Elevator up 30km to the Spaceport Hotel

update: There's a serious flaw in this idea that didn't occur to me when writing it...balloons lose their efficiency with altitude. So, yes, permanent platforms in the sky might me possible, and even useful (I like the idea of a floating yet anchored hotel), but they aren't going to be high enough to make space elevators any more practical. However, I'll leave the rest of this post as is.


For years, science fiction writers have been describing the concept of a space elevator. Rather than blasting off the face of the earth in a rocket, why not crawl up a cable all the way to space? It would certainly be much more efficient, though with somewhat less spectacular launches. The problem is, most experts say it will take a decade or more to build an actual space elevator.

Yes, it's a big problem to get a tether that stretches 100km into space, not the least of which is getting a material that can support it's own weight over that great a distance. Even then, the payloads are going to be small for quite some time. But, there just might be an easy short-term solution: balloons. Balloons can get 30km up fairly easily - and stay there for extended periods of time.

This might sound simplistic, but why don't we tie a whole bunch of high-altitude balloons onto a platform that is tethered to the ground? Why are we launching rockets from the ground when we could have a spaceport 30km up the gravity well? I'm not talking about launching a rocket after hoisting it up with a balloon. I'm talking about having a big platform, 30km up, regularly serviced by multiple elevators running up and down tethers. I'm talking about a high-altitude tourist hotel. If the proposed Aeroscraft will be capable of lifting 500 tons of material. What's to stop an absolutely massive structure supporting orders of magnitude more?

Imagine, if you will, a very large circular structure, something like the donut space stations of science fiction, with a central launch platform for rockets or, eventually, a tether all the way into space. Around the outside are hotel rooms for tourists; above them, hundreds of large balloons. So many balloons that they can be individually replaced as needed without any significant effect. Below, multiple tethers to the earth with elevators running up and down them constantly.

It would be a structure low enough down such that high-strength tethers could be used; not flimsy ribbons of carbon nano-tubes that can barely hold their own weight. I'm talking thick, heavy cables that tons of material can be hoisted up and down. I'm talking lots of thick cables capable of holding the spaceport where it is, no matter what the wind brings. It would be a structure high enough that it would be practically useful; a rock-solid spaceport securely suspended above all the nasty thick atmosphere and weather. It would be a place where it's easy to launch small rockets into space, where a 70km long space-tether might just stand a chance of working.

Why does the space-elevator concept have to go from the ground up to space in one go? We could easily break off the lower 30km segment, where most of the problems with wind exist, just by floating a platform with balloons.


Anonymity is under attack

A long time ago, you were who you said you were. When societies formed, you were who the people that knew you said you were. Then, as commerce spread beyond the reach of person to person communication, you were your signature. Today you are all that plus your identification. ID, the stuff that links who you are to records in other peoples lists. Lists, databases, records, files, statements, the stuff of the information age. Today, you are what you’ve done; your credit history, your employment history, your tax records, your driving record, your criminal record, and other bits of information all tell the story of your life. No matter who you would like others to believe you are, the truth is out there. Being anonymous, hiding from this truth means not giving out your last name, not showing your ID.

New technology will put this anonymity under attack. Iris scanning, voice and face recognition software, and DNA testing, will inexorably link the person to the record. Some banks are already planning on using iris scans for access to bank machines; look at the camera and it will give you access to your money. So much for letting your deadbeat brother use your spare bank account. Voice printing can be used to link telephone calls; If you call a company for help twice, they will link the calls together. If you were rude the first time then you’ll probably wind up on hold for a very long time. Face recognition software is new and extremely powerful. We’re already used to security cameras; soon they will be able to link each face that walks by. Imagine this setup in a car dealership. You’ve decided what you want to buy but figure you’d get a better price if they didn’t know you were so keen. You drive to the dealership in the next town and walk in. Their computer system, being cross-linked to a nation wide database, recognizes who you are and alerts the salespeople to what you’re interested in, how much the last offer was, maybe even how much money you have and how old your current vehicle is. So much for pretending disinterest. DNA testing is in the news every week with stories about how it solved twenty year old crimes or about the controversies surrounding the ethics of sampling. The more successful civil libertarians are at preventing groups of people from being sampled, the more information the authorities will collect from each sample they can take. Remember that DNA is also used to resolve paternity suits and show inter-relatedness. There's a lot of information in a strand of hair. You may never have been sampled but your cousin might have; if you leave your DNA at the scene of a crime, they will know you’re related.

