Monday, December 22, 2008

Glow in the Dark Toys

Back when I was in college the only thing you were likely to find in a dorm room that glowed in the dark was a black light poster. Or a doobie. Now here's a guy named Andrew Seltzman who graduated this year from Georgia Tech and what's he got in his dorm room? A fusion reactor! Yes, that's right. He built a fusion reactor in his dorm room. Here's a picture of the deuterium ion injector parts all laid out on his bed:

And here's the assembled machine:

He tried a couple of test runs with no fuel just to prove it was generating a plasma. But before he actually fired up the fusion reaction he moved it to a lab in the nuclear engineering building. Here's a picture of the deuterium plasma of the reactor in actual operation, generating neutrons:

This type of device is called a fusor and it is simple enough that several dozen very accomplished amateurs have been able to build one. Andrew Seltzman actually built his first fusor in high school. His new one is pretty sophisticated. It has a liquid cooled grid electrode and an ion injector. My hat is off to him and I hope he has a brilliant career as a physicist.

By the way, you'll never guess who invented the fusor. His name was Philo T. Farnsworth. You've probably never of him but I'm sure you've heard of something else he invented: television. Fusors are used as neutron generators but are hopelessly inefficient for power generation. The amount of power they consume is way more than they could ever generate. However, the fusor has a cousin that I've written about before that is more promising: the Polywell. I'm fascinated by this line of research and I hope it pans out. In the meantime, the pictures are pretty cool!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Back to the Hill Country

This past weekend my lovely bride and I enjoyed another getaway to the Texas Hill Country for a belated celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary. It was a great trip. We toured the only commercial olive grove in Texas. They do samplings of their olive oil just like a winery. We toured a couple of wineries, too, and had dinner at one in their excellent Italian restaurant.

While we were there we stayed at a wonderful B&B in the Canyon Lake area called Biscuit Hill Bed & Breakfast. The food was delicious and the owners were very friendly and hospitable. Most of the weekend was cloudy, but on the last day we were treated to beautiful blue skies that showcased the natural beauty of the area. Here's a picture of the B&B and another picture of the view from our private second story deck:

Canyon Lake was formed by damming the Guadalupe River in central Texas. The rocky limestone terrain ensures that the water is a beautiful blue color, unlike the muddy, sediment-filled lakes of East Texas. You can see the lake in the distance in the picture above. A closer shot is shown below, along with a shot of the earthen dam:

Behind the dam is a spillway and a small hydroelectric plant:

Just across the bank from the spillway I took this picture of a small tree clinging to the last leaves of fall, brilliantly lit by the midday sun. The yellow leaves were positively luminous. I wish my cheap digital camera did the scene justice:

The water from the spillway feeds the lower Guadalupe River. It is known around Texas as a beautiful place for tubing, white-water rafting, and fly fishing. Here is the view just downstream:

It was a great weekend to get away and enjoy a change of pace. I am so blessed to have such a wonderful wife, and doubly blessed because she has put up with me for the past thirty years. Even better, she shows no signs of kicking me out anytime soon!

Friday, October 24, 2008

If Armadillos Could Fly

Well, they can!!

I would like to join with space enthusiasts everywhere to give my most enthusiastic congratulations to Armadillo Aerospace for winning Level 1 of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge today. To win Level 1, you have to launch a rocket from one pad, fly to 50 meters altitude, hover for 90 seconds, and land at another pad 100 meters away. Then you have to make a similar flight with the same vehicle back to the first pad. Sound simple? It's not! It's taken them several years to win, and no one else has even come close. Level 2 is harder still. You have to stay airborne for 180 seconds on each flight, and the second landing pad has boulders and craters just like the lunar surface. Armadillo will try to win Level 2 tomorrow.

Over the past few years I have often referred to Armadillo as the poster boys of amateur rocketry. I always meant that in the best possible way. Founded by John Carmack, creator of Doom and other famous video games, they started building rockets in a garage on the weekends eight years ago. Starting with ungainly little spider-like vehicles, look at what they have achieved! They have built engines for NASA and the Air Force. This year they won the contract to provide the rocket engines for the Rocket Racing League's airplane fleet. And not only did they win the NGLLC today, but Armadillo and Rocket Racing League announced they will form a joint venture with the state of New Mexico to build and fly passenger-carrying suborbital rocket vehicles over the next couple of years. Armadillo will be building the hardware.

So Armadillo Aerospace is all grown up now. They are poster boys no more. To John Carmack & co. I say: You guys are top flight professionals in my book from now on! Congratulations on your Rocket Racer contract, on your new joint venture announced today, and again on your level 1 win. Here’s hoping for a level 2 win tomorrow!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Falcon 1 in Orbit!

They finally did it! Falcon 1 is in orbit. As Elon Musk said to his employees, "The fourth time's a charm." Launch was at 4:16 pm PDT and second stage cut off occurred ten minutes later. The picture perfect launch and flight to orbit was webcast live. SpaceX has now become the first company to design, build and launch a privately funded space vehicle into orbit. According to Musk, in the past that's been a "country thing" and only a few countries in the world have achieved it. Now a private company has. Congratulations!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Back in the 21st Century

We finally got our electrical power restored yesterday afternoon. That's just slightly over a week living a lifestyle from the last century. Evenings were impacted the most. It was incredibly interesting to see how the family dynamic changed. We would sit around by candlelight talking or reading. I started teaching my younger son guitar lessons. Everyone went to bed early. It made me realize how much less stimulation people received a hundred years ago. For the twenty-first century family it was boring! No phone, no TV, no computer, no Internet, no X-Box, no stereo, and no iPod (because you can't recharge it). Even with a dozen candles burning, the light was so dim I would start to fall asleep at 8:30 pm. It was an experience we will remember for a long time. I know there are hundreds of thousands of Houstonians still in the middle of that experience. Three cheers for the hardworking linemen who are restoring power to two million people, one circuit at a time.

BTW, on Saturday, before the power came back on, we decided to pick up a few MREs with our FEMA ice. Our stock of salvaged food in our ice chest was just about gone, and we had never tried them before. Actually, we had never even seen an MRE before and we were all curious to try it out. The food is better than I would have expected, although naturally some things are better than others. The little chemical device to heat the food is ingenious. I can see how the soldiers would get very, very tired of it, though. In college we had very good dorm food, too, but about the third time through the two week menu rotation it started to get pretty old. Three more cheers for our hardy soldiers, for whom bad food is the least of their hardships.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Two Bags of Ice

Two bags of ice: that's what we get every day at the local FEMA POD (point of distribution) in our affluent Houston suburb. Yes, we're still without power in our area, along with thousands of other people. CenterPoint Energy has 2.3 million customers in the Houston area. After Ike moved through on Saturday 2.1 million of them had no power. As of this morning (Thursday) 1.3 million of us still don't have power. So we're in good company here. Besides no power, our phones are out too. Fortunately, though, the water and natural gas services were never interrupted in our area. So with a little ice we can keep our food from spoiling and cook it on the gas stove. We're in pretty good shape, considering what so many others are enduring. Our area saw sustained winds of only about 65 mph, with gusts up to 90 mph. There were lots of downed trees and fences in the area, but the only damage to our property was losing a couple of large limbs from the pecan tree in our back yard. I'm even back at work. Our office building reopened Tuesday, and that's where I'm posting this message.

