Wednesday, December 24, 2014

It's Christmas Eve, babe...

... and as we all know, there is really only one place to be.

It has been a big year for the Blog family, and despite a lot of unpleasant news around the world, I feel like 2014 is ending on a good note. So, yeah: Happy Christmas (or whatever holiday you may celebrate), wherever you are. May your cars be big as bars, and your rivers be gold.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

To the stars, through a̶d̶v̶e̶r̶s̶i̶t̶y̶ budget cuts

A few hours from now, NASA is about to send a brand-new manned spacecraft called Orion into orbit. It's the first time this has happened since 1981, when NASA did this:

I remember watching this with my parents, excited but not fully realizing what a big deal it was (more specifically, I remember holding a plastic model with the vertical stabilizer broken off, sitting on the edge of my parents' bed in front of the TV). I was too young to feel nervous for the two guys strapped into Columbia's cockpit or to feel like there was even any chance of failure. The whole experience got me hooked on space, rockets, and space rockets--much in the same way, I'm sure, that others were mesmerized by Apollo 11.

Over the years, Space Shuttle launches became almost routine, but its first flight was a big moment for NASA. It was, essentially, a brand-new concept. And it was, literally, a manned test flight of a vehicle's maiden trip into space, something the organization had never done before and has never done since.

Indeed, Orion will carry all kinds of things--including a rubber ducky from Sesame Street and a T. rex fossil--but no astronauts. It will blast into high Earth orbit, circle the planet a couple of times, and splash down. The whole exercise will only last a few hours, but it's a huge deal because it marks the first tiny steps of much longer journeys. NASA has its sights set on a manned asteroid landing, and of course eventually Mars.

Neat, right? Everyone these days is focused on space as a source of resources, and that's important. It would be nice to be able to build things without destroying our planet looking for the raw materials. But it's much more important for us as a species to keep exploring, keep looking for questions to answer. Some of what we find might be practically useful, like new technology or materials. Other stuff might be bigger picture, like discovering extraterrestrial organisms. But regardless, it's not healthy for humans to just look around at where we are, shrug, and say, "eh--good enough."

(Orion is also a nice distraction from the awfulness of Ferguson, New York and Cleveland. And I don't just mean the killings or grand jury decisions--the way some have responded to the protests is beyond disheartening.)

So here's to a successful test flight. I hope by the time astronauts are using the craft, perhaps five years from now, Earth will be a better place than it is now, and we'll be well on our way to a new chapter of space exploration... and the Littlest Blog will get to watch astronauts walking on Mars.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Halloween is just around the corner, so it's time to look at a terrifying video. I call it "Day of the Looping J-31." Catchy, right?

(hat tip to Alert 5)

But let's be real. Like any horror movie, if you think about it too much, it stops being scary. The J-31 arrived in Zhuhai today, ostensibly in preparation for the airshow there, which starts on Nov. 11. The maneuver above, a half-Cuban 8, isn't particulalry arduous. It does not show off speed, maneuverability, and certainly not stealth--not that the Chinese military would be eager to put any of those things on display.

What I'm trying to say here is that the J-31 has been flying for a while now, but there remains no confirmable indication that, other than looking awesome, it or the larger J-20 can match or exceed the capabilities of other operational stealth aircraft. (Of which, to be fair, there are just two: the F-22 and F-35, with the retired F-117 flying around Nevada for who knows what reason).

What is "under the hood," specifically, remains questionable. Chinese engine technology is no great shakes, hindering not just military programs, but its commercial aviation industry. Less-obvious systems like low-probability-of-intercept radar, which allows a stealthy aircraft to track targets without its radar emissions giving away its position, are also tricky to develop. Without them or a robust airborne warning and control network, which China does not substantially have, a stealth aircraft's air-to-air capabilities are severely limited.

In the end, this video should be taken solely for what it is: neat footage of a neat-looking plane. It's not a milestone, and it's certainly not an indication of a closing technological gap... even with Jason Voorhees in the cockpit.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Shades of 1985

It's been a busy month. Mrs. Blog and I now have Little Blog; Hong Kong is (extremely politely) demonstrating in favor of full democracy; and of course the Royals are in the World Series.

I'm still figuring the first two out, but I have some experience with the third one. I was in grade school when the Royals played the Cardinals in 1985. At the time I didn't realize it would be the last time in a long time they would even get into the playoffs.

The aftermath looked a bit like this.

Now, 29 years later, they're back. My perspective this time around is a little different because instead of being a kid surrounded by revelry in my hometown, I'm an adult surrounded by a near-total lack of interest in baseball, 7,500 miles away from home.

My memories are a little sepia-toned, as childhood recollections tend to be. My classmates and I (and our teachers, who were no doubt more interested) watched one of the day games in the cafeteria. There was a parade on TV. George Brett was king of the universe.

