Friday, November 30, 2012

Weird Worlds

The planet Mercury. At high noon, it's hot enough that lead would run like water. Just about the hottest place in the Solar System, excepting only the Sun itself. And just about the last place you'd go to look for ice cubes.

Except, of course, that you could keep a stash of them there. You'd just need to find the right place.

It's been a year for some really weird astronomy news. This week's highlight was confirmation of something long suspected. Like our own Moon, Mercury has polar craters that never, ever see sunlight. Even though the noontime sun is blisteringly hot, the eternal shadow of the polar craters gets cold, and stays cold. Vacuum is a very good thermal insulator. Radar data seemed to indicate it was a possibility, and that possibility was confirmed this week by the MESSENGER orbiter.

Not that this will ever have much practical use. Mercury is a horrible place to go for an ice run. In terms of energy, it's far easier to fling something into interstellar space than to put it into orbit around Mercury. But it illustrates nicely something Sir Arthur Clarke used to say: not only is the Universe stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine.

Going a little farther afield, earlier in the year we had some interesting news from Mars. Last month, the rover Curiosity found some shiny things in the Martian soil. What kind of shiny things, you ask? Well, we don't know yet. Possibly a fairly mundane mineral, possibly something metallic. It will take some time to sift through the results. And even if there is gold in them thar hills, it'll be some time yet before we'll be able to go out and get it.

Mind you, people are working on ways to do just that. Take Elon Musk, for example. While his immediate goals are slightly more modest -- haul cargo to the Space Station, and later on, crew -- his ultimate goal is far more ambitious. What he really wants is to plant a colony on Mars. While it's an ambitious goal, and beyond our current abilities, it's something we'll eventually be able to do. Recent studies have revealed that Mars' atmosphere, while thin, is dense enough to provide enough protection from radiation that we could live on the surface. The radiation environment was really the last unknown. Everything else that a settlement needs is there: water, oxygen, carbon, metals. It'll be hard at first, but it's an important insurance policy for the species.

Going farther afield still, we can start looking at planets around other stars. It's hard to believe now, but only twenty years ago, we were still debating whether or not they were even possible. One of the projects I considered working on for my dissertation, way back when, was a numerical study on the theoretical stability of orbits in a binary star system. I had a gut feeling that if a planet were close enough to one or the other of the stars, the orbit would be stable enough that the companion star wouldn't perturb it and fling it off into deep space. As we've discovered time and again over the last twenty years, my hunch was right. And just last month, it was announced that we discovered a planet circling one of our nearest stellar neighbors, Alpha Centauri B. The planet, called Alpha Centauri Bb, is about our size. The similarities end there. Its year is just over three days long. It's 25 times closer to Alpha Centauri B than we are to our own Sun. While Earth pokes along at 30 kilometers per second, this planet screams across the sky almost five times faster. And, as you could imagine, it's hot. Noontime on Mercury is hot enough to melt lead. Noontime there is hot enough to melt steel. Needless to say, building a lander would be ... a challenge.

But a flyby would be relatively easy. Relatively, I say; it'd still be damn hard. We've given some thought to how to get the job done, though. The first serious proposal for an interstellar probe was the Daedalus project, a design study run by (who else?) the British Interplanetary Society. The idea is being updated and refined under Project Icarus, named for the son of Daedalus, and run by the BIS and the Tau Zero Foundation. They began the design study in 2009, and expect to be finished with that phase in 2014. Not that they expect to have a currently-realizable design by then. We've got a long way to go before we have that capability. But they expect to be able to figure out what we need to do to get there from here.

It's a marvelous time to be alive. I know people who'd rather live in the past. Not me. This is my time: here, at the beginning, with untold wonders spread out before us, waiting to be uncovered. There's no place I'd rather be.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Video Del Fuego, Part LVII

I have to say, I'm a big fan of deep-fried turkey. But you have to be careful if you do it. Really careful. Boiling hot oil and open flames are things that demand the utmost respect and careful attention, and even if you do everything right, stupid things can still happen. Case in point:

And speaking of turkeys...

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Video Del Fuego, Part LVI

Now that the election's over, I have more time for the finer things in life. One of them is Orbiter. It's a freeware spaceflight simulator that I've talked about from time to time.

You can do just about anything with it. Want to re-live highlights from spaceflight history? Want to try out one of the designs that almost made it? Or do you want to try something that might be just beyond the horizon? It's your choice. Plus, Orbiter can be as hard or as easy as you want it to be. Some scenarios, you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. None of those involve the XR-2. The Ravenstar is definitely a pilot's airplane. I've flown it to orbit, but I've never managed to land the SOB in one piece.

But here's a guy who has:

And, as a bonus, an Apollo 11 re-do:

If you like flight sims, and you don't mind a bit of a learning curve, Orbiter is well worth a look.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Election 2012: Post-Mortem

I'm not entirely sure what to make of what happened yesterday and last night. I'm going to need a little help.

Dammit. I've already said that.

Anyway, now that it's too late to vote, early or often, let's see if we can't figure out what went down.

