Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Oshkosh and the dream

This is not about children's clothing. This is about dreams.

Why is it that right around the time of the Oshkosh airshow I start to get weepy? Not full on sobbing, but that kind of emotional welling up thing?

Right, it is because I'm reminded that for everything that is unnerving and wrong in the world, for all that things seem to degenerate into apathy or blunt self-service, dreams are still alive. Not a lot of them, and not a lot that succeed, but there are still a few out there.

So every year, a half million or so people who still have the dream (or one of them) turn out to an airport in Wisconsin to celebrate aviation, dreams, and community. They arrive by air, most of them, flying in aboard everything from restored Piper Cubs that followed freeways using road maps (I had a friend in college who did this with his dad -- a senior United Airlines captain -- for several years) to state of the art Gulfstreams. They camp out in the fields, in tents pitched underneath wings or fusualages (though probably that's more likely for the guys who flew in the Piper Cubs than the Gulfstreams).

3642-N642C-Oshkosh05.jpgThey come to shop -- all the big players will be there with hardware both new and established right alongside the dreamers who think they have a better (or just different) way of doing things. They come to look -- at P-51's with aluminum skin shining and gleaming in the sun, at F-22's cordoned off behind ropes, at Citation Mustangs that probably represent the mean upper bound of "I could do that" for most general aviation pilots, at thoroughbread Moonys and workman Cessnas and svelte Cirrusses. They come to mourne, with Steve Fosset and Lancair the most strongly missed this year, though the one will live on in timeless accomplishments and the other as an upmarket division of Cessna. They come to learn, some at seminars organized by volunteers and vendors where PowerPoint decks and simulations walk through the basics of operating that new Garmin (amazing how this startup is now nearly synonymous with aircraft navigation -- I guess some of the dreamers do make it) or advanced airmanship and recovery from unusual attitudes but most from the countless handwaving demonstrations going on around the flightline:

"So I'd gotten her slowed way too far down (as you can see from my hand being held figertips-high) and then she started to wallow (as you can see by my hand slaloming back and forth) and I still had to make the turn to final (as I now move my whole body to re-orient the demonstration)..."

But above all they come to dream and to live the dream. To, for just a week, stand in the company of those who love what they love, to envision and argue for a world that accepts aviation in a way it never again will, to shake hands with their heroes, to ogle their next dream jet, plan their next fly-in, to dine on brats and soothe sunburns.

And some of these dreamers take their visions and stake everything on the fulfillment of that dream. They found companies, launch crusades, and plan whole new eras of aviation and heroism. I sit here, in my office, a cynical product of The Large Corporation and, even more so, of the hard lessons of 2000 when many an ill conceived dream or scheme came to naught but some bad debt, and I wonder why they still do it. Perhaps one in ten of the brilliat ideas launched or announced at this year's Oshkosh will survive to the next great fly-in. Perhaps one in ten of those will successfully reach even the barest scratching definition of success. And perhaps one in ten of those will truly thrive and change the world -- and even then will they do it in the way forseen?

The folks at Garmin, a success story four paragraphs ago, admit that their consumer products do much to subsidize the aviation side of the house. The money, even for the manufacturer of the mighty G1000, is in putting your technology into Chevrolets and Nokias. Half a decade ago, Eclipse was going to change the universe. Today, their CEO is ousted and their customers sweating. Moony has declared bankruptcy more times than Liz Taylor has been married and is cutting back at the turndown point of another of the latest of their boom-bust cycles. Hard working dreamers founded the Rocket Racing League -- great idea, Long-EZ look-alikes soaring through the air blending NASCAR guts with the dream of some pulp science fiction writer's future. Elon Munsk builds rockets (OK, I'm deviating from Oshkosh here, but bear with me, I'm being emotional and I promise I'll get it back home eventually) hoping to simultaneouse revolutionize and undermine the established way of doing the space business. Just as did Kistler (in litigation), Roton (in litigation), and Orbital Sciences (successful but not revolutionary).

The linking idea is that all of these people share a dream -- and I am shocked to see how many continue to stake what they have on a dream. I fear the day that they trade in the dewar of liquid oxygen for the bottle of gin that seems, to me to, lie almost inevitably at the end of such a road. But they still do it. They attract investors and they find customers and some of them do make it. And every one of those rare successes brings more who are willing to take the risk. And for all my weepy impending-tragedy emotion, thak God that they keep coming.

Because they remind me why I keep a poster of a Citation Mustang (for I know my "I could do that" limits) next to my monitor and laptop at work and a shot of the 3rd green at Pacific Dunes as my desktop background. It reminds me of why I put this blog out into the ether hoping that someone reads it and learns or grows or enjoys. It reminds me of why I plan the second novel I will write (for this is a dream with a chance of fulfilment even lower that of success in the aerospace marketplace during a time of economic uncertainty!).

clark_plane.jpgThe dream is alive. All of the dreams are alive -- the fliers, the writers, the athletes, the musicians, everyone who casts aside the irritating and mundane bounds of conventionality and expectation and takes the chance. Wheter you pin everything you have or nothing more than than your own emotions on it, if you chase that dream then you are keeping the spirit alive.

At last, the lader, which had been built slowly, slowly, one hope at a time, reached up to the clouds. And the dreamer began to climb.

So to all of you at Oshkosh, those of you flying in in a restored T-34, those of you who putting down your deposit for a Cirrus Vision, those of you hawking a rain-repellant coating, those of you just there to see and touch and smell, thank you.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The mother load of incomprehensible rocket information

I have never the kind of detailed information on modern rocket engine design as I found on this site that I just stumbled upon.

The problem is, it is all in Russian. Damn. The Eng link is a teaser. I speak about four words of Russian, and those only when I'm drinking vodka. Well, I've got some pretty pictures to enjoy. I leave this one for you. It belongs to an NK-33.



kosh.jpgHang on, folks, its coming.


The biggest airshow, the biggest gathering, the biggest party in the world.

Already we've got The Jet (now the Vision, apparently) stopping by on Wednesday (or flying over, depending on how you interpret. We've got Vern out of the saddle at Eclipse (no shocker there -- something's gotta' give). We've got turbines popping up out of all kinds of places -- will the growth of the small turbine market have any impact on the non-rush of Diesel manufacturers to fill in the gap left by Thielert?

We'll see. Always good times there in Wisconsin. Bring your camping gear and sleep under the wing. That's the way its supposed to be done.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Peloton is French for scrum

Congratulations to Carlos Sastre, team CSC, and the engineers and craftspeople at Cervélo. And, for that matter, every one of the 145 finishers. Bravo zulu.

GALL_TDF21_SS8_wideweb__470x317,0.jpgBut just a few parting thoughts:

Add "Be in Paris for the finish of The Tour" (or, for that matter, at any stage) to the life list.

The final day's "parade" in to Paris -- only in France!

Add "be a helicopter pilot filming The Tour" to the jobs-I'd-like-but-will-never-have list.

Drinking Champagne in the team cars during the final ride in to Paris -- only in France!

France, in general: where's my ticket?

France, in specific: give me a house in any of those ancient river villages, perhaps one near the Rhone valley, an internet collection, and an ample supply of locally produced red wine.

To the commentators at the Versus network: I feel for you having to advertise next week's programming -- back to cage matches and no-rules fighting championships.

Ah well. C'est la vie.

And to everyone, congratulations!

The little icons in the upper right

So if you take a look at my little MacBook, you'll notice that I have quite a few little icons up there that aren't the stock Apple stuff. Since I had so much fun writing my mini-reviews of mini-iPhone apps, I thought I'd write some mini-reviews of these mini-apps!

Picture 2.jpg
This is all about mini, I guess...

Though this is probably the subject of another blog entry where I focus on my big applications, I don't actually have a single Microsoft product installed on my Leopard instance. There naturally are some on my virtualized PC (duuh, like the instance of XP itself). I take a little bit of pride in this, not so much for some sort of political anti-microsoft reason, but rather because I enjoy the pursuit of the optimum application to suit my needs rather than just running the thing that comes standard and that everyone else uses.

But anyway, I said that was a different rant for a different time...stay on target, Strauss!

As we move from left to right, the first icon is for Jumpcut, a little multi-level clipboard tool that I use. It let's me copy up to I think fifteen different items into the clipboard and through a user selected hotkey (I use Command-Shift-V because of its feel of being a "super paste" keystroke) it will call up a popup menu that lets me select which of the items in my clipboard I want to use. I can also grab the item from a dropdown off the menu bar. It doesn't handle images at all -- just ignores them -- so you can only go one level for graphics, which is irksome. I sometimes vacillate and use YouControl's excellent, much more customizable and full featured clipboard tool instead, but nominally I like lightweight applications focused on doing one thing and doing it well. In general, this is an area I'm not quite finding the "right" app -- I want something that possesses the desired lightweight elegance but offers just a little more functionality (images!).

