Putting things into space isn’t an easy thing to do. The amount of energy required to reach orbital speeds means that we really only have one option available to us: strapping whatever it is to a giant barrel of explosives and setting light to it. Whilst the science of this is now well understood it doesn’t mean that we’re immune from mistakes, especially those which arise from the inherently complex systems that these rockets have become. Indeed just last week we saw the even a long time space contractor, one with numerous launches under its belt, can suffer a catastrophic accident without any indication that things were going to go wrong. Unfortunately tragedy has struck another private space venture with Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashing, killing one of the test pilots.
This unfortunately isn’t the first tragedy to befall this project. Back in 2007, shortly after their X-prize winning journey and subsequent partnership with Virgin, Scaled Composites had a fatal accident that killed 3 of their engineers. Whilst this wasn’t a flight accident, it was a catastrophic failure of the nitrous oxide tank that the ship uses, it did make many people question just how safe this kind of craft could be made. To their credit the subsequent 7 years were incident free with the prototype undergoing numerous tests both in the air and back down on the ground. Last week however that streak was broken when the VSS Enterprise broke up over the desert in California, killing one of the pilots and destroying the craft.
Initial reports centred on the fact that SpaceShipTwo was testing a new fuel mixture which could have potentially exploded causing the craft to fail. For a motor like the one in SpaceShipTwo, namely a hybrid rocket engine, this is highly unlikely as the fuel doesn’t have the same capability to combust explosively as its liquid cousins do. Had the changes been with the oxidizer or tank design then I’d be more inclined to blame them for failure. Indeed current reports have shown that the motor has been found fully intact at the crash site, indicating that a mid air explosion was not the cause of the crash.
Investigators are now focusing on the events leading up to the crash, including the possibility that the wings were unlocked too early into their flight. SpaceShipTwo has an unique system for its re-entry, it’s wings fold up in a process called feathering that ensures it comes back down belly-first. Engaging this system is a 2 stage process, requiring the pilots to first unlock the wings and then engage the feathering process. Initial reports have suggested that the wings were unlocked during powered ascent although it’s still too early to say if that was the cause of the crash or not.
To his credit Richard Branson has committed himself to the project even in the face of this disaster which means we’ll still be seeing SpaceShipTwo make flights into space sometime in the future. This will definitely set them back but I’m sure that the new versions of the ship will ensure that an event of this nature cannot happen again. It’s an unfortunate reminder that things like this still carry some form of risk with them and those who dare to be on the frontiers like this really are risking their lives for our greater good.
I had given up on writing on BitCoin because of the rather toxic community of people that seemed to appear whenever I wrote about it. They never left comments here, no instead they’d cherry pick my articles and then never attempt to read any of my further writings on the subject and then labelling me as a BitCoin cynic. It had gotten to the point where I simply couldn’t stomach most BitCoin articles because of the ensuing circlejerks that would follow afterwards where any valid criticism would be met with derision usually only found in Call of Duty matches. But the last couple months of stratospheric growth and volatility have had me pulling at my self impost reigns, just wanting to put these zealots in their place.
Since I can’t find anything better to post about it seems that today will be that day.
The last time I posted about BitCoins they were hovering around $25 (this was at the start of the year, mind you), a price that was not seen for a long time previously. It began a somewhat steady tend upwards after that however it then had another great jump into the $100~$200 range something I long expected to be completely unsustainable. It managed to keep around that area for a long time however but the end of October saw it begin an upward trend that didn’t show many signs of stopping until recently and the past couple weeks have been an insane roller coaster ride of fluctuating prices that no currency should ever undergo.
Much of the initial growth was attributed to the fact that China was now becoming interested in BitCoins and thus there was a whole new market of capital being injected into the economy. Whilst this might have fuelled the initial bump we saw back in the end of October the resulting stratospheric rise, where the price doubled in under a month, could simply not be the result of new investors buying into the market. The reasoning behind this is the fact that the transaction volumes did not escalate at a similar pace meaning those ridiculously unsustainable growth rates were driven by speculative investors looking to increase the value of their BitCoin portfolios, not a growing investor base.
The anointed champions of BitCoin won’t have a bar of that however, even when the vast majority of forums were flooded with people who were crying when they cashed out at $400, lamenting the fact they could have had 3 times more if they’d only waited another week. As I’ve said dozens of times in the past the fact that the primary use of BitCoin right now is speculative investment is antithetical to its aspirations to become a true currency. Indeed the fact that it’s deflationary means that it inherently encourages this kind of action rather than being a medium for the transfer of wealth between parties. Indeed the inflationary aspect of fiat currencies, which BitCoiners seem to hate for some reason, encourages people to spend it rather than simply hanging on to it.
