Wednesday, May 30, 2007

OK, smart guy, so how SHOULD the VSE be done?

In response to my last post, Paul Spudis wrote in the comments (emphasis mine):
The whole NASA v. private sector argument seems more theological than technical to me. But I'll just make one point: NASA (or more properly the federal government) has legitimate interests in space (including on the Moon) and I believe it is entirely appropriate for them to be striving in that direction. Moreover, as you correctly note, they are not likely to be dismantled at any time in the near future, so as they are already spending $16 billion per year, they might as well spend it on developing systems and technologies useful for the long-range settlement of space.
For some, the NASA vs. the private sector argument might be more theological than technical; for me however, it is philosophical, historical, and technical. Philosophical, in that there simply is no constitutional basis for NASA to exist at all - Thomas Jefferson would have violently opposed such an agency, and indeed a great many of the current US government departments. Historical, in that NASA has proven over and over again that the level of competence that existed in the first fifteen years just hasn't been present in the subsequent thirty-five (cf. the Shuttle program, the ISS, X33, Mars Climate Orbiter, and too many other examples to list here).

But most of all, my argument is technical. NASA's mistakes since Apollo would be forgivable if lessons had been learned and put into practice, but with the Ares series NASA appears determined to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

I agree with Paul Spudis that NASA should be doing something useful with their $16 Billion a year, but honestly, Ares isn't it.

In my last post I briefly mentioned Jon Goff's article Technologies Necessary for a Spacefaring Society. He laid out a series of enabling technologies that would build a true space infrastructure: high longevity rocket engines, low-maintenance reusable thermal protection systems, aerobraking technology, on-orbit propellant transfer, long-term on-orbit propellant storage, on-orbit assembly, on-orbit construction, closing the water loop, extraterrestrial navigation, low-maintenance space nuclear power, space tugs, in-situ resource utilization, and artificial gravity (ie centrifugal).

Those sorts of technologies would enable everyone, not just NASA, to get a real toehold in space. If I wanted to be uncharitable, I would suggest that is precisely why NASA isn't doing those things, and that they really want to be the entire industry all by themselves.

So, what should NASA be doing, beyond just developing those enabling technologies? If they are going to go about doing the Vision for Space Exploration, then what is the better way to do it?

The solution is to decouple the mission from the implementation. It matters that it gets done, not that NASA does it or that the agency does it in a specific carved-in-stone way. NASA can't do it all by itself anymore, so it shouldn't even try. No more of this business of NASA building their own brand new launch vehicles and their own brand new manned capsules and their own brand new moon landers and their own brand new moonbases and micromanaging every detail. It is a brittle way of doing things, and the slightest hiccup in the yearly budget process or the slightest failure along that critical path brings everything to a screeching halt.

In a nutshell, the solution is simply taking a cue from object-oriented computer programming. Define the problem. Break the problem down into subproblems. For each subproblem, define the input to the subproblem, the output from the subproblem, and the process that must occur. Each subproblem becomes a black box: the whole system doesn't need to know what is going on inside the black box, only what sort of inputs to give and what sort of outputs to expect.

So, if the problem is to get men to the moon, break down the problem into subproblems: (a) ascent to earth orbit (b) travel to lunar orbit (c) descent to the lunar surface (d) living on the lunar surface (e) working on the lunar surface (f) ascent to lunar orbit (g) travel to earth orbit (h) descent to earth.

Now we are left with manageable subproblems. The first thing to note is that the same vehicle doesn't have to address all of the subproblems. For instance, subproblems (a) and (h) could be handled by one vehicle, whose task is simply to get people to Earth orbit and bring them safely back to Earth. That vehicle doesn't need to make the trip beyond Earth orbit. It doesn't need to have a galley and a toilet and sleeping facilities. It doesn't even have to be a NASA vehicle: it could be built by SpaceX or Virgin or Armadillo or the Russians. It doesn't matter who gets people to orbit or what craft they use, as long as the job gets done.

Once in Earth orbit, the next step is to get to Lunar orbit and back, steps (b) and (g) above. The craft that brings people to lunar orbit never needs to return to the surface of the Earth, it never needs to go to the surface of the moon. All it has to do is go from Earth orbit to Lunar orbit and back. And it doesn't matter who does it or what the craft looks like, as long as the job gets done.

