Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Moonhopper, MIDI, and Top 100 Blogs

So here is my 366th blog post on the 366th day of the year. Funny how that worked out. I'm having a scattered but mostly enjoyable winter break though it is going faster than I'd like. Aside from some brief travel to visit my Mom in New York, we've just been hanging around the house. One thing I've been working on is learning Etoys programming for a possible space-themed middle school science teaching unit. So far I've written a simple prototype "Moonhopper" project for exploration of 2D motion with gravity, hover engines, thrusters, etc.

On a completely different tack, I've resurrected the ailing desktop PC I used to use for recording projects. This 2002-era Dell had become incredibly slow and unstable. I reinstalled Windows XP, upgraded to 1 GB of RAM, and reinstalled my music applications including Band in a Box 2007 and SONAR 3 (several versions old now but still OK for me). The computer is reasonably zippy now. I even started to write a new song, the first in over a year. I'm also reconnecting and testing my MIDI and audio gear so I'll be ready to record.

I've also got another book underway, Isaac Newton by James Gleick. He really brings the strange and brilliant Sir Isaac to life.

Finally, thanks to Hobby Space (RLV/Space Transport News), I learned about a great list of the top 100 space and astronomy blogs at and was flattered to find Music of the Spheres on the list at #27 (not a ranking, it's arranged by category). Cool!

A safe and happy new year to all!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Falcons & Dragons at Orbit Hangar

The other day I wrote about SpaceX and the ISS resupply contract they recently received from NASA. I showed an Orbiter screen shot of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, and commented that I wasn't sure of the status of SpaceX add-on developments for Orbiter.

Checking into this over at Orbit Hangar, I first learned that the Orbit Hangar web site itself has just been given a major overhaul, with a new look and new search and browsing features. Cool! And there have been some SpaceX add-on developments since I last looked in maybe March 2008. There is a "beta" of Glider's "SpaceX Launchers and Dragon 0.58" from April or May 2008. Based on limited testing with the Falcon 9 and Dragon on supplied scenarios, this looks pretty good and is mostly working, though I had some difficulty with rotational control using thrusters. The Dragon capsule and service module are separate spacecraft, so you need to use [F3] to choose the right one for some actions (e.g., K will open the solar panels if the service module is selected).

There is also "Falcon 9 - Dragon Beta 3" by MajorTom, dated April 13, 2008. I didn't test this one. At one point, Glider and MajorTom were working on merging their SpaceX projects and I think this probably happened, but I'm not sure. Glider's version seems more complete but there isn't much documentation.

The latest development is based on Glider's add-on, "SpaceX Lunar Tourism" by Henry the Orbiter. This simulates a hypothetical free-return mission (once around the Moon and back to Earth). It involves two launches, a Falcon 9 Heavy (27 first stage engines!) carrying a "TLI Kicker Stage" and a regular Falcon 9 carrying the Dragon with the pilot and six tourists. The Dragon docks with the TLI stage in low Earth orbit, and the TLI Kicker Stage is fired to send them around the Moon. I only tried a few scenarios including post-TLI, around the Moon, and returning to a hard impact in southern Africa (I skipped the mid-course corrections and re-entry preps, oops). It was cool to watch the Moon get bigger and bigger, to not hit it, and to see the Earth emerge on the other side! This add-on includes some documentation on SpaceX, Glider's add-on, and the Moon mission.

Soldier's Heart

I finally finished Goodwin's Team of Rivals, and it is every bit as good as reviewers have said, one of the best works of history and biography I have read. The subtitle refers to the "political genius" of Abraham Lincoln, and he clearly was a genius in many ways - in choosing people, in understanding complex situations, in disarming tensions, and most of all in timing. He would weather severe criticism and delay action in situations where even his closest friends and supporters questioned whether he understood the nature of the crisis. But with well-timed action, Lincoln would resolve the crisis with the fewest possible side effects. In chess terms, he was looking ahead through many possible moves and counter moves, but this was not only an intellectual judgment. He understood the complex interplay of tensions and feelings among his cabinet members and generals as well as with the soldiers and with the general public in the North and even in the South.

Lincoln's intellect was great, as was his ability to communicate complex issues simply but accurately. But it was his empathy that held it all together. He truly felt the pain of all the players - his cabinet members, his generals, and the soldiers he would often visit throughout the Civil War. But somehow he was able to absorb and dissipate all this pain and maintain his spirits and his ability to focus.

Team of Rivals shows you the Civil War from the point of view of Lincoln, his family, and his cabinet members. They had plenty of direct contact with the war and its effects - many of the biggest battles were within 100 miles of the White House, and some much closer. But the war itself is still somewhat abstract. So when I came across a Civil War book my daughter had read in school some years ago, I decided to do a quick supplemental read.