Actually, where I would really like this capability is on my XP machine at work. I frequently am composing emails that have anywhere from two to a half-dozen http: and mailto: links in them. Copying and pasting the addresses is a real back-and-forth process. I'd love to prowl our intranet, collect all the necessary links (most of which are long and ugly because they are .aspx calls to SharePoint -- so don't go suggesting that I just remember them!) and the past them in to my mail document one-at-a-time without needing to swap applications.

But, alas, I don't have that ability.

To the right is Adium -- which always makes me think of Sara Maclachlan's song "Adia." It's a chat tool -- a replacement for iChat that lets me manage multiple chat clients at once. Great app -- and free. Coupled with Growl for notifications it does everything I need a chat application to do. I suppose if I was in a Mac-only community and wanted to share video, it might not be the tool, but for my multi-platfom circle, I like the flexibility.

Picture 3.jpgThe musical notes relate to iTunes. Surprised? Not really! Its CoverSutra, a nice and fairly customizable little instant access application. Since my MacBook has pause/play, fast-forward/rewind, and volume controls right on the keyboard, I don't like to clutter my screen up with the full iTunes application. CoverSutra provides popups of song changes, instant access to my playlists, and lightweight customizable controls for everything I can't already do from the keyboard. A lot of folks seem to use Synergy for this, but for some reason I am plagued with relentless crashes when I try to use it...besides, CoverSutra is far better looking!

The mail icon is Mail Unread Menu, a quick display of what I have in my mailbox. It'd show the number of emails since I last had Mail in front and the number of mails that are unread. The dropdown shows the subject. It also allows for composing a new message and checking mail without bringing Mail to the front.

Next along is SlimBatteryMonitor which is pretty self explanatory. It is a battery monitor. And it is slim. And rather customizable to change colors and do nice things. The only reason I use it is because it is so slim and saves space given how many other things I'm packing in to the upper right corner of a 13" screen!

Picture 5.jpgFrom the battery on through to the clock (and the end of the custom icons, obviously) we see the panorama of iStat Menus, a beautiful little system monitoring tool fro iSlayer. These folks develop some beautiful applications, most of them as Dashboard widgets, though, and I really don't use the dashboard at all. But this app is a wonderful and very customizable menubar tool that allows monitoring of everything from power consumption to temperature to memory usage to date and time. I used to use the fantastically powerful YouControl for a lot of these functions, but the sheer beauty of iStat won me over -- and drove a bit of a re-evaluation of some of my other menubar choices.

Picture 4.jpgPresently I'm monitoring my power consumption, my CPU temperature, my memory usage (horizontal scrolling bar), my CPU load (two horizontal scrolling bars -- one per core), and an attractive little date/time. Any of these representations drops down for more detail, including some that are only of interest to the obsessively geeky.

Things wrap up with Apple's Spaces, WiFi, and Spotlight icons. These all work...well...OK. They are all applications without an alternative that I've located. They are all applications that provide necessary functionality. I'd love to get rid of the Spotlight icon -- but still be able to access the search application via my keyboard shortcuts. I sort of can through LaunchBar, but I also like to directly to a Spotlight search when I know that I'm going to be after file contents, dictionary definitions, etc. But all the approaches for getting rid of that magnifying glass also kill the tool. Bummer. The others are just kind of clunky, but they do the job.

So those are my little icons in the upper right.

I'm still looking for a couple of improvements. I'd like a way to launch Spotlight from the keyboard without having that irritating little magnifying glass there. I'm not entirely happy with my clipboard solution. I'd also like some sort of ability to control Fusion from the menubar -- to select a given virtual machine and either suspend or resume it. I also wish that I could more freely re-arrange these little doohickeys, but I'm making it work for now. Its a tweaking space -- an area of my computer that I am perpetually playing with just a little. And its fun! I hope you check some of these guys out and, if you like, support the developers who are helping keep third party software alive on the OS X platform!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Chunky Technology

There are some devices you can reach out and touch.

Their mechanisms are out there and on display. If you look at them, turn them around, wiggle and shake the various parts, you can make a guess at what they do.

images.nypl.org.jpegTake a collection of these parts and you can sort of figure out what they do together. This part wiggles back and forth, it turns this cam, which actuates this other switch whenever it reaches above a certain point and that connects to these magnets...

Oh, I see what it does!

Move forward a few decades. The number of parts in a device grows -- but they are now all so minute, and so functionally opaque, that you can't tell what is going on. Take a look at it from the standpoint of airplanes. Modern aircraft often involve a great deal of computing power. Hardly surprising, given the fly-by-wire nature of most cutting edge aviation. But take an Airbus apart and you're going to find hydraulic actuators and their associated ACE boxes (Actuator Control Electronics). A few wires lead to some master computers scattered in a few avionics racks. Those are connected by wire to the sidesticks, throttles, and rudder pedals.

This is no rant aimed at fly-by-wire and the omnipresence of electronics in aircraft -- or in any other situation for that matter. But flip through the manual for an F-100 or a 727 and you can tell what those different bits do. Oh, there's the yaw damper, and here's how it works. This bit...hm...oh, I see, it connects between a switch on the throttles and a doohicky on the flap position indicator...oh, it sounds an alarm when the throttles are advanced for takeoff but the airplane isn't configure right!

S_Intel-LE80537GF0282M.jpgBut when faced with the obscure opacity of a CPU, what can we do? The algorithms inside are so mutable and changeable, so obtuse to so many people and so possessed of a trapdoor obfuscation that even the most talented struggle to pick them apart. The circuit diagrams reveal nothing but an artistic beauty -- a city from 20,000 feet. Detailed descriptions of functioning and register layout from Ars Technica hold a ritualized fascination but make about as much sense to me as hearing Mass in Latin would. I try to picture little bits of memory shuffling around but the reality is that much beyond the Data General Eclipse and the end of computers with meaningful switches on the front panel in general I really can't make hide nor hair of what is going on inside. If I tell you otherwise, you either caught me on a particularly clever or particularly self-delusional day.

S122_Faber-Castell_2-83N_th.jpgAnd so that is why I find myself amassing things like slide rules and vintage aircraft manuals. For all the mystery of the log-log slide rule, the functioning is out there in the open, tactile and accessible and made of slightly yellowed phenolic. It is also why I desperately like the idea of collecting old boatanchor radios and filling my office with the warm sweet glow of vacuum tubes and the swirling tones of single sideband. I know that I will never do this, but I like the idea. I once spent well over $3,500 on an obsolete Swiss cipher machine that now sits in my library next to an equally obsolete Remington typewriter that I bought for almost exactly 1/100 the cost. They are tactile technology, graspable and fiddleable and require of periodic cleaning and treatment with lightweight machine oil.

Friday, July 25, 2008

On the security of passed notes in a 8th grade classroom...

This entry into my blog is a letter of advice to all of you school children who are out there passing notes, hoping to keep your messages secret from other students, teachers, and administrators. To tell you the truth, I have no idea of you kids these days are still passing notes, but I choose to believe that you do, that it isn't all SMS traffic these days. Much like I choose to assume that all kids today aren't taking MDMA like it was M&M's and/or packing a 9... But, given that I've recently learned that all kids do apparently go through a dinosaur phase, I feel that there is hope for the world.

But this isn't about parenting and the resulting paranoias and self deceptions, it is about maintaining traffic security.

Kids, your channels are wide open to interception. You've all seen the teacher intercept the passed note, read the contents aloud, and shame those involved into humiliation. That's just not cool. No one knows that you saw Joey around behind the library kissing Jenny or whatever is in those notes (that do actually seem to be a predominantly female concern). Least of all Joey or Jenny or the members of your intelligence network. So start to put some kind of protective encipherment across these things.

You might be using a simple monoalphabetic substitution -- and that will prevent the causal reader from understanding the message at a glance. Shifting all the letters one, two, or thirteen to the right might buy you what the intelligence guys call operational security -- that is enough time to complete your mission (let us say sneaking around behind the library to kiss that good-for-nothing but hunky Joey), but it won't save the message from eventual decryption and your actions from exposure (possibly at the worst possible moment -- mid smooch!). So if you're going to use a monoalphabetic, at least use yourself a random alphabet, even if it does increase the workload at encryption and decryption time. Security is not for the lazy or hurried!

Far better would be to pull out a polyalphabetic -- a code that uses several different alphabets to arrange the substitution between the plain text and the cipher text. These can actually be pretty easy to set up based around an easy-to-remember code word, and therefore simpler to implement operationally in that no-evidence world of the deep cover agent or middle school student. Pick a keyword that everyone knows and agrees to. Ideally it is random and meaningless, but let's make it easy and fun and choose the school mascot's name. My high-school was the Blue Devils. That'll do nicely. It provides us with a sequence of ten different (well, actually eight different) alphabets that we use. For the first one, the letter A in the plaintext would be enciphered as a B and any other letters would use the same shift of 1. For the next letter in your plaintext, the letter A would encipher as an L, a B as an M, a C as an N and so on -- based around the original shift. For the third letter, A would encipher as U...and if you are referring back to they codeword, you probably have the method figured out.

