Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Ayn Rand's Anthem

For me, suspension of disbelief failed when the hero found the long abandoned Frank Lloyd Wright house and the roof didn’t leak.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Instructive Ignorance of Fox's Benghazi Sources

Fox's recent story on the Benghazi attacks has given the right wing blogosphere a case of the vapors, but I think it is misleading, both through omission and through its heavy reliance on unreliable anonymous sources.
Former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods was part of a small team who was at the CIA annex about a mile from the U.S. consulate where Ambassador Chris Stevens and his team came under attack. When he and others heard the shots fired, they informed their higher-ups at the annex to tell them what they were hearing and requested permission to go to the consulate and help out. They were told to "stand down," according to sources familiar with the exchange. Soon after, they were again told to "stand down." 
Now who were the sources? They couldn't be the security team itself or its superiors, because none of the sources the author used knew how many men went to the "consulate" (actually a mission), later. The security team and its superiors would know this. It seems quite likely that the sources were giving a second hand account of the exchange. In this interview, Jennifer Griffin says that according to one of her sources the security team went to the mission on foot, but the State Department and several eyewitnesses agree that they drove.
Woods and at least two others ignored those orders and made their way to the consulate which at that point was on fire.
The initial stand down order should not be controversial. There seem to have been about 150 militants attacking the mission, so the six man team could have accomplished nothing useful until sufficient friendly Libyan forces, who quickly engaged the militants, arrived, and they would have risked much by a premature drive into the Benghazi night. I also doubt that Woods was grossly insubordinate: he probably received a later order to go to the mission that the sources didn't know about.

By a bit before 11 p.m. local time, about an hour after the attack began, the security team was able to enter the mission. By then Sean Smith was dead and Ambassador Stevens, who could not be found, was dying. The team returned to the annex with Smith's body and the five surviving Americans from the mission, coming under fire as they left. Fighting at the mission was over about 11:30.

The annex came under fire around midnight: quite possibly the militants followed the security team back to the annex.
At that point, they called again for military support and help because they were taking fire at the CIA safe house, or annex. The request was denied.
The source here, if correctly reported, seems to be wrong, disingenuous or both. An unarmed predator drone, already in the air elsewhere over Libya, was dispatched towards Benghazi around this time. Predators are built for endurance rather than speed. It was probably operating against holdouts from the old regime in western Libya. It would arrive for the final hours of the fighting.  A team of reinforcements from Tripoli must also have been dispatched around this time to arrive at Benghazi airport by 2 p.m. Technically,  they might have been security contractors rather than military, but they were sufficiently heavily armed that the Libyan that escorted them to the annex thought they were Marines.  Support and help was sent. By the time it arrived around 3 a.m. the first annex firefight had died out and things were quite if tense.

Around 4 a.m. there was another brief but intense firefight, lasting about a quarter of an hour, and two Americans were killed by a mortar round. Fox claims:
In fact, at least one member of the team was on the roof of the annex manning a heavy machine gun when mortars were fired at the CIA compound. The security officer had a laser on the target that was firing and repeatedly requested back-up support from a Spectre gunship, which is commonly used by U.S. Special Operations forces to provide support to Special Operations teams on the ground involved in intense firefights.
Given the sources' lack of first hand knowledge about the security team, their claim that support was denied when reinforcements were actually sent in time to be present for the final firefight, and the failure of anyone in Benghazi  to notice a four engine turboprop droning overhead, this is probably a distortion of what actually happened. It seems more plausible that a security officer had a laser target designator, was prepared to use, and asked for air support. However, even if dispatched at that time, the firefight would have been over long before it reached Libyan airspace.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dragon Splashes Down

A Dragon capsule splashed down today at 3:22 EDT, successfully completing its first operational mission. It carried nearly 1,700 pounds of cargo back from space, the most by any spacecraft since the last Shuttle mission and more than seven times the maximum Soyuz can return. No other nation and no other spacecraft now in service can do this. SpaceX claims the capsule is capable of bringing back up to 6,600 pounds.

This also brings us a step closer to a manned version.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Celestial Spheres

About five kilometers above sea level, we reach the limits of the Settlersphere, the highest permanent human settlement.

The Personsphere is currently defined by the orbit of the International Space Station, 330 to 410 kilometers above sea  level. It has been continuously occupied since November 2, 2,000. Aboard this enormous spacecraft humans live and play the flute.

The Profitsphere stretches to about 35,786 km above sea level. Within this zone unsentimental corporations can make a profit selling services to individuals and corporations: satellite communications, remote sensing and space tourism. It actually reaches a bit further than geostationary orbit: the Russians have found that Molniya orbits with an apogee of up to 40,000 kms have some advantages for serving northern latitudes.

