Archive for June, 2012


Robonaut 2

This past week I got to work with Robonaut 2 again (me working one of the R2 Ops). We got to pull out his taskboard, and though it was not the first time he had used it, it was the first time we used Task Panel B. The task panel is what we’re usign to teach him how to use different types of knobs and switches, so that when he’s able to move about freely inside and outside the space station, he will understand how to utilize the different buttons and knobs. It makes me think of the mobiles you put in baby cribs. 🙂 Here’s a prety cool video out there of him using Task Panel A the last time we did ops: R2 Operating a taskboard on the ISS.

In the back ground, a team of PLUTO flight controllers and Robonaut engineers work together to drive his hands to the right places and calibrate the robot to operate with the taskboard in space. The Robonauts we’ve learned how to use on the ground are of course calibrated for 1G (standard Earth gravity), and it is not a simple thing to teach the robot to now work in microgravity. You’d be surprised by all of the little subtle things that change without the complex effects of gravity on each of his individual motors and limbs.

As we drive the robot to these different places, the robot is learning. He has a very complicated vision set of 4 cameras that can pick out and recognize tools, and he will eventually be able to use things like drills, wrenches, etc. In addition to the cameras, he has an infrared sensor that allows him to judge distance. When he is fully calibrated for space and gets his legs some time next year, he’ll be able to freely move around the ISS and go out on EVAs (extravehicular activities, i.e. spacewalks) and judge for himself where things are.

– Robonaut’s Youtube channel.

– Robonaut’s homepage.

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Audio Books

In my day to day routine I find it extremely difficult to acquire enough time to read.  My commute to work is 25 miles, and takes 40 minutes to an hour one way.  I have activities after work almost every day including aikido, school (I’m working on my M.S. in Systems Engineering), and many other hobbies.  My immediate family and my husband’s immediate family live here, immediate being parents and siblings, and I always try to find time to spend with our friends.  Though some of my friends and family do not live here, I like to try and keep in touch.  Modern marvels like Facebook help me see what’s going on in my cousin’s lives overseas, Skype helps you call people anywhere for free, and texting, email, and instant messengers make those letters you want to write instantaneous.  Of course I am not always the best at communication with all of my family because, despite many modern marvels, time zones and distance still keep you apart.  But, that is a story for another time.

I came to realize that there were just not enough hours in the day to do all of the things I wanted to do.  The commute to work became a burden.  I thought about what else I could be doing with that ten hours a week back, but moving closer to my job of course is not possible, or at least not preferred, because then my husband’s 45 minute commute would turn into two hours.  Our home is still in the ideal spot between our jobs and in a good community with decent schools, so until such time that is no longer true, this is where we stay.

I tried listening to music and morning programs in my car, but I still felt like I was wasting time that could have been better spent doing something else, so I started to look for other things to do in a commute that would not disrupt my ability to drive, and in my home city, public transportation is just not an option.  So, being a new joiner to the wonderful world of Smartphones (I had recently purchased an iPhone 3GS), I started to explore audio books.  I started off with the free apps, things that downloaded from public domain audio books like LibriVox, and loved it.  The books were hit or miss because the people reading the books are volunteers, but I couldn’t get enough of them.  I started looking for other things that might be public domain, and once I had exhausted the worlds of authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, I branched out and started to look for things like Agatha Christie novels and found that she was not available in the public domain and I was quickly running out of books.

I had already started to realize that I was not going to be able to spend the next 20 years or so living off free books on my commute, so I started to look for other options.  The collections of audio book CD’s in the library were great, but limited, and I found it difficult to force myself to go out of my way to go to the library.  30 minutes one way to go to the library just seemed too much when I had already been spoiled by immediate downloads on my phone, and I only wanted to go when I was out of audio books, so that thirty minute drive there was spent surfing radio channels or listening to Pandora when all I really wanted to do when driving was “read”.  I started to look at the book stores and on Amazon for books on CD.  At the time I didn’t have a CD player in my truck, but I had a tape deck adapter and figured I could make due.  I found the books on CD, though, to be very expensive.   It was about this time that I first heard of Audible, Amazon’s audio books website.

