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Now it is horribly outdated and retired.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.