Monthly Archives: December 2011

Merry Christmas!

I struggled for a long time after my atheistic coming of age with the notion of Christmas and what it meant for me. I realised, once I was out of my deep teenage angst phase, that whilst I had objections to the origins and modern bastardizations that have become part of this particular holiday I really did love the day itself. Free flowing wine, great food and good company is a recipe for a great day no matter where you are and I hope whatever you’re doing on this day that it makes you happy, regardless of what you think of this particular holiday.

One of my very favourite singer/song writers, Tim Minchin, did a fantastic song that echoes my feelings almost exactly:

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So here’s wishing you well for this holiday season and all the best for the coming year!

iiNet Buys Internode, Australia’s Broadband Future Looks Brighter.

Ever since I’ve been able to get broadband Internet I’ve only had the one provider: Internode. Initially it was just because my house mate wanted to go with them, but having zero experience in the area I decided to go along with him. I think the choice was partially due to his home town being Adelaide, but Internode also had a reputation for being a great ISP for geeks and gamers like us. Fast forward 6 years and you can still find me on an Internode plan simply because the value add services they provide are simply second to none. Whilst others may be cheaper overall none can hold a candle to all the extra value that Internode provides, which I most heartily indulge in.

In Internode’s long history it’s made a point about being one of the largest privately owned Internet service providers (ISPs) in Australia. This is no small feat as the amount of capital required to become an ISP, even in Australia, is no small feat. Internode’s reputation however afforded it the luxury of many geeks like myself chomping at the bit to get their services in our area, guaranteeing them a decent subscriber base wherever there was even a slight concentration of people passionate about IT and related fields. In all honestly I thought Internode would continue to be privately owned for a long time to come with the only possible change being them becoming publicly traded when they wanted to pursue more aggressive growth strategies.

Today brings news however that they will be bought out by none other than iiNet:

In a conference call this afternoon discussing the $105 million takeover announcement, Hackett said that because of NBN Co’s connectivity virtual circuit charge, and the decision to have 121 points of interconnect (POI) for the network, only an ISP of around 250,000 customers would have the scale to survive in an NBN world. With 260,000 active services, Internode just makes the cut. He said the merger was a matter of survival.

“The size of Internode on its own is right on the bottom edge of what we’ve considered viable to be an NBN player. If you’re smaller than that, the economics don’t stack up. It would be a dangerous thing for us to enter the next era being only just quite big enough,” he said.

Honestly when I first heard the news I had some very mixed feelings about what it would entail. iiNet, whilst being a damn fine provider in their own right, isn’t Internode and their value add services still lag behind those offered by Internode. However if I was unable to get Internode in my chosen area they would be the second ISP that I would consider going for, having numerous friends who have done so. I figured that I’d reserve my judgement until I could do some more research on the issue and as it turns out I, and all of Internode’s customers, really have nothing to worry about.

Internode as it stands right now will continue on as it does but will be wholly owned by iiNet. This means that they can continue to leverage their brand identity (including their slightly premium priced value add business model) whilst gaining the benefit of the large infrastructure that iiNet has to offer. The deal then seems to be quite advantageous for both Internode and iiNet especially with them both looking towards a NBN future.

That leads onto another interesting point that’s come out of this announcement: Internode didn’t believe it couldn’t economically provide NBN services at their current level of scale. That’s a little scary when one of the largest independent ISPs (with about 3% market capture if I’m reading this right) doesn’t believe the NBN is a viable business model for them. Whilst they’ll now be able to provide such services thanks to the larger user base from iiNet it does signal that nearly all smaller ISPs are going to struggle to provide NBN services into the future. I don’t imagine we’ll end up in a price fixing oligopoly but it does seem to signal the beginning of the end for those who can’t provide a NBN connection.

Overall the acquisition looks like a decisive one for iiNet and the future is now looking quite bright for Internode and all its customers. Hopefully this will mean the same or better services delivered at a lower price thanks to iiNet’s economies of scale and will make Internode’s NBN plans look a lot more comepetitive than they currently are. Should iiNet want to make any fundamental changes to Internode they’re going to have to do that softly as there’s legions of keyboard warriors (including myself) that could unleash hell if they felt they’ve been wronged. I doubt it will come to that though but there are definitely going to be a lot of eyes on the new iiNet/Internode from now on.

