25 April 2023

Phys.org: “Giant SpaceX rocket leaves crater, serious damage at Texas base”

Flying chunks of concrete, twisted metal sheets, craters blasted deep into the ground: the thunderous power of SpaceX’s first test flight of Starship—the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built—inflicted serious damage on its Texas launch site.

Repairing the damage from Thursday’s unmanned test flight is expected to take months, potentially delaying further launch attempts and slowing the development of a rocket NASA plans to use on its upcoming Moon missions.

De Weck said that Starship’s launch site, unlike others used for such large rockets, lacked a “water deluge system”.

Those are used to flood the pad with water, cooling it and absorbing shock and sound waves.

The Texas site also lacks what is known as a flame trench—tunnels which channel hot exhaust away from the pad.

Such features come at a high price though, particularly when they have to stand up to the earth-shaking power of Starship.

Patrick Fallon & Lucie Aubourg

Absent from this reporting: how is was Elon Musk’s decision 3 years ago not to install flame diverters on the Starship launchpad, leading to this failure. Meanwhile, the FAA grounded the Starship Super Heavy launch program pending a “mishap investigation”, further delaying their testing schedule by at least several months if not more than a year – and NASA’s Artemis mission to the Moon in the process. Regardless of when SpaceX will receive clearance for another test, they will need to rebuild and possibly redesign the launch site as well; after all, you can’t reuse the rocket if its launchpad is disposable…

24 April 2023

The Economist: “The lessons from America’s astonishing economic record”

If there is one thing that Americans of all political stripes can agree on, it is that the economy is broken. Donald Trump, who saw trade as a rip-off and his country in decline, came into office promising to make America great again. President Joe Biden is spending $2trn remaking the economy, hoping to build it back better. Americans are worried. Nearly four-fifths tell pollsters that their children will be worse off than they are, the most since the survey began in 1990, when only about two-fifths were as gloomy. The last time so many thought the economy was in such terrible shape, it was in the throes of the global financial crisis.

Yet the anxiety obscures a stunning success story—one of enduring but underappreciated outperformance. America remains the world’s richest, most productive and most innovative big economy. By an impressive number of measures, it is leaving its peers ever further in the dust.

Start with the familiar measure of economic success: gdp. In 1990 America accounted for a quarter of the world’s output, at market exchange rates. Thirty years on, that share is almost unchanged, even as China has gained economic clout. America’s dominance of the rich world is startling. Today it accounts for 58% of the G7’s gdp, compared with 40% in 1990. Adjusted for purchasing power, only those in über-rich petrostates and financial hubs enjoy a higher income per person. Average incomes have grown much faster than in western Europe or Japan. Also adjusted for purchasing power, they exceed $50,000 in Mississippi, America’s poorest state—higher than in France.

The Economist

Far from being convincing about ‘America’s astonishing economic record’, this article illustrates how easily you can draw flawed conclusions by cherry-picking data and relying on broad, but imprecise indicators. A higher income per person doesn’t mean much in a country with rising income inequality; higher efficiency and more patents doesn’t mean much if the gains from this productivity and innovation are amassed by the top 1% of earners and by corporations that are essentially monopolies with ballooning cash reserves.

22 April 2023

Foreign Policy: “A Realist Guide to World Peace”

I don’t have a formula for permanent peace up my sleeve, alas, but I do have an observation. A striking feature of most recent wars is how frequently they seem to backfire on the countries who start them. The days where major powers could start a big war and make dramatic strategic gains—as Japan did against Russia in 1905 or Bismarck’s Prussia did in the wars of German unification—seem to be behind us. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein attacked Iran and invaded Kuwait and lost big both times. The United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and ended up in costly quagmires, and its intervention in Libya in 2011 produced a failed state. Israel’s intervention in Lebanon led to an 18-year occupation, one that ended no better than the United States’ long effort in Afghanistan.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The fact that starting wars rarely pays tells us something important about the modern world: a combination of nationalism, rapid diplomatic communications, a flourishing international arms market that can fuel resistance movements, an imperfect but widely accepted norm against conquest, the sobering effects of nuclear weapons, and the powerful tendency for states to balance against manifest threats may have combined to make most offensive wars a dubious proposition for the initiator. This fact hasn’t ended international competition—far from it—but there seem to be real limits to what even powerful states can accomplish by launching a war.

