valley billionaires went after their toughest (and, in retrospect, most clear eyed) critic, Gawker, the NYT not only failed to stand up for journalism, they actually gave an op-ed spot to Peter Thiel so he could better spin his side of the story.

As you can see, we've been on this beat for a long time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"How To Party Your Way Into a Multi-Million Dollar Facebook Job" -- the sad state of business journalism

Andrew Gelman (before his virtual sabbatical) linked to this fascinating Gawker article by Ryan Tate:

If you want Facebook to spend millions of dollars hiring you, it helps to be a talented engineer, as the New York Times today [18 May 2011] suggests. But it also helps to carouse with Facebook honchos, invite them to your dad's Mediterranean party palace, and get them introduced to your father's venture capital pals, like Sam Lessin did. Lessin is the poster boy for today's Times story on Facebook "talent acquisitions." Facebook spent several million dollars to buy Lessin's, only to shut it down and put Lessin to work on internal projects. To the Times, Lessin is an example of how "the best talent" fetches tons of money these days. "Engineers are worth half a million to one million," a Facebook executive told the paper.
We'll let you in on a few things the Times left out: Lessin is not an engineer, but a Harvard social studies major and a former Bain consultant. His file-sharing startup was an also-ran competitor to the much more popular Dropbox, and was funded by a chum from Lessin's very rich childhood. Lessin's wealthy investment banker dad provided Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg crucial access to venture capitalists in Facebook's early days. And Lessin had made a habit of wining and dining with Facebook executives for years before he finally scored a deal, including at a famous party he threw at his father's vacation home in Cyprus with girlfriend and Wall Street Journal tech reporter Jessica Vascellaro. (Lessin is well connected in media, too.) . . .
To get the full impact, you have to read the original New York Times piece by Miguel Helft. It's an almost perfect example modern business reporting, gushing and wide-eyed, eager to repeat conventional narratives about the next big thing, and showing no interest in digging for the truth.
It is not just that Helft failed to do even the most rudimentary of fact-checking (twenty minutes on Google would have uncovered a number of major holes); it is that he failed to check an unconvincing story that blatantly served the interests of the people telling it.

Let's start with the credibility of the story. While computer science may well be the top deck of the Titanic in this economy, has the industry really been driven to cannibalization by the dearth of talented people? There are certainly plenty of people in related fields with overlapping skill sets who are looking for work and there's no sign that the companies like Facebook are making a big push to mine these rich pools of labor. Nor have I seen any extraordinary efforts to go beyond the standard recruiting practices in comp sci departments.

How about self-interest? From a PR standpoint, this is the kind of story these companies want told. It depicts the people behind these companies as strong and decisive, the kind of leaders you'd want when you expect to encounter a large number of Gordian Knots. When the NYT quotes Zuckerberg saying “Someone who is exceptional in their role is not just a little better than someone who is pretty good. They are 100 times better,” they are helping him build a do-what-it-takes-to-be-the-best image.

The dude-throws-awesome-parties criteria for hiring tends to undermine that image, as does the quid pro quo aspect of Facebook's deals with Lessin's father.

Of course, there's more at stake here than corporate vanity. Tech companies have spent a great deal of time and money trying to persuade Congress that the country must increase the number of H-1Bs we issue in order to have a viable Tech industry. Without getting into the merits of the case (for that you can check out my reply to Noah Smith on the subject), this article proves once again that one easily impressed NYT reporter is worth any number of highly paid K Street lobbyists.

The New York Times is still, for many people, the paper. I've argued before that I didn't feel the paper deserved its reputation, that you can find better journalism and better newspapers out there, but there's no denying that the paper does have a tremendous brand. People believe things they read in the New York Times. It would be nice if the paper looked at this as an obligation to live up to rather than laurels to rest on.

