U.S. to have two new manned spacecraft

September 16th, 2014

NASA has finally picked the companies that will build capsules to carry astronauts to the International Space Station. Both Boeing and SpaceX have been selected. Having two different vehicles (and launchers) is a good thing.

After a four-year competition, NASA has tapped the commerical spaceflight companies SpaceX and Boeing to launch astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil by 2017, agency officials announced today (Sept. 16). If all goes according to plan, the two companies will reduce or end NASA’s dependence on Russia for its orbital taxi service. Russia’s Soyuz has been NASA’s only crew access to space since the space shuttle fleet retired in 2011.

“Today’s announcement sets the stage for what promises to be the most ambitious and exciting chapter in the history of NASA and human spaceflight,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told reporters today. [SpaceX's Manned Dragon Spaceship in Pictures]

The choice reflects a melding of old and new; Boeing has been an aerospace mainstay for decades, while billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk founded SpaceX just a dozen years ago, in 2002.

More worries about Ebola

September 14th, 2014

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa continues to spread with no signs it is slowing down – indeed, just the opposite. Epidemiologists are beginning to get worried – seriously worried.

Some may ask why the United States should play this role. Well, no one country is doing enough. We have the expertise and the personnel to tackle this challenge. From a humanitarian and medical perspective, we have a moral obligation to provide care to those who need it, wherever they may live. Nancy Writebol, an American missionary who survived Ebola, said she hoped a silver lining in her brush with death would be increased attention to the plight of her “brothers and sisters in Africa.” She recognizes a sad truth about her own story: Without American victims, Americans might not care.

But go beyond humanitarianism: Epidemics destabilize governments, and many governments in West Africa have a very short history of stability. U.S. aid would improve global security. And consider the issue of “health security.” Microbes don’t respect borders. Now that Ebola is spreading in Nigeria, a global travel hub, cases are sure to appear outside the continent. While one Ebola case in the United States is unlikely to spark an outbreak, things could change if the virus becomes more easily transmittable. We already know it’s mutating.

Some info on API technical writing

September 11th, 2014

Documenting APIs (application programming interfaces) is one of the most difficult tasks for technical writers. But if you have the talent and some programming knowledge, it can be rewarding, both intellectually and financially. Writers who can document code are in high demand and are paid at the high end of the scale.

Sarah Maddox recently gave a talk about documenting APIs to the STC Silicon Valley chapter. She’s posted a lot the material from that talk online along with links to resources on the subject.

Yesterday I was privileged and delighted to speak at a meeting of the STC Silicon Valley Chapter in Santa Clara. Thanks so much to Tom Johnson and David Hovey for organising the meeting, and thank you too to all the attendees. It was a lovely experience, with a warm, enthusiastic and inspiring audience. This post includes some links for people who’d like to continue playing with the APIs we saw last night and delving deeper into the world of API documentation.

The presentation is on SlideShare: API Technical Writing: What, Why and How. (Note that last night’s presentation didn’t include slide 51.) The slides include a number of links to further information.

The presentation is a technical writer’s introduction to APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) and to the world of API documentation. I hope it’s useful to writers who’ve had very little exposure to APIs, as

Franklin Expedition ship finally found

September 9th, 2014

The big news today wasn’t from Cupertino. It was from much farther north. Much farther.

One of the ships from the lost Franklin Expedition has been found. The announcement was made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. While admittedly, Harper is a history buff and is known to have a particular soft spot for the Franklin Expedition, the news was big enough to warrant his attention. After all, people have been looking for those ships ever since they went missing more than 170 years ago.

At this point, the searchers aren’t sure if they’ve found HMS Erebus or HMS Terror. But sonar images from the waters of Victoria Strait, just off King William Island, clearly show wreckage of a ship on the ocean floor.

Franklin Ship found
A sea floor scan reveals one of the missing ships from the Franklin Expedition in an image released in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Parks Canada/Canadian Press)

The wreckage was found on Sept. 7 using a remotely operated underwater vehicle recently acquired by Parks Canada. When Harper revealed the team’s success at Parks Canada’s laboratories in Ottawa Tuesday, the room burst into applause and hollering.

“This is a day of some very good news,” Harper told the assembled group of researchers, some of whom had flown all night to be in Ottawa for the announcement.

This is probably the biggest event in Canadian history in many years. The Franklin Expedition occupies almost mythic status in Canadian history. For example, the beginning of Stan Rogers’ masterpiece, Northwest Passage:

Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage,
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea,
Tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage,
And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.

A couple of other things to note. First, the ship was found pretty much right where Inuit oral tradition said it would be. Second, if it hadn’t been for climate change, specifically the extreme warming of the Arctic, the ship would likely never have been found – a fact that’s more than a little ironic considering our prime minister’s attitude to the subject.

11 CSS Learning Tools and Resources

September 9th, 2014

Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) are one of the web’s most useful technologies. I have a nodding familiarity with CSS – I’ve been using them since 1997 or thereabouts, but the standards keep evolving. So I was glad to see this article from SitePoint.com that lists 11 tools and resources for learning CSS. I doubt that I’ll ever use CSS 3d tansforms, but it is nice to know they’re available. For my purposes (tweaking the look and feel of my online help and documentation) the Code Guide by @mdo is probably the most useful.

Facing a Waning Future

September 8th, 2014

It seems that we may lose one of the great observatories – the Lick Observatory, currently run by the University of California. While the observatory’s main telescope, a 91 cm. refractor, has long since been surpassed by far larger telescopes, it still fulfills an important role in training astronomers and testing equipment that will be used on more modern telescopes.

However, the University of California plans on cutting funding for the observatory in 2018, effectively shutting it down. The Daily Californian has a long article about the controversy surrounding the observatory’s future. It’s fascinating reading and a really fine piece of science journalism – something all too rare these days.

Under the plan devised by the UC Office of the President, students and postdoctoral researchers will lose the ability to be principal investigators of telescope proposals. In lieu of Lick, students will have to train at Keck Observatory, another facility partly owned by the university in Hawaii, or the Thirty Meter Telescope, also being built in Hawaii.

The twin telescopes at Keck Observatory, however, are some of the most powerful on the planet — a precious resource for the most accomplished researchers in the world and one too valuable for a graduate student’s tinkering. Students are prohibited from applying for time at Keck and will be similarly restricted from the Thirty Meter Telescope when it opens.

Lick, on the other hand, is fully owned and operated by the university, which allows graduate students to lead projects they independently design.

This pushes students to think on their own and learn from their mistakes — to grow into leaders in their field, says Filippenko, who has 15 undergraduate students on his research team monitoring supernova explosions.