Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Great Model Airplane Video

I just learned that a fellow optical professional in Europe has a cool hobby - shooting HD video from a RC model airplane flying above the beautiful scenery of Switzerland. Although I have known him for some years through my visits to his company, I never knew about the RC flying. Since I'm interested in pretty much anything involving flying, I thought this was just great and wanted to share it.

The above image is a screen shot from this video. The prop is stopped and folded through most of this video (it's essentially an RC motor glider), but the engine is briefly started during the turn to final approach and landing at about 3:10. This video is also great (you can see the prop stop and fold at about 0:18). Some others are here.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Back in the Shuttle Again

Version 2.2 of the amazing iOS app f-sim space shuttle is available at the iTunes store. There is now a beautiful animation of the drag chute's deployment and release after you touch down (visible in the external views, normally seen in replays after you land, though I suppose you could land in the external view). The replay views are great, especially when you've done a decent landing. There is also an optional "windows in the sky" landing aid that I find more distracting than helpful (but it is probably helpful when you are first learning to land with the HUD visual cues). Excellent app. There is also an official video available here.

Update: The "visual approach path" (windows in the sky) is more useful than I thought. Up to now I've mostly done final approaches rather than the full "HAC" approaches which I was never very good at. But with the visual approach aid, full HAC approaches make much more sense, and I was successful on my first two tries. Now I can see what the HUD cues were trying to tell me. This app has amazing replay value (assuming you are a space and flight sim nerd like me).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Black Keys!!?!

Why didn't I get the memo? The Black Keys have been around since 2001, and I never noticed them until last week when I happened to buy the current issue of American Songwriter Magazine with them on the cover. Two guys from Akron who make a whole lot of great music with basically drums, guitar, and vocals. I previewed and bought the two most recent albums, Brothers (2010) and El Camino (released this month). Damn, these guys are good. They definitely have a strong blues persuasion but they bend the blues every which way in their infectious (in a good way), hard-driving songs. Great writing, great playing. Sometimes they remind me of Cream (a sixties favorite), but their sound is definitely their own. Check out the videos for "Lonely Boy" (imagine the huge investment in making this video!) and the action-packed and hilarious "Howlin' For You" (truly a big budget video). Great stuff! Man, I gotta write me some new blues-rock songs (trying to get in the mood there).

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stratolaunch: Too Cool

And here I was thinking Burt Rutan had retired.

I just heard about this and watched the simulation video. The concept is to scale Burt's "White Knight" carrier/launch aircraft to super-jumbo size (six 747 engines) to provide a runway-launched "first stage" (Scaled Composites) for a large orbital booster (SpaceX) for cargo or people (using the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft). Stratolaunch is a Paul Allen project with commercial operation projected for 2016. Of course nothing is flying yet, but private space looks to have a few tricks up its sleeve for the coming years.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Exploring Space With Your Computer (Again)

Podcast - Jupiter & Io Setting Over Europa

In April 2009, I contributed to the International Year of Astronomy daily podcast series with a podcast called "Exploring Space With Your Computer." It featured audio dramatizations of a mission to Europa and the final seconds of the Apollo 11 moon landing, as simulated in the free Orbiter spaceflight simulator. It also discussed the free planetarium program Stellarium and a few other free tools for exploring space from the comfort of your computer keyboard. I used sound effects from Orbiter and also wrote and recorded a spacey-sounding musical soundtrack for the podcast. It was fun to do.

The daily astronomy podcast program has continued beyond 2009, and today "Exploring Space With Your  Computer" is being featured as a "classic" thanks to someone's unexpected cancellation. It's nice to be featured, even as a rerun. I posted a set of Orbiter screenshots illustrating my simulated space adventures on Flickr. You can read more about the podcast (including web links) in this 2009 blog post. The podcast series is continuing into 2012 - maybe I'll even find time to do a new podcast next year.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Basement Tapes (But No Tapes)

I've been "gearing up" (quite literally) to get back into music recording. I started with powerful new "gaming" laptop and Cakewalk Sonar X1 (recently upgraded to the full Producer Edition with a $99 holiday special). I added a new monitor, a new MIDI keyboard (Oxygen 49), a USB digital audio interface, a new electric guitar (a cheap Epiphone that still plays pretty well), and a mandolin that hasn't arrived yet. With all the soft synths and guitar processing bundled with Sonar, cheap input devices like the Oxygen 49 and the Epiphone "Les Paul Junior" can sound like just about anything (just add inspiration and talent - that's the tough part). I've set all of this up in my own little corner of the basement, as shown above (see if you can spot the paint cans under the desk). I had some of the equipment (microphones, preamps, tambourine, various acoustic guitars, a zillion cables) from my previous recording setup. That was based on a circa-2002 XP desktop and Sonar 3. Major upgrade time.

