Technology

Who Wants to Live Forever?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 22/10/2018 - 6:00pm in


Silicon Valley tries to disrupt death

The Sky At Night Looks at Britain in Space

I just managed to catch the weekday repeat a day or so ago of this month’s Sky at Night, in which presenters Maggie Aderin-Pocock and British astronaut Tim Peake looked at the history of Britain in space, and forward to the country’s future in the deep black. The programme’s changed a bit over the past few years in the case of its presenters. It was famously presented by Sir Patrick Moore from its beginning in the 1950s until he passed away a few years ago. This made the programme the longest-running show presented by the same person. Aderin-Pocock joined it before Moore’s departure. She’s a black woman scientist, with a background in programming missile trajectories. She’s obviously very intelligent, enthusiastic and very definitely deserves her place on the show. But I wish she’d done a job that didn’t involve the military use of rocket technology, however much this is needed as part of national defence.

Aderin-Pocock was speaking to one of the management officials from Orbex, a new, British company, which has developed a rocket launcher and intends to open a spaceport in one of the more deserted areas of Scotland. The rocket will stand about 17 meters tall, using propane and High Test Peroxide as fuel. High Test Peroxide is a highly concentrated version of the hydrogen peroxide used by hairdressers to bleach peoples’ hair. The use of propane is particularly important, as it’s lighter than conventional rocket fuels, meaning that the rocket doesn’t have to carry as much fuel to lift off into space. Advances in satellite design have also allowed the rocket to be smaller than other spacecraft used elsewhere. British universities have succeeded in developing microsatellites – satellites that are much, much smaller than some of the satellites put into orbit, but which can perform the same functions. As these satellites are smaller and lighter, they only need a relatively smaller, lighter rocket to launch them.

The Scottish launch complex also wasn’t going to be as big as other, larger, major launch complexes, such as those of NASA, for example. I think it would still contain a launch tower and control buildings. As well as the official from Orbex, the show also talked to a woman representing the rural community in the part of Scotland, where they were planning to build it. She admitted that there would be problems with building it in this part of the Scots countryside. However, the community was only going to lease the land, not sell it to Orbex, and care would be taken to protect the farms of the local crofters and the environment and wildlife. Like much of rural Britain, this was an area of few jobs, and the population was aging as the young people moved away in search of work. She looked forward to Orbex and its spaceport bringing work to the area, and creating apprenticeships for the local young people.

The programme went on to explain that this would be the first time for decades that a British company was going to build a British rocket to launch a British satellite. From what looked the British space museum in Manchester, Time Peake stood under the display of Britain’s Black Knight rocket and the Prospero satellite. He explained how the rocket launched the satellite into space from Australia in 1975. However, the project was then cancelled, which meant that Britain is the only country so far which has developed, and then discarded rocket technology.

But Black Knight wasn’t the only space rocket Britain developed. Peake then moved on to talk about Skylark, a massively successful sounding rocket. Developed for high altitude research, the rocket reached a maximum of altitude of 400 km in the few minutes it was in flight. At its apogee – its maximum distance from Earth – the vehicle briefly experienced a few minutes of zero gravity, during which experiments could be performed exploring this environment. The Skylark rocket was used for decades before it was finally cancelled.

Aderin-Pocock asked the official from Orbex how long it would be before the spaceport would be up and running. The manager replied that this was always an awkward question to answer, as there was always something that meant operations and flights would start later than expected. He said, however, that they were aiming at around the end of 2020 and perhaps the beginning of 2021.

Orbex are not, however, the only space company planning to open a spaceport in Britain. Virgin Galactic have their own plans to launch rockets in to space from Cornwall. Their vehicle will not, however, be launched from the ground like a conventional rocket, but will first be carried to a sufficiently high altitude by an airplane, which would then launch it. I’m not a betting man, but my guess is that of the two, Orbex is the far more likely to get off the ground, as it were, and begin launching its rocket on schedule. As I’ve blogged about previously, Branson has been telling everyone since the late 1990s at least, that Virgin Galactic are going to be flying tourists into space in just a few months from now. This fortnight’s Private Eye published a brief list of the number of times Branson had said that, with dates. It might be that Branson will at last send the first of his aspiring astronauts up in the next few months, as he claimed last week. But from his previous form, it seems far more likely that Orbex will start launches before him, as will Branson’s competitors over the pond, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.

