Supersonic Man

May 29, 2021

the end of Windows hegemony — update

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future!,computing — Supersonic Man @ 1:06 pm

More than eight years ago, I wrote a post here called “the end of Windows hegemony?”.  It was quite premature at the time, and for year after year nothing seemed to happen to make any of the predictions or possibilities mentioned in that post move any closer to reality.

But in the year of the pandemic, it’s finally starting to look like people are reconsidering their automatic default allegiance to Microsoft Windows.  At the time of that post, according to statcounter.com, the desktop market share of Windows was 84% in North America and 91% worldwide.  Now it’s down to 63% in North America and 75% worldwide.  The biggest gainer has been MacOS, though it looks like they may have started trending back down again in the middle of 2020, perhaps due to caution over the change of CPU architecture.  Back then they were at 15% and 8%, and at the peak they hit 28% and 18%.  The other main beneficiary has been ChromeOS, which has gone from essentially nothing to 6% in North America and 2% worldwide.

Microsoft is now planning a fancy new update to the Windows look and feel… and unlike previous major updates, this one is pretty much mandatory.  They’d probably call it Windows 11 if they hadn’t committed to using the name Windows 10 until the end of time… and maybe they will anyway.  Time will tell whether there are good options available for those who decide they hate whatever new style they come up with.

In this, Windows is  becoming like Android, though with less ability to choose different aesthetic styles of UI by picking a different hardware maker.  As with Android, those who make the effort to dig into alternatives will probably have pretty good options to change some things they don’t like, but most non-techy users will not benefit from this, and will take what they’re given.

Mostly what they want, from what I’ve seen, is lack of change.  They want the time and attention they’ve invested in learning software systems to not be lost.  Automatic and mandatory changes are likely to be met with resentment, if they require any relearning.  The time when they feel open to change is when they buy new hardware, which is why Android suffers less of this resentment.  It used to be that paying money for a new OS version would also open this window, but that’s not something that happens anymore.

Marketing-wise, Microsoft was never well served by trying to switch to an evergreen software model in which they pump out updates when they see fit rather than when the user wants them.  Their users, outside of corporate IT departments and technical professionals, are willing to take what they’re given, but want it to be stable and predictable once they’ve gotten used to it.

And I think that what Microsoft has failed to appreciate about its own position is how much their entire Windows business has depended on people’s willingness to take what they’re given.  Aside from gamers, almost nobody chooses windows for themselves because they actively want it.  They take it because it’s what’s been given to them.  Because it’s the default — because it’s what you get automatically if you don’t make an active choice.  Because it’s what everybody has always gotten, and they don’t need to think about it.  I suspect that, like many others before them, Microsoft has mistaken a historical privilege for an earned reward.  They’re probably having thoughts like “They love what we’re doing, so let’s give them more of it.”  Decisions based on such thoughts will not mesh well with reality.

Soon, with Apple gaining by leaps and bounds, now having superior hardware thanks to in-house silicon chips with no x86 baggage, and ChromeOS rapidly becoming more visible and viable, customers are going to have to start thinking about it again.  The time is near when the average computer shopper might no longer get Windows automatically, but will actually make a mindful decision about what OS they prefer.  And I don’t think very many are going to actively avow that they really like and prefer Windows.  After all, the first bar that any competing OS has to clear, in order to be commercially viable at all, is to do better than Windows.

April 28, 2021

Is Russia too broke to be a space power anymore?

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,spaaaace!,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 7:26 am

Long ago, Russia was the unquestioned leader in spaceflight. Even after we beat them to the moon at enormous expense, they still notched up lots of firsts in other areas. And even after we took clear leadership with shuttles and Mars landers and space telescopes, they were still the clear second best. But now the big space rivalry is USA vs China, and though Russia has many announced projects and plans, they’re having a harder and harder time following through on the execution. If it weren’t for their great heritage, and the national prestige that they’ve got tied up in spaceflight, they might by now be a minor space power, less active than the European Union, and surpassed by the rapid advances now being made in India.

