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.

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.

October 26, 2016

the popularity of football

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 1:09 pm

Why is gridiron football so much more popular than other sports to watch on American TV?  I think it’s because the sport excels at creating drama.  In almost no other sport I can name does a game-changing score typically come about only as a result of many minutes of effort, in which a mishap at any point can mean it was all for nothing.  In sports like baseball or soccer or hockey, big scores come with very little warning, and in sports like basketball or tennis or golf or volleyball, there are no really big moments because each individual score is small and only the accumulation of dozens of scoring moments can create a win.

There are certain sports which are very popular despite being poor at drama in this sense.  Auto racing has even more fans than football, and winning at that involves very little drama — it’s an extremely incremental process to work one’s way forward through the field. Bicycle racing is much more dramatic than any motorsport, because the athletes can make bursts of effort at strategic moments.  But on the other hand, losing at auto racing can be very dramatic indeed.  Maybe it’s true that many fans watch it just for the crashes.

Soccer is the real puzzle. Why is it the most popular sport in Europe, South America, and Africa?  It’s fun to play but I don’t see how it’s fun to watch.  Scores can be very rare, and you may have to watch an hour or more of nothing before seeing a big moment, and that moment comes with little warning. Then if they go to penalty kicks, it’s an anticlimax that makes the entire game pointless. (They should widen the goals and make the game higher scoring.)

Actually, I can think of one other athletic endeavor which can offer the same kind of drama that gridiron football does: the fighting sports. Boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, judo, MMA… no wonder the UFC has grown so rapidly. Except sumo wrestling, which is usually over in seconds. That’s another one which is a bit inexplicable in its popularity.

One sport that might be kind of good at drama is cricket — it sure ought to be better than baseball, from what I understand of the rules. Unfortunately a cricket test is really really long.

October 17, 2016

Consider the roundworm

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 12:48 pm

Consider the lowly roundworm, or nematode.  A very primitive form of animal life, but a very successful one, ubiquitous around the world.  They live everywhere, from the bottoms of the oceans to the tops of trees, and they can even be found in near-solid rock in deep mines.  Many also live parasitically inside plants or animals.  They account, by number, for around four fifths of all multicellular animals on Earth.  There are tens of thousands of different species.

Unlike advanced worms, such as the earthworms in your garden, roundworms do not have a circulatory system — they have no heart and no blood.  They absorb oxygen only through the outside surface, and it has to diffuse from cell to cell.  This generally limits them to quite small sizes — larger than single-celled organisms, but not by a lot.  Common sizes are somewhere around a millimeter long and a tenth of a millimeter thick, though in certain protected environments they can expand greatly in length.  They can also be much smaller — as thin as five microns, which about the thickness of the individual strands making up a cobweb or a silk cocoon.

They lack many bodily features besides a circulatory system.  They have no bones, of course, and no lungs or gills.  They also have no eyes or ears, and almost no brain.  They sense the world only through their permeable skins (or rather, cuticles).  They do have a gut through which food passes from one end to the other, though the early larval stages may absorb food as well as oxygen directly through the cuticle.  If you look closely enough, there’s also something in there which functions like a kidney.  And for internal organs, that’s pretty much it — the only other thing they have which clearly resembles anything familiar from the viscera of higher animals is a gonad, which often fills about half of the body cavity.  (They’re usually hermaphroditic.)  In short, their bodies are so rudimentary and simplified that they make a dust mite look like a miracle of advanced complexity.

Let’s look at a specific example, namely the most thoroughly studied nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans.  It lives in soil, and is a typical nematode size, one millimeter long.  It has only about a thousand cells in its body.  To be specific, it has exactly 959 cells in adult hermaphroditic form, not counting sperm and eggs.  (Certain rare individuals grow up to be male only; these have exactly 1031 cells.)  Each and every cell has an individually programmed shape, location, and role — a condition called eutely, which is common in similarly tiny organisms with small numbers of cells, such as rotifers and tardigrades.