I have less personal experience with this team--although I did get to a game last year!--and it's much harder to watch them play live, but it's still cool. They have a great story, of a good regular season and a sparkling (undefeated until today's game against the Giants, booooo) postseason. The style of baseball they play is genuinely interesting, with lots of incremental moves to gain advantage, and disruptive speed. Their bullpen is outstanding. Come to think of it, it's kind of like watching "Major League."

Anyway. Scenes like this are amazing to see, even from afar...

... and I hope that despite the lackluster Game 1, there will be more to come. After all, way back in 1985, when the Earth was still cooling, Kansas City lost its first game against the Cardinals.

And we all know how that turned out.

Monday, September 29, 2014

There's something happening here....

Wow, it's been like an entire month since I wrote about police responding to mass protests. But this time the dateline is not in my home state. It's where I live--right here, right now, in Hong Kong.

You have probably read by now that Hong Kongers are rallying in support of democracy. There are several different groups, from students to unions to activists.  All have more or less one goal, which is for the people of Hong Kong to be able to choose the candidates they vote for, and then vote for them. Simple enough. And that's the background.

Student actions started last week. Then yesterday the other groups got involved, and things got big. On Sunday morning there were a few hundred students surrounded by police:

Small. (photo SCMP)

By midnight Sunday, some of the city's busiest commercial districts were completely shut down by protesters:


Overnight the protests spread to other busy areas, including Mong Kok, which isn't even on Hong Kong Island:


But another thing happened overnight too. The Hong Kong police tried to "handle the situation." I put that in irony quotes because, basically, nothing was handled. Not well, anyway.

Their first move was to basically keep people from joining the protesters already in place. That worked well at first but created a new problem as more and more supporters showed up: essentially, another front. Sometime in late afternoon, a sort of critical mass occurred and those crowds spilled out into some of Hong Kong's busiest roads, blocking them completely during rush hour. That meant the police were now surrounded.

So they pulled back. But they did so in such a way that they were left with protesters on two sides--again! The crowds continued to grow in Admiralty (near Central, which was supposed to be the epicenter for the protests). And at some point the sheer number of people seemed threatening, and the cops lobbed tear gas into the crowd after hours of occasional pepper spray:

That cleared things out. But only for 30 minutes or so, during which the police did... nothing. The net result? Protesters were angrier, more determined to stay, and gathering support from around the city. That's when the shock troops showed up. Carrying shotguns, shields and tear gas launchers, they plowed into the crowd behind a wall of gas:

And then? Then they stopped. And became surrounded AGAIN when the protesters returned. No amount of police escalation cleared the area or provoked the protesters to become violent. And that, it seems, is where the police ran out of ideas. Because today that same area looks like this:

Still occupied.

Both the police and the government have lost control of the situation. On the one hand, it's good that the police did not use any more violence than gas or pepper spray, for the most part. No horses. No stun batons. No pain rays or armored vehicles. So in that regard they're ahead of the game of certain Missouri cities that will remain unnamed. And it's also good that the protesters are making their point in a very strong, very peaceful way. With China's national day coming up on Oct. 1--and tons of mainland tourists bound for Hong Kong--they have definitely caught Beijing's attention.

On the other hand... they have definitely caught Beijing's attention. And that's a problem because the central government really has no good options. If they accede to the protesters' demands, they lose power. If they send in the army, they ruin Hong Kong forever.

I'm not sure what will happen next, but it's pretty plain that the status quo won't prevail. Or, to paraphrase Buffalo Springfield during a turbulent time in my home country: there's something important going on, but what it will mean in the long run... well... that ain't exactly clear.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Blasts from the past

Hey, gang--long time, no see. It's not that I've been ignoring you, it's that life has been a little busy lately (and will soon get busier). But that's the usual blogger excuse. Let's talk about something more interesting, like... rockets.

There has been lots of space in the news lately. NASA's next-generation Orion spacecraft hit some milestones. Boeing was chosen as the lead contractor for a "space taxi" into Earth's orbit. Blue Origin is pitching new engines to use instead of the Russian-made RD-180s. And of course the Maven probe to study Mars' atmosphere arrived safely.

So it's fun to think that all this does indeed point to a real renewal of interest in deep space exploration. Indeed, in the next five or so years, the Orion capsule is planned to be on a spin outside Earth's orbit, just to see what she can do. It will be launched on top of the (unimaginatively named) Space Launch System, which bears some resemblance to the Apollo program's mighty Saturn V:

Tall. White. Rocket-like. Yep, fits the profile.

