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Curiosity, 2

August 15, 2012 Leave a comment

Ten days ago, with NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity two hours away from landing (or crashing), I embedded a NASA video illustrating the extraordinary sequence of steps involved in a successful arrival. I have since been following Curiosity’s twitter feed, a convenient way to keep abreast of the latest news and photos. A few hours ago, Curiosity told its followers about the video I’ve embedded above.

Earlier today, Curiosity tweeted with news of the video below, which features the unlikely NASA celebrity and flight director Bobak Ferdowsi, better known as Mohawk Guy.

But nothing beats Curiosity’s photos themselves, like the one below, taken a week ago by Curiosity’s Mastcam.

Part of Gale Crater’s north wall

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Categories: Science, Technology

Curiosity: Two Hours to Touchdown

August 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Curiosity — NASA’s new Mars Science Laboratory — is due to land in Mars’ Gale Crater in two hours. The new scientific knowledge the rover will provide is sufficient cause for excitement, but the design of the landing process is pretty cool in its own right. (And, of course, if there’s not a successful landing, there will be no science at all.) Be sure to watch the video above, courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to see what I’m talking about.

Also, from the website:

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft is healthy and right on course for a landing in several hours that will be one of the most difficult feats of robotic exploration ever attempted.

Emotions are strong in the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., as the hours and miles race toward touchdown of the car-size Curiosity at about 10:31 p.m. PDT tonight (about 1:31 a.m. Aug. 6, EDT).

“Excitement is building while the team is diligently monitoring the spacecraft,” said Mission Manager Brian Portock of JPL. “It’s natural to get anxious before a big event, but we believe we are very well prepared.”

Descent from the top of Mars’ atmosphere to the surface will employ bold techniques enabling use of a smaller target area and heavier landed payload than were possible for any previous Mars mission. These innovations, if successful, will place a well-equipped mobile laboratory into a locale especially well-suited for this mission of discovery. The same innovations advance NASA toward capabilities needed for human missions to Mars.

[snip]

At the critical moment of Curiosity’s touchdown, controllers and the rest of the world will be relying on NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter to provide immediate confirmation of a successful landing. Odyssey will turn to point in the right direction beforehand to listen to Curiosity during the landing. If for any reason that turn maneuver does not work, a successful landing cannot be confirmed until more than two hours later.

The landing will end a 36-week flight from Earth and begin at two-year prime mission on Mars. Researchers will use Curiosity’s 10 science instruments to investigate whether Martian environmental conditions have ever been favorable for microbial life.

Good luck, Curiosity.

Categories: Science, Technology

iPad News

May 22, 2011 Leave a comment

I suppose this post may have limited interest, but I just want to comment on four improvements the last ten days have brought to my iPad life.

1. OmniOutliner for iPad. Two Thursdays ago, The Omni Group brought its indispensable OmniOutliner program to the iPad. OmniOutliner for iPad was originally due to come out last summer. Those of us whose lives depend on OmniOutliner and who use iPads have been desperately waiting for months. There are workarounds, like converting outlines on the Mac to opml format, then using some other program, such as Carbon Fin, to upload the outline to their server and then pull it down to one’s iPad or iPhone. Doing this means sacrificing a lot of OmniOutliner’s formatting options, but it works for simple outlines. Now there’s no longer a need for these workarounds. Hooray!

I have to confess, though, that I haven’t yet integrated OmniOutliner for iPad into (what I’ve learned to call) my workflow. I love having it. I’m just not using it much. Part of the problem is that although there’s no need to change the format of an outline, one still has to upload it somewhere, to one’s iDisk account for instance, then import it into OmniOutliner for iPad. This is an impediment.

2. The New Yorker. The iPad implementation of The New Yorker was supposed to be well done, a sign of things to come, both for other Condé Nast magazines and for magazines in general. But I wasn’t going to pay $6 to find out. I mean, I already subscribe to the print edition, I can read it online in a browser, so why pay again for the iPad version? The broader issue was the Apple Store’s lack of a magazine subscription option, so that one had to buy each issue of the New Yorker for the iPad separately. That changed last week. I awoke Monday morning to news from The New Yorker that iPad subscriptions were now available, and that moreover print subscribers were eligible to get iPad subscriptions for free. I downloaded the New Yorker iPad app, opened it up, and signed up immediately. This was a bit cumbersome. One needs to enter one’s address, the subscription number off a magazine label, and one’s online login name and password. Then, once eligibility was verified, I had to log in again using the login name and password. I didn’t realize at first that this last step was needed, so I was confused about why I couldn’t download any issues. But once I figured that out, I downloaded the still-current issue.