It can be informative to look at how they are divided up.  The main length of gut (not counting the specialized bits at each end), though a large part of the animal’s mass, uses only 48 cells — they’re very large and blocky compared to others in the body.   The cuticle is around 200 cells, and the musculature which allows it to wriggle forward consists of 95 cells.  The interesting bit is that of the 959 adult cells, 302 are neurons.  That may not sound like much when even a lowly fruit fly has a quarter million, but a single neuron can do quite a lot of information processing.  Despite its completely fixed neural wiring, this roundworm is capable of rudimentary learning and memory.

Those nerve cells are what make this otherwise very primitive type of organism significant.  Because despite the lack of most everything we take for granted in an animal body, the fact that it has nerves and muscles means that evolution has already produced everything that’s really needed for the development of advanced creatures.  The toolbox already has all the essential parts to create intelligent life, in a way that is not true of, for instance, a sponge.  In terms of evolution, the progress from the origin of life to the achievement of intelligence is, in a roundworm, already like nine tenths complete.  I’m almost tempted to say that  you could practically coast the rest of the way — that once any animal has reached the point where it has muscles coordinated by nerves, the arrival of high intelligence at some later time is scarcely a surprise.  Okay, that’s exaggerated, but really, it no longer requires any great leap — there’s a clear path forward that requires only slow and plodding improvement.  If there’s any astonishing miracle in the process, it’s something that happened at a much earlier stage.

If you doubt this, I will mention that a lot of the useful bodily features that are absent in these worms are already part of the evolutionary toolbox at a wormlike level.  Though a C. elegans has no hard body parts, some other roundworms do — they’ve got teeth.  And rotifers can have rigid external skeletons, and they have chewing mouthparts.  Tardigrades (water bears) have legs like a caterpillar, including claws at the tips.  And they have eyes!  Rotifers can have rudimentary eyes too, which might contain only a single retinal cell.  It’s not at all surprising that a beginning like a rotifer or tardigrade could later produce an animal like, say, a tiny crustacean.  Or that a worm could develop into a creature like a lamprey or hagfish — something which resembles the ancestors of vertebrates.  Give something like that a hinged jaw, and it’s well on its way to producing something like a shark.  Give that the ability to extrude bony protective plates like a sturgeon, and you’re well on your way to fishes with an articulated backbone.  And so on until you get to apes and humans.

Looking the other way, a roundworm hardly seems very remarkable as an advancement relative to, say, a hydra.  It is much better able to move purposefully through its environment, and that’s about it.  And a hydra, in turn, is not really much more sophisticated in its behavior than many protozoans are — the only big advancement is that it is multicellular, with the muscular and nervous functions reasonably well separated into distinct cells.  This allows them to become arbitrarily more complex, whereas a single cell probably can’t grow beyond a quite short list of adaptive behaviors.

Put this all together, and we see why most of the history of life on Earth was occupied with the slow process of perfecting single cells.  Once the most basic multicellular animals developed, and became capable of movement… at that point the slow crawl forward became a race.

It’s not done yet.

October 3, 2016

a tribute to the HTC One M7

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,life — Supersonic Man @ 11:09 pm

My current phone, on which I am typing this post, is an HTC One — the iconic model known, but not advertised, as the M7.  It’s old and I’m now only days away from replacing it.  The battery can barely hold a charge anymore, the main camera is busted, and the proximity sensor ain’t what it used to be.  Besides that, of course the CPU isn’t much by today’s standards and 32 GB of storage is rather limiting with no SD slot… but if it weren’t for the wear&tear issues, I’d feel pretty darn okay with continuing to use this phone for quite a while longer.  It’s an excellent phone, and I definitely wish there were more phones out there which embraced front stereo speakers.

The M7 was quite an important and influential model.  Its design and build set a new standard for the kinds of materials and aesthetics that a high-end phone should aspire to.  Samsung took a couple of years to catch up, and I’m not quite certain Apple ever did.  It’s because of HTC’s chamfered aluminum back that nowadays every midrange Chinese wannabe model has a “premium” metallic build, and plastic became intolerable on a high-end model.  And though the stereo speakers may not have been imitated nearly as often as they ought to have been, their presence did manage to embarrass all but the cheapo models into at least putting a speaker on the edge, like Apple, instead of on the back.

