Thursday, November 20, 2014

I Don't "Get" It...Apple Edition

Hello, all. I'm a big fan of Apple and their products, but not everything they touch turns to gold. I'm sure they're stocked with some of the best and brightest talent and they have an enviable track record, to be sure. However, some of their offerings - both past...present...and forthcoming - seem to miss the mark for me. Here are a few of the more recent:


Apple Watch
I'm not Dick Tracy - I don't need this.

I'm sorry, Apple, but I just don't get it - $350 for a device...with an unknown (but likely short) battery life...with a limited input method...that requires another device in order to work? Why would anyone buy this? I hear people calling it a "game changer"...but I must be missing something, because I can't see why very many people (other than those that want to show it off) would buy one.

Perhaps if it was only $100 I'd consider it, but starting at 3.5x that price point, I don't see the value. I don't need a screen on my wrist. I don't need to reply to a text message from my wrist. In fact, I currently don't even have a watch on my wrist - if I need to know the time, I simply LOOK AT THE STINKIN' SMARTPHONE I ALREADY HAVE WITH ME! It's not as if I'll be able to leave my smartphone at home and use its diminutive sibling instead; indeed, the Apple Watch *requires* an iPhone for full functionality.

Before you call me a luddite or an Apple hater, understand that I'm a network engineer...and all of my personal computers, phones, and tablets are Apple devices. In fact, I even worked for Apple back in the 1990s. I understand technology. I love gadgets. Moreover, I'm generally an early adopter. That said, I'll readily admit to having some blind spots. When the iPad was released, my thought was: "It's a big iPod Touch. So what?". I was wrong - I'll admit it. To that end, I try to keep a more open mind, but I'm still not understanding the point of a $350 wrist computer that requires another $600+ computer in order to really work. What am I missing?

iTunes Radio

A big sack of 'meh'
This is another "what were they thinking?" offering from Apple that I can't bring myself to care about. Though it has an impressive library (27+ million songs, I believe... compared to Pandora's 'paltry' 1 million), its features are lacking. Sure, I can create a myriad of stations - each with relevant songs - but I can't shuffle the stations I create. This is such a basic feature that I can't imagine why Apple has yet to implement it. Pandora allows for a station shuffle, and it's excellent.

Additionally, I've spent YEARS curating my stations on Pandora. I'm fairly-well assured that Pandora will play a song I like at this point. I do NOT feel like going through all those steps again with another service. I guess that's not so much of an indictment of iTunes Radio as it's a statement about my laziness. Regardless, it doesn't help.


iPhone 6. Kind-of.

Camera 'pimple'
OK, I have an iPhone 6, and I love it. It really is a great smartphone. But there are a few annoyances that seem like a no-brainer and should have been addressed. First is the asinine camera 'pimple' on the back of the phone. What gives, Apple? Could you not have made the iPhone just a little bit thicker so the camera didn't protrude from the body? Maybe you could've shoehorned in a bit larger capacity battery...or made the body a little less bendy. You know - useful stuff.

Another issue is the relatively worthless 16GB model. Apple, storage is CHEAP. Really, really cheap. No one wants the 16GB model, they just settle for it since the wait for the 64GB model is interminable. Sure, one can get the 128GB model (as I did) within a reasonable timeframe, but I really didn't want (or need) that much space. However, unless I wanted to wait 25-35 business days for a phone...or get the anemic 16GB model...the only real choice was 128GB. Yes, I know: first world problem...but I live in the first world - what other kind of problem am I going to have?

I'm sure that the 128GB iPhone is Apple's most profitable model, so they're crying themselves all the way to the bank as people opt for it rather than wait for the 64GB model. This would also help to explain why Apple isn't making a 32GB iPhone 6 - they know that's the one people REALLY want, so they'd cannibalize 64GB and 128GB sales if the 32GB unit was ever made.

Another niggling issue is the mute switch. It feels cheap - less solid - than the iPhones of past. To make sure it wasn't just mine, I checked with a coworker that also has an iPhone 6 and his had the same low-rent feel. Not what I expect in a premium handset. Of course, at least it *has* a physical switch unlike the craptastic Samsung Galaxy S4 that I have at work. THAT phone is junk.

