Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Obama Farewell

I watched President Obama’s farewell speech last night with my wife. It was an incredibly hopeful and moving speech, and the part near the end when he spoke to and about his family and his VP and friend Joe Biden was hard to see without crying. The presidency is huge, an unimaginably high-pressure job in which you are pulled in a million different directions and challenged every day to keep thousands of balls in the air. Obama did it with grace and often made it look easy, which it was not. I truly believe he is one of the most decent human beings ever to hold this office and that when he had to comfort the families of children murdered in Newtown or order military operations or drone strikes that took lives, often including innocent lives, that this responsibility truly weighed on him. I don’t want to contrast him with what is following him in just over a week. There’s no comparison. But at least we had this great and decent man as our president for eight years.

This is not to say he was perfect in office – he would be the first to say he was far from perfect. He made mistakes, some of them very costly, but very few people are in the position to judge the trade offs a president is forced to make to keep our country mostly safe and mostly free most of the time. And I far prefer the coolness of Obama to the impetuousness of… certain others.

For those of us who believe in facts, who believe in the Constitution, who believe in science, who believe that all people deserve a chance, who believe that America is a great country but not the most important one in the world – wow, he was our president. For those who hate him for whatever reason, whether it’s because they didn’t prosper while much of the country was getting better after the near-disasters of the Bush years, or just because they choose to believe that this country is somehow intended to be Christian and White, I feel sorry for them. They missed out on something great.

His speech suggested that we need to keep working for what is right even in the face of the evil that has wormed its way into Washington and will be in charge for at least four years (assuming we make it that long). He says he’s optimistic, and I want to believe him, I want to try, but it’s very hard, even for a natural rational optimist like me. I’m giving money. Can I do more than that? Can I be an activist? Can I stomach the noise of politics more than a few months every four years? I don’t know. I'm glad I volunteered for the small amount of campaign work and donated the money I did in 2008 and 2012 (and 2016), but now I can barely stand to watch MSNBC for more than a few minutes. My wife watches it a lot and she’s anxious about the coming time. I get that, wanting to be informed but scared to death of what you see happening. I'm fortunate that I am able put it aside and focus on other things – sometimes anyway.

I don’t know what to do. Reach out to the other side? Try to cross that shaky bridge? I'm not sure I can, and that in itself is a bad sign. I need to think more about it once the dust has settled a bit. But I know I will miss having a president who is smart and who I can trust to lead our country for the benefit of its people. That is a huge and scary loss.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Orbiter: 2016 vs. 2010

As I wrote recently in this blog and in an article in The Space Review, Orbiter 2016 was released in September. This is the first major release of this freeware space flight simulator since Orbiter 2010, and as I mentioned, not all of the many third-party addons for the 2010 version are working in Orbiter 2016. If you are familiar with Orbiter, you know that it's quite easy to have multiple installations of the software on the same PC, so there is no need to replace the 2010 version with the 2016 version -- as long as you have the disk space, you can keep multiple copies of both versions installed in separate folders and just run the one that has the features and addons of interest at the moment. In the picture pairs below, the top screenshot is from Orbiter 2010, the bottom one is from Orbiter 2016. 

You should also know that although there are some user interface changes in the 2016 version, they are really quite minor, so even if you are new to Orbiter, you can install and use both the 2010 and 2016 versions quite easily. Some developers have already updated their addons for 2016, and others no doubt will when they have the time and inclination. But Orbiter 2010 is still readily available, so if you are interested in the Apollo program, the advanced Shuttle Fleet, the fictional spacecraft of 2001: A Space Odyssey (sample screenshot at the top of this post) or Colliers Magazine, and many other addons, there's no need to wait for 2016 versions to come along. Note that the final version of Orbiter 2010 is often called 2010-P1 (patch-1) or 100830 (August 30, 2010).

Here are some observations and tips for working with both Orbiter 2010 and the new Orbiter 2016:

1. The biggest user interface difference is that the "no-cockpit" full screen pilot view has a control bar that appears when you hover the mouse near top edge in the 2016 version. In the 2010 version, the F4 key will pop up a small menu bar with same controls (in the 2016 version, F4 will toggle the top edge menu between "on" and "auto-hide"). See "no-cockpit" comparison screenshots above. 

