Search This Blog


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Celestial Navigation, on the cheap

This is a handheld GPS receiver.

For $115 brand new, it will consistently give you latitude, longitude, altitude and time. From this it can interpolate your course and speed over ground. It fits easily in your pocket, uses two regular AA batteries and can interface with your laptop to drive various electronic charting programs. It's water proof, shock proof, simple and durable. For most of the things which could possibly cause this GPS to fail (other than dead batteries), the best backup is this:

Another hand-held GPS.

However, GPS is vulnerable to satellite failure (accidental or otherwise) and solar storms. On a small boat, especially a small sailboat, it is most vulnerable to lightning strikes. The electromagnetic pulse from even a near-miss can fry all of your electronics, whether or not they are grounded into the keel. The best completely non-electronic alternative to GPS is this

plus this

$1700 for the sextant (a Tamaya Jupiter) plus $300 for the Seiko mechanical chronometer gets us to an even $2000. Add in another $380 for

for your routine celestial navigation before the lightning strike. Throw in another $120 for almanacs, full sight-reduction tables, plotting sheets and plotting tools for after the lightning strike, and that gets us up to around $2500. As a backup for a $115 GPS. For that price I could buy 20 GPS receivers and batteries to last until the satellites all fall out of the sky.

This, obviously, doesn't work.

In order for my celestial to be a meaningful backup to my GPS, it can't cost a lot more than my GPS.

So, let's try this again.

A sextant like this

costs $50.

A Nautical Almanac, complete with the NAO/Davies sight reduction tables, costs $30.

Quartz watches are amazingly accurate and dirt-cheap, but just as vulnerable to lightning strikes as any other piece of electronics. Mechanical chronometers are beautiful but three or more times the cost of a GPS. That leaves us with a simple but sturdy military-style mechanical watch

which is arguably the weakest link in the chain, also for about $30. This particular watch is a Chinese knock-off of a Vietnam era US Army MIL-W-0836F, but any mechanical watch will do. I'm presuming as a minimum that you have access to a time tick from WWV or WWVH, at least until the lightning strike. Throw in a set of dividers, a parallel rule and a pad of universal plotting sheets, and you're up to the cost of the GPS and its batteries.

Okay, so this is a cheap solution for equipping yourself for electronics-free celestial navigation. But will the equipment actually do the job? We're going to look at each of these "instruments" in turn over the next several days. I actually know the answer already for the sextant and the almanac with Davies tables. The wrist watch is a new element, which I have very recently acquired as a reward for safely navigating around the sun 47 times (thanks, brother- and sister-in-law, and proto-niece or nephew!).

Will begin tracking that tomorrow.

Monday, April 25, 2011

State Dept. wants to make it (MUCH) harder to get a passport

From Consumer Traveler, by Edward Hasbrouck on April 22, 2011

If you don’t want it to get even harder for a U.S. citizen to get a passport — now required for travel even to Canada or Mexico — you only have until Monday to let the State Department know.

The U.S. Department of State is proposing a new Biographical Questionnaire for some passport applicants: The proposed new Form DS-5513 asks for all addresses since birth; lifetime employment history including employers’ and supervisors names, addresses, and telephone numbers; personal details of all siblings; mother’s address one year prior to your birth; any “religious ceremony” around the time of birth; and a variety of other information. According to the proposed form, “failure to provide the information requested may result in … the denial of your U.S. passport application.”

The State Department estimated that the average respondent would be able to compile all this information in just 45 minutes, which is obviously absurd given the amount of research that is likely to be required to even attempt to complete the form.

It seems likely that only some, not all, applicants will be required to fill out the new questionnaire, but no criteria have been made public for determining who will be subjected to these additional new written interrogatories. So if the passport examiner wants to deny your application, all they will have to do is give you the impossible new form to complete.

It’s not clear from the supporting statement, statement of legal authorities, or regulatory assessment submitted by the State Department to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) why declining to discuss one’s siblings or to provide the phone number of your first supervisor when you were a teenager working at McDonalds would be a legitimate basis for denial of a passport to a U.S. citizen.

There’s more information in the Federal Register notice and from the Identity Project.

You can submit comments to the State Dept. online at until midnight Eastern time on Monday, April 25, 2011. Go here, then click the “Submit a Comment” button at the upper right of the page. If that link doesn’t work for you, it’s probably a problem with the javascript used on the website. There are alternate instructions for submitting comments by email here.

