January 29, 2010

It must take a rocket scientist to figure this out

I find it absurd that today, NASA's remembrance day for those who gave their lives to further the cause of space exploration, the Interwebs are buzzing with speculation about the president pulling the plug on the Constellation Program.

He claims it will be better to turn rocket-building over to private companies.

Whom does he think built the Ares-1X? The SeaBees?

NASA directs the program, but the heavy lifting is -- and always has been -- done by private companies.

The Saturn V rockets were built by Rocketdyne. The lunar landers were built by Grumman.

Orbiters for the space shuttle program were built by Rockwell International with parts by Grumman and General Dynamics. The shuttle's external tank is made by Lockheed Martin. The solid rocket boosters have motor segments made by ATK, with avionics and final assembly by United Space Alliance, which is a partnership between Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Co.

This New York Times story says NASA is getting a budget increase over five years. But if Constellation is scrapped, it seems much of that budget increase must go to a whole new round of requests for proposals, design review meetings, and test flights.

Ares already had a successful test flight. So why are we starting over? And why does the president who came closer to nationalizing our banks than anyone since FDR want to privatize the space program? Does he not realize that the Ares was built by private companies? From NASA:

ATK Space Systems of Promontory, Utah, is the prime contractor for the first stage reusable solid rocket boosters. Jacobs Engineering in Tullahoma, Tenn., is the prime contractor for Ares I-X avionics, with Lockheed Martin of Denver, Colo., as subcontractor. Teledyne Brown Engineering of Huntsville, Ala., is the prime contractor for developing the roll control system. United Space Alliance of Houston, Texas, is the prime contractor supporting launch operations at Kennedy Space Center.

Mr. Change wants to discard the work already done by these private companies so astronauts can fly on rockets built by ... private companies. But there are only so many companies capable of building a rocket that big. Apparently it escapes him that the companies most likely to bid on a "commercial rocket" will be those already named.

That's not change. It's just a waste.

January 21, 2010

You can do without this "special" delivery

This just landed in my inbox:
The courier company was not able to deliver your parcel by your address.

Cause: Error in shipping address.
You may pickup the parcel at our post office personaly!
...The shipping label is attached to this e-mail.
Please print this label to get this package at our post office....

The message purports to be from DHL and sports a convincingly spoofed "dhl.com" e-mail address.

The attachment is called "DHL_Label_NR34791.zip," and that's the real tip-off.

Well, that and the fact that I'm not expecting anything to be delivered by anyone.

Even if I were, why would a simple shipping label be in a zip file?

It wouldn't. It would be a pdf, surely. Or I'd be instructed to log into dhl.com with my tracking number.

This attachment and others like it -- the numbers appear to be randomly generated (yes, I got 2 of them with different numbers) -- contains a Trojan that will install malware on your Windows computer. But even if you have a Mac, you should not open unexpected attachments from unverifiable sources.

For more on Bredolab, see Hoax-Slayer and Symantec.

Oh, and another tip-off? The poor grammar. "deliver your parcel by your address" should be "to your address," and there are two Ls in "personally."

January 17, 2010

Those who can't, kibitz

I had a great time Saturday working with the guys from the Phenix Design Group, who provided driving and flight simulators for Otronicon.

You may recall that last year I wrote about my pretty dismal flight record. So I found it amusing when Lynn, an Orlando Science Center staff member, asked me to work at the Cessna Skyhawk flight simulator.

She asked whether I minded doing something kind of technical. Then she laughed and said, "Well, it's all technology, so I guess you wouldn't be here if you did mind it." Which is true.

Lynn introduced me to Ron, of the Phenix Design Group, who asked whether I'm familiar with flight simulators.

"Yes," I said, "I've crashed several of them."

He was fine with that, and proceeded to show me how the HotSeat Flight Sim works. A few menus and key commands later, and I was running the show.

The HotSeat is a lightweight bucket seat mounted, as one guest discovered by laying on the floor and looking underneath, on "big gimbals." (Yes, that's the kind of guest we get at the science center, and we like it that way. Actually, I saw two people do this.) As you steer left or right, up or down, the chair tilts accordingly. The simulation is driven by a PC, with the video displayed on a large LCD TV.

