Audible Prime

Monday, October 31st, 2016

Amazon now offers a variety of Audible “channels” free to Prime members. In addition to “handcrafted playlists” — which seem to be NPR-style radio shows or podcasts — they have a number of classic audiobooks, including Dracula, which seemed timely.


Monday, October 31st, 2016

I’ve written a surprising amount about Halloween and horror over the years:

Jeff Bezos discusses space flight and his vision for Blue Origin

Sunday, October 30th, 2016

Jeff Bezos discusses space flight and his vision for Blue Origin at the 2016 Pathfinder Awards at Seattle’s Museum of Flight:

Conservatarian Novelist Brad Thor

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

“Conservatarian” novelist Brad Thor talks to Nick Gillespie:

His books are also chock full of philosophizing and political and economic commentary from a “conservatarian” perspective. 2013′s Hidden Order, which revolved around attempts to assassinate nominees to head the Federal Reserve, quoted extensively from libertarian economics writer Henry Hazlitt and histories of the Fed. Thor notes that he was raised in a part-Objectivist home and exposed early and often to the works of Ayn Rand. That upbringing infuses his fiction with a love of ideas and his education at the University of Southern California with acclaimed novelist T.C. Boyle helps imbue his work with literary flourishes.

Thor’s latest book, Foreign Agent, engages the threat of extremist Islam and provocatively argues (amidst the action scenes and plot twists) that the truest form of the faith isn’t practiced by contemporary reformers but by fundamentalist Muslims and the terrorists in ISIS and Al Qaeda. A native of the Chicago area, Thor talked to Reason in his adopted hometown of Nashville.

The Incal

Friday, October 28th, 2016

As Mœbius, Jean Giraud was famous for illustrating a number of influential bandes dessinées, including Arzach and The Incal.

When I saw that the first volume of The Incal was included in Amazon’s Prime Reading program, I gave it a read, and it was just as weird as I’d heard. (Alejandro Jodorowsky is the writer.)

If you enjoyed The Fifth Element — which I did not — you know the look and the tone. Moebius and Jodorowsky sued Luc Besson for using The Incal as inspiration for The Fifth Element. (They lost.)

Incal Deepo Speaks

Incal Berg Attack

How to live on Venus

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

Winchell Chung (@nyrath) recently linked to this piece on how to live on Venus, which includes some helpful graphics:



Venus Trajectories

Early Peanuts

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

When they introduced their Prime Reading program recently, the folks at Amazon included The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 1: 1950-1952 in their collection of free reading, and I was more than a little curious after reading about how Snoopy killed Peanuts.

I’ll get to that in a moment, but the early strips are jarring in a few ways. First, of course, the art is different. I actually like the early art just fine. Second, the cast is different. Yes, Charlie Brown is the main character, but the other characters are Shermy, Patty, and Violet — none of whom I even remember from the strip’s heydey.

It’s not even clear that Snoopy is Charlie Brown’s dog — but it is clear that Snoopy is a dog.

Peanuts First Three Strips

He doesn’t stick purely to traditional dog stuff though. Even just a few pages into the collection he’s doing people stuff.

Peanuts Rootbeer For Sale

I think I can now say, “I only like old Peanuts — before they sold out.”

Colonizing Venus With Floating Cities

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Colonizing Venus with floating cities raises the question, Why build the cities floating in the atmosphere?

Because the atmosphere has raw materials for construction and building breathable atmosphere, and because the planet provides gravity that you’d otherwise need a large rotating habitat or tether-and-counterweight system to achieve, and a human-friendly temperature range that removes the need for complex thermal control systems. Venus is effectively the only other source of nitrogen in the inner system aside from Earth itself, and although Venus is very dry, the atmosphere does contain water, and sulfuric acid which can be converted into water or itself used in industrial processes. And the atmosphere is primarily CO2, which can provide carbon for polymers.