In the past, I wasn’t too thrilled about the online availability on a Monday morning of the New Yorker issue dated the following Monday, the print version of which typically wouldn’t arrive until Thursday or Friday. What was annoying was that by mid-morning on Mondays, I’d be reading on various blogs about some article or another, and I could either find it on my computer and read it on the big screen — not my idea of how to enjoy The New Yorker — or wait until later in the week, ignoring all the online discussion of the article in the meantime. Well, now I can just download the latest issue Monday morning and start reading on my iPad, a much more pleasant experience than reading at my computer. And sure enough, last week there was an article that made a lot of news, Jane Mayer’s piece on Obama’s war against whistleblowers. I could read it right away.

As it turns out, I decided to wait on reading Mayer’s article until the print issue came. And then when it did, I went ahead and read the article on my iPad, which made no sense at all.

I should add that being able to download and read new New Yorker issues on Monday mornings is a mixed blessing. it kind of gets in the way of getting on with the week.

3. OmniFocus for iPad. When it comes to workflow, OmniFocus is the center of my life. I won’t try to explain why. See my post on The Toad from almost a year ago to learn why. Suffice to say that all the facets of my life are organized on it. And what really makes it work is how the data syncs across all platforms — my iMac at home, my iMac at school, my MacBook Air, my iPhone, and my iPad. I always know what I need to be doing, wherever I am.

And last week The Omni Group brought us a major update to OmniFocus for iPad, for free. It has some wonderful new features. Organizing my life was never more fun. Indeed, the real danger of OmniFocus is that you fall in love with organizing life rather than living it. But that’s a problem I had long before OmniFocus showed up.

4. iPad 2. To top off an exciting week of iPad developments, last Thursday morning Gail and I received our new iPad 2s. (We’ve passed our iPads on to the kids.) I got mine synced and ready to go right away. I chose the white one. Gail got a traditional black one. Has this changed our lives? Well, I have to admit, not much. Yet. They are noticeably thinner and lighter. They have built-in cameras. But for the most part, I do with the new one what I did with the old one. It’s still a little too large to hold comfortably in one hand when I’m lying in bed, which I mention only because this means I still prefer reading books on my Kindle.

Okay, that’s the news.

Categories: Life, Magazines, Technology

Change We Can Believe In, XVII

April 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Drone Warfare

David Cloud’s story in yesterday’s LA Times on a US drone attack 14 months ago in Afghanistan is a must-read. (Hat tip: James Fallows.) Here is an excerpt from its opening:

Nearly three miles above the rugged hills of central Afghanistan, American eyes silently tracked two SUVs and a pickup truck as they snaked down a dirt road in the pre-dawn darkness.

The vehicles, packed with people, were 3 1/2 miles from a dozen U.S. special operations soldiers, who had been dropped into the area hours earlier to root out insurgents. The convoy was closing in on them.

At 6:15 a.m., just before the sun crested the mountains, the convoy halted.

“We have 18 pax [passengers] dismounted and spreading out at this time,” an Air Force pilot said from a cramped control room at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, 7,000 miles away. He was flying a Predator drone remotely using a joystick, watching its live video transmissions from the Afghan sky and radioing his crew and the unit on the ground.

The Afghans unfolded what looked like blankets and kneeled. “They’re praying. They are praying,” said the Predator’s camera operator, seated near the pilot.

By now, the Predator crew was sure that the men were Taliban. “This is definitely it, this is their force,” the cameraman said. “Praying? I mean, seriously, that’s what they do.”

“They’re gonna do something nefarious,” the crew’s intelligence coordinator chimed in.

At 6:22 a.m., the drone pilot radioed an update: “All … are finishing up praying and rallying up near all three vehicles at this time.”

The camera operator watched the men climb back into the vehicles.

