Thursday, November 30, 2006

'tis the season

'tis the season

I continue to be astounded by the things I find on YouTube. I haven't seen this one in years:

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

blast from the past

blast from the past

In looking around YouTube this morning, I came across this opening sequence for a cartoon that I haven't seen in probably 27 years or so.

Man, does that bring back some memories. Battle of the Planets was the Americanized version of one of the original Japanimation TV series, Gatchaman. I used to absolutely love watching that show. It had some really crappy writing and artwork at about 5 frames per second, but the whole "trannnnns-mute!" thing was totally cool. BOTP had some great voice talent, led by Casey Kasem as Mark and Keye Luke as Zoltar. Geez, I watch that and all of a sudden I'm ten years old again...

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gee, now I feel marginally successful

gee, now I feel marginally successful

B-List Blogger

*sniff* *sniff* I'd like to thank the academy...

So, what do I need to do to get into that coveted A list? Apparently I need to post more often, on average more than once a day. Hmm, I haven't been doing too well at that sort of thing lately. Maybe I should follow the example of SpaceTramp.

via Space4Commerce

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

separate church and state

separate church and state

Ann Althouse wrote a blog entry about Wisconson voters accepting an amendment to their state constitution limiting marriage to one man and one woman, saying:
you don't have to feel so morose about the recent vote. It doesn't mean that much. But don't just cheer up. Milford wants to reinvigorate the amendment's opponents: Keep fighting. You can re-amend the constitution.
To this, I left the comment that "Perhaps the States and the federal government ought to follow the first amendment and abide by the principle of separation of church and state, and get out of the marriage business altogether."

Someone else pointed out that "it would require a massive overhaul of federal and state tax codes as well as social security, to name just two giant stumbling blocks."

Well, good. Tax codes and social security are badly in need of overhaul, not only to bring them in line with the constitution but also to prevent them from bankrupting the nation when the baby boomers start to retire. Although we were talking about Wisconson, the same would apply to pretty much any jurisdiction in the Western world.

A complete overhaul of the tax codes? Great! Eliminate the whole complicated lot of them and replace them with sales taxes (such as the one advocated by and/or lotteries (ie a voluntary tax on people who can't do math).

Social Security (or Canada Pension Plan) overhaul? Wonderful! Eliminate the taxes withheld from our paychecks to pay for these Ponzi schemes, and let individuals plan for their own retirements. Let them keep all their money and invest it as they see fit. And as for those who plan badly, those whose children will not help them in their old age, those who fall through the cracks? Well, now we're back to the principle of separation of church and state again. Charity is the properly the domain of churches and private organizations, not the government. So, while we're at it we ought to eliminate Welfare as well. It is a tragedy that more people didn't listen to Davy Crockett:
Money with [congressmen] is nothing but trash when it is to come out of the people. But it is the one great thing for which most of them are striving, and many of them sacrifice honor, integrity, and justice to obtain it."
Want to balance the budgets of the United States and Canada? It couldn't get much easier, or follow the constitutions of those nations any more closely, than to eliminate income tax, government pensions, and welfare, and get the governments the hell out of the domains of churches. After all, we wouldn't want the reverse - churches being involved in the business of government - would we?

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Private Property in Space

Private Property in Space

In the 1980s, Dennis Hope established the Lunar Embassy, which sells certificates of ownership to one-acre plots of land on the moon. Right now, these certificates are not officially recognized by any country, but over 2 million certificates have been sold; obviously people are willing to pay money for extraterrestrial property, even if only as a novelty item. But, with the rise of the nascent private space industry, the novelty aspect of these certificates may soon change. published an article called I'd Buy You the Moon (republished here). Among the main points covered in the article are these:
...A growing body of financiers, lawyers and space enthusiasts believe that the recognition of personal property rights 'out there' is the only realistic way to finance the new frontier of commercially driven space exploration.

...the 1979 Moon Treaty, which states that no pieces of the Moon can become property of any "state, international or national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person". But, perhaps because the prospect of any risk in this area seemed so far away, hardly anyone signed: only 12 countries agreed, none of them major players in the space game.

