Friday, December 31, 2010

Books of 2010 and Beyond

This hasn't been a great blogging year for me - I like to think it's quality more than quantity that counts, but I'm not sure I can back that up! I don't think I can muster a full 2010 year/blog retrospective tonight, but it will be nice to break 100 posts, so I'll write about the one constant throughout my life: books!

Even in a busy year I still manage to read quite a few books (and buy more than I read). Part of the reason is the Kindle app on the iPod Touch. Thanks to this, I can carry around a library of 50-some books that I can easily read on planes or in small bites during many of life's spare moments (when I'm not landing the space shuttle, of course). People ask me how I can read for long periods on such a small screen, but it really doesn't bother me at all. A favorite of the books I read this year on Kindle was Packing for Mars by Mary Roach (so cool and funny, I'm now reading her Bonk, about guess what? ...also informative and hilarious). I also loved Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die (more of a browse than a read, but great), Einstein by Walter Isaacson, Can't Buy Me Love (Beatles!) by Jonathon Gould, Eifelheim by Michael Flynn (unusual first contact SF set in the Middle Ages), Girls Like Us (bio of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon) by Sheila Klein, Cold Choices by Larry Bond (a rare return to the once favorite techno-thriller genre), and Edenborn by Nick Sagan (second volume of his Idlewild SF trilogy - read the other two in paper).

I read a few other books on paper too, including a biography of Paul McCartney by Peter Carlin and Whole Earth Discipline (an environmental eye-opener!) by Stewart Brand.  I now usually buy paper books if the Kindle version is unavailable, or if it's a book I want to share with people (like Brand's), or if it's a bargain book. Or a beautiful thing like Imagining Space. Or for some other reason! Currently I'm reading 3 or 4 books on the iPod plus Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf in paper (a fascinating study of how the brain learned to read). My latest Kindle buy was Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. This is an old fave I have read twice, but I love Bryson, and I gave my paper copy to my brother, probably just an excuse to have Bryson's book in my pocket for brief dips into this cool and funny history of science and technology.

Wow, I read more than I thought this year. There are worse habits (and I have a few of those too).

Beatles LOVE and Other Music

Recently I read something that reminded me of the Beatles LOVE, the Cirque du Soleil show that I saw in Las Vegas in 2008. I loved that show, but for some reason I never got the soundtrack music from it, so a couple of weeks ago I bought an inexpensive used CD on Amazon and discovered that it's quite magical in its own way, even for someone who has all the other Beatles recordings ever made (more or less). LOVE is a loving mash-up of many of the Beatles songs, created by Beatles producer George Martin and his son Giles Martin from the original multi-track masters. It's really a new perspective on some of the Beatles songs.

2010 has been a pretty good music year for me. In June I completed and released my own second CD, Message From Tomorrow, to general non-recognition, but that's OK - like this blog, my music is something I do mainly for me while hoping a few other people will also enjoy it. I also discovered a lot of new music from Broken Bells, Local Natives, Arcade Fire, Winterpills, Aqualung, A Fine Frenzy, Darrell Scott, and others, in addition to buying and starting to listen to a boatload of classical music collections that expanded my horizons on composers including Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Grieg, and others. I also saw James Taylor and Carole King in concert - a great and nostalgic time last summer.

Sometime in 2011, I plan to replace my ~2002 home PC so I can run some more recent recording software like Sonar X1 and start working on my next album (maybe play with some recent flight sims too). I have a few older songs I'd like to rediscover and perhaps re-invent, and I'd also like to experiment some more with samples and multi-track vocals. When I start to play with music, I tend to also write new songs (the past few months have not been very conducive to this with my brain saturated with work stuff). I almost ordered a new PC a couple of weeks ago then realized that I would need the time and brain capacity to play with it, so I'll wait until spring or so.

The Awesome Space Shuttle

It's hard to believe that there are now only two or three space shuttle flights left and that these amazing machines will be retired by the middle of 2011. Despite the tragic losses of Challenger and Columbia, this ahead-of-its-time space plane has had an incredible career with 132 space flights since 1981. I've spent a lot of time with shuttle simulations the last few weeks - in the F-SIM Space Shuttle landing app on the iPod Touch, as well as in Orbiter, working to update my free Go Play In Space e-book to a third edition (probably will be ready by early March 2011). One change will be to the rendezvous/docking chapter which will use the included Atlantis shuttle model instead of the futuristic Deltaglider that is used in the rest of the examples.It will follow a tutorial flight recording done by Martin Schweiger, Orbiter's author. It also shows off Orbiter 2010's new Lua scripting capability with the shuttle launch to orbit controlled by a Lua script autopilot.

I found the video shown here through the free NASA App on the iPod Touch - it's a great way to keep track of missions and to find pictures and videos on NASA's various sites. This narrated video consists mainly of video clips from various high-speed cameras that NASA uses for engineering diagnostics on shuttle launches. Because of the high recorded frame rate, they play back in slow motion, so you can see many of the intricate events that take place in seconds on every shuttle launch. They are always impressive and sometimes beautiful.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Tiny ISS Connection

In March 2009, I exhibited at the annual Space Expo held at the New England Air Museum at Bradley Airport, Connecticut. As I often have done, I used Orbiter to demonstrate some aspects of space flight, with a second computer set up with a joy stick to allow attendees (mostly kids) to have a try at landing a simulated space shuttle from final approach. This is a good hands-on demo because it only requires two controls (the joystick and the G key, to drop the gear). But it's harder than it looks.

