Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Geology field trip to Mono Lake

Every term I try to go on the Ge136 field trip. This class, a student seminar based cornucopia of learning, has taken me on trips throughout the American south west. This time was no exception.

On many of the classes we've driven straight up the Owens valley towards Lake Tahoe or similar. This time, we drove a lot less (only ~800 miles) and enjoyed some of the places slightly closer to home.

The trip began at 5:30am on Saturday. Surprisingly, everyone was there on time. We loaded the trucks and headed out via the 210, 5, and 14 as the sun roared over the horizon. Before long we were through Mojave and up onto the Garlock fault, where I gave my talk on the Rand Schist. We proceeded throughout the day, stopping for lunch and talks at the Alabama Hills and Lone Pine Fault, eventually reaching our campsite at Convict Lake around sunset. The glacial valley terminated in a coloured spire of rock displaying a particularly nice metamorphic roof pendant. 

It was incredibly windy. Windy enough that talking was difficult. We lashed our tents to relatively immovable objects and huddled around a beaten fire. Dinner, of chili with a secret ingredient, was filling and excellent. A and I walked down to the lake to attempt photography, but constant spray and tripods being unable to stay up in the wind led us to give up. We returned to the campsite and organised a mercy dash to a nearby hot spring. Two cars departed, but only ours managed to find a sufficiently empty hot spring in time. We relaxed under the open sky and discussed terraforming and other sciency stuff. A few meteors flew overhead.

At length, we returned to the campsite, I warmed my sleeping bag near the fire, then retired to the camp stretcher and bundled up against the cold. Taking a few long exposures required enough crunches to ensure I was thoroughly warm by the time I went to sleep. Having slept only 3 hours the night before and driven all day, I passed out extremely quickly.

The next morning, I woke, inverted my previous actions resulting in a dressed, upright Casey, packed my stuff, ate some breakfast, and we were on the road. We talked about dating of glacial moraines and eventually drove as far as Bodie, a ghost town north of Mono Lake. Booming and busting in 5 years, Bodie's remaining buildings (much of the town burned down historically) are remarkably well preserved. By this time the wind had died enough to allow an attempt at drone flying. We checked out the museum and some of the houses, while trying to imagine how it had been in 1880, bullets flying everywhere, gold dust in the air, constant noise and the thrum of possibility.

Later that day, we drove back to Mono Lake, shivered during the sunset while hearing talks on hydrology, history, volcanoes, microbiology, and so on. Soon after we departed through half-dead forests for our campsite nearby, set up and cooked spaghetti for dinner. The first sign of trouble came when cleaning off the tables we encountered patches of nice. That night, the temperature dropped to -8C/20F, which was so cold I put on some socks with my sandals. Waking up frequently to shiver afforded terrific opportunities to admire the stars, galaxies, meteors, and quality campfire singing. Eventually the sun rose, two dozen or so frozen icicles stumbled from the tents and trembled their way to the coffee pot and lightly burnt toast.

We packed and returned to Mono Lake, then some of the surrounding volcanic craters, and gradually made our way south via the Bishop tuff, some tasty road cuts, canyons, and another glacial valley with awesome marble metamorphic rocks and tungsten mines, and some hot springs. Soon it was time to head back and we zoomed down the 395 to get home by 9pm.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Article: Hong Kong Protests

This article originally appeared in the California Tech on Tuesday 21 October 2014.

Hong Kong is one of the most vibrant, prosperous cities in the world. Rising to power and prominence under British colonial rule, it was formally handed over to the People's Republic of China in 1997. Despite being part of China, Hong Kong has always enjoyed a privileged administrative status under the One Country, Two Systems model with a substantially different economic structure and a vibrant political life. Hong Kong is ruled by a Chief Executive (something like a governor) elected by an Election Committee of (today) 1200 entities, representing individuals, districts, large business interests and other organizations, and serve up to two consecutive 5 year terms. Not unlike the governing structure of a modern multinational corporation, economic power carries real political power.

In 2007, the then Chief Executive Donald Tsang published the Green Paper on Constitutional Development which was subsequently ratified by the National People's Congress Standing Committee, the relevant governmental body in mainland China. Since the end of British rule there have been only 3 Chief Executives. They preside in a responsive way over the rapidly developing economy and political climate, leading to a much more dynamic constitutional framework than that to which we are accustomed in the USA. This Green Paper was seen as a compromise between mainland China and the Pan-Democratic movement which enjoys the support of about 60% of the population, as it ruled out the possibility of a general election by universal suffrage in 2012, but allowed for the possibility of election of the Chief Executive and Legislative Council (something like the US Senate) by universal suffrage in 2017, then a decade away.

Fast-forward to 2014, and it is now time for the National People's Congress (the Chinese governing assembly) to decide how to implement the recommendations of the Green Paper. To the original wording they added the stipulation that the Election Committee must preselect two or three candidates who 'love the country and love Hong Kong', and that any election by universal suffrage must contain institutional safeguards for this purpose. While all historically elected Chief Executives have been Nonpartisan (pro Beijing), a general election may upset this balance and lead to the legitimization of separatist policies. Beijing worries that this would set a dangerous precedent. The proposed vetting of candidates by >50% approval from the (mostly pro Beijing) Election Committee largely obviates this concern, as does the process by which Beijing must officially appoint the Chief Executive for the duration of their term.

