Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2004-06-30
  Much better pictures of SpaceShipOne
Thanks to Richard Seaman, you can see these Great Pictures of the launch and landing.

His photos are so good that he points out a crumpling visible underneith the nozzle on the rocket as it lands. Perhaps this is related to the large boom heard durning the rocket firing.

You can also see some deformations in the nozzle in this air-to-air photo on scaled's site.

Thanks to Due Diligence for the link.

 
2004-06-29
  Comments are a broken concept
I like searching far and wide in the blog space for interesting people and interesting ideas. I'm often finding blogs with zero inbound links through technorati, but even ones that have reasonable traffic are surprised to get a comment from me. They're usually like:
"Wow, someone commented ... nobody ever does that."
There's several reasons for that I'm coming to find out. The first is that readers are just not used to joining in on a conversation. They're just there to read, get the information, and move on. One does not usually pick up a pen after reading something in the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, or Wired and shoot off a letter to the author. (Actually it turns out that authors in these magazines love hearing from readers, and will almost always respond to comments or questions sent to them.) So maybe its part conditioning, part laziness, and part mindset.

Even if you do get past that and decide that you have something to say, leaving it as a comment is not necessarily your first choice. Since the point of web logs is to give each person their own voice on the web, you may want to to continue the conversation going on at your own site. Or even if you're thinking of leaving the comment at another location, you wonder if anyone will ever read it. (With RSS feeds, often the comments are not conveyed; and on some sites I have to wonder if the log author will even notice the comment.)

Even when I do decide to post a comment on another site, though, I run into yet another problem: finding it later. Sometimes my comments get pretty long (longer than a good number of my posts), and I'll be thinking a couple weeks later about something I said, then I've got to wonder if I can even find the comment again. And if someone else happens to post a response to my comment, its pretty unlikely that I'll see it unless its on a site I go to very frequently. Don Park just lifted a comment off of another blog and stuck it on his weblog because he wanted to keep the memory. (The post was about losing a pet.)

Maintaining conversations is a problem a lot of web tools have had. Wiki's suffered from this problem, and even old net-news (though with lower bandwidth groups, the later readers with thread stitching made a decent attempt at keeping track of it all). Track-backs try to solve this problem, but are harder to use and with only an excerpt in the source blog, the flow of the conversation is broken up.

I have faith of course, that someone will come up with a crazy idea, and after its implemented, we'll all realize how brilliant it is, and the global consciousness will take another leap forward. For now, we'll put up with partial solutions, and lost conversations.

 
2004-06-26
  Gmail is my new notepad
While my spelling has gotten better, I always spell check just about anything I write (email, comments, postings), before sending it out. At first I was editing everything in netscape mail editor, because its got a pretty good spell checker, but its really annoying when you put HTML around a word, or just use a dash: it can't figure out "does--go" is two words. So then I was editing posts in w.bloggar because it can post automatically for me and has a previewer and a spell checker, but its spelling checker is abysmal: missing a lot of normal words, and does the worst job on suggesting alternatives.

Today I tried the Gmail compose window, and its awesome. It highlights all the misspelled words in red (kind of like word), and then has a drop down when you click on a word for suggestions. It works wonderfully. I'm going to be doing all my writing in this now. (And no, Word is not a choice because its a big ugly program that I don't really want to run, and only loaded on one machine, which I try to avoid.) BTW, if you don't have a gmail account, email me, I still have plenty of invites left.

 
2004-06-25
  Suggestions for the future
So some people have asked me what do I think will be next after this x-prize is won (which it hopefully will be, though its certainly not a given). Their suggestion is always orbital flight, but I think we're getting ways ahead of ourselves here. There's far more that we could do with sub-orbital flight first.

For instance:

So lets get private foundations, NASA, and whoever else (the Chinese?) to throw some money into the pot, and put down another $140MM for these worthwhile goals.
 
2004-06-24
  Functional programming languages
Ok, so I'm looking at OCaml in addition to Lua. Lua looks like a good scripting language, but so far I haven't found any features that it has that I can't also do in Perl, and it doesn't seem to have a macro language (or generics) which I think is pretty important. While LISP is the ultimate in macro manipulation (since you can manipulate the symbol list of any function since everything is just an expression), I'm not ready to turn to the dark side yet, and I'm still attached to strong typing (from C++), so its time to look at OCAML (Objective Caml) which is a dialect of ML (meta-language), which includes a typing system.

