Tuesday, August 07, 2018

My Inner Space Child

Not very deep inside me is a still-space-obsessed Inner Child who thinks space flight is the coolest thing ever. As a kid in the sixties, I was super-excited to follow the Mercury and Gemini and Apollo missions as they happened, and I covered the walls of my bedroom with the space posters NASA would send me by the ton whenever I wrote to ask. Space was real then. Apollo 8 orbited the moon in 1968, and in that same White Album year, 2001: A Space Odyssey convinced me that space ships full of people would be tooling around the solar system before I was even 50 years old. I wanted to go!

Of course it didn’t quite pan out that way. The moon landings ended in 1972 and I never got to be a test pilot and an astronaut which was my plan since I was ten. We did have a cool space shuttle for a while, and astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) still circle the globe every 90 minutes. We’ve also sent a bunch of amazing robots to tool around the solar system on our behalf. This isn’t as exciting as the 2001 movie, but I like all of that stuff too.

Even though my obsession is usually turned down to a low simmer, every once in a while something will trigger my Inner Space Child and I will get super-excited again. Sometimes it’s a book, often by Kim Stanley Robinson. Sometimes it’s a movie like The Martian in 2015. But most often it’s something Elon Musk says or does. NASA is still doing lots of important work but it seems that SpaceX gets all the glory. That’s probably because of Elon Musk’s hyperactive Inner Child, and because Elon (yes, I call him Elon) has huge ambition, a huge fortune, and a huge ego, so he can say, “wouldn’t be cool if we could build a rocket that’s bigger than a football field that could fly dozens of people to Mars” and the SpaceX engineers will all say “I’m on it.” And they are. That’s the already-in-work “BFR” which stands for “Big Falcon Rocket” (sure it does). I’ve also seen it called BFS for Big Falcon Ship, and if it really happens as planned, it will certainly be the first true space SHIP, huge and fully re-usable. Elon says that “short test flights” will begin in 2019. That probably means 2020 or 2021, but still. They are seriously building a space ship to colonize Mars (it will do lots of other stuff too).

This week I got excited when I learned about a new SpaceX add-on for the Orbiter 2016 space flight simulator. Orbiter is a free space-flight simulator that runs on a PC. It has accurate physics and beautiful graphics and it is a Space Nerd Inner Child’s dream come true. I spent about a year obsessed with it when I first discovered it in 2005. I even wrote a book about it, Go Play In Space, which teaches you how to do just that.  I still fire up Orbiter on my PC every now and then, usually when I hear about some new features or some cool new add-on developed by someone in the Orbiter community.

The new add-on is a model of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft that is set to start carrying astronauts for NASA in 2019 (an “add-on” is a user-developed set of 3D models and computer code that work within Orbiter to simulate a specific spacecraft). This one was the latest work of “BrianJ,” a talented add-on creator who has also made an add-on of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket needed to carry the Crew Dragon or other payloads into virtual orbit. In late 2017 another prolific add-on maker (“francisdrake”) created a model of the SpaceX BFR.

To capture the picture above, I created a scenario in Orbiter 2016 with the Crew Dragon docked to the “top” of the BFR in low Mars orbit (BFR's "wings" are actually solar panel arrays that deploy like Japanese fans). For scale, the SpaceX Crew Dragon with its “trunk” is about 27 feet or 8 meters long, taller than a two-story house. So you can see that the BFR is indeed a Big something Rocket. Search for "BFR size comparison" and you will find many illustrations of its incredible size. Also check out this speculative but suggestive cutaway diagram of the interior of the BFR's second stage (the part that will go to Mars). 

But Orbiter add-ons are more than just pictures or even 3D models. They are working models of the spacecraft, so they can be launched, flown to orbit (or to Mars), maneuvered, entered in the atmosphere, and landed. The Falcon 9 first stage and the BFR are “tail sitters” so they land with rockets blazing. I haven’t tried this yet with the BFR, but I have flown BrianJ’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy a few times (the built-in autopilot makes this rather easy). If you’d like to see it without bothering to install Orbiter, you can watch a video like this one. It's really amazing to see the first stage boosters turn around and fly themselves back to their landing pads. 

