Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Blog Lang Syne

We're having an especially laid-back New Year's Eve this year. Chinese takeout (not original, I know). No parties. The Google doodle is about as wild as it gets around here tonight (just now I was listening to a cool new U2 song, "Ordinary Love," and it really seemed like the dancing digits were keeping time to the music - I've only had one glass of wine so far, so I don't think that's it). We don't even have a TV on. I don't watch much TV anyway, and the New Year's Eve TV festivities just don't seem the same without Dick Clark (I was never actually a fan of Dick or really of any of those time-filler shows). Maybe we will turn it on near midnight and watch the ball drop - old habits die hard.

I've been spending my year-end week off from work mostly on music and reading, plus a few small house projects. I've written a couple of new songs, nothing I'm too excited about, and I made a little progress on organizing the many song fragments from the year - mainly identifying promising things to work on for a new album project in 2014. In my typical fashion, the new songs "jumped the queue" - they were things I just started, not based on any of the promising fragments I want to finish. This is the way I am with books and other people's music too. There are always dozens of books in my meaning-to-read queue (mostly Kindle books sitting on one or more mobile devices). Do I read them? Sometimes, but more often I learn about some new book from Amazon or NPR or (new) Scribd and boom, there it is on my iPad, and I'm starting to read it.

The same with other people's music. Surely 31,516 songs must be enough variety. But somehow I'm listening to a brand-new temporary favorite that Amazon had for $3.99 the other day, lousy with sylvianbriar by Of Montreal (who are actually Of Georgia). The lyrics are semi-structured nonsense but the music is cool and it just sounds better and better, especially on the monitor speakers in my recording rig ("Sirens of Toxic Spirit" really reminds me of the Kinks). I also really enjoyed a new (3 songs a week for free) download from Freegal, a modern violin concerto by composer Nicholas Maw, played by violinist Joshua Bell. I learned about this through a Kindle book I peruse now and then, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die by Tom Moon. Forced serendipity.

Adding to my mostly happy overwhelm-ment are recording and songwriting tools on the PC and iPad. Synths galore! I just got the greatest Mellotron emulation ever on the iPad! Upgraded to Sonar X3! Upgraded to Band-in-a-Box 2014! Aside from being a software marketer's dream when it comes to upgrades and cheap apps, I find that all of these new tools have new songs hidden in them. But they also have learning curves in them. Fortunately I enjoy tinkering with this stuff, the technology as well as the musicality. While I still love software manuals, there are just so many great tutorial videos on the web from which I now learn most of the new technology.

So as 2013 fades away, I feel lucky to have a great family, pretty good health, a job and a home, and an over-abundance of most of the things I enjoy, except for time. So happy new year to all.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Scribd: Getting Even Cloudier

I've noticed that more and more of my "media experiences" are streaming from the internet. With the help of Apple TV or the wifi connection in our Blu-Ray player, we rent movies from iTunes or Amazon Instant Video. Although I have local mp3 copies of most of my music, I do most of my music listening from two cloud sources, Amazon Cloud or Apple's iCloud. Sometimes for variety or laziness I will stream music from Pandora or iTunes Radio. I even stream pictures of my granddaughter from my daughter's iPhone (Apple's shared photostream).

Now I've started "streaming books." For several years, I've been doing most of my reading with Kindle e-books, buying several a month from Amazon. This is convenient but somewhat wasteful, since I read most books only once, and Kindle books cannot be shared or sold. Books are very small files compared to video or music, and they usually download in seconds. This also means that books could easily be "streamed," i.e., read directly over the web, once someone comes up with a business model to support this.

Now someone has, a company called Scribd ("the world's digital library") that's been around for years as a document sharing site, mainly for free documents (I have long had my Orbiter tutorial book Go Play In Space on Scribd for free PDF download). I haven't really looked at Scribd for a long time, but it's clear that they have been busy, and they have expanded into "non-free" books. Their latest thing is a subscription service which gives you online reading access to many commercial e-books for a flat rate of $8.99 a month. It's currently limited to only a few publishers, and mainly "back catalog" books, with relatively few current best sellers, similar in that respect to Netflix for movies.They currently offer over 100,000 titles, and they are working to add publishers, so I'm sure this number will increase over time.

They have a 30 day free trial, so I'm trying it. I'm pretty sure I will continue, because I have already found at least 10 books that I have previously considered buying on Kindle, as well as a dozen more that are new finds. My idea is that rather than buying 2-4 books a month on Kindle (for maybe $20+ a month), I'll probably read a couple of Scribd books and buy maybe 1-2 Kindle books if they aren't available on Scribd. It doesn't bother me that I won't "own" those books (I'm guessing I don't technically own my Kindle books either, only a license to download and read them whenever I want). I'm OK with the "paid borrowing" model, and Scribd allows you to download up to 10 books onto mobile devices for offline reading. The Scribd app for iOS works really well on iPhone and iPad, similar in most respects to the Kindle app. Since $8.99 is less than the typical cost for a single Kindle book, Scribd will be a good deal even if it only keeps me from buying one Kindle book a month. This makes me wonder how long it will be before Amazon or Google buys Scribd (maybe they will wait a couple of months and see how the subscription service does).

So I like this. Now if I could only eliminate my real book bottleneck - the fact that I can still only read one book at a time, and that there are still only 24 hours in a day. Severely limited mental bandwidth! As soon as they invent a multi-threaded brain, I'm ready to upgrade.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Year in Rear View

In 2013, I continued tilting at windmills. The ones above happen to be in Austria, just east of Vienna, driving back from an October customer visit in the eastern Czech Republic. We passed through Brno, which I realized today was the location of the monastery where Gregor Mendel performed his important and eventually famous early experiments in genetics, carefully recording the results of his experimental breeding of pea plants. On that same business trip, I also spent a day in Sofia, Bulgaria, on my first visit to that country. I'm still traveling quite a lot on business, though usually to the same places I have visited many times before, such as Japan, France, and Germany. Bulgaria made me wonder how many countries I have visited since I first started international travel in 1981 (there was also a 1977 family cruise that took me briefly to some Caribbean islands and to Caracas, Venezuela). A rather meager 32 countries (see below* for the list, if you care). And still only 40 US states. What a slacker I am!

I'm not actually tilting at windmills, of course. I guess I just mean that I have not entirely given up on trying to do things that are important to me, mainly creating music. One of the best things I've done in recent years was to throw myself a rock-and-roll birthday party back in June. It was cool to play a bunch of my own songs as well as a number of classic rockers with a rock band for a room full of family and friends. I also continue to collect and listen to large amounts of other people's music, old and new. I love discovering new sounds. And I still work regularly on writing new music. The most recent song that I completed and demoed was a jazz ballad called Love is All You Need.

Alas I have largely given up on flying airplanes, though one never knows what might happen as long as I am theoretically able to pass a flight medical exam. I would still go on a space flight if I ever got the chance, though I'm not planning on spending a lot of money on this, which leads me to doubt how serious a goal this may be. I still tilt away at a couple of foreign languages (French and Japanese). I also strive to read perhaps a book a week, though I have given up on a one-time goal of reading the "Great Books of the Western World." I realized a while back that I don't have much patience with any prose that was written much before 1900. That makes most of the Great Books a real stretch for me.

Of course there is more to life than music, books, and travel - there are also Apple i-devices! And apps! And more importantly, a wonderful family. I'm quite lucky in that regard, and I am especially enjoying watching my granddaughter Stella grow up. She's already 14 months old!

