Why IT Happened in Southern India

Monday, July 27th, 2009

A recent story about a school for poor-but-gifted students in India prompted Zoho‘s Sridhar to repost his explanation for why IT happened in southern India:

Many commentators in the West, including Tom Friedman, make an implicit assumption that somehow there was or is some kind of an institutional grand plan in all this. Somehow “India” (as a collective entity) focused on education, particularly in science and engineering, and there was a planned take-off. The IITs are mentioned often (I went to IIT Madras myself) as part of that master plan. I would say there is about as much foresight and plan on the part of institutional India in the IT boom as there was foresight and plan in the emergence of the internet industry in silicon valley — both are happy accidents of a lot of not-very-related phenomena.

The origins of IT boom in India could be traced to an accidental decision of mega-star actor/politician turned Chief Minister M.G.Ramachandran, affectionately known as MGR — he was the Arnold Schwarzenegger of that time and place — in my native state of Tamil Nadu. In the late 70’s and 80’s the state was convulsed with caste politics (“identity politics” to Americans), and reservation in educational institutions and jobs (“affirmative action” to Americans) was the hot item on the agenda. By early 80’s, the socialist system that Indira Gandhi foisted on India was visibly starting to fail, and the whole political debate was how to divvy up a stagnant or shrinking economic pie — reservation was just one mechanism the political class came up with, and it mixed well with “vote bank” politics. Since government controlled all higher education, and the number of seats in professional colleges like engineering and medicine — which offered better prospects of a job in a high-unemployment economy — was woefully inadequate compared to the number of kids graduating from high school, reserving seats was the rationing mechanism the political class came up with.

MGR, due to his very successful movie career in a variety of super-hero roles — like most Tamil boys of my generation, I was a huge fan, and remember campaigning for his party in my village when I was a 9 year old! — had built-up a wide support base that cut across caste, religious and class lines in the state. He instinctively grasped that a reservation system that apportioned seats in educational institutions and public sector jobs was going to divide society permanently. After he came to power, he started musing about moving away from caste-based reservation, and instead reserve seats based on economic criteria. This was the “third rail” of Indian politics and still remains to this day. He got himself into political hot water quickly. In a dramatic U-turn that would make Arnold proud today, he ordered a massive increase in the reservation quota — it used to be about 30% when he came to power, and he increased it to 67%, and for good measure, he made the vast majority of the population eligible for those reserved seats by expanding the definition of socially backward communities.

But to assuage his guilt, he decided to allow various private groups, primarily belonging to caste or minority religious organizations, to set up engineering colleges. That was about 1983–84, the time I was in high school, so I was paying close attention to this particular issue. Until that point, the state of Tamil Nadu, with about 60 million people, graduated only about 2,000 engineers a year — and it was considered one of the more educationally advanced states. His government liberally handed out licenses to start colleges, and more important, they could charge whatever fees they wanted. It became very, very profitable to start an engineering college — due to the massive pent-up demand for education.

Within a few years, the number of engineering students had crossed 10,000 a year, and today it stands close to 70,000 a year. The state now has over 250 private engineering colleges, compared to 7 government-operated ones in 1983. All this is in just one state in India, with a population of about 65 million people. Other states, particularly in the South, including Karnataka (Bangalore is the capital city), and Andhra Pradesh (Hyderabad is the capital city) got in on the act. Together, these 3 states alone graduate over 200,000 engineers a year now, by my estimation, and together, they account for only about 20% of Indian population. Northern States were slow to get their act together, and what that has meant is that the IT boom is concentrated primarily in the South.

The quality of the education, as can be imagined, was and still is all over the place. But that is not important as I have argued elsewhere, see my post Placebo Effect in College Education. What these colleges produced is a generation of people, who at least have an exposure to technical ideas and a desperate need for a job, particularly because their parents had spent a fortune on their education. Most of us in India got into engineering not because we had grand visions of invention, but because it had better prospects of a job than the alternatives.

