Friday, December 28, 2012

'One Small Hop for a Grasshopper...' SpaceX's Reusable Rocket

"Experimental Private Rocket Makes Highest Test Hop Yet"
Miriam Kramer, (December 26, 2012)

"A privately built rocket prototype that could lead to a completely reusable spaceflight system has passed its biggest test yet - a 12-story hop and smooth landing.

"The experimental reusable rocket, called the Grasshopper, made its highest and longest flight yet on Dec. 17, marking the prototype's third successful test by the private spaceflight company SpaceX.

"In the latest test at SpaceX's proving grounds in MacGregor, Texas, the Grasshopper rocket flew for 29 seconds and reached a height of more than 130 feet (40 meters). A video of the Grasshopper test flight shows the rocket soaring up into the Texas sky, then smoothly descending to land on four spindly legs...."

We're a long way from routine commercial flights to orbital hotels, research labs, and way-stations to the stars: but the Grasshopper is an important step in that direction. Or hop.

What's important about the SpaceX Grasshopper and other reusable launch vehicles is that they're - reusable. Even the Space Shuttle had throwaway booster rockets and fuel tanks. That's okay for government-funded flights to the International Space Station: but no way to run an airline. Spaceline?

Think about it: how long would a commercial air carrier last, if the company had to throw away most of each airliner after one flight?

Related posts:

Monday, December 24, 2012

Lights! Camera! Action! Christmas Yard Display Videos

You were warned: here's another post from the Lemming.

It's not the 1986 Perry Como Christmas Special, but the Lemming enjoyed watching and listening to these YouTube videos of Christmas season yard displays. Your experience may vary:

Allegedly-related posts:

Christmas Eve With the Lemming

It's Christmas Eve, December 24, 2012. I'm pretty sure that we'll be seeing less about the Mayan calendar's long cycle now. Discussion, sensible and otherwise, of the recent mass murder in Newtown, Connecticut, will probably linger for a bit longer: but I'm fairly certain that it will fade after a few more weeks.

I discussed the latest 'end of the world' story, and the tragedy in Connecticut, in another blog:
The Lemming usually has something weirdly funny to show during the Christmas season. This year, the Lemming's heart wasn't in that project.

Check back in a few hours, though. The Lemming may have something 'seasonal' ready by then. Then again, maybe not.

Related posts:

Friday, December 21, 2012

Lemming Tracks: Instagram; Intellectual Property; and Underage Models

"Instagram says it now has the right to sell your photos"
Declan McCullagh, (December 17, 2012)

"In its first big policy shift since Facebook bought the photo-sharing site, Instagram claims the right to sell users' photos without payment or notification. Oh, and there's no way to opt out...."

"Privacy and Terms of Service Changes on Instagram" (December 16, 2012)

"Our community has grown a lot since we wrote our original terms of service. To get things up to date for the millions of people now using Instagram, we’re bringing you new versions of our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

"Here are a few key updates:
  • "Nothing has changed about your photos’ ownership or who can see them.
  • Our updated privacy policy helps Instagram function more easily as part of Facebook by being able to share info between the two groups. This means we can do things like fight spam more effectively, detect system and reliability problems more quickly, and build better features for everyone by understanding how Instagram is used.
  • "Our updated terms of service help protect you, and prevent spam and abuse as we grow.
"This is just a small preview. Our new Privacy Policy and Terms of Service will be effective on January 16, 2013.

"We know these documents are a little dry, but they’re very important. Please take a moment to read through them so you keep feeling comfortable sharing your beautiful photos on Instagram."

So far, the Lemming couldn't see anything alarming. But Instagram included two links, and the Lemming thought Terms of Service might have something interesting.

The Lemming was right.

Ownership, Rights, and 'Under 18'

"Terms of Use" (effective on January 16, 2013)

"By accessing or using the Instagram website, the Instagram service, or any applications...

  1. "Instagram does not claim ownership of any Content that you post on or through the Service. Instead, you hereby grant to Instagram a non-exclusive, fully paid and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to use the Content that you post on or through the Service, except that you can control who can view certain of your Content and activities on the Service as described in the Service's Privacy Policy, available here:
  2. "Some or all of the Service may be supported by advertising revenue. To help us deliver interesting paid or sponsored content or promotions, you agree that a business or other entity may pay us to display your username, likeness, photos (along with any associated metadata), and/or actions you take, in connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you. If you are under the age of eighteen (18), or under any other applicable age of majority, you represent that at least one of your parents or legal guardians has also agreed to this provision (and the use of your name, likeness, username, and/or photos (along with any associated metadata)) on your behalf...."
The Lemming has run into, and occasionally used, free services which pay their bills by using their users' content for marketing and advertising. That condition is no problem for the Lemming, since much of what the Lemming produces helps the Lemming - no matter where it's displayed.

Not everybody is like the Lemming, thankfully. Who needs a world full of flannel-clad lemmings? CNET's Declan McCullagh has a point: folks who don't want their photos used to sell some product probably don't want to use Instagram.

