Friday, February 26, 2010
Thursday, February 25, 2010
TAE asks the question again: once you get an astronaut on Mars, then what? It's not like the astronauts can stick around.
I don't really want to waste my time rehashing my arguments for robotic exploration of space, or with the obscene expense related to manned spaceflight. I'm not going to argue again that terraforming Mars before we get there is a much smarter, albeit more ambitious plan.
Instead I am going to suggest three "visions" for NASA to adopt:
1. Identify and harness Dark Energy and Dark Matter.
2. Exhaustively prove faster-than-light travel is impossible. Conversely, if a feasible method of FTL travel is hypothesized, aggressively research it.
3. Develop methods to identify currently habitable extrasolar planets and then start identifying them.
Any or all these goals could be successfully pursued, and aggressively, within the confines of NASA's budget. All are ambitious. All would yield significant and upheaving rewards for humanity if successful.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
"Update your location, I can't find you." I reply. "Okay," she says and I hear the hanging up noise.
After a moment, a red arrow appears in front of me on the ground, and the words "150 yards" appears below the arrow. I follow the direction of the arrow, which disappears when I pass over it. Further ahead, a second arrow appears, signalling a turn right out the concourse into the stadium seating area. I follow it. Of course, I am the only person that can see these red arrows. The information is being fed directly to my eyes via active contact lenses with tiny LEDs and circuitry printed directly on them. The contact lenses give off no magnification; my eyesight is fine. The circuitry is powered by radio waves beamed from a control unit in my hat. I follow the arrows until a "ding" in my ear informs me that I am near my wife. An arrow in the sky, pointing downward, indicates her location. I go meet up with her.
During the game, the down and distance, first down line, and various player stats are all displayed on my "heads up display" contacts. Mrs. TAE and I got $2 discounts on our tickets, but in exchange for this, during half-time Coca-cola beams a commercial directly to our eyes, even with our eyes closed we see the images. Coke, pouring out of a glass bottle (I mention to Mrs. TAE that glass bottle soda is impossible to find outside of Mexico) into a big glass fills our vision, but by now we are so used to ads being beamed in that we ignore it and enjoy conversation and the band out on the field. I hit my Droid, and the AM broadcast of the game comes up in my ear, and I listen to the commentators talk about the game so far.
During the second half, the home team pulls ahead, thank in part to updates the players receive in their helmet heads up displays. The visiting team is using a zone coverage, and the HUD of the quarterback informs him when the opposing team appears to be in zone, as well as when an opposing player is behaving erratically - often indicating a blitz.
Coaches on the home team pull receivers often, having been alerted by biochemical sensors on the receivers that they are fatiguing quickly due to the spread offense and high number of deep routes being run. Temperature sensors on lineman inform both teams coaches when lineman need a break, as they are quick to overheat.
Back up in the seating section, I am enjoying a new feature: the football has a tracking device in it, and it glows bright red in my contact lens HUD during plays. This allows me to see where the ball is, and laugh when the defense is duped by a fake hand-off.
After the game, my HUD leads me to my car. While we are walking, Mrs. TAE suggests we consider upgrading from our red monochrome contacts to newer contacts with 7 colors. I suggest we wait a little longer, I have read that the new 256 color contacts are expected to reach consumers within the next two months. Quickly, I tap my Droid interface. I mutter "256 color contact heads up display" and nearly instantly a google search result appears before my eyes, floating in the air in front of me. I reach out my hand and "touch" the second link down, it opens. I then drag the result by reaching out and grabbing it and I let go of it above my wife's head. It disappears, but I see her eyes scanning left to right, clearly she has received the data file and is reading it.
"Neat," she says, then reaches out and grabs the link, tossing it behind her, where it vanishes after a couple seconds.
When I get home, I remember that an old college friend I had seen at the game had suggested to me a musical group I would like, but I can't remember the name. Thankfully, video of my entire waking life is conveniently recorded in HD, and stored on terabyte hard drives. I plug the credit card-sized video camera that was attached to my shirt into a dock, and the day's events are quickly pulled up on my computer screen. I side-scroll until I see my friends face, then watch the conversation I had with him. Once he identifies the group, I tap my Droid and call up a Google search for the group, and then say "torrent" and a bittorrent search pops up. Thanks Pirate Bay, in seconds I have the album. I bring it up on my phone's music player, and after a second (virus scan delay) it starts playing in my ear. Best part of wireless, implanted earbuds is I can listen to music while my wife nags me and she never knows!
I climb into my truck, and open up the console (where steering wheels used to be). The console shows a map, my location, nearby landmarks, and includes options like satellite view, traffic updates (usually boring and uneventful), weather/road conditions, etc. I hit the "work" shortcut key and close the console. I sip some more coffee. My truck clicks into drive and pulls itself out of my parking space. I sit back and read my Kindle. I glance out the window at the sun coming up. "Radio" I say, then "AM 980", and the news comes on. I scan more headlines, as my truck smoothly navigates down roads towards work.
