Quotulatiousness

February 13, 2018

Elon Musk as Heinlein’s Delos D. Harriman – “Selling the moon is just what Musk is doing”

Filed under: Books, Business, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

I suspect I’d recognize a lot of the books in Colby Cosh‘s collection, as we’re both clearly Robert Heinlein fans. In a column yesterday, he pointed out the strong parallels between Heinlein’s fictional “Man Who Sold the Moon” and his closest counterpart in our timeline, Elon Musk:

Written between 1939 and 1950 for quickie publication in pulp magazines, the Future History is a series of snapshots of what is now an alternate human future — one that features atomic energy, solar system imperialism, and the first steps to deep space, all within a Spenglerian choreography of social progress and occasional resurgent barbarity. It stands with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy as a monument of golden-age science fiction.

[…]

The result, in the key story of the Future History, is an uncannily accurate description of the design and launch of a Saturn V rocket. (Written before 1950, remember.) But because Heinlein happened not to be interested in electronic computers, all the spacefaring in his books is done with the aid of slide rules or Marchant-style mechanical calculators (which, in non-Heinlein history, had to become obsolete before humans could go to Luna at all). Heinlein sends people to colonize the moon, but nobody there has internet, or is conscious of its absence.

Given that his ideas about computers were from the pre-computer era and even the head of IBM thought there’d be a worldwide demand for a very small number of his company’s devices, that’s not surprising at all. In one of his best novels, a single computer runs almost all of the life support, heat, light, transportation and communication systems on Luna … and is self-aware, but lonely. In later works where computers appear, they tend to be individual personalities or even minor characters, but they’re anything but ubiquitous: powerful, but rare.

I suspect the lack of an internet-equivalent derives both from the nature of his conception of how computing would progress and a form of the Star Trek transporter problem – it solves too many plot issues that could otherwise be usefully woven into stories.

The “key story” I just mentioned is called “The Man Who Sold The Moon.” And if you’re one of the people who has been polarized by the promotional legerdemain of Elon Musk — whether you have been antagonized into loathing him, or lured into his explorer-hero cult — you probably need to make a special point of reading that story.

The shock of recognition will, I promise, flip your lid. The story is, inarguably, Musk’s playbook. Its protagonist, the idealistic business tycoon D.D. Harriman, is what Musk sees when he looks in the mirror.

“The Man Who Sold The Moon” is the story of how Harriman makes the first moon landing happen. Engineers and astronauts are present as peripheral characters, but it is a business romance. Harriman is a sophisticated sort of “Mary Sue” — an older chap whose backstory encompasses the youthful interests of the creators of classic pulp science fiction, but who is given a great fortune, built on terrestrial transport and housing, for the purposes of the story.

The Grand Tour: Legally Tesla

Filed under: Business, Humour, Law, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

The Grand Tour
Published on 12 Feb 2018

In a test of the Tesla Model X, Jeremy Clarkson is joined by lawyers in this legally perilous task.

****These observations about the Tesla Model X are made in Clarkson’s personal capacity and should not be regarded as any statement or opinion by any other person or entity about the general safety, road worthiness, mechanical effectiveness, or any other standards of the vehicle about this specific model or any other Tesla vehicle.

January 4, 2018

The Truth About The Tesla Semi-Truck

Filed under: Business, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Real Engineering
Published on 15 Dec 2017

Thank you for your amazing support this year! Help this channel get better by supporting at Patreon:
https://www.patreon.com/realengineering

Website: https://battery.real.engineering/

January 3, 2018

BAHFest London 2017 – Louie Terrill: Why the Kessler Syndrome is key to humanity’s future

Filed under: Humour, Space — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

BAHFest
Published on Dec 11, 2017

Watch Louie Terrill at BAHFest London 2017 present his theory, “Making sure we’re all in this together: Why the Kessler Syndrome is key to humanity’s future.”

