Monday, April 29, 2013

The ISS Song, "live" from the ISS

I know I said that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is my hero, but can I have more than one? Because now Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is also my hero. In addition to the great photos and videos sent down daily from the ISS by Col. Hadfield, he also wrote and recorded a song with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies. Cool enough, but how cool would it be to sing and play the song in space while Ed and friends join in from Earth? You can see for yourself in this video -- the song is called "I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing)." Chris is also helping to promote Canada's Music Monday on May 6.

It is the International Space Station, so the fact that a Canadian astronaut is bringing so much attention to the ISS should not be a surprise. I just hope that NASA, ESA, and the other ISS partners continue the public outreach that Chris Hadfield is leading so effectively now.  He's really given it a human face and voice. Chris won't be the ISS commander forever (in fact, he's scheduled to come down on May 13).

SpaceShipTwo Supersonic!

SpaceShipTwo is Virgin Galactic's suborbital passenger vehicle, currently in testing for commercial joy rides starting in the near future. Today SS2 achieved powered and supersonic flight (Mach 1.22) for the first time, with just a 16 second burn of its scary-awesome rocket engine.

I wanna go! Unfortunately Virgin won't accept my United award miles.

Photo credit: Virgin Galactic

Saturday, April 27, 2013

WIRED is 20!

WIRED is my favorite magazine. If my career and quirky hobbies (space flight simulators, studying Japanese, books, aviation, SF, recording music, etc.) didn't provide enough evidence of my full-blown geekiness, my affection for WIRED would probably make the case. Amazingly enough, 2013 is the twentieth anniversary of this forward looking magazine. I still like it.

I remember finding and buying the very first issue of WIRED in 1993. I was already living in Massachusetts, but in those pre-video-conferencing days, I traveled to my company's home office in Pasadena 5 or 6 times a year. On that trip, I was at UCLA for some reason, schmoozing in the bookstore (I've always loved college campuses and bookstores). That's where I spotted WIRED 1.01, probably attracted by the Japanese katakana ("otaku") and the headline "Digital Sex." I think I subscribed almost immediately, and I still receive the paper magazine, though I mostly read it on the iPad now and will probably stop the paper version soon.

For the twentieth anniversary, the current issue of WIRED has a huge alphabetical list of topics that have been covered over the last 20 years (you can click on these topics on From Angry Birds to Geek to Memes to Silicon Valley to xkcd and Mark Zuckerberg, I found many of these things interesting, though for some of them now, I wonder why. Which is actually a good question: why? Why has WIRED been my favorite magazine? I think it has to do with novelty and the future. I'm really interested in new and coming things, though not in all new things. For example, I have almost no interest in fashion, celebrities, or sports, although these areas are full of novelty (or simulated novelty). I tilt more toward the scientific and technological when it comes to novelty, and WIRED has always delivered.

If you click on the topic Geek, there's an explanation of the word, with credit to SF author William Gibson for introducing the modern usage of the word in the mid-80's. He described himself as "a geek who couldn't play baseball" (moi aussi). After some additional background, the item concludes with:
Be it a geek or a geck, both were misfits. And so was Gibson: Inept at sports, he took up science fiction. Foolishness in mainstream pursuits signified talent for their intellectual opposite. Geekiness became a synonym for countercultural braininess. And the rest is history.
While I don't consider myself entirely countercultural or entirely brainy, if there's anything I identify with, it would be countercultural braininess.I may no longer fly my freak flag, but I still roll under the geek banner.

UPDATE: I just noticed that I wrote a fond note about WIRED back in 2008, on the occasion of its 15th anniversary, with the title "Optimism as Strategy." I included a quote from an article in that issue that I think is still relevant to the magazine, the future, and more importantly, to living:
The challenge is obvious, the dangers present, the need great. But be optimistic. I would say that, wouldn't I, since we were often accused during my time at Wired of being overly optimistic. But optimism is not false hope, it's a strategy for living. If you are optimistic about the future, you will step up and take responsibility and attempt to make it better for yourselves and your own children.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy Earth Day!

Before it slips away and becomes belated as so many occasions seem to do, here's wishing everyone a very happy Earth Day!

The picture above is a screen shot from the Orbiter space flight simulator, which I keep wanting to return to playing with, but never seem to have time. This is a nice, big-picture graphic, but as a celebration of the Earth, it pales in comparison to the daily stream of fascinating Earth images beamed down from the International Space Station by its commander, Col. Chris Hadfield. Just amazing stuff. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook (or on Tumblr) if you really want to get to know the face of this wonderful planet! He also does great science demonstrations (thanks to Astropixie for this tip).

Friday, April 19, 2013

Exoplanets Rising

Several new Earth-like exoplanets were recently announced, based on continuing observations from NASA's Kepler satellite (the above graphic is from NASA's Kepler page). This brings the number of confirmed exoplanets to 882, according to one of my favorite iPad apps, the aptly named Exoplanet (also for iPhone). Kepler-62 is a five-planet system with planets of 1.4 and 1.6 Earth radii orbiting in the habitable zone, according to the discovery paper (abstract). Could these planets actually have liquid water? And life? Too soon to tell, but we will sure have plenty of candidates to look at once we have some tools with sharp enough vision and sensors, like the upcoming JWST (James Webb Space Telescope). Of course at 1200 light-years from Earth, no one is going to be visiting the Kepler-62 system anytime soon (barring great advances in wormhole transportation systems).

