Flying Over Class Charlie

San Jose Airport at Night

San Jose Airport at Night
Source: SuperShuttle

It is not everyday that you fly over class ‘B’ (Bravo) or ‘C’ (Charlie) with a small aircraft. Private pilots usually try to avoid the busy airspace of international airports. But every once in a while you might get to do that, and if it’s at night – the sight leaves you with awe.

Approaching class Bravo in northern CA is done through the federal system ‘Nor Cal Approach’. They keep you separated from the airliners and you don’t talk to the tower directly. But in class Charlie they do pass you on to the tower. It’s fun to watch the ‘big guys’ in the sky, and have them and the tower converse with you, acknowledging your position.

I did not take the picture above when I recently passed over San Jose International Airport – I was too busy. But the picture I found depicts the spirit.

By the way, this is what class Bravo looks like at night:

SFO at Night

SFO at Night
Source: Wikimedia


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Hardware is Hard

El Pulpo MecanicoThe month of May marks every year a very cool/artsy/geeky event to attend in the Bay Area in Nor Cal: Maker Faire Bay Area. Similar events take place around the country spring-through-fall. Robots, home-made machines, metallic kick-nacks, inventions, wearables and smartables, 3-D printers, digital and physical tech that inspires and ignites curiosity in all, especially young attendees. The above El Pulpo Mecanico is an example of the things you can expect to see.

This year a ‘maker’ conference, hosted by Oracle Corporation in Redwood Shores CA, was started to support the ‘maker movement’, noting the impact in just recent years of trends that have made it possible for it to take flight: crowd-funding makes it easier for younger makers to fund their projects, and companies such as Intel, Qualcom, and many start-ups, make it easier to find basic building blocks to ‘make’. The movement has coined the term M2M (machine to machine communication) as part of IoT (internet of things) – cloud based connectivity of devices that push or pull status and data, and act upon it.

“Hardware is Hard” were words spoken by folks from Dragon Innovation and Blue Robotics. Overcoming this hardship is at the heart of building ‘smart things’.  Founders from Pebble and Spark came to talk about their hardware and software combo, and inspire people with the road they took; and the audience cheered with awe, reassured that you don’t have to be Apple to create great things.

Which brings us to the world of ‘smart wearables’. Pebble is a smartwatch that can connect to smart devices both iOS (Apple) and Android (Google) based, and Spark is an open source operating system for cloud-connected things, using it you can create interfaces to other machines. Using both you can create great applications for Pebble, which is the only way to compete with the emergence of other smartwatches.

What do smartwatches do? You have to remember that they are not yet intended to replace the gadgets we currently carry in our pockets and purses. They don’t have many apps that work on them independently, rather they’re mainly used to display on your wrist notifications and content from the smartphone nearby, using Bluetooth.

While we are waiting for a smartwatch from Apple, Pebble’s competition includes quite a few based on Google’s Android Wear platform. G Watch from LG has step-tracking that encourages people to walk… Nice for fitness oriented folks.

G Watch - LG

G Watch – LG
Source: Devindra Hardawar/VentureBeat

Samsung Gear Live has a heart rate monitor. (both were given free to recent Google I/O conference attendees…)

Gear Live - Samsung

Gear Live
Source: Samsung

Motorola’s Moto 360 has been delayed for months. Not yet released, it is rumored to have a wireless charger.

Moto 360

Moto 360

Smartwatch applications can extend to the watch from the smartphone, you don’t install them on the watch. The platform allows you to tap and swipe, and drill-down by touch.

The nicest feature is using voice commands to control Google Now – a virtual assistant like iPhone’s Siri. To me this is that part that most promises to bring science fiction into our lives. You can’t yet do ‘Face-time’ by talking to your wrist, but when that happens – soon thereafter  – I hope to see gadgets style James Bond or Spy Kids 2…

Spy Kids2 Watches

Spy Kids2 Watches



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Apple CarPlay: Just the Tip of the Car-Apps Iceberg

Some call it: In-Vehicle Experience of the Future. I call it Helga. Say ‘Hello’ to Helga, my car’s AI.

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‘Emirai’ system Mitsubishi

Helga: “Good morning, girl! Are we going to work? I’m 96% charged so I’m good to go. I sense you got your coffee mug, it’s about 70% full, so not stopping at Starbucks.”

