Grand Finale And A New Target

In the next weeks Cassini enters its final 5 orbits, swooping lower and lower, flying inside the rings of Saturn, until the final plunge on September 15, the “Grand Finale”.

At the same time, the New Horizons probe screamed past Pluto two years ago, but it has no brakes so it is still going out into the Kuiper Belt, which is cold, far away, and gigantic. The probe is still alive, though slumbering.   But with luck, it will wake up in 2019 and take some pix of Kuiper Belt object (KBO) 2014 MU69. This will be up close images 6 billion KM from home.

You can tell this is a long way out, because New Horizons is now half way between Pluto and the second stop on the itinerary.  This second leg is four years to complete.

This cunning plan got even more interesting this week, with reports from an occultation study in July that suggests that 2014 MU68 is not a ball. It may be an odd shaped blob or even two objects close together.

Whatever MUey-69 looks like, New Horizons may be able to get a good look.   Cool.

  1. Cassini Science Communications Team. The Grand Finale Toolkit 2017,
  2. Bill Keeter. New Horizons’ Next Target Just Got a Lot More Interesting. 2017,



Space Saturday

PS.  Yet more names for bands:

Final Five Orbits
Kuiper Belt & Braces
A Belt of Kuiper
The Grand Finale Toolkit

Is “Cute” Enough for a Robot?

In the great rush to create home robots, it seems that 1,000 flowers are blooming. Many different robots are being tried, combining the basic core of features with different appearances and artificial personalities.

One of this year’s models is ‘Kuri’, which is designed to be simple and cute. It understands speech commands, but “speaks robot”—not synthesized speech, but “cute” beeps and buzzes.

As far as I can tell, it does nothing that a computer or tablet or Alexa can’t do, except in a “friendly”, autonomously mobile package.

It seems that Kuri wanders around your house with its cute face and twin HD cameras. These can live stream over the Internet, to “be your eyes when you’re” away. Kiri also has microphones, of course, to capture sounds and conversations. Kuri will “investigate” unusual sounds. It has speakers, so you can play music, and yell at your baby sister.

This little guy is supposed to “bring joy to your house”. As far as I can tell, the main feature of Kuri is “cuteness”. Is this enough?

Well maybe.

Unfortunately, Kuri has gone way off the rails with a new feature, “autonomous video”.

Basically, as Kuri wanders around mapping your house, listening to you, and generally being cute, it will record videos.

The results of this snooping are sent to you (or at least to whoever controls Kiri), where you can select ones that you like. Supposedly, Kiri uses this feedback to learn what you like, and thereby to construct a please selfie video of your house.

Who doesn’t want that?

Well, me, obviously.  But, who asked for this feature, anyway???

I have no idea why I would ever want “daily dose of short “life at home’ videos”.  I mean, if there is any place I don’t need to visit virtually, it’s the place that I live physically.

But if I did want it, I don’t want an Internet connected device streaming video out of my house to the Internet. And I really don’t want an “autonomous” camera wandering around unpredictably recording my private life.

It’s Alexa on wheels. Eeek.

“Turn it off” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

I’ll add a couple of other points that Kuri brings to mind.

Like may contemporary robots, Kuri does some simple psychological tricks to indicate that he (apparently Kuri is male) is listening. It looks up, it looks ‘happy’, it makes ‘eye contact’ (more or less). This is “cute” in the same way as a pet may be “cute”, and for the same reason—you are projecting human personality onto a non-human actor.

This is probably good marketing, but there is some weird psychology going on here, especially if kids are involved.

First of all:  No, Kuri doesn’t actually like you. It isn’t capable of feelings of any kind.

The head and eye gestures raise the interesting question of whether people will tend to mirror these inhuman movements in the same way that they tend to mirror other people as they interact. And will children develop weird behavioral patterns from living with a household robot?  Who knows.

Then there is Kuri’s gaze.

It is becoming common to put camera’s behind features that look like human eyes. Kuri has a very abstract, but unmistakably analog to a human head and face, and the eyes are where the cameras are. This is a physical analogy to human senses, but has a sort of perverse twist to it. While a person or a dog sees you with their eyes, a robot is usually recording and streaming with its eyes. This mismatch means that you may unconsciously overlook the invasiveness of those robot eyes (which are really web cams), or perhaps edge toward paranoia about other people’s eyes (which are not web cams).

These “uncanny” confusions are hardly unique to Kuri, though the “cuter” the robot the more powerful the psychological illusions.

Is “cute” a good thing for a robot to be? I’m not so sure.

