Memory and Theft

April 29, 2012

Sunday. Trying to work up the enthusiasm to write another post about the Juicy Athena Gravy story, but not quite sure how to do it without consulting lawyers first. Apparently if you speak Italian this article is significant. I don’t know what to make of it, but coffee room gossip is that Private Eye would.

So I finished the book I was reading instead – Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Beautiful but very sad. Gets very mixed reviews I see but I was gripped. It has a science fiction setting but is really about love, the difficulty of expressing what you feel, and how you cope with the inevitability of loss.

So next I tried ironing and music, always a combination that perks me up, as the mindlessness of ironing allows channels to open that the busy mind will often block. I picked “Mellow Gold” by Beck. Mostly I associate Beck with a kind of punk nihilism, but sometimes he is hypnotically surreal. My favourite is “Steal My Body Home”. I really don’t quite know what its about, but like the Ishiguro book, it reeks of emotional dissociation. I refrain from pointing out the grimmer more accidental link.

Turbulence in the gravy waves

April 23, 2012

So the Athena folk are somewhat miffed at being pipped by Juice. (This metaphor doesn’t seem quite right ? Ed.) But what about Horse Number Three ? Aren’t the NGO folk doing a Grand Petition ? Nope. It seems their tactic is a semi-formal complaint about inadeqacies in the process : an email letter direct to Gimenez. I am not sure how widely it has been circulated, but I understand it is stern stuff, bringing up issues of inappropriate revisions of costings and risk factors, and inadequately resolved conflicts of interest. Feel free to comment if you have clear knowledge, but please (a) do not leak things that are confidential, and (b) keep coments about process and not about individuals.

Its not really clear what competition means when a very small number of items is under consideration, and moreoever each item represents one community-segment, each of which ESA wishes to foster and support. Can you really leave it to peer review and some element of chance ? Nobody is both competent and neutral with respect to such huge basic choices. Why not accept that a well meaning Executive just has to  make a plan and stick with it, after taking advice ? To some extent what makes the current situation hard to swallow is the illusion of choice by peer review, rather than its weaknesses.

This wasn’t supposed to be a problem. Long standing ESA tradition is that M-class missions are genuine choices but Cornerstones / L-class missions are a slowly emerging plan. Everything gets done; its just a question of when. A year or two back, the plan was clear : we could do three halves, shared with NASA : LAPLACE, LISA, IXO. Then NASA pulled out of all of them. So now we have enough money for one and a half L-class missions instead of three. Athena, NGO, and Juice are all somewhat descoped compared to their parents. For example, ESA was going to do Ganymede and NASA would do Europa. But apparently Europa is the expensive bit because it has a horrible radiation field. So Juice will do a kind of quick day trip to Europa as I understand it, scooting back before the electronics gets fried. Anyhoo, costs are down but we still can’t do three.

We can do the usual ESA trick of slowing things down. Step round the board for a few more subscription rounds, passing GO and collecting 200 pounds each time. However, this gets you less than you think : because of standing army issues, the costs go up too. Plus, we can’t wait for ever. Its time for Cosmic Visions to finish and the next plan to emerge.

Net result : there will be an L2 competition, but no L3 competition. Things could get even tenser … NGO may seem the obvious choice to ESA because they have already invested in LISA Pathfinder, and its just a more radical advance. Thats why I think it has been really important to show that Athena serves a huge community.

X-ray astronomy crunch

April 19, 2012

I got an email this morning from old chum Paul Nandra. You may not be surprised because about eight squillion of you got the same email. In fact I also got it yesterday from Andy Fabian, and also via the Euclid mailing list (followed by a knuckle rapping from Yannick reminding us that the Euclid mailing list is for Euclid business…)

The email asked us to sign the Athena petition set up by Paul, who these days is King of German X-ray Astronomy, following Gunther’s retirement to Hawaii. Athena is a giant X-ray telescope, and has been on the shortlist of three for the L-class mission in ESA’s Cosmic Vision programme for some years. It descends from IXO, but our US chums pulled the plug on that. The other two rivals are NGO (which used to be LISA, and is  gravy wave thing) and JUICE (which used to be Laplace, and is a Jupiter moon thing). As explained in this BBC article, the tortuous decision process is almost done : the Space Science Advisory Committee has recommended JUICE. The fat lady in this case is the Science Policy Committee, so there is still a chance the decision could be reversed. Hence the petition.

