Monday, May 06, 2019

Phonics Works

Phonics is an intervention that works – at least in Bethlehem, PA, where the portion of kindergarteners testing at benchmark increased from 47% to 84% from 2015 to 2018 as the District moved from “whole word” to phonics instruction.  What's more, every kindergarten in the District showed marked improvements, with similar gains regardless of 2015 performance and regardless of the percent of students who are low income.  In the graph below, vertical distance above the red line indicates gain in percentage points.

Phonics remains controversial among educators (as does Whole Word).  For a good read on this topic, see this article from APM Reports.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Wrong Birthday May Cause ADHD

A recent study of 407,846 children, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), showed that the older children within each grade are about 30% less likely to be labeled as having attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Most U.S. school systems group children together in one-year cohorts based on a cutoff date, usually August 31 / September 1.  For those school systems, the NEJM article looked at rates of ADHD diagnosis for all of the children, grouped by month of birth.  The analysis primarily compared ADHD rates for adjacent months, as here:

The graphic above shows that the rate difference between August-born children and September-born children is statistically significant (p < .05; note the 95% error bar clearing the dotted “zero” line), but that no other adjacent months show a statistically significant difference.

I believed that one could show stronger evidence from a more holistic look at the data.  Using the table of data from above, I made a graph using r.  In the graph below, blue columns show the rate of ADHD diagnosis by birth month.  The oldest students, at left, have birthdays in September.  The graph also shows a red curved regression line, and orange 95% error bars for each month, based on a binomial distribution on each month's sample size.

To put this in narrative form, it is not so much that the youngest (August birthday) children have elevated ADHD rates, as that the older half of the class on the left has increasingly lower ADHD rates.  It appears that about a third of the oldest have matured out of the level of behavior which would result in an ADHD diagnosis.  Teachers and pediatricians might wish to take this into account especially before concluding that a child in the younger half of his class has ADHD, at least in borderline cases.

The younger half of the class at right shows a less clear trend.  This nonlinearity is shown by the curved regression line, which is upward sloping and downward curving.  Of course, humans make note of patterns, and random effects may look like a pattern.  To calculate whether these patterns are statistically significant, a regression looking at both the linear and squared features showed strong significance, with p < .001 for the upward sloping linear feature, and p = .001 for the squared feature (the downward curve).  Further analysis, considering that the actual statistical deviation of the measured samples is smaller than their apparent deviation compared to each other, brought p << .001. 

Recent Twitter correspondence with coauthor Timothy Layton provided a plausible explanation for the flattening on the right side of the graph: Children born in the summer are more likely to be held back a year, and thus to become the oldest children in a new cohort – especially if they exhibit less mature behavior.  This holding back may replace an ADHD diagnosis as a solution to behavioral issues, and/or may reduce later ADHD diagnoses as the child is now compared to a younger, less mature cohort.

Apart from what the data is about in this case, this analysis presented some interesting exercises for understanding the use of data:
  • that is categorized or grouped by range;
  • where the sampling error of the measured samples is smaller than their apparent deviation when compared to each other; and
  • where Monte Carlo simulations may prove helpful.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

I was reading "The 1970s Global Cooling Consensus was not a Myth" at

And so I decided to make a quick graph in R showing the extent of this consensus.  Here, -1 depicts a peer-reviewed scientific article predicting global cooling, 0 is a neutral article, and 1 predicts global warming.  (Dots are spread out a bit with the jitter command.)  Conclusion: While far from unanimous, the majority position in the late 1960s through early 1970s appears to be that global cooling is the likelier trend. (Not that that tells us much about the strength of current science.)

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Prep Schools and Test Scores
How do we rate teachers and schools?  One way, which has the advantage of being objective, but which is still controversial, is to consider their students’ test scores, and how much they go up while the students are being taught by a given teacher or at a given school.  The No Child Left Behind Act has likewise mandated tests for most public school students at a few points in their schooling.  We don’t have such mandated tests at private schools, but many private high schools (“prep schools”) require Secondary School Admission Tests (SSATs) of all their applicants, and have graduates who almost uniformly are applying to colleges and taking the SAT test.

This scatter graph shows information on the students’ testing at several prep schools which might be of interest to a student living in Massachusetts or New Hampshire, and which have released testing information to Boarding School Review (n.d.).

