Sunday, December 25, 2011

It's Christmas Eve, babe (again)

This is quite a happy--and eventful--Christmas for Mrs. Blog and I. But that doesn't mean Read Ink will stray from its holiday traditions:

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Slightly underqualified

My dream job is hiring right now. Unfortunately, I fall short in a few key areas, like having 1,000 hours of jet aircraft flight time and a degree in engineering, medicine or technology.

On the bright side, I'm the right height and have perfect vision.

I am of course talking about the Astronaut Candidate position being advertised on the government jobs Web site right now.

You get to take cool pictures like this if you get the job.

The Guy Sitting Next to Me is of the opinion of, "How hard a job is that, anyway? All they're doing is just sitting there." That of course is not true, but even if it were, being an astronaut would be the best... desk job... ever.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Remember when stealth technology was mysterious?

Now it's available for export. Lockheed Martin has agreed to sell Japan 42 of its almost-ready-to-mass-produce F-35 Lightning II multirole aircraft. The F-35 is stealthier than any other production aircraft in the world besides the F-22, and has other fascinating capabilities, like an electro-optical helmet-mounted display that lets the pilot literally look through the bottom and sides of the plane. Neat stuff, and I'm happy Japan is replacing its F-4s with such a capable piece of hardware.

But it makes me think back to the 1980s, when stealth technology basically sounded like science fiction (although the first prototypes were flying in the 70s) and no one knew exactly what it looked like until the F-117 made its debut. And what a debut: The Nighthawk looked like no other aircraft before it (and no other aircraft since)... almost alien, and definitely impressive.

Lookin' sharp. Literally.

Now it is horribly outdated and retired. And its limitations--slow, no air-to-air capability to speak of, blind spots in onboard sensors--have been addressed, and then some, by the Raptor, the world's most advanced fighter.

The biggest sign that the technology has come a long way, and continues to advance in secret, is that the U.S. is building a stealth airframe that has been approved for export. By the end of the decade, the U.S., Britain, Japan and probably South Korea, among others, will all be flying various iterations of the Lightning II. Yes, they are staunch U.S. allies and it is hardly a threat to national security to ensure they have high-tech hardware.

But it also means the U.S., whose Air Force top brass has long adhered to the doctrine that it "never wants to be in a fair fight," has something better up its sleeve.

Can't wait to see it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

When I was 18, it was a very busy year

For reasons that aren't worth explaining, I just got a copy of my university transcript. I graduated longer ago than I like to think about, so there is a fair amount of stuff that I simply had forgotten about.

Taking 18 hours a semester? Yep--I remember that. The excellent feeling at the start of my last semester when I realized I only needed 13 to graduate and could relax? Also a clear memory.

No problem remembering this, either.

Fundamentals of Physical Anthropology and Elements of Sociology? Not so much. Which is a shame, because I know I learned stuff in those classes, even if I can't remember who taught them.

Not surprisingly, the classes I remember most are the ones in my majors: journalism and philosophy. I have stayed in touch with many of the professors and students in those areas. But there are others that jump out at me as well--Greek and Roman Mythology, for instance, was a fascinating class and very difficult to get into. And although I have forgotten some of the physical attributes of the gods that once made it possible for me to identify them in statue form, there is a lot of stuff that remains tucked in my brain cells. I also remember sitting next to Friend (and eventual Best Man) of the blog Nhan. We were both kind of shocked at how much we enjoyed the class.

Anyway, as far as trips down memory lane go, this one was pretty good. But mostly it shines a light on just how far I have come and how many amazing things have happened to me since then. And it also makes me happy I never have to take Symbolic Logic ever again.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

That's no moon, that's a...

More proof that if you look into space long enough, you're bound to spot something interesting. A NASA/U.S. Navy mission to keep tabs on the Sun's solar flares (using satellites called STEREO A and B) took this video:

Hmmmm. (to see the original, not-so-X-Filed version, go here)

As Gizmodo puts it,

The video shows a coronal mass ejection coming from the Sun and reaching the planet Mercury. Coronal mass ejections are massive explosions of solar wind, radiation and magnetic fields that go well beyond the solar corona, deep into space. They are so big that sometimes they reach Earth.

You can see the gigantic solar wave reaching Mercury but, just as it goes through, something else becomes visible: a very angular shape that seems to be formed by two separate objects joined together. It looks as if the CME wave reveals a volume on impact, interacting with it.

You know, like a cloaked Klingon Bird of Prey being uncovered by the Sun's radioactive fury.

So, digital artifact or planet-sized spaceship? I know which one I want the answer to be. Perhaps it came from our newly discovered sister planet....

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

There's no place like... wait a second

It was only a matter of time. Scientists say they have found what might be a true "Goldilocks planet," perfectly positioned around a star so that it's the right temperature for liquid water. It's also sized appropriately for human use--approximately 2.4 times the size of Earth, but there's no telling at this point how dense it is. Nor do we know, at this point, what the composition of its atmosphere is.

The newly confirmed planet, Kepler-22b, is the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a star similar to our sun. The planet is about 2.4 times the radius of Earth. Scientists don't yet know if Kepler-22b has a predominantly rocky, gaseous or liquid composition, but its discovery is a step closer to finding Earth-like planets.

Previous research hinted at the existence of near-Earth-size planets in habitable zones, but clear confirmation proved elusive. Two other small planets orbiting stars smaller and cooler than our sun recently were confirmed on the very edges of the habitable zone, with orbits more closely resembling those of Venus and Mars.

"This is a major milestone on the road to finding Earth's twin," said Douglas Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Kepler's results continue to demonstrate the importance of NASA's science missions, which aim to answer some of the biggest questions about our place in the universe."

Keep in mind, this is 600 light years away. That means if there IS anyone on that planet, and they happen to be looking in our directions, they won't pick up any, say, radio signals for another 500 years.

