You are having a bad problem…

Earlier in the week, North Korea performed a missile test that successfully put a payload in orbit.  Just one problem: the orbit isn’t exactly stable.  Here’s why it’s bad news:

The most obvious bad news is that this is quite dangerous, as this object has now become a collision risk to other satellites.

The first collision between two satellites happened in 2009, when an American 1,235-pound Iridium communications satellite—launched in 1997—collided with a dead 1-ton Russian satellite launched in 1993. At the time, NASA blamed the Russians.

The collision wasn’t only bad for the functioning Iridium, but also to everyone else. Space is a big place, but it’s full of trash. And like that accident proved, collisions happen.

We can track small pieces of debris, but space crashes generate particles that we can’t monitor. The thousands of objects that may result from such an accident put other satellites, spaceships and the lives of astronauts at risk.

There’s probably several of you wondering how a small piece of space debris can be so deadly, and the answer is a simple one: the speeds involved.  Earth’s escape velocity is 11 km/s, so that’s kind of a minimum speed limit for anything wishing to escape the planet’s gravitational influence.  In practice, satellites will be moving slower than that, since they don’t need to escape Earth’s gravitational influence; they need only to obtain balance between Earth’s gravitational pull and the inertia of the satellite’s motion.

But that’s still fast.  The closer the object is to Earth, the faster it needs to be moving to obtain that balance, since the gravitational influence is stronger.  I spend a bit of time tinkering with NASA’s orbital velocity calculator, and discovered the following:

  • The International Space Station, which is maintained at an orbital altitude of between 330 km and 410 km (if Wikipedia is to be believed), has an average orbital velocity of 7.706 km/s.
  • Geosynchronous satellites, at an altitude of 35,786 km above the equator, requires an orbital velocity of 3.07 km/s.
  • The Moon, which is around 380,000 km away, has an average orbital velocity of 1.022 km/s.

For comparison, a bullet fired from an AK-47 assault rifle has a muzzle velocity of 0.715 km/s.  (Once again, if Wikipedia is to be believed.)  Imagine something the size of a bullet colliding with your spacecraft at 10 times that speed — the consequences of an almost-certain uncontrolled depressurization would not be pretty.

Then, when one considers the North Korean political situation, other concerns pop up:

The other bad news is that, while nobody really knows if this is a satellite or not, all countries are assuming it has been an attempt to disguise the test of a three-stage intercontinental ballistic missile. One that can easily reach the United States or Russia. And it worked.

The only bit of good news is that the lack of precision that probably led to a spinning satellite is proof of North Koreans’ ineptitude when it comes to design and control these long-range weapons. Putting an ICBM in space is not all you need to, say, drop a couple of nuclear warheads over Los Angeles. You need precision guiding systems for that, something that Kim Jong-Un’s boffins don’t seem to have mastered quite yet.

But then again, a nuclear warhead falling anywhere will definitely be very bad news anyway, no matter how precise it is.

While the rest of the world worries about that, I’m more interested in where the satellite will potentially come down after an almost-certain uncontrolled re-entry.  The satellite’s position can be tracked here: rather disturbingly, it passed almost directly over Cape Town as I was typing this post up.

So, lesson of the day — if you’re going to put something in orbit, make sure you do it properly.  Otherwise, you are having a bad problem and you will not go to space today.

It’s the end of the world as we know it

And, although I feel just fine (albeit rather buggered after Little Annoying Sister’s wedding last Saturday), some people are just a tad worried:

The Constitutional Court has received an “extremely urgent court application” for the creation of a “task team” to prepare for the end of the world.

This is according to a Beeld report on Wednesday. Robert Sefatsa (38), a Soweto resident, also stated in papers handed in at court that the government needed to form a new department to prepare for judgment day next Friday with an “investigative task team”.

He suggested that the new state department should be called the “department of paranormal and esoteric sciences”.

Sefatsa pointed out that according to the Mayan calendar, judgment day would be on December 21, and it was therefore a matter of extreme urgency that South Africa and other countries make their preparations for the apocalypse.

A commission of inquiry should include geologists, statisticians, astronomists, economists and extra-terrestrial technologists, and should be competent to cope with evacuation procedures, sea and air logistics, and resettlement, he said.

While Robert may have good and noble intentions, there’s just one problem: the predicted apocalypse is less than a week away, and government around here isn’t exactly known for doing anything particularly quickly.  By December 21st, one would expect the government to, at most, have set up an investigative team to determine whether another investigative team is needed to actually investigate whether the Mayan calendar is worth investigating in the first place.

