Meteors, asteroids, and orbital defense

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One of the hilarious things about Russia (there are so very many to choose from, but a lot of them also carry a tinge of great tragedy or suffering, which may be why the place produces so many excellent novelists) is that nearly everyone’s got a dash-cam. You see them every now and again in other countries, but they’re practically a requirement in Russia — their insurance agencies are somewhat unreliable when it comes to handing out compensation for accidents, so it’s best to get as much evidence as possible when submitting a claim. That leads to compilations like this one:

I’ve seen some bad drivers in Connecticut, but the TURN LEFT NOW NOW NOW synapse doesn’t fire nearly as often here as it seems to in Russia. Also, we don’t have surplus military aircraft buzzing the roads, but I regard that as something of a disappointment.

In addition to producing unintentional vehicular comedy, however, Russia’s dashcams managed to capture the freaking meteor that just slammed into the Ural Mountains.

Brighter than the noon sun!  Faster than a speeding bullet! Fortunately, it didn’t hit anyone (Russia is very big and vastly underpopulated, which in this case is quite a good thing), but about a thousand people were injured by shockwaves from the sonic boom or explosion blowing out windows, like you can see in this video:

Those are a few minutes after the meteorite passes by, which is why people are taken by surprise. Sound travels pretty quickly, but it still took a couple minutes to get to them. If it managed to hit a populated area, the damage would have been a lot worse.

This meteor isn’t related to the asteroid that’s currently buzzing earth — 2012 DA14, which will pass within about 17,000 miles of us sometime today. That’s very good news for us; the Russian meteor was probably the size of a fridge, while 2012 DA14 is more like a 15-story building. Were it to hit us, it would slam into the atmosphere at about 30,000 miles per hour and leave a crater the size of Monaco.

This is, of course, something of a less-than-ideal situation. We literally have all our eggs in one basket, at least until the Mars and Moon colonies get going (which might be a while), so it’s important to identify as many of these things as possible, as early as possible. We’re a bit behind on this, unfortunately — there could be as many as one million asteroids that could hit us one day that we simply haven’t mapped yet. I don’t know what it’ll take to really ramp up our orbital defense efforts, but it’d be nice if today’s cosmic assaults had an impact bigger than a crater in the tundra.

Drones on Dorner

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No one’s been able to find Chris Dorner yet. The former LAPD officer, who’s wanted for the murder of three people in the course of his apparent one-man war on the department, exists right now as a kind of wraith — Los Angeles police are so on edge that they’ve opened fire on people they believed to be him in two separate incidents. The fact that these people looked nothing like Dorner has not gone unremarked upon. There’s a point to be made here about training and competence in that particular department, but I’m more interested in this bit from a story on the manhunt for Dorner:

“Yesterday, as a task force of 125 officers, some riding Snowcats in the rugged terrain, continued their search, it was revealed that Dorner has become the first human target for remotely-controlled airborne drones on US soil.A senior police source said: “The thermal imaging cameras the drones use may be our only hope of finding him. On the ground, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Regardless of the legitimacy of his complaints against the LAPD, Dorner is a murderer. He’s acquired something of a following online, particularly among those who’ve read his lengthy manifesto, but this is common — think of the legions of damaged people who become fans of serial killers, or the women who seek to marry them — and likely not indicative of any larger social trend. He needs to be caught and put on trial, or, failing that, killed.

The idea that it’ll be a drone that gets him tilts the head. The administration’s policy on drones is controversial enough, but using them on American citizens on American soil seems like something of a crossed line. I doubt they’ll actually fire a drone missile at Dorner if they end up finding him, somewhere in a cabin in the mountains, but it’ll set a precedent, won’t it? This is where I part company with most of America in regards to the use of drones on American citizens suspected of terrorism. Even if you believe the president is a perfect moral arbiter (I think he’s uncommonly moral, particularly for a politician), he’s only in office for four more years. Eventually, you’ll have a man in office who is less scrupulous, and giving that person that kind of power is just asking for it to be misused — if, indeed, you can do anything but misuse it.

