Sunday, January 30, 2011

Review: Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits

There is only one theme in Philip A. Fisher's Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits: a high-growth company is suitable for a common stock investment if it is competitive. Most of the chapters in the book go on to explain what a competitive company looks like. Chapters 5 and 6 argue that an investor should not attempt to time the market when buying or selling a growth stock, and that the investment will continue to be a wise one so long as the company remains competitive. My copy included Fisher's Conservative Investors Sleep Well, which further explains competitiveness, and Developing an Investment Philosophy, which outlines his personal investing experiences. They were worth reading, but didn't offer much additional theory.

Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits by Philip A. Fisher book Read more reviews on Amazon Although Warren Buffett claims to be "15 percent Fisher," he did not make his fortune investing in the kinds of companies Fisher did. By his own admission, Buffett does not understand technology and instead invests in simple, reliable products like Coca-Cola. Fisher only addresses investments in companies with relatively rapid earnings growth, which are usually technology-driven companies. What he and Buffett would agree on are the various characteristics of a well-run organization. Fisher pioneered the strategy of buy and hold in innovative companies that develop great products, but he would never recommend holding on to a company that began to show signs of complacency and incompetence.

Fisher warns the reader about his writing skills, and he wasn't joking. It often takes a bit of unraveling and untangling to figure out what he is trying to say. Consequently, the book could probably be condensed to about two-thirds its size. Another weakness of Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits is that Fisher's tactic of "scuttlebutt" is obsolete—there are now more efficient ways of learning about a company than visiting in person. But if you're willing to trudge through Fisher's clumsy writing, you can learn an investment strategy that becomes more and more relevant as the years go on.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Real-Time Mars Rovers

NASA's Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity accomplished extraordinary feats in science and robotic exploration. Both missions together—including their multi-year extensions—cost around a billion dollars, or about the cost of a single Space Shuttle mission. The rovers cannot replace human spaceflight, but they were an extremely wise investment for what they did.

The problem with the rovers is that there is a communication delay between Earth and Mars. Instructions are sent from Earth and then travel at light speed to the Red Planet. After the rovers execute commands, feedback information must again travel the distance to Earth. Depending on the positions of the planets, this round-trip communication time ranges from 6 to 40 minutes. Imagine having to wait 40 minutes just to know whether your rover got stuck on a pebble or rolled over it. If there were a way to reduce the communication delay, the same sort of rovers could accomplish far more science and exploration each Martian day.

Astronauts in Mars orbit would experience delays of less than a second. A small number of communications satellites could triangulate their signals to reach any spot on the Martian surface. With this capability, dozens of rovers could efficiently explore sites all over the planet. The astronauts in orbit could operate whichever rovers had the most interesting, risky, or challenging tasks, while operators on Earth could manage the rest of the rovers in the traditional way. Sustaining humans in Mars orbit would be a grand undertaking, so even a tremendous amount of science would scarcely justify the effort. But it could justify part of it. It seems reasonable to send humans to orbit Mars as a precursor to a landing, and the ability to operate robotic rovers in near real-time would be one of the many rewards of this intermediate step.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The U.S. Can End the Mexican Drug War

The Mexican Drug War is fueled by America's insatiable demand for drugs. Americans are willing to pay so much to get their marijuana that it creates an enormous economic incentive to produce the drug—in much the same way there is a huge industry for coffee. Agriculture plays a minor role in the U.S. economy, but the situation is different in Mexico. Mexicans often don't have the opportunities available to Americans, and a legal marijuana industry would allow many Mexicans to put a lot of food on the table, send their kids to college, and retire in security. There is no magical formula for rapid economic development in Mexico, but selling drugs to Americans is as close as you can get.

Of course, this is not what is happening. The Mexican government is instead waging a war on an agricultural industry. The unsettling truth is that many of these Mexican cartel leaders would be businessmen with collars and ties if the drugs were legal. They engage in violence with rival cartels because of petty competition, which would take the form of economic competition if their property rights were protected. The Mexican people wouldn't have the heart to kill each other over a stupid plant if it weren't for U.S. pressure.

There's no folly in admitting defeat to a fabricated problem. But even this isn't necessary. The U.S. and Mexico can claim victory in the struggle to grant individuals rights and sovereignty over their own lives. The right to use a substance—especially one as harmless as marijuana—seems as basic a freedom as any. I also see nothing immoral about selling drugs. It makes no sense to me to attach liability to a seller of anything, as long as the seller makes this clear in the terms of the deal. I think farmers should be treated equally, whether they're growing corn, coffee, or cannabis.