Is it weird to be so obsessed, still space-crazy after all these years? Maybe. But I prefer to think that I’m nurturing a sense of wonder that never quite left me. Or something like that. 

This picture shows BrianJ's SpaceX Crew Dragon orbiting the moon in Orbiter 2016.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Center Of It All

I have a new album! Center Of It All is available for download on CD Baby, and actual CD's will also be available there within a couple of weeks. It is also available on Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify, YouTube and other download and streaming sites.

I'm really pleased with how the album came out. I've been working on this project on and off for six years, since my last album Look At You in 2012. This is the fourth album produced by my friend Roger Lavallee, and as usual, Roger also came up with great arrangements, played most of the guitars, programmed the drums, and accomplished what still blows my mind every time I hear it -- he made it sound like a record! I also want to thank my friend Craig Collins for designing the cover graphics. He did a beautiful job of integrating my interests in music and space and in visualizing the idea of the "center of it all." Thanks also to my two co-writers (Rob Simbeck on "Center Of It All" and "Saving the World" and my brother Doug Irving on "Foggy Morning London Town").

Here are the album notes I wrote for the album page on CD Baby:

Writing and recording songs can give you a rich fantasy life. Like when you watch an episode of "The Americans" (great show) and out pops the song "Rough Days." Or when you imagine being so down and out that you wish someone would airlift you away and voila, "Angels Are Hiding." Think you're tired? Try flapping your wings 1500 times a minute like the characters in "Hummingbird." How about a pep talk from a quasi-Rastafarian? That's "Hey O Way O." An early morning stroll down Abbey Road? "Foggy Morning London Town." A helicopter getaway? "When Charlie Went AWOL." There's a song just called "Who?" What's that all about? Or who?

It's not all crazy talk. There's some of the usual sensitive guy "what's it all about" stuff too, like "In the Name of Love," "No Second Chances," and even "Saving the World." "Center Of It All" was inspired by memories of my Mom who passed away just recently - she really was the center of it all for me and my family.

There's a lot of rock, a ton of harmonies, a bit of folk and country, and just a dash of jazz. An album 6 years in the making with twelve very different and dare I say rather good songs (yes, I dare say). And I must ALSO say that if you like cool guitar solos, my producer, friend, and Local Guitar God Roger Lavallee has really outdone himself on this project. Smoking.

It's a good album. You'll like it. Trust me. Why would I lie?

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

What If Space Really Sucks?

I read an interesting essay on The Space Review by Dwayne Day, titled “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,” quoting Bernie Taupin in Elton John's song “Rocketman.” That 2017 essay was inspired by the SF TV series The Expanse, which is now in its third season (I bought the first season and watched a couple of episodes on Amazon Video -- I liked it but never returned to it since it’s not my wife’s thing and I have so many other time sinks). He doesn’t talk too much about The Expanse except to describe it as “gritty” and to say that it depicts a settled solar system a few hundred years in the future, and guess what? There’s politics and war and crime and inequality and oppression of asteroid colonists by Earth and Mars people, and resentment of Earth by Martians who are struggling to make their planet livable, and not just a place defined by its independence of Earth. There are many other problems too, e.g., agriculture collapses on Ganymede because the engineered environment is not as robust as natural environments of Earth. This is something that Kim Stanley Robinson addresses in his colony-starship novel Aurora  which I read and wrote about back in 2015 and found really fascinating (as I do most of KSR's books).

