Monthly Archives: May 2011

R18+ For Games Sees Real Progress At Long Last.

It’s been almost two years since I posted my very first thoughts on the issue of game censorship and back then it was really only an issue because of the impending Internet filter that was threatening to turn Australia into an Internet back water. Thankfully the Internet filter hasn’t yet come to be (although it seems Conroy is still committed to the idea) and the barriers that once stood between the Australian gamers and titles deemed unfit for people half their age have started to come crumbling down. There’s even the possibility of the classification system getting a complete overhaul to do away with the disjunct between states and territories, something which will be beneficial for all Australians.

Up until now however most of the progress we’ve seen has just been in the form of promises and postulation from politicians with little actual progress to show for it. Last week however saw the first few real steps towards actual reform on this issue, something which I wasn’t expecting to see for another couple of months. The first bit of progress that I came across was a draft proposal from Attorney General Brendan O’Connor that outlined what the new R18+ classification guidelines would look like:

“The Gillard Government wants to provide better guidance for parents and remove unsuitable material from children and teenagers. The introduction of an R18+ classification will help achieve that and will also bring Australia into line with comparable nations,” said O’Connor in a statement. “This issue has been on the table for many years, without the necessary progress to make a change. We’ve recently seen several states publicly express their support for an adult only rating for games and I’m keen to reach a unanimous decision at the July meeting.”

Interestingly the proposed R18+ rating would also include reworking the MA15+ rating a bit, mostly adding in restrictions that things like sex, drugs and nudity can’t be linked to rewards and incentives. It’s a pretty small distinction but it does mean certain types of games like say Leisure Suit Larry or Strip Poker will find themselves firmly in the R18+ category (as they probably should) whilst most games currently rated MA15+ won’t be affected by the rating change. It does have the potential to shove quite a few titles into R18+ if you take a broad interpretation of “must not be related to incentives or rewards” for things like leveling up in Call of Duty or Battlefield, but I think the rewards are far enough away from the action for them to skirt around that idea. We’ll have to see what the Australian Classification Board thinks on that one though.

Additionally it looks like the ACB is going out to the public again to seek what the public’s reaction is to the proposed guidelines and R18+ rating. This time around however they’ve gone for a quick survey with a short comment box at the end of it. If you’re in support of the R18+ rating you should head over there now to have your say in this matter as hopefully we can garner the same sort of reaction we did last time they tried this and wrote off the results as “gamed” by the supporters. Realistically they underestimated just how passionate gamers are about this issue, heck my brother even asked me if I had written a submission for it and he’s not one for politics.

Of course the vocal minority has hit out at the proposed guidelines in the usual fashion. I was going to do a take down of their FUD line by line but honestly I don’t want to give them any more air time than what they’ve already got as there’s no swaying them away from their absurd opinions. Just let it be known that the Australian Christian Lobby fervently opposes the R18+ rating as they do anything that could legitimize the behavior of adults that disagrees with their world view, even if it would benefit them in some way.

We’re now only a few short months away from Australia casting off part of its archaic past and stepping towards the future. It’s been a long time coming with many political battles fought and nearly a dozen articles written on the subject by yours truly but finally the Australian gaming community might just be treated for what they are: mostly adults. There’s still many more steps to go before the R18+ rating becomes a reality but progress is now decidedly forwards instead of in circles and that should make every Australian gamer very happy indeed.

Quantum Computing: Now For Reals?

All too often it seems we’re presented with technologies that are always at least a decade away from seeing some sort of practical application. It’s a symptom of a bigger problem, one of research not being able to continue on ideas that don’t have the potential to produce something useful (read: profitable) and so often we’re introduced to an idea long before it becomes reality so that it can in fact become a reality. However every so often one of these technologies makes it past that crucial line of finding its way into the real world and the latest of which is the idea of quantum computing.

I can’t remember when I first introduced to the idea behind quantum computers but I have been fascinated with them for quite a while. Quantum computers differ from regular computers in that their system is made up of qubits which are able to hold either a 0, 1 or a quantum superposition of any of these. What this means is that when compared to traditional computers which can only be in one state at any one time a quantum computer can be in any number of the possible states simultaneously. Thus as the number of qubits increases the amount of computing power available increases exponentially, theoretically out-pacing any conventional processor. Such computers would have big impacts on tasks that require large amounts of raw computing power like chemical reaction simulations and breaking encryption schemes.

