Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Don't mess with the Dowager Countess

Click the image to view it full size

What do you get when you mix equal parts Star Wars, Grumpy Cat, and Downton Abbey?

I'm not sure, but I doubt it'll be pretty.

Question for you: Between Palpatine, Tard, and Lady Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, who do you think will win? Explain your answer.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

I want cake and I want it now

Crazy sports fans (CC: 50%ChanceofRain)

I don’t get sports.

Really. I used to think my testosterone levels were low, or something. I just don’t get how we men can claim that women are illogical, can’t read maps, and are prone to fits of misguided, whimpering emotion, but then we can turn around and transform into primal, superstitious nitwits on the weekends, muttering magical incantations that we actually think will be effective over long distances and think that’s okay. There’s even plenty of research to suggest that spousal abuse spikes after our team loses, especially when they’re playing a traditional arch-rival or it’s during the playoffs. And no one’s hiding the fact this year that sex trafficking is a prominent theme wherever the Super Bowl happens to be. Apparently, the game in progress on the field isn’t enough for a certain category of fan.

I also have a problem with the industry that’s been built around recreation. We worry that our culture’s eroding, but how many billions are we spending on sports, watching sports, playing sports, and promoting sports? What percentage of a family budget is acceptable to allocate to team memorabilia? How much of our time is taken up with the pre game show, the game, the post game show, the post-postgame show, the commentary on the game on the radio the next day, the reminiscences years later?

That being said (and yes, I remember a few of Joe Montana’s passes), something happens on championship day. Maybe it’s some dormant strain of simian DNA deep in my bloodstream reactivating, but this is one of the few days every year when I go out of my way to try to find beer, salsa, and a comfortable seat. At least all at the same time. My chest gets a little hairier (and maybe my back does, too), I scratch myself, my IQ drops a few points, and I might even yell at the screen.

I used to claim I just watched this game for the commercials. That was true back when the commercials were good. Now I watch it for the game, but, admittedly, that’s probably only because the commercials have become so poor. Maybe today will be better. And no, I won't be watching Beyoncé. Or Beyoncè. Or whatever she is.

This year, we’re having people over. We’re watching the game together. Now there’s something I like about sports! It brings people together. It makes our world a little bit smaller. We like to talk about sports. We like to get excited in groups instead of alone. Maybe the extrovert in me should be cherishing this national holiday a little bit more.

And I have to admit that there’s something unique about the game this year. History is happening. I know I’ve read that the coaches would rather it not be mentioned, but it is, of course, unavoidable. These are not precisely rivals. These are brothers. They’re brothers who wrestled and fought and broke stuff like two alpha males growing up in the same house are prone to do, but they shed their rivalry years ago, became friends, and wound up in the same vocation. And they’re both (obviously) really good at it. And by the end of this evening, one of them will be a victor and one will be a loser. But they’ll still be brothers.

Maybe sports isn’t personal for me (most of the time). And maybe it’s a fantasy that we think it’s personal for us (that is, that “our” team is playing). But it’s personal for them. We’re going to see them on the TV screen today. Two brothers directing their teams to supremacy.

There’s also the pride issue for my personal favorite, the San Francisco 49ers. Jim Harbaugh has managed to make a quarterback change midseason and finally take this team back to the top, or at least one step from it. These guys are 5-0 in their Super Bowl appearances. Other teams have been more than five times, but no one with that many appearances can claim to be undefeated. This is exciting.

So I’ll be watching the brothers to see how they lead, and how they interact. I’ll be watching the statistics to see what historically interesting trivia gets generated. And I’ll be having a beer and some chili. I’ve joked with friends that while I’m unemployed I’ve put my entire life savings on Harbaugh today, so he’d better win.

If he doesn’t—I mean, if THAT one doesn’t--I’ll be in my man-cave, drenching my as-yet non-existent 9ers sweatshirt with my holy tears.

And eating cake. Now.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

SpaceX Dragon COTS 2+ mission update

Click here to watch the companion video to this post

SpaceX rocketed into history earlier this week becoming the first private company to ever launch a craft to the International Space Station.

Following a perfect launch and a flawless orbital insertion, nine minutes into its flight, the Dragon unfurled its solar panels, a significant milestone in this test mission to deliver cargo to the ISS.

The Dragon spent the next day performing orbital adjustments and catching up with the ISS, arriving this morning and engaging in additional acrobatics under the control of ISS astronaut Don Pettit.

