Past and future

As I drove to work this morning, people were lining the north sides of the streets, looking south.

I arrived at XCOR just in time to catch the astonishing low slow pass over Mojave Air and Space Port of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, carrying Endeavour on her last flight.

The XCOR crew was standing on the flight line. Scaled Composites people stood on either side of us. The SCA had just flown over Plant 42 in Palmdale, where Endeavour had been built, and was headed north up Highway 14.

We watched it fly behind our hangar to the south, and when it reappeared it was just off the deck, headed west, right down the runway in front of us.

Endeavour looked worn and weathered, and huge. The 747 was surprisingly quiet as they went by, shining in the California sun.

They circled around, gaining altitude, passed overhead again, then headed west for the rest of their tour of the state.

I went back inside, uploaded pictures to my laptop, and composed the following haikus:

The last shuttle flies
To her final resting place
Just one pallbearer

Weathered wall of white
Floats by as we read the words
“NASA”, “Endeavour”

Spaceflight’s past, in front
The future we build, behind
Now we stand between

Friends and rivals both,
Scaled and XCOR watch her pass
Then go back to work.

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I love it when a plan comes together

When I decided to leave the IT world in July 2005 and try to get into the aerospace industry, my dream was to work for XCOR Aerospace or a company like it — a small company working on getting humanity into space because that’s what they want to do, not a big company living on government contracts. (Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas really disappointed me when they stopped development of the DC-X after the government lost interest.)

Well, six years and (almost) one aerospace engineering degree later, I have been hired by XCOR. I start on the 19th of December. I’d have to say it’s a best-case scenario: they are hiring me as an IT guy first and an aerospace engineer second, which means they will pay me based on 20+ years of experience instead of, uh, zero years.

I am a happy man.

Thanks to everyone who has supported us while I worked toward my dream. Family, friends, teachers, and the folks at XCOR.

Now Anna and I figure out how to live apart for a year and a half while she stays in Las Cruces to finish her master’s and I move to Mojave (ahem) to make a material contribution to the creation of a spacefaring civilization.

That’s been my mission since six years ago. It’s working out great so far.

Oh, did I mention that every XCOR employee gets a free trip to space?

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It’s a gusher!

Popped open one of my bottles of Graybeard Nut Brown Ale this evening to check the carbonation. It gushed all over the table, a foamy brown fountain. Yes, it was carbonating very well, thank you.

I stuck another bottle in the fridge. Now I’m going to put it in the sink and pop the top and see what happens…

Slow foam gusher

The brown foam slowly climbed out of the bottle and ran down the side. Perfectly manageable. I should be able to take some of these to class for evaluation.

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Forgotten Apple Innovations

As I read the various Steve Jobs eulogies and retrospectives, I keep seeing the same things come up. USB, killing the floppy, iPhone, iPad. Believe it or not, his influence was even greater than the extravagant lists being published this week. Here are a few of my favorites.

Note: most of the links in the post below go to Wikipedia articles. They all support my conclusions so you can save yourself the time of clicking on them. You know who you are, you.


Steve Jobs always wanted computers to be appliances – sealed boxes with magic inside that you just used, like a toaster or a telephone. At the time, computers were all designed to be expandable, with slots inside where you could add stuff. The Mac was the first computer that was actually hard to get apart – you needed special tools to get it open. So how were you supposed to add new functionality? The network.

At the time, the Mac’s network hardware – LocalTalk – wasn’t that fast, even for the time. Apple eventually had to add the SCSI port to the Mac for fast local storage. But SCSI was complicated and expensive and fussy, so eventually Apple invented FireWire, which was the only way you could connect the original iPod to your computer. Anything else was too slow to transfer those thousand songs you wanted to put into your pocket.

Steve wanted the Mac to the “hub of your digital lifestyle”, which included not only pictures and music but also video. But video cameras didn’t have a way to connect them to your computer. FireWire was the obvious answer, but it was an Apple technology. How to get it installed in everyone’s video camera? In a clever move, Apple submitted FireWire as an IEEE standard (IEEE 1394), making it available to everyone who wanted it. Sure enough, people wanted it. My PlayStation 2 even had a FireWire port on it, although Sony called it their i.Link port.

Eventually, USB caught up to and then passed FireWire, and FireWire disappeared from Apple products. But it had a significant impact, and paved the way for Thunderbolt, Apple’s new ultra-high-speed port, developed with Intel.

