Chair Force Engineer

Sunday, July 31, 2011

War of the Operating Systems (Part 1)

Back when I was young and starting to use computers on a daily basis, I read a lot of computer pundits who bashed Microsoft Windows. Naturally, I began to parrot their point of view. It seemed logical; after all, Windows 95 crashed all the time whenever I needed to use it. During my teenage years I began my search for a different operating system that would cost less than Windows, still support my hardware, avoid the annoying crashes that I saw under Windows 95, and offer up all the applications that I needed to play games, type documents, surf the internet, and all of the other things I used my computer for.

My early attempts to use Linux (particularly Red hat and Caldera) quickly ended with my frustration as they didn't support my hardware. Perhaps with a bit of tweaking I could have gotten them to work, but at that age I didn't have the time or expertise.

By the time I gave up on Linux, Microsoft was finally getting its act together. After Windows 98 cynically attempted to force Internet Explorer on everybody, Microsoft started anew with Windows 2000 and XP. They were built from the ground up as 32-bit OS'es, not a kludge of 32-bit Windows plus 16-bit DOS. And Microsoft supported them vigorously with service packs and other handy features to repair corrupted systems. So until Windows Vista was released ("defecated" might be a more appropriate term for the turd-ish Vista,) I regained a lot of respect for what Microsoft was doing. Windows might not be the most stable OS, but it installed properly 99% of the time and supported a mind-boggling number of hardware configurations. Not to mention that all of the most popular software titles were written for it.

But a lot had changed in the Linux world since the last time I tried it, too. Corporations like Novell and Oracle had invested serious money into making Linux a viable OS for desktop computers. (Not to mention the revolution called Ubuntu, launched by space tourist Mark Shuttleworth in 2004.) So I've dabbled with Linux lately and succeeded in getting OpenSUSE 11 to work on a 2006-vintage PC.

But I wasn't content to stop at Windows in my desire to tinker. I bought a used Power Mac G4 so I could try MorphOS, a lightweight OS for Power PC computers that's compatible with the old Commodore Amiga. The MorphOS team wisely chose to develop their OS for a limited set of hardware that had been mass-produced; namely, Macintosh computers with G4 processors. I have installed and used MorphOS, and it's worked reliably every time for me. And MorphOS doesn't suffer from slowdown, even on a system with only 256 MB ram and a 13 GB hard drive. (In fact, I'm typing this blog post on my MorphOS machine right now.) The biggest drawback is that very few popular software titles have been ported to MorphOS, and I'm not compelled to pay over $100 to unlock the full version of MorphOS until programs like OpenOffice and GIMP are available.

I still want this old Power Mac to run Linux in a dual-boot setup with MorphOS. I tried installing Debian Linux 6 today and it failed miserably on this machine. So plan B is to try OpenSUSE 11.1 (OpenSUSE ended Power PC support after that release.) And plan C is to try Yellow Dog Linux, a Power PC distribution that was best known for supporting Sony's PlayStation 3 (until Sony castrated its game system by removing Linux support.) My goal is to host a website on this system, to prove that old computers can still be useful.

Part 2 of "War of the Operating Systems" will cover my quest to get Linux running on this ancient Mac, as well as exciting developments on the Linux front for Intel-based PC's. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

End of an Era

After 135 missions and 30 years, the space shuttle program finally comes to a close. Atlantis is safely home, and no more crews will take the risk of flying in the world's most complex machine, which too often showed Americans how fragile it could be.

For the last three decades, the space shuttle has given America a manned presence in space. That in itself should be applauded as a remarkable achievement, as only Russia and China have a similar capability. Yet if that was the only goal of the shuttle program, the vehicle would be horribly inefficient for the task. NASA could have just as easily kept the Apollo spacecraft and Saturn IB launcher in production, launched a few crews per year, and maintained the prestige of the nation. So why the shuttle?

After NASA had succeeded in landing humans on the moon, they realized that they couldn't keep on throwing used rocket stages into the ocean forever. It was getting too expensive. The space shuttle (approved by President Nixon just as Apollo 17 was preparing to leave the moon forever,) became NASA's post-Apollo goal. They promised to fly the shuttle every two weeks, and spaceflight would become routine.

Well, such is the delusion of hubris. The shuttle averaged 4.5 flights per year (or 5.4 flights per year, ignoring the five years that the shuttle was grounded following the losses of Challenger & Columbia and their crews.) As a maintenance-hungry spacecraft that required a standing army of thousands, the shuttle realized little (if any) cost-savings over the old throwaway rockets and capsules. Certainly there existed better approaches to building a spacecraft besides the throwaway external tank, solid rocket boosters, and heavy winged orbiter (which got really hot on re-entry and needed a very fragile heat-shield to return from orbit.)

