Jun 16 2010

Kudos Japan

Published by under space,technology

The Japanese space program is doing some cool shit in the way of interplanetary spacecraft, and I have to hand it to them. I’m primarily impressed by their sheer ambition, launching bleeding edge missions that the more conservative NASA would tend to work their way up to. With previous interplanetary experience consisting of a couple probes to Halley’s Comet in the 80s and the Nozomi Mars orbiter in the 90s, JAXA launched Hayabusa seven years ago, on a sample collection mission to asteroid Itokawa.

This was the first attempted asteroid sample return mission by any nation. It was also powered by electric ion propulsion, a still fairly new technology that provides a long (years) but light push with little fuel mass compared to chemical rockets, and could autonomously navigate. After reaching the asteroid in 2005, it commenced trying to capture a sample, but here is where things started going wrong.

There were a couple brief landings but it didn’t seem that the pellet gun fired to cause debris to be captured. Also, a separate mini-lander called MINERVA was released too far from the surface. (Again – trying a lot of new things on one mission. And the mini-lander seems straight out of some Anime plot) Due to some malfunctions, getting the probe back to Earth has taken 5 years of Apollo 13 style engineering improvisation. Failing attitude control gyros were compensated for by angling the solar panels to surf the solar wind. Intermittent functioning of the 4 ion engines required constant navigational changes and (somehow) re-routing of components from two of the engines to allow operation of one.

All this resulted in the successful re-entry of the sample return capsule on Sunday. In the great video below, the capsule is at lower right, while the rest of the spacecraft is disintegrating behind it. Now we wait to find out if there was actually any sample dust inside.

As if that we’re impressive enough, JAXA just launched a solar sail demonstrator mission called IKAROS which has unfurled it’s sail successfully. This is the first functioning solar sail to be deployed – which relies on the radiation pressure of sunlight to provide propulsion. Solar panels are integrated into the sail, as well as variable reflectance patches for steering (this is crazy). And if that’s not enough for you, IKAROS released a small camera module to grab the below image of itself, relayed back to IKAROS wirelessly.

Really Japan – now you’re just showing off.

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Mar 29 2010

Ann Arbor Third Places

Published by under AnnArbor

Ann Arbor is sprouting some great dedicated third places which have got off the ground recently or are in the works in the near future, that you may not be aware of.

Annarbor.com just did a story on the Blue House, across from the stadium. It’s a handmade studio that recently opened and is a dedicated space for crafters and it also offers workshops on things like block printing and knitting.

The AHA! Shop (All Hands Active) is a space for makers at Digital Ops on Liberty that hosts a regular Thursday night build night. Fun crew that skews more towards electronics and art.

Finally, my spies indicate that a co-operative bike shop space is likely to get off the ground downtown, featuring tools and advice for maintaining your bike.

It’s good to see some permanent spaces established around town to provide continuity between the various events that get people out and involved in doing things like the Mini Maker Faire and Ignite. Speaking of which, the call to makers is open for the coming Mini Maker Faire in June.

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Mar 23 2010

Apollo Lunar Escape System was All Guts

Published by under design,space,technology

Let me take you back to an era before computer control of all aspects of spaceflight was considered necessary. It’s the early 70s, and although additional flights after Apollo 17 were eventually canceled, there were at the time plans afoot for longer duration stays on the lunar surface. However, a longer stay entailed an increased risk that the LEM ascent engine would not ignite when the time came to return to orbit.

What would the two surface-bound astronauts do? Would they wait for a rescue mission? No. They would unstow a wire-frame with small thrusters and collapsible fuel bladders from the LEM.

They would then transfer the ascent stage fuel to these bladders, and climb onto a perch on top, with life support supplied only by their space suits. They would then ignite their small rockets, and arc into the sky, guided to a rendevous with the command module only by an attitude indicator, a clock, and a list of desired pitches and times.

Once the pitch and time sequence was complete and they were in orbit, they would sit tight and pray they matched the checklist close enough that the CSM could find them before they ran out of oxygen.

