Saturn, Pluto, Charon, broken iPhones and people watching you

  • This has nothing to do with Apple.

    Own an iPhone?: You may want to get an extended warranty. According to an article in Computerworld, 26 percent of iPhones break or fail in some way within their first two years. Now I do have a wee bit of doubt about that 26 percent number because the company that provided that number for the Computerworld story sells extended warranties for iPhones. Still, if it’s anywhere near accurate, that’s a lot of expensive broken phones. Owner beware.

  • Apple is watching you. Apple has added a new clause to their user agreement that allows them to share your location and moment-by-moment movement with others. What others? It doesn’t say, so for practical purposes that means anybody. You are required to agree to this change in their user agreement before you can receive anything more from Apple, such as software downloads. The same clause and policy presumably apply to the iPad too. Before you flee to Google and its Android phones and tablets, be aware that Google has always had a clause like that in their user agreements, and though it it seems less intrusive it’s also more vague, so it’s hard to know if Google is better or worse. See the full article in the Los Angeles Times.
  • Speaking of surveillance: Are you being bugged? Not the insect kind, but the kind of bug that records what you say and sends it to the FBI, Russian FSB, or whoever is after you. In the movies some guy walks around the room with a little gadget that has a little antenna and winking red lights; when it beeps he reaches under the phone or into a lampshade and yanks out a tiny thingy that often has a little blinking red light too. (In the movies bad guys are always required to have little blinking red lights on their nefarious devices, just like bombs are always required to have a red wire and a blue wire.) But audio bugs do exist in the real world — not as often as in the movies, but they do exist and there are people who make a living detecting them. If you’ve ever wondered how that’s done, here’s an intro. In the U.S. it’s perfectly legal to buy (though often not legal to use) audio bugs and there are lots of places that sell audio bugs and of course the detectors. It’s interesting technology, but I don’t recommend you even think about bugging someone unless you have — and have consulted — a good lawyer. (Note that in the foregoing I’ve deliberately linked to a vendor that is outside the U.S. If you want to buy this stuff in the U.S. you’ll have to find it yourself. For those outside the U.S. the lawyer advice also applies.)

    Strange sights

  • Cassini sails on: The Cassini space probe (formerly known as Cassini-Huygens until the Huygens probe was space-bombed onto Titan’s surface) continues its complex dance around Saturn and its panoply of moons, returning volumes of scientific data each day and returning spectacular photos like the one at right.
  • One big reason not to live in Nebraska: On this day in history in 2003, down from the sky fell one great reason not to live in Nebraska: The world’s largest recorded hailstone fell to Earth at about 100 mph, striking the siding of a house in Aurora, Nebraska. In the impact it lost some of its weight, but what was left measured 7 inches across, or about the size of a soccer ball. That also makes about the size of a human head, and it’s easy to imagine the result of the 100-mph head-sized ice ball striking a stationary human cranium. And lest you think that was a fluke, a previous record-setting hailstone, measuring slightly smaller and weighing 1.5 lbs, was found in Potter, Nebraska in 1928. Stuff like that just doesn’t happen in, say, the Arizona desert.
  • Also on this day in history: In 1978 at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona (where it gets very cold and they do get some big hailstones) astronomer James Christy discovered that the planet Pluto (and yes, dang it, it’s still a real planet in my book) has a moon. It was officially named Charon after the ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology, following the International Astronomical Union rule that new solar-system bodies are named after Greek characters. But James Christy himself pushed for Charon from the beginning in honor of his wife, Charlene, who goes by the name “Char.” It was only later that he found that the name Charon coincided with the name of a mythological Greek character.
  • And so you can quit wondering, that photo at the upper right that looks like a disco ball is the best approximation we have of what Charon looks like. Being a low-resolution computer-generated image the individual pixels look like facets, but that’s just a computer artifact; Charon doesn’t really look like a disco ball. It’s a composite image put together from many photometric measurements by Marc Buie, a Lowell Observatory astronomer who in the astro world is known as “Mr. Pluto.” (I once interviewed Mr. Buie about Pluto and I can attest that what he doesn’t know about Pluto probably isn’t known.)
  • If you’re wondering why the Lowell Observatory keeps coming up in discussions of Charon and Pluto, that’s because the Lowell Observatory is sort of the “home” of Pluto. It was at the Lowell Observatory that founder Percival Lowell predicted the existence and general location of Pluto, it was at Lowell Observatory in 1930 that Pluto was discovered by Kansas-farm-boy-turned-astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, it was at the Lowell Observatory in 1978 that Pluto’s moon Charon was discovered, and over the years much of the pioneering work on Pluto has been done there. In the world of astronomy, Lowell Observatory, though originally founded to research Mars, is now the place for Pluto.

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