Wednesday, December 30, 2009

New tune: "Autumn Song"

Sorry I haven't been blogging much lately. I've been busy with other things, one of which is finally finishing the tracks for the "fall 2009" release of my new album, "Message from Tomorrow." Yesterday Roger and I recorded the final new track (lucky number 13) which I just posted on MySpace. I wrote "Autumn Song" back in September, intending it as a simple folk-type song suitable for playing around with harmonies. Without going to the typical drum/bass rhythm track approach that we do on most songs, I asked Roger to see what sort of things he might add with electric guitars. He warned me that he'd been listening recently to Daniel Lanois (an artist and producer who I also like very much), and you can definitely hear that influence in the heavily delayed guitar parts, including some cool slide guitar work. All the vocals are me.

You can listen to or download "Autumn Song" from MySpaceMusic here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

WISE Mission

NASA's WISE infrared telescope spacecraft is scheduled to launch this morning from Vandenberg AFB in California. WISE will perform an infrared all-sky survey at much higher resolution and sensitivity than any previous IR surveys. The bar is not very high on this, since NASA's previous all-sky IR survey satellite was IRAS which launched in 1983 with a whopping 62 detectors (of course other infrared telescopes such as Spitzer have higher resolution but are not suitable for all-sky surveys). WISE will capture everything that radiates in its wavelength band, from asteroids to brown dwarfs to galaxies, and there are bound to be surprises and dramatic discoveries as there always are when new technologies are deployed in space telescopes to look more closely at the universe. The video above is a great overview of the mission.

Note: If you follow this blog, you will have noticed that there hasn't been much to follow recently. I blame this on various distractions, some of which are necessary, and some not so necessary. Sort of a blogging recession. But hey, these things happen, and I hope to return to more regular blogging in early 2010, probably after February 12 when I wrap up an important company event that I organize every year around this time.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Carbon Bathtub

I saw a cool little article and graphic in National Geographic that's very helpful in understanding the dynamic nature of the level of CO2 in our atmosphere. In the analogy of filling a bathtub which has a slow drain, it is very easy to see that even if you turn down the faucet (i.e., reduce the production of CO2), the level in the atmosphere can continue to rise (as long as the in-flow rate exceeds the out-flow rate).

Cool Hubble Stuff Online

Last month on PBS there was a Nova special on the final Hubble service mission that I didn't want to miss - but unfortunately I missed it anyway. Tonight I finally got to watch "Hubble's Amazing Rescue" online, and it's truly an amazing documentary. Nova's team closely followed the mission through two years of training and preparation and on the May 2009 mission itself, and they also interviewed the astronauts after the mission. It's great to meet some of the spacewalk trainers and to see the minute detail that went into the preparation for this mission. When you see the number of things that could have gone wrong, the success of the mission is even more impressive.

I also found this post about the instruments removed from Hubble and brought back to Earth. The WFPC-2 camera and the COSTAR corrective optics are now on display at the Air & Space Museum in Washington.

Update: Dwayne Day visited the Hubble artifacts in the Air & Space Museum and wrote a nice article on them ("Instruments of God's Creation") for this week's Space Review.  

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

GigBaby! Recording App

I'm still trying to get caught up with various stuff since my Japan trip and also trying to get in the right creative frame of mind to finish my album project. Not much progress on that this weekend, but at least I played some guitar (and listened to a lot of music, some of it classical as I ripped a bunch of my classical CD's now that I have a 32 GB iPod Touch with room for lots more music - I forgot how much I like some of Haydn's late symphonies).

I also fooled around with some test recordings - on the iPod Touch! I knew there were some multi-track recording apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch, but I never looked into it. This weekend I stumbled on something called GigBaby! which is a 4-track recording app for just 99 cents (there's a free version too - I tried it for a few minutes before making the big spending decision). It's rather bare-bones compared to Sonar on the PC (of course!), but it's pretty cool. It has a bunch of pre-defined rhythm tracks you can choose in various styles (though none of them has much of a groove going one). It lets you set the tempo and then record up to four overdubbed audio tracks via an external microphone (the iPhone can also use the built-in mic). The sound quality is reasonably good, and there is a WiFi sharing capability that lets you move tracks between iPhones/iPods and back them up onto a PC or Mac. No stereo panning, no reverb or other effects, but for getting down a simple song, harmony, or instrumental idea, it's quite good. And it's all happening on a device I have in my pocket anyway. Nice!

Their web site doesn't look like much, but they have a decent little PDF manual. This Apple pocket computer never ceases to amaze me.

Back to the (USSR) Future

I found a small booklet nestled between a couple of volumes of my old Berkeley Physics Series texts in my office. I didn't remember it at first, and the title puzzled me - "The USSR in Outer Space: The Year 2005." Wasn't the USSR long gone in 2005?  The booklet has a Boston Museum of Science price sticker on it ($3.95), and that triggered a vague memory of a special exhibit on the Soviet space program - but when was that? A few Google searches revealed the answer: summer 1990 (I must have pictures somewhere). And the USSR officially ended December 25, 1991. But what's with the 2005?

Turns out the booklet is an optimistic look ahead at where the Soviets planned to be in space in 2005, apparently written in 1988 (it talks about a number of near future plans for 1989 and 1991-92, and mentions the "new" Mir space station, whose first module had launched in early 1986 and which had been occupied at least part-time since 1987 - it would be expanded in fall 1989 and continuously occupied until 2001).

There were big plans beyond space stations. The book describes a wide range of planetary probes, Earth orbiting resource monitoring satellites, as well as communication and navigation satellites. Orbital fabrication research too. There are some photos of the the shuttle lookalike Buran vehicle (landing after an unmanned test flight).

