Welcome (Back) To the Jungle

This week began our return to the daily commute, 3 days a week after 14 months fully at home. My day job is in IT, and the first thing we all noticed about working from home, everyone all the time, was the increase in productivity and reduction in stress. It took a while to sink in just how much additional time it bought us, and today, at the conclusion of my first full(ish) week back in the office, I felt the full weight of that additional time being taken away. Writing time–gone. Family time–gone. My wife comes home exhausted every day.

So today I put down the sums and added it up, for real.

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How NASA saved money while saving your life.

Whoa! I DID NOT know this.

Back in the day, NASA operated a number of Apollo Program related simulators at Langley. One of them was this bad boy, the “Lunar Excursion Module Simulator (LEMS).” NASA gantry at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.LEMS was rigged up to bear 4/5ths of the weight of a test Lunar Lander to support lunar landing simulation. They even ran sims at night to help simulate lunar lighting. I knew this. In fact, I just sold a story that mentions this facility.

What I did not know…what I would not have suspected…is that this thing, which the Langley folks call “The NASA Gantry” it still in operation.

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My Hugo Euro’s Worth

Sad puppies. Yeah.sad_puppies_3_patch

When I bought this house, there was…an agitator… in the neighborhood trying to get the government to buy his house because of a tiny quantity of hydrocarbons found in a bit of pipe left buried when the land was cleared. The state had come, the EPA had come, an independent testing company had come, and they all agreed the solution was simple: fill in the hole and get on with life.

But no. This chap kept making noises and getting the media out and convincing the ladies in the bridge club that fumes and leachate from the cypress bark mulch used here was actually a dangerous CHEMICAL that was going to turn the place into three mile island. Or something.

This guy wanted a buyout. Never mind that in the absence of any actual problem, houses were already selling at market value, and that a government cleanup is never going pay you more than market value and that if you shovel shit at the neighbors loudly and long enough, you might actually succeed in driving the market prices down. For everyone.

So I killed him. Not really. I think he died of old age or finally moved to Antarctica where there are no petrochemicals at all, or he got wrapped up watching Gossip Girl and forgot all about it.

But I digress.

I’ve yet to meet (in person) a scifi or fantasy author I didn’t like. I certainly haven’t met them all, but I have met a couple who’ve been embroiled in certain recent controversies. And we’ll just leave it at that.

Look. We all wade in this little pool together. And we all need each other’s help and support. We can each try to fill ‘er up with clean and clear bright water, or we can be the kid with the stinky diaper. And get hoisted by it.

I do not have an axe to grind with regard to the Hugos. To be honest, I kind of skimmed over the early SP3 posts with the graphs and the analysis showing how the whole system has apparently collapsed into a shameless sham of anti-meritocratic crapulence. Partly that’s because those posts had, you know, math and stuff. Partly it’s because there are others far better positioned then I to worry about such things and because I never really expected the Hugos to be any different from any other part of human experience.

It seems clear to me that both principal sides in this debate have, or at least started from, reasoned positions that they genuinely believe to have validity and merit. And that’s fine. Opinions are free. Debate, exposition, analysis, and yes, even argument are all critical to society. But to criticize an action, a process, an outcome, is one thing. To demonize a person or group based on supposition is quite another.

This year I have watched as a bunch of writers, most of whom I know to be talented, some of whom I consider friends, have heaped on one another a crap heap of vitriol to high and so deep, it was bound to come crashing down. And now, for some of them, it has. And we all stand here spattered in poo.

It’s time to change the water. It’s time to stop and recall that before it became about selling tickets to Worldcon, boosting careers, assuaging egos, and anointing the best of the best, the Hugo was about honoring Hugo Gernsbach, a man who committed his life to evangelizing science for the lay public.

We live in a world running short of petroleum, fresh water, habitat, and–you know–fish. Where both sides of the political spectrum operate by insult, distraction, and obfuscation, so they can keep the onr percent of their constituency that pays all the money making more and more and more. And we’re worried about whether one group of another is biasing the distribution of little plastic rocket.

I humbly suggest that we are all better served by resolving our procedural disputes through respectful discourse and leaving the exploration of political ideas to our fiction. That’s what it’s there for, after all.


Here read some more about the kerfuffle, if your want to, I guess. I have a novel to write.

Are Sad Puppies Sad Gits?
Jennifer Cambpbell-Hicks on the nominations.
John Sclazi’s Take

You can also Google Brad Torgersen, who launch the opening salvo in this year’s campaign, but who I’m not going to link to, because…he’d done himself enough harm this week.

The Real Nanny State

Denmark has enacted a tax on foods high in saturated fats. This is an effective, fair, non-intrusive way to encourage behavior that is in everyone’s interest without curbing anyone’s god given right to act stupidly.

