Supersonic Man

May 10, 2017

no Apollo

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 9:21 am

If NASA had not been hurried into building the Apollo mission by the “space race” against the USSR, how might we have arrived at the Moon?  Space development might have proceeded a good deal more slowly and less expensively, building on the X-15 rocket plane experiments.  I think that program would eventually have arrived at something fairly close to the Space Shuttle.  If you solve all the problems of the X-15 one by one to make it orbit-worthy, it would have had to be much larger and blunter, because any adequate heat shield is going to be around four inches thick, and that doesn’t scale down for something skinny or pointy.  That sounds a lot like the shuttle to me.

So let’s say we were trying to send a mission to the moon using space shuttles.  The shuttle itself can’t go there even in you fill the cargo bay with fuel, and that would be wasteful anyway, as you don’t need most of its bulk.  So I think the bits that actually go to the moon would be much as they historically were in Apollo: a lunar module, command module, and service module.  Why not just stick those into a shuttle bay?

The shuttle’s cargo bay is 60 feet long and 15 feet across, though for a cylindrical cargo the cross section needs to be a bit smaller, as the space isn’t fully round.  The mass limit for a flight to low orbit is a hair over 30 English tons, or 27.5 metric tons.  (I don’t think any real flight ever exceeded 83% of that capacity.)  What can we work out based on these limits?

You can’t fit all three modules into one shuttle-load, but they’ll go in two loads, if you make the lander a bit less broad and gangly.  One would be the command module and lunar module, and the service module would be the other.  And we might have to trim a bit of weight from the service module.  This means the service module would have to be mounted to the command module by shuttle astronauts in space suits, which would be inconvenient, but doable.  Alternately, you might cram the three modules into one flight all preassembled, if their fuel were in another.  This would mean at least six operations of astronauts pumping dangerous fluids into various tanks spread throughout the modules.  It might also mean assembling the lander’s legs from some inconveniently compact from.

Now you need a rocket to send the set toward the moon — one very like the third stage of Apollo, which used most of its fuel to lift the three modules out of low orbit and fling them toward the moon.  This rocket is a bit too large to fit into a shuttle bay, but it’s not too implausible that there could be a way to make it fit.  Its weight is no problem, if it’s empty.  But the fuel would take at least four shuttle loads!  Historically this rocket weighed 10 metric tons empty, and pushed a 40 ton payload.  The required delta-V is 3.1 km/s.  It burned nearly 100 tons of hydrogen and oxygen to accomplish this.  It used a bit more to circularize Apollo’s Earth orbit, which would not be needed in this case.

So the mission would require seven shuttle launches, starting with one to put up the booster with the first splash of fuel in it, and four more to fill it up.  Then the service module would be brought up, and attached to the booster.  The command and lunar modules would come up last, along with the astronauts who will ride in them.  That last shuttle could stay in orbit to await their return.

Since the empty “third” stage might not fit easily, and since it’s probably better to bring the fuel up in the tanks that will be used instead of needing to pump it from one tank to another, maybe the booster would just be a framework that fuel tanks would be bolted into.  Such a framework could be folded smaller for transport.  This would require additional assembly in space, possibly employing double digit numbers of shuttle astronauts over several flights.  But if everything were prepared well on the ground, the task should not be difficult or dangerous.  And if the orbits were well planned, the booster stage could be recovered into Earth orbit, and either refueled for another mission, or if necessary flown back down for refurbishment.  As SpaceX has demonstrated with their Falcon landings, once a booster is detached from its payload and has mostly empty tanks, a small amount of remaining fuel can accomplish quite a lot of maneuvering, so I don’t think it’s implausible that its engine could return to low orbit, especially if it discards some empty tanks or scaffolding.

The command module might not need to splash down into the ocean.  But it might still need a heat shield, just to brake in Earth’s atmosphere enough to slow down into an Earth orbit, so a shuttle can pick it up.  Or, this somewhat risky air-braking could be avoided by giving the service module more fuel.  (Perhaps it also could use bolt-in tanks.  Add one more fuel-hauling flight to the schedule in this case.)  An ocean splashdown might be the emergency backup option if the rendezvous fails.  But if it succeeds, they could even have the option of recovering the upper stage of the lunar module, and flying both modules down with the astronauts in one shuttle landing.

I’m sure this sounds a lot more awkward and inconvenient than the Apollo’s simple process of just launching one big rocket, but it would have been vastly less expensive.  Most of the parts would be reusable instead of disposable.  The only part that absolutely could not be reused is the bottom stage of the lunar module.  Apollo cost us at least $20 billion per landing, in today’s money; this would cost perhaps a quarter of that — and I’m sure if we made this a continuing operation, we would have found ways to lower the costs further.  Instead of just six trips to the moon, we might have continued doing dozens.  We might never have stopped.

