October 17, 2016

106 Years Ago Today

...the airship America broke records and achieved several firsts.

The ship was the brainchild of reporter/adventurer Walter Wellman and was initially financed by the Chicago Tribune, being designed and built for an attempt to be the first to reach the north pole. The aircraft was actually built in France, which was closer to Norway and allowed the designers to use the considerable expertise and physical plant of French balloon manufacturers, and presumably gain some input from the Gaelic airship pioneers. The craft, was, however, quite distinctive. America was a semi-rigid dirigible with a number of innovative features including swiveling airscrews capable of providing vectored thrust. 

America, as built, about to make one of her attempts to reach the pole.

In 1906 the airship left Spitsbergen  bound for the pole, but suffered from total engine failure. However, the crew managed to return as a balloon. The engine proved unrepairable and the ship was broken down and shipped to France for repairs. After the installation of a new engine the craft returned in 1907 and made 2 more attempts, however, both were stymied by abominable weather. The ship was shipped out again this tome to America and had it's envelope enlarged, had newer, more powerful engines installed, an electrical system including electric lights, and a wireless set was fitted, as was a lifeboat and a peculiar altitude regulator called an equillibrator, described here

 The device was a 300-foot long steel cable with 30 steel tanks containing gasoline and 40 wooden blocks. Each steel tank was 4-feet long and 9 inches in diameter and weighed about 100 pounds when filled with gasoline; the concave end of one tank fit into the convex end of another, like a ball and socket joint, and was padded with felt to absorb shocks and minimize wear and abrasion. The far end of the device consisted of 40 solid wooden blocks, tapering in diameter like the tail of a snake, that would float on the surface.  

This was intended to compensate for day/night changes in buoyancy, without permanently dropping ballast. This was obviously a hazard to people on the ground, but with Robert E. Peary having gotten to the north pole in 1909. Wellman and the ship's designer, Melvin Vaniman had set their sights on a different "first", one that would push their little airship to the limits of it's capability. Their new goal was to cross the Atlantic by air, and for this, the equillibrator actually made sense as it had the potential to minimize losses of ballast and hydrogen.

America as refitted.

On October 15, 1910 America took off from Atlantic city New Jersey. Almost at once, things began to go wrong. The ship's propellors set for full vertical thrust kicked up a spectacular sandstorm. Moments after takeoff a loud screech was heard and investigation revealed the presence of a terrified cat that had stowed away in a box near the engine. He was named Kiddo. Engine trouble quickly ensued and and the ship continued on one engine. Attempts at repair proved futile as it was discovered that the engine had ingested a good deal of sand that had been kicked up during takeoff and was a total loss. It was decided to disassemble  the other engine and clean it...but engine number two chose that moment to die. 

The second engine was not completely wrecked and was repairable, but a ballasting error resulted in considerable loss of hydrogen. Over the next day, a storm came up and one engine was not enough to overcome the strong winds which  pushed the ship far to the south.

The ship was far off course and the second engine became intermittent, so it was decided to abandon the flight. On the 17th, just north of Bermuda, the airship, now effectively a balloon spotted a British mail packet, the S.S. Trent, and hailed them via wireless using CQD (the predecessor to SOS). All six crewmen and Kiddo got into the lifeboat and were picked up by Trent, however, before a hawser could be attached, America, relieved of the weight of the lifeboat shot into the sky and was never seen again.
America photographed from RMSTrent. Note the visible "plug" in the envelope where the ship was enlarged & the equillibrator trailing in the water..

The flight, while unsucsessful, had a number of firsts.
2: Longest duration flight to that date by a considerable margin.
3: Longest distance covered by an aircraft in a single flight (over 1000 miles), also by a considerable margin.
4: First radio transmission from an aircraft was "Roy come and get this goddamned cat!"
5: First distress signal sent from an aircraft.
6: First launch of a boat from an aircraft.
7: First air-sea rescue....actually a sea-air rescue.

If things had broken just a bit different, America probably would have made it. An air intake filter would have prevented the loss of the engines. Of course this was one of the learning experiences that caused people to adopt them

Wellman threw in the towel on aviation after this, but Vaniman attempted another crossing of the Atlantic the next year in an improved and enlarged version of America named Akron (the first airship manufactured by Goodyear). Tragically, Akron exploded shortly after launch with the loss of all hands. The Atlantic would not be crossed by air until 1919.

