Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Panic in Iraq

Possibly 1,000 Iraqis have died from a stampede on a bridge over the Tigris, induced by a rumor that there was a suicide bomber in the crowd. This is really one of the most dreadful days of the war. Terrorist tactics have put these people at hair-trigger alert levels. No one will ever know how the rumor started. I hesitate to think that the terrorists could be this clever or ruthless, but 9/11 was a similar surprise. Terrorists will take the credit anyway. Shiites will blame Sunnis. Americans will blame Americans.

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More Smoke from the MicroSoft Fire

Suspicious activity traced to Microsoft.

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Democracy Grows Up Around Mubarak

Reflections on the Importance and Nature of Power Dispersion

Sen. Barak Obama (D), detained for several hours in Russia along with Sen. Richard Lugar (R), speculated that the problem was "disperse centers of power" (heard on NPR). Who knows what it was really about. You could probably write a passel of spy novels explaining it in different ways. Considering that Vladimir Putin has been recently accused of just the opposite problem, eliminating independence of Russia's component regions, there remains something to explain. Putin’s problem in this case is more aptly described as the residue, and possibly re-emergence, of the Soviet mentality. Everybody is terrified of being wrong. Much safer, politically, to let the Americans sit on the runway than to allow them to take off without the right permissions.

Putin cannot afford to let power devolve in such a way that individual states can think about separating. He apparently feels that he can also not allow criticism of his actions [Ed: most of Kasparov links are gone, but try this one] to exceed certain limits, pretty narrow limits. What does Russia have going for it in terms of democracy development? Well they have a theoretical structure and a history of brave dissenters. Not much else. What they miss in particular is the retail versions of democracy and the concept of functional independence that grace much of the remainder of the planet. The Soviet Union was so rigidly and obsessively centralized that people have no experience with self-determination at any level. Meetings of their version of the boy scouts were subject to orders from the Kremlin.

One reason that President Bush is the most powerful leader in the world is that there are a whole lot of things he doesn’t have to attend to. He might have some say over what happens at National Airport, but most airports are run by their own sets of rules, accountable to a variety of different entities for different aspects of their activities. He concentrates his efforts in areas where the people have determined that it is necessary for the federal government to exercise authority. He doesn’t have to get the snowplows out to clear the streets of Washington. He might wish for the authority to name Ted Kennedy’s replacement, but he’s really better off without it. (BTW, Massachusetts gets a lot of snow.)

Egypt has never been oppressed, except by poverty, to as great an extent as Russia. Various organic institutions within Egypt have co-existed with despotic central rule. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak never had, nor did they seem to desire, the kind of thought control that was imposed on the Russian People for seven decades. Think about it. Do you know of any good Russian bloggers? (Let me know if you do.) I look at four different Egyptian bloggers almost every day. Moreover, I do not think that the general pessimism about the chances for democracy in the Arab World is warranted. In this regard, the Egyptian blogger, "Baheyya", has posted a very upbeat article emphasizing the plausible independence of the judiciary in Egypt and a democracy movement among the judges. Apparently, this is a segment of society that self-organizes and is fortunately relatively non-threatening to Mubarak. It is a functional dispersion of power, non-partisan but powerful within its scope. It is also a very hopeful sign.

8/31/2005 2:17 AM

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Handcuffs on Your PC

Another example of MicroSoft at work


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Monday, August 29, 2005

Death by Asabiya

Apparently I've been scooped. No need to talk about the collapse of civilization anymore because Peter Turchin, an ecologist, has written a book, War and Peace and War, to prove it mathematically. He uses the same models that he has successfully applied to voles.

Needless to say, there will be some disagreement with his assumptions and methodology, but I think he has done a good thing. We need to discuss where we are going – not just economically, demographically and environmentally, but socially as well.

There is a short discussion of frontier effects, which he interestingly enough calls "asabiya", an Arabic word denoting "mutual affection and willingness to fight and die for each other". The obverse of this cooperation is the related willingness to demonize the adversary, much as westerners demonized the Plains Indians and used their own paranoia as an excuse to wipe out the American Bison. The best and the worst move to the frontiers.