BAHFest is the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, a celebration of well-researched, logically explained, and clearly wrong scientific theory. Additional information is available at http://bahfest.com/

October 20, 2017

Why the Lights Are Still Off in Puerto Rico

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

ReasonTV
Published on 19 Oct 2017

The government set the stage for a post-hurricane catastrophe.
—–
Puerto Rico was set up for disaster well before Hurricane Maria hit. Revoked tax breaks, needlessly expensive imports, and crippling debt all led to a shoddy infrastructure that’s still without power on most of the island.

On the latest “Mostly Weekly,” Andrew Heaton explores: how did Puerto Rico get screwed over well before the lights went out, and how do we get them back on?

Mostly Weekly is hosted by Andrew Heaton with headwriter Sarah Rose Siskind.
Script by Sarah Rose Siskind with writing assistance from Andrew Heaton, Brian Sack, and Justin Monticello
Edited by Sarah Rose Siskind and Austin Bragg
Produced by Meredith and Austin Bragg.
Theme Song: Frozen by Surfer Blood.

September 28, 2017

Back to the Moon in 2019?

Filed under: Space, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Charles Stross thinks a US circumlunar expedition is on the cards for just two years ahead, and he might well be right:

If Donald Trump is still president, US astronauts will return to circumlunar space around July 16th, 2019 …

That’s the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11. It’s also 6-12 months on from the projected date of Musk’s translunar tourist trip on a Falcon Heavy.

I expect Falcon Heavy to be delayed a few months, minimum, because no new launch vehicle ever flies on time, especially a crew-rated one, but it’s currently due to fly around December this year for the first time, with a vehicle currently undergoing integration at Cape Canaveral and commercial orders for subsequent flights. It’s rather hard to describe it as vaporware at this point. The same goes for the Dragon 2 crewed capsule; it’s due for a first uncrewed orbital flight test in March 2018, and a crewed orbital test flight later in 2018.

[…]

I’m making this a prediction, however, because the POTUS factor.

July 2019 lies within the term in office of Donald Trump (or Mike Pence, depending whether impeachment/removal has happened first then). Trump is nothing if not an egomaniac, and offering him the opportunity to make a historic phone call to lunar orbit in front of the TV cameras is a guaranteed ego-stroke. Trump is of an age to have young-adult memories of Apollo and I can’t see the idea not appealing to him if he can take credit for it.

So I’m betting that this is how Musk will fund development of his lunar-orbit capability.

(Terms and conditions: prediction invalid in event of nuclear war, global environmental or economic collapse, Trump and Pence both being impeached, or a Dragon 2 capsule exploding in flight, because any of these things might impact the launch schedule.)

Note: Charles is quite a fan of the impeachment scenario, if you hadn’t picked that up from context. The fact that he’s very much not a Trump fan actually makes his prediction that much more striking: he has no interest or desire to see Trump get a propaganda coup to end his term in office.

September 13, 2017

Tesla’s experiment in price discrimination

Filed under: Business, Economics, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Alex Tabarrok links to a story about Tesla using an over-the-air software update to help Tesla owners in hurricane-threatened areas get more range from their lower-battery capacity cars … but he says this may eventually come back and bite the company:

Tesla knows that some of its customers are willing to pay more for a Tesla than others. But Tesla can’t just ask its customers their willingness to pay and price accordingly. High willing-to-pay customers would simply lie to get a lower price. Thus, Tesla must find some characteristic of buyers that is correlated with high willingness-to-pay and charge more to customers with that characteristic. Airlines, for example, price more for the same seat if you book at the last minute on the theory that last minute buyers are probably business-people with high willingness-to-pay as opposed to vacationers who have more options and a lower willingness-to-pay. Tesla uses a slightly different strategy; it offers two versions of the same good, the low and high mileage versions, and it prices the high-mileage version considerably higher on the theory that buyers willing to pay for more mileage are also more likely to be high willingness-to-pay buyers in general. Thus, the high-mileage group pay a higher price-to-cost margin than the low-mileage group. A familiar example is software companies that offer a discounted or “student” version of the product with fewer features. Since the software firm’s costs are mostly sunk R&D costs, the firm can make money selling a low-price version so long as doing so doesn’t cannibalize its high willingness-to-pay customers–and the firm can avoid cannibalization by carefully choosing to disable the features most valuable to high willingness-to-pay customers.

