Buran

Tuesday, February 5th 2019 at 7:12 pm
by Berck

I’ve always been perplexed that the Soviets bothered to copy our Space Shuttle. The shuttle was a terrible design, it made no economic sense, it was unsafe, unreliable, and a great example of design by committee and execution by democracy.

The Soviets’ version, Buran, was way better than ours. It could fly unmanned and even land itself, something it did on its only flight. Ours theoretically had an autoland system, but the one time it was tried, it was clear early on that it was going to botch the landing, so the commander took over. Buran, although it only ever flew unmanned, had an escape system that could be used at all phases of flight that likely would have saved the crews of both of our shuttle disasters. Not to mention that the Columbia disaster couldn’t have happened to Buran because it didn’t have external foam.

So why did the Soviets bother to build it, and if it was so good, why did it only fly once?

They didn’t believe NASA’s absurd cost predictions (which were obviously false), so they assumed that it was a poor disguise for a military vehicle. Possibilities the USSR considered:
(1) The obvious advantage of the space shuttle was that it could bring things *back* from space. So, maybe the USA was developing a space-based laser missile-defense system that could only be developed and calibrated in outer space. The space shuttle would allow the USA to deploy, test, then recapture these laser satellites.
(2) The shuttle was a first-strike nuclear bomber in disguise. We had a plan to be able to launch the shuttle from Vanderburg and have it land after a single orbit. Our claim is apparently that we wanted to be able to service spy satellites on such a single-orbit mission, but it theoretically had the capability to drop a nuclear bomb on the USSR during that orbit. That would make it the fastest nuclear strike option available to us. It’s also possible that the space shuttle could while in a stable orbit, at the last minute, adjust its orbit, pop into the atmosphere, drop a bomb, and make it home with no warning.

Even more concerning to the Soviets was the possibilities they hadn’t yet considered. They were so worried about this, they decided that they needed to have one just because we had one. When the military advantage we were hoping for became obvious, they’d have their platform all ready. So, they flew it once, proved it worked, and waited to see what to do with it.

It turns out, we did service Hubble with it, which is probably the only thing it did that we couldn’t have just as easily done with a cheaper expendable system. Also, reusability fit in well with the newly-formed religious fervour surrounding environmentalism.

I’m curious to find out if one day we’ll get some declassified documents that show we did, in fact, have some of the very sorts of ideas the Soviets were worried about. It’s not paranoia if they’re out to get you.

The Professor enjoys books.

Tuesday, January 15th 2019 at 7:38 pm
by Jonah

New Hampshire

Tuesday, November 13th 2018 at 8:00 pm
by Berck

I’ve managed to talk my way out of coming to New Hampshire so far, but most of the rest of the competent folks at work have put in their shift. I reluctantly agreed, not because of any dislike for New Hampshire, but because the purpose of the work trip seems to me to have little value.

I’ve been saying for awhile that I’ve been to every state in the U.S. except for Alaska, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true. I was able to come up with a concrete example for every state except New Hampshire. My airline flew into MHT, so it seemed likely I’d done that at some point, but my logbook says I haven’t.

So now I’ve been to New Hampshire. It’s a weird state to have missed, but being an airline pilot is a weird way to see the country.

For whatever reason, the folks who went a year ago managed to go during prime leaf changing season, but the event this year was a few weeks later and the few remaining leaves are brown. The weather is not hot, which is good, but of course I’ve missed a big snow storm at home. It always snows when I leave home. (Home. I have a home, now. I don’t think I’d have said that a decade ago.)

As I watched an airline pilot go through a known crewmember checkpoint, I wondered if flying for a living is any better than it was a decade ago. There was only one known crewmember checkpoint in the country at the time I got furloughed. The airlines are now more desperate, and the pay is slightly better, but I’m not sure the quality of life has improved at all. My biggest complaints were that 5-on, 2-off is a stupid schedule for anyone, but is especially asinine for commuting pilots.

So my complaint wasn’t at all about travel. I like travel, though I hate flying in the back of airliners. The old Southwest biddies managed to keep the cabin temperature at about 78F on the way over, and I find that sort of heat in a closed airline cabin to be claustrophobic-inducing.

