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You'd better sit down.

top Angel7 April 02013, 21:18
Recently a few of us were having a conversation about the destruction caused by hurricanes, and a friend mentioned a nearby cemetery that had once been somewhat densely wooded but recently many of the trees had to be cut down due to hurricane damage. He went on to say that one of the trees had been carved into an impressive sculpture of an angel, which I thought was intriguing, so I went over one weekend to see it for myself.

There, near the entrance to the cemetery, was the carving. Tall and graceful, carved from the stump of what must have been a substantial tree, the angel has her hands clasped in prayer, with most of the cemetery behind her back, and a somewhat puzzling expression on her face. At first glance, it seems ... bored? Distasteful? You wonder: does she value her task of watching over the souls in this cemetery, or is her prayer just a habit, a way of marking time?

After a bit of contemplation I still couldn't shake the feeling that the angel seemed to regard this place with some contempt. I felt a bit off balance for it, but the weather was pleasant so I decided to spend a little more time there.

Every cemetery is filled with sad tales. Whenever a loved on dies, there is a deep sense of loss, the notion that they were taken too soon, a regret for things left unsaid and undone. These feelings are expressed in profound and ways and despite feeling a bit like a voyeur, or at best an uninvited guest in someone else's sorrow, I wandered from grave to grave, reading and wondering.

There were also several anonymous crosses; were they markers for unknown graves, lost to history over the last century?

Eventually I happened across a particularly heart-wrenching site:

This fallen gravestone, for some reason, was deeply touching. Here was a memorial, set among other markers for the same family, for a life lost before it was even named. Parents and grandparents were comfortingly close, perhaps closer now than they ever had the chance to be during the baby's short life.

This was not the only grave for an achingly young resident.

In a shaded corner, near the water, I found another particularly poignant memorial:

At this point I felt that I had trespassed for too long in the sacred spaces of others' lives; it was time to go. On the way out, I stopped again at the angel, to berate her for the uncaring attitude she seemed to hold.

But now the sun had come up some more, light and shadows had moved, and the angel's expression seemed to change.

Gone was the sullen look I had seen earlier; her face now had a plaintive expression. Her slender body seemed more fragile, twisted as if she was trying to shield herself, by her wings, against the horror of the loss behind her. Her shoulders sag as she struggles to carry the weight of the souls laid here; her expression is serious as she tries to direct her gaze and her prayers to heaven without blaming its keeper for the grief this place has surely seen. Placed to look over the family at her feet, she has taken on the burden of dozens of others.

top Flickr16 December 02012, 20:09
I have a Flickr account now. Eh. Douglas Adams said a profound thing:
  1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things
I feel like I'm rapidly approaching #3. Anyway, the Flickr photostream is here.
top 12v.org14 December 02012, 19:24
Somehow, I'm still paying the DNS fees for 12v.org. I don't mind it. If I win the lottery, I'm going to buy a few old 12v Audis, wrestle the site back from EDIGREG, and have lots more fun.
top Oops2 July 02012, 12:35
"More" buttons were broken, I think for a while. Fixed now. It's what I get for never posting anymore.
top In defense of the Shuttle22 July 02011, 12:22
Amos Zeeberg wrote an essay published at Discover Magazine that takes a critical view of the Space Shuttle.

It's probably obvious that I'm a big fan of the Shuttle program. And in these blinkered times, it's not really unusual to see such one-sided criticism in places that would normally be forums for reasonable discussion. But it is a bit disheartening to see people like Phil Plait, who normally strikes me as a smart and reasonable person, refer to such an article as "fair." So I feel compelled to respond to some of the less reasonable things that Amos says:

Now that Atlantis is safely on the ground and astronauts will never again face the risk of flying in a space shuttle, maybe we can at last take a clear-eyed look at this disappointing episode in our nation's history.

Well, he starts out swinging. At least we know what his view on the matter is. He seems to feel that space travel is perfectly safe in other vehicles. He ignores, for example, the Soyuz program's two missions that ended in loss of crew: Soyuz 1 (1967) and Soyuz 11 (1971). So statistically, the Soyuz program has lost 2 out of 110 missions (1.82%) and the Shuttle program lost 2 out of 135 (1.48%). Which makes the Shuttle a safer vehicle, statistically. But this also brings up a more philosophical point: exploration has always been a dangerous matter and people have always died in those efforts. If we choose not to explore space because it's risky, we fail. As for disappointment, that single notion leads me to not take anything this guy says seriously. To call the program a disappointment completely ignores the scientific and technological advances that came out of the Shuttle program. Plenty of people have been discussing those lately. I mentioned it briefly here.

The most important thing to realize about the space shuttle program is that it is objectively a failure. The shuttle was billed as a reusable craft that could frequently, safely, and cheaply bring people and payloads to low Earth orbit. NASA originally said the shuttles could handle 65 launches per year; the most launches it actually did in a year was nine; over the life of the program, it averaged five per year.

Here he develops his own set of criteria and then dismisses the program as a failure based on it not living up to those criteria. Yes, the Shuttle fleet did not fly as often as was originally promised. Yes, it cost more than was originally promised. A lot has been said about the costs and it's likely that the original cost estimates were overly optimistic with the goal of getting the program funded at all. As for the number of launches, though it didn't launch as many times as Amos would have liked, it did launch 135 times over 31 years for an average of just over 4 launches/year (including the couple of years that were skipped after the losses of Challenger and Columbia). Compare that to just 110 Soyuz launches over 45 years, just under 2.5 launches/year. The Shuttle also fits more than double the crew as a Soyuz, so more people have flown in Shuttles as well (852 vs 258: >3 times as many people). In the last decade, there were 28 Shuttle launches and 24 Soyuz launches. And again, the Shuttle program had other goals that are harder to quantify: a return on investment with scientific and technological achievement. Oh, but we're ignoring those points.

The failure rate was two out of 135 in the tests that matter most.

Again ignoring the competition, which (by the same test) fares worse. That is not to be flippant about the deaths of Shuttle crews, only to point out that objectively it's no MORE dangerous than other crewed spacecraft.

It seems likely, in retrospect, that the project was doomed for a variety of reasons, including the challenging reusable spaceplane design and the huge range of often conflicting demands on the craft.

The Shuttle Orbiter was a more complex spacecraft than any other. But the "huge range of often conflicting demands" was made possible by that complexity. The Shuttle Orbiter made many things possible that are still not possible with any other spacecraft, existing or in development. So rather than "dooming" the project, these demands were making use of available features. If NASA had decided, for example, not to use the Orbiter's airlock to allow multiple crew members to perform EVAs while other crew members were in a shirt-sleeve environment, that would have been a failure. Oh, that's something that no other current spacecraft can do (other than the ISS, of course).

Tellingly, the U.S. space program is abandoning spaceplanes and going back to Apollo-style rockets. The Russians have always relied on cheaper and more reliable disposable rockets; China plans to do the same.

My personal view (which I don't present as fact, unlike Amos) is that going back to a capsule design is a step backwards; it is a demonstration of uncreative simple-mindedness and lack of vision. Have we abandoned the quest for innovation that drives us to do more than just copying others?

According to reports after the Challenger disaster, the ship exploded because of a faulty joint that included an O-ring hardened by especially cold conditions before launch.

Actually the "ship" didn't explode. That's probably an important point.

More importantly, this was far from an isolated problem, as illustrated by a report by Richard Feynman. Feynman slammed not only the O-ring error but the entire process of building and testing the shuttle, plus the management style and decision-making of NASA, for good measure.

Anyone who claims to speak authoritatively about the Challenger disaster should read Diane Vaughan's The Challenger Launch Decision. In it we learn that the Feynman's ranting conclusions were coached, based on incomplete information, and not really fair. Amos goes on to quote reliability statistics, which is always a fool's errand (and, by his own argument, not the "tests that matter").

So it was clear, as far back as 1986, that the shuttle was an objective failure judged by its own goals.

No, the Shuttle program was a failure judged by your standards. Let's keep that straight.

The shuttle also failed a more basic, primal test: it's just not that cool.

This is clearly a subjective argument, but I completely disagree here and I would guess that most school children would as well. How would you compare the "coolness" of the Shuttle to that of a capsule, which crams its occupants into a tiny, undignified box while orbiting the planet in boring stillness? What of the graceful acrobatics of the Orbiter in space, and its gliding return? The Shuttle's remote manipulator is pretty cool as well. Soyuz capsules are fitted with a firearm so that returning crews can defend themselves against bears after untangling themselves from its parachutes. How is that cooler? He points out that the purpose of putting humans into space is to explore. While the Orbiter could not leave Earth orbit, it does enable exploration by means of probes and telescopes. It allowed us to explore Earth as well, by creating (at the time) the most accurate and detailed maps of the Earth's surface to date. It enabled the creation of the ISS, which serves as a learning platform so that we can learn how to design missions and hardware suitable for long-term crewed missions (I'm sure Amos feels this is a waste too).

Ask anybody who was never tempted to go to Space Camp what the shuttle's accomplished since fixing the Hubble in 1993.

Willful ignorance does not make a convincing argument.

Perhaps worst of all, the shuttle not only failed its own mission but prevented NASA from doing much else.

Politics and money prevented NASA from doing much else. The Shuttle program was expensive, but a significant portion of the expense was the waste inherent in any government program. NASA could have used the Shuttle's capabilities to construct and launch a true spacecraft (one that stays in space) for planetary exploration. They didn't. That is a failure, but it's a failure of NASA and the public (as Amos alludes to in the beginning) - not of the Shuttle program.

Instead, we'll have to bum rides on the old, cheap, and dependable Russian Soyuz, which is galling not only because it highlights what a flop the shuttle was, but also because the space program still has an anachronistic whiff of the Cold War about it.

The Soyuz program may be "old" but the Soyuz craft have undergone several major revisions. More than the Shuttle program, but that's because the Soviet and post-Soviet governments have cared to spend resources to improve it. As for "dependable" - shall I bring up statistics again? Maybe you could do a little basic research before you call the Soyuz program dependable.

OK, so Amos has clearly constructed an opinion piece, and everyone is entitled to their opinions (even ill-informed ones). But it's extremely disappointing to see such a poorly researched, one-sided essay posted on Discover. We should always welcome dissenting opinions and consider all rational arguments, but this sort of essay does not belong in a publication aimed at an intelligent audience.
top All Good Things20 July 02011, 21:15
After the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost in 2003, Robert Crippen gave a moving eulogy that was as much about the Orbiter as it was about the crew. In the process, he revealed a truth that you won't learn in school: engineering isn't just about cobbling something together from a collection of pieces and clever ideas - it's art; it's creation. For many, it's creation in a profound sense: an engineer designing a spacecraft or other complex engine puts blood, sweat, tears, and a little bit of their soul into their project - their creation.

When Crippen spoke at the Columbia memorial service held at the Kennedy Space Center, he told a moving story of the final mission. Columbia "struggled mightily in those last moments to bring her crew home once again. She wasn't successful. [...] She, along with the Crew, had her life snuffed out while in her prime." Columbia wasn't a piece of equipment used by astronauts to do their jobs; she was another one of the crew, struggling against an injury she would eventually succumb to.

Columbia as he described her was not a machine with 2.5 million parts - she was a being, with a heart, a soul, and a desire to escort her occupants safely and comfortably on their shared mission. The Space Shuttles are beloved members of a team of thousands, who dedicate their lives to the awesome feat of lifting humanity from the surface of the planet and bringing them safely back. And like the human team members, each spaceship has her own strengths, weaknesses, quirks, failings, and triumphs - each has her own personality that is endearing to her friends, if baffling to outsiders. Sounds a bit like you and me.

Crippen wasn't the only one to become attached to a mechanical thing. If you talk to Steven Squyres about the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, you'd think he was talking about his own children. "Spirit is our firstborn. [...] Opportunity is not as quirky ... Spirit was always our 'problem child.'" Many news articles about Spirit's recent demise read like eulogies for any human: "The cause of death appears to be hypothermia [...] Spirit lived a long, full and extremely productive life." The rover had a face and a body and a perpetually curious pose that inspired many to imagine its soul. An official eulogy for Spirit was given this month by John Callas, the manager of the Mars Exploration Project. He described a lifetime of struggles for the rover, who toiled for our sake: "Spirit escaped the volcanic plains of Gusev Crater, mountaineer-ed up the Columbia Hills, survived three cold, dark Martian winters and two rover-killing dust storms, and surmounted debilitating hardware malfunctions. But out of this adversity, she made the most striking scientific discoveries that have forever changed our understanding of the Red Planet."

John Callas said something else profound in the eulogy: "let's also remember that Spirit's great accomplishments did not come at the expense of some vanquished foe or by outscoring some opponent. Spirit did this, we did this - to explore, to discover, to learn - for the benefit of all humankind. In that respect, these rovers represent the highest aspiration of our species."

This brings me back to the Shuttles, and what we lose after Atlantis lands in a few hours. The Shuttle fleet served us in many ways - it was a vital tool for constructing the International Space Station; it made science instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope possible; it was itself a platform for scientific research; it was even a vehicle of diplomacy. Its use and development resulted in hundreds of spinoffs that we unwittingly take for granted.

The Shuttle's grace and capability also inspired an entire generation. This was not our parents' lump of a space capsule, confining its crew in a single cramped compartment. The best efforts of the previous decades brought forth geometric shapes that orbited the earth in uninspired stillness and landed in a tangle of parachutes to be fished out of the ocean or dragged off an icy field. With the Orbiters we tamed complexity and created something to be proud of. In addition to their unmatched capabilities as spacecraft, in each mission the Orbiter would put on a show as it performed graceful acrobatics in space and then landed on its feet, panting and steaming but ready to take the trip again. The Shuttle fleet was a symbol of American ingenuity and creativity, and even as its missions started to seem mundane its form became familiar as what a spacecraft of the future might look like.

Though they were sometimes used as tools for military or diplomatic use, the Shuttles were at their core vehicles of science and exploration. They too represented humanity's ideals and aspirations - they were built to help us understand our planet, our bodies, the cosmos, and our relationship with it. With the Orbiters we mapped parts of the Earth that were previously unmappable; we launched telescopes and probes to explore our solar system and they universe beyond it; we demonstrated true human cooperation by assembling an International Space Station. We did all this not as contestants in a race, but as people engaged in the responsible application of the technological and scientific resources of our country. The Shuttles demonstrated to the world that we could do anything, but we chose to do good.

The Orbiters themselves were a bit needy. Each one required an army of engineers, technicians, and specialists for maintenance, diagnosis, and repair before and after each flight. With unique personalities came unique problems, and their vast complexity was sometimes aggravating and expensive. Lack of understanding and respect for this complexity twice led to tragedy, but (as engineering disasters always do) each tragedy led to better understanding, further innovation, and safer vehicles. But the loss of Columbia in 2003 was too much to bear for a country at war that was shrinking from risk and wary of open-ended investment, and though the Shuttles flew for years after a short period of introspection, political and social pressures at the time ultimately led to today's scheduled retirement of the fleet.