(Note that the proposed form itself was not published in the Federal Register. The Identity Project was eventually provided with a copy after requesting it from the Department of State, and posted it here.)

Here’s a draft of the comments being submitted by the Consumer Travel Alliance and other consumer, privacy, and civil liberties groups and individuals, if you would like to use it for ideas for comments of your own. (It’s also available in OpenOffice format for easier editing.)

Extra points to the person who gives the best answer in the comments to the question on the proposed form, “Please describe the circumstances of your birth including the names (as well as address and phone number, if available) of persons present or in attendance at your birth.”

Excellent free USCG licensing resource

One of my Zenith students showed me this today (thanks, CJ!). It's an online resource for just about everything you'd need to study for any USCG licensing exam, Deck and Engineering, from OUPV through Unlimited Oceans Master Mariner. It's called "Sea Sources". Very impressive.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy Earth Day!!

If it hasn't become exquisitely clear from the series of posts on outmigration, we are blessed with one hell of an awesome planet. Let's get it back to the balance it was in before the Industrial Revolution so that future generations can also enjoy this green and pleasant world.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

On the water

Posts over the next few days will be sporadic at best, will be on the water or out of the country until early next week.

Being on an awesome boat on some of the most beautiful waters in the world, and getting paid for it, is a wonderful thing.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cetacean celestial navigation

This is very cool. It's actually possible (although the article doesn't say so) that the whales are using something similar to the Polynesian "starpaths". The map below gives enough detail to try to reconstruct what they would have been seeing in the sky and get some clues. Here's a very quick computation based on the map below.

The majority of the tracks appear to be about 150° True. Picking a central position of 30°S and 030°W and a mid-date of 15 October, from sunset to sunrise we see:

Time Star Magnitude Hc (height) Zn (Bearing)

2049Z Evening Twilight

2100Z Achernar 0.6 33° 141°
2200Z Achernar 0.6 41° 142°
Canopus -0.8 03° 153°
2300Z Achernar 0.6 49° 144°
Canopus -0.8 09° 147°
0000Z Achernar 0.6 56° 151°
Canopus -0.8 17° 142°
0100Z Achernar 0.6 61° 163°
Canopus -0.8 25° 138°
0200Z Canopus -0.8 34° 134°
Avior 1.7 20° 148°
0300Z Canopus -0.8 43° 136°
Avior 1.7 27° 145°
0400Z Canopus -0.8 52° 134°
Avior 1.7 35° 144°
Acrux 1.1 10° 160°
0500Z Canopus -0.8 60° 147°
Avior 1.7 42° 145°
Acrux 1.1 15° 155°
0600Z Avior 1.7 50° 149°
Acrux 1.1 21° 152°

0642Z Morning Twilight

Is it possible, based on this, that humpback whales could be using Polynesian-style starpaths to navigate across oceans? Yes, maybe. Canopus itself is awfully bright, and throughout the course of the evening stays somewhat close to our base course of 150° true. Add in a few 1st and 2nd magnitude stars and it starts to look a lot better. But then the question arises of how the whales would know which of these less bright stars would correct for the motion of Canopus around the pole. Canopus spends a lot of the night at around 135° True, some 15° off of our base course. If they were steering by Canopus alone we'd expect to see that 15° offset in their courses, but we don't. So, either the whales are using some awfully sophisticated starpaths (more sophisticated than the Polynesians would have attempted), or there's something else going on here. Will think more on this tomorrow, I hear my bed calling.


WIRED SCIENCE-- An eight-year project that tracked humpback whale migrations by satellite shows the huge mammals follow uncannily straight paths for weeks at a time.

The results suggest a single migratory mechanism isn’t responsible. Instead, humpbacks may use a combination of the sun’s position, Earth’s magnetism and even star maps to guide their 10,000-mile journeys.

“Humpback whales are going across some of most turbulent waters in the world, yet they keep going straight,” said environmental scientist Travis Horton of the University of Canterbury, whose team will publish their findings April 20 in Biology Letters. “They’re orienting with something outside of themselves, not something internal.”

Humpback whales feed during the summer near polar oceans and migrate to warm tropical oceans for the winter, where they mate and calves are born. A one-way trip can last upwards of 5,000 miles, making the cetaceans one of the farthest-migrating animals on Earth. (One was tracked migrating 6,200 miles).