I, for one, do not want my government to pressure Mexico into criminalizing marijuana. We are not going to solve our irresponsibility problems by attacking the supply side of the drug trade. I cringe at the saber-rattling speeches, the burning of farmers' crops, the jail sentences, the urban gun battles, the assassinations of police officers, and the executions of civilians. The U.S. can end the Mexican Drug War with a few phone calls.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Review: Childhood's End

Childhood's End was one of the original stories to explore the emotional aftermath of a first contact with superior extraterrestrials. It helped elevate the genre into the realm of literature and it spawned a wealth of works along the same line, such as Independence Day. The book is not a story of warfare, but rather the dynamics of an alien-human interaction. One could interpret it as a commentary on colonialism, but I think the interstellar contact theme is valid in its own right—Clarke's vivid descriptions of plausible alien starships and lifeforms really open one's mind to the possibilities of the cosmos.

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke bookRead more reviews on Amazon Clarke creates an interesting future history in Childhood's End, but the way he reveals it saps some of the excitement away. "Most people had two homes, in widely separated parts of the world. Now that the polar regions had been opened up, a considerable fraction of the human race oscillated from Arctic to Antarctic at six-monthly intervals..." It's difficult to care about the world he imagined when he describes it in such a detached, encyclopedic way. I'm sure it would have been more engaging were it revealed more through characters.

Another weakness of the book is the Overmind and what it does to the children of the last generation. The Overmind is a vague, psychic, seemingly omnipresent force whose physical nature is not explained. It transforms the last generation of humans into drones with no attachment to their former lives, and no feelings that can be related to. These quasi-characters can be contrasted with the Overlords, the biological beings who actually visit Earth. The Overlords are not human, but they have understandable personalities; it is the Overlords—and Clarke's description of their society—rather than the more powerful Overmind, that truly captivate the reader's imagination.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Nuclear Reactors and Space Propulsion

The new NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, made a speech a year ago about the future of the agency. He spoke of game-changing technologies that would allow astronauts to travel to Mars in "days not months". Bolden is referring to a new kind of space propulsion, one that has not yet been used to push astronauts around in space. These rockets don't derive their energy from the chemical combustion of propellant, but rather from an external thermal or electrical source. As a consequence, they can accelerate exhaust gases to far greater velocities than chemical rockets can—so long as they have enough power available from the external source.

VASIMR concept with nuclear reactors
One concept for a nuclear-powered
VASIMR rocket
What Bolden didn't make clear was the amount of power needed to get to Mars so quickly. His remarks are informed by a study on the VASIMR plasma rocket, which concluded an expedition could reach Mars in 39 days if it had an available power of 200 megawatts. Two hundred megawatts of electrical power is an enormous amount. The whole International Space Station generates less than 250 kilowatts from its solar arrays, so it would take about 1000 times as many solar arrays for VASIMR to get humans to Mars in 39 days. To make things worse, the intensity of sunlight drops off as one travels away from the Sun. Solar panels alone will not work for a human mission to Mars.

The only realistic sources of power for these rockets are nuclear fission reactors. One nuclear reactor was flown in space by the United States in the 1960s, and over 30 were flown by the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, these reactors produced far less than 200 megawatts. A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier uses two reactors, each capable of producing 100 megawatts of electrical power. So it would take the power plant of one of these carriers for the VASIMR to push a crew to Mars in 39 days. Someone will have to get started on designing these reactors if NASA is going to live up to Bolden's words.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Drinking Age

The minimum legal drinking age in U.S. states is 21 instead of 18 because studies have shown it leads to fewer traffic fatalities. Most people drive on public roads, and want them to be safer. They realize that too many young adults are incapable of being responsible with alcohol, and they want to do something to prevent drunk driving. So these laws get voted in to protect people's safety.

These laws are particularly unfair to the minority of people, aged 18-20, who don't regularly drive on roads. College students who live on-campus and young adults who live in inner cities often don't own cars. It's absurd to outlaw alcohol for these adults. Most reasonable people can see this—however, they are okay with keeping the law in place because it is acceptable to them to oppress the small minority that doesn't drive as long as it leads to safer roads. It seems unfair to discriminate against a minority lifestyle, regardless of how irresponsible the majority is. There is nothing wrong with walking, biking, or taking public transportation—the only relevant difference is that most Americans do not travel this way. I don't see how laws that make assumptions about people's lifestyle can be compatible with a free society. Why should undergraduates with drinks in their hands have to duck in the bushes every time they see a cop? The minimum drinking age of 21 clearly discriminates against a minority lifestyle.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Review: Three Musicians

Three Musicians is a 1921 Picasso painting that shows the characteristics of Synthetic Cubism. Like earlier Cubism, there is a discontinuity between forms. The fingers of the musicians can be discerned, but there is no attempt to physically link these with the rest of their bodies. Instead this link is only suggested, as can be seen in the sharp bend of the elbow of the leftmost musician. Putting together the separate parts of these figures is part of the joy of the work.

Three Musicians by Pablo Picasso art
In other aspects Three Musicians departs from the first phase of Cubism, which was concerned with analyzing three-dimensional forms. This work is overwhelmingly two-dimensional; the patterns in the central musician's clothes are rendered as they would be if pressed flat on a table, not wrapped around a real body. Though this work was painted with oil on canvas, the sharp corners of the shapes suggest the cut-and-paste collage—a technique used by Picasso years before he made Three Musicians. The varied colors in Three Musicians help to create a relaxed mood, and they can be contrasted with the limited greens, greys, and browns in early Cubism.