If I could wish for anything it would be for the gift of completing songs. I constantly generate many new musical ideas and a fair number of lyrical ideas, but I probably start 20 songs for every one that I finish.I've decided to devote as much time as I can during the last week of the year (when the company is closed) at gathering up the most promising song fragments of 2013 and turning at least some of them into completed songs and demos. I must have 40 or more promising fragments sitting in various apps and files on my iPad, iPhone, and PC. I'm sure there are enough for a new album in 2014.

I also didn't see the Northern Lights in 2013. 

* Countries and territories I have visited, in approximately chronological order: USA (40 states), Canada, Mexico, St. Vincent (British Virgin Islands), Martinique (French department), Curacao (Dutch dependent), Venezuela, United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland), Japan, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy (including Vatican City), China (including Hong Kong), Israel, Taiwan, South Korea, Luxembourg, Czech Republic, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, India, Monaco, Spain, Russia, Slovakia, Bulgaria.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Shaman: Inside the Paleolithic Mind

There were some amazing artists in France 30,000 years ago or so, judging by the incredible paintings discovered in 1994 on the rock walls of the famous Chauvet Caves. Culturally speaking, 30,000 years is a long time, but in biological evolutionary terms, it's a mere blink of the eye. The people who painted in those caves were genetically and probably mentally just like you and me. What would those ancient artists and their relatives and friends have been like? I suppose no one knows for sure, but thanks to "science fiction" author Kim Stanley Robinson, I feel like I have a few insights into what they and their environments may have been like. I even looked over the shoulder of one of them as he created the panel above, deciding what to draw, and how to depict the animals' motions and even emotional states. Until all the torches went out...

I just finished KSR's latest book, Shaman, and as with most of his books, I'm impressed by the many threads of human life that he manages to collect and connect in one book. I think of Robinson as more of an anthropological fiction writer than a typical SF writer. Whether he is writing about humans on Mars, Mercury, Europa, in Renaissance Italy, or in prehistoric France, the humanity of humans seems to be the main event. Of course this includes their intelligence and resourcefulness as well their emotions and every other aspect of personality. And lest we forget, their environment - whether it is Mars or Washington, DC, or prehistoric France, humans are affected by their environment and by technology, science, politics, and other things. When you're a world-builder like KSR, you want to build detailed and believable worlds, and he definitely is among the best in that department.

Although it is packed with amazing and real-feeling detail (no doubt the fruits of extensive research), Shaman is first and foremost a good story, the coming of age story of a boy named Loon, destined to be the next shaman of his tribe. At twelve years old, he is left in the wild with only his wits on a two-week "wander" that will establish him as an adult in his pack, and ideally teach him many things about himself. This is an exciting start to the book. Not all of it is as fast paced as this, though there are some chapters late in the book that are real page turners. There is also a lot of gritty detail when it comes to sex, hunting, food preparation, death, and many other aspects of daily life. Getting to know this world is essential to understand the people and their motivations, which are every bit as complex as those of people today. 

I won't give away more, except to say that I read somewhere that it was meant by the author to take place in the area of Chauvet Cave in France. It seems clear that to some extent, KSR "reverse engineered" aspects of the story and characters from the Chauvet Cave paintings. I would suggest that if you read the book, that you have available a website (like this one) or book showing the paintings. In certain passages, you can follow along in great detail as the characters view or create sections of those walls. I plan to see Werner Herzog's film "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" as soon as I can to see and learn more about the Chauvet art. Shaman has really brought those ancient artists and their works to life for me.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Why My Blog May Look Different

Just in case you are reading on a mobile device and something looks different...

A friend pointed out that my space shuttle (etc.) blog background image makes the text difficult to read on mobile devices. It may depend somewhat on the device and browser (e.g., Facebook vs. Safari on iPhone), but it's different from the full-screen browser behavior, and I don't know why.

So for now I have switched to a non-customized "Simple" blog template for mobile browsers.This is pretty much all white except for the text and pictures, so readability seems good. I will check into this when I have more time later this month. Maybe it's time for an iOS 7-like simplification of my blog's graphical look. Or something.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Musical Gluttony 2013?

I was just thinking about what a music fanatic I am. I am constantly looking for and/or listening to music. I don't go to very many concerts these days (a few a year), but I do spend a lot of time creating music (writing and recording), and in June I also hosted a special rock and roll birthday party for myself with around 50 friends and family. It was a blast. Here are a few highlights of my musical year 2013.

Creating & Performing

My third album Look at You was mostly a 2012 project as far as writing and recording the songs, and I wrote about that back in January when i got copies of the CD's and released it on CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon, etc. Although it hasn't exactly been a hit, I have gotten a lot of favorable comments, and I think it's my best work so far. You can stream all of the songs from this and my first two albums on my SoundCloud page. I've been writing a lot of new songs this year, and though only a few are complete, I'm hoping to start work on a new album project in early 2014, working as usual with my friend and producer Roger Lavallee. He's the key to turning the things I hear in my head into real sounds.

Roger was also the "music director" for my  special June birthday party, He asked his friends Greg Olson and John Donovan to play drums and bass to form a temporary backing band with Roger, my friend Rob Simbeck, and myself on guitars and vocals, and my brother Doug Irving on keys and vocals. We did around 10 of my songs (e.g., my own "Lady Heartache") and a bunch of classic covers including Jumping Jack Flash, Light My Fire, Back in the USSR, Rob Simbeck's "Born & Raised on Rock & Roll,"  and many more. I've got a few video clips on YouTube (click the hyperlinked song titles above). It was really a lot of fun.

Live Music

Other than my own party, I only got to a handful of live music events this year, including fine concerts by alt/indie bands Alt-J and The XX (where I also discovered a new favorite band, Lord Huron). Locally I really enjoyed The Brit Wits and and an acoustic evening featuring Roger Lavallee and Bill Beck.

Musical Gluttony?
I just took a look at my Amazon digital orders for 2013 (which isn't even over yet). I've placed 104 MP3 orders so far this year. That's a lot, but quite a few were single songs, and perhaps a dozen were free sampler collections. Most of the classical music I bought (21 albums) was in large composer or theme-based MP3 collections (16 of the 21), each containing 99-300 tracks (songs or movements), usually bought on sale for $1 to $5 for the complete collection. This probably added some 3000 MP3 files at a cost of perhaps $50. But I also bought 34 non-classical, non-free MP3 albums, plus 15 CD's, probably another 700 songs, perhaps around $300 for all those, considering that I usually buy music when it is on sale as a new release or Amazon promotion.

This does not include a bunch of free or nearly free music that I got from Freegal, NPR, Noisetrade, SoundCloud, Paste Magazine, and other online sources. So it's not hard to understand how I came to have some 31,000 MP3's in my Amazon Cloud library, most of which I have also downloaded to iTunes. This begs the question of how I manage to listen to even a tiny of fraction of this flood of music. It's a lot of shuffling, but I would guess that there are large chunks of music that I "own" but have not yet heard, especially the hundreds of Baroque and classical pieces in the VoxBox and Big Box collections.

