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The Google Lunar XPrize: shooting for the moon

Thursday, 26 January, 2017 0 Comments

Ten days after the death of Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, the Google Lunar XPrize has revealed the names of the five teams going forward to the final stage of its competition. To claim the award of $20 million, the winner must launch by 31 December and their lander has to move at least 500 metres across the surface of the moon, and transmit images and high-definition video back to Earth.

The five finalists are:

  • Synergy Moon, an international venture aiming for cost-effective space exploration
  • SpaceIL, a non-profit operation based in Israel
  • Moon Express, a lunar-resources company based in the US
  • Team Indus, a for-profit lunar company from India
  • Hakuto, a Japanese venture operated by ispace, a private lunar exploration company

Notably absent is Part Time Scientists, a team based in Germany that announced it had secured a launch contract last year. And the really big surprise is the nonappearance of the long-time front-runner US-based Astrobotic. It said it was withdrawing because rushing to make the XPrize deadline conflicted with the company’s goal of building a long-term business. Astrobotic hopes to launch its first mission in 2019.

SpaceIL and Team Indus have signed launch deals with the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and the Indian Space Research Organization’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, respectively, and Hakuto will share the trip with Team Indus. Moon Express and Synergy Moon will launch with Rocket Lab USA and Interorbital Systems.

XPrize


Kindle pre-highlighters suit Microsoft science fiction

Thursday, 10 December, 2015 0 Comments

Here’s what Andrei Codrescu said when he found that passages in a book he’d downloaded onto his Kindle arrived pre-highlighted: “It is surely a mistake, I think. This is a new book. I don’t know about you, but I always hated underlined passages in used books… And then I discovered that the horror doesn’t stop with the unwelcomed presence of another reader who’s defaced my new book. But it deepens with something called view popular highlights, which will tell you how many morons have underlined before so that not only you do not own the new book you paid for, the entire experience of reading is shattered by the presence of a mob that agitates inside your text like strangers in a train station…”

These “pre-highlighters” are a love-hate (mostly hate) thing and the Amazon Kindle Forum thread on the subject is filled with all kinds of erudite comments: “But if you turn off Annotations Backup you won’t get any synching between multiple devices, and if you archive a book, and then bring it back to your Kindle all your notes, highlights, bookmarks, and last place read will all be gone,” Fool for Books says.

Anyway, all of this was brought on by reading the Kindle Edition of “Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft.” The opening story in the collection is “Hello, Hello” by Seanan McGuire and in it she explores the world of machine learning. The pre-highlighters that prompt the New Oxford American Dictionary are uncannily appropriate in this context. Just like the “precogs” of Minority Report with their abilities to see into the future, digital format sci-fi about computers that communicate is an ideal place for predictive popups. The Singularity is getting nearer by the day.

Kindle reading


Czeslaw Milosz predicted CRISPR

Sunday, 28 June, 2015 0 Comments

CRISPR is much in the news these days. It’s a revolutionary technique that makes editing the genes of living beings relatively easy. The implications — both frightening and promising — are such that the scientists who discovered CRISPR have recommended a field-wide moratorium on using the method to edit human embryos. They encourage continued work in editing mature human cells, but draw the line at changing DNA prior to birth. They’re a bit late in bolting the lab door, however, because Chinese scientists have already genetically modified human embryos using CRISPR.

Like artificial intelligence, genome editing is outstripping our ability to understand its ethical implications. But while we wait for Pope Francis or President Obama or Chancellor Merkel to take a position on this issue, let’s read Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. Normalization, as translated by Clare Cavanagh, prepares us for the “onset of universal genetic correctness,” which is even more terrifying than political correctness.

Normalization

This happened long ago, before the onset
of universal genetic correctness.

Boys and girls would stand naked before mirrors
studying the defects of their structure.

Nose too long, ears like burdocks,
sunken chin just like a mongoloid.

Breasts too small, too large, lopsided shoulders,
penis too short, hips too broad or else too narrow.

And just an inch or two taller!

Such was the house they inhabited for life.

Hiding, feigning, concealing defects.

But somehow they still had to find a partner.

Following incomprehensible tastes—airy creatures
paired with potbellies, skin and bones enamored of salt pork.

They had a saying then: “Even monsters
have their mates.” So perhaps they learned to tolerate their partners’
flaws, trusting that theirs would be forgiven in turn.

Now every genetic error meets with such
disgust that crowds might spit on them and stone them.

As happened in the city of K., where the town council
voted to exile a girl

So thickset and squat
that no stylish dress could ever suit her,

But let’s not yearn for the days of prenormalization.
Just think of the torments, the anxieties, the sweat,
the wiles needed to entice, in spite of all.

Czeslaw Milosz (1911 – 2004)


Current reading: The Martian

Monday, 8 December, 2014 0 Comments

The Martian “I guess I should explain how Mars missions work, for any layman who may be reading this. We got to Earth orbit the normal way, through an ordinary ship to Hermes. All the Ares missions use Hermes to get to and from Mars. It’s really big and cost a lot so NASA built only one.

