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.

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.