Monday, August 31, 2015

Reading List: Trustee from the Toolroom

Shute, Nevil. Trustee from the Toolroom. New York: Vintage Books, [1960] 2010. ISBN 978-0-345-02663-7.
Keith Stewart is an unexceptional man. “[Y]ou may see a little man get in at West Ealing, dressed in a shabby raincoat over a blue suit. He is one of hundreds of thousands like him in industrial England, pale-faced, running to fat a little, rather hard up. His hands show evidence of manual work, his eyes and forehead evidence of intellect.” He earns his living by making mechanical models and writing articles about them which are published, with directions, in the London weekly Miniature Mechanic. His modest income from the magazine has allowed him to give up his toolroom job at an aircraft subcontractor. Along with the income his wife Katie earns from her job in a shop, they make ends meet and are paying down the mortgage on their house, half of which they rent out.

Keith's sister Jo married well. Her husband, John Dermott, is a retired naval officer and nephew of Lord Dungannon, with an independent income from the family fortune. Like many people in postwar Britain, the Dermotts have begun to chafe under the ceaseless austerity, grey collectivism, and shrinking freedom of what was once the vanguard of civilisation and have decided to emigrate to the west coast of Canada, to live the rest of their lives in freedom. They've decided to make their journey an adventure, making the voyage from Britain to Vancouver through the Panama Canal in their modest but oceangoing sailboat Shearwater. Keith and Katie agree to look after their young daughter Janice, whose parents don't want to take out of school and who might not tolerate a long ocean voyage well.

Tragedy befalls the Dermotts, as they are shipwrecked and drowned in a tropical storm in the Pacific. Keith and Katie have agreed to become Janice's trustees in such an event and, consulting the Dermotts' solicitor, are astonished to learn that their fortune, assumed substantial, has almost entirely vanished. While they can get along and support Janice, she'll not be able to receive the education they assumed her parents intended her to have.

Given the confiscatory capital controls in effect at the time, Keith has an idea what may have happened to the Dermott fortune. “And he was the trustee.” Keith Stewart, who had never set foot outside of England, and can barely afford a modest holiday, suddenly finds himself faced with figuring out how to travel to the other side of the world, to a location that isn't even on his map, and undertake a difficult and risky mission.

Keith discovers that while nobody would recognise him on the street or think him out of the ordinary, his writing for Miniature Mechanic has made him a celebrity in what, more than half a century later, would be called the “maker subculture”, and that these people are resourceful, creative, willing to bend the rules to get things done and help one another, and some dispose of substantial wealth. By a chain of connections which might have seemed implausible at the outset but is the kind of thing which happens all of the time in the real world, Keith Stewart, modelmaker and scribbler, sets out on an epic adventure.

This is a thoroughly satisfying and utterly charming story. It is charming because the characters are such good people; the kind you'd feel privileged to have as friends. But they are also realistic; the author's career was immersed in the engineering and entrepreneurial milieu, and understands these folks in detail. This is a world, devoid of much of what we consider to be modern, you'll find yourself admiring; it is a joy to visit it. The last two paragraphs will make you shiver.

This novel is currently unavailable in a print edition, so I have linked to the Kindle edition in the head. Used paperback copies are readily available. There is an unabridged audio version of this book.

Posted at 23:01 Permalink

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Reading List: From the Dissident Right

Derbyshire, John. From the Dissident Right. Litchfield, CT: VDare.com, 2013. ISBN 978-1-304-00154-2.
This is a collection of columns dating from 2001–2013, mostly from VDare.com, but also from Taki's Magazine (including the famous “The Talk: Nonblack Version”, which precipitated the author's departure from National Review).

Subtitled “Essays on the National Question”, the articles mostly discuss the composition of the population and culture of the United States, and how mass immigration (both legal and illegal) from cultures very different from that of the largely homogeneous majority culture of the U.S. prior to the Immigration and Nationality Acy of 1965, from regions of the world with no tradition of consensual government, individual and property rights, and economic freedom is changing the U.S., eroding what once contributed to its exceptionalism. Unlike previous waves of immigration from eastern and southern Europe, Ireland, and Asia, the prevailing multicultural doctrine of ruling class élites is encouraging these new immigrants to retain their languages, cultures, and way of life, while public assistance frees them from the need to assimilate to earn a living.

Frankly discussing these issues today is guaranteed to result in one's being deemed a racist, nativist, and other pejorative terms, and John Derbyshire has been called those and worse. This is incongruous since he is a naturalised U.S. citizen who immigrated from England married to a woman born in China. To me, Derbyshire comes across as an observer much like George Orwell who sees the facts on the ground, does his research, and writes with an unrelenting realism about the actual situation with no regard for what can and cannot be spoken according to the guardians of the mass culture. Derbyshire sees a nation at risk, with its ruling class either enthusiastically promoting or passively accepting its transformation into the kind of economically stratified, authoritarian, and impoverished society which caused so many immigrants to leave their nations of origin and come to the U.S. in the first place.

