Monthly Archives: April 2015

But Will the Machine Misspell Your Name on the Cup?

Remember a couple weeks ago when I wondered how the ISSpresso — that fancy orbital coffee-maker recently delivered to the space station — actually worked? And how it avoids the danger of steam clouds drifting around inside the enclosed environment of the ISS? Well, when you have a question, the Internet provides an answer! From a year-old article I dug up:

Those requirements included finding a way to keep the hot water inside the machine after the espresso is finished. While water residue is normal in Earth-bound espresso machines, the prospect of boiling-hot bubbles seeping from the device in microgravity forced Argotec [the manufacturer] to seek a solution.


… in general terms, a small container in the machine collects the water. Also, stainless steel has replaced the usual plastic tubing inside the device, making it more resistant of pressure…

The machine itself resembles a microwave oven — it’s just a box — and works something like those coffee “pod” machines that brew a single serving at a time. Again quote, the process works like this:

Astronauts can operate the device with only the push of a button. An astronaut will take a pouch of water from the station’s room-temperature potable system, about 8.4 ounces’ (250 milliliters) worth. Those who like sweet coffee can add a dash of sugar to the mix.


Next, crew members will select how much coffee they want, insert a capsule in the top of the machine and press “brew.” It takes the device 60 seconds to heat the water to 167 degrees Fahrenheit (75 degrees Celsius), then 40 seconds to dispense the espresso.


The coffee will spew out into a pouch, ready for the astronaut to drink. And if there’s a lineup, the company says the machine can easily make a second serving in the same time, about 40 seconds.

The machine can also be used to make tea, consomme, and other hot beverages, and supposedly the machine has some scientific value — NASA has mentioned studying fluid dynamics in zero-g and how things learned from the ISSpresso may lead to improvements with similar machines back here on Earth — but come on, we all know what it’s all about: the astronauts feeling cozy as they relax inside that observation cupola…

Speaking of the cupola, you may have seen this widely circulated photo of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti wearing a Star Trek uniform, with the arriving Dragon spacecraft visible in the windows behind her:

ISS_astronaut-cristoferetti_star-trek-uniformIt’s a cool photo, and the fact that a real-life astronaut is wearing a Trek uniform has no doubt generated a lot of grins from nerds and civilians alike… but the really amusing thing (to this nerd) is that she’s not wearing just any old Trek uniform. She’s dressed as Captain Kathryn Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager, the fourth television series of the franchise. And one of Janeway’s little character quirks was a hopeless addiction to coffee… black. Cristoforetti is Italian and has reportedly been eager to try out the ISSspresso machine. Life reflects fiction and vice versa, in an infinite regression…

Finally, if you’re not completely bored with the subject (I’m not), here’s an infographic that details the workings of the ISSpresso:


After all this build-up, I hope the silly thing works…


How Do You Feel?

I do a lot of fretting/grumbling/navel-gazing here — well, everywhere, really — about getting older, feeling older, fearing I’ve lost touch with popular culture, being past my prime… hey, you’ve read the posts. But something occurred to me this morning:

In recent years, I’ve lost a lot of the weight I unwisely stacked on in my thirties.

Thanks to my LASIK surgery two weeks ago, I have my original, un-bespectacled face back.

In the next few months, we’ll be seeing a new Mad Max film, a new Jurassic Park film, a new Terminator, another Mission: Impossible, and, lest we forget, a new Star Wars episode.

And of course next year’s presidential election will likely be between a Clinton and a Bush.

You see where I’m going with this?

It’s like I’m young again!

Either that, or suffering a massive case of deja vu.


Give It a Rest, Haters!

A week ago Thursday was a big day for me. Oh, sure, there was that whole eye-surgery thing, but there was also the little matter of the second trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (You didn’t think I was going to let that pass without mention, did you?) Seriously, the timing couldn’t have been better, as the trailer hit the InterWebs at just about the very moment when my anxiety over having my corneas sliced open with frickin’ laserbeams was hitting its peak. But you know what? Two-and-a-half minutes in that galaxy far, far away proved to be quite a wonderful stress reliever: I laughed, I cried, I even beat my fists on my desktop in a paroxysm of sheer glee. Yes, it remains to be seen whether the actual movie will be any good, but as far as the trailer goes… let’s just say Han and Chewie weren’t the only ones who felt like they’d come home.

