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I want to thank all of you for your generous support during July's anniversary fund-raiser. I would thank you each individually but there are simply too many of you. Your donations and subscriptions will help me keep Behind the Black alive and kicking for at least another year.

 

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More reasons why I don’t use Windows

A close look at Microsoft’s track record in rolling out Windows 10 suggests the company “blatently disregards user choice and privacy.”

After describing the numerous horror stories of how Microsoft forced Windows 10 updates on people against their will, there was this:

The trouble with Windows 10 doesn’t end with forcing users to download the operating system. Windows 10 sends an unprecedented amount of usage data back to Microsoft, particularly if users opt in to “personalize” the software using the OS assistant called Cortana. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of data sent back: location data, text input, voice input, touch input, webpages you visit, and telemetry data regarding your general usage of your computer, including which programs you run and for how long.

You do have to opt-in to Cortana, but even if you don’t, your privacy is still not secure:

And while users can disable some of these settings, it is not a guarantee that your computer will stop talking to Microsoft’s servers. A significant issue is the telemetry data the company receives. While Microsoft insists that it aggregates and anonymizes this data, it hasn’t explained just how it does so. Microsoft also won’t say how long this data is retained, instead providing only general timeframes. Worse yet, unless you’re an enterprise user, no matter what, you have to share at least some of this telemetry data with Microsoft and there’s no way to opt-out of it. [emphasis in original]

It is once again time for people to consider alternatives. Here again are the links to James Stephens’ series on Behind the Black for Getting and Installing Linux:

Murray Buttes panorama by Curiosity released

The Curiosity science team has released a full panorama taken by Curiosity of Murray Buttes prior to its journey through them.

The reason I am not posting this new panorama here on Behind the Black is because I had already posted an almost identical panorama more than a week ago, and my assembled panorama used higher resolution images from Curiosity and was not partly obscured by Curiosity itself. Moreover, I provided better context for that panorama, placing it within Curiosity’s overall travels, something NASA in today’s press release fails to do.

So, if you want to see the best cool images from space and see them sooner than everyone else, why bother reading NASA press releases? Read Behind the Black instead! :)

EPA never did ethanol studies required by law

The law is such an inconvenient thing: Despite a legal mandate from Congress to conduct studies on the use of ethanol in vehicles the EPA has admitted that it simply ignored the law and never did any.

The Obama administration has failed to study as legally required the impact of requiring ethanol in gasoline and ensuring that new regulations intended to address one problem do not actually make other problems worse, the Environmental Protection Agency inspector general said Thursday. The conclusion in the new audit confirmed findings of an Associated Press investigation in November 2013. The AP said the administration never conducted studies to determine whether air and water quality benefits from adding corn-based ethanol to gasoline. Such reports to Congress were required every three years under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

Instead, they have been pushing to increase the amount of ethanol used in gasoline, even though they have no idea whether this helps or hurts the environment, and have been told by practically every automotive industry expert that increased ethanol will damage car engines.

But then, who cares what the law says? Who cares what other experts say? The EPA is made up of righteous perfect liberal individuals who simply know better. How dare Congress, or anyone for that matter, tell them what to do!

Another establishment Republican endorses Clinton

Today a former Romney official, one of many similar establishment Republicans from the Romney campaign as well as the Bush administration, announced in an op-ed that he is voting for Hillary Clinton in the general election.

I haven’t reported on this stream of Clinton endorsements by Republican politicos, as I generally consider most such endorsements to be meaningless. However, I think it important to make one comment. It is perfectly understandable if a conservative decides that he or she cannot support Donald Trump for president. Trump’s past history as a liberal Democrat certainly makes him a poor choice if you happen to be a sincere conservative who believes in the Constitution and small and limited government.

At the same time, if you are a sincere conservative you don’t then announce that you are endorsing Hillary Clinton and will vote for her instead. You either don’t vote for anyone for president, or you pick the Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, who has his own problems but at least has a past conservative track record. By throwing their support to Hillary Clinton, these establishment Republicans are finally revealing to the world that they really never had any interest in conservative values and have always been lying when they said so. Instead, they are simply more interested in the power they gain in Washington, and will do whatever it takes to obtain that power, including supporting the most socialist, corrupt, and dishonest Democratic Party candidate presented to us in the past century.