The flow on effect of this rampant speculation is the wild fluctuations in value which make using it incredibly difficult for businesses. Indeed any business that was selling goods for BitCoin prior to the current crash has lost money on any goods they sold simply because of the fluctuations in price. Others would argue that typically the retailers are better off because the price of BitCoin trends upwards but history has shown that you simply can’t rely on that and it’s guaranteed that unless you exchange your BitCoins for hard currency immediately after purchases you’re likely to hit a period of instability where you’ll end up on the losing end of the equation.
Whilst I’m sure I’ve lost all the True BitCoin Believers at this point I feel I have to make the point that I think the idea of cryptocurrencies are great as they’d be a great alternate method for transferring wealth across the world. BitCoin has some fundamental issues, many of which can’t be solved by a simple work around here or there, and as such whilst I won’t advocate its wholesale abandonment I would encourage the development of alternatives to address these issues. Unfortunately none have been particularly forthcoming but as BitCoin continues to draw more attention to itself I can’t imagine they’re too far off and then hopefully we can have the decentralized method of transferring wealth all BitCoiners like to talk about.
There seems to be a prevailing idea that the price of BitCoins is somehow intrinsically linked to the overall confidence in the use of the nascent cryptocurrency. If you’ve read any of my previous articles on BitCoin you’ll know that I strongly believe that that isn’t the case and indeed a rising price is usually a signal of speculative investors gaming the market to turn a quick profit more than it being an indication of market confidence. Indeed I was most bullish on the idea of BitCoin when its price stop fluctuating which meant it was far less risky for people to use it as a wealth transfer vehicle, especially for those who are taking the risk of using them in their business.
Now I’ll be completely honest here, when I saw the first stirrings of an upward tick in BitCoin’s price I wasn’t too worried that it would lead to a speculative bubble. Sure it was dangerously close to the same ramp up just a year previous but I felt that the higher transaction volume, larger amount of wealth contained in the BitCoin network and hopefully the market’s long term memory would ensure that any growth in the price was purely organic and sustainable. Of course this discounted external actors with larger amounts of capital working to skew the market in order to turn a profit but I felt that the speculators had had their fun last year and had moved onto other, more lucrative endeavours.
Looks like I was wrong.
As you can see from the above graph the BitCoin price took a turn for the volatile side around the middle of July. Since then there’s been several spikes in trading volume most of which have coincided with a jump in the price. Whilst there appears to be islands of stability that last about a week it never lasted long before another trading bout would push the price upwards. This culminated in a peak price of about $14 late last week quickly followed by a swift downward correction in price with it stabilizing around the $10 mark. As I’ve said before this kind of price volatility is very much at odds with BitCoin being a proper currency and it’s unfortunate to see history repeating itself here again.
Interestingly though the correction in price may actually be due to dwindling confidence, but not in the BitCoin idea itself. The first lawsuit involving BitCoins and the failed wallet service Bitcoinica was lodged just days prior to the value taking a swift nose dive. This was most likely exacerbated by people attempting to cash out at the current peak as you can see the transaction volume on that day was several times higher than the average for the preceding couple of months. Bitcoinica, unfortunately, isn’t the only story of BitCoin based services that have endured failure and this could have very easily shaken the market enough to attempt to dump out early to avoid losing all their value.
The underlying cause to much of the volatility that the BitCoin market experiences is the relatively small amount of value that it captures. Whilst as a whole the BitCoin market is valued at some $97 million (total number of BitCoins in existence multiplied by current price) the total transaction volume on any given day usually only averages $800,000. That’s incredibly open to manipulation and showcases just how crazy those peak trading days, the ones where the value changing hands is on the order of 3 times the average, really are.
Now I don’t pretend to have a solution to this but a new startup called BitInstant might have the right idea when it comes to injecting more value into the market and hence (hopefully) reducing its volatility.
BitInstant is a clever little idea using prepaid MasterCard debit cards which are then backed with either real US currency or BitCoins. The cards can be recharged either by traditional means or by using a BitCoin address that’s printed on the back of the card. They make this even easier by also including a QR code on the back which would enable users to transfer BitCoins between them using things like BitCoin enabled apps on their smart phones. The details on it are still being finalized but this has the potential to take BitCoins from their current niche operations to a much larger scale and hopefully with that bring a lot more stability to the BitCoin price.