Ok, right off I find an intro text from my alma-matter (Caltech), but I'm starting to wonder about its assembly. Here's one of the first examples of a routine/function they give:

let rec gcd a b =
	let r = a mod b in
		if r = 0 then
			b
		else
			gcd b r
Oh bother, tail recursion. Fine, lets try a different example:
let rec fact n =
	if n = 1 then
		1
	else
		n * fact n - 1
# fact(10) ;;
Stack overflow during evaluation (looping recursion?).

Hmmm. Maybe we better read more of the manual. Ok, so a function is supposed to look like this:
let dbl = fun n -> n * 2 ;;

Hmmm. Now I'm completely confused. Those don't look anything like each other. Lets keep reading and see if it gets any clearer:
let sum = fun i j -> i + j;;
let sum = (fun i -> (fun j -> i + j));; (* same thing *)

Oh that was pretty scary, a function that takes one parameter and then calls another function (which is defined inline) which eats the next parameter. This is getting worse. Ok, lets look at our factorial program again. Maybe we can debug it:

let rec factp n =
	Printf.printf "fact %d\n" n
	if n = 1 then
		1
	else
		n * fact n - 1
Well that won't even compile. Looks like the printf needs some sort of terminator or something. This is starting to look fishy. Ok, maybe its because its not a function (one can always hope). Taking a look at the last line though, I'm starting to suspect that the order of operations is (fact n) -1 not fact (n-1). This is why I almost always put the parenthesis in when writing expressions in C. Ok, try it with parenthesis's.
# let rec fact n =
	if n = 1 then
		1
	else
		n * fact (n - 1)
	;; 
val fact : int -> int = 
# fact 10 ;;
- : int = 3628800
# fact 100 ;;
- : int = 0
Ok, it works for small numbers at least. I guess its overflowing an int. Well, I guess that's ok. I think Lua throws in free bignum support, but this is actually typed as an int function, in fact trying to call it with a float produces an error. (You can't even use + or - with floats, you have to use type safe operators: +. and -. )
 
2004-06-23
  Travelling into space
Well it was very exciting being there for the launch of SpaceShipOne into space. While they did make their 100km altitude, it turns out that they made it by the thinnest of margins, and with great difficulty.

There were no less than four serious malfunctions during the flight. There were un-planned rolls during the rocket firing, it cut off early, some strange banging noises from the rear during flight, and there was some loss of attitude control up in space. All in all, Mike was lucky to make it back in one piece. While they had planned to pass the goal by 20,000 feet, they ended up only getting to 100.12km, or 310 feet past. Cutting it rather close. Burt has some serious repair work to take care of before this thing goes up in the air again, and he's said that most likely they'll need another test flight before trying for the x-prise. (The x-prize group has also mentioned that they require 50 days advanced notice before an attempt, and so far they haven't received any notice from anybody.)

I found a few more pictures from various articles. The best ones are of SS1 coming back in for landing. Here's one taken from the chase plane, as it passes over the parking lot (I'm there in the fourth row, silver van, near the bottom):

You can also see the crowds on the flight line as it lined up for touchdown on the runway,

And finally a view from the crowds. I'm not sure what's in the background there. It looks kind of like the outskirts of the Mos Eisley spaceport, but its just the local fauna and accumulated junk of Mojave.

As far as going back, I've been thinking about what it would mean for me and for the space program. Out of the three possible upcoming launches, I think I might go back for the final x-prize attempt. That would be when the prize was won. Maybe there'd be some cooler stuff at the merchandise tent by then, though we scored this last time by waiting until the launch, and then picking up "I was there" postcards which had been postmarked with the date. The rest of the stuff--tshirts, hats, cups--was all available on the web site, which takes all the fun out of it.

Some suggestions for the crowds returning next time (and the times after that):

 
2004-06-22
  Flying past the sky
So monday was the Scaled space launch, and we were there. The drive out the day before was great, Max was excited, the van did great (34 mpg the whole way), we got to the hotel, grabbed a quick pancake and settled down. Well, ok, we had to watch a night-night movie, the we had to go get the lady bugs and the night time flashlight from the van, then we had to cover up the clock because it was keeping the sink awake, then we had to change the pajamas because they got a drip on them, then we needed some more covers, then we got to sleep. Ok, no more blueberry syrup right before bed anymore.