When Atlantis lands it will not be the end of human spaceflight, in America or anywhere else. Several corporations in this country are creating spacecraft of their own to take satellites, cargo, and crews to Earth orbit. NASA is tasked (perhaps unconvincingly) with creating a new crewed spacecraft for exploration. Russia is maintaining its ability to launch cargo and crew, China has a budding human spaceflight program, and other countries are well on their way to achieving human spaceflight with their own craft. As the American west was won, Earth orbit has ceased to be a frontier and is becoming a place of expansion, enterprise, and opportunity.

When the last Orbiter is retired an important and storied program will come to an end. Thousands of people have dedicated their careers to the Shuttle program; they've watched it through tragedy and triumph, fault and accomplishment; they have developed intense feelings and connections to co-workers, communities, and the vehicles under their care. Many will lose their jobs at a time when the country's economy is already struggling. America will lose a decades-old symbol of pride and accomplishment that has not been surpassed (or even successfully imitated) by any other country. But as heartbreaking as this is, all things must come to an end and we must accept that and move on.

That's what we're supposed to say, right? There are even those who are glad to see the Shuttles go; people who feel that they kept us tethered to Earth orbit when we could have been exploring far beyond it. But it's hard not to feel a little empty right now. To dismiss the Shuttle program is to overlook decades of invention, accomplishment, and discovery. We are losing our best and brightest stars - they will be relegated to dusty museums, reminders of past glory for our divided country.

Sometimes the story doesn't have a happy ending. For those who worked to build, maintain, and operate the fleet, dear friends are being taken away and there is real pain that outsiders fail to understand or appreciate. For those who have been inspired by the Shuttles, it is a profound loss because there is nothing so pure to replace it. Now we are left waiting for our political class to unite around a plan for NASA that provides appropriate vision and adequate funding for a worthy successor to the Space Shuttle program, so that we may create, explore, and be inspired again.
top I can haz duct tape?30 June 02011, 18:11
I stumbled across this today while surfing the web at random. I'm still not sure if it was OK to get those photos posted on the web.
top Buckaroo Banzai26 June 02011, 10:26
Last week a co-worker loaned me a copy of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and I watched it yesterday.

If you're in the mood for a great 80s flashback movie, this is it. Buckaroo Banzai has it all: before-they-were-famous actors and crew; a group of gun-toting, hard-rocking scientists; a heroine named Penny Priddy; a wondrous technological marvel that looks vaguely like a flux capacitor; a jet-powered Ford that looks vaguely like the Space Shuttle; a choreographed musical scene at the end; serious use of the phrase "wherever you go, there you are."

Great fun if you can track it down.
top Smart meters11 June 02011, 23:54
My local power company installed a smart electric meter at my house recently. Now, by going to https://www.smartmetertexas.com/CAP/public/ I can see my electricity usage down to 15 minute intervals. It's really neat stuff, and my usage doesn't look at all like I expected it to. This is really cool data and I think I can actually use it to lower the amount of electricity I use.

If you've got a smart meter at your house, it's totally worth checking out your usage. Even if you don't want to nerd out and start making fancy graphs and calculating trends, you can see how your house behaves while you're gone, and maybe save a few bucks on your electric bill.
top Worshiping the wrong heroes5 May 02011, 20:43
Charles Bolden put out a statement today on the 50th anniversary of American human spaceflight. It begins (emphasis added):

May 5, 1961 was a good day. When Alan Shepard launched toward the stars that day, no American had ever done so, and the world waited on pins and needles praying for a good outcome. The flight was a great success, and on the strength of Shepard's accomplishment, NASA built the leadership role in human spaceflight that we have held ever since.

I was a teenager at the time and just sorting out the field of study I wanted to pursue. Though I never dared dream it growing up in segregated South Carolina, I was proud to follow in Alan's footsteps several years later and become a test pilot myself. The experiences I've had would not have been possible without Alan's pioneering efforts. The inspiration that has created generations of leaders to enlarge our understanding of our universe and to strive toward the highest in human potential was sparked by those early achievements of our space program. They began with Freedom 7 and a daring test pilot who flew the ultimate experimental vehicle that May day 50 years ago.

Giving astronauts full credit for the accomplishments of NASA's human spaceflight program is nothing new. Many people (including people who work at NASA, and should really know better) view astronauts as a superhuman species, whose wisdom, wit, talent, and general prowess are the foundation of NASA's accomplishments. I'm fairly certain that most astronauts, at one level or another, believe this too. This notion has led to the corruption of the (already slanted) phrase "no bucks, no Buck Rogers" to the (even more slanted) phrase "no Buck Rogers, no bucks" - implying that without hugely egotistical military aviators as spokesmen, NASA has no hope of funding its programs. Wonderful.

And that's why it's not surprising to hear someone give such wide-ranging credit to Alan Shepard, who wasn't an engineer or a scientist, for NASA's first manned suborbital flight.

But it does hurt a bit when that someone is NASA's administrator - even if he was also an astronaut. I've mentioned in the past, and will surely bring up again in the future, the roles I think astronauts and engineers play (and should play) at NASA. At a time when we're trying to find ways to encourage more students to pursue STEM careers, leaders at all levels do themselves (and the rest of us) a disservice by failing to address the fact that a STEM career will not bring you any glory (or even much recognition for good work), will not make you rich (or even moderately wealthy), and will not make yours a household name (face it; the odds are really against that one). By giving such fawning attention to Alan Shepard, Bolden minimizes the real, profound, backbreaking efforts of thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians who actually made the flight possible.

So on this, the 50th anniversary of NASA's first manned suborbital flight, let's also recognize the people who actually made it possible: the thousands of smart people who worked long hours under stressful conditions to send some test pilot into space, and (probably against their better judgement) bring him back safely. It was your pioneering efforts that inspired many of us to pursue engineering and follow in your footsteps. You may not have inspired Charlie Bolden, but you did inspire me. I hope that counts for something.
top Uninformed alarmism23 March 02011, 12:26
I don't normally read this blog but the safety guy at work posted a link to a post on it that really got on my nerves. So a few comments on it: (I apologize that you'll need to read the ranting of the original post for this to make sense. Update: I submitted a comment to the blog post as well; they apparently didn't feel the need to post it. Ah well.)

1) The title of the post makes it seem like there's some sinister plot by the FAA to dupe and potentially injure air travelers, which doesn't seem to be the case if you actually read the Directive.

2) If you search Google for AD 2011-04-09, the first link you get is the FAA's public posting of the Directive, on their web site. I'm not sure why the actual Directive wasn't attached or linked to (probably because it doesn't support the poster's argument) but it is easily accessed.

3) The post suggests that the oxygen supply is removed but the mask is stowed as if it will still work, and there will be no notification to passengers. This is not necessarily the case, and even the single sentence paraphrased in the post tells how the actual response by airlines might be different. What the Directive does is allows the airline to remove the safety hazard (of the chemical oxygen generator) without making potentially significant modifications to their aircraft. The Directive doesn't instruct the airlines to re-stow inoperative air masks; it gives them the option of re-stowing or removing them. The access panel is generally hinged, so the options are to close it, leave it hanging open, or removing it; removing it would result in an unsightly hole in the ceiling that would give passengers a potential interface to tamper with the aircraft (or injure themselves). Just closing the door means that the airlines can easily comply with the Directive without having to make big modifications their aircraft. Passenger notification is not addressed in the Directive but that doesn't preclude flight attendants from noting the modification during the pre-flight safety presentation. Modifying an aircraft involves a lot of regulatory requirements that make modifications an expensive and time-consuming process. Directives are written with the intent of maintaining the safest possible air travel environment without creating an unreasonable burden for airlines and aircraft manufacturers. When the FAA mandated that all commercial flights in the country be non-smoking, they didn't require airlines to remove ashtrays from the seats; airlines and aircraft manufacturers have made those modifications at their convenience.

4) The post suggests that the airlines are allowed to make this modification in order to save cost and weight. Even a perfunctory reading of the Directive reveals that the airlines are required to take this action because the chemical oxygen generators in lavatories pose a specific safety risk that the FAA has deemed unacceptable. The option of expending the canisters saves no weight.

5) The post makes a big deal of the "time of useful consciousness" at various altitudes. What it omits is the fact that while an oxygen-poor atmosphere may cause you to lose consciousness and wake up with a nasty headache, commercial aircraft don't reach altitudes where the low oxygen concentration poses an immediate health risk to most passengers. The flight crews of aircraft have canisters of breathing air (not chemical oxygen generators) so that they can continue operating the aircraft and oversee passenger safety during a depressurization event. Passengers have oxygen masks so that most of them will stay conscious during the event so that they can evacuate the aircraft once it lands (or crashes). It is not assumed that every passenger will be able to help themselves; flight crews (and fellow passengers) assist those who are incapacitated. In this vein, the Directive instructs flight crews to check the lavatories in the event of cabin depressurization in case someone was inside (another overlooked detail).

The actual news here (that there is no longer emergency oxygen in commercial aircraft lavatories) is nearly lost in the zeal to accuse the FAA of compromising passenger safety in the name of cost savings for airlines. I'm not sure how that's helpful to anyone.
top The Wrong Stuff27 February 02011, 9:11
I just saw this article discussing the challenges of returning from Mars.

Returning from Mars is a large engineering problem that's independent from most (not all) aspects of getting there, and it's a good idea to start pondering the problem even though a specific mission architecture hasn't been agreed on.

What's sad is that ATK, Lockheed, and Grumman were NASA's choices. This is the root of many of NASA's problems: an inability to divorce itself from the lumbering herbivores that have grown (over the last 5 decades) to define the agency. Corporate behemoths like the ones named here (and several others) are where good ideas and creative thinkers go to die. Tiny organizations have great ideas and accomplish amazing things with limited resources - this is the essence of engineering, and that type of thinking and motivation is what got us to the moon originally (yes, I realize that it was the same contractors back then. That was 40 years ago). Now, NASA meets its small business goals by having large contractors subcontract work to small companies.

How does this manifest itself? A couple of examples:
1) I work on a NASA contract that is run by a very large contractor. When said large contractor bid on the contract, they made small businesses an integral part of the contract by getting half a dozen small companies to be "teammates." These teammates don't contribute their small corporate culture to the contract; in some cases I would say that their corporate culture has been killed by the relationship. Instead, new employees are assigned to either the large contractor or one of the smaller ones when they are hired. The only difference between a project engineer employed by contractor A or B is what company writes the paycheck, and a couple of layers of management. Every day, I have to complete 2 timesheets - one for the prime contractor, and one for my teammate. If I want to take a day off, I have to alert my project manager and section manager (prime contractor), local manager and teammate principal (my teammate), and my NASA customer. Yes, 5 bosses.
2) If I want to buy a widget from a large company, I submit an order to the purchasing people. They see that the order is to a large company, so they instead submit the order to a small/disadvantaged/minority or woman-owned company that exists solely to place my order, add a markup, and then sell it to my contractor. I get the part I asked for, but a couple of days later and 15% more expensive.

This is how the large contractors think, and they are consistently rewarded for these inefficiencies and the hundred other examples of syphilitic idiocy they dream up each day. One lesson presented by the Orion program (I no longer refer to "lessons learned" because it's clear that we learn nothing) is that the large contractors preserve their profit margins by re-using as much of their aging junk as possible, because innovation takes time and energy. Thus the "high-tech" glass cockpit of Orion was going to use LCD displays that were obsolete before PDR, because that's what the large contractor tasked with making them had lying around.

I'm sure that given enough time and money, this set of contractors could make a functional crew return vehicle for a Mars mission. But what are the odds that they can make an excellent crew return vehicle?
top Trying this again22 February 02011, 22:44
I'm leaving for Florida in the morning to watch STS-133. I've got a good feeling about it this time ...
top Right, the 2012 budget.15 February 02011, 20:27
Not that we've gotten a 2011 budget. So business as usual at NASA, including those whose projects got dumped at the end of last fiscal year (I hope you're still with us!).

Engineers at NASA: hang in there. Reversal of fortunes is an everyday occurrence around here; engineers and scientists who work for the government make progress long term by making sure that good ideas remain in a state of viable dormancy during periods of starvation. It works for bacterial spores, and it seems to work for us.
top We live in interesting times13 February 02011, 19:50
Consecutive posts on NASA Watch: House Appropriators Pull Out The Knives, then Just When You Thought No One At NASA Was Thinking Ahead.


There's really no shortage of smart people and great ideas at NASA. Some ideas are small in scope; they may result in better efficiency, higher reliability, or more convenience (many have much larger potential in the realm of technology spinoffs). These get lost in the depths of the shortsighted and risk-averse management structure of any given center. Bigger ideas die because big ideas require funding from congress, which is clearly not going to happen.

It would be nice to live in a world where public policy was actually set with the public's interests in mind. Maybe someday Kepler will find one.
top NASA needs more idealists5 February 02011, 22:33
It's fair to say that I'm full of ideas. They aren't all good, and they aren't all original, but I like to think ahead and imagine possibilities. It's why I enjoy science fiction, and it's why I wanted to work at NASA. I always assumed that at NASA, I would be less likely to be told that my ideas were too "out there," since "out there" is NASA's business.

What I found when I got here is that "out there" is indeed a problem: NASA's business is in satisficing. It's an underfunded federal jobs program meant to keep huge government contractors in business, not the bastion of high-risk, high-yield research and development that I had envisioned.

This comes up because of a conversation I had the other day with an "old timer" civil servant (he's not that old, but he has been at NASA for much longer than me). I went to him seeking some advice on a politically expedient way of pitching a proposal that might be construed as stepping on someone's toes. What I was proposing would replace a system that we're about to fly with something that's best described as TRL 4, 5 tops. It's something that a few people were having great success with at Ames Research Center about a decade ago, until a budget cut killed the project; it has languished since then. My idea involved taking the research from Ames and applying it to our project in a much more elegant and useful way than what we're flying.

The outcome of the conversation was twofold:

1) "Working with Ames" is out of the question; they're already trying (with some success) to take control of this project from JSC; we recently got "screwed" by them and the project managers here would probably laugh at me if I proposed working with Ames. It would be much more productive to just do the work on our own, reinventing the wheel as necessary, and leaving the outcome as a surprise lest Ames take more of our project (and budget).

2) What we have is Good Enough. "Better is often the enemy of good." It's been said before, and in many cases I agree. In this case I don't. But he brought up a good point that's valid at NASA, even though it shouldn't be: if you want to replace something that works (to some degree), you've got to convince someone with resources why it's bad. You have to have a Wrong that needs to be Righted, and management has to agree with your Wrongs. If you can't convince the right people that it's Wrong, then either it isn't Wrong, or this isn't the time to change it (I would have to wait until different people, who can be convinced, are in charge).

