Tuesday, December 24, 2013

It's Christmas Eve, babe

And, once again, I hope none of you, Dear Readers of the Blog, are in the drunk tank.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all, whether you're dashing through the smog of China or frolicking in a the wintry wasteland wonderland of the Midwest or basking in California sunshine... and of course anywhere in between.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Beijing, the Jade Rabbit has landed

It's been a while since Earthlings have sent something to the Moon that hasn't had a hard landing. But over the weekend, China's Yutu rover (Yutu meaning "Jade Rabbit" in Mandarin) set down in the Bay of Rainbows, and did so without making a crater. Here's a CCTV video of it rolling onto the moonscape:

This is, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, a fairly significant step for the Chinese space program. It takes a lot of technical know-how and organization to pull something like this off. You need a reliable booster--something that China hasn't always had--to go with all the components on top, which need to work nearly perfectly in a harsh environment. And that's not even counting all the calculations needed to get the thing to hit the Moon from the Earth, both of which are moving in relation to each other and to the Sun. (The more cynical, and I mean possessing weapons-grade cynicism, might suggest a Chinese remake of "Capricorn One.")

It appears that the Yutu can do some legitimate science; among other things, it carries ground-penetrating radar that could offer useful insights into the moon's composition. And that's something that everyone should be happy about.

But there are also some concerns about the end game for China. For one thing, the official announcement said "We finally have the right to share the resources on the moon with developed countries." Which isn't exactly starting a war, but it's not coming in peace for all mankind either. For another, the space program closely is intertwined with the military--something that is true in many countries, but especially so in China.

I don't think China has nefarious plans for the Moon, or, at this point, the ability to pull them off. It just sent its first astronaut into space in 2003. But this achievement clearly shows that the China's technical abilities are making strides even as--and perhaps because--space is more accessible now than at any point in history.

How it all shakes out remains to be seen. But perhaps if nothing else it will remind the world that space exploration is, and should be, inspiring.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My name is China and I'm here to say/I love infrastructure spending in a major way

My name is China and I'm here to say/I love infrastructure spending in a major way

As you know, Dear Readers of the Blog, I manage business-news-things at a major news organization in That City What Got Blowed Up in "Pacific Rim." And I felt like you deserved a quick post here to help you understand some of the major macroeconomic trends--and their consequences--of mainland China in the 20th century.

Wait, what's that? You find these things boring and don't want to discuss them? Fine. I'll let Loawai Style drop some knowledge on you.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Another day, another classified aircraft

Aviation Week is on some kind of a roll here. First they got the scoop on the SR-72, the so-called Son of Blackbird that Lockheed-Martin sees as the Next Big Thing in hypersonic reconnaissance.

Then they blow the lid off the Northrop Grumman RQ-180, which doesn't have a cool name yet but makes up for it by looking awesome... at least in an artist's conception.

Cranked-kite wings. Hey, "Cranked Kite" would be a great band name.

According to the reporting by Bill Sweetman and Amy Butler, the design has been in the works for years, with the goal of replacing and outperforming the RQ-170 Sentinel--aka the Beast of Kandahar--and RQ-4 Global Hawk. That implies a long-range, extremely stealthy aircraft that can potentially stay in the air for more than a day.

The RQ-180 reportedly has a wingspan of about 130 feet, or slightly larger than that of a Boeing 737. That means, most likely, it is designed to operate at high altitudes, much like a U-2 spy plane.

And of course, no one spends billions on a program like this without a clear use in mind. The range and especially the stealth show that this is not designed to operate in a place like, say, Afghanistan, which has no serious air defenses. No, the RQ-180 seems to be after bigger game. North Korea? Iran? Even China? Like its relative the RQ-170, a tour of Asia is almost certainly on the agenda.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reblogging the blogs: a bloggy airborne odyssey

Yeah, yeah--I know, I have been absent for a bit again. But it's not that I haven't been blogging! It's that most of my aviation-related posts these days have wound up on another site. Allow myself to quote... myself.
This week, the Internet lit up with an annotated video of what appears to be China’s latest (or at least most recently unveiled) drone design.

The body resembles the United States’ Global Hawk, although perhaps a bit smaller. Its standout external features, though, are its joined wings — a sort of diamond shape formed by forward-swept wings mounted in the rear and backward-swept wings mounted in the front.
So that's one drone. Pretty neat looking. I'm not sure the joined-wing design really does much more than that at this point (and it's not at all clear this one is operational or more than a testbed), but it's an interesting airframe.

Then there's a little airplane-related commerce:

The market for the JF-17 fighter appears to be expanding in unexpected ways. At the Dubai Airshow, which opened on Sunday, the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex had a freshly minted example on display, complete with an array of Chinese-made missiles and bombs.

The Pakistani company jointly produces the plane with China’s Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation; the fighter is seen as one of China’s efforts to move up the value chain in arms exports. But according to recent news reports, Pakistan has plans to export the aircraft itself.
And finally, another Chinese drone:

Yet another Chinese drone variant has taken wing — and this one might be stealthy.
According to the state-run Global Times newspaper, the Lijian, or “Sharp Sword,” combat drone made its first flight on Thursday. The report said the flight lasted about 20 minutes and went without incident.

The English-language China Daily also carried a report on the Lijian.
The Lijian is different from other Chinese drones, such as the joined-wing design spotted a few weeks ago, in that it appears to be designed with stealth characteristics in mind. The contours are similar to those of the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel and even the Northrop Grumman X-47B, which is in the midst of aircraft carrier landing trials. Dassault’s nEURon and BAE’s Taranis programs are also superficially similar.

The Lijian is interesting because it looks like this...

Sweet fake cockpit, Lijian.

... i.e., stealthy, and if it also IS stealthy, it could complicate things in the Pacific for the U.S. and Japan. A hard-to-detect drone can serve as a targeting node for anti-ship missiles, for one thing--and China depends on such missiles to keep hostile fleets away from its coasts.

Not that anyone is being hostile at the moment. But with China abruptly creating an "air identification defense zone" that happens to overlap with Japan's above the disputed island chain, and the U.S. reacting by flying two heavy bombers through the middle of it, it seems like tensions might go up a bit more before they subside. And, one hopes, that is where it ends.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Blacker bird

Last week, Lockheed Martin announced that it had a hypersonic replacement for the storied SR-71 Blackbird in the works. At this point, the most surprising element about it is that I haven't written about it yet. Bear with me--this post probably doesn't end how you think it will.

The story (linked above) was broken as an exclusive by Aviation Week. Lockheed has since posted its own news release on the subject, but that has really been the extent of the solid information out there. Much was rehashed over the weekend, so I'll do a "good parts" version here.