Some of this has come to pass, eventually including the International Space Station. But the estimate of a manned landing on Mars around 2005-2010 was unfortunately a bit too optimistic.  

Monday, November 16, 2009

Carnival of Space #129

This week's Carnival of Space is hosted by Tiny Mantras. Tiny Mantras is not your typical space blog since the space content is largely driven by the interests of the blogger's four year old son. But you gotta love a site that features Jupiter face painting as well as a nicely equipped Cosmic Jukebox.

Japan Reloaded

Back in the 1980's and 1990's, I used to spend about two weeks a year in Japan, and although that isn't a lot of time, it was enough to keep me somewhat engaged with Japanese language study, and I found my skills gradually improving with every trip. In recent years, things have changed. I need to spend more time in other countries and not so much in Japan. I kind of miss it.

So I was really happy to spend last week in Japan, the first extended trip in about four years (I spent a couple of days there in 2007). I was visiting customers, mostly in and around Tokyo, though we did spend one day in Nagoya. I had spent a little time reviewing Japanese and exercising the new iPod app Kotoba!, an amazing electronic Japanese dictionary that I've written about before. My Japanese worked well enough with taxi drivers, restaurants, asking directions, etc. though I was frustrated at how much I had forgotten. I guess it can't be helped (shikata ga nai) - use it or lose it.

Aside from trains, restaurants, and customer sites, I spent most of the time at the New Otani Hotel in the Akasaka area of Tokyo. This is a pretty nice hotel, with a great view of the nearby State Guest House, formerly known as the Akasaka Palace. The Google Maps view at left shows how close this building was. Saturday morning I was eating breakfast on the 40th floor of the Garden Tower, thinking about the fact that President Obama was also in Tokyo at the moment, and wondering if he was staying at the State Guest House next door. A number of visiting presidents had stayed there, but I couldn't find any information on where Obama was staying on his current visit (not surprising I guess). It didn't look very busy from 40 floors up, so I decided to take a walk in the rain and check it out.

But first I took a detour through the New Otani's best feature, its beautiful Japanese garden, complete with red bridges, koi ponds, a waterfall, a tea ceremony house, and a Christian chapel. Passing the chapel, I noticed an unusual book mixed with the usual propaganda. It was called Manga Messiah and it was rather unusual propaganda, the New Testament in Japanese comic book format (subtitle: "Has he come to save the world... or destroy it?"). Not my usual cup of ocha, but I had to check it out. This required a brief chat with a very nice Japanese-speaking American former missionary who was staffing the chapel that morning. Seeing that the book included full furigana (pronunciation hints for the kanji), I really wanted it in spite of the subject matter. We talked about Japanese study and other safely non-religious stuff, and as I started to put the book back in the rack, she said I could keep it! Cool. Maybe it's a stealth conversion thing. I'll be careful.

After the garden walk, I found my way to the wall surrounding the nearby State Guest House and walked a kilometer or so past the front gate of the palace grounds. With a total of maybe ten police officers on the whole perimeter that I walked, I was quite sure that the Obama party was staying elsewhere this trip! Then I went back to my room to finish packing and check out for the flight home Saturday evening.

Earlier in the week, I did manage to grab a couple of hours one afternoon to check out a bookstore in Akihabara. It wasn't the best bookstore I've seen in Tokyo, but it was handy and fairly big, and I mainly wanted to refresh my supply of small Japanese notebooks. For years I've used these small notebooks for language notes, travel notes, flight lesson notes, etc. Of course now I do most of that on the PC and/or iPod and/or blog, but I still like these little notebooks, especially the ones with wacky quasi-English cover art. I didn't find anything as wacky as the one pictured here, my all-time favorite from the "Frisky Naughty Penguin Series" (1986), but I got a couple of cute ones. I also bought a great 2010 calendar with scenes of Mount Fuji. I probably could have bought that somewhere closer to home, but it was just the right size for my office so I went for it.

After that I searched the children's book section for anything worth buying to help me build vocabulary (and keep some interest in Japanese going once I got home, always a problem). I found a cool little book for only ¥960, Chikyuu-Uchuu, (Earth-Space). This is a small, colorful paperback with descriptions of basic geology, meteorology, astronomy, and a smattering of space flight stuff. Lots of color photos and diagrams. It's probably middle-school level or below, but it's perfect for me because all of the kanji characters have furigana for pronunciation, just like Manga Messiah! Except that the vocabulary and world view are just a bit different, I'm guessing.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Carnival of Space #128

The carnival of space hails this week from Melbourne, Australia (a nice place, I was there in 2006), even though the picture above shows scenes from Sydney (I liked it there too). AARTScope Blog presents a wide range of space and astronomy topics including a couple of cool videos.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Carl Sagan and the Big Picture on Mars

I'm having a crazy week and shouldn't even be thinking about blogging. But here are two cool things courtesy of other bloggers.  Astropixie has a great quote from the late Carl Sagan in honor of his birthday on November 9 (he would have been 75). Carl Sagan was one of my favorite people, and while I hesitate to put myself in any category with him, his ability to make science accessible to everyone certainly inspired me in my attempts to do educational outreach using space and astronomy themes.

And here's another space-related post from The Big Picture - Mars from MRO. Incredible images. Carl liked to talk about how Mars and the other planets are places, and I'm sure he would be pleased with how intimately we've gotten to know the place called Mars over the last few years, thanks to the Mars Rovers, MRO, and other robotic explorers. Thanks to Bad Astronomy for the tip.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Journey to Palomar

Busy week, but I had a little time to kill with my iPod handy, and I finally watched Journey to Palomar, a PBS science special that I bought back in September (from the iTunes store for $1.99). This is an excellent documentary about George Ellery Hale (1868-1938) and his lifelong quest to build the biggest telescopes in the world while also managing to find time to do groundbreaking work in solar astronomy and especially spectroscopy.

