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Comment Re:Are and storms that fierce on Mars? (Score 1) 113

You know, it occurs to me that you probably quit reading the novel at the worst possible place. You are so qualified to spot mistakes with chemistry and indoor gardening that you were repeatedly outraged and stopped a quarter of the way through. You missed on the later parts where the problems being solved had nothing to do with chemistry and indoor gardening.

I read an article where a couple of orbital dynamics guys said that Any Weir got the orbital dynamics stuff basically right; I've read multiple comments that said that the NASA politics stuff was believable; and in one of my favorite parts, Watney was stuck with a spacesuit whose helmet faceplate's glass had broken and he had to solve the problem of getting back to safety with a rather leaky spacesuit. There are other parts I don't want to mention because they are too spoilery.

You are probably too soured on the book to enjoy it, but if you ever try finishing it, I think you will find that the rest of the book offends you less than the first quarter of it did.

Comment Re:Are and storms that fierce on Mars? (Score 1) 113

Seriously, how can you read this tripe without wanting to hit your head against a wall? How can you call a novel that has this sort of nonsense and does almost every single chemistry equation wrong "hard science fiction"? Does anything that spouts pseudoscientific BS qualify as "hard science fiction" these days?

IMHO you are being too hard on the book. In the book, the things Watney does are plausible solutions to problems that make sense to me.

Andy Weir said he didn't want Watney being "hit by lightning" over and over. The initial chain of events that leads to Watney being stranded is implausible (and Andy Weir is the first to admit that the physics is wrong there, because the atmosphere of Mars is so thin). But once Watney is stranded, the rest of it makes sense to me.

This isn't like a story where someone needs to "restart the sun" by flying a ship made of "Unobtanium" into the sun and lighting off nuclear bombs. If you fix the science mistakes in a story like that, there is no story left; it's just fundamentally wrong.

In an interview, Andy Weir mentioned getting feedback from some chemist, and he said something like "I loved that, because chemistry is what I'm worst at". It sounds like you are so expert at the chemistry stuff that every mistake was a torment for you, and I think I get it... I can picture how annoyed I would be if the book was about software development, and lots of little stuff was constantly wrong.

One of his mistakes: someone actually calculated how much the Hab would heat up from burning up the rocket fuel to make water, and concluded that if Watney burned the fuel as fast as described, the Hab would heat up to 400 degrees C. But that mistake doesn't ruin the book for me, because we can assume that he just didn't burn the fuel as fast, or he arranged some sort of heatsink or something to get rid of the heat. Fundamentally, you can make water by burning hydrazine in the presence of oxygen, so it works for me.

I also liked the way he portrayed NASA. On the one hand, everything NASA does is expensive and takes forever, but on the other hand, his equipment works and he trusts it; and there was one launch that failed, and Weir listed two places where NASA procedures would have prevented the failure if there had been more time. (Someone would have studied the effects of a "shimmy" on protein cubes, and also someone would have found a minor defect in a bolt and replaced it with a perfect one; either of these would have prevented the failure.)

A novel that I hated, that I just couldn't get through, is The Windup Girl. I bought it figuring "anything that wins both the Hugo and the Nebula must be worth reading" but I hated it. I couldn't swallow the science upon which the whole plot rests. It's the future, and the worst predictions of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming came to pass: the sea levels have risen, temperatures are high, lots of people died off. As a result, fossil fuels are no longer used by anyone, and the world is in a horrible depression. So, you might think that nuclear power, solar power, and Internet telecommuting would be a big deal? Nope, cities are lighted with methane gas lamps, and the methane is made from animal feces, and moving things are powered by kinetic energy stored in "kink-springs" and the springs are wound by elephant-sized bioengineered animals. No buildings seem to have solar panels on them, and at one point the protagonist uses a computer powered by a treadle! The Internet barely seems important, which is hard to believe given that the Internet is already hugely important... but in this future catastrophe world it now takes months for a business executive to travel from America to Thailand (he has to travel by wind-powered ship), yet they still send the executive instead of using teleconferencing.

I hated The Windup Girl as much as you seem to have hated The Martian. So I guess I understand how you feel about The Martian, but I don't feel the same way.

