Thursday, July 30, 2009

Transparent Aluminum

Those of us who understand the True and Secret Star Trek History of The World also understand that transparent aluminum first appeared at a small manufacturing company in San Francisco in the early 1990s. In some (very confused) accounts, credit for the transparent aluminum process is sometimes attributed to a Professor Montgomery Scott of Edinburgh. However, no such individual with such knowledge of materials science was at the University of Edinburgh, or for that matter, in Scotland during the relevant time period.

Now, nearly twenty years later, reports that transparent aluminum was created by bombarding aluminum with a high intensity x-ray laser, causing an electron to be simultaneously knocked out of every aluminum atom in the sample, without disrupting the crystalline structure. You can think of this as the atomic equivalent of whipping a table cloth off the table so quickly and deftly that none of the place settings are affected.

According to the researchers, this is an exotic state of matter never before observed. It is as if all the aluminum atoms were suddenly changed to silicon, at least with respect to their electron properties. As you might expect, this state of matter was very unstable and fleeting.

It is possible that further work with this may provide some insight into the physics of planetary cores, stellar interiors,or nuclear fusion.

I, however, want transparent aluminum for viewports on the hull of my starship.

Battlefield photos

Time-Life have a series of photgraphic slide shows on their website for people interested in military history:

The World's Bloodiest Battles
14 Battles That Turned The Tide
World War Two - 14 Major Battles
World War Two - D-Day and Operation Overlord
In Combat: Great LIFE War Photos
World War Two - Hiroshima
World War two - Women In The Fight
World War Two - Allied Bombers and Crews
World War two - The British Spitfire

It's LIFE Magazine, so most of these photos will be America-centric. At least one of these collections include photos from Gettysburg and Antietam.

Force Projection 2

This is a follow up to the Force Projection post from March.

On April 1st the Canadian frigate HMCS Winnipeg FFH-338 joined Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1) in the Gulf of Aden, to participate in Operation ALLIED PROTECTOR to conduct counter-piracy operations.

Photo Credit - Department of National Defense - Canada

Winnipeg was there for an operational mission that was only to last a few weeks, but this grew to a two month operation (talk about scope creep!).

During Winnipeg's mission in the Gulf of Aden she conducted over 100 hails, 20 investigations of suspicious craft, 12 approach operations, 5 boardings and 8 close escorts. During boarding operations, Winnipeg encountered persons suspected of conducting piracy and ended up seizing large caches of weapons, which included AK-47’s, Rocket Propelled Grenade Launchers and warheads, M-16 assault rifles, and other assorted firearms and ammunition.

While patrolling the International Recommended Transportation Corridor (IRTC), Winnipeg escorted many ships, including two specific vessels of particular significance to Canada - a supply ship for the World Food Program carrying food relief to Somalia, and a freighter with supplies for Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

On the 31st of May, after completing two months of counter-piracy and escort operations, Winnipeg departed the Gulf of Aden in a "sail past" ceremony with the SNMG1 Flagship NRP Corte Real.

Photo Credit - Department of National Defense - Canada. HMCS Winnipeg sails into the sunset on May 31, 2009, leaving the Gulf of Aden for the waters of Australia

Winnipeg is now on the next phase of her deployment, Exercise TALISMAN SABER, which will take place in late July on the east coast of Australia and which will be conducted with naval units from both the United States and Australia. Winnipeg is expected home at Esquimalt, BC in late August.

Around the same time that HMCS Winnipeg arrived in the Gulf of Aden, the Chinese Navy sent a second flotilla to the same part of the world. The destroyer Shenzhen DDG-167 and frigate Huangshan FFG-570 were sent to replace the destroyers Haikou DDG-169 and Wuhan DDG-171, which had been on station along with the supply ship Weishanhu since early January.

Since it appears that Chinese Navy combatant ship deployments average about three to four months or so, the second flotilla are going home very shortly, having been in the Gulf of Aden May, June, and July. They will be replaced by the third flotilla (also here and video here). The guided missile frigates Zhoushan FFG-529 and Xuzhou FFG-530 have enhanced stealth capabilities compared with other Chinese naval units. Between them, the two ships carry two helicopters and a Special Forces unit.

A new supply ship, Qiandaohu, will replace Weishanhu, which sailed with the first flotilla in January and has been in Somali waters for more than six months.

Since the beginning of the Chinese Navy's mission to the Gulf of Aden on December 26, 2008, eight ships and their crews have been provided with the opportunity to operate far away from Chinese home waters. They have needed to put into practice everything that they know about underway replenishment, helicopter operations, small craft boarding operations, and working with foreign civilian shipping. This kind of experience can't be taught, must exist for any blue water navy, and is vitally important for global strategic goals. I have the definite sense that without the UN resolution, the Chinese military leadership would probably have done this anyway, in order to get the operational experience.

Fried Chicken - KFC and Otherwise

I am pretty fond of fried chicken. Salt, grease, sugar (in the form of carbs in the breading) -- with 3 out of the 4 major geek food groups (only caffeine is missing) what's not to like? has a recent article on "secret" ingredients in commercial items like Coca Cola or KFC chicken. The conclusion? In this day of CSI forensic analysis, not to mention corporate liability for injuries from food allergies, there are no "secret" ingredients. In the case of KFC, the breading is 4 rather 11 ingredients -- the 4 being flour, salt, pepper, and MSG.