So we woke up the next morning at 3am, hopped in the van, and hit the road again. Made it to Mojave in about 80 minutes and things were pretty quiet. Got right to the airport before we hit any traffic. All the cars were coming from the other direction, so it was an easy turn in for us, then hurry up and wait in a very long line for parking. Sadly, these guys did not know what they were doing. About 30 minutes later, we were parked, and we gathered together our gear and headed to the flight line.

First bit of advise for future viewings: either get a spot in front, or don't bother. We placed our seat behind about four rows of other people, and right up until they rolled out the plane we could see everything. But as soon as there was something to see, there were suddenly four rows of people standing on their folding chairs, blocking our view. David got a great shot of the back of some girl's hat while trying for a picture of the takeoff.
I got some videos of the planes taxing out (the 20x optical zoom on the Cannon GL-1 is great), and then Max was bored. At this point, everything that was going to happen was going to happen up in the air, so we headed back to the van. Max got to sit down, relax in the shade and watch a movie, while David and I watched the planes do wide circles gaining altitude. You can really track them up there for quite a while, first because they're pretty close and the one dual prop plane makes a lot of noise; then later WhiteKnight makes jet trails which are easy to see.

So about seventy five minutes later, they were at altitude (we were hearing the reports on FM radio of the car next to us, ours was playing into Bugs Life), and we searched the sky. I don't know why, but the rocket from our position was about twenty degrees directly below the sun. It fired straight up (through the sun), and then up into space. I don't know of anybody on the ground there that got a good picture of that. But boy did it move fast. I couldn't see anything besides the exhaust plume, but it was still impressive.

Then it was sit and wait. Unfortunately they couldn't verify the altitude in real time, so we were all sitting around guessing. They didn't report apogee on the radio either. But eventually it started coming back down, and after finishing braking, it started flying in formation with all the chase planes. Pretty soon it was big enough to make out, and it came lower and lower. Finally riding in and landing, with one chase plane about ten feet behind it, and the rest a more respectful distance back. The landing gear was fine, and it landed without a hitch. Even for this part, the view was great from the parking lot (we had moved our van closer to the flight line). A lot of other people were out on the roofs of their cars, and in the backs of their trucks. This is the way to go.

Finally, Mike came out, riding on top of the rocket and waved to the crowd. Everyone was very excited. He even took pictures of the crowd for the scrap book, and Burt came out and grabbed one of the signs the crowd was holding up and gave it to Mike to hold. Besides the overhead flights and the landing, this was the best part of being there, because I finally got a real sense of the size and brawn of spaceShipOne. The pictures just don't properly capture the strength in its wings and its presence on the runway (even being towed). Its a great space ship.

I'll see if David has any photos that turned out, and I may eventually dump the video off my DV tape, but for now, the even lives in my memory (and hopefully in Max's as well). It was a great (if tiring) time.

 
2004-06-15
  Disappointing ecommerce
So I'm going to the rocket launch next week, and because I'm taking Max, my wife put her foot down and said no straight-through no-sleep road trip, I have to stop and take a nap somewhere.

Ok, so all the hotels filled up in mojave quite a while ago, so I'm thinking Barstow, its on the way, and its only an hour from there to Mojave. (Mojave is actually quite a bit farther west than I thought, its like an hour north of Pasadena, if the mountains weren't in the way.)

So I tried all the various web sites: hotel.com, lodging.com, travel.com, ... hotel.com lists a $38 rate for days inn, but wants to charge me $5 more for doing the reservation. lodging.com can't even find any rooms for days inn at first, but eventually finds a $49 rate (and this is the Lowest Price -- 110% Guaranteed ). Finally, I go straight to the Days Inn site. After wrestling with the search tool (it can't figure out the state from the city entry; and when I specified a check in date it didn't move the check out date to be after), I find there's a couple of choices: Barstow, Adelanto, and Hesperia. Hmmm, better go check the maps.

Ok, it looks like Adelanto is 30+ miles out of the way, and doesn't leave me any closer the next morning. Guess its lovely downtown Barstow for me.

 
  Yahoo responds to the competition

Well, I logged into yahoo email today to find that they're fighting back against Gmail. Instead of the 4mb to 6mb storage that free accounts used to have (depending on how long ago you opened the account), the free accounts are now 100mb (and the paid accounts go up to 2gb). Of course with the quantity of junk mail I get, I'll still have to delete it once in a while, but at least my box won't be full twice a week.

