Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

September 19, 2005

Sad News from NASA

Filed under: — Different River @ 10:00 pm
Photo of Marta Bohn-Meyer
Marta Bohn-Meyer. Photo credit: NASA.

NASA Dryden Chief Engineer Marta Bohn-Meyer Dies in Airplane Crash

The crash of an aerobatic plane in Oklahoma has claimed the life of Marta Bohn-Meyer. Bohn-Meyer was chief engineer at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and a widely known precision aerobatic pilot.

Bohn-Meyer, 48, died Sunday morning when the Giles G-300 she was flying crashed as she was beginning an aerobatic practice routine near the C.E. Page Airport in Yukon, Okla. Yukon is a suburb of Oklahoma City.

The crash is being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration.

In a message to Dryden staff this morning, center director Kevin Petersen said he was “deeply saddened” upon hearing of Bohn-Meyer’s tragic death.

“Marta Bohn-Meyer was an extraordinarily talented individual and a most trusted technical expert and manager at NASA Dryden,” Petersen said. “She committed her life and career to aviation and the advancement of aeronautics and space in the United States. We at Dryden will miss her tremendously. All the hearts and prayers of NASA Dryden go out to her husband Bob and Marta’s family,” he added.

Moonshot Cost Estimate

Filed under: — Different River @ 7:08 pm

Last year, President Bush announced a new mission for NASA — to return to the Moon and set up a permanent base, and eventually go on to Mars. Today, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin announced the first cost estimate for the Moon program: $104 Billion doll.

Now, when scientists and engineers write numbers, they typically use a concept called “significant figures” — that is, they only write as many digits as they have some reasonable confidence of being correct. As described here (boldface in the original):

It is important to be honest when reporting a measurement, so that it does not appear to be more accurate than the equipment used to make the measurement allows. We can achieve this by controlling the number of digits, or significant figures, used to report the measurement.

The number of significant figures in a measurement, such as 2.531, is equal to the number of digits that are known with some degree of confidence (2, 5, and 3) plus the last digit (1), which is an estimate or approximation. As we improve the sensitivity of the equipment used to make a measurement, the number of significant figures increases.

If the people at NASA who came up with that estimate understand the concept of significant figures — and surely Dr. Griffin knows, what with his Ph.D. and four engineering master’s degrees (really!) — the implied precision of the estimate is preposterous. Here they have a proposed 13-year program to do something that’s only been done once before at all and never before on this scale, in a totally different technological environment, and they think they can estimate the cost to within 1-2%? That it makes sense to say “$104 billion, but not $114 billion”?

Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if not only the third digit, but even the first digit turns out to be wrong. There is a story (perhaps an urban legend, but I’d love to verify it) that when the second NASA Administrator James E. Webb, Sr. (no relation, as far as I know, to the novelist/historian/Secretary-of-the-Navy James H. Web, Jr.) was asked by President John Kennedy how much it would cost to go to the Moon, he asked his staff for a cost estimate, received it, and then in the car on the wa over to the White House decided to double the estimate before telling the President, just to be on the safe side. This doubled estimate was pretty close.

Based on that, I hereby guess “$200 billion.” I can’t claim it’s accurate enough to say “$208 billion,” but by using only one significant figure, I mean that if you round to the nearest hundred billion, you’ll get my prediction. So it’s really a prediction of “$150-$250 billion.” In constant year-2005 dollars, of course.

Ideas for LA from L.A.

Filed under: — Different River @ 6:08 pm

Former California Governor Pete Wilson has some ideas for the contracts for rebuilding New Orleans, based on earthquake experience:

In early 1994, a major earthquake (measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale) jolted the residents of greater Los Angeles from their slumbers and knocked houses off their foundations. Within seconds, the Northridge earthquake reduced to rubble the overpass bridges of Interstate 10, Los Angeles’s major east-west artery, and thereby instantly shut down the most heavily trafficked freeway in the world. I was advised that it would require some two years and two months to repair the bridges and restore the I-10 to use. For as long as it remained unavailable, it would mean not only driver inconvenience on a dramatic scale, but delays that would translate into economic dislocation conservatively estimated to cost $600,000 per day. The interruption to the life of the nation’s second largest city would be of a plainly intolerable magnitude and duration.

