Wednesday, January 31, 2018

NASA's (and Our) Worst Week in Spaceflight

We're almost at the end of the worst week of NASA history.  It's a peculiar coincidence that every accident that took the lives of the crew and destroyed the vehicle took place in the space of one calendar week, although those accidents are separated by decades.

January 27th, was the 51st anniversary of 1967's hellish demise of Apollo 1 and her crew, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White, during a pad test, not a flight.  In that article, Ars Technica interviews key men associated with the mission and provides, for the first time I've seen, the audio of the test.  In the early days of the space program, one of the larger than life names we all came to recognize was Chris Kraft, the Capsule Communicator or CapCom who had directed all of the Mercury flights, many of the Gemini missions and was widely recognized for this masterful control.
Half a century later, the painful memories remain. “I was on console the day it burned,” he explained, sitting in his second-floor den, just a few miles from the control center that now bears his name at Johnson Space Center.

“I heard their screaming voices in the cockpit of the spacecraft,” Kraft recounted. “I heard them scream that they were on fire. I heard them scream get me out of here. And then there was dead silence on the pad. Within minutes we knew they were dead, and we were in deep, serious trouble. Nobody really said anything for 15 minutes, until they got the hatch open. We were sitting there, waiting for them to say what we knew they were going to say.”
There was plenty of blame to go around—for North American, for flight control in Houston, for technicians at Cape Canaveral, for Washington DC and its political pressure on the schedule and its increasingly bureaucratic approach to spaceflight. The reality is that the spacecraft was not flyable. It had too many faults. Had the Apollo 1 fire not occurred, it’s likely that additional problems would have delayed the launch.

“Unless the fire had happened, I think it’s very doubtful that we would have ever landed on the Moon,” Kraft said. “And I know damned well we wouldn’t have gotten there during the 1960s. There were just too many things wrong. Too many management problems, too many people problems, and too many hardware problems across the whole program.”
The ARS article is worth your time. 

The next day, January 28, is the anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  Shuttle Challenger was destroyed on January 28, 1986, a mere 73 seconds into mission 51-L as a flaw in the starboard solid rocket booster allowed a secondary flame to burn through supports and cause the external tank to explode.  It was the kind of cold day that we haven't had here in some years.  It has been reported that it was between 20 and 26 around the area on the morning of the launch and ice had been reported on the launch tower as well as the external tank.  O-rings that were used to seal the segments of the stackable solid rocket boosters were too cold to seal.  Launch wasn't until nearly noon and it had warmed somewhat, but the shuttle had never been launched at temperatures below 40 before that mission.  Richard Feynman famously demonstrated that cold was likely the cause during the televised Rogers Commission meetings, dropping a section of O ring compressed by a C-clamp into his iced water to demonstrate that it had lost its resilience at that temperature.

There's plenty of evidence that the crew of Challenger survived the explosion.  The crew cabin was specifically designed to be used as an escape pod, but after most of the design work, NASA decided to drop the other requirements to save weight.  The recovered cabin had clear evidence of activity: oxygen bottles being turned on, switches that require a few steps to activate being flipped.  It's doubtful they survived the impact with the ocean and some believe they passed out due to hypoxia before that. 

Finally, at the end of this worst week, Shuttle Columbia, the oldest surviving shuttle flying as mission STS-107, broke up on re-entry 15 years ago tomorrow, February 1, 2003 scattering wreckage over the central southern tier of the country with most debris along the Texas/Louisiana line.  As details emerged about the flight, it turns out that Columbia and everyone on board had been sentenced to death at launch - they just didn't know it.  A chunk of foam had broken off the external tank during liftoff and hit the left wing's carbon composite leading edge, punching a hole in it.  There was no way a shuttle could reenter without exposing that wing to conditions that would destroy it.  They were either going to die on reentry or sit up there and run out of food, water and air.   During reentry, hot plasma worked its way into that hole, through the structure of the wing, burning through piece after piece, sensor after sensor, until the wing tore off the shuttle and tore the vehicle apart.  Local lore on this one is that the original foam recipe was changed due to environmental regulations, causing them to switch to a foam that didn't adhere to the tank or stand up to abuse as well. 

There's film from inside Columbia until the moment the vehicle is ripped apart by the aerodynamic forces.  I suspect the forces ripped apart their bodies just as fast.  

January 27 to February 1 is 6 days.  Not quite a full week.

On a personal note, I remember them all.  I was a kid living in Miami when Apollo 1 burned.  I was living here and watched Challenger live on satellite TV at work.  Instead of going outside to watch it as I always did, I watched it on NASA Select.  Mrs. Graybeard was working on the unmanned side on the Cape, next door to the facility that refurbished the SRB's between flights, and was outside watching the launch.  It took quite a while for the shock to ease up.  I saw those spreading contrails everywhere for a long time.  Columbia happened when it was feeling routine again.  Mom had fallen and was in the hospital; we were preparing to go down to South Florida to visit and I was watching the TV waiting to hear the double sonic booms shake the house as they always did.  

When this blog started, one of my regular reads was Dr. Sanity, a flight surgeon for NASA and board-certified psychiatrist.  She was Crew Surgeon for Challenger and has left posted a haunting recollection of the mission although her blog hasn't been updated since 2012.  It's still there.  I conclude with a quote from that post:
I remember the Challenger and her crew frequently and with love. They are a part of me now. All of them represent the best within the American spirit, and always will. Since that day in 1986, I have come to see NASA as one of the greatest impediments to the Dream of space exploration; but I have never given up the Dream itself. Nor have I forgotten any of the pioneers who have died in the service of that Dream. Some day we humans will leave this small planet and joyfully play in all the corners of the cosmos.

I eagerly look forward to it.
The failure reports and investigations of all three of these disasters center on the same things: the problems with NASA's way of doing things.  Tending to rely on "well, it worked last time" when dealing with dangerous situations, or leaning too much toward, "schedule is king"; gambling that someone else would be the one blamed for delaying a mission.  Spaceflight is inherently very risky, so some risk taking is inevitable, but NASA had taken stupid risks too often.  People playing Russian Roulette can say, "well, it worked last time", but that doesn't mean playing has reduced their odds of losing. 

"I have come to see NASA as one of the greatest impediments to the Dream of space exploration; but I have never given up the Dream itself."  We're in complete agreement.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

It's The SOTU Drinking Game!

The State of the Union Drinking Game is easy to follow; and if you don't want to get wasted on a weeknight, you can just play with something else.  Have some candy or whatever you want to substitute. 

The scoring is that every time the president says any of the following words you take a drink:
Infrastructure, "roads and bridges", or airports
Infrastructure doesn't have to be preceded by "crumbling" to count.  Now go watch!  If the evening news is any indication, I guarantee you'll be drunk by 9:30.

(a picture I've been running for years - usually in my New Years' Eve post)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Caught an Out-of-Character Movie Today

Regular readers will know that my taste in movies tends to escapist things like Sci-Fi and comic book movies, not serious films about the human condition.  Today we went to see Darkest Hour, the movie about the first days of Winston Churchill's term as Prime Minister of the UK. 

Over the years, I've realized that my education in history is lacking, and while I think the movie is historically solid, I'm not enough of a Churchill scholar to know.  Larry P. Arnn, president of Hillsdale College and an actual Churchill scholar, though, says it is and it's worth seeing.  For my part, I've always been an admirer of Churchill, although in the last 20 years I've come to wonder if I really know the man or just a mythology that percolated around America in the 60s to early 70s; while I had the various history classes I was required to take.