But it's a start. And an intriguing one at that. There are likely to be many, many planets like this, and if we look at enough of them, we might end up with a Sparrow moment.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Wouldn't you prefer a nice game of chess?

All games involve solving problems. Sometimes it's just you and some cards, trying to figure out how to get all the suits lined up in order as you play Solitaire.

Sometimes it's you and another person, matching wits as you try to create obstacles for their pieces while simultaneously marching yours into your home base. That's backgammon.

Yet other times, you're talking about dozens of people, all of whom can be utilized in different ways to get an advantage in either advancing or stopping a ball from moving down the field. That's football.

But these days, mostly thanks to the Internet, there are games that involve thousands of people trying to solve a problem. Sometimes it is something as straightforward as an online role-playing or combat games. Other times it is a so-called "alternate reality game," where participants interact in the real world to reach an objective, often the solution to a mystery. Think of it as a Host A Murder dinner party with a million guests.

Those types of challenges can be fun. But they can also be productive. Much as projects like SETI@home use thousands or millions of computers to analyze data, having multitudes of people analyzing a problem can lead to a quick solution.

For instance, how long do you think it would take one person to put this paper-based Humpty Dumpty back together again?

Word spaghetti, served al dente.

DARPA--an increasingly often-cited agency on Read Ink--took the picture above to the masses, offering a US$50,000 prize for whoever could accurately piece back together five shredded documents in roughly one month.

They got a winner, too (solutions here). Some of the 9,000-ish entrants used brute force, simply having a whole bunch of people sifting through strips of paper. But the victorious team created an algorithm that essentially compared all the strips to one another and generated a "probability of fit" score. That meant the human operator could ignore pieces with a low score and examine only the ones that were likely to go next to each other.

And it still took a month to solve.

But besides being an interesting challenge, it is also an effective way to solve a bigger problem. Need a method? Consult the masses. DARPA essentially paid US$50,000 to solve a meta-problem that probably would have taken millions of dollars to examine with a smaller team of dedicated researchers.

And because this is a writing blog, I should of course note the impact this will have on the world's thriller authors. Need your spy to destroy some documents? Better have her burn them... otherwise, no secret is safe.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Well, it looks cool, anyway

The J-20, China's prototype foray into the world of stealth aircraft, is showing up more and more on the Internet. Confident that it will fly without any embarrassing glitches--like blowing up or crashing--the Chinese military is making sure this impressively large aircraft is getting a lot of face time.

Note that the video was shot from inside the base. This isn't shakycam from a planespotter; this is PR.

To me, the project seems more like a testbed or technology demonstrator. It is too large to be an effective fighter and there are many things about the design, including the engine nozzles, that make it non-stealthy... no matter how many cool angles are designed into the fuselage.

Overall, the J-20 doesn't represent much of a gap-closing with the U.S., even leaving avionics, networking and weapons out of the equation.

But a more cynical man might suggest that this aircraft is being pushed so hard into the spotlight because there is something else in the shadows.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Playing with fire

I'm not thrilled that this is happening just a few hundred miles away from my (brand-new!) front door, and I'm not celebrating the loss of life, but I have to say I saw it as good news when I read that an Iranian missile base blew up recently.

An Iranian military compound that blew up earlier this month was extensively damaged, the Institute for Science and International Security said after an analysis of new satellite imagery.

ISIS compared a November 22 image from DigitalGlobe to one from September.

"Some buildings appear to have been completely destroyed. Some of the destruction seen in the image may have also resulted from subsequent controlled demolition of buildings and removal of debris. There do not appear to be many pieces of heavy equipment such as cranes or dump trucks on the site, and a considerable amount of debris is still present," according to the analysis posted on ISIS website.

Senior defense officials told CNN's Barbara Starr that the United States believes the Iranians were mixing volatile fuel for a rocket motor for a large ballistic missile on November 12 when the accident occurred.

If nothing else, this is a sign that technology sanctions really do work. A modern economy with reasonable resources can develop stuff like low-performance aircraft and short-range missiles without too much trouble. But long-range rocketry is a totally different beast.

It took the U.S. years of launchpad explosions and downrange failures before it was able to reliably get stuff into orbit. I hope Iran, which has access to a tiny percentage of the human capital and materiel of a 1950s United States and is choked off from buying many of the parts it needs, continues to be a lot farther away from that goal.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A moving experience

Well, Friends of the Blog, it's been a busy couple of weeks.

Usually I fall off the grid--and by that I mean Read Ink doesn't get updated--when I'm traveling. For about 10 days this month, that was my excuse, as Mrs. Blog and I headed to India for the wedding of two friends. This is the same couple whose nuptials took us to Dallas a few months back, a trip we enjoyed immensely, and not just because it involved huge amounts of barbecue and brisket tacos.

Nom nom nom, y'all.

This was the second time we had been to India, the first being two years ago when I first suggested to Mrs. Blog that she deserved an upgrade from Girlfriend of the Blog. That trip was memorable for a lot of reasons--the Taj Mahal at dawn, climbing through an ancient abandoned city, riding a rickshaw through one of the most crowded markets in the world--and I left so inundated with India that every time I closed my eyes for a few days afterwards, the swirling crowds appeared behind my eyelids. True story.

You would never find Waldo, ever.

This time was a little more sedate. We had a soft landing at one of our favorite hotels anywhere, The Imperial, then took on India from a different angle than our first trip. The sights had been seen, you see. So we focused on food. And, OK, fine, I'll admit it, shopping. The payoff was remarkable. Let me just say that if you ever find yourself in Delhi, go to Hauz Khas market and track down the Gray Garden and Yeti. Thank me later.