Me, settling in: “Morning! Yes – work, no Starbucks, and I have to drop off a package in the mail.”

Helga, pulling out of the driveway: “Nearest post office is still closed. We can stop by at the one near your office, by the time we get there it will be open. Traffic looks bad this morning, so I’m not taking the freeway, re-routing via expressway. ETA 8:43, that’s in 36 minutes including 9 min at the post office, I don’t know what’s the hold up, but there’s a line. You’ll still have enough time before your 9:00 meeting with your boss and 5 peers titled ‘Helga Nav Update UI review’. Hey, wait-a-minute… Helga – that’s me. Am I getting an upgrade?”

Me, smiling: “Yes, you lucky beast, you’re getting an upgrade. Now enough with the chit chat. Route approved. But I do feel like driving today. Do you mind?”

Helga: “Well, so long as you don’t go over 90 MPH. I do not enjoy the anxiety. And watch out for that pole, when we arrive at the parking garage. You almost hit it last time. No need for name-calling. If I’m a beast, at least I’m a pretty one. You got the wheels?”

Me: “I got the wheels. Hey, don’t mention my past behavior when there’s a passenger with us. Play us some Vivaldi?”

Helga: “Acknowledged. What Vivaldi, I thought it’s a Maroon 5 kind-of-day”.

Me: “No, I want some classic. My 9:00 is going to be very stressful; I want to clear my head”.

Helga: “Your wish is my command, Vivaldi it is. You are so unpredictable.”

Me: “Oh, I’m so lucky that is not true. If it were true you would have been a pointless impossibility.”


So what do you think of the above conversation, between me and Helga? Whatever you think, you should know that it is absolutely, positively, possible and feasible with technologies that exist today.

1.  After decades invested in research, multiple companies and research institutions can provide speech recognition by recording voice, analyzing the audio data, and transcribing it to text, using language models. The more focused the usage and the language model (on a domain or specific accent), the higher the accuracy.

2.  Next step is understanding the text. Again – decades of research resulting in a wealth of available NLP (Natural Language Processing) technologies that can decipher human language, analyze it, and respond in a meaningful way according to preset rules.  Apple’s Siri and Google’s Now are both based on above technologies.

3.  A computer generated voice can be routed to the car’s speakers. Cars had the ability to ‘talk’ some limited sentences such as ‘Lights are on!’, in some models since the 1990’s, but I suspect that might have been a recording. That’s not the same as generating the audio output on the fly.

4.  % charged – well, the car ‘knows’ exactly what’s the status of the battery, or if it is gasoline based it can tell tank % full.

5.  The presence of the coffee mug – a simple sensor for weight or even heat can sense it and make use of this info.

6.  All route and re-routing calculations mentioned – Waze and other map apps already do all of this stuff.

7.  Self driving? I don’t think I have to tell you about all the self parking cars that are already available in the market today, and all the self driving prototypes in testing.  Cameras and sensors all around the car make it possible to identify proximity to obstacles and other moving vehicles. The only problem that car manufacturers have to deal with, is the added weight of all the electronics and cables carrying the data.

8.  Car apps: If your phone knows your schedule – there’s no reason why your car can’t have access to it.

This is it. This is where devices like ‘CarPlay’ come into play.

Last month was special: 3.14 is was not only Pi day, but the whole month was Pi month. And it was also special because Apple CarPlay was announced, a device that connects your iPhone to your car via an iOS display, that brings you control over messages, music, and navigation. Eventually more and more apps will be adapted to this use-case and be brought into this offering. The idea is that people have dozens of applications running on their phone, and this is a way of adapting them and bringing them into the car.

Apple CarPlay in Volvo

Apple CarPlay in Volvo

The changes in this area are happening at the speed of light. In 2008-9 in many cars you could listen to music played off your iPod or iPhone using an auxiliary cable, or connect your blue-tooth enabled phone to the car, to have conversations and music through the car speakers. This was much better than the clunky car-phones that existed only in luxury cars just a few years earlier.  In 2012 many cars already have a USB connection, that allows you to also charge the phone, while browsing through its music using the car’s controls.  But the car – phone integration was not yet complete, and was not the only thing happening in the cars.