On the surface, #1 is appalling and #2 is reasonable. But if you think for a bit about where we are, #1 is even more appalling, and #2 becomes pathetic. I won't address #1 because it speaks for itself.

#2 comes back to satisficing. What I was told by my elder (whom I'm supposed to respect) is that it's proper to settle for "good enough." His point was that good ideas abound, but personal interests and politics will always prevail so you have to work within the system, because radical change only has a chance in the face of abject failure. As unpleasant as the thought may sound to a budding engineer, it is exactly how we work at NASA. ISS crews are faced with a staggering array of workarounds, "known bugs," and poor designs that are flown to the station because they meet a schedule, not because they are good. And once hardware has flown, it becomes even harder to make drastic changes, because so many resources were already expended to get the existing stuff up to the Station. What I'm doing now is no different - I'm working to fly hardware and software, purchased or developed at taxpayer expense, that will probably never work well, but will probably be in use for a decade or more because it's "good enough." The alternative - a year or two of R&D into a technology that has profound spinoff potential [1] - is a good idea, but there aren't enough Wrongs to justify pushing it now.

America chose to go to the moon not because it was easy, but because it was hard. Today, we choose NOT to go to the moon, because it's too hard. We choose to go to Mars, maybe, but using the architecture of the Apollo program because new ideas are too hard. We choose workarounds over rework for the ISS program; not because rework is more expensive but because workarounds are easier politically (and - on a cost-plus contract - more profitable).

This is the attitude that must change for us to progress. NASA is full of bright people who are in tune with the political realities of "how things work" at NASA. It's easy to find someone who will explain that each center competes against all others, which is why we can't cooperate with them. What we need instead is a NASA full of idealists, people who are impractical and who reject political expedience in favor of radical ideas and the high-risk, high-reward research that will lift humanity from this fragile oasis. NASA is full of people who are more than happy to tell a young engineer why "you can't do that." But humanity is most successful when it decides to challenge the odds and tackle the insurmountable - there should be no place for naysayers at NASA.

Progress has never been easy. The preface to The Modern System of Naval Architecture, published in the late 1800s, reads:
We the passing generation have had to grope our way out of the dark slowly and painfully, with trial and error. But what has to be pardoned to us can no longer be pardoned to our successors, to whom we bequeath the costly knowledge and painful experiences that have cost us so dear, but which we have gladly earned, and now painstakingly contribute for their instruction, and the advancement of their future.
These are profound words from an intense era of discovery and invention, and I think that the engineers who created the Apollo spacecraft would agree with the sentiment. What we must do now is demonstrate that we carry their banner in good faith: we do not rest on our laurels and wallow in the ease of precedent; we build on their successes, learn from their failures and ours, and our achievements are beyond their wildest imaginations. We must measure by reward, not just risk, and act accordingly. To do less is to resign ourselves to mediocrity - and that is not acceptable.

[1] What are the spinoffs? Prosthetic limbs that work like real ones. More responsive controls for cars, control rooms, airplanes, and spacecraft. Improved medical monitoring. Probably more.
top Why STS-133 was scrubbed9 November 02010, 20:27
We know the official reasons for the series of STS-133 launch scrubs last week. Weather, anomalous readings, and finally the hydrogen leak and subsequently noticed foam/ice issue.

Those things seem pretty familiar. On the surface, they're reasonable. Funny electrical readings - certainly a problem. A leaking hydrogen valve - certainly a problem. And we all know what foam and ice can do to an Orbiter.

What's not mentioned is why those problems occur. Sure, there will be investigations and "root cause" analysis (a ridiculous pursuit with a worthless conclusion) but I think a lot of people miss the deeper issues at hand.

The Shuttle fleet has been flying for almost 30 years. In that time, the STS has undergone a couple of major overhauls, with weight reductions and technology improvements. But something has been missed in the 3 decades of operation: continuous, incremental improvements.

Shall I be charitable? Fine. There have been some incremental technology improvements and there have been some process improvements. But not really to the degree there should have been. The reason is simple and not uncommon in big organizations, but disappointing nonetheless: the Shuttle program suffers from a shortsighted institutional inertia.

The inertia manifests itself in a simple way: when people find small problems, inefficiencies, or parts that could be improved, there is generally no action taken. People can submit various types of requests, e-mail their managers, and so on, but the end result tends to be the same - you can't just make changes; the certification process is too expensive and time consuming, the risks are too high, the problems aren't bad enough to justify the expenditures. Operational workarounds are always viewed as cheaper than actually fixing problems. The result is a state of perpetual glitch - known problems, huge binders full of procedures and workarounds, an over-reliance on collegial knowledge. Because change is difficult, maybe even a bit scary, it is not undertaken. Changes that could result in workforce reductions are especially scary and unusual. When looking at an individual improvement, it's not such a big deal. A penny here, a penny there. We can't do them all. But en masse, the missed opportunities represent a significant cost to the program.

The result is a spacecraft and program that despite being fantastic, earn their reputations as unreliable, expensive, and inefficient.

Smart people at NASA are thwarted by layers of management who are afraid to take risks, unwilling to defend good ideas, and unable to drive improvements. This is why STS-133 was scrubbed.
top Losing the future27 October 02010, 22:56
Tonight's post is highly metaphorical, and also highly literal.

Let me explain.

I just got a new cell phone. It's something I tend to do every couple of years, on the off-year of getting a new job. What's special this time around is that I didn't get a new job, only a new phone. Is that special? I'm not sure.

Anyway. It was time to get a new phone. My existing phone, a Nokia N97, had just been getting to the point where it was reliable, then a software update pushed from Nokia had rendered it brickworthy. So rather than re-fixing a broken carriage, I opted to get a new phone, an N8.

Nokia seemed to view the N8 as its savior. It had hardware features beyond its competitor's wild dreams, including its showcase 12 megapixel camera - which put even regular digital point-and-shoot cameras to shame. Other features, such as its polarized OLED screen, set it apart from its competitors. On paper, it looked good.

So I bought it. Did I tell my friends that I bought it? No - who, in this country, admits to paying $600 for a phone? Not me. I claimed to have won it in a lottery. Don't tell Jess!

Anyway. As far as anyone was concerned, I was the proud new owner of this expensive phone. And a wonderful phone it was, except for the other part I didn't tell anyone - sometimes it turned off, by itself, and refused to be turned on for a while. Maybe 30 minutes. Maybe an hour, or more. Or never, said some people online, but I didn't believe that.

Until today - when the horrible truth comes out. I spent $600 of Bank of America's money (surely not my own - I didn't have it) on a fancy new phone, only to find out that it makes a poor doorstop and not much else.

I defend it online, in principle. After all - Nokia spends more on R&D in a year than most US companies will ever make, ever. But the sad fact is that with all of that spending, they still can't make a phone that just ... works. As a phone.

Why is this article called "losing the future?"

Hint: it's not about Nokia.

Hint: it's not about Lenovo, Microsoft, or Firefox; the combination of which can't make me a reliable, responsive platform for my venting.

It's about us. About you and me, and our views of the future.

Here's the deal.
top JSC's biggest metaphor is engulfed in flames16 October 02010, 0:29
The Outpost tavern apparently burned down tonight.

Let me rephrase that.

The remains of the Outpost tavern, which had been balanced precariously on cinder blocks and scrap lumber for the last several months, apparently burned down tonight.

Let me rephrase further.

Another aging NASA institution died tonight.

Rest In Peace, The Outpost. Does this mean we can we get on with exploring?

Here's what I mean. The Outpost was an icon of the previous generation of NASA - test pilots, rough-and-tumble guys who blazed trails into outer space with their grit and determination. Or so the story went - when you delve deeper into the details, you find out that really it wasn't their grit at all - the Right Stuff that we all know so much about really had very little to do with humanity reaching space. The world, America, even NASA allowed the myth to continue because it made much better press - some superhuman beings stretched us from the ordinary to the extraordinary. To glamorize the engineers who actually made it happen: how boring!

Unfortunately, that view was allowed to persist long after it was useful. Today's NASA is hampered by many forces; one of the most detrimental is the crew office. The crew office is the greatest bastion of the Space Ego, where test pilots, sports heroes, and other mythical creatures can take refuge in perceived greatness. As we look beyond the moon for space missions, we are forced to accommodate "pilots" in our spacecraft, even though very little piloting is required - otherwise the crew is reduced to "Spam in a can."

Consider that phrase. It's used up by many astronauts who resent the idea of being a passenger in a vehicle being launched from Earth to Earth Orbit - after all, what is an Astronaut if He is not In Charge? An automated vehicle that deposits its crew and cargo into space is hardly worth the Bucks that Buck Rogers requires - Bucks must be spent to allow Buck to maintain his control!

But that's a waste. Any military aviator will tell you that modern military jets are not controlled by pilots - pilots merely suggest direction for the aircraft, and the aircraft does what it must. "Lieutenant Proof," they call them - aircraft so much smarter than their pilots that they can please all parties: they can correct for human hubris while still exciting their human cargo (excuse me: pilots).

The Outpost Tavern was an icon of 1970s and 1980s NASA. It was an Astronaut hangout; a place where the ordinary engineers who worked at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX could rub elbows with the elite of the elite - the ones who enabled the Space Age by actually going into space. Those extraordinary men (so few women) went to space riding the contrails of the mighty Space Shuttle (recently fallen out of favor, sometimes) into the vast unknown void of ... Earth orbit. The GPS satellites that allow Google to tell us so much about ourselves and our destinies are at a higher orbit than most of the Shuttle missions reached. We omit that part from the epic stories we leave behind, because it fails to do justice to the heroism of our sainted ... pilots.

I work at NASA. I've wanted to work at NASA since I was in elementary school. It wasn't because I wanted to be an astronaut - I did, of course, and I still do, but there was something different - I wanted to be an Engineer at NASA. It was a weird quirk for a weird kid, I guess.

Yet here I am. After a quick period of disillusionment I've become some sort of cognitive module here, a real-life Sam Beckett: bouncing from project to project, hoping that the next one will be an inspired, useful bit of engineering that helps humanity both in space and on Earth.

That moment hasn't come yet, and I don't think it will until people let the past die the dignified death that it deserves. Yes, we did amazing things in the past. Yes, we went to the moon, and our ancestors deserve our respect and admiration for it.

Now it's 40 years later. Our cell phones have more computing power than the Apollo moon landers, yet the Space Shuttle's proposed successor has barely more computing power than the one on the desk in front of me. Why? Not because it's hard to put electronics into space, or because spacecraft design somehow excludes modern technology - it's because small-minded people won't let science fiction become reality.

Those are the people who I think will most lament the passing of The Outpost. Those are the people who bow to the supposed wisdom of yesterday's paper heroes - Shuttle astronauts who can't bear to just be scientists or engineers because scientists and engineers aren't viewed as heroes.

The leaders at JSC - the ones charged with moving the center towards its supposed Core Ideology of advancing human space exploration - cower in the darkness of the past; shortsighted and outmoded ideas that will doom the future America to mediocrity. Their unwillingness to seek out the new ideas within their organizations, to lead the future's charge with their as-yet untapped resources, hampers not only NASA's immediate goals, but America's (and our world's) future.

America already has the resources to achieve greatness in the future. We already have the knowledge and power to go to the Moon, Mars, and Beyond. It doesn't require additional support from the President or senators or congressmen or contractors. All it requires is that we learn from the past without being bound by it - that we respect the heroes of our youth without requiring all future heroes to be the same. My children should aspire to be astronauts not through feats of strength or military training, but through preparation, knowledge, and ability - the strengths that make humanity most unique and powerful and able to deal with the unknown.

Let The Outpost rest in peace; with it, let our past heroes rest in peace. Let new heroes arise from the ashes: the engineers and scientists who can actually perform the technical miracles we expect from NASA.
top Photos: broken21 September 02010, 19:15
I was poking around my own web site today (it's worth doing every once in a while, I guess) and realized that I never got around to fixing the Photos section. Which is a shame, because I had lots of cool photos there. When I went from running my own web server to having the web site hosted at site5, the PHP I wrote to upload images stopped working, and I never got around to fixing it.

So there are no photos. I considered just removing that section altogether, but I have links to it from various old posts, and really I'd like to make it work again. I'm guessing it's something simple. Worst case, I'll just dump everything on Flickr or something. Until then, you'll just have to use your imagination. Sorry!

top The gentleman is correct in sitting30 July 02010, 21:21
Working at NASA was a childhood dream of mine. At some level it was probably the common desire of a child growing up in the 1980s to be an astronaut, but for me I'd say it went further than that - I wanted to be a part of humanity's future; I wanted to be an explorer, an enabler, a part of the team that brought humanity up from the trenches and into a new era of enlightenment, exploration, and existence. I saw NASA as the embodiment of this notion - they achieved the impossible as a matter of routine and their mission was to explore the universe, starting at the edge of our planet and working outwards.

That was 20 years ago.

This is now.

I did, through the convoluted maze of life, end up working at NASA. Not as an astronaut, of course; I'm no test pilot, no highly-decorated military hero, certainly not a member of the caste of uniformed elites which gets chosen for that line of work. I'm merely a contractor; a Project Engineer, that lowest form of life whose heroic deeds go unnoticed and unappreciated, but are vital for the success of nations - one pair of the feet on the ground that enable humanity to keep its head in the clouds. I am young and hopeful; creative and open-minded; practical and productive; scorned and dismissed.

I write this as a member of a perpetual, self-renewing underclass: the future. When politicians complain about saddling their children and grandchildren with debt, social problems, extremism, wars, pollution, and so on - that's my generation they're talking about, and the generations that will follow.

That is a profound problem: my future is being shaped by people who will not be around to take part in it. My future will be a product of a past generation's needs, wants, and aspirations; their greed, corruption, and broken structure. Today's politicians are better representatives of our world's checkered past than its potential future.

So when surveying the warped and broken future I've been given, it's tempting to blame today's politicians, but that's neither productive nor correct. The blame rests squarely at the feet of my generation, those who are 25-35 years old: we are old enough to have a significant impact on the direction of our future, and young enough to care what happens in 50 years. But we are also too vain, apathetic, self-absorbed, shortsighted, and unaware to affect positive changes. We have care little for dogma unless it gets us something for free. We don't educate ourselves; we don't vote; we don't write our elected officials; we don't participate in the process. Instead we wait for work to be done, then complain that we don't like the results. As it stands, our only hope for our own future is that the current generation of decision makers blunders onto a path that is not irreversibly destructive.