I can remember reading about the first public demonstration of a quantum computer back in 2007 from a company called D-Wave. At the time I wasn’t 100% sure if they’d actually created what they claimed they had as there was a bit of controversy on the matter but re-reading the articles today showed that the criticism was more leveled at the claims D-Wave was making about their systems capabilities rather than it actually being a quantum computer. I really hadn’t followed the subject much until D-Wave popped up in my feed reader last week with the bold claim that you could now buy yourself at 128 qubit quantum computer:

Whether or not D-Wave has actually built a quantum computer is still a matter of debate (though, a study authored by the company and published in Nature claims to prove its success) but, whatever it is these crafty Canadians have created, you can order one now and start crunching qubits with abandon. The D-Wave One is the first commercially available quantum computer and, while its 128-qubit processor can only handle very specific tasks and is easily outperformed by traditional CPUs, it could represent a revolution in the field of supercomputing.

Now it’s one thing to put something up for sale and another to actually deliver that product. Not many people (or companies for that matter) would have the $10 million required to purchase one of these systems handy so initially it looked like it would be a while before we actually saw one of these systems purchased. Not a week later did D-Wave announce that they had sold their very first quantum computing system to Lockheed Martin with details around the purpose of the system remaining secret for now. To say that I’m surprised that they managed to sell one that quickly would be putting it lightly, but it’s also telling of what they’ve accomplished.

Lockheed Martin, whilst being no slouch when it comes to taking bets on new technology, wouldn’t be sinking $10 million into a product that wouldn’t deliver as advertised. Nor would they want D-Wave to publicly announce it either should they end up looking the fool should their quantum computer turn out to be not so quantum. On the surface then it would seem that D-Wave is the real deal and their 128 qubit system is the first commercially available quantum computer and we could be on the cusp of yet another computing power explosion.

So does this mean that in the next few years we’ll see quantum computers appear at the consumer level? Probably not, in their current state they require liquid helium cooling and we’re still many advances away from making quantum computers in form factors that we’re all familiar with. It does mean however that we’re close to being able to solve harder problems more rapidly though and the subsequent improves to D-Wave’s systems will make doing such tasks again exponentially easier. With Lockheed Martin basically verifying D-Wave’s credibility I’m very interested to see who lines up next for a quantum computer, especially if they’re going to be a bit more open as to what they plan to do with it.

Goodbye Spirit, We’ll See You Soon.

Bar the shuttle there’s only been one mission in recent memory that has managed to capture the attention and imagination of nearly the entire world. That mission is the Mars Exploration Rovers, a pair of plucky little explorers that touched down on Mars almost 7 years ago today beginning a truly epic journey that lasted well past their expected lifetime. They also hold the crown of being conceived, built, launched and spending the better part of a decade on one of our closest neighbours in the universe in the time that it has taken Duke Nukem Forever to be developed. Their impact on the world and our understanding of the universe cannot be understated and it is with a sadden heart that I bring you this news today.

Spirit, formally known as MER-A, has ceased all communications with earth for too long and we will no longer be attempting to contact it.

Even though they were, for all intents and purposes, identical twins Spirit always had the hardest time on our red sister. For the first couple years they were both chugging along quite well but in mid March 2006 Spirit’s front right wheel locked up and failed to respond. This meant that for most of its life Spirit was driving around backwards, dragging the dead wheel behind it. It was both a blessing and a curse to the little rover as the dragging meant it could image the crevices it was leaving behind, providing some insight that we weren’t expecting. There was a brief moment of excitement when the wheel began to respond again, but it soon stopped responding shortly after. The rear right wheel also suffered a similar fate several years later.

Then in 2009 Spirit became stuck in a soft patch of Mars soil. At the time it didn’t seem like a big of a deal, they’d been in similar situations before with both rovers and managed to free them successfully, but this one presented some major challenges. The soil was an insidious creation of mostly iron sulfate which has poor cohesion and is like quick sand to the rover’s wheels. NASA then spent 9 months testing various scenarios on earth in a desperate attempt to free the craft before the harsh martian winter before giving up and declaring Spirit a stationary research station.