Even its camera, which was often regarded as the most disappointing piece of the phone, was influential.  The “ultrapixel” approach forced makers and buyers to realize that pixel size matters as much as pixel count, and this is why today’s camera spec comparisons include that metric, along with numbers for megapixels and lens aperture.  And yes, this was also among the first cameras to make an issue of its aperture, with f/2.0 when competitors were f/2.4 or slower.  The “zoe” feature also helped popularize sharing brief video snippets as if they were still pictures.

Another imitated feature was the IR blaster, though that is now falling out of favor again.  Don’t blame HTC for the trend to nonremovable batteries, though — that was well under way a year earlier.

Aside from innovative aspects, it was just a solidly good phone.  Its software, for instance (initially a skin on Jellybean, eventually updated to Lollipop), was dramatically smoother and more pleasant than that of the competing Galaxy S4, which tended to be jerky even when fresh out of the box.  It also had a stronger headphone amp than the Galaxy.  Its audio features even included FM radio, while other phones were giving that up.  The display was pretty good for a non-amoled, with nice color and 1080p resolution, which is actually better than 1440p for those who watch movies and TV on their phones.  Also, the size of the display was about what I still consider ideal for a compromise between ergonomic convenience and viewing area.  The whole industry has pursued the trend to phablet-sized enormity too far, in my opinion, and I’m glad to see a sign of reversal coming now, with Google’s new Pixel phones (made by HTC) each being a size smaller than their Nexus predecessors, and with no performance penalty for the smaller model relative to the larger.

What are the important and influential models in the history of Android phones?  The HTC Dream, a.k.a. the T-Mobile G1, was the first.  The Moto Droid was the first to popularize the platform with massive advertising, pointing out that there were areas where it could outdo iOS.  The Galaxy Nexus showed off the alternative of a “pure Google” unlocked phone, and a high definition screen without a high price.  The Galaxy Note put phablets on the map, and the Galaxy S III was, for many, the first phone to show that Android might actually be superior to iOS, depending on one’s personal priorities.  The M7 was the first phone to outdo Apple at physical design and construction, and to demonstrate the importance of good speakers.  And maybe we can make a spot for the S6 Edge for being the first to put curved glass to good use, eliminating the side bezel and taking another definite step beyond Apple in physical design.  Historically, the M7 stands in distinguished company.

We shall see what becomes influential next — perhaps modularity, though judging by current sales, probably not.

The M7’s physical design is definitely iconic, and it’s unsurprising that HTC kept changes to a minimum for the M8 and M9, comparing them to a Porsche 911 which still looks like it did 40 years ago.  Unfortunately they kept too much else the same, and lost popularity.  To me it’s sad that HTC has regained customers by losing its definitive feature, the stereo speakers… though the HTC 10’s mix of front sound at one end and edge sound at the other is still influential, having been copied by Apple.

So as I say goodbye to my hard-working HTC One, it’s mostly just with regret that it’s getting physically worn out, not that it’s fallen too far behind.  I will definitely keep it around — if my new phone ever has an issue and I need a backup, I know that the old phone will still be able to perform well, as long as I can keep juice in it.

September 9, 2016

Star Trek: 1966–2005

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:43 pm

Star Trek has now been an important and inspiring part of our culture over a span of fifty years.  But it’s done.  It is now time to let the shambling corpse have its rest. (more…)

August 17, 2016

will there ever be a material to replace steel?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 12:14 pm

We constantly hear about new or exotic materials which are stronger than steel, but for many uses it turns out that steel is still the best stuff available to use. When is one of these new materials actually going to be able to replace steel?

