American Gas Burners, Russian Nuclear Starships

mal comments on a post from last year:

Well, there’s nothing wrong with current Russian commercial space program such – they are launching OneWeb satellites now and there’s a Korean one thats supposed to go on Angara. SpaceX does have more launches but thats because they launch their own Starlink constellation and Russian Sphere is not there yet (Russia needs to invest more in Space Simulation chamber for payload testing and development, they are building 2500 m3 one which is better than current 1800 m3 or even European 2400 m3, but no match for destroyed USSR one at 8,000 m3 or American at 20,000 m3).

On market pricing, Russians still dominate. Proton market price is $65M/22 tons to LEO, or $2,950/kg. Reusable Falcon price is $50M/15 tons (due to fuel return requirements), or $3,330/kg. Russians are cheaper and more efficient due to more stages on Proton vs Falcon.

For space tourism, Soyuz is more reliable, has a kitchen and a toilet, and ticket price of probably $30M/seat ($80M NASA price). Russians were charging $20M per seat a decade or so ago, even with inflation and upgrades i don’t see Soyuz pricier than $30M. It is also good at orbital mechanics so its fast to ISS. Current NASA contract pays $100M/seat to SpaceX ($2.4 billion/6 launches/4 seats each). I’m sure it will be cheaper in the future, but I don’t see them beating Soyuz prices for a decade.

In the near future though, this is going to change. Starship is huge and will dominate cost per kg. At that scale, opportunity cost of return fuel will be minimized and reusability will finally make economic sense. With refueling capabilities, Starship will dominate local space, and Russia doesn’t really have anything comparable. The good news is Starship is a fairly simple construction (a flying steel grain silo) so Russia should be able to just copy it. No shame in that.

So to answer your question. Aside from marketing hype and propaganda, current Russian commercial space offerings are highly competitive with US. In the near future, when Starship will be able to deploy any satellite on any orbit in local space and keep deploying them by the 100’s and 1,000’s, Russia will not be competitive anymore. Starship is a game changer. In the far out worlds, asteroid belts etc., chemical gas burners such as Starship will hit the limits of physics and Russian nuclear electric plasma accelerators will dominate the deep space.

I like to say, this is the biggest irony on Earth. Elon Musk, electric car guy, invented the best gas burner. Russia, known as planetary gas station, invented the best electric space propulsion system.

He talked of more recent progress here.

At an international expo ‘Archimedes’ in Moscow Keldysh Center (Russian research institute) demonstrated experimental device for radiation of waste heat into space. Device is dedicated to thermal regulation of spacecraft. I’m not sure if it’s a panel or fiber based one, or maybe even a droplet (panel is worst, fiber is OK, droplet is the future).

And speaking of the devil, it looks like Russians solved the droplet dispersion problem back in 2017. This guy solved it, to be exact.

Topic starts at around 6:20. To recap for non Russian speakers. Any moron can build a nuclear reactor and launch it into space, its easy to do. So why then the largest single power unit in space is about 20 kW? Because while producing electricity in space is easy, dissipating waste heat is not. Space is like a giant thermos that insulates well. The only way to get rid of heat is through radiation. Conventional way is radiator panels, but it’s extremely inefficient as their size requirement grows two orders of magnitude faster with power level increase. Past few hundred kW, those panels will weigh more than all the rest of the spacecraft put together.

To improve heat radiation efficiency, we must move from 2D panel to 3D geometry. Hence the droplets, as small droplets maximize surface area to volume (mass) ratio. This will allow for orders of magnitude lighter cooling systems and therefore high power output (nuclear reactors are very light compared to the weight of the cooling system they require). The droplets are made as you pass diffusion pump oil through an atomizer basically.

