Innocent Bystander

A little tech, a little current affairs, and my view on whatever has my attention at the moment...

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

It's a Boat... It's a Car... I don't know, but it's made of Wood!

Ok to move away from the space related posts of the past week, I'm going to instead switch gears and show some more wood stuff...

This comes to me via Italian Livio de Marchi has created full sized wooden replicas of his favorite cars in order to travel through the canals of Venice. The photos of his creations come from his virtual museum.

Some of his creations:
A lifesize Ferrari F50

A lifesize 1937 Jaguar

A lifesize Mercedes 300 SL Seagull

A lifesize Fiat Topolino

How about a lifesize VW Beetle (convertible)

However if those aren't unusual enough for you, how about a paper hat (made of wood of course)?

Maybe an origami crane?

I Would Have Expected Better...

The man's the leader of the free world, the most powerful nation on the face of the planet. An agency of the government you run is launching 7 humans into space... And you're watching it happen on a dinky 19 inch WalMart special TV? What's wrong with the picture? Seriously?

I'm all for fiscal responsibility in the government, but heck walk into the airport and TSA has dozens of plasma screens all over at their checkpoints displaying the same low res images and messages over and over. Go over to DOT headquarters and they have plasma screens at EVERY entrance. Couldn't they get the poor man a quality HD set for him to watch the launch on?!?!?!?!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Future of NASA

Well, even if NASA resolves the problem with debris falling off the fuel tank in enough time that Atlantis could still launch as originally scheduled there would still be only 15 or so missions before the fleet was retired according the President's plan for future space exploration.

There are parts of the President's plan I agree with... We need to return to the Moon, the fact that it's been 33 years since we've been back is tragic. I remember reading in elementry school all the books that predicted that there would be permanent space stations in orbit by 2000 and colonies on the moon by 2005. Instead we got the ISS.

Don't get me wrong, unlike the President's vision I think the ISS is important and that the station should be the jump off point for our future exploration of our solar system and not the dead end that the President's vision has made it. Ironicly, the ISS was the first President Bush's vision for the future of our space exploration, he wanted the station in orbit and operating before 2000.

When the shuttle fleet is retired in 2 or 3 years the US won't have any vehicle able to take people into space. There were be a gap of several years before a replacement for the shuttle goes into service. Given NASA's history for designing vehicles over the past 30 years, my guess is that a replacement for the shuttle won't go into service for another 15 years. Let me say that again, the US will be out of the manned spaceflight business for as many as 10 years, maybe even longer. Heck it was 5 years between the last SkyLab flight and the first shuttle flight.

Over the last 20 years I think NASA has lost it's way. The agency has plowed itself into a rut thanks to the Challenger disaster and budget cuts. Challenger scared NASA to start acting in a very risk averse manner, and as we've seen by the exhaustive inspections Discovery has undergone since getting into orbit, they've gotten even worse.

Back in the '80s NASA was working on a project called the National Aerospace Plane or NASP, this was supposed to be a "single stage to orbit" craft that would augment the shuttle fleet and act as a bridge between the shuttles when they were retired and whatever replaced them. Single stage to orbit means that the craft would be able to launch itself into orbit without the assistance of additional booster rockets and such. By comparison the shuttle is a two stage launch system stage one is the external booster rockets and stage two is the shuttle itself. The NASP was cancelled after several years of research, NASA decided that not enough of the needed technology had been developed enough to be incorporated into the NASP.

When NASP died, so did most research into any other vehicle to augment or replace the shuttle fleet, and that's where we are now. The fleet is on the brink of retirement with a replacement currently nothing more than some artists daydream.

NASA then fell into the trap that they called smaller, cheaper, better. They just left off less-risk... NASA started launching small robotic probes for exploration, it was this movement that brought about the successful Mars Rover and the highly unsuccessful Mars Surveyor (the one that crashed...). Since they were unmanned missions they were much cheaper and could move from design to launch much faster than a manned mission. Plus it's not a national tragedy if you loose an unmanned probe...

So we end up where we were just 3 years ago, with a manned spaceflight program whose mission is no longer to explore, but to build, restock, and maintain the ISS. Putting satellites in orbit? That's done by unmanned rockets now, after Challenger none of the satellite owners are convinced that the shuttle is worth the cost and risk as a launch platform... NASA has dreams of sending a manned mission to Mars, but research is moving at a snail's pace at best... The moon, forget it.

