Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 in Travel

I and most of my family have been fortunate to have had a very happy, healthy, and eventful 2012. The most exciting event was the birth of our first grandchild, Stella, on October 5. She's doing great and we are grateful for Facebook and iMessage (not to mention my daughter) for providing us with a steady stream of "Stella fixes" in between visits.

To be sure I wasn't out of the country when Stella was born, I blocked out September and October from travel. But the rest of the year managed to be pretty busy and interesting travel-wise. Most of it was business travel, but my wife and I did take a very fun driving vacation in Europe in late May. And even the business travel wasn't too bad, since it included my favorite countries (France and Japan) and my first trip to Russia.
  • Israel - I started the year with an early January customer tour of Israel, mostly around Tel Aviv and Haifa. I always enjoy visiting Israel. 
  • Los Angeles - Our international distributor meeting was held in LA in early February and included a wonderful backstage movie studio tour.
  • Shanghai and Shenzhen - Another customer tour took me to China in late February.
  • Taiwan - Annual product seminar day and customer visits, mostly in and near Hsinchu. 
  • Frankfurt - A trade show (Opatec) took me to Frankfurt in mid-May.
  • Europe Driving Tour - My wife joined me in Frankfurt and we drove through Germany to southern France, then to Italy, up into Switzerland, and finally back to Germany over about 8 days. It sounds like a lot of driving but it was really wonderful, especially the days spent on the French Riviera and in Interlaken, Switzerland. I blogged about this trip earlier (including three music videos I made, here, here, and here).
  • Amsterdam - In late June, I had a conference in Amsterdam, with a couple of free days to see some of this beautiful city, which I had never done before (I had only passed through on business visits to various places in the Netherlands). 
  • St. Petersburg - Another conference took me on my first trip to Russia, which I loved! I took a few extra days to explore the city including a helicopter tour. I wrote about this trip back in July.
  • Tokyo and Osaka - Another customer visit and seminar week, offering a chance to brush up my rusty Japanese (a little), eat some great food, and enjoy some wonderful views of Mount Fuji. 
  • Taiwan - Another quick trip to Hsinchu in late November.
  • Europe customer tour - Customer visits in early December took me to Wales, England, the Netherlands, Paris, and Toulouse in five days (7 day total trip). We were very lucky with flights and rental cars considering the time of year, and I even ended up with a free afternoon in Toulouse when one customer visit fell through. 
All in all, a pretty interesting year for travel! I expect a similar pace in 2013, though I'm not sure what our vacation plans might be. The picture below is the view from Eze, France, a wonderful Medieval hilltop village near Monaco, which overlooks the Mediterranean (May 2012).

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Model Nostalgia

I'm leaving Toulouse this morning, heading home after a quick customer tour this week in Wales, England, Netherlands, and France. Toulouse is the center of the French aerospace industry and the headquarters of Airbus. So naturally the gift shop is full of airplane stuff, including this 1/144 scale model of the A380, complete with interior. I built tons of airplane models as a kid, and the kid in me says to buy this kit. But the unusually strong adult in me says no, too big, no time, nowhere to put it, waste of €50. For once, the adult wins.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Obama Action Figure

When I was in Japan last month, I was searching for some info on a Japanese toy. Can't remember what or why, but along the way I found a description of a Japanese action figure toy... of Barack Obama! I thought it was hilarious.

There was some other cool stuff in Japan I've been meaning to write up. Maybe I'll write a post about my 2012 travels when I have some time off between Christmas and New Year.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Final Song: "Open Up Your Eyes"

"Open Up Your Eyes" is the last song completed for my new album project, which is now called "Look at You!" The album art is almost done and I'll be submitting it for CD production in about a week. I've been writing songs for the project since September 2011 (this song was actually the first of that new batch of songs, written in a hotel room in Seoul, Korea). Roger Lavallee and I have been working on the recording on and off since December 2011. I think it's better than my first two CD's in both writing and production, and I've already got a bunch of new songs in work for the next project, whatever and whenever that may be.

Although I've written some of the new songs on guitar, the biggest stimulus for my recent burst of songwriting and recording has been music apps on the iPod Touch and iPad. These inexpensive apps give me a constantly evolving set of musical tools (or toys), each of which has the potential to inspire new songs and new sounds. And I can write and record anywhere I happen to be.

Welcome to the Future?

One of the things I use my iPad Mini for is to read magazines I like. I have digital subscriptions for The Atlantic, National Geographic, Discover Magazine, American Songwriter, and Newsweek (which is ending production of its print version soon). I have subscribed to paper versions of these on and off for years, and aside from losing the clutter of all those magazines I haven't quite finished reading yet (I especially hate throwing out National Geographic for some reason), I probably end up reading more articles on the iPad than I did with the paper copies, especially when I travel. I was about to bemoan the fact that Scientific American doesn't offer an iPad version, but I checked, and now they do! So there's one more favorite I don't need to get on paper anymore.

Today I've been reading the January-February 2013 issue of Discover Magazine. This special double issue covers what the magazine considers to be the top 100 science stories of 2012 (some of them are more technology than science, but that's OK with me). Although I followed many of these stories as they developed, it's cool to read this kind of summary and get a big-picture overview of how many things are changing. Even in a technology-jaded hyper-connected world where many of us carry powerful computers in our pockets (iPhones, etc.), the top 10 really gives me a "welcome to the future" feeling.
  1. Found: The God Particle (Higgs Boson)
  2. Mars Rover Sticks Its Landing (JPL's Curiosity in Gale Crater)
  3. A Census of Your Inner Ecosystem (the trillions of microbes that live in and on us, performing countless essential services).
  4. Environmental Extremes (from drought to shrinking polar ice to Hurricane Sandy)
  5. Old Dads Drive Evolution (more mutations in the DNA of sperm from older men)
  6. Space Taxis Take Off (the success of SpaceX and other private space ventures)
  7. Q&A: Mind Control Robots (neural implants to help the disabled)
  8. Dark Matter Comes Into View (inferred from gravitational lensing)
  9. Social Jet Lag (irregular sleep patterns can trigger serious health problems)
  10. The Case for Fracking (it's a mixed case but natural gas is better than coal)
There's a lot of amazing stuff in the "bottom 90" too. Exoplanets (100 more found in 2012, including one orbiting Alpha Centauri B,  #14). Self-driving cars (#15). Asteroid Vesta (#17) has an iron core, mantle, and crust - a baby Earth! Advances in carbon nanotube electronics (#27). An engineered alternate to DNA (called XNA, #38). And much, much more. Crazy times.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Les Misbarack (revisited)