My reading is interrupted by a "ding ding ding..." "mute" I say to the radio, and I open the console. The truck informs me that a vehicle has broken down on my normal route, and it is automatically diverting me two blocks east. I clear the update and with an "unmute" go back to reading. The guy on the radio mentions the broken down vehicle, and informs commuters that their commute should be increased by an average of 8.3 seconds due to various diversions.
When I arrive at work, my truck drops me off at the door. The console informs me that the truck needs to go get gas, and since I got paid yesterday, I also tell it to get an oil change and tire rotation. I tell it to go to the car wash, but to not spend more than $7.00 on the wash. I climb out of my truck and it smoothly departs. I go in to work.
At lunch time, I receive an email from the maintenance place, informing me that the truck arrived, the oil was changed, tires were rotated, and my truck is en route back to me. The email also tells me that the maintenance shop estimates my truck has 15,000 miles left on the current tires, which agrees with what my truck console suggests. Twenty minutes later I receive a text that my truck spent $6.50 at a nearby drive-thru car wash. My bank account auto-updates around this time each day (and auto-downloads the data to Quicken) and I see a $35.73 charge to my account from Quiktrip for gas.
At 5 pm, I send a text to my truck informing it I am leaving in 15 minutes. I pack my things, say goodbye to my co-workers and depart work. My truck, which has been parked somewhere (it really doesn't matter to me where it parks), pulls up at exactly 5:15. I climb in and punch "home" on the console. Halfway home, I realize I should grab some groceries. "Destination change" I speak loudly. The truck console opens, and I say "HyVee". A map shows the nearest HyVee grocery stores, as well as ones nearby my home. I choose my normal HyVee, and hit "Go." The truck smoothly alters the route, and shows me my time of arrival (estimated time of arrival is a thing of the past). At HyVee, I grab a few groceries, pay with a swipe of my cell phone, and climb back into my truck. "Home" I say, and the console updates my destination. In minutes I am home.
In the five years since my wife and I turned over the keys to an Automated Driving System, we have never had an accident, or ticket. Our insurance premiums dropped from $190.00 a month for our two cars to $18.00 a month ADS car insurance purely covers catastrophic mechanical failure leading to vehicle collisions...no other accidents exist). We received a $1,300.00 tax rebate from the government for volunteering for the system, and because the autopilot is a more energy efficient driver than I or my wife ever was, we save approximately $145 dollars in gas per year. So in five years, we've saved over $12,000. We used this money to pay for the automated driver system ($1,300 total), my truck ($6,500) and the rest went to pay down my student loan debt.
My truck has had no mechanical failures. Twice, the ADS crashed, at which point the truck simply went into autopilot, pulled over, and rebooted. Two minutes later, it was back in action. One of those two times, I didn't even notice it happening until I received an email later informing me the manufacturer was looking into it. My wife no longer frets about going to a new destination, she simply puts the desired destination in her console and relaxes. That alone justified the ADS in her car!
Do I miss driving? Sometimes. I miss aggressively switching lanes, I miss laying on the gas and feeling my body slammed into my seat-back. I miss the control. Despite the obvious safety, I sometimes get nervous that if something went wrong I'd have no ability to get myself out of it using some sweet (though imaginary) driving trick. Some people still fight the system, they feel like their freedom has been impinged. But how can they say their "freedom to drive" outweighs the 40,000+ vehicular fatalities that occurred every year in this country before the ADS network was put in place? What about those people's freedom to be alive?
A few people have said the system is too dangerous, that terrorists, be it domestic or foreign, could hack the network and cripple the entire nation by halting travel. But in five years, 200,000+ Americans who would have otherwise died from vehicular collisions and drunk driving accidents haven't died, there hasn't been a terrorist incident, and life goes on. Would it really have been smart to not implement this system that guarantees American lives protected...just because some terrorists might delay our commutes some day?
Later that night, Mrs. TAE and I flop, more than a little tipsy, into her car. I mumble for it to take us home from a crazy night at the bars, which it does, safely. Safely for us, and safely for everyone else on the road that night. Would I have had the freedom to get that tanked had I been required to drive? Seems like the ADS actually is giving me more freedom, fiscal and social...rather than less.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Fast forward ten years, and you get this.
Monday, February 22, 2010
And the Northrup-Grumman sub caught fire and broke.
Scientific revolutions are often led by the youngest scientists. Isaac Newton was 23 when he began inventing calculus; Albert Einstein published several of his most important papers at the tender age of 26; Werner Heisenberg pioneered quantum mechanics in his mid-20s. At the time, these men were all inexperienced and immature, and yet they managed to transform their fields.Lehrer goes on to enumerate the brain-drain in NIH funding, as funding goes more and more towards older, lower-risk researchers, and the younger, higher-risk innovators are left unable to get their revolutions funded. Creativity, he argues, especially in scientists is most noticeable early in careers, right when funding is becoming impossible to get.