Stephen M. Walt

A valid remark, one that contradicts the widespread talking point that, should Russia prevail in its invasion of Ukraine, China will be emboldened to attack Taiwan – or, on the same veins, that Russia will rampage over Europe in an unstoppable invasion spree. Russia has been significantly weakened by this aggression, so the more pertinent lesson for China would be that an assault of Taiwan would have significant costs, both economically and in terms of soldiers lost, even before considering the different tactical landscape (the Russian army simply advanced on Ukraine on land, whilst China would have to mount an amphibious offensive on the shores of Taiwan).

Sky & Telescope: “Does Earth have a New Quasi-Moon?”

Recently discovered asteroid 2023 FW13 has created a bit of a stir among asteroid watchers. It turns out to be on an orbit that is not only in a 1:1 resonance with the Earth, but follows a path that actually circles Earth — albeit on an orbit that is so eccentric that it sweeps out halfway to Mars and in halfway to Venus.

But this newfound asteroid, if preliminary orbital calculations are correct, will handily eclipse that record. Some estimates say it has circled Earth since at least 100 BC and will likely continue to do so until around AD 3700. If that’s correct, 2023 FW13 would be the most stable quasi-satellite of Earth ever found.

David L. Chandler

Interesting find! As the article mentions, its near-match to Earth’s orbit makes this asteroid easier to reach by spacecraft to potentially perform practice deep-space missions. I wonder if we could also park space telescopes on or around it – landing isn’t quite the right term, since the rock is only a dozen meters small and would have negligeable gravity – perhaps one that monitors near-Earth space for potentially hazardous asteroids. Since 2023 FW13’s orbit keeps it close to Earth, we could communicate with the telescope in near real-time and receive quick warning about new objects it finds. We could also practice asteroid deflection with other, more controlled methods than the DART mission.

18 April 2023

Systematic Hatreds: “This Trump Indictment isn’t Accountability”

Interestingly, the tweet omits a key phrase from her quote: she said We hold our leaders accountable when warranted. That’s a phrase that hides a myriad of failures to hold anyone to account, from LBJ on Vietnam to Reagan on Iran-Contra to Dubya on Iraq—you name it, and we can name more. Sovereign is she who decides the state of exception to accountability.

Psaki’s thesis here is that the indictment is good because it shows that our institutions are strong and will stand up to someone doing (in her baffling phrase) a “stress test” of democracy. This is plainly absurd. The events in question took place seven years ago when Trump was not president. He has faced almost no sanction for what he did as president and he got off scott-free for what he did in his attempt to subvert the presidential election.

By any standard, if accountability means consequences for actions, Trump has faced no accountability at all. Going after Trump on the Stormy Daniels issue is an admission of institutional failure or inability (which amount to the same thing), not of strength.

Paul Musgrave

In the days following the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, I was talking about it with a friend who was stunned by these events and thought that Trump will surely be held accountable this time around. I held the opposite view, namely that Trump will mostly get away with this latest afront on American institutions, as he had countless times before – more than two years later, I haven’t been proven wrong yet.

16 April 2023

Lefsetz Letter: “Max”

“HBO Max to Be Renamed ‘Max’ With Addition of Discovery+ Content, Launch Date and Pricing Revealed”: Variety

Everybody knows that when it comes to streaming television subscriptions it’s all about hit product. Word of mouth that garners viewers. Without “Ted Lasso”, Apple TV+ is dead on arrival. I wish Zaslav talked about new programming as opposed to this business nonsense. This is the man who eliminated shows and a brand name movie based on some cockamamie financial engineering. When it comes to streaming TV, brand is everything. Subscribing to a streaming service is not a financial decision, it’s an emotional decision. Which is why all these paid ad services miss the point. If someone wants the programming, they’ll pay. Otherwise you’re just cannibalizing your profits. Mercedes-Benz stopped importing its A-class to America, the company decided to stop making cheap models and focus on the expensive ones, where the profit is. But Zaslav? He’s bottom-feeding, appealing to the watchers of reality TV. Have you ever heard someone say they subscribed to a pay service to watch a reality show? I never have. Reality TV is mostly a time-killer, a guilty pleasure, very rarely is it appointment TV. You can live without the latest Bobby Flay competition show, but not the latest “Succession”, or “Stranger Things”.

This is what is wrong with television and this is what is wrong with music. Those in control never had skin in the game, they’re managers, not entrepreneurs. They’re anti-risk. Reed Hastings was all about risk, and he had vision, to switch from DVDs by mail to streaming. Do you remember when he announced that? The public screamed! The same public that today doesn’t even own a DVD player. You get ahead of the public, that’s how Spotify won, that’s how you will win, by providing something that people can’t even conceive of as opposed to trying to drag them back to the past.