But India's real embrace came when we traveled to Siliguri, the bride's hometown, for the wedding. She and her family welcomed us (and several dozen other friends from Abu Dhabi) with a gusto and charm and warmth that you will see in few other parts of the world. They whisked us to our hotel. They ensured that we had delicious, spicy meals waiting whenever we turned around. They treated us like VIPs.

And what a remarkable family, too. The bride's parents, both doctors, have been involved for decades with treating those who society has neglected. We visited a community her father founded for people who had been stigmatized by leprosy--they themselves were healthy but the disease had struck their parents, leaving them outcasts. Through the bride's father's efforts, people who would otherwise have been begging in the streets were learning job skills; their children were attending school just steps from their front doors. That's what having an impact on society is all about. Everywhere around us were people whose lives were better because someone believed in them. It's not the sort of lesson you expect at a wedding. But it was a welcome one.

The wedding, of course, was an explosion of colors, sounds and lights, as Indian weddings are wont to be. It began with a marching band leading the procession through town and it ended with a 2,000-person reception at a water park outside town. There simply aren't enough superlatives to do it justice.

This is where you say, Hey, wait, Gerry--aren't pictures worth 1,000 words? And I reply, Yes, they are, and I haven't gotten them off our camera yet. Settle down. Pictures to come.

Suffice to say we arrived back in the UAE richer in spirit and with suitcases full of well-haggled Indian merchandise. Clothing, mostly. Including leather shoes that actually fit my feet.

But there was a cloud to all this glittering silver.

For reasons that are too boring and frustrating to explain, our apartment in Abu Dhabi went from being company-owned to owned-by-someone-else in a matter of days last month. The people living in the building had more or less six weeks to get out. And the deadline happened to be Friday, just a few days after we returned from India.

Rather than avail ourselves of the frustrating Abu Dhabi rental market (the linked story is old but still remarkably applicable), in which rent is paid for an entire year up front and a one-bedroom place in the good part of town can cost US$30,000, we decided to unload our furniture and move into a serviced apartment.

In a way, this was the perfect week for all of this to happen. Yes, it was scary and stressful to sell all our furniture, pack up and get out in a matter of four days while we both were working full-time. I cannot overstate how little sleep we got and how tired I got of people calling up to offer me one-third of my asking price without even bothering to see what they were buying.

Thanksgiving was Thursday, though, and Thursday was when we packed up and got out. Our Budget Building flat, with paint choices more colorful than probably any other apartment in Tanker Mai, is echoing and empty.

But I am full of thanks. Thankful for Mrs. Blog, who was always there to remind me to breathe when the move hit hardest. Thankful for our friends, who offered help in myriad ways. Thankful for a massive Thanksgiving spread at one of their houses (and for the poker tournament in which we finished in fourth place), and the heaping helpings of fellowship.

And thankful for the relaxing rooftop pool of our new building.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

I always miss the fun stuff

Along with the Chicago Air and Water Show, football and the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival, it appears I have missed another major Midwestern event by living abroad.

An earthquake.

According to the Associated Press, there was a 4.7 magnitude temblor early Saturday followed by a late-night 5.6er. It could be felt as far away as Kansas City, and of course across the region no one quite knew what to make of this.

My first earthquake actually happened while living here--we felt the shocks of a massive 7.5-plus magnitude quake in Pakistan. Mrs. Blog, being a California girl, instantly knew why our TV stand was rattling. I thought perhaps our TV was vibrating for some reason. If I had known, I might have looked like this:

"On live TV. Must not show fear."

That was football commentator Kirk Herbstreit, by the way, who happened to be on an ESPN broadcast when the late-night quake hit. And although he didn't immediately say anything about it, you can tell he kinda sorta noticed what was going on.

Anyway, I guess living in the Midwest most of my life and never witnessing a tornado, let alone an earthquake, isn't a bad thing. I lived in Florida for a few years too, and you know what? No hurricanes. I guess it proves the truth of that Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Gimme Some Lovin' (without the lovin')

Mrs. Blog and I went to see one of the greatest movies about Chicago ever made: The Blues Brothers. It's getting to be winter here, which means people are emerging from their concrete-and-bad-tile caves to do things outdoors. In this case, it was Cinema by the Sea, which is exactly what it sounds like. It was a nice distraction from frustrating issues with the housing "market" here.

On paper, it's a perfect idea. Great weather? Check. Great movie? Check. Beanbag chair seating? Check. They even threw in some fireworks as a bonus.

But, as Mrs. Blog noted, this would not be Abu Dhabi if everything went as it should. About halfway through the show, for instance, workers set up floodlights illuminating an EXIT HERE banner... and half the crowd.

The thing that got me the most, though, was the censorship. It wouldn't be the Blues Brothers without gratuitous swearing, and sure enough, that was untouched. There are two scenes that involve male-female relations, however. Perhaps 30 seconds, total, of footage. And by relations, I mean kissing.

Yes, the pivotal scene at the end where Carrie Fisher confronts her ex-fiancee, Joliet Jake, starts with him pleading with her and ends with her lying in the mud, with no indication of how Point A got to Point B.

Happily, they left in the part where a Nazi henchman tells Henry Gibson, "I've always loved you" as their red Pinto plummets into a crater in downtown Chicago. And I had forgotten how fun the car chase at the end is; legend has it that Lower Wacker Drive never recovered from all the damage done during the movie's filming.

All in all, a fine way to spend a Tuesday night. If nothing else, it's something you couldn't do in Chicago this time of year.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Two wings, no tail, no radar return and no pilot

Good stuff here. The Navy has been quietly developing what is likely to be a game-changing capability: a pilotless, stealthy combat aircraft that can operate off a carrier.

The technical challenges are pretty astounding. A carrier landing is tough under the best of circumstances for a human pilot. The X-47 requires a computer to do it. And of course there are all the usual issues with operating a unmanned aerial vehicle, compounded with flying them out of a mobile, seagoing base.