Similarly, subproblems (c) and (f) above can be handled by a vehicle that only goes from Lunar orbit to the surface of the moon and back. It never needs to come back to Earth, it never even needs to come back to Earth orbit. It can be optimized for the job of bringing people from Lunar orbit to the moon and back, and once again it doesn't matter who builds it or operates it, as long as the job gets done.

Subproblems (d) and (e) are handled in a similar fashion. It doesn't matter if the moon base is something that NASA develops, or if it is a complex of Bigelow modules lowered to the surface from L1 - just so long as the job gets done, that's all we care about.

Now, the vehicles that carry passengers from Earth orbit to Lunar orbit and the vehicles that go from Lunar orbit to the moon would need propellant. The people themselves would need supplies like food and oxygen and water and spare parts. So, once again, we break those problems down into subproblems: (i) getting fuel to orbit (j) getting other cargo to orbit (k) transporting fuel or other cargo from Earth orbit to Lunar orbit (l) transporting fuel or other cargo from Lunar orbit to the surface of the moon (m) refueling the passenger or cargo transports that make the trips from Earth orbit to Lunar orbit and back (n) refueling the passenger or cargo transports that make the trips from Lunar orbit to the moon and back (o) storing propellant in orbit or on the moon until it is needed.

Once again, it doesn't matter who builds rockets boosting fuel to orbit. It doesn't have to even be man-rated rockets doing that. It doesn't matter from where in the world the rockets are launched, nor whom is doing the launches.

What does matter are the interfaces between all these subproblems. For instance, while the flag or company logo outside the vehicle going from Earth to Earth orbit and back doesn't matter one bit, the docking ring matters a lot. It needs to either dock directly with the EO-LO transport, or to an intermediary Earth-orbit space station. If docking with a space station, then that space station could be the ISS or a Bigelow module, or something else, and it doesn't matter, as long as that station can dock with both the transport to/from Earth and the transport to/from lunar orbit.

The flag or company logo outside a propellant launch vehicle doesn't matter, but its interface to an orbital propellant depot matters a lot. One type of nozzle might connect one of these tankers to an oxygen tank, another type of nozzle might connect to a hydrogen tank (one sure wouldn't want to mix these up!), another type of nozzle would connect to a hydrazine tank, another type of nozzle to an RP-1 tank... you get the idea. Standardize these connections so that anyone capable of delivering propellant to orbit can just hook up to an orbiting depot and drop off their load, or so that for instance the EO-LO transport can simply hook up to the depot - either in Earth orbit or Lunar orbit - and refuel.

That's how to get the VSE done. If NASA defines the docking ring or airlock interface, if NASA defines the propellant-transfer interface - basically if they define the interfaces between all the black-box subproblems - and if they take care of the basic research that Jon Goff mentioned in his article, then their $16 Billion a year will be well-spent. Such a system architecture would immediately create a market for such things as delivery of propellant to orbit, in the same way that IBM's publishing of their PC architecture created an instant market for computer peripherals back in the 1980s. That's the way to get a robust space industry.

The real beauty of this is that it opens up way more than the moon to humanity. Such a way of doing things means that some of the Near-Earth Asteroids are accessible, too, since travel from Earth orbit to Lunar orbit is the same as travel to some NEAs, in terms of energy.

It also means that NASA doesn't have to build all their own hardware. If somebody else builds launch vehicles, if somebody else has available propellant in orbit, if somebody else is making the the EO-LO-EO run, if somebody else is delivering Bigelow-style space stations to Lunar orbit (or L1), if somebody else is operating a vehicle from lunar orbit to the moon and back, if somebody else is dropping Bigelow-style bases on the moon... if they are doing those things, then NASA just needs to pay for services rendered, not for the R&D and maintenance and training and personnel and facilities that went into those services.

And, if multiple companies are doing those black-box subproblems, then the system is robust; a failure in a SpaceX launch doesn't bring the whole VSE to a halt - NASA just switches to whatever provider happens to have a launch available. A propellant depot explosion doesn't bring the whole VSE to a halt - the EO-LO transports simply refuel at whatever other depots are available. By opening up the architecture and defining the interfaces, NASA avoids choke points in the critical path.

