Charlie's Diary

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Sat, 02 Apr 2005

New, promising rocket propellants

Yes, Poly-acetyl Ozone is ready for flight testing!

Thanks to Tom Womack for this one. ("Stable at 7 kelvin ... hypergolic with atmospheric nitrogen ... Successful flight again! Notice the exhaust trail from surface level up to the point where the primary propellant tank decomposed unexpectedly at an altitude of about 800 meters. We were very happy to see that the second stage ignited properly and climbed an additional 1,200 meters before its propellant load also decomposed unexpectedly.") Probably funniest if you've read "Ignition! A history of liquid rocket fuels" by John D. Clark.

Mars or bust!

[Link] [Discuss funnies]

posted at: 20:58 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 18 Feb 2005


I've just been to see The Dresden Dolls, who're doing a European tour right now. They played The Venue in Edinburgh, a seedy basement with room for maybe 300 people -- packed audience, great atmosphere, and above all an excellent performance. Best gig I've been to in several years.

If you haven't run across The Dresden Dolls, try to imagine what Kurt Weil would be doing if he was alive today and writing songs: they do a sort of punk reinterpretation of Weimar-era cabaret, with added topical bite. They're a twosome, Amanda Palmer on piano and Brian Viglione on drums, and they rock. I've got an eerie sense that this is a band on the way up, and seeing them now is like getting to see the Eurythmics in 1981 or Nirvana in 1989.

If you happen to be close to one of their tour dates, go and see them. You won't be disappointed.

[link] [Discuss]

posted at: 00:00 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

Fri, 14 Jan 2005

Accidental book acquisitions

Wandering around town today (between fits of proof-reading) I ended up in the local remainder bookshop. Which had a title in it that I simply had to take home -- Bioinformatics for Dummies.

It's a long time since I did any biochemistry or genetics and I'm very out of date. I'm hoping this book will bring me up to speed -- it looks to be a real blast.

(And yes, this posting was motivated solely by the desire to make the preceding pun.)

Is there any topic too obscure for a "... For Dummies" approach?

Discuss ... For Dummies

posted at: 16:22 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 11 Oct 2003

21st century steam locomotives and biplanes

Steam locomotives may be about to make a come-back on British railways, in the form of the 5AT, a 4-6-0 configuration steam locomotive designed to reach speeds upwards of 180 km/h and be far more efficient and far less polluting than the last steam locomotives manufactured in the UK. They're looking for investors today and want to have a prototype running by 2010 ...

Weird Russian biplane Meanwhile, can anyone identify this thing for me? It claims to be called "Kometa", but a quick google reveals no matches for it among the Lithuanian match factories, high-altitude observation planes, and cruise missiles that share the name.

[ Link (Loco) ] [ Link (Even more Loco) ] [ Link (Russian biplane) ] [ Discuss dieselpunk ]

posted at: 20:38 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

Sat, 04 Oct 2003

Extreme tanks

SF Writer in search of insane spurious technology, episode 34509:

In the early days of the second world war, British tanks sucked. Partly it was their tracks -- they used mild steel that tended to come apart after only a hundred miles or so -- and partly it was their armament, but a large chunk of it was their design. They fell into two categories -- "cruiser" tanks designed to be used like cavalry, fast and lightly armed, and "infantry" tanks designed to support infantry advances -- because the British army basically hadn't gotten the hang of this new-fangled Blitzkrieg doctrine, despite its inventor (Major-General J. C. F. Fuller) being one of their own (albeit a bit demented).

So they can probably be forgiven for flailing around in the dark, looking for good ideas, before they came up with such success stories as the Comet and the Centurion (which missed service in the war by a matter of months, and is still used by the Israeli army).

The Old Gang, aka the Special Vehicle Development Committee (SVDC), was formed in 1940 from former WW1 tank designers. They were half-certain that the future of warfare would see a reversion to trench war -- that the new war of mobility would inevitably bog down in the mud and mire. And therefore they designed two tanks -- TOG 1 and TOG 2.

TOG 1 Tank TOG 1 was basically a WW1 tank with a diesel engine, room for a horde of infantry on board (to ride across those pesky trenches), and a wee turret up top. It didn't work. Not deterred, they went on to design TOG 2 ...