I work at NASA because I hope my children live in a time where the night sky is not an empty, foreboding vacuum, but a place of wonder and excitement and discovery; where universe is an unexplored country teeming with opportunity, not a pretty bit of custom-made scenery. I want a future for them that is beyond my imagination, and today I freely give my heart and mind and body and soul in the hope, against all reason, of creating that future for them, out of the present. There is still a small, undernourished part of me that views NASA as an integral part of that bright future; an organization of extraordinary people who can invent the impossible.

There is a lot of talk these days about the future of NASA; where do we go, how do we get there, what is the shape of our vehicle, and ... just who is this "we," anyway? The fact that there is so much discussion is great. The problem is that the wrong people are talking, and the structure of our future spacecraft and exploration missions are being decided by politicians, whose only stakes in the issue relate to their political careers. They lack the competence (and interest) to specify the revolutionary hardware that will take humanity beyond the next threshold. That lack is not the problem - our government is designed to account for this by encouraging competent people to counsel their elected officials. The problem is that our politicians don't let their lack of competence or motivation stop them from making the sorts of decisions that should be made by engineers and scientists, because there is no positive force to guide them.

So we - the future - are about to be left with an architecture for space exploration that is provisional and limited; grafted together out of parts specified because of campaign contributions and aspirations for re-election, rather than efficiency or reliability or appropriateness. We are sent on missions chosen out of misdirected national pride and fond memories of the past, rather than rational calculation and the needs of the future.

As this happens, my generation sits and watches - wallowing in self-pity, taking "no" for an answer. If we take the initiative for our own future instead of waiting passively for it to happen, we have the tools and the knowledge to achieve great things. Our children should be born in a world that is the cradle of humanity - not the container of it. They should never remember a time when they were the tenants of a single, crowded, strained planet.

This is my call to my generation. We will live in a future of our own making. It is our responsibility, to ourselves and our posterity, to design that future to be better than the present. Now is the time to make hard choices - to invest in our own future. Now is the time to move out of the proverbial basement; to stop living off the glory and accomplishments of our parents and grandparents and start solving our own problems. We are the richest and best-educated generation in the history of this world - and there are plenty of us at NASA. We need to make our voices heard within the organization - to speak up and take the risks that our managers don't want to take, and not fear failure. We need to rid ourselves of the tyranny of evaluation, and know that we are not beholden to the past. Never accept that "it can't be done" - that notion is the sanctuary of fools, who seek the ease of well-worn paths instead of the challenge of creating new ones. This is NASA - the response to "it can't be done" should be a chuckle and a solution, not a demoralized hunt for a well-used alternative.

Stop twittering, start speaking. Stop waiting for direction, make your own direction. It's up to us to decide what possibilities our futures hold, then to act and make those possibilities happen. For all of our sake: start thinking, start acting!
top Rules for Radicals30 May 02010, 0:42
Note: as noted in a previous post, this is a lightly edited copy of an e-mail that I sent to co-workers recently. The lab I work in is meant to explore advanced human interface methods for future crewed spacecraft. As it is, a great deal of my time is spent trying desperately to wring funding and other resources (such as lab space) out of our organization so that we can actually perform some of this R&D work. This message reflects my take on the process and why it's important to continue trying.

We are extremists; what we pursue is radical. We recognize that the status quo is not acceptable going forward. When others gush about the NASA that they've seen in movies, we exchange knowing glances of derision and bemusement. As NASA looks to the future and wonders how to move forward, we ask for nothing less than the fabled paradigm shift - not in the self-destructive Kuhnian sense, nor the cliché MBA sense, but an acknowledgment that our current ways are holding us back, and we need to shed the shackles of the previous generation before we can truly extend our reach to the stars.

We are beholden to preferences of the heroes of a bygone era. The explorers of our youth - test pilots and athletes, Buzz Aldrin and Sonny Carter - these are not the heroes of the future. They are pilots and athletes, those with the "right stuff" in a physical and experiential sense that holds little relevance in a post-LEO NASA.

The explorers of the future will not be test pilots, sports heroes, or other mythical creatures. They will be engineers and scientists; practical people who have capabilities well-suited to the mundane life of research, observation, and maintenance. They may be occasionally called on to fly, maneuver, and meet daunting challenges, but they will not revel in these experiences - their heroism will be in the manipulation of data, the solving of practical problems, and the other details that make the life of an engineer or researcher so unique.

To support this new breed of hero, NASA needs to reform its notion of space travel and spacecraft. The notion of a cockpit is no longer relevant. Nor is the notion of Mission Control. Realtime monitoring and control of a spacecraft that is on or around Mars is not an option from Earth - the roundtrip time for data transmission makes fine-grained control of a crewed spacecraft impractical and dangerous. Control must be relinquished to the astronauts, which means they must be trusted as creative, informed problem solvers. Beyond LEO, the astronauts won't be flying - they will be passengers on a vehicle that is taking them to faraway places, mimicking the most vital aspects of Earth and ignoring all others. For the first few months of their journey, they will be sending messages back home, performing science experiments, and maintaining this vehicle, the first of its kind, as it carries them to their destination. Once there, it will deposit them safely in a place where no human has gone before, and these ambassadors of humanity will take our first steps onto another celestial body - a planet, asteroid, or moon - not as the romanticized heroes of our youth, but as ordinary humans who have accomplished extraordinary feats through the labors of their peers.

NASA cannot support humanity's next steps beyond Earth's gentle clutches with our current attitude toward space travel. We live in an artificial reality created by the Cold War - fighter jets; hand controllers and heads-down cockpits; pilots and commanders and civilians. "Mission Specialist" is still an official term of disdain bestowed upon those civil servants who may make it in to space but will never sit in the "captain's chair," commanding a craft as it valiantly thrusts away from the planet. In the future, the Mission Specialist must be held paramount, and "piloting" duties left to computers and automated systems.

This is the backdrop upon which our lab begins. The traditional spacecraft that we all recognize: Apollo, STS/Shuttle, Orion, or even the Starship Enterprise - these craft are based on notions that no longer apply. To breach the new frontier we require a craft whose design acknowledges that life and success depend on data, and human effort centers around understanding and manipulating this æther or Cyberspace; not limited by a predefined structure but free to navigate through it as the mission drives it to evolve and grow.

To accomplish this, we must abandon our current structure. The Unified User Interface is not just an interesting concept, but a necessity. Any compromise that secures the power, authority, or ego for any person or group at the expense of flexibility and autonomy will doom our explorers to an uncertain fate. If data rule, then data must be available in all places and at all times, in whatever form is appropriate, to whoever needs them. Making that possible is the mission of our lab. To achieve it, we must start with our own rules:
  1. When anyone gives us the go-ahead, run like hell. Be ready with shopping lists and ideas. Buy equipment, supplies, and services. Fill lab space. Bring in matrix support. Spend materials dollars within weeks and service budgets as soon as possible. Use letters of intent if necessary. Resources are fleeting and hard to come by, so we have to be prepared to take advantage of what we find quickly before it evaporates.
  2. Keep asking and rephrasing the question until the answer is "yes." A compromise is better than a loss. Sometimes it's OK to start with half of what we want and negotiate later. If we don't get all that we wanted, at least we got something.
  3. Compromise is only good if it actually benefits us. Don't negotiate away our principles; if a project keeps us busy but doesn't get us closer to our goals, we don't have to take it. Let other groups pursue ill-conceived ideas and fail on their own time. We'll have our own failures; we don't need to take on others'.
  4. When we get the floor, make our point clearly. Metaphorical hand-waving has its place, but if we're called on to make our point to simple people, make simple points. Appeals to national pride, institutional inertia, or local jobs are all relevant and easily understandable in various situations.
  5. Get in arguments with difficult people. You know who they are; so does everyone else. NASA is filled with people who apparently feel their duty is to be contrary and impede progress. David wins by engaging Goliath, even if he is pummeled to dirt. Actually defeating Goliath is merely a bonus.
  6. Champion ideas that overreach. Don't reach for what's safe - that's not what we're here for. The low-hanging fruit is for the lumbering herbivores who thrive in the status quo. If we advocate what's safe, we may be more likely to stay employed, but we have failed our constituents - humans - who expect us to work miracles on their behalf, not to be avoid risk out of self-interest.
  7. Don't be afraid of failure. Hollywood gave us the phrase "Failure is not an option," but in the R&D world failure is not just an option - it's a constant reality. When time and money are on the line but lives are not, we're able to experiment and accept some risk. Failure presents itself as a bad word, but any good engineer will assure you that failure is an important predecessor (and successor) to success. Everything we try won't work; that's what experimentation is for.
  8. Success breeds success. We must dedicate time to using what resources we have to create persuasive demonstrations of concepts and technology and win converts. One by one we can create an army of foot soldiers who will generate interest for us.
The work we are seeking is not only interesting, exciting, and fun - it is vital for the success of future NASA missions. To pursue it, we need to overcome disinterest and skepticism; being motivated and professional, and keeping these rules in mind, is a good place to start.
top Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?29 May 02010, 23:50
There was some post on the internet recently about Rules for Radicals - I don't remember where exactly it was and don't really care; it was some trite thing about Thinking Outside The Box or some such nonsense. But after skimming over the article, I realized that several of the notions actually apply to what I do at work.

For those who don't know: I work with a very small group of people at Johnson Space Center researching advanced human interfaces for future crewed spacecraft. Technically we're a Constellation lab, which means that if the proposed FY2011 budget is approved, my work becomes de-funded and I'm out job hunting.

At least that's the first thing that people think when I tell them I work in a Constellation lab. It's not what I think though. The Constellation program has advanced the state of the art in many spacecraft systems (including regenerative environmental systems, high-speed data networks, automated systems), but beyond that I personally don't believe that it's the right vehicle for the future. My personal opinion is that the architecture is a nostalgic throwback dreamed up by uncreative people, and it will not serve us well once it is created. The future isn't a 2-week round trip to the moon, or a small crew ferry vehicle for the ISS (the latter is the only thing being designed right now). The future is a spacecraft designed and built for long-duration missions to celestial bodies: moons, asteroids, and planets. Orion won't take us there, for several reasons.

In all the patriotic hand-wringing about gaps and job loss, people are forgetting that we're not designing a vehicle that is appropriate for a long-duration mission to Mars. I think this fact rests in the back of many minds, but the only things we are able to focus on are Orion 1 and Orion 2, which are moving us toward a 4-person capsule that can only survive unassisted for long enough to reach the ISS. Is this progress?

A new kind of space mission demands a new kind of spacecraft, and we're not creating one. My constant frustration at work is that despite the fact that people are aware of this, there is no funding or desire to actually do the kind of basic research and blank-paper design that will be required to make the new spacecraft happen. The FY2011 budget actually makes the funding available and enforces the desire, which is why it's so important to pass it - "saving" Constellation as a jobs program is a waste of time and money. Continuing development of Ares/Orion to minimize the "gap" is also a poor choice; the gap will be there regardless and once we're able to launch a crewed Orion capsule, we're stuck with a very expensive suite of machines and processes that aren't robust enough to do the things we need.

While the notion of designing a vehicle I personally dislike is somewhat frustrating, I'm well aware that I'm not the smartest person at NASA and given such a complex problem (how do we explore space?) there are bound to be a multitude of paths that can be followed. I don't feel that my dislike of an idea makes it bad (a quick read of the discourse on the proposed NASA budget will show you that this attitude is unusual). My frustration comes from the fact that so many people in positions of power at NASA are uncreative, uninformed, and unmotivated. There is no will to explore new ideas; there is no tolerance for risk; there doesn't even seem to be a recognition that we're making shortsighted decisions that will become very costly in the future. The recent NRC report on the state of NASA labs was dead on target when it made the point that R&D labs are forced to use their limited resources buying basic equipment and begging for further resources; it's a big part of what I do. Though the report explicitly did not address JSC, the little R&D work that we do is hobbled by the same problems that frustrate scientists and engineers at other centers.

When I'm wallowing in frustration, I write long-winded ranty e-mails and fire them off to co-workers and managers. It's somewhat therapeutic, but in the end it's worthless because my co-workers and managers are not motivated enough to pursue important changes. Since I don't know anyone who is motivated, I'm going to start posting them here as well. If you're patient and bored, you can kill some time every once in a while wading through my nonsense, until someone at work finds it and I end up unemployed, living under an overpass or something. Ah, the grand possibilities of the future!
top Oh yeah26 May 02010, 22:15
I'm in Seattle, WA for the SID 2010 conference this week. I've been pushing a human interface architecture at work (now it's "our" architecture) and a lot of features of it seem to work well using transparent and/or flexible displays.

OLED displays can be flexible, transparent, or both - seemingly perfect. Electrophoretic ink technology can be flexible; I haven't seen any transparent e-ink displays but don't see why that's not possible (in fact I expect that it is). There are quantum dot displays which are cool, but I don't think they're going to be transparent or flexible.

Anyway. So there's this display technology that's perpetually 5 years out and sure enough, at SID 2010, OLED is only really present on the 6th floor (where they're talking about what will overtake LCDs in 5 years). Meanwhile on the 4th floor at the trade show booths, it's all 3D (yawn), touch (yawn), and LCD. LCD doesn't get a yawn mainly because there are some VERY impressive LCD displays out there (NEC in particular had LCD displays that could easily be mistaken for OLED, or real life). (Aside: lots of noise about in-plane switching LCDs, which is what's on the iPad. Seen a few iPads here, not in use by people but at booths. I'm still 0% impressed with the iPad; hardware, software, concept. Sorry ...)

As in most trade shows, the people on the 4th floor frequently don't know much about what they're showing off. In this particular case, new display technologies tend to come from Japan, South Korea, or Western Europe so there are a lot of people with very thick accents around. Actually I was a bit disappointed at the lack of US representation; apparently very few US institutions are pushing display technology. By contrast, the European Union has invested heavily in display technology (among other things) the last several years, and it shows - a huge Western European contingent was there. Germany, in particular, filled a large section of floor space with a coordinated set of booths.

I have another day here, but I expect that I'll leave somewhat disappointed in the prospects. Transparent, flexible OLED displays exist in the lab, but nobody is willing to move them to commercial products for some reason. The best example I've seen so far is a Samsung laptop with a 14.1" transparent OLED display, which works a lot better than you would think. How many of them exist? Apparently just the one. Are they planning to start commercial sales of them? Maybe later. Which is what they said last year.

Playing the NASA card got at least a few of the people interested, so I may yet have work to do after this fiscal year (if NASA will support this work - they should, but that's a rant for another day).
top FSMspeed, Atlantis14 May 02010, 17:50
[figure out what fsmspeed means] Atlantis is back in space, for its final voyage. Every Shuttle mission these days seems to have more meaning, as we approach the end of the Shuttle program and the orbiters are flying their final missions. Atlantis has had a short but distinguished career; it has helped us explore the solar system [Magellan], view the universe [Hubble], and [other thing]. It has served as a vehicle of diplomacy [Shuttle-Mir], and brought [x] modules and other ingredients for life to the International Space Station.