Monday, November 19, 2018

"The Case Against Quantum Computing"

I am approaching this one cautiously both out of concern for confirmation bias and because I know so little about the subject, but this pessimistic take by Mikhail Dyakonov on the short-term prospects of quantum computing raises troubling questions about the coverage of this field and about the way hype undermines the allocation of resources.

The pattern here is disturbingly familiar. We've seen it with AI, fusion reactors, maglev vactrains, subliminal framing, just to name a few. Credulous reporters seek out optimistic sources. Theoretical possibilities are treated as just-around-the-corner developments. Decades of slow progress, false starts, and sometimes outright failure are ignored.

Those who can claim some association with the next big thing are richly rewarded. Entrepreneurs get enormous piles of venture capital. Business lines and academic departments get generous funding. Researchers who can pull off a slick TED Talk get six-figure book deals and fawning celebrity treatment.

Just to be clear, Dyakonov's is not the consensus opinion. Lots of his colleagues are very optimistic, but these concerns do seem to be valid. The fact that almost all of the coverage glosses over that part of the picture tells us something about the state of science journalism.

From The Case Against Quantum Computing [emphasis added]
Quantum computing is all the rage. It seems like hardly a day goes by without some news outlet describing the extraordinary things this technology promises. Most commentators forget, or just gloss over, the fact that people have been working on quantum computing for decades—and without any practical results to show for it.

We’ve been told that quantum computers could “provide breakthroughs in many disciplines, including materials and drug discovery, the optimization of complex manmade systems, and artificial intelligence.” We’ve been assured that quantum computers will “forever alter our economic, industrial, academic, and societal landscape.” We’ve even been told that “the encryption that protects the world’s most sensitive data may soon be broken” by quantum computers. It has gotten to the point where many researchers in various fields of physics feel obliged to justify whatever work they are doing by claiming that it has some relevance to quantum computing.

Meanwhile, government research agencies, academic departments (many of them funded by government agencies), and corporate laboratories are spending billions of dollars a year developing quantum computers. On Wall Street, Morgan Stanley and other financial giants expect quantum computing to mature soon and are keen to figure out how this technology can help them.

It’s become something of a self-perpetuating arms race, with many organizations seemingly staying in the race if only to avoid being left behind. Some of the world’s top technical talent, at places like Google, IBM, and Microsoft, are working hard, and with lavish resources in state-of-the-art laboratories, to realize their vision of a quantum-computing future.

In light of all this, it’s natural to wonder: When will useful quantum computers be constructed? The most optimistic experts estimate it will take 5 to 10 years. More cautious ones predict 20 to 30 years. (Similar predictions have been voiced, by the way, for the last 20 years.) I belong to a tiny minority that answers, “Not in the foreseeable future.” Having spent decades conducting research in quantum and condensed-matter physics, I’ve developed my very pessimistic view. It’s based on an understanding of the gargantuan technical challenges that would have to be overcome to ever make quantum computing work.

In the early 2000s, at the request of the Advanced Research and Development Activity (a funding agency of the U.S. intelligence community that is now part of Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity), a team of distinguished experts in quantum information established a road map for quantum computing. It had a goal for 2012 that “requires on the order of 50 physical qubits” and “exercises multiple logical qubits through the full range of operations required for fault-tolerant [quantum computation] in order to perform a simple instance of a relevant quantum algorithm….” It’s now the end of 2018, and that ability has still not been demonstrated.

Friday, November 16, 2018

This John Oliver segment has a way of popping back into the relevant category

In case you haven't been following the news.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Launching the USS Holland -- my big regret is that I couldn't work in a reference to the dynamite gun

Perhaps even more than the airplane, submarines are the perfect example of how a wave of enabling technologies at the end of the 19th century suddenly made the long dreamed of both possible and practical. Experiments in the field went back literally hundreds of years.

But it wasn't until the last third of the 19th century that a set of four advances – – one revolutionary in the field of naval warfare, the other three revolutionary period – – would make submarines a major military factor. Whitehead torpedoes, Bessemer steel, electric batteries and motors, and internal combustion made the modern version of the craft possible.