I guess the bottom line is that people are people, and that moving to Mars or a space colony or anywhere is no magic bullet. If there are multiple people anywhere, there will be conflicting needs, priorities, goals, etc. that will need to be managed. Even if you build a seemingly robust, prosperous, and somewhat fair and democratic society like the United States, it won’t be prosperous and fair to all its people, and a scam artist like Donald Trump can come along and try to ruin it for everyone except himself and a few of his wealthy supporters and Russian friends. That’s our now. I don’t think Trump will ultimately succeed in ruining the American Experiment, but he might (or he might drag us into wars that will screw up everything for everyone).

To me, space is not a religion or a utopia or even a next frontier that is needed to inspire humanity to be better. I think it is a source of materials, energy, and yes, space for future populations to exploit, in ways that at least have the potential (in the very long run) to relieve pressure on Earth-bound ecosystems and societies. And for now at least, exploiting those resources will not displace or destroy anyone else as the Europeans did when they invaded the “New World.” I think the profit motive will play a key part in having a reason and the means to get more people in space, even if it’s not the only reason, with Elon Musk and SpaceX serving as Exhibit A for this approach. Having a long-run backup plan for humanity doesn’t seem crazy to me – as long as it isn’t coupled with the idea that we can just abandon this planet. Earth is really perfect for us, because we co-evolved with it. So as KSR and many others suggest, we have to make this planet work. That doesn’t preclude also using asteroids, the Moon, and other planets for their living space and resources. But we shouldn't expect them to be perfect societies or utopias. They will be imperfect, human creations, just like everything else humans have created (with the exception of Mozart's music). 

But I also think that AI is going to have a very big part to play in space and in every aspect of life going forward, which may be bad news for old fashioned flesh-and-blood humans like us. If engineered “mind children” are the ones that reach the planets first... well, I don’t know what I think about it. For sure they won’t need life support, just energy sources. And maybe they won’t need meat machines like their parents to slow them down. I hope they still like us and remember to send us a postcard now and then.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Finding My Muse (Score)

It's funny how things happen. A few months ago, I switched from Sonar to Studio One as my main music recording software. I got a special Black Friday deal from Presonus. I really like Studio One and I've been writing and recording songs with it, so I'm happy, right? Then in January Presonus sent me a special offer on another piece of music software for Windows, Notion 6. It's a music notation and composition program which also interfaces with Studio One. Of course I didn't really need it but I'm always musically curious, so I bought it and started to fool around with writing little instrumental pieces to learn the interface. I learned that they have an iPad version, even cheaper ($15) and file compatible with Notion 6. Cool. I can write music anywhere, even on my iPhone.

So now I'm writing simple stuff and searching for scores to learn from. I found a site called musescore.com and learned that this is an active community of composers and classical music enthusiasts of all levels. In addition to many classic scores, I quickly discovered several rather impressive amateur composers to follow. There is also a free, open source composition and notation program called MuseScore 2 which I downloaded. It turns out to be better on Windows than Notion 6 in many respects, not least of which is the fact that you can upload your scores to musescore.com to share and discuss them with others (you can also import/export MusicXML, MIDI, and other file formats to transfer scores between different notation programs, including Notion). .

What's funny about this is that I can barely read music. Actually I know the notes and quite a bit of music theory, though I don't read and write notation fluently. I rely mostly on my ears. But with programs like Notion and MuseScore, this doesn't matter too much. Much like writing songs, I can try things, hear them instantly, and fix or improve them interactively. It's fun and educational. I've always regretted not being stronger with theory and notation, and this gives me a reason and a means to improve. When I told my friend Peter Inglis that I was embracing notation, he said "finally!" He's been urging me to learn to read and create musical "source code" for years! So I finally am. I've already noticed improvement in my ability to follow and understand scores. And write some too.

My early exercises are mostly brief pieces in string quartet form just because this gives you a small number of voices to explore. One I especially like was inspired by the fictional oboe player Hailey Rutledge on the Amazon Prime TV show "Mozart in the Jungle." It's called "For Hai Lai" (watch the show).

I am FlyingSinger at musescore.com if you want to check out any of my scores -- or skip those silly things and go right for compositions by those who really know what they're doing.