It should work well! But there were times before we figured out the whole rocketry thing that some really epic plans were on the drawing board. I've written a little about the U.S. proposals for nuclear rockets; here is an fascinating look at Russian plans along the same lines:
By the end of 1967, the Kremlin gave the green light to Vladimir Chelomei to work on the preliminary design of the UR-700 rocket as a backup to the troubled N1. Unlike the N1, Chelomei's rocket would be assembled out of components built in Moscow and transportable by rail. Even more importantly, it would use just 12 engines on its three stages, instead of 42 on the boosters stages of the N1. Finally, the UR-700 could launch 151 tons of payload versus 97 tons carried by the N1 and 127 tons delivered by the American Saturn-5.

In parallel with the development of the UR-700, Chelomei's engineers drafted a much bigger follow-on vehicle, which would be equipped with nuclear engines. (658) Known as Skhema "A" (Configuration "A") engine would feature the solid core nuclear reactor and enable the UR-700 to deliver as much as 250 tons into the Earth orbit. In a more distance future, a nuclear engine with liquid core reactor known as Skhema "B" (Configuration "B") would be developed, followed by an engine with a gaseous core reactor dubbed Skhema "V" (Configuration "V").
In the end, it lost out to the impressive but poorly built N1, which literally never got off the ground. And that was that for Soviet moonshot hopes.

These days everyone seems focused on getting back to the moon, or even Mars, which is great. Rocket technology has become more efficient and reliable in the decades since Apollo, but the basic physics (fuel, oxidizer, ignition) remain little changed. Because of the relative danger of getting a nuclear rocket into space--even using chemical engines--projects like the UR-700 are not likely to be revived. But it's always fascinating to see what technological solutions smart people come up with to solve problems like this... even if they don't always work out.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ferguson didn't have to be Ferguson

I worked for a few years as a reporter in Chicago. In stints as the night cops guy and on general assignment, I covered more than a few of what the police department called "police-involved shootings." In layman's terms, that meant an officer had shot someone.

The narrative was often the same, and the key bit recited in roughly identical terms each time: "... and the officer, in fear for his life, fired [insert number here] times, fatally wounding the suspect." That was important because officers were not allowed to use deadly force unless they were in fear for their lives or those of others.

I won't go into how tough it is to report these stories. The police and coroner often control most of the relevant information, and witnesses implicating an officer in wrongdoing seldom have any evidence like photos or video. Former colleagues did an excellent job laying out exactly how dangerous this was in this story.

What I want to discuss, though, is how none of those situations--and some of them were horrific--led to the kinds of scenes we're seeing in Ferguson, Mo., right now.

In one specific case, I went out to cover the non-fatal shooting of a boy who police shot in the street near Cabrini-Green, back when it was still in the twilight days of being a housing project. He had been carrying a toy gun and lived in the neighborhood. The community was, as you might imagine, furious; demands for justice and answers were being shouted from the sidewalks within hours of the shooting.

After talking to the boy's relatives at the hospital where he was being operated on, I went back to the neighborhood, where a protest was taking shape. It was pretty big, a few hundred people. There were signs, megaphones, shouted slogans. Again, most of it was about justice. But there was some general "cops are pigs!" sentiment too.

They marched around the neighborhood. There were plenty of police on hand, lining the streets and standing by their squad cars. I think a few rocks were thrown; I know (because I heard) some coarse comments about cops' mothers were shouted.

But it never escalated. I got home at 2 or 3 a.m., having dictated a story from a pool car. The story wasn't about a riot. It was about a shooting of an unarmed kid that stirred up a neighborhood.

That's just one example. The Chicago police shot people in worse parts of town--places that often were torn apart by violence without any instigation at all. But I can't remember any instance turning into a Ferguson-type situation.

The aforementioned situation.

I wish I could put my finger on exactly why. I think there are several factors.

For all its faults (and some are quite serious), the Chicago Police Department understood the law, the media and the nuances of dealing with various communities. So you didn't see reporters or anyone else arrested just for "being there" or taking pictures, for instance.

And the only time I can remember seeing cops in riot gear was during anti-Iraq war street protests downtown. Even then, their presence was mostly passive and certainly didn't involve rubber bullets, tear gas or beanbag shotgun rounds... at least to my memory.

So rather than rush in and try to intimidate or control unhappy people with an overwhelming show of force--an act that, rightly or wrongly, makes most people feel like they are combatants rather than citizens--police keep acting like police. The same people that most residents see every day in their neighborhoods. It's an important psychological distinction, thinking cops are there to maintain order rather than simply to fight. Because fight is exactly what some people then show up to do.

There is a separate, but related and serious issue of police departments chowing down on surplus military gear from the U.S. presence in the Middle East; this piece gives a tremendous rundown.

In the end, I don't know what the precisely right response in Ferguson would have been. I suspect that more transparency into the shooting investigation and much less militarized police presence (and now the National Guard, whee!) would have been great first steps.

Unfortunately, now that we're at this point, I don't know where you go. I guess the good news is, it can't get any worse. But in my more-or-less direct experience, it didn't have to be like this at all.