To better understand humpback migrations, Horton’s colleagues embedded satellite tags in seven South Atlantic and nine South Pacific whales from 2003 through 2010.

Each tag contained a battery-operated transponder that beamed its location to the researchers. The tags lasted from four weeks to seven months before falling out; altogether, they provided one of the most detailed sets of long-term migratory data for humpbacks ever collected.

“You can’t stick a large whale in a box like you can with a bird to study its migratory behavior. This is why detailed field data on whales is so important,” said research biologist John Calambokidis of the Cascadia Research Collective, who wasn’t involved in the work.

The researchers found that, despite surface currents, storms and other distractions, the humpbacks never deviated more than about 5 degrees from their migratory courses.

In about half the segments mapped by the researchers, humpbacks deviated by one degree or less.

“When we first starting seeing data, we thought, ‘Wow, these are really, really straight paths,’” said marine biologist Alex Zerbini of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a co-author of the study who led the satellite-tracking effort. “We immediately wondered how they accomplish that.”

Decades of research on long-range animal migrations has identified geomagnetic and sun-tracking mechanisms, but that work focuses primarily on birds. Humpbacks don’t seem to rely on either method alone.

Earth’s magnetism varies too widely to explain the whales’ arrow-straight patterns, and solar navigation requires frames of reference that water doesn’t often provide. “The open ocean is an endless horizon of blue,” Horton said.

Horton suspects humpbacks rely on both mechanisms, and perhaps the position of the moon or stars. His team is preparing to submit a second study on reference frames in marine mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. After publishing that work, Horton hopes to further investigate the humpbacks’ abilities.

Calambokidis suggested a fourth mechanism for steering: long-distance songs that can carry for hundreds or thousands of miles underwater, and may provide navigational cues or help migrating whales coordinate their movements.

“These whales are clearly using something more sophisticated to migrate than anything we’ve surmised,” said Calambokidis. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what this team does next.”

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tax Day

Okay, since the last post touched on politics, here's one more for Tax Day. And then I'll stop.

I am not an economist. I did not major or minor in economics in school. Economics isn't even especially interesting to me. I have absolutely no qualifications whatsoever to talk about economics.

Which is to say, I'm at least as qualified to develop a federal budget as most of our elected representatives and senators are.

So, on this belated tax day, here is my recommendation to balance the federal budget.

Discretionary Spending Cuts

Yes, eliminate such waste, fraud and abuse as can be reasonably agreed upon by both parties and both chambers.

Income Tax

Repeal the Bush-era tax cuts. All of them. For every tax bracket, including mine. Actually require all tax brackets to pay all of the taxes they owe, without loopholes and exemptions.

Corporate Taxes


Also, tax every US corporation $100,000 each year for every single job which is created and sustained outside of the United States.

In order to prevent "reflagging" of US corporations, increase tariffs on all imported goods to 25% of the total retail value of the goods.


Eliminate all corporate welfare for the petroleum industry.

Eliminate all corporate warfare for the petroleum industry. Immediately cease and desist from any military operation which in any way benefits the importation of petroleum products to the US.

Immediately stop all new drilling. And any old drilling which cannot reasonably prevent an oil spill. Remediation costs from the Deepwater Horizon accident will ultimately total in the trillions, if they actually happen to remediate it. I'm not holding my breath, just holding my nose.

Add 25% retail tax to all refined petroleum products in addition to the aforementioned tariffs on imported oil.

After all of that, gasoline still probably won't cost as much in the US as it does in the real world. But with any luck, Americans will take the hint anyway and stop using gasoline.

Cold War Spending

The Cold War ended 20 years ago. China won. Get over it. We no longer need to support a Cold War arsenal. Mutually Assured Destruction was a stupid idea anyway.


Alright, there's my budget proposal. Which has even less chance of being passed than any of the other budget proposals which will be debated.

And now back to things more interesting and less political which might actually make a positive difference in this world. Or some other.

Oh, and the "death" thing? No idea how to fix that one.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Dear Unca Donald,

Give it a rest. All of the evidence in the world (yes, including his birth certificate) indicates that President Obama was born in Honolulu Hawaii. However, if for some reason his mother had decided to sneak off to Kenya in order to have her baby and then sneak back into Hawaii and then lie to the state of Hawaii about that, and then lie to the local newspapers about that, and have the hospital also lie on her behalf, with the full knowledge that her bouncing bundle of joy would one day grow up to become President of the United States, then Barack Hussein Obama is still a natural born citizen of the United States of America.

