Can private-equity firms turn a crisis into an opportunity?

Their performance matters both for investors and the wider economy

For the first time in 30 years, China has no GDP target

The government will not set one this year, reflecting the pandemic’s uncertainties

The World Bank lands Carmen Reinhart as chief economist

Ms Reinhart is one of the most widely cited economists in the world

The pandemic could lead statisticians to change how they estimate GDP

Data gaps are rife, but statisticians may eventually understand better how the economy works

SpaceX Starship test vehicle explodes moments after test-firing

A full-size prototype of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship exploded in South Texas moments after a test-firing of its Raptor engine Friday, dealing a setback to the company’s ambition to develop a fully reusable space vehicle to ferry cargo and crews to the moon, Mars and other distant destinations.

The fiery explosion at SpaceX’s test site at Boca Chica, just east of Brownsville near the U.S.-Mexico border, occurred at 1:49 p.m. CDT (2:49 p.m. EDT; 1849 GMT) Friday, around two minutes after a brief firing of a Raptor engine mounted to the base of the Starship vehicle.

A cloud of vapors suddenly appeared around the bottom of the Starship vehicle — made of stainless steel — moments after the Raptor engine appeared to complete a normal test-firing that lasted a few seconds. Vapors were also visible streaming from vents higher up on the Starship vehicle before the explosion.

The fire appeared to originate near the base of the rocket, and the Starship was nearly instantaneously engulfed in a fireball. Multiple live webcams aimed at the Starship showed debris from the rocket falling around the test stand.

The explosion occurred one day before a separate SpaceX team at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida plans a second launch attempt for the company’s first spaceflight with humans aboard a Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The Starship is SpaceX’s next-generation spaceship. The company intends for the Starship and its booster rocket, called the Super Heavy, to eventually replace the Falcon 9 and Dragon vehicles.

The loss of another Starship vehicle Friday marked the fourth time a Starship test vehicle destroyed during ground testing in a little more than six months.

An initial Starship prototype ruptured during cryogenic pressure testing at Boca Chica last November, less than two months after SpaceX founder Elon Musk hosted a presentation at the South Texas test site provide an update on the company’s Starship plans.

Speaking to reporters and space fans last September, Musk suggested the first Starship prototype could perform a high-altitude atmospheric test flight before the end of 2019.

But SpaceX has since refined the Starship design and introduced improved manufacturing techniques to address structural deficiencies.

A second Starship test rocket crumpled during another pressure test in early March, and a third one collapsed during a similar cryogenic loading test April 3.

But SpaceX quickly moved on to the next Starship prototype as part of the company’s fast-paced iterative development process. Adie already in production for the next stage of testing at Boca Chica for the next stage of testing.

The fourth full-size Starship vehicle, which was destroyed Friday, passed the cryogenic pressure test milestone April 26. SpaceX then installed a Raptor engine on the bottom of the vehicle and conducted a test-firing May 5, then performed a series of additional hotfire tests throughout May leading up to Friday’s Raptor test-firing.

The tests were leading up to a hop test of the Starship vehicle as soon as next week. A temporary flight restriction closing airspace over the Boca Chica test site to an altitude of 26,000 feet (7,900 meters) was in place for Monday, June 1, suggesting SpaceX might attempt a low-altitude test flight of the Starship on that date.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued a launch license Thursday for SpaceX to conduct suborbital test flights of the Starship prototype at Boca Chica, clearing a major regulatory hurdle before the company proceeds into the next phase of flight testing with a full-size Starship vehicle. A sub-scale Starship prototype flew last August on a hop to an altitude of 500 feet (150 meters), then translated to a nearby landing pad, where it descended vertically and touched down.

The Starship is one of two components of SpaceX’s next-generation reusable launch system, which the company says will be the most powerful rocket ever built. Future Starship vehicles will be joined with a Super Heavy booster, which SpaceX is also developing, to loft massive payloads into Earth orbit, to the moon, Mars and other deep space destinations.

The privately-developed Starship vehicle stands around 164 feet (50 meters) tall with its nose cone installed. The nose cone, which includes aerodynamic fins, was not on the rocket for Wednesday’s test. The vehicle measures around 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter, about one-and-a-half times the diameter of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Combined with the Super Heavy first stage, the entire stack will stand around 387 feet (118 meters) tall. The Super Heavy will be powered by more than 30 Raptor engines, according to SpaceX.

An operational Starship could haul more than 100 metric tons, or 220,000 pounds, of cargo to low Earth orbit, SpaceX said.

“Starship has the capability to transport satellites, payloads, crew, and cargo to a variety of orbits and Earth, lunar, or Martian landing sites,” SpaceX wrote in a Starship user’s guide released earlier this year.

NASA awarded SpaceX a $135 million contract April 30 to advance steps to demonstrate the feasibility of using a Starship variant to land astronauts on the moon as part of the space agency’s Artemis program. NASA also awarded lunar lander contracts to industrial teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Filtered for musical cyborgs


Here’s Piano Genie, a device with a row of eight colourful arcade buttons that sits between the player and the actual piano keyboard.

Play the coloured buttons, and the device improvises a virtuoso performance on the piano itself – matching the intent of your ham-fisted button pushing.

Musical upscaling, I guess?

File this cyborg prosthesis as: power amplifier. It directly amplifies human intent.


Guitar Machine is a robotic attachment for a guitar.

At first it seems like Guitar Machine is a replacement for the human: the player will “train” the machine (programming by example?) and the machine will replay what it has been taught.

So file this cyborg prosthesis as: macro engine. Script once, repeat indefinitely.

BUT – give a machine like this to a musician, and they try to break it. Guitar Machine can play the guitar simultaneously with the human:

He was seamlessly transitioning between giving the robot the lead, taking over control, and synthesizing his own playing with the robot’s once he understood what the robot was doing.

A duet!


Here’s a short documentary about a drummer with a bionic arm. He lost his original arm, and now in its place is this bionic arm that is made to play the drums.

Another article goes hard on how the beats aren’t humanly possible: The prosthetic arm can play the drums four times faster than humans.

The arm can also play strange polyrhythms that no human can play.

Then there’s this bit:

Then, he fitted Barnes with a cyborg arm with two drumsticks – one that is controlled by Barnes, and the other that operates autonomously through its own actuator. The arm actually listens to the music being played and improvises its own accompanying beat pattern, which are pre-programmed into it.

I am into the idea that this cyborg arm has its own will and its own creative urge.

The two-way feedback and improvisation makes this more than a duet.

File this cyborg prosthesis as a third type: centaur.

I posted last month about wild cyborg prosthetics – it strikes me that a typology like this is a useful way to generate more ideas.


Are there research labs in the UK/Europe working on the underlying tech for this? In any domain really, music to military, swimming to shopping. Like, human prostheses haunted by embedded wilful compute?

As they say, lmk.


The Impossible Music of Black MIDI starts with some historical background:

In 1947, the composer Conlon Nancarrow–frustrated with human pianists and their limited ability to play his rhythmically complex music–purchased a device which allowed him to punch holes in player piano rolls. This technology allowed him to create incredibly complex musical compositions, unplayable by human hands, which later came to be widely recognized by electronic musicians as an important precursor to their work.

And this is the whole point. Cyborg technology is not about existing musicians playing existing music with less effort. It’s about scouting ahead to invent whole new genres.

The article goes on to talk about Black MIDI itself:

A similar interest in seemingly impossible music can be found today in a group of musicians who use MIDI files (which store musical notes and timings, not unlike player piano rolls) to create compositions that feature staggering numbers of notes. They’re calling this kind of music “black MIDI,” which basically means that when you look at the music in the form of standard notation, it looks like almost solid black.

The sound is an ascent into an insane chaos, like jamming static in your ears. I love it.

Do check out the article because then you can listen to the track Bad Apple, which is embedded there, and which reportedly includes 8.49 million separate notes.

Not that we measure the worth of music by weight, like buying potatoes. But still, what if we did.

SES details LEO constellation and expanded MEO constellation to FCC

WASHINGTON — SES proposed a low Earth orbit constellation to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission that, if built, would make the company an operator of satellites in low, medium and geostationary orbits. 

Luxembourg-based SES on May 26 asked the FCC to grant U.S. market access for a constellation of 36 LEO satellites that would provide high data rate communications for internet-of-things devices and serve as a relay network for other digital traffic. 

SES also asked for market access rights for an additional 34 satellites it would add to the O3b broadband constellation it has already deployed in medium Earth orbit. 

An SES foray into LEO?

SES operates around 50 satellites in geostationary orbits 36,000 kilometers above the equator, plus 20 O3b satellites in medium Earth orbits 8,000 kilometers above the Earth. The company has touted having both MEO and GEO as a competitive advantage that enables optimal routing of customer traffic based on speed and coverage requirements. 

SES CEO Steve Collar expressed an openness to LEO in March, describing SES as building an “integrated, cloud-scale network” in Ka-band with multiple orbits.

“What multi-orbit does is it allows you to put the right customer in the right place in the network and takes us away from this religion between ‘is it MEO or GEO or LEO?’ I think, for us at least, it will be a mix. It will be integrated, and most of the time customers won’t know what they are on,” Collar said during the Satellite 2020 conference. 

The LEO constellation SES described to the FCC would use Ka-band frequencies, the same as the operator’s O3b satellites in MEO and a few of its GEO satellites. The LEO constellation would operate in a 507-kilometer orbit and use radio-frequency links to transmit to satellites in MEO and GEO. 

SES’s FCC filing does not represent a commitment to build a LEO constellation. The company was responding to an FCC call for information from satellite operators, current or prospective, that aim to provide U.S. communications services with non-geosynchronous constellations operating in certain Ku- and Ka-band frequencies. OneWeb used the FCC’s call to file a proposal for a 48,000-satellite constellation even though it is in bankruptcy, and Viasat used the round to file a 300-satellite constellation it might build if it wins federal broadband subsidies

In total, nine companies responded to the FCC’s May 26 deadline with new constellations or constellation expansions under consideration. EOS Defense Systems, Kepler Communications, Telesat, SpaceX, Mangata Networks, and New Spectrum Satellite all filed in addition to OneWeb, SES and Viasat. 

If SES does deploy a LEO constellation focused on the internet-of-things market, it would follow Eutelsat and EchoStar as veteran geostationary satellite operators developing LEO IoT constellations. More than a dozen startups, such as Kepler, Fleet and Astroscale, are also deploying LEO IoT constellations, many having started their businesses before incumbent GEO operators began aggressively eying the same market. 

Doubling down on MEO

Meanwhile, SES told the FCC the purpose of its new MEO filing is to prepare for a third generation of O3b satellites, which would follow the upcoming O3b mPower satellites. If approved, SES would have market access rights for 76 MEO satellites, 20 of which have already launched. 

SES has seven O3b mPower satellites under construction with Boeing and slated to launch in 2021 on two SpaceX Falcon 9 missions. SES has not said how many mPower satellites it will order and launch before starting a third-generation O3b network. The company said in 2018 that FCC approvals it received that year enable it to triple the size of the mPower fleet.

For its third-generation O3b network, SES said it wants to operate 10 satellites in an equatorial MEO orbit. Another 24 satellites would operate in inclined MEO orbits, and would use a smaller platform that “allows for more satellites to fit within available launchers,” SES said. 

The proposed MEO satellites would also have inter-satellite links to enable communications between spacecraft in different orbits.

AFDLOX May 29, 11:09am

FXUS66 KLOX 291809 AFDLOX Area Forecast Discussion National Weather Service Los Angeles/Oxnard CA 1109 AM PDT Fri May 29 2020 Updated Aviation Section .SYNOPSIS...29/929 AM. Partly to mostly cloudy skies will prevail across southwestern California today through Saturday. Low pressure will bring a chance of showers to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties later tonight and Saturday as well. Night and morning low clouds and fog should affect the coast and valleys Saturday night into early next week, otherwise partly to mostly cloudy skies will continue. Temperatures will cool to below normal through Saturday then turn warmer to near normal Sunday into early next week.

Where Things Stand: Charges Over George Floyd's Death

The police officer who pinned George Floyd to the ground with his knee while Floyd repeatedly shouted that he couldn’t breathe has been arrested.

The Associated Press just reported the news. We’ll get you more details as we learn them, but it is still unclear what he’s been charged with.

If you’re reading this, you don’t need me to outline the events that have transpired in Minnesota, and the White House, over the last 24 hours.

Protests over the death of George Floyd escalated over night. Trump invoked a bloody, racist refrain about the unrest on Twitter, suggesting the authorities have his permission to physically harm demonstrators. His war with the social media giant continues.

As has been the case time and time again, video footage of the incident is shocking and a damning indictment of the conduct of white officers involved in the death of a black man. The arrest of at least one officer involved comes after days of uncertainty over whether the police, including Derek Chauvin, would be charged over the incident.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey had called for charges to be brought against the officers. State attorney general Keith Ellison predicted this morning there would be criminal charges soon. The FBI is involved. But Hennepin County District Attorney Mike Freeman called for patience yesterday as his office continued to investigate the killing. Some interpreted the delay as another tired tale of resistance to justice in the wake of police killings of black men, especially when coupled with the Minneapolis Police Department’s initial portrait of Floyd’s death as a “medical incident.”

According to Trump, the National Guard has just arrived in the city plagued by days of justified unrest. This initial arrest appears to be a crucial step toward protesters’ push for justice. We’ll keep you updated on the charges.

Here’s more on that and other stories we’re following today:

What The Investigations Team Is Watching

Matt Shuham wrote about the origin of the “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” refrain that President Trump tweeted early Friday morning. Twitter pinned a warning label on the tweet, saying it violated a Twitter rule against “glorifying violence.”

Tierney Sneed is working on a piece debunking the logic behind two anti-vote by mail columns that were tweeted out by members of the White House press shop this week.

What The Breaking News Team Is Watching

The governor of Minnesota issued an apology to CNN president Jeff Zucker on Friday morning after state police arrested a team of CNN reporters covering the protests in Minneapolis. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) called the arrests “unacceptable.”

President Trump admitted, once again, that part of his war against mail-in-voting in based in the myth that the practice disproportionately helps Democrats’ — and hurts Republicans’ — election prospects. Trump’s made the claim before. The tweet was just the latest in a string of attacks he’s launched against absentee voting as more states expand vote-by-mail programs to accommodate for holding elections during a pandemic.

If You Read Anything On COVID-19 Today, Read This

Kate Riga reports on the befuddling case of a Republican Pennsylvania lawmaker who didn’t tell his Democratic colleagues that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Rep. Andrew Lewis (R) only told the Republican caucus about his diagnosis, and none of the Republican lawmakers felt the need to fill Democrats in.

Earlier reporting on Republicans behaving badly amid COVID-19

Coming Up

11:30 a.m. ET: The governor of Minnesota held a press briefing amid protests over the death of George Floyd.

2:00 p.m. ET: Trump will hold a press briefing.

4:00 p.m. ET: Trump will host a roundtable discussion with executives about reopening the economy.

Yesterday’s Most Read Story

Trump Tweets Video Declaring That ‘The Only Good Democrat Is A Dead Democrat’ — Cristina Cabrera

What We Are Reading

The Far Right Wants To Make Its Shared ‘Boogaloo’ Fantasy Of Violent Civil War A Reality — David Neiwert

NHC Eastern North Pacific Outlook

Eastern North Pacific 2-Day Graphical Outlook Image
Eastern North Pacific 5-Day Graphical Outlook Image


Tropical Weather Outlook
NWS National Hurricane Center Miami FL
1100 AM PDT Fri May 29 2020

For the eastern North Pacific...east of 140 degrees west longitude:

1. Shower and thunderstorm activity has become better organized today
in association with a broad area of low pressure located a couple
of hundred miles south of the coasts of Central America and
southern Mexico. Environmental conditions appear conducive for
gradual development and a tropical depression could form this
weekend. This disturbance is expected to move slowly northward
toward Central America and southern Mexico during the next couple
of days.

Regardless of development, this system is expected to produce heavy
rainfall over portions of Central America and southern Mexico
this weekend and early next week. These rains could cause
life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, especially in areas of
mountainous terrain. See products from your local meteorological
service for additional information.
* Formation chance through 48 hours...medium...60 percent.
* Formation chance through 5 days...high...70 percent.

Forecaster Latto

Stansbury and Summers respond on worker bargaining power, and more on monopsony

Both to my earlier points and to some other discussions, here is the link.  Here is one excerpt related to a point I had not understood in the paper proper:

5. If corporate profits are so high, how is this consistent with the persistently low demand postulated by Summers’ “secular stagnation” hypothesis?

Secular stagnation as we think of it is the product of a rising gap between the desire to save and the desire to invest (which, in an IS-LM type framework, would push down the neutral real interest rate). Falling worker power redistributes income from lower and middle-income people to the rich. The rich have a higher propensity to save. Thus, falling worker power increases the desire to save relative to the desire to invest. Rising inequality has been posited by several authors as a contributor to the declining neutral real interest rate (see e.g. Smith and Rachel 2015). Under this view, secular stagnation is exemplified by low private return to capital investment – but, in a noncompetitive world, this may or may not be the same thing as an abnormally low profit rate or capital share.

There is much more at the link, and on other issues as well.  I would say I found the whole paper and discussion very clarifying.

While we are on the topic, here is a new paper by Stansbury (with Schubert and Taska) on monopsony.  I haven’t read through it, but just based on the description of what they did it seems to get closer to finding the truth than the other works I have seen in this area:

Abstract:  In imperfectly competitive labor markets, the value of workers’ outside option matters for their wage. But which jobs comprise workers’ outside option, and to what extent do they matter? We the effect of workers’ outside options on wages in the U.S, splitting outside options into two components: within-occupation options, proxied by employer concentration, and outside-occupation options, identified using new occupational mobility data. Using a new instrument for employer concentration, based on differential local exposure to national firm-level trends, we find that moving from the 75th to the 95th percentile of employer concentration (across workers) reduces wages by 5%. Differential employer concentration can explain 21% of the interquartile wage variation within a given occupation across cities. In addition, we use a shift-share instrument to identify the wage effect of local outside-occupation options: differential availability of outside-occupation options can explain a further 13% of within-occupation wage variation across cities. Moreover, the two interact:  the effect of concentration on wages is three times as high for occupations with the lowest outward mobility as for those with the highest. Our results imply that (1) employer concentration matters for wages for a large minority of workers, (2) wages are relatively sensitive to the outside option value of moving to other local jobs, and (3) failure to consider the role of outside-occupation options in the concentration-wage relationship leads to bias and obscures important heterogeneity. Interpreted through the lens of a Nash bargaining model, our results imply that a $1 increase in the value of outside options leads to $0.24-$0.37 higher wages.

It also would be interesting to see what these parameter values imply for the effects of minimum wage hikes.

The post Stansbury and Summers respond on worker bargaining power, and more on monopsony appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.

Bogus Security Technology: An Anti-5G USB Stick

The 5GBioShield sells for £339.60, and the description sounds like snake oil:

...its website, which describes it as a USB key that "provides protection for your home and family, thanks to the wearable holographic nano-layer catalyser, which can be worn or placed near to a smartphone or any other electrical, radiation or EMF [electromagnetic field] emitting device".

"Through a process of quantum oscillation, the 5GBioShield USB key balances and re-harmonises the disturbing frequencies arising from the electric fog induced by devices, such as laptops, cordless phones, wi-fi, tablets, et cetera," it adds.

Turns out that it's just a regular USB stick.

Listening to Black Voices Amid Murder, Violence, Protest, and Pandemic

Hi. I wanted to take today to compile a sampling of what black people (along with a few immigrant and other PoC voices) are saying about the recent murders by police of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the threatening of Christian Cooper with police violence by a white woman, the protests in Minneapolis & other places, and the unequal impact of the pandemic on communities of color, as well as what black voices have said in the past about similar incidents & situations. This is not an exhaustive list of reaction & commentary — it’s just a sample. I’m not going to add anything to these voices, but I will share a few resources at the end of the post.

Please put your urge to judge on the shelf for a minute and just listen to your fellow human beings in all of their raw, righteous, and furious anger. I am trying to listen. Is America finally ready to listen? Are you ready?

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Of Course There Are Protests. The State Is Failing Black People.

This simultaneous collapse of politics and governance has forced people to take to the streets — to the detriment of their health and the health of others — to demand the most basic necessities of life, including the right to be free of police harassment or murder.

What are the alternatives to protest when the state cannot perform its basic tasks and when lawless police officers rarely get even a slap on the wrist for crimes that would result in years of prison for regular citizens? If you cannot attain justice by engaging the system, then you must seek other means of changing it. That’s not a wish; it’s a premonition.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor again reacting to “American billionaires got $434 billion richer during the pandemic”:

This looting by billionaires is what sets fires and burns down stores. You do not get one without the other.

Jillian Sloane:

I wish America loved black people the way they love black culture.

Martin Luther King, Jr., The Other America (via Paul Octavious):

I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

Bakari Sellers (click through to watch the video):

It’s just so much pain. You get so tired. We have black children. I have a 15-year-old daughter. What do I tell her? I’m raising a son. I have no idea what to tell him. It’s just, it’s hard being black in this country when your life is not valued.

Black parents talk to their children about how to deal with the police:

Ruhel Islam, a Bangladeshi immigrant and owner of Gandhi Mahal Restaurant, which burned in Minneapolis:

Let my building burn, Justice needs to be served, put those officers in jail.

DiDi Delgado:

In the time between Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe” and George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” police in the United States killed at least (AT LEAST) 5,947 people. #WeCantBreathe

Ella Baker:

Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.

Peter Daou:

America, where it’s okay to kneel on a black man’s neck and murder him, but it’s “unpatriotic” to kneel in protest of that murder.

#BlackLivesMatter #TakeAKnee

Luvvie Ajay, About the Weary Weaponizing of White Women Tears:

White people will never have to deal with the fact that their skin is considered a weapon but they use their skins as ammunition by using all the privileges that come with it to terrorize the world. White women use their tears as pity me bombs all the time and it often instigates Black people being punished.

Ajay again:

I’ve traveled all over the world. And have never felt as unsafe as I do at home, in the United States.



Can we stop calling it “police brutality” it’s murder, M-U-R-D-E-R

Nikole Hannah-Jones, Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why.:

For those of you reading this who may not be black, or perhaps Latino, this is my chance to tell you that a substantial portion of your fellow citizens in the United States of America have little expectation of being treated fairly by the law or receiving justice. It’s possible this will come as a surprise to you. But to a very real extent, you have grown up in a different country than I have.

As Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness, puts it, “White people, by and large, do not know what it is like to be occupied by a police force. They don’t understand it because it is not the type of policing they experience. Because they are treated like individuals, they believe that if ‘I am not breaking the law, I will never be abused.’”

We are not criminals because we are black. Nor are we somehow the only people in America who don’t want to live in safe neighborhoods. Yet many of us cannot fundamentally trust the people who are charged with keeping us and our communities safe.

Jemele Hill:

Trump to the white people with AR-15s throwing a temper tantrum over a haircut — “Liberate”

Trump to those protesting the lack of justice in Minneapolis — “THUGS”

A whole, racist clown.

Tarana Burke:

A few years ago me and dude are out and come back to his car to find it vandalized. He parked by a driveway and partially blocked it and we concluded that the owners had vandalized the car. I get pissed and go knock on the door. They don’t answer so I’m yelling!

He’s telling me to calm down and forget it but I’m pissed! A few minutes later cop car rolls by and they stop and get out. I start to tell them what happened and they walk up on him and immediately start questioning him. I interrupt and say “excuse me HIS car was vandalized!”

The cops tell me to ‘be quiet’ and just as I’m about to turn all the way up on them he turns to me and says “Baby, please…” firmly. Then he calmly answers the cops questions even though they are rude and invasive. They take his license and keep asking ridiculous questions…

“What are you all doing here?”
“Did you get into an altercation earlier tonight?”
“If I knock on these people’s door what are they going to say?”

I was fuming. Now I’m nervous.

Damon Young, Thoughts on Forgiving Amy Cooper (aka ‘Darth Karen’), Who Got Fired, Banned From Central Park, and Lost Her Dog:


Ibram X. Kendi (via Nicole Parker):

The greatest white privilege is life itself. People of color are being deprived of life.

Dr. Kendi again:

They say they can’t be racist because they are northerners. They say they can’t be racist because they are progressives. They say they can’t be racist because they are Democrats.

Why are they saying they can’t be racist? Because they are racist.

Dr. Kendi for a third time (he wrote a whole book about moments like these):

It feels like Black people were running for their lives from racist terror only to run into the murderous face of COVID-19, only to start running for their lives from COVID-19 only to run into the murderous face of racist terror.

Maurice Moe Mitchell:

If you have trouble imagining the concept of “police abolition,” look no further than the many live experiments being played out in upper middle class white suburbs across the country where people carry on their lives with little to no interaction with law enforcement.

Ernest Owens, I Have Not Missed the Amy Coopers of the World:

I’m doing better these days because staying home alone and practicing social distancing has meant I’m avoiding many of the racist encounters that used to plague my daily life.

The video that circulated this weekend of a white woman calling the police with a false report about threats by a black man who simply asked her to leash her dog in Central Park illustrates exactly why I’m so happy to be spending more time inside.

Blair Imani:

Murder is worse than property destruction. Every single time. Don’t let capitalism fool you.

Ruby Hamad, A White Damsel Leveraged Racial Power and Failed:

The damsel-in-distress archetype probably conjures up images of delicate maidens and chivalrous gentlemen. That is precisely what it is designed to do — for white people. To people of color, and especially African-Americans who have borne the brunt of her power in the United States, the image is very different. The damsel in distress is an illusion of innocence that deflects and denies the racial crimes of white society.

J. Drew Lanham, Birding While Black:

Up until now the going has been fun and easy, more leisurely than almost any “work” anyone could imagine. But here I am, on stop number thirty-two of the Laurel Falls Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) route: a large black man in one of the whitest places in the state, sitting on the side of the road with binoculars pointed toward a house with the Confederate flag proudly displayed. Rumbling trucks passing by, a honking horn or two, and curious double takes are infrequent but still distract me from the task at hand. Maybe there’s some special posthumous award given for dying in the line of duty on a BBS route-perhaps a roadside plaque honoring my bird-censusing skills.

Tyler Merritt, Before You Call the Cops:

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

I’ll just say it: a lot of politicians are scared of the political power of the police, and that’s why changes to hold them accountable for flagrant killings don’t happen. That in itself is a scary problem.

We shouldn’t be intimidated out of holding people accountable for murder.

Ernest Owens:

BEFORE Y’ALL KEEP GOING: Christian Cooper could have had tattoos on his face, hated birds, been smoking a blunt and listening to Future, and #CentralParkAmy WOULD HAVE STILL BEEN AS GUILTY AND RACIST AND WRONG AF FOR TERRORIZING HIM.

Enough with the respectability politics.

Alicia Crosby:

I really can’t shake how profoundly evil it is to tear gas folks protesting the suffocation of a man by the police during a pandemic driven by a respiratory disease.

Shenequa Golding, Maintaining Professionalism In The Age of Black Death Is….A Lot:

Your black employees are exhausted.

Your black employees are scared.

Your black employees are crying in between meetings.

Your black employees have mentally checked out.

Your black employees are putting on a performance.

Charles Blow, How White Women Use Themselves as Instruments of Terror:

At a time of so much death and suffering in this country and around the world from the Covid-19 pandemic, it can be easy, I suppose, to take any incidents that don’t result in death as minor occurrences.

But they aren’t. The continued public assault on black people, particularly black men, by the white public and by the police predates the pandemic and will outlast it. This racial street theater against black people is an endemic, primal feature of the Republic.

Specifically, I am enraged by white women weaponizing racial anxiety, using their white femininity to activate systems of white terror against black men. This has long been a power white women realized they had and that they exerted.

Michael Harriot (from this thread):

There has NEVER been a successful protest movement in modern history that succeeded without violence.

Not Christianity. Not democracy. Not civil rights.

The choice is, which side is going to do the donate their blood?

We’re damn near out of blood to give.

So, if you want to change the system, history has repeatedly told us how to do it.


And amen, motherfuckers.

James Baldwin (see also How to Cool It and, like, everything else Baldwin has ever written or said):

The reason that black people are in the streets has to do with the lives they’re forced to lead in this country. And they’re forced to lead these lives by the indifference and the apathy and a certain kind of ignorance — a very willful ignorance — on the part of their co-citizens.

Several people on social media have pointed to this list of 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice, including several organizations you can donate to. Ibram X. Kendi compiled an antiracist reading list. I am not any sort of expert, but I personally have found much understanding in listening to the Seeing White podcast, reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, and watching Eyes on the Prize, I Am Not Your Negro, & OJ: Made in America among other things. Thanks to everyone listed here for sharing their words and works with us.

Tags: Ahmaud Arbery   Breonna Taylor   Christian Cooper   crime   George Floyd   murder   racism   USA

Stormy and Rainy in the East; Hot in the West

AFDSGX May 29, 8:50am

FXUS66 KSGX 291550 AFDSGX Area Forecast Discussion National Weather Service San Diego CA 850 AM PDT Fri May 29 2020 .SYNOPSIS... High pressure over Southern California will weaken and move east through Saturday as a low pressure system moves northeast into Northern California. This will result in stronger onshore flow and cooling, along with greater coverage of low clouds into the valleys. Gusty south/southwest winds and hot, dry weather will result in elevated fire weather conditions today in the High Desert. Another upper low will form off the coast of California early next week. Considerable uncertainty exists on placement of the low and how it will influence temperatures and low clouds.

Friday assorted links

The post Friday assorted links appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.

Q2 GDP Forecasts: Probably Around 40% Annual Rate Decline

Important: GDP is reported at a seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR). So a 40% Q2 decline is around 9% decline from Q1 (SA).

From Merrill Lynch:
Better than expected capex data edged up 2Q GDP tracking to -39.7% qoq saar. [May 29 estimate]
emphasis added
From the NY Fed Nowcasting Report
The New York Fed Staff Nowcast stands at -35.5% for 2020:Q2. [May 29 estimate]
And from the Altanta Fed: GDPNow
The GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the second quarter of 2020 is -51.2 percent on May 29, down from -40.4 percent on May 28. [May 29 estimate]

The Gang Leader as President

We awake to a bewildering, sobering tableau. A second night of protests engulfed Minneapolis in the wake of the police killing George Floyd and a news conference in which the county district attorney, Mike Freeman, appeared to resist bringing charges against the police officer, Derek Chauvin, who was videotaped kneeling on Floyd’s neck before he died.

Protesters-turned-rioters took control the city’s 3rd precinct after police evacuated the building and then set it on fire. In the early morning, Minneapolis Police arrested a compliant CNN news crew and reporter Omar Jimenez live on air. Overnight, President Trump, still egging on his faux battle with Twitter and threats to regulate it out of existence, went on the platform to threaten mass carnage against the city’s “thugs.”

Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!

Twitter flagged the tweet with a content warning that it “violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence.” This comes less than 24 hours after he amplified a call to kill Democrats. This is the President of the United States.

That this all occurred as the country remains gripped in an historic epidemic which has just taken the 100,000th American life and the national economy staggers under the weight of that crisis simply adds to the surreality and crisis of America under Donald Trump.

In 2016, Will Saletan made an observation I’ve returned to again and again. “The GOP is a failed state and Donald Trump is its warlord.” What was and is true of the GOP is now, in a sense, true of America. A warlord never rules, let alone governs, a party or country. He dominates a chunk of it by force and violence and overawes the rest of it by that example. He pillages the whole and rewards supporters with the pickings to maintain his hold on the political rump that sustains his power. It is the fundamental brokenness or fragmentation of the larger unit that makes this feat possible.

We see this today on every front. Trump notionally presides over a national policy of public health mitigation strategies while he simultaneously rallies followers in an ersatz culture war against them. He has been head of state for going on four years, but still presents himself as an outsider battling an omnipresent “deep state.” In his battles with Twitter, threats of violence both civil and political, Trump functions more as a faction chief or a gang leader than a President, navigating from a privileged position of power the social and public chaos he sees it in his interest to foment.

Trump’s role as chief rabble-rouser and civic arsonist in 2016, bewilderingly, never really changed — despite his election victory — because he never really consented to become President. He grabbed hold of the bundle of powers, but in a critical way — not the authority and certainly, not the responsibility or accountability. He remains the warlord, the strongest force in the land. But the position of president, the constitutional figure intended to make an effort at public unity and steer the ship, remains vacant. And thus we have a chaos, with attempts to stitch together the fabric here and there with ad hoc confederacies of governors, in which he thrives.

Trump space speech in Florida likely to test apolitical nature of NASA

President Trump signs an Orion capsule hatch that will be used for the Artemis II mission as Vice President Mike Pence, First Lady Melania Trump, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (wearing a mask) look on.

Enlarge / President Trump signs an Orion capsule hatch that will be used for the Artemis II mission as Vice President Mike Pence, First Lady Melania Trump, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (wearing a mask) look on. (credit: NASA)

After President Trump appointed a conservative Republican congressman from Oklahoma named Jim Bridenstine to become NASA's administrator, the legislator faced hard questions. During a Senate confirmation hearing in late 2017, Bridenstine was asked repeatedly whether he would honor NASA's tradition of remaining a bipartisan, apolitical agency.

"I want to make sure that NASA remains, as you said, apolitical, and I will do that to the best of my ability should I be confirmed," he said at the time.

Democratic senators were not convinced, and Bridenstine was ultimately confirmed on a party-line vote in 2018. However, in the two years since then, Bridenstine has remained true to his word. He has transcended politics and sought to reach out to both Republican and Democratic lawmakers during his tenure. He even appointed one of his harshest critics at the Senate confirmation hearing, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, to NASA's Advisory Council after Nelson lost his re-election bid in 2018.

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Inconsistent COVID-19 Messaging From NASA Kennedy

Real Personal Income less Transfer Payments

In the Personal Income & Outlays report for April, the BEA noted that "Personal income increased $1.97 trillion (10.5 percent) in April". This was due to a large increase in transfer payment.

Transfer payments increased by $3 trillion in April. Unemployment insurance increased from $70 billion in March, to $430 billion in April. And "Other" (mostly the CARES Act) increased by $2,600 billion in April.

Without the increase in transfer payments, Personal Income in April would have declined by about  6%.

A key measure of the health of the economy (Used by NBER in recession dating) is Real Personal Income less Transfer payments.

Real Personal Income less Transfer payments Click on graph for larger image.

This graph shows real personal income less transfer payments since 1990.

This measure of economic activity decreased 2.8% in March, compared to February, and another 6.3% in April (compared to March).

A Very Mixed Feeling About D.C.’s Moving to Phase One

So today is the big day for D.C.: it’s relaxing, somewhat, restrictions on activity (you can read the details here). It was going to happen eventually, though I really think the city should have waited until the original date of June 8.

D.C. doesn’t really have an enforcement mechanism (there are indoor businesses I’ve seen where customers and workers aren’t wearing masks, even though they’re required to do so). To boot, some of the regulations are vague. No, you can’t write regulations for every circumstance, but I suspect that some businesses will behave badly, even if unintentionally. I also worry that loosening restrictions will lead to bad behavior. Finally, there could be an ‘Ocean City’ effect from last weekend that starts to kick in next week.

This is all against the backdrop of there being too many cases. Yes, the numbers are declining, but right now, we’re still counting on, like most places, the infrequency of infection to protect us. It’s not clear that the total number of infected people is low enough yet. It’s not just the trend, but also the absolute numbers–in every ward (the best way to not get COVID-19 is to not be in contact with someone who has it).

In terms of response, even though the city claims the ability to track close contacts of all new cases, D.C. has not yet demonstrated the ability, despite its claim, to rapidly test, trace, and isolate at scale like, let’s say, South Korea. Since most spread occurs via ‘super-spreading’, it’s not clear this is enough capacity–testing needs to cover more than just close contacts.

Hopefully I’m wrong about this: it’s time for some luck to break D.C.’s way. With luck, we’ll be one of the places during the summer that doesn’t get a flareup. Anyway, it’s pretty clear the city is done listening to the microbiologists on this, so here’s to hoping.

Preparing for the Political Season to Reopen

Back in May 1768, the Massachusetts General Court added seven Whig House members involved in the Circular Letter dispute to the Council, which functioned as the legislature’s upper house and an advisory board for the governor.

Gov. Francis Bernard had vetoed six of those seven men.

In May 1769, a new legislature convened and elected those six men to the Council again. On 1 June, Gov. Bernard vetoed them again. He also vetoed five more names, including:
A couple of weeks later, Gov. Bernard moved the whole legislature out to Cambridge. Meeting in Harvard Hall (a building the governor himself had designed, shown above) instead of Boston’s Town House produced even more controversy. The House petitioned the Crown to remove Bernard from office. The legislative session ended in July. Bernard left Massachusetts forever in August.

On 15 Mar 1770, acting governor Thomas Hutchinson called the Massachusetts General Court back into session, once again in Cambridge. He said that he didn’t feel he had the authority to change the venue. There was a lot more arguing about that, as well as about Bernard’s and other officials’ letters to London, the recent Boston Massacre, and more.

Towns held elections for new General Court representatives in May. I discussed the Boston election here. The legislature was due to reconvene on 30 May, once again in Cambridge, and one of the first tasks would be to elect a new Council. The 28 May Boston Gazette shows the Whigs maneuvering to resume the arguments from the previous years.

One Councilor whom Bernard had removed in 1768 and 1769 was James Otis, Sr., but he would be back in the legislature nonetheless:
The Town of Barnstable have made Choice of the Hon. JAMES OTIS, Esq; to represent the Great and General Court the Year ensuing.——It is observable the good old Patriot had 92 Votes out of 101.
Edes and Gill also reported a complaint from the legislature’s unwitting host:
We hear that the Honorable Corporation of Harvard College, from a Regard to the Rights of the People and the good of that Seminary, have lately presented a Remonstrance to his Honor the Lieutenant-Governor, on the General Court’s being summoned to meet at that Seat of Learning, and have also entered a Protest on their Records to present this illegal Measure from being drawn into a Precedent.
The other big political development chronicled in that issue of the Boston Gazette was that Parliament had repealed most of the Townshend duties while keeping the most lucrative one, the tax on tea. What did that mean for the North American non-importation protest against all those tariffs? Merchants in Newport were reportedly shipping in goods already. Committees in Philadelphia and New York were asking what Boston would do.

On 23 May the Whigs had convened another public meeting of “the Trade” in Faneuil Hall, which “VOTED almost unanimously” to “still strictly adhere to the Non-importation Agreement.” The Boston Gazette assured “our Brethren of the other Colonies” that Boston wouldn’t be the first to reopen for regular business.

TOMORROW: Election day in Boston.

Black Knight: Mortgage Forbearance Volumes Flatten, Total Roughly Steady at 4.76M

Note: Both Black Knight and the MBA (Mortgage Bankers Association) are putting out weekly estimates of mortgages in forbearance.

From Black Knight: Mortgage Forbearance Volumes Flatten, Total Roughly Steady at 4.76M
The latest data from the McDash Flash Forbearance Tracker shows that forbearance volumes have essentially flattened, and in fact new inflows have slowed to a relative trickle.

While the leveling off of active forbearance volumes is welcome news, the focus of industry participants – especially servicers and mortgage investors – is already shifting from pipeline growth to pipeline management.
As of May 26, 4.76 million homeowners are in forbearance plans, with a net increase of just 7,000 new forbearance plans since last week. That’s in comparison to a 325,000 net increase in the first week of May, and 1.4 million in the first week of April.
CR Note: This is 9.0% of all mortgages.  The delinquency rate in April increased sharply to 6.45%, but it would have been much higher if so many borrowers in forbearance hadn't made their mortgage payments (unpaid loans in forbearance are counted as delinquent in the survey).

NHC Atlantic Outlook

Atlantic 2-Day Graphical Outlook Image
Atlantic 5-Day Graphical Outlook Image


Special Tropical Weather Outlook
NWS National Hurricane Center Miami FL
900 AM EDT Fri May 29 2020

For the North Atlantic...Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico:

Special Tropical Weather Outlook issued to discuss the area of low
pressure over the central Atlantic.

1. A broad area of low pressure appears to be developing over the
central Atlantic Ocean several hundred miles east-southeast of
Bermuda. This disturbance is producing a large area of showers and
thunderstorms and gusty winds. Additional development of this
system is possible, and a subtropical depression could form tonight
or on Saturday as it moves generally northward. Development is not
expected after that time due to unfavorable environmental
conditions. The next Special Tropical Weather Outlook will be
issued by 9 PM EDT today, or earlier if necessary.
* Formation chance through 48 hours...medium...50 percent.
* Formation chance through 5 days...medium...50 percent.

Forecaster Latto/Cangialosi

Personal Income increased 10.5% in April, Spending decreased 13.6%, Core PCE decreased 0.4%

The BEA released the Personal Income and Outlays report for April:
Personal income increased $1.97 trillion (10.5 percent) in April according to estimates released today by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Disposable personal income (DPI) increased $2.13 trillion (12.9 percent) and personal consumption expenditures (PCE) decreased $1.89 trillion (13.6 percent).

Real DPI increased 13.4 percent in April and Real PCE decreased 13.2 percent. The PCE price index decreased 0.5 percent. Excluding food and energy, the PCE price index decreased 0.4 percent.
The April PCE price index increased 0.5 percent year-over-year and the April PCE price index, excluding food and energy, increased 1.0 percent year-over-year.