If you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, the Kindle edition is free. This essays in this book are available online for free, so I wouldn't buy the paperback or pay full price for the Kindle version, but if you have Kindle Unlimited, the price is right.

Posted at 22:21 Permalink

Friday, August 14, 2015

Reading List: Seveneves

Stephenson, Neal. Seveneves. New York: William Morrow, 2015. ISBN 978-0-06-219037-6.
Fiction writers are often advised to try to immediately grab the attention of readers and involve them in the story. “If you haven't hooked them by the end of the first chapter, you've probably lost 'em.” Here, the author doesn't dawdle. The first line is “The Moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” All right, now that's an interesting premise!

This massive novel (880 pages in the hardcover print edition) is divided into three parts. In the first, after the explosion of the Moon, scientist and media talking head Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris (“Doob”), a figure much like Neil deGrasse Tyson in real life, calculates that the seven large fragments of the exploded moon will collide with one another, setting off an exponential cascade of fragmentation and further collisions like the Kessler syndrome for objects in low Earth orbit, with enough the scattered debris bombarding the Earth to render its surface uninhabitable for on the order of five thousand years.

The story begins in the near future, when the International Space Station (“Izzy”) has been augmented with some additional facilities and a small nickel-iron asteroid retrieved and docked to it for asteroid mining experiments. Technology is much as at the present, but with space-based robotics having advanced significantly. Faced with what amounts to a death sentence for the Earth (the heat from the impacts was expected to boil off much of the oceans and eject the atmosphere into space), and having only around two years before the catastrophic bombardment begins, spacefaring nations make plans to re-purpose Izzy as a “Cloud Ark” to preserve the genetic heritage of the Earth and the intellectual capital of humanity against the time when the home planet can again be made habitable. Thus begins a furious technological crash project, described in detail, working against an inexorable deadline, to save what can be saved and launch it to the fragile ark in space.

Eventually the catastrophe arrives, and the second part of the novel chronicles the remnant of humanity on the Cloud Ark, with Izzy as its core, and most of the population in co-orbiting rudimentary habitats. From the start there are major technical challenges to overcome, with all involved knowing that high technology products from Earth such as silicon chips and laboratory equipment may not be able to be replaced for centuries, if ever. The habitat ecosystem must be closed, as there will be no resupply. And, people being people, the society of the survivors begins to fragment into factions, each with its own priorities and ideas about how to best proceed. Again, there is much technological derring-do, described in great detail (including one of the best explanations of the fundamentals of orbital mechanics I've encountered in fiction). The heroic exploits of the survivors are the stuff of legend, and become the legends of their descendents.

Part three of the novel picks up the story five thousand years later, when the descendants of the Cloud Ark have constructed a mature spacefaring civilisation, tapping resources of the solar system, and are engaged in restoring the Earth, now that the bombardment has abated, to habitability. The small population of the Cloud Ark has put the human race through a serious genetic bottleneck with the result that the species has differentiated into distinct races, each with its own traits and behavioural characteristics, partly determined by genetics and partly transmitted culturally. These races form alliances and conflict with one another, with humanity having sorted itself into two factions called Red and Blue (gee, how could such a thing happen?) which have largely separated into their own camps. But with possession of the Earth at stake, Red and Blue have much to dispute, especially when enigmatic events on that planet call into the question their shared history.

This is a rather curious book. It is so long and intricate that there's room for a lot in here, and that's what the reader gets. Some of it is the hardest of hard science fiction, with lengthy technical explanations which may make those looking for a fast moving story yawn or doze off. (In fact, there are parts where it seems like the kind of background notes science fiction authors make to flesh out their worlds and then include random portions as the story plays out have, instead, been dumped wholesale into the text. It's as if Obi-Wan shows Luke his father's light sabre, then spends ten minutes explaining the power pack, plasma containment system, field generator, and why it makes that cool sound when you wave it around.) The characters seem to be archetypes of particular personality traits and appear to be largely driven by them rather than developing as they face the extraordinary challenges with which they're presented, and these stereotypes become increasingly important as the story unfolds.

On balance, I'm glad I read this book. It's a solid, well-told yarn which will make you think about just how humans would respond faced with a near-term apocalypse and also whether, given how fractious and self-destructive they often are, whether they are likely to survive or, indeed, deserve to. I believe a good editor could have cut this manuscript in half, sacrificing nothing of importance, and making the story move along more compellingly.