The first few days it was pretty hard to find the basic necessities, which in post-Ike Houston consist of ice, bottled water, gasoline and food (pretty much in that order). The lines were hours long anywhere a store was open that had any of these things in stock. So the FEMA POD that showed up on Tuesday was welcome. But more than that, it was something of a milestone in my 52 years of life. When my wife told me after work that our sons had collected two free bags of ice from FEMA, I laughed out loud. As far as I can recall, that's the first government assistance I've ever received in nearly 35 years as a taxpayer. Oh, I benefit from basic services like police, fire, roads, courts and defense. But in terms of targeted assistance, those two $1.79 bags of ice were a first. I started to wonder how many days it would take to get back all the tax money I've paid over the years, but then I realized I pay much more than $3.58 a day in federal taxes. So the net benefit is still negative. Of course, in 13 years I'm gonna be on Medicare. Then all you sorry Gen-Xers will be paying through the nose!!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hurricane Preparations

A viewer named Bill in Santa Fe, TX sent this picture to KTRK, the local ABC affiliate. He called it Hurricane Car Safety. Yes, all the old hands around here know just how to get ready for a hurricane.

The heavy storm bands are just starting to come ashore in Galveston. We're getting gusts up to 40 and the power is beginning to blink on and off. This is probably my last post for the night.

I was going to title this post "Preparation H" but I chickened out...

Ike Takes Aim

Here in Houston we have Hurricane Ike bearing down on us and it looks like Friday night could be a pretty wild ride. When I was younger I used to secretly hope each year that a hurricane would hit us just for the excitement. Now that I’m a sober, settled, middle-aged father and home owner I’m just praying the whole thing fizzles. At this point it doesn't look like that's going to happen. I’ll try to give you a report this weekend if the power comes back on quickly.

[Update Sept 12, 10:45 am]
It's still 16-18 hours before landfall. It's just a breezy day so far here in our neighborhood on the west side of Houston, about 60 miles inland. Our preparations are complete and we're glued to the tube watching the continuous local coverage. The storm has hardly strengthened overnight, which is good news, but the size of this thing makes it really scary. The storm surge began in the early morning hours and many coastal neighborhoods are already flooded. Long time residents are amazed that the flooding is already so bad this long before landfall, before even a drop of rain has fallen. The houses we are seeing right now on TV as the helicopters fly overhead will probably not even be there tomorrow if Ike hits where it is predicted.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

SpaceX Blame Game

On August 6, Elon Musk released an explanation for last week's Falcon 1 launch failure. Evidently, the two stages did separate, but they reimpacted seconds later. When the second stage engine fired it damaged both stages, sending them tumbling to their destruction.

This flight of the Falcon 1 was the first flight test of the new Merlin 1C engine. The previous version of the engine was ablatively cooled, meaning that the rocket nozzle is lined with a material that slowly burns away, thus protecting the metal nozzle. The new version is regeneratively cooled, which means that the kerosene fuel circulates through channels in the nozzle to cool it before it gets injected into the engine. With regenerative cooling, when the fuel flow is cut off there is more residual fuel in the engine, so it takes longer for the thrust to drop off to zero. Evidently, SpaceX engineers did not take this into account by lengthening the time between engine cutoff and stage separation. The small amount of remaining thrust enabled the first stage to catch up with the second stage again instead of being out of the way when it ignited. You can see the whole thing in the video posted by SpaceX.

I mentioned last week that the various newspace bloggers and industry pundits have been engaged in an orgy of speculation and criticism. The new information from Musk didn't really quiet the crowd. It just shifted the focus to a discussion of whether this problem could have been foreseen and avoided. At some level that's no doubt true. Before the release of the video, some commentators had leapt immediately to the correct explanation, knowing nothing more than that there had been a "stage separation failure" and that this was the first flight with a regeneratively cooled engine. Much has been made, as well, about the fact that SpaceX has experienced three consecutive failures.

Why did they fail? There has a lot of loose criticism of SpaceX implying they are are a bunch of amateurs. That's not consistent with what I've heard about their organization and I think it is very unfair. I don't mean to say that every mistake they have made is unavoidable. But I also think there's another reason why one would expect them to have more failures than the established aerospace companies. Their whole strategy is to find ways to simplify and automate the process of designing, building, testing and launching rockets. They are being innovative and taking risks by seeing which parts can be cheaper, which processes you can do without, which jobs you can automate, etc. If you're really going to find the floor on costs you have to go a little too low and then selectively restore some extra checks and redundancies as needed to get acceptable reliability. New, privately held, self funded companies can afford to take these kinds of risks more than established organizations.

Entrepeneurship drives progress in unique ways, and we are fortunate that we still have an entrepeneurial culture in this country. Most fail, but some succeed, and they do it by exceeding what earlier suppliers were able to achieve. If Musk is wrong, and there are no economies to be found in the way rockets are currently designed, built, tested and launched then he will fail. He might fail anyway if he makes too many mistakes. But I think his basic premise is sound and I suspect he will, in the end, succeed.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

SpaceX Falcon 1 Failure

Alas! Flight 3 of the SpaceX Falcon 1 vehicle ended with the loss of the vehicle. The flight seemed to be going well until shortly before stage separation. This is the moment when the first stage shuts down and is jettisoned, then the second stage begins firing. The live video stream from the rocket was cut off about 2:11 into the flight. A few seconds later the SpaceX announcer said there had been an anomaly. In a statement to his employees and the general public a short while later, Elon Musk said there had been a stage separation failure. We have no other information at this time, although speculation has been rampant in the blogosphere.

When something like this happens the blogosphere is always full of naysayers. I can't resist a few comments of my own. First, it is true this is a serious failure for the company. This flight didn't get as far as the last one, which doesn't look good. We have yet to learn how their customers will react to the failure. It is definitely a significant setback. Musk says he has brought in new investors and his cash position is very strong. He thinks he can weather the crisis. I still wouldn't bet against him.

Many of the naysayers appear to be part of the traditional aerospace industry and it seems almost as if they are hoping SpaceX will fail. They seem to be motivated by a desire to prove that no one can improve on their own track record. They would like to think that it is always going to take billions of dollars and an army of thousands to develop new spacecraft. But look at what SpaceX has already accomplished. With a total workforce of 525 people and no more than about $250 million expended so far, they have developed one small launch vehicle (Falcon 1), are well along in development of a medium lift vehicle (Falcon 9) and are working on a spacecraft that will dock with the International Space Station (Dragon). All that would have cost the Europeans about $5 billion!! Even Lockheed-Martin or Boeing would have spent far more. SpaceX can afford to lose several more Falcon 1 vehicles as they perfect their systems and still be way ahead of what anyone else has done in terms of cost efficiency. I really think the big boys better be looking in their rearview mirrors!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Go SpaceX!

