Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Happy New Year 2020 - and the Optometrists Rejoice

Have you ever noticed how many optometrists, eyeglass places, one-stop eyeglass shops have 2020 in their phone number, if not their name? 

They'll be having a field day with this. 

New Year is the time for lots of retrospective big-picture posts about the Best or Worst of 2019.  The alternative is the What to Expect Next Year line.  If you want to read those, go read Borepatch or Wilder, Wealthy, and Wise.  Mine will be personally retrospective.  For what to expect in the coming year, I come down near those two, perhaps closer to Borepatch, perhaps a bit naively thinking that events rarely unfold linearly, and the unpredicted; the black swan is what gets you.  As the wise man said, “life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.”

Like I've said before, there are plenty of ways to delineate time and it's only New Year's Eve 2020 in the one the Western world generally follows.  2019 was a sufficiently crappy year for us that I'm going to pretend that opening a new year's calendar really does fundamentally change things in a way that flipping a one-page-per-day calendar doesn't.  Tomorrow will be a fresh start.

On the positive side, 2019 was my fourth full year of retirement; I turned the page into my fifth year on Friday the 20th.  With the exception I'll get to in a moment, everyone's health is good.  My brother and the extended family on that side are all well as are Dear Son, Daughter In Law and Precious Granddaughter.  My little niece (who's 27) announced her engagement and plans to get married early next year.  Yeah, it's hard not to think of her as a school girl, highschool cheerleader, or pre-school.  Kind of like when your own kid announces something like this except with much less anguish.  Personally, I've gone through a year of getting off several prescriptions and OTC stuff I took too often, and all my lab tests have been improving - a trend going on for several years. 

The first bad event of the year was early March, when Mrs. Graybeard fell and broke a bony prominence at the top of her thigh bone (she broke two pieces off the greater trochanter for you medical folks who visit) as we were starting to wash our cars.  That was a total reset of life.  She was on a walker until the middle of April, only able to do the most basic essentials of life for herself.  It was weekly x-rays and doctor checks until mid-April.  Then a short period on a cane and finally walking uncomfortably by mid-May.  There were some setbacks in rehab and I can't pick out a point when she was back to normal, but it was after the summer.  I think being unable to put any weight on that limb for six weeks was probably more damaging to her health than the break itself.  On the other hand, the orthopedic surgeon made it clear it was a bitchy surgery to go through, as well as for him to do, and it was best considered a last resort.  Metabolically and other health-wise though, the most important stuff, she's fine.  One can recover from an injury better if they're otherwise healthy and don't have the chronic diseases so common in our society.

Because of the accident, we didn't take any vacations or go anywhere.  On the day she fell, I had made a note to myself to make reservations (once we were done washing the cars) to go to one of the big model engineering shows, NAMES Expo (the North American  Model Engineering Society), held annually outside Detroit (Wyandotte, Michigan).  We went to one Expo in 2008, in Toledo, Ohio that year.  (Note the NAMES Expo website is still for the 2019 show, last April!  I've seen an article saying there will be a show this year, but they're a bit slow to update.) 

The next major bad was our lightning strike that I've posted lots about since the first posting here. There's little to say at this point except that the rate of things failing has been going down and it may have gotten to background failure rates.  The last major expense was that my wife's computer died the week before Thanksgiving which made the thoughts about upgrading our two desktops a bit more prominent.  We eventually bought a pair of identical Dell desktops.  Probably a bit more than we'd like to have spent on them, but amortized over another 8 to 10 year lifetime, probably not bad.  Not counting the new computers, and my radio repairs, the lightning strike cost us right around $3000 in damages. Not related to lightning, we also ran about $3000 in car repairs.

In the last year, I've moved my general interest of stuff to blog on to that big pile of interesting, newsy stuff that's 45 miles up the road, the burgeoning space industry; both private and NASA.  Along the way, I've subscribed to newsletters to read, even one that I have to pay for (and possibly more coming).  I figure my proximity gives me a bit of an advantage, and being able to go outside to watch launches from the side yard is part of that.  I haven't gone full Everyday Astronaut or Scott Manley, but they're trying to make money at this, while I'm just trying to be an interesting, full-service blog. 

Guaranteed to be worth what you paid. 

I wish you all a happy, prosperous, safe and free New Year!  Remember, as Matt Groening says, drinking and power tools don't mix, so if you drink don't drill!  And if you drill don't drink?  Something like that.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Here Be Gremlins

After the old nautical charts that would have the legend "Here Be Dragons" over unexplored waters.

Since we put in our shop in '14, I've been plagued by random triggering of my ground fault interrupter outlets.  Long time readers with extra sharp memory will know that I've talked about this before, and did one long post about it.  The bottom line about this is that it has never gone away.  Our electric utility replaced the last transformer in the distribution we're on - the one for us and our three closest neighbors - in the last year and the problem became more intermittent.  When they replaced it we were having our lights flicker or pulsate randomly, and when the flickering was bad, the GFI would pop.  We'd get the outlet popping once a day or a couple of times in a day, and then not again for a month or six weeks.  We've thought that it correlated best to rain and then seen driving rain not matter.  This fall/winter it has seemed to correlate to strong winds.  We have underground utilities, so there are no wires moving in the breeze in the last mile to us.  We've thought it was caused by the surge protected AC strips I was using, but those have all been replaced with only one being surge protected.

Last week, I finally decided to replace the GFI outlet itself.  It was originally the less likely of our two GFI outlets to trip, but I pulled that outlet put a non-protected outlet in its place, and moved it from our east wall to our west wall.  Briefly, the west wall has all of my machine tools plugged into it except one - my air compressor - and the place where AC-powered machinery and water meet is the cooling system on my milling machine.  The east wall has far less plugged in.

Saturday, I'm making some sanding passes on the cylinder in the big lathe and cranked the RPMs up from its minimum (100 RPM) up toward 200.  The GFI pops!  Coincidence?  Random event?  So I reset the GFI and try again.  Slower this time and by 170 RPM it pops again.  Now I've run that lathe at higher RPM many times before and it never popped while using the outlet I replaced because I thought it might be bad.  I tried the experiment a few more times (Goldfinger's law) and it was completely repeatable.

I open the junction box and pull the outlet out.  It's a 120V 15 A GFI just like the circuit, I tell Mrs. Graybeard.  See that breaker in the box right there?  It's clearly marked ... 20A.  Oops.  Bought the wrong size GFI.  OK, put back the old one, try it again, up to 250 RPM with no hassles.   Never pops the GFI.  Then I look up the spec on the lathe: that motor is never supposed to need more than 12A so unless there was a short transient over 15A, it should have been OK.

Regardless, I tell myself, I should replace the one I'm suspicious of with another 120V 20A GFI and resume the experiment of seeing if it pops randomly (not related to the lathe).  We waited for today because it was the weekend and picked up the third GFI outlet for that spot (True Value hardware is starting to love me).  Put in the new outlet today, now it's time to test it with the lathe.

Sure as Schiff it pops when I get above 150 RPM!

I realize this gets confusing - it gets confusing for me.  I find myself with two different, brand new GFIs, different brands, a 15 A and 20 A that do the same thing - the lathe makes them pop open when I go above about 150 RPM.  I have one, old GFI that's also a 20 A that the lathe never pops.  It's not really easy to make sense of that. It seems to me that the lathe speed controller is probably doing something wrong during the transients while speeding up. The "good" two see that while the possibly "bad" one doesn't.  I'm not even sure the lathe is doing something wrong, although it looks that way.

