Monthly Archives: May 2015

Highlights from the just completed 2015 robotics conference in Seattle

Link here. The impression I get is of a very vibrant commercial industry now making a lot of money developing robots for a gigantic range of industrial and commercial uses. Most are industrial, but it is very clear that this technology is very steadily easing its way into public use.

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LightSail reboots and restores communications

The Planetary Society’s solar sail engineering cubesat test LightSail has rebooted its computers and re-established communications with Earth.

The mission’s primary mission is to test the engineering design of the deployment of the solar sail. They will now be able to proceed with this deployment.

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India’s spaceplane prototype to fly by August

The competition heats up: The first test flight of India’s prototype scaled-down version of a reusable spaceplane is expected by late July or early August at the latest.

It appears the Modi government is accelerating development of this mini-shuttle, which is essentially India’s version of Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. If they build it first, it will mean they will have the chance to grab the business that Sierra Nevada has been hoping to grab.

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New flights from SpaceShipTwo will likely not happen for years

In the heat of competition: A variety of unnamed sources are saying that Virgin Galactic’s new SpaceShipTwo will will likely not fly for years.

This quote is especially telling:

As to when that commercial service might actually be ready, one former Virgin Galactic employee told Newsnight: “I can’t say whether it will be two years or whether it will be five… They have a huge, huge, way to go.”

So is this quote from Doug Messier, quoted in the article:

“This program’s claimed four lives already and it’s had four powered flights and they haven’t gotten anywhere near space in 10 years.”

When summed up, as Messier does, Virgin Galactic’s effort sure sounds disappointing, doesn’t it?

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The long term decline in the United States’ GDP

This article begins by focusing on the low GDP numbers that have plagued the Obama administration, but I think this fact is far more significant:

Under previous presidents, real GDP sometimes grew massively during the first quarter. In 1950, under Truman, for example, GDP grew at an annual rate of 16.9 percent in the first quarter. In 1955, under Eisenhower, it grew at a rate of 11.9 percent. Under Johnson, in the first quarters of both 1965 and 1966, it grew at a rate of 10.2 percent. Under Nixon, it grew at 11.1 percent in the first quarter of 1971, and 10.2 percent in the first quarter of 1973, it grew at 10.2 percent. Under Ford, in the first quarter of 1976, it grew at 9.3 percent. Under Reagan, in the first quarter of 1984, real GDP grew at a rate of 8.2 percent.

But since 1984—more than three decades ago–there has been no first quarter, in any year, under any president, when real GDP grew even as fast as 5.0 percent. The closest it came was in the first quarter of 2006, when George W. Bush was president, and it hit 4.9 percent.

Note the trend downward, from 16.9% to 11.9% to 10.2% to 11.1% to 10.2% to 9.3% to 8.2% to less than 5%. The only significant other dominant social change during this seven decade period has been the steady rise of the federal government and its crushing regulatory control over all aspects of American life and business, regardless of which party has been in power. We should therefore not be surprised that there has chronic decline in the U.S.’s economic might during this time period. You can’t create new wealth if everything you do is increasingly supervised by a centralized bureaucracy that knows nothing about your business — but thinks it does.

And obviously, the solution is bigger government. Yup, that’s the answer. Just ask the Soviet Union, or Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders!

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Unsafe anthrax shipments more extensive than first revealed

Government marches on! The Defense Department has now admitted that the improper shipment of live anthrax samples was far more widespread than they originally told us.

“As of now, 24 laboratories in 11 states and two foreign countries are believed to have received suspect samples. We continue to work closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who is leading the ongoing investigation pursuit to its statutory authorities. The Department will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates to the public,” Defense Department said in a statement.

The Defense Department had previously reported labs in nine states and Osan Air Force Base in South Korea were impacted.

Words fail me.

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Pro-crime policies work!

Link here.

Despite a generation in which radical anti-crime policies such as enforcing the law and locking up criminals slashed murder rates, there’s still plenty of debate over whether anti-crime policies work.

But no one can argue over whether pro-crime policies work.

108 people were shot in New York, Baltimore and Chicago over the weekend. Many of the casualties were saved from that terrible “school-to-prison pipeline” that bedevils promising young crack dealers and instead went straight to the morgue.

