Archive for the ‘future’ Category


More prescient than even he would have expected

November 19, 2013

demonhauntedIt is well-known that Dr. Sagan was not religious – he described himself as agnostic, believing he had seen no proof of a supreme being. His 1995 book, The Demon Haunted World, was about using the scientific method and critical thinking instead of superstition and pseudoscience.

Admirable goals, and Carl Sagan was very articulate. His Cosmos series and book (PBS, 1980) probably did more to to help laymen understand the universe than any previous media program. (He also wrote the novel upon which the Jodie Foster film Contact was based.)

But I doubt he would have expected that his description of America in the quote above would have happened so quickly, or that we got there in the way we did. He seemed to believe the “New Age” trends he saw in the 1980s and 90s might grow, and that the much-publicized decrease in our ability to educate our students would result in an overall dumbing down of America. He himself did what he could to keep that from happening. I doubt he thought, though, that only two decades after he wrote those words we would have fallen so far and so willingly.

Hat tip to Scott Lowther and his “Up-Ship” blog for tipping me off to this one.


The SR-72! ?

November 5, 2013


According to this information from Lockheed, they have a way to combine a regular jet turbine engine with a ramjet that could power a Mach 6 aircraft. Calling it the SR-72 as a nod to the famed SR-71 reconnaissance plane the Lockheed Skunk Works built in the 1960s, this one is to be unmanned – like pretty much every military plane on the drawing boards.

I just hate it that they announced way before they bent any tin, though. The X-33 disaster of promise-oops- can’t deliver is still too fresh in my mind. (In defense of Lockheed, though, a lot of the problem with getting the X-33 demonstrator flying was political. Interference by Congress has a way of screwing up programs like that. Well, any program, really. ) Saying they may have this operational by 2030 sounds like a long way off, but the F-35 Strike Fighter has been in development really for over 12 years. They are just barely getting production aircraft out to the USAF now, seven years after the first prototype flew.

I really hope this will happen, even if just for the jumpstart hypersonic flight would get. But the generation that built the U-2, the SR-71 and even the stealth fighter are pretty much retired or passed on. (Kelly Johnson, the legendary leader at the Skunk Works, died in 1990.)

If anyone can do it I figure Lockheed will. But why announce it so early?



Maybe this one is THE one…

October 21, 2013


This pretty little thing is called the Aeromobil, and it was designed by two Slovakian gentlemen. This is supposed to be version 3.0, and the current flying version is 2.5. You can see it flying at this link.

Is it cooler-looking than the Terrafugia? Yeah. Than the next iteration the Terrafugia folks want to build, by 2020? Yeah, probably so. But not by much:

tfx v03 cityliftoff-WM


And this one will be an electric hybrid, and will pretty much fly itself. We’ll see how things shake out. At least the technology has progressed to a point where a “roadable aircraft” can really be built…



Few posts over the next few weeks

February 28, 2013

Sorry, campers, I know you hang onto my every word. Family medical issues will keep me away most of the time until about May 1. I know you can hang on that long without my observations!

I really recommend that you check out Jerry Pournelle, at I think he’s the original blogger, and his commentary and that of his readers covers science, science fiction, politics, music, health care, education…a very wide range of topics. He is a very wise man and a kickass hard science fiction writer. In fact, he and Larry Niven owned most of the hard science fiction real estate for about 20 years, and both are still writing, together and separately!

See you around the intertubes. Keep your heads down.


So how’s that space program coming along?

February 17, 2013


I found it on Jerry Pournelle’s site. I don’t know where he got it. Can’t read the type on the bottom. If anyone knows who created it, I would love to know…


How to improve our standings in the world’s education rankings

December 7, 2012

I recently saw a reference to yet another article decrying the state of US public education. Here, in a nutshell, is what I think:

Like with the recent presidential election, be careful what you wish for.

Huh? I’ll explain.

See, we say we want one thing, but we reward another. I taught high school for 34 years, in rural, blue-collar and then in “high achieving” suburban environments. I saw a wide range of student achievement and parental and societal expectations. What bugged the living hell out of me wasn’t the belief that if the kid didn’t get into exactly the right college, he would be a failure at life, although that pissed me off a lot. It was that there was so much focus on the environment of the school and the social life offerings there.

It was as if the kids and parents were picking a place to go for their summer vacation, not to get an education. The appearance of the campus, the athletic teams, the other social programs for the students, all the stuff completely unrelated to the actual business of learning dominated their thinking.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised. We have been looking at education that way all the way through, K through 12 and beyond, for decades.

Schools can’t be demanding, unless it’s an Advanced Placement course. Then you can do darned near anything to a kid and the parents won’t complain, because it’s cool because it’s a college course. We had one at our school that was targeted at sophomores. Sophomores? Really? Since when are they able to handle college material? If they are, why stay in high school? Skip the crap and go get the degree.

But the degrees are watered down in a lot of fields, too, and grade inflation has made “academic rigor” practically meaningless. I laugh when I hear somebody from a regular college complain about the “for-profit colleges” that are out there. To me, they should all be for a profit and not receive any state tax money. You want a college education, you pay for it. You need loans, you get them yourself.

