Saturday, April 16, 2005

where are the spaceports?

Here is a great site on space travel. It's geared to the engineering aspect of space travel for science fiction authors. The link is from Milblog.

I take exception to the author's assumptions about spaceports. He assumes they will be on the ground, but that is highly unlikely. Sea ports are at the interface between sea and land, airports are at the interface between air and ground, and spaceports will be at the interface between space and planet. That is, they will be in orbit --probably very low orbit.

There is a very good reason that ports are at interfaces. The whole purpose of a port is to transfer cargo from one form of vehicle to another. Sea ports transfer cargo between ships and ground transportation (like railroad and trucks). Airports transfer cargo between airplanes and ground transportation. Space ports will transfer cargo between space vehicles and planetary vehicles (air-to-orbit shuttles).

By the time there is any substantial planetary travel, air-to-orbit will probably be accomplished from normal airports. There are various schemes to do this and with any serious economic incentive, one or more of them would soon be made to work. There will be no need for anything called a "spaceport" on the ground (except that of course administrators will want to call their airports a "spaceport" for the prestige).

No spaceship is going to travel commercially from Mars to Earth and then land on Earth (or on Mars, for that matter). That would make as much sense as designing an ocean-going cargo ship that gets out of the water at San Diego and drives overland to deliver its cargo directly to Phoenix. Possible, yes. Economical, no.

The name "spaceport" should be used only for facilities that real spaceships can dock with, facilities that serve as the cargo transfer point between spaceship and planetary shuttle. This leaves us without a word for the ports that serve landing craft on planets without air. "Airport" doesn't seem quite appropriate. I propose that an "orbitport" serves as the interface between a planet and orbital facilities. And prestige-grasping administrators can call their airports orbitports if they want.

Friday, April 15, 2005

content-free research

This story (link from The Corner) is funny:
Jeremy Stribling said Thursday that he and two fellow MIT graduate students questioned the standards of some academic conferences, so they wrote a computer program to generate research papers complete with "context-free grammar," charts and diagrams.
The trio submitted two of the randomly assembled papers to the World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (WMSCI), scheduled to be held July 10-13 in Orlando, Florida.
I can't say I'm astounded. Those jargon-loaded treatises with ten-mile sentences are a bit opaque. I've often had the experience of reading half-way through the first page and realized that I had no idea what they were talking about. To me, this means that the paper is poorly written, but there are lots of people in academia who take this as a sign that the authors are just too smart to understand. A referee with this attitude might decide to recommend the paper just to show how smart he is in being able to recommend such smart papers.

By the way, the AP reporter was confused about the "context-free grammar". That isn't something that goes into the paper like charts and diagrams, it's the technique that was used to generate the paper. This is pretty impressive because context-free grammars are very weak generators. I would expect a project like this to require a context-sensitive grammar.

(Yes, I know I wrote "content-free" in the title instead of "context-free". It's a computer science pun. We computer scientists are a crackup.)

UPDATE: On further thought, it occurs to me that maybe they did mean that they put context-free grammars in the papers. Such things are common in computer science. Probably the primary reason I thought "context-free grammar" described the generator rather than the contents of the paper was because it was singular, whereas "charts" and "diagrams" were both plural. Also, the qualifier "context-free" is a bit odd there, and why not other code? I'd expect something more like "grammars, code fragments, charts and diagrams". On the other hand if you wanted to impress insiders then you would tell them that you generated the papers with a grammar that was only context-free.

If I have time this weekend, I'll try to find out...

secret service

Donald Crankshaw uses the way-back machine to dispute another example of leftist over-reaction and victimhood.

more on Sandy Berger

Daily Pundit has a very good summary of the Sandy Berger case and a less conspiratorial theory about what's going on at the Justice Department.

Daily Pundit's theory not incompatible with mine, and I'll take this opportunity to clarify that I doubt there was any explicit conspiracy. It's just the way things work out. You wash my back, I wash his back, he washes your back. And the communication is all out in the open. Hillary and Bill make comments to let you know that they really don't want anything to happen to Berger. Then they take time off during the election instead of helping out Bush's opponent. Then Hillman, Bush's appointee, not only decides to let Berger off, he goes around acting like Berger's publicity agent. Then in a year or so, Hillman gets a promotion.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

what to do, what to do ...

Well, I've finally concluded A Meating of Mines, and not a moment too soon. Now what do I do? I wasn't planning to continue with the series, but I've got plans that will probably disappear if I don't keep thinking about the series. On the other hand, I had some good ideas for Torus too. I was thinking about changing the title to Planetary-Scale Artifact because the story centers around something that appears to be, hold on, a planetary-scale artifact. And then I had a great idea for a treasure-hunting story. That one would be my top choice except that it would require a lot of research and I'm not sure I can commit the time to it.

Any preferences?

A Meating of Mines, scenes 12, 13, and 14

This is the conclusion of the screenplay Heroes for Hire Episode 2 -- A Meating of Mines.

