Colonizing the Altiplano

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

In “The Creation of Imaginary Worlds” — one of the essays collected in Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy — Poul Anderson mentions one of the challenges of colonizing our own Earth:

It takes both sexes to keep humanity going. The Spaniards failed to colonize the Peruvian altiplano for the simple reason that, while both they and their wives could learn to breathe the thin air, the wives could not bring babies to term. So the local Indians, with untold generations of natural selection behind them, still dominate that region, racially if not politically.

AAI Wins DARPA Flying-Jeep Study

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

It’s hard to imagine a more preposterous vehicle than the flying-jeep AAI has proposed to build for DARPA’s Transformer Vehicle (TX) program — but the technical details sound borderline plausible:

AAI’s design is based on the slowed-rotor/compound (SR/C) helicopter technology being developed jointly with Cartercopter. SR/C is essentially an autogyro in which the rotor can be slowed as forward speed increases, offloading lift to the wing to allow the vehicle to fly faster than a conventional helicopter.

In AAI’s concept, the TX converts from vehicle to aircraft by raising the rotor mast, unfolding the blades and deploying the wing. The turboprop engine spools up the high-inertia rotor for a jump takeoff then drives a ducted propulsor for forward flight. Thrust deflectors, stabilators and ailerons provide flight control. On the ground, the turboprop generates electricity to drive in-wheel motors.

Takeoff and landing would be automated, using AAI’s unmanned-aircraft experience. In the cruise, the driver would use the wheel, pedals and gear lever to follow “highway-in-the-sky” guidance cues.

Charles Whitman and Future Shock

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Today’s shooting at the University of Texas brings to mind the case of Charles Whitman, the original Austin shooter:

What struck me as most fascinating were the accounts from several sources of how the police dealt with the lack of covering fire that a SWAT team would provide today. They just went to citizens in the area and asked them to bring their rifles and shoot at the tower, and they all went to their pickups, got their deer rifles and did what they could to help. Their covering fire kept Whitman down and limited him to shooting through a drain opening, pretty much stopping the killing and giving officers the opportunity to get into the building. The officers also deputized one of the citizens to go with them into the tower to give them a bit more firepower, although he didn’t end up facing Whitman.

What a different world. First, it was taken for granted that a bunch of people in the area would be carrying powerful rifles openly in their trucks in the middle of the state’s capitol city. What’s more, the police felt no hesitation in asking those citizens to help out in a dangerous situation and the citizens were eager to do their part. None of this was seen as out of the ordinary or unexpected at the time. Everyone had guns openly in public and they were willing to take responsibility and use them when asked. Perhaps most remarkably, the police saw armed citizens as an asset rather than as a threat.

In Arabian Desert, a Sustainable City Rises

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

I don’t often read architectural criticism, but this Critic’s Notebook from the New York Times really does read like something from the desk of Ellsworth Toohey:

Norman Foster, the firm’s principal partner, has blended high-tech design and ancient construction practices into an intriguing model for a sustainable community, in a country whose oil money allows it to build almost anything, even as pressure grows to prepare for the day the wells run dry. And he has worked in an alluring social vision, in which local tradition and the drive toward modernization are no longer in conflict — a vision that, at first glance, seems to brim with hope.

But his design also reflects the gated-community mentality that has been spreading like a cancer around the globe for decades. Its utopian purity, and its isolation from the life of the real city next door, are grounded in the belief — accepted by most people today, it seems — that the only way to create a truly harmonious community, green or otherwise, is to cut it off from the world at large.

Mr. Foster is the right man for this kind of job. A lifelong tech buff who collaborated with Buckminster Fuller, he talks about architecture in terms of high performance, as if his buildings were sports cars. And to some extent his single-minded focus on the craft of architecture — its technological and material aspects — has been a convenient way of avoiding trickier discussions about its social impact.

Mr. Foster’s one shining grace, Nicolai Ouroussoff informs us, is that he’s attempting to create an alternative to the ugliness and inefficiency of the sort of development — suburban villas slathered in superficial Islamic-style décor, gargantuan air-conditioned malls — that has been eating away the fabric of Middle Eastern cities for decades:

He began with a meticulous study of old Arab settlements, including the ancient citadel of Aleppo in Syria and the mud-brick apartment towers of Shibam in Yemen, which date from the 16th century. “The point,” he said in an interview in New York, “was to go back and understand the fundamentals,” how these communities had been made livable in a region where the air can feel as hot as 150 degrees.

