Thursday, September 22, 2011

Trust me: it's not that exciting

I have written about video games a bit here, mostly in terms of how nowadays the best games are the ones that tell a good story. Well, today I read an article that makes me wonder if gamemakers might be trying a bit too hard. Now they're writing stories about storytellers... specifically, journalists.

In my world, journalism is grit and shoe leather. Most of the time it's a methodical business of tracking information, finding out who can tell you what and making sure it's all solid and clear. It can be exciting--like solving a mystery--as you're piecing together something over the long term and watching its impact. Some guys wrote a book about that once. Breaking news is a different beast, as you enter a story in media res, soaking it up as it happens, mixing in context and letting your readers know ASAP. There is more adrenalin involved.

But enough adrenalin to base a video game on? Er....

Oh, right, of course: war reporting (also the subject of a great book). I haven't done any myself, but from everything I have been told there are fewer better ways to feel alive than surviving a firefight. Surviving a firefight is the subject of quite a few games already. So it should work, right?

Maybe. Not being able to actually shoot anything in a first-person shooter might be a drawback for a lot of players. Which brings us back to the idea of a story. A tale about telling a tale can work as a movie. But when you're playing the central character, shooting video while everyone around you actually drives the plot forward could be about as exciting as calling a school board member.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I hate nuclear warfare

As should all of you, dear readers. But I do love the dark sense of humor that sprung up in the corps of "missileers," the people whose job it would be to push the button (turn the switch, whatever) during a nuclear war. The combination of boredom and disconnection to the outside world leads to, well, runaway imaginations and "relaxed" attire:

Note the footwear.

It makes sense. If literally my only job was to prevent things being blown up by providing the constant threat of blowing up other things--and getting blown up yourself in the process--I would imagine my sense of humor would get a little on the twisted side too. If nothing else, it might inspire some great apocalyptic fiction.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Welcome to the Terrordome

Life is full of speculative, pointless and interesting conversations. Often there is beer involved. Which would win, a bear with lasers or a dinosaur? Which U.S. politician would you take a bullet for? What is the most disgusting food you would eat for $1 million? And so on.

Occasionally these conversations have utility in real life. At least if you're a professional athlete. A recent piece in The Onion AV Club reminded me of a discussion I had more than once with Friend of the Blog Erin, who at one time was covering professional baseball in Northern California. Players got to choose their own "entrance music" when they appeared in the game, you see, and that led to the obvious question: what would your music be?

Of course, when most people enter the office--including me--there is no fanfare, let alone music. A grunt from the security guard as we scan our badges is best we can hope for. But if I could arrive at my desk to the thundering chords of the "Indiana Jones" theme song, well, that would get my day off to a much better start. Another classic example is the movie "Office Space", which is filled with inspirational music:

Coming back to the question of athletes, though, it really is a tricky question. Do you want to inspire? Intimidate? Simply play something you like listening to? Ideally, all three. Which is why I'm voting for Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome" for the entrance music in my alternate-universe career as a fireballing closer.

(This would earn bonus points if I played for a team with a domed home field, of course)

What would your entrance music be?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Reno tragedy

Some weeks this seems more like an aerospace blog than a writing blog.

Today I read about the shocking crash at the Reno Air Races, in which a souped-up P-51 Mustang crashed just short of the box seats where spectators were gathered to watch a race.

F-1 races get a lot of press in this part of the world: people love fast cars and the thrill of a potential crash. In air racing, the speeds are much higher--500 mph or more--and the chances of surviving a crash are much lower. Under most circumstances, however, the super-high maintenance standards, pilot experience, race design and simple fact that being in the air gives you more margin for error make it a remarkably safe endeavor. Until Friday, there had been only 19 deaths in 49 years of racing.

What happened yesterday, however, was horrific. The racing Mustang, nicknamed Galloping Ghost, appeared to lose control on a race leg near the grandstand. After a few seconds of struggle, it hit the ground at nearly 90 degrees from horizontal.

Galloping Ghost, piloted by Jimmy Leeward.

No one knows exactly what happened yet. There is some speculation of a mechanical failure, and given the outcome that would make sense--the pilot, Jimmy Leeward, had been flying since he was a teenager and racing for decades. I wonder, though, if he suffered some kind of medical issue and blacked out; note that in the photo above, no pilot is visible. The end result was three people killed and dozens injured, including at least 25 critically. Some have suggested that Leeward deliberately dived at the ground, knowing his plane would hit the grandstand dead-on if he did not. I suspect that the cause of the crash will be determined soon, as his ground team will have telemetry data and radio transcripts to work with.

