Feb 05

Prophecies: long distance

In 2061: Odyssey Three, Arthur C. Clarke wrote:

The coming of the jet age had triggered an explosion of global tourism. At almost the same time — it was not, of course, a coincidence — satellites and fiber optics had revolutionized communications. With the historic abolition of long-distance charges on 31 December 2000, every telephone call became a local one, and the human race greeted the new millennium by transforming itself into one huge, gossiping family.

Clarke made that prediction in 1987. While it hasn’t come true in a literal sense, I think he’s not far off the mark. It’s been years since the last time I paid for a long-distance (LD) phone call. My family’s mobile phone plan provides us with an ample pool of minutes. And it doesn’t cost us anything extra to use them for LD calls. So we make all of our LD calls on our mobile phones, and we’ve come to think of LD telephony as free.

Do we even need an LD carrier? Well, not under normal circumstances. But the cellular phone networks can become unavailable as a result of either excessive demand or power failure. The most likely scenario for either of those events is a disaster of some sort; New York City experienced cellular network collapse on 11 September 2001, and again during the Northeast Blackout of 2003. Unfortunately, it’s in exactly that sort of situation that you most want to place LD phone calls.

So it’s prudent to have a backup plan for doing so. But it’s silly to pay a monthly fee for an LD plan that you hope never to use. A few years ago, I called MCI (our LD carrier) to find out what could be done about that. The customer service representative offered to switch us to a plan that had no minimum fee, and I agreed.

Yesterday, I received a card from MCI informing me of a new monthly minimum. Beginning March 1, we would have to pay a $5.99 per month even if we made no LD calls at all. It was time to cancel. At first I had difficulty reaching a live human at MCI, but after ten or fifteen minutes of listening to elevator music, I remembered the gethuman 500 database that I wrote about a few months ago. Following the instructions on that site, I reached a customer service representative in a couple of minutes. After verifying that it was no longer possible to avoid the monthly minumum fees, I canceled our account.

I assumed that our LD backup plan would now be to use a 10-10 dial-around service if the need arose. But when I started to research the available dial-around services, I learned that there are still some LD carriers that have little or no monthly minimum. The best of these seems to be ECG, which offers an interstate rate of 2.5 cents per minute (much better than the 7 cents per minute I didn’t pay MCI for the calls I wasn’t making). I signed up.

ECG does charge a “regulatory recovery fee” of 59 cents per month. That’s not quite the free LD that Clarke predicted, but I think I can live with it.

Jan 28

Soviet space disasters

In the midst of delving into the history of Soviet space disasters, I just noticed today’s date. It’s the 22nd anniversary of the Challenger disaster.

This NASA description of an unmanned launch matches Heinlein’s account almost perfectly. It seems clear that his guide was actually telling him the truth in this instance. It really was a dummy, not a cosmonaut, and the cadets were mistaken.

Meanwhile, I’ve learned about several other incidents that I’ve never heard of before. This is from the “Dead Cosmonauts” chapter of James Oberg’s book Uncovering Soviet Disasters:

On April 5, 1975, two cosmonauts were dumped onto the Altai Mountains in the world’s first manned space launch abort. Pilot Vasily Lazarev and flight engineer Oleg Makarov survived a harrowing 20 G descent and then a bouncing ride down a mountainside before their spacecraft came to a safe stop. They came as close to dying as anyone can and later talk about it. Privately Soviet engineers told American colleagues that explosive separation bolts between the second and third stages had been miswired. For many years the Soviet public was left in the dark about these details.

Oberg also describes what sounds like the Soviet version of Apollo 13:

In the second article flight director Viktor Blagov gave a detailed account of the suspenseful Soyuz 33 mission in the spring of 1979, when a two-man spaceship was nearly stranded in orbit. The spaceship’s main engine exploded, and specialists feared that it had damaged the emergency engine as well.

And I can’t believe I’ve never hear about this terrifying episode:

Several dramatic space events never got mentioned in this period — the most dangerous being the Soyuz-5 landing in 1969 when the service module failed to detach from the command module, which then entered front forward and began burning up. Only at the last possible moment did the modules separate and the heat shield turn into the 10,000 degree heat pulse.