And now there are a number of details about the novel which I cannot discuss without spoiling the plot and/or ending, so I'll take them behind the curtain. Do not read the following unless you've already read the novel or are certain you will never do so.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
At the start of the novel the nickel-iron asteroid “Amalthea” has been docked to Izzy for experiments in asteroid mining. This asteroid is described as if “laid to rest on a soccer field, it would have stretched from one penalty box to the other and completely covered the center circle.” Well, first of all, this is not the asteroid 113 Amalthea of our solar system, which is a much larger rocky main belt asteroid—46 km in size. Why one would name an asteroid brought to the space station the same as a very different asteroid known since 1871 escapes me. Given that the space station does various maneuvers in the course of the story, I was curious about the mass of the asteroid. Assuming it is a prolate ellipsoid of revolution with semi-principal axes of 9.15, 9.15, and 36 metres (taken from the dimensions of a standard soccer field), its volume would be 12625 m³ and, assuming the standard density of 5.32 g/cm³ for metallic asteroids, would have a mass of 67170 tonnes, which is 1.3 times the mass of the Titanic. This is around 150 times the present mass of the International Space Station, so it would make maneuvers, especially those done later in the book, rather challenging. I'm not saying it's impossible, because complete details of the propulsion used aren't given, but it sure looks dodgy, and even more after the “megaton of propellant” mentioned on p. 493 is delivered to the station.

On p. 365 Izzy is said to be in an orbit “angled at about fifty-six degrees to the equator”. Not so; its inclination is 51.6°.

On p. 74 the arklets are said to “draw power from a small, simple nuclear reactor fueled by isotopes so radioactive that they would throw off heat, and thereby generate electricity, for a few decades.” This is describing a radioisotope thermoelectric generator, not a nuclear reactor. Such generators are usually powered by plutonium-238, which has a half-life of 87.7 years. How would such a power source sustain life in the arklets for the five thousand years of exile in space? Note that after the Hard Rain, resources to build new nuclear reactors or solar panels would not be available to residents of the Cloud Ark.

When the Ymir makes its rendezvous with Izzy, it jettisons its nuclear reactor to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere. Why would you discard such an irreplaceable power source? If you're worried about radiation, place it into a high, stable orbit where it can be retrieved for use later if needed. Humans could expect no further source of nuclear fuel for thousands of years.

The differentiation of the races of humanity in the final part of the novel strikes me as odd and, in a way, almost racist. Now, granted, genetic manipulation was involved in the creation of these races, but there seems to be a degree of genetic (with some help from culture) predestination of behavioural traits which, if attributed to present-day human races, would exclude one from polite discourse. I think the story would have been made more interesting if one or more members of these races was forced by circumstances to transcend their racial stereotypes.

The technology, or lack thereof, in the final part of the book is curious. Five thousand years have elapsed, and the Cloud Ark population has recovered to become a multi-racial space-dwelling society of three billion people, capable of mega-engineering projects humans today can only dream of, utilising resources of the solar system out to the Kuiper belt. And yet their technology seems pretty much what we expect to see within this century, and in some ways inferior to our own. Some of this is explained by deliberate relinquishment of technology (“Amistics”, referring to the Amish), but how likely is it that all races and cultures would agree not to develop certain technologies, particularly when in conflict with one another?

I loved the “Srap Tasmaner”. You will too, once you figure it out.

Given that the Moon blew up, why would an advanced spacefaring civilisation with a multitude of habitats be so interested in returning to a planet, deep in a gravity well, which might itself blow up some day?

Spoilers end here.  

Posted at 00:06 Permalink

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Perseid Meteors 2015

I had about half an hour last night between when the clouds cleared and then rolled back in to observe and photograph Perseids, and here's what I got.

All of these photos were taken with a Nikon D600 DSLR camera with a vintage Nikon 24 mm f/2.8 manual focus lens. All pictures were taken with the lens set to its maximum aperture of f/2.8, ISO sensitivity of 1600, and an exposure time of 30 seconds. I used an electrical cable release to operate the shutter, which was set to mirror lock-up mode to avoid vibration. I doubt it would have made any difference had I not taken these precautions. The camera was mounted on a tripod aimed in the general direction of the radiant of the meteor shower.

The most spectacular meteor was this fireball, which I estimated at around magnitude −4 (about as bright as Venus ever gets). It left a persistent trail which was visible for about five seconds after the meteor streaked across the sky. This was captured in a corner of the camera's frame, where the vintage lens, used at full aperture, exhibits obvious coma. Some of the colour in this image may be due to chromatic aberration in the lens. (In normal photographic circumstances you'd never notice these shortcomings; it's only in the extreme situation of a bright light source against a dark sky with the lens at full aperture that they become apparent.)

perseid_a_2015-08-13.jpg

Click images to enlarge.

Now for some meteors which didn't blow out the camera and lens.

perseid_b_2015-08-13.jpg

I didn't actually see this one myself; I only dug it out analysing the images.