I was looking back at some old blog posts to see where I was in November 2008 when President Obama won his first term (that's the real purpose of this blog - outsourced, searchable memory!). I was in Salzburg, Austria, teaching a CODE V class during a gorgeous stretch of weather. Not bad duty, actually, except for being far away from home for an election in which I was very engaged. I remember my brother called me at 3 am local time (9 pm on election day in New York) to talk about the results that were just starting to come in (he didn't know I was in Europe). I wasn't sleeping very well anyway and had planned to get up at 4:30 am local to check the status (10:30 pm EST). I think I managed to watch Obama's victory speech live on CNN (I watched this year's on YouTube after the fact, in Tokyo).

I was surprised to find that this 2008 campaign video was still up. Obama campaign workers in Chicago mouthed the words to "One More Day" from Les Miserables. They had stand-ins for John McCain and Sarah Palin (shown above), singing about how the revolution will be crushed. Fortunately the election turned out better than the plot of Les Mis!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

iPad mini (me)

So what is up with Apple's new iPad mini? Isn't it pretty much a shrunken iPad 2 with neither a hi-res Retina display nor Apple's latest and fastest processor? It's really not much of an advance. More of a gimmick or a blocking move vs. 7 inch Android tablets. Who would buy such a thing? Um, me.

Why? Earlier this year I bought an iPad 3 for the family. I pledged that it would be a stay-at-home iPad, and I would continue to use my 4G iPod Touch for on-the-road music making (and listening). I have kept that pledge, but as I have used the iPad at home for songwriting and making demos, the Touch has gotten to feel very small. Hard to use those tiny keyboards and recording app controls. Slow. Memory problems. In the meantime, my wife has found that the big iPad is ideal for some of the work she is doing, and she uses it a lot. Plus I rationalized that an iPad would too big for my already heavy computer bag when I travel. So I would muddle through with the Touch.

Enter the mini. A 7.9 inch, 1024 x 768 display that matches the resolution of the iPad 2, so thousands of apps work perfectly from day one. Light weight (Wifi-only version is 0.68 lbs. or 308 grams). Easy to hold in one hand. Travel friendly. So I ordered a 32 GB Wifi version as soon as I could (my iPod Touch will still by main music listening machine).

So far, I love it. Due to its light weight, it's better than the full size iPad for reading magazines and the NY Times (though I still use the iPhone app for NYT because they charge a lot more for the iPad subscription). It's great for all my music making apps (GarageBand and various synths). It's also great for email, web browsing, and blogging (like now).

I do notice the somewhat coarser screen resolution (163 pixels/inch) compared to the iPad 3 (264 ppi). But it really doesn't bother me when I read magazines or web sites. The new "Lightning" connector is annoying in that it doesn't work with Apple's own camera connection kit (even with Apple's own expensive adapter). I haven't tested the audio and MIDI interfaces I have with the adapter yet - hope they work (tested last night - they both work fine). But overall I'm very happy with the mini and look forward to using it on my next long airline trip.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

How I Spell Relief


If this blog is about anything at all (and with so little posting recently, it's hard for me to tell), it's really not about politics. Except (very rarely) when it is. This may not be the last political post until the next presidential election, but it may be.

In any case, I'm enormously relieved and happy that President Obama won re-election yesterday. I really believe that after spending four years helping us dig out of an enormous hole, that we are going in the right direction, and that President Obama definitely deserved another term. Mitt Romney was the wrong guy with the wrong message (to name just a couple of wrong things about Mitt, not to mention his scary running mate). 

At the moment, Florida still has not been called, but with over 97% counted, Obama still has a pretty good lead. But whether it's 303 electoral votes or 332 doesn't matter much. It's enough of a margin that we won't have any 2000 like drama. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cool New (Other People's) Music

It's not all about politics and work and finishing my own album and worrying about Hurricane Sandy. Sometimes it's about discovering some cool new music. In recent weeks I've been listening a lot to the Ben Folds Five's latest album, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. I've admired Ben Folds' writing for many years, and I've enjoyed many of his more reflective songs, but I haven't loved a lot of his rock stuff. Something about his attitude. But I really like every song on this album. My favorite is the beautiful "Hold That Thought."

A very recent find is Mayer Hawthorne's 2011 How Do You Do. I happened to hear the super-catchy "The Walk" (cartoonishly violent video!) on the radio and ended up buying the album. It sounds a lot like 1970's soul music - or more accurately, blue-eyed soul since he happens to be a white guy. A bit like Hall & Oates perhaps (late 70's favorites of mine). The hooks and the harmonies are just great.

Another thing that's just great is the Rolling Stones new single "Doom and Gloom." Classic Stones rock with classic Jagger swagger and a funny but topical story line. The new album is yet another greatest hits collection (really?), but at least I could buy the single by itself on iTunes.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Keeping Me Sane

Although I'm normally only moderately interested in politics, I've gotten a little obsessed with the election in these final few weeks, as I did in 2008. I look too much at polling sites. Between that and trying to finish my new album, my brain capacity is pretty much maxed out (I keep some in reserve for work). I thought the President did very well in the final debate tonight, and Romney didn't look crazy, which I guess was his goal,as he tried to portray Obama's foreign policy actions as weak, while saying that he agreed with most of them and would do the same things. But I'm still worried that something like half of the people in this country think that Mitt would be an OK president.

