Archive for the ‘technology’ Category


Film review: “Interstellar”

November 19, 2014

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

This quote applies, of course, to any number of science fiction films over the last fifty years. But I’ve seen so many reactions on the interweebs to this movie that seemed to be so wrong headed that I wonder if maybe there are several different versions of the movie out there, and I happened to see the one that actually used an extrapolation of science.

Physicist Kip Thorne and producer Lynda Obst started out, much like Kubrick and Clarke, to make a real science fiction movie that was based on fact, or at least logical extrapolations of what we know right now. After a bit, they attracted Steve Spielberg, who in turn suggested Jonathan Nolan to work with them on a screenplay. Ultimately Spielberg had to leave the project, and eventually Nolan got the script to his director brother Christopher Nolan. After some legal wrangling between Paramount and Warner Brothers, the film finally got started. Thorne had many discussions with the Nolans, the effects team, and cast members as the film progressed. For many members of the audience, it probably would not have been necessary to go this far – audiences today will suspend their disbelief for a lot of nonsensical pseudo-science. But the fact they did makes it that much richer for me, and hopefully for a lot of other folks as well. Thorne even wrote a book elaborating on the process, called The Science of Interstellar. I recommend it; not only does it give a good overview of the science used as a basis for the movie, but it also demonstrates how much hard work goes on behind the scenes in a film, sometimes for decades before the film comes out.

Let me say at the outset that I enjoyed the film a great deal. It’s long, at over 2 hours and 45 minutes, and early on it seems a little slow. However, I think that’s just the way I perceive it after all the cgi-laden action/adventure films that have come out over the past decade. This movie doesn’t start with a bang and then just keeps running along. It takes the time to build the relationships in Coop’s (Matthew McConaughey) family for us. However, it seems to take a much shorter time for Coop to be sold on the idea of what probably will be a one-way trip through the wormhole. But then, Michael Caine can be very persuasive, of course!

If you want a recap of the plot, you can always go here. Rather than that, I’d like to reflect on the main theme of the movie, which is, to me, “we can save ourselves with a little bit of time travel, just not the time travel you think.”

Nobody physically goes back in time. (In fact, Thorne is one of scientists best known for explaining why we won’t be able to do that.) However, that doesn’t mean that information can’t be sent back, in one way or another. All you need is a civilization sufficiently advanced to give a father a way to send some information to his daughter – if the father is in the right place, and if the daughter is the right daughter.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! I’ve read that some folks who have seen the movie took the bit of speculation about the nature of love as being a tangible, physical force that transcends time and space – presented by Anne Hathaway’s character – and ran with it. Sorry, y’all; you weren’t paying attention later on. It is made abundantly clear that the lines in the dust in Murph’s room were created by artificially-created gravity waves. No “Power of Love” here. I can understand some of the confusion, though: gravity is just as difficult to perceive, and no more easily controlled, at least by us. But not by the post-humans. (That’s what I call ’em. For a long time we are sort of led to believe they are some kind of super-beings just doing us a favor so we don’t die off. Coop makes the mental leap that they are our descendants, greatly evolved.) We never see them, and we only really see one effect of their presence. The “time lattice” Coop uses to communicate with Murph is apparently constructed by the post-humans only for that purpose, so he can give her the information she needs for a breakthrough that allows humanity to finally leave Earth, and apparently just in time.

In a way, this is the “transparent aluminum” storyline: In Star Trek IV, Scotty needs “transparent aluminum” to construct a tank for the whales. He gives the formula to a 20th century chemist/engineer so that he can create what Scotty needs. When asked by Dr. McCoy if this was messing with the timeline, Mr. Scott replies, “How do you know he didn’t invent the thing?”

I suppose transparent aluminum isn’t as big a thing in the 24th century as radio is for us. (Although if asked, most people would identify the inventor of radio as Marconi, if they had any idea at all. Grrr. Tesla, folks, Tesla. Look it up.) Still, Scotty wasn’t worried by bootstrapping materials science and creating the classic causality loop.

To make sure that humanity doesn’t die out by being stranded on Earth, the post-humans leave messages for Murph that subtly suggest to Coop that his trip through the wormhole might not be the sheer folly it seems. Therefore, he goes, lots of crazy stuff happens, and he in desperation makes the dive through the black hole’s event horizon. There they have set up the commo lattice – referred to in the film as a tesseract – for him to use to provide signals to Murph at various times of her life, including those that influenced him in deciding to go in the first place. He also can send the data the older version of Murph needs to make the breakthrough in mastering gravity so that we can get off this rock. He does this by manipulating the second hand on a watch through gravitational effects, sending a lot of data collected from inside the event horizon. It seems to take him only a short time to do this, but as we know, time inside a black hole’s event horizon is different from outside it.