I actually read Soldier's Heart once before. Gary Paulsen is one of my favorite authors, even though he is known mainly as an author for young readers. The subtitle of Soldier's Heart is "Being the Story of the Enlistment and Due Service of the Boy Charley Goddard in the First Minnesota Volunteers," and it is the brief, slightly fictionalized story of a real 15 year old boy who lied about his age to enlist in the Union army 1861. He fought in several major battles, but there is little in the way of big picture perspective here - it is pure experience and feelings, as visceral as any war book I have ever read. I strongly recommend both Team of Rivals and Soldier's Heart.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Great Space Book

My sister did the impossible this year: she gave me a space book that I had wanted but didn't yet own. Spacecam by Terry Hope (subtitle "Photographing the final frontier from Apollo to Hubble") is something of a sampler, with "looking out" chapters on man in space (Moon and Earth orbit), the planets, and beyond the solar system (mainly Hubble images), and three "looking back" chapters with wonderful Earth imagery (geography, weather & climate, dramatic incidents). The 300 mostly large color photos are well chosen and printed with high quality. The captions are useful and mostly accurate (though I noticed a few errors).

Thanks, Sis!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Good Earth

Apollo 8, December 24, 1968.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

F9/Dragon for ISS Resupply

NASA announced today that the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft have officially been selected for ISS Cargo Resupply Services. This system will replace the shuttle for US cargo deliveries to the ISS after 2010. More details here. SpaceX also announced that the first Falcon 9 test vehicle will be fully integrated at Cape Canaveral by December 31. I don't know when the first F9 test launch will take place in 2009, but this certainly is progress.

The picture shows a Falcon 9 model in Orbiter, a few minutes after launch from the Cape. Notice the nine first stage engines burning. The payload isn't a Dragon but a satellite in a large faring as shown on the SpaceX Falcon 9 main page. I haven't checked for a while on SpaceX add-on developments for Orbiter. There were several things in work earlier this year but I don't think anything was completed. I have some Falcon and Dragon screen shots from Orbiter on Flickr.

Helping Out

My family and I have been lucky (so far) in not being greatly affected by the current recession. So as the year comes to a close, I'm making some additional donations to causes I support. One is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A major USA for UNHCR donor has provided a $1 million challenge grant to match individual contributions dollar for dollar until the end of the year in support of Darfur refugees, so it's a good time to donate if you can.

I was also reminded in a "personal email" from Michelle Obama that there are many people here in the US who need help too, and one way to help people in your own area is to donate to a local food bank. You can check the phone book or enter your location at Feeding America to find a food bank near you.

It's also a good thing to remember those who are serving in the armed forces. I wish the US weren't involved in two wars, but unfortunately we are and will be for a while longer. One thing you can do is donate to the USO so they can send out care packages to men and women who are doing some really tough jobs far from home.

Happy holidays!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Apollo 8 Launch: 40 Years!

It was forty years ago today... Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play...

Oops, wrong anniversary. But forty years ago today, the first manned moon mission was launched. Apollo 8 carried Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders on their historic moon-orbiting flight. It was also the first manned launch of the mighty Saturn V booster. Astroprof has done a great job summing up the mission and the circumstances that led up to it, so I'll refer you to his post for the details.

In honor of this anniversary, I fired up Orbiter and AMSO to do a virtual recreation of the Apollo 8 launch, and my virtual astronauts are now in Earth orbit awaiting my calculations for the TLI (trans-lunar injection) burn. I better make sure they don't miss their window.

My Orbiter screen shot shows something that was never actually photographed, the separation of the launch escape system from the command module a few seconds after first stage separation (about 3 minutes after launch, GET = ground elapsed time).

Apollo 8 CSM Earthrise

[Update: I decided to add another "never actually photographed" view from Orbiter, simulating the famous Apollo 8 Christmas Eve Earth rise photo. There are more Apollo screen shots from Orbiter on my Flickr site.]

The Universe

I wake
& the universe knows itself,
carbon, calcium,
flesh, bone & brain
peering from the bed
at its hydrogen

-Rob Simbeck

That just about sums it up! Rob is an award-winning writer, musician, and speaker who lives in Nashville. We've been friends since we met as fellow students at Carnegie-Mellon University and started writing and performing music together just a few short decades ago. His web site displays a pretty good cross section of his work, including articles, books, music industry artist bios, songs, and poetry. I highly recommend his book Daughter of the Air, a biography of pioneering female aviator Cornelia Fort.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

REAL Science in the Capital

In 2007 I read Kim Stanley Robinson's "Science in the Capital" trilogy, Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). Set in the near future, they portray some dramatic effects of rapid climate change and the efforts of scientists at the National Science Foundation (and elsewhere) to solve these problems. These are political novels as much (or more than) science fiction, and I really enjoyed all three books. Robinson is best known for his Mars Trilogy, and while some of his characters are quirky, the science is well researched, and the portrayal of the scientists and their work seems very plausible. What seemed harder to believe in the dark depths of the Bush adminstration was the election of a president who takes science and scientists seriously.

Things are different now. President-elect Obama today announced the four top members of his science team, including Harvard physicist and environmental scientist Dr. John Holdren as presidential science advisor. Read or watch today's weekly address in which Mr. Obama describes the importance of science and technology and introduces his top science team. I was really encouraged by his remarks including these closing lines:
I am confident that if we recommit ourselves to discovery; if we support science education to create the next generation of scientists and engineers right here in America; if we have the vision to believe and invest in things unseen, then we can lead the world into a new future of peace and prosperity.

