Why Does the USA Depend on Russian Rockets to Get Us Into Space?

“After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline.”

That was an April 29 tweet from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is head of Russia’s space program and who is also individually targeted by U.S. sanctions imposed due to the Ukraine unpleasantness.

He sounds irked. Possibly Russian President Vladimir Putin instructed Rogozin to be irked. Possibly Rogozin is irked that he’s individually targeted by U.S. sanctions because the U.S. didn’t have the guts to target individuals of real importance at the Kremlin, and Rogozin’s feelings are hurt.

Here is an April 3 tweet from Rogozin about Russian-made rocket engines used to launch U.S. satellites: “A Russian broom for an American witch.”

We’re Glinda, the Good Witch of the Free World. And we’re embarrassed about needing Russian flying monkeys to get us into space.

It didn’t have to be this way. United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, puts U.S. satellites into orbit aboard all-American Delta IV rockets. ULA presented a paper to the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics detailing how quickly the Delta IV-Heavy could be “human-rated” (Washington politician-speak for “safer than sending Christa McAuliffe up in the Space Shuttle Challenger”). ULA said 4 1/2 years. The paper was published in 2009.

International diplomacy is a big bordello. “I won’t sell it!” “I won’t buy it!” Is this any way to run a whorehouse?

But leadership of the U.S. space program has been lacking. Don’t blame NASA. Every NASA official I’ve talked to, including its present chief, Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden Jr., and the head of NASA under George W. Bush, Dr. Michael Griffin, is eager to put the astro back in astronaut.

However, President Bush said we were going to Mars, and we went to Iraq instead. And U.S. lack of space capabilities took President Obama by surprise, like everything else has—opposition to Obamacare, Tea Party, NSA snooping, IRS targeting of conservative nonprofits, Crimea, VA screw-ups, ISIS fanatics pushing toward Baghdad.

And we’re a democracy. So we the people share blame for Russia finally winning the space race. (Tortoise disqualified for technical reasons, first place awarded to Sputnik hare.)

Just at a moment when we’re all making telephone calls to remote places, getting weather forecasts for July 4 weekend, looking at Google Earth to see if our neighbor’s new addition violates zoning ordinances, watching DirecTV, listening to SiriusXM radio, and unable to find our way home from our local bar without GPS, we’ve lost interest in space.

That we’re unable, for the time being, get to space personally is one thing. The more important thing is our ability to get stuff into space—stuff that keeps the CIA informed, connects and positions our defense forces, and helps us get home from the bar. Much of our ability is dependent on two rocket engines, the RD-180 and the NK-33/AJ26. These are made in Russia.

On April 11, the Space Foundation issued a “Fact Sheet: Russian Rocket Engines Used by the United States.” The Space Foundation is a non-profit international organization that has, for more than 30 years, been the foremost “advocate for all sectors of space.” Its mission is “to advance space-related endeavors to inspire, enable, and propel humanity.” Its Fact Sheet, released nearly a month after The Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey reported on U.S. satellites using Russian rocket engines, is just the facts.

(I’m a member of SF’s board. Because, I guess, every institution needs a class clown—in which capacity I got to talk to Charles Bolden and Michael Griffin. But I do not speak here, in any way, officially or unofficially, for the Space Foundation. I don’t speak for anyone, not even, sometimes, as my wife and children have pointed out, for myself.)

The factual situation is that ULA’s workhorse Atlas V rocket (more than three dozen launches vs. Delta IV-Heavy’s seven) was built around the RD-180 engine. Atlas V missions include, per the SF Fact Sheet, “military communications, intelligence collection, missile warning, planetary exploration…earth science payloads, a few commercial satellites, and possible human spaceflights in the future.”

The NK-33 engine, designated AJ26 after modification by America’s Aerojet Rocketdyne company, is key to the design of Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket. Fact Sheet: “The primary mission of the Antares…[is] to service the International Space Station. Orbital is pursuing future commercial satellite launches and possible military satellite launches using Antares.”

A month after the Space Foundation published the Fact Sheet, the ever-twittering Dmitry Rogozin tweeted: “Russia is ready to continue deliveries of RD-180 engines to the US only under the guarantee that they won’t be used in the interests of the Pentagon.”

Rogozin also announced that Russia will call it quits with the International Space Station in 2020. That is four years before the U.S. plans to leave.

The ISS, launched in 1998, is the most expensive thing ever built—$150 billion and counting. The U.S. has provided more than $100 billion of that. There’s no astronomic reason the ISS can’t stay in use for another 10 to 14 years or longer. But it needs to be “reboosted” from time to time to lift it back into proper low earth orbit. Otherwise the ISS becomes a 357-foot million-pound surprise for earthlings. (Don’t worry too much. While the meteor that injured 1,000 people in Chelyabinsk last year was only 55 feet wide, it was 20 times as heavy.) Currently only Russian rocket engines, fitted with the Russian ISS docking system, can reboost the Space Station.

To these Russian nose-thumbings, one finger salutes, and social media bullyings, we do have alternatives.

The Delta IV can carry a larger payload into low earth orbit than the Atlas V, 60,779 lbs. vs. 41,478 lbs. But a Delta launch is much more expensive.

Plus, the Delta IV is—strange thing to say about an enormous rocket—very fast and noisy. According to Aviation Week, “There is some concern that the acoustic environment and acceleration profiles in the Delta IV nosecone could be too violent [for some Air Force and Navy satellite payloads].” Getting payloads “dual manifested” so that they can fly on either the Atlas or the Delta “requires detailed engineering work,” says AV, meaning “is slow as hell.”

