Thursday, December 31, 2009

Apophis and the Russians

ANDY ASKS: "Just read that the Russians are going to shoot a rocket at this thing. They say that in 2029 Apophis has a 1-37 chance of hitting earth and that is too close for comfort for them. Ok now my questions...Near earth orbit people say that in 2029 Apophis will pass us by by 18,000 miles, a little close yes I know, could or will we be able to see it with the naked eye?...Finally, they all agree it is not a planet killer, but what will a 1,000 foot long meteor do to us upon impact? e.g: take out Ardsley? or Yonkers? or NYC? or NY state?"

Some background: yes indeed, the asteroid 9942 Apophis (uh-PO-fis) is going to pass by the Earth on April 13, 2029. Yes, it will pass about 18,000 miles above the surface, and should be visible through binoculars from Asia, Africa, and Europe; at its nearest point it should be moving across the sky about 80 times faster than the Moon! Apophis absolutely will not strike the Earth in 2029.

But the flyby in 2029 will be so close that the Earth's gravitational pull will definitely change the asteroid's orbit. And that's the problem: we don't yet know precisely how much the orbit will be changed. As things stand right now, there is a tiny, 1-in-250,000 chance that the flyby in 2029 will change the asteroid's orbit in such a way that leads to Apophis impacting the Earth in 2036.

The 1-in-37 chance that Apophis would hit the Earth was based on early calculations, when we didn't know exactly where the asteroid was. As more images came in, we were able to better calculate Apophis's orbit, and the odds of impact got less and less.

But how could we not know where an asteroid is? Can't we see it with telescopes?

Yes we can -- but not clearly. When you take a picture of your face, you can do it in such a way that each dot of the photograph is "life size" -- one inch on the photo corresponds to one inch of your face. Things change when you take pictures of distant objects. When photographing a field, one inch on the photo might correspond to 100 feet in real life. For a far off mountain range, one inch might correspond to 10 miles. And when photographing space, one dot might represent 10000 miles.

When photographing an asteroid from Earth, you almost never actually see the asteroid's surface. What you see is a dot of light, meaning that somewhere in a 10000 mile region of space, there is an asteroid. By examining multiple photos of space, you can narrow down where an asteroid is, but there will almost always be some uncertainty.

Former Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart started the B612 foundation to come up with plans for what to do about Apophis. The first thing he suggests (which the European Space Agency wants to try) is to fly a lander to the asteroid the next time it comes into the Earth's neighborhood in 2013. The lander will have a radio beacon on it, allowing radiotelescopes on Earth to triangulate the asteroid's position precisely down to a few _feet_. With that information, we should be able to calculate precisely where Apophis will be from now to the year 2070. More than likely, we're going to find that Apophis poses no threat to the Earth, even taking the 2029 gravitational shift into account.

But suppose we get unlucky with our 1-in-250,000 chance, and we find that the 2029 flyby puts Apophis smack into the Earth in 2036. What then?

The smartest thing to do is probably the simplest. NASA astronaut Ed Lu came up with the idea of launching a massive 20-ton spacecraft to fly next to the asteroid without touching it. The gravitational field of the spacecraft will gently tug at the asteroid for years, eventually pulling the asteroid out of the danger zone for striking the Earth. To get faster results, you can add an ion engine to the spacecraft so that it can more effectively tug the asteroid-- this can change the asteroid's speed by 0.02 mph, which is all that you need to save the Earth.

Other ways to move Apophis might entail attaching a solar sail to the rock, so that the pressure of sunlight can gently shift the asteroid -- remember all we need is to change its velocity by 0.02 mph. Other ideas might be spraying ice on one side of the asteroid and/or crushed dust on the other side; the white ice might act like a solar sail, or the dark dust might absorb (and then give off) so much heat that the small thrust should move the asteroid.

The gravitational tug is probably the safest and simplest way to move an asteroid. Unfortunately, the concept wasn't developed until 2005, after the movie Armageddon, so in the popular imagination the only way to destroy an asteroid is to BLOW THE SHIT OUT OF IT WITH NUCLEAR WEAPONS, YEAH!!!

