Friday, October 30, 2009
For now, though, I take heart in the hope that readers come here, learn a little, think a little, and then pass along what they learn to others. If you disagree with what I write, more power to you. You should write too.
It was suggested to me by a friend recently that I turn "commercial." He said "your material is good, your audience is growing, you should try to turn a profit." Although I appreciate his advice, I also abhor the idea. As long as blogger.com doesn't ask me for rent, I will not get a job. Plus, there is the terrible conundrum bloggers-by-day face: either they become afraid to write what they truly think for fear of losing readers, or they become tempted to write things they don't actually believe in order to increase their readership. It is unlikely I will ever have the reader base of Sullivan, McCardle, or Joyner. That is fine. I am changing the world at my engineering research firm, and the analyses I provide here, both for my own mental rumination, as well as for yours, is really a fringe benefit of having a lenient boss who really likes me and a long lunch break most days.
As this has been going on for some time now, I have settled into a format: 1-3 articles a day, 85% of which are about science and technology, 10% of which are about religion, and 5% are about politics. Sports topics are more of a rounding error, thankfully. I've also noticed a disturbing trend: in almost every post of length, I end with a paragraph that starts with "in any case..."
In any case, thanks for your readership. Thanks for your comments. The internet sure is fun.
But trust them folks, they're the experts!
It is hilarious that this is getting recent press, because it is so obviously fake.
Should I make a wikipedia entry about myself? Of course I would fill it with flagrant lies.
TAE is a Distinguished Resident Chief Executive Principal Senior Research Advising Polymath Director of the Science and Technology Initiative at the Edison Foundation, a non-profit genius bank and holds the Nikola Tesla Senior Innovative Leader Fellowship at Fakerton University. He is an Einstein Senior Fellow of the Werhner Von Braun Space Policy Institute. He has almost written several really interesting books.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
At Boston Dynamics, the creature BigDog made headlines a couple years ago, as it moves like a real quadruped...and even catches its balance when pushed from the side. You can watch the chilling video here of it navigating various terrains. To me it moves less like a dog and more like a horse.
Now Boston Dynamics has released to the public video of "PetMan," their newest robot abomination being built for the government. I say abomination jokingly, because the control system used to make PetMan walk nothing short of astonishing. Most people take bipedal walking for granted. Anyone who has ever tried to make a humanoid robot knows that bipedal walking is an elegant, low-energy, extremely-difficult-to-mimic process involving two "upside down pendulums." Am I the only one that thinks PetMan looks like a miniature AT-ST??
The reason I am drawing attention to PetMan is because I feel we need to invest more than ever in powered exoskeleton research. It won't be long now before super-agile, humanoid robots start an inter-species war with us for global domination. Our feeble human bodies will be no match for the robotic soldiers, and without powered armor we will be like cattle at the slaughter. Our only hope is to build powered exoskeletons giving us superhuman strength and agility, coupled with augmented reality set ups that give us a (powered) leg up during battle. And that I say only half-jokingly.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
The problem with blog readers is I can probably only keep you interested for about a minute and a half, and the first couple times I sat down to write this, it quickly became over 5,000 words. Good for a 3-turn Newsweek spread, bad for blogging. So I tragically have hashed out everything for this post except 3 key points. Please read them and disseminate the information to your friends.
1. The report succinctly states that NASA is planning to spend $99 billion in the next ten years on human space flight. Based on an annual budget around $18 billion, then about 55% of NASA's budget goes to humans in space. Where does the other $8.1 billion go? Some of it goes to fund research, some of it pays to keep telescopes discovering things. Some of it goes to fund youth programs, like "Space Camp", and some goes into the pockets of lobbyists who work diligently to keep NASA's budget inflated. But here's the kicker: the report suggests that, at that spending level, NASA must retire the shuttle fleet next year (as planned), but won't be able to afford its replacement. NASA will have to "deorbit" the International Space Station in 2015 (as planned), unable to pay for resupply missions. It will be unable to fund its highly-touted return to the Moon, and will definitely be unable to fund any manned Mars missions. Essentially, NASA will spend $10 billion dollars a year doing nothing. Of course, this assumes they don't increase their budget.
2. The committee goes on to make two recommendations: more money for NASA and scuttle Moon missions and concentrate on Mars. Here I've been criticizing NASA for not having a bold vision, and someone comes up with one, and I think it is an infernal mistake. Mars missions would take nearly 2 years round trip, the astronauts, if Russian research is to be believed, would go insane after a mere 105 days...not to mention the amount of supplies required, the bone desorption the astronauts would face, etc. etc. In any case, trips to Mars don't really have a purpose. The technology to do it already exists. One of the primary purposes of the Apollo space program was to develop technology to enable manned spaceflight. This goal was accomplished. What is the purpose of a Mars trip? There really is none, other than the "gee whiz, look how great America is" aspect. Better dollar utilization could come from terraforming Venus, but that is a topic for another time.
3. I hate arguing bias here, but where were the committee members who are opposed to human spaceflight? Am I really the only one that thinks America could better spend its dollars if less human spaceflight occurred in the present (and instead we thought long-term)? The committee contained two former astronauts, the former CEO of Lockheed-Martin, a former Boeing exec, the President of XCOR, a private company working on space-tourism, and Wanda Austin, the CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, a company that provides program management to many of NASA's projects and helped design the space shuttle. Is it any wonder these people think NASA needs more money, and should invest in Mars missions? Where is the cynic, who argues loudly for complete abandonment of manned space missions?
One final thought: putting that picture of John Kennedy on page 3 was tremendously galling to me. It suggests the romantic idea that we are still in the 60's, battling the Russians for space supremacy in a larger, democracy v. communism clash. It makes me think we'll hear the "Nation X is planning a moon mission, we must beat them there" argument rehashed again and again into eternity, when in fact we did beat them there, 40 years ago. The Chinese are sending people into space? WHO CARES?! We have been doing that since the early 60's. Stop trying to make space exploration an international competition, and instead start viewing it objectively, as a method by which the human race (not the American race) may ensure the survival of the species by colonizing other planets. Do that, and the moon and Mars seem like an abject waste of time and money.
Stay tuned, my new, bold vision for extra-terrestrial human colonization is coming up!
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Saturday, October 24, 2009
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or
his wellbelov'd colonel(trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but--though an host of overjoyed
noncoms(first knocking on the head
him)do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments--
Olaf(being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds,without getting annoyed
"I will not kiss your fucking flag"
straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)
but--though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation's blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat--
Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
"there is some shit I will not eat"
our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died
Christ(of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you.
"i sing of Olaf glad and big" by e.e. cummings, ca 1926
Is my generation (Gen Y) defined as the "anti-Bush generation?"
Consistent polling show us as progressive to a fault on social issues. Consistent polling also shows us as mildly conservative on fiscal spending issues (including military), and moderately conservative on the First Amendment...yet moderate on Second Amendment interpretation and very liberal on the Eighth Amendment. And consistent polling shows us as the most pro-evolution, secular generation in American history. Apologies for not providing links. Most were derived from references on this page.
If that isn't the opposite of George W. Bush's presidential policies, I don't know what is.