However, there is a problem. Small droplets accumulate static charge by picking up free electrons from space. This causes them to repel from each other and that makes collecting them back after they cooled off very difficult, and this results in coolant mass loss. That was the problem with Kaplya-2 experiment on the International Space Station back in 2014. There were a number of proposals put forward (external electromagnetic fields, plasma feed to neutralize the droplets etc) but they are all cumbersome, unreliable, or require expendable materials which makes them unsuitable for years long operation.

A simple, robust, and permanent solution to the problem is to illuminate the droplets with UV light at around 140 nm wavelength. This will trigger photoelectric effect that will kick off the excess electrons from the droplet. Unlike external electric field, there is no danger of over-ionizing the droplets and stripping too many electrons which will cause the same repulsion problem. No complex control is needed. All it takes is about a dozen UV lamps and those will condition the droplets for easy collection and minimize coolant losses.

The rejoinder is that local space is commercially attractive (Starlink is the obvious one… perhaps passenger and cargo transport, if the more optimistic projections pan out).

The tons of money made from this can be recycled into more ambitious projects.

Can the same be said of deep space? Asteroid belt mining has been often speculated about. But most resources are very cheap – and have been becoming much cheaper relative to the size of the world economy.


Homicide Rates in Africa

Charles Murray was widely lambasted a few weeks back for this Tweet:

Indeed, Sub-Saharan Africa isn’t that bad according to official homicide stats. For instance, Burkina Faso and Benin claim 1.3 and 1.1 /100,000 homicides, respectively, per year (from UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s International Homicide Statistics via World Bank).

But Africa is a demographic black box. For instance, we literally know more about births/deaths in mid-18th century Sweden than we do for much of Black Africa in the 2010s. WHO estimates of S.S.-African homicide rates exceed official stats by several factors.

GLOBAL STUDY ON HOMICIDE 2019: Homicide trends, patterns and criminal justice response (h/t The g Factor)

“Official” estimates are completely unreliable; where they do exist, the WHO estimates homicide rates to be many, many times higher than the official statistics. The average of the official statistics and the WHO statistics produces the graph on the right.” – (h/t The g Factor)

International prevalence of common crime (theft and assault). Each dot is a country in that region.
What % of people report having suffered a theft or assault in the past year in surveys.” (h/t @whyvert)

Source: van Dijk, J., Nieuwbeerta, P., & Joudo Larsen, J. (2021). Global Crime Patterns: An Analysis of Survey Data from 166 Countries Around the World, 2006–2019. Journal of Quantitative Criminology.


Open Thread 164

No Sovoks → 500 Million Russians

Matt Yglesias might want a billion Americans. But there would have been 500 million Russians in the absence of the Bolshevik Revolution, as was predicted by Dmitry Mendeleev in a 1907 book.

Putin, who it is now very clear reads my blog and Twitter, recently said as much himself in a meeting with schoolchildren in Vladivostok:

In our country, the Russian statehood disintegrated twice during the 20th century. The Russian Empire ceased to exist after the 1917 revolution. Russia lost huge territories in the west and north but gradually recuperated. But later, there followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Why? We should closely analyse all this and find what triggered those dramatic events. Had they failed to happen, we should have had a different country now. Some specialists believe that we should have had a population nearing 500 million people. Just think about it. Today, we have 146 million. If these tragedies had not occurred, there would have been 500 million people.


This isn’t a neo-Tsarist “what if” fantasy.

It is a direct computation of what population trends would have been like in the absence of the multiple catastrophes that Russia experienced during the thirty years from 1917-1947*.

  • Civil War, famines, emigration: 10M+
  • Collectivization famines: 5-7M
  • Political repressions: 1M+
  • World War II and Nazi occupation: 27M
  • 1947 famine: 1.5M

The result is that the combined population of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus was hardly any higher in 1946 (97M+33.5M+7.5M=138M) than it had been in 1916 (92M+35M+7M=134M). This was in a region which had a TFR of 6 children per woman in 1913.

Of course to this figure of ~280M+ Russians within the borders of the modern RF should be added 100M (much more Russified) Ukrainians and 20M Belorussians for a total population of 400M.

