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Deciphering Buran, The Soviet Space Shuttle

There are countless magazine articles and websites that pit the American Space Shuttle against the little-known Soviet version, and declare a winner…usually the Soviets. This is NOT that kind of story. I understand that deep-seated national rivalries make it difficult to refrain from choosing sides in any kind of Soviet/American comparison. However a cage match between these two shuttles makes no sense in the first place, as I’ll explain. Furthermore, such comparisons only serve to fuel the emotions of commenters who substitute objective engineering analysis with overzealous and misplaced patriotism.

Buran enjoyed a single unmanned flight in 1988. Economic meltdown and the fall of the USSR were death knells for the Buran program. (photo source unknown)

The American Shuttle was a very mature system with well over 100 flights to its credit. During the program’s four decades of development and operation, the design continually evolved to include both enhancements and concessions. There is no question that the Shuttle failed to achieve several goals set forth in its charter (namely low-cost). At the same time, it accomplished feats that were unimagined at the start of the program, like staying in service for more than 30 years…oh, and that whole International Space Station.

The Soviet shuttle was a ship that showed tremendous promise, yet it was not even completed when it flew its single (unmanned) test mission in 1988. That the Soviet shuttle program never advanced beyond its first flight is a result of the USSR’s political and economic turmoil of the time…not any shortcoming of their design. If the program had evolved into a long-term operation as planned, there is no doubt that it would have endured an evolutionary cycle much like the US Shuttle. Only then would we know how the Soviet design lived up to its billing. And only then would a “shuttle versus shuttle” comparison of abilities and accomplishments be valid and fruitful. Alternately, I want to illustrate some of the fundamental similarities and differences between these rival spaceships and attempt to understand why the Soviet shuttle appeared as it did.

What Evil Drove The Car?

Last year, I had the privilege of visiting the North Hollywood shop of custom car builder George Barris. Barris created the ‘60’s Batmobile, the Munsters coach, the jalopy from the Beverly Hillbillies, and many other legendary vehicles. He also was very proud of the black Lincoln Continental he created for The Car.

For many years, The Car was a long forgotten horror film from the ‘70’s that was roasted by the critics, and it quickly came and went in the theaters. But many fans like myself grew up enjoying it on television, and Guillermo Del Toro is known to drive a replica of the Lincoln from the film. When Del Toro produced last year’s Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode, he even had The Car chasing down Millhouse in the opening couch gag (driven by Maggie, natch).

John Landis saw The Car when it first came out in 1977, and in an episode of Trailers From Hell, he said, “This is a picture that is truly dumb, and I really enjoy it, but I enjoy it because I think it’s bad…I enjoyed it tremendously in the theater. Some people quite like it. It’s well photographed by Gerald Hirschfeld in Panavision.” (Hirschfeld was also the cinematographer for Young Frankenstein.) Ultimately Landis concluded, “The Car…dumb, but fun.”

The seventies were a big time for rip-off films. There were tons of movies that ripped off The Exorcist, Jaws and Star Wars, and The Car was essentially Jaws on wheels. The eponymous sedan is all black, and it’s possessed by something evil because there’s no driver. James Brolin took on the Chief Brody role as a sheriff in New Mexico, looking like Burt Reynolds when he was at his sex symbol peak, and had to destroy the car before it claimed too many victims. Classic B-movie stuff.

Screenwriter Michael Butler came up with the idea when Jaws was all the rage at America’s theaters. One day in his study he thought, Why not do a movie that treats and automobile the way Jaws treats a great white shark? Butler called his writing partner, Dennis Shryack, who loved the idea, but he had an ethical problem with it because he didn’t want to make a movie that showed people how to kill other human beings with their car. Butler and Shryack discussed their idea with their agent, and the moral quandary they had with the story. Then their agent gave them a great idea: “Why does there have to be a driver in the car?”

Magnetically Actuated Micro-Robots Cooperate to Build Structures

"Imagine being able to harness the power of an army of ants to assemble large-scale products quickly and precisely from heterogeneous materials in today’s manufacturing environments. SRI’s Diamagnetic Micro Manipulation (DM3) technology uses printed circuit boards (PCBs) to drive and control micro-robots built from simple, low-cost magnets that are propelled electromagnetically. This could enable cost-effective production of large numbers of micro-robots that can reliably handle a wide variety of solid and liquid materials—including electronics." (h/t IEEE Spectrum)

In Brief: Project Naptha OCRs Web Images

If you're using Chrome, try this new web demo out right now. Project Naptha is a browser extension that taps into open-source OCR (optical character recognition) algorithms to let you copy and paste text from web images straight from your browser. It works very much like OCR software did a decade ago, except instead of processing text from a scanned document, it can do it from a webcomic, screenshot, or even Advice Animal image macro. The secret sauce isn't just OCR transcription, but using a technique called Stroke Width Transform to detect that there's text embedded in an image in the first place. The extension uses several tricks to hide computation--it tracks cursor movement and predicts where you might highlight over an image before scanning ahead and running processor-intensive character recognition algorithms. Its creators are also experimenting with the ability to translate highlighted text (much like the WordLens app) and even use "inpainting" algorithms to erase text from an image (similar to Photoshop's Content-Aware Fill feature).