For the Lemming, it's an academic point. The Lemming doesn't use Instagram. Folks who do - probably want to re-think using that particular service.

The really interesting part, from the Lemming's point of view, is "...If you are under the age of eighteen (18)...." Using underage models for advertising, even with the safeguards Instagram has in that agreement, seems to be asking for trouble. In the Lemming's opinion.

Daft Contracts, the Government, and the Lemming

Springing surprises like Instagram's new Terms of Service on customers and clients is one thing. Folks can often find another business that isn't quite so clueless about what folks do - and don't - expect.

When a government starts, ah, 'protecting' folks - that's another topic.

(A tip of the hat to CNET, on Google+, for the heads-up on Instagram's new policy.)

Related posts:

Friday, December 14, 2012

Students and Duluth City Planning: Fresh Ideas

"Architecture students create designs for a better Duluth"
John Myers, Duluth News Tribune (December 13, 2012)

Martin Meyer, a graduate student in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, describes his group's proposal to create ramps to the ore docks to connect with other city trails along the waterfront. He was one of 36 students presenting ideas to Duluth officials Wednesday at Clyde Ironworks. (Bob King /; used w/o permission"University of Minnesota architecture and landscape architecture graduate students showed Duluth civic and business leaders what their finished projects might look like once the city's trouble spots are turned into treasures.

"Imagine waking up in your bedroom in what had been an idle ore dock on Duluth's waterfront - with stores, offices and restaurants down the hall and an outdoor skating arena just outside your door.

"Imagine turning an abandoned granite quarry in West Duluth into a world-class ice-climbing destination and speed-skating oval....

"...An effort by 36 graduate students in the University of Minnesota's College of Design did more than just imagine those scenarios - they spent the fall quarter of their final year in school designing and planning the projects. On Wednesday, the grad students in architecture and landscape architecture showed Duluth civic and business leaders what the finished projects might look like...."

Duluth, Minnesota, across from Superior, Wisconsin, is half of a port city at the west end of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Taconite pellets get transferred from rail cars to ore carriers on a series of huge ore docks. One of those docks isn't in use.

Some See Ore-Loading Chutes - - -

Some of the students saw that expanse of unused ore dock, and started thinking. They propose "...transforming the massive structure of wood and steel into a multi-use destination with condos, shops and public recreation space. Their concept even turns the giant ore-loading chutes into bleachers for an outdoor skating arena...."
(December 13, 2012)

Others have plans for parts of Duluth that are unused or hard to maintain. Then there's old Casket Quarry in West Duluth. It's already being used for ice climbing - unofficially. What some students suggest is officially recognizing what's already being done, and re-engineering the place a bit.

Sounds like a plan to the Lemming.

Somewhat-related posts:

Friday, December 7, 2012

Attack of the Infographic, or, Break the Creative Block Before it Breaks You

"How Can We Overcome the Creative Block (Infographic)"
Spyros Thalassinos, make your ideas art (December 3, 2012)

"Creative block is the inability to access the flow of inspiration and creativity. It can last for days, months, and in some cases years. See how you can overcome it, with this cool infographic: 10 Fun Ways...."

Some of the advice could be over-budget for the Lemming, like "take a vacation."

It's like the 'how to manage your money' books that start out by suggesting that you sell one of your yachts. Oh, well: the "vacation" thing says "roam around your town," after "visit another country:" maybe the Lemming is being too harsh.

"Doodle and collect" sounds like what we called "goofing off" in the Lemming's younger years. Come to think of it, anything creative was often called "goofing off." Maybe the author/artist is on to something.

"Diversify interests?!" More often, the Lemming's problem was sticking with one interest long enough to write a coherent paragraph: which might or might not have anything to do with coherent light, or "lasers;" or tasers - - - you see what the Lemming means?

Then there's "follow the stars," which may or may not refer to movie stars whose talents are - - - no, the Lemming really doesn't want to be too harsh. Aha! "In your industry," so "star" means someone who actually is competent: not an astronomical body characterized by thermonuclear fusion and lots of really hot gas; which reminds the Lemming of Congress.

Where was the Lemming?

Point number nine is "be a kid again." "Again?" Chronological progression notwithstanding, the Lemming never stopped being a kid. Then there's the distinction between being childlike and childish, and that's yet another topic. Topics.

One more thing: the actual infographic is a bit over twice the linear dimensions of the copy in this post.

That makes it over four times the size in terms of area, but quite a few folks would say 'about twice as big' anyway, without specifying what "big" meant in that particular context.

Then there was the textbook that said "diameter," when the dimension was obviously circumference: and that's - what else? More topics.

A tip of the hat to Steve Farnsworth, on Twitter, for the heads-up on that infographic.

Allegedly-related posts:

Friday, November 30, 2012

Another Step Closer to a Practical Warp Drive: Maybe

"How NASA might build its very first warp drive"
George Dvorsky, io9 (November 26, 2012)

"A few months ago, physicist Harold White stunned the aeronautics world when he announced that he and his team at NASA had begun work on the development of a faster-than-light warp drive. His proposed design, an ingenious re-imagining of an Alcubierre Drive, may eventually result in an engine that can transport a spacecraft to the nearest star in a matter of weeks...."

