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.