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Saturday, October 04, 2008


3. The sum of $12 billion to be paid for construction and maintenance of a Lunar base in which no fewer than 31 Americans have continuously resided for a period of not less than four years and one day.

4. The sum of $10 billion to be paid for construction and maintenance of a solar power satellite system which delivers at least 800 megaWatts of electric power to a receiving station or stations in the United States for a period of at least two years and one day.

Politicians tell us that the era of cheap & readily available energy is over. There is, if not unlimited power available, enough going to waste passing through the area between Earth & Moon, to turn this planet into incandescent gas. Not suggesting that as a policy but lets not have any rubbish about having to make do with less. Once we start building such satellites we can keep turning them out forever at a much lower marginal cost. Since there is no wind or rain in space they can be designed to work almost forever. We have to assume a relatively cheap cost to orbit but even so to make them in quantity will almost certainly be cheaper using lunar materials for mirrors & all large parts which is why I have included mention of the lunar base X-Prize as well.

The solar energy collected by an SPS would be converted into electricity, then into microwaves. The microwaves would be beamed to the Earth's surface, where they would be received and converted back into electricity by a large array of devices known as a rectifying antenna, or rectenna. (Rectification is the process by which alternating electrical current, such as that induced by a microwave beam, is converted to direct current. This direct current can then be converted to the "slower" 50 or 60 cycle alternating current that is used by homes, offices, and factories.),....

It is interesting to compare the availability of sunlight in space with that on Earth. A solar panel facing the sun in near-Earth space receives about 1400 watts of sunlight per square meter (130 watts per square foot). (Of course, only a fraction of this is usable due to conversion inefficiencies.) On Earth, the day-night cycle cuts this in half. The oblique angle of the sun's rays with respect to the ground (except at noon in the tropics) cuts this in half again for a typical spot on the Earth. (Solar panels on the ground can be angled upward to circumvent this, but they must then be spread out over more ground to avoid casting shadows on each other.) Clouds and atmospheric dust cut the available sunlight in half again. Thus, sunlight is about eight times more abundant in geostationary orbit than it is on the Earth....

a design for an SPS which consisted of a 5 x 10 kilometer (3 x 6 mile) rectangular solar collector and a 1-kilometer-diameter (0.6 mile) circular transmitting antenna array. The SPS would weigh 30,000 to 50,000 metric tons. The power would be beamed to the Earth in the form of microwaves at a frequency of 2.45 GHz (2450 MHz), which can pass unimpeded through clouds and rain. This frequency has been set aside for industrial, scientific, and medical use, and is the same frequency used in microwave ovens. Equipment to generate the microwaves is therefore inexpensive and readily available, though higher frequencies have been proposed as well. The rectenna array would be an ellipse 10 x 13 kilometers (6 x 8 miles) in size. It could be designed to let light through, so that crops, or even solar panels, could be placed underneath it. The amount of power available to consumers from one such SPS is 5 billion watts. (A typical conventional power plant supplies 500 million to 1 billion watts.)

The Japanese recently put up a small experimental power satellite.


Sent to BBC, ITV, STV, Channel 4, Channel 5

"If you are looking for popular & inexpensive programming may I suggest that you produce a regular series of debates on political subjects. A formal 1 hour debate is a well established format & should be even cheaper to produce than the relatively popular Any Questions format, It would fulfil the public service remit.

If subjects on which there is genuine popular political interest were to be selected & a genuine debate between really differing viewpoints were to be permitted a very large audience could be almost guaranteed, for its time slot.

There are many possible subjects but I would suggest:

Global Warming, future energy (the BBC did do one a couple of years ago but chose to have it between 2 people who wanted more windmills & 2 who wanted nothing but windmillery which spoiled it), the Iraq war, the death penalty, EU membership, Scottish independence, raising or lowering taxes, immigration, corporation tax & growth, the smoking ban.

It would be possible to have voting either by people phoning in or by you contacting 100 of the members of the public you are already using for viewer assessments.

I am sure this would have the effect of reducing political apathy. It would be cynical to suggest that is why it has not been done decades ago."

The point here is that the "presenter" media culture acts as a filter to political debate ensuring that (A) new ideas just don't get debated & perhaps even more insidiously (B) anything discussed does get boiled down to a one phrase soundbite. Serious politics cannot be done like that & the effects are evident everywhere. A one hour debate is a very well developed format & would fit TV extremely well.

Before the round takes place, the teams are designated as either the Affirmative or the Negative. The two teams are then given three topics from which to choose. The Affirmative is given first strike which means that they remove one of the topics from the list. The Negative then is left with two topics to choose from, and will choose which topic they wish to argue by again using their strike and removing the topic they do not wish to talk on. The two teams will then have fifteen minutes to formulate the case they wish to present. At the end of the fifteen minutes the teams reconvene and begin the debate.