Best of 2013
This is not any sort of comprehensive "best of" list. Even with the flood of new music that I  receive, I don't hear enough of what's new to really judge. I do pay attention to artists and genres that I like, and I am helped by NPR, Paste, SoundCloud, etc. (and occasionally by Pandora and even the old-fashioned FM car radio) to learn about new stuff I may like. Of course Amazon's recommendation software also does a good job of figuring out what I like based on my browsing and purchasing history. Here is my personal top 9 (I tried to add #10 but could not really pick one).
  1. Laura Mvula, Sing to the Moon - Probably the best new artist in 2013, at least of what I've heard. Still sounding so fresh and original. I wrote more here.
  2. Lord Huron, Lonesome Dreams - Sort of country rock, but spacier, with great lyrics, melodies, and arrangements.
  3. Donovan, A Gift from a Flower to a Garden - I rediscovered this album a few weeks ago. It was a favorite of mine in my junior and senior years of high school. Sometime in 1968 (probably summer), I convinced my mother to let me join the Columbia Record Club, which offered cheap multi-record intro offers with the requirement to buy a certain number of albums at list price (tough for a high school kid with little money). This 1967 album was part of the intro package I received (others I recall include Strange Days by the Doors, Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel, Disraeli Gears by Cream, and Vincebus Eruptem by Blue Cheer). As I hear it now, I can see that Donovan probably influenced my early songwriting more than anyone besides the Beatles (later I would appreciate and emulate Paul Simon, James Taylor, and Cat Stevens, among others). I had not heard some of these Donovan songs in maybe 40 years, but I still could sing along with every lyric.
  4. Dawes, Stories Don't End - Another almost-70's-country-rock band updated for the 21st century. Great stuff.
  5. Big Schubert Box (Bach Guild, still 99 cents!) - It's tough to pick a favorite from among various huge classical collections I bought for mere pennies. This is a great one, as are Rachmaninoff Complete Piano Music (VOX BOX), Sibelius Complete Symphonies (Bis), and Chopin Piano Works (VOX BOX).
  6. Alt-J, An Awesome Wave - Strangely hypnotic or hypnotically strange? Yes, on many levels, and a great live show too.
  7. Paul McCartney, Wings Over America - Another rediscovery after watching a concert film from this great 1976 tour. I had the vinyl album in the late 70's, but it was lost and forgotten. McCartney is truly amazing (I saw him live in Boston in 2002).
  8. Led Zeppelin, Celebration Day - Another oldie but goody, Led Zep's London reunion concert in 2007. Wish I could have been there. Plant's voice doesn't quite have the ultrasonic range of of the original recordings, but it's still a powerful instrument, and Page's guitar playing is always amazing.
  9. The Wild Feathers - This is brand new, since I just learned about the band and bought the album last night, but I have a good feeling about this band. Another sort-of-country-rock band with impressive songwriting, arrangements, and harmonies. I'm glad the 70's are cool again.
There were a few things I was psyched about that turned out to be disappointing. These included Hummingbird by Local Natives (love their first album), John Mayer's Paradie Valley, and the recently much-hyped Reflektor by Arcade Fire, a band I realize that I only occasionally like.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Bulgaria, Bad Knees, and Japanese

October and November tend to be my busiest business travel months, with at least one trip each to Europe and Asia. In October I did a customer visit tour in "only" four countries: UK, France, Bulgaria (sunset in the hills near Sofia, above), and Czech Republic (though I slept one night at the Vienna airport and drove through part of Slovakia). London, Nice, Manchester, Wales, London, Sofia, Vienna, Paris, and then home. This is a light five-day schedule for our European distributor.

Not much chance for fine European dining on this type of trip (unless gas station sandwiches and airline lounge snacks are your thing), but it's actually kind of fun. Although most business discussions are in English, I do try to practice a little French now and then, mostly in restaurants and by buying and reading science magazines like this recent special Mars issue of Science et Vie.

A special wrinkle on this trip was a bad knee. After months of increasing pain, I was recently diagnosed with a torn meniscus in my right knee. I was worried about long flights, big airports, train station stairs, and long car rides, but most of it went OK with the help of a new rolling backpack computer bag and a special effort to pack light. The fact that I don't have to carry books anymore helps a bit on this - I have hundreds of Kindle books on my iPad Mini, iPhone, and Kindle, and now the airlines even let you use these small devices in "airplane mode" from gate to gate (at least inside the US). After an MRI and two orthopedic opinions, I will have arthroscopic surgery to repair the meniscus next month. So I should be good as new (plus or minus a few decades) by January.

I spent last week in Japan, after working several weeks to prepare for optical/software presentations and product demos that I don't typically do in my day to day work these days. Since long ago I studied and still enjoy optics and pretending to design lenses (we call these "demos"), I look forward to these fall trips when I get to meet with some of the Japanese engineers who have designed many of the camera zoom lenses, DVD player lenses, and what-not that I have bought and used over the years. This trip involved even longer flights as well as many trains and train stations. In spite of all the stairs in the subway stations, my knee felt pretty good, which made me realize (this week) that most of my knee pain is triggered by driving, not by walking and climbing stairs.

I still like to play with Japanese when I'm in Japan, and thanks to the iPhone and iPad, I can now carry around the best Japanese dictionary I ever owned, which happens to be a free app called Imiwa? (the name means "what about the meaning?"). I use this to refresh my fading knowledge of Japanese, taking notes on various interesting words or phrases that I hear or see. I also bought a few copies of a children's magazine that I haven't bought in many years, Takusan no Fushigi ("A World of Wonders" in English). Intended for Japanese children 8 years and up, each monthly issue focuses on a particular non-fiction topic, from a museum of curiosities in Paris, to the life cycle of a certain moth, to the workings of Air Traffic Control (ATC, October 2012, at left), among many others (hundreds of titles published since the 1980's when I first discovered them when exploring Japanese bookstores on my early trips).

Just for fun, I read the ATC one on my flight home (cool because I like flying stuff as well as Japanese). A key point is that most of the kanji ("Chinese characters") are printed with furigana, small phonetic characters that give the pronunciation. Japanese adults don't need these, but Japanese children (and I) do for all but the basic kanji, of which I know around 200 or so. Since I know how ATC works (from private flying and from listening to United's channel 9 for many years), it was fairly easy for me to follow the text, which consisted mostly of radio exchanges between pilots and controllers (although in fact ATC in Japan and in most of the world is done almost entirely in English, because the many international pilots cannot understand Japanese). I still had to look up probably every fourth or fifth kanji-based word (many flight-related words in Japanese are adapted from English and spelled phonetically in katakana, so those are easy to read).

This trip was also the first time in 31 years of travel to Japan that I tried fugu (known as blowfish or pufferfish). I've wanted to try it for years, but it's too expensive for an expense report, and no one ever invited me! Fugu has a bad reputation because its liver is deadly poison, and if it is not prepared properly, the poison can contaminate the meat, and you can die (this sometimes happens to amateurs who try to prepare fugu at home without special training). Restaurants are of course very careful, and it is actually quite safe, and pretty tasty. It is cut almost translucently thin for sashimi (photo above - it is light pink, but the dark pattern of the plate shows through making it look gray in places in the photo), but we also had it in soup, fried, and broiled. Oishikatta! (It was delicious.)

This was also the second time I had tried hirezake, a rather strange drink. It is warm sake with the fin of a fugu soaking in it. It sounds strange (ok, it IS strange), but it tastes pretty good. So I guess technically, I had "experienced" fugu once before. It's also popular enough that you can buy it in individual cans from some drink vending machines. Japan has many vending machines that dispense small cans of cold or warm beverages (typically coffee or tea). In this case, the sake is warm, and the fish fin (possibly not always fugu?) is in a separate small container on top that you add to the sake yourself. I guess you don't want that super-soggy-fish-fin taste in your hot Japanese rice wine, do you?

