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27 May 12:47

Unbelievable Sculpture

27 May 12:13

О любви

27 Jan 13:40

#Euromaidan: Must-see photos and stories from the front lines

by Cory Doctorow

An amazing post on Livejournal from Ilya "Zyalt" Varlamov gives a glimpse of life behind the barricades at the #Euromaidan uprising in Kiev, Ukraine. Zyalt's photos and text convey the diversity of the rebel lines -- "from students to pensioners" -- and the ingenuity they display in everything from homebrewed catapaults to morale-boosting drumming ("When casual stone- and grenade-throwing takes place, the knock is monotonous, in order to set rhythm and keep the morale. When Berkut attacks, drumming becomes louder and everyone hears that – for some it is a signal to run away, for some, on the opposite – defend the barricades.") At the end, we see the moment when the smoke clears and the truce begins. This is nailbiting, engrossing, terrifying stuff.

Here's hoping that all our readers in Ukraine are safe, especially Daniel, who wrote our first post on #Euromaidan.

I would like to dispel the most common myths about Maidan.

1."They destroyed the whole city" Not true. All of the action you see in the pictures are happening on a small square near the entrance to a Dinamo stadium. This is a government sector, there is no intereference in peaceful life outside of this area. If you make an analogy with Moscow, imagine that the barricades are someone in the area of Ilinka or Varvarka, near the president's administration. Sure, it's the center, but regular Moscovites wouldn't notice. There is dark smoke and fire on all pictures: those are mostly burning tires. There is not tangible damage to the buildings. Unfortunately one store burned down last night near the barricades, resulted from a poorly thrown molotov cocktail. Even the statue of Lobanovsky, located in the epicenter of fighting has been covered with cloth to prevent damage. Overall, the protesters are very careful regarding property. They've take apart fences and benches, but no windows are broken, noone is vandalizing, and all looters are caught and beaten. So the picture is pretty apocalyptic, but things are not so bad.

2. "This is not a revolution, nothing horrible is happeneing"

Also not true. This is a real revolution. Decide for yourselves: it's been two months since the center of Kiev has been in the hands of the opposition. Several government buildings are seized. The work of many government offices is paralyzed. The opposition has created barricades, which the authorities have not be able to take. Despite the freezing temps, tens of thousands of people are on the streets for the last two months. The system of defense and supply chain are established. There is perfect order at the protestor HQ, people are fed, dressed, people are pooling money to gather supplies. The most important thing: the people in power are unable to restore order. The police has failed several times at try to storm the barricades. I'll make a separate post about this, but trust me, the only way to dismantle this is with heavy artillery, or drop in commandos. Every day the opposition is securing more territories. What is this if not a revolution?

3. "The entire Kiev is paralyzed, there is no peaceful life for the regular people."

Kiev is living its own life. All stores and cafes are working, people are going to work, study in universities, get married, divorce and even die their own death. Most of the Kiev populace are not inconvenienced. Imagine if Navalny took over the Red Square and set up his camp there. What would change for you, Moscovites? Nothing. So the only people who are inconvenienced are toruists. A few stores and cafes had to close down in the very center. Also, those living in the center have troubles with logistics. But the entire Kiev is not paralyzed.

Revolution in Kiev, Ukraine (via Hacker News)


24 Jan 11:41

Putting hard drive reliability to the test shows not all disks are equal

by Peter Bright

Hitachi drives crush competing models from Seagate and Western Digital when it comes to reliability, according to data from cloud backup provider Backblaze. Their collection of more than 27,000 consumer-grade drives indicated that the Hitachi drives have a sub-two percent annualized failure rate, compared to three to four percent for Western Digital models, and as high as 25 percent for some Seagate units.

Hard drive manufacturers like to claim that their disks are extremely reliable. The main reliability measure used of hard disks is the mean time between failures (MTBF), and typically this is quoted as being somewhere between 100,000 and 1 million hours, or between 11 and 110 years.

These failures are generally assumed to follow a so-called bathtub curve, with relatively high failure rates when the drive is new—"infant mortality," caused by manufacturing defects—and similarly when the drive nears the end of its useful life, but low failure rates in between.