Damn Vogon bureaucracy in this country.

Of course, Robert may be just be trolling the Constitutional Court, but that won’t stop the Constitutional Court from trolling him back.  As so eloquently put it:

Of course, Mr Sebatsa, as a South African citizen and taxpayer, is completely within his rights to make this court application. Just as the Constitutional Court is completely within their rights to throw it out and then pop down to the Mystic Boer to laugh it off over a few brandies.

In the meantime, he can always head off for a holiday in the Drakensburg.  They’ll be the highest mountain range on the planet very shortly…

And so, the madness begins…

With days remaining before Little Annoying Sister ties the knot, the intensity levels have gone up a few gears — the rest of my family arrived this evening from their two-day roadtrip from Durban.  So, from now until just after Christmas, there’ll be four people crammed into my two-bedroom flat.  In fact, at the moment it’s five, because one of my aunts from Australia is down for the Joyous and Special Occasion specifically.

I’ll just leave this image here to illustrate what my living quarters are like:

Yes, I’m feeling /that/ claustrophobic…

Thankfully, the dive-bombing kamikaze pilot has been evicted, so that’s one less thing to worry about.

That being said, so long as I’m left alone on Tuesday and Thursday evenings (when my raid team of Extremely Crazy People act as cannon fodder for the bosses in Mogu’shan Vaults and Heart of Fear), I should be able to survive.  In fact, we’re likely to be taking a break from raiding anyway (because of people going away on holiday) — which reminds me, I actually need to bring this up with the rest of my raid team tomorrow night…  (Yes, I’m a slacking raid leader, sue me.)

Nature’s own kamikaze pilot

This is one of those “a picture speaks a thousand words” blog posts.  And in a nutshell, the local fauna at my current apartment block (though not for much longer) has turned hostile:

Apparently, this is where kamikaze originated from.

Said starling has made its nest above the motion sensor light above the (only!) egress of our communal garage.  It’s turned the previously simple routine of arriving and leaving into a mad dash to pass through the restricted area before its self-appointed sentry notices and reacts.

Here’s a shot showing the notice from the previous image, the entrance to the communal garage, and the motion sensor light.  The colour balance and contrast is very off, but I was far more concerned for my own survival than capturing a photo that people such as Ettienne would approve of.  (On that note, I’m planning a mission to Fish Hoek over the weekend for sunrise shots, depending on weather and whether I can drag myself out of bed at around 04:20…)

I can make it from the entrance to the car in 3 seconds. Can you?

And if we zoom in, we get a glimpse of the antagonist:

This little bugger has the speed, manoeuvrability and attitude of a fighter jet.  If you see it coming for you, run like hell.

I have no idea when the starling’s nest is planning on being removed, but considering the risks of a) aerial attacks while the forcible eviction is taking place and b) the starling rejecting the nest and its offspring if it’s been tampered with, no doubt our Body Corporate will be making sure it gets done properly.  Which will probably take a while.  In the meantime, I’m trying to obtain one of these


An announcement posted on the ZA NiC page states that no new or registrations will be accepted after October 31, 2012.

A (blatant) copy/paste explains their reasoning:

The primary reason for starting this project in 1998 was to provide an affordable alternative to the domain name prices of the time. Back in the late ’90s a .com domain name could easly set you back as much as $100! Today the Internet is a very different place with a .com domain being available for as little as around $8. Even in the primary market we served (South Africa), domains are just R50 per year and domains are free for non-profit organisations.

Unfortunately just as the Internet has become a better place (cheaper!) it has also become a worse place in the last 14 years. Today the admin overhead of managing domain names registered purely for spam or scamming purposes has made running a free, community serving project such as ZA NiC just not fun anymore. And that is our secondary reason for ceasing new registrations.

Just because we will no longer be taking new registrations, it does NOT mean any existing domains will cease to function. Domains registered before 31/10/2012, with valid and responding nameservers, will continue to be served by us indefinitely. The modification system for keeping contact and domain name details up to date will also continue to work as it does today.

Despite the statement that existing domain names will be left alone, the announcement means that the future availability of this site’s domain name in the future is no longer guaranteed.  As such… any suggestions for an alternative name, just in case?  (Some research indicates that the domain namespace is designed for personal names of South African entities, so something in there would be my first choice.)

