The AnswersThatWork Blog

Friday, 29th December 2006

More Amazing facts on the Space Shuttle

My oh My.  There ARE a lot of people interested in the Space Shuttle and everything astronautic !  I sure did not expect such a response to my blog below about last week's Space Shuttle STS-116 Discovery's return to Earth.  I'm overwhelmed.  But it does also show the level of interest there is in all space things – maybe NASA TV could start showing us Live feeds of the Russians' own space excursions to the International Space Station (ISS), and of the French Ariane rockets too.

The highlight of the emails we have received over the past two days is one from an airline pilot who has given us the link below.  I read that page 3 times – it is that good !  It is a page from Laminar Research's X-Plane website.  Most people who have heard of flight simulation software will, like me, have heard only of Microsoft Flight Simulator, and as some of you will know, Microsoft Flight Simulator is used by real pilots, in flight simulation machines, to learn how to fly, or how to fly new planes or planes they have never flown before, or how to land at specifically difficult airports (San Diego, the old Hong-Kong airport, Athens, Fort-de-France, Funchal in Madeira, etc...).  Well, there is also X-Plane.  The X-Plane flight simulation program was written as an alternative to Microsoft's Flight Simulator by a guy who, on his own, produced such a comprehensive and technically brilliant product that he started giving Microsoft a run for their money even before he was able to expand his company.  Why did Microsoft rebrand Flight Simulator as  "Flight Simulator-X"  instead of Flight Simulator 10 one mischievously wonders...?  X-Plane is so good, and so true to life, it is FAA Certified (Federal Aviation Authority) !

Anyhow, if you want to read more amazing facts about the Space Shuttle, read the page below which charts everything a Space Shuttle pilot would have to do, and be aware of, to land the Shuttle safely at Edwards Air Force Base.

Returning from space and landing the Space Shuttle at Edwards.

—— (TUT) SpaceMan

Wednesday, 27th December 2006

Amazing Space Shuttle Facts and Statistics

I watched the Shuttle's return to Earth on Friday last week, STS-116 Discovery.  I love that space stuff.  Love it to bits
.  I watch all launches and all landings.  Even if I didn't like all this, I would have to take an interest – in our Florida office one can see all launches a few miles away, straight out of the window – even the supposedly "not interested" have to stop to watch the launches !

It gets better every time as NASA's online coverage also gets better :  the cameras get better so we get better pictures, the Shuttle gets picked up, and followed, earlier and earlier every time as it hurtles back down to earth, the explanations get better, the multi-site coverage gets better, it has become top class entertainment.  Eileen Collins' magical daytime landing descent into Edwards with STS-114 Discovery, in a cloudless Pacific and Californian sky, will long live in my memory.

Last week was the best coverage yet, and I learnt some amazing facts, so if you're going to a quiz show on the Space Shuttle any time soon, here are some really interesting facts :

  • The mission controller on the ground at Mission Control in Houston is himself an astronaut who has been in previous Space Shuttle missions and may go on further Space Shuttle missions.

  • The first opportunity to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere in order to land was waved off because of rain at Kennedy Space Center, so the Shuttle was told to prepare for a new set of opportunities [for landing] about an hour later.  During that time, while it waits for the next opportunity, the Shuttle orbits the entire globe once !

  • There were 3 possible landing sites on this occasion, all ready to accept the Space Shuttle :  the Kennedy Space Center in Florida,  Edwards Air Force Base in California,  and the White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico.  Read on to see what  "Ready to accept the Space Shuttle"  actually means !!! 

  • The landing site of choice is always Kennedy Space Center, as that is the home of the Space Shuttle.  If the Shuttle lands anywhere else, it has to be brought back to the Kennedy Space Center mounted atop a Boeing 747, a time consuming and costly operation.

  • Upon completion of the next orbit, the Space Shuttle had two opportunities to land :  Edwards Air Force Base, first, and Kennedy Space Center second, both on the same orbit of the earth and therefore only ten minutes or so apart.