Bitcoint Price Chart 23-09-2011 to 22-12-2011

Bitcoin’s Worth: Liquidity, Volatility and (Least of All) Value.

In the short time that Bitcoin has existed the amount of press, controversy and debate that it’s managed to stir up has been quite staggering. Back at its inception many jumped on it as a way to make a few bucks on the side without having to actively participate in anything but it soon quickly grew from there into a stable little economy that had a mix of both wealth seekers and believers in the idea. The start of this year saw Bitcoin undergo a massive meteoric rise to fame, drawing the critical eye of economists and arm chair financials like myself. The speculative bubble soon burst sending millions of imaginary worth into the digital ether and the confidence in the currency was shaken. Still I saw this as a Bitcoin coming of age as if it could survive this it could potentially become the currency everyone was hoping it to be, once it had some stability.

Since then it appears that the Bitcoin market had hit the bottom of the bursting bubble, tapping out around the US$2 range. It’s since then recovered a little more to be around the US$4 range which, whilst still not being the dizzying heights we saw back in June, is still quite respectable and lot higher than it’s value in years past. What’s truly interesting however is Bitcoin’s transaction volume over the past couple months, it’s actually remained quite high:

Looking at that graph you can draw the conclusion that whilst the value of a Bitcoin has dropped significantly it’s actually still seeing quite a lot of use as a transactional currency. The trading volumes of some of the days in recent months dwarfs that of the speculative bubble and yet the Bitcoin price has remained somewhat steady. This graph would then indicate that the speculators which drove the bubble to it’s crazy highs have well and truly left the market and the majority of currency conversions are from people actively using it as a commodity rather than an investment.

This was one of the biggest challenges facing Bitcoin: it’s liquidity with other currencies. Whilst it’s all well and good to think that we could do all our transactions in this new medium the fact is we can’t and thus Bitcoin’s utility is directly linked with our ability to exchange it for real world currencies. Indeed Ars Technica gives a good view on how Bitcoin’s could market itself as a better wire transfer service and this new found liquidity definitely plays a part in making such an idea come into reality. There is one nagging problem however and that’s the underlying volatility of a commodity with such a small trade volume.

The chart above would lead you to believe that the Bitcoin price had been relatively stable for the past 2 months but that’s just a function of how the graph is presented. Instead of showing the daily average price and transaction volume over the past year if we instead take hourly price and transaction volumes we see a very different picture:

What we can see here is just how volatile the value of the price really is. Whilst it’s nothing compare to the speculative bubble you can still see that transaction volumes on the order of 20K to 40K can swing the price of a Bitcoin considerably, on the order of US$1 or more. Granted there does appear to be periods of low transaction volume with steady growth (between the 17th of November and 1st of December) but the only time that Bitcoin enjoys true value stability is when the transaction volumes are below 10K per hour, and that’s got to change if Bitcoin can be considered as a stable currency. Right now anyone with $120,000 could swing the market one way or another, which is chump change for almost any investment firm.

The takeaway from all this then is that whilst Bitcoin has definitely taken a step forward in terms of liquidity it’s still far too volatile to be considered as a good transactional currency. Whilst I believe the actual value of a Bitcoin is largely irrelevant what does matter is how stable it’s value is over a long period of time. Right now Bitcoin still has the same inherent instability that allowed speculators to create the huge bubble back in June and until it manages to stabilize itself I can’t see getting past the technical novel stage. Whether it’s capable of doing this I can’t comment on as whilst it’s a technically elegant solution economically the challenges it faces are quite large and I’m not sure they have a simple solution.

Until R18+ Becomes a Reality This Will Keep Happening.