Attending the Reno Air Races has been a minor dream of mine for a long time. The crash doesn't change that. But it does make it a little more sad: all those people--as I would--went to watch something they loved. Instead, they witnessed a tragedy.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Rocket of Tomorrow for the Spaceship of Tomorrow

Oddly, it looks a lot like the rocket of yesterday. Specifically the Saturn V, which sent Americans to the moon and remains the most powerful launch vehicle ever built.

The new, inspirationally named Space Launch System is designed to toss 70 to 130 metric tons into Earth orbit and beyond. It has the capacity, NASA says, to not just get men back to the moon, but also asteroids (by 2025) and eventually Mars. Neat! I am onboard with that plan.

Despite its conventional look, it uses a lot of state-of-the-art hardware. A lot of that is off the shelf, including the super-efficient Shuttle Main Engines. That's great in that it cuts down on development time--they expect to launch one of these by 2017--but slightly saddening in that at least at the outset, there are not going to be any big technological breakthroughs.

But let's take a moment to see how nifty it would look on pad.


I guess the U.S. space program began with proven hardware, like the V-2, and over the course of a couple of decades built it into the Saturn V. That could happen in this case, as well, especially for interplanetary travel, for which chemical rockets are not well-suited. And to be fair, it is extremely unlikely that we are going to be shooting ourselves into orbit using anything but chemical rockets anytime soon, just because the only foreseeable alternatives involve messiness like deadly radiation or engineering challenges like space-based elevators.

Overall, my reaction is much the same as it was to the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle announcement. I recognize that it is state-of-the-art, but I am mildly disappointed at that the state of the art of today looks much as it did in the late 1960s. The Space Shuttle was an engineering leap and looked the part. Would it be too much to ask for NASA to get Ron Moore involved at some point?

But in the end, I hope to at some point in my life watch one of these things lift off in much the same way that my parents watched Apollo 11: A vehicle carrying humanity off into uncharted--and exciting--territory.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

This is not the budget item you're looking for

Or: How project management is more than Force strangulation.

The good folks at the Pentagon have a sense of humor. How do I know? Because an Air Force acquisitions branch chief decided to make a point about not pouring money into big projects with an uncertain utility using the biggest example ever: the Death Star.

In a well-written article filled with tongue-in-cheek references to the Star Wars universe (and a hilarious illustration), Lt. Col. Dan Ward shows how the Death Star was essentially the victim of bad procurement and project-management decisions.

Utility? It had almost none. It only fired its main weapon once, and the Empire did not actually want to go around destroying too many planets, as that would de facto destroy the empire.

Cost? At 14 times the current U.S. debt, it is hard to argue that it was worth the money either time they tried to build it, given the utility.

Well-managed? As Ward points out, the second one is running behind schedule when it is destroyed, and only Darth Vader's murderous "motivational speeches" can get things moving again.

In his mind, those issues trump even the two Death Stars' vulnerabilities, allowing them to be blowed up real good by a bunch of rust-streaked one-man fighters. (albeit with George Lucas' screenwriting in their corner)

I am a lover of big, fascinating technology programs, but I see his point. The National Aerospace Plane, for instance, was a huge money sink for years before everyone collectively realized it wasn't going anywhere and even if it did, who would use it? A giant, airborne laser, while an interesting technology demonstrator, doesn't have much use in the real world.

So, in all, a fun and interesting read. It is good to hear our military planners have a sense of humor--and the good sense to know that the last thing we want to become is the Evil Empire.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Hiding in plain sight

I have this theory that the development of technology, not the actual weapons, is what the U.S. tries to keep most secret. It is not a devastating blow for your enemies to know you're building a Mach 4 bomber; it IS a devastating blow if they know how to jam the brand-new death ray you're going to mount on it.

And, it seems, I might be correct in this theory. The Air Force, in a handy timeline chart, laid out at a recent conference how it was going to build that Mach 4 bomber, in what basically amounts to a PowerPoint presentation.

"Superfast... stealthy... slide, please. Robust scramjet by 2015... slide, please."

As you can see, a lot of the basic technology already at least at Technology Readiness Level 3 or 4, or roughly halfway to operational use. The broad needs for such a craft, such as the engines and materials, are well under development. As speculates, this is proof that the Blackswift project had a bigger impact than anyone thought.

America's (and the world's) only operational Mach 3-capable aircraft was retired years ago. Perhaps by the end of this decade a faster cousin will have appeared in the skies.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sept. 11, 2001

In a lot of ways, it is hard to believe it has been 10 years since the attacks. At the time, caught up in the immediacy and horror and destruction, 10 years seemed impossibly far off.

But now here we are. Like most people, I have a clear memory of that Tuesday, and where I was when I first heard.

