Bob's Junkmail

Purveyor of fine tripe since 1999

Important Stuff.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Rocket Science

Astra is a small company with about 100 employees. Last week, five of the employees went to Kodiak, Alaska to launch a rocket. A week later, the team of five had set up the rocket and equipment, and Astra's second launch made it into space, but not quite into orbit. The rocket ran out of thrust seconds before achieving orbital velocity. They said the fuel mixture was wrong, but that seems like a simple problem. Maybe there was another mistake or two. On the other hand, even NASA has simple problems once in a while.


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The rocket is a "small" 40-foot rocket they will use to launch small satellites, up to 100 kg, into low earth orbit. Their launch pad on Kodiak Island is little more than a concrete slab and a tent. The rocket is controlled from the company's headquarters in California.

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Astra has contracts for a few dozen satellite launches, at $2.5 million per launch. This is cheaper than just about anybody else. A launch of Rocket Lab's Electron is priced at $7 million, but it will handle twice the payload of Astra's rocket. A SpaceX launch of a 5,500 kg geostationary satellite (a lot higher than low earth orbit) costs about $62 million, and an Atlas V launch is more than double that amount.

https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/12/astra-set-up-a-...


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A few years ago I went to Kodiak Island and found this. It's either a space alien or a red-eye medusa.

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Moon Rocket

On November 23, my birthday, China launched the Chang'e 5 spacecraft to the moon. On December 16, Beethoven's birthday, the spacecraft Chang'e 5 landed in China's Inner Mongolia with a few pounds of moon rocks and soil. These are the first moon rocks to be retrieved in more than 40 years. In the 1970's, the Soviet Union retrieved smaller samples of moon rocks three times in unmanned spacecraft, and the U.S. launched people to the moon six times from 1969 to 1972. China hopes to launch people to the moon within 10 years, the U.S. in about 5.


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Chang'e 5 landing, photo by Batbayar/for China Daily


Starship

On December 8, when Chang'e 5 was orbiting the moon, SpaceX launched a prototype of its starship spacecraft on a test flight. SpaceX plans for the Starship, along with a booster stage, to replace SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Falcon heavy rockets.

The Starship will have a capacity of about 100,000 kg to low earth orbit, compared to 63,800 for the Falcon heavy and 22,800 for the Falcon 9. It will be able to return from orbit and land. A version is also being made for moon landings for NASA's Artemis project.

This article is pretty good, and has a video of the flight. You can start at 1:48:00 and watch for 7 minutes to see the entire flight.

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The test flight went well, except for the big fireball when it landed. It went up to 40,000 feet, cut the engines one at a time, dropped stably without power down to the landing point, rotated upright, and relit the engines. Then it ran low on fuel (or fuel pressure) and couldn't slow down enough for a soft landing. It exploded in spectacular fashion. Even so, SpaceX considered the test flight a big success.


Surveyor 2

In 1966, the Surveyor 2 spacecraft was launched to the moon, where it was to make soft landing and send photos back to earth. The first and second stages of its Centaur rocket were jettisoned after they completed their burns, as planned. The upper stage flew past the moon and into orbit around the sun.

On the way to the moon, Surveyor 2 fired its vernier thrusters for a mid-course correction. One of them didn't ignite. Surveyor 2 tumbled and lost contact with earth. On September 23, 1966, Surveyor 2 made a hard landing on the moon at a speed of around 6000 mph.

Last August, NASA reported an unidentified object flying through space toward the earth. On September 23, 54 years to the day after Surveyor 2 crashed onto the moon, NASA announced that the unidentified object was probably the upper stage of the Centaur rocket from Surveyor 2. This was confirmed on December 2. They did a spectral analysis of another Centaur second stage in orbit around earth, and the two objects matched.

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Surveyor 2 on the Beach

The Surveyor 2 rocket passed the earth on December 1 without hitting anything important, and is now headed back out into solar orbit.


Ice in Georgia

There is a big iceberg is floating around in the ocean just southwest of the South Georgia Islands. It's a little over 90 miles long.

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The berg, known colloquially as A-68A, broke off an Antarctic ice shelf in July, 2017 and has been floating around ever since. Now it's more or less grounded in 200-250 feet of water. It might float back to the south, float around the island, or slide toward South Georgia and get good and stuck. Since the iceberg has a draft of around 200 feet, it won't exactly smash into the island like some news reports claim. It could block the waves and wind from the south for a while, though. That and the meltwater could affect marine life in the local area.


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"The iceberg A68-A"

The largest known iceberg was good old B-15, which calved in 2000 and was almost twice the size of A-68A. In 2012, a section of B-15 called B-15F also visited South Georgia.