For those of you who daily check to see if I've written anything about NASA, hold your breath. NASA released the full pdf version of the report which suggested President Obama abandon moon missions. The report suggests instead that NASA should concentrate on Mars.
Stay tuned...as soon as I calm down I'll get to work.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Since the start of the 2007 season until this Mizzou has played in 30 regular season contests, two Big 12 Championship games, and 2 bowl games. Their combined record in these 34 contests is 26 wins and 8 losses.
Of those 26 wins, 18 were day games and 8 were night games (by night game I mean a contest with a kickoff on or after 8:00 pm CST). This is an uninteresting statistic. What is an interesting statistic is that Mizzou is 8-7 in night games played; they've lost 8 games since the start of the 2007 season and all but one (against Kansas, kickoff time 6:40 pm) were started at or after 8:00 pm CST. So they lost almost half their night games, but THEY HAVE ONLY LOST ONE DAY GAME IN THREE YEARS (including post-season play)!
Mizzou: stop playing night games!
Now there are conflicting issues here. One could reasonably argue that evening games have a more lucrative audience and therefore generate more revenue for the networks and potentially better exposure for the teams in their recruiting efforts. Conversely, one could argue that if you win more games, you'll draw the networks to your team whatever time you decide to play. The University of Florida could play on Tuesday on the Moon and ESPN would be there. I do not personally know who decides the time each football contest shall be held. I do know it isn't decided preseason, as tickets list kickoff time as "TBD".
But Mizzou's 2007 season, after which they signed super-hyped, mega-quarterback Blaine Gabbert, was an outstanding 11-1 season capped by a strong Bowl victory over Arkansas and Darren McFadden. That season, their only regular season loss was a 6:40pm kickoff at Oklahoma. Would Mizzou have had an undefeated season in 2007 had they played Oklahoma earlier in the day? Statistics point to "yes." And one has to wonder...during that game Mizzou led at the end of the third quarter, which occurred about 8:30 pm. Did the evening game curse catch up to Mizzou in the fourth quarter?!
Mizzou: stop scheduling night games.
UPDATE: this week Mizzou plays at No.3 Texas...kickoff time is 8:00 pm.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
As an aerospace engineering professor, your NASA criticisms made uncomfortable reading for me, but they are good and necessary. There are plenty of good reasons to oppose moon or Mars missions, but space solar power makes a Mars mission look sensible by comparison. Even assuming breakthroughs in solar panel efficiency and power beaming efficiency, a space solar platform capable of powering only one small city (i.e. a few megawatts) would require building a structure several times larger than the space station, which cost $100 billion. Getting enough space solar platforms into orbit to make a noticeable dent in United States electricity consumption would require such a breathtakingly expensive commitment to building very large rockets. I teach spacecraft design to college juniors, and in one class, we went through the sizing, cost, design and risk factors for space solar and found it lacking in every category.
Like I said, space based solar power is absurd.
But in this case, the cost of living has gone down. It was announced that in that event, SS would stay flat for FY2010. But since prices of consumer goods has gone down, the elderly actually have gained buying power against inflation: zero is greater than -1.9%. So in reality, the elderly should be thankful that their SS checks won't decrease, and subsequently they can spend more on Christmas gifts for their grandsons who are amateur bloggers/biomechanical engineers. Or whatever.
Instead, PANIC! President Obama immediately announced a "one time only" gift to everyone receiving Social Security of $250 dollars to help them through the recession (this is the second one of these, ironically). Except, the recipients of said $250 actually are doing better during the recession than the young.
The urge to go crazy with stimulus and take huge, ridiculously huge loans out that the young will have to repay while passing that instant wealth happily along to the elderly is going to discredit the liberal movement, and push a whole generation of 20-somethings into conservative folds in the next ten - twenty years, as we realize that liberal spending has crippled us and only fiscal conservatism can rescue this nation.
Notice I did not say Republican or Democrat once in the above paragraphs. This is not a red/blue issue. This is the government as a whole, who apparently thinks taxing the young to pander to the elderly isn't immoral or foolish. Forward irresponsibility is a disease in Washington. Look at the troubadours in Congress who demand higher emissions standards...in 2050. That way the Congresspeople that ratify the plan will be very old or dead and not be around to blame for the laws they enacted, and in the present they don't anger the lobbyists they depend on for campaign finances.
But fiscal irresponsibility is really going to push my generation conservative. We may be socially progressive, but a reckoning may come (and I mean that without some ominous creepy voice) when my generation realizes our grandparents' generation has indebted us to the hairline to keep themselves prosperous, and economists will publish books saying that the "
The elderly are, statistically, the wealthiest generation of Americans currently alive. Per capita, people over 60 have the lowest number of people below the poverty line. Per capita, the elderly have larger savings (excluding retirement accounts, obviously). If anyone needs a $250 check for no particular reason, it is...oh wait, back in 2008, I got a check for no particular reason, from another economically-liberal President. In fact, most Americans got a check for about that much ($300-600), in a foolproof stimulus package that amounted to billions of dollars in Federal debt and a tiny, momentary uptick in the economic downturn. And several of my friends got $4,500 checks for buying a new car, which so far has amounted to a short, fading uptick in the auto industry (you're welcome, Toyota) and over $3 billion more dollars of Federal debt. And one of my friends got an $8,000 check for buying a house, part of a program that cost the government an estimated $787 billion.
Now, I'm not John Maynard Keynes (more like Milton Friedman), and I don't understand macroeconomics well enough to really eviscerate anyone using gritty details. But I do know that I am crippled every month by my massive student loan bill, and that it will take me years to pay it off. In fact I'll pay it off shortly before my daughter heads off to receive her college education, continuing the cycle. And I do have to pay it off.
The creditors will eventually want their money back. Some argue that as the economy grows, our debt should grow too...which seems to me like a great way for a terminally ill cancer patient to live, not a way to run a nation's fiscal policy.
Others argue that our creditors will simply be content to collect the interest and leave the capital floating forever...turning us into basically the national-level equivalent of a person making only the minimum payments on their credit cards. Why does that seem unhealthy, but national debt-addiction doesn't?
President Obama needs to learn to say "no" or the liberal economic policies of this country are going to make a lot of progressive people very angry and very conservative.
(TAE knows there are 3 teams at 5-0 because of bye weeks)
Deep Thought 2: the two youngest coaches in the NFL have a combined 6-6 record: Denver is 6-0 and Tampa Bay is 0-6.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Polymaths, or those who are good at lots of different subject matter, have been a mainstay of romantic history since historians decided da Vinci was the sole genius of the 15th century. Don't get me wrong, da Vinci was not only freakishly smart and I've loved reading several biographies about him, but he was not the only person doing amazing things in the time he did them. Nor was he the only multi-topic genius. But historians love to paint the past as way better than the present, and society loves to believe it. Just look at the incredulous expression on people's faces if you say to them "A-Rod is the greatest baseball player of all time" or "Albert Pujols is the best right-handed batter of all time." You get laughed at, because most people believe that some baseball player they never saw play was surely greater. Because history says so!
