Category Archives: English

How To Land A Rocket (Or Not)

The first time I visited SpaceX, it was still a startup company operating out of an industrial warehouse. Since then, SpaceX has become the darling of the New Space movement, and it has a long list of pioneering accomplishments. Among them: the first landings of spent rocket stages for later re-use.

The idea had already been proposed by Wernher von Braun’s team in the 1960s, who hoped to land and re-use future versions of 1st stages for the mighty Saturn V rockets. At the time, the concept could not be pursued due to the tight timeline of the Apollo program.

After the moon missions had been prematurely ended, the Saturn rocket program was eventually put on ice and then canceled entirely. Wernher von Braun thought that the upcoming Space Shuttle program should be supplementary to a continued development of the Saturn multi-stage rockets into a whole family of vehicles with partial reusability.

A part of the proposed Saturn heavy lift rocket family.

In terms of reusability, a multitude of concepts were studied. Propulsive landings would have been too much of a technical challenge at the time, so most proposals included parachutes and a splashdown on water, a paraglider apparatus, or wings. For instance, here some historic papers on the matter:

(Warning: these are large files. Download times may vary). 

Recovery Of The SI-C Stage Of The Saturn V – A Preliminary Feasibility Study (PDF, 1.9 MB)

Recoverable S-IB, Chrysler Corp. Space Division (PDF, 11.9 MB)

Candide Materials for Saturn Paraglider Recovery System, Goodyear Aircraft Corp. (PDF, 1.9 MB)

As Von Braun began to vehemently criticize NASA’s sole focus on the Space Shuttle program, he and his Saturn rockets were cast aside. Von Braun was given an inane desk job in Washington D.C. and left NASA a few years later. But as it turns out, Von Braun’s was right, and his suggested route would have been the correct one. Almost five decades later and into the foreseeable future, multi-stage rockets, not winged bodies, still provide the most reliable and least costly transport to space. Not only that, costs can be dramatically reduced, as SpaceX has clearly demonstrated.

It took a private company, SpaceX a long time to make von Braun’s vision of reusable rocket stages a reality. It wasn’t easy, as this video compilation attests.

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Why The iPhone X Is Revolutionary: 5 Reasons

I believe Apple’s latest introduction, the iPhone X represents a technological turning point. It’s not so much the phone itself, but the underlying technologies behind it that are truly groundbreaking. Ushered in with the iPhone X, their widespread adoption will have consequences far beyond mobile phones. Here are five reasons:

1. Face Recognition (and real time facial mapping)

Face recognition technologies are available from others, but what Apple has come up with leaves everything else in the dust. This goes far beyond taking a photo and comparing it to a stored image. Apple’s Face ID technology projects invisible dots (in the current version: 30,000 of them) on the user’s face. It then uses stereoscopic viewing from two cameras to essentially create a 3-D map of the user’s face. No special lighting is necessary. In fact, because of IR illumination, this works even in the dark. What’s remarkable is not only the small size of this system, but also that it works fluidly. It is capable of capturing facial expressions in real time. Mapping and processing are so rapid that the data stream can be used to animate virtual characters, as Apple demonstrated with its animated emojis and mask overlays.

The point is that artists and developers will be able to apply this technology in new ways: the iPhone X is the first affordable, portable motion capture device for special effects. Since the mapping process works in real time, making fantasy characters talk and show facial expressions will be as easy as talking to the phone. This could mean: animated virtual announcers, talking heads and fictional characters for advertising, music videos, entertainment and perhaps even drama. Animating cartoons, which took many hand drawings by skilled animators in Walt Disney’s days, has become child’s play. Another application could be video games. Multi-player gamers could adopt fictional characters whose speech and facial expressions mimic the real player’s face, but expressed on the virtual character.

