Sunday, September 30, 2012

An Ancient Streambed on Mars

More evidence from Curiosity of when Mars was wet.

Lizard Astronaut Reading

Lizard Astronaut Reading by ~WillMcLean on deviantART

Iranian News Agency Prints Onion Story as Fact: Onion Responds by Twisting Knife

The Iranian news agency carried an Onion parody as fact. The Onion rose to the opportunity:
The Onion story was later modified to include the line “For more on this story: Please visit our Iranian subsidiary organization.”

The Onion styles itself as “America’s finest news source” and yesterday its editor Will Tracy released a statement in which he said his site “freely shares content with Fars and commends the journalists at Iran’s Finest News Source on their superb reportage”.

Look, an Amphisbaena!

A family in South Carolina found a snake with a head at each end.

I say we clone it so we can breed them and put the amphisbaena back in the bestiaries.

After Electricity

Revolution is a recent TV show based on two premises: a) electricity suddenly stops working for any sort of Human technology, and b) nobody is smart enough to think of using a bicycle. Or a steam engine. Or a lot of other things.

This is a sad waste. Picking only one of the above would have been much more interesting.

Imagine a) without b). You get a complicated steampunky world that has suffered an enormous economic and cultural disaster, and probably immense loss of life in the aftermath of the Fail. Apple, Google, the Hoover dam and this blog are reduced to scrap in a moment.

But everyone with a bicycle that hasn't used it lately starts pumping up the tires. Diesels still work, unless they have electronic controls or an electric starter. Gas turbines still work, ditto. Also, steam.

15 years later, factories are still retooling, because everything powered by electricity had to be replaced by something else: the line shafts of pre-electrification industry,  pneumatic or hydraulic tools, small diesels, or something else.

Also, every factory that made electric motors, or gasoline engines, or integrated circuits, or batteries, needed to switch to producing something else.

Most U.S. locomotives were Diesel-electric or electric, and replacing them with or retrofitting them as Diesel-hydraulics is a titanic task, so old steam locomotives have been pulled of of excursion railroads and pulled out of museums to fill the gap.

Cars, new or retrofitted, are Diesels with gaslamp headlights.

Chains of optical telegraphs using heliographs by day and Aldis lamps by night, frequently sited atop former cell towers, are expensive, silenced by bad weather and blocked by oceans. Most long distance communication is by mailplane.

Mechanical computers use punch cards and paper tapes.

It's a strange hybrid of 19th, 20th and 21st century technology: a poorer and less productive world than our own, but not medievaloid.

And at least it's been good for the newspaper industry.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain..."

Mozart's sister-in-law,  Josepha Hofer, was the first Queen of the Night in the Magic Flute. Apparently she was very successful in the demanding role, until she retired from it at age 43. I understand and can well believe it is a taxing role best suited to the stamina of youth. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians says: "According to contemporary reports, she commanded a very high tessitura but had a rough edge to her voice and lacked stage presence." So we know something about how she sounded, but if you can re-imagine her voice from that you have a better imagination than I do. For practical purposes her voice is gone, like tears in the rain.

The magnificent Diana Damrau made her debut as the Queen of the Night in 1998: she retired the role in 2007, although she still sings other parts. Queens of the Night have short careers, like the professional athletes they are. But thanks to exciting new Human time-binding technology, we can not only record sight and sound, but also distribute and enjoy it with increasing ease.

I can still remember a time, not so long ago, when if you wanted to see a film or video of an opera that had happened in the past, you had to wait until your local movie theater or television decided to run it, and then you had to watch it before it went away, and these opportunities could be decades apart.

"These are the days of miracle and wonder."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Living in the Future: Hula Cam at Burning Man

They seem to be having fun. In the future in which we now live,  the desert is not nearly so dystopian as the Mad Max movies suggested.

It Gets Better

I like the country I live in better than the one I was born in. It's the same country, 55 years later. In 1957 there was no Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Voting Rights Act of 1965. Displays of contempt for our flag were punishable by law. In most states you needed to prove adultery or abandonment to get a divorce. Your employer could discriminate against you because you were pregnant. Cigarettes were sold without warning labels. Young men could be conscripted. The Interstate Commerce Commission enforced cartels in railroads and trucking. The top marginal federal income tax rate was 91%. The government had greater power to restrict free speech. And domestic violence was a sitcom punchline. Neither The Democratic nor the Republican party of today, for the most part, wants to go back to that. No matter who wins in November, it could be worse, and once was.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Government Benefits