“But college is too expensive.” Sure it is…cut the nonsense out of it, just pare it down to the education, and you can probably reduce costs (and staff) by half. It’s completely gotten out of hand.

But that wasn’t the point of this piece. It’s why we can’t compete in the rankings with other countries.

Here’s how to fix it, if the rankings are the priority:

Shoot the horses that can’t jump. Start in, say, 6th grade, separating kids by examination into college bound and non-college bound programs. Non-college bound will prepare the “workers” our Socialist President thinks we need more of. (How Lenin of him to call us “workers.” Sheesh.) Another set of exams at 8th or 9th grade. Kids who test high in science and math don’t get to be dockworkers or taxi drivers, or investment bankers or hotel operators…they are funneled into engineering and pure sciences, or into medical profession preparation.

You see, in many countries those are the kids who are tested for the rankings – not the entire general population. Every time we include everyone in that kind of testing we shoot ourselves in the foot.

Make businesses run the colleges. For example, if you test well in 12th grade, you can go to the college run by GE, or by Apple, or by BP…their own R&D folks would teach, and you would learn what they want you to learn to actually be of use to them. Afterwards, you work for them for a number of years to pay back your education. No summer vacations starting in mid-May, no winter or spring break…you learn straight through, 8 hours a day. You could do the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in two years, tops, without “Gender studies” and garbage like that loaded in the curriculum. No football games, no fraternities.

This would also give those companies a stake in how the lower grades are handled…I can’t see how that could be worse than the way we in public education are led by the nose by the colleges today.

Sound silly? Japan has been doing this for more than 20 years, that I know of. I know because I was present for a panel discussion with Japanese educators where they laid the system out for us.

Trim the fun stuff out. No more athletic teams. No extracurricular activities. No fine arts. None of those are used in those rankings, so why bother? Do you think the Estonians who rank higher than our kids are all great violinists or soccer players? If they are, it is because their parents decided to have them do that after school on their own, not depend on the school to pay for it and teach it. There are some outstanding concert bands in Japan, for instance – but not school-sponsored, and they for sure don’t rehearse during the school day.

And yes, I know that since I am a former fine arts teacher I sound hypocritical. Remember, I am telling you how to raise our rankings, not to provide the proverbial “well-rounded education.” Obviously that has not been a priority or I would not have had a job for 34 years.

If you know of a country that matches the extent of arts and athletic and extracurricular activities we offer in most of our schools, let me know; I don’t know of one – including those who rank ahead of us.

While we’re at it, we can cut about half the social studies classes – have you looked at what kids are offered today? But American History and American Government, especially learning about that pesky Constitution, are not required. But we don’t cut the Home Ec and Industrial Tech – those are needed for the kids going into the service and technical industries. We need more auto shop, not less.

Full-time school. Sorry, fellow teachers, but the cushy part of the gig is the days off. We aren’t bankers and really it doesn’t make sense to barely see kids 180 days a year. Kids no longer work on the family farm, and that’s what determined the school schedule a hundred years ago that we still use today. Give ’em July off, even, but not Columbus Day, or Presidents’ Day, or whatever, and for God’s sake cut out all the shortened days for conferences and teacher work days and meetings. Just teach the kids. We have been reducing the actual number of hours kids learn for decades. It’s a crime, and I never saw that most of those days were worth the time spent. Most of us thought most of the stuff we did was a waste of time and effort. Often the activities were planned to make it look like the administration had us focused on something new and cutting-edge; then we went back into the classroom, closed the door, and taught like we always had because the old way still worked.

Make teachers accountable. Not in terms of social interaction, but in knowledge of subject matter. I don’t want my granddaughters to get an education from people who teach math but got no higher than a B in algebra – and that is far too possible today. One of the reasons for the turnover in education is because smart people get out to do something real with their lives instead of putting up with the administrative BS, the snotty kids and their arrogant parents. That leaves us with, sorry to say, not the top of the heap. I’m not saying we need PhDs in physics to teach our classes – often those folks have no clue how to teach. But we do need people who know how to teach and what they are teaching.

Look, to a great degree, the effectiveness of a school has to do largely with the raw material. I taught in a district that selected for intelligence just like a Catholic high school that required entrance testing, except ours was based on housing costs. You couldn’t live in the district if you couldn’t afford a house there, and really stupid people rarely could. Or really unmotivated people. Move kids from low-achieving areas to that school and sorry, you wouldn’t get the same results. We were good but not that good. We had smart kids to work with, motivated kids with motivated parents and a history of valuing a good education. So we got results and were ranked high in the state tests. But that’s a topic for another piece another day.

That should be enough to move us up, say, 10 places. But we won’t do it, because we can all complain about the rankings, but we still want our daughters to be cheerleaders, or in drama, or our sons to play football or (heaven forbid) join the Chess Club. And then, when they graduate, we want them to “enjoy their college experience.” When or if we ever get more serious about kids getting an education than about the football team’s record, we’ll see some changes.