Read 11 remaining paragraphs | Comments

24 Jan 11:39

Who Makes the Best Hard Disk Drives?

by Soulskill
Hamsterdan writes "Backblaze, the cloud backup company who open sourced their Storage Pod a few years ago, is now providing information on drive failure rates. They currently have over 27,000 consumer grade drives spinning in Backblaze storage pods. There are over 12,000 drives each from Seagate and Hitachi, and close to 3,000 from Western Digital (plus a too-small-for-statistical-reporting smattering of Toshiba and Samsung drives). One cool thing: Backblaze buys drives the way you and I do: they get the cheapest consumer-grade drives that will work. Their workload is almost hundred percent write. Because they spread the incoming writes over several drives, their workload isn't overly performance intensive, either. Their results: Hitachi has the lowest overall failure rate (3.1% over three years). Western Digital has a slightly higher rate (5.2%), but the drives that fail tend to do so very early. Seagate drives fail much more often — 26.5% are dead by the three-year mark."

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17 Jan 13:18


17 Jan 13:13

Success Kid / I Hate Sandcastles | 859.png

17 Jan 13:12

The Incredible Underwater Art of Competitive Aquascaping

by Christopher Jobson

The Incredible Underwater Art of Competitive Aquascaping plants fish aquariums Forest Scent, Pavel Bautin. Russia. 2010 IAPLC Grand Prize Winner

The Incredible Underwater Art of Competitive Aquascaping plants fish aquariums
Pale Wind, Takayuki Fukada. Japan. 2013 IAPLC Gold Prize

The Incredible Underwater Art of Competitive Aquascaping plants fish aquariums
Whisper of the pines, Serkan Çetinkol. Turkey. 2013 IAPLC Top 27

The Incredible Underwater Art of Competitive Aquascaping plants fish aquariums
Verve!, Chow Wai Sun. Hong Kong. 2011 IAPLC Bronze Prize

The Incredible Underwater Art of Competitive Aquascaping plants fish aquariums
Way to heaven, Dmitriy Parshin. Russia.

The Incredible Underwater Art of Competitive Aquascaping plants fish aquariums
Wild West, Stjepan Erdeljić. Croatia.

The Incredible Underwater Art of Competitive Aquascaping plants fish aquariums
Georgi Chaushev, Bulgaria. 2012 IAPLC Top 100.

The Incredible Underwater Art of Competitive Aquascaping plants fish aquariums
Francisco Wu, Spain. 2012 IAPLC Top 100.

The Incredible Underwater Art of Competitive Aquascaping plants fish aquariums
Long Tran Hoang, Vietnam. 2012 IAPLC Third Place.

The Incredible Underwater Art of Competitive Aquascaping plants fish aquariums
Pilgrimage, Shintaro Matsui. Japan. 2013 IAPLC Fifth Place.

No, these aren’t exactly your childhood goldfish bowls. The world of competitive aquarium design, or aquascaping, is just as difficult, expensive, and cutthroat as any other sport but requires expertise in many different fields to guarantee success. Aquarium designers possess large amounts of expertise in biology, design, photography, and excel in the art of patience, as individual aquascapes can take months if not years to fully mature into a completed landscape.

The world’s largest nature aquarium and aquatic plants layout competition is the International Aquatic Plants Layout Contest (IAPLC) which annually ranks hundreds of competitors from around the world with Asian and Eastern European countries generally dominating the top slots. While it’s somewhat difficult to track down galleries of winners from every year, above are some amazing entries from the last few years. To see more, oh so much more, check out: IAPLC Grand Prize Works, IAPLC 2011 Top 27, IAPLC 2013 Top 6, IAPLC 2012 Top 200 (or here), and the first Eastern European Planted Aquarium Design Contest.