For each school, the horizontal location of the bubble marking the school shows how well the school’s students tested when they applied to the school (the average SSAT score, measured as a percentile, of incoming students).  And the vertical location of the bubble shows how well the school’s students test in their senior year at the school (the average SAT score, on a scale which goes to 2400) of graduates.

Since the SSAT and SAT test essentially the same thing (preparation for academic schoolwork, a combination of intelligence and learning measured mostly with regard to mathematical understanding, vocabulary and reading skill), we should not be surprised to see a fairly strong correlation between the two statistics.  This correlation can be expressed by an r2 of 78%, or by noting how nearly the schools’ bubbles fall along the best-fit diagonal trend line, as shown:

To the extent each school deviates above the trend line, we can say that the school is doing an above-average job of educating its students (at least, to the extent that SAT scores reflect education), and schools below the trend line appear to not be doing so well on this measure.  (The size of each circle indicates the number of students at the school; the color green indicates a girls-only school, blue a coed school, orange a day school.)

However, the information in this graphic should be a rather small part of judging a school’s academics, and academic strength may not be the most important factor when judging how happy or successful a particular child will be at a particular school.

Further, the height of the dots above the diagonal line may not be as important in choosing a school as is where the school falls along the diagonal line.  Although most people want to go to the most selective prep school (or college) that they get into, it is unclear whether this is the ideal choice in terms of academic progress, let alone social life.  Imagine a student who scores at the 90th percentile on the SSAT.  At a school near the center or on the left of the chart she will be among the stronger students; this may lead to increased self-confidence and self-identification as a scholar; on the other hand, it may instead lead to laziness as a moderate effort may be all that is necessary to have average or even above-average grades.  At an academically tougher school on the right of the chart, the 90th-percentile scorer will likely not be among the stronger students; this may lead to harder work to keep up with peers, or it may lead to frustration and burnout.  So in choosing a school, one might have to guess whether one’s child is more likely to suffer from laziness or from low self-esteem.

A final caveat: With any system of measurement, the accuracy of the measurement goes down to the extent that the measured entity or the measurer has a stake in the outcome.  And as with public schools, colleges and law schools, prep schools have in the past sometimes fudged input and outcomes statistics.  One wouldn’t want to penalize a school for being honest.


Boarding School Review. (n.d.). Retrieved from (2013). Scores: How to read your score report. Retrieved from

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Brookings and the Uses and Abuses of Economic Statistics

A pet peeve of mine is the use of slipshod social science and statistics as a mantle to conceal a weakly supported claim.   I sometimes see this with the output of ideological think tanks, organizations whose dissemination model usually involves getting mainstream publishers to credulously disseminate their “reports,” or press releases.  Sometimes I feel compelled to debunk such reports (e.g., Pittelli, 2016).

This week I noticed an article in the Washington Post Wonkblog (Badger, 2016).  This Wonkblog article reported on an economic analysis from the Brookings Institution.  It claims that a look at the changes in some economic statistics for America’s 100 largest cities over the past five years shows that economic growth does not do much to help the poor and working classes.

To test the validity of this claim, I downloaded the statistics used by Brookings and did some work on them in Excel and Tableau, an excellent visualization program I am currently learning for a course in the Data Analytics program at Southern New Hampshire University (

The Brookings article pointed out that “On average, the faster a metro economy grew, the more likely it was to experience improvements in inclusion [Brookings’ term for how well the poor are doing]” but then went on to refute a ridiculous strawman: “Yet growth in metro economies did not reliably improve all residents’ economic fortunes.”  Perhaps more important, the article’s headline was “In metro areas, growth isn’t reliably trickling down.” (Berube, 2016)

The Washington Post Wonkblog picked up the story with an even drearier headline (“All the people being left behind in America’s booming cities”).  The article disapprovingly quoted various business and Republican sources claiming that economic growth is the best way to help the poor and working class, told us that the Brookings report shows they are all mistaken, and ended by quoting an author of the Brookings report telling us that the report shows that the key to improving “inclusion” is increased government spending on the poor.