Things the Mayan doomsday people didn’t think of

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Is the world going to end on December 21, i.e. today? I’m glad I asked, and not just because having a question like that in your lede is total SEO-bait. No, the world is not going to end, at least not for the reasons you’d expect. One segment of the Mayan Long Count calendar ends on the 21st, but another one is all set to begin — heck, there are actual Mayans still out there who are planning on having a big party to celebrate the beginning of a new era. There’s no Planet X or rogue star coming to ruin our day — if there were, we’d have totally seen them by now. They wouldn’t even be a secret — you can’t exactly block the sky, and amateur astronomers would have been all over it.

Relax.

Now, here’s two ways we could all die any minute now that have nothing to do with December 21.

Relativistic kill vehicles
Science fiction lies to you all the time about alien invasions. Let’s say there’s an alien species out there who wishes us ill. Maybe they don’t care for our television shows. Maybe they’re space racists. Maybe their particular religion encourages the wholesale slaughter of all nonbelievers.

More likely, what would happen is this: If they were thinking of invading, they’d likely have some kind of lightspeed or faster-than-light travel, so they’d assume that, given enough time, we’d be able to develop similar technology. They’d further assume that we didn’t get to the top of our food chain without being somewhat ruthless (they would have a lot of evidence if they cared to investigate). They’d be forced to conclude that, given enough time, we’d become a threat to them.

So, they’d strike first.

What they wouldn’t do, of course, is do something as silly as invade. Invasion is messy and risky and really not terribly necessary. Instead, they’d shoot us.

Once you can make something move at the speed of light (or faster, if indeed that’s even possible), you can turn pretty much anything into a really scary weapon. The proper term for this is a relativistic kill vehicle, or RKV. Strap a lightspeed engine to an asteroid, say — maybe one as big as a small moon, point it at what you want to be dead, and turn it on. Now you have a bullet that can’t be tracked (since it’s moving at lightspeed, you literally won’t see it coming until it’s right on you) and therefore can’t be stopped. You’d be able to launch it from anywhere at anytime, with no warning, and there would literally be nothing anyone could do about it. Even if you somehow managed to stop the first one, what’s to prevent your enemy from launching another one? Or another thousand?

Considering all the horrible stuff we’ve come up with in the past, the aliens would figure that we’d try to use RKVs on them if we could. They’d probably be right.

Anyways, if they did happen to know where we were, they could have already sent a bunch of RKVs hurtling at us. Better to take care of the problem now, before we start getting any ideas. Any time now, right?

Gamma-ray bursts
Imagine a massive star, much bigger than the Sun. Actually, give this video a quick watch to picture the scale I’m talking about:

When these stars go supernova at the end of their lifetimes, they’re going to very temporarily give off an awful lot of energy — say, 10 billion times as much as our sun will emit in its entire lifetime. It emits these bursts of energy from its poles — so, the top and bottom of the star. They come out in a focused beam that moves at somewhere awful close to the speed of light.

We’ve seen these happen before, all outside our own galaxy. That’s pretty good, because they’re way too far away to do any damage when they hit. Let’s say one did go off in our galaxy, close by, and we were unlucky enough to be in the path of the beam. It’d blow off much of the atmosphere like the seeds of a dandelion, which would be somewhat disruptive to things like crops and global temperatures and pretty much everything else. Everyone on the side of the Earth facing the blast would be so heavily irradiated that we’d probably all end up looking like this guy from the first RoboCop movie:

Maybe it won’t be quite that dramatic, but we’d all be in for a very bad time. There’s some thought that a gamma-ray burst might have been the cause of an earlier extinction, some 450 million years ago. We’d honestly have about as much warning as the trilobites did.

So, enjoy the rest of today. The doomsday prophets, as usual, were wrong. The apocalypse might come someday, but take heart: it’ll be random, probably very quick, and you won’t have to deal with irritating posts on Twitter and Facebook in the weeks leading up to it.