In terms of polymaths, there have been many throughout history. But people like Edward Carr are creating the myth that they cannot exist in today's society. He does so by making the assumption that a polymath can't simply know a lot about a lot, rather a polymath must be accomplished at a lot about a lot. I do not think this is true.
A polymath does not have to be the guy or girl that invents a new car engine, a writes a book about philosophy, studies martial arts, patents several molecules in chemistry, and then stars in a movie: you don't have to be accomplished at every subject you study in order to be a polymth.
You need simply understand several topics. The dictionary defines a polymath as "a person of great and varied learning"...not "a person of great and varied accomplishment."
Carr's argument that you have to be a deeply-read subject matter expert to add that subject to your list of polymaths is not true either. Many of histories polymaths (like the huge number of polymaths from East-Asia that Carr completely ignores in his article) were not widely read on certain subjects, but rather just knew what they had time to know.
To me the fundamental quality of a polymath is the ability to synergize two subjects to produce a new concept. Like Richard Posner, who applied economics to sexual risk assessment. Or Jared Diamond, who argues in his books that evolution and germs have large and noticeable effects on the political and military history of the European conquest of the globe in the 18th Century. Diamond does not have a Nobel in biology, nor a PhD in anthropology. He simply learned all he could about everything he could...and saw a connection where no one else did because of it.
It seems to me, then, that the monomaths Carr seems so afraid of are rather important. Without them, there is no subject matter for polymaths to learn. You could almost say that monomaths are like flowers, and polymaths are like bees...flitting from flower to flower, spreading pollen and making connections between otherwise isolated groups.
It seems to me that rather than romanticizing polymaths of the past, we should acknowledge that they polymaths were only seen as such through the lens of history. At the time, most were just considered brilliant scientists. Only once biographies are written, and the whole of that person's life is revealed do we see all the subjects into which the polymath dabbled. We need to first, relax about our world, and second, we need to acknowledge what exactly is the task of the polymath.
Perhaps we need to see that the purpose of the polymath is to be a manager. Perhaps the polymath is best used as a leader of an interdisciplinary team, able to create synergy between scientists who don't understand one another's fields at all. Rather than romanticizing the polymath as a lone genius who somehow figures everything out all on his or her own, we instead should seek out the people among us that are well-versed, but not totally immersed, in several subjects and use them as the creative brain of small groups. In a way, I guess I am saying that the study of science might be best organized like an animal's body. The specialists are the organs, the limbs, all really good at their one job, so good in fact that no other organ could replace them, but also so specialized that they could not change to another job. And inside the head of this "Science Animal" is the brain, not really doing any specific job - other than coordinating between the organs, and limbs, managing things from above, turning unrelated fields into a unified body of science.
Perhaps a stretched analogy of a polymath is wikipedia. Highly knowledgeable on everything, expert on nothing. Wikipedia is an resource for information, and one of its greatest functions is the links within articles to other articles, so that a curious daydreamer may find themselves thirty articles deep before they come back to reality. And yet, even wikipedia cannot spontaneously create itself. It needs dedicated subject matter experts to contribute to its total knowledge in order to function correctly.
In any case, to those out there who considered themselves polymaths until they read Carr's article telling them that you need to be a member of Mensa to be a polymath, I'm here to tell you that learning everything that you can about every subject you can will never harm you. And the accomplishment requirement is just absurd...in today's society, when people get Nobel Prizes for future accomplishments...the only person you should worry about pleasing is yourself.
...what would happen to me? Would I become the computer? Or would there be two of me, sharing the same thoughts at the exact same time? Both in love with my wife, in love with my daughter? Would both my brain and the computer feel reviled at one another, me fearing the abomination I have created, it wondering why it could not detect its arms and legs that moments ago were there...it swears it remembers arms and legs.
In fact it would swear it remembered building a computer that had architecture identical to its brain. It remembered everything that has happened in its life, right up to the moment it turned on the computer. And now it can't find its body.
Am I the man, or am I the computer? And how would I ever know?
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Soon, Barack Obama must make a decision on whether to continue funding NASA's daffy plan to build a Motel 6 on the moon. The president will be put on the spot when the final report of a space commission (here is its preliminary report) is delivered. Rumor is that in keeping with the tradition of Washington commissions, the report will contain extremely vague language about sweeping reform; then cite every item on every wish list of every interest group with a finger in this pie; then recommend nothing specific, so as to offend no interest group; then close with a call for higher subsidies. NASA is not one of the core missions of government, and spends only one-half of 1 percent of the federal budget, so space waste is relatively minor in the scheme of things. But if public policy can't get this right, what can it get right?Of course, I completely disagree that space solar power is a good idea...I think it is a terrible, terrible idea. But other than that, I couldn't agree more.
Right now NASA's budget is $18 billion annually, and the quarter or so spent on science -- planetary probes, telescopes that scan the far universe -- is going very well. The rest of NASA is a mess. The agency has just thrown $100 billion of your money down the drain on the space station, which has no scientific achievement and no known purpose other than keeping checks in the mail to favored contractors and congressional districts. The station is such a white elephant the current plan is to "deorbit" the thing in 2016. "Deorbit" is polite for "make it burn up in the atmosphere." So after spending $100 billion to build a space station, we'll destroy it. Your tax dollars at play!
Since 2004, NASA has said its next goal is a manned outpost on the moon, as a stepping-stone to manned travel to Mars. There's nothing a person could do on the airless, lifeless lunar surface that a tele-robot operated from a Houston office building could not do at a fraction of the price and risk. And the moon has nothing to do with Mars. Any Mars-bound mission will leave directly from low-Earth orbit to the Red Planet: stopping at the moon, then blasting off again, would consume the mission's fuel to accomplish nothing. Though NASA has been studying moon-base and Mars-mission proposals for five years, the agency refuses to give a cost estimate -- a sure sign the plans cannot pass a giggle test. Considering the space station price was $100 billion for a limited facility that was not accelerated to the speed necessary to reach the moon -- speed means fuel which means higher price -- even a Spartan moon base easily could cost several hundred billion dollars. For what? Why, for "economic expansion"! Today, no one is interested in economic expansion at Earth's poles, which are far more amenable to life than the moon, have copious resources, and can be reached at one-ten thousandth the cost of reaching the moon.
What about Mars? That planet is fascinating, and people are sure to go there someday. But until there is a fundamental breakthrough in propulsion, Mars travel will be ultra-expensive and extremely impractical. Today's chemical rockets are little different from those of the Apollo era, meaning the great cost of getting weight into orbit and then to escape velocity, coupled with long travel times, remains a high barrier to any Mars mission.
The fastest trajectory available with current propulsion is a 520-day Mars mission, and that only gets you 30 days on Mars -- the rest is transit time. Now think about weight. The Apollo vehicle, which was 45 tons at departure from low-Earth orbit, carried three people on a maximum mission of 13 days. That's 1.1 tons per person per day. A Mars-bound mission would require less fuel per day, but a lot more weight for supplies, interior volume, multiple redundant systems and radiation shielding that was not required for moon flight. Interior volume is essential. The crew was strapped into seats in the Apollo command module; they couldn't even stand up. For a nearly two-year voyage, the crew will need to be able to get up and walk (or float) around to avoid going bonkers. The Russian and European space agencies recently locked volunteers into a spacecraft-like big chamber to see how long they could stand it; they were able to stand it for 105 days, a fifth of the length of the fastest possible Mars mission. (Hilariously, the agencies announced the volunteers "simulated a 105-day Mars mission full of experiments and realistic mission scenarios." This scenario is "realistic" only using warp drive.)