So at the end of it all, no aliens – but something that started out as humanity has to help get its ancestors off the planet, or they won’t exist, and they placed the wormhole in orbit around Saturn just for that purpose. Seems like a long shot, but if they had the history of what had happened at that time, all they had to do is make sure the history had a little help to play out correctly.

Those of you who are believers in the “Many Universes” hypothesis probably won’t buy into this as much. In another universe, no wormhole; in yet another, no Coop to save them, etc. If that interpretation could be brought into the plot, the tesseract would have shown Murph in her room in many, many more versions of the situations that first and last provided communication with her. But the film stays firmly rooted in a traditional causality.

It’s not a new idea, but it certainly is played out in a refreshing fashion. I was happy to see a plot that took that much of the audience’s attention to follow in a big mainstream movie.

There are the nitpicks. First, Coop’s training sucks. They pretty much throw him into the ship with three other people, and away they go. That is necessary so that he can be the space cowboy he needs to be, flying the Ranger by hand at several key points in the movie.

Questions have been raised about the Ranger. Why did it need a big chemical-powered, multistage booster to get off Earth, yet takes off and lands under its own power on several other planets, including one with a surface gravity of 1.3 G? I have a possible answer, though it isn’t covered in the movie: antimatter.

The ships are a combination of tech we have now (Rangers are covered with shuttle-like protective tiles, for example) and very high tech (robots with advanced AI.) We know that making antimatter, at least the way we know we can do it right now, is very slow, requires very large equipment, and is very power-hungry. Maybe the Ranger could have taken off on its own, but say it uses 25% of its available fuel to do so. No more fuel after that. Let’s save some by using a sort of pseudo Saturn V that we had laying around. We may have fueled it with the last antimatter we could produce.

The Ranger has little room for fuel stores, so fuel has to be something very energetic, like antimatter, but it can’t take up a lot of space. Maybe a couple of tanks of reaction mass to interact with the antimatter can be squeezed in. Hydrogen is the best choice if the antimatter is really anti hydrogen, but it isn’t very dense so the tanks have to be insulated like crazy and be larger than LOX or H2O tanks would be.

The other nitpick is tidal effects. On the first planet the explorers are confronted with a tidal wave 4000 feet tall. The planet is too close to the black hole – close enough that time slows down a lot, and tidal effects on the ocean are enormous. The same tidal effects should affect everything on the planet, so it eventually will be torn apart. That to me means it isn’t a good candidate for a new home for mankind.

Also, apparently the light from the black hole (huh?) is bright enough to provide light bright as day – at least, a cloudy day in Iceland. Where is that light coming from, really? You would need it to grow crops. None of these planets sounds particularly pleasant or survivable in the long term!

My major gripe about the film is the score. Hans Zimmer was apparently asked by Christopher Nolan to do something unique. He’s done that if unique means boring, loud and simplistic. Sometimes it was so loud it covered important dialog. The score lent more of a feeling of slowness to the movie as it slogged along, repeating the same phrases over and over again. Did Zimmer listen to too much Philip Glass? I would have thought a score like Alan Silvestri’s for The Abyss would have been appropriate, instead. I think this movie would have been a complete knockout, Oscar-worthy, if the score wasn’t so annoying and boring.

Nolan likes using IMAX cameras, he likes using real film over digital recording, and he likes using practical EFX over CGI when possible. All are great, but remember, far more viewings of this movie will be on TV screens than in the theater. Until we all have our 85 inch 4K HDTVs that extra quality won’t be noticed…but a bad score will be.

In summary, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not the landmark film some people have said it is, but it’s very good, and I highly recommend it to you.


Fifty years from now we will be wondering why everybody thought the world was warming

July 7, 2014

In Forbes, of all places, there is an opinion piece by James Taylor (no, not that one) that talks about NOAA data showing the US as cooling by 0.4 degrees in the last decade, not warming as we are told to think. And in the UK Mail there is a piece that states that there is more Antarctic ice, not less.

What surprises me about the whole global warming meme is how easily it took hold, and how hard it is to shake it off, even with substantial evidence that the planet is not warming right now, and has not been for at least ten to twenty years. I know it was pushed by a bunch of folks who depend on government grants for their livelihoods, and rising seas, superstorms and other Roland Emmerich-style phenomena make for better copy than “well, the Earth is getting a little bit cooler, now, but not much.” Still, it amazes me that the kind of blatant cooking of data sets and backstage dealing to squash dissent we have seen has gone on for so long.