However, I do worry that this process might have exposed astronauts to greater risks.  Lots of opportunities for something to go wrong up in orbit, and lots more shuttle flights.  As we have seen, those shuttles were not the safest things to fly in.

May 5, 2017

makes it easy!

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,life — Supersonic Man @ 3:08 pm

Whenever someone introduces me to a new software framework which is designed to make things easier, especially one to make visual layout easier, I usually end up wishing they’d left things difficult.  Because the thing about these frameworks is that they impose assumptions and expectations.  As long as you work within those assumptions and expectations, the framework saves a lot of labor.  But as soon as a requirement comes along which makes you step outside of those expectations, the framework stops working with you and starts fighting against you.  You end up expending as much work getting around the framework as on solving the problem.

This is especially relevant when the framework is for visual layout.  Because then, they only keep things easy when you adhere to certain limitations of visual styling, and the only people who understand those limitations are the developers.  Which means you’re fine as long as you’re willing to live with a programmer’s sense of visual style.  These frameworks seem terrific in demos, because the examples always take advantage of their strengths and avoid their weaknesses.  But as soon as you bring in a designer or marketer who understands design but doesn’t know the quirks of the framework, their ideas will immediately push you into fighting the built-in assumptions, and all the benefits of having a simplified labor-saving technology wave goodbye, going out for a beer while you’re stuck with a job which is now more difficult than it would have been with no help.

This has been true since the early days of graphical interfaces, from Visual Basic to Twitter Bootstrap.  The latter is my particular bete-noir at the moment, as we adopted it at my job, had to retrofit parts of our old design to not be broken by it, then started to develop new stuff which used it but also had the retrofitting in place, and of course were immediately hit with design change requests which don’t get along with it.  Even before those requests, we were already in a situation where our own CSS was in a fight with itself, half of it saying “don’t be Bootstrap” and the other half saying “you gotta be Bootstrap”.

In the nonvisual realm, it isn’t necessarily so bad.  Some frameworks actually do make things easier without making you fight them.  It helps if their use is purely for code, so it’s designed by programmers for programmers, with no end users involved.  One good example nowadays is jQuery.  It makes many things easier and almost nothing harder.

And we’ve been using it at work but now the word is we’re going to switch to Angular.  We shall see how that turns out.

April 8, 2017

eight-bit nostalgia

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 1:03 pm

There’s a lot of nostalgia out there for the era of eight-bit computers — especially the home-oriented ones from the likes of Commodore and Sinclair and Atari.  And I get why: they were tremendously liberating and empowering to those who had never had access to computing before.  And the BASIC interpreters they all came with were likewise quite empowering to those who hadn’t previously realized that they could write their own programs.

But as someone who was already empowered, I couldn’t stand those crappy toy computers.  Never owned one.  I didn’t start wanting my own computer until the sixteen bit era.  The first personal computer that actually made me want it was the Apple Lisa, which of course was prohibitively expensive.  The first one I wanted enough to pay hard-earned money for, at a time when I didn’t have much, was the Amiga 1000.

(Last I checked, my Amiga 1000 still runs.  But one of these days the disk drives are going to fail, and any available replacements will be just as old and worn.  Turns out that what a lot of retrocomputing hobbyists do is to use hardware adapters to connect their old disk cables to modern flash-memory drives.  It may be kind of cheating but at least you won’t have range anxiety about how much you dare use it before it breaks.)

To me, the sixteen bit era, and the 32-bit transition following, was the most fun time, when the computers were capable enough to do plenty of cool stuff, but also still innovative and diverse enough to not be all boring and businesslike.

If I were of a mind to recapture any of that fun with modern hardware, it sure doesn’t cost money like it used to: I’d look at, for instance, getting a Pi 3 with Raspbian on it.  You could have a complete Linux system just by velcroing it to the back of a monitor or TV.  But there are even cheaper alternatives: there’s a quite good hacking environment available across all modern platforms, more empowering and ubiquitous than BASIC ever was… in your browser’s javascript.

March 1, 2017

faith

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 9:56 am

If what God actually wanted from us was to be worshipped, believed in, and obeyed in one particular way, think how easy it would be for Him to inform everyone on Earth of what He wanted.

Even if He only spoke to a few prophets, why not just have a bunch of them say the same thing at the same time in different languages?

Instead, what we’ve got now is a God who apparently expects to be believed in on a basis of occasional hearsay and conflicting testimony… which means that to arrive at correct faith depends on the exact same faculties that other people use to arrive at a wrong belief in a false deity.