This is a big week for the newspace company SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies). Today they announced the first nine-engine test firing of their new Falcon 9 booster. A video of the test firing is posted on their website.

Even more significant, perhaps, is the opening of the launch window for Flight 3 of their smaller Falcon 1 rocket. (The launch of Flight 2 is pictured at right.) Sometime between now and August 5 I'm hoping to watch a live webcast of their first successful launch into orbit. The first test launch of the Falcon 1 ended after 30 seconds of flight when a fire caused the first stage engine to fail. The second flight nearly made orbit, but sloshing fuel in the second stage tanks caused a premature engine cut-off. Flight 3 is not billed as a test flight, but an operational flight. They are launching an experimental DOD payload, along with two smaller payloads for NASA and one for the Malaysian space agency. I think they have an excellent chance for success, based on the progress made in the past two launches. I can't wait!

SpaceX is a new company founded by Internet mogul Elon Musk with the money he made from selling PayPal. It is one of a new breed of space enterprises often referred to as "newspace". These new companies, mostly self-funded, are aiming to create a new era of private commercial space travel by bringing down the cost of getting into space. The genius of newspace is to leverage the market economy and entrepeneurial spirit of this country to vastly accelerate the pace of innovation in this industry. Dozens of companies are trying dozens of different approaches. Most will fail, but some may succeed. Musk's approach is more conventional than most. He aims to beat the majors (Boeing, Lockheed-Martin) at their own game by producing conventional boosters that compete directly against existing ones, but undercutting their price. He is betting over $100 million of his own money on it.

How can a new company produce rockets cheaper than the big boys? I think there are several key elements of Musk's strategy:

  1. Hire the best and the brightest engineers away from the majors.

  2. Run a lean operation with a flat structure and a spirit of innovation that empowers these engineers to produce the best products possible with the least overhead.

  3. Start with a clean-sheet design while still leveraging the accumulated experience of the past fifty years.

  4. Optimize the design for lowest price instead of highest performance.

  5. Leverage automation whereever possible to reduce labor costs in the design, manufacture, testing, and operation of the vehicle.

So far SpaceX is doing rather well financially. They haven't put a single payload into orbit (yet!), but they have at least a dozen missions on their launch manifest. They won a COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) contract from NASA worth $278 million that is helping to bankroll their development work, and have so far made all their milestones. The big question, I think, is not whether they will get to orbit successfully, but whether over the long haul they can deliver on their promise of significantly lower launch costs than the majors. Right now, I wouldn't bet against them. Go SpaceX!

[Afternoon update] SpaceX has announced the opening of a five hour launch window at 6:00 pm CDT (4:00 PDT and 7:00 EDT). Webcast will begin 30 minutes before launch.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Kudos for Kibo

The space shuttle Discovery is home after a safe landing in Florida today. Congratulations to all involved. The big accomplishment on this mission (besides fixing the space toilet!) was delivering the main module of the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station. This is Japan's big contribution to the station, and we do mean "big". Larger than the other modules, it was delivered empty to save weight. Some of the experiment racks were prepositioned on ISS by previous missions. Others will be delivered later. The combination of being the largest module and being delivered empty produced a unique opportunity for the astronauts:

I just love this video. All the astronauts work really hard when they are in space. I'm glad to see that nobody gave them a hard time about taking five minutes to enjoy the novelty of the new, empty laboratory. Looks like fun, doesn't it?

I also applaud the Japanese for making such a major investment in ISS. They are planning to do lots of research using Kibo. I wish them and the other partners much success and look forward to their future accomplishments.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Mars Rocks!

The resident Geek has too long forsaken the blogosphere. This week I must return to offer a hearty congratulations to NASA on two great missions currently ongoing. This week we're watching the shuttle Discovery and seeing the continued expansion of the International Space Station. Before that we watched the arrival of the Phoenix lander on Mars a couple of weeks ago. It was virtually flawless! The pictures, as always, are totally captivating to me. Most amazing so far:

This view of Phoenix descending on its parachute was captured by the high resolution camera of the Mars Reconnaissence Orbiter that orbits about 200 miles above the Martian surface. Never before have we had an image of any spacecraft landing on another body of the solar system. To give you a sense of exactly what they mean by "high resolution" you need to see the complete image this one was cropped from:

Click on the image to see full resolution. The crater is actually well in the background. A trick of perspective makes it seem like the spacecraft is about to land in the crater.

The pictures that really capture my imagination, though, are the ones from the surface looking out toward the horizon. We've only seen a few of those so far from Phoenix. But here is a dramatic example from Opportunity, one of the Mars Exploration Rovers that have been studying the surface of Mars for the past four years:

Again, click on the image for full resolution (416KB). This panorama shows part of the rim of Victoria Crater. To give you an idea of the dimensions, the steep cliff in the foreground is about 20 feet high. The far rim of the crater is about a quarter mile away.

What I love about these images of Mars is that it seems like a real place! Now, I don't mean to suggest I ever thought Mars is imaginary. What I mean is that it looks like you could just step out into that picture. It might have been taken in a desert here on Earth. It looks like real estate, not a "celestial body". It's not just something to study, it's a place to explore. Alas, I'm not sure humans will ever walk on the surface of Mars in my lifetime. I'm 52 years old, so maybe they will. I hope so. Never did I imagine when the world was watching the Apollo 11 astronauts on the moon that it would be so long before we went exploring again.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A Dangerous Business

Traveling to space and back is still a dangerous business. We tend to get inured to the dangers as mission follows mission and nothing happens. It barely makes the evening news. It takes a disaster like Challenger or Columbia to awaken public interest. But every time a space mission succeeds it is the result of lots of hard work and attention to detail. Also a little luck.

This weekend a Russian Soyuz capsule returned from the International Space Station with three crew members on board: Russian Yuri Malenchenko, American Peggy Whitson and South Korean Yi So-yeon. They landed safely and in good health, but it was a close call. Their Soyuz capsule, workhorse of the Russian space program for forty years, had malfunctioned.

Each Soyuz spacecraft has three sections: an orbital module on top, a descent capsule in the middle, and a propulsion module on the bottom. To land successfully, the rocket engines in the propulsion module must fire to begin the descent, then the descent capsule with the crew members inside must separate from the other two sections for reentry. Only the descent module has a heat shield and is designed to survive reentry.