In persuading financial backers and managing some of the biggest scientific projects of his time, he was directly responsible for the existence of the Yerkes telescope in Wisconsin (102 cm/40 inch refractor), two telescopes at Mount Wilson, CA (the 1.5 meter/60 inch Hale Telescope and the 2.5 meter/100 inch Hooker Telescope), and the 5.08 meter/200 inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Mountain, California (completed 10 years after his death - the project was put on hold during WWII). He also helped to establish Caltech in Pasadena. He accomplished all this and more while overcoming a lifelong struggle with mental illness. I knew very little of this amazing man, and I highly recommend this 90 minute documentary. In addition to the biographical aspects, there is great information (including amazing film clips) on the design and construction of the telescopes.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Beam Me Up, Scotty!

Here's a small step for space elevatordom and a giant leap for laser power beaming optics (or something like that). At the Space Elevator Games 2009 in California, the LaserMotive team qualified today for a $900,000 prize. They did it with a small laser-powered machine that pulled itself almost one kilometer up a helicopter-suspended cable. The laser was on the ground and had to track the climber to lock the beam onto the bottom-facing solar panels to keep it powered and climbing at an average speed of 3.72 m/sec (5 m/sec would qualify for the $1.1 million prize).Congratulations to the LaserMotive team! Two other teams will be climbing tomorrow. This is the first time that anyone has qualified for a prize in the Space Elevator Games (last time the goal was 100 meters - a big jump to 900 meters this year). Check out this cool video to see what's involved with this technology challenge (prizes funded by NASA).

This is not quite a space elevator, but remember, a geosynchronous journey of 35,790 kilometers begins with the first half-mile or so.

Galactic Suite 2012 - Really?

I guess I'm really slipping when it comes to keeping up with private space. Before seeing this Reuters item the other day, I had never heard of the Galactic Suite Space Resort project. Based in Spain, this company says they are on track to welcome their first orbital guests in 2012, by which time they will have apparently built a a tropical island training center and launch site, a modular space station, and an orbital rocket plane to carry four pax and two crew from the island to the resort. By 2012? It's not even clear that Virgin Galactic will be flying suborbital passengers by 2012, and they've been working on it for a while. Dudes, it's almost 2010!

Maybe they are actually in league with Bigelow Aerospace (which also mentioned 2012 for a space station, back in 2007).  Their announced price of $4.5 million for three days at the orbital resort compares very well with ~$30 million for a Soyuz ride to the ISS, but wait a minute.  I just watched a video that said they will use Russian flights until their space plane is ready, though Soyuz can only carry one passenger now, maybe two on an upgraded single-pilot version. Doesn't really add up, does it?  I'm very skeptical, even though Galactic Suite claims to have an ace in the hole in the form of an anonymous billionaire space enthusiast who has granted $3 billion to finance the project. I wonder if his name is Dr. Evil?

They have a few cool graphics on their web site, but not a whole lot of information. That pretty much seems to sum it up.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Carnival of Space #127

The latest Carnival of Space is number 127, hosted this week by Next Big Future. NASA's recent launch of the Ares I-X is one of the popular topics of discussion this week.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Screen Capture for iPhone and iPod Touch

I should have looked this up ages ago. Whenever I've written about an app on the iPod Touch, I've usually grabbed screen shots from the developer's web site because I didn't know how to capture my own. Turns out it's really easy. You go to the screen you want, briefly hold the power button (on top edge), then press the Home button (bottom of screen). The screen will flash and you'll hear a shutter release sound. The 320x480 bitmap image shows up in your Saved Photos folder, from which you can email it to yourself or (if you really want something confusing), set it as your wallpaper.

The four shots above are (clockwise from top left) my home page of app icons (first of four), a search page from the Kotoba! Japanese dictionary app, a night sky view with Mars selected in Starmap, and my Main Morning App, the New York Times.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

How to Fly a Plane

This was another distraction, but a nice one. I saw the original British edition of Nick Barnard's book How to Fly a Plane in an airline lounge on my whirlwind Europe tour last month (I think it was the S.A.S. lounge in Oslo). I took a quick look and noted the title for later research. I found a cheap used copy on Amazon so I ordered it. I finally read it tonight over dinner.

It's pretty cool and something of a nostalgia trip for me since I've flown very little since getting my license in 2001, sad but true. I keep thinking I'll get back to it but the time and expense make it tough to do it regularly enough to be safe. This book is not intended as a flight instruction aid, but more as a fairly detailed account of what's involved in flying, and what the various experiences feel like. The basic stuff is pretty accurate as far as it goes, and it's interesting in that they use a very modern, glass cockpit Diamond Star TA40 TDI as the basic training aircraft (a far cry from the tired old Cessna 152's I trained in).

But I especially liked the "first flights" section which describe what it's like to fly a modern high-performance glider (I've done a bit of that), a classic open-cockpit German biplane (a Jungmann, similar to the Boeing Stearman which I've flown a couple of times), a Sukhoi 29 aerobatic trainer (I wish!), a P-51 (I wish more!), and a British Hawk jet trainer (sigh).  So it's a combination of nostalgia and envy when you come right down to it. Of course I have "flown" aircraft like these in various flight sims over the years, but Barnard focuses more on the sights, sounds, and physical actions in the cockpit, for which sims are not very good (you can't simulate the classic smell of hot engine oil in the cockpit of a Piper Cub on a summer day when you're flying with the door open). He's an aerobatic pilot (in Britain) and it sounds like he's really flown most of these aircraft (though I'm not too sure about the Airbus A380).