The kind gesture to Tesla owners in Florida is probably deeply appreciated right now, but…

Unfortunately, I fear that Tesla may have made a marketing faux-pas. When it turns off the extra mileage boost are Tesla customers going to say “thanks for temporarily making my car better!” Or are they going to complain, “why are you making MY car worse than it has to be?”

Human nature being what it is, the smart money is betting on the “Thanks for the temporary upgrade, but what have you done for me lately?” attitude setting in quickly.

June 17, 2017

“Probably the best example of our carny-barker economy is Tesla”

Filed under: Business — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The Z-Man on the post-modern business models used by Amazon, Facebook, and Tesla:

The key for Amazon making it all these years was to keep people focused on everything but their financials. This is not an exception. Faceberg will never have earnings to justify its share price. In fact, it will never have user rates to justify its ad revenue. It’s not unreasonable to think that everything about the business is fraudulent. That should trigger large scale audits and investigations into its business practices, but Facebook is on the side of angels in the cultural revolution, so its all good.

Probably the best example of our carny-barker economy is Tesla. To his credit, Musk has built a real factory that builds real cars. No one is going to say the Tesla is a work of art or even a practical car, but it is a car and the technology is impressive. The trouble is the company does not exist to make cars. It operates as a tax sink, where government subsidies flow into it and some portion of those subsidies turn into payments to the principles in the form of stock repurchases, debt service and compensation.

This only works if people think the venture will either one day turn a profit or the technology that it creates will result in something good down the road. To that end, Musk is regularly out doing his Lyle Lanley act, making all the beautiful people feel righteous by backing his ventures. He’s also telling Wall Street that he will soon be making and selling enough cars to turn a healthy profit, even without massive tax subsidies. The trouble is, that’s probably never happening, at least not with current management.

March 10, 2017

The two Elon Musks – the savvy businessman and the crony capitalist

Filed under: Business, Government, Space, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In The Federalist, Eric Peters describes the ways Elon Musk and his SpaceX crew manage to profit from government subsidies in the process of putting their Falcon rockets into space:

Image from SpaceX website.

Today, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration specializes in putting taxpayer dollars into the pockets of crony capitalist chieftains such as Elon Musk, whose SpaceX operation manages to get NASA to pay him to use its launch pads and other infrastructure — all provided at taxpayer expense. He also doesn’t cut NASA in when he uses its facilities — our facilities — to launch rockets carrying private cargo, meaning he effectively gets paid for it twice.

That’s once in the check he gets from the private business whose cargo his rocket is carrying; then again in the de facto subsidy he gets for the free use of NASA’s equipment at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Why isn’t Elon paying the freight, as opposed to blowing it up?

Incidentally, that happens a lot. Over the past five years alone, SpaceX has lost the same number of rockets as NASA did space shuttles over the 30 years it operated them. And the shuttle wasn’t a money-making machine for politically connected crony capitalists such as Musk. Taxpayers funded it, but no private citizens got a check from taxpayers.

The shuttle even made some money for taxpayers. Private businesses paid NASA to carry satellites into orbit, recovering some of the cost of building that infrastructure. The shuttle also did things useful for the public, like put the Hubble telescope in orbit. It has given humanity an unprecedented view of the universe, and not on pay-per-view.

I read a biography of Elon Musk soon after it was published … and it did a good job of pushing a more sympathetic view of its subject than the linked article above.