This isn't as crazy as it may sound. The original Alcubierre equations were taken seriously by physicists: as a fascinating and impractical theory. An Alcubierre warp drive, as originally presented, would have used incredible amounts of power: and might not be stable. (June 12, 2009)

Tweaking the Numbers

"...The idea came to White while he was considering a rather remarkable equation formulated by physicist Miguel Alcubierre. In his 1994 paper titled, 'The Warp Drive: Hyper-Fast Travel Within General Relativity,' Alcubierre suggested a mechanism by which space-time could be 'warped' both in front of and behind a spacecraft....

"...In terms of the engine's mechanics, a spheroid object would be placed between two regions of space-time (one expanding and one contracting). A 'warp bubble' would then be generated that moves space-time around the object, effectively repositioning it — the end result being faster-than-light travel without the spheroid (or spacecraft) having to move with respect to its local frame of reference.

" 'Remember, nothing locally exceeds the speed of light, but space can expand and contract at any speed,' White told io9. 'However, space-time is really stiff, so to create the expansion and contraction effect in a useful manner in order for us to reach interstellar destinations in reasonable time periods would require a lot of energy.'..."

For early version of the Alcubierre warp drive, "a lot of energy" meant at least what you'd get by converting Jupiter - 317 times as massive as Earth - into energy.

That sort of energy requirement made Alcubierre's equations interesting, but impractical.

Equations, Assumptions, and 'Impossible'

Исследование мировых пространств реактивнымиWhat is or isn't possible depends partly on assumptions. A 'warp drive' is impossible, for instance, assuming that:
  • Technology will never improve
  • Alcubierre's paper covered all possibilities
Using rockets for interplanetary travel is 'impossible,' too: assuming that humanity stopped developing new technologies in 1903.

That's when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published "The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices."

A hundred years later, some folks were wondering when people would go back to the Moon.

Tweaking the Numbers

Harold White explained how looking at Alcubierre's work a little differently made a big difference:

"...'I suddenly realized that if you made the thickness of the negative vacuum energy ring larger - like shifting from a belt shape to a donut shape - and oscillate the warp bubble, you can greatly reduce the energy required - perhaps making the idea plausible.' White had adjusted the shape of Alcubierre's ring which surrounded the spheroid from something that was a flat halo to something that was thicker and curvier...."

'Are We There Yet?'

"...White and his colleagues are trying to simulate the tweaked Alcubierre drive in miniature by using lasers to perturb space-time by one part in 10 million....

"...'Our initial test device is implementing a ring of large potential energy - what we observe as blue shifted relative to the lab frame - by utilizing a ring of ceramic capacitors that are charged to tens of thousands of volts,' he told us. 'We will increase the fidelity of our test devices and continue to enhance the sensitivity of the warp field interferometer - eventually using devices to directly generate negative vacuum energy.'

"He points out that Casimir cavities, physical forces that arise from a quantized field, may represent a viable approach...."

Bending space-time by one part in 10 million won't take us to other stars. But if that ring of capacitors bends space-time even a little, that will show that the theory works.

Change Happens

Space ships with warp engines won't be built in the next year or so: in the Lemming's opinion. For starters, negative vacuum energy rings aren't off the shelf hardware. Today.

But let's remember that change happens. Leonardo Da Vinci drew pictures of flying machines. About five centuries later, internal combustion engines made powered fight possible.

Maybe folks will know how to build negative vacuum energy rings five centuries from now.

On the other hand, White wants to pump tens of thousands of volts of energy into a ring of ceramic capacitors: to see whether and how much space-time gets stretched.

Warp drive could be closer than it seems.

A tip of the Lemming's hat to Thomas Sanjurjo, on Google+, for the heads-up on this article.

Related posts:

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"...If There Were Intelligent Life Up There...."

Ant:  We've searched dozens of these floor tiles for several common types of pheromone trails. If there were intelligent life up there, we would have seen its messages by now. (The world's first ant colony to achieve sentience calls off the search for us.)
(from XKCD, used w/o permission)

SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, almost always assumes that space aliens will use radio for communications.

It makes sense, sort of. People on Earth use radio for most long distance communications. Now.

Let's take a step back and look at people on Earth, technology, and time:
  • 3,390,000 years ago - first (known) tool use
  • 1,000,000 years ago - first (known) use of fire
  • 151 years ago - Maxwell starts experimenting with electromagnetic waves
    • Including radio waves
Granted, people who used fire 1,000,000 years ago didn't look quite like the British Royal family: but folks who use tools and fire are, arguably, people. Even if they're obviously not British.

People have been using radio for a very long time, by American standards. Looking at the big picture, though? We've used radio for 151/1,000,000 the length of time we've been using fire.

1,000,000 years from now?

It took humans about
  • 1,000,000 years to go
    • From using fire
    • To discovering radio waves
  • 150 years to go
    • From knowing how radio waves work
    • To competition between cable and satellite television services
Maybe humans have stopped developing new technology.