I've got to give credit to the President, after the loss of Columbia he could have shut the manned spaceflight program down. He could have decided that manned spaceflight was too risky and decided that we didn't need to go back. I know he's from Texas and the Johnson Spaceflight Center is a huge piece of the Houston economy, but still he could have called the whole thing off. Instead he came up with a plan, that while somewhat misguided, gives NASA something to shoot for again with manned spaceflight. President Bush has decided that we need to become less involved in the ISS (which I think is a mistake) and has directed NASA to get us back to the moon... eventually (i.e. 2020) and from there to Mars. Of course he didn't identify funding, but I guess it's a start...


Well that didn't take long... Discovery hasn't even been in orbit for 48 hours and NASA has grounded the shuttle fleet AGAIN!

According to MSNBC at a press conference this evening, NASA has announced that a rather sizeable chunk of foam fell away from the external fuel tank... It was a big enough piece that if it had hit the orbiter as it fell away it would have caused significant damage.

Talk about a blow to the program. After two years of intense troubleshooting to resolve this problem, a problem that they've been trying to figure out for probably close to 10 years before the Columbia accident, only to have it crop up again when they thought they had it resolved.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Return to Flight

Well, unless you live under a rock with no connections to the outside world (in which case it would be really creepy if you came here for your information...) then you already know that the launch of the STS-114, Shuttle Discovery went well and after 2 and a half long years, NASA is back in the business of putting humans into low earth orbit. STS-114 is NASA speak for Space Transportation System mission number 114. NASA's technical name for the shuttle fleet is the Space Transportation System.

The launch went very well by most accounts, except for it appears two incidents. First, there apears to have been some debris that fell away as the solid rocket boosters seperated. NASA beleives that there may have been some damage, but probably nothing significant. The other incident is that apparently during launch there was a birdstrike suffered on the nose cone of the external fuel tank.

I always get amazed by the pictures from the launch. The fact that there are cameras so sensitive in place around the launch site that you can see the shuttle when it's over 200 miles away from the Kennedy Space Center and 60 miles up seems unbelieveable, but they've been doing this for many years now.

In case you didn't get to see the launch, we were treated to a completely new view of this launch. Out of concern for debris falling from the external fuel tank like what was the cause of the Columbia crash NASA has installed a camera on the fuel tank that looks down and back towards the wings and rear of the shuttle.

The camera gives NASA engineers the ability to monitor this area and watch to see if anything falls off the tanks and strikes the shuttle or if anything should fall off the shuttle. However, since the images were also relayed by NASA to the gathered press pool, we got to seem them as well. As far as I know, this is the first time we've ever been able to see live images from the launch vehicle. For the first time we were able to see from the launch vehicle, the solid rocket boosters seperate and fall away, previously we could only view this through super zoom cameras that were 40 miles away. We also got to see for the first time, the external fuel tank seperate from the shuttle, previously this was something that we just couldn't see at all because it occured at such a high altitude.

Discovery is on a 12 day mission, while in orbit the crew will inspect the shuttle to ensure that it's undamaged from the launch, test some repair procedures and deliver gyro and other supplies to the International Space Station...

Monday, July 25, 2005

Natural Styles for Your Desktop

Following the wood iPod story a few weeks ago, I've found a company that actually specializes in electronics with wooden cases. SWEDX is a Swedish company that specializes in this sort of thing. This is their LCD computer monitor in Natural Ash, they offer monitors in a variety of sizes and woods, including Beeche, Sapele and as mentioned Ash. In addition they offer wood HDTV monitors, speakers, USB keyboards, and yes even mice!
They're actually available in the US from a company called Plasma Earth and as you can guess, they're not cheap. Prices start at $1,199 for the monitor, keyboard, and mouse combination...

Why Would You Buy This?

I've made the mistake of reading this insane e-Bay auction, and I can't figure out what the point is. So she wants you to buy this Mead notebook that she's written down people's names in... What is the attraction to this? What possesed some knucklehead to pay $36 for this thing?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

RIP Jimmy Doohan

Jimmy Doohan passed away early this morning in his Redmond Washington home at age 85. Doohan was suffering from Alzheimers and pneumonia. There's not too many of the well known original Star Trek cast members left. We're down to just William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, Majel Barret-Roddenberry, and George Takai.

Is it your phone... or that bird?

I heard about this from Cnet's buzzcast, which heard about it from, which heard about it from mobcast, which heard about it from... well I don't know, but the story seems to have originated from the Indo-Asian News Service.

According to IANS, German ornithologists (guys who study birds), birds are learning to imitate cell phone ringtones! The phenomenom appears to be common among birds found in urban areas with jackdaws, starlings, and jays being the best at mimicing ring tones. According to the article, some birds are so good that they have actually managed to fool experienced bird watchers!