Youth and creativity have long been interwoven; as Samuel Johnson once said, "Youth is the time of enterprise and hope." Unburdened by old habits and prejudices, a mind in fresh bloom is poised to see the world anew and come up with fresh innovations—solutions to problems that have sometimes eluded others for ages.
One theory suggests that creative output obeys a predictable pattern over time, which is best represented by an "inverted U curve." The shape of the curve captures the steep rise and slow fall of individual creativity, with performance peaking after a few years of work before it starts to decline in middle age. By the time scientists are eminent and well-funded—this tends to happen in the final years of their careers—they are probably long past their creative prime.
It seems to me that two major disservices are being done to our youth that have broader implications here. First, NCLB is draining creativity-fostering programs out of schools and second, inner-city kids are spending their creative years in jail.
While I recognize that the motive for NCLB was entirely altruistic, it is being incredibly poorly executed. Schools continue to face extinction if they cannot produce math/reading regurgitating robot-students, and in order to increase classroom time on those subjects, well-proven, creativity-fostering curricula such as art and music (and yes, recess) are getting increasingly crowded out. When the NCLB generation of kids reaches college and graduate school, will we have a generation of creative problem solvers, aggressively pursuing the impossible, or will we have a bunch of drones, mindless and hopeless? As NCLB results continue to frighten me, I consider private school for my daughter more and more seriously.
As to the second point, what number of hidden geniuses do we lose as a culture to the jail system? How many bright-minded kids are born every day that could potentially change the world at age 25 but instead spend their 18-30's behind bars for crime? Who is at fault for this? They are? We are?
I think it would be hard to argue against the fact that it is a sick tragedy how many young people's lives become a waste in this country due to cultural pressures. And world-wide? How many brilliant minds are wasted in the desperate need to simply find food every day?
Maybe I should pout that my best years may be spent in a struggle to get funding, then when I no longer need the funding, it will be more available. Or maybe I should instead lament the millions of humans on this planet who are probably smarter than even I, and the fact that they'll never even get a chance to write a proposal, never get a chance to just sit and dream up ideas.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
we should subsidize and encourage "carbon farming" or any practice where a person's trade is literally to convert CO2 into a compact disposable material. For example, a small, well-run algae farm might convert 2,000 tons of CO2 into oxygen and hydrocarbons every year.TPI rebutted in the comments:
Part of the purpose of cap-and-trade is to spur just this kind of innovation through market forces (i.e., the increasing cost of emitting carbon) rather than through having the government directly subsidize every potentially promising technology.However I was not satisfied. While TPI advocates "green" technologies that will reduce the carbon footprint of people in developed nations. I went on to discuss this directly:
I don't think I am a fan of reducing carbon emissions. Not just because I enjoy my posh lifestyle in my warm, Midwestern apartment, and not just because I drive a gas-guzzling pickup truck, and not just because it would hurt the U.S. economy.What Plumer is suggesting is that not only is Bill Gates right that we need to more heavily fund far-future energy innovation, but we must also do things here and now to immediately decrease the negative impact humans are having on the global climate.
It is patently clear to anyone with a good search engine that the developing nations of the world are driving their economic and social development with coal. In China, coal planets open weekly, and in India a similar situation is occurring.
Indeed, in many developing nations, smoggy streets filled with junky cars is the norm, and the alternative is not exactly idyllic. Who am I to look down from my high horse of comfort and ease and tell people who barely get by that they need to do better, for my children's sake?
Obviously I agree with Bill Gates on this one. Investing in researching things that are once the stuff of science fiction has driven our civilization from cave-dwellers to shuttle astronauts. It's taken us from riding horseback to discussing horsepower. All the great technological discoveries of the last 200 years came from ideas tucked in the imaginative corners of researchers who stood at the frontiers of science and said "this isn't technically impossible, but would take a lot of years to develop" and then they started building a pyramid of scientific breakthroughs, block by block, and after 100 years or so you go from this to this. But it all starts with someone saying "based on bizarre phenomena X, I think someone could potentially do impossible task Y" and then competitive groups of researchers get busy turning equations on a page into a working device that can allow two humans to talk to each other even if they are miles apart.
This is why I shake my head at people that trash nuclear fusion. Have they forgotten how impossible nuclear fission used to seem? You go back 75 years, and you get these rogue physicists who think that by hammering a radioactive particle with neutrons it will fission into smaller atoms and spew more neutrons, creating a controllable chain reaction. And so some scientists believe this hocus pocus, talk a government agency into some R&D funding and 50 years later, nuclear power plants exist all across the globe.
But nuclear power wasn't invented in a bathtub "Eureka!" moment, nor are most breakthroughs. But the public acts like either scientists need cheap, instantly gratifying miracles or they should just give up the long-term research altogether.