Quite possibly never. Fancy materials like kevlar and carbon-fiber and even titanium alloy are only stronger than steel by weight.  Their sole advantage over steel is lightness.  If you compare strength by volume, they do much more poorly.  This means that if you were to, for instance, try to make a sword out of titanium, it would have a much fatter blade than a steel one, in order to have the same strength and heft.  And it would be inferior at holding an edge. You’d have to, like, insert a separate bit of tungsten carbide or something along the edges, and have a way to replace parts of that when they get chipped.

(Such a design might be a pretty good way to make a sword, actually.  A Japanese katana is a bit like this: whereas a western sword is hardened and then tempered, so the whole blade is springy and tough but not as hard as it could be, a katana is glass-hard at the edge but soft along the spine.  If it’s damaged, the edge will chip, but the back part won’t even spring back into shape if bent.  It has to be hammered straight again.  Then the edge has to be ground down where it chipped.  A titanium-plus-tungsten-carbide design would make the middle of the sword about as tough as tempered steel, but give it an edge able to cut notches into any metal.  While it lasted.)

If talking about swords sounds too exotic and arbitrary, let’s instead talk about crowbars.  The tip of a prying tool has to be strong, hard, tough, and thin.  It has to be rugged enough to exert thousands of pounds of force while fitting into very narrow gaps.  You can’t make a crowbar out of carbon fiber, and even titanium might not be any improvement over steel.

Any materials that really are stronger than steel are generally not hard or tough, and materials harder than steel, such as diamond, are generally brittle and easily shattered.  It’s entirely possible that there’s no such thing as an exotic material that can outdo steel, even for such a mundane application as making nuts and bolts — that no possible combination of atoms can get there.

Which, to a science fiction reader like me, begs the question of whether you could make something that is not based on atoms.  Is there some kind of exotic substance or field in the far reaches of physics that could replace ordinary chemical elements as building materials?  Old-timey SF is full of improbable superstrong materials invented by advanced technology.  Could any of them ever exist?

As far as we can currently tell, the answer is no.  We might have small incremental improvements, such as putting alloys into a glasslike state instead of a crystalline one, but that’s probably all.

I did once see a physics paper which described a theoretical solid state far stronger than ordinary matter.  All you need to do to create it is subject ordinary hydrogen to a magnetic field of a billion gauss (100,000 tesla) or more.  The paper speculated that this substance might exist on the surfaces of neutron stars.  In such a field, the electron clouds around the hydrogen nuclei elongate and finally merge with each other, so the atoms form a kind of polymer.  The resulting substance is very dense — far heavier than any metal, though far lighter than neutronium — and very strong.  As best I can recall without being able to access the text of the paper, sideways to the magnetic field the strength was calculated to be somewhat proportional to the density, but lengthwise along the field lines, it would be way stronger than that.

There are three problems with this idea.  First is that it’s impossible to make a magnetic field like that to order, or to shape it for the convenience of the objects you want to create.  Second is that the effects of such a field on all the other stuff around the superstrong material would make it impossible to fit in amongst anything else made of ordinary matter.  It would, for instance, be lethal to any living thing in the area.  And the third is that this paper has not received much followup as far as I have been able to find, and what I’ve been able to track down in later work often criticizes the assumptions of earlier authors, and says their calculated numbers may have substantial errors.  It appears that “linear molecules” in intense magnetic fields are an accepted concept, but whether it would be superstrong in proportion to its density, or only in proportion to normal matter, is not clear to me.  The key value is probably the binding energy per atom, and I’m seeing estimates of that all over the map, from a few times that of common materials to around a hundred thousand times.  In newer calculations the smaller numbers seem to be predominating.

I mentioned neutronium.  What about that?  Unfortunately for our dream, it’s not a solid, it’s a superfluid.  Not to mention that it can only exist under extreme pressure, and would otherwise first explode, then undergo rapid beta-decay.  Unlike “linear molecules”, it has no resistance to flying apart.

Perhaps someday we might meet an advanced alien civilization — possibly one so advanced that they don’t even regard us as intelligent life, and can’t even remember what it was like to ever not know the answer to a question about science.  We might expect that their stuff would be made of magically wondrous materials, but then end up finding that like us, they still have to make things out of steel.

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