  • Now, here is the mind boggling part.  While the Shuttle was orbiting the Earth, positioning itself to attempt to take at least one of the next two opportunities, the mission controller was talking simultaneously to 3 pilots, all current astronaut Space Shuttle pilots (!!),  who each go up in the air in Shuttle Training Aircraft at each of the possible landing sites in Edwards, White Sands, and Kennedy.  Those aircraft are Gulfstream planes modified to mimic the handling of the Space Shuttle.  These pilots take their planes high up in the air, ascending almost vertically at times, and then turn and drop back down to earth, again almost vertically at times, mimicking the Shuttle's plunge through the Earth's atmosphere.  They then steady up as they approach the landing runway, pretend to land and then go back up to repeat the manoeuvre.  The aim there is to check on conditions that might affect the Shuttle's own landing, such as cross-winds and other factors.  Now, remember, there were 3 of them, each trained to NASA's exacting standards, each in a Space Shuttle training aircraft, simultaneously performing these exercises at the 3 possible landing sites, and the mission controller in Houston was talking to all three at the same time.

  • At some point the mission controller told the Space Shuttle to prepare for a GO to deorbit and return to Earth.  The combination of cross winds abating at Edwards and the rain moving off at Kennedy Space Center was judged good enough that at least one of those opportunities would come good.  Preparing to return includes something called  "fluid loading".  Evidently, in zero gravity weightless conditions, because the blood is no longer constantly trying to go down our body (before being pumped back up by our heart), the brain gets tricked into thinking we do not need fluid (water, juice, whatever).  Yet, over the course of the various Space Shuttle missions, it has been found that a properly hydrated body contributes to a quick re-acclimatisation to the Earth's gravity.  So the astronauts are told to do  "fluid loading"  which involves drinking 32 ounces of fluid (911g, or almost 1Kg of fluid) aka nearly 1 litre of water.  On this mission the astronauts could choose to drink those amounts in the shape of water, chicken consommι, or orange-aid.

  • Then the astronauts were told to prepare for a landing at Edwards Air Force Base.  That was the cue for the landing convoy to make its way to the edge of the runway.  Wow !  What a sight.  That convoy is massive.  It consists of various technical, safeing, and specialized support vehicles, some with cranes, etc...  On the television pictures alone one could count at least 20 vehicles and trucks – research on the NASA website shows that 25 or more vehicles are involved.  This is not a small convoy!

  • As the Edwards convoy proceeded towards the landing runway, all 3 test pilots were continuing their constant monitoring of the weather conditions at all 3 landing sites.

  • Minutes later the Edwards test pilot communicated that the cross-winds were picking up.  A few minutes passed while the mission controller was conversing with White Sands and Kennedy and, as luck would have it, the rain had completely eased away at Kennedy, so Edwards was waved off and Mission Control gave the Shuttle a GO for Kennedy Space Center.

  • That was the cue for another convoy, an identical convoy to the one at Edwards Air Force Base, but this time back at the Kennedy Space Center.  Is your jaw dropping ?  Are you, like me, beginning to realise the magnitude of the operation involved in getting the Space Shuttle back to Earth :  at 3 separate landing sites across the country there were fully NASA trained test pilots, Shuttle training aircraft, medical facilities specially equipped for the assessment of returning astronauts, fully NASA trained medical staff, emergency vehicles (fire engines and ambulances), and 25 or more specialised vehicles manned by NASA trained technical personnel.  This is staggering stuff.  Three (3) separate sites.  And all this just for a landing !!!  This is billions of dollars.  Incredible.  What an operation, and well done on NASA TV to make us understand, this time round, the complexity and logistics of the operation.

So, there you have it :  thanks to thorough and comprehensive coverage, the return to Earth of Space Shuttle Discovery STS-116 was an absolute eye opener into the magnitude of the operation.