I think the difference for me is that The Windup Girl feels like the author worked backward from his desired goals: "biopunk" is cool, so let's explain why everything is biopunk now; I want to have big factories full of elepant-sized animals walking in circles to wind "kink-springs". Whereas The Martian feels like one situation flows to another. And in fact in an interview he said that this is how he wrote the book: after he had Watney do something, he thought about what would likely happen next, and worked from there.

P.S. In the book, Watney joked about poking a hole in his glove and flying around in space like Iron Man, and they discussed just how stupid and unworkable that idea was... even Watney didn't think it would work. I gather that the movie changed this part quite a bit.

Comment Re:Are and storms that fierce on Mars? (Score 1) 113

He's not "joking around", the rant is like a page and a half long, describing it as vastly more dangerous than Pu-239, with a long line of superlatives for how to describe its incredible "danger".

Either you and I have very different ideas about what Andy Weir wrote, or else your copy of the book is different from mine. Since mine is an ebook, I can search it, and the string "239" has zero hits in my copy of the book.

Here's what my copy says:

...[NASA] never used large RTGs on manned missions until the Ares Program.

Why not? It should be pretty damned obvious why not! They didn't want to put astronauts next to a glowing hot ball of radioactive death!

I'm exaggerating a little. The plutonium is inside a bunch of pellets, each one sealed and insulated to prevent radiation leakage, even if the outer container is breached.

In fairness to your complaint, there is dialog later that goes like this:

"How dangerous is it?" Teddy asked.

"As long as the container's intact, no danger at all. Even if it cracks open, he'll be okay if the pellets inside don't break. But if the pellets break, too, he's a dead man."

Emphasis added by me, not in the original.

From what you have said, it's not nearly that dangerous.

I still say that The Martian is the best "hard" science fiction novel I have read in years, and the "hardest" science fiction novel I have read in years. And I predict that his next novel will have fewer mistakes; this one he wrote and gave away for free, and while he has said that he did go back and rewrite sections when he got feedback that he had screwed something up, I guess nobody told him that the RTG was less dangerous than he thought. On his next novel, he will be able to get stuff fact-checked because he's making new friends everywhere. (In an interview he said people asked him who he knew at NASA and he said nobody... before he wrote it.)

Back to joking around... one of my favorite bits from the book:

Only an idiot would keep [the RTG] near the Hab. So anyway, I brought it back to the Hab.

Either it'll kill me or it won't. A lot of work went into making sure it doesn't break. If I can't trust NASA, who can I trust?

Whatever you think about Andy Weir's safety rants on RTGs, he did have his main character using it just to take a hot bath, and at no point does the main character have any actual trouble with it.

Microwave communications are based on photons, aka chargeless particles, aka no Lorentz force, aka no deflection.

I didn't intend to imply that a magnetic field would stop photons, but rather that the hab canvas might have a layer of something that made the hab into a Faraday cage. Maybe a layer of a low-temperature superconductor or something.

I hadn't actually thought much about the geometry of the superconducting coils that would be needed to make a magnetic shield to deflect charged particles. Now that I think about it, a layer in the Hab's outer skin is unlikely to be the right shape...

I Googled a bit and found this article with diagrams. On the plus side for my theory, if something like that was on the Hab to deflect radiation, I do think it would act as a Faraday cage. On the minus side, the Hab as described in the novel didn't have anything like that.

By the way, I also had to Google for GCR. You know more about this stuff than I do. GCR == "Galactic Cosmic Rays"

So how common are stray gamma rays, and since you brought them up, stray neutrons on the surface of Mars?

Also, there is an old trope from science fiction about burying an exploration base to provide it with thermal and radiation shielding. If some kind of "Hab" were buried under Martian sand, how much sand would it take to provide useful shielding? Would one or two metres be enough to do some good?

Comment Re:Are and storms that fierce on Mars? (Score 2) 113

- space radiation being handwaved away by "Hab is radiation-proof" while it's an inflatable structure.

At least the story is internally consistent: because the Hab is radiation-proof, radio waves don't go through it, which is why Mark Watney has to go outside the Hab just to check his email. (Actually, I think he ought to have strung a network cable; he cheerfully did more difficult tasks than that at various points in the book. But then the plot complication caused by going outside so often might not have occurred.)