Also Made in the U.S.A. is Orbital Science Corporation’s air-launched Pegasus. But it can carry a payload of only 977 lbs. The company’s Minotaur V can carry 1,390 lbs. but has flown just once. And its Taurus XL, now designated Minotaur-C, has been trouble-plagued, with three of nine launches ending in failure and the loss of $700 million worth of items supposed to go into orbit.

The SpaceX Falcon 9v1.1, all privately funded, all domestically sourced, can carry 28,990 lbs. It’s made three cargo deliveries to the International Space Station. But the Falcon is not yet Air Force certified for military and intelligence payloads. SpaceX is suing the Air Force over the slowness of this certification, although going to the U.S. court system is not a famous way of speeding things up.

U.S. Air Force four-star Gen. William Shelton, commandeer of Air Force Space Command and a guy who knows about these matters, said during a keynote address at the Space Foundation’s May 2014 Space Symposium that he would prefer the U.S. to develop its own equivalent to the RD-180. But he noted that would cost more than $1 billion and take between five and eight years.

So we have alternatives, sort of like the veggie burger alternatives we have on the backyard grill.

We’re dependent on the RD-180, which has flown 50 times on U.S. missions with 100 percent success. And to a lesser extent, we’re dependent on the NK33/AJ26 engine, which we’ve used six times with 100 percent success.

Plus, of course, there are U.S. political as well as U.S. technological headaches. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee and now going to the full Senate, contains an amendment from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) forbidding purchase of Russian RD-180 engines for national security missions after fiscal year 2017. The amendment is expected to survive the House-Senate conference and be in the bill signed by the president.

As Marcia Smith of SpacePolicyOnline.com put it, “While one part of official Washington worries that Russia will follow through on a recent threat to prohibit use of RD-180 engines for U.S. national security space launches, another part is working to ensure exactly that outcome.”

International diplomacy is a big bordello. “I won’t sell it!” “I won’t buy it!” Is this any way to run a whorehouse?

What’s interesting is how we got into the red light district with Russia. It was the result of a chain of good decisions—wise, prudent, long-sighted, or, at the least, expedient choices.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, President George H.W. Bush was anxious that the USSR rocket expertise, especially the nuke-tipped ICBM kind, didn’t get sold to the highest bidder—China, Iran, North Korea, Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry. President Bush and, after him, President Clinton urged U.S. aerospace executives to look for Russian rocket business partnerships that made sense.

They did make sense. The Russians had developed a very powerful, very reliable, and relatively simple liquid oxygen/kerosene engine. The U.S. had stopped most research and development on this kind of engine after the Saturn V moon rocket was retired.

The RD-171, which would become the RD-180, was a more advanced liquid fuel rocket engine than anything we had.

That was a surprise. I talked to several U.S. aerospace engineers who were involved with Russia from the beginning. “There were cats all over the factory,” said one. “I asked, ‘What’s with the cats?’ The Russians said, ‘The mice.’ I asked, ‘What’s with the mice?’ ‘They gnaw the wiring harnesses.’”

This engineer told me about the Soyuz booster engines, similar in design to the RD-180, and how, when it was time for the four boosters to be attached to the rocket, an old man would arrive carrying his own toolbox. He was the original expert on booster attachment. He was retired, but came in, unpaid, to make sure the boosters were attached right.

“The Soviet-era factories look like hell,” said another engineer. The Russian attitude is, ‘Why wash factory walls? They just get dirty again.’ But you go look at their machine tools and everything’s pristine.”

Part of the reason for the RD-180’s superiority is Russian skill with titanium. They have a lot of titanium in Russia. They’re adept at making titanium alloys. A third engineer I talked to called the alloys “unobtainium.”

We had trouble reverse engineering the alloys. “The Russians are amazing metallurgists,” said the third engineer. “But it’s an artisanal process. The Russians themselves may not know how it works.”

“Extraordinary what you can do when OSHA’s not around,” said yet another American engineer.

In 1995 Lockheed Martin conducted an open competition for the next generation Atlas rocket’s first stage engine. The RD-180 won on both performance and cost.

The idea was that the RD-180 would be co-produced, built in Russia for commercial satellite launches and built in America for U.S. government launches.

Lockheed Martin and ULA spent more than $120 million on the American part of the RD-180 co-production program. But budget constrictions trumped expansion of the U.S. industrial base. Russian-built RD-180s cost only about $10 million apiece.

With all due respect, the American aerospace industry can’t build a rider mower for $10 million. (Though it would mow your lawn at International Space Station orbital speed—17,000 mph.) Every RD-180 engine has been imported from Russia.

Given All of the Above, the Conclusion Is That We Should Go Ahead and Keep Using the Damned Russian Rocket Engines. Screw Russia.

We have a stockpile of RD-180s and AJ26s that will last two years. If the Russians don’t want their engines “used in the interests of the Pentagon,” we should employ the time-honored technique of international diplomacy and lie about it.

Will the Russians let the ISS fall out of the sky? That would move them from being the fourth least popular nation on earth—behind North Korea, Iran, and Syria—right to the top of the list.

Do we really need $1 billion and five to eight years, as Gen. Shelton says, to replace the RD-180? I asked a senior executive in a private sector space company. He said, “Only if you insist on doing the Air Force way.”