If you are interested in more stuff involving airships, J.C.Carlton has you covered.

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October 05, 2016

It's Time to Have a Little Talk With HR

Scott Lowther notes another scolderiffic luddite pantywaist killjoy douche-mongler who is all upset about Elon Musks rather ambitious Mars plan. The piece is a sad commentary on our culture but would not really be worth noting were it not for one tidbit that Mr. Lowther turned up about this Calvinistic sourpuss who thinks that the ideal model for society is a pot of crabs. 

• Manager of Communications , NASA Astrobiology  Program, Jan. 2007 – present.
• Communication  research, planning,  and  analysis, NASA Planetary Protection Office, Sept. 2002 – 2006.
•  Director of Communications , SPACEHAB, Inc., Washington,  D.C., Sept. 1999 – Aug. 2002 .
• Chancellor’s Fellow  (1996 – 97, Knight  Fellow  (1997 – 99) , Indiana U. School  of Journalism.
• Director of Science Communication,  Life Sciences Division,  NASA HQ, Oct. 1994 – Aug.  1996.
• Manager of education  and  out reach, exploration office, NASA HQ, Dec. 1993 – Oct. 1994 .
• Senior editor/analyst, BDM International, April 1990 – December 1993.
• Editor, Lockheed Engineering & Sciences Co., July 1988 – April 1990.
• Senior editor for space, Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine, December 1985 – July 1988.
• Public affairs officer, National Commission on  Space, Sept. – Dec. 1985.
• Consultant, National Science Foundation, August – September 1985 .
• Editor, Space Business News, June  1983 – August 1985.  

"So...she's diametrically opposed to the Raison d ' être 
of the organization, and is more generally an enemy of reason. 
Why is NASA paying this person?"

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August 24, 2016


We advised skepticism earlier, but  it has now been confirmed that Proxima Centauri, the closest known star to our solar system, does indeed have a rocky "Earthlike" planet.

It get's better...

  Although Proxima is considered a moderately active star, its rotation period is about 83 days (ref. 3) and its quiescent activity levels and X-ray luminosity4 are comparable to those of the Sun. Here we report observations that reveal the presence of a small planet with a minimum mass of about 1.3 Earth masses orbiting Proxima with a period of approximately 11.2 days at a semi-major-axis distance of around 0.05 astronomical units. Its equilibrium temperature is within the range where water could be liquid on its surface5.

One of The Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Science Babes has thoughts on the matter....


There is more here and here

This is still, an insanely long way out. An Orion drive (which involves propelling a ship by exploding atom bombs behind it) could get a crewed expedition there in about 100 years. More advanced nuclear pulse propulsion systems (that, unlike Orion would require considerable advancements to get working) could make a one way trip in around 45 years, as could the proposed laser sail designs. 

Ok, that's a littler silly given that one needs to be darned sure of a destination if one embarks on a one way trip.

Obviously an unmanned probe could get there faster still...as little as 15 years for one design using near term technology and a very small probe. Well, that design now has a concrete goal. 

And IF there was something very interesting found there...well, assuming a 20 year lead time to build the ship (which would involve the equivalent of constructing 4-10 Nimitz class aircraft carriers in terms of mass) then we could still put a, flag, some footprints and a small town there in the lifetime of the people that set the project in motion.

This is, on the one hand, unspeakably extravagant and optimistic given the challenges our civilization faces regarding its health and even survival in the near term. However, given those difficulties and others peculiar to having all of our eggs in this pale blue basket, such an extravagant project is not quite as insane as it sounds at first blush, given that a successful implementation would mean that our civilization would be multi-stellar at that point and our species's survival far more likely. 

In any event, this is an awesome development in astronomy, for other reasons. The fact that the very closest star to our sun just happens to have one of these planets makes the odds of such things far more likely...especially since red dwarf's such as Proxima Centauri are the most common type of star in the galaxy. 

The implications for that are nontrivial indeed. 

UPDATE: This image, by ESO Calcada is, of course, pure speculation regarding the planet's appearance, but it gives a very good idea of the scale of space. Note that Proxima Centauri is generally considered to be a part of the Alpha Centauri System, Alpha Centauri A and B are both about the same size and brightness of our sun (A liitle larger and a little smaller respectively). Keeping in mind that they are in the same solar system as Proxima, note their distance from their little red companion in this picture.