I miss geographic displacement. It’s good for the soul. But spending all day in this building is not:

This is my coworker unboxing our stuff. People I work with make questionable decisions regularly. That’s a box that was shipped on a pallet. It contained a single 4U rackmount unit that could have been shipped via UPS had it been packed in, you know, a normal box. The room is a lot bigger, but we’re under NDA’s so I had to make sure that I didn’t photograph anything anyone might care about.

I spent 10 hours in there yesterday, mostly working remotely and offering moral support to my coworker who dealt with other people. Our particular product, for some reason, has fans that at full volume produce noise levels comparable to a 737 at takeoff. I spent much of the morning figuring out how to throttle them back, but even so, the noise was bad. About 15 minutes before we left, I experienced piercing tinnitus unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I actually thought someone else had turned on something louder than our box, before I realized that it was all in my head. It persisted for an hour before it finally started to fade. I was worried it was going to be permanent, and I don’t think I’d have been able to live with it. So today I brought my noise-canceling headphones.

We managed to get what we needed to get done a little early today and headed out shortly before 3pm. I gave Gopal the choice of visiting a submarine or heading up the coast. He picked heading up the coast.

I managed to get the second-best rental car I’ve ever had by pure luck. I always choose “compact”, but more often than not I get “upgraded” to some American barge. I usually argue when this happens, and the rental companies never understand why I don’t think it’s an upgrade. I didn’t get upgraded, and was shocked to discover that my car was a loaded Ford Focus hatchback. It’s the same basic car as Jonah’s, only with more comfortable leather seats, heated seats, power seats, sunroof, heated steering wheel, navigation system, fog lights. It has a better turning radius, more comfortable suspension and more pleasant interior that Jonah’s car.

It’s also grey, (the second-worst color for a car), has a terrible automatic transmission (actually, it’s one of the best automatics I’ve ever used, but all automatics are terrible), isn’t very fast, doesn’t make a very good noise, is front wheel drive, exhibits a fair amount of torque steer for not actually producing any torque, and did I mention it has an automatic transmission?

The best part about it is that I know where everything is, and the second best part is that it has Android Auto. Which means I don’t need to use the terrible ford-supplied navigation system and can, instead, have google maps on a giant screen where it’s convenient. I don’t know how anyone ever found their way around New Hampshire without GPS.

I’m taking some amusing joy in knowing that I get to drive around in a Ford Focus rental while Jonah is driving around in a GMC cruise ship waiting for her Ford Focus to get fixed.

Here’s some photos.

I’ve always thought Kennebunkport was one of the more ridiculous place names and was surprised to drive through it accidentally.

My plan was to meander up to Portland, getting there about the time it got dark and find a good dinner. It gets dark at about 4:45pm here this time of year, so I misjudged by a bit, and ended up hopping over to I-95 after it did, since there didn’t seem much point in driving the winding beach roads in the dark.

Kelsey eventually returned my phone call. I’d called him because I knew he’d have a good recommendation for a place to eat in Portland, since he’d just spent weeks there. He did, and it was fantastic.


Belgian fries fried in duck fat.


Duck poutine. Fries fried in duck fat, duck confit, duck gravy, and a duck egg sunny side up.

I second his recommendation of Duckfat in Portland.

6th Birthday

Wednesday, September 12th 2018 at 11:32 am
by Jonah

Today is my youngest nephew’s sixth birthday. A week before, I took a box to the dollar store and filled it up with toys I thought he might like. Then I stopped at the post office on my way home from work, proud of myself for planning so far ahead.  I wanted to use the self service kiosk, so I didn’t bother to address the box, since the machine would print out a giant label that would cover up the address anyway. I simply wrote “Happy Birthday!” on the side of the box.

It started pouring rain just as I got to the post office, so I dashed inside, cradling the box to try to keep it from getting wet.  I spent about 10 minutes with the machine, getting ever more frustrated as it wouldn’t accept any of my inputs when I was trying to type in dimensions or the address. Maybe the touch screen was misaligned.  I somehow managed to finally get to the class options, and the only two it gave me were the most expensive: Express Mail (overnight) and Priority (two day).  No parcel post, no first class parcel. I looked over to the counter, and there wasn’t a line.  But I was reusing a box with my own address on it, and I didn’t have anything to cover it up!  I had no option but to try again the next day, which I figured would make my package arrive late.  Furious, I stormed back out to my car.

