Tuesday, May 29, 2007

New Space Age

Interesting article in Wired magazine about the new generation of space entrepreneurs. In particular it talks about Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, and his ambitious plan to get us into orbit (instead of the boundaries of space as Burt Routan has done).

Possibly one of the reasons we are not on the moon and on Mars is that space travel has, since its beginning, been left in the hands of NASA.

Since Gordon Moore recognized that the number of transistors on a circuit at similar cost doubled roughly every 2 years, we have come to expect massive increases in computing power on a year by year basis. Storage, though less noticed, has also undergone a similar revolution. 2 years ago, i bought a 1GB memory stick for $100 approximately. It is now possible to get a 4GB memory stick for $50 (an 8 fold increase in 2 years).
Computing could have gone the direction of space travel if the government had been in charge. 60 years ago the Eniac cost around $5 million (in today's currency). The US government was just about to launch an ambitious program to develop better and more efficient nuclear warheads and the need for computational power would by necessity increase. If they had decided that computers were a national security issue they could have set up an agency to handle computation. Civilian computation needs would be satisfied by the state agency. Today we probably would have had machines considerably more powerful than the Eniac but only a handful of them, each of them costing a fortune and probably taking up entire warehouses (this is often the case in science fiction books from that era). Only the biggest corporations would have been able to afford time on them.
Space travel went down the state controlled route and computing went down the entrepreneurship route. Needless to say, there is no Moore's law for rockets. If there were, today we could be vacationing on Mars, sipping a pina colada under a thin plastic dome at the foot of Olympus Mons.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Building virtual magnetic monopoles and EM wormholes

Really interesting idea here from Alan Greenleaf (University of Rochester) et al. The idea is to manipulate electrical permittivity and magnetic permeability to create objects that act like invisible tunnels. The object would not be detectable to EM observations from the side but seen head on, one would see light passing through. The object would be constructed from meta-materials.

Sarkozy wins!

Congratulations Mr. Sarkozy. France has a chance now to reverse it's downward slide. Nicolas Sarkozy is far from perfect but he offers the best chance France has had in years. I'm optimistic that things will change in France and perhaps
even Europe now as well.

Congratulations Monsieur President

As an added bonus he said to America "You can count on our friendship." while saying something about taking global warming more seriously.
Considering the rift that has opened up in the West in the last couple of years at a time when we are facing one of our most serious threats in recent years, this is welcoming.
Not so welcome is is his protectionist bent such as nationalizing Alstom (2003). Mr. Sarkozy
should learn that the markets are a far better judge than governments of which companies should survive and which not. His tirade against Hedge funds during the campaign was also not entirely welcome either. But then, this is France where things are a little different.
As for Mdme Royal, it's interesting to note that even women voters stayed away from her. Understandable. Their concerns are the same as the male ones: security and jobs. France, at the moment, is not delivering either.

The sensitive candidate

Royal wanted to be a touchier feelier type of president (although it's rumoured that she is an autocrat). She understood your pain but was not prepared to do anything about it. People don't want a therapist for their president, they want someone who they believe can govern, which sometimes means making the tough, unpopular and sometimes brutal decisions. But maybe we shouldn't write her off yet. She didn't seem particularly upset when she conceded the election.

Sarkozy assumes office on May 16, 2007.

Zero corporate tax is the fairest

Good article here about why zero corporate tax is the fairest taxation rate. Taxing corporations amounts to taxing a legal entity made up of workers, shareholders and managers that trades with consumers. The typical reaction of a corporation is to pass the tax on to consumers who react by consuming (ie. buying less). Is this fair to the workers of the company who might be earning minimum wage?

I believe in a zero corporate tax because I believe that it is immoral to do otherwise (see my article on taxation and productivity)

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Nuclear fusion strategies

Broadly, there are two realistic competing strategies for sustainable nuclear fusion. The first is plasma confinement in a large torus and the second uses laser induced implosion. The first approach has been the one that has gained the most attention in the press and with the comissioning of the ITER project to be housed in Cadarche, France. Using superheated Deuterium and Tritium plasma, the ITER reactor confines the plasma using a magnetic field and heats it using Ohmic heating (the heat generated when a current passes through a conductor). The plasma is held in a large torus. The heat is carried away from the reaction chamber through neutrons.
ITER fusion reactor
ITER fusion reactor

The second approach is to use a bunch of high energy lasers focussed on a small almost perfect sphere containing the reaction fuels and use the pressure from the resulting implosion to drive a fusion reactor. HiPer goes one step forward by having a gold cone inserted into the fuel capsule. The fuel capsule is first compressed using lasers and then a second laser superheats the gold cone, converting it into a plasma, which then compresses the fuel into a high density at the tip of the cone. This type of reaction is called a fast ignition reaction.

HiPER Reactor

Aside from the physics, the other difference between the two approaches is cost. The first will cost around $10Billion, the second around $1 Billion. However, there is a much more significant criteria here - competition. Governments are notoriously bad at selecting and developing technologies and so competition is one way to ensure that at least two different approaches are attempted.