Thus, these endorsements are actually very useful information. They finally tell us who the fake conservatives in the Republican Party are and, should Donald Trump win in November, will allow him to finally purge the party of these liars and backstabbers, so that we might be able to finally make real some progress in gaining some control over our presently very oppressive and destructive federal government.

Russia-Boeing settlement in Sea Launch dispute?

According to one Russian news source, Russia has negotiated a settlement with Boeing over their Sea Launch dispute.

Russia says it has a possible buyer of Sea Launch, but they can’t sell it because the floating launchpad is in the U.S. and Boeing has gone to court to block the sale until Russia pays them the $300 million it owes them.

Lots of launches

The competition heats up: The next few weeks will be a busy period for rocket launches:

SpaceX’s September 3 launch is part of their effort to ramp up their launch rate and get 18 Falcon 9 launches in 2016. So far they have completed 8 launches.

The September 8 launch will be the United States first sample return mission to an asteroid, Bennu, which also happens to be an asteroid that could possibly impact the Earth at some time in the future.

The September 10 launch will be another test flight of India’s more powerful Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, aimed at competing for launch business against SpaceX, ULA, and Arianespace.

There’s more beyond this. A lot is scheduled for this fall.

SpaceX to up its purchase of carbon fiber?

The competition heats up: A Japanese supplier of carbon fiber materials has announced that it and SpaceX are negotiating a multi-year deal worth possibly as much as $3 billion.

The multiyear deal with Tesla founder Elon Musk’s 14-year-old venture is estimated to be worth 200 billion yen to 300 billion yen ($1.99 billion to $2.98 billion) in total. The two sides are aiming to finalize the agreement this fall after hammering out prices, time frames and other terms. SpaceX aims to hold down expenses by re-using rockets and spacecraft. Originally, the company made rockets mostly out of aluminum to keep costs low, using carbon fiber only for a few parts, such as connecting joints.

The U.S. company said in a statement, “Toray is one of a number of suppliers we work with to meet our carbon fiber needs for Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft production, and we haven’t announced any new agreements at this time. As our business continues to grow, the amount of carbon fiber we use may continue to grow.”[emphasis mine]

The deal is not yet final, but the highlighted language above suggests to me that, based on SpaceX’s engineering tests of its recovered first stages, it has decided it is worthwhile replacing aluminum with carbon fiber for many more of its rocket parts. The fiber might cost more, but if the first stage is going to be reused, the cost can be distributed over several launches. And because carbon fiber is lighter than aluminum, it will allow their rockets to launch a larger payload.

Dirt roads Omaha’s solution to crumbling roads

The coming dark age: Because the substandard asphalt roads installed by private developers decades ago under an agreement with Omaha are now crumbling and the residents don’t want to pay to replace them, the city has chosen to rip out the roads and replace them with dirt roads.

For years, the arrangement held up. But as the roads began to age and crumble, and as new residents replaced the original homeowners, resentment intensified about a city government that maintained some neighborhoods while ignoring others. Said neighbor Bill Manhart, “It’s like living in the country, but in the middle of the city…There’s so much dust and mud on the street, what’s the point?”

A series of meetings between city officials and residents of the affected neighborhoods, which include about 10,000 houses, hasn’t resolved the problem. “This is insanity,” declared City Council member Chris Jerram at one heated council session earlier this year. Austin Rowser, Omaha streets superintendent, said the city’s position is “a matter of fairness. Some property owners paid for better streets and a minority didn’t.” He added that the city simply can’t afford the roughly $300 million bill to fix all the substandard streets.

That doesn’t fly with residents who say that dirt roads or crumbling pavement are unworthy of a well-off community with a growing population, a tiny unemployment rate and four Fortune 500 companies.

The blame here falls on everyone. Taxes and government revenue today are much higher than in the past when most of the city’s roads were built. Yet, the city doesn’t have the cash to do this fundamental work, because that money is devoted social programs or union salaries that no one wants to cut. Meanwhile, the well-to-do residents who live in these areas got cheaper roads back when, under an agreement that said they’d pay for maintenance. They don’t want to, however. Instead, they’ve been willing to let the roads crumble, and now prefer to have the rest of the city’s taxpayers pick up the tab.

The result: A crumbling social order illustrated by a city that is replacing paved roads with dirt ones.