Like it or not, the people you deal with in your life will know who you are. They will know what you’ve done and they will treat you accordingly. This is the inevitable result of the information revolution and, like it or not, we're all going to live with the results. If we force government to not use this technology then we’ve just left the power to the corporations. If we pass laws to prevent corporate use then we leave the technology to the criminals. We could wear dark sunglasses, face masks, disguise our voice, and somehow mask our DNA to avoid recognition but we won’t. We’ll learn to live with the lose of anonymity like we adapted to ID cards. Perhaps, in the long run, it will be better. After all, what’s wrong with living with the consequences of your actions?

Easter Island - It's All How You Look At It

Easter Island is that little speck of land, out in the Pacific, with all those massive stone statues staring out over the water. For years, it was an enigma; who carved those statues, how, and why? When the white explorers got there, the inhabitants of the island didn't carve these statues, they couldn't. And, even if they could, they would have no way of moving the statues to the shore. There were no trees on the island, nothing to make rope with, just bushes and grassland. It was one of those things that just didn't make sense.

Well, some enterprising scientists have figured out the answer. They did some anthropological type excavations and, with counting pollen, bones, and whatnot, learned that Easter Island was not always as it is now. It used to be a tropical paradise, teeming with forests and a diversity of life. It also held human populations far larger than they are today; those people built ocean-going boats and fished far from shore, or so the bones say. Those people, with access to palm trees and the ropes made from them, were the ones that carved all the great statues around the island. The scientists went on to theorise, from other evidence one would presume, that great clans carved these statues as part of the warfare they waged against each other. Then, one day, for some reason none of us will ever really know, they cut down the last tree. The very, very, last tree on the island. After that, no more ropes, no more wood to make canoes...no more fish from the deep ocean. Well, after that, things didn't go very well for the inhabitants of Easter Island. As the clans fought over the dwindling resources available, things got very, very nasty. In the end, the population crashed and the few that remain still use colourful curses like "your mothers flesh is caught in my teeth."

Today, Easter Island is used as a parable for the earth as a whole. We too are consuming the resources of our island at an unsustainable rate. Some day, we too will, metaphorically, cut down the last tree. After that, things will get very nasty for all of humanity - or so the parable goes. However, as well as being a cautionary tale, Easter Island also offers a ray of hope. It all depends on how you look at it.

When you look at what the investigating scientists have deduced as activities undertaken by the earlier society, they discuss things like fishing porpoises far offshore. This must have been quite risky for the participating fishermen; a risk not shared by the current inhabitants. They mention how competing rival clans built, and moved, the great statues, a year’s work for twenty carvers and hundreds for moving. Labour not shared by the current inhabitants. They mention the hereditary chiefs, warriors, bureaucrats, and priests that provided a framework for the early society; all unnecessary on the island today. In their tale of environmental destruction and warnings for the future, they fail to mention one point: while the fall was, most likely, a particularly nasty time, the inhabitants today, as when the first Europeans arrived, live a fairly nice life.

Easter Island currently has a peaceful egalitarian society free from war and its attendant warriors, priests, and rock-carving megalomaniac leaders. It is balanced with what remains of its environment and can sustain itself indefinitely. From this lesson, it would seem that the people of earth have a bright future. After we too destroy or consume everything worth fighting over, we may yet attain the peaceful utopia that intellectuals have long sought.


Punk Rock, Science, and Zoot Suits

When I was fourteen my identity pretty much focused on my abilities as a dirt biker; music wasn't much of a factor in my life. My older brother, on the other hand, was a hard core punk rocker. I remember visiting him in the early days of the Vancouver punk rock scene. The parties were something else. Those punk rockers were a wild looking group of people, with spiked mohawks, chains, and lots of leather. The funny thing was, after I got to know them, I realised they were just regular people. They had the same concerns as anyone else, well, except for having to worry about their hair poking friends in the eye. The music did take a little getting used to. In time I realised the music was more than just a song, it was a statements of philosophy; it was the ideals of punk rock in musical form. These songs exemplified the ideas that you don’t have to follow the normal patterns and that you don't have to know what you're doing; just get out there and do it. By not learning, and even actively rejecting, the established norms, punk rockers experimented with musical forms. Most of what they came up with was junk; no one but a punk rocker would ever choose to listen to it. Some of the music, on the other hand, was good in a “mainstream” music kind of way. The current “alternative” music scene grew from punk rock roots.

Classical music, on the other hand, is completely different from punk rock; it is the study of form. Students start by learning the fundamentals of music, the scales, and slowly work their way up learning from the masters that came before them. Eventually, these students become masters and know everything there is to know about the special musical area they have followed a path to. Each new master then begins to experiment with variations, trying to expand the form beyond what the past masters had achieved. Thus classical music grows as each successive master adds a little something new; each extends the form a little bit farther.