Maybe there simply isn't anything about the universe that the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, CERN, and IISc, don't already know.

Then again, maybe not.

Vaguely related posts about people:

Thanksgiving Day, 2012: Desperate Times...

Related(?) posts:

Friday, November 16, 2012

Papa John's Spam Blast: Oops

"Papa John's faces $250 million spam lawsuit"
Olivia Smith, CNN Money (November 13, 2012)

"Popular U.S. pizza chain Papa John's faces a $250 million class-action lawsuit for blasting customers with illegal text messages.

"The plaintiffs allege that Papa John's (PZZA) franchises sent customers a total of 500,000 unwanted messages in early 2010. The spam texts offered deals for pizza, and some customers complained they were getting 15 or 16 texts in a row, even during the middle of the night, according Donald Heyrich, an attorney representing the class.

" 'After I ordered from Papa John's, my telephone started beeping with text messages advertising pizza specials,' Erin Chutich, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement. 'Papa John's never asked permission to send me text message advertisements.'

"The pizza franchises sent the text blasts through a mass text messaging service called OnTime4U, which is also a defendant in the case. When Papa John's was first sued in April 2010, the franchises allegedly ended their involvement with OnTime4U's text program...."

Somehow, somewhere, someone got the idea that pestering customers - in the middle of the night - was a good idea.

Or maybe it was a programming glitch.

The CNN Money article says that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 requires wannabe spammers to wait until folks opt in to a text messaging spamfest.

Papa John's, OnTime4U, and probably a lot of other outfits, will be contributing to the welfare of lawyers for quite a while, in the Lemming's opinion.

Nearly-related posts:

Friday, November 9, 2012

Lemming Tracks: Puerto Rico, Statehood, and Getting a Grip

As far as the Lemming is concerned, if folks living in Puerto Rico think it's a good idea to become a state, instead of a territory: that's fine. If they don't, also fine. Being a state seems to make sense: but the Lemming lives a few thousand miles away from Puerto Rico, and that's another topic.

Voting, Puerto Rico, and Congress

"Puerto Rico wants to become the 51st state of the US"
BBC News (November 7, 2012)

"Voters in Puerto Rico have supported a non-binding referendum to become a full US state.

"The measure will require approval from the US Congress, but President Barack Obama has said he will respect the vote.

"The island is currently a US territory, which uses the dollar and whose citizens travel on US passports.

"But it does not return senators to the US Congress and is represented in Washington by a non-voting delegate.

"Almost 80% of the island's electorate took part in the referendum, the fourth in the past 45 years...."

The Lemming figured it was only a matter of time before most Puerto Ricans got used to the idea of having equal status with the existing 50 states.

There's also the matter of folks from the 48 contiguous states, plus Hawaii and Alaska, getting used to the idea that Americans don't need to look like Archie Bunker. More topics.

When news about the statehood referendum came out, the Lemming also figured that it was only a matter of time before someone found a dark lining to this silver cloud. It didn't take long.

An associate professor says the referendum vote is wrong, because Puerto Ricans don't want statehood.

They're Not Supposed to Want That?

"Puerto Rico Statehood Experts Challenge Results"
Christina Ng, ABC News blog (November 8, 2012)

"A vote in Puerto Rico over the island’s status as a U.S. territory has triggered a fierce debate over whether a majority voted to become the 51st state.

"The island territory has been debating the issue for decades and pro-statehood politicians are celebrating Tuesday's vote claiming it was the first time in 45 years that Puerto Ricans have voted for statehood.

"Others, however, are challenging that conclusion and argue that the vote indicates opposition to statehood.

" 'Puerto Ricans in general are just dissatisfied with the current government,' Yarimar Bonilla, a Rutgers University assistant professor of anthropology and Caribbean studies, told"

Maybe an associate professor is right, and all those Puerto Ricans didn't know what they really want. Then again, maybe Puerto Ricans aren't quite as unaware as they're supposed to be.

This isn't 1893, Puerto Rico isn't Hawaii, and that's another boatload of topics.

Passports? What Passports?

"Important Travel Information on Puerto Rico", U.S. Department of State (undated)

"Inaccurate press reports about travel between Puerto Rico and mainland United States

"Contrary to a number of inaccurate press reports stemming from a July 16, 2012 article that misquoted a State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs official, there is no passport requirement for U.S. citizens for direct travel between the mainland United States and U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands...."

Sometimes reporters get it right. Sometimes they don't. Deadlines, assumptions, and creative editors, may be factors in news media's relationship with reality.

The Lemming's opined about news, and what folks expect, in another blog:

"...In the wake of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, up to somewhere after Watergate, reporters were taken quite seriously. The brave reporter, on a quest for Truth, became a stock character in movies. I've discussed stereotypes and movies before....

"...When Richard T. Heffron needed intrepid heroes for a movie about a conspiracy by robots to take over the world, "reporters" filled the bill neatly. That was in 1976.

"Like I've said before, change happens. A few years after "Futureworld", another creative team gave us a somewhat different view of reporters...."
(A Catholic Citizen in America (April 27, 2012))

And that's - what else? - yet another topic.