With the rover stuck in the soil it was unable to orient its solar panels to a favourable angle in order to generate enough electricity to keep its components warm during Mars’ winter. This meant that once that time came it was likely that the rover’s electronics would be subjected to temperatures far below what it was designed to handle, likely killing it in the process. It’s the same problem that faced the Phoenix Lander and the unfortunate truth is that it didn’t survive the winter. Spirit went dark on March 22, 2010 and all attempts to contact it since then have been met silence. This means that the rover is no longer functioning, frozen in its final resting place.

Spirit may no longer be communicating with us but its mission lives on in its twin, Opportunity, and it’s future incarnation in the Mars Science Laboratory called Curiosity. There’s also the very real possibility that SpaceX will be launching a mission to Mars in the near future and that gives us the very real possibility that us humans could be meeting up with our robotic creations much sooner than we think. So while writing this article brought a tear to my eye I know that Spirit won’t be alone in the Martian soil for long and we’ll be seeing it again very soon.

So long Spirit.

Could Skylon Be The First Single Stage to Orbit Craft?

The current way of accessing space isn’t sustainable if we want to make it as a space fairing species. Whilst the methods we use today are proven and extremely reliable they are amongst the most inefficient ways of lifting payload into orbit around our planet, requiring craft that are orders of magnitude larger than the precious cargo they carry. Unfortunately the alternatives haven’t been too forthcoming, due in part to nuclear technologies being extremely taboo and the others still being highly theoretical. Still even highly theoretical ideas can have a lot of merit especially if they have smaller aspects that can be tested and verified independently, giving the overall theory some legs to stand on.

I’ve talked before about the idea of creating a craft that uses only a single stage to orbit (SSTO), in essence a craft that has only one complete stage and conceivably makes extensive use of traditional aerodynamic principles to do away with a lot of the weight that conventional rockets have. My proposal relied on two tested technologies, the scramjet and aerospike engine, that would form the basis of a craft that would be the Model T equivalent for space travel; in essence opening up space access to anyone who wanted it. In all honesty such a craft seeing reality is a long way off but that doesn’t mean people aren’t investigating the idea of building a SSTO craft using different technologies.

One such company is Reaction Engines, a name that I was only marginally familiar with before. They’ve got a proposal for a SSTO craft called Skylon that uses a very interesting engine design that combines both an air breathing jet engine as well as a traditional rocket motors. The design recently passed its first technical review with flying colours and could see prototypes built within the decade:

They want the next phase of development to include a ground demonstration of its key innovation – its Sabre engine.

This power unit is designed to breathe oxygen from the air in the early phases of flight – just like jet engines – before switching to full rocket mode as the Skylon vehicle climbs out of the atmosphere.

It is the spaceplane’s “single-stage-to-orbit” operation and its re-usability that makes Skylon such an enticing prospect and one that could substantially reduce the cost of space activity, say its proponents.

The engine they’re proposing, called Sabre, has an extremely interesting design. At lower speeds it functions much like a normal jet engine however as speeds approach Mach 5, the point at which my hand waving design would switch to a scramjet, it continues to operate in much the same fashion. They do however employ a very exotic cooling system so that the engine doesn’t melt in the 1000+ degree heat that would be blasting the components and once Skylon is out of the atmosphere it switches to a normal rocket engine to finish off the job.

The issues I see, that face nearly all SSTO designs, is the rule of 6 for getting to orbit. The rule simply states that at Mach 6 at 60,000 feet you have approximately 6% of the total energy required to make it successfully to orbit. Skylon’s engines operate in the jet mode all the way up to Mach 5 to an altitude of 85,000 feet which is no small feet in itself, but it’s still a far cry from the total energy required. It is true though that the first stages of any rocket are the most inefficient and eliminating them by using the atmosphere for both oxidiser and thrust could prove to be a real boon for delivering payloads into orbit. Still whether this will be practical with Skylon and the Sabre engine remains to be seen but there are tests scheduled for the not too distant future.

Walking through unknown territory like this is always fraught with unknowns so it’s no wonder that the team at Reaction Engines has been met with such skepticism over their idea. Personally I’m still on the fence as their technology stack is still mostly unproven but I applaud their vision for wanting to build the first SSTO craft. I’d love to see the Skylon making trips to the International Space Station, effectively replacing the shuttle and extending the ISS’ lifetime but until we see some more proof that their concept works I’m going to be skeptical, but it won’t take much to make into a believer ;)

The Case for 3 Day Weekends.

