Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The United States of Meh?

Mrs. Blog and I like to joke when we return to the homeland that we're going back to the United States of Awesome. That's because (especially compared with the 'Dhabs), it is awesome, full of outdoor sports, outdoor beer and that rarest of luxuries, freedom of expression.

But according to a new study, no U.S. city is among the top or bottom 10 most livable places in the world. The best:

1) Melbourne, Australia
2) Vienna, Austria
3) Vancouver, Canada
4) Toronto, Canada
5) Calgary, Canada
6) Sydney, Australia
7) Helsinki, Finland
8) Perth, Australia
9) Adelaide, Australia
10) Auckland, New Zealand

The worst:

1) Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire
2) Tehran, Iran
3) Douala, Cameroon
4) Karachi, Pakistan
5) Tripoli, Libya
6) Algiers, Algeria
7) Lagos, Nigeria
8) Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
9) Dhaka, Bangladesh
10) Harare, Zimbabwe

And somewhere in the middle lies all of America. It is simultaneously easy and difficult to understand. On the one hand, the U.S. is pretty expensive compared to other places in the world, depending on where you are. On the other hand, it's a vast place, and I know first-hand there are cities within its borders that are beautiful, interesting and relatively inexpensive.

I have never been to Adelaide, for instance, but I have a hard time believing it tops San Francisco, Chicago, New York. Smaller cities like Portland, Ore., and Savannah, Ga., should be dark-horse contenders as well. In the end I think cost of living probably plays the biggest role.

But in this case, I think there is truth to the old saw: You really do get what you pay for.

UPDATE: Reading through the entire list again, it's remarkable how little it lines up with my personal experiences. For instance, Istanbul (yes, I know I haven't written the travel posts I said I would. Hush.) is No. 110... below both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There is literally nothing better about either of the UAE cities, as far as I can tell. Or Manchester, UK, being ranked higher than New York... how does that happen? Similarly, there is no way Detroit (!!!) should be ranked higher than San Francisco. I do agree that Paris beats Atlanta, though.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

This is what hypersonic looks like

Or, The Failed Test of Today; the Cutting-Edge Technology of Tomorrow.

I spotted this on Ares Defense Blog: a video of the hypersonic technology demonstrator launched (and lost) by DARPA a few weeks ago. The HTV-2 was exploring new realms of high-speed aeronautics when it disappeared somewhere between its California launch site and intended South Pacific target.

It is designed to hit a football field-sized target anywhere on the globe within an hour, and cause catastrophic damage simply because of its mass and speed. The speed, of course, is really the crucial factor. It was traveling about Mach 20 when it passed over this observer:

This might be fascinating only to me. But I have often wondered what something going that
fast looks like from the ground. The answer, apparently, is "a lot like a high-altitude airplane." If you don't know how high it is, it looks like it is moving at a reasonable pace.

For comparison, here is what Mach 10 looks like up close (the speed this '60s-vintage anti-ballistic missile LINK hits after about one second):

As I mentioned before, I hope they continue working on this program. Pushing for new technology has benefits outside the weapons world, and if air transportation is going to advance beyond where subsonic airliners have taken it, more stuff like this has to happen. Even if all they get out of it is some data and a glittering failure caught on camera.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Burn, Hollywood, burn

I don't mean this literally, as I have friends in LA whom I would prefer not to roast.

However. I have just learned that the aforementioned Hollywood is apparently remaking my All-Time Favorite Movie: "Blade Runner."

This should not happen. Not now, not ever. The original (and its many edits) is brilliant. Its imagining of the future--the now quickly approaching 2019, specifically--was nominated for two Emmys. The story is well-paced and philosophically significant; the music is interesting; the cast well-chosen; the acting occasionally brilliant.

This is a bad one, the worst yet. I need the old blade runner, I need your magic.

But of course these days its risky to make a movie with too novel of an idea, I guess, so they're headin' back to the well.

Sometimes this can turn out pleasantly; the Coen Brothers' "True Grit" is a good example. But for the most part, the trend is annoying at best and especially frustrating for people who love the original artwork.

We'll see what happens. Sometimes people say things like "We're doing a sequel to Top Gun," which ultimately go nowhere. Even as an idea, though, this is an affront to good moviemaking.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

410 years of "ugh"

Thanks to a clever Google Doodle, I now know that Pierre de Fermat was born 410 years ago today. He was a lawyer and amateur mathematician.