Vaguely-related posts:

Friday, November 2, 2012

Gale Crater, Mars: Like a Hawaiian Beach; Only Drier, Colder, - - -

"NASA Rover's First Soil Studies Help Fingerprint Martian Minerals"
Missions News, NASA (October 30, 2012)

"NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has completed initial experiments showing the mineralogy of Martian soil is similar to weathered basaltic soils of volcanic origin in Hawaii.

"The minerals were identified in the first sample of Martian soil ingested recently by the rover. Curiosity used its Chemistry and Mineralogy instrument (CheMin) to obtain the results, which are filling gaps and adding confidence to earlier estimates of the mineralogical makeup of the dust and fine soil widespread on the Red Planet.

" 'We had many previous inferences and discussions about the mineralogy of Martian soil,' said David Blake of NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., who is the principal investigator for CheMin. 'Our quantitative results provide refined and in some cases new identifications of the minerals in this first X-ray diffraction analysis on Mars.'..."

(NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, used w/o permission)
"This pair of images from the Mast Camera on NASA's Curiosity rover shows the upper portion of a wind-blown deposit dubbed 'Rocknest.' ... The colors in the image at left are unmodified, showing the scene as it would appear on Mars, which has a dusty red-colored atmosphere. The image at right has been white-balanced to show what the same area would look like under the lighting conditions on Earth.

"The rounded rock located at the upper center portion of the images is about 8 inches (0.2 meters) across...."

What Curiosity scooped up may be like Hawaiian soil, but Gale Crater is no Waikiki Beach. The air is mostly carbon dioxide, very thin, and cold. Now.

This particular scoop was taken near "Rocknest," the patch of ground shown in those photos. The soil seems to have been formed 'recently,' when Mars was the cold, barren, place it is today.

Another soil sample was older:

"...Unlike conglomerate rocks Curiosity investigated a few weeks ago, which are several billion years old and indicative of flowing water, the soil material CheMin has analyzed is more representative of modern processes on Mars...."

Movie Monsters, No

Flowing water on Mars, several billion years back, doesn't mean that we'll find a Martian princess, a "space monster," or any of the other nifty B-movie critters from Hollywood.

On the other hand, there might be 'Martians' living today:
  • If Mars' water stayed liquid long enough
  • If enough organic compounds were there
  • If our current assumptions about how life starts are right
Or we may find solid evidence of critters that used to live there: microbes, most likely.

That's a lot of "ifs."

Then there's the intriguing possibility that we discovered living Martians a few decades ago: and wrote them off as 'peculiar chemistry.' (March 5, 2009)

In the Lemming's considered opinion, life on Mars probably wouldn't be quite like life on Earth: and that's another topic.

Martian Microbes, Maybe

"...During the two-year prime mission of the Mars Science Laboratory Project, researchers are using Curiosity's 10 instruments to investigate whether areas in Gale Crater ever offered environmental conditions favorable for microbial life...."

Just finding a spot on Mars where conditions had been "favorable for microbial life" would be exciting. Finding microbes, living or long dead? That would take much of the speculation out of exobiology. It would also upset quite a few folks, for various reasons. And that's yet another topic.

Related posts:

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Friday, October 26, 2012

Antimatter Rocket Motor: Physics, Straightforward; Engineering, Not So Much

"Antimatter: Beam Drive"
The Physics of Starship Design, Scott Kircher (2000)

"The hybrid designs (ACMF and AIM) discussed in previous sections seem quite complicated. They require the juxtaposition of the three highest energy yielding technologies known to humankind just to create a spacecraft that is barely capable of leaving the solar system. What if...."

People know how to build beamed core antimatter rocket motors. Sort of.

The physics are fairly straightforward. What's holding up production, apart from the rather small demand for interstellar vehicles, is our lack of technology. For one thing, humanity doesn't have magnets that are light enough for a practical vehicle - and, perhaps more to the point, can operate at extremely high temperatures.

Impractical: At the Time

The Lemming is reminded of the situation when Tsiolkovsky published 'The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices" back in 1903. His equations were interesting, but quite impractical.

At that time, even cutting-edge propulsion technology, like the diesel engine, didn't have anywhere near enough power to lift a vehicle into low Earth orbit - let alone send something to the Moon or Mars. (Wikipedia)

"When it's Time to Build Spaceships..."

In the Lemming's opinion:
We're probably not decades away from antimatter rockets, as folks in 1903 were only a half-century away from space flight. But the Lemming isn't inclined to think that traveling outside the Solar system is 'impossible,' either.

There's some interesting theoretical work on a warp drive, too. Again, the energy requirements are staggering, the warp field might not be stable, and keeping passengers alive would be difficult. But 'impossible?' The Lemming is not ready to say that.

Then there's the question of why we're not up to our hips in the space-alien equivalent of 50-gallon oil drums.

Allegedly-related posts:

Friday, October 19, 2012

Alpha Centauri B: New Planet

"Earth-Size Planet Closest to Our Solar System: By The Numbers"
Tariq Malik, (October 17, 2012)

"An alien planet discovered around a star in the Alpha Centauri system, the nearest to our own sun, has astronomers buzzing, and not just because it's the closest exoplanet to Earth ever seen.