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August 18, 2016

A Mere 4.25 Light Years Away....

One of the Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Science Babes brings us up to speed on potentially consequential news from the world of astronomy. 

"Take the following with a grain of salt."

A couple of things about that sentence: "Earthlike" in that context seems to mean a terrestrial planet, which is referring to rocky worlds like Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars...only one of which would be described by laymen as Earthlike. The habitable zone of a red dwarf is very narrow , so this is a very lucky happenstance if their figures are right. Note though, that we have three terrestrial planets in our solar system's habitable zone and only one of them had everything break just right. Finally, the actual paper has not been released yet, The article is based on an anonymous leak to Der Spiegel. 

Still, if a random planet has been found around a red dwarf, especially the closest star to our solar system, this is a big deal, if it IS in the habitable zone, it's an even bigger deal. 

It should be noted though that even this, closest of stars would take thousands of years to reach with our current fastest spacecraft. Nuclear pulse propulsion and laser sails however, both have the potential to reduce that to less than a century. 

"Science Babe" is Mercy from Overwatch as imagined by GGGG
Painting is an imagining of another planet orbiting a red dwarf in a trinary star system Gliese-667c and comes via ESO-Calcada

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July 03, 2016

Do Keep In Mind That This Chart is Two Years Old

The rest of us....are just old.

Source Unknown
I'm as old as C.

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May 26, 2016

This Seems...Ill Thought Out

One of the Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Science Babes reacts to the latest information on  this "tunnel bus" or "straddle bus"currently being tested in China. 

OK...I find myself in general agreement with her.

This does not seem wise. I mean it really looks like many, many, accidents waiting to happen. In a broader sense it's a neat idea though, and as a streetcar (on rails) it might work very well indeed. 

There's more on this here, though not quite as much as there was before the translation.

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April 28, 2016

One of These Words Seems Out of Place

Optically. Transparent. Wood.

But wait...there's more.

This actually isn't the first time we've seen wood turned into a transparent material, as nanofibrillated cellulose has been used to create items such as the substrate for wood-based computer chips. According to KTH, however, the new process should be particularly well-suited to large-scale applications and mass production.

...scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have started producing "wooden" semiconductor chips that could almost entirely biodegrade once left in a landfill. As an added bonus, the chips are also flexible, making them prime candidates for use in flexible electronics

"Also enforces obsolescence when they rot."

See? When words are used incorrectly, there is mischief affoot.

"PIXY!! My computer has termites!"

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January 05, 2016


The F-word of the evening is FUSION.

As in Fusion bomb.
One of which The People's Democratic Republic of North Korea seems to have just detonated successfully

Note that tonights selection should not in any way preclude one from using any other F-words of one's choice.

Fusion Bombs (ie: Hydrogen bombs) potentially can have vastly more yield than pure fission weapons and, more importantly, can allow much higher yields in small packages suitable for delivery from missiles. 

BTW, that last link (38 North) is one to watch over the next few days with regard to analysis of tonights nuclear test.

UPDATE: There is some skepticism being expressed in some quarters. The Diplomat is estimating the yield at only 10 kilotons (half a Hiroshima) and Jeffery Lewis and others are suggesting that this is a fusion boosted fission weapon, which is technically a fusion weapon but not a real H-bomb.

Canopus. Exactly like tonight's test except for being in the wrong hemisphere, larger, above ground and French.

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December 28, 2015

So. Their Cover Story is...Salt.

Two of The Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Science Babes bring us news from two different planetoids. 

Art by Six

First up, we have what is actually a tad more than week old news from the Main Belt. It seems that scientists going over the data from the Dawn Probe have reached a consensus for their cover story regarding the glowy bits on Ceres. They claim is that it not an alien city nor a steadily charging space laser preparing to wreak havoc upon the Earth, but rather a really big salt lick

Image via

The effect is enhanced by thin clouds of water vapor outgassing in the salty areas that give a refractory effect that one would not normally get on a nigh airless body. It could be that Ceres has cometary properties and is orbiting right on the cusp of its critical distance from the sun. 

Farther afield (quite a bit farther actually) another of our proficient and pulchritudinous planetologists brings us these spectacular videos from the New Horizons flyby of Pluto. These were only recently processed due to the combination of a necessarily slow data transmission rate and the vast amounts of information that New Horizons gathered on its brief pass. 