When asked about the company’s capability of perfecting their technology, Orbex’s manager not stressed the skill and competence of the scientists, technicians and engineers working on the project. This included not just conventional space scientists, but also people, who had personally tried and failed to build their own spacecraft. He said that it was extremely important to fail to build rockets. He’s obviously referring to the many non-professional, hobby rocketeers out there trying to build their own spacecraft. He didn’t mention them, but one example would be the people at Starchaser, who started out as a small group of enthusiasts in Yorkshire but have gone on to create their own space company, now based across the pond in America. I think it’s brilliant that amateurs and semi-professionals have developed skills that the professionals in the industry find valuable. And the failures are important, as they show what can go wrong, and give the experience and necessary information on how to avoid it. I don’t think the rocket will be wholly built in this country. The manager said that some of it was being constructed in Copenhagen. This sounds like Copenhagen Suborbitals, a Danish team of rocket scientists, who are trying to put a person into space. They’re ex-NASA, I believe, but it’s a small, private venture. They have a webpage and have posted videos on YouTube, some of which I’ve reblogged. They’ve also said they’re keen for people to join them, or start their own rocket projects.

I’d been looking forward to that edition of the Sky at Night for the past week, but when the time came, it slipped my mind that it was on. I’m very glad I was able to catch it. If Orbex are successful, it will be the first time that a British satellite will launch a British satellite from here in Britain. And it sounds really optimistic. Not only will Britain be returning to space rocket development, but the Scots spaceport sounds like it will, hopefully, bring work to a depressed area. I’m also confident that the local environment there will also be preserved. The launch complex around NASA is necessarily so remote from other buildings, that it’s actually become a wildlife haven. So much so that it’s now a location for birdwatching.

When it was announced that they were planning to build a new spaceport in Scotland, I assumed it would be for Skylon, the British spaceplane. There had been articles in the paper about the spacecraft, which stated that it would be launched either from Scotland or Cornwall. It seems I was wrong, and that it’s Orbex’s rocket which will be launched there instead. But nevertheless, I wish Orbex every success in their venture, and hope that sometime soon Skylon will also join them in flight out on the High Frontier.

Booked: Valuing the World, with Mariana Mazzucato

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 18/10/2018 - 3:31am in

In her new book, economist Mariana Mazzucato explodes the myth that wealth is created solely by a select few trailblazing entrepreneurs, and lays out how our collective innovation can be put into the service of a more equal economy.

My JBIS Paper on Passenger-Rated Hobby Rockets

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 17/10/2018 - 1:24am in

After the flight a few months ago of the American eccentric in his steam-powered rocket to see if the Earth really was flat, and Richard Branson’s announcement last week that he was only weeks away from sending his first tourists into space aboard his Virgin Galactic spaceplane, I thought it was time I put up a piece about a paper I had published in the Journal of British Interplanetary Society about other, passenger-carrying rockets. The paper, ‘Backyard Spaceships: Passenger-Rated Microlights for Hobby Rocketry’, argued that just as hang-gliders and microlight aircraft allowed people to enjoy the experience of flight simply for pure pleasure, so short-range passenger-carrying rockets could be developed to give people some of the experience of spaceflight. It’s quite a long and technical article, so I’ll simply quote the abstract. This runs

The FINDS and CATS prizes have introduced to contemporary astronautics the competitive spirit, which led to such spectacular advances in the fledgling aviation industry. This pioneering spirit is also shared by present day microlight aircraft enthusiasts. If the expected expansion of commercial passenger spaceflight with mass space tourism occurs, then it may create a demand for extreme short-range crewed rockets as a new form of leisure craft, Just as microlight aircraft recreate the experience of large aircraft flight on a smaller scale. If the technologies, materials and procedures used in microlight and balloon aviation are applied to those of high power solid propellant rocketry, then similar ‘microlight’ rockets able to reach altitudes of c.3,200 m, may be a possibility. Apart from the leisure and sporting opportunities offered by such craft, which would also encourage technological experimentation and progress, they would also great benefit astronautical education by adding the practical human experience of rocket flight to ground studies’ curricula. (p. 45).