March 3, 2017

“Apollo 8 altered the self-perception of our species forever”

Filed under: History, Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Colby Cosh contrasts the insane bravado of John F. Kennedy’s moonshot announcement with the more recent insane bravado of Elon Musk and SpaceX:

SpaceX, the private rocketry company founded in 2002 by billionaire adventurer Elon Musk, says it is developing plans to fly two unnamed persons to the moon late in 2018. This announcement has created both skepticism and alarm. This is, I think, partly a matter of confusion about prepositions.

If I announced that, despite being Canada’s most sedentary citizen, I was going to Mount Everest next week, you would probably know better than to assume I was going UP the mountain. SpaceX’s proposal is to send a manned spacecraft beyond the moon. That’s the word they use in the SpaceX press release, and whoever chose it should get a big fat bonus. “Beyond” is an English word of unparalleled connotative power and romance.

But, of course, going beyond the moon — more prosaically, looping around it and coming back — is much, much simpler than landing ON it. It is probably not a fantastically difficult challenge, and the company’s zany-sounding timeline may be justified. (Mind you, this is not a prediction.)

Even if you are old enough to have followed the golden age of spaceflight as it happened, you may not understand or remember the half-insane ambition of John F. Kennedy’s original proposal to land men on the moon. For young and old, the moment that the Apollo 11 lunar module landed on the Sea of Tranquility tends to obscure everything else about the tale in retrospect. But no U.S. astronaut had orbited the Earth yet when JFK threw down the gauntlet. No spaceship had photographed, much less touched, the moon.

Taken by Apollo 8 crew member Bill Anders on December 24, 1968, at mission time 075:49:07 (16:40 UTC), while in orbit around the Moon, showing the Earth rising for the third time above the lunar horizon. The lunar horizon is approximately 780 kilometers from the spacecraft. Width of the photographed area at the lunar horizon is about 175 kilometers. The land mass visible just above the terminator line is west Africa. Note that this phenomenon is only visible to an observer in motion relative to the lunar surface. Because of the Moon’s synchronous rotation relative to the Earth (i.e., the same side of the Moon is always facing Earth), the Earth appears to be stationary (measured in anything less than a geological timescale) in the lunar “sky”. In order to observe the effect of Earth rising or setting over the Moon’s horizon, an observer must travel towards or away from the point on the lunar surface where the Earth is most directly overhead (centred in the sky). Otherwise, the Earth’s apparent motion/visible change will be limited to: 1. Growing larger/smaller as the orbital distance between the two bodies changes. 2. Slight apparent movement of the Earth due to the eccenticity of the Moon’s orbit, the effect being called libration. 3. Rotation of the Earth (the Moon’s rotation is synchronous relative to the Earth, the Earth’s rotation is not synchronous relative to the Moon). 4. Atmospheric & surface changes on Earth (i.e.: weather patterns, changing seasons, etc.).
NASA photo via Wikimedia.

September 8, 2016

QotD: The US space program was “a WPA for engineers instead of artists”

Filed under: Quotations, Space, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… even when uttered by the First Lady of the American Screen, any blather about the constellations leaves me as cold as Neptune. Yes, as a teenager, I obediently watched Cosmos like everyone else. But neither Carl Sagan’s corduroy charisma nor those glossy special effects fired up my heart and brain, any more than all those NASA expeditions to vacant rocks in the sky that had punctuated my childhood (and interrupted my cartoons).

The space program was a spectacular waste of extorted tax dollars, a WPA for engineers instead of artists. Watching nerdy small-government libertarians swoon in pathetic conformity over Apollo and SpaceX proves once again that Conquest’s Laws are bunk: Everyone is, in fact, a raving liberal when it comes to his pet passion. Elon Musk is a welfare queen.

Bores insist that the space program has spun off a host of indispensable inventions, but these they can rarely name, and besides, such wonders, if truly crucial, would have been developed anyhow — perhaps even faster, and more cheaply, had the government left trillions in stolen cash in the hands of private enterprise.

Perhaps some readers will find my opinions more palatable if phrased this way: “Federally funded spaceflight is the quintessential neoconservative project: a giant, wasteful crusade designed to fill Americans’ supposedly empty lives with meaning.”

