Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Misunderstood Jade Rabbit Farewell

"Before departure, I studied the history of mankind's lunar probes. About half of the past 130 explorations ended in success; the rest ended in failure. This is space exploration; the danger comes with its beauty. I am but a tiny dot in the vast picture of mankind's adventure in space."

"The sun has fallen, and the temperature is dropping so quickly... to tell you all a secret, I don't feel that sad. I was just in my own adventure story - and like every hero, I encountered a small problem."

"Goodnight, Earth. Goodnight, humanity."

The brave message, written as though from the stoic, malfunctioning rover, has been widely reported as coming from China's official news agency. In fact it seems to be from the unofficial twitter equivalent and blog of a Chinese space enthusiast, which says something about how China is changing.

They are heading in the right direction, but we are still far ahead. We've had official twitter feeds cheating on Turing Tests since 2008

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Robin Hood Hats: 1380-1415

1-2 Agnolo Gaddi Discovery of the True Cross 1380s. 3-7: Tacuinum Sanitatis (BNF Nouvelle acquisition latine 1673), c. 1390-1400,  8-11 Tacuinum Sanitatis (Codex Vindobonensis 2396, Vienna): 1390-1400 12: Terence's Comedies (BNF Latin 7907 A), c. 1400-1407, 13-14: Tacuinum Sanitatis (BNF Latin 9333), 15th century, 15: Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, c. 1410

As usual, Karen Larsdatter's site has a lot of examples from earlier and later.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Jade Rabbit in Trouble

China's Yutu rover has malfunctioned as the long Lunar night begins, a reminder that most of the real estate in the Solar System is cruelly difficult and harshly unforgiving by human standards. I hope they can fix the rover in time, but it will be difficult at that distance: the Moon is a harsh mistress.

The universe is coldly indifferent to your survival, and it isn't going to cooperate in your robot's survival either.

If, as seems likely, Yutu doesn't last the night, I expect the Chinese to react like most humans: "Kill our beloved robot rabbit? Very well. Be that way. We see how it is. We'll be back, with a BETTER RABBIT!"

The universe will remain unimpressed but we will feel better.  And we will be back, with a better rabbit.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Relief Mission

The rover Breathing Is Overrated rolled slowly downhill.  BIO's left center wheel was turning, but without power. The right rear wheel was not turning at all, and dragged a noticeably deeper trail through the red Martian dust.

BIO rolled to a halt beside the little logistics lander. As though on cue, the spring loaded cover of its cargo bay popped open, revealing components neatly packed in foam, looking as pristine as the day they left the builder. The rover, in contrast, looked on close inspection like a dusty and dented machine that had been driving over an unforgiving landscape for six years. Which it had.

The cargo: six new wheel units with their integral motors. Replacements for the primary and secondary arms, with upgraded sensors. A new sensor package for the masthead. And, of course, the usual plug-in memory upgrade.

The relief mission had arrived. In time, if barely so. Arrival was nicely calculated: the mission was funded years before it was needed: anything later would be too late. The planners had estimated when the rover was likely to need resupply, subtracted travel time dictated by the cold equations of planetary mechanics, subtracted the time needed to build spacecraft and launcher, and added a year for cushion. It was barely enough.

With exquisite care the rover deployed an Allen Wrench from the end of its primary arm and began to replace the right rear wheel unit.

It is a good thing to do good work, work of value, work that is valued. The relief mission was a fraction of the cost of sending a new rover. It's a good life, if you don't weaken.

Good News from Space

Opportunity has been operating on the Martian surface for 10 years, and is still going.

The Chinese have released a high resolution full color panorama taken from their  Chang'e lander on the moon.

Atlas V has now completed 42 successful launches. This makes it the most reliable large launcher in service. Delta II and two Soyuz variants are statistically somewhat more reliable but less capable. Soyuz can haul a bit over 8 tones to LEO, Atlas V over 17. Ariane V is slightly less reliable  but perhaps not significantly so, and the picture will change with each new launch.

This is how we move forward. Every successful launch demonstrates our improved skill. Every failure is an opportunity to find what we are doing wrong.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ten Years on Mars

Opportunity has spent ten years on the red planet, and is still pressing on. Ten years! The team that built our patient unbreathing harbinger built well.

Ten years. Savor that. Of course, it's a good thing we sent two. Spirit was declared beyond recovery in 2010, which is still not too shabby. Six years working on Mars is a pretty good epitaph. But ten is better.

And still Opportunity rolls onward.

What is beyond the next Martian hill? We will see.


Wool felt hats that I have blocked.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

You Know Nothing About Feudalism. Nothing.

Some ignorant people have attempted to compare medieval feudalism to our modern life.  The ignorance and error of the original comparison burns like a thousand suns.

OK, let's start with the medieval top 1%, perhaps 5,000 households in late 14th c. England.