This is if anything a lower bound because it assumes that fertility patterns would have otherwise remained unchanged. Possibly a surviving Russian Empire/Republic would have had an earlier demographic transition to sub replacement fertility, as happened in Germany from the 1970s and Italy from the 1980s, due to faster economic development. On the other hand, it could be expected to have had a slower demographic transition earlier on, due to the absence of collectivization and no male/female post-WW2 disparity, and it would not have experienced the fertility-shredding social cataclysm that accompanied the Soviet collapse in the 1990s-2000s.

It is understandable why most Russians are not pining for a third revolution.

Демографические катастрофы ХХ века by the (late) demographer Anatoly Vishnevsky (from this book). Updated version here.

Open Thread 163

I was at the Army-2011 expo this week. Very cool, sort of like a military-themed Geek Picnic.


Ukraine Shuts Down Independent Media

Since the start of this year, the Ukraine has mounted an accelerating campaign to shut down all “pro-Russia” (apostrophes because more often than not they’re not so much explicitly pro-Russian, as merely less anti-Russian and more oppositionist than the mainstream) media. Examples include:

  • This February saw the shutdown of three TV channels (112 Ukraine, NewsOne and ZIK) linked to Viktor Medvedchuk, an opposition leader, in a move that was praised by the US Embassy in Kiev. He is now under house arrest under treason charges based on undisclosed evidence from the security agencies.
  • Popular anti-Maidan blogger Anatoly Shariy was charges with treason and hate speech and now has political asylum in the EU.
  • The foremost opposition website was shut down in August (chief editor Igor Guzhva now has asylum in Austria), which is the 4th most popular news site in Ukraine. Next to zero Western attention, while a ton of ink was spilt over the Russian news site TV Rain merely having to declare its status as a “foreign agent.”
  • Most recently, Zelensky signed a decree ordering ISPs to block access to the websites of 12 Russian news organizations, including Vedomosti and Moskovskiy Komsomolets (which ironically sooner lean liberal). This extends Ukrainian restrictions beyond Russian state media organizations like RT, which were banned long ago, as well as blocks on Russian social media from 2017.
  • There are now discussions about shutting down the TV channel Nash, which is considered to be the last opposition Ukrainian channel.

This of course comes on the heels of the decree blanket banning Russian language schooling across Ukraine in September 2020.

I don’t suppose any of this is too surprising. President Biden has signaled that the US will be retreating from its imperial commitments, at least outside the West Pacific, giving the Ukrainian elites an additional impetus to accelerate the consolidation of the Ukrainian nation as an anti-Russian project.


Commie Anti-Vaxxers

Politics is tribal. “Conservatism” is situational. And so you can get some “unlikely comic book crossovers” if looking at the world through country-specific ideological prisms.

According to one recent poll, the most pro-vax Russians are United Russia (i.e. the most pro-Putin) voters, presumably reflecting the official state position which is and has always been pro-vaxx. 55% are now vaxxed, 28% planning to.

That is, precisely the opposite of what Western propaganda and the Russian liberal activists who feed it claim.

(While United Russia’s electorate is the most elderly these days, this doesn’t explain most of the differential, since the gap in pro/anti-vax sentiments between age groups in Russia is, unfortunately, one of the smallest ones in the world).

Liberals (Yabloko and “New People”) and nationalists (LDPR) are in the middle. That they are broadly comparable is quite astounding by Western standards, where anti-vaxx has become the standard “Far Right” position from the US to Germany, while liberals have made a cult out of double masking, total lockdowns, and similar inanities in a heroic attempt to catch up to rightoid idiocy. This clearly reflects the fact that Russian liberals feel alienated from society and exhibit low trust in official state positions, which especially expresses itself in Sputnik V skepticism (i.e. the one anti-vaxx position that Western liberals endorse). Clearly there’s a converse effect with respect to nationalists, whose natural inclinations towards conspiracy thinking are instead muted by patriotic sentiments towards “made in Russia” Sputnik V as well as the pro-vaxx position held by a state that isn’t overtly hostile to them as in the West.