But unlike some defense programs, this one is on track.

That was the X-47 flying with its gear up, a project milestone. And the Navy expects these things to be landing on carriers in the next 18 months or so. It's not exactly fodder for a Top Gun remake, but as far as technological impact, it's hard to overstate the value of being able to strike first, undetected, without putting a person in harm's way.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Half-car, half-plane, all funny looking

So apparently our favorite weapons experimenter DARPA is trying to develop a new light, armored ground vehicle for U.S. troops. But this project has an unusual requirement, too: it must fly.

As Aviation Week puts it,
Transformer is not simply a roadable aircraft - it is a four-seat vehicle that must be able to drive off-road, survive small-arms fire, and rapidly reconfigure into an aircraft that can take off and land vertically and be flown without pilot training.
Yep, that's a tall order, making a flying machine that literally any grunt can get into and flutter away in. Oh, and it also has to be bulletproof. That might be the hardest part, actually. If you shoot up a Humvee door, it will be dinged and dented, but the people inside will be safe, and that's the important bit. If you shoot up a folded-up wing (as in the picture below), the people on the other side might be safe, but good luck getting any lift with that deformed airfoil.

The results, as you might imagine, are a little funny-lookin':

Like an Apache mated with a Pinto.

But hey, if it gets the job done, who cares? The A-10 isn't exactly glamorous, but it makes up for it by being indestructible and indispensable. As with many DARPA projects, it will be fascinating to see how this one turns out. Unlike what you may have seen in the newsreels of the '50s, though, it is unlikely even a successful vehicle will ever make its way onto civilian roads.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Art of Storytelling

It's the most cultural time of the year here in Abu Dhabi: the fifth annual Abu Dhabi Film Festival has kicked off, bringing dozens of international movies to malls and hotels across the emirate.

Last night Mrs. Blog and I saw a remarkable piece of artistry called "Almost in Love." The writing was beautiful; as I have complained before, dialogue has always been one of my weak points as a writer, but this movie was filled with strong, natural, engaging conversation.

It is essentially a love story. I won't bother trying to sum up the plot--there are a lot of threads--but the gist of it is the important, difficulty and beauty of finding love.

But the fascinating thing about it is that it was done in two 40-minute takes. That's right: two locales, two groups of actors (some of whom appear in both takes) and two long shots.

The director and writer, Sam Neave, uses some interesting techniques, like occasionally shifting the sound to follow a conversation offscreen while we watch two characters interact silently in front of us. It gives the effect of being at a busy cocktail party, where you tune in and out of the conversations around you.

And none of it comes across as gimmicky or distracting. It's not ad-libbed; the acting is superb and it is clear everyone has a superb grasp of their lines. I'm guessing that like a stageplay, it was rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed until everything is not only memorized, but natural. And then they shot it.

We saw the world premiere. But I urge you, if this film appears at an art house (or, if you're in the Middle East, a mall), go check it out.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

As real as it gets

Apparently there is a movie coming out in February whose stars you have heard about quite a bit lately, but who have absolutely no acting experience. It's an action movie--a genre in which they have plenty of experience.

They are active-duty Navy SEALs.

The project, called Act of Valor, began life as a short military recruitment video; its production team is a well-regarded commercial outfit. But realizing they had nearly unprecedented access to military equipment, they pitched--and won--the idea for a full-length movie. The script is being written by one of the authors of the 300 screenplay.

It sounds like a pretty run-of-the-mill action plot: SEALs rescue a captured spy. But the hook, of course, is that the Navy literally assigned SEALs between combat tours the mission of acting in the film.

Friend of the Blog Chris correctly pointed out that this is much like Top Gun in that it uses a ton of actual military personnel and equipment, and perhaps more important, will have teenagers lining up outside recruiting centers. It is an unabashed rah-rah picture.

I'm not sure what to think about it, honestly. The action sequences will be great, I'm sure. The plot will be largely forgettable. But will the movie as a whole be more than a novelty?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I knew it!

It seems Boeing — whose X-37 is already flying secretive missions for the Air Force — can easily upgrade the spaceplane to be a man-rated craft.

Grantz revealed Boeing’s plans for an X-37C model, which would be nearly twice as long as the B version, with sufficient capacity for up to six astronauts. The X-37C could be controlled robotically – or by a human pilot. ‘Once qualified for human flight, these vehicles could transport a mix of astronauts and cargo to the [International Space Station] and offer a much gentler return to a runway landing for the space tourism industry,’ Grantz wrote in a report.

Yes, that does give the U.S. another option to get astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But it also affords a capability similar to that of the Dyna-Soar. And as the X-37s only operator, wouldn't the Air Force love a crewed, semi-autonomous vehicle with a decent payload capacity that can pass over just about any spot on Earth soon after launch? Hmmmm.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Talkin' Turkey

Remember how I kept saying I would have a blog post about Turkey? Well, here it is. I actually wrote a travel story for The National about the first bit of our trip, in a place called Cappadocia. I could have done 1,000 words just on the town...

Photo courtesy Mrs. Blog Photo Agency.

... the mezze...

Photo courtesy Mrs. Blog Photo Agency.

... and the balloon ride...

Photo courtesy Mrs. Blog Photo Agency.

... but here, please enjoy the condensed version of our 48 hours in one of the most beautiful places Mrs. Blog and I have ever visited:

Cappadocia, in central Anatolia, is remarkable from any angle - in the air, on the ground and deep below the surface.

As we fly in from Istanbul, the landscape beneath us is a tapestry of food crops, rocky hills and the famous "fairy chimneys", which begin to reveal themselves as we approach the airport. From the air, these natural rock formations, created by the erosion of volcanic stone over the millennia, look like giant spires rising from the earth.