Unfortunately, this demo was so popular, that I only managed to catch about 5 minutes of a talk by the Space Expo's special guest, astronaut Cady Coleman. But fortunately, Col. Coleman was kind enough to take a some time at the end of the day to visit with some of the exhibitors, including me. We chatted for a few minutes, and I told her about Orbiter in hopes that she would take some interest in this for educational purposes (or perhaps share it with some colleagues at NASA). She was quite interested to see Orbiter (she said "why didn't I know about this?"), and she asked me to send her some information, which of course I did. I was pretty happy when she replied the next day to my email:
Bruce – it was a pleasure to meet you – and I look forward to being in touch.  I can’t wait to start playing – and am soooo thankful that a manual exists….  I’m sure I’ll still have questions, knowing me!    My to-do list is a bit long these days – so I may not get to try it out right away - but this is really really neat stuff.  I’m assuming that you won’t mind if I share it with other folks in my office?  Thanks for taking the time to write – not to mention taking the time to come to the event.  I thought it was a great event – although I’ll tell you that I slept well on Sunday night…. I’m sure you did as well.  It is good work – but takes a lot out of you!  Thanks again -   Cady
...but I didn't expect to hear much more for a while, once I realized that she was already preparing for a late 2010 Soyuz flight to the ISS. On December 15, she launched on that flight, and she is now part of the Expedition 26 crew of the International Space Station (here are some of her thoughts just before she launched). I also learned today that she actually lives not far from me, in Western Massachusetts (when she's not in Houston, Russia, or space!). So it's not like Cady Coleman and I are best friends or anything, but it is pretty cool to have even this tiny connection to the ISS. Sometime after she gets back to Earth next May, I'll follow up on that email.

The video below features the ISS Expedition 26 Commander Scott Kelly of NASA and Flight Engineers Cady Coleman of NASA and Paolo Nespoli of the European Space Agency offering Christmas and New Year's greetings to all people on Earth on Dec. 21.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Nice EP from Winterpills

Winterpills is a cool band from Northampton, MA. I've been listening to their music since their first album in 2005. I've also enjoyed several solo albums by Winterpills singer/songwriter Philip Price as well as "Robot Stories" from his previous band The Maggies. Today on the radio I heard someone mention "new Winterpills," so I looked around and found that they released a new 6-song EP back in October, "Tuxedo of Ashes." It's really good - haunting, harmony-laden, mostly acoustic music. They might remind you a bit of Iron & Wine, gentle music that's tougher than it sounds. Good stuff.

More iPod Shuttle (Landing Tips)

I'm still obsessed with F-SIM Space Shuttle on the iPod Touch. Now that I'm a seasoned pro with some 10 hours (!) of flight time and at least one "good" landing (with 26 "safe" landings, 54 "hard" landings, and an embarrassing number of crash landings), here are a few things I've learned along the way. While it may seem odd that someone with such a poor record and slow learning curve has the audacity to offer landing tips to others, here's the thing: I've made these mistakes enough times to notice what they are, and if you can avoid some of them as a result, you'll be ahead of the game. This only applies to "final approach" landings. I've done a few full HAC approaches, but I still really suck at those, so too soon to give tips.
  1. Read the "help" landing tutorial and watch a few Autoland demos, paying careful attention to the flight path marker (FPM) and approach cues in the HUD (the tutorial explains these with pictures). After you've landed a few times, also read the landing notes in part 2 of the help - good tips, but you'll need some experience to recognize them.
  2. If you don't let the FPM get far from where it should be (and you shouldn't), the range of tilt and rotation motions you need is very small. The iPod Touch is so light, it's very easy to make motions you don't want that can really throw off your approach. I find I have to brace my elbows against my body and cradle the iPod carefully to keep it steady and in balance. And have my eyes very close to the screen.
  3. Make very small adjustments, and don't ever let the FPM get far from the guidance diamond or the flare cues (small triangles).
  4. Get lined up with the runway center line right away, and keep it lined up. I always try to do this but still sometimes end up off-center when I'm below 500 feet (maybe cross wind?). Sometimes I can correct this, but it's bad to have to try and I often fail. You don't see the real shuttle banking around on short final - you should be wings-level once you are below 1000 feet.
  5. The FPM shows where the shuttle is heading. If you let it get above the horizon when you flare, you will gain altitude and will probably have trouble with line-up (a slow shuttle doesn't have great control authority) or a soft enough landing.
  6. You seem to get more "good landing" credit for landing in the 200' touchdown zone than for being on-centerline. My one "good landing" was in the zone but somewhat off-center for 187,000 points. My best "safe" landing was 370,000 points and was well centered, but outside the landing zone.
  7. If you use "tilt" for brakes (rather than manual brakes which is an option), once the nose wheel touches down, tilting forward provides more braking. But don't do it right away lest you slam the nose wheel down too hard.
The picture above is an animated GIF (might have to click on it) of an Autoland demo at KSC at night, passing through clouds (not real time - just captured frames at 0.8 sec intervals). I love that effect, when the KSC ground lights pop out as you pass through the cloud deck (very quickly and steeply, 20 degree approach, remember) . This is a great little sim. Reminds of the old days (~2000) when I used to land a simulated F/A-18 Super Hornet on a carrier at night in Jane's F/A-18 flight sim. I wasn't very good at that either, but it was also fun. I'm glad I was better at landing real Cessna 152's (when I was flying a few years ago) than I've been at landing simulated Hornets and space shuttles. Guess it helps to have your life on the line! And to be approaching at 67 knots rather than 150 to 300 knots.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

My Doors Memory, Corrected

I just happened to read that departing Florida Governor Charlie Crist has pardoned the late, great Jim Morrison for his 1970 conviction on charges of indecent exposure and profanity. Whether or not Jim actually exposed himself on stage at a March 1969 Miami Doors concert, this posthumous pardon will really not do much for his overall image as a drug- and alcohol-crazed wild child. But it did prompt me to check on something and to correct my personal historical and concert record.

I have always told a story of how I had cleverly convinced my mother to take a friend and me to a Doors concert at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in the summer of 1968 or 1969, when I was in high school. The setup was that she had taken the family to see Peter, Paul, & Mary at SPAC the previous summer, and wasn't that a great time? OK, so the Doors are a little different kind of music, but it will still be fun. And somehow I missed mentioning the bit on Jim being arrested in Miami for lewd behavior on stage. She agreed, and we went to the concert. It was the loudest thing I had ever heard (though still great, I thought), and many people were smoking as well as sitting on the grass all around us. My mother was really pissed. No more concerts for me!