..."The Outer Space Treaty is ambiguous as to the precise nature and scope of the property rights that an individual may hold in celestial bodies," says California-based space law expert Ezra Reinstein. Glenn Reynolds, who teaches space law at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, goes further. "Personal property rights are not banned by the Outer Space Treaty."
Mark Whittington published an article in Associated Content last week called The Case For Private Property Rights on Other Worlds. However, the content of the article didn't really match the title:
... The pertinent article of the [UN Outer Space] treaty is Article II, which reads, “Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” The problem is that private property rights are determined and defended by a sovereign nation. Absent sovereign authority, property rights can be determined by international treaties. But with sovereign authority forbidden on the moon and “other celestial bodies” and no international treaty governing private property on other worlds, there is literally no body of law governing such things.

... By the way, organizations such as the “Lunar Embassy” claiming to have the power to sell lunar land are, in the opinion of this writer, perpetrating a fraud. There is no body of law suggesting that one actually owns the land which such organizations “sell.” The parcels of land being sold have as much worth as the paper upon which the certificates are written on. One might as well buy the Brooklyn Bridge.

... There are two ways that private property rights can be established on bodies such as the Moon ... the United States could withdraw from the Outer Space Treaty and claim the Moon as national territory ... [or] by international agreement, either as an amendment to the Outer Space Treaty or as a brand new treaty. It would be a treaty which—unlike the Moon Treaty—would define and defend private property rights on other worlds rather than oppose them.
Obviously, there is considerable disagreement as to whether private individuals may own extraterrestrial property. I think that the reason for the disagreement is encapsulated in the assertion by Mark Whittington that "private property rights are determined and defended by a sovereign nation".

In fact, this is demonstrably false. For example, look at what happened in Cuba after the revolution: far from defending the private property rights of landowners, the government confiscated their property. The government of Zimbabwe recently confiscated land from white farmers. Similar examples of state confiscation of private property have occurred so often, in every country on Earth, that enumerations of such examples would go on and on and on. Even in the United States, the most capitalistic country in the world, there are a great many examples of the government confiscating private property: just ask Suzanne Kelo.

Private property is not de jure, it is de facto. In many cases on Earth, there are laws which govern the disposition of private property, but these laws have come about long after the concept of private property was in place. Proof of this is easy - the first written laws, among them the Codex of Hammurabi and the Ten Commandments, include prohibitions against theft; without the concept of private property already firmly established, such prohibitions would not even occur to the lawmakers.

To the extent that sovereign nations do "determine and defend" private property rights, it is only the relative power of the state with respect to individuals that makes this possible. The ability of sovereign nations to confiscate private property is also only possible due to the relative power of the state compared to individuals. It may seem harsh and uncivilized, but when it comes to private property rights, might truly makes right.

So, what does this mean for those hopefuls who wish to own portions of the moon or other bodies in the solar system?

First of all, one cannot expect Earthly sovereign nations to protect whatever private property is claimed off the planet Earth. Those who wish to claim property must be able to defend it themselves. It is all well and good for the Lunar Embassy to sell acres on the moon, but if those who purchase the deeds (or the Lunar Embassy itself) cannot defend those property claims, then they have no recourse if those acres are claimed by someone else who can defend their claim on that property.

To quote from the Wikipedia entry on private property:
In his classic text, "The Common Law", Oliver Wendell Holmes describes property as having two fundamental aspects. The first is possession, which can be defined as control over a resource based on the practical inability of another to contradict the ends of the possessor. The second is title, which is the expectation that others will recognize rights to control resource, even when it is not in possession.
I submit that the "title" aspect of property is the aspect to which Whittington, Dennis Hope, Glenn Reynolds and others are referring when they speak of property rights in space. Further, absent a universally-recognized (well, at least solar-system-wide-recognized) police force and/or government to uphold the value of title, title becomes moot; it is only the possession that matters.

Of course there are no individuals or organizations right now who actually have possession of portions of the moon or asteroids or other bodies, either. However, the ability for them to take such possession will of practical necessity predate the ability of a sovereign nation to enforce title; title will be a de jure recognition of a de facto reality.

