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.

Invisible people, iPad-not, duct tape, scam art, and a bonus Historical Moment

  • Earthmover

    See photo at right. Can you tell what kind of earthmover that is? Look carefully — can you tell where it was made?

  • Now: Did you notice the man standing in front of it? See here and here for more of Liu Bolin’s work.
  • OK, now try this: Scatter some pieces of lumber on the floor. Prop up a broom in the corner along with an empty laundry bag, a bucket,  some rubbish here and there. It would look like this. That’s not a messy room being cleaned up. That’s an expensive artwork by “artist” Susan Collis. That’s it, that’s the artwork, the room with the junk scattered in it. She calls it “Since I fell for you.” She got paid a bunch of money for that. One commentator said it should have been named “So glad you fell for this.” Artist, or scam artist? You decide.
  • Forget about an iPad: Yeah, there’s a huge backlog on iPads, particularly 3G units, but take my advice and fugeddaboutit. Lots of reasons not to buy:  six reasons, ten reasons, twelve reasons, and one big reason from me: it’s not for the prudently paranoid. This thing bares all to Apple and AT&T; there’s nothing you do that they won’t know, record, and do who-knows-what with it. You’re not even allowed to get software from anybody but Apple or connect to anything not Apple-approved. I’m a fan of Apple and tablets are a great idea, but don’t get a tablet from Apple. You can do much better for less money (also from Samsung, RIM/Blackberry, others) and get better security and privacy too.
  • Universal Truths:
    • Duct tape is like the force. It has a light side, a dark side, and it holds the universe together.It’s true.
    • If it moves but shouldn’t, duct tape. If it doesn’t move but should, WD-40.” That’s my own dictum and I’ve found it universally true.
  • Power to go — and go and go. Fuel cells are the Holy Grail of clean, efficient power production. They turn fuel directly into electricity with no combustion, no flame, no moving parts, and no pollution — fuel (like hydrogen or alcohol) goes in, electricity and a bit of water vapor come out. (More info on fuel cells.) The problem with fuel cells has always been very high cost, but for $99 this one will run small devices (phones, GPS, etc.) for many hours or recharges. Great emergency or travel gadget; for $99 there’s nothing even remotely like it.
  • Female mutilation — just a little bit: If female genital mutilation is abhorrent and wrong, is it OK for U.S. pediatricians to do it just a little bit to avoid having it done worse? Interesting question.

And now a historical moment:

On this day in history — June 17, 1885 — the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor, a gift from the French on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which had been nine years earlier in 1876. Having arrived nine years late, the gift included a card stating “And you thought we forgot! Happy 100th! Don’t forget we’re French!”

Part of the Statue of Liberty kit being assembled

The Americans didn’t realize that the statue came as a kit and required assembly, a practice later adopted by Swedish furniture stores. Across the nation there was a recruiting drive for dads with young children who had experience assembling foreign-made toys. The dads struggled with the instructions (which were only in French, Norwegian, and Korean) and with the oddly-sized screws, but the process went much quicker once they realized the French screws were all metric. The process went quickly after that and the statue was soon installed at its permanent display location on New York’s Central Park and became known as the Bust of Liberty (see photo at right)*.

Bust of Liberty. Who knew?

Not long after that some French tourists saw the Bust of Liberty at Central Park and were outraged, insisting that the statue they’d sent was much larger than that. They raised such a ruckus that the dads decided to rummage some more in the box and, sure enough, found a bunch more pieces. They collectively sighed, groaned, asked for more beer, got back to work until October 28, 1886 when the full statue was officially unveiled, only 10-1/2 years late. (And yes, the original plan was for it to have been ready on July 4, 1876. The French started work on it in 1870 but, you know, things happen, and it took 16 years instead of 6. Instructions in English were promised for next time.)

Bits of trivia:

  • Though the Statue of Liberty was not in place until 1886, in fact it had been exhibited, sort of, in 1876. At the time of the original deadline in 1876 the only part that was ready was the arm with the torch, so the French sent that to the U.S. and the arm and torch were exhibited in Philadelphia during the Centennial celebration. People were charged 50 cents and the money went toward building the base pedestal in New York.

    The gateway to freedom for millions

  • French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi is credited for the design of the statue, but in my view equal credit should go to the man who designed the unseen internal iron structure that allowed it to be assembled of moving copper pieces and to withstand all the storms and even an enormous explosion in 1916. That unsung structural engineer was Gustave Eiffel, the man who also designed and built the Eiffel Tower.
  • Even before the statue was delivered and in a fit of capitalism, sculptor Bartholdi took out an American design patent on the statue so that no one in the U.S. would be allowed to build a similar statue or representation of the statue without paying him royalties. The patent covered not just replicas but reproductions  “in any manner known to the glyptic art in the form of a statue or statuette, or in alto-relievo or bass-relief, in metal, stone, terra-cotta, plaster-of-Paris, or other plastic composition.” I wonder if all the trinket-sellers in New York know that. Or care.

* The “Bust of Liberty was displayed in a park for a time, but it was in a park in Paris before the statue kit was shipped, not New York. That’s what the photo is from.

MiniVan Yo’, angels in Australia, a jet pack you can buy, golf to a nuclear bomb, more

  • Swaggerin' in the Wagon

    Swagger Wagon: Toyota scores a hit, yo’.

  • Can beer and wine help avoid dementia? Well, in fact, yes. Can too much beer and wine hasten dementia? Well, yes, there’s that too. But not enough is bad too. See the video at the link.
  • Repeat after me: I am an Obama Scholar.”
  • Cooking is chemistry: A chemist explains what really happens when you cook asparagus and how you can use an apple to ripen an avocado.
  • Wanna buy a jet pack? Now you can. Bring your American Express Black card. (Don’t know what an American Express Black card is? It’s real, but see this.) That said, I’m not happy about these new jet packs.Jet packs are cool James Bond-grade stuff, but the price of these new ones disturbs me, and not just because I can’t afford one. At $250K each, these new ones seem to be no different — no better and no cheaper — than the originals a half century ago. I would think that with modern technology and materials it should be possible to build jet packs both better and cheaper than what was being built when Eisenhower was President. Is this the best we can do?
  • Angels in Australia: A retired couple in Australia have saved more than 160 lives with nothing more than a cup of tea and a smile.
  • “Gee, look what came up in the fish net.”: Taiwanese Navy loses a live torpedo, is offering a reward to anyone who finds it.
  • Nice golf course, nuclear bomb included: Before you laugh at Taiwan losing a torpedo, consider another interesting incident: The U.S. Air Force loss of two large nuclear bombs over (actually under) North Carolina in 1961. Few Americans have ever heard about this, and even fewer realize that both bombs were accidentally armed at the time of release, one was found snagged in a tree and within inches of the required ground contact to detonate, while the other is still in the ground near Goldsboro, NC, deep below a swamp that makes the ground so unstable that the bomb cannot be recovered. So it’s still there, under the swamp, within sight of a local golf course.And that’s not the only one: The U.S. has accidentally dropped or lost nuclear bombs on at least eight separate instances. See this listing (excerpted from the Congressional Record of the 102nd Congress) for more info, this list of all types of nuclear accidents, and this compilation of accounts of such events from 1946 to 2004. Now stop whining and quit worrying about it. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?

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.