This is an embarrassment of riches, music production wise. But it won't do me much good if I can't use the software properly, and Sonar X1 Producer has a LOT of bells and whistles to figure out. Fortunately there are some great tutorials on the web. One of the best sources of Sonar guidance is MCI Studio in the UK. MCI is pretty much dedicated to Sonar and offers an impressive range of tutorial videos and other resources. Finally I am learning how to use buses and vocal pitch correction correctly (among other cool stuff, like tips for recording background vocals). MCI stands for "musically creative inspiration." Indeed.

With all of these tools and knowledge, I'm hoping to record more at home on my next recording project, though I'm sure I will still need the impressive talents of my producer Roger Lavallee and the fabulous and nearby Tremolo Lounge for many tracks. I also need some new songs. I'm working on that in my not-so-copious spare time.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Beatles Sex! I Mean LOVE!

That post title is an experiment, prompted by a quick look at this blog's stats, courtesy of Google (who also hosts Blogspot blogs, of course). They keep track of everything, as you might expect of Google. Although I'm not blogging as much as I think I'd like to (and once did), I'm still curious about who might be reading my posts, which posts are most popular, how people got here, etc.

Thanks to Google, I know that the top 10 search keywords that brought readers to my blog are beatles love, the beatles love, beatles, music of the spheres, asteroid flyby, the beatles, airbus a380, flyingsinger blog, water cycle, and solar system. Water cycle? Anyway, it's striking that on my nominally space-themed blog, four of the top ten searches are for the Beatles! Hence my post title - if "beatles love" is big, how about "beatles sex?" My most popular post is one that I wrote about the Beatles LOVE show and CD on December 31, 2010. Number two is "Space Models," about my summer 2010 visit to the French space museum in Toulouse. I also know that to date, my blog has received 124,798 page views. (This is not exactly my "all time" page views, but only since Google started tracking my stats around June 2009 - I actually started this blog in October 2005.) I probably should have run some ads. But I know you hate that as much as I do.

Of course 124,798 is probably how many pageviews Lady Gaga gets per minute. But by mentioning Lady Gaga, the Beatles, and sex in this one post, I am positioning myself to give her a run for her money. Don't worry, though. I will not be mentioning Justin Bieber, Amy Adams, fixed mortgages, Ron Paul, or any other trendy terms just to try to drive traffic to my blog. Or sex.

Safe Travels (Don't Die): Go Curiosity!

Lisa Hannigan's wonderful album "Passenger" includes a funny little song called "Safe Travels (Don't Die)." It sounds like it was inspired by a friend who says this to her when she travels, but here I am applying it to NASA's Mars Science Laboratory rover which was launched yesterday. I caught the launch live on CNN, and it was a beautiful sight. So far the spacecraft seems to be in good health, and I do wish Curiosity safe travels on its long 251 day cruise to Mars.

MSL Rocket Platform in JPL Clean Room
I was fortunate enough to see Curiosity in the flesh (so to speak) during assembly in the clean room at the JPL Open House I attended in May 2009. The picture above shows the "sky crane" rocket platform that will gently lower the rover to the surface in August 2012. More pix on Flickr.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why Do I Love This Book?

There are a few books that I seem to be able to read many times and feel engaged and rewarded each time. One of these is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a novel by Mark Haddon. It's a curious book, a detective story of sorts, written from the point of view of Christopher, a 15 year old English boy who has a form of autism or perhaps asperger syndrome. He is extremely high-functioning in the areas of math, logic, science, and use of language. But his ability to understand and relate to people and emotions is quite limited. He generally prefers animals, because their reactions and emotions seem easier to understand than those of people, and they can't lie to you. Christopher is very logical about some things and seemingly very superstitious about others. Some of his behavior is rather bizarre and not very nice - yet for all this he's an extremely engaging and sympathetic character, and you get to see the world very clearly through his eyes. It's really a fascinating book that works on many levels, and I highly recommend it. I won't spoil it by revealing plot details - you can find plenty of reviews and summaries on Google or Amazon if you care to.

But why do I like it so much? I think it's because I relate more strongly to this character than I do to most fictional characters. I even feel a little bit like him in some ways (and not only because he wants to be an astronaut, even though he realizes that this is extremely unlikely for many reasons). I think it's something about the way he detaches himself from emotions and complicated human situations (or tries to). I see myself doing this sometimes. And also something about the way people don't understand him (but who hasn't felt that way sometimes?). I also like the way he makes and values certain observations that most people wouldn't make or value (a bit of the scientific or engineering mind there). I don't know. But I really like Christopher Boone and the chance to view of the world through his fictional but very real-seeming eyes.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Mozart for a Penny a Tune

Amazon's MP3 daily deals can be pretty amazing. Today it is a new "99 Most Essential" classical collection, a "full works" Mozart edition for only 99 cents. The earlier X5 Mozart album was a "greatest hits" collection with 99 of his best-known individual movements. This can be nice at times, but I usually prefer to listen to classical music as the composer intended, which is typically three or more movements in sequence. X5 has been providing full versions for all of their recent composer collections, and now finally for Mozart as well.