But because of that prestige issue, they have to do their best to act the part of a space superpower, though it’s getting more and more difficult to keep up. The gap between what is planned and what’s possible in practice seems to be getting steadily wider. The Indians might surpass them yet, if they don’t pull off some of these projects.

Let’s run through their announced projects, and see where they’re at:

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April 22, 2021

SpaceX’s enormous Starship as lunar lander for Artemis — does that make sense?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing,spaaaace!,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 10:48 pm

Surprisingly, it makes more sense than it appears to at first glance, both as an alternative to a small lander and — for the near term — as an alternative to just using Starships for the entire trip. But it’s not clear that it leaves us with any need to use the boondoggle SLS rocket. So NASA’s recent decision to use SpaceX’s next generation rocket to land on the moon with, but not for the rest of the Artemis mission, may not be perfect but is also not wrong.

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January 22, 2021

Sanity is your responsibility as an adult

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 4:24 am

When people hear the word “sanity”, they tend to think of it as pertaining to medical or psychiatric conditions over which an individual may be powerless. But those cases are actually the exceptions, not the norm. For most of us, how sane we are is actually a matter of choice. We choose every day whether to remain fully engaged with reality as it is, or to fall into some form of denial or delusion. Some of us make these choices mindfully, including many who have to deal with mental health challenges, and some of us do not.

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December 16, 2020

thank God for the Puritans

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 7:04 am

The Colonies which went on to become the United States of America had two kinds of settlers and founders. One kind sought freedom of worship, and the other sought wealth. The former settled in the North and the latter had the South all to itself. The two founded quite different cultures: one of them invented modern democracy and made this land a beacon of hope for oppressed and exploited peoples all around the world; the other participated whole-heartedly in oppression and exploitation, and came close to snuffing out that beacon a few generations later.

In the early days, Puritans did own slaves, but their religious consciences prevented the levels of abuse that became routine in the South, and once an abolitionist movement grew in later generations, it was rooted in Puritan thought. Even the harshest and least tolerant early Puritans produced thoughts such as “Liberty is the proper end and object of authority,” and the idea that community leaders could be chosen and removed by the people.  In Massachusetts, the “Body of Liberties” document forbade enslavement of most people as early as 1641.  And those who were enslaved — mainly Wampanoags from the losing side of “King Philip’s War” — in many cases got themselves freed by the colonial courts.  Two centuries after the Body of Liberties, one accusation that slaveowners hurled at abolitionists was of excess Puritanism.

If it hadn’t been for the Puritans and similar religious sects, America might never have become a democracy. Without them, America would be nothing but a land of assholes, and politically would probably have started with feudalism and ended with fascism.

December 6, 2020

the Amiga 1000 was better built than I thought

Filed under: computing,fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry,life — Supersonic Man @ 10:26 pm

An Amiga 1000 was the first computer I ever bought with my own money, and I still have it. And I always knew that in some ways it was well built, because that one I bought back in the eighties still runs, whereas the far more expensive and rugged and professional Amiga 3000 that I bought in the nineties died long ago. But now I’ve found that it’s even truer than I thought.

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November 30, 2020

everything rockety is happening in December

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,spaaaace! — Supersonic Man @ 9:12 pm

This coming month, especially the middle part, has got a crazy concentration of innovative rocket events all scheduled around the same time. Of course many of them may see their schedules slip by a few days or a few months, but if not, it’s going to be kind of nuts keeping up with all the firsts happening in this brief period. Let’s run them down:

Dec 6: Japan’s Hayabusa 2 probe will reenter the atmosphere with rock samples from asteroid Ryugu.

Dec 11: Russia’s space agency will make a second test flight of their Angara A5 rocket, in which a central booster has four more of the same kind of booster stuck onto its sides. Why is it so significant if this is a second flight rather than a first? Because the first flight was in 2014. They’ve been reworking this thing for six years.