This vastly increases complexity, because if the message is sufficiently short and the key period (the time until you wrap around and start reusing the same sequence of alphabets -- ten characters in this case) is unknown, the cryptologist has a much more challenging job of applying the sort of statistical analysis that can blow a straight monoalphabetic wide open. But here we run into one of the unfortunate errors made by amateur and hobbyist cryptographers -- that of assuming that each message will face an enemy's scrutiny in isolation. The reality is that a cipher system is rarely, if ever, practically used on a single message. Instead it is used for days, weeks, or even years to protect a whole series of messages. The longer the system and the key is in force, the greater the volume of traffic likely to be intercepted and the greater the quantity of raw material the analyst can work with. And, remember, that once a key is blown based on bad practice with a single message or amassed traffic, all the traffic protected by that key is compromised. No good.

So change your keys often -- perhaps every week. Or every day. And use keys that are hard for the analyst to guess. No boy bands, teen idols, or school mascots.

Here is another good tip -- use a superenciphered code rather than a straight cipher. Cryptanalysis depends very strongly on probability and good guesswork -- guessing the nature of the message you are trying to break. If you know that the message contains a certain word in a certain location, you can figure out what the alphabetic substitution was at that point and possibly get a break that will spread further or to other messages. So let's suppose you have a science teacher named Mr. Polymer who is sadly encumbered with extremely protuberant eyes. If you send a message in his class, there is a fair chance it would contain the word POLYMER, thereby giving your foe a clue. Instead, make up some codeword that stands in for his true name. Don't make it MR BUGEYES or anything else that is obvious. Make it BLUE SHARK or even better yet something completely random like GRLXX or LYUOG. Do this for all frequently used or distinctive names and locations. For very frequently used ones, have several code names that you switch between at random, so that hunk Joey might be known as LNEMQ, POVON, and WEUBC depending.

Much improved -- but with a warning. If you are in a hurry -- never partially protect a message. If you have to pass a note and don't have time during the geometry quiz to fully encipher it, don't use the codewords at all. This merely risks their compromise if the message is intercepted. TELL WEUBC TO MEET ME BEHIND THE YRPED DURING NRFFO TO QAGOT is really just asking to have the codes for Joey, library, lunch, and presumably "make out" compromised -- not just for this message but for all messages. Thing strategically and don't put the network at risk out of a desire to protect one message.

In general, don't put any easily guessed information into your message. It might seem surprising, but the headers that contain message address information should never be enciphered. They should be sent either in clear text or using another cipher or code of some sort. It might seem like a huge risk to your security, but predictable information like names and addresses should never be put in the body of an encrypted message. Again, don't risk the entire message or channel out of a desire to protect one part of it. Most military ciphers of the golden age used separate codewords or encipherment tables to secure the beginning and end of the message.

While you're at it -- see if there is something you can do to vary the cipher key used slightly. This is another component of most military grade ciphers. There is a weekly or daily key that is common for all folks on a channel. But there is another part of the coding system that is varied from message to message -- a indicator as it is usually known. We might choose to slightly vary the shift in our polyalphabetic or add a transposition (think word scramble) component to our cipher that is controlled by this indicator group. The indicator group is sent in the clear somewhere in the message or its header information. We might apply some transformation to the indicator before using it in our keying process, but we always send it in the clear.

I know -- its starting to get kind of hectic by now. But remember that the risk of compromising your intelligence and actions never allows for shortcuts. For the moment, I leave you with a relatively effective polyalphabetic and some good instructions about how to ensure that it is implemented in an effective system. Be careful, keep the notes short, and don't get caught with Joey! More sophistication, and more protection, are coming...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Red Sweater Love

This is a hat's off to the folks at Red Sweater software. This blog is created using their wonderful and lightweight little blogging application, MarsEdit.

Picture 2.jpgI'd been using their free trial since I created The Noodle Book and, last weekend, it expired. I was fine with that -- I love the free trial culture that is endemic among Mac developers. There is no way I can really get the feel of software without using it, and I've definitely bought programs because I could try them when, without a demo, I'd have done nothing and soldiered on with what I had.

Anyway, I unflinchingly spent the thirty bucks and picked up a license. What followed amazed me. In the order form there was a little space for comments. I put in a couple of notes. I normally wouldn't bother (who reads these things anyway?), but did have one suggestion. I commented that it'd be nice if Picasa was more effectively supported by the media manager built into MarsEdit. I use blogspot and have hesitated to get too hooked into too many services (i.e. Flickr) for too many different reasons just for fear of loosing track of everything.

I got the confirmation mail, registered the application, and resumed cheerfully nag-free blogging. Then I got another mail from Red Sweater. I assumed it was another irritating double-mailing (I'm sure you get those too -- where you sometimes get two receipts from an online order or a charge receipt and then a product receipt and then an unlock key...). But instead of trashing it, I read it.

Hi Nick - glad you are enjoying the app! I want to open up the media browser to support other image-hosting sites, and when I do, Picasa will be high on the list!


So, not five or ten minutes after I placed my order, the developer of the application got back to me with an update on the status of my request. Try that with Microsoft or Adobe or Apple...

Now I'm going to thank Daniel by telling you why I like MarsEdit and why, while I do admit it is imperfect, I think you may want to consider using it as well.

First off, it is a classic "just enough" application. There is not a lot of fat here. A place to compose your blog, do some basic management of entries, and upload some supporting images and files. There is no WYSIWYG capability -- there is a rather nice ability to insert HTML tags into the text, but they show up as, well, HTML tags rather than as the promised formatting. I'm fine with that -- actually I rather like it -- since I'm pretty familiar with HTML and tend like the ability to easily go in and edit the code myself.

Images can be uploaded with some basic formatting -- but again they can be edited inline if necessary. This is the area of my one mild unhappiness -- Mars Edit only works with Flickr galleries. My stuff is uploading to Picasa through Blogspot, of course, but there isn't a way that I can go "back" and review or reuse the images in that gallery from within MarsEdit. If I was hardcore making it happen with Flickr for my photography (which is pretty non-existant) then I could actually manage all the images there with a great deal more flexibility. But again, MarsEdit is doing fine for what I need. I can put pictures into my postings and am happy.

The main reason that I use an offline blog editor -- for you might say "Blogspot offers great editing capabilities!" as indeed they do -- is that I often blog during my commute. On the train, on the bus, at cafés during lunch, at all kinds of crazy locations. Not all of them provide reliable Internet connectivity. And without reliable Internet, the online composer becomes a high-risk environment if it is even possible to get started at all. As a footnote, I'm actually writing this entry in the Seattle Bus Tunnel, an area devoid of any valid connectivity.

Picture 3.jpg
I can compose using the online tool and the suck the post down to MarsEdit as well, though when a brainstorm hits me at work I usually write it in an email and send it to myself for copy-and-paste treatment. I also have a fat roll of half-started postings waiting for the brainstorm of completion to come along. I can grab one of these and flesh it out for a few minutes and then save it for later review (yes, I know that Blogspot supplies this ability as well, but I find MarsEdit does so much more cleanly). It also nicely handles my two (and eventually, I hope, three) blogs.

For formatting changes and re-arrangements of the various components of The Noodle Book, I use Blogspot's tool set, of course. That's fine -- these are periodic tasks involving dramatic changes in format, new bits of content, and the like.

Anyhow, this MarsEdit is a great example of that sort of cottage development that is part of why I like my MacBook so much. And as for responsiveness -- I've never sen better! So check it out and show these guys some support if you like what you see.

And now, thanks to King County Metro, I'm going to post a blog entry while riding the bus.

I just believe things should work properly...

This is not a blog post about the Dyson vacuum cleaner. Partially, this relates to a congenital inability to spell the word vacuum that will always haunt me. Partially it is because as fine as that machine is, and it is a fantastic vacuum (I'm practicing now and making myself type vacuum a lot), I can't quite summon up the blogging passion.

But Microsoft Windows can. See I'm a long-time Mac user. Been there since the early days of the 128K "skinny Mack" and the 512K "fat Mac." Remember those times, when memory was measured in some obscure and miniscule unit called the Kilobyte? Modems were slow, screens small, and disks floppy...

Anyway, I stray. The point is, I find that my little MacBook works properly. Provided I don't do something jackass stupid like assigning three applications to respond to the same hotkey combination or such, it does what it is supposed to. I can slow it down by running a dozen different applications including a few good memory and CPU hogs at once. I can crash it, occasionally, by throwing excessively weird combinations of network access at iTunes and then killing the network.

But overall, things work properly. To misrepresent Yokihiro Matsumoto (creator of Ruby), it embodies the Principle of Least Surprise. The Mac (I'm not actually talking about Ruby here) does more or less what you expect. And it, for the most part, does things in an order of convenience that relates to the order in which you will need to do them. Obviously needed features are obvious to access. Obscure but occasionally cool features are obscured. And there are just a few cool "power tricks" out there, hidden away but documented if you look for them, that you can really get the system rocking if you want.