Read it all. We went though this leftwing socialist policy disaster before in the 1960s and 1970s. Some cities, like Detroit, never abandoned it. It now appears the cities that did, like New York and Baltimore, are moving to try it again. Woe on those decent citizens that live there.

Then again, they voted for these policies, so I suppose they are getting the government they deserve.

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ESA and Airbus Safran agree on deal to build Ariane 6

The competition heats up: Airbus Safran have come to an agreement with the European Space Agency on building Ariane 6, Europe’s next commercial rocket.

The key part of the deal is that ESA and Arianespace will be ceding ownership of the rocket to Airbus Safran.

The French government is likely to approve the sale of CNES’s 34-percent stake in the Evry, France-based Arianespace launch service provider to Airbus Safran Launchers at about the same time as the Ariane 6 development contract is signed.

With that sale, Airbus Safran will control Arianespace, which means they will also own the rocket they are building for Arianespace. This is fundamentally different than the situation with Ariane 5, which Airbus built for an Arianespace owned and run by the many-headed ESA. The result was a bloated government-run operation that never made a profit.

Now Airbus will own it instead. They have already indicated that they will trim the costs at Arianespace. More importantly, with ownership will come the freedom to compete effectively in the much more competitive launch market created by the arrival of SpaceX. No need to get permission from ESA to do things.

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Proton third stage design problem cause most recent failure

The Russian investigation into the latest Proton rocket has concluded that the failure was caused by a design failure in the rocket’s third stage.

While it is always possible for new design issues to be discovered, I wonder why this problem hadn’t been noticed in the decades prior to 2010, when the Proton began to have repeated failures.

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Rosetta team proposes landing on comet to finish mission

Rather than simply turn off the spacecraft when its funding runs out at the end of 2015, Rosetta’s science team have proposed that the mission get a nine month extension, during which they will slowly spiral into the comet and gently land.

Their proposal is similar to what American scientists did with their NEAR spacecraft, which hadn’t been designed to land on an asteroid but was successfully eased onto the surface of Eros, where it operated for a very short time.

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The increased bureaucracy imposed on doctors by Obamacare

Finding out what’s in it: Obamacare has forced doctors to increasingly replace medical care with administrative duties, much of which has been forced on them by the law’s requirement that they switch to electronic records.

The newly elected Barack Obama told the nation in 2009 that “[electronic records just won’t save billions of dollars”—$77 billion a year, promised the administration—“and thousands of jobs, it will save lives.” He then threw a cool $27 billion at going paperless by 2015.

It’s 2015, and what have we achieved? The $27 billion is gone, of course. The $77 billion in savings became a joke. Indeed, reported the Health and Human Services inspector general in 2014, “EHR technology can make it easier to commit fraud,” as in Medicare fraud, the copy-and-paste function allowing the instant filling of vast data fields, facilitating billing inflation.

That’s just the beginning of the losses. Consider the myriad small practices that, facing ruinous transition costs in equipment, software, training and time, have closed shop, gone bankrupt or been swallowed by larger entities. This hardly stays the long arm of the health care police, however. As of Jan. 1, 2015, if you haven’t gone electronic, your Medicare payments will be cut, by 1 percent this year, rising to 3 percent (potentially 5 percent) in subsequent years.

Then there is the toll on doctors’ time and patient care. One study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found that emergency-room doctors spend 43 percent of their time entering electronic records information, 28 percent with patients. Another study found that family-practice physicians spend on average 48 minutes a day just entering clinical data.

Forget the numbers. Think just of your own doctor’s visits, of how much less listening, examining, even eye contact goes on, given the need for scrolling, clicking and box checking.

The last point is absolutely true. I have found that with most doctors today, they spend most of my visit working their computer than looking at me. It is very bad medicine, which is why my best doctors refuse to do it. Either they have an assistant do it for them (raising costs of course) or they wait until the visit is over (which of course eats into the time available to see patients).

But who are we to argue with Obama and the Democrats? As well-meaning liberals, they know best and everyone else should just shut up and obey their orders.

