Nov 01 2014

The Breakfast Club (Rocket Science)

breakfast beers photo breakfastbeers.jpgSaturday Science Special

Once again there have been fatalities in the pursuit of manned space flight and I mourn the loss just as everyone does.

But you know folks, they call it Rocket Science for a reason and even after a century of development (I personally date it from the work of Robert Goddard which is terribly parochial of me, some would date it from the work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsk in 1903) it’s still an extremely dangerous undertaking.

A century you say?  Well, two of Goddard’s patents, those for liquid fuel and multiple stages, were granted in 1914.

His 1919 monograph A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes is considered one of the classic texts of 20th-century rocket science. Goddard successfully applied three-axis control, gyroscopes and steerable thrust to rockets, to effectively control their flight.

Although his work in the field was revolutionary, Goddard received very little public support for his research and development work. The press sometimes ridiculed his theories of spaceflight. As a result, he became protective of his privacy and his work.

Even way back when (1920) the Grey Lady often missed the point-

A Severe Strain on Credulity

As a method of sending a missile to the higher, and even highest, part of the earth’s atmospheric envelope, Professor Goddard’s multiple-charge rocket is a practicable, and therefore promising device. Such a rocket, too, might carry self-recording instruments, to be released at the limit of its flight, and conceivable parachutes would bring them safely to the ground. It is not obvious, however, that the instruments would return to the point of departure; indeed, it is obvious that they would not, for parachutes drift exactly as balloons do. And the rocket, or what was left of it after the last explosion, would need to be aimed with amazing skill, and in a dead calm, to fall on the spot whence it started.

But that is a slight inconvenience, at least from the scientific standpoint, though it might be serious enough from that of the always innocent bystander a few hundred or thousand yards from the firing line.

[A]fter the rocket quits our air and really starts on its longer journey, its flight would be neither accelerated nor maintained by the explosion of the charges it then might have left. To claim that it would be is to deny a fundamental law of dynamics, and only Dr. Einstein and his chosen dozen, so few and fit, are licensed to do that.

His plan is not original

That Professor Goddard, with his “chair” in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action and reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react-to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.

Umm… bright boy, action reacts against the body providing the action (thrust), not against the density of the medium being traveled.  If anything it’s easier because you don’t have to account for drag and, not that I’m a math whiz or anything, when you study Newton in basic Physics a vacuum is always assumed because it makes the equations so much simpler.

While I like to imagine myself a brave revolutionary who’d tell The New York Times to piss up a rope (usually messy but theoretically possible given a rope with the right kind of capillary action) in fact I’d probably do what Goddard did and skulk away reclusively, muttering imprecations under my breath.

To their credit The Times did retract, one day after the launch of Apollo 11 and a mere 24 years after his death-

A Correction

Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.

I thought it especially magnanimous that they recognized that they had misunderstood Newton’s equations, which were after all published in 1687.

There is no getting around the fact that spaceflight is inherently dangerous.  Just getting to orbit is basically like shoving a stick of dynamite up your butt and hoping for good things to happen, let alone the difficulties of a hostile environment and a high speed fall (I think jumping off buildings is fun, don’t you?).

That Richard Branson is marketing this as “Adventure Tourism” seems the height (heh, he said height) of irresponsibility to me though I can’t wait for the day when (your least liked celebrity, arrogant asshole capitalist, or corrupt politician here) burns up in a Stratospheric fireball.

I’ll be sad.  Of course I will.

The law that entropy always increases holds, I think, the supreme position among the laws of Nature. If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (1927)

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Crashes in New Setback for Commercial Spaceflight


OCT. 31, 2014

The pilots, who have not yet been identified, were flying the plane for Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company created by the entrepreneur Richard Branson, and Scaled Composites, the company that designed and built the plane.

One pilot was able to parachute from the plane and was taken to a hospital with “moderate to major injuries,” said Ray Pruitt, the public information officer for the Kern County sheriff’s office in California.