The models being developed by most of the major powers around 1900 were, in broad strokes, the same basic configuration as those that would patrol the oceans for more than 50 years until the launch of the Nautilus. There would, of course, be great progress. The subs of World War I would be far more sophisticated than those of 15 years earlier, just as the subs of World War II would surpass those of the previous generation, but the underlying approach would remain fundamentally the same.

The following article, complete with very cool illustrations, comes from Scientific American (December 28, 1901). Just to give you an idea how quickly things were moving at the time, the same issue has two news items on major advances in wireless telegraphy including Marconi's announcement of the first successful transatlantic radio transmission, accepted as authentic by "Mr. Edison" and prompting a cable of congratulations from "Prof. Bell" who graciously offered his house on the coast of Nova Scotia as a site for future experiments.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

There's still nothing there (and other lessons journalists refuse to learn about Elon Musk)

[See comments]

From Ars Technica

Similarly, Musk told mayors on Thursday that he wants The Boring Company to dig sewers, water transport, and electrical tunnels under cities, in addition to the transportation-focused tunnels he hopes to dig to house electric skate systems.

Musk mentioned this alternate use for his boring machines at the National League of Cities' City Summit, during a "fireside chat" with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti. According to Forbes, Musk told the audience, "The Boring Company is also going to do tunneling for, like, water transport, sewage, electrical. We're not going to turn our noses up at sewage tunnels. We're happy to do that too."

The Boring Company is built on the premise that tunneling technology has not been adequately developed. Musk claims that his boring machines will tunnel faster than the industry's best machines.

Elon Musk is good copy. Perhaps more than anything else, that is the one thing you need to keep reminding yourself of when trying to make sense of why reporters remain so hopelessly credulous on this story. As Upton Sinclair might have told you, the press is remarkably willing to accept dubious claims when they drive traffic and reinforce rather than challenge the standard narrative.

In this case, "reinforce" is far too weak a term. Elon Musk has fashioned himself to personify the cherished tech messiahs narrative. Like Abraham Lincoln in the old Bob Newhart monologue, if he hadn't existed, they would've had to invent him.

Musk is, to his credit, an exceptionally gifted promoter, particularly adept at the art of misdirection. No one is better at distraction, dramatically changing the focus of attention just long enough for goalposts to be moved, promises to be forgotten, and "I'll address that later" to become "we've already covered that."

These distractions are nested. Less like a "real life Tony Stark" and more like a modern day Scheherazade, Elon Musk tells stories within stories, constantly shifting back and forth so that all but the most careful and critical listener will lose the thread and get swept up in the fantasy. When it becomes increasingly obvious that Tesla is unlikely to ever justify its stock price, he announces that construction will soon begin on a long-distance maglev vactrains running along the East Coast. When the buzz fades from that, he very publicly launches a company that claims to be able to increase tunneling speed and decreased costs by an order of magnitude. When the lack of actual breakthroughs start to become noticeable, he releases cool CGI videos of giant slot cars racing underneath Los Angeles.

A key part of this magic show is the ability to make the ordinary seem wondrous. People have been digging tunnels for thousands of years and there is no reason at this point for us to believe that the excavation which is about to be announced with such fanfare employed methods in any way more sophisticated than those used on construction projects around the world.

The press has become so docile on this point that Musk doesn't even have to lie about having made some major advance in the technology. He can just pretend that the enormous superiority of his system was a proven fact, confident in the assumption that no reporter will point out the truth. As far as I can tell (and I've read all that I had time and stomach for), the few specifics he has provided have been either meaninglessly vague (blah blah blah automation blah blah blah) or have displayed a fundamental lack of understanding about engineering and infrastructure (making projects cheaper by making tunnels smaller in situations where the reduction in capacity would actually drive up costs).