The truth is this space is messy. While there is an attempt to have better interfaces between cars and smartphones, to take advantage of apps you already have, there is also an attempt to create a platform of both hardware and software to run dedicated apps in the car. If you try to somehow mix the two, you also have a problem of compatibility.  Think about it this way: every manufacturer is creating their own platform, and then some soliciting developers to develop apps for them, some developing their own.  2013 saw a burst in car-based applications, including a competition for developers conducted by Ford.  Some manufacturers use satellite based wireless internet. Many rely on Internet connectivity via cellular networks of users’ smartphones, but that means users have to either switch car or switch phone if they are incompatible.  This became clear with the Porsche launch at the end of 2012, with platform integration for Blackberry.

This is still an issue with CarPlay. Until a similar Android-based device is introduced, you would get the system with your new 2015 Mercedes-Benz, Volvo or Hyundai only if you own an iPhone. It’s interesting to see it implemented in different ways in the 3 different cars. Here’s a video showing its introduction at the Geneva Auto show 2014.


Will a standard platform be created, as an option for providing applications in any car, and connecting the apps from any phone? Will car apps ignore phone apps or become superior for in-car use? It seems 2014 is the year of platforms and connectivity alliances. Car manufacturers enter relationships with wireless internet providers, and a new alliance (OAA) was created to bring the Android platform to connected cars. Only time will tell us what to make of this.

What I do know is that as far as the future of car apps is concerned, CarPlay is just the tip of the Iceberg. A real giant Iceberg.



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I Had No Idea That It’s International Women’s Day – Thank You Google!

International Women's Day 2014

International Women’s Day 2014 (Video by Google)

Here’s a link to this great short video, that was created in honor of this day and posted on the search giant’s main page, and here are related news.

What called my attention was today’s Google Doodle. So I searched to see the past ones as well.

Annual Google Doodles:

International women's Day: Google Doodle

International women’s Day: Google Doodles

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2013: 11th of 13 Things I Want to Know: Could Superman Help Felix Baumgartner?

An Austrian skydiver broke the speed of sound in a jump from the ‘edge of space’ at 128,000 feet (~40km or ~24mi), as part of a Red Bull promotion, on Oct 14th, 2012, the 65th anniversary to Chuck Yeager’s record breaking that speed in flight. Can you imagine this? Breaking Mach 1 with your body. He was supersonic for about 30 seconds during the 4 minute free-falling part of his jump, reaching 1.25 Mach, then was slowed down by the drag of increasing air density. After 4:20 min. he deployed a parachute.

This wasn’t exactly where we define outer space to begin. Our atmosphere has 3 layers, and this altitude is at the higher part of the Stratosphere, the middle layer. The official edge-of-space is at 100km. Still, an out-of-this-world stunt.

Mount Everest Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mount Everest
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For comparison:

  • Regular skydivers jump from 4000-10,000 ft.
  • Mount Everest is about 29,000 ft tall.
  • Jet airliners always climb to above 18,000, and usually cruise at 30,000-39,000 ft, at the lower part of the Stratosphere. This is where the temperature is constant, so it’s above weather and turbulence conditions, and where air density is low so less drag and less fuel used. This is also at a quarter of the altitude of Felix’s jump!
SR-71 Blackbird Source:

SR-71 Blackbird


Regular aircraft can’t reach this high. The aircraft that came closest is Blackbird SR-71, the spy-plane that was designed to fly at Mach 3, at 85,000 ft. That isn’t high enough!


What about SpaceShipTwo? Virgin Galactic’s space plane can’t reach so high either.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShip2

Virgin Galactic SpaceShip2

Space shuttles on the other hand, would be a slight overkill… They orbited at 200 miles and were decommissioned in July 2011. Baumgartner reached his jump point in capsule carried by a controlled helium balloon, wearing a pressurized suit. Others did that before, but this set the record also on the highest altitude for a manned balloon flight. His mentor for the mission was the previous record holder, Joseph Kittinger.

So I wonder, if he got in trouble in this jump could Superman help him?

Superman Returns

Superman Returns

The Superman character created in 1933, was given flight ability in 1940… his abilities increased until he could achieve spaceflight well before we could. This includes super-speed, as Superman was described as being faster than a speeding bullet.

Speeding Bullet Source:

Speeding Bullet

On the low range a bullet leaves the muzzle of a gun at about 120m/s = 432km/h, much slower than Felix’s fall, but modern rifles can produce speeds 10 times as fast. It would seem Superman could indeed catch up to Felix if necessary.