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wandering: Japanese, DARPA, Le Guin

I spent about three hours listening for trick-or-treaters this evening. We got a few, and while I listened and ate some of the candy, I also wandered through some Japanese review in preparation for an upcoming trip. I started to study Japanese in 1981 and through the 80's and 90's, I used to spend 2-3 weeks a year on business trips in Japan. This was enough motivation to keep me working at least a little on Japanese so I could use it and improve my skills on every trip. Since 2000, I've been spending more time in other Asian countries and only getting to Japan for maybe a week every two years. It's so much more fun to go to a country where you know enough of the language to feel really comfortable (France and Japan for me), but duty calls me to China, Taiwan, and Korea where I know almost nothing of the local language. 仕方がない (shikata ga nai, it can't be helped).C'est la vie. Whatever.

I'm too busy to spend as much time reviewing as I would like, but I find that the major job of any language review is to reactivate some part of my brain where language knowledge seems to be lurking - get the Japanese juices flowing, as it were. So I dig out old books like "Say It In Japanese" and just read random pages, saying phrases out loud to get the speech centers moving too. I have a lot of Japanese study books and dictionaries (it's amazing how many I have on this list of 252 Japanese books). I like to take notes, and I have used various Japanese word processors, most recently the excellent (and free) JWPce.

This exploration process is now easier and more fun than ever, thanks to several apps on the iPod Touch, especially Human Japanese and the free Kotoba! dictionary which has recently been updated. Kotoba! v2.0 now includes example sentences, full copy/paste support, verb conjugations, and a "corkboard" feature which saves the history of words accessed as well as designated favorites - it's certainly the best Japanese study and reference aid EVER. I can copy and paste into the Notes app, email the notes to myself, and copy/paste them into a JWPce document.

It's not all about Japanese. I've also been stockpiling Kindle and now Barnes & Noble e-books on the iPod for those long Asia flights (when I'm not studying Japanese or sleeping). One of them is a new book about DARPA by Michael Belfiore, The Department of Mad Scientists (How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs). I've just read a chapter or so, and it's really interesting.

Long post but there's one more book-related distraction. I've been occasionally following Read All Day, the blog of a woman who just completed reading and reviewing a book a day for 366 days (and I thought I liked to read). She doesn't read much SF, but one she did read was a collection of stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Fisherman of the Inland Sea. It sounded good so I ordered a used copy (no ebook available, alas). This also reminded me that I've been meaning to re-read Le Guin's classic The Left Hand of Darkness, so I dug out the paperback for that.

Update: Here's a little astronomy-related fragment of today's Japanese review on the iPod with one of the example sentences from Kotoba! v2. You pretty much need to be able to read the hiragana and katakana phonetic character sets to be able to make much use of Kotoba!, and most of the examples are standard Japanese with mixed kanji and kana. You may have to do as I do and use the copy/paste feature to translate any kanji in the sentence that you don't know how to pronounce.

その必ずしも 肉眼で見えるわけではない。(Sono hoshi wa kanarazushi mo nikugan de mieru wake dewa nai.) We cannot necessarily see the star with the naked eye.
hoshi 星 star or planet as in 火星(かせい)Mars
必ずしも [かならずしも] (not) always, (not) necessarily, (not) all, (not) entirely
肉眼 [にくがん, にくげん] naked eye, the physical eye (lit. "meat eye")

Friday, October 30, 2009

Big Picture: Saturn at Equinox

Here's another great photo collection from The Big Picture blog at the Boston Globe: Saturn at Equinox. These are very recent Cassini images of Saturn, Titan, Janus, Tethys, and other moons. I love this animated GIF of strips of shadows and light cast onto Janus through gaps in Saturn's rings.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Apollo 17 Site from LRO at 50 km

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) was moved to its final mapping orbit on September 15. Now orbiting just 50 km above the lunar surface, it passed over the Apollo 17 landing site on October 1 and took some great images showing the LM descent stage, Lunar Rover tracks, deployed scientific instruments, and even the American flag. These images are about twice the resolution of previous LRO Apollo site images (from higher orbit). The video here gives you a little tour.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Robot Armada of the Future

Here's a really cool news feature from JPL on future possibilities for robotic exploration of the solar system. When you think of exploring somewhere like Titan, it's hard to imagine doing it by the Mars Rover method - with engineers sending up a batch of commands every day and controlling every move when it's so far away (about 85 light-minutes one way right now). This article describes development work on autonomous, communicating robots that could eventually lead to rovers, crawlers, climbers, balloons, and orbiters, working together to explore according to general guidelines and goals. They would respond to developments like a cryovolcanic eruption or what-have-you more or less like an astronaut or geologist would (with curiosity and caution). I'm sure such a scenario is a few years off, but it's cool that Wolfgang Fink and others are working toward this goal now.  I'm sure there will be many down-to-Earth spinoffs in the meantime from Fink's company,  Cyberdyne Systems Corporation.

Just kidding.

Big Telescopes Get Lucky (Imaging)

Over lunch I read a cool article in the November Optics and Photonics News. The article is called "High Resolution Imaging with Large Ground-Based Telescopes" by Craig Mackay, and it's not available online yet, though there is quite a lot of material on the subject at the "Lucky Imaging WebSite," hosted by the University of Camridge, where Mackay is an astronomer. The home page includes a good overview of the subject as well as many links to more detailed articles and even a Ph.D. thesis if you want lots of detail.

I'll let you read elsewhere for the details, but "Lucky Imaging" takes advantage of the statistical properties of atmospheric turbulence in combination with fast, low-noise, electron-multiplying CCD's and some very clever techniques to achieve diffraction-limited imaging from ground-based telescopes in visible wavelengths, where adaptive optics methods (AO) have not been especially successful (AO works better in the infrared). We're talking Hubble quality resolution or better, especially when this technique is implemented on the latest very large telescopes. It has already been demonstrated on the Palomar 5 meter telescope in combination with an AO system. The animated GIF above compares an uncorrected Palomar image of the Cat's Eye Nebula (NGC6543) with the same object using the AO plus Lucky Imaging technique (Hubble's Cat's Eye images look better than this due to several factors including longer exposures, but this gives an idea of the improvement Lucky Imaging makes possible).