And then there's my XP machine at work. Its a nice little Lenovo laptop, not too far off my MacBook in terms of spec's. But oh, oh, the trials. I'm not even talking about Windows XP SP2 itself -- which should have a certain B-52 like robustness (but as we've rather sadly learned, even they can crash). I'm talking about the applications.

Ever have the dreaded phantom paragraph problem in Word? Where there is some paragraph marker that, if you delete it, suddenly causes your entire document to reformat into some obscure font? Hey, when I chose select all and then changed my font, I really did mean select all! Or sometimes there is the close cousin, the paragraph of steel -- you simply can't get the space to go away, no matter what you do. Select and cut, select and delete, backspace over it, select it and type other characters and then delete them. In the end the solution sometimes ends up being simply shrinking the font size way down -- though sometimes that doesn't stick until you type a few characters and then set the type color the same as the background color because if you erase those letters the space returns to its original size.

Half the time, I end up just copying and pasting the text into a new document. That's a robust solution! Its a good thing bytes come cheap...

And then there is a moment to truly test your manhood (or womanhood): creating a table in Word. Half the time, once established, it refuses to let you grow (or shrink it). And woe betide the person who doesn't realize that what they are typing in isn't a table, but an embedded Excel document.

Its rather a joke at the office because I keep threatening to throw my Lenovo out the window. And one day I will. And it will probably be Outlook that does it. I manage a couple of mailboxes and some shared calendars. Fine enough -- but the degree of gothic square dancing required to create make this work is infuriating. And I suppose that some people like the whole concept of Outlook -- that the mail is served from a central location. Nice if you are hoteling and don't have a laptop or your computer gets stolen or you get fired. But I'm left with a puny storage allocation and an inability to read mail whenever the network is feeling funny. Or the outlook server. And then I get to quit outlook and restart it.

Yesterday, for three hours, I couldn't send mail. Oh, it appeared to be sent, it just never arrived. Why? I'd filled up my disk quota. I had to poke around until I finally realized this -- no thanks for the warning, guys. Half of what I sent later showed up, the other half I had to re-send. And occasionally Outlook apparently gets so frustrated with itself that it crashes the entire computer and will only reconnect to the server if I do a full restart.

For various reasons we run Internet Explorer at work -- it is the "officially supported" browser and if I try to use Firefox it keeps throwing me dialog boxes that force a sign-in because I might be some intruder, I guess. Anyway, I also find that IE7 is returning to the days when we used to call it "Internet Exploder" just for fun. Ironically, one of the sites that causes it (and any related instances) to immediately crash is the Apple website! But also a few other totally innocuous ones. Don't ask me why -- it just vanishes.

My old XP box at my old job would periodically span an infinite number of browser windows, too. They would just start appearing -- I gut up over 50 of them one time. The system would then hang and they would all vanish suddenly. No one ever could figure out why. They just stood around and kinda' laughed. This was at an IT school. These people were instructors. You'd think they'd have known (or cared) what was going on. The behavior may be as much as symptom of that place's culture, but the sort of fixed-focus backup-and-re-image approach to troubleshooting is something I see too often among windows hacks. It'd be like bringing your car in for busted wiper blades and having the mechanics install a new engine and transmission and tell you to clean out your glove box.

But the overall situation is just that dreaded designed-by-committee feeling. Microsoft, I'm convinced, can't say no to a focus group's feature request. Oh, six people out there might need a certain feature...so we'll try to build it in. This isn't just a bloatware issue regarding memory and performance. It is about UI. As you pile on more and more things, you need more and more layers of menu, dialog box, tab, and drop-down to access them. That or you run the risk of creating excessively complex sets of options at any given level. And both XP and Office 2003 suffer from all of these.

I'll give Microsoft one thing -- Office 2007 is a lot better. It trades away the equally pain-in-the-ass to access everything approach of '03 for a highly customizable interface. I loved it for the brief period I was using it -- loved at least as compared to '03. That was once I got over the learning curve of setting things up the way I wanted. Which means that I suspect it will be judged a complete failure. Because most of the other people I know hated it. That's because the original release forced them into habits that they'd gotten so used to that the novelty (and pain) of an innovative approach was unfathomable. Understandable, too, because in many ways the elaborate routines and workarounds demanded by the software are hard to unlearn!

People often say that the Mac approach requires the user to learn to do things in the Mac way. This is, in some ways, absolutely correct. Windows, with its 86 ways to do anything, is great if you need to use way number 71 or 83 or even 29. But the Mac, with only a few ways to do the same thing, makes way number 1 or 3 or 8 so much easier... It is a false advantage, then, to say that Windows offers more options to get things done -- because that implies greater flexibility or convenience.

Well, I'm feeling better for this. There's nothing like forcing other people to read about your woe, I find, to ease the sole. Thanks for listening!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Falling out of the sky

So what's the deal, guys?

0013729e4abe09ef65a062.jpg2008's been a bad year for the Air Force. We lost a B-52 and her crew today -- an airplane that was flying for probably 45 years, flew during (though not necessarily in) five or so wars, and had probably outlasted the first men to sit in her cockpit. Now granted, military flying is always dangerous and 45 year old airplanes carry their own dangers. But we are talking about a type with one of the best records in the Air Force -- probably not least because all the bugs had been worked out by now!

But that crash, off the island of Guam, comes just five months after the loss of a B-2 off the same island. The B-2 is almost the opposite of the B-52 -- new (though hardly so new as to have that new bomber smell anymore), high-tech, and built in such small numbers that the individual aircraft are almost flown as combat capable prototypes. The B-2 loss -- much better understood than the more recent accident, of course, since there's been time for investigation -- was due to the flight crew missing a pre-flight step that was necessary to ensure accurate air data was received. Moisture contaminated one of the plane's sensor and caused the fly-by-wire computers to have all sorts of crazy ideas as to what was going on and directly lead to the crash. As perposterous as this might sound, the technical reasons are reasonable and this sort of little foible is hardly unknown on cutting edge airplanes -- particularly ones that are built in such few numbers that it is easier to live with bugs than to fix them. But the problem was the lack of procedure documentation. Crew chiefs passed this lore -- that you switch the deice on before takeoff when the air data system might be contaminated -- on orally, like shamanistic traditions of how to summon spirits or something (That the B-2 is officially named Spirit was not lost on me when I wrote that analogy).

Again -- fine for the rarin' old days of Edwards Air Force Bace and Chuck Yeager and George Welch duking it out for first through the soundbarrier honors. But let's remember that Welch died not too many years later when his F-100 lost control -- and Yeager nearly lost it a few times himeself. This is 2008, not 1949, and there are certain things we don't say anymore (you catch that, Jessie Jackson?) and certain things we don't do anymore. And one of those things is pass on the knowledge necessary to fly a billion dollar airplane -- one of the two dozen most powerful military tools anywhere in the world -- by word of mouth.

Now I don't know what caused the loss of this B-52 and her crew. Were they in distress before the accident? Pushing their luck while preparing for a bit of showboating? Or a victim of sloppy, haphazard support like happened back five months ago? I'll grant you that Guam may be no-one's idea of a sexy duty station. You're not fighting the GWOT but you're not at home with the family in Louisiana either. So you're cranky, sullen, uncommunicative. And cranky, sullen, uncommunicative people don't do their jobs well... But the thought of any sort of endemic cultural problems in the military -- and right now particularly in this part of the military that handles such phenomenally powerful, valuable, and rare assets more -- is deeply unnerving. Just remember the B-52 that few cross country with some live nuclear warheads onboard last year. Alright, no-harm-no-foul works in a lot of situations, but live nukes haven't been wanderingn around the skies since the 1960's without very good and specific reason. All three of these incidents involved the former Strategic Air Command (SAC) -- long the Air Force's flying elite. And if this once so professional portion of the force is struggling so dramatically, my fear is that things in the less "bling" portions will be perportionately worse. Now I might be just plain out of date -- the old SAC days are long gone, and for very good reasons. But that's a lot of espret de corps to loose and loose fast.

Stategic_Air_Command_(film).jpgSo that's my question -- who is minding the store over there? Whoever you are, let me tell you that General Le May wouldn NOT be proud. You'd all have found yourself off flight duty and given a dressing down that even Admiral Rickover would have admired. I know I'm jumping to conclusions, but this isn't about a single crash -- its about something that seems too significantly clustered to be mere coincidence. And non-coincidences demand a search for universal causes.

