Thursday, February 28, 2013

Inside the B-24

This web page is super cool if you like airplanes. It starts with a nice 3D cutaway view of the Collings Foundation's B-24 "Witchcraft," in the classic style of aviation fan magazines and books that focus on particular airplane models (yes, I have a few of those):

But hover your mouse over it, and labels appear to identify the different parts of the plane:

But wait, there's more. Click on one of the pictures (cockpit below), and a separate window will open with a photographic 3D virtual reality view you can control with the mouse to look around and zoom into details:

I was lucky enough to fly in Witchcraft a couple of years ago (photos here), and I walked and crawled through most of these stations (you could look over the pilots' shoulders but no room to enter the actual cockpit). This web site and Java-based app is the closest thing to being back there! And much less noisy.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sound Obsession: Alt J

I mentioned the band Alt J the other day in a blog post about music I've bought recently. I can't stop listening to their album "An Awesome Wave" (whose cover graphic, above, is actually an Envisat image of the Ganges delta). BTW, the MP3 album is still just $2.99 on Amazon.

I'm trying to figure out what I like about this music. The vocals and lyrics are strange to say the least - hard to say what the songs are about, but there are a lot of vaguely sexual and violent references in them. I watched videos for three songs, Tessellate, Breezeblocks, and Fitzpleasure, and they too are strange and semi-violent. The songs don't sound especially complex musically . So what's the deal?

I think it's mostly about texture and space. The sounds of the guitars, vocals, percussion, and synthesizers are varied and colorful, and there are usually not a huge number of sounds at once, so these varying textures "stick out" in the mix, giving a minimalist yet rich feeling. There is also "space" in the songs where everything stops except the vocals, guitar, or percussion, and things get very quiet, and then loud. There also seems to be variation in tempo. I guess that all adds up to the element of surprise - even after multiple listenings, there are new things to notice. It just seems so fresh and bursting with little variations at every turn. It works for me - and for a lot of other people, it seems. I noticed that they are playing in Boston next weekend, but of course the two shows are sold out already. You snooze, you lose, but in fairness, I did just discover this band on February 15!

Friday, February 22, 2013

Birth of the Blooze

Here's a little musical doodle I threw together tonight. I got a new music app called Scape for the iPad. It was developed by Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers as a kind of ambient music play set. You create musical "soundscapes" by choosing and positioning various backgrounds and graphical shapes. The picture above shows one I made tonight, the cleverly titled "Scape 5" (I haven't figured out how to rename these things). I recorded that into Sonar X2 on my PC and started fooling around with different synth sounds. I finally chose two, an ominous-sounding percussive voice, and a sampled string orchestra. I improvised some melodies and chords with the strings, added a bunch of reverb, and this is what I got. SF movie music. Or something.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

An Awesome Wave of New Music

Music is my addiction. Fortunately it's not especially expensive or harmful. I enjoy "growing my own," but mostly I buy it, most frequently these days as Amazon MP3's, and quite often on sale. On my Amazon Cloud I have 27,333 songs, 10,022 of them purchased (from Amazon). A goodly number of those are classical collections of 99 or more pieces, many bought for a dollar or two. So the average is probably much less than the typical $0.99 or $1.29 per song, but even if it's 25 cents a song,   that's around $2,500 spent on musical bits. Most of the rest of the 27,000 songs were ripped from my own CD's (and some vinyl rips). A few hundred were probably bought on iTunes before I started to buy MP3's almost exclusively from Amazon.

So what have I bought recently? I'm glad I asked. Looking at the Amazon Cloud "Recently Added" folder for the last few items added, we find (oldest to newest):
  1. Big Mozart Box - A Bach Guild collection of 131 Mozart pieces, this was probably unnecessary since I have a zillion Mozart recordings already, but for 99 cents? I just leave these giant collections on the Amazon Cloud and stream them when I feel like some classical immersion. This one is still 99 cents.
  2. Local Natives, "Hummingbird" - Second album by an indie band I really like. Good, but I still prefer the first one.
  3. Blue Sky Riders, "Finally Home" - If this occasionally sounds like a fresh burst of 1970's, it could be the presence of Kenny Loggins. Three great writers, wonderful harmonies, somewhere between country and old-school acoustic pop.
  4. Girl Named T, "Hey Liebe" and "Wait by the Rabbit Hole" - I wrote about T briefly in my recent California trip post. I really love her writing, singing, and background vocals. Fresh alternative pop-rock. I actually bought these CD's at her concert in Berkeley (for $5 each, great deal).
  5. Muse, "The 2nd Law" - This was well-reviewed and cheap ($2.99), and I liked the samples, but now I'm not so sure. It has its moments but it's a bit over-dramatic or something. 
  6. Buffalo Springfield, "Retrospective (Best of)" - I watched a documentary that talked about these guys and others from the late-60's Hollywood/Laurel Canyon scene. I realized that I only had this on vinyl (now gone) and only had a couple of songs as MP3. A remedial classic.
  7. Alt-J, "An Awesome Wave" - I freaking LOVE this album. It is so weird. It's almost hypnotic. Strange vocals. Synthy instruments. It is so different and so good. Some of the lyrics and singing make me smile or even laugh out loud, even on the sixth listening. Another $2.99 special. Such a deal. 
  8. Corin Ashley, "New Lion Terraces" - I just bought this new release today when Roger Lavallee (friend, producer, musical mentor) praised it on Facebook. While Corin doesn't imitate the Beatles, there is something very Beatlish (and McCartneyish) about some of these songs, and I really like the album. Some of the chord progressions and key changes are strange, but they manage to work well with the vocals and harmonies. 

