Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The False Dawn of Apollo

In a comment on the previous post, Hugh Knight quotes Buzz Aldrin:

History will remember the inhabitants of this century as the people who went from Kitty Hawk to the moon in 66 years, only to languish for the next 30 in low Earth orbit. At the core of the risk-free society is a self-indulgent failure of nerve.

Man's first visits to the moon were like his first visits to the South Pole: heroic efforts driven by national pride and prestige that pushed the limits of what was possible with contemporary technology. leaving little behind but flags and footprints. After Scott and his men left the South Pole, we would not return for 44 years.

When we came back it was with radically improved technology developed for other purposes: a DC-3 with JATO bottles instead of muscle powered sleds.

The slowed pace of manned spaceflight since Apollo isn't a failure of will, it's just an adjustment to an environment in which manned spaceflight no longer comes out of the lavish Showing the Damned Commies We're Awesome budget.

NASA's budget for 2010 is over $18 billion. Putting canned primate into space is expensive, and making it less expensive is expensive. We can be patient: the Solar System is not going away.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

We Live in an Age of Marvels

I was born half a year before Sputnik, back when we and all our machines were trapped at the bottom of Earth's gravity well. Back then, we thought Venus might be habitable by humans and Mars might be covered with canals. Because the bottom of a well is not the best place to get a view of the neighborhood.

And now we can watch the moon Daphnis plowing through the rings of Saturn, trailing a wake like a speedboat. Awesome. And see splendid views of Mimas, that bears the scars of a titanic collision long enough ago that the crater is pocked with craters.

And we can read Elizabeth Bear's remembrance of first seeing Voyager's images of Io's sulphur volcanoes:

I remembered those images as if it were yesterday. Io's dragonskin colors, the plume of the volcano--the first active exovolcano ever witnessed--rising from its surface huge and spherical as a partially eclipsed sister moon. The false-color images, painstakingly chicken-pecked across interstellar distances and long minutes of light-speed lag by a data recording and transmission system that basically consists of an 8-track tape deck and a 160-baud modem.

And that was over thirty years ago. Some of you weren't born then.

Listen. We went there, but not in person. Some of the hands and minds that launched the craft are dead, but we bound what the machine saw, and you can see it. Long ago, one of our ancestors learned to bind what he learned and pass it on beyond his lifetime. Or hers.

That's our inheritance. We add to it, and pass it on.

And this is what we do.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Improving the Affordable Care Act

The Republicans don’t like it, but they like parts of it. The electorate doesn’t like all of it, but they like parts of it. The Democrats can expect some backlash on the unpopular parts, and want to keep as much of it as possible.

What changes might a Blue Dog Democrat or a principled libertarian Republican offer, knowing that Republicans will campaign against the unpopular bits, and as long as Obama is in office the Democrats have a veto?

Some reasonable options:

1) Harmonize the tax exclusions and subsidies so that employer provided insurance has no advantage over what individuals buy, and vice versa. It’s the just thing to do, and if you don’t there will be endless efforts to game the system.

2) Move the “Cadillac Tax” on expensive insurance plans forward to 2014. If you don’t, item 1) will be a lot more expensive.

3) Let employers that offer health insurance as a benefit count their cost for that towards satisfying minimum wage requirements.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dawn Chorus

Dawn Chorus comprises films of 19 singers that uncannily recreate birdsong in their ‘natural habitats'. The individuals are located in various situations such as an underground car-park, an osteopathic clinic and a bath-tub, the project is as much a portrait of British idiosyncrasies as it is of the natural world.

During rigorous fieldwork 14 microphones were placed around woodland to record birds during one morning of birdsong in Northumberland. From this multi-track recording each song was slowed down up to 16 times, then human participants were filmed mimicking this slowed down song. Finally the resulting video footage was then speeded up, returning the bird mimicry into its ‘real' register. The films are presented on screens in the gallery relative to the position of the birds when they were recorded.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Americans Outraged by Democratic Health Care Bill (If They Are Republican)

The latest Gallup poll gives some indication of the reaction of most Americans to the health care bill the Democrats have rammed down the throat of the revolted American people. They are outraged. At least, the Republicans are outraged. Democrats rather like it, but of course they would, wouldn’t they? Independents seem pretty evenly divided.

The Republicans made a calculated gamble that they if they presented a united front of refusal the bill would probably fail, and they would benefit. This was a reasonable bet: Intrade betting was offering worse than even odds of passage until early March, and later in the month odds dripped below 50% twice.

The gamble failed. What now? A crusade for total repeal and return to the status quo? Not bloody likely. Too much of the bill is simultaneously popular and consistent with things Republicans have already advocated.