Philanthropist

Jeff Bezos is Amazon's boss and largest shareholder, with 11.1% of the company. He was married to a lady named Mackenzie. In 2019, some explicit photos and texts of Jeff Bezos were published. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you ask), they pertained to Jeff and his girlfriend rather than Jeff and his wife. Now Jeff and Mackenzie are divorced, and she goes by Mackenzie Scott.

Mackenzie ended up with 35-40 billion dollars after the divorce, and likely has a lot more now. The impressive thing about her is the amount of good she is doing with that impressive amount of money.

Over the last four months, she has given $4,158,500,000 in gifts to 384 organizations across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington D.C. That is a lot.

The gifts? "Some are filling basic needs: food banks, emergency relief funds, and support services for those most vulnerable. Others are addressing long-term systemic inequities that have been deepened by the crisis: debt relief, employment training, credit and financial services for under-resourced communities, education for historically marginalized and underserved people, civil rights advocacy groups, and legal defense funds that take on institutional discrimination."

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"If you’re craving a way to use your time, voice, or money to help others at the end of this difficult year, I highly recommend a gift to one of the thousands of organizations doing remarkable work all across the country. Every one of them could benefit from more resources to share with the communities they’re serving. And the hope you feed with your gift is likely to feed your own."

Mackenzie Scott, 12/15/2021

I think 2021 is a good year for Mackenzie Scott.


Google Antitrust

Google is facing some antitrust lawsuits from some states and the federal government, one led by Texas Attorney General Ken. Ken achieved notoriety when he filed a particularly incompetent lawsuit with the Supreme Court regarding the presidential election.

Two antitrust suits were filed by groups of states against Google this week, and an earlier one was filed in October by the Justice Department and a group of states. These three suits will probably be combined into one big one.

I don't know whether all this is for legitimate anticompetitive behavior, or if it's corporation bashing to gain political points. I really don't see how Google is anticompetitive, but I suppose it's conceivable. The one sure thing is that the antitrust suit(s) will be in the courts for more years than seem necessary. For example, a judge set a tentative trial date of September 12, 2023.

My biggest problem with Google is that they have too many ads, but since I don't have to pay for their services I won't complain too much. I am the product they sell, not the customer. That's the way it is with a lot of internet companies -- Facebook, Twitter, online news, etc. If you're not paying for a service, someone is probably paying the service to influence you either through ads or content.

Here are some details on the lawsuits.

With their Google Search, Gmail, office apps, and several other free services (to individuals), Google has definitely improved the internet and modern communications. It's fair to say that if Google had not done this someone else would have, but Google did do it.

Back in the early days, Google's company policy was "Do No Evil." The slogan survived the initial public stock offering of 2004, and was around as a quasi-official policy up until a couple of years ago.

I think a lawyer suing Google was playing on this. "The Supreme Court has warned that there are such things as antitrust evils," the suit begins, alleging that Google is guilty of such, and it "seeks to ensure that Google won't be evil anymore."

Across the Atlantic, the EU has proposed a couple of laws that would restrict the operations of Google and Facebook. That might have a larger and quicker effect than the antitrust suits.


Discount Prices Every Day?

Walmart is a pretty reliable place for competitive prices. Walmart.com is not, nor is Amazon.com. The majority of sales on Amazon come from independent sellers, and they will occasionally raise the price double, triple, or more on an item if there are no better options on Amazon. Walmart.com is similar.

I just did an Amazon search for RV Antifreeze, to put in the water pipes of a vacant house for the winter. The price on Amazon is $15 to $54 per gallon. On Walmart.com, the cheapest is over $20. Inside Walmart or at most auto parts stores, it's under $4 per gallon.

If you go to Walmart.com and select "pickup and delivery", you get the sub-$4 price for the same item. I've seen this before for items that might be in short supply, such as disinfectant wipes or small nuclear missiles.

On an unrelated topic, Walmart has been testing self-driving box trucks, and plans to go driverless on a 2-mile route next year. They're using Gatik.

Maybe we need some autonomous vehicles in Pryor.

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Someone tried to make a drive-thru at Pryor's Kum-n-Go.


A guy named Joshua paints murals on buildings. Joshua received a commission to paint a mural on a building in Peoria, Illinois, over Thanksgiving weekend. He was paid in advance, and paid well, so he did a good job and did it on time.

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Peace, Land, Cookies

Unfortunately, the guy who hired Joshua didn't own the building. Nobody even knows who he was or why he paid for a mural. I like that guy! Incidentally, the Russian words are "Peace, Land, Cookies," similar to the old Soviet slogan "Peace, Land, Bread."

The building's owner apparently does not appreciate fine art, because he painted over the mural with white paint. It makes me wonder if there was more to the prank than we realize.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/16/us/communist-cookie-...