The Guardian's Word of Mouth blog provides a couple of recipes (and a video!) comparing the KFC experience with a couple of homemade efforts. The recipes are as follows:

American mix
1 teaspoon ground oregano
1 teaspoon chilli powder
1 teaspoon ground sage
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
1 teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon onion salt
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons Accent (MSG)

English mix
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp sage
1 tsp celery seeds
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp dried onion flakes
2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp ground white pepper

Mix up one of the mixes above, and combine with a cup (possibly two cups?) of flour. (For experimental follow-up - we need to try this with spelt flour, and then for those with extreme wheat intolerance, with corn starch).

Get some chicken. Marinate chicken pieces in milk overnight. (Alternative - try this with coconut milk).

Poach the chicken in the milk by bringing to a rapid boil, and then simmering on low heat for 20 minutes.

Coat each piece of chicken in the flour/herb mix. Dip each coated piece in milk again, and apply a second coat.

Deep fry each piece in a deep fryer until golden brown. (Those of us with no deep fryer as well as concerns about the hazards of deep frying will do shallow frying instead.)

The Word of Mouth article and associated video says that comparing fried chicken prepared this way with KFC chicken is like comparing a real peach to canned peaches -- they are clearly the same thing, and both are good, but the real peach (or in this case, the homemade chicken) is good in a way that is unmatched by the canned peach (KFC fast food).

We're going to try this soon and report back.

Ghost Busters (1954)

A trailer, for the little known 1954 black and white movie that inspired the Ivan Reitman remake decades later :-)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Foresight 1900 and a vision of 2100

Morlet's blog (link provided by Mike) has a post with images from circa 1900, showing life in the year 2000.

The images are wonderful. The majority of the ideas have come true, but even for the ones that have come true, their achievement was not at all in the way that they were visualized in these images.

Image Credit - Morlet's Blog - Police X-Ray Surveillance Machine

I am going by memory here, but I believe that Robert A. Heinlein, in an essay in the Expanded Universe collection, talks about how science fiction authors tend to miss the mark because they are insufficiently imaginative. Add futurists to that list - there was no such profession when Heinlein wrote that essay originally in 1950, and I don't remember whether he mentions them in his 1980 update.

Technological progress must resemble what I imagine biological evolution to be like -- a long period of relatively small adaptations for existing conditions which don't change, but then a sudden mad scramble for adaptation to a radical change in the environment. Think more or less stable conditions for a hundred million years to allow dinosaurs to evolve and adapt to almost all ecological niches, and then being blotted out by radical environmental change after the Chicxulub asteroid strike. Having seen both Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops, it might have been difficult to predict polar bears and bison.

In just the same way, in 1900, it wasn't obvious about the various revolutions caused by cheap internal combustion engines, air travel, rocket flight, space travel, computers, genetics -- the list goes on.

Here in no particular order is my short, incomplete list of problems we currently face, and possible solutions. It is no great prediction that from the year 2100, readers can look back on this list with the same sort of amusement that we in the post-2000 era look back on the predictions of 1900. As with the 1900 predictions, the flaw in these will be the unknown and unanticipated discoveries (or problems) that derail these and cause the outcome to be different.

GLOBAL WARMING - at the end of the 1800s, there was a hard limit to how big a city could get, because they were already running into the problem of how to get rid of all the horse manure that a large city would create. The analogy to our present day problem with rising carbon dioxide levels due to industrialization and transportation are obvious. How does this get fixed? Prediction - a range of technologies, including bioengineered forests (think kudzu genes implanted in sequoias) to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. In addition, there will be technology applied to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it.

ENERGY - The industrialized world demands an enormous amount of energy. Energy needs will increase as Asia and Africa expand their consumption to levels that approach North America or Europe. Energy sources such as coal and oil release too much carbon. Nuclear reactors create dangerous waste. Space power satellites are expensive. Prediction - fusion reactors based on compression or pinch effects -- for example, the Bussard concept.

CONFLICT AND GOVERNANCE - In the shorter to medium term, this is also about creating a way to equitably share resources - something that has more often than not resulted in conflicts. Thomas Barnett's TED talk examines the way that conflicts (for example over energy and resources) could evolve, and the possible international solutions to these problems. Prediction - armed conflict won't go away, but the scope and intensity will drop as the main international players understand that war is bad for business.

SPACE - GROUND TO ORBIT - Rockets were all right as a first step for getting things into space, but over the long term, they are dangerous, polluting monsters. Prediction - Multistage scramject launchers will be developed, but will give way to an orbital elevator. If the elevator is based on some variation on carbon nanotube technology, several of these might be a good place to use up the carbon that needs to be removed from the atmosphere.

SPACE - SOLAR SYSTEM - The problem with the rockets that are being built is that rockets fundamentally can't lift very much into space -- most of their energy output is devoted to moving their own fuel. In order to get anywhere interesting with anything of a decent size, this constraint has to be removed. Scramjet launchers will help, so will an orbital elevator. Prediction (see also ENERGY above): A Bussard-type fusion reactor (or something similar) will turn transit times of years to weeks or months, putting the solar system out to the Kuiper Belt in range of manned exploration.

SPACE - BEYOND - There are mathematical models for how to get something to move faster than light, but no one has any idea on how to implement these concepts as buildable engineering. Prediction - by 2100, we will have a better understanding of spacetime, and will be able to create devices to allow local manipulation of gravity. Faster than light travel will remain elusive.

GENETICS - The molecular basis for life was not understood in 1900, but by 2000, the genome of human beings has been determined, as well as that of some other species. Prediction - by 2100, genetic data will be so readily available that researchers will have a much better understanding of the evolutionary heritage of the majority of creatures on this planet. Some extinct species will be recreated, although a "Jurassic Park" scenario will not be achievable. However, greater understanding of cloning technologies will enable organs and other spare parts to be grown as needed. Meat will be grown in vats rather than harvested from food animals.