There are steps that earthly governments may take to make this recognition of title more difficult. The first such steps have already been taken, in the 1979 Moon Treaty. In a nutshell this treaty (quoting Wikipedia again) both "bans all exploration and uses of celestial bodies without the approval or benefit of other states" and "bans any ownership of any property by any organization or person, unless that organization is international and governmental." This means that if any profit is made from use of an extraterrestrial body, then such profit must be shared with every nation on earth, regardless of those nations' contribution to the development of that profit, and that no private entity can profit from development in space.

Thankfully, no spacefaring nations have ratified this treaty. A further step ought to be taken: the annulment of the Moon Treaty. As it is, several dozen private companies worldwide are working towards developing access to space, and it is only a small step from there for them to reach for the moon or near-earth asteroids. Once they succeed (and though there will be many failures, some will eventually succeed), they will take de facto possession of extraterrestrial property. Recognition of title will not matter, and those 12 countries that have ratified the Moon Treaty (in particular Australia) will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage with respect to those nations which have not ratified. It is better to simply abandon and annul the treaty as unworkable.

By the same token, sovereign nations may make it easier for private enterprise to have title to extraterrestrial objects. This does not require a treaty, only a national law pledging to recognize title to whomever takes physical possession of an extraterrestrial body. And, it does not matter which nation passes such a law: once one nation does so, then title is officially recognized by a sovereign nation upon physical possession. Title recognition would not require that the sovereign entity itself claim possession of the celestial body; it would only be a recognition of a physical fact. As I have said earlier, title will not matter to those who are in physical possession, but the recognition of title once physical possession is realized will be a good first step along the way to turning de facto property into de jure property.

One way for such a country to structure the recognition of private property on celestial bodies would be to follow the example of the Archimedes Registry. The registry is a "private international system of property registration ... which set forth the standards for claiming and transferring space property". The guidelines of the Archimedes registry provide a good starting point for the development of national laws or international treaties for the recognition of private property title claims on extraterrestrial bodies.

Update: The Space Show had a couple of interesting podcasts on this topic: this one (right click, save as) with Virgiliu Pop and this one with Jim Dunstan, Rosanna Sattler, Berin M. Szoka, and Wayne White. Both are entertaining and worth a listen.

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Saturday, November 11, 2006



In Flanders Fields

By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918)
Canadian Army

IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

yet another pretty picture

yet another pretty picture

NASA recently released this false-color image of the Orion Nebula, a composite of the visible and ultraviolet data taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and the infrared data taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope.

I have created a couple of versions of this picture, suitable for use as desktop backgrounds: Click to see the 1024 by 768 or 1280 by 1024 version.

Update: Whoops! Apparently Photobucket resized the pictures; what was supposed to be 1280 by 1024 is actually 800 by 640, and what was supposed to be 1024 by 768 is actually 800 by 600. So, if your screen is a 5:4 aspect ratio, click on the supposed 1280 by 1024 image, and if your screen is a 4:3 aspect ratio, then click on the supposed 1024 by 768 image. It should still look the same as a desktop background as the original image does, just use the Stretch function when you select it as your background.

(hat tip to Centauri Dreams)

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Monday, November 06, 2006

what we're doing around here

what we're doing around here

Last night, Sir Charles W. Shults III, president of Xenotech Research was on Coast to Coast with George Noory. For the first hour of the show, he talked mostly about the nascent private space industry. He briefly outlined some of the major players in the industry, such as Robert Bigelow, Burt Rutan, Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, John Carmack, Peter Diamandis, John Powell, David Masten, Michael Laine, Bradley C. Edwards, and Gene Meyers. In the course of discussing these individuals, he covered such topics as private space stations, private space launch, space tourism, the space elevator concept, space property rights, and the commercial development of space in general.