The FINDS and CATS prizes were set up to encourage private organisations to develop rockets that could successfully fly into space and land again. They were deliberately established in emulation of the prizes that drove the early research into aviation and aircraft flight. These prizes were awarded in competitions for aircraft flying particular long distances, for example, and so encouraged and rewarded designers, engineers and pilots working on the designs of the planes and their engines.

A Danish organization, Copenhagen Sub-Orbitals, was also working on developing a human-carrying rocket, and have posted a few videos showing their vehicles’ test flights on YouTube. However, the last thing I read from them was that they were having difficulty making their rocket safe for humans, as the crash test dummy was always broken on landing. I don’t know whether anyone will actually go ahead and make such microlight hobby spacecraft, but the flight of the guy in his steam-powered spacecraft showed that such short-range, passenger hobby flights are possible.

Flying Replica of Messerschmitt Komet Rocketplane at German Airshow

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 17/10/2018 - 12:47am in

I found this little video of a modern, flying replica of the Messerschmidt 163 Komet over on YouTube, put up by Knight Flight Video. From the some of the speech you can hear, it seems that it was filmed at an airshow in Germany. The Komet was developed by the Germans during the Second World War to intercept allied bombers. Unlike conventional aircraft at the time, it was powered by a rocket engine. However, this also made it a virtual deathtrap to fly. The engine was a liquid fuel rocket motor. The fuels used were hypergolic, which meant that they automatically ignited when mixed together without needing a separate ignition system. However, they were also highly acidic, and so would cause severe burns if spilled onto the pilot. I’ve also got a feeling that once the fuels started burning, they were difficult to put out as the fuel contained its own oxidizer. Which was another serious hazard to the pilot. It also had a very short burn time – about four minutes. By the end of that very brief interval, the plane would have shot past the allied bombers it was supposed to shoot down. It would then have to glide back to Earth. I think the vehicle had originally been developed as a glider for service in one of the Nazi schemes to get German boys interested in flying, and then eventually joining the Luftwaffe as pilots – a sort of Nazi Air Cadets. The rocket engine was added to the design later. The commenters on this video also state that the absence of a conventional tail meant that the plane was difficult to land. It also lacked wheeled undercarriage, and landed on a skid instead. This resulted in many of its pilots breaking their backs on landing.

The replica plane is also painted red, whereas I think most of the Komets that were actually flown were painted standard German military grey. However, its red colour probably comes from a suggestion of one Luftwaffe officer or Nazi apparatchik that the planes should be painted ‘Richtofen red’, after the plane from by Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron, during the First World War. The person, who made this suggestion believed that it would serve to terrify the allied airmen, but others have pointed out that if the Germans had followed his advice, it would immediately mark them out as targets and result in the planes getting shot down sooner by the RAF.

Looking at the video, it appears to me that the replica plane is really glider being towed by the Dornier aircraft that precedes it, although I can’t see a wire between the two. It clearly isn’t using a propeller, and it is very definitely not using a rocket engine. If it was, it would be moving so swiftly that I doubt there’d be much time to see it before it was a small dot in the sky. Plus the fact that I doubt very many pilots would wish to risk their lives in a fully accurate, working replica using the original rocket engine.

For all its horrendous faults, this was a significant advance in the use of rocket technology and in aircraft design. I think the Komet was produced as part of German aircraft engineers’ research into delta wing designs. After the allied victory, this research was seized by the allies, including British aircraft engineers and designers. They developed it further, leading to the creation of the Vulcan bomber, Concorde, and possibly the Space Shuttle.