Your Turn
What say you? Anything you'd add to the list? Do you take issue with anything I've said? Let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Things I think I think...I think.

What has happened to all the smart people?

I fear tonight is the night I lose some followers, and I don't relish that prospect. If I follow you on Twitter, or I'm a friend of yours on Facebook or Google+, it's because I truly respect your thoughts and opinions...and at times, you challenge the way I think. That's a good thing and I appreciate it. Please allow me that same latitude.

There are some things that I see some of you saying that are troubling. Let's take the #Shirtstorm saga, for instance. I'm not going to argue for/against the shirt itself - there's been enough of that already and I don't think I can directly add anything constructive in that space. Rather, I'd like to focus on *how* people responded.

Dr. Matt Taylor - European Space Agency
If you don't know what #Shirtstorm is, here's a brief synopsis: One of the primary scientists of the Rosetta/Philae mission (Dr. Matt Taylor) chose to wear a shirt that had many people scratching their heads, or - in some cases - take to Twitter to complain of misogyny and sexism. This elicited a flurry of rapidly demeaning replies. As is often the norm nowadays, the responses (from both sides) were mean... combative... incendiary... divisive - you name it.

There seems to be a total lack of reasoned discourse in disagreements today, and I don't understand it. Not only that, I think it's dangerous. The effect is that uncomfortable viewpoints are being squelched under the guise of mitigating offense. Moreover, it appeared as if the "preacher was preaching to the choir" in many of the exchanges - people incensed about the shirt were chattering to those of like minds while being dismissive of those that might have a different opinion.

Threats like this are NEVER warranted. Never.
On the "other side", there were childish taunts, vulgar name calling, and more than a fair share of threats. There's no excuse for those people to hide behind the perceived anonymity of the Internet and use that "protection" to abuse and belittle those that have a differing opinion...and, quite honestly, I hope the more dangerous threats (like the one to the left) were passed along to law enforcement for further investigation.

When did our society get to the point where we feel opposing viewpoints are unworthy of consideration, only to be shouted down? We must protect free speech, not bury it under a mountain of hatred and vitriol. And to those that claimed offense: you have no right to be free from offense. I know that you likely disagree, and you want to use the bully pulpit of social media (and other outlets) to kowtow those that hold "offensive" opinions...but they have just as much right to their opinion as you do yours. Bullying people into sharing your viewpoint does not create a convert.

Though fiction, the words are still wise.
Sadly, #Shirtstorm isn't the only instance where truly smart people (and quite a few...uh...less intelligent people) reacted in a knee-jerk manner to the cause-of-the-day. Let's take a look at #Ferguson for a moment. There are the expected reactions from the usual partisans - people calling for the police officer to be charged...or people unequivocally stating the officer's innocence - but it's the conversation coming from "more reasonable" people that really has me confused. These people have already convicted the officer...or the victim...and are not asking for justice to be served; rather, they want their sacrifice, and they want it now...regardless of what the evidence shows.

For instance, there is a particular scientist for whom I have a great deal of respect that has taken a very definite stance on the situation in #Ferguson. Is this person privy to the evidence that was collected? Have they interviewed all those involved in the incident? No...no, they have not. Yet they've already formed a definite opinion and are supporting those that share their view. Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't scientists supposed to analyze the data before coming to a conclusion? I'm not saying that it's wrong to hold an opinion...but being intractable in one's views is not what I would expect from such a person.

Common sense, why hast thou deserted us?


Daylight Standard Time

I hate it. I hate it a LOT. Having the sun set at 5:30-ish PM is inhuman. Why do I post this? Because I'm grouchy and it's my blog.



Orion EFT-1


Are you excited? ARE YOU EXCITED?!? I am most definitely excited. December 4th marks the first flight of America's newest space ship: Orion. Sure, it's uncrewed for this flight...and it's being sent aloft on a Delta IV-Heavy rather than SLS...but this is a BIG deal.

This is the next step in humanity's journey to become a multi-planet species. I've been invited to take part in the NASA Social at JPL (you can follow me on Twitter at @Crow_T_Robot), and many others will be doing the same at NASA facilities across the country. Look for the #NASASocial hashtag on Twitter. More info to come on this in the next few days.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Technology tidbits...

