Flying from San Francisco to Las Vegas or other points east is tricky; between mountains and restricted airspace there are very few ways to go. The usual VFR route is something like KSQL KWJF KDAG KLAS, 436nm at 9500'+. That carries you out of the mountains near Palmdale and south of all the restricted space in California and Nevada. It gets boring; I recently learned of another route via a desert town, through the Trona Gap.

The route is roughly KSQL L05 ODGEE SERUE L72 KLAS, a series of wiggles through a narrow corridor between R-2505 and R-2524. That's 390nm, saving 46nm or about 10% of the trip. The mountains are awfully high west of L05, I'd want at least 10,500' crossing there or else go south towards Bakersfield first to come up the river valley (adds 20nm). Either way it's more time over rough terrain than the Palmdale route, but at least it's something different.

I'd only try threading this needle with flight following and a trustworthy GPS. R-2505 and R-2524 are active at all altitudes all the time. R-2506 is only Surface to 6000' during the daytime so you can shave a few miles off the route above. Apparently it's not uncommon to be cleared to enter R-2505 above 10,000' which could save some 17nm. On the other hand the Edwards AFB info says they sometimes close the Trona gap entirely via NOTAM. Plan accordingly.

Another alternate route I've flown in the area is via Yosemite, the Tioga Pass, and the Owens Valley. Something like KSQL E45 O24 KBIH O26 L06 KLAS (394nm). It's a fascinating trip through a part of California I'd never seen before and KBIH is a nice stop for fuel and excellent Thai food. Not the simplest route: the Sierra crossing is tricky and wind is a concern both in the mountains and in the valley.

Disclaimer: I've not flown most of these routes and have not confirmed altitudes, airspace, etc. The terrain and weather in this area can easily be dangerous. Don't take my word for these route ideas; you're responsible for your own flight planning.

Thanks to Kareem Fahmi from California Airways in Hayward for pointing out the Trona route. Kareem also wrote up a great little pilot's guide to California airports.
  2011-03-29 23:20 Z
A big part of learning to fly on instruments is procedures: quickly reading a chart and making the appropriate turns, radio changes, power changes, etc in the 5–10 minutes you're flying an approach. It's important to train in a real plane but an instrument student can learn a lot with a simulator, even a basic PC game.

Simulator: For 20+ years Microsoft Flight Simulator was the gold standard, but Microsoft has abandoned the product and recent iterations like FSX didn't work very well. X-Plane is the new hotness and works on PCs, Macs, and even iOS devices. It's pretty and has neat aerodynamic simulations but what really makes it work for IR training is that it simulates the panel instruments pretty well. CDI needles move smoothly, VORs warble just like the real thing, and it has a good simulation of clouds and the moment of breaking out of them. You can easily customize your plane's panel, too. X-Plane is pleasant software where FSX always felt awkward.

GPS: X-Plane has some fancy avionics simulations but the GPS options are terrible. The solution is Reality XP's Garmin 430W/530W. It's a bridge to Garmin's standalone 400W/500W trainer, simulating the most popular high end GA GPS. The realism is fantastic; it feels like it's emulating the hardware and running the actual firmware. The only drawback is the navigation database is from 2007. Not a big deal, but newer approaches may be missing and sometimes it's out of sync with X-Plane's database.

ATC: Learning to fly IFR requires learning to work with air traffic control; you can't really simulate that. So enthusiasts have been operating VATSIM, an ATC network staffed with volunteer controllers. VATSIM's quality apparently varies, there's a new modestly commercial effort called PilotEdge that looks promising.

Other addons: X-Plane has a robust third party developer community creating model aircraft, better scenery, and various plugin code. Unfortunately is very poorly organized, hard to find things. I haven't seen anything there I've had to have although I am excited for RealScenery NorCal. There's also rumours of software that imports Google Maps aerial photography to replace the default scenery but apparently it's banned. One neat thing is you can use XPlane's network mode to drive a live display of SkyCharts on your iPhone or iPad.

Hardware: X-Plane has a mouse mode but you really need a controller of some sort. I'm reasonably pleased with the Saitek yoke. I also have an older CH Products yoke which is nicely smaller but doesn't feel right. Honestly, neither feel right, I have a very hard time controlling the plane in the pitch axis. I'm beginning to think a fancy joystick would work better, if it doesn't feel like a real plane anyway why not go for something totally different?

Getting fancy: There's a whole world of very fancy amateur simulation products. People spend hundreds to thousands on avionics simulations, plane models, scenery, and flight controls. And if you're serious you've got 3–6 PCs networked together running X-Plane so you can look out the side window, too. That's all overkill for learning instrument procedures and for that kind of money I'd start looking into FAA Certified equipment. It may make sense if you want to "fly" a heavy jet, but for my purposes I'm happy with the PC game and then jumping in a real plane.