BitCoin purists will probably detest the cards since they will require some level of formal identification for them to be able to use it, thus eliminating the benefits of anonymity, but I don’t believe BitInstant’s product is aimed at them. Indeed it seems to be more of a way to make BitCoin function more like a traditional currency as currently it really is only for the technical elite or those who have a need to transfer funds in a completely untraceable manner. Giving people a physical card they can use anywhere will go a long way to making BitCoins much more palatable for the masses, something that all the current BitCoin services I feel have failed to do.
BitInstant is just one piece in the larger puzzle though and realistically its going to take many, many BitCoin enabled services to make it viable as a currency. Good news is that appears to be happening with BitInstant being just the latest contender to throw their hat into the BitCoin ring. Hopefully this means that the peaks and troughs in BitCoin’s trading price will soon be a lot more tame and then I’ll stop harping on about how BitCoin’s price is the last thing we should be thinking about if we’re serious about it being a currency.
This blog has had a variety of homes over the past few years although you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. Initially it was hosted on a Windows 2008 server I built myself, sitting behind the tenuous link of my ADSL connection. Don’t get me wrong this is a great way to get started if you’ve got admin roots like me but inevitably my ADSL connection would go down or people would just plain give up waiting for it to load, what with my upstream only able to handle 100KB/s. Still for most of its life the blog remained in that configuration as I couldn’t find a hosting provider I was happy with.
Of course the day came when WordPress decided to stop playing nice with IIS and started returning internal server 500 errors. Thankfully it would usually right itself after a reboot but it was always a count down to the time when it would start erroring out again and being the busy man that I am I never had the time to troubleshoot it. Eventually I caved and set up an Ubuntu box to host it, figuring that all my woes would be solved by switching to the platform that everyone expects WordPress to run on. I’ll be honest it was a good change as I could finally use all the caching plugins, and traffic took an upward trend thanks to the faster loading times.
Unfortunately that didn’t last particularly long either as whilst the blog was particularly zippy the Linux VM would sometimes stop responding to requests and would only start behaving itself after a reboot. The cause of this I’m still not sure of as the VM was still up but it just refused to keep on serving web pages, including all the funky admin tools my PHPMyAdmin and Webmin. It was around this time I found myself in possession of a shiny new VPS that was only hosting my fledgling app Lobaco so I figured a small time WordPress blog wouldn’t be too much for it to handle. Indeed it wasn’t and the blog has been steaming along on it ever since.
However the unfortunate internal server errors returned eventually and whilst I was able to get around them with the trusty old reboot a couple times they became more persistent until I eventually couldn’t get rid of them. After digging around in the event logs for a while I eventually stumbled across references to php_wincache.dll which upon googling lead me to posts like these, showing I wasn’t alone in this internal server error hell. Disabling the plugin fixed the problem and all was well with the world. Of course many months later I found myself trying to optimize my blog again and I started looking at the things I had removed in order to keep this thing up and running.
The first was the caching plug-ins which are unequivocally the best thing for performance on a dynamic PHP site. The vast majority of WordPress caching plug-ins don’t play nice with Windows as they make the assumption they’re on Linux and attempt to write files in all sorts of whacky locations that simply don’t exist. WP-SuperCache, although still suffering from some Linux based assumptions, can be wrangled into working properly with IIS and has been doing so for the past couple months. I also found that WinCache had been updated since I had unceremoniously removed it from my php.ini file so I decided to give it another try. Again everything was rosy for a time, that was until last weekend.
I fired up my blog on Saturday to find the home page coming up fine but I was logged out for some reason. This happens from time to time so I wasn’t worried but trying to login left me with the dreaded internal server 500 error. Poking around it looked like any non-cached page was failing meaning the majority of my site was unavailable. The event logs showed the dreaded WinCache dll failing again and disabling it brought my website back around again. It seems, at least for now, that I’ll have to give WinCache a miss as the last update to it was almost 3 months ago and its past performance has led me to believe that it’s not entirely stable.
So if you’re crazy like me, trying to run WordPress on IIS and all, and you’re WordPress blog seems to take a dive more often than not make sure to get rid of WinCache at least until they get their act together. I haven’t delved into my previous VMs to see if it was the culprit back then but my most recent set of problems can be traced directly back to WinCache wrecking havoc by attempting to cache PHP objects and if this post can save 1 person the headache of trying to track it down I’ll consider it a huge success.