NANOTECH - Very primitive nanotech devices have been created, but no one really knows yet how to do really sophisticated, sexy stuff. Prediction: the nanotech revolution will go hand in hand with developments in genetics and molecular biology. There will be something like a genetic code for self-assembling machines. These machines will become ubiquitous in the environment.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE - Even as late as the 1940s, there was a belief that computing devices would be mechanical. The computer revolution first of all needed to go electronic, and after that, took 40 years to get from the first mainframes to the internet. Having gotten to this point, it shows no sign of slowing down. If anything, the pace of development is increasing. Prediction - this one is the joker in the deck, because it affects everything else. As computers have gotten smarter over the years, we have used them as tools to allow us as individuals or groups to do more. Computer systems will continue to increase in power, and well before 2100, a computer (or computer network) will be able to match the power of a human brain. But it won't stop there - computer capabilities will continue to expand. We will share our world with AI entities who will help us to organize our data, our work, and our lives. This will affect all other human endeavours.

NEW PROBLEMS - Sure as anything, there will be unintended consequences -- stuff we didn't think of. Hopefully not fatal.

On Youth

It is probably because I am an old fat curmudgeon that this rant of Craig Ferguson is so funny.

Hubble Zooms In On Jupiter Impact

The Hubble Space Telescope, still undergoing testing after the last servicing mission back in May, was used to take a photograph of the impact site on Jupiter discovered by Anthony Wesley.

In this first science image returned from Hubble after the servicing mission, the remains of the impact in Jupiter's atmosphere are clearly visible. The blot is seen to be losing its cohesion compared with earlier photos. This smearing effect is being driven by wind in Jupiter's atmosphere.

The image was taken with the Wide Field Camera 3 on Hubble. Calibration of the camera is still in progress -- this science observation interrupted the full system checkout of Hubble that has been in progress since the shuttle Atlantis left the telescope.

Current estimates suggest that the impacting body, a comet or asteroid, was several hundred meters in diameter. The energy released was thousands of times greater than that released by the comet or asteroid that precipitated the Tunguska event in Siberia a century ago.
Image Credit above: NASA/ESA/Heidi Hammel (Space Science Institute, Boulder, CO), and the Jupiter Impact Team

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Blank Verse of Sarah Palin

Years ago -- in fact, more than a decade ago -- when Jill and I attended a particular church in North York (the same one we were married in), the minister delivered sermons that sounded great. Whenever I woke up during the service, and focused on the last sentence I heard, it was always an interesting thought, that had been delivered with confidence and no hesitation whatsoever, in a fine public speaking voice. But there was a problem -- whenever I stayed awake enough to actually listen to more than one sentence, I concluded that the sermon was a series of more or less related thoughts, but there was little or no internal coherence at all between sentences. The sermon may have been intended to evoke images, but was certainly not a logically constructed argument, not an an essay on some aspect of faith or the human condition (or both!) delivered from the pulpit. That was a lack that I felt, because there wasn't any real content there for me.

Sarah Palin is sort of like that -- except that her internal coherence gets lost between clauses within each sentence.

However, if you suppress all your left brain processing, and think of my former minister's sermons and Sarah Palin's speeches as blank verse poetry, then it totally works. Conan O'Brien earlier this week on the Tonight Show had William Shatner read Sarah Palin's farewell speech as if it were blank verse.

Even if you thought it wasn't much of a speech, you'd have to agree that it was marginally more acceptable as poetry.

UPDATE (Aug 2, 2009) - The original link to the Conan O'Brien video on Youtube has been removed. Here is a replacement, which will hopefully last longer:

HMCS Fraser

Various news sources report that Her Majesty's Canadian Ship Fraser was returned to the Royal Canadian Navy earlier this month.

Fraser -- DDH 233 -- is the last surviving ship of the St. Laurent class of destroyers. These were the first warships designed and built in Canada, and they formed the backbone of the Royal Canadian Navy during the Cold War. From the National Historic Site historical plaque aboard Fraser
Designed in 1948-1949, they influenced naval construction internationally with their smooth above-water surfaces and distinctive convex deck. They could also be sealed to protect crews against biological and radioactive threats. All seven St. Laurent-class ships were modified during the 1960s to carry helicopters and enhance their anti-submarine capability. Launched in 1953, the HMCS Fraser is the last surviving example of this innovative class of warship.

When these ships were originally designed and built, they were intended to be newer, faster, more capable versions of the River-class destroyers that the RCN used in the Battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War. Their DDE designation marked them as Destroyer Escorts - ships intended to guard a convoy or to form part of a surface battle group. In the early 1960s, they were upgraded to add the capability of launching and recovering a Sea King helicopter, which is reflected by the change from the DDE to the DDH designator. When HMCS Bonaventure, the last RCN aircraft carrier, was retired, these ships became by default the largest units in the Canadian Navy.

Photo Credit - by Stewpendous on Flickr -- HMCS Fraser moored at Bridgewater, NS

All the ships of the St. Laurent class excluding St. Laurent herself went through the DELEX (Destroyer Lifetime Extension) program in the early 1980s. This upgrade included an electronic warfare suite that allowed these older ships constructed in the decade after World War Two to function and participate in a modern battlefield, giving them tactical datalinks to allow them to mesh with allied combatant ships and aircraft.

Throughout the 1980s, Fraser was used as a testbed to evaluate technology that would be used on the Halifax-class frigates that were then being designed. But by 1994, Fraser was retired and all the other ships of the St. Laurent class-- St. Laurent DDH 205, Saguenay DDH 206, Skeena DDH 207, Ottawa DDH 229, Margaree DDH 230, and Assiniboine DDH 234 -- were scrapped or sunk.