The only legislation which addresses the issue of children of US citizens born overseas is the Naturalization Act of 1790, which was based upon English Common Law and ratified by most of the original signers of the Constitution.

"And the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond the sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered natural born citizens: Provided, That the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States."

Barack Obama's mother was a US citizen (and she also happened to be white, since that's what this issue is really about) and his father did live in Hawaii, and they were legally married to each other at the time of Barack Obama's birth.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 was superseded in 1795 and many times subsequent to that by legislation, including the 14th Amendment, which further broadened the definitions of who might be a "natural-born citizen". But the issue of children of one or two US citizens born abroad was never again addressed and on that issue the Naturalization Act of 1790 has never been superseded.

Therefore, Barack Hussein Obama, and incidentally Panamanian-born John Sidney McCain, are both natural-born US citizens regardless of whether their moms happened to be in Hawaii, Kansas, Kenya, Panama or Mars at the moment they were born. And therefore they are both eligible to serve as President of the United States of America.

And, incidentally, to the best of my knowledge neither of them have ever bankrupted even a single corporation that they were in charge of.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Farmers in the Sky

It's been almost two weeks since I've posted about outmigration to Alpha Centauri and Project Orion, because there's been so much going on otherwise. I want to get back to that now over the next few weeks, and specifically I want to focus on the logistics of how Orion would realistically be built, and also what conditions would be like for the crews who would, in some cases, be destined to live out their entire lives on board a crowded vessel not much bigger than a modern container ship.

A very significant amount of the habitable space within Orion would necessarily be devoted to agriculture. Other than some gardening and landscaping (and one summer priming tobacco as a teenager) I have almost no background in agriculture whatsoever. But we need to have some basic ballpark estimates of what types of plants (and maybe animals) we would need to grow, how much space is needed to grow them, and what kind of yield we could expect from that space and how many colonists could be fed and clothed with that yield. In choosing the species to bring with them, the colonists need to consider both the environment of the spacecraft and also the environment of the world they ultimately intend to terraform and colonize. A plant which is ideal for one environment may not be ideal for another. On the other hand, it may be that if we have enough information about the colony world, we can tailor our on-board agriculture to best suit that eventual terraforming.

Incidentally, we will be considering the requirements for terraforming some of our earlier colonial candidates within our own solar system at some point in the near future.

So, some of our considerations from the plants we would bring are going to be food yield, fiber yield, wood yield, pollination, planting-to-harvest time and biodiversity.

One plant candidate worth considering is Pearl Millet, which has a yield of about 2000 kilograms per acre in about four months time, which is pretty impressive.

There are others which need to be considered, but for our purposes I'm just trying to get an idea of how much space will be required for agriculture and how many colonists will be supportable by that.

It may well be that the first colonists will be selected not for their skills as pilots or technicians, but rather as horticulturalists.

Seattle radiation update

Because the question has been floating around, here's the latest gamma radiation monitoring for Seattle from the EPA, as of today, 16 April 2011. As you can see, levels are actually lower than they were a month before the Sendai earthquake.

WISE Delivers Millions of Galaxies, Stars, Asteroids. To all of us.

NASA isn't blowing their own horn very loudly on this one, so allow me to instead. This is pretty huge, and a wonderful paradigm shift for satellite astronomy. The NASA WISE telescope has completed it's wide-field survey of the heavens. And now the data it has obtained is available to all astronomers, professional and amateur alike, online free of charge. What an incredible tool for the professional scientist, citizen scientist, hobbyist and random stargazer.

Here is the link to the instructions for accessing this powerful new tool:


NASA/JPL-- Astronomers across the globe can now sift through hundreds of millions of galaxies, stars and asteroids collected in the first bundle of data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission.

"Starting today thousands of new eyes will be looking at WISE data, and I expect many surprises," said Edward (Ned) Wright of UCLA, the mission's principal investigator.

WISE launched into space on Dec. 14, 2009 on a mission to map the entire sky in infrared light with greatly improved sensitivity and resolution over its predecessors. From its polar orbit, it scanned the skies about one-and-a-half times while collecting images taken at four infrared wavelengths of light. It took more than 2.7 million images over the course of its mission, capturing objects ranging from faraway galaxies to asteroids relatively close to Earth.