17 Jan 13:11

Rather unknown but really special places on earth

by bspcn
The Bastei Bridge in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains of Germany
Herrenchiemsee New Palace, Lake Chiemsee, Germany
Popeye Village in Mellieha, Malta
The Labassin Waterfall Restaurant, located at the Villa Escudero Resort in the Philippines
Sidari, Corfu, Greece
Bellinzona, Switzerland
Spiral Staircase in Taihang Mountains, China
A nice corner in London, England, where new and old buildings meet!
Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai, Thailand
Procida, Italy
The scarab beetle statue in Luxor, Egypt. The legend says that if you walk around the beetle counter-clockwise seven times, you will have good luck.
Bishop Castle in the San Isabel National Forest located North West of Rye, Colorado
Cappadocia in Central Anatolia, largely in Nev?ehir Province, in Turkey
Castillo de Colomares in Benalmadena, Malaga, Spain
Mount Ai-Petry at night, Crimea, Ukraine
The Sun Temple at Modhera in Gujarat, India
In front of the St. Patricks Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland
Samos, Greece
Ragusa, Sicily
Wroclaw, Poland
The Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi
Wooden boats bridge, China
Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal
Again Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal, from the inside
Gloucester Cathedral n Gloucester, England. The cathedral has been used from as a location for the Harry Potter films.
Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, Netherlands If you like this post, I’m going to make another! <- here it is, I really really hope you like it!:) <- the third one, thank you so much for your feedback! <- YOUR list:) Please continue to write me messages about your secret places!
17 Jan 13:07


by zhdanich
17 Jan 13:04

Wednesday, January 15 @ 12:18:05 pm

by zhdanich
15 Jan 16:46

Realizing I ran the command on the wrong server

by sharhalakis

by Gal

15 Jan 10:18

Comic for November 19, 2013

15 Jan 10:14

Comic for December 6, 2013

15 Jan 10:11

Comic for December 20, 2013

15 Jan 10:11

Comic for December 21, 2013

15 Jan 10:05

Comic for January 13, 2014

09 Jan 19:58

Need more reasons to feel paranoid about the NSA? Watch this.

by Annalee Newitz

This is a terrific presentation from tech researcher and journalist Jacob Appelbaum. At December's Chaos Computer Congress in Hamburg, he presented the latest documented revelations about how deep the NSA spying rabbit hole really goes.



09 Jan 10:21

I Think We Know Who's in Charge Here...

I Think We Know Who's in Charge Here...

Submitted by: Unknown

Tagged: Cats , Command , dogs , boss , gifs , funny
09 Jan 10:20

The Things We Come Up With When We're Bored...

The Things We Come Up With When We're Bored...

Submitted by: Unknown

Tagged: bored , dogs , chairs , gifs , funny
09 Dec 17:19

leradr: Sumerian star map from Ninive 3000 B.C.E.


Sumerian star map from Ninive

3000 B.C.E.

09 Dec 17:16

Cannibalism [tastefullyoffensive:x]



29 Nov 14:52

A Guide to Happiness: Alain de Botton Shows How Six Great Philosophers Can Change Your Life

by Josh Jones

Alain de Botton is a not a philosopher’s philosopher. This means that his work is given little consideration inside academia. It also means that he speaks to many, many more people—ordinary people hungry for humanist ideas about living—than his peers. In his six-part video series, Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness, de Botton tells us that he’d always looked to philosophy as a discipline that “has wise things to say about everyday worries…. Philosophy promised something that might sound a little naïve, but was in fact rather profound: A way to learn to be happy.” I’m still not sure if this sounds more naïve or profound, but de Botton’s videos, each nearly 25 minutes long, concern thinkers who surely knew the difference. Each video also functions as a travelogue of sorts, as de Botton visits the cities that produced the thinkers, and tries to square their histories with the modern world around the relics.

Above, de Botton discusses Roman stoic philosopher and tragedian Seneca. An advisor to Nero, Seneca’s life may have been happy, at times, but it was hardly restrained. In any case, he had something to teach us about the futility of anger, and he was also, like de Botton, a great popularizer of other people’s ideas. Seneca characterized anger as a rational response that nonetheless relies on false premises, namely that we have more control over our circumstances than we actually do, and that our optimism about outcomes is unfounded and sets us up with unrealistic expectations. De Botton has before professed an affinity for the tragic view, and Seneca’s horribly bloody works, which inspired the Elizabethan genre known as “Revenge Tragedy,” are particularly grotesque explorations of anger. But perhaps it is those who most clearly see the pernicious effects of an emotion, or lack of it, who understand it best.