When I like a book or movie I tend to try to come up with explanations of anything I wonder about. My explanation of how the Hab is radiation-proof: a superconducting magnetic shield. Only protects against charged particles though...wouldn't stop gamma rays. How common is random gamma radiation on the surface of Mars?

Here's an article about spacecraft using magnetic shields:

P.S. I've also seen reviewers complaining that Mark Watney oversells the dangers of the radiation inside an RTG. In the book at least he is joking around a lot and using imprecise terms such as "box full of radiation" so I don't accept this as a valid complaint.

Comment Re:What about the rights of those injured by firea (Score 1) 1148

and what about the "well regulated Militia" part?

"well regulated" meant "in good order" at the time, not "covered by many laws".

"militia" meant all male citizens of adult age.

Thus, a more modern phrasing of this Amendment would be:

Because it's necessary for a free country to have its citizens be competent with militia weapons, the right of the people to own and carry firearms shall not be infringed.

Comment Re:So much noise about F-35 (Score 1) 320

Being stuck with it "because it was expensive" is just a horrible reason to stick with it.

No, we aren't stuck with the F-35 because it cost so much, we are stuck with the F-35 because the old planes are old and we are having increasing trouble and expense to keep them flying. And, if the F-35 fans are right, the battlefields of the future will increasingly have anti-air missiles, and we will want our pilots flying stealthy planes if possible.

So we are stuck with the F-35 because we need a new plane, and it's the only new plane we have available. The Pentagon put all the eggs into one basket. Don't blame me for saying there's only one basket.

Comment Re:So much noise about F-35 (Score 1) 320

Thank you, whoever you are. I wrote my whole long post because I was hoping that a more-informed person would write a follow-up post and I would learn something.

I had read that the Osprey is a success. I was surprised to read your comments. Part of making the "short-deck carrier" idea work, the marines are going to try using Ospreys for mid-air refuelling. Do you have any opinions on how well that would work?

I am not any kind of expert on military stuff, so I could be completely wrong, but isn't the vertical landing capability of an F-35B a lot better for emergency recovery than normal carrier operations? With normal carrier operations, you absolutely have to get each plane off the deck before another plane can land; but with the vertical landing, in a pinch you should be able to land several planes in rapid succession (biggest worry is whether they melt the deck).

Comment Re:Thinkpad T-series (Score 1) 237

Seconded. I'm using a Thinkpad T440s for work, and when I installed Linux Mint on it, everything Just Worked out of the box. Audio, video, network, WiFi, multitouch... everything.

(Well, the fingerprint reader doesn't do anything right out of the box, but I have read that it can be enabled without too much difficulty. I'm going to look into that before the next time I travel with the laptop. It would be great to unlock the screen with a fingerprint.)

Now that the T450s is out, you might be able to find a deal on an older T440s, and if I were spending my own money I'd be happier to get a T440s cheap than to get the only-slightly-better T450s.

Comment So much noise about F-35 (Score 3, Interesting) 320

I'm interested in the F-35, and I have been reading about it. There is so much noise that it's hard to sift through all of it. It doesn't help that I'm not any sort of military expert.

I have read that the F-35 is disaster piled upon disaster, and I have read that the F-35 is "retiring risks" and converting naysayers into believers. I have read that the F-35 is incredibly expensive to operate, and I have read that it was designed for easy maintenance and that it will save big money in the long run on operating costs. I have read that the design of the F-35 was compromised by the need for a lift fan on the B variant, and I have read that the plane would have been just as wide without the B variant because of the design of the enclosed weapons bay. In short, I keep reading things and then reading the exact opposite from some other source.

Here's what I think I have figured out.

First, the F-35 had better work because at this point we are stuck with it. The old planes are old and getting more expensive to maintain, and in the long run the F-35 is the only reasonable option (but only if it works... if it doesn't do the mission, it is not a "reasonable option"). The Obama administration shut down the F-22 production lines on the theory that we only need a handful of air superiority fighters, and the money would be better spent on the F-35 (and the Growler, according to Wikipedia). It takes forever to make a new plane, and we really don't have a plan B (or "plane B") ready to go. Also, the USA as a strategy would rather spend more money on planes than lose the lives of pilots; it might be cheaper to buy upgraded older planes, but if the "fifth generation fighter" thing works out, and future battlefields increasingly have anti-air missiles, the F-35 might have lower losses in combat than older plane designs.