Oh, and while I'm at it, and just to make sure the civilians don't get off too lightly, what's with the reporting here? Variously, I've had it described that today's B-52 crash occurred while the airplane was performing flyovers of a parade -- unlikely unless parades in Guan are held 25 miles out to sea. Granted, it might have been going to a flyover for one of Guam's national holidays, but the former makes it sound like a bomber augered in to a crowd of flag waving kids or such. And we like to save that particular trick for Russian airshows. The B-52 was also described in another report as a "fighter plane." Now I don't expect every hack reporter to know the subtle details and politics of military aircraft typing, but the difference betwen "fighter" and "bomber" has been intuitive since, oh, say, the Blitz! Flighter: small, puny bombload, mushes crewmembers around in aerobatic maneuvers. Bomber: big, devistates city blocks at a time, flies 34 hour long missions. Got it? "B" -- for bomber, guys.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Long week

So I'm rolling along on the train -- back on my favorite mode of commute, the Sounder commuter train, watching Puget Sound roll by my window.

Its been a busy week -- putting together and delivering a six hour training class, delivering two three hour classes, setting up a vendor event that is simultaneously taking place across three states. I've developed some test questions for the GMAT and started a "professional" blog at Answer Choice. All that and I've managed to get a couple of blog entries out and spend some pretty good time with my family.

I rarely get personal here, I know, preferring a chat about the number of possible key setups for field ciphers to a look at my own life and emotions. Except, I guess, for that 105 things about me blog...

But regardless of the accuracy of the premise upon which this entry is based, its time to talk about the weekend! The British Open, the Tour de France, Grand Prix of Germany at the always thrilling Hockenheimring are my TV plans. So many sporting events, and so much pizza to choose from. A bottle of wine to share and we'll take advantage of the wonders of the DVR to timeshift some continental news back into our time zone.

I'm particularly interested in the British Open. Royal Birkdale is one of my favorite courses. Based, of course, on nothing but a few pictures that I've seen and a couple of magazine articles. But that's something I've always done well. Its not like I can say that, based on my flying experience, the P-51 really does handle much better than the F4U, after all! So I'm hoping for some good, stormy and turbulent golf, some dramatic racing, and a few good hours with my friends and family.

Now I just have one day (and five meetings) to make it through...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wind Tunnel

Erica suggested this blog.

I was talking to her on the phone and said, "Oh, I emailed you a photo of Cervelo's wind tunnel together with my thoughts about it." Her response was "You know about wind tunnels too?"

It turns out that when you study aeronautics, you can't help but learn about wind tunnels. The physics of what actually goes on when an airplane flies are pretty much the same physics going on inside a wind tunnel. And in some ways it is a lot easier to look at the fixed and symmetric venturi of a wind tunnel than the comparatively complex environment of an airplane flying through the annoyingly free sprited atmosphere. But for all that, wind tunnels remain interesting and quite complex creations -- at least once the desired level of precision and control reaches beyond that of rough approximations and undergraduate aeronautics classes.

So what does make a wind tunnel so interesting? It is the very task of simulating, in a very controlled and in many ways deeply unrealistic environment, a very complex situation. Let's start with this: intuitively, using only stuff sitting around at home, how would you build a wind tunnel. Probably like this, the way I used to as a child (really):

Hold your test subject (Mk.1 Paper Aviation Device) so that a fan blows air over it. Measure the lift and drag forces on Mk.1 PAD and plot on graph paper. A nice start, but with one grave error: your position relative to the fan.

It turns out that the air coming off of a fan (or as we call them in wind tunnels, a compressor) is quite turbulent and prone to taking on a swirling action imparted by the spinning blades. Far more effective, then, is to put your model upstream of the blades so that the air is pulled across it rather than pushed. Now since we'd like to have some more control over that environment, encase the model in a box with a few holes for observation and balance beams to take measurements with. This area now gets the fancy name of test section.

images.jpegCongratulations, you are now at the Orville and Wilbur Wright level of wind tunnel sophistication.

This is pretty good for rough approximations and low speeds. A good first improvement is to put a screen of some kind at the inlet side and between the test section and the compressor. These further help smooth the airflow. Make sure that your test object (wing section, large building, cyclist) doesn't get too close to the walls of the test section so you don't get interference between the flow along the walls (which is disturbed and turbulent) and the flow over the model (which must mimic the smooth flow of air in free space). An interesting exception to this problem occurs when testing objects (cars, bicycles) that operate close to the ground. Here you want to simulate the effect of the ground, but it turns out that since, for a moving vehicle, the ground and the airmass and the vehicle all have different relative velocities. As a result, some of the amazing wind tunnels in use by Formula 1 teams actually have "rolling floors" -- giant belts that roll along under the model to simulate the aerodynamic issues caused by the ground more accurately.

Anyway, back to our model. So far, so good. We're doing quite nicely as long as we're comfortable with atmospheric temperatures and pressures and don't try to go too fast. Since airplanes cruise at all kinds of confusingly complex altitudes (where it can also get really, really cold) it would be nice to somehow simulate those conditions. It also turns out that taking a bunch of air, sucking it with giant fans (er, I mean compressors) and dumping it back out can anger the neighbors who live downstream of you and who may not like sudden man-made windstorms and all the resulting noise. It can also be quite a bit more efficient to loop the air back around, so that the exhaust of the compressors flows around in a big loop and actually feeds back into the front of the test section.

I know, we don't want to blow on our model, but suck on it. Thank you, Lewis Black. But we aren't really blowing -- the suction side of the compressor is much closer to the test section than the blowing side. And we have a huge loop full of guide veins and settling chambers (fat areas in our recirculating tube that serve to damp out turbulence) and screens and whatnot.

271.jpgAnd since we now have a closed system, we can feel free to chill or pressurize the test section to our heart's content. Pressurize? Wouldn't you want to do the opposite, to test an airplane that is flying at the thin air of high altitude? Yeah, you would, if it wasn't for the irritating fact of the Reynold's number that always intrudes right about now. The Rn is about the most confusing concept in aeronautics, so I'm going to try to keep it simple. Have you ever heard the story about how someone (usually NASA or the Air Force or some other Big Agency that is fun to embarrass) tried to test a fruit fly (or honey bee, or dragon fly, or some other small insect) in a wind tunnel and proved beyond a doubt that it couldn't fly? Its total B.S. If you stick a scaled up model of a honey bee in a wind tunnel and try to simulate it flying it will, in fact, totally fail to fly. But the reason for this is well understood. It is the Reynolds number. And for the same reason, if you put a scaled up model of a 787 in a plain-Jane wind tunnel you'll get aero data back that is only a teensy weensy bit more accurate than you did for the unflyable bumble bee.

The problem is one of scale. Pretend you are a molecule of Oxygen or Nitrogen or some other common atmospheric constituent. You're a piece of air, don't sweat the details. You're sitting there, floating along happily, when along comes a wing, swooshing by and yanking you out of your happy daze as it extracts some of that magic property of lift. If that wing belongs to a bumble bee, it seems to flash by, larger than you, but not so enormously huge as all that. On the other hand, if you are up there in the tropopause and a 787 comes flying buy (in addition to you apparently being a few months in the future) its wing is moving much faster but is comparatively enormous. It flashes by for an eternity, like watching a city sweep by, thousands of times longer than the bumble bee wing.

And there you have it. Though the actual mechanics have more to do with the relationship between viscous and inertial forces, the basic "deal" of the reynolds number is that of scale. Compared to the bits of air through which they pass, a bumble bee wing is tiny and a 787 wing is huge. The difference is profound, since at the scale of an insect wing, air is much more dramatically viscous than anything we can imagine.

photo_NASA-Ames_2003-06-22-wer-14_640x480.jpgI take that back. We can imagine. Air, at a bumble bee's scale, is much closer to water than we might think. So all kinds of crazy viscous effects take place. But what does this mean for our wind tunnel? Even assuming we don't want to test bumble bees, it has grave consequences. It is unrealistic to test full size airplanes at anything close to flight speed. The largest wind tunnel in the world was located at NASA's Ames Research Center. It was a landmark. We used to say things like "two exits past the wind tunnel." It had a test section that was 80 feet high and 120 feet wide, and so could test small airplanes in full size or larger airplanes at a reasonable scale. But it was only good for a hundred miles an hour or so.

Testing airplanes at 600 mph requires a lot more energy -- an impossible amount of energy for a wind tunnel large enough to test a commercial jet. So scale model testing is necessary. And we now have the opposite problem of our "unflyable" bumble bee. Scale the airplane to 1/50th of its size and suddenly the air is way to sparse. The solution is to increase the density of the molecules of air -- pack them closer together so that they scale to match the environment expected at cruise speed and cruise altitude.

The two approaches to this are pressurization and refrigeration. The former is obvious -- it just plane squishes more and more and more molecules of air into the space around the model. But that only goes so far before engineering gets in the way and our wind tunnel wants to explode. The other approach is to chill the working fluid. All substances (save for some aberrant behavior right around phase changes) increase in density as they are chilled. By using both conditions, modern wind tunnels can produce conditions very close to (and sometimes identical to) that experienced by an aircraft in flight.