Sir Charles also mentioned some of the things that are going on at Xenotech. As the chief engineer for Xenotech Research, I have kept pretty quiet about the things that are going on here. Now that the cat is out of the bag, I feel free to talk about these things as well, and in more detail than Charles was able to go into on the show.

solar power

We have spent the last couple of years working on a solar-thermal electrical generation system. This is a mechanical system (as opposed to photovoltaic panels, which are solid state) that focuses sunlight onto a boiler, which in turn drives a turbine that turns a generator - essentially a heat engine. A working fluid travels through the system in a closed cycle, being heated in the boiler, transferring power to the turbine, then condensed in a radiator and going back into the boiler. We already have most of the components of our demonstrator model built and tested. Within the next three months we should have a working system that produces appreciable amounts of electricity.

Why go to all that trouble of making a mechanical system, when solar panels are readily available? Well, there are a couple of advantages to the mechanical system.

Solar panels are difficult to produce. The nature of photovoltaic cells requires that they be manufactured in a semiconductor plant. Such plants are expensive to set up and operate, so the cost of a photovoltaic panel is pretty high - a solar panel system for home use (like those available at Home Depot) would save the owner money on the monthly electric bill, but it would take decades for the savings to cover the initial cost of the system. With our system, the components could be made in any well-equipped machine shop, thus drastically lowering the initial costs and hence the price the customer pays.

Solar panels also are bad for the environment. This may seem counterintuitive at first (after all, they produce power from sunlight, don't they?), however, the production of solar panels is a process that requires the use of some very harsh chemicals such as arsenic. Our system requires no such use of harsh chemicals.

With solar panels, the amount of energy converted from light into electricity is proportional to the area of the panels. If you want to increase the amount of electricity produced, you have to increase the area of your solar panels, either by getting bigger panels or by adding more of them, so the cost per kilowatt remains fairly static - the more energy you produce, the more it costs, in pretty much a linear relationship. For our system, a single boiler, turbine and generator are used. To increase the amount of energy produced, one only needs to increase the surface area of the light collection system and the surface area of the heat radiators. The collectors and radiators are among the least expensive parts of our system, so as the energy production is increased, the cost per kilowatt actually drops (there are limits of course, as a single boiler cannot handle an infinite amount of sunlight).

The energy produced by solar panels is also proportional to the energy conversion efficiency. Solar panels are not very efficient. For the types of panels available today, an energy conversion efficiency of 6 to 16% is typical for most commercially-available panels, with the multiple-junction research lab cells having an efficiency of up to 30% (at a cost of 100 times that of an 8% efficient cell). In contrast, our mechanical system is basically a heat engine; we estimate that we should be able to produce a system for home use that is up to 60% efficient (and for our future solar-thermal system for use in space, efficiencies of greater than 95% are possible). Also, as a photovoltaic panel heats up (say, from being exposed to direct sunlight for extended periods) its efficiency drops - but with our system, as the input heat increases the efficiency rises.

Note that no semiconductor plant is powered by the solar cells that they themselves produce.

So, our solar-thermal electrical generation system will be lower cost (and the cost per kilowatt will drop as the scale is increased), will be better for the environment, and will be of a higher energy conversion efficiency than the best photovoltaic panels available commercially today.

There are of course drawbacks to our system. Being mechanical in nature, there are a small number of moving parts in our system (aside from the sun tracker, which could be included in a photovoltaic system as well) - there is a working fluid, a check valve, a turbine, a generator, and a transmission between the turbine and the generator. Moving parts can wear out over time. However, the parts are inexpensive to produce and will be easy to replace.

Solar panels face a similar drawback, in that they degrade in efficiency over time, with an expected working lifetime of around 40 years. If waste, inefficiencies, and energy used in production are taken into account, then solar panels are basically a break-even proposition over the course of their working lifetimes - the total savings on the electrical bill are pretty much equal to the (after rebate and tax incentive) total cost of the panels.

As a mechanical system, our solar generator experiences a drawback not shared with solar panels. All mechanical systems experience losses due to friction and acoustic losses (noise). The tests we have conducted so far indicate that the acoustic losses will occur mainly in the turbine, but that our turbine runs fairly quietly, producing less noise than a typical home air conditioner. The losses due to friction and noise are more than offset by the inherent efficiency of a heat engine, and as the input temperature is increased these losses represent a smaller and smaller portion of the total energy collected.