This is probably the stupidest thing we could do. This was mentioned in the movie "Independence Day", when General Gray said "the only thing that would accomplish is turn one dangerous falling object into many"; in other words you'll be just as dead if you're hit with a shotgun blast as if you're hit with a howitzer.

Remember, we're discussing "what if" scenarios: Apophis has a 1 in 250,000 chance of hitting the Earth, and I think the odds are going to go more in our favor as we learn more.

But since you asked, suppose everything fails and Apophis is headed directly for Earth. What happens then?

If the asteroid hits a rocky place, the resulting crater will be 2.2 miles across. That's more than twice as large as Ardsley itself, and about 1/10th the size of Yonkers. But that's just the crater! If you were 28 miles away from the impact, the heat would be about 20 times as intense as the Sun; and will set trees and buildings on fire. Nine seconds later, the seismic shaking will arrive; it will be equivalent to a 6.6 Richter earthquake, and will cause consuderable damage to most structures. A minute and a half later, the ejecta will come raining down; molten chunks of lava the size of soccer balls. But that's OK, because the blast wave, which will arrive 40 seconds later, will feel like a wind 140 miles per hour, and will knock down what remains of the buildings and burning trees.

If the asteroid were to impact Ardsley, all of Westchester/Putnam/ Rockland from Harriman to West Point to Brewster would be destroyed. Fairfield County Connecticut, from Ridgefield to Long Island Sound, would be on fire. On Long Island, pretty much all of Nassau County and a chunk of Suffolk County out to Cold Spring, Huntington, and Bethpage would be wiped off the map. The structurally sound buildngs of lower Manhattan might still be standing, but Queens, the Bronx, Harlem, and northern Brooklyn would be rubble, and Central Park would be one giant forest fire. Most of northeastern New Jersey, from Bayonne to West Milford, would be destroyed.

We're lucky this is NOT GOING TO HAPPEN!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Murph the Surf

Jack Murphy was a violin, tennis and chess prodigy who threw it all away to become a Florida surfer dude. He started a surfboard company, became famous as Murph the Surf when his copmany skyrocketed, and then lost it all to bad business dealings. He soon became involved in petty robberies in Florida.

He came to New York in October 1964 to visit the World's Fair, without any plans to rob anything. On the night of October 29, he was staying with a friend on 75th street as a mid-autumn thunderstorm lashed Manhattan. Murph and the friend drunkenly got the idea to steal the jewels from the American Museum of Natural History around the corner.

Nowadays, the jewel exhibit is in a walled off enclosure deep in the center of the museum, but in those days the jewels were kept in a third floor gallery overlooking 77th street. Murph and his friend climbed up the cragged rock wall of the museum and opened the window to the jewel room. Later investigation revealed that the fuse to the window alarm had been accidentally blown by the lightning; as a result, the guards were not alerted.

However, the guards patrolled the building on regular 20 minute rounds, and Murph and his friend happened to climb through the window just as a guard was entering the third floor gallery. They managed to close the window and hide without being detected by the guard. When the coast was clear, Murph walked over to the Star of India sapphire, lifted off its plexiglass cover, and pried the stone out of its setting. Both the cover and the stone sat on pressure sensors tied to separate alarm systems, but these were battery powered, and later investigation revealed that the batteries were dead. The pair pocketed 26 other gems, including the 16.25 carat Eagle Diamond, the Midnight Sapphire, and the de Long Ruby.

Murph and his friend climbed out the window, down the rock wall, and stashed most of the jewels in the 75th street apartment. Badly in need of some more alcohol, they hit a neighborhood bar, where Murph tried to pick up two young women by bragging that he was a jewel thief. He produced the Eagle Diamond as proof, but no one believed his story, or that the gem was real, and he and his pal wound up going home alone.