Monday, October 26, 2009

So Why Only One?

When I was writing my post about Carnival of Space #126 a few minutes ago, I searched Google for "Gish Bar sun god" (I was curious even though I knew the title of The Gish Bar Times blog must refer to the geological feature on Io, not the Babylonian god). One of the top search results was a Google Books entry from The Dictionary of Ancient Deities by Patricia Turner and Charles Russel Coulter. Google Books only has a preview of this 2001 reference book, but it displayed the page containing "Gish Bar" anyway - very cool. I guess that's the point of Google Books (that all those scanned books just become part of the web's searchable database of information on everything).

This book didn't have much to say about Gish Bar (Babylonian sun god, that's about it). But the really striking thing is that this is a dictionary of some 10,000 entries, all of which are gods that humans of many cultures have dreamed up over the last few thousand years. Gish Bar's neighbors include Girru (fire god, Sumer), Gitche (high god, Algonquin), and Gjall (hard to explain, Teutonic), Gnowee (sun goddess, Wotjabaluk people of Australia), and "Goddess of Illusion" (a.k.a. "Maya", India). I think that last name pretty much sums up all of them!

Carnival of Space #126

Some space blogs (like this one) are all over the map. Others pick a theme and stick with it. Case in point: The Gish Bar Times. It's pretty much all Io, all of the time. Except when it's hosting the Carnival of Space, as it's doing this week. The blog's name "Gish Bar" certainly refers to Gish Bar Patera, a complex, volcanically active crater on Io (as opposed to Gish Bar the Babylonian sun god).

The image above is one I captured some time ago in Orbiter of Io with Jupiter. The image below is one I just grabbed in Orbiter with labels turned on so I could see where Gish Bar Patera is located on Io's surface. I added the "magnifying glass" using PaintShop Pro. Io sure has a lot of paterae.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Better e-Reading from BN?

I still read a lot of books. I haven't bought an Amazon Kindle, though I've been tempted a few times. The main drawback (aside from cost) would be having to carry around another device. I travel with a laptop PC, a Blackberry, and an iPod Touch. It's not so much the weight or bulk of the Kindle (something like 10 ounces, 289 grams), but it's another thing to think about, keep charged, not lose, etc. Fortunately Amazon makes a free Kindle Reader app for the iPhone and iPod Touch, so I've been able to get the benefits of Kindle e-books (easy to carry multiple books, relatively low cost) without an actual Kindle.

Now Barnes & Noble has muddied the waters for me with its new nook e-book reader. It's the same size and cost as the Kindle 2 ($259) and uses the same e-Ink screen technology to display the books. But it has an additional color LCD screen used to provide a touch-screen interface and a number of additional attractive features (direct PDF support, AT&T wireless plus WiFi for downloading books, memory expansion, replaceable battery).  In a clever marketing twist that leverages their many brick-and-mortar stores, BN will allow you to read any e-book for free via free WiFi inside any of their stores. You can also lend an e-book to a friend with a BN account, which is cool (only 14 days, only once, and you can't access the book while it's "checked out," much like a physical book).

But perhaps most interesting (for me anyway) is their expanded support for other devices. Like Amazon's Kindle, they provide a free e-book reader for the iPhone and iPod Touch. But unlike Amazon, they also have compatible reader applications for Blackberry, Windows PC's, and Macs. I can't see reading on the Blackberry if I have the iPod Touch available, but I've already installed and tried their PC e-reader and read parts of a purchased book on both the PC and on the iPod Touch. I had to unlock the book for each device (with the credit card number used for purchase, a slight inconvenience there), but otherwise it's great to have the option of looking at a much bigger page when I have my notebook available (though the iPod is much better for reading on planes and in bed).

This multi-platform support might lead me to buy more e-books from BN rather than Amazon, similar to the way I buy most music now from Amazon rather than iTunes (mainly because Amazon's MP3's are more portable than Apple's proprietary music format). Will it lead me to buy an actual nook? I don't know, but I certainly will go into a Barnes & Noble and try one out (another advantage of BN's physical stores).

Competition is cool (sometimes)!

Fall Day in New England

Wachusett Reservoir, October 25, 2009.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

NASA In My Pocket

I occasionally check iTunes for any new iPhone/iPod Touch apps that might be of interest, especially free ones.  Tonight I found a brand-new NASA app for iPhone, called (appropriately enough), "NASA app for iPhone." It's free and works also on iPod Touch (needs WiFi connection).

This app offers a handy way to learn about and track NASA missions with photos, videos, a mission orbit tracker (e.g., a map shows where the ISS is now), and NASA Twitter Feeds and Mission Updates. It's nice how this app integrates access to all sorts of NASA resources, many of which are actually separate web sites run by separate NASA centers.

This is especially convenient for me because for some reason, the security software on my notebook doesn't like the web site and won't let me load it without temporarily turning off the firewall, which I really hate to do (oddly enough it has no problem with, but most other URL's will not load).

Distracted by Dragons

Lots to do this weekend, but I've told myself that as a citizen deeply concerned about humanity's future in space, I must make time to read the final report of the Augustine Committee, "Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation." I've downloaded the PDF and I have it open on my computer ready to read. But first I must get past Napoleon and the damn dragons.