I’m not a fan of the current norms for a working life. There just seems to be something so wrong about spending the best part of a day slaving away behind a desk, working towards goals that you likely have no control over. The current 9 to 5 work day has its origins back in the industrial revolution and in the almost 200 years since then we’ve seemingly been unable to get past the idea that we should all spend 40+ hours a week at our place of work. Ultimately I believe that such norms represent an archaic idea about how efficient a workforce can be, especially considering that 200 years ago ides like telecommuting were in the realms of science fiction.

I feel the same way about the 2 day weekend that we’re all accustomed to. It’s not that I feel like I deserve the extra break, although it is quite welcome, more the fact that after experimenting with a 3 day weekend for the better part of a year I found myself to be wholly more productive at work and during my time off. Sure it could be tough sometimes making up the required 40 hours during the week but that extra day off ensured that I came back ready to face the challenges ahead of me, usually with a vigor unmatched by other employees.

It’s not just all anecdotal blustering on my part either. Research shows that people with flexible working arrangements, the ones that would allow for things like a permanent 3 day weekend, are more productive and much more satisfied with their jobs.It’s not surprise really as they are able to fit work around their life rather than the other way around. For many people this may be the odd day off here and there, but many will choose to take that as either a Friday or Monday in order to maximise the benefit of having said day off.

For someone like me the extra day off was usually spent doing all the menial things that would otherwise eat up half of my weekend. Whilst 2 days is a good amount of time for leisure it is usually interrupted by chores, commitments and sometimes even catching up on work that “needs” to be done. The additional day would then serve as a buffer for such things, ensuring that you’d be able to spend the next 2 days fully indulging in whatever leisure activities you seek. The effect was quite liberating and the three day weekend was the first reason why I started pursuing the idea behind Lobaco as up until then I simply struggled to find the time to work on such ideas.

I’m not the only one to think this either. Whilst I’m sure everyone would appreciate having another day off it seems that more and more people are recognising that the current norms for working aren’t suited to the world we live in, especially considering the technological advances of the past couple decades. There’s also been significant movement towards more flexible working arrangements, however they still constitute a minority in the wider world. It’s still progress however and someday I believe that the idea of working a 5 day, 9 to 5 job will be an archaic relic of our past.

For someone like me the benefits seem obvious. I’ve been there and seen them for myself and there’s a growing movement of people who’ve done the same. It’s not a hard change to make either, realistically workplaces have no reason not to try it especially if they track their employees with any kind of performance metrics. It is a fight against giant inertia however, the 200 year old habits of the working world are going to die a slow death even with the hand of technology pushing it towards its demise. I hope one day to rejoin the ranks of those who enjoy a shortened work week and lengthened weekend, but until then I will continue to spruik its benefits to all, hoping to fall on sympathetic ears.

The Shadow IT Department and Its Influence on Corporate IT’s Future.

If there’s one thing that us system administrators loathe more than dealing with users its dealing with users who have a bit of IT smarts around them. On the surface they’re the perfect user, being able to articulate their problems and requirements aptly so we have to spend considerably less time fulfilling their requests. However more often than not they’re also the ones attempting to circumvent safeguards and policies in order to get a system to work the way they want it to. They’re also the ones who will push for much more radical changes to systems since they will have already experimented with such things at home and will again want to replicate that in their work environment.

Collectively such people are known as shadow IT departments.

Such departments are a recent phenomena with a lot of credit (or blame) being levelled at those of my generation, the first to grow up as digital natives. Since the vast majority of us have used computers and the Internet from an early age we’ve come to expect certain things to be available to us when using them and don’t appreciate it when they are taken away. This doesn’t gel too well with the corporate world of IT where lock downs and restrictions are the norm, even if they’re for the user’s benefit, and thus they seek to circumvent such problems causing endless headaches for their system administrators. Still they’re a powerful force for driving change in the work place, enough so that I believe these shadow IT departments are shaping the future of corporate environments and the technologies that support them.

Most recently I’ve seen this occurring with mobility solutions, a fancy way of saying tablets and phones that users want to use on the corporate network. Now it’s hard to argue with a user that doing such a thing isn’t technically feasible but in the corporate IT world bringing in uncontrolled devices onto your network is akin to throwing a cat into a chicken coup (I.E. no one but the cat benefits and you’re left with an awful mess to clean up). Still all it takes is one of the higher ups to request such a thing for it to become a mandate for the IT department to implement. Unfortunately for us IT guys the technology du jour doesn’t lend itself well to being tightly controlled by a central authority so most resort to hacks and work arounds in order to make them work as required.