Any Mars craft will need to provide at least some private space for each crew member, and a decent exercise facility, to stave off the muscle loss and bone decay that is triggered by zero-gee. At least one fully equipped surgical theater will be required. Loads of spare parts and loads of equipment to use on the Martian surface will be needed, versus Apollo, which carried no spare parts and no equipment beyond a small, short-range dune buggy. (Most likely a Mars mission would not be a single vehicle -- unmanned cargo craft would go first, and people would not leave until supplies were in place -- but the weight's the same regardless of whether it's a single vehicle or a collection of launches.) Considering these things, the 1.1 tons per person per day of Apollo may prove conservative for a Mars mission.
Anyway, suppose that number is right. Assume a Mars crew of six people -- two astronauts, two scientists and two surgeons -- on a 520-day Mars mission. (Two surgeons are needed in case one of them gets injured.) Based on the Apollo experience, our six-person Mars mission gone 520 days would weigh about 3,400 tons at departure from orbit. That's approximately the displacement of an Oliver Hazard Perry class guided-missile frigate, and we are not launching a frigate to Mars anytime soon.
My weight estimate didn't pop out of the sky. These numbers have been debated by specialists for decades, and have not changed much by recent tech developments -- for example, electronics are a lot lighter now than in the Apollo era, but since electronics compromised less than 1 percent of Apollo's weight, new miniature stuff does not do much for weight. Two-thirds to three-quarters of the mission weight will be fuel, and fuel weight hasn't changed. In the 1950s, Apollo designer Werner von Braun projected that a Mars mission would weigh 3,700 tons. In the 1960s, von Braun supposed the mission could weigh 1,600 tons if nuclear propulsion was developed, but that hasn't yet happened. Discovery One, the imaginary planetary spaceship in the 1968 movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," was described as weighing 5,400 tons, which oddly sounds about right. In 2007, a NASA workshop supposed a Mars mission might weigh only 400 tons, an utterly unrealistic budgetary lowball number.
The true numbers are budget busters! Because it costs about $20 million to place a ton of anything into low-Earth orbit, the heavier the Mars craft, the higher the price. Merely placing into orbit the 3,400 tons of a conjectured mission would cost about $70 billion. That's just the launch cost -- construction of the spaceship is extra! If space station total costs are a basic guide, the full price of a 3,400-ton Mars mission would be $1 trillion. Converted to today's dollars, the entire Apollo program -- not one mission, the entire program -- cost about $140 billion.
Now you see why NASA won't estimate prices.
The shame is that while NASA toys with monumental waste of tax dollars on a moon base and speaks of a Mars mission it knows full well is inconceivable using current propulsion, the agency is not even considering two space initiatives that could return tangible benefits to taxpayers: protection against asteroids and space solar power. Sunlight collected in space where its energy value is far higher than on the ground, then beamed to Earth as microwaves, might provide a long-term fossil-free solution to the planet's energy needs. No one knows if space solar power is practical. But NASA won't as much as fund a demonstration project; all money must go to moon base subsidies and Mars plans.
Aware its current course makes no sense, NASA may soon roll out the reddest of red herrings -- we've got to go back to the moon to beat the Chinese and the Indians. During the Cold War, no one questioned NASA spending because national prestige was involved. Why must we "beat" China and India to something we already did 40 years ago? If China or India beats us to space solar power -- now, that would hurt.
***Disclosure: TAE is listed here as a biomechanist for the company in the following article. TAE readily admits he is highly biased, thinks the company discussed below is outstanding, and happily discloses his affiliation with them. With that in mind...
Here, the University of Tennessee athletic department reveals they have been involved in "fatigue testing" involving a 12-camera motion capture system utilized by the Dynamic Athlete Research Institute, or DARI:
The tests, administered by Kansas City-based Dynamic Athletics Research Institute, provided a baseline movement of a healthy athlete and a fatigued athlete. Their proprietary computer program then analyzes the data and provides results about 24-48 hours in most cases. "We take that information and break it down into numbers," says Patrick Moodie, DARI Sport's lead biomechanist. "We can tell you the time and position. We can tell you the velocities. We can tell you all this kinematic and kinetic data that you just can't see."Biomechanical analysis is really the cutting edge of sports fitness now. Diet and exercise patterns have never been more effective, training regimens now allow athletes to "peak" at the right times, such as cyclists peaking right before the Tour de France.
However, all the training in the world doesn't help if you are injured. One of the key issues in athletics, be it collegiate or professional, is how to determine if an injured player has returned to 100%. Currently, the best practice is for clinicians (doctors) to test range of motion, etc and give the athlete a clean bill of health, and then other clinicians (physical therapists and trainers) to evaluate the athlete to determine if they are performing at their peak. There is little or no quantitative data...the evaluation is qualitative. As an engineer and scientist, the term "qualitative" makes me queasy. You don't get research funded if your supporting data is qualitative. You don't get your PhD writing a qualitative thesis. Qualitative science is what elementary school science fair projects are: "the liquid turned blue when the base was added."
Quantitative data is much more satisfying. Which is why I find DARI's efforts both intensely interesting and laudable. Why not quantify an athlete? Why not quantify an athlete's ability every year, at the start and finish of a season? Why not archive that data so that after an injury, it's possible to know exactly when an athlete is performing at the level they were pre-injury? Why not quantify the athlete's abilities in comparison to other athletes? Wouldn't coaches and recruiters love to know that kind of thing beyond the current "he brings a physicality to the game" or "his intangibles are great"...DARI can quantify the intangibles!
I once wrote that Lance Armstrong represents the truest blend of science and sports; his time in windtunnels, chasing aerodynamics, his friction reducing skinsuits, his ultra-light bikes, his training regimen...all of it blends engineering principles with athletic performance. DARI too, represents a leap forward in technological sports. Truly I tell you, while athletes running around in an invisible cube wearing a dot-covered suit may seem absurd to old-school coaches, trainers, and sports medicine doctors...so too did the forward pass, or the spread offense, or high-tops, or aero bars. Now these things aren't just common-place...they are a necessity. In 10, maybe 15 years, I fully expect that every big-college football team, every big-college basketball team, and every professional baseball, football, and basketball team will either have a motion analysis team on site, or will pay large fees to have annual or biannual analyses done on their athletes. I expect the kind of analysis done by DARI (right now they are literally the only ones on the planet with their capabilities outside of hard-research University applications) at the NFL combine. I expect, to say the least, biomechanical analysis of athletes to spread like wildfire.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
In a telling article in a recent Newsweek magazine, Fred Guterl and Eve Conant write about NASA's retirement of its aging shuttle fleet, as well arguing that NASA's plan to privatize trips to space is a plan to make massive cost savings.