A mere expansion of the technology’s capabilities might make it possible to turn the iPhone X into a fully fledged 3-D body scanner or even a motion capture device. Imagine this: put the device on a stand and walk in front of it in the nude. Now turn around by 360º, and let the iPhone capture a 3-D scan of your body. Again, the data set could be used to bring fictional characters to life, but it could also be used for online shopping. No more need to try on clothes in a store! You could simply get a 3-D simulation of yourself wearing the clothes you are considering. Finding the right size would be automatic. Or people could simulate the look of make-up, jewelry or hairstyles.

Another conceivable application of face mapping technology might be improved speech recognition, for instance in a noise environment. Like a human lip reader, the technology would decode facial expressions to improve the legibility of spoken language. Those hard of hearing might even be able to use the phone as an artificial lip reader.

2. Universal Wireless Charging

Battery capacity is still an achilles heel of mobile devices. Right now, incompatible charging devices and cables mean that we all got into the habit of charging our devices overnight, with chargers we own. Or we carry cables, chargers or external batteries.

What if you could simply “top off” your battery almost everywhere you go? The wireless charging technology Apple demonstrated works on all mobile Apple devices, such as iPhones, the AppleWatch and EarPods.

What Apple is pushing for is a truly universal standard. It would charge all mobile devices, of all manufacturers. This would mean: no more personal chargers are necessary. Everyone could simply use shared wireless “charge pads” located in homes, vehicles, workplaces or public venues. Businesses could either provide charge pads for a fee or allow their free use as a means of attracting customers.

 

3. Elimination Of Buttons And Ports

In a radical departure, the iPhone X does away with one of the original iPhone’s key features: the “home” button. Apple wants to get away from buttons and ports for one main reason: these are incredibly difficult to insulate from dirt, water and dust. By eliminating all points of entry, water and dirt resistance will become the new standard.

 

4. OLED Displays

Organic Light Emitting Diode displays have major advantages, but also some disadvantages. Apple’s new OLED iPhone X display (which interestingly is made by Apple’s prime competitor, Samsung) is an industry-first when it comes to size and quality. And it promises to have overcome the known OLED disadvantages.

The last remaining problem is the price: OLED displays are still much more expensive than traditional LED screens, which explains the whopping price tag of the iPhone X. But Apple’s hardcore fans are early adopters almost regardless of cost. And this might give Apple enough sales volume to create a breakthrough opening for OLED technology. In addition to the cost reduction by volume, there are emerging manufacturing technologies (such as printing and roll-to-roll vapor-deposition). When scaled up, these could significantly reduce OLED costs. In a few years, all mobile device makers might offer OLED displays.

5. Grid computing

With its vastly improved processing speed and wireless capabilities, the iPhone X can offload an increasing amount of data onto the cloud. Already, some features of the upcoming iOS 11 are hinting where we are going with this. In iOS 11, rarely used apps and data, and even iMessages and their attachments are no longer stored on the device but on iCloud, from where they can be retrieved if needed. We can expect this trend to accelerate.

In addition, the new faster WiFi and “short-link” radio technology (Bluetooth) processing would enable new capabilities such as wireless screen sharing, or the use of the iPhone X as a remote microphone or camera.

And of course, enhanced access to distributed grid computing makes digital voice assistants like Apple’s Siri steadily more powerful. Siri is already becoming increasingly contextual, and I would expect this trend not only to continue, but also for Siri to become more visual as well. For example, a hearing impaired user might point the iPhone X at a written text and have Siri read it aloud. Or, users might be able to point the camera at a tree and ask Siri: “What kind of tree is this?”

All in all, although the outside of the iPhone X does not look radically different from the original iPhone, the technology inside represents a quantum leap compared to what was possible only 10 years ago.

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Ink Chemistry

There can be no doubt that writing ink is one of the most significant inventions in the history of human civilization. It surpasses in global, historical and cultural impact even the wheel, the stirrup, or the plough.  Liquids for writing and drawing on flat surfaces were discovered by many cultures independently, but first evidence of their use goes back more than 3,000 years.

Ink also has a fascinating, complex chemistry, which is the subject of my article for Pen World magazine.