Now, here are two I did see when they happened.

perseid_c_2015-08-13.jpg perseid_d_2015-08-13.jpg

Posted at 15:06 Permalink

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Reading List: Superman: Red Son

Millar, Mark, Dave Johnson, and Kilian Plunkett. Superman: Red Son. New York: DC Comics, [2003] 2014. ISBN 978-1-4012-4711-9.
On June 30th, 1908, a small asteroid or comet struck the Earth's atmosphere and exploded above the Tunguska river in Siberia. The impact is estimated to have released energy equivalent to 10 to 15 megatons of TNT; it is the largest impact event in recorded history. Had the impactor been so aligned as to hit the Earth three hours later, it would have exploded above the city of Saint Petersburg, completely destroying it.

In a fictional universe, an alien spaceship crashes in rural Kansas in the United States, carrying an orphan from the stars who, as he matures, discovers he has powers beyond those of inhabitants of Earth, and vows to use these gifts to promote and defend truth, justice, and the American way. Now, like Tunguska, imagine the spaceship arrived a few hours earlier. Then, the baby Kal-El would have landed in Stalin's Soviet Union and, presumably, imbibed its values and culture just as Superman did in the standard canon. That is the premise of this delightful alternative universe take on the Superman legend, produced by DC Comics and written and illustrated up the standards one expects from the publisher. The Soviet Superman becomes an extraterrestrial embodiment of the Stakhanovite ideal, and it is only natural that when the beloved Stalin dies, he is succeeded by another Man of Steel.

The Soviet system may have given lip service to the masses, but beneath it was the Russian tradition of authority, and what better authority than a genuine superman? A golden age ensues, with Soviet/Superman communism triumphant around the globe, apart from recalcitrant holdouts Chile and the United States. But all are not happy with this situation, which some see as subjugation to an alien ruler. In the Soviet Union Batman becomes the symbol and leader of an underground resistance. United States president and supergenius Lex Luthor hatches scheme after scheme to bring down his arch-enemy, enlisting other DC superheroes as well as his own creations in the effort. Finally, Superman is forced to make a profound choice about human destiny and his own role in it. The conclusion to the story is breathtaking.

This is a well-crafted and self-consistent alternative to the fictional universe with which we're well acquainted. It is not a parody like Tales of the Bizarro World (November 2007), and in no way played for laughs. The Kindle edition is superbly produced, but you may have to zoom into some of the pages containing the introductory material to be able to read the small type. Sketches of characters under development by the artists are included in an appendix.

Posted at 23:32 Permalink

Monday, July 27, 2015

Reading List: GPS Declassified

Easton, Richard D. and Eric F. Frazier. GPS Declassified. Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-61234-408-9.
At the dawn of the space age, as the United States planned to launch its Vanguard satellites during the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958), the need to track the orbit of the satellites became apparent. Optical and radar tracking were considered (and eventually used for various applications), but for the first very small satellites would have been difficult. The Naval Research Laboratory proposed a system, Minitrack, which would use the radio beacon of the satellite, received by multiple ground stations on the Earth, which by interferometry would determine the position and velocity of a satellite with great precision. For the scheme to work, a “fence” of receiving stations would have to be laid out which the satellite would regularly cross in its orbit, the positions of each of the receiving stations would have to be known very accurately, and clocks at all of the receiving stations would have to be precisely synchronised with a master clock at the control station which calculated the satellite's orbit.

The technical challenges were overcome, and Minitrack stations were placed into operation at locations within the United States and as far flung as Cuba, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Australia, and in the Caribbean. Although designed to track the U.S. Vanguard satellites, after the unexpected launch of Sputnik, receivers were hastily modified to receive the frequency on which it transmitted its beeps, and the system successfully proved itself tracking the first Earth satellite. Minitrack was used to track subsequent U.S. and Soviet satellites until it was supplanted in 1962 by the more capable Spacecraft Tracking and Data Acquisition Network.

An important part of creative engineering is discovering that once you've solved one problem, you may now have the tools at hand to address other tasks, sometimes more important that the one which motivated the development of the enabling technologies in the first place. It didn't take long for a group of engineers at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to realise that if you could determine the precise position and velocity of a satellite in orbit by receiving signals simultaneously at multiple stations on the ground with precisely-synchronised clocks, you could invert the problem and, by receiving signals from multiple satellites in known orbits, each with an accurate and synchronised clock on board, it would be possible to determine the position, altitude, and velocity of the receiver on or above the Earth (and, in addition, provide a precise time signal). With a sufficiently extensive constellation of satellites, precision navigation and time signals could be extended to the entire planet. This was the genesis of the Global Positioning System (GPS) which has become a ubiquitous part of our lives today.

