Vol. 1 / No. 22 — Spaceflight Problems, IRS on Bitcoin, and Jimmy Wales on Pseudoscience

A Rough Week for Spaceflight

In just about the only good news in space this week, three new astronauts made it to the ISS this week following the launch of the Soyuz module from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on Wednesday. The three astronauts, Steve Swanson, Oleg Artemyev and Alexander Skvortsov, are the expedition 39/40 crew, meaning that they’re joining Koichi Wakata, Richard A. Mastracchio, Mikhail Tyurin (the 38/39 crew) until May, after which they’ll be joined by Gregory R. Wiseman, Maksim Surayev, and Alexander Gerst (the 40/41 crew) until September.

Unfortunately, the resupply mission CRS-3 has had its share of drawbacks. Until this morning it was slated to liftoff today at 10:50pm EDT, but the SpaceX website is now being delayed again, “due to a Range asset issue at Cape Canaveral.” If you remember, this is the same launch that was pushed back two weeks ago due to a payload contamination by mysterious goo. The problem this time seems to be the malfunctioning of a tracking radar used to ensure the safety of the launches that go from Cape Canaveral. It has already caused the postponement of another launch this week: an Atlas 5 rocket carrying the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) L-67 payload (whatever it may be).

And just for the record, the NRO is the same spy agency that thought this patch would be totally fine and not make people concerned in the least:

Nothing to see here, just a perfectly benign intelligence agency that has its tentacles wrapped around the globe like an elder god risen from the deep. As you were, citizens.
Nothing to see here, just a perfectly benign intelligence agency that has its tentacles wrapped around the globe like an elder god risen from the deep. As you were, citizens.

Space Solar

In other space-related news (whether good or not), the US Naval Research Laboratory has been working hard on figuring out how to get solar power from a place where the sun always shines. By deploying solar panels in space and “beaming” the energy back to Earth using microwaves or lasers, “space solar” could be the clean, cheap energy of the future. The new prototype module designed by Dr. Paul Jaffe at the NRL is another piece of evidence supporting the idea that the US military may be the most interested customer when it comes to new energy sources. The logic is, of course, that nobody needs energy like a massive military — the US Nimitz-class aircraft carriers each have two nuclear power plants on board (which, while the exact details aren’t public, produce at least 104MW, because that’s how much is needed just to move the damn thing). The ability to broadcast electrical power to remote locations would, among other things, mean less fuel spent on carrying fuel.

Bitcoin and the IRS

Photo Credit: Flikr User Antana CC-BY-SA
Photo Credit: Flikr User Antana CC-BY-SA

The big news in Bitcoin this week is the new IRS tax guidelines which categorize the cryptocurrency not as a currency but as a property. This has some nasty byproducts, but in general (like all news) its significance has been overstated. The panic over at The Atlantic is just a little bit hilarious, with the declaration that “Bitcoin can no longer work as a currency” making headlines, but being ultimately false. The problem seems to lie in the idea that as a property, rather than a currency, when spending them one may need to pay capital gains on any increase in value between when one purchased the bitcoins and when one spent them (because spending property in the eyes of the IRS means converting that property to USD and spending it). Realistically, no-one is going to do that, and the IRS probably doesn’t care, either — they’re much more interested in taxing the massive gains  the currency’s appreciation against the US dollar has created. But even if it were a problem, new wallets are already in progress that automatically match the specific bitcoins you spend with the current price as best available: zero net gain/loss wallets (ZGL). If that isn’t enough to assuage your fears, then remember: the US =/= the world.

Facebook Buys Oculus

This week Facebook sealed the deal with VR developer Oculus, buying it for $2Billion in cash and stock, and upsetting a lot of people on Reddit. The news has gone from disbelief, to anger, to being angry about the anger, to more sober analysis of the whole situation. Basically, Oculus, and it’s VR headset the Oculus Rift, were the darling of the a large, anti-corporate segment of the hacker and maker communities, and their purchase by facebook has led to a lot of worry that it won’t be open to tinkering anymore. Marcus Persson, for example, creator of Minecraft, has declared the Oculus “dead” to him since the acquisition. There’s also the question of what it means in an age of kickstarter campaigns. As Stephen Poole over at the Guardian puts it:

The original Kickstarter backers of Oculus Rift might not have been explicitly granted shares in the company, but the company wouldn’t exist without their initial contribution. About 10,000 people gave Oculus $2.5m between them. I for one am struggling to think of a good reason why each of them shouldn’t get a proportional share of that $2bn sale.