I'm going to take a small break from the space-related posts to talk about one of my other passions - technology. I have no particular theme to the topics below...I'm posting them in a somewhat 'stream-of-conscious' manner.

Net Neutrality
Quite honestly, I haven't read enough about it to know exactly where I stand. If one listens to the politicos, the right would have you believe that it's the technology equivalent to 'Obamacare' - with all the doom and gloom that implies, and the left will leave you thinking that if it's not passed that evil corporations will block/cripple any competitors on their network, thus stifling innovation.

The truth is likely somewhere between the two. I have no problem if an Internet provider wants to allow faster access for some traffic if a service wants to pay for it, so long as they don't hinder access for those that won't/can't pay for the priority access. For instance, I think it's perfectly fine if Comcast (a company I *despise*) offers Netflix prioritized access to Comcast's Internet customers...but I do NOT think it's OK if Comcast decided to slow/impede someone's traffic if they were unwilling/unable to pay for priority.

Some think that infrastructure buildout will negate the need to even consider implementing something like Net Neutrality because future tech will ensure there is enough bandwidth to go around. That's a fallacy - consumption always seems to meet and rapidly exceed any additional gains in bandwidth availability. For instance, I co-manage a very large enterprise network supporting more than 45,000 users. We are regularly running out of available bandwidth, even though we have three independent Internet providers. As soon as we increase a circuit, that extra overhead is consumed by some new device...or app...or website. So thinking that the need for some reasoned governance would be negated by a technology that's "just around the corner" is a bit naive.

That said, do I want the government dictating to a private company how they should be allowed to sell their product? I can't say that I do. To use Netflix again as an example, there is data to suggest that - at times - Netflix accounts for more than 25% of all Internet traffic in the US. That undoubtedly puts a strain on the network infrastructure of the providers, and any additional capacity must be paid for by someone. Should it be the source of the traffic (Netflix)...or should the consumer pay increased fees to cover the buildout? The money has to come from somewhere.

I'm sure this is only the tip of the iceberg with Net Neutrality. I'll revisit as I have more info.


Apple OS X Yosemite Wi-Fi Issues
Yes, Virginia, there are Yosemite wi-fi issues. I was running the beta of Yosemite on my late-2012 MacBook Pro Retina for a couple months before commercial availability, which was an upgrade to the OS X Mavericks. I encountered no wi-fi stability issues on it at all and assumed the rumblings of wi-fi problems were the domain of an unlucky few. Fast forward a couple weeks and I was re-evaluating my stance: some new Macs at work were not so fortunate.

I'm currently evaluating best-practices for integrating Macs into our very large Windows-only network and had ordered a couple iMacs and a Mac mini for small-scale testing. All three arrived with Mavericks and worked flawlessly on our wireless infrastructure. After performing an upgrade (not a fresh install) to Yosemite, I began to experience random wi-fi drop-outs...first on one iMac, then the other. The mini seemed to be immune. I tried some hints & tips I found online, all to no avail. The issues persisted even after performing a CLEAN Yosemite install.

I dropped back and decided to used a wired connection since any officially-supported Mac in our infrastructure will be wired. The problems immediately vanished. So there is definitely something 'hinkey' with wi-fi on Yosemite iMacs. Your experience may differ, of course...but just be aware that it's a possibility.


Enterprise Technology Podcast
I'm in the process of organizing a podcast geared towards enterprise technology needs. It's been bubbling in my noggin for a while, but I think the time may be nigh for a development. Keep an eye out on the blog for further info.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Media Event at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (Part 3)

Welcome to Part 3 of my experience at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center Media Event. If you've missed Part 1 or Part 2, be sure to check them out. Great info.

I need this sign. For reasons.
After leaving the avionics testing area - after what felt like too short a time, but really wasn't - the group headed to see some seriously cool stuff dealing with propulsion. How cool? How does 'Nuclear Thermal Propulsion' sound? Yes...it was as cool as one can imagine.