At the start, this concept was “exploratory engineering”: envisioning what could be done (violating no known law of physics) if and when technology advanced to a stage which permitted it. The timing accuracy required for precision navigation could be achieved by atomic clocks (quartz frequency standards were insufficiently stable and subject to drift due to temperature, pressure, and age of the crystal), but in the 1950s and early '60s, atomic clocks were large, heavy, and delicate laboratory apparatus which nobody imagined could be put on top of a rocket and shot into Earth orbit. Just launching single satellites into low Earth orbit was a challenge, with dramatic launch failures and in-orbit malfunctions all too common. The thought of operating a constellation of dozens of satellites in precisely-specified high orbits seemed like science fiction. And even if the satellites with atomic clocks could somehow be launched, the radio technology to receive the faint signals from space and computation required to extract position and velocity information from the signal was something which might take a room full of equipment: hardly practical for a large aircraft or even a small ship.

But the funny thing about an exponentially growing technology is if something seems completely infeasible today, just wait a few years. Often, it will move from impossible to difficult to practical for limited applications to something in everybody's pocket. So it has been with GPS, as this excellent book recounts. In 1964, engineers at NRL (including author Easton's father, Roger L. Easton) proposed a system called Timation, in which miniaturised and ruggedised atomic clocks on board satellites would provide time signals which could be used for navigation on land, sea, and air. After ground based tests and using aircraft to simulate the satellite signal, in 1967 the Timation I satellite was launched to demonstrate the operation of an atomic clock in orbit and use of its signals on the ground. With a single satellite in a relatively low orbit, the satellite would only be visible from a given location for thirteen minutes at a time, but this was sufficient to demonstrate the feasibility of the concept.

As the Timation concept was evolving (a second satellite test was launched in 1969, demonstrating improved accuracy), it was not without competition. The U.S. had long been operating the LORAN system for coarse-grained marine and aircraft navigation, and had beacons marking airways across the country. Starting in 1964, the U.S. Navy's Transit satellite navigation system (which used a Doppler measurement system and did not require a precise clock on the satellites) provided periodic position fixes for Navy submarines and surface ships, but was inadequate for aircraft navigation. In the search for a more capable system, Timation competed with an Air Force proposal for regional satellite constellations including geosynchronous and inclined elliptical orbit satellites.

The development of GPS began in earnest in 1973, with the Air Force designated as the lead service. This project launch occurred in the midst of an inter-service rivalry over navigation systems which did not abate with the official launch of the project. Indeed, even in retrospect, participants in the program dispute how much the eventually deployed system owes to its various precursors. Throughout the 1970s the design of the system was refined and pathfinder technology development missions launched, with the first launch of an experimental satellite in February 1978. One satellite is a stunt, but by 1985 a constellation of 10 experimental satellites were in orbit, allowing the performance of the system to be evaluated, constellation management tools to be developed and tested, and receiver hardware to be checked out. Starting in 1989 operational satellites began to be launched, but it was not until 1993 that worldwide, round-the clock coverage was available, and the high-precision military signal was not declared operational until 1995.

Even though GPS coverage was spotty and not continuous, GPS played an important part in the first Gulf War of 1990–1991. Because the military had lagged in procuring GPS receivers for the troops, large numbers of commercial GPS units were purchased and pressed into service for navigating in the desert. A few GPS-guided weapons were used in the conflict, but their importance was insignificant compared to other precision-guided munitions.

Prior to May 2000 the civilian GPS signal was deliberately degraded in accuracy (can't allow the taxpayers who paid for it to have the same quality of navigation as costumed minions of the state!) This so-called “selective availability” was finally discontinued, making GPS practical for vehicle and non-precision air navigation. GPS units began to appear on the consumer market, and like other electronic gadgets got smaller, lighter, less expensive, and more capable with every passing year. Adoption of GPS for tracking of fleets of trucks, marine navigation, and aircraft use became widespread.

Now that GPS is commonplace and hundreds of millions of people are walking around with GPS receivers in their smartphones, there is a great deal of misunderstanding about precisely what GPS entails. GPS—the Global Positioning System—is precisely that: a system which allows anybody with a compatible receiver and a view of the sky which allows them to see four or more satellites to determine their state vector (latitude, longitude, and altitude, plus velocity in each of those three directions) in a specified co-ordinate system (where much additional complexity lurks, which I'll gloss over here), along with the precise time of the measurement. That's all it does. GPS is entirely passive: the GPS receiver sends nothing back to the satellite, and hence the satellite system is able to accommodate an unlimited number of GPS receivers simultaneously. There is no such thing as a “GPS tracker” which can monitor the position of something via satellite. Trackers use GPS to determine their position, but then report the position by other means (for example, the mobile phone network). When people speak of “their GPS” giving directions, GPS is only telling them where they are and where they're going at each instant. All the rest: map display, turn-by-turn directions, etc. is a “big data” application running either locally on the GPS receiver or using resources in the “cloud”: GPS itself plays no part in this (and shouldn't be blamed when “your GPS” sends you the wrong way down a one-way street).