Among the findings his office made was that settlements were often built on high ground, not only for defensive reasons but also to take advantage of the stronger winds. Some also used tall, hollow “wind towers” to funnel air down to street level. And the narrowness of the streets — which were almost always at an angle to the sun’s east-west trajectory, to maximize shade — accelerated airflow through the city.

With the help of environmental consultants, Mr. Foster’s team estimated that by combining such approaches, they could make Masdar feel as much as 70 degrees cooler. In so doing, they could more than halve the amount of electricity needed to run the city. Of the power that is used, 90 percent is expected to be solar, and the rest generated by incinerating waste (which produces far less carbon than piling it up in dumps). The city itself will be treated as a kind of continuing experiment, with researchers and engineers regularly analyzing its performance, fine-tuning as they go along.

But Mr. Foster’s most radical move was the way he dealt with one of the most vexing urban design challenges of the past century: what to do with the car. Not only did he close Masdar entirely to combustion-engine vehicles, he buried their replacement — his network of electric cars — underneath the city. Then, to further reinforce the purity of his vision, he located almost all of the heavy-duty service functions — a 54-acre photovoltaic field and incineration and water treatment plants — outside the city.

The result, Mr. Foster acknowledged, feels a bit like Disneyland. “Disneyland is attractive because all the service is below ground,” he said. “We do the same here — it is literally a walled city. Traditional cars are stopped at the edges.”

I was expecting more overt sneering at the mention of Disneyland.

Raytheon XOS2 Exoskeleton

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

The PR team behind Raytheon’s XOS2 Exoskeleton is doing its job:

The Iron Man 2 tie-in is almost a no-brainer:

(Hat tip to Nyrath.)

Their Moon Shot and Ours

Monday, September 27th, 2010

Thomas Friedman says that China is doing at least four moon shots right now — meaning big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments:

One is building a network of ultramodern airports; another is building a web of high-speed trains connecting major cities; a third is in bioscience, where the Beijing Genomics Institute this year ordered 128 DNA sequencers — from America — giving China the largest number in the world in one institute to launch its own stem cell/genetic engineering industry; and, finally, Beijing just announced that it was providing $15 billion in seed money for the country’s leading auto and battery companies to create an electric car industry, starting in 20 pilot cities. In essence, China Inc. just named its dream team of 16-state-owned enterprises to move China off oil and into the next industrial growth engine: electric cars.

Not to worry. America today also has its own multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing moon shot: fixing Afghanistan.

Just imagine what an Asian economic power could do if its government and industry worked together on the next generation of computing technology

Guns in Space

Monday, September 27th, 2010

If you were standing on the Moon and fired a bullet at the Earth, what would happen? Nothing special. The bullet would go up and come back down — unless you shot it really, really fast:

Well, assuming a maximum muzzle velocity of 1800 meters per second, you would at least be able to get the round up to lunar orbital velocity, so you could put the round into orbit around the moon if you aimed above the lunar horizon at just the right angle.

If you could squeeze a bit more thrust out of the round and get it moving up to lunar escape velocity (2380 meters/second), then assuming you were “leading” the Earth correctly, you could actually end up with a direct hit (with your round reentering the Earth’s atmosphere). Just remember, you cannot simply aim your gun at the Earth if you want to shoot it from the Moon though, but rather you have to aim towards where the Earth will be in its orbit in several days time. With a total delta-v just above lunar escape velocity, your round is gonna take awhile to cross the cis-lunar void and reach Earth, so you have to take that into account when you aim, otherwise the bullet might miss.

As the bullet from your Moon gun passed through an altitude of 38,759 miles (62,377 km) above the lunar surface, it would cross the lunar gravitational sphere of influence. From that moment onward, the gravitational source that would be most influencing the flightpath of the bullet changes from lunar to terrestrial. No longer is the bullet fighting the gravity of the Moon as it climbs upwards. Now, that bullet is actually falling towards the Earth, picking up speed.

Depending on what exotic metal you made the round out of, you could create one hell of a light show during the reentry into Earth’s atmosphere as it was vaporized by friction. Most “shooting stars” you see in the night sky are particles the size of a grain of sand burning up in the upper atmosphere, so something the mass of a .50 cal round could make for a pretty impressive sight as it comes smoking in.

