Getting To Space Is Even Harder During A Pandemic

At this point, most of us are painfully aware of the restrictions that COVID-19 social distancing protocols have put on our daily lives. Anyone who can is working from home, major events are canceled, non-essential businesses are closed, and travel is either strongly discouraged or prohibited outright. In particularly hard hit areas, life and commerce has nearly ground to a halt with no clear end date in sight.

Naturally, there are far reaching consequences for this shutdown beyond what’s happening on the individual level. Large scale projects are also being slowed or halted entirely, as there’s only so much you can do remotely. That’s especially true when the assembly of hardware is concerned, which has put some industries in a particularly tight spot. One sector that’s really feeling the strain is aerospace. Around the world, space agencies are finding that their best laid plans are suddenly falling apart in the face of COVID-19.

In some cases it’s a minor annoyance, requiring nothing more than some tweaks to procedures. But when the movements of the planets are concerned, a delay of weeks or months changes everything. While things are still changing too rapidly to make an exhaustive list, we already know of a few missions that are being impacted in these uncertain times.

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Cellular Tracking Used During COVID-19 Pandemic

As most in the technology community know, nation states have a suite of powerful tools that can be used to trace and monitor mobile phones. By and large, this comes up in discussions of privacy and legislation now and then, before fading out of the public eye once more. In the face of a global pandemic, however, governments are now using these tools in the way many have long feared – for social control. Here’s what’s happening on the ground.

The Current Situation

With COVID-19 sweeping the globe, its high level of contagiousness and rate of hospitalizations has left authorities scrambling to contain the spread. Unprecedented lockdowns have been put in place in an attempt to flatten the curve of new cases to give medical systems the capacity to respond. A key part of this effort is making sure that confirmed cases respect quarantine rules, and isolate themselves to avoid spreading the disease. Rules have also been put in place in several countries where all overseas arrivals must quarantine, regardless of symptoms or status. Continue reading “Cellular Tracking Used During COVID-19 Pandemic”

Perhaps August Dvorak Is More Your Type

One of the strangest things about human nature is our tendency toward inertia. We take so much uncontrollable change in stride, but when our man-made constructs stop making sense, we’re suddenly stuck in our ways — for instance, the way we measure things in the US, or define daytime throughout the year. Inertia seems to be the only explanation for continuing to do things the old way, even when new and scientifically superior ways come along. But this isn’t about the metric system — it’s about something much more personal. If you use a keyboard with any degree of regularity, this affects you physically.

Many, many people are content to live their entire lives typing on QWERTY keyboards. They never give a thought to the unfortunate layout choices of common letters, nor do they pick up even a whisper of the heated debates about the effectiveness of QWERTY vs. other layouts. We would bet that most of our readers have at least heard of the Dvorak layout, and assume that a decent percentage of you have converted to it.

Hardly anyone in the history of typewriting has cared so much about subverting QWERTY as August Dvorak. Once he began to study the the QWERTY layout and all its associated problems, he devoted the rest of his life to the plight of the typist. Although the Dvorak keyboard layout never gained widespread adoption, plenty of people swear by it, and it continues to inspire more finger-friendly layouts to this day.

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Behind The Scenes Of Folding@Home: How Do You Fight A Virus With Distributed Computing?

A great big Thank You to everyone who answered the call to participate in Folding@Home, helping to understand proteins interactions of SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Some members of the FAH research team hosted an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on Reddit to provide us with behind-the-scenes details. Unsurprisingly, the top two topics are “Why isn’t my computer doing anything?” and “What does this actually accomplish?”

The first is easier to answer. Thanks to people spreading the word — like the amazing growth of Team Hackaday — there has been a huge infusion of new participants. We could see this happening on the leader boards, but in this AMA we have numbers direct from the source. Before this month there were roughly thirty thousand regular contributors. Since then, several hundred thousands more started pitching in. This has overwhelmed their server infrastructure and resulted in what’s been termed a friendly-fire DDoS attack.

The most succinct information was posted by a folding support forum moderator.

Here’s a summary of current Folding@Home situation :
* We know about the work unit shortage
* It’s happening because of an approximately 20x increase in demand
* We are working on it and hope to have a solution very soon.
* Keep your machines running, they will eventually fold on their own.
* Every time we double our server resources, the number of Donors trying to help goes up by a factor of 4, outstripping whatever we do.