Wireless Networking as Standard Equipment

Wireless networking in 1999 was catching on. Most laptops had the ability to add a wireless card, either as a plug-in card or as an internal option from the manufacturer. Apple’s iBook was the first computer to ship with wireless networking as standard. It set an expectation that mobile computers were supposed to have WiFi, much like the iMac set the expectation of USB for computers. Both of these seem so obvious today, but somehow only USB gets traced back to Apple. But I remember setting up the first-edition toilet-seat-shaped iBook and the flying-saucer-shaped AirPort Base Station, and being awed by the experience of sending TCP/IP packets right through my body. While walking around! I immediately saw how perfect it was for laptops, and soon so did everyone else. This stuff didn’t look like today’s gear, but it was clearly tomorrow’s.

Desktop Publishing and WYSIWYG

This was a Big Deal at the time (1985), but nobody remarks on it now. It was insane at the time to try to sell a printer that cost 50% more than the computer, but it started a revolution. Back in the day, we had a choice: we could print anything we wanted with low-resolution dot matrix printers, or print letters in specific fonts and sizes with a “letter-quality” printer that was essentially a computer-driven typewriter. The Mac, of course, only printed to the Apple ImageWriter dot-matrix printer. Customers kept demanding “letter-quality” so they could print business letters, but Apple resisted until they could give us “letter-quality” anything-we-wanted printing. Enabled, of course, by the first desktop laser printer.

I remember demonstrating a Mac to a customer in 1984 or thereabouts and showing him what WYSIWYG meant. He asked about fonts, and I showed him different typefaces mixed into the same document along with graphics (I was using MacPaint). He asked about different sizes, and I hit Command-<greater-than-symbol> a few times, and the font expanded. He was completely blown away and would have purchased it on the spot if the laser printer existed.

A few years later, I showed Alan Newcomer a few pages of an Orson Scott Card story I’d typed into MacWrite and printed on a LaserWriter. He was thinking of starting a printing business and had been fretting about the high cost of offset printers. He stared at the crisp right-justified type, asked me how long it took and how much it cost, and then went out and founded Hypatia Press. PageMaker and the LaserWriter were now available, you see.

The whole WYSIWIG thing – multiple typefaces, black type on a white page, mixed text and graphics, all right on your screen – became ubiquitous because of Steve Jobs.

Word and Excel and Windows

Yup. Hear me out.

Microsoft Word started out on DOS. It had a radical-for-the-time menu-driven interface, in a time when WordStar and its infamous “dot commands” ruled the word-processing world.  However, Word’s 80×24-character monospaced DOS display wasn’t going to transfer over to this new Macintosh computer, so Microsoft rewrote it for the Macintosh GUI.

The same thing happened with their spreadsheet, MultiPlan, but when they were done they saw that it didn’t impress on the Mac. So they decided to compete with Lotus 1-2-3 and wrote Excel for the Mac.

Then they wanted these programs on the DOS machines that were the bulk of the PC market (and provided their licensing revenue from MS-DOS), so they wrote Windows so they could port Word and Excel to the PC. And enable other companies to port their Mac software to machines running MS-DOS – more licensing revenue for Microsoft! Anyone remember the first versions of Excel and PageMaker for the PC? They shipped with a copy of Windows, because nobody owned it yet. We used to call Windows “the Solitaire shell”, because that was about the only software that ran on it. Lotus kept trying to sell 1-2-3 on DOS and Microsoft eventually ate their lunch, and at the time, spreadsheet programs were the main reason that businesses had PCs at all. Microsoft had opened a new market. After all, MS-DOS had competitors such as DR-DOS and 4DOS, but nobody but Microsoft had a DOS GUI with useful apps. Thanks to Word, Excel, and PageMaker.

So today my wife is taking a graduate course called “Advanced Computer Applications in Agriculture”, which is a course in using Excel. I doubt the instructor knows of his debt to Steve Jobs.

The Personal Computer

Actually, this one isn’t exactly “forgotten”, but most people seem to miss it or fail to realize how important it was. (Thomas Critz complained of this in a Facebook post and inspired me to write this post.)

Before Apple, you could only have a “personal computer” if you were a Stanford or MIT uber-geek hacker and didn’t mind buying a separate keyboard and a video output expansion card (if you wanted one). The Apple ][ was the first computer that an ordinary person could buy, take home, hook up to their TV set, and start using.