As the old saying goes the unreasonable person is the one who changes the world to suit themselves and therefore much of the change in the corporate IT world is being made by these shadow IT departments. At the head of these movements are my fellow Gen Y and Zers who are struggling with the idea that what they do at home can’t be replicated at work:

“The big challenge for the enterprise space is that people will expect to bring their own devices and connect in to the office networks and systems,” Henderson said. “That change is probably coming a lot quicker than just five years’ time. I think it will be a lot sooner than that.”

Dr Keiichi Nakata, reader in social informatics at Henley Business School at the University of Reading, who was also at the roundtable, said the university has heard feedback from students who have met companies for interviews and been “very surprised” that technologies they use every day are not being utilised inside those businesses.

It’s true that the corporate IT world is a slow moving beast when compared to the fast paced consumer market and companies aren’t usually willing to wear the risk of adopting new technologies until they’ve proven themselves. Right now any administrator being asked to do something like “bring your own computer” will likely tell you its impossible, lest you open yourselves up to being breached. However technologies like virtualization are making it possible to create a standard work environment that runs practically everywhere and I think this is where a bring your own device world could be possible.

Of course this shifts the problem from the IT department to the virtualization product developer but companies like VMware and CITRIX have both already demonstrated the ability to run full virtual desktop environments on smart phone level hardware. Using such technologies then users would be able to bring in almost any device that would then be loaded with a secure working environment, enabling them to complete the work they are required to do with the device they choose. This would also allow IT departments to become a lot more flexible with their offerings since they wouldn’t have to spend so much time providing support to the underlying infrastructure. Of course there are many other issues to consider (like asset life cycles, platform vetting, etc) but a future where your work environment is independent of the hardware is not so far fetched after all.

The disjunct between what’s possible with IT and what is the norm in computer environments has been one of those frustrating curiosities that has plagued my IT career. Of course I understand that the latest isn’t always the greatest, especially if you’re looking for stability, but the lack of innovation in the corporate space has always been one of pet peeves. With more and more digital natives joining the ranks however the future looks bright for a corporate IT world that’s not too unlike the consumer one that we’re all used to, possibly one that even innovates ahead of it.

 

Bitcoins Over time Graph

BitCoin, Pyramid Schemes and Alternate Currencies.

I’ve been on these Internets long enough to have seen my share of pyramid schemes masquerading themselves as something “revolutionary”. Back in the early 2000’s I can remember getting swept up in all sorts of “make money online” things that promised to pay you big bucks if you did surveys, clicked on links and some for just simply browsing the web. I also had a hand in bringing a few of these down, like many users of it did, when the system only did minimal checks on new users making it quite easy to make 1 person look like 200. I still keep a couple trophies of that time (a couple CDs I bought with Beenz) mostly for the sick pleasure I get in knowing that those companies were doomed from the start.

Over the years many other forms of alternate currencies came and went as did the venture capital dollars that had been invested in them. I think the last one I ever tried was EmailCash which has managed to survive by not trying to become an alternative currency, preferring to stay in the lucrative world of rewards programs. After I realised the effort I was putting into the schemes was netting me a return of much less than $1/hour I gave up on them completely and spent more time at my real job.

The idea of a inventing a currency is a tantalizing one though and the most recent addition to the long list of alternative currencies is becoming a hot topic amongst the tech community. I am of course referring to the BitCoin sensation, a decentralized peer to peer currency that allows users to “mine” BitCoins by acting as part of the payment network. It’s a very interesting idea especially when it adopts many characteristics of the platform its built on, allowing for truly anonymous transactions and a currency that can’t be controlled by any government. However, whilst I love the core idea behind BitCoin, I can’t help but feel this is an extremely elaborate pyramid scheme, and I’ll explain why.