A Not-So-Nobel Prize for Growth Economists

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 16/10/2018 - 4:20am in


William Nordhaus shaping vulnerable minds in his Yale classroom – Oct. 8, 2018.  (Photo credit: Yale/ ©Mara Lavitt)

by Brian Czech

How ironic for the Washington Post to opine “Earth may have no tomorrow” and, two pages later, offer up the mini-bios of William Nordhaus and Paul Romer, described as Nobel Prize winners.

Without more rigorous news coverage, few indeed will know that Nordhaus and Romer are epitomes of neoclassical economics, that 20th century occupation isolated from the realities of natural science. Nordhaus and Romer may deserve their prizes for economic modeling, but each gets an F in advanced sustainability.

Nordhaus won his prize (actually the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel”— not the Nobel Prize per se) for his mastery of mathematical modeling. He applied his skills to carbon taxes for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. All along he prescribed economic growth – the key driver in greenhouse gas emissions—as the way to afford such taxes!

In 1991 Nordhaus uttered one of the most iconic sentences in the history of unsustainability: “Agriculture, the part of the economy that is sensitive to climate change, accounts for just 3% of national output. That means that there is no way to get a very large effect on the US economy” (Science, September 14, 1991, p. 1206).  Think about that. He must have set a graveyard’s worth of classical economists (Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill…) to rolling. They’d be rolling in laughter if the folly of Nordhaus wasn’t so dangerous.

No follow-up should be needed to expose the ludicrous nature of Nordhaus’s statement, but just in case: Agriculture is the very foundation of the economy. No agriculture, no anything else. Think about it. Any hit on agriculture—whether from climate change, bad luck, or stupid policies—has a magnified effect on the entire, integrated economy. Nordhaus’s “3%” statement was a classic case of ivory-tower cluelessness.


Too many trees for seeing the forest?

Romer, meanwhile, deserves some credit for his elegant theory of “endogenous technological change,” which took the work of Robert Solow (the father of economic growth theory) to the next level by describing in nuanced detail how R&D leads to technological progress. That said, there has never been a bigger forest missed for so many trees. For him, all that mattered was capital and labor; he said nothing about land, natural resources, or the environment.

Some readers may recall Julian Simon, the ultimate Pollyanna who claimed in the 1980s (and I paraphrase after thoroughly reviewing his 813 page Ultimate Resource II during my post-doc studies), “Sure, there are environmental problems caused by growth, but the more people we have, the more brains we have to solve the problems. Therefore, the more people we have the better, without limit forever.” Romer’s work amounted to a highly nuanced repetition of Simon’s self-christened “grand theory.”

Romer said in a nutshell: We have capital and labor. Part of the labor force is devoted to research and development (R&D). As limits arise, we get over them with more R&D. So we need ever more people, with ever more devoted to R&D, to keep raising the bar for GDP.

For Romer, it was as if ideas alone could overcome water shortages, biodiversity loss, mineral depletion, soil erosion, pollution, and climate change. As if ideas could be perpetually borne out of human minds struggling in a degrading environment, a warming climate, and an imperiled agricultural base (not to mention a crowded, noisy, and stressed out society). Romer was like a cook thinking up recipes with no idea where the ingredients would come from.

A generation and then some of economists and business students have been led to the exceedingly dangerous myth that there is no limit to either population or economic growth. Nordhaus and Romer have done as much as anyone to lead them into such a fallacy. Yet politicians and publics heed their advice, while the media regurgitates their fallacious notions.

Does Earth have “no tomorrow,” as the Washington Post wondered? One thing is for sure: Any hope for a happy tomorrow on Earth means rejecting the neoclassical economics of today. Even when such economics wins the “Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.”

 

The post A Not-So-Nobel Prize for Growth Economists appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


Google CEO Tells Senators That Censored Chinese Search Engine Could Provide “Broad Benefits”

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 13/10/2018 - 4:42am in

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Technology, World

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has refused to answer a list of questions from U.S. lawmakers about the company’s secretive plan for a censored search engine in China.