Kathy Shaidle, “The Lovers, the Dreamers, Not Me”, Taki’s Magazine, 2016-08-23.

December 30, 2015

Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the future of spaceflight

Filed under: Space, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Colby Cosh on the real significance of the private space companies’ successes:

The science fiction authors who originally imagined spaceflight thought it would be classically capitalistic in nature — a Wild West of chancers, gold-diggers, outlaws, and even slave-traders transposed to the skies. It ended up, in its first incarnation, being a government program. This had the merit of showing that some impossible technical problems could be solved if you threw near-infinite resources and human lives at them. But the money and will ran out before NASA got around to figuring out how to make orbital spaceflight truly routine. Reusable rockets are the important first step that NASA didn’t have time to try in the Golden Age, under the pressure of a “space race” between governments.

Musk and Bezos are trying, I think very consciously, to revive the public interest and inspiration that this race narrative once brought. When SpaceX stuck its landing this week, having previously had a couple of flops, Bezos tweeted “Welcome to the club!” Musk will not mind the cheap shot too much. Bezos is doing him a favour by making a game of it.

It is hard for us to feel passion about accounting, even when “accounting” translates to cheaper satellite technology that means subtle advances in science and cost cuts in earthbound communications tech. Anything you can turn into a mere clash of personalities will get the attention of journalists and readers more readily. Musk and Bezos are exploiting their position as two of the great stage characters of our day.

The benefit they’re really going for is to bring a slightly larger margin of the human neighbourhood within reach for spaceships assembled on orbital platforms — the only practical kind of spaceship, as it seems to have turned out. Routine orbital access means affordable space tourism; it means possible Mars missions predicated on traditional exploration/adventure motives; it means deeper scientific scrutiny and even commercial study of the Moon, the asteroids, perhaps the inner planets. It means space stations that aren’t just for handpicked careerist supermen.

It means — well, we don’t know, from this side of the future, what it means. Some grade-three kid out there may already have a “killer app” for reusable rockets that nobody has considered yet. (If the cost comes down far enough, are we certain rockets won’t re-emerge as a possibility for long-haul terrestrial travel? That’s another assumption of early SF we have discarded, perhaps carelessly!) But it is probably a good guess that the balletic SpaceX triumph will turn out, after the fact, to have been one of the biggest stories of 2015.

December 23, 2015

SpaceX Falcon 9 performs successful launch and controlled landing

Filed under: Business, Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

William Harwood reports for CBS News:

Making its first flight since a catastrophic launch failure last June, an upgraded, more powerful SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket roared to life and shot into space Monday, boosting 11 small Orbcomm data relay satellites into orbit in a major milestone for the California rocket builder.

In a significant space “first,” the Falcon 9’s first stage fell back into the atmosphere and pulled off a powered landing at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, settling to a smooth tail-first touchdown in a convincing demonstration of reusability, a key requirement for lowering commercial launch costs.

In a scene resembling a launch video running in reverse, the booster quickly dropped out of a cloudy sky atop a jet of flame from one of its Merlin 1D engines, heralded by twin sonic booms that rumbled across Florida’s Space Coast. Cheers erupted in company headquarters in Hawthorne, California, as the stage settled to a smooth touchdown.

In another first, the Falcon 9 used colder, denser-than-usual liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants, a significant upgrade allowing the booster’s nine first-stage engines to generate more power, increasing their combined liftoff thrust from 1.3 million pounds to 1.5 million, or 170,000 pounds of thrust per engine.

The launch, first-stage landing and satellite deployments all appeared to proceed without a hitch, a welcome success for a company returning to flight after a disheartening failure.

“Everything we’ve seen thus far in the mission appears to be perfect,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in a conference call with journalists. “The satellites were deployed right on target and the Falcon 9 booster came back and landed. Looks like almost dead center on the landing pad. … As far as we can see right now, it was absolutely perfect. We could not have asked for a better mission.”