Bob Lefsetz

Mirrors much of what I wrote a couple of months ago, as the company pulled Westworld and other exclusives from HBO. Alas, the new management is doubling down on these flawed decisions. At this point the best we can hope for is that ‘Max’ fails quickly, as Scott Galloway puts it, convincing the managerial team to reverse course.

14 April 2023

PetaPixel: “Gen Z discovers Modern Digital Cameras are Better than iPhones”

In a new TikTok trend, which is set to a remix of George Michael’s Careless Whispers, content creators are comparing portraits taken on their iPhones with the far superior photos that they took on a traditional digital camera.

The viral trend was started by influencer Lauren Wolfe in early March. In her original TikTok video, Wolfe compared the poorly lit photos she took at sunset on a beach on her iPhone to the stunning, unedited images that she took on a Canon Powershot G7 X.

Wolfe’s video amassed over 4 million views with TikTok users declaring: This fully convinced me to buy a digital camera.

And in each experiment, TikTok users concluded that the digital camera was always, unquestionably better than the smartphone — leaving one exasperated viewer complaining: What did I spend $1,300 on an iPhone with 3 cameras for?

Pesala Bandara

Well, well, how the tables have turned! Dedicated digital cameras undoubtedly have several advantages over smartphones, no matter how many cameras manufacturers pack into their slim bodies: from larger sensors with better dynamic range and less noise to better optics, and let’s not forget better ergonomics. The recent trends towards aggressive post-processing would also contribute to smartphone pictures looking ‘too crisp’ and ‘fake’.

10 April 2023

CNBC: “Google to cut down on employee laptops, services and staplers for ‘multi-year’ savings”

Among the equipment changes, Google is pausing refreshes for laptops, desktop PCs and monitors. It’s also changing how often equipment is replaced, according to internal documents viewed by CNBC.

Google employees who are not in engineering roles but require a new laptop will receive a Chromebook by default. Chromebooks are laptops made by Google and use a Google-based operating system called Chrome OS.

It’s a shift from the range of offerings, such as Apple MacBooks, that were previously available to employees. It also provides the best opportunity across all of our managed devices to prevent external compromise, one document about the laptop changes said.

Under a section titled “Desktops and Workstations”, the company said CloudTop, the company’s internal virtual workstation, will be the default desktop for Googlers.

In February, CNBC reported the company asked its cloud employees and partners to share desks by alternating days and are expected to transition to relying on CloudTop for their workstations.

Jennifer Elias

Adopting various savings measures is a fine way to adapt to a challenging economic outlook – certainly better than bluntly laying people off, or cutting their maternity and medical leaves – but these should be handled prudently as well. Cutting down on snack bars and cafeterias is a no-brainer, especially since employees are not coming into the offices five days a week as prior to the pandemic – in fact, I struggle to see why these services haven’t been downsized much sooner, in 2021 or even last year.

07 April 2023

The New York Times: “DeSantis’s Oversight Board said Disney stripped it of its Power”

Over the past two months, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has repeatedly declared victory in his yearlong effort to restrict the autonomy of Disney World, the state’s largest employer. There’s a new sheriff in town, he said numerous times, including at a news conference last month on Disney property, hours before appointing a new, handpicked oversight board.

Nobody seemed to have paid attention, however, to an important detail: Disney had been simultaneously maneuvering to restrict the governor’s effort. In early February — at a public meeting held by the previous, Disney-controlled oversight board — the company pushed through a development agreement that would limit the new board’s power for decades to come.

And now, the governor’s appointees, having belatedly discovered the action, are none too pleased. It completely circumvents the authority of the board to govern, Brian Aungst Jr., a member of the new council, said on Wednesday at the group’s second meeting. We’re going to have to deal with it and correct it.

The agreement is effective for perpetuity. It uses contractual language known as a “royal lives” clause: Shall continue in effect until twenty one (21) years after the death of the last survivor of the descendants of King Charles III, King of England living as of the date of this declaration. (The royal language quickly spawned numerous internet memes, striking people as odd in a matter involving a theme park that is home to Cinderella’s castle.)

Brooks Barnes

This piece of news has sparked a round of gleeful comments bashing Ron DeSantis’s dumbness and celebrating Disney’s clever ploy. To me, this episode exemplifies instead the polarization of US political life and increasing erosion of democratic norms. Would Democrats cheer on if the situation was reversed? If for instance an oil company would have similarly maneuvered around local authorities from the Democratic party to maintain its drilling rights? Covertly undermining representative power and shifting control in the hands of corporations are hallmarks of plutocracy, not of a healthy democratic system.