Take a look for instance at this graph detailing the predicted number of BitCoins over the coming years:

BitCoins have an upper limit on how many can be produced, approximately 21 million if we take the creator’s word for it. BitCoins are almost infinitely divisible however so they can still be used quite extensively once the upper limit on the number has been reached. However the complexity in mining a BitCoin increases considerably over time as they start to become mined out and is accelerated by the number of people participating in the network. Thus the true benefactors of the BitCoin system are those who were in it from the beginning as back then it was relatively easy to generate BitCoins and thus they could amass quite a large amount of wealth in a short amount of time.

Like any alternative currency however BitCoins are completely useless if you can’t exchange them with other people for goods and services. It is then in the best interests of the early adopters to get other people to accept them as a legitimate form of currency. This means getting more people on the BitCoin network which, strictly speaking, doesn’t have a traditional referral system in place so it usually passes the pyramid scheme sniff test of most people. Still every additional member that joins and participates in the network is generating value for all of those that came before them, thus it is better for someone to “get in now” before the gold rush hits and the potential wealth disappears.

Also BitCoin, whilst being quite resilient to most exploitations, is still a computer system that can be manipulated. Most recently it came to light that one of the pools, DeepBit, managed to reach the critical 50% threshold of computing power that would make exploitation possible. Whilst it quickly sank back down in order to avoid such a scenario such a situation and no exploits were detected such a situation had only been “theoretically” possible until it actually happened. If BitCoin garners mass adoption you can bet there will be bot herds targeting the network in an attempt to exploit it. Whether they will be successful or not remains to be seen.

Given the rather checkered history that alternative currencies have I’ve been casting a sceptical eye over anyone who thinks that they’ve got this problem space solved, and BitCoin is no exception. Sure I was little excited about being able to generate some cash with spare CPU cycles but that feeling that this whole thing is just an elaborate pyramid scheme was too hard to shake and I’ve left it by the wayside. As a payment system it might not be a bad idea but the whole idea behind mining coins just means you’re paying to make the early adopters rich and that’s the main reason I take issue with the BitCoin system. It’s really hard to trust something when its structure too closely follows that of the ye olde pyramid scheme.

Internet Shopping Has Ruined Me.

I’m not what you’d call a big traveller, the longest trip of my life was done just last year and only lasted 4 weeks, but I’ve still been to more places than both my parents combined. I have the commoditization of air travel to thank for that and it’s the reason why many Australians of my generation spent their early twenties in other countries. Like any traveller I’m always keen to dive right into the culture of the place I’m visiting and always want to bring back a momento that’s distinctly from that country. Since I have a distaste for useless things and a heavy interest in tech my options are usually pretty limited though, especially when I go to places that are supposed to be tech centres.

Most recently I saw myself in Singapore for business and thought this would be a good opportunity to grab some of the gadgets I hadn’t bought yet (I.E. a Motorola Xoom). I knew I could get it online for just under $600 so I figured if I could get it for that or within 10% more it would be worth it so I set out to 2 of the biggest technology malls in search of one. The first one I tried was Sim Lim Square, and whilst the number of IT shops there was astounding I failed to find anyone willing to sell me the tablet for less than SG$900 (~AUD$684). It was also a bit of a challenge to find one in the first place since most places didn’t stock it, favoring instead the new Acer Iconia. My frolic through the Funan DigitalLife Mall prove to be equally as irritating, so I ended up leaving there empty handed.

I had similar frustrations looking for some distinctly Singaporean gifts to bring back from my travels. This could be due to the heavy amount of westernization that Singapore has undergone but even trolling through local markets had me finding the same items I could either get online or back in Australia. It’s not just limited to Singapore either, any business running in a modern country is more than likely going to have some kind of web presence which will allow you to get their products without having to enter the country. Thus the actual value of travelling to a location to get things that you can only get there is somewhat diminished, especially if you’re someone with particular tastes like me.

My wife and I had the same trouble when travelling through the USA. We struggled to find anything that they couldn’t get elsewhere and indeed many of the gifts we ended up bringing back could have easily been acquired with 10 minutes on the Internet and a credit card. Sure people are still appreciative of things that have made the journey from faraway lands (especially if you carry them yourselves) but it just seems unnecessary when you could have the package make that same journey without taking up space in your suitcase.

Perhaps its just a result of my particular tastes and chosen travel destinations but the more I travel the more I get the feeling that the world is becoming far more homogenous thanks to the communication revolution of the Internet. It’s also just good business on the part of the multi-nationals who can afford to have a presence anywhere they choose which explains why I continue to see the same products and brands nearly everywhere I go.