That's what I've bought on Amazon since January 29. Lots of music for three weeks - not that I buy this much every three weeks. It varies a lot.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

What I Write (and Why?)

I used to blog a lot more than I do these days. I started "Music of the Spheres" in October 2005 (about 88 months ago), mainly to write about the Orbiter spaceflight simulator that was a heavy obsession at that time (I wrote a tutorial book about Orbiter that year). I wrote over 200 posts a year from 2006 to 2009 (366 was my peak in 2008 when I pushed for one a day for some reason). But I wrote only 55 posts 2011 and 2012, closer to one a week. Nobody seems to especially care how much I blog, including me. But I've written 1,447 posts since I started this thing - an average of 16 a month. That's a lot of words!

I'm not into blogging as much as I once was, but occasionally I will still take a look at the stats. Google started tracking my blog stats in May 2008 (maybe that's when I decided to turn tracking on). Since then I have had 243,800 page views. I had about 11,000 last month, running around 300-400 a day. I sometimes wonder who all these page viewers are, and what they are viewing. Google has some information about this (e.g., "Carnival of Space #12," July 19, 2007, 913 page views), but it still blows my mind. I could probably find out a lot more detail, but I don't want to spend the time right now. Oddly enough my page views jumped to around 1,300 yesterday, and I have no idea why. I recently wrote about Mars-One and Elon Musk; maybe someone with a lot of readers or an interest in Mars colonization linked to that article.

This post was triggered when I looked at the list of keyword topics on the right side of the my blog. These are keywords that I chose myself and use to categorize my posts. I was surprised at how much I have written on some topics, and how little on some others that I find quite interesting. I grabbed everything down to 20 posts and put them into Excel (note that I usually apply multiple keywords to each post). Here's the graph (total posts to date, 1,447):

Orbiter was the original impetus for the blog, and I have written 250 posts about it (heavy overlap with "add-on" and "tutorial" topics), my #3 topic. Astronomy is #1 (308 posts), NASA is #2 (290). Books (216) and education (194) are pretty strong, as are blogs (219), space history (174), and people (170). I would have expected more on music (162), but these things come and go. When I do blog now, it is often about music, but my big years (2006-2009) were heavy with space stuff, totaling 1143 posts. Very little on optics (42), considering this is my profession. Not much on humor or religion.

Judging from this and from the hundreds of small notebooks that I still have from my pre-blog days when I would keep paper journals on various subjects of interest (flight simulators, Japanese, flight lessons, songwriting, travel, etc.), I like to write stuff, no matter who is reading it. For most of my life, I was the only one reading my stuff (unless that stuff was email). That's still mostly true, but there now seems to be dozens to hundreds of people a day who are also reading some of my stuff, for whatever reason. To all of you I say, thanks for your interest! Feel free to drop me a line (or a blog comment) if you think of it. Unless you are one of my many comment spammers (if so, you probably aren't actually reading this, nor are you actually a person, and I don't need to encourage you to comment!).

And WHY do I write all this stuff? Ah yes. Not for money. I have not taken any steps to "monetize" my blog, which was probably a mistake, though probably not a big one. As near as I can tell, I just like the sound of my own fingers.

"Look at You" on

My powerful music promotion machine is revving up for the new album - it's about to cross the all-important threshold from nanowatts to microwatts. Orders of magnitude! Yes, that powerful.

Today I made three MP3's from the new album available for free download on my artist page. This site is free to me, and free to you too, unless you choose to make an optional donation when you download something. I also uploaded some songs from my first two CD's (here and here). Here is the Noisetrade widget for the new album:

I also made a PDF of the lyrics for all the songs on the album and added this to the free downloads page of my website. I thought I also made this PDF available as an optional download on the Noisetrade page for "Look at You" but I don't see it there (maybe it shows up when you download the mp3's - yup, that's it - I did a test download).

You may no longer be able to get anything you want at Alice's restaurant, but you can on the internet!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mars in 2023?

Mars Direct at Vallis Dao

Considering that this started out as something of a "space blog," it's odd that I haven't actually written about space in quite a while. Of course my tag line gives me a pretty wide charter: "Space flight, simulators, astronomy, books, flying, music, science, education: whatever the obsession of the moment might happen to be." And for the last couple of years, I've been occupied with other things, such as music and travel (not to mention work). So it goes.