I'm in that awkward position of not knowing quite what to do.  No schematics, no manual besides the lathe's operator's manual.  There are relatively few of these compared to the 7x12 mini lathes

Sunday, December 29, 2019

It's an Old Story, But It's an Interesting Story

The story first surfaced a couple of weeks ago, got picked up by Zero Hedge, and then got picked up somewhere I saw it (I thought it was Bayou Renaissance Man, but can't find it in a few searches).

Earth's Magnetic North Pole is Moving Faster Than Ever, Leaving Scientists Baffled.

This didn't happen in the last six months or couple of years, but started in the 1990s.  My first piece on this was August of '16, but the north magnetic pole has been moving faster than ever in recorded history.  Frankly, nobody knows quite what it means.  The sheer speed at which it's happening has never been seen before.
The latest report from NOAA, the “World Magnetic Model” for 2020, shows the pole rapidly speeding in the direction of Siberia. However, the trajectory of the pole will likely change.
They don't say why they believe the trajectory is going to change, though.
NOAA’s National Centres for Environmental Information explained:
“Since its first formal discovery in 1831, the north magnetic pole has travelled around 1,400 miles (2,250 km).
This wandering has been generally quite slow, allowing scientists to keep track of its position fairly easily.”
As recently as 2000, the magnetic North Pole was clocked at moving 6.2 miles per year toward Northern Russia, but data for the next two decades shows the average rate suddenly increasing to roughly 34 miles per year in the same direction, while the latest readings in 2019 show it slightly decreasing to about 31 miles per year.

The World Magnetic Model predicts the average speed will slow down to roughly 25 miles per year from 2020 to 2025.
The path the magnetic pole has taken since 1900 is interesting. 

Take a look near the center of the semicircle; note that the pole has moved through the prime meridian of longitude, 0 and 180, through Greenwich in the UK. This is the first time in recorded history that the magnetic pole has moved from the Western to the Eastern hemisphere. 
Geomagnetic specialist Ciaran Beggan from the British Geological Survey (BGS) told the Financial Times:
“The movement since the 1990s is much faster than at any time for at least four centuries.

We really don’t know much about the changes in the core that’s driving it.”
The more important thing, to me (and I don't even pretend to know anything) is that field is continuing to weaken.  In that 2016 article, that source mentioned that the Earth’s magnetic field is weakening 10 times faster than previously thought, decreasing in strength about 5 percent a decade rather than 5 percent a century.  This article mentions that the field continues to weaken.
“The decrease in geomagnetic field is much more important and dramatic than the reversal,” said Dr. Nicolas Thouveny from the European Centre for Research and Teaching of Environmental Geosciences (CEREGE) in Aix-en-Provence, France.
“It is very important to understand if the present field will decay to zero in the next century, because we will have to prepare.”
This Phys.org website article talks about the possibility of the magnetic field getting weak enough to collapse and the poles to flip, which has happened 100 times in the last 20 million years.
The last reversal occurred between 772,000 and 774,000 years ago. Since then, the field has almost reversed 15 times, called an excursion, dropping in strength significantly but not quite reaching the threshold needed before rising again. This is when we are most at risk—as the field decays and then recovers its strength. The last excursion occurred 40,000 years ago, and evidence suggests we are heading in that direction again.

'The geomagnetic field has been losing 30 percent of its intensity in the last 3,000 years,' said Dr. Thouveny. 'From this value, we predict it will drop to near zero in a few centuries or a millennia.'
Yes, that's the same Dr. Thouveny saying it will drop to near zero in a few centuries to a millennia as who talked about the possibility  it could collapse to zero in the next century two paragraphs up.

I always caution that when people are making predictions about things that haven't been measured with modern instruments, predictions are more like educated guesses.  The fact that the poles flipped 773,000 years ago is based on the best measurements with techniques that are self-consistent and thought to be good.  In my mind, that's still not as good as an ancient scroll or diary that says, "this year, compasses stopped working" followed by an entry some time later saying, "those ancient compasses are consistently pointing somewhere again, but somewhere very different from the hand made signs from before they stopped working."

Saturday, December 28, 2019

It Has Been A Long Time Since A Shop Update

Because it has been a long time since I got anything done in my shop.  The lightning strike and repairs that followed just sucked up lots of time.  Add in that I did work in my ham shack to improve it should I ever have to work on a backup radio again, my attempts to contact that "other side of the world" island on the radio, and lots of other interruptions and I'm just getting back to my Webster engine.  I had to spend at least a day looking at it and trying to remember where I was.

My last post was back in September, and about finishing the flywheel for the engine.  The next part to do was the piston.  The piston and cylinder fit is one of the most critical parts of building these small engines; in my steam engine, I ended up making three pistons out of different materials (two graphite and one cold rolled steel).  It's hard to say which method is most common, but it seems to me more people seem to make the cylinder first and fit the piston to it.  I had made the cylinder some time ago and that was my intention.

Sometime in October, I put the cylinder back in the lathe's chuck intending to hone it to a constant diameter and smoothness.  To my fingertip, the cylinder wall felt like it had ridges on it down toward the left end in this view, so I was sure it needed to be smoothed.  To accomplish that, I bought a brake cylinder hone. 

I need to talk some numbers here.  The cylinder is supposed to be 0.875" diameter - lapped smooth.  The piston is supposed to be turned to 0.873 and takes two cast iron piston rings that give that 0.875 but have some compliance.  I bought those from a guy who specializes in them.

Measuring the inside diameter of that cylinder isn't as easy as measuring the outside diameter.  A common method is to use telescopic gauges like these.  Note they all have separate knurled knob at the long end of the “T” shape.  The crossbar of the T is spring loaded and that knob locks them in the desired position.  They're locked at their minimum span, inserted to depth in the bore, then the knob is released allowing the spring to drive the measuring points to the diameter, and then the knob is tightened again locking the measurement in place.  It's tedious to measure diameter and taper this way because it requires multiple measurements and each measurement is subject to errors if the measuring points aren't exactly perpendicular to the walls, and the long part of the handle parallel to the axis of the cylinder.

I honed the cylinder for a while with the three abrasive stones on that brake cylinder hone but it didn't seem to be smoothing the cylinder.  The cylinder is curved and the stones are rectangles, so they only rub on their edges.  I wrapped the three stones with 150 grit sandpaper and that seemed to smooth the cylinder faster.  I spent a minute or two working 150 up and down the bore, then switched to 220 and repeated.  Likewise with 320 and 440.  The cylinder feels quite a bit smoother but I can still feel the roughness.  I tried taking a photo of it; easier said than done.

You're looking into the lathe chuck in this view (from the right looking left in that photo at top).  The light colored circle at the top is the bore through the chuck.  Just to the left of that circle's bottom center is a large bump - that's one of the chuck's jaws.  I stretched the contrast and sharpness a bit, so those light and dark rings aren't that obvious looking in there

The measurements I'm getting make it seem the cylinder is already oversized - around 0.878" - so I'm hesitant to smooth it more.  A particle of 400 grit abrasive is 1/400" or .0025 (though that much doesn't stick above the paper).  If I took off that much in diameter, it would definitely be too big.  The piston is a piece of 0.875 stock which measures around 0.874".  I haven't machined the features and details into the piston, yet.  Yeah, I could get a 1" aluminum bar and turn it down to something that's a tighter fit in the cylinder, but I have those piston rings to consider.  I have enough steel bar to make another cylinder if I had to, but I'd rather only do that if I had to. 

As it so often does, it looks like I'm going to have to build it to find out if it works. 