Like other infrared telescopes, WISE required coolant to chill its heat-sensitive detectors. When this frozen hydrogen coolant ran out, as expected, in early October, 2010, two of its four infrared channels were still operational. The survey was then extended for four more months, with the goal of finishing its sweep for asteroids and comets in the main asteroid belt of our solar system.

The mission's nearby discoveries included 20 comets, more than 33,000 asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, and 133 near-Earth objects (NEOs), which are those asteroids and comets with orbits that come within 28 million miles (about 45 million kilometers) of Earth's path around the sun. The satellite went into hibernation in early February of this year.

Today, WISE is taking the first major step in meeting its primary goal of delivering the mission's trove of objects to astronomers. Data from the first 57 percent of the sky surveyed is accessible through an online public archive. The complete survey, with improved data processing, will be made available in the spring of 2012. A predecessor to WISE, the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, served a similar role about 25 years ago, and those data are still valuable to astronomers today. Likewise, the WISE legacy is expected to endure for decades.

"We are excited that the preliminary data contain millions of newfound objects," said Fengchuan Liu, the project manager for WISE at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "But the mission is not yet over -- the real treasure is the final catalog available a year from now, which will have twice as many sources, covering the entire sky and reaching even deeper into the universe than today's release."

Astronomers will use WISE's infrared data to hunt for hidden oddities, and to study trends in large populations of known objects. Survey missions often result in the unexpected discoveries too, because they are looking everywhere in the sky rather than at known targets. Data from the mission are also critical for finding the best candidates for follow-up studies with other telescopes, including the European Space Agency's Herschel observatory, which has important NASA contributions.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Navy successfully tests prototype ocean-going laser weapon

Actually, naval surface combatants are the obvious application for laser and other beam and particle weaponry. Because with the exception of over-the-horizon targeting such as Tomahawk, most surface to surface combat is line of sight. For example, the reason lasers failed in tank combat is that tanks hide behind berms and lob ordnance at other tanks hiding behind other berms. Ships don't have that luxury. So taking advantage of their inherent visual vulnerability makes very good sense.

Washington (CNN) -- Science fiction became science fact when the U.S. Navy barbecued an outboard motor off the coast of California.

This was no pleasure-boating mishap: It was the first successful test of a high-energy laser and proof that a weapon using that technology could protect Navy ships or immobilize pirates.

The laser, mounted on a Navy warship, was able to destroy an outboard motor on a small boat bobbing "more than a mile away," according to Michael Deitchman, director of air warfare and weapons at the Office of Naval Research. The Navy is carefully guarding specific details of last week's test but the video is a popular stop on YouTube. (Search for Maritime Laser Demonstration.)

"We can really, kind of, get the attention of an attacking boat," Deitchman said.

And the power of the laser can be adjusted for distance -- what the experts call "tune-ability" -- from just a bright light to a small hole in the bow to the destructive beam that torched the outboard motor in the test. A laser weapon could be used to disable pirate boats off the coast of Africa or to keep suspected terrorist vessels far away from Navy ships.

There has been talk about lasers since the middle of the 20th century and decades of research about how to make an effective weapon. Deitchman says the successful test proved to scientists with the Navy and Northrop Grumman that the technology has potential.

Previously, lasers had been tested either in the air or on land. The humidity and up-and-down swells of the Pacific introduced a whole new set of variables.

In this case, the laser was linked into what was already on board. "We were able to integrate into the existing tracking and targeting system," Deitchman said.

And this "proof of concept test" kicks the project along to Navy and Defense Department decision-makers who will decide whether to move ahead with additional tests and development.

"What we are doing is saying, 'Here's what's possible,' " Deitchman said.

Junk Navigation

So, here's the setup.

I happen to teach navigation for a living. It happens that for the past few weeks I've been teaching a course called "Emergency Navigation", which is mostly an advanced celestial navigation class, focusing largely on navigating by the night sky without a sextant, chronometer, or almanac.

One of my co-workers at my other "office", which happens to be a high-speed passenger ferry, knew that I was teaching that class, and so kindly loaned me a book he had read which he thought I might be interested in. The reason he thought I'd be interested was that the book explained how 15th century Chinese navigators had utilized the stars to determine longitude without a chronometer. Coolness.

So, the book turns out to be Gavin Menzies' 1434: The year a magnificent Chinese fleet sailed to Italy and ignited the Renaissance.