However, the birds aren't able to imitate the complex polyphonic ringtones (the ones that sound like music) or event the simplier tones that are of popular songs. They appear to be best with the common chimes that many people use. Although I'm sure that the folks at Nokia are thrilled that German birds are signing the Nokia tone found on all their phones!

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Downside of iTunes Featuring Podcasts

I first wrote about iTunes new support for Podcasts a week or two ago, this sudden change to iTunes seemed to take everyone by surprise from iTunes users to the Podcasters who with no warning found that their Podcast was now listed in iTunes.

At first glance it would seem like a godsend for the average blogger... For a few months they could be plugging along in relative obscurity, buried in some Podcast directory and only able to attract a handfull of subscribers. Then WHAM out of nowhere they're up on iTunes for millions of people to see, and overnight they go from just 4 dozen subscribers to a few THOUSAND subscribers! Now this would seem to be a good thing, unless the website you host your Podcast on has restrictions on the number of downloads you can have a month. Now to support the sudden explosive growth in subscribers many podcast owners have had to spring for more costly hosting options that can accomodate their new bandwidth requirements.

Just as surprising, iTunes managed to dredge up a few defunct podcasts as well. People who played with podcasting on a whim and quickly got bored with it all of a sudden found their podcasts listed in iTunes and have gained hundreds of new subscribers... when they haven't published a podcast in months!

I've also heard a few complaints from various podcasters as they work to make their podcasts "iTunes Compliant." In order to allow you to subscribe to a podcast, podcasters put special XML coding on their web page which does some magical things that tells iTunes or whatever software you use to subscribe to the podcast that the author has updated their podcast and it's time for you to download a new episode. Apparently there is some special coding that podcasters need to use in order to get their podcast to update and display properly in iTunes. It seems that some podcasters already happened to be using the needed code for iTunes, but a great many were not, and they've been having fits trying to get the code working properly with iTunes.

Check out this article in Wired on the issues podcasters are dealing with...

Wired also touched on something that I'm guessing many people who have started looking into podcasts have discovered.... While there are some pretty good podcasts out there, a great many of them are just utter CRAP!

Take for example this one that I've been listening to, it's the HDTV Podcast and as the name suggests is on everything HDTV. Definately a simple production, two guys talking about the HDTV news they have, defining terms, and evaluating devices. But it's well put together, has decent audio quality, and is reasonably interesting. I had pretty low expectations when I subscribed to this podcast, but I've been very surprised and will continue to subscribe to them...

On the other hand there's This Week in Tech. I had high hopes for this one, it's done by Leo LaPort and the gang that used to host "The Screen Saver's" a mildly amusing, by highly geeky show that used to be on TechTV, and with a name like This Week in Tech, I figured it had to be a good recap of the week's tech news right? These guys have traditional media experience so surely this would be a well put together show right? What it really is, is a weekly recording of a 6 way Skype conference call between these guys where they spend most of their time just chatting about... well anything! Amazingly enough, this steaming pile of crap is number two on the iTunes chart right now too!

Which has me thinking, iTunes could be just the shot in the arm to launch podcasting into the mainstream. Millions of people have access to podcasts now without having to go uber-geek and play with some arcane piece of software to do it. As many podcasters are now discovering, this can be a real shot in the arm for their podcasts...

On the other hand, with the huge number of podcasts out there that really are just unlistenable garbage, all these new potential podcast subscribers could get turned off by the whole concept. The frustration born of having to wade through all the lousy podcasts to find the few decent ones that are out there may just prove to be too much for many and turn them off to the entire concept of podcasts in general.

Cell Phone's Off....

Ok, I didn't hear about this announcement myself, and it took a lot of digging to find it. I would have thought that this would have gotten quite a bit of press.

According to even though the FCC has ruled that it had no objections to cell phone use during flights, the FAA has decided to keep the ban on cell phones in place. However the wording of the ruling is that the usage of wireless devices in-flight is prohibited, not just cell-phones. This means that portable GPS's, radios, TV's are still prohibited too, however a special provision was made for Wi-Fi devices.

This means that while you still can't whip out your cellphone at 36,000 feet and chat with your best friend about how wasted you got at the party at the beach last night... Soon (hopefully) you'll be able to whip out your Wi-Fi enabled notebook or PDA and IM your best friend about how wasted you got at the party last night....

Personally, I'd prefer the Wi-Fi access over the cell phone...

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Bizarre Tech Story of The Week...

This was sent to me by a friend, it's definately one of the most bizarre tech stories I've seen in quite a while....

In this article posted on Japanese researchers are using a laser to write data on human fingernails...