Russia’s space program has a reputation for sticking to ideas once they’ve got them right. Their Soyuz (pronounced sah-yooz) craft are a testament to this, having undergone 4 iterations since their initial inception but still sharing many of the base characteristics that were developed decades ago. The Soyuz family are also the longest serving series of spacecraft in history and with it only having 2 fatal accidents in that time they are well regarded as the safest spacecraft around. It’s no wonder then that 2 of the Soyuz capsules remain permanently docked to the International Space Station to serve as escape pods in the even of a catastrophe, a testament to the confidence the space industry has with them.
Recent news however has brought other parts of the Russia space program into question, namely their Proton launch stack. Last week saw a Proton launched communications satellite ending up in the wrong orbit when the upper orbital insertion model failed to guide it to the proper geostationary orbit. Then just this week saw another Proton launched payload, this time a Progress craft bound for the ISS, crashed shortly after launch:
The robotic Progress 44 cargo ship blasted off atop a Soyuz U rocket at 9 a.m. EDT (1300 GMT) from the central Asian spaceport of Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and was due to arrive at the space station on Friday.
“Unfortunately, about 325 seconds into flight, shortly after the third stage was ignited, the vehicle commanded an engine shutdown due to an engine anomaly,” NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini told reporters today. “The vehicle impacted in the Altai region of the Russian Federation.”
Now an unmanned spacecraft failing after launch wouldn’t be so much of a problem usually (apart from investigating why it happened) but the reason why this particular failure has everyone worried is the similarity between the human carrying Soyuz capsule and the Progress cargo craft that was on top of it. In essence they’re an identical craft with the Progress having a fuel pod instead of a crew capsule allowing it to refuel the ISS on orbit. A failure then with the Progress craft calls into question the Soyuz as well, especially when there’s been 2 launches so close to each other that have experienced problems.
From a crew safety perspective however the Soyuz should still be considered a safe craft. If an event such as the one that happened this week had a Soyuz rather than a Progress on top of it the crew would have been safe thanks to the launch escape system that flies on top of all manned Soyuz capsules. When a launch abort event occurs these rockets fire and pull the capsule safely away from the rest of the launch stack and thanks to the Soyuz’s design it can then descend back to earth on its usual ballistic trajectory. It’s not the softest of landings however, but it’s easily survivable.
The loss of cargo bound for the ISS does mean that some difficult decisions have to be made. Whilst they’re not exactly strapped for supplies at the moment (current estimates have them with a year of breathing room) the time required to do a full investigation into the failure does push other resupply and crew replacement missions back significantly. Russia currently has the only launch system capable of getting humans to and from the ISS and since they’re only a 3 person craft this presents the very real possibility that the ISS crew will be scaled back. Whilst I’m all aflutter for SpaceX their manned flights aren’t expected to come online until the middle of the decade and they’re the most advanced option at this point. If the problems with the Proton launch stack can be sorted expediently then the ISS may remain fully crewed, but only time will tell if this is the case.
The Soyuz and Progress series have proven to be some of the most reliable spacecraft developed to date and I have every confidence that Russia will be able to overcome these problems as they have done so in the past. Incidents like this demonstrate how badly commercialization of rudimentary space activities is required, especially when one of the former space powers doesn’t seem that interested in space anymore. Thankfully the developing private space industry is more than up to the challenge and we’re only a few short years away from these sorts of problems boiling down to switching manufacturers, rather than curtailing our efforts in space completely.
My opinion hasn’t changed much in the month since I wrote my first post on how I think BitCoin is a pyramid scheme, ultimately destined to unravel unceremoniously when all the speculative investors decide to pull the plug and cash out of the BitCoin market. Still the discussion that that post spawned was quite enlightening, forcing me to clarify many points both in my own head and here on my blog. Since then there’s been a deluge of other blogs and press chiming in with similar opinions about BitCoin and how its intended purpose is far from its reality. There’s been enough noise about BitCoin’s issues that last week saw the first major dip in the exchange rate, and it hasn’t been smooth sailing since.
The image above is the historic trading price for BitCoins to USD on the biggest BitCoin exchange Mt.Gox. The BitCoin “Black Friday” can be seen as the first dip following the massive peak at around $30. Since that day BitCoin has been shedding value constantly with the latest bid offers hovering around the $18 mark. This is not the kind of volatility you see in something you’d class as a currency where single percentage changes are cause for concern and usually government intervention. In the space of a week BitCoin has shed almost half of its peak value which in any sane market would have seen suspension of trade to prevent a fire sale of the asset. The market isn’t showing any signs of recovering either as the market depth report from Mt.Gox shows:
There’s a very large discrepancy between the majority of seller’s idea of how much BitCoin is worth and what the market is willing to pay for it. The vast majority of sellers are looking to cash out at the mid-twenties range when the highest buy offer doesn’t even break the $20 mark. Any rational actor in this sort of market would be looking to get out before the market wipes out all of their value completely and for what its worth I believe the main speculators have probably already withdrawn from the market which is what triggered the initial dip in price. Liquidity in the BitCoin market is fast drying up and that will only serve to drive the price back to (or even below) its initial stable equilibrium.
On the surface this would appear to be the beginning of the end for BitCoin since confidence in the currency is rapidly disappearing with all the accumulated wealth that’s being lost to the diving market. However whilst many who were hoping to make their riches with a nascent currency might be finding themselves short changed the diving price of BitCoins means that those who were working against the currencies intentions, I.E. those who were using it as a speculative investment vehicle, are more likely to leave the market alone now that it’s been pumped and dumped. Once the price retreats back to more stable levels BitCoin could then start functioning as it is supposed to, as a vehicle for wealth that has no central authority regulating it.
It’s not going to be an easy road for BitCoin and its adopters though as confidence in the currency has been dashed with even some of its earliest supporters withdrawing from it. Mining will then no longer be a profit driven enterprise, instead run by those who support the idea and large companies like Mt.Gox who run exchanges. Once the idea that BitCoin’s value would ever be increasing has dissipated we may finally see a point where BitCoins are primarily used as a vehicle for value transfer and not speculative investment. It will probably be another month or two before we reach a new stable equilibrium in the BitCoin market but after that I might finally stop harping on about it being an elaborate (though probably unintentional) scheme.
This still doesn’t detract from the concentration of wealth for early adopters in the BitCoin ecosystem but once their incentive to hoard currency has vanished then the impact of their vast BitCoin stashes means a whole lot less than it did during the speculative price explosion. This will encourage them to put those BitCoins into circulation adding much needed liquidity to the market and hopefully restoring some more faith in the system. Time will tell if this works out however as with market volumes so low on the BitCoin exchanges price manipulation is bound to happen from time to time and realistically can only be solved by having wider adoption. I’m still not convinced that BitCoin is a safe place for any of my wealth currently but once its recovered from this rapidly bursting bubble I may revisit it, should the want arise.
So it turns out that my blog has been down for the last 2 days and I, in my infinite wisdom, failed to notice this. It seems like no matter how I set this thing up it will end up causing some problem that inveitably brings the whole server to its knees, killing it quietly whilst I go about my business. Now this isn’t news to anyone who’s read my blog for any length of time but it eerily coinciding with my main machine “forgetting” it’s main partition, leaving me with no website and a machine that refused to boot.
Realistically I’m a victim of my own doing since my main machine is getting a bit long in the tooth (almost 3 years now by my guess) but even before it hit the 6 month mark I was getting problems. Back then it was some extremely obscure issue that only seemed to crop up in certain games where I couldn’t get more than 30 seconds into playing them before the whole machine froze and repeatedly played the last second of sound until I pulled the plug on it. That turned out to be RAM requiring more volts than it said it did and everything seemed to run fine until I hit a string of hard drives that magically forgot partitions (yes, in much the same fashion as my current one did). Most recently it has taken to hating having all of its RAM slots filled even though both of them work fine in isolation. Maybe it’s time this bugger went the way of old yeller.
Usually a rebuild isn’t much of a hassle for someone like me. It’s a pain to be sure but the pay off at the end is a much leaner and meaner rig that runs everything faster than it did before. This time around however it also meant configuring my development environment again whilst also making sure that all my code didn’t suffer in the apparent partition failure. I’m glad to say that whilst it did kill a good couple hours I was otherwise planning to spend lazing about I have got everything functional again and no code was harmed in the exercise.
You might be wondering why the hell I’m bother to post this then since it’s so much of a non-event. Well for the most part it’s to satisfy that part of me that likes to blog every day (no matter how hard I try to quell him) but also it’s to make sure the whole thing is running again and that Google is aware that my site hasn’t completely disappeared. So for those of you who were expecting something more I’m deeply sorry, but until the new year comes along I’m not sure how much blogging I’m going to be doing. Let alone any well thought out pieces that I tend to hit at least a couple times a week 😉