Sunday, January 31, 2016

Progress Towards Life on Mars

 A fungus from Antarctica has been proven to survive reasonably well in simulated Mars conditions.

This means that if we decide* to make mars habitable, the technology to do so is at hand. We can send earth life that will survive and reproduce. If the photosynthetic species are also hardy enough, we can generate oxygen that would stabilize the atmosphere.

*That is to say, unless we have already sent it.

Friday, January 29, 2016

So, you're stranded on a desert island. You can find food for now. You are surviving.

It can get cold, though and you are unprotected. You'd like to make your little world better than it is. Unfortunately, you have none of the modern tools you take for granted. You need primitive technology.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Great Unlearning

Look at the picture. Consider big game hunting. Reflect upon your thoughts.

Bill Whittle pieces these notions together in "The Great Unlearning" (7-1/2 min).

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Pacific Garbage Vortex

It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot.
In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. ...he began referring to the area as the “eastern garbage patch.” But “patch” doesn’t begin to convey the reality. Ebbesmeyer has estimated that the area, nearly covered with floating plastic debris, is roughly the size of Texas.
 The tales of Garbage Island are lurid.
Like all good stories, it grew over time...“We even came upon a floating island bolstered by dozens of plastic buoys used in oyster aquaculture that had solid areas you could walk on.” Again no photo of the floating island, let alone of him walking on it.
 If you've wondered where those tales come from, read here. If you want to see the garbage patch, read here.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Cold-War Technology Race Continues
Reverse-swept wings have been the next big advance in fighter planes for about 30 years now. Americans built a prototype in the 80's. Russians built a prototype in the 90's. Recently Russia announced that it is moving ahead with reverse wing technology. It promises a fighter that is more agile, especially at trans-sonic and super-sonic speeds. What the disadvantages are, I don't know. Perhaps the military isn't telling.

While Americans have the best funded military and probably have among the most motivated and creative personnel, they no longer have the edge in nerve. The American military (along with the Canadian and European military) have become risk-adverse. When it comes to experimentation with exciting and radical technologies, it seems the edge goes to Russia.

Of course, the other possibility is that the American researchers are all over this. They just choose not to publish their military secrets. It's possible that these are lousy ideas but since they are undeniably spectacular, they make great press anyway. That does seem to be the Putin M.O.

Moving to Mars?

Updated - Jan'16: Here are more details - or at least speculation - on the Musk plan, including a Mars-Earth ferrying spaceship, deep sleep for the colonists to reduce consumption during the flight and terraforming assisted by thermonuclear detonations at the poles.

If you are 5-20 years old, in 20 years, you'll be 25-40: just about the right age to start up a new life on Mars. Elon Musk, who made a fortune on Paypal has been building SpaceX, a private space exploration agency. Now he says his goal is to start a colony on mars. He says he'll charge about $500,000. More detail here.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Students, United Won't be Divided

"College students everywhere are asking tough questions: Why is our tuition so high? Where are our jobs? Can't you see your words hurt me, you dumb piece of $^!+?"
 The cost of college rises and the benefits decline. How can this be?

A Global Warming Consensus

At last someone has done a systematic study of the opinions of meteorologists, geoscientists and engineers on the subject of climate change. One-third of the 1100 surveyed agree with the pro-Kyoto "prevailing wisdom". Of course, if 2/3 disagree, it's not exactly prevailing.

Teasing aside, the paper identifies five frameworks of opinions it calls "models". 36% are in the "Comply with Kyoto” model. and "express the strong belief that climate change is happening, that it is not a normal cycle of nature, and humans are the main or central cause.” 24% go by the“Nature Is Overwhelming” model:  “they strongly disagree that climate change poses any significant public risk and see no impact on their personal lives.” 17%, they call “Fatalists” who “consider climate change to be a smaller public risk ... are skeptical that the scientific debate is settled...” 10% are of the “Economic Responsibility” model. They “diagnose climate change as being natural or human caused. ... they point to the harm the Kyoto Protocol ... will do to the economy.”  5% are“Regulation Activists” . These scientists “diagnose climate change as being both human- and naturally caused...”  “They are also skeptical with regard to the scientific debate being settled and are the most indecisive whether IPCC modeling is accurate.”
Had you heard that 97% of scientists "agree with global warming"? Here is where that number comes from.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

...Came in Sight, Gath'ring Winter Fuel.
Thou and I shall see him dine...