The following graph shows real Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) through April 2020 (2012 dollars). Note that the y-axis doesn't start at zero to better show the change.

Personal Consumption Expenditures Click on graph for larger image.

The dashed red lines are the quarterly levels for real PCE.

The increase in personal income was way above expectations,  and the decrease in PCE was below expectations.

Note that core PCE inflation was below expectations.

What should I ask Annie Duke?

I will be doing a Conversation with her.  Here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Anne LaBarr Duke (née Lederer; September 13, 1965) is an American professional poker player and author. She holds a World Series of Poker (WSOP) gold bracelet from 2004 and used to be the leading money winner among women in WSOP history (a title now held by Vanessa Selbst). Duke won the 2004 World Series of Poker Tournament of Champions and the National Heads-Up Poker Championship in 2010. She has written a number of instructional books for poker players, including Decide to Play Great Poker and The Middle Zone, and she published her autobiography, How I Raised, Folded, Bluffed, Flirted, Cursed, and Won Millions at the World Series of Poker, in 2005.

Duke co-founded the non-profit Ante Up for Africa with actor Don Cheadle in 2007 to benefit charities working in African nations, and has raised money for other charities and non-profits through playing in and hosting charitable poker tournaments. She has been involved in advocacy on a number of poker-related issues including advocating for the legality of online gambling and for players’ rights to control their own image.

She also has a new book coming out this fall, How to Decide: Simpler Tools for Making Better Choices.  So what should I ask her?

The post What should I ask Annie Duke? appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.

Human Challenge Trials for COVID-19 vaccines

Yesterday I blogged about trying to speed up vaccine development and distribution by taking some of the risk out of it for pharma companies via an advanced market commitment, and today let's consider again one of the proposals being discussed  for speeding up the testing process.

Here's a white paper proposing some steps to further consider and prepare for human challenge trials (aka controlled human infection studies)  to speed up the testing of potential Covid-19 vaccines.It is put out by the organization 1 Day Sooner, which seeks to promote such trials, and has started assembling a list of volunteers in case challenge trials should become practical, to help vaccines become available sooner.

Evaluating use cases for human challenge trials in accelerating COVID-19 vaccine development
Linh Chi Nguyen , Christopher W Bakerlee, T. Greg McKelvey, Sophie M Rose, Alexander J Norman, Nicholas Joseph, David Manheim,, Michael R McLaren, Steven Jiang, Conor F Barnes, Megan Kinniment, Derek Foster, Thomas C Darton, Josh Morrison; for the 1Day Sooner Research Team

Abstract: Recently, human challenge trials (HCTs) have been proposed as a means to accelerate the development of an effective SARS-CoV-2 vaccine. In this paper, we discuss the potential role forsuch studies in the current COVID-19 pandemic. First, we present three scenarios in which HCTs could be useful: evaluating efficacy, converging on correlates of protection, and improving understanding of pathogenesis and the human immune response. We go on to outline the practical limitations of HCTs in these scenarios. We conclude that, while currently limited in their application, there are scenarios in which HCTs would be vastly beneficial and, thus, the option of using HCTs to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development should be preserved. To this end, we recommend an immediate, coordinated effort by all stakeholders to (1) establish ethical and practical guidelines for the use of HCTs for COVID-19; (2) take the first steps toward an HCT, including preparing challenge virus under GMP and making preliminary logistical arrangements; and (3) commit to periodically re-evaluating the utility of HCTs amid the evolving pandemic.

Here's the main experimental design element:

"In HCTs, a relatively small number of healthy volunteer participants are administered a vaccine candidate or a placebo. However, unlike in conventional trials, consenting HCT participants are then administered an infectious dose of pathogen, and the outcomes of this infection is tracked. By challenging participants with pathogens under close observation in a clinical setting, HCTs can provide a unique opportunity to assess efficacy of a vaccine candidate."

And here are their concluding recommendations:

"To preserve the option to implement HCTs in scenarios such as this, we recommend an immediate, coordinated effort by all stakeholders to address the considerations outlined in this manuscript and make the necessary preparations. These include:
 1. Convening experts to discuss the ethical and practical considerations associated with HCTs for COVID-19, concluding in a set of  recommendations and guidelines for their use in the present pandemic and their role in the licensure process (which, notably, could provide guidance that is broadly useful in the event of future pandemics, too),
2. Taking the first practical steps toward an HCT, including preparing challenge virus under GMP and making preliminary arrangements with volunteers, vaccine developers, regulators, academic institutions, and clinical researchers to run HCTs in situations where they are expected to be highly useful,
3. Keeping informed of the evolving situation, periodically conducting a systematic reevaluation, and adjusting course based on the progress of the pandemic and the outcomes of the first drug and vaccine trials.

"HCTs have the potential to considerably shorten the COVID-19 pandemic, saving many lives and enabling economies and societies to return to normality. But we must act now to ensure this opportunity is not missed."

It's an admirably careful and balanced paper for one with a policy recommendation, and it sets the stage for a useful and timely debate.

As an experimenter,  I have one reservation about the proposed controls. In the passage I quoted above, they said " healthy volunteer participants are administered a vaccine candidate or a placebo," i.e. the control is a placebo.  That strikes me as potentially controversial given that the next step of the experiment is to infect the participants with Covid-19.  I might prefer a study in which the control for one vaccine was a different potential vaccine, so that no subjects were (relatively) sure to contract the disease.

But this doesn't detract from the usefulness of the preparations they recommend: conducting further discussions, and taking initial practical steps.
Here is my earlier post on this subject:

Friday, May 8, 2020 

Here's a similar in spirit paper, considering when and why human challenge trials might be appropriate, put out by the World Health Organization

Key criteria for the ethical acceptability of COVID-19 human challenge studies
WHO Working Group for Guidance on Human Challenge Studies in COVID-19
Authors:  WHO

"Overview: This document aims to provide guidance to scientists, research ethics committees, funders, policy-makers, and regulators in deliberations regarding SARS-CoV-2 challenge studies by outlining key criteria that would need to be satisfied in order for such studies to be ethically acceptable."

Here's a news story from CNN, complete with some anecdotes about the sometimes sketchy history of human challenge trials:

Thousands of people want to be exposed to Covid-19 for science
By Robert Kuznia

"Human challenge studies date all the way back to the first vaccine, for the highly lethal smallpox disease. The vaccine was developed in the late 18th century by physician Edward Jenner, who aimed to put a piece of folklore to the test: that milkmaids seemed to contract a milder form of the disease, called cowpox.
"In an experiment that today would warrant steep criminal charges, Jenner took pus from the scab of a milkmaid and inserted it into an incision on the arm of an 8-year-old boy. The child, James Phipps, developed a headache, chills and other mild symptoms, but when directly exposed to smallpox -- again through incisions on the arm -- he proved impervious."

Here's an op-ed from the Washington Post, by the philosophers Richard Yetter Chappell and Peter Singer:

Pandemic ethics: The case for experiments on human volunteers

They conclude:
"We are ethicists, not medical or biological scientists. When it comes to factual beliefs about the pandemic, we defer to expert scientific opinion, as everyone should. But what we ought to do with the facts we have, and how we should go about seeking facts we still lack, are ethical questions. Ethicists have a crucial role to play in this debate.

"There is too much that we don’t know about covid-19. The longer we take to find it out, the more lives will be lost. (That’s why the website asking for vaccine volunteers is called “1 Day Sooner.”) If healthy volunteers, fully informed about the risks, are willing to help fight the pandemic by aiding promising research, there are strong moral reasons to gratefully accept their help. To refuse it would implicitly subject others to still graver risks."

And here's a  post  from the Volokh Conspiracy (pointed out to me by Frank McCormick) focusing on the question of paying volunteers for human challenge trials:

The Moral Case for Testing Coronavirus Vaccines through "Challenge Trials" on Paid Healthy Volunteers
Doing so can potentially save many thousands of lives. And moral objections to this practice are weak. The issues here are very similar to the longstanding debate over whether we legalize organ markets.  by ILYA SOMIN .

He concludes:
"Like others who risk their lives to benefit others, challenge trial volunteers deserve our gratitude, and proper compensation for their efforts. And there is no good moral justification for forbidding them to take those risks. To the contrary, we should move ahead with challenge trials as soon as feasible. Every day of delay could literally be a matter of life and death—a great many lives and deaths."

Four short links: 29 May 2020

  1. Confidential ComputingConfidential computing uses hardware-based techniques to isolate data, specific functions, or an entire application from the operating system, hypervisor or virtual machine manager, and other privileged processes. Data is stored in the trusted execution environment (TEE), where it’s impossible to view the data or operations performed on it from outside, even with a debugger. The TEE ensures that only authorized code can access the data. If the code is altered or tampered with, the TEE denies the operation. (via John Gossman
  2. Six Levels of Interaction with a SystemThe six levels of interaction with a system are: Non-use; Use; Monitor; Maintain; Repair; and (Re)build. (via Charlie Harrington)
  3. Nodesa JavaScript-based 2D canvas for computational thinking. It’s powered by the npm ecosystem and lives on the web. We take inspiration from popular node-based tools but strive to bring the visual interface and textual code closer together while also encouraging patterns that aid the programmer in the prototype and exploratory stage of their process.
  4. Deno is a Browser for Code — Interesting thoughts on trust, dependencies, and discovery in Deno vs Node.

Facebook Announces Messenger Security Features that Don't Compromise Privacy

Note that this is "announced," so we don't know when it's actually going to be implemented.

Facebook today announced new features for Messenger that will alert you when messages appear to come from financial scammers or potential child abusers, displaying warnings in the Messenger app that provide tips and suggest you block the offenders. The feature, which Facebook started rolling out on Android in March and is now bringing to iOS, uses machine learning analysis of communications across Facebook Messenger's billion-plus users to identify shady behaviors. But crucially, Facebook says that the detection will occur only based on metadata­ -- not analysis of the content of messages­ -- so that it doesn't undermine the end-to-end encryption that Messenger offers in its Secret Conversations feature. Facebook has said it will eventually roll out that end-to-end encryption to all Messenger chats by default.

That default Messenger encryption will take years to implement.


Facebook hasn't revealed many details about how its machine-learning abuse detection tricks will work. But a Facebook spokesperson tells WIRED the detection mechanisms are based on metadata alone: who is talking to whom, when they send messages, with what frequency, and other attributes of the relevant accounts -- essentially everything other than the content of communications, which Facebook's servers can't access when those messages are encrypted. "We can get pretty good signals that we can develop through machine learning models, which will obviously improve over time," a Facebook spokesperson told WIRED in a phone call. They declined to share more details in part because the company says it doesn't want to inadvertently help bad actors circumvent its safeguards.

The company's blog post offers the example of an adult sending messages or friend requests to a large number of minors as one case where its behavioral detection mechanisms can spot a likely abuser. In other cases, Facebook says, it will weigh a lack of connections between two people's social graphs -- a sign that they don't know each other -- or consider previous instances where users reported or blocked a someone as a clue that they're up to something shady.

One screenshot from Facebook, for instance, shows an alert that asks if a message recipient knows a potential scammer. If they say no, the alert suggests blocking the sender, and offers tips about never sending money to a stranger. In another example, the app detects that someone is using a name and profile photo to impersonate the recipient's friend. An alert then shows the impersonator's and real friend's profiles side-by-side, suggesting that the user block the fraudster.

Details from Facebook

SpaceX gets FAA approval for Starship flight tests

Starship SN4

WASHINGTON — SpaceX has received a license from the Federal Aviation Administration allowing the company to carry out suborbital flight tests of its Starship next-generation launch vehicle.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation published the launch license May 28 for what it calls the Starship Prototype Launch Vehicle. The license allows SpaceX to conduct suborbital flights of the vehicle from its test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, near Brownsville.

SpaceX has been conducting a series of static-fire tests of the latest Starship prototype, called SN4, including one May 28. The company has not formally announced when it will attempt an initial “hop” test of that vehicle.

There is a temporary flight restriction for the airspace above that test site for June 1, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern, restricting airspace up to an altitude of 26,000 feet (7,925 meters), suggesting SpaceX may attempt a low-altitude free flight of the vehicle then. Similar restrictions have been filed in the past and then canceled, however. Flight restrictions have also been used for static-fire tests, but to much lower altitudes.

Any sort of flight test of Starship would require either a launch license or a less restrictive experimental permit from the FAA. A previous prototype vehicle, Starhopper, had a permit from the FAA, which allowed it to carry out a single flight in August 2019 to an altitude of about 150 meters, landing on a nearby pad at the Boca Chica site about a minute after liftoff.

The conditions of that permit, though, limited SpaceX to just a single Starhopper flight to that altitude. By contrast, the launch license for Starship places no overt restrictions on the number of flights or their altitude, beyond being suborbital flights that both take off and land at Boca Chica. The vehicle must follow the “ground track and trajectory presented in the license application,” but those details, along with the application itself, are not disclosed.

Musk, at a September 2019 event unveiling an earlier prototype of Starship, said he didn’t envision difficulties getting the FAA license despite the months of work needed to amend the Starhopper permit to allow just a single 150-meter hop. “I feel pretty optimistic about things. I don’t see any fundamental obstacles,” he said of the licensing process.

That event showed off what the company called the Starship Mark 1 vehicle, which Musk promised would soon fly. “This thing is going to take off, fly to 65,000 feet, about 20 kilometers, and come back and land, in about one or two months,” he said then.

Instead, the Mark 1 vehicle was destroyed in a tank pressurization test in November. A second prototype, called SN1, suffered the same fate in a similar test Feb. 28. After stripping down the SN2 vehicle to its tanks for testing, a third prototype, SN3, crumpled in an April 3 test, apparently because of a misconfigured test setup.

The latest vehicle, SN4, passed its pressurization test April 27 and has since performed several static-fire tests using a single Raptor engine installed in its base. Musk has suggested in recent comments, including an Aviation Week interview, that the first hop test might be a “few weeks” away as the company focuses on the launch of the Demo-2 commercial crew mission.

Rocket Report: Virgin Orbit flight ends quickly, Netflix’s hybrid rocket

Cartoon rocket superimposed over real rocket launch.

Enlarge / The mighty Delta IV Heavy rocket takes to the skies. (credit: Aurich Lawson/United Launch Alliance)

Welcome to Edition 3.01 of the Rocket Report! Yes, we are entering our third year of producing this weekly report, and we hope to celebrate this weekend with a Crew Dragon launch. Until then, there is plenty of other news to cover.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Virgin Orbit's first launch attempt ends quickly. After more than seven years of development, testing, and preparation, Virgin Orbit reached an important moment on Monday—dropping and igniting its LauncherOne rocket over the Pacific Ocean. After ignition, the engine burned for "a couple" of seconds before something happened with the booster and it exploded.

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NASA researcher provides overview of science on the ISS

ISS as photographed by Expedition 56 astronauts from a Soyuz capsule. Image Credit: NASA

Research conducted on board the International Space Station (ISS) encompasses numerous science fields, such as biology and biotechnology, human research, the physical sciences, technological demonstrations, Earth and space science, and public education, noted Brandon Redell of NASA’s ISS Integration Office at the Johnson Space Center.

Redell discussed scientific research currently being conducted on the ISS in a NASA Night Sky Network Webinar livestreamed on Wednesday, May 27, titled “International Space Station Research and Technology 101.”

The Night Sky Network is a national group of amateur astronomy clubs whose purpose is to inspire the public about NASA’s missions and the science and technology that go into them.

“The ISS is an orbiting laboratory. It’s a space station that’s been going around the Earth. It’s been a continuous presence with humans for at least 20 years now. We conduct research to aid space exploration and for human benefits here on Earth as well as developing new technologies,” Redell said.

Research on the ISS has helped scientists learn about a wide range of subjects, from human health to black holes, he added. Scientific discoveries made there provide benefits for humanity and enable future space exploration.

Four international space agencies have laboratories on the ISSNASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace and Exploration Agency (JAXA), and Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency.

Close to 3,000 scientific investigations have been conducted on the ISS, resulting in more than 1,800 scientific journal papers published.

In 2005, Congress passed a law designating the ISS as a national laboratory, enabling non-NASA research, including student projects, to be conducted there.

David Saint-Jacques Canadian Radi-N2

David Saint-Jacques places bubble monitors (inset) in various locations around the International Space Station for the Canadian Radi-N2 experiment. The Radi-N2 experiment is designed to measure the amount of neutron radiation received by astronauts on board the Station, help create a map of the ISS to identify areas that offer the most protection in case of a major solar event, and help develop countermeasures to health risks for future long-duration space explorers. (Credit: Canadian Space Agency/NASA)

Redell outlined several major reasons for conducting scientific research on the ISS. First, the micro-gravity environment removes all conditions driven by gravity, letting scientists understand other factors involved in their studies. Second, being in low-Earth orbit provides a unique vantage point, along with support services for Earth and space science missions.

Third is the extreme environment in space, including vacuum, thermal variations, radiation, atomic oxygen, and micro-meteoroids. Finally, the ISS serves as a unique platform for educating and inspiring the next generation, which is an investment in future scientific exploration and advancement.

Redell cited the example of cell biology research, noting that on Earth, cells live in a fluid environment and respond to the force of gravity. When brought into micro-gravity, cells that have irregular shapes on Earth suddenly become spherical and swell up, much like blobs of water do on the ISS. Cells also alter their gene expressions, structure, and the mechanisms by which they “communicate” with one another in micro-gravity.

To learn more about health and physiological changes in micro-gravity, worms, insects, fish, and rodents are studied on the ISS. Learning about rodents’ biological processes in space helps scientists better understand how human space travelers will respond to that environment.

Understanding plant biology in micro-gravity will someday be key for astronauts on long space missions. On Earth, plants’ roots instinctively move downward due to gravity while their stems and leaves reach upward toward the Sun. In the absence of gravity, they get “confused”; for example, moss grown in the dark on a space shuttle flight grew in all directions.

Plant Habitat-01 PH-01

Plant Habitat-01 (PH-01: An Integrated Omics Guided Approach to Lignification and Gravitational Responses in Plants) is a multi-omic, multi-growth stage plant experiment designed to compare early versus late gene expression in Arabidopsis using the Advanced Plant Habitat (APH) facility. Credit: NASA

Furthermore, growing plants in space is difficult because soil structure is different in micro-gravity than it is on Earth. Water does not settle down in micro-gravity, often causing plants to drown.

“If we’re trying to grow our own food sources on a long-duration mission, this is something we need to understand for long-duration flights,” Redell emphasized.

Especially important to the future of human space travel is a better understanding of the effects micro-gravity has on people. Both during spaceflight and afterwards, astronauts have experienced balance disorders, cardiovascular de-conditioning, decreased immune function, muscle atrophy, and bone loss.

“Long duration human performance in space is a big research area,” Redell noted.

Through ISS research, scientists learned that 60 percent of astronauts who spend long durations in space experience a decline in eyesight that in some cases is permanent. Some researchers believe this is due to fluid shifts to the head in micro-gravity while others attribute it to a genetic predisposition. Whether one or both are true, scientists will have to resolve this issue in order for long-term human space missions to go forward.

The unique orbit of the ISS enables it to observe all geographic locations between 51.6 degrees North and 51.6 degrees South in latitude. This covers 85 percent of the Earth’s surface and 95 percent of its populated landmasses. Using high-definition cameras, ISS astronauts take a variety of photos, from still ones to hyper-spectral images.

From the ISS, astronauts can monitor natural disasters and climate change effects. Science instruments use remote sensing to study climate science, hydrology, soil mapping, geomorphology/landscape configuration, hazard assessments, and many other phenomena. One such experiment monitors water content in the world’s rainforests.

In the field of astrophysics, astronauts work with scientists to explore the universe’s origin, identify and study neutron stars and black holes in X-ray wavelengths, and learn more about cosmic rays, dark matter, and even anti-matter.

Anyone interested in learning more about the many science experiments being conducted on the space station is encouraged to visit an ISS website known as the Space Station Research Explorer.


The post NASA researcher provides overview of science on the ISS appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

It’s Hard to Believe But Maybe Trump Neither Understands the Law Nor Has Thought This Twitter Thing Through, Not Even Sort of a Little

Peter Baker and Daisuke Wakabayashi, reporting for The New York Times:

But the logic of Mr. Trump’s order is intriguing because it attacks the very legal provision that has allowed him such latitude to publish with impunity a whole host of inflammatory, harassing and factually distorted messages that a media provider might feel compelled to take down if it were forced into the role of a publisher that faced the risk of legal liability rather than a distributor that does not.

“Intriguing” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.


★ Translation From VC-Backed PR Jargon to English of Magic Leap CEO Rony Abovitz’s Statement That He’s ‘Stepping Down’

From a company-wide memo sent by Magic Leap founder Rony Abovitz Thursday:

As we’ve shared over the last several weeks, in order to set Magic Leap on a course for success, we have pivoted to focus on delivering a spatial computing platform for enterprise.

As nearly everyone has finally realized, our actual technology is nothing at all like what we promised, lied about for years, and sold gullible deep-pocketed investors on. Our con is falling apart at the seams, so we’ll milk the last few dollars out of the only investors dumb enough to give us even more money, by repeating the word “enterprise” and doing that thing with our fingers like Obi-Wan Kenobi.

We have closed significant new funding and have very positive momentum towards closing key strategic enterprise partnerships.

You’re not going to believe this but we somehow raised another $350 million. I know, right?

As the board and I planned the changes we made and what Magic Leap needs for this next focused phase, it became clear to us that a change in my role was a natural next step.

Everyone agrees the jig is up.

I discussed this with the board and we have agreed that now is the time to bring in a new CEO who can help us to commercialize our focused plan for spatial computing in enterprise. We have been actively recruiting candidates for this role and I look forward to sharing more soon.

Our Craigslist ad: “Florida company seeks Bernie Madoff type.”

I have been leading Magic Leap since 2011 (starting in my garage). We have created a new field. A new medium. And together we have defined the future of computing.

No one will remember us or anything we’ve done — unless Netflix makes one of those documentaries like the Fyre Festival one. I love that movie. Which makes me think maybe we should change our Craigslist ad to “Billy McFarland type”. Actually, when does he get out of prison?

I am amazed at everything we have built and look forward to everything Magic Leap will create in the decades to come.

I am amazed that we raised $2.4 billion and have managed to stretch this con out for 7 years and counting. We even convinced Google to invest. Google! Those guys are smart!

I will remain our CEO through the transition and am in discussions with the board with regards to how I will continue to provide strategy and vision from a board level. I remain super excited about Magic Leap’s future and believe deeply in our team and all of their incredible talent and capabilities.

I guess I should be ashamed of myself but I’m not.

Richard Davis requests

Here are some answers, I put his questions — from Request for Requests – in bold:

Melancholy among academics.

We’re a pretty sorry bunch, and many of us don’t have so much professionally to live for, at least not at the relevant margin — it is easy to lose forward momentum and never recover it, given the constraints and incentives in the profession and broader pressures toward conformity.  Rates of depression in academia, and especially in graduate school, are fairly high.  Many of the core processes are demoralizing rather than inspiring.  It is remarkable to me how much other people simply have accepted that is how things ought to be and perhaps they believe matters cannot be that different.  I view the high rates of depression in academic life as a “canary in the coal mine” that doesn’t get enough attention as an indicator of bigger, more systemic problems in the entire enterprise.  What are you doing with your lifetime sinecure?

Your favorite things Soviet.

Shostakovich.  And the Romantic pianists, most of all Richter and Gilels.  Constructivist art and ballet up through the late 1920s.  The early chess games of Tal.  Magnitogorsk.  War memorials, most of all in Leningrad.  Tarkovsky.  I admire the “great” Soviet novels, but I don’t love them, except for Solzhenitsyn, whom I would rather read then Dostoyevsky.  Probably the poetry is amazing, but my Russian is too limited to appreciate it.

The optimal number of math PhDs worldwide.

I would think fairly few.  I am happy having lots of mathematicians, with independent tests of quality.  But is the Ph.D such a great test or marker of quality?  Did Euclid have one?  Euler?  Does it show you will be a great teacher?  Maybe we should work toward abolishing the math PhD concept, but out of respect for the profession, not out of hostility toward math.

What historical works of art were anticipated to be great prior to creation, were immediately declared to be great at creation and have continued to be judged great ever since?

Overall it is striking how popular how many of the great revolutionaries have been.  Michelangelo was a major figure of renown.  Mozart was quite popular, though not fully appreciated.  Beethoven was a legend in his time, and every Wagner opera was an event.  Goethe ruled his time as a titan.  A significant percentage of the very best writers were well known and loved during their careers, though of course there was uncertainty how well they would stand up to the test of time.

The future of Northern New Jersey.

Much like the present, plus defaults on the pension obligations and over time the Indian food may get worse, due to acculturation.  The Sopranos will fade into distant memory, I am sorry to say, as will Bruce Springsteen.  So many young people already don’t know them or care.  I feel lucky to have grown up during the region’s cultural peak.

Who are the greats that still walk among us (other than McCartney)?

The major tech founders and CEOs, Stephan Wolfram, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella and Richard Serra and Gerhardt Richter and Robert Gober, a number of other classic rock stars (Dylan, Brian Wilson, Jagger, Eno, etc.), Philip Glass, Richard D. James, and note most of the greatest classical musicians who have ever lived are alive and playing today (Uchida anyone?), at least once Covid goes away.  Many of the major architects.  Ferrante and Knausgaard and Alice Munro.  Many of the figures who built up East Asia and Singapore.  Perelman.  Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.  Magnus Carlsen and all sorts of figures in sports.  A bunch of other people whom Eric Weinstein would list.


Why not?

The post Richard Davis requests appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.

Collections: The Battle of Helm’s Deep, Part V: Ladders are Chaos

This is is the fifth part of a series taking a historian’s look at the Battle of Helm’s Deep (I, II, III, IV) from both J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers (1954) and Peter Jackson’s 2002 film of the same name. In our last two parts, we looked at the organization of the two opposing forces. In particular, we noted that while Saruman had built what appeared to be a professional force capable of complex operations, in practice he had not done the legwork in organization or training to actually facilitate those complex operations. This week, we’ll see those flaws in action, as we look at the conduct of Saruman’s host’s siege operations, along with Théoden’s last minute defensive preparations. How can an understanding of medieval siege warfare inform the catastrophe that is Saruman’s fortress assault? And how do the organizational failings of his army lead to their tactical failings on the battlefield?

As before, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

Investing in Preparation for your Prepared Defenses to be Invested

But before we get to ladders and explosions, we ought to talk about the steps Théoden is taking to prepare for a siege. And I know it feels like we are taking forever to get to the actual assault, but that is really the point: effective siegework, on either the offense or the defense, depends mostly on preparation. Film tends to elide away this element, but even an assault that ends a siege often comes as the result of months of careful planning and preparation.

And in the film, Théoden has some work to do. The Helm’s Gate fortress complex as we see it is clearly old and hasn’t been well-maintained, particularly the Hornburg itself – a lot of the crenellations (the term for the zig-zag stonework at the top of castle walls, which is designed to provide effective firing cover and hinder attackers attempting to scale the wall) are clearly cracked or worn, as is a lot of the general stonework. There is just generally a lot of disrepair here and not nearly enough time to fix it all with good masonry.

Pictured: A whole lot of elves not fully protected by this wall. And what purpose do the firing slits serve if you are just going to shoot over the wall anyway?

(A brief aside as this goes nowhere else. While normally I think Jackson’s set team did an excellent job, the defenses at Helm’s Deep are actually a rare exception, especially on the Deeping Wall. When viewed at a distance, it looks fine enough – there are merlons with firing slits in them. Terminology note: in that zig-zag stonework pattern, the merlon is the high part of the design, the crenel is the open space between the merlons to allow for firing, and the entire system is known as crenellation, which for some reason spellcheck believes is spelled with one ‘l’ but is in fact spelled with two). The slits are wider facing outward to allow a wider range of firing angles and narrow on the inside to protect the archers. So far so good. Except that when we get close, we see these merlons are only about chest high; no part of the Deeping Wall’s crenelation reaches head-height (except for Gimli). Consequently, the archers on the wall are exposed from the chest up. That in turn makes the crenels useless, because you aren’t fighting through them, but over the merlons. This is not how castle walls were designed; rather, the merlons should offer complete cover for the archer, who can then step around to the lower crenels to fire, while still shielding his body behind the merlon.)

Gimli, making correct usage of the Merlon while a bunch of Elves randomly stand out with most of their vital organs exposed to enemy missile fire.

Disrepair was a common problem for defenders. Maintaining major fortifications like this is expensive and difficult. Earthworks – like dry moats (essentially trenches) used to block approaching infantry and crucially siege equipment – need to be re-dug regularly, as the natural action of wind and erosion will erase them from the landscape quite quickly. Buildings, trees and other obstructions need to be removed to clear sight and firing lines (which often means rendering some of the most valuable land completely unproductive). And even stonework is vulnerable to erosion and damage, especially stonework that is part of a living working city (and may also be scavenged for usable masonry by less scrupulous types). The frantic rush to repair city fortifications when it becomes clear that a town or city might find itself in a war zone is a common-place of ancient and medieval war narratives for good reason!

Théoden probably has the labor for many of these tasks, but nothing like the time to do them in. Instead we see him focusing, quite sensibly on what he can do before the main enemy force arrives; he may well still be hoping that they will settle in for a longer preperatory phase which will buy him the time to reinforce some of the stone defenses as well. The gate is quickly reinforced with heavy timbers, and we see the construction of wooden hoarding (temporary defensive enhancements atop walls that usually project outwards from the stonework, designed to allow the defenders to drop or fire things at attackers at the foot of the wall safely) over the gate.

Men of Rohan, reinforcing the gate of the Hornburg. In the books, once the gate is breached, they construct a makeshift barricade in its place, something we do not see in the film.

He also marshals all of his available manpower and sets watches. That second issue may seem trivial, but actually keeping watch over even a moderate circuit of walls – especially at night – is hard. You need watchmen and a system to make sure they are awake and attentive. Remember, at this point, Théoden thinks he may be in for a long siege, rather than a quick assault. Many castles fell because a lapse in the watch routine or a traitor inside the fortress allowed the attackers to sneak even just a small force of soldiers into a single tower; Antioch (1098) famously fell this way. So delegating a trusted subordinate the job of making sure the watch rotation is ample and regular is a key task, as is making sure that there is enough manpower available to stand all those shifts without exhausting your defenders.

For any army somehow, inexplicably facing assault within the day – no, I am not going to stop complaining about the film’s nonsense operational timeline, thank you – this is the right set of priorities and Théoden sets about them with energy and determination. If he had a week or two, we might expect fresh stonework or earthwork fortifications, but he hasn’t the time. We’ll deal with the Aragorn-vs-Théoden undercurrent of this scene a bit later in this series, but I want to note that Peter Jackson has – quite unintentionally, I think – captured Théoden’s workmanlike generaling well. His defense plan – lay provisions, set watches, assume that 10,000 Uruks cannot be maintained in the field for any length of time – is simple, solid and effective. It isn’t the flashy, defense-in-depth effort by Denethor, but it doesn’t need to be. Especially since the terrain in front of the fortress has little natural defense, Théoden’s plan is a good one – trying to get ‘fancy’ would likely only lead to unnecessary losses in the open ground before the fortress.

Book Note: Book!Théoden has both more and less to do in the run-up to the battle. He has less to do, in part, because his infrastructure position is much better. The book version of the Hornburg isn’t badly run-down, but has in fact been recently renovated by Théoden’s local commander in the field (good choice of leadership there; Erkenbrand takes over quite well when Théodred is slain). We are told that Erkenbrand, “as the days darkened with the threat of war, being wise, he had repaired the wall and made the fastness strong” (TT, 157). As noted above, this kind of renovation under the threat of war occurred all the time – there simply were not enough resources to keep every major fort and population center’s fortifications up to spec at all times. It shows some foresight that Erkenbrand had reinforced the one fortress that would matter (though as becomes clear in the Unfinished Tales, the Ford at the Isen had also been given moderate fortifications). Saruman ought to have had this place under observation, and the renovation of its defenses rightly should have concerned him a great deal.

But the biggest change here is in the topography, in particular the existence of an outer layer of fortification: Helm’s Dike, an earthwork rampart which was located some distance out from the fortress. Éomer gives the distance as two furlongs, which is 440 yards; he also describes it as ‘ancient’ (TT, 159). The distance between the dike and the main fortress always puzzled me. Lower secondary outwalls were a fairly common way of strengthening a defense, as they prevented siege equipment from closing with the wall, provided a safe skirmishing position for advanced troops and could be built to both prevent artillery fire (catapults and later cannon) from being directed against the base of a wall – the ideal spot to produce a breach – while not disrupting the lines of missile fire from soldiers atop the primary wall. You can see these sorts of elements combined, famously, in Constantinople’s Theodosian Walls. But the dike is too far out to be supported by the main wall; it might serve to allow an advance force to keep artillery away from the wall, but without supporting missile fire from the main defenses, it could not be long held (and isn’t, in the event). What it does do is protect the rearguard of a retreating army and enforce an early amount of friction on the approaching Uruks, but I can’t help but thinking that moving it back about 240 yards would have made it far more valuable as an outwork. If this were a historical fortress, I’d start probing older settlement patterns to try to find out if the Dike originally encompassed some (now abandoned) settlement, because that’s the only reason I can think of for placing it so far out.

Éomer, rather than Théoden, arranges the defense and here his information is better than in the film. Éomer benefits from the more ample scouting arrangements that Théoden has in the books – he knows an assault is coming very soon, so he immediately mans the walls, concentrating his strength on the weakest defenses (TT, 160). The rearguard is left at the Dike (TT, 161) which provides warning, a limited defense in depth and crucially creates a window for any stragglers from Théoden’s or Erkenbrand’s forces to regroup at the fortress. Meanwhile, Gamling had already seen to the provisions of the fortress, in case the assault turned into a siege (TT, 160). So although the circumstances – especially time, force and information – are different, in both cases, the Rohirrim set in and prepare effectively, focusing on the more immediate and important concerns first. That preparation will serve them well in the battle to come. Unlike…


The best way to talk about Saruman’s preparation is going to be to actually let the assault unfold and deliver comments as it goes. When discussing how the assault plays out, it is important to recognize that Saruman must have known he would assault this place for far longer than any of the Rohirrim (even book!Erkenbrand, who has evidently been repairing the Hornburg for what one assumes is at least months) could have known they would need to defend it. Saruman has had years to consider his assault – something the Rohirrim are well aware of (TT, 158). If his army hasn’t trained and prepared for this, that’s a terrible planning oversight, if they have trained and prepared for this, and this is the best he could do, then that is an even deeper failing in both developing capabilities but also in strategic judgment for opening this war so unprepared.

Because this is almost a textbook course on how not to assault a fortress.

Book Note: While in the film, the assault opens with the Uruk army making an unopposed approach, the more complex book topography makes this a battle in stages. Théoden has left a rearguard of Westfolders (TT, 161) at the dike; they “gallop” back, so he must have left horses with them. We are not told but may guess that Gamling was still in command there. As the rearguard reports as it returned, it “loosed every arrow” at the approaching force and then retreated in good order (TT, 161). The army had approached with torches, which had made them easy marks for the Rohirrim archers (TT, 162). What is then absolutely stunning is that Saruman’s host does not leave a force behind to defend the Dike. If the dispersion after forcing the ford is the first moment we might point to as a decisive, catastrophic failure, this is the second. Countervallation – making a wall around your siege lines facing outward – is a standard siege technique all the way from antiquity. We’ll talk about it more in just a moment. But when your enemy countervallates for you, to then not man those prepared defenses with even a token force is just stunning.

Given the preparation time, there ought to have been an advance unit (probably mounted infantry) which would have been specifically tasked to take the Dike – which as the text notes, was too wide to be defended effectively by Rohan’s smaller force (TT, 159) – and then hold it as a rearguard while the main army assaulted the fortress. Had this been done, Erkenbrand’s later rescuing force would have found themselves attacking a superior force against prepared defenses and likely without the benefit of surprise (as Saruman’s rearguard would have spotted them). But, as we established, Saruman’s host is not well led, and seems to lack the organizational capability to split forces over multiple tasks like this; it proves a fatal vulnerability.

Yes, Old Man and Adolescent Young Man – Hold your 80+lbs bows at full draw. And hold. And hold. And hold.
Seriously, holding a proper warbow at full draw is difficult and tires you out very rapidly; hunting bows, with their much lower pull weights, are not really a good proxy for what a warbow is like.

Saruman’s army approaches the fortress and initial begins demonstrating – making noise, banging spears and so on – in an effort to demoralize the defenders. Attempting to demoralize the defense is a good tactic and we’ll talk more about it in a later part in this series. Though I should note that if you are going to have your army demonstrate, you ought to do it either with shields raised or out of bowshot. As it stands, the Rohirrim archers knock arrows and draw their bows, apparently without orders and then…just hold them at full draw. For about thirty seconds (yes, I timed it); given what I’ve seen of modern warbow shooting, I wouldn’t expect an arrow to be held anymore than is necessary to finish aiming, perhaps 3 seconds at most. So, this fits nowhere else, but war bows feature very high poundage draws, far higher than hunting bows. This is a problem in all sorts of fiction where people point and draw war bows at each other like they are pointing guns – guns do not require you to exert 80+lbs of force to simply keep the arrow steady. I don’t blame this old fellow for loosing his arrow; I blame his commander for letting the men draw their bows too early.

Everyone acts like the old archer fellow has just fouled up, but seriously! He nails this Uruk in the neck in the rain from what must be at least a hundred yards away, in the dark! If Rohan had more of these old archer fellows and fewer Elves, I don’t think the Uruks would have even made the walls!

(I should note, this isn’t just a problem with the Rohirrim. Aragorn gives the order that gets subtitled “Prepare to fire!” – which, given that he has never seen gunpowder, one assumed he wouldn’t ever think to ask anyone to ‘fire’ a bow – and the elves respond by knocking and drawing arrows and then holding them, waiting about 15 seconds for the order to release (mercifully, not to ‘fire’). While clear information on medieval mass-archery tactics is very hard to come by (except for basic positioning) it doesn’t seem like volley fire was normal. It would have been very difficult, given the poundage of the bows, to hold for volleys like this. And it does no good to claim that these are elves – Legolas does not appear to be massively stronger than his companions.)

Book Note: The exchange in the book is a bit more complex. The defenders are hiding behind the ramparts as Saruman’s host approaches, and the latter begins attempting to suppress the defenders with arrows (TT, 162), but the defenders hold their response – presumably preserving arrows and stamina for when the arrows will be most useful. This unexpected lack of reply causes Saruman’s host to stall out for a moment “foiled by the silent menace of rock and wall” (TT, 162) which again speaks to insufficient drill, training and leadership. There ought to be a host of junior officers and NCOs already getting their troops moving, rather than standing dumbfounded because the enemy did not return fire as expected. But given what we’ve already discussed about Saruman’s lack of proper preparation, the fact that his army falls apart every time anything goes even a little bit sideways is not a huge surprise.

Saruman’s host then charges the wall, without any clear order, in one dense mass, in an effort to raise ladders against the walls. The technical term for this sort of assault is escalade – an effort to go over the walls with ladders or ramps. I’ve seen the presence of these ladders offered as evidence that this army was well prepared to assault this fortress; alas, no. Saruman’s forces are launching perhaps the worst version of what Clifford Rogers terms “hasty assaults” something he notes failed in most cases (Rogers, op. cit. 117). How does this go wrong? Let’s count the ways.

The dense, disorganized mass of Uruks charging through the arrow fire. While the film cuts neatly to make them get through this fairly quickly, bowshot – being about 200 yards – would typically take around a minute or so to charge through (remember, these fellows are moving on muddy ground, in armor, and they are not Usain Bolt); the archers might be averaging something like six shots a minute.
In short you do not want to give them this neat a target, especially if you are not using any kind of cover or shields.

First, the Uruks charge without any kind of cover and get torn up by the responding arrow-fire. Not only do they not carry shields, they also don’t carry any kind of portable cover or screens – commonly called mantlets – which were normally used for this kind of approach. Moreover, rather than approaching in clear specialist teams with specific jobs – ideally limiting the number of Uruks in bowshot and thus making it more difficult for the elven archers to hit their targets – they charge in a mass that is both dense and disorganized, which is a rare feat of bad soldiering. We see some brief attempt at suppression fire against the walls, but it begins far too late (after the initial, devastating volley) and is nowhere near sufficient to actually silence the incoming arrows.

And then they raise ladders. Ladder assaults on castles are an absolute staple of historical fiction and they did happen. As Rogers notes, such ‘hasty assaults’ were typically launched as soon as possible, in the hopes of catching the defender unawares and quickly gaining the wall. There would almost always be a backup plan, because ladder assaults usually failed. If you could do anything other than a ladder assault – use a siege tower (in the period generally called belfries), have a covered ram, sap under the walls, build a ramp over the wall, bribe a traitor, anything – you did that instead.

To be clear, the plan here is to run a 200m dash, then lift a heavy ladder, then rapidly climb that ladder and then be ready to immediately fight multiple Elven swordsmen. While probably still out of breath from the charge.
Good luck. With. That.