In the US, this would raise a hew and cry from conservatives everywhere, who would decry big brother and the growth of the “nanny state”. Fine. You favor smaller government? So do I. Call your representatives and push to have all sugar and meat subsidies eliminated. Subsidies that exist today for NO OTHER REASON than that currently rich people benefit from them and use the very profits they garantee to lobby for there continuance.

Sugar subsidies cost you and me a quarter of a BILLION dollars a year. Meat subsidies are indirect, in the form a feed, water, and federal land access allowances, but are equally substantial. They also raise that price of every other agricultural product competing for the same resources, including many that better for us.

I have nothing against the wealthy, lord knows. I’d be delighted to join the club, and the persuit of wealth is what made America great. But before you go complaining about the rise of the nanny state, look at the one we already have, and look at who it’s serving. I’m cool with the rich and comfortable. Hypocrites can kiss my cholesterol.

When is Enterprise Free?

It is a currently fashionable political truism that government is always less efficient and more prone to corruption than the free market and that the “military industrial complex” is the least efficient and most corrupt of all government domains. The truth is somewhat more nuanced.

Consider the story of the X-1, the experimental rocketplane in which Chuck Yeager BellX1Flightbroke the sound barrier in 1947. During World War II, it became obvious that high speed flight posed fundamentally new challenges that directly threatened the advancement of American commercial and military aircraft design. NACA, (forerunner of NASA) a civilian government agency created to promote and advance American aeronautical development, had joined forces with the Army Air Forces Materiel Command to study a variety of aeronautical engineering problems of urgent importance to the war effort. In 1941, NACA researcher John Stack recommended building an oversrength, over-powered research aircraft for exploring flight in the unstable zone near the speed of sound. Eventually, the brass agreed, and in 1943, Bell and McDonald were invited to submit proposals (under a limited bidder program that led to much graft during the war).

Here, NACA started to part ways with the Army. NACA wanted a subsonic, jet-powered aircraft that could take off from the ground. The Army wanted a rocketplane designed to break the sound barrier. In the end, Bell was given the contract to build three experimental rocket planes, but by the time they were ready, the Army had decided to adopt the air-launch technique proposed by McDonald. Testing began in Florida, but the Army grew impatient with NACA’s conservative test schedule and with the hefty bonuses demanded by it’s civilian pilots.

With the cold war looming, the Army ordered the program moved to Muroc Army Air Field and its dry lake bed. Army test pilot Chuck Yeager was picked to fly the X-1 because he was responsible and a superlative pilot, but also because as a military flyer, he was used to taking justified risks for Army pay. Yeager’s broken ribs have become legend, and it likely came as no surprise to his superiors that he would pull such a stunt—or that he would not have, had it jeopardized the mission.

Yeager and his test engineer cooked up the idea of using the X-1’s electrically adjustable vertical stabilizer to maintain control near the speed of sound. It later turned out that George Welch, a civilian pilot working for North American Aviation, had done the same thing a week earlier during a test dive in the F-86 Sabre, but neither North American nor Bell had come up with this innovation. They both were copying features of the German ME-262 rocket fighter, courtesy of military intelligence.

So, in the end, American post war air supremacy derived neither from free market inventiveness nor from government bureaucracy, but from the wartime lessons of a vanquished enemy. The ME-262 was the product of a large military development effort commenced before the war, but ironically, the thin wings that helped make it the speed demon of the war were not entirely German. Luftwaffe engineers stumbled onto the swept wing in an attempt to balance out a heavier than expected engine, but their airfoil cross sections had been developed in America by NACA in the 1930s.

Incidentally, if you are interested in muscle cars, you have seen another innovation of the NACA/AAFMC collaboration from which American business has profited lo these 70 years: the NACA duct. This recessed, Hershey’s Kiss-shaped duct was developed to draw cooling air through the skin of an aircraft without disrupting laminar flow and increasing drag. Because it was developed by the government, hot rodders from the ’50s on have been free to use it to feed their turbo chargers and blowers without paying any license to anyone.

Power, as George Orwell warns us, may corrupt, but it matters little whether the hands that wield it steer government or company cars. Neither it seems, does this dictate to the extent some imagine, the productivity of the human mind.

The Best Care?

So, here in the US, we have the best medical care in the world, eh?

I go to my GP–who refers me for a simple x-ray. Two days to get the (digital) x-ray and he can’t tell anything, so he refers me to a specialist. He doesn’t forward the (digital) x-rays, though, so they x-ray me again—before she examines me and determines it’s likely a navicular stress fracture and they often won’t show up in x-rays. If it is broken, it needs a cast and crutches. So she refers me for an MRI, but they can’t take me for two weeks and then another 3-5 five days to deliver the (digital) results–a third of the time it takes a bone to heal! I argue, and they fit me in five days earlier. Swell.