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A teacher’s Title IX inquisition

Link here. She was attacked and subjected to significant legal harassment, merely because she wrote an op-ed on sexual politics on campus, and some people didn’t like her opinion. They then used the badly written Title IX law, passed in 1972 by Congress to “deal with gender discrimination in public education”, to get her, and her supporters, charged and interrogated repeatedly by lawyers.

Her accusers were allowed to remain anonymous. She was denied the right to use a lawyer. The specific charges against her were never provided in writing. And they were apparently based merely on the fact that her op-ed offended her accusers.

Read it all. Since the attacks against her were instigated by the students, who represent our future, this story will give you a good sense of where our society is heading. And it ain’t paradise.

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Live anthrax spores shipped improperly by U.S. military

Does this make you feel safer? The Department of Defense [DOD] has admitted it mistakenly shipped live anthrax spores to nine laboratories that are unequipped to handle them.

The facilities that received the samples did not have systems in place to protect lab employees against anthrax exposure because they were expecting to receive spores that had been killed with radiation. It is not clear how many people were actually exposed. The DOD says that 22 people in South Korea are getting preventive treatment, but it has not confirmed how many people in the United States are being treated.

The failure here was not just with the DOD. The labs that accepted the samples are also at fault.

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Same-sex science paper retracted

Politics corrupts science, again: The journal Science has retracted a paper that had claimed opinions on homosexual marriage could be changed quickly during a short conversation.

As noted in the journal’s retraction statement:

The reasons for retracting the paper are as follows: (i) Survey incentives were misrepresented. To encourage participation in the survey, respondents were claimed to have been given cash payments to enroll, to refer family and friends, and to complete multiple surveys. In correspondence received from Michael J. LaCour’s attorney, he confirmed that no such payments were made. (ii) The statement on sponsorship was false. In the Report, LaCour acknowledged funding from the Williams Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. Per correspondence from LaCour’s attorney, this statement was not true.

In addition to these known problems, independent researchers have noted certain statistical irregularities in the responses. LaCour has not produced the original survey data from which someone else could independently confirm the validity of the reported findings. [emphasis mine]

LaCour was the paper’s lead author. That he cannot provide the original data immediately discredits the work. It also discredits his only co-author, Donald Green of Columbia University, who apparently put his name on the paper without ever looking at the original data as well. When the above fraud was exposed, Green quickly called for the paper’s retraction, but I wonder how it was possible he allowed it to be published in the first place. Could it have been that he supports the idea of same-sex marriage, and wanted science to contribute its support as well, regardless of the facts?

Not being able to provide the original data is the same problem that Phil Jones of the Climate Research Unit had. Jones’ work documenting the global temperature for the past century has been the main source used by the entire climate field for decades, and when he couldn’t provide his original data, saying it was lost, his work should have received the same treatment as LaCour above — immediate retraction. Instead, Science protected him, as did the entire climate community.

Their willingness to cover-up Jones’ bad science is now coming back to bite them, with more examples of sloppy work getting into publication. Jones showed that it was all right to fake his results. LaCour decided to try it as well, and Green saw no reason to challenge the dishonesty. The result? Fake science done for the sake of homosexual politics.

The big difference now, however, is the willingness of Science to quickly retract the piece. It appears we are making some progress in re-establishing the rules of science to research and publication.

A minor side note: The author of the story above is John Bohannon, the same guy who just proved you can write a fake paper and get journalists to report it.

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ALMA detects a solar flare on Mira 420 light years away

Mira A and Mira B

The just completed ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), a collection of 66 antennas located in Chile, has snapped a picture of the variable star Mira with its companion star, detecting details on the primary’s surface, including evidence of a solar flare.

Mira is a star with a mass like our Sun’s, but near the end of its life having evolved into a red giant that is shedding its outer layers. Being able to track its behavior with this kind of detail will allow astronomers to better hone their theories about the life and death of stars, including our own.

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Another major image release from Rosetta

Time for many cool images! The Rosetta science team has just released to the public another batch of images from its navigational camera.

The 1776 images cover the period between 23 September and 21 November 2014, corresponding to Rosetta’s close study of the comet down to distances of just 10 km from the comet centre – 8 km from the surface – and the images taken during and immediately following the landing of Philae on the comet.