Second, the F-35 may not be horribly expensive. Right now I don't care about sunk costs... cancelling the F-35 won't get the sunk costs back. All that really matters is the "fly-away cost", the cost to build and equip a new plane, and the F-35 doesn't seem completely unreasonable there (it's now under $100 million for the A variant and trending down). One of the remaining risks is whether production can scale up enough to make F-35s as fast as everyone wants them made, but if that scale-up happens costs will fall further. Again, the big question mark is operating expenses and reliability. If the F-35 needs so much maintenance that it can't fly very often, then it was a bad idea. (And by the way, next time the Pentagon wants to make a new weapons system, then I will be very interested in the sunk costs of this one.)

Third, I'm a cautious believer in the ability of the F-35 to do the missions as long as it's not in the hangar being repaired. It can't win a dogfight with an F-16, but that was never its mission (send an F-22 for that). It basically needs to be able to carry sensors, computers, radios, and missiles, fly long distances, and be a little bit stealthy. I think it can do those things; and once you have the plane, you can upgrade it by improving subsystems. I know, half a century ago, the end of dogfighting was prematurely announced, but with modern missiles and with the stealth features, I think the F-35 will be able to defend itself.

Fourth, I'm not completely certain that the F-35 will be useless for close-air support. The fans of the F-35 claim that the A-10 can't be used effectively against people with any anti-air missiles including shoulder-fired ones; that much of the time in recent years, the A-10 was required to operate from high altitude to avoid being shot down by missiles. The F-35 is not going to fly low and slow over a battlefield and shoot things with a gun, but it could fly past and fire off precision guided munitions, which should work. One thing is for sure: the alleged upcoming test between A-10 and F-35 for close-air support will include simulated anti-air missiles, because if it didn't the A-10 would totally win.

Fifth, I'm actually intrigued by the "short-deck carriers" that the Marines are going to be operating. The incredible staggering expense of building and equipping a "supercarrier" makes me question whether we should build any more of those; maybe it would be better to spend the same amount of money and get multiple smaller carriers that can only use STOVL aircraft like the F-35B and the Osprey. I'm also intrigued by what I have read about the Marines' planned strategy for using STOVL aircraft and mobile forward operating bases to leapfrog-advance air power into a contested area. In short, I think the F-35B will enable some nifty new capabilities.

So, what I think I have figured out is that the USA should buy a whole bunch of F-35s and make them work. Buy a bunch of spare parts and spare engines, make sure to work on improved-technology engines to possibly upgrade the F-35 at a future date, make the augmented reality helmet work. And, never run a weapons system development program this way ever again.

Comment Speculation it was intended to look bomb-like (Score 2) 662

The fine article contains some speculation as to whether it was really intended to be a clock, because it's a poor design for a clock:

It's awful hard to see the clock with the case closed. On the other hand, with the case open, it's awful dangerous to have an exposed power transformer sitting near the snooze button

Well, that makes me wonder if the kid who made the clock mounted the display to be viewed with the case open, or if he cut a hole in the side of the pencil box and mounted the display to be viewed the other way.

Someone familiar with how LED clock displays look from the front and from the back: can you tell which way the clock display was mounted? Was it in fact mounted such that you can't read the time without opening the case?

If you really can't read the clock without opening the case, then it really is an odd design for a clock. If form follows function, then what indeed was the intended function?

I'm wondering how often the kid brought other projects to school, and what the other projects were. I can well imagine a kid that age making a fake bomb to troll everyone, but I can also imagine someone who is just a hobbyist, so I am not going to draw any conclusions here at all.

Comment Re:So not publically not eating your own dog food (Score 3, Interesting) 282

I have worked at Microsoft, and they are all about eating their own dog food. Everyone at Microsoft uses Microsoft products for everything.

And, let me remind you of the fiasco where Microsoft bought Hotmail and switched its servers from UNIX (FreeBSD on front-end servers and some Solaris database servers) to Windows. They had to throw more hardware at the operation and still had problems, but they did it, and they knew going in that they would have more problems with Windows.