Now, I'm not quite ready to cap, trade, or carbon tax my lifestyle away, and so I hesitate to agree with TPI and Plumer about immediate strategies to curb global climate change. But where I think we can all agree is the fact that researching radical new ways for humans to thrive on this planet (that coincidentally allow the rest of Earth's species to thrive as well) is an effort worth pursuing, and the governmental cynicism towards high-risk, high-reward research needs to wane.
(Plumer doesn't mention it, but it seems a little...subjective that Gates is advocating traveling wave reactors. The company currently researching traveling wave reactor technology is Terrapower, LLC...which is a subsidiary of Intellectual Ventures, the venture capital mega-company owned by many big names, one of which is Nathan Myhrvold, former Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft.)
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
The acidification of the ocean today is bigger and faster than anything geologists can find in the fossil record over the past 65 million years. Indeed, its speed and strength — Ridgwell estimate that current ocean acidification is taking place at ten times the rate that preceded the mass extinction 55 million years ago — may spell doom for many marine species, particularly ones that live in the deep ocean.Sullivan reacts:
This is the beginning of Lent. As a Catholic, one of the things I'll be repenting for is living in a civilization that treats this astonishing planet as something to be used rather than conservedWhat can be done by an individual? Why bother trying, at this point, to save the Earth? At some point in a skydive, when your parachute has failed, your backup parachute has failed, and you are helplessly falling to your death, a person accepts their fate and quits fighting. They grab their cell phone and maybe punch in an "I love you" to their spouse, or record a short video of their fading moments, so that they can be remembered or immortalized.
Or what of the sailor/fisherman, thrown overboard in the North Pacific, knowing he has minutes to live, storm raging about him, hands and feet freezing. He can fight the inevitable, and hope the ship rescues him. But the ship does not come. Five minutes becomes fifteen, and then 20. He feels consciousness leaving him. At that point, he can continue to pitifully and vainly struggle against the embrace of the cold water. Or he can accept his fate and stop struggling. Death comes so easily, so quickly, if one just invites it.
I fear this is how many Americans think about the environment. They see themselves as a hapless cog in a machine that isn't nearing a cliff at breakneck speed; rather the machine has already plunged off the edge, hurling inescapably to the valley below. Americans, mostly, believe in Anthropogenic Climage Change (ACC), but if asked what they individually could do that would cause it to stop...they are flummoxed. Even ACC denialists, when asked about a hypothetical day when ACC would be a factor, have no solutions.
Sure, we all grasp concepts like "going green", be it driving hybrids, turning down the thermostat in Winter, eating local, using better insulation on your house, or a myriad of things we have been taught do a tiny bit to decrease the negative effects humanity has on the environment. But as far as environmental fixes go, solutions are in short supply.
So what can a Christian do? In Sullivan's case, he can lament, with well written words, the destruction of God's Creation. Writers can motivate others to action. Similarly, preachers can motivate change with their words. Politicians can write legislation to combat ACC, or finance new investments in clean energy and provide tax credits to citizens who "go green."
But what of the engineers? How can we honor God's creation? Mostly by not being greedy. This report shows that 8 of the top 10 new grad salaries are filled by different types of engineers. At the top of the list: petroleum engineering. Will wonders never cease?! Not only do petroleum engineers make the most, they make on average 33% more as a starting salary than the next highest group!
It would be easy for me to say "case and point, the greedy A-hole petrol engineers rape the Earth, and get big bucks for it! Stop that! Go idealism!" but the story is not so simple. Petroleum accounts for many wondrous and magical things, like credit cards and bra straps. So the story gets tangled, somewhere between "we need air travel but we don't need SUV's."
Each type of engineer, it turns out, has this same moral dilemma: in your field you can do good or you can do bad. Mechanical engineers can design hybrid/plug-in cars, or they can design V12 sports cars. Electrical engineers can design efficient power grids or they can design boardwalks flooded in a blaze of incandescent lighting. Chemical engineers can develop new enzymes to dissolve plastics or they can design new plastics that resist photodegradation. And our dear, wealthy, petroleum engineers can develop new and remarkably efficient ways of plumbing the depths of the earth for petroleum, and clean, efficient piping networks...or they can basically do the opposite of that.
One might argue that if the engineer that invented the "plastic sack" now inescapably linked to every supermarket chain in the world had instead sat on his invention for the good of the world and had not licensed it, then someone else would have. With that I cannot argue. But what I can argue with is that engineers who strive to design factories that churn plastic bags out in higher and higher quantities at faster and faster speeds for less and less money in order to achieve higher and higher profits need to look deep down in themselves and ask if they're really doing all they can with the remarkable talents and education they have received. Are they making the world a better place with their skills and gifts? Or are they just plundering the Earth to make the fastest buck possible?
The same goes for mechanical engineers; certainly a V12 roadster looks awesome, is super powerful, and gains a hefty profit for the designer. But as that beast guzzles fuel at nearly a quarter gallon a minute, shouldn't the engineer pause and ask himself/herself if they are really using their car-design skills for good? Or are they really just trying to make a fast (excuse the pun) buck off rich people who are equally guilty of Earth-raping?