Further out is the Landersphere, which currently reaches to Mars. Within it we have two operational rovers on the surface of an alien world, poking and prodding and sending back photographs.

Further still is the Inner Proxysphere, where we have inserted orbiters  to observe the worlds below over the course of many years. It reaches out to Saturn and down into the Sun's gravity well as far as Mercury. In Mars orbit we have a flotilla at work.

Finally, there is the Outer Proxysphere. Voyager 1 and 2 completed their flybys of the outer planets decades ago. They now fall outwards towards the stars. They will faithfully observe and report back as long as their power lasts. Voyager 1 is now over 18 billion kilometers from the sun.

The New Horizons spacecraft crossed the orbit of Uranus in March of 2011. It will fly by Pluto and follow the Voyagers outward.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Hunger Games Barbie

Because nobody says dystopian like Barbie. She's like a reverse Perky Pat.

"Bloodbaths are hard."

The 1% in Medieval England

England's income tax of 1436 identified 2,184 laymen with incomes from land, annuities or office of 20 pounds or more. This was apparently something of an undercount, missing some households and underestimating some incomes.

With about 500 monastic houses with incomes of 20 pounds or more and 8-9,000 parishes, the number of prelates, church officials and holders of the richest benefices with equivalent effective incomes probably came to almost as many.

Some merchants and craftsmen would have incomes of 20 pounds or more from their business that would not have been subject to the 1436 tax. London's 25 alderman were taxed as the same rate as knights banneret in the 1379 poll tax, and in the 15th century they had an explicit property qualification of at least a thousand pounds, which, if all invested in trade might yield an income of at least a hundred pounds a year. If the merchants had a similar income distribution to the landowners, there could have been about 230 London merchants with incomes of 20 pounds a year or more. However, merchants also liked to invest in real estate, and 87 London merchants were assessed as having lands and rents of twenty pounds or more in 1436, so they would already have been counted in the laymen above, leaving 146 families with less or no real estate with incomes of 20 pounds or more.

Given London's preeminence in population and wealth, the total number throughout England might have been three times that, or about 450.

Allowing for some undercounting in the 1436 tax, that comes to a total of about 5,000 households, a bit more or less than 1%, depending on which estimate of England's population you choose.

Two things are striking about the results of this exercise. First, medieval England was a much poorer society than today's. 20 pounds supported the lifestyle of a landed squire, a fortunate estate by contemporary standards, but not a lavish one by ours. Second, the primary sources of income for the wealthy were very different from today: inherited land, the church, and the law, with trade and manufacturing a relatively small part of the total.

Thursday, October 18, 2012


AutoDoc by ~WillMcLean on deviantART

Yet another Star Saga Illustration.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Knights and Warhorses, by Andrew Ayton

This has rich information on horse values, primarily in the armies of Edward III, and how they changed over time. In the 1360s, most warhorses were valued at between 5 pounds and 20 marks (13.3 pounds). The archers'  hackneys were frequently valued at a pound each. This represents a significant reduction in the proportion of high quality horses since Edward's earlier campaigns in France, probably as the English men-at-arms reacted to their own increasing tendency to fight dismounted.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Saturday, October 06, 2012


Today buckram is a stiff cloth, usually cotton but sometimes linen or poly-cotton blend.

Medieval bokeram or bougran seems to have been something different. It was often supple enough to use for flags, banners and pennons:

..X pièces de bougueran dont furent fais lesdiz petiz penonceaulx (Comptes Lille L., t.1, 1413-1415, 95).

In ij ulnis de bukram emp. pro j baner, 2 s. 2 d. (c1400) Mem.Ripon in Sur.Soc.81 132:

Bokeram for penouns..v 3erdis and a half of grene bokeram, iij s. (1426-7) Rec.St.Mary at Hill 64:

It was also suitable for lining clothing:

[Lined with] sendale, bokerames, samytes.  (1351) Riley Mem.Lond. 267:

To bey apese of blak bukram for to lyn with a gown for me. (1463) Paston 4.76:

...IX pièces de bougrains pour doubler les robbes de camelot (Comptes roi René A., t.2, 1478, 82)

It was also used for coat armor and jousting arrays:

j. cote d’arme de bocram Cardiff Records 58

...les princes joustoient en parures de drap de laine, de bougran (LA MARCHE, Mém., I, c.1470, 268).

It was listed among toilles, which seem to have been cloths of vegetable fiber, typically linen, but including cotton and hemp. The Dictionnaire du Moyen Français defines it as linen cloth.

