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

Audiobooks

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:
OpenCulture
Lit2Go
LibriVox

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.
https://youtu.be/TPXcQWRYESk
Radio show by GnosticMedia, ep. 241: Abiogenic Petroleum: Peak Oil and “Fossil Fuels” – Debunked.
https://youtu.be/vdSjyvIHVLw

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.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Blog reboot

I had this blog for a few years, initially focussed on my goal to continue publishing my science-fiction and horror movie reviews I used to do for another site. That intention faded somewhat with the passage of time. After that I regularly posted (links to) music videos I found on the net, most of them a little bit obscure, hidden in the Deep realms of the Electronic Music niche. Recently I noticed a lot of these posts were essentially made void thanks to broken links. So I decided to start anew. The focus of the blog will be, purposefully stated in very general terms: keep an open mind, stay curious and question everything. Apart from that, my original interests may still be the subject of future posts, as my fascination with them is still alive.

From the Fringe: Flat Earth, part 2

An unexpected continuation from my previous post, I felt some things needed further exploration and expansion. I mentioned the word belief earlier and that is a key word in understanding what is fueling the Flat Earth debate. Since irrefutable proof, a verifiable high detail video of the entire spinning globe, is absent, so is argued, a large part of the conventional model is based on a belief, assumptions and theories (however well documented and accepted they might be) brought to us by Science (read NASA), the monopolists of space.
The speed the earth spins, the speed the globe moves around the sun, the speed the solar system as a whole is in motion. The very fortunate en unique coincidences regarding the size of the Moon and Sun and respective distances, which makes them appear equal in size and an eclipse possible. And of course the universal theory stop-gap gravity, as the miracle glue that keeps it all together. A big bang, where everything was instantly created out of nothing. Those notions require, Flat Earth argues, a certain leap of faith or belief. From a young age we are presented with the globe concept, for example in the classroom or on television. Bottom line is, we do not know, but believe. The Sun centric model is compared to a religion and the process by which it is embedded in our mind to programming.
Agreed, we are getting near the borders of Tin Foil Hat country now, but the basic idea of scrutinizing generally accepted ideas and concepts, which can be regarded as the basis of the Flat Earth debate or others like it, is interesting nontheless. It does not equate to conspiracy theory perse, I rather like to see it as keeping an open mind, staying curious and questioning everything. A psychological and intellectual excercise that can be rewarding in itself. It is the journey that counts, not the destination. So let's roll with it a little more.
I mentioned religion, it plays a critical role in the Flat Earth debate. The majority of the ancient documents that mention a flat earth are of religious origin. Most imprortantly it all ties in with the question Why? a lot of the sometimes rabid sceptics seem to wonder about. Why would science or NASA hide the fact that the world is indeed not a globe? What could they possible have to gain from this?
Imagine a religion that does not require belief but instead is based on fact. It would be hard to argue with that, and if you did, you would look silly. It gives the forces behind it control. Now remember Flat Earth considers the Sun centric model a religion, with NASA as the high priests, who regularly give the masses new truths about their insignificance in the vast and empty expanses of the universe. Insignificant, since kickstarted into existance thanks to a incredible cosmic coincidence, a fluke basically. A Flat Earth would suggest quite the opposite and could be interpreted as evidence of intelligent design and more importantly, purpose. This would instantly take away control from the powers that be, make Science look very silly and give humanity a whole new perspective and goals, and possibly lead to a better world. Taking this into consideration Flat Earth of course appears to be just as religious as they claim the Sun centric model to be. The why? can be expanded on (much) further using more down to earth arguments dating back to the Cold War, but i will save that for another post.
Some of the active Flat Earth supporters on YouTube do diligent research and theorize about possible models without working towards the desired outcome and ignoring the rest. These guys get it, at least in my book. An open mind, curious, questioning. It is the journey that counts, not the destination. Thanks for reading, see you next time.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

From the Fringe: Flat Earth

The internet has evolved into a fantastic source of entertainment and, if you really want it, education. While scrounging the fringes of it, I stumbled upon this a few weeks ago: the Flat Earth. To my amazement and perhaps embarrassment this topic kept me busy for a while, absorbing me from that moment. It is a notion that is so far removed from the established set of basic truths, for lack of a better word, that mentioning it to someone often results in them physically recoiling and questioning your sanity. The topic went viral, on a modest scale, early 2015, after Mark Sargent published his "Clues" on YouTube, a series of 12 short videos on the Flat Earth. Google Trends, Flat Earth:
Each of Sargent's clues presented a thought provoking idea, planting a seed into the curious and open minded viewer, urging him or her to question beliefs. And that is a key word here. Because what do we really know about the size and shape of Earth?