These are 23 of Mozart's best known works (it appears to include complete versions of nearly all the works used in the soundtrack of the film "Amadeus"). If you enjoy Mozart as I do, you probably already have most of them on CD or MP3. But for 99 cents, I'm buying it just so I can have these works sitting on my Amazon Cloud Drive to listen to anywhere I have a web connection.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Carnival of Space #220

I haven't been thinking or writing about space recently. Guess the moment isn't structured that way (to take the Tralfamadorian viewpoint). But other people are thinking and writing about space, and some of them are bloggers who have submitted posts for this week's Carnival of Space, hosted by we are all in the gutter (looking at the stars). Love that blog name.

There are many posts this week, on diverse space and astronomy related topics. There are also two contests, one of which is sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, a place I still remember fondly from my early childhood when we lived close to New York City and my parents would take me there to see dinosaur fossils and other wonders of the universe. A special exhibit, Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration, will run there from November 19 to August 12, 2012. The contest asks for 3 minute videos showing your personal out-of-this world vision for the future of space exploration. I think I could make a cool video using the Orbiter space flight simulator, but the deadline is November 3, and the moment is still not structured that way. I am still stuck in time the way Billy Pilgrim wasn't. Isn't. Won't be.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Too Much New Music!

I seem to have a real need for the constant stimulation of new music, though this creates the problem of not having time to listen to all of it. I get most new music as MP3's, mostly from Amazon, and most often on sale (sometimes free), though I will pay full price for music I "must have now." Aside from Amazon's daily deals, I learn of new music through Paste Magazine (now called Paste mPlayer), from NPR (new music email list), on Pandora, through Facebook friends' recommendations, and sometimes even from the radio (usually 92.5 The River). Probably other ways too.

Just in the last week I bought a classical collection that was a $1.99 Daily Deal (The 99 Most Essential Autumn Classics), a new Michael Franks album that is wonderful (Time Together) and a cool Donald Fagen album I had never heard until a song from it came up on Pandora while I was doing dishes (Kamakiriad from 1993). Also a bunch of free Amazon samplers, including the very relaxing Native American Flute Lullabies.

So am I listening to all that great new music? No, actually I'm listening to a "must have now" album that I just bought, Katie Herzig's new one, The Waking Sleep. It sounds good so far! I'm actually shuffling that with some of the other recent ones as I write this blog post with two ulterior motives: to test out my new Feedburner feed and "follow by email" widget (found just to the right), and to delay starting on a bunch of "must do now" house work!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Great Songwriting Blog

A few weeks ago I was looking for music and songwriting apps for the iPod Touch, and I found one called "Secrets of Songwriting" by Gary Ewer. Essentially an e-book formatted as an app, it was pretty expensive for an app ($16.99), but not so bad for a music book, and as a "multimedia" app, it was able to include examples of chord progressions and melodies as sound samples. So I bought it. Although I found a few interesting ideas, it was really too basic for me, and the app format (no search, no bookmarks, etc.) was frustrating.

The good news was Gary Ewer's songwriting blog, which I discovered through this app. "The Essential Secrets of Songwriting" is frequently updated with tips and with songwriting analyses of hit songs ("Rolling in the Deep" by Adele is a great recent example). Some tips are quite specific and musical (chord inversions, visualizing melodies, modal chord progressions, "making a MIDI orchestra sound real"). Others are more motivation and workflow oriented (identifying goals, dealing with writer's block, starting vs. finishing songs, writing better lyrics). There is a lot of excellent and thought-provoking material on songwriting here, with a huge archive of past articles. I'm taking notes and trying some of these ideas as I am now working on some new songs for my next recording project.

So now I'm happy to have bought Gary's app, supporting a musician/writer who is providing valuable educational material to songwriters everywhere for free through his blog.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Europe on 140 Characters a Day

I don’t have a Twitter account, and I tend to be long-winded when I talk or write, so I haven’t especially longed to tweet (I’d rather fly). But I’m also pretty busy these days, so I’m starting to see the value of that 140 character constraint. Sort of like haiku. So I’ll give it a shot here. MS Word can count my characters and keep me fairly honest. Throw in a few pix - mostly from mediocre BlackBerry camera (see explanation below).

Last week I was in Europe for a customer visit tour with our distributor. IT, FR, FR, UK, FR. Busy schedule but not the craziest ever.

A customer visit in Florence? Yes! Worth an extra day. As lovely as they say. Duomo, Boboli Gardens, and Galileo’s mummified fingers (oy).

Drive from Florence to Nice to Cannes for next customer. Tour of giant spacecraft assembly clean rooms. Sunny drive back to Nice Airport.

Toulouse (too tight?). Nice rosy city. Good weather, good customers, good food. Great food, actually. But no wifi (recurring hotel problem).

