Archive for 2007

Chicago Auto Show 2007

12 February 2007
Categories: Transportation

McCormick Place is a massive complex, so gigantically out of scale with the human element that it looks like a set piece from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Some portion of it is continually under construction, and the long walk from the parking lots to the exhibition halls always involves skirting dusty areas cordoned off with yellow warning tape, and running narrow gauntlets bottlenecked by temporary plywood partition walls.

Once inside—and I highly recommend buying tickets online in advance to avoid another horrific bottleneck—the Chicago Auto Show is a crazy scene of giant corporate logos, flashing lights, and overpowering colours. It’s a blast, and a good entertainment value for $10. (Get there early, or go on a weekday. It gets crowded.)

In general, I don’t care all that much about the concept cars. They are usually complete pipe dreams and will never see production. For that reason, I prefer to focus at the auto show on the vehicles that I might actually have an opportunity to purchase some day.

Jeep had a dramatic-looking obstacle course that its vehicles were crawling around… steep inclines, water crossings, rock fields, and the like. It was eye-catching, and drew a crowd, but at second glance all the Jeeps were driven by trained employees, and the course was tightly controlled with plastic guardrails… which explains why the woman pushing the floor squeegee around at the bottom of the big hill wasn’t fearing for her life. And of course all the obstacles were designed expressly with the limitations of the Jeeps in mind, so there was never any chance of exceeding approach or departure angles, or drawing water, or getting hung up on a high center. All in all, it might as well have been one of those amusement park rides for four-year-olds where all the cars are tethered to a pull chain.

Toyota brought along a custom FJ Cruiser, this one with a cloth rolltop and a shortened cab for a small open bed at the rear, plus some suspension upgrades. FJ Cruiser in Heritage OrangeIt showed off the FJ’s potential for being souped up for off-road activities, but that stubby bed didn’t look useful for much of anything. (At least the shorter cab reduces the size of the C-pillar, which in the factory model is a big fat blind spot in both rear quarters.) About the only interesting part was the nice front-end bull bar with integral winch, and that was an aftermarket package by ARB that can be added to any stock FJ. The custom job was done up in “Heritage Orange” (more on this later), but this is not an available factory colour. Unfortunately, Toyota is otherwise standing pat on its existing paint, and we’re stuck with the same 5 colours as when the FJ was introduced last year. I guess I’ll have to wait at least one more year before they decide to resurrect the classic Rustic Green of my 1978 FJ40, thereby making it imperative that I will buy a new FJ.

Honda has figured out that its Element, now in its fifth model year, is more popular among the thirty- and forty-something age groups, rather than the hip-hop and surf kids it was originally targeting. For this reason it has toned down its two-tone grey plastic trimwork to a much more conservative and traditional level. The interior remains highly utilitarian with a hose-out plastic floor and rear jump seats that hinge to the sides. A new colour, Root Beer Metallic, looks sharp. I’m liking this vehicle more and more.

To be honest, the most interesting exhibit was… the U.S. Army. M2 Bradley They brought an M2 Bradley equipped with the M242 Bushmaster chain gun, and were letting folks crawl around inside. (The ten-year-olds sitting in the rear seats made the thing look spacious.) Some of the armored division soldiers were wearing chrome spurs in tribute to the cavalry, which of course no longer uses horses except for ceremonial parades. That was cool. You could get your name stamped on a dog tag, play on a team for a first-person shooter game (lot of friendly fire going on there), and stand next to a Cobra helicopter flown by their demonstration team. Pretty cool.

Overall, there just wasn’t much new to see this year. The one recurring theme: orange.

Not exactly orange-orange, though. More of a light orange. A hue that Dodge, nearly four decades ago, called “Go Mango.” In lieu of last year’s concept Challenger, which was the usual teaser pipe dream, they brought an original 1970 Challenger R/T convertible with the 440 Six-Pack, one of only 99 ever built, gleaming in Go Mango. It sat on a flatbed, tantalizingly out of reach.

Nissan 350ZThen there was that Toyota FJ custom job. The exact same colour, which they called “Heritage Orange.” Then came the variants, all about the same shade, but many in a metallic version. There was a Hummer H2. A Nissan 350Z. No matter where you turned, another car was cropping up in this light orange colour.

