A monstrous white Y in the sky

Posted in neverbeengood, Space, Tech on March 9th, 2011 by badhex

So, it can’t have escaped everyone’s notice that last week was the final touchdown of Shuttle Discovery on STS-133, the third-to-last mission for the Space Shuttle program as a whole. As readers may know I’m very interested in space, and in particular the human exploration of (read: manned missions to) space – but I’m a little worried about the future of these missions.

I love Shuttle. It’s brilliant. Liftoff is just as good every time I see one, and I watch as many as I can. It’s particularly impressing these days when we can sit at our computers looking at websites like NASA HD TV or Spaceflight Now, and watch realtime as Shuttle takes the first precarious, powerful step on the latest sojourn into orbit.

The craft itself is truly awesome – beautiful, graceful and a sheer feat of humankind’s ingenuity and perseverance in our many scientific endeavours (no pun intended). Watching it in action is a pleasure, and things like the Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver, it looks almost unreal. Thousand of minds and man-hours have gone into creating and maintaining one of our greatest achievements, a craft that “can launch like a rocket, go into orbit, change into a spacecraft and then land as a hypersonic airplane” – and the only craft which can do so.

But just because we can do it, does not mean that we should.

When I was a kid, I happened to be in Florida when Shuttle Discovery took off on mission STS-48. At that time, to me the shuttle was a thing of true, flawless wonder, and in my head that’s what I thought of when people said ‘NASA‘. Of course I had read about past missions, regardless of which nation had undertaken them, and had obviously heard Neil Armstrong’s famous words, and seen pictures of the various Apollo vehicles – but Shuttle was the spacecraft of my generation. As I grew older I learnt more about space, and the other methods by which we have travelled there, and still Shuttle remained to be an awesome thing. Then, one day, everything changed for me. A drastic turnaround of my thoughts and opinions occurred, and my heart sank.

The Shuttle program was a failure.

You’ve probably guessed that I’m talking about the terrible Columbia disaster, and indeed I am – but it was not that fated day on which my thoughts occurred, it was some time later, after the findings of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board had been published. I read an amazing, eye-opening article in a broadsheet (I can’t remember which one) which had a detailed synopsis of these findings, and it was this that made me change my mind. I have since read a lot more on the subject and watched numerous programs and documentaries, and all of these sources say the same thing: the disaster was caused by an initial problem with the technology, and furthermore massive organisational failings in NASA management – and this cause rings true for both Columbia and the Challenger disaster as well.

Now, I could go on for hours about the various findings of the reports in terms of the managerial failings that should have been dealt with or should never have happened, but I’m only going to touch on these. There are many many books, articles and documentaries which cover the minutiae a lot better than I can. If you want to (and I suggest you do), go and look it up. Read the various Wikipedia (and other) articles I’ve linked to, watch the documentary, or read Richard Feynman’s book What Do You Care What Other People Think? (which I haven’t read but is on my list).

I’m going to talk about the technology, because that is where the fundamental problem lies. This excerpt from David ‘Doc’ Searls blog is actually an article written by him in 1986, and was sent to me by my good friend Pete Sigrist. If you only read one of the links in this post, read this – it inspired the (admittedly rather grotesque) title of this blog post and gives a good summary of what I’m talking about:

Consider for a moment that the shuttle program is, after all, the bastard offspring of a dozen competing designs, and constrained throughout its history by a budgetary process that subordinates human and scientific aspirations to a variety of military and commercial interests. And consider how, as with most publicly-funded technologies, most of the Shuttle’s components were all produced by the lowest bidder. And consider the fact that many of the Shuttle’s technologies are, even by NASA’s admission, obsolete. If we had to start at Square One today, we’d probably design a very different program.

The Shuttle is brilliant, but ultimately flawed – a technology so precariously balanced and tightly strung that in the words of many NASA engineers, scientists and both shuttle disaster investigations, it is a genuine surprise (albeit a welcome one) that there have been so few accidents. What your average person does not realise – and what I didn’t realise as a child – is that most shuttle launches have been far from problem free, and this is not unknown by NASA management either. Both the O-ring failure in Challenger and the ‘foam shedding’ which saw the demise of Columbia and its crew had been categorised by NASA as “normalization of deviance” – acceptable risk – despite the fact that this conflicted with supposedly stringent design and safety specifications. Ultimately, in many cases one single failure in myriad vastly complicated, intricate systems, all depending on each other to work, would be the undoing of any launch. This is unavoidable with such a complex machine as the Shuttle – it is simply too complicated to be considered a truly safe mode of transport into space – and astronomically expensive to run.