Writings elsewhere, part the second

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The Onion put out a video today calling fans of the new “Boy Meets World” spinoff “emotionally stunted manchildren“. I don’t necessarily disagree. One of those emotionally stunted manchildren wrote something about which cameos he’d like to see on “Girl Meets World”. That manchild was me. I am so sorry.

Poll Dancers

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I know that the election — all twelve months and several billion dollars of it — is finally over, because the quadrennial stress ulcer that seems to take over my body like a cancer has dissipated. It’s weirdly masochistic of us, that we’ve decided our electoral process needs to be as horrifyingly stressful as possible short of tanks in the streets and retaliatory assassinations, but, like building muscles, nothing worthwhile ever comes painlessly.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been all that worried. Nate Silver, the former baseball statistician who called 49 out of 50 states correctly in the last election, had Barack Obama winning the election approximately 90 percent of the time — and, as those of us who’ve played XCOM: Enemy Unknown lately know, a 90 percent chance feels an awful like absolute certainty. Silver had Obama as a neck-ruffled slugger playing slow-pitch softball, with Mitt Romney as a relief pitcher batting against Justin Verlander. Of course, 90 percent is not 100 percent, so I resorted to burying my head in Halo 4 to avoid the nauseating wave of agita that hit me at a similar point in 2008.

What’s strange to me post-election is just how unruffled the opposite side appeared in the weeks leading up to the actual election. I had been following Silver almost exclusively, so I knew that Romney’s chances were slim, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at nearly every right-wing pundit. The Romney campaign itself seemed totally thrown by the outcome:

…they believed the public/media polls were skewed – they thought those polls over-sampled Democrats and didn’t reflect Republican enthusiasm. They based their own internal polls on turnout levels more favorable to Romney. That was a grave miscalculation, as they would see on election night.

Those assumptions drove their campaign strategy: their internal polling showed them leading in key states, so they decided to make a play for a broad victory: go to places like Pennsylvania while also playing it safe in the last two weeks.

Those assessments were wrong.


Perhaps the strangest counter to Silver’s prediction came from a journalist named Dean Chambers of UnskewedPolls.com. Chambers believed polls were oversampling Democrats, so in many cases, he simply adjusted the Republican response rate upward to a number he felt was more accurate. Chambers was so confident in his model that he attributed Silver’s numbers to…Silver seeming kind of effeminate.

Anyone able to find a legitimate scientific basis for this critique is welcome to come forward. I hadn’t realized that your skill at math is directly related to, I don’t know, how butch you are.

This kind of magical thinking seems particularly prevalent with movements facing imminent defeat. It’s denial, but a strange type of denial that requires constant reinforcement by manufactured evidence and, essentially, wishes. It calls to mind the Boxer Rebellion against the British in China, where peasants underwent exercises they believed would make them immune to bullets. It reminds me of the Ghost Dance, a Native American religious ceremony which promised its participants a reunification with their ancestors, a resolution to the conflict with encroaching Americans, and yes, an immunity to bullets. You are invited to look up the fate of the Boxers and the Ghost Dancers, but it is not reassuring or pretty.

Science doesn’t care about your feelings. Math disregards your wishes. Nate Silver got every single state correct in the 2012 presidential election, and got the popular vote to within .3%. Dean Chambers did not.

Joe and Felix

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Until today, Joe Kittinger was one of a kind.

Much of the planning for any complicated project involves contingencies for when things go wrong. NASA’s manned space program was no different — one of the reasons why Apollo 13 was able to get back successfully was that the organization was used to the idea that things might explode or malfunction or otherwise not work. In the event of a near-space malfunction, NASA wanted to find out whether or not it was possible for an astronaut to bail out of a spacecraft.

You can’t exactly test something like that without actually sending someone up there to do it, so the U.S. government picked Joe Kittinger, a skillful pilot with a history of high-altitude balloon tests. The mission was simple: Kittinger would ride a specially-constructed balloon wearing a prototype space suit to about 100,000 feet, step out onto the railing, and jump.