TOG 2 Tank TOG 2 weighs 80 tons, is 33' 3" long, 10' 3" wide, and 10' high. Designed for a crew of six, it had a maximum speed of 8.5 mph. Yes, those are doors above the tracks to allow passengers in and out as it sails majestically above the much and mire. Powered by twin diesel-electric generators this is the ultimate extension of the first world war tank concept -- by the standards of Vimy Ridge it is fast, manoeuverable, heavily armed and armoured. But by 1941 it was just a little bit out of date ...

[ Link ] [ Discuss dieselpunk ]

posted at: 19:07 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 14 Aug 2003

Lovecraftian conspiracy theory #1

Some people take H. P. Lovecraft too seriously. Like this guy:

Lizard-like aliens descended upon ancient Mayans and interbred with them, producing "a form of life they could inhabit, they fluctuated between a human and iguana appearance through chameleon-like abilities."

Edgar Allen Poe, according to an article in New Federalist, was a counter-intelligence operative serving the U.S. government in the first half of the 1800s. Thus, Poe's stories possibly hint at an insider's knowledge of events. From what vision-world did H.P. Lovecraft perceive and write about "the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men... They had shape but that shape was not made of matter... the Great Old Ones spoke to (the first men) by molding their dreams; for only thus could Their language reach the fleshy minds of mammals... (One day, the Great Old Ones would appear openly.) The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones, free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves..."

Er, yes. Well.

[ Link ] [ Discuss paranoia ]

posted at: 14:56 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

Thu, 15 May 2003

Polar bear attacks submarine

(Best read while listening to One of our Submarines is Missing by Thomas Dolby.)

[ Link ][ Discuss dumb ]

posted at: 13:09 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

How to improve corporate computer security in one easy move

Y'know, I don't do this stuff for a living no more. I really don't. But this story from Computerworld just rings true on so many levels that it's completely believable.

What's astounding is that this sort of thing still happens. For example, my copy of the UNIX research system papers (tenth edition, from 1990) contains a paper by Fred Grampp and Robert T. Morris (senior) on security that includes the following gem:

The most important and usually the only barrier to the unauthorized use of a UNIX [or other multiuser] system is the password that a user must utter in order to gain access to the system. Much attention has been paid to making the UNIX password scheme as secure as possible against would-be intruders ...

In practice it is easy to write programs that are extremely successful at extracting passwords from password files, and that are also very economical to run. They operate, however, by an indirect method that amounts to guessing what a user's password might be, and then trying over and over until the correct one is found.

Guess what -- this paper came out in the early 80's, when networked interactive timesharing systems (like this Macintosh Powerbook) were becoming common enough that attacks were commencing. And there are still big consultancies -- with responsibility for security at large companies -- where nobody seems to understand it.

It's not stupidity. These folks aren't stupid. But there's clearly a failing here, and I'd ascribe it to institutional culture. My experience of large consulting companies is that their analysts are more focussed on the appearance of professionalism than on the substance, more interested in looking trustworthy to the occupants of the boardroom -- walking the management walk, talking the management talk -- than in actually doing the job. And, just as bad money drives out good, the focus on client relationships drives out competence because clients like predictability, and good security cannot, by its very nature, be allowed to become predictable. (As witness the story in the link below.)

Structures. Human organisations that are fundamentally defective at the job in hand but that are more successful than competent organisations in the market because they're better at winning contracts. Predictability and security. (Is that an itch in my fingertips? I can feel a story coming on ...)

[ Link ][ Discuss geekery ]

posted at: 10:18 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry

Tue, 22 Oct 2002

Wombats at dawn

(This is probably funnier if you read A Colder War first ...)

Apparently the following turned up on the Culture Mailing List (for devotees of Iain M. Banks):

Brad DeLong said:

> Clearly what we need now are Wombats of Mass Destruction.

Lester Hecht is writing a report that scares him. It's a hot summer night in Langley and yet he feels cold. He finishes typing a sentence then reaches across his desk and slides another plain brown envelope into the lamp's small circle of light. As he moves to open it, he notices his hand is shaking. He puts the envelope down, leans back in his chair and closes his eyes for a few moments. It's late and he's been working on this hellish material for many hours and his eyes hurt and he wishes he'd never learned these things, that he could just forget it all. He reaches for his cigarettes, lights one, and breathes deeply. A minute passes, then another. Finally he feels his resolve return and opens the envelope.

Lester slides a photocopy of a newpaper article from a now defunct Iraqi propaganda paper out of the envelope. It shows the dictator standing with a small group of children, smiling. He's not quite pulling off "benevolent" but seems to have effortlessly hit "sinister". In the background are lines of cages. There is a large sign in arabic, and below that a smaller sign in English that says "Karbala Petting Zoo".