Unlike Fred and Eve, I don't write for a magazine. I work for a private, non-profit research firm that specializes in getting government contracts. Here's how it works:
1. Government realizes that it would be expensive to do R&D.
2. Government solicits for contracts from private firms, expecting to save money.
3. Private companies submit high-ball offers, padding their numbers with as much as 2.5X multiplier to their actual projected costs.
4. Lobbyists from Private Company X get busy.
5. Senator from area of Private Company X pulls rank, changes solicitation to "sole-source" request.
6. Private Company X gets contract at huge profit, then makes even more profit through add-services and engineering change orders.
7. Government has to set up oversight committee to monitor activity of Private Company X. Hires retired employee of Private Company X to chair committee.
8. Government is now paying for a ballooning private contract, an oversight group, and deadlines, unsurprisingly, are not met.
Of course, the company I work for is a non-profit, so none of the above applies. We rely on our raw awesomeness to get government contracts, and abhor lobbying. We also steer clear of NASA.
In any case, there are plenty of examples of this, in various industries. It was recently announced that bad oversight had led to the disappearance of millions of dollars in the rebuilding effort in Iraq. The US Postal Service, privatized to "save money" runs a consistent budget shortfall, and raises postage rates nearly annually...and then relies on government handouts to keep their books black.
But let's look at what Guterl and Conant say specifically:
The International Space Station, for instance, built and maintained at a cost that by some estimates approaches $100 billion, houses six astronauts. The commission headed by Lockheed Martin chairman Norm Augustine that has spent much of the past year deliberating on NASA's human spaceflight program has found that the agency's $18 billion annual budget isn't enough to meet its goal of returning to the moon by 2020, or to keep the ISS aloft beyond 2015, even though ending this program would send NASA's international partners into apoplexy. More embarrassing, with NASA's space shuttle due to be mothballed in 2010, and its cheaper replacement, the Orion capsule, not due to fly until 2012, the partners face a two year gap in which they will have to rely on Russia's Soyuz ships to commute to the space station.It sounds like Fred and Eve have been reading my blog!
Nevertheless, they make a blunder:
What NASA needs most is money, lots of it.This is precisely what NASA doesn't need.
Hey North Dakota, for every dollar your state earns, NASA gets 75 cents! How's that for making you feel inconsequential?! And NASA needs more! And the entire country of Chad makes a pathetic 89 cents for every dollar NASA gets. But by all means, get NASA more money!
What NASA really needs isn't more money, but better "dollar utilization." A huge part of NASA's budget go to researching things like "astrobiology" and "fruit fly behavior in microgravity" (no joke, here's the link).
Now, I understand that learning about neural systems development in microgravity is important to somebody, but the problem is that no one on Earth will ever see a benefit from that research. As I have argued before, we will never leave Earth in adult form; the only possible way to leave this planet will be as frozen embryoes.
Does anyone ever wonder what they do all day up on the I.S.S.? They recently complete adding parts to increase the staff of the ISS to a potential 13 astronauts (not the six Guterl and Conant suggest)...what do they do up there? Most ISS residents stay for a period of several months. It is not like they are developing space lasers in a secret lab up there (or are they? be a lot cooler if they were), no they are mostly doing life science research and physics research on behalf of scientists down on the planet who can't achieve microgravity in their own labs.
In any case, I think it is about time I take a stand on this: NASA needs to shut down the I.S.S. Of course, this is a "too little too late" argument, because I have watched and laughed while they continued to build more parts on to it.
So maybe I should readdress my stance: NASA needs to better utilize the I.S.S. Perhaps what they need is to do research on simulated gravity, by spinning the I.S.S. at high speed. Or they could turn the I.S.S. into a biosphere, to test the ability of humans to survive in space without a tether to Earth. I'm getting way off topic...
What really bothers me about Peter and Eve's analogy to space being the next frontier like The West is that this is the equivalent of the settlers moving west without the cavalry to protect them.
I am talking, of course, about Space Indians. As anyone who is acquainted with American history knows, one of the major threats to settlers moving across the Great Plains was attacks by the Native Americans already there. Many wagon trains were lost to Indian raids. It became necessary for the U.S. Cavalry to set up Forts (Like Fort Dodge) and bases along major routes like the Oregon and Sante Fe Trails. These acted as a deterrent for the Indians, as the Cavalry possessed greater manpower and weapons.
So it worries me that NASA will be cutting their own cord on space travel and leaving it to the private companies. Who will protect the settlers of space from the space indians? NASA should abandon their moon-mission dreams, open up space to private companies, and start building a new fleet of space shuttles...armed with guns and missiles. Consider me the Space Wyatt Earp.
Monday, October 12, 2009
From the comments:
"these doomsday scenarios you're so fond of are dramatic but informationally empty so long as you refrain from meaningful comparisons between domains."
First, if my readers think I am "fond" of doomsday, I am clearly failing at my job. I am trying to awaken people to the myriad of ways the world might end (many of which are preventable), so that they will feel compelled to either change their behavior or become advocates for change themselves. I do not enjoy the idea of the world as we know it ending. I am quite happy with being alive.
The thing about doomsday scenarios is that you can't accurately predict them, they are dramatic, and they really are in a domain of their own. Asking me to provide detailed calculations of the kilowatts of power stored in the Earth, the current gigawatt consumption of power by humans, then forward projecting the increasing consumption of humans to a point at which they have sucked the heat out of the Earth is a weighty calculation...but not impossible. What is impossible is to determine at what point along that curve the core of the Earth destabilizes and we die in a gravitational apocalypse, or a radiation bath from the sun. It's not like life on Earth would end at the exact moment we froze the core of the Earth...it'd disappear from the face of the Earth at some impossible-to-predict point along that line. Other scenarios are equally difficult to predict.
Climate Change: Literally thousands of climatologists cannot agree on the effect humans are having on this planet, nor can they agree how the world will collapse if human-induced global climate change causes a doomsday scenario.
Solar Flare/Radiation Megadeath: Scientists basically agree that a bath of gamma radiation via a massive solar storm would wipe out life on Earth, until deep sea Archaebacteria evolved over billions of years and complex life returns to land. The problem is scientists probably won't have more than about 8 minutes to tell us we're doomed. And as I've mentioned before, solar storm experts have absolutely no idea what is going on with the sun lately, and their models to predict times of high solar activity have failed them.
Asteriod Bombardment: Scientists estimate that the human race is finished if an asteroid a mere 2 kilometers in diameter hits Earth. The asteroid will not wipe us out immediately, rather it will poison the air and cause an Ice Age that would drastically reduce the capacity of Earth to sustain life. Just for reference, Eugene Shoemaker at the USGS estimates that every year at least one asteroid hits Earth with the force of the atom bomb detonated at Hiroshima. And those asteroids are only about 50 meters across. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which struck Jupiter in 1994, broke into several fragments, some around 2 km in size. When those large fragments struck Jupiter, temperatures of 24,000 K were observed, as well as a dust plume that measured 3,700 km across, about the same as the radius of Earth. Scientists readily admit they have little or no idea where most of the asteroids in solar orbit are, or how much warning they'd have if one was headed our way.