Early reports indicate that on Saturday the propulsion section failed to separate normally. As the spacecraft began its fiery reentry its hatch side was facing forward instead of the heat shield. Fortunately, the propulsion module finally separated before the heat damage became critical. The capsule then made a failsafe ballistic landing instead of its normal guided descent. This subjected the crew to about twice the normal G forces - almost ten times the force of gravity. The radio antenna was destroyed by the heat, so the crew could not communicate with Moscow's Mission Control. For almost half an hour no one knew where the Soyuz had landed or even whether the crew survived. To add to their troubles, the still-hot capsule ignited a grass fire upon landing which filled the cabin with smoke for a few minutes.

The Russians train every crew for such situations, however. Despite the fact that the craft landed on its side and despite the fact that he had just endured a 10 G reentry after six months in zero G, Malenchenko managed to free himself from his seat restraints and exit the capsule. He used a satellite phone to contact Mission Control. (One has been included on each Soyuz mission for just such a purpose ever since a similar off course landing occurred in 2003.)

Since they landed 260 miles short of their target, the first people to reach them were the astonished Kazakh locals. They helped the astronauts exit the craft and unload some of their equipment. Shortly thereafter the first Russian helicopters arrived. The astronauts were returned to Star City in Russia where they were examined and found to be healthy. Their capsule will now be examined for clues to the cause of the malfunction.

Some day I hope space travel becomes as routine as air travel, but that day has not yet arrived.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Strange Behavior on Blogspot

I've noticed something strange about Blogspot. Have you seen the same thing? It's a bug in the word wrapping algorithm. This is the logic by which the software decides when to wrap to a new line within a single paragraph. It seems that the Blogspot word wrap algorithm doesn't want to start a new line with a quotation mark. To avoid this it will wrap too early and leave the previous line way too short. This is especially noticeable if the previous word is a long one. Let me see if I can create a couple of examples.

[If you follow this blog via a feed reader you will need to click the link and see this post in its original location on Geekspiel.]

With quotes:
The formatting method for quotations is incontrovertably "suboptimal" on Blogspot.

Without quotes:
The formatting method for quotations is incontrovertably suboptimal on Blogspot.

I kid you not; I did not insert the line break in the first example. Does anybody understand why this happens?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Ground Truth in Iraq

If you really want to know what's going on in Iraq there's no substitute for first-hand information. I strongly recommend that you follow the reports of Michael J. Totten, an independent journalist who has embedded with the U.S. military repeatedly over the last several years. His accounts over the last year of the awakening in the Sunni province of Anbar have been excellent. I hope he gets a chance to go to Basrah soon and give us the real story there, too.

Michael Yon is another independent journalist who has repeatedly embedded with our troops. His reports tend to emphasize the military aspects of the struggle and he is more overtly opinionated in his commentary. Yet both he and Totten provide the ground truth in Iraq that is almost completely absent from reports in the major media. Most reporters sit in the Green Zone in Baghdad and write their reports from the U.S. and Iraqi press releases or perhaps a few phone calls. But these guys go straight to the front lines and tell you what really happened.

The major media obsesses over counting explosions and casualties, without bothering to investigate whether the price we are paying in money and lives is actually accomplishing anything for the average Iraqi citizen. If the only thing you know about Iraq is that a) we are spending billions and b) our guys are getting killed, you are going to have an overly negative opinion of the situation. That's just reporting all the costs and none of the gains. Totten and Yon will show you both sides.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Buran Buran

Did you know the Soviet Union had its own space shuttle? That's a picture of it to the right. It was called Buran, which means snowstorm in Russian.

The Soviets built Buran at great expense to compete with the U.S. space shuttle. Buran flew exactly once in 1988, before being permanently mothballed in the final days of the Soviet Union. The expense of the program was simply unsustainable for the cash-strapped Soviet government. Buran was in many ways technologically superior to the U.S. shuttle on which it was modeled. For instance, it was completely automated. Although it was designed to carry a crew, its maiden flight was unmanned.

Like so much of the Soviet era space hardware and facilities, Buran quickly fell into disrepair. Two were built, but one was destroyed a few years ago by the collapse of the hanger in which it was kept. Now the sole surviving model has been sold to a German museum, where it will go on permanent display. On this last trip to its final home, Buran rode on a barge this week down the Rhine river:

Monday, April 7, 2008

Art Imitates Music

I just saw this fascinating article in New Scientist:

Boléro: 'Beautiful symptom of a terrible disease'

The painting above, called Unravelling Boléro, is a measure-by-measure visual representation of Ravel's Boléro. The scientist-turned-artist who painted it, Anne Adams, was suffering from the early stages of a rare neurological disease called primary progressive aphasia. The parts of her brain responsible for speech were slowly degenerating, leaving her eventually unable to speak at all. In its early stages this disease sometimes causes a blurring of the distinctions between the different senses. Victims can also develop repetitive behaviors. Accordingly the painting, like the music, slowly builds to its climax through many variations of the theme. Remarkably, some scientists think that Ravel may also have been a victim of primary progressive aphasia. This could explain the structure of the piece that so captivated Adams. Tragically, the disease eventually cost Anne Adams her life.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Word of the Day - Crapulous

My dumpster diving into turned up another gem:

crapulous - suffering the effects of gross intemperance, especially in drinking

I wouldn't call this one useless because even if your audience doesn't know what it means they'll be able to guess! They'll guess wrong, of course, but they'll still get the gist of what you're saying. Notice, too, that it's another one of those dictionary-in-hand ad hominem attack words I was talking about yesterday. Those guys really know how to tell each other off, don't they?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Useless words

There are really quite a few useless words in the English language. I saw one the other day in an online post:

tintinnabulation - the sound of ringing bells

This word is a waste of breath. Why not just say "ringing"? But it did me one favor: it sent me running to the dictionary. Do you ever spend time just flipping through the dictionary looking for words you never heard of? I do. Of course these days you can do it online. You can do everything online these days. (Well, almost everything). So I found a few more useless words I'd like to share with you:

eleemosynary - of or for charity; charitable
flagitious - disgracefully or shamefully criminal
rodomontade - vain boasting; empty bluster
scaturient - gushing forth, as a fountain

These words are useless because so few people know them that if you ever used them no one would understand you. Unless you're writing for The New Yorker.

Can you come up with some more? I have two rules. You must be able to look up the word at And it can't be a jargon word (medical, scientific, etc.)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Caffeine and me

Two recent studies have put my beverage habits on the high ground. First we had the news that daily caffeine intake reduces the risk of Alzheimer's. Then the word comes that the rule about drinking eight glasses of water a day is pure bunk.

If caffeine helps you stay mentally sharp, I think I drink enough coffee to add about 10 IQ points. And when I'm not drinking coffee I'm usually drinking iced tea. Water is fine in a pinch or if you're really thirsty, but I had despaired of ever drinking eight glasses a day.

Starbucks, anyone?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Guy Colors

Everybody knows that women have a lot more colors than guys do. I mean, how many guys know the difference between kelly green and forest green? And who can even spell chartreuse, let alone remember what color it is? But today I realized that guys have their own colors, too. I was talking to my office mate about the pollen that has lately been covering my car every morning when I leave for work. I told him it was "snot yellow" and he knew immediately what color I was talking about. That's a guy color, of course. I have no idea what a woman would call it, but I'm pretty sure she wouldn't call it snot yellow.