Friday, December 27, 2019

About that AI Apocalypse

Well, about AI taking all the jobs and why I don't really buy into that idea.

The simplest explanation is in an observation by Wernher Von Braun, the German rocket scientist who came to the US after WWII and essentially birthed the space program of the '60s.  Von Braun was once questioned about the '50s version of the “AI is going to take all the jobs” idea; just substitute the word computers for AI in that phrase. Von Braun said,
The best computer is a man, and it’s the only one that can be mass-produced by unskilled labor.
We already have an existing equivalent of Artificial General Intelligence.  We just call it Natural Intelligence because it's found in some humans, and as Von Braun noted, it's the only kind that can be mass produced by unskilled labor.

What got me thinking along these lines was an article on Cafe Hyak called, “I'm Still Not the Least Worried About AI Causing Lasting Unemployment.”  Long time readers might remember this, but I'm influenced by the companies that manufacture robots.  Three years ago, I posted an article about the sales of industrial robots and how the relationship between robots and employment isn't what most people think it is.  If robots were replacing workers on massive scales, employment would be going down as robot sales were going up.  In fact, the trend is that robot sales go up in step with employment.  Allow me to reprise the relevant graph:

Although it's a busy plot, the most important parts are the two lines: linearized (smoothed) trends in both US nonfarm employment  (orange) and robot shipments (green).  They're not crossing at all; in fact, they're almost parallel, with a weak tendency to converge.  As employment goes up, robot sales go up.  The irregular red curve and the gray bars represent the raw data series, without smoothing.  When looking at the raw data, there only seems to be only one period when employment behaved the way we thought, when robot sales went up as jobs went down, (2003) but the rest of the time, robot sales go up as employment goes up.

Looked at this way, robots are just another tool in the race for companies to remain competitive.  Sure, as other labor costs go up it shifts the incentive to robotize different jobs, but that applies to any shortage and any other manipulation in the market.  The mandate for a $15/hr minimum wage is guaranteed to push the economic incentives for companies to replace humans with robots or other mechanized tools.  The government interference in setting the wage instead of the market setting wages is what pushes the economic incentives to robots.

It turns out that author Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hyak sees things much the same way as I do.
First, robots are tools that conserve human labor. As Deirdre McCloskey notes, by using robots today we humans do nothing that differs fundamentally from what we’ve done for millennia; conserving scarce labor by using robots is economically no different than conserving scarce labor by using the likes of levers, pulleys, ropes, and buckets. If the adoption of labor-saving tools 10,000 years ago, or 1,000 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 10 years ago caused no lasting unemployment, I see no reason to worry that such adoption today and tomorrow will do so.

Second, as George Selgin points out, labor-saving tools and techniques are not adopted until there’s an economic impetus for doing so. And the principal economic impetus for saving labor is a rise in the cost of labor. Because in markets a rise in the cost of labor – that is, a rise in real wage rates – is itself evidence of an expansion and improvement in labors’ opportunities relative to the supply of labor, the adoption of robots and other labor-saving techniques is a result of labors’ increasing scarcity rather than a cause of its superabundance.

Third, as I myself have somewhere observed, no robot is more human-like than an actual human. Therefore, each and every one-person increase in the labor force is akin to the introduction into the labor force of one robot brilliantly engineered to possess all the dexterity, flexibility, and intelligence of a human worker. And so because the huge increase in the human labor force over the past few centuries has caused no lasting unemployment, I’m confident that the ‘birth’ of human-like robots will have no such baneful consequence.
The bane of prediction is that we base prediction on what we already have observed.  The slide rule industry thought they had a nice, secure little market of new students going into college and some upgrades or replacements, until the electronic calculator came along.  They're both tools but the new one was dramatically better and replaced all previous tools.  The same has happened in other industries.  The wild card in this prediction is that the new AI might be so much more capable than humans that we're all obsoleted - if not hunted down by Skynet for termination.  Based on how well autonomous cars drive, I don't see that happening anytime soon. 

Thursday, December 26, 2019

The War on Men in One Chart

It's a cliche' of these times that men are privileged and don't have to do anything to make money and get more perks in society.   Men are inherently given more social, economic, and political advantages or rights based on their sex.  The myth that women with equal backgrounds earn “77% of what men earn” gets repeated all the time.  To quote from that 2015 piece:
Maybe it's only in companies that have some government contract hiring, but every Technology company I know wants the diversity points so badly they would hire a woman over a marginally more qualified man any day of the week.  I get both Electrical and Mechanical engineering news magazines and the annual salary surveys in both fields have said for years that when adjusted for age and experience, there is no wage gap between men and women.  In general, when pay rates are looked at in any field, this is the case. 
The public education establishment has been deferring to girls on virtually everything since the 90s or earlier and I can't recall how long ago it was that I first read a woman (columnist in the newspaper) talking about trying to keep her son from giving up on school because he could see boys never got called on. 

Mark Perry at the American Enterprise Institute put together some rather illustrative research in a piece based on the concept “For every 100 girls/women ...” it gives the numbers of boys/men equaling that 100.
The data in the table show that on many, many measures of: a) educational, behavioral and mental health outcomes, b) alcohol, drug addiction, and drug overdoses, c) suicide, murder, violent crimes, and incarceration, d) job fatalities and e) homelessness, boys and men are faring much worse than girls and women. And yet despite the fact that boys and men are at so much greater risk than girls and women on so many different measures, those significant gender disparities that disproportionately and adversely affect men get almost no attention.

For example, take the second line and read it as “For every 100 girls or women who earn an associates degree, there are 63 boys or men.”   The chart is rather stunning.  For every 100 women in graduate school in the US there are 73 men.  For every 100 girls who take Advanced Placement or Honors classes in natural sciences, there are 79 boys.  For every 100 homeless women there are 154 homeless men.

Look at the bottom; for every 100 women in adult correctional facility (prison) there are 1,000 men.  For every 100 women who die on the job, 1,294 men do - almost 13 times as many.

You don't have to look very long or hard to find backing for these things.  When you listen to NASA's public relations talk about the Artemis program and going back to the moon, they're rather up front about saying that the point of the first mission is to put the first woman on the moon.  NASA made a Big Deal out of the “first all-woman spacewalk” earlier this year.  In both cases: why?  I guess I never identified with the idea that if the person in any position of fame isn't just like me and my background (ethnic background, height, weight, sex or whatever) then the mission isn't valid or interesting.

Nobody should be excluded and nobody should be included because of those things.  What should matter is how well they can do the job.  Meritocracy, not identity.  I don't want my granddaughter being excluded because she's a girl any more than I want my grandson excluded because he's a boy.  Why is it that institutions can't try to include more girls without excluding more boys?  In my view, this anti-male activism that gets pushed on boys from the moment they enter grade school and persists throughout their early adulthood is what causes the bad social statistics in that table.  It leads to the formation of things like Men Going Their Own Way movement and essentially withdrawing from society. 

According to Perry, the data in the table show that based on a large number of measures, "boys and men are faring much worse than girls and women." Perry explains, "Despite the fact that boys and men are at so much greater risk than girls and women on so many different measures, those significant gender disparities that disproportionately and adversely affect men get almost no attention." He added, "It’s girls and women who get a disproportionate amount of attention, resources, and financial support." He cited some examples of the wide availability of women's centers and commissions on college campuses, and the lack of men's equivalents; the disproportionately high number of women-only scholarships, fellowships, awards and initiatives for female students and faculty; girls-only STEM programs and organizations, many of which, interestingly enough, are being challenged for violating Title IX.
Multiple single-sex, girl-only computer science and STEM organizations that exclude boys including Girls Who Code, Latina Girls Code, Black Girls Code, Techbridge Girls, and Project Scientist. Some of those programs are currently being legally challenged with complaints to the Office for Civil Rights when those programs are hosted on the campus of a university that receives federal financial assistance and is therefore required to enforce Title IX’s prohibition of sex discrimination.