Plan B: a cynical panderfest. Republicans have always stood for smaller government, so they propose to spend more on Medicare and have bigger subsidies for student loans. They have stood for fiscal responsibility, so they propose to cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes and cut taxes without cutting spending.

Now, the Platonic ideal of a Republican leader could argue, justly, that the new taxes on high income households will discourage investment and hard work and violate the idea that Medicare should be structured as social insurance rather than a redistributive levy.

If we eliminate that, however, we eliminate a big chunk of the funding for the program. The Platonic ideal leader would refuse to worse the deficit and make our children effectively pay for our benefits.

That leaves two choices: greatly reduce access to affordable health insurance, or raise taxes on middle-income households. That's the honest argument to make when Republicans run on "replace and repeal".

It will be interesting to see if the Republicans propose either, or something more expedient.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Arms and Armor's Fechterspiel Sword

Arms and Armor's Fechterspiel sword has attracted favorable comments. Here is another review.

Medieval fighting schools developed blunt practice swords that that simulated the medieval longsword in much the same way a fencing foil simulated the 18th century smallsword. They are shown in the the 15th century Solothurner Fechtbuch, and examples have survived from the 16th century: a pair have been preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Arms and Armor have recreated this sort of training weapon. You can choose between the training grade, which they describe as follows: "the finish on the blade is not taken to as high a polish and the hilt parts are finished with a smoothed cast surface". In the higher grade version "The pommel and guard are finished in brushed steel"

As I write this, the training grade costs $40 less. Hugh Knight, who has used them, suggests "Frankly, they're the better buy unless you intend to do demonstrations for the public at which you want to display nicer equipment."

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

The 3D is not as perfectly executed as the best contemporary 3D films, but the 3D version adds enough to the experience that it's worthwhile trying to see it in a 3D theater if you can. So says my eldest daughter, who saw it both in 2D and 3D. I only saw it in 3D, but I believe her.

I enjoyed it thoroughly. The film takes Lewis Carroll's books as backstory, and is set about ten years later.

If you watch it, keep an eye on Anne Hathaway's White Queen. Always remember that she is her sister's sister.

Medieval Lanterns with Horn Panes

Recently, I was able to view the Parement of Narbonne in person, and noticed a detail that wasn't visible in reproductions available to me earlier. A lantern is shown in the panel showing the betrayal of Jesus. In a good reproduction, you can see that each pane is divided by a horizontal line. In the same scene on p. 181 of the Tres Belles Heures, each pane is divided by a double horizontal line.

Viewing the Parement closely it is possible to see a small pair of circles below the horizontal line on each pane, as though each pane was made of two pieces of horn riveted together.

This site has a useful 15th c. view of a similar lantern from the 15th c. Lyversberg Passion. In that lantern the seam appears to be covered on the outside with a metal strip, with the heads of rivets visible on the inside of the pane. Note the lace or thong for opening the door.

Note also the importance of making a door wide enough to allow comfortable access to replace candles: the Tres Belles Heures lantern seems to use eight vertical panes (each composed of two pieces of horn joined together.) The door is two panes wide. The lantern in the Lyversberg Passion seems to use half as many panes, so a door using a single pane is practical.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Living in the Future: Applied Technology and the Triumph of the Nerds

Here is a NPR story about the band, the team of volunteers behind the great wondrous machine, the updated revival of 17th century style patronage that made it possible, and what I'll call kudos culture.

In an interview with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel, OK Go singer-songwriter-guitarist Damian Kulash says that he — and the rest of the band — view videos not as a potential source of income, but rather as another creative outlet.

"This is all sort of part of the creative project for us," he says. "I mean, the animating passion for us is to get up and chase down our craziest ideas, and sometimes those are filmic, and sometimes they're purely sounds."

The band's label, EMI, didn't see things the same way. In an effort to maintain some control over the dissemination of the music video, EMI denied listeners the ability to embed it on their own Web sites and blogs. After receiving a deluge of complaints, the band eventually persuaded EMI to enable embedding. Soon afterward, however, OK Go parted ways with EMI to start its own record label, Paracadute.

Here is a video announcing the new label and their new business partners, a pair of dogs in ties.

We live in interesting times.