"The newfound extrasolar planet Alpha Centauri Bb, it turns out, is not only the nearest alien world to Earth, it's also extremely Earthlike in size and mass. The planet is much too hot and too close to its parent star to support life, but its existence suggests the tantalizing possibility that there may be more planets waiting to be found in our neighboring star system.

"Here's a look at the numbers behind the newfound alien planet Alpha Centauri Bb:...

"3.6 million: The distance, in miles, at which the planet orbits its parent star Alpha Centauri B. This is much closer to the star than Mercury is to our sun. Earth is 93 million miles (150 million km) from the sun...."

Astronomers have found hundreds of exoplanets: planets orbiting other stars. What makes Alpha Centauri Bb stand out is it's mass, very nearly the same as Earth; and that it's very close.

"Close," that is, compared to most stars. Alpha Centauri A, B, and C are the nearest (known) stars: only four and a quarter light years away.

That's almost in Earth's back yard, compared to the size of our galaxy. Even Gliese 581, 20 light years away, is a close neighbor on a galactic scale.

(from Department of Physics, University of Oregon, used w/o permission)

On this scale, each pixel is well over 100 light years across. Sun and Gliese 581 are in the same pixel.

Too Hot for Life?

Alpha Centuari Bb "is much too hot and too close to its parent star to support life" is accurate, as far as it goes. The statement assumes that "life" is limited to "life as we know it," the sort of nucleic acid/protein (O) in water variety here on Earth. Maybe that's the only kind anywhere.

Then again, maybe "life" doesn't need to be the nucleic acid/protein in water mix that's comfortable on Earth. Life using fluorosilicone in fluorosilicone instead of our organic mix might be right at home on a nearly red-hot world.

Or maybe critters made of lipid in hydrogen live in the borderlands of our own planetary system. (Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (April 12, 2010)

Alpha Centauri Bb: Really?

Some announcements of exoplanets are disputed, and occasionally turn out to be a misinterpretation of noise in the data. This time, it looks like Alpha Centauri Bb is very real: but time will tell.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Chevy Volt, Chevy Spark: Electrifying!

"Chevy Spark"
"Soon to be an URBAN LEGEND"

"...The globe was our proving ground - and this engine came back tested and approved by people all over the world. It tackled some of the most difficult and demanding international terrain - city streets with hills included. But Hill Start Assist won’t let them drag you down by keeping the brake engaged for the split second it takes for your foot to move from the brake to the accelerator...."

Oddly enough, the Chevy Spark doesn't harness static cling as a power source. What makes the Spark go is a fairly conventional internal combustion engine. (Wikipedia) That could change next year, when an all-electric Spark rolls into the market. (Wikipedia) Or, not.

Remembering the Volt

What impressed the Lemming about the Chevy Volt, with its electric drive, was that the car actually worked: and had enough speed and acceleration to make do on American streets and roads.

Electric cars had been around for decades, and were a good choice if you wanted something with no exhaust fumes: and a top speed well in excess of 10 miles an hour. Golf carts are a pretty good example.

The Lemming may be back in a week or so, with more about the Spark. Then again, maybe not.

Almost-related posts:

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Cartoon Silhouette World Filled With - - - Stuff, Familiar and Otherwise

"Click and Drag"
xkcd (September 28, 2012)

"Click and drag" is what you do in the bottom panel of this particular xkcd comic. It's a huge piece of silhouette art, a landscape in profile that includes: a fountain; trees; radio towers; and a - giant flying jellyfish?! That last thing might be what the fellow who isn't looking at a yellow warbler sees.

There are also very deep wells, or mine shafts, or something. Those leads to things like thatch-roofed booths, a pyramid, and what might be one of Cthulhu's drinking buddies. Or maybe it's a snake plant that got out of hand.

If you decide to explore this not-so-little world, the Lemming suggests that you set aside at least 15 or 20 minutes. There a lot of detail there. Also gags, visual and otherwise. Some of the humor is dark.

Not-entirely-unrelated posts:

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Lemming's Back: Or, Flight Characteristics of Wet Dust

As it turned out, the Lemming got back in "none of the above:"
A medical emergency and family ties kept the Lemming, cleverly disguised as some 60-something human, tied up. Metaphorically speaking:
The Lemming thought of getting back on schedule with a post about an comic strip, but decided to go with something that happened this week instead.

The Lemming's household had gotten a call from Rainbow® (, with the usual offer to demonstrate their product and get a free gizmo. Generally, the Lemming isn't interested: but this outfit was selling air purifiers. That's important for quite a few folks in this house, so the Lemming said 'okay.'

We didn't buy the full-size air cleaner: the price is probably reasonable, but much more than this household can afford right now. What we got was a scaled-down Rainbow® unit, with a noisier motor and fewer of the bells and whistles. It'll be interesting to see how well it works over the next few weeks.