Leader Affirmative: 7 minutes

Leader Negation: 8 minutes

Member Affirmative: 8 minutes

Member Negation : 8 minutes

Leader Negation Rebuttal: 4 minutes

Leader Affirmative Rebuttal: 5 minutes

Maybe time for a couple of public questions or judge's comments. A phone in viewer vote could also be done & broadcast later like lottery results or Crimewatch. Seeing how phone ins work for Big Brother this would be likely to make the programme production cost hegative. While a moderator is required their role is formal & would not require a "celebrity presenter" to interpret for us hoi polloi. A very inexpensive form of TV more real than the increasingly highly staged "reality TV" & at least to me, far more interesting. I am quite certain that it would get a far higher audience per buck than most UK TV which indeed raises the suspicion that it would have the effect of reducing political apathy & that is why it has not been done decades ago

Channel 5 sent a friendly if unsubstantive reply. ITV sent an acknowledgement. The BBC & C4 who are both officially supposed to be "public service broadcasters" didn't even acknowledge which tends to reinforce my suspicion. A couple of years ago BBC Scotland did indeed broadcast a debate entitled Scotland's Energy Future. They chose 2 speakers in favour of more windmills & 2 in favour of nothing but windmillery which gives a fair example of how the BBC censor real political debate.

Have also mentioned this on John Redwood's blog.

Friday, October 03, 2008


If our housing industry could learn from automobiles imagine how much railways can. Because access to rail is centrally controlled, even when in the private sector, it is less open to technological change & you can see that railway carriages now are pretty similar to how they were a century ago while cars are completely different.

What modern automated rail systems there are tend to be newly built. Docklands Light rail shows what can be done.
with small units similar to buses in style & weight & without needing drivers. The weight bit matters not just because a heavy train uses more energy moving a passenger than a lighter bus but also because the amount of traffic a line can carry depends much more on the weight of units than on the number of them. Thus the reason why cars can drive nearly bumper to bumper & trains are, at best, 10 minutes apart is because the weight means the track can't do better & stopping distances are so very long.

Driverlessness is being seen even for cars & trains are obviously an infinitely less complex system. Docklands is only 1 of many driverless systems worldwide. & it is only a matter of time till some nation moves from automated new systems to automating the old systems as well.

Ultimately it is perfectly possible to have a countrywide rail system with single carriage units (bus sized or ultimately even taxi sized)leaving every few minutes, all day & indeed night. This would be cheaper to run yet able to carry many more passengers with a wider range of destinations, with little waiting time at stations. Such a system would be a genuine competitor, indeed usually superior, to car travel. You could buy a ticket at John O' Groats for Landsend with perhaps 2 or 3 5 minute changes, far faster & for less cost than the equivalent (if there were an equivalent) bus. Indeed for a bit more you could take an automated taxi. The ease of moving containers is also obvious.

Thursday, October 02, 2008


Long time readers will know that I have been calling for a substantial cutting of corporation tax as they did in Ireland thereby achieving 7% growth.

The SNP have been formally in support of this for 3 years though the fact that CT is currently reserved to Westminster means they have not had to make good on it & though they have cut business rates they had to be pushed by the Scottish Conservatives to do it quickly.

I believe that CT, closely followed by business rates, is the most economically damaging of all taxes since they impinge directly on discouraging wealth creation & growth, CT slightly more because the amount paid rises directly with profits not assets which hurts the most efficient producers most.

Therefore I was very pleased to see in David Cameron's speech yesterday:
So here's what we're going to do. We'll start by dealing with the nightmare complexity of our business taxes. We'll get rid of those complex reliefs and allowances and use the savings to cut corporation tax by three pence.

Very good indeed. That cuts it to 25%. A very long way from Ireland's 12.5% & all taken from promised cuts in exemptions but no more could reasonably be expected bearing in mind his repeated statements that the economy has been brought to such a state that that tax cuts generally are impossible. Cameron has decided that the first such cut should be on business taxes. He must know that a cut in income tax would be more popular (as Nick Clegg has cynically shown he knows reversing the previous "LiB Dem" position that tax cuts are "illiberal" & too right wing" to discuss) but that the long term interest is far better, if in a more difficult to explain way, served by the bonus of a permanent increase in growth than a one off tax cut.

I have not previously been a great supporter of Cameron, thinking him more spin than substance & having seen his ridiculous "conversion" to Greenery. However recently the Conservatives have come out for what is is pretty much the free choice educational voucher system that worked in Sweden. The idea that parents get to choose whether to go to a bad school or a good one upsets the educational mafia, but is a long overdue reform. During the Glasgow East by election Cameron also made a well thought out speech against dependency culture which didn't improve the chances of his candidate winning, though nothing but a snowstorm in the infernal regions would have. Certainly the Conservatives have a lot of good ideas see John Redwood's Economic Competitiveness Policy Group & Iain Douglas Smith's report on inner cities but I had been worried Cameron was too much the PR man. On the other hand Machiavelli said that the way to tell if a prince was intelligent was to look at the ministers he chose - that only a capable prince would consistently choose people of ability & there seems little argument that the Conservative front bench holds more people of ability than the Labour one.