The Sydney Morning Herald starts their article on Turchin with a reference to Isaac Asimov and the Foundation series. I loved those books, but I am inclined to discount the possibility that Turchin is the embodiment of Hari Seldon. First of all, we have to realize that predicting the future incorporates the possibility of changing it. Malthus leads naturally to Borlaug. I don’t accept predestination. In the real world, Cassandra is heeded. Even Churchill had some followers.

Peter Turchin has written previously, in 2003, about Historical Dynamics. I haven't written or seen either book yet, but I am very interested.

8/29/2005 1:59 AM

UPDATE: I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong about Cassandra. BoingBoing points out that NOLA vulnerability has been known for some time.

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Hitchens Assessment of Iraq

Christopher Hitchens has said everything I could have hoped to say about Iraq in his essay, "A War to Be Proud Of", posted in the Weekly Standard

LET ME BEGIN WITH A simple sentence that, even as I write it, appears less than Swiftian in the modesty of its proposal: "Prison conditions at Abu Ghraib have improved markedly and dramatically since the arrival of Coalition troops in Baghdad."

Hitchens has taken a lot of heat lately about his characterization of Cindy Sheehan. I found his assessment to be rather measured, logical and tolerant. Hitchens himself, a semi-reformed leftist, has been characterized in much less measured and compassionate terms by disappointed leftists and suspicious conservatives.

Frank Warner also has some discussion on the Hitchens piece. Frank's take is that, "Those who oppose freeing Iraq favor war without end."

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Mallory on Tobacco

Mallory has a moving post, actually a series of posts, on the evils of tobacco. My own feeling is that this problem is a huge public health issue and should be addressed more seriously. More people die from tobacco than from methamphetamine. More people die from alcohol as well. What are we going to do about it?

We should have learned from Prohibition, however, that you can't sail straight upwind on these issues. You can make headway, but only if you stop listening to the demogogues and spend your money in the right places. Moral absolutism, longer prison sentences, property confiscation are turning the US gradually toward police state tactics and 3rd world corruption. We need to eliminate the bad money by legalizing the drugs and controlling the drug markets.

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Friday, August 26, 2005

Al-Qaeda Recruits in US

I have often advocated for shorter prison sentences with more punch. Drug laws should be abolished or dramatically reformed so that we can afford to spend some time with our prisoners. The reason is that the money does more damage than the banned substance. I don't care if a person gets high as long as he doesn't buy the intoxicant from a drug dealer. The watchword is small prisons with serious intent.

The one thing we should care about for our younger criminals is cultural contamination. All sentences should be solitary confinement. Any companionship must be with family (and I'm not sure about that), rehabilitation engineers and/or carefully screened literature. All prisoners must transition back into society through a halfway house distant from their original home. They need to learn alternate ways of living. And I am not suggesting that religion is necessarily a good solution.

Right now our prisons represent an enormous vulnerability, as do our corrupt drug enforcement methods. Both are currently being exploited by Islamic fundamentalists. The DEA has complained about this in the past.

HAMAS & Hizballah in the Tri-Border Area The two major terrorist organizations that exist in the Tri-Border Area of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil are Hizballah and the Islamic Resistance Movement known as HAMAS. The members of these organizations often assimilate into the local culture and typically become merchants in shopping centers to conceal their illegal activities. Intelligence indicates that Islamic fundamentalist terrorist cells operate out of strongholds in the Tri-Border Area of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. They generate significant income by controlling the sale of various types of contraband in these areas, including drugs, liquor, cigarettes, weapons, and forged documents. Intelligence suggests that a large sum of the earnings from these illegal activities goes in support of the operatives' respective organizations in Lebanon.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Price Paid by Others

I missed an important Aug.14 post from Alaa of the Mesopotamian that has shaken me up a little. He has rendered an eloquent cri de coeur that all Americans should read. I don't know what set him off (maybe something like this), but he is worried now about our reliability as allies. His latest post delineates the likely consequences of a precipitous US pullout. Commenters did not seem to understand quite what he was saying.