Of course, the next day the robbery made the afternoon news. The two women remembered their inept lothario from the night before, and alerted the police. Meanwhile Murph, realizing how hot he was, decided to head back to Miami. By all accounts he left the apartment a few minutes before the police arrived.

After a week-long manhunt, Jack Murphy was arrested in Florida. The jewels, except for the Eagle Diamond, were recovered from a locker in a Miami bus depot. Murph the Surf served two years for the robbery.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What's Ahead for NASA: Sell ISS to the highest bidder!

    The Augustine Commission report on NASA's future has just been released, and it is an eye-opener.  The report basically states that NASA's goals should match its budget, and its current budget doesn't really allow for lofty goals.  The report calls for enhanced US cooperation with other space-faring nations as a way to spread the cost and benefits of space exploration, and strongly suggests that the US government turn to private launch companies to put Americans into space.
    Earlier this year, NASA's space station program manager Michael T. Suffredini hinted that after spending nearly 100 billion dollars and 17 years building a space station, NASA plans to deorbit ISS in the first quarter of 2016.  This was most likely an institutional cry for help -- the way teenagers will hurt themselves to call attention to the pain inside them.  The Augustine report addresses this, acknowledging that crashing ISS into the Pacific only 5 years after is it completed is ludicrous; yet it also acknowledges that keeping ISS will drain money away from other human spaceflight plans.
    The report doesn't recommend the most obvious course of action: NASA should sell the International Space Station.  Maybe not the whole thing, and certainly not all at once, but sell it.
    The most likely buyer would probably be the Russians.  They're part-owners already, and it wouldn't take much paperwork to hand the whole thing over to them.  Once the shuttle is retired at the end of Fiscal year 2010 (or, as the Augustine report suggests, 2011 or even later) NASA's astronauts will be like kids without a driver's license, always trying to cage rides to space from anyone who will take them.  In return for continued access to the station, NASA should sell off its stake in ISS to the Russians in bits and pieces, trading equity for the price of a ride.  At the current rate of roughly 20 million per passenger, astronauts could travel to the station for many decades.  Of course, what's more likely is that once Russians oligarchs obtain 51% ownership, they'll kick us out completely and turn ISS into an orbiting casino and brothel.
    We could sell ISS to the Chinese.  It is probably too idealistic to think we could sell it at a profit -- after all, the earliest modules have 1.67 billion miles and 11 years of space exposure on them -- but we might be able to unload it at cost.  Cost, that is, in NASA accounting terms.  ISS bears the burden of the tens of billions wasted in the 1980s trying to build a space station for Ronald Reagan.  As a result, estimates for the cost of ISS range between $30 and $100 billion – no one really seems to know.  Offing it to the Chinese at a fire-sale price of $20 billion might be attractive; such a sum would service about 41 days of our debt with Beijing.  At the very least, we can sign over the title and have the Chinese pick up the payments.
    But a much more imaginative solution would be to sell the International Space Station to Disney.  The Mouse could turn some of its vast Florida holdings – located conveniently close to the Kennedy Space Center -- into an amusement park/astronaut training facility.  Those with millions can train for a real-life ride to space; those with thousands can ride a Disney vomit comet; those with hundreds can go through the motions or riding a rocket sled or centrefuge.
    Along with ownership of ISS would come naming rights ("The Haunted Space Station" has quite a ring to it, doesn't it?) and licensing deals, which should pay for some basic research to continue (via mechanisms like the Tang Instant Breakfast Drink Quantum Gravity Instrument Pod, for instance).  The culmination would be an ABC reality show -- "Model Rockets", perhaps -- where 5 international fashion divas are brought into orbit and then slowly voted off the station one by one.
    You know, an orbiting casino sounds more intriguing.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Personal Urns

This is one of the creepiest things I've ever seen in my life.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Generation Why

The Wall Street Journal has an article on the Facebook Generation and their relation with the Fortune 500, and the future of how business gets done. The article lists (and goes into detail on) 12 characteristics of business as usual for Gen Y:

  • 1. All ideas compete on an equal footing.
  • 2. Contribution counts for more than credentials.
  • 3. Hierarchies are natural, not prescribed.
  • 4. Leaders serve rather than preside.
  • 5. Tasks are chosen, not assigned.
  • 6. Groups are self-defining and -organizing.
  • 7. Resources get attracted, not allocated.
  • 8. Power comes from sharing information, not hoarding it.
  • 9. Opinions compound and decisions are peer-reviewed.
  • 10. Users can veto most policy decisions.
  • 11. Intrinsic rewards matter most.
  • 12. Hackers are heroes.