NASA really needs to stop what they are doing on the VSE and take a critical look at themselves. Continuing on full-bore down the Ares path is to repeat the same mistakes they have made over the last 35 years: a brittle system that does nothing to open up space to the enormous power of the market, that grinds to a halt for years at a time when it encounters the slightest problem.

Remember the first few days after 9/11, when no airplnes were in the sky? That's what happens every time NASA loses a flight vehicle. Can you imagine what it would be like if every time there was an airplane crash, those few days of no flights we experienced in mid-September 2001 were to be extended to a few years of no flights?

Suppose you are taking a flight from Toronto to Los Angeles. Chances are that you don't live at the airport itself, and your destination isn't really LAX, it is perhaps Hollywood. If the airline industry were run the way that NASA is, then you would have to be a pilot yourself to get on that flight (and you might have trained for years to do so, without knowing if you would actually get to fly), and you would get on the airplane at your house and land in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard. While in Hollywood, you'd sleep on the plane.

Instead what likely happens to you on that flight is: you take a taxi or bus or car to the airport, you get on the plane, the stewardesses show you the emergency procedures, and you sleep while someone else flies the plane. You get off at LAX and rent a car or take a cab to your hotel. Later you drive or take a cab to Hollywood boulevard. Your car or the taxicabs, the hotel, and the airplane all have different functions, for which they are optimized.

You don't need to know the first thing about the actual operation of an airplane in order to be a passenger; you don't need to know the first thing about changing your oil in order to drive a car; you don't need to be a hotel manager to sleep in a hotel bed. It doesn't matter, as long as the job gets done. The mission (getting you from your house in Toronto to Hollywood Boulevard) has been decoupled from the implementation (getting to and from airports, driving around). Alternative implementations are also available, like Greyhound.

That's a robust system. That's a system that has been opened up to the power of the marketplace. And that is what NASA should be doing.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Why do space at all?

Space Politics provides a summary of Paul Spudis's speech (the whole presentation is here) at the ISDC:
He also described the Ares program as "having all the disadvantages of a shuttle-derived system but none of the advantages"; he prefers a Shuttle-C or similar approach. The biggest problem? "NASA still doesn't really understand what its mission is," he said, creating "catalogs" of rationales rather than a single unified explanation. "I always thought that if you couldn't state your mission in a single sentence, you probably don't know what it is." His suggestion: "We're going to the Moon to learn how to live and work on another world. It's that simple."
My question is, why? Why do we need to learn how to live and work on another world? Why should the Moon be that other world? Why do it the way that NASA has chosen to do it? And why should NASA be the ones to do it?

I shall attempt to answer my own questions below, in reverse order.

Why should NASA be the ones to do it?

NASA has not had a real raison d'être since Armstrong and Aldrin returned from the moon. Apollos 12 through 17 only made sense as part of a larger purpose that simply wasn't there. Kennedy's speech set some very simple goals: land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. Once the mission was accomplished, that should have been the end of NASA right then and there. It only made sense to pursue Apollo 12 as a backup in case Apollo 11 failed - but since Apollo 11 succeeded, the rest of the Apollo missions were quite simply pointless. The American public understood this; after Apollo 11 interest in NASA plummeted, reviving only during the narrowly-averted disaster during Apollo 13 and the disasters of Challenger and Columbia.

Of course, once a government bureaucracy is established it is very difficult indeed to shut it down. I doubt that there has ever been a government agency anywhere that has ever been shut down short of an overthrow of the entire government. Once affixed to the taxpayers' collective teat, a bureaucracy remains there in perpetuity.

So, given that NASA exists and is not likely to be shut down, it needs something to do. NASA's history ever since the moon landings has been a vivid illustration of the aphorism "a camel is a horse designed by committee". Nixon gave them something to do in the form of the space shuttles. Reagan and Clinton gave them something to do in the form of the Space Station Freedom / ISS kludge. GHW Bush gave them an abortive direction at a Mars mission, and GW Bush gave them the Vision for Space Exploration. All of those presidents attempted giving NASA something to do in order to justify its continued existence. The shuttles and the space station have been by any impartial measure abject failures, GHW Bush's manned Mars mission was stillborn, and all indications are that the VSE will fare no better.