8/24/2005 11:44 PM

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Which Way Will the Water Flow?

The NYT points out that some Iraqis are confused, distrustful and annoyed with regard to the need for a constitution. Ms. Hanan Sahib, for one, wonders, "What can I do with a constitution if I have no water, gasoline and electricity?"

The logic is somewhat reversed. Ms. Sahib is being deprived of these things in order to extort her cooperation. She is lead to believe that the only way to have those things again is to give up on the idea of a constitution. Those who impose their will, must find a lever. In fact, there is another way for her to enjoy those basic human comforts. The way that we in the US enjoy those things is not beyond her grasp. We collectively enforce a free and stable government based on a constitution, and the water flows.

8/24/2005 5:58 PM

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Free Frank Warner Has Pat Answer

Let the word go forth from this day on, Pat Robertson is a nitwit. Free Frank also has some recent stuff on Kelo and Cindy Sheehan worth reading.

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Seven Pillars of Wishdom

A new book based on interviews with Al-Qaeda leaders provides a timeline for the end of Western Civilization. There are seven stages to the plan, number five being to reinstitute the Caliphate. Seven is a very satisfying number, don't you think? Get back to me in fifteen years and let me know how well they've done.

Why can't we be this specific about our plans? Obviously the reason that President Bush is incapable of providing a timeline for leaving Iraq is that it conflicts with The Big O's schedule.

8/24/2005 2:01 PM

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Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Guns to the Arctic

Republicans are fond of pointing out that global warming can have benefits. One possible improvement, the opening of the fabled Northwest Passage, is certainly promising, but not without its drawbacks. Ownership of Arctic resources apparently has never been very clear. A dramatic realignment of geopolitical interests could easily create international friction that would overshadow any potential benefits.

My fear is that semi-deliberate climate modifications may well become a weapon in the Hobbesian struggle among the multi-polar nations of today's world. This reminds me too much of the circumstances that led to World War I. Free nations need more ways to work together. Let’s talk about that.

8/23/2005 4:12 PM

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005


I will be offline for a few days. I will think deeply while I'm gone, and provide you with the solution to all the world's problems when I return.

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Monday, August 15, 2005

Plug-In Hybrids

Plug-In Hybrids

My hybrid, a 2003 Civic, gets pretty good mileage, but not as good as my old Rabbit Diesel. I don't know what the fuel production tradeoffs are and how they relate to overall energy independence, but I do know that it was hard to find the diesel fuel and it was more expensive. At any rate, I'm very happy with my Civic. I got 52 mpg on one trip across the state. It's not the kind of technical nightmare that some folks were warning me of. It has to be babied just a little. Transmission fluid needs to be changed and the oil is weird, zero weight. When I tell people about it, I tell them that it takes gas like any other car. It doesn't need to be plugged in. You don't need a specialist to work on it. It's a normal car, just better, and everyone will be driving one in a couple of years. Mainly because it's got good acceleration as well.

When I was a kid, I watched an ice-racing competition involving American cars and European cars. We got stuffed. It was embarrassing. I knew then that everyone would eventually be driving front-wheel drive cars. Front-wheel drive is just plain superior. Unfortunately, it took a lot longer than it should have. America's car companies failed us in this and many other ways. Penny wise, irrational resistance to change and wishful thinking.

Here are some hybrid enthusiasts who are hotrodding their vehicles for better mpgs. What they're doing is loading them up with batteries and plugging them in at night. They are claiming to get 250 miles per gallon, spending quarters instead of twenties. This is off-the-shelf, build-it-in-the-garage technology.

Here's a chance for Detroit to get back on the map. Give people cheap hybrids with plug-in capacity. Unfortunately, the Conventional Wisdom is that American consumers are too dumb to understand the concept. Here's the beauty of it though. They don't have to! They can run it like a regular hybrid until they run out of money for gas. Then they can stretch the last tank by juicing up from the outlet. They'll soon learn to recharge regularly. Besides, a lot of customers in the northern states are already accustomed to plugging in their engine blocks during the winter.