Just what is nuclear thermal propulsion? Let's take a step back for a moment and discuss what rocket engines do: In order to propel a ship/probe/satellite, something needs to to 'push' against the craft. How exactly does one do that in space where there's nothing to push against? You bring the 'pushing stuff' with you in the form of fuel (also known as reaction mass). In very simple terms (really - this is an overly-simplified explanation), the amount of 'push' is a function of the speed at which the reaction mass exits the engine...and the mass of the craft. The faster that the reaction mass exits the engine, the quicker the craft is accelerated. But there are limits to the speed at which traditional chemical rockets (both liquid and solid varieties) can expel their reaction mass.

Engineer explaining testing the nuclear thermal rockets
A nuclear thermal rocket engine works by using the heat from a nuclear reactor to excite hydrogen and expel it from the nozzle. The hydrogen exits at a much higher velocity than do traditional chemical fuels; however, since it's the lightest element, it has less "push" per atom. But that's OK - it's VERY efficient. So, if one wants to get somewhere and speed is NOT of the essence, then a nuclear thermal rocket might fit the bill. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, is stable, and can be produced in-situ. This is a huge benefit over traditional chemical rockets that require more complicated fuels. Moreover, the amount of reaction mass needed to get the craft to its destination is vastly reduced over chemical rockets. This means less overall mass of the vehicle - an all-around win. Want to read a more in-depth explanation of nuclear thermal rockets? Wikipedia is your friend - click here.

An actual iodine thruster.
But all the advancements aren't in big rockets - oh, no. In fact, some of the most impressive engineering is going into smaller thrusters meant for cubesats. One of those is an iodine thruster. Doesn't sound too exciting, does it? Oh, but it is. Historically, cubesats have very little maneuvering capability or ability to change their orbit to any meaningful degree (perhaps a few m/sec delta-v). The iodine thruster, though, is a game changer. It mounts to a standard cubesat frame and promises to give more than 1,000 m/sec delta-v). What does that mean? Just that cubesats deployed from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) can transfer themselves to a higher...or more inclined...or more eccentric...orbit on their own. Think of the cool possibilities!

There were so many awesome things to see and learn in the propulsion and avionics areas, I could've spent all day there. I sure hope the engineers and scientists enjoyed having us there as much as I enjoyed seeing their work.

NASA engineer explaining the innovative solar cell layout.
The last stop before we headed off to a press conference discussing SLS was to see some more additive manufacturing, and examples of some fine engineering concepts from young engineers from several NASA centers. I didn't get a chance to spend much time with these extremely smart people, which was a shame...but I did get some excellent takeaways. Firstly, one team is working on autonomous programming that would allow cubesats to team up to combine disparate functions into a working unit greater than the sum of its individual parts. Another team devised a simple, but very effective, solar cell arrangement to ensure small satellites constantly receive adequate sunlight without the need for cumbersome orientation hardware. These are but two examples of phenomenal work coming out of young NASA engineers.

Lastly, we were part of a press briefing for Orion's first flight - EFT-1, scheduled to launch from Kennedy Space Center on December 4, 2014, atop a Delta IV-Heavy. Though it was, in large part, a rehash of the info I'd heard at the NASA Social at the Michoud Assembly Facility in September, excitement was heightened knowing that launch is rapidly approaching. I won't revisit the information here, but suffice it to say that EFT-1 is a big, BIG deal, and you'll be hearing more about it in the days ahead.

Though I'm a proponent of a cooperative global space program, I can't help but feel some national pride knowing that all of these super smart people are part of NASA. I know, childish...right? But there's something inspirational about seeing the Stars and Stripes hanging in a work area, or painted on a rocket, or stitched on the flight suit of one of the brave astronauts that are helping to make us a multi-planet species. I'm ready for SLS. I'm ready for Orion. I'm ready to go to Mars. Let's light this candle!

** I would like to thank the wonderful people in NASA's Public Affairs Office for allowing us this privileged access.**

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Media Event at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (Part 2)

Welcome to 'Part 2' of my experience at the Media Event at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) and Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) - click here for 'Part 1'.

Sam Ortega discusses 'Centennial Challenges'
After leaving the ISS Payload Operation Center, the group headed to "working lunch", with several NASA engineers and scientists on-hand to discuss their areas of expertise and to answer any questions. My table had an engineer that was responsible for NASA's Technology Transfer Office and another that worked with NASA's Centennial Challenges program.

