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.

Celibates on Mars, de-stinking New Jersey, a face-punching Father’s Day tribute…

  • Travel to Mars without leaving Moscow: UniverseToday offers a video tour of the Mars500 capsule, a facility in which a multinational crew of six will be sealed for 520 days in an environment simulating a voyage to Mars (minus the cold, heat, solar radiation, particle impacts, and the terror of being a hundred million miles from the nearest Starbucks). In two minutes we get to see the sleeping quarters, exercise room, rec room (complete with Nintendo Wii), shower (allowed only every 10 days), and bathroom facilities. (I could have done without the explanation and video shot of the urine sample bottles.) The whole thing is housed in a warehouse in Moscow, which will help keep the participants from trying to get out. Mars500 is applying some of the lessons from Biosphere, the most important lesson being not to build things like Biosphere.
  • Mars looks so desolate without women

    The Mars500 experiment is actually in its third and last phase, the first having been a 14-day isolation experiment, the second a 105-day experiment in extended isolation, and the current 520-day full-mission simulation. It’s interesting to consider the composition of the three crews, listed below. One would be forgiven for wondering how Mars will ever be colonized if women are not allowed more than two weeks from Earth. Or is it that Russian men cannot be trusted around single women more than two weeks at a time?

    • Phase 1 (14 days): Five Russian men, one Russian woman.
    • Phase 2 (105 days): Four Russians (including the commander), one French airline pilot and a German military mechanical engineer. All male.
    • Phase 3 (520 days): Three Russians (including the commander), a French engineer, a Colombian engineer, and a Chinese individual listed as “professional astronaut.” All male.
  • Americans being denied banking overseas: In March President Obama signed a law which requires foreign banks to reveal the accounts of Americans citizens living and banking abroad with balances over $50 000, else the banks would face a 30% tax penalty on all payments made to them in the U.S. That gives the American Internal Revenue Service (IRS) a long, long reach to anywhere in the world. It’s also seen, by both Americans overseas as well as foreign banks and governments, as a very arrogant action, in effect claiming that American tax regulations apply outside the U.S. and must be enforced by banks all over the world. The aim of the law was to ensure that Americans aren’t “hiding” money overseas, but the effect has been that banks all over the world are telling their American expat customers to take their banking elsewhere. It has also resulted in an unprecedented rate of Americans being led to resign their citizenship, and I predict it will also lead to a bumper crop of banks that trumpet their avoidance of any presence in the U.S. and even existing foreign banks pulling out of the U.S. Full story at the Wall Street Journal (with thanks to Instapundit). Things are just getting better and better.
  • Does New Jersey stink? Quick: In five seconds, think of three good things about New Jersey. (Brief Jeopardy! “Think” music.) Did you think of three good things? Naw, I couldn’t either, and I’ve spent time in the “garden” part of the Garden State. (Is that the Pine Barrens?) Well then, you need to check out JerseyDoesn’tStink.com. It’s a new site designed to convince people (starting with people in New Jersey) that New Jersey isn’t a terrible place. There’s even a video of a guy dressed like a giant pine-scent air freshener (I’m not making this up) going around asking New Jerseyans (yes, that’s correct) if they think New Jersey stinks. Unfortunately, almost all the New Jerseyans he asks think New Jersey does stink. A lot of work to be done, I think.
  • And while we’re at it: The Jeopardy! “Think” music linked above was originally called “A time for Tony.” It was a lullaby written by entertainer Merv Griffin for his son Tony. Merv Griffin was the creator of Jeopardy! (and several other game shows) and wrote the various themes used in the show over the years. That’s totally useless knowledge, but since I went through the trouble to look it up I thought you’d like to know.
  • A Father’s Day tribute: John Nolte of BigHollywood.com crafts a Father’s Day lesson from a famous scene in director John Ford‘s classic How Green Was My Valley. (It’s the same lesson I learned from my father, a police officer, and it upset my mother just as much as it did young Huw’s mother in the film.) It’s perhaps a politically incorrect message in today’s era of the metrosexual male, but Nolte cites Ford’s film as a tribute to the role of fathers across the land, most of whom deserve more thanks than they get.

Aliens on Titan, creepy robots, Joan of Arc kicks butt, and instant Harry Potter

  • Trigger for autoimmune disease? Bacteria in the intestine could be the trigger for autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, ankylosing spondylitis, and many more. The findings of a study at Harvard Medical School seem to show conclusively that the introduction of segmented filamentous bacteria into arthritis-prone but otherwise healthy mice triggered the onset of arthritis within a matter of days. See the full article at Science Daily. Photo below: This might be segmented and filamentous, but it’s not the segmented filamentous bacteria. (It’s actually a balloon animal made by aliens on a Saturnian moon — perhaps. Read on.)
  • Aliens on Titan might make balloon animals like this.