As I remember, Al Gore was responsible for the government/automaker cooperation that developed the first hybrid prototypes. Maybe his star will shine a little brighter in history than that of the current administration, which is frankly a little hostile to Science and Innovation.

8/15/2005 5:25 PM

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Manufactured Meat

The idea of growing meat as an industrial process not requiring the life of an animal is very distressing to me, and I don't quite understand my feelings. I have always thought that it was wrong to be a vegetarian in order to wash your hands of the suffering of individual animals. As satisfying to the conscience as it may be, if no one were to eat them, they would simply disappear. To humans, large animals are either useful or a nuisance. Land-use pressures and the basic Malthusian process insure that we will slowly chip away at wildlands until they are gone. Perhaps a pitiful remnant of the original population will remain as pets for the wealthy, much as horses are used in the US today. Yes I know that the Amish maintain work horses, and that ranchers still use them, but you can't argue that they hold a secure place in perpetuity. People don't even go to the races anymore.

8/15/2005 1:10 AM

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Here's another guy who thinks the Shuttle is dead.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Next Big Thing

Between the remarkable explorations of Lewis and Clark and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in the US were sixty-five years of progressive encroachments on the wilderness. If Madison had mandated a crash program to populate the West using giant Conestoga wagons, it would have cost a lot and accomplished very little. Since 1969 the Space Program has languished due to the rational, pragmatic, temperate pace imposed by NASA’s unworkable Shuttle and its philosophical dead-weight. (Read this 1980 article by Gregg Easterbrook, courtesy of Slate.) The spark that lit Von Braun’s fire was the flight to the Moon. The spark that will light the next fire is nothing less than the vision of a functioning colony on Mars. President Bush does not really believe in this. Certainly he is not excited about this and has no way to communicate the same sort of thrill that Kennedy was able to inject into the challenge of his decade.

The goal of the Shuttle should have been to create a self-sustaining colony in orbit. This would have been very difficult. It would have challenged us, wouldn’t it? Moreover, we should have instituted at least one productive manufacturing initiative that could only be done in Space. How about canning the perfect vacuum of Space for sale on Earth? Making perfect ball bearings in zero gravity? Something quasi-economic. I don’t really know enough to know why it can’t be done. Maybe we need less knowledgeable people in the Space Program. I do know that vision trumps expertise.

The Shuttle is dead. It makes me cry, but we have killed it with timidity and pointless missions. The one thing they did which was worth doing was the Hubble, and now they won’t take the necessary steps to keep it going. The Shuttle should be scrapped now. It’s like a yacht, a large hole in space into which we throw money. I say, put the money into the "Orient Express". Here is a program that would increase our capacity by an order of magnitude, and it is faltering now for lack of vision and a lack of will. Only the US can pull it off. The potential payoff is huge – in terms of defense, transportation, economic growth, educational motivation, innovative spin-offs and as a stepping-stone to Mars. Say what you will about Ronald Reagan. The man had vision.

Project analysts who look at cost vs. benefit never include the benefits of excitement, passion and increased capacity. The way people really learn is by being challenged. Hard problems make strong minds. If we’re going to be a society of knowledge workers, we have to start considering how that knowledge flows into society. Putting a significant number of our people on the steepest part of the learning curve pays off in ways that cannot be easily calibrated or predicted.

So, I’ll ask again. Did Egypt make the Pyramids or did the Pyramids make Egypt? Did Europe build the Cathedrals or vice versa? Did the effort invested in the Cathedrals provide the innovative impetus that eventually lead to the Industrial Revolution? In my opinion, you don’t learn to drive a truck by pushing wheelbarrows.

8/11/2005 12:13 AM

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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

We've Been Tested

The US government has decided in its infinite wisdom to treat hackers as bank robbers. Some of these guys are crooks by nature, it's true, but in my estimation, most of them are just enthusiastic technophiles, the cyberspace equivalent of Tigger. The fact is that they have been doing us a great service, largely for free. Most of them understand this at some level, and it adds to their enjoyment. "What could that service possibly be?" you ask in disbelief.