  1. Alyssa Pagano, Kuri Robot Brings Autonomous Video to a Home Near You, in IEEE Spectrum -Automation. 2017.


Robot Wednesday Friday

Up, Up, and Away! Cryptocurrency Optimism Files High

Shaking off an endless stream of frauds, thefts, arrests, and convictions; ignoring warnings and regulatory stop signs; and even blowing through the minor glitch of a catastrophic and fatal fatal fork of Bitcoin; the cryptocurrenty community cruises to new heights of techno-optimism.

Even supposedly rational capitalists seem to be carried away.

For examplet, NVIDIA corporation is have another good year, driven by the sales of GPUs. (All alums of Illinois are proud to see how important these descendants of the much laughed at Illiac IV have become.)

Jen-Hsun Huang, the CEO of NVIDIA, recently expressed glowing optimism that GPUs will continue to grow not only for graphics but also for cryptography and cryptocurrency mining.

It’s hard to say what fraction of the $1.9 billion income is attributed to cryptocurrency, though the total amount of Bitcoin mined in a year is less than $200 million. No matter how you slice it, cryptocurrency alone cannot really support a billion dollar hardware industry.

Nevertheless, these results do show that, while cryptocurrency may not be benefitting the world or disrupting money quite yet, it certainly is sucking down computing resources and the requisite electricity to run them.

Overall, the huge GPU industry is sustained by completely imaginary and economically inexplicable activities—such as video games, digital television (including porn), and, evidently, the scratch-off lottery of cryptocurrency mining.

NVIDIA’s Jen-Hsun Huang believes that cryptocurrency and blockchain are “here to stay” and will continue to be an important market for GPUs.  I have to wonder about this prediction. It’s far from clear that the current exuberance is rational, and with the catastrophic forking and reforking of Bitcoin, one wonders when the bottom will drop out.

We also should note that much of the market for cryptocurrency equipment is driven by and dark markets. These folks may remain a robust consumer base for NVIDIA, but it’s hard to see that as a great thing for the world.

Even more important, as quantum computing comes online in the next decade, GPUs will no longer be the top of the line. QC will be overwhelmingly faster, and GPUs will be next to useless for cryptography or cryptocurrency. That means that even if cryptography and cryptocurrency continue to grow, they will no longer be using GPUs, and certainly will not pay premium prices for them.

On another front, the Blockstream company has literally left the planet, with the launch of the first of many satellites designed to make Bitcoin available everywhere. The stated use case is Africa and other places with poor Internet access. In particular, you can’t run a full node (let along a mining operation) without significant network bandwidth, so Bitcoin isn’t fully available in many places.

I think the idea of this scheme is to provide a dedicated satellite network that connects Bitcoin nodes into the global net with relatively low cost ground equipment. This base station would be pretty much dedicated to Bitcoin, and connected to nothing except other Bitcoin nodes.

I have to wonder what use such a node would be to anyone, especially if the ‘last kilometer’ is marginal. I also have to wonder how this could possibly be financially viable. Space programs are obscenely expensive, so this doesn’t seem like the path to low cost connectivity on its face. We’ll see.

I will note that the general scenario would be that with this inexpensive ground station, “you could be transacting globally with bitcoin”. “Transaction globally” means “moving money offshore”, which is probably of interest to some people in Africa, but may or may not be a positive for the local economy and society. Again, we’ll see.

  1. Alyssa Hertig, Blockstream Is Using Satellites to Beam Bitcoin Down to Earth Coindesk.August 15 2017,
  2. Stan Higgins, Nvidia CEO: Cryptocurrencies Are ‘Here to Stay’ Coindesk.August 11 2017,


Cryptocurrenty Thursday

NASA Investigating Clockwork Rover Technology

NASA has the coolest projects!

With a long-term mission to visit and measure everywhere in the Solar System, NASA has not ticked off the easy stuff—Earth orbit, Moon, Mars, orbiting all the Planets.

There are plenty of places we really want to visit, but haven’t been able to. Cold places like the ice moons. And really hot places like the Sun  and the surface of Venus.

In the case of Venus,several spacecraft have orbited and are orbiting, and a handful of probes have reached the surface–just barely. The surface is hot, over 400 degrees C, and the pressure is a crushing 90 atmospheres. Most electronics simply don’t work at these temperatures. And it’s very cloudy, so solar power is minimal.  And so on.

In short, conventional engineering has little chance. To date, the record time to failure is 2 hours, set by a heroically insulated Vernera 13 probe in 1982. Building such extreme systems is hard and very expensive.

There is no way to make a rover to explore Venus. What’s to be done?

A NASA design group is exploring ways to build a rover that uses mechanical parts—clockwork—instead of electronics and computers. This is called “Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE)”.