Originally, Fraser was intended to be either a museum, or an artificial reef -- indeed, the ship was owned by the Artificial Reef Society of Nova Scotia since the mid 1990s, until funding issues caused the ship to be returned to DND and the Navy earlier this month.

The Navy now has three options -- they could could restore Fraser (as a museum, not an operational warship), break her up and sell the remains for scrap, or turn the ship into an artificial reef.

The statement from Peter MacKay, the Defense Minister, is a typical example of political vagueness: "We remain committed to developing a longer-term solution for Fraser's future." What does this actually mean?

Worst Business Model Ever

Imagine this situation - you spend thousands of dollars to outfit your home with solar panels, as well as the necessary DC-to-AC conversion technology. You do this because over the lifetime of the solar panels and associated infrastructure, you expect to buy substantially less power from the power company. In fact, this is how you would justify the purchase of the solar panels -- if you do it right, you will make back more than the cost of the technology in savings on your electricity bill.

Well, there is a utility out there (Xcel Energy in Colorado) who proposes that their customers with solar panels on their homes be charged for the electricity that they don't use -- see links here and here and here. You might expect that there is an outcry about this.

One of Xcel's customers noted of his solar panel installation that
“Mine are generating enough to feed five or six houses around me electricity, so there's no free ride.”
A solar energy consultant pointed out
“That's less energy that Xcel Energy has to produce. That's less coal that they have to burn.”

This is one of those times where you encounter something and you just have to shake your head and wonder what the heck they were thinking? In this case, think of this as a tax on progress.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Solar Eclipse of July 22, 2009

A total solar eclipse of the Sun occurred earlier this week on Wednesday July 22. The path of totality as illustrated by the following animation (image credit NASA/A T Sinclair), touched the Earth in India, crossed through Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar and China. After leaving mainland Asia, the path crossed Japan's Ryukyu Islands and curved southeast through the Pacific Ocean where the maximum duration of totality reached 6 min 39 sec.

The Hinode satellite captured images of the eclipse from space. Hinode is a joint science mission (also known as Solar-B) mounted by JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the American NASA. The following image (photo credit NASA/JAXA) shows the moon's shadow in front of a heavily filtered view of the Sun.

Another Japanese Earth-monitoring satellite MTSAT captured what I believe has to be one of the most seriously cool space images ever -- the view of the moon's shadow on the earth from geostationary orbit 35,790 km (22,240 mi) high. The image (photo credit MTSAT/GMS via Wired Science blog) shows the shadow covering the island of Taiwan. Note that Australia is pretty clear of cloud cover -- just as one would expect from the reports of drought conditions there.

As eclipses go, this one was pretty long at nearly 7 minutes of totality. The next one having this comparable level of totality won't occur until 2132. Those of us still around will be just a bit decrepit by then :-)

Batman and Sons - Webcomic

I posted earlier about a webcomic called Batman and Sons, done by fan artist the dark cat.

He (or perhaps she) has now finished the "Rivalry" story, and it is available on the dark cat's Blogspot blog:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3 - Conclusion

Clicking on individual thumbnails in each post will open up the page for reading.

Part 1, which was the only part available when I did my original post, was pretty funny, and so perhaps expectations may have been set too high for parts 2 and 3. It is hard to do "funny" consistently, but the entire story was well done and definitely worth taking the time to read. [1]

A couple of minor editorial quibbles -- I noticed that at least once, the word "manic" was used instead of the correct "maniac". These text problems didn't really detract from the story, because there weren't too many. They may have been due to the artist's understandable desire to finish the friggen thing.

My favourite bits were the ongoing gag of Dick's adolescent reaction to busty superheroines in skintight costumes (pages 4, 9, 17, 19, 35) and the reunion of the Batbaby with its mother (page 44).

My one question (which will undoubtedly cause me to lose all my comic book nerd street cred) is - who was Cassandra (page 11)?

The real reason why I like this story is the underlying warning against overcoming one's own inadequacies or solving one's own issues by passing these things down one generation and having one's son(s) bear the weight of expectation to do it properly. As the story illustrates, this not a good model of child-rearing at all.

Not a bad bit of insight from something meant to be funny and fluffy.

[1] The assumptions I make, of course, are that the prospective reader have a sense of humour and at least some affinity for and knowledge of the DC Comics universe, of which Batman and Sons in general and this story "Rivalry" specifically are a parody.

For Sale - One Lunar Rover, Cheap

On's classified ads section, the following ad appears -- "For sale one Lunar Rover $500,000.00 no offers. One careful owner low mileage buyer collects. Cash offer and I will throw in a camera."

Given the original lunar rover development, manufacturing, and shipping costs, the price of half a mil is pretty good. The camera (a vintage Hasselblad, I believe) is definitely an added bonus.

A couple of problems aside from considerations of title -- the ad doesn't make clear which of three possible rovers is being offered -- there is one at Hadley Rille, one on the Descartes Highlands, and one at Taurus-Littrow. Oh, and I suppose the biggest problem given the "buyer collects" provision -- the locations of all three rovers (and the camera) are on the moon.

Photo credit above -- NASA/Apollo 15 -- photo taken by David R. Scott or James B. Irwin at the Hadley Rille on Earth's moon.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Guess Who Started Blogging??

OK, so perhaps it isn't momentous news in the grand scheme of things, but I think it is pretty cool.

My wife the author -- and now, blogger!

UPDATE - I added the link to Second Draft in "the Usual Suspects" section with a "Jill Lum" description, and in the "Skiffy" section with a "Michael Skeet and Jill Snider Lum" description.