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Innovation to the Rescue

I think of myself as a rational optimist. A couple of years ago, I read and reviewed a book of that title by Matt Ridley. Ridley's central theme is the crucial role of trade in the growth of civilization and human well-being - starting with the trade of goods and services that allowed people to become specialized, resulting in more of everything for everyone. But when people learned to trade in ideas, that led to innovation, stimulating the growth of science, technology, and social institutions - things like universities, democracy, and the market economy are all inventions of the human mind (usually many human minds).

I just read another book on this same general idea, the critical role of innovation and the exchange of ideas. I really like The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet by Ramez Naam. Ideas and innovations truly are an infinite resource, and Naam believes (as do I) that in most situations, market forces are the most effective way to implement ideas and solve problems. He also believes that the major area where the market has failed is in "tragedy of the commons," situations such as pollution of air and water, over-fishing, and greenhouse gas emissions. When there is no direct cost for the use or abuse of such shared resources, these "externalities" cannot be affected by market forces. When such factors do have associated costs, these can drive innovation to find better solutions faster than (say) direct government regulation. Reduction of acid rain and the recovery of the Antarctic "ozone hole" are examples of the success of this approach. It could work for greenhouse gases, too, even if ideas like a carbon tax or carbon trade credits sound scary to some people. Even if some energy prices were to go up temporarily, it would provide the incentive for innovative people and companies to find ways to lower costs and gain a competitive advantage. Innovation needs something to work on, and when it has it, it can work fast.

Naam believes that we have plenty of resources on this planet to support 10 billion or more people in American-level affluence if we can learn to use resources more efficiently, especially the huge influx of solar energy that hits the Earth every day. Certainly "old solar" (fossil fuel) resources like oil, gas, and coal are finite. As he says, "Every solar panel built makes solar energy cheaper. Every barrel of oil extracted makes oil more expensive." He also advocates some innovations that are controversial, such as genetically modified organisms (GMO's) in the food supply and increased nuclear power as part of our energy solution. I agree with him on these points. The alternatives are worse - we need GMO's to improve yields and nutritional value, and to reduce pesticide use (and forest clearing) if we are to support billions more humans in the next 30+ years. And although we are everywhere bathed in more than enough solar energy to run the planet with safe, local, non-carbon-emitting power for billions of years, until innovation leads to more advanced storage systems for dark and windless times, solar and wind power can only be part of the energy solution. Burning more coal is bad for a number of reasons, including carbon emissions and radiation (coal plants release more radiation into the atmosphere than nuclear power plants).

I think this book is well worth reading for fresh perspectives on innovation, environmental issues, and much more. I will finish with a couple of quotes that I like:
Our problem in the near term is not that resources are in short supply. It's that we use those resources incredibly inefficiently, with side effects we have yet to eliminate.
For all practical effects and purposes, our growth is unbounded. If we choose wisely, and tap into the right resources, while acting together to put limits on the negative side effects and externalities of our actions, then we can grow for at least centuries to come, and perhaps longer. 
Our only limit, for the foreseeable future, is our collective intelligence in innovating, and in putting in place the systems to guide our collective behavior. 
Easier said than done, I know, and if you live in the US, such optimism may be especially hard to fathom at the moment, as the Republican controlled House of Representatives holds us all hostage in an ideologically (and idiotically) driven federal government shutdown and threatened debt default. But I still believe that enough humans on this planet are sane and clever that we will probably make it through the next few hundred years, with more humans every year living better off than ever before. Just maybe not in the US.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Stella, You Are Stardust!

My granddaughter Stella celebrated her first birthday this weekend. Pretty amazing that it's been a year already. It's a lot of fun being a grandparent and watching her grow. My daughter organized a great party with a lot of family and friends, and I took the opportunity to play Look at You, the song I wrote for Stella's birth last year. Stella laughed and clapped along - she's heard this song a few times and I like to think she knows it's her song, but in fairness, she seems to love all music and laughs and claps along with almost any song. Something we have in common.

Stella also shares my love of books, so I bought a few for her birthday, including a really cool one I decided to hold onto for a while. Although "Stella" actually means "star" (in Latin and Italian), I think she's not quite ready for the astronomy and other science concepts in You Are Stardust, a book I discovered through Brain Pickings (OK, so maybe I bought the book for myself, but I promise to share it with Stella in a year or so).

As Carl Sagan (and various others) said and wrote, "we are all made of star-stuff." This reflects the knowledge gained by astrophysicists that we are all products of "stella" evolution -- all of the chemical elements other than hydrogen were originally "cooked up" through nuclear fusion in stars that later exploded, spreading those materials as dust and gas that later condensed into new stars and their surrounding planets, such as our sun and its surrounding solar system - including the Earth and everything and everyone on it. And it only took a few billion years! You Are Stardust turns this idea into a beautifully illustrated story about the connectedness of everything in nature, starting with:
You are stardust...
Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born.
You started life as a single cell. So did all the other creatures on planet Earth.
For background on the making of the book and the illustrations, including the science behind it, check here. The illustrations are photographs of 3D dioramas created by artist Soyeon Kim. They are really lovely. There is also an iPad app based on the book which looks cool, though I have not yet decided to spend $4.99 and 392 megabytes of storage on it.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Fire Towers and Shanties: Great Album

Full disclosure: Singer-songwriter Doug Irving is my brother. So you might imagine I could be biased in a review of his album, Fire Towers and Shanties (CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon). While I can't claim total objectivity, I am also a singer-songwriter, and there's always been a certain amount of friendly musical-sibling rivalry between us. While we generally like each other's music, and we have even written a number of songs together, we are unlikely to give each other a pass on any less-than-stellar musical effort just because we're family. So as far as I am able, I'm evaluating this album as I would any album that I like well enough to bother writing about on this blog (probably a dozen albums a year at most).

Doug has written and recorded a lot of great songs over the years, and has released several very good albums covering a wide range of styles from pop to show music to country. A lot of really good stuff. But he never recorded an album where every song really worked for me. Until now. On the bluegrass-inspired Fire Towers and Shanties, I think Doug has reached a sweet spot in his writing, singing, arranging, and playing. This is a great album where every song works and and several are really amazing.

Working backwards, the playing is first-rate. Doug has always been a good acoustic guitarist and keyboard player, and for everything else on this album, he used excellent Nashville session players, recorded with great quality in a Nashville studio. The arrangements and mixes are full and rich but not overcrowded, so you can clearly hear each of the instruments. Doug is a good singer, but on recordings in the past, he has sometimes used portions of his range in ways that did not display his vocal ability to full advantage. On this album, the lead vocals and all of the many harmony and background parts are strong and sound great.