This educational liberalization in my state happened coincidentally at around the same time that Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister of India, succeeding his authoritarian mother. Luckily for India, he was a very different person from his mother. He had liberal (the true classical sense of “liberal”, not the totally distorted American sense, where it is almost codeword for “socialist”) inclinations. He was fascinated with technology, and thought it held potential for India. So he liberalized computer imports (which until then attracted duties in the range of 200%, to conserve precious “foreign exchange”). As an unintended and certainly unplanned consequence, companies like TCS and Infosys imported mainframes and started to provide services to western companies, in almost exactly the fashion of EDS a generation before in America.

It all started small. In 1989, when I graduated from IIT Madras, I do remember hearing about this small software company called Infosys that came for campus interviews. But the IITs didn’t graduate anywhere near the engineers (IIT Madras graduated 250 a year, including all branches of engineering) to satisfy the demand from these companies. So companies like Infosys went to the emerging private engineering colleges. I remember that in late 80’s, the dominant public sector companies of the era (now mostly dead or dying!) would not hire private engineering college graduates. So privatization in higher education in one state of India accidentally provided the fuel for the emerging private sector companies.

There was absolutely no coordination between the policies at the state level where MGR was backed into a political corner, so private sector education was an innovation he came up with on the spur of the moment, and those at the central level, where Rajiv Gandhi, fascinated by technology, liberalized computer imports. For those of you mercantalists, that trade liberalization, which first led to imports, eventually led to the emergence of the export industry.

So really government policy played only a “getting the hell out of the way” role. There really was no pro-active government role in the emergence of IT.

Socialism is a fundamentally aristocratic movement

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Socialism is a fundamentally aristocratic movement, Mencius Moldbug argues:

Finally, we need to recognize perhaps the most distinctive and subtle quality of socialism, which is that socialism (again in origin, though this quality disappears in the nasty end stages) is a fundamentally aristocratic movement. Moreover, it is aristocratic in the Carlylean sense: the actual meaning of the word, rule of the best. Socialism, always in origin and perpetually in the true democratic state which still contains a competing Right, is the alliance of the smartest, the wealthiest, the most powerful, and the most beautiful.

The Left is the faction of the professors, the scientists and the scholars, the cognitive elite. It is the faction of the true ultra-rich, the old money, the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts and Fords, and their trustafarian hipster junkie grandchildren. It is the faction of the journalists and the bureaucrats, the activists and astroturfers — the wielders of power. And, of course, it is the faction of movie stars and other celebrities, who for all their flaws have climbed a long greasy pole. The closer you get to the top in a democratic society, the more pervasive socialism becomes.

So Carlyle said to his readers: England is going to the dogs. A new aristocracy is needed to replace the old, stultified, dying hereditary caste of land and title. This must be an aristocracy of merit and service — a true nobility. It must cast aside the dogmas of laissez-faire and be unafraid to govern, to garden, to intervene and improve.

And indeed, the Christian Socialism of the Fabians and Progressives, rooted not only in Carlyle but in Ruskin and Morris and Dickens, developed precisely along these lines. Its goal was to improve society, both physically and morally, through the energy and nobility of the State. And indeed it outcompeted all major competitors. There is no school of Carlyleans today, but every school that isn’t a madrassa in Qom is a school of progressivism.

And the trouble was: it was all wrong. The results were exactly opposite the original intent. The poor were not morally uplifted and converted into gentlemen; they were degraded and converted into savages. A new underclass of unprecedented human degeneration appeared below the proletariat. The New Jerusalem did not arrive. New Babylons, new Haitis, new Armageddons beyond words, enormous Megatherions all, slithered up on their great bellies.

Diversity on the Supreme Court

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Philip Greenspun recommends real diversity on the Supreme Court:

The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court has sparked a debate over diversity on the Supreme Court.

