We have liftoff

Everything since October 1957, when Sputnik streaked across the sky, has led to where we are today.

Sputnik led to our own satellites and then to vehicles that could hold animals, then people, then we could orbit the earth then we could orbit the moon, and then we could land on the moon. And then we made rockets that were reusable, and we kept flying. We used a science research station in Antarctica to test the possibility living on the moon. Or on Mars. And then we use the International Space Station to test the limits of how long we can survive in space for those longer trips.

Everything in spaceflight is an iterative experiment. Each new flight does a few new things for the very first time while also testing possibilities so future missions can create their own firsts.

Every flight builds on the shoulders of all the flights that came before it. It’s a slow process, but it works.

Gravity is a hell of a thing. Conceptually I knew a 50 ton rocket pushing 7600lbs up into the air would take a lot of thrust, but it’s not until you’re standing a couple miles away watching it happen that you realize just how much thrust it takes. 

Light travels much faster than sound, so you hear T-minus 3, 2, 1, and then you see a blast of smoke and then you see the rocket rise and then you see the flame, and being two miles away, it takes about 12-15 seconds for the blast at the speed of sound to reach you. For a long moment your eyes deceive your ears and you wonder if any of this is real. Then you hear the sound. Then you feel the sound.

I’ve never heard a sound like this before in my entire life. I don’t know if it is millions of tiny sonic booms compounded together, but it sounds like a rocket powered zipper ripping the sky apart down to its basic particles. It’s incredibly loud, and you feel it in your chest. And it’s entirely odd, since nothing sounds quite like it.

It was almost overwhelming to watch tons of equipment rise off the ground and shoot up to the air until it disappeared completely. It’s a triumph of science, an 11th flight that built on the previous 10, along with every previous flight of the past 60 years that NASA has existed. It was also a triumph of mathematics and astronomy and engineering and loads of other disciplines.

Rockets are a concerted, collected effort. Dozens of different agencies work together with hundreds of private companies and suppliers. Space programs from half a dozen different countries worked together to assemble the thousands of parts that formed it. And still, it all worked.

As the rocket left the ground I couldn’t help but feel I was witnessing a pinnacle of human achievement and knowledge, not only raising a seemingly impossible amount of mass off the ground but up into the sky where it was set to converge with a bunch of people floating in a box that itself orbits the Earth every 90 minutes. Imagine the math required to get that right.

We sent a rocket up with food, supplies, and experiments and it will be in astronaut hands in a day and a half. That’s fucking incredible.

Watching the launch made today one of the top 5 days of my life.

NG-11 space launch trip: day 1

Entrance to a rocket testing lab
The testing lab
A typical payload on a small rocket, tons of sensors and telemetry
The machine shop’s work, all of it was beautiful
Me next to the NG-12 rocket being built
The Horizontal Inspection Facility
Inside the HIF, with people for scale
The garage door at the HIF
Launch pad ready for tomorrow
The NG-11 on the pad
Presentations throughout the day
Thinsat tiny satellite
Press conference for NASA TV
photographers setting up for the big launch tomorrow

Yesterday, I flew to Washington DC, then drove about 3.5 hours to get near NASA’s flight facility at Wallops Island, Virginia, where they occasionally launch rockets. I lucked out on this trip many times over:

  • This facility has the closest viewing area to the launchpad of all the Florida, California, and Texas launch sites
  • This is the first daytime resupply launch in ages (the last one was at 4 in the morning)
  • They’re testing out a bunch of new equipment I got to see
  • The weather looks to be about perfect for tomorrow

The NASA Social team has been incredible. We’ve gotten into places few get to see, everyone treats us like royalty, and the whole thing runs exactly on time as set on our itinerary.

We started with a quick get-to-know-everyone meet and greet, then got a private bus trip to a NASA rocket machine shop and testing facility. We got to see where they do bench tests, centrifuge tests, and the smaller scale rockets they test payloads out in before they go into full-sized rockets.