One thing that NASA's continued existence has accomplished is to keep costs artificially high. The cost-plus accounting system in place at NASA worked in the short term, it got the job done when the proxy battle with the Russians (the race to the moon) was underway, but after that it simply forced costs higher and higher. It is a prime example of what Bill Whittington was talking about as he explained the Prisoner's Dilemma:
...short-term strategies for immediate gain at the cost of long-term success. A swarm of trinket vendors on a beach in Mexico all need to make an immediate sale in order to eat that day, even if the cost is being so annoying and frustrating to the tourists that it prevents them from ever returning. Short term gain, long term loss.

I make no value judgment on that behavior, because it works on some level or it would not be so prevalent. In societies where short term values trump long-term ones, it is easy, safe and stable to Screw the Other Guy. But in the long-term, nothing of consequence grows...
Sound familiar? It should. NASA chose a short-term solution - paying contractors for their costs, plus a fixed percentage, no matter what the cost - and they got to the moon, fast. It was a short-term gain. However, it is also an incentive to drive up the costs, a constant upward pressure. Apply it to the long term, such as over the last nearly four decades, and what do we see? Enormous - and either stagnant or growing - costs for space access. And, for nearly four decades, nothing of cosequence has grown.

Another example: the US manned space program is centered in only a few congressional districts. The congressmen control the pursestrings of NASA, and the voters in a those few congressional districts control who gets into congress, and those voters' jobs depend on NASA either directly or indirectly. So, we are left with the ridiculous situation of solid rocket boosters built in a single facility in Utah being shipped across the continent via railroad, external tanks built in a single facility in Louisiana shipped by barge around Florida, shuttles launched at a single facility on Florida's east coast, and missions controlled in a single facility in Texas. A few congressmen get a short-term gain - they get elected - and the national manned space program ends up with a brittle infrastructure, where a single hurricane or the derailing of a single train slows down the entire program at a cost of wasted billions. Short term gain, long term loss.

So why should NASA be doing anything at all? If past history is any indication, the costs of the VSE will go up and up, the mission scope will creep, the capabilities of the final product will not be anywhere near what is advertised, and even getting off the ground at all is doubtful (*cough* X33 *cough*).

So, let's assume for a moment that there should be an American manned presence in space. NASA has proven that they can do it, I have to give them that. However, they have basically followed the path of Samuel Langley, flying barely-workable (or unworkable) kludges on the taxpayers' dime - with the exception that Langley actually had a purpose. If it is to be done at all, there needs to be a real paradigm shift, akin to the Wright Brothers' development of aeronautical engineering.

Enter private industry. Although NASA managed to keep costs artificially high, and thus maintained outer space as their personal fiefdom for decades, some things have happened over the last few years that have been beyond NASA's control.

For one thing, the Soviet Union collapsed, bringing down with it the Russians' ability to maintain their space program without private investment. NASA managed to keep John Denver and Lance Bass grounded, but they couldn't stop the Russians from bringing other space tourists up to the ISS. No longer is space access limited to NASA-vetted ├╝bermenchen with The Right Stuff.

For another thing, computers have changed everything. No longer must engineers use slide rules to approximate answers; no longer do teams of what used to be known as "computers" (i.e. people good at math) manually figure out mathematical calculations; no longer do computing machines take up entire gymnasiums with four-bit, four-kilobyte memories. That computer sitting in front of you has more computing power than all of NASA combined had at its disposal in 1969.

Finally, people have slowly come to realize that rocket science is not as insanely difficult as it was 40, 50, 60 years ago. All of the mathematical formulae involved have already been worked out. The environment of everywhere in cislunar space has been a known quantity since the late 1960s. Small teams of people can and do build their own reliable, high-powered rocket engines. And private companies are starting to put people into suborbital space, to build and launch their own full-scale rockets, and to build and launch what are effectively space stations. All this is going on while the current crop at NASA warms the seats of the real pioneers of the space age, most long since dead or retired.

So should NASA be the ones doing it? I think that the best we can hope for is that NASA manages to stay out of the way of those who are doing the real cutting-edge work, while it continues its largely-irrelevant nerd-welfare program.

