Category Archives: Technology and Society

Don’t Go To Mars

David Attenborough takes a novel and courageous stand. Let’s “sort out life on earth, first.” [Paywall]

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone make that argument before, except a lot of people, for decades.

“America? Let’s sort out life in Europe first.”

“Europe and Asia? Let’s sort out life in Africa, first.”

It’s obviously a mindless prescription for never settling new territory.

Giant Solid Rockets

Yes, let’s keep using them:

In this case, the DM series motors passed all of ATK’s and NASA’s inspections and test firings. It wasn’t until ATK was proceeding toward QM series motor segments that NASA requested more thorough inspections of the QM series motors to determine whether the switch to non-asbestos containing insulation liners was having a previously unseen effect.

“The beauty of the solid rocket motor inspection system is that defects will be found and solutions reached to ensure the motors delivered will perform with the highest reliability,” said Reed. “This is a requirement to ensure SLS is a safe and reliable system for human exploration of deep space.”

Yeah. Right.

[Update a few minutes later]

Artificial Spleens And Genetic Surgery

This seems like a big breakthrough, not just for people without spleens, but for iatrogenic disease in hospitals:

To test the device, Ingber and his team infected rats with either E. coli or Staphylococcus aureus and filtered blood from some of the animals through the biospleen. Five hours after infection, 89% of the rats whose blood had been filtered were still alive, compared with only 14% of those that were infected but not treated. The researchers found that the device had removed more than 90% of the bacteria from the rats’ blood. The rats whose blood had been filtered also had less inflammation in their lungs and other organs, suggesting they would be less prone to sepsis.

The researchers then tested whether the biospleen could handle the volume of blood in an average adult human — about 5 litres. They ran human blood containing a mixture of bacteria and fungi through the biospleen at a rate of 1 litre per hour, and found that the device removed most of the pathogens within five hours.

That degree of efficacy is probably enough to control an infection, Ingber says. Once the biospleen has removed most pathogens from the blood, antibiotics and the immune system can fight off remaining traces of infection — such as pathogens lodged in the organs, he says.To test the device, Ingber and his team infected rats with either E. coli or Staphylococcus aureus and filtered blood from some of the animals through the biospleen. Five hours after infection, 89% of the rats whose blood had been filtered were still alive, compared with only 14% of those that were infected but not treated. The researchers found that the device had removed more than 90% of the bacteria from the rats’ blood. The rats whose blood had been filtered also had less inflammation in their lungs and other organs, suggesting they would be less prone to sepsis.

The researchers then tested whether the biospleen could handle the volume of blood in an average adult human — about 5 litres. They ran human blood containing a mixture of bacteria and fungi through the biospleen at a rate of 1 litre per hour, and found that the device removed most of the pathogens within five hours.

That degree of efficacy is probably enough to control an infection, Ingber says. Once the biospleen has removed most pathogens from the blood, antibiotics and the immune system can fight off remaining traces of infection — such as pathogens lodged in the organs, he says.

Note that it could also be effective against ebola.

On another front, eliminating bad proteins using RNA interference.

Faster, please.

The SLS Frenzy

So apparently, the SLF fanbois (and fangirls) going crazy over a giant welder on Twitter.

Anyway, I was rereading this essay I wrote half a decade ago. It was depressing. Here’s how little of some of it I’d have to change to keep it relevant to today.

Continue reading

KSC Versus MSFC

I had an interesting Twitter discussion this morning, that gave me an insight that had been floating around in the back of my mind, but that I’d never articulated, either to myself or others. It sort of crystallized when someone said that Bob Cabana, head of KSC, was an SLS supporter.

One of the tenets of the Apollo Cargo Cult is that we can’t go beyond earth orbit without a really big rocket. The conventional wisdom has been that the biggest constituency for SLS is Marshall, because that’s were it is being developed. But if you think about it, there are a lot of things Marshall could be applied to — it doesn’t have to be developing big rockets (something it hasn’t successfully done in almost four decades). For instance, it could be developing technology and demonstrators for orbital fuel storage and transfer. That would be at least as much in its wheelhouse as SLS.

KSC, on the other hand, has little justification for existence if NASA doesn’t have its own (big) rocket to launch. Without a big rocket, it doesn’t need the VAB, and the VAB and the crawler are really the only unique capability it has, in terms of physical infrastructure. If everything is going up on commercial rockers, even from Pads 39, KSC doesn’t have much to do, other than integrating NASA’s payloads onto them. That’s not a trivial task, but it’s not one that justifies the center’s budget or workforce. So, while Marshall could in theory be redirected to something useful, KSC can’t really. That’s why Nelson supports it so strongly.

It struck me in fact that the VAB is the high cathedral for the cargo cult. What would happen to the religion if it was taken out by a hurricane?

