Thursday, April 29, 2010

Trying the solar sail again

We've tried before, but so far there hasn't been a truly viable solar-sail powered craft that's been successfully deployed. But, then again, the Japanese haven't tried yet.
After lots of talk and testing, Japanese researchers are ready to go space sailing. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) announced its intention to launch its first "space yacht" propelled by solar sails into the heavens on May 18. Ikaros -- the Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun -- will cruise through the solar system powered by solar particles that bounce of its giant, ultra-thin sails.

Ikaros -- which aside from being a somewhat clumsy acronym is also an allusion to the Greek mythological character who flew too close to the sun -- marks the first time a space craft will enter deep space towed by solar sails, which provide a fuel-free means to explore the solar system provided the craft is near enough the sun to catch a particle powered breeze. Several prototype space sails have been unfurled in orbit by various agencies including NASA, but as far as long-term propulsion is concerned the Ikaros mission is solar sailing's coming out party.
(from Popular Science)


Monday, April 26, 2010

Review: State quarters - Wisconsin

Feh. Too many elements. And "Forward"? To where? Away from the farm? Away from Wisconsin?

But I do like the cheese. Somehow I think this design would have been so much better if it just had a big, fat cheese wheel on it. (With a wedge missing, just so you know it's cheese!)

Overall rating - 2 - Mediocre

California's coming down the coast.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Timidity can't do this

This is a follow-up to this previous post about Stephen Hawking.

Image from NASA. Original caption: As the shuttle and the space station began their post-undocking relative separation, Expedition 23 flight engineer Soichi Noguchi photographed the underside of the shuttle over the south end of Isla de Providencia, about 150 miles off the coast of Nicaragua. Undocking of the two spacecraft occurred on April 17, 2010, ending the shuttle's 10-day stay. The visit included three spacewalks and delivery of more than seven tons of equipment and supplies to the station.

Hawking says, Let's hide in the universe

Stephen Hawking is a very smart man, much more intelligent than me, and I respect his scientific mind. But I don't think he's right on this point.

THE aliens are out there and Earth had better watch out, at least according to Stephen Hawking. He has suggested that extraterrestrials are almost certain to exist — but that instead of seeking them out, humanity should be doing all it that can to avoid any contact.


Alien life ... is almost certain to exist in many other parts of the universe: not just in planets, but perhaps in the centre of stars or even floating in interplanetary space.


Such scenes are speculative, but Hawking uses them to lead on to a serious point: that a few life forms could be intelligent and pose a threat. Hawking believes that contact with such a species could be devastating for humanity.

He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

(from TimesOnline)

I don't mean that Hawking is wrong in believing in alien life forms (I don't find that hard to believe at all), I think he's wrong to suggest that we should avoid all contact with alien species forever. And the Native American analogy is wrong-headed.

Look, bad things happened to the Indians (who, by the way, weren't very saintly to begin with; they are human beings, after all) at the hands of some Europeans, but consider this: There are some peoples in South America that, to this day, have avoided contact with the outside world, and there is a sentiment that we should leave them alone. That's well and good, but will they ever advance as a society? Will they achieve great things, invent the light bulb, explore space all on their own, become more as human beings? I doubt it.

To go along with Hawking, we should be as the tribes in South America, hiding in the jungle of our solar system and eschewing contact with other peoples (aliens) on the outside chance they may enslave us. That may be well and good, and the aliens may even respect our wishes, but if we do that, will we continue to advance as a species? Will we achieve greater things, invent new energy sources, continue to explore space, and become more as a species? I don't think so.

I think we will stagnate if we don't continue to explore the universe. Not now, not in a thousand years, but eventually. And if that exploration means that we run up against another intelligent species eventually, then so be it. We will just have to deal with that situation when it comes up. It may not be easy, and I'm not advocating recklessness on the part of humanity, but I don't think we should run away from the challenge before it ever presents itself.

My respects to Hawking, but it's odd that such a bold mind is promoting such timidity.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review: State quarters - Iowa

I see where Iowa was trying to go with this, but it didn't quite pan out.

The design you see above is some kind of coin-sized adaptation of this painting:

This is a work called Arbor Day by Iowan artist Grant Wood. Another painting of his called American Gothic is much more well-known, and I can't help thinking that Iowa's quarter would have been so much better had they used that work instead. As it is, I think Arbor Day is pretty cool. I like the lighting a lot, and the colors are perfect. But it works as a painting, not a coin design.

This --

-- is crap on a quarter. And its badness is compounded by that cryptic and ultimately senseless phrase, "Foundation in Education." What the hell does that mean? Nothin' I tell ya.