My aikido sensei is legally blind, and had long since resolved the problem of reading.  I asked him what he recommended, and both he and another student in the class recommended Audible.  I went to the site to check it out, and immediately saw that it, too, was very expensive, but what my sensei had said was that I should take a serious look at the benefits of their membership plans.  I realized that not only do you get a 30% discount on each of the books with membership, but the “credits” that you earn each month to use towards “free” books meant that I was really only paying about $11 or less per audio book.  I started off small, and immediately became addicted, especially after I discovered the Dresden Files through a coworker.  James Marsters is a talented voice actor (and TV actor too), and really brought the characters to life for me.

Audible is of course, not the only option out there.  Audiobooks.com and Simply Audio Books are others, though I have no personal experience with them and cannot tell you which program is better.  So, if you hate your commute to work or just can’t seem to find enough time to read, check out audio books and see what you can find.

Writer’s Group

It never ceases to amaze me how blind I can be to my own typos, even when I am expecting at least some to be there.  I wrote it to sound and be a certain way, so that little voice inside of my head reads it for me that way regardless of what I attempted to write on the paper.  This is one of many reasons that, as a writer, I’ve come to learn the value of peer reviews.  Not only do other people catch mistakes and logic loop holes that I might never see, but they help contribute ideas and ask questions that I might have overlooked or taken for granted.  This is a big part of why I have been workshopping my book in a writer’s group.So what’s in a good writer’s group?  Well, for starters, serious writers who are at about the same stage in their book writing process as you are.  It would be hard for someone just starting fresh to join a professional group, or for someone who only writes for fun to try and join a group that was all about getting down to business.  You will need consistent membership, and probably want at least one person to be from your own genre.  While there are lots of good ideas and great feedback a romance author could get from a horror writer and vice versa, they’re not going to be as interested and knowledgeable about the subject matter as someone in the same genre.  Variety, however, is still of key importance since those other POVs (points of view) will make you think on a deeper level and add depth and complexity to your story that you may not have expected or planned for.

Small membership is also ideal, at least in my case, because time is fleeting and precious.  You want to make sure that you can balance your group with your life, and that you will have time to dedicate equal attention to all members of your group.  Our group has four members that are active all the time, and one or two that pop in on occasion. Consistent scheduling will help with the time factor, too.  We aim to meet once a month on a day we’ve agreed on as a group works out for us.  We chose Sunday so that the procrastinators can have time to scramble together last minute words, and the busy people will get Saturday to read everyone’s submissions.  We also limit ourselves to 25 page submissions, and schedule “special” sessions months in advance for completed novels to give people plenty of time to review.

There are a few key things to keep in mind while participating in a group.   First and foremost, if you’re not having fun, or you feel like everyone else is benefiting from your insight, but you are not benefiting from theirs, start looking for a new group.  You also need to remember to keep writing beyond group or you’ll never get done.  Professional writers do a chapter a week, sometimes even in a day when they get in a roll.  If you do a chapter a month it will take you two years to get those 24 chapters you were aiming for, or perhaps even longer if you decide to resubmit something.  Work life and family balance should never be second place, so don’t go to extremes to get done, but keep up the pace and always strive to be a chapter or two a head of the group. That way even if you miss a month of writing, you won’t miss a month of reviewing.

Remember to keep your criticism constructive.  Sometimes people get stuck or end up on paths that they had not planned on, and it is more helpful for you to provide ideas and guidance than for you to just tell them you don’t like something without explanation or examples of ways you think their writing can improve.  There are many plot twists and direction changes that my own book has taken since participating in writer’s group that have caused me to scrap summaries and skew off on cool tangents that I had not thought of before.  And, the further I get in my novel, the more ideas I have come up with for the master plot that I can weave back through.  Almost all of this came from group members pointing out things they did not like, people being OOC (out of character), or members providing me with alternative solutions to problems and asking questions that make you think.

Remember that the first novel is the hardest, and planning doesn’t always work out.  You’ll get there, it just takes time, and you have to be willing to make the time.  Go ahead and just get through it.  I promise you it is a lot easier to pick that title, find that opening line, and look for that missing plot scenario when you’re done than it is to obsess over the same chapter for months.  Most of all, have fun and be yourself.  Writing is an extension of yourself, and people will judge you for it, but try not to let that rule everything you do.

