lena paul tubeIn the early morning hours of April August 10th, a support cable at the Arecibo Observatory pulled lose from its mount and crashed through the face of the primary reflector below. Images taken from below the iconic 305 meter dish, made famous by films such as Contact and GoldenEye, show an incredible amount of damage. The section of thick cable, estimated to weigh in at around 6,000 kilograms (13,000 pounds), had little difficulty tearing through the reflector’s thin mesh construction.
Worse still, the cable also struck the so-called “Gregorian dome”, the structure suspended over the dish where the sensitive instruments are mounted. At the time of this writing it’s still unclear as to whether or not any of that instrumentation has been damaged, though NASA at least has said that the equipment they operate inside the dome appears to have survived unscathed. At the very least, the damage to the dome structure itself will need to be addressed before the Observatory can resume normal operations.
But how long will the repairs take, and who’s going to pay for them? It’s no secret that funding for the 60 year old telescope has been difficult to come by since at least the early 2000s. The cost of repairing the relatively minor damage to the telescope sustained during Hurricane Maria in 2017 may have been enough to shutter the installation permanently if it hadn’t been for a consortium led by the University of Central Florida. They agreed to share the burden of operating the Observatory with the National Science Foundation and put up several million dollars of additional funding.
It’s far too early to know how much time and money it will take to get Arecibo Observatory back up to operational status, but with the current world situation, it seems likely the telescope will be out of commission for at least the rest of the year. Given the fact that repairs from the 2017 damage still haven’t been completed, perhaps even longer than that. In the meantime, astronomers around the globe are left without this wholly unique resource.
The OpenStreetMap project is an excellent example of how powerful crowdsourced data can be, but that’s not to say the system is perfect. Invalid data, added intentionally or otherwise, can sometimes slip through the cracks and lead to some interesting problems. A fact that developers Asobo Studio are becoming keenly aware of as players explore their recently released Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020.
Like a Wiki, users can update OpenStreetMap and about a year ago, user nathanwright120 marked a 2 story building near Melbourne, Australia as having an incredible 212 floors (we think it’s this commit). The rest of his edits seem legitimate enough, so it’s a safe bet that it was simply a typo made in haste. The sort of thing that could happen to anyone. Not long after, thanks to the beauty of open source, another user picked up on the error and got it fixed up.
But not before some script written by Asobo Studio went through sucked up the OpenStreetMap data for Australia and implemented it into their virtual recreation of the planet. The result is that the hotly anticipated flight simulator now features a majestic structure in the Melbourne skyline that rises far above…everything.
The whole thing is great fun, and honestly, players probably wouldn’t even mind if it got left in as a Easter egg. It’s certainly providing them with some free publicity; in the video below you can see a player by the name of Conor O’Kane land his aircraft on the dizzying edifice, a feat which has earned him nearly 100,000 views in just a few days.
But it does have us thinking about filtering crowdsourced data. If you ask random people to, say, identify flying saucers in NASA footage, how do you filter that? You probably don’t want to take one person’s input as authoritative. What about 10 people? Or a hundred?
Ask any airline executive what their plans were back in January 2020, and you’d probably get the expected spiel about growing market share and improving returns for shareholders. Of course, the coronovirus pandemic quickly changed all that in the space of just a few months. Borders closed, and worldwide air travel ground to a halt.
Suddenly, the world’s airlines had thousands of planes and quite literally nowhere to go. Obviously, leaving the planes just sitting around in the open wouldn’t do them any good. So what exactly is involved in mothballing a modern airliner?
Most people’s personal experience with seismographs begins and ends with simple childhood science experiments. Watching a pendulum make erratic marks on a piece of paper while your classmates banged on the table gave you an idea on how the device worked, and there’s an excellent chance that’s the last time you gave the concept much thought. Even among hackers, whose gear in general tends to be more technologically equipped than the norm, you’re unlikely to find a dedicated seismograph up and running.
But that’s not because the core technology is hard to come by or particularly expensive. In fact, one could say with almost absolute certainty that if you aren’t actively reading these words on a device with a sensitive accelerometer onboard, you have one (or perhaps several) within arm’s reach. Modern smartphones, tablets, and even some laptops, now pack in sensors that could easily be pushed into service as broad strokes seismometers; they just need the software to collect and analyze the data.