It takes just a moment’s thought to realize how vulnerable an attacker is when climbing the ladder – he can probably keep his shield above his head, but he has no easy access to his sidearm (needing his other hand to steady himself on the ladder). Moreover, he is fighting an opponent on firm ground, who benefits from the walls cover, who may simply drop rocks on him, while the attacker is stuck trying to defend himself in uncertain footing on a ladder. Such a plan might work against a wall that was thinly defended, where the attackers might be able to get someone over the wall somewhere and then force a cascading failure. But the Uruks are attempting this sort of assault against disciplined elves in heavy armor arrayed several ranks deep on the wall. To be honest, the biggest problem with this scene is that the Uruks get any purchase on the wall at all – most of which seems to involve unarmored Uruks cutting down multiple plate-armored elves with a single stroke, something that is deeply silly in ways that we will discuss next week.

What ought to actually happen is that every Uruk over the wall would be immediately beset by something like half a dozen different weapons (the elf to his front, right, left and the three behind them). The first Uruks, balancing atop the ladders, are unarmored and so will fall almost instantly, while the Uruks climbing up behind them in armor are unlikely to last much longer. Ask anyone who has ever done any amount of sparring with close-combat weapons what it is like to face even two opponents in confined quarters; these Uruks are facing six elven swordmen a piece. Even if they get a small toehold, the density of the elves means that they don’t benefit from the cascading failure we might see against a weakly defended wall. This was never going to work.

It is awfully sporting for this plate-and-mail armored Elven warriors, likely with decades if not centuries of experience on their weapons, to simply stand there and let this Uruk do his giant round-house swing, without making any effort to attack the unarmored portion of his body, which is all of it. Any one of these fellows might easily parry that sword, allowing any other one of these fellows to easily stab this Uruk to death.

Which is fine, because it was never intended to work. Looking forward, the ladder assault was clearly intended as a distracting demonstration so that the work of mining the wall with the ‘blasting fire’ could proceed unhindered. Except in that case, the ladder assault might well have been profitably done with far fewer Uruks and at only a few points in the wall. As it stands, Saruman’s host hurls much of its strength in high-casualty, low-impact assaults against the walls to little purpose in a wasteful display of poor generalship. One assumes Saruman thought this would be fine because his numerical superiority was so great that the losses would mean little; if so, he was obviously wrong.

What is most surprising is just how unprepared the Uruks are for even this sort of basic escalade operation. The ladder-bearers advance in dense order – rather than spaced out to limit the effectiveness of enemy missile fire. They have no cover. Basic movable cover – man-sized wooden mantlets on rollers, for instance – are just not that hard to make or difficult to transport and Saruman has had ages to get ready for this. And as we’ll see, their best ranged suppression option – primitive catapults – arrives too late to offer fire-support to protect the force attacking the wall. Consequently, the Uruks attacking the walls take far more casualties than necessary in an assault that was a diversion in any event.

Book Note: The initial stage against the Deeping Wall plays out much the same in the books, using ropes and ladders (TT, 165). Given just how much more competent the Witch King’s assault on Minas Tirith is, I don’t think this is error by Tolkien so much as an intentional contrast between Saruman’s arrogant presumption of strength and Sauron’s actual strength.

The major difference in the overall assault, both with the ladders and at the gate, is Tolkien’s description of it coming like waves, with Sarumon’s host charging, breaking, reforming and trying again (TT, 162). This is far truer to the nature of such attacks than the endless cresting wave of the film. Assaulting a wall is terrifying stuff and the attacker’s courage will only hold them so long in the face of stiff resistance. It is not uncommon, both in sieges but also in open battles, to hear of forces attacking, being repulsed, backing off to a distance, reforming and trying again, sometimes several times

Gimli, holding two ladders at the same time, by striking each Uruk before they can defend themselves. Imagine how much better he could do with a weapon with greater reach, like a spear!

Battering Rams

The next stage in the film is the attack on the gate of the Hornburg with a battering ram moved up the causeway (we’ll come to the mining effort in a moment, which is happening at much the same time).

Book Note: This reverses the order of attacks in the book, where the first effort on the gate of the Hornburg is made before we transition to the walls. This may in part be a consequence of Tolkien’s writing viewpoint centered on Aragorn and Éomer, as they begin on the Deeping Wall, but rush to the gate to perform a sally, then rush back to the Deeping Wall which is already heavily engaged (TT, 163-5), so it is possible the attacks were simultaneous. Whereas in the film, the ladders are already up the walls by the time the assault on the gate begins marching up the causeway.

The Uruks advance in a sort-of-testudo formation, keeping their shields above their heads to cover them from the missile fire coming off of the Hornburg. This is at least better and more organized than the charge against the walls. But here again, Saruman’s poor preparation work shows – Aragorn, spotting the column moving up the causeway, is able to redirect arrow-fire from the Deeping Wall into the vulnerable flank of the advancing orcs (the technical term for this fire-from-the-side is ‘enfilade fire’ – receiving enfilade fire is very very bad, particularly so in the gunpowder era. Even without gunpowder, it is hard to defend from attacks coming from the side and ranged troops firing at a dense mass like this can hardly miss).

Uruks bringing up the ram in the worst way possible, by knocking their fellows off of the high causeway to their almost certain falling death. Why wasn’t this planned for, with an interval left in the center so that the ram might be passed up?

Again, Saruman has had years to observe the Helm’s Gate fortress-complex and its defenses. The possibility of enfilade fire from the projecting tower beneath the Hornburg (on the Deeping Wall) should have been anticipated, if for no other reason that that producing enfilade fire is what projecting towers are for. The purpose of a projecting tower is so that men on it can fire down the length of the wall; it cannot have escaped an astute observer that this field of fire would include the very exposed causeway. Moreover, the Uruk team tasked with taking the gate ought to have been specially picked out, trained and prepared for this task. For a professional force like this one, it would not have been strange to learn that they would have built their own mock Hornburg and run assaults on it with that unit over and over again to get everything down. Surely someone, at some point ought to have brought up, “Hey, chief, maybe we should make sure to also have our shields out to the left side, towards the Deeping Wall, so we don’t take heavy losses from enfilade fire?”

And then this long line of Uruks reaches the top of the causeway and produces their great weapon: an uncovered battering ram. Naturally, it isn’t carried by some specialist unit near the front, but is rushed up the center of the causeway, throwing Uruks to their death by shoving them down as it goes, because if it isn’t already obvious by now, this entire attack is catastrophically poorly planned. Rams like this were almost always covered – that is they were protected by a movable shed, sometimes on wheels, sometimes carried. Men working a ram cannot protect themselves (because their hands are on the ram) and – as we see here – it is all too easy for men up on the gatehouse or on the hoarding to simply throw anything at them. Popular culture has seized on boiling oil, but more often cheap things were used – boiling water, heated sand, plain old heavy rocks – to equally brutal effect. Covering the ram wasn’t merely a question of casualty aversion – each ram-bearer who was scalded to death, shot or crushed under thrown rocks would disrupt the rhythm of the ramming action.

(As an aside, we see a lot of these rocks being thrown just bouncing off with almost no effect – because they are props made of light, safe materials. Actually having a thrown piece of masonry bounce off of your halmet would be far more unpleasant. Also very likely disabling or fatal – a heavy rock thrown from a wall can strike with a lot more force than a (far lighter) sword and there is a real limit to even what a solid helmet with a good helmet-liner (made of quilted textile) can do in terms of absorbing blunt force trauma; on this note S. James, “The Point of the Sword” in Waffen in Aktion, ed. A.W. Busch and H.J. Schalles (2010).)

This doesn’t fit anywhere else, but this is such a strange thing to do – one a small hole is made in the gate, the Uruks lean through it to fire crossbows at Rohirrim who are, at most, just a few feet behind the door (you can see one fellow just there to the left). Why use slow, heavy, difficult to reload crossbows, instead of just using a spear? And why don’t the Rohirrim respond with spears and swords, given that the Uruks are almost leaning through the gap?
This is another example of Hollywood treating bows and crossbows like modern guns when they very much are not. It’s almost as bad as those scenes of people being held at bow or crossbow-point, instead of at spear or sword point.

Nevertheless, by sheer weight of numbers – and the inexplicably non-lethal Rohirrim heavy rocks – the Uruk-hai reach the gate and begin battering it down, forcing Aragorn and Gimli to launch a daring sally attack from a hidden door on the side of the causeway. This is a good place to note that defenders in sieges were not just passively awaiting attacks. Parties might try to sally out to damage or destroy enemy works, inflict casualties, raid supplies, or just generally inflict fatigue and terror on the besiegers, as at the Roman siege of Lilybaeum (250-241 B.C.) or Avaricum (52 B.C.). Aragorn’s effort here is fairly modest; his aim is to disable the ram and clear the gate so it can be reinforced, which he does quite handily. The silly thing here is that the sally port – a common feature of castle design – requires jumping over a death-drop to actually get anywhere (odd choice) and that the sally is done with just two people, instead of siphoning off some of the mass of infantry Théoden has with him.

Book Note: The sally in the books (TT, 162-4) is more realistic. There is no leaping over a dangerous chasm and the sally consists of more than just two people. Instead, it is Aragorn, Éomer, Gimli and a small company of Rohirrim swordsmen. Whereas Aragorn and Gimli in the film actually hold the gate against a continous attack while it is repaired, the book is a bit more realistic: the sudden terror of the onset of the sally causes the enemies at the ram to flee, creating a momentary lull in the battle during which the sally party can return inside the gate and reinforce it. That a sally such as this – catching an enemy focused on the task before them in the flank – would panic and scatter them in this way is no surprise. Humans fight battles in a terrible balance of fear; it does not take much of a sudden shock to send them running, even if just for the moment. Especially when they are so poorly trained and led as Saruman’s host.

One of the largest differences in this analysis is the timing of the mine (which we’ll discuss in a moment). In the film, it comes before the sally (in part because the chronology of the entire battle is compressed, so Aragorn hardly has time to be running up to the keep, down to the wall and back again), which means that in the film, by the time the sally clears the gate, the Deeping Wall is already lost, and a result the gate falls moments afterwards. In the book, the mine comes well after the sally and is used to disrupt an effective stalemate where both the Deeping Wall and the Hornburg appear able to indefinately resist Saruman’s assaults, to the point that Aragorn, Éomer and Gamling stop to have a chat during a brief lull in the assault (TT, 167).

As with the ladder assault, the basic concept of this attack isn’t completely crazy, but it is performed in a wasteful manner. If the plan was to clear the wall first, then this attack should not have even begun before the completion of the mining effort removed the threat of enfilade fire. And given the time Saruman has had to prepare, it’s a wonder he didn’t have a specially built and measured movable shelter (on wheels) for the causeway. Hellenistic and Roman armies often moved shelters like this (either towers or rams) up earthen ramps of their own construction; fitting even a very basic, light-weight shelter (for easy transport) ought not to have been difficult for a wizard. The Assyrians used a mix of personal shields (made of whicker, so they could be large and light, but catch arrows) and movable shelters (and towers) in their siege-craft in the eighth century B.C. – that’s how old these techniques are.

Via Wikipedia, detail from the Lachish Reliefs, depicting the Siege of Lachish (701 BC). On the far right you can see a covered ram being moved up a ramp, supported by archers. In the center, you can see more infantry advancing up ramps, using movable cover and large wicker shields.
To give a sense of how old this is, there are no catapults here because the catapult wouldn’t be invented for another four centuries, give or take.

Blasting Fire

Now we come to the mining attack against the wall. While all of the rest of the battle is going on, Saruman’s Uruks – in what appears to be one of the only actions performed by a coordinated, prepared team – places what looks like a large black-powder charge underneath the wall and detonates it, creating a breach. We’re going to leave aside the use of a painted ‘berserker’ Uruk with a glowing white torch (made of magnesium strips? what is he burning?) to ignite the charge, rather than using some sort of fuse.

Sapping and mining were common tactics in ancient and medieval sieges. Prior to the development of gunpowder, the goal was typically to tunnel beneath key elements of the enemy fortifications and then collapse the tunnel by burning the wooden supports holding it up in order to collapse that key defense, as at Nicaea in 1097. The arrival of gunpowder brought the option of filling such a tunnel with explosives in order to blast a breach. While Saruman hasn’t done any tunneling, this is, in essence, what his host is doing: using a gunpowder charge placed under the wall (in the culvert through which the Deeping Stream flows).

You may ask why the powder-charge can’t be placed just anywhere; the reason is that a contained space – like underneath the wall – is required to channel the pressure and energy of the explosion into moving the material of the wall, rather than into a shock-wave through the air. This is especially true of black powder explosives, which burn quite a lot slower than the speed of sound. If you just set your bomb alongside the wall, the wall itself would redirect much of the force of the initial blast away, sending loads of as-yet-still-mostly-unburnt powder away from the wall, wasting much of the energy potential. Placing the charge beneath the wall, in a confined space (and in a metal container, where the pressure has to build to a certain level before the container bursts) is a good way to maximize the energy-delivery from your powder charge.

I feel I should note that the charge we are shown in two large metal pots doesn’t seem anywhere near large enough to release the necessary energy to move that much wall and throw huge stones what look to be at least 100 yards into the air, if what they contain is black powder (and since we actually see it in the film, as opposed to the books, we can see pretty clearly that it is corned black powder). But this isn’t a huge problem, since Saruman has magic, perhaps he has somehow enhanced his ‘fire of Orthanc’ as Aragorn calls it in the books. In either case, he overshoots the size of blast he needs by quite a bit, sending huge chunks of masonry mostly into his own forces, further demonstrating Saruman’s callousness with his own troops. It’s hard not to think that a smaller blast might have left his troops in a better position to rapidly exploit the breach, giving the defenders less time to meet them in good order.

Pretty clearly intended to be black powder. It even comes is nice round grains, which ought to indicate that it has been corned.

This is by far the single best-prepared element in Saruman’s attack; the charges were pre-measured, the target was pre-selected, and an elite unit was trained to deliver the bomb. Going back to my initial read of Saruman’s command style, this is clearly the element he focused the most energy and attention into, because it fits his nature as an inventor and craftsman. And in the film, we see that he is supremely confident that “if the wall if breached, Helm’s Deep will fall!” a confidence that, in the event, is wholly unwarranted (after all, the wall is breached, but he fails to take the fortress). It is hard to resist the conclusion that had Saruman put as much effort into low-tech siegecraft like movable shelters, better training and more careful planning, he would have been in a better position to take the Hornburg with or without his bomb.

Ironically, from what we see, the bomb was entirely pointless in the film. The Hornburg absolutely dominates the Deeping Wall; if the former is taken, holding the latter – exposed to missile fire from above without any protection – must fall. Saruman’s stated tactical plan for the attack, quoted above, is exactly backwards. And in the film (as opposed to the book), Saruman’s ham-fisted effort at the gate was – with some setbacks – succeeding by sheer dint of numbers (and the strange non-lethality of Rohirrim stones); had his causeway force continued the attack while the rest of the army simply dug in against potential relief forces, he would have won the battle. The contrast with the Witch King’s assault – which seeks to engage Gondorian defenses everywhere, but keeps a keen focus on the main blow to fall at the gate – is marked. Whereas the Witch King remained focused, Saruman dissipates his efforts, including his one key advantage (the bomb), all over the field, leaving insufficient forces to engage the only place that matters: the Hornburg. Blowing the Deeping Wall doesn’t speed the capture of the Hornburg in the slightest – if anything, it ensures that more of the defenders will be crammed within, making the capture of the one place on the field that matters more difficult (as it does in the event, since in the film, the loss of the Deep is the only reason Aragorn is available to make his daring sally)!

Had this mining operation occurred earlier, at a time when it might have prevented the force advancing up the causeway from taking that enfilade fire, it might make a bit more sense. Here, I think we should understand this as a consequence of Saruman’s poor organization. He has designed this clockwork plan of ladders->bomb->causeway->ram which is too complex for his poorly organized and prepared army to actually execute. This leads to elements occurring in the wrong order (the causeway effort coming before the bomb) or not being tightly grouped enough (with the ladder Uruks spending far too long sustaining far too severe losses waiting for the bomb to arrive). It’s not hard to imagine how this could happen – the catapults (we’ll get to them) can’t get forward early enough because the poorly organized infantry is in the way, while the assault begins before the bomb team is in position; the gateway team clearly just jumps the gun – perhaps because the limited command structure has made it almost impossible for each team to know what the others are doing. It reminds me of the failure of George McClellan’s over-complicated and poorly coordinated plan to defeat the Army of Northern Virginia at Antietam. A good plan that is too complex to actually execute is not a good plan.

The destruction of the wall then triggers more close-combat fighting in the Deep itself, which we’ll get into in more depth next week.

Book Note: There are a few differences of note with the book version. The biggest is the timing – that the mining effort occurs as a clear reaction to the repeated failure to take the fortress with more conventional tactics. Charitably, I think we might assume that Saruman had provisioned his troops with the blasting fire in the expectation that it would be necessary to clear the caves (which are otherwise fearfully difficult to breach, TT, 169), but that in desperation, they first used some of these charges to clear the wall.

Moreover, this use of the blasting fire is a reaction to a setback, rather than such a clearly planned part of the assault. Initially, Saruman’s orcs had sapped their way through the culvert in secret and built up a small force within the Deep under cover of darkness (TT, 165). They trigger their attack too early however and are beaten back (TT, 166) and the culvert is sealed with whatever spare rock is available. It is only then, it seems, that Saruman’s host sets to the use of the blasting fire (TT, 167) to clear a path, which then finally dislodged the defense from the Deeping Wall. It also certainly doesn’t seem like the blast was nearly so large as in the film.

Most notably, book!Saruman at least deploys his Uruks with more than one set of charges, as we hear later that “blasts of fire leaped up from below [the Hornburg] shaking the stones” (TT, 170), presumably attempting to break the Hornrock itself, or blasting the tunnels (though the latter seems unlikely as they do not successfully seal the tunnels). In either case, evidently these charges were not fit for the task, at least in the time they were given, which somewhat diminishes the credit we might give Saruman for precisely measuring his charges to the task at hand.

Grapples, Catapults and Large Ladders

After the blasting fire, we do see the Uruks break out some new siege tools we haven’t seen yet, the most notable being oversized ladders capable of reaching all of the way up to the top of the Hornburg and grappling hooks fired from some sort of catapult. I’m hesitant to call the catapult a ballista – that term is, I think, more correctly applied to Greek and Roman engines which worked by torsion (the coiling up of sinew in a sort-of spring) rather than tension (the bending of a heavy bar). In essence a tension catapult functions like a gigantic crossbow; while a torsion device may look similar, it works by a different method. Tension catapults were used in the Middle Ages, but they tended to be some of the least sophisticated and effective types. The counter-weight or even traction trebuchets or torsion powered engines were both more complex, but also more powerful.

Uruk tension catapult. There ought to be some complex gear-mechanism to pull this back (like a crossbow’s windlass); if this weapon is to have a real advantage in power and range over a normal bow, it needs to have an absolutely tremendous pull-weight, well beyond the ability of an Uruk to simply pull by hand.

What’s striking is how late these weapons are revealed in the attack, and the purpose to which they are put; in particular they are only used to launch grappling hooks up to the Hornburg, which is quite frankly a waste of everyone’s time. If Uruks climbing ladders cannot take the walls, there is no chance that Uruks trying to shimmy up a rope will manage it – at least the fellows on the ladders can still cover themselves with a shield and climb fairly quickly. Although I should note that I really question the feasibility of lifting ladders with this many Uruks on them at this height, both in terms of the strength of ladder (against the bending and then compressive force), as well as the lifting mechanism.

It is very surprising that these engines did not appear earlier, in the assault on the Deeping Wall. I think the popular conception is that catapults were for knocking down walls – and against thin curtain walls, they might do this, though it was not their core purpose. Rather, the main use of catapults was to degrade the crenelation on the wall, exposing the defenders to arrow fire (and more catapult fire) in order to drive the defenders off of the wall. The reason you would do this is for the same reason ladder assaults are so wasteful: it is nearly impossible to successfully take a defended wall by escalade, so the defenders would have to first be driven off before escalade could be attempted with a reasonable chance of success. Of course, degrading the defenses like this would require catapults fit to fire stones (instead of grapples), which might be assisted by arrow-throwing engines attempting to pick off defenders on the wall. For the attack on the Deeping Wall, using even just a few of these engines to suppress the archers on the wall (by flinging stones and bolts at them) could have vastly lowered the casualties of the attacking Uruk force, and possibly even allowed the escalade to succeed, given their numerical advantage.

My own theory for the late appearance of these weapons relates to the relative disorder and poor leadership of the army: the rest of the army was in the way. When we see the broader Deeping Coomb in the long-shots, it is absolutely full of Uruks, which must have made moving cumbersome, specialized siege equipment from the rear to the front terribly difficult. Consequently, crucial artillery wasn’t available until the end-stages of the siege, far too late to be of any real use. Again. Poor organization and leadership there.

So I think Saruman gets relatively little credit for the late appearance of some actually capable siege weapons. He has brought inferior versions of the wrong artillery to accomplish the wrong task and worst yet, his poor preparatory planning and training has meant that it arrived late besides. It’s another example where the Uruks have the trappings of a fancy, professional army (look, big expensive specialized weapons!) but not the training, organization or discipline to effectively use those weapons. This is a common problem in the militaries of developing countries: resources and money are directed into flashy, ultra-modern weapon-systems (especially jet fighters; look at the militaries of the Middle East and all the flashy jet fighters they buy, while far more basic capabilities – rudimentary modern-system stuff – remain severely lacking) instead of into the boring, low-tech training and discipline which has a far higher return-on-investment in terms of developing actual military capabilities.

Book Note: These engines do not appear in the books (though the grappling hooks and long ladders do), which really heightens the contrast between the Witch King’s towers-and-catapults professional preparation and Saruman’s ladders-and-bows amateur-hour assault. Again, I think this is an intended element of the story, contrasting the real strength of Sauron with Saruman’s dilettantish incompetence and baseless pride, not an error on Tolkien’s part.

Hasty and Deliberate Assaults

Let’s return for a moment to Clifford Roger’s distinction (Soldier’s Lives Through History: The Middle Ages (2007)) between what he terms ‘hasty’ assaults and ‘deliberate’ assaults in medieval siege warfare. As Rogers notes, many armies on arriving at a fortified settlement that they needed to take – be it a fortified city or a castle – would engage a ‘hasty’ assault as soon as possible. Such attacks, made with perhaps some ladders, ropes and whatever else might be to hand, usually failed, unless they took the city defenders very much by surprise. But typically, since sieges were so long and arduous, and since so little a portion of the army was risked, it was worth rolling the dice on a small chance of ending the siege immediately. But no army was betting the farm (or the siege) on the hasty assault, because – again – they usually failed.

A hasty assault, in this case of the assault on Ribodavia, Spain, from the British Library’s Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, Royal 14 E IV, f 252. The manuscript, written in French and probably produced in Flanders, dates 1470-1480.

When that typically failed, the army would revert to what was always the actual plan, which was either blockade (surround the place, wait for it to run out of supplies and surrender) or preparation for a deliberate assault (or both). Throughout, negotiation was a key tactic, as the defenders knew a city or castle taken by storm was likely to be very harshly treated (another reason why rampant backstabbing was a generally self-defeating tactic in medieval Europe; a reputation for trust was the sine qua non of such useful negotiations). Obvious, visible preparations for a deliberate assault could be used as leverage to negotiate the surrender of the fortress, thus avoiding the need to actually launch the assault.

Preparations for a deliberate assault might included extended bombardment with siege machines, or sapping efforts. The attackers might construct siege towers, which were – contrary to their pop-culture appearances – less for getting onto the wall as they were to get a firing platform above the wall, from which to shoot down at the defenders, clearing a set of wall for successful escalade (much like how catapults were not for demolishing the walls, but driving the defenders off of them). Armies might even use earthworks to build ramps up the walls, although this was a more common tactic of large ancient armies than smaller medieval ones (it required a lot of coordination, but mole-construction – the earthwork ramp was called a ‘mole’ – was a fairly sure route to success if the besieging army was much stronger than the defenders).

Crucially, while all of this was going on, the attacking armies faced two main threats: threats from within their siege lines (from the besieged garrison) and threats from without (from a relieving army). Consequently, one of the first things any good besieging army did was construct field fortifications facing the main exits from the besieged fortress to block sudden sallies or nighttime raids. And one of the very next thing any good besieging army did was construct field fortifications facing away from the besieged fortress, to hinder a relieving army. The term for the first kind of works is ‘circumvallation’ (Latin, lit: walling around [the fortress]) and for the latter is ‘countervallation’ (Latin, lit: walling against [an outside attacker]). At the very least, fortifying a secure camp near the target settlement would be done typically even before a hasty assault was launched, because it was so crucial.

Conclusions: Saruman Is Not Very Good At This

It is hard to escape the conclusion that, for the most part, what Saruman has done is launched a ‘hasty’ assault without any backup plan if it failed. The best part of the plan is the concept: overtask the defenders by attacking at all points simultaneously. Presumably the effort on the Deeping Wall is to remove the enfilade fire against the causeway (though in that case, the effort on the causeway ought not to have begun before the Deeping Wall was either taken or so fully engaged that it could not respond). But the worst part of the plan is every part of the execution.

I am put in mind of Sun Tzu’s description of why siege warfare is wasteful, “the general, unable to control his irritation, will launch his men to assault like swarming ants, with the result that one third of his men are slain while the town still remains untaken.”

But so far, we’ve mostly focused on what Saruman’s forces have done. But the worst sin here is a sin of omission. Saruman’s force – completely focused on the assault and without the necessary leadership to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time – completely fails to engage in any defensive preparations of this sort. Consequently, when Théoden predictably sallies out of the main gate (how was that contingency not gamed out!? It’s the main gate!), he faces no prepared defenses at the base of the causeway and no Uruk unit formed up for open fighting ready to meet him. And like when Éomer (or book!Erkenbrand) shows up on the army’s flank, absolutely no preparation work has been done to secure the approaches. In both the book and the film, the relief force arrives over a ridge, on which apparently were posted no scouts or defenses. This is far worse in the books, because the work of preparing a defensive line behind Sarumon’s host has already been done for them. Helm’s Dike is perfect for this role, yet no force is left to hold it.

From the same manuscript as above, we see efforts by the attackers, left, to fortify their positions opposite the enemy fortifications. Note also, bottom center, the use of natural features (in this case, water features) to protect the camp.

Saruman’s massive army cannot possibly be brought to bear against the Helm’s Gate fortress complex all at once. This is clear in the book and the film – the army is simply too big and the frontage of the fortress too small, leaving most of the host simply standing around waiting for an opportunity to go into action. And yet none of these forces were spared to protect their position from a relief army. A relief army, I might add, that Saruman’s forces were in a position to be well aware of (they ought to know that much of Erkenbrand’s army is as yet unaccounted for), even if we forget that they are commanded by a wizard with a magic seeing-stone. It should not have been an impossible task for a few thousand of his troops to act as a rearguard, spending the night fortifying their position and scouting for potential relieving forces.

Book Note: The contrast with the Siege of Gondor, particularly in the books, is instructive. The Witch King’s forces immediately split into groups performing a multitude of tasks at once: digging lines of trenches to protect their siege equipment from sallies, deploying that equipment from wagons and so on (RotK, 104-5); they’re clearly working in many groups, since they engage the city at nearly all points along its outer wall. At the same time, he has dispatching a blocking force to hold the approaches from Rohan (RotK, 116) which Théoden only avoids through shrewd use of local guides.

Now this post may sound like one long critique of Jackson (and Tolkien), but I mean nothing of the sort. I actually thing this is brilliant storytelling and one of the most successful elements of Jackson’s adaptation of this battle. As we’ll discuss at the end of this series, Saruman is in way over his head; he is playing at being a Dark Lord like Sauron, but only playing. And his slipshod fortress assault expresses that same idea. Saruman has launched a child’s idea of a siege. It has all of the exciting things: ladders, explosions, great charging masses of troops! But he has neglected nearly all of the boring grunt-work that makes that work – the preparation, the construction of low-tech moveable cover, the digging and field fortifications necessary to secure a position.

But more fundamentally, the main failure here is deeper: the failure to properly organize and train this army. The failure of the fortress assault – and it really does fail, as the Uruks are in panicked retreat even before reinforcements arrive (something clearer in the books, TT, 172) – marks another moment, much like the dispersal of Saruman’s Host, where victory might have been secured even despite the intervention of the heroes. And both moments speak to a lack of exactly the sort of discipline good professional armies spend so much time building.

That doesn’t mean that every army needs to be built that way, but this army did. Saruman continues to devise complex plans on tight time-tables that would work wonderfully if his army was composed of robots (or disciplined professionals) instead of orcs and humans. This is, I must say, a common mistake of amateurs – to propose extremely complex battle plans which could win the day on a computer or in an armchair discussion, but which are so complex that actually implementing them in the fog of war is nearly impossible. No plan survives contact with the enemy – but Saruman’s plans are especially fragile and have no backups, which speaks to his amateurism.

While no singular mistake here is fatal to Saruman’s overall operational plan – his numerical advantage allows for his army to recover from grievous errors by sheer dint of numbers – they add up. Each sloppy assault tactic, each bit of poor organization diminishes his army (quite literally, in that it gets his Uruks killed), reducing, bit by bit, that margin of numerical superiority. And since his army lacks advantages in training or cohesion (or as we’ll see next week, equipment), massive numerical superiority is the only coin it has with which to buy success. Once that is exhausted, Saruman’s host, quite predictably, falls apart.

Next week, we’re going to zoom in a bit on the fighting itself and take a look at the armor and weapons. How well and realistically equipped are these armies and what does that say about them?

EOS completes acquisition of Audacy

SAN FRANCISCO — Electro Optic Systems Holdings Ltd. of Australia (EOS) completed its acquisition May 28 of Silicon Valley startup Audacy and announced plans to spend approximately $1.2 billion Australian dollars ($800 million) to create the EOSLink satellite communications constellation.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved EOS’ plan to take over Audacy’s spectrum license and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) completed its review of the deal, EOS announced May 28.

Now, EOS can “move quickly to the deployment phase of the first EOSLink constellation, comprising four satellites,” EOS Group CEO Ben Greene said in a statement. “The size, capability and cost of these satellites has been scaled to meet the requirements of initial customers. Over the next six months we will complete the satellite design sufficient to allow the award of build and launch contracts by early in 2021.”

EOS is counting on expansion of optical communications, which it expects to account for the majority of communications traffic by 2036. The EOSLink constellation is designed to support the transition from RF links accounting for the lion’s share of the market to optical links.

During this transition, EOS anticipates the communications market to experience severe disruption as traffic jumps 100-fold without any increase in overall revenue.

Prior to acquiring Audacy, EOS purchased EM Solutions, an Australian manufacturer of mobile terminals for wideband satellite communications.

Two EOS subsidiaries, EOS Space Systems and EM Solutions, are founding corporate members of the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre, an Australian public private partnership with $245 million in funding supporting more than 100 research organizations. EOS Space Systems and EM Solutions have forged agreements with the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre to work together to develop a hybrid RF and optical satellite communications terminal.

‘The Unicorns Fell Into a Ditch’

Matt Levine, in his excellent Money Stuff column for Bloomberg:

If restaurants and drivers complained about DoorDash but DoorDash was raking in juicy profits, you could be like “what do you want, innovate or die, the market has spoken.” But in fact restaurants and drivers complain about DoorDash, and it lost $450 million in 2019 on about $1 billion of revenue. Arguably the market has spoken and said “stop it, come on, this is dumb.”

In the old economy of price signals, you tried to build a product that people would want, and the way you knew it worked is that people would pay you more than it cost. You were adding value to the world, and you could tell because you made money. In the new economy of user growth, you don’t have to worry about making a product that people want because you can just pay them to use it, so you might end up with companies losing money to give people things that they don’t want and driving out the things they do want.

That sounds like a joke but it’s not even an exaggeration.

Bonus burn on counterfeit capitalism poster child MoviePass:

Meanwhile MoviePass itself is up for auction in its Chapter 7 bankruptcy, with bids due next month. Naively I would think that a pandemic would be good for MoviePass: If your business is buying movie tickets for $14 and selling them for $10 a month, months when all the movie theaters are shut down should be relatively profitable.


DoorDash and Pizza Arbitrage

This piece by Ranjan Roy for his Margins newsletter is such a perfect example of counterfeit capitalism. Roy has a friend who owns a few pizzerias. They were getting complaints from customers whose deliveries were cold. What made that really odd is that his pizzerias weren’t offering delivery service. What happened is that DoorDash, with no permission, registered a phone number with Google under his restaurant’s name. The fun part of the story:

DoorDash was causing him real problems. The most common was, DoorDash delivery drivers didn’t have the proper bags for pizza so it inevitably would arrive cold. It led to his employees wasting time responding to complaints and even some bad Yelp reviews.

But he brought up another problem - the prices were off. He was frustrated that customers were seeing incorrectly low prices. A pizza that he charged $24 for was listed as $16 by DoorDash.

My first thought: I wondered if DoorDash is artificially lowering prices for customer acquisition purposes.

My second thought: I knew DoorDash scraped restaurant websites. After we discussed it more, it was clear that the way his menu was set up on his website, DoorDash had mistakenly taken the price for a plain cheese pizza and applied it to a ‘specialty’ pizza with a bunch of toppings.

My third thought: Cue the Wall Street trader in me… ARBITRAGE!

The arbitrage is good fun, but ultimately the whole thing shows how predatory these VC-backed delivery services are:

You have insanely large pools of capital creating an incredibly inefficient money-losing business model. It’s used to subsidize an untenable customer expectation. You leverage a broken workforce to minimize your genuine labor expenses. The companies unload their capital cannons on customer acquisition, while this week’s Uber-Grubhub news reminds us, the only viable endgame is a promise of monopoly concentration and increased prices. But is that even viable?


Friday: Personal Income & Outlays, Chicago PMI, Fed Chair Jerome Powell

• At 8:30 AM ET, Personal Income and Outlays, April 2020. The consensus is for a 6.5% decrease in personal income, and for a 12.5% decrease in personal spending. And for the Core PCE price index to decrease 0.3%.

• At 9:45 AM, Chicago Purchasing Managers Index for May.

• At 10:00 AM,, University of Michigan's Consumer sentiment index (Final for May). The consensus is for a reading of 73.7.

• At 11:00 AM, Discussion, Fed Chair Jerome Powell, At Griswold Center for Economic Policy Studies Princeton Reunions Talk: A Conversation with Jerome Powell, moderated by Alan Blinder (via webcast)

Mercury Meets Crescent Venus

Mercury Meets Crescent Venus Mercury Meets Crescent Venus

U.S. Space Force to expand presence inside the Pentagon

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force headquarters offices at the Pentagon will begin a gradual expansion over the next year as new positions are filled and officers from the former Air Force Space Command transfer into the new service.

One of those officers is Brig. Gen. DeAnna Burt, director of Space Force operations and communications at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

“We’ve been slowly but surely building what is called the Office of the Chief of Space Operations,” Burt told SpaceNews by phone from Colorado Springs.

Burt is helping Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond organize the Space Force headquarters.

When Congress established the Space Force on Dec. 20, 2019, it renamed the Colorado Springs-based Air Force Space Command the U.S. Space Force. “We’re slowly standing down the headquarters here over the next year and standing up the office of the chief of space operations staff there in D.C.,” said Burt.“The headquarters in Colorado Springs will go away in the next year.”

Burt was recently nominated for a second star and the rank of major general. Along with hundreds of other Air Force officers in space career fields, Burt this fall will be leaving the Air Force and joining the Space Force.

“That’s when I get to wear the cool blue thread,” she said referring to the Space Force battle dress uniform.

The Space Force initial headquarters will have about 200 people, or a fraction of the size of the other military services’ headquarters. Burt said the Space Force staff because of its small size will need significant support from the Air Force.

The Space Force is expected to be about 16,000 personnel. For now the majority are airmen assigned to the Space Force. Over the next year, thousands of airmen from space-focused organizations are expected to transfer over.

Space Force HQ vs Space Command HQ

U.S. Space Command was established only a few months before the Space Force was signed into law. Many people still conflate the two even though they are entirely separate organizations. Burt said she would like the public to clearly understand the difference.

As a military service, the Space Force has responsibilities under Title 10 of the U.S. Code to organize, train, equip prepare, and maintain forces. In a conflict, those forces would be assigned to a combatant command. U.S. Space Command is one of the U.S. military’s 11 combatant commands.

The Air Force recently announced an open bidding process to select the future location of U.S. Space Command headquarters, which for now will remain in Colorado Springs.

The headquarters of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps are located in the Pentagon. The Space Force would be no different.

Burt said the new process for selecting the location of U.S. Space Command headquarters gives the Air Force a chance to consider fresh options. “General Raymond thinks it’s exciting and offers us an opportunity to look at some different locations,” she said.

‘The discussion that we’re having right now is where does U.S. Space Command headquarters go? The Space Force, the service headquarters, will be in D.C. with all the other service headquarters,” said Burt.

If U.S. satellites came under attack it would be the responsibility of U.S. Space Command to recommend a plan of action to the secretary of defense and the president. The skilled operators and equipment that would be needed to protect satellites and respond to adversaries’ actions would be provided by the Space Force.

Viasat, lured by broadband subsidy opportunity, eyes 300-satellite LEO constellation

WASHINGTON — Viasat says it is open to building a constellation of nearly 300 satellites in low Earth orbit if it can qualify for some of the $20.4 billion in broadband subsidies the U.S. Federal Communications Commission intends to dole out under the Rural Digital Opportunities Fund. 

Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg said May 27 that the company’s view on orbits remains the same — Viasat has long defended geostationary orbit  as the best vantage point for satellite broadband — but the possibility of government funding makes LEO worth pursuing anyway. 

“It’s the demand side that we’re after, and the only thing that’s really changed on the demand side are government subsidies,” Dankberg said during a presentation with investment management firm AllianceBernstein. 

Viasat has for the past several years been focused on a trio of geostationary broadband satellites collectively referred to as ViaSat-3, each of which will have a terabit or more of total capacity. Last month, the company gained FCC approval for a medium-Earth-orbit constellation of 20 satellites, a system Viasat had not committed to building but talked about as possibly augmenting its GEO fleet. 

Now Viasat wants the FCC to transfer that same approval to a LEO constellation of 288 satellites it says could help close the digital divide in the United States. 

Viasat’s LEO constellation would operate at 1,300 kilometers using the same Ka- and V-band frequencies recently authorized for MEO, according to a May 26 FCC filing. Each satellite would support 96 gigabits per second of throughput, enabling a collective 27 terabits of internet connectivity fanning out 60 degrees north and south of the equator. 

Dankberg said LEO would enable Viasat to send signals fast enough to drop latency below 100 milliseconds — a bench mark the FCC has given considerable weight in deciding who receives subsidies from its Rural Digital Opportunities Fund. 

“We had a purpose in MEO, but the biggest factor in wanting to lower the altitude is really the amount of funding that the FCC is aiming at low latency communications,” Dankberg said during a May 26 earnings call. 

An uphill battle

Viasat was the only satellite operator to be awarded FCC subsidies from an earlier FCC program called the Connect America Fund Phase 2, having been allocated $122 million from the $1.49 billion program the FCC pledged to spend from 2018 to 2028. Dankberg said Viasat’s experience with the Connect America Fund Phase 2 gave it a good sense of how the FCC evaluates bids. 

The FCC released rules May 19 covering how the first $16 billion of the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunities Fund, will be spent. Funds awarded under the program’s first phase will be available through 2030. A start date has not been announced for the second phase, which includes $4.4 billion in subsidies plus any funds not allocated during the first phase.

Applicants for Rural Digital Opportunities Fund money will be split into four performance tiers, with providers offering at least 1,000 megabits per second downloads and 500 Mbps uploads with less than 100 milliseconds of latency eligible for the most funding. No satellite operator has reliably proven they can reach those standards, the FCC said.

The FCC’s next two performance tiers — 100/20 Mbps and 50/5 Mbps —  also exceed what satellite operators can deliver, according to an FCC survey. While Viasat told the FCC it achieved 100 Mbps download speeds in select geographies, neither it nor its competitor Hughes Network Systems showed they could exceed 3 Mbps uploads. 

Such slow upload speeds would put satellite providers in the competition’s lowest performance tier:  25/3 Mbps, the FCC’s current threshold for “broadband” service. 

Another challenge for Viasat and other satellite operators is that the FCC’s rules treat low- and medium-Earth-broadband systems such as those being built by SpaceX and others to be unproven solutions for residential customers and thus not eligible for the subsidies despite their promise of low latency and high speeds. 

The Rural Digital Opportunities Fundis “not the appropriate venue to test unproven technologies using universal service support,” the FCC said. 

Dankberg, acknowledging the difficulty of those rules, said Viasat’s focus is on how the FCC grades companies in the second phase of the program, which includes $4.4 billion in subsidies plus any funds not allocated during the first phase. 

“Assuming that the FCC does allow LEO to be eligible in the Phase 2 part of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the opportunity for funding is far in excess of the increase in what the constellation would cost,” Dankberg said. 

The FCC is scheduled to vote June 9 on the proposed rules for the first first phase of Rural Digital Opportunities Funds. If at least three of the agency’s five commissioners vote in favor of the rules, bidding for the program’s first $16 billion would happen Oct. 29.

Funding reserved for the second phase of the program would become available only after the FCC has new broadband maps to better identify rural homes and businesses in underserved areas, FCC spokesman Will Wiquist said by email. He did not respond to SpaceNews inquiries about when those maps would be completed.