The Data
So what was all this based on?  Brookings took nine economic statistics, grouped them together in three groups of three, and gave the three statistics groups names which sound meaningful and important, namely: “growth,” “prosperity” and “inclusion.”  As these coinages are idiosyncratic, I will continue to put quotes around them.  In addition, Brookings’ and Wonkblog’s pessimistic reading of the Brookings statistics (primarily, that “growth” is not reliably leading to “inclusion”) is overblown for both statistical reasons and because the Brookings’ coinages are not meaningful or well-constructed.  I have three major issues with their conclusions:

First Issue
The Brookings “growth” measure covers the size of each city’s economy, whereas the “prosperity” and “inclusion” measures cover the per capita economy.  Naturally, growing cities attract workers from other cities with slower growth rates, and these workers – failed by their previous cities of residence – also benefit from a successful city’s growing economy.  But the positives of a city attracting new workers are overlooked by most of these statistics.  Indeed, to the extent a city is attracting new workers, its “prosperity” and “inclusion” measures will lag its “growth” measure, but these discrepancies are not a measure of urban failure, but rather of urban attractiveness.

Second Issue
Brookings claims of its “inclusion” statistic that:
Inclusion indicators measure how the benefits of growth and prosperity in a metropolitan economy are distributed among people. Inclusive growth enables more people to invest in their skills and to purchase more goods and services.

But these claims are not reasonably supported by the three statistics in question. 

Two of the parts of “inclusion” are Median wage and the Employment-to-population ratio (the share of all individuals aged 18 to 65 who are employed).  Neither of these measures tell us much about the bottom tier or working class or non-college graduates.  Median wage is a useful statistic, showing how the middle is doing.  Employment-to-population ratio is also meaningful, and it is perhaps troubling that today the level nationally is close to a 30-year low.  But people also can be unemployed due to prosperity, in the case of couples who can afford to have a stay-at-home parent, or people retiring before age 65.

The last of the statistics making up “inclusion” is the “Relative income poverty rate” (RIPR), which is “The share of people in a metropolitan economy who earn less than half of the local median wage.”  If a city saw everyone’s wages double, with no other changes, then RIPR would be unchanged.  But the low-earning people would certainly benefit from a doubling of real earnings, and they would be better able “to invest in their skills and to purchase more goods and services.”  Like other inequality measures, this one shows negative numbers when better off people see growth in their incomes, even when the people at the bottom are seeing the same or somewhat better incomes.  But this measure of inequality is worse than some others because the “well-off” whose income growth definitionally becomes a bad thing are merely those at the 50th percentile, not some category of rich which is divorced from “the people.”  In essence, as Median Wage is a denominator here, it will tend to cancel out much of the effect of the Median Wage statistic which is ostensibly one of the three parts of "inclusion."  Also, the RIPR statistic only looks at people with earnings, which means that someone going from no earnings (e.g., unemployed, on welfare, or in prison) to low earnings makes their city look worse off.  Further, a low-income person forced to move because he is priced out of, say, San Jose, California, makes that city look better off.

A more meaningful measure of inclusion, or how “benefits… are distributed” to the poor or working class, would look at a group such as the bottom quintile, and would measure whether this lowest-earning portion of the people saw increases or decreases in income (or consumption).  In the absence of such data, the median wage tells us more about the average person’s economic benefits and ability “to invest in their skills and to purchase more goods and services” than does Brookings’ “Relative income poverty rate.”

Third Issue
One cannot say flatly that a rising tide lifts all boats, or that it doesn’t; such a reality falls along a continuum.  I downloaded the three Brookings ranks for each of the100 cities, used Excel to semi-automatically put the tabular data into rows, and made scatter graphs in Excel and then Tableau.  I found that there is indeed a positive correlation between Brookings’ ranks of 5-year “growth” and “inclusion” measures, with a slope of 0.33 and an r-squared of 11%, meaning that one would expect that if one city has a "growth" that is 30 ranks better than a second city, then that first city will most likely have an "inclusion" that is 10 ranks better than the second city.  Further, 11% of all of the variation in the cities’ change of rank in “inclusion” may be explained by the variation in the cities’ change of rank in Brookings’ “growth” measure (P < 0.001).

Below is a scatter graph I constructed in Tableau using the Brookings rank data.  It shows the same dots as the scatter graph shown in the Wonkblog and Brookings articles, but with the addition of city names, where Tableau found room for them (note that the scales are reversed, as 100 is the worst score, and 1 is the best):

A quick glance at the scatter graph does not show any obvious pattern of correlation, and Wonkblog describes it as a “weak relationship.”   The article goes on to say that “This non-pattern is notable precisely because the rising-tide theory remains so alluring, particularly among Republicans.”  Those foolish Republicans!  It may be reasonable to describe a slope of 0.33 and a correlation of 11% as a weak relationship, but it is certainly not a “non-pattern,” not evidence with which to refute people who discern the pattern, and in particular not evidence that some other policies would work better than policies aimed at improving economic growth.