That brings me to the songs. These are some of the most emotionally engaging and well-crafted songs Doug has ever written, with colorful melodies, strong harmonies, and excellent lyrics. While all the songs stand up well to repeated listening, these are the highlights for me:

Before Too Long - Longing for the comforts of home from under a full moon... in Kandahar. Great harmonies and fiddle parts.
Sounds Like Goodbye - The harmonies on this song reminds me of Poco, a country-rock band I liked back in the 70's. It's a "might be trouble" love song with an interesting angle and a promising ending.
Details - OK, Doug and I co-wrote this one, and I recorded it myself in 2003. But this is a better version. A reminder that in love, the small stuff counts.
John Speaker - This is a powerful song that reminds me of Bruce Hornsby (not much bluegrass on this one). War takes a toll over three generations. I'm not sure the age and date math exactly work, but the song definitely does.
Stages (April's Song) - The final song on the album is this beautiful tribute to Doug's wife. I love the chorus:
I've lived my life in stages
And every time I've gained some age
I feel more like starting over, less like turning a page
And your eyes spoke to me like only love can do
Every night and every morning
I thank the Lord for the love I found in you. 
Great job, Doug!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

iOS 7 & Kindle App Collections (Finally)

This week, Apple released the latest version of its iOS operating system for iPhone, iPad, and the latest generation iPod Touch (not mine). I read about various warnings and it seemed likely to work pretty well on an iPhone 5, so I backed up my stuff and installed it there. I decided to wait for a point release or two before installing on my iPad Mini, since I read warnings of possible bugs that could affect music-making apps. Since everything there seems to be working fine on iOS 6, I will wait for some other iPad music makers to give the all clear. Installation on the iPhone was easy and so far it's working well for me.

There are probably a zillion detailed reviews so I won't try to cover everything. My general impressions are similar to others I've seen. Although the use of high-contrast primary colors for many of the icons gives a crazy-quilt look to the home screen, I mostly like the clean, sparse, Crate & Barrel look. Much of it comes from using a wiry-thin font and having no borders around... pretty much anything. I'm mostly used to it already, although with app screens having minimal content and few controls like the timer, it's a bit TOO sparse.

One of the coolest new things is the translucent control panel that you can access from any screen by flicking up from the bottom edge. It has most of the things you need to access frequently, like music controls, airplane mode, brightness, even a flashlight (the camera flash LED). I also like the changes in the Safari web browser, including a top-down "carousel" view of your open web pages. There are similar re-designs of the interface and display features for the photo album, camera, and other Apple-supplied apps. The new iTunes radio is pretty cool too, with artist- or style-based "stations" similar to Pandora, but based on the contents of the iTunes store (with a convenient button to easily buy any song that pops up and strikes your fancy). I quickly set up a station based on my own iTunes songs to see which "real artists" my music might suggest - a mixed bag in my first test - Neil Diamond (at least it was "Sweet Caroline") and Barbra Streisand?? But also Five for Fighting, Jason Mraz, Eric Clapton, and Billy Joel. So I guess their algorithm is OK with me (whatever they may use when the reference artist has very small sales numbers!).

One of my favorite iOS 7 things is not from Apple - it's a new release of one of my most frequently used apps, the Amazon Kindle reader. It is redesigned to comply with iOS 7 interface style guidelines, but more exciting for me is COLLECTIONS. Finally! I have a lot of Kindle books, and up to now, the iOS app has had no folder system or similar method for organizing them into categories (some physical Kindle devices have included collections for a long time). Collections are similar to folders, but you can assign any book to one or more collections (or to none). It works pretty well, and it is used for items on the device as well as in the Cloud (downloaded items appear in the folder with a small check mark). This is great, because it allows you to see everything you have placed in that category, whether or not it is local (and if you have a web connection, any Cloud book can be downloaded in a few seconds).

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Carnival of Space #319

Check out the space and astronomy bloggers sharing some of their recent writing at the 319th Carnival of Space, hosted this week by Dear Astronomer.

As a reminder, if you are interested in the JPL Solar System Ambassador program, September is the month to apply.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Plain or Peanut?

I watched a very interesting short video from Worldviews Network today, "A Global Water Story." I learned a lot about fresh water and how it's in increasing demand around the world, even as climate change makes dry areas drier and wet areas wetter and ancient underground aquifers sink rapidly. To set the scene, the video uses a clever analogy to show how little of our planet's water is fresh water. 

Imagine that all the water in the world is represented by a one gallon (3.8 liter) pitcher. All of this would be salt water except for three shot glasses of fresh water (a shot glass holds about 1.5 fl. oz. or 44 ml). The contents of two of the three shot glasses would be frozen polar ice. Of the fresh liquid water in the third glass, most of it would be underground. The drinkable amount available on the Earth's surface would be the volume of a single M&M candy (a volume of about 0.64 cm^3 or 0.64 ml):

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Future Minds

I've been thinking about the future, triggered by three books, two I read last week, and one that I've only read about (so far). The amazing Brain Pickings has something interesting to learn about nearly every day. A recent article (“Tip-of-the-Tongue Syndrome,” Transactive Memory, and How the Internet Is Making Us Smarter) was inspired by a book I haven't read, Clive Thompson's Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better. I'm connecting it with two science fiction novels about the development of human-level artificial intelligence in the near future.

The Brain Pickings article discusses something I often joke about, the "outsourcing" of our brains to Google-powered smart phones and other internet tools. Back in the 80's, the board game Trivial Pursuit was popular, and I played it quite a bit with friends and family. I had a good memory and I read a lot on many subjects, so I was quite good at that game back in the day (sports questions were probably my biggest weakness since I haven't followed any sports since high school). I haven't played the game in years, and although I still read widely, and generally remember the gist of what I read, I feel I no longer retain as many details, in part because I know I can look up anything in a few seconds on my iPhone, iPad, or laptop. I mostly read books on Kindle now, so I can even reload a book and search it for a particular word or phrase in a few minutes.

Thompson's book apparently argues that this brain outsourcing is not necessarily a bad thing. Aside from the usual condemnation every "brain augmenting" technology has received since the birth of writing, the access speed and enormous depth of the information available on the internet make it more like an extension of our brains than earlier, slower developments such as writing systems, printing presses, libraries, and pre-internet computers. I generally like things the way they are now - humans have relied on technology for centuries, and we seem to do a good job adapting to whatever technology allows us to do, whether that means having all the world's knowledge literally at our fingertips, or flying to Paris in just a few hours. As long as it works and allows me some degree of independence, I'll take it (of course I wish there weren't side effects like technological unemployment - there is still work to do, and technology will need to be used to help us solve problems created by other technology, since pulling the plug is no longer an option).

But what if the side effects got even worse, and led to the decline of human beings as the dominant sentient species on this planet? Of course I'm talking about the rise of intelligent machines, or AI. In William Hertling's "Singularity Series," the author explores what could happen if the enormous power of the internet were to lead to the emergence of one or more artificially intelligent "entities." Last week I read the first two of three books in this series, Avogadro Corp. (it's a fictionalized Google) and A.I. Apocalypse. There's a third book I decided for now not to read (more later).

The books work well as "what if" explorations in fictional form. The author knows a lot about computer technology and AI, and seems to also know a lot about the inner workings of high-tech companies such as Google and its Portland, OR-based fictional counterpart in the books, Avogadro Corp. Both books certainly held my interest, though the characters and the "flow" of the writing leave something to be desired. Avogadro Corp. is Mr. Hertling's first novel, and it defines a near-future scenario in which a complex natural-language understanding software system called ELOPe is given a self-improvement and self-protection goal that unintentionally leads it to emerge as an intelligent and self-aware entity. This is one part that I have a hard time buying, but SF usually requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, and if the story works well enough, I will accept this. Computers and networks are fast, so I can buy that once the self-improvement behavior is in place, the system might quickly expand its capabilities by using additional computing and communication bandwidth (i.e., many more servers and communication resources). Would it become devious and aggressive vs. humans? More suspension of disbelief, but OK, maybe.

