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.