Rather than buy ourselves and our young adult children gifts this Christmas, we decided to walk the walk.  You know.  That walk where you stop indulging yourself with increasingly frivolous items and actually reach out to help others not as fortunate. bought several Walmart gift cards with funds we would have used to buy our gifts for one another and our kids.   Then our daughter and daughter-in-law (who is pregnant with twins, our 10th and 11th grandchildren, so yes, we have more than enough blessings in our life), Mr. Wilkinson  and I went to our local Walmart yesterday, a beautiful Sunday morning.  Not quite knowing how to do what we wanted to do, just praying we’d get it right and not embarrass anyone or get arrested.  Our girls decided on an approach, took the gift cards, and my husband and I stood at a distance, ready to help if needed.
The girls walked along and watched the check-out lines, and when they felt a tug at their kind hearts, they went up to people ready to check out and asked,
“May I buy your groceries?”
The initial responses were ones of shock and disbelief...
(read on)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

What You Think You Know of Star Wars ... ... is Wrong
A long time ago, a galaxy far, far away was governed by a republic. Government was passable, but decaying, and growing more corrupt every year. Dishonesty grew while the freedom and security of the people declined. “Rule of law”, the root of the word republic, became a faint memory and a bitter joke. One group, wanting to be left alone, declared itself a trade federation as it sought peaceful autonomy.

It was not to be. There existed a small clan of people who pass on enormous powers of violence and destruction in their very bloodline. They destroy the federation's ability to police itself and leave the galaxy, like Somalia, a chaotic disarray of squabbling warlords.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Fall 2015 Bridges

We had some strong bridges this year. A couple of them made the competition an exercise in weight-lifting as much as a design and construction challenge.

Watch Me! Watch Me!

Some students, excited about dance routines sent me here. This makes me sad: the thin gruel you put up with as entertainment. Imagine if Bruno Mars had the dance moves of Fred Astaire.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

ISIS is Glamorous
At least that's what Virginia Postrel says
Confronting Islamic State requires an exercise largely unfamiliar to the American military’s hardheaded pragmatists: thinking carefully about the elusive, seductive magic of glamour. Making that task all the more difficult, it also demands recognizing the allure of ideas and images that baffle, offend or horrify most Westerners. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, glamour is in the mind of the audience.
“What inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious and cool,”
Unfortunately your average wannabe jihadist is in for a shock
It’s drudgery, subordination, infighting, hypocrisy and general messiness. “The reality on the ground is a world away from the glamour of well-produced recruitment videos,” wrote Maher, noting complaints about boredom and guard duty. and by the way, once they have you, you are not getting out.
Personally, I’m not sure there’s a worse fate than quitting your comfortable job to run off and join the caliphate, all psyched to defeat the infidels, only to be told you’re being stuck on the graveyard shift at the IT desk, and you start tomorrow, oh, and if you don’t like it they’ll put you in a cage.

Digital Pictures of Propellers Look Funny

Here's an animation to show you why.

Monday, November 9, 2015

A venture capitalist searches for the purpose of school

Ted Dintersmith wants to re-imagine North American education.
They had stellar resumes, early career success (often in consulting, investment banking, or corporate America), and were driven to succeed. Yet such patently qualified people often proved hopeless in the world of innovation, and I couldn’t quite figure out why.
He's very excited about a "new" approach.
[The Future Project]’s strategy centers on a far more fundamental “flip.” They start by helping students define projects or, in their vernacular, dreams. Motivated by an ambitious personal goal, students are motivated to learn the skills, content, and character traits required to complete their self-directed initiatives. The shift in student engagement is stunning. Given a reason to learn, students bring energy to classroom assignments, and commit “free” time (including coming in on snow days!) to improve their writing, public speaking, project management, collaboration, and math skills.
I suspect he's more wrong than right. I suspect he either overestimates the motivation and creativity of a classroom of students or underestimates the amount of material good students learn in a year. But as school critics go, he's interesting.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Introducing Men Without Chests

C.S. Lewis wrote some of the most astoundingly insightful commentary on the modern world (which came before our present postmodern one). The Screwtape Letters or The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe are light and fun. The Four Loves or The Abolition of Man are more logical and demanding. Even more so for a troglodyte like me who misses half of the allusions. C.S.Lewis Doodle helps the flow with illustrations. Here is the first chapter of “The Abolition of Man” ending with this:
We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the spirited element: the head rules the belly through the chest ...It is an outrage that [men without chests] should be commonly spoke of as intellectuals. ... Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary. It is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so. ...We continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. ...we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and demand of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
Related: How Men Without Chests predicted the modern university's unsoundness

MMOs for N00bs
Having now played three MMOs — one fairly fanatically — for, wow, a year now I am of course perfectly suited to explain the entire hobby to the rest of humanity.
That sounds expert enough for me.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

New Frontiers in Fuel Efficiency
This spring I posted a link to a super fuel efficient spacecraft that made its way to the asteroid Ceres. Instead of a rocket engine, NASA gave it an ion drive.
Well, now a university student in Australia has made an ion drive that is 50% more fuel efficient than NASA's previous record-holder.
The existing record is NASA's High Power Electric Propulsion (HiPeP) with 9,600 seconds, but fueled by magnesium Neumann's drive managed an estimated 14,600 seconds of specific impulse. He says "Other metals have lower efficiency, but higher thrust. So you would need more fuel to get to Mars, but could get there faster."