You can browse through them at your leisure, making your own discoveries if you have a sharp eye and know something about planetary geology.

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A solar system like our own, but when it was a baby

Astronomers have discovered a very young 15 million year old star only 360 light years away that has a debris disk about the size of our solar system’s Kuiper Belt.

The ring is about the same distance from its parent star as the Kuiper belt is from the Sun, and receives roughly the same amount of light. Its blue-grey colour hints that it could consist of ices and rocky silicates such as those found in the Kuiper belt, says lead author Thayne Currie, an astronomer at the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, which is run by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. “This is absolutely the closest example we have of a young Kuiper belt,” he says.

The best part of this discovery however might be how it was made, by using a new instrument on the ground-based Gemini telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The instrument, which is part of the Gemini South telescope in Chile, uses a disk called a coronagraph to blot out the glare of bright stars. That allows it to take multi-wavelength pictures of faint, orbiting planets and debris disks around stars, by recording near-infrared light from the parent star as it scatters off the debris. The researchers discovered the disk around HD 115600 fewer than 6 months after the GPI began operation. A similar instrument, known as SPHERE, began operating in May 2014 on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and has also begun to make discoveries.

Assuming protesters don’t force Gemini to close, we should be getting a lot more exoplanetary discoveries from it in the coming years.

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Russian rocket engines ready for shipment to U.S.

The competition heats up: An engine that Russia has developed for its Angara rocket has now been tested and is ready for shipment to the U.S. for use in the first stage of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket.

This new engine will replace the refurbished Soviet-era engines Antares had been using previously that had caused the October launch failure. Note also that since Antares is not a military rocket, it does not fall under the Congressional ban for Russian engines that limits their use on ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket. As the article notes,

On Jan. 16, 2015, RKK Energia, parent company of NPO Energomash, announced that it had reached an agreement with the American company Orbital Sciences Corporation, OSC, on the export of RD-181 engines for the first stage of the Antares rocket, thus replacing the NK-33 engines previously used on the launcher. The contract, worth around $1 billion, was actually signed and ratified by the Russian government in December 2014. According to the document, a total of 60 RD-181 engines would be delivered to OSC beginning in June 2015.

This deal means that Antares will likely be back in business soon, though it will still be dependent on Russian-built equipment, which carries its own risks. It also means that Orbital ATK will not be able to sell Antares to the U.S. military, limiting its marketability.

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It looks like the Moon!

craters on Ceres

Cool image time! Dawn has now swooped down to 3,200 miles, and provided a very nice image of the cratered surface of Ceres. Though it does appear to resemble the Moon, there are some differences that come to mind if you take a close look at the full resolution image. The surface appears smoother. All of the craters appear worn or eroded or less rugged. Also, there are no mountains. The terrain resembles the Moon’s lowlands or maria, but more so.

Note that the region in this picture is tantalizingly close to the double bright spot, but does not include it. Because Dawn is still easing its way into its first survey orbit of 2,700 miles elevation, it only takes pictures when it stops firing its ion engine, which it is doing almost all the time to get where it wants to be. Thus, they apparently only had time for this image.

The spacecraft enters its mapping orbit on June 3. Expect some cool images, including the first good images of the double bright spots, shortly thereafter.

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A journalist and filmmaking team fake a study and the press buys it

The uncertainty of science journalism: How a science journalist and two documentary filmmakers fooled millions (and many science journalists) into thinking that eating chocolate will help you lose weight.

My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

He then describes step by step how they did it. They even got their “research” published in a journal that claimed it did peer review but did not change one word of their submitted manuscript and published it less than two weeks after submission and the receipt of their money (science journals traditionally require authors to pay them for the honor of publication). In the end,

We landed big fish before we even knew they were biting. Bild rushed their story out—”Those who eat chocolate stay slim!”—without contacting me at all. Soon we were in the Daily Star, the Irish Examiner, Cosmopolitan’s German website, the Times of India, both the German and Indian site of the Huffington Post, and even television news in Texas and an Australian morning talk show.