Once we got to Hermes, four additional unmanned missions brought us fuel and supplies while we prepared for our trip. Once everything was a go, we set out for Mars. But not very fast. Gone are the days of heavy chemical fuel burns and trans-Mars injection orbits.”

So says the narrator of The Martian by Andy Weir. The book has been a commercial and critical success: The Wall Street Journal called it “the best pure sci-fi novel in years,” and the film version, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain, will be released in November next year.

The book is more topical than ever, considering the spectacular success of the Orion spacecraft, which soared into space on Friday before splashing down on target in the Pacific ocean. NASA says that Orion is destined to be the first of a fleet that will carry humans beyond the Moon to Mars. Opponent say that putting humans into space is futile, expensive, dangerous and ultimately harmful to science. They argue that robot craft represent the future of space exploration. It’s a debate that’s bound to get more heated in the coming years and The Martian offers a cautionary message:

The Ares Program. Mankind reaching out to Mars to send peo­ple to another planet for the very first time and expand the hori­zons of humanity blah, blah, blah. The Ares 1 crew did their thing and came back heroes. They got the parades and fame and love of the world.

Ares 2 did the same thing, in a different location on Mars. They got a firm handshake and a hot cup of coffee when they got home.

Ares 3. Well, that was my mission. Okay, not mine per se. Com­mander Lewis was in charge. I was just one of her crew. Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be “in command” of the mission if I were the only remaining person.

What do you know? I’m in command.

I wonder if this log will be recovered before the rest of the crew die of old age. I presume they got back to Earth all right. Guys, if you’re reading this: It wasn’t your fault. You did what you had to do. In your position I would have done the same thing. I don’t blame you, and I’m glad you survived.


The Rosetta Stone

Wednesday, 12 November, 2014 0 Comments

The stone here is Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and the Rosetta is the European Space Agency satellite that will drop a robot probe called Philae today onto this clump of icy rock 600 million kilometres above where this blog post is being written. Confirmation of the hoped-for success is expected at around 1600 GMT when Philae sends a tweet about its new surroundings to us back here on Earth.

On 20 July 1969, when the first man walked on the Moon, some 500 million people watched the event on TV. A smaller audience is predicted for today’s landing. There is no Neil Armstrong, after all, and most people cannot pronounce Churyumov-Gerasimenko, never mind finding it in the night sky. Still, there’s Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for all those who want to follow the progress of the satellite and its probe.

Interest in outer space is not what it used to be. The Cold War rivalry that spurred so much scientific competition has cooled, the costs are alarming, the dangers are real and earthly concerns are more pressing these days. Still, the current cinematic success of Interstellar might help revive enthusiasm for interplanetary adventure. With luck, Philae will do the business today. If it does, ESA will feel entitled to be regarded as a serious player alongside NASA. Philae will have to attract more than 1.7 million followers before it can match the drawing power of Curiosity Rover, however.

Comet landing place


The Genghis Khan way: Russia’s neo-imperialism

Wednesday, 22 January, 2014 0 Comments
The Genghis Khan way: Russia’s neo-imperialism

On Monday, in a Neue Zürcher Zeitung article titled “The Third Empire,” Ulrich Schmid looked at how the Russian culture scene is being exploited by Putin’s authoritarian state for its imperialistic propaganda goals. “Largely unnoticed by the world press, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was awarded the ‘Imperial Culture’ prize in January 2012 for his ‘resistance to Western expansion’. The patrons of the honour were the Russian writer’s guild, the Russian literature foundation and several Orthodox organizations.”

Schmid notes as well that the steppes of Russian cinema have been experiencing something of a Mongolian invasion of late. Films such as Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan (2007), The Secret of Genghis Khan (2009) and The Horde (2012) have been big hits. All of them portray the image of strong ruler who created a gigantic empire thanks to his unconditional demand for discipline. The not-so-subtle message is that Mongolian harshness and the Russian capacity to endure suffering are the perfect platform for empire building. This interpretation of history, writes Schmid, hews close to the ideology of Eurasianism. Seen through that prism, the Western model of the market economy plus representative democracy appears alien to a Russia that was, in parts, dominated by the Mongols for more than 300 years. Eurasianism claims that Russian culture is different its European counterpart due to this Asian impact and that Russia, therefore, must follow a separate path. The popular enthusiasm for all things Mongol plays into Putin’s hands as he’d like to create a Eurasian Union, which in terms of economic power and political weight, would act as a counterbalance to the European Union.

He’s got big dreams, that Vlad.

The Horde


It’s warm in Melbourne

Thursday, 16 January, 2014 0 Comments

When the temperature reached 43.3 degrees at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne yesterday, the referee, Wayne McEwen, deemed the conditions to be unsafe for players so he applied the “extreme heat” policy, suspending all play on outdoor courts. For the BBC, this was a golden opportunity to trot out the old tropes. “2013 was recently declared Australia’s hottest year on record,” it reported, adding, “The Climate Council report attributed the development to climate change, caused by greenhouse gases.”