  2011-03-29 14:44 Z
I continue to look for one great iPhone game. But there's a a big market now and Apple's Game Center gives us data on sales. Some notable iOS games: Angry Birds is the #1 iOS hit ever and 9 million people is a lot. For comparison The Sims is the top selling PC game at 16 million. But then again Angry Birds costs $1, so total revenue for the top iOS game is (I'm guessing) 2-5% of the big PC game. Maybe up to 10% with related ads, in-app purchases, and variable pricing.

It's hard to compare more generally; iOS games tend to be platform exclusives unlike big PC and console games. Here's sales stats for Xbox 360 games with a whole bunch of 1 million+ games. Even modestly successful AAA games like skate sell 500,000+ copies. Then again they need to, the budgets are well over $10 million.

What I love about the iOS game market is the long tail, all the weird little innovative games. Like Canabalt, a marvelously perfect mobile game. 78,000 sales isn't bad for a small game, particularly at $3 a sale. (Related: I wish Apple had set the floor on prices at $2 or $3.) 100 Rogues is a great example of a gamer's game, intricate and clever and beautifully designed. It deserves more sales, but I'm glad it at least has some. Forget-me-Not is tiny at 1100 sales but it's brand new and has sharp corners, I'm curious to see how it fares.

Caveat: the data above undercounts. It leaves out people who've opted out of Game Center as well as people who haven't played the game since Game Center support was added. Angry Birds claims 100 million downloads, but I'm not sure how much of that is iPhone sales.

  2011-03-27 15:03 Z
Cropper is good Windows software. It's a simple, modern screenshot utility that makes it easy to save images to disk or upload them to various services. I've got mine feeding Flickr. Mac users have Skitch, now we don't need to be envious.

The key thing is it's simple. Run it in the background and it overrides PrntScrn, Alt-PrntScrn, etc to automatically save screenshots to a folder, upload them somewhere, email them, whatever you'd like. If you click the tray icon you get a simple UI for selecting a rectangular region of the screen instead. Windows' default UI is copy to clipboard, paste into some paint program, crop, save, launch an upload program, upload. This is one step.

In addition to Cropper itself you want the plugin pack. The SendToFlickr plugin works great and I imagine the Twitter, Facebook, etc integration is good too. (Don't install TFSWorkItem; it crashes Cropper). The only feature I'm missing is playing a sound on screenshot.

  2011-03-22 14:41 Z
Scalable Vector Graphics is good technology for drawing images on web pages. It's sort of a forgotten tech; SVG dates back to 1999 but lack of IE support hamstrung adoption. But it works great in every modern browser, including IE9, and it's beautiful. A lot of the focus for HTML5 drawing has been about canvas. But SVG is very capable and better suited for document presentation.

SVG is a vector graphics format: you write a description of objects in the drawing as a set of declarations: "red square at (50,50)", "the word vector rotated 30° and flipped". Then the browser renders the scene graph. The underlying XML isn't too verbose and the syntax for transformations and paths and the like is a shorter text format. SVG is remarkably capable in what it can draw and browsers do a beautiful job of rendering with anti-aliasing. Given how rare SVG usage has been it's amazing how good the implementations are.

This blog post contains some simple SVG: if you don't see a wind rose in the upper right click through to my blog. Should work in IE9, Firefox 4, and Chrome. (Doesn't work in Safari and older Firefox because of XML namespace issues unique to my blog). If you view the source you can see the code for the diagram. It's basically a bag of <path> elements, each of which draws a wedge and translates it.

I first understood SVG's value when talking to Mike Bostock about his genius Javascript visualization libraries Protovis, Polymaps, and D3. SVG is a declarative document, so it's very easy to manipulate the scene graph via DOM and Javascript. Mike's libraries have turned that capability into beautiful interactive visualizations.

SVG is pretty easy to program. You can write it by hand, but for building SVG in Javascript I recommend D3: it does for SVG what jQuery did for DHTML. A key debugging tool is DOM inspection. Browser developer tools let you easily examine and modify the generated SVG on live documents. For docs, the resource I keep going back to is the SVG spec; it's remarkably well written. O'Reilly also publishes a free online book.

  2011-03-21 22:36 Z
Any language compiler or runtime that requires me to manually optimize out the length of an array when iterating said array is not worth my time to program in.

var cachedArrayLengthLol = data.length;
for (var i = 0; i < cachedArrayLengthLol; i++) {

I'm looking at you, ancient C compilers. And you, Javascript. Particularly you, shame on you for not having a humane syntax for iterating over collections.

I'm assuming V8 and any other modern fast Javascript runtime can handle figuring out that the array length isn't changing inside the loop. Boy, I sure hope so. I've got better things to do than program in assembly language.

  2011-03-19 01:18 Z
We need to have a 25th reunion for the first generation of Web developers. Sometime, say, 2021.

Back in 1995, 1996 I would visit San Francisco and one of my favourite things was to drop in on Adam and Marc at Organic Online, an early web studio. It was in the same grimy SoMa building as Worlds, Inc, some clothing sweatshops, and Wired. It was an exciting time, full of promise. We knew the Internet was important but it still seemed kind of nerdy and specialist. I think few people realized how quickly the entire world would be made closer by digital networks.