The machine shop was incredible, it smelled amazing, mostly of metal shavings and the sound was an incredible cacophony of white noise from the giant lathes that was really quite relaxing. There were lathes that could spin six to eight foot high pieces of solid aluminum.

Next, we visited the Horizontal Inspection Facility (HIF) where they assemble the fuel stages and propellants as well as pack the payloads. They do it all sideways (and they can now spin them like a hamster wheel so you don’t have to reach up to put stuff in) for weeks and weeks packing it just so, then deliver it to the launchpad while still sideways. Then it’s raised up. They can fit two full sized rockets in the HIF so we got to see the next rocket being assembled.

There was new tech being tested on tomorrow’s mission, which was a new nose cone design that can be popped off and on easily. This means they can hold off to the very last section (less than 12 hours before launch) when loading the very last bits of payload. This allows them to test out perishable experiments that can’t sit for weeks inside the HIF garage. Tomorrow’s launch features 40 mice testing out the tetanus vaccine, which is only possible because they can be loaded live into their payload boxes just short of the launch.

The total payload of tomorrow’s flight is 7600 lbs, and it’s 50% a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) and 50% science experiments. One of the other cool new things on this payload was a bunch of drone robots to help maintain the ISS. Previously, the occupants of the ISS would do periodic spacewalks to check on their cooling systems, looking for any ammonia leaks. Once this payload arrives, they’ll have essentially giant Roomba drone bots that will continuously check the ISS for leaks with their own ammonia sensors, so the astronauts can work inside instead.

I learned that rockets are standardized in size and shape so all the agencies and countries can work together on the same thing, kinda like a train track having a certain gauge so everything works together. But, technology keeps progressing faster, miniaturizing components to the point where standard rocket payloads can fit a lot more stuff.

The coolest thing we saw was the Thinsat, a tiny (about the size of my hand) ~$10k rig of equipment that can be released and orbit the earth for 5 days while continuously recording data. Virginia’s space program is releasing dozens of them as STEM projects for Virginia schoolkids, who each got to pick out what they want to measure and put in their own Thinsat, and all the data will be public and shared among schools.

I can’t wait for the launch tomorrow and I sincerely hope it goes off without a hitch. I’ll be taking more photos and posting them tomorrow night if all goes well.

If you ever get the chance to attend a NASA Social event, by all means do it. Follow @NASASocial on Twitter, where about once a month they announce applications for upcoming launches. If you can take the time off and fly out to wherever the launch is, apply and get a spot!

The wisdom of the twitter crowds

After years of putting it off, yesterday I finally rounded up all the change we leave around the house in jars by doors where we drop our keys as well as the inch of change in the center console of my truck that have all been collecting for years. It filled a canvas shopping bag about 1/4 full and weighed 21.1lbs total.

I was curious what random people on Twitter thought, so I posted a tweet asking people to guess, along with a photo.

I got about 200 guesses and if you look at the distribution, there are a couple interesting things to note.

The guesses seem randomized, but the cluster around $250 are the guesses of a highly educated crowd that googled how much a pound of change weighs, which is around $12, so 21lbs puts you right around $252. I said I noticed a lot of quarters and I think people slid it upwards to $275. There’s of course a bump around $420 because it’s fun to joke about (on the other hand, 21lbs of pure quarters is about $425).

Even with google, the distribution is pretty nice and aside from the weird cluster around $700, it’s mostly a clean bell curve. My favorite guesses took the average price of a pound of change with some quick distribution of coins based on my photo, like this guesser’s chart.

The final result at my bank’s coin machine (they don’t skim any off you like coinstar) was $244.93. Hilariously, the two closest guesses out of the 200 were both my coworkers at Slack (I never mentioned this tweet at work, they both randomly found it). Brook Shelley won, but Lynn Wu was closest at only $1.07 away, but she was over and Bob Barker rules, so Brook won.

Anyway, it was a good bit of fun and I’m impressed how close people were to the mark. If you want to play with the data, here’s a quick spreadsheet you can make a copy of and if you were wondering I made the frequency distribution grouping in $25 increments with a simple use of the FUNCTION(range,classes) operator in Google Sheets.