Now having endorsed a 10% cut in CT the best thing for Cameron to do would be to undertake not to increase the tax take on CT & business rates during his government. This would allow the Laffer curve to work & give confidence to industries considering long term investment while not exposing him to an accusation of taking money from the poor. The tax money cut, would be from a virtuous circle of new wealth & would, assuming increasing growth probably allow further year on year cuts of 3-6p getting it down to the Irish rate in 4 years.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


I have blogged before on modular houses here & here. Housebuilding has barely improved since the Victorian era when the mass pre-production of window frames was the height of progress. Compare & contrast with car manufacturing which went into a mass production mode when Henry Ford started his Model T assembly line.

There already are quite a lot of modular house manufacturers across the world & indeed as early as the 1960s the Russians were mass producing flats which could be slotted into place. Nonetheless most of the mass production has not been very "mass" so the benefits have not been reaped. Most of this is because local authorities have the power to demand small changes in any building. This is why I previously proposed
this & some other things in my Housing Motion designed to encourage this reform;

"2) Produce a national scheme of building type approval rather than the current site by site approval which causes immense duplication of effort & prevents the mass production methods used successfully in other industries."

I envisage large lorries (8'2" x up to 80') delivering houses & flats or perhaps half houses/flats needing to be fitted together, up to 2 stories high) These would be very affordable, designed to fit on one of a relatively small number of agreed site sizes, so that everybody knows where the water & electricity would be expected to slot in. Because they are factory constructed they would be built to much closer tolerances than can be done on site. Because they would be relatively inexpensive & there would be real competition to get customers rather than the monopolistic limits we have on building now I expect the public would be able to demand all the optional extras (eg a computer to control heating lighting, cooking times etc) as standard just as car steroes have become.

One modular house may not count as big engineering but a factory turning out 100,000 a year certainly is.

Acknowledging my sources see Why is Construction So Backward by Woodhuysen et al. Earlier than that Robert Heinlein said in 1965:
"there has been no breakthrough in housing, nor is any in prospect- instead the ancient wasteful methods of building are now being confirmed by public subsidies. The degree of of our backwardness in the field is hard to grasp: we have never seen a modern house. Think what an automobile would be if each one were custom built from materials sent to your home - what would it look like, what would it do & how much would it cost? But don't set the cost lower than $100,000 (in 1965) or the speed higher than 10mph, if you want to be serious about the centuries of difference between the housing industry & the automotive industry.

..... We have the technology to build cheap, beautiful, efficient, flexible (modular method) houses extremely comfortable & with the durability of a Rolls Royce. But I cannot guess when (if ever) the powers that be(local bureaucrats, unions, building materials suppliers, county & state officials) (now add banks) will permit us poor serfs to have modern housing".

Right as ever.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Congress has rejected the rescue package. I think that that is a good thing though I have also said that the B&B bailout was a good thing. The difference is that the US deal was to completely save the American bankers by taking only the really bad loans off their hands, thus rewarding incompetence. We, on the other hand, are protecting only the depositors & loaners to B&B & restructuring (ie shrinking) the industry. The American bail might have provided short term comfort but would almost guarantee repetition by not removing the moral hazard. All the calls for more regulation which would, in practice, only institutionally prevent new solutions.

The B&B solution may well actually make a profit for the taxpayer in the end, unless house prices fall much further, because the taxpayer has their good loans as well the "toxic" ones.

What solution should America do. I think they should institutionalise a new form of bankruptcy for financial institutions whereby they take over, without compensation to shareholders, any bankrupt bank & then back its debts. This would prevent runs, as happened with the Northern Rock fiasco, which our government did mess up. The administrator would then run it & sell off whatever he could in the normal way. My guess is that, since despite all the claims this is not a "worldwide" crash China & the oil states, which are both awash with cash, would be willing to purchase/invest in restructured banks which they were confident weren't going to disappear. The Lehman crash for example took down $800,000,000 from Norway's oil fund.

An interesting thing about the failure of the US bailout is that it clearly happened because Congresscriters found their constituents were strongly against it. The establishment tried to bounce them into this by all sorts of scare stories, not wholly unjustified. They failed. This suggests that the ordinary US citizen has considerably more respect for & faith in free marketism than their leaders. This is one pretty hopeful sign for the US, at least over the long term.

I said previously that the solution is ultimately to give up the idea that we can all get rich in the "post industrial economy" by selling pieces of paper to each other. Kipling said the same earlier,
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

Fortunately technology is still progressing & we are capable of producing far more wealth than ever in history. However well the Chinese are doing they do not, yet, have our technological capacity. If only the government supported parasites were taken off our backs there is literally no limit to what we could achieve. The Gods of science have been very good to us.