Not immoral or illegal, just incredibly fattening

Divine Caroline has an article about the Ten Worst Artery Cloggers in America. At the same time, they also have an article on Ten Foods That Will Improve Your Mood.

As far as the first one, not very many of them are actually available in Canada. However, I am sure we have substitutes. The Domino’s Chicken Carbonara Pasta Bread Bowl, for example, sounds a lot like like something introduced at KFC recently -- a bowl (but not a bread bowl) with fried chicken, mashed potato, corn, gravy, and cheese -- just the thing to make up for a lipid deficiency. And I am happy to put a Double Big Mac up against a Triple Whopper with cheese.

Bad though they are, these are all best selling products because we are evolved to want sugar (in this case carbs) and fat -- and these products mainline their delivery to us like heroin from a junkie's needle.

Based on the other list, it sounds like one of the best food experiences that we could have would be to start outside on a sunny day with an edamame bean appetizer leading up to eating a lot of turkey. The accompaniments would be a lentil salad and a spinach salad, followed by a chocolate banana dessert. The sunny day would allow us the manufacture vitamin D through direct exposure to sunlight. All the other foods would max out tryptophan and folate (a vitamin B compound), and the net result would be a lot of happy people. Gotta try this...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


This was pretty funny....

Birthdays in Mauritius

My cousin Anne sent photos of the combined birthday celebration held this past Sunday the 19th for Nina (age 4 at the beginning of August) and Leo (age 2 last week).

Anne reports that she had a hard time trying to get Leo to wear his birthday shirt (he usually wears cotton tshirts) - however, as soon as he saw his cake, he was so mesmerised, he finally allowed it to be buttoned up! Leo tried to pick all the decorations and candle off of his cake - clearly a young man with an eye to the main chance. Nina was a little princess with her dress and her "grown up shoes"!

Thanks to Anne for sharing the party pictures. It is wonderful to get these by e-mail. Have I mentioned recently that I love technology??

Jupiter Impact Update

A follow-up observation with an infrared telescope on Mauna Kea confirms that the dark mark(s) discovered near Jupiter's south pole by Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley were caused by an impact of a comet or asteroid. The "hole" in Jupiter's upper atmosphere is now Earth-size or larger.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Infrared Telescope Facility - This image shows the heat signature from the impact point, glowing against the cooler background.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Jupiter Impact?

Around 1330 UT (0830 Eastern) yesterday (19 July 2009), an Australian amateur astronomer named Anthony Wesley noticed a previously unseen dark spot on Jupiter. Further observations by Mr. Wesley and other observers show several more spots in the vicinity, indicating that this is likely the result of a sizable asteroid or cometary impact on Jupiter.

If this was indeed a comet or asteroid impact, it would be much like Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, fragments of which which hit Jupiter in July 1994.

The Spaceguard project is still cataloguing large objects in orbits which might be in a position to hit Earth. However, no one noticed the Jupiter impactor prior to Sunday. Jupiter's larger size and greater gravity causes it to sweep up a lot of material, which is a good thing for us -- every large object swept up by Jupiter is one less to fall out of the sky without warning on us.

One Giant Leap For Mankind - 40 Years Later

Today is the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing carried out by the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the lunar module Eagle onto the Moon's Sea of Tranquility. While they took photographs, set up experimental equipment, and gathered rock and soil samples, their fellow astronaut Michael Collins orbited overhead in the command module Columbia.

Forty years later, there is an "Apollo 11" greasy spoon resturant here in Toronto at the corner of Bathurst and Dupont. This leads me to wonder whether the "Obama Cafe" on the Danforth will still be here by the middle of this century. The juxtaposition of restaurant names here in Toronto will be matched by a meeting of the actual people in Washington, where President Obama is scheduled to meet with Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins later today.

Today, there are 13 astronauts on the International Space Station -- a record setting number of people in one place in space, and incidentally, one more person than the twelve men who to this point have walked on the moon. Two of those thirteen people currently in space -- Robert Thirst and Julie Payette -- are Canadians. But there are no people in high orbit, or the moon, or interplanetary space.

Photo credit NASA - Endeavour approaches the ISS on Friday, July 17. Photo taken by an Expedition 20 astronaut during the approach phase to check for possible heat shield damage.

After 1972, the Apollo 18 spacecraft was redesignated for use on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Apollo 19 through 21, which included the setup for a rudimentary moonbase, were cancelled by the Nixon administration and never flown.

There are strong indications that the NASA Constellation program has fundamental design complexities and problems that may make it difficult or even impossible for NASA and its international partners to implement and use as the platform for the return to the moon, and beyond. Also, the Constellation vision is an enormous step backward in terms of technology concept. The decisions that are made now matter, and will affect whether or not there continues to be a viable human presence in space.

In the meantime, there has been a lot of 40th anniversary coverage over the last few days (click on individual links to open):

Apollo 11 mission recreated on web -- report and mission site

The debate about whether it was all worth it began even before the moon landings. Perhaps the major problem with space exploration to date is that there has been no true viable long term purpose. John F. Kennedy provided the lunar landing objectiveb when he stated in a speech that he elieved
"that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth."

But even Kennedy did not look beyond the need in the 1960s to "beat" the Russians. Elsewhere, he is on record saying to then-NASA Administrator James Webb
"This is important for political reasons, international political reasons, and this is, whether we like it or not, an intensive race. Otherwise, we shouldn't be spending this kind of money, because I'm not that interested in space."

Buzz Aldrin's rap video, intended to make space travel sexy for a new generation.

Sadly there are conspiracy theorists who believe that the landing never happened, prompting a lot of effort to demonstrate otherwise (also here and here and here). Proving a negative is hard to do, and there are always people (see also evolution debaters and 911 conspiracy theories) who choose belief over evidence.