Converting phone lines to ethernet in newer homes

My phone wires in a closet before / after conversion

I live in a house built in 2005, and when we got rid of our landline around 2012, I knew I wanted to try converting all our unused phone jacks in the walls to ethernet someday. After 7 years of thinking about it off and on, I finally got it done today. I should have done it ages ago.

There’s a ton of info on the web, but a great deal of it is from people in IT or who worked on networks, or electrical engineers, and it took a while for me to get acquainted and wade through all the jargon. I’ll try and keep this simple.

  1. Unscrew one of your phone jacks in the wall to see what kind of wire is behind it. If your house was built or renovated after the year 2000, chances are you have cat5, cat5e, or cat6 wires and there should be labels printed on the casing of the wires. (if you do see cat 5 or 6, you’re solid and it’s an easy conversion. If you don’t, it’ll be a lot tougher as new cat6 cables will need to be run in place of the phone lines)
  2. Find your phone/tv/wire drop in a box in a closet or in your garage. All those phone lines terminate somewhere and you have to find that panel or box. Make sure the cable casings all say cat 5 or 6 on them.
  3. My phone lines were in a bundle with a few wired to each other. One of the wires was from my home fiber connection into the house.
  4. Pay an electrician to get separate the bundle and convert each cable to ethernet. They’ll need to split out the original 8 wires in each, in the correct order and into new ethernet plugs with special crimper.
  5. Buy a simple network switch from someone like Netgear with enough ports for every cable you connect to it. Once all the ethernet plugs are attached to all your cables, connect them all to your network switch (for a simple setup, you can skip a “punchdown block” and just use a switch).
  6. Have an electrician go to each room with a phone jack and change out the old phone connections with an ethernet adapter.
  7. Once complete, test that every jack when connected to a computer is transferring at gigabit speeds (the switch will show two lights on each port).
  8. Plug any routers and wifi points into your new ethernet port for faster networking.

Empathy and Invisibilia

The new episode of Invisibilia is at times both incredible but ultimately, frustrating to me.

It starts with an interesting premise: a new producer, Lina Misitzis, is given the task of cutting a raw interview into a small story as a test, but the hosts are shocked at the difference in tone of her work when compared to their own version of the story they produced concurrently.

Much credit to the host, Hanna Rosin, for having the humility and courage to consider the possibility that maybe her existing team got their version of the story wrong, and allowing for the question of whether or not Misitzis’ story got closer to the truth.

From there, they play NPR’s full story about a sympathetic interview with a former “incel” and the moment he realized he could change. It’s a classic redemption story, much like the ones I’ve heard about ex-Klan members and those that left cults or restrictive churches before on NPR.

Then they play the full version of the new producer’s story, and it tells a different tale. She doesn’t cut out parts of interviews that cast the subject in a bad light, and those same interview clips take on entirely new meanings when a fuller picture emerges.

Rosin then goes all-in on how NPR hosts typically approach stories with unlimited empathy, how putting the listeners and viewers into the shoes of their subjects is their bread and butter. She brings on an expert to talk about the importance of empathy, and disturbing trends in empathy decreases in younger people, and how a world without empathy would be a terrible place.

It’s at this point that I started to get a little upset about this episode. It quickly felt like a Boomer/GenX vs. Millennials moment where younger people are being blamed for being more reserved or careful with doling out their empathy. It feels like Rosin sets this up as a strawman argument, where if you can’t have total empathy you must have none, and that younger generations were well on their way to ruining society by making it free of empathy.

I wish the show recast its glare on the story prepared by existing NPR staff. Why did they cut out parts of the interviews where the subject downplays the feelings of his ex and underplays the danger he was putting her in? He says a lot of terrible things that ended up on the cutting room floor because it didn’t fit the narrative. To me, that’s the real story the new producer uncovered.