Note on Nonparametric Statistics
The cities are listed and graphed above by rank, not by the actual underlying statistics.  A list of ranks by definition has rank or ordinal scale, but not interval scale (i.e., adjacent cities always have a rank difference of one, but are not equally far apart from each other in terms of the underlying statistics.)  For normal statistical measures, such as those underlying the ranks, one would expect something close to a normal distribution, and that the interval between two adjacent cities which are ranked very high or very low would generally be greater than the interval between two adjacent cities near the middle of the distribution.  (Imagine that we have 100 people chosen at random, arranged by height; we are almost certain to see a greater height difference between the tallest person and the second-tallest person than between two adjacent people near the middle of the line.)

Because a rank difference of one does not rigorously translate to any particular difference in the data underlying the ranking process, a correlation of ranks is not as rigorous a measure as is the correlation of the underlying data.  Likewise, with ranked data, the associated scatter graph will have the appearance of a square which is relatively full of data points, right up to the edges of the square.  For these reasons, a correlation based on ranks could show significantly different values than a correlation based on the underlying statistics.

So given only rank data, a mathematical purist should prefer to use nonparametric statistics.  A person coming at the problem from the opposite standpoint – that is, with little knowledge of statistics – might also prefer the simplest or crudest of these nonparametric methods to determine correlation.  Looking again at the preceding scatter graph, it is visually divided into 4 quadrants, with 50 cities on either side of center, and 50 cities each above and below the center.  Each quadrant will have 25 cities if there is zero correlation by this measure.  But in fact, the quadrant counts are:

UL = 18

UR = 32

LL = 32

LR = 18

With 64/36 times as many cities at bottom left and upper right than at upper left and bottom right, there is clearly a positive correlation between the two variables.  The (simple and crude) quadrant count ratio is n(LL) + n(UR) - n(UL) - n(LR) all divided by N, and gives a number similar to r (the Pearson product-moment correlation coefficient), ranging from -1 to 1.  In this case: (64 – 36) / 100 = 0.28, which is, at the least, on the stronger side of “weak relationships.”

Further, one can see in the scatter graph that there are no cities very near to the upper left and bottom right extreme corners of the whole graph, while there are a few cities very near the bottom left and upper right corners.  In other words, cities with a poor ranking for “growth” also have a poor ranking for “inclusion,” while cities with an excellent ranking for “growth” also have an excellent ranking for “inclusion.”

Alternative Methods
All of the preceding correlations analysis is based on the assumption that the Brookings “growth” and “inclusion” statistics are meaningful and well-named constructs.  But as I noted in my First and Second points above, this is not the case.  So how would I show the relationship between economic growth and benefits to the people?

From the Brookings report, I obtained the nine separate statistics for each of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States.  These are all rates of increase/decrease for the last 5 years, the period emphasized in the Wonkblog article.  Note that I will use the Greek delta symbol Δ to denote change in a statistic, in this case change over the last 5 years expressed as a percentage (e.g., if a statistic increased by 10%, then it was multiplied by 1.10).

After cleaning up the data and putting it in row format in Excel, I noted the Pearson coefficients and r-squared figures for the pairings of these statistics.

So how much does economic growth in a city help the poor?  Just looking at the cities’ Δ Gross Domestic Product (GMP) as the proper measure of economic growth, we see:
·         an r-squared of 0.67 with Δ Aggregate Wages
·         an r-squared of 0.56 with Δ Jobs
·         an r-squared of 0.32 with Δ Average Wage
·         an r-squared of 0.25 with Δ Median Wage

I switched to Tableau at this point because it makes it easy to create a calculated field combining statistics and then to check a correlation with the calculated field.

Aggregate Wages is by definition equal to Average Wage * Jobs, which means that (1+ Δ Aggregate Wages) = (1+ Δ Average Wage) * (1+ Δ Jobs).

In other words, if a city’s Average Wage increases by 10% while its number of Jobs increases by 5%, then its Aggregate Wages increase by 15.5%.  (We multiply a 10% increase in one statistic by a 5% increase in a second statistic by multiplying 1.10 by 1.05 = 1.155 = an increase of 15.5%.)