Why don’t they just buy more servers?

The answer can be found on Folding@Home donation FAQ. Most of their research grants have restrictions on how that funding is spent. These restrictions typically exclude capital equipment and infrastructure spending, meaning researchers can’t “just” buy more servers. Fortunately they are optimistic this recent fame has also attracted attention from enough donors with the right resources to help. As of this writing, their backend infrastructure has grown though not yet caught up to the flood. They’re still working on it, hang tight!

Computing hardware aside, there are human limitations on both input and output sides of this distributed supercomputer. Folding@Home need field experts to put together work units to be sent out to our computers, and such expertise is also required to review and interpret our submitted results. The good news is that our contribution has sped up their iteration cycle tremendously. Results that used to take weeks or months now return in days, informing where the next set of work units should investigate.

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SOLID Promises A New Approach To How The Web Works

As it stands on the modern Internet, your data is no longer your own. Your emails, photos, and posts all live on servers owned by large corporations. Their policies give them access to your data, which is mined to generate advertising revenue. And if you want your data back, there are innumerable hoops to jump through. Want it deleted entirely? Good luck.

Tim Berners-Lee, original creator of the World Wide Web, is behind the project.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, as the original creator of what became the Web, has drawn issue with the current state of play. To move the ball on the issue, he’s been working on a design for decentralized internet and the efforts have led to the establishment of the Solid project. The goal is to rectify online privacy and ownership issues and give users greater control over their personal data.

The big question is how do you do that? When SOLID was announced last year there were few if any details on the approach taken by the program. But since then, more details have surface and you can even take an early version of the program for a spin. Let’s take a look.

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Coronavirus Testing Follow-Up: Rapid Immunologic Testing

When I started writing my recent article on COVID-19 testing, I assumed that I would be doing a compare and contrast sort of article. Like many people, I assumed that the “gold standard” test would be the reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test that I described in some detail. And indeed it is, but it’s not without its problems, such as the lack of certified labs and the need for trained technicians to run the samples. I also assumed there would be another test, a simple serological test that could use antibodies to discern if there was an active or even a previous, resolved infection.

At the time I wrote the first article, I could find no indication of an immunologic test for COVID-19 (more specifically, a test for SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19). But almost as rapidly as the number of COVID-19 cases rises, the news changes, and it appears that simple, rapidly performed antibody tests are now or soon will be available. They likely won’t replace the gold standard RT-PCR test, but they do stand to be a game-changer for the front line providers and the victims of this disease. So it pays to take a quick look at immunoassays for infectious diseases, and learn how they work.

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Phantom Express: The Spaceplane That Never Was

Even for those of us who follow space news closely, there’s a lot to keep track of these days. Private companies are competing to develop new human-rated spacecraft and assembling satellite mega-constellations, while NASA is working towards a return the Moon and the first flight of the SLS. Between new announcements, updates to existing missions, and literal rocket launches, things are happening on a nearly daily basis. It’s fair to say we haven’t seen this level of activity since the Space Race of the 1960s.

With so much going on, it’s no surprise that not many people have heard of the XS-1 Phantom Express. A project by the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the XS-1 was designed to be a reusable launch system that could put small payloads into orbit on short notice. Once its mission was complete, the vehicle was to return to the launch site and be ready for re-flight in as a little as 24 hours.

Alternately referred to as the “DARPA Experimental Spaceplane”, the vehicle was envisioned as being roughly the size of a business jet and capable of carrying a payload of up to 2,300 kilograms (5,000 pounds). It would take off vertically under rocket power and then glide back to Earth at the end of the mission to make a conventional runway landing. At $5 million per flight, its operating costs would be comparable with even the most aggressively priced commercial launch providers; but with the added bonus of not having to involve a third party in military and reconnaissance missions which would almost certainly be classified in nature.

Or at least, that was the idea. Flight tests were originally scheduled to begin this year, but earlier this year prime contractor Boeing abruptly dropped out of the program. Despite six years in development and over $140 million in funding awarded by DARPA, it’s now all but certain that the XS-1 Phantom Express will never get off the ground. Which is a shame, as even in a market full of innovative launch vehicles, this unique spacecraft offered some compelling advantages.

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