Fly Manchester England England, drive to Wales. Shortest UK trip ever (12 hours). Long enough to lose digital camera in rental car. :(

Paris! Business first, including a visit to the Observatoire de Meudon, with great views of Paris. Small hotel in the 6th. Duck dinner.

Late flight Saturday, time to relax and hang out in Jardin du Luxembourg on a gorgeous fall day. Wish I had my real camera. Lunch, fly home.

My new travel companion: an actual Kindle (not app on iPod). New model, small, light, ultra-white display, easy to read. Great buy ($79).

Friday, October 07, 2011

Flying History

B-24 Preflight Engine
Wow, busy fall. Not much time for blogging. I didn't even blog about one of the coolest things I've done in a long time. On September 26, I took a flight in a B-24 Liberator! After seeing the Collings Foundation's B-17 fly over my house, I called their flight coordinator and booked a B-24 flight the next morning at Worcester Airport. It was amazing. After takeoff, my fellow bomber enthusiasts and I were able to wander the whole aircraft, from the tail gunner position, to the waist guns, along the narrow catwalk through the bomb bay, up to the flight deck, and to even crawl through the tunnel to the bombardier's nose position.

B-24 Bombardier Pos
We stayed low and the whole flight only lasted about 30 minutes, but it was enough to give me a feel for what it was like to fly such a beast. It's built to carry bombs and fuel with not much in the way of comforts for the crew. I have even more respect now for the WW2 aviators who flew these big noisy things on long missions, often with people trying to shoot them down.

More B-24 pictures on Flickr.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

B-17 at Six O'Clock Low!

I learned this weekend that the Collings Foundation is in town this week, flying their B-17, B-24, and TF-51 war birds out of nearby Worcester airport (KORH). I learned this when a B-17 flew over my back yard Saturday at around 5 pm, then again at about 6 o'clock. That's when it hit me that it had to be sightseeing rides out of Worcester. I checked the schedule and found that there was a 5:30 pm flight today, so I was ready with a camera. Around 5:45 he showed up, higher and well south of me. A little later he was closer and made a few cool turns (still high though, maybe 2000 feet). Then I assumed he was gone, but at 6:15 I heard the rumbling again and ran to the back yard just in time to catch him flying directly overhead! I took a video this time. He was heading back to ORH (I could see him lowering the landing gear when I reviewed the video).

While checking the schedule I took the opportunity to schedule a flight myself in the B-24, with which I have a family connection. That will be 8:30 Monday morning. I'm psyched!

Hearing and Writing Drums

One thing I've always had a problem with in my own recording efforts is drums. I've used all sorts of pre-recorded drum loops in my songs and demos (including a set recorded by Mick Fleetwood), and I've tried to learn the various drum programming tools or plug-ins that are available for use with SONAR, but I never quite "got it." I admired (and envied) my producer Roger's ability to hear me play a new song on acoustic guitar and immediately start to lay out a drum track that works for it in Protools. It's talent and experience, I know. I want some!

I still don't have that ability, but I made a breakthrough this weekend with an old (1991!) book and a new iPod Touch app. The book is Drum Programming (A Complete Guide to Program and Think Like a Drummer) by Ray E. Badness (love that name!). It's a thin book with basic discussion of the features and limitations of drum kits and drummers (including the unfortunate fact of only two arms and two feet). Plus a ton of examples in a very simple tabular notation.

The app is Easy Beats 2, and it's just great. I had played with the free version and wasn't too impressed, but the ability to save and load patterns and drum kits in the full, updated version ($4.99) makes a huge difference. I was quickly able to enter the examples from the Badness book and hear the effects of different kick drum, high-hat, and ride cymbal patterns. It's easy to experiment with changes and new patterns, and you can easily sequence up to 16 patterns into a full song. There are a number of different drum kits, from basic synthesized kits to real recorded kits and more.

Best of all, this simple deconstruction of drum track basics, combined with a DIY "workshop" on drum patterns, now has me listening with fresh ears to the drum parts on all sorts of songs, even songs I've heard a million times or even wrote myself (with drums programmed by Roger). I still haven't done a fully original drum track for a song of mine, but I think I'm getting close. I have ordered a new, powerful laptop PC and the latest version of Cakewalk's recording software (Sonar X1). This will replace my now-dead 2002-vintage desktop PC which would barely run SONAR 3. With this and the many new music tools on the iPod Touch, I'm ready to start a new musical chapter of some sort.

Meanwhile I have a few new musical experiments on SoundCloud.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Song Is Born (on my iPod)

I've been trying to learn a bunch of music apps on the iPod Touch, as I have written about recently. The best way to learn them is to create some music, so I have, and I've posted some of these musical experiments on SoundCloud (which is free for some amount of music hosting - pretty cool). Most of them are one to two minute improvised instrumental fragments, but this weekend I wrote and demoed a new song, "Open Up Your Eyes," and that's up there too. The lyrics are incomplete and the demo is pretty rough, but not bad considering that the iPod is providing all the instruments as well as the "studio" for this little project. I think it's cool, but now it's time to do something else with what's left of the weekend.