The last 2 and a half years have seen the lack of a R18+ rating for games issue ramp up from just a few vocal supporters to an issue that now captures the attention of a good chunk of the nation. The movement has been heavily catalyzed by many notable releases being either outright banned in Australia or receiving significant changes, leaving many Australians to either acquire these through nefarious means or simply doing without. In both instances this robs the developers and publishers of a potential sale making Australia a somewhat hostile environment for games developers, especially those ones who like to flirt with the boundaries of what may or may not be acceptable. Thankfully it seems we’re on the right path now, but until the new rating system is implemented we’re unfortunately still in the same backwards state as we were when this movement started.

The latest casualty in the R18+ war is the reboot of the Syndicate franchise. Citing excessive and highly visceral violence the Australian Classification Board decided to slap the deadly NC rating on it, thereby making its sale illegal in Australia. “Bugger” I hear you saying, “But we’ll still get some nanny-state version to play right?”. I wish it were so, EA has decided to not pursue reclassification and is instead not going to release Syndicate to Australia:

 “The game will not be available in Australia despite its enthusiastic response from fans. We were encouraged by the government’s recent agreement to adopt an 18+ age rating for games. However, delays continue to force an arcane censorship on games – cuts that would never be imposed on books or movies,” EA Corporate Communications’ Tiffany Steckler wrote Joystiq in a statement. “We urge policy makers to take swift action to implement an updated policy that reflects today’s market and gives its millions of adult consumers the right to make their own content choices.”

Indeed ever since the tragedy that was the censored version of Left 4 Dead 2 (it’s predecessor had me captivated for months whereas it could barely hold me for a couple hours) the standard reaction to a NC rating has been to simply not bother with the Australian market. EA’s statement above shows that companies view Australia as a hostile environment and can’t be bothered to rework their product should it not meet our backwards standards. Until we have a really real R18+ standard things like this will continue to occur, and that isn’t going to help anyone.

This news coincides with some saber rattling from NSW Attorney General Greg Smith, the last of the AGs to hold out on the R18+ rating. He’s apparently all for a R18+ rating in Australia but wants particular games, he singled out Grand Theft Auto, to be outright banned. Forgetting for the moment that all of the GTA titles sailed through in the MA15+ category (minus a couple changes for GTAIV, but the content he was complaining about was still in there) Smith is basically attempting to force his own view of what’s appropriate on everyone else. The final guidelines for the R18+ rating are more than adequate at keeping out content that’s already banned in other mediums and provide enough freedom for developers to not have to worry about running afoul of the dreaded NC rating. Whilst Smith probably won’t do anymore damage than he already has it’s irritating to see someone in his position doing such a disservice to Australia with his narrow views of what is and isn’t appropriate.

The R18+ rating really can’t come soon enough as until it does we’re still a nation that’s stuck in a world from 20 years ago, one where gamers were a minority and games were seen as a childish distraction. Today this is far from the case with the vast majority of gamers being over 18 and looking for titles that are appropriate for their demographic. It’s a real shame that some developers will then decide to leave us by the wayside but at least the loss of those games will highlight the need for change and hopefully accelerate its coming.

Cars: Cognitive Dissonance Engines.

You’d have to be a keen reader to pick up on my obsession with cars. I haven’t posted about it much, heck the only post I could dredge up was this one from my trip to the USA last year, but I’ve been something of a car nut for the better part of 15 years. You can put this down to my rural upbringing where we had big plot of land that my parents let me drive around on. It started with motorbikes, seeing me own no less than 3 different ones before I was legally allowed to do so. Then thanks to a father who wanted something different to drive rather than his Morris Minor came into posssesion of not 1, but 2 Datsun 120Ys one of which (after he salvaged for all the good parts) became mine.

My brother and I then became obsessed with making the most we could out of our new found toy. Whilst we had a rather vast backyard in which to indulge in our various driving exploits most of it was cut off from us by a giant forest of eucalyptus trees. Undeterred we spent the better part of our summer holidays clearing a path through the forest so we could get to the wide open paddock in the back. We got there eventually and what followed was weeks of driving the car around our makeshift track, thoroughly enjoying the small bit of freedom that we had created for ourselves. I even managed to secure an upgrade to a Datsun 200B when a family friend no longer needed it, giving my brother and I both our own cars with which to tool around in.