It is thus important to realise that the resulting protests are not pro-democracy in the sense that Beijing is removing pre-existing rights, but that they are punting promised progress on the issue. Hong Kong has never had anything like representative democracy. It is also far from clear that a populist majority government would naturally serve the best interests of the people, who enjoy prosperity borne by the freewheeling economic nature of the city, a prosperity certain to be harmed in any chilling of relations with the mainland.

The resulting protest is not a singular group, but actually involves representatives of four distinct groups. The first participants in the protest were student led groups who announced and executed a weeklong class strike. Comprised of Scholarism, representing secondary school students, and Hong Kong Federation of Students, representing tertiary students, they began their protest by ditching school for a week to really get their point across. Of course, no longer in school, these students sought to occupy public spaces and subsequently had antagonistic encounters with police. While tame by the standards of the Arab Spring or even Occupy Wall Street, the use of pepper spray and tear gas against secondary school students galvanized the movement, leading to the accelerated involvement of the third group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a non violent local branch of the Occupy movement. The fourth movement, the pan-democracy camp, is an alliance of the many pro-democracy political factions in Hong Kong. They must be the most patient advocates of democracy in existence.

The student-led groups have stated their goals are

  • Universal suffrage.

  • Resignation of the incumbent Chief Executive CY Leung, partly in response to perceived disingenuous statements and actions as the protests proceeded.

  • The withdrawal of the decision of the National People's Congress.

  • The submission of a new electoral reform plan that includes civil nomination of candidates for the Chief Executive.

This is not your garden variety protest. International coverage focused on the largely peaceful nature of the protests. To date there has not been a single death, and a relatively tiny fraction of injuries. The protests, which have consisted of disruptive occupation of central arterial streets, have been exceptionally well organized, with guest lectures, homework, decentralized distribution of food, water, clothing, shelter, and the development of mobile medical facilities. Communication has also stepped up - lessons learned during Egypt's short-lived revolution now translate to dedicated apps for encrypted peer-to-peer mesh networks, although many participants' phones were also compromised by phishing attacks distributed by SMS. The protests became known as the Umbrella Movement due to the innovative use of umbrellas to deflect tear gas cannisters. Cannisters, protesters noted, often manufactured in the US.

As usual, mainstream media coverage has downplayed the size of the protests, especially in mainland China, but the protests regularly drew around 100,000 participants, easily occupying several blocks of the city with multi-leveled roads recognizable in the astonishingly prescient film Pacific Rim. Confrontations between police typically escalated to the firing of tear gas and arrests of dozens (but not hundreds) when protesters or police managed (often inadvertently) to surround each other. Arrested protesters have consistently been released soon after detention. As the protest has developed, protesters and police have generally interacted with a great deal of mutual respect, as the politically unaligned police clearly work long hours to keep the peace and have largely eschewed the earlier tactical error of appearing in riot gear and wielding batons. Perhaps the greatest strategic error and outbreak of violence occurred when police unfamiliar with social media were brought in from the mainland and beat up a bunch of school children, all recorded and instantly shared on the internet. This blunder is probably the single greatest contributor to the current detente, especially in contrast with the  overworked Hong Kong police, who have also protected the pro-democracy protesters from violent attacks by pro-business or Triads-linked counter protesters. As of this week, many protesters have returned to school, but still return to the streets in substantial numbers in rapid response to progress or lack thereof during ongoing negotiations.


What is the outcome? In many respects the protests have been atypical. Protesting about a proposed political process three years in advance is unprecedented. The key stakeholders, consisting of entrenched business interests aligned with Beijing, as well as a Beijing extremely wary of local movements for separatist or autonomous political innovation, are unlikely to budge. On the other hand, a new generation of youths educated with relatively unfiltered access to the internet and personal communication tools of extreme efficiency have a strong interest in gaining unfettered access to the political process both within Hong Kong and China more generally. Although the state has a jealously guarded monopoly on violence, it is likely that any suppressive response is likely to spawn matching unrest on the mainland, with the possibility of future Tiananmen Square-like trouble. Although the main sources of endemic unrest on the mainland - perceived economic inequality - are less relevant in Hong Kong, the possibility of a forged common cause is likely to lead to some tense meetings in the halls of power. At the least, token concessions carefully measured to avoid encouraging disruptive protest action are none-the-less likely to materialise in order to appease ongoing frustration in the youngest generation.