Should the electrical engineer devote himself to 600 watt lighting in high-end retail stores so jewelry looks really nice in its display case, and be pleased with his Christmas bonus, or should he instead press, press, press for LED lighting, at 38 watts a fixture, and tell his boss that there are more ways to please a client than just pandering to their egos?
Some might argue that I'm hopelessly idealist in a down economy. But engineering jobs continue to be the most recession-proof, and even as I write this my own boss is doing phone interviews as quickly as he can to find mechanical, electrical and software engineers (hopefully not to fill my position!).
Whereas most career fields are helpless to make direct, positive change in the world, or at least in their daily lives, engineers are uniquely equipped both to know how to change things, and to be in the right position to initiate that change.
To my fellow engineers, I beg you: do what's right!
Monday, February 15, 2010
TAE has a theory: people are simply ignoring the law. How many times have you, dear reader, been driving down the highway at the speed limit, and muttered under your breath because almost every other driver around you is speeding? Do you occasionally speed? It's okay if you do, because we all do...
...isn't it? I mean, it's not like 2 miles per hour over the speed limit will get you pulled over.
But the law says go XX miles per hour, and yet the vast, overwhelming majority of drivers use that not as a strict ceiling but rather as a guideline, and surely think to themselves "it is clearly safe, according to the local DOT, to go XX miles per hour, so I, with my amazing reflexes and skill, will go XX+5 miles per hour, which is still slow enough that police will not pull me over, because they only care if I drive XX+10 miles per hour or more."
Why wouldn't this translate to cell phone bans? Surely people say "I cannot use my cell phone in my car...but if the cops don't see my bluetooth headset, then they won't pull me over. And maybe a quick call here and there is okay. And look, all the drivers around me are basically ignoring this new law, surely it's okay if I ignore it a little too." Subsequently, you have a change in local laws but not a change in local behavior; people have been ignoring traffic laws for decades, why stop now?
Here's TAE's solution: if unquestionable data exists that Americans are put in danger because of drivers using their cell phones, then simply do what they have done in the past: mandate auto manufacturers install safety measures in the cars.
But how, the dear reader may ask, does a car manufacturer possibly make some sort of device that prevents cell phone users from killing other people?
The answer is a Faraday Cage. Relatively cheaply, and without any inventing genius whatsoever, a car manufacturer could include add a wire mesh to the shell of the car, which would block radio waves from entering or leaving the car. This would not block the car's radio, because it has an antenna mounted on the exterior of the car.
Drivers would be unable to send or receive cell phone signals while inside their cars. If they needed to make an emergency call, they need but exit their vehicle - difficult to do while the vehicle is moving.
Some would argue that such a restriction would impinge upon civil liberties...people have a right to be morons in their car! But no one has successfully challenged cell phone ban laws. And when seat belts were mandated, people complained that they lost freedom of movement. But now seatbelts are standard and just a part of the driving experience. And the positive effects of seat belts are far-reaching and statistically obvious. Would not a passive device to block cell phones achieve the same effect?
It's not like society would screech to a halt, either. Americans got by until the mid-80's before "car-phones" even existed.
It just makes sense.
Update: A savvy-minded person might suggest that the Faraday Cage could be circumvented if a cell phone user simply mounted a receiving antenna on the exterior of their car. This is true. But it would also make the car fairly easy for attentive police forces to spot and apprehend.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
So I'll give this whole topic one more try. Large short-term deficits don't matter, but growing long-term deficits--that is, deficits that grow faster than our ability to pay them, that is, than GDP--are very bad.
Consider this analogy. Say you're an independent contractor of some kind who depends on a car for jobs. Your car breaks down. While the car is broken down, your income is diminished, but you don't have enough money saved to pay for repairs with cash. So what do you do? Do you wait until you have enough saved up to get your car repaired? That would be a bad idea, since your ability to earn income is severely diminished by not having a car. So you'd probably borrow money from a bank or your parents or someone in order to get the repairs done now and pay down the debt gradually. For that one or two months directly effected by the lost income and the cost of repairs, your budget sheet would look terrible, because you're spending way more than you're taking in. But it would be money well spent and borrowed because it would allow you to continue to earn a living.
That's a short-term deficit spike. If the deficit is being run for necessary reasons, it's actually a good thing.
On the other hand, if your grocery bill is expanding every month, faster than your income, such that at some point in the not-too-immediate but foreseeable future it will take up your whole income and more, you've got a serious problem. This is a long-term deficit. It isn't increasing or enabling your income, and while everyone needs and likes food, people need other things as well.