Two things keep me sane in this. One is Nate Silver's number-crunchingly satisfying FiveThirtyEight Blog which takes tons of different polls' data, runs them through an election simulation model, and predicts the odds (and many other things). This helps me avoid panic when some specific poll shows Romney with a 6 point lead. Nate did very well in 2008, calling 49 out of 50 states correctly. Tonight his forecast has the President with a 70% chance of winning the electoral college, with 290 electoral votes. I hope he's right!

The other thing that helps is The Borowitz Report. Andy's often zany fake news articles are most often about Mr. Romney these days, such as this one on his belief in a woman's right to choose... what to make for dinner. I hope Andy doesn't have Mitt to kick around much longer.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Election 2012

In 2008, I became somewhat politically active for the first time since 1972, when I was in college and briefly campaigned for Senator George McGovern for president. I'm still a liberal, but it took eight disastrous years of George W. Bush and the frightening prospect of a McCain-Palin win to jolt me into action. Massachusetts was a safe bet for Obama, but New Hampshire wasn't, so I signed up to do phone calls as well as a couple of canvassing trips to the nearby Granite State. Obama ultimately took NH and of course the election.

This year I'm again worried about the possibility of a GOP win, and I have again made a lot of small donations to the Obama campaign, other Democrat-supporting organizations, and Planned Parenthood, though I haven't signed up for any phone banks or canvassing trips. I really don't like anything about Romney and Ryan, but I'm especially concerned about their positions on women's issues, and the effect that their likely Supreme Court appointments could have on the future of this country. I don't want my daughters and my new granddaughter to live in the kind of America that many in the GOP would like to see. It might not be as bad as the frightening Christian Theocracy that Octavia Butler imagined in The Parable of the Sower. But Romney-Ryan would certainly pave the way.

So I've been looking at polls and worrying about Romney's "bump" since the President's disappointing performance in the first debate. It's closer than I would like, and of course anything can happen in the next four weeks. But in the critical swing states, Obama is in better shape than Romney, and the Dems have quite a full war chest to counter the tidal wave of GOP attack adds. After handing the first one to Mitt, I'm thinking Biden and Obama will do much better in the remaining debates. So I am optimistic that Obama will pull it off.

I've been looking at Poll Headlines which is a quick way to look at a lot of polls in summary. They have a pretty cool electoral map where you can fill in the toss-up states to make your own prediction of the electoral college results. Today it is showing Obama with 225 strong and 32 leaning (it was 257 strong a week ago, ouch). Romney has 191 strong and 15 leaning, and there are 75 votes shown as a tossup. So it can still go either way, but here is my guess for how it will end up, based on recent swing state results:

I hope I'm right!

UPDATE (10/18/12): Obama won the second debate - not as important as losing the first, true, but it has energized his supporters, and the Obama campaign's fund raising and ground game in swing states look very strong. I think Romney's views on women were clearer in the second debate - and not favorable to him. Same with Romney's views on immigration - I'm guessing he will lose ground with Hispanic voters in swing states. It's far from over, and the nationwide popular vote will probably be very close. But this is my revised guess for the electoral outcome. Pretty much the same except for Colorado, now blue:

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Orbital Tour of the Earth at Night

This NASA video is amazing and beautiful. A narrated tour of various areas of Earth at night as seen from the orbiting International Space Station. The frame above shows the southeast United States, with Atlanta showing as the brightest area near the center. This narrated daytime tour is also quite spectacular, with a much slower pace since so many more surface details are visible in daylight. View these in HD!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

WWII Invades Worcester Airport

The Collings Foundation brought its Wings of Freedom tour to Worcester Airport this weekend. I spent a few hours there this afternoon, resisting the temptation to take another "once in a lifetime" flight in one of their historic aircraft. The P-51 is a little pricey but I could take a flight in the B-17... maybe next year (I flew their T-6 Texan just last month, can't get greedy).

So I just enjoyed a gorgeous afternoon talking with other historic aviation enthusiasts and checking out an especially nice group of their flyable airplanes: B-24 Liberator (which I flew last September when they visited ORH), B-17 Flying Fortress, P-51 Mustang, and new this year, the FM-2 Wildcat (WWII Navy fighter) and the A-36 Apache (the dive bomber version of the P-51 Mustang, which I had never seen). They also had a couple of WWII era ground vehicles including a Sherman tank. Here are a few pictures. More pictures on Flickr.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Drambuie (a New Oldie)

Words and music by Bruce Irving and Rob Simbeck (c) 1978.

Yes, 1978! This is a new recording of an old song of mine, which I wrote with Rob Simbeck back when we were trying to develop a music career in Rochester, NY. We eventually wised up and moved to Los Angeles, and Rob later moved to Nashville, where he still lives. But I digress.

"Drambuie" was mostly Rob's lyric, based on the observation that some people like Drambuie, and others prefer beer. Or something like that. I wrote some semi-jazzy music on a classical guitar. I've always liked this song, but I never tried to make a serious recording of it. This week I was fooling around with a music arranging and songwriting program I have called Band-in-a-Box (2011), trying out some of their "RealTracks," which are prerecorded audio files of various riffs, chords, and drum parts played by professional musicians. I have quite a few of their RealTracks styles, and every few years I upgrade and buy more. In this simple, jazzy "classy ballad" style, the instruments are piano, acoustic bass, and drums with brushes. They sound pretty good to me considering I simply entered the chords for my song, chose the style, and BIAB did the rest, except for the singing (me) and the electric guitar, which was played by Roger Lavallee.

I exported the audio tracks from BIAB and imported them into Sonar X1 for further recording, effects, and mixing. This version is not quite final. I am not happy with the vocal, and the mix needs some work. Roger played some pretty nice guitar lines around the keyboard riffs played by someone years ago, probably in PG Music's studio in Victoria, BC.