Why do it the way that NASA has chosen to do it?

If the implementation of the VSE is left completely up to NASA, then we're stuck with the Ares. It is quite simply NASA's nature. It can't help that it is a scorpion. There is a small glimmer of hope in the COTS program and the Centennial Challenges, which might be a thin edge of the wedge. However, the funding of these programs are at the whims of congress and whomever happens to be NASA administrator. Mike Griffin might be a great guy and all, but it is unlikely he will be administrator for the entire 30-year span of the VSE, or that he would even be able to keep those programs afloat as the costs for Ares balloon, as has been the case for every NASA launch system.

So, what are the alternatives? Some people are trying to get NASA to change course early in the VSE, while it still can, hoping to scrap the Ares system and replace it with DIRECT, or as Paul Spudis suggests, the Shuttle-C. While these might be better proposals, I am not sanguine about their chances of being implemented by NASA. Ever. Not Invented Here, you know.

So we're stuck with Ares. Or, are we? As I mentioned above, NASA isn't the only player in the game anymore. At my last count, there are over 80 private space businesses out there, the lion's share of them in the US. Suppose that, like businesses in every other economic sector, a large portion of them fail within their first five years. The flipside of this is that a small portion of them will succeed. The market will sort out the good business models from the flawed, the good designs from the flawed, the good long-range plans from the flawed. And while many of those companies are dying out, new companies are coming into the market at a faster rate than the business failures.

These companies are bringing with them a huge array of different methods for every single aspect of spaceflight. A quick count gives at least four radically different methods of getting to orbit - ground launch, air launch, space elevator, and airship-to-orbit. Some companies are specializing in space habitats, others in rocket engines, others in spacesuits, others in flight control systems, others... you get the picture.

I have to mention here an article that Jon Goff of Selenian Boondocks wrote last year, entitled Technologies Necessary for a Spacefaring Society. If there is anything at all that NASA should be doing, this is it - planting the seed, developing those technologies that would allow the full force of the market to be brought to bear on achieving humanity's goals in space. Take care of developing those technologies, and private companies will achieve the goals of the VSE all by themselves, because it will profit them to do so. Either that, or get the hell out of the way.

Why the Moon?

Or, why only the Moon? If one is limited to NASA doing it using NASA's proprietary technology, then a single destination is forced. NASA is on a budget tightrope as it is, and if they have to do it all themselves then landing a few people on the Moon is the best they can hope for. If the full power of the market is involved however, then the whole solar system opens up. I will explain further in my next blog post. For now, let's just say that all NASA has is a hammer, and when that's all you've got, everything begins to look like a nail. However, if you've got a full machine shop (i.e. a real space industry) then all sorts of other possibilities open up.

Why do we need to learn how to live and work on another world?

I agree with Mark Whittington that Spudis is correct about having a simple definition for the mission. However, I have to disagree with Spudis's specific definition (while agreeing with much of what he put forth in his presentation, linked at the top of this article).

We have to go into space, on a large scale. Not just a few of us, not just the lucky handful carefully selected by NASA to take tentative baby steps to the moon 20 years from now. No, the vast majority of humanity needs to get out into space, or be born there in the first place. Yes, I mean you, reading this right now. Why? Because right now, all our eggs are in one basket. One global thermonuclear war, and it is all over. One big asteroid strike, and it is all over. One incident of Grey Goo and it is all over. One massive supervolcano eruption and it is all over. One (insert your own hypothetical end-of-the-world scenario here) and it is all over.

Even discounting those hypothetical end-of-the-world scenarios, we're still sitting here completely dependent on a single ecosystem, with a large but finite amount of resources. And yet, out there in space there is a virtually limitless amount of solar energy available, and (an estimated) more than one million asteroids over a kilometer in diameter out there. By dismantling Ceres, the largest asteroid, we could create enough large space habitats to provide the equivalent of 300 to 500 times the surface area of the earth, each of these tailored to suit the needs of human, plant, and animal life. Going to space means abundance for all, and spreads out this tiny enclave of life across the entire solar system, hedging our bets against all of the above-mentioned scenarios.

Why learn to live and work on another world? It is a stepping stone, a way for us to learn to utilize the resources of the entire solar system. And why do that? It is nothing less than an insurance policy, ensuring the survival of life.

