Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Letter of Introduction Presented at the Pas de la Belle Pelerine

Here is a very noble and courteous letter of introduction presented by Alexendre Bautista de la Mar when he entered the field as comer to the pas de la Belle Pelerine held at this most recent great deed of arms at Pennsic. More concerning this pas may be seen here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Animals with the Same Common and Binomial Scientific Name

Boa Constrictor
Tyrannosaurus Rex

I can't think of any others. Can you?

The Etymology of the Guinea Pig

The Guinea Pig is an animal that originated in South America. Guinea is a region in West Africa. Why are they called Guinea Pigs?

The simplest and most likely explanation is that Guinea was often used in English to describe exotic imports from overseas, even if they didn't actually come from Guinea. The Oxford English Dictionary lists Guinea corn (Indian millet), Guinea duck (Muscovy duck) Guinea hens (sometimes the North America Turkey) Guinea goose (Chinese goose) and Guinea wheat (Indian corn), as well as various plants and animals that actually came from Guinea.

The character of England's Guinea trade contributed to the confusion, since ships from England to Guinea often sailed on to the Americas before returning to England.

Speculative etymology based on the guinea coin seems improbable: the coin was first minted in 1663, but William Harvey seems to have referred to "Ginny-pigs" as early as 1653.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Pig in the Python

U.S population distribution, by age, from 1950 through 2050: animated.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Human-rating the Delta IV

This report by The Aerospace Corporation shows the frequently unquestioned assumptions currently crippling US human spaceflight.

The US currently has two operational unmanned launchers capable of carrying a substantial manned spacecraft: Delta IV and Atlas V. The Delta IV family has failed to substantially complete one mission out of ten launches, Atlas V one out of fourteen. The Saturn V that carried the manned capsules of the Apollo program had one clear failure out of thirteen launches with Apollo 6, and a close call with Apollo 13 which almost failed to reach orbit before the famous crisis en route to the moon.

Both launchers are relatively new, and their record should improve over time. More mature unmanned launchers like Delta II, Atlas II-III and Ariane IV had a successful launch rate of 98-97%.

A launch abort system (LAS) like the ones carried by Apollo and Soyuz could probably allow the crew to survive a launch failure about 80% of the time, so an otherwise unmodified Delta IV with a LAS might kill its crew once every 50-250 ascents. For comparison, the Shuttle averaged a loss of crew every 63.5 launches.

At the anticipated post shuttle NASA manned flight rate of two spacecraft a year, such a system might lose a crew once every 25-125 years.

To improve the safety of a manned version, NASA would want take additional steps to "human-rate" the launcher, primarily by improving structural margins, adding redundancy to some systems, increasing the qualification testing of the hardware, and increased inspections.

Option 6, the most similar human-rated version to the current launcher in the Aerospace report, uses a single RL-10 engine on the upper stage, and costs about $4 billion more for development and the first 14 launches than an unmodified Delta IV.. Other options with more powerful upper stages cost more but also improve payload.

Under those assumptions, human rating that goes much beyond adding a LAS and the associated hardware and software to allow a timely abort for a crewed capsule seems like an extraordinarily costly way to save human lives. If additional investment in human rating a Delta IV reduced fatal accidents to zero, it might save 1-12 lives over the course of the next 50 years.

If you are willing to spend $4 billion to save human lives, marginal improvements to a fairly reliable existing orbital launcher are probably not going to be at the top of your choices. Highway safety or infant nutrition will probably save many more lives for less money.

Much of the added cost seems to come from NASA overhead priced at 27-32% of contractor cost. Given that Lockheed Martin and Boeing are trusted to launch billion dollar spysats and planetary spacecraft with considerably less expensive oversight, it's worthwhile to question just how much value NASA adds for that additional cost.

And if you are proposing to spend over $300 million per life saved, then there really should be some discussion about how much the different improvements add to reliability, how many lives they save at what price, and how certain you are of your estimates. Probabilistic risk assessments for space launchers have a history of being very wrong and of grossly overestimating the reliability of their conclusions.

Perhaps the government has a good reason to put a very, very high value on preventing astronaut deaths on their way to space and back. Certainly the US public seems to care a lot more about such deaths than those of most other mortals, very famous celebrities excepted. And the US public is ultimately footing the bill for NASA's human space flight, so their preferences deserve some consideration.

It might be desirable to align the interests of NASA and a commercial launch provider by making a significant part of the contract conditional on a good safety record. For example, the provider offers 20 launches for up to $5 billion That amount includes a $500 million bonus paid for each ten flights in a row without mission failure, and an additional billion dollars bonus for 20 flights in a row without a mission failure.

Under this kind of contact, you can expect the launch provider to work very hard to keep mission failures to a minimum,

Le romant des chevaliers de Thrace, 1605

Le romant des chevaliers de Thrace

Memoirs of one of the participants

Monday, August 17, 2009

PETA to Provide Sharks with Beach Excursion Vehicles

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) believe that sharks are mostly misunderstood. “Most people never even get to see a Great White in its natural habitat” said Diana “Di” Furwearersdie, PETA’s director of media relations. “And some, because of unfair prejudice, won’t go in the water at all. And so these remarkable creatures are inevitably misunderstood, overfished and underprotected. This needs to change.”