Dec 17: China’s Chang’e 5 lunar lander will attempt to drop moon rocks back on Earth. If successful, these would be the first new batch of moon rocks anyone has retrieved since 1976, and would end any doubt that Russia has now been supplanted as the #2 space power. Hopefully it will also be a wakeup call for NASA, which thanks to Congressional pork-barrelry has wasted billions and billions on the SLS rocket and Orion capsule, which both look likely to be obsolete relics before they see much useful service.

Dec 19: Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit (a distinct company from his Virgin Galactic) will make a second try at reaching orbit with their LauncherOne rocket, which launches horizontally at high altitude from under the wing of a 747. (The first attempt aborted early when a pipe failed.) Incidentally, Virgin Galactic is doing a suborbital test flight of its own on Dec 12 or 13.

Dec 20: China’s space agency will make a first test launch of a new midsized rocket which they hope to eventually make reusable, like a Falcon 9 — the Long March 8. This is actually coming earlier than expected, which is almost unheard of in rocket-land.

Dec 22: A new rocket company called Firefly will attempt to launch their Alpha rocket from Vandenberg. It’s a lot smaller than a Falcon, but bigger than Rocket Lab’s Electron — a large small rocket, you could say. Everybody’s been assuming that small rockets like the Electron would soon be competing in a very crowded market, but as yet no such crowding has actually happened — for the time being, the Electron still stands pretty much alone. If Virgin and Firefly both succeed, those days will definitely be over.

Dec ??: Another new company, Astra, is trying to make their second launch attempt by the end of the year. (Their prior attempt went off course and crashed.) If they succeed, they will have the world’s cheapest orbital rocket, and it’s designed to go into mass production. And they’re based right here in the Bay Area.

I might also mention that there’s a new Chinese company called Deep Blue Aerospace which has said they’ll try launching a new Nebula-1 rocket by the end of the year, but as yet I have no idea if this claim is to be taken seriously.

And before any of these we can probably expect to see SpaceX fly a Starship prototype to an altitude of 15 kilometers (50,000 feet) and then try to land it in a complicated belly-flop maneuver, which regardless of whether it succeeds or fails, should be quite a sight either way. They’re also debuting the Dragon 2 as a cargo carrier, so the space station will have two Dragons docked at once.

Meanwhile, ULA is going to attempt two launches of their Delta IV Heavy, the rocket that used to be the most powerful available before the Falcon Heavy came along. They only tend to do one or two launches a year, and aren’t planning any for 2021, so it’s weird to see two scheduled in the same month. After these, there are only three more Delta IV Heavy launches scheduled before the rocket (the last of the Delta series) is to be retired.


Update: How did things go?

Hayabusa 2’s reentry capsule was successfully retrieved from the Australian outback on Dec 6 in excellent condition. One sample container yielded “a good amount of sand… along with gases,” and the other had gravely chips. The total amount was about five grams.

The Dragon 2 cargo flight went up later that day, and docked on Monday the 7th. (Other routine Falcon 9 satellite launches went up on the 13th and 19th.)

The Starship test flight goal was lowered from 15 kilometers to 12.5 (the original plan had been 20). On Dec 8 the launch was aborted 1.3 seconds before ignition. On Dec 9 it went up, but the landing burn didn’t quite work, and it hit too hard and made a fireball. SpaceX says the fuel header tank had too little pressure. This caused one engine to shut down early, and another to burn out its insides with excess oxygen.  [In February, the next test crashed even harder. In March, the next one touched down with only a slight crunch, then blew up on the ground a few minutes later. Also in March, the one after that exploded in midair. They finally landed one intact in May.]

Chang’e 5 successfully got its rock samples into lunar orbit and handed them over to the return vehicle on Dec 8. That vehicle spent several days raising its orbit and started its return trajectory on Dec 13. The canister landed early Dec 17 with 1.7 kilograms of samples. The orbiter then departed for an additional mission.

