Friday, April 30, 2004

Brood X Cicadamania:

Click here to enter Cicadamania-space.

I'm getting my earplugs ready. Also, my fork. Yum!

 Thursday, April 29, 2004

Out of sequence posts:

As you have probably noticed, posting has been a little sparse lately...

I have been jotting down quick thoughts though, that have developed into longer pieces that may appear out of sequence. You may want to scroll down every so often to see if I have inserted a piece somewhere in the sequence that you have not yet read (none earlier than April 9).

 Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Jahiliyyah babble:

I was interested this morning to hear that the media has finally picked up on one of the reasons for the Madrid 3/11 bombings. Spain was once part of the Dar al-Islam, or House of Islam, when it was under Moorish rule from the early 700s to 1492 (remember Charlton Heston in El Cid?). The peninsula was known as al-Andalus, a name which lives on today in the name of the province Andalucia.

The radical (and some would claim this is the Wahabbi) Islamic world view behind much of the current terrorism divides the world into two: the Dar al-Islam, where muslim governments exert Sharia law, and the Dar al-Harb, or the House of War - land yet to be conquered by Islam.

A central tenet of Islam holds that land once under the Dar al-Islam must never be ceded back to the Dar al-Harb. All effort is to be put into regaining lost lands, no matter how long it takes: i.e. Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Spain. The most extreme view holds that most of what the West would consider muslim governments are in fact in Dar al-Harb, because these governments do not enforce strict Sharia: Jordan, Syria, Egypt - and even Saudi Arabia itself, home of most Wahabbis. This is partly the reasoning behind the violence in these countries, and unfortunately there is no long-term solution, because compromise is explicitly prohibited.

More moderate muslim philosophers have added other houses: the Dar al-Amn, or House of Safety, describing muslims living under non-muslim (but tolerant) Western governments (also called Dar al-Shahadah, the House of Testimony); and the Dar al-Dawa, or House of Invitation, describing lands where Islam is newly arrived, but not yet the law of the land.

We might not like being labeled as "Crusaders," but we will eventually have that role forced upon us as the Dar al-Islam achieves its long-term objective, the elimination of the Dar al-Harb.

Perhaps we should send missionaries to convert them? Oh no, wait - that's their plan.

 Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Konrad Lorenz:

We are by no means professional "birders," or even amateurs. We simply enjoy watching birds in our backyard, and we have an identification guide. A dangerous combination, producing pseudo-experts. So, given that caveat, here is our report:

Our first female Ruby-throated hummingbird -Archilocus colubris- of the year has arrived at our feeders. We also have two males sorting out their territories. The count will rise monotonically to the absolute fury we get around August, when we have an uncountable cloud of 20 or so psychotic chatterers surrounding the feeders. My target this year is to get one to sit on my finger - I'm confident this can be done, since last year they were tolerant of me sitting a few inches from them...

Other birds we get:

  • Blackbirds (Brewer's?) - Euphagus cyanocephalus
  • Red-winged Blackbirds - Agelaius phoeniceus
  • Eastern Blue Birds - Sialia sialis
  • Blue Jays - Cyanocitta cristata
  • Northern Cardinals - Cardinalis cardinalis
  • Black-capped Chickadees - Parus atricapillus
  • Brown-headed Cowbirds - Molothrus ater
  • American Crows - Corvus brachyrhynchos(?)
  • Doves (Rock/Mourning?) - Columba livia/Zenaida macroura
  • Indigo Bunting (?) - Passerina cyanea
  • Purple Finches - Carpodacus purpureus
  • American Goldfinches - Carduelis tristis
  • Canada Geese - Branta canadensis
  • Grackles (Common?) - Quiscalus quiscula
  • Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks - Pheucticus ludovicianus
  • Dark-eyed Juncos - Junco hyemalis
  • Purple Martins - Progne subis
  • American Robin - Turdus migratorius (no giggling in the back there...)
  • Chipping Sparrows - Spizella passerina
  • House Sparrows - Passer domesticus
  • European Starlings - Sturnus vulgaris
  • Tufted Titmice - Parus bicolor
  • Woodpeckers (Red-headed/-bellied?)
  • Wrens (Carolina/House/Winter?)
  • Vireos - Vireo atricapillus?