Oberg wrote two books on this subject. I’m going to have to get my hands on them.

Jan 27

Lost cosmonauts?

Following a tip from Instapundit, I was shocked to read a disturbing revelation about the early history of space flight: Yuri Gagarin was not the first human to fly in space. This claim was apparently published at Pravda Online back in 2001, but I’ve never heard about it before today. The article is very brief, so I will quote the whole thing here:

As 40 years have passed since Gagarin’s flight, new sensational details of this event were disclosed: Gagarin was not the first man to fly to space. Three Soviet pilots died in attempts to conquer space before Gagarin’s famous space flight, Mikhail Rudenko, senior engineer-experimenter with Experimental Design Office 456 (located in Khimki, in the Moscow region) said on Thursday. According to Rudenko, spacecraft with pilots Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov at the controls were launched from the Kapustin Yar cosmodrome (in the Astrakhan region) in 1957, 1958 and 1959. “All three pilots died during the flights, and their names were never officially published,” Rudenko said. He explained that all these pilots took part in so-called sub- orbital flights, i.e., their goal was not to orbit around the earth, which Gagarin later did, but make a parabola-shaped flight. “The cosmonauts were to reach space heights in the highest point of such an orbit and then return to the Earth,” Rudenko said. According to his information, Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov were regular test pilots, who had not had any special training, Interfax reports. “Obviously, after such a serious of tragic launches, the project managers decided to cardinally change the program and approach the training of cosmonauts much more seriously in order to create a cosmonaut detachment,” Rudenko said.

My immediate reaction to this was “My God, Robert Heinlein was right!”
You probably have no idea what I’m talking about unless you’ve read an essay that Heinlein wrote after his visit to the USSR in 1960. The essay is titled “‘PRAVDA’ Means ‘TRUTH'”, and it is reprinted (along with “Inside Intourist”, another essay on the same topic) in the Heinlein collection Expanded Universe.

The title “‘PRAVDA’ Means ‘TRUTH'” refers to the Russian word pravda, which is literally translated as “truth”, but in the Soviet Union really meant “what the Communist Party says is true”. Because she and her husband wanted to learn the truth, not the pravda, about life in the USSR, Virginia Heinlein spent two years learning Russian. She took classes at the University of Colorado, hired a private conversation tutor, and listened to language instruction records until, in Robert’s words, “she could read Russian, write Russian, speak Russian, understand Russian — and think in Russian.”

As a result, the Heinleins knew that they would not be dependent on their tour guides (employees of Intourist, the official state travel agency) for information. They would know what people around them were really saying, not what the tour guides claimed they were saying. And if they managed to slip away from their keepers, they might be able to talk to ordinary citizens of the USSR and learn things about life in that country that the tour guides would never tell them. This was risky behavior in 1960, but Robert and Virginia wanted to know the facts about the Soviet Union, not a Potemkin village version.
In “‘PRAVDA’ Means ‘TRUTH'”, Heinlein describes an incident that occurred while they were visiting Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania (which was then known by its Russian name, Vilno).

About noon on Sunday, May 15, we were walking downhill through the park surrounding the castle that dominates Vilno. We encountered a group of six or eight Red Army cadets. Foreigners are a great curiosity in Vilno. Almost no tourists go there. So they stopped and we chatted, myself through our guide and my wife directly, in Russian.

Shortly one of the cadets asked me what I thought of their new manned rocket. We answered that we had had no news lately — what was it and when did it happen? He told us, with the other cadets listening and agreeing, that the rocket had gone up that very day, and at that very moment a Russian astronaut was in orbit around the earth — and what did we think of that?

I congratulated them on this wondrous achievement but, privately, felt a dull sickness. The Soviet Union had beaten us to the punch again. But later that day our guide looked us up and carefully corrected the story: The cadet had been mistaken, the rocket was not manned.