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November 23, 2015

Well Then. This Would Be a Bad Thing.

"Holy fricking crap!"

One of The Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Science Babes reacts to what Volcano Cafe' has chosen as their final and potentially deadliest entry in their "Volcanoes That We Really Should Be Paying More Attention To because We Don't Know Nearly enough About Them But What We Do Know Is Pretty Scary" series. 

 The whole list is interesting as well as disturbing, but the last on the list is quite the doozy

Already synonymous with misery for unrelated reasons, the worlds bloodiest porkchop may one day bring suffering and death to many far from its bleak shores.

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November 10, 2015

Meanwhile....On Youggoth

It appears that NASA's New Horizons probe may have photographed volcanoes on Pluto.

Well, they certainly DID photograph two mountains that each have big fumaroleesque holes in their tops. Additionally, they seem to be associated with fairly young terrain so it is quite possible that these are, in fact, multi-mile high volcanoes.

Interestingly, these two mountains don't fit into the general pattern of geek addled naming conventions for the planetoid and it's satellite, being named for aviation pioneers ( it's those Piccards, not the other one).

Of course, while volcanoes are the most likely explanation yet, they could be something else, perhaps access tunnels for the saucers of the Sinister Snake-Women of Pluto. 

Err...There's more here.

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November 08, 2015

Nukes on a Flatbed Truck

Russia has announced that they intend to begin producing a series of road mobile nuclear power plants. (via)

The project is called Pamir and the mobile plants are supposed to hiot the road sometime in 2020.

Such a short development time might be cause for considerable skepticism save for one important detail not mentioned in the article. 

The picture is of a previous project, also called "Pamir" which was a Mobile Nuclear Power Plant being developed in the 1980s. The project was suspended after only two had been produced in the aftermath of the Chernobyl unpleasantness.

The concept seems to have been twofold. The plants would power dispersed mobile radar arrays that would be moved around constantly to add uncertainty to any wild weasel operations and they could be dispersed and hidden by the dozens to provide power for rebuilding after a nuclear war.

There is info on this project as well as its antecedents herehere (in Russian) and here...which mentions that it was a gas-cooled reactor based on dinitrogen tetroxide, working on a single – cycle scheme which is quite interesting.

"Oh please...He doesn't have any idea what the hell that means."


There is also a PDF concerning the Pamir from the perspective of its dismantling under a nonproliferation program here

Given that the original design seems to have worked, it may not be a stretch to expect that they could simply spool up production again, though the loss of the original engineering cadre would certainly be a significant hurdle.

To what end they are making this non-trivial expenditure is unclear. A couple of megawats available on 2 flatbeds would certainly be useful in building infrastructure and kick-starting settlements in Siberia, though given current events, the original operational concept may well be closer to the mark.

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November 04, 2015

Space Geysers

The massive south polar geysers of Enceladus from the night side. Picture taken by Cassini on approach during its historic pass through the plumes last week. 

"Because Astro Oceanographic Vulcanology is AWESOME!"

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October 31, 2015

A Want Ad: If Fortran is Your Thing, Your Time is Now

One of Dr. Pournelle's correspondent's passed this along. 

Voyager needs a programmer

Dear Dr. Pournelle, 
Perhaps someone in your reading audience would like to take up the challenge. It seems the current engineer for Voyager 1/2 is retiring.  
So they need someone who is greatly skilled with Fortran and Assembly languages to step in and keep the probe running.    This is old-school programming at its finest; there are only 64kb of memory to work with, and this will be real-time programming , I suspect, with hard constraints. 
I’m a little disappointed. Voyager is the reason I got into computers in the first place, but now after years of writing database and object-oriented programs I don’t have anywhere near the experience required to do this kind of work. I’d be willing to learn ..  but I suspect "willing’ isn’t enough.   "Willing” doesn’t instantly make you an expert in real time software. 


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October 28, 2015


One of the Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Science Babes reacts to the news that Cassini has survived its plume dive.

Allow us to explain...

Saturn's moon Enceladus is known to have a global, ice-covered ocean. It also has massive geysers in its southern hemisphere that spew the contents of its ocean far above its surface. 

Well, in order to find out exactly what is in its ocean NASA has turned to its only probe in the Saturnian system (Cassini). Since Cassin'is only deployable sub-probe was sent down to Titan, and since scientists have learned about all they can by spectroscopy and other remote methods, they've decided to go for broke and fly the probe on a low pass right through the plume. 