In a letter newly obtained by The Intercept, Pichai told a bipartisan group of six senators that Google could have “broad benefits inside and outside of China,” but said he could not share details about the censored search engine because it “remains unclear” whether the company “would or could release a search service” in the country.

Pichai’s letter contradicts the company’s search engine chief, Ben Gomes, who informed staff during a private meeting that the company was aiming to release the platform in China between January and April 2019. Gomes told employees working on the Chinese search engine that they should get it ready to be “brought off the shelf and quickly deployed.”

According to sources and confidential Google documents, the search engine for China, codenamed Dragonfly, was designed to comply with the strict censorship regime imposed by China’s ruling Communist Party. It would restrict people’s access to broad categories of information, blacklisting phrases like “human rights,” “student protest,” and “Nobel Prize.”

The Chinese platform was designed to link people’s searches to their phone number, track their location, and then share that data with a Chinese partner company. This would make it easy to track individual users’ searches, raising concerns that any person in China using Google to seek out information banned by the government could be at risk of interrogation or detention if security agencies were to obtain copies of their search records.

In his letter to the senators, dated August 31, Pichai did not mention the word “censorship” or address human rights concerns. He told the senators that “providing access to information to people around the world is central to our mission,” and said he believed Google’s tools could “help to facilitate an exchange of information and learning.” The company was committed to “promoting access to information, freedom of expression, and user privacy,” he wrote, while also “respecting the laws of jurisdictions in which we operate.”

After The Intercept first revealed Dragonfly in early August, Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., demanded information from Pichai. They called Dragonfly “deeply troubling” and said it “risks making Google complicit in human rights abuses related to China’s rigorous censorship regime.” Launching the censored search engine would be “a coup for the Chinese government” and set “a worrying precedent for other companies seeking to do business in China without compromising their core values,” they wrote in a letter that was also signed by Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; and Robert Menendez, D-N.J.

Pichai did not answer nine specific questions the senators asked, including, “Which ‘blacklist’ of censored searches and websites are you using? Are there any phrases or words that Google is refusing to censor?”

Instead, Pichai wrote, “Google has been open about our desire to increase our ability to serve users in China and other countries. We are thoughtfully considering a variety of options for how to offer services in China in a way that is consistent with our mission. … [W]e can confirm that our work will continue to reflect our best assessment of how best to serve people around the world, as set forth in our mission and our code of conduct. Of course, should we have something to announce in the future, we would be more than happy to brief you and your staff on those plans.”

Warner told The Intercept he was “really disappointed with Google’s response,” which he said “failed to provide any information” about the censored search engine plan. “Any effort to get back into China could enable the Chinese government in repressing and manipulating their citizens,” said Warner. “Google owes us some honest answers, or it risks losing the trust of Congress and the public.”

Google launched a censored search engine in China in 2006, but stopped operating the service in the country in 2010, citing Chinese government efforts to limit free speech and hack activists’ Gmail accounts. At that time, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said he was “particularly sensitive to the stifling of individual liberties,” due to his family’s experiences in the Soviet Union. Brin told the Wall Street Journal that “with respect to censorship, with respect to surveillance of dissidents,” he saw “earmarks of totalitarianism [in China], and I find that personally quite troubling.”

The effort to relaunch a censored search engine in China was a closely guarded secret within Google. A team of about 300 staff — 0.35 percent of Google’s 88,000-strong workforce — was briefed about the project, which began in early 2017. When details about Dragonfly were publicly exposed, the news spread through the company’s offices across the world, and many Google employees were disturbed by the details. More than 1,400 staff signed a letter demanding an independent ethics review of the plan, and at least five Google employees have since quit the company in protest, including Jack Poulson, a former senior research scientist. “I view our intent to capitulate to censorship and surveillance demands in exchange for access to the Chinese market as a forfeiture of our values,” Poulson told Google bosses in his resignation letter.

Google did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

Top photo: Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., smiles during the company’s Cloud Next ’18 event in San Francisco, on July 24, 2018.