There are Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE and similar names) departments or units at most major universities like the University of Michigan, Rochester Institute of Technology, Syracuse University. and Georgia Tech. There isn’t a single “Men in Science and Engineering” program in the country, and there are no “Men in Nursing” or “Men in Education” programs that address the under-representation of men in those academic fields.
Go read.

From 2015 - original source linked to this is gone. 

Monday, December 23, 2019

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah

Along with being the Eve of Christmas Eve, today is the second day of Hanukkah.  Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah or or whatever you choose to celebrate.  You can change the words, but you can't change my warmest wishes for everything good for you and those you cherish.

I always say that churches, like all groups, have personalities, and in the one I attend, it would be remarkable to toss a wadded up paper ball and not hit an engineer, nurse, doctor, or a tech professional.  It's not news to this bunch that Jesus was probably born in the spring or fall rather than in the dead of winter, nor is it news that the December 25th date probably comes from adapting to the Roman Saturnalia or other pagan holidays; nor would they be shocked if you told them Christmas has more secular than holy traditions associated with it and many things that are totally ingrained in the holiday traditions started out as advertising gimmicks.  There was no little drummer boy when the events we portray as the nativity happened; in fact, the scene we call the nativity is a conglomeration of bits and pieces mostly from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and certainly did not happen within the first couple of days of Jesus' life.  Nobody knows how many magi (“wise men”) came to visit the child; we say three because of the three gifts listed, but it could have been almost any number.  Furthermore, it wasn't at his birth with Jesus in a manger; it was when Jesus was old enough to be called a child.  The scene was at his parents' home and not at an inn. 

A friend sent me this contribution on the question of the exact date.
The truth is we simply don’t know the exact date of our Savior’s birth. In fact, we don’t even know for sure the year in which He was born. Scholars believe it was somewhere between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C. One thing is clear: if God felt it was important for us to know the exact date of the Savior’s birth, He certainly would have told us in His Word. The Gospel of Luke gives very specific details about the event, even down to what the baby was wearing – “swaddling clothes”—and where he slept—“in a manger” (Luke 2:12). These details are important because they speak of His nature and character, meek and lowly. But the exact date of His birth has no significance whatsoever, which may be why God chose not to mention it.
I've heard another explanation for why December 25th was chosen.  It's close to the solstice, the longest night of the year - which made it the darkest night of the year in those days. Jesus was the light of the world, and the symbolism of bringing light when things are at their darkest fits perfectly with the story.  If someone came out with a convincing line of evidence that Jesus really was born on December 25th, I'd be surprised... but not very.  We use a different calendar today than was used in those days, and I'm not sure today's December 25th is the same day as that era's December 25th.  To paraphrase that previous quote, not that it matters. 

While going through my mom's things after she passed away six years ago, we found this picture.  This is my brother (on the right) and me visiting Santa.  He looks a bit more skeptical than me, but he is my older brother.  While I'm not sure of the date, my guess is it would have been around 1960, plus or minus a year or two. 

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Christmas Music Post Expanded

Regulars here know that I'm somewhat of a blues fan.  I've introduced the outrageously talented Joanne Shaw Taylor, and the late country blues master (and songwriting partner to Eric Clapton) JJ Cale; more appropriate to the day, every year around this time, I comment on my favorite bluesy Christmas song, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”

The song dates from 1944, is credited to Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine for Judy Garland's 1944 movie, Meet Me in St. Louis, but it's generally acknowledged to be Hugh Martin's writing.  The somber tone is understandable; Christmas of 1944 was three years into World War II, and many people had undergone the hardship of long separations from or the loss of family members. The war was wearing on the national psyche; the death toll was the highest seen since the Civil War.  They were dark days.  It's interesting, then, that Martin has said he wasn’t consciously writing about wartime separations.

You'll note that at the end of the song, the line isn't “hang a shining star upon the highest bough”, it's the more subdued “until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow.” Much more fitting to a more somber song written during WWII. The change to “...highest bough” (which seems to be the last) was prompted by Frank Sinatra in 1957. According to Entertainment Weekly in 2007,
Then, in 1957, Frank Sinatra — who'd already cut a lovely version with the movie's bittersweet lyrics in 1947 — came to Martin with a request for yet another pick-me-up. “He called to ask if I would rewrite the 'muddle through somehow' line,” says the songwriter. “He said, 'The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?' ”
That request led to the line we hear most often, although Martin says he thinks the original line is more “down-to-earth.”  “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has become one of the most popular songs year after year.  EW says it's second only to the Nat King Cole-popularized “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).”  It has been covered by a gamut of artists from Sinatra to Connie Stephens, to James Taylor (who sings something closer to the '40s, Judy Garland version) to '80s metal band Twisted Sister, and many, many more.

I'm not so one-dimensional that this is the only song I can live with for the month, though.  When I play them myself, I tend to start by playing “O Holy Night” although I can't hope to get within a light year of this order of ability - or hit that vocal range under any circumstances.

Still, a fingerstyle guitar can approach the sound of the piano in the mix here.  I can't really link to a video that sounds like what I attempt to play because I sit with a piano song book and work from that sheet music. 

And there are more.  If asked to pick my one most favorite Christmas song, as if I could, I'd probably pick one of these two.   There are lots that are fun to listen to once or twice a year, even the cliche' “Jingle Bell Rock” is fun a few times. There are fewer that I could listen to lots throughout this month.

What are yours?

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Happy Winter Solstice

Today is the day of the Winter Solstice - which is the moment the sun stands still at the southernmost point on its north/south cycle.  To be more specific, the moment the sun stands still is 11:19 PM EST according to the website Time and Date (dot com!)  From this day on, every sunrise will be a little farther north and a little earlier until June's summer solstice (ignoring DST).

How about a couple of solstice fun facts?

The motion of the sun in the sky traces out a curve called an analemma, and this is usually printed on globes.   You can photograph one of these yourself if you care to dedicate a camera to doing nothing else for a year as photographer István Mátis did using the view from a window in his apartment in Romania.

The trick is to start about now when the sun is as low on the analemma as it will get.  That sets the lower right end of the analemma.  Set up a camera on a tripod pointing out a window with a good view of the southeast and use a normal focal length lens.  You take a photo at the same time every few days (or once a week) - it doesn't have to be sunrise - and you'll get something like this, if you're good ... or lucky.  Once a week is a good, round number and you pretty much can't make the weekly exposures too short.  You expose very short exposures so it just captures the sun and one day out of the year that you think looks pretty enough, take a longer exposure to capture the sky.  This is probably a good use for a film camera that can do multiple exposures and an old roll of film that will only get the one picture on it.  

Mátis writes,
The discs of the Sun are taken between 11/6/2012 and 1/19/2014 at 7:00 UT, which is 9 o'clock in the morning local time during winter and 10 o'clock during daylight saving time. The background is made on 1/14/2014 at 7:55 local time, from the original location of the analemma.
More details here.  My guess is that the gaps in the pattern were caused by cloudy days.

The other fun fact is that while this is the shortest day of the year, it is neither the earliest sunset or latest sunrise.  The earliest sunset is generally during the first week of December and the latest sunrise is in the first week of January.  The converse is true for the summer solstice in June.  The earliest sunrise is at the start of June and the latest sunset is in early July.  I've never checked those times extensively for other locations, so yours may vary. 