The next day was sunny and clear.  I’d taped a piece of paper with the address over the old box label.  I arrived at the post office after work to find a long line waiting for the sole clerk. I had a lot of things to do that evening, and standing in line at the post office was not one of the things I wanted to do.

Finally, I was next in line.  The woman in front of me was complaining to clerk that the kiosk wasn’t working.  No kidding!  “Well, there’s nothing wrong with a little human interaction!” replied the clerk pleasantly.  For some reason, that response just made me even more angry.

At last it was my turn.  I threw my box on the scale and wielded my credit card before the machine, ready to pay the postage and get the heck out of there.

“Who’s birthday?” asked the clerk, reading my message on the side of the box.

“My nephew’s,” I mumbled.

Without even asking me, the clerk pulled a sheet of CELEBRATE stamps out of a drawer and started affixing them to box.  “You’re going to be the cool aunt,” he said, sticking six of them on the box and then carefully cancelling them all with a rubber stamp.  Of course, I already AM the cool aunt.  But this wouldn’t hurt.

“Now,” he continues, “Would you like it to get there in 7 to 8 days or Priority mail 2 days for 30 cents more?”

I paid the extra 30 cents.

A German, a Spaniard, and two Czechs walk into the middle of a road with a telescope

Saturday, September 8th 2018 at 10:37 am
by Jonah

That’s what happened at our house last night, no joke. We hosted a quartet of couchsurfers yesterday. In their request they said they understood if we could only host a couple of them, but we assured them we had plenty of room for all four.  When they arrived, we all introduced ourselves: Max (male) from Germany, Sara (female) from Spain, and Misha and Beata (both female) from the Czech Republic.  We told them again what their sleeping options were, and after what appeared to be some panicky internal deliberations, Sara and Beata elected to bunk in the upstairs queen bed and Misha informed Max that she did not mind sharing the downstairs queen bed with him. (To be fair, I had offered them all the option of the couch and the air mattress too.) The whole situation amused Berck greatly.

As Berck and I worked on preparing dinner, we asked our couchsurfers how they knew each other.  It turned out that they did not.  Amongst a variety of websites, the four of them (there was a fifth, a Russian, who had left the day before) had met online with the intention of all gathering in Denver to pool their resources to rent a car together and see as much of the United States as they could in one week. They said they had driven 3,000 miles, and tonight was their last night in the US.  They were flying out of Denver the next day.

Before dinner, Berck took everyone down to the kegerator and gave them tastes of all of his beers so they could choose which one they would like a glass of.  This activity proved very popular with our guests.

They had warned us that two of them were vegetarians, so Berck made bread and pasta with tomato cream sauce and I made Caesar salad and peach cobbler.  Usually, Berck makes his pasta dish with lots of red pepper to make it spicy, but because we knew a German was joining us, he held back this time.  Max thanked him for making it mild and said it was still very spicy for him but also still delicious.

We ate and laughed, and Berck and I told stories of our European backpacking adventures, Berck about his random Norwegian Rastafarian host, me about how, whenever I got into trouble, I was rescued by Japanese girls.

Then Sara asked, “Is that a telescope?” And that’s how we ended up in the middle of our street looking at Saturn’s rings and the Andromeda Galaxy. None of them had ever had a good look at the Milky Way before, and I pointed out Cassiopeia, Polaris, and the Dippers.  We saw a meteor. We were probably annoying our neighbors, all talking in the middle of the street in the middle of the night, when Sara pointed to the Pleiades rising and exclaimed, “I can see that one from Spain too!”

It was such a fun night, and the Professor loved having so many people to show off his feather toy catching skills to.

There’s a risk to couchsurfing. And I don’t mean the ax-murdering type risk; that’s so remote as to be laughable.  There’s a risk that we rush around cleaning the house and cooking for someone who doesn’t actually show up.  Or the risk that the folks who do show up are homeless freeloaders who use six bath towels and three rolls of toilet paper between the two of them in one night.  Or worst yet, that our guests are utterly boring.

But then there’s the possibility of six random strangers from all over the world, sitting around a table, drinking, eating delicious food, talking, laughing, and just enjoying a wonderful evening together.

And it’s even better if you’ve got a telescope handy.