October 17, 2015

Tesla’s latest software update includes self-driving program (almost)

Filed under: Technology, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Tesla does over-the-air updates for their electric cars (which is kinda neat). The latest update includes an almost-but-not-quite self-driving feature:

Tonight, Tesla makes its cars autonomous. Well, semi-autonomous. And it did it with an over-the-air update, effectively making tens of thousands of cars already sold to customers way better.

There are two things to talk about here. There’s the small story about the features and what the upgrade actually looks like and how it works. That’s a good place to start: This is the biggest change to the visual display of the Model S and X ever. There are new instrument panels, app windows are larger and take up more of the 17-inch touchscreen. Drivers will now get more information about what their cars are doing when in Autopilot, they can lock and unlock their car from the status bar. There’s a new clock!

These are simple cosmetic changes. The Big Story is that all of this—and really, who cares about anything beyond autopilot mode?—is being pushed through to customers’ Teslas overnight. The update will begin being pushed out tonight, and will hit every Tesla made and sold in the US in the past year over the course of this week.

Before you get too excited about an autonomous, hands-free present, you need to know that you can’t nap in the back, chauffeured around in beautiful, electric silence.

Even in Autopilot, you keep your hands on the steering wheel. Well… you don’t have to keep your hands on the steering wheel. You can rest them on your knees (resting on knees, palms up, fingertips touching the wheel is advised), or keep one pinky on the wheel. And okay, you can take your hands off altogether for a moment. But after a few seconds, your car will give you a little message, asking you to touch the wheel in some capacity.

August 25, 2015

Roger Kimball says Elon Musk is crazy

Filed under: Business, Government, Space, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Oh, sorry, he actually said Musk is “crazy like a visionary“:

I am an unlikely fan of Elon Musk, the flamboyant, Steve Jobs-like (some would say Tony Stark-like) entrepreneur behind SpaceX, SolarCity, Tesla Motors, and other enterprises that seemed like starry-eyed impossibilities a scant decade ago. Musk’s two governing passions, he has said repeatedly, are “sustainable transport” to battle “global warming” and finding a way to make mankind an interplanetary species, beginning with a space colony on Mars.

For my part, the word “sustainable” has me reaching, if not for my revolver, then at least for an air-sickness bag. I regard the whole Green Lobby as a cocktail composed of three parts moralistic hysteria mixed with a jigger of high-proof cynical opportunism (take a look at Al Gore’s winnings from the industry) fortified with a dash of beady-eyed left-wing redistributionist passion. You can never be Green enough, Comrade, and if the data show a 20-year “hiatus” in global warming (so much for Michael Mann’s infamous hockey stick), that’s no reason not to insist that capitalist powerhouses like the United States drastically curtail their CO2 emissions right now, today, while giving egregious polluters like China a decade or more to meet its quotas.

No, when it comes to energy, I often quote, sometimes with attribution, the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce: what the world needs now is cheap, abundant energy, period, full stop, end of discussion. My motto is: frack early, frack often. Do you want to help the poor/clean up the environment/save the spotted wildebeest? Then you need economic growth, and to achieve that you need energy, which at the moment means you need fracking. Q.E.D.

When it comes to interplanetary travel, I suspect that Musk’s passion for transforming us into “space-faring” creatures was heavily influenced by his youthful reading of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and (one of his favorites) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not that those adolescent chestnuts necessarily argue against the plausibility of his ambitions. Behind Musk’s enthusiasm for space colonization is a worry that a future “extinction event” might delete human consciousness from the emporium of the universe.

For what it’s worth, I’m very much split on Musk and his works: I generally agree with his desire to help get humanity expanding beyond our single, frail planet … I just wish he wasn’t guzzling down government subsidies to get there. I’ve read the book Kimball is reviewing (Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future), and I certainly feel I got my money’s worth from the purchase … Musk is potentially a very great man. Right now, he’s a pretty good man who still takes everything he can get from the government.

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