The concept of the spherical Earth dates back to ancient times. It all started with speculation by Greek philosophers, later mathematicians entered the fray. Greek astronomer Eratosthenes is credited for being the first to measure the circumference of the Earth, around 240 BC, using the shadow of the Sun and trigonometry. For the calculation to work though, Eratosthenes had to make an assumption about the distance of the Sun, which needed to be very, very far away (the sun rays need to be parallel for the math to work).
Sailors meanwhile observed that ships at the horizon seemed to disappear, from the lower part up, indicative of curvature one could argue. Later Magellans circumnavigation was seen as the first practical evidence of a globe. It is not proof however, circumnavigation is not restricted to a sphere. When you are brave (or stupid...) enough to bring up the topic of a Flat Earth, normally people would mention NASA and other space agencies next. And that is where i started my journey in earnest, convinced that it would be incredibly easy to debunk Flat Earth theorists. Trying to find a complete picture of Earth from space should not be difficult.

The moon missions, several outer space probes or one of the countless satellites could provide me with a complete picture. Well it appears that most pictures you can find on the internet are composites, partials, from the 70s, from very far away or manipulated in one way or the other. One time lapse even shows a globe, spinning, with completely stationary clouds.
You could argue that it is not at all necessary to provide a video or detailed picture of the entire Earth since the globe concept is deeply embedded in our set of unshakable beliefs and does not need (re-)confirming. So why bother in the first place? Time wasted. Still a high resolution video of the spinning ball Earth would be one of my priorities if i was to sent a rocket into space. Just because it would be a first, sort of. Which is frankly unbelievable, in 2016.
Diving deeper into the subject I started reading about Antarctica, essential in the Flat Earth theory. On the most common Flat Earth map it forms the outer ring of the disc shaped Earth. One thing that struck me immediately was the size of the continent, it is positively huge. Added to that it seems to be a completely unique part of the world, the coldest (year average temperature on the plateau: -49°C), driest and windiest place on Earth. Conditions can easily be described as hostile.
And thanks to the Antarctic treaty, signed in 1959, effective since 1961, the area is basically off limits to anyone but science. Amazing realisation: more than 9% of the Earths landmass is not used right now.
This is where admiral Richard E. Byrd enters the scene. Byrd was an explorer and adventurer pur sang, who first ventured into the Antarctic in 1928. Other expeditions were undertaken, but most interesting is operation High Jump (1946), later followed by operation Deep Freeze (1955), in which Byrd was less personally involved.
High Jump and Deep Freeze were basically military operations. When Byrd was a guest in a television show he mentioned Antarctica's resource richness and strategic importance. With that in mind the Antarctic treaty does not make much sense, especially considering the timeframe. Environmentalism as we know today did not exist yet. A gallon of fuel was 30 cents (and you could drive your car for about 12 miles on that), consumerism was on the up and the world seemed to be a nuclear testing ground. Perhaps a catastrophic Antarctica claim war was anticipated and wisely avoided. Other than that the treaty is an obscure oddity, from an economic perspective. And we all know money makes the world go round.

What about the earlier mentioned sailors who saw ships disappear on the horizon? This can possibly be explained by the workings of perspective and the vanishing point. When modern powerful optics are used, a disappeared ship comes into full view again, which should not be possible if the ship was invisible due to curvature. Another theme you will come accross many times is the measurable drop due to curvature from a viewpoint, which works out to be 8 inch per mile squared (apparently). With this in mind certain objects such as buildings should not be visible from distance x, because of this drop.

Talking about perspective, i don't think it is possible at all to view the curvature of the earth from relative low altitudes. What is puzzling though is that the horizon is maintained at eye level, regardless of altitude. This is frequently demonstrated by footage from weatherballoons. Note that the cameras on these usually have a fisheye lens which can warp the scene, introducing curvature.
During my research i also found a coast-to-coast radio show were one of the more prominent Flat Earth supporters was to debate the issue with a scientist, a astrophysics professor. The tone of this debate, if you can call it that, surprised me. It appeared more like a trap to me with the Flat Earth supporter being interrupted constantly, while his mike was apparently set to a lower volume. Surely the professor should have been able to destroy this guy without resorting to tricks? Finally, syndicated scientist and entertainer Neil Degrass Tyson recently confirmed that the Earth is in fact not a sphere. What? No, it is pear shaped, apparently. What?!
With this post i will end my research in the matter although i will probably keep following certain Youtube channels. So what did I get out of all this? A strong desire to visit Antarctica (you can book cruises along the west coast) and a renewed conviction that it is vital to keep an open mind, stay curious and question everything. Thanks for reading, see you next time.


Selected Links:
Mark Sargent
NASA