Magnetic Pole Swap: Did you know every 750,000 years or so the magnetic poles swap? Did you know we are 30,000 years overdue for such a swap? Did you know that during a pole swap, the magnetosphere disappears, and the Earth's surface gets bathed in so much UV radiation that almost all surface life will die? Scientists studying this late-arrived pole swap suggest it is coming; the movement of the poles (apparently they move?) is accelerating.
Supervolcano: When the Yellowstone Caldera explodes, Ice Age! No one is sure when this will happen, but the rate of swelling of the caldera is accelerating.
This is all a dream: Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi wrote in the 4th century BC that he had a vivid dream he was a butterfly. When he awoke, he asked himself "Am I awakening from a dream I was a butterfly? Or am I a butterfly dreaming I am Zhuangzi?" Though impossible to know, we all could just be part of someone or something's dream, and when they wake up, we cease to exist.
Geothermal heat generators are basically giant pipes of water that go deep underground to the hotter parts of the crust, heat the water to boiling, then the water naturally rises and a circular flow pattern emerges...the water rises and cools, then sinks and heats...as this circular flow pattern occurs, geothermal generators are essentially fan blades in the flow of water that spin and turn a shaft which turns a brush which creates electrical power. It is estimated that all the world's power needs could be supplied by geothermal heat generation.
I once read that geothermal heat generators could provide all the power the world ever needed.
This is good, because geothermal energy has zero emissions, zero toxic waste, zero mining of coal, zero anything...just free energy.
But as my friend Noah Ball will tell you, the first law of thermodynamics is that energy can neither be created, nor destroyed. So if you are pumping heat out of the Earth's core...well fast forward 5,000 years and suddenly you have a very cold core of the Earth. I am exaggerating, of course, because it would take much longer than that the exhaust the heat of the Earth.
But you wouldn't have to exhaust it, just cool it. A tiny decrease in Earth's core temperature would lead to drastic changes:
- Cooler molten iron would condense, increasing the size of the solid core of the Earth
- A large core would spin slower, decreasing Earth's magnetic field and slowing the rotational speed of the Earth (and increasing gravity?)
- A decreased magnetic field would make the surface more susceptible to bombardment by the Sun's radiation.
- A slower rotation of the Earth would screw up the tides, the number of hours in the day, and basically anything that relied on the "28 day" cycle of the Earth would have a problem (girls I'm looking at you)
Then again, a cooler core might do the opposite, as the solid iron core of the Earth is solid because of a P-T curve, and so a decrease in temperature might instead decrease the size of the core:
- The decreased core would spin faster, increasing the rotational speed of the Earth and decreasing the day length.
- The stronger magnetic field caused by the faster spinning core might block too much of the sun's energy, harming plant life that depends on it.
- See above about tides, hours in the day, and 28 day cycles
In either case, a cooling core is bad news. And not to scare you...but the Earth is slowing down. And the moon is gradually moving away from Earth.
Anyway, whatever, right? History long gone.
But then again, I'm seeing a parallel emerging in the "green energy" industry. On the one side are the scientists who are pushing for vast wind farms, or development of fusion generators to replace existing coal and fission nuclear plants. On the other side are the microgenerator advocates, who are pushing for solar panels on every home, windmills in every yard, so that each home or business becomes its own standalone, "net-zero" power facility.
Each side has its arguments against the other. The microgenerators argue that infrastructure to build power lines from windy areas is expensive. They argue that fusion research isn't yielding productive power plants. They argue that fusion power involves radioisotopes...and therefore must be a terrorist magnet.
On the other hand, large power plant advocates argue that solar panels aren't efficient, that we will never move to net-zero as a society so pushing for that is already a lost cause, and that windmills in every yard are a painful eyesore.
In a way, each group is right, and each group is wrong.
And so we are in this green war, if you will, between those who want everyone to change their behavior and become responsible, and those who want the utility companies to change their behavior and be responsible on our behalf.
For my part, as a cynic, I see fusion as the only real option. Solar panels just aren't efficient enough to become a viable solution, and even if you could develop a photovoltaic diode capable of capturing 100% of the photons that hit it, and even if it could then transfer 100% of those captured photons into a usable current, and even if you covered your roof with those solar panels...you're in trouble on a cloudy day, or at night, or if you get baseball sized hail. And let's not forget that solar panels only come with a 10-year guarantee...and cost $100 per square foot.
Fusion, on the other hand, is still far back in the research phase. There isn't a functional fusion reactor (that isn't classified...?) that is producing positive yield yet, and various methods being tested are still in the scale up phase. But the promise of clean, limitless, safe energy is too big to pass up.
To those that assume "nuclear" means "death" consider this: nuclear fusion, as currently predicted, uses zero of the same materials as a currently running nuclear fission plant. Nuclear fission plants use enriched uranium to produce power. Nuclear weapons use enriched uranium and plutonium to produce death. A nuclear fusion plant would be very unwise to use huge heavy elements in its reactor. Most nuclear scientists believe the best choice of materials is a combination of helium and tritium/deuterium, which are both almost harmless forms of hydrogen. Should terrorists bomb a nuclear fusion plant, they'd simply stop the reaction within. The "nuclear material" that would blow into the atmosphere in this "nightmare scenario" would be tritium gas and helium gas, both of which already occur in Earth's atmosphere (and have since Earth formed), and both of which you are probably breathing right now as you read this. And yet you are not dead. And terrorists who were to "break in to steal material for a dirty bomb" would be disappointed to find that the nuclear material in a fusion reactor will not detonate. How frustrated those terrorists would be! They would have better luck if they started stockpiling ionizing smoke detectors...
By the way, Federal Government watchdogs...how come I can't buy two boxes of cold medicine at the store without being tagged by the FBI, but I could buy 30,000 smoke detectors containing Americium-241 without you people batting an eyelash?
In any case, fusion power, once developed fully, would create for humans a nearly limitless supply of power. Solar panels, on the other hand, are limited by the surface area upon which they can be placed times the amount of energy from the sun that reaches Earth. That number is very finite. If I were a stock broker, you can bet in which technology I'd be investing.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Friday, October 9, 2009
At the end of the movie, Nash is old, and is informed that he has received the Nobel Prize for Economics. His speech is moving, and I thoroughly enjoyed the film.
I came away from that movie thinking "if I work my ass off, for 40+ years, and do great works, and garner the respect and admiration of both my peers and my competitors, and live a great life, perhaps near the end of that life I too will get a Nobel...the ultimate expression of society's acknowledgment of a lifetime of great work."
So it seems odd to me out that President Obama is getting a Nobel Peace Prize, considering how young he is in his career/life. And it makes me start to wonder about the criteria through which the Nobel Peace Prize is being picked. This is not a knock on President Obama...I just always thought the Nobel was an award for past achievements...of which Obama has very few that warrant the Peace Prize.