But that warm afterglow never lasts long here in the 21st century, does it? Especially when it comes to anything Star Wars. My vision was still hazy the day after my surgery when I ran across this sour little turd-in-the-punchbowl in an online discussion of the new trailer:

If JJ Abrams wants to give Star Wars fans a complete nerdgasm, one brief shot of a grave marked “Jar Jar Binks” would cause the theater to erupt in several minutes of applause.

Really? We’re still bitching about Jar Jar Binks? The Phantom Menace was released sixteen years ago, in 1999. Let me repeat that slowly and loudly for anyone who’s not paying attention: Six. Teen.Years. Hell, it’s been a decade since Revenge of the Sith. An entire generation of kids of has grown up with the prequels and are having kids of their own (at least here in Utah). But the disgruntled fanboys are still whinging about about the prequels in general and particularly about poor old Jar Jar Binks.

Enough already.

You know, I’d lately been thinking that all the rage and snottiness that sucked the fun out of being a Star Wars fan over the past two decades was on the wane. I was naive enough to imagine that the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney and George Lucas retiring might finally quiet the howling echoes of the Great Disappointment, and that The Force Awakens would mark the beginning of a new era. But as Jack Nicholson memorably said in the final scene of The Two Jakes, it just never goes away.

I wish the hell it would, because it’s gotten really boring, people. The Force Awakens opens in a mere eight months, and I’m sure it will be filled with all sorts of new things for fans to bitch about. (I can hardly wait. And yes, that’s sarcasm, in case you couldn’t tell.) In the meantime, though, can we please just stop talking about the prequels and frickin’ Jar Jar Binks?

Incidentally, you do realize there are people who actually like the prequels, right? Or at least don’t think they’re all that bad? There’s far from a mass cultural consensus on them, even though it often seems that way. And a lot of those folks I mentioned who grew up on them downright love them. Shockingly enough, they have a different perspective than their elders and they are every bit as passionate about their own opinions. And there even some elder Star Wars fans who are cool with the prequels too… our colleague Jaquandor, for example. You won’t find a more eloquent defender of them, or of the franchise in general. But no matter. I don’t want to open this can of worms again. I know I’m taking a risk of that merely by posting this plea, but I’m so damn tired of all the bile. I really want to enjoy being a fan of this thing again without all the constant bickering. Somebody, please just make it stop





Thinking of My Boys

I spotted this on Wil Wheaton’s Tumblr a while back and decided to save it, because it reminds me of my own kitty boys Evinrude and poor departed Hannibal, who was killed nearly a year ago on the road in front of our house. ‘Rude is immensely lovable and I wouldn’t trade him for anything, but Hannibal was my little pal, and, as much as I feel like a dick for saying so, my favorite of the two. I miss his cocky tough-guy swagger and insatiable curiosity (the two qualities that I suspect led him to be out on that road in the first place). I know his brother misses him too…



Friday Evening Videos: “The Lazy Song”

Well, I imagine my Loyal Readers are probably wondering how the eye surgery went. I intend to write in detail about the procedure, as well as the experience of being able to see without spectacles again for the first time in 21 years, but for now I’ll just say everything seems to have gone very satisfactorily. At my post-op examination this morning, my optometrist said I’m seeing at 20/20 in both eyes, although that will fluctuate a bit over the next couple of months before finally settling into whatever it’s going to be permanently. The biggest problem thus far has been all the eye drops I’m required to administer; seems like all I’ve been doing for nearly 24 hours is putting drops in my eyes. But that’s a small price to pay in exchange for the experience I had yesterday of glancing out my kitchen window when I got home and finding myself able to read the billboard in the back of the old pickup parked up the street, which one of the neighbors uses to advertise his window-installation business. That was almost as big a revelation as that moment 21 years ago when I first noticed the trees on the ridgeline.

In any event, I’ve got the day off work today and I’m just taking it easy, lounging around the house and doing my eyedrops every couple of hours, as instructed. Given the circumstances, I can’t think of any video selection more fitting than this one:

I first came across this video during the big online outpouring of love and grief at Leonard Nimoy’s passing back in February, but I decided not to post it then because this blog was threatening to turn into “all Leonard, all the time.” I’m informed by fairly reliable sources (i.e., my lovely Anne) that this song by Bruno Mars — appropriately called “The Lazy Song” — was very popular a few years ago, but honestly (and probably not at all surprising to my Loyal Readers) I can’t recall ever hearing it before. As it happens, I kinda dig it… it’s cute, in a hipster-slacker kind of way. And the video absolutely cracks me up, and makes me miss Leonard — the friend I never really knew, the neighbor I never actually had — all over again.