The Big Hack

"SolarWinds: We Make IT Look Easy"

Sometime before last March, some Russian hackers, likely working for the Russian government, broke into the computer network at SolarWinds. SolarWinds is a software company based in Austin with over 3,200 employees and worth over $4 billion. (The value of the company seems to be declining as of late).

Among other things, SolarWinds sells a popular network performance monitor. You can download one for a free trial here, and buy it for $2,995. You can also get a subscription that provides free updates to the system, including security updates.

The Russian hackers were very sophisticated. I don't use this word the way news organizations use it to describe two people who manage to explode bombs with 10 minutes of one another. It does not take sophistication to launch simultaneous attacks. These people were exceptionally thorough and careful hackers. They managed to get onto the Solarwinds system, attach malware to updates for their network performance monitor, and remain undetected for nine months.

This is called a "supply chain" attack, and is not new. What is new is the effort and diligence hackers exhibited when they covered their tracks and remained hidden.

The malware monitored the network to get authentication information that allowed it to impersonate any of the organization’s existing users and accounts on the network, including the privileged accounts. This allowed the hackers to do just about anything they want on any of the 18,000 network they infiltrated. Krebsonsecurity has some good, reasonably short explanations: One, Two, Three, Four.

18,000 organizations have installed the SolarWinds updates and the Russian malware on their networks between March and June of this year, including a lot of important government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels. Networks at quite a lot of not-so-small companies were also breached. For example, the hackers broke into systems of at least 425 of the Fortune 500 companies, the top 10 telecommunications companies, all five branches of the military, and the top five accounting firms.

Federal agencies that were hacked include the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, Treasury Department, Commerce Department, Homeland Security, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, National Institutes of Health, Department of State, and the National Nuclear Security Administration. Even Microsoft was infected, and they wrote the operating system!

Not all of these organizations were really "attacked". Some of the less interesting targets were left alone, with a backdoor in place for future access by the Russians. There are undoubtedly a lot of companies who don't even realize their systems have been compromised.

The hack was uncovered by computer security firm FireEye, when they found their own network had been hacked. You can read details here -- it's interesting.

Among other things, hackers copied FireEye's computer security tools, which can be used to make even better hacking tools. I suspect FireEye might have shared the malware with some of their government and corporate clients.

To their credit, FireEye has been very public and forthcoming about the breach. Their comments are interesting, too.

On the other hand, Cisco's Duo multi-factor authentication system was rendered ineffective by the hackers, but Cisco essentially said their product has no known vulnerabilities. After all, their web site says, "There’s no easier way to use multi-factor authentication. Designed for the modern workforce and backed by a zero trust philosophy, Duo is Cisco's user-friendly, scalable access security platform that keeps your business ahead of ever-changing security threats."

As things progressed, Microsoft and others found the domain used by the hackers for command and control over the compromised systems, and neutralized it. You can read this article to get the name, because if I put it in this junkmail I'll get a bunch of bounced emails.

Here is an official report from the CISA. It mentions that the "CISA has evidence of additional initial access vectors, other than the SolarWinds Orion platform." That means that SolarWinds was only one of multiple sources the hackers used to spearhead the attack.

This is important. The other important thing is that many victims don't know and may never know they've had a Russian back door planted in their computer network.

This is the biggest computer security breach I can remember. There must have been a lot of technology copied. Political and defense information copied by the hackers probably won't be that big a deal, even though the owners of the information might consider it a catastrophe.

The Russians might leak information to criminal enterprises that will mount ransomware attacks on various susceptible organizations. They might find damaging personal information that can be used for disinformation campaigns on social media, and maybe even to blackmail people into working for the Russians.

This hack is a very serious problem, but not the end of the world. In a year or two, the information will be stale, the value of the Russian hack will be insignificant, and the security standards of computer networks should be significantly higher. I suspect Russia is conducting other operations like this in the United States and around the world, and will continue in the foreseeable future. After Trump leaves office, the United States will complain loudly and possibly impose a few sanctions on Russia to save face.

Donald Trump has been abnormally quiet about this mess. However, I understand he got a little animated when Dutch guy named Victor guessed his Twitter password.

Update: On Saturday (12/19), Trump finally spoke. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Trump said China was involved in the hack, Russia is not, and the hack could have affected voting machines and cause him to lose the election. I didn't really expect him to criticize Russia, but this seems a bit far from reality even for Donald Trump.


Electricity

Solar cells are getting more efficient, and batteries are getting better and cheaper.

Electric cars are coming here. In 2020, electric car sales will be 3% of the total car sales.