The post Google CEO Tells Senators That Censored Chinese Search Engine Could Provide “Broad Benefits” appeared first on The Intercept.

Some Silicon Valley Superstars Ditch Saudi Advisory Board After Khashoggi Disappearance, Some Stay Silent

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 12/10/2018 - 11:13am in

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Technology, World

While the world is grappling with the apparent grisly murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi government decided to announce a new band of influential Western allies, some plucked from the uppermost echelon of Silicon Valley, who would serve on an advisory board for Neom, the Saudi government’s improbable, exorbitant plan to build a “mega city” in the desert.

But almost as soon as his participation was revealed, Sam Altman, head of famed venture capital firm Y Combinator, announced that he is “suspending” his role with Neom, while two others on the star-studded list denied that they were participating.

Altman, along with legendary tech investor Marc Andreessen, notorious Uber founder (and ousted ex-CEO) Travis Kalanick, IDEO CEO Tim Brown, and Dan Doctoroff of Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google-owner Alphabet, were among those listed as members of the new board. Given that the United States itself is now forced into a momentarily uncomfortable spot given its longtime affection for and deep political ties to the Saudis, this was a less than ideal time for Americans to come out as friends of the kingdom.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s vast history of human rights abuses and violent foreign policy, in a statement to The Intercept, Altman announced that this reported assassination and dismemberment was a step too far:

I am suspending my involvement with the NEOM advisory board until the facts regarding Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance are known. This is well out of my area of expertise, so I don’t plan to comment on the case until the investigation is finished. I remain a huge believer in the importance of building smart cities.

A source close to members of the advisory board who spoke on the condition of anonymity described to The Intercept recent conversations with other board members in which they expressed that they were “inclined to just stay on the board” and continue helping to plan the Saudis’ fantastical oasis megacity, despite Khashoggi’s reported assassination. “I’m always surprised by what ends up being a red line for people and what doesn’t,” this source added, though they reserved praise for Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS. Silicon Valley figures “have been cautiously optimistic” about the Saudi government, they explained. “MBS cares about technology, wants to invest in technology in way other world leaders aren’t, and has a boldness that is exciting to people. People want to believe.” Asked if they thought the murder of a dissident journalist might change this admiration for MBS, the source replied that “if this is true as alleged, it could change many people’s temperature on that.”

For his part, IDEO’s Tim Brown “has chosen not to participate in the advisory board at this time,” according to IDEO spokesperson Sara Blask, who would provide no further comment about why he was listed as an advisory board member and why he is now declining to participate.

Dan Levitan, a spokesperson for Sidewalk Labs’ Dan Doctoroff, told The Intercept that Doctoroff’s “inclusion on that list is incorrect, and that “he is not a member of the NEOM advisory board,” but would not answer whether Doctoroff was ever a member of the advisory board, or whether he has discussed the NEOM project with the Saudi government in any other capacity in the past.

Requests for comment sent to Kalanick and fellow Neom board member Masayoshi Son of Japanese software mammoth SoftBank were not answered. According to a spokesperson for Andreessen, arguably the most prominent of the new Saudi advisors, “We don’t have a comment.”

Update: October 12th, 2018

This post was updated with a comment from Marc Andreessen.

Top photo: Y Combinator President Sam Altman speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 in San Francisco, on Sept. 19, 2017.

The post Some Silicon Valley Superstars Ditch Saudi Advisory Board After Khashoggi Disappearance, Some Stay Silent appeared first on The Intercept.

Branson’s Spaceplane and Kubrick’s 2001: The Legacy of a Vision

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 11/10/2018 - 10:24pm in

Today’s I also carried a picture of Richard Branson hanging out of the portholes of one his spaceplanes, waving a model of the craft he claims will shortly take paying passengers for a trip into space.

This follows his announcement yesterday that, after over a decade of delays, one of his spacecraft will launch sometime in the next few weeks. And then, a few months after that, Branson himself would take a journey into the High Frontier. There’s supposed to be a race on between Branson, Bezos and Musk over which will be the first private company to send people into space.