I've been sucked into Naomi Novik's "Temeraire" series. As I've written about before (here and here), this is an "alternate history" series that takes place in the early nineteenth century and revolves around the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. It's reasonably good historical fiction with one major addition: intelligent dragons that interact with humans in various ways. In the first book (His Majesty's Dragon), they were pretty much featured as platforms for aerial warfare, but in the second book (Throne of Jade), Temeraire and Laurence traveled to Imperial China, where dragons are deeply integrated into the culture and respected as independent, intelligent beings (though there is still plenty of fighting). The third book (Black Powder War) brought Temeraire and Laurence to Turkey after a harrowing cross-country journey from China. There were new characters and many adventures, but I found it hard to get through some parts of this book - certain contrivances threatened my willingness to suspend disbelief, and I found the plot "dragon" in some parts (sorry!).  I even resolved to quit the series with this book.

But Novik managed to hook me in the end when Temeraire and Laurence finally arrived home to find that a horrible dragon plague was threatening to leave Britain wide open to Napoleon's invasion plans. This made me curious enough to download and read the next book, Empire of Ivory. This book takes place mostly in South and southern-central Africa, where there is reason to believe a cure for the dragon disease can be found, and of course more disasters and adventures ensue, and we meet a civilization with a human/dragon culture quite different from either the Chinese or European models. For me, Empire of Ivory was much better than Black Powder War (though if you should decide to read these books, I strongly suggest you read them in order and not skip any - characters and plot elements from the earlier books are important in the later books, and there isn't too much back story explanation in the later books).

This brought me to the last published book in the series (Victory of Eagles) which finds Temeraire and Laurence imprisoned as traitors (long story!) and temporarily out of the action as Napoleon's invasion of Britain looms. It's quite a page-turner (or screen-flicker since I'm reading all these books in Kindle format on the iPod Touch) and it's keeping me from my music plans, the Augustine report, and some promised housework. Fortunately the sixth book (to be set in Australia) is not due for a while so I'll be able to get some stuff done once I finish this one later today.

I normally don't go in for fantasy (for example, I like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies, but could never finish any of the books). But Novik's dragon books don't strike me as fantasy - the world she builds is richly detailed and historically and culturally realistic in most respects. The fact that there are talking dragons just happens to be the way things evolved, and it just works for me as long as I don't think too much about the flight physics and implausible payloads of these enormous dragons. Somehow it's all made possible with "air sacs" (hmmm - helium sacs maybe?).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Warm-Blooded Plants and Freeze-Dried Fish

Somehow I stumbled on a 1997 Atlantic article by Freeman Dyson, "Warm-Blooded Plants and Freeze-Dried Fish." It's about space exploration and the prospects for humans to (eventually) explore and even colonize the solar system and beyond. Dyson is a distinguished scientist and writer and is well-known (I debated between renowned and notorious) for his independent and often contrary views on certain issues, most recently on the (possibly not-so-terrible) effects of climate change.

In the 1997 space article, I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he had to say (recall that 1997 was the year of Mars Pathfinder and NASA's period of "fast, cheap, and out of control" unmanned spacecraft, which clearly influenced some of his comments). For example, the case for continuing the shuttle and space station programs was not especially compelling (though they would go on for 12+ more years, even surviving a second shuttle disaster). But there are a lot of interesting things in the solar system, and with our rapidly advancing technologies and (eventual) ability to do things in space much more cheaply, places like Mars and Europa could (eventually) be well-worth exploring, though searching for freeze-dried fish orbiting in the vicinity of Europa is perhaps not the best strategy for finding life there (the Europafish would have been ejected by energetic objects crashing through the ice to Europa's hidden ocean - admittedly not a high-probability event). Warm-blooded plants and Mars plants that grow their own green-houses - if nature hasn't evolved them, we could (eventually) genetically engineer them. Maybe even really big ones to use as human shelters on Mars (greenhouse trees!).

Dyson ends up talking about harvesting comets and colonizing the Kuiper Belt - a pretty far-out notion indeed (though not as far as the Oort Cloud Housing Developments). I kept using the word "eventually" in the above discussion. Dyson's key point in all this is the need to be realistic about the goals and the timing. He says, "When emigration from Earth to a planet or a comet becomes cheap enough for ordinary people to afford, people will emigrate." But regardless of what Apollo accomplished in 10 years, the time scale for human expansion into the greater solar system is probably more like hundreds than tens of years.
No law of physics or biology forbids cheap travel and settlement all over the solar system and beyond. But it is impossible to predict how long this will take. Predictions of the dates of future achievements are notoriously fallible. My guess is that the era of cheap unmanned missions will be the next fifty years, and the era of cheap manned missions will start sometime late in the twenty-first century. The time these things will take depends on unforeseeable accidents of history and politics. My date for the beginning of cheap manned exploration and settlement is based on a historical analogy: from Columbus's first voyage across the Atlantic to the settlement of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts was 128 years. So I am guessing that in 2085, 128 years after the launch of the first Sputnik, the private settlement of pilgrims all over the solar system will begin.