Why can’t the show’s hosts talk about a middle ground—one that I myself have come around to—which is offering strangers the benefit of the doubt and full empathy as a default, but also knowing when you are met with someone truly toxic (like the subject of the episode’s story) that it’s quite alright and downright healthy to completely cut off, shut down, and/or avoid them. Instead, they go further on a tangent about how being selective with your empathy (like people do with politics) leads to tribalism, but honestly it sounds childish and ridiculous.

The more the episode progressed, the more I was in support of Lina Misitzis’ take. The subject of their interviews is a truly awful, abusive person who committed many crimes that he consistently downplayed. He hadn’t changed his retrograde views on women at all, his story wasn’t a classic redemption story, and NPR’s traditional coverage style was sugar coating it and in the wrong.

At the very end, they give the show’s subject one last chance to come clean, with a quick interview featuring hosts of both versions of his story, and he makes it perfectly clear he didn’t change much, that he was just trying to repair the damage his actions caused in his own life, and that he’s only interested in making life easier for himself. It ends on this discordant note.

I love Invisibilia and I love the broad range of stories in past episodes, but the way Rosin and staff treated this one feels really off, leaving me feeling uneasy and dissatisfied with lingering questions they never fully answered.

Woodburn Oregon Tulip Festival 2019

This morning I got up around 5:30AM to get to the Woodburn Tulip Festival around 7AM to try and catch some sun between weeks of rain while the tulips were near their peak in the fields. It was muddy and I was slipping like crazy but I really enjoyed the Spring color on display.

The tulip farm is wildly busy during days when the fields are near their peak, but the key to catching good photos there is to buy a Sunrise Pass if you can only go one day very early (when the flowers and weather align) and you can drive in an hour before sunrise (maybe 5AM?) even though the gates officially open at 8 or 9AM depending on the day. Few people know about this early option, so chances are even on perfect mornings you might only share the acres of fields with a couple dozen people.

A glorious pi hole

Real-time stats on ad blocking in the pi-hole web UI

I recently heard about an intriguing project called pi-hole. You use a cheap tiny raspberry pi computer that runs on your local network, and it handles all your DNS. It’s essentially just a database of ad servers that run as a blocklist after grabbing DNS from popular services (like Google, Cloudflare, etc), so you get all the DNS you need on your network, but without any connections to adservers.

Granted, I used to run an ad-supported series of websites, but I tried my hardest to approach it ethically back then (and I subscribe to half a dozen news sites now). It wasn’t until last year that I finally started using adblockers in my browsers, and as the ad blocking wars have escalated, I’ve gotten a little tired of the nag screens and the small news sites that when I whitelist see they’re talking to 77 different servers to serve me up a single page. I understand free content sites have to find ways to make money, but is the answer taking away the privacy of your readers and sharing all their data with dozens of ad companies? Then there are devices I can’t disable ads on, like my TV.

A few friends tried out pi-hole and said it worked pretty well, so I gave it a try myself. I ordered up this complete raspberry pi kit from Amazon, then followed this guide to get things set up and configured. You can skip much of the first half of the guide since the Amazon kit ships with a bootable OS on the memory card. You do need to have a HDMI connected monitor (or TV) and USB mouse and keyboard to set up your raspberry pi once, but once you enable the SSH interface, you’ll never need that monitor or keyboard/mouse again.

Be sure to install the blocklists and whitelists as described in the guide, and don’t forget you can whitelist any future sites using the web front-end to pi-hole, through a simple form.

Getting everything configured

I had to reconfigure my router somewhat, to both give the raspberry pi computer a permanent internal IP address and to divert all my router’s internal DNS to the IP address of the raspberry pi. And if the raspberry pi ever goes down, your DNS goes with it, so you’ll notice immediately.

Once installed and running, the web felt a little snappier in a browser without an ad blocker installed. Most all ads are gone and according to my pi hole stats, 20% of my internet traffic that was spent on talking to ad server requests is freed up. No more whitelisting nag screens from sites, and finally, no more ads on my TV. About the only ads that remain are in the Instagram client (which I would pay Facebook money to remove if I could).

That big tall rectangle on the side is where ads used to show up

It’s not the easiest project to tackle because you have to know your way around your network settings, and it will take about an hour to set up, but once you have it running, it’s pretty great.