I haven't heard much about it besides recommendations from Rush to see it.  All I had really heard was that Gary Oldman did a wonderful job of capturing him and should get a Best Actor Oscar for the movie.  What I hadn't heard was about the great supporting cast, including Dame Kristin Scott Thomas as his wife, Clemmie, and Lily James as his secretary Liz Layton.     
(Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas - studio photo)

This is not a bright and cheery movie.  What little humor there is comes from Churchill's quips to other people and one or two witty moments.  It depicts Churchill in a politically awful position, given the position just as Europe is falling to Nazi Germany; resented awfully by the man he replaced, Neville Chamberlain, and the man who seemed to think he should have been given the role, Viscount Halifax.  Hitler's army is sweeping western Europe, pushing the English army onto the beaches of Dunkirk, while Austria and Holland fall, and France breaking down.  His military is telling him they can do nothing to rescue the Army from Dunkirk.  He wants to fight but is being told he has no military that can do anything.

I usually rate movies on a 1 to 5 scale, and I give this a 5.  The acting was remarkable and the way director Joe Wright chose camera angles created vivid imagery.  He'd choose things like the view out of the window of a limousine to drive home how Churchill was seeing people and things in the street, or aerial views to show the impact of the Nazi bombing in France, or a view of spiraling staircase with people moving every which way to convey how urgently busy everything was.   I think it's well worth seeing. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Little Weekend Update

Let me bring you up to date on the various projects and stories I've talked about. 

On the oscilloscope: the 5000 PIV diodes arrived yesterday and I wasted no time getting them into the circuit.  No joy.  I ran the scope on the variac box at 100V, but it has a "line voltage too low" light that was on.  I bumped up the line voltage until that went out.  The problem is that there appears to be no horizontal sweep of any kind, and the only time I see anything is if I press the beam finder button.  If I put a probe on the builtin calibrator (a 300mV pk-pk 1kHz square wave) and press beam finder, it spreads out to look like the correct voltage only without a sweep. 
These are the parts I changed.  The circuitry surrounds the horizontal sweep voltage and the high voltage, but it seems to involve lower voltage circuitry as well (I never see the sync light come on when I'm probing the calibrator).  I found test points for all the lower voltages in the unit (< 1000VDC) and all of those are good.  Troubleshooting will continue, although to really troubleshoot an oscilloscope requires another oscilloscope.

BTW, I got 10 of those diodes expecting to blow them as soon as I replaced them, and go through a few pairs before the thing worked.  The replacement diodes are still good. 

The miniature K9AY loop antenna has turned out to work "pretty well".  I have no comparison of a full-sized version, so I can't evaluate it that way, but I have a few contacts using it and measured some parameters like the front to back null as best I can.  On 10.1 MHz (30m), its targeted band, signals may be just a little weaker than my reference antenna, but it has about a 20 dB front to back ratio, which might be helpful.  Signals seem lower on other bands, but Signal to Noise Ratio is sometimes better; it probably depends on things like the exact angle of arrival, the specific noise or interference source I'm having trouble with, and other parameters that are hard to quantify.  Slightly surprisingly, it seems to work fairly well on 3.5 MHz (80m), which is the target band for the full-sized loop. 

The variac box has turned out to be really helpful and something I should have done before.  I've powered on all of my old vacuum tube gear (except an R-390A that I use several times a year) going through a protocol of leaving it on 90V, then 100, 110V each for an hour and finally the wall 120V.  All of the old equipment is behaving fine.  Nothing smoked. 

It took me a while to find a schematic editor that I like to produce a drawing for the variac box.  TinyCAD, totally freeware.   I have PCB123 for small PWBs if I design something that needs a board, but for this application I wanted something more like the plastic stencils we used to use in the years BC (Before CAD); I have no need for PWB component footprints for something wired point-to-point using duplex AC outlets from the hardware store. 
I upgraded the project guitar, giving it nicer tuning machines.  The fit, finish and functional smoothness are noticeably better than the $8 eBay specials I put on it first, but I honestly had no idea it would even survive having strings put on it.  I did a complete setup to the action to make it easier to play, and more like my best acoustic.  The work included setting the neck bow, leveling the frets, with my fret rocker and an 8" mill file, then adjusting the string heights with my string height gauge with nut slotting files at the nut and lowering saddle height at the other end. 

The other things that I've been dumping vast amounts of time into are probably too esoteric even for this crowd (I'm guessing a handful of you are intimately familiar with the Smith Chart, for example), and choosing the next project for the metal shop.  I haven't actually chosen that, but I'm getting closer.

And that's some of what's going on that I don't always write about!

Any Fellow Bloggers Having Problems with Blogger Itself?

Quick question for any bloggers who drop by: is anybody else having trouble with blogger?  Yesterday, I tried to load the "new post" page several times during the day and it never loaded.  I'd let it sit for up to 10 minutes, and did that for over half an hour with it never opening. 

Likewise the "design" page that allows me to edit the layout, and so on. 

Today, they're loading but it just took at least a full minute for this page to load.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Endless Chances to Show Nobody Knows Everything

More like endless chances to show I personally don't know sh*t.  Especially painful in my field of electronics.

Short background.  Since about 1997 or '98, I had a TI-86 graphing calculator at my hand, primarily because of its complex number support and my field uses a lot of complex numbers.  I bought it when I had problems with the calculator I used before that for 10 or 15 years, a TI-85.  I had a half dozen or so programs in it which I had written to do everyday job-related tasks for me.  When I retired, it was mine, so it came home with me and it stayed by my side at the computer. 

A week ago, I knocked it off its temporary perch near my left knee and it fell a foot to the hard tile floor.  As it has done at least a dozen times before.  This time it didn't turn on. 

Bear in mind, the calculator was in perfect condition; the batteries were relatively fresh, and I had no reason to think anything happened other than a fall.

I took it apart and looked for something loose, but that's like opening the hood when your car dies on the road and looking for the spark plug fairy; that magical obvious thing you see like a loose spark plug wire that you move and your car goes back to running perfectly.  No magic calculator fairies to be found.

So I went on eBay, found one that looked to be in good shape, and ordered a replacement.  Under $25 with shipping.  That was Friday the 20th.  It arrived yesterday.  I transfer the batteries from the old one into the new one and ... nothing.  Won't power on.

Remember I said the batteries were fine?  The '86 has a built-in battery check of sorts; the display dims as the battery weakens.  You press a key combination and it gets darker or lighter.  There are at least 8 levels it displays with 2 or 3 sublevels for each of those 8.  I was on level 3.  At some point, the calculator starts issuing warnings that the batteries are weak and that starts at level 6 or 7.  No, the batteries behaved fine before the fall.  So I grabbed four fresh new AAA batteries out of storage and it turned on.  Now I looked suspiciously at my original; the one I replaced.  Nah, it couldn't be.

It was.  I now have two fully functional TI-86 calculators, although my programs got wiped.

I have never seen batteries fail by being dropped, but one of them did.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

I Get a Bad Feeling About This

The Consumer Electronics Show, CES, took place two weeks ago and I have gotten virtually no feedback on it.  I don't know what's up with that, but maybe the newsletters and daily emails I get from the few trade magazines I keep up with now think they're too specialized to do a show like CES.  (The best coverage I got was a few years ago when one of them sent a reporter to the show for the full week and she did a full update every day).