So successful has GPS been, and so deeply has it become embedded in our technological society and economy, that there are legitimate worries about such a system being under the sole control of the U.S. Air Force which could, if ordered, shut down the civilian GPS signals worldwide or regionally (because of the altitude of the satellites, fine-grained denial of GPS availability would not be possible). Also, the U.S. does not have the best record of maintaining vital infrastructure and has often depended upon weather satellites well beyond their expected lifetimes due to budget crunches. Consequently, other players have entered the global positioning market, with the Soviet/Russian GLONASS, European Galileo, and Chinese BeiDou systems operational or under construction. Other countries, including Japan, India, and Iran, are said to be developing their own regional navigation systems. So far, cooperation among these operators has been relatively smooth, reducing the likelihood of interference and making it possible for future receivers to use multiple constellations for better coverage and precision.

This is a comprehensive history of navigation systems and GPS from inception to the present day, with a look into the future. Extensive source citations are given (almost 40% of the book is end notes), and in the Kindle edition the notes, Web documents cited within them, and the index are all properly linked. There are abundant technical details about the design and operation of the system, but the book is entirely accessible to the intelligent layman. In the lifetimes of all but the youngest people on Earth, GPS has transformed our world into a place where nobody need ever be lost. We are just beginning to see the ramifications of this technology on the economy and how we live our day-to-day lives (for example, the emerging technology of self-driving cars would be impossible without GPS). This book is an essential history of how this technology came to be, how it works, and where it may be going in the future.

Posted at 23:53 Permalink

Friday, July 17, 2015

Reading List: Code of Conduct

Thor, Brad. Code of Conduct. New York: Atria Books, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-1715-9.
This is the fifteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel, the author “goes big”, with a thriller whose global implications are soundly grounded in genuine documents of the anti-human “progressive” fringe and endorsed, at least implicitly, by programmes of the United Nations.

A short video, recorded at a humanitarian medical clinic in the Congo, shows a massacre of patients and staff which seems to make no sense at all. The operator of the clinic retains the Carlton Group to investigate the attack on its facility, and senior operative Scot Harvath is dispatched to lead a team to find out what happened and why. Murphy's Law applies at all times and places, but Murphy seems to pull extra shifts in the Congo, and Harvath's team must overcome rebels, the elements, and a cast-iron humanitarian to complete its mission.

As pieces of evidence are assembled, it becomes clear that the Congo massacre was a side-show of a plot with global implications, orchestrated by a cabal of international élites and supported by bien pensants in un-elected senior administrative positions in governments. Having bought into the anti-human agenda, they are willing to implement a plan to “restore equilibrium” and “ensure sustainability” whatever the human toll.

This is less a shoot-'em-up action thriller (although there is some of that, to be sure), than the unmasking of a hideous plot and take-down of it once it is already unleashed. It is a thoroughly satisfying yarn, and many readers may not be aware of the extent to which the goals advocated by the villains have been openly stated by senior officials of both the U.S. government and international bodies.

This is not one of those thrillers where once the dust settles things are left pretty much as they were before. The world at the end of this book will have been profoundly changed from that at the start. It will be interesting to see how the author handles this in the next volume in the series.

For a high-profile summer thriller by a blockbuster author from a major publishing house (Atria is an imprint of Simon & Schuster), which debuted at number 3 on the New York Times Best Sellers list, there are a surprising number of copy editing and factual errors, even including the platinum standard, an idiot “It's” on p. 116. Something odd appears to have happened in formatting the Kindle edition (although I haven't confirmed that it doesn't also affect the print edition): a hyphen occasionally appears at the end of lines, separated by a space from the preceding word, where no hyphenation is appropriate, for example: “State - Department”.

Posted at 23:54 Permalink

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Reading List: StarTram

Powell, James, George Maise, and Charles Pellegrino. StarTram. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4935-7757-6.
Magnetic levitation allows suspending a vehicle above a guideway by the force of magnetic repulsion. A train using magnetic levitation avoids the vibration, noise, and rolling resistance of wheels on rails, and its speed is limited only by air resistance and the amount of acceleration passengers consider tolerable. The Shanghai Maglev Train, in service since 2004, is the fastest train in commercial passenger service today, and travels at 431 kilometres per hour in regular operation. Suppose you were able to somehow get rid of the air resistance and carry only cargo, which can tolerate high acceleration. It would appear that if the technical challenges could be met, the sky would be the limit. In this book the authors argue that the sky is just the start.

They propose a space launch system called StarTram, to be developed in two technological generations. The Generation 1 (Gen-1) system is for cargo only, and uses an evacuated launch tube 110 km long in an underground tunnel. This sounds ambitious, but the three tunnels under the English Channel total 150 km, and are much larger than that required for StarTram. The launcher will be located at a site which allows the tube to run up a mountain, emerging in the thinner air at an altitude between 3 and 7 kilometres. There will be an extreme sonic boom as the launch vehicle emerges from the launch tube at a velocity of around 8 kilometres per second and flies upward through the atmosphere, so the launcher will have to be located in a region where the trajectory downrange for a sufficient distance is unpopulated. Several candidate sites on different continents are proposed.