It is no surprise that again looking at the cities’ Δ Gross Domestic Product (GMP), we see:

  •          an r-squared of 0.67 with Δ Average Wage * Δ Jobs – exactly the same as for Δ Aggregate Wages, as we should expect
  •          an almost-as-high r-squared of 0.61 with Δ Median Wage * Δ Jobs

Furthermore, the beta or slope of the regression line is 0.82 for Δ Average Wage * Δ Jobs and 0.85 for Δ Median Wage * Δ Jobs.

In other words, if one city has a GMP increase that is 10% higher than a second city, that first city will have Aggregate Wages growing on average 8.2% higher than the second city, and 67% of the variation in the growth in the 100 cities’ Aggregate Wages will be explained by growth in GMP alone.

Now, Average Wage can go up substantially just because the top 1% saw huge gains, so to see the improvement in wages of the typical person, we use the Median Wage.  And when one city has a GMP increase that is 10% higher than a second city, that first city will have (Median Wage * Jobs) growing on average 8.5% higher than the second city, and 61% of the variation in the growth in the 100 cities’ (Median Wage * Jobs) will be explained by growth in GMP alone.  Note this scatter graph of change in (Median Wage * Jobs) vs. change in GMP:

So it seems to me that the best way to describe the way in which relative growth in a city’s GMP correlates to relative growth in Wages and Jobs is “quite reliably.”  Sometimes there is more growth in Wages and sometimes more growth in Jobs.  But as noted above, when the number of Jobs has increased in a city, the people in that city have also benefited, either because the Employment ratio is higher than it would otherwise be (a factor which Brookings attempts to add separately), or because some of the people in that city are migrants who came to the city for a job and situation which is generally better than they could have gotten in the city they left behind (a factor which Brookings ignores).

The Brookings authors used questionable methods to combine and create statistics when there are singular statistics which are more meaningful and give more meaningful correlations.

The more complicated a statistical measure, the easier it is to fool oneself (or others) about the meaning of the statistic.  More complicated statistics also allow for more options for comparing the statistics, and more chances of finding what you want to find in a correlation or other comparison.  In this case, Brookings was looking at correlations of the statistics which they termed “growth” and “inclusion.”  Each of these statistics was formed by:

  •          Ranks,
  •          of Sums,
  •          of differences from the three different Means,
  •          divided by three different Standard Deviations,
  •          of Rates of change in,
  •          underlying statistics which were themselves, in some cases, the quotient of two statistics (i.e., one statistic divided by another).

These manipulations of the statistics could be defensible if the statistics were used for other purposes, but the manipulations (particularly the use of Ranks) made Brookings’ use of a scatter graph and related claims about correlation untenable. 

Why did Brookings convert absolute values to measures of standard deviation from the mean?  If one merely multiplies together different statistics (or 1+ Δ statistics), then the statistic which has more volatility has more effect on the compounded measure than does a statistic which has less volatility.  For some manipulations it may be helpful to eliminate these differences between the measures so they are equally weighted in effect.  But for the purposes of making up a “growth,” “prosperity” and “inclusion” measure, it would have been preferable to combine the three statistics without resort to the standard-deviations-from-the-mean manipulation.  If one statistic is close to the same for all the cities, then that statistic is indeed a less important contributor to any meaningful measure of a city.  If all cities are within 1% of each other in some measure, then that is a reason to note that the measure in question does not vary much and so is not an important way to distinguish the cities.  It is not a reason to multiply that measure’s contribution ten-fold because we are combining it with some other measure which varies by 10%.

But all in all, the biggest problem with the Brookings “inclusion” measure is that it has little to do with “how the benefits of growth and prosperity in a metropolitan economy are distributed among people” and even less to do with how able the cities’ people are to “invest in their skills and to purchase more goods and services.” A correlation of more straightforward statistics shows that a city’s Growth (ΔGMP) in fact reliably drives (slope = 0.85; r-squared = 0.61; P < 0.0001) its ΔMedian Wage and ΔJobs.