Conveniently, the title of the book alleviates the necessity for any further description of the content.
Before I continue, here are my disclaimers:

1) I am not a historian.
2) I do not speak any more Mandarin or Cantonese than any other American sailor who occasionally makes port calls in either China, or any other American parent of a child who watches Sagwa: The Chinese Siamese Cat on PBS Kids.
3) I do not have an opinion about whether or not the Chinese followed Marco Polo back to Italy.
4) I do not have an opinion about whether the Chinese "discovered" the Americas earlier than the Italians did.
5) I have no opinion regarding Menzies as a historian. Others seem to.
6) I have not actually read all of the book yet, or any more than the two chapters which specifically deal with navigation. I only started it this afternoon.

My interest is exclusively in his claims that the Chinese somehow were able to determine longitude from the stars without a chronometer. I was skeptical, but intrigued. It turns out that I was right to be skeptical. Menzies claims to have been a navigator on submarines. If this is true, he really, really sucked at it.

Menzies states that in order to determine latitude the Chinese navigators measured the altitude of Polaris above the horizon. That's oversimplified, but almost certainly true. So far, so good. He continues with the oversimplification that Polaris is at true north, which isn't quite true (and was rather less true in 1434 than it is today due to precession), but I'm willing to roll with it for the sake of argument.

Then, to derive longitude, they measured either a star which was at the same azimuth as Polaris, or else had a right ascension (or sidereal hour angle, Menzies doesn't seem to understand the difference) of 90 degrees east or west of Polaris. Because 90 degrees east or west of true north

Okay, so that can't work. But if you know that star X is directly below or above Polaris at exactly midnight in Nanjing, and at the exact same time star Y is directly above or below Polaris at your own location at the time of midnight in Nanjing, then you know that you are X number of degrees east or west of Nanjing! And, the way we know that it's midnight in Nanjing without a chronometer is... um... because... crap.

It actually gets worse (much worse) than this (Polaris is a star, so Poseidon must also be a star, along with Trident and Tomahawk!), but at that point I started getting embarrassed first for the author, and then for the entire Royal Navy which presumably trained him, and then for submarine sailors everywhere who would be thought mentally deficient by association.

Yes, it's that bad. At least the navigation portions are. I haven't read the rest, and even when I have I don't feel qualified to judge his scholarship as a historian. His premise is that by 130 years after Marco Polo returned from China, Italy had had contact with China which influenced the Renaissance. I don't think many historians would disagree with that premise. Whether or not China also ventured west to Italy after that time is interesting but not especially relevant to the conversation.

But I have to genuinely question the veracity of his claim to have been a navigator aboard her majesty's submarines. I've sailed with the Royal Navy, they are very sharp sailors and very, very competent submarine drivers. For someone to claim to have been a navigator for them and to simultaneously have so little grasp of such a basic concept as longitude stretches plausibility to the breaking point.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

50 Years of Manned Space Flight

On 12 April 1961 cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1 became the first human to enter space and orbit the earth. US astronauts did not achieve orbit until nearly a year later, when John Glenn in the Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7 completed three orbits of the earth on 20 February 1962.

A little less than seven years after his historic flight, Yuri Gagarin was killed when his MiG 15 jet crashed in a routine training mission.

We are all indebted to this great pioneer of space flight.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Shooting on British nuclear sub kills 1

I would like to say for the record that discharging firearms inside a submarine is a Very Bad Idea. At least it doesn't seem to have been underway at the time.

London (CNN) -- A shooting on board the HMS Astute, a British nuclear submarine making a visit to Southampton, left one person dead and another critically wounded, authorities said Friday.

One man was arrested after the shooting, said police, who were contacted by the Ministry of Defense about the incident.

"I am greatly saddened to hear of this tragic incident and of the death of a Royal Navy serviceman," Defense Secretary Liam Fox said in a statement Friday. "It is right and proper that a full police investigation is carried out and allowed to take its course.

"My thoughts and sympathies are with those who have been affected and their families."

No other details of the incident were immediately released.

The Astute made headlines last year when it ran aground off the Isle of Skye, in northern Scotland, while doing sea trials.

Its nuclear propulsion system was not damaged in the incident, and its reactor was declared safe, with no environmental impact. It was eventually pulled free and escorted back to port.

The submarine can carry a mix of as many as 38 Spearfish heavyweight torpedoes and Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles, according to the ministry.

Friday, April 8, 2011


The clock struck midnight, and Congress passed...something. I guess we'll know what that might be in a couple of days.