The test was the first time SpaceShipTwo had flown using a new, plastic-based rocket fuel.

It was the second major accident in a week for the commercial space industry, which has been widely promoted in recent years as an alternative to costly government programs. On Tuesday, an unmanned rocket launched by Orbital Sciences Corporation of Dulles, Va., which was carrying cargo to the International Space Station, exploded 15 seconds after launching.

The list of would-be astronauts includes celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Bieber and Angelina Jolie.

Experts said it was too soon to tell when the effort would resume. “Virgin was out ahead of everyone else for space tourism,” said Michael Blades, the aerospace and defense industry senior analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a market research and consulting firm. “It will still happen, but it has been pushed way to the right.

“It is just like any kind of other new technology, especially when it comes to flight,” he continued. “You have your tests and you have your failures.”

Marco Caceres, director of space studies at the Teal Group, a consulting firm, said that “in an age where it is very expensive to fly these vehicles, the pressure is to do the minimal amount of test flying.”

“So that may be something we have to take a look at,” he continued. “Everyone seems to be in need of more money to conduct more flights, so the pressure is to start operational flight too soon. Maybe we are being unreasonable here.”

Patricia Hynes, director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium, who organizes an annual symposium for people in the commercial space industry, said the accident “helps people understand why it’s never been done before.”

“This is a tough business,” she said.

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Welcome to The Breakfast Club! We’re a disorganized group of rebel lefties who hang out and chat if and when we’re not too hungover we’ve been bailed out we’re not too exhausted from last night’s (CENSORED) the caffeine kicks in. Join us every weekday morning at 9am (ET) and weekend morning at 10:30am (ET) to talk about current news and our boring lives and to make fun of LaEscapee! If we are ever running late, it’s PhilJD’s fault.

I would never make fun of LaEscapee or blame PhilJD.  And I am highly organized.

This Day in History


Better Staffing Seen as Crucial to Ebola Treatment in Africa

By DENISE GRADY, The New York Times

OCT. 31, 2014

Dr. Rick Sacra, a missionary who contracted Ebola in Liberia this August, was first treated there. Each nurse on the ward cared for 15 or 20 patients, and none could work for more than an hour at a time because the protective gear was so suffocatingly hot. They never drew his blood for lab tests. There was no lab.

“A nurse makes rounds maybe once every eight hours,” Dr. Sacra said. A doctor came by once a day. “The staff is so few.”

After he was evacuated to Nebraska Medical Center, a nurse stayed in his room all the time, and dozens of people were involved in his care. He had daily blood tests to monitor his electrolytes, blood count, liver and kidneys, and doctors used the results to adjust what went into his intravenous lines.

The stark difference in the care available in West Africa and the United States is reflected in the outcomes, as well. In West Africa, 70 percent of people with Ebola are dying, while seven of the first eight Ebola patients treated in the United States have walked out of the hospital in good health. Only one died: Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian, whose treatment was delayed when a Dallas hospital initially misdiagnosed his illness.

With Political Rift Still Deep, Russia-Ukraine Gas Deal Is Widely Seen as a Patch


OCT. 31, 2014

A deal struck on Thursday to restart Russian natural gas supplies to Ukraine will keep homes heated this winter, but it does not fully settle a fierce, long-running fight over energy prices that is likely to resume early next year if not sooner, analysts said Friday.

More crucially, though, the grudging acceptance of the deal did not signal an imminent end to the deeper political dispute over eastern Ukraine. That standoff has brought Russia and the West into their most dangerous conflict since the Cold War and spawned the bloodiest violence in Europe since the conflicts in the Balkans of the 1990s.

Underscoring the acrimony of the overall political situation, some Russian officials said that Ukraine not only could not be trusted to pay for its gas without European backing, but, in fact, could be expected to steal from Russian supplies to Europe.