That evening we tried to purchase Pravda. No copies were available in Vilno. Later we heard from other Americans that Pravda was not available in other cities in the USSR that evening — this part is hearsay, of course. We tried also to listen to the Voice of America. It was jammed. We listened to some Soviet stations but heard no mention of the rocket.

This is the rocket the Soviets tried to recover and later admitted that they had had some trouble with the retrojets; they had fired while the rocket was in the wrong attitude.

So what is the answer? Did that rocket contain only a dummy, as the pravda now claims? Or is there a dead Russian revolving in space? — an Orwellian “unperson,” once it was realized that he could not be recovered.
I am sure of this: At noon on May 15 a group of Red Army cadets were unanimously positive that the rocket was manned. That pravda did not change until later that afternoon.

You can see why I reacted to the 2001 Pravda Online article by thinking that Heinlein’s anecdote had been confirmed. But it’s not that simple. For one thing, the dates don’t match. The Heinleins met those Red Army cadets on May 15, 1960. That’s almost a year before Gagarin’s flight, but too late to be any of the suborbital launches described by Pravda Online (which allegedly took place in 1957, 1958, and 1959). And the cadets described an orbital flight.

I have trouble believing the Pravda Online story, especially the claim of a manned launch in 1957. The USSR didn’t even launch Sputnik I until October of that year, and that was a metal sphere a mere 28 inches in diameter. It did weigh as much as a man (183 pounds), but not nearly as much as a spacecraft capable of carrying a man, keeping him alive, and returning him safely to Earth. The Soviets simply didn’t have the ability to loft anything that massive into space, even on a suborbital trajectory, in 1957.

And who is this Mikhail Rudenko that Pravda Online cites as a source? The 2001 article says he is (or was) “senior engineer-experimenter with Experimental Design Office”. I’ve never heard of him or the Experimental Design Office before. How does he know about these alleged flights? Does he have any government documents or other evidence to back up his story, or are we just supposed to take his word for it? If these launches really took place, many other people must have been involved. I’d like to see some of them corroborate Rudenko’s claim.

It turns out that Pravda Online has no actual connection to the newspaper that Robert Heinlein couldn’t find in Vilnius. The original Pravda was closed in 1991 by President Yeltsin, and Pravda Online is an unrelated Web site run by some former Pravda staff members. Judging by the other content at that site, it’s the equivalent of a supermarket tabloid in the U.S. And as far as I can tell, the information in the 2001 article hasn’t been published anywhere else. That doesn’t inspire very much confidence.

The whole topic of whether the USSR had unsuccessful manned space flights before Gagarin’s (and hushed them up) is a swamp of legends, hoaxes, and outright lies. Wikipedia has an article on the subject that lists about two dozen “lost cosmonauts”, including the three listed in the Pravda Online article and Heinlein’s 1960 account. Most of the lost-cosmonaut claims are rumors with little or no supporting evidence.

Who knows if any of it is true? I can easily believe that the Soviet space program had early failures, some of them fatal, that were never publicized. But any specific claims of that sort will have to be documented better that the ones we’ve seen so far.

Dec 28

Wii sighting

Ben points out that it’s been a long time since my last entry. Fortunately, I had an experience yesterday that is relevant to his recent article about the supply and demand of the Nintendo Wii.

I was in a Wal-Mart when an associate came on the public address system and said, “We now have the Nintendo Wii in stock.” I wasn’t interested in buying a Wii myself, but I headed for Electronics anyway because I was curious. I hadn’t actually seen Wiis for sale before, and I wondered if a mob would form and start fighting over them.

What I actually saw was rather anticlimactic. There were indeed some Wii packages visible behind the glass of the game-console display case, and a woman in that aisle had one in her cart. No other customers were there. I shrugged and went back to my shopping. When I was ready to check out, I swung by Electronics again just to see if anything had changed. The Wiis were gone, but when I asked an associate how many the store had received that day, she said “Four”. So it’s not surprising that they sold out quickly.

So that’s my firsthand experience with Wii demand: enough to make them disappear in short order, but not enough to draw a crowd.