Perhaps the least terrible hypothetical outcome is the eventual formation of a second, lower house of government, a chamber of the people, elected by universal suffrage, to complement a senate-like body of the Election Committee and Legislative Council, where the Chief Executive becomes in essence a powerful Secretary of the Treasury. Meanwhile a Secretary of State elected by the lower house leads the government and bargains hard for Hong Kong's ongoing semi-autonomy and ensures that Hong Kong's continued prosperity is adequately shared. If moves in this general direction are not made officially, it is only a matter of time until app-based consensus gains enough legitimacy to claim a seat at the table of real power, with or without the approval of the existing governance structure.

Friday, October 17, 2014

NASA Commercial Crew Transport Capability: Winners and Loser

NB: This article originally appeared in the California Tech, the Caltech student newspaper, on Monday October 13 2014.

Starting in 2009, NASA began a process of selecting private companies to provide astronaut transport capabilities to low Earth orbit. Coinciding with the retirement of the space shuttle, the program is intended to maintain US crewed space capability, reduce dependence on the Russian space agency, cut costs, promote innovation, and allow NASA to focus on crewed deep space exploration, should they ever receive a mandate to do so.

Despite a substantial under-provision of funds from congress, the program has proceeded, with yearly reviews, designed in collaboration with the key players, to assess ongoing performance via 'Milestone goals' and keep the program focused. The biggest prize by far in this program is the development of the spacecraft, and by the beginning of 2014, three main contenders were still in play.

Boeing, the giant of US aerospace, has a long history of building rockets and space systems, including the Atlas V launch vehicle with United Launch Alliance. With tens of thousands of spare engineers and a deep understanding of the bid process, they proposed the CST-100, a very conservative capsule design based on proven technology.

SpaceX, the startup space company based in Hawthorne, has managed to bend the CCtCap process around their own development of the Dragon V2 capsule, a design with significantly more capability than called for during the process. With incredible design and manufacturing innovation, SpaceX is making waves in every part of the launch business, including their high-profile argument with ULA over sharing the military satellite launch business.

Sierra Nevada Corporation, a smaller and private aerospace electronics and systems company had branched out into the launch business with the development of the Dream Chaser lifting body spaceplane, as well as the new Virgin Galactic rocket motor. The Dream Chaser is designed to launch atop the Atlas V, then re-enter and land on a regular runway, whereas SpaceX and Boeing's capsules are designed to land with parachutes and/or rockets on land. All are designed to carry up to 7 people and to be reusable.




Sierra Nevada Corp.



Dragon V2

Dream Chaser





Gross mass to LEO

20,000 lbs

16,600 lbs

25,000 lbs

Milestone goals




The latest decision on capsule development was expected by September 2014. NASA was widely expected to pick two of the three designs to proceed, based on progress and assessments of future risk.

At this point it was anybody's race. Boeing had asked the most to develop the least capable capsule, but had experience and resources. SpaceX had asked the least to develop a futuristic capsule design, to be launched on their own Falcon 9 rocket. Sierra Nevada had also proposed a relatively cheap development for the Dream Chaser, but would have to launch it with ULA (and hence Boeing's) Atlas V rocket.

Adding to the complexity, the Atlas V is not presently rated for human flight. Rating the Atlas V is a complex program that Boeing understandably would be charging contractor rates for if its CST-100 capsule was not selected. If that wasn't enough, the Atlas V uses the Russian built (and thoroughly badass) RD-180 rocket on its first stage. ULA has admitted that they have a limited supply of engines and uncertain capability to build copies themselves. Recently they contracted Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos's private rocket company, to build a replacement engine (the BE-4) powered by methane and oxygen.

On September 16, NASA announced that SpaceX and Boeing would proceed, while Sierra Nevada would not receive further funding. In response, Sierra Nevada pledged to continue development with internal funds, cooked up a version of the Dream Chaser which could launch from the Stratolaunch plane, and filed a formal protest, citing similar progress to Boeing but a lower cost. The result of the protest will be determined by January, but the result was anticipated fairly widely.

NASA is leery about space plane designs, after the experience with the shuttle. The promise of a cheaper, reusable rocket was belied by the reality. The shuttle, for all its benefits, was also a technological nightmare, extremely expensive, not particularly safe, and spent a very large proportion of its overall power lifting wings, wheels, brakes, and empty space into orbit. When a really good rocket can get 3% of its launch mass into orbit, the last thing you want is a spacecraft which comes with substantial weight penalties for features of limited utility. While the shuttle could land on a runway, there were only a few runways long enough in the whole world, requiring precise targeting and good weather. In contrast, the Russian workhorse Soyuz capsule can land anywhere, including once famously on a frozen lake.

On Saturday, Aviation Week obtained and published a copy of NASA's report into the decision. This report states in part "[We] consider SNC's design to be the lowest level of maturity, with significantly more technical work and critical design decisions to accomplish. The proposal did not thoroughly address these design challenges and trades. [The proposal] has more schedule uncertainty. For example, some of the testing planned after the crewed flight could be required before the crewed flight, and the impact of this movement will greatly stress the schedule."

The Dream Chaser looks great and promises a lot, but it is clear from this quotation that large aspects of the design are still to be hashed out. Given that uncertainty, it is not surprising that NASA chose to exclude them from the final stage of the program.