SpaceX Starship Update

In the early morning of September 29th, 2019 UTC (evening of September 28th local time in Texas, the 11th anniversary of SpaceX’s first orbital launch for a Falcon 1), SpaceX founder and Chief Engineer Elon Musk presented a perspective on the history of SpaceX and its plans for the Starship and Super Heavy reusable heavy lift launcher.

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See Spot Run

Boston Dynamics have announced that their autonomous mobile robot, Spot, is now kind-of available as a kind-of product.  I say “kind-of” because they haven’t yet quoted a price (according to an article in IEEE Spectrum, it’s expected to be in the range of a luxury car), and sales of the limited production will be in an “early adopter program” targeting customers in industries developing applications for such technology.... [Read More]

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Book Review: Coolidge

“Coolidge” by Amity ShlaesJohn Calvin Coolidge, Jr. was born in 1872 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. His family were among the branch of the Coolidge clan who stayed in Vermont while others left its steep, rocky, and often bleak land for opportunity in the Wild West of Ohio and beyond when the Erie canal opened up these new territories to settlement. His father and namesake made his living by cutting wood, tapping trees for sugar, and small-scale farming on his modest plot of land. He diversified his income by operating a general store in town and selling insurance. There was a long tradition of public service in the family. Young Coolidge’s great-grandfather was an officer in the American Revolution and his grandfather was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. His father was justice of the peace and tax collector in Plymouth Notch, and would later serve in the Vermont House of Representatives and Senate.

Although many in the cities would consider their rural life far from the nearest railroad terminal hard-scrabble, the family was sufficiently prosperous to pay for young Calvin (the name he went by from boyhood) to attend private schools, boarding with families in the towns where they were located and infrequently returning home. He followed a general college preparatory curriculum and, after failing the entrance examination the first time, was admitted on his second attempt to Amherst College as a freshman in 1891. A loner, and already with a reputation for being taciturn, he joined none of the fraternities to which his classmates belonged, nor did he participate in the athletics which were a part of college life. He quickly perceived that Amherst had a class system, where the scions of old money families from Boston who had supported the college were elevated above nobodies from the boonies like himself. He concentrated on his studies, mastering Greek and Latin, and immersing himself in the works of the great orators of those cultures.... [Read More]

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Raspberry Pi 4 Now Available

Raspberry Pi 4A little bit of the Roaring Twenties has just fallen into 2019.  Raspberry Pi 4 has just been announced and is now shipping.  As soon as the distribution pipeline is filled, you’ll be able to buy one (or fifty, or ten thousand) from your favourite distributor.  This is the fourth generation of Raspberry Pi since the introduction of the series in 2012.

Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer, around the size of a credit card, based upon the ARM family of low-power microprocessors.  Unlike the Arduino family of microcontrollers, which are primarily used as embedded processors and programmed on other platforms, the Raspberry Pi is a general-purpose computing platform which, with an attached keyboard, mouse, monitor(s), and network connection, can be used to develop software using the tools with which programmers are familiar on desktop platforms, usually based upon the Linux operating system, for which a Raspberry Pi distribution called Raspbian is the most popular.... [Read More]

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Jeff Bezos Gets It

Space colony: O'Neill CylinderEver since I read Gerard K. O’Neill’s The High Frontier (link is to my review when I re-read the book in 2013) in the 1970s, it has been obvious to me that the medium-term human destiny is to expand from using resources on the surface of Earth to exploit the abundant resources of the solar system, where more than 99% of the matter and energy are available for the taking and the constraints of a closed ecosystem do not exist.  There were technological barriers to overcome in order to get from here to there, but none of them required technologies we didn’t already understand or investments greater than were regularly squandered on futile wars or counterproductive social programmes.

I thought, “All it would take is a wealthy individual who gets it and is willing to stake their personal fortune on a human destiny which is optimistic and open-ended, as opposed to the claustrophobic vision of the slavers who see future generations confined on one planet, increasingly under the control of masters who worship at the altar of ‘sustainability’ ”.  The amount of money required to bootstrap this future would be in the round-off of the government budget of a medium-sized industrialised country, but you don’t get vision from coercive government—just control and keeping everybody in their place.... [Read More]

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Robot Ostriches in the Warehouse

Boston Dynamics have just released a video of their Handle robot performing a package picking and pallet stacking task in a warehouse.  The packages in the video weigh around 5 kg, but the company says the robot can handle items as heavy as 15 kg.  It uses on-board vision to identify packages and force feedback to pack them tightly together on the pallet.  It can handle pallets as large as 1.2 metres on an edge stacked 1.7 metres tall.... [Read More]

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Experiment: Second Life Artificial Meet-Up (SLAMU)

Second Life Artificial Meet-UpShortly after the Ratburger.org site was created on 2017-12-09, we signed up for and implemented a text chat system called CometChat on 2017-12-12.  This was nothing but bother, with update after update failing to install and the last straw being when, at the end of the first year’s trial period, they wanted us to pay US$ 50/month for a shoddy service which we’d never actually used.  I deleted the hunk of junk on 2018-09-30.