The one thing I do know of doesn't fill me with ... positive, warm fuzzy feelings.  It's about wireless charging of every battery-powered device in the room.  According to the Electronic Design newsletter, Powercast and Energous  demonstrated systems at the show.  In broad brush terms the systems are the same, they use a radio frequency (RF) signal and transmit the power to the wireless device which then takes the received power and turns it into DC to recharge the battery.  Energous shows this conceptual picture of what they call their WattUp system.
(The WattUp system.  What happens when the cat gets in front of the transmitter?)

Let me be clear: this is not the wireless charging that works by placing your phone on a charging mat or charging station.  As Powercast says:
Behaving like Wi-Fi where enabled devices automatically charge when within range of a transmitter, Powercast’s contactless charging technology provides over-the-air power at a distance to multiple devices – no wires, charging mats or direct line of sight needed. A transmitter sends RF energy to Powercast’s Powerharvester® receiver embedded in a device, which converts it to direct current (DC) to directly power that device or recharge its batteries. Operating across a wide RF power (as low as -17 dBm) and frequency (10MHz to 6GHz) range, the Powerharvester receivers are designed to convert RF to DC with up to 80 percent efficiency.
Let's dissect that for just a moment.  For the simplest possible scenario, and skipping some relevant details, we're talking about a tiny amount of power there.  1 dBm is a power level that is 1dB (10*log of the power ratio) stronger than 1 mW.  -17 dBm works out 20 microwatts; 20 millionths of a watt (converter here, if you'd like).  The familiar USB chargers are typically 5 or 10 Watts.  If your device charged in an hour on that (does any phone?) it would take 500,000 times longer (10/.000020), turning that one hour charge into 57 years.  And this is going to sell?  Reality is that any battery will die before that recharges it, so how is that even reasonable?  And what if there are multiple devices to spread that power over? 

Powercast has an FAQ that addresses some of these realities.  They say they're targeting low capacity batteries, like smart watches, and deliver small amounts of power:
Available energy after conversion in the low milliwatt and microwatt range should be expected.
There's another way to think about this that might help set a limit.  What is the maximum power that could be used to charge a device?  That's actually set by radiation safety limits mandated by the Federal Communications Commission in the US and for systems to which the general population is exposed, the FCC limits power in this range are defined in terms of milliwatts per square centimeter.  The limit at their upper frequency (the 5 GHz WiFi band) is 1 mW/ while at the lowest frequency they mention (10 MHz), the power limit is 1.8 mW (FCC OET56 4th edition, 1999, appears to be the latest - pdf warning).  Again, skipping over some details, let's assume they can deliver all that 1 thousandth of a watt to one device, and that they can get 1mW/in a 1 antenna.  Compared to the "mythical 1 hour recharge at 20 Watts", this one would take over 20,000 hours to deliver the same amount of charge.  That's still over two years of charging 24/7/365.  And I'm ignoring the 80% efficiency claim, which makes that charge time longer. 

Energous' website has a product concept video with the mandatorily-attractive millennial couple enjoying wireless charging of their devices, but they also feature a page talking about having three tiers of product: far field (which I've just dissected), mid field and near field.  If they can meet the power safety limits, perhaps by designing the system to sense the load and shutdown if a hand gets in the way, I can see that near field charging might be more workable.  

Systems that a battery operated car would park over and that would charge a multi-hundred kW car battery are left as blog fodder for another day. 

Powercast graphic, from Electronic Design.  Note the third and fourth line: 3 W EIRP (Effective Isotropic Radiated Power*) and Charges up to 30 devices.  The source article says it's a 6 dB gain antenna, so the transmit power is really 750mW and each device can see no more than 750/30 or 25 mW and the low gain implies the antenna is radiating a large sector in front of the box, so each square centimeter is going to see less than that.  It seems to be in line with the 1 mW/ rule. 

The problem I haven't mentioned and the reason I get a bad feeling about this is because there's a segment of the population that believes that being immersed in radio fields is dangerous to their health.  Can you imagine those people wanting to accept this into their world?  How about their workplace? 

(* - Effective Isotropic Radiated Power is a combination of the transmit power increased by the antenna gain, which comes from forcing the radio waves in one preferred direction vs. other directions.  Gain compared to a theoretical isotropic antenna that radiates equally well in all directions is used instead of gain compared to a real antenna like a dipole (dBd) because it makes bigger numbers and bigger numbers sell better.  Attempts by antenna makers to define the "gain with respect to a wet banana peel (dBbp)", which gave really big numbers, were never successful because nobody could agree on a standard reference banana peel.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Time Out

I'm coming down with something, and I'm just hoping it's not this year's flu/creeping crud. As a result blogging will slow down for a day or two (I guess).

Woke up at 5 AM with stomach pains and some nausea.  Eventually got back to sleep at 7:30 for a couple of hours.  It has been stalking me all day long.  Low grade fever, about 100.4.  I actually took a nap from about 3-5 this afternoon.  That is so far from normal for me that it's a warning sign.

So... cartoon!

Monday, January 22, 2018

So The Dreaded Government Shutdown Was a Three Day Weekend

As the news is saying, (to quote Poultry Heist) "they're ba-ack!"  Paid, of course.  Everyone always gets paid for the missed day, at least in the history of gubmint shutdowns. 

My condolences to those of you who got the three day weekend and are going back to work tomorrow. 

Turns out the shutdown did have an effect.  A planned static engine test for the SpaceX Falcon Heavy that was on Saturday was cancelled and the shutdown was cited as the reason.  The test will probably happen this week.  They had said the launch was targeted to be by the end of the month if the tests went well, so the delay probably pushes it into early February.  Note of course that these tests are not empty formalities without risk.  SpaceX lost a payload, rocket and most of a launch complex doing such a test in September of '16.  And that rocket was 1/3 the power of the Heavy. 

So whatever will we do?  We're in the awkward gap between the end of the shutdown and the news coming out of SHOT show. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Record Deregulation in 2017

During the final days of the campaign in '16, candidate Trump said he'd ask department heads to remove regulations at 2:1, that is, two removed for every one added.  As the spreader of Tales From the Over Regulated State, I was very happy to hear that.  Instead, Trump revealed in December that they had achieved 22:1 regulations removed to added, which is really change I can believe in.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute noted by the end of last year that the Federal Register for the year had the fewest pages since 1993 - a quarter of a century.
The calendar year concluded with 61,950 pages in the Federal Register… This is the lowest count since 1993’s 61,166 pages. …A year ago, Obama set the all-time Federal Register page record with 95,894 pages. Trump’s Federal Register is a 35 percent drop from Obama’s record… After the National Archives processes all the blank pages and skips in the 2017 Federal Register, Trump’s final count will ultimately be even lower. [Bold added - SiG]
 Consider this graphic excerpted from the CEI
Wayne Crews of the CEI adds:
Of course, the Federal Register may be a poor guide for regulation, but Washington doesn't go out of its way to honestly measure itself and disclose regulatory impact.