Once bootstrapped, small supplemental shipments of minerals and machinery would allow enormous expansion, the atmosphere itself providing building material and lifting gas. The Venusian habitats could provide atmospheric gases and polymer building materials to the inner system. In reality, it is probably one of the easiest places to establish large Earthlike habitats. The plentiful sunlight, ease of constructing large habitats under Earthlike gravity, and constant supply of CO2, nitrogen, and water from the atmosphere could make it an agricultural center for supplying the inner system as well…not only with food, but also chemicals and materials derived from plants. And yes, the rocket fuel for getting things into orbit could also be synthesized from the atmosphere, and the thick atmosphere makes Venus itself one of the easiest planets to land on (even if you never actually touch land).

Converting CO2 to building material sounds like science fiction, but it is a fact that plants do it all around us.


The advantages of Venus are Earthlike gravity for small, non-rotating habitats, an environment with Earthlike temperatures and pressures and protection from radiation and micrometeorites reducing structural mass and the consequences of a breach (seal the compromised area off, then put on hazmat suits and patch the breach), plentiful availability of nitrogen (which Mars or orbital habitats would need a constant supply of), and sunlight for crops without concentrator mirrors.

Why the world should turn Japanese

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

An Australian journalist goes to Japan for a rock concert and comes back to explain why the world should turn Japanese:

I feel as though I’ve left a country which has perfected humanity; a society of people who are helpful, giving, self-aware, respectful and innovative — qualities which unfortunately are disappearing in Australia.

So here are some things we and indeed the rest of the world can, and should, learn from Japan.

Be Pleasant and Kind

Workers embody these qualities whether they’re behind a counter at a train station, convenience store, hotel or restaurant and are helpful when dealing with others. They bow, smile and seem genuinely happy to direct lost tourists even when the language barrier causes frustration (on the part of the foreigners, some of whom can’t understand WHY the Japanese don’t speak perfect English).

Street sweepers bow as you pass, shop assistants call out an enthusiastic welcome when entering a store, locals offer help when noticing your confused face trying to decipher Tokyo’s rail labyrinth.

A distraught concierge chased us down the street upon realising she’d failed to mention a teppanyaki restaurant we inquired about wouldn’t open for another 30 minutes; the airline check-in employee apologised countless times for the inconvenience of making us wait while she attempted to upgrade us for the flight home (she succeeded).

The Japanese take pride in their work, no matter how menial or boring. On arrival in Sydney, we barely got a smile as we passed through the airport. The employee at the train ticket counter was purely disinterested in helping us.

Trains Are Clean, Quiet, and Run on Time

The bullet trains run at 320km/h, allowing for long-distance travel in record time — infrastructure that’s desperately needed here. Carriages on regular trains are decorated with paper advertisements hanging from the ceiling — they’re not defaced or torn down by bored youths.

There’s no rubbish on the seats, platforms or streets despite a lack of bins (we often carried around empty drink containers because we couldn’t find one). Again, this comes back to pride — the Japanese know they have it good and work to keep it that way.

Passengers are frequently reminded to turn their phones to silent and no-one talks on their mobiles so fellow riders aren’t forced to listen to long and boring conversations about nothing. Because services come every few minutes, there’s no rushing or pushing and passengers line-up to enter carriages. And they let disembarking passengers off BEFORE boarding the train.

I wonder if Australians realise this is how things are done. The amount of times I’ve been pushed back into a carriage or elevator as I’m trying to leave — and then been abused for getting in the way!

People Follow the Rules and They’re Polite

We were there to see our favourite band and noticed vast differences in the way crowds conduct themselves at rock concerts. Yes the Japanese let their hair down, jump about and sing along with passion but they remain ever-so polite and self-aware. Those in the first row aren’t held back by metal barriers separating fans from the band. Rather, everyone stands behind a yellow piece of tape stuck to the floor and they NEVER cross it.

The security guards look bored, perhaps secretly hoping someone will forget themselves and leap onto the stage. We were front row one night and I wasn’t pushed, poked or groped. I was tempted to reach out and grab the singer and guitarist many times … but I would have been the only one. Plus, concerts start at 7pm and finish by 9.30pm — very civilised indeed!