It turns out the concert we attended was September 1, 1968 (I was 15 at the time), and the infamous Miami bust had not happened yet. I should have realized this because in the summer of 1969 I was at a six-week NSF Science Student Training Program at Ohio University, where I watched with a bunch of fellow high school science nerds from all over America as Neil and Buzz cavorted on the moon . That was great. But it was not the Doors summer. In August of that year I had a crappy summer job washing dishes at a Howard Johnson in Lake George, NY (talk about coming down to Earth). Two of my co-workers offered me a ride to a weekend concert in Bethel, NY that would later be known as Woodstock. But I knew my parents would never go for that after the Doors experience, and besides I needed to earn money to buy some hippy clothes for my upcoming senior year. So I passed on that one. Oh well.

Carnival of Space #180

I've missed reading, reporting, and submitting posts for a bunch of space carnivals this year. Now I'm finally starting to poke my head up and look around, and hey, there's a lot of cool space and astronomy stuff being blogged every day (and on some of the cold, clear nights we've had recently, there's a lot of cool stuff to see in the actual sky too - nice to see you back, Mr. Orion!). This week the Carnival of Space is hosted by Starry Critters. Check it out. My post came in as a stocking stuffer suggestion, and given the time of the year (and the product fanboy nature of my post), that's OK with me.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Congrats to SpaceX!

Congratulations to SpaceX on today's successful first test launch for NASA's COTS program of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Dragon cargo spacecraft. The (unmanned) Dragon was successfully recovered in the Pacific off the coast of Southern California. As SpaceX points out, only six other "entities" have pulled off this full operation (launch, orbit, and recover spacecraft) - and they are all countries or groups of countries (USSR/Russia, USA, China, Japan, European Space Agency, and India). Go private space!

F-SIM Shuttle Obsession

I've now got about 6 hours of "flight time" in F-SIM Space Shuttle on the iPod Touch - which is a lot of flights at about 2 minutes each (about 165 flights). I'm still mainly doing final approaches, trying to become consistent enough to get mostly "safe" (and eventually "good" and "perfect") landings and fewer "hard" landings (but still a fair amount of "crash" landings when I lose focus). So far my top score is 193,000 - nowhere near the one million that's apparently possible on a really perfect landing. I wish I had a faster learning curve, but it's still fun. OK, an obsession, but fun. It really requires close concentration and a delicate, balanced touch when tilting the very low-mass iPod Touch to control your flight.It also helps to read the instructions and to watch the Autoland demo multiple times. Every time I do I notice some other little point that helps me improve. I'm still a little weak on the final flare - timing and amount, and also drifting right or left on that pull. It's very touchy.

One thing I did was to look up some HUD video of real shuttle landings on YouTube (here's a good example, and this one starts at about 80K feet at about Mach 2, before the entry to the HAC, and has a lot of pilot conversation). This really confirms the excellent realism of the HUD and the overall "sight picture" and speed sensation in the sim.

The picture above is a real HUD shot from an approach to runway 33 at KSC, 8000 feet, about 300 knots. Below is a similar situation in F-SIM Shuttle (same runway, 6500 feet, 300 knots, picture cropped to approximate field of view of the above picture):

Unfortunately the runway overlay is still on in this shot, but turned off in the real screen shot (I only seem to be able to make screen shots in the Autoland demo, not on my live flights and it's hard to get exactly the same conditions). The HUD frame (needed for orientation on a tilting screen) and symbology brightness are also different, but you can still see the realism.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Insanely Awesome Human Flight

These wingsuit guys are totally insane and yet this human-scale version of the antics of Rocky the Flying Squirrel is one of the most awesome videos I have ever seen (HD version here).

Friday, December 03, 2010

iPod Shuttle

The title is correct, iPod shuttle, not shuffle. I just bought what is perhaps the coolest iPhone/iPod Touch app yet, F-SIM Space Shuttle, an excellent Space Shuttle landing simulator. You fly it by tilting and rotating the whole device - the accelerometers are sensitive enough to control it with great precision. The question is, is the player sensitive enough to control it with the needed precision? So far the answer for me is "not quite," but after a couple of dozen final approach flights, I'm starting to make hard landings instead of crash landings. Still a ways to go for safe or perfect landings, but there is hope for my not-as-young-as-they-used-to-be reflexes and learning curve. Then I can take on flying the full approach in the HAC (heading alignment cone) from 20 to 50 thousand feet above Kennedy or Edwards. This little sim features what seems to be a pretty nice flight model and it offers day and night landings, clouds, and wind to keep things interesting. Since a shuttle final approach lasts something like 2 minutes, you can crash (I mean land) a lot of times in a half hour session of goofing off (a full approach is about 5 minutes).

The sim currently lacks external views and a replay function, but the developer is working on these. Not bad for $1.99 - that's right, a flight sim for two bucks! Of course it's a very limited domain (only the last few minutes of atmospheric flight, unlike Orbiter which simulates many phases of shuttle operations, from launch to docking to re-entry and landing). But Orbiter doesn't fit in my pocket like the iPod Touch (and Orbiter doesn't score your landing quality the way this sim does - part of the game-like quality that makes it quite addictive if you are into flying stuff). It has great audio (recorded from actual shuttle flights), though the script does get a little repetitive. There is a virtual cockpit mode, but I prefer the fixed front view - there's enough moving around without moving your eye position too.

As with real flight and real landings (which I sadly have not performed very recently), one key seems to be making very small adjustments and corrections sooner rather than big ones later. Unlike most landing situations, there's no engine and no opportunity for a go-around or even a flight path adjustment with power.But the HUD gives you a lot of visual cues, and if you have a light touch on the accelerometers, you can keep everything happy and get the shuttle on the runway in one piece most of the time.

UPDATE: I just saw screen shots of the iPad version of this app. Really amazing visuals. Could this be the reason to get an iPad? Probably not. At least not until the second generation iPad comes out. The main advantage of the iPod Touch is that it is pocket size so my Kindle books, New York Times, music, video, WiFi apps, and now space shuttle sim are always available.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

2001: Aries at Clavius #3

2001: Aries at Clavius #3, originally uploaded by FlyingSinger.
I just renewed my Flickr Pro account for another year and was looking through my "photos" (most of them are actually Orbiter screen shots). This is one of my favorites, recreating a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey (using the great World of 2001 add-on). The Aries moon shuttle is making a near-vertical approach to Clavius Base. The animated dome is retracting.