Friday, December 20, 2019

Boeing Starliner Test Flight Failing Main Objective

As we reported on back on December 2nd, Boeing was preparing for an unmanned, Orbital Flight Test of its Starfire crew capsule this month.  The launch was before sunrise this morning, at 6:36 AM EST, so I got up at 6:15 to watch.  It wasn't until around 20 minutes into the mission that the problem surfaced.  At this time, it appears the main objective of the mission, to launch a man-rated capsule to ISS for autonomous rendezvous and docking is a failure.  Summary reporting from Ars Technica:
During a post-launch news conference, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine explained that the mission elapsed timing system had an error in it, with the net effect that the spacecraft thought it was performing an orbital insertion burn, when in fact it was not. The on-board computer then expended a significant amount of propellant to maintain a precise attitude, thinking it had reached orbit.

"Today, a lot of things went right," Bridenstine said. "But we did not get the orbital insertion burn we were hoping for."

When ground-based controllers realized the problem, they immediately sent a command to begin the orbital insertion burn, but due to a communications problem—which could have been a gap in coverage of NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System or some spacecraft error—those commands were not received right away by Starliner. So it continued to expend fuel to maintain a precise attitude.

By the time the commands got through, Starliner had expended too much fuel to make a safe rendezvous and docking with the International Space Station, the primary goal of this test flight.
This sounds like a silly mistake in software (and I realize it's always easier to see them in retrospect): the vehicle decided it was firing the orbital insertion burn based on one thing: the mission timer.  They could have used other sensors to cross check the mission timer's accuracy rather than just assume the timer is correct.  Starliner is safe and in a stable orbit, so some of the tests planned for the mission can be conducted, up to and including landing under parachutes in New Mexico on Sunday.  It seems that is likely to be an obstacle to Boeing getting this capsule approved for a manned flight to the ISS.
The spacecraft has operated nominally in a number of different ways so far, with good power systems, cooling, and more. However, the inability to perform a docking at the station raised the question of whether Boeing will need to perform a second uncrewed test flight before NASA allows its astronauts to fly on Starliner,.

“I think it’s too early to know," Bridenstine responded during the news conference. "We don’t know what the root cause is. I’m not saying yes and I’m not saying no."

NASA does not have a specific requirement that Starliner must demonstrate a rendezvous-and-docking before it clears Starliner for human flights, but certainly the agency's engineers would feel more comfortable with that task having been performed.

In any case, the primary issue appears to be one of software rather than hardware. Boeing may be able to convince NASA that had humans been on board the vehicle, they would have immediately recognized the problem and manually commanded the orbital insertion burn.

Whether there is an additional test flight or not, this problem almost certainly delays Boeing's crewed flight of Starliner beyond the first half of 2020. This would, for the time being at least, put SpaceX back into the lead for getting humans back into space from a US-based launch pad. A source said Friday that the company appears to be on track toward a springtime launch of astronauts on board the Crew Dragon vehicle.
Interestingly, from before this morning's launch, again sourcing Ars Technica:
After funding several development efforts in the early 2010s, NASA down-selected to Boeing and SpaceX in 2014 to finalize design and development of their commercial crew vehicles. All told, the agency has paid Boeing $4.8 billion and SpaceX $3.1 billion for Starliner and the Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively.
I read within the last couple of days that SpaceX is planning their next major test of their Crew Dragon craft, the in-flight abort test, “no earlier than” January 11th.  SpaceX flew their equivalent of today's Boeing mission last March.

This morning's Boeing Starliner Atlas 5 mission, Trevor Mahlmann photo.  This appears to be across the Indian River lagoon, so probably from Titusville, looking southeast toward Cape Canaveral.

Before The Use By Date Goes By

From the incredible Michael P. Ramirez.

Since I ran the story about the Peloton ad, compare congressman Nadler to Peloton mom in that post.  This will burn out your eyes. 

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Are Solar Cars At the Tipping Point of Mass Adoption?

That's the view of Raghu Das, CEO of market research firm IDTechEx, who has been studying electric vehicles.  The reason is that for some percentage of drivers, their EV may be able to recharge without plugging into the grid.  This was an article originally published in eeNews Automotive  and reprinted in Electronic Design.
Startups Sono Motors and Lightyear announced solar family cars available as of next year. They have solar bodies rather than the useless scrap of solar roof seen on other cars.
Take the Lightyear One.  The entire body will have integrated solar cells, not just a panel on the roof.  Because of this, they claim “In extreme conditions (in winter, at highway speeds and with heating on) we guarantee at least 400 km (248 mi).”  In optimum conditions, they claim a range of at least 725 km.  The article contradicts this a little, saying it can go 740 km:
They do not have the acceleration of a Tesla, but Lightyear cheekily points out that its Lightyear One will go 740 km faster than any Tesla because the Tesla would have to stop and plug in. 
Lightyear One

When I see a claim like this, I automatically do the mental calculation.  The maximum solar energy available to charge a car is about 300 Watts per square yard, when you consider the efficiency of solar cells.  That would require a flat panel positioned optimally; that is, always tracking and perpendicular to the sun's rays.  For a rounded, streamlined surface like this car's, the amount it can recover won't be that large.  According to IDTechEx, they expect cars to get about 1 kW.  That seems reasonable.  They go on to say:
“We are clearly at the tipping point for adoption of solar on land, water and air vehicles, particularly on pure electric ones where range sells. There are now camper vans, delivery trucks, robot shuttles, buses, boats and even aircraft getting at least 10% and often all of their electricity from daylight. Many find it useful even on the sides of their vehicles. Any designer of any electric vehicle must now seriously consider solar bodywork. It is a new key enabling technology”, says Das.
They're considering a typical commuter car that might do 30 miles in a day (reported to be the American average).  The car might be capable of two hundred miles (or more) in a day, and 10% of that would be 20 miles.  Cars like that might well be at the tipping point of getting enough energy to run for a day by sitting and charging in a parking lot all day while the owner is at work. They're still not a car to take on a road trip, or to spend all weekend driving while going shopping, or other things people typically consider when they buy a car. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

An Unrelated Twofer

Two stories that are there just because they both came up on this busy day.  In a way, they're both because of the elephant in the room, the impeachment boondoggle.

I find this story reminiscent of what I posted eight days ago about the FISA courts.  My argument is the FISA court should publicly slap the FBI around for lying to it.  If you watch any network except Fox last night, you wouldn't know the court did just that.
A complete and total blackout. That was how ABC, CBS, and NBC reacted on their Tuesday evening newscasts when the top Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge, Rosemary M. Collyer blasted the FBI for misleading the court when seeking surveillance warrants for a former Trump campaign staffer. The order was damning, accusing an FBI lawyer of a criminal act in intentionally lying to the court. It added that the court’s confidence in the FBI’s evidence was so shaken they needed extra oversight for all cases.
It's not as much face-slapping as what I proposed they should tell the Fibbies, but the spirit is there.  Judge Collyer said,
The frequency with which representations made by FBI personnel turned out to be unsupported or contradicted by information in their possession, and with which they withheld information detrimental to their case, calls into question whether information contained in other FBI applications is reliable.
In the wild, topsy-turvy world of the Intertoobs, there is a small but nonzero chance Judge Collyer could actually stumble across this post, so let me say one little thing: it's about damned time.  We were all thinking you're as corrupt as the FBI since you didn't publicly slap them down.  This restores your honor.