You’d think then that once I had a decent job that a good chunk of my pay check would’ve been sunk into buying some kind of slick sports car. That was somewhat true as my first real car, a 1988 Honda Prelude, had nearly double its purchase price sunk into it in the form of body kits, stereo systems and all sorts of modifications. It was a workhorse of a car having nearly 400,000KMs on the clock before I retired it out to my parents farm. It even still runs fine, just that it needs about $4,000 worth of work done on it before it’ll be fully road worthy again. Since then I’ve been sharing the little Hyundai Getz that my wife bought a long time ago, not being able to bring myself to buy another one.

The reasoning behind that is quite simple: cars are depreciating assets. The old adage of a car losing a third of its value after you drive it off the lot explains this well as cars drastically reduce their value in just a few short years. Ever since my financial coming of age back in 2007 (the time when I first realized this) I’ve always looked at cars with a kind of strained appreciation. I love them for their technology, beauty and the thrill you get from driving them but the discomfort I get from the thought of losing that much value so quickly just doesn’t sit right with me. To that end I’ve kind of reserved myself to be an avid spectator, always looking but never touching.

That hasn’t been easy, especially when the limitations of a single car come into play. It hasn’t been that much of a big deal really, just scheduling conflicts that lead to either myself or my wife having to waste a couple hours here or there, but it’s enough to send me down the dark path of potentially purchasing a car again. Of course I have exacting requirements (that’s the only way to satiate the fiscal conservative in me) and that’s made finding that right car inexorably difficult. My lust for technology doesn’t help either and that’s made the search for something that I might actually end up purchasing quite difficult.

There is the notable geek lust short circuit exception¹ however and there’s one car that’s managed to trigger it: the Tesla Model S. I’ll be honest I started off hating it as the first couple design iterations were just hideous, especially compared to the striking design of the Tesla Roadster. The current design however is just stunning and combined with all the technology and gadgetry under the hood (did I mention that it’s fully electric?) I find myself not asking if I’ll buy one, but when. I’m glad that these kinds of decisions don’t happen too often as that would be rather disastrous for my current financial planning.

Since the Model S won’t be available here for some time my mind of course drifts to what I could purchase as a practical car now. It seems my criteria for what I’d consider practical now is quite rigid: all wheel drive, wagon body and preferably something in the 4 cylinder range with a turbo on it. It covers all the bases of my current needs (infrequent camping, carting stuff around and my inner hoon) but the cars that suit this are thin on the ground. Indeed the only options for this are decade old models of things like the Subaru Forester or Outback, with no one else really competing. Indeed the section that those cars used to serve has been usurped by the SUV market, swelling all of their current generation to ludicrous sizes that I just have no requirement for. The V6 variant of the Volkswagen Passat Wagon is getting pretty close though and the amount of gadgets in there are enough to make buying one sound half reasonable.

As you can see my relationship with cars is a complicated one, layered with cognitive dissonance stemming from my competing goals for financial freedom and simple wunderlust. I know that I’ll eventually have to cave in once the Getz starts getting a little long in the tooth but until then I’ll probably just settle for my usual longing glances and enthusiastic conversations with my work mates.

Maybe its time for me to get another rent-a-racer, you know to keep the car enthusiast in me at bay ;)

¹Should a piece of technology represent something so novel, advanced or just plain cool (for lack of a better term) my financial conservative switches off completely. The most recent purchase to trigger this was the Samsung Galaxy S2 and I feel not one hint of buyer’s remorse.

Sortilio Sorted Folders

Sortilio: Because Sorting Media Isn’t Hard.

My post last week about the trials and tribulations of sorting ones media collection struck a chord with a lot of my friends. Like me they’d been doing this sort of thing for decades and the fact that none of us had any kind of sense to our sorting systems (apart from the common thread of “just leave it where it lies”) came at something of a surprise. I mean just taking the desk I’m sitting at right now for an example it’s clear of everything bar computer equipment and the stuff I bring in with me every day. The fact that this kind of organization doesn’t extend to our file systems means that we either simply don’t care enough or that it’s just too bothersome to get things sorted. Whilst I can’t change the former I decided I could do something about the latter.