Did all the automakers get together and agree on this one? Or did the paint manufacturer screw up and make too much, causing a surplus of orange paint they’d have to sell on the cheap?


6 February 2007
Categories: Space exploration

Last month in my server logs I noticed that someone came to my site by searching Google for 10 most important events in space exploration and, lo and behold, my Book recommendations: Space Exploration page is ranked on Page One of Google’s results. (By the way, Google loves me… but that’s a different story.)

Of course, a list of “most important” events is highly subjective, and that searcher was unlikely to find a direct answer to their query on my page. (Sadly, they also didn’t bother to click on any of the book links, which would have given them the opportunity to learn much more about space exploration. No matter.) Nevertheless, it got me thinking: what are, in my opinion, the ten most important events in space exploration?

The following list is not exactly in declining order of significance, but comes close.

#1. Sputnik, 1957. It seems trivial now, a basketball-sized metal sphere beep-beep-beeping its way around an elliptical orbit. But given the rudimentary state of rocket technology (this was only a dozen or so years after the Soviets got their hands on a few German rockets and rocket scientists), it was a major feat of engineering. It was also Earth-shaking: around the world, untold thousands of students turned to a career in engineering, math, or science because of Sputnik. (My father, a high school senior at the time, was surely one of them.)

#2. Yuri Gagarin, 1961. Strapping yourself into a minuscule capsule perched atop a rough, converted ballistic missile, riding it solo into orbit—then bailing out of the damn thing after reentry to parachute back to the ground—that takes serious balls. Especially when no one’s done it before.

Apollo 11. Image credit: NASA.#3. Man walks on the moon, 1969. No explanation necessary: the Apollo program was simply the pinnacle of human ingenuity and engineering. Okay, maybe it’s disingenuous to place this one all the way down at third. Maybe it even plays into the conspiracy notions that we never really went to the moon. Anyone who perpetuates that bullshit idea owes it to themselves—nay, to the world at large—to read some of the books about the development of the technology that got us there, such as Stages to Saturn. Frankly, once we figured out how to build the tools to get to the moon, actually getting there was inevitable. (The real reason people keep telling lies about secret soundstages and mass hypnosis is because nowadays, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when there was enough of a consensus to back up the national will to accomplish anything.)

#4. Mir, 1986–2001. The culmination of Soviet/Russian long-duration spaceflight research, following a long line of successful Salyut projects (which in turn make the one-off Skylab look like a folly). The Russians still kick the USA’s butt when it comes to long-duration physiology and remote-control guidance and docking.

STS-61 crew installs WFPC-2. Image credit: NASA.#5. STS-61, the first Hubble servicing mission, 1993. In a marathon session of five EVAs, a team of four astronauts (led by one of my personal heroes, Story Musgrave) added the corrective optics that cleared up one of NASA’s more embarassing mistakes (a mirror ground just a shade too flat) and instantly changed Hubble’s output from nice-but-fuzzy to jaw-droppingly beautiful. This mission demonstrated with dramatic effect the viability of on-orbit repair and maintenance, and because it had people actually working in space, more than most other Shuttle missions it really had a feeling of “the future is now.”

#6. Challenger, January 28, 1986. The loss of STS-51L was one of the most memorable and momentous events of the 1980s—the day we found out that spaceflight is not routine, it’s still difficult, dangerous work. Two years and one soft-pedalling commission report later, NASA was flying again. Unfortunately, the crew of STS-107 aboard Columbia found out the hard way in 2003 that NASA’s tendency for “normalization of deviance” continues unabated.

#7. Apollo 1, January 27, 1967. We lost three great men—Grissom, White, and Chaffee—but the silver lining is that it happened on the ground, where NASA could analyze the failure in detail. The lessons learned from the fire helped to make the Apollo Block 2 spacecraft into the fine piece of hardware that ultimately did get men to the moon.

#8. Voyager, 1977–?. Voyager 1 zoomed past Jupiter and Saturn and returned the first close-up pictures of both. It discovered active vulcanism on Io and unexpected complexity in Saturn’s rings. Voyager 2 built on Voyager 1’s discoveries and then went on to pass Uranus and Neptune as well.  More than thirty years later, both spacecraft continue to return valuable data about the far reaches of the solar system.