This is, of course, an insane thing to do. Nothing about the environment at 100,000 feet is hospitable to human life — it’s about as close to space as you can get without it actually being space. Kittinger lost consciousness in an earlier jump — without his guidance, his body went into a spin that placed extreme stresses on his limbs. Another bit of foresight saved his life: his parachute opened automatically at a set altitude, and Kittinger was free to go up again. On his final ascent, one of his hands swelled up to about twice its normal size due to a pressurization malfunction — you can well imagine what the pressure differential would do to an unprotected human body at that altitude — but Kittinger went anyway. Here’s what it looked like:

Joe Kittinger fell for four and a half minutes. He hit speeds of more than six hundred miles an hour. He made himself into a meteor.

Kittinger deployed his own parachute this time, and floated to safety in a desert in New Mexico. All told, he had fallen 102,800 feet, a record until today.

Joe Kittinger is 84 years old, his days of falling long over. Today, he sat in a mission control room, talking a man named Felix Baumgartner through an experience only the two of them had ever shared. Felix Baumgartner is a professional daredevil — he’s jumped off buildings and statues and, on one skydive, across the English channel. Baumgartner’s equipment is more advanced, and his mission more public, but he still had to do what Kittinger did — look down at distant Earth, step out onto a railing, and jump.

On the ground, watching as a man fell through his record, moving faster than the sound of the words he was broadcasting, Joe Kittinger must have felt that he’d finally found someone he could really relate to. We use the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” to give credit to those who’ve come before us, but giants are lonely. They’re more likely to give us a hand up. If only we’d ask.

Will it hit us?: Comet C/2012 S1

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Why haven’t we seen this comet before?
I’m glad you asked, because this gives us a chance to remember just how big space is. Take our sun, for example. It’s the biggest thing in the solar system by a long shot — about 1.4 million kilometers across. That’s pretty big! But wait — the Earth is 150 million kilometers away from the Sun. You could fit more than 100 more suns in that distance, and that’s just between the Earth and the Sun on a straight line. Halley’s Comet, which is the most famous comet around, is about 15 by 8 by 8 kilometers. We’re not quite sure how big C/2012 S1 is, but you can see the difficulty here — it’s not so much “needle in a haystack” as it is “moving needle in a haystack the size of China”. Shoot, it took us until the 1600s to discover Neptune, and that thing is humongous. So, if you have C/2012 S1 coming in from the Oort Cloud, and it’s never been here before, it’s no surprise that we’re just becoming aware of it.

Why does it have that unwieldy name?
Not only is there a lot of space in … space, but there’s a lot of stuff in space. We’re not interstellar yet, but there are 400 billion stars just in our galaxy alone, and our galaxy is only one of about a half a trillion. In our solar system, we’ve got planets, planetoids, moons, comets, asteroids, and one medium-sized star in the center. The important things have names, but they share designations with the unimportant things, so you can quickly communicate information about them to those who understand the system. Let’s break C/2012 S1 down:

  • C means it’s a non-periodic comet, which is a comet that does not return to the Solar System on a regular basis, if at all. Halley’s Comet is a periodic comet because it comes around every 76 years, which means it’d be designated by the letter P.
  • 2012 is the year it was discovered. Duh.
  • S is the half-month in which it was discovered. A comet discovered in the first half of January would be labeled A. The second half would be B. The first half of February would be C, and so on. This one was discovered on September 21, and since they don’t use the letter I ‘cause it’s confusing, it’s labeled S.
  • 1 means it’s the first comet discovered in the second half of September.

See? Totally simple. If it were going to hit us, we’d probably give it a different name.

Is it going to hit us?
No.

Are you sure?
Oh, you can never be totally sure. But yes. It’s going to pass within about two million kilometers of the Sun, but the closest it’ll get to us is about 60 million kilometers. No biggie.