What is the SR-71's replacement? Why... it's the SR-72, of course. And it's not yet an official U.S. project; instead, Lockheed Martin (and some partners) have been working on their own to develop some of the technology to make a Mach 6 aircraft possible. The easy part: making it look awesome.

Still black, still a bird.

The hard part: propulsion. The materials needed for an airframe to survive hypersonic flight are well-known and tested. Manned aircraft like the X-15 have explored the flight regime. The Space Shuttle, of course, entered the atmosphere at near-orbital speeds, many times faster than that planned for the SR-72.

No, the problem is that traditional air-breathing engines generally only work well up to speeds of a Mach 2.2 or so--just more than twice the speed of sound. Beyond that, the air is moving too fast and is too hot to adequately compress inside the engine (compression and expansion being, essentially, the processes that give a jet its thrust).

The SR-71 overcame that with clever engineering. Massive spikey things called, well, "spikes," were mounted in front of its J-58 engines and adjusted depending on how fast the aircraft was traveling.

To go fast, you have to slow the air down.

The spikes created a shockwave that fed air into the engines at a manageable velocity. But wait, there's more! The air heats up dramatically as it is slowed down--or actually accelerated, as the spike hits stationary molecules--because all that kinetic energy has to go somewhere. The hot air is much harder to compress. And less compression means less thrust. But The good people of Skunk Works had a solution for that too.

Skip the compressor--who needs it?

You with me? Large amounts of heated air were simply routed around the engine's core. That left cooler air to run through the compressor. But it also allowed the remaining air to be "reheated" in the exhaust--what is commonly called an afterburner. The compressor then ran more efficiently AND the volume of air passing through the engine was high enough that simply spraying fuel into the exhaust generated most of the engine's thrust at its top speed.

So those are the SR-71's engines. In effect, they went from being turbojets to near-ramjets at Mach 3.2.

This is important, because ramjets are needed for hypersonic flight. The techniques used in the SR-71 simply won't stand up at Mach 6, or six times the speed of sound--among other things, the temperatures are too extreme and the materials in the engines would simply melt.

The solution is engines without any moving parts--the ramjet.

Cold air goes in, hot air comes out--it's that simple.

But this introduces another problem. Ramjets only work efficiently at speeds above Mach 4 or so... in other words, perhaps 500 mph faster than any jet-powered aircraft has flown. They don't work at all at a standstill. And that's a big problem if you want your aircraft to, you know, take off from a runway.

Lockheed Martin says it has solved this problem by putting both types of engines in the aircraft and tweaking both of them: the turbojet can go a little faster and the ramjet can get started a little slower.

Like this, but less vague.

The company won't say how, exactly, it has done this, but the engineers seem pretty confident:

“We have developed a way to work with an off-the-shelf fighter-class engine like the F100/F110,” notes Leland. The work, which includes modifying the ramjet to adapt to a lower takeover speed, is “the key enabler to make this airplane practical, and to making it both near-term and affordable,” he explains.
Lockheed will not disclose its chosen method of bridging the thrust chasm. The company funded research and development, and “our approach is proprietary,” says Leland, adding that he cannot go into details. Several concepts are known, however, to be ripe for larger-scale testing, including various pre-cooler methods that mass-inject cooler flow into the compressor to boost performance. Other concepts that augment the engine power include the “hyperburner,” an augmentor that starts as an afterburner and transitions to a ramjet as Mach number increases. Aerojet, which acquired Rocketdyne earlier this year, has also floated the option of a rocket-augmented ejector ramjet as another means of providing seamless propulsion to Mach 6.

And with that issue solved, somehow, a Mach 6 aircraft is suddenly quite feasible.

To me, the entire thing is fascinating. I always loved the SR-71, which looks awesome and is awesome, so the idea of a successor that is twice as fast is beyond intriguing. But you know what else is intriguing? The fact that Lockheed Martin went public with this. If speed really is the new stealth, as the company puts it, why would you want to tip your hand?

Clearly, it's a business decision. Projects like this don't get built without a customer. And the only buyer is, of course, the U.S. government... which has had its share of budget issues lately. So you go public with something you think only you can pull off; this perception creates demand.

Lockheed Martin is also a player in the competition to build the Air Force's Long Range Strike Bomber. Putting some information out there that implies you can do something the other guys can't isn't a bad way to "taint the jury" for a contract that will be worth many billions of dollars.

And finally, the company has created value for itself. Its stock price jumped nearly $2 at one point on Friday. Getting your name in the news will do that.

So in the end, what is the SR-72? In my mind, it is probably a chess move--using a technical achievement to accomplish a long-term goal for the company. But in my aviation dork heart, I hope it becomes the real deal... faster, higher and awesomer than even the Blackbird.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Highway to the by-the-book zone

War is Boring just did a great review of China's remake--apparently a nearly shot-for-shot version--of "Top Gun." It's called "Sky Fighters" and it looks like a mess.

"Top Gun" has always been one of my guilty (dorky?) pleasures, and I will never apologize for enjoying a well-filmed dogfight. But the same sequences in "Sky Fighters" look... well... boring. Take the "watch the birdie" scene, for example.

Fun! And it used, like, actual airplanes. The "Sky Fighters" version (the scene is at about 20:15) doesn't have real airplanes or even a rude gesture.

As the review notes, the main character doesn't have a cool callsign... he goes by "708." His wingman is "709." And his key talent is that he is a rigid doctrinaire. One might say he's not exactly a maverick. Ahem.

Anyway, the whole thing is on YouTube if you're into watching bad CGI, bad filmmaking and bad subtitles. But if you actually feel the need (the need for speed), fire up "Top Gun" instead.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

It's that time of year

Ah, the winds of autumn. Here in Hong Kong, the signs are everywhere: leaves not falling from the trees, brisk chill absent from the air, apple cider and pumpkin spice lattes nowhere to be seen. (There are, however, plenty of people roasting chestnuts on streetcorners, but they do that during the summer too.)

And, oh yeah, college basketball. There's nary a sign of it in the 'Kong, but on Tuesday Kansas hits the court for the first time this season.

That's right--a shakycam video of a video screen in a basketball arena at... a glorified practice session this month. It doesn't get much dorkier than that. Fortunately, as noted above, actual basketball highlights are right around the corner. Happy autumn!

Monday, October 14, 2013

The IHT is dead--long live the IHT

Hello, readers. It has, once again, been too long since I've typed at you about bloggy things. The reason--honest--is that it has been busy times here at my desk in Hong Kong. Tomorrow, the International Herald Tribune becomes the International New York Times after being identified for years as "the global edition of the New York Times."