The “problem” of assessing magnitude is even worse this year, because many of Trump’s “rules” are rules written to get rid of rules.
Director of the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center Susan Dudely writes for Forbes on the differences Trump is making.
The pace of new regulation has visibly slowed in the Trump administration. A search of OMB’s database reveals that, between January 21 and December 20, 2017, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs concluded review of 21 “economically significant” regulations—those with impacts (costs or benefits) expected to be $100 million or more in a year. As the chart below shows, that is dramatically fewer rules than previous presidents have issued in their first years. This same database shows that Presidents G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, and G.W. Bush each issued 39 or 40 in their first years. President Obama issued 52 and even Reagan (considered the last deregulatory president) issued 36 economically significant final rules during his first year in office.
The Forbes article on deregulation opens with this photo opportunity shot of Trump showing the regulatory growth since the 1960s and promising to return federal regulations to 1960s levels.  Without dismantling yuge swaths of the Federal hydra, that's impossible.  Most of those regulations come from agencies that didn't even exist in the '60s; e.g., no EPA, no Department of Energy, no OSHA, no Department of Homeland Security, no Consumer Product Safety Commission and no Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. To name a few obvious offenders. 
The consensus is that it isn't within the president's powers to reduce the pile on the right to the size of the pile on the left.  But the consensus was also that Trump had no chance of being elected president.  A guy can dream, though, can't he? 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

There's Never A Shortage of Things to Repair or Replace

I don't know; maybe for some of you.  For me, there's a perpetually self-filling list of things to look after.

For the uninitiated, there's a very common and exceedingly useful piece of electronics test equipment called an oscilloscope, generally just called a scope.  In quick overview, an oscilloscope allows you to observe voltage waveforms; that is, the voltage vs. time in a circuit that's under test.  There are volumes written about them.

I have one which isn't working.  I bought a surplussed-out scope from my employer about 10 years ago, a Tektronix 475, which is an advanced model for a hobbyist, but primitive compared to modern scopes.  Like a lot of equipment nearing its end of life, these are prone to failures and mine did.  Last year, while working on my CNC control box, I had some signals I wanted to look at so I rolled the scope over to the shop.  When I turned on the oscilloscope the display wasn't acting right, and after a few seconds I got the unmistakable whiff of smoke coming out of it.  Since I was busy, I put it aside to troubleshoot later.  Being concerned about the age and safety of applying power to the scope is one of the reasons I built the variac box

This week was time to open it up and see if I could find the trouble.  A 475 is one of a series of several models that Tektronix introduced beginning in the mid-60s, where higher numbers indicate higher speed (from 453 to the 485).  Mine has parts inside with what seem to be 1978 date codes, so it's either from late '78 or early '79.  They're also sometimes described as "15 pounds of parts in a 5 pound bag".  
To get more to the story, between the two of us, Mrs. Graybeard and I have about 70 years experience as electronics technicians (being a good technician is often one of the most important parts of being an engineer).  For the last 30 years, I mostly worked on debugging things that had never worked, while she primarily was fixing things that once had.  The two of us dug into the scope as a team.  Much to my surprise, when I pulled the cover, there was no burned spot where something had obviously smoked.  She quickly went into full detective mode, sniffing the thing trying to localize the strongest scent of burned parts and sort of pushing me out of her way.  Kind of surprisingly, she fairly quickly found two high voltage diodes that were open - as in blown out.  Good diodes measure low resistance in one direction and higher resistance in the other; these both appeared very high resistance in both directions.  We spent much of the day trying to figure out what could have blown them up and don't really have an answer.  Diodes do "just fail", but two at once is way too much coincidence.

These are much higher voltage diodes than anything I have: they're rated 5000 Volts.  My searches for replacements were (1) nobody's got them, then (2) I have to buy a reel of parts for something like $56,000, and finally (3) I found that Mouser Electronics had an equivalent I could buy 10 for 76 cents each with no minimum order.  Doesn't $7.60 sound so much better than $56,000?  I got 10 so that we could replace the diodes and turn the thing on.  It's possible that will fix it, and it's possible these will blow up as well.  I'm betting it's more likely we blow up a couple more diodes.  But then maybe we can isolate what's going on better.  We have five chances. 

Fixing electronics is my "home field advantage", and while the scope is rather inconvenient to work on, it's all parts with leads and that's easier to work on than a lot of modern electronics.  But it's still a PITA. 

Adaptive Curmudgeon just posted a very relevant piece that sometimes it's really overwhelmingly tempting to say "eff this" and if I could find a guy who's expert in fixing these things that would do so reasonably (a whole replacement scope is probably $300) I probably would have someone else fix it.  If I can fix it for the $7.60 in diodes and some parts from my junk collection, it's worth it.

The Government is Shutdown But Apparently Working for Free

I mean, the sun has risen and is making its way across the sky.  Birds are flying around doing ... whatever bird stuff they do.  There's a little breeze. 

Surely this can't be happening without the wise and wonderful government doing it?  Surely the world can't function at all without them? 

(government worker Apollo creating the sunrise in his chariot, apparently working for free this morning)

Friday, January 19, 2018

Are Hawaii and Japan's Missile Warnings Cyber Attacks?

Hawaii seems to be off the hook; they seem to have isolated it to one state employee doing something stupid, in a system that's very stupidly designed.  I mean if I accidentally hit delete on a file, Windows or iOS are setup to make sure you really meant to delete it.  If you go to wipe your iPhone, you have to go through that several times - someone's way of saying, "are you paying attention here, Skippy?"  In a way, though, hackers are less upsetting than incompetence.  To quote Jim Geraghty from National Review:
“This guy feels bad, right. He’s not doing this on purpose. It was a mistake on his part and he feels terrible about it,” explained Hawaii EMA administrator Vern Miyagi, a former Army major general. But Miyagi declined to say that the staffer would face any disciplinary actions. Richard Rapoza, the official spokesman for EMA, declined to identify the errant employee and added, “At this point, our major concern is to make sure we do what we need to do to reassure the public. This is not a time for pointing fingers.”

Actually, it is. In the Air Force my father served in for some 20 years, anyone who committed such a blunder would have been demoted or cashiered — along with any superior officer, such as Miyagi, who had failed to put in place redundancies to prevent such a fiasco. That kind of accountability strikes me as a pretty good way to start to “reassure the public.” It’s not as if EMA didn’t have any clues something was potentially wrong. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that while 93 percent of test alerts issued last month had worked, some could hardly be heard and a dozen mistakenly played an ambulance siren.
Isn't it better to think some advanced, hacker with l33t skillz carefully broke down firewall after firewall until he could scare the bejeezus out of everyone in the state than it is to realize the truth of what happened?  A common story after the incident was that a portion of the population ignored the warning because they know the state is so incompetent they couldn't have gotten it right. 

Japan, though, is a bit more unsettling.  There have been no equivalent stories from the Japanese government that I can find.  Was Japan's alert a cyber attack?

Cold War 2.0 seems to be a three way frenemy game between us the Chinese, the Norks and the Russians.  Of the three, the Norks are just a minor player that serves the aims of both the Russians and the Chinese.  The big two seem to be battling each other, but anything that keeps us distracted is good for them. So the Chinese will do something to sanction or pinch L'il Kim and the Russians will go around them. And vice versa.

At least from what I hear.

So I'd assume the Russians and the Chinese might have an interest in setting the west on edge and sowing chaos.  Anything that gets us "off our game" is something China is good with.  Putin is longing for the glory days of the old Soviet Union - he wants to Make Russia Great Again.  Of the three of them, he's the most transparent of them all.  Putin wants - ruthlessly demands - raw power.  Anything that diminishes any other power in the world is good from his perspective.  The Norks are just about as transparent.  I think the best insights you'll get on North Korea are coming from LL at Virtual Mirage.  Kim Jong Un thinks he's going to reunite the Korean peninsula and be master of them all.  In Kim's mind he sees a confrontation with us as "you have 4000 nuclear warheads and I have two, so we're tied". 
So from an overview, I think any of the three of them could have done it.  But the incompetence is still more frightening than the hackers

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Big on Fishing Boats

Michelle Malkin has started an investigation of the intrusion of the Federal government into commercial fishing operations, it's in the Ammoland News this week.  She starts in "the northeast" but much of what she talks about rings true down here in central Florida.