Ironically, the process of accelerating the air requires tens of thousands of horsepower -- and dumps a lot of waste heat into the wind tunnel. So cooling the tunnel and its contents is an uphill struggle. You can imagine how much electricity it takes to spin 12,000hp motors, remove the waste heat they produce, and chill the air to 100 degrees below zero...

f18_hornet_wind_tunnel.preview.jpgAll kinds of other crazy things get involved. Test sections with slotted or perforated walls backed by giant suction pumps to clear away turbulent flow or dissipate shockwaves streaming off the model. Flexible tunnel sections (supported by immense hydraulic jacks) that change shape to optimize test conditions for different speeds and conditions. Pure nitrogen test atmospheres for greater predictability and easier cooling (just spray liquid nitrogen into the tunnel and bleed off the excess pressure).

As a result, wind tunnels today are used primarily as validation tools. Models are tested simultaneously in a tunnel and using CFD (computational fluid dynamics) code. Engineers use the results of these selected comparison runs to tweak their code until the results agree perfectly. The design is then roughed out using the CFD simulations (which require prodigious computing power -- but that's cheap these days) to produce a few candidates. These candidates are run through the wind tunnel and the results of the tunnel runs and CFD simulations are analyzed together to select a final approach. Usually the CFD simulations will look at all kinds of variations and the wind tunnel only at a few crucial cases.

This cycle of CFD approximation leading to wind tunnel verification proceeds until the design is finished. As CFD has improved, the time spent in the tunnel should have decreased, but the increasing drive for optimization means that engineers still find it worth their while to run tests in the tunnel. CFD codes were once crude and are improving, but with billions of dollars on the line, a little due diligence is still the way to go.

For dramatically unpredictable environments -- like a cyclist with jersey billowing, cross wind blowing, wheels spinning, peloton careening -- CFD is actually just about impossible. Even if gifted with the supercomputing power of Boeing's Crays, an aero obsessed cycle company like Cervelo couldn't accurately test in a purely virtual environment. Instead they use computers to design naked components such as frame cross sections, but rely on the wind tunnel for the synthesis of the parts into the whole. Since the test situations are easily atmospheric, the tunnel needn't be complex, either, and the whole situation is a lot more fun when you've got some dude in a Team CSC jersey pedaling away in your test section.


Note, by the way, the turntable for testing in crosswinds. Also note that moving floor technology hasn't quite made it to cycling yet. Without the ground hugging aerodynamic downforce of Formula 1 cars, there may not be a need. And, without the $150 million a year budgets, there may not be the cash!

105 things about me

My wife did a 101 things post on her blog. It is one of the funniest things I've ever seen her do. So I'm inspired to do one of the same. In the highly unlikely situation that you are reading this but do not already know me, then you will learn something about me. If you already do know me, then perhaps you'll find something amusing.

1) I stay up late or wake up at exotic hours of the day to watch Space Shuttle launches.
2) I truly believe in the exploration of space.
3) I think we're doing it all wrong. Give me a half dozen billion dollars and I'll show you how its done.
4) In addition to wishing I had my own space program, I wish I had my own secret army and underground hideout.
5) In many ways, I haven't grown up since the 6th grade.
7) In three years, I'll turn 40 and plan to celebrate at Bandon Dunes.
8) Or Pebble Beach.
9) My wife is my best friend.
10) I don't have a lot of friends. I only keep the ones I really like.
11) I'll always make you a drink of you come by. That includes coffee, if its the morning.
12) I believe that if you take care of the people you care about, they will take care of you.
13) I believe that my wife has the finest looking *** in the whole world.
14) I believe that you manufacture your own luck. Or bad luck, if that's the case.
15) I perpetually think that I want to sit around and do nothing but always feel better when I go out and do something.
16) Few things make me happier than sitting in at a bar with a beer, my laptop, and a WiFi connection, while getting paid for it.
17) I still enjoy sitting in a bar with a beer, my laptop, and a WiFi connection even while not getting paid for it.
18) I believe that doing improv comedy for two years was the best professional training I ever received.
19) Knowledge comes where you can find it. Never stop learning and you will never grow old.
20) Some people have addiction issues. I do too -- to learning.
21) My blog has just been crawled by Google and that makes me feel like I just won a presidential primary.
22) I plan to vote for Obama as much because he makes me give a damn as because I actually agree with him.
23) I used to be a Republican.
24) I rarely talk politics because I find most people just re-state their opinions while getting louder and louder and don't actually want to learn anything.
25) I enjoy observing human behavior.
26) No behavior is more amazing to observe than that of your child.
27) I feel guilty that I only got around to mentioning my daughter on thing number 26.
28) The Cat in the Hat irritates me but Fox on Sox is pure genius.
29) My favorite five books are Neuromancer, The Name of the Rose, The Fabric of the Cosmos, The Codebreakers, and On Food and Eating.
30) I never said my interests were mainstream.
31) My first encounter with the World Wide Web was in 1991.
32) Yeah, it was being served by Tim Berners-Lee's Next Cube.
33) My reaction was "This won't go anywhere."
34) I usually can admit my mistakes.
35) I've written a science fiction novel but couldn't get a publisher interested.
36) I wrote it three years ago and it is no longer science fictiony enough.
37) My next novel is going to be fantasy.
38) Kids have so much more imagination than adults.
39) My daughter manages to make up words and stories and pictures that beat anything I ever could come up with. And she does this every day.
40) Her favorite planet is Saturn. Mine is also Saturn.
41) I also have a favorite element, a favorite compound, a favorite airplane, a favorite moon, and several favorite cipher algorithms, although any of these are subject to change at any time.
42) My wife and I met because of a book about code breaking. She read it for school. I read it for fun.
43) I truly believe that Google has changed the world.
44) My one professional hero is Richard Feynman.
45) I try to eat healthy but find it a struggle. My co-workers always bring in cookies, banana bread, and exotic Polish chocolates.
46) I rarely eat beef, as much because I find it easiest to adopt a few simple rules (no beef, no cheese, no processed sugar, no refined wheat, no French fries) to help me eat healthy.
47) My favorite fish is seabass, followed by salmon.
48) I am tempted to find out just how long I could go eating nothing but sushi. I suspect it is a long time but suspect that I will be disappointed.
49) I prefer email to phone calls.
50) I type at 90 words per minute when I hit full stride.
51) I can easily drink eight cups of coffee in a day.
52) Realizing that your consumption of coffee meets most of the DSM requirements to be classified as an "addiction" is a scary thing.
53) I bring my own coffee and French press to work.
54) If I won PowerBall (one of the big ones), I'd buy a Gulfstream G650 jet and rent a dozen apartments in different countries and sublet the ones I wasn't living in a week at a time to travelers but otherwise spend a lot of time in different places.
55) I have an elaborate fantasy life.
56) Despite what that might make you think, I am very, very happy with everything about my real life.
57) I really believe that I am as phenomenally lucky as a man can be.
58) I know my wife loves me but I am just insecure enough that I try to always act like I am wooing her.
59) I know my daughter loves me but I never try to count on that love.
60) I enjoy riding the train in the morning and at night because it gives me time to think.
61) Sometimes I think about space, sometimes about airplanes, sometimes about my family, occasionally about work.
62) I have a miserable drive but a pretty decent pitching and chipping game.
63) I have played one par and one birdie hole in my entire life.
64) Sometimes, I think about packing it all in and tending bar, but I know I'd disappoint a lot of people.
65) That said, I love tending bar.
66) My favorite cocktails are the Sidecar and Manhattan.
67) My favorite bourbon is Maker's Mark not least because their parent company owns Titleist.
68) I was trying to learn to cook and then I married a chef and now I'm intimidated to make anything other than oatmeal.
69) But I've cornered the market on beverages at our house.
70) Food, drink, and hospitality are very important to me.
71) I easily resent people who take advantage of my generosity but don't worry, if you've ever been invited back, then you're not taking advantage of my generosity.
72) Sometimes I cry when rovers land on mars.
73) Sometimes I cry when I hear about small businesses with naive but well intended ideas that I believe are doomed to failure.
74) Of all my emotions, the one I struggle with the most is frustration.
75) I do not like men who put down their families just to make themselves sound better.
76) I have the utmost respect for my family and believe that they make me a better man.
77) My wife is the sexiest woman alive.
78) Yes, I know that number 77 and number 13 are very close to duplicates. She deserves it.
79) I believe that knowledge and strength and humor are as important to attraction as raw looks.
80) Compatible taste in food, approaches to snuggling, and phone manners are important too.
81) I would take up arms to defend my family.
82) Sometimes I think "Aah, those were the days..." about obscure topics like mainframe computers, supersonic airplanes, and muzzle loading rifles.
83) I collect airplane flight manuals. At last count, I have several hundred.
84) I also collect design proposals for spacecraft, built and unbuilt.
85) If you have any, let me know.
86) I wish I had more time to balance the things I love to do and the things I need to do.
87) I require at about an hour of quiet downtime every day or I start to go a little funny.
88) I have found blogging to be the perfect activity to do when I have some quiet downtime.
89) I would be content if I had memorized every article in Wikipedia, but not for long.
90) I admire people who are masters of obscure specialties (like being the world's top expert on Niobium) but know that I could never be one of them.
91) Sometimes, I think I have Aspergers, but probably not.
92) I find it relaxing to memorize complex the arrangement of complex and interwoven systems like airplane flight controls, cryptographic algorithms, and battalion level military organizations.
93) I have a hard time remembering names.
94) I guarantee that I will think of things I want to add to this list and have a troubling existential crisis regarding the legitimacy of modifying a "things about me" list.
95) My Myers Brigs Type Indicator is INTP.
96) I really like psychological testing.
97) Most of the time, I'd rather be outside.
98) My favorite campgrounds are wooded, near water, and have a good firepit.
99) I like to travel light but find it hard to do so.
100) When I die, I hope that I will have helped people understand themselves and the world around them.
101) I strive not to be guided by regrets or fears but by the promise of what could be, but find it hard to do so.
102) I believe that knowing yourself honestly is the most useful kind of knowledge to put to use.
104) The best moments, after seven years of marriage, are the times when we are lost in conversation together just like on our first dates.
104) Sometimes alcohol is involved, but not always. And it definitely was on the first dates.
105) I will pretend not to care what other people will think when they read this list, but will honestly think about it a lot.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Two reviews for the price of one...