I didn't know a ton about the IHT before I moved overseas. But it's a name with a lot of history.

And more than that, it's a name you kind of expect to see in a sweltering hotel lobby in Hanoi or laid out among morning tea in Delhi. An expat fixture, in other words.

A famous guy reading a famous paper in a famous place.

So there are many arguments to be had over what's in a name (and there is an incredible retrospective here). But regardless of all that, it is a bit sad to see an element of old-school expat life disappear. See you in the funny papers, IHT....

Monday, September 30, 2013

Not-so-blurred vision

The other day I saw an interesting science- (and business-) related post about how Mercedes is equipping its latest models with something like active suspension: the car senses the road immediately ahead of it and adjusts accordingly. That's interesting in itself, but the story noted that Mercedes' ad campaign centered on how this was modeled on the way a chicken's vision works. The idea is that instead of simply "interpreting out" the chicken's movement from what it sees, the brain instead tells the bird's neck muscles to keep the head completely stationary.

This all came back to me this morning as I was dodging other pedestrians in the North Point train station. Despite my shucking, jiving and waiting for people to cram onto an escalator, my vision was clear. But my head was definitely moving. Our brains are big and complicated enough to not only do important things like invent sliced bread, but filter out our body's movements. That's one reason why you can play sports (and do other active things) without becoming horribly disoriented. Compare that to video shot from a head mounted camera, which obviously does not have the benefit of cranial editing. It can be vertiginous:

So in theory, if you put a chicken in a downhill bike race, the resulting footage would be much smoother. Also, you would have taught a chicken to ride a bike, which is a much bigger achievement, I'd say.

Anyway. Really not much more than a random though about how everyday activities are much more complicated than we give them credit for. And it's impressive that we can think about these things while walking, running, or even bobbing our heads to music.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Schrodinger's baseball

Oh, hello, Readers of the Blog. It has, once again, been a while. This time is mostly because I was out of town on a thoroughly incredible vacation to Bali. I mean, I suppose I could have written a post or two while lounging next to this...

Making a splash in the jungle.

... but wouldn't I be better off just, you know, swimming? Yes. Yes, I would.

As I told Mrs. Blog, I had that old Eddie Money song stuck in my head toward the end of the trip. But unfortunately, the two tickets to paradise were round-trip, not one way. So I'm back now.

And, it turns out, I have missed a few things. Several Friends of the Blog have pointed out that the Kansas City Royals, who for years have existed basically to provide a reason to go sit outside and eat hot dogs in the summer, are now suddenly contenders. I am happy about this.

"Nice job. Nice job. Nice job. Nice job. Nice job."

I can't help but wonder whether there is some weird karmic correlation here, where the farther I get from K.C. the better the Royals do. Does simply checking the standings and noticing "Hey, they have stopped being terrible!" ruin their play? Is it like talking to a [REDACTED] in the eighth inning of a [REDACTED]?

The answer is almost certainly "no." And after all, I have already observed the cat--I mean, the baseball standings--so the observational damage is done. All that's left now is to enjoy the ride... and, I hope, the playoffs.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A crime brief

As a writer and a journalist, there's one artist I have always admired: Elmore Leonard.

A journalism teacher once told me to study his knack for brevity and punch. He was right. Leonard delivered tension and snap with every line. No word was wasted. Every noun and verb made a point. Adverbs? For suckers.

A writing instructor once told me to study his dialogue. He was right too. Leonard's characters hit all the right notes. They sounded different. They sounded natural. Their dialects added color without washing it out with caricature.

Famously, he wrote:
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
His work made me a better writer (although I routinely violate No. 9), and I never met the guy. I never will, either: he died Tuesday at age 87. But he was prolific, even well into his ninth decade, and that's something to be happy about. Although he chose his words carefully, he ended up leaving quite a few behind to enjoy.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A headline week for media sales

First the New York Times Co. sells the Boston Globe for $70 million. (Ostensibly taking a bath on its $1.1 billion investment 20 years ago, but that's mitigated by profits during the heady years.)

Then, today, the Washington Post sells itself to Jeff Bezos, the gazillionaire founder of Amazon.com and space exploration enthusiast, for $250 million.

Like I said, a headline day.

On its face, the second one is a pretty historic move. The Post has been owned by three generations of the Graham family, perhaps most notably Katharine Graham, who was running the show when the Post showed the world how political journalism was done, first with the Pentagon Papers and later with its Watergate coverage.

Bezos, by contrast, is not a media guy. He's a tech guy. But there are some intriguing possibilities with his experience and background. Amazon's Kindle, for instance, may finally provide a media outlet with a dedicated electronic platform (as opposed to an app or a Web page). I remember 20 years ago reading a report that the "future of the newspaper," physically speaking, was a one-page electronic edition that you could carry anywhere and fit in your briefcase or handbag. The Kindle fits the bill, eh?

So it's not necessarily a gloomy thing for the paper. Just a surprising one. As David Carr put it:

In selling to Mr. Bezos, the Grahams left the Sulzbergers, the owners of The New York Times, as the last family standing in a club that once also included the Chandlers (Los Angeles Times), the Copleys (San Diego Tribune), the Cowles (Minneapolis Star Tribune), and the Bancrofts (Wall Street Journal). But even as those other families sold out to moneyed interests, it always seemed a safe assumption that the Grahams would continue to find a way to exercise a certain kind of stewardship over Washington. 


The Grahams’ resolve to retain ownership was wilted by an industrial sea change that laid many newspapers low. And even as the rest of the industry decided that there was an urgent need to begin charging on the Web, The Post held out, only recently deciding to join the rest.

Perhaps  the biggest surprise in the sale is that it happened under the watch of Donald Graham. All scions of industry do their time on the shop-room floor, but Mr. Graham had shown that he didn’t want to just inherit his enterprise, he wanted to earn it. He served in Vietnam and later joined the Washington police force to walk a beat before doing his stations in the Post newsroom and on the business side.

 He was perhaps not the legend that his mother was, but to many he represented a certain kind of stubborn belief that good newspapering was its own end. In the popular imagination, journalism reached its highest and best calling during Watergate, when The Post and its determined owner, Ms. Graham, took on a sitting president. 

The idea that Mr. Graham would sell the paper, whatever merits the sale might entail, seemed as unlikely as Henry V giving up the crown. 

But on Monday, Mr. Graham seemed at peace with what he had done.
As he rode down in the elevator to the newsroom for the announcement, some of the paper’s reporters rode with him. One asked: “Is this bad?” Mr. Graham shook his head, saying that, in the end, he thought it would be good news for the paper. 