2. The biggest visible difference in the 2016 is in its support for highly detailed surface terrain data complete with elevations, so mountains and craters are true 3D objects. This makes for some incredible eye-candy especially when you are flying low over the terrain, but in most situations in Orbiter, you are orbiting (oddly enough) 200 km or more from the surface, and the flat 2010 terrain textures look just fine. 

3. In addition to the general high-res 3D surface data for all of Earth, the Moon, Mars, and some other bodies, Kennedy Space Center (cockpit view above) and the Edwards AFB/Mojave region (see shuttle final approach screenshot below) have been given super-detailed makeovers in Orbiter 2016. Again, this doesn't matter much if you are in orbit or cruising to the Moon or Mars, but it does add a lot to the realism before you launch or when you are landing at Edwards AFB. 

4. There is a thread on the Orbiter Forum that reports addons that are known to work in Orbiter 2016. There are quite a few and there are probably many others that have not been tested but may work. Orbiter Sound 4.0 works with Orbiter 2016 though there are a few minor glitches such as incorrect audio feedback for some actions (e.g., the G key for "landing gear" in the Deltaglider will deploy the gear but audio will say "radiator deployed"). 

5. Some popular addons that currently seem to work only in Orbiter 2010 include AMSO (Apollo program in great detail), Shuttle Fleet V4.8 (which is freaking amazing), and the excellent "World of 2001" and "World of Colliers" addons by "Sputnik." Note that even for 2010, some addons may only work with Orbiter's "native" graphics (not the D3D9 Orbiter_NG client which offers better graphics quality and frame rate). I'm not sure how to know this for sure, but if you find that your spacecraft are invisible in the D3D9 client, you should try the native graphics version. 

6. One addon I especially like is the videnie module for orbital path drawing by "artlav." It renders orbital paths for spacecraft, planets, and other bodies in exterior views (green, red, and purple lines around Earth in screenshot above from Orbiter 2010). This is super cool and very helpful in understanding orbital paths, but it only works in native graphics mode (not orbiter_ng) with Orbiter 2010.

7. If you have plenty of hard drive space available, a good general tip is to create two separate "clean" installation folders, one for Orbiter 2010-P1 and one for Orbiter 2016, including whatever terrain data you prefer, and perhaps with Orbiter Sound 4.0 installed. Make a copy of the clean installations and install any desired addons there. Note that Orbiter 2016 installations with full terrain data can be very large (I have one installation that is 58 GB). 

8. Orbiter Sound supports mp3 playback with control over when the music plays (e.g., exterior views only). But since modern versions of Windows support multi-source sound multiplexing, I tend to just stream music from Amazon or iTunes while running Orbiter. An album of Strauss waltzes is a particular favorite, especially with the World of 2001 addon.

Note: The screen shots here are from Orbiter 2010 and Orbiter 2016, without modification. You can find them and various others in full screen resolution in this Flickr album

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Orbiter 2016 Is Here

Orbiter 2016 is the latest version of a space flight simulator I have been playing with on and off since 2005. And while I'm now old enough to be a grandfather, I find that Orbiter still brings out the "space kid" in me. The sixties were a great time to be a space- and aviation-obsessed kid, and I was a NASA fan from Mercury to Gemini to the Apollo moon flights and beyond. Aside from TV coverage, my only space resources back then were books from the library, plastic model kits, LIFE Magazine, and a huge trove of "NASA Facts" and other free publications I would write to Washington to request. Fortunately NASA had a pretty big public relations budget in the sixties and they were happy to send bulging envelopes of space info to a kid in upstate New York.

I never really lost my fascination with space and aviation, as I have often discussed in this blog (though not so much recently). Thanks to personal computers and the internet, there are now more space and aviation resources than ever. I spent a lot of time in the nineties playing with various flight simulators, and I got my real pilot's license in 2001, though I ended up not flying nearly as much as I had hoped, and I am not an active pilot now. Orbiter was a great find in 2005, because it allowed me to combine my interest and experience with flight simulators with my long dormant goal of being an astronaut, albeit only a virtual one. And Orbiter was free (it still is).