“It is a huge concession and an intention, first of all, to reach an agreement with the European Union and partly not to let Ukraine freeze completely,” Ivan Grachyov, chairman of the energy committee in the lower house of Russia’s Parliament, told RIA Novosti news agency. “I think that Russia and the E.U. understood that Ukraine would siphon off the gas illegally in any case. Whatever they say, when winter presses them hard, they will start unsanctioned siphoning. This, of course, raises problems between Russia and Europe.”

Aleksei Miller, the chief executive of Gazprom, said that the arrival of winter apparently forced the Ukrainian side to make the deal reached on Thursday. In interviews on Russian television, he also noted that Gazprom had not agreed to extend any additional credit or take on new risks related to Ukraine’s deteriorating financial situation.

“The fact that the agreement has been signed now, at the end of October, in the beginning of the fall and winter season, is no coincidence,” Mr. Miller said. “Of course, it has been influenced by the fact that it is cold in Ukraine, heating is needed in houses, the gas consumption is growing.”

Lobbyists, Bearing Gifts, Pursue Attorneys General

By ERIC LIPTON, The New York Times

OCT. 28, 2014

When the executives who distribute 5-Hour Energy, the popular caffeinated drinks, learned that attorneys general in more than 30 states were investigating allegations of deceptive advertising – a serious financial threat to the company – they moved quickly to shut the investigations down, one state at a time.

But success did not come in court or at a negotiating table.

Instead, it came at the opulent Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel in California, with its panoramic ocean views, where more than a dozen state attorneys general had gathered last year for cocktails, dinners and fund-raisers organized by the Democratic Attorneys General Association. A lawyer for 5-Hour Energy roamed the event, setting her sights on Attorney General Chris Koster of Missouri, whose office was one of those investigating the company.

“My client just received notification that Missouri is on this,” the lawyer, Lori Kalani, told him.

Ms. Kalani’s firm, Dickstein Shapiro, had courted the attorney general at dinners and conferences and with thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Mr. Koster told Ms. Kalani that he was unaware of the investigation, and he reached for his phone and called his office. By the end of the weekend, he had ordered his staff to pull out of the inquiry, a clear victory for 5-Hour Energy.

The quick reversal, confirmed by Mr. Koster and Ms. Kalani, was part of a pattern of successful lobbying of Mr. Koster by the law firm on behalf of clients like Pfizer and AT&T – and evidence of a largely hidden dynamic at work in state attorneys general offices across the country.

Attorneys general are now the object of aggressive pursuit by lobbyists and lawyers who use campaign contributions, personal appeals at lavish corporate-sponsored conferences and other means to push them to drop investigations, change policies, negotiate favorable settlements or pressure federal regulators, an investigation by The New York Times has found.

Victory for Maine nurse as judge makes U-turn on Ebola monitoring order

Jessica Glenza, The Guardian

Friday 31 October 2014 14.41 EDT

Maine suffered defeat in its attempts to restrict the movements of a nurse who returned to the state after working with Ebola patients in west Africa, when a judge reversed an earlier ruling.

A Maine judge on Friday ruled that Kaci Hickox must comply with monitoring for Ebola symptoms, but lifted an order that she stay away from public gatherings and maintain a 3ft distance from others, though those requirements had complied with current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for people in a situation like hers.

“[Maine] has not met its burden at this time to prove by clear and convincing evidence that limiting [Hickox’s] movements to the degree requested is ‘necessary to protect other individuals from the dangers of infection’,” chief district court judge Charles C LaVerdiere wrote in an order posted on Friday afternoon. “[Hickox] currently does not show any symptoms of Ebola and is therefore not infectious.”

HSBC board member: slaves waited for the vote, so why can’t Hong Kong?

Peter Popham, The Independent

Friday 31 October 2014

Laura Cha, a member of the board of HSBC, whose headquarters overlooks the mass demonstrations that continue to convulse the former British colony, told an audience in Paris: “American slaves were liberated in 1861 but did not get voting rights until 107 years later. So why can’t Hong Kong wait for a while?”