I'm glad things are at least moving forward, I was worried for the many military families which follow and contribute to this blog. I'm still worried about the Huntsville crowd, the various folk at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center who participate and contribute here. CNN reported that some 150 to 300 contractors there could be laid off from the budget cuts, that's a huge chunk of the work force. For whatever it's worth, the Seattle area is beautiful (if damp) and Blue Origin is hiring.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


This Friday, Congress is either going to

a) pass a budget


b) inform 1.5 million well-armed and well-trained military personnel that they aren't going to be getting paid for their work, but that they have to keep working anyway.

If I were a congressman, I'd pick "a". Just sayin'.

Presumably, if they choose option "b", the congressmen will also be working without pay until a budget is passed.

Falcon Heavy

Finally, some good news on the heavy-lift front.

While Congress and NASA continue to wrangle over budgets and the need for extreme heavy-lift options to orbit, the moon and Mars, Elon Musk and Space X have announced that their heavy-lift platform, Falcon Heavy, will be ready to launch by 2013 or 2014.

With the exception of the Saturn V, Falcon Heavy will be the largest rocket ever built by anyone. Falcon Heavy has a payload capacity of 53 metric tons, roughly the equivalent of a fully loaded Boeing 737-200. All for about $100 million, about half the cost of a new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Good on them.

Here's the press release from Space X:

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Defiant Japanese boat captain rode out tsunami

Something I stress in all of the classes I teach is that the very worst thing you could possibly be in our line of work is a "famous captain". Because fame, in the maritime industry, nearly always means you screwed up really, really spectacularly. Think about "Captain Joseph Hazelwood", and then think about how many other boat and ship drivers you can name who you don't know personally. A boring and unrenowned career is a successful career. If they name something after you, it's generally because you hit it.

But hopefully the name of Captain Susumu Sugawara will be known far and wide, for what he did was truly heroic.

Something else I stress in my classes is that the very best place to be in a tsunami is in a boat. This is true, if the boat happens to be far out to sea. There, the largest tsunamis are only a few inches tall and miles from crest to crest; you'll never notice them. However, being in a major tsunami in a boat in protected (even very protected, occasionally) waters is a whole other matter.

I cannot even imagine confronting a 70' high wave in a 42 year old 25 ton boat inside Puget Sound, which is basically the scenario. In open ocean a 70' wave is terrifying, but usually the period of the waves from crest to crest is lengthened to the point that the 70' seas are huge but not terribly steep. But inside the breaker line the shoals push all of that energy vertically, and a 70' wave is a nearly vertical wall of water. Moving across the ocean at the speed of a commercial jet airliner.

So Sugawara made the decision to approach it like any other cresting big wave, realizing that once the steepness and speed were simply ignored he would simply start climbing it and then just keep climbing it until he got over the top. Had the tsunami barreled ("tubed", to a surfer) before it reached him this would have destroyed his boat, but Sugawara managed to get out far enough past the barrier shoals to avoid this.

Many thousand kudos to Captain Sugawara and the mighty m/v Sunflower.


Oshima, Japan (CNN) -- Susumu Sugawara looks bemused and a little embarrassed at all the attention he's getting.

The 64 year old has become a local hero on the Japanese island of Oshima. Smashed boats adorn the coastline of this once-idyllic tourist spot, but Sugawara's pride and joy, "Sunflower" is intact and working overtime transporting people and aid to and from the island. It can hold around 20 people at a time.

When the tsunami came, everyone ran to the hills. But Sugawara ran to his boat and steered it into deeper waters. "I knew if I didn't save my boat, my island would be isolated and in trouble," he tells CNN.

As he passed his other boats, used for fishing abalone, he said goodbye to them, apologizing that he could not save them all.

Then the first wave came. Sugawara says he is used to seeing waves up to 5 meters high but this was four-times that size.

"My feeling at this moment is indescribable," he says with glistening eyes. "I talked to my boat and said you've been with me 42 years. If we live or die, then we'll be together, then I pushed on full throttle."

"Here was my boat and here was the wave," he says, holding one hand low and the other stretched high above his head. "I climbed the wave like a mountain. When I thought I had got to the top, the wave got even bigger."

Sugawara's arms flail wildly as he describes the top of the wave crashing down repeatedly onto his boat. "I closed my eyes and felt dizzy. When I opened them, I could see the horizon again, so I knew I'd made it."