Our solar generator faces a problem that it has in common with photovoltaic cells - environmental damage. Such things as hail, earthquakes, hurricane-force winds and so on would damage both our system and solar panels. Because our system is much less expensive than solar panels, replacement costs are much lower.

All in all, we predict that our solar generator system will be much less expensive per kilowatt-hour than solar panels, paying for themselves many, many times over during the course of a similar working lifetime.

space launch

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a serious space geek. Well, so is everyone else here at Xenotech. This leads us to the major announcement that Charles made on the show last night: we are going to start making and launching rockets.

Our rockets will be small, two-stage affairs. The first stage will be a Hydrogen balloon that lifts the rocket to an altitude of 20 to 30 kilometers, getting us above the bulk of the atmosphere. At that altitude the rocket itself will fire. The initial altitude and low drag mean that for a given payload the rocket ends up being much smaller than one launched from the ground. We will most likely be releasing this balloon-rocket or "Rockoon" combination from a boat off the East coast of Florida, beyond the 12-mile limit and well outside of airline flight paths. Each balloon will be equipped with large dihedral antennae and strobe lights to allow for long-distance visual and radar visibility.

Starting the rocket above the bulk of the atmosphere also means that the engine operates more efficiently, at nearly the vacuum ISP rather than starting at the sea level ISP and transitioning to the vacuum ISP. This allows a large expansion ratio in our engine, without suffering from flow separation effects.

I have been designing this rocket with a specific class of payload in mind: CubeSats. These small satellites (sometimes called nanosatellites or picosatellites) are cubes with edges 10 centimeters long (total volume equal to one liter) and massing only one kilogram.

We will be building and testing these rockets (which we have dubbed "Fireflies" after the TV series) in incremental stages. First, we will be doing some high-altitude balloon tests, with some instrument packages and a dummy mass. Next, we will test the various rocket component systems on the ground.

After these initial tests, we will construct a few rockets, send them up to our launch altitude, and fire them on suborbital trajectories. During these suborbital tests, the payloads will be business cards (or objects of similar size and mass to business cards). Anyone can have their business card launched as part of these suborbital payloads for a price of US$10 per card.

When we are satisfied with our design, we will progress to the next stage of testing, orbital launch. The only difference between the suborbital tests and the orbital tests will be the trajectory of the rocket. The orbital launches will be to a low earth orbit, with an altitude of around 150 kilometers. The atmosphere at that altitude is very thin indeed, better than the hard vacuum produced in labs on earth, but there are still traces of atmosphere up there - enough that at 7 kilometers per second there would be sufficient friction to slowly bring the rocket down into the upper atmosphere over the span of a week or two, eventually burning it up. The payload for the initial orbital tests would again be business cards, which we will launch for a price of US$20 per card, along with some instrument packages to measure and transmit our telemetry.

Once those tests are complete, our launch operations will begin in earnest. We will be launching CubeSats into orbit, adjusting the size of our rockets slightly upward to attain a somewhat higher orbit.

Thus far, CubeSats have been launched as piggyback modules on large payloads. There have been three successful CubeSat launches so far, with six, three, and one CubeSat launched piggyback along with larger payloads. Then on July 26, 2006, a DNEPR rocket carrying 14 CubeSats was destroyed, along with the five large satellites that represented the primary payloads.

These lost CubeSats had had their launch postponed numerous times due to delays in the original primary payload, EgyptSat-1. This is a hazard that so far has plagued all CubeSat launches, as all have been subject to the scheduling quirks of the main payloads on which they piggyback. And, as illustrated by the July 26 launch, a launch failure can result in the loss of a large number of CubeSats.