Monday, September 29, 2008


The Falcon 1 booster redeemed itself Sunday with an electrifying launch that put an exclamation point on six years of hard work and disappointment for SpaceX, a startup company chartered to revolutionize space travel.

The 70-foot-tall rocket successfully delivered a 364-pound hunk of aluminum nicknamed "Ratsat" to orbit on the launcher's fourth flight, ending a streak of three consecutive Falcon 1 failures dating back to 2006.

"That was freakin' awesome," said Elon Musk, founder, CEO and chief technology officer of Space Technologies Corp.

Indeed it was.
The Chinese & Russian governments may be far ahead of our own dear idiots but commercial launchers are also working.

Coverage of this has naturally been lamentable. As I write this it is limited to space community publications. On the other hand when the Wright Brothers took off it took about a week for it to get reported - by their local paper.


The sum of $5 billion to be paid for construction and maintenance of a space station which has been continuously in orbit with at least 5 Americans aboard for a period of not less than three years and one day. The crew need not be the same persons for the entire time, but at no time shall the station be unoccupied.

This is the 2nd X-Prize suggested by Jerry Pournelle, after getting a cheap orbital craft. Of course it need not be Americans, if Britain, or indeed the rest of the world were to get off our collective arses & put under £3 billion aside. Since there is now way we have to pay anything for about 8 years (4 years before the spaceplane can be constructed, 1 year to actually build this & 3 years & a day beyond that.

What does this produce that space station Freedom hasn't. Well pretty much everything since "Freedom" really hasn't done anything but be there. Because it is run by NASA & everything costs 100 time what it should nothing that can be done is financially viable. Things it should have been doing & a private enterprise spacestation that wanted to make money would do are:

Materials testing. The number of materials that can be made in zero G, where light & heavy elements can mix properly exceed, by orders of magnitude, the total that can be made down here. Beyond that it will be possible to make them in different structures than we can. For example in a gravity field if you put bubbles in molten steel they will rise to the top instantly. Where there is no gravity it is possible to create steel girders like aero. Such materials should have 80% of the strength & 10% of the weight of conventional ones. It is my opinion that when we have a true spacegoing civilisation creating materials not possible on Earth will be the greatest industry. Space has tremendous other possibilities - unlimited energy, laboratory condition vacuums & metals, even platinum & gold, & other elements available by the millions of tons from asteroids, but all of these are merely a step up from what we can do on Earth. New materials are something which usually simply cannot be made here & thus have a value which is both potentially unlimited & impossible to know till we have made & tested them.

Satellite emplacement & repair. Once you are in orbit you can take time to get to a different orbit. Taking longer means less fuel & therefore less cost so emplacing new satellites from an orbital station is much easier than putting them up by rocket. it also means they can be assembled in the space station rather than having to be designed to fit in a rocket nosecone. Finally it means that the simpler sort of repairs can be made either on site or by bringing them back to the station. Current satellites have to be designed for having system redundancy & everything being as robust as possible at the expense of other function, simply because they cannot be repaired.

Most satellites are for surveying or communicating with Earth & there is no reason why a much bigger space station cannot engage in this even more successfully. Much of the work can be automated & pictures sent down but when anything unexpected is wanted there is no automated machine that can do as much as a competent human.

In energy terms Earth orbit is "halfway to anywhere in the solar system" as Robert Heinlein said. Interplanetary spaceships will not be designed to land on Earth but will start from & be built in orbit. Your craft has to be aerodynamic to get to orbit but optimum deep space designs will be very far from aerodynamic. This probably applies even to commercial travel to the Moon. A space station is therefore am important stepping stone to the universe & the place where true spaceships will be assembled.

We are well behind where Kubrick thought we could be by 2001 though as you can see he expected that by then the station, though in use, would still be abuilding (though to nitpick if you were going to build a 2nd ring you would build it separately under zero G & then attach it rather than building it while it was attached to & spinning as fast as the first ring).

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Sarah Palin is the only major candidate who has expressed doubts about manmade global warming.
PBS has a short video on their website, including a poll that asks: Is Sarah Palin qualified to be VP? As of Sept 25, 42% percent had voted YES, 58% NO. Let's turn this around. You don't have to give your name
or email address in order to vote. Here's the link:
After you vote, please pass this message to your friends.

This passed on from SEPP. As of Sunday midday it is 49% each with under 1% don't knows.

On a previous occasion I reported how Friends of the Earth had got their members to load a poll & bearing in mind the obvious popularity of Palin it is fairly clear they have been doing so again yet once the sceptics get moving we appear able to match them. It is possible that a majority might not want her as VP but not that that many think she is "unqualified".

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