Archive for August, 2008

Jet Flies in front of the Moon

Sunday, August 24th, 2008
What are the chances?

What are the chances? Click image to see the movie.

A little over a year ago, I was imaging the moon and managed to catch this highly unlikely event.  I was using my TEC 140 APO with a 2x Powermate (focal length just under 2000mm) with a small webcam. I had already taken 16 or so movie clips of various regions on the moon. About 9 seconds into the original 28 second clip I saw the jet fly by on my monitor. What are the chances that an airliner would fly directly through the center of a very small field of view while someone was taking a movie? Next to zero. This 12 second excerpt (9.9MB) has been reduced in size from the original. The original movie is about 290MB so I pretty much had to compress it. Nevertheless, you can see the turbulent thrust jets from the engines and the wake from the fuselage. Near the end you’ll see the wing tip vortex travel from bottom to top. I’ve used this movie in a number of talks that I’ve given on astronomy and astrophotography and it is always a hit. I hope you enjoy it as well.

Camera: DMK 31AF03.AS (Monochrome 1024×768)
Lens: TEC-140 with Televue 2″ 2X Powermate
Focal Length: 1960mm
Aperture: f/14
Exposure: 1/15 sec
Filter: #56 Dark Green

What’s Pickens up to?

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

T. Boone Pickens has been very active recently. You have probably seen his first series of commercials publicizing his plans (actually his actions) to promptly get the US off of its oil habit addiction. Many of you, myself included, noticed this, but paid little attention to his initial round of ads. He was recently promoting his plan in Las Vegas at a democratic conference. While this news was making its way off of front page news circles, a coworker emailed me an outline of his plan. While reading it the essence of the plan hit me. Yes, the initial series of infomercials touting the widespread availability and value of wind power are what you may be familiar with. The real genius of the plan is that it advocates the use of natural gas in transportation systems to bridge the gap leading up to technological demonstrations of alternatives like biofuel, electric cars, … . It took a while before the full impact of the plan sunk in. The key to any alternative energy source is the time it takes to be adopted and penetrate the market. One of the longest lived infrastructures are buildings (homes and commercial real estate have lifetimes in excess of 50 years). Automobiles, trucks, planes, and trains are a close second at 8-20 years. Pickens’ plan advocates the conversion of the transportation infrastructure from oil to natural gas. Aside from the cleanliness of natural gas relative to oil, the brilliance of this plan lies in the fact that existing vehicles can be converted from oil to natural gas at a minimal cost (relative to the cost of total replacement with hybrids or electrics – not to mention the infrastructure costs). I have had the opportunity to drive dual fuel vehicles that ran on both natural gas and gasoline. There is essentially no difference in convenience or performance. Imagine a tax on gasoline that funds a tax credit that offsets the cost of converting an existing gasoline/diesel vehicle over to natural gas. Both the increased cost of gas along with the rebate to offset the cost of conversion would quickly move us from oil to natural gas for our transportation needs. The US natural gas resources would create internal wealth, decrease significantly our trade deficit, and turn an unstable part of the world into something less important than it currently is. This is just a bridge to our new undefined energy future. It buys us time. It creates jobs and wealth within the US. By reducing our trade deficit, it gives us the capital to develop and deploy the long-lived solutions that are still in development. This is exciting and I am impressed with the plan. Let’s hope the message can be well formulated and spread widely.

New Theme

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

I’m working on a new theme. Since I’m at the point where I need to debug it on the live blog you may notice some oddness. Also, I’m testing using only FireFox and would be interested in hearing how it looks on other browsers. I can test it with Safari, but as far as Internet Explorer goes I only have IE 6.

The new theme is a liquid version of my old fixed theme, but with a fixed width sidebar. I am aware of at least one problem with the footer not spanning the entire page width. I need to get my </div>s in order. Let’s just say that I do not understand CSS and I’m doing this pretty much by trial and error. When I’m not actively working on the theme I’ll switch back to the fixed width version.

Please bear with me.

Petition to the FCC

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008
Mesh Network

Mesh Network

Google is behind a petition to the FCC that requests that they set aside the soon-to-be-vacated VHF & UHF analog TV spectrum for free access (open, unrestricted – to some extent). Their vision is a wireless network from coast to coast with few, if any, gaps and free access for all. Just think of an iPhone that does everything the current one does without the need for a telephone company. Imagine home internet access with DSL, Cable, or dial-up service costs. Think cable or satellite TV without the cable or satellite TV companies. Think access everywhere and anytime without having to sell your arm/leg/first-born to a borderline monopolistic company raking in huge (I’ll argue excessive) profits. Imagine the reliability of a mesh network. Go to the website, read the FAQ, and sign the petition.