And soon, it will be decommissioned.

For someone in my generation, it is truly the end of an era. Our parents may have Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, but we grew up with the Shuttle - the most complex and capable vehicle ever designed, and one whose vast capabilities no government or corporation has even considered duplicating.

Against this backdrop, a few of us are working on creating some sort of successor. The shape and capabilities of that successor were decided for us by men who looked to the past for inspiration and economy. The Constellation had lofty goals, but the vehicles chosen to reach those goals are lacking in many ways.

From a technical standpoint, the vehicles were never intended to be great. Launched by rockets vaguely reminiscent of the Space Transportation System (why not just use the STS?), the Orion capsule and Altair lander were going to face a rougher ride to orbit of any spacecraft ever designed. Then once in space, we find that NASA has reversed the trend of making larger, more comfortable vehicles, and instead made Orion a cramped, monolithic space with no privacy; no place for science; [no other thing]. The Altair lander would barely be bigger from the crew's perspective. The "architecture" neglected science, crew health care systems, living quarters, privacy, and []; it was designed to re-use as much as possible from existing aircraft or the intellectual property of large [lockmart] and incompetent [honeywell] contractors in order to reduce development time and cost and just get something into space quickly. Guess what: that wasn't going to happen; all of those pieces don't fit together cleanly and are not capable of doing what we need in a true vehicle of exploration.

[Rant! Rant! Rant! I need to come back to this later]
top Goodbye LA; it's been fun8 May 02010, 9:37
Leaving for home in a few hours. Overall this was a really fun trip. Got to see some really cool things, both for work and on my own. Learned a lot about my co-workers (perhaps more than I wanted to know, but that's OK). Gorgeous weather the whole time. Pretty good hotel (I give it a solid B). There's plenty more to do around here, of course. Will have to come back at some point.
top LA6 May 02010, 23:25
I've been in the Los Angeles area for about a week now. Over the last few days, I've done several things that I found exciting:

1) Driven the Miracle Mile
2) Driven down Santa Monica Blvd and Hollywood Blvd
3) Driven up and down at least a portion of the California Pacific Highway
4) Driven the Mulholland Freeway
5) Eaten at In-n-Out Burger a few times
6) Talked to the crew at Oblong Industries

I've taken lots (and lots) of photos. At some point, I'll post them here (along with all of the other ones that used to be here). Driving the Mulholland Freeway was definitely the high point of today. It would have been more fun in a vehicle that was sportier than my rental Toyota Camry hybrid, but the little thing behaved predictably and was still fun. I don't think I'd buy one, but it's a totally acceptable car.

Visiting Oblong has probably been the high point of the entire trip. I think I'd get along great with Paul Y. I also think that Oblong has actually already designed the hard part of a very expansive (dare I say: paradigm shifting ... yes, I'll go rinse my mouth out with soap now) bit of work I want to do at NASA. We'll see what comes out of all this.
top New toy, day 24 May 02010, 19:06
Still like the netbook. Still a little annoyed at the lack of bluetooth, but I'll get over it. It has this face recognition thing for logging in, which seems silly but it works, most of the time. Not especially quick. The only real problem I have so far is that the screen and the surround for the screen are very glossy, so if it's at all light outside the reflection makes it very hard to see the screen - you have to turn the brightness all the way up, and even then it's a bit tough. With CRT monitors, AGAR (anti-glare anti-reflection) was always a big deal, and that was something that LCDs were good at without much effort, so I'm not sure why they would have (apparently intentionally) taken something that is otherwise great for use outdoors and made it almost impossible to use in the sunshine. Eh.
top New toy3 May 02010, 17:43
I am now plus one Lenovo S10-3 netbook. Seems fun. The Fry's in Burbank had a much better selection of them than the one in Houston. Also, I couldn't get anyone at the Fry's in Houston to talk to me (at least nobody in the computer department). The touchpad is ... OK. Still getting used to it. The IdeaPad I played with in the store was apparently an S10-2, which had actual physical mouse buttons just below the touchpad; the one I took home has a single-piece thing which looks nice but is a bit awkward if you want to click and drag.

The thing that really surprised me about the netbooks is the lack of Bluetooth support. Bluetooth isn't great for a lot of things because it's not blazing fast, but ... it is great for things like wireless mice, cell phones, headphones, and so on. No stores I went to had any netbooks with built-in Bluetooth in stock; online I found an HP Mini 210 with a Bluetooth option, but the Mini 210 in the store didn't have it. I ended up with a dongle, which is fine but it eats up a USB port and sticks out the side a bit. Oh well.
top ... and then Nokia redeems itself, a little1 May 02010, 15:37
The e-mail thing works now! I don't know why it wasn't working before, and I didn't really do anything to fix it, but it started working. Whatever.

In other Nokia news: the N8 looks AWESOME. *drool*
top Refund!10 April 02010, 9:10
Got my tax refund, and promptly spent it. My $400 "make working pay" (or whatever it was called) bonus went entirely to car parts, and then some. I also blew a bunch of money at Target, TJ Maxx, and Home Depot. That's right: I used my tax refund to help the economy. You're welcome!
top ... and then Nokia fails4 April 02010, 11:58
Nokia has a push e-mail service that you can hook your personal e-mail account in to; it is a backend for a Blackberry-like service which I find VERY convenient. Their e-mail application on the phone leaves a little to be desired, but overall it's stable and it works. The only trouble I've had, since the beginning, is that I can receive e-mail just fine, but sending never worked through their service. I had always worked around this by either not replying until I got home, or sending MMS messages to e-mail if something was time critical, or using a second e-mail client that worked for sending (but didn't support HTML). Kind of gross.

Supposedly, the thing that was keeping me from sending e-mail was fixed, so I was fiddling around with that, uninstalling and reinstalling and such trying to get it to work.

The outcome of that (about half an hour of fiddling and cursing) is that I still can't send e-mail, but now all of the e-mails in my inbox between 3/3 and today are gone. That's a lot of e-mail ... I keep a messy inbox. I'm very annoyed.
top Nokia wins29 March 02010, 21:30
Got my phone back today! I'm in the process of putting everything back on it, but I'm very happy. In addition to not charging to replace the keypad lock key, they also replaced the camera lens, which was a bit scratched. They also tossed a $10 gift card in the box, which is pretty freaking neat. They refreshed the standard software load on the phone, which includes a lot of stuff I don't want (Bloomberg: never use it; Elle: who cares? CNN Video: never use it; ESPNsoccernet: never use it; Facebook: not on Facebook; Friendster: whatever; MySpace: not on MySpace; etc etc etc), but that's not too surprising. They do have the Amazon.com application installed, which is cool because I actually liked having that one and for some reason it's not on the Ovi store.

So now I'm going through the process of installing all of the stuff that goes on the phone. It takes a little while, but when it's done I've got my MP3 player (currently 25GB of MP3s on the phone), GPS (preloading maps speeds up the GPS software significantly).

As I go through the process, I'm noticing more cool stuff that never appeared before. For all of the little applications installed on the phone, they stuck the actual install files on the phone too, so I can re-install them without having to poke around Ovi store. This is especially nice for the Amazon.com application, since it's not on the Ovi store. Also, they stuck a bunch of random MP3s of actual music on there. Neat! It's actually good music, too. Also: they appear to have preloaded ALL of their maps onto the phone. That helps explain why the 36GB internal storage only has 28GB free (road maps of the entire planet take up about 1.6GB). Not going to complain, though I was going to dump those on the microSD card instead of the internal storage. But it takes a while to download all of that, so ... score! I'll take it!

The N97 hasn't been a perfect phone, and Nokia was a bit slow to react to some of the problems. However: the latest firmware update has resolved a lot of problems, and it seems like they treated me right with this bit of hardware trouble I had. I feel much better about Nokia today than I did a week ago. Nokia appears to have officially acknowledged that they screwed up with the phone and their handling of it, which is somewhat unusual so that's nice. Maybe I'll buy the N98 after all ...

Update: It's around 11:30pm, I'm still working on this. Went to add some stuff to the front page of the phone. All of the options I expected at this point, plus: "wilwheatons Tweets." Huh? That's new ...
top Hovercraft28 March 02010, 10:55
Worked on the hovercraft some more yesterday. Got the engine mount figured out ... it's not perfect, but it looks like it'll work pretty well. We also did a little work on the engine cover. It was a moderately productive afternoon, considering we only had a few hours to spend on it. I think in a couple of weeks, we may have this thing hovering again!

Before next weekend I'm going to do some cleanup tasks on it; sanding drips in the paint and rasping off a particularly ugly jigsaw cut we made last night so that the engine cover would fit right. Onward!
top Cell phone: fixed?25 March 02010, 16:34
On the plus side: my cell phone is on its way back from the Nokia repair center. Supposedly. I've got a UPS tracking number, but it's not in the system yet. Surprisingly, the phone was fixed free, under warranty, even though the warranty specifically excludes physical damage. Perhaps they backed down a bit on that for this particular problem, since apparently it happens to a lot of people. The sliding unlock switch is definitely a questionable design.

Really anxious to get the phone back. It's amazing how quickly you get used to certain features. Browsing the web, alarms, watching movies, connecting the phone to the computer, opening files, GPS, nice camera, etc.

top 201225 March 02010, 16:30
Saw 2012 the other day. What a ridiculous movie. It was fun to watch the disasters unfolding, but every time someone opened their mouth, they said something stupid. Also, as a general rule, everyone's actions were always stupid (except for the "bad guy" who turned out to have practical ideas that nobody listened to). It also appeared that the fate of humanity was that most of the smart people died, while the rich, well-connected, and/or tricky survive. Could Idiocracy be the sequel to this movie?

2.5 hours I wish I could get back.
top Hovercraft update21 March 02010, 10:53
Jess, Claire, and I worked on the hovercraft yesterday. On Friday I added some metal to the motor mount to keep it from sagging in the front, then yesterday we installed the motor to the mount, put the mount on the body, and installed the propeller. It turns out that the sagging motor mount may have been intentional (which would explain all of the hammer marks on it) because with it straightened out, there is some interference between the propeller and the velocity stack. So I'm going to have to pull it off and move the motor mount back about 1/8" to account for that.

We also tackled the "hood" (trunk? motor cover?); it's kind of flimsy and was pretty broken. We put together an aluminum frame for the bottom of it that should make the hinge attachment work and keep the whole thing stiffer and straighter.

The plan right now is to get the motor mount fixed, get the cover fixed and mounted on the body, then I need to work on the motor a bit: electric starter, alternators, kill switch, etc. I guess do something about the driver's seat too. Once it hovers well, the next step will be thrust.

I want to push on this pretty hard in the next few weeks; if it gets to the point where it works reliably, I want to see if I can talk the people at work in to letting me interface the Epoc headset with it so that we have something to show off at work. *that* would generate some interesting discussion with the safety folks ...
top Cell phone: broken21 March 02010, 10:49
I'm in the process of backing up all of the stuff from my cell phone, so I can erase its contents and send it back to Nokia for repair. The little sliding "lock the keypad and touchscreen" switch broke off. Grumble. I've been getting around it for a couple of weeks; I can unlock the screen by opening and closing the keypad, and then lock it from a menu that comes up when I hit the power button. It's pretty inconvenient, and given the failure mode of my last Nokia (the little ribbon cable that connects the screen to the body of the phone broke) I feel like I should be careful of how much I open and close the screen. Is that really the sort of thing I should have to think about in a $600 phone? Ugh.
top brrr21 March 02010, 10:47
First day of spring! It was 37°F outside when I woke up this morning. Hrmph.
top As for work9 March 02010, 17:23
Work at NASA continues, despite all the hoopla and hand wringing. This week we have crew members coming over to the low-fidelity Orion mockup to test out some Rotational Hand Controller (RHC) prototypes. One of the prototypes is a super-expensive mockup made at Langley that's electrically functional and has the correct translation, which is kind of cool, except that the body is a very old design and not really representative of what we're planning on doing. The next one is a stereolithed model that's volumetrically equivalent to the current baseline proposal, but I've made models of all the buttons and put them on Velcro so that we can move them around and try different places (in particular there's a lot of question about where the launch abort button is going to go). Then there's a third mockup that is like the baseline but a bit bigger to accommodate some proposed SCRAM (Safe Crew Return After Malfunction) switches that will give some manual overrides for roll control during a Bad Day. That may change too, but it's rough because Pencils Down is coming in a few weeks.

So that's exciting. Also exciting is that I'm working on a pile of proposals for us to get funding to pursue next generation HMI technology. This is sort of an independent path from Constellation, so if we do get money it stays there even if Constellation does get the axe. If it doesn't, then some of what we do might end up in the Lunar Upgrade or later revisions of Orion. Or if there's no Orion, it will more than likely end up in whatever crewed vehicle comes next.

It's really interesting stuff. The current Orion cockpit is actually kind of old school; it's not much more advanced than the Shuttle from an HMI perspective (the avionics themselves are actually really fantastic and there's lots of cutting edge stuff there). What we want to do is look past the current level of stuff and get into the really amazing stuff that will still be powerful and robust in 10-15 years. We have lots of great ideas, and a lot of it is going to involve industry and academic cooperation, which is a great bonus. Here's hoping we get to pursue them!
top Alice in Wonderland9 March 02010, 17:16
Saw Alice in Wonderland last night. 3D, even. It was a gorgeous movie; the scenes of Wonderland were visually stunning (the Red Queen's castle was particularly great). Good enough to forgive some of the CG bloopers (there were a few). They also made a really good treatment of the story (The what? Who sees a movie and cares about the story?). Totally recommended.

I saw it in 3D; in general I think the 3D thing is a bit overhyped and I really don't care much about it, and in the past those things have given me a headache. In this case it worked though; at some points it seemed like they made things swoop out at the audience just because they could, but in general it was pretty smooth.

Before the movie they had a preview for the NASA Hubble servicing mission movie. I do want to see the movie and I'm sure it will be very interesting, but the preview was done up like one of those space disaster movies, where "they had one chance for success" and they were making it sound like the lives of everyone on the planet depended on it. That was sprinkled with a few shots of mundane astronaut activities, like getting into launch suits and stuff. Maybe it's because I work at NASA and see what goes on with this stuff, I dunno. I mean I get really excited about these missions, but not "Bruce Willis and a bunch of oilmen" excited.

I'll still go see it.
top The sky is right there where we left it3 February 02010, 16:26
... and I'm actually kind of excited about the new direction that we're getting. There are two parts that bother me:
  1. We can't actually do anything yet. We just have to keep working on our same Constellation stuff, because Congressional fiat prevents us from doing otherwise; but nobody is really motivated to do that because everyone knows that the axe is falling. Keep working towards PDR? Yeah, right.
  2. There's a lack of milestones in the new direction. Sure, we're doing this great research and development, but for what? It would be good to have milestones and perhaps some specific destinations. Charlie Bolden addressed this, sort of, in his NASA Update today.
Overall I have good feelings about this. People keep asking the same questions to different people, and the answer is always "we don't know yet" ... I'm not sure when people are going to figure out that the answer won't change until congress decides to let it.
top Keeping perspective2 February 02010, 20:45
There's a lot of emotion (and some hard feelings) about the president's FY2011 budget proposal for NASA. A lot of smart, dedicated people have worked for a long time to bring the Constellation program as far as it has come, and many of those people are understandably upset that the president has called for the program to be canceled outright.