PETA is taking steps to work for that change by equipping dozens of sharks with Beach Excursion Vehicles: a plexiglass tank of filtered salt water mounted on an all terrain vehicle chassis. The sharks have proved remarkably adept at using their snouts to manipulate steering joysticks submerged in the tanks to move about beaches with surprising agility and speed.

“It’s all about promoting understanding by giving more people a chance to interact with these magnificent creatures” said Ms. Furwearersdie to reporters as a shark deftly maneuvered his vehicle across a sand dune, lunged halfway out of the tank and snapped up an unwary Cocker Spaniel. “People need to experience the Great Circle of Life for themselves, and understand that they can’t take being at the top of the food chain for granted. That’s what we’re working for.”

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Augustine Commission

The Augustine Commission on US human space flight completed their last public hearing on August 12th. I was impressed by the quality and diligence of the panel and their willingness to take a fresh look at NASA’s plans. Sally Ride put an admirable emphasis on coming up with an approach that was operationally affordable. Which, unfortunately, the current plan is not.

In 2004, the previous administration decided that it would be an excellent idea for the United States to return humans to the moon by the arbitrary date of 2020. NASA came up with a plan to do so, if given sufficient funds. The plan was to build a big new launcher, using heavily modified hardware from the Space Shuttle and other launchers that would ultimately be called the Ares V. The crew would ride to earth orbit on another, smaller, simpler and hopefully safer launcher based on the same technology called the Ares I, rendezvous in low Earth orbit, and then ride off to the moon. It would be a lot like Apollo, but with a larger crew, more efficient engines and electronics, and lower development costs because a lot of the hardware was taken from existing systems instead of developed from scratch.

NASA figured this would cost a lot less than Apollo, but substantially more than NASA was getting for human space flight at the time. If the president wanted a bold new initiative and would provide the funding, they would find a way to go to the moon.

The plan arrived, but the money didn’t. After the US won the Cold War race to the moon, the country has been unwilling to abandon human space flight entirely, but equally unwilling to spend anything remotely like the level when the space race was a key contest of pride and prestige between dueling ideologies.

The good news is that the current administration isn’t bound by an arbitrary goal of returning a human to the moon by 2020. The bad news is that even less ambitious goals will be difficult to fund and achieve.

The committee does seem to respect the enormous potential for orbital propellant depots to make the goal more achievable, as well as the advantages of using commercial launch services as much as possible. And the have agreed that the current NASA plan to build Ares I and Ares V is not going to be affordable.

There's a lot of information on their site, particularly in the related documents. The affordability analysis presented at the August 12th meeting is particularly illuminating (if depressing reading for a human space flight supporter).

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Comparing Health Care Costs in Different Countries

Comparing the costs of different health care systems can be a challenging problem. In the US, most potential doctors are generally expected to pay for their own education and then charge enough for their services later to recoup the present value of that investment. In some other countries, the state pays to educate most would be doctors, and so they demand less compensation after graduation.

All other things being equal, the total cost should be about the same. However, the US probably counts more of that cost in the health care category, even if total spending is similar and ultimately devoted to similar purposes.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Paul Krugman and Charlie Stross Discuss Living in the Future

Here. Stross suggests; "It’s well known that the first real use of any successful new technology is pornography."

Students of the history of technology will immediately think of the Gutenberg Booke of Saucy Curiosa, Galileo's Optic Device for Looking at Mrs. Viviani Bathing, The Watt Steam Powered Apparatus for the Relief of Tension, the Gatling Reciprocating Vibrator and the Wright Brothers' Mile High Erotic Saloon.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

How I Spent My Summer Vacation, 2009

Pennsic 2009

The Combat of the Thirty
Photos by Countess Caryl
Photos by Baron Eirik
Photos by James B.
Photos by Angus MacClerie
Photos by White Mountain Armoury
The Armour Archive
Another video
Yet another video
Video of the second combat

The pas de la Belle Pelerine
Photos by Countess Caryl
Photos by Mistress Karen
Photos by Urdok
Photos by Tasha
An additional photo from Jan.

A Voice of America Video on Pennsic 2009, with coverage of the Company of St. Michael deed of arms starting around 2.25

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Panorama painting of the Battle of Morat/Murten

Here is a site devoted to the recently restored sweeping 19th century panorama painting of the battle.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Jousts Held by King Rene

The principal tournaments held by Rene were the one at Nancy (1445), to celebrate the marriages of Marguerite and Yolande; the Emprise de la gueule du dragon (1446), held the following year at Ragilly, near Chinon, in which he fought in black armour, mounted on a black horse, being in mourning for his son Louis, and won the prize; the Emprise de la Joyeuse Garde, or the Day of Launay (1446), in which Ferry de Vaudemont was the victor; and the Pas de la Bergere, held at Tarascon in Provence (1449).

Besant, Sir Walter, Essays and historiettes, London, Chatto & Windus, 1903, pp 56-57

These were all jousts rather than the sort mounted melee that Rene described in his traictié de la forme et devis d'ung tournoy but apparently never held himself.