As to how a respected elder celebrity like Nimoy ended up peeing in the sink and all those other terrible things that ran so counter to his public image (which is largely why this video is so funny after all), he explained it in another video clip that can be found on Facebook, but the short version is this:

His step-son Aaron Bay Schuck (whose father is the actor John Schuck, who appeared in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which Leonard directed) is a record-label executive who works with Bruno Mars. Bruno wanted Leonard in his video and asked Aaron if that was a possibility. A couple of phone calls later, and voila! It’s all about who you know, as they say.

Hope you all enjoyed it, and hope you all have a great weekend. I’m going to spend some time looking out the window at things I couldn’t see without aid before yesterday…


Making Some Changes

I had just turned twenty-four years old, and I walked into the DMV to renew my driver’s license. I walked out a half-hour later with a mandate that changed my life. I’d flunked the eye exam and would now be required by The Man to start wearing eyeglasses. At least if I wanted to keep driving under legal sanction.

I don’t think I’d been so close to throwing an all-out tantrum since I was ten. I remember stomping out of the drab institutional government building that afternoon pissed off at everything I could think of: the DMV, the State of Utah, the uncaring bureaucratic functionaries who’d delivered the news, the soul-crushing reality that, even at 24, I was getting older… I was mad at the entire fracking universe, really. I hated the idea of having to wear glasses, just hated it. Glasses didn’t fit my self-image or my idea of “cool.” Sure, Indiana Jones occasionally donned a set of readers when he wanted to study a Grail tablet or something close up, but that was different. Not like wearing the damn things all the time. None of the action heroes and matinee idols I, in my naive insecurity, wanted to be more like wore glasses. (This was the early ’90s, before they became a near-ubiquitous fashion accessory.) They still carried the taint of bookish nerdism to them (the fact that I was a bookish nerd was irrelevant; I didn’t want to look like one), and in my mind I could hear every playground taunt of “Four Eyes!” I’d ever overheard.

In addition, they were an added expense I didn’t want to pay (I didn’t have a lot of money in those days and was very conscious of where it went). Yearly exams, frames, lenses… I didn’t know how much exactly those things cost, but I figured they were pretty pricey. (That’s the one thought I had that day that turned out to be correct.) But I think the thing that most troubled me was that I hadn’t realized I needed them at all, and I was embarrassed about it. What kind of a schmuck can’t tell his own vision is going? Hell, in my job as a movie-theater projectionist, I’d been getting a lot of calls recently from ushers down on the floor that the movies were out of focus, but I’d dismissed them. The movies looked fine to me. But it was true. Apparently, my vision had deteriorated so slowly that I just didn’t notice. And now I had egg on my face. A lot of it, in my mind.

In short, being told I needed glasses had bruised my ego. And I’ll be honest… I never really got over it.

I’ve been wearing glasses for nearly 22 years now, damn near half my life, and even though I long ago got used to the idea, I still don’t like it. Oh, sure, it was like some kind of miracle the first time I put them on and saw that there were, in fact, trees on the mountain ranges that encircle my valley home — I’d long believed they were just bare rock — but somewhere, deep in the back of my mind, some little part of me still thinks “this isn’t really you…”

It’s not that I think I look bad in glasses. Quite the contrary, once I figured out that spending a little extra money on better quality and more fashionable styles was worth it, I’ve been relatively content with my appearance. But it’s not how I want to look, if that makes sense. And the glasses themselves are a pain in the butt. I’m always conscious of their presence, always. I worry about losing them, breaking them, scratching them. When it rains or snows, they get spotted. When I kiss my girl, they get smudged. I risk the frames getting bent if I hug somebody at the wrong angle, or fall asleep on the couch with my face down on the armrest. I can’t easily back up a car the way I was taught, by looking back over my shoulder, because I end up looking half through the lenses and half over the top of them, meaning my depth perception is all screwed up. I hate how they fog up when I come inside after being outdoors on a cold day. I hate how they hang off my face when I bend over, and sometimes will jiggle a bit and make me dizzy. I hate how, when I’m doing yardwork on a hot day, they’ll slide down my nose or catch droplets of sweat in the lenses. I hate that I have to spare a second (and a hand) to pop them off when I’m putting on or taking off a t-shirt. When Anne and I went on a snowmobiling expedition through Yellowstone a few winters ago, trying to wear the glasses and a helmet was uncomfortable as hell. And I haven’t enjoyed amusement park rides in years, partly because I’m getting old and everything makes me woozy now, but a big issue is worrying about my glasses flying off.

