International Space Development Conference

As I write this, I’m sitting at the DPRG’s booth at the International Space Development Conference. The ISDC asked us to be an affiliate and demo some robots. In the next booth is a group of high-powered rocketry people who have some rockets about 15 feet tall. John Carmack’s Pixel lauch vehicle, built by his Armadillo Aerospace group, is sitting on the floor about 20 feet in front of me. Carmack and his engineers were here yestereday. I’ve also spotted a few other interesting people wandering around; Ben Bova and Buzz Aldrin. Larry Niven was supposed to be here somewhere but I haven’t seen him yet.

There are also loads of non-profit space colonization groups here. I remember 20 years ago at science fiction conventions seeing groups like the L-5 society asking for donations so they could colonize space. I optimisitcally became a member of several groups. Eventually I realized they weren’t really doing anything. After all these years, they still haven’t gotten any further than sitting at tables and telling people about how great it would be to colonize space. The names have changed. Apparently, the L-5 Society is defunct now. In it’s place we have groups like the Mars Foundation and some Moon Society. I talked to the people at a few of these and they seem to have the same strategy of achieving their goal by talking about it endlessly. It’s kind of depressing. They all seem to ignore the basic problem that it’s expensive to get into space to do all this colonizing. If they spent a little time working on that, they might get somewhere.

Random software and robot news

I’ve been doing a little more C programming lately. On the embedded level, I’m porting some odometery and waypoint navigation code written by David P. Anderson for use on my own robot. This is part of a larger project to put together a GPL’d library of mobile robot code. Don’t expect to see it anytime soon but we are making progress.

I’m also trying to squeeze in time to keep up the work on mod_virgule. I’ve made a lot of progress over the last few months, benefiting both robots.net and Advogato. The ToDo list seems endless but next up is some code refactoring and work on the data schemas used for the XML database and HTML entry forms. This work will hopefully allow me to fix a long standing bug in the HTML forms and make the field layouts a little more flexible.

Austin Art Car Parade

Earlier this month, Susan and I drove down to Houston for the annual Orange Show Center for Visionary Art’s 20th annual Art Car Parade. This is one largest and oldest art car events in the world. About the only place you’re likely to see bigger and stranger moving art would Burning Man. There were over 200 art cars and an estimated 200,000 people in town to see them. I shot a lot of photos but only managed to shoot a fraction of what was there. Time to upgrade from a 2GB to 4GB XD card, I think! If you want to get an idea of what went on, check out my 2007 Houston Art Car Parade photos. You can also find pics of most of the cars in the official photo gallery on the Orange Show website. A local Houston friend of mine put together a little art car video of the event.

Kronos Quartet Brings Sun Rings to Dallas

Kronos Quartet played at McFarlin Auditorium in Dallas last week. I managed to get some pretty good seats for the performance and took Susan along. We’d previously seen Kronos play live in Austin with the Philip Glass ensemble a few years ago. This time they were accompanied by the Women’s Chorus of Dallas and the Turtle Creek Chorale. They performed a 2002 piece called Sun Rings which was composed for them by Terry Riley. The work included a visual component designed by Willie Williams. The piece was commissioned by an unusual patron – NASA.

I had no idea NASA had an art program. Apparently their goal is to create works of art that will inspire future genreations of engineers and scientists. In this case, Terry Riley composed the music around sounds recorded by the plasma wave sensors on Voyager, Cassini, and other NASA space probes. Scientist Don Gurnett who has been working with plasma wave sensors for over 40 years, selected his favorite sounds and provided them to Riley.

The work combined the live music of the string quartet and vocals with a synthetic soundtrack composed by Riley from the the plasma wave sounds. On top of this, each performer had a control stalk with a proximity sensor at the tip attached to their music stand. By waving their hand over it, they could trigger additional plasma wave samples randomly from preselected batches that matched the movement of the piece. This causes each performance to have a unique sound while still retaining a conventional musical structure.

During the performance, there are also background visuals that alternate between color washes and a series of graphics based on the Voyager probe’s golden record operating instructions which explain to aliens how to decode and play the record carried on the probe. The instructions start with a diagram illustrating the states of a hydrogen atom, and proceed from there to the construction of a record player, reproducing the sound, decoding the embedded video waveforms, and reconstructing the video images. (no doubt an achievement that would land some lucky alien a story in their equivalent of Make magazine). The performers are also surrounded by a large number of light tipped rods which vary in color and intensity during the performance, at times giving the impression that the performers are floating in the void of space and at other times are reminiscent of candles.

We both enjoyed the music and found the performance as a whole more than interesting enough to fill the hour and half length. As an added bonus, the member of Kronos hung around for a little Q and A event after the show. Surprisingly only about a dozen members of the audience stayed to ask questions and listen to stories.