Orbiter even inspired me to write a book called Go Play In Space (free Orbiter tutorial ebook), and to volunteer as a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador to do some space and astronomy-related educational outreach programs, often using Orbiter in my presentations as a dynamic extension of PowerPoint slides and words. The years 2005 to 2010 were probably my "golden age" for space related study, play, conferences, and educational outreach, but shortly after the release of Orbiter 2010, my company was acquired, and my professional workload greatly increased. Side interests like Orbiter largely fell by the wayside.

Things are still busy at work, but I do again find time to pursue hobbies like music and space, and with the recent release of Orbiter 2016, I'm getting fired up again. The biggest visible change in the 2016 version is built-in support for detailed 3D terrain on planetary surfaces, with gigabytes of data available for the Earth, Moon, Mars, and some smaller bodies. This doesn't matter much visually from a 300 km orbit, but when you are down low, it makes a huge difference, especially for the Moon and Mars. Earth terrain is nice too -- though not as detailed as in Microsoft Flight Simulator, it covers the entire globe (clouds are modeled too). Orbiter is primarily a space flight simulator, and although atmospheric flight is modeled reasonably well, if you are mainly interested in flying airplanes and understanding realistic flight operations, a dedicated flight sim like MSFS or X-Plane is probably a better bet.

Orbiter 2016 includes some other updates, and thanks to user interface improvements and a wide range of community-produced video and other tutorial materials, it is easier to learn and use than earlier versions, though the learning curve is still pretty steep.

I will be writing more about Orbiter 2016 in the coming weeks. In the meantime, here are some possibly helpful links, including a collection of Orbiter 2016 screen shots I have placed on my Flickr site.

My review of Orbiter 2016, Kerbal Space Program, and Space Simulator (iOS app) on The Space Review

Orbiter 2016 Screen Shots on Flickr

Main Orbiter website with free download links

Orbit Hangar: Most Orbiter add-ons are hosted here for free download

Home page for the Orbiter Forum

Download my free ebook Go Play In Space here (PDF, 2006 version, Wiki version here)

David Courtney has a large number of Orbiter tutorial videos here

TexFilms has many Orbiter videos including tutorials here

Saturday, July 30, 2016

100 Days

One of the most encouraging things I looked at in the NY Times this morning was the interactive "Who Will Be President?" feature, part of their numbers-oriented Upshot section. It says that based on current polling, as of yesterday, Hillary Clinton has about a 69% chance of winning the presidency. With Donald Trump continuing to double down on his crazy statements and his traitorous flirting with Putin, I have to believe that Clinton's odds will improve over the next 100 days. There will be debates (that will certainly be bizarre) and probably more surprises from Russian hackers, but I'm hopeful that Hillary's team is ready for all of this and that the Dems' convention bounce will exceed the one Trump got from the RNC. I think the DNC did a masterful job of making the case for optimism about the country and for the qualifications of Mrs. Clinton.

Of course there are always ways to look on the dark side. I also read an essay in The Atlantic summarizing the typical Trump supporter's view of "what is really going on" and why they believe he will win. It seems to hinge on voter turnout and male support. Supporters believe there are many people, especially men, who normally wouldn't even vote but who secretly support Trump and who will turn out in droves to vote for him. They believe this latent "surge" of disgruntled people is invisible in polls. Why? I'm not sure. Maybe these closet Trump supporters are embarrassed and lie to pollsters but will choose him in the privacy of the voting booth? Some of these Trumpsters even believe that many black and Latino males will go for Trump because they would feel emasculated by a woman president -- the machismo vote?

This reminds me of similar ideas in 2008 and 2012 about President Obama. It was called the Bradley Effect. It posed the idea of what you might call "embarrassed racists," people who would tell pollsters they supported Obama but who would actually refuse to vote for a black man for president. Subsequent analysis found that this did not occur -- the polls were pretty reliable. But could it be different with secret Trump supporters? I hope not.