Or at least, they did. By the time you read this article, Google will have already started rolling out an update to Android devices which will allow them to use their onboard sensors to detect possible earthquakes. With literally billions of compatible devices in operation all over the planet, this will easily become the largest distributed sensor network of its type ever put into operation. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be getting a notification on your phone to duck and cover anytime soon.
At any given time I’m likely to have multiple projects in-flight, by which of course I mean in various stages of neglect. My current big project is one where I finally feel like I have a chance to use some materials with real hacker street cred, like T-slot extruded aluminum profiles. We’ve all seen the stuff, the “Industrial Erector Set” as 80/20 likes to call their version of it. And we’ve all seen the cool projects made with it, from CNC machines to trade show displays, and in these pandemic times, even occasionally as sneeze guards in retail shops.
Aluminum T-slot profiles are wonderful to work with — strong, lightweight, easily connected with a wide range of fasteners, and infinitely configurable and reconfigurable as needs change. It’s not cheap by any means, but when you factor in the fabrication time saved, it may well be a net benefit to spec the stuff for a project. Still, with the projected hit to my wallet, I’ve been looking for more affordable alternatives.
My exploration led me into the bewilderingly rich world of aluminum extrusions. Even excluding mundane items like beer and soda cans, you’re probably surrounded by extruded aluminum products right now. Everything from computer heatsinks to window frames to the parts that make up screen doors are made from extruded aluminum. So how exactly is this ubiquitous stuff made?
Any modern computer with an x86 processor, whether it’s Intel or AMD, is a lost cause for software freedom and privacy. We harp on this a lot, but it’s worth repeating that it’s nearly impossible to get free, open-source firmware to run on them thanks to the Intel Management Engine (IME) and the AMD Platform Security Processor (PSP). Without libre firmware there’s no way to trust anything else, even if your operating system is completely open-source.
The IME or PSP have access to memory, storage, and the network stack even if the computer is shut down, and even after the computer boots they run at such a low level that the operating system can’t be aware of what they’re really doing. Luckily, there’s a dark horse in the race in the personal computing world that gives us some hope that one day there will be an x86 competitor that allows their users to have a free firmware that they can trust. ARM processors, which have been steadily increasing their user share for years but are seeing a surge of interest since the recent announcement by Apple, are poised to take over the personal computing world and hopefully allow us some relevant, modern options for those concerned with freedom and privacy. But in the real world of ARM processors the road ahead will decidedly long, windy, and forked.
Even ignoring tedious nitpicks that the distinction between RISC vs CISC is more blurred now than it was “back in the day”, RISC machines like ARM have a natural leg up on the x86 CISC machines built by Intel and AMD. These RISC machines use fewer instructions and perform with much more thermal efficiency than their x86 competitors. They can often be passively cooled, avoiding need to be actively cooled, unlike many AMD/Intel machines that often have noisy or bulky fans. But for me, the most interesting advantage is the ability to run ARM machines without the proprietary firmware present with x86 chips.
As the world grapples with the spectre of the so-called “hockey stick” graph of climate change, there have been a variety of solutions proposed to the problem of carbon emissions from sectors such as transport which have become inseparable from the maintenance of 21st century life. Sometimes these are blue-sky ideas that may just be a little bit barmy, while other times they make you stop and think: “That could just work!”.
One thing that should be obvious to all is that moving our long-distance freight around by means of an individual fossil-fuel-powered? diesel engine for every 38 tonne or so freight container may be convenient, but it is hardly either fuel-efficient or environmentally friendly The most efficient diesel engines on the road are said to have a 43% efficiency, and when hauling an single load they take none of the economies of scale afforded to the diesel engines that haul for example a freight train. Similarly they spread any pollution they emit across? the entirety of their route, and yet again fail to benefit from the economies of scale present in for example a power station exhaust scrubber. However much I have a weakness for the sight of a big rig at full stretch, even I have to admit that its day has passed.
The battery technology being pursued for passenger cars is a tempting alternative, as we’ve seen with Tesla Semi. But for all its technology that vehicle still walks the knife-edge between the gain in cost-effectiveness versus the cost of hauling around enough batteries to transport that quantity of freight. Against that the overhead wire truck seems to offer the best of both worlds, the lightness and easy refueling of a diesel versus the lack of emissions from an electric. In the idealised world of a brochure it runs on renewable wind, sun, and water power, so all our problems are solved, right? But does it really stack up?