Let’s look at Sotomayor’s life story: went to college, went to law school, became a government employee drawing a paycheck. This is remarkably similar to the life story of other senior government officials as well as politicians. No part of her story includes “was at risk of losing capital due to a change in government regulation” or “was at risk of losing job due to downturn in economy.”

Given that a large number of Supreme Court cases involve business disputes, important diversity on the court would be attained by adding a Justice with some experience in business. A lawyer, regardless of race or sex, who had started a dry cleaners and navigated the regulations associated with hiring a couple of employees would have a radically different experience to draw upon than the current Justices.

Consider George McGovern, one of the towering figures of 20th Century American liberalism. After a life in politics, he purchased a hotel. In a 1992 article, “A politician’s dream — a businessman’s nightmare”, he wrote “I also wish that during the years I was in public office I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made me a better U.S. senator and a more understanding presidential contender.”

Wall Street is a confidence game

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell notes that Wall Street is a confidence game, in the strictist sense of the term:

Since the beginning of the financial crisis, there have been two principal explanations for why so many banks made such disastrous decisions. The first is structural. Regulators did not regulate. Institutions failed to function as they should. Rules and guidelines were either inadequate or ignored. The second explanation is that Wall Street was incompetent, that the traders and investors didn’t know enough, that they made extravagant bets without understanding the consequences. But the first wave of postmortems on the crash suggests a third possibility: that the roots of Wall Street’s crisis were not structural or cognitive so much as they were psychological.
The psychologist Ellen Langer once had subjects engage in a betting game against either a self-assured, well-dressed opponent or a shy and badly dressed opponent (in Langer’s delightful phrasing, the “dapper” or the “schnook” condition), and she found that her subjects bet far more aggressively when they played against the schnook. They looked at their awkward opponent and thought, I’m better than he is. Yet the game was pure chance: all the players did was draw cards at random from a deck, and see who had the high hand. This is called the “illusion of control”: confidence spills over from areas where it may be warranted (“I’m savvier than that schnook”) to areas where it isn’t warranted at all (“and that means I’m going to draw higher cards”).
Langer didn’t say that it was only arrogant gamblers who upped their bets in the presence of the schnook. She argues that this is what competition does to all of us; because ability makes a difference in competitions of skill, we make the mistake of thinking that it must also make a difference in competitions of pure chance. Other studies have reached similar conclusions. As novices, we don’t trust our judgment. Then we have some success, and begin to feel a little surer of ourselves. Finally, we get to the top of our game and succumb to the trap of thinking that there’s nothing we can’t master. As we get older and more experienced, we overestimate the accuracy of our judgments, especially when the task before us is difficult and when we’re involved with something of great personal importance.
Several years ago, a team headed by the psychologist Mark Fenton-O’Creevy created a computer program that mimicked the ups and downs of an index like the Dow, and recruited, as subjects, members of a highly paid profession. As the line moved across the screen, Fenton-O’Creevy asked his subjects to press a series of buttons, which, they were told, might or might not affect the course of the line. At the end of the session, they were asked to rate their effectiveness in moving the line upward. The buttons had no effect at all on the line. But many of the players were convinced that their manipulation of the buttons made the index go up and up. The world these people inhabited was competitive and stressful and complex. They had been given every reason to be confident in their own judgments. If they sat down next to you, with a tape recorder, it wouldn’t take much for them to believe that they had you in the palm of their hand. They were traders at an investment bank.
Investment banks are able to borrow billions of dollars and make huge trades because, at the end of the day, their counterparties believe they are capable of making good on their promises. Wall Street is a confidence game, in the strictest sense of that phrase.

