Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Space Travel and the Van Allen Radiation Belt

The Van Allen Radiation Belts are often mentioned in space-travel related discussions on the internet. Two donut shaped rings of pure death surround the earth and make space travel impractical or impossible. The inner belt is situated from 400 to 6.000 miles above the earth, the outer one extends from 8.000 to 36.000 miles. The belts contain charged particles that loop around the Earth at high speeds. On the top end, the particles have enough energy to penetrate 14mm of lead. It was actually Greek physicist Nicholas Constantine Christofilos who was one of the first to explore the possibility of trapping charged particles. He later was one of the driving forces behind Operation Argus (1958).
Operation ARGUS was the designation given to the three high-altitude nuclear test shots conducted by the United States in the South Atlantic Ocean from August 27 to September 10, 1958. The ARGUS shots were conducted to test the Christofilos theory, which argued that high-altitude nuclear detonations would create a radiation belt in the upper regions of the Earth’s atmosphere. It was theorized that the radiation belt would have military implications, including degradation of radio and radar transmissions, damage or destruction of the arming and fuzing mechanisms of ICBM warheads, and endangering the crews of orbiting space vehicles that might enter the belt. 

So back then shooting nukes in the sky and trying to create a radiation or electron belt in the upper parts of the atmosphere was thought to be a pretty good idea, of tactical value in case of war, for example to disable enemy satellites. Of special interest is the location chosen for Argus, about a 1.000 miles southwest of Cape Town.
This is an area in range of the so called South Atlantic Anomaly, where the inner Van Allen belt is closest to Earth, as low as 125 miles from the surface. The borders and shape of this Bermuda Triangle of Space are not static, the anomaly is actually moving and expanding slowly. It is speculated that the weakening of the Earths geomagnetic field may be a contributing factor. Interesting to note: the ISS required extra shielding to be able to safely pass through the anomaly. About 200 satellites (2010) face the problem of passing through the Anomaly, some programmed to shut down sensitive equipment for the duration of the passage.
Our understanding of the belts and their function is still developping. Recently it was discovered that the belts, interacting with the Earths plasmasphere, function as a barrier to high speed electrons. So all things considered, it is probably something we do not want to mess with too much.
Van Allen himself (apparently) responded to questions about the belt and the consequences for space-travel, and more specifically a FOX TV show that posed the NASA Moon Missions were a hoax:

"The radiation belts of the Earth do, indeed, pose important constraints on the safety of human space flight. The very energetic (tens to hundreds of MeV) protons in the inner radiation belt are the most dangerous and most difficult to shield against. Specifically, prolonged flights (i.e., ones of many months' duration) of humans or other animals in orbits about the Earth must be conducted at altitudes less than about 250 miles in order to avoid significant radiation exposure.

A person in the cabin of a space shuttle in a circular equatorial orbit in the most intense region of the inner radiation belt, at an altitude of about 1000 miles, would be subjected to a fatal dosage of radiation in about one week.  However, the outbound and inbound trajectories of the Apollo spacecraft cut through the outer portions of the inner belt and because of their high speed spent only about 15 minutes in traversing the region and less than 2 hours in traversing the much less penetrating radiation in the outer radiation belt.

The resulting radiation exposure for the round trip was less than 1% of a fatal dosage - a very minor risk among the far greater other risks of such flights. I made such estimates in the early 1960s and so informed NASA engineers who were planning the Apollo flights. These estimates are still reliable. The recent Fox TV show, which I saw, is an ingenious and entertaining assemblage of nonsense. The claim that radiation exposure during the Apollo missions would have been fatal to the astronauts is only one example of such nonsense."

So not fully understood and dangerous but also possibly instrumental in keeping Earth safe from deadly cosmic influences. Not recommended in case of a prolonged visit but also not an unpassable barrier. Otherwise we could not have gone to the Moon, right? And with 60s technology to boot! But that is another topic, which I will leave for a later post.

Monday, January 11, 2016

On the brink of another Great Depression?

In the last week, the stock market experienced one of the worst starts of a year ever. In China the stock trade circuit breaker was triggered twice in just four days. After that emergency shutdown all trade is suspended for the rest of the day. On Thursday the 7th of Januari, actual trade was limited to 15 minutes. The imminent collapse has been predicted on a lot of the independent news channels. 

Two of the most obvious warning signs all those sources mention, namely consistent downward pressure on the oil price and a significant slow down in China, both are a reality right now. It was already obvious that the double digit growth figures China has shown for some time were completely unsustainable. After the 2008 collapse much faith was put in lowering interest, increasing debt and government stimulation initiatives to increase demand and promote spending. 

In China local government could make ends meet by selling local farmland and making it available for urban development. Once an investment company acquires the land rights, they are to build on it immediately. One or more buildings must be present within two years. They can not just wait for a few years, for instance, until the moment there is an actual housing demand in that area...This is one of the reasons behind the so called Chinese ghost towns (a bit of a misnomer since these towns were never inhabited in the first place).