There are other guy colors. How about grass stain green? Yeah, you know what I'm talking about! Think baseball uniform after a diving catch in right field. Then there's John Deere green and gun metal blue. (Sorry, city folks.) But every guy understands blood red. And candy apple red, because we all remember that Mustang we wanted as a kid.

See, we're not as clueless about color as people think. You just need to relate it to something in our experience. And I can assure you that "mauve" is not in my experience. Whatever mauve is.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Duck and Cover

This just in:

Researchers: Asteroid Destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah

Two scientists claim that a huge meteor grazed the earth's surface, leaving a path of destruction from the Middle East to present-day Austria. It was recorded by an ancient Sumerian astonomer on a clay tablet which say they have succeeded in deciphering. According to the scientists, this event neatly explains over 20 ancient myths, including the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They have even dated it to the predawn hours of June 29, 3123 B.C.

Hmmmm... Of course, I am a Christian and I believe that Genesis is a true historical record of those times. I'm equally comfortable with a natural or a supernatural explanation of what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah, because even if it was a meteor or an earthquake it was still an act of God - literally. But this theory seems way too neat and tidy. They even have a date! An event of this magnitude would leave a lot more evidence behind besides a clay tablet and a few stories. Where is the other evidence?

[update 4/1/08] This article from the University of Bristol gives a little more information and makes the theory sounds slightly more plausible. They had the good sense not to mention the Sodom and Gomorrah connection. I don't think this is meant as an April Fools story. If so, they were off by a day. :-)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Occupation Names

Have you ever thought about how many English last names derive from occupations? When Number Two Son was much younger it was a favorite game of ours to try to list as many as we could think of. Here are some of those. Can you think of others?

Archer - one who fires a bow and arrow
Baker - one who bakes bread
Barker - one who advertises something by calling out verbally
Boatwright - one who makes boats
Bookbinder - one who makes books
Bowman - one who fires a bow and arrow
Butcher - one who slaughters and dresses animals
Butler - the chief male servant of a household
Carpenter - one who builds things from wood
Carter - one who drives carts
Cartwright - one who makes carts
Carver - one who carves wood
Chandler - one who make candles
Collier - one who mines coal
Cook - one who cooks food
Cooper - one who makes barrels
Cox - one who steers a boat
Farmer - one who grows crops
Fletcher - one who makes arrows
Fowler - one who hunts birds
Gardener - one who tends a garden
Harper - one who plays a harp
Horner - one who plays a horn
Mason - one who lays bricks
Merchant - one who sells goods
Miller - one who operates a mill
Nanny - one who cares for children
Parsons (Parson) - a member of the clergy
Porter - one who carries things
Potter - one who makes vessels from clay
Sadler (Saddler) - one who makes saddles
Shepherd - one who herds sheep
Singer - one who sings
Smith - one who makes things from metal (blacksmith)
Tanner - one who makes leather
Tinker - one who mends metal utensils
Turner - one who makes things on a lathe
Wainwright - one who makes wagons
Weaver - one who makes woven cloth
Woodman - one who fells trees
Wright - one who makes things

And a few more that aren't in the dictionary as common nouns but probably originated from an occupation:


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Space Tourism

The space tourism market seems to really be heating up. So far, most of the press has gone to Virgin Galactic, the high-profile company launched by Sir Richard Branson. They recently unveiled their design for SpaceShipTwo, pictured above. Branson is working with Burt Rutan, who built SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004. Rutan won the $10 million prize by building a vehicle that flew twice in a two week period to an altitude greater than 100 km, which is generally regarded as the edge of space.

There are other companies planning to offer suborbital joyrides, of course. But one of the more credible efforts was announced just yesterday by XCOR Aerospace, a small company that has been building rocket engines and rocket planes for almost ten years. Yesterday they revealed their plans for the Lynx (above), a two seater rocket plane that will fly from an ordinary runway on rocket power and climb to 61 km. They have even received some funding from the Air Force, which is interested in encouraging the development of technologies that make it easier to get into space and back routinely and on short notice.

You can already buy a ticket from Virgin Galactic, although not yet from XCOR. The price? Only $200,000! Well, yeah, did I mention you better be rich if you want to fly in space? They say the prices will come down, though. :-)

Endeavour is Home!

A nighttime landing is a fitting finish to STS-123 which began with a nighttime launch. This was a very successful mission. It included a record-setting five spacewalks and was the longest space station construction flight yet. Congratulations to NASA and their international partners!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Toshiba A205-S5805 Specs

Looking for the specs on Toshiba's A205-S5805 laptop? You can find them here.

One of the many joys of operating a low volume blog in the backwaters of the Internet is setting up a hit counter and monitoring the traffic on your site. (I use StatCounter. Free and highly recommended.) It's interesting to see what pages are attracting attention and where the page hits are coming from. A couple of weeks ago I told you about buying a new budget Toshiba laptop for my eldest son to use at college. This particular model, evidently, is a configuration Toshiba put together just for Fry's Electronics and information on it is hard to find, even on Toshiba's web site. Not long after we bought the laptop Toshiba even removed what little info they had from their web site. As far as I can tell you can't find anything by following the links on their home page. However, like the grin of the Cheshire cat, they left behind a PDF of the spec sheet, which is the document I linked above.

What's this got to do with page hits? I've noticed several hits lately from desperate souls searching the Internet for information about this model. So, as a public service I have posted the above link, which I pulled from my browser history.

BTW, you can glean some interesting tidbits about Google's page rank algorithm from looking at the page hits. For one, if the keyword appears in the URL of the page it get ranked much higher than if it merely appears in the body of the page. This is why I titled this post as I did, so it will be found by the folks looking for the laptop specs. Another interesting tidbit is that a blog gets a temporary ratings boost (lasting less than 24 hours) when a new page is posted. I don't know if this works for blog hosts other than, which is owned by Google. Another surprise to me is that when I first created each of my blogs, after the initial temporary ratings boost it disappeared completely from the Google results until people began to visit it and link to it.

If you blog I highly recommend StatCounter. Maybe it only appeals to geeks. But I find it endlessly fascinating. My favorite feature is a Google map of the world with a pushpin showing the location of every recent hit. It never ceases to amaze me when one of my blogs gets hit from Moscow or Bangladesh or Antigua and Barbuda. Now, if any of those folks actually read anything before hitting the Back button is another matter entirely!

Uglier Than Thou

So now scientists have determined that the most successful marriages are the ones where the man is uglier than the woman.