“Oh, sweet target,” he said.

None of those Afghans was an insurgent. They were men, women and children going about their business, unaware that a unit of U.S. soldiers was just a few miles away, and that teams of U.S. military pilots, camera operators and video screeners had taken them for a group of Taliban fighters.

The Americans were using some of the most sophisticated tools in the history of war, technological marvels of surveillance and intelligence gathering that allowed them to see into once-inaccessible corners of the battlefield. But the high-tech wizardry would fail in its most elemental purpose: to tell the difference between friend and foe.

In a post on the war in Afghanistan last month, I raised the question of what our goal there is at this point, nearly a decade into the war. In revealing the horrors of drone warfare, Cloud provides further evidence that this is a war we can’t “win”, whatever winning would look like.

It’s Obama’s war now, drones and all. As Glenn Greenwald suggested in a tweet today, “The only sensible response to this story is to award a second Nobel Peace Prize.”

Categories: Technology, War

Third Generation Kindle

March 6, 2011 Leave a comment

In mid-January, at the end of my post about Robert Crais’ latest crime novel, The Sentry, I said a few words about e-readers:

I started The Sentry Sunday night on my iPad, because it’s what I happened to have at hand. But yesterday, when I set about reading the book in earnest, I switched to the Kindle. It’s still my preferred e-reader, unless I actually want the distraction of being able to check my email and the blogs every few minutes. But distractions aside, it’s so much easier to hold for extended periods of reading. Holding an iPad with one hand isn’t feasible. Holding a Kindle and turning pages with one hand makes a huge difference. And just imagine how much better the experience must be with the third generation — lighter still, better contrast. In two days, I won’t have to imagine. My new Kindle will arrive.

I have meant since then to write about Amazon’s third-generation Kindle. I started a post a week ago, but got no further than pointing out that in the preceding six weeks, I had read four books on it despite lots of other obligations, concluding that I couldn’t seem to put it down. It’s one of the reasons I did so little blogging in February, and why unread New Yorkers and New York Reviews of Books are piling up everywhere.

I know this is difficult to believe, given that the new Kindle is only a little smaller (same screen size though) and a little lighter than the old one, but I felt as I read those four books that for the first time, I’d rather read a book on the Kindle than read the book itself. Before, I would read on the Kindle for the convenience, especially when traveling. And because it’s lighter and easier to hold when lying down. And because I save on the space the books take up in the house, and usually on cost too. But I never felt I preferred the Kindle-reading experience.

What’s different now? Here are my guesses. I mean, I know what’s different about the Kindle. The question is, what about its differences makes me enjoy reading on it more? And my preference for reading on the Kindle is an observed fact, but without immediately obvious explanation, so I must guess.

1. The reduction in size of the Kindle, and reduction in weight too I suppose, allows me to hold it in one hand more comfortably than I could its predecessor. Both are easy to hold with the thin dimension pinched between thumb and other fingers. Now, though, I can put my hand behind it and hold the full width in my palm, whereas before I could do so only with a bit of hand stretching.

2. The better contrast between the e-ink text and the background makes reading more natural, at least in good light. In low light I don’t notice an improvement in contrast. With sufficient direct light, the text pops out in a way it doesn’t on the Kindle 2.

3. The black color of the body allows the Kindle to disappear into the background more than the white body of the Kindle 2 does. The less obtrusive keyboard helps too.

4. The quieter page turning buttons create less of a distraction, both aurally and in the way pressing them feels.

5. Having buttons on both the left and right sides to turn back a page is vastly more convenient. In the Kindle 2, one could move forward by pressing a button on the left or a parallel button on the right, but to go back, one had to push a smaller button that was on the left only. The new Kindle has mirror image buttons left and right — a larger forward button and a smaller back button. Since I usually turn forward with my right hand, I used to have to grab the Kindle 2 with my left when I wanted to go back, with the result that sometimes I just didn’t bother turning back even when I wanted to check something. There was some sense, conscious or unconscious, that doing so was a nuisance. Now going back feels as natural as going forward.

6. The surface of the new Kindle is different, a little textured, not smooth like the Kindle 2. At first, I didn’t think I would like it, but now I prefer it.