The mission was a success from launch to lunar module liftoff to landing because many people worked on it, including small but critical contributions from unlikely people.

NASA has been working on cleaning up the Apollo 11 television footage. Here is a sample:

Finally, here is a montage video of highlights from the entire mission -- Armstrong's first words from the moon occur around 1:02. It should also be noted that Walter Cronkite, the iconic newscaster for CBS, passed away earlier last week.

Happy Neilsday 2009...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Alien encounter - the Chmido

At yesterday's Chandra event, in the Alien By Design workshop that Julie Czerneda ran, I worked with Chris and Michael to construct an alien that would live in an environment specified by Julie.

These were Julie's conditions:
- Daytime temperatures up to +50C, nighttime down to -10C
- Strong and gusty winds up to 100 kn/hr
- extreme dryness for months at a time, followed by a brief interval of heavy rain and flooding
- gravity about 0.75 Earth normal

And, with a table filled with goodies that Julie supplied, the additional requirement was that we had to build a model of the creature as well. This is what we came up with:

The Chmido (first two letters of each of our three names) has a vaguely manta-ray shaped body plan. They are omnivorous aerial predators, hunting in small packs during the day. At night, Chmido family groups and individuals seek shelter in caves on high cliff faces close to the ocean. Chmido wings are integrated, manta-like, into their body. They have a total of 8 limbs. They can stand upright on two rear appendages. The next set of two appendages have a cluster of fleshy manipulator digits at the end. There are two pairs of appendages with an attached web like structure next to the sharklike mouth, allowing a chmido to capture prey (or aerial plant life) in flight.

Chmido have four eyes, which point groundward and ahead while they are in flight, and which point forward when they stand on the ground. They also have two photosensitive spots on their back which allow them to react to predators behind or above them. They breathe through gill slits on their back, moving air through a pumping action. They breathe out through orifices along the trailing edge of their wings. There are specialized organs that produce sound for communication.

Because they are flying creatures, Chmido are quite light for their size, but they are very strong.

Chmido mating rituals involve 3 sexes participating in a complex aerial dance. The three particpants have specialized functions - one to produce sperm, one to produce ova, and one optimized to gestate the fertilized ovum. They bear live young.

Culturally, the Chmido are at a mid-industrial tech level, so no spaceships yet. They understand machines, but have religious objections against building machines that fly. However, their culture is based on striving to be higher than the rest of the pack -- an urge that will eventually drive them into space, once they get over their religion-imposed limits.

The most desirable caves are the ones on the leeward side of cliffs. Because these are rare, the first Chmido forays into technology involved channeling the flood waters during the wet season to use in carving out additional habitats. Through the generations, they have become accomplished hydraulic engineers.

For the model that we built, much of the allotted time was spent discussing the basic creature and agreeing on details. Michael constructed the outer layer, I carved the internal sponge that gave the body shape, Chris did the finicky job of making and attaching the limbs.

Having designed the alien, Julie threw a curve at us. Matching up two groups at random, we were to come up with a First Contact scnario. Michael, Chris, and I were paired up with Lindsay, one of Lorna's staff members, and her partner for this exercise.

In our scenario, the Chmido, in the course of exploring another continent on the same planet, encounter a sentient species which moves through several different forms during its life cycle. A flying form is a juvenile stage which the Chmido initially encounter. Because the Chmido are pack hunters, this probably doesn't end well for the peaceful, telepathic, solitary flying creature. It is likely that the initial Chmido response is "lunch". However, the subterranean-dwelling elders with their enhanced telepathy will allow both species to eventually communicate and reach an understanding. The ability of the others to tunnel deeply into the ground and extract metals is something the Chmido are not well suited for -- this is a partnership which will act to drive both species' technological capability.

And of course, in the process of working through their interspecies cooperation issues over generations, the Chmido and their partners achieve something which could be described as a culturally hard-wrired propensity toward diversity. It is this which allow the Chmido and their partners to get past the serious errors made by human merchants 200 years later when a Chmido starship is mistakenly attacked.

Chandra X-Ray Observatory event at Merril

The Merril Collection hosted a triple barrelled event on Friday evening and Saturday involving a presentation from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, a book launch for Julie Czerneda, and a space art retrospective by Jean-Pierre Normand.

Friday's science summary of the work done by Chandra for the last ten years was presented by the Observatory's Lead Education Officer, Donna L. Young, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable speaker. One of the hightlights for me was the composite photo of M101 in Ursa Major -- a giant spiral galaxy seen nearly head-on from our vantage point, and historically used as a marker for establishing the cosmic distance scale.

Photo credit -- X-ray: NASA/CXC/JHU/K.Kuntz et al.; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI/JHU/K. Kuntz et al; IR: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/K. Gordon. Image Scale -- Image is 18 arcmin (114,000 light years) across

The second half of Friday was a book launch and book signing, with a reading from Julie Czerneda, for her novel Rift In The Sky, the third book in a three book series written as a prequel to her Trade Pact Chronicles. Julie had some insightful things to say about the difficulties and pitfalls in writing a prequel trilogy for a trilogy that had already been written and published. I wish Geotge Lucas had considered these things with the same degree of care.

Saturday morning's activities started shortly after 9:30 with some introductory remarks by Professor John R. Percy of U of T and the RASC. Donna spoke some more, and then turned things over to Jean-Pierre for a space art retrospective.