“It was clear to me that he wanted to buy the newspaper for the right reasons,” Mr. Graham said of Mr. Bezos, “that he understood what newspapers do and why this newspaper in particular is important and that he would be willing to stand up for it.” 

So we'll see how things shake out. Media companies have had some pretty terrible owners in recent years, but the big problem remains not readership, but monetizing readership. Print advertising revenue is gone forever. Will a guy like Bezos, who literally made his fortune exploiting the Internet, be the one to figure out how to finance a big-time newsgathering operation in the 21st Century? Maybe the next round of headlines will have the answer.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

From tacos to turkey in 48 pages

This week, I said goodbye to an old companion.

For the past 10 years, this stalwart had traveled all over the world with me. Planes, trains, automobiles, camels--we saw it all. We never got turned away, no matter what country we went to.

I am speaking, of course, about my passport, which just expired.

The first one I got was in the early '90s, for a high school trip to Spain. I think that was the only time I used it. Ten years ago, I got the one I have used the most. The first stamp was a trip to Paraguay to visit some friends in the Peace Corps:

Era un turista.

And things kind of snowballed from there. In the end, I used it in 18 countries, most of which were with the incomparable Mrs. Blog. Some of our favorite places didn't have amazing stamps:

Turkey, come on! You're better than this.

Other memorable spots had stamps that were, perhaps, excessively large:

India: big, blingy and the place where I proposed to Mrs. Blog.

And then there's the hallmark of the expat, the residency visa:

That's right. The "Reviser." Like a comic book villain.

Ten years is a long time. If you're really lucky, it's 10 percent of your life. When I got the old passport back in 2003, I had no idea, and couldn't even have guessed, where I was going to be now. So when I look at my new passport and see that it expires in 2023, I am incredibly aware of how much can--and will--change in the intervening decade. It's impossible to speculate about.

But if it's anything like the last 10 years, it's going to be quite a ride. Check this space in July 2023 to see what happens.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Anola Pickett, children's author

Welcome to Read Ink! It's not often that we feature guests around here, but I figure an exception must certainly be made for the writer I have known longer than anyone else. Hi, Mom!

Q. So. As I mentioned, you have been writing for as long as I can remember. But do you remember what your first piece of fiction was?

A.I can’t remember what it was, but I know I was writing in the third grade. But the first time I had anything published was in high school. In a national competition. I think it was a poem.

It was probably some deep, earnest adolescent wonderings about the meaning of life. I don't think I would want anyone to see it now.

Q. What inspired it?
A. What inspired it was being a teenager.

I also remember writing a play. I must have been 11 or 12 and a bunch of us put it on in someone's garage. But it was more like a theater version of a really bad silly movie. So it wasn't really an original idea. Some kind of family comedy. But I do remember that in one scene the father in the family had too much to drink, and that got me in trouble with some of our neighbors, who believed alcohol was evil.

Q. Sort of your first brush with censorship?
A. Yes!

Q. Writing for children, I imagine, takes a certain amount of insight into the way kids think. Did you ever tap into the fertile psyche of your son when he was young?
A.I tried. I don't know that I never tapped into his psyche. I observed him and his friends. But tapping into his psyche, no.

Q. What did you take away from those observations?
A. Just how open kids are and accepting, for the most part. And how they handle, I guess, defeat and not always being the top dog.

I have always tried to be as sure as I can that the kids in my stories and books act like real kids. That they're, if they face a problem, they face it like a kid would, not like an adult who can be pretty brainy about things. Kids tap into themselves. And they like to solve problems without the help of adults. So I try to not have adults get too meddling in my stories and books. I thought I tried to do that as a mother! Just ask my son.

Q. I remember sitting down with you and writing out my own stories--random stuff that you nonetheless helped me form into more-or-less coherent plots. What lessons do you think you taught me there that stuck with me into my adult writing career?
A. That the interesting stories, the real stories, are about problems that the characters solve. Like when we used to do the Mickey and Goofy stories, we were always solving problems. And you would sometimes bring up things from our life, like—I don't know if you remember this, when we got new locks on the front door, you were worried that they were too high or kind of stiff, and you worried that you wouldn't be able to get out if there was a problem. So we worked that out in a story. I can't remember exactly how, whether we put a stool by the door or what. So I think one thing that I hope you learned, that I know you learned but I don't know if you learned it from me, is that stories are about problems that people solve. And they don't just solve them with a snap of their fingers.

I wrote an article about [how children tell stories]—in some magazine. It was called “There's a Storyteller in Your Lap.”

Q. How did working with a small child who could barely scribble out his own name (still true as an adult, by the way) help you grow as a writer?
A. As a teacher, in general, you learn what you're trying to teach in a whole new way each time you teach it. And I know that was true of writing.

Q. So how has that affected your writing?
A. It’s gotten a lot better. Every time I write something, I'm more aware of being true to the characters, and making sure that the problem and the way they solve the problem is appropriate to the age of the kid. And keeping the adult voice out of things. When you write for kids, that's really important. Voice is important in any kind of writing.

Q. What sets apart the adult voice and kids' voices?
A. The same thing that sets kids and adults apart in real life. Kids generally tend to be more optimistic and hopeful and open. And probably more willing to try some things. They’re not always courageous, but they're more willing to make friends with someone who seems different from them than maybe an adult would be. I found that to be true.

Q. The conventional wisdom is that kids are more selfish or self-centered. It doesn’t sound like you feel that way.
Left to them... it's when the adults begin influencing them that they pick up a lot of behaviors that are negative and self-centered and superior. But I don't think kids come that way.

Q. How involved were your parents with your writing when you were a child?
A. They were really involved with my reading. We all read. There were books everywhere. They were always bringing the encyclopedias to the dinner table to settle arguments. And we were read to. Granddaddy used to read to me a lot. And he read himself. He had the complete set of Rudyard Kipling, and Zane Gray of course (editor’s note: my grandfather was a huge fan of Westerns), and Robert Louis Stephenson.

He would read the Teeny-Weenies [to us]. And you know, like kids classics. Uncle Wiggly.

And we always got a book for Christmas. Which is why you always get a book for Christmas.

Q. Was anyone encouraging you to write?
A. You know, I think I just kind of did it on my own. As you know the Picketts are great storytellers. But I don't remember sharing my writing. Now in high school when I started writing and working on the school paper and magazine, they were supportive, but I don’t remember that before. I think I won an essay contest in seventh grade. Probably some patriotic thing. And they were proud of that.

Mommer remembers me once--and I don't know how old I was--saying I thought I would die if I couldn't write. I must have been an adolescent. That sounds pretty adolescent.