Of course you can find such information directly from Google, NASA, and other sources, but the Exoplanet app is pretty much one-stop shopping for keeping up with newly discovered planets and how they compare with one another, through a variety of cool graphics and comparison tools. For example, the page for Kepler-62e above includes the relative sizes (with Earth just to the left of Kepler-62b) and the location within the star's habitable zone (shown in green), along with other information (you can touch each band for a full-screen version). You can also view lovely, zoomable graphics of the Milky Way Galaxy, showing its structure along with the location of any selected exoplanet, plus our own Solar System, for reference (example below).

The screen below shows the latest discoveries at the top of a detailed database table. There is also some great background information that explains what exoplanets are, how they are discovered, and how they vary. The basic app is free, but there are various low-cost in-app purchases to add more features and to remove ads. Updates for newly discovered planets are small and frequent free downloads within the app (when you have an internet connection). A cool tool.

Monday, April 08, 2013

F-Sim Space Shuttle - Video!

F-Sim Space Shuttle (iTunes, also available for Android devices) is the only gaming app that stays on my iPad and iPhone for very long. I don't play it all the time, but every once in a while it's nice to shoot a few space shuttle approaches just for the fun of it. The latest update (v2.8) just came out, and developer Sascha Ledinsky has added a really cool feature: the ability to export videos of your flights!

He added external views and in-app replay features long ago, but with video export, you can share your accomplishments with the world - in HD! So of course I had to try it. This YouTube video features a "safe" landing (not bad except for landing left of the runway center line), with a musical soundtrack added in iMovie (2 minutes of the song "Down & Out" from my recent album "Look at You," available on iTunes, not to mention

UPDATE: A small tip has helped my landings immensely - pinch-zooming to enlarge the HUD display so the FPM (flight path marker) and "guidance diamond" are easier to view and position. I finally made a "perfect" final approach landing for 900,832 points, recorded in this video. Next stop: a perfect full-HAC approach and landing, and a million point landing. Then I will retire just like the real shuttle pilots. Unless I decide to pursue shuttle aerobatics, like this amazing barrel roll on short final, followed by a good landing (flown by Sascha, the developer of F-Sim Space Shuttle). Slick!

"The Martian" - Great SF Book

This was a great find and practically a steal at 99 cents for a full-length SF Kindle e-book. Andy Weir's The Martian was recommended to me, probably because I had recently bought another Kindle SF title, Wool by Hugh Howie (also a great read from an "indie writer"). 

I tend to prefer so-called "hard" science fiction, stories that have at least some plausible claim to feasibility based on physics and technology, even if it's some pretty far-out physics and technology (I mostly don't like stories based on magic and fantasy, with occasional exceptions).  The Martian is definitely hard SF, but it's also a riveting story line. I read it in a couple of days. 

The story takes place on a NASA manned Mars mission (you immediately see the fiction here!), perhaps 30-40 years in the future. An ion-engine-powered (VASIMR actually) Mars transfer vehicle (the Hermes) has been built and used on two previous manned missions. These are short-term missions (about a month on the surface), using fairly extensive infrastructure delivered to the surface by multiple unmanned supply ships. Although not defined in detail, the mission architecture seems to borrow from Mars Direct and various NASA Mars Reference Missions, with in situ rocket fuel production, a fairly large "hab" to house the astronauts, large pressurized Mars rovers, and a separate MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) used to return the astronauts to the Mars-orbiting Hermes. These facilities all feature importantly in the story.

The six astronauts of Ares 3 run into trouble a few days after landing - an extra-powerful dust storm with winds that could damage the MAV, necessitating as hasty abort. As the crew of six makes its way to the MAV for emergency departure, Mark Watney is injured by flying debris. Telemetry indicates that he has died due to a large breach in his spacesuit. With the MAV about to topple in the wind, the rest of the crew barely escapes, leaving Mark's body behind.

Of course, Mark doesn't actually die (his suit was breached and he was injured, but some lucky circumstances allowed the suit to seal off the breach). The hab is still intact and stocked with food for six for a month-long mission, but all antennas have been lost, so Mark is unable to communicate with his crew mates or with Earth. Due to orbital mechanics and complex logistics, a rescue is unlikely even if he can reach someone, and even with rationing, the food supply will only give him a few months. But Mark figures he might as well try to survive, and as a clever and stubborn guy, as well as a botanist and mechanical engineer (every crew member is chosen for multiple skills), he manages to solve a steady stream of problems that Mars and his situation throw at him (none of them are aliens or demons as in some other Mars mission books and movies). 