Shortly after this began, Corwin experienced severe stomach cramping and vomiting, and had to be taken home by Jill. I carried him out of the building and across the street, until my arms gave out. Jill took over, while I tried to retrieve the car, from its parking spot underneath the Addiction Research Foundation north across College Street. What I discovered was that there were no regular entrances that allowed one back down to the parking garage, so I circled the building and walked down using the vehicle ramp. Jill and Corwin headed home, and I went back to the library.

Whatever Norwalk-like stomach bug had gotten Corwin continued to make him periodically sick over the next four or five hours until it subsided in the afternoon. By evening he was keeping down liquids and able to eat the official Lum family sick rations of macaroni and soy sauce.

Back at the library, Jean-Pierre concluded his space art slide show, and Donna ran a Stellar Evolution workshop, highlighting the various pathways along which stars could be born and evolve and end.

In the afternoon, Julie ran an Alien By Design workshop session. The lesson of evolution is that life adapts to its environment, and adapts again when things change. The physiological features that we see in life forms are there for valid environment-related reasons. For purposes of the workshop, Julie specified some environmental conditions, and our task was to design an alien being that could plausibly live in that environment and develop intelligence. I did this in conjunction with Michael and Chris, two of the Usual Suspects who also attended this event.

After the Alien By Design workshop, Jean-Pierre did a truly amazing retrospective of his cover and illustration art over nearly thirty years.

In the course of the afternoon, I got Corwin's copy of Orbiter signed by Julie, by Jean-Pierre, and by Eric Choi, author of one of the stories in the collection. I also got a couple of copies of Jean-Pierre's book of artwork, Science Fiction Illustrations, again signed, one of which will go to our friend Hicaru in Japan.

At the end of the day, Julie sent a package of alien-making materials for Corwin. By the time I got home, Corwin was well enough to appreciate it. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with when we (or he by himself) does this exercise.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Phyllis Gotlieb - 1926 to 2009

Phyllis Gotlieb, noted Canadian poet and science fiction author passed away earlier this week on July 15. She was 82 years old. We last saw Phyllis the previous year on June 5th 2008 at the Merril Collection, at a special event where she was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement award by SF Canada.

Phyllis' novel O Master Caliban had been published shortly before I began participating in organized science fiction related activities. In all of our encounters, I remember her as unfailingly warm and gracious.

Monday, July 13, 2009

How Cats Manipulate Humans

Researchers have determined that there is an audible component to the exercise of the feline mind control field on the Afflicted. The article is here.

The following result is possibly significant:
In a series of playback experiments with those calls, they found that humans judged the purrs recorded while cats were actively seeking food as more urgent and less pleasant than those made in other contexts, even if they had never had a cat themselves.

If the Afflicted could somehow be shielded from the audio emanations, it is possible that the mind control field might be less effective, and an Afflicted person might be broken free. Obviously, more research is necessary. But it is in such small breakthroughs that the hope continues to be maintained that the possibility of throwing off the feline yoke on humanity's Afficted might be achievable.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

AS YOU PUPPET is Best of the Fringe!

I am shilling for my cousin, who sez

Last performance of AS YOU PUPPET is on Sunday @ 7:05pm at the Palmerston Library.

"*****"UTTERLY DELIGHTFUL...this is a show for EVERYBODY" -
Eye Weekly, NNNN
Critic's Pick, Now Magazine

If you miss this performance, you can catch us at THE BEST OF FRINGE: July 23, 24 & 25, 7pm at the Berkeley Street Theatre!

They deserved to be selected as Best of the Fringe!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Search and Rescue from the Toy Eating Tree

Our Tuesday evening get-together earlier this week at Chris and Liza's house ran unexpectedly late.

While the adults ate the excellent chicken salad provided by Lorna and Michael, and talked about boring stuff like job hunting, or writing, or music suitable for a drive to Temagami, or organ transplantation, or the economics and strategies behind the current city workers' strike, the kids were busy doing doing much more important things. Recognizing the Megaforce motto of "Deeds, Not Words", the boys went off to the park to try out Cameron's new radio controlled airplane, and therein lies the story.

By the time everyone was gone, and we went to retrieve the children, we discovered the aftermath of an airplane disaster.

The airplane was a model of an F18 fighter, perhaps 20 or 25 cm long, made of molded styrofoam, with control circuitry, a battery, and motors embedded in the body. The motors turned two propellers on the trailing edge of the wings, and the battery was charged by attaching the aircraft's charging port to a cable on the remote control device. The aircraft was light, and reasonably fragile. It was much more interesting than any toy I ever had as a kid (isn't that always the way?), and more importantly, was totally unsuited for the nefarious purposes of the boys, which would undoubtedly have involved mounting a wireless webcam and at least one nerf dart launcher.

In the course of their flight trials, another little boy from the neighbourhood had inadvertently steered the airplane into the high branches of a tree. As Corwin pointed out later on the drive home, out of all possible directions that he could have flown the plane, he picked the worst one.

As the sun set, Chris and I, along with a couple of other guys from the neighbourhood tried to retrieve the airplane by trying to knock it loose. Prior to our arrival, these attempts had been made with a rubber ball, a tennis ball, and a football -- now all stuck in the tree as well. Chris and I added to the Buster Keatonesque air of these proceedings. A hockey stick, tossed into the branches to shake things loose also got stuck and had to be knocked loose by a rope. The rope on a subsequent attempt got stuck and had to be retrieved with the hockey stick. We ultimately made repeated attempts with the rope being tossed into the branches while the other end was tied to the hockey stick -- anchoring the rope and solving our alternating loss of tools problem.

Our innovations failed to loosen the airplane, but provided much amusement for Jill, Liza and the mother of the little boy whose directional malfunction had treed the plane. Liza was heard to suggest tossing a bicycle which had been left on the playground. Eventually, we did manage to knock loose all the stuck balls, including the football. Deepening twilight caused us to suspend the search and rescue operation for the airplane.