The dinosaurs weren't spacefaring, and if we aren't, then we will share their fate.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Information Overload

I haven't posted anything on this blog in a little while, and as is usually the case when that happens I have been working on something big.

When I first started reading blogs, I would just keep links to them in my Favorites list, and read them from the start of my list to the finish. Of course, I kept adding more and more blogs, and pretty soon I just couldn't keep up with all of them, and couldn't afford to spend time loading a blog that hadn't been updated. Then I found Bloglines, which allowed me to bundle all my reading into one page, displaying only updated material. And that was a good solution, for a while - but as I kept adding more and more feeds, I once again ran into a problem. There was just simply too much to read. If I didn't visit Bloglines every day, and spend at least an hour, then I would find that the new blog posts and news stories just kept piling up, and piling up, and piling up; if I took a couple of days off from the computer there would be thousands of posts to read. There was just no way that I could read all of them on a given day.

What I needed was just the most recent postings from a combination of all of those feeds, not all the postings from all the feeds. I didn't need to see what Instapundit or Drudge had written three days ago, as that stuff was already buried under a mountain of new posts. However, I couldn't just aggregate everything together into one giant feed either, otherwise the most recent posts would all be Instapundit and Drudge.

I had made a step in this direction with my Space Feeds site, which is good if all you want to read is space stuff. However, I needed something a little more general so that I wouldn't end up spending hours and hours on Bloglines.

And, I figured that if I was encountering information overload, then chances are that other people were, too. What is needed is basically a small-scale newspaper, updated continuously, where people can get a snapshot of the news and latest blog entries, in a number of categories.

So, I decided to make my own newspaper on Blogger. The result is Speedy News. On that page, you will find everything that one would expect from a newspaper, plus blog feeds. Included are the latest feeds from Pajamas Media, some big blogs, some of my favorite blogs, world news, US news, science and technology news, space news, science blog feeds, business news, environment news, health news, sports, entertainment news, and travel news. Clicking on the title of a news item will bring up the first paragraph or more of the story, and clicking on the >> symbol beside a title will open up the web page from which that item originated.

In the sidebar are links to the Craigslist classified ads, the Darkgate Comic Slurper, Weather Underground, WebSudoku, Horoscopes, a list of links to other media sites and some cool links.

I figure that if Speedy News catches on, then lots of people will want to put a button for it on their blogs or websites. So, here is the necessary code for the Speedy News button:


It is my hope that the Speedy News site will be a useful tool for people who are pressed for time but still want to stay informed. No more wading through hundreds of items in a feed aggregator, just the very latest news.

Monday, May 14, 2007

bye bye sitemeter

I had noticed recently a strange URL showing up in the status bar when I tried viewing this blog, from specificclick.net, a few weeks ago. It would show up during the loading of the page, and I knew for a fact that such a URL was not in my blog template anywhere. I didn't know what it was all about until I read this:
It’s so sad for me to hear that SiteMeter, a well-known web stats providers, is pushing specificclick tracking and advertising cookies on to visitors of sites using their service.
Well I happen to think that a stunt like that is total BS. Sitemeter wants to put cookies on the computer of everyone who visits my blog? Well to heck with that noise. I'm giving Sitemeter the heave-ho, and using Statcounter instead.

I cannot for the life of me figure out why Sitemeter would shoot themselves in the foot like this. Not only are people going to drop them like a hot potato, they have probably irrevocably destroyed their brand name as well. This is basically going to completely destroy their business, all for a few dollars (which they aren't going to be getting paid for very long, as I don't see how their business can survive a body blow like the one that's coming over the next few weeks, as more and more people find out about this). What a waste.

(hat tip to Transterrestrial Musings)

Update: There has been some question as to what the precise problem is here, so some further explanation is necessary. Specificclick.net is a daughter company of Specific Media, part of the Realplayer borg collective. They are putting tracking cookies on the computer of everyone who visits a site with sitemeter, and tracking that user's browsing habits. Basically, they are putting a small piece of code on user's computers, allowing the user's own computer to spy on their browsing. Then the resulting information is sold to other companies. In other words, Sitemeter is putting spyware onto people's computers.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Single combat is an old tradition, going back thousands of years. In ancient times, when two armies were prepared for battle, sometimes only one man from each army would fight, thus sparing the lives of the remainder of the armies. In the last several hundred years, single combat has become formalized and stylized, giving us such sports as boxing and fencing, and games such as chess or checkers. The demands of each of these disciplines are very different, but they all share in common the idea of a formal, stylized ritual battle between single combatants.