Meanwhile the all important Chinese manufacturing sector keeps shrinking and the year-over-year change in global exports is at the second lowest level since 1958. Maybe it is time to buckle up. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Mass media on the path to extinction

Gone are the days when only a few large mass media institutions dominated (and controlled) the information flow to the general population. Keeping certain facts hidden, blatantly coloring events or presenting them heavily opinionated was pretty easy. The morning paper and evening news was all you got, and if it was not mentioned there, it simply did not happen.

This set up gave some stakeholders (large corporations, the government, powerful lobbyist groups) an unhealthy level of control and a way to direct the opinion of the public. The arrival of The Internet did not change this immediately, but it was the beginning of the end for traditional mass media as an undisputed monopolist in news gathering and information distribution. Some tried to introduce clumsy on-line services, often behind a pay wall. Most of these initiatives failed miserably.

Of course the Internet still had a long way to go before it could replace the mainstream mass media as a day-to-day information source. It had to become cheaper, it needed to be a common utility like electricity, water and gas, something that someone takes for granted. Better software and publishing tools gave the final push. Today newspapers are basically on the path to extinction. The same can be said for the traditional journalist.

There are 2 billion smartphone users worldwide, and anyone can report news, illustrated with photos or videos, on YouTube or a blog. Of course the quality will vary greatly and some channels are just as opinionated as the mass media (or even more so). Most importantly though, the earlier mentioned stakeholders have lost their tight grip on information, their control over opinion and their power to keep things secret. Events are documented while they happen or widely scrutinized after the fact, reducing the chance of keeping things from the public. Older stories that were once covered up, resurface. For the average citizen it is much easier to get an unbiased report, or at least two sides of the story, and form an opionion on the basis of that, instead of being told what to think or steered in the desired direction. And with the genie out of the bottle, I do not see this changing anytime soon.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Audiobook: The Borrowed World

The Borrowed World from Franklin Horton depicts a post apocalyptic scenario, where the USA is delt a cripling blow by ISIS terrorists. Jim Powell and his co-workers were en route, on a business trip, and now find themselves stranded hundreds of miles from home. Their mission: to get back to their loved ones as soon as possible. That is the core of the book, the terrorist attack merely provides the neccessary circumstances and is not delt with in great detail, nor very original for that matter.

The disastrous change from fully functioning society (well, sortof) to rampant chaos is abrupt and condensed but understandable considering the focus of the book. The narrative alternates between Jim and his wife Ellen and their kids, who have their own problems to deal with. I would say, at least in this first book (yes, The Borrowed World is the first in a series), the trek Jim and his colleagues have to make gets centre stage. Jim is a guy who takes his prepping seriously.

Paranoid, some of his co-workers are convinced at first. Jim prefers to call himself "prepared". And of course the events that unfold will prove just that. Most of the time Jim is not very likeable (and this may be a problem for some readers/listeners), a bit of a blunt hardass, with little apparent concern for those who do not share his world view. That said, if you found yourself in a survival situation you probably, no definitely want to be in Jim's group.

After flipping the switch, from organised world to anarchic chaos, the story needs some time to gather momentum. Once gained it picks up pace significantly and escalates into scenes of ever increasing violence and horror. Amidst all this the group takes rational decisions (mostly) and deals with dangers in a coherent, logical and believable way. Jim works for a government agency and he and his colleagues seem to be fully aware of the governments helplessness in times of real crisis.

There is some social commentary to be found in The Borrowed World (gun control and other issues) but since I am not from the US, I know too little about these debates to fully appreciate the hints.

Apart from Jim, the characters are somewhat 2-dimensional and lack details. In this first book it helps to keep a tight focus and get things rolling, but it is a valid criticism. Perhaps this issue is addressed in the following parts of the series. Other than that The Borrowed World sometimes spends a good amount of time describing the gear: weapons, ammunition, gadgets, food, boots and so on. A preppers delight and from the perspective of Jim, understandable. You must be enjoying this whole situation, one of his colleagues mentiones. Jim denies this, but i am not so sure.

Finally, I found the narration by Kevin Pierce to be good, dry as it should be. In dialogues Pierce does not really do voices as such, but subtly changes the diction a bit. On Amazon you can always listen to a sample to see if you like it.

Conclusion: A very entertaining ride, if you like post-apocalyptic tales. I am very much looking forward to listening to volume 2, Ashes of The Unspeakable.

Amazon Audible version.
Listening time: 7 hours, 54 minutes.