The Science of Tyrannosaurus rex

The Science of Tyrannosaurus rex: Using digital paleontology to reconstruct one of history's largest carnivores.

These animations and explanations are really amazing and the first one about how T. Rex walked is funny too. The music doesn't really apply now, but T and his friends did manage to stay alive for quite a few million years.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Songwriting Tools for iOS

I've been playing around with a bunch of songwriting and recording apps on my iPod Touch. I feel like a new songwriting and recording phase is brewing, and until I get a new recording PC to replace my broken old desktop, all I really have to work with is my iPod. Fortunately iOS apps for music have really improved, and many of them now support audio copy/paste or WAV file import/export, so it is possible to chain together the results from several apps.

My "work flow" for songwriting depends on where I am and what tools are available. At home I have a few guitars, a MIDI keyboard, and until recently, a PC with various recording software and hardware. I write songs in various ways - sometimes lyrics first, sometimes melody or rhythm first. But my usual methods are
  1. Guitar/voice - Play around with chord progressions on a guitar (sometimes keyboard) while singing melody ideas (with lyrics or "la la" placeholders or some combination). Record fragments for later review, record a simple demo when more or less complete, usually guitar/voice on SONAR.
  2. BIAB - Play around with chord progressions, styles, keys, tempo in the PC program Band in a Box, tweaking and singing to that track. Import MIDI from BIAB to record demo in SONAR. I documented an example of a song written and recorded with BIAB in early 2009.
  3. Rhythm based - Like (1), except using a drum machine or drum loops in SONAR to drive the song away from habitual strumming or finger picking patterns.
SONAR is a big plus in all of this - it easily integrates audio and MIDI recording with any number of tracks, including various looping and synthesized sound possibilities.

Now with the iPod Touch (third generation, which is important since many of the music apps won't work well on earlier generation Touches and iPhones), I have most of these methods available, including some guitar and keyboard substitutes for when the real things aren't available (clunky but helpful). There is nothing yet as powerful as SONAR or Band in a Box, but audio copy/paste allow combining multiple apps to accomplish similar things. The small screen can be a problem (helped by clever UI design), and input options are limited mainly to an external microphone. I bought some simple interface hardware to allow line-level inputs (keyboard, electric guitar, microphone pre-amp) which helps when I'm home. Here are the apps I'm using now (I won't bother with links - search in YouTube for demos or in the iTunes app store to buy):

ChordBot - Similar to BIAB in that it is based on progressions defined by chord names with your choice of key, tempo, and playing style, but with many fewer styles. It has both WAV and MIDI file export.

Multitrack DAW - I recently wrote about this app. I've upgraded to 24 tracks (total cost about $25). It's no SONAR (no MIDI or looping support and very limited audio effects), but it does the job for basic multitrack audio recording.

Guitar and iShred - These guitar simulation apps (acoustic and electric) use programmable chord buttons with strummable/pickable virtual strings (picture above). Good sounds, good UI, decent copy/paste. Expressive strumming or picking is pretty hard but possible with practice. I also have the PianoStudio app from the same company. Same idea, but you can program complex patterns (or chords) onto buttons with the phrase editor (similar to the piano roll interface in many MIDI-based applications). I'm just figuring out how to use this app. Could be useful for adding piano parts to some recordings since it supports audio copy/paste. It replaces the burden of accurate performance on a tiny screen with the burden of breaking the piece down into parts and assigning them to buttons which you then press in sequence to perform the piece.

ThumbJam - Brilliant UI and great sampled sounds as I have written about before. Recording & looping work well but with very limited editing capability.The wide range of scales could lead to some innovative melodies and song ideas once I stop fiddling with it. Pretty good copy/paste support. There are some odd tempo and looping issues that I'm still trying to overcome, but it really is the most "musical" app I've yet seen for iOS. It uses the touch screen and the accelerometer (tilt and shake) to support truly fluid instrumental performance (just add talent!).

SSW - Simple Songwriter uses button-driven piano block chords that you can play and record. Limited time options (3/4 or 4/4 with controllable tempo), clunky sound on playback (overly time quantized?), and no copy/paste or export, though it might have a song or two in it, at least for a chord progression idea I can write down and use in another app like Chordbot. Key word is "simple."

Loopy - I just got this "beat box" app, and it has an impressively easy interface. Not sure yet if this is really a useful tool for my 70's style songwriting, but it sure is cool.

BeatStudio and DrumTracks - Two of many drum machine type apps that I'm still trying to figure out. Some copy/paste and other transfer options for moving rhythm tracks into Multitrack DAW or ThumbJam. I'm not a very good drummer, but I can come up with some decent sounding things for demo purposes.