More evidence ULA will pick Blue Origin over Aerojet Rocketdyne

In a press interview published in late July, a ULA executive confirmed that the company is going to pick Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for its new Vulcan rocket.

ULA used a Russian engine for its expendable Atlas V booster but has long relied on U.S. suppliers such as Aerojet Rocketdyne. For Vulcan’s reusable engine, ULA is turning to Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. The company’s cutting-edge BE-4 is powered by liquid natural gas instead of kerosene or liquid hydrogen.

By partnering with a startup like Blue Origin, ULA gains other advantages. “There is a world of difference between the culture at Blue Origin and the culture at Aerojet Rocketdyne,” said [Dr. George F. Sowers, ULA’s vice president for advanced programs]. “We knew we could absorb some of their culture by osmosis, just by working with them.” That influence shows up in cross-team collaboration. “We are literally breaking down walls to create a ‘Silicon Valley’ workspace,” Sowers said.

Sowers is very careful to say nothing about the Atlas 5 and the engine that will replace the Russian engine in its first stage. ULA originally signed its deal with Blue Origin with the Atlas 5 in mind, but has not made a final decision between Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne because Congress appears to favor Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine, and Congress is a very big gorilla you do not upset. However, their development plans for Vulcan are incremental and closely linked with the Atlas 5. They plan to introduce Vulcan piecemeal in various upgrades of Atlas 5 as they go, so if they are set on using Blue Origin’s engine in the Vulcan rocket, it probably means that they plan on using it to replace the Russian engine in Atlas 5. This interview appears to confirm this.

An isolated dune on Mars

Isolated dune on Mars

Close-up of Dune

Cool image time! The image above, cropped and rotated to post it here, shows a single isolated large dune inside an unnamed crater on Mars. The image was taken by Mars Odyssey on June 5. To the right is a close-up of the dune itself. Its isolated nature as well as the darkness of its sand in comparison with the surrounding territory has probably got some planetary scientists scratching their heads. Furthermore, the darker streaks that appear to flow down the dune are quite intriguing. Were they formed by briny seep water, as has been found with other seasonal dark slope streaks? Or are they evidence of sand avalanches?

I imagine that there will be an effort to monitor this dune over time, to see if it changes.

Costs rise on Obama’s asteroid mission

The year delay in Obama’s as yet unfunded unmanned asteroid mission, a preliminary to a proposed manned asteroid mission, has caused its budget to grow from $1.25 billion to $1.4 billion.

More significantly,

NASA’s cost estimate for [the unmanned] ARRM excludes launch and operations. In a March 2016 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of NASA’s major programs showed a cost of $1.72 billion. Gates explained that the $1.72 billion includes the launch vehicle cost, set at approximately $500 million as a placeholder since NASA has not determined which of three launch vehicles will be used (Delta IV Heavy, Falcon Heavy, or the Space Launch System).

…The next administration will have to decide if the costs are worth the benefits. Although NASA has decided they are, the House Appropriations Committee disagrees. It denied funding for the program in its report on the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which funds NASA. The bill has not passed the House yet, however, and there is no similar language in the Senate version, so NASA is not currently prohibited from spending money on the project.

So far, NASA has been funding this Obama project by stealing money from other projects in NASA, since Congress has consistently refused to appropriate extra money for it. This approach has worked up until now, as they are only funding initial design work. Where they think they will get the money for a full mission however remains a complete mystery to me.

Trump’s agriculture advisory panel

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has announced his list of agricultural advisers, drawing mostly from established Republican players.

The New York City real estate mogul’s rural and agriculture advisory committee — comprising 65 people — is a Who’s Who of farm policy, with five members of Congress, including the chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees, 10 current and former farm-state governors and two former GOP presidential nomination rivals, former Govs. Rick Perry and Jim Gilmore.

…The list includes some major GOP donors, including Charles Herbster, a Nebraska cattle rancher who’s serving as the council’s chair, and Bruce Rastetter, a wealthy agribusiness leader in Iowa. But it also lists most of the Republican farm policy establishment, including Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Mike Conaway of Texas, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who used to lead the House panel, as well as nearly a dozen state agriculture commissioners.

The advisory committee — which is six times larger than Mitt Romney’s 2012 panel — also includes a number of distinctly Trumpian characters, from Red Steagall, Texas’ official cowboy poet, to Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner who made national headlines for trying to bring deep fryers and sugary drinks back to schools.