Usually I gave the guests a quick overview of the controls--which button or lever does what--but only the ones they needed. So several buttons, levers and pedals went unused. To keep things simple and the line moving, Ron was running a limited simulation of an approach and landing at Orlando International Airport.

So yeah, there's me, telling other people how to land a plane.

After I'd been doing this for an hour and a half or so, I noticed that some guests would only touch the buttons I pointed out to them, while others would, at some point in their roughly two-minute approach, push every button and flip every switch to see what each one would do. I also noticed that there was a greater proportion of young people (which is to say, people younger than me) in the latter group, and a greater proportion of people older than me in the former.

First I must point out that my OSC sample is disproportionately skewed to the youth. Nevertheless, this observation is in line with one I've made at the office, where people younger than me, when trying to accomplish something new with a computer, usually start clicking through menus and dialog boxes until they get what they need. People older than me usually call me for help. It's as if they're afraid they'll break it if they push the wrong button. Although there are times, in a production environment, when a computer error could bungle things up rather badly, generally speaking, clicking the wrong button isn't a disaster.

So I began wondering whether this willingness to experiment with the controls at hand is more prevalent in those who've grown up with high-tech gadgetry. Familiarity breeding confidence. I asked my teenager, and he concurs. Young people use trial-and-error, he says, because it's often the faster way to learn something than reading the manuals.

Perhaps the techno-timid of all ages should spend more time in environments like the science center, where trial-and-error learning can be practiced without danger to life, limb, or data.

And for the record, after my volunteer shift was over and I was able to try the HotSeat for my self, I had a lovely approach but pranged on touchdown.

January 14, 2010

Throwing learning a curve

Often, when I run into an old friend, they ask how my son is, and when I tell them he’s sixteen and taller than me they gasp and recall some thing he did when he was eleven. “Can you believe it’s been that long?”

Those of us who were around when Otronicon was a new idea are having much the same reaction. The baby is growing up and into a respectable citizen.

I first wrote about Otronicon in the Jan. 27, 2006 issue of Orlando Business Journal. Dr. Brian Tonner, then president of Orlando Science Center, told me, "The purpose of Otronicon is to examine the impact of digital electronics on culture."

But even then, Otronicon was about more than video games. Orlando has long been a center for military simulation, and the Army and Marine Corps have been participants in Otronicon from the start, along with Lockheed Martin’s simulation and training division.

This year, I told OSC President JoAnn Newman, in all sincerity, that the show keeps getting better every year. It’s true.

This year, one of the new additions is medical simulation. Otronicon has touched on this topic in the past, but this year Florida Hospital for Children has put together a roomful of displays, including a trainer for the da Vinci robotic surgery system.

I was able to try out the da Vinci Surgical System this evening at the Otronicon preview event. The robot is a massive thing with multiple arms -- a mechanical Shiva. The control mechanism is a massive thing with rounded edges, gaping eye sockets and a cavern containing the joystick-like controls.

The controls are a little touchy at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s very nimble. A tray of tiny modeling-clay cones and plastic rings sat on a table under the robotic arms. After only a minute or two -- once the company sales rep who was manning the display showed me the correct way to get my fingers into the grips -- I was able to move rings from one cone to another.

The company representative and a couple of doctors from the hospital explained that this kind of equipment allows for minimally invasive surgery, cutting recovery times by weeks and reducing or eliminating post-surgery problems.

A lady who came along after I finished wasn’t sure guests were allowed to use the machine. But I showed her how, and she gave it a go. But she accidentally pinched off the top of one of the clay cones. Her friend teased her -- “that would hurt” -- but I said, “That was an appendectomy. She meant to do that.”

Preview night is always fun. This year, more than ever. Because now, in addition to enjoying all the new things Otronicon has to offer, I can reminisce with others who’ve been around since back in the day about how far we’ve come.

Otronicon isn’t just about examining culture anymore. As Newman told the attendees tonight, at this event kids don’t just play games, they learn how games are made. “It’s not just about how we play,” she said, “it’s about how we learn.”