He puts the sheet aside, and removes the next item. It is an image from a Cheyenne photoreconaissance satellite passing high over Diwaniyah. The analysts from the National Reconaissance Office have already been over the image, covering it with little boxes and helpful labels. It shows a number of low buildings somewhere deep in the Iraqi desert. A bulldozer is visible next to the rough track along which vehicles from Karbala have been arriving under cover of darkness. There are guard posts, some APCs, barracks. He squints at a fuzzy, organic shape labelled "anomaly" for a little while and then puts the image aside.

Next up is a photgraph of Saddam's birthday parade. It is taken from some high vantage point, but not from the air. Perhaps the photographer was in one of the hotels overlooking the parade route. A column of tanks and rocket launchers is passing one of the dictator's doubles, who is looking suitably grim and determined in the face of the Zionist-Imperialist Menace. The vehicle immediately in front of him is different to the others. It is the launch platform for a SCUD-2 missile, but it carries no rocket. Instead the heavy truck is modified to carry a cubic box covered with a tarpaulin. The wind is blowing the tarp against the cage and beneath it is the barest impression of bars. Lester knows that beneath the cover is a cage. Now, from the other intelligence reports, he knows what lies within that cage. Finally, chillingly, he has learned that it isn't a bluff.

Once more, he leans back in his chair and wonders how to tell the President that Iraq now has Wombats.

[ Link ] [ Discuss (thanks to Richard Baker) ]

posted at: 22:09 | path: /fun | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
Unwirer -- an experiment in weblog mediated collaborative fiction
Inside the MIT Media Lab -- what it's like to spend a a day wandering around the Media Lab
"Nothing like this will be built again" -- inside a nuclear reactor complex

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Some webby stuff I'm reading:

Engadget ]
Gizmodo ]
The Memory Hole ]
Boing!Boing! ]
Futurismic ]
Walter Jon Williams ]
Making Light (TNH) ]
Crooked Timber ]
Junius (Chris Bertram) ]
Baghdad Burning (Riverbend) ]
Bruce Sterling ]
Ian McDonald ]
Amygdala (Gary Farber) ]
Cyborg Democracy ]
Body and Soul (Jeanne d'Arc)  ]
Atrios ]
The Sideshow (Avedon Carol) ]
This Modern World (Tom Tomorrow) ]
Jesus's General ]
Mick Farren ]
Early days of a Better Nation (Ken MacLeod) ]
Respectful of Otters (Rivka) ]
Tangent Online ]
Grouse Today ]
Hacktivismo ]
Terra Nova ]
Whatever (John Scalzi) ]
Justine Larbalestier ]
Yankee Fog ]
The Law west of Ealing Broadway ]
Cough the Lot ]
The Yorkshire Ranter ]
Newshog ]
Kung Fu Monkey ]
S1ngularity ]
Pagan Prattle ]
Gwyneth Jones ]
Calpundit ]
Lenin's Tomb ]
Progressive Gold ]
Kathryn Cramer ]
Halfway down the Danube ]
Fistful of Euros ]
Orcinus ]
Shrillblog ]
Steve Gilliard ]
Frankenstein Journal (Chris Lawson) ]
The Panda's Thumb ]
Martin Wisse ]
Kuro5hin ]
Advogato ]
Talking Points Memo ]
The Register ]
Cryptome ]
Juan Cole: Informed comment ]
Global Guerillas (John Robb) ]
Shadow of the Hegemon (Demosthenes) ]
Simon Bisson's Journal ]
Max Sawicky's weblog ]
Guy Kewney's mobile campaign ]
Hitherby Dragons ]
Counterspin Central ]
MetaFilter ]
NTKnow ]
Encyclopaedia Astronautica ]
Fafblog ]
BBC News (Scotland) ]
Pravda ]
Meerkat open wire service ]
Warren Ellis ]
Brad DeLong ]
Hullabaloo (Digby) ]
Jeff Vail ]
The Whiskey Bar (Billmon) ]
Groupthink Central (Yuval Rubinstein) ]
Unmedia (Aziz Poonawalla) ]
Rebecca's Pocket (Rebecca Blood) ]

Older stuff:

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(I screwed the pooch in respect of the blosxom entry datestamps on March 28th, 2002, so everything before then shows up as being from the same time)

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