In any case, I am excited that Hillary Clinton is the nominee and I plan to do whatever I can to support her against the very real threat of Trumpism. I can see more donations and some New Hampshire front doors in my future -- at least in the next 100 days. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016


My heart goes out to the many people who have been injured or lost loved ones in terrorist actions around the world, most recently the horrific Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, France. These actions are unconscionable and the people who perpetrate or support such acts must be brought to justice.  Terrorism is obviously intended to terrorize, and these attacks are certainly scary, with the scariness amplified by instant and repetitive news coverage that makes Nice or Paris seem as close as Orlando or Boston (and for my friends in France, recent attacks have been all too close). It is a small world thanks to global communication and the internet, and we know that terrorism, like other types of crime, can happen anywhere, so we shouldn’t be complacent. But we shouldn’t panic either.

Terrorism is a real problem, but it is not the end of the world, which is currently home to some 7.2 billion humans and countless other species. For perspective, note that in the US, something like 100 people die in car accidents each day. Worldwide, over a million people die annually in car accidents, and there are over half a million “intentional homicides” each year. So many lives tragically cut short every day, yet we hear nothing about most of these millions of deaths. Commercial plane crashes are rare, and when one does occur, many people may die, so it’s big news. The same with terrorist attacks, which have become more common worldwide, though nations like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Nigeria continue to bear the brunt of those attacks, even though attacks in Western countries get much more news coverage.  

You can Google for statistics as well as I can and find that you are more likely to be killed by falling furniture than by terrorism. My wife has recently told me she’s getting more concerned about my business travel, especially to Europe. But I am far safer on a business trip to anywhere in Europe, Japan, or Korea than I am driving my car to work. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be concerned about terrorism. It’s an awful thing if this is the “new normal,” and we shouldn’t simply accept that. We can and should come together worldwide to make progress against this threat, though it is certainly not the greatest threat to civilization that we face (that would be climate change).

Steven Pinker and others have pointed to extensive data to show that even as terrorism and crime fill the headlines, the world is not falling apart, and on an overall basis, violence in the world has greatly decreased, and not only because there are fewer wars.  Other forms of violence and cruelty are also greatly in decline, though they have not reached zero and probably never will. I’m optimistic that we can still build a better world for my grandchildren -- and for everyone else. We should not be complacent about terrorism, but we shouldn’t freak out, change our way of life, or start another war over it. 

The image above has nothing to do with it except that this is the planet we all happen to share (a screen shot from the free Orbiter space flight simulator, and one of my most popular pictures on Flickr). 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


I love to write, though you might never guess this from my recent blog activity. While this is my first blog post of 2016, I used to blog a lot more -- some 1500 entries since I started this blog in 2005. Most of my writing these days is in a journal I keep on my iPhone and iPad using an app called Day One. I like keeping a journal, but recently I started to think about getting out of my comfort zone and doing something a little different with writing. Looking around, I found a wonderful organization called the Seven Bridges Writers' Collaborative in Lancaster, Massachusetts, just 20 minutes from me. There was an opening in one of their weekly creative writing groups, and I joined the spring session in late March. It's a small, informal group led by Winona Winkler Wendth, an experienced, insightful, and supportive writing teacher. I've enjoyed the writing exercises and the lively discussions each week with the group. And it has successfully gotten me out of my comfort zone, writing things I would never have thought to write, sometimes well, sometimes not so well.

Here is a new one that is very different for me. The prompt was simple -- write 300-500 words starting with "I counted. There were 27." It gave me some trouble for a day or so until I started thinking about the recent transit of Mercury, and about sunspots.


I counted. There were 27. Shining the sun on a paper plate with your telescope works great. I’ve never seen the sun like that. Is 27 a lot of sunspots?

Not really. Sometimes it can be over a hundred. It goes in cycles over something like eleven years. Twenty-seven is actually a pretty low number.

What do they mean?

What do you mean, what do they mean?

Sunspots. If you can’t see them without a special trick like this, why are they even there?

Well, they don’t mean anything. They’re just something that happens because of the way the sun works. Astronomers have figured out that sunspots are cooler areas on the sun, though they are still hotter than anything on Earth, and often they are as big as Earth. They only look small because the sun is so far away.

But how can they not mean anything? Isn’t there a reason for them?