Take Arthur Schopenhauer, whom de Botton consults as his authority on love. Like Seneca, Schopenhauer seems very much at odds with much of his philosophical writing on love and compassion. His essay “On Women” earned him a permanent reputation as a misogynist, deserved or not. He’s rumored to have had a violent temper and wrote approvingly of keeping one’s distance from the mass of people, most of whom annoyed him disproportionately. Schopenhauer also famously wrote that it would have been preferable not to have been born at all, a position of extreme misanthropy known as antinatalism.

But there are other aspects of Schopenhauer’s romantic life to discuss, both its early successes and later failures. “Nothing in life,” says de Botton, “is more important than love for Schopenhauer.” Even with all of its pains of rejection, romantic love, Schopenhauer wrote in The World as Will and Representation, “is more important than all other aims in man’s life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it.”

Another popular British philosophical thinker, John Gray, has a very different take on the great German pessimist, calling his philosophy “more subversive of humanist hopes than any other.” But de Botton’s technique seems in many ways calculated as a mild subversion of expectation, choosing as he does such contradictory, and often very solitary figures.

One solitary thinker who occupies a treasured place in the library of every humanist is Michel de Montaigne, the genial French essayist who invented the literary term essai, and who some might say also perfected the form. Montaigne has always struck me as the happiest of men, even in, or especially in his long stretches of solitude, punctuated by conscientious public service (despite his lifelong painful kidney stones). While both Schopenhauer and Montaigne engaged in lengthy self-examination, Montaigne seems to have genuinely liked himself and others. He treats himself in his writings as an old and honest friend with whom one can be perfectly candid without any fear of reprisal. This is perhaps why de Botton chose him to illustrate self-esteem.

Montaigne comes from a tradition much friendlier to philosophy as memoir (he invented the tradition). And so, in this age of the memoir, he has seen a great resurgence. In 2011, at least three popular books on Montaigne came out, one titled How to Live and another subtitled Montaigne and Being in Touch With Life. Of all the six philosophers de Botton surveys in his series, which also includes Nietzsche, Epicurus, and Socrates, Montaigne would seem the most complimentary to de Botton’s casual, personal approach to philosophy, which seeks not to dig new ground nor discover distant countries but to confront the vexing human questions that meet us always at home.

Related Content:

Download 90 Free Philosophy Courses and Start Living the Examined Life

Alain de Botton Proposes a Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success

The Daily Habits of Highly Productive Philosophers: Nietzsche, Marx & Immanuel Kant

Alain de Botton’s Quest for The Perfect Home and Architectural Happiness

The Art of Living: A Free Stanford Online Course Explores Timeless Questions

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Guide to Happiness: Alain de Botton Shows How Six Great Philosophers Can Change Your Life is a post from: Open Culture. You can follow Open Culture on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and by Email.

29 Nov 14:52

Hungry helicopter eats delicious soldiers

by Jason Kottke

Hungry Helicopter

Scheming boxes and this hungry helicopter are neck and neck for the greatest example of pareidolia (aka faces in things).

Tags: pareidolia
13 Nov 11:18

The National's Bryce Dessner: "My Favorite Contemporary Classical Works"

by Bryce Dessner
The Kronos Quartet Aheym

Bryce Dessner is the guitarist of one of my favorite bands of today, The National. What may come as a surprise is that Bryce is also a well-respected, Yale-trained composer of contemporary classical music, and very active in that scene. Indeed, he curates Cincinnati's MusicNOW Festival of contemporary classical artists that has featured musicians ranging from Steve Reich and Bang On A Can All-Stars to Sufjan Stevens and Kronos Quartet. Last week, Kronos Quartet released a magnificent LP of four of Bryce's compositions, titled Aheym. As I previously posted, it is truly marvelous. I had the opportunity to meet with Bryce over the summer and we talked about his influences (and collaborators) who just happen to include some of my favorite avant-garde composers like Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and John Cage. I couldn't help but ask Bryce for his list of favorite contemporary works and he was kind enough to create this annotated guide for me, and you. - David Pescovitz