Academic knowledge is much the same as classical music. Each scholar learns from the masters that came before and, after learning everything in a particular area of study, the scholar masters the field and then works to extend the knowledge. Students will specialise with each branch they take until they have mastered a very specific field of study. These new masters, having learned everything there is to know about the behaviour of neutrinos in high energy accelerators or the works of a particular eighteenth century British author, for example, will then begin research to expand the knowledge in that area. In this way, the body of knowledge in a particular area of study grows with each master.

Punk ideals can also work in the pursuit of knowledge. When academics only learn from the work of others, who came before them, then other possible paths may be hidden. By actively choosing to not learn, or even rejecting, what others have done and experimenting on their own, individuals may come up with knowledge that others have overlooked. Sure, most of what these individuals come up with will be junk, or will have been done before, but there is always the chance that they will come up with something new. When individuals reject established knowledge then they create a path for new or innovative thinking. Just like the “alternative” mainstream music scene, a few individuals, willing to explore ideas in an unconventional way, can open up a whole new area of knowledge.

There is room in this world for classical music and punk rock. There is room for stodgy academics to master obscure fields of study and room for flaky individuals to reject established knowledge in favour of their own experiments. All are valid pursuits; all benefit society. Each form suits particular individuals. Some people excel at learning from past masters; others must go their own way. To some, the study of music forms the foundation of their lives. To others, the pursuit of knowledge is central. To each their own and in their own time. People change too; the flaky experimenter may grow to follow more formal academic pursuits or the stodgy academic may come to reject established knowledge. Visiting my brother in Vancouver a while back, we went to another party. I recognised quite a few of the same people I knew from the punk rock parties of the past. Gone were the spiked mohawks, chains, and leather, in favour of zoot suits and wing-tip shoes. There were no electric guitars, synthesizers, or screaming amplifiers, just pianos, saxophones, and double-basses beating out the rhythms of swing-jazz. At first I was a little shocked and asked my brother about it. He laughed and said “After decades in the music scene they’ve become experienced professionals.” I had to agree as they were excellent musicians. I had a good time that night; they’re still a great bunch of people.

UN Mandated Peace Making - Canada in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a place in constant turmoil that often breaks out into multi-polar civil war, often aided or even promoted by an invader. The current conflict in Afghanistan is a civil war that was provoked by invaders - our Allied forces. Before our side attacked, Afghanistan was, by its standards, stable. However, the Taliban, the ruling party, had a foreign policy that was not acceptable to Canadians, the UN General Assembly, or the Security Council. The world voted for a change - by force if necessary.

With this UN mandate, Americans, British, Canadian, Australian, and other special forces went to Afghanistan, deliberately upset the balance of power, and started a new civil war by backing Taliban opponents. The government quickly changed hands but the country is not stable. To achieve victory, we have to build up the capability of the side we support until they can maintain dominance over the Taliban and other elements. Others, notably the Russians, have tried this and failed. The Russians failed because America supported the opposing side to the point where the Russian-supported Afghan side could never achieve dominance without Russian troop support. Eventually, the Russians gave up and called their troops home. We have the same problem. Victory for our side in the current Afghan civil war, to the point where our troops can come home, is entirely dependent on how much outside support the other side is getting. Thus, victory in Afghanistan is entirely dependent on politics rather than military force. We will have to continue to support our side in Afghanistan more than the other side is being supported. For our support to reduce, our politicians must convince people to stop supporting the other side.

Meanwhile, our Canadian soldiers are experiencing limited combat in Afghanistan. This is a good thing, at least from a military perspective. This Afghan civil war is providing the perfect conditions for the Canadian forces revitalisation project. It provides controllable combat situations that are battle-hardening our soldiers, it is providing the impetus to streamline our military procurement processes, and it is encouraging some troops to retire while also encouraging others to enlist. This is exactly what the Canadian military needs at this point in history.

There is no doubt in military thinking about the benefits of limited combat in preparing soldiers. A soldier's combat effectiveness increases dramatically after a reasonable number of combat days. Green troops, without experience, either lack confidence or are too brash; there is no more sobering experience than being in combat. Soldiers quickly learn what they can do, what they should not do, and who they can trust. All of this makes them much better soldiers. A good general will always attempt to use green troops in situations that allow these soldiers to gain experience while not requiring too much of them and where they can be withdrawn to safety if necessary. Hillier is an excellent general; Afghanistan is the perfect place to season green troops. We have an all-volunteer army in Canada and our soldiers want to be in Afghanistan because there is opportunity for combat. It is what they train for, it will make them better soldiers, and it is good for their military career. Soldiers understand this.