This is what social scientists mean when they say that human overconfidence can be an adaptive trait. “In conflicts involving mutual assessment, an exaggerated assessment of the probability of winning increases the probability of winning,” Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, writes. “Selection therefore favors this form of overconfidence.” Winners know how to bluff. And who bluffs the best? The person who, instead of pretending to be stronger than he is, actually believes himself to be stronger than he is. According to Wrangham, self-deception reduces the chances of “behavioral leakage”; that is, of “inadvertently revealing the truth through an inappropriate behavior.” This much is in keeping with what some psychologists have been telling us for years — that it can be useful to be especially optimistic about how attractive our spouse is, or how marketable our new idea is. In the words of the social psychologist Roy Baumeister, humans have an “optimal margin of illusion.”

If you were a Wall Street C.E.O., there were two potential lessons to be drawn from the collapse of Bear Stearns. The first was that Jimmy Cayne was overconfident. The second was that Jimmy Cayne wasn’t overconfident enough. Bear Stearns did not collapse, after all, simply because it had made bad bets. Until very close to the end, the firm had a capital cushion of more than seventeen billion dollars. The problem was that when, in early 2008, Cayne and his colleagues stood up and said that Bear was a great place to be, the rest of Wall Street no longer believed them. Clients withdrew their money, and lenders withheld funding. As the run on Bear Stearns worsened, J. P. Morgan and the Fed threw the bank a lifeline — a multibillion-dollar line of credit. But confidence matters so much on Wall Street that the lifeline had the opposite of its intended effect.

Why wouldn’t an exam culture favor discriminated-against minorities?

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

I don’t know if Philip Greenspun is merely playing dumb — which would be advisable — while discussing the New Haven firefighter’s case, when he asks, Why wouldn’t an exam culture favor discriminated-against minorities?

Suppose I am a member of Group A within society. The average manager thinks that members of Group A are incompetent and doesn’t want to hire anyone in Group A. Membership in Group A can be easily recognized in a face-to-face interview by skin color and therefore, unless nobody else has applied, no member of Group A is likely to get a job after a face-to-face interview.

An employer switches to using a written exam, graded by a computer program unaware of the group membership of test takers. The highest scoring test takers will be given jobs.

This should be a dream come true for me and the rest of Group A. To get a job or a promotion, all that I have to do is study for a written test. I don’t have to worry about my skin color anymore. If Group A has a particular dialect of English or funny accent that turns off employers, I am also freed from worry about how I speak.

It is a dream come true for Group A, and it was a dream come true for Group J, many decades ago, when standardized tests were first introduced, but it’s not a dream come true for Group B.

VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket)

Friday, July 24th, 2009

Lisa Grossman of New Scientist takes a closer look at Ad Astra’s VASIMR (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket), which uses a radio frequency generator to heat plasma:

VASIMR works something like a steam engine, with the first stage performing a duty analogous to boiling water to create steam. The radio frequency generator heats a gas of argon atoms until electrons “boil” off, creating plasma. This stage was tested for the first time on 2 July at Ad Astra’s headquarters in Webster, Texas.

The plasma could produce thrust on its own if it were shot out of the rocket, but not very efficiently. To optimise efficiency, the rocket’s second stage then heats the ions to about a million degrees, a temperature comparable to that at the centre of the sun.

It does this by taking advantage of the fact that in a strong magnetic field – like those produced by superconducting magnets in the engine, ions spin at a fixed frequency. The radio frequency generator is then tuned to that same frequency, injecting extra energy into the ions.

Strong magnetic fields then channel the plasma out the back of the engine, propelling the rocket in the opposite direction.

Thanks to the radio frequency generator, VASIMR can reach power levels a hundred times as high as other engines, which simply accelerate their plasma by sending it through a series of metal grids with different voltages. In that setup, ions colliding with the grid tend to erode it, limiting the power and lifetime of the rocket. VASIMR’s radio frequency generator gets around that problem by never coming into contact with the ions.

“It’s the most powerful superconducting plasma source ever, as far as we know,” says Jared Squire, director of research at Ad Astra.