Interview with The Creator...

...the Creator of Orbiter, that is. This is another late-to-the-party thing for me as an unfortunately inactive Orbiter fan (hey, I've been busy) - a June 2010 interview with Dr. Martin Schweiger, the creator and maintainer of the wonderful, free Orbiter 2010 space flight simulator.

Cheap Music Binge

I like the week of Thanksgiving because it's a good time to stock up on cheap MP3 albums at Amazon. In the past week I've bought a few MP3 albums for just $1.99, some of them amazingly good. I'm especially loving The Suburbs by Arcade Fire and the latest X5 classical collection, "The 99 Most Essential Violin Masterpieces" (it's gone up to $2.49 but still an amazing bargain). Most of the pop/rock albums are back to regular prices now.  But many of the X5 Classical collections are still available for $1.99 or so.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Orbiter 2010 Patch 1

 To top off an already busy and exciting year (my older daughter's wedding, finishing my second CD, building an addition on our house), my company was acquired a month or so ago, and now I am busier at work than I have been in years. Evenings, weekends, sleepless nights, travel, culture shock, O.B.S. (Obsessive Blackberry Syndrome) - it's quite a ride. I'm hoping the major transition will only last for a few months so I can eventually get some brain cells back for other things like songwriting and blogging (seeing as this is only my second post in November and it's the 29th).

In the meantime, I did spend a little time this past weekend catching up on Orbiter 2010 developments, including the release at the end of August of the first patch for the 2010 version (I only missed it by three months). In addition to various bug fixes and minor improvements, Orbiter 2010-P1 offers optional celestial background images (not my cup of tea) and the surprisingly dramatic feature of localized light sources, such as docking lights on a spacecraft (see Flash video capture above), or rocket exhaust lighting up the launchpad. As an "optics dude," I especially admire these dynamic lighting effects.When combined with higher resolution Earth textures (L11 for all of Earth, L14 for Florida) and other visual tweaks, Orbiter's 3D space world is more beautiful than ever, and as always, free for the downloading. I haven't had time to look at add-ons, except to notice that the always amazing Shuttle Fleet and ISS Fleet have already been updated for Orbiter 2010.

I've got a couple of weeks off from December 20 to 31, so I'm thinking of running through my Go Play In Space book in Orbiter 2010, to make sure everything works and maybe even do some minor (or even major, if I get inspired) updates to create a third edition of Go Play for Orbiter 2010. Stay tuned...

The picture below shows the improved Earth surface night lighting, at least for Florida (where daylight L14 textures are provided). It looks pretty cool.

Sitting On Top of the World

This has to be one of my absolute favorite space photos, a picture of astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson looking at the Earth through the recently added cupola windows on the ISS. Reminds me of the old blues/Cream song "Sitting on Top of the World." I would love to experience that view someday. This was NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day on November 15.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Carnival of Space 172

The Carnival of Space is hosted this week by Lights in the Dark. It's an especially interesting range of topics this time.

More Cheap Classical Music

As I wrote back in July, there is an excellent series of "99 most essential" works from various classical composers offered as MP3 collections from X5 Music Group. The regular prices are in the $6 to $8 range, which is a good deal for many hours of quality classical music. But Amazon sometimes offers introductory specials on new collections for around $2, which is a crazy good deal (about 2 cents per musical piece).

Recently two new composer collections were released, Dvorák ($2.49) and Grieg ($1.99). I had only heard a few of their best known works before, so I was happy to expand my knowledge and my music collection for just a couple of bucks. The MP3 sound quality is good and most of the multi-movement works are included in full (all movements in order), though there are also some excerpts.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Imagining Space 1950-2050

Wow, I'm beating my last month's blog post output in one day this month (3 posts wasn't hard to top). I don't know how I learned about this book, but I ordered a cheap used copy and it arrived the other day (in great condition - I still love Amazon's third-party used book sellers, even as I spend more and more of my  book dollars on e-books). Imagining Space (Achievements - Predictions - Possibilities, 1950-2050) was written by Roger Launius and Howard McCurdy and published in 2001. The text is well written and surprisingly relevant considering all that has happened in the last nine years. The working assumption is that commercial ventures will dominate space development in the first half of the twenty-first century. Not that there won't be setbacks, and we're still a few years from an orbiting Hilton, but that seems to be starting to happen with the current redirection of NASA. It's still a few years to 2050.

The text is good, but the special treat is the great selection of images. There are some photographs but most of the illustrations are paintings by space artists starting of course with the great Chesley Bonestell, who practically defined the space age with his paintings and magazine illustrations in the 1950's. This sort of colorful, large format book still needs to be paper, and preferably hard cover (though I imagine it would look pretty good on an iPad). 

Moon (the movie) Revisited

I saw the movie "Moon" on an international flight some months back. It was seat-back video in economy on a 777, so we're not talking big screen here. I was probably tired too. I wanted to like it, but I thought it was stupid. When it showed up as a streaming Netflix movie (in HD), I decided to give it a no-cost second chance. I'm glad I did, because on a good size screen, the visuals were really cool and "realistic" in a 2001 sort of way. I liked Sam Rockwell's character, and this time I caught the early clues as to what was going on, so it didn't seem quite so arbitrary and confusing. Still quite implausible, but it paid off my suspension of disbelief well enough to forgive the original premise.

That premise is a lunar far-side Helium-3 mining base (in the semi-near future) that is essentially 100% robotically operated, except for a single human troubleshooter employee who is stationed there alone for a three-year tour, during which the lunar communication relay satellite that would allow direct communication with Earth seems to always be out of commission. I won't spoil it otherwise, but Sam eventually figures it out, with some significant help from his sidekick, a robot named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey). Part of what's implausible is that with robotic AI technology as smart and sensitive as Gerty, why couldn't the base be completely robotic (with some help from telepresence systems that would allow Earth or lunar near-side humans to do the troubleshooting without living in total isolation for three years - or something like that).