Most Canadians agree that it is time to rebuild the Canadian Armed Forces. Imagine what would be happening now if we were not engaged in combat. Politicians would be thinking about military spending that would benefit their riding rather than protecting soldiers. The traditional Canadian "made in Quebec" pork-belly procurement system would rule the day and most of the billions being invested would be wasted, at least from a military perspective. Even for politicians, combat sharpens the senses and builds teamwork. No politicians would ever want to be in a situation where they, through political failure, were responsible for the death of combat soldiers. Just like soldiers in combat, during times of war politicians will, hopefully, put aside grievances and personal interested to support the effort.

Without the reasonable possibility of combat, people signing up as new recruits would be thinking about their education or careers rather than excitement and adventure. The latter make better combat soldiers. To be frank, many young people pursue risk. Their choice, then, is extreme sports, street racing, criminal activity, or combat. Combat is the ultimate risk and is very appealing to many people. At times of war, enlistment in combat positions goes up. America, for example, has no shortage of volunteers for combat infantry. What they are short of is truck drivers and other non-combat personnel. The situation is reversed during times of peace. Canada has, over the last four years, recruited around 20,000 personnel. However, their real numbers have only gone up by a few hundred. This is because many soldiers are retiring, some to avoid combat. The Canadian Armed Forces are transitioning from a relic of the Cold War to a modern combat force. Our participation in the UN mandated occupation of Afghanistan is helping immensely.

There is a lot of disagreement about what Canadian soldiers should be doing. Some say we should limit our role to UN mandated "blue beret" peacekeeping activities while others advocate for a more forceful role. With some understanding, this disagreement, for the most part, disappears.

The Canadian Armed Forces are not participating in Blue-Beret, Chapter-Six, UN sponsored peacekeeping activities because, for the most part, these activities have been spectacularly successful. The number of wars going on has reduced significantly over the years, in large part because of traditional peacekeeping. The peacekeeping role, first promoted by Canadians, works so well it has become rare for established states to be at war with each other. Further, there are many more nations willing to provide troops for these activities and, as such, there is much less demand for Canadian soldiers.

People promoting peace, buoyed by this success, are now trying to promote peace in more demanding situations where the belligerents are not easy to identify. Rwanda, described by Romeo Dallaire as a "Chapter Six and a half," is a prime example. Rwanda also illustrates two other important points. First, there is a real difference between trained combat soldiers from nations like Canada and the soldiers provided by other nations such as Bangladesh. Bangladeshi soldiers are perfectly competent in Chapter-Six UN missions but are not trained or equipped to replace combat soldiers when things get rough. Had Canada deployed a full brigade of combat soldiers, Rwanda would have been a different story. Second, Rwanda is also a prime example of why nations with combat-effective soldiers, like Canada, are extremely reluctant to deploy them under UN supervision. Simply put, the UN organisation is too cumbersome to support combat. Had Canada deployed a brigade to Rwanda, there would probably not have been a genocide but there could have been many, many Canadian casualties. This is why most countries, Canada included, prefer to deploy soldiers under their own command if there is any real chance of combat. Thus, while there are now very few Canadian soldiers wearing blue berets on UN commanded missions, there are very many Canadian soldiers, under NATO command, supporting UN mandated missions.

The Canadian Armed Forces are still heavily supporting UN mandated peace initiatives. Only now, with the easy jobs going to less capable nations, the jobs being asked of Canada are getting tougher. As such, we are conducting them under NATO command rather than under the UN blue-beret system. This is because NATO practices combat where the UN does not; combat soldiers require effective leadership to survive. Just because there are less Canadian soldiers under UN command does not mean that Canadians are not doing their part. Canadian soldiers are being asked to do the hardest jobs and they are excelling at them. Canadian soldiers are not off warmongering or invading countries for our, or America's, private interests. We are operating under UN mandate. The UN Secretary General is not asking Canada to pull troops out of Afghanistan and send them to the Congo; he is asking for us to be in Afghanistan, engaged in combat, where we can do the most good for the world.

In the interest of world peace, the UN gave a mandate to end Taliban dominance of Afghanistan. Afghanistan is now an occupied country and must remain so until the Taliban cannot come back into power. However, while this occupation is expensive, it is also helping the Canadian military during an important transition and rebuilding project. Afghanistan is not a peaceful place and is unlikely to be so for generations to come, but the people currently in power need to remain so. The alternative is to return to a state that sponsors international terrorism. The UN is attempting to deal with these 21st century problems as best it can. It reserves the better combat-trained soldiers for the tougher peace-making missions while using less capable soldiers for the easier chapter-six tasks. Canada, as always, is doing more than its share.