Scientists at Ad Astra began tests of the engine’s second stage – which heats the plasma – last week. So far, team members have run the two-stage engine at a power of 50 kilowatts. But they hope to ramp up to 200 kW of power in ongoing tests, enough to provide about a pound of thrust. That may not sound like much, but in space it can propel up to two tonnes of cargo, reaching Jupiter in about 19 months from a starting position relatively close to the sun, says Squire.

Of course, a starting position relatively close to the sun is half-way to anywhere, in Heinlein’s phrase, because the real challenge is getting out of earth’s gravity well, which requires more thrust than ion engines can generate:

At its current power level, VASIMR could be run entirely on solar energy. Squire says it would make a good Earth-orbit tugboat, pulling satellites to different orbits. It could also shuttle cargo to a lunar base, and because it could travel relatively quickly, it could be deployed to dangerous asteroids to gravitationally nudge them off course years before they would reach Earth.

To travel to Mars in 39 days, however, the engine would need 1000 times more power than solar energy could provide. For that, VASIMR would need an onboard nuclear reactor. Early versions of the reactor technology were used from the 1960s to the 1980s by the Soviet Union, but have not been used in space since and would take time to develop. “That would be quite a ways down the line,” Squire says.

High-frequency traders

Friday, July 24th, 2009

High-frequency traders are reaping the rewards of not-quite-insider trading:

It was July 15, and Intel, the computer chip giant, had reporting robust earnings the night before. Some investors, smelling opportunity, set out to buy shares in the semiconductor company Broadcom. (Their activities were described by an investor at a major Wall Street firm who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his job.) The slower traders faced a quandary: If they sought to buy a large number of shares at once, they would tip their hand and risk driving up Broadcom’s price. So, as is often the case on Wall Street, they divided their orders into dozens of small batches, hoping to cover their tracks. One second after the market opened, shares of Broadcom started changing hands at $26.20.

The slower traders began issuing buy orders. But rather than being shown to all potential sellers at the same time, some of those orders were most likely routed to a collection of high-frequency traders for just 30 milliseconds — 0.03 seconds — in what are known as flash orders. While markets are supposed to ensure transparency by showing orders to everyone simultaneously, a loophole in regulations allows marketplaces like Nasdaq to show traders some orders ahead of everyone else in exchange for a fee.

In less than half a second, high-frequency traders gained a valuable insight: the hunger for Broadcom was growing. Their computers began buying up Broadcom shares and then reselling them to the slower investors at higher prices. The overall price of Broadcom began to rise.

Soon, thousands of orders began flooding the markets as high-frequency software went into high gear. Automatic programs began issuing and canceling tiny orders within milliseconds to determine how much the slower traders were willing to pay. The high-frequency computers quickly determined that some investors’ upper limit was $26.40. The price shot to $26.39, and high-frequency programs began offering to sell hundreds of thousands of shares.

The result is that the slower-moving investors paid $1.4 million for about 56,000 shares, or $7,800 more than if they had been able to move as quickly as the high-frequency traders.

Multiply such trades across thousands of stocks a day, and the profits are substantial. High-frequency traders generated about $21 billion in profits last year, the Tabb Group, a research firm, estimates.

California’s fiscal crisis

Friday, July 24th, 2009

Philip Greenspun explains California’s fiscal crisis:

The median wage of a California state employee is $66,000. The median wage among all Californians (including those state workers) is just over $36,000. The state employee can retire with a full pension in his or her late 40s or early 50s, which essentially means that the taxpayers have to pay for double the number of state workers that are required to provide current services. In addition to salaries that are much higher than private sector equivalents, the state employee has health care and other benefits that by themselves may exceed the total compensation of a full-time private sector employee. The reasonable question to ask is not “How did they run out of cash?” but “How was this ever supposed to work?”

Further, adjusted for inflation, California government now spends 3.5 times as much per citizen as it did in 1970.