One parallel with 2001 is a robotic assistant who (which?) goes crazy. Unlike HAL, Gerty doesn't become a psychotic murderer, but he does go so far outside of any conceivable programming that you could only call it crazy helpful (it's nice when your robot buddy tells you how to selectively erase some of his memories to prevent the boss humans from learning about something you're trying to hide that he/it would otherwise have recorded and would report). But hey, it's just a movie, and a pretty enjoyable (though sad) one at that. FlexBooks - Very Cool!

I stumbled on this while looking through Amazon's list of free e-books for Kindle. I've gotten some really amazing free books since I started using the Kindle apps on my iPod Touch and PC, so I sometimes check. Many of the free ones are public domain books, classics and others, but sometimes you find recent books that publishers are giving away to promote an author or a series (this is how I discovered Naomi Novik's great "Napoleonic Wars with dragons" Temeraire series).

This time I found some interesting free science textbooks from something called I downloaded several (earth science, "people's physics," nanotechnology, calculus, biology) and started reading one on "21st century physics" that is really interesting and well written*, with a sort of dialog format on subjects including gravitation, nuclear energy, particle physics, biophysics (medical imaging), etc. This is apparently intended to supplement basic physics topics found in standard textbooks with updated material on diverse, interesting topics and many web links. But who is offering this? I found this on the web site:
CK-12 Foundation is a non-profit organization with a mission to reduce the cost of textbook materials for the K-12 market both in the U.S. and worldwide. Using an open-content, web-based collaborative model termed the "FlexBook," CK-12 intends to pioneer the generation and distribution of high quality educational content that will serve both as core text as well as provide an adaptive environment for learning.
Cool. I also watched a video and found that these FlexBooks can be viewed in various formats, printed, and even customized by teachers! Wow. This is good. I will learn more.

* the "well written" part varies by topic, with each chapter of this book written by a different author. I just read a chapter on on nanoscience that has several serious errors that completely change the meaning of some sentences.  Textbooks need editors, even if they are free electronic textbooks.

Darrell Scott & A Fine Frenzy

Here are a couple of recent musical discoveries. I've known Darrell Scott from one of his earlier albums ("Real Time," with Tim O'Brien) and from a couple of songs of his recorded by the Dixie Chicks (especially "Long Time Gone" from the Real Time album). But I recently bought his 2010 album "A Crooked Road," which is a real gem. I especially love the title track, so much so that I'm learning it to add to my repertoire of cover songs. The lyrics are great. The live radio performance shown in the video above is a bit different from the album version which has a guitar part in the style of McCartney's "Blackbird," but the live version is easier to play (he's tuned down a half-step in case you want to try it).

The other discovery is a singer-songwriter who calls herself A Fine Frenzy (actually Alison Sudol). She writes gorgeous melodies, and her lyrics and voice are nice too. "One Cell in the Sea" (2007) and "Bomb in a Birdcage" (2009) are both very good albums. She's something like 22 years old.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Carnival of Space #170

I've been a Very Bad Blogger recently. Aside from work and a doggie health crisis, I'm still pretty infatuated with HDTV/Blu-Ray and all the cool stuff streaming through our Netflix "Instant Queue." Things like the 2008 PBS documentary Carrier (10 episodes about the USS Nimitz), In Search of Beethoven, Imagine: John Lennon, and It Might Get Loud (musical conversations with guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White). Not much space stuff unless you count The Iron Giant (an animated favorite that looks great in HD). I also have the 2009 Sam Rockwell movie Moon in my queue. I saw it once on an airplane and although I didn't love it, I'd like to see it on a bigger screen. 

So no wonder there's no time for blogging! But space blogging by other people marches on, as you will quickly see from this week's Carnival of Space #170, hosted by National Geographic's Breaking Orbit blog.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

JPL Solar System Ambassadors: Sign-up Time

The JPL Solar System Ambassador program is for volunteers (non-NASA employees) who wish to be involved in educational and community outreach related to space exploration. Provided materials (mostly web-based) and telephone briefings tend to be mostly related to JPL programs, but ambassadors are free to define their own presentation subjects and styles. I've been in this program since 2007, and I have really enjoyed doing presentations at schools, libraries, museums, and scouting events. I personally tend to use a lot of simulation software (especially Orbiter and Stellarium) in my presentations, which is purely my choice based on my interests and skills. Other ambassadors may focus more on PowerPoint, video, hands-on activities, and sky observations.

If you live in the United States and are interested in becoming a JPL Solar System Ambassador, September is the only time you can apply, so act now! You certainly don't have to be an engineer, scientist, or teacher, though many ambassadors do have such backgrounds (many are also amateur astronomers). The main thing is that you have an active interest in space exploration and that you enjoy sharing your interests with other people, often but not always children.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

NASA Historical Photo Collection

NASA has a huge collection of photos related to space exploration and history - perhaps too many to conveniently explore considering the many NASA web sites, although there are some "greatest hits" sites such as Great Images in NASA (GRIN). But these days photo galleries are also social media, since people like to share and comment on photos. So NASA has been putting photos out on Flickr (e.g., JWST, JPL, and GSFC). Here's a cool new one, "NASA On the Commons." It's only 180 photos right now, a really random-seeming collection of historical photos, from Freedom 7 to space center construction photos to a "Moon fest" at NASA Ames in 2009. There are also some pre-NASA photos of people for whom NASA centers have been named, including one of my local heroes, Dr. Robert Goddard (GSFC). The one shown here shows Goddard in 1925 with his first liquid-fueled rocket.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My Other Car is a Saab?

I'll have to run this by my wife, but it seems like a great deal. We've got a Prius and a Volvo - how about a 1964 Saab in great condition? A mach 2 Saab J35 "Draken" jet interceptor, that is. I saw this in a video news item on Yahoo. It's a sweet ride and an amazing bargain at $175,000 (you can't even get a new Cessna 172 for that) but it is something of a gas guzzler for a Swedish vehicle (about $5000 of jet fuel for 10 minutes of supersonic flight). I'm sure it's much more economical if you stay off the afterburner.