Carnival of Space #84

From space politics to space aliens, from conferences on Earth to avalanches on Mars, from local planets to exoplanets to the best of 2008, Carnival of Space #84 offers you 25 byte sized chunks of the universe to explore, hosted by Next Big Future. The video here is #5 in Bad Astronomy's post on the top 10 astronomy images of 2008 - the moon transiting Earth as captured by the Deep Impact/EPOXI spacecraft back in May. Amazing!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Trace: Tiny Time Waster

There are zillions of "apps" for the iPhone and iPod Touch, most of them games, and many of them free or costing only 99 cents (I read an article somewhere saying that some people are making tens of thousands of dollars a month selling low-cost apps on iTunes). Aside from music and video (movies and YouTube), my most frequently used apps are the New York Times reader, eReader (for reading ebooks), WeatherBug, and StarMap. I have quite a few musical instrument apps too, but it seems the main use of those is to show people how cool the iPod Touch is. Otherwise, a real guitar or keyboard works much better.

I've also downloaded many games, though I usually end up deleting them after trying them a few times. I'm really not a big game person. But Trace is a tiny exception. It's great for wasting little slices of time here and there. You've got this little stick figure character you can move with arrow and jump buttons. You have to walk him across the screen to a little yellow sun target, avoiding various fixed and moving obstacles that will send you back to the start. You do this by drawing lines with your finger - your character uses these lines as platforms or bridges over and around the obstacles. Sound easy? Sometimes it is, but often you have to solve a puzzle or use careful timing to get through. The graphics are child like and often funny. It's really a lot of fun. And it's free!

The screen above is from "Space," one of six "worlds" in the game. Each world has its own music (which you can turn off) and about 20 levels. This video shows examples from most of the worlds (this shows an earlier version of the game where the character was just a little red line).

Astronomical Computer from 150 B.C.E.

This is really cool. A British museum curator has built a working replica of a 2,000 year old Greek machine that is actually a precision mechanical computer for astronomical calculations. He spent years studying the rusted and broken pieces of the "Antikythera" that were recovered from under the sea near Greece in 1902.

This is quite impressive, although as some YouTube commenters have brilliantly pointed out, calling it a "computer" is questionable since this primitive device doesn't even support Instant Messaging.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

More Space Proposals

There are a few other space-related proposals that are open for discussion in the "seat at the table" area:

1. Coalition for Space Exploration Policy Recommendations - The report is mainly a summary of special Gallup polls showing strong public support for space exploration. The Coalition is made up of mainstream aerospace industry companies (Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, ATK, etc.) and space advocacy groups.

2. X Prize - The X Prize organization offers some suggestions on how NASA can work better.

3. Association of Space Explorers International Panel on Asteroid Threat Mitigation - As they say in their description:
Because NEO impacts represent a global, long-term threat to the collective welfare of humanity, an international program and set of preparatory measures for action should be established.

The ASE report is a 54 page PDF that is available for download at the above link. There are very few comments so far. I added this one:

We humans evolved to deal very well with certain time spans (seconds to hours to a few years) and to judge well the probabilities and impacts of certain types of events and threats (predators, prey, day/night, weather). With very short or very long time spans and for very small probabilities, our instincts aren't very good, but fortunately, we have science, and the ability to learn from things that are distant and abstract. Asteroids are like that. Long periods can pass with no big asteroid events, but there's nothing special about this time compared to 65 million years ago or 1908. Now is as likely a time for an asteroid to hit as any other. This proposal is basically asking us to spend what is really a small amount of money and a bit more attention to a low probability risk with big consequences. It really is like insurance and fire extinguishers - something we should assign a little money and attention to while we devote a lot more money and attention to more immediate problems.

The proposal is also suggesting improvements in international planning and cooperation on this important issue, and explaining why such cooperation is essential.

The Obama transition team is inviting Americans to participate in the various discussions of issues that may be important to them. If you care about space exploration and the risk of NEO impacts, please add your voice to these discussions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

SSP at

One of the great things about the Obama transition is that the public is invited to participate, to have "a seat at the table," as they put it on the web site. They have invited proposals from outside groups (37 pages of links so far) with the provision that all documents submitted will become public (they are PDF files on the web site). You can read them and then join in the discussion through forums associated with these proposals. Open government!

I just learned about a proposal on space solar power (SSP) that is under discussion there. I read the brief proposal and browsed many of the comments. Although there are some off-the-wall comments as in any public forum, the discussion is impressively multi-level and well informed. I rated a number of comments (thumbs up or down) and added a general comment to one of the most informative posts. If you care about this issue, you should go read, vote, and comment.

Of course there is no guarantee that SSP will be pursued by the Obama administration. It's one of hundreds of proposals. But the fact that these discussions are happening is in itself such a hopeful sign. This combined with the impressive cabinet and other appointments that have been announced shows that change is indeed coming. We will soon have leaders in Washington who don't have their heads in the sand! Or wherever the current administration's heads have been.

P.S. It's not very clear on, but the forums are run by, and to register for the forums, you need to set up a free account there, even if you have registered at for other things (as I had done).