Funniest of all though is that KPRF voters who are the most anti-vax: 51% say they haven’t and will not vax. My anecdotal impressions (“Communists tend to be some of the most active anti-vaxx agitators in Russia, so it is morbidly amusing in a way how they are helping kill off what remains of their fading electorate“) turned out to be exactly right. Communists aren’t huge fans of either the “Putin system” or the “Western globalists” so their positions also make sense, at least from the perspective of “your brain on ideology.”

Some differences on socio-economic policies aside, these commie populists seem to be the equivalents of America’s anti-vaxx Christian radio hosts, down to the red caps:

/r/russia: “The leader of the Yaroslavl communists, Alexander Vorobyov, died of COVID-19. Vorobyov was opposed to compulsory vaccination, in the photo he is depicted as a protester holding a poster “Compulsion to vaccinate is a crime.

Yaroslavl oblast has long had one of the lower vaccination rates relative to other regions, despite hosting a large and prosperous regional capital and having the highest IQ amongst Russian regions outside Moscow/SPB. This Vorobyov fellow seems to have had quite a successful activist career until its untimely end.

But hey, then again, maybe it works. The KPRF is polling better than it’s done in years:


Open Thread 162



  • The terrorist attacks today. The Taliban did free all those Islamist militants, not all of them would have been strictly suborned to the Taliban themselves. What’s so surprising?

  • Notable foreign relations developments. Tajikistan has adopted a cold tone to the Taliban, accusing them of gong and has reportedly supplied the NRF holed up in Panjshir.

  • Opinion polls from Russia and anecdotal evidence from China confirms that the Taliban is not popular there.

  • Dan Hardie with survey of Afghan Central Bank history. Last time the Taliban ran a Central Bank, they canceled the issue of new notes and its governor spent more time on the battlefield than in his office. Certainly very Bronze Age.

  • Peter Turchin cliodynamics-centered explanation of Taliban takeover.

Why Do Afghan Men Wear “Eyeliner”?

* Taliban finds ever more diverse fans expanding to Chechen Islamists (Kavkaz Center) & Ukrainian Neo-Nazis (Azov).


Open Thread 161

* Erik D’Amato: 20 Hungarian Lessons the West Is Still Missing

Where Are the Afghanis?

The past is the best guide to the future, so there’s no surprise that there is already a rebellion breaking out against the Taliban. Finding its core in the natural fastness of the Panjshir Valley, which foiled repeated Soviet attacks during the 1980s, the Northern Alliance is reconstituting itself under Ahmad Massoud (the son of the famous mujahideen) and Acting President Amrullah Saleh.

Will they succeed? No idea. People who know more than me are making all sorts of predictions. That said, I allow that rebels will not even be the Taliban’s biggest challenge in the coming months. And it’s something that almost nobody is talking about.

I’m talking about afghanis. Money.

The following figures are from a World Bank report on Afghan finances up to the year of 1397. (No, they don’t touch on financing the campaigns of Timur the Lame. Afghanistan, which I am told is an American puppet state, apparently doesn’t even use the Gregorian calendar in their World Bank reports). What they show is that Afghanistan might well be the single most “subsidized” state in the world.

With a population of ~38M and a GDP of $20B, its total expenditures as of 2018 totaled $11B versus revenues of just $2.5B.

The results in an amazingly large amount of largesse by Third World standards. As a share of GDP, Afghan budget expenditures approximate those of the most expansive First World welfare states, as opposed to its Third World peers. This expenditure is dominated by wages and salaries (“70 percent of recurrent expenditure and around 70 percent of all expenditure growth since 1389“). However, despite the huge budget deficits, debt is very low. That is because “grants” accounted for 75% of its budget. Thanks to foreign infusions*, the Afghans have gotten used to very high wages relative to their extremely low productivity levels, which they get to spend in what is possibly the cheapest country in the world.