Here is an even better suggestion. A couple of entries back, I suggested having a sort of government sponsored X-Prize of an order of magnitude greater than the current X-Prizes awarded for space colonization. Why not use a similar approach with nuclear fusion? Who is to say that these $billion+ dollar projects will ever reach the final answer.
Maybe there is a much more modest approach that will also yield sustainable fusion. For example, there are some tantalizing hints with recent results from an experiment carried out by Mosier-Boss and Szpak that came out just this year. This experiment is similar that infamous cold fusion experiment by Pons and Fleischman but seems to show that there are nuclear reactions going on. Reproducing this experiment is hard, which makes me skeptical but still...

While I am always skeptical of things that appear to good to be true (because they usually are), a prize awarded for the first commercially feasible fusion reactor would be an unambiguous way to say that someone's done it and it would sort out the good physics from the dodgy physics.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Excellent article about taxation

American.com magazine has posted an excellent article about the flat tax revolution. While not quite the solution to all ills, flat tax does stimulate growth by not penalizing people who want to earn more (0 marginal tax rate). The article lists several accomplishments:

* Stronger incentives for productive behavior. Flat tax rates almost always mean a lower tax rate on work, saving, investment, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship.
* Encouraging capital accumulation. As noted in the previous section, few if any flat tax systems live up to the Hall/Rabushka goal of eliminating all discriminatory taxes on income that is saved and invested. Yet most of the world’s flat tax systems have reduced the tax penalty on capital.
* Evening out the tax burden. Some nations (like Slovakia, Estonia, and Hong Kong) have done a better job than others, but most every flat tax system includes a reduction in the special preferences that distort market decisions and cause economic inefficiency.

Colonizing Mars

Copyright 2006 Rajeev Dutt
Robert Zubrin is one of the strongest advocates of space colonization living today. He has written two excellent books about our future space-faring selves: The Case for Mars (1997) and Entering Space (2000).
Normally, Zubrin could be folded under the Libertarian umbrella and he is a strong advocate of private space ventures but, as he rightly points out, colonizing space is expensive and the motivations of private corporations to go out there are not so strong. Launching sub-orbital tourist trips or even low earth orbit tourist travel requires radically different technologies from those that would take us to Mars or the Moon. He also points out that rocket technology hasn't changed that greatly from the time of von Braun. The much heralded space shuttle was a sinkhole for tax-payers money and was still a 3 stage vehicle. Maybe the new Orion space capsule is a step in the right direction...only time will tell.
I believe one of the most limiting factor has been to depend on handful of contractors to deliver space travel and as Zubrin pointed out using cost plus contracts (wherein Nasa agrees to pay for all the costs plus a percentage of the costs as payment) with the likes of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
What has worked very well in the past and will probably still work - and is a very good use of tax payer's money is to offer prizes.

The Ansari-X Prize was a private prize for the first space craft to go suborbital twice in 2 weeks. Similarly Northrup Grumman has a lunar lander prize:
The Competition is divided into two levels. Level 1 requires a rocket to take off from a designated launch area, rocket up to 150 feet (50 meters) altitude, then hover for 90 seconds while landing precisely on a landing pad 100 meters away. The flight must then be repeated in reverse—and both flights, along with all of the necessary preparation for each, must take place within a two and a half hour period.

The more difficult course, Level 2, requires the rocket to hover for twice as long before landing precisely on a simulated lunar surface, packed with craters and boulders to mimic actual lunar terrain. The hover times are calculated so that the Level 2 mission closely simulates the power needed to perform the real lunar mission.

This is all well and good. But I think the real bang would come if the government would start offering prizes to the tune of $10 Billion for sending a manned spacecraft to land on Mars - or have a graduated approach wherein the government offers a prize for the first private unmanned mission to orbit Mars, the first private unmanned mission to land on Mars, the first manned mission to orbit Mars and the first manned mission to land on Mars (although if you're going to make the effort to get to Mars then you may as well stay there for a few months).
The advantage is that taxpayers get all the benefits without all the overhead of a typical government project such as overpaid contractors, scope creep and $100 pencils (sorry the $1 million pen is an urban myth).

Added benefits include, introducing real competition into the game, increasing the number of engineers - and therefore ideas - 10 fold (through all the private companies willing to take part), reducing bureaucracy and increasing the level of risk taking beyond what most government agencies are willing to stomach (witness the near shut-down of the shuttle program after the Challenger and Columbia accidents). Of course, senators and congressmen won't be able to inject the usual pork into the project because the rules would be clear and unambiguous about what constitutes winning.

There are some economic advantages. The present value of $10Billion discounted over 10 years by 10% is about $3.9B (assuming it takes 10 years to develop a spacecraft). Remember, this is money that doesn't have to be paid until someone delivers. The senator or congressman who suggests this would reap all the benefits of landing on Mars without having the associated costs. This is what I would call a win-win situation.

It would be a humbling of Nasa but on the other hand, we have a realistic chance of then getting to Mars and staying there.

Incidentally for those of you interested in the colonization of Mars here's a couple of websites:
The Mars Society (Robert Zubrin was one of the founders)
Red Colony