An interesting site to look up arrivals and even enter your own birding data, if you're serious about it: eBird. A less intimidating website, for the casual surfer: Bird Nature.

 Saturday, April 24, 2004

Operation "San Luis":

I recently read the accident investigation report for the Brazilian rocket explosion that occurred on August 22 last year, killing 21 people. The report was released in February, and is available here (in Portuguese, as a 130-page PDF). I posted a note last year on the intended launch date (Aug 25), but much of that post was dedicated to a similar launchpad accident in the Soviet Union.

I will pick up the story from Brazil here. All the pictures included below are from that report, and most are linked to larger versions so that you can see details. The report itself contains many more pictures and diagrams.

The report is a solid piece of failure analysis, done in 172 days by a group of 23 commissioners, 3 of of which were from the science community, 2 as representatives of the victim's families, along with 6 Russian specialists, and 4 other collaborators. The commission took the basic approach mandated by the Brazilian Aeronautical Accident Investigation and Prevention Center (CENIPA), guided by the triptych: man - machine - environment.

The commission looked at several different factors:
  • The Meteorological Factor;
  • The Materials Factor;
  • The Operational Factor; and
  • The Human Factor

This is obviously a cursory skip through some very serious material, but I'm not about to translate the whole report, and Babelfish won't do the trick for those of you who are not lusophones. So bear with me.

Brazil is not without experience in rocketry. The country had hosted NASA tracking stations since 1956, and had built its own tracking stations immediately after the launches of Sputnik and Explorer I. By 1964 a national rocket program had been established, and Brazil launched a U.S.-made Nike Apache in December 1965 with Brazilian personnel trained at NASA Wallops and Goddard. By 1967 a completely Brazilian-designed and -built rocket, SONDA I, was capable of taking a 4 kg payload up to 65 km. Two-hundred twenty five SONDA I's had flown when the program ended in 1977.

Building on this experience, and on Canada's Black Brant III, the SONDA II program developed a single-stage 370 kg rocket capable of taking a 20 to 70 kg payload to 100 or 50 km. Sixty-one SONDA II's were launched (no dates are given for the program - the report does note the SONDA II program was "loosely structured" and "poorly documented").

The SONDA III program, begun in 1971 and still operational today, was a large leap. This two-stage 1,590 kg rocket can boost a 150 kg payload to a 500 km apogee, and has been launched 31 times (the latest launch was 12 May 2002). However, as large a technical achievement as this apogee and payload represent, they are still not orbital, and putting a Brazilian satellite into orbit with a Brazilian rocket remained a national goal.

The SONDA IV program provided the intermediate step, with an enormously more complicated system for management of the design, testing, production, assembly and launch. The report, for whatever reasons, does not give any figures for the SONDA IV launch weight, payload, or apogee capabilities.

I gathered the following figures from elsewhere: first launch, April 28, 1989; Height: 11 m (other sources have 9,2 m); Wt. 1656 kg; payload 300 - 500 kg; apogee 1000 - 700 km.

Here's a schematic of the SONDA IV:


With an intermediate program, the VS-40, used to test the proposed 4th stage engines in a vacuum for an orbital rocket system , the Brazillian program reached the point of producing the VLS, or Veiculo Lancador de Satelites ("Satellite Launch Vehicle," proving that Brazil needs to come up with better names).

Here is a schematic of the VLS (Coifa is shroud, Propulsor is engine, others are left to the reader...) :

VLS1 schematic

The VLS is theoretically capable of putting 100 to 300 kg payload into a 250 - 1000 km circular orbit, with equatorial to polar inclinations.