While I’m not sure that’s the answer, there may yet be more to this in terms of fallout than previously thought.

Declassified and Still Classified

An interesting blog post over at the Ares blog over at Aviation Week, showing pictures of an unidentified aircraft in the skies over Texas. By all reports, these guys know their stuff, so this may be the latest in the designs slated to replace the iconic F-117 Nighthawk, which was retired in 2008.

And if you want something cool looking that has been declassified, Wired has a small introduction to the McDonnell Douglas-Boeing “Bird of Prey,” an experimental test-bed for new tech, declassified in 2002.

2012 VP113: Planet Biden

News this week in the journal Nature is the discovery of a new dwarf planet, joining the likes of Pluto and Sedna. At 450km across, it’s much smaller than Pluto (roughly 2300km across) and about half the size of Sedna (roughly 995km across). It never comes closer to us than Sedna, but it doesn’t get as far away either: Sedna’s orbit ranges from about 76AU to over 1000AU, while it looks as though 2012 VP113 (currently nicknamed “Biden” after the current US VP) may only come as close as 80AU, but never gets further than 452AU. Interestingly enough, the team responsible for the discovery has noted gravitational effects that suggest there may be a planet up to ten times the mass of Earth somewhere out there as well, despite what I reported two weeks ago about the WISE survey nearly ruling out “planet X” possibilities.

Custom Chromosomes

In another leap forward for synthetic biology, scientists have managed to synthesize a custom, functional, “designer” chromosome in yeast. The work by the international team was led by Jef Boeke at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Institute for Systems Genetics, and focused on creating a custom yeast chromosome that would be useful for future research, through customization and experimentation. The benefits could be huge: if they can create the other 15 yeast chromosomes from scratch, it will be the first completely man-made, customizable life form. As Ronald Davis, the Stanford geneticist who predicted this outcome fifteen years ago says: “You can look at a car and you think you understand a car… But if you really understand a car you should be able to build one.” Yeast, as a simple organism in use by humans for thousands of years, is a perfect test-bed for new biological techniques and technologies, including yeast that makes biofuels, and yeast that produces anti-malarial medicines. Maybe it’ll even make better beer some day.

Born This Way

New research in the New England Journal of Medicine this week suggests that autism begins in the womb. By studying the brains of toddlers who had died and who also has autism (the cause of death was unrelated), researchers discovered structural changes in the brain that must have taken place during fetal development. In the fetal brain, there are six “layers” of different types of cells, but in these brains there were areas where the layers were not distinct. These “patches of disorganization” in the neocortex suggest that autism is an early-forming structural ailment, and lines up well with evidence from early aggressive treatment: it has been well demonstrated that early intervention can trigger the brain to “rewire” around the trouble areas. It could also explain the wide variety of symptomatic presentation of autism which has led to the DSM V’s autism “spectrum” nomenclature. Of course there’s still work to be done: the question of why only patches, and why varying amounts needs to be determined. NPR has the full story.

Wikipedia Stands Up to Pseudoscience

Finally, to end with some excellent news, Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales has responded (in my humble opinion) perfectly to a petition regarding Wikipedia’s treatment of such practices as “Energy Medicine, Energy Psychology, and specific approaches such as the Emotional Freedom Techniques, Thought Field Therapy and the Tapas Acupressure Technique,” which make the claim that they are being treated unfairly by the crowd-sourced online encyclopedia. Over 8100 people have signed the petition so far, under which the signatories pledge not to donate to Wikipedia until their concerns are addressed. Given that the Wikipedia mantra is “citation needed,” and that any scientific evidence published in peer-reviewed journals is acceptable evidence, I think Jimmy Wales’s response is perfectly appropriate. I’ll just post it below:

No, you have to be kidding me. Every single person who signed this petition needs to go back to check their premises and think harder about what it means to be honest, factual, truthful. Wikipedia’s policies around this kind of thing are exactly spot-on and correct. If you can get your work published in respectable scientific journals – that is to say, if you can produce evidence through replicable scientific experiments, then Wikipedia will cover it appropriately. What we won’t do is pretend that the work of lunatic charlatans is the equivalent of “true scientific discourse”. It isn’t.

As Tim Minchin wrote in his poem “Storm,” “You know what they call “alternative medicine”
That’s been proved to work?”


Have a great week.