People Are Trustworthy

We travelled from Tokyo, north to Sendai and south to Osaka and everywhere we saw unchained bicycles left outside shops, train stations and restaurants. A majority of them even had shopping bags, helmets and jackets in the baskets. I’m scared to leave my bike on my front porch at home! And most of them were the trendy, vintage-kind so thieves wanting to score a shiny new ride had their pick of options. I must admit I was frequently tempted to “borrow” one after hours upon hours of walking.

Toilets: They Flush

The first loo I tried after landing in Sydney was broken, as were the other three in the block. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to change cubicles in Australia because the previous user was unable to get rid of their business. Or there’s no toilet paper. Or they’re filthy. And I’m talking about those inside big department stores and workplaces.

In Japan toilets are hi-tech contraptions with built-in bidets — even those in parks and train stations and they’re as clean as those in five-star hotels. Perhaps this too comes back to pride.

Raining In High-Frequency Traders

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

What is the relationship between high-frequency traders and liquidity?

Ever since high-frequency trading rose to prominence, a debate has raged over whether the ensuing arms race between super-fast traders helped or hindered markets. One side argues that it helps because the massive number of transactions the fastest traders engage in lower costs by reducing the spreads between bids and offers. Critics counter that, in reality, spreads widen since slower traders need to charge higher spreads as insurance against getting caught flatfooted by a fast-moving event.


Starting in 2010, high-frequency traders began using ultrafast microwave links to relay prices and other information between Chicago and New York. To begin with, only some traders had access to microwave networks. Until 2013, others had to rely on less speedy fiber-optic cable.

But microwave transmissions are disrupted by water droplets and snowflakes, so during heavy storms traders using the networks switch to fiber. Messrs. Shkilko and Sokolov used weather-station data from along the microwaves’ paths to determine when storms occurred and then looked at what happened to bid-ask spreads in a variety of securities during those periods.

They narrowed, suggesting that the slowing down of the fastest high-frequency traders improved market liquidity.

Net Fiscal Cost of Immigrants

Tuesday, October 25th, 2016

Every immigrant without a high School diploma costs the US $231,000, in net present value, according to a report on “The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration” from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine:

On average, a nonelderly adult immigrant without a high school diploma entering the U.S. will create a net fiscal cost (benefits received will exceed taxes paid) in both the current generation and second generation. The average net present value of the fiscal cost of such an immigrant is estimated at $231,000, a cost that must be paid by U.S. taxpayers.


However, a rough estimate of the future net outlays to be paid by taxpayers (in constant 2012 dollars) for immigrants without a high school diploma appears to be around $640,000 per immigrant over 75 years. The average fiscal loss is around $7,551 per year (in constant 2012 dollars).

Slightly more than 4 million adult immigrants without a high school diploma have entered the U.S. since 2000 and continue to reside here. According to the estimates in the National Academies report, the net present value of the future fiscal costs of those immigrants is $920 billion.

This means government would have to immediately raise taxes by $920 billion and put that sum into a bank account earning 3 percent plus inflation per year to cover the future fiscal losses that will be generated by those immigrants.

To cover the future cost, each taxpaying U.S. household, on average, would have to pay an immediate lump sum of over $10,000. Costs would go up in the future as more than 200,000 additional adult immigrants without a high school diploma arrive in the country each year.

Steven Den Beste has died

Monday, October 24th, 2016

Steven Den Beste of the U.S.S. Clueless has died. Glenn Reynolds will miss him:

I’ve missed his blogging for years. He was a giant in the early days of the blogosphere. And even afterward, he made his contributions, like his Unified Theory Of Left-Wing Causes. Rest in peace, Steven.

I cited him often back in the early days of the blogosphere (2003).

