What 100 year flood means

“And this is where you first start getting a sense that maybe engineering hydrology isn’t the most exact of sciences. …none of the Imperial units for these values agree, but if you do the math, the conversion factor is just about one, so we ignore it. We just leave it off! This is not something we take out to the fifth decimal place.”

SpaceX does it again

Another Falcon9 successfully landed on a moving barge this morning.

In order to make the economics work, these birds do a ballistic reentry, essentially falling out of the sky and making a corrective landing burn at the last possible minute. Since this Falcon was delivering a Japanese communications satellite to high orbit, the lifter fell a lot further than the last one did, ending up going twice as fast and requiring a 12-G final burn before touching down softly on the recovery vessel Of Course I Still Love You.

Congratulations to Elon Musk and the SpaceX team, who are among the many people who don’t read this blog.

Human microbiome transplant

Responses to Josiah Zayner’s attempt to replace his body’s bacteria are almost as interesting as the experiment itself. It seems like most of the medical community believe professional approval of one’s theory and practice is what determines therapeutic success, and not the actual measurement of physical outcomes.

Anyway, as is usual in gut flora replacement therapy, Mr. Zayner has successfully remediated his long standing intestinal problems. Genetic tests show that he is now host to a new, healthier mix of internal bacteria harvested from a friend’s feces. The rest of his homemade treatment was less successful; he was not able to completely eradicate his skin bacteria, nor was he able to prevent re-infection from his surroundings. The article is sort of simultaneously horrifying and illuminating; scientists who self-experiment are strange birds more often than not.

Radioactivity Art

Greenpeace photographer Greg McNevin has created a beautiful series of photographs based on walking around areas formerly contaminated by the ongoing Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear disasters with an LED stick connected to a geiger counter. It’s unfortunate that most people won’t be able to see the art past the politics, but I think it has value in both spheres.

SpaceX lands at sea

A little late with the news, but anyway the SpaceX’s Falcon-9 has successfully landed on the drone barge “Of Course I Still Love You”. The landing deck is 170 by 300 feet long, and the Falcon’s legs stand 60 feet apart. As you can see by the whitecaps, the sea was very rough with high altitude crosswinds of 50 mph and low altitude winds of 25 mph.

For true space geeks, the beautifully produced full 18 minute video:

Orbital ATK Cygnus 6 space truck

The unmanned Cygnus cargo mission OA-6 went up Saturday on a Russian/American Atlas V, successfully delivering a new 3d printer to the International Space station. The ISS crew snagged the Cygnus today with their robotic arm.

Interesting side note on this mission, before Cygnus 6 plunges to its fiery reentry doom it’s going to test artificial gecko feet and be used for a fire-in-space experiment.

Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War

Somebody (possibly Henson himself) posted Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War over at Kuro5hin in 2006. I had no idea Kuro5hin still existed, and Henson’s paper could use some consideration of group selection, but anyway it’s a worthwhile and controversial read.

It seems to me that if Henson’s basic thesis is right, our current global political situation is not just eerily similar to that of the mid-1930s, it’s actually the same phenomenon – so we better get it under control.

$1 million Google Tiny Box prize won

Belgian contenders The Red Electrical Devils have won the $1,000,000 Google Tiny Box prize.

There’s a .pdf of the paper describing their design here, but don’t bother trying to read it if the word “schematic” means nothing to you.

Google’s challenge was for a tiny, lightweight device that converts DC (the type of electricity that batteries and solar panels put out) to AC (the type of electricity that is most useful for doing work). Such devices are called “inverters” and improvements in inverter technology would obviously be useful for electric cars, home solar power systems, and many another thing.

The winning team exceeded Google’s minimum requirements to win by three times, creating a device that is ten times smaller than existing technologies while meeting all of Google’s other restrictions (such as 95% or better efficiency, air cooling, &etc.) It’s extremely impressive work.

VTOL Rocket Roundup

The Experimental Delta Clipper (DC-X) of the 1990s was canceled before it ever made it into space.

The Rotary Rocket Company’s incredibly innovative Roton was designed to land with helicopter blades instead of a parachute or a landing rocket. After the collapse of the small telecommunications satellite market in 1999 the company went out of business without ever building their unique spinning aerospike main engine; without a clear mission, investors were unwilling to fund the various exotic technologies that the company was successfully pioneering.

In 2013 SpaceX’s series of “grasshopper tests” picked up where the DC-X left off.

But SpaceX’s plan to land their Falcon 9 lifter on a seagoing barge has not yet succeeded.

And bringing us up to date, Blue Origin landed the New Shepard on the 23rd. I love the final replay of the landing sequence!

You can do science just as badly as you can do religion

I can’t read the Science Based Medicine website, despite my complete agreement with many of its conclusions, without getting annoyed by the priestly attitude of its authors.

They make broad generalizations that could often be equally well applied to the mainstream physicians the site claims are qualitatively superior. For example, from Scott Gavura, Naturopaths offer an array of disparate health practices like homeopathy, acupuncture and herbalism that are linked by the (now discarded) belief in vitalism – the idea we have a “life force”. I’ve certainly never had any difficulty finding doctors who believe in “life forces” and “souls” and such – the churches are full of ’em, seriously. And I’ve heard at least one physician recommend acupuncture, because it had worked on other patients of his.

SBM’s authors also often seem to promote a Medieval doctrine of contagion when they talk about alternative medicine – if any person who claims to be an herbalist or chiropractor does something wrong, this proves that all herbalists and chiropractors are equally wrong. Such a doctrine, if applied equally harshly to mainstream medicine, would make SBM’s own doctors somehow guilty for the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. I can’t abide that kind of sloppy thinking.

I wish I could choose less preachy, more convincing allies. It’s good that SBM names and exposes actual quacks, and homeopathic superdilution remedies truly are outmoded nonsense… but I keep finding myself wondering if perhaps Medieval witch-hunters burned some folks who actually deserved it, occasionally.

NASA Ames

Mercifully, the whole thing is starting to fade, to become an episode. When I do still catch the odd glimpse, it’s peripheral; mere fragments of mad-doctor chrome, confining themselves to the corner of the eye. There was that flying-wing liner over San Francisco last week, but it was almost translucent. And the shark-fin roadsters have gotten scarcer, and freeways discreetly avoid unfolding themselves into the gleaming eighty-lane monsters I was forced to drive last month in my rented Toyota. — William Gibson, The Gernsback Continuum

The photoessay This Used to Be the Future reminded me of a childhood spent reading yellowed 1940s science fiction.

1958 General Motors Firebird III

killing wildlife doesn’t make your food safer

In an ill-considered response to a 2006 e. coli outbreak, for years now food sellers have been pressuring food growers to turn the areas surrounding farms into a blasted, sterile wasteland, devoid of any wildlife.

A recently published paper shows that this practice is not beneficial, and has measurably decreased food safety.

Blasted wasteland surrounding a farm

“There is this misguided idea that agricultural fields should be a sanitized, sterilized environment, like a hospital, but nature doesn’t work that way.” — Daniel Karp, postdoctoral research fellow UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

Well, now, about those hospitals, Dr. Karp…