Rights Enforcement Without Government

One of the common themes in the Ares Project universe is the problems that result from the lack of a government on Mars – or, to be more broad-minded about it, the lack of formalized mechanisms for resolving disputes, something traditionally handled by government.

The Mars Development Agency is a non-governmental organization, and while some characters see it as a provisional government, it’s authority and powers are strictly limited in scope and degree by the Mars Charter. It was established primarily to run the land claim registry system and to build and operate essential infrastructure in support of settlement activities. As a number of characters have pointed out, MDA has no army or police force through which it can exercise a force monopoly – a fact the stories provisionally titled “True Crime” and “The Olympian Race” explore in some detail. Its power lies in its ability to screw over the commercial settlements that get out of line by cutting off their interplanetary communications and cargo shipments via Phobos, pressuring the (in some cases vital) concessions at Port Lowell to charge astronomical prices or not do business with them at all, and in the case of settlements whose land claims have not yet vested, taking away their provisional claim and thereby undermining their business by scaring off their investors. The settlements are left to work out their own rules for resolving disputes, and when this fails to litigate through their agents on Earth.

After reading the draft of “True Crime”, one of our reviewers noticed similarities in certain elements of the story’s background to David Friedman’s contractual/market-based alternative for rights enforcement – something quite unexpected, as neither Carl nor I had heard of David Friedman. In a nutshell, the concept is that individuals contract with a rights enforcement agency to represent them in disputes with others – think of it like having an insurance policy where the insurance company protects your rights. In the event of a dispute, your agency and the other party’s agency contract with an impartial third-party arbitrator to settle the matter. Along the way, a form of law evolves out of (among other things) what the agencies are willing to go to bat for you over under what circumstances, and the track records of agencies in accepting the rulings of arbitrators and of arbitrators in how they make rulings.

I like the concept, given that it could emerge naturally in a clean-sheet society with no government in the familiar sense, made up of people most of whom have joined it through a contract (the standard 5-year employment contract covering the cost of transport to Mars), who live in communities that are essentially company towns where conduct is subject to rules laid down in the employment contracts, and where relations outside the town are subject to the terms of commercial contracts. (I can’t see this ever emerging in an existing society and displacing an extant government.)

One question that I haven’t resolved is, unfortunately, something at the core of “True Crime”: what do you do when someone murders someone? No one in their right mind is going to contract with a rights enforcement agency that would countenance the death penalty, however unlikely they are to engage in a capital offense. I’m betting this is a plus for those libertarians who would consider this arrangement, given their philosophical opposition to capital punishment: in order to get any business, a rights enforcement agency would have to state in its contract and in negotiations to select an arbitrator that it will not accept execution, torture, or other extreme penalties. If one did not, they would get few if any clients, and their willingness to let them be killed would be rendered moot by the unwillingness of other agencies and arbitrators in this regard.

That still leaves the question of how murder (for example) would be punished under a contract-based society like this. The obvious alternatives are imprisonment, servitude, and restitution. Mars doesn’t have the resources for literal prisons (barring an unlikely rate of crime that makes private prisons paid for by the “losing” agencies economically viable). That leaves servitude and restitution, which in practice may amount to the same thing – indenturing the killer to work for the victim’s settlement for some period of time, for example, or adding the dead man’s remaining contract to that of his killer (payable to the victim’s settlement) as restitution. 

But as with many bright libertarian ideas, it treats the problem in purely economic terms, ignoring the moral and societal aspects. Is simply paying what is in effect a weregild adequate punishment for murder? How would one ensure the establishment of social norms beyond simple payment of money, so as to ensure that one can’t simply murder as many people as one can afford? I suspect that anyone running into this more than once would render themselves ‘uninsurable’, i.e.: unable to find any agency to protect their rights, and thus ironically in the vulnerable position of the outlaw in Commonwealth Iceland instead of being able to murder at will. Given time to look further into this, I suspect answers to most such objections can be found in medieval systems of tribal or thing law.

Springfield Needs a Hyperloop

Just in time for Christmas, it’s the hot new hip and happening toy that all the technocrat kids want this year: Hyperloop!