Discovery Now

If you'd like a daily (or just occasional) audio fix of "space stuff," check out Discovery Now, a free 90 second daily podcast on aerospace topics from the National Institute of Aerospace. Of course you can't go very deep into anything in 90 seconds, but you might learn something interesting. Recent topics include VASIMIR rockets, geysers on Enceladus, Galileo (the dude, not the spacecraft), and "supercomputers for smooth flying." You can access the MP3's or subscribe to the podcasts through their web site, or you can get them through iTunes. The Discovery Now web site also has a few lesson plans on space related topics.

Monday, December 15, 2008

From Oz: Carnival of Space #83

Be sure to check out this week's Carnival of Space - it's the Antipodean Edition, hosted by Ian Musgrave's Astroblog. Ian hails from Adelaide, Australia, and he provides startling photographic evidence of what it's like to live on the bottom of a world (Earth in this case). When I was in Australia in June/July 2006, I saw the southern sky for the first time, and on a visit to a very dark national park at Jervis Bay, the super-bright Milky Way over our heads was a dazzling sight. But it was amazing how quickly the upside down feeling passed.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

How Big Is Our Galaxy?

Not much time for blogging this weekend. A nasty New England ice storm knocked out our power yesterday (along with hundreds of thousands of other Massachusetts and New Hampshire homes). We were lucky enough to get power back after only 15 hours or so, while news reports indicate that it may take three days or more for many in the region. We have a lot of downed tree branches but no damage to the house. Internet access was messed up too. But it could have been much worse. I'll be busy the rest of the weekend, a Neil Young concert tonight, a family event tomorrow.

So I'll leave you with an interesting fact from a recent NASA document for kids, "Extreme Space Facts." I've heard a lot of "how big" analogies for sizes and distances of astronomical objects, but this one was new for me:

How big is our galaxy? If the Solar System, from the Sun all the way out to Pluto, were shrunk to the size of a U.S. quarter [a coin about 24 mm in diameter], the Milky Way would be the size of North America.

The picture is a Hubble image of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300. Evidence from radio and infrared astronomy suggests that our Milky Way Galaxy is also a barred spiral.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Get Ready for IYA 2009

I just sat in on an excellent 90 minute phone/web training session for JPL Solar System Ambassadors and other educators. The subject was IYA 2009 - the upcoming International Year of Astronomy, celebrating 400 years since Galileo first used a telescope to observe the cosmos (watch the great IYA2009 introductory video here - choose high quality if you can).

There are many events being planned, with extensive web support from various organizations, much of it already in place. There's a designated theme for each month of the year, starting with "Telescopes and Space Probes: Today's Starry Messengers" in January. That January page includes links to other pages with activities, videos, and PowerPoints as well as a PDF "IYA Discovery Guide" for the month (all 12 guides are listed here). January's guide includes methods and tips for observation with and without a telescope, as well as a profile of Venus, the featured observing object for the month. Galileo observed the phases of Venus with his telescope (see Galileo's 1610 sketches below) and showed that this was direct evidence that Venus is orbiting the sun rather than the Earth (and that Venus orbits closer to the sun than does the Earth).

The January page also points to an excellent presentation from the Night Sky Network, "How Telescopes Changed Our Understanding of the Universe." It identifies many of the key questions about our place in the cosmos and how ever improving telescopes helped us to answer those questions. The explanatory graphics in this PowerPoint are great.

There's so much to explore, and if you are an educator (formal or in- ) and/or a member of an astronomy club as I am, January 10 will be a special target day for doing a star party or other observational event. The goal is to kick off the year by getting as many people as possible observing the universe around us that night. I better get busy preparing for all this stuff!

International site:
US site:
NASA site:

Monday, December 08, 2008

(Video!) Carnival of Space #82

This always happens (OK, it's the second time). I neglect to submit a post for the Carnival of Space, and Dave Mosher of Space Disco is the host and does something really cool and different with the carnival. This time it's a video of all the posts. And there are a lot of good ones. But none of mine, since I was fooling around with visual programming software this past week instead of walking my space beat like a responsible space blogger. But as Mr. Spock was always telling Captain Kirk, "Dude, you snooze, you lose."

Nice job Dave.

Lecture: What Killed the Dinosaurs?

You probably know something about what wiped out the dinosaurs, but do you know how scientists figured this out? I just listened to a very interesting lecture on this subject from The Teaching Company. I've bought a few of their DVD and audio courses and I noticed this free lecture listed on my account page. I thought it might be for customers only, but a Google search also found it, so I guess it's available to anyone (at least for now). The lecturer is Professor Peter Ward, a paleontologist at the University of Washington.

P.S. The Teaching Company is having one of their frequent sales and many of their courses are deeply discounted.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Scratch: Lifelong Kindergarten!

I've finally figured out my place in the world: Lifelong Kindergarten! That's the name of a research group at MIT's Media Lab, with the motto "sowing the seeds for a more creative society" (for more on what LLK means by this, read this article by LLK's director Mitchel Resnick). On their mission page they say
Our ultimate goal is a world full of playfully creative people who are constantly inventing new opportunities for themselves and their communities.
"Playfully creative" is probably the best way to describe the implicit goal that seems to connect all the crazy threads of my life - songwriting, guitar, performing, flying, foreign languages, diverse reading, writing, programming, traveling, exploring various technologies, teaching, etc. I like nothing better than to learn something new that is complex, full of potential, and somehow connected to my other interests.