I was interested to discover that NASA has been turning to private industry, and "citizen engineers", more frequently lately...both as a response to budgetary constraints and as a way to "think outside the box". For example, did you know that spacewalks (EVAs) can be torturous on an astronaut's fingertips? Since the suit is pressurized, the astronaut is constantly fighting against the glove's tendency to spring back to a fully-spread configuration (think back to those elementary school turkeys make from the outline of a hand and you'll get the idea). This tends to, at the very least, give the astronaut blisters on their fingers...but there have been cases of raw & bloody fingertips...and even loss of fingernails. Spacewalking doesn't sound quite so glamorous now, does it?



Astronaut Anderson even had issues in a properly-fitting glove
To help solve the issue, NASA reached out to private entities and offered a cash award to anyone that could come up with a workable solution to this problem. NASA ended up awarding two companies a share of $1 million to further develop of each of their solutions. In the past, NASA would've contracted a company - and paid a LOT more - to do something similar. This is part of NASA's modernization efforts, and I think it'll pay dividends in short order.

Another example of "citizen engineers" helping NASA solve a problem is related to testing fabric stress limits. NASA had developed a material that was extremely strong, yet the weave bias was such that the strain gauge couldn't get adequate purchase on the cloth and would tear it apart without being able to measure the strength. The engineers worked on a solution FOR A YEAR without positive progress. Someone suggested asking the private community for a solution - fully expecting to have already tried anything that might be suggested - and wouldn't you know it, NASA received not one, but TWO workable solutions to this problem...IN 24 HOURS! Do I think this means NASA is no longer home to the best and brightest? Absolutely not...but even the best of us can develop a blind spot and a fresh point-of-view can yield unexpected results. I'll be sure to think back on this when I'm presented with a seemingly insurmountable problem.


Real-life Kerbal Space Program
After this stimulating lunch, we headed off into the bowels of the building to take a look at the crew working on SLS's avionics (the hardware and software "brains" of the rocket). Being a network engineer, THIS is the stuff that I can correlate with a "real-world" analog in my daily life. There is a mock control room where the engineers can fully simulate a launch using the avionics hardware in the adjoining room. This hardware is mounted in a life-size (diameter) rig that mimics the curvature of the rocket's body so physical fittings can be tested and adjusted.

The team has simulated hundreds - if not thousands - of SLS launches...but only on the core stage at this point. Soon, ATK will supply a testing analog of the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) - complete with sensors and flight hardware - that will be coupled with the core stage hardware so some full-up testing can be accomplished (currently, the SRB sensors and computers are virtualized in software).


SLS Avionics
SLS is going to be a big rocket - Block I will be 321 feet tall - but even at the speed of light, the time for a signal from an engine sensor to reach the flight computer and then make the return trip isn't zero. This delay is called 'latency' and you've likely experienced it on a phone call...especially if it's long-distance. While it might be annoying when chatting with Aunt Edna across the country, it can be downright catastrophic on a rocket if the delay isn't accounted for. While the engineers can't build a full-height mockup of SLS in their shed, they *can* mimic the latency by either using cables as long as would be needed in the flight vehicle, or inducing latency in software to mimic the expected delay. This is but one of the many issues the hardware and software engineers must overcome, and test, to make sure SLS is the safest human-rated vehicle flown to-date.

I thought I could finish this in 'Part 2', but I was wrong. Stay tuned for 'Part 3', and I promise to not take quite so long on the next installment. Until then, thank you for reading.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Media Event at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center (Part 1)

1st stop - the U.S. Space & Rocket Ctr.
Yay - my 2nd NASA Social! Except it wasn't a Social. But I'll call it that and we'll move on. A few weeks ago, there was a post on the 'NASATweetup Alumni' Facebook page announcing a limited number of social media slots for a pretty large event at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) and Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, AL. If you've never been to Huntsville, I highly recommend it - it's a wonderful city, nestled in the foothills of northern Alabama. Being from the South, I'm well aware of the many stereotypes often associated with southern states...and while some of those descriptions are well-earned, Huntsville is a true jewel. Do yourself the favor and make the trip.