We possess all the RD-180 blueprints and specifications. We have, I’ve been told by a metallurgist, figured out the metallurgy. What’s Russia going to do? Haul us into International Patent Court in The Hague?

No nation was ever destroyed by embarrassment. And the RD-180 can assist the U.S. military in destroying all sorts of things, including Russians if necessary.

The McCain amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act contains exceptions for crisis situations—holes you could fly a Delta IV through.

And Russia, with its economy in recession and energy prices falling, needs the money and the continued production to keep its own space program going.

I’ve been told on deep background by a highly placed source (I’ve been waiting all my journalistic life to use the phrase “told on deep background by a highly placed source”) that Putin said Rogozin should put a sock in it.

And on-the-record in the foreground there is Gen. Shelton, quoted in the May 21 issue of SpaceNews, “Speaking to reporters here at the 30th Space Symposium, Shelton said that there are ‘indications’ that the [RD-180] will remain available on a ‘business as usual’ basis, though he declined to be specific.”

Russia can claim it’s taking its ball home, but Russia can’t quit playing.


“All-natural” labels on food are meaningless. Let’s get rid of them.

Walk down the aisle of a grocery store and you’re bound to see all sorts of bizarre foods labeled as “natural” or “all-natural.” There are “natural” Cheetos and “natural” cookies. There are “all-natural” fruit drinks that contain high-fructose corn syrup.


The “natural” label is basically meaningless — there are very few rules for how it’s used and companies will slap it on all sorts of things.

And yet a lot of shoppers seem to take the label seriously, assuming it means the food is somehow better for you or healthier. Over at Grist, Nathanael Johnson points to a new Consumer Reports survey finding that 59 percent of those polled check for a “natural” label when shopping for food. As he laments, “When will the vague ‘natural’ food label die?”

It’s worth expanding on Johnson’s point. There aren’t really any clear definitions for what counts as “natural” food, which is one reason why you see it pop up in so many odd places. But that’s partly because the word itself is inapt — very little about modern agriculture is “natural,” and it’s just not a good way of assessing the health or sustainability of our food system.

There’s no clear definition for “natural” food


But is it natural? BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

The Food and Drug Administration has no official definition of “natural food” — in part, they say, because a great many foods in the grocery store have usually been processed or altered in some way and so it’s difficult to draw a clear line.


Back in 1991, the FDA actually tried to come up with a more precise standard. But after two years of trying, the agency gave up. “It’s too complex,” one FDA official lamented in 2008.

(By the way, this is in contrast to the term “organic,” a term that is more precisely defined and regulated by the US Department of Agriculture.)

By and large, the FDA doesn’t regulate most uses of “natural” labels, though it will occasionally send warning letters — if, say, a product is labeled “all-natural” but contains citric acid or calcium chloride or potassium sorbate. (Though, as one investigation by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found, those warning letters often go ignored.)

Things are a little different with fresh meat, which is regulated by the Department of Agriculture. There, “natural” is defined as meaning the meat contains no artificial ingredients and is minimally processed. But even here, some artificial additives are allowed (such as chicken flavored with a salt broth). And meat from animals raised on antibiotics or hormones can still be called “natural.”

Consumer groups have often complained that the lack of a clear definition means that lots of odd things get misleadingly labeled “all-natural” or “100% natural” even when they include chemical ingredients. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a long list of oddities over the years, including a Hunt’s “100% Natural” tomato sauce that contained citric acid or a Minute Maid “All-Natural” cranberry cocktail that contained high-fructose corn syrup.


That group called for stricter definitions and regulations on the practice, arguing that the label misleads consumers. But even that’s not as easy as it sounds. A more precise definition would still be fairly misleading — in part because the word “natural” isn’t a very helpful way to think about food.

Our food system isn’t “natural” to begin with


Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Underlying this broader issue is the widespread belief that “anything natural is good, and anything unnatural is bad,” as Cambridge geneticist Ottoline Leyser put it.


In a recent essay in PLOS Biology, Leyser argues that it’s time to kill this mistaken idea once and for all. Basically everything in modern agriculture is unnatural. “The cereal crops we eat bear little resemblance to their naturally selected ancestors, and the environments in which we grow them are equally highly manipulated and engineered by us,” she writes. “We have, over the last 10,000 years, bred out of our main food plants all kinds of survival strategies that natural selection put in. ”

There’s more along these lines. “Agriculture is the invention of humans,” she adds. “It is the deliberate manipulation of plants (and animals) and the environment in which they grow to provide food for us. The imperative is not that we should stop interfering with nature, but that we should interfere in the best way possible to provide a reliable, sustainable, equitable supply of nutritious food.”

In her essay, Leyser is making a specific point about genetically modified foods — she argues that the line between crops whose genes have been altered through conventional breeding and crops whose genes have been altered through more modern techniques isn’t as significant as many people make it out to be. Yes, there are all sorts of issues and debates around GM foods, but the fact that it’s somehow “unnatural” doesn’t tell us all that much.

That point could be applied more broadly. There are plenty of real issues and questions around food. Can we produce enough food to feed a growing population without ravaging our environment? Are we using too many antibiotics in our farms and accelerating the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Should we eat healthier? Is our food system safe?

But labeling foods “natural” or “unnatural” sheds basically no light on any of these questions. It’s a goofy marketing term that says nothing.