In the second book, A.I. Apocalypse, the unintentional AI "ELOPe" has been "tamed" and has been working in secret for 10 years with a small team of humans, mainly for the benefit of mankind as a whole. It's pretty cool all the things it can do, and it ("he" in the book) definitely considers itself to be a friend of humanity, even though it is able to set its own goals and think and work thousands of time faster than even the brightest humans. It runs on millions of networked servers distributed around the world, allowing it to do many things simultaneously, including actions to expand its own intelligence, and to give itself physical presence through robots.One of the things it has done behind the scenes is to disrupt the actions of various R&D teams that might lead to the development of a second super-powerful AI that might not be as benign as ELOPe. Of course this happens anyway, the result of a super-smart Russian-American teenager's (coerced) development of a super-powerful computer virus based on evolutionary principles. Scary stuff happens. Read it for more! The writing is still fairly clunky but the story has a lot of cool ideas and moves along well.

So what? The major takeaway here is that IF this sort of AI were to emerge, deliberately or accidentally, its intelligence and other powers might be easily extended by addition of computing and robotic resources such as server farms. Once it gets roughly as smart as a human, it could very quickly get MUCH smarter (and also very widely distributed, spread across many servers all over the world). Evolution in such an environment could happen VERY fast. If the AI (or AI entities) were to develop its/their own goals, and finds itself in competition with humans for various key resources (starting with computing cycles and network bandwidth), what could happen? Hard to say, but it might not be good for humanity, even if it didn't involve Terminator-like direct war between humans and machines. Best to not hook them up to any armed robots or drones (oops).

I'm not reading the third book right now. For one thing, I'm a little tired of the writing, and I have a lot of other things to read and do. For another, The Last Firewall takes place further in the future and is necessarily even more speculative than the first two books. It does seem to hinge greatly on neural implants, with the implication of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" - humans will not be able to play in the big leagues of super-fast, super-intelligent entities armed only with our "wetware." I think this is probably true. When the machines get that powerful, we're going to need to have some metal and silicon and fiber optics in the game if we want to still have some skin in the game.

UPDATE: There's a nice review of all three books (with spoilers!) here. Also, I found myself singing one of my own songs in the shower this morning, "Message from Tomorrow." That song briefly addresses addresses some of the trans-human issues raised in these books. And you can dance to it! Here's the cover which depicts a trans-human singer-songwriter in a trans-pastoral setting:

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Carnival of Space #318

Check out a number of cool space and astronomy blog posts featured in this week's 318th Carnival of Space, hosted by Pam Hoffman's Everyday Spacer blog.

Be a Solar System Ambassador!

If you live in the US and have an interest in space, planetary exploration, astronomy, and/or science-related educational outreach, please check out the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassadors volunteer program VERY SOON. September is the only month of the year that new ambassador applications are accepted for ambassadors to start in January 2014.

Although I have been an Ambassador since 2007, for various reasons, I have not been very active in the Ambassador program myself in the last few years. I hope to get more active again starting in 2014. Regardless of my own situation, I strongly believe in this program, and because of reductions of federal government funds related to sequestration, the need for volunteers is stronger than ever. That's because NASA's own employee-based educational outreach programs have been cut. Since the Solar System Ambassadors are volunteers, JPL plans to increase the number of new ambassador appointments for 2014 so there can be more volunteers available who can be involved with programs for schools, museums, libraries, astronomy clubs, and other educational events.

It's easy to apply, and you don't have to be an expert in space or astronomy to participate. Having an interest in educational outreach and a willingness to spend some time on it are more important than space flight expertise. JPL provides various materials and phone conferences that can help you prepare for presentations. These are fun and educational in themselves.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Why Do I Like What I Like?

I believe that biochemically, serotonin and dopamine are more or less the only two things I enjoy. But at some other level, I often wonder why I like what I like. A lot of it seems to be about novelty. Although there is probably not much that is truly new, novelty emerges in a lot of ways. Surprise is one (perhaps obvious) way. This seems to be the key to a lot of humor - a funny writer or comedian sets up a certain expectation and then takes it in another direction.Creativity is another path to novelty. What could be more novel than a drawing or song you create yourself? Travel is another path. Simulation and gaming too - artificial travel, in a sense. Books are still a pretty good simulation (they run on that old school, low-energy, mobile processor we like to call "the mind"). There are lots of things to like in the world, but I don't like or even notice most of them.

What about a new song by someone other than myself? I often enjoy the sense of familiarity and surprise that this entails. A three-minute pop song has a fairly predictable structure. It will usually incorporate typical musical elements (western scales, chords, and harmonies, common instruments like guitars, keyboards, and drums). But I hear many new songs that do nothing for me, even if others might think they are great. And then once in a while - BAM. A new song just hits me. Why is that?

Here's an example of a recent song that just grabbed me, "Is This How You Feel?" by the Australian band The Preatures. I heard it on the radio (KCRW) when I was Los Angeles recently, and I instantly turned it up. I was about to stop the car to enter a restaurant for dinner, but I waited to hear the rest of the song, and to use the iPhone Shazam app to identify it. I went back to the hotel after dinner and found the song on SoundCloud and YouTube. The video is basic but effective enough. It's a strongly rhythmic and extremely catchy song. I love it, and even after hearing it twenty or more times, it still makes me smile. I don't know why. It's not the lyrics, which are barely coherent (best I can tell, it says, "I'm excited about you, do you feel the same?"). The singer sounds sexy and excited, and many listeners seem to find the song infectious. I had never heard anything from or about this band before, but now I expect I will buy their EP or album once it becomes available in the US. It reminds me somehow of the old song "Semi-Charmed Life" by Third Eye Blind, though it's a love song rather than a drug song. I'm not sure what's the same about them but they seem to trigger some of the same pathways in my brain, and that 1997 song is one of those I will listen to nearly every time it pops up.

Here's another example, Paul McCartney's brand-new song "New." This one is not quite so hard to fathom - the basic rhythm and tonality evoke Paul's Beatles classic "Penny Lane." It's not the same as "Penny Lane," but there is definitely something strongly "Beatleish" about this song, even if Paul's 71 year old voice is not quite as smooth as it was in 1967, it's still Paul, and it's still damn good. There are some very deep neural pathways that trigger on almost anything that evokes the Beatles (even partial matches like the bands Badfinger and Jet and the nearly forgotten early 70's singer-songwriter Emitt Rhodes). And yet... Paul has put out maybe 20 albums since the Beatles. I probably have half of them and love perhaps 3 or 4. Even Sir Paul himself doesn't trigger all my "Beatles = Good" neural patterns. I'm not sure why.

It's not all about other people's music. I like a lot of my own music, and I especially like the feeling of completing a new song or a new recording, sort of a "creative rush." Finishing a larger work like my three albums gets an especially big "like." But even my own work doesn't get an "all access pass." There are many things I write or record that do nothing for me a few days or weeks later.Even finishing a blog post is a little "creative rush." Pretty much any act of creation, though some can be so long in birthing (like my 2005-2006 space flight how-to book Go Play In Space), that it's hard to know whether I like it or not! With some distance, it eventually seems worth all the work, and I feel satisfaction in having completed such a project. Learning something complex (like how to fly, or Japanese) is another "project" type of thing with more long-run satisfaction than "creative rush," though there are some milestones that can be quite a thrill (like my first solo flight back in 2000).