But I don't write about teenagers now. I seem to be stuck at age 12. I taught that age for a long time. I guess when kids flip over into adolescence, they get too complicated for me or something. They have issues!

Q. What makes things like storytime important for kids?
A. First of all, if it's parent and child, it establishes a whole different kind of bond between the parent and child, because they're sharing a story someone else has written. So they have that shared experience they can talk about, ask questions about, learn which authors they like, and maybe talk about why. I think there's a whole arena of things you can do between a parent and child, and teacher and child, around reading. And you can help them, of course, develop their reading skills and listening skills.

Q. I remember the hoopla--at least, as perceived through the eyes of a grade-schooler--when "Old Enough for Magic" was published. We went to New York to meet your editor... my first time in such a big city. What was that like for you, to see one of your stories picked up by a major publisher?
A. Well, it was very exciting to have at that time, it was Harper and Row. They were a prestigious publisher and it was thrilling. It was wonderful.

The wonderful book.

Q. What was it like writing that book? Where did the story come from?
A. The story came together very quickly. And it was triggered by your experience. And I'm sure you know this, of the older neighborhood boys telling you that you weren't old enough for magic.

Q. Um… actually… I don’t quite remember that.
A. I had gotten you this magic set, because your father told you about his career as a childhood magician. So I went out and got you a magic set. You were on the front porch on Woodland (editor’s note: the street on which I lived as a child in Midtown Kansas City). And you told the boys up the street that you were going to do a magic show. And the boys told you that you weren't old enough for magic.

The older sister [in “Old Enough for Magic”] was a neighbor girl when I was little who was very bossy and would never play with me unless I did exactly what she wanted. And her name was Arlene. So I put her in the story and named her Arlene!

People seemed interested in knowing the source of all the parts of the story. One thing kids are always interested in, after they ask how old you are and how much you make, is where do you get your ideas? And probably when you're a kid you don’t think anything interesting is going on in your own life. So you put your story in Shanghai or someplace you've never been, and have a king in it. You know. I think it takes a little maturity to see that the people around you and people you know and situations you have been in are really good story material.

But then the other mistake is to tell it exactly the way it happened.

Q. Can you give me an example?
A. My book “Wasatch Summer,” I use that as an example of you can't just take a story… I heard this story about a little 8-year-old girl who had to take her family’s sheep into the mountains for the summer, and she was befriended by some Blackfeet Indians.

But that's not a book. You have to develop other settings and other problems in the story. You have to build from the kernel. You can't just tell things exactly the way they happened.

Q. You were a teacher and librarian for decades as well. What kind of insights or benefits did those experiences give you as a writer?
A. Just spending my days with kids gave me insight. Most of my kids were contemporary urban kids, but hearing their stories, their family stories, their neighborhood stories, not all of which were pleasant, made me realize that kids have a lot of things to overcome. And they do it, for the most part, with grace and determination. And often with a sense of humor. Not always.

And then when I was a librarian, it gave me a deeper appreciation of what happens when you connect with a kid over a book or a story. And that you can see some kids get turned onto reading if you can find just the right book to pull them into that world.

Q. Speaking of experiences, you and Dad did a little exploring in the Middle East when I lived there. You do a lot of traveling in the U.S. as well. How do your travels--at home and abroad--feed into your storytelling and idea generation?
A. Setting is a big thing that you get from traveling. And meeting different people with different views of life and different views of themselves. The two historical books, the one that's just coming out and the one that come out two years ago, both came out of ideas I had while traveling. And in both cases the place was an important part of the stories.

And I still have some stories I want to write about the Middle East. I want to write about the cats. (Editor’s note: the herds of feral cats that roamed my Abu Dhabi neighborhood) I have to find the right way to tell it.

Feral cats. (More ornery than they look)

Q. I know you did a lot of on-the-ground research for "Wasatch Summer," visiting the areas in which the book is set. What kind of similar experiences did you gather for "Whisper Island"?
A. The idea for “Whisper Island” came a long time ago. I think the first time we went to the Outer Banks. Maybe 17 years ago, maybe longer. We went to a park ranger program about the shipwrecks. And this one story was about the George B. Wells, which was a triple-masted ship that ran around on one of the shoals. The first person that was carried off was the captain’s wife, who was very large and kept moaning about her clothes and her jewels. And then her two daughters. And then the crew started coming off. The captain was the last, of course. And he was carrying his St. Bernard, who he then gave to the life savers.

Which is what the girl in my book, the main character, wants to grow up to be: a life saver. But because she's a girl, it's against the law at that time. But she's kind of a feisty 12 year old. She figures some things out. She has two buddies, Will and Emory, and they all get up to some mischief.

Foreground: main character's hair. Background: her main pursuit.

Q. I noticed that the lifesaving station—which is still there—is set quite a ways back from the beach. Why?

A. Probably partly so it won't get washed away. And I really don't know how far away it was from the beach when it was built. Because those barrier islands are so thin, they get washed back and forth all the time. But I do know that at the time of the story, it was all flat. The dunes were put in later, I guess for a little protection.

Q. Your immediate plans, I'm sure, revolve around your book launch in North Carolina. And as a writer, I'm always hesitant to say too much about what I'm working on if it's not finished--I have these paranoid ideas that letting the idea loose in the world will somehow prevent it from being realized on the page. But if it's not giving away anything crucial, what other projects do you have in the works?A. A book about World War I set in Kansas City. Again about a 12 year old. But this time it's a boy. And he's got a lot of things to figure out. He’s learned that his older brother is not going to sign up to serve in the military. And then he learns that his favorite aunt, a very glamorous woman who lives in New York, is going to join the Marines. There’s other stuff going on with his best friend, who lives next door. He just has a lot of turmoil about what he’s supposed to think about all this.

We have the international World War I museum here. And the complete National Archives. They’ve both been very helpful in researching. And of course Mommer (Editor’s note: Her mother, now 100 years old) was alive then, so she can fill in the cracks.

Q. Anything else you’d like to say about “Whisper Island”?
A. I think it's a good story about the spirit of determination. The story is a good one for kids to know about. And hardly anyone knows about the life savers and what they did, and what they still do as the Coast Guard. Their motto was "We have to go out, but we don't have to come back." so no matter what was going on, storms or whatever, they had to go out and do their work. And that's a good thing for kids and grownups to know.

Q. It seems like this is a theme for your children’s writing: kids being determined to persevere.
A. I think that was something instilled in me by my parents. Mommer would say, “If you want anything bad enough, you can do it.” And my brothers would say, “If I had no arms and no legs, I could swim the English Channel?” And she would say, “If you wanted it bad enough, you could do it.” And I think it's an important thing for people to have in them, to not get beaten down by people saying you can't do something.