The Gen-1 cargo craft is levitated by means of high (liquid nitrogen) temperature superconducting magnets which are chilled immediately before launch. They need only remain superconducting for the launch itself, around 30 seconds, so a small on-board supply of liquid nitrogen will suffice for refrigeration. These superconducting magnets repel loops of aluminium in the evacuated guideway tube; no refrigeration of these loops is required. One of the greatest technical challenges of the system is delivering the electric power needed to accelerate the cargo craft. In the 30 seconds or so of acceleration at 30 gravities, the average power requirement is 47 gigawatts, with a peak of 94 gigawatts as orbital velocity is approached. A typical commercial grid power plant produces around 1 gigawatt of power, so it is utterly impractical to generate this power on site. But the total energy required for a launch is only about 20 minutes' output from a 1 gigawatt power station. The StarTram design, therefore, incorporates sixty superconducting energy storage loops, which accumulate the energy for a launch from the grid over time, then discharge to propel the vehicle as it is accelerated. The authors note that the energy storage loops are comparable in magnitude to the superconducting magnets of the Large Hadron Collider, and require neither the extreme precision nor the liquid helium refrigeration those magnets do.

You wouldn't want to ride a Gen-1 cargo launcher. It accelerates at around 30 gravities as it goes down the launch tube, then when it emerges into the atmosphere, decelerates at a rate between 6 and 12g until it flies into the thinner atmosphere. Upon reaching orbital altitude, a small rocket kick motor circularises the orbit. After delivering the payload into orbit (if launching to a higher orbit or one with a different inclination, the payload would contain its own rocket or electric propulsion to reach the desired orbit), the cargo vehicle would make a deorbit burn with the same small rocket it used to circularise its orbit, extend wings, and glide back for re-use.

You may be wondering how a tunnel, evacuated to a sufficiently low pressure to allow a craft to accelerate to orbital velocity without being incinerated, works exactly when one end has to be open to allow the vehicle to emerge into the atmosphere. That bothers me too, a lot. The authors propose that the exit end of the tube will have a door which pops open just before the vehicle is about to emerge. The air at the exit will be ionised by seeding with a conductive material, such as cæsium vapour, then pumped outward by a strong DC current, operating as the inverse of a magnetohydrodynamic generator. Steam generators at the exit of the launch tube force away the ambient air, reducing air pressure as is done for testing upper stage rocket motors. This is something I'd definitely want to see prototyped in both small and full scale before proceeding. Once the cargo craft has emerged, the lid slams shut.

Launching 10 cargo ships a day, the Gen-1 system could deliver 128,000 tons of payload into orbit a year, around 500 times that of all existing rocket launch systems combined. The construction cost of the Gen-1 system is estimated at around US$20 billion, and with all major components reusable, its operating cost is electricity, maintenance, staff, and the small amount of rocket fuel expended in circularising the orbit of craft and deorbiting them. The estimated all-up cost of launching a kilogram of payload is US$43, which is about one hundredth of current launch costs. The launch capacity is adequate to build a robust industrial presence in space, including solar power satellites which beam power to the Earth.

Twenty billion dollars isn't small change, but it's comparable to the development budget for NASA's grotesque Space Launch System, which will fly only every few years and cost on the order of US$2 billion per launch, with everything being thrown away on each mission.

As noted, the Gen-1 system is unsuited to launching people. You could launch people in it, but they wouldn't still be people when they arrived on orbit, due to the accelerations experienced. To launch people, a far more ambitious Gen-2 system is proposed. To reduce launch acceleration to acceptable levels, the launch tunnel would have to be around 1500 km long. To put this into perspective, that's about the distance from Los Angeles to Seattle. To avoid the bruising deceleration (and concomitant loss of velocity) when the vehicle emerges from the launch tube, the end of the launch tube will be magnetically levitated by superconducting magnets (restrained by tethers) so that the end is at an altitude of 20 km. Clearly there'll have to be a no-fly zone around the levitated launch tube, and you really don't want the levitation system to fail. The authors estimate the capital cost of the Gen-2 system at US$67 billion, which seems wildly optimistic to me. Imagine how many forms you'll have to fill out to dig a 1500 km tunnel anywhere in the world, not to speak of actually building one, and then you have to develop that massive magnetically levitated launch tube, which has never been demonstrated.