One Delta IV Heavy launch — the one originally scheduled for August — went up on Dec 10. The other slipped to April of 2021.

Astra put their rocket on the pad and readied it for flight on Dec 11, but scrubbed due to excessive winds. They finally launched on Dec 15. It flew correctly but came up short of orbital velocity by 480 meters per second, meaning they got about 95% of the way there. The upper stage ran out of fuel with oxygen left over, meaning the problem was an incorrect mix ratio, which is easy to fix. But they didn’t launch again until summer.

Virgin Galactic’s suborbital test flight was aborted at ignition time on Dec 12, apparently due to a failed electrical connection. They had to glide to a landing.

But Virgin Orbit had to call off their December launch attempt due to covid. Too many employees were quarantined in the Los Angeles area’s surge of cases. They flew on Jan 17, and reached orbit successfully.

The Angara launch took place successfully on Dec 14.

The Long March 8 flew successfully on Dec 22. It may still be some years before they can make it reusable, but they are working now on making it quick and easy to launch with minimal prep work.

Still looking forward to the Firefly Alpha.  December ended with no word from the company on when to expect a launch attempt, and so did January, February, March, and April. Apparently the major holdup was not the rocket itself, but the launchpad.

November 21, 2020

small commercial rockets

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,spaaaace! — Supersonic Man @ 10:16 am

In the world of rockets, most of the attention goes to the big boys — the ones that do the prestige missions that carry live people, or send stuff to the moon or beyond. And most of these are still governmental, like the SLS being built for NASA’s Artemis program, or China’s new Long March 5. Even for purely commercial launches, such as communications satellites, until recently most were done by commercializing launches on rockets built for governments, like the Atlas or Soyuz, or India’s PSLV and GSLV.

As yet only SpaceX has made a successful business out of privately constructing a large rocket, the Falcon 9. One other company has tried this: Orbital ATK, recently merged with Northrup Grumman, built the midsized Antares with the help of a Ukrainian company called Yuzhnoye. But the Antares has yet to sell a launch to a nongovernmental customer. And one more company will be trying it soon: Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. Also, the United Launch Alliance is building the Vulcan as a replacement for their Atlas, and SpaceX hopes to obsolete the Falcon with the Starship. As far as big rockets go, that’s the whole list. No purely commercial large rockets are in the works outside of the United States. Some have plans on paper, but they’re future hopes, not current projects. And for that matter, none of these is without some degree of taxpayer subsidy, though the Starship is nearly so.

But with small rockets, it’s a very different story. As technology has enabled satellites to be built in much smaller sizes, there has been a great surge of interest in little rockets. And the number of companies trying to be pioneers in small rockets is countless — there are literally dozens of them around the world, and nobody knows how many of them should be taken seriously.

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October 25, 2020

why isotopes?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,science! — Supersonic Man @ 7:51 am

In the process of writing my lengthy unfinished article about how chemistry works, a side question came up for me: Why do the chemical elements have isotopes? Or more broadly, why do atomic nuclei always contain both protons and neutrons? All combinations consisting of anything but a single proton by itself (which acts as a nucleus when it forms a hydrogen atom) contain a number of neutrons approximately equal to the number of protons — often a slightly larger number, especially in the heavier elements. Why do you never see two protons stuck together with no neutrons, or vice versa?

It turns out that the answer is beta decay. This process is based on the nuclear “weak force”, which is shared between the two main classes of massy fundamental particles, the quarks and the leptons. (The “strong force” applies to quarks only. It’s what holds nuclei together.)

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January 12, 2020

the English accent is stupid

Filed under: fun,Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 9:01 pm

Americans generally respect the English accent. I assume attitudes are similar, if not more so, in Canada, Australia, and so on. (Maybe not so much in Ireland.) People think the English accent sounds classy and refined. But if you look into how the English “Received Pronunciation” accent came to be so different from those of the USA and Canada and Ireland, the reason turns out to be ridiculously lame.