I’ve got my doubts that it will be Branson. He’s been telling the world that his Virgin Galactic spacecraft will be taking people up there in a year’s time since the late ’90s. For a moment, it did look as though he might actually do it, until one of the spaceships crashed due to a design fault, killing one of the co-pilots. Moreover, investors and those worried about the state of the NHS should look very carefully at what else is going on in Branson’s empire when he makes these announcements. There was a story in Private Eye a few months ago about how Branson uses them to direct attention away from other projects, which might be controversial. He was quoted as saying that he made one announcement, that his planes were ready to fly, to distract people from the fact that his private healthcare division, Virgin Health, had just one a whole slew of NHS contracts and was ready to open several clinics around the country.

And several times in the past Virgin has had problems with its finances to the tune of hundreds of millions or so. Private Eye was threatened several times with a libel action from Branson, claiming it was all false. The Eye later ran a story about this, quoting Branson himself as saying that he tried to silence the satirical paper because it was true, but he didn’t want the public, investors or the banks knowing because it would stop him getting more money from the banks.

Now that he’s declaring that they’re nearly all set and raring to go, we’re entitled to ask whether this is really the case, or is it just another distraction from him eating up more of our precious NHS, or the possible collapse of one of his other companies.

As for the spacecraft itself, I was struck by the similarity between it and the Orion spaceplane of Kubrick’s SF masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As you can see from the cover for the DVD version of Kubrick’s epic, the two look very similar.

And I’m not surprised, as this shows the very thorough research Kubrick did to get the look of the space vehicles just right. Clarke’s a Hard SF writer, which means that his fictions are based in scientific fact, although often with more than a little extrapolation and fantasy. There are, after all, no real black alien monoliths in the solar system, which form stargates to alien realities. Kubrick also wanted to make the greatest SF movie ever, and so he turned from relying on artists to real space scientists and engineers to design the spacecraft.

Which is why the spacecraft in 2001 – the spaceplane, orbital space station, Moon shuttle and the Discovery spacecraft itself – look utterly convincing as well as cool. The film was shot in Britain, and as well as using experts from NASA and American aerospace companies, he also used British firms, especially for the one-person space pods.

I think if Branson really wanted to get into space, he would have been better off ringing Kubrick up for a few hints about spacecraft design. He’d also have been in the enviable position of being in charge of the first company whose promotional film would have won and academy award.

Branson may be set to go into space, but Kubrick and Clarke got their first. And it was awesome.

And here’s a video from YouTube showing a bit of the spaceplane from 2001.

Government Report: “An Entire Generation” of American Weapons Is Wide Open to Hackers

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 10/10/2018 - 7:43am in

A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office brings both good and bad news. For governments around the world that might like to sabotage America’s military technology, the good news is that this would be all too easy to do: Testers at the Department of Defense “routinely found mission-critical cyber vulnerabilities in nearly all weapon systems that were under development” over a five-year period, the report said. For Americans, the bad news is that up until very recently, no one seemed to care enough to fix these security holes.

In 1991, the report noted, the U.S. National Research Council warned that “system disruptions will increase” as the use of computers and networks grows and as adversaries attack them. The Pentagon more or less ignored this and at least five subsequent warnings on the subject, according to the GAO, and hasn’t made a serious effort to safeguard the vast patchwork of software that controls planes, ships, missiles, and other advanced ordnance against hackers.

The sweeping report drew on nearly 30 years of published research, including recent assessments of the cybersecurity of specific weapon systems, as well as interviews with personnel from the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, and weapons-testing bodies. It covered a broad span of American weapons, examining systems at all of the service branches and in space.

The report found that “mission-critical cyber vulnerabilities” cropped up routinely during weapons development and that test teams “easily” took over real systems without detection “using relatively simple tools and techniques,” exploiting “basic issues such as poor password management and unencrypted communications.” Testers could also download and delete data, in one cases exfiltrating 100 gigabytes of material, and could tap into operators’ terminals, in one instance popping up computer dialogs asking the operators “to insert two quarters to continue.” But a malicious attacker could pull off much worse than jokes about quarters, warns the GAO: “In one case, the test team took control of the operators’ terminals. They could see, in real-time, what the operators were seeing on their screens and could manipulate the system.”