I realize these are all petty complaints, especially in return for being able to clearly see, a gift that many people in the developing world — or even poor people in our own first world — don’t have the luxury of complaining about. But I won’t apologize for complaining about this. And assuming everything goes well today, I won’t have to anymore.

I’ve been thinking about getting LASIK corrective surgery for years, but I kept putting it off for various reason. It was too expensive, or too inconvenient to take a couple days off work for the recovery, or it was just plain too scary to think of some quack firing an energy beam into my one and only pair of baby browns. On some level, I think I felt that I didn’t really deserve to do it because my motivation was vanity. I’ve always thought cosmetic surgery was largely unjustified, and what is this if not another form of cosmetic surgery?

Then a couple weeks ago, I opened the dishwasher right after it completed its cycle and got a faceful of steam. Naturally, my glasses fogged over, leaving me completely blind for 30 seconds or so… and that was the final straw. I didn’t get angry or anything, but I just decided right then and there that I was sick of wearing these damn things. My optometrist had mentioned on my last visit that I was a good candidate for LASIK if I wanted to consider it, but I hadn’t followed through on his referral. Now I was ready. So I scheduled an evaluation with Hoopes Vision, the most-often namechecked LASIK provider in Utah, and — to cut at long last to the chase — I’m going in today at 1:30 to have the procedure.

I’ll be honest, I’m nervous as hell. The first image that jumped into my mind once my appointment was confirmed was this:

Goldfinger laser

Followed closely by this:

I’ve spoken to a lot of people who’ve had LASIK — it’s funny how once you start talking about something like this, fellow travelers seem to come out of the woodwork — and with only one or two exceptions, nobody has reported any problems at all, and even the ones who had a setback told me they didn’t regret doing the surgery in the end. But still… lasers… in the eyes… I don’t really think I’ll end up with smoking craters where my eye sockets used to be, but…

Sometimes a vivid imagination is a real curse.

Funny thing, though: the day of my evaluation appointment, a few hours after I got home from the clinic, I was leaving the bathroom and reached out to turn off the lights when I heard something clunk into the waste basket and suddenly my vision went blurry. It turned out the frame of my glasses had spontaneously snapped and one of the lens had tumbled into the trash. Now, if that wasn’t some kind of a sign, I don’t know what is…


A Couple More…

A last couple of space-related tidbits before I get my mind onto something else:

First, this week is the 45th anniversary of the infamous Apollo 13 moon mission, when a familiar tale of exploration and adventure took an abrupt turn and became one of the greatest survival stories in human history. If you’ve seen the excellent Apollo 13 movie starring Tom Hanks, you know basically what happened: when astronaut Jack Swigert flipped a switch to stir the slushy contents of the spacecraft’s main liquid oxygen tank — a completely routine operation that should’ve been about as exciting as turning on the lights — an electrical fault caused the tank to explode. The resulting damage was severe enough, the situation dire enough, that the three men aboard barely made it back to Earth with their lives. But what exactly led to that disastrous electrical fault? io9 has posted a fascinating rundown of the chain of events — essentially, it was one dumb little coincidence after another, piling on top of each other until some kind of failure became almost inevitable. Most chilling of all is the note that timing was everything; if the explosion had happened sooner in the flight or later, those three brave men wouldn’t have had a chance. Give it a read.

And finally, there’s this:


That’s the first color photo of the dwarf planet Pluto and its satellite Charon (Pluto is the larger blob on the right) taken by the New Horizons space probe last week. New Horizons has been hurtling toward a rendezvous with these twin worlds at the edge of our solar system for nearly 10 years, and it’s still 71 million miles away from them. But it’s closing fast, and will fly past these icy little rocks (as well as Pluto’s other four moons) on July 14th, giving us our first really good look at what used to considered the ninth planet of our system before its controversial downgrade from planet status. Planet or not, I’ve wondered what Pluto really looks like since reading Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel in the fifth grade. I’m looking forward to this one…

National Geographic has the details on that photo, and the New Horizons mission, here.


Getting Closer

Yesterday was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for space nerds, as Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully launched another mission to the International Space Station, the sixth of 12 flights the company is contracted to fulfill. Aboard the Dragon spacecraft this time was 4,300 pounds of supplies, experiments, and the first-ever orbital espresso machine, which of course has been dubbed the “ISSpresso.” I have no idea how such a thing is going to work in zero-gravity — it would be very bad to have a cloud of hot steam drifting around the station, I think — but it amuses me to think of such a homey touch being added to our outpost on the edge of the final frontier. Because really, who doesn’t want a nice hot beverage at the end of a long day of exploration and experimentation?

