Microsoft Banks on Bitcoin, We Get A Better Look at 67P, and Skeptics Clarify What the Word Skeptic Means | Vol. 2 / No. 7

Photo: Flickr user Antana, CC BY SA 2.0
Photo: Flickr user Antana, CC BY SA 2.0

Microsoft Banks on Bitcoin

This week software and XBox maker Microsoft announced that it will now be taking Bitcoin as a way of buying apps for Windows, Windows Phone, and XBox. The move is seen as a coup for Bitcoin payments processor BitPay, who will be exchanging the Bitcoin for its current market value and depositing it into users accounts so they can buy applications. Strictly speaking, they won’t be buying apps for Bitcoin directly — but if it means not running purchases through a credit card, it’ll make a lot of supporters of the fledgling currency happy. Microsoft is the first big tech company to achieve this level of integration with the Bitcoin economy, beating both Google and Apple to the punch (not surprisingly, given the reticence of the other two to give up on their previously-existing digital payment apps, Google Wallet and Apple Pay. Check out the official announcement from Microsoft for more details.

This adds to a new wave of momentum building behind the lagging software giant, following a leak of a build of the upcoming replacement for the failed Windows 8, Windows 10.

Comet 67P in Colour, Photo: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA
Comet 67P in Colour, Photo: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

News from 67P

Two piece of news circulated this week regarding Comet 67P Chruyumov-Gerasimenko, the lucky landing site for Philae and the comet Rosetta is currently orbiting. First, regarding last week’s circulating story about the first “colour photo” of the comet not being the real deal — the above photo is the real thing. Yes, that’s in colour. So for all of you Martian Comet Conspiracists out there, sorry: it’s dark grey, whitish in the massively bright sunlight. Check the ESA blog for more on that.

The other story concerns all the headlines you probably read saying things like “Rosetta discovers water on comet 67P like nothing on Earth,” which is honestly a bit of an overstatement. As this Wired article explains, the new study shows that the ratio of regular water (which uses the regular “one-proton, one-electron” hydrogen) to “heavy” water (which uses the “one-proton, one-electron and one-neutron” hydrogen we call “deuterium”) isn’t like Earth’s. And if all the water on Earth came from comets, you’d think there’d probably be a similar ratio. So, even though we’ve found comets before with the same ratio we have on Earth, it’s looking less likely than before. So maybe it came from asteroids. Check out the Wired article for more, or if you’re feeling brave, read the paper itself in the journal Science.

The Skeptics Guide to the Universe at the 2014  Australian Skeptics National Convention, photo: Ruth Ellison
The Skeptics Guide to the Universe at the 2014 Australian Skeptics National Convention, photo: Ruth Ellison

Just Don’t Call Them Skeptics

Last week, a list of scientists, professors, Nobel laureates, and most of all skeptics, signed an open letter calling on the media to stop referring to “deniers” — those who refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence of climate change — as “skeptics.”

“Proper skepticism promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims,” the letter reads. “It is foundational to the scientific method. Denial, on the other hand, is the a priori rejection of ideas without objective consideration.”

The irritation has been growing in the skeptic community over the past few years, especially as scientific consensus has been reached on the topic. As Jolene Creighton writes for From Quarks to Quasars,

“Skeptics want evidence; they seek it; they find it; then they accept it. Deniers do not want real evidence and they won’t accept any if it is brought before them.  A person who rejects an idea that is backed by scientific evidence is a denier, and they are anti-science.”

One is reminded of the recent G20 summit protest in Australia, where protesters buried their heads in the sand to protest the Australian government’s apparent denial of the reality of climate change. Signatories of the open letter included Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye, Director for the Center for SETI research Seth Shostak, professors at Brown, Emory, Exeter, Columbia (and many others), and producer and writer of the recent Cosmos television program Ann Druyan. Check out the full letter here.

CRS-5 NET Dec. 19

The next SpaceX launch is now scheduled for NET (No Earlier Than) Friday, December 19 at 1:20pm (EST) — weather and all other things permitting. The CRS-5 mission will be the seventh flight for the commercial rocket company’s Dragon capsule, bringing much-needed supplies to the International Space Station in the wake of the loss of the previous commercial resupply mission (the Orbital Sciences launch exploded shortly after launch on October 28). SpaceX has also confirmed that it will be attempting an experimental first-stage recovery on a barge known as the autonomous spaceport drone ship, though the fact of its being called “experimental” highlights the company’s preferred expectation level on the part of the public (i.e. low). For more on the launch and briefing times, check out

Curiosity Update

News from NASA’s Curiosity rover early this week suggests that Mars was wetter for longer than previously thought, and therefore may have stood a higher chance of being habitable. The rover, which has been making its way to a peak in the middle of Gale Crater known as Mount Sharp. News last year had suggested that the strange peak in the middle of the crater had been formed by wind-carried dust alone, but now that the rover is actually there it seems as though many of the layers were put in place by water, as well. With the timescales necessary for this kind of formation, it suggests that there were very large amounts of water on the planet’s surface for “millions of years” — now the only problem is, we can’t figure out how it was ever warm enough to have a stable mass of liquid water. Check out the news from io9 for more on the story, as well as a great image showing the formation of the peak.

Jeph Jacques Interview

If you’ve never heard of Questionable Content and you like webcomics, well, I don’t know what to tell you. You need to go read it, but at 2854 pages (and counting), it’ll take a while (it’s totally worth it!). Anyway, this week Marcy Cook over at The Mary Sue sat down with its creator and illustrator, Jeph Jacques, to talk about mental health, sexuality, and the inclusion of a trans character and what that means about webcomics in general. It’s worth a read.

Nothing to see here, folks! Photo: National Reconnaissance Office
Nothing to see here, folks! Photo: National Reconnaissance Office


Every now and then the US National Reconnaissance Office send up a payload into orbit. The payloads are almost always classified, and they almost always come with a badass, generally cryptic patch. Check out this disturbingly Cthulhu-esque one for NROL-39 which sports a world-sized octopus and the caption “Nothing is beyond our reach.” For a while, I’ve made a fun game out of trying to guess what each satellite does from its mission patch, so here for the first time I present my guess: the ball of fire that stretches and extends around the trident seems to suggest the power to control the trident, and since there’s a missile by that name, I’m going to guess the NROL-35 payload has something to do with controlling, guiding, or perhaps destroying submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Hey NRO, am I right? And if so, do I get a prize or an intimidating visit? Anyway, the launch went off beautifully (as usual). Check out the highlight reel of the Atlas V launch, brought to you by the kind folks at ULA.

Best of the Rest

As always, the week was too full to cover every story in detail, so here’s my weekly highlight reel of the rest: for the first time scientists have measured cosmic-scale distances (rather than inferring them from relativity); in another first scientists have managed to get yeast to fight back against prions; for a third first (this is getting old, I’ll stop after this one) the Navy tested out its laser weapon in the Persian Gulf and the media oohed and ahhed about it (it is pretty cool); someone cured the Keurig of its DRM with scissors and scotch tape (and you can too); someone made a camera that gets so many frames per second you can see light move; Obama became the first sitting president to code; and someone at Gizmodo spent a while explaining to everyone just why hackers love to hate Sony (there are a lot of reasons).

That’s all for now. Have a great week.