For more about Mom, aka Anola Pickett, and her writing, visit her Web site, www.anolapickett.com. Her books are on sale at bookstores around the country and through these links at Amazon.com: Whisper Island; Wasatch Summer; Old Enough for Magic.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

One small step for aviation, one giant leap for SkyNet

Well, it has happened. The X-47B, an aircraft testing the technology behind an unmanned, stealthy naval fighter, landed all by itself on an aircraft carrier on Wednesday:

As I have written before, this is a big deal. Landing on an aircraft carrier with a human pilot is hard enough. Doing so without the benefit of an actual brain is even more challenging... although, as you can see above, ultimately it's just an engineering exercise.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy America day, America! (and the rest of the world)

In keeping with Read Ink tradition, I offer once again the most patriotic rendition of "Stars and Stripes Forever" ever recorded:

So get out there and celebrate! Blow some stuff up (safely), listen to some Bruce Springsteen and grill some meat... perhaps using one of these:

American ingenuity brings a tear to my eye.  

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Nice one, SCOTUS

Wow, back to back semi-political posts. Sorry about that. But, as I noted here, stuff like removing legal barriers from gay marriage is worth writing about.

As you no doubt have already read in a million different places, the Supreme Court ruled that the ironically named Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. The ruling itself is a little dry, but has some nice snippets:
The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others…

This status is a far-reaching legal acknowledgment of the intimate relationship between two people, a relationship deemed by the State worthy of dignity in the community equal with all other marriages. It reflects both the community’s considered perspective on the historical roots of the institution of marriage and its evolving understanding of the meaning of equality.
Eloquently put. I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV, but to me it really seems like an uncomplicated decision to make. Rather than being about gay marriage, it's about equality. So I'm happy that in the eyes of the federal government, at least, everyone I know--instead of just some or most--is equally able to marry the person they love.

I am reminded of another case you may have heard of, a little decision called Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education. The key verbiage:
We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does... We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
That reasoning seemed radical at the time. It's simply common sense now. I suspect that United States vs. Windsor--the official name of the DOMA ruling--will look much the same 60 years from now.

It is so ordered.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Snowden-storm

What's this? Yes, that's right--it's time for a current events post.

Today's current event: Ed Snowden leaves Hong Kong. And oh, how he did leave:

HONG KONG — The Hong Kong government announced on Sunday afternoon that it had allowed the departure from its territory of Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who has acknowledged disclosing classified documents about United States government surveillance of Internet and telephone communications around the world.
The basic timing of this is that the U.S. last week asked Hong Kong to arrest Snowden. But, the Hong Kong government said, the U.S. didn't put the cover sheet on its TPS form. That meant that rather than being on a list that said "please arrest me when I try to leave the country," Snowden was able to hop on a commercial flight.

Hong Kong also managed to gently extend a middle finger at the NSA in the process:
Meanwhile, the HKSAR Government has formally written to the US Government requesting clarification on earlier reports about the hacking of computer systems in Hong Kong by US government agencies. The HKSAR Government will continue to follow up on the matter so as to protect the legal rights of the people of Hong Kong.

Very subtle, Hong Kong. Very subtle. So Hong Kong avoids having to deal with a fugitive they aren't particularly happy with, and also gets a little payback for being on the business end of some spy operations.

Snowden, of course, is on his way to Cuba and eventually Venezuela, according to Russian media reports on Sunday night. And that choice of cities is just one symptom of why I think his actions are problematic. Strictly speaking, he is not a whistle-blower; he did not reveal any illegal practices.

There is a strong argument that the troubling aspects if PRISM--spying on innocent Americans, for one--are unethical. And I can see why someone's conscience might drive him to tell the world about it.

But shedding light on U.S. hacking in China just seems like pot-stirring to me. Yes, the U.S. spies on other countries. That is neither shocking nor revelatory. And it came at an extremely politically sensitive time between America and China. It's hard to defend revealing all that in the name of liberty or justice.

Traveling to so many countries on the Cold War Hit Parade en route to avoiding prosecution doesn't seem like the smartest public relations move to me, either. It's hard to come across as anything other than a fugitive when the only places you're fleeing are ones that are, to some degree or another, hostile to your home country. (I won't even talk about how WikiLeaks is involved now.)

Venezuela, if that is indeed Snowden's final destination, seems to tick a lot of important boxes for him. It is a democracy, in name if not in fact. It is a comfortable place; there are, for instance, beaches. And its government has just enough animosity toward the U.S. to accept him as a political refugee instead of a fugitive.

So, Edward Snowden: congratulations on leaving the Special Administrative Region. It was fun having you here, creating a spy novel here in our quiet neck of the woods. (By the way, great premise for a novel: a guy carrying sensitive data is fleeing from intelligence agents. Everyone wants a piece of him. But to get to safety, he has to spend a night in a Moscow airport in transit. Go!) But I have a feeling the fun is really only getting started.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I win!

So, it turns out that Read Ink has been nominated for--and unilaterally declared winner of--a Leibster Award. As fellow blogger and Friend of the Blog Kirstin explains at her excellent Champagne- and expat life-focused blog, Rues de Geneve,

It's the Liebster Award, a sweet medal of honor (Liebster means Love, or Favorite, in German) that's to be passed from one blogger to another, recognizing those with under 200 followers (uhm, yeah sure, I qualify). It comes with a few caveats: One, answer some questions posed by the person giving you the award, two, pass it on to another blogger.

So there you go. Here's the award logo:

And here are my answers to...

The Questions!

Do you get up at the first ring of the alarm?
Depends on what you mean. I almost never use the snooze function, but often lie in bed for a while after the alarm goes off, contemplating why I'm awake. The length of contemplation depends on how early it is (and whether I have a flight to catch).
What’s the last non-essential thing you spent money on?

What do you like/hate most about blogging?
Blogging is a wonderful outlet for ideas that are interesting--at least to me--but too small to warrant, say, a novel. And as an expat, it's a good way of staying in touch with the folks back in the United States of Awesome. I can't say that I hate anything about it, exactly, but I dislike the feeling that I should post something--even if I don't have anything particularly interesting to say that day--just to keep it up to date. 

Yes, thanks. A medium skim latte with an extra shot would be great. Hmm, maybe I should change my "non-essential" answer. 

What’s one place to visit on your bucket list?
Just one? OK. I would love to go to Mars. I'd settle for the Moon. 