The story starts with, well, what you'd think if you've watched federal overreach into everything else in the country for the last 20 years.
The plague on the commercial fishing industry isn't “overfishing,” as environmental extremists and government officials claim. The real threats to Northeastern groundfishermen are self-perpetuating bureaucrats, armed with outdated junk science, who've manufactured a crisis that endangers a way of life older than the colonies themselves.
How often have you heard that the seas are overfished and that they're virtually deserts empty of life?  As Michelle says, generations of schoolchildren were indoctrinated with the belief that stocks of fish have been depleted by greedy commercial fishermen, and there actually was a period when foreign factory fishing vessels overfished places around the US.  But that was in the 60s and 70s; when the domestic fishing industry regained control of our waters, stocks rebounded.  Could it be an effort to shift control to big governments instead of people whose lives and livelihoods depend on managing the resource?  How could anyone, any group, know the populations of fishes everywhere?  Nobody is capable of counting them all, so it obviously has to be by sampling and estimates based on how many fish are collected. 
Meghan Lapp, a lifelong fisherwoman and conservation biologist, points out that government surveyors use a “net that's not the right size for the vessel,” which produces “a stock assessment that shows artificially low numbers. The fishing does not match what the fishermen see on the water.”

Instead of fixing the science, top-down bureaucrats have cracked down on groundfishermen who fail to comply with impossible and unreasonable rules and regulations. The observer program, which was intended to provide biological data and research, was expanded administratively (not by Congress) to create “At Sea Monitors” who act solely as enforcement agents.

Yes, Big Brother dispatches a fleet of spies to track and ticket commercial fishing families while they work. And the biggest slap in the face? New England groundfishermen have to pay for it. A study done by the National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the program costs about $710 per day or $2.64 million per year.
Does she mean they literally put agents on board every fishing boat to monitor their compliance?  As she says, yes, NOAA calls the program their At Sea Monitors.
“Before we sail, we have to do declarations on our boat tracks, which is a vessel monitoring system,” Tom Jr. explained. “We have to declare what areas we're going to be fishing in. We also have to submit a sector-trip start hail and operator's permit number. … (Then) you have to submit a daily task report, what area you were in, and all the species that you caught.”

On top of all that, an at-sea observer boards the Williams' boats and bunks in tight quarters with the crew, looking over their shoulders at every turn. Over the years, the expanding reach of regulators has become overbearing and, as brother Aaron described it, “humiliating.”
I don't know the commercial fishing world here in Florida, but I assume it's under the same rules as these folks are.  As I'm sure the northeast states do, we have state waters out to 3 nautical miles from shore in the Atlantic or 9 miles from shore in the Gulf of Mexico, with and federal waters beyond that.  It's not unusual for state and Federal rules to be different, putting us in the awkward position of legally taking a fish in Federal waters that would be illegal if caught in state waters and vice versa.  The state and the feds tend to mimic each other, but it does happen.  The fishing rules and regulations are so complex and frequently changing that the only reasonable way to keep up with them is to carry a summary with you at all times, and update that summary.  I keep an app on my phone with the rules, updated whenever I open it. 

For example, in this part of the state, we're told that a well known fish sought as a delicacy, the red snapper, is in trouble.  At the moment, it's legal to take two per day in state waters, but not legal at all in Federal waters, and the species is almost exclusively caught in Federal waters (in this part of Florida).  It's legal and believable that an angler could stop at a shallow reef in state waters, catch a legal red snapper, then go farther offshore and now have an illegal fish.  I've heard stories from several guys that they had gone to a deep reef in search of another species, but couldn't get a bait past the "protected" red snapper.  Once caught, they have to be released, but like most deepwater species, their swim bladder inflates as they're being brought to the surface causing what's referred to as barotrauma and making a safe release more difficult.   You can't simply just let them over the side.
Michelle Malkin onboard a groundfishing boat.  Photo from Michelle Malkin Investigates and Conservative Review.

“Fishing Wars: Drowning in Regulations” debuts on’s “Michelle Malkin Investigates” program this week. To find out more about Michelle Malkin and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

Irresistibly Funny Mistake

It was surprisingly cold this morning, the coldest of the winter (I think), but clear and bright once the sun was clearing the rooftops.  Perhaps a light touch of frost, but not as heavy as earlier in the month. So imagine my surprise when AccuWeather showed this:
It has snowed in the area over the 35 years I've lived here.  Twice.  Neither was more than light flurries.  Needless to say, it's a rare thing when snow appears in the forecast and heavy snow here is unprecedented.  The National Weather Service said 0% chance of any precipitation.

I couldn't help but laugh at it.  And, no, it didn't.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Seems We Can't Go A Week Without Getting Some New 3D Printing Story

This week we get two.

The first is an interesting development that's a refinement of the very first 3D printing format, stereolithography.  In this form of printing, a laser traces out the outlines of the layers of design being printed on the surface of a bath of liquid resin.  At the start of the print, there's a metal tray just under the surface of the pool. The resin polymerizes into a solid, the tray drops a few thousandths and the next layer is scanned.  Eventually the entire object is printed, the tray is raised back to the top and the printed piece removed.  (The "splash" in this print is the 3D printed object itself)

The new process is more like a hologram, with the laser projecting deeper into the fluid, polymerizing 3D structures directly, not just doing a scan on the surface - 2D that builds up 3D objects.
[...] by using laser-generated, hologram-like 3D images flashed into photosensitive resin, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), along with collaborators at UC Berkeley (link is external), the University of Rochester (link is external) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (link is external) (MIT), have discovered they can build complex 3D parts in a fraction of the time of traditional layer-by-layer printing. The novel approach is called “volumetric” 3D printing, and is described in the journal Science Advances (link is external), published online Dec. 8.

“The fact that you can do fully 3D parts all in one step really does overcome an important problem in additive manufacturing,” said LLNL researcher Maxim Shusteff, the paper’s lead author. “We’re trying to print a 3D shape all at the same time. The real aim of this paper was to ask, 'Can we make arbitrary 3D shapes all at once, instead of putting the parts together gradually layer by layer?' It turns out we can.”
Volumetric 3D printing creates parts by using three overlapping laser beams that define the object’s geometry from three different directions.  This creates a hologram-like 3D image suspended in the vat of resin.  The laser is left on for about 10 seconds to cure the object (too long and the entire bath solidifies!).  Then the excess resin is drained, note there's no precisely moved tray like the one-layer-at-a-time system, and the fully formed 3D part remains. 

This is still leading edge research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the things they're printing are pretty small.  Another issue is that there are restrictions on part resolution and on the kinds of geometries that can be formed.  Extremely complex structures would require more than three intersecting laser beams and would limit the process.  It will be a while before you can order one of these printers from your favorite retailer, but it's pretty interesting to see.