I had started work at the Chicago Tribune perhaps a week earlier. Tuesday was my first day off. And because I worked nights, I was asleep when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. My friend Chris called, woke me up and told me to run, not walk, to the TV because something insane was happening in New York.

I flipped on the set just in time to see the second plane hit. It wasn't until the first tower collapsed that I began frantically calling friends and relatives in New York; of course, that was about the time phone calls in and out of that state became virtually impossible.

The only other time I can remember watching so much continuous news coverage is in the aftermath of the 2000 election, when I lived in the land of hanging chads. In 2001, it was a blurry stream of information and misinformation. I was told not to come into work because it was iffy whether the El trains were safe. There was a suicide plane headed to Chicago. The Air Force had shot down more airliners. Fifty thousand people were dead, then 20,000, then 10,000, then 3,000. Some things became clearer as the day went on; others just became murkier.

Everyday life intervened, as it always did. Taking a break from the TV, I took the trash out to the alley so I could get some fresh air--and in doing so, I locked myself out of my apartment. In retrospect, I think I was lucky during that day of extreme paranoia that no one called the police as I climbed up into a window on my back porch.

In the end, there was no personal tragedy for me. All of my friends and family were safe. But the gut-wrenching feeling of witnessing mass murder made that relief seem a little paltry.

I don't know that there is any right or wrong way to mark the anniversary of the most traumatic event for America since I have been alive. Just about every media outlet on the planet will be discussing it in some way or another. It has been interesting to see Gulf media take a look at 9/11: interesting to see the perspective but also a little frustrating because so few people seem to be able to accept Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda's involvement. (For a great examination of such conspiracy theories, check this out.)

Living abroad has, in many ways, made me more fond of my home country. And I hope it never has to suffer through a day like Sept. 11, 2001, again.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Before the HTV failed, Dyna-Soar was canceled

Yeah, I know I have been writing a lot about aviation lately. Sue me. I have immunity under the Airplane Dork Act of 1998.

So here's the deal. The Prompt Global Strike project still hasn't quite figured out how to successfully guide a really fast, really high assault glider to a target anywhere on earth. That's an ambitious program.

But 50 years ago, the U.S. was working on something even more ambitious: A manned version.

The idea was to put a fighter-sized spacecraft at the top of a Titan booster and launch it into a ballistic, sub-orbital trajectory. It had reaction control thrusters that could steer it a bit in space. But the cleverness was in its lifting-body design, which allowed it to not simply fall to Earth, but actually generate enough lift to "skip" off the atmosphere, extending range and bleeding off speed until it arrived at a desired landing area.

It was called dynamic soaring, and that meant the project got the somewhat overly clever name Dyna-Soar.

This spaceplane was intended to be military all the way, either attacking satellites, performing reconnaissance or even bombing missions. A small cargo bay allowed for a variety of payloads. But if they had pulled it off the ramifications down the road would have been tremendous, providing technology for safe, super-fast intercontinental travel. The materials science alone benefitted the aerospace industry at the time, and much of the research went into the design of the Space Shuttle.

A man, a plane, a mostly fictitious scene.

But in 1963, after six years and amid arguments over what rockets should be used to launch it and what its specific mission would be, it was canceled. The astronauts assigned to the program (including Neil Armstrong) went off to do different things, like land on the moon. And Dyna-Soar was no more.

It fascinates me to think about the impact this would have had if it had been tested out and perfected. But like many experimental programs, its lasting legacy is solely in related projects that came later. And, of course, my imagination.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Airlines: You are doing it wrong

One great thing about living in the Middle East is how much traveling we have gotten to do. One awful thing about all that traveling is the constant boarding of aircraft in airports of all sizes and qualities.

There just doesn't seem to be a good way to do it. We have gotten pretty close to mastering the art of the carry-on, so being denied bin space almost never happens. But wow, it always takes forever to stuff everyone onboard.

It's the kind of thing science can help with, apparently.

A very smart guy who studied the process arrived at some interesting conclusions. Boarding rear-to-front is horribly inefficient. Boarding randomly, Southwest-style, is actually much better because passenger discretion can resolve space conflicts.

And it turns out the most efficient means of boarding the plane is, well, kind of complicated. Window seats get preference, using alternating rows, and THEN boarding progresses...

...from the rear forward: seats 12A, for example, followed by 10A, 8A and so on, then returning for 9A, 7A, 5A and so on, and then filling the middle and aisle seats in the same way.

Here's what it looks like:

Will airlines adopt this? Who knows. Maybe the next time I'm waiting for my boarding group to be called, I can hammer out a few persuasive letters.