As a long time beneficiary of this principle (see my picture in the sidebar) I think I knew this instinctively. It also fits in with the larger principle that, as I have often observed to my friends, almost every guy I know "married up." When you first hear that it sounds like it doesn't make sense. But then you realize that women are, on the average, better looking, kinder, more patient and more industrious than guys are. Shoot, they even have a higher pain tolerance. What would the birth rate be if men gave birth instead of women? So guys, kiss your wife today and tell her how beautiful she is. Maybe she'll keep you around for a while.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Hill Country Getaway

Sorry for the long break. I haven't posted since Sunday because my lovely wife and I were on a short getaway vacation in the Texas Hill Country. We took Number One Son back to college Sunday and then drove on to spend three nights at the Meyer Bed and Breakfast in Comfort, TX. (Number Two Son was at a church retreat.) Here's a picture of the Meyer B&B:

The Meyer family built the house in the foreground in 1857. They built the building in back right in 1893 as a hotel and it has been operating continuously since. The building we stayed in is on the back left. It was built in 1920 as an expansion of the hotel. The hotel is on 25 acres and backs up to Cypress Creek:

During our stay we visited briefly at Garner State Park, which is located on the Frio River:

We also did some hiking in Lost Maples State Park. We hiked along the creek that flows through the park. It is famous for its isolated stand of maple trees. In the picture below, they're the ones with bare branches. :-)

Alas, it was gray and overcast the day we took all these pictures, so the colors are not as bright as they were in person.

We also spent a day in Fredericksburg shopping in all the quaint shops, but being a guy I didn't find that memorable enough to take a picture. Don't feel sorry for me being dragged to look at a bunch of knick-knacks, though, because we had plenty of delicious meals of country cooking and good German cuisine. On the way back home we made a pact to restart the South Beach diet. It was fun while it lasted!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Computing in the Elder Daze

I was trading comments with a couple of twenty-somethings on a blog the other day and I got started thinking about emoticons. You know, the little sideways faces drawn with punctuation. :) It occurred to me that most twenty-somethings probably think they invented the dern things, and even find it amusing that an Old Guy like me would try to use them. They would be surprised to learn, I suspect, that emoticons have been around for about as long as they have! :0

Yes, my young friends, emoticons date back to the days of the Bulletin Board System (BBS). Do you even know what a BBS is? Now I shall engage in the favorite pastime of Old Guys. I shall reminisce.

Back in the late seventies, long before anyone outside of a university computer lab had ever heard of the Internet, personal computer owners began communicating with each other via modem using bulletin boards. Some generous soul would dedicate a phone line and a personal computer to the purpose, often paying for it out of their own pocket. That person would be called the SysOp (system operator). The BBS computer ran special software that allowed anyone with a computer and a modem to dial in and post messages to the board. Then someone else would dial in, read the messages that had been posted, and post their replies. It was exactly like an online forum today, except it ran on a single dedicated computer and (get this!) only one person could be connected at a time. (As personal computers became more powerful, some of the larger and more popular boards would have more than one phone line. But most only had one.)

In 1982 I bought an Apple II computer and began to write software for it for fun. I joined the Houston Area Apple Users Group. They ran a single phone line BBS for members. It was quite popular for several years. That meant that in the prime evening hours the phone line was almost continually busy. So here’s how it went. I would sit down at my computer in the evening, fire up my terminal emulator program and set up my modem to begin autodialing the BBS over and over. Eventually it would get a ring instead of a busy signal, and my machine would beep to let me know I was connected. I would log in and read all the messages everyone had posted since my last login. Then I would reply to several of them and disconnect. A while later I would start the autodialer again to get back on the BBS and see if anyone had replied to my messages.

My first modem was 300 baud. That meant it could only communicate at 30 characters per second. I could actually read the text as it scrolled by. Later I got a 1200 baud modem and I thought it was wonderfully fast. Too fast to read! Wow. For comparison, if you connect to the Internet today with a cable modem it’s roughly equivalent to something like 3,000,000 baud, give or take a couple of million.

I don’t actually recall when I first encountered emoticons. I’m not sure I ever saw them on a BBS. For sure, though, I remember them from the early nineties. The company I worked for first connected to the Internet around 1994 and I remember using emoticons in e-mail very early on. You gotta remember, it was actually us Old Guys that invented all this Internet stuff. I mean, Al Gore is an Old Guy, right? :)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Looking for Mr. Fusion

Alan Boyle's Cosmic Log is one of my favorite geek blogs. He recently wrote a review of a new book called Physics of the Impossible. I won't rehash all he wrote - please go read Alan's post for that. But the gist of the book is that there are three classes of impossibility. A Class I impossibility is something that doesn't violate any known laws of physics; we just don't know how to do it yet. A Class II impossibility is one that requires some new science - theories that might be true but we don't know yet. A Class III impossibility clearly violates known laws of physics. Unless the theory is wrong, these items are truly impossible. (I might add that they are impossible for us, but not for God, of course. He is not constrained by the laws of physics that he invented. But that is a subject for Believer's Brain.)

Since I read that a few days ago it has been bouncing around in my head and has bumped into something else I mentioned recently: Dense Plasma Focus fusion. Building a device to generate net power by controlled nuclear fusion is, currently, a Class I impossibility. We think it should be possible, but we don't know for sure how to do it yet. In fact, there are several possible approaches that have been investigated. Two of these have received by far the most funding and attention: magnetic confinement and inertial confinement. Billions have been spent, and continue to be spent on developing these ideas. It's appropriate to spend billions on fusion power research, because long term it is probably our best source of clean energy. Unlike nuclear fission, on which all current nuclear power plants are based, fusion does not inherently require a radioactive fuel or generate huge amounts of radioactive waste (although some types of fusion are cleaner than others).

A few years ago some scientists generated a huge stir with their claim to have produced "cold fusion". This was tabletop physics. No huge magnets or high voltages or high temperature plasmas. Cold fusion is a Class II impossibility. If it's real there's some new physics involved that we don't know about. Unfortunately, subsequent attempts to replicate their results did not meet with much success. Most scientists reluctantly concluded that cold fusion doesn't really exist. It was all a matter of experimental error.

A while back the blogosphere became aware of the work of Dr. Robert Bussard to develop a new wrinkle on an old approach to nuclear fusion: inertial electrostatic confinement. There's no doubt that this approach can generate controlled nuclear fusion and there's no controversy about how it works. The only question, the Class I impossibility, is whether it is possible to build a device based on this principle that generates net energy. If you're going to build a power plant, you have to get out of it more energy than you put into it. That's usually called "breakeven" and nobody in the fusion business has yet achieved it, even the big boys spending billions on magnetic confinement.

Sorry for rambling on. I needed to give you some background in case you haven't been tracking what's going on in the field of fusion research. Now, finally, to the point I wanted to make. I've been aware of Bussard's work on inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC) for a while. I just recently heard about Dr. Eric Lerner's work on dense plasma focus (DPF) as another way to potentially achieve breakeven fusion. Both of these approaches have the potential to result in smaller, cheaper and cleaner fusion power plants than what the big boys are doing. It caused me to realize that maybe IEC isn't so strange after all. If there are two alternative approaches, how many more might there be? After all, we are "only" dealing with a Class I impossibility here. Are there other principles for confinement that might yield an efficient fusion reactor?