If you wanted to try to put the bullet into any kind of decent Earth orbit (say, under 10,000 kms), I think you would have to try for some kinda crazy aero-capture maneuver where you aimed the round so that it just kissed the edge of the earth’s atmosphere, using atmospheric aerobraking to slow it down and capture it. I think your bullet would have to have some kind of final course correction capability built in in order to pull something like that off!

Would a gun work in space? Yes:

Just ask the Russians! They actually armed their Salyut-3 space station with a 23-millimeter NR-23 rapid-fire modified air-to-air cannon back in 1974. They even test-fired the damn thing and shot a metal target all to hell in low-Earth orbit!

Actually, it might surprise some people to learn that there is a handgun in space right now. Every Russian Soyuz vehicle carries a survival kit aboard in case during re-entry they land off course and end up in the Russian Steppes somewhere and have to wait a day or two to be rescued, and in that survival kit is a handgun. NASA’s official statement on the matter is simply that the gun is “is a piece of Russian equipment”. Every ISS crew member (doesn’t matter the nationality) is familiarized with the firearm during pre-flight training though.

Basically, every cosmonaut who has ever flown in space has been “packing heat”. Back in 1965 during Voskhod-2, Cosmonauts Aleksei Leonov and Pavel Belyayev landed way off course in the Urals somewhere and they actually had to use the gun from the survival kit to fend off wolves until the rescuers finally tracked him down the next day. I guess in a situation like that, a Russian handgun beats the crappy machetes that NASA puts in their survival kits!

The Voice of Batman

Sunday, September 26th, 2010

Kevin Conroy is a classically trained actor and graduate of Juilliard — whose claim to “fame” is providing the voice of Batman in the animated series:

A number of years ago, I was in the Hollywood Post Office parking lot. I left everything in the car, because I was just going straight to the mail drop with the envelope. This guy, who was sitting on the curb, obviously homeless, says to me “Hey, buddy, have you got a quarter?”

And I said, “I’m so sorry. I literally don’t. I have nothing.”

He said, “You’re Kevin Conroy!”

I got really nervous — you just assume that your job is anonymous working on animation — so I asked him how he knew that and he said, “Oh, everybody knows who’s Batman.”

I said, “No, believe me, everyone doesn’t know who’s Batman.”

He said, “Oh, please — please — please — please do the voice.” He said, “Just say it … I am vengeance.” He knew the lines.

I said, “I am vengeance.”

He said, “Oh, my God. Batman’s here! Batman’s here!” He said, “Say it: I am the night.”

I said, “I am the night.”

He said, “Go! Go! Finish! Finish!”

And I said “I am Batman!”

So the two of us are there screaming “I am Batman!” in the parking lot, and he started clapping and clapping, yelling “I can’t believe I have Batman in the parking lot.”

He went on to explain to me that all television monitors at the Circuit City on Hollywood Blvd. showed Batman every day, and he would stand outside and watch the show.

So I said, “Wait, just a second,” and I went running back to the car for some cash.

He said, “Oh, I can’t take Batman’s money.”

I told him he was going to take Batman’s money so he wouldn’t tell anyone that Batman is cheap [laughs]. That whole scene was wild, though — the last place you’d expect for someone to recognize a voice actor is in the parking lot of the post office.

True Mud

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Fans of True Blood and Sesame Street may enjoy True Mud.

Love, Duty, Humanity, and Virtue

Friday, September 24th, 2010

Cordwainer Smith is an unusual name — an unusual pseudonym, actually — for an unusual man:

At 14, he enrolled at George Washington University, where he proved himself a promising scholar in multiple languages. But this trajectory was diverted when his family suddenly moved back to China. In Beijing, Paul junior was drafted by his father into the burgeoning family business: espionage and psychological warfare. The young Linebarger became immersed in what we now call PsyOps — the art and science of spin, disinformation, whispering campaigns, interrogation, and other forms of influence that don’t depend on brute force, but can bring down an empire.

Of his accomplishments in this arena, the one that made Linebarger most proud was engineering the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops during the Korean War. Because they considered throwing down their arms shameful even when they had no hope of survival, Linebarger drafted leaflets advising them to shout the Chinese words for love, duty, humanity, and virtue when they approached American lines — phonemes that sound conveniently like “I surrender!”