By way of pitching the Arrivo system, Colorado DOT officials speculated that a network of tubes filled with high-speed trays to carry cars could cut a one-hour and ten minute drive from downtown to the airport down to a 9 minute Arrivo ride. A one-hour slog down the state’s busy Boulder to Denver highway corridor would take 8 minutes.

Ironically, given that in the past year RTD has opened the airport light rail line from Union Station to DIA and CDOT has finished widening and adding express lanes to the highway running from Denver to Boulder. Those multi-million-dollar Big Digs and monorail projects that were absolutely necessary five or ten years ago and would fix all our traffic problems hereabouts? Yeah, forget those. All the cool technocrats are getting Hyperloops!

“We’re the tech partner in what would be a big partnership involving lawmakers, real estate people and others, but our job is to show that we can help provide a positive ROI (return on investment),” BamBrogam told USA TODAY. “Traffic is something people are very eager to solve.”

Except when it comes to I-70. Why bore a new half-mile tunnel or two to alleviate multi-hour backups that plague a major freeway for four months of the year when you can bore dozens of miles of tunnels under Denver for a solution that doesn’t solve the problem there? But…but…all the cool technocrats are getting Hyperloops!

BamBrogan said the idea is to use existing highway right of ways to install above ground tubes to help commuters cheat traffic by granting them express trips in their own cars to popular destinations.

Uh huh. Hyperloops at 200MPH between 16th Street Mall and Highlands and Cherry Creek and DTC? Not only is there not enough space for the access stations at those “popular destinations”, there isn’t enough parking there for the cars that get Hyperlooped in, nor is there office space enough to accommodate the vast army of chiropractors that will be required to readjust cervical vertebrae dislodged by the acceleration and deceleration involved. (Note that Denver’s light-rail obsessed urban planners have been on a crusade against adequate public parking for years now.)

But Mommmm! All the cool technocrats are getting Hyperloops!

Why not just build a train? “I have a young son, and my car is filled with everything I need for him so not taking my car often isn’t a great option,” he said.

Yet we’re told by the light rail cultists that this is selfish and people just need to get over their obsession with and addiction to convenience! If you just socially reengineered yourself, Mr. BamBrogan, you’d discovered enlightened social interest and set aside your petty self-absorption with your own needs and that of your child. Not every child has the privilege of a comfy child seat and Disney DVDs on the in-car entertainment player and plush toys and sippy cups at the ready while running errands with daddy – why should yours, comrade?

Seriously, though, while something like Hyperloop might be technically feasible over long distances, using it as a subway or suburban commuter train is overkill and just plain stupid. It’s the kind of stupid that it doesn’t surprise me to see John Hickenlooper embrace, but an aerospace engineer should know better. An engineer should be aware of the practical limitations and consequences of using a given technology in a suggested application – he might as well be suggesting rockets or jumbo jets for the purposes he’s listing off for Hyperloop.

But, it’s the newest, hottest toy for technocrats. And that’s all that really matters. (That, and the potential for graft.)

Mars Needs Mixers: Nano-spike catalysts convert carbon dioxide directly into ethanol

The team used a catalyst made of carbon, copper and nitrogen and applied voltage to trigger a complicated chemical reaction that essentially reverses the combustion process. With the help of the nanotechnology-based catalyst which contains multiple reaction sites, the solution of carbon dioxide dissolved in water turned into ethanol with a yield of 63 percent. Typically, this type of electrochemical reaction results in a mix of several different products in small amounts.

Hmm…Mars has 25×1016 kg of atmosphere, of which 23.99×1016 kg is CO2. Passing all of it once through this conversion process produces 1.512×1016 kg or 1.3 Lake Superiors worth of ethanol.

Given the technique’s reliance on low-cost materials and an ability to operate at room temperature in water, the researchers believe the approach could be scaled up for industrially relevant applications. For instance, the process could be used to store excess electricity generated from variable power sources such as wind and solar.

Our Martian rovers will be fueled with ethanol. As will our Martians.