‘Ghost Guns’ Rules included in the NDAA Defense Spending Package

One of the other things going on that's hiding in the press bubble around the impeachment is that Congress is submitting another budget bill doing their usual end run around actually legislating.  Their $1.4 Trillion dollar spending package is the kind of excess and out of control spending that Trump said he was tricked into signing “last time” and swore he wouldn't do it again.  Clearly congress is hoping the president is so weakened by the impeachment that they can do anything they want.

It's the usual turd package.  The funding bills dismantle three Affordable Care Act taxes: the “Cadillac tax” for good medical plans, the medical device excise tax and a health insurance tax.  All well and good, but they don't kill off the ACA - they kill funding but keep the expenses.  They raise the age of tobacco purchases from 18 to 21, secure coal miner pensions, and extend the Export-Import Bank of the United States for seven years.  There's $25 Million for gun violence studies, a 3.1% pay raise for military and civilian government employees, $1.5 Billion for the overdosing junkies opioid crisis.

Part of the spending is $738 Billion for defense, and the National Defense Authorization Act.  That's where GAT Daily reports anti-“Ghost Gun” language put into the NDAA by New York Congresscritter Max Rose.
Rose originally introduced his portion of the legislation in May to combat the increasing prevalence of ghost guns, which are assembled from individual parts that don’t meet the technical definition of a firearm under the 1968 Gun Control Act. His bill would require DHS to examine the potential for ghost guns to be used by terrorists and debrief local law enforcement agencies on its findings.
By conflating DIY guns with terrorism and obfuscating as much as possible, Rose slips the metaphorical noose around gun parts sales.  To see if he can come back some other time and tighten the noose.  Spending money to get the DHS to do this study would be such a flaming waste. The obvious first criticism is how does he know there actually is an “increasing prevalence of ghost guns?”

Interestingly, this week Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro offered the opinion that (my words) there's no difference between an unassembled and an assembled firearm so 80% firearms should be prohibited. 
Shapiro relies on two arguments to arrive at this absurd result. One, that unfinished receivers are “designed” to expel a projectile by action of an explosive. It doesn’t take a law degree to figure out how backward this thinking is. Partially-manufactured lowers are explicitly designed so that they are unable to expel a projectile by action of an explosive without further work. In other words, by their very nature, they are not firearms.

Two, Shapiro claims that these receivers “may be readily converted (to expel a projectile)” which he argues is analogous to the “may readily be restored” language of the federal National Firearms Act.
He's saying there's nothing inherently different between an incomplete lower and a complete one.  One has had a few more steps of machining done than the other, that's all.  It's just machine time or machinist work.  This argument could easily be stretched to blocks of aluminum.  After all, they require more machining steps than an 80% firearm, but it's just more machining.  And if there's no difference between an unassembled anything and an assembled one, is a collection of metal tubes a bicycle frame?  Is a pallet full of bricks a house?  Is a hickory tree a collection of baseball bats?  They all “may be readily converted” to the final product for some definition of readily converted.

Getting back to the spending bill in the overall sense, I think it would a Good Thing to remind the president that he said he'd never sign another turd spending bill like this.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

“A Cheer for the Trump Uranium Plan”

So says economist Stephen Moore at Townhall.  Me, I didn't even know there was a Trump Uranium Plan.  The article opens with Moore pointing out:
Our sources are telling us that President Trump is nearing a decision on how to revive the all-but-dormant American uranium industry. This proposed plan would create a reserve of domestically mined uranium stored in a "Federal Uranium Security Stockpile."
Moore goes on to point out many things I didn't know at all, or didn't know the extent of.
  • The U.S. reactor fleet purchased about 40 million pounds of uranium last year.
  • America's nuclear power industry now gets 90% of its uranium through imports from nations like Canada, Australia, Russia and Kazakhstan.
  • One reason for purchasing so much Uranium from overseas is that American production of uranium has fallen steadily over the last 30 years.
The Trump administration's assessment is that the risk of any shortage of uranium and the attendant disruption to security and nuclear power production would be far higher to the American economy than the cost of building a domestic reserve -- which is estimated at $1 billion to $1.5 billion over the next decade.
The one aspect of this that I was familiar with was the general attacks on mining in the US, led mostly by the EPA and the non-governmental agencies that sue the EPA and get rulings in court to shut down mining.  There are reserves of uranium in the US and there are reserves of the so-called “rare earth metals” that we keep hearing the US has to go to China for. Those metals used to be routinely mined in California
The problem is not that America is running out of mineral resources or that American miners can't compete. Ned Mamula, a former natural resource expert with the Department of the Interior, reports in his latest book, "Groundbreaking!" that the United States sits atop some $5 trillion of mineral resources -- most of it on federal lands. High-grade uranium can be mined in states such as Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas.  The decline is a result of a war against mining waged by liberal environmental groups that have selectively hampered or even shut down production of everything from coal to copper to rare Earth minerals and now to uranium. 
The contempt that the left has for nuclear power would frankly be puzzling to me, if they were honest.  They scream for decades that we have a few years before we release too much CO2 to prevent a climate catastrophe, but don't want the best carbon-free energy production there is.  As I say, if they were honest, they'd want more nuclear power.

That said, I like how Stephen Moore ends his article well enough to let him end mine:
One last point. While this national security stockpile may be necessary to get American uranium production back up and running, Trump should make it very clear that this is a one-time commitment, not a lifelong subsidy to the industry. We have seen from decades of subsidies to industries like solar, wind and biofuels that government handouts become de facto entitlements and impair an industry's road to free market profitability.

A 1950s Union Carbide ad showing the yellowish uranium ore commonly found in the southwest US.  Source of link

Monday, December 16, 2019

Time Magazine is Wrong But Not Completely Useless

In the December 2-9, 2019 issue of Time magazine, author Anand Giridharadas had the cover article, “How the Elites Lost Their Grip,” a (probably) self-supporting article on America's slide toward to socialism.  President Emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) Lawrence Reed responded to it with a detailed takedown, which includes some useful information.

Giridharadas starts by citing the well-worn analogy of the Overton window, saying the window in the US has shifted toward socialism.  The irony is that Reed says Joseph P. Overton, the inventor of the concept, “was my best friend and a senior colleague at the Michigan organization I headed for nearly 21 years (1987-2008), the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.”  From there he goes into pointing out some of the problems with the Time article.
While I appreciate the personal citations of both Joe Overton and me in Mr. Giridharadas’s article, I’m compelled to point out a few of its questionable assumptions. In doing so, I feel like the proverbial mosquito in a nudist camp: I know what I want to do, but it’s hard to decide where to begin.
For example Giridharadas cites polls that suggest capitalist uber-critics Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are “top contenders” are proof that the support for socialism is growing.  If you're following the race, you know that's wrong.  Warren was very popular until she started to put a price tag onto her plans, now she's dropping in the polls.  Joe Biden is in the lead, while Sanders, Warren and Booty-judge jostle for second though fourth.  The exact stack up of candidates depends on which poll you read.
Mr. Giridharadas points to the rise in membership of the Democratic Socialists of America—from 5,000 members in 2016 to at least 50,000 today. But that’s still half the membership (113,000) the Socialist Party claimed at its all-time high, which was in 1912. The Libertarian Party’s membership today is 10 times larger.