The other new 3D printing tech is a way of printing composite materials with fibers embedded in a plastic matrix.  Called "rotational 3D printing", the new technique allows for precise alignment of the fibers to get the desired properties.  
The key to their approach is to precisely choreograph the speed and rotation of a 3D printer nozzle to program the arrangement of embedded fibers in polymer matrices. This is achieved by equipping a rotational printhead system with a stepper motor to guide the angular velocity of the rotating nozzle as the ink is extruded.

"Rotational 3D printing can be used to achieve optimal, or near optimal, fiber arrangements at every location in the printed part, resulting in higher strength and stiffness with less material," Compton said. "Rather than using magnetic or electric fields to orient fibers, we control the flow of the viscous ink itself to impart the desired fiber orientation."
This method is aimed at answering a different question than the first one.  The first one is asking "can we speed up the method of printing?" but it also offers the promise of removing the layers and "jaggies" that 3D prints can have.  The rotational 3D printing approach seems to be asking for more control of exactly how the print is made, at the expense of the additional stepper motor, driver and so on to control the rotation of the print head.  The resin model isn't capable of having fibers at all, so they're aimed at different uses. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Quantum Computers Throw Some Confusion at Buyers

A little short of five years ago, I ran a piece about a player in the quantum computer field called D-Wave Systems.  It included this little tidbit.
Dr. Ladizinsky talks about the fact that in his quantum computer, a loop of super cold niobium wire has all of its electrons going in one direction and at the exact same time the same piece of wire has all of its electrons going in the opposite direction.  Their niobium wire is exhibiting quantum behavior in a macroscopic object.
For illustration, assume current in one direction is a logic "0" and current in the opposite direction is a "1".  The superposition of two different states at the same time is what constitutes a qubit, or quantum bit, and creates quantum computing.

In the intervening five years, quantum computing as entered into field trials.  D-Wave has sold systems to Lockheed Martin, NASA, the NSA (National Security Agency), and Google, each of which paid somewhere between $10 million and $15 million for the system.  Recently, D-Wave committed some of the important software they've been developing to open source.  The only problem is that the buyers aren't sure that they actually bought a quantum computer.  It turns out that's a hard thing to prove.
These machines are of little use to consumers. They are delicate, easily disturbed, require cooling to just above absolute zero, and are ruinously expensive. But the implications are enormous for heavy number-crunching. In theory, banks could use quantum computers to calculate risk faster than their competitors, giving them an edge in the markets. Tech companies could use them to figure out if their code is bug-free. Spies could use them to crack cryptographic codes, which requires crunching through massive calculations. A fully-fledged version of such a machine could theoretically tear through calculations that the most powerful mainframes would take eons to complete.

The only problem is that scientists have been arguing for years about whether D-Wave’s device is really a quantum computer or not. (D-Wave canceled a scheduled interview and did not reschedule.) And while at some level this doesn’t matter—as far as we know, D-Wave’s clients haven’t asked for their money back—it’s an issue of importance to scientists, to hopeful manufacturers of similar machines, and to anyone curious about the ultimate limits of humankind’s ability to build artificial brains.
Surely it can't be that hard right?  Why not take it apart and probe it?  Or why not run a sample computation, a benchmark if you will, on it and another computer to see which is faster.  Unfortunately, it's not that easy.  It violates the laws of quantum physics to be able to look inside (probe it), so the system can't be probed.  When a quantum system is observed, it collapses to one state or the other.  In the example from the original  paragraph, if one measures the current flow in any of the 512 niobium wire loops it will only appear to be moving in one direction, not both.  This is collapsing the Quantum Wave Function - made famous by the analogy Erwin Schrodinger proposed about a cat that is simultaneously fully alive and fully dead.
The controversy surrounding D-Wave is rooted in the fact that the company doesn’t claim to have built a full-fledged “universal quantum computer” that can tackle any problem. In particular, it doesn’t claim to able to crack secret codes; if it did, the argument would be over quickly. The technique it uses, called “quantum annealing”—which we won’t even try to explain—is only good for solving specific sorts of mathematical puzzles called optimization problems. As their name implies, these involve finding the quickest or lowest-cost way to do something. (That could make the technique useful to banks and mining companies, but not spy agencies.)

The trouble is, it’s possible to build a device that produces a similar result to quantum annealing without any quantum behavior—i.e., without invoking superpositions and parallel universes. So the question is: Is the D-Wave machine doing quantum annealing, or just something that looks like it? And this is where things get tricky.
Researchers can't look into it, and they may not even be able to test its speed.
Even if there were a speedup, it would be hard to measure. There was a good deal of hype about an experiment last year by a scientist whom D-Wave had hired as a consultant, showing that the D-Wave 2 did a certain calculation 3,600 times faster than a conventional machine. But as it turned out, the likelier reason the conventional computer was slow was that its software was slow. Other researchers said they’d been able to make an ordinary laptop, using different software, run as fast as the D-Wave.

Even D-Wave admits that in its work with Google, it’s machines were only “comparable or slightly better” than conventional computers. Google wrote on its research blog a year ago that it has been able to do some interesting things with its D-Wave, but carefully avoided claiming that they were things only a quantum computer could do.
It ends up being fundamentally hard to answer the question of whether or not the D-Wave Systems boxes really are quantum computers, and the whole article is worth reading. 
In this recent photo, we find that Schrodinger's cat learned to create a quantum superposition of kibbles in each of the parallel universes it visited, so that alive or dead, it had an unlimited supply of kibbles.  Photo from the Quartz article. 

If you're waiting for me to reveal if the D-Wave Systems box really is a quantum computer, the Quartz article doesn't say conclusively.  We could say it exists in the superposition of states of simultaneously being and not being a quantum computer.  They point out that Michele Mosca, a co-founder of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Canada, says that the very meaning of the words “quantum computer” is fuzzy. He proposes five (actually five-and-a-half) definitions, which are listed at the bottom of the Quartz article for the technically minded.
The D-Wave, Mosca says, definitely meets definition 2, and probably its stronger variant, meaning that it is behaving somehow differently from classical computers, but not necessarily faster. If further research can show that it meets definition 3, that means it can be faster than classical machines at certain tasks, provided the problems aren’t too large. If it meets definition 4 (the best, Mosca says, that it aspires to) then it has the potential to continue to be faster for any larger, more complex input —though again, only for certain tasks.

That would still be hugely important. It would mean that the D-Wave is taking advantage of the weird properties of quantum physics to do things that, until not so long ago, were thought literally impossible, and open up the ability to solve problems that would otherwise remain out of reach.

But the full power of a quantum computer will be realized only when a machine can satisfy definition 5—a general-purpose device that far outstrips conventional computers at any task they can perform. That machine has not yet been built.
If the D-Wave is not a quantum computer that raises perplexing questions.  It raises questions of whether or not they know what they're doing, if they knowingly sold fakes, or unknowingly sold fakes (that is, they were faked out themselves) and if the buyers are thinking they bought fakes.  

Monday, January 15, 2018

Heh Heh Heh

That's the sound of a smug, self-satisfied chuckle when something I designed behaves exactly as expected.

The LED display isn't popping out at you because of the flash picture, but the variac box works as intended.  It's reading 100V and 00.0 Amps while the yellow (Horrible Freight) voltmeter reads 102.  Which is correct?  Is either correct?  The digital voltmeter I trust the most isn't pictured, but it was close to midway between the HF meter and the .  It turns out that if I tweak the big variac dial until the box's display stops flickering 99 to 100 and back, the trusted DVM says just about 101.

