Jimmy Kimmel on face matches from Google's Arts and Culture app

I haven't tried Google's Art and Culture app, but apparently one of the things it can do is search historical portraits to find people you look like. (Well, not just you. That would be an awfully narrowly focused product.)

I thought this minute-long segment about it from Jimmy Kimmel was reasonably amusing:


Link: https://youtu.be/a-IYOrY8ePA

Update 2018 February 22: I've no idea what happened here. The video has vanished from YouTube without a trace or explanation, possibly over some copyright claim, though that's just my own wild guess. Basically, the app matched Guillermo to a painting of British composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame), which was actually a pretty good match, and Jimmy Kimmel himself to a figure in another classic painting. Donald Trump was allegedly matched to Garfield the Cat, if not by the Google app itself by Jimmy Kimmel's staff. It's a shame the clip was taken down.

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Well, that kinda is what they look like, part 6

When Stephen Colbert shows a photo of someone in the news, he routinely gives an alternative description based on how they look in the picture, as in "White House spokesperson and angry woman behind you at Target Sarah Huckabee Sanders." Here's another collection of them running two minutes:


Link: https://youtu.be/ivCYitolMGY

You can find the previous collection at this link.

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Privately funded launch to orbit of Mars planned tomorrow

Update 2018 February 7: The launch was successful in every respect but one: The middle of the three booster rockets failed to land on the floating platform as intended because one of the required engine firings didn't happen. Interestingly, the two side boosters, which landed perfectly back in Florida, were recycled. The central booster was new and had some design modifications required to deal with having boosters on either side, though I don't think that's directly relevant to the landing failure. The final second stage burn put itself and its Testla Roadster payload into an orbit around the Sun that will take it not just to the orbit of Mars but a good deal beyond, into the asteroid belt. Original post follows:

Tomorrow a private company is planning to launch the world's largest rocket on its maiden test flight, and if all goes as planned, its payload will travel as far as the orbit of Mars.

Meanwhile the same folks are working on a replacement rocket system capable of sending large passenger spaceships to Mars and beyond in the next decade. As a bonus, those spaceships will also be able to transport people between any two points on Earth -- any two points with launch facilities anyway -- in an hour or less. And they plan to make the launch lower than any space-capable rocket now flying.

The company doing this is SpaceX, founded and headed by Elon Musk, a Heinlein character come to life who helped create PayPal and later started the electric car company Tesla. The payload for tomorrow's launch is Musk's personal Tesla Roadster, which will be playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in a loop on the car's sound system.

Since its beginnings in 2002 SpaceX has been wildly ambitious, sometimes failing on its first several tries but more often than not ultimately succeeding. In 2008 their single-engine Falcon 1 rocket became the first privately-funded liquid fueled launch vehicle to put a satellite into orbit. The Falcon 1 was succeeded by the nine-engine Falcon 9, and in 2012 SpaceX used the Falcon 9 and its Dragon space capsule to deliver a load of cargo to the International Space Station, another first for a privately developed launch system. Other deliveries followed, and SpaceX hopes to carry astronauts to the ISS in a new model Dragon as soon as this year.

Tomorrow is the scheduled first try at launching the newest SpaceX rocket, the Falcon Heavy, whose first stage is three Falcon 9 first stages strapped together in a row. While in a sense only an incremental development in its well-established Falcon 9 system, the Falcon Heavy has a payload capacity double that of the biggest launch vehicle in current service, the similar-looking Delta IV Heavy from the United Launch Alliance (a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin).

The Falcon Heavy is powerful enough to launch 35,000 pounds to the Moon. Impressive as that it is, it still falls far short of the Saturn V, the biggest rocket ever built, with a lunar payload capacity of over 100,000 pounds.

But SpaceX is already working on a rocket as powerful as the Saturn V, one code-named BFR. (Some refer to it as the "Big Falcon Rocket," but everybody knows the middle word isn't really Falcon.) They're far enough along on the BFR project to have started test-firing its new engines in 2016. A test flight could occur as soon as 2020 or 2021.

One of the main goals of SpaceX is to lower the cost of getting into space. Estimates are that its prices are currently 80 percent cheaper than the competition, and last year they started re-using the Falcon 9 first stage, which after launch can land vertically back at its launch site of on an autonomous barge out at sea. This is expected to lower costs even more.