Soulbound

Not long ago my husband and I celebrated our 5 year wedding anniversary (May 6th if you’re curious).  On that day, we had been a couple for fifteen years.  I realized a couple of weeks ago that the date also marked another significant milestone in our life together.  We turned 30 this year, so that meant that our 15 year anniversary was the day we had literally spent half of our lives together.  Even after all these years, I never grow tired of the time we spend together.

I’ve learned a lot about love in this time.  I’ve learned that when someone loves you, his face lights up every time you walk in the room, and yours does the same.  I’ve learned that blankets (and cuddles) are easier to get than watching my furnace of a husband sweat when I have the air on to the temperature I like.  I know that no one is perfect, and that no matter how many times he leaves the wet clothes in the washer, or I leave half empty glasses of water all over the house, you should never go to bed angry.

They say that love is all you need, but love involves more than standing around and assuming everything will work out.  Communication is one of two things that I know keeps us together.  My husband is a “chaser,” meaning he likes to resolve things NOW and he will brute force his way through an argument or a fight until it is done.  I, however, am horribly irrational when I’m angry, and just want to get away when we fight.  When we’d had a few spats that ended in nothing more than truces and regretted words, we talked together about what we needed when we were mad.  I explained that he needs to give me time to cool off, and he explained that I can’t ignore things until they go away… because they don’t.  Neither of us wants to go to sleep and find the next day that the last thing we shared together was a meaningless fight about who forgot to pick up their shoes.

Compromise is the other thing that gives us strength.  There are the small things to compromise on –  When we each want something different to eat, we go out instead of settling on one dish.  When we don’t want to clean, we treat ourselves to a little help instead of arguing over chores.  Then, there are the bigger things –  He wants to have three kids, and I’m not so sure, so together we decided to start with one and go from there.  We’re also holding off on the kids so that I can finish my masters degree, we can finish our black belts in aikido, and we can make that trip to Australia next year.

In many ways we are alike – we both like similar music, we both like (mostly) the same movies, and we enjoy playing video and board games together.  We love art.  He is a talented sculptor, and I enjoy sketching and attempting to paint when I have the time.  Vacation destinations are easy to pick, though both of us are pretty lazy about planning and end up winging it, then taking naps in the afternoon instead of filling every second with activities.  We enjoy the company of great friends together, have long conversations about random things like quantum theory and relativity, and don’t particularly enjoy housework.

We are also very different.  We each have friends that we like to see without needing the other to be there.  We like different food, have different religious beliefs, and while he can’t get enough of RTS (real time strategy) and FPS (first person shooter) games, I don’t particularly enjoy PVP (player vs. player) because he ALWAYS wins!  He also vastly outweighs me with his patience and his calm, centered attitude, but I tend to be a bit more responsible than him. 😉

At this point in my life, I have more memories of being with him than I do of being without him, and I intend for it to stay that way.  If it is not in the cards, though, I want to have no regrets.  My philosophy and advice to the rest of you: Live every moment like it might be your last, but don’t spend so much time trying to live that you forget to really live, and enjoy the little things.  Learn to love each other no matter what.  Your true friends love you at your best, most graceful moments as well as your worst, most foolish ones.  So, too, should your best friend.  Learn to accept what you can, and compromise on the rest.  And, most of all, learn how to work things out so that you never go to bed angry.

People are often surprised when I tell them that I work for NASA.  “Didn’t they cancel NASA?”  “Oh… they still have jobs?”  “What do you do without the space shuttle?”  Well, no we didn’t cancel NASA, yes they still have jobs, and there’s this other multi-billion dollar project in the manned space flight program known as the International Space Station, aka the “ISS”.  The ISS is the largest, most complex international systems engineering project ever constructed by mankind.  It includes partnerships from the United StatesRussiaCanadaJapan, and Europe.  Construction of this project began in 1998. It  is currently funded until 2020, and may operate until 2028.  There’s a lot of good info about it here on wikipedia.  There is also a pretty cool app in development about it with an interactive website.

Wow, you mean there’s this big space ship floating up there 24-7 and I didn’t know about it?