The freebie is about the size of two or three stacked pumpernickel loaves. It's mechanically simple: a motor drives a fan and centrifugal water pump. The pump pulls water from a smallish reservoir, flings droplets through air drawn in by the fan, with the vast bulk of the water falling back into the reservoir.

Most of the water evaporates: but mostly it just picks up dust that's in the air. The slogan on their website is "Wet Dust Can’t Fly®." It's the same sort of thing that happens when it rains: only this rain shower is horizontal, and contained inside the gadget.

The Lemming would have enjoyed the demo, even if the gadget hadn't been worth thinking about. For one thing, the Lemming had never seen a vacuum cleaner play a harmonica before. That was fun. Watching stuff from the couch turn water into a very thin mud foam: not so much.

Folks in this household had a good time, watching the demo and chatting with the salesman and trainee who came. Your experience may vary.

That's all for now. The Lemming expects to be back next Friday, opining about whatever blows in from the Internet.

Not-completely-unrelated posts:

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Change in Schedule, or, the Lemming Takes a Break

The Lemming's taking time off, and expects to be back in:
  1. A few days
  2. A week
  3. Ten days
  4. None of the above

Friday, September 7, 2012

Avast! International Talk Like a Pirate Day be Coming!

Drop whatever you're doing! International Talk Like a Pirate Day is nearly upon us! Thar be scant time t' prepare, be ye so inclined.

"Drunken Sailor: First Annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day Drunken Sailor Sing-Along a Go Go"

OfficialWench, YouTube (September 11, 2011)
video, 4:41

"From the Pirate Guys -- -- More than 50 pirates and fans from all across the U.S. join in singing one of the best-known, best-loved sea songs of all time. With buccaneers from Southern Cal to...."

The next International Talk Like A Pirate Day is September 19, 2012. The folks who produced "Drunken Sailor: First Annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day Drunken Sailor Sing-Along a Go Go" promise - or threaten - to do another one this year.

The official website ( features this video, and links to other debatably-tasteful content: including an English-to-Pirate translator. The Lemming enjoys this - but the Lemming also likes P. D. Q. Bach and "Weird Al" Yankovic. You have been warned.

Allegedly-related posts:

Friday, August 31, 2012

Postcards From Mars

from NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, used w/o permission"...This image is a portion of a larger image taken by Curiosity's 100-millimeter Mast Camera on Aug. 23, 2012. See PIA16104. Scientists enhanced the color in one version to show the Martian scene under the lighting conditions we have on Earth, which helps in analyzing the terrain...."

Next, a closer look at the center of that photo.

from NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, used w/o permission"...For scale, an annotated version of the figure highlights a dark rock that is approximately the same size as Curiosity. The pointy mound in the center of the image, looming above the rover-sized rock, is about 1,000 feet (300 meters) across and 300 feet (100 meters) high."

Mount Sharp: Oddly-Tilted Layers

Scientists figured the terrain in Gale Crater would be interesting. They probably didn't expect anything quite this odd, though:

(from NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, used w/o permission)
"This image taken by the Mast Camera (MastCam) on NASA's Curiosity rover highlights the interesting geology of Mount Sharp, a mountain inside Gale Crater, where the rover landed.... "
What's intriguing about this photo are the strata - more-or-less horizontal layers on the face of Mount Sharp. What's unusual about this set of layers is that the upper ones are tilted quite a bit more than the ones underneath. the dividing line between those two zones runs roughly across the middle of the photo.

Strata being at different angles isn't at all unusual here on Earth - it has to do with plate tectonics, according to a fellow in a NASA news conference. But around here, it's normal for the upper set of layers to be much more horizontal than the lower ones: the opposite of what's happened on Mars.

Voicemail From Mars

"First Recorded Voice from Mars"
Mission News, NASA (August 27, 2012)

"The following statement by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was returned to Earth via the Mars Curiosity rover.

"Hello. This is Charlie Bolden, NASA Administrator, speaking to you via the broadcast capabilities of the Curiosity Rover, which is now on the surface of Mars.

"Since the beginning of time, humankind’s curiosity has led us to constantly seek new life…new possibilities just beyond the horizon. I want to congratulate the men and women of our NASA family as well as our commercial and government partners around the world, for taking us a step beyond to Mars...."

We've had the technology for sound transmissions from Mars for more than a decade. Still, Administrator Bloden's speech was a 'first.'

As of today, you can still see this video in "Interplanetary Voicemail," on NASA's website. In case NASA reorganizes their site before you see this post, here's a low-resolution version:

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory,
California Institute of Technology (August 27, 2012)
video, 1:33 (file size: about 10.8 MB)

The server for the low-res. version is nowhere near as fast as NASA's, so the file may take quite a few minutes to load.

Sounds of Mars - Maybe Next Time

The Mars planning FAQ page says that Curiosity doesn't carry a microphone, so we won't be hearing 'live from Mars' broadcasts. This time.