There's also some other random tweaks, like 10MB single message size, and other interface changes. Though if I was paying for a premium account, I'd want something more like 5GB for email or something.

For me, yahoo has some advantages over gmail still, like the ability to check other pop mailboxes, and the portal integration with cell phone providers (though if gmail is smart, they'll get on the cell phones too).

 
2004-06-13
  Dispelling the mystique

Gmail is not yet open for general business, but its not actually that difficult to get one. At first I was like some others, and would hang out on the IRC channels and every once in a while would throw out a desperate plea, "I want a Gmail account ..." but to no avail. Still, I wasn't than hung up on it, and so I let it go.

Then, the other day I went to my blogger dashboard, and there stuck in among the other random stats was a gmail invite. (blogger and gmail are both owned by Google.) But unlike some in the blogsphere that are making a big deal over invites, I turned around and sent off three invites to a couple friends who I thought would like them. (Sorry if you wanted one, I'm all out at this point.) I am doing an experiment with another blogger account, just to see when the invite shows up, so if that test pans out I'll have a few more invites. Of course if I was really mercenary, I'd use one of my invites to open another account for myself and then I'd have three more invites. (One wonders how far one could go with that, or why there are 3973 auctions on ebay for these things.)

So, I'd say, if you want a gmail invite, start a weblog, and sooner or later you should get one.

 
2004-06-11
  Cool experiments with magnets
I've had my share of playing with iron filings and magnets, trying to stick magnets together the wrong way, or pulling around piles of bolts with a big magnet. I'm sure my kids will too (in fact I've been saving iron filings from cutting rebar), but in an old issue of Home Power they were talking about a presentation given at a workshop on building wind power generators, there the guys at Wonder Magnet gave a presentation on cool things to do with magnets, like dropping them down a copper pipe which generates a counter magnet field and actually breaks the fall. They also have this cool stuff called ferrofluid,

Basically this is an oil with magnetic particles in it. In the presence of another magnet, they take the form of the magnetic field in 3D. Adult supervision required however, as it will make a major mess if spilled (stains skin, clothing, table tops, etc.)

Something to add to my chrismas wish list.

 
2004-06-09
  The history of bad project management
People seem to think that software development is something particularly disorganized, and our ability to deliver late and over budget, something having to do with the unique independence of the software programmer. I think I've picked on the construction industry (as people building buildings often mismanage their projects just the same), but it turns out there are perfect examples of bad management way farther back, like hundreds of years. Like for instance, the building and subsequent sinking of the Roya Ship Vasa in 1625.

Commissioned by King Gustav Adolf II of Sweden, the Vasa was designed to be one of the premier warships of the 17th century. Unfortunately, the ship sank two hours after its initial launch in an 8-knot wind.
The building of this ship sounds just like a typical software project: the customer wanted the schedule shortened (so they were behind schedule before they laid the first timber), they build the underlying architecture (framework) for a 108-foot-long ship, but then the spec was changed to 135 feet, the project manager became sick and then tried to run the project remotely which led to department heads reporting sunshine reports instead of the facts, etc. Then there was the testing department:
A few months before launch, Admiral Flemming decided to test the stability of the ship by having thirty men run from one side of the ship to the other. After three such runs, the ship heeled so severely, it was in danger of actually tipping over. Strangely, Jacobsson (the boatbuilder) was neither invited to the test nor informed of the result. The captain decided that less ballast was needed, while the boatswain decided that it needed more.
The final report of the article?
The key issue was not the technology, or where the design went wrong. Instead, the leaders failed to shoulder their personal responsibility to the project, allowing poor decisions to be made and then doing nothing to fix mistakes. While the science of individual engineering fields has progressed a great deal, the dynamics of running projects and motivating a team have not. Human error and inadequacies can doom a project as easily today as they did in the 1620s.
A good read, as well as the Swedish Ship Vasa's Revival.

[more reading]
The Vasa Museum
The History of Royal Ship Vasa and Sweden from Erik XIV until the Thirty Year War.

From: Cornell University's Engineering Library: Engineering Successes and Failures.

 
2004-06-06
  New ways of looking at the internet
Back when I started using the internet (uunet), it was small and it was slow, and you had to be careful with it. You kept things short, you optimized traffic, and you were prepared when things didn't work. People would get flamed for including hundreds or even tens of lines of previous conversations in their posts (in a precursor to electronic junk mail tool wars, early tools would judge the fitness of a posting by how much original content it had, leading others to switch the encoding of included lines in an attempt to circumvent the tools), but I digress.