Using femtosecond laser pulses (I don't know what they are, but it reminds me of the fembots from the Austin Powers movies!) they're zapping the fingernails and getting 5mb of data on them. The article says they're irradiating the finger nails, it seems like the data is only readable with a special microscope and with the aid of a Xenon Arc Lamp. Now the data is only stored on the fingers for 6 months, by then the nail has completely grown out.

This begs all kind of questions...

What if you get a manicure?
What if you scuff your nail?
Why would you even want to do this?

What will they think of next?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Reality Check

So yesterday I'm listening to a talk show on the radio... Not unusual, but I don't particularly like this show, the commentator and many of his listeners are a bit too far to the left for my tastes, however there's not much else on during the time I was in the car so I didn't have much choice...

A LOT of his callers were calling for Karl Rove's firing and arrest for treason over his possible role in leaking Valerie Plame's name to the media.

Ok reality check people. We DON'T KNOW if he broke the law yet. According to MSNBC, the law says he has to have intentionally disclosed that she was a covert agent. We have an e-mail that has been released that seems to indicate her, but doesn't mention her by name. Heck, we don't even know for sure that he knew what her role was at CIA.

However, here's the key thing. IF the results of the investigation are that he did in fact break the law, Karl Rove isn't getting charged with treason. The President should fire him, but don't expect him to be charged with treason, if anything we might see charges stemming from the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, a much less significant charge than treason.

Now before you start thinking that would be because the Republican's would circle the wagons to defend him... I think otherwise.

I think it's a matter of the scale of the crime, what he did is relatively minor. I know it doesn't seem minor, he quite possibly put a CIA agent and her family at risk and probably compromised some sources and operations.

But, what about Former Navy Chief Warrant Officer John Walker? This guy was selling classified information to the Soviets for almost 20 years. He even recruited friends and family members into his ring of spies. Countless servicemember's lives were put at risk for over 20 years as John Walker and his spy ring sold an unknown amount of classified documents and other material, this during war time and peace. John Walker and all but one of his cohorts were charged with epionage not treason, and sentenced to life.

How about Aldrich Ames? He knowingly sold the list of every CIA covert agent he knew of to the Soviets... Espionage, not treason and life in prison.

Since Karl Rove didn't sell the names, I don't think he can be charged with espionage. Since neither Ames nor Walker and his cronies were charged with treason, and what they did was substantially more damaging than Rove's leak, I don't think treason is an option here.

My prediction if charges are filed? A fine of a few thousand dollars and maybe probation or something. Definately not jail time...

Monday, July 11, 2005

Jargon Free Zone

Here at the Innocent Bystander I tend to write about anything that catches my eye, which could be anything from news stories to techie stuff, to just about anything else.

Some of the things I may write about could be a little bit on the technical side filled with all kinds of jargon. The things is, I don't know who might be reading this on a given day... There might be some serious tech heads here and there might be some novices around too. Just to make sure everybody understands what I'm writing about, I'll try to make this as jargon free as possible and explain whatever I can.

Run across a term in a post that you don't understand? Leave me a comment and I'll do what I can for you...

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Phone Update

Well, I made my decision. I bought the ETen M500 from Mad Monkey Boy's Gadgets. So far I'm really impressed with the device. As you can see from the pictures, it's smaller than my old Ipaq 4150, but it's quite a bit thicker. So far I've found that it has really good sound quality as a phone, and I like the interface used by Windows Mobile for phone operations. It comes chock full of applications, more than any other PDA I've had in the past, although I've got a long way to go to figure all that's on there and how to use them.

Setting up the M500 to work with T-Mobile was much easier than I thought it might be. All I needed to do was pop my SIM card into the M500 and it was ready to send and receive calls (SIM cards are only in phones on the Cingular and T-Mobile networks, if you have Verizon, Sprint, and I believe Nextel, then your phone doesn't have a SIM card.) It took just a few minutes on this website to find the settings I needed for the data connection, and viola I was ready to go!

The downside of the device: T-Mobile. The M500's biggest weakness happens to be the frequency that T-Mobile uses primarily on it's network (1900MHz). I can see both the Cingular network and the old AT&T Wireless network on a fairly regular basis, but T-Mobile can be a little challenging. It's a little frustrating, but not enough to drive me to hate the phone... at least not yet.