OS agnostic computing

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

Laptop or large PDA?

This story caught my eye. Dell and Intel announce a laptop that provides the usual set of mobile applications and appears to do so without an OS. Or at least, none of the major OSes you usually find. Is this just a laptop sized PDA or the start of something more? Most computers nowadays allow the user to have multiple applications running concurrently – not just ready to resume instantly – but all of them actually doing something at the same time. I understand why that is good, but is it what we always need? I used to have many things going on at the same time and I sometimes still do (mainly when doing astrophotograpghy). Long gone are my days, compiling and running massive jobs. I mostly aggregate, sort, link, and condense information these days – and I do not need a 3GHz CPU running full blast to do so. I for one can’t type or read that fast and that is what I do most while on the computer. I have often wondered what it would be like to have a minimal OS to switch tasks and provide load/unload services for applications that provide all of their own services. I hope we are about to find out. This won’t replace the PC, but does allow it to expand into a whole new direction.

FLI Nikon adapter

Saturday, August 16th, 2008
EF to FLI adapter

EF to FLI adapter

I recently purchased a dedicated imager for astrophotography from FLI. One of the accessories I needed was something to mate the camera to my Takahashi Epsilon 180. The design of that scope requires very precise spacing of the camera from the mounting flange. Tak makes a number of wide mount T-rings and I had been using the Canon EF version with my other cameras. Unfortunately FLI only makes a Nikor adapter. So, I bought that adapter and the Tak F-mount T-ring. I was a little dismayed to find out that the FLI Nikor adapter does not lock onto the F-mount. In fact, it is not even tight. Worries of the camera falling off the scope and the loose fit causing enough flex to make uniform focus across the entire detector impossible have caused me to look for other solutions. I was thinking about having a part made and found Precise Parts, a small custom machining company that specializes in astronomy equipment. This is not the first request for an adapter like this they have received and they are making one for me based on their own design. That relieves me from the hassle of getting all of the dimensions correct and communicating them. It should arrive in 2 weeks. I’ll let you know what I learn about that and them.

Mass and Space Time

Friday, August 15th, 2008
Gravity is the effect of curved space time.

Gravity is the effect of curved space time.

I’ve been working on a simulation at work that includes, among other things, interplanetary travel. One of the things I frequently deal with is that things are not currently where they appear to be – due to the finite speed of light. However, orbital mechanics requires that the current position of the gravitational bodies be used – not the positions they will be in (or were in) when the light-travel time is considered. Another way of saying this is that gravity travels at infinite speed. But viewing it this way is flawed. The curvature of space time is linked to the body (mass or energy) as it moves. There is no separation between the action/motion of the body and the reaction of space time. They are essentially one and the same. So, the question I’d like to pose here is whether they are in fact the same. Is the fastest speed attainable by a body, the speed of light, actually limited by the fastest speed at which space time can change?

Extending this thought a bit, is inertial mass a manifestation of the ‘momentum’ of 4-D volume of space time? I’m thinking here (in 2-D space) of visualizing the motion of a body as a traveling ripple in the fabric of space time. Without a force acting on it, the ripple (and therefore the body) travel at constant speed and direction. There is no way to prove that mass exists without trying to exert a force on a body. There is no direct measurement of mass, only through the measurable forces created by a mass-determining apparatus. Such an apparatus invariably tries to push or pull on the body in order to determine its mass. The property of mass might not be intrinsic to the body, but rather to the curvature of space time the body’s existence creates. I’m not sure there is anything useful in thinking of things this way. It may, however, free one to think about the mechanisms by which matter and energy interact with space time. What role does the Higgs Boson play in all of this? How does the Higgs relate to the photon (or any other form of energy) having a mass? I guess I’m a little rusty on my General Relativity.

Post length

Friday, August 8th, 2008

I just realized that I don’t do short posts.