Here is a mission profile, indicating the time for each stage's burn, its altitude on ignition, and the velocity:

Mission profile

Two previous launch failures with the VLS have occurred:

VLS-1 V01 on December 2, 1997 self-destructed 29 seconds into flight when the non-ignition of 1st stage engine D caused an excessive and unrecoverable angle of attack. Faulty pyrotechnic ignition systems were identified as the root cause (Portuguese report available here).

VLS-1 V02 on December 11, 1999 was destroyed by the range safety officer after 189 seconds of flight. An explosion occurred on ignition of the second stage that caused the thrid stage to separate prematurely - this stage ignited after the correct elapsed time, but of course the vehicle was by this time off-course on a ballistic trajectory. When the predicted impact point neared the edge of the secured area in the Atlantic, the RSO sent the self-destruct signal. Unexpected and uneven ignition of the forward section of the solid propellant in the second stage was identified as the cause of the explosion (Portuguese report available here).

By 2003 the VLS program had been restarted and a third launch attempt was scheduled for August 25, 2003. The various stages and components were all airlifted to the launch site, Alcantara, in the State of Maranhao by the Brazilian Air Force:

C-130 loading stages

A view of the Alcantara site, with the long engine storage and conditioning building in the center, and the vehicle assembly building in the rear.

Alcantara complex

Here is a view of on of the first stage engines in storage inside the engine building:


Here is a schematic of the assembly sequence, indicating that it was expected that an entire capaign could be carried out within 60 days. The accident occurred within the last frame, during vehicle testing, but before the (2) simulated count-downs.

Vehicle assembly sequence & timing

Here is a view of the assembly sequence, with engine C of the first stage being attached. According to the above sequence, this must be between day -43 and -32 in the assembly sequence. Note that the equipment on the top of this stage is visible here (we will return to one of these pieces below...).


Here is a view of the fourth stage being mated to the stack. According to the above sequence, this must be between day -23 and -21 in the assembly sequence.

Fourth stage assembly

A view of the completed stack with the vehicle assembly building rolled back from the launch pad during the verticality check. According to the above sequence, this must be between day -15 and -2 in the assembly sequence.

Verticality test

here is a view from the exterior of the vehicle assembly building, showing the VLS enclosed, and the platforms that allow technician access.

VAB exterior w/ VLS enclosed

Here is a schematic of the vehicle assembly building. Pay particular attention to the location of the monitoring cameras looking down on each of the access platforms.

VAB layout

This is a frame from the security tape at the instant the explosion occurred. Each quadrant is labelled, and represents the image from the respective camera. At the instant of frame capture, quadrant (and camera 2) had just refreshed, so images 3 and 4 are from a few milliseconds earlier. Note the light from the explosion showing through the gap on the access platform in camera 2. Also, on camera 4, note the yellow plastic covering over the shroud that was used to blow refrigerated and dehumidified air over the shroud and enclosed satellite.

Camera frame 1

This is the next frame. Cameras 1 and 2 have been destroyed. The light from the explosion flames is now visible in camera 3.

Camera frame 2

This is the view from the monitor camera mounted on the roof of the engine storage building, looking down the access road to the vehicle assembly building, now consumed by the fire. Stages 1,2 and 3 are alight at this point.


This is a view of the aftermath, showing what was left of the assembly building, which collapsed on itself as the flames eroded one complete side. People near enough to hear, but far enough away to survive testified that they heard the sound of several normally functioning engines. This was also supported by the wear patterns on the launch pad and the location of debris. Of course, the locking bolts had not been released so this was in essence an unintended partial static test.

VAB aftermath

Now to the culprit. This is a schematic of the detonator/initiator/ignitor at the top of the second stage engines.

The most probable cause for the unintended premature ignition of second stage engine D is thought to have been an static electrical charge built up by the cold, dry air blown over the shroud that caused a spark somewhere in the ignition system. All other electrical circuits appear to have been properly grounded, but the problem of static electricity is not common in the humid tropics, and had been overlooked.

Detonator details

A view of the detonator assembly on the top of the second stage engines (this is part of what can be seen in the assembly photo I referred to above). Engine and ingitor pressure sensors are labelled, as are the detonators and the ignitor head.

