Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Papa's got a brand new spaceship

NASA announced yesterday it was investing $3 billion to launch a new deep-space craft for manned exploration. The target remains a little fuzzy--maybe the moon, maybe Mars--but the intention is great. The US remains the world's leader in space launch capability, but after the Space Shuttle is retired this summer, Russia will be the only nation with high-volume manned launch capacity.

The United States' long-term plans for Earth orbit launching hinges on privatization of launch systems. There is already a lot of that for satellite launches, and the promising successes of Virgin Galactic make it likely that those hopes will be at least somewhat realized.

But that's not really possible for deep-space exploration, which demands the resources and funds of an entire nation and doesn't have much near-term commercial viability. I was disappointed when Obama canceled the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, originally designed for this purpose. So it is heartening to see that the technology is being incorporated into Lockheed-Martin's Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

It is, shall we say, not particularly sexy.

Gumdrops... in... spaaaaaaaaaace....

Now, I like shiny spaceships with wings as much as the next aero-dork. But there are a lot of reasons for returning to an Apollo-like system.

First of all, deep-space exploration doesn't need wings. It needs durability. And building a bullet-shaped vehicle removes a lot of extraneous surface area. Also, if you're going to be in space for months at a time, you need your systems to function well, and that means keeping it simple... especially when it comes to re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. There is literally no easier way to de-orbit than parachuting into the ocean.

In fact, if it didn't need to de-orbit, the thing could be even more ungainly, as there would be no need for streamlining at all. So, flashy and beautiful? No. Exciting? Yes--and for all the right reasons.

I remember watching the Space Shuttle's first launch with my parents. With a MPCV launch date of 2016 or so, it looks like I'll be able to see the space program's next generation blast off too.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The danger zone

Yesterday, a tornado tore through the town of Joplin, Mo., a couple of hours away from the city where I grew up. Dozens of people already have been confirmed dead, and the damage is massive--neighborhoods destroyed, stores leveled, a hospital gutted.

It is an awful scene.

Yet it is interesting looking at the perceptions of the devastation in the eyes of the world media. Outside the U.S., it almost appears sometimes as though the Midwest United States is just a snakepit of deadly tornados, and every city will be hit eventually. I think that is partially because tornados are so rare outside the U.S., and because they really only make news outside the country when they are horrific.

But in fact, although there 1,266 tornados in the US in 2010, only 45 people were killed. All of those deaths are tragic, but it shows how rarely a twister hits a populated area. (which is simple odds, by the way: most of the country is unpopulated, making it unlikely a city will be hit) Indeed, the Netherlands has the most tornados per square mile in the world... yet rarely are there fatalities.

I recall an exercise from a high school class, in which we were divided up into groups, like tribes, and told to find a place to settle on a big map of a fictional continent. Every area had natural hazards--earthquakes, floods, heavy snows, electrical storms and, yes, tornados.

Everyone worked really hard to place their settlement in an area without any natural hazards. But in every case, that was not only almost impossible to do, but an area without any hazards inevitably lacked resources like water and fertile soil. Then the teacher pointed out the obvious: that these hazards really weren't that hazardous at all in the grand scheme of things. No civilization has ever been wiped out by lightning strikes. And some, like ancient Egypt, thrived by living right on the edge (and sometimes square in the middle) of a flood plain.

The one exception I'll give you is volcanos. They have a long, proud history of wiping out civilizations.

Anyway, my point here is this:

No matter how dangerous "Tornado Alley" sounds, it's actually a pretty safe place and some of the most fertile soil in the world. Living there is not like building your house in the path of a freight train... it's more like betting that a freight train several blocks away won't derail, go airborne and land in your backyard. It has been calculated that any one neighborhood (like a square mile or so) will be hit by a tornado once every 2,200 years. A serious tornado, one with winds faster than 150 mph, is more like once every 7,000 years.

The town of Joplin will recover from the devastation. And cities across the United States and the world will continue to thrive in the face of wind, floods and earthquakes. Human beings are just resilient that way.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Where I get my ideas

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Yes, it's not just a cliche--it's a song chorus. It's also true, and not fictional.

OK, now that I'm done blowing your mind, let me explain. I find that most of my writing comes from a question. Speculation, like "What would it look like if the end of the world came during your morning commute?" Or "Why are there all these dead people on a submarine?" If I want to find out the answer, chances are a reader will too.

So let me tell you about two fascinating pieces of reality whose existences (and mystery) are a little scary... and are screaming for fictionalization.

Thing Number One: Dead Hand/Perimeter

Dr. Strangelove is one of my favorite movies. And its central tenet is a "Doomsday Device" created by the Russians to deter a nuclear attack.