The story ends well. Late next day, we got the following e-mail from Chris:

Search and rescue efforts were suspended July 7th after 10PM EDT when low light levels made attempts to even locate the downed aircraft difficult.

On July 8th, at 7:30 AM crews returned to the incident site. The aircraft was located, but it was determined that it was inaccessible given the resource constraints on crews at that point. However, it was determined that the aircraft was unlikely to shift to be in further jeopardy, as the surrounding foliage was acting to secure the aircraft against shifts due to any inclement weather.

On July 8th at 8:15PM, crews established that the aircraft was unmoved from its morning position, and returned to the site with elevation enhancement equipment [1], as well as reach extensors [2]. Careful movement of the aircraft using both pieces of gear resulted in the aircraft being freed of the entrapment of the foliage. Further movements caused the aircraft to come free and shift to a point [3] where recovery of the vehicle intact was possible, with only minor cosmetic damage.

Recovery equipment and the vehicle were returned to storage and maintenance, respectively. The vehicle was inspected and refueled, and engine run up tests were done. All systems appear to be fully functional. A flight test and return to service is expected after the flight crew returns to duty tomorrow from an off-site mission.

[1: wooden step ladder]
[2: twelve foot fly pole from tent]
[3: drop from the tree to the ground]

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

More about As You Puppet

Corwin and I went to see As You Puppet, a production in the Toronto Fringe Festival, on Monday. It wasn't what I expected, but it was still a most enjoyable show.

The Spring Gala on the second last day at Corwin's school was to have been Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, as adapted by Jill. Corwin was to have played Bottom. However, the play at school failed to happen - the day before the performance, five or six children came down with flu symptoms, and in light of the current pandemic concerns about H1N1, the decision was made to cancel the performance.

Unlike Corwin's heavily adapted school play, in As You Puppet, the actual dialogue and scenes from As You Like It were used. This was Corwin's first introduction to the actual language of Shakespeare, and despite my concerns, he had no trouble following the story.

In my earlier post, I noted that both Eye and Now had given this play very good reviews. Having actually seen the play, I can see why. What struck me was the tremendous energy and intelligence in this production. Other than abridgment for length to make the entire production an hour long, it made no other concession in terms of the dialogue. I was gratified that Corwin followed it, despite the use of the archaic original Shakespearian language, but also, apparently all or most of the other children in the audience did so as well.

Both the principal performers -- Jane McClelland and Mike Petersen -- were obviously putting a lot of energy, thought, and effort into their performances. It was clear that they both knew this play cold, but also that they had real Shakespearian experience as well. My cousin Wayne Sujo, who was (among other things) the stage manager for this production, told me that they had spent two months rehearsing. The rehearsal time definitely showed. Despite the minimalist sets, and the stuffed animal actor surrogates, the story moved along briskly, with no hesitations or visible problems.

There aren't many performances left, but this play is highly recommended by both Corwin and myself.
SAT JULY 11, 12:25PM
SUN JULY 12, 7:05PM
(at the Palmerston Library -- further details on Facebook here and on the Toronto Fringe Festival website here)

A final thought - it would be great if this production went on tour in Toronto's (or other jurisdiction's) elementary schools. This would be a great way to introduce younger childern to Shakespeare, and to do it well before high school.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

As You Puppet

My cousin Wayne is stage manager on a production of Shakespeare's As You Like It, done with puppets and stuffed animals. The production is called As You Puppet, part of this year's Toronto Fringe Festival, and Corwin and I are going to see it tomorrow.

It opened last week, and Eye Weekly gave them a five star review. Now Magazine was stingier, giving them only 4 N's out of a possible 5 (NNNN=Sustained Applause as opposed to NNNNN=Standing Ovation).

Here is the press release for As You Puppet:

Hear ye, hear ye!! Hank's Toybox Theatre is at the Kids' Fringe Festival in Toronto this summer!

Come and marvel at AS YOU PUPPET - an abridged version of Shakespeare's As You Like It, as told by stuffed animals.

A technique known as “table top puppetry” brings the plush toys to life, wherein the performers remain fully visible while the puppets flop and frolic on table-high settings.

Shakespeare’s language has been carefully preserved, and puppeteers Jane McClelland and Mike Petersen create lush settings by transforming ordinary boxes, blankets and tables into everything from royal palace courtyards to sun-dappled meadows.

They are directed by Ken MacDougall and Tom McHale, with lighting designed by Michael Kruse, sound design by Saul Pincus, and stage management by Wayne Sujo.



adapted & performed by

directed by KEN MacDOUGALL & TOM McHALE
lighting design MICHAEL KRUSE sound design SAUL PINCUS
stage manager WAYNE SUJO


560 Palmerston Ave (2 blks W of Bathurst/Bloor)

FRI JULY 3, 8:05PM
SAT JULY 4, 2:20PM
MON JULY 6, 12:40PM
WED JULY 8, 5:40PM
SAT JULY 11, 12:25PM
SUN JULY 12, 7:05PM

$10 adults / $5 kids
fringe hotline: 416-966-1062

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Reflections on David

Yesterday was the visitation for David and today was the funeral. David was 15 years younger than me -- nothing like an untimely death to bring home a sense of one's own mortality. I dislike funerals, but the experience is particularly awful when it is someone I know and care about.

My cousin Linda asked for people to write down their stories and memories of David, so that she could give them to Nicole and Matthew when they are older. That is a great idea - the only truly meaningful way in which we live on is through the effect that we have had on others, and the memories that we have created. David was one of those people who had an enormous positive effect on everyone around him.