Where It All Began

I meant to post this when it was actually 50 years to the day, but now it's after midnight. Oh well, it's still cool. Fifty years ago yesterday, September 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University in Texas in which he stated the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of decade. The famous part of the speech is this:
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Guess what? Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, fulfilling JFK's pledge. There's a lot more to the story of course. But it's still a pretty good story. 1962 was right around when I started to get crazy about space and all the associated technology. It's pretty amazing that when he made this speech, only four Mercury astronauts had flown in space, two very quick suborbital flights (Shepard and Grissom) and two brief orbital flights (Glenn and Carpenter), three orbits each. Wally Schirra would fly six orbits a few weeks after this speech. It's a long way from three orbits to the moon.

There's a video here. The text of the speech and other links can be found here.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mars "Beach" Photos

Lest I get too Earth-centric in this blog, I want to mention the progress of MSL (Curiosity to her friends) on Mars. While the JPL team is still taking things slow to make sure everything is carefully checked out, there has been some cool progress, including at least one laser shot and a very short drive away from the landing site. The pictures are amazing, and I think one of the pluses here is that Curiosity's mast cameras are roughly at human eye level, so the perspective is like you would see if you were standing on Mars.

While the color photos are great, I'm really digging the sharp B&W shots we've been seeing recently. Our own robotic Ansel Adams on Mars. They somehow remind me of beach photos from when I was a kid and my parents took me to Cape Cod. I know, I know. No mountains in Cape Cod. No ocean on Mars. But the look of the B&W just does that for me. Takes me back to 5 years old, playing in the sand with my geological drill and laser spectrometer.

There are great official images here. My favorite spot for MSL news is Emily Lakdawalla's blog at the Planetary Society. She really digs up the latest Mars dirt (so to speak). Today she showed a wonderful full color panorama including the mountain. MSL's first tire tracks at the Ray Bradbury Memorial Landing Site on Mars are seen in this August 22 panorama:

Flying the NYC Hudson

I started to follow the Collings Foundation on Facebook, mainly because they post some of the coolest in-flight photos as they fly their B-24, B-17, and P-51 war birds on their "Freedom Tour" around the USA. Today they posted the wonderful shot below, taken from the cockpit of the P-51 as it flew south along the Hudson River corridor, with Manhattan off the left wing, and a B-24 off the nose (Collings Foundation photo).

Although there are special rules, you don't need to be flying a commercial or historic aircraft to fly along the Hudson like this. I was lucky enough to fly it once, back in 2005 when I was still somewhat active in flying and a member of the Worcester Area Pilot's Association. One of our weekend events was to fly a group of airplanes from Worcester to the Hudson River in New York state, where we joined the low-altitude traffic pattern for the corridor (south along the Jersey shore, north along Manhattan's west side). I flew as co-pilot in another member's Grumman Tiger. I handled the radio while we both looked for traffic (it is a pretty busy area). New altitude rules were introduced in 2009 after a collision, but the basic idea for small private craft is to stay low, below all the airline traffic for the three nearby major NYC airports. I believe we flew at 900 feet above ground (or river) level in 2005. It was really cool. Here are some pictures I took. The first one needs no introduction (flying south - I was in the right seat):

This was flying north after turning around over the bay. This is the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, looking over Brooklyn towards Manhattan:

This one shows how close we were to Manhattan itself, flying north along the west side of the island (Empire State Building):

Finally one of my favorites, a close shot of the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, which is a very cool air museum that is docked at Pier 86 (there's also a sub you can tour). Today you would see a large white structure on the aft deck which is the new home of the space shuttle Enterprise:

Sunday, August 19, 2012

AT-6 Texan Flight!

Last September, I took a flight in the Collings Foundation's B-24 "Witchcraft" when their "Wings of Freedom" tour came to Worcester Airport. Today I visited the Foundation's headquarters for one of their public events, "The Race of the Century." This is a living history of transportation progress in the form of brief races between different vehicles (and sometimes horses and a guy running). The Collings Foundation owns many vintage vehicles and aircraft, from horse-drawn wagons to Stanley Steamers to various aircraft, including a 1909 Bleriot monoplane (this was the type of aircraft that first flew the English Channel).

The races and static displays at the Foundation's museum were great, but I paid (quite) a bit extra and took a flight in the foundation's AT-6 Texan. This is the most powerful single-engine aircraft I have ever flown, and I was really only expecting a ride. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was technically an instructional flight, and that the aircraft is fully aerobatic, if I was interested in that sort of thing.

Well I certainly was! Rob Collings was the pilot (he is the chief pilot and also directs the foundation), and of course he handled the takeoff, aerobatics, and landing, but I got to do some basic flying and some steep turns which were fun. We climbed to 3,500 feet and headed back to the field for some really fun stuff. First a loop, which was amazing. I have only done a few of these in my life and it's always a blast to see the ground coming up from "above" (visibility forward and aft was pretty poor from the back seat, but it was great through the top of the canopy). I love to feel the G-forces too (maybe 2G). We also did a couple of aileron rolls and a barrel roll. Whoopee!

I wanted to concentrate on the flying and on enjoying the aerobatics, so I didn't take many photos. The self-portrait above was not taken during a loop (I stowed the camera for that stuff). And I was having more fun than it may appear.

More pictures and a couple of videos (Stearman PT-17 takeoff and landing) my Flickr pages.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Dog Stars

How will the world end? Or at least humanity's part of it? War? Resource depletion? Pandemic? Asteroid? Of course I don't know. I hope we can learn to take better care of this world, and of one another, so we can  carry on here for a very long time. I also hope we can develop space settlements similar to what is described in the novel 2312 that I read recently. It would be nice to have an off-site backup for humanity. SpaceX and Curiosity* notwithstanding, that's probably going to take a while.

Meanwhile a lot of authors are thinking and writing about the end of the world in one form or another. I have read a fair amount of post-apocalyptic fiction in my time. Not sure why. I like a good story, and I'm curious about how things might turn out if things go bad for a lot more of us than is the case now. In the last two days, I read what may the best post-apocalyptic novel ever (for me anyway). The Dog Stars takes place in an unspecified but very near future, about 9 years after an especially vicious flu pandemic has wiped out over 99% of the human population. It seems totally plausible.