But, as Strangelove himself points out, it doesn't deter jack if no one knows about it:


Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you *keep* it a *secret*! Why didn't you tell the world, EH?


It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

The purpose of Perimeter, at least as far as anyone knows, is slightly different. It's not about deterrence, per se, because modern technology offers enough advance warning of a nuclear attack that a nuclear-armed state--*cough cough* RUSSIA *cough cough*--has enough time to respond in kind. It's more about giving those with their finger on the buttons more options... more cooling-off time, so to speak. Dead Hand means there is no need for Russian commanders to Launch on Warning--that is, fire nuclear missiles based simply on information that an attack has been launched but without knowing anything more.

Instead, the generals can trigger the system, transferring post-strike control of the nuclear arsenal to people (or possibly a computer) in a hardened bunker who, if everyone else is wiped out, issue the order to retaliate. In other words, it makes a "decapitation strike" impossible and preserves the massive retaliation option.

A New York Times article about the system quotes an expert as saying:

The dead-hand system he [Dr. Blair] describes today takes this defensive trend to its logical, if chilling, conclusion. The automated system in theory would allow Moscow to respond to a Western attack even if top military commanders had been killed and the capitol incinerated.

The heart of the system is said to lie in deep underground bunkers south of Moscow and at backup locations. In a crisis, military officials would send a coded message to the bunkers, switching on the dead hand. If nearby ground-level sensors detected a nuclear attack on Moscow, and if a break was detected in communications links with top military commanders, the system would send low-frequency signals over underground antennas to special rockets.

Flying high over missile fields and other military sites, these rockets in turn would broadcast attack orders to missiles, bombers and, via radio relays, submarines at sea. Contrary to some Western beliefs, Dr. Blair says, many of Russia's nuclear-armed missiles in underground silos and on mobile launchers can be fired automatically.

Scary stuff. But also interesting. Whose job is it man the system? Is it manned at all? How is it kept from being compromised? Does the U.S. have such a system?

You might see the answers someday in a story with my name on it.

But even that apocalyptic mystery is better-understood than....

Thing Number Two: UVB-76

So there is a radio station broadcasting from deep inside Russia on a shortwave frequency. It went on the air in 1982. And except for a few minutes over that entire 29-year history, it has broadcast nothing but unintelligible buzzing.

The exceptions? Seemingly random recitations of numbers, letters and names. One of the most recent, in August 2010, for instance, said:

"UVB-76, UVB-76 — 93 882 Naimina 74 14 35 74 — 9 3 8 8 2 Nikolai, Anna, Ivan, Michail, Ivan, Nikolai, Anna, 7, 4, 1, 4, 3, 5, 7, 4."

How often have those transmissions happened? It depends on who you ask. Some say it is as few as three; others say it is more like 25. But there is no question that it exists and the voice transmissions have happened.

Before we get into the "what the hell is this for?" speculation, there is even more weirdness afoot. For instance, conversations can occasionally be heard in the background, behind the buzzing. From that you can infer that for some reason, the buzzing noise isn't being fed directly into a transmitter... it is being played into a microphone connected to a transmitter. (you can listen here.)

Why? I have a hard time coming up with a non-fanciful explanation. But surely anyone who went through the trouble of setting up a radio station and keeping it on the air for nearly 30 continuous years is doing it for a reason.

The reason for the station's existence is even more speculative. It could be sending instructions to spies or sleeper agents, the way "numbers stations" are supposed to. It could be an important channel, and the buzzing noise is just a way of making sure those who need to know are aware it is still operating. And some have even said it's part of Dead Hand, like a dead man's switch: when the station goes dark, the missiles launch.

Of course, very few things stay secret forever.

Bonus Thing: The Russian Woodpecker

In the late '70s, a high-power, low-frequency broadcast began to be picked up all over the world. There were no words, no information that anyone could decipher: just pings, chirps or clicks, depending on how you interpreted them, a few seconds apart. Always at the same interval, but the frequency shifted occasionally.

The broadcast location was quickly pinned down as being near Chernobyl. And after years of analyzing the signal, the outside world decided it was an over-the-horizon early warning radar. The outside world was correct. It was a huge radar complex called Duga-3.

It went off the air in 1989 and its existence was acknowledged a few years later. Now there are plenty of pictures:

A funny-lookin' woodpecker.

So someday, there may be full, logical and well-evidenced accountings of numbers stations, UVB-76 and Dead Hand. And the explanations may be mundane. But for now, they get the wheels in my brain spinning. I'll start writing when I get the proper instructions.

November. Yankee. Golf. Fifteen. Eight. Sixty-five. Uniform. Fifteen. Juliet. India. Three....

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sun-drenched living space, mere light years from your door!