The next books I want to read happen to be ones I own in hardcover. And there’s a novel I want to read — Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad — that I almost downloaded for the Kindle in January, only to be warned by an Amazon reader review that this would be a big mistake. The reviewer explained that there are chapters written in Powerpoint, and that these “chapters are extremely difficult to read on the Kindle. The print is so small and the back grounds so dark that even a magnifying glass was little help. The font size selection feature on the Kindle did not work on the ‘slides’ for those chapters.” As it turns out, the novel comes out in paperback in two weeks, and at a lower price than the Kindle price, so I’ll order the paperback edition.

But here’s the curious thing. I’m deferring reading these books. I’d rather read on the Kindle. Or maybe part of the point is that I’m deferring starting another book altogether, so I can get my work done and make a little headway on my magazine backlog. Whatever the reason, I miss the Kindle experience.

Categories: Books, Technology

Scan This

November 20, 2010 Leave a comment

My last post, written last Sunday night from the O’Hare Hilton, was a bit unfocused. Let me see if I can do better with this one.

Before writing the last post, I had planned for days to discuss the full-body backscatter scanners used at airport security by the TSA, the unattractive alternative of being groped, and the puzzle of what I would choose to do when I went through security at SeaTac on the way to Chicago. I never did write the intended post. And I had no idea the issue would explode into what might have been the most covered news story of the past week. (No, not the issue of what decision I would make. The issue of the idiotic TSA requirements.) “Don’t touch my junk” has become the phrase of the day, and even right-wing nut cases (I mean you, Charles Krauthammer) who traditionally adore all possible security measures — privacy, what’s that? — seem to have re-discovered their libertarian roots.

In my post last Sunday, I touched on the scanner issue only in passing, observing that I didn’t have to scanning and groping that morning because I ended up on a security line that used the traditional metal detectors rather than the scanners. But now I have a TSA story to tell, a different kind of story. I’ll get to it in a moment. Let me first review the circumstances of my trip.

I flew into O’Hare Sunday for the eighth consecutive November in order to attend the annual board meeting Monday for Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico. The meeting is always held in the Athens-Berlin meeting rooms on the mezzanine level of the O’Hare Hilton, with breakfast from 8:30 to 9:00 and the meeting itself from 9:00 to around 3:00. For years, I would fly home on a United flight that would depart around 5:30 PM, but United has dropped that flight. Last year, Gail and I took an American flight with a departure around 4:00 PM. (We were both there because we scheduled our France-Italy trip so that we could stop in O’Hare on our return to Seattle.) But this year the only options were a cluster of flights on assorted airlines around 3:00 or 3:15 PM or another cluster around 8:00 or 8:15 PM. One option would force me to leave the meeting at least an hour before its end; the other would give me 5 hours or more to kill at O’Hare.

I agonized about what to do for a couple of weeks, then went with United’s 3:20 departure. Hanging out at O’Hare didn’t seem too attractive, and I’m not so essential a participant at the meeting that I would be missed if I left a little early. But I knew another issue would await me — just how much time should I allow to get from the Hilton through the underground passageways to the United terminal and then through security? I knew in particular that I would be fretting about this in the closing minutes of my time at the meeting. To minimize fret, I decided ahead of time that I would leave at 2:00. No point fretting when my departure time was pre-ordained. I would enjoy the meeting until that moment, then rush over to United and allow the fretting to begin. Anyway, how bad could it be?

Well, I’m about to tell you. But one more piece of background first.

When I checked in online from home Saturday night for the flight to Chicago, the United website gave me a choice. I could print a boarding pass, or I could have an electronic, scannable boarding pass sent to my mobile device. I thought — at last! I could use put the boarding pass on my iPhone screen and board that way. This isn’t new technology, but it’s not widely in use, and I was eager to try it for the first time. The webpage also had a link to click in order to find out what airports you could use an e-boarding pass at. I clicked, discovered that Seattle was in the list of airports where this feature was not yet available but would be coming. O’Hare was listed as having it already. Oh well. I dutifully printed out my boarding pass, but I looked forward to using the e-pass on my way back.