Detonator in place

A paragraph from the preface struck a particular chord for me:

Acidentes, como ensina a longa e frequentemente sofrida experiencia humana, raramente sao obras do acaso. Ao contrario, costumam ser o ultimo elo de uma cadeia de eventos, razao pela qual formouse a consciencia de que as comissoes constituidas para investiga-los nao devem ver a investigacao como um fim em si mesma, mas como um poderoso instrumento de diagnostico, por meio do qual e possivel atingir niveis de desempenho operacional mais seguros.

Accidents, as taught by the lengthy and frequently suffered human experience, are rarely chance events. On the contrary, they tend to be the last link in a chain of events, reason for which that the commissions sonstituted to investigate them should not see the investigation as a goal in itself, but as a powerful diagnostic tool, through which it is possible to attain safer levels of operation.

OSL Patch



 Friday, April 23, 2004

Brazil: Vampire Bats Kill 14 Locals in Amazon

APRIL 07, 2004 - Fourteen inhabitants of the community of Sao Bento, located along the Acuti-Pereira River, near Marajo, state of Para died of rabies transmitted by vampire bats. Health authorities are working to immunize inhabitants and domestic animals in the region.

Source - Diario do Para

Darn, after reading that headline I was thinking "giant bats" or at least a swarm of them descending on running, screaming inhabitants... but no, it was just rabies contracted through regular, run of the mill night-time vampires feeding off sleeping humans. Sigh. The Amazon is just so ...boring.

 Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Edward R. Murrow:

...would not be proud.

Essay collection.

Do not drink carbonated cola and read these at the same time.

 Monday, April 19, 2004

Return of Archilocus Colubris:

We spotted the first returning Ruby Throated Humming Bird at our feeder today. A sporty adult male.

Right on time, too. See last year's post.

 Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Prometheus unbound:

This site is eerily attractive. In a Lara Croft kind of way.

Several colleagues have reacted the same way to an attractive young woman who wears leather, rides a Kawasaki VERY fast, and carries a Geiger counter.

Reading on the meter is 763 micro-Roentgens per hour. In the background, the sarcophagus around the Chernobyl reactor. Run Elena, run!

 Friday, April 09, 2004

Jorge Eliécer Gaitán:

At about this time on this day in 1948, the Colombian Chancellor Laureano Gómez was reconvening the Ninth Panamerican Conference in Bogotá, Colombia. There were some interesting characters in Bogotá, including George Marshall and Fidel Castro. Marshall had given the opening speech on March 30th, and Castro was attending a student-organized shadow conference.

As might be imagined, most of the Colombian political elite of the time was attending the conference. A notable exception who had been excluded from the invitees was Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a rising star who was causing a stir with his populist speeches and legal defenses of "the downtrodden." Gaitán was widely seen as the presumptive heir of the Liberal party's mantle, despite some considerable opposition not only from the Conservative party, but also from his own party's elite. There was a palpable feeling that in the upcoming elections, the Liberals under Gaitán would finally be able to wrest power from the Conservative's stranglehold.

As Bob Dix put it in his 1987 book The Politics of Colombia: "Colombia's two major parties, the Liberal and the Conservative, are among the oldest in the world. Many of the other Latin American countries divided politically along similar lines during the 19th century, but in most cases only vestiges at best remain of that original partisan configuration. In Colombia much of political life since about 1848, whether electoral or violent, has been conducted in the name of the country's two 'historic collectivities.' Despite persistent factionalism, periodic 'union' governments, the occasional appearance of third parties, and long periods of one-party hegemony, the two parties have survived and put down exceedingly deep roots. And, in contrast with the great majority of Latin American countries, elections, while not always strictly competitive, have played a meaningful role throughout most of the history of the republic. Although strongly elitist in the manner of their operation, Colombia's traditional parties have historically evoked the profound psychic attachment of most Colombians--even those who have known and cared little about doctrines and programs. By the same token, parties formed in opposition to the country's elitist democracy--and particularly those that have sought to restructure the electorate along class lines--have fared very poorly. Thus Colombia is exceptional among the major countries of Latin America in not having even one signifcant party of a democratic socialist, Marxist, Christian Democratic, or, more vaguely, 'populist' stripe."