Further reading: 40 maps that explain food in America


How is GMO food different from regular food?

It might help to distinguish genetic engineering from traditional techniques for producing food.

Humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals for tens of thousands of years to get certain desired traits. Over time, for example, farmers (and scientists) have bred corn to become larger, to hold more kernels on an ear, and to flourish in different climates. That process has certainly altered corn’s genes. But it’s not usually considered “genetic engineering.”

Genetic engineering, by contrast, involves the direct manipulation of DNA, and only really became possible in the 1970s. It often takes two different forms: There’s “cisgenesis,” which involves directly swapping genes between two organisms that could otherwise breed — say, from wheat to wheat. Or there’s”transgenesis,” which involves taking well-characterized genes from a different species (say, bacteria) and transplanting them into a crop (say, corn) to produce certain desired traits.

Ultimately, genetic engineering tries to accomplish the same goals as traditional breeding — create plants and animals with desired characteristics. But genetic engineering allows even more fine-tuning. It can be faster than traditional breeding and it allows engineers to transfer specific genes from one species to another. In theory, that allows for a much greater array of traits.

Here’s a diagram from the Food and Drug Administration:



How amusement parks hijack your brain

THE ANTICIPATION KICKS in before you’ve even parked the car, just looking out the open window at the winding, towering roller coaster track. With the sun shining down from above, the scent of fried dough in the air, and a whole day ahead dedicated to nothing but pleasure, you’ve arrived at a place that is all but synonymous with summer in America.


An amusement park is like no other patch of land on earth. Full of bright colors, tantalizing games, infinite ice cream, and of course, amazing thrill rides that give you the power to speed or fly, they open every year to teeming crowds on a quest for fun. Lights flash everywhere; high-tech steel rides sit alongside old-fashioned diversions like face-painting stations and strength-testing machines; the laughter of children mingles with carnival music and happy screams of terror.

“You walk in and you sort of just go, ‘Whoa,’” said British historian Josephine Kane, the author of a 2013 book on early amusement park design called “The Architecture of Pleasure.” “There’s an immediate sense of sensory overload and chaos.”

But if the scene feels anarchic to you, there’s another way to think about the experience. The people who designed the rides, set up the games, and decided where to put the churro stands didn’t do it at random. The modern amusement park is, beneath the flash and the chaos, a carefully tuned psychological machine—a creation honed for more than a century to perfectly deliver a huge range of cognitive and physiological delights, pushing buttons you didn’t even know you had.


When the first amusement parks sprouted up during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were often set up by people from the world of theater, with deep experience in the mystical arts of making people feel things. “There’s a very particular way that [parks] were designed,” said Kane, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Westminster, “[so that] you’d come off one ride and sort of float through the crowd, in a kind of swirling motion, and get sucked into another ride or another stall or booth.”

Today, as designs have evolved and improved—and modern psychology has unlocked more and more insights into what our bodies and brains crave—the amusement park has become almost a handbook to the ways the human brain can be switched on. It is “a whole system designed to manipulate you into experiencing different kinds of pleasure,” said David Linden, a neuroscientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the author of the book “The Compass of Pleasure,” about how the brain processes the things that make us feel good.

The tricks an amusement park plays on you don’t always happen the way you’d think. Games are designed to play on the appeal of almost, but not quite, winning; thrill rides like the Giant Drop tap into the strange mechanism in your brain that allows you to enjoy the rush of a simulated near-death experience. Even some aspects of the park that you’d never list as “fun” are gears in the machine: the maps that tell you where to go, the throngs around the food stands, the lines you have to endure to get to the more popular rides.

To understand the amusement park is to understand your own brain in ways you haven’t before—an almost unique window into the range of things that create that feeling we call “fun.” So step right up and enjoy the ride, as we take you inside the anatomy of a typical amusement park: a machine engineered for your conscious and subliminal delight, surprise, and excitement, right up until it’s time to head back to the real world.


Take the tour: 9 ways amusement parks hijack your brain



The Jumbo Jets Boeing and Airbus Turn Into Posh Private Planes

The $65 million Gulfstream G650 may be the pinnacle of the private jet market, but it just doesn’t do the job for billionaires who prefer to fly with more than a dozen or so passengers.

For that, the uber wealthy turn to Airbus and Boeing, who are more than happy to customize their jets — even the widebodies that can carry hundreds of people — for private use.

Commercial jet manufacturers have been replacing the rows of economy seats in their aircraft with sofas and entertainment centers since the late 1990s. A recent influx of billionaires from Russia, the Middle East, and China has led to a new focus on this part of the business. Since opening the private jet branch in 1997, Airbus has sold over 170 aircraft. Boeing got started in 1996, and has delivered on 195 of 217 total orders received.

The main reason to go with an Airbus A380 or a Boeing 747 over a puny Gulfstream or Bombardier? According a “Billionaires Study” commissioned by Airbus, the wealthiest among us like to travel with family members and business associates. (This, apparently, is particularly true for Middle Eastern oil magnates.)

That’s not to say outfitting a jumbo jet for personal use is always a rational economic decision. For some, the bigger and more luxurious the plane, the better. That’s why Airbus and Boeing don’t just sell their planes, they offer a wide variety of customization options to give customers exactly what they want.

So how much does a personalized widebody plane cost? The manufacturers don’t exactly publish price lists, but we’ve seen figures between $80 million for a Boeing 737, $280 million for a Boeing 747-8, and up to $300 million for an A380.

