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.