Everything about the BFR is intended to be reusable, and this is supposed to make the cost of a BRF rocket lower even than the original Falcon 1. At that point it makes sense to use the BFR as the only launch vehicle. They also hope to achieve reliability comparable to that of a modern airliner.

Not just the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy will be retired in favor of the BFT; the Dragon spacecraft will become obsolete as well, but it will not be replaced. Instead, the BFR’s second stage will be a passenger and cargo spaceship. There will also be BFR tanker rocket able to refuel the main BFR in orbit, allowing it to continue on to the Moon or Mars with full tanks.

So just how big a spaceship are we talking about? The BFR's pressurized volume is planned to be 825 cubic meters, or 29,100 cubic feet. SpaceX says that it can be configured with "up to 40 cabins, large common areas, central storage, galley, and a solar storm shelter in Mars transit configuration." If you find that hard to picture, take a look at this very short YouTube animation:


Link: https://youtu.be/SUb0qRoKhPw

For more on the BFR, including some skepticism about how practical all this might be, see this article from Popular Mechanics.

By the way, another component to the SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System, namely a modular, automated, solar-powered ground-based factory that would extract water from below the surface and carbon dioxide from the air in order to produce oxygen and methane to refuel the spaceship. Of course, oxygen and methane are cheap and readily available on Earth, but the plan is to launch the factory to Mars.

While SpaceX's plans are most ambitious, it has competitors. NASA is working with United Launch Alliance and other contractors on a new Space Launch System (SLS) with a rocket only a little smaller than the BFR that may start flying in 2020. It's likely to be very expensive (no components are planned to be reusable), but it may be more reliable. United Launch Alliance is working on a Vulcan rocket, also aimed for a 2020 test fight, that appears to be a scaled up version of the Delta IV series and somewhat less powerful than the Falcon Heavy.

There's also another private company in the game, Blue Origin, funded out-of-pocket by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Its first rocket, which has already flown in several tests, is a suborbital vehicle suitable for space tourism. It's called the New Shepard, after Alan Shepard, the first American in space, whose short initial flight was similarly suborbital. Their next proposed rocket is the New Glenn, similarly named for the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn, which may be launched in 2020. Its payload is a little smaller than the Falcon Heavy. Blue Origin is also working on a New Armstrong, possibly comparable to the Saturn V, BFR, and SLS, but with no publicly announced time frame or payload capacity.

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Hundreds of top federal jobs are unfilled

There is no official head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or of its legal, financial, and enforcement divisions. There are other vacant top posts in the Departments of Defense, State, Energy, and Agriculture, as well as the National Park Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and many others. In many cases this prevents the agencies from performing at least some of their legally required duties.

What makes the situation increasingly urgent is that while there have been acting heads filling the jobs on a temporary basis, the law limits their authority to 300 days, a point that's already passed. This situation is unprecedented. No previous president has ever left so many appointed positions empty a year into his presidency.

Of 630 key jobs filled by presidential appointment -- agency heads and the second- and third-level managers -- Trump is yet to nominate anyone to fill 240 of them. Another 140 have nominees but the Republican-controlled Senate has still not confirmed them. A few of those are being held up by Democratic opposition, but most are not. In total, over 60 percent of the key jobs remain unfilled. (And this isn't counting the high-level jobs filled by people who are clearly unqualified, including the heads of the departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development.)

Worse, there are plenty of lower-level jobs that are vacant or performed by less-experienced people. More than 700,000 federal employees retired or quit during the first six months of the Trump administration alone. That's over 40 percent more than left during the corresponding period of Obama's presidency.

Contrary to popular myth, the federal bureaucracy is not overstaffed. In fact, there are about the same number of federal workers now as during the Eisenhower administration, despite expanded responsibilities and the larger population. A lot of the work today is outsourced to contractors, which (contrary to what one might think) costs a lot more than simply hiring someone in a civil service position.

Here's a brief January 29 report on the problem from PBS NewsHour:


Link: https://youtu.be/66NiQUuxVdI

Reporter Lisa Desjardins ends by saying charitably that we don't know whether the loss of staff at the top and in the rank and file will cause serious problems or make government more efficient. In fact, it's pretty clear that it's creating problems.