Here’s a look at what’s available for billionaires ready to spend that big a pile of dough.

Hack ‘N’ Slash is the Double Fine adventure that deconstructs and rewires the genre

The title may be Hack ’N’ Slash, but it’s clear from the opening moments of Double Fine’s inventive action-adventure that you won’t be doing much of the latter. Alice, a young elf, immediately breaks her sword on the bars of her cell, revealing a USB connector beneath the blade. Plug it into the door’s slot and you can access its code. Luckily, there’s just one command, ‘Open: false’. Change the answer to ‘true’, and it swings ajar so her quest can begin in earnest.

Hack ’N’ Slash was officially conceived during Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight, an annual event where employees form small groups to create game prototypes. Yet for Brandon Dillon, the game’s project lead, the idea had been brewing for much longer. Dillon played games on an emulator when he was young, and was struck by the discovery of the reverse-engineering tools built into the software. “It felt really empowering to open up the hex menu to figure out how to use those tools, find whichever value I wanted to tweak within the game, and do whatever I wanted to with it,” he tells us. “I didn’t really have the emotional maturity to deal with games that were as difficult as NES games were. With something like Contra, I couldn’t appreciate the game they were trying to present to me. But I could bring it into an emulator, tweak values and make it a little bit more humane. It felt like I had made the game my own, and that way I got to really enjoy it.”

Hack ’N’ Slash is about cheating, then, but crucially it’s creative cheating. Take one of the first enemies you’ll encounter: a spiked turtle affected by the corruption blighting this fantasy world. It will charge at you, but flips onto its shell when dodged, exposing its USB port. Plug in and you can set its health to zero, slow its movement speed, turn it into an ally, or even get it to explode after charging. You can have it spit out dozens of health-restoring hearts upon death, adjust its perception sensors so it can’t see you, or even get a little more adventurous and play around with its AI routines, getting it to walk around in circles. Soon after, you’re asked to tackle a boss. Dillon says that some players create chaos by spawning dozens of turtles from a nearby nest in the hope that the crowd will hurt it. We opt instead to play matador: we vastly increase a single turtle’s damage output, invite it to charge us (at a reduced speed, of course) and then dodge at the last moment, finishing the job in a single strike.

As Alice collects more items, she’s able to see the inner workings of her world, revealing hidden symbols, invisible platforms and the vision cones of armed guards. The puzzles steadily increase in complexity until, by Act 4, you’re looking at the game’s code in order to reverse-engineer solutions. “I always thought it would be cool to make a game that would allow people to have those really insightful and empowering moments that I had throughout my history of learning to become a better programmer,” Dillon says.

As a result, the game’s progression feels strangely educational, although that’s a happy accident, as Dillon freely admits. “It does have a kind of curriculum,” he says. “The way I designed the game is [to give you] all the cool hacking tools and principles, and order them based on complexity. So it accidentally wound up [being] educational, because that was the way to work out the puzzle progression.” That unintentional progression curve has already had unforeseen benefits: since the game launched on Steam Early Access, Double Fine has had requests for educational licences, to allow the game’s mechanics to be used as a learning tool.

A full release is not too far off, but already  Hack ’N’ Slash shows great promise. It’s rare to find an adventure game that’s prepared to let its players get stuck, but Hack ’N’ Slash is all the more rewarding as a result. “It needs to feel a little bit mysterious and weird and difficult to grapple with,” Dillon explains. “Actually, this is something Tim [Schafer, Double Fine’s founder] has talked about within the context of the adventure game. Being stuck is part of it, because getting unstuck is what makes you feel smart.”

During playtesting, Dillon and the rest of the development team would watch players struggle and wonder if they should make the game easier. The answer was almost always no, however. “You have to [retreat] from those modern game design instincts, hang back and let it simmer for a little bit, and let the player have the insight for themselves,” he says. “Don’t take that away from them.”

The Strange Link Between Your Digital Music and Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt

In 1798 Joseph Fourier, a 30-year-old professor at the École Polytechnique in Paris, received an urgent message from the minister of the interior informing him that his country required his services, and that he should “be ready to depart at the first order.” Two months later, Fourier set sail from Toulon as part of a 25,000-strong military fleet under the command of General Napoleon Bonaparte, whose unannounced objective was the invasion of Egypt.

Fourier was one of 167 eminent scholars, the savants, assembled for the Egyptian expedition. Their presence reflected the French Revolution’s ideology of scientific progress, and Napoleon, a keen amateur mathematician, liked to surround himself with colleagues who shared his interests.

It is said that when the French troops reached the Great Pyramid at Giza, Napoleon sat in the shade underneath, scribbled a few notes in his jotter and announced that there was enough stone in the pyramid to build a wall 3 meters high and a third of a meter thick that would almost perfectly encircle France.

Gaspard Monge, his chief mathematician, confirmed that the General’s estimate was indeed correct. The Great Pyramid has sides of length 751 feet and a height of 479 feet. France is roughly a rectangle 480 miles north to south by 435 miles east to west. With these figures, Napoleon’s estimate is only 3 percent off.

Excerpted from The Grapes of Math.