Recently I was talking to a friend who said he'd run into Jason and Meg and they'd spent some time talking about me. Which was flattering and seemed natural even though I haven't talked to them in months. And this week I was lucky to have lunch with Merlin who mentioned Ben and Mena and that got me thinking of Carl Steadman. Also, related, I sure wish I saw Matt's talk at SXSW. So many bright, creative people.

That last paragraph is blatant name-dropping, but I do it to convey my nostalgia. Those are all people I count as friends and colleagues but I don't have regular relationships with them. It's like we were college classmates. We're a community defined by a shared experience of helping birth the Internet. We were in the right place and right time and we (and many others) have had the opportunity to transform the world.

Part of my sense of generation was crystalized by this headline: 4chan founder: Zuckerberg is "totally wrong" about online identity. Christopher "moot" Poole and Mark Zuckerberg were both born in the 1980s: not quite post-Internet, but still a different generation than we are. And here they are arguing about online identity. A lot has been written about Facebook reflecting a new generation of startup and I admiringly agree. I'm excited to see what else comes out of the generation ten, twenty years younger than I am.

  2011-03-15 17:35 Z
Awhile back I posted some quick thoughts on a new kitchen gadget we got, a sous vide cooker. We've had it a couple of months now and my final opinion is it's useful but I'm not sure it's worth the expense and space. Ken does the cooking; he likes it.

Sous vide is the process of cooking food, particularly meat, slowly at low temperature in a sealed bag. The great appeal of sous vide is it's really simple to get consistent results. Want a medium rare steak? Set the temperature to 55°C, toss some beef in for 2-72 hours (depending on cut), and out comes a perfectly cooked medium rare beef. Hamburgers, fish, poultry, eggs, all easy to cook to a consistent texture.

In some sense sous vide cooking is the mirror twin of barbeque. But what it doesn't do is add flavour. Traditional hot cooking sears, caramelizes, browns, burns, and generally imparts complex flavours to food. Sous vide doesn't do that. So you have to brown the meat after cooking it. But the browning is tricky; you can't do it too long lest you overcook it. (Spicing is also tricky; some spices taste different after being cooked sous vide). We've yet to get a really good crust on a sous vide steak.

If we had no idea how to cook a steak properly the sous vide would be a miracle. Or if we needed to turn out forty steaks a night consistently, it would be a huge help. But Ken already knows how to cook a great steak on a grill, in a skillet, or in an oven. So now we've got a fourth way, with some drawbacks, and I don't quite see the point.

One strength of sous vide is that it's not a dry process. Chicken and pork come out beautifully tender and moist. It's a great way to salvage the flavourless fat-free industrial meat we get in the US. I also shouldn't understate the value of the convenience; Ken really likes not having to worry about timing the meat completion along with everything else. And it's easy to cook something, store it in the fridge, then finish it with a quick sear days later.

The home appliance of choice is the SousVide Supreme, $400 on Amazon. It's a well made appliance, good construction and works well although I wish they'd done a better job on the lid insulation. It's far too large for meals for 2–4 people, but the demi version they offer isn't significantly smaller or cheaper. You also need a vacuum sealer; any air left in a bag at all will cause it to float and cook inconsistently. The package deal is $470, a significant expense. If you don't already own good knives and cookware, buy those first.

  2011-03-11 15:05 Z
Flying a plane when you can't see out the window feels remarkably different than flying visually. When you're in a cloud you never quite know if you're about to fly into a mountain. All the instrument training is to make sure you avoid the places where the mountains are, but the psychology of not being able to see the mountain you know is nearby is significant.

One key piece of how we stay safe in IMC is air traffic control radar. ATC generally knows where your plane is and helps keep you off the rocks. Often in NorCal the controller gives you vectors, tells you to fly a specific heading for a few minutes while they route you somewhere convenient. Once you're on vectors you are 95% trusting the controller; you're off the charted path.

I've been very impressed with the quality of ATC, particularly here in NorCal. But controllers are human and make mistakes, sometimes mistakes that get pilots killed. There's a training crisis in ATC right now, the controllers hired after Reagan busted the union are reaching mandatory retirement and they can't train replacements fast enough. The rate of mistakes is going up. Flying is still very safe but it's in the pilots' interest to look out for themselves.

The best defense for a pilot is always knowing where you are. Situational awareness is remarkably challenging with traditional radio navigation, where all you may know is you're somewhere north of a beacon 30 miles away. I'm at the stage where I still regularly get confused: am I west of the airport or east of it? Fortunately my airplane has GPS, a map with a terrain database that shows my position at all times. If I'm being vectored into a mountain, I'll get ample warning. But the FAA still treats GPS as an add-on in instrument flight, an extra, it's not necessary equipment. So we learn how to fly without GPS too. I wonder if I'll ever be truly comfortable flying without my electronic map.

  2011-03-02 16:48 Z