More News From Earlier This Month, Lost in the Quarantine Shuffle: ‘Uber Cuts 3,000 More Jobs, Shuts 45 Offices in Coronavirus Crunch’

Preetika Rana, reporting for The Wall Street Journal back on May 19 (Apple News+):

Uber Technologies Inc. is cutting several thousand additional jobs, closing more than three dozen offices and re-evaluating big bets in areas ranging from freight to self-driving technology as Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi attempts to steer the ride-hailing giant through the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Khosrowshahi announced the plans in an email to staff Monday, less than two weeks after the company said it would eliminate about 3,700 jobs and planned to save more than $1 billion in fixed costs. Monday’s decision to close 45 offices and lay off some 3,000 more people means Uber is shedding roughly a quarter of its workforce in under a month’s time. Drivers aren’t classified as employees, so they aren’t included.

Why does Uber even have 45 offices to close, and so many employees to lay off? What exactly were the ~7,000 people they’ve laid off so far doing? Last I heard, Uber had 400 iOS engineers. Just iOS. I get it that some of that work isn’t visible just by looking at the Uber app on your iPhone, because there’s a lot of unseen work that goes into making an app like Uber work worldwide. I don’t know what the right number of iOS engineers at Uber is, but I do know that 400 is bananas. Too many cooks spoil the stew; 400 cooks don’t even fit in a kitchen.

It’s like trying to build a better engineering team by buying 1,000 copies of Fred Brooks’s The Mythical Man-Month and never once reading it.

The basic idea behind Uber is both sound and genius: smartphones made possible a revolution in ride hailing. But ride hailing is inherently a low-margin business. Companies like Uber and Lyft can make ride hailing better for everyone — drivers and passengers alike — but there’s nothing they can do to change the fact that it’s by definition a low-margin business and always will be.

The best treatise I’ve read on this whole aspect of our society is Matt Stoller’s “counterfeit capitalism”, which I linked to back in September.* Just read that, or read it again. It succinctly captures something very important.

* Yes, the same Matt Stoller with whom I disagreed vociferously regarding his argument that Apple and Google are “exercising sovereign power” with their refusal to allow local health agencies to automatically collect privacy-invasive data from our phones. Stoller is a great writer and thinker, and it’s the sign of an adult mind that you can civilly disagree with someone whom you usually agree with. (And vice versa: a rational adult can agree with someone they usually disagree with.)


Coronavirus in L.A. County: Separating Fact from Fiction

Are cities the latest victim of coronavirus?

Editor’s Note:  City Observatory is pleased to publish this guest commentary by Anthony Dedousis of Abundant Housing LA.

Some elected officials and journalists have drawn a link between urban density and the spread of COVID-19. A few anti-urban pundits have gone further, arguing that suburban living patterns are reducing the spread of COVID-19, and using the pandemic as a justification for opposing new apartments in cities.

Reality is more complicated (isn’t it always?) Many dense cities, like Seoul, Taipei, and San Francisco, have experienced relatively few cases of COVID-19, and in the United States, suburbs and rural areas are experiencing some of the nation’s most acute outbreaks. 

Nevertheless, living patterns and socioeconomic makeup of cities seem to play a role in the pandemic’s spread. Researchers at Harvard found that counties with high rates of poverty and household overcrowding experienced higher COVID-19 case rates. In Chicago, ProPublica found that neighborhoods with large black and Latino populations were most impacted by COVID-19’s spread. 

To better understand these factors, I’ve analyzed COVID-19 case rates and socioeconomic indicators for individual cities within Los Angeles County, and among neighborhoods of the City of Los Angeles. I find that COVID-19 case rates are associated with poverty and household overcrowding, and that urban density is, at best, a weak predictor of COVID-19 cases. The link between COVID-19, poverty, and household overcrowding also helps to explain why the disease disproportionately afflicts communities of color.

A quick note: the analysis is limited to cities and neighborhoods with 20 or more COVID-19 cases as of May 7, 2020. I used COVID-19 data from the LA County Department of Public Health, and socioeconomic data from the USC Neighborhood Data for Social Change. Here’s a link to the combined dataset and R code.

First, I calculated the average COVID-19 case rate across quintiles of L.A. County localities, based on the share of the population living below the poverty line. The poorer the neighborhood group, the higher the COVID-19 rate.

There’s a similar trend for the share of households living in overcrowded conditions (defined as a household with more than one adult per room, not counting the kitchen or bathrooms). Localities with the highest share of households living in overcrowded conditions have the highest COVID-19 rates. This makes sense: COVID-19 spreads easily among family members living in close quarters, and people living in overcrowded conditions are likelier to be poor.

Finally, when we analyze neighborhoods’ housing density (the number of housing units per square mile), we can see that the densest areas are not experiencing the highest COVID-19 rates. The most dense quintile has roughly the same COVID-19 case rate as the middle density quintile. This calls the “density = COVID” narrative into question.

Next, I mapped COVID-19 case rates (darker red means higher COVID case rates): 

COVID-19 cases per 1,000 residents

Although we don’t have data for every locality, we can observe “COVID clusters” in:

  • The north San Fernando Valley, especially in the Sylmar, Pacoima, Panorama City, and Van Nuys neighborhoods of Los Angeles
  • Central Los Angeles, especially in the Westlake, East Hollywood, and Pico-Union neighborhoods
  • South Los Angeles, especially in the South-Central, Vermont Square, and Florence-Firestone neighborhoods

When we compare this map to a map showing overcrowding rates by locality, we observe very similar patterns. Neighborhoods in the north San Fernando Valley, Central LA, and South LA have the highest rates of overcrowding and the highest COVID-19 case rates.

Similar patterns appear when we compare COVID rates to neighborhood poverty rates. The COVID clusters generally appear in localities with high poverty levels, although there are certainly poor neighborhoods that have relatively low COVID rates.

What about housing density? By comparing the COVID map to a map of housing density (more housing-dense areas appear darker green), we see that density does not neatly align with COVID-19 case rates. It is true that housing-dense parts of Central LA, like Westlake and East Hollywood, have high COVID-19 case rates, and that suburban, spread-out areas in the San Gabriel Valley have low COVID-19 incidence.

But neighborhoods in South LA and the San Fernando Valley are epicenters of the pandemic, despite not being very dense. And some relatively housing-dense areas, like Santa Monica and Venice, have low COVID-19 case rates. It’s a more complicated relationship than “more housing equals more COVID”.

Next, to illustrate how poverty and overcrowding are associated with COVID-19 incidence, I graphed L.A. County localities on a scatterplot (poverty rate is on the x-axis; overcrowding rate is on the y-axis), and colored the dots based on the locality’s COVID-19 incidence (green means low case rate; yellow means moderate; red means high). This shows that neighborhoods with high COVID-19 incidence tend to have high overcrowding and high poverty rates.

Finally, like any self-respecting data nerd, I ran a regression to estimate the extent to which the combination of these variables — household overcrowding, poverty rate, minority groups’ population share, and housing density — predict a locality’s COVID-19 case rate:

These results indicate that poverty, household overcrowding, and race are strong predictors of a neighborhood or city’s vulnerability to COVID-19. Housing density does not have a clear causal relationship with the COVID-19 case rate.


  • A 1-percentage point increase in a locality’s poverty rate is associated with a 1.5% increase in the COVID-19 case rate.
  • A 1-percentage point increase in a locality’s overcrowding rate is associated with a 1.7% increase in the COVID-19 case rate.
  • A 1-percentage point increase in a locality’s minority group population share is associated with a 0.5% decrease in the COVID-19 case rate. (This was surprising to me, since black and Latino communities, which experience higher rates of poverty than average, have been hard-hit by COVID-19. The model may have already accounted for this by including poverty and overcrowding as variables.)

Finally, I’d offer three observations based on this research, to help policymakers respond more effectively to the immediate emergency, and improve urban life for everyone post-coronavirus:

  • Low-income and minority communities need more health resources. Free COVID-19 testing and space for patients to quarantine should be made widely available in low-income and minority communities, and resourcing for community health centers and local hospitals in poor neighborhoods must improve. 
  • More housing means less overcrowding. California’s housing shortage impacts low-income communities the most; when renters are unable to afford adequate homes, they are forced into overcrowded living situations. More apartments in more neighborhoods can lower rents and relieve overcrowding.
  • Neighborhoods need more public space. With people spending more time outside as a break from sheltering at home, L.A.’s lack of green space and pedestrian space has become more acutely noticeable. New parks, more bike lanes, and wider sidewalks will help accommodate greater demand for outdoor space.  

Anthony Dedousis (@anthonydedousis) is director of policy and research for Abundant Housing L.A., a pro-housing education and advocacy organization serving Southern California.

Eric Trump's Brother-In-Law Is The New Deputy NASA Chief Of Staff. Seriously.

Kyle Yunaska Named Deputy Chief of Staff At NASA Headquarters

"NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has named Kyle Yunaska as the agency's Deputy Chief of Staff. ... Yunaska also served as the Principal Deputy Director and Chief of Staff for DOE's Office of Policy and held several advisory roles throughout the Department. Prior to his work at DOE, Yunaska held a range of positions at various academic, nonprofit, and private sector organizations."

Eric Trump's brother-in-law gets promoted. E&E News (2017)

"Eric Trump's brother-in-law is now chief of staff in a Department of Energy policy shop that was once tasked with carrying out President Obama's climate change agenda, according to DOE's online registry. Kyle Yunaska at DOE's Office of Energy Policy and Systems Analysis (EPSA) may manage the front office operations and strategy and advise EPSA's principal deputy director, Carol Battershell, and Executive Director Sean Cunningham, according to a description of the position on DOE's website."

Meet The Hottest Bachelors Of Washington D.C., Inside Edition

"Kyle Yunaska is an accounting manager for a non-profit. The 29-year-old is ready to settle down."

Kyle Robert Yunaska, ProPublica

Iran’s Qajar Dynasty, Modernized

Qajar, Shadi Ghadirian

Qajar, Shadi Ghadirian

For her photo series Qajar, Iranian photographer Shadi Ghadirian styled her subjects and their backgrounds as they would have appeared in portraits taken during Iran’s Qajar Dynasty in the 19th century. But each subject is also posed with a contemporary object like a boombox, bicycle, soda can, or vacuum cleaner. Ghadirian says of her work: “My pictures became a mirror reflecting how I felt: we are stuck between tradition and modernity.”

Tags: Iran   photography   remix   Shadi Ghadirian

Rocket Lab to resume launches in June

Electron on pad

WASHINGTON — Rocket Lab will resume launches of its Electron small launch vehicle in June as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic ease at its New Zealand launch site.

The company announced May 28 it has rescheduled an Electron launch for June 11 local time from its launch site on New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. That launch was previously scheduled for March 30 but postponed because of a lockdown imposed by the New Zealand government in response to the pandemic.

The launch, called “Don’t Stop Me Now” by the company, has the same set of payloads as what the company originally announced in March. That includes three unidentified payloads for the National Reconnaissance Office, the ANDESITE (Ad-hoc Network Demonstration for Extended Satellite-based Inquiry and other Team Endeavors) cubesat built by students at Boston University and whose launch was arranged by NASA, and M2 Pathfinder built by the University of New South Wales Canberra.

The announcement of the new launch date comes as New Zealand scales back its response to the pandemic. The country stepped down to Alert Level 2 of its response plan May 29 (local time), allowing larger gatherings of people, as the country has reported only a handful of new cases of COVID-19 since the middle of the month.

Rocket Lab said in its statement about the launch that it will continue to use “enhanced health and safety processes” for employees working on this launch, including physical distancing, split shifts and enhanced cleaning.

The company hasn’t announced plans for future Electron rockets, or an update on its new Launch Complex (LC) 2 in Virginia. The company rolled an Electron out to the pad at LC-2 this spring for tests, including a brief static fire of its nine first stage engines. However, the first Electron launch from LC-2, of Air Force Research Lab smallsat called Monolith, is not expected until at least the third quarter of this year, as the company waits for NASA to certify the rocket’s autonomous flight termination system.

Space Force Really Wants To Take Over All Of NASA's Stuff

- Wired: Space Force. Tired: NASA, earlier post
- Space Force Has The Air Force Academy. Why Doesn't NASA Have A Space Academy?, earlier post
- Space Force Really Wants To Be Star Fleet, earlier post
- Space Force Is Using NASA Spacecraft As A Recruiting Tool, earlier post
- The New Space Force Uniforms Need Some Space Colors, earlier post

Four Quick Links for Thursday Afternoon

30 Movies That Are Unlike Anything You've Seen Before, incl. The Act of Killing, Just Another Girl on the I.R.T., Morvern Callar, and The Portrait of a Lady. []

More Than 100,000 People Have Died Of The Coronavirus In The US. "Public health experts say the real number of infections and deaths from COVID-19 is likely much higher than the official count." []

Adobe is offering their entire 99U Conference online this year for free (it's regularly ~$1000). Talks, classes, and workshops from folks like Kelli Anderson, Taeyoon Choi, Yancey Strickler, and Michelle Rial. []

Protestors Criticized For Looting Businesses Without Forming Private Equity Firm First. "It's disgusting to put workers at risk by looting. You do it by chipping away at their health benefits and eventually laying them off." []


Note: Quick Links are pushed to this RSS feed twice a day. For more immediate service, check out the front page of, the Quick Links archive, or the @kottke Twitter feed.

"I Just Beat COVID"

For reasons which escape me, President declares, “I just beat COVID.”

Late Update: Several of you noted that the President must have meant he “just beat COVID” in the sense that he arrived back in the US just before COVID arrived in the country. He arrived back in the US on February 25th. So, narrowly speaking, even this isn’t true. But it was before the major confirmed outbreak started in March. So I think this must be what he meant: a) because it is the only non-absurd explanation (a hard standard for Trump), b) but more importantly because it’s the only explanation which makes the one statement have any logical connection to the one that preceded it. (Making nonsensical statements to own the libs …)

May 28 COVID-19 Test Results: Progress

In late April, Dr. Fauci said the US might be able to test 400,000 to 600,000 people per day sometime in May, and testing is in the lower half of that range. There might be enough to allow test-and-trace in some areas.

However, the US might need more than 900,000 tests per day according to Dr. Jha of Harvard's Global Health Institute.

There were 453,560 test results reported over the last 24 hours.

COVID-19 Tests per Day Click on graph for larger image.

This data is from the COVID Tracking Project.

The percent positive over the last 24 hours was 5.1% (red line). The US probably needs enough tests to keep  the percentage positive well below 5%. (probably much lower based on testing in New Zealand).

Coffee Shops in the Social Distancing Era

Michael Klein, writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer:

Coffee shops and cafes, largely shut down for walk-in business since mid-March, are beginning to reopen as restrictions on takeout food ease.

La Colombe, the Philadelphia-based coffee giant, is taking pages out of the airport and pharmacy handbooks in retrofitting 30 of its cafes in six cities for safety. The first location to reopen this week is at 130 S. 19th St., just north of Rittenhouse Square, where the company began 26 years ago. Others will follow in coming weeks, including the flagship store in Fishtown. The four airport locations will have to wait.

A bunch of photos and a time-lapse video showing the perspective of a customer going through the queue. La Colombe is my favorite coffee shop in Philly — great coffee and a wonderful staff — so I’m glad to see it reopen at all. But this is not normal. (La Colombe was featured quite a bit last year at WWDC in Apple Pay presentations.)


Links 5/28/20

Links for you. Science:

CDC: Coronavirus mainly spreads through person-to-person contact and ‘does not spread easily’ on contaminated surfaces
Estimating the Global Infection Fatality Rate of COVID-19
Some Zoos, and Some of Their Animals, May Not Survive the Pandemic (or their research programs)
Stochasticity and heterogeneity in the transmissiondynamics of SARS-CoV-2 (pdf; good way to think about the problem)
Different Approaches to a Coronavirus Vaccine


How Andrew Cuomo Screwed Democrats for Almost a Decade: Getting to Know the #Resistance Superstar of the Moment (must-read; significant reason why Democrats can’t have nice things)
Coronagrifting: A Design Phenomenon
As Washington D.C. Weighs Reopening, African Americans in the Nation’s Capital Brace for the Worst (great reporting)
What About the Rotten Culture of the Rich?
A Notorious DC Prison Is Now a Classy Suburban Development. Here’s What It Looks Like.
DC Likely Won’t Have Fourth of July Parades: President Trump still plans a “Salute to America” on the National Mall
COVID-19 and 9/11
Shaun King Keeps Raising Money, and Questions About Where It Goes
The Social Media Bigotry Pandemic Boils Over to TikTok
The Best And The Brightest
White supremacists are thriving on Facebook, despite its promises to crack down
Trump’s war on reality just got a lot more dangerous
The revenge of mask-wearing Americans
Post-coronavirus pandemic, methadone should be just as easy to get
Larry Kramer, writer who sounded alarm on AIDS, dies at 84
American Politics Is Now Democrats Versus Authoritarians: When one party respects the rule of law but the other doesn’t, political discourse can’t be normal.
A Message to the Class of 2020: Please Destroy the World
Fired DOH official to speak out, reveals new details of alleged COVID-19 data ‘manipulation’ attempt
A North Carolina Salon Reopened, But Poultry Workers Aren’t Welcome Yet Due To COVID-19
One in five English people believe COVID is a Jewish conspiracy – survey
The Vanishing Jews of Antiquity

Viasat laid off 300 amid steep drop in air travel

WASHINGTON — The sharp drop in global air travel caused by the coronavirus pandemic led Viasat to lay off roughly 5% of its workforce earlier this year, Viasat President and Chief Operating Officer Rick Baldridge said May 26.

Baldridge said that in addition to the 300 layoffs, Viasat furloughed some employees, froze salaries for a large number of workers, and brought hiring to a virtual standstill in an effort to curb costs.

“We took action in all series of other overhead expenses that we felt we could avoid or delay here in the near term,” Baldridge said during a company earnings call. The layoffs and other steps should cut Viasat’s costs by $100 million over a year’s time, but won’t fully offset the company’s projected losses in aviation, he said.

In-flight connectivity accounts for about 10% of Viasat’s revenue. In a letter to shareholders, Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg said in-flight connectivity has been hit hard enough by the pandemic to threaten spending on the company’s next satellite, Viasat-3 Americas.

“[T]he downturn in commercial air travel meant we needed to reduce costs to preserve the ViaSat-3 schedule with a prudent capital structure,” Dankberg wrote. ViaSat-3 Americas, the first of three high-throughput broadband satellites under construction with Boeing, is projected to launch in mid-2021, he wrote. Viasat has signed launch contracts with Arianespace, SpaceX and ULA to cover all three satellites, but has not announced who will launch which spacecraft.

Viasat spokeswoman Chris Phillips told SpaceNews the company numbered 5,500 employees after the layoffs.

Dankberg, in his letter, said April appears to have been the nadir for air passenger numbers. Before the pandemic, Viasat had been steadily gaining airline customers in North America, and recent conversations with airlines “suggest good opportunities to sustain, or improve, market share gains globally post crisis,” he wrote.

The number of aircraft using Viasat satellite internet services during the company’s fiscal year that ended March 31 totaled 1,390, up 78 aircraft from the prior year. Dankberg said during a May 26 earnings call on its full-year results that the coronavirus pandemic could position Viasat to install more satellite terminals this year since airlines won’t have to take already idled aircraft out of service to complete the upgrade.

Viasat reported $2.31 billion in annual revenue, up 12%, with a net loss of $200,000, an improvement from last year’s $67.6 million loss.

Widespread stay-at-home orders increased demand for residential broadband. Viasat added 4,000 new subscribers from January to March, reaching 590,000 in total and breaking a nine-month streak of essentially flat subscriber numbers.

Viasat told the U.S. Federal Communications Commission this month that it’s willing to build a consumer broadband constellation of 288 satellites in low Earth orbit if it can obtain a share of a $20.4 billion universal broadband fund the FCC is preparing to roll out later this year.

Losing the Mask War

It seems notable that President Trump seems to be failing in defining masks as a cardinal element of political identity. It’s a work in progress of course. We continue to hear reports of non-masking Trumpers shaming or calling out people wearing masks. But there seems to be the makings on some public consensus behind masking, at least at the level of political leaders, even normally reliable Trumpite types.

Needless to say, it’s not saying much. It’s a low standard. But we are where we are. Mitch McConnell, Sean Hannity, Dewine, Scott, Hutchison have each advocated mask wearing in recent days, some more proactively than others.

What seems clear to me is that especially for Governors they see it as a critical part of their ability to restart their economies. Here the economic rubber really meets the ideological road. It’s very practical. And critically, rather than seeing masks as the team symbol of permanent shutdown softies, they are viewing it as a path to ending or significantly loosening their shutdowns.

Weather not favoring backup Demo-2 launch dates

Gloomy clouds linger over LC 39-A and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, Crew Dragon spacecraft at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Photo Credit: Theresa Cross/ Spaceflight Insider

Yesterday’s attempt to launch NASA’s and SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station was plagued by weather issues that ultimately caused the attempt to be scrubbed. There remains the potential for weather complicate Saturday’s and Sunday’s launch attempts.

The weather on Florida’s Space Coast did not work out in either NASA’s or SpaceX’s favor yesterday. Through out the day, lines of showers and thunderstorms moved through the Cape. At one point during the count, a tornado warning was issued for the part of Brevard County that includes Cape Canaveral and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Ultimately, the weather continued to degrade during the count and the launch attempt was scrubbed.

The 45th Weather Squadron’s forecast for May 30 and 31, 2020. Photo Credit: United States Space Force.

NASA and SpaceX teams hope that the weather will be better for Saturday’s attempt. However, as of Thursday afternoon, the official weather forecast by the 45th Weather Squadron gives the weather only a 40% chance of being acceptable for launch. The weather for Sunday’s backup launch window also only has 40% chance of not violating launch constraints.

In the event that NASA and SpaceX are able to launch on Saturday or Sunday, a new launch day and window will be determined.

The post Weather not favoring backup Demo-2 launch dates appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

Black Photo Booth

Black Photo Booth

Mariame Kaba has been collecting photo booth portraits of black people for years and built a website that displays a selection of them.

I’ve been collecting found images of Black people for many years. Some of my favorites are photo booth portraits. They often show Black people of different ages, genders, classes in serious and also playful poses. Usually, there are no names listed so these anonymous people invite the viewer to use their imagination in crafting a story about their lives.

Tags: Mariame Kaba   photography

Hotels: Occupancy Rate Declined 50.2% Year-over-year, Slight Increase Week-over-week

From STR: US hotel results for week ending 23 May
STR data ending with 23 May showed another small rise from previous weeks in U.S. hotel performance. Year-over-year declines remained significant although not as severe as the levels recorded in April.

17-23 May 2020 (percentage change from comparable week in 2019):

Occupancy: 35.4% (-50.2%)
• Average daily rate (ADR): US$80.92 (-39.7%)
• Revenue per available room (RevPAR): US$28.67 (-69.9%)

“The steady climb in national occupancy continued, and to no surprise, the highest levels were recorded on Friday and Saturday ahead of Memorial Day,” said Jan Freitag, STR’s senior VP of lodging insights. “Occupancy gains continue to be led by popular leisure markets like the Florida Panhandle, Mobile, Myrtle Beach and Daytona Beach. We even saw a weekday-to-weekend ADR premium in higher occupancy markets.

“What was also noticeable in the week’s data was the higher occupancy levels across all classes of hotels. Economy properties continued to lead, but we also saw the higher-priced end of the market up over 20%. Regardless, Upper Upscale occupancy continues to lag the broader industry as meeting demand is still not returning.”
emphasis added
The following graph shows the seasonal pattern for the hotel occupancy rate using the four week average.

Hotel Occupancy RateClick on graph for larger image.

The red line is for 2020, dash light blue is 2019, blue is the median, and black is for 2009 (the worst year probably since the Great Depression for hotels).

During 2009 (black line), many hotels were struggling. At this point in the year, the 4-week average in 2009 was 56%. Now it is just at 32%! (The median is 65%).

Note: Y-axis doesn't start at zero to better show the seasonal change.

Grocery shopping, localism, and last mile delivery

I wanted to scribble some notes about grocery shopping because how we’re doing in, in our home, has changed a bunch over the 10 weeks of lockdown, and I want to remember this.

PREVIOUSLY how it worked:

  • online supermarket deliveries
  • fortnightly supermarket small shops
  • weekend visits to butcher/fishmonger/cheese shop/other specialists to particular meals
  • supplemented by frequent visits to the local small supermarket for dinner ingredients, milk, etc

NOW it looks like

  • fruit/veg box from a company based in New Covent Garden market that used to supply restaurants, and has now started home deliveries. No choice other than size and very seasonal, obviously. Optional extras include salami, courgette flowers, etc
  • monthly meat box from the local butcher (who is excellent), mostly for freezing
  • occasional fish delivery from the local fishmonger (who is also excellent), mostly for freezing
  • monthly online supermarket orders for brand items, canned/dried goods, and cleaning items
  • milk/dairy - we’ve signed up for a twice-weekly milk delivery in returnable glass bottles
  • flour from one of the two local cafes/bakeries which have pivoted to selling re-bagged wholesale flour

We have a month planner whiteboard magnetically attached to the fridge. We use it to plan childcare, and it also shows the use-by dates of everything in the fridge.

This style of shopping suits me very well. This is what we should have been doing, always.

Incidentally the layout of these ex-cafes, now local flour depots, is worth recording.

It’s one in, one out with a socially distanced queue outside. Inside, the old cafe space is half available goods, and half stockroom. Goods include bread, pasta, granola, that kind of thing, plus re-bagged flour. You stack your goods on a table in-front of the till, and pay contactless using the card machine which is also placed on that table.

This is great for us: there’s a new local website called Dulwich Delivers which simply lists local businesses that deliver. Aside from that, we mostly find out about places from friends on WhatsApp, or by checking out favourite spots on social media to find out if they’re active.

The cafe I mentioned where we get our flour posts their price list and availability as a photo on their Facebook page. They take orders for delivery by Messenger, then call you up to take your credit card details.

The local toyshop delivers, and the person who does the deliveries is the proprietor, on her bike.

For us, a lot of this has happened by necessity.

We don’t have (or want) a car.

Online supermarket delivery slots were barely available to us for the first month or two of the lockdown. The slots we did manage to get, we mainly used to set up deliveries to our parents. So we had to find other sources of groceries.

What’s fascinating to me is when I think about the e-commerce stack, loosely:

  • discovery
  • store operations
  • fulfilment, i.e pick, pack, delivery

These are the three big challenges that any only shop needs to find an answer to, either by doing it themselves, using software, or partnering.

Amazon’s big play is discovery - they have all the buyers in one place, so if you’re a seller, that’s where you go to. Then they handle the store operations and delivery for you.

Or then there’s Shopify, which is really challenging Amazon now. Primarily they provide store operations. Their realisation was that shops can handle their own discovery, on Facebook or otherwise. After all, stores have been doing marketing and customer relationship longer than e-commerce has been around.

Now Facebook has launched Facebook Shops, which looks after discovery and a little bit of store operations, partnering with Shopify for the rest. Ben Thompson (Stratechery) calls this the Anti-Amazon Alliance.

BUT WHAT’S MISSING HERE is local delivery. Last mile delivery. Facebook Shops/Shopify is fine… but it doesn’t do anything for my local butcher with their meat box. Amazon is fine, but it’s optimised for centralised warehouses, not local.

This matters because, when I think about how “discovery” has worked for us, Facebook or no, it has been local first. I always say, word of mouth is unreasonably effective. And word of mouth works best when it’s local.

So “discovery” works locally but “delivery” doesn’t. Hm. Hm.

A few weeks ago I posted about hyperlocal, distributed supply chains, and that got me into a really interesting Twitter DM conversation with Karl from Bloop, a zero-waste store in Bristol.

They’ve been going for a few months, and are well-known by the local community - and (quoting from our chat) We didn’t intend to do things online, but the viral outbreak forced us into that, so now we’re a delivery company too. The website is an attractive, modern, e-commerce experience.

And I find that really intriguing. What if e-commerce, but only for a 1 mile radius?

Karl shared a few more details. They live above the shop, and he also runs Obelisk which is an audio design agency. Karl has made all his own furniture for the store and it’s all on castor wheels so the space can be easily reconfigured.

(I wrote recently about homes can also be businesses so you can see why this appeals.)

Also quoting Karl: What comes with having a shop like this is a golden ticket into community - which is amazing, right? You can see the effect you’re having, identify that delivery is a need, spread the word, and come face to face with users (customers!) every day.

So when I think about local delivery, this is where the rubber hits the road for all of this e-commerce stuff. Because it’s necessarily physical, it’s the sole opportunity to be face to face. But delivery, when commoditised and industrialised, also seems to be where things go badly wrong, from delivery drivers bearing the risk of whole corporations to food delivery “independent contractors” barely able to make minimum wage, and being stiffed for tips.

The big question:

Corporations and startups will inevitably move hard into the last mile delivery space. How do we make sure it’s not shit?

It’s going be…

  • Boston Dynamics robot dogs delivering parcels
  • Some kind of unholy FedEx-goes-local or white label Uber Eats, making people sweat to earn less than minimum wage
  • or… something else? What it is? What would Karl do?

I can imagine a utopian neighbourhood of cheery teenagers on their bikes earning pocket money by delivering my veg box and fancy cheese ordered via Facebook Messenger, and me tipping an extra shilling because I recognise them from last week. But this isn’t 1955 plus social media.

So what is it? How do we make sure it isn’t awful?

I find it hard to imagine utopias, because I’m in the habit of imagining critiques or dystopias or semi-plausible extrapolations of the present. A utopia is a non-extrapolation; it implies some intervention. Politics. I’m not very good at imagining politics.

Science fiction is pretty good at dystopias, it’s not in the habit of utopias either, any longer. And design fiction is good at depicting futures, but design is (inherently, and rightly) commercial, so design fiction’s futures aren’t about utopias but about desire.

I think we need to - I need to - imagine utopias again, and we need to articulate them in great detail, and illustrate everyday situations like this, and we need to demand and create demand for them, because if we don’t then the clearest narrative wins, and currently the clearest narrative is race-to-the-bottom capitalism in the guise of opportunity-for-all.

I’ve had a taste of collectivism and localism these last few weeks, and I don’t want to lightly let it go.

*The Puzzle of Prison Order*

That is the title of the new and excellent book by David Skarbek, and the subtitle is Why Life Behind Bars Varies Around the World.  Here is part of the Amazon summary of its contents:

Many people think prisons are all the same-rows of cells filled with violent men who officials rule with an iron fist. Yet, life behind bars varies in incredible ways. In some facilities, prison officials govern with care and attention to prisoners’ needs. In others, officials have remarkably little influence on the everyday life of prisoners, sometimes not even providing necessities like food and clean water. Why does prison social order around the world look so remarkably different?

Here is one excerpt:

…Nordic prisons have a much smaller proportion of prisoners to members of staff, about one prisoner for every staff member.  These jobs attract high-quality employees, and in Finland and Norway, it is common for there to be an excess supply of applicants.  Working in corrections is a more attractive career than it is in many other countries.  The fact that students sometimes work as prison officers suggests that the environment in Nordic prisons is more relaxed than that in many other prisons and the work is socially acceptable.  Many Nordic prison officers have university and vocational education.  For example, about 20 percent of staff in Swedish men’s prisons have university degrees and staff members participate in a 20-week in-service training program and take 10-week university courses on sociology and social psychology.  In Norway, prison officers receive two years of training at full salary and nearly all have tertiary educational qualifications.  By comparison, California correctional officer training lasts 12 weeks and requires only a high-school diploma.

The book is due out from Oxford University Press on August 3rd.

The post *The Puzzle of Prison Order* appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.

Freddie Mac: Mortgage Serious Delinquency Rate increased in April

Freddie Mac reported that the Single-Family serious delinquency rate in April was 0.64%, up from 0.60% in March. Freddie's rate is down from 0.65% in April 2019.

This is the highest serious delinquency rate since last April.

Freddie's serious delinquency rate peaked in February 2010 at 4.20%.

These are mortgage loans that are "three monthly payments or more past due or in foreclosure". 

Fannie Freddie Seriously Delinquent RateClick on graph for larger image

With COVID-19, this rate will increase significantly in a few months (it takes time since these are mortgages three months or more past due).

Note: Fannie Mae will report for April soon.

Three Quick Links for Thursday Noonish

Birding While Black. "I've seen a shit-ton of birds from sea level to alpine tundra. But as a black man in America I've grown up with a profile." []

75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice. "40. Don't be silent about that racist joke. Silence is support." []

NVIDIA trained an AI to not only play Pac-Man but to generate a fully functional version of the game. "We were blown away when we saw the results, in disbelief that AI could recreate the iconic PAC-MAN experience without a game engine." []


Note: Quick Links are pushed to this RSS feed twice a day. For more immediate service, check out the front page of, the Quick Links archive, or the @kottke Twitter feed.

Desperation Time

TPM Reader EC ponders the real meaning of Trump’s retaliatory executive order against Twitter:

I have been reading various coverage of the impending executive order directed at social media platforms.

Many just describe the events, quote sensational reactions, go into the interesting history of S230 and explore “can he do that” debates. Predictable. The worst coverage engages the merits of his argument, of course.

But in my eyes the whole affair is smokey. I don’t think he is really as outraged as this particular tantrum makes him seem. Of course it is good base rattling and distracts from his mind-blowing public health policy failures. All that. But the tell lies in the comments from the likes of Parscale and Gaetz with language around “interference” in the election.

My take is that fits into a desperate, rapid build up of an arsenal of “evidence” to sow doubt and ultimately invalidate the election, should it turn out like it is looking. I think this is all just part of Plan B if the vote suppression efforts fail.

Without any necessary coordination I am predicting a lot of surgical Twitter trolling, including from state actors, to prompt fact-checking messages that get compiled into skewed statistics of anti-conservative bias, which will then get top coverage on Fox, etc. Again, yet another reason to see the election process as rigged–now with damning data! And just what is Obama’s Deep State connection to all of this? We are sure to find out. Barr will be on that and more.

Glad you all are healthy and safe.

Thursday assorted links

The post Thursday assorted links appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.

Tonight’s Classic Radiohead Concert Is From 1994

Since early April, Radiohead has been putting video of one classic concert a week up on YouTube (playlist here). Tonight’s show, which starts streaming at 5pm ET, is from a really interesting point in the band’s evolution. In May 1994, Radiohead had released only one album (Pablo Honey) and no one knew whether they were going to be anything more than a one-hit wonder. At the time, the group was in the midst of recording The Bends and the setlist contains several songs from that album, including Fake Plastic Trees, The Bends, My Iron Lungs, and Just.

The release of The Bends and the reception to it established Radiohead as a group to be taken seriously and set the stage for OK Computer launching them into the critical stratosphere. As Jonny Greenwood later recounted: “That’s when it started to feel like we made the right choice about being a band”. Really excited to watch this one.

Tags: music   Radiohead   video

The commander who laughed and joked Wednesday does not lack courage

Shortly after sunrise on the morning of February 1, 2003, Doug Hurley waited on the long runway at Kennedy Space Center for a vehicle that would never come.

Only recently graduated to becoming a full-fledged astronaut, one of Hurley's first tasks was serving as a "Cape Crusader" for the corps, meaning he watched out for the Astronaut Office's interests in Florida. On this morning, he was part of a small cadre of astronauts to greet seven returning crew members on board the space shuttle Columbia.

As he waited, Columbia broke into pieces as it passed over Texas and other southern US states along its ground track to Florida. Hurley's friends died as their spacecraft burned up and broke apart during their reentry to Earth's atmosphere. From the beginning of his career, then, Doug Hurley profoundly understood the risks of the profession he had just entered into.

Read 14 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Where Things Stand: 100,000

I check President Trump’s public schedule every single (week) day. Sometimes you notice trends.

Free mornings or hours roped off for executive time usually coincides with unhinged Twitter screeds. Seemingly random travel plans or events appear when he’s desperate for a distraction. Lunches with the vice president or the secretary of state must boost his confidence; afterwards he likes to fire off all-caps tweets about winning and “USA!”

But it’s what’s not on his schedule that’s often most telling.

Last night, the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. reached 100,000. It’s an unfathomable loss. I can’t wrap my brain around it. No one can. Legacy publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post have starkly and beautifully illustrated the gravity of this moment — a time when the American public desperately needs to be rattled into maintaining empathy.

Trump has nothing on his schedule to mark the loss, a death toll he once said he’d consider a “good job.” Instead of mourning, he’s signing executive orders because Twitter made him mad. Instead of offering condolences to families, his campaign is sending out emails bashing his predecessor and absentee voting. Instead of tweeting anything even mildly appropriate to acknowledge the dead, he’s retweeting videos that proclaim “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.”

But I suppose even 100,000 moments of silence wouldn’t alter this devastation. Keep your masks on, folks.

Here’s more on that and other stories we’re following today:

What The Investigations Team Is Watching

Josh Kovensky is digging into new reports that Attorney General Bill Barr appointed a Texas prosecutor to review President Trump’s “unmasking” conspiracy related to the Obama administration and the Michael Flynn case.

Kate Riga is covering the wild story of a Republican lawmaker in Pennsylvania hiding the fact that he tested positive for COVID-19 from Democratic colleagues.

What The Breaking News Team Is Watching

Trump sent an email to supporters late last night harping on the same tired vote-by-mail fraud conspiracies that he’s been raising on Twitter for weeks, this time suggestion that mailboxes will be “robbed.” Trump’s been on a tear against the practice for some time, but his attacks have escalated in recent weeks as states across the country work to expand vote-by-mail options during the pandemic.

The trend of prominent Republicans breaking with Trump over mask-wearing continues. During an event in Kentucky on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said there was “no stigma” tied to wearing face coverings during a pandemic and admitted he wears a mask to set a “good example.” Just yesterday the GOP governor of Ohio said wearing a mask is a sign of basic human empathy and even Trump’s close friend Sean Hannity encouraged Fox News viewers to don PPE and socially distance.

If You Read Anything On COVID-19 Today, Read This

Ahead of next week’s primaries, Tierney Sneed reports on the significant expansion of vote-by-mail efforts in the states set to hold elections Tuesday. The data she obtained offers a revealing snapshot of how future elections will be held as the nation continues to grapple with the pandemic.

Earlier coverage of voting amid COVID-19:

Coming Up

2:00 p.m. ET: The White House press secretary will hold a press briefing.

2:30 p.m. ET: Trump and and first lady Melania Trump will be briefed on the upcoming hurricane season.

Yesterday’s Most Read Story

White Woman Who Called Police On Black Man In Viral Video Says Her ‘Entire Life Is Being Destroyed’ — Cristina Cabrera

What We Are Reading

Minneapolis Police Officer At Center Of George Floyd’s Death Had History Of Prior Complaints — Erik Ortiz and Donna Mendell

The Unluckiest Generation In U.S. History — Andrew Van Dam

100,000 Dead From Coronavirus. What Happens Next? — Mehdi Hasan

Larry Kramer, 1935-2020

I didn’t know Larry Kramer. So my memories of him are public ones and not unique to me. But one memory has and will always stand out for me. It was an evening live network TV interview. Perhaps it was Nightline or maybe it was some show on CNN. It was an interview via satellite hook-up rather than in-studio. It was at the earliest in the late 90s, probably in the first decade of this century. The key is that Kramer was already a relatively old man and it was after the point when HIV/AIDS had become, at least in the United States, a largely manageable chronic disease rather than a near-term death sentence.

At the close of the interview, the host asks Kramer what he’d learned about people during his decades of activism. This, as you know, is a set-up for a classic TV set-piece moment in which the guest reflects on the human condition and finds some redeeming anecdote about how people are really good after all, some closing note that brings the whole story together. Kramer said he’d learned how “shitty” people could be to each other and how “shitty” people really could be. He used that word which was of course a no-no on TV in the first place.

It was jarring, hilarious, a bit or maybe more than a bit uncomfortable – in other words, very Larry Kramer. The interviewer was completely caught off guard, befuddled. And that’s my recollection of Larry Kramer. RIP, Larry.

Kramer’s activism was about saving the lives of his community, saving his own life and more deeply a total and rage-fueled refusal to see gay men’s lives as expandable, cheap. Dan Savage wrote yesterday that, “Larry Kramer valued every gay life at a time when so many gay men had been rendered incapable of valuing our own lives.” To the extent I’ve been involved in political activism in my life it’s been in fairly conventional ways. Kramer was characterologically outrageous and also by design, I think. As in that interview, he never felt obliged or allowed the story to come to a comforting conclusion.

DOJ Detailed To Trump Campaign

DOJ spokesperson goes on Hannity’s Fox show to announce next phase of the bogus “unmasking” investigation.

Kansas City Fed: "Tenth District Manufacturing Activity Continued to Decline" in May

From the Kansas City Fed: Tenth District Manufacturing Activity Continued to Decline
Tenth District manufacturing activity continued to decline, but not as sharply compared to last month’s record low. Expectations for future activity rose, but remained slightly negative. Month-over-month price indexes remained negative again in May. Moving forward, District firms expected prices for finished goods to decline and prices for raw materials to increase in the next six months.

The month-over-month composite index was -19 in May, up somewhat from the record low of -30 in April, and similar to -17 in March
emphasis added
This was the last of the regional Fed surveys for May.