Social Collapse Best Practices

Friday, July 24th, 2009

Dmitry Orlov grew up in Russia, left before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then went back periodically to visit. From this, he formulated his list of social collapse best practices, which he presented to the Long Now Foundation:

If you’ve read his thoughts before, you may want to skip ahead to the questions and answers at the end, where he explains that being poor takes practice, and that he’s currently practicing bourgeois survivalism by living on a sail boat.

What would happen if drugs were legalized?

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

What would happen if drugs were legalized?, Ryan Grim asks:

Well, it happened [in the late 1800s]. And history suggests that if we ever legalize them again, it won’t be long before we ban them all over again.

Getting Over It

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is strikingly contemporary in some ways, Malcolm Gladwell argues, and utterly dated in others:

Tom Rath, despite an introspective streak, is supposed to be a figure of middle-class normalcy. But by our standards he and almost everyone else in the novel look like alcoholics. The book is supposed to be an argument for the importance of family over career. But Rath’s three children — the objects of his sacrifice — are so absent from the narrative and from Rath’s consciousness that these days he’d be called an absentee father.

The most discordant note, though, is struck by the account of Rath’s experience in the Second World War. He had, it becomes clear, a terrible war.
Wilson’s description of Mahoney’s death is as brutal and moving a description of the madness of combat as can be found in postwar fiction. But what happens to Rath as a result of that day in Karkow? Not much. It does not destroy him, or leave him permanently traumatized.

Somewhere along the way, we decided that getting over it should be extremely difficult, when people are in fact quite resilient:

Several years ago, three psychologists — Bruce Rind, Robert Bauserman, and Philip Tromovitch — published an article on childhood sexual abuse in Psychological Bulletin, one of academic psychology’s most prestigious journals. It was what psychologists call a meta-analysis. The three researchers collected fifty-nine studies that had been conducted over the years on the long-term psychological effects of childhood sexual abuse (C.S.A.), and combined the data, in order to get the most definitive and statistically powerful result possible.

What most studies of sexual abuse show is that if you gauge the psychological health of young adults — typically college students — using various measures of mental health (alcohol problems, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, social adjustment, sleeping problems, suicidal thoughts and behavior, and so on), those with a history of childhood sexual abuse will have more problems across the board than those who weren’t abused. That makes intuitive sense.

But Rind and his colleagues wanted to answer that question more specifically: how much worse off were the sexually abused? The fifty-nine studies were run through a series of sophisticated statistical tests. Studies from different times and places were put on the same scale. The results were surprising. The difference between the psychological health of those who had been abused and those who hadn’t, they found, was marginal. It was two-tenths of a standard deviation.
The Rind article was published in the summer of 1998, and almost immediately it was denounced by conservative groups and lambasted in the media. Laura Schlessinger — a popular radio talk-show host known as Dr. Laura — called it “junk science.” In Washington, Representative Matt Salmon called it “the Emancipation Proclamation for pedophiles,” while Representative Tom DeLay accused it of “normalizing pedophilia.”

They held a press conference at which they demanded that the American Psychological Association censure the paper. In July of 1999, a year after its publication, both the House and the Senate overwhelmingly passed resolutions condemning the analysis. Few articles in the history of academic psychology have created such a stir.
All Rind and his colleagues were saying is that sexual abuse is often something that people eventually can get over, and one of the reasons that the Rind study was so unacceptable is that we no longer think that traumatic experiences are things we can get over. We believe that the child who is molested by an uncle or a priest, on two or three furtive occasions, has to be permanently scarred by the experience — just as the soldier who accidentally kills his best friend must do more than sit down on the beach and decide that sometimes things just “happen.”

In a recent history of the Rind controversy, the psychologist Scott Lilienfeld pointed out that when we find out that something we thought was very dangerous actually isn’t that dangerous after all we usually regard what we’ve learned as good news. To him, the controversy was a paradox, and he is quite right. This attachment we have to John Wade over Tom Rath is not merely a preference for one kind of war narrative over another. It is a shift in perception so profound that the United States Congress could be presented with evidence of the unexpected strength and resilience of the human spirit and reject it without a single dissenting vote.