SpaceX to Mars

Some detail on what Elon Musk is proposing. I like the idea of landing directly on the launch mount and attaching a new payload while the stage is refueling. It’s sporty. If they’re serious about this architecture, it suggests that some of SpaceX’s near-future developments will involve a different sort of launch mount/hold-down scheme that facilitates this idea of landing a returning stage directly on the mount, rapid checkout/turnaround of returning stages (without moving them from their landing spot), and a means of rapidly integrating payloads to boosters at the pad (something that DARPA FALCON and ALASA have worked on, albeit at a significantly smaller scale).

But it strikes me that they’d be better off in the near term to simply have a second booster ready to move to the pad with the refueling vehicle. Sure, it’s got a gee-wiz factor to land directly on the launch mount, refuel and restack, and launch again, but I don’t see how developing all of that special-purpose technology could compare economically with simply building a second reusable booster.

AIAA Panel Discussion on Mars Settlement

Back in May, Carl and I sat on a panel at the AIAA Annual Technical Symposium in Houston. The panel was given a future scenario in advance, describing a number of technological and economic elements fifty years from now, just as Mars settlement is about to begin. During the luncheon, we were asked to consider a half-dozen questions relating to how Mars settlement might play out under the given scenario. In addition, there were 3-4 questions from the audience – regrettably, the camcorder battery ran out in the middle of my response to what I thought was the best question of the bunch.

It’s five clips, about an hour and a half in total.

Our Briny Nuclear Future

With a bonus life-imitates-art use of adsorbents: Uranium From Seawater Could Keep Our Lights On for 13,000 Years

We have 4.5 billion tons of uranium in seawater. Half of that amount is enough to power nuclear plants worldwide for 6,500 years.

However, unfortunately, the costs of extracting uranium from seawater is three times the current cost of uranium mined from land. That said, researchers believe this source may one day be critical to sustaining our energy needs, and to that end, efforts to extract uranium from the seas began in the 1960’s. And our efforts have continued from there…

To begin, extracting seawater uranium is harder than mining from land reserves as it involves a process called “adsorption,” in which atoms, ions, or molecules adhere to a surface. Scientists have been designing different materials to serve as that surface that, when submerged in seawater, will “adsorb” uranium and hold it for extraction.

Keeping these materials cost-efficient is important in relation to keeping the costs of seawater uranium low. Now, the DOE team has developed new adsorbents that brought the costs of seawater uranium extraction down by three to four times and in just five years.

Note that this is in addition to the vast stockpiles of depleted uranium we have from Cold War nuclear weapons production, which (along with spent fuel from conventional reactors) can be used in CANDU-type plants.

So why are we wrecking the environment mining and refining rare-earth metals, making toxic and short-lifetime photovoltaics, and covering pristine landscapes with windmills and PV panels?

Life Imitates Art: Timing

Elon Musk Says SpaceX Will Send People to Mars by 2025 – NBC News

The SpaceX and Tesla founder said this week that he personally wants to visit space within the next five years and thinks that his company will launch a mission to Mars by 2025…

Personal space travel ambitions aside, Musk also talked about how important it was for mankind to reach Mars. He said that SpaceX is planning to reveal its next-generation spacecraft at September’s International Astronautical Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico.

That could be the next step toward eventually sending human beings to the Red Planet — something Musk said he thinks will happen by 2025. It’s an ambitious goal considering that NASA’s current plan is to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

Note that in the Ares Project universe, 2025 is the when the Ares I mission to Mars is launched. Granted, it’s a joint US-Russian mission in our case, but it’s enabled by commercial space activity in LEO and on Luna, and is followed by commercial settlements.

Maybe NASA will have the first manned Orion/SLS flying by then.

A Reason for Optimism?

MS Convention 2015 Poster by Ed Sludden

Earlier this month I attended the 18th Annual Mars Society Convention, held at the Catholic University of America In Washington D.C.  It was my 7th Convention in 15 years, and much the same as the others in terms of tone and attendance, but I came away from it feeling much more optimistic than I had after past meetings.

Highlights included a visit during the Saturday banquet, via Skype, by The Martian author Andy Weir.  It was fun to hear his perspective on his stunning success of late, and I have high expectations for the film adaptation premiering October 2, though I also had high expectations many years ago when Mission to Mars (blech) and Red Planet (meh) debuted.

What made me more hopeful this year was the sense of modest expectations and goals taking root versus the bold yet unrealistic aim of a full-blown Mars exploration program.  Despite Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars program fading with hardly a whimper, at least in terms of a 2018 launch, support for a near-term Mars flyby is growing and I expect there will be a major push for such a mission in the upcoming election cycle.

A Mars flyby would be a major achievement, again showing the world what America and its allies can accomplish.  While no landing would occur, most of the “dragons” raised to oppose a near-term mission (radiation exposure, long duration life support, psychological challenges, etc.) would be slain in a single mission.  Best of all, compared to other proposed missions, this one could be launched before the end of a president’s second term and could fit well within NASA’s current budget.

Or could it?  Is NASA too bloated and risk-averse to be entrusted with such a task?  Harrison Schmitt, who spoke at the conference as part of a Moon versus Mars debate with Robert Zubrin, advocated the scrapping of NASA in favor of a new, focused agency with an average age of under 30 like the NASA of the 1960s (the average age in Mission Control when Apollo 11 splashed down was 28).  That raises some very interesting questions.  How would this agency be created?  How would NASA be reduced or eliminated simultaneously, to justify it as an offset or a reduction?  Is it even politically feasible, or is it a necessity?

See? We Told You So

Forbes has a short piece on the ethics and practicalities of having babies on Mars: Birthing Babies On Mars Will Be No Small Feat.

They cover the core reasons why having children (at least for the first fifteen or so years of settlement activity) is a taboo in the Ares Project universe: mainly, there’s no telling whether it will be safe to do so, and in small commercial settlements, babies and small children will consume scarce economic resources without near-term economic return. This originated early on in writing In the Shadow of Ares in the need to explain why Amber Jacobsen was still the only child on Mars after almost fourteen years of settlement activity, and the more we thought about the reasoning behind such a taboo the more real-world sense it made (and the more influence it had on her character and the story, especially the coming-of-age subplot).

Of course, in Ghosts of Tharsis and “He Has Walled Me In” we show that this taboo is starting to break down. This happens in large part because several of the settlements are large enough by the time these stories take place to absorb the economic impact.

[via Transterrestrial Musings]

Ideology (and Ideological Rot) in Science Fiction

Vox Day has an interesting dissection of the problems with “mainstream” science fiction and fantasy nowadays – The Cancer in SF/F:

One need only look at the increasingly mediocre works that have been nominated for, and in some cases even won, science fiction’s highest prizes to realize that the genre is dominated by the ideological left and is in severe decline from both the literary and revenue perspectives.  When six of the top 10-selling SF books in 2012 are either ripped off from an Xbox game or were first published more than a decade ago, it shouldn’t be difficult to observe that there is a very serious problem with the science fiction that is presently being published…

But even if one dismisses me, the problem is that I am far from the only former Asimov and Analog subscriber who no longer bothers to even pirate, let alone buy, The Year’s Best Science Fiction collections because so little of it is worth reading anymore. As an SFWA member, I have a vote for the Nebula, but at least in the case of the Best Novel category, there is simply nothing for which one can credibly vote.

It is simply impossible to call any of the novels presently up for this year’s Nebula or Hugo the best novel in SF/F with a straight face. And if one of them truly does merit the description, then the genre is in even worse shape than I have observed.  It should not be controversial to suggest that it is highly unlikely that anyone from this year’s class will one day be named a Grandmaster of Science Fiction.

I’d have to agree with him. I still look over the new releases at Barnes & Noble or Amazon every couple  of weeks, hoping in spite of experience to find something promising and worthwhile and not larded with left-leaning cliches, but almost always come away disappointed…and have for the past 15 years or so.

He follows up with a discussion of comments Sarah Hoyt made on a similar subject (part of her own ongoing exploration of the theme). And to expand it into other media, this week J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5 fame made some related observations on TV SF.

I do like Sarah Hoyt’s take on the problem as self-correcting – the emergence of alternative distribution channels like Kindle spells doom to those traditional channels increasingly controlled by a single exclusionary ideology, if they are unwilling to change. In other words: the free market works, and competition has benefits.