Hold on, its going to be a surprise tonight. I know that I usually wax rhapsodic about airplanes or elegant cipher systems, but not this time. Tonight I am going to talk about music -- and about a mostly excellent concert that my family and I took in last night. Also about the venue, the absolutely excellent Triple Door down in Seattle.

Rather randomly for a Monday night, we met up with some friends and went to see our friend Kristen Ward play. The music in due time -- first the Triple Door. Apparently it was once and old burlesque theater -- and if this origin is true, then the burlesque theaters of old were a far classier kind of place than when I was in college. Obviously a contemporary remodel had completely remade the pace into tiered seating with sumptuous leather booths, smaller tables on the sides, and snippets of bar. All faced the stage and managed a feeling of intimacy despite seating 270.

The service was fantastic and the food was every bit what we expect from The Wild Ginger. Which is to say fantastic. Though let me tell you there's a lot of salt in their stuff -- this morning I'm puffed up like a balloon enough that I was tempted to blog about Zeppelins rather than music as I'd planned... The only culinary failing was that Erica ordered a vodka gimlet rickey. "Rickey" is barspeak for taking any true cocktail and serving it in a tall glass, over ice, with club soda. The server was baffled by this but put the drink order in ("Vodka Gimlet Rickey") just fine. What arrived was a regular vodka gimlet served in a cocktail glass. They were happy to take it back and pour us one correct -- which was very good in the end -- but it was a little sad to see the bartending team either mix by routine or else just have no clue what we were talking about. At least they made the thing with fresh lime, and not that true form of evil, Rose's Lime Juice.

If any of you behind the bar at the Wild Ginger are reading this, make note of that one...

stage.jpgNow on to Kristen's music. She was asked to play an "mellow" set, which was fine and worked pretty good for the first half of her show. In fact, having gotten used to Kristen in front of a full band, it was fun to see how her sound and performance has gotten much more solid even when just in front of her guitarist and pedal steel player. "Good Time Man" was rather magical as the venue lit up a "starry night" backdrop that could have been cheesy but instead worked really nicely.

The drawback to the mellow set was that it prevented her show from having the zip that her 2nd album has, that little bit of extra pizzas and energy that comes from percussion and the rest of the rhythm section driving the music along. It was fun, though, to hear a few songs that I'm used to hearing with the full band stripped down to their core. Listening to guitarist Gary Westlake (resplendent in an outfit which I can best describe as "satanic Colonel Sanders") play his solos over this relatively naked format was great, and really showcased his work.

From our seats, I had an unusual opportunity to watch Kevin Suggs, Kristen's pedal steel player. I don't mean to sound weird, but I kept staring at his legs. And all I could think of was flying helicopters (you knew aviation would end up here, didn't you?). Between what I counted as ten pedals and some odd knee levers, he was always in subtle motion, that kind of amazing "my hands are doing things entirely unrelated to what my feet are doing" skill that I always associated with, well, helicopter pilots and really good drummers. Now add steel players -- and they have extra things to do with their knees! Add that to the "things that Nick must understand before he dies" list...

I Wanna' Go Home, a song that I keep thinking has the potential to become sort of classic icon of our times (Obama campaign, are you listening? Kristen would probably license the song to you if you ask, and it would give my friend some great exposure!), was missing from the set, which left me a little disappointed as well. It kept the show down to the core of Kristen's music, though, stories of love gone a-little-bit-right, not-so-right, and not-right-at-all.

Her voice was in good form and the mini-band sounded great. Gary was energetic as always and Kevin was able to put out a wall of sound that managed to fill up the space even with just three instruments playing. But more than anything I enjoyed the chance to have a Friday-on-Monday. Some cocktails, a nice dinner, and time with our friends.

The performance wrapped up all too soon -- I'm not used to the brevity of these opening act gigs! I was enjoying the show and while it was nice to have a break and a chance to chat, the next act would make wish Kristen's set had continued all the stronger!

Fences took the stage and we left soon thereafter. I have never seen a performance as presumably deliberate in their mockery of the audience's position as this interesting duo of drum and guitar/vocal. The singer, looking rather like he wandered in off the street in cutoff shorts with a set of keys dangling from a belt loop via carabiner, faced away from the audience the entire time. The music could have been interesting -- if only I'd felt at all welcome in my intrusion on their time. I'm sure it was a deliberate act -- a statement about insisting on being taken seriously solely for one's music or such. But in either case it rubbed the wrong way and, with a sleepy kid in a noisy room, we knew it was out time to go.

It was a good time -- and I'll be back to the Triple Door for sure on a night when we know all the music will be as good as Kristen's and we've got a sitter. I'll certainly be back out to see the next of Kristen's shows as well.

Monday, July 14, 2008

They Got it Done!

I sometimes become emotional at odd things. I have, for example, been known to completely loose it in blubbery chick flick tears while watching NASA TV when some guy over at the JPL says something like "We have Doppler on our UHF."

Some people get emotional when Sandra Bollock chooses to go with the right guy, others when rovers land on Mars.

But I had one of those moments today, while sitting at work, taking a break from editing an eight two page instruction manual to check the latest news from Farnborough. That's the world's largest airshow, usually a giant selling ground for Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed, Northrop, and all of the other players in the industry. But besides the big A380's and F-22's doing their flying demonstration there was one jet, a graceful delta-winged bomber, that was not for sale.

It was a meticulously restored Avro Vulcan, one of the most distinctive products of the now nearly moribund British aircraft industry. The Vulcan always exercised a sort of cult following in aviation circles. Part probably stems from its distinctive bat-like appearance. But I think that a lot comes form its position as the last large aircraft program, a nuclear armed bomber no less, to come out of the once proud English aircraft industry.

I don't know enough to argue the politics behind it, hell I don't even really know the difference between a Torry and a Whig or whatever they are, but the nation that gave us the Spitfire and the Lancaster and the Viscount and half of the Concorde and tried to give us the TSR.2 is now reduced to producing subassemblies. Life in the UK must be a challenge -- vestiges of so many forms of empire. But, like the Falkland Islands, the Vulcan was held on to with tenacity. In fact, it saw service in that war, flying some gratuitously long range missions to drop bombs and shoot Shrike ARM's (with limited success) in support of the English recapture of the islands.

0a208d8e-6d5e-4c90-b834-0797a50c643c.Large[1].jpgBut this isn't a biography of the Vulcan (I've never really been part of that "cult," by the way). It is a story of admiration. For whatever the reasons, a socity of loving and hard working fans formed to restore and maintain one of the Vulcans to flyable status. Not a static museum piece, but a workable, flyable jet. Like so many of these organizations, they seemed at times to have more belife than business sense. Like those who would return steam locomotives to the rails or pursue other plans so eccentric as to seem a product of the Victorian era, I feared the fans of the Vulcan would mortgage their houses, sell their cars, and in the end lose their bomber. But somehow they made it work. They found or fabricated the parts, they managed the paperwork, and above all they kept the cash or credit coming in long enough to see flight again.

And so now she's back, she's at Farnborough, and if I know the English, she's probably attracting a bigger crowd than any of the state-of-the-art foreigners intruding on her flightline.

And tonight I'll raise a pint of Bass to the people who made it happen.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

These things are beautiful...

Beauty, what is it?

To my artists and engineers brain, what constitutes beauty?

Because I know that I have a sense of when I am looking at something -- something engineered -- that is beautiful just as I know I have a sense of when I am looking at something devoid of beauty or even possessed of ugliness.