A late-20th-century Mars expedition carried a microphone. Signals from Mars Polar Lander ended on December 3, 1999, on its way down to the Martian surface:
Related posts:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Curiosity: Landing Video; and Settling In

"NASA Mars Rover Begins Driving at Bradbury Landing"
Mission News, Mars Science Laboratory (August 22, 2012)

"NASA's Mars rover Curiosity has begun driving from its landing site, which scientists announced today they have named for the late author Ray Bradbury.

"Making its first movement on the Martian surface, Curiosity's drive combined forward, turn and reverse segments. This placed the rover roughly 20 feet (6 meters) from the spot where it landed 16 days ago.

"NASA has approved the Curiosity science team's choice to name the landing ground for the influential author, who was born 92 years ago today and died this year. The location where Curiosity touched down is now called Bradbury Landing.

" 'This was not a difficult choice for the science team,' said Michael Meyer, NASA program scientist for Curiosity. 'Many of us and millions of other readers were inspired in our lives by stories Ray Bradbury wrote to dream of the possibility of life on Mars.'..."

"This 360-degree panorama shows evidence of a successful first test drive for NASA's Curiosity rover. On Aug. 22, 2012, the rover made its first move, going forward about 15 feet (4.5 meters), rotating 120 degrees and then reversing about 8 feet (2.5 meters). Curiosity is about 20 feet (6 meters) from its landing site, now named Bradbury Landing. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech"

Taking a Look Around

Like many travelers, Curiosity is taking time to settle in before heading out to get a closer look at local attractions. In the case of this semi-autonomous robot, it's particularly important to check out equipment. Curiosity is a long way from home, and roadside service isn't available in Gale Crater. Not yet, anyway.

Here's a detail of that panoramic scene Curiosity sent back, showing spots where landing rockets marked the ground.

"...Curiosity will spend several more days of working beside Bradbury Landing, performing instrument checks and studying the surroundings, before embarking toward its first driving destination approximately 1,300 feet (400 meters) to the east-southeast.

" 'Curiosity is a much more complex vehicle than earlier Mars rovers. The testing and characterization activities during the initial weeks of the mission lay important groundwork for operating our precious national resource with appropriate care,' said Curiosity Project Manager Pete Theisinger of JPL. 'Sixteen days in, we are making excellent progress.'..."
("Mission News")

Video from Mars

This video is a bit choppy. Bear in mind, though: it was taken by a robot; and sent from Mars. Audio is what folks in mission control, back on Earth, were saying.

"Curiosity Lands on Mars"

NASA/JPL - Cal Tech (August 5, 2012)
via Brian Gill, YouTube (August 24, 2012)
video, 3:32
(Original video: "Dropping in on Mars in High-Res")

Related posts:

Lemming Tracks: No Pictures, Please! The Lemming is Busy

The Lemming frantically assures visitors that there will be a post ready, later today: if the Lemming isn't interrupted. Again.

This time, the Lemming says that an unexpectedly hectic schedule pushed today's post aside: and that's the story the Lemming is sticking with.

And, seriously: no pictures of the Lemming, or today's post may not show up until next week!

Related post:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Roomba Review, and Dancing Robots

"It Might Not Be the Robot We Want, But It's the Robot We Deserve"
Roberto Baldwin, product review, Wired (August 13, 2012)

"Along with the zombie apocalypse, the robot uprising is a real fear among the people that populate the internet. Blame it on Terminator if you want, but in reality, the mass-produced robots that have entered our homes have yet to come close to even the comically inept Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons.

"Instead of autonomous robots running our households and raising our children, we have Roomba. The utility robot from iRobot has been sweeping our floors for 10 years, and while the basic task it performs has remained the same, the famous vacuuming disk has gotten smarter. Not smart enough to take over the world, or even the family room, but smart enough to keep the floors clean. Or at least clean-ish.

"The new Roomba 790 series is the latest vacuum out of iRobot. The base functionality of the device is better than previous versions - in my testing, the 790 gathered more dirt and animal hair than my older Roomba ever did...."

Maybe some of "the people that populate the internet" really do fear "the robot uprising." Maybe they're the same folks who kept seeing Elvis, back in 'the good old days.' Then again, maybe not.

What the Lemming is fairly certain about is that the Roomba series of robots has become part of many American households: not as a toy, but as a (slightly) intelligent household appliance.

It's the Lemming's opinion that seriously-intelligent robots are more likely to have nice, polite, deferential personalities like Star Wars' C3PO. Maybe they'll be good dancers, too:

"Dancing Japanese Robots"

pongielan08, YouTube (December 29, 2005)
video, 3:26

Related (?) Posts:

Friday, August 10, 2012

Lemming Tracks: It's Friday?!

For those loyal folks who reasonably expected to see a post this morning: the Lemming offers sincere, contrite, and belated apologies.

There's a very good explanation for why Friday morning's post didn't show up.

The Lemming didn't write it.

At a hastily-arranged meeting, the Lemming explained that today being Friday slipped the Lemming's mind. It's been 'that sort of a week.'

And, let's face it: the Lemming is a bit fuzzy around the head at the best of times.

There will probably be a post ready tomorrow. Or maybe the day after that. Or sometime before next Friday.

At least, that's the plan.

All-too-related posts:
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