The narrator, Hig, lives at a small airport in Colorado. His only neighbor is a heavily armed survivalist, and together they manage to survive the occasional attacks by bands of desperate survivors looking for food and whatever else they can find. They are armed and prepared and they do not negotiate with these people. Hig flies patrols of their "perimeter" in his 1956 Cessna to spot trouble early, while Bangley handles the "ground war." Hig's best friend is his dog Jasper, and with his wife and everyone else he knew dead in the pandemic, his bond with Jasper is an important part of why he is still around. There are some other survivors who live a few miles away, a small group of Mennonites who are infected with "the blood," a wasting disease that is thought to be highly contagious (it somehow became common among survivors of the flu pandemic). Hig lands his plane on their farm sometimes and helps them out in various ways, without direct contact for fear of infection. He is a kind and caring person who is also an excellent hunter, able to take down a deer or a marauding human when the need arises.

That sets up the story, and I won't give away any more of the plot details, because it's a great story with vivid characters and a lot of interesting twists (no zombies, no monsters, no space or sciencey stuff, though there is a hint at one point that the virus that wiped us out was engineered in a lab - in California - but no one knows for sure). There's also a fair amount of "flying lore" built into the story which appealed to my pilot side. But the real appeal is Peter Heller's use of language. Heller is a poet who has written a lot of non-fiction. This is his first novel. The writing style simulates to some extent Hig's stream of consciousness, and at first you may be bothered by the lack of quotation marks and other "navigation aids." And also the incomplete sentences and even fragments. But. It seemed natural to me after a dozen or so pages.

The real beauty is in how he observes and connects things. He loves the woods, the mountains, the birds, the streams, the sky, everything in nature. And his dog. And his airplane. And his late wife. And poetry. And fishing. Somehow all of these things connect to create a personality that seems vividly real. Hig builds an inner world out of these parts, and you can see why it is worth fighting to go on as one of the few people left alive on earth. But what if one more thing is taken away?

I will say that this is the most uplifting post-apocalyptic novel I have ever read. Not a feel-good story exactly. But a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit and to the beauty of the world, in spite of almost anything. Post-apocalyptic fiction for people who don't like post-apocalyptic fiction. Maybe.

* This week the Mars Society sent members an email talking about the relatively low cosmic radiation levels that Curiosity has measured in its first first few days on the surface of Mars, saying that this level (about the same as astronauts experience in low Earth orbit) bodes well for human exploration of the Red Planet.

Monday, August 06, 2012

6 More Wheels on Mars!

I decided to go to bed rather than wait for Curiosity's planned 1:30 a.m. landing, but without setting any alarm, my wife and I both woke up at about 1:20, and we used the iPad to watch a video feed from the Planetary Society's  Planetfest in Pasadena. We tuned in just after cruise stage separation, and both the Planetfest crowd and the JPL control room teams were already going wild. It was very exciting and emotional, and it all went perfectly, including the almost immediate display of a couple of low-res "hazcam" photos showing that Curiosity was indeed safe and sound. Awesome. I was glad I had watched the Eyes on the Solar System EDL simulation earlier in the evening so I could really picture each event as it was called out. We watched for about 20 minutes then went back to sleep.

This morning I checked the Planetary Society Blog where Emily Lakdawalla reported that there appeared to be a "puff" of something on the horizon in the very first hazcam image that was not there in a later shot after the transparent lens cover was opened. Her thought was that this might have been a dust cloud from the impact of the descent stage, which was programmed to fly off, run out its fuel, and crash far from the landing site. If so, that would be really cool. Imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will probably confirm that and also show us exactly where Curiosity landed.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Eyes on Curiosity

I've been a very bad Solar System Ambassador the last couple of years. Other parts of life (job, family, music) have intervened, and I just haven't been keeping up with space developments and doing outreach events. My bad. I haven't even fired up Orbiter in probably 9 months. But I'm still really interested in this whole business of exploring the solar system (see my recent review of Kim Stanley Robinson's new book 2312 - he really makes the solar system come alive, 300 years in the future).

But of course the solar system is alive now. Mostly here on earth of course, but our latest robotic emissary to a neighboring planet is going to land there in less than four hours from now. That is of course NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), otherwise known as Curiosity. Today I have been reviewing the mission and the all important EDL (entry, descent, landing) phase, the famous "7 minutes of terror" that will start in just about three and half hours for us (Curiosity will experience it about 14 minutes before we hear about it, the time that light-speed radio signals from Mars will take to get here).

I have been watching the progress using JPL's very cool "Eyes on the Solar System" 3D visualization web application which includes a detailed simulation of the EDL phase. You can watch this as a preview (including controls to speed up, slow down, reverse, and pause the events) or you can watch it live. Right now the live view shows the cruise stage slowly spinning with its solar cells pointed to the sun:

But if you run the preview mode (or wait for the landing), you can watch all the more terror-laden steps like aero-shield heating, descent stage separation, and the grand finale, the special-forces-like "sky crane" landing (there is also a very cool JPL video about the EDL phase here):

I wish the landing weren't happening at 1:30 am in my time zone, but I plan to try to stay up even though it's a "school night." I was lucky enough to see Curiosity when it was still a bunch of parts in the JPL clean room back in May 2009, and I feel a special attachment the the not-so-little six-wheeled fella (gal?) - here's a picture I took of the descent stage at JPL that day:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

KSR's 2312 is Very Cool

Although I'm only halfway through it, I am really loving Kim Stanley Robinson's latest science fiction novel, 2312. It's an impressively detailed work that imagines human civilization expanding to nearly the entire solar system over the next 300 years (with Earth itself still suffering a lot of problems stemming from climate change and other factors). There's a city called Terminator on slowly-rotating Mercury (the city itself rides on huge rails in sync with the rotation to stay just at the edge of the transition between the dark side and the deadly sun-lit side of the planet, propelled by solar-heating expansion of the rails!). There are some 19,000 inhabited "terrariums" which are hollowed-out asteroids that rotate to create artificial G. Many different climates, biomes, and social systems are implemented in these asteroid worlds, some of which are in orbits that take them across huge distances in the solar system. So to transfer from Earth to a moon of Saturn, you would first ride a space elevator to orbit, and then take a shuttle that would transfer you to a suitable Saturn-bound asteroid world. Instead of spending weeks in a cramped spacecraft, you might spend those weeks in a 1G beach resort, or in an endangered animal preserve, or in an agricultural world growing food for export to Earth, or even in a low-G "flying world" where you might live something like a bird. Hundreds to thousands of people live in each of these small worlds.