On Fourier’s return from Egypt, Napoleon appointed him prefect of the Alpine department of Isère, based in Grenoble. Always a man of fragile health, with extreme sensitivity to cold, Fourier never left home

On Fourier’s return from Egypt, Napoleon appointed him prefect of the Alpine department of Isère, based in Grenoble. Always a man of fragile health, with extreme sensitivity to cold, Fourier never left home without an overcoat, even in the summer, often making sure a servant carried a second coat for him in reserve. He kept his rooms baking hot at all times.

In Grenoble, his academic research was also preoccupied with heat. In 1807 he published a groundbreaking paper, On the Propagation of Heat in Solid Bodies. In it he revealed a remarkable finding about sinusoids.

What’s So Special About Sinusoids?

The sinusoid is what’s called a “periodic wave,” an entity in which a curve repeats itself again and again along the horizontal axis. The sinusoid is the simplest type of periodic wave because the circle, which generates it, is the simplest geometrical shape. Yet even though it is such a basic concept, the wave models many physical phenomena. The world is a carnival of sinusoids.

Fourier’s famous theorem states that every periodic wave can be built up by adding sinusoids together. The result is surprising. Fourier’s contemporaries met it with disbelief. Many waves look nothing at all like sinusoids, such as the square wave, illustrated below. The square wave is made up of straight lines, whereas the sinusoid is continuously curved. Yet Fourier was right: We can build a square wave with only sinusoids.


Here’s how. In the illustration below there are three sine waves: the basic wave, a smaller sine wave with three times the frequency and a third of the amplitude, and an even smaller sine wave with five times the frequency and a fifth of the amplitude. We can write these three waves as sin x, sin 3x/3, and sin 5x/5.


In the illustration below, I have started to add these waves together. We see the basic wave, sin x. The sum sin x + sin 3x/3 is a wave that looks like a row of molar teeth. The sum sin x + sin 3x/3 + sin 5x/5 is a wave that looks like the filaments of a light bulb. If we carry on adding terms of the series: sin x + sin 3x/3 + sin 5x/5 + sin 7x/7 + … we will get closer and closer to the square wave. At the limit, adding an infinity of terms, we will have the square wave.


It is stunning that such a rigid shape can be constructed using only undulating wiggles. Any periodic wave consisting of jagged lines, smooth curves, or even a combination, can be built up with sinusoids.


The horizontal axis represents the frequencies of the constituent sinusoids, and the vertical axis their amplitudes. Each bar stands for a sinusoid, and the leftmost bar is the sinusoid that has the “fundamental” frequency. This type of graph is known as the “frequency spectrum,” or “Fourier transform,” of the wave.

Fourier’s theorem was one of the most significant mathematical results of the 19th century because phenomena in many fields—from optics to quantum mechanics, and from seismology to electrical engineering—can be modeled by periodic waves. Often, the best way to investigate these waves is to break them down into simple sinusoids.

How You Could Play a Symphony Using Only Tuning Forks

The science of acoustics, for example, is essentially an application of Fourier’s discoveries. Sound is the vibration of air molecules. The molecules oscillate in the direction of travel of the sound, forming alternate areas of compression and rarefaction. The variation in air pressure at any point over time is a periodic wave.

The sound wave and frequency spectrum of a clarinet.

As you can see in the illustration to the right, the clarinet wave is jagged and complicated. Fourier’s theorem tells us, however, that we can break it down into a sum of sinusoids, whose frequencies are all multiples of the “fundamental” frequency of the first term. In other words, the wave can be represented as a spectrum of frequencies with different amplitudes.

Remember, the jagged wave and the bar chart in the illustration represent exactly the same sound, but in each image the information is encoded differently. For the wave, the horizontal axis is time, whereas on the bar chart the horizontal axis is frequency. Sound engineers say that the wave is in the “time domain,” and the transform is in the “frequency domain.”

The frequency domain also provides us with all the information we need to re-create the sound of a clarinet using only tuning forks. Each bar in the bar chart represents a sinusoid oscillating at a fixed frequency. The sound wave made by a tuning fork is a sinusoid. So, in order to re-create the sound of a clarinet, all that is required is to play a selection of tuning forks at the correct frequencies and amplitudes described by the bar chart.

Likewise, the frequency spectrum of a violin would provide us with instructions on how to use tuning forks to produce the sound of a violin. The difference in timbre between middle C played on the clarinet and the same pitch played on the violin is the result of the same set of tuning forks oscillating with different relative amplitudes.

A consequence of Fourier’s theorem is that it is theoretically possible to play the symphonies of Beethoven with tuning forks, in a way that is audibly indistinguishable from an orchestra.

Why a Harmonica Is Like a Picket Fence

When a fire engine passes Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco, employees clasp their ears—especially the “golden ears,” those members of the staff with exceptional hearing—hoping to protect their auditory faculties. Dolby built its reputation on noise reduction systems for the music and film industries, and it now creates sound quality software for consumer electronic devices, using technology based entirely on sinusoids.

The benefit of being able to switch a sound wave from the time domain to the frequency domain is that some jobs that are really difficult in one domain become much simpler in the other. All sound played out of digital devices—such as your TV, phone and computer—is stored as data in the frequency domain, rather than the time domain.

“The wave form is like a noodle,” Brett Crockett, senior director of research sound technology, told me. “You can’t grab it.” Frequencies are much easier to store because they are a set of discrete values. It also helps that our ears cannot hear all frequencies. “[Ears] don’t need the whole picture,” Crockett added.

Dolby’s software turns sound waves into sinusoids, and then strips out nonessential sinusoids so that the best possible sound can be recorded and stored with the least possible information. When the information is played back as sound, the spectrum of remaining frequencies is reconverted into a wave in the time domain.