But now we are talking about Azure. Microsoft is seriously going for market share in cloud hosting, and most of the customers they are trying to win over are already running their stuff on Linux. So it's not really that embarrassing for Azure to run on Linux... I attended the Linuxfest Northwest conference this year, and Microsoft Azure had a booth in the vendor room where they had signs saying "Microsoft <heart> Linux".

Also, Microsoft is going after the Docker market. They are whipping together something like Docker for running Windows server apps in the cloud, but meanwhile they are all in on supporting Linux Docker apps for Azure. They have ported the Docker admin tools to run on a Windows machine, so that people can control Docker from a Windows machine (while the Docker is still running on Linux, you understand).

Give me a break, this has embarrassing U-turn written all over it.

I disagree about the "embarrassing" part. Microsoft has, in the past, acted like it could control the industry. One reason it acted that way was that it used to succeed more often than not in actually controlling the industry. But it's far too late for Microsoft to kill Linux; they are going to have to co-exist with Linux forever now, and it's not embarrassing for them to act like it.

I remember, about seven years ago, seeing a video at Microsoft that showed a skinny kid on a skateboard as a visual metaphor for Linux. I was amused... did they really think they could convince IT guys to choose Windows over Linux just by sneering at Linux in a marketing video? The Microsoft that made that video could never make its own distro.

In recent years, Microsoft has not shown much ability to adapt. Look at how horrible their strategy was with portable music players and then with mobile devices. But now, the Azure guys are just doing whatever makes the most sense for them, and it is politically possible at Microsoft? That's actually a good omen for Microsoft's future; at least they are not denying reality as much as they used to.

Comment Bad idea from gun-safety standpoint (Score 1) 369

It's possible for a gun to kill the person it shoots. Therefore common gun safety says one may not point a gun at a person unless that person represents a threat that justifies lethal force. Cooper's Second Law of firearms safety: Never point a firearm at anything you are not willing to destroy.

If some bad guy is a threat, but not a lethal threat, the police office may not point a gun at the bad guy, let alone fire. If that bad guy is a lethal threat, then the police officer should be firing real bullets to end the threat.

In short there are no circumstances under which I would endorse pointing a lethal weapon at someone with the intent to use it non-lethally. Better to have two different weapons, one of which is considered to be guaranteed non-lethal. Oh look, we have tasers for that purpose.

Now, all that said, there are plenty of police officers out there who know better than me. Why, they are trained police officers and they don't need to abide by basic gun safety rules because they know what they are doing. I once had the dubious privilege of having MP5 muzzles pointed in my direction... I was in a room when a SWAT team showed how they do a dynamic entry. I gently chided the senior guy later about pointing real guns at people and he said "eh, they aren't loaded." (Cooper's First Law: All guns are always loaded.)

I read a first-person account from a guy who was erroneously reported to be "squatting" in an apartment. There was a problem with his apartment so the building superintendent told him he could sleep in an unused apartment temporarily. He woke up to find police pointing guns at him. This is unacceptable... they had total situational dominance, he was asleep and had no weapons, so they were not justified in pointing real guns at him. So again, Cooper's Four Laws may not be obeyed all the time in real life by real police. They should be, though.

P.S. I never thought about it this way before, but the phasers in Star Trek are dubious with respect to basic safety. If one failed to correctly set for stun, one might end up disintegrating someone by mistake. This would be fine for a military weapon: if most of the time you plan to use it to kill people, it's a mercy if it has another mode that is less-lethal. But for police and peaceful explorers, it's problematic to have a weapon that combines lethal and non-lethal functions.

I guess it would be okay for phasers to have dual modes if it took a special action to set a phaser into lethal mode, like holding down two red buttons with your off hand while firing. But per canon it was just a thumbwheel setting to switch between "stun" and "lethal" and Kirk was always reminding people to make sure they were set on stun.

Comment What is Plex (Score 5, Informative) 89

Plex is a home media server, forked from XBMC.

Wikipedia says the server is "freemium" so I guess it's free but you can buy upgrades. There are apps for iOS and Android; the apps aren't free either. And there is some kind of cloud account you can get, and use for syncing your content across the Internet.

I've never heard of this before, but it seems worth checking out if you don't already have a media center solution.

Plex web site:

Breakdown of what you can get for free vs. what costs:

Reddit discussion of cost of Plex:

8 Catfish = 1 Octo-puss