Enter Sortilio.

So my quest last week proving fruitless I set about developing a program that could sort media based on a couple cues derived from the files themselves. Now for the most part media files have a few clues as to what they actually are. For the more organized of us the top level folder will contain the episode name but since mine was all over the place I figured it couldn’t be trusted. Instead I figured that the file name would be semi-reliable based on a cursory glance at my media folder and that most of them were single strings delimited with only a few characters. Additionally the identifier for season and episode number is usually pretty standard (S01E01, 2×01,1008, etc) so that pulling the season out of them would be relatively easy. What I was missing was something to verify that I was looking in the right place and that’s where I TheTVDB comes in.

The TV Database is like IMDB for TV shows except that it’s all community driven. Also unlike IMDB they have a really nice API that someone has wrapped up in a nice C# library that I could just import straight into my project. What I use this for is a kind of fuzzy matching filter for TV show names so that I can generate a folder with the correct name. At this point I could also probably rename the files with the right name (if I was so inclined) but for the point of making the tool simple I opted not to do this (at this point). With that under my belt I started on the really hard stuff: figuring out how to sort the damn files.

Now I could have cracked open the source of some other renaming programs to see how they did it but I figured out a half decent process after pondering the idea for a short while. It’s a multi-stage process that makes a few assumptions but seems to work well for my test data. First I take the file name and split it up based on common delimiters used in media files. Then I build up a search string using those broken up names stopping when I hit a string that matches a season/episode identifier. I then add that into a list of search terms to query for later, checking first to see if it’s already added. If it’s already in there I then add the file path into another list for that specific search term, so that I know that all files under that search term belong to the same series. Finally I create the new file location string and then present this all to the user, which ends up looking like this:

The view you see here is just a straight up data table of the list of files that Sortilio has found and identified as media (basically anything with the extension .avi or .mkv currently) and the confidence level it has in its ability to sort said media. Green means that in the search for the series name it only found one match, so it’s a pretty good assumption that it’s got it right. Yellow means that when I was doing a search for that particular title I got multiple responses back from TheTVDB so the confidence in the result is a little lower. Right now all I do is take the first response and use that for verification which has served me well with the test data, but I can easily see how that could go wrong. Red means I couldn’t find any match at all (you can see what terms I was searching for in the debug log) and everything marked like that will end up in one giant “Unsorted” folder for manual processing. Once you hit the sort button it will perform the move operations, and suffice to say, it works pretty darn well:

Of course it’s your standard hacked-together-over-the-weekend type deal with a lot of not quite necessary but really nice to have features left out. For starters there’s no way to tell it that a file belongs to a certain series (like if something is misspelled) or if it picks the wrong series to tell it to pick another. Eventually I’m planning to make it so you can click on the items and change the series, along with a nice dialog box to search for new ones should it not get it right. This means you might want to do this on a small subset of your media each time (another thing I can code in) as otherwise you might get files ending up in strange folders.

Also lacking is any kind of options page where you can specify things like other extensions, regex expressions for season/episode matching and a whole host of other preferences that are currently hard coded in. These things are nice to have but take forever to get right so they’ll eventually make their way into another revision but for now you’re stuck with the way I think things should be done. Granted I believe they’ll work for the majority of people out there, but I won’t blame you if you wait for the next release.

Finally the code will eventually be open sourced once I get it to a point where I’m not so embarrassed by it. If you really want to know what I did in the ~400 odd lines that constitute this program then shoot me an email/twitter and I’ll send the source code to you. Realistically any half decent programmer could come up with this in half the amount of time I did so I can’t imagine anyone will need it yet, unless you really need to save 3 hours :P

So without further ado, Sortilio can be had here. Download it, unleash it on your media files and let me know how it works for you. Comments, questions, bugs and feature requests can be left here as a comment, an @ message on Twitter or you can email me on [email protected].

A Crisis of Misinformation: Generation Y’s Property Conundrum.