The problem with this analogy is that it does not suggest fiscal conservatism. What do I mean? I mean savings. If you are a contractor and need your car, you should have the foresight to know that even the finest Toyota Corolla occasionally has an accelerator pedal failure and needs repair. And so each month you put a small parcel of your gross income into an account which you hold for car repairs. Should the end of the year come and no car repairs have been necessary, then you can splurge on Christmas gifts for your loved ones.
The government, on the other hand (and this especially is true for state governments) chooses to not save. Should a budget surplus occur, and it has in the recent past, they choose to up the budget to utilize all that extra money. And then when the inevitable car repair comes up, they deficit spend because they have no saving hedged away, just their Chinese parents who are willing to give them a little cash...repaid with interest.
There is no good kind of Federal deficit spending. Suggesting that a little here or there when necessary implies that the Federal Government is simply too inept to see forward at all.
Certainly, it is a bad plan to consistently run a red budget, on that TPI and I agree. But the idea that this "contractor" can run his books at a balance and borrow whenever something comes up strikes me as safe, but in the end very irresponsible behavior, and honestly that contractor is not going to have a very successful business. If the contractor is running such a tight book that he cannot afford to repair his vehicle without borrowing, how will he repay the money he borrowed? The only way to repay it will be to stop spending somewhere else, like maybe dropping his family's dental insurance, or decreasing his car insurance to "liability only" for a while.
What hard-lined fiscal conservatives like me are suggesting is that Congressional Budget Writers should all go to a Dave Ramsey conference. Would we have still invaded Iraq (just to find the WMD's, lol) if President Bush was forced to save up for it in advance? Wasn't it high-risk borrowing that caused the economic crisis...which caused TARP...which required more borrowing? When are Americans going to grasp that you can't borrow your way out of debt?
"Maybe if I dig this hole a little deeper the hole will fill itself back up."
Spencer's article rightly asserts (aren't we getting tired of hearing this yet?) that the Constellation program, which was the umbrella of funding under which former President Bush's return to the moon plan was funded, was doomed from the start. He then doggedly references the Augustine Committee, a group I have referenced here before, and their report that funding for the Moon Mission must increase by billions of dollars if success is to be achieved. This was correct then, and still is.
But as a serious proponent of unmanned space exploration, I was perturbed by Spencer's assessment of robots:
Is manned space exploration important? Yes – not least because it simply works much better than sending robots. When you look past the rhetoric and superstitions and compare the results, today's robots (and tomorrow's too) are pitifully limited, painfully slow, and not really all that cheap. (Case in point – NASA recently gave up trying to free the Mars rover Spirit from a sand pit it had been stuck in for nine months. But when the Apollo 15 crew's lunar rover got bogged down in loose soil, the astronauts got off, picked it up, moved it, got back on, and drove away – all in maybe two minutes. Robots do fine when everything goes as planned, but that's rarely true on complex, poorly-known planetary surfaces.)The implication here is that it is the fault of the rover Spirit that it became bogged down in a sand trap, not the fault of the human scientists on Earth who potentially did a poor job navigating it. And of course, a lunar rover piloted by a human that got stuck on the Moon proves robots are inept...even though the lunar rover was neither a robot, nor controlled by one.
Spencer appears to be arguing that robots are ludicrous, clunky automatons like this, unable to flit from rock to rock unlike their boy-genius creators.
In reality, robots are now so seamlessly functioning in our everyday lives that we don't even realize they are there. Every single electronic device you own had a printed circuit board that was fabricated in a factory by a team of robots...the traces are created, the individual components are precisely located on the board, and the soldering is done with almost zero errors. Even the processors in your computer, with millions and millions of tiny junctions, is built by a robot. You can now import a 3D model into a 5-axis CNC machine, and after a few minutes and a couple key strokes, you can go sip coffee and complain about the size of your paycheck while the robotic machine will build your part, accurate to the ten-thousandth of an inch. Clearly robots are not pitifully limited or painfully slow.
But maybe I shouldn't judge robots based on their earthling counterparts, and instead I should judge the state-of-the-art in extraterrestrial robots. Spencer chides the Martian rover Spirit, lost to eternity in a sandy quagmire. But he does not mention that Spirit's mission was designed to be only 90 Earth days long, yet Spirit continued to pluck about the Martian landscape for 5 years and three months, which was about 21 times longer than the rover was designed to drive. Imagine if we sent humans to Mars, then kept them there that long because their mission was going well. Nor does Spencer mention that despite being hopelessly stuck in the sand, Spirit continues to gather scientific data and send it back to Earth. A little robot, designed to dig a hole in a couple rocks and look for water/fossils has exceeded every expectation of it. But let's remember it for where it finally came to rest, and call the result a failure of robotics.
And lest we forget...the other rover on Mars, Opportunity, is still driving around...having survived a year of dust storms in 2007, exceeded its 90-day mission life by 6 years, and traveling 20 miles across a desolate, rocky wasteland.