Here is a graph comparing the regional Fed surveys and the ISM manufacturing index:

Fed Manufacturing Surveys and ISM PMI Click on graph for larger image.

The New York and Philly Fed surveys are averaged together (yellow, through May), and five Fed surveys are averaged (blue, through May) including New York, Philly, Richmond, Dallas and Kansas City. The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) PMI (red) is through April (right axis).

The ISM manufacturing index for May will be released on Monday, June 1st. The consensus is for the ISM to increase to 42.5, up from 41.5 in April. Based on these regional surveys, the ISM manufacturing index might even be lower than the consensus in May.

Will covid-19 halt the rise of private equity in Europe?

PE firms are better prepared for a downturn, and seem to be more welcome

China’s economists debate deficit monetisation

Inflation hawks seem to be prevailing—in theory, if not entirely in practice

What is the link between inflation and equity returns?

Stocks are a decent inflation hedge in the long run, but over shorter horizons, there is an inverse relationship

The Constitution Doesn't Require A Conscience

Trump ghostwriter Tony Schwartz with a new Medium piece on the psychopath in chief.

NAR: Pending Home Sales Decrease 21.8% in April

From the NAR: Pending Home Sales Slump 21.8% in April
Brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, pending home sales decreased in April, making two straight months of declines, according to the National Association of Realtors®. Every major region experienced a drop in month-over-month contract activity and a decline in year-over-year pending home sales transactions.

The Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI), a forward-looking indicator of home sales based on contract signings, fell 21.8% to 69.0 in April. Year-over-year, contract signings shrank 33.8%. An index of 100 is equal to the level of contract activity in 2001.
The Northeast PHSI sank 48.2% to 42.6 in April, 52.6% lower than a year ago. In the Midwest, the index dropped 15.9% to 72.0 last month, down 26.0% from April 2019.

Pending home sales in the South fell 15.4% to an index of 87.6 in April, a 29.6% decrease from April 2019. The index in the West slipped 20.0% in April 2020 to 57.1, down 37.2% from a year ago.
emphasis added
This was below expectations for this index. Note: Contract signings usually lead sales by about 45 to 60 days, so this would usually be for closed sales in May and June.

The Rareness of COVID-19 Will Protect Stupid People from Their Stupidity…

…until it doesn’t. Over the weekend, a lot of people were shocked by video of people attempting to help the SARS-Cov2 virus reestablish itself spending time in large, dense social settings–the antithesis of social distancing–here’s video of one of many examples.

It’s tempting to claim they’ll get their comeuppance, but, as some asshole with a blog has been noting, they probably won’t, at least not the first time. Why?

The overall frequency of currently infected people is low. In D.C., which has been hit hard by COVID-19, though not as badly as New York City, the number of currently infected people is low. Even in the ward with the highest rate of infection, Ward 4, the percentage of people who have been infected over the last two weeks is only 0.53% (May 9 to May 23). Yes, there are presymptomatic, asymptomatic, and sick people who haven’t been counted. At the same time however, many of the infected people are effectively isolated, either at home or in the hospital. So I wouldn’t take 0.53% as a hard and fast figure, but I don’t think it’s horribly off either. Meanwhile, in D.C.’s Ward 3, only 0.067% of residents have been infected over the last two weeks.

To put this another way, if Ward 4 decided that there ain’t no party like a COVID party, and had a big shindig of 200 people, there still is a one-in-three chance no one infected shows up to the party (and, of course, even if someone shows up, that’s no guarantee of infection). In Ward 3, that 200 person party only has a thirteen percent chance of having one or more infected attendees. In many of the places where people are acting foolishly, my guess is that those locales are much more like Ward 3–or even lower. To be blunt, it’s conservative white areas, and many, though not all of those areas, just don’t have a lot of cases–and to the extent they do, segregation by class and race will mean that not everyone has the same risk.

So they’ll likely survive a bout of stupidity without any transmission, possibly many such bouts.

Until, of course, they don’t. Because the virus only has to get lucky once. That luck will be very patchily distributed, but, unless things get out of control, lots of places in the U.S. will manage to survive their own stupidity, at least in the short term.

Welcome to American Capitalism

From an April 17th Facebook post by Paul Field, a succinct summary of how the pandemic exposes American deficiencies. It’s tough to not just quote the whole thing, so here’s the beginning:

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but you need to know how silly you look if you post some variation of, “Welcome to Socialism…”

You are not seeing Socialism. What you are seeing is one of the wealthiest, geographically advantaged, productive capitalist societies in the world flounder and fail at its most basic test. Taking care of its people.

This crisis is not about the virus.

This crisis is about the massive failure of our, “Booming economy,” to survive even modest challenges. It is about the market dissonance of shortages in stores, even as farmers/producers destroy unused crops and products. This crisis is about huge corporations needing an emergency bailout within days of the longest Bull Market in our history ending and despite the ability to borrow with zero percent interest rates.

The pandemic has revealed that American democracy and our economic system is extremely fragile. Ok, unless you’re wealthy, in which case you’re going to be fine, all part of the plan, etc.

Tags: COVID-19   economics   politics   USA

“To catch a red herring at last”

Yesterday I shared a use of the phrase “red herring” in a political setting from 1782. Here’s a trail to an even earlier usage.

Lord Carteret, who after 1744 was the second Earl Granville, was active in the British government from 1719 on. He was mostly involved in foreign policy. Through the 1720s and 1730s he was one of prime minister Robert Walpole’s rivals, partly from their convictions and partly from their sheer ambitions.

Lord Carteret was the most influential man in the British government after Walpole’s fall in 1742, but he himself was forced out of his office as Secretary of State two years later.

In 1751 the earl became Lord President of the Privy Council, a high-ranking position with little direct power. He remained in that post until he died in early 1763.

Later that year the British press published “A Dialogue Between the Late Earls of Orford [i.e., Walpole] and Granville,” depicting the two old opponents meeting in the afterlife. This item appeared in the 21-23 June London Chronicle and John Caesar Wilkes’s Weekly Magazine for 27 June. The Beauties of All Magazines reprinted it in July.

A longer version of that dialogue appeared in the June 1763 issue of The Universal Museum and Complete Magazine (volume 2, page 319). That appears to be the original; Frederick M. Keener lists it as such in his English Dialogues of the Dead: A Critical History, an Anthology, and a Check List (1973). Although I’m pretty sure the Universal Museum from 1763 is in the public domain now, Google Books offers only snippet views and no copies are available on HathiTrust.

As someone in this etymological discussion also found, a portion of the dialogue that didn’t make it into the London Chronicle or other sources was:
Lord G. It is right, however, that mankind should pursue it. It is productive of many good effects. The trumpet of fame rouses great minds to great actions.

Lord O. And to many bad ones too. Fame, you know, my Lord, has two trumpets. And though the pursuit of it may be good exercise for the general pack of mankind, and keep them in breath, it seems (to speak in my favourite language of a sportsman) to be only hunting a trail, to catch a red herring at last.
This may be the first print source to take the common, smelly object of a kipper, as used in training a hunting pack, and make it into a metaphor for something that distracts people from what’s really important. And it’s from 1763.

Q1 GDP Revised Down to -5.0% Annual Rate

From the BEA: Gross Domestic Product, 1st Quarter 2020 (Second Estimate); Corporate Profits, 1st Quarter 2020 (Preliminary Estimate)
Real gross domestic product (GDP) decreased at an annual rate of 5.0 percent in the first quarter of 2020, according to the "second" estimate released by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the fourth quarter, real GDP increased 2.1 percent.

The GDP estimate released today is based on more complete source data than were available for the "advance" estimate issued last month. In the advance estimate, the decrease in real GDP was 4.8 percent. With the second estimate, a downward revision to private inventory investment was partly offset by upward revisions to personal consumption expenditures (PCE) and nonresidential fixed investment.
emphasis added
Here is a Comparison of Second and Advance Estimates. PCE growth was revised up to -6.8% from -7.6%. Residential investment was revised down from 21.0% to 18.5%. This was slightly below the consensus forecast.

Weekly Initial Unemployment Claims decrease to 2,123,000

The DOL reported:
In the week ending May 23, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 2,123,000, a decrease of 323,000 from the previous week's revised level. The previous week's level was revised up by 8,000 from 2,438,000 to 2,446,000. The 4-week moving average was 2,608,000, a decrease of 436,000 from the previous week's revised average. The previous week's average was revised up by 2,000 from 3,042,000 to 3,044,000.
emphasis added
The previous week was revised up.

This does not include the 1,192,616 initial claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA).

The following graph shows the 4-week moving average of weekly claims since 1971.

Click on graph for larger image.

The dashed line on the graph is the current 4-week average. The four-week average of weekly unemployment claims decreased to 2,608,000.

This was close to the consensus forecast of 2.1 million.

The second graph shows seasonally adjust continued claims since 1967 (lags initial by one week while increasing sharply).

At the worst of the Great Recession, continued claims peaked at 6.635 million, but then steadily declined.

Continued claims have already decreased to 21,052,000 (SA) from the record high of 24,912,000 (SA) last week and will likely stay at a high level until the crisis abates.

Note: There are an additional 7,793,066 receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). This is a special program for business owners, self-employed, independent contractors or gig workers not receiving other unemployment insurance.

Advanced market commitment for a successful COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccines take a long time to develop and test, and so are risky for pharmaceutical firms to invest in. Here's a NY Times op-ed by several prominent economists suggesting that a market design solution, a government commitment in advance to support the market price of a successful vaccine, could be applied to speeding the development and widespread availability of a COVID-19 vaccine.

In the Race for a Coronavirus Vaccine, We Must Go Big. Really, Really Big.
We should commit tens of billions toward a program.
By Susan Athey, Michael Kremer, Christopher Snyder and Alex Tabarrok

"Vaccines often take 10 years to bring to market. We want a new vaccine as fast as possible, where each month matters.

The fact is that starting from the early stages of development, most vaccines fail. We cannot afford to fail, so we need to plan for success. To do that, we must think and invest as ambitiously as we can — and that means in a Covid vaccine advance market commitment.

The A.M.C. model was proposed in the early 2000s. And in 2007, the pneumococcus advance market commitment guaranteed vaccine manufacturers sales at a fixed price in return for an effective vaccine. It led to the successful development and distribution of hundreds of millions of doses of vaccine ...

"An advance market commitment for Covid-19 should combine “push” and “pull” incentives. The “pull” incentive is the commitment to buy 300 million courses of vaccine at a per-person price of $100, for vaccines produced within a specified time frame. If multiple vaccines are developed, the A.M.C. fund will have authority to choose products to purchase based on efficacy, the availability of sufficient vaccine for timely vaccination or suitability for different population groups. So firms compete to serve the first 300 million people with the most attractive vaccines, and the “pull” component provides strong incentives for both speed and quality.

"The “push” incentive guarantees firms partial reimbursement for production capacity built or repurposed at risk and partial reimbursement as they achieve milestones. The partial reimbursement ensures that manufacturers have “skin in the game,” while inducing them to build large-scale capacity before approval is certain."

Earlier post: Monday, March 16, 2020

Thermal Imaging as Security Theater

Seems like thermal imaging is the security theater technology of today.

These features are so tempting that thermal cameras are being installed at an increasing pace. They're used in airports and other public transportation centers to screen travelers, increasingly used by companies to screen employees and by businesses to screen customers, and even used in health care facilities to screen patients. Despite their prevalence, thermal cameras have many fatal limitations when used to screen for the coronavirus.

  • They are not intended for distance from the people being inspected.
  • They are "an imprecise method for scanning crowds" now put into a context where precision is critical.
  • They will create false positives, leaving people stigmatized, harassed, unfairly quarantined, and denied rightful opportunities to work, travel, shop, or seek medical help.
  • They will create false negatives, which, perhaps most significantly for public health purposes, "could miss many of the up to one-quarter or more people infected with the virus who do not exhibit symptoms," as the New York Times recently put it. Thus they will abjectly fail at the core task of slowing or preventing the further spread of the virus.

Every Stock is a Vaccine Stock

Barrons: General Electric stock was racing higher Tuesday, but not because of anything the company did or announced. Recent Covid-19 vaccine news is serving as a catalyst, and every stock these days feels like a vaccine stock.

Indeed, every stock is a vaccine stock. When vaccines or other treatments do well, all stocks do well which is why stock prices are now highly correlated:

Bloomberg: From beginning the year with a correlation of 0.19, the gauge of how closely the top stocks in the S&P 500 move in relation to one another spiked to 0.85 in mid-March, toward the peak of the coronavirus sell-off before leveling off around 0.8. A maximum possible correlation of 1.0 would signify all stocks are moving in lockstep.

It’s not surprising that when Moderna reports good vaccine results, Moderna does well. It’s more surprising that Boeing and GE not only do well they increase in value far more than Moderna. On May 18, for example, when Moderna announced very preliminary positive results on its vaccine it’s market capitalization rose by $5b. But GE’s market capitalization rose by $6.82 billion and Boeing increased in value by $8.73 billion.

A cure for COVID-19 would be worth trillions to the world but only billions to the creator. The stock market is illustrating the massive externalities created by innovation. Nordhaus estimated that only 2.2% of the value of innovation was captured by innovators. For vaccine manufacturers it’s probably closer to .2%.

Who can internalize the externalities? Moderna clearly can’t because if they could then on May 18 Moderna would have increased in value by $20.52b ($4.97b+$6.82b+$8.73b) and GE and Boeing wouldn’t have gone up at all. Massive externalities.

A clever institutional investor like Blackrock or Vanguard could internalize some of the externalities by encouraging Moderna to work even faster and invest even more, even to the extent of lowering Moderna’s profits. Blackrock would more than make up for the losses on Moderna by bigger gains on other firms in its portfolio. Blackrock does indeed understand the incentives, although its unclear how much beyond jawboning they can actually do, legally.

I’d like to see more innovation in mechanisms to internalize externalities–perhaps in a pandemic vaccine firms should be given stock options on the S&P 500. Until we develop those innovations, however, the government is the best bet at internalizing the externality by paying vaccine manufacturers to increase capacity and move more quickly than their own incentives would dictate. Billions in costs, trillions in benefits.

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Four short links: 28 May 2020

  1. Living Computers Museum ClosingSince we opened, our philosophy has been simple. To understand computing technology, you need to experience that technology firsthand. The current global situation is making it difficult for us to serve our mission and we will spend the months ahead reassessing if, how, and when to reopen. It’ll be a great loss if they don’t reopen. I hope someone who made a bundle in the last 30 years, and who loves this vintage hardware, will keep them going.
  2. EOS Webcam — Turn Canon DSLR camera into a webcam.
  3. Coordinated Influence Operations — Google have a new transparency report, around the takedowns and other activity around coordinated influence operations.
  4. Automation Failure — Good story about attempting to add an automated regression suite, and how it failed.

China outlines intense space station launch schedule, new astronaut selection

Artist impression of the future Chinese Space Station in orbit around the Earth.

HELSINKI — China is preparing to carry out 11 missions in two years to construct a space station and will soon select a new batch of astronauts for the project.

The first module for the Chinese space station will launch next year, said Zhou Jianping, chief designer of China’s human spaceflight program, on the sidelines of a political conference in Beijing Tuesday. 

Launch of the Tianhe core module on a Long March 5B could take place at Wenchang in early 2021. This will be followed by a crewed Shenzhou flight, from Jiuquan, and a Tianzhou cargo mission. The first of two experiment modules will then launch for docking with Tianhe. 

In total 11 launches will be conducted to complete the construction of the space station by around 2023, Zhou said (Chinese). These will be the launch of the core and two experiment modules, as well as four crewed spacecraft and four cargo spacecraft. 

The intensive launch plan was revealed following the successful test flight of the Long March 5B heavy-lift rocket May 5. The missions will be conducted using Long March 5B, Long March 2F and Long March 7 launch vehicles. 

China will launch its Tianwen-1 Mars mission in July and Chang’e-5 lunar sample return in the fourth quarter before proceeding to launch the space station core module. 

The three-module, 66-metric-ton space station will host three astronauts for six month rotations. Planned experiments include international projects in the areas of astronomy, space medicine, space life science, biotechnology, microgravity fluid physics, microgravity combustion and space technologies.

The outpost will orbit at between 340-450 kilometers for at least 10 years. Orbital inclination will be around 43 degrees to allow crewed launches to the station from Jiuquan in the Gobi Desert. The station could potentially be expanded to six modules, using apparent backup modules.

A co-orbiting two-metre-aperture space telescope will also be launched following completion of the basic station configuration. The ‘Xuntian’ optical module will be able to dock with the space station for maintenance and repairs.

“Its resolution ratio will be equivalent to the well-known Hubble telescope, but its field angle will be 300 times larger than the Hubble telescope. With it, we can finish the survey of large areas in space in 10 years,” said Zhou earlier this month.

New astronaut selection in July

A third batch of astronauts will be selected in July, astronaut Wang Yaping told press May 24 (Chinese). 

Up to 18 new astronauts, including men and women, will be drawn from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and, for the first time, civilians with science and engineering backgrounds, according to previous announcements. The latter are expected to bring expertise and efficiency to science tasks.

Wang in 2013 became China’s second woman astronaut in space. The Shenzhou 10 mission veteran said she is looking forward to receiving new teammates and assisting their training.

The new selection round follows two previous selections in the 1990s and 2010. The current astronauts have been undergoing neutral buoyancy training in preparation for space station missions and extra vehicular activity.

Opening of a new round of astronaut selection was first announced in 2017. However, the failure of the second Long March 5 in July that year postponed the space station project. 

The Long March 5B designed to launch station modules had a successful first flight May 5. This followed the requisite December return-to-flight of the Long March 5, which was grounded for more than 900 days.

The Long March 5B inaugural flight tested a variant of a new-generation crew spacecraft. The low Earth orbit variant will be capable of ferrying six astronauts, or three astronauts and 500 kilograms of cargo, to the space station. 

The partially reusable craft could eventually replace the smaller Shenzhou as the main means of transport to the space station.

Are Supercities Like New York About to Shrink? A Debate

Work Rules Review

This is my review of “Work Rules” by Laszlo Bock. The author is the former head of HR at Google - or of people operations as they’re known there. The book aims to present what makes Google special from this point of view, such that it’s consistently considered one of the best places to work in the world, and what other companies might learn from their approach.

I must admit I also read this as a refresher on Google’s approach to “people”. While not perfect, it is definitely good. And having to think more and more at work about these problems I found myself drawn to my past experience there.

While the book is worthwhile and entertaining, it’s especially useful if you’re in a position to influence these things. And as the author goes to great lengths to explain, most of the stuff Google does is either about attitude and empowerment, or is very cheap. So if they can give you the same edge as Google’s it’s a good thing to want to implement, and the book does offer something in the way of a blueprint.

There are fourteen chapters in total. I won’t go over each one but rather highlight the ones I found particularly interesting. In general the prose is crisp, and the main points of each chapter are punctuated by anecdotes and examples. More than once links to research is provided, which tends to offer more weight to the arguments being made. But I did not dig into the references to check more than this.

The chapter “Don’t trust your gut” is about interview processes. Google is (in)famous for their tech interviews, but in reality all positions have high bars and hence difficult interviews. But what goes on in the background is probably even more interesting. In general, it’s not a manager that’s hiring, but the company. Decisions are made by hiring committees for which the interviewers are merely sensors. Both the interviewers and the process itself are constantly being analysed and tuned. The end goal is to have a fine tuned machine for identifying and finding the best folks to join the company.

The chapter “Pay unfairly” is about compensation strategies, and how they should be structured. The author makes the point that performance and impact is distributed according to a power law, which essentially means that the majority of people in an organisation have regular impact, but there’s small numbers of superstars with outsized impact. However, comp structures at most companies assumed a normal distribution of impact, which places too big emphasis on the “middle” band. This causes a lot of problems, chief amongst them are employee churn and disengagement because of the unfair situation. The solution is indeed to pay according to the impact. In practice, this translates into the career levels structure following a power law too, and compensation increasing sharply with level. You can check an example of this at data

The chapter “The best things in life are free” is about how many of the office perks at Google are actually free or cost very little. Most of them are actually about allowing various vendors to operate in an office, for example, but don’t incur any cost to Google (barbers, dry cleaners, etc), or small costs (massage, bikes, etc). The big point though is to be open to such things and to involve the workers in the process and allow them to make suggestions, participate in tests, provide feedback, etc.

The chapter “Nudge … a lot” is about how to design an organisation’s policies to achieve various good effects, but not be heavy handed about it. It’s a bit like UX for policies, in that different wordings in messages, rearranging options given to people, all the while not mandating any particular course of action, will lead to better outcomes than just mandating it. Examples of reciclying, vagetarian-only options at certain cafes, etc are provided as good examples of this.

To sum it up this is a really good and useful read. Check it out for sure.

The Spanish-language Kindle edition of *Stubborn Attachments*

The various subtleties of the title “Stubborn Attachments” do not translate well into Spanish, so here is “El imperativo moral del crecimiento económico: Una visión de una sociedad libre y próspera de individuos responsable.”

You can order it here, and I expect a print edition will be coming in due time.

I thank all of those involved for helping this project come to fruition, and thank Gonzalo Schwarz for doing the translation.

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*The Deficit Myth* and Modern Monetary Theory

That is the new book by Stephanie Kelton and the subtitle is Modern Monetary Theory and the Birth of the People’s Economy.  Here are a few observations:

1. Much of it is quite unobjectionable and well-known, dating back to the Bullionist debates or earlier yet.  Yet regularly it flies off the handle and makes unsupported macroeconomic assertions.

2. Like many of the Austrians, Kelton likes to insist on special terms, such as the government spending “coming first.”  You don’t have to say this is wrong, just keep your eye on the ball and don’t let it distract you.

3. “MMT has emphasized that rising interest income can serve as a potential form of fiscal stimulus.”  You don’t have to believe in a naive form of Say’s Law, but discussions of demand should start with the notion of production.  Then…never reason from an interest rate change!  Overall, I sense Kelton has one core model of the macroeconomy, with a whole host of variables held fixed (“well…higher interest rates means printing up more money to pay for them and thus greater stimulus…”), and then applies that model to a whole series of quite general problems and questions.

4. She thinks “demand” simply puts resources to work, and in this sense the book is a nice reductio ad absurdum of the economics one increasingly sees from mainstream writers on Twitter.  p.s.: The economy doesn’t have a “speed limit.”  And it shouldn’t be modeled using analogies with buckets.

5. We are told that the U.S. “…can’t lose control of its interest rate”, but real and nominal interest rates are not distinguished with care in these discussions.  The Fed’s ability to control real rates is fairly limited, though not zero, and those are empirical truths never countered or even confronted in this book.

6. The absence of a nominal budget constraint is confused repeatedly with the absence of a real budget constraint.  That is one of the major errors in this book.

7. It still would be very useful if the MMT people would take a mainstream macro model and spell out which assumptions they wish to make different, and then solve for the properties of the new model.  There is a reason why they won’t do that.

8. I don’t care what the author says or how canonical she is as a source, a federal jobs guarantee is not part of MMT.

9. Just because the economy is not at absolute full unemployment, it does not mean that free resources are on the table for the taking.  Again, in this regard Kelton is a useful reductio on a lot of “Twitter macro.”

10. I am plenty well read in the “money cranks” of earlier times, including Soddy, Foster, Catchings, Kitson, Proudhon, Tucker, and many more.  They got a lot of things right, but they also failed to produce coherent macro theories.  I would strongly recommend that Kelton undertake a close study of their failings.

11. For all the criticisms of the quantity theory, I would like to know how the MMT people explain the Fed coming pretty close to its inflation rate target for many years in a row, under highly varying conditions, fiscal conditions too.

12. The real grain of truth here is that if monetary policy is otherwise too deflationary, monetizing parts or all of the budget deficit is not only possible, it is desirable.  Absolutely, but don’t then let somebody talk loops around you.

You can order the book here.

The post *The Deficit Myth* and Modern Monetary Theory appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.

Space Invaders

Splendid retrospective from Game Maker’s Toolkit on Taito’s 1978 coin-op classic. What a great game.

The Pac-Man video in the same series is also excellent, and fully explains the AI behind the ghosts in a way I’ve never seen before. Four simple heuristics for the ghosts which, when combined, create the compelling illusion of intelligent coordination.

It’s also fascinating to me that, though only two years apart, Space Invaders and Pac-Mac feel like they’re from two different eras of arcade games. Space Invaders is monochrome (the machines faked color with a translucent overlay at the bottom of the screen) and (generally) slow; Pac-Man is fantastically colorful and frantically fast.


Oh, Hello Elon

Interview with Scott Berkun, Author of “How Design Makes the World”

Cover for “How Design Makes the World” If you care about design, I would posit that the most pressing evolutionary challenge it faces is not design systems…

You Should Read This

Take a moment to read this article in Science magazine about COVID19, aerosol transmission and masks. It’s not a study. It’s published as a “perspective”, more a review of the current science and an argument about the implications of the data. The upshot is a strong argument for universal mask wearing as long as COVID19 remain prevalent in the population and we have no vaccines or effective treatments. The more specific assertions are these.

First, the authors argue that the accepted science about aerosol transmission of respiratory viruses (exhaled fluids that can hang for more than a few seconds in the air) is based on experiments from the 1930s and is simply outdated. Basically the conceptual distinction between big particles that fall rapidly to the ground because of gravity and aerosols that persist in the air is based on 80 year technology that simply couldn’t detect a lot of very small particles. The authors argue that there is abundant evidence that COVID is spread this way, especially by asymptomatic or undiagnosed individuals. This is especially the case is indoors in areas with limited ventilation.

They further argue that six feet distance probably is not sufficient to ensure against contagion. The authors use an analog or perhaps better to say an illustrative comparison about cigarette smoke. If you’re close enough that you can smell the tobacco smoke from someone smoking a cigarette you’re probably close enough to be inhaling aerosolized COVID virus. If that’s a correct comparison obviously six feet isn’t remotely enough.

What I take from this point is not that the authors think we should be extending the distance to 10 feet or completely unworkable distances like 100 feet. The point is the necessity of masking. They list various data points which they say undergirds a strong evidence-based case for masking. They go as far as to argue that the ubiquitous mask wearing in countries like Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea et al. is a major reason they have suffered so relatively few cases and few fatalities.

One key paragraph …

From epidemiological data, countries that have been most effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 have implemented universal masking, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea. In the battle against COVID-19, Taiwan (population 24 million, first COVID-19 case 21 January 2020) did not implement a lockdown during the pandemic, yet maintained a low incidence of 441 cases and 7 deaths (as of 21 May 2020). By contrast, the state of New York (population ~20 million, first COVID case 1 March 2020), had a higher number of cases (353,000) and deaths (24,000). By quickly activating its epidemic response plan that was established after the SARS outbreak, the Taiwanese government enacted a set of proactive measures that successfully prevented the spread of SARS-CoV-2, including setting up a central epidemic command center in January, using technologies to detect and track infected patients and their close contacts, and perhaps most importantly, requesting people to wear masks in public places. The government also ensured the availability of medical masks by banning mask manufacturers from exporting them, implementing a system to ensure that every citizen could acquire masks at reasonable prices, and increasing the production of masks. In other countries, there have been widespread shortages of masks, resulting in most residents not having access to any form of medical mask (15). This striking difference in the availability and widespread adoption of wearing masks likely influenced the low number of COVID-19 cases.

I really recommend reading the whole thing. It’s short and fairly accessible to a lay reader.

‘Will President Trump Stand With Hong Kong?’

The New York Times:

The resistance has compelled China and its handpicked administrators in Hong Kong, led by the embattled Carrie Lam, to make tactical retreats at times, but never for long. At her weekly news conference, Ms. Lam dutifully argued that the proposed legislation would not curtail the rights of Hong Kongers, which under the 1997 agreement with Britain were to be unchanged for 50 years, but rather was a “responsible” move to protect the law-abiding majority.

Nobody believes that. Least of all, evidently, those behind the new measures. A Chinese representative in Hong Kong declared that freedom of the press would not be limited, and then warned against using that freedom as a “pretext” to undermine security. Ms. Lam [was] equally Orwellian: “We are a very free society, so for the time being, people have the freedom to say whatever they want to say.”

Strong editorial, but I can’t see why they posed the headline as a question.

What a historical debacle that 50-year agreement was. We’re only 23 years in and Hong Kong freedom is already teetering. The assumption in 1997 was that if we opened trade relations, China would inevitably bend to the ways of the West, and that 50 years was plenty of time. It turns out the way of the West is capitalism, China is a huge market, and we’re bending to China, not the other way around.

Hong Kong iPhones still don’t have the Taiwanese flag emoji, right? But Apple Stores do make good spots to round up dozens of pro-democracy protestors for arrest.


Apple Engineer Jordyn Castor on ‘Mission Unstoppable’

Speaking of Apple and its generally outstanding accessibility, check out this five-minute feature on Apple engineer Jordyn Castor. Castor is blind since birth, and she’s working on Swift Playgrounds to help visually impaired students learn to program. Just so cool.


Thursday: GDP, Unemployment Claims, Durable Goods, Pending Home Sales

• At 8:30 AM ET, The initial weekly unemployment claims report will be released. The consensus is for a 2.100 million initial claims, down from 2.438 million the previous week.

• At 8:30 AM, Gross Domestic Product, 1st quarter 2020 (Second estimate). The consensus is that real GDP decreased 4.8% annualized in Q1, unchanged from the advance estimate of -4.8%.

• At 8:30 AM, Durable Goods Orders for April from the Census Bureau. The consensus is for a 18.5% decrease in durable goods orders.

• At 10:00 AM, Pending Home Sales Index for April. The consensus is for a 15% decrease in the index.

• At 11:00 AM, the Kansas City Fed manufacturing survey for May. This is the last of regional manufacturing surveys for May.

The legacy of Alberto Alesina

He traced the links between culture, politics and fiscal policy

Reflecting the International Space Station

Still bathed in sunlight, the Still bathed in sunlight, the

Head-to-Head Comparison of iPhone vs. Pixel in Voice to Text Transcription

James Cham:

I don’t think that people appreciate how different the voice to text experience on a Pixel is from an iPhone. So here is a little head to head example. The Pixel is so responsive it feels like it is reading my mind!

Siri being far slower and far less accurate is a winning combination.

What really sticks out about this is that in so many regards, Apple’s accessibility features are both awesome and far ahead of everyone else. Yet voice-to-text transcription is an obvious accessibility feature, and on this front Apple is and long has been woefully behind. If Apple’s voice-to-text transcription were good, it wouldn’t just improve the ways we use (or try to use) it now — truly good voice-to-text would enable all sorts of new Star Trek-level interactions while editing text. Quick fixes in Messages, Mail, or wherever you happen to be typing.


Trump Administration Organizes Harassment of a Single Twitter Employee

Nick Stratt, reporting for The Verge:

The White House has set its sights on a single Twitter employee after the company attached a fact-checking link to two of the president’s tweets containing lies and misinformation related to voter fraud. The charge was led on Fox News Wednesday morning, with Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway targeting Twitter’s head of site integrity, Yoel Roth, after digging up some tweets that were critical of Trump, Conway, and the administration.

Conway called the employee “horrible” and directed listeners to go after him. “Somebody in San Francisco go wake him up and tell him he’s about to get a lot more followers,” she said on air. Immediately, the call was picked up by right-wing personalities and Trump supporters, who began sharing screenshots of the employee’s tweets. Roth is already facing a torrent of abuse and harassment, including multiple death threats, reports Protocol.

Emily Birnbaum, from the aforelinked report at Protocol:

Roth has received more than 3,000 new followers over the past day, according to an analysis of his Twitter account. He hasn’t tweeted since Monday, but harassing messages are appearing every minute under his latest posts, and right-wing accounts with millions of followers, including the president’s son and the Trump campaign’s official account, have been tweeting out his name and personal information every hour since mid-Tuesday.

A Twitter spokesperson told Protocol the company is standing behind Roth and does not have any plans to fire or suspend him.

“No one person at Twitter is responsible for our policies or enforcement actions,” a Twitter spokesperson said, “and it’s unfortunate to see individual employees targeted for company decisions.”

A person familiar with the matter said Roth has faced an explosion of death threats.

They are simultaneously hamfisted, vindictive, and cruel. If there’s a method to this, they’re doing it to send a message. Push back on Trump’s blatant disregard for Twitter’s rules and the White House will single out Twitter employees for retribution.


Nine Local TV Stations Pushed the Same Amazon-Scripted Segment

Tim Burke, reporting for Courier:

While most TV news professionals have scoffed at the idea of running Amazon-provided content as news, at least 9 stations across the country ran some form of the package on their news broadcasts. The package — you can view the script Amazon provided to news stations here — was produced by Amazon spokesperson Todd Walker. Only one station, Toledo ABC affiliate WTVG, acknowledged that Walker was an Amazon employee, not a news reporter, and noted that Amazon had supplied the video. […]

In response to a request for comment on why the station ran the package, Wes Armstead, news director of the Bluefield NBC affiliate WVVA, told Courier, “I was not aware the package was provided by Amazon.” Armstead said, “We’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Strong words, indeed.

(What’s the deal with the strange diction of local TV news personalities in the U.S.? It’s evolving into an ever-more-distinct accent that defies regional boundaries and doesn’t really exist in any other context. TV personalities on national TV don’t talk like this, only on local TV.)


Stormy weather delays Crew Dragon launch to Saturday


A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stands on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center during a launch attempt Wednesday, May 27. Credit: NASA TV/Spaceflight Now

Stormy weather across Florida’s Space Coast forced SpaceX to call off the long-awaited launch of two astronauts aboard the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, the first piloted flight to orbit from U.S. soil in nearly nine years.

The company plans to make another attempt Saturday, at 3:22:45 p.m. EDT, the next opportunity for a launch into the plane of the International Space Station’s orbit with the proper conditions for a rendezvous and docking.

Another opportunity is available at 3:00:07 p.m. Sunday. Forecasters are predicting a 60 percent chance of acceptable conditions both days.

Wednesday’s scrub was a frustrating disappointment for astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, who have been training for the past four years to to take off on one of the most anticipated flights in space history.

But the weather appeared no-go throughout the morning, with occasionally heavy rain and thick cloud cover blanketing Florida’s Space Coast. As the day wore on, conditions improved somewhat but the sky remained cloudy with rain and lightning in the area.

Hoping for the best, Hurley and Behnken donned their pressure suits and headed for the launch pad around 1:20 p.m.

Before departing NASA’s Operations & Checkout Building in white Tesla SUVs, they took a moment to share virtual hugs with their wives, both veteran astronauts, and their sons, 10-year-old Jack Hurley and six-year-old Theodore Behnken, as Vice President Mike Pence and his wife looked on.

After strapping into the Crew Dragon capsule, Hurley and Behnken checked in with flight controllers, tested their pressure suits and monitored the countdown while engineers readied their Falcon 9 for fueling.

Forecasters were hopeful conditions were improve enough to permit a launch and fueling began on time at the T-minus 35-minute mark. But at 4:16 p.m., with the countdown less than 17 minutes from launch, SpaceX mission managers called a scrub.

If they had 10 more minutes, officials said, the weather would have been “go” for launch. But to rendezvous with the International Space Station, the Falcon 9 had to take off on time. And it was not to be.

“We basically scrubbed due to three rules that we were violating,” a SpaceX controller told the astronauts a few minutes later. “All three would have been expected to clear 10 minutes after our (launch) time. And those three were natural lightning, field mills and the attached anvil.”

Field mills are a measure of the electrical charge in the atmosphere while attached anvils refer to icy cloud tops associated with thunderstorms.

“Yeah, we copy, Jay, we appreciate that update,” Behnken replied. “We could see some raindrops on the windows and figured that whatever it was was too close to the launch pad at the time we needed it not to be. So we appreciate that and understand that everybody’s probably a little bit bummed out.

“It’s just part of the deal,” he added. “Everybody was ready today, and we appreciate that. The ship was great. We’ll do it again, I think, on Saturday.”

“Copy all and yeah, we concur. Appreciate your resilience sitting there in the vehicle for us.””

“We’ve got the easy job,” Hurley said.

“Nothing better than being prime crew on a new spaceship,” someone chimed in.

President Trump, who flew to the spaceport to witness the launch, promised to come back for Saturday’s attempt, tweeting “thank you to @NASA and @SpaceX for their hard work and leadership.”

Despite the historical significance of the mission and widespread public interest, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX founder Elon Musk both said Tuesday they would not hesitate to call off the launch if there were any safety concerns.

Bridenstine repeated that assertion after Wednesday’s scrub.

“I get asked over and over again, is there undue pressure here?” he said. “People say to me, with all of the attention of the world on this launch, with all of the VIPs coming, are you going to feel pressure on this launch?

“And I will tell you, as I’ve told our teams, under no circumstances should anybody feel pressure. If we are not ready to go, we simply do not go. I am proud, so proud of our teams working together to make the right decision in this particular case.”

Army’s evaluation of Starlink broadband to focus on reliability, vulnerability

WASHINGTON — The upcoming evaluation of SpaceX’s Starlink broadband by the U.S. Army will look primarily at the reliability of the service and potential vulnerabilities of the satellites to hostile attacks, a senior Army official said May 27.

The Army on May 20 signed a three-year agreement with SpaceX to experiment using Starlink broadband to move data across military networks.

“I would view this as exploratory,” Gen. John Murray, commander of the U.S. Army Futures Command, told reporters on Wednesday on a Defense Writers Group conference call.

“It’s about figuring out what capabilities they can provide, and what vulnerabilities do they have?” said Murray.

The Army Futures Command advises Army leaders on what investments the service should make to modernize weapons and information systems. One of the priorities identified by Futures Command is high capacity, low latency communications for units in the field that need to move large amounts of data.

A space internet service from low Earth orbit like Starlink would be used by the Army to supplement geosynchronous satellite-based and terrestrial communications.

Murray said the Army has signed exploratory agreements with SpaceX and other companies to make sure the product works before it buys it. The Army wants to try it “before we lock ourselves into a multibillion dollar acquisition program,” he said.

“Yes, we are interested in commercial broadband capability from space, and from low Earth orbit,” said Murray. “But I would be lying to you if I said there were absolutely zero concerns.”

Making sure the service is reliable is one concern, he said. Security is another. The Army will want to assess the cyber security of the data moving through the network and also will examine the risks that an adversary could target low altitude satellites with weapons from the ground.

May 27 COVID-19 Test Results: Going Backwards

In addition to having enough tests for test-and-trace, we also need people to conduct contact tracing. There is a great website that tracks the progress of each towards test-and-trace. The website also has resources on how to implement test-and-trace. This includes software, training resources, a calculator for how many people to hire and more.

My state (California) now has 3,800 contact tracers. That is still too few, but a start!

In late April, Dr. Fauci said the US might be able to test 400,000 to 600,000 people per day sometime in May, and  testing is below that range.  There might be enough to allow test-and-trace in some areas.  However, the US might need more than 900,000 tests per day according to Dr. Jha of Harvard's Global Health Institute.

There were 285,440 test results reported over the last 24 hours.

COVID-19 Tests per Day Click on graph for larger image.

This data is from the COVID Tracking Project.

The percent positive over the last 24 hours was 6.5% (red line). The US probably needs enough tests to keep  the percentage positive well below 5%. (probably much lower based on testing in New Zealand).

A Glimpse Of Normal

Joe Biden commemorates the 100,000 and counting American victims of COVID-19:

The Washington Examiner: ‘Trump’s Slanderous Attack on Joe Scarborough Is Incompatible With Leadership’

The Washington Examiner:

But it is far, far more unfortunate that the latest person to trumpet and repeat this vile slander is the president supposedly leading this nation through a time of crisis.

Whatever his issues with Scarborough, President Trump’s crazed Twitter rant on this subject was vile and unworthy of his office. Some will undoubtedly shrug it off as Trump being Trump, but one could hardly be blamed for reading it and doubting his fitness to lead.

To say Trump owes Scarborough an apology is to put it mildly. But in the end, Scarborough won’t be the one hurt by this. Against a weak opponent, Trump somehow managed in 2016 to win despite carrying on with sad, deluded conspiracy theories about Sen. Ted Cruz’s father being involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Against a less reviled opponent, he may not be so lucky in 2020.

What makes this editorial noteworthy is not the sentiment but the source.


Weather scrubs SpaceX commercial crew launch

Falcon 9 before scrub

Updated 6:05 p.m. Eastern with Bridenstine comments.

WASHINGTON — The first human orbital spaceflight from the United States in nearly nine years came within 17 minutes of launch May 27 before weather conditions postponed the launch.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 was scheduled to lift off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at 4:33 p.m. Eastern placing a Crew Dragon spacecraft, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board, into orbit.

However, SpaceX launch controllers scrubbed the launch 17 minutes before the liftoff time citing poor weather. Conditions looked unfavorable for much of the day, including a tornado warning issued earlier in the afternoon for a part of Florida that includes KSC. While weather conditions appeared to be trending better, controllers concluded that they would not meet all the launch weather criteria in time. The launch had an instantaneous launch window, meaning any technical or weather issue would postpone the launch.

“We could see some raindrops on the windows,” Hurley said from inside the Crew Dragon spacecraft shortly after the scrub. “We just figured that whatever it was, was too close to the launch pad at the time we needed it not to be.”

“We understand that everybody’s probably a little bit bummed out. It’s just part of the deal,” he continued. “The ship was great, and we’ll do it again, I think, on Saturday.”