Badger, E. (2016, February 2). All the people being left behind in America’s booming cities. Washington Post Wonkblog. Retrieved from

Berube, A. (2016, January 29). In metro areas, growth isn't reliably trickling down. Retrieved from

Brookings. (2016). Metro monitor. Retrieved from

Pittelli, D. (2016, January-February). Cambridge 02138 – Letters to the Editor. Harvard Magazine. Retrieved from

Sullins, B. (n.d.). Enterprise business intelligence with Tableau Server. Pluralsight. Retrieved from

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Mexican Oatmeal Soup

I saw a recipe for Mexican Oatmeal Soup that Elizabeth Warren, Senate hopeful, had published in a Native American Cookbook, but which can also reportedly be found in The New York Times Bread and Soup Cookbook (1972). I made a few alterations for health, convenience and flavor. It was delicious (of course, or I wouldn’t be posting it!). My picky son thought he’d hate it, but when cajoled into a taste, said he liked it too. The soup is vegan, unless of course you pour it over meatballs or use chicken instead of vegetable broth.

2 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
½ Yellow Onion, chopped fine
1 Clove Garlic, chopped fine
½ Serrano Pepper, chopped fine
½ cup rolled oats
1 can (15 oz.) Petite Cut Tomatoes, drained
2 cups vegetable broth
½ tsp salt (If broth is low sodium or unsalted)
Handful of Cilantro (perhaps a tenth of a supermarket bundle), chopped

Heat the Olive Oil in a saucepan at medium heat.
Add the Onions and cook until they get translucent, about 5 minutes, stirring a couple times.
Add the Garlic and Hot Pepper and cook for about 5 more minutes, occasionally stirring.
Add the Oatmeal and cook for about 3 more minutes, occasionally stirring.

Then add the Tomatoes, Broth, Salt, and Cilantro. Bring to a boil and boil for at least 5 minutes over medium heat, occasionally stirring and checking texture. (Naturally, the oatmeal will get softer and the liquid will get thicker over time.) Remove from heat when texture is as desired; serve hot. Optionally, ladle soup into bowls over chopped meatball or chicken.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Obama Against Poker

If Obama can play poker with his Chicago cronies, how come the rest of us can't play it on line?

Click on the headline for a news link from (The story was covered more dispassionately by most major news sources.)

Fortunately, I only use play money online. So I haven't had any funds frozen by the Feds. But it pisses me off that I can't go to Poker Tilt any more. Its software and game options were far superior to games elsewhere. I also doubt that any of the real money players will be better off -- indeed, they are likely to be screwed -- because of this "fraud" investigation. Players were not defrauded, but their credit card charges said something other than "poker" because they wanted it that way, just as people using cards for sex or porn have more discreet charges shown; to my knowledge this is the only "fraud" in question.

*******Update 9/21/11******* Now the Feds are claiming that Full Tilt was a ponzi scheme -- that the owners took out a lot of money and didn't maintain the account balances necessary for the players to actually have the money shown in their balance statements. I don't know if this will be claimed for, or shown, for the other two major sites shut down by the Feds, but obviously this is not a frivolous charge. I have found a pretty good site for play money (PokerStars); they still have cash games, but not for "my area." (Presumably the U.S. I personally wouldn't play for real money on line anyway.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

If The Windmill-Powered Casino on Greylock Never Gets Built

A band of solar cells all around the moon? Beaming energy in the form of microwaves at the earth? A Lunatic idea. And Murphy's law would seem to dictate that we'd want to design a system so that, even if the beam were deliberately pointed at Manhattan, no one would suffer much inconvenience or heating (let alone instant, smoking death).

But it's an idea that just might work, someday. At any rate, it's great that the modern world can fund and support NASA and academic (and even Japanese construction firm) scientists working on theoretically possible methods of achieving such a sustainable power source.

Why solar power in space and not on Earth?

Why the moon and not in closer, easier to get to, orbit?
1) Crowded space in the lowest orbits and in geosynchronous orbit.

2) Panels in space would considerably shade Earth (but that might be a good thing if global warming becomes a problem).

3) Cost. Cost. Cost.
Theoretically, at least, it could be cheaper to do it on the moon than closer to Earth.

That's because even low-earth orbit is very expensive to obtain (at least $2,000 per pound of payload to low orbit), and geosynchronous orbit costs about 5 times as much. And costs are not going to fall much until or unless we have a cabled space elevator (for geosynchronous).

It is, course, much more work to bring things and people to the moon. (We haven't done it recently, making cost estimates speculative.)