The mission began with the requirement to accomplish a certain set of milestones, and has already perfectly completed most of the checks NASA requires before berthing with the station.

May 22 saw the launch and, as mentioned, the deployment of the solar array. Immediately afterwards, the Dragon also began using its absolute GPS system, autonomously determining its position.

Yesterday, Dragon corrected its orbit to match the Space Station, rapidly closing the distance between the two. It also tested its ability to perform an emergency retreat, an absolute necessity should anything go wrong during the close approach tomorrow.

This morning, after arriving at the station and establishing a UHF communication link with the ISS, the Dragon demonstrated its ability to navigate around the station, and also responded to commands sent directly from the station. Today, these commands merely turned a strobe light on and off, but they successfully revealed the communications link.

Beginning early tomorrow morning, the Dragon will complete three important milestones, encroaching ever closer on the Space Station before being received by the ISS' "Canadarm" and maneuvered into berthing position. Assuming the completion of these milestones, astronauts will enter the berthed Dragon craft on Saturday morning and unload cargo.

The Dragon is loosely scheduled to be reloaded with returning cargo and to depart the station on May 31. A certain date has not yet been announced. After its separation from the ISS, the Dragon will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere and be retrieved in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

Want to read more about the SpaceX launch? Check out:

Also, you can watch live coverage of the docking maneuvers on May 25, 2012 beginning at 7:30am EDT on NASA TV. We recommend the public USTREAM (top right link), if available.

Monday, May 21, 2012

SpaceX one step closer to perfect Falcon 9 launch

SpaceX' Dragon capsule sits atop the Falcon 9 rocket about 14 hours before anticipated launch
May 18, 2012 (Photo by Jeff Holton)

Saturday morning, I caught my jaw in rapid descent as the SpaceX launch I travelled to Florida to see aborted at T-minus 0.5 seconds.

What happened?

In a layman's nutshell, one of the nine Merlin engines on the bottom of the Falcon 9 rocket was working harder than it should have been. In the two-and-a-half seconds that the engine ran, a computer monitoring the pressure of all nine engines saw a trending "overpressure condition" that signaled that there was something wrong. Imagine for a moment that one of your car's four wheels is spinning faster than the other three. That's bad.

In the following hours of data recovery, analysis, press conferences, and announcements, I learned or was reminded of several things, some technical, some philosophical:

  • Engineering reliability. When you're driving your car and it breaks down, you pull over to the side of the road and you call AAA. That's not an option with a space launch. If it hasn't left yet, and you have good reason to believe it's not working, you stay home. Those with a deep awareness of space launch history will remember the famous four-inch flight of the first Mercury-Redstone launch.

  • Click here to watch the four-inch flight of MR-1

  • Failure vs. iteration. These are failures.

    Click here to watch a British documentary on unmanned US launch failures

    What happened here wasn't a failure. It was a calculated decision to get better.
  • Exploration is about progress and improvement. What do engineers and explorers have in common? They're both humbly aware that as a species we're not where we should be yet. We still have somewhere to go. We can do this better. Scrubbing the launch was the best way to get better faster. If they'd launched and lost the craft, they'd be back at square one. By aborting the launch, they got one step closer to having a flawless launch next time.
  • SpaceX is pretty impressive. These people analyzed the problem, repaired it, determined that it wasn't that big of a deal in the first place, said they were glad they fixed it anyway, and had the whole thing turned around and on track for another attempt way inside of 48 hours. That, to me, is a company that you can trust.
They're going to try again tonight, in the early hours of May 22, 2012. Tune in to my Facebook, Google+, or Twitter feeds for links to watch my team's live commentary and/or NASA TV.

You can view my commentary on the visit and new attempt here. It's worth a look.

SpaceX Launch Scrub Post Report and New Launch Intro

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Jeff goes to space

In lieu of a wordy post, today I give you a wordy video.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

SpaceX Dragon Mission Objectives

Dragon capsule docked with ISS (NASA illustration from SpaceX press kit)

Last night, the new crew for the International Space Station (ISS) lifted off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The crew will arrive at the station tomorrow. Their presence there is essential to the success of NASA's next undertaking.

After completing all pre-flight checks successfully, the SpaceX cargo mission to the ISS is on target for liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral this coming Saturday at 4:55am EDT.