Stick Shifts

What are they worth?

If and when we ever sell our (silver) 2000 BMW, I suspect we’ll be happy that it’s got a clutch in it.

Which is another peeve. Almost every car now (including our new RAV-4) comes with a “manual” option for the transmission, but there’s no shift pattern. It’s like a motorcycle — you have to go through the gears sequentially. And the lack of clutch really defeats most of the purpose.

One other related gripe:

Since dealers are ninety-nine percent of the customer base at an auction, dealer preferences dictate what sells for good money. Fast-turning automobiles in high demand sell for good money, period point blank. No dealer wants to take a risk on an odd color or an unusual equipment group (think: Sebring convertibles with the expensive folding hardtop, stripped-out Explorer XL trims from the Nineties, loaded short-wheelbase S-Classes) or manual transmissions. They’d rather buy what sells easily and go home. Therefore, auction prices reflect dealer desires, not customer desires.

This disconnect between dealer and customer desires punishes the customer at every turn. It’s why Honda and Acura make you take a non-color with a stick-shift Accord or TSX: the dealers don’t want to stock a brown Accord V6 six-speed even if there’s a guy (YO!) willing to buy it. It’s why you see interesting combinations of colors and options in the order brochure but never at the dealers. It’s why the flotilla of individual options that marked the Detroit era of new cars has become a maze of packages and mandatory tie-ins, even when the car in question is manufactured in the same state as the selling dealers.

The dealers want the stuff that turns quickly. That means silver Camrys and red Ferraris and automatic convertible Corvettes and all-wheel-drive S-Classes. Your desires have nothing to do with it. They aren’t listening to you. They don’t care. While you’re busy displaying your autism spectrum disorder by lecturing the salesman about the actual cam lobe profile on a car you’re thinking about buying two jobs from now and for which you expect to pay invoice minus holdback, three families in used SUVs have come in and bought new SUVs and the store has grossed them front, back, used, and F&I. You mean nothing to a dealer. Period.

It drives me nuts that I can’t get a clutch in a car with horsepower, at least with the Japanese. For example, Honda won’t give you a manual transmission unless it’s mated to a four cylinder engine. If you want it on the six you’re out of luck. The only reason I can think of for them to do this is that they don’t want to have to have a beefy enough gearbox to handle the extra power, but I’m not sure that’s the reason.

Another Close Approach

An asteroid will pass us on Sunday at about a tenth of the distance to the moon.

There are a lot of natural disasters we won’t be able to prevent (e.g., supervolcano explosions, or a nearby gamma-ray burst). But this is something that we could, if we were willing to devote more resources to it. And it wouldn’t take a lot more. In fact, it could be done for a lot less than we’re wasting on SLS/Orion.

In Which I Disagree With @Instapundit

I agree that neurosuspension is better than nothing, but I disagree that whole body is for suckers. This is a topic that’s been going on for years in cryonics discussions.

We simply don’t know how much of our identity is in our body, as opposed to simply our brains. For instance, I suspect that there is a lot of distributed motor intelligence in athletes and musicians — when I play an instrument (or for that matter, simply type on a keyboard) I have a sense that my hands aren’t being directly controlled by the brain, but are rather receiving higher-level commands issued by the brain that are implemented at a lower level, based on local memory. I don’t know that to be the case, but if you can afford to keep the whole body, it might end up being worth not having to reacquire old skills.

The Coalition For Big Expensive Rockets

I agree with Stephen Fleming about this press release.

I’ve been pointing out all of the nonsensical, engineering-illiterate praise for SLS on Twitter. “Most powerful,” “fastest” etc. I loved this one today:

My response:

The SpaceX Vehicle Loss

Apparently it was a blocked sensor port:

“I can tell you that it certainly looks like it was basically a single-point failure that existed on that test article that does not exist on the Falcon 9,” Reisman said. “We think it was a failure of a single sensor, and Falcon 9 has multiple sensors in its algorithm that it uses. So if the same failure occurred on the Falcon 9 it would not affect the mission in any way.”

The sensor failure in one of the three Merlin 1D engines on the Falcon 9R caused the vehicle to stray from its intended flight path, triggering an automatic self-destruct command to ensure it did not threaten nearby people and property.

Reisman said an operational Falcon 9 flight, which uses nine first stage engines, could overcome the loss of an engine. On the three-engine Falcon 9R, such redundancy does not exist.

But still no announcement of a new launch date for AsiaSat 6?

The Future

It could work, if we let it.

I do think that driverless cars are going to make things like high-speed rail (particularly California’s plan) look even more monumentally stupid in retrospect than it does now (and that’s a high bar). But history teaches us that it’s very difficult to predict the societal side effects of technological advances.