There are a lot of powerful technologies assumed to exist, starting with fusion power, space elevators, self-reproducing assemblers, and quantum computers (personal versions are called qubes). But there is no magic here. While it's not inevitable that these technologies will become practical or widespread, they are physically possible. As usual (from having read Red Mars and Green Mars), KSR is at least as interested in social possibilities as he is in technical ones. And there are some weird ones in 2312There's also a mystery and a love story or two buried in this book.

It's also interesting what a writer like Robinson can do with a very specialized piece of science - such as the braided or perhaps kinked F-ring system of Saturn (pictured above). Doesn't that look sort of wave-like? And where there are waves, surely you will have surfers, right? Some residents of the cities on Saturn's moons like to fly to one of the "shepherd moons" that give the F-ring its gravity-sculpted structure, and from there, they have figured out how to surf these narrow waves made of ice blocks! Yes, they wear spacesuits with thruster rockets, and they surf the F-ring. He even makes it sound sort of plausible. This is shown in one incidental scene between two of the main characters, Swan and Wahrom.

A funny thing about Swan: She is from Mercury, and she is an impulsive risk taker who has tried all sorts of bizarre things in her young 110 year life (most "spacers" live to around 200, with periodic DNA repair and other longevity treatments). She is really a wild character, an artist whose whole life seems to be a sort of over-the-top performance art. Just when I started reading about Swan, I happened to start listening to the new Fiona Apple album, and I watched her bizarre video for "Every Single Night." From this coincidence, Swan and Fiona have fused in my mind. So I picture Fiona when I read about Swan's latest odd adventure.

Although some reviewers are bothered by certain devices that KSR uses in this book, such as lists and excerpts of supposedly technical or historical documents (from the future), I think these brief inter-chapter devices allow KSR to fill in the back story and set the many scenes in a relatively compact way so he can cover the whole solar system and multiple characters and story lines without drowning the reader in too much detail (it's about 570 printed pages, though I am reading it on Kindle myself). Highly recommended if you like imaginative hard SF. There's a cool interview with Robinson from June 2012 here.

Languages As Toys

I was thinking about the fact that I spent quite a few hours reviewing my very rusty (30+ years old) university Russian language skills before my recent trip to St. Petersburg. I have even continued to spend a little time on it since I got back. Why? I probably won't spend much time in Russia in the near future, and even if I do, I could probably get by just fine with English, as most tourists do. There's very little chance of achieving fluency or even minimal competence at this point in my life, though I'm confident that I could do it if by some bizarre circumstances I ended up living in Russia for a while (I feel the same way about French and Japanese). Was it worth the effort for just a few brief interactions in Russian?

Oddly enough, yes, and I figured out the reason. For me, languages are toys or puzzles, fun to play around with in themselves.Consider if the first person on the Moon had been Russian, and he or she had said the same thing that Neil Armstrong had said with his first step, but in Russian. According to Google Translate, that would have been это один маленький шаг для человека, но гигантский скачок для всего человечества. Now anyone can do that with Google, but since I can still read Russian and understand a bit about the grammar, I can see that this is a plausible translation. I can also speculate that the well-known confusion about Neil's statement (did he say one small step for man, or for a man?) would likely not have happened in Russian, since для человека "dlya chelovyeka" (for person) and человечества "chelovechestva" (mankind) are quite distinct, while "man" (with no a) and "mankind" are roughly synonyms. Russian also doesn't have articles (a vs. the), but the forms (cases) of nouns usually make the meaning clear. 

I consider that sort of thing entertaining enough to buy books on subjects that interest me in other languages, as a stimulus to learn more of these odd bits. I don't buy as many as I used to do in French and Japanese, and I tend to buy children's books, since I am not very advanced. I found one cool one in St. Petersburg, a children's book called simply космос ("kosmos," space). I was disappointed that I couldn't find such a book with more focus on Russian spaceflight (it's a translation of a British book). But this turned out to be useful, since I was able to buy a cheap used copy of the English version on Amazon, greatly helping my study efforts.

Once a nerd, always a nerd? Yup.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

SpaceX Dragon to ISS: Highlights

Cool video from SpaceX with highlights of the recent successful flight of their Dragon spacecraft (unmanned cargo version) to the International Space Station. This happened in late May when I was in Europe, so I didn't follow the mission at the time, but it's a great milestone for private space.

New Fiona Apple - Wow

Fiona Apple's new album has an odd name (The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, a.k.a. "Idler Wheel"). The music and lyrics are even odder. And the video for "Every Single Night" is perhaps oddest of all. Definitely hallucinatory stuff (see above).

But I can't stop listening to it. It has really grabbed me like very little of her previous work. It is powerful, strange, raw, intimate, and somehow very real feeling. Wow. Her songwriting blows me away. She writes some amazing and disturbing lyrics, with incredible imagery, and her piano playing and use of percussion can be almost hypnotic.

The Act of Creation

The feeling is, you know, it is really exhilarating, it's like some kind of serotonin rush in your brain, you know, and you really feel great, and you want to go on and do it again, and again, and again. Later on you'll probably change your mind about it, about how well you succeeded.  But at the moment that you finish and you're satisfied or you're more than satisfied, that's an extraordinary feeling, and that feeling is so powerful, that it makes you willing to go through the process and the frustration of trying to write again, write anew each time, just to get to that feeling, because there's a lot of frustration before you get there. But the feeling is good, and the act of creation is very pleasurable on a physical level. 
Paul Simon (2007) 
Excerpt from "The Songwriting Process," an interview segment included with the album "iTunes Originals - Paul Simon." 