Matt Yglesias makes an important point. Getting a direct payment from the government is a significant benefit to the individual that gets it. But many of the most valuable government benefits aren't direct payments. They are things like an enormous retroactive extension of monopolies on intellectual property, or an overly broad patent granted for rounded corners, or protective tariffs to make sure domestic sugar farmers can have bigger profits. This are things that a true pro-market party would try hard to change. Not to mention tax preferences that discriminate in favor of hedge fund managers compared to other labor, or home owners versus renters, or people who get health insurance as part of their compensation compared to those that pay for it individually. Now, the Platonic ideal of the Republican Party does want to eliminate preferential laws that cater to rent seeking, reduce preferential tax treatment to broaden the tax base, and reduce the deficit. The actual incarnate Republican Party that has a majority in the House of Representatives, not so much. In fairness, incarnate Republicans that try to actually enact the platform of the Platonic ideal of the Republican Party tend to be brutally savaged by the electorate, who are unsympathetic to the idea that any of the above changes should have any negative impact on any individual that they can imagine feeling any sense of kinship with. And the concentrated interests that receive benefits like excessive long copyright terms or preferential treatment of carried interest will defend them with passionate intensity.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Medieval Helmet Padding

From at least the 14th century on, when we first have examples of surviving padding, helmet padding worked as both padding and a suspension system.

Thickness varied, with field helmets sacrificing padding thickness for comfort during long wear, and helmets for jousting and other specialized combats where the helmet would only be worn for a short time making the opposite choice. Even so, padding for the skull as thick as a modern potholder was probably at the upper end of the scale.

Typically, the crown of the helmet padding was divided into 4-10 segments laced together at the top to provide an adjustable fit. The lacing could pass through eyelets at the top of each segment, or between the inner and outer layer at the sides of the top of each segment

The robustness of the cloth used seems to have ranged from no heavier than a work shirt to significantly lighter than painter's canvas.

Rows of quilting could be either horizontal or vertical, converging like lines of longitude at the top of the helmet. The effigy of Philip the Bold of Burgundy at Dijon is one example of the latter system, and Churburg bascinet #15 is a surviving example. Alternatively, there could be a vertical line of stitching at the middle of each crown segment with parallel lines of stitching on either side. Lines of horizontal stitching seem to have frequently been about a finger's breadth apart. Some were stitched both horizontally and vertically.

The quilting stitches could present a continuous row of stitches visible on the inside of the lining, stitches visible on the inside separated by a gap of similar length, or very short widely separated stitches visible on the inside of the lining.

Here is a good detailed view of the lining of a sallet at Leeds.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Lincoln on Mars

Curiosity took a Lincoln penny to Mars. This was in part a tribute to the practice of geologists including a penny in photographs of rock samples to give a sense of scale.

And now a Lincoln penny serves as part of a calibration target for Curiosity's cameras.

But not just any penny. This one is from 1909, the first year of issue for the Lincoln penny, and still bearing the initials of the designer of that handsome coin, removed before the end of the first year of full production.

When Teddy Roosevelt was determined that even the smallest denomination coin issued by the United States should be an admirable piece of work.

And someone in the project made sure that the coin that went to Mars was from the first year of issue for the Lincoln penny, and still bearing the designer's initials.

So a familiar mundane object that is also a fine portrait in relief of one of the United States' greatest presidents, and an expression of our values, is on Mars, where we can see that it is now flecked with particles of Martian dust.

Robot Dressage

What's more fun than a high stepping equine robot? Two high stepping equine robots! (appearing at 1:19)

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Where's the Kaboom?

Here. Once Curiosity was safe on the Martian surface, the cable it was lowered on was severed, and the descent stage was programmed to fly away to the northwest of the landing site, selected because this took it away from the locations of greatest interest to NASA. It hit the surface about 650 meters from Curiosity, traveling at about 160 Kilometers an hour, probably with significant residual Hydrazine rocket fuel still in its tanks.

It was probably something of a Michael Bay moment, with a dramatic fireball and the descent stage scattered into pieces not much larger than a foot in diameter.

Saturday, September 08, 2012


Curiosity's backshell and parachute on the Martian surface, seen from orbit. That is an impressively capable camera! I wonder how long it will take the parachute to fade and tatter.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Monday, September 03, 2012

Tents on the Reliquary of St. Ursula

Click to embiggen. On the splendid pavilion at the far right of his 1489 painting, Hans Memling shows guy ropes attaching to the tent through gilt lion's heads. Note that the lion's head over the doorway does not have a rope attached, leaving the doorway less obstructed. Note also the gold fringe and gilt tracery.

Space Patrol

Space Patrol by ~WillMcLean on deviantART