Case in point: Etoys and now also Scratch, a similar drag-and-drop visual programming language developed and released (for free) by the MIT Media Lab. I've downloaded, installed, and played a bit with it, using its very intuitive "snap together" programming blocks. I haven't been able to explore any of the many user projects uploaded to the Scratch gallery because the Scratch server won't open for me - perhaps it's just overloaded. But I did find a great site called which has at least 30 example projects with detailed tutorials, and I tried a bunch of them. The picture here is a simple piano keyboard project (each key is a separate "sprite" with its own scripts).

I'm still learning Etoys and have barely started to explore Scratch. It's clear that Scratch is more immediately intuitive and in some respects more polished than Etoys. It also seems to have a more extensive "infrastructure" including a social networking aspect through the Scratch web site (which I would love to see - I was only able to get to the download page very late last night and nothing will open on the site today). It's probably easier to get started teaching younger children with Scratch than with Etoys. But I have a feeling that Etoys is more powerful and extensible for the middle school space/physics projects that I hope to develop starting in the next few weeks.

Both of these environments are amazingly empowering and bring new meaning to the word "interactive" (both also operate equally well in many different world languages). One of my favorite SF books is Orbital Resonance by John Barnes (I've written before about his Meme Wars series). It takes place on a "lifeboat" space colony "resonating" between Earth and Mars in the near future (after a series of Earth-threatening catastrophes), and the narrator is a very bright 13 year old girl. The colony's education system is radically different from our current system and is geared toward creating smart, flexible, capable citizens and leaders to help the human race survive its precarious situation. Many of the school projects that are assigned involve creating complex computer simulations of scientific, technical, and social systems, a necessary part of understanding problems and making good decisions in their very challenging circumstances. I wondered how kids in such a world could manage to do that so quickly and efficiently. Now that I've seen Etoys and Scratch, I have a lot better idea of how something like that might really be possible.

P.S. MY BAD on problems with the Scratch web site. It was a firewall security problem that I sometimes have with certain web sites. I just visited the Scratch site and it's got a lot of really great features and a very active user community.

Friday, December 05, 2008

AOPA Internet Flight Planner

Although I haven't done any flying as a private pilot in over three years, I still have a strong interest in aviation and hope to get back to regular flying one of these days. So I keep renewing my AOPA membership, and for 2009 I added the optional subscription to AOPA Flight Training in addition to the standard AOPA Pilot magazine. It's been so long that I will need to review a lot of basic things if I seriously hope to get back in the cockpit.

While renewing, I checked out the AOPA web site and noticed they have introduced a new web-based flight planning tool, developed by Jeppesen. I planned a simple flight just to check it out, and it's pretty nice, quite adequate for planning VFR flights (though of course you still need to carry current paper charts). Very cool, and free to AOPA members. I wish I could go flying today - it's a great VFR day.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

MSL in 2011

JPL has announced that the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) will launch in 2011 rather than in fall 2009 as originally planned. There's just too much development and testing still left to do on the giant new rover to safely make the 2009 Mars launch window. Better safe than sorry, as long as they can manage to keep the program's funding going until 2011. MSL is a big, expensive project and while the 2004 Mars rovers have been a great hit with the public, NASA funding is bound to be tight in the next few years, and there are other NASA unmanned science programs competing for those limited funds.

On the bright side: more time for kids to name the new rover with the help of Pixar's fictional robot WALL-E (I just bought and watched the WALL-E DVD, and I liked it even better seeing it the second time, even if the space physics is just a wee bit unrealistic). This also gives more time for some enterprising Orbiter add-on developer to create a MSL add-on! In the meantime, Scott Conklin's excellent MER-2003 add-on will let you play around with Spirit and Opportunity if you'd like to do some virtual launching, landing, and roving.

The JPL picture above shows three generations of Mars rovers including tiny Sojourner and SUV-sized MSL.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

She Hates Me (et cetera)

If you put 13,000 songs on shuffle in iTunes, you can get some pretty strange combinations. Here's a brief sequence that popped up last night:
  • Delta Lady - Joe Cocker
  • Poor Side of Town - Johnny A.
  • Somebody to Love - Queen
  • Overture from Figaro - Mozart
  • She Hates Me - Puddle of Mudd (this song always makes me laugh, but PG-13+)
  • Echoes - Dar Williams
  • Villa-Lobos Etude No. 1 - Kazuhito Yamashita (classical guitar)
  • Death by Numbers - Noah and the Whale
  • Queen of Hearts - Rodney Crowell
  • Wah Wah - George Harrison

Monday, December 01, 2008

A Forgotten Vinyl Fave

I found a forgotten box of vinyl record albums in the basement the other day. One of the albums was Nether Lands, a 1977 record by the late Dan Fogelberg. While I like some of Dan's music, I was never really a major fan - except for this album! When I read some of the lyrics, I suddenly realized what a favorite this record was back in the day. How could I have forgotten it? I thought about transferring the vinyl record to MP3, which I have done with some old records with disappointing results. I looked on Amazon and found the CD was available for $4.99, and today it arrived (I'm such an Amazon junkie that I have a "Prime" account which gives me free two day shipping on almost everything).