And yet the shuttle had its redeeming values. Unlike the expendable Apollo-Saturn system, the shuttle was a platform for construction in space. The tools and techniques had never been attempted before, and they were all learned during the course of the shuttle program. The early missions often focused on retrieving and repairing satellites in space, with repairing the Hubble Space Telescope finally becoming a frequent objective for shuttle missions. In the second half of the shuttle's life, it became a platform for servicing the Mir and International Space Stations. The standing armies who made the shuttle work over the last several decades should feel great pride in knowing that they laid the foundations for building future settlements in space.

Beyond the shuttle's value in building our future in space, it represents a force that's far more powerful and beneficial to society. It's akin to Christopher Nolan's vision of "Batman." The Caped Crusader is more than just the sum of his parts as industrialist Bruce Wayne and vigilante-hero Batman. While Batman fights the crime that plagues Gotham City, his power is multiplied by everybody he inspires to take up his mantle and defend Gotham. The shuttle has been a powerful symbol of what people can achieve by mastering science and mathematics.

When I was in kindergarten, our class learned about the space shuttle in preparation for Discovery's first return-to-flight mission. (Yes, I'm dating myself now.) It seemed really neat. I begged my dad to take me to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where we saw The Dream is Alive on the OmniMax. The following summer we built the Revell 1/144 scale Space Shuttle together. Most importantly, the shuttle was the initial spark that lit my fascination with studying science in grade school. It was a tangible goal that a lot of children could rally behind. And some friends I went to college with were actually able to live out that dream and work on the shuttle program.

In spite of all my fond memories, I'm not sad to see the shuttle retired. It served its purpose, and now it can move aside to make way for safer and more cost-effective methods of manned spaceflight. As Harvey Dent says in The Dark Knight, "Batman knows he's not going to be doing this forever." Every symbol steps aside to make room for its heirs. In a few years time, the SpaceX Dragon-Falcon system will be inspiring the next generation of children to study science and math in school. Yet with a wistful wave it's appropriate to wish the orbiters goodbye, and extend thanks to everybody who kept them flying for so long.

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Final Countdown

History was made today as the space shuttle Atlantis made the final launch of the Space Shuttle program. For a little while, the skies over central Florida will seem a little bit gloomier.

For anybody who hasn't seen a shuttle launch in person, it's truly a sight to behold. The shuttle stack can be seen from miles away as a brilliant fireball riding on two mighty pillars of dense smoke that changes color and swirls as it stagnates. After the SRB's are jettisoned, the shuttle is high enough where the three main engines are very hard to see with the unaided eye. The spent SRB's are big enough and low enough to track as they begin a majestic arc over into a nose-first attitude, headed for parachute deployment and ocean splashdown.

I was forunate enough to see shuttle launches for about 18 months prior to the Columbia disaster. It even motivated me to cram myself into a tiny Pontiac Grand Am for the 90-minute ride to Titusville, FL (the closest publicly-accessible place to view a launch) to see STS-113. And when Columbia made her final launch, I was fortuitiously in the right place to see her streaking through the sky, unaware that she had already been mortally wounded by a piece of foam from her external tank.

Shortly before I left Daytona, I witnessed an Atlas V rocket launching on another, unmanned space mission. It was pretty neat too, with its kerosene-burning engines standing in contrast to the clear blue sky. But it could never compare to the sight of those smoke-belching SRB's in terms of sheer spectacle, drama and power. American astronauts will soon return to space in Dragon capsules on Falcon rockets, but the wonder of watching anything as mighty and awe-inspiring as a genuine shuttle is likely gone forever.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Star in the Night Sky Made by Men

Last night, I stepped onto the sidewalk around 8:50 PM committed to a brisk run. My old bones definitely needed a bit of excercise.

My neighbors had other ideas.

A throng of people from several households had massed in the street. Jaws dropped to the ground and fingers pointed into the sky.

"It's the space station!" one of them shouted. That was enough to get me to stop in my tracks and crane my neck into the partly-clouded dusk sky.

Sure enough, a bright light streaked at pretty high speed, from the northwest to the southeast. As one neighbor shouted out how the space station was passing behind a cloud (an odd statement to me, given how high the space station is above the clouds,) I resisted the urge to shout out the station's altitude and orbital inclination to make myself seem pedantic.

It's a remarkable feat of engineering that humans can build such a large craft in outer space, of the right size and reflectivity to be seen from earth. As the space shuttle program comes to an end over the next two weeks, the space station stands as testament to the shuttle's full potential for assembly in space. When I began my jog away from the mob, I was reassured that ordinary Americans still payed attention to space exploration in the news, and it could excite them enough to check it out on a lazy Tuesday night. There is much hope for America's future in space.