The airport is near Nevsehir, the regional capital. On the 30-minute ride to our hotel (about €10; Dh50), we notice another striking natural feature: caves. Indeed, our hotel, the Sultan Cave Suites (; rooms from Dh370 per night;), was built amid caves in the hills above Goreme and layered over half-a-dozen terraces, with views over the city's red rooftops and chimneys.

Formed thousands of years ago, the hotel's caves were first used by Roman settlers in the first century AD, and have been expanded and modernised in the last few decades. The rooms are rustic and clean, with smooth stone floors, five-metre-high vaulted ceilings, and a seating area around a fireplace that, in July, is purely decorative.

Sultan, the hotel restaurant, is one of the best in Cappadocia and, seated under the stars in the stone courtyard, we graze on mezze, newly baked bread and stuffed squash blossoms, a seasonal speciality (mains from about Dh50). Mezze platters - hot or cold - are delectable everywhere, from the high-end terraces of A'laturca in the town centre (; mains from €20 [Dh100]; starters from €150 [Dh30]), to the low-budget Seyah Han on the road to the Open Air Museum (mains from Dh30; starters from Dh10). Testi kebab, marinated meat and vegetables cooked in a sealed clay jar are ubiquitous Goreme dishes but, ultimately, just a distraction on the way to another mezze platter.

The next morning we head out for a balloon ride (; Dh780 per person) and, as the sky changes colour, Mustafa, our pilot, shepherds us into a minibus and tells us we'll be taking off from Love Valley, spectacular with its chimney formations.

At the launch site, three colourful balloons are being inflated. We clamber into the huge baskets (each holds up to 20 people), the ground crew unties the support ropes and we are airborne. Within 30 seconds we dip into the valley, lower than the plateau we had launched from, and drift between the chimneys, tinged orange by the first rays of dawn.

By the time we rise high enough to watch the sun peep over the mountain between Nevsehir and the province of Kayseri, the sky around us is filled with balloons. We pass over the mountain, soaring to more than 1,100 metres, and find ourselves surrounded by exotic geography: more chimneys, canyons dotted with hand-carved pigeon roosts, mountains and Erciyes, the still-active volcano that gave birth to it all.

We return to the ground (Mustafa drops the balloon directly onto its travel trailer) and, after a quick break at the hotel, walk the two kilometres to the Goreme Open Air Museum (Dh21 per person).

This Unesco World Heritage Site comprises churches and buildings hand-carved from natural caves. They date from about 400 AD to the mid-14th century, and many examples of brilliantly painted religious scenes and other art still remain. The first occupants, early Christians who deliberately left society to settle in the wilderness, used natural dyes - including shocking blue hues made of powdered lapis lazuli - to decorate their cells and churches.

Unfortunately, visitors won't learn much at the museum; the audio tour, inexpensive at Dh10 per person, mostly describes the obvious, but the churches' visual impact forgives the lack of historical context. Buckle Church is the largest, with room for about 100 worshippers under its 10-metre ceiling. The blue dye is most prevalent here but the passage of 1,000 years, countless worshippers and several invasions has worn most of colour off everything within arm's reach.

The next day is our last in Cappadocia and we need to cram in as much as we can. A bus ride (Dh84 per person) brings us to our first stop, the underground city of Derinkuyu, likely settled between 800 BC and 400 BC. We arrive at 10am but the cramped interiors, 85 metres below, are already echoing with the voices of visitors.

As with other cave dwellings in the region, the natural hollows had been expanded until, in Derinkuyu's case, they could house tens of thousands of people. The caves were widely occupied during the Byzantine era, abandoned, then discovered by villagers using the top rooms as basements. Some signs of use still remain, including soot-blackened walls and 500kg millstones resting in hand-carved grooves, ready to seal passageways.

One hundred and thirty spiral steps, still showing millennia-old tool marks, lead down from the third to the seventh levels of the 11-level city - the deepest part open to the public. The rough volcanic rock never stops pushing inwards and most of the passageways, designed to restrict invaders, are two metres tall or less.

A few hours later we emerge, blinking, into the light and head to Soganli Valley, its steep sides sculpted into homes, aviaries and more churches. After a stop at an active archaeological site, a remote Roman village called Sobesos, we visit Keslik Monastery.

The semi-attached churches, kitchens and living spaces - all hewn from rock and surrounded by fertile soil cultivated since the monks arrived in the fourth century - form a shady enclave, with the beige edifice of the monastery as its focal point. After swinging through Mustafapasa, a neighbourhood in Urgup filled with 15th-century Greek architecture, we return, exhausted, to the hotel.

In the end, we spend only 48 hours in Cappadocia but travel hundreds of kilometres, hike for several more and balloon across nearly 15. Yet, there remains much more to see, all of it intriguing - from every angle.

Friday, October 7, 2011

F-35 landings

And takeoffs! It appears that sea trials on the F-35B are going well. This is important because one of the main selling points of the fighter was its versatility: there would be versions for every service branch (and foreign partner), including the Marines' STOL carriers.

What is unclear is which general OK'd a hair-band soundtrack that was not Kenny Loggins.

It's interesting how the lift-fan door opens upward instead of clamshelling outward... seems to this armchair aerospace engineer that the resulting drag would make takeoff more difficult than it should be. On the other hand, it seems to take off just fine, which is why I'm a writer and not an aerospace engineer.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs

Somewhat interestingly, my family has never owned anything but Apples, as far as computers go.

This was mostly happenstance. Both of my parents were teachers for most of my childhood, and would often bring home school machines--invariably Apple IIs, and later the first generation of Macintoshes. I remember how impressive the black-and-white graphics and speech emulation were, and how intuitive the operating system was.

For playing Wasteland.

The first computer we bought was a Macintosh LC... again, because my mom was a teacher. Apple offered educators' discounts, and that made the decision easy.