Much of this panel appears to be very much mainstream Republican establishment, which has its positives and negatives. On a positive side, the article notes that in the panel’s first discussions about policy there was talk about eliminating or streamlining federal regulation on agriculture. On the negative side, the panel has some important members who favor the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal worked out by the Obama administration.

This information once again suggests that Trump will govern somewhere in the middle. If Congress is controlled by Republicans than there is also a good chance that its policy will lean rightward, though this panel also suggests that policy will continue to favor the crony businesses that the Republican leadership likes.

The Grand Canyon

Park Service warning sign

When I posted here on Behind the Black that Diane and I were on our way to the Grand Canyon for our annual hike to the bottom, one of my readers, Keith Douglas, commented that he and his family would be there about the same time. In trying unsuccessfully to meet up, at one point Keith mentioned that his two kids, aged 24 and 23, were proposing they hike into the canyon. Keith emailed me to ask, “From what I read, hiking into the canyon and out is not recommended for a one day activity. What about halfway and back up? Can that be done in an afternoon? It seems pretty hot.” I responded,

Though one can hike down and up in one day, this is not recommended for most. Usually you need to be in very good condition and young. It also helps if you are a long distance runner. Hiking down to Indian Gardens [about two thirds of the way down] can be done as a day trip, but if you don’t hike a lot it will be an intense and long experience. Also, having the right pack and gear is essential! People who go carrying a one liter bottle of water and no hat are guaranteed to suffer.

I didn’t tell them they couldn’t do it, or that they shouldn’t, or that it wasn’t possible. I simply outlined some of the basics for doing it, and let them decide what to do.

Keith answered, with humor, “Thanks for helping me talk my kids out of a hike down.” He later added, “I read a hiking guide on the nps website. It seems to be designed to discourage canyon hiking rather than prepare novice hikers.”

In one sentence Keith encapsulated the problem with almost all of the advice the Park Service gives about the Grand Canyon.
» Read more

Balanced Rock at last

Balanced rock close-up

My pessimistic prediction that Curiosity’s science team would take the least risky route and thus not pass close to the butte with the balanced rock has fortunately turned out to be very wrong! They have moved Curiosity into the closest gap to get the best views of both the balanced rock as well as the butte behind it. The image on the right, cropped, was taken by the rover’s mast camera as Curiosity entered the gap between the buttes. It shows clearly that balanced rock broke off from the layers above and landed on its side.

The image below the fold shows the same butte after Curiosity had passed the balanced rock (inside red box).
» Read more

The status of SLS for its first launch in 2018

Link here. The article gives an excellent and detailed overview of where construction of SLS presently sits, what the problems are that still remain, and what they have done to overcome them.

What struck me most however in reading the article was how long it takes them to do anything. For example, it appears they will assemble the rocket in the spring of 2018 for a December launch. In fact, the description of this assembly in this article partly explains to me why SLS will have the ungodly slow launch rate of at best once every two years.

In addition, the article describes how NASA has handled a number of engineering issues that have come up, and for each the approach seems to me to be more complicated than necessary. However, I am not an engineer and have never been part of this kind of work. Maybe everyone does it this way.

Aetna pulls out of Obamacare

Finding out what’s in it: One of the countries largest health insurance companies, Aetna, announced on Monday that it will stop offering health insurance through Obamacare.

Under Obamacare, Aetna lost $200 million in the second quarter of 2016 alone. Too bad no one predicted this…except for every evil racist homophobic tea party and thoughtful conservative whom the Democrats and Obama preferred slandering instead of listening to what they had to say.

Good thing we are going to vote for those Democrats again. Using their brilliant understanding of economics they will be sure the fix the problem they created!

The Backwards Brain Bicycle

An evening pause: This is show 133 of a series called Smarter Every Day which has some really entertaining and very educational videos. I especially like his video showing how the drill on Curiosity works. The video below however shows some actual experimentation done by the videographer himself, and is almost profound in it what reveals about the human learning process.

Hat tip Chris McLaughlin.

SpaceX launches another satellite and recovers another Falcon 9 first stage

The competition heats up: SpaceX this morning successfully put another satellite in orbit while also recovering another Falcon 9 first stage.

Posted from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, after hiking out today. More on that later, when I am not so beat and have the energy to write.

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