The launch itself was flawless after being pushed back a day due to weather concerns:


However, as inspiring and lovely as that was, the part of the launch that was most interesting (to me at least) ended in a spectacular failure. For the second time, SpaceX attempted to bring the first stage of the Falcon 9 booster rocket back to Earth under its own power and land it on an unmanned sea-going platform.  The idea, if this system can be perfected, is to someday have the boosters return to the launch site and “soft-land,” so they can be easily refurbished, refueled and used again at an enormous cost saving over today’s “use ’em and toss ’em” paradigm. You know, the same thing the space shuttles were supposed to do but never quite managed.

Anyhow, the first try at a powered soft landing back in January ended in a fireball when the rocket came in on an angle and struck the deck of the platform barge, a failure that was later attributed to the vehicle running low on the hydraulic fluid that operated its control fins. For yesterday’s effort, the rocket was equipped with a larger supply of fluid, which helped it reach the target… but unfortunately, it toppled over after touchdown, resulting in yet another “rapid unscheduled disassembly”:

Failure or not, though, I find that video pretty exciting. The rocket is not under remote control during these landing attempts; it’s autonomous, and its downright astounding to me that it found its way to a relatively tiny barge without any human help. The only problem that I can see is that it came down too fast, something that surely can be adjusted on subsequent attempts. Keep in mind that NASA blew up several rockets during the ramp-up to actually flying a man during Project Mercury, and this was only SpaceX’s second try. I’m confident — okay, I’m hopeful — that they can make this work. In part, because reusability has been the goal in spaceflight for decades, and it’s about damn time somebody figures out how to do it, but mostly, to be honest, because I just really like the idea of a rocket landing on its tail like the spaceships in all those old movies from the 1950s. I’ll bet Elon Musk saw all those flicks as a kid, too…

The next attempt will take place as part of the resupply mission scheduled for June.


You Truly Belong with Us Here Among the Clouds

Speaking of Mars, I’m sure my Loyal Readers are aware of all the chatter about the possibility of sending human beings to the Red Planet. Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin has been an indefatigable advocate for a Mars mission, speaking before Congress on the subject only last month, selling t-shirts that say “Get Your Ass to Mars” from his online store (I have one myself! Lots of fun in conservative Salt Lake City!), and wearing one of those shirts alongside Stonehenge in a photograph that became a viral sensation. Billionaire Elon Musk  has said flat-out that the ultimate goal of his SpaceX company is to put people on Mars within a decade. And the Mars One foundation is currently winnowing thousands of applications for a one-way colonization mission.

It’s all been very exciting for an old space nerd like myself, but just recently, it seems as if the voices of the naysayers have been getting louder. They point out, quite correctly, that there are a lot of technical problems with a flight to Mars that make the Apollo missions look like a stroll in the park, and that we now know the fourth planet of our system to be far less hospitable than all those golden-age sci-fi novelists like Robert Heinlein imagined. The Mars One mission, according to these wet blankets, is nothing less than a very expensive way to commit suicide. There is an argument forming that Mars is simply no place for human beings.

But what if there is an alternative destination to consider? Another world that is, relatively speaking, more hospitable? But not at the surface… rather… someplace higher up in the atmosphere…

A fascinating idea, no? Cloud City was always my favorite location in the original trilogy… wouldn’t it be something to create an analog of that? Aside from the drifting clouds of sulfuric acid, of course, but hey, that’s better than heavy radiation. It amazes me that so much of what filled my imagination as a child is turning out to be… well, at least plausible.

Via Boing Boing, of course.


It Just Won’t Die!

One of the great success stories of interplanetary exploration, the Mars Opportunity rover is still chugging away up there on the Red Planet, snapping photos and making discoveries eleven years after the start of what was only supposed to be a 90-day mission. The little guy has begun showing his age in almost human-like ways — just recently, Opportunity has been experiencing some memory problems — but generally speaking, the rover is in good shape and could keep going indefinitely. So naturally NASA is considering shutting it down so its budget can be redirected to other programs. I can see the cold-blooded logic behind the proposal, but it strikes me as a downright tragic way to end such an incredible adventure.

Of course, that’s assuming that Opportunity doesn’t already have plans of its own…