But isn't "PC" a short-cut for "IBM Personal Computer"? Yeah, but IBM didn't start making PCs until they noticed that all of their mainframe customers also had scads of Apple ][s (usually running VisiCalc) on executive desks.

It’s that simple.

Other cool Apple innovations that always surprise people when they find out about them

Note: I didn’t take the time to look up most of these. Mea culpa.

Multiple displays on your computer. Back-lit keyboards. The modern laptop form factor, with the keyboard up against the screen hinge and a pointing device under your thumbs. (Earlier laptops had the keyboard at the front edge of the case, where you rest your palms today. You had to hold your arms in the air to type on them, and they had the pointing device in awkward places, like clipped to the side like a diving board over a pool or, astonishingly, permanently installed on the back side of the display, invisible to the user.) Pointing device, graphical display, high-quality audio output (not just clicks and beeps), 3.5in floppy disk drive, Ethernet, CD-ROM drive, Bluetooth, flat-panel screens as standard equipment. America OnLine (AOL). Email from space. High-quality video playback on your computer (QuickTime). Printer drivers as part of the OS, not the application program. The Clipboard, and cut-and-paste between programs from different companies. Human Interface Guidelines for programmers. The Personal Digital Assistant, or handheld computer (although this term was coined by John Sculley after Steve Jobs was kicked out of Apple, and Jobs hated the Newton and killed it when he came back, it’s still an Apple thing. Witness the iPhone.) Battery-powered portable computer.

What? I don’t believe you about <some item in the above list>!

Look it up. If I’m wrong, please correct me in the comment section below, or send me an email.

Before you complain that Steve Jobs didn’t invent any of these things….

I agree with you. However, you are using them today because of Apple and Steve Jobs. It took many geniuses to invent those things, but only one to bring them all to you.

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Shock and Awe

When I read the news, on my 11th Macintosh, I felt a great shock. Suddenly something huge but unnoticed inside me was gone, and I felt dizzy and hollow.

Sure, I knew he was sick, but this? Unthinkable. How could he be gone? How could we all be living in a post-Steve Jobs world?

In August, after he stepped down from Apple, I read a post by someone who figured this must mean that Steve was dying.  Nonsense!, I scoffed. Even with plenty of evidence of his illness, I literally couldn’t imagine that Steve Jobs might die.

Who could possibly replace him? He could see the future, and then make it happen.

By my count, he was responsible for five, maybe six, separate industrial revolutions. This sort of thing only happens in science fiction space opera! Dick Seaton, Tom Swift Jr. and Sr., and Bruno De Towaji spring to mind, but Steve Jobs beat them all, I think. (Well, maybe not the last one.)

Here are Steve Jobs’ revolutions in chronological order.

  1. Personal computers as an appliance you can buy (Apple II, copied by IBM as the PC)
  2. Personal computers with graphical user interfaces (Macintosh, copied by Microsoft as Windows)
  3. Digital music (iPod, iTunes Music Store)
  4. Computer-animated movies (Pixar, which became Disney’s animation studio)
  5. Smart phones (iPhone)
  6. Tablet computers (iPad). A little early to tell, but looks like another revolution.

That’s four separate industries – computers, music, movies, and mobile phones. Probably trillions of dollars worth of the world economy.

Note that he didn’t come up with these ideas. He saw them when they were in their infancy, saw the future that included them, and then set about making them ubiquitous.

Looking back, I can see that Steve Jobs was a genius. Not of physics like Feynman, not of music like Mozart, not of literature like Shakespeare – but of industry. Those guys only remade their corner of the world. Steve Jobs is more like Isaac Newton, a genius of math, science, physics, astronomy, and surprisingly economics.

Newton’s accomplishments can be traced back to his invention of calculus, which was such a powerful tool that it immediately explained huge swaths of the universe. With calculus in hand, Newton could look in any direction and explain things that had mystified people since the dawn of history. Steve Jobs saw a similar tool in the computer, which is the wellspring of all of his revolutions. He called it a “bicycle for the mind“. With his vision of the potential of this machine that amplifies human intelligence, he looked around him and saw the future. And then with charisma and ruthless focus, he left his dent in the universe.