It seems impossible that such a guts-only scenario would come up in the future. Imagine riding from the surface to an orbital rendezvous on essentially a jetpack, holding a joystick and a stopwatch.
I love this.

Apollo Lunar Escape System at Wikipedia

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Dec 16 2009

We’ve found Earth episode 9

Published by under media,space

I can’t believe I’m about to walk down the well-worn path of critiquing science coverage in the traditional media, but here we are.

Super-Earth: Newly Discovered Planet May Have Water – TIME.

Or more accurately – it *is* water. Every exoplanet report that reaches the traditional media tends to be exaggerated to feed the desire for an exciting story, and I think the net result is that the typical dispassionate observer may have concluded several times by now that earth like planets have been found.    For example, the findings that Gliese 581d and e may or may not be in the ‘habitable zone’ of their star triggered similar earth-like stories.   Now this new discovery of a 6.5 Earth mass ball of hot ice is throwing similar keywords.

However my favorite part of the article is this:

<blockquote>a planet 2.7 times bigger than Earth, circling a dim red star called GJ 1214, just 40 light-years away in the constellation Ophiuchus.</blockquote>

Yes, it’s *only* 40 light-years away, we can just stroll over there.  And how to decide whether to use the mass or radius when reporting how much “bigger” it is?  Let’s use the smaller number to increase the earth-like excitement!

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Oct 16 2009

Piano Playing Stairs

Published by under design,transportation

This is awesome:

via Machine Thinking

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Oct 08 2009


Published by under space


If you don’t have a 10-inch telescope to see LCROSS impact the moon tomorrow morning at 7:31 EST, there are some other options. NASA has a good page with links, including NASA TV and timing information. NASA should have a live feed from the trailing LCROSS shepard spacecraft. Also, SLOOH is providing a free live feed from their telescope.

via Wired.

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Oct 01 2009

Books and their transforming media

Published by under books,design,media,technology

I came across an entry on Google Books, and realized they have a map with all locations mentioned in the book tagged on the map. This is a neat feature. Check out the map for Around the World in 80 Days. Certainly an interesting way to access data in a book.

I was recently reading how St. Jerome was partial to plagiarizing the hell out of Origen and other sources, in some cases most of entire biblical commentaries. The author makes the point that plagarizing was quite a bit easier in the ancient world, as there weren’t that many copies of the books floating around when each copy had to be written out by hand. Printing was one paradigm jump in text availability, and we’re now going through another one.

I hear often how the internet makes it a lot easier for people to cheat and plagarize, but I think the increased accessibility of our accumulated texts actually makes the opposite true. We’re just coming through a period where people aren’t yet submitting papers electronically, and these papers aren’t yet routinely run through a programmatic comparison with the database of all books to check for plagarism. (This won’t address paying someone to write your paper). Think of how accessible human knowledge is now compared to even 10 years ago. Doesn’t it seem astronomically harder to find plagarism if you have to look through a physical book for the copied text?

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Sep 15 2009

Decline and Fall

Published by under books,history

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is quite a reading project, to be sure, even if you stick to the first three volumes which take the story to the end of the western empire. But there’s more to it than the first “modern” work of history; He can deploy some enjoyable prose:

The pride and avarice of his mother cast a shade on the glories of his reign; and by exacting from his riper years the same dutiful obedience which she had justly claimed from his inexperienced youth, Mamaea exposed to public ridicule, both her son’s character and her own.

Also, his notes (pioneering the modern use of footnotes) are numerous, and in many cases delightful:

Vitellius consumed in mere eating, at least six millions of our money in about seven months. It is not easy to express his vices with dignity, or even decency. Tacitus fairly calls him a hog; but it is by substituting to a coarse word a very fine image.

In short, it can be a rewarding periodic read, that I pick up now and then, and probably won’t finish for a decade or so. But still worth it.

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Aug 04 2009

Photographing museums

Published by under people

The New York Times had a great article yesterday on a longstanding phenomenon that is noticeable to anyone walking around a museum: The prevalence of people photographing the paintings, and the paucity of people viewing them. It’s really an interesting behavior, considering that you can probably find an image of most of these paintings online already.