Instead, we completed the repairs and reopened the freeway to its normal heavy traffic in just 66 days. How? We did two things.

First, I quickly exercised the extraordinary emergency powers conferred upon the governor of California by the state Government Code. I suspended the operation of statutes and regulations that would have required the protracted public hearings called for before environmental impact reports could be filed and acted upon, and I suspended other normally demanded procedural hurdles. The elimination of these legal requirements drastically reduced purposeless delays that would have impeded recovery and compounded the injury inflicted by the quake.

(If they are “purposeless delays,” shouldn’t we get rid of them altogether, not just after natural disasters? I’m serious.)

Second, we took a page from the book of private-sector incentives for accelerating performance. We told contractors bidding to repair the bridges that they must submit bids that specified not only the cost but the date of completion, and that they must agree to an added condition: For every day they were late, they would incur a penalty of $200,000; and for every day they were early, they would be rewarded with a bonus of $200,000. The winning bidder, C.C. Myers Inc., put on three shifts that worked 24/7. In order to prevent any delay in the work, they hired a locomotive and crew to haul to Los Angeles steel sitting on a siding in Texas. Myers made more on the bonus than they did on the bid [price].

Incentives work. The reward to the contractor in this instance was well worth the reward to the public in achieving restoration of critical infrastructure two years early.

It’s nice to see a politician who understands the single most basic principle of economics: People respond to incentives.

Housing the Hurricane Evacuees

Filed under: — Different River @ 6:02 pm

See, economists can actually be useful!

Alex Tabarrok posts an article by Edgar O. Olsen suggesting that the rather than continue to house hurricane refugees in the Astrodome, church camps and the like, that they expand the Section 8 housing program. This is basically a program in which qualifying poor (which may or may not overlap with actually poor) live in normal rental housing instead of “the projects,” and the government pays all or a part of the rent.

Section 8 is much beloved by economists since it’s more of a market solution than housing projects and it doesn’t create crime-infested hellholes, but in practice it’s not perfect, since residents have less of an incentive to be nice to the owners and careful with the property, and owners have to meet onerous regulations to participate. Still, it’s got to be better than cots on a stadium floor — and this would be as good a time as any to relax some of those regulations.

This is, of course, based on the assumption that there is enough excess housing in other cities to house all the refugees, an assumption which is probably valid. It is also based on the assumption that this will be an extended evacuation, like when Mayor Nagin said he was going to keep the city closed for 3, 6, or 9 months. (I never believed that, and really regret not posting that prediction — I would have looked so smart! ;-) The mayor has of course changed his tune now.) Still, even though most of the city will probably be “opened” shortly, some percentage of the population will discover that their homes are damaged too much to be lived in, and there will not be enough previously-vacant, not-too-damaged housing in New Orleans to house all those people.

Cashing In on the Hurricane

Filed under: — Different River @ 5:46 pm

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is sending out Hurricane Katrina fundraising letters — but he’s raising funds not for the victims, but for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.

Bicyclist Charged with Manslaughter

Filed under: — Different River @ 5:38 pm

In case you needed any reminder that bicylclists are subject to traffic laws just as car drivers are — and that they should be — read this story.

Short version: a bicyclist ran a stop sign and hit a pedestrian. The pedestrian was killed. The bicyclist is in jail pending $57,500 bail, charged with manslaughter and reckless driving.

If you ride a bicycle on the streets, remember those stop signs — and remember that, in general, bicycles never have right-of-way over cars or pedestrians.

Updated, Clickable Flood Map of New Orleans

Filed under: — Different River @ 5:33 pm

Here’s an amazing use of computer technology — Google Maps, combined with GeoCoder, combined with some source of flood data (they don’t say where; post a comment if you find out).
If you want to know both the maximum and current water depth of any point in New Orleans, either enter the address, or point-and-click on the map (choice of street map, satellite photo, or combination; choose a photo before or after the hurricane).

And, as Capital Freedom ebulliently points out, this is the product of a private company, not the government.

In Law, Some Things Really ARE “Black and White”

Filed under: — Different River @ 4:55 pm

I refer, of course, to Justice Hugo Black, and Justice Byron White, who were both on the Supreme Court and had this exchange-by-proxy in the Griswold case, as excerpted by Eugene Volokh.

Clayton Cramer has additional comments.

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