It sounds easy, but in practice the task of filleting sinusoids from the frequency spectrum is exceedingly complex. One of the hardest sounds to get right is the harmonica, because its frequency spectrum looks like a picket fence—the amplitudes of the different frequencies are at the same height, forcing you to delete frequencies you can hear.

For all Dolby’s state-of-the-art know-how, the piece of music its software struggles most to re-create faithfully is “Moon River,” Henry Mancini’s hauntingly beautiful 1961 song. Brett Crockett’s golden ears judge new Dolby technology based on how faithfully it plays a harmonica riff recorded more than half a century ago.

We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome

DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon 2 considerably expands the world introduced in the first film, and that expansion includes a significant new presence: Valka, the long-lost mother of dragon-riding protagonist Hiccup, voiced by Cate Blanchett. The film devotes much of its sweet, sensitive middle act to introducing her, and building her up into a complicated, nuanced character. She’s mysterious and formidable, capable of taking Hiccup and his dragon partner Toothless out of the sky with casual ease. She’s knowledgable: Two decades of studying dragons means she knows Toothless’ anatomy better than he does. She’s wise. She’s principled. She’s joyous. She’s divided. She’s damaged. She’s vulnerable. She’s something female characters so often aren’t in action/adventure films with male protagonists: She’s interesting.

Too bad the story gives her absolutely nothing to do.

There’s been a cultural push going on for years now to get female characters in mainstream films some agency, self-respect, confidence, and capability, to make them more than the cringing victims and eventual trophies of 1980s action films, or the grunting, glowering, sexless-yet-sexualized types that followed, modeled on the groundbreaking badass Vasquez in Aliens. The idea of the Strong Female Character—someone with her own identity, agenda, and story purpose—has thoroughly pervaded the conversation about what’s wrong with the way women are often perceived and portrayed today, incomics, videogames, and film especially. Sophia McDougall hasintelligently dissected and dismissed the phrase, and artists Kate Beaton, Carly Monardo, Meredith Gran have hilariously lampoonedwhat it often becomes in comics. “Strong Female Character” is just as often used derisively as descriptively, because it’s such a simplistic, low bar to vault, and it’s more a marketing term than a meaningful goal. But just as it remains frustratingly uncommon for films to pass the simple, low-bar Bechdel Test, it’s still rare to see films in the mainstream action/horror/science-fiction/fantasy realm introduce women with any kind of meaningful strength, or women who go past a few simple stereotypes.

And even when they do, the writers often seem lost after that point. Bringing in a Strong Female Character™ isn’t actually a feminist statement, or an inclusionary statement, or even a basic equality statement, if the character doesn’t have any reason to be in the story except to let filmmakers point at her on the poster and say “See? This film totally respects strong women!”

Valka is just the latest example of the Superfluous, Flimsy Character disguised as a Strong Female Character. And possibly she’s the most depressing, considering Dragon 2’s other fine qualities, and considering how impressive she is in the abstract. The film spends so much time on making her first awe-inducing, then sympathetic, and just a little heartbreakingly pathetic in her isolation and awkwardness at meeting another human being. But once the introductions are finally done, and the battle starts, she immediately becomes useless, both to the rest of the cast and to the rapidly moving narrative. She faces the villain (the villain she’s apparently been successfully resisting alone for years!) and she’s instantly, summarily defeated. Her husband and son utterly overshadow her; they need to rescue her twice in maybe five minutes. Her biggest contribution to the narrative is in giving Hiccup a brief, rote “You are the Chosen One” pep talk. Then she all but disappears from the film, raising the question of why the story spent so much time on her in the first place. It may be because writer-director Dean DeBlois originally planned for her to be the film’s villain, then discarded that idea in later drafts. But those later drafts give her the setup of a complicated antagonist… and the resolution of no one at all. (Meanwhile, the actual villain gets virtually no backstory—which is fine, in a way—but it leaves the film unbalanced.)

And Valka’s type—the Strong Female Character With Nothing To Do—is becoming more and more common. The Lego Movie is the year’s other most egregious and frustrating example. It introduces its female lead, Elizabeth Banks’ Wyldstyle, as a beautiful, super-powered, super-smart, ultra-confident heroine who’s appalled by how dumb and hapless protagonist Emmet is. Then the rest of the movie laughs at her and marginalizes her as she turns into a sullen, disapproving nag and a wet blanket. One joke has Emmet tuning her out entirely when she tries to catch him up on her group’s fate-of-the-world struggle; he replaces her words with “Blah blah blah, I’m so pretty.” Her only post-introduction story purpose is to be rescued, repeatedly, and to eventually confer the cool-girl approval that seals Emmet’s transformation from loser to winner. After a terrific story and a powerful ending, the movie undermines its triumph with a tag where WyldStyle actually turns to her current boyfriend for permission to dump him so she can give herself to Emmet as a reward for his success. For the ordinary dude to be triumphant, the Strong Female Character has to entirely disappear into Subservient Trophy Character mode. This is Trinity Syndrome à la The Matrix: the hugely capable woman who never once becomes as independent, significant, and exciting as she is in her introductory scene. (Director Chris McKay sorta-acknowledged the problem in a DailyMail interview presented as “The Lego Movie filmmaker promises more ‘strong females’ in the sequel,” though his actual quotes do nothing of the sort.)