This interview segment came up in iTunes the other morning, and I hadn't heard it for a while. Paul Simon is one of my favorite songwriters and has always been an inspiration to me as a writer. It hit me that while I don't otherwise have much in common with him as a songwriter or performer, I have also experienced "some kind of serotonin rush" in my brain when I have completed a song or a recording, or even when I have created an interesting riff or fragment and saved it as a rough recording on the Voice Memo app on the iPod Touch. The act of creation is indeed very pleasurable, even if it doesn't lead to a successful or even a complete song or recording. It certainly leads to trying to write more songs (and to starting many more than you finish - at least that's my experience).

This struck me as a really cool explanation for why I do a lot of things. It's pleasurable to solve problems. It's pleasurable to experience new things. It's pleasurable to read a book and find out how it ends. It's pleasurable to read a book or watch a movie that you really enjoyed the first time again, even though you know how it ends. There are lots of pleasurable things (or maybe not, if this is true, which I think it is - as Fiona Apple replied to a guy in her song "Paper Bag" who said "It's all in your head" -- "so's everything!"). Even finishing a blog post gives some kind of serotonin rush, albeit a very tiny one (judging from my recent low rate of repeating this behavior).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

My Delayed Love Affair With Russia

I have long been fascinated with Russia. I even took four semesters of Russian in college (back in the mid-seventies - almost all forgotten except for reading and writing the Cyrillic alphabet). But I never made a trip to Russia until earlier this month, when I attended an optics conference in St. Petersburg. I naturally added a few days to the trip for some sightseeing. St. Petersburg really is a fantastic city, and I was fortunate enough to have excellent (hot) weather and "white nights" for the whole week I was there. Everything was great. Here are a few highlights.

Space Museum - There was a small space museum on Peter & Paul island with a lot of interesting artifacts of the Russian space program. I used my small amount of Russian to chat briefly with a guard (I was the only one in the museum - all sensible people were out on the beach). We couldn't discuss much but it was fun. And he took my picture.

Helicopter tour - The space museum was inside Peter and Paul Fortress on the small island where Peter the Great established the city. I didn't know there were helicopter tours, but when I saw and heard the low-flying MiL Mi-8's, I figured it out. It cost 3,000 rubles (about $90) for a 14 minute flight on the 16 passenger Soviet-era helicopter, but it was awesome. Check out my YouTube video here and here (YouTube smoothed the vibration-induced shakiness, but this caused my captions to get all jittery - oh well). 

Subways - The St. Petersburg metro system is excellent. Built mostly during the Soviet era, the tunnels are bored through bedrock 75 to 100 meters deep (they also served as very deep bomb shelters during the Cold War). The escalators are VERY long. 

Boat Tour - There are many boat tours on the Neva River and through the many canals of St. Petersburg, "the Venice of the North." The hour tour took 20 minutes more due to tourist boat traffic jams. Although the river portion was great, the canal part of my tour was not the best in terms of passing close to major sights. Check the route before you book one.

The Hermitage - I spent about five hours walking the many rooms of the immense Hermitage, perhaps the best art museum in the world. Simply awe-inspiring. I used a wonderful and free iPhone guide app on my iPod Touch to navigate. I later bought inexpensive virtual tour upgrades to this app. It's really great (especially on the iPad, even though it's only an iPhone app). I took a lot of pictures too (you can pay extra to allow this). A tiny piece of the Hermitage can be seen on the left in the photo above and in one of the many rooms below.

There was much more. Interesting people. Great borscht. The Swan Lake ballet. Lots of Russian signs to practice reading. Beautiful parks, gardens, and churches. I really want to go back. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Deep, Light, and He Can't Help It

I tried to not write this blog post, but I couldn't. Of course you could, you say! You've got free will!

Nope. It sure seems that way sometimes, but I think this is an illusion. A very convincing illusion, but an illusion nonetheless. My friend Craig Collins explains this heavy concept with his usual light touch in this excellent blog post. Not that he had any choice in the matter.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Cool Sounds (John & Lisa)

In addition to the "movie music" mentioned in my post about driving Europe, I've written a few other songs in the last few weeks, but nothing is quite ready to post. I need to get into my basement studio and finish some of these songs! It's too easy to start new songs and do partial demos on the iPad with GarageBand and all the various cool synths and other music apps now available. I shouldn't complain about too much inspiration, but the problem is not enough time and discipline to finish things. The good news is that thanks to these tools on the iPod Touch and iPad, I can write and record even when I travel, which was never very practical before.

I've also enjoyed music from other people, most notably the new John Mayer album "Born and Raised," which is great. Last week I saw cool concert in Boston, featuring Lisa Hannigan, an Irish singer-songwriter I've admired since I first heard her singing with Damien Rice some years back. Lisa was co-billed with an American singer-songwriter, Joe Henry. I was not familiar with his work and really didn't enjoy his part of the performance. But Lisa was wonderful. She performed most of her recent second album, "Passenger." I took a few videos, three of which are posted on YouTube: "Knots," "Little Bird," and "Passenger." The picture above is from Lisa's performance on NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts (pictured with her guitarist John Smith, who was also quite impressive at the Boston concert). We were in the fourth row at the Paradise, pretty nice seats but not quite as intimate as NPR's library.

Driving Europe

Wow, my last blog post was April 29. I guess I've been busy. I've been on a couple of business trips since then (Taiwan and a trade show in Frankfurt), and the trade show trip was followed by a fun vacation with my wife, driving from Frankfurt to the south coast of France, then along the coast to Monaco, then through Italy and Switzerland to Interlaken. Finally we drove back to Frankfurt with a stop in Berne for lunch. We did about 8 days of driving. The (literal) peak of our adventure was the Jungfraujoch, heavily promoted as "the top of Europe," with a train station, observation center, and restaurant close to 12,000 feet above sea level. The weather was great and the view was magnificent (example above).