. . ...toutes autres toilles tainctes comme bougrans, futaines de toutes sortes, sarges et sayettes (LA VIGNE, V.N., p.1495, 262

It was usually, but not always, colored: black, green, blue, red, yellow, and purple:

Þe queade riche þet zuo ofte ham ssredeþ ase of to zofte bougeren and of to moche of pris pourpre. (1340) Ayenb.(Arun 57) 258

xx virgarum de nigro bokeram pr. x s. (1409-12) in Gras Eng.Cust.Syst. 688

j silour de blewe bokram, cum quertons de eodem. (1415-1416) Will York in Sur.Soc.4 382

...XX aulnes de bougran bleu (Comptes roi René A., t.2, 1453, 8)

But sometimes it was white or uncolored:

Item, une autre coultepointe de bougran, blanche, pointée bien menuement, et à plusieurs bestes de poincture de mesmes. (
Invent. mobilier Ch. V, L., 1379, 392). Couvertures d'autel. Premièrement : Une vieille couverture de veluiau, pallée de roys rouges et vers, et est doublée de bougran qui est destaint. (Invent. mobilier Ch. V, L., 1379-1391, 151)

If bokeram was typically a colored cloth, probably linen or another vegetable fiber, how do we reconcile this with the difficulty medieval dyers had in producing colorfast tints on linen? Perhaps the the frequent use of bokeram as a lining fabric is part of the answer: in this application it would have little exposure to direct sunlight.

It was also used as hangings within churches, where direct sunlight may have been less threatening, as well as vestments:

i white cloth for the high auter, with a crosse of blew bokeram. (1447) HMC Rep.3 App. 316

...toute la nef de l'eglise estoit toute parée de soye et de boucran aux armes de monseigneur de Bourgoingne (LA MARCHE, Mém., III, c.1470, 62)

Albæ viii de serico..alba una de bukeram, cum parura brodata. a1300(1222) Reg.S.Osmund in RS 78.2 132

It was also used for beds and bed canopies:

Y wol she have a wurstede hangyng and bed of blak bokeram. (1444) Will Daubeney in Som.RS 19 341

A bed of burdealexander..a spavore of blew bukreme. (a1500) RHS ser.3.6 264

Here are the entries in the Dictionnaire du Moyen Français, The Anglo-Norman Dictionary, and the Middle English Dictionary

Propellant Depots: A Better Way

NewSpace Watch reports a new paper that argues for the advantages of propellant depots and commercial launch for big deep space missions like visits to NEOs.
Commercial launch with propellant depot architectures significantly improves the extensibility and mission payload capability by providing a robust framework for all foreseen missions in the next 30 years. Adding to commercial launches every few months provides experienced and focused workforce to improve safety, operational learning for reduced costs and higher launch reliability, reduce launch costs depending on the government/industry business model.

The depot framework allows multiple competitors for propellant delivery that is low-risk, hands-off way for international partners to contribute because it is not in the critical “mission” path and provides redundant alternatives available if critical launch failure occurs. The architecture provides reduced critical path mission complexity (Automated Rendezvous and Docking events, number of unique elements), provides additional mission flexibility by variable propellant load.

Commonality with COTS/commercial/DoD vehicles will allow sharing of fixed costs between programs and “right-sized” vehicle for ISS, thus stimulate US and international commercial launch industry. Development risk is reduced by eliminating four space elements including the major Earth-to-orbit launch vehicle and solar electric propulsion transfer vehicle, large mass margins with current and proposed launch systems, and the Cryogenic Propellant Storage and Transfer in-space technology demonstration program.

Why Science Fiction Usually Gets the Future Wrong

1. Optimistic Bias. If poorly understood new or projected technology will let you tell the story you want to if it works really, really well, it's tremendously tempting to write using that assumption. Look at Jules Verne with electricity or Heinlein and nuclear thermal rockets. They both assumed the technology would work vastly better than it actually does.

2. Dystopian Bias. In Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior the hero takes part in thrilling high speed car chases and is threatened by colorfully dressed crossbow wielding marauders. In Mad Max at Burning Man the hero is threatened by chapped lips and sunburn. Which movie is easier to pitch? And yet the second one is the future we got.

3. Lazy Analogy. Tanks will be like ships with treads. Rockets will be like ships with tailfins. Robots will be like metal people. Spaceships will be like airplanes. Thinking through all the ways the analogy is imperfect is hard work.

4. The Unknown Unknowns. Integrated circuits and the Internet have dated a lot of SF written before their appearance.

5. Futurism Is Hard. Even if you know about television, you may fail to predict its impact on politics or live theater.

6. They're Not Even Trying. Frequently the author isn't trying to predict the future: they're trying to entertain with a ripping yarn, or comment on the present by dialing it to eleven, or tell an illuminating parable about the human condition. Some of the best SF falls into these categories. As Le Guin says: "I tell lies for a living."