Posing as surrogates for, say, Russian or Chinese military hackers, testers sometimes found easy victories. “In some cases,” the GAO found, “simply scanning a system caused parts of the system to shut down,” while one “test team was able to guess an administrator password in nine seconds.” The testers found embarrassing, elementary screw-ups of the sort that would get a middle school computer lab administrator in trouble, to say nothing of someone safeguarding lethal weapon systems. For example, “multiple weapon systems used commercial or open source software, but did not change the default password when the software was installed, which allowed test teams to look up the password on the Internet.”

“In some cases, simply scanning a system caused parts of the system to shut down.”

Asked how she thought a culture of cyber-insecurity could flourish at an institution as guarded as the military, Cristina Chaplain, a director at the GAO, explained that the problem may be that the armed services overestimated the value of secrecy. “For the past 20 years, their focus has been on [networking] systems together,” at the expense of connecting them securely, because it was simply assumed that “security by obscurity” would be all that was needed — that, say, a classified bomb designed and built in secret is impervious to outside threats by virtue of being kept hidden. The whole culture of military secrecy, the belief that “they’re so standalone and so stovepiped that they’re almost secure just by virtue of that,” as Chaplain put it, is much to blame.

The findings are all the more disturbing given that the GAO said they “likely represent a fraction of total vulnerabilities” due to limitations in how the Defense Department tests for cybersecurity.

Although the GAO analyzed real weapon systems used by the Pentagon, the report is light on specifics for security and classification purposes. It lacks findings about, say, a particular missile or a particular ship, and Chaplain would not comment on whether vulnerabilities were found in nuclear weapon systems, citing classification issues.But the document nonetheless reveals colossal negligence in the broader process of building and buying weapons. For years, the Department of Defense did not prioritize cybersecurity when acquiring weapon systems, even as it sought to further automate such systems, the GAO said. Up until about three years ago, some in the department avoided cybersecurity assessments, saying requirements were not clearly spelled out, asserting that they “did not believe cybersecurity applied to weapon systems,” according to the report, complaining that “cybersecurity tests would interfere with operations,” or rejecting the tests as “unrealistic” because the simulated attackers had an unfair amount of insider information — an objection the NSA itself dismissed as unrealistic.

Even when weapons program officials were aware of problems, the issues were often ignored. In one case, an assessment found 19 of 20 vulnerabilities unearthed in a previous assessment had not been fixed. When asked why, “program officials said they had identified a solution, but for some reason it had not been implemented,” the GAO said. In other cases, weapons operators were so used to a broken product that warnings of a simulated breach didn’t even register. “Warnings were so common that operators were desensitized to them,” the report found.

Today, cybersecurity audits of weapons are of increasing importance to the Pentagon, according to the report. But it’s incredibly hard to fix security holes after the fact. “Bolting on cybersecurity late in the development cycle or after a system has been deployed is more difficult and costly than designing it in from the beginning,” the GAO noted. One weapons program needed months to apply patches that were supposed to be applied within three weeks, the report said, because of all the testing required. Other programs are deployed around the world, further slowing the spread of fixes. “Some weapon systems are operating, possibly for extended periods, with known vulnerabilities,” the report stated.

This, then, is the crisis: The U.S. has created a computerized global military using complex, interconnected, and highly vulnerable tools — “an entire generation of systems that were designed and built without adequately considering cybersecurity,” as the GAO put it. And now it must fix it. This is nothing less than an engineering nightmare — but far preferable to what will happen if one of these software flaws is exploited by someone other than a friendly government tester.

Top photo: A U.S. Air Force crew chief conducts preflight checks on Sept. 20, 2018 during Combat Archer, a two-week, air-to-air Weapons System Evaluation Program to prepare and evaluate operational fighter squadrons’ readiness for combat operations, at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.

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