We took a lot of pictures and video clips, and on the flight home from Frankfurt, I used GarageBand on the iPad to create some instrumental soundtrack music for three short "slide show" videos that I later edited with iMovie on the iPad. You can see these videos on YouTube (note: choose HD or 720p in the YouTube settings to view these with full resolution):

Driving video - the whole trip in 2 minutes 20 seconds with fast music.

Europe sights - a bit longer and more relaxed with pseudo-classical music.

Jungfrau "Top of Europe" train ride - a pseudo-Romantic adagio. I was going for majestic to try to match the Alps. Almost 3 minutes.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

New Song: Blue (Monkey Butt)

It's weird what sorts of things pop up when I play around with the many sounds and options in GarageBand on the iPod Touch or iPad. Often an instrument sound, automatic pattern, and rhythm will lead to a new song. This new one sounded bluesy (not surprising since the progression is like Em Bm C F#dim), so I started using the word "blue," and before long I had a demo. Although most of the things I mention are not actually blue, monkey butts sometimes are. So there. Like much of life, this song is something of a joke, but not completely.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Music in Space

This video was posted by NASA about a year ago, but I somehow just stumbled on it. Among many other things, astronaut Cady Coleman is a flute player, and when she was on the International Space Station last year, she carried several flutes with her, including one belonging to Ian Anderson (best known as the leader of Jethro Tull). Last April, as a tribute to Yuri Gagarin on the 50th anniversary of his first spaceflight, Cady performed a flute duet with Anderson - she on the ISS, he on the ground. The song was a version of Anderson's "Bouree" which is in turn an adaptation of a Bach piece.

I really like Cady Coleman. She is one of the few astronauts I've had a chance to meet. She visited my space flight simulator demo booth at a Space Expo at the New England Air Museum a few years ago, and we spoke for a few minutes about educational outreach. She struck me as incredibly down-to-Earth (when she's not in space). I didn't realize at the time that she is also a musician.

Friday, April 06, 2012

iPad Rationalization

I swear, it wasn't my fault! I was simply helping to configure an iPad 2 bought for my mother-in-law. I never expected to fall in love (who am I kidding - of course I did). For the few decades that the iPad has been available (allegedly only two years), I've thought about getting one, but I managed to convince myself that it was really just an overgrown iPod Touch, which I have been using for centuries (since fall 2008). Pretty much runs all the same apps, right? Besides, I travel a lot, and the iPod Touch is so handily pocket-sized, while the iPad is nearly laptop size, right? Another thing to lug around and keep charged. Who needs it!

Well after I spent a week or so setting up that iPad 2, I could feel my anti-iPad rationalizations cracking under the strain of a nearly life-size HUD on my simulated space shuttle and the large instrument and control interfaces in GarageBand (yes, I was testing out a few apps my mother-in-law wouldn't need). I tried out a few magazines like WIRED, Newsweek, National Geographic, and Discover Magazine, and they were definitely much more enjoyable than on the pathetically tiny screen of the iPod Touch.  Mainstream apps like web browsing, email, YouTube, and the like are easier to use too. FaceTime and Skype are wonderful on a face-size screen. My willpower was crumbling...

Apple delivered the final blow with the "new iPad" ("3G") announcement - super-high-res screen, faster graphics processors, and a better camera for the same price points as the iPad 2 (though they did drop the price of some iPad 2 models). I was sold. So I gave in and ordered one (wifi only) - telling my wife that this would be a family iPad, not my iPad. I can share (sometimes). I promised I would still use the iPod Touch for travel. And so far I have not taken the iPad on a trip (so far haven't taken a trip...).

The new iPad is really great. Many apps have already issued updates to take advantage of the 2048x1536 retina display, including F-SIM Shuttle (above). Gorgeous rendering of my still less-than-perfect landings. Music creation apps are wonderful on the larger screen. Apple's free movie trailer app was upgraded and the HD previews are amazing. One surprising fave is the NPR Music app (also free). With more room for interface controls and graphics, and plenty of video, it makes it a pleasure to explore new music. I really appreciate that many of the apps I had bought for the iPod Touch are "universal" apps that also work great on the iPad. I've only bought a couple of "HD" apps specialized for the iPad.

Who knew that apple flavored kool-aid could be so tasty?

Too Cool: Driven to Fly!

This is incredibly cool (7 minute video here). A flying car! The Terrafugia Transition® is more like a drivable airplane. It's very light for an airplane or a car, something like a two-seat smart car with wings. It's considered a Light Sport Aircraft.

Terrafugia's FAQ has some useful info including this comment:
The Transition also reduces the cost of ownership of an airplane by burning automotive gasoline, parking in your garage at home instead of renting a hangar, and nearly eliminating ground transportation costs.
Good points! So OK, I have a private pilot's license and a two-car garage that's within a 25 minute drive of at least three airports. I would love to have one. But aside from gasoline, hangar charges, and various insurance issues, a key factor in "cost of ownership" is the price - $279,000. Maybe not this year.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Elon Musk on 60 Minutes

There was a great segment on 60 Minutes last night on Elon Musk and SpaceX. I share his belief in the importance of humankind becoming a space-faring, multi-planet civilization, but Musk has taken this vision and run with it. Big time. The introduction to the interview says:
In the history of space flight - only four entities have launched a space capsule into orbit and successfully brought it back to the Earth: the United States, Russia, China and Elon Musk.
It's impressive and inspiring to me. I wish I were a 30-something engineer again. I would move back to Los Angeles and get a job with SpaceX!

The text version of the interview is here. The video of the whole show (including commercial breaks) is here (there was also a fascinating story on the neurological condition of face blindness). This appears to be just the SpaceX video segment. I don't know how long CBS keeps these 60 Minutes videos on-line.