1) Intrade FTW! Once again, the betting market established the mark to beat, with one notable exception. Based on their guidance as of Friday, I predicted Virginia would go blue, but Florida would go red. That was a coin-flip, one that I just flat out called wrong. But with the exception of Florida, nothing happened last night that came as a surprise. At least, nothing voting-related.

2) Morning Crow: I'm not sure if he's said anything about it yet, but Nate Silver's site FiveThirtyEight also did pretty well last night. His final EV total came to 313, and I'm not entirely sure how he got that number ... but I'm guessing it was a weighted average of 303 and 332, the former being the total if Romney wins Florida, the latter if Obama wins that state. We just don't know which one it is yet, and may not for some time. But beyond Mr. Silver's acumen, polls in general have done really well this year. If you were going by FiveThirtyEight or Pollster last night, you wouldn't have seen many surprises either. The people who dissed the math nerds are eating a heaping helping of crow this day.

3) Not All Polls Are Created Equal: The guys who set up the Unskewed Polls website were convinced, utterly convinced, that the polling data was lying to them. So they fiddled with the data, using some weighted averaging of their own. Except ... the polls weren't lying. They were a very accurate picture of what was happening on the ground. Their final, definitive prediction ... well, it's just sad. Then, when you add pundits who take said prediction seriously...

4) The Epic Meltdown: Some things must be seen to be believed.

Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time on live television, paradigm shifting without a clutch! One can almost feel sorry for people like Karl Rove. They've bought in so thoroughly, so deeply, into the mental model they've created of the world around them that they've forgotten that the map is not the territory. Now, here's an interesting question, one that we can answer by stages in 2014 and 2016: will the smarter consumers of conservative media begin to ask the hard questions? Some will, because some already have: Andrew Sullivan being one, and David Frum being another. Some of the leaders will tire of losing. They'll stop paying attention to the outlets who merely tell the listeners and viewers what they think they want to hear.

5) The Twilight Of An Era: The Goldwater-Reagan era of modern conservatism is now well and truly over. It's too early to tell what will take its place, but the Reagan coalition has hit the reef, hard, and is taking on water. It won't last much longer.

6) Handicapping the 2016 Field: I've said before that "It's His Turn" is powerful mojo within the Republican party, which puts Rick Santorum in the pole position for 2016. Except that that's not always true. The exceptions are illustrative. Only three times in the last sixty years has "It's His Turn" failed. It failed in 1952, when Eisenhower won the nomination. It failed in 1964, when Goldwater won. And it failed in 2000, when George W. Bush won. The 1964 case is a bit of an outlier, since the GOP had a bit of a civil war that year between the hard-line conservatives and the moderates. That, in my view, was the beginning of the Goldwater-Reagan era. But let's look at 1952 and 2000: both occurred after multi-term Democratic administrations. In 1952, a 21-year-old casting his first ballot did not have a Republican President in his or her living memory. The Republicans were desperate for a win. Ordinarily they'd never give the nomination to a neophyte who'd never even voted before ... but this neophyte was the victorious savior of Europe. Not everyone liked Ike, but even most of those who didn't respected him. Then, in 2000, you had Clinton's two terms, and he was still fairly popular even at the end. The Republicans wanted a winner. I kind of expect this to repeat for 2016. Except, that I also kind of expect the kind of scrum that broke out in 1964.  We'll have to see how the 2014 mid-terms shake out. It'll be interesting, if nothing else.

7) And How'd Those SuperPACs Work Out For You? Six billion dollars were shoveled down the bottomless maw of the Media Beast, to no noticeable effect. The people who expected Mitt Romney to surf a tsunami of SuperPAC cash to the White House have been bitterly disappointed. The Air Game has squared off against the Ground Game, and lost decisively. Now, it may not always work that way, but at the end of the day it's the ballots at the polling place that count. Ads won't get those feet to the booth. The good word of someone you know and trust will. It'll be interesting to see how politicians react, once they digest how utterly useless SuperPACs seemed to be this time around.

8) The People Have Spoken! But what the roaring purple Hell have they said? They re-elected a Democrat to the White House. They also re-elected a Democratic majority to the Senate ... but returned a Republican majority to the House. I think John Boehner might have been right this afternoon, when he basically said that the American people expect them to hug it out and make this $&!@ work. If they wanted Obama to drive on with full force, they'd have given him a majority with which to do it, which they didn't. But, by returning him to the Presidency, they've basically said that they want to keep the Affordable Care Act in place. And they've said that they trust his vision better than Romney's, but they don't want him going crazy with it. Eh, it ain't the worst of results. And, they've also approved same-sex marriage in several states, and a major liberalization of drug laws in a few others. Like I said, I'm really not sure what to make of all this. TNC has a round-up, and I kind of agree with his assessment. The templates are shifting, and I don't entirely know what that means. It'll be interesting to find out.

9) Best Live-Blog Line Ever: Speaking of TNC, he had a beaut -- "9:55 To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their bloggers..."

10) Eight-Year Bloggiversary! Or near enough as makes no difference. I started this thing in the aftermath of the 2004 election, when I thought that someone ought to start talking the Democrats down off of the ledges. There were some pretty unhelpful things being said, back when. Things have gotten better.