There are also some intermediate hurdles if I'm going to take advantage of this deal. First I'll have to get current on my private pilot certificate (single engine propeller aircraft only) and medical. Then I'd have to get an instrument rating and probably a commercial pilot certificate too. Then I'd have to get some jet training and probably get type certified in a two-seat jet of similar performance (maybe someone in the world has a two seat Draken you can get checked out in - the one for sale in Stockton, CA is a single seater). By the time I do all that, John Travolta will have bought it and flown it home.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Packing for Mars

When I was ten years old (in 1963), I had a plan for my life. After high school, I would go to the US Air Force Academy, followed by flight training (jets, of course). Later I would go to test pilot school with the ultimate goal of becoming an astronaut. I was too young for Apollo (and for Vietnam as an officer and pilot), but if it had worked out, I would have been an Air Force pilot in the late 70's and astronaut-ready by the mid-80's. The plan fell apart when I was 12 and started to develop severe myopia. The Air Force Academy and flight training wouldn't allow corrective lenses (of course even if I had 20/10 "Yeagervision" there are any number of other things that could have killed my plan, but hey, it was a fun plan while it lasted).

At that time, the idea of space flight represented nothing but sheer excitement, but now that I've read the new book Packing for Mars (by Mary Roach, subtitled "The Curious Science of Life in the Void"), I understand better than ever that the astronaut's life is much more complicated and less enjoyable than you might imagine. Maybe this wasn't the life for me. Of course I knew this at some level from a lot of previous reading about space flight, but with the exception of some astronaut memoirs (especially Mike Mullane's down-and-dirty Riding Rockets), they don't go into much detail on the discomforts and inconveniences of space flight. Mary Roach does, and she does so with a writing style that is informative, colorful, personal, and often downright hilarious. I was laughing out loud at least once in every chapter. Her writing style often reminds me of Bill Bryson. She explains things clearly, but emphasizes quirky details and people. While the situations are often funny, she obviously respects the people and the work they do, so it never comes across as snarky - she's often laughing with the astronauts, cosmonauts, and other space workers.

Of course she covers the required "going to the bathroom in space," but she also covers the psychology of isolation and confinement, general problems of zero-G (including bone loss and vomiting), crash testing (with cadavers!), animal testing, Earth-based mission simulations, hygiene, and the ever-intriguing questions of sex in space. On the latter topic, she isn't able to come up with any hard evidence (sorry) that it has happened, but you can't say her research wasn't thorough. Considering that someone might have "done it" in a zero-G parabolic test flight, she tracks down and watches an obscure porn movie that was rumored to have had one scene shot on such a flight. She uses a fluid dynamics argument (sort of) to conclude that while the scene may have been shot in an airplane, it was not shot in zero-G. Read the book for more. You will also learn some interesting things about dolphin behavior and anatomy, since these marine mammals have to deal with some of the same issues as zero-G astronaut couples might encounter.

The author interviewed astronauts, cosmonauts, and all sorts of researchers, and her field trips included a flight on the "vomit comet" (she didn't vomit, thanks to "good drugs" they give you) and a trip to Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic, where NASA conducts simulated lunar and Mars missions in a remote, desolate, cratered environment that's about as close as you can get to Moon or Mars terrain on Earth. NASA and the US astronauts seemed to be the most "uptight," and the Russian cosmonauts the most frank in describing uncomfortable stuff. One exception was Jim Lovell, who was was unusually open, especially when she asked him about Gemini 7, in which he had spent two bathing-free weeks in the tiny Gemini cabin with Frank Borman, who apparently could be a rather cranky and difficult guy. Lovell proved he was brave enough for Apollo 13 by spending some 23 days in space with Borman (Gemini 7 and Apollo 8 - Borman was sick most of the time on Apollo 8, though it wasn't admitted at the time - so perhaps a bit of crankiness could be forgiven).

I read the Kindle version of the book, and I found it was valuable (and funny) to read most of the footnotes, which required a "click" for each one. Some of the funniest comments are in the footnotes. A very good book, even if you're not especially interested in space.

More HD Space Exploration

I'm still infatuated with HDTV, Blu-Ray, and streaming high quality movies over the internet. I'm not planning to buy a lot of Blu-Ray discs since there is so much content available on cable and online (not to mention a lot of DVD's I own that now look substantially better). But I did want to have a few "demo discs" including a couple of space-related ones.

One that I bought was "For All Mankind," a 1989 theatrical-release documentary that collects many of the best segments of NASA film from the Apollo era into a single "meta-moon-mission." As director Al Reinert explains in the making-of feature, all the Apollo missions pretty much followed the same script, so why not use the best film from each mission? He even went as far as to use some Gemini footage (mainly Ed White's EVA) because it was just gorgeous, in part because the Gemini missions' earth orbits were much higher than the Apollo, shuttle, or ISS orbits, so you could get a much better sense of the roundness of our planet. He also used some of NASA's "engineering film" including the famous shot of Saturn V stage separation shot from the separating boosters. Since these were film cameras, the film had to be recovered, which was quite a trick. Each camera would eject its film canister housed in a small re-entry vehicle equipped with parachutes and a radio homing beacon. On-station USAF C-130's with special aerial recovery equipment would home on these beacons and snatch the parachutes from the air (a technique that had been developed to recover Corona "spy satellite" film in the early 60's). The narration consists mainly of comments by the Apollo astronauts, recorded by Reinert in audio-only interviews. The Blu-Ray transfer is awesome - it was probably 16 mm film in most cases,  but the quality is quite impressive, especially in the scenes of lunar rendezvous with the LM silhouetted against the lunar surface.

I also watched the new Blu-Ray copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, much of it with the audio commentary by actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood. The film-like quality of the 1080p display is gorgeous and highlights Kubrick's great attention to detail in every aspect of this film. The spacecraft models are amazing. Dullea did some of his own stunts in this film, and he talks about one scene that was just wild, entering the emergency hatch when HAL famously refuses to open the pod-bay doors (here's a three-minute clip of the scene). In his haste to try to save "Frank," "Dave" had forgotten his helmet and gloves, making an EVA into the emergency airlock just a bit dicey.