Perhaps the work would have been better without the musicians' eyes, which are little more than widely-spaced holes that expose the background color. I think making out the figures is clear enough without the eyes, and they don't seem to add anything to Three Musicians. Nonetheless, Picasso should be commended for experimenting and innovating. As long as there is artistic innovation, there will be hope.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Cosmic Paradigm

The cosmic paradigm is an inevitability. It is what we'll have when parochialism finally gives way to an objective view of the universe—when it's normal to speak with the perspective of other times and other places. Only with a cosmic paradigm will humans be capable of relating to intelligent extraterrestrial life. Only when reason dominates superstition, when empathy marginalizes prejudice, and when understanding trumps xenophobia, will we be able to know our place in the cosmos and thus communicate meaningfully with others in it.

The cosmic paradigm will bear witness to pioneers of civilization, men and women who leave behind the comfort and security of a terrestrial existence for a chance to start again, to build new lives, to develop new cultures. They will stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, but they won't be followers—for a follower will find little respite in the austere cosmos. Images of these visionaries will remain in the back of our minds, lodged inextricably, no matter how hard we try to forget them. We'll talk to each other as if they're not out there, but we'll know. We'll know they are out there fighting for humanity, armed with the best science, the purest creativity, and the strongest willpower. They will be battling the toughest environments ever treaded by man. Some of them will make it out there. Others won't. All will be heroes.

We may never find alien intelligence. But if we were to scour the universe and find none, many eons from now, would we regret the journey?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review: Beyond Good and Evil

Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil is less a coherent book with a single theme than a grab bag of the man's ideas. You will not necessarily learn anything from this book, but it will challenge your assumptions and provoke your prejudices. It is a work entirely out of place in its own time and in ours. The seemingly random tangents in Beyond Good and Evil are not limited to this book, however, as it is central to Nietzsche's philosophy that phenomena be investigated from all possible angles—without preconceived dogmas on how to proceed.

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche bookRead more reviews on Amazon Nietzsche's rejection of an objective morality is clear in both the title of this work and in the aphorism "there are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena." He sees a single morality imposed on all as detrimental to the stronger, more capable, more artistic individuals. Nietzsche has no sympathy for the herd; it is only exceptional individuals that he cares about. For him, scarcity is necessary for something to have value. This is the kind of value he admired in Jews, which he described as "beyond any doubt the strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe." This quote should put to rest any claim that Nietzsche encouraged anti-Semitism.

There are some aspects of the book that stand out as weak. Nietzsche didn't understand evolution; he apparently believed that acquired characteristics can be passed on to offspring. This idea is called Lamarckism, after French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. It is overwhelmingly rejected today in light of evolution and genetics. So some of Nietzsche's praise and criticism of various races is surely misplaced. The section on women is also unsophisticated. Probably the only worthwhile thing to take from it is that men and women are different and there's no need to work towards identical roles in society. He may have recognized this, though, and included it anyway to make the point that even he is prejudiced.

I think that Nietzsche was the loneliest person in recorded history. There may have been lonelier people, but for whatever reason their thoughts were not inscribed on anything that made it to us today. Beyond Good and Evil is one such book that did make it to us. Nietzsche wrote a poem at the end of the book about how he wished new friends would come along. It was new friends he wanted, though, and he must have known they would never come.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Reaching for the Stars Is Not Just a Metaphor

Part of NASA's stated mission is "to inspire the next generation of explorers ... as only NASA can." There is only one way NASA can inspire kids to pursue science and engineering, and that is by sending astronauts to personally explore destinations in space. Kids are not inspired by press releases, mission statements, classroom presentations, computer animations, or even robotic missions. They are inspired by heroes—real humans whom they can idolize and follow. They see real people walking on the Moon, and they realize that it's possible. Kids can strive to become spacewalkers; they can't strive to become robotic probes.

If we want NASA to be inspiring, we cannot take shortcuts on human spaceflight. We cannot have it both ways—it's one or the other. I don't understand where the inspirational component will come from in the new NASA direction. While the Constellation program may have been lacking in innovation, it was at least a plan with concrete goals. At least it involved sending humans beyond low Earth orbit. And at least it was something to build off of. The new plan seems little more than a set of vague references to future missions. When are they going to happen? What milestones will serve to coordinate NASA's efforts? Just because Charles Bolden uses adjectives like "bold" and "ambitious" doesn't mean NASA's activities are either.

There are some of us out here who want to see humans physically orbiting other stars. Not in our lifetime, but we want to be a part of that effort. Exploration is an end in itself. We want to get started on this journey and see evidence of our progress. In our lifetimes, we want to see humans fly through the Solar System and colonize other worlds. We want to see them establish interplanetary commerce and create new ways of life. Sooner or later kids realize whether the achievements of adults match their rhetoric. So reaching for the stars is not just a metaphor.