Tattúínárdœla saga

Jackson Crawford writes:

Earlier this week I was drawn into an enlightening discussion with my colleague Ben Frey about the complicated textual tradition that lies behind George Lucas’s “Star Wars,” which few outside the scholarly community realize is a modern rendition of an old Germanic legend of a fatal conflict between a father and his treacherous son. Below I present some remarks on the Old Icelandic version of the legend, with some spare comparative notes on the cognate traditions in other old Germanic languages.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Two Recent Books on Medieval Martial Arts

In Saint George's Name

Freelance Academy Press brings readers innovative books and rich supporting material in the field of Western martial arts, American and European history, arms and armour, chivalry, historical arts and crafts, and related adult and young adult fiction. We do this through new educational books and carefully selected, timeless reprints.

If you are interested in these topics, this is a new publisher to watch.

Here's a review.

The Knightly Art of the Longsword

At 342 pages, this is a significant expansion on Hugh Knight's earlier work on the subject.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Double Star

I recently finished rereading Heinlein’s 1956 novel. It’s still one of my favorites.

There are three main threads to the tale. The first is character driven: the narrator, who we first meet as a vain, arrogant, cowardly, xenophobic and not very successful actor, is enlisted to impersonate another man, a brave statesman revered by his followers who has been fighting for political rights for people who have been disenfranchised. Over the course of the story the protagonist begins to behave more and more like the man he is imitating, and the counterfeit virtue becomes increasingly real. The voice is the most individual of Heinlein’s narrators, who otherwise have a tendency to sound too much alike. This thread of the story does not require a SF setting, and strongly resembles the theme of the film and novel General della Rovere, released a few years later and set in Italy during WW II.

The second thread poses the question: to whom do ethical basics apply? Are the only true for Homo Sapiens, or do they apply more broadly?

The third is the setting, an attempt to create a plausible, possible and consistent portrayal of life in our solar system in the author's future.

This has now become an alternate universe story, for two reasons.

The first is that a lot of what we thought was possible in 1956 wasn't. We didn't know how thin the Martian atmosphere was, or how hellish Venus was beneath the clouds, or how efficient a nuclear thermal rocket could built given late 20th-early 21st century materials technology (it turns out that the massive engine, shielding and tanks for the bulky hydrogen propellant eat up a lot of the performance benefit of the higher exhaust velocity). Another half century of particle physics have given a lot of evidence that a Heinleinian torchship that simply stuffs mass into the converter and turns it all into energy is probably not practical in the universe we live in.

The second is that even based on what was known at the time, Heinlein was wildly overoptimistic about the prospects for human colonization of the solar system. Observations from earthbound spectroscopes had already indicated that neither Mars nor Venus had the relatively hospitable levels of atmospheric oxygen and water that Heinlein assumed in his stories.

Even with the full weight of Heinlein's thumb on the scales of extrapolation, the economics of colonization and space travel in his future history didn't make much sense. One of his stories, Space Jockey, assumed cargo could profitably be shipped from Earth to the Moon for about $300 a pound in 2010 dollars. This is at least two orders of magnitude better than we can do today. Even so, it's hard to find physical products that can be traded between planets with these sort of transport costs. Even the optimistic Heinleinian Mars could be described as a colder Gobi Desert with less air, so it's hard to make a credible economic case for planting a colony there.

In hindsight, the story was not very successful in extrapolating the impact of television, a technology already in use, on political campaigns or the profession of acting. In spite of references to "stereo" the political campaign and the acting career of "The Great Lorenzo" seem firmly rooted in 1956 or earlier.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Claude Blair Has Died

The funeral of Claude Blair will be held on Thursday 11 March, at 2 pm, in the church of St Sepulchre Newgate in the City of London. Light refreshments will be provided afterwards in Cutlers' Hall, which is near at hand in Warwick Lane. No flowers please.

Several friends have very kindly asked whether they might make a donation to a charity in my father's memory. We would like to support the Church Monuments Society, of which he was a founder-member, and a fund has been set up with a view to conserving one or more monuments in his memory: see the attachment below for details.

Please forward this message to anyone who you think might be interested.

John Blair

The Claude Blair Memorial Conservation Fund

John Blair has requested that donations in memory of his father be given to The Church Monuments Society (Registered Charity No: 279597), not to benefit its members, but to form a fund for the conservation of a monument with an armoured effigy, a cause dear to Claude. As there will be no monument to Claude himself, it is planned to affix a plaque near the monument recording that it was conserved in Claude’s memory. John will be closely involved in choosing the conservation project that will benefit from this fund. The CMS is in the process of setting up a separate account where the money will be held.

To make a donation please send a cheque to:
Mr Michael Thompson,
Hon Treasurer CMS,
Hill Top Farm,
Grantham, Lincs. NG33 4HB.
Phone: 01476 585012.

A sad passing, and a fitting memorial. Of course, his writings still survive as a memorial as well.