There’s a difference between a reason and a meaning. Scientists can study the sun and figure out why events like sunspots and eclipses happen from information they can see and measure. In the past, people didn’t know as much about how the world works. They might see sunspots or eclipses as special signs, warnings about something bad. Some people still think this way, figuring that anything so strange and different from normal must mean something.

But isn’t that right? Grandma says everything happens for a reason.

Let’s think about what she means. Is she talking about science when she says that?

I don’t think so. She usually says it when someone gets sick or dies or something and people are sad.

Right. If everything were random and unpredictable, that could be pretty scary. But some things in the world happen pretty regularly, like day and night, right?


And other things are not quite so regular, but we know something about them. We have weather forecasts, and we expect it to rain sometimes, and we know most summer days will be warmer than most winter days. If it rains and your baseball game is canceled, you might not be happy, but you don’t think it rained because someone didn’t want you to play your game, do you?

Of course not.

Rain happens for reasons you can study and learn about. But those reasons don’t have anything to do with what people want. And the rain doesn’t mean anything by itself, though you can find meaning in it. To some people rain means joy because it helps their flowers grow. Some may write poems and songs about the meanings they find in the world. Other people may be scientists and find joy and meaning in understanding the reasons for rain or sunspots or brain cells. People are the most complicated part of this complicated universe. Everyone studies people, but psychologists, writers, and some others do it in special ways.

Can we get ice cream now, Dad?


Friday, December 18, 2015

My Theoretical Interests

I was going through my daily Google spam notification email, thinking about all the theoretical interests I have that now mostly show up as marketing emails. Democratic Party appeals, astronomy magazines, Optical Society information, TAXI songwriting promo offers, musical instrument sale offers, AOPA private pilot news, Japanese and French language study information, and much more. Most of these represent past or perhaps intermittently current interests, now mostly theoretical interests in that I do nothing with them 90% of the time.

Even the 146 apps on my iPad show this. So many astronomy, language study, music making, photography, and game apps that I hardly have time to even look at. But they don't take up any physical room, and you never know when some interest will strike again (hope springs eternal that 24 hours a day is only a temporary constraint). Books are like this too. An ever-growing backlog and I will probably never read 75% of them. I should at least clear out the many shelves of paper books that I am less likely than ever to read now that I'm totally hooked on the convenience of ebooks. But there I have the 10% problem -- I'm sure I will never need 90% of the paper books in my house. But I can't get rid of them until I identify the 10% I might need, and that is not a weekend project.

First world problems, I know, right? Such an abundance of riches. One that still grabs me is The Great Courses (this was the part of my daily spam that triggered this particular rant). College level lecture courses in every subject by some of the greatest professors in the world. I have a number of them as DVD and a couple as audio, and have watched or listened to a few lectures from some of them, but never completed one course. Yet I look every time for more, especially when there's a "big sale" (as there usually is). These days I rarely order any new courses because I know about my theoretical side. Like the way I'm a theoretical pilot and singer-songwriter ("flying singer," get it?).

[begin-rationalization] In fairness to myself, these theoretical interests really do still interest me, even if I don't have time to actively pursue everything. I like to "keep in touch" with private pilot, songwriting, and astronomy magazines and I follow some related organizations and people on Facebook (a source of serendipity as well as a few laughs every day). Every time I go to Japan, I brush up on my reading and conversation and learn a few new things (or buy a new app). On two trips to Korea this year, I taught myself enough Hangul phonetic script to decipher many signs. And I do read a lot of books on all sorts of subjects. Donald Trump has already scared me enough to start giving money to the Dems again (spam and fear are a winning combination, Democrat marketers). And every December (triggered by my company's year-end shutdown), I magically turn back into a singer-songwriter for a week or two, writing and recording some new songs with my producer and friend Roger Lavallee. Plus I have a job that still uses the optics I studied back in the 70s. So I guess I'm not a complete deadbeat. [/end-rationalization].

Monday, November 09, 2015

No Explanation Needed

One definition of a tautology is the needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word. It strikes me that some of the "big questions" that are often discussed about the universe and life are little more than tautologies. They may be interesting to discuss, and if you believe in God or another cosmic consciousness or creator, they might even seem to have meaning. But based on what is actually observable, there is a big and complex physical universe that has been chugging along for billions of years, much longer than there have been human brains to do things like wonder why. And for a few thousand years, there have been human brains, some with enough security and free time to do the wondering. That's it!