From all this, one can also safely assume that during Shuttle launches, when you hear the Shuttle pilot, 20 miles up in the air, telling Mission Control  "2 engines Zaragoza"  (which means that if one of the three engines should fail at that point then the Shuttle can abort the mission, hurtle back down to earth and land in Zaragoza, Spain), then that means that in Zaragoza, Spain, there is also a special landing strip, with 25 or more specialised vehicles manned by NASA trained technical personnel, medical facilities and personnel, specialised Emergency vehicles, etc, etc...  And throw in the ships which recover the jettisoned solid rocket boosters that will be re-used for further missions, and other standby recovery ships which are out there in the Atlantic just in case "something happens"...

Ouch, my brain hurts !

Amazing, Amazing...  and here I was thinking that bringing back the shuttle was relatively routine.  It looks routine, it feels routine, but, man, there is nothing routine about this massive 3-site logistical operation.

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention :  the Shuttle enters the Earth's atmosphere at a speed in excess of 18,000 miles per hour, or 29,000 Km per hour, and plummets to the ground at near vertical angles sometimes.  During this descent the Shuttle heats up to over 800 degrees Celsius, 8 times boiling point, and often loses around 40 to 60 of its 20,000+ heat tiles !  This particular Shuttle was still going at 11,000 miles per hour when it passed over Mexico, with the sonic booms heard on the ground two minutes later.  It was still going at 10,000 miles per hour when it hurtled a few minutes later 10 miles up in the air over Houston Texas, with the sonic booms heard a minute later in Houston.  Phew!

Gee ..... Don't you love this stuff ?     Click here for photos.

—— (TUT) SpaceMan

Friday, 22nd December 2006

A Catastrophic Error has occurred

What do you do when a client calls you and tells you their computer has just generated a  catastrophic error ?  This client has 28 users.  As you start talking to the user, you hear other users in the background claiming that they too are getting a  Catastrophic Error !  It's the first call of the day on the last day of the week.  Your heart starts pumping as you know that sounds like a fileserver problem, and you'd planned a nice restful weekend, and you just don't want to be the one having to deal with this problem this weekend.  You know – normal human feelings !

So you get the user to give you access and you connect remotely to her PC to have a look and ..... instant relief.  Phewwww!  It is not the network after all – what you are staring at with utter incredulity is a dialog box displayed by the third party CRM software this company uses, with this message in the middle of it :  "A catastrophic error has occurred !".

At that point, with worried users on the other end of the line, it is very hard not to burst out laughing.  Laughing through the relief of it all, and laughing because you can't believe that some programmer thought it was a great idea to display such an alarming message to the end-user.  A call to the CRM software company's help desk and, indeed, this message simply means that the overnight automated software upgrade did not fully complete and all that needs to be done is create a particular file through some simple steps !

This is crazy stuff, and a lesson for all software manufacturers out there who do it :  do not leave user testing or final quality control to the programmers;  the bet is, they will likely mess it up and give unnecessary heart attacks to your customers with unbelievable silliness like  "A catastrophic error has occurred".  Let me think, how many alternative error messages can I come up with in the next 10 seconds ?

An error occurred during the overnight update.  Please contact JJJJRRRR Inc. for advice.

The overnight update did not complete successfully.  Please call (555) 555-5555.

Point made !

—— (TUT) SpaceMan

Wednesday, 20th December 2006

TUT 3.74 released

It's amazing what we software writers take for granted sometimes and yet is not so obvious to the users of our products.

We got an email last week from a TUT user asking if we could have TUT (The Ultimate Troubleshooter) list Windows Updates.  Stunned silence, then someone said :  "But, it's been in TUT for ages....!!".

Lesson learnt :  Windows Updates  is now in bold green on the "Hardware" tab and hopefully TUT users won't miss it any more....

—— (TUT) SpaceMan

Sunday, 17th December 2006

User friendly configuration of Internet Explorer 7

There is something that bugs me.  The majority of software writers produce great products.  Most of those programs come with a default configuration which is good to excellent as regards safety, efficiency, and general efficacy.  Most of them, however, forget the user's experience of the interface.  They go to great lengths to ensure that all the most generally useful options are set when you "open the box" but, somehow, almost all of them forget to ensure that the interface is also set in such a way that 80% of users never have to tweak it. Even the giant Microsoft do it – why, for example, doesn't Word have these buttons  by default  right out of the box :

Every Word user on this planet, in this galaxy, in our universe, will use  "Save As"  some day, sometimes every day !  You know the scenario – you wrote a letter to your Cell Phone supplier to tell them you're moving address, and you now need to use the same letter and  save it as  another letter to your bank manager this time. Everyone knows  "Save As"  is incredibly useful, but not, so it appears, the programmers in Redmond, WA – wouldn't you know it, none of them ever move house or apartment, none of them ever write a letter that is identical to a previous one, never.  In fact, none of them ever do the same thing ever again in their entire life – they are truly incredible people !  So what do they do ?  They give us a Word screen where the  "New...",  "Save As",  Close,  and  "Print..."  buttons are missing, and you and I and every other not-so-incredible Word user in this galaxy have to either use the menus or create the buttons.  Grrr.....

Well, that Microsoft giant released Internet Explorer 7 two months ago and, guess what, we're out of luck again.  The same incredible Redmond programmers have now given us a  default IE7 interface configuration  which is either unfriendly or less than desirable for us mere mortals.  So, to help our many mere mortal friends we decided to produce an  Internet Explorer 7 Configuration  document aimed squarely at mere mortals rather than the incredibly gifted – you will find it in either of the following Libraries :  Hottest Tips,  Microsoft Internet Explorer 5 & 6 & 7.

—— (TUT) SpaceMan (Normal Mere Mortal)

Wednesday, 13th December 2006

Microsoft releases December's Windows Patches

The second Tuesday of the month has just been and gone and, as is custom, Microsoft released yesterday a number of patches to address vulnerabilities, particularly in Internet Explorer.  A definite round of updates to install, we say.

For those of you who have  Automatic Windows Updates  turned OFF, as per our normal recommendation wait a week to 10 days in case there are major problems with the updates – this will allow Microsoft to pick up the problems and re-issue corrected updates without you having been affected.

—— (TUT) SpaceMan

Monday, 11th December 2006

CA Internet Security 2007 – a workaround

Computer Associates'  CA Internet Security 2007  is still leaving a trail of destruction, and accounts other than those of our TUT users are now starting to appear on the Internet.  Some are quite incredible – you install an Internet Security from one of the world's top software companies and suddenly your PC behaves as if it's been struck by one of the world's worst viruses.  Give me strength !!

Thankfully, a friendly IT company from Australia emailed us today with a workaround which you will find on our Help pages,   Thanks guys.  Actually, let's mention them by name as these guys have been real helpful throughout this ordeal (they spent hours testing how they could find a workaround for this craziness),  so a Million Thanks to all of you at Microtech Australia in Port Macquarie, New South Wales – TUT users since 2004.

—— (TUT) SpaceMan

Thursday, 7th December 2006

CA Internet Security 2007 nightmares & the future of Internet protection, McAfee Site Advisor ?

Computer Associates are messing up big time right this minute.  A recent update to their  CA Internet Security 2007  suite is leaving a trail of destruction going by our experiences and the number of emails we are receiving.  See here for more details.

We can say it unequivocally :  Computer Internet Security suites are becoming the main problem themselves.  They all do anti-spyware worse than Microsoft's excellent free unobtrusive anti spyware, and many of them wipe out an incredible 100Mb to 250Mb of your PC's precious memory right at boot-up.  And to top this, they occasionally misbehave by preventing genuine programs from opening, or by deleting them altogether sometimes, and that's after you've already had to reboot your PC three times in 4 hours because the anti spam module was running away with processor utilization.