The response has been pretty impressive – over 1100 signatures already. I think people see this as an issue for astrophysics, as well as specifically for X-ray astronomy. However, it seems a pretty faint hope. It just ain’t the way ESA thinks; Gaia is about to get launched; and Euclid and Solar Orbiter have just been selected as M-class missions. ESA-think is that it must be the turn of planetary astronomy. Furthermore SPICA (joint IR mission with JAXA) is underway, and LOFT (another X-ray concept) is still in contention for another M-class mission.

Still… the point is that Athena is the Big Hope for X-ray astronomy for many many years to come. Not running with it feels like closing down X-ray astronomy. So at minimum, it seems the right thing to do to register one’s distress.

Personally I would rather go for a smaller monitoring / transient projects like Lobster or EXIST but they seem to have failed to get a foot in the door too.

Fundamentally, the problem is that X-ray astronomy has hit the funding wall. Everything gets inexorably bigger and more ambitious. Eventually its all or nothing… so when the answer is nothing … ah.

Four Ages of Joni

April 13, 2012

Enough of this  computer nostalgia. Time for some music nostalgia. This evening I have been meandering around the YouTube landscape, as you do, and found myself settling comfortably into Joni Mitchell valley. Joni is an extra-ordinary figure. A genuine pop star but also a song writing genius, a poet, and a painter. Joni has been with me most of my life. Its fascinating looking back at the evolution of an artist.

Here she is  – Joni Anderson – on Canadian TV, in 1965. The song is very good, but somewhat like several other folk songs of that era… and she sounds just like Joan Baez ! She is not yet famous, but confidence and charisma is bursting out of her :

Next up, early 1970s, and Joni is a mature and deeply original songwriter. The song is a live performance of “For Free”, from Ladies of the Canyon. Its classic Mitchell in two ways. First, although the lyrics are straightfoward, they are perfectly judged and balanced; and the combination of tune, sentiment, piano and ethereal voice is amazingly moving. Secondly, it shows her discomfort with the celebrity life; but unlike Dylan, she didn’t go off in a huff.

On to the early 1990s and Joni the middle aged woman. (I have zipped straight past what is actually my favourite stuff – the jazzy late seventies records). This is “Night Ride Home” from the album of the same name, performed live for a  TV programme in Amsterdam. Whereas other pop stars, even very good ones, are burned out, or  re-cycling their past glories on endless stadium tours, Joni is producing hypnotic songs different from anything that went before.

Finally, here she is in 2000 at age 57 (same as me now) doing a spooky orchestrated version of “Both Sides Now”, her famous hit of 1969. The impossible high notes have gone; instead she has a smoky haunting voice. I find it hovers between profundity and schmalz; but her humanity wins.

Got to go and wipe my eyes now.

The Mac Plus lives

April 10, 2012

The sad story of the Exploding Mac  has a happy ending. Not just those groovy signatures … Number Three Child and I couldn’t see any burned out bits. Methinks maybe something in the hard drive went bang, not the beast itself … I wasn’t watching that closely. So we booted on the floppy … it worked ! Then for reasons I can’t really explain, I reconnected the hard drive and tried again .. it worked too !! Well… so now I have no idea what went bang and smoked … but everything is working perfectly.

Of course this leaves me nervous that it will explode again sometime soon. So I thought I should film it in action first. So there follows a wobbly grainy movie that only the diehard Apple Nuts need watch.

If it keeps working, I suspect I may get hooked on Glider all over again.