And I hate to mention Voyager 1, because it was a "satellite" and not necessarily a "robot" per se...but a satellite sent in 1977 to study Jupiter has now studied the entire outer solar system, and is the most distant human-made object in the galaxy, still doggedly sending data back to Earth on the heliosheath, the termination shock, and is expected to continue running until around 2025, nearly 50 years after it was launched.
No, Mr. Spencer, robots are not able to problem solve like humans can. But we sent a 400 lb. robot to Mars and it worked for 6 years with literally no supplies sent with it, or sent to it after it arrived. Could a human do that? Should a human do that? Why bother sending humans to explore other planets or stars, at the cost of billions, when we can send hundreds of robots instead, at a cost of mere millions?
I think there is actually more snow on the ground in Dallas, Texas than in Vancouver right now. Which actually makes perfect sense if you understand el Nino and la Nina weather patterns.
Friday, February 12, 2010
Julian Sanchez and Andrew Sullivan concur on the cleverness of Palin and the cluelessness of the Obama administration. Except … all this presupposes that the Obama administration wants Sarah Palin to go away. It does not!I remember during the 2008 campaign I imagined what it would be like if President Bush had debated Senator Obama. I clearly remember thinking "one of the worst public speakers ever to be elected President against one of the finest orators in a generation..." It would be equally fun to watch Palin try to make up lies faster than Obama could prove her wrong.
Palin is Obama’s preferred opponent. What is good for Palin is good for Obama. Of course the White House builds her up, of course it seems to play into Palin’s ink-stained hands! The White House is counting on those hands to deliver them in turn an easy romp to re-election.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
All the issues I typically enjoy writing about are either uninteresting or are not hot topics right now.
Maybe it's the weather.
Maybe I shouldn't worry. It's not like I need to keep my page views up at 11 million a month... Perhaps I should just relax and write when I feel like writing.
Monday, February 8, 2010
The reason for this lack of flash was fairly obvious: battery life. The iPad (and iPhone) rely on AT&T's 3G network for internet connectivity in any non-wi-fi locations. 3G internet browsing chugs battery life, and so it makes sense that by restricting flash, Apple decreases by a large percentage the amount of content a website will have to download to be viewed.
Unfortunately much of the video content on the web is also streamed through flash. There is a fix on the iPhone to watch Hulu, but it requires downloading the complete video before starting to play it, as opposed to just streaming it. For now, though, Apple is hesitant to add Flash to its mobile devices.
Google, on the other hand, released Android 2.1 on the Nexus One phone. Android 2.1 carries Flash 10.1 embedded! The Android 2.1 release is expected to trickle down to the Droid in the next couple weeks. At which point, I will write an app that starts streaming video anytime an iPhone is nearby.
Also this week, Google released their first multi-touch enabled version of Google Maps for Android, which is super handy. It is expected that the 2.1 rollout of Android for the Motorola Droid may include more multitouch capabilities than the iPhone!
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Thursday, February 4, 2010
A reader writes to me, questioning my love of fusion power:
Name one functioning fusion power plant (other than the sun), or even a prototype. Last I heard, we're still decades away from the first one.
Let's ignore that Bussard Fusion is nearly at positive yield, the Navy is on their 8th prototype of Polywell Fusion, and that a commercial plant is conceivable within 10 years.
Instead I want to focus on the core of this argument: "technology proposed does not exist, and possibly never will. Therefore, why fund research that will develop this technology?" Obviously I am not talking about warp drives or teleporters when I say this is a crummy, cynical sort of an argument. Should Benz have ignored the idea that a motor could be strapped to an axle via transmission and power people about town in an "automobile?" Because there was a day when any transport other than a horse or train seemed wildly far-fetched. And there was a day when atoms were the smallest things in the known universe. Should we have pulled funding on atomic structures, just because no one had yet proven that electrons and protons existed?
Teleportation, or faster-than-light travel, are topics I can understand cynicism because they require clear and concise violations of the laws of known physics. But right now I am writing this post near a window and that window has photons coming through it, sent here from a giant fusion reactor 8 light-minutes away, and somehow that fusion reactor is stable and continues to power the solar system. So its not like "fusion" is an impossible dream of science fiction. It's right outside, every day.
And it's not even that humans have never achieved fusion of their own. Although early nuclear weapons only achieved fission, many modern thermonuclear devices depend on fusion reactions inside their warhead for their intense destructive power.
And how often in history has a fundamental physical property/technology been first harnessed for war, and then tweaked for peace? Just think of jet engines...first developed at the end of World War II, and now innocuously used on thousands of passenger planes every day to ferry people about. But was there a time when jet engines, and planes in general, seemed impossibly far-fetched and a waste of government research dollars? Certainly. Aren't we glad that the naysayers weren't the ones with the final say?
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
This is the time of year where I feel the least attachment to the entertainment industry. It's just hard to support an enterprise so self-indulgent that they actually will broadcast themselves giving each other awards. I've ranted about this before. Why would I want to listen to musicians sing songs they did not write, and then accept "Best Song" awards as if they deserve credit? Watching a good movie is more understandable, but why would I want to watch those same actors accept awards for their skill at acting?