American healthcare still sucks

I picked up my prescriptions yesterday and my new health plan gave me a 90 day supply of pills. This is how it used to be, but for the past 6 years my previous plan only gave out pills for 30 days at a time.

Though it sounds minor, it’s huge.

It’s a pain to refill prescriptions. I have to call in my bottle number to a recording, worry about how many refills remain (if it hits zero it adds 1-2 days to refill), then hope the Rx shop has them on hand or can order them before I run out.

All told it’s 2-3 days out of every month of added stress and anxiety about getting new pills and heading into town to get them. So figure 10% of every month, I’m worried about my medications.

When my health plan changed me to 30 day limits they claimed it saved them money, and I guess that’s technically true, but it comes at the cost of a monthly hassle for every single person using the plan.

I’m looking forward to going through this song and dance only four times a year rather than 12. It’s like a weight has lifted.

Stubborn thinking

The start of the Banks-Vernonia rails-to-trail

There’s a glorious plan for a rails-to-trails project in my neck of the woods in Oregon. It’s been planned out for years and funds have been raised. For good projects like this, there are so many available grants (in the millions of dollars) that the county bought up all the necessary land easements and was set to begin construction on the trail soon. In the area, there’s basically no way to get from north to south safely, as the only paved path is a high speed 55mph narrow two-lane road with no shoulder and no bike lane.

The region is economically depressed, as there are no major employers or manufacturers, so pretty much everyone works and commutes elsewhere to larger cities. A rails-to-trail network would be a boon to the area. I saw the transformation myself with the Banks-Vernonia trail about 20 miles north of this proposed route. 15 years ago I traveled to Vernonia for an event, and being a former lumber town, I’ll never forget the day I was there because all the shops and restaurants were closed up and there was no place to get lunch on a Saturday. The place was a ghost town. I ended up getting food on the way home a few miles away. When I returned to ride the actual trail in 2014, I remember it being a tuesday afternoon and when I pulled into Vernonia on my bike, every restaurant was crowded, the streets were filled with people and I ended up getting lunch from a hot dog cart (and even that had a line).

Imagine a railway from the 1800s that has sat dormant since the 1980s, turned into a wide, flat paved off-highway road for families to enjoy while they spend their time (and money) in the region. It’s a no-brainer and a big win-win, right?

The miles of trail that will someday be used by thousands crosses through a couple dozen farms, and this being a freedom-loving conservative area, they’re not fans of any of it. While everyone has had a railroad easement on their property since the 1800s, farmers are always looking for arable land even when it’s only a couple percent of their overall space and even though the county will build fences for protecting their farms (the Banks-Vernonia trail has dozens of custom fences built and paid for by the trail).

The farmers have banded together and lobbed legal challenges at every step of the way, grinding down a lot of progress. Even now that final studies and construction plans are being drafted, they’re turning their opposition to 11. They flood county meetings talking about how trash will line the entire trail and how people running with dogs will somehow frighten or maul their livestock or that the trail will become a home for the homeless. It doesn’t matter that there is zero crime (I was at an earlier meeting where a sheriff from Banks said he’s never been called to the trail and to date had zero crime reports on the trail), no homeless, and little-to-no trash on the Banks-Vernonia trail, or that the only bike trail with homeless encampments is the one in downtown Portland with easy access to city facilities (this trail would be miles from any town where you could even get something to eat).

I really hope a couple dozen farmers don’t win this fight. They’re being extremely myopic as soon there could be thousands of families happily using this safe, off-highway trail to enjoy the region and visit the towns along the way. I have no doubt this will be a huge economic driver for an area big on winery tourism. Having a 20 mile paved path linking the region together safely will showcase everything the area has to offer and thousands of visitors will enjoy it every weekend, most likely stopping at any towns along the way to eat and drink.

If you live in Northwestern Oregon and would someday consider a trip on this completed trail, the county is asking for comments from people in support of the project. The details are all in this Facebook post with a deadline of this Thursday to hear public comment that helps drive it forward.