In any case, the only thing that saves this design from a "Bad" rating is that I like the painting they were trying to adapt. Other than that, there's not much here.

Overall rating - 2 - Mediocre

Coming up: Wisconsin

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Review: State quarters - Texas

[Full disclosure: I am a Texan. This review may be biased.]

Here is another example of a state quarter design done right.

To begin with, Texas uses the state outline like other states do, which was a great idea. Why? Because out of all the state shapes Texas's is the most iconic all by itself. It is instantly recognizable the world over, and everyone who sees it thinks of Texas and remembers Texas and starts to wax about things Texan. In fact, I would have been surprised if the state outline hadn't ended up on the Texas quarter.

And then, the designers kick it up a notch with one more element. Just one more. And they couldn't have picked a more powerful symbol to represent the state than the Lone Star.

Nothing is more Texan than that big, fat shape, a five-p0inted form that is used liberally by Texans and non-Texans alike to stand for things associated with the state. It is a source of pride and independence. It is also a sign of community and solidarity.

It is used by sports teams, like the Houston Astros:

The Dallas Cowboys:

The Dallas Stars:

And even a WNBA team in San Antonio:

It is also "The National Beer of Texas."

It is the largest Ferris wheel in North America.

It is the flag.

And it is even comedy.

It is its own mythos. And it is Texas.

Overall rating - 5 - Best

Next: Iowa

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Review:State quarters - Florida

Aaaaaaaahhhhhh! Watch out, Ponce de León!!!

Seriously, though, the Space Shuttle is cool enough by itself, and since all launches of the Shuttle take place in Florida, that image alone would have been more than adequate to represent the state on the quarter design. There really was no need to add in a Spanish ship of exploration, and there certainly wasn't a need to arrange the two vessels to make it appear they were about to crash into each other.

And one more thing: When has the Space Shuttle ever had windows for passengers like an airliner? That sad detail helped push this rating into the "bad" territory.

Overall rating - 1 - Bad

Next? Texas.

Building on the Moon

Oh, I do hope this works.
Future astronauts might end up living in a moon base created largely from lunar dust and regolith, if a giant 3-D printing device can work on the lunar surface.

The print-on-demand technology, known as D-Shape, could save on launch and transportation costs for manned missions to the moon. But the concept must first prove itself in exploratory tests funded by the European Space Agency (ESA)

"We will make very basic printing trials in a vacuum environment to verify if this is possible," said Enrico Dini, chairman of Monolite UK Ltd and creator of D-Shape.

Dini's D-Shape has created full-size sandstone buildings on Earth by using a 3-D printing process similar to how inkjet printers work. It adds a special inorganic binder to sand so that it can build a structure from the bottom up, one layer at a time.

The device raises its printer head by just 5 to 10 millimeters for each layer, moving from side to side on horizontal beams as well as up and down on four metal frame columns. Finished structures end made out of a marble-like material that's superior to certain types of cement. The buildings do not require iron reinforcing.

Such a concept might help future lunar colonists live off the land, as well as provide thick-walled structures that protect against solar storms or micrometeorites.


I have no idea if this concept will succeed or fail on the Moon, but I'm glad someone is at least trying to do something like this. And, even if D-Shape doesn't pan out for lunar living, the things learned from the experiments may just make building structures easier, more practical, or at least more interesting here on Earth.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Review: State quarters - Michigan

Michigan gets this one right. The state uses its outline, which is distinctive because of the upper and lower peninsulas, and then couples it with the outlines of the Great Lakes, which almost completely surround the state. The Great Lakes are awesome -- in both the formal and slang versions of the word -- and Michigan did right to make them the primary focus of this design. I like the look, and I don't think the state could have done any better with any other design element.

Overall rating - 5 - Best

Florida's in the batter's box.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Review: State quarters - Arkansas

Between the strange duck, the swamp, the Rasta grass, and the UFO, I don't know what can be said for the Arkansas quarter that would still be considered nice.

Overall rating - 0 - WTF?

Michigan's next.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Calling B.S. on a prescriptivist

In today's edition of the Express-News, this letter to the editor appears.

Headline a faux pas

I reluctantly acknowledge there is a “dumbing down” of America, but I would never believe the Express-News or any responsible newspaper would pander to that movement.

However, on Page 1 April 2, you printed a story about the census under the headline, “Where you were at, not where you're from, counts.”

Where you were at? Never end a sentence with a preposition. How about “Where you reside ...”? Or “Where you presently reside ...”?

I understand issues of space and layout, but that shouldn't compromise the standards of journalism and grammar.

Kathleen Trottier

Editor'snote: The Express-News acknowledges the grammatical faux pas, which was committed by a copy editor, not the author of the story.