Of course, the reason we don’t think about any of this is because of the way shuttle has been portrayed over the years, as day-to-day, routine – and this portrayal is by no means accidental. Physicist Richard Feynman played a large role in the Rogers Commission Report and was aghast at the disparity between the reality of the perilous balance in which Shuttle sits, and the view of NASA management that the Shuttle was almost infallible:

“It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask “What is the cause of management’s fantastic faith in the machinery? It would appear that, for whatever purpose, be it for internal or external consumption, the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product, to the point of fantasy. For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Feynman’s beef was mostly and rightly with NASA which is well illustrated in that quote – but the most salient point for me is that the technology is not as reliable as we have come to take for granted.

Of course there have been major advances and changes in both Shuttle design and NASA strategy; there have been multiple contingencies devised for crew rescue in case of disaster and from STS-114 onwards (the return-to-flight mission two years after Columbia) procedures implemented to safeguard against the ‘foam shedding’ problem, such as the R-Bar or Rendezvous Pitch Maneuver I mentioned earlier, but ultimately these are just patching holes  in a too-flawed system. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly glad to see it go and I revise the thinking that Shuttle is a failed experiment; but an experiment it is, and it has proved not to be the correct path.

So we move unto the future, and Shuttle is simply not what we need any more. However, in the wake of the cancelled Shuttle program, we have very little in place for our next move, and a lot of questions as to what that move will be. The NASA pilots themselves seem to be asking the same questions. I’m no qualified scientist so I can’t say what is the best course of action, but Medium and Heavy Lift Launch Vehicles (MLLV and HLLV) as an initial method seem to be the best option. Cheap, reliable, and proven. The Soyuz rocket is the most frequently used, and most reliable launch vehicle in the world – over 1700 launches since the mid sixties with a tiny percentage of failures – and is very low cost. I might also add that it was the only thing we used to resupply and perform crew changeovers for the International Space Station during the time when Shuttle was grounded after Columbia.

Breaking out of Low Earth Orbit – a hitherto unaccomplished task for humans – is what most people (including myself) seem to think we should be doing, and there are some plans afoot for a manned mission to Mars. But how are we going to get there? The cancelled Moonbase plans leave us without a, well, base of operations from which to launch longer duration missions, which would seem to be the sensible thing to do;  the ability to construct, or at the very least refuel craft outside Earth would help us a lot on our outward journey as it would be much easier to launch from the Moon than Earth itself. This of course is easier said than done, and creates a whole load more questions, like how we get the raw materials up there in the first place. Still, I would have really, really liked to see a Moonbase in our time.

So, finally, we find ourselves on the edge of space in need of a method for the next step – but I’m glad it’s not Shuttle – lest we end up with another monstrous white Y in the sky.

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That’s No Moon…

Posted in Projects, Space on September 14th, 2010 by badhex

(Okay actually I tell a lie, this is a moon. Couldn’t resist the title though)

Space is awesome.

Literally awesome. I’ve always be really interested since I was a kid. Not surprising I guess, given the other types of things I really love.

So, this weekend I went back up north where you can actually see stars with the naked eye, and I was having a good peer through the Celestron Astromaster 70AZ telescope we bought for my mum’s partner; As you may or may not know, Jupiter is really bright at the moment, and at 90x magnification I could even see the Northern Equitorial Belt, and the four largest so-called ‘Galilean moons’  Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto (hint: they were discovered by Galileo). I also saw – as one would expect – the moon, which was  extremely clear on the two nights I was viewing. On the second night I managed to get a few photos using my sister’s digital camera (harder than you’d think), one of which is the above, the rest are here on flickr. Pretty impressive stuff.

I also went to see my grandparents that weekend, and my Granddad being very interested in such things, I told him and showed him a few of the photos I’d taken. When I was a kid, and we stayed at my grandparent’s house, I remember frequently pestering my Granddad to get his telescope down from the loft. I used to love it, peering into the lens of this instrument, a window into the vast, black unknown in which reside planets, stars and galaxies of ages and sizes that are hard for us mere humans with our feeble 80-odd year life-spans to comprehend. I truly think experiences like this are instrumental to my love and wonder at the complexities and general awesomeness of the universe in which we live.

Anyway, so whilst talking with my Granddad, he mentioned the old telescope, and basically said he’d been trying to return it to the observatory from whence it came – as it was slightly dilapidated and he hadn’t used it in years – but if I wanted it and could house it, it was mine. I had forgotten but it’s actually better than I remember, a Charles Frank 6″ motorised Newtonian reflector.

I was overjoyed.

He told me it needs the mirror re-aluminising, but other than that, as far as he knew it was in working order. We popped out to the garage to check if the motor was still going, and sure enough it whirred up into life. Amazing. I almost immediately set about looking for places in or near London where I could get the mirror sorted, and found a couple of candidates. (Later still I found somewhere that would do it for about £40 – a very small price to pay for something so brilliant).