Among young people, the story that Mr. Giridharadas completely misses is the explosion of membership and activity among groups friendly to liberty, private enterprise, and free markets—organizations like Young Americans for Liberty, Students for Liberty, Young Americans for Freedom, Young Americans Against Socialism, Turning Point USA, and the one where I serve as president emeritus, the Foundation for Economic Education. If Facebook following is any sign of relative popularity, it’s notable that the Democratic Socialists’ presence on that social media platform is a tiny fraction of that for those pro-capitalist youth organizations.
Something Time never acknowledges is that Americans don't trust government.  The Pew Research Center reports trust in government is near its all time lows:
Only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%).  Mr. Giridharadas would do the American public a real service if he pointed out that this is the same government on which socialists want to bestow more power and money.
Reed points out that the biggest mistake Mr. Giridharadas makes is the usual socialist mantra about “capitalism is driven by evil greed.” These are the people that think anyone who has more (money/status/whatever) than you got it by stealing it from you. 
Implicit throughout is his belief that capitalism is nothing more than cronyism, whereby the rich use political connections to line their pockets.

Mr. Giridharadas ignores the fact that those of us he would surely label as pro-capitalist are just as much against cronyism and corruption as anybody, and likely more so than any socialists are. We understand that the answer to cronyism and corruption is not to give government even more power and money. We support not some corrupted, capitalist straw man but genuinely free markets, limited government, private property, and the rule of law. When will mainstream media learn this distinction?

Moreover, to those of us who appreciate this distinction, the pursuit of money is not the principal objective in life. Critics of capitalism suggest endlessly that it is, but that’s infantile. The case for capitalism rests on something far more important than material wealth.
What he doesn't say is captured in this quote from economist Walter E. Williams that I've posted before.  Rather than the pursuit of money, the pursuit of helping other people will help yourself. 

The case for free markets is the case for freedom itself. 
One cannot be fully himself—or even fully human—if he must live his life and conduct his affairs according to the dictates of those with political power.  It speaks volumes that capitalism is what happens when peaceful people are left alone; socialism, on the other hand, is a Rube Goldberg contrivance with a lousy track record fueled by envy and class warfare.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Streaming Wars Intensify

Just about two years ago (it was March 3 of '18), I started the story of Mrs. Graybeard and I cutting the cord; the term for dropping cable TV.  In brief, while we put up an outside antenna (we're in the fringes for over the air TV), we went with a streaming service.  These are done entirely over an internet connection, so we kept our cable internet hookup but dropped cable TV.  There were two main reasons for going to a streaming service; the big one was that the channels we absolutely wanted to see aren't available over the air.  The second reason was that the services we looked at (and signed on with) offer a virtual Digital Video Recorder so we didn't need to buy one.

Streaming services are sort of midway between cable TV and 100% streaming.  100% streaming would be getting every channel you want on its own.  We initially subscribed to YouTubeTV, a streaming service from YouTube/Google/Alphabet as the name implies.  They had the channels we wanted to see and offered an “infinite DVR” - there are only time limits (in months) to watch something after you record it; other services limit you to a certain amount of memory.  In the bottom line view, though, we still don't watch 75 to 85% of the channels that are offered, just as with cable we didn't watch 95% of what was offered.  It's just that we pay $55/month now versus $130 back when we paid for cable TV.  (I took out the price we pay now for our internet connection from the old cable bills)

FEE - the Foundation for Economic Education - has posted some updated statistics on all this that are quite interesting for you numbers geeks in the audience.

One of those “everybody knows” statistics is that Cable TV is dying.
Of course, the big thing that everyone is talking about now is Disney+.  With their very deep content library, including the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic universes, they're a monster-big draw.  It's being reported that ten million people signed up for Disney+ the day it launched.  That will not go without competition in 21st century America!  Apple is preparing to unleash its own streaming service. Meanwhile, AT&T’s WarnerMedia has its own super package in beta: HBO Max, which reportedly will feature a Friends reunion.  These media companies are spending billions on content, from Disney's Mandalorian to HBO's Watchmen to Apple's upcoming project on singer Billie Eilish. Netflix isn't sitting by idly, they're working on more new content, too.  All of this is great for consumers. 
  • In 2018, Americans streamed eight billion hours of content per month. That’s equivalent to nearly a million years (912,635 to be precise).
  • Surveys show that 148 million Americans say they watch Netflix “at least once per month.” That’s followed by Amazon Prime (88.7 million).
  • Apple, which doesn’t even have a streaming service yet, reportedly has already spent $6 billion on original content.
  • Disney+ and Netflix offer streaming services for roughly 50 cents per day ($16 per month).
  • HBO Max will charge even less for its streaming service—$15 per month—reports say.
  • When HBO was launched in the 1970s, its service typically cost $6 a month ($37 in 2018 dollars).
  • In 1995, cable cost $22 a month ($38 in 2018 dollars), on average. By 2015, cable providers were charging $69.03, on average.  That's almost 3x the official inflation rate.  On average, cable prices went up 5.8% yearly for the past 20 years. Inflation clocked in at 2.2% per year, on average.  Which means cable has gone up at about half the actual inflation rate.
  • Surveys show that nearly 60 percent of Americans are cord-cutters (people who once had cable but chose to cancel).  
Just as a side note, we've never subscribed to Netflix and haven't subscribed to Disney+ or any of these other services.  Since I do have an Amazon Prime account we get their streaming service.  We've mostly watched movies that aren't on the other services and a couple of documentaries. 

This article is all aimed at the entertainment market - the segments called direct to Cable or DVD and the first run of movies on streaming after a successful run in the theaters - but there's more to it.  The news services are running to streaming - Fox News started a few months ago, CBS and ABC News are there, and more.  I know Fox is a monthly bill, while the others appear to follow their broadcast model of having commercials support the service.  CBS has a streaming version of their network TV, where they have some shows that only appear online, Star Trek Discovery and soon, the new Star Trek Picard.  That's a monthly bill.  How many monthly bills do you want? In this last case, it's almost one bill per series I'd watch.

The point is that this rush for everyone to put their entertainment on their own streaming service brings to mind the old anti-cable TV ads from the late 60s, when the movie theaters were afraid of services like HBO, and were saying the cable company wants to put a coin deposit box on your TV.  Streaming services like Hulu or Sling or YouTubeTV follow the old cable model of putting a lot of channels in a package but having one or two in any group that you'd pay for.  How many news channels can there be when CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, Cheddar, Young Turks and so many more are all saying virtually the same things?  If you pay for one TDS news channel, are you going to pay for all the others?  I'd be perfectly happy with a smaller selection of channels at $2 to $5 each. 

HBO or Disney+? ... Daenerys from Game of Thrones or the Mandalorian.  Choose one? 

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Lightning: Gamma Rays, an EMP, and UV Halo; All in < 1 Second

That's the subtitle to an Ars Technica piece on lightning science as measured by the International Space Station.  The new work is made possible by a piece of hardware called the Atmosphere–Space Interactions Monitor (ASIM), an instrument built by the European Space Agency that's attached to its lab module on the ISS. It's an impressive piece of hardware, tying together two X-ray/gamma-ray detectors, three UV detectors, two optical-wavelength light meters, and two high-speed cameras.  All of the instruments have to be synchronized to the same timing so that the sequence is the same between them.

The details of a lightning strike are simply amazing.  Until recently, no one could capture data fast enough to conclusively demonstrate the amazing physics going on in a lightning strike.  I'll cut to the most interesting few parts and put them here; as always, I recommend you Read The Whole Thing.
A paper released by Science today describes ASIM's imaging of a single lightning bolt, which took place in 2018 off the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Optical activity heralded the formation of the lightning bolt and started to intensify about 200 microseconds before the gamma rays began registering in the detectors. The gamma rays were primarily in the form of a transient flash lasting about 40 microseconds, but there was a "long" tail of emissions that extended out to 200 microseconds as their energy gradually declined.