I won't tell you more than that, except to say that with logbook entries as the format, I was skeptical that this could really hold my interest. But Mark (or should I say Andy) is quite funny, and his descriptions of his problem solving are extremely interesting (and detailed). This book made me think that humans on Mars will have a tough time, but that we will ultimately prevail in spite of the hostile environment. It also gave me a "real" use for the Mars Globe app that I have had on my iPod Touch and iPad for quite some time. I won't explain that any further - read it yourself! 


Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Tyson is My Hero

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is my hero. Astrophysicist, science educator, eloquent proponent for space exploration, writer, PBS television host. His book Space Chronicles: Facing the Final Frontier is one of about ten Kindle books I am actively reading on my iPad (it's a collection of previously published articles and essays on various space exploration topics). I've read interviews with him and watched a number of his videos, always impressed with his ability to communicate clearly and in a (yes) down-to-earth way on the issues of science, including space exploration and the role that it could play in building a better future for all of us, starting with the inspiration it could provide to the next generation of scientists and engineers.

Tyson is not the first to talk about the fact that Apollo was fundamentally a Cold War program, a technologically sophisticated battle with the Sputnik-launching, human-orbiting Soviets, which I have understood for years. NASA didn't receive as much as 4.4% of the federal budget in the 1960's [vs. around 0.5% now] with the goal of cracking the secrets of the universe or inspiring kids to study science and technology, but inspire it did. I'm one of those kids, even though I ended up an optical engineer rather than an astronaut or aeronautical engineer as I originally hoped I would be. Space has been and can continue to be a huge technology and education multiplier, and I hope that our leaders can come to see this in the next few years, even as private space begins to take over more of the routine aspects of spaceflight in low Earth orbit. Private space may get us to Mars someday, but NASA and other space agencies around the world really should be deeply involved with the vision and the parts that require big long-term investments.

If you want to learn more about the value of space exploration, you could read his Space Chronicles, or just search for Neil DeGrasse Tyson on YouTube or Google. He's a very engaging speaker and writer. This video, "Message to the Future" (apparently a speech from fall 2012) is a good place to start. He tells the story a lot better than I do.

Notes on a Shinkansen

This is a set of more or less random notes I wrote last November, the last time I was in Japan. I had planned to write a blog post about this but I forgot. I just discovered the notes on my iPod Touch and decided to post them even though it was a few months ago. I really like Japan and I wish I would get there more often and that I would really spend some time reviewing Japanese so I could converse better when I'm there. But it's pretty much once a year now, and I pretty much speak English. C'est la vie. Or should I say shikata ga nai?

Friday evening November 9. Night before flying home from Tokyo after one week business trip. Taking the Shinkansen alone from Osaka to Tokyo because my colleagues had other plans in Osaka. I've eaten my "ekiben" dinner (train station lunchbox) along with a couple of beers and I'm listening to music on my iPod. Feeling pretty relaxed.
  1. Crosby, Stills, and Nash's "Helplessly Hoping on headphones, first time in ages. Beautifully simple three-part with Stills in middle, Crosby on left, Nash on right. Just lovely. Parts are tight but very distinct. 
  2. Ekiben is usually good. Foods I wouldn't normally think to eat cold that somehow work. Tonight tonkatsu, breaded fried pork filet with sweet BBQ-like sauce. Side of sticky rice balls plus a piece of baked grilled salmon, a fried potato wedge, one piece each of broccoli and carrot. Plus a piece of sushi tamago which is really a slice of a cold, dense, sweet rolled up egg omelet. All cold. But good with a tall can of Suntory "The Premium Malts" beer. Works for me.
  3. Dorayaki (どら焼) was an early fave Japanese food for me when I started coming here in the early 1980's. A sandwich of small round pancakes with sweet bean paste inside. A sweet dessert my daughters thought was disgusting. Sweet bean paste is a bit odd. I just had one, first in years, from a 7-11 store. Pretty good. 
  4. No photo ops on night train back to Tokyo but yesterday coming down, Mt. Fuji was very clear and I wished I had a camera with me. Actually I have two, one in BlackBerry, one in iPod Touch, both suck. A friend on the trip took a nice iPhone picture in Mishima [see above] where we visited a customer. I finally will get an iPhone myself next month to replace Blackberry -- iPhone 5 should be cool even though I have lots of apps on iPod Touch. But having a nice camera, everywhere Internet, and GPS should be nice. Oh yeah, and it's a phone. [Update: the iPhone 5 is really cool]
  5. So many smartphones In Japan now, especially iPhone though I probably just notice those more. Many fewer paper manga and newspapers on trains. Everyone riding head down with their devices. 
  6. A small coincidence in shuffled songs on iPod. Two very random songs in a row happened to mention Japan. Julie Andrews "In My Own Little Corner" from "Cinderella" has the line "I'm an heiress who has always had her silk made, by her own flock of silkworms in Japan" (this is Rogers & Hammerstein so of course this is to rhyme with milkmaid). Then the Local Natives' song "Airplanes" which has the line "I keep those chopsticks you had from when you taught abroad in Japan."  Say what? I sure do have a weird collection of songs on my iPod.