The point is, people are using the internet now for things that would have been unimaginable (which is just what you should expect). Take Bittorrent for example: its not really a good tool for sharing music like Napster was because there's too much upfront cost to find a file, sure some people share albums, but mostly its for video. There's movies taped in the theater or ripped from DVDs, but there's even more TV, taped right off the air usually (sometimes transferred digitally from a TiVo or the like). Sometimes the episodes are highres and are pretty large, but other times they've been compressed down pretty small and are under 100MB (which I can download in ~40minutes or so).


Anyway, next week Stargate SG-1 is repeating (for the Nth time), episode 308 "The Other Guys", where a couple of the scientists get caught up in the plans of the main SG-1 team and end up helping save the day. There's an especially funny fantasy sequence at the end which ties into it as well. This episode featured Patrick McKenna (the Red/Green show) and John Billingsley (enterprise), who were brilliant in their roles as the gung ho wanabee adventurer and the reluctant partner. I've seen this episode in bits and pieces numerous times (SG-1 is on after Andromeda on Sunday Nights), and its a pretty funny episode. I was thinking of taping it this coming weekend, but went out to see if I could just download it instead.

While I couldn't find that episode by itself, I was astounded at what people are putting out for download for Stargate. In addition to some episodes of season 7 (300-400MB each), and complete season archives (7705MB each), someone packed up all seven seasons of Stargate, extras, and the original movie into one big package that is over 56GB. Gads. Even if I decided to totally alienate my small ISP and download it full time, it would still take almost a month to get the complete thing. Bet those guys over in Korea with the 20Mbit home lines must be loving it though.

 
2004-06-03
  Toys we can't resist.
Kids love digging in the dirt, my little one can spend hours just grabbing handfulls of dirt and gravel and throwing it into the wind. Some parents get pretty serious about these kinds of things and get their kids advanced implements of destruction (like this)

For someone with some welding skill, you can build something like this for about twenty dollars in parts. There's even plans available. The warnings at the bottom obviously come from experience however:

The temptation to build one out of 1.5" pipe and counterweight it for adult use should be discouraged.
 
2004-06-02
  Going into space
Scaled announced today that they're heading for space in three weeks. June 21 will be their first attempt at flying to 100KM. I'm making my plans to be there even though this is not an attempt at the X-prize yet. The X-prize requires that three people be on board, but that's just details (since SpaceShipOne holds three people).

Now my father felt that space was important enough to drag me out of my bed in the middle of the night as a three year old to see the astronauts landing on the moon, so I'll pass on the favor and drag my four year old out to see this as well. Unless its a complete disaster Max is going to have to put up with two more 5 hour trips after this as well.

 
2004-06-01
  Big screens for big minds
Plasma TVs are pretty cool, because they're a lot brighter than projection and LCD panels. You do have to deal with some noise and burnin (they're life span is measured in hours), but they're big, and getting bigger.

At first there were 42" and 50" displays. A 50" is pretty nice, and they can support 1280x720; but then came the 60" which seemed enormous. Well, it was enormous until Samsung showed off an 80" plasma display.

Of course the price is a little steep: $45,000. So lets see, I could buy a new lexus, or get a plasma screen the size of an area rug. There's a 70" too that's only $36,500 (still far outside of my budget). Decisions decisions.

 
Life in the middle of nowhere, remote programming to try and support it, startups, children, and some tinkering when I get a chance.

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Blogroll
Paul Graham's Essays
You may not want to write in Lisp, but his advise on software, life and business is always worth listening to.
How to save the world
Dave Pollard working on changing the world .. one partially baked idea at a time.
SnowDeal
Eric Snowdeal IV - born 15 weeks too soon, now living a normal baby life.
Land and Hold Short
The life of a pilot.

The best of?
Jan '04
The second best villain of all times.

Feb '04
Oops I dropped by satellite.
New Jets create excitement in the air.
The audience is not listening.

Mar '04
Neat chemicals you don't want to mess with.
The Lack of Practise Effect

Apr '04
Scramjets take to the air
Doing dangerous things in the fire.
The Real Way to get a job

May '04
Checking out cool tools (with the kids)
A master geek (Ink Tank flashback)
How to play with your kids

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