What a great record! There are no big hit singles - it's one of those albums that works best as an complete work. Good lyrics, beautifully recorded acoustic instruments, cool harmonies, lush but not overbearing orchestration. Nice.

One Laptop Per Child

Following up on my Etoys post from yesterday, here's some information about OLPC. The video is from December 2007 so it's not completely up to date on OLPC status and the "Give One, Get One" program, but Nicholas Negroponte is a great speaker, he gives you the essential background on the program, and of course he's one of the people who made OLPC happen. For more up to date information, check out the OLPC Blog (the November 23 entry has a video of a recent interview with Negroponte on Charlie Rose).

There is a new Give One, Get One (G1G1) program now supported by (give an XO laptop to a child in a poor country for $199, give one and get one for yourself for $399). There are also some international G1G1 programs now.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


This weekend I stumbled upon something wonderful: Etoys! Etoys is a visual programming environment that is geared toward education. It was formerly called "Squeak" (hence and is fundamentally an implementation of Smalltalk, one of the first object-oriented programming languages. It's actually more than that, because Etoys incorporates a lot of ideas from other programming languages and environments including LOGO, starLOGO, and HyperCard. Etoys runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux computers and is a standard part of the software supplied on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) "XO" computer. It also runs as a plugin for most web browsers (works great with Firefox). It's incredibly cool and fun to explore Etoys. And it's free!

I have played around with educational programming software for years, starting with LOGO back in the early 1980's. I also spent a lot of time in the late 80's and early 90's playing with HyperCard on the Mac. I even wrote a working prototype of a proposed graphical user interface for my company's optical design software using HyperCard (the Mac ran only the UI, the application itself ran on a Sun workstation, via a serial port connection).

So I love this kind of visual software construction set. I spent a lot of hours this weekend learning Etoys and I can imagine using it as a component in my space/astronomy educational outreach efforts, though I don't know exactly how right now. I found a few examples that others have done for astronomy. Showing how the moon orbits the Earth and rotates to keep the same face showing is a pretty typical Etoys demo. I found a more elaborate one at EtoysIllinois (recently renamed from SqueakCMI) - the Copernican Revolution (by Avigail Snir), which graphically compares geocentric and heliocentric models of planetary motion.

There's a lot more to say about this, and I'm sure I'll be writing more about Etoys in the weeks to come. As Alan Kay has written, personal computers have been threatening to revolutionize education for decades, but so far have mostly provided more efficient ways to produce paper documents and research things through the web (although computer games have probably taught kids a lot about certain kinds of problem solving). LOGO was an early attempt to use computers to teach young children different ways of thinking, but it never really took off. Could the combination of OLPC, Etoys, and web-mediated mentoring provide a breakthrough? It's possible - I think the materials are certainly powerful enough to inspire any child. But it ultimately comes down to teachers. Kay makes an analogy with pianos and music teachers. A piano in every classroom won't magically awaken musical thinking and feeling for every kid, but a good music teacher can succeed with only voices, hands, and feet as instruments. The computer too is only a tool, but with ideas like OLPC and Etoys, and with some teachers who know how to use these tools, maybe computers will finally realize their potential in education.

P.S. One tip for Windows users of Etoys. The right mouse button doesn't work for me, but the middle mouse button (wheel) does what the right button is said to do (i.e., opens the "halo" of property buttons for an object). Maybe this is a setup or preference thing, but it took me a little while to figure this out. You can also use the ALT key with the left mouse button for this.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Carnival of Space #81

The latest Carnival of Space is now open for your reading and hyperlinking pleasure. It is hosted by Tracy Zollinger Turner at Tiny Mantras. Tracy is "tiptoeing through the solar system" under the leadership of her very young and very space-obsessed son Declan. His knowledge and passion are impressive!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I Want a Turn!

What fun it must be to experience extended free-fall on board the ISS, where there's room enough to "fly around" like this and play in various other ways that are impossible down here. I want a turn!

Thanks to Why Homeschool for the tip on this video.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Matrix Runs on Windows

This video is hilarious. They have the look and feel of Keanu Reeves and The Matrix nailed - and Windows too.

My Space Message to

I decided to submit a space-related message to the Obama Transition Team through their web site. I'm sure they have received thousands of messages on every possible agenda point, but I figured it couldn't hurt, and I could always turn it into a blog post:

I know there are many things to decide and do in the early days of the Obama Administration. Space may not be the top priority, though I have read that GSA considers the decision on extending shuttle flights beyond 2010 as a top-13 early decision. I'm not an aerospace professional - I'm an optical engineer who does space-related volunteer educational outreach as a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador. I believe that space exploration can help to inspire our next generation of engineers and scientists, and I believe that space can also help us develop the technologies and jobs that will help us with energy and environmental problems in the years to come.

I have three suggestions that are probably already being considered, but I'll mention them anyway:

1. Ares vs. Direct 2.0 or other launch vehicle options - I hope that an independent study will be done to look at the viability of NASA's planned Ares I/V launch vehicle program vs. other possible options. I know that NASA says the Ares rockets will work well and that proposed alternatives have fatal flaws. But it's definitely worth a careful second look. I'm sure the Direct team (and others) are pushing this message.