It's not all about music. Books are still a major thing in my life. I just finished the final novel (Dust) in a SF trilogy by Hugh Howey. I discovered the first book Wool a few months ago on Amazon, and I found it to be a very enjoyable piece of post-apocalyptic science fiction. This tends to be one of my favorite SF sub-genres. That seems odd even to me. How can stories of the end of the world and its aftermath be "enjoyable?" I don't know - maybe it's the puzzle aspect of figuring out how to survive. Maybe I identify with the heroes and heroines of these stories. I don't know - I just like many of these stories. I also like many books in many other genres, most of it non-fiction.

But what about the familiar? Why do I still love to hear many Beatles songs some 45 years after I first heard them? Why do I still enjoy pizza or haddock or Cocoa Krispies every time? Or seeing the ground or the clouds from 3,500 or 35,000 feet? Or seeing pictures of planets or galaxies from Cassini or Hubble? Or playing the guitar? Or speaking Japanese or French? These things are not exactly novel. I don't know. I guess there are a lot of ways to trigger those little shots of serotonin and dopamine. Evolution came through with some pretty fine home-grown drugs!

Carnival of Space #317

The 317th Carnival of Space is running this week at The Urban Astronomer's Blog.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Carnival of Space #316

The 316th Blog Carnival of Space is running now at Next Big Future. I especially liked the one about colonizing Venus with balloon-like floating cities some 50 kilometers above the surface, where the atmospheric pressure is roughly the same as Earth at sea level (though the atmosphere itself is not exactly breather-friendly). This idea was floated some years ago, but it was fun to hear about it again.

The picture here is not exactly a floating city, but it is the only graphic I could quickly locate purporting to show something navigating the clouds of Venus. Simulated clouds of Venus with an Orbiter add-on "space yacht" based on the cover art for a 1970's album by Yes called Yessongs. Google any of that that doesn't make sense to you.

P.S. There are many strange and marvelous add-ons available for the Orbiter space flight simulator. I have pictures of many of them on my Flickr site.

Starmap Media: Personal Trainer

Starmap was the first astronomy app I bought when I got my first iPod Touch in 2008. Although I had used astronomy software like Stellarium on PC, I was amazed at the possibility of having a planetarium in my pocket. Something I could take outside with me and hold up to the sky to help identify objects, or search to find the expected positions of stars and planets based on current position and time. All with a simple touch, drag, and pinch-zoom interface. Over time, other astronomy apps emerged, I got an iPhone which included GPS and compass, and Starmap added even more features. Life is good for fans of iOS devices and night skies.

Now Starmap has been expanded to improve its usefulness as an astronomy learning tool. Starmap Media was recently released as both an add-in to Starmap and as a free standalone app. As with many iOS apps, "free" isn't the whole story. There are in-app purchases to provide most of the content, so at the first level,  Starmap Media functions as a specialized audio book reader for a series of "astronomy lessons" or stories.

But what's really cool is that the "lessons" are integrated with planetarium software that knows the time and location and what is visible in the sky at any given time (apart from such spoilers as clouds). So if you go outside on a clear night this week and fire up "Wandering the Summer Sky," the app will point you to the various objects of interest while the narrator tells you what to look for and why. It's like having an astronomer as your personal night-sky tour guide. It doesn't answer questions (yet), but it's still pretty amazing.

While there are a few free stories or "star tours"  supplied with the app, most are in-app purchases that cost 99 cents each to download (once downloaded, Internet access is not needed to use the stories). There are stories for beginners as well as intermediate and advanced topics. The writing, production, and narration are smooth and professional, with many multimedia features built in. These include animated overlays that explain the shapes and positions of objects and patterns in the sky, diagrams and pictures of nebulae, galaxies, etc., as well as historic and mythological background.

I tried out a few of the stories at beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels (full disclosure: I was given  free reviewer access to a number of stories). For example, "Stellar Smoke Rings" is a 12 minute story labeled intermediate. It points you to and explains several well-known planetary nebulae including the Ring Nebula and the Dumbbell Nebula. It was easy to follow the instructions to find the correct area of the sky. The narration waits for you to get there and touch an OK button. You can press pause at any time and an interactive contents list pops up, allowing you to jump backwards or forwards as needed.

Another intermediate story, "More Than Meets the Eye," points you to a couple of seemingly minor constellations as background for a nice explanation of stellar magnitudes and measures of sky viewing quality. The advanced story "The Arcturus Stream" talks about the behavior and properties of the easy-to-find star Arcturus, and about some aspects of star formation that can be inferred from the amounts of heavy elements such as metals that are present or absent in a star's spectrum (the "rainbow" of light from the star that astronomers use to determine what elements are in a star, using a telescope instrument called a spectroscope).

Any problems? For one thing, even the "advanced" stories I've seen so far don't seem very advanced for someone with a serious interest in astronomy who has done much reading. I have studied a lot of astronomy over the years, but I don't mind a review of a familiar topic presented in a fresh way. And the star tours include topics from recent research, such as the idea that the stars in the relatively fast-moving Arcturus stream may have originated in a small satellite galaxy that was gravitationally captured by our Galaxy. It's also nice to have a professional narrator presenting the material "in context" as you look at the star or constellation in question. It's like having a "personal trainer" for star gazing!

What about the cost? I think of it like a subscription to Sky & Telescope magazine. The sky is big, with many things to see and learn, and it changes through the year. This is why astronomy magazines sell, even though there are many astronomy books out there - they keep you up to date, show you things you may have missed, present information and recent research in new ways, and tie stories to current events such as spacecraft launches and encounters. Starmap Media stories are like astronomy magazine articles read by a professional narrator and keyed to what you can see in the sky right now (there is also a "couch mode" for exploring when skies are cloudy or the objects are out of view). You only buy the ones you want (you can download a brief free preview of any paid story to see if it interests you). Once downloaded, the stories are yours to enjoy whenever you like.

If you have an iPad, a bonus is that the free Starmap Media app is a universal app that works well on either iPhone/iPod Touch screens or larger iPad screens. The Starmap app itself comes in two versions, one for small screens and a more expensive HD version for iPads. You may want the HD or iPhone "pro" version for other features (such as expanded catalogs and telescope control), but it's nice that the Starmap Media star tours and sky displays work well on any iOS display (you can use the iPhone version of Starmap on an iPad, using the 2x button to fill the screen, but the fonts etc. don't look as nice when you view a scaled version of an iPhone app on an iPad).

Starmap Media is a really cool way to add to your enjoyment and learning while exploring the stars and planets. If you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, try it out the next time you are out looking at the marvelous night sky.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Space Settlements

A few weeks ago I saw the movie Elysium, mainly because I was intrigued by trailers showing a huge Earth-orbiting space settlement, very much like those proposed in the 1976 book The High Frontier by Gerard K. O'Neil. I had that book back in the day (actually I may still have it). Back then they were called space colonies or habitats. The movie was both entertaining and irritating. The imagined technologies and the visuals were very cool, including Elysium itselfa rotating torus-type space habitat that is supposed to be large enough to house 500,000 of the super-rich in 2154 (the much-less-than-one-percent), when the Earth's surface has become just too ugly to stand (or something). There's a lot of shooting and other typical action movie stuff, and a plot based on the huge disparity between the haves (living in luxury in space) and the have-nots (living in squalor in Los Angeles, apparently). Matt Damon is the sort-of hero in a wildly implausible story. I wanted to see more of the Elysium habitat, but that was not the point of this movie. I'm not really sure what was, other than that grossly unequal wealth distribution might have unintended consequences. True, but hard to believe this could be the result.