The roof is on fire

So, Development was (for the most part) working away nicely on a Friday afternoon, when we noticed a plume of smoke outside the window.  Of course, the thought of a field trip was irresistible, so we all climbed the fire escape to the building roof, and noticed this:

Yes, that’s a veld fire in the District Six area.  Obviously, we don’t know what caused it, but as everything in Cape Town is extremely dry after some pretty intense heat that we’ve been having lately, it probably wouldn’t take much for a cigarette end carelessly flicked out of some motorist’s window to set that off.

Of course, this being Cape Town, the wind blew the fire across the road:

Now, for those unfamiliar with the area, just behind that other building in the office park lies the N2 freeway.  Hate to think what visibility is like for those motorists right now.

And then of course, the smoke plume gets blown over towards the CBD:

Two things to consider: the aforementioned visibility problem on the N2 (which you can’t even see in the above shot!), and the fact that it’s now 15:30 and people are starting to bugger off from work.

Rush hour this afternoon is going to be FUN.

(At least I leave the office at 18:00 and drive AWAY from the fire…)

World hard drive shortage

Some people reading this already know.  This post is intended for those that don’t.

Around 2-3 weeks ago, floods in Thailand took around 25% of the world’s hard drive manufacturing capacity offline:

Disk manufacturing sites in Thailand — notably including the largest Western Digital plant — were shut down due to floods around Bangkok last week and are expected to remain shut for at least several more days. The end to flooding is not in sight, and Western Digital now says it could take five to eight months to bring its plants back online. Thailand is a major manufacturer of hard drives, and the shutdowns have reduced the industry’s output by 25 percent.

Western Digital, the largest hard disk manufacturer, makes more than 30 percent of all hard drives in the world. Its plants in Ayutthaya’s Bang Pa-In Industrial Estate and Pathum Thani’s Navanakorn Industrial Estate together produce about 60 percent the company’s disks. Both were shut down last Wednesday. (Western Digital also has a major plant in Malaysia that hasn’t been affected by the floods, so some production will likely shift to that plant.)

Fourth-ranked hard-disk manufacturer Toshiba makes more than 10 percent of the world’s hard disks, and half of its capacity is in Thailand. Toshiba’s plant has also been closed due to flooding.

Key disk component suppliers have also been hit. Nidec, which makes more than 70 percent of all hard drive motors, has temporarily suspended operations at all three of its plants in Thailand, affecting 30 percent of its production capacity. Hutchinson Technologies, which makes drive suspension assemblies, has also suspended operations due to power outages, although it says it will shift operations to its U.S. plant.

Seagate, the second-largest hard disk manufacturer, has two plants in Thailand, but neither is in the flooded parts of the country. Seagate notes that “the hard disk drive component supply chain is being disrupted and it is expected that certain component in the supply chain will be constrained.” Translation: Component prices are going up, at least for some parts.

Economics 101: if supply is constrained and demand remains constant, prices are going to shoot up. This has already happened now.

So with hard drive production being affected so heavily, what does that mean for us consumers? We run the possibility of seeing high prices and limited availability at one of the most important times of the year. Indeed, some retailers like Newegg and NCIX have already begun limiting the number of drives a customer can purchase (Newegg is currently at a limit of one drive per customer while NCIX has announced a limit of two) as they gear up for supply shortages and price increases throughout the channel. Speaking of price increases, we have seen a spike of 15% to 30% in the cost of some models over the last 72 hours.

This couldn’t have come at a worse time since Christmas shoppers will see higher prices on everything from notebooks to PVRs. Flash memory isn’t safe from this turbulence either so expect its prices to increase as consumers begin looking for alternatives to HDDs. So gear up folks because the days of cheap storage space are about to end….for a few months at least. Our hearts and prayers go out to the people suffering through this disaster.

And I’ve confirmed that this has hit our local suppliers as well. I priced a rig for a friend of mine in mid-September, and quoted a 1TB Western Digital HDD (from one of South Africa’s more reputable online stores) for R 864.12. That same HDD, from the same store, is currently R 1,127.46, and that price is not going to drop anytime soon.

To make our lives even worse, ASUS has confirmed that they only have HDD inventory until the end of November. This has the potential of affecting their supply of notebooks, desktops, etc. – which could result in those prices rising as well. We could well see more knock-on effects elsewhere as well.

TL;DR – now’s not a great time to buy HDDs.