Fusion is potentially so important to the future of our economy, environment and national security that it is almost criminal for our government to be so narrowly focused in our research funding. Both IEC and DPF have struggled to gain any funding at all in the U.S. And these are not totally crackpot ideas. No one denies that both have achieved nuclear fusion. It is only a question of whether it is possible to build a device efficient enough to produce net power economically. Why should we not be investigating all avenues? I don't want to take away research funding from other possible energy sources, fusion or not. Solar energy, ultracapacitors and the like have great promise. When you consider what is at stake we need to be putting more money into all of these. But we need to remember that most of the really big advances in technology have come out of left field, so to speak. So spending a small amount of money on even the apparently less promising approaches seems like a good investment. Hmmm. I might need to write my congressman.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Endeavor arriving!

It's a busy week in space. The space shuttle Endeavor docked last night with the International Space Station after a spectacular night launch Monday night. Meanwhile, the first of Europe's new unmanned ATV spacecraft is closing in on ISS for a rendevous after the shuttle leaves. It was launched from French Guiana on March 8. The ATV is a cargo ship which is intended to bring regular supplies to the station. It carries three times the cargo of the Russion Progress spacecraft, which along with the shuttle currently handles all the space station resupply needs.

The astronauts on ISS have borrowed the old Navy tradition of ringing a bell to announce the arrival of a ship (or its captain). ISS commander Peggy Whitson rang the bell and called out "Endeavor arriving" as shuttle commander Dominic Gorie and his crew floated through the hatch. Once again, there are ten human beings living and working together in space at the same time, three from the station and seven from the shuttle.

This shuttle mission, STS-123, continues the blistering pace of space station construction since flights resumed after the Columbia disaster. Endeavor is delivering the first of three parts of the Japanese laboratory. It also brings a Canadian robot named Dextre (shown at left) designed to work with the station's remote manipulator arm to do construction and maintenance tasks outside the station.

There's more "I" in ISS than ever. It now includes habitable modules built by four different nations: Russia, the United States, Europe and Japan. Not to mention smaller parts built by a variety of partners such as Canada. In both a technical and a political sense it is a remarkable achievement.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

El cheapo laptop

I must explain yesterday's outburst of rhyme. Over the weekend I was out shopping with Number One Son for an inexpensive laptop. We sent him off to college this year with a pretty powerful desktop PC, but he discovered it would often be helpful to take a laptop to class and the library, etc.

Dads gotta know how to embarrass teenage sons (it's part of the job description) so step one was to march into Best Buy and say to the clerk "Show me your cheapest laptop." Alas, we didn't find what we were looking for. We thought they carried the eeePC, but they only sell them online. We wanted to Look Before Buying, and their next cheapest laptop was $600. Exit, stage left.

We headed straight to Fry's as we are often wont to do together. (Number One Son is also a geek of some distinction.) Their weekend special was the Toshiba Satellite A205-S5805 for $398:

Yes, it's low end. Maybe even lowest end. Not quite a dog, but not snappy. However, $398 is a pretty good deal for a brand new laptop, especially one that only has to do word processing, surfing, and e-mail. I went home and ordered 2GB of RAM for $30 from just to stay in practice.

Happiness is a Fry's box on your front porch. Or in the trunk of your car.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Ode to Fry's

Oh wondrous to peruse your aisles,
More wondrous still to buy
Some trinket electronical
From thee, beloved Fry's.

Your ads, to wild enraptured flights
Of fancy bid me soar,
And beckon me to enter in
through your enchanted doors.

Your rebates have I often sought,
your sales have caught my eye,
I need another credit card
For thee, beloved Fry's.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Geek terrorists

This is disheartening:

Al Qaeda Seeks Tech Geeks to Run Multimedia Wing

It seems Al Qaeda has a media arm called al-Sahab which is now able to produce very slick propaganda films supporting their terrorist war against the West. They have been able to recruit a number of technically sophisticated (and presumably Western-educated) young geeks to amp up the technical quality of their productions.

Now if they could just hire some good special effects people maybe they wouldn't have to actually blow anybody up anymore.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Something else to worry about

And now, as if we hadn't already identified enough things that might wipe out our species, we learn that astronomers have discovered a loaded gun pointed at our planet. Wolf-Rayet star 104 could go supernova at any time, and it's pointed straight at us. At only 8000 light years away, it could emit a gamma ray beam that would fry Earth's ozone layer. At that point you would need some pretty stout sunblock...I'm thinking SPF 200 or something. Say, a quarter inch layer of lead paint, like Queen Elizabeth I used to wear. Trouble is, all the little plants and critters in the forests and oceans don't have any sunblock. We might be eating canned beans for a long, long time.

How much time do we have left? Well, the astronomers say this thing might blow at any moment. Which, to an astronomer, means a few hundred thousand years. Better start stocking the pantry now.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

In the Shadow of the Moon

We finally rented In the Shadow of the Moon from Netflix and watched it this past weekend. This is the documentary about the Apollo program that came out last year. It features interviews with many of the original astronauts combined with lots of original footage of the missions. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although of course I am a space nut. The one single overriding impression of the movie, though, is how old these guys are getting. It really brings home how long it has been (nearly forty years) since we went to the moon. What is more, most of them will probably be dead before anyone ever goes back there. Personally I find this very disheartening.

Why do so few people care any more? Why does space travel no longer fire the imaginations of most young people? How many of you even realize NASA is working on a program to send astronauts back to the moon by the year 2020? Whatever happened to the spirit of the frontier? I wish I knew.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Monday, March 3, 2008

Rocket Truck Redux

Another run of the Armadillo Aerospace rocket truck:

Just to be clear. These guys are actually making a serious attempt to develop space vehicles. But they have their engine test stand mounted on the back of their truck, and after a long day of testing somebody said, "Hey, why don't we take the brakes off and just see how fast it would go?"

If you haven't heard of Armadillo Aerospace, they are one of the more successful companies in what is often called New Space or Alt Space. These are small startup companies who are trying to develop space vehicles that are much, much less expensive than the tradional aerospace companies like Boeing and Lockheed-Martin. Armadillo has specialized in vertical take-off, vertical landing vehicle development. They very nearly won the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge in 2007, sponsored by NASA. This contest, with $2,000,000 of NASA-provided prize money available, requires you to launch your unmanned rocket from one launch pad, fly it to an altitude of 50 meters, stay airborne for at least 90 seconds, then land on another pad 100 meters away. Then you have to refuel your vehicle and fly it back the same way. Armadillo was the only contestant flying in the 2007 challenge and they came heartbreakingly close to succeeding. You can see lots of video and pictures of their effort on their web site.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Blind Lemon Jefferson

What's in a name? I first heard about Blind Lemon Jefferson a few years ago. He was a famous blues artist in the 1920s. He was instantly my favorite bluesman, even before I had heard a recording. You just can't go wrong with a name like Blind Lemon Jefferson. When I heard his music I wasn't disappointed. (A good place to listen to a few of his old tunes is on Rhapsody.)