Felix in fact did get in trouble. About a minute into the fall he got into an uncontrollable spin, much as seen in the movie Gravity, where the frantically spinning astronaut is played by actress Sandra Bullock.  Felix managed to stop it without assistance, the mechanism by which he was able to get the situation under control is not clear. If he didn’t, this stunt might have resulted in his death.

I mentioned this story a couple months ago in a previous post discussing the Hyperloop - a proposal for a semi-vaccum operated bullet-fast Mach speed train. I come back to it fascinated with the concept of facing fear, especially fear of high speed. We got used to high velocity in our lives, such that has never been experienced by any living creature for millions of years, before humans started seeking it a couple centuries ago. We seek it for practical reasons, but also for recreation. No other organism is known to seek higher and higher speed recreationally. Running very fast was never our stronger side, and is not what helped our ancestors hunt or avoid getting hunted.

Speed Skiing

Speed Skiing

Still people enjoy facing this fear, experiencing speeds doing things that often get them killed. Cyclists observe the monuments along their favorite routes, as they descend on their bikes at speeds exceeding 100 km/h; Speed skiers exceed 300 km/h on a pair of skis, wearing fire-proof suits; Those of us who don’t reach that speed still find ourselves occasionally with a scream in the back of our head, rushing to the front to come out… knowing full well how mortal we are, we come back the next day to the same slope. We admire those who can do it better and faster than everyone else; the snow-borders, roller-bladers, race-car drivers; the motorcycle racers, stunt pilots, test pilots; The sky-divers, BASE jumpers, and the Felix Baumgartners.

If there is an evolutionary advantage to this behavior, pushing the limits to experience this rush – I don’t know what it is.


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2013: 10th of 13 Things I Want to Know: What Credit Score Do I Need For a Home Loan on Mars?

Source: Mars One

Source: Mars One

Discovery news posted this short news bit earlier this year, summarizing that colonizing beyond our planet is a doable feat. This is based on expectations from private ventures, to be able to run operations much leaner than NASA, mainly relying on reusable rockets.  A vision of an 80,000 humans colony was shared as well.

A home loan company put together the enlightening and entertaining infographic below, showing via a graphical calculation that a not-so-bad scenario means a cost of $48 Billion to move to, and live on Mars.

If indeed it will cost almost $50 Billion for one adult to move to Mars, what credit score do I need to get a home loan? How long would it take me to pay it off, assuming a good salary working on Mars should cover it?
Here’s the very informative graphic (click on it to zoom):


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2013: 9th of 13 Things I Want to Know: Have You Considered the Hyperloop and the Fear Factor?

Much hype about the Hyperloop, the radical proposal for extreme high-speed transit from LA to SF in around 35 minutes, using passenger pods in a low pressure air-cushioned tube.  [Here's a summary article]. Some of the reactions have a negative slant, hinting accusations such as that the inventor purposely underestimated the associated costs, attempting to sabotage the California High Speed Rail project out of malice and motive to profit. If anything, it would make more sense to believe the motive is the wish as a tax payer to see something better put in place. There’s a notion that the self-driving car would render this system obsolete because the long ride would no longer be wasteful of the driver’s time. This last article on IM(not…)HO makes no sense. If the cost of the ticket is not an issue, who wants to spend 5-6 hours confined in a car, when you can reach your destination in 35-45 minutes, then stretch your legs and go have breakfast (not to-go)?  If you don’t have better use of your time, come to this small unpretentious place in Cupertino CA, Coffee Society, where Steve Jobs used to hang out…

There is one aspect, however, of which I see no mention. The blog publication calls for technical commentary and feedback, but we can’t move on without the human factor; or rather, the fear factor. There has been discussion of safety, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. There’s also a discussion about vomit and handling a 0.5 G force. That’s still not it. In decades to come, if this writing survives the test of time some might review it and feel pity at the narrow-minded, fearful, primitives that we might prove to have been. After all, it’s the same pity that I felt as a kid, when reading about important inventions of the 20th century: some of those who spoke against the frightful ‘horseless-carriage’ claimed that at 60 kph (a little less than 40 mph) the wind will be so strong it will blow your head off.