The bad feelings aren't about people losing their jobs. I'm sure that's a concern for many, but there's something else, something much deeper. Engineering isn't just the practice of cobbling something together from a collection of pieces and ideas - it's a creative endeavor, an art, and just like other artists and artisans, engineers put a lot of time, effort, and energy into their creations. Yes, creations - an engineer designing a spacecraft (or other complex engine) puts blood, sweat, tears, and a little bit of their soul into their project; their child; their creation.

Robert Crippen gave a fine example of this bond during the Columbia Memorial Service held at Kennedy Space Center in 2003. Columbia "struggled mightily in those last moments to bring her crew home once again. She wasn't successful. [...] Columbia was hardly a thing of beauty except to those of us who loved and cared for her ... She, along with the Crew, had her life snuffed out while in her prime." Columbia wasn't a piece of equipment used by astronauts to do their jobs; she was another one of the crew, struggling against an injury that she would eventually succumb to.

The Space Shuttles are not mere machines; they are beloved members of a team of thousands, who dedicate their lives to the awesome feat of lifting humanity from the surface the planet and bringing them safely back. And like the human team members, each spaceship has its own strengths, weaknesses, quirks, failings, and triumphs - each has her own personality that is endearing to her friends, if baffling to outsiders. Sounds a bit like you and me.

And so it is with the Constellation program. The Ares rockets and Orion capsule are still in their infancy - not yet whole; not yet capable of achieving the high expectations that their heritage suggests and their creators are striving to help them achieve. And now, along with the Shuttle fleet (NASA's best and brightest children, all grown up) they are in danger of being snatched from us, relegated to history books and dusty museums by an uncaring public that can never understand the mistakes that they're making; the grief that they have caused us.

Why should we allow this to happen? What person would turn away as their pride and joy is taken away?

This is the heartbreak of engineering, one of those things they don't tell you about in college: the destinies of our creations are not always under our control. For the Constellation program, Destiny is page 18 of "Terminations, Reductions, and Savings" in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget, just after Coal Tax Preferences and Commodity Storage Payments; just in front of an Economic Action Program and some Election Reform Grants.

And insult is added to injury: "By early 2009, [...] the program was behind schedule, could not achieve its goals without multi-billion dollar budget increases, and was not clearly aimed at meeting today's national priorities." So now we're at fault: we're late, over budget, and not making what the nation needs; we're such bad parents that our child is being taken away! The pain turns to anger. Whose national priorities created the program in the first place? Why was the program never properly funded? Why were engineering decisions made by incompetent senators and administration officials, instead of the qualified engineers at NASA? And what makes the current crop of incompetent senators and administration officials more likely to make good decisions? Why can't they just leave us alone to do our work? And just what do they mean by "bold new approach" - by "lacking in innovation" - how was Constellation the "least attractive approach to space exploration?" That's my baby - my work - that you're bad mouthing!

This is the moment where we all need to step back. Take a few deep breaths, and clear our heads a bit.

Another fundamental aspect of engineering is that when faced with a problem as complex as safely leaving the planet, going to another one, and coming back, there is never a perfect solution. Engineering is, among other things, the art of compromise: the ideals of unlimited capabilities and perfect safety are limited by the realities of mass, volume, power, heat, radiation, physics (pesky physics!), time, budgets, politics, and many others. To get more here, we must give up something there; nothing is free. Everything is compromise, and there are many different routes that the journey can take.

Was the Constellation architecture a good compromise? Would the DIRECT approach be better, or a Shuttle-derived sidemount option, or a derivative of existing heavy launchers? Obviously, there are a lot of opinions on the subject, and many are not well displayed. Bloggers and anonymous posters abound, all with their own petty grievances and strongly felt opinions. On the internet, we may not know that you're a dog, but we do know that you're rude, arrogant, and self-righteous, and nobody wants their hard work denigrated by some anonymous clown. I too am those things from time to time, and I certainly have my own opinions on the Constellation architecture, but today I'll keep those to myself.

And it's just as well, because my opinion (and most likely yours) doesn't really matter. Fools control our destinies in many ways, and one of those ways (as we're seeing now) is by controlling the mission of NASA. The future of scientific and technological achievement at NASA isn't decided by the scientists and engineers that work here, but by politicians who don't know (or care) what we do, as long as it brings jobs and money to their districts.

So the president has created a budget proposal. The next step is for it to be dragged through the congressional gauntlet until it has been beaten and kicked into some unrecognizable kludge of pet projects and local protectionism that should never see the light of day, and that's what we'll end up with. Will that be good for us, or for the nation? I don't care to speculate what the end result will be, but I'm sure it won't be exactly what the president has proposed, nor will it be what many people want. Such is life in a republic.

One thing that does seem likely is that even if the Constellation program is scrapped, NASA's budget will grow, and other programs will be created to take Constellation's place: research and development to support future heavy-lift rocket systems; a vigorous new technology development and test program; a steady stream of precursor robotic exploration missions. It may not be Constellation, but that does sound like the kind of work I envisioned doing when I applied for a job at NASA. And for those of us who worked on Constellation, we can (and must!) honor whatever legacy it has earned by taking what we've learned and applying it to these new projects.

The phrase "I work for NASA" is one that will earn you instant respect almost anywhere in the world, and for good reason: we're smart, we're creative, we work very hard, and we produce outstanding results that other nations aspire to. As NASA's mission changes, we can rise to the new challenges that come with the new mission, and prove that we're worthy of that respect.
top Right29 January 02010, 12:06
Well I moved a year ago and kinda fell down on the job in terms of keeping this stuff up. Yes, it's been over a year since I posted last. Why even bother? I dunno. Might as well! Anyway, it was an ... interesting ... year, and I just never managed to get to this stuff. But I'm kinda back and the site is kinda back and maybe I'll start posting here again. I transferred some of my old posts from the old server to the new service but not all of them. Still no photos, but that will be fixed eventually. Probably.
top Yowza15 September 02009, 21:50
Well I'm finally getting around to putting this stuff back on the internet. The server that used to host imp-detail.org has been sitting on the floor in the corner of this room since January, waiting for me to copy things off of it and on to the new host. I decided before I moved last that I'm sick of dealing with upgrades and compiling and power outages and UPS failures and disk failures and everything else that goes with running a server, so when I moved I pulled the plug on imp-detail.org with the intention of having it totally hosted on site5 forever (or whatever). I got as far as e-mail, then lost interest, and the web site was MIA until a few days ago, when I decided that I wanted the thing working again.

Sounds so easy, but I never really planned for this and all of these blog posts (and all of my photos, and several other things) are stored in a MySQL database and it's kind of inconvenient to export and re-import that stuff, or at least it's not immediately obvious how to do it, so I've been going through a manual process of copying posts off of the old server (which is turned on ... I had forgotten how loud it is! Oh, does someone want to buy a server? It's very nice) on to the new one; fixing database names and include locations and all of that crap that I had very carefully configured to be secure and logical on my own server.

Why did I want to do this again? I don't remember.

Anyway, as of today I've got all of the blog posts back up. Don't have the photos yet. That's going to take a while.

In the meantime, I've moved off of the TVIS project and on to a new one: Displays and Controls for the (as yet designed or really even authorized) Crew Exploration Vehicle. I realize that it seems premature to get on this before the Augustine commission is done and the president has decided something, but I'm assuming that whatever the outcome, we'll still have a manned space program and still need cockpit avionics for it. So I should be fine :)

Maybe I'll post more later, now that I've got this thing again. Honestly ... I've been at this for a few hours now and I just don't get so excited about spending hours sitting in front of the computer anymore. Maybe tomorrow.

Oh, I'm taking Thursday and Friday off work, just because. Woo!
top Moving3 January 02009, 12:51
Yep ... again. I only managed a year and a half at the Park at Armand Bayou, and I'm sick of it. The appliances suck, the building is settling, the maintenance staff aren't good at their jobs, whenever it's cold outside the place smells like an ashtray because of someone who smokes in another apartment, the parent company is a collection of assholes, and the rent keeps going up. This is in addition to the minor annoyances (entrance gate, detached garage, no guest parking, etc). So I'm giving up my 3 mile commute from Pasadena in exchange for a 9 mile commute from the house I'm going to rent in League City. E-mail behavior will be different this time, because instead of turning off the server and having nothing for a month or so like normally happens, I'm going to offload all of that crap onto a hosting company and pitch the server. 12v.org is also being offloaded, and I'm going to be much happier. Woo! This does mean that the last surviving installation of Peachtree Linux is being turned off, but I doubt if anyone cares.

At any rate, I don't have a move in date yet but it's likely to be around the middle of this month. Anyone who wants to help me move is welcome to drop by any time :)
top Ike (again)31 October 02008, 8:11
I said I would post about this, but then I didn't. Work is really hectic. So the short version: Ike was annoying; I woke up and the TV said we were evacuating, so we packed the animals and a pile of junk food and not quite enough clothing into the car and headed northward. Evacuating was fun (less fun for Clio) and I got to see new places and meet new people, then we came back (after Clio pooped on someone's rug and bit someone else we figured it was time) and didn't have electricity or running water at my apartment for another week. I shacked up elsewhere until that was resolved, and now things are basically back to normal, except that my office is in a hallway because the roof leaked in our office building. Supposedly we get to go back to the 6th floor next week.

And that's the short, short version. Now I gotta get back to work.
top Ike25 September 02008, 12:12
If you tried to send me e-mail in the last couple of weeks, it bounced because I was without power. Now I have power and e-mail (and air conditioning, and potable water, and refrigeration, and such). I'll talk about this later; I have to go to work soon.
top Freaking awesome.21 June 02008, 22:01
That's all.
top Well crap.6 April 02008, 19:56
I just realized it's been several months since I took that vacation, and I still haven't finished posting about it. On top of that, I can't seem to find the text I wrote.

I don't feel too bad about it because I don't recall writing very much. Basically, I had an uneventful trip to Prague, and when I landed around 3pm it was already dark outside, and very cold (though I was prepared for that). I wandered around Prague for several hours, bought some really good food at some sidewalk stands, and had some good beer (pilsner, of course) but didn't try this one. I actually wish I had, because I hear that it's actually really good (unlike the American beer of the same name). I didn't know it existed until I was waiting at the airport for my flight, and at that point it was too late (early?). I'll just have to get some next time.

And there will be a next time - Prague seemed like a really nice place, and the hotel I stayed at is easily one of the nicest hotels I've been to. The food in Prague was excellent, the airport was nice, the people were friendly, and the city seemed beautiful (at least in the dark). If I could do it all over, I would have spent one night in Milan, skipped Rome, and spent a few days in Prague instead.

Is it bad that I'm already planning my next trip? I have no hope of affording it. Which is too bad; the thing I really miss from my last job is the international travel.

Anyway, there you have it - finally the last post about vacation. Stay tuned for the next one, whenever that turns out to be! Hopefully it will involve Cyprus.
top Dammit18 February 02008, 9:11
How did Sony win a format battle? This is horrible. Anyway, I'm keeping my HD-DVD player and all my HD-DVDs (and not buying a Blue-Ray player) until I'm either forced to switch formats, or something better comes along. It's not like they're gonna spoil. I refuse to support Sony as long as they're being stupid about DRM and copyright law.

On the plus side, HD-DVDs should be nice and cheap for a while! Get 'em while supplies last!
top Why yes, I am lazy!5 February 02008, 18:23
Still haven't posted those last few vacation entries. I'll get around to it some day. It's on the list ...
top Almost done12 January 02008, 18:40
I've only got a couple of vacation posts left, but every time I sit down to do this I quickly get bored. Also, I've been putting in a lot of extra time at work, so when I get home I'm not really in the mood to sit in front of the computer. Maybe I'll finish tomorrow. I really had fun in Prague, but I didn't write much about it so the editing should be quick.
top Chasing the Sun, Part 2.9912 January 02008, 18:34
Note: I wrote this while I was still on the trip, but didn't get around to posting it until now.

Well, I'm back on a plane. My luggage arrived late last night, and I picked it up this morning when I got to the airport. The airport here really isn't equipped for that sort of thing; I had to go backwards through customs via the employee entrance to get to the baggage claim area, then deal with more rude people to get my luggage, then go back through customs, outside, upstairs, and back inside to check in. The check-in desk for my flight was actually in another building, which I had to ask someone at an information desk to find out, so back outside, walk past two buildings, into the right one. Then I had to walk back to the original building to go through security. What a stupid airport.

Ever since I left Australia, in every airport I've been at I've been told that my luggage was 8kg overweight, and that I'd have to pay some sort of fee for overweight luggage - and then the person would let it slide and I wouldn't have to pay anything. Not here: the Alitalia ticket agent's "Christmas gift to me" was to knock 3kg off the overweight bill, so I only had to pay 15 Euros/kg for 5 kg overweight. Gee, thanks. It was Rome's last jab, I guess. Oh, I did get an exit stamp in my passport, but the asshole stamped directly over an existing stamp (Singapore) instead of flipping a few pages to find an empty space. I mean come the hell on, why would you do that? Yeesh.

Anyway, I'm really excited about Prague. Just an hour or so ...
top OK, really12 January 02008, 18:30
Note: I wrote this while I was still on the trip, but didn't get around to posting it until now.

Does everyone in Rome pay $15 for a pair of underwear? I don't want Dolce & Gabbana underwear. Seriously. This country is so stupid.
top Chasing the Sun, Part 2.75: This title is getting a bit cumbersome12 January 02008, 18:29
Note: I wrote this while I was still on the trip, but didn't get around to posting it until now.

More of the same. Still no luggage, and I leave in the morning. I'm going to have to buy clothes tonight.
top Chasing the Sun, Part 2.6: Still no luggage12 January 02008, 18:28
Note: I wrote this while I was still on the trip, but didn't get around to posting it until now.

Rome is about like yesterday. Still no word on my luggage. Tomorrow is my last day here.
top Chasing the Sun, Part 2.5: When in Rome, be a Pest12 January 02008, 18:16
Note: I wrote this while I was still on the trip, but didn't get around to posting it until now.