I’ve gone on record in the past about how the median house price is unaffordable for the median income earner in Australia. In the same breath I also explained how rare that this kind of situation was due to the number of assumptions made when you just equate median income with median house price. Still it seems to be a sticking point for many people of my generation that housing prices are just too damn high for them to be able to afford something, even if their incomes are above the median. While I’ll admit that it is harder in some areas rather than others (like Canberra for instance, which I explain below) the generalization the property is straight up unaffordable for our generation just simply doesn’t hold water and the reasons are far more likely to be ones of desire than affordability.

The Canberra Times ran an article yesterday that showed Canberra’s cheapest house prices were $100,000 more than the cheapest places in other capital cities. The cheapest suburb Charnwood (where I just so happen to live) had a median price of $382,000. In comparison to the other 2 suburbs listed in the article this seems kind of ludicrous but there are some pretty good reasons for this discrepancy. Firstly the suburbs that Canberra was compared to aren’t exactly identical with Charnwood being only 20 minutes to the CBD of Canberra and the other suburbs being around double or triple that distance. In that respect it’s more apt to compare property in Queanbeyan and the surrounding region which has several areas with a substantially lower median. There’s also the fact that Canberra is disproportionately affluent thanks to the high concentration of public service jobs and low population which skews the median further. That doesn’t change the fact that property in Canberra is more expensive than it would be elsewhere but it does show that straight up comparisons like the one in the Canberra Times aren’t exactly apples to apples.

Whilst the zeitgeist around the property market for my generation might be “it’s too expensive” a recent survey showed that a large majority of my generation are considering buying property within two years. Unfortunately only 30% think of it as a good investment (although what investment vehicles they consider good doesn’t seem to be included) which makes me then wonder why so many are intending to buy. The biggest challenge according to the survey is saving the required deposit for the house, not financing the loan as you’d expect. The article then references the high median price in Sydney as a source of this barrier which, in my mind, isn’t a barrier at all.

The first folly here is to assume that a first time home buyer should be buying at the median. For starters a good 50% of the housing market will be below that price range, especially if you consider some of those cheap suburbs that the Canberra Times article alluded to. This reduces the “required” (more on that in a sec) deposit from $110,000 to something more like $60,000~75,000 still an non-insignificant amount but a lot less than what the article insinuates. There’s also the assumption here that you need to get a 20% before considering buying which I can tell you is misnomer.

For starters the 20% threshold is usually just to avoid paying Lender’s Mortgage Insurance (LMI). Now this isn’t insurance for you, it’s for the bank in case you default on the loan. What a lot of people seem to think is that this is either some astronomical one off cost or a recurring charge that’s tacked onto the loan. For both of the home loans we currently have we had little more than a 5% deposit and the LMI charge was a couple thousand dollars, much less than the amount of cash required to get the 20% deposit. Of course your choice of loans might shrink a little as well but we never struggled in finding a suitable loan at a decent rate, even when we had such a small deposit. Put this all together and cracking into the property market doesn’t seem as bad for my Generation Y cohorts but you wouldn’t read that in the papers.

Realistically it all comes down to a lack of information and understanding which is unfortunately fuelled by articles like the ones I’ve linked to. Whilst I know that many won’t do the research and then continue to lament their position I’m hoping that at least a few will see articles like mine and start doing some investigation for themselves. Knowledge, as they say, is power and the Australian property market is no exception to this.

Take a Break From Sitting 23.5 Hours Per Day.

I wasn’t much of a health nut up until about 3 years ago. Sure I wasn’t exactly out of shape thanks to my innate ability to not gain weight but I wasn’t exactly fit either. Sure I had done 3 years of martial arts prior to that but overall my level of activity was pretty low. Today however you’ll find me working out about 5 times per week, drowning myself in supplements (although I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone, I’m just a nutter experimenting to see if these things work) and being in the best physical form of my life. Since starting down this path I’ve become an advocate for exercise as being some of the best medicine you can get, but I’ve always had trouble of convincing people otherwise.

This video, which I tweeted about last week, puts it all into perspective:

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There’s a mounting body of evidence that even small amounts of exercise, as little as 92 minutes per week, is enough to extend life expectancy by 3 years. So if you’re questioning whether or not you have the time to do something ask yourself this, can you take a break from sitting/lying down for 23.5 hours a day in order to improve your quality of life significantly? If you’re answer is no leave me a comment below, because I can’t fathom the reasons why you can’t spare that time.