Despite the hardships experienced by the tennis millionaires and their fans, however, 2014 is set to offer cold comfort to the global warming believers. Paradoxically, it looks like being a very good year for unbelievers in the cult of AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming). Those frequent-flyer UN jags to negotiate a global climate treaty have been discredited; the notion that the US Senate would ratify a climate treaty sounds farfetched; austerity has sobered up the EU to the point where increasing energy prices as a way of reducing carbon emissions is off the agenda, and China and India are not remotely interested in giving up their development objectives for the goal of carbon control.

To be sure, global warming sceptics don’t have a platform like the BBC to promote their cause, but the absurdity of the activists is a gift that keeps on giving. In December, warmist scientists and reporters sailed to Antarctica to find signs of the global warming they claim has changed that continent since Douglas Mawson explored it a century ago. Instead, they found sea ice where Mawson didn’t and their ship got locked in. Who rescued them? China and the US. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Tom Switzer declared: “Game finally up for carboncrats.”

Melbourne


Why four doses of ipilimumab costs more than $100,000

Friday, 3 January, 2014 0 Comments

“Like all wars, the one against cancer is going to cost a lot of money, one way or another,” declares The Economist in its current issue in an article about a new campaign against cancer that’s being mounted by researchers and drug companies. Among the therapies examined in “Getting close and personal” is ipilimumab, a drug to treat melanoma that was launched in 2011 by Bristol-Myers Squibb and branded as Yervoy. This is a so-called “checkpoint inhibitor”, which allows immune-system cells called T-lymphocytes to attack cancer cells. Along with fighting melanoma, ipilimumab may also hinder lung cancer and prostate cancer. The stumbling block is the expense for the patient, especially in the US, where four doses of ipilimumab costs more than $100,000.

Why $25,000 a shot? Because bringing a new drug to market in America typically costs upwards of $100 million and can take as many as 15 years of research, testing and regulatory review. The drug companies, understandably, will want to recoup their investment after such a lengthy, pricey process. However, there’s hope on the horizon in the form of “adaptive trial design”, which looks at patients’ reactions to a drug early in a clinical trial to modify the way the rest of the trial is handled. The goal, according to The Wall Street Journal, is to more quickly identify those drugs that are working and those that aren’t. “Researchers Aim to Speed Cures to Patients” admits that the process is tedious but not without some glimmers of hope:

“In a recent hopeful sign, adaptive trial design enabled two experimental breast-cancer drugs to deliver promising results in a clinical trial after just six months of testing, far shorter than the typical length of a clinical trial. Researchers assessed the results while the trial was in process and found that cancer had been eradicated in more than half of one group of patients, a particularly favorable outcome. The breast cancer trial, known as I-Spy 2, is testing up to 12 experimental drugs.”

Faster, please.


Big data bull: Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie

Monday, 11 November, 2013 0 Comments

There’s a nice living to be made by conflating Big Data with Big Brother and scaring the life out of ordinary internet users. The likes of Andrew Keen and Evgeny Morozov are typical of the scaring species. “Both end up writing bad books because any interesting arguments they might have in them are overwhelmed by their need to position themselves in the attention economy,” wrote Henry Farrell in The Tech Intellectuals.

Now that that’s been said, let’s turn to Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie, a Holstein bull born in the USA in 2004. After the United States Department of Agriculture examined the 50,000 markers on his genome, it declared him to be the best bull in the land, and his 346 daughters today confirm his excellence. But his superiority was presaged by the data. “When Freddie had no daughter-records our equations predicted from his DNA that he would be the best bull,” Paul VanRaden, a research geneticist with the US Department of Agriculture, told Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic, who wrote “The Perfect Milk Machine: How Big Data Transformed the Dairy Industry.”

“Data-driven predictions are responsible for a massive transformation of America’s dairy cows. While other industries are just catching on to this whole ‘big data’ thing, the animal sciences — and dairy breeding in particular — have been using large amounts of data since long before VanRaden was calculating the outsized genetic impact of the most sought-after bulls with a pencil and paper in the 1980s,” writes Madrigal. Vegans and Big Data cynics inclined to condemn the dairy/data industry and its objectives should hold their fire because, as Madrigal points out, a lot of the statistical techniques and methodology developed by animal breeders connecting phenotype and genotype “could reach outside the medical realm to help us understand human’s evolution as well.” Prediction: Badger-Bluff Fanny Freddie will be producing cream long after Evgeny Morozov has been cast into the milk churn of history.

Bull by Picasso


Curiosity tweets a huge step for mankind

Monday, 6 August, 2012

At 1.32 EST, the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity, tweeted: “I’m safely on the surface of Mars. GALE CRATER I AM IN YOU!!! #MSL”. Congratulations, NASA.

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