Some of these items are more odious than most. For instance, I do not want to go to a hospital that's operated along the lines of propositions #1 and #2. It's a shame if you think this attitude describes an elite snobism, but the simple fact is that the janitor's opinion of how to treat kidney failure is not on an equal footing with a nephrologist's.

#6s claim that groups are self-defining is a gob of spit in the face of gay people who would like to define themselves as married, but can't. And I'm sure there are other groups all over the world who would like to define themselves as an ethnic minority that shouldn't be massacred, but can't. Tell them how wonderful self-definition is.

And as for #7: suppose we take a vote right now among the Facebook generation about whether we should allocate resources toward resurfacing 100 year old water mains in city cores, or something shiny, distracting, and above all, new. Which would win?

Every single one of these items is predicated on one thing: they're true only if someone else does the shit-work instead of you.

Every job has a certain amount of boring, uninteresting drudgery that can’t (yet) be fobbed off on a robot or piece of software. Of course it’s easy to say that you want a “fun” job, but those fun jobs only exist because they were built on someone else’s “not fun” job.

And, remember, there is some value to the not-fun job: I'm going to trust your opinion on my lawsuit a hell of a lot more if it can be backed up by the shit-work of your having slogged through law school where you actually learned something.

I understand that the Facebook generation are mainly in their early 20s, and so I don’t expect maturity from them. But I don’t get a sense of empathy for others from them either. They expect that all these things should be the way they want them because... well, because that's the way they want them. And that scares me.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

And then the V train came into the station...

Coming back home last night on the subway, I caught one of the old F trains --those ribbed, stainless steel cars that are as old as I am. Lots of floor space, parallel lines of seats facing each other.

At Broadway-Lafayette, a tall, 20 something guy with a huge duffel bag got on. As the train started to pull out of the station, this guy LEAPED out of his seat, sprinted down the length of the subway car to the very end -- and pulled the emergency brake cord!!!

We heard a loud pneumatic hiss, and the train slammed to a stop. The guy yelled "SORRY! I'M SORRY!", and ran back to his duffel bag. He scooped it up, opened the front door of the car, squeezed between the two cars, and leaped onto the platform. We could see him run down the length of the station.

I am convinced that nearly every New Yorker wants to reach out and talk to the people around them, but they don't dare because they know that it just isn't done without a special dispensation. So we all sat there watching the guy or staring off into the middle distance. No one knew what had just happened, or why. We were startled and a little scared. But still we remained in our shells. Then someone from the front of the car, near where the guy had been sitting, said "He said he must have left his camera on the platform."

That remark was the absolution we needed. Instantly, the entire subway car became a committee of the whole, organized to debate the man's behavior, selfishness, stupidity, ancestry, and recto-cranial capacity:

"A camera? A CAMERA?"
"Who takes their camera out on the platform?"
"Who leaves their camera on the platform?"
"That better be a five thousand dollar camera."
"It's not just this train, you know! He's backing up the whole line."
"If he comes back on, let's throw his duffel bag on the tracks."
"I thought he was epileptic!"
"I thought he had Tourettes!"

When that died down we went back to just sitting there. I habitually sit in the last car of the F train. The first eight cars of the train were in the tunnel -- our car and the car in front of us were still on the platform. And thank the gods of every religion for that. If I had been stuck in the tunnel for 25 minutes, they would have pulled me out a drooling, babbling idiot good for nothing but a long visit at Bellevue.