Amateur mathematician. That phrase boggles my mind. I dislike math SO much it's hard to imagine sitting down with a cold beer on a lazy summer afternoon and doodling through some theorems like they were crossword puzzles. Yet that's exactly what he did.

And he did it so well that his most popularly famous work, his so-called "last theorem,"went unproven for 358 years! I won't pretend to understand all the theory behind it, but the gist is that he jotted down in the margins of a book on math (which he was presumably reading for fun) that he had just come up with a "truly marvelous proof" of the theorem that no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two.

Geez, my head hurt just writing that.

Anyway, the kicker here is that according to his scribble, he didn't have room to write out the entire thing in the margins. And if he wrote it down anyplace, it was lost to the annals of time.

That meant that, I dunno, nearly 20 generations--did I mention that math isn't my strong suit?--of mathematicians spent the years between 1637, the year of his scribble, and 1995 trying to prove it.

I appreciate the intellectual challenges and pleasures of attacking a problem. I do not appreciate the pleasures of doing math, however. But in the end, I have to applaud a guy who does massive theoretical equations in his spare time for fun--and kept thousands of professionals busy for centuries after his death. Everyone needs a hobby.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Watershed years

The story of the Iranian revolution is a good one, regardless of what angle you're approaching it from. The most recent depiction I was exposed to was the excellent "Persepolis," which told at least part of that story through the eyes of a woman who grew up there.

The animated film was a novel approach and drew me in from the first frame. It captured the angst and ambiguity of someone who loved her country but was torn about the way it was developing.

That same ambiguity is what intrigues me so much about this project: A video game called "1979" that, according to its developers, aims to embrace the gray areas. They intend to tell the story through multiple viewpoints, handing off a narrative "baton" to a different character in a different part of the Iranian world at the end of each segment.

Moreover, it will use a "sandbox" approach to advancing the plot, in which players can use any means at their disposal to solve a problem. Sometimes you run, sometimes you negotiate, sometimes you shoot the hostage.

This, Khonsari explains, is where gameplay shifts to include some morally ambiguous elements of diplomacy, stealth and bartering. Each time the baton passes to a new character, the style of gameplay changes, too. Some characters will focus more on action, while others will feature vehicles and puzzle-solving.

"Not everyone you meet is going to be helpful," he said. "There are going to be aspects of bribery, making exchanges and turning a blind eye to really bad stuff so you can get the job done.

"Maybe, in order to get the group there, you need to sacrifice some stragglers and let them get captured so the others can get away. And then you'll have some extreme choices to make when you get to Tehran: Are you going to invade the embassy, guns blazing, to try to get the hostages back? Or are you going to try to protect the embassy from the Americans?

"People who might not be completely familiar with the game world look at fancy graphics and polished gameplay and say 'this is cutting edge,' " he continued. "But from what I've seen, it's still quite basic. Very much a checkers mentality -- red against black, good against evil. I'm interested in having good and evil within the same character, and for you to experience both. I think that's true to life, and I think you can design a game around that, too."
Interesting. It's possible that this caught my attention more than it would otherwise, simply because I live a few hundred miles from Tehran. But I'm curious to see whether the game's creator--who grew up during the Iranian Revolution--can pull it off. I love games with great stories, like "Mass Effect", and with a fascinating real-life story to build on, I'm curious to see whether "1979" can turn great history into a great, immersive experience.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The way the ball bounces

So, yeah, the DARPA test didn't really go the way they wanted. Bummer. I hope they give it another shot.

But meanwhile, another interesting (if unrelated and considerably less explosive) scenario is afoot. The Big 12 Minus Two is now Minus Another One, as Texas A&M makes a play to join the SEC.

What does that mean for the University of Kansas? Good question. As a fan who grew up during the Big 8 era, I would be bummed if the geographic rivalries that made the conference special disappeared into a half-dozen other conferences.

KU's performance in the two big NCAA revenue sports--men's football and basketball--should be enough to make it attractive to any of the remaining power conferences. Basketball is a no-brainer. The football program's occasional brushes with greatness are enough to make money.

But even leaving geography out of the equation, I have no idea where they would be the best fit. KU roughly fits the profile of a Big 10 state school, I guess, but neither the Big 10 nor KU have been anything more than lukewarm about that idea. The ACC has a lot of other good basketball schools. Maybe my vote is with the PAC-10 (or Pac-16, whatever it is now), which would possibly bring the In-Laws of the Blog into the fold as KU fans.