My Favorite Contemporary Works
by Bryce Dessner

Arvo Part 'Pari Intervallo'
A simple chord progression on the organ with a repeating slow arpeggio pattern. This piece is emblematic of beautiful economy in Arvo Part's music:

Steve Reich 'Music for Eighteen Musicians' (original recording on ECM)
This is Reich's classic in my opinion. An hour of pulsing harmony:

Steve Reich 'Electric Counterpoint'
I always reference this piece when people ask me about my classical background and playing in a rock band. I like to say that Reich's electric counterpoint for multiple electric guitars is as influential on my guitar playing as any 'classic rock' guitarist. Here's Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead performing it:

Philip Glass 'Closing Piece'
I performed this piece from Glass Works on tour with Philip almost ten years ago. It is as memorable as any pop song, so simple and haunting:

Britten Sea Interludes, 3 'Moonlight' from Peter Grimes
The four Sea Interludes from the Peter Grimes opera are some of the most beautiful music of the 20th-century. If you don't know Britten, this is a good place to start:

John Zorn 'Kol Nidre'
Also written for Kronos. Zorn is one of the most influential composers/musicians and his music is incredibly diverse. This piece written on the Yom Kippur prayer of Kol Nidre is one of my favorites:

David Lang 'So Called Laws of Nature'
Lang's masterpiece written for So Percussion. Like everything David does, its incredibly challenging to play but also somehow it sounds elegant and effortless:

Nico Muhly 'Skip Town'
This piece is one of many that I love by my friend Nico Muhly. It has this beautiful geometry about it and quirky rhythms which Nico does so well:

John Luther Adams 'For Lou Harrison'
One of my favorite composers, he lives in Alaska and his music is deeply inspired by the natural world around him. This piece he composed for Lou Harrison, another great west coast American Composer. It cycles through chord patterns in this seamless expanding process, like waves coming in from the sea:

Witold Lutoslawski 'Musique Fenebre'
One of my favorite String Orchestra pieces, its scored for 10 different string parts and has a stark beauty to it. It was written in memory of Bela Bartok and the whole piece has these transparent processes going on which somehow amount to something very subtle and mysterious:

John Cage 'String Quartet in Four Parts'
One of Cage's pieces I can listen to endlessly, especially the recording by the Arditti Quartet. Written using his chance methods, the piece was also dedicated to Lou Harrison whom he knew from his Black Mountain College days:

John Adams 'Shaker Loops'
One of his masterpieces and one of the greatest works for String Orchestra. He is able to get so many different textures and subtle effects out of the strings, and the score itself is a thing of beauty. The original recording with the San Fransisco Symphony is my favorite. (The version below is from a recent New Albion Records - ed.):


13 Nov 11:16


13 Nov 11:16

metrodorus: (by Mono Andes)

13 Nov 09:29

Plane lands/takes off in only 20 feet

by Jason Kottke

I posted a video earlier today of a Super Cub airplane landing on the side of a mountain. Super Cubs are ideal for that undertaking because of their low stall speed and short take-off and landing distances. But I had no idea you could land and take off in one in the space of 20 feet.

Never seen a plane do that before...well aside from tiny model planes. What an incredible power-to-weight ratio that plane must have. You can seriously land these things anywhere, almost like a helicopter. Wanna go fly fishing? Just set it down on the banks of a stream:

Or on a gravel bar in a river:

These planes are referred to as STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft; here's some detail on how they work. (via @alper)

Tags: flying   video
13 Nov 08:48


12 Nov 15:21

Blinded by the Light

by Chris Krupiarz

This article originally appeared in this week's issue of ​The Magazine​, an ad-free, subscriber-supported fortnightly periodical of medium-length feature reporting and essays.

The probe sails through space, traveling the distance of the LA-to-Chicago red-eye in a minute. My fellow engineers and scientists who built the spacecraft are now some 99 million miles distant on a blue-tinged point of light. We call the probe Messenger.