When I saw their animation of some initial concepts, I immediately recognized that this is a Strandbeestand indeed they did invite Theo Jansen to JPL for some advice. (Evidently, Jansen’s advice was to get rid of the legs.)

Alternative locomotive ideas include wheels and tank treads.

But moving around is the least of the problems. How do you collect data?

In an interview with Evan Ackerman, they report several intriguing ideas under development.

First of all, mechanical calculation and number storage should be doable. And rough forms of obstacle avoidance are well known, too. (Toy cars navigate around furniture by bumping and backing up, no?.)

Image: Jonathan Sauder/NASA/JPL-Caltech Obstacle avoidance is another simple mechanical system that uses a bumper, reverse gearing, and a cam to back the rover up a bit after it hits something, and then reset the bumper and the gearing afterwards to continue on. During normal forward motion, power is transferred from the input shaft through the gears on the right hand side of the diagram and onto the output shaft. The remaining gears will spin but not transmit power. When the rover contacts an obstacle, the reverse gearing is engaged by the synchronizer, thus having the opposite effect. After the cam makes a full revolution it will push the bumper back to its forward position. A similar cam can be used to turn the wheels of the rover at the end of the reverse portion of the drive.

But if you had some data, how would you return data to Earth (i.e., to an orbital relay)? One possibility would be some kind of hard copy (e.g., etched into a metal disk), which is then lifted with a balloon and potentially pick up be a high altitude UAV. That sounds cool, but pretty iffy.

Another idea is to do semaphore code with radar reflectors. The orbiter beams radar and the rover reflects back on-off signals are certain wavelengths. This might have a bandwidth of a few bits per second (one way). That’s not much, but it’s a lot more than zero bps!   Pretty cool.

They are also trying to develop some kinds of sensors that will work under these conditions. This is difficult and it might be an area where small amounts of exotic high temperature electronics might be used.

This is such a cool design project!

I’m not sure how these ideas will pan out, but this work

is also important for changing the conversation on exploring Venus. Today, long duration in-situ mobile access on Venus has not been considered a realistic option. AREE demonstrates how such a system can be achieved today by cleverly utilizing current technology and enhanced by the technology of tomorrow.”

  1. Evan Ackerman, JPL’s Design for a Clockwork Rover to Explore Venus, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017.
  2. Jonathan Sauder. Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE). 2017,



Robot Wednesday

Hacking the Grid via Solar Panels

It seems there is continuous stream of computer security vulnerabilities (from your USB hub  to synthetic DNA and all modalities in between), and the still unresolved challenges of the Internet of Things (IoT), which promise to enlarge the (just barely working) Internet by orders of magnitude.

This month there is discussion that these issues affect the Solar Power industry as well.

In particular, small scale PV systems that are connected to the Grid may be vulnerable to hacking. In a student project, Willem Westerhof discovered security flaws in a consumer market PV inverter which connects the home system to the power grid. He then sketches a scenario in which determined hackers could take over large numbers of these systems, and then orchestrate power fluctuations that would crash wide areas of the power grid.

I have not found many details of the vulnerabilities, though it would be a remarkable system indeed to not have any security weaknesses. And, like the rest of the IoT, these systems are deployed in the hands and homes of ordinary people, who in no position to investigate or fix the software. In addition, it appears that these systems are, for whatever reasons, connected to the Internet, and therefore vulnerable to network hacking.

In short, it is extremely plausible that home PV systems are hackable.

Westerhof works out what he calls “The Horus Scenario” , which is a worst case episode. Assuming that all the installed PV systems have similar vulnerabilities, a determined hacker could penetrate and gain control over large numbers of the systems. This would enable the hacker to turn off and on the flow to the grid.

The devastating attack involves simultaneous shutdown of large numbers of PV systems, resulting in a dramatic and near instantaneous drop in available power. This would unbalance the grid and likely force shutdowns—sudden, widespread blackouts.

One reason this attack is possible is that, at least in Europe, a significant fraction of the total generating power is from PV. Knocking out one or a few homes would have minimal effects, but knocking out 10 or 20% of the generating power in a few minutes without warning is a fatal problem.

This is clearly a possibility, and a very serious potential threat. Even if only a faction of PV inverters were successfully attacked in the way, it would probably be a serious catastrophe.

It is important to note that this problem has little to do with solar energy per se. The problems stem from connecting a device to both critical infrastructure and the Internet at the same time. This is a concern for the IoT overall. Connecting lots of Internet capable devices to each other and to utilities is surely a bad idea, especially in the wild and unsupervised environment of ordinary homes.