Oh, and one more…

Make the schools ethnically and culturally homogenous. According to an article in the UK Guardian, the top 10 countries in reading are:

South Korea
New Zealand
The Netherlands

Math and Science rankings were similar. Show me how any of those countries are as ethnically and/or culturally diverse as the USA. The dirty little secret is that we are trying to be everything for everybody, and to do anything else is racist by the standards of the US. I’m not saying any ethnic or cultural group is less able than another, just that cultures dictate learning styles, as well as a host of other things that help or hinder receptivity to educational processes, and we can’t do everything at once for everybody. I think some of the inner-city charter schools are doing well because they understand this and focus on particular neighborhoods and populations. They have high standards but they don’t have to take their eyes off the educational ball. We are constantly being told we have to do this and that because of culture and diversity. Either we all learn the same way and buckle down or we don’t. If we can’t get to kids one way, we don’t have time to find six others. We really don’t. But other schools can.

When I retired, the smallest department by enrollment was “Educational Services,” or what used to be called “Special Education.” It also had the largest number of faculty. Huh? But that, too, is another piece for another day.

This little piece ought to piss some folks off. But I’m telling you, if the goal is to be better at math than the kids in Finland, we have to become them. We can’t do it the way we have our schools structured now.

Well, what do you think?


Travel by asteroid

November 15, 2012

David Hardy painting of an asteroid-based spaceship

For a long time scientists and science fiction writers have postulated using an asteroid as either an orbital base or a non-FTL starship. Books like Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow use spacefaring asteroid ships because it appears to be a monumental problem to lift enough material out of Earth’s gravity well to build a starship from scratch. John Ringo’s Troy Rising series uses an asteroid, melted and inflated, as a fortress to defend Earth from aliens entering through a hyperspace gate.

SPOILER AHEAD! In fact, Ringo goes farther and, using an Orion-style nuclear bomb drive, turns his fortress into a mobile battle platform, taking it through the gate and to the battle.

I just finished Dr. Travis Taylor’s new book, A New American Space Plan, and I was struck by something that I never really considered much before. Maybe we can get to Mars using current, or near-future technology. NASA is now setting its sights on a mission to a Near-Earth Asteroid. (Or it was last I looked. NASA plans change every day.) Beyond that – let’s say we want to go to Jupiter – it’s going to be orders of magnitude more difficult. When the AE-35 antenna pointing unit failed in “2001” – OK, Hal did it, but still – they happened to have the parts or whatever to fix it. They didn’t have to, but were prepared to.

So let’s say we’ve got a Discovery-class ship, three crew in suspended animation, two minding the store on the Long Trip Out. Something breaks, or the classic Dramatic Meteor Impact happens and breaks something – something that is not available on the ship. We’re basically screwed. Don’t tell me 3D printing technology will save us. It won’t build a microchip for a really, really, long time. And a whole antenna, say 20 feet in diameter? Probably not. We don’t have Ringo’s fabbers, and if we have to wait for those, we won’t go to Jupiter for a long while.

We could do it by what Robert Zubrin, author of the “Mars Direct” concepts, derisively called the “Battlestar Galactica” approach: a gigantic fleet of ships, traveling together for mutual aid and protection. But if lifting one ship’s parts out of the gravity well is hard, lifting 20 is a lot harder.

So let’s see…maybe we can grab a Near-Earth Asteroid, bolt a bunch of stuff on it, drill it out or blow it out with nukes, and build a habitat inside. Maybe not for hundreds of people – let’s say, 50 or so. That’s a lot of lifting but not as much as the other alternatives. Ion drive, solar sail, Orion or Orion-derived nuclear pulse drive – any of them would probably work. It would just take a while to go someplace.

Look at it as if you are driving your motor home cross country and have to take your machine shop along because nobody stocks parts for your vehicle. The bigger the vehicle, and the more people, the more likely it is you can fabricate what you need. And most of the mass is nickel-iron asteroid, which is also providing a lot of radiation shielding. Instead of thinking of a trip to Jupiter as taking a few years, maybe you’ll take decades. Running a closed environmental system like that isn’t easy, but it’s easier than a lot of the alternatives. Eventually we’ll have some better drives, and we can get around the system faster.

Has anyone ever calculated how much toilet paper is needed for a five-year trip?

I don’t see this happening in the next 10 years, but it could be done a lot sooner than most every other idea I’ve heard for deep space interplanetary travel as long as we lack a superdrive. Those are based mostly on magic and good intentions right now.

Once we know how to do that, we can build bigger ones and send people to the stars. By then we should have a pretty good idea which ones have planets we could live on.

I wasn’t a fan of the NASA asteroid mission scenario until now. Now I hope we can get there. We won’t just be learning how the solar system is put together, but how to build a better spaceship.

A pity, though. I kind of like the Blake’s 7 Liberator as a spaceship design. Of course, it was built by aliens…

Blake’s 7 “Liberator” – lots cooler than flying a hunk of rock!