January 22, 2017

Trump’s inauguration crowd is yuge

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 5:50 am

​From one perspective, it’s hilarious: Trump has taken time off of his twitter feuds to engage in a ridiculously juvenile dick-measuring contest over who had the bigger crowd in DC, his supporters or the protestors.  And he sends out this Sean Spicer character to make absurdly transparent lies about it, in order to back this up.  As (presumably) a professional media guy, Spicer has got to be pretty deeply embarrassed about hitching his national reputation to such a transparent fib, but Trump has him doing it anyway (albeit fleeing the podium as soon as possible afterward).  This is not only some good late-night-comic fodder, it’s also an open invitation for the straight news media to directly call out your administration as liars, despite their normally great reluctance to depart from “neutrality” whenever there is disagreement about facts.

But there’s another way to look at this, which isn’t so funny.  In a nation with a free press, this kind of attempt to transparently invent your own fake facts is laughable… but in countries where the press is not free, it’s routine.  This is exactly how news reporting is treated in totalitarian countries where the media are captive to the state.  In those circumstances, the big lie is the only story the public gets to hear, and if the truth gets to them, it’s only in the form of rumor and anecdote, which might be just as untrustworthy when it comes to pinning down solid facts.

What makes this sobering is Trump’s continual attacking and denigration of the news media.  He very much wants his supporters to distrust them, but even more, he wants them to stop reporting facts which contradict his stories.  Why all the attacks?  Because he wants his supporters to demand change, to shout down stories they don’t like — to pressure the media into compliance with his will.  Consciously or not, what he is pushing for is an end to the free press.  To him, a free press is the enemy.  He will never stop attacking them, so long as they report news that they discover through their own lying eyes and ears, rather than the official truth of Trump.

Trump is not just making this attack out of ego or spite — he is betting his presidency on it.  As long as the press remains free, Trump is a clown.  As soon as it’s not, everything he’s doing starts to work exactly as he intends it to, and he can rule as strongly as he wishes.

Trump is governing in a style which can only work when the press is not free.

December 19, 2016

red country vs blue city

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 10:11 am

Anyone who’s studied election maps has seen that when you look at which areas voted conservative and which voted liberal, it isn’t a matter of “red states” vs “blue states”, it’s a matter of urban areas vs rural areas.  The cities in red states are blue, and the countryside in blue states is red.  The balance of the state as a whole largely comes down to how urbanized it is (though the racial composition of rural areas can also be a factor).

countymappurple512

So what is it about city and country that correlates with liberal and conservative views?  I think there is one factor which explains most of the difference.  It comes down to investment.

(more…)

December 1, 2016

conservatives face a test

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 1:41 pm

There are several types of conservatism in the United States.  They differ in what sorts of principles and values they consider to be the moral basis of conservatism.

The first branch to consider is small-government conservatism.  This includes libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and other ideologies favorable to laissez-faire free market policies.  The underlying values and principles have to do with liberty, individualism, responsibility, and self-reliance.  They judge people as friends or enemies depending on how willing they are to impose rules on each other.  When this philosophy reaches a toxic extreme, you get philosophies like objectivism, in which caring for other people is anathema.  But the mainstream of this type of conservatism is the most common one you will usually find in intellectual discourse: it has a rich body of abstract philosophy supporting it, and often attracts highly intelligent people.  But I don’t think it’s a majority among American conservatives.

How compatible is this type of conservatism with the rhetoric of Donald Trump?  Not very.  He tends to easily mix hands-off ideas in one area with interventionist ones in the next. (more…)

November 25, 2016

disenfranchisement

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 3:18 pm

The practice of denying the vote to felons even after their sentence is complete — the basis of the discriminatory Crosscheck system — really ought to be ruled unconstitutional.  It exploits a loophole of the 14th amendment in a way clearly not intended by its crafters, and acts as a substitute for the “poll tax” practice abolished by the 24th amendment.

Misuses of felon lists to block voting have already been ruled illegal in several states by several courts, specifically because they target minorities (as forbidden by amendment 14), yet they persist in the abuse.  We need to cut the whole thing out at the root, which is the state laws under which felons lose their voting rights permanently.  These laws turn biased law enforcement into a tool of deliberate disenfranchisement.

November 18, 2016

future cars

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future!,thoughtful handwaving,Uncategorized — Supersonic Man @ 7:05 pm

A lot of people who talk about the coming future of post-petroleum vehicles like to pooh-pooh the battery electric car, even though it’s the most successful type so far.  They keep insisting that the real future will belong to hydrogen fuel cells or ethanol or something else exotic.

But consider the following vision for a future car:

It’s an affordable compact or midsize, nothing fancy.  The base model comes with an electric motor for each front wheel, and 25 or 30 kilowatt-hours of batteries layered under the floor.  This arrangement keeps the powertrain out of the way, so it can have a trunk at both ends, like a Tesla.  Its range is at most a hundred miles, so it’s fine for commuting and shopping and local excursions, but very inconvenient for a road trip.