The vast majority of people recover from other traumatic events too, like the death of a spouse, Columbia University psychologist George Bonanno found:

By far the most common response was resilience: the majority of those who had just suffered from one of the most painful experiences of their lives never lapsed into serious depression, experienced a relatively brief period of grief symptoms, and soon returned to normal functioning. These people were not necessarily the hardiest or the healthiest. They just managed, by one means or another, to muddle through.

“Most people just plain cope well,” Bonanno says. “The vast majority of people get over traumatic events, and get over them remarkably well. Only a small subset — five to fifteen per cent — struggle in a way that says they need help.”

Dava Newman’s BioSuit

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Dava Newman’s tightly tailored BioSuit isn’t simply a fashionable alternative to classic spacesuits:

The BioSuit’s tight, stretchy material applies pressure to the skin mechanically rather than barometrically, without gas and with much less restriction of movement. It’s made of a mix of polymers, including nylon and spandex, so it would probably be cheap to manufacture — maybe a tenth of the US $20 million price tag of one of today’s suits, Newman estimates. Her partners on the project are the industrial design firms Trotti & Associates, of Cambridge, Mass., and Dainese, based in Molvena, Italy, which specializes in gear for motorcyclists.

So the modern, cheaper one costs $2 million? Wow.

Anyway, it’s not just cheaper and better looking; it has real advantages:

The BioSuit is basically a fail-safe design: If you tear its fabric, you lose pressure only around the tear. You could fix it temporarily by wrapping it up tightly like an Ace bandage. A rip in a gas-pressurized suit, by contrast, triggers an increase in gas flow to give the wearer time to retreat to a vehicle or habitat. But if no shelter is available or the leak isn’t fixed quickly, even a tiny tear could become a major emergency.
She has no doubt that someday we’ll see people bounding rather than hopping on the Red Planet. ”The best movement on Mars is loping,” she says, noting that Mars’s gravity is 38 percent that of Earth’s. ”Long steps with lots of aerial” will let astronauts cover more ground with less effort.

”On Mars, we’re all extreme athletes,” she adds.

The Demagogue and the Demi-Monde

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

In American English, John Rateliff notes, Dunsany’s The Demagogue and the Demi-Monde would probably be called The Politician & the Prostitute:

A demagogue and a demi-mondaine chanced to arrive together at the gate of Paradise. And the Saint looked sorrowfully at them both.

“Why were you a demagogue?” he said to the first.

“Because,” said the demagogue, “I stood for those principles that have made us what we are and have endeared our Party to the great heart of the people. In a word I stood unflinchingly on the plank of popular representation.”

“And you?” said the Saint to her of the demi-monde.

“I wanted money,” said the demi-mondaine.

And after some moments’ thought the Saint said: “Well, come in; though you don’t deserve to.”

But to the demagogue he said: “We genuinely regret that the limited space at our disposal and our unfortunate lack of interest in those Questions that you have gone so far to inculcate and have so ably upheld in the past, prevent us from giving you the support for which you seek.”

And he shut the golden door.

Rateliff adds:

It was tales such as this one, I think, that won him the admiration of Mencken, who thought of him more as a satirist than a fantasist. People always write about Dunsany’s elevated style, as if he had only one note in his repertoire, not realizing how good he was at plainspeech when he wanted to be; his best plays often juxtapose the two to good effect, as here.

How to Go to Mars Right Now

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

Traveling light and living off the land whenever possible, Robert Zubrin says, humans could reach the Red Planet within a decade:

In the spring of 2014, a heavy-lift booster similar to Apollo’s Saturn V launches from Cape Canaveral and uses its upper stage to throw an unmanned payload weighing 40 metric tons onto a trajectory to Mars. The payload includes an Earth return vehicle (ERV) that will eventually bring a human crew home; it’s carried to Mars with its two methane-oxygen propulsion stages empty. Also on board are 6 metric tons of liquid hydrogen, a 100-kilowatt nuclear reactor mounted in the back of a truck that is also fueled by methane and oxygen, a set of compressors, an automated chemical-processing unit, and a few scientific rovers.