I'm still mostly experimenting with UI, copy/paste, and available sounds and rhythms using short examples. I have some promising fragments. I haven't really written a full song or recorded a full demo yet, but I'm getting close. Songwriting isn't all or even mostly about technology - I've written songs with nothing but my voice and paper on a plane (singing the result into my voice mail at the airport after landing - this was before I carried a voice recorder or equivalent device like a smart phone or iPod Touch). I've also written dozens of songs with just a guitar and my voice. But new technologies can inspire new ideas and approaches, and I think these iPod tools will yield some cool results before too long.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Apollo 17 from LRO!

I just love today's APOD, a low altitude photo of the Apollo 17 site taken recently by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). With its orbit adjusted to make a low pass of about 22 km above the surface (about 14 miles or 73,000 feet), it was able to capture a very detailed view of the LM descent stage and other hardware left behind at the site, as well as the tire tracks from the Lunar Rover (LRV). The picture below shows the A17 descent stage just after the ascent stage launched on December 14, 1972 (video frame from the TV camera on the LRV, parked about 150 meters away as shown in the LRO photo above).

This should finally put to rest all the nonsense about how the moon landings were faked, but of course conspiracy theorists will take it in stride - after all LRO is a NASA spacecraft that is (allegedly) orbiting the moon, and how easy would it be to fake this picture with PhotoShop? Child's play! They've kept the secrets of the moon landings covered up for nearly 40 years, why stop now?

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

JPL Wants YOU!

September is the only month in which you can apply to become a JPL Solar System Ambassador. This is a great volunteer program for educational and community outreach on space exploration and astronomy themes. If you have an interest in space exploration, enjoy sharing your enthusiasm with others, and would like to learn more about space exploration yourself, this program might be just the thing for you! Although I haven't been as active recently as I was a few years ago, I've really enjoyed the outreach events I have done and the training I've received as a Solar System Ambassador. And you have to admit it's a cool title.

You can find more information and a link to the application here. The program only operates in the United States.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Where's the Space?

In case anyone is wondering about the lack of space-related blogging in recent months, I will briefly explain the concept of "serial obsession."  Throughout my life I have had a few major non-career interest areas, and apart from the ever-present themes of books and music listening, I tend to pursue one or two of these interests obsessively for some period of time, ranging from weeks to years, then move on (or back) to something else. The major categories are music creation/performance, languages, flying, and space. The latter two are somewhat linked, at least historically (my interests in space and in flying emerged around the same time, around 1962 when I was 9 years old).

From 2005 to 2008, space pretty much held sway, starting from my discovery of the free Orbiter space flight simulator in early 2005. That led to blogging about Orbiter, writing Go Play In Space, becoming a JPL Solar System Ambassador, educational outreach, and getting involved with an astronomy club (mainly for outreach related to space). Music was the theme for 2009-2010, culminating with the "release" of my second CD (Message from Tomorrow) in June 2010. The rest of 2010 and early 2011 were mostly eaten by my job (company was acquired in October 2010). This summer I have gotten back into flying, as reported in excruciating detail on my flying blog.

So where is space? It is lying fallow at the moment, waiting for its turn to come again on the Great Circle of Obsessions. I'm sure it will come. The budgie's not dead, it's just resting. Just like the US space program (I hope!).

But I do continue to at least peek at the space blogs and at the emails I get from NASA, and yesterday something really cool arrived. JPL announced Eyes on the Solar System, an interactive, 3D, real-data-driven, web-based "browser" for all the contents of the Solar System. It's different from Orbiter in that it is web based and (JPL) data-driven, rather than spacecraft oriented. There are indeed many spacecraft in "Eyes on the Solar System," and you can tag along with any of them, as shown in the picture above (Galileo fly-by of Io in 1995). But you can't launch your own spacecraft - or put another way, you don't HAVE to launch your own spacecraft to explore any place, object, or time in the solar system. It's VERY cool and I plan to explore it and write more about it as soon as I can. Maybe that will be the trigger for the next big space phase. Who knows? As this blog's tag line says, "Space flight, simulators, astronomy, books, flying, music, science, education: whatever the obsession of the moment might happen to be."

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Multitrack DAW on iPod Touch

I've been trying out some of the more recent music creation apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch. I wrote about ThumbJam the other day, and I've just bought and tried out another amazing little app, Multitrack DAW. "DAW" means "digital audio workstation," and this app is a pretty credible rendition for a pocket-size device (and for just $10 with 8 available tracks). It can be upgraded to 16 ($8) or 24 ($15) tracks through an in-app purchase.

Yesterday we prepared our house for the approaching Hurricane Irene, and today we are "hunkered down" and waiting for its powerful wind and rains to pass by. So far so good as far as damage and flooding (none) and electricity (haven't lost it). So in honor of the hurricane (now "only" a tropical storm), and to test out this new recording app on something simple, I recorded a short version of the classic "Goodnight, Irene" with acoustic guitar, multiple vocals, and finger snaps. It works quite well, and the user interface makes excellent use of the small screen space and touch-screen controls. In the screen shot above, you can see the big pan control that pops up when you select the small one on the track.