Yes.  It just doesn’t get as much hype as projects like the Shuttle cause hey, let’s face it, it’s really cool when things go boom and blast off into space on a big ball of fire.  Plus there’s less of an impending sense of doom for the news casters to focus on when reporting, too.  Bet you didn’t know China has a space station up there either.  Or a manned space vehicle for that matter.  In fact, they just launched a crew of 3 along with their first female astronaut to Tiangong 1 just yesterday, June 16th 2012.  They’re slated to arrive at the Tiangong 1 station Monday June 18th with a fully automated docking system.

So what do you do at NASA?

Well, I’m actually a flight controller.  I work under the call sign PLUTO, which stands for Plug-in Port Utilization Officer (notice that when you google that you can easily get 20,000 different versions of what the acronym stands for.  I promise this is the right one).  The name PLUTO is inherited from the flight controller’s original role, which was to maintain and coordinate changes to the U.S. segment of the electrical Plug-in Plan (PiP). The PiP is the tracking of portable electronic equipment, making sure equipment connected is compatible and does not violate constraints, and will not overdraw the power source. Along with this, PLUTO is responsible for maintaining the OPSLAN (Operations Local Area Network) and the JSL (Joint Station LAN). PLUTO has remote desktop administration and monitoring capability to the network from the ground, which includes remote desktop commanding for ROBONAUT activities. (You can actually find some photos of me on Robonaut’s home page if you look hard enough ;)) The PLUTO is also responsible for certain Station Developmental Test Objectives, or SDTOs during the mission, such as programming the Wireless Instrumentation System (WIS).  (Gee that looks just like what came out of Wikipedia!  Well, I wrote the entry, so I can copy it :P)

I wouldn’t recommend trusting everything you google about the OPSLAN and the JSL if you guys plan to look that stuff up.  I see an awful lot of outdated resources out there referencing REALLY old technology and control documents.  While we don’t have the latest and greatest stuff up there, it’s not as bad as some of those websites lead you to believe.  So why aren’t we using the latest greatest toys if we’re supposed to be so cutting edge?  Well, NASA has to prioritize and scrutinize to get the best bang for the buck.  When everything you fly has to be tested and modified to handle a weightless, radioactive environment, it’s a lot more expensive to buy new stuff.  For example, computer RAM is extremely susceptible to radiation bombardment.  And, imagine non-captured screws getting lost and floating around where they could damage electrical equipment or injure astronauts.  Additionally, many laptops these days have drop protection which, when an impact seems imminent, the laptop’s hard drive stops writing data and the read/write head is retracted.  That doesn’t help much when your laptop is in a constant state of free fall.  Neither do iPad accelerometers.  But hey, we still get to do tomorrow’s science today, even if it’s with a lot of yesterday’s technology.

In September, I’ll be moving over to start life as an Integration Systems Engineer (ISE, pronounced “ice”).  ISE is a specialist position that functions as the systems liaison between ISS and visiting vehicles that are berthed to the U.S. side of ISS. This includes HTVDragon, and Cygnus.  Here’s an interview by one of my coworkers that provides a pretty good overview of what I’ll be doing.  He talks about the first Dragon mission to the international space station.  SpaceX‘s Dragon is the first vehicle from NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, and is working on becoming a man-rated space vehicle in the near future.

These of course are not the only vehicles docking with the ISS.  Russia has two vehicles, Progress and Soyuz.  Progress is a cargo vehicle, and Soyuz flies 3 astronauts/cosmonauts at a time.  Presently, Soyuz is the only way to get people back and forth to the ISS, and depending on the number of crew, 1-2 Soyuz (3-6 crew) stay docked to the ISS at all times as “life boats” for them to return home in.  ATV is ESA’s cargo vehicle.  Note that Dragon and Soyuz are the only space vehicles that return to Earth intact.  The rest burn up on re-entry, and act as ISS trash disposal when they’re undocked.

What kind of science does the international space station do?

Well, the ISS is basically a big orbiting laboratory filled with everybody’s favorite lab rats, known as astronauts and cosmonauts.  There is a lot of research going on in medicine, education, physics, technology, biology and biotechnology, chemistry, robotics, earth and life sciences, and more.  You can learn a bit more about the different research and experiments we have going on at NASA’s homepage.  Did you know we have mice in space?

I hope this has been educational for you all!