This name identifies its scientific mission — MESSENGER stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging — and acknowledges its destination’s eponym, the Roman god of communication and much more. Operating beyond Earth’s atmosphere and without an engineering requirement for beauty, the spacecraft lacks the smooth lines of a Newey-designed F1 car slicing through the Mediterranean air of Monaco, or the splendor of Strauss’s Golden Gate Bridge against a gloomy June sky in San Francisco.

Messenger instead resembles a Lego model of non-descript blocks connected by a subway map of wires and cables. The spacecraft is designed for a singular purpose: to be the first probe to orbit Mercury.

We sent Messenger on its way August 3, 2004. Until Messenger completes its mission, the spacecraft is vulnerable to its surroundings. One bump along its journey remains a vivid reminder.

Deep space none

Traveling with Messenger to the planet closest to the Sun would have been a nightmare vacation. The trip takes years and then the weather on arrival is Phoenix-hot or McMurdo-cold, only far more severe.

For the craft, Mercury’s heat is a bigger problem than the cold. Messenger’s survival depends on an eight-foot by six-and-a-half-foot sunshade providing an SPF in the hundreds of thousands to protect against 700° F temperatures. The sun’s rays will eventually scorch the shade’s white ceramic-cloth surface to burnt-toast black, while behind the shield it stays room temperature.

The project scientists’ stand-ins hide within the shade: a suite of instruments ranging from the imager — the glamour photographer whose prints will grace the covers of Science and Discover — to the introvert of the group, the magnetometer. The magnetometer must stand apart from the crowd, attached to the end of a 12-foot boom, thus avoiding the chatter of the spacecraft’s own magnetic field. Twin solar panels bring electricity to the party; mirrors cover the panels to limit temperatures to a roast-ready 300° F.

During lulls in its internal chatter, Messenger sends instrument and spacecraft data to the three Deep Space Network stations on Earth: one over the hill from the Murrumbidgee River near Canberra, another just off of Calle Blas de Otero in the mountains west of Madrid, and the third in middle-of-nowhere California, northeast on the I-15 from LA.

When Messenger lifted off from Cape Canaveral in 2004, it was a rhino’s weight, with much of its heft from fuel. It has been on a diet since, losing mass each time a thruster burps puffs of skin-burning hydrazine or the main engine fires to change course. An on-board computer directs these actions and others via a shopping list of commands sent from Earth. The cost and the limits of physics in fighting the harsh environment of space has slowed space processor evolution — the latest iPhone runs nearly 100 times faster than the Messenger computer.

I know that computer well: I’m responsible for the flight software that’s controlling the spacecraft during this mission phase. And as I sit in my office at that moment, I hope that computer is still in one piece. I just received an email from Eric Finnegan, who, in his role as the Messenger mission systems engineer, is the leader of the spacecraft team. He has sent this message to all the team members:

Subject: MSGR: Spontaneous Loss of Signal today during DSS-63 All, Andy just informed me that we lost signal from Messenger today during the DSS-63 contact. They are tracing the ground system now. I am heading over to the MOC to get more situational awareness. Please join me as soon as possible. -ejf-

From the email, I know that Messenger had been talking with one of the Deep Space Network stations in Madrid, designated DSS-63. These periods of communication, called passes, are typically the length of a workday, about eight hours. Somewhere in the middle of that pass, Messenger had gone silent. Unless commanded to be quiet, spacecraft do not stop chatting: they constantly blabber like one of my sons after his first day of school. Eric calls us all to the mission operations center. Something is wrong.

I send my wife an email that begins, “It’s going to a long day…” and start to pack my computer bag for the walk to mission operations. Just before I shut down my laptop, I receive one last email, this one from those at the Deep Space Network:

FLASH 1: Messenger in Spacecraft Emergency Initial Incident Report: On DOY 244/1633z, the Messenger Project declared Spacecraft Emergency. They stated lost contact with the spacecraft at 142640z.

We need to find out what happened.