So, what happens when you start combining these into a single competition? You get ... Chess Boxing! I'm not kidding:

The basic idea in chessboxing is to combine the #1 thinking sport and the #1 fighting sport into a hybrid that demands the most of its competitors – both mentally and physically.
In a chessboxing fight two opponents play alternating rounds of chess and boxing. The contest starts with a round of chess, followed by a boxing round, followed by another round of chess and so on. In every round of chess the FIDE rules for a "Blitz game" apply, in every boxing round amateur boxing rules apply with the following extensions and modifications: In a contest there shall be 11 rounds, 6 rounds of chess, 5 rounds of boxing. A round of chess takes 4 minutes. Each competitor has 12 minutes on the chess timer. As soon as the time runs out the game is over.

A round of boxing takes 2 minutes. Between rounds there is a 1 minute pause, during which competitors change their gear. The contest is decided by: checkmate (chess round), exceeding the time limit (chess round), retirement of an opponent (chess or boxing round), KO (boxing round), or referee decision (boxing round). If the chess game ends in a stalemate, the opponent with the higher score in boxing wins. If there is an equal score, the opponent with the black pieces wins.
Here is some video from the first World Chessboxing Championship:



Hey, if poker is now considered a spectator sport broadcast on TV, then why not Chess Boxing?

Precisely dating a star? not so fast

Centauri Dreams reports on the highly-precise (three significant figures) measure of the age of a star. Something doesn't quite add up in the method used to date the star, though. Elements heavier than Iron cannot be formed through the regular fusion mechanism of a star; it requires more energy for the fusion to take place than is released by the fusion, so the only place these elements can form is in a type II supernova. So, the elements Uranium, Thorium, Europium, Osmium, and Iridium cannot have formed within HE 1523-0901, and instead must have formed in a nearby precursor star and then been incorporated by HE 1523-0901 sometime after the precursor star went supernova. To then use the ratios of those elements as a measure of the age of the star, by treating HE 1523-0901 as if it was a lump of rock undergoing normal radioactive decay processes, is simply not valid - the ratios of those elements originally produced in the supernova is unknown, so their present-day ratios are not an indication of HE 1523-0901's age.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

This is HUGE

I mean, really really huge. Wikipedia might have over a million articles, but there's a new site that will dwarf it in size. I'm talking about the Encyclopedia of Life, a website that will have (by the time it is fully completed some ten years from now) around three hundred million pages, with in-depth information about each of the known 1.8 million species on the planet. Information will be presented according to the self-selected knowledge level of the user, ranging from novice (for the grade-school student) to expert (for serious researchers working on PhD theses, for instance). And the best part is that you can contribute to the site, adding your own knowledge to this enormous encyclopedia.


As the Encyclopedia of Life grows, one will be able to search for any species, either by its common name or its Latin designation, or filter a search, say North America/coastal/birds. This promises to be a wonderful resource for generations to come.

OK, I'm back

I know I've been pretty silent these last couple of weeks. For a few days there my internet was out, and then I've spent the last week or so refurbishing the Space Feeds site. I'm quite a bit happier with the look of that site now, although I expect I shall be tweaking it a bit more over the next few days. Go ahead, check it out.

I expect that I shall be blogging more now, hopefully every day or so.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

We Have A Winner

The Great Science Fiction Movie Poll is now over. Thanks to all who voted. The overall winner is certainly a popular movie, and although it isn't my first choice, it is definitely one of my favorites. And the winner is....

[drumroll]

Star Wars (Episode IV: a New Hope)



Now, if you have been living in a cave for the last 30 years and haven't yet seen this movie (how are you on the internet, if that's the case?), then you should probably go down to the video store and rent it. If you don't feel like sitting through the whole movie, then you can click here to see Star Wars in 30 seconds, reenacted by bunnies.