I hope that someday we do develop space settlements that are not gated communities for the super rich. Who will they be for, and why will we need them? I pretty much agree with the National Space Society (NSS) that humanity should strive to have places to live beyond the Earth for a variety of reasons. To provide a backup in case of extreme disaster on this planet, a way to preserve human and other life. To give access to additional resources. For economic growth that could arise from new frontiers and technologies. Because we can do it. And because it's really cool! I'm also a member of the Mars Society, and I think that eventually we will be able to colonize Mars (starting as early as 2023 if the Mars One project succeeds). But Mars is very far away, and if we can learn to capture near-Earth objects and use their materials to robotically build things in space, large space settlements might be practical, and they can be built in near-Earth orbit (like Elysium), or at other places in the Earth-Moon system, and eventually in other places in the solar system. 

So I would say, plan for all possibilities. There's an essay by Rick Tumlinson in the current issue of the NSS magazine ad Astra called "All of the Above." In it he says, "the opening of space to human development is the most important activity of the human species" (in the long run, this is certainly true). He suggests that there is no "one true path" to achieve this, but that there are three key components:
  1. Regular, reliable, and low-cost access to and from space.
  2. Utilization of the resources of space, wherever they are, for whatever purpose we need (i.e., "live off the land")
  3. Governments that understand and support the idea of an open and expanding frontier in space, by, of, and for the people.
I agree with these points, though I'm sure not all the governments who will be active in space in the coming decades will sign up for #3. 

The same issue of Ad Astra has a space habitat on the cover. It's not Elysium, but the movie may have affected the timing since the article discussed was written in 2007. "Kalpana One" is not a torus, but a cylinder, and it's much smaller than Elysium, in consideration of the amount of mass needed to construct it, as well as radiation shielding and various safety factors. It is sized such that a 2 rpm rotation rate produces one G of rotational pseudo-gravity (low radiation and Earth equivalent G are essential, especially for growth and development of children). It might house 3000 people. It's really cool that so much analysis has gone into this. You can read the article here.

I've read a lot of science fiction on subjects like this. In terms of what things could be like if we open up and settle the solar system, I especially like Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312. Is the NSS agenda really just unlabeled science fiction? I don't think so. I think that technology is accelerating at such a rate that we really need to be planning for things like space settlements and Mars colonies. They aren't going to happen next year. But with the usual caveats (e.g., assuming we don't plunge ourselves into nuclear war or world-wide depression), some of these things could happen in the lifetime of my children. Or at least my grandchildren. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The 100*Pi Carnival of Space!

Well, 314 is approximately 100*(pi), right? Anyway, the 314th weekly blog carnival of space is live at the Dear Astronomer blog. Like the summer, it's short but sweet (and hey Curiosity, congrats on your first Earth year on Mars!).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Kerbal Space Program?!?

I read something about KSP (Kerbal Space Program) a couple of years ago but I didn't do anything about it. Then the other day I saw this comic on xkcd, referencing KSP. If you hover your mouse over the comic, the comment says "Ahem. We are STRICTLY an Orbiter shop." Me too! But I was curious about what had happened to KSP since it was last (vaguely) on my radar.

Quite a bit, it turns out. It's still in an extended alpha development phase, but it's already got some interesting capabilities for people who like to "play in space" (something I once wrote a book about). After looking at a few web sites and videos, I decided to download and try KSP for myself (current version is 0.21.1, and it costs $23, including future updates). So what is KSP? From the web site:
KSP is a game where the players create and manage their own space program. Build spacecraft, fly them, and try to help the Kerbals to fulfill their ultimate mission of conquering space.
Essentially it's a space flight simulator with reasonably accurate physics, wrapped in a game-like interface with pretty decent graphics and some quirky alien-like astronaut characters (KSP's developers also seem to have a quirky sense of humor). It is just now starting to emerge from its "sandbox" phase (with the ability to build and fly your own spacecraft, but without any specific game-like goals). At this point, it's something like 3D simulated model rocketry, but with the ability to launch the rockets you design into space (orbital mechanics is involved, but the math is hidden behind clever controls and displays). You can dock with space stations, travel to and land on other planets, and try to navigate your spacecraft back to Kerbin for a safe landing.

Yes, Kerbin, not Earth. This fictional solar system has real physics (orbital mechanics and atmospheric flight) but it doesn't use the names and specific physical properties of our own solar system. Kerbin is an Earth-like "exoplanet" with two moons (Mun and Minmus - you can fly to and land on them).

So far I've only scratched the surface of KSP, and I don't know how much time I will spend with it. It depends in part on whether I start to do some space-related educational outreach again. I haven't done any for quite a while. When I have done school presentations, I have generally used Orbiter to dynamically demonstrate certain aspects of space flight and the solar system. That's cool for demos, and it beats simply using PowerPoint, but Orbiter's learning curve is quite steep, and it's hard for me to recommend to any students younger than maybe 11 or 12. KSP is definitely more kid-friendly. The rocket building section (see picture at top of this post) is simple yet powerful (though there is no guarantee that what you build will fly well or at all - the physics is pretty realistic, so you have to worry about mass, thrust, stability, etc.). As the Minecraft craze shows, kids (and adults) love to build stuff inside virtual worlds (and real ones). While building your own spacecraft for Orbiter is certainly possible, it's a separate "add on" development process, not integrated with the simulation itself.

KSP also integrates the instruments and controls needed to change orbits directly within the 3D views (spacecraft and map), making it easier and less abstract to see the effects of firing your rockets at certain times, locations, and directions. The screenshot above is from the integrated Orbiting 101 tutorial, and it shows the "maneuver node system" being used to predict the effect of a pro-grade burn at the low point of the orbit (periapsis). Dragging the pro-grade symbol changes the delta-V (speed change) value, and the dotted orbital path shows the predicted effect in real time (your path doesn't actually change unless you make that proposed burn at the proper time and with the correct ship orientation). Orbiter has similar capabilities (and much more) with its various "MFD" instruments, but these work like display screens in the cockpit, not directly in the 3D view. More realistic but also harder to visualize and understand.

KSP allows you to build and fly some pretty cool and complex space vehicles such as multi-stage rockets with strap-on boosters, and even Apollo LM-like landers such as the one shown above (docked with an Apollo-like command module housing three Kerbals who are about to land on the Mun - this is a supplied sample scenario). Although it's easy to build monster rockets with many engines, you do need to pay attention to structural integrity, symmetry, and stability or your giant booster may tumble out of control, crash, and burn. Unlike in Orbiter, things can and do blow up in KSP, though at the moment the hardy Kerbal astronauts are immune to G-forces, allowing you to perform high-G atmospheric entries and the like with impunity (this will undoubtedly change in future versions).

Future versions will also include a flight sim-like "career mode" with awards for completing certain missions or milestones like docking or landing on the Mun). I suppose that training options will also expand, although there is already some basic training in the game, and a variety of user-created tutorial videos and PDF's available on the web. Note that since changes between versions can be pretty extreme, there is no guarantee of backwards compatibility for previously built things when you upgrade.

I think KSP is already a great educational tool, because it is sufficiently "toy like" to be fun and non-threatening (think building robots with Lego MindStorms, but much cheaper), but powerful enough to allow really interesting and challenging activities. I really like the emphasis on what is essentially engineering - designing, building, testing, and thinking about why things work or don't work so the next iteration can be better. And remember, to engineer is human (and sometimes fun too).