Most people accustomed to gasoline cars would find this a bit disappointing.  But consider the upgrades you could buy for it.  If you want sure-footedness in snow, or more performance, add a pair of rear motors.  (They would be smaller than the front ones, unless you’re doing some aggressive hot-rodding.)  If you want longer range, you could have a second battery pack in place of your front trunk.  And… if you want to drive everywhere and refuel with gasoline, you could replace that front trunk or second battery with a small gasoline engine and a generator.  It could be no bigger than a motorcycle engine, because it would only need to produce fifteen or twenty horsepower to keep your batteries from draining while cruising down a highway.  Ideally it would be a turbine rather than a piston engine, as it would only run at one speed.

Or if gasoline goes out of fashion, you could use that space for a fuel cell and a hydrogen tank.  Again, it would produce only a steady fifteen or twenty horsepower.  Or there could eventually be other alternatives not well known today, such as liquid-fueled batteries which you refill with exotic ion solutions, or metal-air cells fueled with pellets of zinc or aluminum.

These would not have to be options you choose when buying the car, but could just as easily be aftermarket modifications.  They simply bolt in!  Anyone with a hoist could swap them in minutes.  Even the trunk would just be a bolted-in tub.  With a good design, these power options might be interchangeable easily enough that people could just rent such an add-on as needed, rather than buying it.  It might be cheaper than, say, renting another car for a vacation trip.

Another option might be to install stuff from below.  There have been plans to make a network of stations where a machine just unclips your empty battery and slots in a full one, from underneath.  With forethought, this car could be made compatible with such a system.

The point is, once you have the basic platform of a battery-electric car, it can be cheaply adapted to run on any power source.  You could run it with coal, or with thorium, if you’re crazy enough.  Whatever becomes the most economical and abundant power storage medium of the future, your existing car can take it onboard.  All you need is to make sure it has some unused room under the hood.

And the best part?  Even if you don’t add anything, you still have a plug-in car that’s perfectly okay for most everyday uses.  In fact, I suspect a lot of people might come to prefer the car with no add-on, because it’s lighter and quicker and more efficient that way, and it has two trunks.

November 7, 2016

enduring entertainment franchises

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 6:48 pm

What are the longest-lasting, most prolific, most enduring entertainment franchises? When it comes to movies, there are two big ones which usually get mentioned above all others: Godzilla, and James Bond. If you include the combination of movies and TV, Star Trek is hard to beat. But these are only the well-known internationally popular ones. If you look at more obscure serieses that aren’t well known outside of their countries of origin, there are many which, for sheer quantity, utterly blow away those big names.

Here are some examples:

franchise origin years films genre
Hopalong Cassidy USA 1935-1948 66 western
The Durango Kid USA 1940-1952 64 western
El Santo Mexico 1958-1982 52 luchador
The Bowery Boys USA 1946-1958 48 comedy
Tora-san Japan 1969-1995 48 romantic comedy
Charlie Chan USA 1926-1949 47 mystery

This list gets plenty longer if you start counting Japanese TV material repackaged as films, in which case Ultraman and Super Sentai are both formidable. Perry Mason and Scooby-Doo are also substantial.

Things get muddier if you look at public-domain characters who have been the subject of different serieses of films made by independent groups. Some characters who have large numbers of films of independent origin include Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Dracula, Frankenstein, and Hercules. Two characters which may be a bit more unified in their origin, and more plausible as having their films constitute a single franchise, include Maciste (Italy) and Wong Fei-hung (China).

But the picture brightens up if you look at franchises which include the longest span of years. Then the mass-produced comedies and westerns centered around particular actors mostly drop away. The most enduring I can find by this measure are:

Godzilla Japan monster 62 years and counting
Perry Mason USA mystery 61 years including TV movies
James Bond UK spy 54 years and counting
Doctor Who UK SF 53 years on TV, and counting
Ultraman Japan SF/kids 50 years on TV with spinoff films, and counting
Star Trek USA SF 50 years on TV, 37 on film, and counting
Zatoichi Japan samurai 48 years
Bulldog Drummond UK/USA action 44 years
Mil Máscaras Mexico luchador 44 years
Looney Tunes USA comedy 41 years and counting, without including shorts
Super Sentai Japan SF/kids 41 years on TV with spinoff films, and counting
Apartment Wife Japan erotica 40 years
Star Wars USA SF 39 years and counting
The Cisco Kid USA western 36 years, then rebooted in 1994 after 44 years off

But these all dwindle into insignificance if you count the short cartoons of characters like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. I have no doubt that those guys will hit the century mark in due time… though the effects of their early works going into the public domain (if lobbyists ever even allow that to happen) may be difficult to estimate.

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.