Pictures and other data should be coming in within 48 hours!

In the meantime here is the closest picture ever taken of Enceladus's northern hemisphere which was taken last week...

 Stay Tuned!

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October 24, 2015

There's Going To Need To Be A Re-Release

One of The Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Science Babes points out the obvious application for the blackest substance ever synthesized by humans.

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October 21, 2015

Today in History


We have twitter, but no self lacing shoes, Mr. Fusion or Hoverbo....

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October 16, 2015

A Rescue Mission MUST Be Undertaken!

For some reason, this story does not have top billing on Drudge, despite its awesome implications.

We should note that one of The Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Stunning Experts pointed us to the story

Art by Ayaki

UPDATE:The linked story is problematically parsimonious with the pictures. There is a better spread at the Daily Mail of all places and, of course, a bunch of super high-res pictures can be found at the New Horizon's page at  NASA

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October 06, 2015

Simple Processes Involving Layyyzeerrzz

The most strongest of The Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Science Fairies brings us news fro the practical application of coherent light. 

Via Brian Wang, we learn that General Atomics (could there BE a more awesome name for a company?) is expected to be offering its line of Avenger drones with 150 kilowatt lasers on them.  The Avenger is a stealthy development of the much used Predator (and was formerly called Predator-C)

For comparison purposes, the article helpfully provides video of what the prototype 30 kilowatt laser on the USS Ponce can achieve. 

WARNING: Military grade laser...demo may cause ear damage and extreme irritation. 

Yes gentle readers, in a little over a year we will have flying robots armed with lasers!
Sarah Connor, raise your son well. 

Farther afield, in San Luis Obispo, Scientists are working on a solar laser that can de-spin asteroids for exploration and exploitation as well as alter their orbits so as to deflect space rocks that threaten to impact the Earth.  

Note too that if they can get a solar laser working, it is just a matter of scaling it up (a whole hell of a lot) to allow interstellar probes, perhaps even manned ones

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September 28, 2015

Meanwhile, on the Second Closest Planet

One of the Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Science Babes was supposed to be reporting on NASA's news conference today, but instead seems to be focused on organizing an excursion to the beach...

"We're going to need sunblock, some really big mirrors, high yield, low fission fraction H-bombs, a few tons of CFCs, some ham biscuits, lichen, iced tea, blue green algae and a towel."

I'm not sure wh...

"Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water,’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water -- albeit briny -- is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”


Percival Lowell, he died 99 years too soon.

("Science Babe" is actually Sakura War's Diana Caprice as drawn by Ao Ume)

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September 24, 2015

This is Worrisome

It's not just that these incredibly simple, basic questions were answered correctly by only 6% of the nation...but that one question is not even about science (indeed its opposite).


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September 20, 2015

Oh My Stars And Garters YES!

Also this...which is just as awesome but lacks the derp.

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September 14, 2015

Best Picture Yet

...of the exhaust port, alien city, ice deposit or whatever is going on in Occator Crater on Ceres.

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September 10, 2015

More Pluto!

One of the Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Science Babes brings us news from the edge of the solar system.

Actually, she's not at the edge of the solar system.
Come to think of it, Pluto isn't either, because there is still the Oort Cloud and Kupier Belt which extend for hundreds of AU before one gets to the Heliopause.

Anyway, our science corespondent reports that the experts are cataloging and naming the features on Pluto and Charon....

"Golly. I guess it makes sense that they'd've completely exhausted Edith Hamilton  as a source for names."


In any event, NASA has downloaded several high rez pictures from this summer's flyby of the object formerly known as the 9th planet and here are a couple...

Click here for larger.

Click here for supah-size.

Click here to embigulate.

Click here to see at exactly the same size.

Click here to de-lilliputianize...or just go to the NASA site.

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August 10, 2015

The Alien Battle Station We Call Ceres Continues Slowly Charging Its Main Gun

One of the Brickmuppet's Crack Team of Science Babes discusses the continuing mystery of the bright spots on Ceres.

"When I find out who put that damned, irresponsible, Hoaglandesque post title over MY head. I am going to break my foot of in their a.."

Oh dear. 

In lieu of expert commentary, we will go with the short, quick version:

No one has a good explanation for the glowy bits

Note that "pyramid" is a bit dramatic. It appears to be a steep sided mountain...that glows. 

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