2. Increase emphasis and funding for private space ventures - The COTS program is in place and SpaceX is developing launch, cargo, and crew vehicles for ISS support. But funding for this should be increased and expanded to support other companies as well. Private space may be able to close the shuttle/Orion gap for US-based crew access to the ISS sooner than other options.

3. Increase NASA's role in education and inspiration - NASA already does a lot of educational outreach but more could be done, including expansion of community-oriented programs like the JPL Solar System Ambassador program. I am one of some 500 volunteers throughout the US, and this program already reaches tens of thousands of people every year with encouragement (and minimal funding) from NASA. Space exploration past, present, and future has a lot of great stories to tell, and NASA should do more to bring these stories to life for members of our communities, especially but not limited to kids.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Enceladus: Saturn's Soda Fountain

Enceladus is a small, icy moon of Saturn that is something of an overachiever. It shoots geysers of water vapor, nitrogen, CO2, and methane from vents that pop open around its south pole. Obviously there has to be some liquid water under the surface for this to happen, and since Saturn is rather far from the sun, the energy needed to keep some of the water liquid (and eject geysers into space) has to come from something else. Enceladus seems to have a rocky core (judging from its density), so some heat could come from radioactive decay of minerals in the core - but this isn't enough to account for the geysers and the temperatures measured around the south pole vents. Tidal forces from Saturn and Dione don't provide enough energy with its current orbit either. But somehow plucky little Enceladus is still firing away with those geysers...

I know what you're thinking: a giant alien nuclear reactor! Well sure, that could be it, but the Cassini scientists are still looking at natural solutions, like accumulated heat from earlier periods when its orbit could have been more more eccentric and tidal forces larger. In any case it's a pretty wild little ice moon.

These highlights are from an article by Carolyn Porco (Cassini imaging team leader) in the December Scientific American. The video is also from SciAm - it gives some background and provides some great animated visuals of Saturn's soda fountain.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Americans Flunking Civics

There's a news item today about how little Americans know about their government institutions, US history, and economics at a very basic level. It's pretty bad - fewer than half of all Americans can name all three branches of the federal government, for example. But this was not the main point of today's news since ISI has been giving this quiz and reporting the results for several years (summary here). The news was that a measurable subset of the latest test takers reported that they either are or have been elected officials - and these people did even worse (average 44%) than the general public (49%). The whole Sarah Palin thing starts to make a little more sense now. You don't need to know much about government - just do it! And be sure not to blink.

P.S. You can take the civics quiz yourself here, it's only 33 multiple choice questions. Pretty basic stuff. I got 100% on it. Every American should!

Our Eyes on Mars

The new Air & Space Magazine arrived with a cool article about Michael Malin and Mars. Malin is responsible for the cameras that have given us so many amazing images of Mars in the last ten years or so. It would have been more like 15 years if the Mars Observer had achieved orbit (contact was lost in August 1993). Malin's backup MOC (Mars Observer Camera) was carried a few years later on Mars Global Surveyor which reached Mars orbit in September 1997. This simple but powerful camera was able to image surface details at much higher resolution than the Viking Orbiters had provided, revealing sedimentary layers as well as drainage gullies and other clear evidence of flowing water in Mars' geological history. It's hard to believe that they had to fight to even get this sort of camera on these Mars missions, but Malin and his team persevered and the images returned from these and other Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS) cameras (on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Phoenix) have helped to reveal Mars as a much more diverse and dynamic planet than was once believed.

The article is by Andrew Chaikin and is an excerpt from his recent book, A Passion for Mars: Intrepid Explorers of the Red Planet. Air & Space also has a web-only photo essay feature showing some Mars images selected by Malin and his team as favorites. The MOC image above shows the "fossil" delta in Eberswalde Crater, clear evidence of past flowing water (it reminds me of some aerial pictures I took over southern Utah last year). The MSSS web site has a huge, well-indexed gallery of Mars images.

Lisa Hannigan

Lisa Hannigan is an Irish singer who sang and toured with Damien Rice a few years ago (I first became aware of her through a video of Rice's song "Volcano"). I really love her voice and I hoped that she would record a solo album. I found out last night that she finally has. Her first album Sea Sew was released in Ireland in September and in the US on November 4 (at least in MP3 form through iTunes and Amazon - the CD will be out in January in the US). Her voice is beautiful and the songs and arrangements are great too.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Carnival of Space #80

There's a special Thanksgiving edition of the Carnival of Space at Starts with a Bang this week. Check it out.

Shuttle & ISS Slide Show

I just noticed that you can embed Flickr slide shows in a blog so I decided to try it. This is a slide show from my Shuttle & ISS photo set, though most of the images are actually screen shots from Orbiter.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ready, SET...

I don't know where I saw this - probably in someone's blog, just like you're seeing this. I'm not usually much of a puzzle person. I've never even tried sudoku! It's not that I don't enjoy games and other things that exercise my mind (I spent 20 years learning Japanese - I could speak OK but only got to a second grade reading level - kanji characters are great puzzles!). It's more a fear of becoming addicted to yet another time sink...

But I tried SET anyway, and it's pretty cool. You have to find sets of three objects that meet the "all same" or "all different" rules on the four properties (color, symbol, number, and shading). It feels like a mild left and right brain workout - a bit of pattern recognition, logic, and short term memory. At first it looks easy, but finding that sixth set can take some time. I did notice some improvement on my third puzzle so I guess I'm starting to see some method in this even though I don't really know what it is.