(1) It must set out to do certain things and do them well. I naive response would be to argue that this selects unfairly for specialists -- but not necessarily. A tool of the everyman can also say "I do these things -- and I do them well." Read on.

(2) It must be innovative in approach, perhaps even breaking new ground, though wonton novelty often produces ugliness as a frustrating side effect of incompletely understood principles.

(3) It must be clever, using not just raw force or expense or an obvious reliance on novelty to over come challenges. Ingenuity and problem solving must play a role. This mandates neither an easy nor a challenging gestation, for cleverness can be pre-planned or borne of the exegeses of desperation. Note that this is very different from (2).

(4) It must physically have clean lines on the inside and on the outside. An airplane's lines must flow smoothly and cleanly, but its interior systems if graphed out into hydraulics and electrics and pneumatics and avionics must also appear clean and flowing and well integrated. It must have the right number of parts, as a symphony must have the right number of notes, neither too few nor (worse yet) too many.

(5) It must be true. This is not a place for prototypes and vaporware. Any truly beautiful creation must have seen the touch of craftsmen and the light of day and the use for which it was intended. It need not have been produced in vast numbers, but it must have appeared in numbers sufficient to make an impact.

(6) It must be noteworthy or even extraordinary. The synthesis of these ideas must have, in some way, brought about success and significance. The first, the best, the most, a record will do but is not necessary. Living on beyond expected obsolescence, serving as a archetype for subsequent efforts,

These things are beautiful (and in no significant order):

2007-toyota-prius-touring-edition-front-left.jpgThe Toyota Prius. Well engineered and brilliantly timed (better than the designers could ever have imagined, I suspect), the Prius appears destined to be the Honda Civic of the new millennium (and I mean the old CVCC Civic of the late 70's, not that newfangled thing that's bigger than I remember an Accord being...).

786px-Concorde.planview.arp.jpgThe Concorde. 'Nuff said.

P2C-White.pngThe Cervelo P2C...I should like the far racier P3C better -- but it is just a little too funny looking for me. Yeah, its faster, more aggressively aero...but the lines, like a modern Formula One car, are just a little too elaborate.

iphone_home.gifYou knew this would be here, didn't you?

45045943.JPGThe F@#$'n Lunar Module? Widely agreed to be the Ugliest Spacecraft Ever? Yeah, but light, lean, very purposeful, and ultimately capable of way more than anyone ever expected. Go see Apollo 13.

Expect this blog entry to grow -- or find itself with sequels. There are many beautiful products of engineering out there. And they will get their day, don't worry. For tonight, I leave you with just a few.

The 2.0

So I've got it.

I braved the much reported iTunes store punt when eighteen billion Apple fans tried to simultaneously upgrade their iPhones and iPod Touch's. I was punted for forty five minutes of "Connecting to the iTunes Store" but then with an almost explosive suddenness, everything worked again and I got activated and happy.

So how is the iPhone version 2.0? Well, it is worth pointing out that this review takes place on a battered first-generation iPhone (no 3G, just EDGE and WiFi). When I say battered I mean it -- my "off" button got thwacked just last Tuesday in some odd way when I dropped my phone and is now slightly recessed into the case so that if I use it, it sometimes gets stuck in the "in" position forcing my phone into a perpetual reboot loop. But I've found that I can use my ever-handy clasp knife to pick it back out and restore functionality. That was probably a sight to see -- me standing at the bus stop, carrying two laptop bags, holding an iphone and using a 4 1/2 Gerber knife to pick away at it like it was a dirty fingernail...

But this isn't about the travails of my phone and my stubborn refusal to use a case until someone makes one that exactly fits a deranged vision that I've got stuck in my craw. It is supposed to be some notes on my interaction with iPhone 2.0 software and (even more importantly) some of the new downloadable applications.

For starters, I find the new software nice. Nothing earthshaking there, a few of the "gee, I've been waiting for it" kind of things. In a certain sense, there is a "finally the device is done" feel. I may not have explored all of the new features (and haven't got Exchange support working with my employers mail system, so I can't comment on that), so hold on there.

Application, though, that's why I was excited for 2.0. The ability to add functionality, even if it is via Apple's controlled portal, is what I've been after. I'm entirely OK with the approval process for new apps. My old Palm was so gummed up with bad code by the end of its lifetime that it barely ran for half a day without blowing up. So knowing that in this constrained (and critical) environment someone has got my back (at least somewhat) is a considerable source of comfort.

The reviews:

remote_icon20080711.pngRemote: this is magic. It has the sort of tight, sexily elegant integration that I expect out of Apple, and it addresses a real significant need. We run our music at home from a central NAS drive through either of our laptops back out to an AirPort Express that is plugged into a home stereo with speakers indoors and outdoors. The whole setup is fantastic but occasionally awkward. We're outside, having a party, decide to put on a different song, have to run inside, sit down at the computer...

Now, with Remote, we have the godlike superpower of controlling our music from anywhere in our network. Wow. I stood in my living room with my arms raised up over my head (think Tim Robbins at the end of Shawshank Redemption) while making songs skip forward...

twitterrific_icon.pngTwitteriffic: Definitely nicer than the Twitter web interface. Slick and elegant and a lot faster than using the web app. I think that as I get deeper into the friend side of the Twitter community (as opposed to just using it to micro-blog) then I will find it even better. Any way you look at it, elegant and nicely done. I like the options for photos and locations, too.

Picture 1.jpgEpocrates Rx: Damn. I'm not a nurse and take essentially Advil and Claratin and not much else, but as a demonstration of the utility of a handheld mini-computer, this application does about the best job of anything I've seen. The setup process (requiring registration from my regular computer) was kinda' cumbersome, but now that I'm done I can identify and learn about any common drug I run into. And that happens to me all the time, you know. I find a pill lying there on the street and just have to ask myself, what IS a round, blue pill with a double score? (That's amphetamine, by the way. Don't pick it up and take it!).

Picture 3.jpgStarmap: For some reason the iPhone seems like the perfect too for backyard astronomy. I love looking at the stars and thinking about the stars and space and all that sort of stuff. But for some reason my brain just refuses to learn the names and locations of more than a dozen stars. And that is not nearly enough to be sexy and romantic under the night sky! So I have always loved the idea of some sort of instant-star-identifier to help me out. Starmaps are obviously the analogue approach to this, but they remain a little inconvenient because of the need to "translate" the directions in your head.

The iPhone, with its accelerometer and position-finding tools, has a potential to self-locate on the sky, at least in terms of elevation. And the small size could create a "virtual telescope" that could sweep around the sky, the screen exactly mirroring the scale of the sky at arms length, to guide me to an interesting object or to help me name an unidentified one. I shopped a little and settled on Starmap, a French Canadian package with the best looking feature set of any of the first-to-market iPhone planetariums (there are at least four!).

Its good -- and has a great feature set -- but suffers from a really slow update rate and some awkward user interface issues. It is well set up to guide me to some object ("Where is M81?") but is rather poorly set up for the function I actually find more interesting -- identifying something that I see ("What is that fuzzy patch over there?"). There are lots of indexing and lookup options, some quite interesting and well done, but no way to get a name or other data on an astronomical object other than the ones the software decides to point out. It works -- and with luck I'll impress my date (Erica) with astronomical knowledge despite the UI issues.

Picture 4.jpgFileMagnet: This provides the functionality that I found most dramatically lacking on the original iPhone -- any sort of file storage/management system. So I can look at Word doc's or PDF's or something like that. Everyone I know who had an iPhone kluged it together by emailing themselves the files. So the one big hope that I had for 2.0 was some sort of elegant file storage solution. Even a way to download web content and save it when I bookmarked a file to the desktop (you listenen', Apple? Yeah, I'm talking to you, Mr. Turtleneck Jobs!).

Unfortunately, that sort of functionality didn't appear to make it onto this release. It seems simple enough, so I'm not sure if there is a good technological (or business) reason to prevent it.

File Magnet provides a pseudo-storage capability by using a not-too-clumsy drag-and-drop interface between my laptop and my iPhone. Note that the two computers have to be on the same network (iPhone via WiFi, obviously) for this to work. You can move files and view them, and it works ok, so I'm generally happy. But it still has a kissing-your-sister sort of vibe as compared to what I would like to see built in to the OS. Note that any sister-kissing knowledge that I possess is purely theoretical -- I am an only child and that's creepy anyway.

So there you have it. I plant to check out some of the games soon -- I'm particularly intrigued by the new genre of game that the iPhone seems to have sparked -- the accelerometer game. I also my break down and spend another ten bucks on astronomy software to see if one of the other packages out there does a little more of what I'd like out of my iTelescope.

On the whole, I'm happy. I still love my device and rank it far ahead of anything else out there, EDGE data rate be damned. I'm hoping that some of the software vendors have a little time and get a little feedback to make some revisions and improvements. And I'm hoping for a decent file manager...