Arriving at Mars eight months later, the payload uses atmospheric friction to brake its way into orbit and then lands with the help of a parachute. Next, the rovers explore and characterize the landing site while a human operator back on Earth telerobotically drives the truck a few hundred meters and then deploys the reactor, which powers the chemical-processing unit and the compressors. The chemical-processing unit begins to create a reaction between the bottled hydrogen brought from Earth and the Martian atmosphere, which consists largely of carbon dioxide, to produce methane and water. It electrolyzes the water, producing oxygen and hydrogen, and the compressors liquefy the methane and the oxygen, which are stored in the propellant tank of the ERV. The hydrogen, meanwhile, is recycled to produce more methane. Still more oxygen is produced by dissociating carbon dioxide in what’s called a reverse water-gas-shift reactor; some of that oxygen will go into the ERV’s tanks, and the rest will be stockpiled, both for breathing and for synthesizing water later on.

From start to finish, the process takes 10 months and yields 108 metric tons of methane-oxygen propellant. That’s 18 times as much as the amount of hydrogen brought from Earth. Of that, 96 metric tons will fuel the ERV for the flight back to Earth, and 12 metric tons will be stored for later use by human crews.

Two more rockets fly in 2016—the next good launch window. The first payload is another unmanned fuel factory and an ERV. The second is a habitation module containing a human crew of four, food and other provisions sufficient for three years, and a pressurized rover fueled by methane and oxygen. During the six-month trip, the habitat spins around the burned-out upper stage of the booster, attached by a tether. The spinning creates enough artificial gravity to counter bone loss and other physiological problems brought on by weightlessness.

Arriving at Mars, the manned craft drops the tether, aerobrakes, and lands at the 2014 landing site, where a fully fueled ERV awaits. The second ERV lands several hundred kilometers away, at landing site 2, and starts making propellant for the third mission, to take place in 2018. The third mission, in turn, will fly a crew to site 2 and an additional ERV to open up landing site number 3, and so on.

The first crew spends 18 months exploring Mars; they’ll have enough fuel to drive the pressurized rover a total of 24 000 kilometers. That should suffice: The circumference of Mars is about 21 000 km. Among other things, the crew will be able to conduct a serious search for evidence of past or present life.

By remaining on the surface, the crew will benefit from the planet’s natural gravity (about one-third that of Earth) and will be protected by the Martian environment against most of the cosmic rays and all of the solar flares. Thus there will be no need for a quick return to Earth, a problem that plagues conventional Mars mission plans that envision living aboard an orbiting mother ship that sends down landing parties for brief jaunts.

Finally, the crew returns to Earth in the ERV. Meanwhile, a second crew is on its way to Mars. Thus every other year, two heavy-lift boosters are launched: one to carry a crew, the other to prepare a site for the next mission. As the missions progress, they leave behind a string of bases that open up ever broader stretches of territory. At an average launch rate of just one booster per year to pursue a continuing program of Mars exploration, this plan is clearly affordable. In effect, it removes the manned Mars mission from the realm of megafantasy and reduces it to a task whose difficulty is comparable to that faced in launching the Apollo missions to the moon.

Destination Moon

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

I recently watched Destination Moon, the 1950 film about — what else? — a manned rocket flight to the moon.

Unlike most 1950s sci-fi flicks, this is a work of serious science fiction with no rubber-suited monsters. Robert Heinlein contributed to the script and served as technical advisor — which might also explain why the atomic rocket gets built by private industry and launched early, against a local demagogue’s court order.

Because many concepts of space travel were so new to the public, the film features an expository film within a film, starring a major Hollywood actor — Woody Woodpecker: