Science & Technology

When Worlds Collide

Some 130 million years ago, in a galaxy far away, the smoldering cores of two collapsed stars smashed into each other. The resulting explosion sent a burst of gamma rays streaming through space and rippled the very fabric of the universe.

On Aug. 17, those signals reached Earth — and sparked an astronomy revolution.

The distant collision created a “kilonova,” an astronomical marvel that scientists have never seen before. It was the first cosmic event in history to be witnessed via both traditional optical telescopes, which can observe electromagnetic radiation like gamma rays, and gravitational wave detectors, which sense the wrinkles in space-time produced by distant cataclysms. The detection, which involved thousands of researchers working at more than 70 laboratories and telescopes on every continent, heralds a new era in space research known as “multimessenger astrophysics.”

The Great American Solar Eclipse Day

Although I am not in the path of the 100% eclipse, we will have about 96% coverage here in Winston-Salem.  Almost no clouds as I write this at 11:40 a.m.

Around 1:15 p.m. Eastern time, the total solar eclipse will first reach Oregon’s coast. Then it will race for the next 90 or so minutes over 13 more states: Idaho, Montana (barely), Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa (hardly), Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and finally South Carolina.

At about 2:49 p.m. Eastern time in South Carolina, some lucky souls in the Palmetto State’s marshes could be the last on American soil to experience the total eclipse. Just after 4 p.m. Eastern, the partial eclipse will end and all of America will again be under the full August sun.

This is the NASA live feed:

And WaPo:

UPDATE 1:16 EST —  Picture of totality in Oregon

My pictures to follow…..

UPDATE at 1:52pm EST : …. or maybe not.  Clouds moved in fast.  I saw the beginning of it.

3:00pm EST — Clouds moved about 20 minutes before “totality” here.  A nice yellow tint bathed Winston-Salem:

People on top of Winston-Salem highrise watching eclipse

Is WikiTribune The Answer To “Fake News”?

Nieman Lab:

Good things can happen when a crowd goes to work on trying to figure out a problem in journalism. At the same time, completely crowdsourced news investigations can go bad without oversight — as when, for example, a group of Redditors falsely accused someone of being the Boston Marathon bomber. An entirely crowdsourced investigation with nobody to oversee it or pay for it will probably go nowhere. At the same time, trust in the media is low and fact-checking efforts have become entwined with partisan politics.

So what would happen if you combined professional journalism with fact checking by the people? On Monday evening, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales launched Wikitribune, an independent site (not affiliated with Wikipedia or the Wikimedia Foundation) “that brings journalists and a community 
of volunteers together” in a combination that Wales hopes will combat fake news online — initially in English, then in other languages.

The site is launching with a crowdfunding campaign to fund the first Wikitribune journalists (the default amount is $10 a month, but users can donate any amount they wish) “with the first issue of Wikitribune following shortly.” The Wikitribune page said that the goal is to hire 10 journalists.

The idea is that the professional journalists will be paid to write “global news stories,” while volunteer contributors will “vet the facts, helps make sure the language is factual and neutral, and will to the maximum extent possible be transparent about the source of news posting full transcripts, video, and audio of interviews. In this way Wikitribune aims to combat the increasing proliferation of online fake news.”

The Wiki concept is always interesting, but the old adage of computers remains true: “garbage in, garbage out”.  Crowdsourcing, as the article suggests, is not necessarily the best way to get at truths, and we just had an election where huge percentages of people swallowed false news line and hook.  So just how will WikiTribune deal with this?  Described above, it just sounds like professional journalists being edited by, well, everybody.  A lot of sniping about semantics.

And even if the changes are substantive, at what point in the never-ending editing and rewriting process does an article cease to be by the person who originally wrote it? The answer to this question will have to be reflected in WikiTribune’s design. If the model is anything like Wikipedia’s page history, the level of transparency that is necessary can make it incredibly time-consuming for readers to synthesize the true source of what they’re reading.

And suppose journalist Jones quotes Congressman Smith, and Congressman Smith wants to retract? Or alter slightly the words he said? He can just go into Wikitribune and edit.  And who is to say who is right?

Still, Wikipedia, despite having accuracy problems here and there, does actually self-correct over time, and that’s a good starting model. The question is whether or not “news” has the time for that kind of self-correction before it stops being news.


New Planet Discovered Around Nearest Star

…. and it might be a habitable planet.  As astronomy news goes, this is HUGE!

The planet, called Proxima Centauri b or just Proxima b (exoplanets are given their star’s name plus a lower case letter in order of discovery, starting with “b”), orbits Proxima every 11.2 days. It has a mass of no less than 1.3 times the Earth’s, so if it’s rock and metal like Earth it’s only a bit bigger. It’s a mere 7.3 million kilometers from the star — a lot closer than Earth’s distance from the Sun of 150 million km! — but Proxima is so faint and cool it receives about two-thirds the amount of light and heat the Earth does. That means that it’s in Proxima’s habitable zone: It’s possible (more or less) that liquid water could exist on its surface.

The European Southern Observatory put this together:

Great Perseids This Week, Weather Permitting

This year’s Perseid meteor shower may have a rare outburst on the night of Thursday, Aug. 11 into the 12th, with lots of easy-to-spot activity as the earth plows through a denser than usual part of the stream, creating as many as 200 shooting stars an hour. So even if you’re not patient enough to wait for the normal every-minute-or-so show, you’ll have an extra chance for some spectacular action at this peak time.

Deserts, mountain tops, campsites, national parks, cruise ships and rural areas offer a big advantage, because the less ambient light, the more meteors you’ll be able to see. But if the weather cooperates, even at a window in a city it’s possible to enjoy the show.

The current half-full moon  sets around midnight, so viewing will be optimal right after that. Your eyes will take a few minutes to adjust to the darkness, so don’t give up on it if at first if you don’t see much. You don’t need a telescope or binocs; in fact, that might just cramp the vast, overall experience. The meteors will cross the sky about one every minute from near the constellations of Cassiopeia and Perseus in the northeast.

But remember: meteor showers are random, so you may see several of these “shooting stars”  in a few seconds, then nothing for a few more minutes. The unexpected is part of the fun.

No, Greta Van Susteran Is Not The “Smart” One At Fox News

The last paragraph of the article she links to:

Though the encounter took place more than 10 months ago, New Horizons is still beaming flyby data home, and likely won’t be done doing so until this coming fall, mission team members have said.

Space, it turns out, is very big.  Pluto is far away — very far away, more than 30 times Earth’s distance from the Sun — so New Horizons’ radio signal is weak. Weak signal means low data rates: at the moment, New Horizons can transmit at most 1 kilobit per second. (Note that spacecraft communications are typically measured in bits, not bytes; 1 kilobit is only 125 bytes.) Even at these low data rates, only the Deep Space Network’s very largest, 70-meter dishes can detect New Horizons’ faint signal.

Not hard to find this out if you know how to use Google, or even read your source material, Greta.

MAB 370 Update

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 was traveling from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 227 passengers and 12 crew members on board when it disappeared from radar shortly after takeoff on March 8, 2014. Radar tracking showed the plane made at least three unexpected turns without the pilots signaling an emergency, and hourly satellite signals suggested the plane headed to the remote Indian Ocean before running out of fuel.

An international search effort to find the aircraft turned up nothing — no debris, no bodies, no oil slick.

However, on December 27, 2015 and February 27 2016, two items of debris were independently found, approximately 220km apart, on the Mozambique coast.  Assistance from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) was requested by the Malaysian Government in the formal identification of the items to determine if they came from the Malaysian Airlines Berhad (MAB) Boeing 777 aircraft, registered 9M-MRO, operating as MH370.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which is investigating the disappearance of flight MH370, concluded in its report today the following:

Part No. 1 was a flap track fairing segment, almost certainly from the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 aircraft, registered 9M-MRO.

Part No. 2 was a horizontal stabiliser panel segment, almost certainly from the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 aircraft, registered 9M-MRO.

The key to the findings surround some stenciled code on the parts — the stencils make it clear that these are like;y parts associated with a Malaysian Arilines Boeing 777 craft.  Some details (click to embiggen):


At the time of writing, ongoing work was being conducted with respect to the marine ecology identification as well as testing of material samples. The results from these tests will be provided to the Malaysian investigation team once complete.

Until now, the only other confirmed piece of debris from the Boeing 777 was a wing part that washed ashore on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion last year.  Authorities could not confirm the Reunion debris was from Malaysian Air (but it was pretty likely).

Taken together, the debris findings are consistent with the belief that MAB 370 crashed somewhere in a remote stretch of the southern Indian Ocean about 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) east of Mozambique. Authorities had predicted that any debris from the plane that isn’t on the ocean floor would eventually be carried by currents to the east coast of Africa. However, given the vast distances involved, the variability of winds and the time that has elapsed, it is impossible for experts to retrace the parts’ path back to where they first entered the water.

Love me some airplane forensics.

Palin Broaches The Subject Of Science And Fails

Oh, honey.  Don’t go there:

“Bill Nye is as much a scientist as I am,” Palin said at a Capitol Hill event held to roll out a film that aims to discredit climate scientists. “He’s a kids’ show actor; he’s not a scientist.

Bill Nye is a kids’ show host AND a scientist.  I mean,he’s not a PhD, but he has a BA in mechanical engineering and he teaches astronomy and ecology at Cornell.

And as for Palin’s scientific creds? Umm….

After graduating from high school in 1982, Palin enrolled at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Shortly after arriving in Hawaii, Palin transferred to Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu for a semester in the fall of 1982 and then to North Idaho College, a community college in Coeur d’Alene, for the spring and fall semesters of 1983 She enrolled at the University of Idaho in Moscow for an academic year starting in August 1984 and then attended Matanuska-Susitna College in Alaska in the fall of 1985. Palin returned to the University of Idaho in January 1986 and received her bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis in journalism in May 1987

So, like five colleges in five years for a B.A. in communications (with an emphasis in journalism — odd for a woman who couldn’t name a newspaper in front of Katie Couric).

Pretty sure Bill Nye is the go-to guy on science.

Apple And The FBI Order

Interesting little development going on in the tech/privacy world and, depending on who you believe, a possible turning point for the better/worse.

After the San Bernardino shootings, the FBI seized the iPhone used by shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. The FBI has a warrant to search the phone’s contents, and because it was Farook’s work phone, the FBI also has permission from the shooter’s employer, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, to search the device. Legally, the FBI can and should search this phone. That’s not up for debate. If the FBI gets a warrant to search a house and the people who own it say okay, there’s no ambiguity about whether it can search the house.

But if the FBI comes across a safe in that house, the warrant and permission do not mean it can force the company that manufactures the safe to create a special tool for opening its safes, especially a tool that would make other safes completely useless as secure storage. That’s the situation that Apple’s dealing with here.

The FBI obtained an order from a California district court on Tuesday ordering Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” in cracking Farook’s passcode. The court order doesn’t flat-out demand that Apple unlock the phone, which is an iPhone 5C running iOS 9. Instead, the judge is asking Apple to create a new, custom, terrorist-phone-specific version of its iOS software to help the FBI unlock the phone. Security researcher Dan Guido has a great analysis of why it is technically possible for Apple to comply and create this software. (It would not be if Farook had used an iPhone 6, because Apple created a special security protection called the Secure Enclave for its newer phones that cannot be manipulated by customizing iOS.)

Apple quickly said it would fight the judge’s order. Chief executive Tim Cook called it “an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers,” and said the order “has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.” He published a message emphasizing that the company can’t build a backdoor for one iPhone without screwing over security for the rest:

In today’s digital world, the “key” to an encrypted system is a piece of information that unlocks the data, and it is only as secure as the protections around it. Once the information is known, or a way to bypass the code is revealed, the encryption can be defeated by anyone with that knowledge.

The government suggests this tool could only be used once, on one phone. But that’s simply not true. Once created, the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.

Apple, Google and other technology firms in recent years have stepped up encryption — allowing only the customers to have “keys” to unlock their devices — claiming improved security and privacy is needed to maintain confidence in the digital world.

This has sparked a national discussion on weighing security against privacy.  Not a new debate — we’ve had that since 9/11.  But this relates to our smartphones, and so everyone has a strong opinion, it seems.  Republican candidates are coming down on the side of national security in a few that is somewhat contradictory of the anti-big-government stance they often take.  Again, nothing new there.

Let’s see if we can’t shake out this tree a little.

First off, here is the actual order.  Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym, a former federal prosecutor, relied on the All Writs Act, passed in 1789 (one of the first federal laws ever).  It has been used many times in the past by the government to require a third party to aid law enforcement in its investigation.

The order would require Apple (US) to create firmware to be loaded onto a specific phone to make it possible to do brute force password guessing. (Among a couple of other things, it would take away the maximum number of guesses to unlock the device.)

The significant thing about this case is that the FBI, minus any enforcing legislation, has gone and found itself a judge to order a company to do something.

Think about that — ‘ordering a company to do something’.  That is something arguably new in the current FBI approach.

The Apple case is remarkable in that it couches what the court views as “reasonable assistance” as basically breaking your own products.  Apple has quite rightly made the point that not only does this break company security and therefore customer privacy, but that if they create an exploit for the FBI, the vulnerability will be used by the likes of Putin and various repressive regimes.

Facebook, Twitter and Google have all voiced support for Apple‘s fight against a court order that Apple says would make iPhones less secure a,d it is not hard to understand why — they simply cannot run a global business if they are seen to do too many special favors for one government, the United States.

But is this really about privacy?  Do we as individuals really care about these things?  Let’s face it — we are now just little motors chuntering around creating metadata exhaust trails. The current conflict is not an argument about our privacy rights, since we seem to be content to leave ourselves all over the place (Facebook,. Twitter, etc.).  Rather, this might be a fight between governments and firms on how better to pin us down and hoover up the effluent we leave behind. You can see why they might all be getting testy about who gets what.

So I tend to think this is less about Apple preserving privacy for its owners, and more about it being seen in international quarters as subservient to the American government.  What will happen to the foreign markets of Google and Facebook and Apple and Android if it widely believe that one American judge can order these giant companies to invade one person’s privacy?

This is about the Benjamins just as much as about the privacy rights of people.

Gravitational Waves Discovered

You never know…. maybe they will be important some day.

Anyway, 91 tears ago, Einstein proposed that there was such a thing as gravitational waves, which are basically ripples in space-time.

Yeah, sounds like Star Trek.

But see, two black holes crashed into each other. One black hole had the mass of 29 suns; the other was the equivalent of 36 suns, although both were about 91 miles in diameter.  That’s dense.

And they crashed into each other at half the speed of light.  About 1.5 billion years ago… producing, wait for it, gravitational waves which were observed on September 14, 2015, scientists announced today.  The waves were less than a proton in width.

What have you discovered today?

UPDATE: A tutorial —

Aliens Discovered?


Yeah, I’ve been watching in a little X-Files binge-watching (man, Gillian Anderson was hot), but I would be interested in this story anyway.  It is a mystery, but a serious mystery reported by serious science journals.

Something is going on surrounding a star identified as KIC 8462852:

A star, named KIC 8462852, has been found with a highly curious transit signal. In a paper submitted to the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, astronomers, including citizen scientists from the Planet Hunters crowdsourcing program, report: “Over the duration of the Kepler mission, KIC 8462852 was observed to undergo irregularly shaped, aperiodic dips in flux down to below the 20 percent level.”

The research paper is thorough, describing the phenomenon, pointing out that this star is unique – we’ve seen nothing like it. Kepler has collected data on this star steadily for four years. It’s not instrumental error. Kepler isn’t seeing things; the signal is real.

“We’d never seen anything like this star,” Tabetha Boyajian, a postdoctorate researcher at Yale University and lead author, told The Atlantic. “It was really weird. We thought it might be bad data or movement on the spacecraft, but everything checked out.”

The Planet Hunters volunteers are depended on to seek out transits in Kepler’s stars in the direction of the constellation Cygnus. This is a huge quantity of data, from over 150,000 stars in Kepler’s original field of view, and you can’t beat the human eye when identifying a true dip in starlight brightness. The Planet Hunters described KIC 8462852 as “bizarre,” “interesting” and a “giant transit.” They’re not wrong.

Follow-up studies focus on two interesting transit events at KIC 8462852, one that was detected between days 788 and 795 of the Kepler mission and between days 1510 to 1570. The researchers have tagged these events as D800 and D1500 respectively.

The D800 event appears to have been a single transit causing a star brightness drop-off of 15 percent, whereas D1500 was a burst of several transits, possibly indicating a clump of different objects, forcing a brightness dip of up to 22 percent. To cause such dips in brightness, these transiting objects must be huge.

Okay.  So the brightness of a distant star drops off in two events.

So what causes the brightness of a distant star to drop off?  That’s a no-brainer.  Something crosses in front of it.  Like, say, a large planet.

The problem is that planets orbit a star with periodic rotations (we go around the sun once every 365 days).  Whatever transited in front of KIC 8462852, a mature F-type star (approximately 1.5 times the size of our sun), was not periodic.

Maybe it was a big cloud of space dust… thicker in some areas and not so think in other areas… passing in front not twice, but just once?  Nope.  They checked for that.

The researchers also investigated the possibility of a huge planetary collision: could the debris from this smashup be creating this strange signal? The likelihood of us seeing a planetary collision is extremely low. There is no evidence in data taken by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) that a collision happened, creating a very tiny window of opportunity between WISE’s mission end and the beginning of Kepler’s mission (of a few years) for an astronomically unlikely cosmic event like this to occur.

The only natural explanation favored by the researchers seems to focus on an intervening clump of exocomets.

“One way we imagine such a barrage of comets could be triggered is by the passage of a field star through the system,” write the researchers.

Indeed, they argue, there’s a nearby star that might have tidally disturbed otherwise dormant comets in the outermost regions of the KIC 8462852 star system. This small star is located around 1,000 AU from KIC 8462852 and whether it’s a binary partner or an interstellar visitor, its presence may have caused some cometary turmoil. Like the other scenarios, however, the exocomet explanation still falls short of being fully satisfactory.

So once you have ruled natural phenomena, what do you have left?  Artificial phenomena.  In other words: a mega-engineering project created by an advanced alien civilization.

Indeed, hunting down huge structures that obscure the light from stars is no new thing. The Search for Extraterrestrial Technology (SETT) is one such project that does just this. Only recently, a survey of the local universe focused on the hope of detecting the waste heat generated by a technologically advanced civilization, specifically a Type II Kardashev civilization.

On the Kardashev scale, a Type II civilization has the ability to utilize all the available energy radiating from a star. Using a vast shell or series of rings surrounding a star, a Dyson sphere-like structure may be constructed. This has the effect of blotting out the star from view in visible wavelengths, but once the solar energy has been used by the alien civilization, the energy is shifted to longer wavelengths and likely lost as infrared radiation.

Basically. what it could be is a “swarm of megastructures,” possibly created to capture energy from the star.  Like giant solar collectors the size of many large planets. Cool.

The next step is to point a radio antenna at KIC 8462852, just to see whether the system is generating any artificial radio signals that could indicate the presence of something we’d define as “intelligent.” Boyajian and Wright have now teamed up with Andrew Siemion, the Director of the SETI Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, to get a radio telescope to listen into the star and if they detect an artificial signal, they will request time on the Very Large Array (VLA) to deduce whether any radio signals from that star are the chatter of an alien civilization.

It might be a long shot, and the phenomenon is more likely a clump of comets or some other natural phenomenon that we haven’t accounted for blocking star light from view, but it’s worth investigating, especially if there really is some kind of alien intelligence building structures, or perhaps, ancient structures of a civilization long-gone, around a star only 1,500 light-years away from Earth.

The Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Last Night

What actually happened was a confluence of three things. The moon was full and in its closest point in its orbit around the Earth, making it a so-called supermoon.  In addition to this, a lunar eclipse occurred. In other words, the Earth lined up directly with the sun and moon, directly between the two.

It last happened 33 years ago, and it won’t happen again for another 18 years.

And this one fell within normal viewing hours (instead of 4 a.m.)

Unfortunately, there was cloud cover and rain here in the southeast.  But this is what it looked like – time-elapsed.



Are We Under Cyberattack?

Imma just tell this story in Tweets

So United went down (It went up after 2 hours), and NYSE went down (it went up after 3 hours).  Also down (and now back up) today, the Wall Street Journal computers.


Many think this is a Chinese government hacking attack.  First of all, China is in some serious shit:

While most recent financial news has focused on the crisis currently facing Greece, another disaster is stirring further east that makes Alexis Tsipras’s problems look like chicken feed.

Since the middle of June, the prices of Chinese company shares have fallen by 30 per cent. That amounts to around $3.2 trillion dollars that has been wiped off the stock market in only a few weeks.

It’s hard to make sense of such a huge number, but this figure is higher than the UK’s GDP in 2013, a comparatively modest $2.7 trillion.

The sudden drop in prices came after months of solid growth. Since November last year, Chinese stocks had more than doubled, largely due to small retail investors – ‘mum and dad’ investors playing the stock market – using borrowed money.

There are concerns that the Chinese government’s response could be partially responsible for the sell-off.

Which is why the Asian markets did so bad yesterday.  Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index plunged as much as 8% before closing down 5.8% and China’s Shanghai Composite sank 5.9%. Japan’s Nikkei 225 index lost 3.1% to close at 19,737.64.  That’s what was facing Wall Street as it opened today.  (As I write this, the now-reopened Dow is down 238 points today).

But the theory that China might be behind these computer outages today could be supported by data from the Norse Intelligence Network,  a California-based online security company. The company offers up a real-time cyber attack map, which seemed to show at midday on Wednesday that China was the number-one attacker and the US was the number-one target:


I don’t know if this is usual or not.  But it looks like St. Louis is getting bombarded.

To be continued…..?

Boston: Up Close

This video may not seem remarkable at first….

Boston, U.S.A. from UrtheCast on Vimeo.

It’s Boston… and you can see Fenway Park and cars moving on Storrow Drive as well as I-40.

Here’s the astonishing, but creepy, thing about this: it was taken from space.  From a satellite.  You can see the Prudential Center and the Hancock Building appear to drift, leaning into their shadows as the camera vantage point changes in relation to the ground.

And it comes from a private company called UrtheCast (click the link above).  UrtheCast offers surveillance data as a service so that businesses can “monitor areas of interest with consistent access to satellite imagery in order to analyze, strategize, and plan,” according to its website. The famous example in the satellite business is the idea that companies will be able to count the cars in their parking lots to track customer flow, estimate revenue, and otherwise contextualize their work.

But it means that private companies can, if they wanted to, track your car movements. Good for homeland security and law enforcement, but kind of 1984ish in a way as well.  Not that a private company would single you out, but it could collect data on thousands of cars and once, and if they can be paired with the owner, then companies can track your real world movements just the same as they track your online movements.

Then again, maybe Google Earth is only a few years from this themselves.  And YOU can track anyone you want, anytime, anywhere.

RIP Jack King

To those of a certain age and a certain geekdom, his voice was iconic.  Jack King was the Chief of Public Information and Public Affairs Officer for NASA.   Considered the dean of aerospace journalism, he was the voice of the Apollo missions.  He died at 84 yesterday.  Enjoy some of his greatest hits….

P.S.  Yes, he grew up in Boston.  You can hear it in his voice.

Lyrid Meteor Shower Peaks Tomorrow, April 22

Dust off the lawn chairs and get ready for the peak of the Lyrid meteor shower which will occur on the night of April 22.

“The Lyrids are really unpredictable,” Cooke said. “For the 2015 shower, I’m expecting 15 to 20 Lyrid meteors an hour. Peak rates should occur after 10:30 PM on April 22 your local time, for observers in the northern hemisphere. For observers in the southern hemisphere, Lyrid rates are not significant until after midnight your local time.”

Viewing tips for the Lyrids

  • No special equipment is needed to watch a meteor shower. Simply find a dark, open sky away from artificial lights. Lie down comfortably on a blanket or lawn chair, and look straight up.
  • Look to the northeast to find the meteors appearing to radiate out of the constellation of Lyra the harp.
  • A camera, provided by scientists at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, will offer a live feed of the Lyrids beginning at 10:00 PM CDT.The camera is light-activated, and will switch on at nightfall. During daytime hours, the webcast will show recorded views of past meteor showers.

Watch the live feed here.

The Lyrids are pieces of debris from the periodic Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher and have been observed for more than 2,600 years. In mid-April of each year, Earth runs into the stream of debris from the comet, which causes the Lyrid meteor shower. You can tell if a meteor belongs to a particular shower by tracing back its path to see if it originates near a specific point in the sky, called the radiant. The constellation in which the radiant is located gives the shower its name, and in this case, Lyrids appear to come from a point in the constellation Lyra.

Tomorrow’s Total Solar Eclipse

Yeah.  It’ll be a big deal in Europe, but don’t plan to see any of it — even a partial observation — here in the states.  Look where the shadow will fall:


BUT…. since I have your attention, make a note on your calendar for August 21, 2017.  That will be a total solar eclipse, first total solar eclipse visible from the United States since 1991 (which was seen only from part of Hawaii), and the first visible from the contiguous United States since 1979 (and tracking right over North Carolina – Western NC will see a totality!)


Leonids Tonight

The Leonids can sometimes be a spectacular show, with one storm in 1833 producing a reported 100,000 meteors per hour. Tonight’s show should bring about 10 to 15 meteors per hour.

A meteor shower will happen when the Earth flies through a trail of debris from a comet. These particular meteorites are leftovers from Tempel-Tuttle, a comet that orbits the sun every 33 years. The comet left behind dust and debris which will enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, creating the show.

The meteor shower will be centered on the constellation Leo, hence the name, which will be to the east after midnight. However, meteors should be visible anywhere in the sky where it’s dark and there are no clouds blocking visibility.

The best time to view the meteor shower with the naked eye is between midnight and dawn.

141117-leonid2_31ab2618ce1a7ebd87eba62efe4213a8.nbcnews-ux-960-600The Slooh Community Observatory, which operates telescopes around the world, will offer a live online show of the Leonid meteor shower beginning at 8:00 p.m. EST for those who don’t want to go outside or live in a city with a lot of light pollution. You can watch the show when it begins here.

That will be welcome news to those who don’t want to go outside to witness the spectacular show. It’s going to be a chilly November night, but for those who are willing to brave the cold, they can witness the Leonid meteor shower at its peak, according to

The Slooh Space Camera will begin broadcasting from its Canary Islands observatory, a Spanish territory off the coast of northwestern Africa. It will move to the Prescott OBservatory in Arizona later in the evening to follow the light show.



Life Discovered In Space?

Maybe, maybe not.

There have been seeming credible reports on the Internet that sea plankton has been found on the windows of the International Space Station, plankton that wasn't there at takeoff.

So say some Russians.  But not the official ones:

“Results of the experiment are absolutely unique. We have found traces of sea plankton and microscopic particles on the illuminator surface. This should be studied further,” chief of the Russian ISS orbital mission Vladimir Solovyev told Russia’s state-ownedITAR-TASS news agency.

The Russian report also seems to infer that the plankton finding and other previous surveys indicate such organisms can survive and even grow outside the space station, despite having to contend with being blasted by radiation from the sun and lacking the basic life support system found in Earth.

“Results of the scope of scientific experiments which had been conducted for a quite long time were summed up in the previous year, confirming that some organisms can live on the surface of the International Space Station (ISS) for years amid factors of a space flight, such as zero gravity, temperature conditions and hard cosmic radiation. Several surveys proved that these organisms can even develop.”

But all this seems to be news to NASA.

“As far as we’re concerned, we haven’t heard any official reports from our Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency) colleagues that they’ve found sea plankton,” NASA spokesman Dan Huot told “What they’re actually looking for is residues that can build up on the visually sensitive elements, like windows, as well as just the hull of the ship itself that will build up whenever they do thruster firings for things like re-boosts. That’s what they were taking samples for. I don’t know where all the sea plankton talk is coming from.”

NASA scientists report that it’s possible the reported sea plankton could be a contaminant that hitched a ride from Earth when the space station modules were launched. Previous research has also found that certain tiny species — known as extremophiles — can survive in space and other harsh environments. Just today, new research is being published in the journal Nature that documents the discovery of microbes living beneath a half mile of Antarctic ice without any access to sun or wind.

If the cosmonauts truly did discover sea plankton hanging out in space, it could have interesting new implications for how we view life’s compatibility with the rugged environment that is space; or it might just mean that plankton is a lot tougher than previously expected.

So… maybe yes maybe no, but pretty amazing if yes.

Apparently There’s Still A Debate About This?

Give it up, science deniers.  You don't get equal time:

Sunday's episode of Cosmos was all about evolution. It closely followed the rhetorical strategy of Charles Darwin's world-changing 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, beginning with an example of "artificial selection" by breeders (Darwin used pigeons, Cosmos used domestic dogs) to get us ready to appreciate the far vaster power of natural selection. It employed Darwin's favorite metaphor: the "tree of life," an analogy that helps us see how all organisms are living on different branches of the same hereditary tree. In the episode, Tyson also refuted one of the creationist's favorite canards: the idea that complex organs, like the eye, could not have been produced through evolution.

Over at the pro-"intelligent design" Discovery Institute, they're not happy. Senior fellow David Klinghoffer writes that the latest Cosmos episode "[extrapolated] shamelessly, promiscuously from artificial selection (dogs from wolves) to minor stuff like the color of a polar bear's fur to the development of the human eye." In a much more elaborate attempted takedown, meanwhile, the institute's Casey Luskin accuses Tyson and Cosmos of engaging in "attempts to persuade people of both evolutionary scientific views and larger materialistic evolutionary beliefs, not just by the force of the evidence, but by rhetoric and emotion, and especially by leaving out important contrary arguments and evidence." Luskin goes on to contend that there is something wrong with the idea of the "tree of life." 

Tell that to the scientists involved in the Open Tree of Life project, which plans to produce "the first online, comprehensive first-draft tree of all 1.8 million named species, accessible to both the public and scientific communities." Precisely how to reconstruct every last evolutionary relationship may still be an open scientific question, but the idea of common ancestry, the core of evolution (represented conceptually by a tree of life), is not.

Nye-Ham Debate

So there was a debate between Bill Nye vs Ken Ham (founder of the Creationist Museum) last night on the subject of evolution vs. creationism.  It was fascinating to watch.  One of my key takeaways was that Ham actually admitted that evolution takes place.  He says it explains the varieties of "kinds" of animals.  Rather than say that Noah took thousands of kinds of cats on his ark 4000 years ago, he says that Noah took one pair of cats, and from those two cats, we get all the various cats (lions, tigers, pumas, domestic cats) today.

That's a startling admission, if only because it makes evolution work at a much faster pace than Darwin (or any other scientist) claims.

Now, obviously I am in the pro-Nye pro-evolution camp, because I think.  But even then, I was surprised at how BAD the arguments were for the creationism side.  They weren't scientific at all.  He admitted as much.  But I'll farm out the rest of my review:

When I first heard this debate was going to happen, I couldn’t wait.  I never thought as a child that somehow “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” who I watched on Saturday mornings, would one day become a leading figure in the political battle of science vs. delusion.

Keep in mind that I am a Christian, so I don’t discount everything in the Bible.  Though I’ve made it clear that I don’t put a whole lot of stock in the Bible as it’s obvious (to me at least) that much of it has been rewritten – and poorly translated – over centuries.

The dawn of the tea party brought about the attempted hijacking of the GOP by radicals, and science that had never really been up for debate previously (besides between people who were borderline insane) because it had always been accepted as scientific fact,  suddenly became a “debatable topic.”

Not because the science changed, but because insane people were suddenly given a voice in mainstream politics thanks to the tea party.

All of a sudden these people began pushing the ridiculous idea that climate change was a “global hoax” perpetrated by over 95% of the world’s scientists and that evolution didn’t belong in the classroom.  And if we were going to teach evolution in the classroom, creationism should be taught along side of it as another “scientific theory.”

Except, there’s just one problem with that.  Creationism isn’t a scientific theory! 

Which is what led to this debate.  Over the last several years, Bill Nye has been quite public with his assertion that it’s insane how certain people want faith-based beliefs to be taught alongside proven science in our schools.

Well, Nye wasted no time in asserting that he would make Mr. Ham look like a fool this entire night.

Going into this night, I had imagined giving specific quotes and a detailed examination of what I had just seen.  However, it didn’t take me long before I realized that wouldn’t be necessary.

Honestly, a quick summation of what I saw is enough to properly convey just how badly Mr. Nye embarrassed Mr. Ham.

There were questions, rebuttals, long presentations and scientific facts (well, from Nye anyway) that would make most of our heads spin.

There was talk of radiometric dating, bedrock layers, tree rings, the expansion of the universe, evolutionary patterns of animals, technological advancements of ships, common sense and all sorts of scientific data which has been proven by some of best and brightest over many years.

Then there was Mr. Ham’s argument.  Which I will summarize:

“Well, there’s a book which tells me…”

No, I’m not kidding.  That was honestly his answer for most questions.  Because the Bible says something, that makes it fact.  Because a book that’s been translated over centuries says something, that proves it to be fact. 

I’m really not lying, that was his answer to most questions.

Oh, that and, “Well, because we can’t see the earth billions of years ago – how do we know?”   Then Mr. Ham’s “proof” being not that he can prove what’s in the Bible in any way – just that it’s in the Bible.

Seriously, that’s what he used as “proof” for most of his argument, “Because the Bible says.”

Bill Nye used facts, logic, science, data, research and common sense while Ken Ham countered these arguments with, “Well, the Bible says…”

I seriously started laughing during parts of this.

But my favorite part came during the question and answer section when someone submitted a question for Mr. Ham asking if he took all parts of the Bible literally (citing a part about touching pig skin or having multiple wives).  That’s when Mr. Ham proved himself to be an absolute hypocrite.

While the whole night he confidently spoke about the earth being 6,000 years old because that’s what the Bible says, or all these specific things in the Bible which should be taken for their literal word, yet during this part he stumbled over what is or isn’t taken from natural parts.

Essentially saying, well – I guess you can’t take every word of the Bible literally because it doesn’t make sense.

Because as most of us know, the Bible is full of passages that give men the right to stone their wives and all sorts of other heinous acts that in a modern society would seem barbaric.

It was quite comical to see Mr. Ham suddenly start to “subjectively” interpret the Bible when it came to some of the more controversial aspects of what’s written inside.

This entire night showcased that Bill Nye (over and over again) proved with science that there’s evidence to support theories and beliefs of the scientific community based on quantitative data collected by some of the best and brightest this world has ever seen.

While Mr. Ham’s answers basically consisted of two things:

  • Well, we didn’t see the world during that time so how do we know?
  • The Bible says…

And that’s about it.  No proof, no evidence – just another guy reading the Bible trying to claim that as “scientific evidence.”

So, in this debate of Science vs. Creationism, science not only won – it wasn’t even close.

Voyager 1 Leaves Solar System

I guess it's a little difficult to determine when you're inside the solar system and when you've crossed out of it, but Voyager One is officially out of it, as of August 25, 2012, although we just figgered that out today.  It's the first man-made object to leave the solar system.  Ever.

UPDATE:  What it sounds like out there….


Prude Alert

From Talking Points Memo:

Parents in Dietrich, Idaho, aren’t very happy with the way science teacher Tim McDaniel is teaching their children human anatomy.

That is to say, they’re unhappy that he is teaching them human anatomy at all.

In a formal complaint made against the 18-year Dietrich School veteran by at least four parents, McDaniel is chided for using the word “vagina” during a tenth-grade biology class on the human reproductive system.

Among other complaints submitted to the school: McDaniel explained the biology of an orgasm, taught students about STDs and birth control, and showed a clip from An Inconvenient Truth, which led to a discussion about climate change.

“I teach straight out of the textbook, I don’t include anything that the textbook doesn’t mention,” McDaniel told the Twin Falls Times-News. “But I give every student the option not attend this class when I teach on the reproductive system if they don’t feel comfortable with the material.”

This is liberal-bashing, pure and simple.

Lab In New Mexico Creates “Zombie” Cells That Function Better After They Die

What could possibly go wrong?

“Zombie” mammalian cells that may function better after they die have been created by researchers at Sandia National Laboratories and the University of New Mexico (UNM).

The simple technique coats a cell with a silica solution to form a near-perfect replica of its structure. The process may simplify a wide variety of commercial fabrication processes from the nano- to macroscale. It’s also allowing scientists to preserve cells down to the minor grooves of its DNA.


Summing up, lead researcher Bryan Kaehr, a Sandia materials scientist, offers what may be the first distinction in scientific literature between a mummy cell and a zombie cell. “King Tut was mummified,” he said, “to approximately resemble his living self, but the process took place without mineralization [a process of fossilization]. Our zombie cells bridge chemistry and biology to create forms that not only near-perfectly resemble their past selves, but can do future work.”


The Upcoming Near Miss

An asteroid about 2/3rds the size of a football field is heading toward Earth, arriving here on February 15.  NASA says the flyby is "the closest ever predicted Earth approach for an object this large." While it won't hit our planet this time around, there's a small chance it could collide with Earth when it circles back in 2110. Dina Spector at Business Insider points out that if an asteroid this size did hit Earth, it'd "be similar to the Tunguska asteroid, which hit Siberia in 1908."


Enjoy The Satellites While We Have Them

It's worth noting that those space images of Sandy that are not only cool but actually help scientists predicts its path and strength — well, they come from satellites which are nearing or past the end of their functional lives, and we have no replacement satellites scheduled to be launched for a few years.

And if Republicans have their way and follow the Paul Ryan budget, we may not have replacement satellites at all.




Complete MSL Curiosity Descent – Full Quality Enhanced 1080p + Heat Shield impact

This is a full-resolution version of the NASA Curiosity rover descent to Mars, taken by the MARDI descent imager. As of August 20, all but a dozen 1600×1200 frames have been uploaded from the rover, and those missing were interpolated using thumbnail data. The result was applied a heavy noise reduction, color balance, and sharpening for best visibility. 

The video plays at 15fps, or 3x realtime. The heat shield impacts in the lower left frame at 0:21, and is shown enlarged at the end of the video. 


Persieds This Weekend

The annual Perseid Meteor Shower will occur Saturday night and Sunday morning. If you're in the right spot, away from light pollution, you can see up to 100 meteors an hour!

The Perseids have been observed for at least 2,000 years and are associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun once every 133 years. Each year in August, the Earth passes through a cloud of the comet's debris. These bits of ice and dust — most over 1,000 years old — burn up in the Earth's atmosphere to create one of the best meteor showers of the year. The Perseids can be seen all over the sky, but the best viewing opportunities will be across the northern hemisphere. Those with sharp eyes will see that the meteors radiate from the direction of the constellation Perseus.

NASA will be up all night, with a live chat led by astronomer Bill Cooke and his team from the Meteoroid Environment Office discussing the Perseids. And if you have to work inside or have too much cloud cover to see the meteor shower, they will have a live stream online.

The meteors can be seen in any part of the sky, but if you can find the border between the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia, that's where they will emanate from.  Best viewing hours are pre-dawn on Sunday, but that doesn't mean that you won't see some tonight or tomorrow night anytime, if you happen to look up and get lucky!

Curiosity Lands

The NASA Mars Rover, Curiosity, successfully landed on Mars this morning, and sent back pictures of its shadow.

Curiosity Rover shadow

Nobody knew if it would work.  Even NASA billed it as the hardest mission ever done involving robots.  Here's what had to be done — it's mindboggling complex:


But they did it.  So NASA chalks up a successful mission.  Curiosity will spend the next two years combing the Red Planet for evidence that it once had the necessary conditions for life.

There's no video of the landing of course, but there's a better video of blue-shirted NASA engineers nerds celebrating the news.


Good on you, guys.

The Republican Distrust Of Science

A new study by Gordon Gauchat takes a look at public trust in science and finds that it's unchanged over the past few decades for most groups. The one exception is conservatives, whose trust in science has plummeted:

But here's the remarkable thing from the study not seen in the graph above: the more educated a conservative is, the less he trusts science.  Specifically:

…conservatives with high school degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and graduate degrees all experienced greater distrust in science over time and these declines are statistically significant. In addition, a comparison of predicted probabilities indicates that conservatives with college degrees decline more quickly than those with only a high school degree. These results are quite profound, because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.

Why is that?  Is it because of the politicization of, well, everything, and the adherence to certain constituencies and special interests that create a bubble that excludes scientific reality?  Perhaps.  And perhaps it is because of the authoritarian nature of the "New Right".  Chris Moony, author of The Republican War on Science, has some thoughts.

The Solar Flare Disruption

The huge solar flare that ignited from the Sun earlier this week is hitting Earth now, and may cause disruptions to high frequency radio communication, global positioning systems (GPS) and power grids.  

Also, the northern lights might be more visible.  Cool.


New Horizons

Russian scientists have finally reached Lake Vostok.

That might not sound very interesting until you realize that Lake Vostok is a freshwater lake that has been sealed away for millions of years under two miles of thick Antarctic ice.

Clean samples of the water from Lake Vostok, named after the scientific research station located on the ice sheet above it, will not be taken until the next Antarctic summer, in December 2012.  But it might give us a glimpse of what life was like 10-20 million years ago on Earth.  In fact, there may even be life down there (in the form of microbes).

Mars Is Throwing Rocks At Us

They found a rock from Mars in Africa.  It's not the first time it has happened, but it's pretty rare.

How did it happen?  A meteor hit Mars millions of years ago, kicking up debris.  Some of it — well, a few rocks of it — made it's way to Earth.  Pretty cool.

Full story.

Russian Satellite To Kill Us All

ProbeThere's a lot of space debris in space, orbitting the Earth.  When those orbits decay, as they do over time, the debris burns up upon re-entering the Earth's atmosphere.  

No biggie.

Unless the debris is really big to begin with — like an out-of-use satellite.  Some of the debris survives re-entry and crashes to Earth.  We've seen a few of those recently: An old NASA 6-ton atmospheric research satellite came tumbling down in September, and a 3-ton German science satellite followed suit in October.  The surviving parts of those old satellites ended up in the oceans.

But there's another killer out there: the Russian Phobos-Ground satellite.  It's way bigger than those other two satellites — it's 14.6 tons.

Also, it's not an old satellite.  In fact, it wasn't supposed to be a satellite at all.   It was launched in November 2011, and a glitch left it stranded in orbit around Earth instead of bound for Mars to collect soil samples.

And now it is coming back down to Earth, carrying within it about 12 tons of highly toxic fuel that was supposed to take it to Mars.  Some think that the fuel is probably frozen, and it will become UNfrozen during re-entry, and then spread in tiny droplets over some area — perhaps even a populated area.

The Russian space agency Roscosmos' latest forecast has the unmanned Phobos-Ground probe falling out of Earth's orbit Sunday or Monday, with the median time placing it over the Indian Ocean just north of Madagascar.  Of course, these is the same agency which built and launched the piece-of-crap probe, so who knows where it will come crashing down. 

London and New York are along its flight path.

More info here.

Set Your Clocks

If you have trouble sleeping, or if you are into this sort of thing, try to step outside at 3 am.  (You can of course go out earlier and later, but 3 am is peak time):

Meteor watchers in North America can expect to see 60 to 200 meteors an hour streak across the sky early Wednesday.

NASA says the Quadrantid meteor shower should be perfect for viewing around 3 a.m. local time Wednesday after the waxing gibbous moon sets.

But the light show won't last long, NASA says  only a few hours.

The Quadrantids were first noted in 1825 and got their name from the constellation of Quadrans Muralis, which is no longer considered a constellation by astronomers, according to NASA.

The material that is burning up in Earth's atmosphere during the Quadrantids likely comes from a comet that broke into fragments centuries ago, NASA says.

"After hundreds of years orbiting the sun, they will enter our atmosphere at 90,000 mph, burning up 50 miles above Earth's surface," a NASA press release says.

If you've never see a meteror shower, you really need to.

UPDATE:  More on the Quadrintids…(in response to comments below)

Just to reiterate, this will peak tomorrow (Wednesday) morning as early as 2 am.  That's the peak time — you could probably see meteors earlier, but it will be a random one or two here and there.  That's not only because there will be fewer meteors, but also because the moon might blot them out.  At peak time, however, you can spot (ideally) 60 to 120 per minute, not only because there will be more of them, but also because the moon will have set.  And viewing favors the east coast.

This is the star map…


Don't worry if you don't know your way around the sky.  After all, this only shows where the meteors will emanate from.  If you look generally to the north or northeast sky at peak, and wait (let your eyes adjust and of course, the darker spot away from the city the better, you'll see them.)

Android’s Response To Siri

Google's voice command has been around for a couple of years, but when the newest iPhone came out, it included Siri, a voice command app that responded to natural language requests.  Most people agree that Siri was the coolest thing about the iPhone, and Siri has been highlighted in iPhone commercials.

Google, of course, wasn't going to take that lying down.  And so it has upgraded its Voice Actions app.  We should be seeing it by the end of the year.  It basically does what Siri does, but it is cooler in two respects:

(1)  Unlike with Apple, you don't have to buy a whole new phone to get it (your Honeycomb-enabled Android phone will update automatically)

(2)  It's named Majel, after Majel Roddenberry, who did all the voices for all the Star Trek TV shows and movies right up until she died.  Unfortunately, it's not her voice.  That would be beyond awesome.

Nanotechnology Is Cool

Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory have created 'microbots' that can manipulate tiny objects:

The robots, which are only half a millimeter wide, are controlled via magnetic fields and can perform simple tasks such as opening their jaws or moving around a container of liquid.

They are among the smallest robots ever created.

According to the Department of Energy (DOE), which operates Argonne, the new robots demonstrate the ability to manipulate materials on a miniature level.

The creation of the robots, which are self-assembling and self-repairing, was funded by a DOE project to design active self-assembled materials.



Verizon 4G Is Here

Greensboro, NC — Verizon Wireless turned on their 4G LTE Mobile Broadband network Thursday in the Triad.

The change will impact several areas in North Carolina and more than 100 cities across the nation.

Verizon said the services are up to 10 times faster than their current 3G network.

The service is only available for 4G capable phones, which currently include three smartphones, a tablet, two hotspots and three USB modems.

All 4G capable devices can access the new system Thursday morning without a update or additional step.


Netflix Will Now Let You Adjust Your Quality So You Can Avoid Data Caps

If you watch a ton of Netflix, you probably get pretty close to reaching your internet provider's bandwidth caps—especially if your provider has especially low limits. If you're regularly straddling that line, you can now head into Netflix's Account Settings and change the quality of your video to lessen the amount of data you use. They give you three presets: Good, Better, or Best quality. Your video won't necessarily be high definition anymore, but you won't risk paying extra every month for using too much data, either.  Also might help with NetHiccups.


Verizon 4G Coming To Triad Sooner Than Expected


Verizonannounced on Tuesday it will turn on its 4G LTE network in Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point on July 21.

4G mobile service gives consumers service up to 10 times faster than a 3G network. The company expects average data rates in real-world, loaded network environments to be 5 to 12 megabits per second (Mbps) on the downlink and 2 to 5 Mbps on the uplink.

The 4G technology also will improve coverage strength inside buildings, as it runs on a powerful 700 megahertz wireless frequency.

The deployment provides 4G coverage throughout the surrounding areas of Cooleemee, Mocksville, Lexington, Welcome, Bermuda Run, Clemmons, Lewisville, Bethania, Rural Hall, Tobaccoville, King, Walkertown, Kernersville, Stokesdale, Oak Ridge, Summerfield, McLeansville, Whitsett, Sedalia,Jamestown, Archdale, Thomasville, Trinity, Randleman, Forest Oaks, Pleasant Garden, Liberty, Franklinville, Asheboro and Ramseur.

Google Music Beta: A First Impression

It's not often that I get into the "beta" door — usually I don't try.

But I asked for, and received, and "invite" to use Google Music Beta, the new streaming music service by Google.

This is the newest development in the music industry.  In the OLD days, you would have to buy the music in some tangible form (LP, cassette, CD, etc.).  In the somewhat OLD days, you would just by the digitized song, and put on to something tangible (your iPod, computer) to listen to it.

But NOW, we're moving to an age where your music collection is stored in one place, and it streams to you over the Internet/WiFi.  Where is it stored?  In the "cloud".

Amazon came out with its cloud service; so did Google.  Apple came out with its version yesterday.

But this is about Google.  How does it work?

First it scanned by computer for all my music (some 7,000 worth it says).  Then it uploaded all those songs to Google's computers (I was well within the 20,000 song limit).  And that was that.

Now I can access my songs through any Internet connected computer, or phone app.  This morning I listened to a song streaming to my phone, and I honestly couldn't tell any difference from when that song was actually stored on my phone.

So far, so good.

Google Wallet

It's here.  Your phone will soon replace your wallet:

You’ll be able to tap, pay and save using your phone and near field communication (NFC). We’re field testing Google Wallet now and plan to release it soon.

Google Wallet is a key part of our ongoing effort to improve shopping for both businesses and consumers. It’s aimed at making it easier for you to pay for and save on the goods you want, while giving merchants more ways to offer coupons and loyalty programs to customers, as well as bridging the gap between online and offline commerce. 

Because Google Wallet is a mobile app, it will do more than a regular wallet ever could. You'll be able to store your credit cards, offers, loyalty cards and gift cards, but without the bulk. When you tap to pay, your phone will also automatically redeem offers and earn loyalty points for you. Someday, even things like boarding passes, tickets, ID and keys could be stored in Google Wallet.

It's not a huge leap technologically.  I wouldn't be surprised to see this be a very commonplace thing in 4 years.

The Changing Legal Face Of Music

Once upon a time, you heard a song on the radio, you liked it, and you went to the brick-and-mortar store and bought it.  You bought it on vinyl, or cassette, or on CD.

And you owned it.

Those days are all but gone now, and the music industry is trying to adapt to the new technology.  

And as it turns out, you may not own the music that you think you own.

Surprised?  You shouldn't be.

There is a difference between owning a CD which contains music (on the one hand), and having the right to play a song – i.e., licensing (on the other hand).  

As music consumers, we're used to the first thing.  That's because, in the days of yore, a record company would have to actually manufacture the medium (the record, cassette, CD) that contained the song.  You knew you owned something because you could physically touch the medium — the CD, cassette, etc.

But now that songs can be distributed virtually, the concept of ownership must also move to a virtual one — i.e., licensing.

This is what the music industry wants you to think of it as.  That is, the music industry will tell you that you don't own Katy Perry's "Firework"; you merely have a license to listen to it whenever you want.

And that's fine.  Most people don't care about whether a song is owned or licensed, so long as they, as consumers, have control over when it can be heard.

However, BMI just upped the ante:

Capitol Records and others have brought a lawsuit in Federal Court in Manhattan against, a subscription Internet music “locker” service that raises issues about the legality of unlicensed “cloud-computing” music services. MP3tunes claims not to be liable for copyright infringement because it offers storage by customers of the customers’ own music collections on a remote system it operates. BMI holds that the public performing right has long applied to on-demand, interactive streaming. MP3tunes and their amici (“friends of the court”) make several legal arguments that could create loopholes in the copyright law relating to the public performing right.

MP3tunes claims that it is offering only passive equipment and should not be liable for any of the activities of its customers that occur when they use its service and that the customers are the ones that upload the music, thereby committing the “volitional acts” that MP3tunes claims that the law requires for direct infringement. It claims customers push the “play button” and therefore the customers are the volitional actors when it comes to transmissions of the performances.

What does all that mean?

Well, it involves the newest innovation in computing: cloud computing.  For those unfamiliar, "cloud computing" means this: Your files are stored at Place A, but you use them at Place B.  We're used to having files (programs, apps, etc.) stored on the device in front of us (the computer, the smartphione, etc.), but because of the Internet, they don't HAVE to be in front of us.  And that's where cloud computing comes in.  I have all my music at home, on my computer.  I also have them on my iPod.  But there exists the capability for me to listen to those songs whereever I am, by streaming them over the Internet.  It's similar to Internet radio, except that I select the tunes, which come from my music collection.

BMI is taking the position that music streaming over the Internet — even music from my music collection that I pick — constitutes a "public performance".

It's a ludicrous position and one that will be tough to win.  But if it does, it means that cloud music — the ability to store your music at home, but stream it to your car or work or whereever you are — will die before it even takes off.