So, at some point, I need to convince my parents to bring it down to London for me, but in the mean time I’ve been doing some research. I couldn’t find anything about my specific model although this one is very similar. I did find however, that it’s probably about 40 or 50 years old.  I also found a book written by Charles Frank called ‘Frank’s Book Of The Telescope’, a book explaining telescope basics for newcomers – which I duly bought from Amazon Marketplace for the princely sum of one pence, plus a huge £2.75 p&p.

A quick note – before any of the more cynical astronomers among you start telling me it’s pointless trying to see stuff in London – I know what you’re about to say. However, I’m hopefully going to have this telescope for a long time, certainly longer than I’ll live where I am now. It’s an heir loom, of sorts, and has a history attached to it. Plus, I’ll be able to see some stuff – just not as much – and the further I get away from the light pollution, the more I will see, so it’s an investment for the future.

Here’s to some future stargazing. I’ll leave you with some awesome, humbling, inspiring words from Carl Sagan,  whom I consider a personal hero, and one of the greatest people who have ever lived.

Peace.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnFMrNdj1yY]

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My Samsung NC10 Is Frickin Awesome

Posted in Computing, General Chang, Tech on September 13th, 2010 by badhex

A year or so ago I bought my lovely little Samsung NC10 netbook and a 2gb RAM stick for it,  and I have to be honest, it is  basically the best £300 I’ve ever spent; I take it almost everywhere and use it most days (and on which I have composed most of this post). It’s amazing.

But  – let me give you a precursor, if I may. When I was at secondary school about 10 or 15 years ago, the first tiny Sony Vaios came out, the one with the separate floppy/CD drive (which infuriatingly Wikipedia and google image search won’t let me find) and I immediately knew what I wanted from a portable computer. Of course, they were incredibly expensive, and there was no way I could have afforded one. (Side track, because I’ve just been reminded – my first computer was a Pentium 133mHz with 16mb RAM, 1gb hard drive and a 1mb VGA card. It was 1996 and it cost just under £1000. Madness.)

So, the principle was there all that time ago, exactly how I wanted. A small, very portable computer that just computes. Seriously, how many times do you actually use a CD drive on a laptop these days, unless it’s the only computer you have? Most applications are either downloadable or can go on a memory stick and let’s face it, the humble floppy disk (sweet, noble floppy disk) – as lovable as it is – was always going to be replaced by something (Zip Disk anyone? No, didn’t think so). So, all you really need is the computer itself and some sort of network connection, and a USB port or two – and it only took 10 years for my wishes to become commonplace and affordable.

Anyway, it’s brilliant, and as far as the variety of netbooks I have seen on the market are concerned, it definitely feels like it’s one of the better ones. It feels sturdy and well manufactured, the keyboard is a joy to type on (although Clare is positively disgusted that the keys are italicised. See what I did there?), the screen is clear, and I much prefer the matt screen to a shiny one. The biggest improvements to be made would be the touchpad being made bigger and a longer battery life (although I am actually more than happy at around 6 hours) – both of which were addressed in subsequent revisions. As far as upgrading goes, it was as easy as you’d expect to pop in a new 2gb stick, and in anticipation of possibly hackint0shing it I’ve also swapped out the MiniPCI-express wifi card for a Dell one. Might even stretch as far as an SSD one day.

So yeah, netbooks are awesome. Love using it, love having the ability to compute on the go, or just crack it out to watch a film on long journeys.

Owning a netbook really is absolutely, totally and utterly joyous. Go out and buy one, you won’t regret it.

Peace

:)

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Ten Things I Love About Octopodes

Posted in General Chang, Nature on July 8th, 2010 by badhex

Well, I was going to write a post called ‘Ten Things I Hate About Entourage’ but then I stumbled across a story about an Octopus named Otto, so what with Octopodes being one of my favourite creatures on the planet, I decided to write this article instead. Before I get to the ten facts, I should tell you the story of Otto.

Otto lives in the Sea Star Aquarium in Coberg, Germany, where one day a mysterious thing started to happen. Staff were dismayed to find that the power to the aquarium was blacking out, stopping all the pumps for the tanks and threatening the very life within said tanks. They were obviously worried about these odd occurrences, and so they took turns sleeping in the aquarium.

Eventually they found the source of the problem.

Otto, the 2 foot 7 inch Octopus, apparently annoyed by a 2000w overhead light had discovered that he could swing himself up onto the side of his tank and bullseye the light with a carefully aimed water jet, extinguishing it and causing the aquarium-wide power outages at the same time.

The crafty little Cephalopod is already known for his mischievous nature, periodically rearranging his tank, throwing stones at the glass and damaging it, and – my favourite – juggling hermit crabs.