And I respond in the comments with this:
Kathleen Trottier and borderplex [another commenter on the same article] are both wrong, and the Express-News editors are wrong to acknowledge their supposed "gotcha." There is no "faux pas" in ending a sentence with a preposition because there is no "rule" in English that demands it. Respected writers have been ending their sentences with prepositions for hundreds of years, and only stiff prescriptivists insist we should adhere to this shibboleth at every turn. "Where you were at" communicates the message just fine in English, and it breaks no rules.

For a more nuanced approach to this issue, check out what Jack Lynch has to say about it.
On the other hand — and it's a big other hand — old-timers shouldn't always dictate your writing, and you don't deserve your writing license if you elevate this rough guideline into a superstition. Don't let it make your writing clumsy or obscure; if a sentence is more graceful with a final preposition, let it stand.
Good writing to all, and to all a good night.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Review: State quarters - Missouri

OK, Missouri, I know what you were trying to do here. The Gateway Arch, which commemorates the beginning of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and symbolizes America's push westward, is probably the most visible and memorable symbol of St. Louis and Missouri. And, as such, it deserves a prominent place on your quarter design.

So why did you try to hide it with hairy brushes on either side, and then why did you overshadow its glory with that boatload of giants?

Overall rating - 2 - Mediocre

Watch out for Arkansas.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Review: Genesis by Bernard Beckett

Bernard Beckett

Wow. A pretty good read. It turned out better than I thought it would.

The story takes place in the future, apparently in a near-perfect society that has formed after two different apocalyptic events. Anaximander is a young woman going through an oral exam in order to get into The Academy, and in the course of questioning she and her examiners talk about a famous human, the rebel Adam, and a famous android, the first real AI construct called Art. And they explore what it means to be a human, what it means to be a machine, and what the differences are, if any.

Not a bad little book. It's only 150 pages long, and it's a fast read, so if you like speculative science fiction I encourage you to give it a try. It won't waste too much of your time if you don't like it, and it brings you to a satisfying end rather quickly if you do like it and aren't much into delayed gratification. But don't read any other reviews about it before hand, though. I think the book will read better that way.

ADDED: Interesting. In reading up on this book, I have discovered that it is considered a work for children. That's odd. It wasn't in the children's or young adult section of the library, and it didn't seem like a work for kids when I was reading it. I never thought it had to do with anything juvenile until I read about the awards it has won.

Again, interesting.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Review: State quarters - Maine

I like this one. I like it mostly because I like lighthouses, and I wish that the Mainers would have left that sailboat out and given more prominence to the lighthouse with its beautiful, warning rays.

Oh, by the way, remember rays. They seem to crop up as elements in later quarter designs. A lot.

Overall rating - 3 - Good.

Keep an eye out for Missouri.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Changing how Brits go to space

I have to say, I think the logo for the newly-formed UK Space Agency looks mighty cool.

Now, get to work and get us into space.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Review: State quarters - Alabama

I wanted this one to be good. So bad.

And initially I was going to give Alabama's quarter a "3 - Good" rating. I like that the designers picked one powerful image to focus on and gave all their attention to that, an image that no other state could lay claim to: Helen Keller, who apparently was from Alabama.

Keller is famous for overcoming a complete lack of language due to blindness and deafness -- and the attendant isolation from the world -- and then overcoming that challenge to become a prolific author and political activist. She was ultimately a socialist, but she is most remembered for learning how to connect with the world despite her disabilities.

The design is different, and I gave Alabama good marks for trying something off the beaten path. At first my only objections -- minor ones at that -- were to the lame "Spirit of Courage" ribbon and the tiny Braille dots. The Braille letters are really not needed, and it doesn't help that they are so small that you can't really see them when looking at a real quarter.

And I was about to leave it at that. But then the curious side in me took over, and I looked up the Braille alphabet to see what those letters spelled out. I suspected it was just Keller's name, but, man, was I disappointed!

As near as I can tell, after looking at a couple of Braille alphabets online, the message spells out this:

- H E L E
- K E L L [?]

Again, it's this:

- [yes, a hyphen] H E L E
- [yes, another hyphen] K E L L
[The last symbol is not a Braille letter. It could be a smashed E and an R that's missing a terminal dot, but I don't think it is.]

Oh. My. God. Alabama, you screwed up. It's horrible to mess up the Braille that badly, especially when it is so small you really cannot read it anyway! This shows an incredible lack of attention to detail, or, worse, a complete lack of concern for the accuracy of a writing system used by people with disabilities. Bad, bad, bad design element. And it took you from a "Good" rating to a "Bad" one.


Overall rating - 1 - Bad

Maine's coming.