Scene 12:

Rolf, Zantar, and Lone are sitting on the steps out front of the Lucky Unicorn. They are all pretty battered up and are applying Mysingal's Magical Medicines to their wounds. A dozen empty vials are scattered in the dirt before them. There is a crowd noise growing in the background, but the street is empty except for the three heroes and a ten-year-old boy, Tommy, who is coming timidly toward them.

LOAN: Congratulation lillies, you're heroes.

ROLF: Certified.

LOAN: Huh?

ZANTAR: He means we're in the guild.

LOAN: What guild?

ROLF: The hero's guild, of course.

LOAN: There's a hero's guild?

ZANTAR: We've got a secret handshake and everything.

TOMMY: (wide-eyed) Hey, are you the lillies?

LOAN: What lillies?

TOMMY: The lillies that hired on with the Barkleys and stole their horses?


TOMMY: And now you killed all of the Barkleys?

ROLF: Indeed.

Tommy backs up and runs down the street.

ZANTAR: Kids. That hero worship is a pain.

LOAN: That was Tommy Dwarkins.

ZANTAR: Whatever.

LOAN: If I had to say which kid loved Mimi and Nightingale the most, Tommy would be near the top of the list.

ZANTAR: I don't think so. He wasn't at the picnic so he never even got a taste.

LOAN: Listen.

TOMMY: (in the distance, shouting) It's them all right, they admitted it!

CROWD VOICE 1: ... bastard horse eaters...

TOMMY: ... poor little Mimi ...

CROWD VOICE 2: ... enough rope for 'em both ...

Rolf and Zantar look at each other and the camera turns to focus down the street. The crowd noise is getting louder.

CROWD VOICE 3: ... deserve any better than Nightingale...

Crowd voice4: ... get that noose tied ...

The crowd spills into the street and charges toward the Lucky Unicorn. Loan is by himself. The crowd stops and looks at him in confusion. He shrugs.

Scene 13:

Tommy is running up a small hill with the town in the background. He stops at the top and stares into the distance for a moment, panting. He calls out:

TOMMY: (shouting) Lillies! Lillies don't leave! Come back! We're going to string you up. We're going to gut you like trout. We're going to cut off your...

Scene 14:

Rolf and Zantar are walking down the dusty road toward Heck.

ZANTAR: You think the yokels were out here before us?

ROLF: For the thousandths time, Zantar, I don't know any more than you.

ZANTAR: Cuz if they were going to string us up over the horses, think what they'd do to the guys that paid us to steal them!

ROLF: Heck hasn't been burned, anyway, and it isn't very likely that the Winkelfrankians could have beat us out here.

ZANTAR: Yeah, but even if the Winkelfrankians didn't come out here and string everyone up, The Barkleys could have come out last night and done it. After all, Heck was working for the other side.

ROLF: I know. Look Zantar, just wait till we get there. Don't get yourself all excited over guesses and possibilities.

ZANTAR: Yeah, yeah.

A few moments of silence.

ROLF: You know, I just realized what the Sheriff was so mysteriously trying to convey to us when he bored us with that story about the late pony, Nightingale.

ZANTAR: The pony that saved the town by getting run to death?

ROLF: The very one.

ZANTAR: (shouting) The worthless nag they spent THREE gold on? The stupid ....

ROLF: Focus, Zantar.

ZANTAR: (shouting) swaybacked, WORTHLESS ... (instantly calm) focus?

ROLF: I just realized that the Sheriff was trying to warn us about the potential for an overwrought reaction from the town.

ZANTAR: Why didn't he just tell us that the yokels might get testy over the horses?

ROLF: As to that, I cannot say. No doubt some mysterious rangery thing. Speaking in aphorisms. Communicating in proverbs.

ZANTAR: Sort of like a secret handshake?

ROLF: The very thing.

They walk for a moment in silence.

ROLF: You know, I've learned a valuable lesson from this experience.

ZANTAR: We've got to be sneakier.

ROLF: Exactly. Stealth and subterfuge is the key. Loose lips bring whips.

ZANTAR: Talkative dopes bring ropes.

ROLF: Precisely.

Zantar suddenly stops, staring toward Heck. The street looks bleak and empty but there are a couple of dwarves on the boardwalks.


Zantar breaks into a run and Rolf easily keeps pace with him.

ROLF: There's nothing we can do, Zantar!

They run for a bit more.

ROLF: I warned you not to get your hopes up.

A bit more running.

ROLF: There will be other opportunities, Zantar ...

They run into the street. Zantar stops at an overturned picnic table, looks around, then falls to his knees, clawing at the sky and gives a huge bellow of anguish.


The camera shows Zantar from the top, zooming back to show the whole street, where suddenly a crowd of dwarves appears from the buildings and gathers about Zantar. The camera snaps back down.

GRIMEY: What's wrong, Zan?

ROLF: The people from Winkelfranks tried to lynch the two of us over those horses.

GRIMEY: Oh, yeah. They were pretty upset about it.

ZANTAR: (very emotional) So we ... we thought...

GRIMEY: You thought they came out here and burned the town down and killed all of us.

ZANTAR: (nodding, in great emotional distress) Yes!