This isn’t my first rodeo. The first spacecraft I worked on failed upon launch; the second failed in orbit. I don’t need a third strike. But at my workplace, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), I’m surrounded by scientists and engineers who devote themselves to figuring out hard problems. As I descend the stairs on my way out of my home base, Building 7, I pass a sign that reminds me of our wonkiness and precision: “Down to First Floor for Exit Discharge.”

Deep space missions are marathons. The mission team, led by the principal investigator from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Sean Solomon, twice proposed the mission to NASA before it was accepted. Once approved, Messenger took four years to build, and at the time I take this walk, it has two years left on its trip to Mercury.

On arriving at Building 13, which houses the mission control center, I swipe my badge on the security reader and enter. Along the stem of the L-shaped room sit computer terminals for the instrument teams, as well as the propulsion, power, navigation, communication, and flight software subsystems. In the front of the room, what would be the base of the L, sit autonomy, guidance and control, the mission systems engineer, the mission operations manager, and the flight controllers. Off to the side is a room with glass walls, where, during significant events, upper management nervously waits to see whether the next day’s press release will be a positive one.

Standing near the flight controllers, staring at dual data screens on the wall, are Eric Finnegan and Andy Calloway. Eric is lean and energetic, with dark hair, dark eyes, and a perpetual five-o’clock shadow. He is wearing a white shirt and tie and has his ever-present Blackberry on his belt. Andy, the head of operations, is compact and tennis-player fit. An APL security badge hangs around his neck and he is wearing a polo shirt and jeans — the closest that Lab employees come to a uniform.

“What’s the status?” I ask.

“We lost contact about 45 minutes ago,” says Andy. “We were loading a series of macros to EEPROM when the signal just vanished.”

EEPROM is a predecessor to the flash storage used in SD camera cards. As with flash memory, EEPROM data remains permanent once written, even without power. Macros are a series of commands designed to be executed in sequence. There’s a clue in there, but I need more information.

“Were we doing compression? Downlinking files? Collecting images?”

“No,” replies Andy.

This is a good sign. Those three software functions have caused issues in the past. I thank Andy for the information and then sit down next to Adrian Hill, the autonomy lead for Messenger and a calming influence on the team. He is also an NFL on-field official. Perhaps having Bill Belichick yelling in his ear builds antibodies for stress.

I ask Adrian, “They weren’t doing much other than loading macros to memory. Could it be a multi-bit error?”

Adrian says he was thinking the same thing. Space is unkind to electronics. The sun, distant supernovae, and other sources launch particles that drill through these components. These subatomic bullets may damage computer memory by flipping a bit from a one to a zero or vice versa.1 Engineers have added a little math to computer memory that can automatically flip the bit back to the proper value.

However, if this happens more than once in a single computer word (the numbers of bits that a processor uses as its native basic unit), we call it a multi-bit error: the computer is not smart enough to determine which of the bits have flipped. To avoid reading corrupted data and making a bad decision, the computer reboots itself. This is an annoyance, but the computer would be doing what it is designed to do to fix the problem.

Seeking truth

We tell Eric and Andy our theory, although I am initially hesitant. Experience has shown that the more positive I am that I am right, the more likely it is I am wrong. I add the caveat that we will not know for sure until the spacecraft starts talking again.

I head across the room to my computer station. Already there at the adjoining terminal is the communication lead, Karl Fielhauer. A gray-haired, gregarious man, Karl is the type of guy that quickly lets you know where he stands. When I arrived in the mission operations center during a previous emergency, he summarized the situation with a succinct “we’re screwed.”

Today the conversation quickly diverts to our favorite subject: the Detroit Tigers. Despite the team being three and a half games up on the Twins and in first place in the American League Central, we still complain. We are both from Michigan and are lifelong Tiger fans; history dictates that a season implosion is likely just a few bizarre plays away.

Karl is relaxed because he has looked at his data and noticed that the signal from Messenger did not immediately drop away. Instead, it had slowly lost strength. Andy, Eric, and Karl conclude that Messenger is probably looking for us, like a child lost in the forest calling out for Mom and Dad.