Guess what the US and the IMF have just cut off in the past few days.

Loss of subsidies aside, Afghanistan’s official $9.5B in foreign currency reserves have also been frozen.

In Syria, the central government continued paying state salaries and pensions in insurgent-controlled areas (with the help of Iranian subsidies). This helped the Assad regime preserve its legitimacy in territories occupied by jihadists and Islamic State. But where exactly is the Taliban supposed to get the money for financing the Afghan state apparatus?

There is an economic crisis brewing on the horizon. Tax revenues are slated to go through the floor. It has just lost the means to finance its massive trade deficit of $5B / year (25% of GDP). Imports will grind to a halt. (Incidentally, trade with India has already been shut down by the Taliban).

As per above, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan had very small amounts of debt (8% of GDP in 2020). So the Taliban will find no relief through  default, as the Bolsheviks did in Russia.

The Taliban will no longer have to finance the ANA. However, they will still have to pay their own soldiers. They are stretched thin. To hold down the territory they conquered in their recent blitz, it will have to expand them in size. Only way to do that cheaply is through conscription, but if approval of the Taliban is anything to go by, it will be mostly through press gangs. Given the underdevelopment of the Afghan economy, which is now on the brink of a hard contraction anyway, there is zero chance of them maintaining the windfall of modern US military equipment that has just fallen into their hands. Their single A-29 Super Tucano will remain grounded.

No private enterprise is going to be investing into a country in the throes of a new civil war ruled by an organization that are recognized as terrorists by multiple countries.

Meanwhile, many of the “smart fractions” who actually have some experience in running the country are trying to hitch a ride out for entirely legitimate reasons of self-preservation. The past is a good guide to the future:

When the Taliban first sacked Kabul 25 years ago, the group declared that it was not out for revenge, instead offering amnesty to anyone who had worked for the former government. “Taliban will not take revenge,” a Taliban commander said then. “We have no personal rancor.” At the time of that promise, the ousted president, Mohammad Najibullah, was unavailable for comment. The Taliban had castrated him and, according to some reports, stuffed his severed genitals in his mouth, and soon after, he was strung up from a lamppost.

It is a bold and perhaps stupid man who would trust the Taliban past the date when the world’s photo cameras are out of Kabul.

And in seems that they will have to navigate all of these challenges – a massive fiscal crimp, urban unrest from the majority of Afghans who don’t want them in charge, economic immiseration, probable lack of international recognition – while battling an insurgency or three.

This is a set of challenges that would test the most ingenious economists and policy-makers.

But while the Taliban themselves might know something about religious scripture and low-tech insurgent warfare, history again suggests that they fall short on the governance front.

I am not necessarily saying they’ll fail. But the challenges before them do seem at least as great as those they faced in subjugating Afghanistan in the first place, and they’re of a nature much less suited to their innate strengths as theocratic militants.

I would even go so far as to say that the one scenario in which their victory (that is, sustainable control over most or all of Afghanistan) becomes close to assured is if China – there’s no other plausible candidate – funnels in billions of dollars to prop them up.

Meanwhile, the world should probably get ready for another great wave of Afghan refugees.

  • To be sure, a significant part of it is surely siphoned off by corruption. However, what actual attempts to quantify corruption in Afghanistan have been carried out don’t suggest it’s massively higher than amongst its peers. According to the Global Corruption Barometer, 29% of Afghans said they paid a bribe in 2013, which is not cardinally different from Pakistan (23%) and India (34%). According to the World Bank’s Enterprise Surveys, 47% of Afghan companies reported they experienced at least one bribe request, which is higher than Pakistan’s 31%; however, the value of “gifts” expected to secure government contracts was twice less as a percentage of contract value than in Pakistan (4% to 8%). Corrupt yes, but not cardinally dissimilar from its corrupt neighbors.