The sun is a variable star. Not much of one, thank goodness, or life couldn’t exist. But vary it does. We understand the sun less than we understand our own weather. For some reason, for example, the number of sunspots has been far less lately than expected. There are theories that say the sun doesn’t even use nuclear fusion, as most scientists believe. Neutrino counts from the sun are lower than predicted, but they are elusive little bastards, and it may be that our understanding of them is flawed.

In any case, what we have learned is that there is a lot we don’t know. Water vapor is a better greenhouse gas than CO2, but the Earth naturally regulates the amount of water vapor in the air. It may be doing the same thing with CO2, but the last I read the mechanism is not fully understood.

I would expect, however, that in 2064 we will be looking back on those silly scientists and politicians from fifty years before and shaking our heads at how they thought we were going to all be inundated by rising oceans and killed by superstorms. Do you remember a book called The Population Bomb? How about Silent Spring? 1960s and 70s doom-and-gloom predictions didn’t happen, and even the fear of civilization being destroyed by nuclear war went away, thanks to Ronald Reagan. I would like to be around to see what folks say about our silliness then. Maybe humanity will have matured enough to know not to run around crying “the sky is falling” when we don’t even know what the sky is made of.


Do we need to keep the ISS?

May 13, 2014
Bigelow's design for a commercial space station

Bigelow’s design for a commercial space station

First, Putin invades Ukraine. Then, Obama imposes more sanctions on Russia. Putin sneers and goes about his empire-building business. Then, more sanctions. Then, NASA says it is suspending cooperation with Russia.

So, Russia says we can’t get onto the ISS as of 2020. Since the only ride we currently have is on Russian rockets, they don’t exactly have to change the locks. Trouble is, I don’t think they own it – we paid way more of the actual development and construction costs, and most of the big parts were taken up there on Shuttles. The actual cost of construction is pretty hard to estimate, apparently. But I think it is safe to say that we built most of it, some ESA, some Russian, a little Japanese, etc.

So how can the Russians say they are going to lock the doors? Well. because our manned launch capability is still a mess. Sure, Lockheed is building the Orion, but it is kind of an artisian thing – small batches, made slowly, by a few skilled folks. There’s no mass production – not even like the Apollos were built in the 1960s. Those are going to be the only NASA-owned manned vehicles by 2020, unless they buy or lease some from Sierra Nevada or SpaceX. They will probably opt to just buy seats, like they are doing with Russia now. On $ 17 billion a year they don’t have a lot of cash to throw around.

So, let’s say 2020 rolls around, and we have no better relations with Russia than we do now, and they say, sorry, comrade, but no, it’s ours now. Are we going to take it by force? Probably not.

Much as an orbital assault sound kinda cool, everything in space is just too damned fragile. You would lose too much space on a DragonRider if you had to armor the thing. Russian took firearms on the Almaz secret stations in the 1970s; I would expect they would find a way to put some weapons on the ISS, or maybe have a hunter-killer Soyuz variant ready to dispatch.

Frankly, blowing the ISS up in orbit would be easier than trying to board it, but it would leave a lot of pieces in orbit that would be terrible hazards to navigation. I don’t know which would get us into more hot water with the rest of the world – blowing up the ISS with Russians on board, or shredding everybody’s satellites with chunks, like in “Gravity.”

Fact is, the ISS costs over $ 3 billion a year just to keep it going. I say, if they want it, let ’em have it. It was a fairly good idea thirty years ago, but let’s build some purpose-specific stations based on Bigelow modules that don’t have to be all things for all people. We have learned a lot from building the ISS, and we can leverage that in building the new stations.

See, if the Russians have to shoulder the cost of the ISS completely by themselves, they may decide not to keep it running. Can it be deorbited safely? How much will that cost them? What if something lands on some guy’s house? Putin doesn’t seem to fear “world opinion” as much as we do, but the fireball in the sky caused by deorbiting the ISS will still be considered a massive waste, even by countries that have no designs on building a station of their own.

So let’s give Vlad the responsibility of figuring out what to do with the thing. That kind of decision comes with being Emperor.

And let’s get started designing some second-generation stations. Russia is giving us a chance to dump what will soon be a giant shiny white elephant. We can end up in better shape, for less money, and maybe even start building some stations that could really be prototypes for interplanetary vehicles.


SpaceX signs lease with NASA for Pad 39A

April 16, 2014


After a bunch of fussin’ and fightin’, NASA finally signed a lease with SpaceX for the use of Pad 39A for the Falcon 9 Heavy. The first launch of the big booster is supposed to take place next year. It needs a better name, though.