Glancing at the vulnerabilities that have been reported, they are mostly garden variety Internet break ins. (I mean, one of the vulnerabilities is a data overrun via the TELNET port, for goodness sake.) Which leads to the question, why are these things connected to the Internet? I assume there are reasons, but maybe this should be reconsidered.

I get rather nervous that this is reported as “Hackers ‘could target electricity grid’ via solar panel tech, which seems likely to play into the hands of the power monopolies and fossil fuel industry. This will be used as yet more misleading propaganda that will be used to roll back all local generation initiatives.

As I said, this is more about Internet security that solar energy.

That said, I would strongly encourage PV equipment makers to step up their game. If you want to be part of vital infrastructure, then you have to design the systems to be as fail safe as possible.

  1. Chris Baraniuk, Hackers ‘could target electricity grid’ via solar panel tech, in BBC News – Technology. 2017.
  2. The Horus Scenario. The Horus Scenario-Exploiting a weak spot in the power grid. 2017,

Penguin Feathers Tell All

One of the important questions for filed biology is to document and understand the movements of animals, which reveals many aspects of behavior, including nesting, mating, what they eat, and what eats them. But it isn’t at all easy to track animals in the wild.

For centuries, this difficult problem was tackled through personal observations and with tags. The former is possible only in some fortunate circumstances, and the latter requires capture, release, and recapture, which is difficult, expensive, and lossy. But 21st century technology is now available (and cheap enough) for filed biologiists to use.

In recent years, electronic location tags have become small and cheap, opening a new age of animal tracking. With a small radio tag attached, almost any animal can be tracked, on land, sea, or air. This still requires capture and release or at least touching the animal to tag it. And tags are cheap but not free.

Another cool advance is the use of chemical analysis of tissue to infer the travels and history of an animal. These techniques have advanced to the point that one discarded feather can speak volumes—without harming the animal.

This month Michael J. Polito and colleagues report on some successful experiments tracking Penguins through this method [2]. The study tagged Penguins with location tracking tags and when recaptured, took one tail feather.

The chemical analysis of the feathers detected the isotopes of Carbon in the feathers, which are different in different regions of the ocean, which have different plankton and fish to eat. The study showed that this method was as accurate as the location tag in identifying which waters were visited by each bird that winter.


This means that catching a sample of Penguins once (rather than twice) and plucking one feather (rather than attaching a tracker) can reveal where they fed during the dark winter.

  1. Sarah Gabbott, Penguin feathers record migration route, in BBC News -Science & Environment. 2017.
  2. Michael J. Polito,, Jefferson T. Hinke, Tom Hart, Mercedes Santos, Leah A. Houghton, and Simon R. Thorrold, Stable isotope analyses of feather amino acids identify penguin migration strategies at ocean basin scales. Biology Letters, 13 (8) 2017.

Book Review: “Killing is My Business” by Adam Christopher

Killing is My Business by Adam Christopher

Adam Christopher is a prolific and imaginative writer whose novels read like comic books or graphic novels without the pictures. That’s deliberate and it really works.

Killing is My Business is another story about Raymond Electromatic, the last robot.

The technology in this story is a weird 1960’s Asimovian sort of robotics, with computers the size of buildings, spinning magnetic tapes, and rotary dial telephones. Ray is a strange super powered, nearly invulnerable robot with a sophisticated brain but memory limited to the capacity of one 24-hour tape cartridge.

A la 60’s LA Noir, and Ray is licensed PI, but employed as a hired killer. The result is a superpowered robot assassin who can’t remember yesterday, and who has to be briefed each morning to remind him of what’s going on in the case, and who the target for today is.

Given his almost total amnesia, and inhuman mechanical body, he doesn’t fit in sot society especially well.  Very Noir, no? And, by the way, he’s the last and only robot still at large. All the others were recalled and destroyed.

Does this all make sense? No.


This particular story involves even more mysterious assignment than usual. It becomes clear that his daily briefings are clearly edited, and that he is being manipulated by his programmer (Ada the supercomputer). He is dropped into a dangerous and inexplicable situation, and he struggles to figure out what is going on.

This isn’t the real 1960s, nor even authentic 60s fictional LA. It’s sort of nostalgia for an imaginary nostalgia. Fiction about past fictions. Or something.

I guess it’s kind of fun to try to fathom the weird LA setting and the rather alien people who live there, if you like that sort of thing. There is a lot of pseudo-retro banter, which I guess some people like. Given that the people and their motives are extremely shallow and opaque, I found it hard to be deeply interested in any of them.

Overall, the whole thing works because Christopher writes well. But I have to say that I like his other work better.

  1. Adam Christopher, Killing is My Business, New York, Tor, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

A personal blog.

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