Yep, science, or at least big telescopes, are bringing us ever closer to definitively saying that there is a planet other than our own that could host life. An already-discovered body, Gliese 581d, had been shown to be in the "Goldilocks Zone" of a star about 20 light years away--close enough to the star to be warm but far enough that it's not an inferno.

Now, it seems, 581d might be an even better candidate than we thought:

Nice curb appeal.

Now, French researchers have run computer simulations of the planet's atmosphere, arguing that it is likely to contain high concentrations of carbon dioxide.

They contend that conditions could be suitable for oceans of liquid water as well as clouds and rainfall.

However, Gliese 581d's denser air and dim red light from its host star would make for a murky environment that would be toxic to humans.

So yeah, it's still really far away and the soupy environment (not to mention high gravity) means that it's not really ideal for our particular brand of life. But still, it's interesting. Let's just hope the neighbors are nice....

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

This is the worst flight I've ever been on

Kids: don't fly on Tu-154s. The one depicted in the video below was on a shakedown flight after years of storage... and just after takeoff, the control surfaces became, well, uncontrollable. The fun starts about 50 seconds in...

A plane with a bad attitude.

On the bright side, though, that was some stellar piloting to bring the plane back down in one piece. How do you say "the right stuff" in Russian?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Math isn't fun: a proof

When Sudoku first started getting popular in the U.S., it intimidated me. All those numbers, and you were supposed to figure something out. Sounded a lot like math. Ugh.

But as it turned out, it was more of a logic game, and as a journalist and enjoyer of sound arguments, that was fun. Yay.

I learned today, however, of a new game popular in at least one British newspaper. It looks like this:


Start on the left with the numbers given and follow the instructions as you go along. You have 30 seconds to complete each row.



÷ 10

x 8

+ 2

½ of it

- 7

÷ 3

x 9

+ 2

÷ 7





of it

x 6

- 6


of it

½ of it

x 5

+ 6


of it

x 3





of it


of it

x 2

- 12


of it

Times by itself


of it

x 1 ½


of it


Here's a fun game: spot the obvious misspelling!

OK, do I really even need to say this? This "puzzle" is a math problem made "difficult" by including multiple steps. I did this same stuff in middle school, but it had a different name: Homework. NOT FUN.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Take the blue pill

That's right. The Internet has become reality. And here's how.

The series of tubes that make up the Web are filled with vaguely nerdish joke phrases called memes. There are several sites that are devoted to the care and feeding of these things.

And today, a meme that has been around for at least a few years surfaced in, that's right, reality.

This is a quote from a CNN story about one of the many fake photographs of a dead Osama bin Laden:
"I have seen a great number of poorly Photoshopped images in my time as a photographer and I can tell by the pixels that it is a fake," said Kenna Lindsay, a New York-based photographer who works with composite images.
Not a big deal. Pretty straightforward. Except, whether Kenna realized it or not, the quote is basically a word-for-word rendition of this meme:

This won't fly.

Also portrayed thusly:

Something is wrong with this picture.

And thusly:

Old school.

And so on. It won't be long, I'm sure, before some blogger who doesn't live in the Middle East gives this person a call to determine A) whether he or she actually exists and B) whether he or she was giggling while giving the interview to CNN.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Airwolf in Abbottabad

It may turn out that the raid in Abbottabad is a watershed moment in multiple ways. Possibly a crippling blow against al Qaeda, almost certainly a major dent in U.S.-Pakistani relations, definitely a major intelligence coup.

But on a more nuts-and-bolts level--literally--it may have revealed something remarkable: the first look at a new breed of helicopter.

It has been widely reported that one of the aircraft the SEAL team used to drop into the bin Laden compound was unable to take off after the raid and was destroyed. One picture, the first one released...

Pay no attention to the chopper behind the curtain.

... seemed to show debris that looked a lot like the tail boom of an MH-60 variant. (The "basic model" is the ubiquitous Blackhawk, a utility helicopter used by just about every branch of the U.S. military since the mid-70s.) But it definitely looked strange. I chalked it up to the damage suffered in the landing and the explosives that blew up the rest of the airframe.

But now a few more pictures are trickling out. Yes, the SEALs did a great job of blowing up most of the helicopter.

Er... what helicopter?

The tail boom, however, reveals some mighty interesting things. First of all, smarter people than I have discerned that the paint used is identical to the infrared-quenching stuff used on the V-22 Osprey. That's not standard issue for the MH-60. But looky here:

Anatomy of a stealthy tail rotor.

And compare that to this:

Your garden-variety tail rotor.

If nothing else, you can see that there is no rotor cap and the blades are on the opposite side. And here is another view, where the raked stabilizers are more clearly visible:

If nothing else, they look faster.

And finally, although it's a little more subtle to pick out, the lines and angles of the boom are much different than those of an off-the-shelf MH-60. In fact, they look a little more like this...