Multitrack DAW is missing a few things that full-size recording programs like SONAR have, most notably any sort of reverb or delay (it does have compression and EQ). This is not a horrible limitation if you use this app for its most obvious purpose, which is as an always handy "scratch pad" for song and recording ideas. It has very complete file transfer features via a WiFi network, allowing for import/export of individual tracks as well as complete mixes. Once I get a new PC to run SONAR (my old home desktop PC died recently), I will be able to transfer works in progress easily enough.

In the meantime, I will experiment with ways to integrate the various music apps to help me write some new songs. Many of them now support some sort of copy/paste between music apps, though currently there are a couple of competing standards so you can't directly transfer between all music apps. Another limitation is inputs. On the iPod Touch, you can plug in a combination microphone/headphone device for direct audio input. I have also ordered an adapter that allows line-level inputs (with headphone monitoring) so I can directly record other devices (keyboards, guitar processors, quality microphone pre-amps, etc.). This adapter costs more than the app itself (about $30)!

When you think about the old 4-track cassette systems that cost hundreds of dollars and had far less capability, this app is amazing, even if you spring for the extra $15 for 24 tracks for a total of $25. Crazy.

Update: I learned that ThumbJam supports both common iOS music copy/paste formats when it copies, so I can actually copy a track from TJ and paste it into Multitrack DAW. Excellent!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

ThumbJam: Where the Songs Are

Songwriting comes and goes for me. A project like my 2010 "Message from Tomorrow" CD will typically inspire a bunch of songs, although not as many as I would like. Actually there are usually many songs started, just not very many finished. But fortunately for my first two CD's, I had a small backlog of older songs that I still liked well enough to want to rediscover and record. Now those old chestnuts have mostly been mined, leading me to wonder where the inspiration will come from for my next recording project.

Now I know. I discovered ThumbJam for the iPod Touch (and iPhone), the first music app I've found that I believe can really help me with songwriting and recordings. Basically it's a bunch of  nicely sampled instruments with a simple loop recording system and a brilliant interface for playing the instruments. Rather than trying to make a guitar fretboard or conventional black and white keyboard fit the iPod/iPhone touchscreen, Thumbjam presents a simple full-screen panel of notes in a chosen scale and key (you can play up to 6 notes at a time if your fingers will fit). Simple controls line the edge of the playing area, and the accelerometer is used to provide intuitive control of volume, pitch bending, vibrato, and tremolo. It's crazy good. Check out some of the videos here.

My big obsessions in life are music and flying, and right now I'm in a long-delayed flying phase, but over the next few months, increased business travel and fall/winter weather will reduce the flying as it always does. But I'm already thinking about getting a new PC for recording and flight sims (my 2002 desktop recording PC has finally died). I have recording software, drum machines, guitars, a MIDI keyboard, sample libraries, music apps, etc., and I have used all of these things to inspire and help me write songs. But none of those things brings the control of instrument sounds, scales, keys, and rhythms into an accessible, intimate, intuitive, powerful, and always handy form as Thumbjam does. I've already recorded three new song ideas in the first 3 hours of playing with it. I think it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Great Band: The Grip Weeds

With the help of Pandora, I recently discovered a band I really love, The Grip Weeds . Although they have been around since the early 90’s, I had never heard of them until a song of theirs showed up on Pandora (on a station based on Winterpills, a favorite indie band from Massachusetts). They are sometimes labeled as power pop or psychedelic rock, and there is definitely something from the sixties in their sound. While they are not emulating any particular band, I can hear hints of the Who, Buffalo Springfield, Spirit, CSNY, The Beatles and others. Their harmonies and guitar parts are great. Great drumming too. While I love the rocking electric guitar driven songs, some of my favorites are acoustic tunes like "Give Me Some of Your Ways" and "Life and Love, Times To Come" (cool Indian instruments on this one).

I bought their 2008 collection “Infinite Soul: The Best Of The Grip Weeds” and their 2010 double album “Strange Change Machine.” Both are wonderful. You can currently get a free 8-song sampler from SCM by signing up with an email address at their web site. You can buy the 24 song double album as a download there as well for $9.99 which is considerably cheaper than the price at Amazon or iTunes (about $16). The band probably makes more money that way too. They are definitely worth supporting.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Beech Tree Book Serendipity

I've always loved bookstores, new and used. For me, serendipity is the major draw of the small independent store. Amazon can offer me anything I want if I know I want it. But what about all the promising books that I probably would want if I only knew about them? This is the role of the physical bookstore, which unfortunately is fast becoming an endangered species (thanks in no little part to Amazon and other internet booksellers).