Sunday afternoon, in my room at the O’Hare Hilton, I checked in for Monday’s return flight, and this time I clicked on the option to have the e-pass sent to me by email. I checked the iPhone email, opened the message from United, and clicked on a link that opened on my iPhone browser. There was the scannable block pictured at the top of this post, below which were the flight details. I was in business.

Let’s move to Monday afternoon. At 1:55, with my 2:00 departure from the meeting approaching, I started to the process of checking the time on my iPhone regularly. I must have checked roughly every 45 seconds. When 2:00 came around, I got up, grabbed my bags and jacket, and left the room. Down the stairs to the lobby level, over to the escalator, down to the basement level, out to the main underground passageway, up to the United terminal baggage claim level, left turn, 50 yard walk to the up escalator (a routine that has become familiar to me over the years), up to the departure level. It’s 2:06. I think, what if the e-pass doesn’t work? Why not put my credit card in one of the United kiosks and print out a paper pass. Alas, the kiosk won’t read my card. On try four, it does. Then I push the buttons to the point where I ask it to print my boarding documents, and it says it can’t. Hmm. Maybe once one has an e-pass, one can’t get a paper pass. Anyway, time is passing. Let’s get through security.

I go to the main security entrance, show somebody there my phone with the scannable square, and he says that’s fine, just go through and make sure to go left. But there must be hundreds in line, and I had used United mileage to upgrade to first class, so I ask where the first class line is. Actually, I knew. It’s way down at the end of the building, which is where he points me. I race over there and discover a line that, while much shorter than the standard line, is not short at all. Priority boarding it’s called. It snakes back and forth about four times before leading to the lone TSA agent, who is doing that stare-at-your-pass-and-license thing. I’m starting to get anxious.

I suppose it took 10 minutes to snake through, during which time I got to study the options once one passes the ID inspection. There are two conveyor belt lines, to the left and to the right. Most people go right. Left is shorter. But right has a body scanner. The odd thing is, not everyone is going through it. Most go through the traditional metal detectors. A handful are directed to the scanner. I figure I’ll just choose the conveyor belt to the left when the time comes.

It’s maybe 2:22 now. I reach the ID guy. I show him my phone and he says he can’t read it. One needs to read it with a scanning tool, and he doesn’t have one. I should go way back to the left, toward the main security line ID checkers, whom I can reach by walking along a wall, squeezing past the main flow of people heading to the conveyor belts. And then, once my phone is scanned, I can return to the priority line’s conveyor belts.

Anxiety increasing. I do as I’m told, squeeze pass a hundred people, reach the regular ID checkers from behind, get the attention of one of them, approach (in effect cutting ahead of the line, except I’m coming to it from the other direction), and show him my phone. He looks at me like I’m out of my mind, shrugs, and says he can’t scan it. I explain that I was told to come this way from the priority line. He shrugs again, not too concerned, and says there’s only one scanner, and it’s at the other end. He suggests I go out and get a paper pass. I ask if I’ll have to get in the line again. I don’t know that he gave a clear answer to that, but I point out that I didn’t want to miss my flight. Again, not his problem. Finally he says he’ll have to get his supervisor. He speaks into some walkie-talkie, no response, takes the next person in line, then stands up, looks around, spots Connie over by one of the conveyor belts, and shouts to her. She’s busy taking people’s bags and orienting them correctly on the belt. She nods at him, spends another minute and a half handling bags, then heads in some big circle away from the conveyor belt and possibly toward us, though I can’t be sure. She has to pass through some area accessible only to TSA staff, then emerges near us, fusses with something on the other TSA ID checker’s counter, looks at my guy, finds that he needs a scanner, and then she disappears back to that private TSA area again. I have no idea what she’s doing, but she clearly is in no hurry to help me. I ask my guy again what my options are. He says look, he asked his lead for help, she’ll ask her lead, and her lead may have to ask his lead, and so on. I can’t tell if he’s serious or just being an ass. But he obviously isn’t too concerned about my plight. I ask if I could just be interviewed, answer some standard questions. No, my pass needs scanning. I explain that United said this would work. He suggests, in effect, that I should complain to United, it’s not his or TSA’s problem. I say okay, if I get a printed pass, can I come right back? He says sure.