Most people think hackers are just vandals, stomping on the sandcastles at the info-beach, and they certainly have done a lot of damage. But what happens after the damage is done? Systems managers tighten up, toughen up and start to get smart. Management couldn't get this kind of intensive, creative and thorough systems testing for any amount of money. As a matter of fact, none of them would do any systems testing if they could get away with it. There are ways to measure security and integrity of systems, but it's much easier to throw paper at it, make it look like all the cinches are tight. Let the next manager deal with the real problems. Hackers work against these lazy attitudes. Hackers provide discipline. (Too bad they have been spending most of their time on Microsoft.)

Think about the natural selection of it. They look for weaknesses and pounce. What was it Nietzsche said? …

Why does your big brother push you around? Because he can, you think. But what is the result? When you eventually have to confront dangerous characters, you will know how to fight. Characters like these, maybe. Thank God for hackers. And viruses and spam too.

8/10/2005 11:46 AM

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Still Searching for Atlantis

Some architect, no less, thinks he has found Atlantis with sonar. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say I doubt it. Furthermore, I'll say that it's probably impossible to confirm that what he has found, if anything at all significant, is the same entity specified in Plato's ancient conversation. But I'm glad he's having fun.

8/9/2005 9:40 PM

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Monday, August 08, 2005

Hitchens on Losing Iraq

Christopher Hitchens in Slate asks why the generous spirit of the Left has not come to the support of the hapless citizens of today's Iraq.

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Planning for Spinoffs

I’ve observed over the years that NASA has contributed to our society and economy in numerous ways. It’s not just Tang. Here’s a site that lists some of the Space Race Spinoffs. I saw the phenomenon first hand. As a contractor I worked on a NASA IBM 360 that was enhanced with a floating-point accelerator, necessary for calculating real-time vectors. It was so much faster than the standard instruction set that some of my co-workers bizarrely used it to perform more customary functions, such as integer arithmetic and even counting. In subsequent years, the same concept, the math coprocessor, was incorporated into Intel processors. It was helpful to my own later work as a statistician. Inverting matrices is a bear. I had the hottest PC in the company with the superior OS/2 operating system. I have read, although I can’t seem to find it online, that the original microprocessor was just used for running refrigerators until NASA called down the space race lightning. Hey, could you guys do that for us? Maybe help us with onboard computer-controlled landing systems?

Would we have come up with the same advances and solutions at the same rate without NASA leading the way? It’s hard to say, but I personally don’t think so. I actually think that most of the action was taking place under the covers. There were ten thousand things that no one was thinking of until Jack Kennedy told them to get started. If you ever read any of James Burke’s pieces on connections you know that the intellectual ferment is self-catalyzing, a positive feedback process that shows no signs of tailing off any time soon. A sort of Moore’s Law of Knowledge.

In this regard, I also recommend A History of Warfare, by the peerless John Keegan. One discussion that impressed me was his theory that the horse warriors of ancient times were so astoundingly successful due, at least partly, to how they made their living, herding, moving and killing animals with their own hands. They studied strategy daily by contending with the contrary forces of nature. They studied tactics daily, confronting the contrary natures of willful animals. They lived logistics. The avalanche of knowledge obtained as a byproductof living in a variable world made them stronger, just generally more competent, than all the rich but static civilized societies around them. Americans were like that at one time. We were doing so many different things, so many big things, in the nineteenth century that we just got good at everything. We were like that in the Sixties too. The Chinese are like that now, and it worries me. Their blossoming competence, nurtured by an alert and flexible Central Committee, will see them through poverty into an era of incredible wealth and power. I think it unlikely – with our blinkered, gridlocked power structure, rampant shortsighted nimbyism, and contentious irrational religious boosterism – that we in the US will be able to keep pace with them.