    Methane-based creatures on Titan: It sounds way too much like something from a low-budget sci-fi movie, but in fact there’s at some evidence to suggest that on Saturn’s moon Titan there might be — long-shot might be — some strange new form of life that is based on methane. If such a thing could exist it’s theorized it would feed on acetylene (yes, the stuff used for fuel on welding torches) (I’m not making this up) and hydrogen. Based on extensive data from the Cassini space probe, something on Titan does seem to be consuming hydrogen and acetylene, and in theory that could be a sign of very primitive and certainly exotic creatures. (I think it could also be very advanced and very artistic aliens who make hydrogen-filled balloon animals and welded metal artwork, but that theory doesn’t seem to be in the running.) See the full story — it’s really rather interesting, though I’m not giving up on the alien balloon animals.

  • Have you watched the Harry Potter movies? No? I have, and they’re OK if there’s no other movie on the flight. But there’s a better way: Harry Potter in 5 seconds. (Well, it actually runs 26 seconds.) If you want to quick-watch some other films you’d rather skip there’s All Rocky movies in 5 seconds, The Matrix in 5 seconds (optional: How The Matrix should have ended), and Transformers in 5 seconds. Trust me, with the 5-second versions of these movies you’re not missing anything.
  • Feed your Prudent Paranoia: All your Web communication should be private from prying eyes. Unfortunately it’s not: 99+ percent of what you send and receive over the web is in the clear, readable by anyone at Starbucks or anywhere else where your wire or wireless can be reached. So here’s a solution (or at least a good start at a solution): the HTTPS Everywhere plug-in for the FireFox browser. It’ll ensure all your communication with supporting sites (some of the most common ones like Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, and the list keeps growing) will be HTTPS encrypted at all times. That’s a very good thing.
  • “But what if I’m not using Firefox?” Simple: Then you’re not serious. Get it — it’s free (the maker, Mozilla, is a non-profit corporation), it works very well, and the myriad free plug-ins available make it by far the best browser going for any platform (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, others). Really, Firefox is the only real choice if you’re serious about your privacy and security.
  • Self-assembling robot: Watch this. Then see the full article.
  • On this day in history: In 1429 Joan of Arc kicked some English butt at the Battle of Patay, turning the tide of the Hundred Years’ War. Less than a year later she was captured in battle by the Burgundians (yes, the ones who make the red wine). She made an amazing escape by jumping out a window 70 feet high into a soft moat, but captured again. The weaselly French king for whom she had so valiantly fought, Charles VII, refused to ransom her, so she was in effect sold to the same English whose derrière she had so recently punted. Under the English she was convicted by an ecclesiastical kangaroo court, sentenced to death (very irregular on a first conviction for heresy, but it was a most kangaroo of courts), and on May 30, 1431 she was burned at the stake. After she expired in the flames the English executioner (who later feared for his soul for having executed her) raked back the coals to expose her body to prove to onlookers she had not escaped, then burned her body twice more to ensure there would be no relics to collect, and finally her ashes scattered in the River Seine. But that was not the end of it: Twenty-one years later in 1452 Pope Callixtus III authorized a new investigation of her case, a formal appeal was filed in 1455, theologians from all over Europe studied the testimony of the 115 witnesses against her, in June 1456 she was declared a martyr, and on July 7, 1456 she was formally declared not guilty. It was most unfortunate that, even after having been declared not guilty, she was still dead.

Artificial asteroids, shooting rude men, MG sports cars, and the longest take-out run ever

  • Unusual orbital path of asteroid 2010KQ. Very strange, no?

    Asteroid made by intelligent beings?In the early morning of May 16 Richard Kowalski, an astronomer at the Catalina Sky Survey near Tucson, detected a small deep-space object that might be heading toward Earth. After the initial alarm it was determined that its path would bring it close to Earth, but it would pass safely at a distance just beyond the Moon’s orbit (sigh of relief). But as the new asteroid made its fly-by it was observed by a number of large telescopes and some unusual factors were noted, characteristics not like any other asteroid. And its orbit is very unusual too, not like that any other natural celestial body, an indication that it could and had moved under its own power. Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Near-Earth Object Program have concluded this asteroid is probably not natural at all. But who made it?