Now you may be wondering, what is the phone? I've never seen it at my local T-Mobile or Cingular store, or any other cell phone store I've ever been to for that matter. This is one of the cool things about GSM or Global Standard for Mobiles, GSM is a standard used by cell phone networks around the world (Hence the word Global in the name). The key piece of the GSM standard is that your phone number and assorted information is stored on the SIM card mentioned earlier, and not on your phone. This means you can take your SIM card and stick it in any GSM phone and the phone will work with your phone number. Verizon and Sprint use a standard called CDMA where your phone's ID is what identifies you on the network, you can't change phones on a CDMA network without notifying your carrier, and they may (read that will) prevent phones that you didn't get from them from working on their network. On a GSM network, your carrier doesn't know (and probably doesn't care) what phone you're using, that is as long as you don't call them for support if it doesn't work!

The M500 I bought is an "unlocked" GSM phone. Which means that I can stick any GSM carrier's SIM card in it, and the phone will work. When it comes to many electronics devices, I hate to say it, but the US doesn't get much of the really cool stuff. That all goes to Europe and Asia, we often times get the dumbed down budget stuff that's a few years behind what's new and cool in Europe and Asia. But if you can find a reliable electronics importer, you too can get some of the cool toys!

The News of The Day....

First a public service announcement... Notice the top of the page, the terror alert level is now a mixed Bert/Ernie, it's Bert unless you're on Mass Transit in which case it's Ernie. What does that mean? Ummm... If you're riding Mass Transit, trust nobody and nothing. But, you should resume your normal level of suspicion once you depart the Mass Transit station of your choice. And now back to our regularly unscheduled blogging....

My morning routine is pretty set, wake up and turn on the news on TV before I do anything else.

I watch the local NBC affiliate, they have a smart witty anchor and an airheaded anchor, I like the NBC affiliate because the smart anchor is smart enough to compensate for the airheaded one and negate the airheaded effects.

Like probably everybody else, they were reporting on the events in London. Well kinda... They were re-broadcasting MSNBC's coverage of the events in London... Except MSNBC wasn't really covering the events in London themselves, MSNBC was re-broadcasting ITV's coverage on the events in London.

On the surface this makes sense, over the last 20 years or so US news organizations have drastically cut back on their foreign news staffs. Why not take advantage of local news sources then, especially if they speak the same language? The trouble is that for a half hour, ITV interviewing various eyewitnesses... but never recapped just what was going on.

MSNBC's own crawl and Flash News banner that they superimposed on the screen was of no help either... All it said was "Explosions in London." I was able to determine that a bus had blown up somewhere but that was it... 30 Minutes and no recap of what was going on and where... At least locally... Our local affiliate broke away for commercials, and again in time to switch to The Today Show.

So we move to The Today Show, surely they would give a full recap on what was going on... Not really, the best I could get from them after a good 15 minutes was just that there were multiple explosions in The Tube, and a bus bombing near Tavistock Square. At this point we're a good 3 hours after the first explosion.

Now looking at the timeline up on MSNBC's website Scotland Yard didn't release the location of the explosions until 7:30 Eastern, 12:30 GMT. But, if you have reporters on the scene talking to eyewitnesses (like ITV was doing) won't the reporters also report on where they are?

I just don't get the 3 hour delay before we knew where the explosions had occured. Heck, even if they passed the locations as pending confirmation from Government sources. I don't know, maybe it's just me. I could be the only person who watched the coverage this morning thinking "Where in London? It's a BIG city!"

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Another Person With Too Much Time on Their Hands!

I'd love to post pictures of a working wooden iPod I found, but for some reason either blogger or flikr isn't letting me. Instead you'll have to go here to see it. He took a 4th generation iPod, removed the front face (including the click wheel) and replaced it with a wooden front, which is nicely stained and polyuerythaned I might add!

Amazingly the thing works, even the click wheel! Other than that, I don't have any details on this

What I Did on The Fourth of July

I know, one of the rules was no personal stuff... but you know what, it's my blog, I make the rules, and I can break them too!

I actually had a really good Independence Day. To start off, I packed up my nearly 2 year old son nice and early and headed off to a small parade on Capitol Hill. We didn't watch the parade mind you... we were IN the parade :) We got to drive in the parade which was a lot of fun. It was a short little parade, and I think there were actually more people participating in the parade than were actually watching the parade, but whatever.

From DC we headed to Annapolis to hang out with friends for a few hours and then it was off to yet another parade. This time it was my wife, our son, and our dog in the car to drive in a MUCH bigger parade through downtown Annapolis. That was just fantastic. I've marched in a few parades before but never have I been in one that had as large a crowd as this one, and it was a blast!

Then we watched the DC fireworks on PBS... I've got to say that coverage was pretty craptacular... The music was poorly timed and the camera angles were crummy. But it was better than sitting outside with the bugs, in the humidity, and the crush of people... and then trying to figure out how to navigate our way out of that crush of people and home!

All in all, a pretty good day.