Maybe I’m just pointlessly ranting about the diminishing value of travel or perhaps I’m getting crotchety in my old age, not wanting to travel because I like what I’ve got back at home. Both are valid points and looking over this post it does seem kind of a silly point to make. Still though I think there’s something in the idea that the world is becoming more homogenous thanks to the better flow of information and that one of the flow on effects is that the idea of bringing gifts back from overseas is now a quaint notion that could soon be seen as an outdated custom.

Or maybe I’m just shit at finding good places to shop, that’d work too ;)

STS-134: A Fitting Finale for Endeavour.

The time is fast approaching when one of the most iconic spacecraft in history will no longer be soaring off into the blackness of space. Long time readers of this blog will know it’s been a bit of a roller coaster for me emotionally and every bit of shuttle news always feels bittersweet as I know we’re not far away from never seeing these birds flying again. Still NASA has been working incredibly hard to make sure that not only do the shuttles continue to perform as expected they’ve also managed to jam a heck of a lot of cargo into what was supposed to be the final flight of the shuttle but that honor is now reserved for STS-135. That doesn’t detract from this last mission at all, however.

STS-134 is the final flight of the space shuttle Endeavour and it launched late last night at around midnight AEST. I managed to catch some of the action as it was happening on Twitter having forgotten that the flight had been scheduled for Monday after experiencing several delays thanks to trajectory conflicts (in essence traffic problems in space) and problems with the APU heaters which form part of the shuttles hydraulics. The launch went without a hitch however and the shuttle lifted off in its usual spectacular glory.

YouTube Preview Image

Amongst the giant payload list that’s currently in orbit with the space shuttle Endeavour is the main reason why this mission is being flown, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. About 13 years ago a prototype AMS was sent up with STS-91 to test a wide array of particle physics experiments like dark matter, anti-matter and cosmic rays. It also happened to be flying on the last ever shuttle mission to the Mir space station. It’s sucessor, the AMS-2, faced the axe thanks to a lack of shuttle flights in the wake of the Columbia disaster. This and the cancellation of a lot of other International Space Station components lead to quite a controversy over whether the ISS was worth the expense and eventually the AMS-2 was reinstated and is currently en-route to the ISS now.

Apart from the usual affair of spare and replacement parts for the ISS STS-134 also carriers with it parts for upgrading the docking mechanisms for the upcoming Orion space capsule. They’re not just installing it either, part of the mission objectives is to also test the new docking hardware to make sure it functions as expected. This means that the STS-134 crew will be performing a series of maneuvers including docking, undocking, fly around and a full separation. It’s quite a bit of flying around for the shuttle which usually just sits docked to the side of the ISS for the entire time and I’m sure there will be some amazing footage of its on-orbit aerobatics when the tests are completed.

Endeavour will also be leaving behind part of itself, namely the Orbital Boom Sensor System. It’s become a standard piece of equipment on every flight since the Columbia disaster and is used to inspect the shuttle whilst in orbit to look for signs of damage to the space craft. It has also been used once to aid in a repair operation back in STS-120 and proved an invaluable aid in that task. It was such a help during that operation that NASA decided that one of the arms should have a permanent home on the ISS and Endeavour’s was chosen.

There are also numerous smaller payloads that make up the rest of Endeavour’s manifest. It is carrying 4 payloads for the Department of Defence, all of which require some use of the boosters whilst in orbit. Endeavour will also be bringing up another materials experiment, MISSE 8, and will be returning the previous one back down to earth for analysis. A new Glacier unit, basically a freezer for science experiments on the ISS, is being brought up and the old one returned as well. Finally Endeavour will carry with it some Lego kits with it as part of an educational program as well as some specialized nutrition bars created by a pair of high school sisters to encourage students to get into the fields of science, technology, education and math.

The final mission of Endeavour is set to be an exciting time for all of those involved and the massive payload it is going to deliver will make sure of that. Whilst it may have been stripped of the title of the final shuttle flight ever it will still be remembered for a long time to come, especially since it will leave behind a critical piece of itself once it departs. It does hit me with a twinge of sadness however as I now know there’s only one more flight to go and then the world will be without this iconic craft soaring high above its atmosphere. Still they have given us so much that I can’t help but also feel a sense of pride which makes my heart soar like nothing else.

Godspeed Endeavour.