Time for a new concept ?  A new simpler way of protecting one's PC, without losing half your PC to protection software ?

Enter McAfee Site Advisor Service.  We recently reviewed McAfee Site Advisor in TUT (The Ultimate Troubleshooter), and here is word for word what we put in TUT – the bold bit below gives an indication of where we think PC protection may go :

"McAfee Site Advisor Service.  Core support service for the McAfee Site Advisor browser integrated website safety rating service.  McAfee Site Advisor  is software which integrates with your browser (Internet Explorer and FireFox are the two supported browsers) and which provides two features :  An icon in the top right-hand corner of your browser which shows the safety level of the website you are currently on, and, additionally, when you search in Google or other search engines, it displays a safety rating against each result enabling you to decide whether to investigate a result or not.

In this day and age of websites spamming users who register or simply visit the website, of websites promoting fake antivirus or anti-spyware and conning users into non-reversible charges or into buying useless software, of websites promoting health-check tools and dropping Trojans, spyware, and adware on unsuspecting users in the process, etc..., the Internet has become a gigantic trap for the average Internet user.  Site Advisor, bought by McAfee in 2004, attempts to remedy this by using McAfee's vast resources to regularly check websites round the world for any of the above misdemeanours, and then rates websites using the colour system we pioneered in The Ultimate Troubleshooter :

  • Green  (totally safe).

  • Yellow  (may send a number of emails throughout the year, may insert safe cookies, may change browser default).

  • Red  (Adware, Spyware, Spam, Trojans, Downloads that cannot be trusted).

  • Grey  (Site not checked yet or System Advisor not working properly).

This particular service,  SASERVICE,  runs in the background and continually liaises with the McAfee Site Advisor servers to retrieve information about the sites you visit as you access them, and to retrieve information about the links returned in your search results.

Recommendation :  Site Advisor does come with a performance penalty since it has to retrieve information about every webpage you access, or every link in the search results on your Google, MSN, AOL searches.  If you have a fast PC and a very fast Internet connection, 4Mbits or faster, then it won't be too noticeable.  Additionally, it is our view, in December 2006, that Site Advisor is one of the best inventions to come out of the Internet.  We will go even further in stating that, in December 2006, a PC which is not used by children only needs a very good antivirus program (which does not need to be McAfee), the Windows XP/Vista firewall turned ON, a good broadband firewall router, McAfee Site Advisor, and The Ultimate Troubleshooter.  For most users who are not already suffering from spam nightmares, there is no longer a need for the bloated and resource sucking Internet suites provided by most security companies, McAfee included.  For PCs that are used by children, the situation is different of course, as parental controls (blocking of undesirable websites) are then needed, and this is only available in Internet Security suites or the modern broadband routers that have started to appear (3Com, Netgear) where parental controls can be applied at the router level for all or selected connected PCs.  Leave this service alone (obviously, if your PC is not fast enough and/or your broadband connection is also not fast enough, or you are on a dialup modem connection, then  Site Advisor  is not for you and you most probably should uninstall it)."

—— (TUT) SpaceMan

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Andreas Lubitz, Germanwings 4U9525, and Pragmatism
Barack Obama, Julia Gillard, and Patrice Evra
Security in the Office
Football World Cup South Africa 2010 wallchart
Our Earth is Disturbed
Play your part in changing history
Let it Rain
Barack Obama, President-elect 2008
Most Tech Savvy State
McAfee Site Advisor Toolbar problems
Get Rich Quick
Josι Mourinho joins AnswersThatWork
Baby steps count too!
A new type of eBay fraud
TUT v4 is released
Amazing Space Shuttle facts and statistics
Disable Windows Vista's multiple confirmations
MSN Search does not cut it
Casio Exilim EX-V7
Canaries in a coalmine
IE7 configuration
CA nightmares and McAfee Site Advisor
Digital cameras
Philips makes us glow
Nokia 6234 / 6233
Fake antivirus programs