Pretty much all of those are "close enough" for what I expect to be doing with it, which is primarily to reduce the line voltage to some of my older radios and things that haven't been on in a while in order to reduce the risk of something failing because it hasn't been on.

This variac is rated for 5A, which is enough to power anything I've got and maybe a couple of them at the same time.  Some collectors of vintage, vacuum tube gear (popularly called boatanchors) run all their equipment on a variac or fixed transformers to reduce the house line voltage a bit.  Over the years, the typical house voltage has gone up from more like 110 up to closer to 120, which I suppose was done by power companies to ensure that after the usual voltage drops folks at the end of a branch didn't get too little voltage.  The boatanchor collectors say that the higher line voltage stresses the parts too much. 

On one hand, I can kind of see that, especially for some capacitors.  Most equipment has big electrolytic capacitors in it that can actually change value and running them at a lower voltage does what they call forming, and restores them to the right value.  On the other hand, one of the quotes that goes around about vacuum tube design is that transistors have limits, tubes have guidelines.  Typically, if you exceed the absolute maximum voltage on a transistor by even a little for a tiny amount of time, you generally let the smoke out.  If you exceed the voltage on a tube, it usually just shrugs it off.

Unlike this project, the antenna is fairly underwhelming and needs a little emphasis.  It delivers a bit weaker signal than my vertical when the radio preamp is on (on for the loop, off for the vertical) on the one band I was most concerned about.  On the other band, it's much worse than the vertical.  On the positive side, though, it delivers some of the claimed ability to null signals off the back. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Is This the Year Humans Launch from the US Again?

That's the provocative subtitle of an interesting piece on ARS Technica which lists the launches they find most interesting in the coming year.

The first thing they mention is the SpaceX Falcon Heavy, which is likely to launch this month.  The company has said they plan to test fire the boosters this coming Thursday, and the vehicle is on pad 39A as we speak.  An ambitious vehicle with 5.1 million pounds of thrust, capable of launching "37,000 pounds to Mars", SpaceX fans have been eagerly awaiting the first launch since it was announced in 2005, but its development was dependent on all of their other launch hardware and (probably most importantly) their experience.  That view tends to be something those not "in the business" don't understand.
And if you haven't heard the rumors, the plans for the first launch are a bit PT Barnum-style "in your face":
Although this is just a test flight—with a whimsical payload of Elon Musk's cherry-red Tesla roadster bound for an elongated orbit around Mars—the flight of the Falcon Heavy nonetheless represents a landmark moment in the US spaceflight industry. It will mark the first time a US company has developed a heavy lift rocket with largely its own financing. True, SpaceX leveraged some NASA funding to build the Falcon 9 rocket. But it has developed the core stage and integrated two Falcon 9 boosters to create the heavy rocket with its own resources. This is a truly private rocket. [Bold added - SiG]
Throwing a Tesla car into orbit around Mars only solidifies Elon Musk's reputation as a huckster showman.

A rather interesting, if not fanciful, mission is the launch of a light sail for the Planetary Society.  Likely to be in Quarter 2 or 3 of the year, on the third launch of a Falcon Heavy.
Sails that propel a craft by riding on the solar wind have been talked about for a long time and launched before, but are still in their infancy and missions are trying to prove the concept is useful.
The crowdfunded project will attempt to make solar sail-powered flight in Earth orbit. Once in space, the 61cm-long spacecraft will separate from the upper stage of the Falcon Heavy rocket and undergo a series of maneuvers to deploy a light sail made of Mylar that will spread out to encompass an area of 32 square meters.

After the light sail has deployed, the spacecraft will attempt to use the constant pressure from solar particles to raise itself to higher orbits around the Earth, perhaps by as much as 1km per day. If this test is successful, solar sail technology could be deployed on future missions as low-cost, propellant-free propulsion to explore planets and moons in our Solar System.
A mission I've previously heard some talk about, but not the interesting details, is China's proposed Chang'e which is two-fold mission likely to launch in the second half of year (Q2 to Q4).  The part everyone talks about is to land on the far side of the moon.  That immediately raises the problem  of how the satellite communicates back to Earth, since the moon both blocks radio waves, so  I assumed that they were going to launch an orbiter that would relay information from the surface, but the proposed mission is more ambitious.  The Chinese propose to put a relay point at the Lagrange point L2, which is in orbit around the sun, not the moon, and about a million miles from Earth.  Description of L2 orbits here.

A very interesting mission, and the only one virtually iron-clad guaranteed to be on schedule, the New Horizons spacecraft that went past Pluto in 2015 is going to flyby the Kuiper belt object called 2014 MU69.  Since the spacecraft's position and motion are known very precisely, as is the position and movement of its destination, this flyby is guaranteed to a level of certainty that no other mission in the article can match.  I can only imagine two things that would stop it: New Horizons hits an unknown object first or the Klingons show up and use it for target practice. In the case of an unknown object, the risks are tiny but real; in the case of the Klingons (or other extraterrestrials) that risk has to go to as close to zero as you can imagine.

Old movie references aside, and getting back to the title of the post, both SpaceX and their competitor Boeing are saying they're "on schedule" to test their manned vehicles for bringing crews to the Space Station.
Officially, both companies say they are on track for crewed launches this year. Boeing plans an uncrewed flight test of its Starliner vehicle in August, with an initial flight carrying astronauts in November. SpaceX has said it will make a test flight of its Crew Dragon vehicle in April, with a crewed mission in August.

However, there are good reasons to be skeptical about those dates. Sources have told Ars that both companies have plenty of work to do to get ready for human test flights. Moreover, NASA has yet to announce specific two-person crews for each of those human test flights, and such assignments are likely to be made at least a year before the flights themselves occur. (There are four commercial crew astronauts, Robert Behnken, Doug Hurley, Sunita Williams, and Eric Boe). And finally, NASA has moved to begin formally acquiring Soyuz seats to launch its astronauts in 2019.
There are other missions in the article that I leave out, but since some of you readers are much more closely involved with the Cape than I am, I'm interested in hearing your versions of the "most interesting missions" for 2018.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Turnabout is Fair Play

I ran across an interesting story in the Machine Design daily newsletter.  It pertains to H1B visas, in a way.  H1B visas are the ones that are granted typically to "hi-tech" workers with the mythology that the skill set doesn't exist in America.  You might remember the 2016 talk about Disney hiring IT workers on H1B visas, and forcing the American workers to train their replacements before being laid off.

That story turned out to be far from abnormal; it was literally the tip of an iceberg, an orgy of cronyism in which a handful of companies lobby the US government to allocate H1B visas so that they can get cheaper workers, foreign companies lobby to provide those visas to workers in those countries and displace American workers.  Meanwhile, we have national programs to push STEM education to provide graduates for jobs in the US - that are being taken by H1B visa imports.
On one side, we have national programs to convince US kids to major in STEM programs to produce the "next generation of scientists and engineers" while on the other hand we import these H1B visa holders to fill the very jobs we're trying to get American kids to prepare for.  Don't forget the workers who were in those jobs, were replaced by H1B visa holders, and are now either unemployed or underemployed.  The is creating unemployment and misery for generations to come.  It's easy to understand Gates, Zuckerburg and those CEOs: the more of these H1B visas the allows, the more they can suppress wages and the more candidates they can choose from.  It's, unfortunately, also easy to understand the; they get money from Cognizant, Wipro and the like.  In the case of our administration, already concerned that Americans have too much of the world's wealth, it's even easier to see a motivation to send that wealth overseas. [Note: this is from 2016.  SiG]
So while it's true that the illegal immigrants hold down wages for low end jobs (how could they not?), and conservatives rightfully try to change that, we also have the wages of hardware and software engineers, as well as IT workers and other STEM careers being held down by the H1B visa industry (again, how could they not?).
With that background, this week's Machine Design story shows the shoe on the other foot.  Foreign companies are hiring engineering talent out of the US. Is it possible the big picture might be engineers from low income countries move into the US (on H1Bs) while US engineers move overseas on whatever the equivalent law is there? 
However, the skilled job market is growing. Deloitte —an audit, consulting, and financial advisory company—published that 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will become available from 2015 to 2025, and about 2 million of them will go unfilled due to a skills gap.