Rome is not as fun as Milan was. People here are definitely more rude, and the staff at stores and restaurants all seem annoyed to have customers. In other places I've been, I would say that it's because I look like a tourist, but I think I blend in pretty well here, and everybody starts talking to me in Italian. I can get through basic transactions in Italian, and people do seem to speak good enough English that I can get things done, so I don't know what the deal is. Anyway, my luggage was supposed to arrive this morning at 10am and nothing has arrived yet. The (only slightly rude) person at the hotel desk assured me that usually luggage comes in the middle of the night, if it's going to come at all, so maybe they meant 10pm.

Aside from the rudeness from people I've interacted with, people drive like assholes and the road configuration is somewhat poorly defined. I'd definitely have trouble driving here if I rented a car. It's not as bad as Bulgaria, but definitely bad. I see a lot of the selfish, mean-spirited driving that I associate with Atlanta.

Another annoying thing is the fact that the sidewalk is filled with people selling random junk, and beggars doing odd things. As in Sydney, beggars on the street never approach people directly to ask for money, which is nice. But in Sydney, they would sit out of the way and look pathetic, and it seemed to work OK for them. Here, people would lie prostrate in the middle of the sidewalk, or in doorways (until they get shooed off), or in curl up as if praying on the ground in parking spots. I'm not sure if they're just doing it to be annoying, or if they're hoping someone will trip over them or run them over so they can pretend to be injured. Either way, it's annoying.

The people selling random junk are equally annoying, and they do accost you on the sidewalk. When it's raining, they're selling umbrellas (they offer you an umbrella even if you're obviously carrying one); when it's sunny they have sunglasses; when it's dark they have trinkets that light up. An especially irritating thing they have are these little disks that you shoot up off of a stick, and as they whiz through the air they whistle and light up. That's fine, and if you do it right the disk goes straight up and then straight back down and you can catch it on the same stick you tossed it up from. But instead they shoot them up at a slight angle, so that they land on people, and then the tosser (har!) starts yelling at the person like they're going to steal the disk.

Milan wasn't like this at all. I liked northern Italy much better. If I come back to Italy, I'll try Venice; maybe that's different. Or Sicily.
top Chasing the Sun, Part 2: Rome!12 January 02008, 18:15
Note: I wrote this while I was still on the trip, but didn't get around to posting it until now.

Rome! Finally! After deplaning, we all trudged off to baggage claim, where about 10 bags came off the carousel for the entire 767 full of people. So I moved off to the huge line of people at the missing baggage desk. Like any airport line, about 95% of the people were civil about the whole thing, and a few people got really worked up and belligerent. The people at the desk handled it pretty well, considering. I was told that my baggage was still in Moscow, which was only a little surprising. My flight into Moscow was delayed, so I arrived at Sheremetyevo International Airport about 10 minutes after my flight to Rome took off. The surprising part about that was the fact that a new ticket for the next flight to Rome (only a couple of hours after my original one) was waiting for me at the passport control desk. I gave them my passport, they gave me a new ticket, and then read my luggage tag numbers to someone over the phone. I was a bit surprised at the efficiency, but when the bags didn't arrive I wasn't shocked or anything.

Anyway, I got around to leaving the airport around midnight, so I had to get an unlicensed taxi to take me to the hotel. Not a huge deal, and he didn't fleece me (as far as I can tell) but the receipt he gave me was printed on receipt stock for what appears to be a strip club. Good thing I'm not expensing this! That one would be hard to explain to the people at the office ...

One thing that annoyed me slightly was that I didn't get a stamp in my passport when I entered Italy. I have a goal of filling all of the pages in my passport with stamps before it expires (January 2010), so when I don't get the stamp it slows the process down. Also, aside from the people at the lost luggage desk, and the unlicensed taxi driver, all of the people I've had to deal with have been kind of rude. Maybe it's just the night shift.

Anyway, I'm off to bed. More later.
top Wait for it30 December 02007, 8:06
I have a couple more posts, for Rome and Prague, but posts written on the Tablet PC require a certain amount of editing to account for poor handwriting and bouncy planes. The Tablet does remarkably well at recognizing my handwriting, but there are a lot of spacing issues and things like "I" being replaced with "„". I spent a bunch of time yesterday putting up photos and the first few posts, so I'm going to step away from the computer for a while and do other stuff, like clean up the apartment.
top Chasing the Sun, Part 1.6: Maybe I am the only one ...29 December 02007, 22:20
Note: I wrote this while I was still on the trip, but didn't get around to posting it until now.

I'm taking a few minutes to write about the comical experience I had making a transfer in the Shanghai airport.

If you want to go to China, you have to get a visa in advance. Everyone tells you this, but I didn't really pay much attention because I was only going to be in Shanghai for about 3 hours while I was transferring from one flight to the next.

When I checked in at Incheon, the person looked at my ticket, then at my passport, and said "hey, you don't have a visa for China." I told her that I knew, and was just transferring, and asked if she would make sure that my luggage got checked through to Rome. She was OK with the rest, but said she couldn't check my bags through China - I would have to pick them up and re-check them. "Sorry, but that's China." *shrug*

On the flight to Shanghai, when they passed out customs and immigration forms, I took copies but the flight attendant said I wouldn't need them if I was just transferring, which is what I would have expected. It's also why I was surprised when I got off the plane, and the only way to get to my bags was through immigration. So I hastily filled out the form and went to the "all passports" lane. The girl at the desk flipped through my passport and said "you don't have a visa!" I explained that I was just transferring, which confused her a bit so she picked up a phone. A conversation in Chinese ensued, and then she hung up, took my passport, and said "wait here a minute." Another girl ran up, took my passport, and told me to follow her, so we ran to another desk, where another conversation in Chinese ensued with the man at that desk, and after some rummaging about the desk (a few other uniformed people gathered around, including some police officers) he produced a stamp, stamped my passport, and gave it to me. The crowd disbursed, and I moved on to the next line, which was customs.

Once again I hastily filled out the form, gave the form and passport to the person at this desk, and after a quick perusal of my passport, he said "hey, you don't have a visa." So I flipped through the passport and showed him the stamp, and explained that I was just transferring to another flight. He picked up the phone, another conversation in Chinese ensued, and then he gave everything back and said "OK, you can go on."

On to the airline check-in desks. After some wandering around, I found the Aeroflot desk, waited in line, and when I got to the front I handed the ticket agent my ticket and passport. She flipped through the passport and said "hey, you don't have a visa." *sigh* I showed her the stamp, and she said "huh." She tried to ask the ticket agent sitting to her left about it, but was waved off for a moment, so she set the passport aside and started looking up my ticket. I also gave her my Skymiles (Gold Medallion) card, to make sure that I got miles for the trip. She took it, tried to ask the ticket agent sitting to her right about it, and was once again waved off so she set it aside and kept working.

She eventually printed out a boarding card, but the gate agent to her left, who had wandered over at this point, took it and ripped it up. Huh? There was some conversation in Chinese, then she said "She says you don't have a visa." So ... I showed her the stamp, and she picked up the phone ... another conversation in Chinese; at this point a manager of some sort has shown up, and a large conversation ensues. Finally they agree that the easiest thing to do is to just let me leave, so they print out the boarding pass, but then the ticket agent to the right jumped in and ripped it up, much to the surprise of the half-dozen other people now milling around.

Huh? More Chinese, and attention turns to my Gold Medallion card. A book comes out, and more conversation, and more typing, and then a new boarding card comes out - First Class. Hah! I definitely didn't deserve an upgrade, but wasn't going to complain.

So that's how I'm flying First Class in Aeroflot. It's actually not so bad; I'm in a 767, not a Tupelov (actually I had hoped to get in an Ilyushin Il-96, but no such luck), and the service has been pretty good. Nice food, too. The seats don't have built in video, but they do stretch out flat, and after takeoff the flight attendants brought out little hard-drive based movie players which had the same selection of movies and TV that I would have expected from Video on Demand on any other airline.

So ... Next stop: Rome.
top Chasing the Sun, Part 1.5: Incheon29 December 02007, 22:14
Note: I wrote this while I was still on the trip, but didn't get around to posting it until now.

I wasn't supposed to spend any time in Korea, but my flight out has been canceled. It's cold and nasty here, and Incheon is a fairly small town, but I had the opportunity to walk around and stretch, which was nice, and also had some excellent seafood fried rice. The fried rice in this part of the world is different than what you get in the US, and it's much better. The rice made being stuck here an extra day worthwhile.
top Chasing the Sun, Part 1: Sydney29 December 02007, 21:43
Note: I wrote this while I was still on the trip, but didn't get around to posting it until now.

I have to admit - I miss the travel. Airports, airplanes, delays, lost luggage, tourists, rental cars and taxis; all worth it if you get to see somewhere new and different.

So this winter, instead of being fiscally responsible, I've abandoned work for a few weeks and am taking a trip westward 'round the world.

I gather that normal people don't do this-my evidence being that my goals for this trip so baffled two travel agents that I ended up buying the plane tickets myself (the SkyMiles travel agency quoted me over $10,000 for the trip - are you kidding?).

My original goals were:
  • Go places I've never been
  • Go places that are warm, sunny, and have beaches
  • Circumnavigate the globe
I ended up compromising on the second one, mainly due to the availability of flights and some pickyness regarding destinations.

My first stop was Sydney, which I just left. I'm writing this on my trusty Tablet PC, sitting in seat 44A of a JAL 747-400. I've never flown JAL, and I don't have any points with One World, which is why I'm stuck in coach (most of the rest of the trip is business/first class). It's been a while since I flew coach, and it makes the trip a lot less pleasant. The food is nice though, and the plane isn't too full, so it's not so bad.

Sydney was absolutely wonderful. I only had a week there, and I really want to go back. I haven't been many places where I thought I would like living, but I could definitely live here.

I figured driving on the wrong side of the road would be a challenge, but it wasn't - the only things that I was consistently bad at were turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signals, and opening the door instead of pulling up the hand brake. My rental car was a Ford falcon, which was fine but not spectacular. I didn't fit well in it and was always a bit uncomfortable. I took it as for south as the Bega Valley, which had a nice little town and an eerily empty beach. Probably not worth the drive, but that's OK. In the end, I could have done without the car and been just fine. Lessons learned for next time.

There are a lot of professional street performers (everybody says "like mimes?" No, not like mimes. Not like mimes at all.) in Sydney, and some of them are quite good. There's also a very useful ferry service, which was new and interesting to me.

One thing that generally surprises me during international travel is the fact that wherever I go, the same restaurant and shopping chains are there; TGI Friday's and Kentucky Fried Chicken are especially common. Not so in Sydney. The only American restaurant chains I remember seeing are MC Donald's, Hungry Jack's (only tangentially a US chain), and Krispy Kreme. I liked that at first, and ate very well the whole time I was in Sydney, but later on I wondered what the deal with that is. Not that everybody has to have American food chains, but how come Australia has so few?

Another thing that surprised me was the lack of steak restaurants (and Fosters beer for that matter). Restaurants serving steak that I went to served very polite and balanced portions, and were generally delicious. I blame Outback Steakhouse for the preconception that Australians are beer swilling carnivores, though it's possible that the rough, meat-heavy steakhouse is more common in other parts of Australia, like Perth. An interesting note about Sydney is that if you appear intoxicated, bars and restaurants are not allowed to serve you drinks. I didn't find this out firsthand-they make sure to point it out. I'm just saying.

At any rate, Sydney was really fun and I had enough missed opportunities that I really want to go back, for at least a couple of weeks, to cover more things.

Next stop: Rome.
top Photos of Sydney16 December 02007, 1:23
I'm (slowly) putting up photos I've taken while in Sydney. I had a lot to go on about, but I don't want to spend my vacation in front of a computer, so maybe it will wait until I'm stuck in an airport or something. Anyway: photos here.
top New stuff!9 December 02007, 21:36
I've been taking a lot of photos with my new phone, so I might as well put some up. Most of them ended up in the Misc category, but I also added a new category, NASA, with photos from work. I hope this category will grow, but also have to be careful that I don't end up in some sort of trouble for posting pictures on the internet that shouldn't be there. We'll see how that goes ...
top Why space is important27 November 02007, 15:54
It was discouraging to hear Barack Obama's recent comments on the space program. When asked about his plan to cut funding on the Constellation program in order to pay for proposed education initiatives, USA Today quoted him as saying "We're not going to have the engineers and the scientists to continue space exploration if we don't have kids who are able to read, write and compute." That attitude is discouraging because the space program can have such a positive impact on our nation, including its educational system, if given the chance.

NASA's missions after Apollo would have been useful, if relatively uninspiring, had they been integrated into a long-term goal of exploration. Programs such as Skylab, STS, and the ISS have provided a platform to learn lessons useful in long-term space exploration, but we haven't done a good job of exploiting them, because we haven't had a long-term plan for exploration. This has been NASA's downfall, and this is why otherwise intelligent people like Mr. Obama fail to see the value in manned exploration.

There are a lot of reasons to support the space program, in particular manned spaceflight. Detractors tend to ask "what has the HSF program done for me recently? Ever?" ... and it's a good question. The problem is that people are looking for results in the wrong places. Everyone thinks that NASA should be giving us flying cars, and amazing new materials, and perpetual motion machines - but while we've gotten some amazing things out of the space program, its biggest impact was social.

It's safe to say that Apollo program had more to do with national pride than anything else, and that has a lot to do with its quick demise after the first few moon landings. Apollo was a product of the space race, and once we had "won" the race, there was no reason to keep running - or so we thought.

The Apollo program made us proud to be Americans and other countries proud to be our friends, and it also inspired a generation of students to become engineers, and a generation of engineers to transform science fiction into everyday life. So many of the things we take for granted today - computers, telecommunications, the internet, and so on - were created by a generation of engineers inspired by our space program. But now, after a few decades of relatively boring feats, the inspiration is gone - and with it the well-deserved pride and respect that Apollo brought to us. Students who want to become engineers and work at the cutting edge could do better in India, or Russia, or China. The thought of this would be laughable (if not offensive) 30 years ago, but in this world that we've created, we're no longer the innovators - we're consumers of innovations from what was once considered a backwards corner of the world.

A focused manned space program with seemingly insurmountable challenges won't bring us flying cars. But it will bring us national pride, and the collective inspiration that will motivate Americans to help themselves - a younger generation inspired to do better, and an older generation inspired to support them by buying American products, and encouraging American businesses. This will have a bigger impact on our youngest generation than any education program our political system will allow. Manned space exploration can represent a positive, peaceful struggle for humanity, not for America - but by undertaking this struggle, America can achieve greatness and, more importantly, the respect that we've lost in the last decade.
top Whoa4 November 02007, 20:50
Well, I'm back. The site has been down for about a month now (also 12v.org and amanijabril.com, sorry) but stuff (except for 12v.org and amanijabril.com, sorry again) is back. The server hardware all survived the move, and I had DSL waiting for me when it got here, but I decided that if it was going to be down for a week, it could be down for a bit longer so I could upgrade the OS on the server. So I took the opportunity to upgrade peachtree linux to use more recent things, like udev, gcc-4.2.2, glibc-2.6.1, and whatnot. Took a long time! In the end it was basically a worthless exercise, but it was really gratifying to make things work.