Most spacecraft have multiple modes; we like to see Messenger in operational mode. That means the spacecraft is happily collecting data and all systems are working fine. Instead, Messenger may be in Earth-acquisition mode. The spacecraft would still be alive, slowly rotating to scan the sky while calling to its family on Earth. If that’s true, Messenger will take about three hours to rotate once and find us.

I log in to my terminal and send an email to Annette Mirantes, a colleague on the software team who recently moved overseas. For her, it is late afternoon in Gijón on the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain. Despite supposedly knowing much about computers, I find it magic that I can type on a laptop in Maryland and have that information almost immediately show up on the screen in Annette’s house in Europe. I summarize the situation and we determine what to examine once we get data back from Messenger. Annette replies:

If it's a multi bit error, we'll see it in 406: HSK_MULTIBIT_ERR_TT will be TRUE HSK_MEM_MULTI_BIT_ERR_CNT will be > 0 

Annette is referring to data packet 406 and two data points within. A packet is like an envelope. Inside the envelope is a list of data points and their current values. Data packets are grouped in a spacecraft version of the Dewey Decimal System. The 400 to 499 range is spacecraft data; the 406 packet contains diagnostic data. If the data point HSK_MULTIBIT_ERR_TT is true, it will confirm our theory of a multi-bit error. This will still require a spacecraft recovery, but I can head home and monitor the data from there. If the value is false, I will soon wish mission operations had extra cots.

Spinning round and round

As the three-hour mark approaches, the chatter in the operations center stops. We gather at the front of the room to watch a screen showing a graph that looks like an EKG. The display represents the signal strength from Messenger. The signal remains flatlined at zero until, slowly, the values begin to inch up. The spacecraft is alive, but we do not know how sick it is.

The next step is to tell the spacecraft to stop rotating. To do this, mission operations must command the spacecraft at the precise moment on a subsequent rotation that it again comes into view of the Deep Space Network antennas. Performing this operation is like timing the windmill shot at the Rocky Gorge mini-golf course, except at a distance of 99 million miles.

But, given the skill of the mission operations team, they make the putt and we eventually see a steady stream of communication from Messenger. The data values we need are screaming through space at the speed of light, but at this distance they take eight minutes to arrive.

Andy calls out, “DSN reports the first frame is in. You should be seeing data in about 12 minutes.”

The additional delay is due to the downlink rate. Because Messenger is in an emergency mode, the spacecraft is sending data at only 10 bits per second, a millionth the rate of home broadband.

“We have a 406 packet in the pipeline,” says Andy. That is the packet we need.

I wait. The spacecraft data points are displayed purple, indicating that the information is the same we saw many hours ago. Once they switch to green, I will know we have new data. I eye the screen. The key data point I am watching goes green.


It is a multi-bit error.

I email my wife: “I’ll be home for dinner.”

Messenger arrived safely in orbit on St. Patrick’s Day, 2011. Since then, the spacecraft has sent back the first complete map of Mercury, confirmed water ice in shadowed craters, and discovered an abundance of sulfur on the surface. Once Messenger’s fuel is depleted, Mercury’s gravity will slowly disrupt the probe’s orbit, lowering the spacecraft until it eventually hits the planet.

Photo credits: Messenger artist’s rendering, NASA/The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington Artist’s impression of Messenger in orbit at Mercury. Other photos from before launch via NASA. From top to bottom: Messenger's two solar arrays are inspected (photo KSC-04PD-1328); a worker checks wiring on the probe (photo KSC-04PD-1327); and the craft is prepared for launch (photo KSC-04PD-0443).

  1. A bit flip was in the news twice in recent years. First, when Voyager 2 in 2010 had its flight data system computer experience such a switch; engineers were able to fix that. In March 2013, Curiosity had a glitch that may have been caused by cosmic radiation. Redundancy in computers is a key to recovery. 

Chris Krupiarz works as a spacecraft flight software engineer for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Originally from Michigan, he now lives in Ellicott City, Maryland, with his wife and two kids. In his spare time he enjoys reading and writing, walking in the woods with the family beagles, and creating fictional sporting events with his sons.

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