Then the next wave came. Sugawara can't remember if there were four or five waves, but he says he did not feel afraid, he was just focused on steering his boat.

Here's the full article, with video. Wow.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Penguin rescue operation under way after south Atlantic oil spill

(CNN) -- On an island chain located halfway between Africa and Argentina, local authorities say a massive penguin rescue operation is under way.

A mix of island officials and resident volunteers are struggling to save tens of thousands of Northern Rockhopper penguins threatened by an oil spill in the remote stretches of the south Atlantic, roughly 1,500 miles west of Cape Town, South Africa.

The islands' conservation director said at least 300 penguins have died after a cargo ship leaked thousands of tons of heavy oil, diesel fuel and soya bean near Nightingale Island, a British territory part of the Tristan da Cunha archipelago.

"I've seen about 15 to 20 dead penguins just today," director Trevor Glass said.

Thousands more are covered in the ships' oil and diesel fuel, according to local officials and conservationists.

"The danger now is getting the rest of these penguins past that oil slick," Glass said.

The rescue operation began shortly after March 16, when the M.S. Oliva -- a Maltese-registered ship -- ran aground, fracturing its hull and ultimately splitting the vessel in two.

The ship was heading from Santos, Brazil, to Singapore and had been carrying 60,000 metric tons of soya beans and 1,500 metric tons of heavy fuel, according to islands' administrator Sean Burns and Transport Malta, the Maltese shipping authority.

(The full story is here:

UPDATE: Much better and more in-depth coverage of the spill is here, at Nautical Log Blog:

An Eye for an Eye

Dear Afghanistan,

Some drooling imbecile in Gainesville Florida burned a copy of the Quran.

I'm genuinely sorry for that. That was evil, inappropriate, insensitive and frankly utterly un-Christ-like. But the person who did this was, as previously mentioned, a drooling imbecile.

I understand that you're upset about this. I would like to personally, on behalf of my mentally deficient countryman, make amends.

I, Captain Robert Reeder of Seattle Washington, will personally burn one King James Bible for you. I will post photos of the Bible burning here at SoM; if you'd like I can try to hook up a live video feed, but no promises. Once I have burned one King James Bible for your one burned Quran, we're done, even-Steven. And then perhaps you can stop killing people over it.

Pakistan, if you'd like, I'll be happy throw in a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, pre-emptively in case some Hindu might decide to burn a Quran as well. Palestine, if you'd like, I'll add in a copy of the Tanakh as a freebee. I'll even see if I have an extra copy of Darwin's Origin of Species lying around in case some atheist should decide to include a copy of the Quran in their recycling program.

Okay, we're cool now? No more killing?

I'm dead serious about this. I'm leaving my "comments" box open on this post. One single response from any individual anywhere saying anything to the effect of "yes Captain Robert, the burning of one Christian Bible would sufficiently avenge the burning of one Quran, so that I will not feel compelled to kill anyone else over it", and it will happen, and I will post it here.


Dear drooling imbecile in Gainesville Florida,

So many things I could say here, but they would fall upon deaf ears. Let me try this:

I have a young daughter. She happens to enjoy pinatas. For whatever reason, beating a large paper bag with a stick, while blindfolded, to see what might come out of it, is great fun for her. Her friends seem to enjoy it as well, so, at least for special occasions, we try to provide her with the opportunity to play pinata.

Where we live, we happen to have a species of insect called bald-faced hornets. They aren't really true hornets, more like very large and very aggressive yellow-jacket wasps. But they build a nest which strongly resembles the nest of a true hornet, which is to say, it is about the size, shape, consistency and elevation of a pinata. Even when my daughter was very young, she was quite capable of taking a broom-handle and whacking any of the hornets' nests which frequent our yard in the late summer.

But, she didn't.

Because, by the time she was old enough to heft and swing a broom-handle, she had figured out that beating a hornets' nest with a stick was a Very Bad Idea.

As of the last time I looked at CNN some 20 people are dead and another hundred or more seriously wounded, all because you thought it was a Very Good Idea to smack at a hornets' nest with a broom stick.

I won't have a King James Bible anymore after I burn the one I have, so please, if you could be so kind, remind me of where in the Bible exactly Jesus recommends burning the holy books of other Abrahamic faiths, specifically with the intent of inciting the followers of those faiths to violence? Because, Pastor, I thought I was pretty familiar with your Bible, but I seem to have somehow missed that passage.