Blind Lemon grew up in Texas, a contemporary of my grandparents. But the distance from his world to mine is so much greater than that would suggest. The haunting sound and lyrics seem to come to me from a life dimly guessed or long forgotten. Music can transport us across such distances.

Imagine my shock to discover today that Blind Lemon Jefferson has a MySpace page! Perhaps someone younger and hipper than me can explain how that happens. His last login was 2/29/2008 and he has been a member since 6/10/2006. He even has 5254 friends! I was particularly intrigued by this part of the web page:

It just seems too easy to reach across the chasm by clicking on "IM / Call". What will happen if I do? Who will be on the other end of the call?

Paging Albert Einstein...

For some years now NASA scientists have noticed that two of our early space probes, Pioneer 10 and 11, are not quite where they should be. Launched in the early 1970s to study the outer planets, these two spacecraft are now billions of miles away from Earth on escape trajectories out of the solar system. As scientists have tracked them over the years they have noticed a tiny, unexplained error that has been accumulating in their predicted positions. This is called the Pioneer Anomaly. Efforts to explain the anomaly have been unsuccessful. Is it caused by a slight outgassing from the spacecraft materials, or perhaps infrared photons radiating from the onboard nuclear power supplies? If you eliminate all the possible onboard causes, a much more interesting possibility remains. Perhaps the theory of gravity needs to be adjusted a bit! Einstein's theory of general relativity has been astonishingly successful at explaining the motions of the planets and other heavenly bodies. It would be Big News if even a tiny adjustment needed to be made in theory. For that reason, most scientists have assumed some other explanation will turn up for the Pioneer Anomaly. After all, it has only been observed with those two spacecraft.

Until now. A new anomaly has now been observed in the motions of five other spacecraft. Each is going either slightly slower or faster than expected after a flyby of Earth. There's no obvious connection to the Pioneer Anomaly, but it seems unlikely that two independent anomalous effects would exist.

So is there something wrong with our theory of gravity? Probably not, but it's fun to wonder.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Peace, Love and Nuclear Power

This week I heard for the first time about another proposed approach for fusion power called Dense Plasma Focus. Its unorthodox proponent is Dr. Eric Lerner, long time leftist and cosmological contrarian. He is best known among physicists for his 1991 book The Big Bang Never Happened. Suffice it to say he's not a creationist, however!

Lerner was invited to describe his concept at a Google Tech Talk last fall. This was the same venue that previously hosted Dr. Robert Bussard, whose talk described another approach to fusion power called inertial electrostatic confinement.

The major powers (Europe, Japan, the U.S. and other partners) are sinking billions and billions of dollars into the ITER project to achieve break-even fusion power generation using a tokamak reactor. In contrast, alternatives have a tough time getting any funding at all. It seems to me that whatever the prevailing opinion among physicists about Lerner and Bussard's chances for success, we could afford to siphon off a few million just to see if the long shot bets will pay off. There's no question in my mind that the Real Answer to our energy woes and to global warming is nuclear power, particularly fusion.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Alf's Toothbrush

Why do toothbrushes these days look like they're from outer space? And why do they change the styles every five minutes? If you find a toothbrush you like, I guarantee you will never see one like it again at the store. What you will find instead is the strangest collection of oddly shaped brushes imaginable. And just like the old joke about G.I. uniforms, they only come in "too sizes". There's too large and too small, of course. But don't forget too long, too thin, too fat, too flimsy, too heavy and too garish. My current toothbrush has these strange green rubber bristles around the exterior and feels like you are brushing your teeth with rubber bands. Enough! All I want is a nice, boring toothbrush that works.

I guess this stuff sells toothbrushes or they wouldn't bother. Right now somebody, somewhere is picking out a toothbrush based on how many different colored bristles it has. I guess.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Geek Offroading

Did you see this video? Carnegie Mellon is developing autonomous vehicles for the military. It's called the Crusher. There's no human on board. This thing drives itself and can climb four foot walls. You can see more videos on CMU's web site.

Gotta love DARPA. They have all the cool toys, don't they?

Monday, February 25, 2008

World's slowest rocket truck

I don't think they were wearing their seat belts...

Honda Customer Service

I just have to give a quick, public "thank you" to the folks at American Honda's customer service organization (1-800-999-1009). Our '99 Odyssey van needs a new transmission and Honda is picking up 100% of the parts and labor cost, even though the van has a wee bit over 100,000 miles and is about a year past even the extended warranty period. We own two Hondas and we have faithfully taken them to the dealer for all the maintenance and repair work for years. They say they want to take care of their loyal customers and they are putting their money where their mouth is. Even better, just a few months ago they picked up about 70% of the cost of a new catalytic converter for the same vehicle. The converter is only warrantied for 80,000 miles so we were 17,000 miles over the limit!

We now return you to our regularly scheduled program...

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Classical Sax

Yesterday the incredible saxophonist Otis Murphy was at University of Houston's Moore School of Music teaching a master class. My lovely wife had the opportunity to hear his solo recital. She was invited by a friend of hers who teaches saxophone there.

I always think of jazz when I think of the saxophone, but there is a classical side of the instrument, and Otis Murphy is an absolute master. We bought the CD. No question. You can listen to a preview here.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Fiddlin' Bill Hensley

Now we're being told to Google ourselves as a security measure -- to see what might be on the Internet about us. Come on, guys, admit it! We've all done it just out of curiosity or vanity.

The first time I Googled myself was a real challenge because it was about ten years ago and Google didn't even exist. There were only a handful of hits. Some grad student in Kansas who was a tornado chaser, just like in the movie Twister. A doctor in Australia. A local politician in Florida somewhere.

Not long ago I tried again and I have found my connection with greatness! Fiddlin' Bill Hensley of Tennessee. Must be a family connection somewhere. My great grandfather came out of Tennessee and staked a claim in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. Bill was a pretty tough character. When he was 75 he killed a man in a drunken gun battle and was sent to prison for murder. But boy could he play that fiddle. You can listen to a little bit of his music here.

Latest stealth technology

This cracked me up:

The Lighter Side of Geekness

I finally took the plunge into the blogosphere about a year ago when I created Believer's Brain to record my deepest thoughts, such as they are. I have a very narrow concept of what is appropriate there: focused commentary on the intersection of belief and culture, with pieces about 800 words long.

It's time to have more fun. Serious pieces of longer length will continue to appear on Believer's Brain when the muse strikes. But I've been wanting to have a place to share my other interests, as well as the little tidbits we all come across online that we'd like to pass on to our friends. So here it is: Geekspiel.