For playing Starflight.

The next one I can remember us getting was a PowerMac. A big tower, a big educators' discount, but still no internet.

For playing Marathon.

Then I went off to college. Surprise, Apple also had discounts and low-interest loans for students. So I got a PowerMac of my own.

For playing Mechwarrior.

After college, I headed to Florida for my first job... and my first laptop. I paid cash and walked away with a Titanium PowerBook G4.

For playing Falcon.

I should add that on literally all these machines, I was also writing. The first short story I ever sold--"Rain"--I wrote in high school on the Mac LC. I wrote my novel on my PowerMac 5400. Now I have a newer PowerBook and don't play any games on it at all... just writing, reading and Interneting.

Along the way I (and everyone I knew) wound up with iPods too. I have owned a second-generation iPod, an iPod Mini, an iPod Touch and an iPod Nano. Three of them have been stolen.

All this is to say that as far as CEOs go, Steve Jobs has had more impact on my life than most. I listen to music I love on a machine whose design he supervised and write words I love on a computer that was his brainchild as well. Many of the people I telephone, including Mrs. Blog when we're in the U.S., answer using a device he designed as well.

Steve Jobs seems to be universally viewed as a visionary. And at 56, he likely had a lot bigger plans left unfulfilled. It will be interesting to see where Apple goes in the next 25 years. But looking back over the last 25, the influence of Jobs and his company is pretty clear.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What's in the news

I was going to write about the first carrier landing for the F-35.

But after checking out the world's news sites this morning, something else grabbed me. Not only is the world obsessed with Amanda Knox, but the obsession has illustrated the way media approaches a case like this.

Everyone wants to attract readers, and that means a compelling story. I have this crazy idea that a good story can stand on its own merits. A college girl is accused of a bizarre murder in a foreign country. Hey, that works for me. But the narrative that developed in the years since the case started has basically split into two storylines: Knox as innocent victim caught in the gears of an unjust legal system, and Knox as the sex-crazed manipulative she-devil. (although to be fair, I think U.S. print media have generally done a good job of playing it straight. TV, though....)

If you did want to portray her as an angel or devil, the lawyers presented a veritable Italian smorgasbord of colorful imagery. For instance,

Knox was ... described as a "she devil," a "liar" and a woman who has an "angelic" side as well as a "diabolic" side.

Or remember "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"?
Defense lawyer Giulia Bongiorno ... compared Knox to Jessica Rabbit, the hourglass-shaped, husky-voiced cartoon character who insists in the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" that she's not bad, she's just "drawn that way."

So there were a lot of juicy words out there with which to attract readers. The British media ran with them. "Foxy Knoxy" is one I saw a lot. And the Daily Mail actually went a step further, declaring her guilty, or should I say


and included a line in display type about how stunned she looked as her appeal was rejected. Now that's dedication to sensationalizing a story.

I don't speak Italian, but the media there have, not surprisingly, reacted badly to the idea that haughty America was casting judgment on its legal system. That resulted in a little bit of backlash in terms of the way Knox was depicted. There also have been some allegations that the Italian media were all too willing to take anything the government told them as gospel ... of course, this is not something unique to Italy.

From the outside looking in, the story appears to me to have all the hallmarks of what many jaded journos call "the cute white girl in trouble" story. It is the kind of news judgment that turns run-of-the-mill kidnappings into front-page news. I don't know whether Knox is guilty. But I do hope that no matter where the truth lies among all the headlines--sensational and otherwise--justice was served.

And now I'll go back to paying attention to other things, like shiny rockets and interesting words.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Trust me: it's not that exciting

I have written about video games a bit here, mostly in terms of how nowadays the best games are the ones that tell a good story. Well, today I read an article that makes me wonder if gamemakers might be trying a bit too hard. Now they're writing stories about storytellers... specifically, journalists.

In my world, journalism is grit and shoe leather. Most of the time it's a methodical business of tracking information, finding out who can tell you what and making sure it's all solid and clear. It can be exciting--like solving a mystery--as you're piecing together something over the long term and watching its impact. Some guys wrote a book about that once. Breaking news is a different beast, as you enter a story in media res, soaking it up as it happens, mixing in context and letting your readers know ASAP. There is more adrenalin involved.

But enough adrenalin to base a video game on? Er....

Oh, right, of course: war reporting (also the subject of a great book). I haven't done any myself, but from everything I have been told there are fewer better ways to feel alive than surviving a firefight. Surviving a firefight is the subject of quite a few games already. So it should work, right?

Maybe. Not being able to actually shoot anything in a first-person shooter might be a drawback for a lot of players. Which brings us back to the idea of a story. A tale about telling a tale can work as a movie. But when you're playing the central character, shooting video while everyone around you actually drives the plot forward could be about as exciting as calling a school board member.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I hate nuclear warfare

As should all of you, dear readers. But I do love the dark sense of humor that sprung up in the corps of "missileers," the people whose job it would be to push the button (turn the switch, whatever) during a nuclear war. The combination of boredom and disconnection to the outside world leads to, well, runaway imaginations and "relaxed" attire:

Note the footwear.

It makes sense. If literally my only job was to prevent things being blown up by providing the constant threat of blowing up other things--and getting blown up yourself in the process--I would imagine my sense of humor would get a little on the twisted side too. If nothing else, it might inspire some great apocalyptic fiction.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Welcome to the Terrordome

Life is full of speculative, pointless and interesting conversations. Often there is beer involved. Which would win, a bear with lasers or a dinosaur? Which U.S. politician would you take a bullet for? What is the most disgusting food you would eat for $1 million? And so on.

Occasionally these conversations have utility in real life. At least if you're a professional athlete. A recent piece in The Onion AV Club reminded me of a discussion I had more than once with Friend of the Blog Erin, who at one time was covering professional baseball in Northern California. Players got to choose their own "entrance music" when they appeared in the game, you see, and that led to the obvious question: what would your music be?