The pod's door and outer airlock door were on the ceiling of a two-story set, with Dullea falling toward the camera positioned on the inner airlock door (on the floor) when he was supposedly ejected from the pod by pressurized air (this was why a stunt double wasn't used - his face was rushing towards the camera). He was suspended by a heavy rope, the other end of which was handled by a circus trapeze performer who weighed more than Dullea (a critical point). There were knots in the rope to signal the stopping points, and when the first knot reached him, the circus guy stopped the rope (preventing Dullea's face from impacting the camera) and then jumped off a platform with the rope attached to his foot, using his weight to suddenly yank Dullea back toward the outer airlock door (and ceiling of the set!) where he could use the emergency airlock close handle. It was done in one take, and it really looks like this takes place in zero-G. Dullea must have had total faith in Kubrick and that circus performer! An amazing scene in an amazing movie.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

U2 and NASA, Space 2009

This very cool video showed up today in an email update from Space-Multimedia. I'm something of a U2 fan (I saw them live once, back in 1994), but I didn't realize that they had cooperated with NASA for some events during their 2009 tour, including live video feeds with ISS astronauts and with "space tourist" Guy Laliberté (founder of Cirque du Soleil and "the first clown in space," as Bono calls him).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Apollo 13 Revisited

My first HDTV and Blu-Ray player provided the (de?)motivation for a lazy, movie-watching weekend. I had to try out all the different parts of my new toys, including a WiFi connection that allows access to various internet-based services, some free (Pandora internet radio, YouTube), some not free (Netflix, Amazon Video On Demand). I ordered a Blu-Ray copy of 2001: A Space Odyssey from Amazon (mostly because it was only $8.99), but it won't arrive until next week. In the meantime, Amazon provides a free VOD rental of the film, but unfortunately not the HD version. I watched a little to see how the WiFi connection would work (quite well), but decided to wait for the Blu-Ray disc to watch the whole thing later this week. I've bought 2001 on VHS and DVD and now Blu-Ray. It's a space classic and a home video test case, I guess. With Blu-Ray and a 42 inch 1080p screen, it may start to approach the original movie experience of 1968 (which I barely remember, though I know I made my mother take me to see it).

The one BD that I bought and received so far is a BBC nature show, Nature's Most Amazing Events, and the action, scenery, cinematography, and visual quality did not disappoint. The new Blu-Ray player also does a nice job "upconverting" DVD's so I watched a couple of old favorites, Memphis Belle and Apollo 13. I have the 2-disc anniversary edition of Apollo 13, but for some reason I had never watched the making-of special or listened to Jim and Marilyn Lovell's commentary, both great. I really love that movie, both for the many authentic details of the Apollo era and for the emotional intensity. 13 was to be the fifth manned lunar voyage and the third landing, and the public and the media in 1970 had already come to think of it as routine (e.g., the networks didn't interrupt prime time to televise the crew's live color TV "en route to the moon" broadcast - that was so 1969!). But of course the oxygen tank explosion soon made it anything but routine, and the drama of three astronauts' lives hanging by a thread in the "LM lifeboat" captured the world's attention for almost a week. Riveting stuff even though you know the ending.

The making-of special shows what a great combination Tom Hanks and Ron Howard were for this film. Hanks was a space fanatic and astronaut wannabe. Howard wasn't so much, but he is a fanatic for detail and authenticity (technical and emotional) in all of his films. The fact that they were able to get NASA's cooperation to film parts of the film in sets installed in the KC-135 "vomit comet" was an amazing coup and added tremendously to the you-are-there feeling. All that filming had to be done in 30 second segments as the zero-G training jet flew parabolas over and over. All of the "whole body" shots were done this way, but in many scenes where only the actors' heads or torsos were visible, they had to mime the zero-G effects by swaying their bodies to simulate it. It all looks real to me!

I'm sure I will quickly recalibrate my technology "normal meter" so in a couple of weeks, HDTV will just be routine, and I'll go back to not watching much TV. This happens with all technology (except the iPod Touch -  I use it extensively every day, and it still amazes me). But I'm glad it's giving me a reason to revisit some space favorites like Apollo 13 and 2001.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Space Models!

The moon landings were not faked, but if they were, this guy could have been one of the model builders. OK, maybe not (he says he was only 10 in 1968, and he's French), but he has built some pretty nice space models. I don't know exactly how I found his site, but it's got some pretty amazing stuff. I was an avid model builder in my youth (from maybe age 8 to 15), focused mainly on military aircraft, though I did build a few space models too (long since gone - I remember an especially nice Saturn V and a very large Gemini, possibly the original version of this Revell 1/24 scale model). I was pretty good for a kid modeler, though I didn't have the patience to do really fine painting or to custom-build special details. I pretty much built and painted according to the instructions.

I haven't looked at all the models on M. Meens' web site, but my favorite has to be his recently completed 1/24 scale model of the Lunar Module ascent stage shown above and at left. This thing is a work of art - just beautiful. He has quite a few photos showing the fine detail, but my favorite is the cutaway view shown above. I have seen many illustrations and 3D representations of the LM over the years, including the real full-size one (exterior view only, below right) at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington.

I've also seen life size cutaway mock-ups of the LM flight deck (at KSC and other places) and I've spent hours in the the 3D virtual cockpit of the AMSO LM in Orbiter (flying simulated moon landings, of course). But this two-section view of this 1/24 scale model gives the best impression I've ever felt of the nature and size of the tiny LM cockpit. Very cool.

The web site also includes some models and drawings of the Soviet N1-L3 moon rocket (which failed in all tests). The models (N1 vs. Saturn V) are great and at one time were on display at Cite de l'Espace in Toulouse, which I recently visited (I didn't see them). In addition, there is a beautifully drawn (by Serge Gracieux of Cite de l'Espace) set of "story board" images depicting what the Soviet N1-L3 moon landing mission would have been like if it had succeeded in 1969. The mission had some similarities to Apollo, but only cosmonaut would have landed the "LK" on the moon (shown above), while one other would have remained in lunar orbit until the ascent section of the lander rendezvoused for return to Earth. There were no docking ports planned, so the landing cosmonaut would have to transfer to and from the LK by EVA.