Students Invent New Ketchup Cap to Solve Squirt Problem

Looks like pretty good week for condiment innovation. "High school seniors Tyler Richards and Jonathan Thompson have spent a lot of time thinking about ketchup. As students in the Project Lead the Way program at North Liberty High School, Richards and Thompson have researched and developed a bottle cap that prevents that first squirt of ketchup from being a watery mess." (h/t LaughingSquid)

In Brief: Amazon Lands HBO Streaming Video Deal

Netflix can't be happy about this. Amazon and HBO today announced that they've struck a multi-year deal for Amazon to stream content from HBO's back catalog of shows and cable television specials to Amazon Prime subscribers. Beginning May 21st, Prime Instant Streaming will feature the "HBO Collection", which includes shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, among others. HBO original movies, documentaries, and comedy specials are also part of the deal, but not HBO's current breadwinners like Game of Thrones and True Detective (or past hits like Sex and the City). Some newer shows like Veep and Girls will eventually make it to Amazon, but only three years after they were originally released. The licensing deal is exclusive to Amazon, so Netflix won't have a similar offering. HBO has maintained that it's exploring options for a standalone HBO Go subscription option, and this doesn't preclude that.

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Tested In-Depth: HTC One M8 Smartphone

Will and Norm sit down to review HTC's new flagship Android smartphone. The HTC One (M8) is the successor to the phone that got Norm to switch from iOS to Android, and it has a few new features that differentiate it from phones like Google's Nexus 5.

Living with Photography: We Have the Technology to Fake It

Over the past week, a series of unrelated events has prompted me to ponder on the concept of bokeh, and more broadly, the role and influence of software technology on photography. First, I've been testing the HTC One (our In-Depth review goes up tomorrow), which features two cameras on its back. It's not the first HTC phone to do so--the ill-fated HTC Evo 3D used a dual camera system to shoot stereoscopic 3D photos and videos--but it is the first to use the secondary camera as a way to ostensibly enhance the quality of a 2D photo. HTC's camera app can use visual information from the second camera to artificially render the background out of focus, simulating a the shallow depth-of-field that you would get from using a wide-aperture lens or large-format camera sensor. The primary rear camera is used to capture the base image, while the secondary camera that sits about an inch away snaps a photo a from a slightly different angle. Software then compares those two photos to determine which is the foreground and which is the background, and you can choose which to blur out of focus.

It's a neat trick, which is why it wasn't surprising that Google released a similar feature in its new stand-alone Android camera app, which approximates the same shallow depth-of-field effect using a single camera. With Google's technique, you take a photo and then slowly move the phone up while the camera takes note of the displacement of foreground and background subjects--called parallax--to approximate the depth of the scene. Then, just like with HTC's app, you can choose which parts of the scene to keep in focus, and even accentuate the blurring effects. Google engineer Carlos Hernandez' blog post on the subject cites heady triangulation and computational modeling algorithms that go into creating this defocus effect, as to boast about the technical complexity of the feature. Behold the power of software, Google seems to be saying, it can do the things that previously required expensive (and in the case of smartphones, prohibitively bulky) hardware.

HTC's defocusing feature on the right, with the original photo on the left.

And scoff as DSLR-wielding photographers might at this claim, given the novelty and fickleness of HTC and Google's defocusing camera features, it's the exact sentiment being made by the camera technologists at Lytro, who today announced their second-generation light-field camera. The Verge's feature on the Illum camera posited just as much: "Lytro's ultimate, simplest goal is to turn the physical parts of the camera — the lens, the aperture, the shutter — into software." And the concept of light-field photography, broadly speaking, is not unlike what HTC and Google have done with their camera apps. But instead of using one or two cameras to compute the depth of a scene, light-field cameras use thousands of microlenses in an array to capture light and depth information from every part of the scene. Lytro's software is the secret sauce that can analyze that raw data to produce what looks like a typical shallow depth-of-field photo--just one that you can adjust focus after the fact.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about this. It's analogous to the use of software filters in Instagram or even Lightroom to approximate the look of vintage film cameras in smartphone or DSLR photos. On the one hand, software filters only simulate the gestalt of old camera technology; they lack the nuance and serendipity that lomography enthusiasts claim cannot be replicated with digital photography. On the other hand, Instagram filters can be genuinely fun to use, and have emerged as a distinct visual language for modern digital photography. Can that same line of thinking be applied to simulated bokeh? Appropriate use of depth-of-field is one of the hallmarks of professional photography, and the combination of HTC, Google, and Lytro's bokeh ventures may feel like new technology intruding into an exclusive playground, dumbing down the effect for anyone to use or misuse.

Premium: Fixing Norm's MacBook Air Keyboard

I destroyed several of my MacBook Air's keys in an unfortunate indoor quadcopter accident. But before bringing it into the Apple store to pay to have it repaired, I took a stab at repairing the keys myself with cheap replacement parts bought online. It's not something I've done before, but as it turns out, it's not that difficult!