Not unlike the guy in the wheelchair. It was St. Patrick's Day, remember, and the guy in the wheelchair had decided to drink himself legless. About five minutes after Camera Guy pulled the emergency cord, Wheelchair Guy started shouting. "HEY! Get me off this motherfucking train!" "Open this bitch up!!!" "Do you work for the CIA?" He slammed his wheelchair over and over into the front door of the subway car. His leprechaun hat fell off.

There was an elderly black man seated across from me. He looked at Wheelchair Man, let out a long, deep, sigh, and said in a Barry White voice, "I must be on the Crazy Train."

About 10 minutes after Camera Guy pulled the emergency cord, the conductor showed up, walking through the front door of the subway car (I should mention that the side doors of the car had remained sealed all this time). The guy in the wheelchair said "What took you so motherfucking long? We could have been dead back here!!", which was a completely reasonable observation. "You must work for the CIA!!! Now let me off this motherfucker!"

The conductor took out his special key and opened first side door. Wheelchair guy wheeled himself out. No one else took the option to flee. The conductor went back into the other car without examining the rest of our car. Had he stayed for another second, we would have pointed out that it was our emergency brake that had been pulled.

The PA system cracked to life. "Conductor," the voice said, "garble flurben flarben garble garble floogle boogle garble zim zam zooney." We all looked at each other expectantly: did anyone understand what we had just heard? The conductor's voice came on the PA system: "Yeah, he's on his way." Apparently the conductor did.

The entire 25-minute long event could be roughly divided into pre-conductor and post-conductor eras. Before the conductor showed up in our car, we passengers were relatively cheerful -- talking to each other and cracking sarcastic jokes about Camera Guy and the MTA. After the conductor came and went, the jokes ended, and our complaints became louder. Wheelchair guy's pronouncement -- that the train staff took a good 10 minutes to investigate what could have been a tragedy -- still hung in the air. We were growing disgruntled. And then the V train came into the station.

I had always thought that when the emergency brake is pulled, the signal lights in the tunnel turn red to prevent another train from entering the station. Barring that, I figured the motorman or conductor would radio the trainmaster to hold all trains in that particular part of the line. I was wrong both times. In less time than it takes to read, we heard a V train thunder into the Broadway-Lafayette station! Almost immediately, its motorman slammed on its brakes with a shriek of steel on steel. The V train came to a shuddering stop about three car lengths behind us. Not very close, I'll admit, but dammit, it shouldn't have been there at all!

Now, the people in the subway car were solidly pissed. Wheelchair Guy's observation still rattled around in our heads. And then the V train! What was up with that? How could such a thing happen!?!? Before anyone could work themselves into doing something stupid, the conductor re-appeared. He took out his special key and opened first side door of the subway car. Two MTA employees got on. The conductor led them to the control booth at the back of the car. The two men fiddled with some stuff in the booth for no more than 30 seconds, then came out and said "good to go". We were too disgusted to complain. The train started moving about 5 minutes later.

At Delancey Street a beautiful woman in her 40s got on. The PA system cracked "Lays and Gemmum, garble farble flooble garble floy floy be moving shortly." Eager to regain the lost camaraderie we used to have, I said to everyone, "I think this train has met its quota for getting stuck tonight." No one said anything. The crisis was over, and we had lost that magical dispensation that allowed us to speak to each other. Instead of people sharing an adventure, we were once more individual New Yorkers, back in our shells, brooding about how late this train was.

Then the beautiful woman piped up. "Is that why this train was so late? You were stuck in the tunnel?"

And we all got to tell her the story of the crazy guy who lost his camera and pulled the emergency brake.

Monday, February 9, 2009

...and kiss your ass goodbye

Planning Guidance For Response to a Nuclear Detonation(PDF), a report by the Department of Homeland Security.

Executive Summary: If a terrorist nuclear detonation occurs in your city, you're fucked.

Salient Points:
  1. There will be no significant federal response for 72 hours.
  2. You're fucked.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Not Network

I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!