By making the CubeSat the primary (indeed, only) payload for our Firefly rockets, we can eliminate the schedule slip problem. The time period from delivery of the payload to our facility to the launch of the payload would be measured in days or weeks instead of months or years. And, since only one CubeSat would be on a given rocket, a launch failure would result in the loss of only one CubeSat

We will be offering the CubeSat launch service for a price in the neighborhood of US$10-20 thousand. This is comparable to the per-kilogram cost of launch on the Space Shuttle. At that price, colleges, universities, small businesses, and even high schools or private individuals could afford to build and launch their own CubeSats into orbit. With this large potential market, it would be possible for us to produce Firefly rockets on an assembly line. As a result, the performance and reliability of our rockets will continually improve. Also, the costs will continually decrease, as the development costs will be amortized over a large number of units, and as we develop greater efficiencies in our production processes.

We have further plans for the future which dovetail from the above plans, but for now we are going to concentrate on the solar power generators and the Firefly rockets. It's going to be fun here at Xenotech over the next couple of years.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

pretty picture

pretty picture

The Cassini space probe is still orbiting Saturn, taking some wonderful photos, like this one of Saturn backlit by the sun:

See that dot just to the left and above the rings? No? Let's zoom in for a closer look:

That pale blue dot, just barely visible, is the Earth. Kind of puts everything in perspective, doesn't it?

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Space Feeds

Space Feeds

On November 2nd of last year, I started putting together the Space Blogroll (currently numbering 143 blogs, and growing). Ever since that time, I have wanted to have one central location that would display the syndicated feeds of the most prolific of those blogs, along with the feeds of some of the top space news sites. Of course, I have been using Bloglines to monitor quite a few of those blogs and news sites, but I wanted a place to share all of those feeds with everyone.

And now, I have finally done it. I created a new blog called Space Feeds, which aggregates the most recent blog posts from approximately three dozen of the most prolific space bloggers, along with top stories from about two dozen space news sites. Also included on that page are a whole bunch of links to space businesses, reference sites, government space agencies, and so forth. I think this new site will be a really useful tool for anyone interested in space - in fact, I expect that a few space bloggers will want to have a direct link to Space Feeds on their blog sidebar. Therefore, I made up a nifty button that links to Space Feeds, which anyone can place on their blog sidebar. The necessary code to do so is available here:

Update: I have since revamped the Space Feeds blog. It now displays the 50 most recent blog posts from over 100 space blogs, as well as the 50 most recent news items from more than 30 space news sites, as well as NASA TV, the Astronomy Picture of the Day, and a huge list of space-related links.

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Friday, November 03, 2006

What in the heck is that?

What in the heck is that?

I spotted this video over on Posthuman Blues. From the background noise it sounds like the video was taken from a military aircraft. Damned if I know what he was chasing.

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Astronomy Media Player

Astronomy Media Player

Stuart at Astronomy Blog has put together the Astronomy Media Player, which collects (so far) 20 astronomy-related podcasts and video podcasts. I have posted a button in my sidebar linked to the AMP; clicking on it brings up a popup which allows you to choose them and listen (and watch in some cases) to these podcasts. Stuart did a great job on this. If you want to add the button in your blog sidebar like I have; you can do so by including the following code in your blog template:

Also, I am working on putting together a single central location which will display the most recent blog posts in the Space Blogroll (which as of yesterday had been in operation for one year, currently with 141 blogs on the blogroll) using their RSS feeds. I have previously tried numerous times to do this through the Truth Laid Bear community pages, but so far, no luck with that.

I'll keep working on it though, as I have on and off for the last several months. Maybe someone who is a little more familiar with RSS and HTML and Javascript can help me out with putting together some kind of Space Blog community page...? What I have in mind is something that would be much like a blog (I may even do it up in Blogger), with many of the space-related sidebar items that I have in this blog, using the feeds from the space blogs and various space news sites as the main content of the site; sort of a one-stop shop for space enthusiasts to keep up with all the latest developments.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006



Maps of War produced this interesting Flash animation showing all the wars that the United States has been involved in throughout its history. The animation shows the number of deaths due to war according to who was in power at the time: the founding fathers, the Republicans, or the Democrats. The results are somewhat surprising - although it is often the Republicans that are charged with being warmongers, they have only been in charge of one war that had a very large number of deaths, the civil war. Most of the wars the US has been involved in resulted in very few American deaths, with the only exceptions being the civil war, world war 1 and 2, the Korean war, and Vietnam.

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