So I was happy this weekend to discover a brand-new used book and record store literally down the street from my house. Beech Tree Books and Records is located at 9 Maple Street in West Boylston, Massachusetts, less than a mile from me and just a few minutes drive from Worcester. They opened on July 30 and readily admit to being a "work in progress" as they continue to add stock to lightly filled shelves and record and CD bins. But I managed to find two "must have" books on my very first visit, including Rockets, Jets, Guided Missiles, and Space Ships by Jack Coggins and Fletcher Pratt, a 1951 (!) illustrated book for kids, with an introduction by Willy Ley! It's heavy on the V-2 (which was practically the latest in rocket technology at the time) but bravely delves into orbits, space stations, moon landings, and even the exploration of Mars and Titan. What a great find for a space geek like myself. One of my favorite paragraphs from this 60 year old book is from Ley's introduction (with quoted words as written):
What are the next twenty years going to bring? One of the great things to come is under discussion among scientists right now. It is the "orbital rocket," a small rocket which will circle earth outside our atmosphere for "ever." This means, of course, "for a very long time," months, years, decades, possibly centuries. Such an orbital rocket would not carry any people but only instruments, instruments of the type which can be "read" from a distance because they are coupled with an automatic radio transmitter and continuously broadcast their findings.
Beech Tree Books and Records is already a great little store with a lot of cool books, records, and CD's already on display at very reasonable prices and with more on the way. If you're in or near central Mass. and you like books, you should definitely check out this store.

Friday, August 12, 2011


I love this. My son-in-law is a post-doc and he says it's pretty much right. Graphic by Matúš Soták.

Monday, July 25, 2011

SFO to CDG in 2 Minutes!

SF to Paris in Two Minutes from Beep Show on Vimeo.

I found this video on the Airpigz blog. It's really cool. This guy took a still picture out the window of an Air France 747 every two miles from San Francisco to Paris (the camera was on a special mount).

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Ghost Ants? Yes!

When a friend told me about Prophets of the Ghost Ants by Clark Carlton, I made the mistake of "taking a quick look." Since I'm just getting back into flying this summer after a few years away, I've really been trying to focus on study for my flight review, but I kept getting sucked back into this book instead! I really couldn't put it down (and since I was reading it in the Kindle edition on my iPod Touch, it was always at hand).

I'm not usually a fantasy reader (I tend to go for "hard SF"), but this book is somehow in a strange zone that is not quite fantasy, not quite "hard" science fiction, but is "sciencey" enough to reward my suspension of disbelief (great storytelling and characters helped too). The last time this happened was with a book Amazon was giving away as a Kindle loss-leader, His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik. I was skeptical because dragon books are generally pure fantasy, but it was no risk to try. In that book, Novik re-imagines the Napoleonic wars with air power - flying, intelligent, talking dragons that crews of men ride into battle. The historical fiction is played straight (like a naval history novel), and the dragons are simply folded into that world (with great relationships between the dragons and their crews, especially their captains). That worked well enough to sell me six sequels! I think Carlton's "ant world" will be equally fertile (despite a similar disregard for physical scaling laws - dragons as described would be way too heavy to fly, and ant-size humans? I don't know, but it works in the book!).

Some Amazon reviewers have mentioned The Lord of the Rings, and I have to agree that the scope, world-building, compelling characters, and action/battle scenes of this book are of that quality. There is also the "unlikely hero" angle - but otherwise the stories are completely different. And although it's not hard SF, the biology of ants and other insects is an important part of the way these tiny human societies work, and it seems to be pretty accurate (and occasionally disgusting). There's also a tremendous amount of cultural anthropology embedded in this book - not in a scholarly way, but in an Ursula Le Guin sort of way. Under these circumstances and constraints, what would societies be like? What would their folk ways be like? Carlton has clearly thought a lot about these things, and they give the book an amazing depth and richness.

This is a great book. I can't wait for the sequels (and the movie!). Highly recommended!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cool Vacation

I'm just back from a really great vacation with my wife in Las Vegas and San Francisco. We did some really cool things and got to spend a lot of time with family in Berkeley. We took a huge number of pictures that I hope we will look at someday. I'll paste a few in here.  Here are a few highlights:

An early morning helicopter sightseeing tour from Las Vegas to the western end of the Grand Canyon, descending into the canyon and landing next to the Colorado River where the Papillon Helicopter Company provided champagne and a snack to supplement the amazing views.   I've posted a number of photos and videos of this tour on my Flickr site.

The wonderful Cirque du Soleil show "Beatles - LOVE" at the Mirage.

An open-top bus tour of San Francisco. It was my wife's first time there so this was a great way to get an overview of the city despite the fog that blocked most of our view of the Golden Gate Bridge even as we were crossing it (the rest of the city was clear).

A visit to Muir Woods National Monument to see some of the beautiful and ancient redwoods there.

A hike in Tilden Regional Park in the Berkeley Hills - great views of the Bay Area. Followed by a fabulous dinner at the Chez Panisse Cafe in Berkeley.

A walk up SF's Telegraph Hill followed by a fabulous seafood lunch in North Beach and a de rigueur cable car ride.

We also took some time to relax, hang out, and to even enjoy a sunset over the Bay from a park adjacent to the Berkeley Marina.