The next launch opportunity is May 30 at 3:22 p.m. Eastern, with another May 31 at 3:00 p.m. Eastern. Launch opportunities are governed by orbital mechanics of the International Space Station’s orbit and the capabilities of the Falcon 9, and thus are not available every day. Weather forecasts both days projected a 60% chance of acceptable weather at the launch site.

Among those in attendance at KSC were President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who arrived separately earlier in the day in the hopes of seeing the first crewed orbital launch from the United States since the final shuttle mission, STS-135, in July 2011. Pence was present to see off Behnken and Hurley as they left the operations building at KSC to ride to the launch site.

Trump left KSC immediately after the launch scrub, skipping a planned speech at the center’s Vehicle Assembly Building. However, Trump later tweeted that he would be return for the May 30 launch attempt.

Before the launch scrub, Trump met with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk for a briefing about the mission. “You’re always thinking about this,” Trump said to Musk according to a White House transcript. “You’re thinking about other things, too; you have plenty to think about. But this has been your baby.”

“This is the top focus by far, absolutely,” Musk responded. “In fact, I’ve told my team: It’s not simply the top priority, it is the only priority.”

Bridenstine brought up the perceived pressure on the launch because of the presence of Trump and Pence during brief comments on NASA TV after the launch scrub. “People say to me, ‘With all of the attention of the world on this launch, with all of the VIPs coming, are you going to feel pressure on this launch?'” he recalled. “If we are not ready to go, we simply do not go. I am proud, so proud, of our teams working together to make the right decision in this particular case.”

The astronauts, meanwhile, could not immediately leave the capsule after the scrub, having instead to wait for propellants to be offloaded from the rocket so that crews could return to the pad. “We appreciate your resilience sitting there in the vehicle for us,” launch controllers told the crew.

“There’s nothing better than being prime crew on a new spaceship,” Behnken responded.

Links 5/27/20

Links for you. Science:

New research rewrites history of when Covid-19 took off in the U.S. — and points to missed chances to stop it (“Our finding that the virus associated with the first known transmission network in the U.S. did not enter the country until mid-February is sobering, since it demonstrates that the window of opportunity to block sustained transmission of the virus stretched all the way until that point.“)
The world needs Covid-19 vaccines. It may also be overestimating their power
Bow, Humans: Trillions of Cicadas Are Going to Rule America
Scientists vs politicians: the reality check for ‘warp speed’ vaccine research
Online COVID-19 Dashboard Calculates How Risky Reopenings and Gatherings Can Be
How covid-19 is accelerating the threat of antimicrobial resistance


America’s response to coronavirus pandemic is ‘incomprehensibly incoherent,’ says historian who studied the 1918 flu
The director of National Nurses United on the lack of PPE during the pandemic: ‘This is just out of control’
We Need a Class War, Not a Culture War
Why military-style gear at protests rings hollow
Trump Can’t Just Make Country Re-Open. He Has To Actually Stem the Outbreak.
The American ideology, on the left and the right, that props up inequality
Joe Biden’s Friend From JPMorgan Chase./Peter Scher, a Biden ally tipped as a possible high-level official in his White House, lays bare the difficulties of reconciling progressive populism and corporate-friendly technocracy.
What Living Through the Polio Epidemic Taught Me About COVID-19
Remember Their Names: NYC Veterans Nursing Home Staff Leaks List of 48 Who Died
These Labs Rushed to Test for Coronavirus. They Had Few Takers. The fragmented U.S. health care system has hampered efforts to expand coronavirus testing, by making it difficult for hospitals to switch to new labs with ample capacity.
Cities are closing streets to make way for restaurants and pedestrians
Hydroxychloroquine Isn’t a Joke It’s a Scandal
America’s Police Prepared for the Wrong Enemy. Militarized U.S. police forces need to go back to serving communities first.
Hogan empowered local leaders to continue their shutdowns. They wish he hadn’t.
The Border Between Red and Blue America. With suburbia now split in two parts, we needed a more precise method to distinguish them.
The Housing Vultures
Billionaires Cowboy Up and Turn Wyoming Into a Gated Community
Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 15
Donald Trump’s problems with senior voters started long before the coronavirus
American Cities Are Built for Cars. The Coronavirus Could Change That.
CDC revises its guidelines on surface contact — prompting an outbreak of misleading headlines

SpaceNews Webinar | Nurturing Key National Security Space Technologies

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate in New Mexico is one of 23 space-related organizations set to transfer to the U.S. Space Force under plans unveiled last month. 

As the Department of the Air Force’s “Center of Excellence” for space technology R&D, the Space Vehicles Directorate develops, demonstrates and transitions critical technologies for the entire gamut of military space missions, including communications; positioning, navigation and timing, missile warning, space situational awareness, and defensive space control.

Col. Eric Felt, the Air Force officer who leads the Space Vehicles Directorate and its team of 1,000 military, civilian, and on-site contractors, will talk with SpaceNews Staff Writer Sandra Erwin and Editor-in-Chief Brian Berger about the R&D  investments the directorate is making to help the U.S. military maintain a technological advantage in the space domain.

  • How can the U.S build more resilient space technology in the face of anti-satellite threats?
  • What is the role of the private sector in bringing innovation into military programs? 
  • How does the standup of the U.S. Space Force change the thinking about R&D investments? 

Also joining the conversation will be Paul Jaffe, a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory engineer and principal investigator for a space-based solar power experiment flying on the X-37B autonomous spaceplane the Space Force launched May 17.

Jaffe will discuss the experiment and what it could mean for future capabilities to harvest power from space.


Col. Eric Felt
Director, Space Vehicles Directorate, Air Force Research Laboratory

Paul Jaffe
PRAM Principal Investigator, Naval Research Laboratory



— Advanced Registration required —

Scrub! Historic Demo-2 mission delayed due to weather

A shelf cloud passes over the Vehicle Assembly Building and the Kennedy Space Center. Photo credit: Michael McCabe/ Spaceflight Insider

NASA’s historic Demo-2 mission has been scrubbed due to weather over the launch site and off the Florida coast. The next attempt is set to occur on Saturday, May 30 at 3:22 pm local time.

As the world’s attention turned towards Cape Canaveral, the weather had other plans. Weather had been one of the biggest points of discussion in the week leading up to the first attempted liftoff of NASA and SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission. A tropical low-pressure system had been plaguing the Florida peninsula since Sunday, causing many to wonder if Demo-2 would even have a chance to fly on its first attempt on Wednesday. Unfortunately, Mother Nature won the battle today, with cumulonimbus clouds creeping in a little too close for comfort both at the launch site and the abort and recovery sites.

Clouds cloak the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during the initial May 27, 2020 launch attempt of the Demo-2 mission. Photo credit: Michael McCabe/ Spaceflight Insider

The National Hurricane Center released an update Wednesday morning that tropical storm Bertha had formed off the South Carolina coast, painting a gloomy picture for launch day. The system began a northward trend on Tuesday night, giving way to scattered clouds and periodic thundershowers on Wednesday. However, with a crewed launch comes a higher level of caution when it comes to the go/no-go considerations for weather. At the launch site itself, there are roughly twenty different minimums that must be met for a vehicle to be launched safely including proximity to lightning, cumulonimbus/thunderstorm clouds, precipitation, and wind. Cumulonimbus clouds can prove to be especially tricky, just ask the crew of Apollo 12. Have you ever seen a launch scrub for “cumulonimbus clouds and lightning” yet never see a strike or hear thunder? Rockets can act like a Tesla coil, or giant lightning rod as they move at high velocity through cumulonimbus clouds. The rocket can become electrically charged once it enters the cloud as negatively charged electrons “jump” from the cloud to the rocket, thus creating an artificially created lightning strike. This was the case for the historic liftoff of Apollo 12 as it flew through a cumulonimbus storm cloud. While lightning had not been observed in the area, the vehicle sustained a lightning strike due in part to this very phenomenon.

However, the minimums don’t stop at the launch site. Crew Dragon is a remarkably safe spacecraft due in part to its ability to abort at just about any phase of liftoff. This essentially means that the weather must be “green” at nearly 50 different points spanning the Atlantic coast upto western Ireland. This is why a launch could be scrubbed due to weather even if the skies can be virtually clear at the launch site. In addition to range abort weather being acceptable, the seas also play a significant factor in launch safety. As mentioned before, because of Dragon’s ability to abort at any point during the launch, this means that the seas downrange have to remain relatively calm in order for recovery teams to be able to safely recover the spacecraft.

As the week progresses, a high-pressure ridge is expected to sweep southward towards the flight path, hopefully suppressing tropical moisture and convection. The 45th Weather squadron has given a 60 percent chance of experiencing favorable launch conditions for the first Demo-2 backup window on Saturday. The second backup window is scheduled for Sunday May 31st.

The post Scrub! Historic Demo-2 mission delayed due to weather appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

Postmastectomy Tattooing Helps Women with Breast Cancer Heal

Postmastectomy Tattoos

Postmastectomy Tattoos

David Allen is a tattoo artist who does postmastectomy tattooing. He works with women who survive breast cancer to design and implement tattoos that cover scarring from mastectomies, transforming what might be seen as a destructive disfigurement into something creative and beautiful. Here’s Allen writing for The Journal of the American Medical Association (abstract):

I am a tattoo artist who works with women after they’ve had mastectomies to transform their sense of disfigurement and loss of control into feelings of beauty and agency. On a good day, I can heal with my art.

The women with breast cancer with whom I work share a feeling that they’ve been acted upon — by cancer, the health industrial complex and its agents, the sequelae of their treatments. Their physical and psychological points of reference are destabilized, having changed so quickly. A successful tattooing experience establishes a new point of reference, a marker that’s intimately theirs that replaces their sense of rupture and damage with an act of creation and, in my work, images of natural life.

Allen even does “solidarity tattoos” for his clients’ partners and friends. You can see more of his postmastectomy work on Instagram.

Tags: art   cancer   David Allen   tattoos

Mask as Symbol

Conventional wisdom and the balance of the public health community seems to have come round decisively in favor of masks as a key way to reduce transmission of COVID during the pandemic. In an interview with CNN, Anthony Fauci said that he wears a mask “when I’m in the public for the reasons that I want to protect myself and protect others, and also because I want to make it be a symbol for people to see that’s the kind of thing you should be doing.”

This is a good opportunity to revisit the mask as symbol, which is distinct from its immediate public health value but of course related to it.

Back in the early days of the pandemic, as I’ve discussed in other posts, most American public health experts doubted the efficacy of widespread use of masks but noted how it served as a potent social signal in Asian countries where masking was ubiquitous. It amounted to a very public, very visible, public statement that you take the public health crisis seriously and are conforming to the prescribed precautions to protect both yourself and the community at large. In the early days of the pandemic we heard from numerous North American or European expats in China or other countries in East Asia who pressed this signaling role. Back on March 9th, for instance, TPM Reader AK reported from Shanghai about how masking was public orthodoxy. Not just from government but with the population at large. ” I ran down to grab a delivery a few weeks ago without a mask, you would have thought I had horns based on the few people I ran into. Similar anecdotes from group chats elsewhere in the city.”

I have had analogous experiences of my own here in New York in recent weeks. On a few occasions I’ve had to meet with or have some interactions with strangers and I was certainly more at ease after I saw signals that they were cautious about COVID. (I’ve joked with my wife that I classify people I meet in public as COVID-cautious or COVID-skeptic.) They wore masks; they washed their hands; they talked about limiting travel outside the home. One of the socially acidic features of pandemics is that everyone else, in one key regard, really does become a threat. Any person could be a contagious carrier who is the one who infects you. This creates centrifugal forces in society that can breed isolation, conflict and even violence.

In the virgin soil epidemics that struck New England’s Algonquin Indians in the first decades of the 17th century, whole communities would be carried off at once. Others would disintegrate as those who were not yet sick would simply abandon rather than care for the sick in a desperate effort to escape the disease. Luckily COVID is not so contagious or deadly (we don’t know precisely which disease it was – possibly smallpox). But some dynamics are the same. Only compensatory actions can blunt these centrifugal forces. Public signals that you are doing your part in the group effort to combat the disease is one of those ways.

In this sense masking is both a visible symbol and also necessarily a collective effort. In recent weeks a number of studies and computer models have suggested that to get the real public benefit from masking, something like 80% of the population has to be using them. So basically we’re talking about peer pressure. You don’t walk down the street with no pants or cough in other people’s faces and during COVID you don’t go into social settings without a mask. Masks are the right thing to do because they (we think) slow the spread of the disease. They are also a visible signal that you are focused on doing the right thing – presumably not only masking but also the other practices – hand washing, reduced travel – that are not as visible.

There are parallels to the ideological battles over guns. Is it zero sum? Do I need as much firepower as possible to defend myself against all comers and overawe who I will? Or do we make a collective judgment that a society in which everyone is armed is neither desirable nor safe?

It is this social, solidaristic aspect of masking culture that has elevated it to the dimensions of a culture war in the United States. Yes, a lot of this is just Trump. Masks annoy him. He’s made it clear that mask wearing signals disloyalty. So everything that signals the public catastrophe or signals any resistance to going back to normal is an affront to Trump, Trumpism and thus now apparently many Trumpers. But it is the social and interdependent nature of masking that is, I think, at the root of the public resistance. It doesn’t sit well with a political culture that prizes unbridled individualism and power above all else. It signals both social interdependence and a defensive posture. If we were dominating the disease we wouldn’t be wearing masks. We are at best fighting it to a stand still at the moment.

With all Trump’s opposition, and the consistent line that masks are for followers or a sign of political correctness, what’s striking is that a number of ordinarily hyper-loyal Trumpers are not following along. Even as President Trump keeps signaling that masks are for losers, key Trump supporters like Sean Hannity are embracing the masking gospel. Indeed, a growing number of Republicans are – rightly – embracing masking as key to reopening the economy. Whether this will continue or whether they will fall in line is unclear. But the battle over masks goes beyond their effectiveness in limiting transmission. They cut into one of the country’s key ideological fissures in the age of Trump.

CSA astronaut Jeremy Hansen speaks on Crew Dragon, Demo-2

Jeremy Hansen CSA NBL Pool

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen, on the pool deck of Johnson Space Center’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, February 22, 2018. Credit: Sean Costello, SpaceFlight Insider

On the morning of SpaceX’s scheduled Demo-2 launch, Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen shared his thoughts about the final test flight of Crew Dragon, and what it means to him.

Speaking to Sean Costello on a video call from his home in Houston, Texas, Hansen very quickly acknowledged the importance of what is currently scheduled to be happening later in the day on May 20, 2020: “We’re celebrating a milestone in human space flight, which is particularly important for the United States of course, because they’re going to validate and eventually certify this new crew transport system.”

STS-134 Endeavour Launch

Space Shuttle Endeavour lifts off for the final time, launching on the STS-134 mission from Kennedy Space Center’s LC 39-A. Photo Credit: Sean Costello, SpaceFlight Insider

As a Canadian astronaut selected for training in 2009, Hansen has been in the program long enough to truly appreciate the evolution which has occurred in crewed spaceflight. Crews last launched to the International Space Station (ISS) from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center in 2011, a little shy of 9 years ago. Since that time, when crews stopped flying aboard the Space Shuttle, all human transport to the ISS has been via the Russian Soyuz capsule. With the anticipated certification of Crew Dragon, and in the future the Boeing Starliner vehicle, transport options will expand – not just for American NASA astronauts, but for those of all international partners of the ISS, and for commercial passengers alike.

When asked how he saw the commercial crew program relating to his specific journey to the stars, he shared that he has, for a long time, “seen the commercial crew program as being an instrumental part of me flying in space, and also of the future for the Canadian astronaut corps.” Continuing, he addressed the significant impact that it can have on a far larger audience: “More importantly, it’s what this means to younger Canadians with respect to opportunities to travel in space, or leverage space to help humanity. I think this is a major milestone today.”

Jeremy Hansen CSA astronaut

Canadian Space Agency astronaut Jeremy Hansen joined Sean Costello for a call on the morning of SpaceX’s scheduled Demo-2 launch, to explore what it meant to him and possibly to other Canadians. Credit: Sean Costello, SpaceFlight Insider

Also speaking with Gilles Leclerc, the Canadian Space Agency’s Director General of Space Exploration, Costello was able to explore in broad terms, the importance of the commercial crew program overall. Addressing today’s SpaceX Demo-2 test flight in particular, he shared: “It’s important for the international partners, because today’s [flight] destination is the International Space Station. It’s just amazing that we, together with our global partners, have been involved in occupying that for 20 years; it’s a very exciting moment. We absolutely rejoice in the opportunity that this opens up, for all the partners to actually benefit from having an additional means to access the ISS.”

Speaking with Leclerc about when a Canadian astronaut might come to be strapped in to either SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or Boeing’s Starliner, he shared that there are very specific ratio factors at play, which relate back to the level of investment and contribution made by each IP as a part of the overall ISS program: “According to the agreement we have with NASA and the intergovernmental agreements which address the international space station, [our access] is based on our 2% participation of the ISS budget. We benefit from a volume of experiments on the station, and also crew opportunities. We just had David Saint-Jacques fly last year on the ISS, so our next crewed flight will be sometime around 2024.” It is widely expected that the next Canadian to fly will be Hansen, but each mission assignment is ultimately determined based on the requirements at the time, as well as a myriad of other program factors.

Discussing the degree to which the Canadian Space Agency (as an IP of the ISS) participated in the design and review of the commercial vehicles which will be docking to the ISS, Leclerc outlined that there was a high degree of awareness afforded by NASA, but that because they ultimately are American commercial crew vehicles there are understandable restrictions with respect to the depth of detail which can be provided to all IPs equally. By inviting the CSA Liaison office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to observe the Flight Readiness Review meetings however, there was a great sense of effective partnering demonstrated: “ It was something that shows that the partnership is strong is open and that we are all part of this, because our crews  – Canadians – will eventually will fly on them”.

Demo-2 Weather Forecast

The L-2 launch forecast, issued Monday morning by the 45th Weather Squadron, detailed out the complex nature of the weather systems which launch weather officer Mike McAleenan referred to as a ‘strange brew’. By the time of the evening call, conditions had improved to only show a 40% chance of violation. Photo Credit: 45th Weather Squadron

Speaking in terms of the weather for the May 20 attempt to launch Demo-2, the forecast over the past week has been dicey at best. Ranging from a 60% risk of scrub to 60% odds that the range would be green to proceed, the 45th Space Wing weather officer, in a twist of dry humor, on Monday referred to the weather models as presenting as a real “strange brew”. Most of the media accepted that phrase as a simple description of the complex systems, but as it related to the launch of “Bob” Behnken and “Doug” Hurley, referring to anything as a “strange brew” during an official program call was seen by Canadians as a courteous nod to the neighbors to the North. (Editor’s note: if you’re not aware, there is a cult classic 80’s comedy movie named ‘Strange Brew’, about two fictitious Canadian brothers named Bob & Doug McKenzie. Well worth a watch).


Costello invited Hansen to comment on how today’s astronauts would likely be preparing themselves with such a wide range of weather conditions. He shared:, “The countdown is going to proceed until we know that we can’t fly. For the astronauts, their mindset has to be that they are going today; that when the clock reaches zero, the engines are going to have ignited and they’re on their way to space. Everything is going to proceed normally, until the weather gets to the point where it’s clear it’s not possible.”

Switching back to wrap his thoughts up on the international aspects, Hansen acknowledged that each partner country has been bringing a different area of expertise forward on an ongoing basis, for the greater good of the program: “You know, this is very much an American rocket today, an American success story, but by all of us bringing our niche capabilities together, we’re able to accomplish incredible things.” Continuing about the launch of the Demo-2 Crew Dragon and crew specifically, he shared that “This is going to make me nervous today. I mean, two of my friends are going to climb aboard a rocket and fly it for their first time; it’s making us all a little bit nervous. However, I have to tell you, I have a good feeling about it today. I feel very optimistic. I think the right decisions have been made and the right people are in the right places.”

And what about the nation of Canadians who are tuning in to watch (from a safe COVID-19 distance), today’s launch of an American Commercial Crew capsule? “Canadians should look at this and say, ‘wow – how is this going to change what we’re doing in the future?’, asking themselves, ‘what can now happen in Canada, to leverage these new opportunities?’ We need to be thinking about opportunities, and then really go after them – just like we always have.”

The post CSA astronaut Jeremy Hansen speaks on Crew Dragon, Demo-2 appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.

FCC stands by Ligado decision as lawmakers step up criticism

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission on May 27 again defended its decision to approve Ligado Networks’ use of a portion of the L-band spectrum despite strong opposition from the Pentagon and other government agencies.

The FCC pushed back on new criticism from the Senate and House Armed Services Committees. Committee leaders on Wednesday accused the FCC of issuing the order without having received classified briefings from DoD or other agencies on the impact of Ligado’s wireless network on the Global Positioning System that also operates in the L-band spectrum.

SASC Chairman Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) in a statement said FCC officials on a May 21 call with the House Armed Services Committee “indicated no one at the FCC received any classified briefings from these agencies on the harm that could be done if Ligado’s application was approved.”

Inhofe cited comments by Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces. Turner said he asked the FCC officials on the May 21 call “if they had convinced any other agency this was good policy or if they had made an attempt to receive a classified briefing on the effects of their decision and their answer was no.”

Inhofe said that if the FCC had reviewed classified materials related to the Ligado application, “I highly doubt they would have proceeded with their order.”

An FCC spokesperson said in a statement to SpaceNews that the commission does not see how these allegations change any of the actual facts in the case.

“The FCC is required by law to make its decision based on the facts in the record, and federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, were provided with multiple opportunities to put whatever facts they believed to be relevant into the record, including classified information, which the Commission has a process in place to protect,” said the spokesperson.

“We are not aware of the FCC refusing any request by the Department of Defense to provide a briefing related to this matter,” the statement said. “To the extent any federal agency opposed to the Ligado application chose not to share information with the Commission, that was the agency’s decision and suggests that it did not believe that the information in question would bolster its case.”

Following DoD’s objections to the FCC’s order, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on May 22 formally petitioned the FCC to reverse its April 20 decision to grant a spectrum license to Ligado to build a terrestrial wireless network.

Ligado in a statement last week said DoD’s complaint is not based on any real threat to GPS but on a desire to keep the spectrum for its own use. Ligado noted that members of Congress, Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and several consumer and and wireless industry groups have “weighed in to support the FCC and greater utilization of the L-band.”

Ajit’s response to HASC Chairman

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a May 26 letter to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said “the fact that another agency does not like the end result in this proceeding says nothing whatsoever about the process the FCC followed.”

In the letter, Ajit said the FCC “has an important job to do with regard to connectivity generally and 5G specifically — we must position ourselves as a global leader in innovation, technology, and the spectrum resources to support these efforts … Our work on the L-band is part of this effort.”

Ajit said the Ligado order “included strict conditions to ensure that GPS operations continue to be protected from harmful interference.”  To protect GPS users, Ligado has to reduce transmission power by 99%, must establish a 23 megahertz guard band using its own licensed spectrum and must consult federal agencies before it starts deploying its network.

The letter also said there is a misconception that the L-band decision allows shared use of spectrum. The FCC does not allow any spectrum sharing between Ligado and GPS, Ajit said. He noted that spectrum in this band has been licensed to Ligado and predecessor companies for over 30 year and for terrestrial communications use since 2004.

Intelsat, SES to participate in FCC’s $9.7B C-band program • OneWeb says it wants 48,000 satellites

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Intelsat and SES formally notified the U.S. Federal Communications Commission May 26 that they will participate in the agency’s $9.7 billion accelerated C-band spectrum clearing program. The satellite operators estimate they will each need to spend $1.6 billion on new satellites, launches and ground infrastructure to clear 300 megahertz of spectrum by December 2023. The FCC is requiring companies that bid for C-band spectrum in its publicly run auction to reimburse satellite operator relocation costs. The $9.7 billion accelerated clearing program provides additional funds to incentivize satellite operators to move out of the spectrum two years faster. Intelsat is eligible to receive $4.86 billion of the accelerated clearing funds, and SES $3.97 billion. The FCC required both operators to participate before commencing the accelerated clearing program, which offers smaller amounts to Eutelsat, Telesat and Embratel Star One. The FCC’s deadline for all operators to say if they will participate is May 29. [Intelsat/SES]

OneWeb told the FCC May 26 that it wants to increase its constellation size to 48,000 satellites despite having filed for bankruptcy over an inability to fund a smaller broadband megaconstellation. OneWeb is authorized for a constellation of 720 satellites, but declared bankruptcy in March after launching just 74 satellites. The British company said a 48,000-satellite constellation will “allow for greater flexibility to meet soaring global connectivity demands.” OneWeb said it has received “considerable interest from parties worldwide,” in its effort to sell its spectrum assets. [OneWeb]

The U.K.’s Ministry of Defence is expected to start a competition in early June for the ground segment of its Skynet geostationary satellite network. Four bidders are expected to compete for the ground segment contract, which could see Airbus replaced in August 2022 when the company’s current contract expires. The MoD required contenders sign nondisclosure agreements, but the “Athena” team comprised of Inmarsat, Serco, and the U.K. divisions of CGI and Lockheed Martin announced its intent to compete for the contract last year before the nondisclosures were implemented. The space segment of Skynet has been hampered by delays. Airbus and the MoD have yet to finalize a contract for the Skynet-6A satellite, for which Airbus was named the preferred contractor in 2017. Skynet-6A is intended to serve as a transitional satellite between the aging Skynet-5 fleet and the future Skynet-6 satellites. [C4ISRNet]


The Spanish division of Thales Alenia Space is leading a team of companies in designing all-European satellite chipsets. Under the three-year Programmable Mixed Signal Electronics, or PROMISE, program, Thales Alenia Space and the small businesses Menta of France and Integrated Systems Development of Greece will work with European research institutions to create Application-Specific Integrated Circuits. PROMISE is a 2.9 million-euro ($3.2 million) program organized by the European Commission. Thales Alenia Space said Europe’s aerospace industry often depends on chipsets from the U.S. and other countries. The EC’s PROMISE program will result in fully European-built satellites, according to Eduardo Bellido, CEO of Thales Alenia Space Spain. [Thales Alenia Space]

Shareholders in German spacecraft and rocket hardware builder OHB voted May 26 to skip an annual dividend for the first time in 16 years, citing the coronavirus pandemic. OHB said in March that it may face project delays because of the pandemic, but didn’t expect to lose revenues. In April, the company said the “effects of the Covid-19 crisis cannot yet be estimated with sufficient accuracy.” The dividend would have issued 7.5 million euros to shareholders. [OHB]

A Russian satellite operator plans to acquire four satellites to provide coverage over arctic regions. Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC) wants to have the satellites in highly elliptical orbits by 2024 to provide Ku-band coverage to Russia’s Far North, a vast region beyond the reach of the state-owned satellite operator’s 10 geostationary satellites. RSCC will consider bids from Russian and international manufacturers, though most of the operator’s fleet has been domestically built. [SpaceNews]

Intelsat expects to have virtually no service interruption with the Intelsat-10-02 satellite when it starts using a second Mission Extension Vehicle. Northrop Grumman’s MEV-2 is scheduled to launch July 28 on an Ariane 5 rocket with the BSat-4b and Galaxy-30 satellites. In contrast to MEV-1, Intelsat plans to dock the MEV-2 servicer directly with Intelsat-10-02 in the geosynchronous arc. Rhys Morgan, Intelsat’s regional vice president for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa sales, said Intelsat anticipates “no interruption other than some minimal switching breaks as the two spacecraft come together.” [BroadbandTVNews]

The U.S. Army signed an agreement with SpaceX to test the company’s Starlink broadband constellation. The Army and SpaceX finalized a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, or CRADA, earlier this month, allowing the Army to test Starlink over the next three years. CRADAs are commonly used by the military to evaluate technologies and services from the private sector before it commits to buying them. The Army will seek answers to key questions such as what ground equipment it will need to use Starlink and how much systems integration work could be required. [SpaceNews]

The U.K. Space Agency is offering 1 million pounds ($1.2 million) in new funding for organizations to make new ways to monitor objects in low Earth Orbit or to make better use of existing orbital data using artificial intelligence. Bidders will be eligible to receive up to 250,000 pounds to develop their space surveillance and tracking ideas. “Space debris is a global problem and this funding will enable UK companies to develop new methods to help tackle the issue,” said Alice Bunn, the U.K. Space Agency international director. “Growing our space surveillance and tracking capabilities will be crucial for UK space businesses to innovate safely and sustainably in the future.” [UK Space Agency]

SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer Jeff Foust contributed to this newsletter.

New Home Prices

As part of the new home sales report released yesterday, the Census Bureau reported the number of homes sold by price and the average and median prices.

From the Census Bureau: "The median sales price of new houses sold in April 2020 was $309,900. The average sales price was $364,500."

The following graph shows the median and average new home prices.

New Home Prices Click on graph for larger image.

During the housing bust, the builders had to build smaller and less expensive homes to compete with all the distressed sales.  When housing started to recovery - with limited finished lots in recovering areas - builders moved to higher price points to maximize profits.

The average price in April 2020 was $364,500, down 3.4% from March, and down 9.5% from the peak in 2017.  The median price was $309,900, down 5.2% from March, and down 9.8% from the peak in 2017.

The average and median house prices are down from 2017 since home builders are offering more lower priced homes.

The second graph shows the percent of new homes sold by price.

New Home Sales by PriceVery few new homes sold were under $150K in April 2020.  This is down from 30% in 2002.  In general, the under $150K bracket is going away.   

The $400K+ bracket increased significantly since the housing recovery started, but has been holding steady recently - and declined over the last couple of months.  A majority of new homes (about 59%) in the U.S., are in the $200K to $400K range.

Gettin' ready to launch a spaceship

Fed's Beige Book: "Economic activity declined in all Districts – falling sharply in most"

Fed's Beige Book "This report was prepared at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City based on information collected on or before May 18, 2020."
Economic activity declined in all Districts – falling sharply in most – reflecting disruptions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumer spending fell further as mandated closures of retail establishments remained largely in place during most of the survey period. Declines were especially severe in the leisure and hospitality sector, with very little activity at travel and tourism businesses. Auto sales were substantially lower than a year ago, although several Districts noted recent improvement. A majority of Districts reported sharp drops in manufacturing activity, and production was notably weak in auto, aerospace, and energy-related plants. Residential home sales plunged due in part to fewer new listings and to restrictions on home showings in many areas. Construction activity also fell as new projects failed to materialize in many Districts. Commercial real estate contacts mentioned that a large number of retail tenants had deferred or missed rent payments. Bankers reported strong demand for PPP loans. Agricultural conditions worsened, with several Districts reporting reduced production capacity at meat-processing plants due to closures and social distancing measures. Energy activity plummeted as firms announced oil well closures, which led to historically low levels of active drilling rigs. Although many contacts expressed hope that overall activity would pick-up as businesses reopened, the outlook remained highly uncertain and most contacts were pessimistic about the potential pace of recovery.
Employment continued to decrease in all Districts, including steep losses in most Districts, as social distancing and business closures affected employment at many firms. Securing PPP loans helped many businesses to limit or avoid layoffs, although employment continued to fall sharply in retail and in leisure and hospitality sectors.
emphasis added
CR Note: This information was on or before May 18th, and it appears activity has picked up recently.

The case for a market allocation of vaccines

Or a partial such allocation, at least.  Here is my latest Bloomberg column:

The renowned economist Erik Brynjolfsson recently asked: “At least so far, I haven’t seen any one suggesting to use the market system to allocate vaccines. Not even those who strongly advocate it in other areas. Why is that?”

As one of several people copied at the bottom of the tweet, I feel compelled to take up the challenge.

I readily admit that a significant portion of the vaccines, when they come, should be allocated by non-market forces to health care workers, “front line” workers, servicemen on aircraft carriers, and so on.  Yet still there is room for market allocation, especially since multiple vaccines are a real possibility:

If you had to choose among those vaccines, wouldn’t it make sense to look for guidance from market prices? They will reflect information about the perceived value of both protection and risk. On the same principle, if you need brain surgery, you would certainly want to know what the brain surgeon charges, although of course that should not be the only factor in your decision.


The market prices for vaccines could be useful for other purposes as well. If scientific resources need to be allocated to improve vaccines or particular vaccine approaches, for instance, market prices might be useful signals.

Note also that the scope of the market might expand over time. In the early days of vaccine distribution, health-care workers will be a priority. Eventually, however, most of them will have access to vaccines. Selling off remaining vaccine doses might do more to encourage additional production than would bureaucratic allocation at a lower price.

Say China gets a vaccine first — how about a vaccine vacation in a nearby Asian locale (Singapore? Vietnam?) for 30k?  Unless you think that should be illegal, you favor some form of a market in vaccines.

In any case, there is much more at the link.  Overall I found it striking how few people took up Erik’s challenge.  Whether or not you agree with my arguments, to me they do not seem like such a stretch.

The post The case for a market allocation of vaccines appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.

Sean Hannity Splits With Trump on Mask Wearing

Cristina Cabrera, reporting for TPM:

“If you can’t social distance, please wear the mask,” Hannity pleaded. “Do it for your mom, your dad, your grandma, your grandpa.”

The right-wing host asserted that “we need to use some common sense. You need to be cautious. Take precautions because we don’t want it to spread to vulnerable people,” Hannity said. “We’ve seen what happens when we do.”

During a press briefing earlier on Tuesday, Trump swiped at a reporter for wearing a mask. “You want to be politically correct,” he said.

What makes this noteworthy is not the sentiment but the source.


NASA & SpaceX Scheduled to Launch Astronauts Into Orbit From US Soil for First Time in 9 Years

NASA and SpaceX are scheduled to launch two astronauts into orbit this afternoon from the United States for the first time in nine years. The launch is scheduled to take place at 4:33 p.m. EDT. We’ll be watching for sure!

SpaceX is targeting Wednesday, May 27 for Falcon 9’s launch of Crew Dragon’s second demonstration (Demo-2) mission from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This test flight with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board the Dragon spacecraft will return human spaceflight to the United States.

The mission is also the first time a private company will carry humans into orbit. You can watch the launch in the stream above with commentary (the coverage has already started — the astronauts just suited up and are on their way to launchpad 39A and now Kelly Clarkson is singing the National Anthem from her house) or with just the audio feed from Mission Control. And you can read more about the mission here.

Update: The launch got scrubbed for today — poor weather conditions. The next launch window is Saturday, May 30 at 3:22pm ET.

Tags: NASA   space   SpaceX   video

Poor weather scrubs SpaceX’s historic launch attempt [Updated]

Skies at 2pm ET Wednesday over the launch site were rather stormy.

Enlarge / Skies at 2pm ET Wednesday over the launch site were rather stormy. (credit: Trevor Mahlmann)

4:20pm ET Wednesday: SpaceX scrubbed the launch of its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft Wednesday a little less than 17 minutes before liftoff. Although weather conditions were improving at the launch site—thunderstorms rolled through earlier in the day, and a tornado warning was issued for Kennedy Space Center—they did not improve fast enough. Had Dragon been able to launch 10 minutes later, the weather would have been good to go.

Informed of the scrub, Dragon's commander Doug Hurley said from inside the spacecraft, "It was a good effort by the teams, and we understand. Everybody’s probably a little bit bummed out. It’s just part of the deal."

There were no technical issues with Dragon or the rocket. Now SpaceX will work to recycle the systems for another launch attempt on Saturday at 3:22pm ET (19:22 UTC). The reason for skipping the next two days is an unfavorable phase angle for Dragon's approach to the International Space Station. Weather is forecast to be somewhat better on Saturday, but it is no slam-dunk. A back-up opportunity will be available on Sunday.

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

America's Excitement for #LaunchAmerica Is Not Equally Distributed

Where Things Stand: Not All Fall In Line Behind The Next Great Political Divide

If President Trump had his way, mask-wearing would play a crucial role in whatever us-versus-them narrative he attempts to spin for his reelection.

The President has repeatedly refused to wear a mask in public and during appearances at the White House. He went after former VP and 2020 rival Joe Biden for wearing a mask to a Memorial Day event this week and the new White House press secretary had to contort herself to defend his attacks. He told a reporter yesterday that his mask-wearing was just part of a seemingly repugnant effort to be “politically correct.”

Biden has since shot back, calling our dear leader an “absolute fool” for waging a war against basic safety and chalking the whole debate up to the brand of “macho stuff” that would only gain public footing in the age of Trump.

This is all while the nation’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci continues to urge public officials to wear masks to set an example for the public.

Trump’s break with his own health experts is old news at this point. But in recent days members of his own party — and one of his closest allies — have refused to back up his effort to craft this new political narrative.

Just last night Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) painted mask wearing as a matter of basic human empathy, not politics. And Trump hype-man Sean Hannity — once viewed as a shadow chief of staff to the President — last night derided Lake of the Ozarks vacationers’ blatant disregard for basic social distancing guidelines.

“If you can’t social distance, please wear the mask. … Do it for your mom, your dad, your grandma, your grandpa,” Hannity said, referring to the practice as “common sense.”

While there are plenty of loyalists who have hitched themselves to this particularly baffling wagon, a movement can’t and won’t stick if even the sycophants won’t fall in line.

Here’s more on that and other stories we’re following today:

What The Investigations Team Is Watching

Josh Kovensky just published a piece you should check out about the spike in the publication of obituaries around the country as COVID-19 ravaged the U.S.

Tierney Sneed is covering the latest news out of Florida’s ex-felon voting case. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced yesterday he will appeal a federal judge’s recent decision to shut down a GOP effort to force ex-felons to pay off their fines before being allowed to vote.

What The Breaking News Team Is Watching

Now election interference is real. President Trump accused Twitter last night of “interfering” in the election after the social media giant instated a “fact check” flag on his erroneous tweets about mail-in-voting. Trump’s waged a war against the practice in recent days as states across the U.S. attempt to expand vote-by-mail options to accommodate for possible pandemic-related complications to voting in November.

Ric Grenell, who just left his gig as acting director of national intelligence, is reportedly going to join the Trump reelection campaign. Grenell will likely assume a senior role and help with fundraising efforts.

If You Read Anything On COVID-19 Today, Read This

Matt Shuham reports on a new guideline from the CDC that suggests anti-body tests shouldn’t be used to determine reopening decisions for workplaces and schools.

Earlier coverage of CDC COVID-19 guidelines:

Coming Up

11:00 a.m. ET: Trump met with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

12:20 p.m. ET: Trump and the first lady will leave the White House to head to the Kennedy Space Center. They’ll tour the crew quarters at 3:00 p.m. ET and will view the liftoff for the DEMO-2, the SpaceX launch with two U.S. astronauts at 4:33 p.m. ET.

7:10 p.m. ET: The pair will depart NASA and head back to the White House.

Yesterday’s Most Read Story

White Woman Who Called Police On Black Man In Viral Video Says Her ‘Entire Life Is Being Destroyed’ — Cristina Cabrera

What We Are Reading

A Third Of Americans Now Show Signs Of Clinical Anxiety Or Depression, Census Bureau Finds Amid Coronavirus Pandemic — Alyssa Fowers and William Wan

WATCH: 10 Local TV Stations Pushed The Same Amazon-Scripted Segment — Tim Burke

Four Quick Links for Wednesday Noonish

A lovely collection of photos by @tara_wray of her older neighbors in Vermont and how they are coping with the pandemic. []

Holy crap, they still make Hypercolor shirts?! "A heat activated unisex color changing tshirt for men that changes color when you touch it or by your surrounding heat." []

Great compilation by Open Culture: The 135 Best Podcasts to Enrich Your Mind. []

Designer Sara Little Turnbull pioneered non-woven fabrics at 3M, which eventually led to the development of the N95 mask. []


Note: Quick Links are pushed to this RSS feed twice a day. For more immediate service, check out the front page of, the Quick Links archive, or the @kottke Twitter feed.

Commercial crew astronauts accept risks of test flight

Behnken and Hurley

WASHINGTON — The astronauts who will fly the first Crew Dragon mission say they understand and accept the risks of a new spacecraft, which they believe can’t be boiled down to a single number.

NASA’s commercial crew program set a number of safety requirements for the spacecraft whose development it supported. Among them was a “loss-of-crew” figure of merit — a measure of the probability of death or permanent disability of one or more people on a spacecraft during a mission — of 1 in 270.

Achieving that requirement proved difficult for both Boeing and SpaceX, a point raised in a number of meetings of the agency’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. “The number one safety-related concern for the program is the current situation with respect to the estimate of loss of crew,” Donald McErlean said at a 2017 meeting of the panel.

Both NASA and the two companies said since then that they have made progress on vehicle improvements and other “operational mitigations” to meet the 1-in-270 requirement, which the agency confirmed at a May 22 briefing after the flight readiness review for the Demo-2 mission.

“Between SpaceX and the operational controls, we are meeting our 1-in-270 requirement,” Kathy Lueders, NASA commercial crew program manager, said at the briefing. That included work with SpaceX on the modeling and design of the spacecraft, with a particular emphasis on mitigating the risks of damage from micrometeoroids and orbital debris impacts.

Meeting that requirement does not mean the spacecraft is free of risks. “A big part of a flight readiness review is reviewing and accepting the risks,” Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, said at that May 22 briefing. “Whenever we fly, there are going to be residual risks.”

Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, the astronauts who will fly on the Demo-2 mission, said they were aware of, and accepted, the risks. “Whenever we hear those numbers, we dig a little bit deeper than just what the overall statistics might imply,” Behnken said in a May 22 media availability, referring to the 1-in-270 loss-of-crew requirement.

The two astronauts, who each flew on two shuttle missions, have been involved in the commercial crew program since 2015, when NASA selected them as part of an initial “cadre” of astronauts who would train and work with both Boeing and SpaceX on their commercial crew vehicles. NASA formally assigned Behnken and Hurley to the Demo-2 mission in August 2018.

“We’ve had the luxury over the last five-plus years to be deeply embedded and understand the trades that were made,” he said. “I think we’re really comfortable with it and we think that those trades have been made appropriately. As far as insight goes, we’ve probably had more than any crew has in recent history.”

Hurley agreed. “Those numbers are certainly part of the equation when you assess risk, but they’re certainly not exclusive by any stretch of the imagination,” he said of the loss-of-crew requirement. “They’re certainly a factor, but there’s just so much more to assessing risk, and all the things that you put into the decision matrix before you go fly.”

Crew Dragon is the first crewed American orbital spacecraft to fly since the space shuttle Columbia’s first flight in 1981, and just the ninth such spacecraft worldwide in history, when including Mercury, Gemini and Apollo in the U.S.; Vostok, Voskhod and Soyuz in the former Soviet Union and China’s Shenzhou.

NASA has emphasized the superior safety of Crew Dragon, and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, over the shuttle. While the commercial crew vehicles have to meet a 1-in-270 loss-of-crew metric, the shuttle has a loss-of-crew estimate of 1 in 90 when it was retired in 2011.

In a 2017 speech at the annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference, Bill Gerstenmaier, then NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that early shuttle flights were far riskier: about 1 in 12, compared to models at the time that offered loss-of-crew estimates between 1 in 500 and 1 in 5,000.

Like the astronauts, Gerstenmaier said the single loss-of-crew estimate was along not sufficient, and could even be gamed through design changes that improved the risk figure but introduce additional complexity.

“I really don’t have a better method than that to use this as an absolute measure of safety,” he said. “We just need to be careful when we discuss these numbers.”

SpaceX to add sunshades to all future Starlink satellites


WASHINGTON — SpaceX has decided to add sunshades to future Starlink satellites to reduce their impact on astronomy, having opted for constellation-wide implementation of the reflective hardware. 

Patricia Cooper, SpaceX’s vice president of satellite government relations, said May 26 that SpaceX has another 80 or so Starlink satellites it is preparing to launch based on their current design before regularly incorporating sunshades that block sunlight from hitting reflective parts of each satellite. 

“We would have about 500 satellites at their current brightness, and then all satellites beyond that would have these sunshades,” Cooper said during a webinar hosted by the American Astronomical Society and the Satellite Industry Association. “That is the ratio we would be looking at.”

SpaceX has launched 422 Starlink satellites, including two prototypes, since 2018. The company is building and launching an initial constellation of roughly 4,400 satellites, though regulatory filings indicate the company could grow Starlink to 12,000 or even 42,000 satellites. 

SpaceX’s first visor-equipped satellite, dubbed VisorSat, was expected to launch May 17, but was delayed because of Tropical Storm Arthur until after the company’s highly anticipated Crew Demo 2 mission, scheduled for May 27 at 4:33 p.m. Eastern. Cooper said SpaceX has yet to announce a date for its next Starlink mission. 

SpaceX typically launches Starlink satellites in batches of 60 on Falcon 9 rockets, a rate that would suggest one or two more launches would occur without Starlink satellites routinely equipped with sunshades. Cooper said SpaceX will likely retire early Starlink satellites more quickly to reduce their impact on astronomy. 

“The earlier version of our satellites that we’ve launched, we don’t expect them to have a complete five-year life span,” she said. “We are expecting to cut in the VisorSat mitigation at the point that we are launching still in the 500s of satellites.”

Tony Tyson, chief scientist for the Vera Rubin Observatory, said Starlink satellites need to be dimmed to an apparent magnitude of seven so that astronomers can work around them using image processing. Recent observations show Starlink satellites at around magnitude five. DarkSat, a Starlink satellite treated with an experimental darkening coating, was observed at roughly magnitude six, he said. 

“Progress is being made, [but] we still have to get to seventh magnitude somehow,” Tyson said. SpaceX is working with astronomers on reducing the impact of Starlink, he said.

Cooper, when asked if SpaceX had the same goal of lowering Starlink’s brightness to magnitude seven, said it is an “interesting threshold,” but did not commit to meeting that target.

For Larry Kramer


A truly great man is gone. When I was coming out of the closet in 1990—isolated, fearful, semi-suicidal—his words were a blazing torch to me. Perhaps he saved my life, as he did the lives of thousands of others. There is no need to wish for his memory to be eternal.

Small Things, Done Well

The promotional site for Managing Humans still makes me smile. The photos were from a part of the property we call the Fairy Meadow. It’s a horse chestnut tree surrounded by a stream that only runs during the rainy season.

We return to the Fairy Meadow for the third book.

Thanks to my good friend Paul Campbell, we’re doing an online launch of the book Monday, June 8th at 11am Pacific. This is a live virtual event where we’ll be talking about the book as well as doing a moderated online Q&A. This is also done via the magic of Vito, a new live-streaming and community platform that Paul has been working on for the last few months. You can sign-up for the event here.

Yes, you can pre-order the book right now. Some folks have already received their pre-orders and more copies are arriving imminently. I’ll be writing more about the book here and elsewhere in the time leading up the launch.

My preference would’ve been cracking open a bottle with y’all, but… reasons.

Be safe.

Wednesday assorted links

The post Wednesday assorted links appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.

What's the Allure of Hydroxychloroquine?

There’s a growing body of clinical evidence that hydroxychloroquine (alone or with an accompanying antibiotic) not only has no therapeutic effect for COVID but can increase substantially the risk of death for those with advanced disease. President Trump has been pushing it for months, for reasons which are not altogether clear. What is weird and fascinating in its own right, however, is that what we might call hydroxy-mania seems to be a common feature of right-wing nationalism across the globe. The biggest example beside President Trump is his ally President Bolsonaro of Brazil, who similarly is presiding over an out-of-control epidemic with an extreme scarcity of testing.

But what could possibly be the connection between rightist-populist nationalism and this until-recently relatively obscure anti-malarial drug? Does the drug itself have some ideological valence? That can’t be the case.

Part of it must be as simple as the fact that President Trump is into it and – painful as it is to contemplate – the US President is currently the global leader of rightist-populist nationalism. So Trump’s for it and that’s good enough for Bolsonaro to be for it.

But that can’t be the entire explanation. There must be something about this drug or rather the hope of a quick cure it engenders that resonates with this ideology and mentality. And in any case it doesn’t address why it has such a hold on Trump in the first place.

My own hunch is that it is precisely the lure of a quick fix. This is an abiding feature of rightist nationalism, quick fixes to often intractable problems, usually focused on seeking revenge against a designated group of internal or external outsiders. But the desire for quick fixes runs deep. So too does the war against expertise and knowledge elites. ‘We’re in the midst of a global epidemic. Even the rosy scenarios are grim and terrifying. Our society is upended. But really, if the powers that be would just listen, it could all be solved and easily. There’s a solution.’

TPM Reader PT digs into some of these possibilities and suggests that elite disdain for these nostrums is actually part of the appeal …

Reflecting on your question, how is it that Brazil’s Bolsonaro became a fanboy for hydroxychloroquine? Why that particular hoax rather than some other? I obviously don’t know but I have a speculation:

1. When people are dying in job lots, the leaders have to tell them something, be seen to be doing something, etc. Going into hiding just won’t cut it.

2. At the same time, it’s in the nature of these kinds of goobers to need to divide the citizenry into “our side” and “their side” on everything. It simply will not do to say, “Well, actually, what the liberals and Democrats say to do is the right thing to do” (or whatever the equivalent groups are in Brazil). Their whole schtick is based on pulling their followers closer to them and creating suspicion and anger towards people outside of that group. It’s simply beyond them to carve out an exception for this issue.

3. Putting the above together, the obvious thing to do is to tout a miracle cure that the cult’s adversaries are refusing to share with the cult, presumably out of hostility towards the cult, but which the cult’s leader will share with them. Note that as a side-effect of this, the cult’s membership is fairly quickly selected (in the evolutionary sense) for “easily-grifted morons,” as Brad DeLong put it.

4. Nonetheless, if all the Bolsonaros and Trumps and etc. go around espousing DIFFERENT miracle cures, that will arouse suspicion. Much better if they all push the same miracle cure. Here hydroxychloroquine has an advantage in the marketplace of grifts because it was so early and its signal was so strongly boosted by Trump and Fox News.

NASA adding new television views for SpaceX crew launch

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated to reflect a scrub of the May 27 launch attempt.

The convoy carrying astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken is seen in the background behind SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on pad 39A during a dress rehearsal Saturday, May 23. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

NASA’s live television coverage of the first human spaceflight to take off from the Kennedy Space Center in nearly nine years will include features familiar to launch viewers, and new camera views to document the historic flight of astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station.

If everything goes according to plan, NASA could broadcast live views inside the Crew Dragon spacecraft showing the astronauts during their ascent into orbit on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, according to Paul Wizikowski, NASA’s creative director and executive producer for the NASA TV launch broadcast.

NASA has rarely broadcast such interior views live during a launch, but Russia’s space agency routinely shows in-cabin video during live broadcasts of Russian Soyuz launches.

“We do have an interior camera shot that is available should all the right elements line up for its use,” Wizikowski told Spaceflight Now.

The NASA TV coverage begins at 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT) Saturday, and will be viewable live in our Mission Status Center.

Weather permitting, liftoff of the Falcon 9 rocket from pad 39A is scheduled for 3:22 p.m. EDT (1922 GMT) Saturday. A launch attempt Wednesday was called off due to bad weather.

“From a broadcast standpoint, we’re drawing from a lot of the traditions and expectations from our shuttle days,” Wizikowski said. “Our goal is to find ways to celebrate this moment, celebrate it for the American taxpayer, the American public, and along with our partner in SpaceX.

“So this is a joint broadcast with SpaceX and NASA together walking people through the operations, as well as providing context and insight about what’s going on, so that people understand it,” Wizikowski said in na interview with Spaceflight Now.

NASA and SpaceX officials will anchor the broadcast from SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, at the launch site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, home to the International Space Station’s mission control team.

The broadcast will include video of the astronauts putting on their SpaceX-made white launch and entry pressure suits and walking out of the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy. Hurley and Behnken will board a Tesla Model X for the 20-minute drive to the launch pad, passing by the Kennedy Space Center press site and the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building on the way to pad 39A.

Once at the pad, the astronauts will ride an elevator to the 265-foot-level, where they can use a phone to call their families one more time before launch. They will walk across a 50-foot-long crew access arm, where a half-dozen members of SpaceX’s closeout crew will help the astronauts through the hatch into the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Cameras inside the suit-up room, outside the Operations and Checkout Building, and a chase car running parallel to the Tesla Model X will provide live views of the astronauts’ activities. Then a network of cameras on the tower at pad 39A will show the crew members as they prepare to board the spacecraft.

This view inside Firing Room 4 at NASA’s Launch Control Center at the Kennedy Space Center shows a video monitor, where astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are visible in the crew access arm at pad 39A Saturday. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

“There are mounted cameras SpaceX has in the tower as well as in the white room,” Wizikowski said. “They will also have a handheld camera that’s roaming to get extra shots as needed. There’s a camera inside the Dragon that we will use to show the ingress and show the crew as they’re prepping and running through their checks. We’ll certainly have a lot of the standard cameras in terms of pad shots.

“We’re looking to add some cameras in places that may not be expected. In the suit-up room, we’ve added two cameras that are mounted and remote-controlled in the suit-up room, so you’ll have the standard shoulder-mounted camera with a gentleman who’s been in quarantine with them,” Wizikowski said. “We’ll also have two fixed cameras, so you can kind of cut around the suit-up room.”

“At the back door for the walkout, you’ll have the standard, very iconic shot of them walking down that ramp and turning the corner to their transport vehicle,” Wizikowski said. “But we’ll also have a camera at the back of the alley behind the families and behind the media, elevated on a track and it will be able to dolly back and forth to give us a new angle that we have not seen before.”

During the convoy route … we’ll have a vehicle thats running northbound in the southbound lanes, parallel to the crew convoy, to get a camera angle that’s just following along with them, trying to supplement a lot of the roof shots that we typically get,” Wizikowski said.

NASA says Grammy Award-winning singer Kelly Clarkson will also perform “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the pre-launch coverage.

NASA spokesperson and commentator Dan Huot will host the launch broadcast from SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California. He will be joined by Jessie Anderson and John Insprucker, SpaceX engineers and commentators who regularly anchor the company’s launch webcasts.

NASA’s Marie Lewis, SpaceX’s Lauren Lyons and former astronaut Leland Melvin will provide commentary from the Kennedy Space Center.

After the launch, NASA’s Huot, Gary Jordan, Leah Cheshier and Courtney Beasley will provide commentary from Hawthorne and Houston through the Crew Dragon’s flight to the International Space Station. SpaceX’s Kate Tice, Siva Bharadvaj, and Michael Andrews will join the NASA team in the coverage.

Assuming launch occurs Saturday, the Crew Dragon capsule is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station at 10:29 a.m. EDT (1429 GMT) Sunday. Hurley and Behnken will open hatches and enter the station around 12:45 p.m. EDT (1645 GMT), where they will be welcomed by station commander Chris Cassidy and Russian crewmates Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner.

NASA TV will provide live coverage of the mission from the start of the crew’s suit-up activities at Kennedy, until after they are welcomed aboard the International Space Station the day after launch.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Philly Fed: State Coincident Indexes Decreased in All States in April

From the Philly Fed:
The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia has released the coincident indexes for the 50 states for April 2020. Over the past three months, the indexes decreased in all 50 states, for a three-month diffusion index of -100. Additionally, in the past month, the indexes decreased in all 50 states, for a one-month diffusion index of -100. For comparison purposes, the Philadelphia Fed has also developed a similar coincident index for the entire United States. The Philadelphia Fed’s U.S. index fell 13.7 percent over the past three months and 12.0 percent in April.
emphasis added
Note: These are coincident indexes constructed from state employment data. An explanation from the Philly Fed:
The coincident indexes combine four state-level indicators to summarize current economic conditions in a single statistic. The four state-level variables in each coincident index are nonfarm payroll employment, average hours worked in manufacturing by production workers, the unemployment rate, and wage and salary disbursements deflated by the consumer price index (U.S. city average). The trend for each state’s index is set to the trend of its gross domestic product (GDP), so long-term growth in the state’s index matches long-term growth in its GDP.
Philly Fed State Conincident MapClick on map for larger image.

Here is a map of the three month change in the Philly Fed state coincident indicators. This map was all red during the worst of the great recession, and all or mostly green during most of the recent expansion.

The map is all red on a three month basis.

Source: Philly Fed.

Note: For complaints about red / green issues, please contact the Philly Fed.

Philly Fed Number of States with Increasing ActivityAnd here is a graph is of the number of states with one month increasing activity according to the Philly Fed. This graph includes states with minor increases (the Philly Fed lists as unchanged).

In all, zero states had increasing activity including states with minor increases.

In March, only 9 states had increasing activity.  

A number of states had declining activity in January and February - prior to the COVID crisis.

Census: Household Pulse Survey shows 48.5% of Households lost Income

From the Census Bureau: Measuring Household Experiences during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic
The U.S. Census Bureau, in collaboration with five federal agencies, is in a unique position to produce data on the social and economic effects of COVID-19 on American households. The Household Pulse Survey is designed to deploy quickly and efficiently, collecting data to measure household experiences during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Data will be disseminated in near real-time to inform federal and state response and recovery planning.

Data collection for the Household Pulse Survey began on April 23, 2020. The Census Bureau will collect data for 90 days, and release data on a weekly basis. (For the first release, the Census Bureau anticipates it will take two weeks after the first week of data collection to prepare and weight the data; subsequent releases will then be made on a weekly basis.)
This will be updated weekly, and the Census Bureau released the third week of survey results today. This survey asks about Loss in Employment Income, Expected Loss in Employment Income, Food Scarcity, Delayed Medical Care, Housing Insecurity and K-12 Educational Changes.

Household Pulse Survey Click on graph for larger image.

This survey will be useful in tracking the "opening" of the economy.

The data was collected between May 14 and May 19, 2020.

48.5% of households report loss in employment income.

The data will be updated weekly for 90 days.

NASA taps Airbus for commercial satellite data buy

Article was corrected May 28 at 11:35 am Eastern time. Airbus has two Pleiades and two Spot satellites.

SAN FRANCISCO – NASA intends to gain access to Earth observation data gathered by Airbus Defence and Space satellites through the Commercial Smallsat Data Acquisition Program (CSDAP).

NASA plans “to enter into a sole source Blanket Purchase Agreement with Airbus Defence and Space GEO Inc. … for unique commercial optical and radar satellite imagery,” according to a notice posted May 6 on Beta.Sam.Gov, the federal acquisition website.

NASA established a pilot program in 2017 to evaluate how Earth observation data from commercial small-satellite constellations could support space agency research and applications. Once the pilot program proved the utility of the commercial observations, NASA created CSDAP, an ongoing initiative to purchase commercial Earth observation data. Currently, Maxar Technologies, Planet, Spire Global and Teledyne Brown Engineering are under contract to provide imagery and data to NASA-funded researchers.

Each fall, NASA invites additional nongovernmental entities to apply for CSDAP if they provide consistent global coverage with a constellation of at least three satellites and collect data in nongeostationary orbits.

“We’re excited to continue to look at commercial vendors to help us complement and/or augment NASA and other U.S. government capabilities,” Kevin Murphy, program executive for NASA’s Earth Science Data System, told SpaceNews.

Airbus qualified for inclusion in CSDAP last fall but NASA has not yet determined what type of Earth observation data it will seek to acquire from the European aerospace giant.

“Once we have a contract in place, it will take about a year to understand if the products augment NASA’s existing suite of observations in a way that supports Earth system science and applied science,” Murphy said.

Airbus operates two Pleiades satellites and two Spot optical satellites as well as three X-band radar satellites.

“Airbus also uniquely provides a suite of elevation data products derived from optical and radar commercial data, providing elevation data ranges anywhere in the world covering all requirements from large-area coverage to high resolution,” according to the Beta.Sam.Gov announcement. Airbus’ “combination of 0.5 meter spatial resolution Pleides-1a and Pleides-1b visible and near infrared imagery; 1.5 meter spatial resolution Spot-6 and Spot-7 visible and near-infrared imagery; and radar data from TerraSAR-X, Tandem-X and the Paz satellites will provide improved digital elevation retrievals at monthly intervals for large portions of the Earth,” the announcement added.

An Airbus spokesman declined to comment on the announcement.

Full-Day Rotation of the Earth Around a Stationary Sky

Last year I posted a pair of videos showing a sky-stabilized rotation of the Earth around the starry sky. Because the Earth is our vantage point, we’re not used to seeing this view and it’s pretty trippy.

Now Bartosz Wojczyński has created a video showing full-day rotation of the Earth with footage shot in Namibia. The rotation is sped up to take only 24 seconds and is repeated 60 times to simulate about 2 months of rotation. I find this very relaxing to watch, like I’m riding in a very slow clothes dryer.

See also The Entire Plane of the Milky Way Captured in a Single Photo.

Tags: Bartosz Wojczynski   Earth   space   time lapse   video

Richmond Fed: "Fifth District manufacturing remained soft in May"

From the Richmond Fed: Fifth District manufacturing remained soft in May
Fifth District manufacturing remained soft in May, according to the most recent survey from the Richmond Fed. The composite index rose from a record low of −53 in April to −27 in May, remaining at its lowest level since 2009. All three components — shipments, new orders and employment — were above their April readings but still in contractionary territory. The index for local business conditions was also negative, but contacts expected conditions to improve in the next six months.

Many survey participants reported decreases in employment and the average workweek in May. However, the indexes for wages and the availability of workers with the necessary skills were both close to 0.
emphasis added
The last of the regional Fed surveys for May will be released tomorrow (Kansas City Fed).

Twitter Is Not a Platform, It Is a Publisher

Ditto Facebook and many other sites. With Twitter’s new policy of putting disclaimers on Donald Trump’s tweets, after he engaged in some vile scandalmongering, it’s now clear and undeniable that Twitter is a publisher, not a mere platform. They are literally editing* his tweets.

I’ve always thought that Twitter and Facebook, once they started serving up tweets and posts using an algorithm had become publishers: once you are deciding what people will see for whatever reason–and an algorithm is just the computational form of that–you are no longer just a messenger board. That is, if Twitter and Facebook dropped the algorithm and returned to latest posts or tweets, it would be much harder to hold them legally** liable for their content. In essence, they would just be a very advanced server with a good (or ‘good’) user interface.

But now Twitter has completely blown any such argument out of the water–again, they are literally providing an editorial function (which, of course, they were doing by removing tweets, and, for Facebook, posts).

Time to treat them like publishers, with all that entails. Not great for the business model though…

*That said, it’s not enough. He should, at the very least, be suspended temporarily.

**Morally and ethically responsible however….

John Courtenay: “On the red herring scent of American taxation”

This week I learned from the Words for Granted podcast that one of the first documented uses of the phrase “red herring” as a metaphor for a distracting false lead arose from the American Revolution.

For centuries “red herring” meant a herring preserved by smoking, or a kipper. There are also references from the late 1600s to smelly red herrings being used to train horses or dogs to follow a scent in preparation for hunting.

On 20 Mar 1782, a Member of Parliament named John Courtenay (1738-1816) was speaking in the House of Commons. Courtenay was a former British army lieutenant born in Ireland. He represented Tamworth in the 1780s, but really he was a witty mouthpiece for his political patrons, at this point Viscount (later Marquess) Townshend.

As reported in volume 6 of The Parliamentary Register, published later in 1782:
The noise, clamour, and cry to adjourn were so strong, that Mr. Courtenay, though he spoke in a strong, and elevated tone of voice, could scarcely be heard, upon which he called out very audibly, “that neither his temper, disposition, nor country, inclined him to be intimidated, embarrassed, or easily put out of countenance, he would therefore finish what he had to say before he sat down,” which was, that though he had not the honour of being one of those sagacious country gentlemen, who have so long vociferated for the American war, (a war which he should ever think impolitic, unjust, and inexpedient) who had so long run on the red herring scent of American taxation, before they found out there was no game on foot; they, who like (their prototype) Don Quixote, had mistaken the barber’s bason for a golden helmet, he now congratulated them on having, at last, recovered their senses, and found out their error…
The references to “country gentlemen” and “no game on foot” clearly tie this metaphor to aristocratic rural hunters. Courtenay thus presented “American taxation” as a foolish and distracting political goal, not worth chasing.

As I’ve noted before, at the start of the unrest in America, British printers were still prosecuted for reporting on speeches in Parliament. John Almon had started to issue the Parliamentary Register in 1775, just in time for the American war.

By the 1780s reporting on debates had become acceptable enough for John Stockdale to issue Beauties of the British Senate: Taken from the Debates of the Debates of the Lords and Commons, as a “greatest hits” collection of rhetoric with extracts of speeches back to Robert Walpole’s ministry. Courtenay’s entries were listed in the contents under “Humour,” “Remarkable Sayings,” “Satire,” “Simile,” and “Wit” rather than, say, “East-India Affairs” or “Freedom of Election.” The red herring speech, rendered in first-person present instead of third-person past, was one of his memorable “Similes.”

A few years later, Courtenay broke with William Pitt’s party to join Charles James Fox’s opposition. Deploying truckloads of sarcasm, he supported the changes across the Channel in Philosophical Reflections on the Late Revolution in France (1790). In parliamentary debate Courtenay reminded Edmund Burke “how he exulted at the victories of the rebel [George] Washington.”

Many authorities credit William Cobbett (1763-1835, shown above) with coining the metaphor of a “red herring,” based on a story he published in his Political Register weekly in 1807 and expanded in 1833. Cobbett did indeed use the phrase “political red herring” at the end of a shaggy-dog story about him as a boy drawing hounds off the scent of a hare with a kipper.

However, in that period Cobbett and his printer, Thomas Curson Hansard, were also publishing their own Parliamentary Debates reports and a multi-volume Parliamentary History of England. Volume 22 of Cobbett’s Parliamentary History, which came out in 1814, presented Courtenay’s speech as printed back in 1782, with changes only in punctuation. So Cobbett knew about Courtenay’s earlier use.

TOMORROW: An even earlier appearance.

A Looming Mental Health Crisis Could Affect Millions

Coronavirus Fallout: We May Soon Be Experiencing a National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder


Bandy X. Lee

As more than 100,000 people die of Covid-19 in the United States and 40 million jobs disappear, another crisis may eclipse these catastrophes: national mental health trauma.

Social distancing came about largely because of the failure to test, trace and isolate contacts properly in the early stages.

The ensuing runaway pandemic is not just causing an economic recession, but a social recession.

We hear of domestic violence and problems of depression and anxiety every day. Meanwhile isolation and sheltering in place become risk factors for substance abuse, suicide and even homicide.

More than half of Americans report the coronavirus crisis is harming their mental health.

Among frontline healthcare workers and their families, 64% reported worsened mental health, as did 65% of those who lost income. A federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress registered an increase of more than 1,000% compared with last year.

Another recent report by the Well Being Trust said the pandemic could lead to 75,000 additional “deaths of despair” from drug and alcohol misuse and suicide due to unemployment, social isolation and fear of the virus.

The pandemic could lead to 75,000 additional “deaths of despair” from drug and alcohol misuse and suicide due to unemployment, social isolation and fear of the virus.

Still, there are concerns about the mental health system’s ability to absorb or to reach most people in need.

While the initial outbreak of the novel coronavirus caught hospitals unprepared, the U.S. mental health system—vastly underfunded, undervalued and difficult to access before the pandemic—is even less prepared.

There are no White House briefings about it, and no word of a plan. Congress’ trillions of dollars in emergency coronavirus funding allocated only a tiny portion for mental health, which may not even make up for the recent healthcare cuts and insurance blockage by the Trump administration.

Suicides and Overdoses

We know suicides, overdose deaths and other forms of suffering often surge after natural or man made disasters. An existential crisis occurs with a changed sense of safety and security, an altered view of the world. When the disaster is human-caused or human-exacerbated, a serious loss of faith in humanity occurs. Collective helplessness about the situation is seen. Then politicization of a disaster divides instead of bringing  solidarity and intensifies trauma and grief.

We rapidly are heading toward a form of national post-traumatic stress disorder which may last many years.

The good news is we can do something about it. Amid tragedy, there is an opportunity to recognize and to correct our course. Using our experience of suffering to bring about change is precisely how PTSD is healed.

We can prevent, share and repair.

Self Care Integral

A great deal of prevention is done through education. In 15 years of teaching at Yale Law School, I trained students to consider self care as an integral part of professional responsibility.

It is not selfish or weak but an important aspect of building and protecting one’s overall health. I have recommended:

  • Put aside time for self-care, just like exercise. (An hour a day, an afternoon week, etc.)
  • Devote time to pure enjoyment. During quarantine that may include virtual communication to stay in touch with friends and family. For those in close quarters, it can mean asking for personal time and space.
  • Do not be afraid to consult when necessary.

Awareness of one’s own needs and the importance of mental hygiene itself serves as a huge step in prevention.

A great deal is mitigated through sharing.

A National Academies of Sciences report on the health consequences of social isolation and loneliness in older adults showed that social isolation is associated with significantly increased premature mortality not just from mental but from physical causes.

It found an increase of risk by:

  • 59 percent for functional decline
  • 50 percent for dementia
  • 32 percent for stroke
  • 29 percent for incident coronary heart disease
  • 25 percent for cancer mortality

Older adults may be the most vulnerable, but we are all affected. Breaking through the social isolation and stigma to find ways of sharing is critical. As many as one in five American adults suffer from mental illness, and speaking openly offers significant relief.

Fewer Than Half Treated

Even though so many adults have a diagnosable mental illness, less than half receive treatment, according to federal statistics.

The United States trails behind the rest of the world in mental health awareness and prevention. This is seen in how suicide rates have fallen around the world, while rates in the United States have climbed every year since 1999, increasing 33 percent in the past two decades.

Large, systemic changes are necessary to meet this scale. Parity and access problems need to addressed immediately.

Mental health should no longer be marginalized but treated the same as physical health, as all scientific evidence and the seriousness of the issue require.

Finally, we can no longer ignore the elephant in the nation’s room.

We receive a recurring question from the public: “I am in a state of constant anxiety because of Trump’s refusal to deal with the pandemic in a scientific manner. He’s making it worse by both his actions and inaction. How do I cope with this anxiety?”

Over Memorial Day weekend, we approached the mark of 100,000 casualties, not by an external enemy but by bioterrorism of our own government.

We have a president who went golfing after stating: “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”

Leaving people helpless, unable to discuss the overarching problem in properly rigorous terms, let alone prevent it, worsens trauma.

How this cultural trend came about is an important story that has been reported elsewhere.

Two hundred and fifty years of scientific enlightenment vanished in an instant to descend us into a medieval-level plague when a president did not wish to apply knowledge. Similarly, 25 years of mental health awareness went up in smoke to descend on us a dark age of ignorance and stigma when a psychiatric establishment wished to shroud knowledge.

It does not have to be this way.

In democracy, people have a right to expertise and, alongside the free press, a right to access the best available knowledge.

Honest information empowers people against oppression and autocracy and, in this case, also is the best medicine.


The post A Looming Mental Health Crisis Could Affect Millions appeared first on

Convalescent plasma collection ramps up

Here's a story from the WSJ:
Blood Banks, Pharma Join Microsoft to Sign Up Covid-19 Survivors for Plasma

"A coalition of research institutions, blood banks, drug companies and recovered Covid-19 patients is working to overcome a major challenge in developing new therapies based on survivors’ blood plasma: a shortage of donors.

"With a campaign launched Tuesday called The Fight Is In Us, the group aims to get tens of thousands of people who have recovered from Covid-19 infections to donate plasma using a self-screening tool developed by Microsoft Corp. MSFT -0.17%

"So far nearly 15,000 seriously ill Covid-19 patients have received plasma transfusions in an emergency, expanded-access program authorized by the Food and Drug Administration
"The Red Cross has collected plasma from 4,000 recovered Covid-19 donors to date through its website, according to a spokeswoman. She said the organization supports the efforts of the coalition but didn’t join it. “At this time, the Red Cross is fortunate to be able to meet the needs of our hospital partners,” she said. “We also have the capacity to ramp up our supply if necessary.”
"Despite the unusual efforts to work together, for-profit companies in the coalition also continue to look for donors on their own through digital advertising and other online outreach, according to industry experts.

"Potential donors who go to the website start by using a self-screening tool. It asks if they were diagnosed for Covid-19 infection, have been symptom-free for more than 14 days, meet age and weight requirements for blood donation and have ever been diagnosed with HIV, hepatitis C or hepatitis B, which affects eligibility. The potential donors enter a ZIP Code and get a list of nearby donation centers.

"Peter Lee, corporate vice president at Microsoft, which developed the self-screening tool, said donors are currently directed to centers based on location. Coalition members are still discussing ways to determine how donors are allocated.
"Some plasma donors might prefer to give to a for-profit plasma company, where they might be reimbursed. Others might choose a local blood bank, where the plasma would be used right away for sick patients in a hospital and reimbursement isn’t offered
"In New York and other places affected early in the outbreak, many recovered patients have encountered long wait times to donate"

Websites Conducting Port Scans

Security researcher Charlie Belmer is reporting that commercial websites such as eBay are conducting port scans of their visitors.

Looking at the list of ports they are scanning, they are looking for VNC services being run on the host, which is the same thing that was reported for bank sites. I marked out the ports and what they are known for (with a few blanks for ones I am unfamiliar with):

  • 5900: VNC
  • 5901: VNC port 2
  • 5902: VNC port 3
  • 5903: VNC port 4
  • 5279:
  • 3389: Windows remote desktop / RDP
  • 5931: Ammy Admin remote desktop
  • 5939:
  • 5944:
  • 5950: WinVNC
  • 6039: X window system
  • 6040: X window system
  • 63333: TrippLite power alert UPS
  • 7070: RealAudio

No one seems to know why:

I could not believe my eyes, but it was quickly reproduced by me (see below for my observation).

I surfed around to several sites, and found one more that does this (the citibank site, see below for my observation)

I further see, at least across and the same ports, in the same sequence getting scanned. That implies there may be a library in use across both sites that is doing this. (I have not debugged into the matter so far.)

The questions:

  • Is this port scanning "a thing" built into some standard fingerprinting or security library? (if so, which?)
  • Is there a plugin for firefox that can block such behavior? (or can such blocking be added to an existing plugin)?

I'm curious, too.

Four short links: 27 May 2020

  1. Facebook Reportedly Ignored Its Own Research Showing Algorithms Divided Users“Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” one slide from the presentation read. The group found that if this core element of its recommendation engine were left unchecked, it would continue to serve Facebook users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.” A separate internal report, crafted in 2016, said 64 percent of people who joined an extremist group on Facebook only did so because the company’s algorithm recommended it to them, the WSJ reports.
  2. Voice in EverythingLook, my point is that this is not beyond the reach of very clever people with computers. Stick a timer in my stove, a switch in my light bulb, give each a super limited vocabulary, never connect to the internet, and only act when somebody is addressing you. Which, in turn, gets rid of the complicated set-up and addressing interaction design issues of centralised voice assistants. No more “front room lights: lamp 1 turn on” because… you just look at it.
  3. A Practical Guide to Maintaining Machine Learning — As Mike Loukides says, “ops is unprepared for ML”. [S]ome practices I’ve found useful to maintaining machine learning in production.
  4. Measuring the Predictability of Life Outcomes with a Scientific Mass CollaborationHundreds of researchers attempted to predict six life outcomes, such as a child’s grade point average and whether a family would be evicted from their home. These researchers used machine-learning methods optimized for prediction, and they drew on a vast dataset that was painstakingly collected by social scientists over 15 y. However, no one made very accurate predictions. For policymakers considering using predictive models in settings such as criminal justice and child-protective services, these results raise a number of concerns. Additionally, researchers must reconcile the idea that they understand life trajectories with the fact that none of the predictions were very accurate.

Demo-2 Launch Day: Countdown time schedule

Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon, vertical before dawn at Launch Complex 39-A, May 27, 2020. Credit: Michael McCabe, SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceFlight Insider is onsite at Kennedy Space Center; Falcon 9 is vertical on the pad and all eyes are on the weather.

Additional updates will come through the morning, but in the short term here is an updated countdown timing reference sheet, revised to now include a column which lists estimated times in Eastern time zone (local to Florida), if T-0 remains 16:33. 

Demo-2 DM-2 Countdown times

Countdown times for the Demo-2 mission, with calculation for estimated times if T-0 is 16:33 Eastern. 

Timings include the launch, Max-Q, separation, landing and other key mission events.





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MBA: Mortgage Applications Increased, Purchase Applications up 9% Year over Year

From the MBA: Mortgage Applications Increase in Latest MBA Weekly Survey
Mortgage applications increased 2.7 percent from one week earlier, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association’s (MBA) Weekly Mortgage Applications Survey for the week ending May 22, 2020.

... The Refinance Index decreased 0.2 percent from the previous week and was 176 percent higher than the same week one year ago. The seasonally adjusted Purchase Index increased 9 percent from one week earlier. The unadjusted Purchase Index increased 7 percent compared with the previous week and was 9 percent higher than the same week one year ago.
“The home purchase market continued its path to recovery as various states reopen, leading to more buyers resuming their home search. Purchase applications increased 9 percent last week – the sixth consecutive weekly increase and a jump of 54 percent since early April. Additionally, the purchase loan amount has increased steadily in recent weeks and is now at its highest level since mid-March,” said Joel Kan MBA’s Associate Vice President of Economic and Industry Forecasting. “Despite mortgage rates hovering near MBA’s all-time survey low, refinance activity was essentially flat but still 176 percent higher than last year. Conventional refinance applications increased 2 percent, while government refinancing was down almost 7 percent.”
The average contract interest rate for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages with conforming loan balances ($510,400 or less) increased to 3.42 percent from 3.41 percent, with points remaining unchanged at 0.33 (including the origination fee) for 80 percent loan-to-value ratio (LTV) loans.
emphasis added
Mortgage Refinance IndexClick on graph for larger image.

The first graph shows the refinance index since 1990.

The refinance index has been very volatile recently depending on rates and liquidity.

But the index is way up from last year (over triple last year).

Mortgage Purchase Index The second graph shows the MBA mortgage purchase index

According to the MBA, purchase activity is up 9% year-over-year.

Note: Red is a four-week average (blue is weekly).

Paul Krugman Is Pretty Upbeat About the Economy

Live coverage: NASA, SpaceX reschedule crew launch for Saturday

Live coverage of the mission of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, Crew Dragon spacecraft, and Demo-2 astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on Dragon’s first crewed test flight to the International Space Station. Text updates will appear automatically below. Follow us on Twitter.


NASA clean feed

Spaceflight Now members can watch a live view of the Falcon 9 rocket on launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

Building the Mars Industrial Coalition

Part of my series on countering common misconceptions in space journalism.

In popular representations of space exploration, space ship models often get a decal logo slapped on as a finishing touch. It could be the NASA worm or meatball, or product placement, or a fictional megacorporation. What these depictions miss is the harsh reality of developing new systems and actually putting them into production.

Manufacturing is really really hard. JPL is quite good at Mars rovers now, and it still takes thousands of people years to build a single one!

File:Schaufelradbagger bei Gut Geisendorf 0001.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

In this series I’ve talked at some length about Moon and Mars exploration architectures, with a particular focus on the merits of the SpaceX Starship for achieving logistic supremacy on the road to self-sufficiency.

Indeed, my first book on Mars stuff focused on the transportation problem, because cheap transport of large quantities of humans and cargo to and from Mars is a necessary part of the big picture.

Necessary, but not sufficient. SpaceX has demonstrated a willingness to develop tech and hardware with or without government support. It is a necessary task, it simply must be done. Yet there will come a day when the rockets will need cargo to fill them. Where does this cargo come from?

It is not impossible that SpaceX could, with sufficient time and money, build everything for the Mars city as well as the rockets. The factories, vehicles, power systems, mining operations, life support, server farms, habs, tents, and everything else needed to replicate the industrial capacity of a large country with just a few people on a frigid, desolate, airless planet.

Building such a company town would overtax the organization and engineering capacities of a single company. There’s a better way. Our modern world, and the US in particular, overflows with the specialist engineering knowledge needed to build autonomous factories, pack them into rockets, and deploy them at the other end. Why should SpaceX spool up a division to build rugged utility vehicles when companies like Caterpillar, Komatsu, Hitachi, Belaz, and dozens of others already exist?

I believe that the most expeditious path to a Mars city is to obtain enthusiastic cooperation from the best engineering talent and companies the world over.

So how would this work? Would the boards of these companies be enticed by the lure of new markets and prosperous mines? I don’t think so. As I’ve written in this series, there are no business models for Mars cities that can pay for themselves in a classical investment sense. Profitable businesses operating on Mars for Martians, yes, but something that justifies billions in investment from Earth-centric firms, no.

So where does the money come from? In 2017 I wrote a blog on various ideas, missing only the Starlink money machine, by far the most lucrative option. Can contributing industries get a piece of that action? Maybe, but there’s a much better reason to get involved.

Let’s consider Caterpillar as an example. Caterpillar has about $55b in annual revenue. They invest 3%, or $1.7b/year, on research and development. Their R&D division employs something like 4000 people.

For companies like Caterpillar, building a series of Mars-friendly robot tele-handlers and earth movers would barely stress their R&D petty cash budget. In return, the companies that form the Mars Industrial Coalition would have branding rights on their gear and, more importantly, their engineers would get access to the most exciting research program in the history of sentient life. Even if they had to provide the equipment for free and pay for the shipping cost, it would be worthwhile.

This is a pretty big claim, but it’s easy to justify. Five years ago I could have made an argument that the halo effect and PR would be worth it, but in 2020 there’s concrete evidence in favor of the proposition that the best companies are the ones that have the best vision.

Where do the best engineering graduates all want to work? SpaceX and Tesla. Why? It sure isn’t for the high pay or lax hours. The top engineering companies must compete for the best engineers to make their products work better than everyone else. I have been privileged to work with many people who make up this elite class of “matter wizards”, who can bend the harsh laws of reality to their will. They have the skills and portfolio to work anywhere they want. They can name their price and recruiters will bend over backwards to sign them. But by and large they are idealistic and want to make the world a better place. Given a choice between working on oil rigs, guided bombs, or the electrification of the economy, nearly all choose Tesla. Given a choice between surveillance software, banking software, or rocket landing software, nearly all choose SpaceX. The same goes for other kinds of workers, too!

Of course, the reader has no way of knowing for sure that my perceptions are accurate. But in defense of my claim, let’s look at the scoreboard. Tesla’s 2012 Model S had performance specs that have yet to be beaten by any competitor, despite dozens of cringeworthily lackluster attempts. When the Model 3 was delivered in 2018, its performance was conservatively six years ahead of the competition, based on historical 5% annual improvement in battery tech. The Model Y, delivered in 2020, is at least four more years ahead, and the competition is still behind the oldest Model S. None of the competitors have rolled out a fast charging network, grid scale batteries, autopilot software, or over-the-air updates. Elon Musk is a smart guy but he couldn’t have crushed basically all the century-old incumbents in a few years on his own. No, the vision he articulated attracted the best of the best of the best, and they built what no-one else could.