Friday, January 8, 2016


I jumped in a little bit sceptical, but consider me a convert. While commuting, doing chores around the house or just relaxing, audiobooks are an excellent way to enjoy a good book. For me getting immersed in a story is actually much easier when listening instead of reading. Also listening seems to require less focus and concentration (at least for me), so ideal if you had a tough day at work and do not have the energy to do much else. There are quite a few places on the net where you can get legit free audiobooks. These will be The Classics that entered the public domain, here you can find the works of Lovecraft or Poe for example. The quality of the narration will vary greatly, is sometimes done by "amateurs" and the format choice is probably limited. Other than that an excellent way to experience an audiobook and decide if you like it, as a concept and leisure activity.
After I established that I did, some research was in order. Where can I find the largest collection of Audiobooks? And at what price? There are a few service providers for example AudioBooks (60.000 books, iOs, Android, GooglePlay), Scribd (a subcription service, also offers e-books, comics and sheet music) and Audible, which I am using right now. As from 2008 Audible is a subsidiary of Amazon, which translates into a very large selection (nearly 200.000 audiobooks), top-notch narration and also premium prices. Audible offers a subscription plan, which may be worthwhile if you are really diving in, but is not required for using the service. There are listening apps for iPhone, iPod, iPad, Android, Windows Phone and Tablet, Kindle Touch, Fire Tablet, Amazon Echo and  iTunes plus a streaming service. When you do not subscribe the price of an audiobook ranges from high to frankly ridiculous.

As an example, let's check the Amazon price for The Martian by Andy Weir. At the moment of writing: for Kindle $5.41, paperback $6.91, hardcover $14.88 and Audible $30.99...OK,I get that the production costs for an audiobook are probably higher but still, it is steep. If you plan to purchase audiobooks regularly a subscription may be a good idea. You can get the first book free, then 1 book a month for $14.95 and a significant discount on subsequent purchases.

Free Audiobooks:

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Peak Oil

In this post I want to talk about Peak Oil, also a topic that could be catogorized under Fringe according to some. So what does the term mean? The concept was introduced in the 50s by M. King Hubbert, a geoscientist working for Shell.
Peak Oil signifies the moment we maximize crude oil extraction, or from another perspective, the moment we used up 50% of the available supplies. After that, it is only downhill. Of course a consequence of this definition is that the precise moment can only be determined in hindsight or that we have exact knowledge about the amount of oil that is still waiting to be extracted at any given moment. I think we can assume the latter is not the case.
At the moment of writing oil prices are low. Do we have more oil than we need? The price seems to be an indication but oil prices are only loosely based on actual supply and demand. Stake holders such as Big Oil, the stock market and last but not least Western governments are influencing (or manipulating) oil prices to such a degree that supply and demand only play a secondary role. One could speculate that the Middle Eastern suppliers keep the price low, or are at least content with the low prices, in order to force competitors that have to use more expensive methods of oil extraction out of business. As an average consumer all you can do is pay up and speculate.
Let's focus on oil price manipulation. Perhaps it all started in 1892 when crude oil was classified a fossil fuel at a Geneva scientific conference, largely thanks to lobbyists employed by Rockefeller (Standard Oil). Fossil means finite means price control. Now wait a minute, is it not obvious that crude oil is a fossil fuel made from decomposed dinosaurs?
Up to this moment in time we extracted so much oil from the Earth that the amount of dinosaurs (and other carbon based life) required would have to be catogorized as improbable. Even more factual, crude oil is drilled at amazing depths (30,000 feet and down), far below the lowest point fossils were ever found. Probably first by the Russians, when they acted upon the earlier work of scientist Vladimir Porfiriev. After a (years) long running scientific excercise, in 1956 he stated "Crude oil and natural petroleum gas have no intrinsic connection with biological matter originating near the surface of the earth. They are primordial materials which have been erupted from great depths". The fossil origins of oil were qualified a hoax, used by interested parties in order to keep the price high or keep the myth of limited supply alive. Oil was a-biotic, non-fossil, and here is the real kicker: renewable (sort of). What?! A-biotic oil has been a purely Russian expertise for a long time, undoubtedly aided by stringent security during the days of the Cold War.
Of course the earlier mentioned stake-holders continue to stick to the fossil oil story. With it, Big Oil controls the price, governments can impose taxes more easily and certain pressure groups can further their agenda.There is much more to be said about Peak Oil, but i will save that for a later post. Below you will find 2 YouTube links on the issue. Thanks for reading, see you next time.
Radio show by GnosticMedia, ep. 241: Abiogenic Petroleum: Peak Oil and “Fossil Fuels” – Debunked.

Interview with Col. Prouty. Prouty spent 9 of his 23 year military career in the Pentagon (1955-1964): 2 years with the Secretary of Defense, 2 years with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and 5 years with Headquarters, U.S. Air Force. In 1955 he was appointed the first "Focal Point" officer between the CIA and the Air Force for Clandestine Operations per National Security Council Directive 5412. He was Briefing Officer for the Secretary of Defense (1960-1961), and for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.