Someone Is Learning How to Take Down the Internet

Monday, October 24th, 2016

Someone is learning how to take down the Internet, Bruce Schneier suggests:

Recently, some of the major companies that provide the basic infrastructure that makes the Internet work have seen an increase in DDoS attacks against them. Moreover, they have seen a certain profile of attacks. These attacks are significantly larger than the ones they’re used to seeing. They last longer. They’re more sophisticated. And they look like probing. One week, the attack would start at a particular level of attack and slowly ramp up before stopping. The next week, it would start at that higher point and continue. And so on, along those lines, as if the attacker were looking for the exact point of failure.

The attacks are also configured in such a way as to see what the company’s total defenses are. There are many different ways to launch a DDoS attacks. The more attack vectors you employ simultaneously, the more different defenses the defender has to counter with. These companies are seeing more attacks using three or four different vectors. This means that the companies have to use everything they’ve got to defend themselves. They can’t hold anything back. They’re forced to demonstrate their defense capabilities for the attacker.


One company told me about a variety of probing attacks in addition to the DDoS attacks: testing the ability to manipulate Internet addresses and routes, seeing how long it takes the defenders to respond, and so on. Someone is extensively testing the core defensive capabilities of the companies that provide critical Internet services.

Who would do this? It doesn’t seem like something an activist, criminal, or researcher would do. Profiling core infrastructure is common practice in espionage and intelligence gathering. It’s not normal for companies to do that. Furthermore, the size and scale of these probes — and especially their persistence — points to state actors. It feels like a nation’s military cybercommand trying to calibrate its weaponry in the case of cyberwar. It reminds me of the U.S.’s Cold War program of flying high-altitude planes over the Soviet Union to force their air-defense systems to turn on, to map their capabilities.

Brian Krebs offers some specifics:

At first, it was unclear who or what was behind the attack on Dyn. But over the past few hours, at least one computer security firm has come out saying the attack involved Mirai, the same malware strain that was used in the record 620 Gpbs attack on my site last month. At the end September 2016, the hacker responsible for creating the Mirai malware released the source code for it, effectively letting anyone build their own attack army using Mirai.

Mirai scours the Web for IoT devices protected by little more than factory-default usernames and passwords, and then enlists the devices in attacks that hurl junk traffic at an online target until it can no longer accommodate legitimate visitors or users.

According to researchers at security firm Flashpoint, today’s attack was launched at least in part by a Mirai-based botnet. Allison Nixon, director of research at Flashpoint, said the botnet used in today’s ongoing attack is built on the backs of hacked IoT devices — mainly compromised digital video recorders (DVRs) and IP cameras made by a Chinese hi-tech company called XiongMai Technologies. The components that XiongMai makes are sold downstream to vendors who then use it in their own products.

“It’s remarkable that virtually an entire company’s product line has just been turned into a botnet that is now attacking the United States,” Nixon said, noting that Flashpoint hasn’t ruled out the possibility of multiple botnets being involved in the attack on Dyn.

Many of these devices allow users to change the default usernames and passwords on a Web-based administration panel — but the devices also have default usernames and passwords for telnet and SSH, which aren’t editable from the Web-based admin tools:

“The issue with these particular devices is that a user cannot feasibly change this password,” Flashpoint’s Zach Wikholm told KrebsOnSecurity. “The password is hardcoded into the firmware, and the tools necessary to disable it are not present. Even worse, the web interface is not aware that these credentials even exist.”

Flashpoint’s researchers said they scanned the Internet on Oct. 6 for systems that showed signs of running the vulnerable hardware, and found more than 515,000 of them were vulnerable to the flaws they discovered.

Colonizing Venus

Monday, October 24th, 2016

Colonizing Venus may be easier than colonizing Mars:

In many ways Venus is the hell planet. Results of spacecraft investigation of the surface and atmosphere of Venus are summarized by Bougher, Hunten, and Phillips [1997]:

  • Surface temperature 735K: lead, tin, and zinc melt at surface, with hot spots with temperatures in excess of 975 K
  • Atmospheric pressure 96 Bar (1300 PSI); similar to pressure at a depth of a kilometer under the ocean
  • The surface is cloud covered; little or no solar energy
  • Poisonous atmosphere of primarily carbon dioxide, with nitrogen and clouds of sulfuric acid droplets.