I think it speaks to the way museums are viewed today. They aren’t so much a collection of beautiful objects that people can spend an afternoon enjoying, as they are a place to tick off of a travel itinerary. People I think generally feel a time pressure, they’re in a city they don’t live in, and they don’t want to come back from the Louvre and forget to see the Mona Lisa. Hence, you have to get the audioguide to make sure you see “the good stuff”. Do you go to a museum to say you’ve seen something, or to enjoy a beautiful object? It’s this tension between limited time and trying to tick items off a list that I think troubles the museum experience. We don’t spend enough time in the museums and galleries in our home towns.

The craziest version of this though, is the camcordering of museums. I can’t imagine people reviewing the tape afterwards of a bunch of inanimate objects. It seems crazy, especially because the camcorderer is typically looking at the viewscreen and not the glorious painting or sculpture in front of them.

This reminds me of a photo from when we were in the Louvre 8 years ago. We decided it was more interesting to take a picture of the crowd of people, than the painting itself.

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Jul 01 2009

Running Ignite with Impressive

Published by under design,ignite

eli-and-his-robo-dinosaur-library-by-dugsongPerhaps one of the more stress inducing aspects of throwing together Ignite Ann Arbor, was figuring out how to play all our speaker’s slide decks, with 15 second auto-advance, but also with non-timed slides interspersed between, all while avoiding cross-os font imbroglios and ugly on-screen GUI manipulation. I’ll describe what I used here in nauseating detail. Hopefully this will be useful to other Ignite organizers, or anyone trying to give a talk without whipping out powerpoint.

I’ll be giving a little demo at the MichiPUG meeting July 2nd.

I settled on Impressive, a presentation framework written in python. It allows you to give a slideshow type performance using either PDF files or a directory of images as source. We asked all presenters to submit their slide decks of exactly 20 slides, in PDF format to ensure they were platform independent. We also supplied the projector resolution ahead of time so they would have that information; It was particularly relevant to Laura Fisher‘s talk on ratios. I made additional slides with the Ignite template, an introduction with name and title for each speaker, and a thanks slide. I then exported these as individual one page PDFs with the presenters surname.

At this point, I had three directories (intros, presos, thanks) each with 14 PDFs, using surnames as the filename in each directory. Each presentation was to be kicked off individually. I ended up running Impressive in cygwin, although you could also run it natively. Thus I had a shell script to launch each presentation, also titled by surname. An example shell script:

impressive -T 0 -I single.info -C m.png ./intros/Ackasu.pdf ./presos/Ackasu.pdf ./thanks/Ackasu.pdf

This calls impressive on the three PDFs, which are strung together as though they were one presentation. It also sets the transition time to 0 to eliminate slide transitions, calls the info file single.info, and uses m.png (which was a 1 pixel transparent image) as the pointer icon. The info file system is one of the really powerful tools Impressive offers. You can basically add flat out python to customize the slideshow. My single.info file consisted of this:

for page in xrange(2, 22):
   SetPageProp(page, 'timeout', 15000)

Thus, a 15 second timeout was placed on each slide except the first and last. There is a -a command line option to just flat-out give every slide a particular transition time, but using the .info file let me apply the timeout to just the slides in the actual presentations.

I then made a windows shortcut calling cygwin’s bash.exe and the relevant shell script for each presenter, which I numbered with the speaking order, so that all the shorcuts were in order. During ignite, I could then just go down the list of shortcuts and running each presentation one at a time. Incidentally, we could have changed speaking order by simply reordering the shortcuts.

I think it worked really well. Impressive provided a nice slick way to organize everything and it’s visually pleasing. We didn’t use a fraction of it’s capabilities, which you might want in a differently structured presentation. For instance, you can hit to get a view of all your slides if you have to jump around, you can use a spotlight effect, there’s different transitions (ok, even though the transitions are nicely animated, please, please do not use transitions in the name of all that is holy). Check out the documentation to see what else you can do with it.

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