But I really am still quite interested in space, even if I'm not writing books about space flight simulators (simulated Mars Direct mission in Orbiter shown in picture above) and attending space conferences as I did a couple of times back in 2006 and 2007. Two weeks ago, I made a special effort to go see the space shuttle Endeavour at its new museum home in Los Angeles. And I continue to follow developments in private space with great interest, including the accomplishments of SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, whom I heard speak at the Mars Society conference in Washington in 2006:

Elon Musk at MSC 2006

Today I was reading the tenth anniversary edition of The Space Review, a weekly roundup of space related articles published by Jeff Foust (congratulations Jeff!). One of the articles is "Can Elon Musk retire on Mars in 2023?" This is something I had heard about back in 2010 but mostly had forgotten. Musk told a newspaper interview that he planned to retire to Mars (not for a while I suppose, as he is only 41). Really? Could that be possible? I mean, I know Elon has had long-term goals for Mars and for human expansion into the solar system. But how soon could there be something on Mars that one might retire to? 

Maybe sooner than we might think if Mars-One has its way. I had not heard too much about this Netherlands-based private organization, but they've got some big plans, including the start of Mars colonist selection in 2013. Whoa, that is now! It's pretty wild and I don't know whether their "Mars colonization as a global reality TV show" could really work for funding. But they are thinking big by thinking small, as in, don't assume any major technological breakthroughs. Plan to use what we know how to make and do now, including rocket boosters from SpaceX, and various technology developed and used for the International Space Station. They claim it is indeed possible.

If they stay on schedule, they will launch a Mars communication satellite and a first pre-supply mission in 2016 (above), and land the first four colonists on Mars in 2023 (one major simplification of their humans-on-Mars program is that all trips are one-way, not round trip - if you go, you plan to stay). Four more colonists will land every two years in the initial plan, though other short-term colonization proponents believe that a viable colony will need to (and could) grow faster than this. By the time Elon reaches a still youngish retirement age of say 60 (in 2031), perhaps there could be a few dozen to a few hundred colonists he could join in a small Martian town.

I certainly believe that it's a good idea to expand humanity into the solar system, in part to provide a genetic backup of sorts in case of some unexpected disaster on Earth. And I would really be excited to see a private humans-on-Mars program starting as early as 2023 - just ten years away! I may be getting ready for retirement around then myself - but unlike Elon, I don't plan to join a Martian retirement village. I will enjoy watching from afar (I hope there's a virtual reality feed I can subscribe to), but I'm rather attached to Earth and many of the people who share it with me. I think I will just stay here and re-read some of Kim Stanley Robinson's novels like Red Mars and 2312

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Cool California Trip

I was in California on business from January 26 to February 6. It was a pretty interesting trip which included a couple of weekends. I flew into Los Angeles where I rented a van for the annual international distributors' meeting (IDM) that I always help to host (and serve as a driver for the various events). Before driving to San Diego for the IDM kickoff events, I spent a few hours at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. This museum is now the home of the retired space shuttle Endeavour, which I last saw in person in 2007, when I visited Kennedy Space Center for the launch of STS-118. At that time I got to see a little bit of Endeavour on the pad during a pre-launch KSC tour (it was wrapped in the service structure so you couldn't see much). Then I got to see the launch, which of course was thrilling.

This time I got a lot closer to Endeavour, which is displayed horizontally in its temporary hangar (the plan is to construct a new display building where the shuttle will be displayed vertically in simulated launch position). Of course it is huge, airliner size, and it was really cool to see the thousands of re-entry worn tiles that protected its belly, as well as the enormous main engines, thrusters, etc. I completely understand that the shuttle program had to end - with its 40+ year old technology, it was a costly and risky way to launch cargo to orbit, but it was much more than that. It was also the only true space plane people have flown or likely will fly for a long time to come (not that capsules can't do the basic job of transporting people to orbit).  So it was bittersweet to see Endeavour on display as a museum piece. I've got some more Endeavour pictures and video clips on Flickr, along with a couple of shots of the Apollo-Soyuz command module, Gemini 11 capsule, and the A-12 Blackbird "spy plane" that is displayed near the parking garage outdoors.

After the distributor meeting (which involves a lot of people, PowerPoint slides, and food), I flew up to San Francisco for the Photonics West conference. On the weekend, I got to spend some time with my wife's daughter, including a wonderful concert in Berkeley. It was a British Invasion tribute concert with a focus on Buddy Holly and his influence on the British bands of the 60's. Four local bands did cover versions of songs by such classic bands as the Yardbirds, along with Buddy Holly tunes, and a few originals. All four bands were great, but I especially liked Girl Named T, who performed with two different band line-ups. Their playing and harmonies were first-rate, and the few originals were intriguing, so I bought T's two CD's which were on sale at the merch table. An incredible find! Really great stuff! Check out her stuff at CD Baby or Amazon. I have also posted a 92 second YouTube clip of T and company doing a lovely version of John Lennon's "Because" - great harmonies! Check this out before YouTube's listening robot figures out it's a Beatles song and makes me take it down.