The "anthropic principle" is the one that bugs me the most. This is the idea that since physical constants and conditions are suitable for stable matter, life, and intelligence, and since we can conceive of these things having been otherwise, someone or something must have set them that way so matter, life and intelligence can exist. But this is a tautology, since we wouldn't even be around if this were not true. If the conditions were wrong, or if there are multiple universes and some don't have these conditions, there would be no "we" around to wonder about this. It clearly assumes some purpose for the universe or a god or creator that could make decisions about this. And if that is the case, who or what created that creator, and in what universe, with what physical constants, defined by whom or what? It's an infinite regress.

Why not stick with what's observable? As far as I'm concerned, the universe simply is. That doesn't mean I can't be awed by its beauty or impressed with its intricacy, or that I can't be curious about its many parts and try to understand how some of them work (that's why I majored in physics). It just means I accept the universe as the natural state of things and that I don't believe it was created for the benefit of humans. We are simply one of the complex manifestations of its properties. Life with a cherry on top (more like cherry Jello).

There's a related question that is often asked about the universe: Why is there something rather than nothing? Again it's a tautology -- if there were nothing, nothing would exist to even think about this. There is no why there.

Sometimes people talk about "the will to live." I have often marveled myself at the enormous efforts that animals (including humans) will make to survive or even just carry on their normal life cycles. Things like certain migrating birds that fly thousands of miles twice a year to feed and reproduce. But the will to live is "baked into" life itself because natural selection eliminates those without it. So it's one of those things that is both amazing and commonplace, even inevitable. Of course it has some side-effects that we and some of our fellow creatures may perceive as happiness or contentment. When my dog and I are well-rested and well-fed and are enjoying the sights and smells of a walk on a sunny fall morning, that feeling came from evolution too. It's still pretty awesome.

And what about "are we alone in the universe?" This is a different kind of question, not a tautology. It's worth thinking about, and even doing some research, although it is not as exact question as some people may believe it to be. Clearly there is insufficient data now to evaluate this, though this may not always be so. Humans are certainly expending some effort to find information related to this question through space exploration and other means, and as we have identified thousands of exoplanets, we know at least that there are other places where life similar to ours could exist.

Many years ago, astronomer Frank Drake defined an equation that aims to estimate the number of intelligent civilizations in the universe. It identified some of the relevant parameters of this question, and defined them as probabilities, although some of them are not well enough defined to plausibly consider as a probability. Things like "the probability that an intelligent life form will develop a technological civilization." This is almost like asking "what is the probability that my karma is purple?" How to you define "karma?" Do karmas come in colors? How to you even define "intelligent life?" Does that mean "capable of developing technology?" Isn't that a tautology?

I just read an article describing a similar equation that considers the probability of detectable life. The "Seager Equation" is geared to our current knowledge of (many) exoplanets and how likely it is we could detect some planetary biosignatures. It is a bit more physical than Drake's equation, and does not consider intelligence or technology. A planet hosting only blue-green algae might have an oxygen-rich atmosphere detectable by spectroscopic methods if conditions like distance, star type, exoplanets in the habitable zone of the star, and others are right. The answer to this question? Her best estimate is 2. Not 42. Not millions. But not zero or .0005. That suggests it is worth looking.

I hope we are not alone in the universe. I hope there is simple life and intelligent life in abundance and that someday we can find it. But if we are alone, that's OK too. We will keep busy and maybe even survive to a ripe old age. We aren't here for any particular reason, but it's a great party, and I'm glad we crashed it.


Nick Bostrom has a book on anthropic bias that apparently goes much more deeply into this subject. I haven't read it, but his web site has a lot of helpful information.

The picture here is by Slovak graphic designer Martin Vargic. It's a chart showing his artist's impressions of 500 of the some 2000 confirmed exoplanets arranged by mean temperature (x) vs. density (y). Although these planets have not been directly observed, the depictions are not completely  fictional, as they are based on temperature, density, metal content, and other factors (the rings are purely for looks -- they are pretty common in our solar system, but only prominent on Saturn).