See here for a PDF version of the article. If you love pens and the art of writing, please subscribe to the magazine!

 

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Pocket Notebooks – The Return of 19th Century Mobile Media

Ten years ago, who would have thought that in a world oversaturated with “smart” phones, old-fashioned notebooks would once again become a “hot trend”? And that they would be passionately fawned over by the younger generation – online, of all places?

In a way, history is repeating itself. While the story of portable notebooks goes back a long way (Leonardo da Vinci, 1452–1519, was reportedly never seen without one), the real breakthrough came in 19th century Paris. The world’s artist capital at the time was home to thousands of young creatives, thinkers and dreamers. New movements such as Impressionism demanded that artists leave their stuffy studios and cramped writer’s desks and instead move out into the world – in search of natural light, common people and all that life had to offer. Artists, it was demanded, should create in the midst of the sights and sounds of the outside world. A new and exciting artistic focus and methodology took hold. Here lie, we can argue, the true roots of today’s creative mobile work culture.

The now unconfined free-range artists of Paris needed – in modern parlance – “portable media” to “create and access their content” wherever they went. Soon, Parisian book binders were doing brisk business with blank, compact notebooks to be carried around constantly and almost anywhere: small, but sturdy enough for both pocket carry as well as use on a tiny café table. Or on a knee while lounging on a park bench. Or while laying flat on the ground among Mother Nature’s glory.

A page from a notebook of Pablo Picasso

Demand for the hand-made creations of hundreds of Parisian artisan book binders swept across Europe. Soon, German, Italian and English craftsmen eagerly joined the trend. Decades later, English author Bruce Chatwin summed up the importance of these personal notebooks: „To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe.“

But eventually, economic crisis and two world wars changed consumer priorities. When the post-war dust settled, mass production in cheap labor countries and the rapid adoption of the disposable ballpoint pen turned personal notebooks from prized expressions of creativity to generic commodity. By the 1980s, high-quality, stitched pocket notebooks had become a rare specialty item. Instead, mass-market retailers were stocked with soulless notebooks of inferior quality and little consistency. Most were cheaply stapled, glued or spiral bound. The paper? Thin, highly acidic scratch paper lacking durability. Little of it was suitable for writing or drawing in ink – and didn’t need to be, since by then, equally soulless, disposable plastic sticks had become the most popular writing instruments. For fountain pen users (including this author) the situation was rather frustrating. Many gave up and never adopted consistent pocket “notebooking” habits.

But in a surprising turnaround, things have changed dramatically. High quality pocket notebooks are widely available gain, and their makers are enjoying great commercial success.

Modern pocket notebooks incorporate various innovations, such as highly flexible, innovative bindings, and some even make it very easy to digitize content and share it in the digital realm.

To read more, please see my article on pocket notebooks in the June 2017 issue of Pen World magazine, the world’s largest publication for fountain pens and fine writing instruments.

And if you like pens as much as I do, I highly recommend subscribing to this excellent magazine. A bargain at $42 in the U.S.! (International subscriptions are available).

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R.I.P. Susan Wirth (1946 – 2017)

I am mortified by the news of the unexpected death of Susan Wirth, who was widely known in the world of fountain pen aficionados and collectors.

I met her at the Los Angeles International Pen show and looked forward to seeing her again every year. We never got to talk much (she was always very busy) but it was fun seeing her in action: just being Susan Wirth, the colorful personality she was.

Over the years, I’ve brought many newcomers to the pen show – people who didn’t know anything about pens, inks and papers, and who were both impressed and confused by the frenzied activity and plethora of displays. These poor souls who were too confounded to see the trees in the forest, I always sent to Susan.

With anyone interested in pens, Susan had the patience of an angel. She didn’t mind if people just looked, touched and tried, or asked uninformed questions. In fact, she encouraged it. Best of all, she had the gift of putting intimidated newbies at ease. Her enthusiasm was infectious and her encouragement and advice turned hesitant rookies into converts. Nothing seems to have made her happier than knowing she had spread the love of pens and manual writing to yet another person, or as the put it on her web site: “Specializing in helping people find pens that enhance their writing”.