UV light started arriving right at the same time that the gamma-ray burst hit. The initial UV light was produced by ionized oxygen as the lightning bolt moved through the atmosphere. But the UV shifted to what's called an "elve," which is a different phenomenon entirely. In the case of elves, the light is the result of an electromagnetic pulse produced by the lightning bolt itself. This travels into the ionosphere, a sparse layer of ionized gases that starts about 100km above Earth and extends up to roughly where the ISS orbits. Because the pulse takes time to reach the ionosphere, there's a delay between the lightning and the appearance of the elve.

In this case, that delay was about 10 milliseconds, but the elve persisted for a while. That's because the pulse spreads like a balloon being inflated, tracing out an expanding sphere above the Earth. Different areas of the ionosphere get excited as the sphere makes its way through, ultimately causing UV emissions to extend over a radius of up to 800 kilometers.

All of this took place in under 300 milliseconds.
It was only six years ago that a form of energy called Dark Lightning was first documented showing gamma rays, the highest energy radiation in the electromagnetic spectrum, can be created in lightning strikes.  If that's not energetic enough for you, they also found lightning caused the production of antimatter.  That was previously only been shown on Earth with particle accelerators.

These details don't surprise me.  I've talked extensively about my lightning strike last August; about the things damaged and then the latent damage that seemed to lead to failures around the house, up to replacing our water heater in early November and then replacing Mrs. Graybeard's computer around Thanksgiving.  One thing I mentioned was having battery operated, “atomic clocks” (clocks which sync via a receiver tuned to WWVB) that reset to 00:00 on January 1.  That seemed more like an EMP stuff rather than induced RF fields; WWVB is on 60 kHz - the frequency components of lightning are higher than that so there should be low energy at 60 kHz.  The frequency components from lightning spread from several times 60 kHz up into the low VHF range.

One of the things I posted was that while preparing for Hurricane Dorian, I noticed the telltale signs of lightning damage to a palm tree about 25 feet from my radio tower and around 10' taller than the tower.  I concluded by saying:
I'll know within the next couple of months if the palm will survive the strike or if it's already dead and just doesn't know it.
It became evident that the tree was dead by the beginning of November.  Palms grow from a point at the top of the visible trunk, hidden in all the vegetation growing up there.  By the start of November,  all the fronds were hanging down, brown and dead.  The peak of the tree broke off and fell to the lawn.   Here's a closeup of the top of that palm from September 3rd (probable lightning burn highlighted):

Here's a different view of the trees a few minutes ago:

The palm on the left was hit - you can see just up from the bottom of the frame that the bark has been falling off the tree revealing the darker trunk under the outer surface and the top is gone.  It looks nothing like the other tree.

Kind of uncharacteristically, I called a tree service to see what they'd charge to take it down and haul it away.  The guy took one look at the tree and said that the second tree is dying and he'll just have to come out in a few months for it.  The trees have a fungus called (and I swear I'm not making this up) Butt Rot, or ganoderma.  Since their trunks have been almost touching for 30+ years, you can be sure they have one massive root ball and any fungus on one is getting into the other.  There's an obvious growth at the bottom of the one on the left that looks like a large mushroom that's part of the disease, but I didn't poke at it or try to break it off .  There's a black area on the trunk of the one that's still alive that's an early sign of it.

These two things merged into one story in my mind.  For years, I've been saying that if you're not even a little bit afraid of lightning, you just don't understand the problem.  I thought I understood the problem, but I've learned enough from our strike to start wondering if I'm afraid enough.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Keeping an Eye On the Quiet Sun

An interesting post on Watts Up With That (WUWT) yesterday pointed out that we're about to cross a historic milestone:  2019 will be the year with the most zero-sunspot-days in the satellite era.  As of yesterday (12/12), when this was posted:
So far this year the sun has been blank (i.e., no visible sunspots) for 266 days and, barring any major surprises, it’ll reach 269 days early next week which will be the quietest year in terms of sunspots since 1913 when the sun was spotless for 311 days. In fact, the current stretch of consecutive spotless days has reached 29 and for the year the sun has been blank 77% of the time. The current record-holder in the satellite era for spotless days in a given year is 2008 when the sun was blank for 268 days making the 2008-2009 solar minimum the deepest since 1913. 
We've talked about this being the weakest sunspot cycle in over a hundred years, and how this is a mechanism for the way solar activity can impact climate.  The mechanism is counterintuitive to many people, but was first proposed by Henrik Svensmark of the Danish National Space Institute in Copenhagen.  The Earth is constantly bombarded by galactic cosmic rays; high energy radiation from sources elsewhere in the galaxy and even beyond.  The solar wind, the constant push of charged particles ejected by reactions in the sun, ordinarily keeps some of those particles from reaching the earth.  During solar minima, the solar wind weakens and more charged particles make it into the atmosphere.  There, just like in the old cloud chambers used to detect particles coming out of particle accelerators, those cosmic rays increase cloud formation acting to cool the Earth.

Svensmark's hypothesis was first demonstrated in the laboratory, but measurements of cosmic rays have been going on for much of the space age.  Cosmic rays have been increasing for the last four years, coinciding with cycle 24's extended solar minimum that we're in, exactly as Svensmark's hypothesis predicts.  This plot shows measured cosmic ray flux from cosmic ray monitoring balloons over California and neutrons penetrating the atmosphere to ground level in Oulu, Finland.  The balloon data includes measurement error bars on every data point.

Both ground level and high altitude cosmic ray measurements are up since March of '15. 

If you want to keep your metaphorical eye on the sun Sunday to see if we've surpassed the record, current sunspot numbers can be looked up in a variety of places.  Spaceweather has them (and says today the spotless day count is 267).   I use ham radio sites like QRZ.  Since 267 isn't the number of consecutive days without a sunspot, it's virtually certain that we'll pass the 269 before the end of the year, even if it's not on Sunday.  Today is only the 30th consecutive day without sunspots.

By the way, it's pretty common for people to say that with the solar activity the lowest in over a hundred years, that we could be headed for an ice age.  It's not that simple or straightforward.  Going back to a quote from WUWT
[T]he year 1913 cited earlier for its lack of sunspots on the order of 311 days was a year filled with wild weather extremes including the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth in Death Valley, CA. For more on the extreme weather of 1913 click here.
Are we headed for another Maunder minimum?  Nothing in this article changes any of those predictions.  The various predictors don't say that - they lean toward another weak cycle like this one, lasting until about 2030, and then a little higher after that.  One predictor, Dr. Valentina Zharkova, is predicting the low lasts another cycle, possibly two, beyond 2030; that would mean these low solar activity levels until 2052.  For my fellow hams, I'd say to work on your lower frequency systems, say 160 to 20m. 

UPDATE: Dec 16 1630 EST:  The record was broken Sunday.  From Spaceweather.com
SUNSPOTS BREAK A SPACE AGE RECORD: Solar Minimum is becoming very deep indeed. Over the weekend, the sun set a Space Age record for spotlessness. So far in 2019, the sun has been without sunspots for more than 270 days, including the last 33 days in a row. Since the Space Age began, no other year has had this many blank suns.
Since the all-time record for spotlessness is 311 days, and there aren't 41 days left in 2019, we won't break it this year.  Deep, long lasting solar minima are a characteristic of weak cycles; as the 2008-'09 minima demonstrated, so it's a possibility that 311 will fall as the record next year.