Of course, when most people enter the office--including me--there is no fanfare, let alone music. A grunt from the security guard as we scan our badges is best we can hope for. But if I could arrive at my desk to the thundering chords of the "Indiana Jones" theme song, well, that would get my day off to a much better start. Another classic example is the movie "Office Space", which is filled with inspirational music:

Coming back to the question of athletes, though, it really is a tricky question. Do you want to inspire? Intimidate? Simply play something you like listening to? Ideally, all three. Which is why I'm voting for Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome" for the entrance music in my alternate-universe career as a fireballing closer.

(This would earn bonus points if I played for a team with a domed home field, of course)

What would your entrance music be?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Reno tragedy

Some weeks this seems more like an aerospace blog than a writing blog.

Today I read about the shocking crash at the Reno Air Races, in which a souped-up P-51 Mustang crashed just short of the box seats where spectators were gathered to watch a race.

F-1 races get a lot of press in this part of the world: people love fast cars and the thrill of a potential crash. In air racing, the speeds are much higher--500 mph or more--and the chances of surviving a crash are much lower. Under most circumstances, however, the super-high maintenance standards, pilot experience, race design and simple fact that being in the air gives you more margin for error make it a remarkably safe endeavor. Until Friday, there had been only 19 deaths in 49 years of racing.

What happened yesterday, however, was horrific. The racing Mustang, nicknamed Galloping Ghost, appeared to lose control on a race leg near the grandstand. After a few seconds of struggle, it hit the ground at nearly 90 degrees from horizontal.

Galloping Ghost, piloted by Jimmy Leeward.

No one knows exactly what happened yet. There is some speculation of a mechanical failure, and given the outcome that would make sense--the pilot, Jimmy Leeward, had been flying since he was a teenager and racing for decades. I wonder, though, if he suffered some kind of medical issue and blacked out; note that in the photo above, no pilot is visible. The end result was three people killed and dozens injured, including at least 25 critically. Some have suggested that Leeward deliberately dived at the ground, knowing his plane would hit the grandstand dead-on if he did not. I suspect that the cause of the crash will be determined soon, as his ground team will have telemetry data and radio transcripts to work with.

Attending the Reno Air Races has been a minor dream of mine for a long time. The crash doesn't change that. But it does make it a little more sad: all those people--as I would--went to watch something they loved. Instead, they witnessed a tragedy.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Rocket of Tomorrow for the Spaceship of Tomorrow

Oddly, it looks a lot like the rocket of yesterday. Specifically the Saturn V, which sent Americans to the moon and remains the most powerful launch vehicle ever built.

The new, inspirationally named Space Launch System is designed to toss 70 to 130 metric tons into Earth orbit and beyond. It has the capacity, NASA says, to not just get men back to the moon, but also asteroids (by 2025) and eventually Mars. Neat! I am onboard with that plan.

Despite its conventional look, it uses a lot of state-of-the-art hardware. A lot of that is off the shelf, including the super-efficient Shuttle Main Engines. That's great in that it cuts down on development time--they expect to launch one of these by 2017--but slightly saddening in that at least at the outset, there are not going to be any big technological breakthroughs.

But let's take a moment to see how nifty it would look on pad.


I guess the U.S. space program began with proven hardware, like the V-2, and over the course of a couple of decades built it into the Saturn V. That could happen in this case, as well, especially for interplanetary travel, for which chemical rockets are not well-suited. And to be fair, it is extremely unlikely that we are going to be shooting ourselves into orbit using anything but chemical rockets anytime soon, just because the only foreseeable alternatives involve messiness like deadly radiation or engineering challenges like space-based elevators.

Overall, my reaction is much the same as it was to the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle announcement. I recognize that it is state-of-the-art, but I am mildly disappointed at that the state of the art of today looks much as it did in the late 1960s. The Space Shuttle was an engineering leap and looked the part. Would it be too much to ask for NASA to get Ron Moore involved at some point?

But in the end, I hope to at some point in my life watch one of these things lift off in much the same way that my parents watched Apollo 11: A vehicle carrying humanity off into uncharted--and exciting--territory.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

This is not the budget item you're looking for

Or: How project management is more than Force strangulation.

The good folks at the Pentagon have a sense of humor. How do I know? Because an Air Force acquisitions branch chief decided to make a point about not pouring money into big projects with an uncertain utility using the biggest example ever: the Death Star.

In a well-written article filled with tongue-in-cheek references to the Star Wars universe (and a hilarious illustration), Lt. Col. Dan Ward shows how the Death Star was essentially the victim of bad procurement and project-management decisions.

Utility? It had almost none. It only fired its main weapon once, and the Empire did not actually want to go around destroying too many planets, as that would de facto destroy the empire.

Cost? At 14 times the current U.S. debt, it is hard to argue that it was worth the money either time they tried to build it, given the utility.

Well-managed? As Ward points out, the second one is running behind schedule when it is destroyed, and only Darth Vader's murderous "motivational speeches" can get things moving again.

In his mind, those issues trump even the two Death Stars' vulnerabilities, allowing them to be blowed up real good by a bunch of rust-streaked one-man fighters. (albeit with George Lucas' screenwriting in their corner)

I am a lover of big, fascinating technology programs, but I see his point. The National Aerospace Plane, for instance, was a huge money sink for years before everyone collectively realized it wasn't going anywhere and even if it did, who would use it? A giant, airborne laser, while an interesting technology demonstrator, doesn't have much use in the real world.