It’s getting later and later. I race out some non-standard security exit, head to a machine, and this time it will let me print my boarding documents. I run back to the exit, the two TSA people there move to stop me. I point to the ID guy, say he knows me, he sent me out to get a printed pass. They look at him, he nods, they let me through, I run up to him. Connie is back. She starts to shout at me to stop, but I point to my guy, he nods to her, and she lets me be. I hand him my boarding pass. But now a new panic. Where’s my license? I can’t find it. It’s not in my wallet. Turns out, I had been carrying it up against my iPhone the whole time, the two held tightly together, and he sees it. He pulls it out of my hand, gives it a quick look, hands it back. I’m through.

Now back to priority security to get on one of the two conveyor belt lines. This time they are both far longer than when I left them behind. I choose one, which doesn’t move for about two minutes. Some problem with someone’s bag I guess. But I see myself missing my flight. Should I cut 15 people, say I’m about to miss the flight, and ask to be let in? It’s 2:30. My flight is 3:20, boarding at 2:50. I’m probably okay. The line begins to move. Slowly. I get through, get my laptop and iPad back in my bag, my iPhone back in my pocket, my shoes back on.

It’s 2:38. B-9. B-9. Where’s gate B-9. Ah, right in front of me. I have somehow come out of security directly in front of my gate. I’m going to make my plane! I search unsuccessfully for a nearby men’s room, then remember that in the B concourse, I need to walk a ways from the center to find one. To heck with it. I get on line at the priority boarding area, and 5 minutes later we’re boarding.

All that anxiety for nothing.

But really, how was I to know? When I got to the TSA ID guy and he got Connie and she came over, then walked off without a word, I was not convinced that I was ever going to get through security. They so obviously didn’t care about my problem, which was between me and United.

So, by the way, what’s the deal United? Why roll out e-boarding passes, offer the option of downloading one when you check in, but not tell you that your options for getting the pass read by TSA are extremely limited? There’s no apparent coordination with TSA to lead you to the right place. There are no signs directing you to a line that can handle it. You’re pretty much on your own.

I won’t have to think hard next time. I’ll just print my boarding pass. And maybe leave the meeting earlier.

Categories: Security, Technology, Travel

It Arrived

July 22, 2010 Leave a comment

I wrote a week ago about my extreme unhappiness with Apple, after learning that my iPhone 4 order had been put through wrong and there was nothing they could do about it. My only option was to cancel the order and make a new one. Gail and Joel had already been using their new iPhones for a week. The low blow was when Apple’s rep wished me a great day.

Well, life moves on. I decided to put through the new order with AT&T rather than Apple. The website said I had a two-to-three week wait. But you know what? Five days later, this past Sunday, I got email from AT&T that the phone was shipping via FedEx, overnight delivery. It left Fort Worth on Monday, headed to Indianapolis. Something went wrong somewhere along the line, as it sat in Indianapolis from just past midnight Tuesday morning to late Tuesday afternoon. It didn’t get here by 3:00 PM Tuesday, as it was supposed to. No big deal. It got to Seattle early yesterday morning, was put on a truck at 7:30, and arrived here 12:45 yesterday afternoon.

I opened the box, synced the phone with iTunes on my computer, activated the phone online with AT&T, and that was that. I never thought I’d like AT&T more than Apple, but I do now.

Is it great? You know, it has all these features that the second generation iPhone lacked, like video and speed. And it has a better camera, with both front- and rear-facing lenses. As Apple has been advertising, this allows you to have video chats with another iPhone 4 owner, using the new FaceTime feature, in which your partner can see you or, if you switch lenses, you can show other people or whatever else you want to point the camera at. This is pretty cool, but you do need another iPhone 4 owner to use it with, for now anyway, and you both need to be connected to the internet via WiFi, since AT&T doesn’t yet support FaceTime through their 3G network (too much data for them to handle). Once my iPhone was working, the first thing I did was try to FaceTime Gail and Joel, but it woudn’t work. I then called Joel, and he reminded me about the WiFi issue. They were out at a supermarket, without WiFi.

So, the new iPhone hasn’t much changed my life. At least not yet. I’m happy to have it, but most of what I will use it for I could as well have done with the old one. Except, that speed sure will be appreciated when I’m using the internet.

Steve, I can’t say all is forgiven. But I’m moving on.

Categories: Technology