However, viewed in a different way, the problem with Venus is merely that the ground level is too far below the one atmosphere level. At cloud-top level, Venus is the paradise planet. As shown in figure 2, at an altitude slightly above fifty km above the surface, the atmospheric pressure is equal to the Earth surface atmospheric pressure of 1 Bar. At this level, the environment of Venus is benign.

  • above the clouds, there is abundant solar energy
  • temperature is in the habitable “liquid water” range of 0-5OC
  • atmosphere contains the primary volatiles required for life (Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, and Sulfur)
  • Gravity is 90% of the gravity at the surface of Earth.

While the atmosphere contains droplets of sulfuric acid, technology to avoid acid corrosion are well known, and have been used by chemists for centuries. In short, the atmosphere of Venus is most earthlike environment in the solar system. Although humans cannot breathe the atmosphere, pressure vessels are not required to maintain one atmosphere of habitat pressure, and pressure suits are not required for humans outside the habitat.

It is proposed here. that in the near term, human exploration of Venus could take place from aerostat vehicles in the atmosphere, and that in the long term, permanent settlements could be made in the form of cities designed to float at about fifty kilometer altitude in the atmosphere of Venus.

On Venus, breathable air (i.e., oxygen-nitrogen mixture at roughly 21:78 mixture ratio) is a lifting gas. The lifting power of breathable air in the carbon dioxide atmosphere of Venus is about half kg per cubic meter. Since air is a lifting gas on Venus: the entire lifting envelope of an aerostat can be breathable gas, allowing the full volume of the aerostat to be habitable volume. For comparison, on Earth, helium lifts about one kg per cubic meter, so a given volume of air on Venus will lift about half as much as the same volume of helium will lift on Earth.

Settling Venus sounds oddly feasible:

In the long term, permanent settlements could be made in the form of cities designed to float at about fifty kilometer altitude in the atmosphere of Venus.

The thick atmosphere provides about one kilogram per square centimeter of mass shielding from galactic cosmic radiation and from solar particle event radiation, eliminating a key difficulty in many other proposed space settlement locations. The gravity, slightly under one Earth gravity, is likely to be sufficient to prevent the adverse affects of microgravity. At roughly one atmosphere of pressure, a habitat in the atmosphere will not require a high-strength pressure vessel.

Humans would still require provision of oxygen, which is mostly absent from the Venusian atmosphere, but in other respects the environment is perfect for humans (although on the habitat exterior humans would still require sufficient clothing to avoid direct skin exposure to aerosol droplets).

Since breathable air is a lifting gas, the entire lifting envelope of an aerostat can be breathable gas, allowing the full volume of the aerostat to be habitable volume. For objects the size of cities, this represents an enormous amount of lifting power. A one-kilometer diameter spherical envelope will lift 700,000 tons (two Empire state buildings). A two-kilometer diameter envelope would lift 6 million tons.

So, if the settlement is contained in an envelope containing oxygen and nitrogen the size of a modest city, the amount of mass which can be lifted will be, in fact, large enough that it could also hold the mass of a modest city. The result would be an environment as spacious as a typical city.

The lifting envelope does not need to hold a significant pressure differential. Since at the altitudes of interest the external pressure is nearly one bar, atmospheric pressure inside the envelope would be the same as the pressure outside. The envelope material itself would be a rip-stop material, with high-strength tension elements to carry the load. With zero pressure differential between interior and exterior, even a rather large tear in the envelope would take thousands of hours to leak significant amounts of gas, allowing ample time for repair. (For safety, the envelope would also consist of several individual units).