The Falcon 9 Heavy is supposed to be able to lift 117,000 pounds to LEO; more than the old Saturn 1B and about half of what the Saturn V could lift. It will be the biggest launcher in the world when it’s operational, though; there isn’t as much demand for payloads that large in the commercial satellite market.

The boringly-named Space Launch System NASA has been pushing for the last several years should have a much larger payload capacity, but when are we going to see hardware? Elon Musk says he could develop the Falcon XX concept for $ 2.5 billion, about one-quarter of what NASA thinks it will cost to develop the SLS. I say pay the man.


Comparison of Saturn V and the various SpaceX proposals

Comparison of Saturn V and the various SpaceX proposals

And the Falcon XX would be an impressive beast. It would be worth it just to see that thing launched!


Adobe Creative Cloud is a blessing and a curse…

January 17, 2014

About two years ago I needed to get a copy of Adobe InDesign for layout of my marching band arranging book, which is finally almost done! We looked at the prices for that and for Photoshop, and even though I could still sort of qualify for the education discount, it was pretty pricey. Then we looked at the Adobe Create Cloud service. The price per year was about the same as for buying two apps as standalones, and since it would update them and I had access to the entire Adobe suite, it looked like a pretty good buy. The educational discount ran out and it’s $ 50 a month now, but I’ve found I try (and use) apps that I never would have because I wouldn’t want to spend the money on something I might use occasionally.

The latest one I’ve worked with is Adobe Muse, which is a little WYSIWYG web page development tool. It’s easier than using DreamWeaver, especially if  you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles on your web pages. It uses an interface that looks a lot like InDesign, so I was good there. It’s sort of like a hybrid of those two bigger programs.

Muse isn’t available as a standalone, which is too bad. (Although you can do a monthly charge for it, separately, for $ 15 a month.) I’ve not had to do web page design for a couple of years, and using it is a lot easier than getting myself up to speed on the new version of DreamWeaver just to do a few simple pages.

The other advantage to the Creative Cloud service is that it keeps watching for updates and asks you when you want to update. At first the updater was somewhat buggy, but it seems pretty stable now.

Adobe CC isn’t for everyone, but if you use Photoshop and one more Adobe app, it will probably be competitively priced against the standalones. I’d be interested in hearing if anyone else likes or dislikes the Creative Cloud service.


More prescient than even he would have expected

November 19, 2013

demonhauntedIt is well-known that Dr. Sagan was not religious – he described himself as agnostic, believing he had seen no proof of a supreme being. His 1995 book, The Demon Haunted World, was about using the scientific method and critical thinking instead of superstition and pseudoscience.

Admirable goals, and Carl Sagan was very articulate. His Cosmos series and book (PBS, 1980) probably did more to to help laymen understand the universe than any previous media program. (He also wrote the novel upon which the Jodie Foster film Contact was based.)

But I doubt he would have expected that his description of America in the quote above would have happened so quickly, or that we got there in the way we did. He seemed to believe the “New Age” trends he saw in the 1980s and 90s might grow, and that the much-publicized decrease in our ability to educate our students would result in an overall dumbing down of America. He himself did what he could to keep that from happening. I doubt he thought, though, that only two decades after he wrote those words we would have fallen so far and so willingly.

Hat tip to Scott Lowther and his “Up-Ship” blog for tipping me off to this one.


The SR-72! ?

November 5, 2013


According to this information from Lockheed, they have a way to combine a regular jet turbine engine with a ramjet that could power a Mach 6 aircraft. Calling it the SR-72 as a nod to the famed SR-71 reconnaissance plane the Lockheed Skunk Works built in the 1960s, this one is to be unmanned – like pretty much every military plane on the drawing boards.

I just hate it that they announced way before they bent any tin, though. The X-33 disaster of promise-oops- can’t deliver is still too fresh in my mind. (In defense of Lockheed, though, a lot of the problem with getting the X-33 demonstrator flying was political. Interference by Congress has a way of screwing up programs like that. Well, any program, really. ) Saying they may have this operational by 2030 sounds like a long way off, but the F-35 Strike Fighter has been in development really for over 12 years. They are just barely getting production aircraft out to the USAF now, seven years after the first prototype flew.

I really hope this will happen, even if just for the jumpstart hypersonic flight would get. But the generation that built the U-2, the SR-71 and even the stealth fighter are pretty much retired or passed on. (Kelly Johnson, the legendary leader at the Skunk Works, died in 1990.)

If anyone can do it I figure Lockheed will. But why announce it so early?