Who knows. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out, and I'm sure that from a revenue perspective, KU and the other Big 12 schools will land on their feet. But I still can't shake the feeling that the diaspora means the Big 8 magic--diluted in the Big 12 years--will now disappear forever.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Weapon of the future delayed by weather of yesterday

Today's space dork news: DARPA, the United States' "let's think of some crazy technology to blow things up with" agency, delayed Wednesday's test of its Prompt Global Strike system because of rain in the target area.

All of which sounds dry and boring. But the details of this program are actually quite cool--or scary, depending on your point of view.

Prompt Global Strike, at least in this testing phase, uses what is basically a leftover Peacekeeper ICBM launcher to toss a wedge-shaped hypersonic vehicle out of the Earth's atmosphere, where it will begin to glide back down.

What happens next? The hypersonic test vehicle, creatively named "Hypersonic Test Vehicle-2" hits speeds of Mach 20 and uses jets of compressed gas to maneuver and orient itself at its target, which in this case is the Kwajalein Atoll. (I had to look it up--it's in the Marshall Islands, roughly 2,400 miles southwest of Honolulu. The U.S. does lots of missile testing there)

Because of its maneuvering capabilities, the vehicle is expected to have a 50 percent chance of landing within a circle 13 meters in diameter. (roughly 43 feet) That sounds like a pretty big target, but when you're shooting from 3,500 miles away, it's the size of a pea.

Hypersonic test vehicle, glowing with promise.

When I tried this as a kid, by the way, it looked like this:

Slower, bluer, more cardboardy.

Anyway. What makes this whole project interesting is the combination of speed, distance and accuracy. The idea is that if a target anyplace in the world is identified, one of these hypersonic gliders can hit it within an hour. Theoretically, you wouldn't even need a warhead, thanks to the magic of physics: The equation Ke=1/2mv^2 means a four-ton vehicle that has slowed to Mach 15, about 11,000 mph, would hit with about 22 BILLION joules of kinetic energy. That's the rough equivalent of detonating five tons of TNT.

The utility is that what the military calls "time-sensitive" targets can be hit without putting any soldiers in harm's way. GPS coordinates and a button push are all that is needed. Rogue nuclear programs and terrorist meetings are two obvious choices for that kind of action.

But there are scientific issues to overcome, including steering the vehicle; a test last year ended after nine minutes when the first test vehicle began spinning uncontrollably.

Political issues also pose a hurdle. A less-techologically challenging program in which conventional warheads were simply mounted on ICBMs was abandoned after other nuclear-armed countries noted that there was no way to tell a conventional strike from a nuclear one. And no one wants to start World War III.

And obviously the weather is an issue too.

No matter what the technology will be used for, this is a fascinating program. It is collecting data that are nearly impossible to get on the ground.

And by the time most of America is awake, 7 a.m. Pacific time, a Minotaur IV booster will have launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. And about a half-hour later, if everything goes according to plan, the HTV will make a big splash in the South Pacific.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Turning the Web page

There is something a little mind-bending about the Internet wishing itself a happy birthday, (how long will it be before the machines rise up?) but that's what is happening.

On August 6, 1991, a scientist named Tim released into the wild the first Web page. It gave Internet users the ability to connect to a server semi-graphically instead of lines of code. Like most firsts, it wasn't fancy...

... but it worked.

Here is what the same URL looks like today. And now, of course, we have not just text, but graphics, videos... and blogs.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Michael Crichton called; he'd like his reality back

In a potentially excellent example of life imitating art, a Swedish salvage team has spotted a science fiction story at the bottom of the ocean.

Explorer Peter Lindberg, who has apparently been successful at finding expensive things under the ocean before, says he noticed an anomalous sonar return in about 300 feet of water between Sweden and Finland. It caught his attention for two reasons:

-The object is circular, and regular enough to appear non-natural
-The object appears to have left a trail of scars on the seabed, implying it hit at a shallow angle

Here's what the actual sonar picture looks like:

As a writer and lover of rockets, this is exciting. (although, as the title implies, someone else thought of this scenario first.) The Earth is mostly water and mostly unpopulated, so odds are that if an extraterrestrial ship crashed, it would land in water and no one would see it. It could literally be the most important discovery in the history of mankind.

The realist in me, however, knows this is a remote possibility. Just about every other explanation for the object--from a natural formation to a manmade object jettisoned from a ship--is more likely. And sadly, it would take a lot of cash to go down and check.

But for the time being, I'm going to enjoy the mystery. At the very least, it's refreshing to know that there are still interesting bits of our planet out there to discover.

*Yes, there are blog posts on Turkey coming. Patience, grasshoppers.