Web Comics

Web comics?  What’s that?  Well, essentially it is a growing community of self-publishing artists from a variety of back grounds with a mix of traditional and non-traditional styles.  Some of them can be educational, others controversial, but in general they’re intended to be fun and entertaining.  There are a lot of webcomics out there, like XKCD and Penny Arcade, and web comics that started life in weekly newspapers like Dilbert.

The Webcomic community gets to enjoy a lot of freedoms that the world of newspaper and magazine comics don’t get to, including the option not to have someone edit their works.  They also have the option to use the web’s unique forums like clip art, animation, and sprites though and a lot of web comics go with the traditional newspaper comic style. A few are even financially successful on their own.

So why am I posting about web comics?  Well, so I could make a shameless promotion of my brother’s new web comic he’s been working on.  I’ll warn you now, some of the content is a little bit NSFW (not safe for work), but the comics are cute and fun and not full of terrible language or violence.  The comics mostly have a light sense of humor and reference things like Indiana Jones, Dr. Seuss and zombies.  Check them out here (or he’ll punch you): Frank n’ Bob: Buttholes

If any of you guys own an iPhone – or droid for that matter – you know that if you record video over a certain size it’s like pulling teeth to get it downloaded into your computer.  Not long ago I recorded about 2 1/2 minutes of video at work and wanted to share it with my work pals by downloading it off of the phone and putting it on my work laptop.  I tried everything.  I tried to transfer it off like the phone was a camera, I tried figuring out how on Earth to do it in the evil monster known as iTunes, I even tried to upload it to YouTube to just share the link with NO JOY.  (“No Joy”?  What’s that mean?  It means: “it didn’t work, insert-swear-word-of-choice-here” in NASA speak).

I don’t know how to fix it for Droid, but there’s a fancy pants tool I discovered not too long ago that makes life a whole lot easier when trying to explore and transfer data from your iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch to your MAC or PC.  This is not the ONLY method to get large video files off of your phone, but it’s a pretty good one.  It also helps you explore your other apps and get data out of there too!  With this, you can pretty well tell iTunes to stuff it and you don’t have to jailbreak your phone!

Check out iFunBox file manager here: http://www.i-funbox.com/

So why should I care about NASA?  There aren’t any meteors coming any time soon, and I don’t get to go walk on the moon.  You guys get like 20% of the budget, right?  Shouldn’t we spend that on something else?

Well first of all, NASA is actually relatively inexpensive, especially when compared to other government programs and some of our nation’s spending habits, and it sure isn’t 20% of the U.S. budget.  We’d have mined all the H3 out of the moon and colonized the solar system by now if it were.  So how much is it really costing you?  Well, in 2012, our budget was set to 0.48% of the U.S. budget, or about 17.7 billion dollars.  Yes, that’s right, that’s less than 1%, not 48% with a typo.  Even at its peak in 1966 NASA did not hit 20%.  In fact, it was at around 4.41%, or about 33 billion in today’s dollars, and we used that to go to the moon.  The entire cost of Apollo program was roughly $136 billion in today’s dollars – including the construction of ships, paying employees, and sending people back and forth to the moon.  That puts a little perspective on what they’re asking us to do today with half the annual budget.  Plus, not all of that is dedicated to manned space either, and what IS dedicated to manned space is divided among all of the manned space program projects, such as crew exploration vehicle, partnering with commercial space endeavors, and the international space station.  And, consider this:  The nation spent $11.4 billion on Black Friday just last year.  That’s 64% of NASA’s budget spent in just one day.

So what has NASA ever done for me?  Obvious answers would be solar energy, GPS, long distance communications and cellular telephones, but what else is there?  NASA posts a lot about their commercial spinoffs here: http://spinoff.nasa.gov/index.html  These spinoffs impact the health industry, medicine, transportation, safety, the environment, and much more. Some examples include scratch resistant lenses on your glasses, water filtration systems, lightweight, compact, cordless tools, memory foam, and invisible braces.  Check it out, do a little research, learn something new. You might just be surprised 🙂

The Decor

So where did you get those cute little dragons?

Well, a bunch of places actually.