I used to wonder what it would have been like to live during the time of Newton, with the modern world being created while I watched. Well, now I know. I wouldn’t have noticed until he died.

From the shock of his death, to awe at his life.

Well done, Steve.

Edit: I finished the above post at around 2 in the morning and started getting ready for bed. Idly, I wondered what Apple’s home page looked like now, pulled my iPod Touch out of my pocket, and saw this:

And to my great surprise, I began to cry.

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Beer homework

NMSU requires students to take a certain number of courses from outside their major.  They’re called “Viewing a Wider World” courses. This term I’m taking my last one.  It’s from the Chemical Engineering department, and it’s called “Brewing Science and Society”. We’re learning about beer!

My first project is now complete. We had to evaluate (i.e. drink) ten different beers and analyze the results. It was entertaining.

I focused on New Mexico beers. There’s a surprising number of good breweries in this state.

Here’s the final report.

Beer Project 1

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Full Moon over White Sands

Every full moon, the White Sands National Monument (an hour away from my house) stays open late to let the public enjoy the moonrise over the surreal White Sands landscape.  On June 15, five of us went.  These are a few of the pictures I took.

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Why I’m doing what I’m doing

My last IT job ended in 2005.  I sat down and thought about what I should do next. With a world of possibilities before me, I came up with this personal mission statement:

To make a material contribution to the creation of a spacefaring civilization.

That’s the “What”.  The rest of the Five W’s (and one H) look like this (as of today, Easter Sunday 2011):

  • Who – me (Doug Weathers)
  • When – starting immediately
  • Where – Las Cruces, New Mexico
  • How – earn an aerospace engineering degree and get hired by an aerospace company

Those are all concrete, definite statements.  The missing W, “Why?”, is something I never really took the time to figure out in any detail.  I just thought it was important, and cool, and a lifelong dream, and I wanted to do it.

Today, a post on Hobbyspace gave me a beautiful summation of just why I’m doing this.  Not surprisingly, it’s a speech by my hero Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace.  It lasts about 15 minutes.

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It’s only politics if you lose

So NASA decided where the Space Shuttles will end up, and Houston wasn’t on the list. Neither were 24 other sites, including my long-shot favorite (Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, OR) but they were all without fail more gracious in their defeat than the sputtering red-faced Texan hypocrites complaining about how “politics” cheated Houston out of the Shuttle they deserved.

Look.  This was a national competition, involving vehicles that have defined our national identity in space for 30 years, and on which have been spent many many billions of US taxpayer dollars.  There was a nation full of museums competing for four Shuttles.  The decision cannot be other than political.  In fact, a non-political decision would have almost certainly been unfair.  This is what “politics” is for!  It’s how these decisions are made.

And consider this: how did Houston end up being a part of the NASA story in the first place?  It’s hardly obvious why a city a thousand miles away from the launch site should be in charge of the mission.  Let’s do a little bit of Googling and see what turns up.

Hm.  While Massachusetts native John F. Kennedy was President, a NASA research center was to sited in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near MIT.  Apparently the site was cleared and bulldozed.  After Texan Lyndon Johnson was sworn in, the project moved to Houston, leaving a large hole in Cambridge.  Hmmm.

So suck it up, Houston.  What goes around comes around.

(When I got to this point in my post, Jeff Foust published his actual real journalism post about the Shuttle issue.  I recommend it to your attention.)

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Korean seasoned spinach

I just typed this into a Facebook comment (Andrea wanted good vegetarian recipes) and thought it might be worth keeping here as well.

It’s delicious!

Korean Seasoned Spinach

(from the cookbook Quick & Easy Korean Cooking, by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, pg. 63)

  • 2 bunches spinach (about 8 ounces), rinsed and trimmed
  • 1 Tbs Asian sesame oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 green onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp toasted sesame seeds, plus more for garnish
  • 1 tsp salt or to taste (we like it at 1/4 tsp)

Bring about 1/4 inch water to a boil in a large pot. Add the spinach, cover, and steam until the leaves are just wilted, about 2 minutes. Immediately transfer to a colander and rinse with cold water. Squeeze the water from the spinach and shape it into a ball. Cut the ball in half, then in half again.

Mix the spinach with the sesame oil, garlic, green onion, sesame seeds, and salt in a medium bowl. Let sit for at least 10 minutes to let the flavors soak in.

Serve at room temperature or chilled, sprinkled with sesame seeds.

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