Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Manned Exploration of Asteroids

The U.S. President has announced his plan to have American astronauts "land" on an asteroid by 2025. This is cool for several reasons:

1) It means that rule-makers are finally taking seriously the idea of asteroid defense.

2) If space exploration is going to continue it must become sustainable; that is, materially profitable. The most expensive thing about space travel is getting out of gravity wells. Raw material from small bodies, i.e. that's already in microgravity is therefore orders of magnitude cheaper than material that has to be brought up. (First organization who can make a self-printing 3D printer mostly out of materials to be found in asteroids wins. Template information up by sat phone, finished products down by parachute.) Asteroids are better candidates than comets because objects in stable, closer orbits are slower than objects that fall in from far away and whip around the sun in a matter of days.

3) We'll get a more in-depth look at an asteroid, and we'll find evidence of alien life. Leaping to conclusions there? I've written before that I think that we can't rule out von Neumann probes or replicating non-terrestrial entities of some kind in our own solar system, and that we haven't seen them yet because we're looking in the wrong places. (This probably also qualifies as one of my most absurd beliefs.) Interestingly, one of the greatest science fiction series of all time begins with an astronaut planting a nuclear bomb on an asteroid, and in the process discovering our first evidence of alien life. I don't think we'll be finding any doorways carved into canyons as in this novel, but I do think we'll find the kind of highly monodisperse heteropolymers - with nitrogen isotope ratio suggesting an extrasolar origin - that are an unmistakable sign of high-fidelity replication systems.

In other impactor-related news, I'm planning a trip to Siberia and Central Asia and I was trying to get to the Tunguska site. But it's way off the Siberian railroad and really hard to get to (a week out of my itinerary?) and Black Oil Aliens notwithstanding, there's nothing obviously special about the site; i.e. you want a crater, go see Winslow, and it's fifteen minutes off I-40 east of Flagstaff. I would still love to go - so, if you happen to have seen this on your Google News feed for Tunguska, and you're looking for someone to collect samples from the site but can't find any hearty risk-takers, why not let a hard-working medical student help you out by funding my extra week to get out there and get your work done for you!

Star Blazers Live Action Film Is Yellow-Washed!

Yeah, you heard me. I'm tired of the yellow-washing that goes on in Japan's film studios! Fine, call the movie Uchuu Senkyan Yamato, whatever you want. The name is a concession I'm willing to make. The trailer is here (in Japanese; movie website here.)

I do however disagree with the casting, which appears to be all Asian. "But it was a Japanese cartoon!" you object. Yes, but the characters were clearly Caucasian (with one exception noted below). I have explained this repeatedly to Japanese people MANY TIMES and my patience is wearing thin, so here it is ONE LAST TIME you goofs.

To wit:

1) Nova (Yuki) is blonde.

2) They all have big round eyes even by Caucasian standards, except Sandor. Sandor is presumably East Asian or Polynesian, and you find out in one episode that he's from an island in the Pacific, so this is internally consistent.

3) Derek Wildstar's hair is wavy as all hell. Yes, lots of Japanese guys have those dumb host-boy wavy haircuts, but do you think they're putting on hair gel on the way to Iskandar? No. It's Caucasian hair buddy. (While on the topic of Japanese hair products I do have to admit that Gatsby Moving-Rubber stuff is awesome and thank goodness for Nijiya Markets or I don't know where else I'd find it in the States.)

4) Yes I know they're on a sunken WWII Imperial Navy battleship. Walking on board a Japanese ship doesn't magically make you Japanese, especially if you have blonde and/or very wavy hair. Or a huge thick Caucasian beard or mustache, like the Captain and that bald marine guy.

5) Speaking of which, did I mention that Nova is blonde?

Listen, you got a problem with all the human characters in the cartoon being Caucasian, take it up with the artists, not with me. I'm just pointing out the obvious. Yellow-washing!

But hey. In this crazy world we can all come together on two things: 1) the theme song is cool and 2) metal is cool.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hot Metal Tips

Yakuza has a few chunky bits (or firm meaty chunks as the case may be - that's for Carcass fans.) The tracks Egocide and Praying for Asteroids are nice. Cancer of Industry has a nice intro. They incorporate saxophones well; most metal leaves you with the impression that they like the idea of innovating and want approval but just paste the instruments in without much thought so they can say "hey, there's a saxophone in our song! We're original!" but they don't do anything with it. Not these guys - the sax belongs in the song.

And speaking of Carcass, as much as I love those bastids and all related projects, the saxophone in Rock and Roll Circus from Blackstar really sounds like an afterthought by people who didn't know how to record horns and barely knew how to play one.

Also, there's Ov, by Orthrelm. Trying to figure out whether the piece is heading toward some kind of climax (one song is ~45 minutes long) recapitulates the experience of trying to fathom whether a fireworks display is coming to its conclusion.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bayesian Astrobiology: Probability of Life on Titan Increasing

Meteorological anomalies parallel the predictions that were made for one possible solution for Titanian biochemistry.

The discovery of life on Titan would be much more exciting than the discovery of life on Mars. The idea has been floated that life on Mars and life on Earth could actually have a common ancestor, seeded on meteor fragments blasted into orbit off each other's crusts during the Eoarchaean when bombardment was much more frequent. If there's life on Mars and that's what it turns out to be, wouldn't that be boring? Sure, we'd get a couple new enzymes out of the deal, a few new twists in biochemistry, but nothing cutting deeply at the problem of life elsewhere in the universe, not much more than would finding a weird cyanophyte in Antarctica's Dry Valleys. Any replicator we find on Titan is much less likely to share a common ancestor with cells on Earth, not just because of the distance involved, but because the chemistry would have to be fundamentally different. If you want to reason inductively you want to generalize based on data from sources as diverse as possible. Life on Titan would teach us much more about chemistry, about early evolution, and about the probability of finding life elsewhere in the universe besides in our backyards.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Ray Bradbury's Bad Pharmacology

Remember the mechanical hound in Fahrenheit 451? Bradbury's sinister description of this, one of many of the perverted institutions of a reverse-firehouse and indeed a reverse-society, is memorable enough:
Light flickered on bits of ruby glass and on sensitive capillary hairs in the nylon-brushed nostrils of the creature that quivered gently, its eight legs spidered under it on rubber padded paws...a four-inch hollow steel needle plunged down from the proboscis of the hound to inject massive jolts of morphine or procaine...The procaine needle flicked out and in, out and in. A single clear drop of the stuff of dreams fell from the needle as it vanished in the Hound's muzzle.

I remember this wicked thing scaring the hell out of me in sixth grade, which I don't feel so bad about in retrospect because the creature he paints is easily the most expert nightmare of his entire oeuvre. (I didn't include an image in the post because like renderings of Grendel from Beowulf, trapping the Hound in a visual instantiation somehow invariably falls short of capturing the sheer direness of the creature in the text.) But I also remember wondering what procaine was. And now that I know better I doubt that even in the 50s when Bradbury wrote this that an injection of local anesthetic would've been the best way to kill someone. Yes, you would get CNS and cardiotoxicity, but only at very high doses. Why not cyanide? Why not strychnine? Morphine (the Hound's other poison) would work better than procaine, but still wouldn't have been the best he could have done.

I hate when my education disrupts my appreciation of great literature. It was already bad enough when I couldn't enjoy the basic sensory celebration of going to the bathroom without thinking about ion channels.