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Another reason to have mixed feelings about the franchise model

From Bloomberg:
All’s fair in the bitter, protracted war between 7-Eleven and its franchisees. The tensions have built steadily in the years since DePinto, a West Point-educated veteran, took charge and began demanding more of franchisees—more inventory, more money, more adherence in matters large and small. Some franchisees have responded by organizing and complaining and sometimes suing.

As detailed in a series of lawsuits and court cases, the company has plotted for much of DePinto’s tenure to purge certain underperformers and troublemakers. It’s targeted store owners and spent millions on an investigative force to go after them. The corporate investigators have used tactics including tailing franchisees in unmarked vehicles, planting hidden cameras and listening devices, and deploying a surveillance van disguised as a plumber’s truck. The company has also given the names of franchisees to the government, which in some cases has led immigration authorities to inspect their stores, according to three officials with Homeland Security Investigations, which like ICE is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Some cool old pictures to start the week

From Scientific American 1867/03/30

Friday, November 9, 2018

If Elon Musk had a radium drill, he could really go to town

Not a good movie, but a sometimes interesting look at attitudes toward the future in the first part of the 20th Century, based on a popular 1913 book. It's worth noting that advances in radiation and (more importantly) metallurgy -- particularly the development of Bessemer steel -- had been major parts of the late 19th Century spike of progress.

From Wikipedia:

A group of wealthy industrialists gather in the home of Mr. Lloyd, a millionaire who introduces them to Richard "Mack" McAllan, the engineer who successfully spearheaded the construction of the Channel Tunnel (the story takes place in the unspecified near future, though it is noted in the film that the Channel Tunnel is built "in 1940"). McAllan informs the group that the "Allanite steel" he developed, along with a "radium drill" developed by his friend Frederick "Robbie" Robbins, makes it possible to construct an undersea tunnel linking England with the United States. Though the group is initially sceptical, the backing of Lloyd and his associate Mostyn convinces the group to buy shares in the project.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A few points on Willy Ley and "the Conquest of Space"

To understand the 21st century narrative around technology and progress, you need to go back to two eras of extraordinary advances, the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the postwar era. Virtually all of the frameworks, assumptions, imagery, language, and iconography we use to discuss and think about the future can be traced back to these two periods.

The essential popularizer of science in the latter era was Willy Ley. In terms of influence and popularity, it is difficult to think of a comparable figure. Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson hold somewhat analogous positions, but neither can claim anywhere near the impact. When you add in Ley's close association with Werner von Braun, it is entirely reasonable to use his books as indicators of what serious people in the field of aerospace were thinking at the time. The excerpt below comes with a 1949 copyright and gives us an excellent idea of what seemed feasible 70 years ago.

There is a lot to digest here, but I want to highlight two points in particular.

First is the widespread assumption at the time that atomic energy would play a comparable role in the remainder of the 20th century to that of hydrocarbons in the previous century and a half, certainly for power generation and large-scale transportation. Keep in mind that it took a mere decade to go from Hiroshima to the launch of the Nautilus and there was serious research (including limited prototypes) into nuclear powered aircraft. Even if fusion reactors remained out of reach, a world where all large vehicles were powered by the atom seemed, if anything, likely.

Second, check out Ley's description of the less sophisticated, non-atomic option and compare it to the actual approach taken by the Apollo program 20 years later.

I think we have reversed the symbolic meaning of a Manhattan project and a moonshot. The former has come to mean a large, focus, and dedicated commitment to rapidly addressing a challenging but solvable problem. The second has come to mean trying to do something so fantastic it seems impossible. The reality was largely the opposite. Building an atomic bomb was an incredible goal that required significant advances in our understanding of the underlying scientific principles. Getting to the moon was mainly a question of committing ourselves to spending a nontrivial chunk of our GDP on an undertaking that was hugely ambitious in terms of scale but which relied on technology that was already well-established by the beginning of the Sixties.


The conquest of space by Willy Ley 1949
Page 48.