Essentially everything I have described so far appears in chapter 2 of this book, which makes up less than 10% of its 204 pages. You can read a complete description of the StarTram system for free in this technical paper from 2010. The rest of the book is, well, a mess. With its topic, magnetic levitation space launch, dispensed with by the second chapter, it then veers into describing all of the aspects of our bright future in space such a system will open, including solar power satellites, protecting the Earth from asteroid and comet impacts, space tourism, colonising Mars, exploring the atmosphere of Jupiter, searching for life on the moons of the outer planets, harvesting helium-3 from the atmospheres of the outer planets for fusion power, building a telescope at the gravitational lensing point of the Sun, and interstellar missions. Dark scenarios are presented in which the country which builds StarTram first uses it to establish a global hegemony enforced by all-seeing surveillance from space and “Rods from God”, orbited in their multitudes by StarTram, and a world where the emerging empire is denied access to space by a deliberate effort by one or more second movers to orbit debris to make any use of low orbits impossible, imprisoning humanity on this planet. (But for how long? Small particles in low orbit decay pretty quickly.) Even wilder speculations about intelligent life in the universe and an appropriate strategy for humans in the face of a potentially hostile universe close the book.

All of this is fine, but none of it is new. The only new concept here is StarTram itself, and if the book concentrated just on that, it would be a mere 16 pages. The rest is essentially filler, rehashing other aspects of the human future in space, which would be enabled by any means of providing cheap access to low Earth orbit. The essential question is whether the key enabling technologies of StarTram will work, and that is a matter of engineering which can be determined by component tests before committing to the full-scale project. Were I the NASA administrator and had the power to do so (which, in reality, the NASA administrator does not, being subordinate to the will of appropriators in Congress who mandate NASA priorities in the interest of civil service and contractor jobs in their districts and states), I would cancel the Space Launch System in an instant and use a small part of the savings to fund risk reduction and component tests of the difficult parts of a Gen-1 StarTram launcher.

Posted at 01:10 Permalink

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Leap Second

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Take that, alarm clock!

Posted at 02:22 Permalink

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Venus and Jupiter at Dusk

Look toward the west a little after sunset today to see a spectacle in the sky: a close conjunction of Venus and Jupiter.

Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, 2015-06-30

Brilliant Venus is at the bottom and bright, but less dazzling, Jupiter is above. This picture was taken with a 50 mm normal lens and approximates the visual appearance. Tonight the planets are separated by only 0.3°, less than the width of the full Moon. To illustrate this, the following is a composite of an image of the conjunction and tonight's near-full Moon, which was rising as the planets were setting. I photographed both at the same scale and overlaid the images.

Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter compared to the full Moon, 2015-06-30

If you miss the closest conjunction tonight, the planets will remain strikingly close together in the sky for the next few days.

The juxtaposition of the two planets is only apparent. Venus is about 90 million kilometres from the Earth while Jupiter is 890 million kilometres away. Venus is so much brighter than Jupiter (which is more than ten times its size) because it is closer to the Sun and the Earth.

Update: On July 1st, 2015, the conjunction between Venus and Jupiter has widened to around 0.6°, just a bit more than the mean apparent diameter of the full Moon (it varies, due to the Moon's elliptical orbit), but it is still a spectacular sight in the western sky after sunset. Tonight I decided to see if I could take a picture which showed the two planets as they'd appear in a modest telescope. This is somewhat challenging, since Venus is presently 11.5 times brighter (on a linear scale) than Jupiter, and any exposure which shows Jupiter well will hopelessly overexpose Venus. So, I did what any self-respecting astrophotographer would do: cheat. I took two exposures, one best suited for Venus and one for Jupiter, and composited them. This is the result.

Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, 2015-07-01

You can easily see that Venus is a fat crescent, while Jupiter's disc is fully illuminated. The apparent angular diameter of two two planets is almost identical (because enormously larger Jupiter is so much more distant). This was still in late twilight, and I wasn't able to pop out the Galilean satellites. Jupiter would have set before those 4th magnitude objects became accessible.

Both images were taken with a Nikon D600 camera and 25 year old Nikkor 300 mm f/4.5 prime (non-zoom) lens. The image of Venus was taken at f/8 with ISO 1250 sensitivity and 1/1600 second exposure. (Why such high ISO and short exposure? The lens is sharper stopped down to f/8, and the short exposure minimises the chance of vibration or movement of the planet on the sky blurring the image.) The venerable lens has a substantial amount of chromatic aberration, which causes a red fringe around the bright image of Venus. I eliminated this by decomposing the image into its three colour components and using only the green channel, where the lens is sharpest. Since there is no apparent colour visible on Venus, this lost no information.

The Jupiter image was taken with the same camera, lens, aperture, and ISO setting, but at 1/400 second. I clipped the colour image of Jupiter from it and pasted it over the dim smudge which was Jupiter in the Venus image, preserving the relative position of the two planets.

All exposures were made from a fixed (non-guided) tripod in the Fourmilab driveway. (2015-07-01 21:42 UTC)

Posted at 23:38 Permalink