To readers of this blog, the SpaceX story will be more familiar. A different market, a different space, a different technology. Numerous well-funded and well-motivated competitors. And yet none of them have demonstrated booster reflight, or full-flow staged combustion engines, or any of dozens of other crucial innovations. Again, the best rocket scientists, engineers, and techs the world over went there to build the future. They went to the place that articulated a compelling and convincing vision for putting lots of regular humans on another planet.

I understand it’s a tough sell to convince a corporate board that shunting 5% of the R&D budget towards a philanthropic venture will pay dividends, especially if you can’t write all of it off against tax. Finance and MBA types are trained to regard engineering talent as fungible. “Buy it when you need it, then layoffs to make the quarter.” This view is incomplete.

The $8.4 billion Tesla short sellers have lost tells another story. Elon Musk understands that money won’t buy the best of the best. Many of my friends have taken pay cuts to work at SpaceX or Tesla, and then never seen their families again. Because Musk understands this, his companies have arbitraged this market irrationality to instantiate his vision for the future.

The best way for other major companies to regain a slice of the elite talent recruiting pie and retain relevance is to join the Mars Industrial Coalition and to be part of building the next step for humanity.

Will science funding be revolutionized?

The National Science Foundation (NSF) would get a sweeping remake—including a new name, a huge infusion of cash, and responsibility for maintaining U.S. global leadership in innovation—under bipartisan bills that have just been introduced in both houses of Congress.

Many scientific leaders are thrilled that the bills call for giving NSF an additional $100 billion over 5 years to carry out its new duties. But some worry the legislation, if enacted, could compromise NSF’s historical mission to explore the frontiers of knowledge without regard to possible commercial applications.

The Endless Frontiers Act (S. 3832) proposes a major reorganization of NSF, creating a technology directorate that, within 4 years, would grow to more than four times the size of the entire agency’s existing $8 billion budget. NSF would be renamed the National Science and Technology Foundation, and both the science and technology arms would be led by a deputy reporting to the NSF director. (NSF now has a single deputy director; the slot has been unfilled since 2014.)


Passage of the legislation could significantly alter how NSF operates. In particular, agency officials would have the authority to adopt some of the management practices used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the Department of Defense, known for its agility and focus on tangible, deadline-driven results. “The new [technology] directorate can run like DARPA if NSF wants it to,” says one university lobbyist familiar with Schumer’s thinking.

One provision would expand NSF’s ability to use outside experts hired for short stints. At DARPA, new program managers are expected to propose significant changes to the research portfolios of their predecessors, with the best new ideas receiving generous funding. In contrast, NSF’s core disciplinary programs change very little from year to year.

The bill has some degree of bipartisan support, and of course I will be following this issue.  Here is the full story, via J.

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WSJ: ‘Facebook Executives Shut Down Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive’

Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman, reporting for The Wall Street Journal (Apple News+ link):

“Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness,” read a slide from a 2018 presentation. “If left unchecked,” it warned, Facebook would feed users “more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention & increase time on the platform.” […]

But in the end, Facebook’s interest was fleeting. Mr. Zuckerberg and other senior executives largely shelved the basic research, according to previously unreported internal documents and people familiar with the effort, and weakened or blocked efforts to apply its conclusions to Facebook products.

Polarizing divisive content is to Facebook as nicotine is to cigarette makers: a component of their product which their own internal research shows is harmful, but which they choose to increase, rather than decrease, because its addictiveness is so profitable.

A 2016 presentation that names as author a Facebook researcher and sociologist, Monica Lee, found extremist content thriving in more than one-third of large German political groups on the platform. Swamped with racist, conspiracy-minded and pro-Russian content, the groups were disproportionately influenced by a subset of hyperactive users, the presentation notes. Most of them were private or secret.

The high number of extremist groups was concerning, the presentation says. Worse was Facebook’s realization that its algorithms were responsible for their growth. The 2016 presentation states that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools” and that most of the activity came from the platform’s “Groups You Should Join” and “Discover” algorithms: “Our recommendation systems grow the problem.”

Those recommendation algorithms are the heart of the matter. In the old days, on, say, Usenet, there were plenty of groups for extremists. There were private email lists for extremists. But there was no recommendation algorithm promoting those groups.

The engineers and data scientists on Facebook’s Integrity Teams — chief among them, scientists who worked on newsfeed, the stream of posts and photos that greet users when they visit Facebook — arrived at the polarization problem indirectly, according to people familiar with the teams. Asked to combat fake news, spam, clickbait and inauthentic users, the employees looked for ways to diminish the reach of such ills. One early discovery: Bad behavior came disproportionately from a small pool of hyperpartisan users.

A second finding in the U.S. saw a larger infrastructure of accounts and publishers on the far right than on the far left. Outside observers were documenting the same phenomenon. The gap meant even seemingly apolitical actions such as reducing the spread of clickbait headlines — along the lines of “You Won’t Believe What Happened Next” — affected conservative speech more than liberal content in aggregate.

That was a tough sell to Mr. Kaplan, said people who heard him discuss Common Ground and Integrity proposals. […] Every significant new integrity-ranking initiative had to seek the approval of not just engineering managers but also representatives of the public policy, legal, marketing and public-relations departments.

So Facebook’s “Integrity Teams” can’t enforce integrity if it upsets the side of the U.S. political fence that is, quite obviously, more lacking in integrity.


Stansbury and Summers on the declining bargaining power of labor

In one of the best papers of the year, Anna Stansbury and Larry Summers present what is to me the best non-“Great Stagnation” story of what has gone wrong, and I have read many such accounts.  Here is their abstract:

Rising profitability and market valuations of US businesses, sluggish wage growth and a declining labor share of income, and reduced unemployment and inflation, have defined the macroeconomic environment of the last generation. This paper offers a unified explanation for these phenomena based on reduced worker power. Using individual, industry, and state-level data, we demonstrate that measures of reduced worker power are associated with lower wage levels, higher profit shares, and reductions in measures of the NAIRU. We argue that the declining worker power hypothesis is more compelling as an explanation for observed changes than increases in firms’ market power, both because it can simultaneously explain a falling labor share and a reduced NAIRU, and because it is more directly supported by the data.

There is a good deal of critical thinking about how different macroeconomic trends fit together, and a willingness to consider disconfirming evidence, so I do recommend you read through this one.

I have five main worries about the argument:

1. Rather than labor losing bargaining power, I think of the key development as “management measuring the marginal product of labor more precisely.”  Admittedly that does lower the bargaining power of the majority of workers, given the 20/80 rule, or whatever you think the proper proportions are (Stansbury and Summers themselves presumably are underpaid, but in general wage dispersion has been going up in high-skilled sectors).

A minority of highly productive workers have much more bargaining power than they did before, which doesn’t quite fit the “lower bargaining power per se” hypothesis.  And under my interpretation, easier unionization may not be much of a solution, since the problem here is the actual reality of who produces what.  Consistent with my view, labor’s share is not really down if you consider the super-talented labor/owners/capitalists who start their own companies.  That is a return to labor as well.

2. It is a noted advantage of the Stansbury and Summers approach that is explains the now-lower natural rate of unemployment.  The puzzle, I think, is to explain both lower NAIRU and the slower labor market matching observed over the post-2009 labor market recovery.  Their hypothesis seems to predict a higher degree of worker desperation, and thus quicker matches, than what we actually observed.

If you think, as I do, that employers are now better aware of the diversity of worker quality, and that only ex post do they learn that quality, employers will be more careful upfront, which probably does slow down matching speeds, thus fitting the data better.

3. If you play down market power, and postulate a fall in the share of labor, you might expect investment to be robust, but measured investment clocks in as mediocre.  The authors discuss this point at length on pp.45-46 and offer multiple rebuttals, but I suppose I still think the first-order effect here ought to be stronger than what we (seem to) observe.

4. If corporate profits are so high, how is this consistent with the persistently low demand postulated by Summers’s “secular stagnation” hypothesis?  The paper does consider this question very directly on p.56, but I genuinely (just as a matter of grammar) do not understand the answer the authors are suggesting.  Here goes:

A fair question about the labor rents hypothesis regards what it says about the secular stagnation hypothesis that one of us has put forward (Summers 2013). We believe that the shift towards more corporate income,that occurs as labor rents decline,operates to raise saving and reduce demand. The impact on investment of reduced labor power seems to us ambiguous, with lower labor costs on the one hand encouraging expanded output and on the other encouraging more labor-intensive production, as discussed in Section V.So,decreases in labor power may operate to promote the reductions in demand and rising gap between private saving and investment that are defining features of secular stagnation.

I suppose I had thought of low rates of profit as a (though not the?) defining feature of secular stagnation, but again I may not have understood this passage correctly.

5. Matt Rognlie found that the decline in labor’s share went to housing and land ownership, not capital.

In any case, here is a whole paper full of economics, go and enjoy it.

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Twitter Won’t Accept False Statements About Voting by Mail, but Falsely Accusing Someone of Murder Is OK

Kara Swisher, in her column for the NYT today, written before Twitter flagged Trump’s two tweets regarding the legality and legitimacy of voting by mail:

Again, top company executives hope that this placement of truth against lies will serve to cleanse the stain. I think this is both naïve and will be ineffective — most people’s experience tracks with that old axiom: A lie can travel halfway around the world while truth is still getting its shoes on.

In the digital age, that would be to the moon and back 347 times, of course, which is why I am supportive of the suggestion Mr. Klausutis makes in his letter to simply remove the offending tweets.

While the always thoughtful Mr. Dorsey has said previously that he has to hew to Twitter’s principles and rules, and that the company cannot spend all of its time reacting, its approach up until now results only in Twitter’s governance getting gamed by players like Mr. Trump, in ways that are both shameless and totally expected.

So why not be unexpected with those who continue to abuse the system? Taking really valuable one-off actions can be laudable since they make an example of someone’s horrid behavior as a warning to others. While it is impossible to stop the endless distribution of a screenshot of the tweets, taking the original ones down would send a strong message that this behavior is not tolerated.

And, conversely, if they don’t take down these tweets, they’re sending a strong message that this behavior is tolerated.


Timothy Klausutis’s Full Letter to Jack Dorsey, and Twitter’s Response

Lori Kaye Klausutis is the woman who died 19 years ago in a tragic accident, and who the president of the United States is now repeatedly baselessly insinuating was murdered by her boss, Joe Scarborough. Her widower wrote a now-much-publicized letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. His letter is worth reading in full. His request is simple, and puts Twitter is a seemingly untenable position:

My request is simple: Please delete these tweets.

I’m a research engineer and not a lawyer, but I’ve reviewed all of Twitter’s rules and terms of service. The President’s tweet that suggests that Lori was murdered — without evidence (and contrary to the official autopsy) — is a violation of Twitter’s community rules and terms of service. An ordinary user like me would be banished from the platform for such a tweet but I am only asking that these tweets be removed.

This is not just “Trump being Trump”. It’s not just “Trump versus Scarborough, and Scarborough can take it, he hosts a TV show he can fight back from”. There are completely innocent bystanders who get pulled to the forefront of something like this.


I’m asking you to intervene in this instance because the President of the United States has taken something that does not belong to him — the memory of my dead wife — and perverted it for perceived political gain.

Twitter’s response:

We are deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family. We’ve been working to expand existing product features and policies so we can more effectively address things like this going forward, and we hope to have those changes in place shortly.

A “Get the facts about Lori Klausutis’s death” link at the bottom of Trump’s tweets isn’t going to do anything. Deleting the tweets is the least Twitter could do to actually do anything at all about Donald Trump using their platform to inflict profound emotional pain on Klausutis’s family and friends.

As it stands, no matter how sorry Twitter is about the pain these tweets are causing, they’re implicitly OK with them.


The President of the United States Is Falsely Accusing a Critic of Murder

Peter Baker and Maggie Astor, reporting for The New York Times:

President Trump smeared a prominent television host on Tuesday from the lectern in the Rose Garden with an unfounded allegation of murder, taking the politics of rage and conspiracy theory to a new level even as much of the political world barely took notice.

Maybe part of the reason “the political world barely took notice” is that the straight news media, exemplified by The Times, has been normalizing Trump’s escalating madness every step of the way. The New York Times front page has been that “This is fine” dog sipping coffee in a burning house. And now we’re at panel 5 in the comic, and The Times’s crackerjack bothsidesism-afflicted political reporters are maybe sort of kind of thinking it’s getting a little worrisomely warm. Maybe?

It’s like yeah, no shit, the rest of us have been pointing out every step of the way that this man is unhinged from reality.

In an attack that once would have been unthinkable for a sitting president, Mr. Trump all but accused Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman who now hosts the MSNBC show “Morning Joe,” of killing a staff member in 2001 even though he was 800 miles away at the time and the police ruled her death an accident.

The president’s charge amplified a series of Twitter messages in recent days that have drawn almost no rebukes from fellow Republicans eager to look the other way but have anguished the family of Lori Klausutis, who died when she suffered a heart condition that caused her to fall and hit her head on a desk. Mr. Trump doubled down on the false accusation even after Timothy Klausutis pleaded unsuccessfully with Twitter to take down the posts about his late wife because they were causing her family such deep pain.

“A lot of people suggest that and hopefully someday people are going to find out,” the president said when asked by reporters about his tweets suggesting that Mr. Scarborough had committed murder perhaps because of an affair with Ms. Klausutis. “It’s certainly a very suspicious situation. Very sad, very sad and very suspicious.”

Attention New York Times: just because he’s gone and done it doesn’t mean it still isn’t “unthinkable”.


Crew Dragon ready for historic launch as NASA looks ahead to next mission

Falcon 9 Crew Dragon on pad

WASHINGTON — As NASA and SpaceX complete final preparations for the first crewed flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft, the agency is already looking ahead to the spacecraft’s next mission.

Technicians spent the day May 26 wrapping up work ahead of the scheduled 4:33 p.m. Eastern May 27 launch of the Crew Dragon spacecraft on the Demo-2 mission. That included lowering the Falcon 9 rocket from the vertical to horizontal position at Launch Complex 39A for what NASA described as an inspection of a water radiator system used by ground support equipment to keep the spacecraft cool. The work was completed and the rocket returned to the vertical position later in the day.

Meteorologists, as expected, increased the probability of acceptable launch weather from 40% to 60% in a forecast issued early May 26. That forecast, though, does not include weather at abort sites downrange, which could scrub a launch even if weather conditions are acceptable at the launch site.

Despite an audience that will include President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was adamant the agency would not succumb to what’s known as “go fever,” or proceeding with a launch despite safety issues. “This is a serious issue,” he said. “We have to make sure we give permission to say no.”

He argued that desire to ensure people are empowered to speak up is one reason NASA finalized a deal with Roscosmos earlier in the month for a Soyuz seat on a mission launching in October, an agreement that will cost NASA more than $90.2 million. “We want people to feel free to say no, and not feel any pressure to go on this launch.”

Assuming there are no issues that halt the launch, astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will wake up around 9 a.m. Eastern on launch day, said Norm Knight, deputy director for flight operations at the Johnson Space Center, during a May 25 briefing. They’ll go through medical checks, have breakfast and get final briefings before suiting up and departing the operations building shortly after 1 p.m. Eastern.

The astronauts will travel to the pad in Tesla Model X electric cars adorned with both NASA’s “meatball” and “worm” logos, the latter brought out of a nearly three-decade retirement specifically for this mission. By about 2 p.m. Behnken and Hurley will enter the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Launch controllers will give final approval 45 minutes before the scheduled 4:33 p.m. liftoff to proceed with fueling of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Demo-2 is designed to be a test flight to confirm the performance of the spacecraft, and was originally intended to spend only a couple weeks in space. However, facing a shortfall in crew on the International Space Station, NASA has decided to extend the mission by a length yet to be determined to allow Behnken and Hurley to assist the one NASA astronaut currently there, Chris Cassidy.

“Remember, this is a test flight. The highest priority is to test the vehicle and get it home safely, and be prepared to launch Crew-1,” Bridenstine said. Crew-1 is the designation for the first operational Crew Dragon mission, which will send three NASA astronauts and one Japanese astronaut to the station.

Bridenstine revealed at the May 26 briefing that NASA is currently targeting an Aug. 30 launch for Crew-1, a date that depends on when the Crew Dragon spacecraft for that mission is ready. The Demo-2 mission will have to return several weeks before that launch date so it can be inspected and the spacecraft certified by NASA for operational missions before Crew-1 can launch.

“They can be there probably until early August,” Bridenstine said of the Demo-2 mission. The specific length of the mission will depend on the performance of the Demo-2 spacecraft, launch readiness for the Crew-1 mission and weather conditions at the splashdown location in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast. “If we have a good window to come home and they are not necessary on the International Space Station, we will be taking it.”

“There is a lot of flexibility built into the back end of the mission, but that’s intentional,” he said, referring to the uncertain length of the Demo-2 mission. “The goal is to get them to the International Space Station, test the systems and get them home. If they can do more work than that while they’re on the ISS, certainly that’s OK. But this is a test flight.”

Russia Says Nyet To Artemis Accords

Russia will not accept attempts to privatize the Moon, says Roscosmos CEO, TASS

"Attempts to privatize the Moon run counter to international law, CEO of Russia's Roscosmos State Space Agency Dmitry Rogozin said in an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda radio station on Monday. "We will not, in any case, accept any attempts to privatize the Moon. It is illegal, it runs counter to international law," Rogozin pointed out. The Roscosmos CEO emphasized that Russia would begin the implementation of a lunar program in 2021 by launching the Luna-25 spacecraft to the Moon. Roscosmos intends to launch the Luna-26 spacecraft in 2024. After that, the Luna-27 lander will be sent to the Moon to dig up regolith and carry out research on the lunar surface."

- What Are The Artemis Accords And Why Do We Need Them?, earlier post

Through a Glass Lightly

On May 18, 2020, architecture’s overlong twentieth century was brought to a symbolic close with the simultaneous (second) postponement of the Venice Biennale and the annual flooding of the Farnsworth House. The latter is an object lesson on the failed state of architecture in the evolving situation. For precedent: a segue on European Modernism, the […]

RSCC planning four satellites to cover Russia’s Far North

Updated May 27 at 2:35 p.m. Eastern to correct information about Express-AM6.

WASHINGTON — Russian Satellite Communications Co. (RSCC) plans to add arctic coverage to its fleet by ordering four satellites for highly elliptical orbits later this year.

Yuri Prokhorov, RSCC’s chief executive, said the company wants to have the satellites in orbit in 2024 to provide Ku-band coverage to Russia’s Far North, a vast region beyond the reach of the state-owned satellite operator’s 10 geostationary satellites. The elliptical orbit satellites, called Express-RVs, will extend RSCC’s coverage deep into the Arctic Circle, he said by email. 

“We consider Express-RV system and our [geosynchronous] satellites as a single constellation, which is quite enough to satisfy the demand for satellite communication services from both fixed and mobile users (including aerial and maritime ones) within Russia and the entire Arctic zone,” Prokhorov said. The satellites’ elliptical orbits will enable RSCC to deliver communications services north of the 76th parallel, he said.

RSCC is Russia’s largest geostationary communications satellite operator. In 2019, RSCC generated 12.3 billion rubles ($174 million) in revenue, Prokhorov said, with a net profit of 4.8 billion rubles.

Prokhorov said RSCC considers bids from Russian and international manufacturers, though most of the operator’s fleet has been domestically built. Russia’s primary satellite manufacturer, ISS Reshetnev, built eight of RSCC’s 10 satellites with international partners — Thales Alenia Space often supplied payloads — with the other two built by Airbus Defence and Space. 

Near-term fleet expansion

RSCC has four geostationary satellites slated to launch before the elliptical orbit satellites. The first two, Express-80 and Express-103, were scheduled to launch together on a Proton rocket in March, but were delayed to the second half of 2020 because of technical issues with their rocket, Prokhorov said.

A second pair, Express-AMU3 and Express-AMU7, are slated to launch on a Proton rocket in 2021, he said. 

RSCC is recovering from the partial loss of Express-AM6, having shut off the Ka-band payload on the five-year-old satellite  in March because of a thermal control system malfunction with the spacecraft. Prokhorov said RSCC retained 85% of the satellite’s Ka-band customers. Most were transferred to the company’s  Express-AMU1 and Express-AM5 satellites, which had some overlapping coverage with the unusable payload, he said.

Coronavirus changes

Prokhorov said the coronavirus pandemic has caused drastic shifts in customer patterns at RSCC. Maritime connectivity was RSCC’s fastest growing sector at the beginning of the year, but television broadcast viewership jumped by more than 30% this spring as people stayed at home to slow the disease’s spread, he said. 

Prokhorov said the transportation and tourism industries have been left “high and dry” by the pandemic, while demand has surged for distance learning and corporate teleworking solutions. 

“It is psychologically difficult to realize the lightning speed and shift in the main vectors in the industry development within three months,” he said. 

Prokhorov said he is not sure the impact these changes will have on demand levels for satellite communications services in the coming years. 

“Some services will remain in great demand after the pandemic restrictions are lifted, but it’s hard to say at present which ones,” he said. 

About 50% of RSCC’s revenue comes from domestic customers in Russia, he said. RSCC has interest in growing more internationally, but Prokhorov said the pandemic makes international sales difficult. 

“Life goes on, so we keep working for the future,” he said.

[Sponsor] The Magic Puzzle Company

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  • We commissioned incredible, original art from independent artists, designed from the very beginning to be used in a jigsaw puzzle.
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PBS NewsHour On Demo-2

"It has been nearly a decade since an American space crew last lifted off from U.S. soil in a spacecraft built here. That's expected to change Wednesday afternoon with the relaunch of manned space flight. But the occasion will be very different from past launches, as this time, a private company is leading the way as a NASA partner. Miles O'Brien reports on the potentially "revolutionary" moment." Featuring Wayne Hale, Lori Garver, Garrett Reisman, Michael López-Alegría and Keith Cowing.

Twitter Flags Two False Trump Tweets as False, Trump Blows Gasket

Elizabeth Dwoskin, reporting for The Washington Post:

Twitter on Tuesday slapped a fact-check label on President Trump’s tweets for the first time, a response to long-standing criticism that the company is too hands-off when it comes to policing misinformation and falsehoods from world leaders.

It sounds like a little thing, but I would argue strenuously against the verb slapped in that context. This makes it sound like Twitter acted impetuously or unfairly. It’s a slightly loaded word and the loaded connotation does not fit with Twitter’s very sober action here.

The move, which escalates tensions between Washington and Silicon Valley in an election year, was made in response to two Trump tweets over the past 24 hours. The tweets falsely claimed that mail-in ballots are fraudulent. Twitter’s label says, “Get the facts about mail-in ballots,” and redirects users to news articles about Trump’s unsubstantiated claim.

Trump’s two tweets in question, and the information page Twitter’s label links to. Twitter’s information page is extremely factual.

Trump’s response (all dots and capitalization verbatim):

.@Twitter is now interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election. They are saying my statement on Mail-In Ballots, which will lead to massive corruption and fraud, is incorrect, based on fact-checking by Fake News CNN and the Amazon Washington Post....

....Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!


New ‘Unc0ver’ Jailbreak Works on All iPhones Running iOS 11 to 13.5

Joseph Cox, reporting for Motherboard:

On Saturday, hackers and developers released the first public jailbreak for Apple’s iOS operating system that they say works at launch on all iOS devices. A hacker who worked on the jailbreak says it works by taking advantage of a vulnerability in iOS that Apple is not aware of, or a so-called zero day.

The news signals the first time a jailbreak has been released that works on all devices on launch day since iOS 10, according to iOS security researcher Pwn20wnd, who discovered the underlying vulnerability powering the new jailbreak.

“iPhones are getting more secure every year because Apple is learning their mistakes from public jailbreaks or attacks they find in the wild,” Pwn20wnd told Motherboard in an online chat.

Compare and contrast with Lily Hay Newman’s lede on the same story for Wired:

Over the years, Apple has made it prohibitively difficult to install unapproved software on its locked-down devices. But on Saturday, a hacker group called Unc0ver released a tool that will “jailbreak” all versions of iOS from 11 to 13.5. It’s been years since a jailbreak has been available for a current version of iOS for more than a few days — making this yet another knock on Apple’s faltering security image.

Neither of those linked articles supports the idea that Apple’s “security image” is faltering, and the second one dates to December 2017.


Wednesday: Beige Book, Richmond Fed Mfg

• At 7:00 AM ET, The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) will release the results for the mortgage purchase applications index.

• At 10:00 AM, Richmond Fed Survey of Manufacturing Activity for May.

• At 2:00 PM, the Federal Reserve Beige Book, an informal review by the Federal Reserve Banks of current economic conditions in their Districts.

Meet Crew Dragon: narrated tour of design features, design history

Crew Dragon capsule, about to fly atop a Falcon 9 as part of the Demo-2 mission with two humans aboard, is a great advance in the field of spacecraft design. Join us for a quick tour of the essential design elements and differences, as illustrated by contributor Derek Richardson.

Dragon 2 has been in development under the Commercial Crew Program since 2010. While its design was initially based on the first Dragon spacecraft, it has since been significantly improved upon.

Like Dragon 1, the SpaceX Crew Dragon has two parts, a capsule and a trunk. The capsule is 3.7 meters wide and about 4.5 meters tall with an internal volume of about 9.3 cubic meters. At the top of the capsule is a reusable nose cone that articulates on a hinge to reveal a docking port.

On the sidewalls are four pairs of SuperDraco engines that are only used to push the capsule away from its Falcon 9 launcher in the event of a failure.

The unpressurized trunk is slightly different from its predecessor in that it has solar cells and radiators embedded into the side of the structure rather than on deployable panels. Additionally, there are four aerodynamic fins to help stabilize the spacecraft in the event of a launch abort. #CrewDragon #SpaceX #LaunchAmerica #DM2

The post Meet Crew Dragon: narrated tour of design features, design history appeared first on SpaceFlight Insider.


Hello and welcome to Millibar Millibarn Attometer, an advice show for the Planck era.

Earth and Moon through Saturns Rings

What are those dots between Saturn's rings? What are those dots between Saturn's rings?

Current and former NASA leadership share credit for commercial crew


WASHINGTON — On the eve of the first crewed orbital flight from the United States in nearly nine years, both the current NASA administrator and his predecessor agreed that credit for the ultimate success of the commercial crew program should be shared.

During a May 26 media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was asked about a tweet he sent three days earlier, announcing that President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence would attend the Demo-2 commercial crew launch scheduled for May 27. “Under President Trump’s leadership, we are once again launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Bridenstine wrote. That tweet prompted criticism from some who noted the commercial crew program started under former President Barack Obama.

“This is a program that demonstrates the success when you have continuity of purpose going from one administration to the next,” Bridenstine said, stating that the commercial crew program built on the success of the commercial cargo resupply program started by former President George W. Bush nearly 15 years ago.

He also praised his predecessor. “Charlie Bolden did absolutely magnificent work as the NASA administrator,” he said, including selling the commercial crew program when it “didn’t have a lot of support in Congress.” NASA struggled to secure funding for the commercial crew program in its early years, which some advocates argue at least partially accounts for its significant delays.

“Charlie Bolden did just yeoman’s work in order to get this program off the ground, get it going, and here we are, all these years later, having this success,” Bridenstine said.

In a call with reporters later May 26, Bolden returned the favor. “I share the praise of anybody who’s been involved in advancing spaceflight for the U.S.,” he said when told of Bridenstine’s comments. Bolden, who served as NASA administrator for most of the Obama administration, said he passed along some advice to his successor: “Take credit for everything that happens on your watch, because none of us started anything. We all picked up something that was being done by somebody before.”

“I think he’s working out to be a great administrator,” he said of Bridenstine. “I give him kudos for everything that’s happened.”

Bolden and Bill Nelson, a former Democratic senator from Florida, spoke on the call organized by the campaign for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who was Obama’s vice president. While Biden did not appear to take an overt interest in NASA as vice president, both Bolden and Nelson said he played key roles winning support for commercial crew.

“Joe Biden was very much a part of this whole thing,” Nelson said, claiming Biden, as vice president, helped Nelson win congressional support for the approach enshrined in a 2010 NASA authorization bill that backed commercial crew development in parallel with the Space Launch System and Orion. “He was very much a part of the decision-making that went into this and ultimately brings us to this success that we hope will launch tomorrow.”

“I spent a lot of time with him,” Bolden said of Biden. In one such meeting, Bolden recalled Biden advising him to tell a better story in order to win support. “He said, ‘I can help you. I know the tune, but you have to give me the lyrics.’”

Biden has not commented on space policy during this election cycle, and his campaign did not respond to a brief set of questions from SpaceNews on space issues last September or in February, before the pandemic took hold in the United States. Nelson, asked what a Biden administration might do differently in space, including the Trump administration’s signature effort to return humans to the moon by 2024, declined to speculate.

“I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” he said, preferring to focus on the upcoming commercial crew launch. “Let’s get through this. That’s the wisest thing.”

Bolden suggested he would like to see a Biden administration continue with NASA’s current plans. “We hope that whoever follows the Trump administration, and my hope is that it’ll be a Biden administration, they will continue to march the way that we’re headed now, heading back to the moon and then on to Mars,” he said.

“I am hopeful that this administration and the next will continue to work with Congress to get the funding that’s needed to keep the Artemis program,” he said later in the call. But, he added, “we should all be focused on what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Photos: Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon on eve of launch

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft were lowered horizontal on pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center the day before launch, allowing teams to address an issue with a chilled water loop near the top of the strongback structure.

The 215-foot (65-meter) rocket, emblazoned with the U.S. flag and NASA’s “worm” and “meatball” logos, is set for liftoff Wednesday at 4:33 p.m. EDT (2033 GMT) on the first crewed mission to launch into orbit from U.S. soil since the last space shuttle flight in July 2011.

Strapped into their seats inside the Crew Dragon capsule, NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will rocket into orbit on top of the Falcon 9 launcher.

These photos were taken Tuesday, the day before the Falcon 9’s scheduled launch. The rocket was raised vertical later Tuesday afternoon.

Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now
Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

SpaceX crew launch comes with new weather constraints for downrange aborts

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft stand on launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Mission managers will be closely monitoring the weather for the first launch of astronauts aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, not just around the Kennedy Space Center, but along a corridor stretching thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean in case the crew capsule has to escape from its Falcon 9 rocket during the climb into orbit.

The parameters to screen for acceptable weather downrange were added on top of the standard launch weather rules that track cloud, lightning and wind conditions at Cape Canaveral.

The official weather outlook for Wednesday’s launch opportunity — set for 4:33 p.m. EDT (2033 GMT) — calls for a 60 percent chance of favorable conditions for liftoff of the Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on-board.

But those odds only take into account the weather forecast at the launch site. SpaceX and NASA officials will consider weather conditions downrange in the Atlantic Ocean during Wednesday’s countdown before making the final decision to launch.

“We have a really complicated way of weighting different locations, depending on how much risk they have in terms of an escape,” said Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability. “For the landing, there are also special parameters: winds, waves and wave direction.

“Some of these individually have to go ‘green’ and be a ‘go,’ and then on the entire launch corridor we have a common risk number that we use to basically make an assessment, and then get to a go/no go decision,” Koenigsmann said Monday.

The downrange weather assessment involves risk matrices and numerous factors. To illustrate the various criteria, Koenigsmann said a weather briefing Monday looking at the abort weather constraints consisted of 65 presentation slides.

“It took an hour, so it’s a lengthy process to get to the best result, getting the safest flight that we can possibly get with the current weather,” Koenigsmann said.

According to NASA’s list of launch commit criteria for the SpaceX crew launch, the flight will not proceed if downrange weather shows a high probability of violating limits at splashdown in the event of a Dragon launch escape maneuver.

Mission managers will monitor weather conditions at more than 50 locations along the launch ascent track, which heads northeast from the Kennedy Space Center along the East Coast of the United States and Canada. The corridor then extends across the North Atlantic Ocean toward Ireland.

“Probability of violation is calculated for each location including limit conditions for wind, waves, lightning, and precipitation,” NASA officials wrote in a launch weather criteria document for the crew mission.

“We’re looking at wave velocity and wave height, because we need to make sure that if the crew had to come down in a launch escape scenario that they would come down in a sea state that would keep them safe, and the rescue forces would be able to come and get them,” said Benji Reed, SpaceX’s director of crew mission management.

“I would expect there to be a very high chance of scrub due to weather,” Reed said in a press conference in early May. “Given the time of year, it wouldn’t surprise me at all.”

But officials won’t make that cal until launch day, once they plug real weather data into their risk models. There are also upper level wind constraints unique to the Falcon 9 rocket. The Falcon 9’s first stage booster will attempt to land on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Cape Canaveral for eventual reuse, a maneuver that comes with its own weather criteria.

“There are buoys along the way, there’s global weather patterns, there are models,” Koenigsmann said. “And that’s how we basically integrate this whole risk along the way and come up with an assessment.

“There is also obviously an onshore component with wind that’s important to us in case we have a pad abort,” Koenigsmann said. “We also have a wave requirement for landing the booster, and a wind requirement for landing the booster. iI you take all of those up, it’s actually turning into a lot of weather science.”

SpaceX will provide a weather briefing to the Dragon astronauts around four hours before launch, before the crew puts on their SpaceX-made launch and entry flight suits.

“Usually, when we have a satellite to launch, then we go sometimes down to the wire, to the last minute,” Koenigsmann said. “In this case, we don’t want to do that because we would expose the crew to risk that would be unnecessary. So we’re going to weigh this like six hours before, four hours before, and … the final call comes at the end, at 45 minutes, as we’re going to arm the escape system.

“By that time, we’ll have come to a conclusion whether we’re go or no go.”

Credit: NASA

“If the weather’s good all the way, it’s an easy decision,” said Steve Payne, NASA’s former launch integration manager for the commercial crew program. “If the weather’s bad all the way, then that’s kind of an easy decision. It’s when you have some good and some bad, then you have to weigh what’s your likelihood of having an issue at any one of these places. So you weigh things like wave height, the temperature of the water, wind speed, darkness, storm conditions, lightning, things like that, because if you end up landing in those conditions you have to send somebody out there to get your crew. These folks jump into the water and they’re subject to being out there in all those conditions.

“So we do a weighing of risk, and it’s a calculated risk,” said Payne, who helped develop the crew rescue requirements before his retirement from NASA at the end of April. “It’s never going to be perfect. But if your possibilities of landing in that area are infinitesimally small, you’ll take that chance because it’s the only way you’ll ever fly.

“On launch day, for our first time, we’ll probably be conservative,” Payne said. “I expect we’ll have to have lots of things line up nicely to get off the ground. But it’s one of those things we’ve thought hard about it. We’ve come up with some criteria.”

If needed, the Crew Dragon spacecraft has eight SuperDraco engines that would propel the capsule off the top of its Falcon 9 launcher in the event of a problem during the climb into orbit.

It’s unlikely an escape maneuver would be required, but the abort system gives crews an extra layer of assurance. Space shuttle crews had fewer escape options, and no ability to abort in the event of a catastrophic launch failure.

During an in-flight escape test in January, the SuperDracos pushed an unpiloted Crew Dragon capsule off of a full-size Falcon 9 rocket during launch. The engines accelerated the spacecraft to a velocity of nearly 400 mph relative to the rocket’s speed, ensuring sufficient separation from the Falcon 9 to save the ship’s crew if astronauts had been on-board.

Launch abort systems have been used during emergencies on other rockets, most recently in October 2018, when a Russian Soyuz booster failed two minutes after liftoff. The Soyuz abort rockets fired to safely carry Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin and NASA flight engineer Nick Hague away from the Soyuz booster as it tumbled out of control.

Rescue teams assigned to Detachment 3, part of the 45th Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base south of Cape Canaveral, will be on alert to deploy and retrieve the Dragon astronauts if there’s a launch abort in the first couple of minutes after liftoff.

A series of drop tests into the Hydro Impact Basin at the Landing and Impact Research Facility at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia helped SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule prepare to safely land astronauts. A mock-up of the capsule with two instrumented crash test devices seated inside was tested in March 2019, representing how the capsule may impact the water during splashdown with different wind and parachute dynamics. Credit: SpaceX

A major problem in the last 35 minutes before liftoff, when the Falcon 9 rocket is being loaded with super-chilled kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants, could also result in a pad abort that would booster the crew capsule off the launch vehicle to parachute into the Atlantic Ocean just off Florida’s coast.

The Detachment 3 teams from Patrick Air Force Base include an HC-130 transport and refueling plane, and two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters with search and rescue teams on-board, according to NASA officials.

The military pararescue specialists will parachute from the aircraft into the Atlantic with inflatable boats.

SpaceX is responsible for recovering the Crew Dragon spacecraft after a normal landing. At the end of a normal mission, the Crew Dragon splashes down at sea, with a primary zone in the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida and a backup zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

For a crewed mission, the search and rescue team at Patrick Air Force Base will have primary responsibility for retrieving the astronauts from the Crew Dragon spacecraft after a pad abort or launch emergency in the first few minutes of the flight, a scenario that would lead to a splashdown within about a 230-mile (370-kilometer) radius from Cape Canaveral.

NASA required its commercial crew transportation providers to design their crew capsules to avoid splashing down in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean — where cold water temperatures and rough seas are common — in the event of an in-flight abort late in the ascent sequence.

If required, thrusters on the Crew Dragon or Starliner spacecraft would fire after an abort to ensure the capsule lands within about 300 miles of eastern Canada or Ireland, officials said.

“Once you detach from a failing rocket, you will either have enough propellant to slow down and land before you get there, or to boost you to the other side of that zone,” Payne said.

This map illustrates the ground track for the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 rocket heading northeast from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The red zone — called the Downrange Abort Exclusion Zone — in the North Atlantic Ocean is a region where the control teams want to avoid an abort due to cold water temperatures and rough seas. Credit: NASA

There are eight abort modes during a Crew Dragon launch, beginning with the pre-launch pad abort capability. During ascent, SpaceX divided the flight sequence into seven abort modes covering the Falcon 9’s first and second stage burns.

The Crew Dragon will reach orbit by the time the second stage engine shuts down at T+plus 8 minutes, 47 seconds.

For commercial crew launches, beginning with the Crew Dragon’s first piloted test flight this week, a C-17 cargo plane from Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina will be on standby to respond for a sea rescue farther away from the launch site in Florida. A C-17 aircraft with a similar search and rescue team would deploy from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, for an emergency landing in the Pacific Ocean or neighboring seas.

The Crew Dragon carries a radio beacon to help the military search and rescue team locate the spacecraft. The spacecraft also has flashing lights, and crews will carry handheld radios and personal locator beacons to communicate with search and rescue teams if the astronauts have to leave the spacecraft after splashdown.

The SpaceX crew capsule also has a raft on-board, plus a survival kit with medications, food and fresh water, signaling mirrors, blankets and other equipment, according to NASA.

Military rescue teams are also equipped with a larger life raft that can accommodate the search and rescue forces, along with the astronaut crews, and carries provisions for up to three days.

Payne said NASA and SpaceX have shared information about the Crew Dragon launch trajectory, along with instructions on how to open the capsule’s hatch and retrieve the crew members, with maritime rescue teams in Canada and Ireland.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

Roccor completes key tests of Link 16 satellite antenna

SAN FRANCISCO – Roccor has completed radio frequency testing of the antenna scheduled for launch later this year on the satellite housing Viasat’s Link 16 military communications terminal.

The firm known for deployable spacecraft structures, is working with BluFlux, an antenna technology specialist,  to complete environmental testing of the helical L-band antenna for XVI, an Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) program to demonstrate communications relay with a Link 16 terminal on a small satellite.

U.S. military and NATO allies share information through Link 16 terminals mounted on aircraft, ships and ground vehicles. Viasat won an AFRL contract last year to mount a Link 16 terminal on a small satellite. Viasat then selected Blue Canyon Technologies to manufacture the 12-unit XVI cubesat and Roccor to supply the antenna.

Since the XVI satellite does not offer much room for a deployment mechanism, Roccor worked with BluFlux, both of Louisville, Colorado, to develop and test a two-meter-long helical antenna that stows inside the volume of a two-unit cubesat and extends on-orbit thanks to a slit-tube composite boom.

Roccor developed the antenna boom under a 2017 AFRL Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract. Since then, customers have deployed Roccor’s carbon-fiber booms successfully on three satellites, including HSat1, Harris Corp.’s first smallsat, said Bruce Davis, Roccor director of space antenna and deorbit products.

Roccor and BluFlux faced an array of challenges in developing and testing an antenna large enough to communicate in a range of frequencies with terrestrial receivers.

“What it came down to was a fast turnaround time to develop a challenging deployable antenna structure,” Davis told SpaceNews.

Testing was another hurdle. The antenna is both large and delicate.

BluFlux found a commercial facility where the antenna can remain upright during tests of the deployment mechanism and antenna performance, said Ben Wilmhoff, BluFlux president and founder.

Roccor plans to continue evolving its Link 16 antenna design to create a production-ready model under a $3 million SBIR contract awarded after Air Force Space Pitch Day in November.