The American women’s magazine Shape also fell for the fraud.

To me, the main reason the fraud worked was because none of the journalists involved ever bothered to actually read the science paper. They saw the press release, thought the story was cool, and simply rewrote the release. This is what happens repeatedly in the science field, and is why so much crap about climate science gets published. Too many reporters accept verbatim the claims of the scientists, doing no research to check the facts on which those claims were based.

I should mention also that John Bohannon, the man who played the scientist in this prank, also ran a sting operation against peer review journals in October 2013, creating a bogus paper and getting 157 journals to accept it for publication.

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“These are the brownshirts of our time.”

Link here.

Read it. Though the author describes an event that happened in 2003, it shows us ugly circumstances that have now become quite common, because as she says, “the ‘good’ people did nothing to disperse the hostility.” And unless we do something about it now — stand up to these fascist thugs who hide behind nice-sounding ideologies — what is happening today in the worst places in the Middle East is only showing us what things will be like here in another dozen years.

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Russian rocket now garden furniture in England

A British businessman has purchased a discarded Russian rocket and installed it in his garden as decoration.

Almost 40ft long and weighing five tonne, the rocket was first flown in 1991 after being built by the Russians in collaboration with NASA at a cost $10 million. For ten years it held the record for the fastest ever made-made machine before it was jettisoned as archaic.

Somehow it ended up at a car auction at South Marston where it was spotted by Mr Sweet while checking out vintage motors. Mr Sweet, who runs the Cirencester-based computer company Zycko, said: “I saw it for sale at a car auction and decided to buy it, not really knowing what I was going to do with it.”

I am curious how the rocket had ended up being owned and offered for sale by a UK company that “specializes in car restorations.” I also wonder if this might be a major new profit center for the struggling Russian rocket industry.

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X-37B orbit uncovered

Space hobbyists have pinpointed the classified initial orbit of the recently launched X-37B.

Observers this week spotted the craft flying overhead in a 194 by 202 mile orbit (312 X 325 km), tilted 38 degrees relative to the equator. That perch is lower than previous X-37B missions and the inclination is lower, too.

“OTV 4 entered the lowest initial altitude of the program,” said Ted Molczan, a respected satellite observing hobbyist. “The ground track nearly repeats every 2 days. Frequently repeating ground tracks have been a common feature of the program. This could be an indication of a surveillance mission, or it may offer some operational advantage I have yet to figure out.”

Not much else has as yet been uncovered.

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New Images of Pluto from New Horizons

Pluto in mid-May

Cool image time! New images taken by New Horizons of Pluto in mid-May have begun showing faint details of the planet’s surface.

“These new images show us that Pluto’s differing faces are each distinct; likely hinting at what may be very complex surface geology or variations in surface composition from place to place,” said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “These images also continue to support the hypothesis that Pluto has a polar cap whose extent varies with longitude; we’ll be able to make a definitive determination of the polar bright region’s iciness when we get compositional spectroscopy of that region in July.”

These images also suggest vaguely that Pluto might not be entire spherical, but I wouldn’t put much money on that speculation. We will know for sure in just a few more weeks.

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NSF to help fund the development of implantable antennas

What could possibly go wrong? The National Science Foundation (NSF) is providing funding for the development of an implantable antenna for health care, including the possibility for “long-term patient monitoring.”

The project is being financed in collaboration with the National Research Foundation of Korea to create a high frequency antenna that can be permanently implanted under a person’s skin. “Antennas operating near or inside the human body are important for a number of applications, including healthcare,” a grant for the project said. “Implantable medical devices such as cardiac pacemakers and retinal implants are a growing feature of modern healthcare, and implantable antennas for these devices are necessary to monitor battery level and device health, to upload and download data used in patient monitoring, and more.”

The grant said that an implantable device could be used for “long-term patient monitoring” and “biometric tracking,” or using technology to verify a person’s identity.

Without any doubt there are many very useful applications for such an implantable device. Monitoring battery life on pacemakers is an obvious one. There will be a problem, however, if anyone but the patient can do the monitoring. I can see too many possible misuses occurring should it be in anyone else’s hands. At a minimum, there are big privacy concerns.

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