What an absolute legend! Stories like this are why I adore my aquatic friends. Anyway, as promised, my ten things, in no particular order:

  1. Octopus arms are commonly referred to as tentacles, although this is not strictly speaking true. The Octopus arm is a muscular hydrostat, much like the tongue of a human.
  2. Over half of their nervous system is in their arms – A severed Octopus arm will still pick up food and push it towards where the mouth used to be.
  3. Although they can use any arm for any job, researchers have found that they have a favourite arm or two, which they will often use in preference.
  4. As of 2009, they are the only invertebrate to have been observed using tools – a trait once only thought to be human.
  5. Not only can they use tools, but have both a short-term and long-term memory, excellent cognitive and problem solving skills – and there are many examples of this behaviour. Opening jars, playing with toys, escaping tanks to eat stuff, and as mentioned above, shooting at lights are all documented Octo-acts.
  6. They are masters of disguise and camouflage, to the point of becoming effectively invisible. They apparently also change colour according to mood. Red means happy.
  7. Most species of Octopus have no bones or shell whatsoever, the only hard part of their body being a beak. this means that they can squeeze through tiny gaps many times smaller than themselves.
  8. The Octopus’s Garden, while it sounds jolly, is actually a collection of bones, shells and spines outside the entrance to the Octopus’s den, the discarded remains of its many meals.
  9. The female Octopus in some species can have a couple of hundred thousand eggs, which it will gather in its arms, and hide in its den, attaching in strings to the roof. It will care for them for about a month, blowing streams of water over them for oxygen, until they hatch.
  10. During the egg-caring period, the mother Octopus will not hunt, instead sometimes choosing to eat a couple of her own arms if she gets peckish. Eventually when they hatch, she will not be strong enough to defend herself, and will shuffle off somewhere to either die or get eaten.

So there you have it. Octopodes are fully awesome. I’ve included a cool video below, plus a couple of other Octopus-related link for your delectation. Something I should point out, by the way: Octopi, Octopodes and Octopuses are all current, allowable plural terms. I prefer the term Octopodes.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=54EeVpRwd9Y]

Advanced Aquarist – Housing An Octopus

Octopus basics – Keeping an Octopus as a pet

Wikipedia entry

On a final note, I guess everyone who is paying any attention to the world cup will also be aware that “Paul the Psychic Octopus” correctly predicted all of Germany’s outcomes in this world cup, including their defeat by Spain last night.

For the record I think a psychic Octopus is about as likely as a psychic human, dog or blade of grass.

UPDATE: I’ve had lots of positive comments about this post, thanks so much for all your kind words and link backs! I’m really glad everyone enjoyed my article! I’m @badhex on twitter if you want to follow me.

I’ll leave you with one more bonus fact: Octopodes have not one, not two, but THREE hearts. That’s enough love for anyone!

😉

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Scrublet Droid

Posted in General Chang, Robots on July 2nd, 2010 by badhex

I don’t know if you seen the advert for some L’Oreal product, but in the long-running tradition of inventing bullshit to sell more product, they’ve now created something called Scrublet.
Yep. You heard me.

Scrublet.

Ridiculous as this is, it has led to Clare doing me a little drawing of the Scrublet Droid, which I can only assume is the next step in the never-ending march of face-cleaning technology.
It’s awesome having a graphic designer for a girlfriend.

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Good Life Advice

Posted in General Chang on June 25th, 2010 by badhex

I was having a conversation with the lovely Clare the other day in which I was talking about how perplexing I find it when people throw away cheese that has gone a bit mouldy, and my advice to them. Being that we’re both geeks for design, this led to us talking about the possible motivational posters that could arise to help them.

A few hours later, I received this.

Genius. I know these have been done to death, but I still think it’s awesome.

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TODAY IS SHOUTY FRIDAY.

Posted in Shouty Friday on January 8th, 2010 by badhex

IT SHOUTY FRIDAY SCIENCEDAMMITTHAT IS ALL.

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To anyone who has ever played Fallout 3

Posted in Gaming on September 18th, 2009 by badhex

Just playing Fallout 3, wandering through the wastes when a Vertibird flew over and landed nearby. I let it deploy 2 Enclave soldiers and a Sentry Bot, then let loose with the Xuanlong and blew its tiltwinged ass up.

The troops still remaining, I sent the Sentry (!) Bot to Silicon Heaven via the medium of a couple of Pulse Grenades, and then turned my attention to the dickheads. One flanked me whilst I was checking the other one out, but I soon realised that the one I first looked at was about 10 yards from poisony death at the stingers of at least 3 Radscorpions and a giant one. I dispatched the flanker with a couple of short range rifle rounds, and turned round to see the scorpionic spectacle.

The Enclave soldier was fighting valiantly and still in surprisingly good health, but as I walked closer to get a good look, out of left field a Deathclaw rocked up to join in the rumble.

It was awesome.

Needless to say the Deathclaw was the only thing that (just) survived, but only for about ten seconds until it met its demise at the business end of the Terrible Shotgun.

This, my friends, is why I love Fallout 3.

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