Susan never pressured anyone to buy from her table, nor did she talk people into particular pens or nibs. Rather, she was a matchmaker, always on a quest to find the pen most fitting for a person’s hands and needs. If she didn’t have it, she was always willing to offer advice on where else that perfect, yet elusive match could possibly be found. To her, locating the right pen was like a treasure hunt, and she took genuine pleasure from being part of it. On many occasions, she even walked prospective buyers to another seller’s table and made the introduction.

Susan was a down-to-earth, common sense person. Much of the advice she gave to beginners makes perfect sense, but is nevertheless often not followed even by seasoned buyers: when trying out a pen, do extensive writing tests in a natural writing position – not while standing and bending over. And try writing what you normally write – not just names and frequently used phrases.

Susan wasn’t afraid to get ink on her fingers and in fact wore it as a badge of honor. On occasion, she gregariously referred to herself as “the Queen of Ink”.

I will miss her.


The June 2017 issue of Pen World magazine (at which I serve as Contributing Editor) will have more coverage. Meanwhile, here is the obituary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

 

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Why California Is Broke And Texas Is Not

(according to Richard W. Fisher, former President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas)

California

The Governor of California is jogging with his dog along a nature trail. A coyote jumps out and attacks the Governor’s dog, then bites the Governor.

The Governor starts to intervene, but reflects upon the movie “Bambi” and then realizes he should stop because the coyote is only doing what is natural.

He calls animal control. Animal Control captures the coyote and bills the state $200 testing it for diseases and $500 for relocating it.

He calls a veterinarian. The vet collects the dead dog and bills the State $200 testing it for diseases.

The Governor goes to hospital and spends $3,500 getting checked for diseases from the coyote and on getting his bite wound bandaged.

The running trail gets shut down for 6 months while Fish & Game conducts a $100,000 survey to make sure the area is now free of dangerous animals.

The Governor spends $50,000 in state funds implementing a “coyote awareness program” for residents of the area.

The State Legislature spends $2 million to study how to better treat rabies and how to permanently eradicate the disease throughout the world.

The Governor’s security agent is fired for not stopping the attack. The state spends $150,000 to hire and train a new agent with additional special training regarding the nature of coyotes.

PETA protests the coyote’s relocation and files a $5 million suit against the state.

Texas

The Governor of Texas is jogging with his dog along a nature trail. A coyote jumps out and attacks his dog.

The Governor shoots the coyote with his state-issued pistol and keeps jogging. The Governor has spent $.75 on a .45 ACP hollow point cartridge.

The buzzards eat the dead coyote.

And that, my friends, is why California is broke and Texas is not.

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Fidel Castro’s Letter to Franklin Roosevelt

Fidel Castro died at the age of 90, on November 25, 2016. Years ago, I was assigned to write his biography for a German magazine. In it, I pointed out how Castro’s life convictions and personal values were shaped through youth experiences. But Castro didn’t initially grow up hating the United States or regarding it as an enemy. Quite the contrary, as a boy he was fascinated by America and by its revolutionary heritage.

Here’s a little curiosity from the United States National Archives. In 1940, a then 14-year old Fidel sent this jovial, handwritten, cheeky letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Curiously, the “received stamp” shows the exact day 76 years before Fidel Castro’s death.

Young Fidel did not receive a reply from President Roosevelt himself, but the record shows that an administrative pr0-forma acknowledgement was sent. Thirteen years later, Castro would be spearheading a revolution leading to the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

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Dear Linda and Paul

In or around 1971, in the aftermath of the Beatles’ cantankerous breakup, Linda McCartney (Paul’s wife at the time) apparently wrote a scathing letter to John Lennon. His response re-surfaced at an auction in Boston in 2016. (Click to enlarge).

john-lennon-letter

john-lennon-letter-2

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