This kind of comment is understandable, considering no one had any experience traveling that fast. We now know that the sensation of your head almost getting blown off only starts when traveling on a motorcycle (as an example) at speeds exceeding 120 mph. When this happens, all you have to do is keep your head as low as possible, behind the windshield. [U.S authorities should not be taking this as any admission that I have, in fact, traveled at such speeds on any U.S highway :-) ]



Few of us are thrill seekers, and will try anything even if it gets them killed. More of us will only try it, despite their fears, after it’s been proven for a while. Some of us will never try it. I can only imagine what it felt like, to climb into the first aircraft built after the concept was proved by the Wright brothers, when no one else has done it before.  Not everyone is Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian skydiver who broke the speed of sound in his last jump from the edge of space on Oct 15th, 2012. Not a coincidence, this date was the 15th anniversary of breaking Mach 1 and the all time speed record on land – on Oct 15th, 1997 by ThrustSSC, with engines borrowed from a British F-4 Phantom jet fighter, driven by Royal Air Force pilot Andy Green.  I suppose it does actually make sense that such speeds would be first driven by a jet pilot. This event celebrated in turn another anniversary: it was recorded 50 years (and one day) after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the air on Oct 14th, 1947.

Breaking Mach 1 on Land Source:

Breaking Mach 1 on Land

The plan says that “Beautiful landscape will be displayed in the cabin”, and the cabin will be enclosed in a steel tube, so I take it this means you can’t look outside. Other than acceleration and deceleration, you won’t feel the speed. However, I suspect many people won’t be able to tolerate being enclosed like that for 35 minutes, even if they are not claustrophobic.

What if there were windows, and if the tube had a glass dome? You don’t feel the speed on board an airliner at high altitude. But in this tube so close to the ground you would.  There are not many humans who have experienced traveling so fast, so close to the ground.  I can now only think of 8 such humans.

On June 7th, 1981, eight pilots put the Falcon F-16 on the hall of fame, in the one of the most shocking, daring military operations of modern history. Until then the F-16 was a relatively new wild bird. It was built to be lighter and cheaper, with only one engine, and first to use fly-by-wire. It’s volatile and unstable, but that’s exactly what could make it the most maneuverable fighter, all it takes is an extremely good pilot… and these eight were.  They were loaded to the very last drop of fuel, which had to last for a 1200 mile round trip – 600 miles in each direction. Realistically none of them expected to make it back. The mission was to fly over enemy territory, drop their bombs with extreme precision on target and return, but the target was protected with anti-aircraft missile defense systems. To avoid discovery by radar, they had to fly at extreme low altitude, at times 50-100 feet above ground, at 540 knots, for over an hour in each direction. I can’t begin to describe the nerves of steel that are needed to pull this off, to fly so low, so fast, for so long. Flying so low goes against every instinct. It feels too fast even with a light aircraft at only 100 knots, over the relative safely of flat water…  That flight must have felt like Anakin’s race scene in StarWars Episode 1.

It took a year of secret planning and training, and they did it. The nuclear reactor at the heart of young Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, that was just a few months shy of capacity to ignite a 3rd world war, was destroyed to the ground. When President Reagan got the call, he yelled at the phone: “They did what?!!”  The American cabinet with George Bush at the lead was outraged, but American military commanders called the Israeli Chief of Air Force to thank him. All 8 pilots came home. Elon Musk might be familiar with this story. One of these pilots had a first name of the same roots. It was Ilan Ramon, who later became an astronaut, and was killed with his 6 crewmates aboard the Columbia space shuttle on Feb. 1st 2003.

And now back to the Hyperloop idea. In 1995, Stephen Baxter published The Time Ships, a sequel to The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. In it he describes the view from the time machine, as the traveler passes through time faster and faster.  Cities rise and fall, the sun and moon’s fast movement become bright arcs circling in the sky, and everything else becomes a blur. Would this experience be anything like that?



As a society we have a need for speed… and people get used to technology. They want to embrace it, and want to follow the first brave souls who test it. For this one they might need more time. It’s not a two minute thrill ride in Disneyland that you can choose to avoid if you’re getting a headache. It’s supposed to become a means of transportation that people can count on to get them to their business meeting or unite them with their family without causing them a heart attack. It might take more than a one year fighter pilot’s training. I do believe we’ll get there eventually, but there will always be those who won’t set foot on it, just like there will always be Lieutenant Barclay who refuses to use the transporter beam…

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