In general, however, the moon messenger [and unmanned test rocket designed to crash land on the moon – – MP] is close enough to present technological accomplishments so that its design and construction are possible without any major inventions. Its realization is essentially a question of hard work and money.

The manned moonship is a different story. The performance expected of it is, naturally, that it take off from the earth, go to the moon, land, takeoff from the moon, and return to earth. And that, considering known chemical fuels and customary design and construction methods, is beyond our present ability. But while the moon ship can make a round-trip is unattainable with chemical fuels, a moon ship which can land on the moon with a fuel supply insufficient for the return is a remote possibility. The point here is that one more attention of the step principle is possible three ships which landed might have enough fuel left among them for one to make the return trip.

This, of course, involves great risk, since the failure of one ship would doom them all. Probably the manned moon ship will have to be postponed until there is an orbital nation. Take off from the station, instead of from the ground, would require only an additional 2 mi./s, so that the total works out to about 7 mi./s, instead of the 12 mi./s mentioned on page 44.

Then, of course, there is the possibility of using atomic energy. If some 15 years ago, a skeptical audience had been polled as to which of the two "impossibilities" – – moon ship and large scale controlled-release of atomic energy – – they considered less fantastic, the poll would probably have been 100% in favor of the moon ship. As history turned out, atomic energy came first, and it is now permissible to speculate whether the one may not be the key to the other.

So far, unfortunately, we only know that elements like uranium, plutonium, etc., contain enough energy for the job. We also know that this energy is not completely accessible, that it can be released. He can't even be released in two ways, either fast in the form of a superexplosion, or slowly in a so-called "pile" where the energy appears mainly as he. But we don't know how to apply these phenomena to rocket propulsion. Obviously the fissionable matter should not form the exhaust; there should be an additional reactant, a substance which is thrown out: plain water, perhaps, which would appear as skiing, possibly even split up into its component atoms of hydrogen and oxygen, or perhaps peroxide.

The "how" is still to be discovered, but it will probably be based on the principle of using eight fissionable element's energy for the ejection of a relatively inert reactant. It may be that, when that problem has been solved, we will find a parallel to the problem of pumps in an ordinary liquid fuel rocket. When liquid fuel rockets were still small – – that was only about 17 years ago and I remember the vividly – – the fuels were forced into the rocket motor by pressurizing the whole fuel tank. But everybody knew then that this would not do for all time to come. The tank that had to stand the feeding pressure had to have strong walls. Consequently it was heavy. Consequently the mass ratio could not be I. The idea then was that the tank be only strong enough to hold the fuels, in the matter of the gasoline tank of a car or truck or an airplane, and that the feeding pressure should be furnished by a pop. Of course the pump had to weigh less than the saving in tank wall weight which they brought about. Obviously there was a minimum size and weight for a good home, and if that minimum weight was rather large, a rocket with pumps would have to be a big rocket.

It happened just that way. Efficient pumps were large and heavy and the rocket with pumps was the 46 foot the two. The "atomic motor" for rockets may also turn out to be large, the smallest really reliable and efficient model may be a compact little 7 ton unit. This would make for a large rocket – – but the size of a vehicle is no obstacle if you have the power to move it. Whatever the exhaust velocity, it will be high – – an expectation of 5 mi./s may be conservative. With such an exhaust velocity the mass ratio of the moon ship would be 11:1; with an exhaust velocity of 10 mi./s the mass ratio would drop .3:1!

The moon ship shown in the paintings of the second illustration section is based on the assumption of a mass ratio of this order of magnitude, which in turn is based on the assumption of an atomic rocket motor.