Classy is the important word here. The difference arose precisely because people thought it sounded more classy and refined. Until about the year 1700, most people in England spoke quite similarly to those in Ireland or North America, pronouncing letters such as R and O as they were written instead of with peculiar distortions. But after that, throughout most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as economic opportunity started to become accessible to commoners, those who were financially or socially ambitious did their best to emulate the manners and styles of the classes above their own, as a way to make a better first impression and be taken more seriously. And a very popular way to do so during this period was to attend a class in “elocution”. A whole industry sprang up of teachers and tutors who would train their students in how to talk in a way that sounded upper-class. And some of these teachers knew their job better than others. What they taught was often not so much a copy as an amateurish mockery of how their betters actually talked. But by the end of the eighteenth century these teachings were being incorporated into the standard school curriculum, and by the end of the nineteenth the aristocracy were following along with the changes to the common speech, imitating an imitation of themselves.

(Speaking of class, I once heard an astute observation that when an American is trying to face down a threat, and attempting to sound more intimidating than usual, you can tell what social class they belong to by whether they start talking more black in order to sound street-tough, or start talking more Brit in order to sound privileged. For 90% of us it’s the former, but in loftier social circles the latter is still regularly heard.)

But the silly part is where the accent the elocutionists were copying really came from. The answer to this starts in the reign of Queen Anne. As mentioned in my previous post, Anne was the last of the Stuart dynasty. Anne got pregnant seventeen different times trying to produce an heir, but none of her children lived past age two. Her sister Mary II, who preceded her on the throne (co-ruling with her husband William of Orange), had one miscarriage and no live children. So when it came time to put Anne’s successor on the throne, they had to look a lot farther afield than usual to find the “rightful” next in line. And who they came up with was her second cousin Georg Ludwig, Elector of the Duchy of Brunswick-Lüneburg (commonly called Hanover after its capital city).

When King George I took the throne in 1714, he spoke no English. He never did bother to master the language over his thirteen year reign, and spent part of every year back in Hanover. His son George II did speak English, but since he learned it as an adult, he of course had a German accent, as did the twenty-three political staffers that his father had brought over, and their families and servants. Only when they got to George III in 1760 did Britain once again have a monarch who grew up speaking English, and he was hardly the best role model for it because of his poor mental health.

The English accent which was spread by professional elocutionists has its origin in courtiers and toadies imitating the German accent of the Hanovers. And it wasn’t entirely just the Hanovers: before their time, William of Orange had spoken with a thick Dutch accent, and afterwards, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha married Victoria and brought a supplemental dose of German accent to the royal family, just to remind people how it’s done.

This is why the English accent of today often pronounces the short A as in German, and muffles the letter R as a vowel tone though it’s still used as a consonant. This doesn’t really explain how the long O turned into a diphthong, but I put that down to the errors of amateur mimicry. It’s the sort of thing that’s easy to do when exaggerating someone else’s accent. (Or maybe it came from trying to say Ö.) No positive reason exists for pronouncing English words this way; compared to American or Irish English, the ease and clarity of speech is objectively poorer. Since getting established as a norm the accent has continued to evolve, going in its own direction without any more German input.

If you listen to the various regional accents from around the edges of England, most of them are less affected by this Germanization, which was strongest in the central urban areas. But if you want to hear how English is supposed to sound without the affectations of the eighteenth century’s professional ass-kissers, you need to go at least as far as Ireland, and to hear the most accurate version, the place to go might be Appalachia.

Though Americans do generally think that today’s standard English accent sounds classy and refined, people conversely also recognize that falsely affecting this accent is often a hallmark of a pretentious classist snob. Little do they realize that this actually applies to the accent as a whole: it only came to exist because pretentious affectation was widespread at a time when classist snobbery was the norm.

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