In addition to Tesla, GM will have 20 electric vehicles soon. Ford has an electric Mustang and will have an electric F-150 soon. Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, and several other manufacturers have electric cars. Cadillac is requiring dealers to invest about $200,000 in chargers and equipment for its electric car business, although 150 of its 880 dealers have taken a buyout offer instead.

There will also be more battery powered tools, drones, boats, mowers, etc. in the near future, because they'll be cheaper to make. An electric motor is a lot simpler and more reliable than a gasoline engine.

Gasoline has two big advantages. You can usually carry more hours worth of gasoline than you can an electric charge, and it's faster to refill a gas tank than charge a battery. But batteries have been improving, with higher capacities, lower prices, and lower charge times. Smaller gas engines -- chain saw or weed eater size -- do not like me and frequently refuse to start, just to make me mad. Electric motors, on the other hand, always run (if you have a charged battery). Battery powered push mowers are getting competitive with gas mowers, although they're still priced a little higher.


French Aircraft Carrier

France is planning to build a new nuclear powered aircraft carrier, and have it finished by 2038. 18 years is a long time for a political and slightly controversial project, and drones will be replacing a lot of military aircraft between now and then. I would guess that whatever is built will be a lot different from the initial plans.


YouTube Fraud

A month after the election, YouTube finally started removing false and misleading videos that claim widespread fraud caused Trump to lose the election.


Adobe Flash

Adobe Flash is finally finished. Of course, I could say the same about the Windows 7 that I still use.


Less Weather

The NOAA is the home of the National Weather Service. They provide weather data and forecasts to just about everybody in the United States, directly or indirectly.

The good news is there is more weather data and more detailed forecasting available. The bad news is NOAA wants to limit access to the data, essentially cutting the available weather service because the quality has improved. They say they don't have enough internet bandwidth.

The solution? There would be a one-time charge of 0.03 percent of the NOAA budget to solve the bandwidth issues. The NOAA boss would prefer to cut back on weather service. No word on whether Sharpies will be used in the new data.

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750,000 Lost Votes

On October 19, a guy in Houston named Mark rammed his car into the back of a small cargo truck and got the truck to stop. Mark had the truck driver (David) on the ground at gunpoint with his knee in David's back when the police arrived. Before the police arrived, two other men had driven up in a separate car, and one drove the truck to a nearby location where it was abandoned.

Mark, a former Houston police officer, said he had been conducting surveillance on the driver of the truck for four days. Mark had been convinced by the "Liberty Center for God and Country" that David, the truck driver, was the mastermind of a giant fraud.

Mark believed David was carrying three quarters of a million mail-in ballots that had been signed by Hispanic children. In fact, David was transporting air conditioner parts and tools. That might be related to the fact that David installs air conditioners for a living.

Mark is out on $30,000 bail, selflessly continuing to make American great for us all. The $30,000 is not a problem. Mark was paid $50,000 before the assault and $211,400 afterward by "the Liberty Center for God and Country." No word on Mark's helpers.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/texas-ant...

The prevalent theory now is that China took the 750,000 ballots to the moon in the Chang'e 5 spacecraft, along with Hillary Clinton's email server.


Jupiter, Jupiter, Jupiter

Jupiter and Saturn are close to each other! At least they look that way. The distance from Jupiter to Saturn is actually more than four times the distance of the Earth to the sun, so they're not really very close. Monday night, December 21, is the closest they'll appear in the sky.

I took a picture of Jupiter and Saturn last night. It looks really nice.

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Then I set the exposure time to something reasonable (1/50). You can see some of the Galilean moons of Jupiter, and you can tell that Saturn has rings if you use your imagination.


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I took the first one above last night, holding the camera by hand, out the car window. But the car was stopped. I took the last one tonight with a tripod. The tripod helps, but they're lower in the sky so the air is not as clear.

I'm impressed that modern cameras see Jupiter and its moons when it required a telescope not long ago. I'm even more impressed that Galileo could see those moons 410 years ago.

Here is some important information on Jupiter.


Veep Moments

I thought this is article about Donald Trump (and some other political types) was really funny, and worth reading whether you support him or not.

     https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/12/06/trump...


Pictures of Today!

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Buzzards!  Or, more properly, turkey vultures
December 2020, Florida

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Black vulture
December 2020, Florida

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A cannon from Vicksburg
Mississippi, December 2020

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A gopher tortoise
Florida, December 2020


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Pileated woodpecker
Florida, December 2020

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Road to Nowhere?
Everglades, December 2020

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I like the sign placement.
Pryor, March 2020


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Oahu, Hawaii, 2008

Copyright (ǿ) 1610, no rights deserved. This fine piece of prose is not worth protecting. Copy the heck out of it!

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