And even when strong, confident female characters do manage to contribute to a male-led action story, their contributions are still more likely to be marginal, or relegated entirely to nurturer roles, or victim roles, or romantic roles. Consider Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, a wholly invented Strong Female Character ostensibly created to add a little gender balance to an all-male adventure. She’s capable of killing approximately a billion spiders and orcs with elven archery kung-fu, but she only shows any actual personality when she’s swooning over the dwarf Kili, and being swooned over in return by Legolas, in a wearyingly familiar Twilight-esque love triangle. Consider Katee Sackhoff’s Dahl in Riddick, introduced as a tough second-in-command who proclaims early on that she’s no man’s sexual object—unlike the movie’s only other woman, a brutalized, chained rape victim, casually killed to make a point—but given no particular plot relevance. Despite what Dahl says, she’s just sexual spice for the film: She strips for the camera, fights off a rape attempt, smirks through the antihero’s graphically crude come-ons, then decides at the end that she would like to be his sexual object. Consider Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus in Star Trek: Into Darkness, introduced as a defiant, iconoclastic rules-breaker exactly like James Kirk, but ultimately winding up in the story largely so she can strip onscreen and present herself as an embarrassingly ineffectual hostage. Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori in Pacific Rim is weak next to Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh—her past trauma blocks her from being effective in mecha combat, and endangers everyone around her—but even when she proves her strength, he still has to assert himself by knocking her out and dumping her limp body as he heads off to save the day at the end. Ditto with Tom Cruise’s Jack in Oblivion, who pulls the same move on Julia (Olga Kurylenko), his capable partner.

It’s hard for any action movie to have two or more equal heroes, and the ensemble approach doesn’t work for every story. It’s understandable that for a Hero’s Journey plot to entirely resolve, the hero sometimes has to take the last steps alone. For male heroes, that often means putting independence and self-sacrifice before any other consideration. But for decades, action movies have found ways to let male sidekicks drop back at the climax of a story without dying, disappearing, or waiting at home to offer themselves to the hero to celebrate his victory. Female characters don’t have to dominate the story to come across as self-reliant, but they do have to have some sense of purpose. Valka’s is, apparently, to deliver some heartening information and a little inspiration to Hiccup, and nothing else. It’s a bafflingly piddly role for someone whom the narrative seems to care about passionately… until it’s time for her to do something.

So here’s a quick questionnaire for filmmakers who’ve created a female character who isn’t a dishrag, a harpy, a McGuffin to be passed around, or a sex toy. Congratulations, you have a Strong Female Character. That’s a great start! But now what? Screenwriters, producers, directors, consider this:

  1. After being introduced, does your Strong Female Character then fail to do anything fundamentally significant to the outcome of the plot? Anything at all?
  2. If she does accomplish something plot-significant, is it primarily getting raped, beaten, or killed to motivate a male hero? Or deciding to have sex with/not have sex with/agreeing to date/deciding to break up with a male hero? Or nagging a male hero into growing up, or nagging him to stop being so heroic? Basically, does she only exist to service the male hero’s needs, development, or motivations?
  3. Could your Strong Female Character be seamlessly replaced with a floor lamp with some useful information written on it to help a male hero?
  4. Is a fundamental point of your plot that your Strong Female Character is the strongest, smartest, meanest, toughest, or most experienced character in the story—until the protagonist arrives?
  5. …or worse, does he enter the story as a bumbling fuck-up, but spend the whole movie rapidly evolving past her, while she stays entirely static, and even cheers him on? Does your Strong Female Character exist primarily so the protagonist can impress her?
  6. It’s nice if she’s hyper-cool, but does she only start off that way so a male hero will look even cooler by comparison when he rescues or surpasses her?
  7. Is she so strong and capable that she’s never needed rescuing before now, but once the plot kicks into gear, she’s suddenly captured or threatened by the villain, and needs the hero’s intervention? Is breaking down her pride a fundamental part of the story?
  8. Does she disappear entirely for the second half/third act of the film, for any reason other than because she’s doing something significant to the plot (besides being a hostage, or dying)?

If you can honestly answer “no” to every one of these questions, you might actually have a Strong Female Character worthy of the name. Congratulations!

But there are exceptions to every rule. Edge Of Tomorrow features Emily Blunt as Rita, an ultra-tough female character who dies to motivate the male protagonist.(Repeatedly!) She starts off as the biggest bad-ass in her world, but is eventually surpassed by hero William Cage (Tom Cruise), who starts off as a bumbling fuck-up. She mostly exists in the story to provide Cage with information and cheer him on, and eventually validates him with a brief romantic moment. And yet the story doesn’t degrade, devalue, weaken, or dismiss her. It sends the hero on without her at the end—but only at the very end, after she’s proved her worth again and again. She’s tough. She’s confident. She’s desperate. She’s funny. In short, she’s aspirational and inspirational, and just as exciting at the end of the movie as she is at the beginning.

So maybe all the questions can boil down to this: Looking at a so-called Strong Female Character, would you—the writer, the director, the actor, the viewer—want to be her? Not want to prove you’re better than her, or to have her praise you or acknowledge your superiority. Action movies are all about wish-fulfillment. Does she fulfill any wishes for herself, rather than for other characters? When female characters are routinely “strong” enough to manage that, maybe they’ll make the “Strong Female Characters” term meaningful enough that it isn’t so often said sarcastically.