The Wallpaper: http://www.rarewallpapers.com/dragon-tattoo.html

Took me a while to find something that I liked and went with the rest of the stuff on the blog site.  I actually used an existing theme called “motion” and then went around searching for stuff that pertained to dragons, and that also had a color scheme that went with the rest of the theme settings that already existed.  Why?  Because I was too cheap to customize something from scratch (yes it actually costs), and I liked the basics of the Motion layout already, I just did not like the wallpaper 😉

The Counter: http://boingdragon.com/

This adorable little guy came from Boing Dragon’s lair.  I actually found this website ages and ages ago when Yahoo Geocities websites still existed.  I saw the little guy pop up on a lot of sites, and finally decided to go check out my fellow dragon’s lair.  Sometimes I miss geocities.  Especially knowing that there is some poetry I have now lost for all time since the site went away and I lost the hard copy of the poem 😦

The Avatar: http://freesmileyface.net/free-fantasy-smileys/

Honestly I’ve had this little guy for so long I don’t remember where he originally came from.  I actually found him back in the dark ages BG (before google) on a yahoo search trying to find AIM buddy icons.  He was so cute, and one of the only ones I found that made me think of my mental idea of a “kiwi dragon,” so I adopted him and gave him a home.

So how did you find your little dragon icon again if you didn’t remember where you got him?

Well, now that we no longer live in the land now dubbed BG, I did this cool thing called google image search.  And I don’t mean googling “green dragon icons” or something and clicking the “images,” I mean actually uploading and searching based on the image itself.  Check it out, it’s pretty cool: http://images.google.com/imghp?hl=en

Anyone who’s ever written or read scifi knows about this problem.  Predicting the future is not a simple skill set, simply because humanity is often difficult to predict.  For example, at the birth of the automobile, the electric car was actually the superior model to the steam and gasoline cars.  Electric vehicles had many advantages over their competitors: they were quiet, you didn’t have the scent of gasoline blowing back on you as you drove, you didn’t have to crank them to get them started, and you didn’t have to change gears.  Steam cars didn’t need to change gears either but if you had that car in a cold climate you often had a long time to wait to get it started.  Anyone looking at the vehicle market in the early 1900’s could have easily envisioned a logical progression of electric cars into the future, but they would have been wrong.

As the roaring 20’s approached, roadways improved, gasoline became cheaper, and our good friend Henry Ford invented the assembly line.  This meant that the gasoline vehicles not only became the affordable choice, but since the electric vehicles did not have the superior range needed to travel those fancy new roads between cities, the demand for shorter range electric vehicles declined.  Plus, if you ran out of gas on the way to your neighboring city, no problem: pull out that spare gas can, fill ‘er up and go on your merry way.  But what happens when you run out of charge on your battery?  You can bring a spare battery, sure, but it’s not as easy as the gas can method.  Plus, gas was CHEAP, and to top it all off, the electric starter had come along eliminating that annoying need to crank.

The moral of the story?  If you ever want to persuade someone, you can often do so just by hitting their wallets and appealing to their laziness. 😉 Little cynical I suppose, but people are people and thinking along these lines can help you make reasonable, believable choices as well as inaccurate ones.

So what does this mean to a science fiction writer?  Consider science fact before you write your science fiction and put your world through a logical, fun progression. Would a telepathic race need to learn how to use speech? How would a blind race learn about the stars? Consider your fiction society’s values and goals, and project them on the world you’ve created. Do your end items make sense?  Are you prepared to be right or wrong?  Are you prepared to have a really cool idea and have it get published or manufactured before YOU get published, or have that idea manifest AFTER and be the one who inspired its creation?

In my own writing, I’ve also put together technologies based on other science fiction novels. Many authors do. The Odin panel, which looks remarkably like an iPad, I actually dreamed up about 14 years before the iPad came out because I loved the idea of the computer “desks” from Ender’s Game.  I wonder if the folks from Apple did, too.  And why not?  After all, the cell phone’s birth was inspired by science fiction – star trek to be precise. Star Trek also inspired NASA and social morality in its own way. What will my novel be the precursor for? Who knows. Probably nothing so fantastic. I am no Jules Verne, but I like to think sometimes that if I had actually gotten my novel out there a little sooner when the idea was still young, perhaps I could have inspired something like the iPad myself.

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