But then again, he's not the first young American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize before he had made major achievements. In 2007 it was given to Albert "Al" Gore. TMQ says it best:
Gore wasn't the first quack to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and history suggests he will not be the last. Gore spent eight years in the White House, and in that time took no meaningful action regarding greenhouse gases. The Clinton-Gore administration did not raise fuel economy standards for cars and trucks or propose domestic carbon trading. Though Clinton and Gore made a great show of praising the Kyoto Protocol, they refused even to submit the treaty to the Senate for consideration, let alone push for ratification. During his 2000 run for the presidency, Gore said little about climate change or binding global-warming reforms. In the White House and during his presidential campaign, Gore advocated no consequential action regarding greenhouse gases; then, there was a political cost attached. Once Gore was out of power and global-warming proposals no longer carried a political cost -- indeed, could be used for self-promotion -- suddenly Gore discovered his intense desire to demand that other leaders do what he had not! It is a triumph of postmodernism that Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for no specific accomplishment other than making a movie of self-praise. Gore caused no peace nor led any reconciliation of belligerent parties nor performed any service to the dispossessed, the achievements the Peace Prize was created to honor. All Gore did was promote himself from Hollywood, and for this, he gets a Nobel. Very postmodern.He goes on:
An astonishing measure of how out-of-touch the Norwegian Nobel Committiee seems is that it gave a prize to Gore for hectoring others about energy consumption in the same year it was revealed that Gore, at his home, uses 20 times the national power average. Gore's extraordinary power waste equates to about 377,000 pounds of greenhouse gasses annually, or about 20 Hummer Years worth of global warming pollution. (A Hummer Year, TMQ's metric of environmental hypocrisy, is the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in a typical year of driving a Hummer.) When his utility bill made the news -- though apparently not in Oslo -- Gore responded by saying he buys carbon offsets. That takes you back to the offset problem: All offsets do is prevent greenhouse gas accumulation from increasing. If you really believe there will be a global calamity unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced 80 percent, as Gore told the Live Earth crowd, you would buy offsets and cut your own energy use. Instead, Gore flies around in fossil-fuel-intensive jet aircraft telling others: Do as I say, not as I do!
In any case, it almost seems like the Nobel prize committee is no longer awarding past performance but trying to encourage future performance.
Perhaps this "award for future performance" policy should be applied across the board, and the awards given thereby obligate the recipient to achieve the requirements of the award after they receive it. For example I could receive the National Medal of Science from the Presidential committee, and then spend the rest of my career trying to create innovate new science and engineering to justify the award I received in my fledgling twenties.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Unfortunately, this is probably true. But WHAT ELSE IS TRUE IS THAT WE HAVE A CHOICE! Our brains are hard-wired, via millions of years of evolution, to do many crazy things. But we are onmivores first, and omnivore diets typically involve constantly scrounging for food and eating hundreds of little snacklets throughout the day, never really full, always a little hungry...that's why so many modern diets advocate more, smaller meals...it ratchets the human metabolism back up to where it should be. But instead, most humans choose 3 or less meals a day.
You always have a choice. Cocaine gives the human brain intense doses of pleasure. But day after day, hundreds of millions of Americans choose to not use cocaine. I certainly don't. I bet my subconscious is pissed!
Not photoshopped. Boomer, the 180-lb Newfoundland from North Dakota, may be the world's tallest living dog. Here he is shown drinking from the kitchen sink while on all fours.
In other news, Santa Claus has received over 50 million requests in the last 24 hours from children, asking for "Boomer the dog" for Christmas.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
This calls for a bottomline!
TAE is a Distinguished Resident Chief Executive Principal Senior Research Advising Polymath Director of the Science and Technology Initiative at the Edison Foundation, a non-profit genius bank and holds the Nikola Tesla Senior Innovative Leader Fellowship at Fakerton University. He is an Einstein Senior Fellow of the Werhner Von Braun Space Policy Institute. He has written several really interesting books.
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
This is a tricky issue, and one that the NFL is unclear on. The NFL rulebook cites a player as "down" when:
The runner's forward progress toward the opponents' goal line is stopped by contact with an opponent, with little chance to be resumed. The exact moment at which the player's forward progress stops is subject to the judgment of the officials.Shouldn't the officials have seen that Peterson's chance of resuming forward progress was essentially nil, given the 900 lbs of Packer defense climbing on his back?
Often, during games, a runner will charge up to a point, and get stopped upright. Defensive players and offensive players slam into this scrum, attempting to push it forward or back. As soon as it is apparent that the player is not moving forwards, the officials blow their whistles like crazy and rush in to stop any shoving or fighting that seems to ensue from these moments.
But Peterson, being clearly pushed backwards by several Packers, heard no whistle, and got no reprieve.
I am not suggesting that Peterson did not fumble. The ball was clearly stripped out of his hands while he was standing upright, moving his feet. But the NFL rule book is too ambiguous on this.
Back on Sept. 13th, Kevin Smith ran up the middle for the Detroit Lions, was stood up and stopped advancing. A player for the New Orleans Saints ripped the ball loose of Smith's hands before the whistle was blown, and ran down the field with it. But the officials reviewed the play and ruled that because Smith's forward progress had stopped, the play was dead. Wasn't that exactly the opposite call than was made with Peterson? And in this case it cost the Vikings 7.
The NFL needs to clearly define this rule and explain it to their officials.
Monday, October 5, 2009
The reason for this is that TAE wants the pompous, arrogant title of "Senior Research Fellow", a basically meaningless title given to overpaid bobbleheads in order to 1. make their client feel justified in their exorbitant rate they are charged 2. make the person seem to have enough clout to get their vapid writings published in major news outlets.
I'm serious, in a humorous sense. Senior Research Fellow sounds pretty good to me. But then again, I feel it necessary to up the ante; being as obviously peerless as I am, I need something with more...umph. Ah, got it.
TAE is a Distinguished Resident Chief Executive Principal Senior Research Advising Polymath Director of the Science and Technology Initiative at the Edison Foundation, a non-profit genius bank and holds the Nikola Tesla Senior Innovative Leader Fellowship at Fakerton University. He is an Einstein Senior Fellow of the Werhner Von Braun Space Policy Institute. He has written several really interesting books.
Friday, October 2, 2009
An experienced acrobat, fire-eater and stilt-walker, Laliberte also had put on a clown nose before Wednesday’s launch, and brought several to the station for crew mates to try on. He warned he would tickle them while they sleep.
The title should have been "Airborne Laser Blasts Jeep."
Honestly, after seeing the underwhelming footage, I would have preferred a story about flying Jeeps.
You write so often about NASA's failures and high costs, but you don't ever write about all the good they do for science. How about acknowledging that NASA funds tons of research and spends millions on education programs for youth? How about acknowledging innovations that NASA brought about, like velcro.
Ah yes, the immortal "NASA invented velcro therefore cannot be criticized" argument. At face value, this might seem okay. One might infer from the idea that NASA has invented Velcro that they also have invented many other extremely helpful things, like "astronaut ice cream" and this somehow means that the billions and billions they throw at a nearly-pointless return to the moon are somehow okay.
But, unfortunately, NASA didn't invent velcro. Velcro was invented in 1941 by George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, based on burrs he had stuck to his clothing. He achieved a successful design in 1951 and was awarded a patent in 1955. NASA, on the other hand, didn't even exist until 1958. Guess that about wraps that up...