The moon is 250,000 miles away, versus ~200 miles for a rather low orbit and 22,000 miles for geosynchronous orbit; but bringing the material to the moon would not be proportionately more expensive, as we see with geosynchronous orbit being 100 times higher, but only 5 times more expensive, than low orbit. (That's because the cost of getting a mass to low orbit is more set by the need to obtain 18,000 MPH orbital velocity, than by the need to merely lift it 200 miles.)

More important, the Moon, unlike space, is filled with stuff. The trick is to design a system of mines and factories so that a modest amount of materials, robots and people sent to the moon can be be used to mine, smelt and manufacture that stuff into the materials needed to build a massive belt of solar cells all the way around the Moon's equator. (Half of the cells would be in the daylight at any given time; the power would be sent to the main Moon base, which position would always be facing the Earth.)

Consider one way to bootstrap materials: instead of shipping all the water that the base would need, ship hydrogen, which could be used to grab the oxygen from various moon rocks, producing water weighing 9 times as much as the brought hydrogen, and simultaneously producing metals and other elements (e.g., aluminum, titanium, silicon) of perhaps twice the weight of the hydrogen.

With silicon for solar cells, aluminum for electric transmission lines, and titanium for structural elements, you've got essentially everything you need to manufacture your enormous belt of solar cells.

Once the moon base was making more solar power than needed to maintain itself and keep its humans alive, this power could be used to separate minerals without much need for additional resources from Earth. Then a growing proportion of the growing power supply could be sent to Earth by some form of electromagnetic radiation, such as light (laser) or microwaves. Lasers sound rather dangerous to me, whereas there ought to be some radio or microwave frequency that could be picked up by giant antennas, but which would mostly bounce off the Earth if they missed the antenna.

While the Moon transmitter would need only one location (since the moon always keeps the same face to us), the Earth would have to have receivers in three locations, with each getting energy for about 1/3 of each 25-hour "day" when the moon was overhead. The energy received at each would in part be delivered as electricity for immediate use, and in part be stored, perhaps as synthesized fuels such as hydrogen or natural gas (used to generate electricity for the 2/3 of the time that no Moon energy would be arriving), or it could be delivered around the Earth by intercontinental electric transmission line.

So, there are a few problems yet to solve... But this concept is the first I've ever heard that justifies the manned space program as more than just bread and circuses, but without the bread.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Circle Game

Sometimes I'm amazed at what my children know, and sometimes I'm amazed at what they don't know.

I attended a middle-school graduation ceremony today. The younger students, including my 8-year-old daughter, made up a chorus. Their last song was, as the music teacher informed us, a real tear-jerker -- "The Circle Game" by Joni Mitchell, with the chorus:

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

Women were wiping their eyes, and I was probably close to sobbing as well. The kids performed quite nicely, but I sensed that they had little idea of what the song was about. I asked my daughter later, "why do you think the song was sad?" Her answer: "because a man is stuck on a carousel?"

Friday, June 04, 2010

NY Times Says Circulation Holding Up to WSJ Assault

That's the headline in a Bloomberg story of June 4 based on an interview with New York Times CEO Janet Robinson.

"We are definitely not seeing any effect in regard to the circulation," Robinson is quoted. But if you read to paragraph 7 of the story, you learn that "The New York Times’s nationwide circulation fell 8.5% to 951,063 in the six months through March, while circulation at the Journal, which includes paying Internet readers, rose less than 1% to 2.09 million, data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show."

How can such a juxtaposition earn the headline "NY Times Says Circulation Holding Up to WSJ Assault" instead of something like "NY Times Official Puts Desperate Spin on Plummeting Circulation Figures"? (Which would itself be a pretty soft way of calling her a liar.)

It's part of a pattern which could make left- and right-wing talking heads on Fox News look objective. Take a similar article from April 26, which includes this:

Diane McNulty, a Times spokeswoman, attributed the lost print readership to a focus on “quality circulation and high retention rates,” saying the newspaper has kept most readers who have subscribed for two years or more. In an e-mail to employees today, New York Times Co. Chief Executive Officer Janet Robinson and Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said that “readers and advertisers are very loyal.”

The Journal “will soon discover the intensity of that dedication,” they wrote.

So they haven't this year lost more than 50% of "readers who have subscribed for two years or more"? Is there anyone who would guess that things could be worse than that?

The Times and sister-paper Boston Globe, like many other newspapers, are going down the tubes; demonstrating that they are run by fantasists certainly can't help matters, even if they have Bloomberg headline writers and the Obama Administration eager to bail them out.