Tuesday, August 26, 2014

If it seems too good to be true ...

At the end of July news sites offered many breathless articles about a new space drive. And three weeks later? Not so much.

This, from Wired on July 31, was typical: "Nasa validates 'impossible' space drive." Or this, from ExtremeTech on August 1, "NASA tests ‘impossible’ no-fuel quantum space engine – and it actually works."

The (supposed) space drive at issue bounces microwaves around a specially shaped chamber, and in the process is said (somehow) to produce a net thrust in one direction. The nature of the impossibility? That the drive -- if it works as advertised -- violates conservation of momentum.

Physics has gone a long time with every bit of evidence showing momentum is conserved. Always.

Space drive: old school
Consider a traditional, chemical rocket. It relies upon Newton's third law of motion: that every action produces an equal but opposite reaction. The action: exhaust gasses streaming out behind the rocket. The reaction: the rocket itself moves forward.

Newer, ion thrusters forgo chemistry but exploit the same action/reaction mechanism. That is, they use electromagnetic fields to propel Xenon ions. In both cases, matter ("reaction mass") is expelled from the spacecraft. Momentum is conserved.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Biological bits and bites

Biology never ceases to amaze -- or, at least, to amaze me. How so? Life is hardier and more innovative than it's often given credit for. We humans included.

Time-traveling moss
To take one recent example, "Frozen 1,500-Year-Old Antarctic Moss Revived." Moss, as lowly as it might seem, is still multi-cellular. Its ability to withstand long-term freezing is a Big Deal.

Who knows? That wacky moss may offer clues how to freeze and revive people (outside of Futurama, that is). Some form of cold sleep is one way humanity might someday colonize the stars.

This moss can  claim credit for persistence -- but persistence is a quite different concept than eco-friendly. As an instance of persistent, eco-unfriendly life, consider that a "Methane-spewing microbe blamed in Earth's worst mass extinction." It is at least plausible that:

A microbe that spewed humongous amounts of methane into Earth's atmosphere triggered a global catastrophe 252 million years ago that wiped out upwards of 90 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land vertebrates.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

SF news, views, and reviews

"A writer shouldn't be punished for his political beliefs."

Is that controversial? Maybe so.

Before I explain further, a disclaimer: I haven't read the novel at issue. I can't say whether I'd love, hate, or be indifferent to it. I don't know whether I'd cheer its message or be horrified by it -- or whether, in fact, it has a message. I don't know (or know anything about) the book's author. I do, however, agree with the sentiment that "A writer shouldn't be punished for his political beliefs."

http://www.loncon3.org/index.php
August 14-18, 2014
Why mention it here, in an SF post? Because the subject of the controversy is a nomination for the upcoming Hugo awards at this week's Worldcon. See "Politics don't belong in science fiction." The controversy is especially ironic given that fen often credit the genre -- and themselves -- with being open-minded.

Is it human nature to favor the work product of people with whom we agree? Sure. To shun the work product of those with whom we differ? Ditto. Can those instincts sometimes deprive of us literature, movies, TV ... that we might otherwise enjoy -- and that might even cause us to rethink our preconceptions? Also true. That's one reason I try to stay unaware of the political leanings of writers, actors, and directors.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

It's not as if this stuff matters

Oh wait. It does.

The Microsoft QA process
From last June, in the Department of Quality Software, "Patch Tuesday disaster breaks Office 2013 for thousands." Way to go, Microsoft!

Of course Microsoft doesn't hold the monopoly (heh!) on buggy, hacker-attracting software. From back in March comes this interesting statistic: "Report: Half of all exploits target Java." It could be just me, but buggy, exploitable products don't seem like the ideal way for Oracle to emulate Mr. Softy.

You practice good computer hygiene, don't you? You have a current security suite on your PC and keep its antivirus definitions up to date? Of course you do. Alas, from just last week, we read that, "Antivirus products riddled with security flaws."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fat chance

Have you been careful to: avoid eating too many eggs, cut back on butter, leave the cheese of your (shudder) turkey burger, substitute (for example) mustard for mayo ... in general, minimize your fat intake? Quite likely so, because, for years, the medical profession has encouraged us to eat lean. All the while, we find ourselves in an obesity epidimic.

Obesity incidence, 2010
Just maybe, the two trends aren't coincidental. See (from The Wall Street Journal), "The Questionable Link Between Saturated Fat and Heart Disease: Are butter, cheese and steak really bad for you? The dubious science behind the anti-fat crusade."

How dubious?

Critics have pointed out that Dr. Keys [leader of the influential early study; tireless advocate for the anti-fat crusade] violated several basic scientific norms in his study. For one, he didn't choose countries randomly but instead selected only those likely to prove his beliefs, including Yugoslavia, Finland and Italy. Excluded were France, land of the famously healthy omelet eater, as well as other countries where people consumed a lot of fat yet didn't suffer from high rates of heart disease, such as Switzerland, Sweden and West Germany. The study's star subjects—upon whom much of our current understanding of the Mediterranean diet is based—were peasants from Crete, islanders who tilled their fields well into old age and who appeared to eat very little meat or cheese.

As it turns out, Dr. Keys visited Crete during an unrepresentative period of extreme hardship after World War II. Furthermore, he made the mistake of measuring the islanders' diet partly during Lent, when they were forgoing meat and cheese. Dr. Keys therefore undercounted their consumption of saturated fat. Also, due to problems with the surveys, he ended up relying on data from just a few dozen men—far from the representative sample of 655 that he had initially selected. These flaws weren't revealed until much later, in a 2002 paper by scientists investigating the work on Crete—but by then, the misimpression left by his erroneous data had become international dogma.

Does it matter? Yes, because the calories you don't get from fat must come from something else. In recent years, that's tended to be carbs.   

The problem is that carbohydrates break down into glucose, which causes the body to release insulin—a hormone that is fantastically efficient at storing fat. Meanwhile, fructose, the main sugar in fruit, causes the liver to generate triglycerides and other lipids in the blood that are altogether bad news. Excessive carbohydrates lead not only to obesity but also, over time, to Type 2 diabetes and, very likely, heart disease. 

Sound familiar? 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Authorial updates

For those of you who follow my non-blog writing, a few news items:

Thinking for a bit ;-)
Fools' Experiments, my 2008 technothriller of artificial life and artificial intelligence, has been picked up by Arc Manor for re-release in print and ebook editions. Availability date TBD (I'll update this post once a date is announced).

Sometimes less is more
Small Miracles, my 2009 technothriller of medical nanotech, has likewise been picked up by Arc Manor for re-release in print and ebook editions. Availability date TBD (ditto).

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Woof!

Well, the Dog Days are not quite upon us (at least as the Romans reckoned these things) ... but I'm there. Being ahead of schedule to procrastinate? Oh, the irony. Oh, the humanity!

You're there, too?

Then (and Safe For Work) I bring you ... diversion.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Spacing out (again)

Because for space-travel-related posts, "Spacing out" is just too apt of a subject line to retire after a single use. (So would be: "Lost in Space.")

A Falcon 9 test launch
ANYway ... as NASA set its sights on a more caffeinated endeavor (we'll come to that), SpaceX continues to innovate. Their Falcon 9 launcher is impressive enough in its own right. Ditto their Dragon cargo capsule, used three times (so far) for deliveries to the ISS and being upgraded for crew rating. ISS cargo delivery flight CR3, involving that launcher and cargo capsule, also introduced a new element: a soft-landing test of the booster.

That test was successful. The demonstration represents a big step closer to reusable boosters, technology that will make a significant contribution toward reducing the too-high cost of putting anything (or anyone) into space. Not bad for a twelve-year-old company ...