I call the specialist back and talk to her PA and he sends me back to the same place that took the original x-rays for the GP. They can squeeze me in Tuesday, so with luck, and these highly-paid medicoes don’t know how to FTP a file, maybe I’ll get a diagnosis in a week. Maybe then the specialist will prescribe the cast and crutches that are clearly needed in any event. With my luck, the MRI will turn up something else in the ankle and it’ll take another week of testing.

 You know, in Japan, an MRI costs $160 and they have twice the number of machines per capita that we have. I miss the Air Force. I miss socialized medicine. I miss waiting for hours in a cheap cinder block room with vinyl chairs and the smell of floor wax—and leaving the building with tests complete, medicine in hand, and crutches in play. They weren’t perfect, but they were cheap and effective and for most routine care, superior in many ways to the Roles Royce waiting rooms my exorbitant premiums subsidize today.

Meanwhile, I bought my own crutches and put on the walking cast my wife used last year.

SOPA and PIPA are Against EVERYONE’s Interests

Isn’t it “fair use” if I don’t sell it?

We often hear this claim made by those sturggling against what they see as legal tyranny by corporate media giants attempting to pray on the little guy. The answer is “No”, it’s still infringement — but can we really blame anyone for feeling this way?

There is a difference between what is legally practical and what is morally right. That’s exactly why industry keeps pushing for laws like SOPA and PIPA (and DCMA before it). They want to make it more practical to enforce their (legitimate) right to earn a return on their investment in time and talent. That’s fine, in theory. The problem is that any law that makes enforcement easy enough to stop individual acts of infringement CANNOT HELP but open the door to rampant abuse and coercive intrusion into the free market.

Let’s be clear on this: When an artist (or a media distribution company) says it is illegal even for one person to make one copy of a protected work for their own use with no redistribution, they are right. It IS illegal AND immoral for to copy other people’s work without paying their asking price, even for only your own use (except for parody, commentary etc.). It took effort and/or talent to create the work, and if you use it without paying, you are a cheat.

However. The reality is, people have done so and are going to continue to do so, and to a great extent, that is just the cost of doing business in a free society. Attempts to lock down technology to make infringement impossible cannot succeed, because by succeeding, they would destroy the very free society that makes the production of IP economically valuable in the first place.

There is, of course, truth to the claim of materiality, that one person copying a few songs is not doing any MATERIAL harm. True. The challenge is that digital technology makes it so easy to copy that even casual, ostensibly benign infringement can erode a significant slice of the market. This is a legitimate problem, one that legitimately needs to be addressed. For my part, I think it could be better addressed through marketing and education than through legal machination.

The thing is, legal remedies to ubiquitous access always have unintended consequences. I know one fellow who acquired illegal copies of a whole slew of technical books because he needed to use them on an e-reader that did not support the digital lock placed on them by the publishers. He BOUGHT all these books, but in the process of hunting down copies he could actually use, he ran across a repository of hundreds of unsecured copies he had not previously known about. These turned out to be from a publisher who makes such books freely available to encourage people to turn to their newer releases for updates, but it also supported the very piracy sites that laws like PIPA are meant to destroy.

The reality is, no law can ever stop a free people from infringing occasionally upon one another, and society itself has mechanisms for keeping such infringement in check. Typically, people are much less likely to do what they see as being “wrong” or “uncool” according to their peer group, than what an outside aggressor prohibits by force.

By attempting to make all copying impossible, or so easily prosecutable that a police state results, the media conglomerates make insurgents of their own customers. How can that be good business?

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

A forum that I frequent has polls and a neat little demographic feature that lets you see how different people answer a given question. Recently, the following demographic breakdown caught my eye:

This was a question about whether the wealthy engage in class welfare, so you might reasonably expect a shift in opinion based on education. Sample size is 41. Here, the actual answers aren’t as interesting as the distribution. With educational attainment, diversity of opinion increases.

I often argue that the truth is nearly always more nuanced than political polemic can accommodate. If we accept the notion that, on average, increased education correlates with increased knowledge of the world, then this supports my thesis.

Unfortunately, it also supports what the pundits and politicoes know so well–oversimplification sells.

Equity in Wealth

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that maurauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory…You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God Bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” Elizabeth Warren

This is not a political blog; it’s a blog about reason. I am not Republican. I am not a Democrat. I have voted for both. I have an MBA and know a little about economic theory.

Captialism works. Government should indeed be very sparing in interposing itself into markets. But as the robber barons taught us, unrestrained capitalism is at least as inefficient and corrupting as unrestrained socialism. There are those who wish us to see a simple, direct, and inverse correlation between taxation and prosperity. Reality is more nuanced. A wealthy man will spend just as much, and invest almost as much, whether he is taxed at 1% or 90%. A poor man CANNOT.

Yes, all things being equal, taxation reduces the money available for spending and reduces marginal return. But all things are not equal. And anyone trying to elicit your vote on the basis of this argument without considering elasticity is a propagandist who is not after your interests, but his own.