  • And speaking of asteroids, Japan’s first deep-space probe, Hayabusa, has just completed its 5-year, 1.25-billion-mile return trip to bring back a sample of an asteroid, landing in the Australian Outback. It’s a long way to go for take-out, but the results should be worth it and the video is spectacular.
  • A list of things that should not longer exist, but somehow still do. I might quibble about some items (the U.S. Senate), but I’m amazed that this isn’t included.
  • Cassy Fiano sees a double standard in video games: “A game that makes women the targets of violence is bad, but a game that makes men the targets of violence is fine.” She has a few choice thoughts about about video games that deal with rape, men who make cat-calls, and when it’s OK to shoot them. Cassy is nothing if not outspoken.
  • Yesterday was Flag Day. Did you notice? In fact the President has declared this to be Flag Week. Didn’t know that either? It matters — pay attention.
  • And now for our bit of history: Remember the iconic British MG sports cars of he ’50s and ’60s? Ryan O’Neal took Ali McGraw on romantic trysts in his MG-B in the sappy ’60s Kleenex-mover Love Story, Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney reminisce about their MG-TD in Two for the Road, hunky bad boy Richard Gere stole a pink MGB in Breathless, Robert Wagner and Teri Garr drove a beautiful black MG-SA through beautiful countryside in To Catch a King. Like Dustin Hoffman’s Alfa Romeo Spider in The Graduate and the Vespa on which Audrey Hepburn rode Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, the little MG convertibles came to be true icons of an era. Nobody remembers the Fords and Mercedes that appeared in such movies, but everyone remembers the Alfa, the Vespa, and the MGs.But not long after that — in the ’70s and ’80s — MGs essentially disappeared, first from the U.S., then from its British home as well. As auto design and production technology advanced the MG became a dinosaur, outclassed and outsold by the likes of the Datsun (now Nissan) 1600cc and 2000cc roadsters and more modern designs like the Fiat X1/9. The charm wore off and by 1980 MG was no more. The name was revived as MG-badged versions of various small cars and there was even a dedicated MG-F in the mid-’90s, but none caught on and in 2005 the MG line died along with its hoary parent company British Leyland, a bumbling left-over from Britain’s pre-Thatcher days of industrial socialism.

    But now MG is back in its own right — sort of. New MGs are now made by a subsidiary of SAIC, the giant Chinese auto conglomerate that bought the MG and Rover car brands. The designs are all new and modern, but does “MG” in Chinese still mean what it did in the King’s English?

    We’ll leave aside the question of whether the new ones will have formerly-standard MG features such as leaky engines, drafty tops, antiquated technology, and all-around unreliability, the latter courtesy of the accursed Lucas electricals. (“Lucas: The Prince of Darkness.”) But what about the styling and appearance? Do you see in the new ones the impish charm, the cute-but-cool sportiness that appealed to both men and women? You decide:

    Mazda MX-5 Miata

    Classic MGB roadster (via Chicagoland MG Club)

    New MG-TF

My verdict: I’ve long thought that “when better British roadsters are built, the Japanese will build them.” (I’ve thought the same about Harleys, too.) And I think I was right (on both counts). The Mazda Miata is and has been faster than the old or new MG, breezily out-handles them both, is much more civilized than the MGB ever was (don’t know about the new TF), has huge cuteness and fun-to-drive factors for both sexes, it’s well-built, very reliable, and the fit-like-a-glove ergonomics are a delight to the senses. That’s probably why the Miata has not only been around longer than the MGB ever was, but is by far the best-selling roadster of all time. The Chinese MG-TF looks like, well, it looks like a little Chevy Cobalt with a rag top. No originality, no charm — sorry, SAIC. Go buy a Miata and see how it’s done.

Star Wars motorcycle, $200 laser weapon, free Wi-Fi, Taliban hacked, hello Superman

  • Now we’re gettin’ somewhere: A new electric motorcycle blows away the field at the famous Isle of Man motorcycle race, looking like a 10-year leap forward in both performance and styling. Now it just needs a good soundtrack, something better than whining and clicking.

    "Mr. Skywalker, your motorcycle is ready."

  • Taliban Webmaster: “We’ve been hacked!: The richness of irony overflows. But was the mystery hacker Uncle Sam?
  • Bat bombs, goo guns, raccoon vision, and much more: The military have really done this stuff. On your tax dollar. Amazingly, some of them even work.
  • No joke: A real laser weapon, yours for $200: It ignites clothing, burns flesh, blinds instantly. This is not a toy. A hand-held laser weapon you can buy for a couple hundred bucks. Wonderfully styled to look like a Star Wars light saber. No guarantees what you do with it, but if I had one (and I’m thinking about it) I’d treat it just like a loaded gun. Buy one before it’s banned.
  • Free Wi-Fi at Starbucks: You don’t even have to buy coffee. Starting July 1 Internet access at all U.S. Starbucks will be completely gratis. Details at TechNewsDaily.
  • Deep physics: New Quantum Theory Separates Gravitational and Inertial Mass. Are you into this stuff? Really? It means your gravitational mass (what determines what you weigh on a given planet — say, Earth) is not exactly the same thing as your mass that causes resistance to motion (your inertia when someone gives you a shove). It’s a big deal because it means that one of the key assumptions of modern physics — that gravity and acceleration have exactly the same effect — is no longer true. Einstein is spinning in his grave. The article is short and really quite easy to follow, if you don’t try to speed-read it. Be the first on your block to be able to explain this. Amaze your friends.
  • Big Boo-Boo about Big Bang: So maybe the current thinking is all wrong. Again. Deep-physics stuff of the astro kind.
  • On this day in 1938 the first-ever Action Comics book was published. It featured a new character in the world of comics: a hunky guy in red, white, and blue named Superman, the first-ever superhero.