If the field of engineering did the same thing, we'd be considered wildly egomaniacal. Can you imagine a primetime television program every two weeks where engineers gave each other awards? "Tonight on CBS, the Fifteenth Annual Bridgey Awards! Hosted by Dean Kamen" and then Dean Kamen comes on and does some song and dance where he mentions buildings and devices that have been built throughout the year, and his song and dance includes the
But then again, the engineering industry doesn't depend on self-exposure for its livelihood. Hollywood must shove itself down our throats at every opportunity. Actors, musicians, and various cast must constantly get their faces out there, lest they be forgotten. The best way to do this is to act in movies, have concerts, release albums, star in commercials...but in order to increase that even further, they hold award shows for themselves at every opportunity. What other group of individuals has so many awards programs that recycle the same work? The Screen Actors Guild Awards, The Academy Awards, and The Golden Globes all shown on prime-time television all overlap awards for the same people for the same activities.
Notice, when you watch the Oscars, that many big name actors in the audience will get 2 second camera shots while someone else talks up on stage. "Oh look," the person at home watching the show thinks, "there's Ben Stiller enjoying Hugh Jackman's joke. I wonder if he has/had a movie coming out?" The answer is almost certainly yes. If you don't think agents/studios are forking over big money to get their stars in front of your face, you are hopelessly naive.
And why, the casual bystander might ask, "why have they increased "Best Picture" to ten nominees from the usual five? The simplest solution (which tends to be the right one) is so that later this year when the DVD's come out, instead of 4 there will be 9 DVD's that can say "nominated for Best Picture" on the case, and instead of 5 movie casts able to brag that they were in a movie nominated for Best Picture, now you will have 10. If you think the reason they increased the number of nominees is that more movies have a chance to win, you are hopelessly naive. The same number of movies will win; one per year.
Hollywood, it seems, depends on the audience to be hopelessly naive.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
But alas, TAE was wrong! Obama's budget, released yesterday, includes a massive 5.6% boost in funding for scientific research. This means Obama is proposing an unprecedented 61 billion dollars in funding.
Between Obama's lift on stem cell research, his boosting of science funding, and his obviously brilliant move to cut NASA funding for Moon exploration, I have to believe that even I, your humble author, could not produce smarter science policy. My hat is off to President Obama, and his top science advisor, John Holdren, for their intelligence. In 20 years, when America's science and technology dominance is once again waxing, we will look back and say that the pivot from Bush's backward-looking, Christianist agenda to Obama's open-minded embrace of the future was the start of it all.
Monday, February 1, 2010
Normally I try to ignore everything Mark Cuban does. At one point, I almost edited the wikipedia entry for "douchebag" and inserted his picture. But he makes a valid point in his op-ed for MSNBC:
You can book it right now that it will be the product that kids of this generation grow up with and look back on with affection just like we did with the first video games. Video games changed how we grew up. The iPad will change how kids today grow up.
With this, I can agree. Not to stroll down memory lane, but when I was a little kid, the Nintendo and Nintendo 64 were epic...until the GameBoy came along and changed everything. Suddenly you didn't have to be at home to game. Suddenly car rides with bored kids became car rides where the kids were silent the entire trip, glued to their GameBoy. Imitators popped up, and the portable gaming revolution was on!
Fast forward ten years, and we have cell phones suddenly making the jump to games. And then that market exploded with the iPhone, and now most phones have touchscreens, accelerometers, and games galore.
We may be at the cusp of a new youth gaming explosion. The iPad, as I mentioned before, is reaching a critical limit on size of a portable device; much bigger and it becomes just another tablet PC. But assuming it is small enough that kids love it, and assuming that all the gaming ferocity of the iPhone are channeled into the iPad...and then a cadre of imitators pop up...and suddenly you have the next generation of portable gaming, and here we are seeing it emerging!
Only, this time I'm not 10, or 15. I'm almost 30, and portable gaming is meaningless to me in my car because I am the daddy/driver. Portable gaming is meaningless to me elsewhere, because when do I ever have time to sit and just "game?"
The truth is, Cuban is right: this could be big for kids. Just as our generation is synonymous with cell phones and Facebook, the truth is that "our generation" is getting old, many of us too old to really, honestly, game. But how awesome would it be to be a ten-year-old right now? How sweet would it be to know you're going to grow into your teens with cell phones more powerful than the original Shuttle computer, with instant access to the internet literally anywhere you go? How amazing would it be to know that you can play a freshly downloaded game on a huge, gorgeous screen, whenever you take a trip? Or bored with your game, you could switch over to your expansive music collection, and download some new tunes off iTunes/torrent as you ride?
In other predictions, I predict my kids will be labeled as hopelessly dorky because their dad makes them go "camping." Not iCamping, some future app from Apple (it probably exists already). Actual, real camping.