Stratolaunch1

Stratolaunch Systems: What You Get When You Cross SpaceX, Scaled Composites and Dynetics.

The retirement of the Shuttle, whilst leaving the USA without any means with which to deliver humans or cargo to the International Space Station, was necessary to bring about the next evolution in the space industry. In the lead up to its retirement many entrepreneurs saw this as an opportunity to crack into a market that was once only for government superpowers and the contractors that serviced them. Today the private space industry can count dozens of companies vying for a piece of the final frontier and the coming decade is looking ever more bright for those of us who have aspirations that reach past the comforts of our home world.

It seems to be a common thread amongst many entrepreneurs that whilst they may have made their fortunes here on terra firma their eyes were always gazing heavenward. Just off the top of my head I can name Elon Musk (SpaceX, made his fortunes through PayPal), Robert Bigelow (Bigelow Aerospace, chain hotel giant) and now we can also count Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) amongst their ranks as he’s founded a new space company called Stratolaunch:

Stratolaunch Systems will bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads and, eventually, human
missions. Plans call for a first flight within five years. The air-launch-to-orbit system will mean lower costs, greater safety, and more
flexibility and responsiveness than is possible today with ground-based systems. Stratolaunch’s quick turnaround between launches
will enable new orbital missions as well as break the logjam of missions queued up for launch facilities and a chance at space.

Stratolaunch isn’t like your traditional private space company who’s out to develop their own launch system in order to bring costs down. No, instead they’re more of a systems integrator combining technology from (in my opinion) all the right places. Their booster will be made by SpaceX, their carrier plane will be made by Scaled Composites (of SpaceShipOne fame) and the systems integration will be done Dynetics. It’s a very Microsofty way of doing things and all of the companies they’ve selected have a good history of delivering on the capabilities they set out to achieve, so this is definitely a recipe for success.

Their launch system is intriguing as well and not just because its another iconic Rutan design. Just like SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne the Stratolaunch system is made up of a carrier craft and a rocket with the payload attached. Now long time readers will know that whilst air launched rockets are a good way to get into sub-orbital trajectories the rule of 6 (Mach 6 and 60,000 feet is 6% of the required energy to get to orbit) means that they’re not terribly effective for larger payloads. However the scale of the Stratolaunch system is quite phenomenal and is beyond anything that’s been attempted with this kind of system previously.

For starters the carrier craft will be the largest aircraft that’s ever flown. Now that’s quite a claim to fame as the largest aircraft ever built (barring the Spruce Goose, which is actually smaller despite its larger wingspan) is the Antonov An225. The An225 is a Russian craft designed to carry oversized payloads and there’s a brilliant shot in the link that shows it carrying Russia’s Buran Shuttle to give you an idea just how massive the thing is. The Stratolaunch carrier will dwarf that craft considerably weighing almost twice as much with well over double the thrust from the more modern engines. Combining this all together nets you a plane capable of carrying a staggering 490,000 pounds (~222,260 kgs) of payload. For it’s intended purpose that makes the Stratolaunch system capable of delivering some significant payloads.

Since SpaceX will be designing the booster we can assume it will be a middle of the road rocket between the Falcon 1 and the Falcon 9. My back of the envelope calculations using the Falcon 9 and scaling it back to the maximum payload of the Stratolaunch system puts the payload capability to LEO at 15,333lbs or about 7 tons. Considering the launch system is a reusable craft its conceivable that Stratolaunch could drive costs down considerably through economies of scale thanks to the (I assume) quick turn around times for launching from the carrier craft. I’ll also bet that the USA military will have a keen eye on this entire system as well since it’s capabilities could be quite useful to them.

I think Allen is onto a winner here with this kind of design and it has a lot of potential to change the small to medium payload game. Some of the technical feats they’re out to accomplish are truly inspiring and I’ll be waiting anxiously for them to come to fruition.

Howard, Plimer and The Folly of Climate Change Skepticism.