Naturally there would be some trouble with radioactivity in an atomic propelled rocket. But that is not quite as hard to handle as the radioactivity which would accompany atomic energy propulsion under different circumstances. A seagoing vessel propelled by time and energy could probably be built right now. It would operate by means of an atomic pile running at the center high enough to burden and water steam. The steam would drive a turbine, which would be coupled to the ships propeller. While all this mechanism would be reasonably small and light as ship engines go, it would have to be encased in many tons of concrete to shield the ships company against the radiation that would escape from the pile and from the water and the skiing the coolant. For a spaceship, no all-around shielding needed, only a single layer, separating the pilot's or crew's cabin in the nose from the rest of the ship. On the ground a ship which had grown "hot" through service would be placed inside a shielding structure, something like a massive concrete walls, open at the top. That would provide complete shielding or the public, but a shielding that the ship would not have to carry.
The problem that may be more difficult to handle is that of the radioactivity of the exhaust. A mood ship taking off with Lee behind a radioactive patch, caused by the ground/. Most likely that radioactivity would not last very long, but it would be a temporary danger spot. Obviously moon ship for some time to come will begin their journeys from desolate places. Of course they might take off by means of booster units producing nothing more dangerous in their exhaust them water vapor, carbon dioxide, and maybe a sulfurous smell.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Monday, November 5, 2018

This nearly century and a quarter old discussion about rapid transit has a remarkably contemporary feel to it, starting with the phrase "rapid transit."

I always assumed it was a 20th Century term, but...

It's this paragraph, however, that struck me as particularly modern:

Friday, November 2, 2018

You should be concerned about the quality of the polls, but it's likely voter models that should worry you the most.

I've been meaning to do a good, substantial, well reasoned piece on fundamental misunderstandings about political polling. This is not that post. Things have been, let us say, busy of late and I don't have time to get this right, but I do need to get it written. I really want to get this one out in the first five days of November.

So here's the short version.

When the vast majority of journalists (even most data journalists) talk about polls being wrong, they tend to screw up the discussion on at least two levels. First because they do not grasp the distinction between data and model and second because they don't understand how either is likely to go kerplooie (okay, how would you spell it?).

The term "polls of registered voters" describes more or less raw data. A complete and detailed discussion would at this point mention weighting, stratification, and other topics but – – as previously mentioned – – this is not one of those discussions. For now, we will treat those numbers you see in the paper as summary statistics of the data.

Of course, lots of things can go wrong in the collecting. Sadly, most journalists are only aware of the least worrisome issue, sampling error. Far more troubling are inaccurate/dishonest responses and, even more importantly, nonrepresentative samples (a topic we have looked into at some depth earlier). For most reporters, "inside the margin of error" translates to "revealed word of God" and when this misunderstanding leads to disaster, they conclude that "the polls were wrong."

The term "likely voter" brings in an entirely different concept, one which is generally even less well understood by the people covering it because now we are talking not just about data, but about models. [Quick caveat: all of my experience with survey data and response models has been on the corporate side. I'm working under the assumption that the same basic approaches are being used here, but you should always consult your physician or political scientist before embarking on prognostications of your own.]

First off, it's worth noting that the very designation of "likely" is arbitrary. A model has been produced that attempts to predict the likelihood that a given individual will vote in an upcoming election, but the cut off between likely and unlikely is simply a number that the people in the field decided was reasonable. There's nothing scientific, let alone magical about it.

Far more important, particularly in the upcoming election, is the idea of range of data. Certain concepts somehow managed to be both painfully obvious and frequently forgotten. Perhaps the best example in statistics is that a model only describes the relationships found in the sample. When we try to extrapolate beyond the range of data, we can only hope that the relationships will continue to hold.

By their very nature, this is always a problem with predictive modeling, but it becomes a reason for skepticism bordering on panic when the variables you included in or perhaps more to the point, left out of your model start taking on values far in excess of anything you saw on the sample. 2018 appears to be a perfect example.

Will the relationships we've seen in the past hold? If not, will the shift favor the Democrats? The  Republicans? Or will the relationships break down in such a way that they cancel each other out? I have no intention of speculating. What I am saying is that we are currently so far out of the range of data on so many factors that I'm not sure it makes sense to talk about likely voters at all.