So, in all, a fun and interesting read. It is good to hear our military planners have a sense of humor--and the good sense to know that the last thing we want to become is the Evil Empire.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hiding in plain sight

I have this theory that the development of technology, not the actual weapons, is what the U.S. tries to keep most secret. It is not a devastating blow for your enemies to know you're building a Mach 4 bomber; it IS a devastating blow if they know how to jam the brand-new death ray you're going to mount on it.

And, it seems, I might be correct in this theory. The Air Force, in a handy timeline chart, laid out at a recent conference how it was going to build that Mach 4 bomber, in what basically amounts to a PowerPoint presentation.

"Superfast... stealthy... slide, please. Robust scramjet by 2015... slide, please."

As you can see, a lot of the basic technology already at least at Technology Readiness Level 3 or 4, or roughly halfway to operational use. The broad needs for such a craft, such as the engines and materials, are well under development. As speculates, this is proof that the Blackswift project had a bigger impact than anyone thought.

America's (and the world's) only operational Mach 3-capable aircraft was retired years ago. Perhaps by the end of this decade a faster cousin will have appeared in the skies.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sept. 11, 2001

In a lot of ways, it is hard to believe it has been 10 years since the attacks. At the time, caught up in the immediacy and horror and destruction, 10 years seemed impossibly far off.

But now here we are. Like most people, I have a clear memory of that Tuesday, and where I was when I first heard.

I had started work at the Chicago Tribune perhaps a week earlier. Tuesday was my first day off. And because I worked nights, I was asleep when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. My friend Chris called, woke me up and told me to run, not walk, to the TV because something insane was happening in New York.

I flipped on the set just in time to see the second plane hit. It wasn't until the first tower collapsed that I began frantically calling friends and relatives in New York; of course, that was about the time phone calls in and out of that state became virtually impossible.

The only other time I can remember watching so much continuous news coverage is in the aftermath of the 2000 election, when I lived in the land of hanging chads. In 2001, it was a blurry stream of information and misinformation. I was told not to come into work because it was iffy whether the El trains were safe. There was a suicide plane headed to Chicago. The Air Force had shot down more airliners. Fifty thousand people were dead, then 20,000, then 10,000, then 3,000. Some things became clearer as the day went on; others just became murkier.

Everyday life intervened, as it always did. Taking a break from the TV, I took the trash out to the alley so I could get some fresh air--and in doing so, I locked myself out of my apartment. In retrospect, I think I was lucky during that day of extreme paranoia that no one called the police as I climbed up into a window on my back porch.

In the end, there was no personal tragedy for me. All of my friends and family were safe. But the gut-wrenching feeling of witnessing mass murder made that relief seem a little paltry.

I don't know that there is any right or wrong way to mark the anniversary of the most traumatic event for America since I have been alive. Just about every media outlet on the planet will be discussing it in some way or another. It has been interesting to see Gulf media take a look at 9/11: interesting to see the perspective but also a little frustrating because so few people seem to be able to accept Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda's involvement. (For a great examination of such conspiracy theories, check this out.)

Living abroad has, in many ways, made me more fond of my home country. And I hope it never has to suffer through a day like Sept. 11, 2001, again.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Before the HTV failed, Dyna-Soar was canceled

Yeah, I know I have been writing a lot about aviation lately. Sue me. I have immunity under the Airplane Dork Act of 1998.

So here's the deal. The Prompt Global Strike project still hasn't quite figured out how to successfully guide a really fast, really high assault glider to a target anywhere on earth. That's an ambitious program.

But 50 years ago, the U.S. was working on something even more ambitious: A manned version.

The idea was to put a fighter-sized spacecraft at the top of a Titan booster and launch it into a ballistic, sub-orbital trajectory. It had reaction control thrusters that could steer it a bit in space. But the cleverness was in its lifting-body design, which allowed it to not simply fall to Earth, but actually generate enough lift to "skip" off the atmosphere, extending range and bleeding off speed until it arrived at a desired landing area.

It was called dynamic soaring, and that meant the project got the somewhat overly clever name Dyna-Soar.

This spaceplane was intended to be military all the way, either attacking satellites, performing reconnaissance or even bombing missions. A small cargo bay allowed for a variety of payloads. But if they had pulled it off the ramifications down the road would have been tremendous, providing technology for safe, super-fast intercontinental travel. The materials science alone benefitted the aerospace industry at the time, and much of the research went into the design of the Space Shuttle.

A man, a plane, a mostly fictitious scene.

But in 1963, after six years and amid arguments over what rockets should be used to launch it and what its specific mission would be, it was canceled. The astronauts assigned to the program (including Neil Armstrong) went off to do different things, like land on the moon. And Dyna-Soar was no more.

It fascinates me to think about the impact this would have had if it had been tested out and perfected. But like many experimental programs, its lasting legacy is solely in related projects that came later. And, of course, my imagination.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Airlines: You are doing it wrong

One great thing about living in the Middle East is how much traveling we have gotten to do. One awful thing about all that traveling is the constant boarding of aircraft in airports of all sizes and qualities.

There just doesn't seem to be a good way to do it. We have gotten pretty close to mastering the art of the carry-on, so being denied bin space almost never happens. But wow, it always takes forever to stuff everyone onboard.

It's the kind of thing science can help with, apparently.

A very smart guy who studied the process arrived at some interesting conclusions. Boarding rear-to-front is horribly inefficient. Boarding randomly, Southwest-style, is actually much better because passenger discretion can resolve space conflicts.

And it turns out the most efficient means of boarding the plane is, well, kind of complicated. Window seats get preference, using alternating rows, and THEN boarding progresses...

...from the rear forward: seats 12A, for example, followed by 10A, 8A and so on, then returning for 9A, 7A, 5A and so on, and then filling the middle and aisle seats in the same way.

Here's what it looks like:

Will airlines adopt this? Who knows. Maybe the next time I'm waiting for my boarding group to be called, I can hammer out a few persuasive letters.

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.