Fess up: What’s your guilty pleasure TV show?
This one is going to leave a mark. My wife got me hooked on "So You Think You Can Dance." There, I said it. 

You get four main ingredients to cook with for a month (spices, oils, salt and pepper not included)--name them:
Barbecue sauce, ribs, brisket and beer. (I hope there is a gym nearby this theoretical kitchen.) 

Would you still write if no one were reading?
Funny you mention that. I don't get a ton of comments on the blog, so sometimes it DOES feel like no one is reading (although I know from looking at the site's metrics that I get a good amount of traffic). So yeah, I'd still write. It's good exercise for my brain and fingers, if nothing else.

What’s your worst habit?

Do you drink all 8 glasses of water a day, every day? 
Nope. However, I drink a lot of other things, and they are all well over 90 percent water… so I'm hydrated.

Coming soon... a post linking to the next nominee and winner. Stay tuned!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

10 airports, six cities, and an infinite number of fish tacos

Greetings, dear readers--or at least the few that have stuck around through the last few weeks of radio silence. Mrs. Blog and I were on our annual sojourn to the United States of Awesome, a land where portions huge and old friends plentiful.

This is our second trip back to the U.S. since landing in Hong Kong. The first was just a few months after we moved here; we were still settling into the 852 and had not really acclimated or explored the city, let alone experienced all four seasons and the multitude of festivals that crop up throughout the year.

That first trip was pegged to my grandmother's 100th birthday, but beyond that it was a chance to relate the move and our first impressions of Hong Kong to our friends and family firsthand.

This time was a little different. Hong Kong is an incredibly dense place. Space is at a premium; everything is designed to be efficient, if not aesthetically pleasing. Housing is stacked on top of stores, and those buildings are stacked on top of a ruthlessly well-run public transit system. Sidewalks are crowded. Subways are crowded. The harbor is crowded. Even the parks--more remote and larger than you might think--can be crowded.

So when I landed in Chicago (not a small place), it was a little jarring. Where were all the people? Why did all these buildings only have one or two stories?

The city of broad but very spread out shoulders.

It was also shockingly cold. As Mrs. Blog, who served as the advance scouting on this journey, told me: "it's colder than you expect." And yet even with that expectation, I was surprised. And jacketless. But thanks to lots of warm times with good friends, I survived... and even grilled outdoors.

The "wow, things are really spread out!" nature of the trip faded after a week or so. Other things did not. I know America gets rung up all the time for having high rates of obesity and cities get mocked for instituting regulations on restaurant meals and Slurpees, but WOW are the portion sizes big in the U.S. On more than one occasion, I found myself uncomfortably full, or eating more than I wanted just because it was there.

Quick political aside: yes, I do believe in personal responsibility and that people should have the right to be unhealthy--including smoke, drink and overeat--but it seems to me that when there is a collective downside to this kind of individual behavior, we need to consider doing something about it. There is a lot of unfounded complaining about illegal immigration's drag on the economy (it is actually a net positive), but the shared costs of obesity, heart disease and so on should really spur the same kind of outrage. OK, I'll get off my nonexistent soapbox. Back to the travelogue.

Now. Let me be clear about something: the food in the U.S. is outstanding. So many good restaurants in Chicago alone. And indeed, Mrs. Blog and I were craving what I think every American expat craves: Mexican food. Great Mexican food just does exist outside North America. So it is a major part of the agenda whenever we return home. In fact, of all the cities on our itinerary--Chicago, Kansas City, Anaheim, San Diego, Seattle, Sequim, Wash.--K.C. was the only one in which we didn't at least have chips and guacamole. Getting outstanding Mexican food was in fact so engrossing that I didn't even bother to take pictures of any of it.

So you'll just have to take my word for it that I had tacos and a torta just outside the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School in Miramar, Calif. You might know it better as Top Gun.

Things I do have pictures of: A trip to Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, where Mrs. Blog got her first taste of Royals baseball, i.e., a heartbreaking loss.

It looks way better than the last time I was there, but the result was the same.

The hills of Anaheim:

The mountains in the distance never come out as well as I want them to.

The beaches of San Diego:

... which I never actually set foot on, sadly. Hey, I was wearing nice shoes.

The amphibious assault ships of Bremerton, Wash.:

A terrible picture of a nifty vessel.

And of course the sandwiches of Chicago. (The backstory here is that we went to Vietnam and couldn't find a banh mi in Hanoi as good as the ones from the shop around the corner from our old place in Lincoln Square.)

How do you say "drool" in Vietnamese? (photo courtesy Mrs. Blog)

In Anaheim Hills I also got this video of our dog--now retired and living in Orange County--doing what she does best, i.e. getting excited at the prospect of chasing a tennis ball. (also shown: the Sister-In-Law of the Blog and Her Black Dog.)

So if you're keeping score here, you'll see that we hit six cities during our stay. I was in the U.S. for 17 days, not including travel time. And so even my atrophied math skills can do the grim calculation here: I was flying roughly once every three days. We got to see a lot of dear friends and family. But what we never really got to do was unpack and catch our breath. That's why when we wound up in the final leg of the trip--Sequim, where the Parents In Law of the Blog have a home in the hills--the natural surroundings were even more relaxing than they might otherwise have been.

Seriously. We drove into Olympic National Park, where the view from Hurricane Ridge is like a scene out of the Sound of Music, complete with a deer in repose:

The hills are alive with the sound of me breathing deeply.

Amazing, right? Mrs. Blog stayed there a bit longer to help her parents, but it was time for me to head back to the 'Kong.

And as it turned out, there was one more story to tell. On the flight back to the Special Administrative Region there was a long leg, Seattle to Tokyo, and a short leg from there.

On the long leg, I had quite an interesting seatmate: an apparent international taekwondo champion, author and current star of a multilevel marketing empire called Kyani. It was probably the longest and most interesting conversation I've had on a plane with a person not named Mrs. Blog. She told me about how she competed well into her 50s, how she spoke fluent Spanish (with no hint of her Georgian accent, apparently), how she was a competitive horse jumper once upon a time, and of course about the benefits of Arctic blueberry-derived health supplements. So that was cool.

And then on the short leg, serendipity:

That's right. Legroom AND champagne.

Business class. Thanks to a family friend with a long career at the airline we were using, there was a chance of an upgrade on each leg. It finally happened between Tokyo and Hong Kong. Sure, it was only a four-hour flight. But being able to put my size 15s up on a padded footrest and watch a bad movie is like gold.

Now I'm back in Hong Kong. The city remains much as it did before I left, except rainier: it's monsoon/typhoon season. My desk has an extra monitor now, giving it the "command center" look:

Yes, the larger monitor is sitting on a book. It's a metaphor.