I’ll admit that for quite a long time I too was skeptical about the whole climate change movement. I attribute this to being ignorant of most of the science around the matter basing my opinion off “facts” I had heard over the course of my lifetime without bothering to look them up. The rise of my inner skeptic changed that however, taking an axe to many of my beliefs and forcing me to verify everything before I dared say that it was true. Today there is zero doubt in my mind that climate change is happening, it is affecting us in serious ways and, most importantly, we are to blame for it.

I will forgive anyone who dismisses me out of hand as just another blogger ranting about something, that’s fair enough. Realistically you have no reason to believe me at all, what with my qualifications placing me as far away from being an authority on this matter as most of the public. However I will make the point that my view closely echoes that of the greater scientific community which includes many people far more qualified than myself (and indeed most others who comment on this subject) in matters of climate change. It’s a common misconception that the science is still out on whether or not we’re the cause of the recent changes in our climate, but the truth is anything but that. 

Taking the figures presented here into consideration you can see why there’s a lot of confusion on this matter. Among the general public the acceptance of anthropogenic climate change is around 50~60%, a majority but enough to cause confusion amongst the uninformed. When you select for scientists (which includes people who’s area of expertise is not climatology) that number jumps up to around 70~80%. As we further select for climatologists we see that number soar to 90% with those who are actively publishing on the subject bringing the number to a staggering 97%. If 97% of all doctors told you that asbestos caused cancer you’d sure as hell believe them, so it still boggles me as to why people think otherwise.

It’s not helped when public figures jump on the climate change skepticism bandwagon either. Today as I was driving into work I caught whiff of a story that former prime minister of Australia, John Howard, was supporting a book that promotes kids questioning climate change:

Professor Plimer launched the book, a follow up to his book Heaven and Earth, at the Sydney Mining Club.

The new work includes 101 questions which it says students can use to challenge their teachers on climate science.

Mr Howard helped launch the book and last night said the “progressive left” had a “grip on the commanding heights of education instruction in this country”.

The book, How to get Expelled From School, comes to us courtesy of Ian Plimer. He’s a well published geologist and a director of 4 mining companies. He’s gone on the offensive against creationism in the past so you’d think that I’d be one of his supporters. Unfortunately, whilst Plimer does agree that climate change is occurring, he does not believe that humans are to blame for it. His stance is that the current scientific community ignores the geological evidence that says the current period of warming is a natural occurrence and that natural sources of carbon dioxide contribute far more than humans ever could.

These stances are, to say the least, unscientific.

One of Plimer’s main arguments was that volcanoes, including undersea ones which have been “drastically underrepresented” in current studies, contribute far more carbon dioxide than humans ever do. The reality is quite the opposite with human contributions to global carbon dioxide being on the order of 130 times greater than that of all volcanoes, including those ones under the sea. This has been confirmed several times over by independent bodies so the idea that humans are somehow producing less carbon than natural sources has no basis in reality and is little more than conjecture on the part of Plimer.

Indeed Plimer’s previous publication on the matter of climate change,  Heaven and Earth — Global Warming: The Missing Science, was met with heavy criticism from the scientific community. Like many climate change skeptics Plimer fell prey to the idea that the climate change movement is somehow a conspiracy, usually of the form of transferring wealth away from the rich west in order to prop up the third world. To say he has a vested interest in spreading such ideas is putting it lightly, as a director of 4 mining companies sowing seeds of disinformation about his industry’s impact on the world ensures his businesses can continue as they always have. I could go on, but there’s already a substantial amount of information about the error of Plimer’s ways out there, enough for anyone to conclude that he’s not to be trusted on this subject.

In the end it comes down to who you trust more, a lone geologist with a vested interest in denying humans are responsible for climate change or the greater scientific community? Just because someone has a rational approach to some subjects does necessarily mean they’ll apply that same rationality to others, especially when there’s money on the line. Howard’s support of Plimer’s views is disappointing but it shows that there’s little wiggle room for dissent when you’re stuck on the right. It’s a shame really as even Tony Abbott has finally come around and I would’ve thought he’d be the tough nut to crack.