This is where I'm afraid he may be right, though it's possible that accelerating technologies and/or one or more major global crises (man the lifeboats!) will speed things up a bit. But I still think it's right to aggressively pursue manned and unmanned space flight now, perhaps with more of it given over to the commercial side. As I wrote in 2007 in a discussion of John Barnes' "Kaleidoscope Century" SF series:
But space (private, public, whatever) could be part of a solution, could be a tool or a lifeboat or even a source of major help for this troubled Earth. Someday we may need every kind of tool we can get, and when we do, we will be glad for whatever preparation we have made in learning to live somewhere other than here. I don't expect everyone to get inspired by it - my most hopeful scenario for educational outreach is that a handful of kids get excited about learning something, get themselves educated, and start to tie a few knots for the flimsy rope bridge we are building toward the future, even while some other kids are playing with matches, trying to light the ropes on fire. And maybe some of the ropes are actually carbon nanotubes stretching thousands of kilometers into the sky.
The process of building and living for months aboard the ISS may seem expensive now, but if we ever do have a major crisis in which the survival of our species requires getting a small fraction of us off the planet in a hurry, we will be grateful for this experience when we are hollowing out our first asteroid and building our first housing project on Mars.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Carnival of Space #125

The very interesting and nicely designed blog Orbiting Frog is hosting the Carnival of Space this week.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cheaper Plasma Thrusters

I recently got an offer to subscribe to Popular Mechanics for only $5 for the first year so I signed up. I've always liked PM - it covers a wide range of topics from DIY home and auto repairs (not my forte) to various aspects of high technology. They sponsor an annual "Breakthrough Award" for inventors, and the November issue has an article on this year's winners (there are also video clips demonstrating the inventions). There are several interesting "flying machines" among the ten winners, including NASA's Kepler spacecraft, a high-speed coaxial rotor helicopter from Sikorsky, and a flying dune buggy (second flying car this month!). But my favorite is the "Mini-helicon plasma thruster" invented by MIT astronautics researcher Oleg Batischev.

The innovation here is the simplicity and low cost of this ion engine compared to previous plasma engines used (for example) on NASA's Dawn spacecraft. It uses inexpensive nitrogen rather than xenon gas and a simple radio frequency antenna to excite the plasma. It should be cheap enough to use on "ordinary" satellites to (gradually) push them from low Earth orbit up to geosynchronous orbit. This article offers additional background. To emphasize the simplicity of the design, when a part broke, Batischev and his team built a version of the engine using a Coke bottle for the glass tube and a Coke can as the antenna (picture below)! Talk about cheaper!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Carnival of Space #124

Space blogging marches on even if there's precious little of it on my blog recently. Between business travel, trying to finish my new album, and that crazy little thing called work, my space reading and writing are down considerably in recent weeks. But fortunately there's always the Carnival of Space to help me keep in touch with my space roots. Better late than never, check out #124, hosted this week by we are all in the gutter (looking at the stars), which is one of the cooler space/astronomy blog names that I've seen.

Insane (RC) Flying

The guy operating the remote control in this video is a virtuoso (watch it in high quality if you can). Of course no physical laws are violated - you have a very low-mass, very strong model airplane with a very powerful engine, so flying square corners and such looks weird but is obviously possible (but this would hurt if a human were pulling those G's in a real airplane). But I have to admit that what happens at around 2:00-2:30 in the video is pretty damn freaky. The guy's a helicopter pilot and an airplane pilot. Very cool flying.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Where Are the Flying Cars?

We live in the twenty-first century. People landed on the moon forty years ago. We carry tiny communication devices and computers in our pockets. This is The Future! Where are the flying cars?!?

They're coming in 2011. I've known about Terrafugia for a few years. It's a Boston area company that's been developing a "roadable light sport aircraft" since about 2006. I knew they had flown a prototype this year, but I hadn't seen many pictures until a friend of mine sent me a bunch today. It's cool in a weird way. Or weird in a cool way. I'm not sure. I'd love to fly one but I think I'd be afraid to drive a $200,000 car/plane on New England roads (which are full of New England drivers and potholes). I do have a pilot's license, but it's also a little out of my price range right now.

Monday, October 12, 2009

One Love - All Around the World

Playing for Change has been around for a while, but I just learned about it, and this "One Love" video is just great. "Stand By Me" is also awesome.

A European Rainbow

Last week I was on a business trip in Europe, visiting companies in Oslo, Paris, Madrid, and Cannes with additional stops in Frankfurt and Nice. Yeah, I know - rough duty. I can't complain too much about that list, but visiting 7 companies in 4 cities in 3 countries in 5 days is hectic even if the food is (sometimes) good. Sometimes it's potato chips and water while rushing to the next appointment - not a very European lunch, but I'm flexible. Here are some non-proprietary highlights.

Oslo - This was my first visit to Oslo and I had a few hours to walk around on Sunday afternoon when I arrived. I visited the amazing Vigeland Park sculpture garden. Sculptor Vigeland was an obsessed with the nude human form and there are some 200 sculptures in that park to prove it. I also visited the Nobel Peace Center, where on October 4, I took the picture at the left. Aren't you a little suspicious of that life-size cutout of President Obama at the Nobel Peace Center five days before the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to him? Actually it was a civil rights history exhibit called "From King to Obama."

Paris - Paris is nice even on a brief visit (evening arrival and dinner, then two customer visits the next day before flying to Madrid), even if you have only an average cafe meal for dinner. Average in Paris beats "great" in many cities. But it was a quick visit.

Madrid - Two full days of business, but we managed to get a quick look at the Royal Palace of Aranjuez where we stopped at the gift shop to buy the aforementioned chips and bottled water for lunch. We had seven minutes and saw only part of the exterior, which is lovely. No time for the famous gardens. Later we had a few hours before a late evening flight to Nice, and we visited Alcala, a town known as the birthplace of Cervantes, famous author of Don Quixote. The museum was closed but there was a nice statue of Don Quixote in front and the annual Cervantes festival was just starting. The new terminal at the Madrid airport had an interesting reference to optics in its construction - the roof supports were painted in a continuous spectrum from deep blue at one end to red at the other. This is shown at the top of this post - two photos taken from different spots in the middle of the spectrum, one looking toward red, the other toward blue. Cool effect.