Although he wrote the book on psychological warfare, he’s better remembered for his science fiction classic, “Scanners Live in Vain,” about cyborgs who live with most of their senses and emotions cut off in order to survive the rigors of space, until new developments make their condition unnecessary — and thus make them unnecessary as well:

The magazine [Fantasy Book]’s “off-trail” circulation might have meant the end of Smith’s brief career but for the happy coincidence that Frederik Pohl — one of the deans of American science fiction — had a story in the same issue. Pohl found it difficult to believe that the author of “Scanners” was a newbie to the genre. He felt certain that Cordwainer Smith must have been the pen name of an already well-known writer: Heinlein, Sturgeon perhaps, or A. E. van Vogt. In his introduction to the Smith collection When the People Fell, Pohl observed, “There was too great a wealth of color and innovation and conceptually stimulating thought in Scanners for me to believe for one second that it was the creation of any but a top master in science fiction. It was not only good. It was expert. Even excellent writers are not usually that excellent the first time around.”

Pohl effectively jump-started Smith’s career by reprinting “Scanners” in one of the first mass-market sci-fi anthologies, Beyond the End of Time, in 1952. For years, the author’s true identity was a matter of smoky late-night debates among SF writers and fans not likely to ever come across a copy of Psychological Warfare, or to make the connection if they did. By the late 1950s, Cordwainer Smith stories appeared regularly in magazines like If and Galaxy. Sci-fi heavyweight Robert Silverberg, author of ingenious books like Dying Inside and The Majipoor Chronicles, also hailed Scanners as a subversive classic, including it in his influential 1970 anthology, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

Human-Powered Ornithopter

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

A University of Toronto grad student has flown his human-powered ornithopter:

Todd Reichert, a PhD candidate at the university’s Institute of Aerospace Studies, piloted the wing-flapping aircraft, sustaining both altitude and airspeed for 19.3 seconds and covering a distance of 145 metres at an average speed of 25.6 kilometres per hour.

The world-record flight took place Aug. 2 at the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Tottenham, Ont. It was witnessed by the vice-president (Canada) of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale – the world body governing air sports and aeronautical world records. It was also Canada’s first successful human-powered aircraft flight.

Chuiee the Wookee

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

In its original rough draft, Star Wars was called The Journal of the Whills, and Chewbacca the Wookiee was Chuiee, an alien barbarian prince from the jungle planet of Yavin — already eight feet tall and furry, but described as a huge, grey bushbaby with fierce baboon-like fangs.

This original design disappeared as Ralph McQuarrie borrowed a design from John Shoenherr’s illustration for George R.R. Martin’s Hugo-nominated novelette, And Seven Times Never Kill Man — which draws its title from a Kipling poem.

As McQuarrie explains it, he took the illustration that George Lucas gave him, took off the breasts and added a bandolier, et voilà!

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

The Greenest Marine Company Ever

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

India Company of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, based at Camp Pendleton, California, may be the greenest Marine company to ever go to war — in the ecological sense, as they prepare to deploy enough solar-powered equipment to reduce their fuel consumption in Afghanistan by 30 to 50 percent:

The company recently completed about a week of drills relying entirely on solar power, National Defense magazine is reporting. In Afghanistan, officials anticipate that solar panels, along with solar-powered generators and tents, will minimize reliance on batteries and gas.

Combined, the two entail significant logistical challenges, not to mention their environmental and financial toll. A single soldier in Afghanistan uses 22 gallons of fuel a day, and delivering each gallon to the war zone costs between $300 and $400, according to estimates released last year.

“A lot of commanders in the field want to do this for operational benefits,” Christine Parthemore, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, tells Danger Room. “There’s no operational benefit to these huge fuel convoys, and they’re also a significant security risk.”


Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

The notion of a chain-free bike isn’t especially new, but the Stringbike‘s approach is quite novel:

A Knight Needs A Sword

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

Terry Pratchett, author of the best-selling comic-fantasy Discworld series, was knighted by the Queen and decided to forge his own sword to match his new status:

With help from his friend Jake Keen — an expert on ancient metal-making techniques — the author dug up 81 kg of ore and smelted it in the grounds of his house, using a makeshift kiln built from clay and hay and fuelled with damp sheep manure.

Pratchett, who has Alzheimer’s disease, also said he had thrown in “several pieces of meteorites — thunderbolt iron, you see — highly magical, you’ve got to chuck that stuff in whether you believe in it or not”.

After days of hammering the metal into bars, he took it to a blacksmith, whom he helped to shape it into a blade, which was finished with silverwork.

Pratchett has stored the sword, which he completed last year, in a secret location, apparently concerned about the authorities taking an interest in it.

He said: “It annoys me that knights aren’t allowed to carry their swords. That would be knife crime.”