GRIMEY: And since they didn't know we have silver ...

ZANTAR: (a wail of anguish) It would just be laying around, waiting to be picked up!

GRIMEY: (sympathetic) Sorry, Zan. We're all still here.

ROLF: Well, I'm glad that's settled. Let's go, Zan.

ZANTAR: It's just... it's just ... all that silver ...

GRIMEY: I know Zan, I know (pats Zantar on the shoulder). But don't give up. Everyone here talks about how you're so much smarter than the rest of us. You still could cheat us out of it some day.

DISREPUTABLE DWARF 1: Or heck, Zantar, you could even trick someone into telling you where it's hid and then you could steal it. (murmurs of agreement from the crowd)

ROLF: Why do I have an urge to draw my sword and start hacking randomly?

GRIMEY: See Zantar? (squeezes his shoulder affectionately) There's lots of ways you could still get your hands on that silver. Why just an hour ago (looking up to the crowd as he speaks) we were talking about your idea to let you hold on to some of it for us to, like, keep it safe. Maybe you could still talk us into that! (more encouraging murmurs from the crowd).

ZANTAR: (sniffle) You really think so?

There are lots of "yeahs" and "sure things" and a "sure, we're stupid" from the crowd and several hands reach out to pat him on the shoulders.

ROLF: OK, that's adorable. Let's up and at 'em Zantar! Don't want the pleasant folk of Winkelfranks to discover us dallying about.

PICNICKER 1: Hey Zantar, explain that thing about the two different kinds of stake again!

ROLF: Merciful Fates, No! I mean, our lives are endangered here Zantar, let's MOVE.

PICNICKER 2: I asked a wizard about it and he said there aren't any spells to turn a wood steak into a horse steak or vice versa.

ZANTAR: (patiently) See, it's not two kinds of stake ...

Rolf then falls to his knees, clawing at the sky and gives a huge bellow of anguish.


The camera angle is from above, as when Zantar screamed in anguish, the dwarves are ignoring him. Zoom back and fade to black.

The End.

firefox woes

Last week I upgraded to the latest version of Firefox (the web browser) because they said there were serious security issues with the previous version. Now some web pages are formated wrong (like The Corner, and the comments at Back of the Envelope), with the text falling off the page either to left or right, and no horizontal scroll bar.

I'd report this but I'm too lazy.

Moore lies

Remember when Michael Moore was crowing about how well his film was doing, even in the red states? I was really disturbed by that because it seemed to show that people were interested in going to see anti-Bush propaganda. Most people don't go out of their way to go see propaganda that bashes someone they intend to vote for. And fewer people are interested in giving money to someone who bashes the man they intend to vote for.

It turns out that Moore was lying (link from Roscoe).

Why did I believe a man on one topic when I know he is a deliberate deceiver on other topics? This is how liars can keep lying and keep getting away with it: most people just expect you to tell the truth, even when they know you are a liar.

the economics of regulation

Don't miss this interesting post by Tom Harrison at Monday Evening on why we have the environmental regulations we do.

Monday, April 11, 2005


The new Storyblogging Carnival is up over at Sheya's. We have another new author! I like all the old ones, but it's nice to see new ones.

recipe: grease pizzalets

All the other bloggers I read (well, two of them) have posted recipes. I was feeling left out, so I thought I'd post a recipe of my own invention.

I call these wonderful low-carb delicacies grease pizzalets --small pizza-like thingies where the main ingredient is grease. Mmm.


1. the largest sliced pepperoni you can find (substitution note: Genoa salami works also).
2. sliced provolone cheese
3. canned pizza sauce (substitution note: in a pinch, spaghetti sauce may be substituted)

To prepare:

1. No, I didn't forget bread or pizza crust in the ingredients.

2. On a large microwaveable plate, lay out the pepperoni slices, flat with minimal overlap.

3. Break up slices of provolone cheese and lay them over the pepperoni slices. Arrange the cheese in a single layer to cover most of the pepperoni but leaving the edges uncovered. Don't spend a lot of time getting this perfect unless you are serving gourmets.

4. Apply a dab of pizza sauce to the center of each pizzalet. Put on enough to mostly cover the pizzalet but don't spread it out before cooking because that will cause it to boil and spatter the inside of the microwave.

5. Put the plate into the oven and microwave until the edges of the cheese melt. To avoid spattering, remove before the cheese is fully melted.

To serve:

1. Serve on the same plate you cooked it on.

2. Serve with any malt brew in an aluminum can. Serve the beverage in the can, do not pour into glasses. The taste of aluminum is an integral part of the dinner.

To eat:

1. Pick up by hand and roll the pizzalet into a loose tube, holding your hand underneath to catch the sauce that will drip out. Fold gently or the sauce will spurt.

2. Consume with your hand underneath to catch additional drippings.

3. Lick the sauce from your hand.

4. When the plate is empty, you may lap up the remaining grease from the plate with your fingers. Please do not use your tongue if you have guests present.

Well there it is. One of the finest low-carb meals you can eat. And so easy to prepare! Bon appetite!