You can find a daily SET puzzle here, and the New York Times has more here.

LIFE as I knew it

Google has another cool feature thanks to a partnership with LIFE magazine. They have put millions of photos from the LIFE photo archives online. In the 1960's, LIFE magazine was my window on the world of space flight. The photo above of Ed White's Gemini 4 EVA is a prime example. Just do a Google image search on any term and add source:LIFE to the search string to access this amazing collection of photos. Of course as a teenager in the 1960's, LIFE wasn't only about the stars in the sky. The stars of Europe and Hollywood were pretty interesting too. I remember names like Claudia Cardinale, Senta Berger, Sophia Loren, and of course Marilyn Monroe, among others. The LIFE archive is also great for history, from Abraham Lincoln to Lucky Lindy to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Very cool.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Updike on Mars

I got the December National Geographic yesterday and read a brief article about Mars by author John Updike, illustrated with some of the dramatic and beautiful photos that have helped to make Mars a place, not just a planet, courtesy of the Mars Rovers and MRO, among others. Updike's article is online here, and there is a nice video tour of Mars narrated by the photo editor for Updike's article.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Mozart Music Videos

Mozart's career predated most of the music video era (OK, he missed it by a good 200 years). But you can still find Mozart videos on YouTube (a search for "Mozart" returns about 100,000 results!). Many of them are recorded performances, while others are essentially musical slide shows. In the latter category there are a few "top 10" types of videos, with excerpts of the video maker's favorite Mozart compositions. I usually don't like to break up Mozart's work, preferring to listen to a full composition rather than selected movements. But some of the video slide shows are interesting, and may even serve to remind me of pieces I had forgotten about, such as the wonderful Horn Concerto in E flat (K.495).

The video here is a good example although they could have done a better job cross-fading between the excerpts. Whether this truly represents the "best of Mozart" is hard to say, but several of the pieces here are favorites of many people. If you don't know Mozart, you could perhaps start to get an idea of the richness and diversity of his work here - and if you hear something you like, seek out a complete performance on the web or at the library. Another approach is to go rent the movie Amadeus. While it takes major liberties with the facts of Mozart's final years, it captures some of his spirit, and it does contain an excellent selection of his music.

Here are the eight pieces excerpted in this 9 minute YouTube slide show, with the start time in minutes for each piece:
  1. Overture from The Marriage of Figaro, K.492
  2. Clarinet Concerto in B Flat, 1st Movement, K.622 (1:44)
  3. Wind Serenade "Gran Partita," 3rd Movement, K.361 (2:28)
  4. Piano Concerto 21, 2nd Movement, K.467 (3:30)
  5. Symphony No. 40 in G minor, 1st Movement, K.550 (4:50)
  6. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, 1st Movement, K.525 (6:03)
  7. Horn Concerto No. 4: 3rd Movement, K.495 (6:50)
  8. Requiem: Introitus (Requiem aeternam),K.626 (7:41)

Happy birthday ISS

Happy Birthday ISS (10 years)

It's a few days early, but I want to wish the International Space Station a happy 10th birthday. The Russian Zarya module was launched on November 20, 1998, and of course many modules have been added since then to create the gigantic orbiting laboratory we have today. Right now the crew of the shuttle Endeavour (STS-126) is visiting the ISS to deliver and install the expanded life support and other facilities needed to support six station crew members. It's great that they will have a big team on hand for the tenth anniversary - I imagine they have some sort of celebration planned in addition to the turkey dinners they've carried up for Thanksgiving.

The picture is from Orbiter, showing the ISS in July 2008 during STS-124. There's another view (above New England) on Flickr. If you want to re-enact the evolution of the ISS on your own, you can do so with the help of David413's great ISS Fleet add-on for Orbiter. There are a few predefined scenarios including STS-88, the first shuttle flight to the ISS in December 1998, which delivered the Unity node, the first American component of the ISS.

The PDF manual for the ISS Fleet has pictures of all the ISS configurations with designations like ISS4A (circa 2000). There isn't a scenario for every configuration, but you can easily modify one of the scenarios in the ISS Fleet Scenarios folder with a text editor. Find the line that says ISS:ISS2A (for example, after "BEGIN_SHIPS") and change it to ISS:ISS4A (say) and save it under another name (maybe ISS4A.scn). Your new scenario will include the station with that configuration. The other parts of the scenario (shuttle, positions, date, etc.) won't change from the starting file. Note that the ISS Fleet is a separate add-on from the Shuttle Fleet (find the most recent shuttle/ISS fleet add-ons and mission scenarios including STS-126 here).

Carnival of Space #79

This week's Carnival of Space is number 79 (I missed a few in the hustle and bustle of the election and a trip to Austria). Your host is One Astronomer's Noise (tag line "one astronomer's noise is another astronomer's data"). Nicole is an astronomy graduate student at the University of Virginia, and she's presented us with a bunch of interesting posts to explore. Naturally the "stars" of the week aren't stars at all, they're the exoplanets of Fomalhaut and HR8799 (pictured) that have recently been directly imaged. Check out the latest Carnival of Space.