Look, ma - I'm on TV! Kind-of.
Anyway, back to the media event. The day was to be filled - literally - with nonstop activities and information. A quick introduction with the MSFC media staff started the day, followed by a LIVE, one-hour panel discussion broadcast on NASA TV...featuring engineers that are responsible for projects covering communications, 3D printing, life support systems, and more. Though I was unable to secure a mic to ask a question (it was a genius question, I assure you - trust me), all that were asked were interesting and lead to a greater understanding of the topic.

Did you know that a great majority of the water on ISS is recycled? But not all of it. Some of the non-recyclable water is in a sludge that the current technology has a difficult, if not impossible, time reclaiming. Even if that sludge only represents 5% of the overall total, NASA's engineers are trying to come up with efficient methods to squeeze every last ounce of water out of it that they can. Tech like that will be critical to the success of any long-term mission since water is heavy and is a finite resource in deep-space (unless we're able to produce it in-situ).


Cutaway of a 3D-printed injector nozzle assembly.
By far the most popular topic was 3D printing, known in the industry as 'additive manufacturing' (AM). Though I've been aware of AM for several years, I was not aware how much it has progressed. The types of hardware that can be printed is astonishing. I can definitely see this as being a real-world analog of Star Trek's matter replicator. Two of the biggest benefits of AM are significant cost reductions and much shorter production time. For instance, injector nozzles for rocket engines are a complicated affair that can take several months and six figures to produce. And it gets 'discarded' when the engine is destroyed (either through testing...or splashing down...or in re-entry). No wonder rocket engines are so expensive. But what if you could produce the same item in two weeks and at a fraction of the cost? That's what AM promises...and it's delivering, at least in limited tests.


Virtual trainer
After leaving the USSRC, the group was off to MSFC to get the low-down on some ISS operations. We split off into two groups - one of legitimate journalists and one comprised primarily of social media representatives. If you know me, you know which group I was in. We were first taken to the ISS payload training area. Though not a wholly accurate representation of ISS (microgravity lends itself to the astronauts storing stuff wherever they can - "overhead"...on the "floor"...etc. - but terrestrial trainers leave the walkways clear), it's a close enough approximation for training to be useful. One of the modern additions is called a 'glass rack trainer'. Think of these trainers as huge touchscreen displays that mimic the layout of the hardware and allow the trainee to "flip" switches. This can speed-up training and reduce costs.

We then traveled upstairs to the ISS Payload Operation Center - one of 4(?)...I think (I really should take better notes) in the world that cover 24/7 operation and monitoring. From what I recall, the Russians take care of their own stuff...but many of the other partner nations will make use of our services for this. And it's an important job - they have their own independent power supply in the event of general failure (as occurred a couple years ago when Huntsville experienced some significant storms).

That's all for now - but there's so much more to come in 'Part 2'.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

As I get older...

Time inexorably marches on...and seemingly speeds up with each passing year. Though I still feel and think of myself as young, I know that forty-two is definitely middle-aged. Does that bother me? No...I really don't think it does. Three of my children have already graduated high school, and the last is a senior. I can't imagine a more perfect spouse and partner than my wife, and my job has recently given me the opportunity to make some major impacts, both locally and nationally. All good stuff.

So, do I feel the call of the 'mid-life crisis'? Yes...kind-of...but maybe not in the way one might think. If, after reading the previous paragraph and doing some "mental math", it should be clear that I started parenthood *very* early - my son was born when I was twenty. So I've spent nearly all of my adult years being a parent (and some of that time as a single parent). That means spare time being devoted to the needs of the children and family.

How does that translate into (kind-of) feeling the tug of a 'mid-life crisis'? Do I want to blow lots of money on a fast sports car? No. Take care of the thinning hair? Nope. Cover the gray? I couldn't care less. So...what is it? Now that an empty nest is a very near reality, I can spend more time on me and doing the things that I want to do. This blog is part of that. I've also built a home studio to support a podcast I've been kicking about for several years. Another of my interests is the space program (as should be obvious from my other posts) and I've been participating in NASA Social events.

Does that really qualify as a 'mid-life crisis'? *I* don't think so...but I'd wager that neither does the guy with a toupee and a convertible Corvette.