Like Blue Thunder, except non-fictional.

... the RAH-66 Comanche, a stealth helicopter developed, built and flown in the early 1990s. It was a successful program but, ultimately, mission planners realized they could do the same work more more cheaply with unmanned drones... a decision that has been borne out with the successes of the Predator, Reaper and brand-shiny-new RQ-170.

Now, "stealth helicopter" doesn't mean stealth in the now-classic sense, in which an aircraft's radar cross-section--the size it appears to be on a radar screen--is reduced to almost nothing. If nothing else, the rotor blades whirring above the fuselage are enough to give air-defense radars a nice, juicy return. But reducing the cross-section somewhat is often enough to make the aircraft effectively invisible, as helicopters are generally used for low-level flight, which obscures them in the "ground clutter": a haze of radar blips caused by objects on the ground like towers, hills, trees and buildings.

A bigger issue is noise, and the military already has quite a bit of experience in making helicopters quieter. Simple steps like adding more blades to the rotor (and you can see that the tail rotor of the bin Laden helicopter has more blades than that of a standard MH-60) make it quieter and less chop-chop-choppy. It is obviously impossible to make a gas-turbine powered aircraft completely silent, but measures such as those can make the noise at least indistinct until it is just a few hundred yards away from the listener.

So, given these facts, it's pretty obvious why they blowed it up so good. Not only was it carrying cutting-edge avionics, such as cameras that give the operators an image in every spectrum of light, but the airframe had never been seen before in public.

I realize that it is neither shocking nor surprising that the military has a few tricks up its camouflaged sleeves. But it's always interesting to see these tricks revealed, even inadvertently, for the first time... and it's always fun to speculate on what might still be out there.

Monday, May 2, 2011

He falls away into the dustbin of history

It has been a busy spring in the Middle East. Waves of revolution, civil war and regime change have reshaped the region in ways that few would have foreseen even five years ago.

And now there's this: Osama bin Laden is dead. Shot in the head by U.S. Special Forces and, according to some accounts, buried at sea to simultaneously measure up to Islamic traditions and avoid creating a terrorist shrine.


I can't remember exactly how long it took to identify him as the mastermind of the attacks on September 11, 2001. I can remember how that day felt. Awakened by a phone call in the early hours of the day, I listened groggily as a good friend of mine described a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Then I watched in dismay as the second plane hit the other tower.

The rest of the day I spent on my couch, glued to the TV and wondering what would happen next.

I don't think it's fair to say that bin Laden's death has brought me--and perhaps anyone--real closure, to use an overused bit of psycho-jargon. Yes, he has been the face of global terrorism for the last decade-plus, but in the end, he's just a man. And more important, the ideology he represented has already taken a severe beating this year as mostly non-violent, mostly secular protests have toppled regimes against which al Qaeda has railed for years. Corny though it may sound, it has been a collective desire for freedom and fair representation that shoved longtime dictators from their pedestals, not bombs and extremism.

At the same time, though, I have some difficulty understanding the criticism of those celebrating in the streets of Washington and New York on Sunday night. One BBC viewer wrote:

One of my strongest memories from 9/11 is people celebrating around the world. I remember being disgusted. Now I have just seen Americans celebrating the death of Bin Laden outside the White House, I am again disgusted.

One of my strongest memories was the sense of shock and horror and loss as Manhattan was enveloped in a cloud of destruction. So I don't have much problem with people getting emotional at the death of the man who made that happen.

Here in the UAE, the reaction is that there is no reaction. Business, and life, have gone on as usual; my morning walk to work takes me through a muggy beehive of commerce and it was no different today than it is any other day. Furniture vendors and carpenters, most of them Pakistani, seemed unmoved by the news as they toted couches and ran planks through table saws. Even the government has, for the time being, remained silent.

I think Obama's speech this morning (late Sunday, U.S. time) hit a lot of the right notes and adequately summed up what transpired today.

It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory - hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the actions of heroic citizens saved even more heartbreak and destruction.

And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child's embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.


The American people did not choose this fight. It came to our shores, and started with the senseless slaughter of our citizens. After nearly 10 years of service, struggle, and sacrifice, we know well the costs of war. These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief, have to sign a letter to a family that has lost a loved one, or look into the eyes of a service member who's been gravely wounded.

So Americans understand the costs of war. Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies. We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al-Qaeda's terror: Justice has been done.

And I think that's about right.

As I walk home today, through a city untroubled by the unrest that has gripped the rest of the region, I think it is safe to say that bin Laden's death has no direct impact on my life.

But it does feel like today's news was, if not justice, at least a just end for an incredibly malicious person, who twisted religion and snuffed out innocent life in its name.