So after nine flights*, I'm right back where I started. Now all that's left is to meet up with friends here and tell them all about how great the fish tacos are in America... and how many of them there were.

*Yes, nine flights but 10 airports. Airports utilized on this trip: Hong Kong, Narita, Detroit, O'Hare, Midway, Kansas City, Denver, Orange County, Long Beach and Seattle.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What's inside the box, Pandora?

As you have probably seen splashed all over the internet, Microsoft announced its Xbox One today. Here's the video that went with it:

There is a good summary of all the features here. The stuff that stands out to me--at least in terms of trying to position a product to hit as much of the market as possible--is how gaming actually seems almost like a secondary function to all the multimedia stuff it's rigged for.

It doesn't just look a little bit like a Tivo box, it's meant to BE a Tivo box, more or less. Television, music, other streamed content, Web browsing and Skype are all part of the voice-controlled package. And, of course, you can play games, although there is a little controversy about how that will work and whether there will still be a market for used games.

I have an Xbox 360 (now eight years old, somehow), but I don't play a ton. To me, video games are entertainment in the same vein of television or movies... something to do in a spare moment but not something to do all day. Mrs. Blog, who doesn't enjoy many games you can't dance to, is much less of a fan.

But she is exactly who Microsoft is taking aim at. Not only is the box sleek and unobtrusive, it is arguably more of a multimedia reciever than a gaming console. And that's an easier purchase for a non-gamer to embrace. If you can make the case to someone that they need this because they can eliminate other devices and streamline content access, then you're in good shape to expand your consumer base. There is even talk of a subsidized system, where you pay a greatly reduced price for the gear, but pay a monthly fee for Live access (and presumably streamed content therein). That, too, feels at least psychologically like a cable bill and not a means of online gaming.

Anyway, the bottom line is that Microsoft, like Apple and Google, is trying to create a device ecosystem. Whether it works depends largely on how people like Mrs. Blog react. But it should be noted that the motion-sensing Kinect is geared toward dance games.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Calling the ball

A follow-up to my paean to our future automated overbeings: the X-47B has now almost landed on an aircraft carrier without a human pilot:

What you just saw was two simulated wave-offs--when an aircraft setting up for a landing is told to break off the approach and go around for another try--and then two "touch-and-go" landings. Those simulate what is called a "bolter," when an aircraft landing on a carrier misses all of the cables designed to catch its tailhook and bring it to a safe stop.

Yes, it's a beautiful day for flying and calm seas, but note that the X-47 nails the centerline. After watching this, an actual landing seems like just a baby step for robotkind.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords

Quick aviation dork post. The X-47B, the world's first stealthy, carrier-borne, semi-autonomous drone will make its first catapult launch at sea today. The cat shot is a big deal, and also a first. To date, the only seaborne drones are small and don't operate from aircraft carriers like, say, an F-18.

The key difference between the types is, of course, the pilot. And that's why it's such an impressive milestone. The X-47's processor and software fly it off the catapult and, more important, land it on the carrier... a feat that is arguably the hardest in aviation.

See what I mean?

An airliner's autoland system is proven technology, but there are a lot fewer variables. For example, the runway is bigger... and it's not moving in three dimensions. To date, landing on a carrier deck is something only a highly trained pilot could pull off; instinct plays almost as big a role as processing all the information from instruments and eyes and translating it into control inputs.

And yet. Look at this:

And this:

Granted, these are occurring on dry, unmoving land. But what you see there is a plane launching from a catapult and landing using an arresting wire in a space the size of a carrier deck without a pilot at the controls... onboard or on the ground.

if Northrup-Grumman and the Navy pull this off at sea on Tuesday, it represents a huge leap forward. Or, depending on how you look at it, another step on the way to Skynet.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Out with a bang

Guess what? Now with a 3-D printer (and a nail), you can make yourself a working firearm!

I'll keep this brief. I love the technology behind this; it fascinates me that we can literally create just about anything we can draw in a CAD program. It opens up fantastically interesting horizons for manufacturing.

I also realize that given this kind of technology, someone was going to do this eventually.

But there's no utility--and plenty of what seem to me to be PAINFULLY obvious drawbacks--to not just creating a plastic gun, but disseminating the plans widely. Maybe it makes me a pathetic sheep, and I'll be first thrown on the truck to the government New World Order summer camps, but handing out plastic guns is not needed to prevent tyranny.

And the thing is, it's plastic. PLASTIC. Yes, that crazy material that doesn't show up on metal detectors. Congratulations, assassins: now you can not only sneak your firearm into a controlled space, but also melt down the evidence when you're done.

On the bright side, thriller writers now have another toy to play with as they create crime scenes.

*Dork note: I am mildly annoyed that they called this thing the Liberator, but kept showing clips of B-17s in their video. Those are Flying Fortresses. The B-24 was the Liberator.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The future (of the past) is now!

Space dorks like me often have a childhood filled with science fiction books. I pawed through a lot of pulp as a kid, including the stuff kids are supposed to read, like Tom Swift; the stuff kids of a different generation were supposed to read, like The Secret of the Marauder Satellite (dunno why that one stuck in my head, but hey, it did); and stuff that blew my mind, like Fahrenheit 451.

Almost everything I read was written before 1980. A lot of the "classic" stuff was from the '50s and '60s. And space travel, in that era, had a common mechanical element: rockets took off and landed tail first (check out what happens about 1:38 or so).

Of course, all that changed in the late '70s, when the Space Shuttle did its now-famous "take off like a rocket, land like an airplane" trick:

And basically from then on, you had spaceships that were either never meant to land at all, and thus could look more or less like a flying radiator…

In space, no one can hear you complain about aerodynamics.

… or like an aircraft of various permutations. Taking off vertically seemed optional, and landing vertically seemed, well, anachronistic.

Well, here we are in the 21st Century. The Space Shuttle is retired, we're hitting "interplanetary holes in one" with Mars rovers and private launch companies are perfecting new vehicles for getting stuff, and people, into Earth orbit and beyond. And what do we see as the latest round of innovation?

Why, a rocket landing tail-first, of course.

And so it was that the tales (and tails, ha, little space dork humor there) of my childhood have become reality. Not just because it looks neat, either: when landing on a planet with a thin atmosphere--like Mars--parachutes and wings become dramatically less effective ways of slowing an object down to non-splat impact speeds. And as computers, robotics and other technology have matured, we have gotten to the point where this can be routinely pulled off.

That's exciting. I just hope the arrival of science fiction past doesn't also include tentacled monsters and mind-control rays.