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Bipartisan criticism for the Nunes memo

Friday the House Intelligence Committee released what has come to be known as the Nunes memo, a four-page criticism of the FBI's investigation of Carter Page, someone who had been of interest to the bureau for years because of his contacts with Russia and who for a while in 2016 was associated with the Trump campaign. The memo has come in for criticism from the Department of Justice and the FBI itself for allegedly being incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading, and it has been more widely described as political rather than substantive.

The full text of the memo, together with detailed annotations providing additional background information, can be found on the NPR site here. A similarly annotated version can be read on the PBS NewsHour site here.

NPR also has a summary of the memo that points out omissions of fact that, at least to my eyes, make it clearly less than objective.

The release was cleared by President Trump and authorized by the Republicans on the House committee over the objections of its Democratic members. The Democrats produced their own memo explaining their objections, but the Republicans blocked its release. (Republican Speaker Paul Ryan has called for its publication.) But the Democratic co-chair, Representative Alan Schiff of California, appeared on PBS NewHour to summarize a number of objections.

Representative Schiff's counterpart, Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia), vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, issued a statement saying, "The release of this memo by House Intelligence Committee Republicans and the White House, over the objections of the FBI and the Department of Justice, is reckless and demonstrates an astonishing disregard for the truth." He added, "Unlike almost every House member who voted in favor of this memo's release, I have actually read the underlying documents on which the memo was based. They simply do not support its conclusions."

The Democratic members of the committee jointly published their objections to the memo here. (Note that this is not the same as the one prepared for release by the House committee that Republicans on the committee blocked.)

A news article in The Week summarizes six major criticisms of the memo from various sources. In brief, Carter Page was no longer part of the campaign when the FBI secured a FISA warrant to wiretap Page, and he had been a person of interest to the FBI because of his contacts in Russian (including with Russian spies) long before the Trump campaign, facts the memo conveniently omits. The memo implies that the application was based solely on the so-called Steele dossier, while the FBI is believed to have referenced other sources as well. It attributes funding for dossier to Democrats, not mentioning that it was originally financed by a Republican opponent of Trump.

Criticism came also from Republicans in Congress, notably including Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), the Republican nominee for president in 2008, who responded to the Nunes memo's release with the following statement:

In 2016, the Russian government engaged in an elaborate plot to interfere in an American election and undermine our democracy. Russia employed the same tactics it has used to influence elections around the world, from France and Germany to Ukraine, Montenegro, and beyond. Putin's regime launched cyberattacks and spread disinformation with the goal of sowing chaos and weakening faith in our institutions. And while we have no evidence that these efforts affected the outcome of our election, I fear they succeeded in fueling political discord and dividing us from one another.

"The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests -- no party's, no president's, only Putin's. The American people deserve to know all of the facts surrounding Russia's ongoing efforts to subvert our democracy, which is why Special Counsel Mueller's investigation must proceed unimpeded. Our nation's elected officials, including the president, must stop looking at this investigation through the warped lens of politics and manufacturing partisan sideshows. If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin's job for him.

Other Republicans objecting to the Nunes memo included Representative Charlie Dent (R-Pennsylvania) tweeted,
"As I have publicly stated on several occasions, it's a mistake to release this memo. No Members of Congress -- nor their staff -- should risk divulging sensitive sources/methods of Intelligence for partisan gain. This sets a dangerous precedent that may have far reaching implications."

Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) echoed concerns of the Department of Justice and the FBI that classified information had not been redacted from the memo and said, "Oversight of the intelligence community, the FISA process, and this investigation are far too important to be tarnished by partisanship."

Finally, James Comey, the FBI head fired last year by Trump for continuing the investigation of Russian meddling in the election, tweeted about the memo, "That's it? Dishonest and misleading memo wrecked the House intel committee, destroyed trust with Intelligence Community, damaged relationship with FISA court, and inexcusably exposed classified investigation of an American citizen. For what? DOJ & FBI must keep doing their jobs."

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Michael Che and Colin Jost visit Seth Meyers

Last week Michael Che and Colin Jost, co-hosts of Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update, and also now head writers of SNL, were guests on Late Night with Seth Meyers, another SNL alumnus who held the same jobs. In these two clips they chat like some old friends and co-workers just hanging out, and the result is highly entertaining. They're both worth your time, but if for some reason you can only watch one, you can skip ahead to the second one in which they talk about things they wrote that never made it to air.


Link: https://youtu.be/Yc7JlFipe5Y


Link: https://youtu.be/z4N8TpYAXVM

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