At the top is the Royal Household, the top .0002%

One step down are dukes and archbishops, about .0014%

The peerage, lords spiritual and temporal, are about .02%, including the level above.

The whole nobility, including non-peerage lords and prelates of similar rank and commoners of similar wealth, about .04%

Knightly rank and above, .2%.

Now, when you look at the left side of the Amendment Gazette pyramid, it really doesn't correspond to medieval feudalism. The presence of the East India Company at level three is something of a giveaway,  as well as the clergy occupying a single level .

I am guessing that the creator relied very much on Gregory King's Natural and Political Observations, and then tossed in some arithmetic errors, such as the one that put the landed gentry at .0001% of the population. The problem, of course, is that King was writing about the post-feudal England of 1688.

Now, in feudalism, there was a very, very strong correlation between wealth and power. Less so today.

The Forbes 400 is a list of what they think are the 400 wealthiest people or households in the US, all billionaires: about .0004% of the population. Since England was a very much smaller country in the Middle Ages, this is equal to the royal household and the richest duke.

Well, it's nice to be a billionaire, but that doesn't necessarily translate to great power. Just ask Ross Perrot.

Now, who are the most powerful people in the US?

Elected and appointed officials: Obama, Bernanke, Roberts, Boehner and Yellen.

People willing to spend a lot of their money on other people, or persuade others to do so: Gates, Buffet and Clinton. Elon Musk fits best in this category: he's gambling a lot on his efforts to create a cheaper launcher. He will bear most of the losses if he fails, and others will reap most of the benefits if he succeeds.

People who run companies that create products or services that a lot of people value: the people running Wal-Mart, Berkshire Hathaway, Amazon, Exxon, Google, Apple, Facebook, IBM and Oracle. Doing this better or worse matters a lot.

People running large financial services companies, with their amazing ability to produce lavish profits if run well and economic collapse if not.

Passionate plutocrats like the Koch brothers and Bloomberg: willing to spend much more than their peers on political causes, they will have more influence as a result.

People running effective media companies.

People whose father was duke? Not so much.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Why We Pay for Space Exploration

I think there’s actually a fairly broad consensus that we’re currently doing space exploration for science, pride, prestige and to support our domestic space industry, not necessarily in that order. Also because it delights some of us to see other worlds, and our own, and that gives us joy. And that in the United States we don’t want to spend much more annually than the post-Apollo norm.

The conflict comes from districts with existing NASA centers passionately wanting to preserve jobs at those centers, and everyone else, not so much.

Monday, January 06, 2014

No Sod Flaps

Jael and Sisera, follower of Van Eyck, 1440-1450, Detail of German Tapestry c. 1495

Friday, January 03, 2014

Asimov Mostly Wrong in 1964

The Huffington Post has declared Isaac Asimov's 1964 predictions "Eerily Accurate". Which, I suppose, will generate more page views than "Mostly Wrong."

Suburban underground houses "fairly common"? No.

Preprogrammed toasters and bacon grills? No. Because if you're grilling a product composed mostly of  delicious but flammable grease in the night when the hu-mans are asleep, what could possibly go wrong? A lot, Mr. Asimov.

Common use of ground transport riding on compressed air? No.

Moving sidewalks downtown? No.

Lunar colonies? No.

Algae based "mock turkey" and" pseudo-steak" ? No.

Colonization of the continental shelves? No.

"The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. Schools will have to be oriented in this direction." No, a thousand times no.  Robobarbers are beyond the reach of current technology. Roombas can vacuum, but nothing more. LOLcats are as yet unmastered by AI. But then, how much of what humans do is actually routine?

Prediction is hard, especially about the future.


Plucke-buffet is an archery game described in the 15th century ballad A Geste of Robyn Hode. Two poles are set up beneath the trees a considerable distance apart: "By fyfty pase, our kynge sayd, The merkes were to longe". A rose garland hung from each pole, and archer who shot outside the garland both forfeited that arrow and received a buffet from his opponent, a heavy blow to their bare head. What larks!

If you shot within the garland, hitting the pole was best. The ballad reports with approval that Robin and "Gylberte with the Whyte Hande" " ever...cleved the wande" except when Robin missed. Presumably, if shots were within the garland but missed the pole, the closest shot would win.

The game only appears in the one ballad, and may be entirely fictional, but it does give an idea of how medieval archers might have shot at a garland. Shots outside the garland were useless at best: the winner would be the shot that came closest to a mark within it.

Space Fence Shut Down

Space Fence, an Air Force program to track space debris, has been shut down because of the budget sequester. This seems profoundly unwise.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

338 Sharks on Twitter

It's not just the name of my next band, it's living in the future in Australia. And it's a pretty clever idea, as long as you remember that just because a shark isn't tweeting doesn't mean it's not there.