Nice and Cannes - We stayed one night in Nice (late arrival from Madrid) before driving Friday morning to Cannes. There we visited Thales Alenia Space, and although it was not the main reason for the visit, we got a chance to see some cleanrooms ("salle blanche" or "white room" in French) where some seven communication satellites were under construction (the Huygens Titan entry probe was assembled here, as were many other European space exploration satellites in addition to weather, communications, and Earth remote sensing satellites). We also saw a huge vacuum test chamber, the largest in Europe. No cameras allowed, so I grabbed the picture below from Thales Alenia Space's online multimedia library.

On Saturday I was able to visit a wonderful little island called Porquerolles, a short boat ride from the city of Hyères on the south coast of France (about midway between Marseille and Saint-Tropez). I spent several hours exploring the walking trails, beaches, and rocky shore areas before enjoying a lunch of mussels, frites, and a rosé wine made right on the island.

Then it was time to head back home via Paris and Frankfurt - I took this picture of Porquerolles just after takeoff from Toulon airport en route to Paris (many great Porquerolles photos here).

Now it's time to start reviewing Japanese for an upcoming trip to a different island...

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Nobel for Optical Achievements

As an optical engineer (and undergraduate physics major), I was really pleased to learn that this year's Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for major achievements in optics. The prize was shared between Charles K. Kao "for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication" and Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith "for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit – the CCD sensor." Fiber optics communication and image sensors for digital cameras and space telescopes have certainly changed the world for the better. Congratulations to the winners!

Carnival of Space #123

This week the Carnival of Space is hosted by Weird Warp.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

JPL Ambassador Deadline Extended

I should have mentioned this in September but I forgot. September is normally the month during which people in the U.S. can apply to JPL to become a volunteer JPL Solar System Ambassador. This year they extended the deadline to October 16. If you enjoy doing educational outreach activities on space and astronomy themes (as I do), this is great program. Details can be found here.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Kotoba for iPod Touch! Shinjirarenai!

I finally found the Japanese dictionary of my dreams, and it's on my iPod Touch. It's called Kotoba and it's a free app that is based on a huge database of Japanese language knowledge developed by Jim Breen. Kotoba is developed by Pierre-Philippe di Costanzo, and he has done an amazing job. It has some 133,000 Japanese words and English translations, with a smaller number of French and German words as well (I kept the French active so I can use it as an English/Japanese/French dictionary in any combination).

The cool thing is that you can enter any language at any time - it will figure out if it's English, Japanese, or French (or just find it in the database) and display the corresponding definitions. It makes use of the Japanese keyboard if you activate it (for romaji/kana entry with conversion to kanji, though Kotoba works just as happily with the English keyboard entry). This is all amazing, but wait, there's more. He also allows you to use the traditional Chinese keyboard (you have to activate it in the iPod settings app) which includes a drawing pad with character recognition - so you can sketch an unknown character and select the right one from several displayed candidates. It somehow maps this Chinese input into Japanese kanji! This works quite well for the basic characters I know, but there are some that give "no match" (there is no sketch pad specifically intended for Japanese, I assume because most Japanese users are used to phonetic entry with on-the-fly kanji popup menus which is a standard part of the iPod software).

I bought dozens of Japanese-English, English-Japanese, kanji, and other dictionaries over the years I was seriously studying Japanese. I even bought several dedicated electronic ones like the Canon WordTank. This little app seamlessly integrates all of them (yes, it has detailed kanji dictionary information and even animated stroke-order diagrams for many of the kanji). BTW, it's a 60 MB app because all the databases are local (no need to be online to use this app).

Shinjirarenai! (Unbelievable). I'm glad I'll be going to Japan later this fall so I'll have an excuse to get back into Japanese for a bit and use this little gem.

Getting Hyper(spectral)

As an optical engineer, I have a professional interest in all sorts of optical systems. I currently don't do optical design on a regular basis myself, but sometimes I have to dig into some particular aspect of optical design to develop a presentation or prepare for a customer visit. It is such a circumstance that is leading me to dig a bit into hyperspectral imaging systems. These are cool optical systems that also connect nicely with my interest in space exploration. The picture above is the spectrometer part of a sample system I've been playing with today (designed by a colleague for demonstration purposes).

Spectrometers are pretty well known in astronomy and other technical fields (e.g., chemistry). A spectrometer uses a prism, or more commonly a diffraction grating, to spread incoming light into its component wavelengths (corresponding to colors for visible light). Spectra can be collected from the sun, from stars, from flames, light bulbs, etc. and when properly captured, recorded, and analyzed, they can reveal information about materials present in the light source (and possibly also of a medium in between the source and the instrument, e.g., the Earth's atmosphere, which selectively passes or absorbs certain wavelengths emitted by the sun). Spectrometers can also look at reflected or scattered light, and if the properties of the source are known, changes in the spectrum recorded from the reflected light can provide information on what chemical substances must have been present in the object that reflected or scattered the light.

Imaging spectrometers also do this, but they do it in a way that captures both an image of the source ("spatial data") and spectral data from specific parts of the image. So instead of recording a spectrum of the whole scene or object (which would have to be some sort of average of everything in the scene), an imaging spectrometer records a separate "rainbow" for each pixel in the image.
If you scale this up to where you are collecting such pixel-by-pixel spectra for many narrow wavelength bands across a wide range of wavelengths (maybe ultraviolet to infrared), you are now in the hyperspectral imaging domain, and this is especially exciting for remote sensing of the Earth and other planets. Instruments of this type are carried on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (CRISM) and on various Earth remote sensing satellites (and aircraft) to help map the locations and types of minerals and also vegetation (at least on Earth). The amount of data that is collected can be huge if you have high spatial resolution (many megapixels) and high spectral resolution (many wavelength channels). This data can be depicted visually as a "datacube," as in the AVIRIS example at left (the 224 contiguous wavelength bands form the "depth" of this cube). This article is a good brief overview of hyperspectral imaging for remote sensing.