Sub-prime Mortgage Meltdown

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

A lot of people don’t understand what the sub-prime mortgage meltdown is, why it is happening now, and what it all means. That is not surprising despite the daily media coverage that has been ongoing for months now. I’d like to equate the meltdown to the game of Hot Potato. The kid’s game of hot potato is similar to musical chairs. An item is passed around from player to player while music plays. They player caught holding the potato when the music stops is out of the game. This game of financial hot potato goes like this. People want to buy homes, after all it is the American Dream. Others want to make money building homes, selling homes, and financing homes. All of these folks are players in this game of hot potato. I’ll come back to a few points to fill in the details in a bit. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, large Banks, and Insurance companies are the ones who create and toss the potato around. The potato is a bundle of mortgages. These players want to hold them when they are ‘cool’ because they provide a steady source of income for them and they also provide stability and diversity to their portfolio of loans and assets. The bundle of mortgages representing the potato, is in theory, designed to stay comfortably cool because it is also made up of mortgages that represent diversified risk. A few might be bad, but the whole lot should be OK. The temperature of the potato is both a measure of the risk it represents and the difference between the cost of buying it and the value it has. A potato with inherently high risk or that is worth less than it costs is the hot potato. This game of financial hot potato is a little different then the one you played as a kid. First off there are many, many players. So many so that this game has a lot of potatoes being passed around. The potatoes are also going in every direction. At any given time a player can be holding several potatoes. Every potato has a different temperature too and you don’t know whether the ones coming your way are hot or not. Control of the music is given to the borrowers. They also control the heat of the potatoes to some extent since the borrower’s ability to repay the mortgage is the inherent risk and it changes with the state of the economy. The music stops periodically, when the loans with adjustable rates (ARMs) reset to a higher rate. The temperature of the potatoes also change at this point in time because the risk of default on a loan is linked to the size of the jump in the loan interest rate (linked primarily to the rate of inflation via the Feds interest rates) and the growth in the economy (borrower’s ability to absorb the increased monthly payment via low inflation and modest increases in wages). For years this game of financial hot potato has been very boring. When the music stopped, none of the potatoes were hot. Recently, the so called housing bubble has been heating up the potatoes. High risk borrowers were given loans that they should not have. This, in my view, was driven primarily by the greed of home builders, the greed of mortgage brokers who made the questionable loans in the first place, the arrogance of the home buyers who expected the American dream to be their right (as opposed to a goal), and the greed-blinded financial institutions who did not or could not see the true risk. Things did not get really hot until very recently as energy costs rose and began to rattle through the economy. This increased inflation while also reducing jobs – classic stagflation (visible as a prolonged and significant drop in the value of the dollar). This combination creates a budget imbalance for the borrowers. The wages aren’t growing enough to keep up with the daily needs and so the discretionary part of their budget decreases. By itself, this is not enough to heat up the potatoes. The other thing that happened was that the inflation-paranoid Fed under Alan Greenspan was raising interest rates. This increased the size of the resets in interest rate of the ARMs. This added effect was enough to break the borrower’s back (er, budget). Defaults increased and the potatoes started to get hot. This time when the music stopped a few players got burned and they did not want to or could not continue to play. The reduced number of players could not handle all of the potatoes out there so, the number of potatoes had to be reduced. This meant that borrowers could not obtain new loans. Houses took longer to sell, Builders did not need to build as fast, construction workers lost jobs, people who had to move started to sell at a loss, all of this lead to a decrease in housing values and ultimately increased the temperature of the hot potatoes even more through both increased risk of default and the difference between the cost and value of the mortgage packages. The players are all holding several hot potatoes and can’t quit without being burned now.

There is one good thing about the free market system, imbalances return to a balance, although that process is usualy not pretty and not everyone is happy about the way it happens. Returns will eventually properly reflect risk and determine the price/value. The big Banks and Mortgage insurance companies are taking big losses. They write them off and reduce the amount of taxes they pay. The government is going to absorb the losses from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Irresponsible borrowers and lenders will be saved (temporarily) by various bail outs from congress (in order to keep their people happy and thereby keep their jobs by handing out our money). In the end, literally, the taxpayers foot (or is it butt) the bill for this irresponsible behavior. Not all of the bill though, as the game was so much fun that international players begged to get in to play as well. Some of that pain is spread globally. Whether it harms the long-term international investment patterns that are vital to the strength of the dollar and the global economy has not fully played out yet. Strengthening the dollar by borrowing/consuming less and producing/exporting more is the key. This will reduce inflation and allow the Fed interest rates to rise to match the rest of the world which will boost the value of the dollar.

Off shore leases for oil exploration

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

Congress and the presidential candidates are on the verge of missing an opportunity. There are several bills working their way through congress to open up more off shore areas to oil exploration and, eventually, drilling. I propose that congress include a requirement that whomever obtains a lease to the new areas must install windmill electric generators at the site prior to exploration. The leases will be cheap, the infrastructure to get the power to land is to be included in the improvements they must build, and the energy produced must be purchased at a fixed price by the utility the power is fed into. In return the leases will be cheap. The oil companies should be required to meet a certain number of megawatts per acre of installed wind potential and in return will be able to buy that power at a discount for oil rig operations as well as obtain the leases at a significant discount. If the exploration does not pan out, they at least have power they can sell. This is very similar to the terms that were required of the early western settlers when they established mining claims. They needed to make site improvements beyond just digging the mine. This could be a win-win situation if only the dimwits in DC see the opportunity for what it is.

For the paranoid, are these leases the way for the oil companies to lock out wind power from prime wind locations?