Listen, I am a big, big fan of NASA. Their mission statement, "To improve life here, to extend life to there, to find life beyond" is succinct and brilliant. When I was barely 6 years old I saw a shuttle launch from Cape Canaveral. We were several miles away, but even from there, you could see the glowing beast of a shuttle hurl into the sky, and watch the primary rockets fall away, until the shuttle was eventually lost from view. I grew up with a father who dreamed of going to space, and then vicariously dreamed that I might go to space. I watched Star Trek and Star Wars religiously. The crazy missions to the Hubble, Mars, and the construction of the ISS have all been highlights in my life. I was one of the people who let the SETI program borrow my computer at night to process radio wave information.
I don't need to go on really. I know how much NASA, and space exploration, means to me. And that is exactly why I am so critical of it! Watching your single favorite government organization (well, DARPA is pretty cool, too) fall into bureaucratic oblivion, pandering to the whims of whatever the current President says the agenda should be, overspending their budget year after year funding elephantine projects with no clear timeline or budget, not requiring their subs to perform at a certain level, and worst of all: creating unattainable, but PR-friendly goals and then spending enormous amounts of money on not achieving them.
NASA, it seems to me, is suffering from a lack of leadership. Leadership at NASA, in turn, is suffering from a lack of autonomy. As long as lobbyists (cough...Boeing...cough) gets to sole-source projects, and Senators and Presidents listen to the whispered promises in their ears from those lobbyists, then NASA policies are sadly, and fatally, political. I have mentioned here before that NASA put 7 mission on the moon for less money than they think it will cost to send the single proposed moon mission. Don't listen to liars who tell you that it is because safety testing is more rigorous, or that material costs have risen, or that labor is more expensive. The reason that it costs so much for NASA to do anything is because ginormous companies get sole-source contracts with vague goals and inflationary budgets.
Space exploration has a new purpose: feed dollars into private industry.
My father likes to chide sports commentators with this line: "if these idiots knew so much, why aren't they coaches?" The same could possibly be aimed at me. If I have all the answers to NASA's problems, why don't I be put in charge of NASA? Wouldn't I like that. The reason I will never be the head of NASA (unless, of course, someone really nice wanted me to...please...) and the reason I will never be President of the United States is because I am not integrated into a political machine that is self-sustaining. I sit here writing this as a criticism, whereas if I wanted to be head of NASA I'd be writing a glowing report about how their current missions reflect an attitude of intrepidity towards lunar and Martian exploration. Rather than suggesting a 50 dollar, foolproof toilet, I'd be marveling at the ingenuity of the $19 million toilet they recently installed (that subsequently broke twice). Instead of suggesting they completely abandon the ISS, the lunar mission (and probably Mars missions as well) I'd be pulling strings with people I know to get a position in line for those trips. Instead of complaining about space garbage, I'd be pointing out all the neat-o satellites we've gotten into space.
But then again, maybe what NASA needs is a critic in charge. Maybe they need a jolt in the backside, someone to step in and say "this organization is the single greatest group of engineers in the history of mankind, but you all need to work on your goal setting," and then start open-bidding less ambitious, shorter-term goals that integrate into a long-term goal strategy.
Why are we paying Northrup-Grumman tens of millions to design and build a new lunar lander, when we already have the ones they built for us 40 years ago?
Thursday, October 1, 2009
This time they plan to use microwaves to beam frozen water out of the ground, harvest it, and take it back to the base, where it will be electrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen, the oxygen used for breathing.
TAE reminds the reader that a moon base has no practical purpose that could not be accomplished on the already built ISS. TAE also reminds the reader that Arthur C Clarke and TAE both agree that manned interplanetary travel is a dead end.
Yglesias points to a piece by Matt Richtel for the NYT discussing the need for drivers to multitask with electronic devices.
JOPLIN, Mo. — Looking back, Paul Dekok wonders what he was thinking that May morning when the urgent call came in. Mr. Dekok, a manager at the Potash Corporation, learned that a 25-ton truckload of the company’s additive for livestock feed had been rejected by a customer as contaminated.
Scrambling to protect his company’s credibility with a big customer, he grabbed his cellphone to arrange a new shipment, cradling it between his left ear and shoulder, and with his right hand e-mailed instructions to his staff from his laptop computer — all while driving his rental car in a construction zone on a two-lane highway in North Carolina.
“I thought I was doing a great job because I was being productive,” Mr. Dekok said. “It’s an adrenaline rush. It’s the buzz we all get of trying to do everything you can in business.”
But later, reflecting on the risks he took that spring day in 2007, he saw himself in a different light: “I was Bozo the clown.
Wouldn't his tasks have been so much easier - and safer - if he hadn't been driving his car, but instead had been sitting in a car that drove itself? Talking on the phone while writing an email is multi-tasking most of us can handle easily. That is...easily if not driving a 2-ton machine at 60 mph.
Some families of victims killed in collisions with a multitasking worker have successfully sued the driver’s employer for tens of millions of dollars.TAE estimates the cost to retrofit an existing car with automated driving technology would cost around $3,500 per car. Certainly not tens of millions. Needless to say, the cost of the life lost by the careless driver cannot be valued. But if the car were driving itself, that person would almost certainly have not died, as there wouldn't have been a vehicle collision.
I get tired of talking about this, but it is one of the single most plausible ways Americans could help make their lives safer and easier. I harp on and on about it because I want my readers to go out and harp about it too. I want some Congressperson's young aide to hear about my blog and come here, read the laundry list of posts I have written enumerating not only how ridiculous it is that we don't already have automated cars, not only how many lives could be saved, but how many dollars, Federal and private, that could be saved by getting rid of human drivers.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2004, a driver talking on a cellphone on her way to church hit the Teaters’ car, killing Joe and injuring his mother, who was driving. (After his son’s death, Mr. Teater worked 18 months for a company that is developing technology that can prevent a driver from using a cellphone while the car is in motion, and he still owns shares in the company.)Would that even be Constitutional? Can you really ban cell phone use while driving? I know some cities are doing it, and base the legality of it on the fact that drivers are in "public use" areas, the same way city parks often ban alcohol. But do we really want to put a crutch on American businesses by not allowing their salespeople to have instant access to clients via phone or laptop computer? No one on Earth has ever caused another person's death simply by talking on a cell phone...it is only the talking on cell phones while driving that does it. Why ban cell phone use and hinder people's daily activities, when instead you could ban driving and liberate them to do even more productive activities while commuting?
I think it would be misleading if I didn't openly acknowledge that I love driving. I love being in control of my pickup, occasionally slamming the gas, occasionally getting to put it into 4-wheel-drive and make my own road, being high up and seeing over the tops of cars (a rare treat for someone of my stature), and rolling the window down and "truckin' along while listening to country music. But what I love even more than driving is simply being alive. And having a beautiful wife and daughter that are alive. Losing my "truckin' along" time is a small price to pay if it means they are much, much safer while on the road. Anyone that tells they wouldn't give up the wheel to save lives is being selfish, and reckless.