Sojourner "sniffs" a rock. Image credit: NASA.#9. Mars Pathfinder, 1997. An innovative approach pays off: wrap the hardware in air bags, throw it at a planet, and let it bounce. It helped too that the Sojourner rover was hardy, nimble, and the cutest thing on six wheels. This was the first mission to show the power of the Internet to fuel enthusiasm for space exploration—JPL’s web servers handled a major load in the days following the landing, peaking at 48 million hits per day.

#10. Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, 1975. An epilogue to the Space Race, this was little more than Americans and Soviets shaking hands in orbit and saying, in essence, “good game.” It was a pointless spectacle, but a fine effort in détente. Notable too for its inclusion of Aleksei Leonov, the world’s first spacewalker, as well as being the only flight of original Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton.

Riding the BART back to SFO

26 January 2007
Categories: Transportation

I like the BART, even if the grungy upholstered seats do creep me out a little. There are several details to aid passengers that show that some good thought was put into it…

  • Computer-generated voices tell not only what kind of train is boarding, but also how long the wait will be until the next several trains arrive.
  • The voice is female for platform 1 (southbound) and male for platform 2 (northbound)—so once you’ve heard one announcement, for every one thereafter you instantly know as the announcement begins whether the info will be pertinent for your direction of travel.
  • Tactile warning strip along the edge of the platform, for the benefit of the visually impaired, changes colour and pattern (parallel bumps rather than diagonal, like the difference between the stars on 48- and 50-star flags) at the places where the doors of the train will be—and some of these have additional washboard strips further in from the edge, but only in the places where a 2-car train, the minimal length, will stop. That way those 4 door locations are always guaranteed to have a door.

Oddly, there are a number of things here that you don’t see on the CTA:

  • Prominent signs for fire extinguishers
  • Posted explanations for how to manually override the doors
  • A station sign showing the location of the emergency third rail cut-off

I’m sure all these things exist on the CTA (well, not sure about the extinguishers, but the door overrides and power cut-offs definitely do), but attention is not called to them—it would only serve as an invitation to tamper with them. Don’t know how many times I’ve seen some jerk pull the (unmarked) red ball to get off just a few seconds sooner than everyone else, or to make up for (nearly) missing their stop. Yet in San Francisco, knowledge of these items is boldly promulgated, and the public is trusted to use that information appropriately. Go figure.

Later, aboard the plane, I got to wondering… Why should the overwing doors not be used in the event of a water landing? And, if the bag dangling from the oxygen mask does not inflate, what’s it there for?

Minor tweak, major improvement

3 January 2007
Categories: Self-referential

On Tuesday, 2 January 2007, I made a minor update to my Blues Brothers map that both improved its function and reduced the number of extraneous image GETs.

The long of it… Previously, when clicking on a marker, the popup balloon would be undersized for the content. Part of the screen capture image and any text below it would be superimposed on the map rather than on a nice clean white background, making it hard to read. Clicking on the marker a second time would redraw the balloon in a proper size, but each click sends another GET command for the image (even though the subsequent clicks usually result in a “304 – not modified” response).

I was stuck on thinking that a fix would require some complicated and obscure tweaking of the Google Maps API, but the actual solution is mindlessly simple. My sudden realisation may be considered a dope-slap epiphany. When the balloon is first drawn, the image has not yet been downloaded, so the browser doesn’t know how big it is. It assumes that the image is 0 pixels high, and draws the balloon accordingly. (This seems like a silly assumption, but I suppose it’s better than assuming it’s 1000 pixels high.) Then the image is downloaded, and since it’s much more than 0 pixels high, it overshoots the bottom of the balloon. Follow-up clicks redraw the balloon, and now since the browser knows the image size in advance, the balloon is drawn in a proper size.

To fix it, all I needed to do was include the height of the image in its tag, thus giving the browser advance warning. I added another variable to the data set: iheight. The elegant part of this is that with only a few exceptions, all of the images are 100 pixels high. Therefore the iheight declaration only needs to be included in the exceptional entries. The code now checks for iheight==null, and if so automatically sets the value to 100. All the code to accomplish this only increased the total download size by 207 bytes. This margin is more than absorbed by a reduced need to click twice on each marker.

By early Wednesday morning, the logs were showing success. A visitor arrived and viewed nearly every marker on the map—yet only clicked once on each.