“Getting people interested in these careers is challenging—especially young people,” says Bruce Hamm of the Manufacturers Association of Central New York (MACNY). “Historically, over the last few decades, we’ve had so much manufacturing leave New York because of offshoring; we were one of the rust belt states. The fact that modern manufacturing has changed the whole equation hasn’t penetrated to the public, the schools, the kids, or the parents for that matter.”
Germany, a strong economic and engineering powerhouse, failed to find 1.1 million skilled workers and professionals in the third quarter of 2017. In an economic upswing, there is a shortage of young talent to meet the high demand for labor. Now German companies are urgently looking for talent from all over the world.
While Germany is an “economic and engineering powerhouse”, the other country they specifically mention is New Zealand.  The Kiwi projects they mentioned are major construction projects, not systemic growth in their engineering sector. 

Still, the US is 4x the population of Germany (total population, not engineers) and 67x the size of New Zealand, so Germany could make a dent in the US job market but it's hard to imagine New Zealand could.  I don't really imagine a large percentage of people want to make that sort of migration, anyway.  (Wait... I might have to think about New Zealand.)  The US still has the (alleged, reported) shortage of high-skilled workers that leads to trying to import (and grow new) engineers here.
A published report from the Public Policy Institute of New York State Inc. states that, “While shortages in professional skills were most pervasive, employers reported that STEM-specific skills and qualifications were the toughest to find. Almost a quarter of executives reported ‘high difficulty’ finding candidates with the necessary scientific, engineering, and technical skills. Half reported moderate or high difficulty finding candidates skilled in using technology, and close to 30 percent reported moderate or high difficulty finding candidates with other STEM skills such as data analysis and applied math.
My summary is that it's interesting but probably not a big influence.  Engineering salaries are among the few percent that have held up well over the last 40 years.  Will that trend last?  Some of you know what I'm going to say: “prediction is difficult, especially about the future”.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Is Bitcoin a Bubble?

Despite the incredible rise of Bitcoin in a short amount of time, I find this question surprisingly hard to answer.  (We can talk some other time about the wisdom of buying bitcoin; this is just about the wild run up in price over the last couple of years).

On one hand there are sure signs that this is an epic bubble.  Warning signs are all around.  According to The Atlantic,  "It Is Silly Season in the Land of Cryptocurrency" and they give reasons to back it up.
In October, the Colorado biotech company Bioptix changed its name to Riot Blockchain. The company’s valuation doubled within a few days.

This might strike you as an extraordinarily bizarre story. But even more bizarrely, it’s becoming ordinary. Weeks later, the British company Online PLC changed its name to Online Blockchain. The company’s shares jumped 400 percent. In December, the Long Island Iced Tea Corporation—which, as you might expect, sold iced tea—rebranded itself Long Blockchain. The company’s shares promptly rose nearly 300 percent. On Tuesday this week, the legacy photography company Kodak announced the launch of KODAKCoin, a “photo-centric cryptocurrency to empower photographers and agencies to take greater control in image rights management.” The stock rose 80 percent in a matter of hours.
People buying anything that seems to have even the most tenuous connection to bitcoin?  Are they crazy?  People are as excited as can be over investing in it and bubble warning signs like people borrowing money to put into Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are starting.

Certainly if you look at at this graph, put together by First in Freedom Daily (I added the color coded lines), Bitcoin appears to be the biggest price run-up in history dwarfing the famous Tulip Craze of 1634-37 and monstrously larger than the 1990s tech bubble.  The Tech Bubble is barely visible at the bottom of this plot (a light blue trace); even the Roaring 20s bubble that led to the Great Depression is hard to find on this scale. 
The first time I became aware of a stock market bubble was long ago.  Over the boom/bust cycles since then, I came to think that a sure sign that a crash was imminent was a news story of some kid who either quit college to be a trader or house flipper or whatever the new craze was.  

On the other hand, there could be something real here.  The technology behind the cryptocurrencies is called blockchain, and it could be a real game changer in a lot of ways.  Briefly, for those who haven't run into anything about this, a description from the Atlantic:
At the most basic level, it is a record of information stored on a network of computers. When people use a cryptocurrency like bitcoin to buy a pizza, a kilogram of illegal drugs, or a yacht, these digital transactions are approved by a network of computers around the world running bitcoin software. Each batch of these transactions—a “block”—gets a cryptographic code, a copy of which is posted to every computer in the network. These blocks are permanently linked to each other in a “chain” of publicly approved transactions that cannot be edited. Thus, blockchain.
In a way, the blockchain system is the opposite of Internet credit card security.  When you use a credit card online, you want all of your information hidden because if someone can get your card number and ID, they can steal with it.  With blockchain, the history of every coin is embedded in the chain of transactions.  Using bitcoin is like using cash in the sense that once it leaves your "wallet" it might be stolen (although that appears hard) but they can't go on a shopping spree with it.  By analogy, if buy a slice of pizza and give two bucks to the shop, those two bucks become their problem to keep from being stolen. 

More importantly, Bitcoin was designed to emulate not just cash but gold.  Nobody has central control over the currency so nobody can inflate or deflate it to achieve some political goals.  There is no Federal Reserve Bank of cryptocurrencies.  The algorithms were designed to be resistant to computers becoming faster over time, so while someone can "mine" bitcoins by running software, it would be better for them to have a room full of computers than one supercomputer.   It costs energy and time to mine bitcoins.  Newer, faster computers are slowed by the algorithms so that technology doesn't give them an advantage in mining the "harder to mine deposits".  Much as the amount of effort required to mine gold is the same as it was thousands of years ago.  We have much better technology but the deposits are much harder to mine. Furthermore, just like the reality that the amount of gold in the crust is limited, the number of bitcoins is limited by the algorithms to 21 million bitcoins.  When all 21 million have been mined, the miners go home. 

"Yeah, I got that, but is bitcoin a bubble??"  I think that yes, it's in a short term overpriced situation.  I think it's possible, even likely, that there needs to be some period of sitting in a trading range and consolidating (strangely, I run across this guy saying the same thing).  People need to settle down a little get some of the fever out of the market.  I think a drop in price of as much as 50% is not out of the question.  However, I also think it has a good future; that there's a real place for cryptocurrencies and they will make a comeback.  I think anyone buying now will never see the equivalent percentage increases in price the last few years have given us, but I wouldn't be surprised for someone buying on the next dip to make more common gains, like "a few" times what they paid.  Remember: it's widely recognized that the first commercial sale with bitcoins was a pizza order paid for with 10,000 BTC coins.  For two Papa John’s pizzas.  With coins around today's $14,000, that would be a $140Million dollar order.  I sure hope someone held onto those 10,000 coins because they'll never see that kind of gain again. 
A bitcoin mining center