How much is a kilometer again?
About six-tenths of a mile. It’s really far away! Don’t worry about it. If you’re going to worry about anything, worry about stuff that actually might kill us, like gamma-ray bursts from distant stars, or relativistic kill vehicles from paranoid alien empires, or the asteroid Apophis.

All of those things sound pretty scary!
You’re right! A gamma-ray burst would blow the atmosphere off our planet like seeds off a dandelion and irradiate us pretty badly. A relativistic kill vehicle would crack the Earth open like a walnut. Apophis would probably just look like Deep Impact, so pretty bad. We can’t do anything about the first two, so don’t worry about it, and I’ll write more about Apophis some other time, but we’ve got a long time before it might (emphasis: might) hit us, and there are a bunch of fun science-y things we could do to stop it, so don’t worry about it.

I’m still pretty worried about it.
OK then, maybe this will distract you. It’s tough to predict exactly what will happen with C/2012 S1, but you’re going to be able to see it with the naked eye in 2013, from about October to January 2014. At one point — and again, this is up in the air — it might briefly outshine the full moon. We’re going to be getting a surprise stellar show for months on end next year, and I couldn’t be happier.

This is all contingent upon the world not ending on December 21, 2012, right? Because I watched this very convincing video that–
Ugh. I’ll tell you what. If the world does end in December, I’ll give you two hundred million dollars. Deal?

Deal.

Rampant Nerdery: How Dragon Age II stumbled out of the gate

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If you had to pick the one game that perfectly represented the wheels coming off a sure thing, you could do a lot worse than Dragon Age II.

Video game studios develop reputations that often overwhelm the reality of their products. BioWare is The Story-Based RPG studio. They’re not the only one, of course — you’ve got your Bethesdas, Obsidians, etc. — but there’s a certain set of expectations from BioWare games. They’ll be lengthy. They’ll often feature as much talking as they do combat. You, as the player, will have many choices to make, all with an ostensible effect on the game world as a whole. At one point, your character will be able to receive or initiate a declaration of undying love to one of various NPCs, followed by an awkward sex scene which means you have to be very careful playing a BioWare game in a shared living space. At the end of the game, you will have probably saved the kingdom, world, or galaxy, depending on the scope of this particular adventure. You will sit back as your virtual friends celebrate, and it will have been a Good Game.

Dragon Age II is not a good game.

It superficially resembles a good game in that it has every one of the above elements, but they don’t quite add up as they did in Dragon Age: Origins or Mass Effect. For every good idea they had (companions having lives outside what the player character did), they countered it with incredibly baffling design decisions. I am playing Dragon Age II as I type this sentence, engaging in a battle which requires me to do nothing but press the “A” button, over and over again. It kind of breaks the engagement, is what I’m saying, and brings to mind unflattering comparisons to something else you can do one-handed while typing.

Dragon Age II told you that you would make decisions that would change the fate of the world, but looking at the plot in retrospect leads one to the conclusion that everything that happened would have happened anyway if the player character was removed from the story. Even the final, climactic decision of which side to support in a magical civil war doesn’t matter — if you support one side, you have to kill your side’s leader (who has given into dark magic) and the other side’s leader (who has gone insane). Supporting the opposite side leads to the exact same series of fights in the exact same order with the exact same outcome. You might say that BioWare’s problem with endings started well before Mass Effect 3.

What Dragon Age II really does wrong, however, isn’t so much a product of its ending. It’s present right from the start of the game.

A good beginning is important to any piece of media (otherwise people will just move on to whatever the next bit is), but it’s absolutely crucial to story-based role-playing games. Much of the motivation in playing a video game is kinetic in nature — you’re promised more or better. Gears of War lures you onward with the carrot of more things to murder and more creative ways in which to murder them. Diablo (also an RPG, but with a greater emphasis on things like loot and leveling up than character interaction) lets you watch your experience points pile up like sand, while your character is clad in beefier and gaudier bits of equipment. Story-based RPGs need to do more to convince the player, because (at least in a BioWare game), everything you do is run through with consequence. Because you can choose your character’s decisions, you have to be made to care about the world and characters you’re affecting. This is a bit tricky, as there’s no real right way to do it, but there’s definitely a wrong way.  Dragon Age II chose the wrong way.