Dec 07

Delicious for Chanukah

Author NancyKay Shapiro was shopping in Balducci’s (a grocery store in Greenwich Village) a few days ago when she encountered something odd. It was a display of meat items with signs saying “Delicious for Chanukah.” That’s not unusual this time of year, but the meat items in question were hams.

I know, this sounds like an urban legend. But Shapiro has pictures. And despite what one commenter says, they are not Photoshopped; the Balducci’s website is currently offering an apology for the signs (which have since been changed to “Perfect for the Holidays!”).

UPDATE: As another of Shapiro’s commenters points out, it’s a good thing the sign didn’t say “Delicious for Ramadan”, or there would have been riots.
Source: Don Surber

Nov 25

Chicken chicken chicken

This scientific paper is a triumph of form over content. (How do I know it’s a scientific paper? Well, just look at it. What else could it possibly be?)

It’s also available as a PowerPoint presentation — but this video of the author presenting it to the American Association for the Advancement of Science is, perhaps, more amusing.

UPDATE: Was Doug Zongker inspired by this children’s book? Or this comic strip?

Oct 17

Get a human

We’ve all had the experience of being trapped in an automated telephone menu system, cursing and pressing buttons at random in a desperate attempt to get a human representative to talk to you. But what if you knew exactly what buttons to press? The gethuman 500 database gives you that information for hundreds of companies and government agencies: the number to dial and which buttons to press in order to reach an actual live human being. Once you’ve done that, you’re on your own.
Source: American Digest

Oct 16

Brain test

Which way is this dancer spinning: clockwise or anti-clockwise? Your answer supposedly indicates how your brain works, although the article doesn’t explain the basis for that claim, or even where the picture came from.
My own results are puzzling. I initially saw the dancer to be spinning clockwise, which puts me in the right-brain category. That’s just plain wrong; I’m one of the most stereotypically left-brained people you will ever meet. I tried for several minutes to change the direction of the dancer’s spin, but couldn’t do it just by mental effort. Finally I discovered that by looking at the shadows of her feet, I could convince myself that she was spinning anti-clockwise. Now I can easily switch the direction at will. I’m not sure what any of this means, but it sure is interesting.

Source: Freakonomics

Oct 16

Prophecies: calculators

From 1941 to 1949, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of science fiction stories about the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire. These stories were published in the magazine Astounding Stories, and in 1950 were reprinted in three volumes titled Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. Collectively, the three volumes became known as the Foundation Trilogy.

When the first four stories were assembled into the book Foundation, the editor complained that the story began too abruptly, and asked Asimov to write a fifth story to precede the other four. Asimov complied, producing an account of how mathematician Hari Seldon establishes two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy to preserve the knowledge of the human race and serve as nuclei for the formation of a Second Empire. At one point in the story, Seldon is shown using the tool of his trade:

Seldon removed his calculator pad from the pouch at his belt. Men said he kept one beneath his pillow for use in moments of wakefulness. Its gray, glossy finish was slightly worn by use. Seldon’s nimble fingers, spotted now with age, played along the hard plastic that rimmed it. Red symbols glowed out from the gray.

In 1950, the standard calculation tool used by mathematicians and engineers was the slide rule, but Asimov described a future in which the slide rule was replaced by something new: a handheld electronic device.

As luck would have it, I read the Foundation Trilogy for the first time in the early 1970s, just as the first pocket calculators were appearing in stores. They looked exactly like what Asimov described, right down to the belt pouches and glowing red symbols (the earliest calculators had displays that used red LEDs). Two decades before its invention, he had predicted the calculator with virtually perfect accuracy. And it did completely replace the slide rule.

A few years later, Asimov wrote a short story (“The Feeling of Power”) in which pocket calculators are so ubiquitous that people have forgotten how to perform calculations without them. This idea seemed farfetched in 1958, but today, it’s very plausible.

I should also mention that Asimov himself was a fan of the slide rule, which is not too surprising for someone who studied math and science, and received M.A. and Ph.D degrees in chemistry in the 1940s. He even wrote a book about it, An Easy Introduction to the Slide Rule, which was published in 1965. Ironically, when the pocket calculators drove the slide rule into extinction, Asimov’s book went out of print.