Still, it would be nice to be able to host real-time events, perhaps with more interaction than is possible on our existing Audio Meet-Ups.  For this, I have been exploring using a platform many consider passé, but technologically perfectly positioned to burgeon in the Roaring Twenties, Second Life.... [Read More]

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TOTD 2018-03-30: The Moon, Up Close and Personal

Since 1994, Fourmilab’s Earth and Moon Viewer has provided custom views of the Earth and Moon from a variety of viewpoints, using imagery databases which have evolved over the years from primitive images to gigabyte-scale mosaics collected by spacecraft.  Views were originally restricted to the Earth, but fifteen years ago, in April 2003, the ability to view the Moon was added, using the global imagery collected by the Clementine orbiter.  These data were wonderful for the time, providing full-globe topography and albedo databases with a resolution of 1440×720 pixels.  This allowed viewing the Moon as a whole or modest zooms into localities, but when you zoomed in close the results were…disappointing.  Here is the crater Copernicus viewed from an altitude of 10 km using the Clementine data.

Moon, Copernicus crater, 10 km altitude, Clementine data... [Read More]

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Saturday Night Science: Life 3.0

“Life 3.0” by Max TegmarkThe Earth formed from the protoplanetary disc surrounding the young Sun around 4.6 billion years ago. Around one hundred million years later, the nascent planet, beginning to solidify, was clobbered by a giant impactor which ejected the mass that made the Moon. This impact completely re-liquefied the Earth and Moon. Around 4.4 billion years ago, liquid water appeared on the Earth’s surface (evidence for this comes from Hadean zircons which date from this era). And, some time thereafter, just about as soon as the Earth became environmentally hospitable to life (lack of disruption due to bombardment by comets and asteroids, and a temperature range in which the chemical reactions of life can proceed), life appeared. In speaking of the origin of life, the evidence is subtle and it’s hard to be precise. There is completely unambiguous evidence of life on Earth 3.8 billion years ago, and more subtle clues that life may have existed as early as 4.28 billion years before the present. In any case, the Earth has been home to life for most of its existence as a planet.

This was what the author calls “Life 1.0”. Initially composed of single-celled organisms (which, nonetheless, dwarf in complexity of internal structure and chemistry anything produced by other natural processes or human technology to this day), life slowly diversified and organised into colonies of identical cells, evidence for which can be seen in rocks today.... [Read More]

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Book Review: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

“Last Call” by Daniel OkrentThe ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” marked the transition of the U.S. Federal government into a nanny state, which occupied itself with the individual behaviour of its citizens. Now, certainly, attempts to legislate morality and regulate individual behaviour were commonplace in North America long before the United States came into being, but these were enacted at the state, county, or municipality level. When the U.S. Constitution was ratified, it exclusively constrained the actions of government, not of individual citizens, and with the sole exception of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abridged the “freedom” to hold people in slavery and involuntary servitude, this remained the case into the twentieth century. While bans on liquor were adopted in various jurisdictions as early as 1840, it simply never occurred to many champions of prohibition that a nationwide ban, written into the federal constitution, was either appropriate or feasible, especially since taxes on alcoholic beverages accounted for as much as forty percent of federal tax revenue in the years prior to the introduction of the income tax, and imposition of total prohibition would zero out the second largest source of federal income after the tariff.

As the Progressive movement gained power, with its ambitions of continental scale government and imposition of uniform standards by a strong, centralised regime, it found itself allied with an improbable coalition including the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union; the Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian churches; advocates of women’s suffrage; the Anti-Saloon League; Henry Ford; and the Ku Klux Klan. Encouraged by the apparent success of “war socialism” during World War I and empowered by enactment of the Income Tax via the Sixteenth Amendment, providing another source of revenue to replace that of excise taxes on liquor, these players were motivated in the latter years of the 1910s to impose their agenda upon the entire country in as permanent a way as possible: by a constitutional amendment. Although the supermajorities required were daunting (two thirds in the House and Senate to submit, three quarters of state legislatures to ratify), if a prohibition amendment could be pushed over the bar (if you’ll excuse the term), opponents would face what was considered an insuperable task to reverse it, as it would only take 13 dry states to block repeal.... [Read More]

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