Gaitán was at the forefront of a Liberal splinter movement that was close to populist as Colombian politics would get.

As Gaitán stepped out of his office building onto one of the busiest streets in the city, he was shot several times in the head by a lone gunman. Word of the assassination spread like wildfire, unleashing the pent-up feelings of the citizens in an absolute orgy of looting, destruction and wanton violence that the country had never seen before. The center of Bogotá burned for three days in what is now known as the Bogotazo. A long period of turmoil followed, called La Violencia, until in 1957 the parties agreed to a shared government, with the Presidency alternating and higher political posts balanced between them for four successive four-year cycles. Although this did temporarily settle the political landscape, the Colombian psyche has never recovered.

Inter-party violence during La Violencia led to a great number of displaced persons - Liberals ousted from majority-Conservative towns, and vice-versa. Much of the violence afflicting the country today, even the roots of the current guerilla movements and the drug trade, can be partially attributed to the roaming banditry that resulted from these displacements.

Despite these disruptions, the conference did succeed in producing one fundamental result: the Organization of American States, or OAS.

The disturbances also fundamentally altered the lives of many of Bogotá's citizens, including one certain Gabriel García Márquez, who was nearby and was able to witness the scene within minutes of the shooting.

More on Gaitán, García Márquez, the United Fruit Company, and whether history is really fiction in another post.


 Thursday, April 08, 2004

"I am going to have to disintegrate you..."

For those of you itching to get ahead with Dubya's plans for travel to the Red Planet.
GeoPlayer Mars Demo Download

 Monday, April 05, 2004

Fish-eye Sky Cam:

A quick note to mention I spotted this site - The Night Sky Live. The animations are quite nice, and give a good feel for the rotation of the sky at different latitudes.

 Friday, April 02, 2004


Hello from Ottawa, where there is still ice on the Rideau Canal. You couldn't exactly skate on it, but the ice still has not completely broken up yet. There is still snow in the low spots. Brrr. I am at a meeting at Carleton University, and I had to laugh when I saw students (slaves to fashion) in capri pants, tube tops and flip-flops. Even walking around in the under-ground tunnels it's cold!

It's good to be back in Canada and see the familiar Mac's Milk and Tim Hortons, to smell the DuMauriers and the Pizza-Pizza, and yes, even to listen to Gord Miller ramble on about the Stanley Cup. While much is still the same over twenty years after I left, there are differences. The Toronto Raptors? The Ottawa Senators? Well, at least the Leafs still suck. I am still disturbed when I hear a line-up without Inge Hammerstrom and Borje Salming.

Ottawa seems to be coming into its own, and growing out of being the sleepy hamlet chosen Solomonically by Queen Victoria to quell the debate about where to locate Canada's Capital city. While I suspect it will always be under the shadow of Toronto and Montreal for urban chic and sophisitication, it does have its charms. One of the bigger charms is the Canadian Museum of Civilization, which I love to visit whenever I can. This time, in a whirlwind 90 minute visit before I was whisked off to the airport, I was able to see a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. I was interested not only because of their historical significance, but because I currently happen to be ploughing my way through several books about the Nag Hammadi Library, a similar (but much younger) set of papyri found hidden in jars. More on the Library and what caused me to dig out these books from my basement after over a decade in another post.

Ah Canada. In the U.S., we have dear Nancy Reagan and her astrologers. In Canada, the mediums are sometimes closer to the seat of power. Sometimes they are the seat of power - Prime Minister Mackenzie King used to consult with the ghosts of his dog Pat and of his mother about policy issues. They lived in his closet. Mercifully, the public didn't find out much about this and several other of his rather odd habits until after he had passed away.

And then there's The Dief. Having a sense of humour about your leaders is always a good thing. Especially when they allow it, and when they give you such good material to work with.