Apple flavoured surprise

April 6, 2012

Been having a bit of a sort-out recently. Time and entropy produce mostly sludge, but occasionally from out of the mud one plucks a pearl. I recovered my 1987 Mac Plus from beneath several archaeological layers. Oh this was going to be fun ! I connected the massive 20MB hard drive to the beast, and switched it on. After a very short delay there was a sort of clack and then smoke. I switched it off again… Number three child, The Geek, was disappointed.

Several days later I decided to remove the case and take a look. You never know, maybe there would be a single obvious burned-out component and I would know what to replace. Well, twas not so simple, but removing the case revealed a wondrous suprise … the inside of the case is signed by the Macintosh team ! I took a rather crummy picture. Here is a small section :

Small section of the inside case of my MacPlus, with Mac Team signatures.

Its all explained at this Vintage Computing website, and in more detail at the Andy Hertzfeld section of the Mac folklore website. The Mac Design team had a party at which they all signed a large sheet of paper; Jobs then had the signatures engraved onto the Macintosh case mould. Over time as the design changed, some of the signatures got lost. I can’t find Jeff Raskin on mine, which is disappointing.

Lots of people know this already, but I didn’t, so it was a weird and pleasant surprise.

All I have to do now is find someone who can fix the bugger.

SKA site final decision ! Not.

April 4, 2012

So as promised, the SKA Members met today (in Schiphol airport, lucky them) to review the recommendation made by the evaluation committee. You can read the announcement here. The decision is ….. we are going to think about it some more !!!

Just remember, it will be very groovy when it all happens. Two things that knocked me out at NAM, SKA-wise. First, Michael Kraemer, discussing the power requirement for cooling the SKA megacomputers, said that perhaps it doesn’t need its own nuclear power plant after all. Seeing as both potential sites are sunny deserts, what we need is a vast solar power array… and this exactly what these remote areas need anyway, and they can sell power back. So there ya go. Not only did radio astronomy apparently invent wifi, but they are going to save the world too. Hows that for impact.

Knockout fact number two. I went to the session with results from LOFAR, the SKA pathfinder. As you may know, it can act as a cosmic ray telescope, detecting radio waves from the air shower made by a particle hitting the top of the atmosphere. The shower arrives at an angle, so a kind of front moves across the array. LOFAR has nano-second time resolution and each station is a hundred metres across or something like that; so they watch the front move across the array. Holy shit, they can WATCH LIGHT MOVING.

Museum of Hoaxes

April 1, 2012

Now midday has passed, if there is anybody still trying to download the Planck data from Wikileaks, I can gently point out it was a all a Poisson D’Avril by that naughty Strudel chappie. Stu has lots of other astro-geeky stuff, so check it out.

Planck leaks wins this years April Fool prize for me – funny, near the knuckle, and had me taken in but bemused for a little while as it was the first one I came across. But I also very much enjoyed Jon Butterworth’s “evidence for String Theory” post. Just slightly nutty. But thats String Theory for you. Outside the science world, Google seems to have taken over the role of the BBC as official purveyor of April Fool jokes. I liked “Introducing Gmail Tap” and the “Google Street Roo“. My kids really liked the Quest View in Google maps. (Check it out before it goes !)

Is this an April Fool’s joke ? There seems to be genuine doubt !

So I was tempted to drift through the InterWeb and collect lots of old classic April Fool jokes, like the Spaghetti Harvest and the Flying Penguins and so on, but I stumbled across a web site that has already done it beautifully – the Museum of Hoaxes. As well as the Top 100 April Fool’s Day Hoaxes, it has lots of other hilarious stuff. My personal favourite is the bloke who convinced Alaska residents that Mount Edgecumbe was going to erupt, by setting fire to hundreds of old tires in its crater. The Museum of Hoaxes web site seems to suggest it has an actual physical presence on San Diego, but maybe they just photo-shopped those pictures…