After the comments were published in The Standard in Hong Kong, an online petition denouncing them was flooded with signatures. Launched by a protester, Jeffrey Chan, the petition declared that “the people of Hong Kong” found it “extremely distasteful and insensitive” to be compared to slaves and demanded an immediate apology. It also questioned Ms Cha’s knowledge of American history. “The full ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 already granted full emancipation to African-American slaves, including full voting rights,” it pointed out.

But it admitted that there was indeed something analogous between the position of slaves and Hong Kongers: the struggle of African-Americans to have their constitutional rights respected “is not entirely dissimilar to the kind of voter disenfranchisement [Ms Cha] and the governments she represents [are] trying to force on the Hong Kong public”, it said.

UN report: Climate change has permanently ruined farmland the size of France

Tom Bawden, The Independent

Friday 31 October 2014

Water used for irrigation contains varying quantities of salt, which, in the absence of a good drainage system, is left behind when the water evaporates.

The effect can be intensified by groundwater – which also contains salts – and which rises to the surface as the water table rises following irrigation without drainage. In other words, drainage systems serve to flush the salt out of the ground by carrying it away from soil.

A total of 240,000 square miles of farmland worldwide has now been contaminated. The Indus Valley in Pakistan is one of the worst hit areas, with salinization cutting rice production by 48 per cent in recent years, while wheat is down 32 per cent. Salty soils also cause losses of around £469m annually in the Colorado River basin, an arid region in the south west of the US. In Turkmenistan, more than half of the irrigated land is damaged by salt.

Manzoor Qadir, lead author of the research, told The Independent that the growth of salty land has huge implications for feeding the world in the coming decades, at a time when population growth is already putting huge pressure on resources.

“To feed the world’s anticipated nine billion people by 2050, and with little new productive land available in irrigated zones, it is important we promote and invest in sustainable land management practices,” said Dr Qadir, of the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Heather.

“Basically, with every irrigation we tend to add salts to the soil. If we do not remove them or decrease them from the roots, they tend to accumulate there. It can be cost-effective to invest in sustainable land management in countries confronting salt-induced land degradation,” he added.

Salt damage can also be reversed through measures such as tree planting and crop rotation using salt-tolerant plants, but these measures are extremely expensive and can take years.

Big Food uses dirty tricks in ballot fights over GMO labeling, soda taxes

by Michele Simon, Al Jazeera

October 31, 2014 2:00AM ET

On Nov. 4, voters in three Western states will decide four food-related ballot measures that seem to have little in common: The two state-level measures (in Oregon and Colorado) would require genetically engineered (aka GMO) foods to be labeled as such, and two local initiatives in California (in San Francisco and Berkeley) would place a small tax on sugary soft drinks.

But they do have something in common. A large portion of the opposition for all four measures is being funded by two megacorporations: Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Moreover, the opposition is using many of the same tactics.

Let’s start with the money – and there’s lots of it. In Oregon the biggest donors to the $16.3 million fund opposing the GMO-labeling measure, after biotech giants Dupont and Monsanto, are PepsiCo ($1.4 million) and Coca-Cola ($1.17 million), according to reporting by The Oregonian. Supporters of the measure have raised a respectable $6.7 million so far.

In Colorado the opposition has raised more than $11 million so far, compared with only $440,000 by GMO labeling proponents. Again, Monsanto and Dupont are the largest donors to the “no” campaign, with PepsiCo coming in third, with $1.65 million donated so far, followed by Coca-Cola, with $1.1 million. PepsiCo has a huge stake in these battles. The largest food corporation in the nation, it owns far more than just beverages; the numerous brands under its Frito-Lay and Quaker Oats divisions will also be affected by the passage of GMO labeling laws.