And, that's a wrap. Election 2012 is now in the books. When historians write their thoughts of our times, I think one of the things they'll say of 2008 and 2012 is that while a majority of Americans were ready to elect an African-American President, a sizable minority were not yet ready to be governed by one. But they'll also write that we muddled through it, somehow. Because we're Americans, and that's just how we roll.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Election 2012: Joe Scarborough Fails Statistics Forever

On August 6th of this year, the Mars Science Laboratory touched down in Gale Crater. It was a feat of celestial navigation that's hardly had any equal. Not only because it was able to hit such a small target after flying three hundred fifty million miles, but because of this:

Entry into Mars' atmosphere had been timed with such exquisite precision that the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was in position to take a picture of Curiosity floating down under its parachute. Modern guidance and navigation techniques are sufficiently precise that even after a flight of ten months and hundreds of millions of miles, one spaceship can look over its shoulder and snap a photo of another. Part of the mathematical tool kit that makes it all possible is Bayesian analysis, a statistical method for reducing unknown sources of error. The same kind of analysis can be performed on any data, including statistical data, and Nate Silver does this with polling data over at FiveThirtyEight ... and, for what it's worth, it's a mathematical tool kit that Joe Scarborough has gone on public record describing as "a joke."

Mind you, I enjoy his program greatly, and my wife watches it every morning. But Joe, if you don't understand what Bayesian analysis is or how it works, could you kindly shut the Hell up about it?

We're down to the last four days, my friends. It's the two-minute warning. Either man could win at this point, obviously, but the probabilities are beginning to narrow down. Nate Silver's analogy of Barack Obama being ahead by a field goal is an apt one. If he can get a first down, he can run out the clock. About all Romney can hope for is for him to fumble, or throw a pick-six. And it's important to note that either of those two things could happen. It's all coming down to a handful of states, and even a handful of counties within those states. With fewer than a hundred hours to go, every second counts.

And now, over to the part of the program that Joe hates: the numbers. As usual, my data sources are Intrade, FiveThirtyEight, and Pollster. Incidentally, I'll answer a question, in case you're curious: why those three? I like Intrade, because it captures that whole "wisdom of crowds" thing. And it was freakishly accurate last time. Until it gets something important horribly wrong, it's in the mix. And I like FiveThirtyEight, because it uses techniques I learned during my time as a GN&C weenie in graduate school. Pollster, on the other hand, uses a more traditional "poll of polls" approach. If three different methods reach more or less the same answer, then it's probably a pretty dependable answer. Anyway, for the last time this season, here they are, current as of Friday afternoon.

From Intrade:

Barack Obama (D): 66.9%, 290 EV (+3.1%, +14 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 33.1%, 244 EV (-3.2%, -14 EV)

From FiveThirtyEight:

Barack Obama (D): 81.1%, 303.3 EV (+6.7%, +7.9 EV)
Mitt Romney (R): 18.9%, 234.7 EV (-6.7%, -7.9 EV)

From Pollster:

Strong D: 237 EV (+/- 0)
Lean D: 44 EV (+4)
Tossup: 66 (+11)
Lean R: 0 (-15)
Strong R: 191 (+/- 0)

There's no good news here for a Republican. The closest thing to good news for Romney is that he's got a firm floor of 191. That hasn't budged in months. But his "lean" support has bounced into and out of the "toss-up" column all along. Now, I think that a fair bit of that will end up in his court. But from that firm floor of 191, he needs all of the toss-ups, plus at least 13 from Obama's "leaning" column. And I don't think he's going to get all of the toss-ups. Some of those are going to bounce Obama's way, and that's all gravy anyway, since if all his "strong" and "lean" support proves out, that's all he needs.

What Mitt Romney Must Do: He's got to get every last one of his people to the polls. Every. Last. One. And even that might not be enough. But that's what it comes down to, now. His campaign has to execute, and get their people in to vote.

What Barack Obama Must Do: See above, except that he's working from a slightly better position. As I said earlier, all he needs is a first down and he can run out the clock. His main enemy now isn't Romney, it's Complacency. He can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, if he works at it. Execution, and a strong ground game, those are the keys.

And The Winner Is... Unemployment is down. The housing market is entering a real recovery. Gas prices are stable. Incumbent Presidents almost never lose unless the economy is totally dead, the international situation has gone south, or both. While the economy isn't what anyone would call good, it's better now than it has been, and that's good enough for the advantages of incumbency to work their magic. So, I'm going to make my semi-official prediction: Barack Obama wins re-election, with 303 votes in the Electoral College. The popular vote will probably be 51-49, or something very close to it. It's a closer race than last time, and Mitt Romney has run a pretty good race for someone who has always come across as a collaboration between the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and Disney's Animatronics. But this was always Obama's race to lose, and in that first debate, he sure gave it the old college try. If you can still find someone willing to take the bet, I'd take 2-1 odds, and I'd take 300 for the over-under in the Electoral College.

It's too late now to vote early. But, it's never too late to vote often! I'll check in Tuesday night, and see how things turn out.