Here’s how Dragon Age II begins:

That’s not the full beginning, but it would take an awful lot of your time to watch the whole thing. I’ll sum it up: you’re privy to the beginning of an interrogation. The man being questioned relates a fake story of Hawke, your main character. You take control of Hawke for a brief and bloody battle in which you rip through your enemies easily. The interrogator calls bullshit on the story, and the man being questioned starts to tell the real one: Hawke and his/her family are on the run, fighting the same battle but in a more desperate and realistic way. Hawke’s brother or sister (depending on which class you choose) are killed by a marauding beast, but the remaining characters are saved, to be spirited off to Kirkwall, the city in which the majority of Dragon Age II takes place.

As a beginning to a piece of media, it’s coherent. Everything that happens makes sense — even the early reveal of the narrator as unreliable. For a story-based RPG, however, it’s thin and inadequate, roughly comparable to meeting your spouse on the day of your wedding. In no particular order:

Who are these people? You’re part of a family on the run, but the first time you see them, they’re in a stressful and dangerous situation. Their characteristics are vaguely sketched — you get an impression that your younger brother is kind of a hothead, but that’s about the end of it.

Where are they from? There is constant talk about where the family is from — a small town which you passed through in Dragon Age: Origins — but you never actually see any of that yourself. You’re told about it often, but there isn’t chance to form an attachment to the place before it’s stolen away from you. The characters clearly miss it, but as you’ve just been introduced to them…

Why should I care about any of this?

Let’s take an example from one of the six possible beginnings (depending on your class) to Dragon Age: Origins. BioWare made that game too, so it’s not as if this is some trade secret to which they were never privy. If you play as a human noble character, you spend the first half-hour or so wandering around your family’s castle, talking to characters and doing minor quests (clearing giant rats out of the pantry, for example). Some of your family friends are visiting, and they’ve brought with them an attractive handmaiden named Iona. If you talk to her, and you’re playing a particularly charming or lecherous character, you can invite her to your room after everyone goes to bed. Thankfully, there is not an awkwardly-animated scene for this (you still don’t want to play it with other people in the room), but the result is that Iona is killed when she opens your door to investigate a disturbance — your family has been betrayed from within, and she’s the first casualty.

Roughly, here was my reaction to Iona dying in Dragon Age: Origins:

By comparison, here was my reaction to my character’s sibling dying in Dragon Age II


Both characters died horrible, unfair deaths, and yet the one that got to me was the one that my character had just met. I was all ready to go to town on the bastards who killed Iona, but when the ogre smooshed my character’s sibling into paste, my reaction was “oh, now I have to go kill that ogre so I can start the plot, or whatever”. Dragon Age: Origins has six separate introductions for your character, each allowing you to care about what you’re supposed to be doing before you get into the hack-and-slash. Dragon Age II only had one, which would lead you to expect that they would put a lot of care into it. They didn’t — whether due to a company-wide brain freeze, a lack of development time, or something else — and it really shows. You could have probably figured out that Dragon Age II was going to be a mediocre game based on its first twenty minutes. It was a half-formed game with half-formed ideas, just like its introduction.

Between this and the ending to Mass Effect 3, BioWare’s reputation has been in something of a freefall. There are some signs that they’re returning to form, however — the recently-announced Dragon Age III: Inquisition was accompanied by promises of lessons learned. How well they incorporate these lessons remains to be seen, but honestly, you won’t have to play the entire game to figure out how well they did. You’ll know in the first ten minutes.

 

Writings elsewhere, part the first

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It’s the 20th anniversary of Nickelodeon’s “Guts” today, which means I convinced one of my fine editors at work to let me rank the best Nickelodeon game shows. If you’re so inclined, you can check it out here.

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