Meanwhile in California, the beverage industry is spending a staggering amount of money to defeat the two soda tax measures. In San Francisco the “no” campaign has just topped $9 million, compared with only $225,000 raised by the measure’s proponents. Across the bay in Berkeley, Big Soda has raised $1.7 million, an astounding figure, given the city’s small size – about 100,000 residents. (Two years ago, industry giants spent close to $2.5 million defeating a similar measure in Richmond, also east of San Francisco.)

Luck Played Role in Discovery of Data Breach at JPMorgan Affecting Millions

By Matthew Goldstein and Nicole Perlroth, The New York Times

October 31, 2014 10:24 am

The broad attack this summer on JPMorgan Chase, which compromised information for 76 million households and seven million small businesses, took the bank’s security team more than two months to detect before it was stopped.

But the intrusion at the nation’s largest bank could have gone on for longer if not for a critical discovery by a Milwaukee security consulting firm that helped JPMorgan uncover the full extent of its breach. That firm, Hold Security, uncovered a repository of a billion stolen passwords and usernames that it said had been pilfered by a loose-knit gang of Russian hackers. The hackers, according to the consulting firm, had infiltrated more than 420,000 websites.

JPMorgan has determined that the hackers did not gain access to its systems through any of its outside vendors, Ms. Wexler said.

Evidence suggests hackers tested stolen usernames and passwords from the Hold Security trove on an older system handling bank employee benefits. When those worked, they tested the credentials on other bank systems, two of the people briefed on the matter said, until they found a way in.

The bank declined to comment on how the breach was carried out.

“The most notable thing about these recent cyberbreaches is not that they happened, but that they went on so long without being detected,” said Scott Borg, the director and chief economist with the United States Cyber Consequences Unit. “Companies are being blindsided, because they are not watching for the specific kinds of cyberattacks that are really going to hurt them.”

Michigan Fans 1, Dave Brandon 0

By Ben Mathis-Lilley, Slate

Oct. 31 2014 6:32 PM

Brandon, a former Domino’s Pizza CEO, was never beloved by Michigan fans. He jacked up ticket prices and created a hyped-up, corporate culture-novelty, made-for-TV matchups and novelty, made-for-TV uniforms-around a program whose supporters take pride (maybe too much pride) in their respect for tradition.

In the past two months, the athletic director transformed from a figure of local disrepute to something of a national villain. In the Minnesota game-the same one during which students chanted for Brandon’s ouster-the Michigan coaching staff badly mishandled a player who had clearly been concussed, sending quarterback Shane Morris back into the game despite his obvious head injury. As fans and the national media rained invective down on the Michigan program, Brandon told a reporter that he had “more important” jobs to do than speaking to the press about the Morris imbroglio. And this week, the fan site MGoBlog published a number of snotty emails Brandon sent in response to complaints from alumni and season-ticket holders. “I really don’t care about your opinions,” read one. Another: “I suggest you find a new team to support. We will be fine without you.”

Amid the deluge of bad press, Brandon remained, as they say, defiant, reportedly attributing the movement against him to electoral politics. (The University of Michigan is supervised by regents who declare party affiliations and are chosen via statewide vote.) It was the kind of spin he’d gotten away with many times before-as others have observed, Brandon’s usual response to backlash against his decisions is to blame someone else for them in a mealy-mouthed press release. He also had the public support of Stephen Ross, a real-estate billionaire and perhaps the most important man in Michigan’s vast network of alumni donors.

Hungary Drops Internet Tax Plan After Public Outcry

By RICK LYMAN, The New York Times

OCT. 31, 2014

Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary said on Friday that his government would abandon, at least for now, a proposed tax on Internet usage that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators to the streets this week.

“We are not communists, we don’t govern against the people,” Mr. Orban said in his regular weekly interview on Hungarian radio. “We govern together with the people. So this tax, in this form, cannot be introduced.”

Ebullient protest organizers – who had charged that the proposed tax was an attempt by Mr. Orban’s right-wing government to choke off one of the last sources of information not controlled by him and his allies – called for victory celebrations across the country.


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