Solar power is abundant in the atmosphere of Venus, and, in fact, solar arrays can produce nearly as much power pointing downward (toward the reflective clouds) as they produce pointing toward the sun. The Venus solar day, 116.8 terrestrial days, is extremely long; however, the atmospheric winds circle the planet much more rapidly, rotating around the planet in four days. Thus, on the habitat, the effective solar “night” would be roughly fifty hours, and the solar “day” the same. This is longer than an Earth day, but is still comfortable compared to, for example, the six-month night experienced in terrestrial near-polar locations. If the habitat is located at high latitudes, the day and night duration could be shortened toward a 24-hour cycle.

America’s Civilizational Paralysis

Sunday, October 23rd, 2016

Victor Davis Hanson laments America’s civilizational paralysis:

The Greek city-states in the fourth-century BC, fifth-century AD Rome, and the Western European democracies after World War I all knew they could not continue as usual with their fiscal, social, political, and economic behavior. But all these states and societies feared far more the self-imposed sacrifices that might have saved them.

Mid-fifteenth-century Byzantium was facing endemic corruption, a radically declining birthrate and shrinking population, and the end of civic militarism — all the last-gasp symptoms of an irreversible decline. Its affluent ruling and religious orders and expansive government services could no longer be supported by disappearing agrarians and the overtaxed mercantile middle class. Returning to the values of the Emperor Justinian’s sixth-century empire that had once ensured a vibrant Byzantine culture of stability and prosperity throughout the old Roman east remained a nostalgic daydream. Given the hardship and sacrifice that would have been required to change the late Byzantine mindset, most residents of Constantinople plodded on to their rendezvous with oblivion in 1453.

We seem to be reaching that point of stasis in postmodern America. Once simple and logical solutions to our fiscal and social problems are now seen as too radical even to discuss. Consider the $20-trillion national debt. Most Americans accept that current annual $500 billion budget deficits are not sustainable — but they also see them as less extreme than the recently more normal $1 trillion in annual red ink. Americans also accept that the Obama administration doubled the national debt on the expectation of permanent near-zero interest rates, which cannot continue. When interest rates return to more normal historical levels of 4-5% per annum, the costs of servicing the debt — along with unsustainable Social Security and Medicare entitlement costs — will begin to undermine the entire budget.

Count up current local, state and federal income taxes, payroll taxes, property and sales taxes, and new health care taxes, and it will be hard to find the necessary additional revenue from a strapped and overtaxed middle class, much less from the forty-seven percent of Americans who currently pay no federal income taxes. The Obama administration has tried to reduce the budget by issuing defense cuts and tax hikes — but it has refused to touch entitlement spending, where the real gains could be made. The result is more debt, even as, paradoxically, our military was weakened, taxes rose, revenue increased, and economic growth remained anemic at well below 2% per annum.

Illegal immigration poses a similar dilemma. No nation can remain stable when 10-20 million foreign nationals have crashed through what has become an open border and reside unlawfully in the United States — any more than a homeowner can have neighbors traipsing through and camping in his unfenced yard.

Likewise, there are few multiracial societies of the past that have avoided descending into destructive ethnic chauvinism and tribalism once assimilation and integration were replaced by salad-bowl identity politics. Common words and phrases such as “illegal alien” or “deportation” are now considered taboo, while “sanctuary city” is a euphemism for a neo-Confederate nullification of federal immigration laws by renegade states and municipalities.

Illegal immigration, like the deficits, must cease, but stopping it would be too politically incorrect and painful even to ponder. The mess in Europe — millions of indigent and illegal immigrants who have fled their own failed states to become dependent on the largess of their generous adopted countries, but without any desire to embrace their hosts’ culture — is apparently America’s future.

Race relations pose comparable paradoxes. Inner-city Chicago has turned into a war zone with over 500 murders so far this year alone. As tragic as occasional police shootings are of African-American suspects, they do not occur at an incidence higher than the percentage of African-Americans who come into contact with law enforcement or who commit violent crimes. Yet when an African-American officer, in a department overseen by an African-American police chief, shoots an uncompliant but armed African-American suspect, a full-scale urban riot ensues, well beyond the ability of police to control.