UPDATE: This video is from a Japanese modeler who did a superb customized job building a 1965 Revell 1/24 scale Gemini Spacecraft (the one I had back in the 60's). The video starts with some space scenes with the Apollo 8 transmission of Genesis (December 1968), and a series of stills showing the model building procedure starts around 0:34. The gold foil on the back end of equipment module (from a candy bar wrapper!) is an especially nice touch. Finished model shown below. Very impressive.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Why Moon Landings Were Not Faked

I found this brief video clip through a Universe Today post from last week, but I just love it, so I have to post it here too. It's one of the few "space related" things that I find myself sharing widely with "civilians"  (i.e., friends and relatives who care nothing about space, also called "normal people"). And it's just so funny, I've watched it five or six times myself.

Admittedly this video is more about humor than space, but it does address something that has always puzzled me about moon landing conspiracy "theorists." Between 1962 and 1972, NASA's budget totaled about $260 billion (in 2007 dollars). Much of that was spent on the Apollo program, ostensibly to send astronauts into Earth orbit (11 times, since all the moon missions first orbited the Earth) and later to the moon (nine times with six successful landings - the others were the two planned orbital missions and Apollo 13 which flew once around the moon and back to Earth). According to Moon hoax fans, if this money was spent at all, it was spent on faking the moon landings through an elaborate conspiracy involving thousands of government and contractor employees. These people supposedly built a lot of real-looking but non-functional hardware (plenty of civilians saw the hardware) and applied amazingly advanced special effects technology to produce thousands of photographs as well as many hours of film footage, video, and audio recordings (including radio transmissions that seemed to come from the moon - though of course NASA also controlled the tracking antennas, so who knows?). They also produced a lot of scientific data and a few hundred kilograms of "moon rocks" (which could have come from Hawaii or someplace, right?).

That's all well and good, the joke's on us and all, but what about the Saturn V rockets? Thousands of people witnessed the launch of thirteen gigantic rockets in Florida from 1967 to 1973. Flames came out, loud noises, something went into the sky. Where did they go (some did go only into Earth orbit for tests and to launch the Skylab space station in 1973)? Well maybe the conspiracy people will allow that NASA can put things into Earth orbit. Are they still up there? Did they burn up and reenter the Earth's atmosphere? Wouldn't someone have noticed this? Or did they go to the moon, but without astronauts? Was NASA good enough to do that, but not to land and return the astronauts?

It's all so ridiculous, of course, and if you are in the conspiracy frame of mind, you can always come up with additional things that could have been faked to conceal the other fakes. But why thirteen Saturn V's? And why six "faked" landings (plus Apollo 13 which was aborted)? Why not just launch two or three Saturn V's (to prove you're testing them, of course) and then one successful faked landing? Then declare "mission accomplished, JFK honored, Soviets beaten" and spend the rest of the money on planes and bombs for Vietnam?

Recently the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has sent back pictures of the Apollo landing sites. But who controls LRO? NASA of course. No doubt the conspiracy continues to this day. And there is no way to convince the conspiracy faithful, of course. But we can have a good laugh about it once in a while, as with the video that triggered this whole rant!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

When Ideas Have Sex

Following up on my July 5 post reviewing Matt Ridley's book Rational Optimism, here's a 17 minute TED talk in which Mr. Ridley presents the gist of his ideas on the importance of "exchange" (of goods, services, and ideas) in the development of the "collective brain" we call human civilization. Very nicely done.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Future Is Creeping Up On Us

Recently the New York Times has been running a special series of articles called "Smarter Than You Think" (a series examining the recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics and their potential impact on society). Machines are starting to take some real giant steps. I've always been interested in AI and even considered making a career change in the mid-eighties when "expert systems" were making a splash. Fortunately I stayed with optics, because AI per se never became an industry or a field of its own outside of research labs. Which is not to say that there hasn't been progress in AI - just that people kept moving the bar. Things that used to be considered nearly impossible for machines (like speech recognition) were developed and folded into software engineering. In other words, if machines are doing it, it ain't intelligent. AI stays just over the horizon.

So beating grand masters at chess? That's been done by an IBM supercomputer with a lot of special programming and coaching. So it's not AI, just brute force. But what if a few of those IBM supercomputers got together and started to compete with humans on the game show Jeopardy, with its wide-ranging subject matter and tricky word-play clues? That would be impressive, right? Well, according to the first article in the series, it's still more or less brute force, though when the software is playing Jeopardy in real time, with no internet connection (but with a huge local database of "general knowledge") and often beating human champions of the show, that seems pretty smart to me no matter what sort of statistical inferencing, data mining, or number crunching is going on behind the scenes (things are pretty messy up in our own "wetware" too). There may be a televised human vs. AI Jeopardy tournament later this year.

Of course Jeopardy is still pretty narrow, and the bar keeps moving. Speech recognition is good enough for many customer service tasks now, but still nowhere near humans in flexibility and generality. But it's getting better, even if "Bina48" comes across as something of a whack job in her (its?) interview. There are robots designed be cuddly and emotionally supportive (they look like baby seals). There are robots who are learning to be teachers. It's all pretty mind-boggling even if you've read a lot of SF and future-looking non-fiction.

There's also ASIMO, Honda's experimental humanoid robot, shown in the video above. A cute little robot kid who can walk, climb stairs, and even run (I saw a demonstration at Disneyland back in February - really impressive, especially the stairs). Honda has been working on this bipedal robot assistant for some 20 years and it's not ready for the general home quite yet - but it's getting closer. I'm really more optimistic than creeped out by the growing robot population. I think they will ultimately lead to better lives for many humans, though as with any technology, they will also displace some humans' jobs along the way. We really need to work on that.

And I haven't even mentioned NASA's Robonaut who will soon be living on the ISS. More on that another time...