SpaceX has been working with NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) to develop a commercially viable and fiscally efficient replacement for the costly Space Shuttle fleet, first for the purpose of cargo delivery, and, ultimately, also for delivery and recovery of crew. The unmanned COTS 1 launch on December 8, 2010, was a resounding success. Initially, SpaceX planned for two additional test missions, referred to simply as COTS 2 and COTS 3. However, the two missions have now been combined into a single set of objectives.

The combined objectives of COTS 2 include:

  • Launch*
  • Orbit*
  • Perform complicated maneuvers within 2.5km of the ISS
  • Perform holds at 250m, 30m, and 10m
  • Pending positive assessment of maneuvers and GO indication from NASA, dock with the ISS
  • Unload cargo
  • Return to earth for splashdown and recovery off coast of California*

* SpaceX has already demonstrated success at these objectives on a previous mission

Watch the video below to hear and see how this mission will look.

Click here to watch video on YouTube

Friday, May 04, 2012

Reflections on a decade in Eastern Orthodoxy

Me being received into the "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic" Orthodox Church
through the sacrament of Chrismation

I've spent 2/5 of my Christian self-awareness in Eastern Orthodoxy. And I have every intention of sticking around for a good while longer.

I was chrismated into the Church on May 4, 2002. It was the morning of Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. While I had sincerely and, I think, accurately identified myself as a Christian for the preceding 15 years, this was a departure, a change, a turning point for me. I took my Christianity down off the wall, reframed it, and hung it back up again.

It began with a hunger. I wanted relevance and attachment, meaning and encouragement, but mostly I wanted assurance that I was gambling my eternity on something other than arbitrary individualism, hunches, and spiritual experiments. And I wanted Communion.

I was married in the Church a few years earlier. Theophilus, the Priest had called me. Friend of God. It was actually a perfect Greek translation for my given name. Hearing it during the ritual made me feel like I belonged, like I was connected, not so much on alien turf, kind of like I was pretending to be Orthodox, as long as I was there, doing as the Romans do (to stretch a metaphor nearly to its breaking point).

But this chrismation day was different. This was not a dress rehearsal or a perpetuation of my pretend sacramentalism. Now I was being grafted into the ancient, timeless, eternal, mysterious Eastern Church, becoming part of it, being identified with it. The difference between a scholastic and a sacramental faith should not be trivialized. It is no small difference. I was leaving the practices that I could apprehend, that I could wrap my brain around and understand and explain to others, for those that are beyond my comprehension, that were forcing me to stake my belief on something greater than myself. I was submitting myself to begin a process of transformation. I was comforted and scared. I was honored and humbled. The God who up until this point I had understood as the one who forgives sins--who "resets the clock" as it were--was now becoming to me the one who empowers sinlessness. I was ready to grow.

Transformation is a slow process. I am more mature than I was ten years ago. But I might be more mature anyway even if I wasn't Orthodox. On the one hand, I'm not sure if "maturity" (whatever that means) is the best sign that this is working. On the other hand, my behavior hasn't been perfect, nor become perfect. I've made mistakes I wouldn't have dreamed of ten years ago.

Did Orthodoxy fix me? Not yet. But it sure is doing a good job of revealing where I need to be fixed. I'd have a much easier time ignoring my character flaws and pretending they didn't exist if you put me back in another faith context. That makes Orthodoxy worth its weight in gold. Given the association of Orthodoxy both with being heavy and with gold, I figure I'm probably in the right place. Somewhat to my embarrassment, I actually figured I'd be perfect by now. They told me it would take longer than ten years. I thought I could prove them wrong. But at this point I guess I'll give it at least another ten years or so.

When the oil of chrism, the sacrament and symbol of my attachment to the Church, was placed on my forehead, I had hoped to see a vision of angels ascending and descending above the altar. I saw no such thing, but I'm still pretty sure they were there.

It is not my desire to present Orthodoxy as a prized possession of mine as if I were its curator. I don't understand it any more or less than those outside it or inside it.

However, it is my goal to be available to offer a little bit of information about my experience in it. I don't claim any monopoly on the truth. I'm where I am because of an ongoing set of internal and external conversations. Like any de facto evangelist, I'd love it if you'd agree with me and become Orthodox. But it'd be absurd to want you to do it just to vindicate or validate me. This is bigger than me. I won't be offended if you don't agree with me or see things the way I do. But you're more than welcome to be part of the ongoing dialogue.

Here are a few of my thoughts so far: