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

Thursday, May 3, 2007

China Bashing

The US has an annual trade deficit of $186 Billion with China. The US cites the Yuan's low value as a major source of this deficit. The US criticizes China on human rights abuses as well as for building up their military and there are plenty of congressmen willing to jump on the anti-China bandwagon. And now to top it all off, there is criticism about China becoming the world's biggest emitter of CO2. Let's not get facts get in the way of hysteria.

Trade Deficit
The facts are as follows. Firstly, China is not the biggest source of imports for the US, Canada is. In 2005, China was responsible for 14.6% of US imports. Canada was responsible for 16.9%, Japan for 8.2% and Germany 5%. About 50% of the US imports from China were through US multinationals.
China has one of the lowest import barriers in Asia and is also one of the highest recipients of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Finally in areas where the US has been investing and is highly innovative, the US actually has a trade surplus - ; areas such as high-tech items, agriculture and aerospace. The dragon turns out not to be so fierce. It is also worth remembering that much of what China has earned from selling to the US has also been reinvested in US companies and assets.
This is not to say that a trade defecit is good but the reasons do not stem from an unfair China (in fact it is the US that keeps using thuggish state intervention to tame China such as Senators' Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) attempt to impose a 27.5 percent tariff on Chinese goods.) but a US that has become less efficient of late, suffering from lack of investment and innovation in key areas. Much of this can be blamed on excessive protection given to US firms, strong unions and heavy handed taxation and regulation of firms. If the US is bad, Europe is far worse (in case the Europeans feel like gloating).
Instead of pointing fingers at China, US legislators should be reminded that the massive trade deficit is only a symptom of far deeper issues in the world's largest economy.

Finally, if we look at the current account deficit (of which trade is a part), then we come to two blaringly obvious conclusions - US consumers should start saving more and borrowing less and the US government needs to start going on a spending diet.

Currency Issues
Another red herring. The US has a trade defecit with Germany even though the $ has been devalued several times during this period against the euro. At the same time, China has moved away from pegging the Yuan against the US$ and has adjusted it more in the direction of its proper world price. It is estimated that even if China were to completely float their currency, this would not eliminate the US trade deficit with China.
China should be persuaded to float their currency but this is just a red herring used by China bashers.

Human rights and arms spending
China is guilty of egregious violations of human rights. It has the world's highest execution rates, condones torture, limits free speech, the list goes on. It is right to condemn China for these abuses but it is wrong to use it as a crutch to justify setting up massive trade barriers with China. One of the encouraging signs from China in recent years is that dissent is more openly tolerated. This is logical - as people become wealthier, they demand more rights and more power. People tend to forget that S. Korea was once a dictatorship but is now a thriving democracy.
Prosperity leads to democracy. I am hard pressed to think of a counter-example (although the opposite is definitely not true - India has been a democracy for over 50 years but is one of the poorer countries in the world by per-capita GDP).
I'm inclined to believe that a richer China will have more in common with the West than it will with Iran, for example.
In terms of military spending. A quick look at the CIA world fact book should set things in perspective. China spends about 4.3% of its GDP on military spending, which works out to about $108 Billion based on the official exchange rate. The US spends about 4% of its GDP on the military, which amounts to $528 Billion. $ for $, the US spends over 5x as much as China on it's military. If one adjusts to purchasing power parity, the difference narrows. China, based on a PPP adjusted GDP, spends about $403 Billion while the US spends $519Billion. But as the US produces most of its own military hardware and China imports much of it's hardware so the non PPP adjusted GDP figures are probably closer to reality.
There is room for concern here; namely, a potential flashpoint over Taiwan. But I think that as the two sides become more interconnected through trade, such a flashpoint is unlikely to materialize into open war.

Global CO2 emitter
In absolute numbers China will probably overtake the US in CO2 emissions very soon but let's not talk about absolute numbers. China has 1 billion people while the US has 300 million. The US (2003) produced about 5.762 Billion tons of Carbon while China produced 3.473 billion tons. On a per capita basis (which is one of the fairest ways to calculate CO2 emissions), the US produced about 19.2 tons per person while China produced about 3.5 tons per person. The US produces over 5x the amount of CO2/person than China. This puts the US at 5th place and puts China at around 80th (Qatar is the worst emitter). Of course China's rate of CO2 production is growing much faster than the US, which is a point of concern but for now we can safely conclude that China is not a CO2 monster.
Finally on the subject of the environment, people should remember that every country that became industrialized went through a phase when the environment suffered in the name of economic growth. It is unfair to single out China in this respect. If anything, China will benefit from modern technology by having factories that pollute less and are considerably more efficient than their counterparts in the West 100 years ago.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The stupidity of our authorities...

Article in Wired about a student who was arrested for writing a disturbing essay. Words like inane, stupid and pointless spring to mind.

Labour Day woes

Labour Day again. That outmoded day commemorating the struggle of labour against the evil capitalists. I would suggest that we set aside a second day to commiserate with those poor evil capitalists. Like that scene in Life of Brian: what did the capitalists do for us anyway? Erm...

  • They created a middle class and freed us of Feudal monarchs and princes thus producing the seeds of modern democracy.

  • They empowered women by enshrining property rights as one of our fundamental rights (although Aristotle was sympathetic to private property) enabling women to own and control their own property from which women could launch the emancipation movement.

  • They improved the standard of living by accelerating technological development through competition most notably by accelerating communication (through the Gutenberg press), improving transportation (through rail and steam engines) and by reducing prices (through mass production).

  • They have lifted billions of people out of poverty by generating wealth on an unimaginable level and are continuing to do so.

  • They improved the quality of goods sold through competition.

  • They have provided security for us as we grow older through efficient financial systems that allow us to save for our retirement with the confidence that our wealth won't suddenly disappear.

  • ...

But aside from this what have the capitalists ever done for us?

For more on the miracle of capitalism, I would recommend reading Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Here's to capitalism's future and hail to chairman Friedman and general secretary Hayek:

Chairman Milton Friedman

General Secretary Friedrich von Hayek