We really have to be smarter, not so much in choosing our battles, but in choosing our projects, our pursuits, the things that shape us, as a hammer shapes the blacksmith. For example, using farm subsidies as a conscious policy to preserve the competence culture of the American Farmer is something that should be debated by a government that has the strength and independence, and the wit, to choose either way. Realignment and closing of military bases is something our government should be able to decide on. Disposing of nuclear waste is something our government should be able to decide on. If we could really choose our policies, there are a thousand ways we can feed the economy and nurture the diversity of skills and know-how among our people and allies. There are also a thousand frustrated economists out there who could provide insight on these issues, if only we had the ability to act upon their suggestions.

When President Bush announced that we would go to Mars, people snickered behind their hands. When he said we would invade Iraq, people took him seriously. What is the difference between those two commitments?

Here’s another question to ponder. Did the Egyptians build the Pyramids, or did the Pyramids build Egypt?

8/8/2005 2:10 AM

UPDATE: For another viewpoint on China, check in with David's Medienkritik.

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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Rain on St Rick II

Timothy Noah on Slate has dismembered Santorum over St. Rick’s plans for the National Weather Service. If he gets his way the NWS will be handcuffed, forbidden to distribute weather information in human readable form. If you assume that Santorum’s motives are those of a free-trader, then why not just do away with the NWS and let AccuWeather collect its own data. If you assume that it’s a concern for efficiency, then AccuWeather should have no problem in the current market, providing value-added products that the customer will pay for. Why would they need protection against a big bad government competitor to maintain their profits?

Some of you may remember the impact that Craig Venter, with private money, had on the Human Genome Project. He basically derailed the whole show, forcing the government to accept that he could do the job better, faster, cheaper. Eventually they joined forces and both sides benefited, most especially the public. If AccuWeather can’t compete with the government, they deserve only pity, not the full attention of a US Senator, a member of the greatest deliberative body in the history of the world.

8/2/2005 11:28 PM

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Monday, August 01, 2005

Fist of Foam

Last weekend I was out riding my bike, pedaling pretty hard down a wooded gravel road, when a dried sycamore leaf drifted slowly down into my path. I brushed it on my forearm as I passed and to my surprise, it hurt! How could that be, I wondered. It was just a dried leaf, larger than most I suppose, but very light, no real sharp edges. I must have run into a thousand such leaves in my life, blown by the wind perhaps. There was not even any wind to speak of.

It dawned on me then that I was the wind. Here was an object, light though it may be, held in place by air that may have been still compared to the planet, but not compared to me. You may be aware that the energy involved in a collision increases as the square of the relative speed of the objects colliding. I had probably never experienced that particular flukey collision before. It makes it much easier for me to believe reports of straws sticking into telephone poles after hurricanes and tornadoes.

It also makes me feel sympathy for NASA. Years ago somebody had to make a decision about how to reduce the thermal contrast between the Shuttle and a silo filled with liquid hydrogen. We’re picking up too much ice; we’re having trouble keeping shuttle components at proper operating temperature; we’re seeing temperature stresses on connecting bolts. Who knows exactly? Maybe it was even during the early design phases, but somebody decided to use foam insulation for all sorts of good reasons. What could be the downside they asked, because they ask that about everything. Well, it could catch fire. Fumes from heated foam could build up in some cavity and cause an explosion if there were exposed wires. There might be a transfer effect, dampening vibration in one area only to increase it in another. What about the mass? Carefully calculated, deemed a good tradeoff. We can even make the metal thinner if we use the foam, actually saving considerable weight.

The one question they did not ask was, "What happens if it breaks off and damages a tile on the leading edge of a wing?" I don’t know. Maybe they did ask that question. Somebody surely responded helpfully that it wouldn’t matter because everything would be moving at the same speed, and besides the stuff has very little mass. After that, no one paid attention to it when they saw it breaking off repeatedly, causing no noticeable problems.

Well, as many have said, it’s not what you don’t know that gets you. It’s what you know that just ain’t so.

8/1/2005 11:52 PM

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