Anyway I have a lot to talk about, but mainly I'm just posting to make sure I have permissions set right. More later!
top Thanks, Texas!22 September 02007, 20:04
My car has been registered in Texas for just over a week now, and I'm already getting scam junk mail from these assholes. Giving away my personal information is probably the most efficient thing that Texas has done for me since I moved here.
top Things I miss about Atlanta15 September 02007, 15:00
So I've lived in Houston for a couple of months now, and am finally starting to find my way around. While I still don't think of Houston as home, I definitely feel somewhat settled in (when Clio and my furniture get here, the illusion will be mostly complete).

But there are a few things that Atlanta really did better than Houston:
  • Your Dekalb Farmers Market. I really miss that place. I don't know if it's technically a "farmers market," but it's clean, it's convenient, and it has a huge selection of food - in particular produce, meat, beer and wine, and the range of international foods. I haven't found anything that comes close, though someone mentioned Central Market so I'll probably try that out at some point.
  • Cactus Car Wash. This car wash place isn't native to Atlanta, but it definitely hasn't been duplicated in Houston. I finally decided to get the car washed this morning and ended up at Classy Chassis on Bay Area Blvd - they did a pretty good job washing the car, but went a bit overboard on the shiny greasy dash cleaner stuff inside. Also, to get a decent wax job you have to wait around for several hours, which I didn't have time to do today.
  • Road quality. The road quality around Houston SUCKS. No, don't deny it; you're lying. Concrete roads are wonderfully low maintenance for decades, but at some point it's time to stop pretending they're still OK. The roads around South Houston have reached that point and passed it.
  • Wayfinding. Outside of the city, it's not too hard to find your way around. Inside the city is just madness. You can't get off an interstate and expect to get right back on in the city - the entrance ramp may be half a mile away from the exit. Furthermore, signage is really bad, and sometimes downright misleading. GPS would really help here.
  • City and County offices. In Houston, at least in Harris County (where I live), county offices are open 8-5, Monday through Friday, and that's all. So any kind of business you might have (getting license plates, drivers license, etc) requires taking time off work. That's stupid - who has time for that? I sure don't. It's a real hardship.
  • Clear windshields. In Atlanta, you get a single sticker for your car each year, and it goes on your (single) license plate, and that's it. No insurance card, no emissions sticker. Not so in Texas. Two gigantic stickers get plastered on your windshield, and the front plate is required (the standard license plate has a silly inaccuracy that I'll get to later). So much for the "no sticker" philosophy I've been holding to ...
Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of nice things about Houston (such as NASA). They've just fallen a bit short on details.
top The experts on the ground8 September 02007, 21:06
If anybody watches NASA TV (anybody?), particularly ISS Mission Coverage (*crickets*), there was a bit about scheduled TVIS maintenance. TVIS is something I work on at NASA/ESCG, and Friday I sat on console at the MER to help out with the maintenance tasks. So when the commentator talks about "the experts on the ground," that's me! Who knew?
top Moving to Tejas29 August 02007, 22:50
... for real this time. I came to Texas for work as a temporary sort of thing, the idea being that I would stay for three months on this contract working for NASA (via Jacobs), then come home to Atlanta and be unemployed again.

But work is actually pretty fun. It has its ups and downs, and I've already started picking fights with some of my less reasonable superiors, but I get to play with neat hardware, see fun sights, meet interesting people, including astronauts (who aren't crazy, though some of them seem to have ego problems) and so on.

So I'm going to stay in Texas and work for NASA. There are still some logistics to work out, such as moving all of my furniture here and renting out my house, but I'm well on my way to being a registered Texan, and I try to not let that depress me. I have one co-worker who recently relocated to here from Idaho, and another from Indiana, and they seem to be adjusting reasonably well so perhaps there's hope.
top LG Flatron: BAD21 July 02007, 18:26
I bought a couple of these the other day; I'm addicted to dual head (at least at home) and a shelf fell on one of my (wonderful) ViewSonic VP171b monitors a while back (despite a pair of huge scratches on the face of it, the damned thing kept working perfectly, not even a stuck pixel, for about half a year before it started acting up). I went to the store planning to buy another pair of ViewSonic monitors, but they didn't have two of any 19" ViewSonic in stock (though they had one of several different ones). So I looked for a Samsung: same deal. Hitachi? Philips? Toshiba? Oh, wrong kind of store. So I ended up with a pair of these LGs. They sure look nice on the shelf, and they have this cool IR power button (which is actually really uncool in other applications). As I was pulling them out of the box, I was comforted to notice that the two panels had nearly sequential serial numbers. I was irritated that they didn't come with DVI cables (despite claims on the instructions that they did), but that's OK because I still had the cables from the ViewSonics. Plugged them in, turned them on, and ... whoa ... color temperature was probably 2000K off on one of them. Also, the 2ms pixel speed is total BS. No height adjustment. No swivel adjustment. Appalling color shift off axis (and the color shift is different on the two monitors).

I'm really disappointed in these panels. For the price they are really rotten products. Bah.
top Oh come on ...21 July 02007, 15:57
My parents called the other day and said I have another jury summons, this one from DeKalb county (haven't lived there for a loooong time). I guess my number really came up ...
top Not feeling the love9 July 02007, 19:11
My mail today consisted entirely of six bills and a jury summons. *sigh* I'm thinking of asking alternate-universe Elliott, the one who has been employed for the past 4 months, to help me out paying those. At least I can dodge the jury bullet ...
top Incidentally30 June 02007, 13:09
Those of you who know me know that I've been on a quest of sorts, for at least a few years. The quest is for knowledge, but a specific bit of knowledge. I'll recap:

We've all heard the phrase "it's not rocket science." Somebody says that when they're describing an intellectual task that is far from challenging. For example, one might say "He can't even make microwave popcorn? It's not rocket science or anything."

That's fine for most people, who (presumably) view rocket science as something far beyond their mental capacity. (There's a variation on this, "it's not brain surgery." I'm going to ignore that for now but perhaps I'll come back to it later.) But what about a rocket scientist? Somebody who does rocket science for a living? One hopes that rocket science isn't beyond a rocket scientist, so what is? What does a rocket scientist say instead of "it's not rocket science?"

I've searched for years to find a rocket scientist who could answer the question, but was hampered somewhat by the fact that I don't actually know any. I even e-mailed a public address at NASA with the question, but never heard back. A few years ago, I ran in to someone who knew a rocket scientist, and we called him on the phone but he couldn't think of anything. More recently, a friend of a friend, whose husband is a rocket scientist, told me that he says "it's not a vertical layered shimmy" - that's OK, and certainly such a feat is beyond me, but I don't think it really qualifies as an intellectual task, and besides it was thirdhand information so I don't know how reliable it is.

So what's the point of me bringing this up now? Look two posts down: I start working for NASA on Monday. Surely they have one or two rocket scientists there! So watch this space, the world may just get a bit smaller ...
top Oh yeah30 June 02007, 12:05
Dialup B L O W S
top Updates30 June 02007, 11:42
A lot has happened recently!

First, I got a new job. Finally. I'm working for Jacobs as a contractor for NASA. This promises to be a really interesting position, but it's a three month contract. After the three months is up, maybe I stay or maybe I get the boot. The job is at the Johnson Space Center.

Yes, the Johnson Space Center is in Houston, which also means I've moved (at least temporarily) to southeast Houston. Texas never really struck me as being the sort of place I'd want to live, but it's actually quite nice down here. We'll see how that develops.

Since I've moved, I have to do all of the stupid moving things, including setting up utilities. I hate moving, and this is one of the reasons why. The only outstanding utility is DSL; my regular DSL provider couldn't help me here, so I went with AT&T yahoo! service instead. I'd tell you how it is, but I don't have it yet ... I ordered it on Wednesday, as soon as I had a phone number, and they shipped me the self-install kit via UPS 2nd day air, but ... the activation date isn't until July 10th, so I've got this kit and it's just sitting here. I still haven't figured out why I got the modem in two days but have to wait two weeks for activation. In the meantime, I'm using my speakeasy dialup account. Speakeasy still rocks, by the way.

Rather than move all of my stuff here for three months, I decided to rent furniture for the apartment. I used CORT, and that went pretty well. I have decent furniture, though it's a bit more expensive than I would have liked. In three months, if it looks like I'm going to stay here, I'll probably go ahead and hire movers to get the rest of my crap to Houston. Then I figure out what to do with the house. Hmmm.
top Photos!21 June 02007, 10:26
I've (finally) gotten around to posting photos from my last three trips - UAE (December 2006), Singapore (January - February 2007), and Bulgaria (March 2007). Sadly most of the Singapore photos (including all of them from Sentosa) were lost due to a bonehead error on my part, but the rest of the photos are up now.
top Good grief22 May 02007, 11:20

So I wake up this morning and smell smoke ... again. It was bad enough in downtown Atlanta that it slowed down traffic. The weather forecast for today says "Patchy Smoke." What is this, California?
top Chemists don't paint their own houses10 May 02007, 10:06
My proof of this: latex-based paint. It looks great on paper: cleanup is easy, the paint is easy to apply, the dried product is water-resistant, and it doesn't smell bad like oil-based paints. What's not to like? I'll tell you what. My house hasn't been painted in 5 years, and doors still stick to their door frames. I nearly need a crowbar to open the closet doors (I just leave one of them open all the time), because the paint on the door sticks to the paint on the frame. Also, latex paint won't stick to any other kind of paint, except on really porous surfaces like drywall. So if you had the good sense at one point to paint with oil-based paint, little bits of your latex paint will peel off every time you touch it. Surely there's a better way ...
top Advice for young engineers22 April 02007, 21:18
If you are an electrical engineer who went to college because you enjoy electrical engineering, there are many boring, soul-sucking career paths that you may find trying to pull you in. There are many reasons for someone to be a technician, to spend their days dealing with the mind-numbing tedium of Windows network troubleshooting, PLC ladder logic, and packaging machinery. To be sure, those jobs are important and someone has to do them. Some may even find them interesting.

That someone doesn't have to be you. There's also no reason to feel that you are doomed for life if you find yourself in a blind alley of a job. But there is a catch.

In the early 1980s, there was a pair of telling studies of engineers. One was performed by the National Research Council, who found that there were more engineers in the United States than there were supporting technicians. Puzzled members of the NRC re-checked their data and found the answer: large numbers of engineers were working in sub-professional tasks, meaning they were trained as engineers but working as technicians. This made sense when seen in the light of another study, this one by the IEEE, which found that a slight majority of polled engineers were dissatisfied with their careers, claiming they lacked opportunities to perform real engineering work. These engineers were probably capable of much more than they were asked to do, but found no way out of the tar pits they had been drawn in to: HR specialists and hiring managers don't care what your potential is; they only care what you've done already.

It has been my goal during the last couple of months to rectify this situation in my personal life, and I've been having a hard time of it. What I've learned from the experience is this: the moment you find yourself performing sub-professional work, stop immediately. Don't give it time to improve; it won't. If you fell into a river, you would immediately fight your way to the surface to preserve your life; you must let the same instinct take over to fight for your career. In both cases, your future depends on quick decisions, quick actions, and maybe a little risk. Taking a calculated risk may be the best thing you can do for yourself. You may be intelligent; you may be more intelligent than the average BSEE; you may be hard-working, productive, and well-meaning. None of that will matter if you spend two years doing menial labor. Do yourself a favor: run away while there's still a chance - otherwise you may well find yourself doomed, and that's a horrible feeling.
top Published!18 March 02007, 19:21
Almost! Some of you may know that while I was recovering from back surgery, I wrote a paper for IEEE Potentials Magazine that was accepted for publication. Well, now they're telling me that it's going to be published in the May/June issue. Sweet! Many of you who have heard me when I spot an empty saddle on a high horse will see the essay as familiar ground, but you've never heard me on a peer reviewed high horse, so there.
top Jobless ...3 March 02007, 18:27
So I quit my job at Varec effective yesterday, so I'm back on the hunt for a new job. Varec was a cool place to work, but I'm really looking to do more engineering; most of my work at Varec was Windows IT work which is kind of dismal. So anyway ... if you're hiring, want to check out my resume?
top Side note17 December 02006, 20:31
If you went to http://eep.burdell.org, you were (hopefully) sent here automatically. I'm actually getting around to phasing out that site and domain name, including for e-mail. E-mail to me should end in @imp-detail.org or @ieee.org at this point. eep.burdell.org will probably be around for a few more months, but stop using it anyway. The new site is much better.
top Rampant Incompetence17 December 02006, 19:23
Most of the problems we face every day can be traced back to a single cause: rampant incompetence. People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities: driving skills, problem-solving skills, logical prowess, engineering expertise, and so on. Incompetence does more than cause the unskilled to reach erroneous conclusions or make unfortunate choices: it robs them of the ability to recognize their mistakes. The upshot of this is that the incompetent, in addition to frequently being wrong, also tend to be unshakably confident [1].

Engineers are by no means an exception, but as designers of everyday products, we have the ability to cause a great deal of misery as our incomprehensible designs are thrust upon the public.

One way to avoid this general misery is to ensure that new engineers are well-rounded and at least familiar with all of the fields that may seem tangential at best to their chosen area of study. Engineering is inextricably linked with society: no major engineering problem is without some cultural, social, legal, economic, environmental, or aesthetic component, and this must be taught to engineers from the beginning of their training. Sadly, undergraduate engineering programs do not come close to achieving this. Engineering students are not required (or even encouraged) to take classes in human interface design, human-machine interaction, industrial design, psychology, or other human factors subjects. Humanities classes at most engineering schools are generally not well coordinated, and as a result the humanities tend to be a closed book to most engineers (a burned and buried book for some). The result is crop after crop of supremely self-confident engineers that cannot produce products the average person can reasonably expect to use.

Another solution is to unveil poor design for all to see, with the hope that engineers will take note and learn from the mistakes of others. That's the main purpose of this site (my witty social commentary and the interesting details of my life are merely a bonus). The problems I point out may not always seem obvious, but remember that poor design doesn't just affect consumers: it also affects installers, maintainers, and the future generations that may have to upgrade the design later in its life.

The idea of an elegant and functional design should not be confused with aesthetics. No doubt a visually pleasing design is worthwhile, but the first priority should always be to make the design functional. Much time and money is spent dressing up poor designs; it sometimes seems that the motive for designers to expend this energy might just be to prove that if we can't make things work properly, we can at least make them presentable. The state of the art in so many fields is, at best, a poor compromise. The most common methods of generating electricity involve creating heat to turn water in to steam, an incredibly wasteful and inefficient process; almost all mechanical forms of propulsion involve blowing things up, producing pollution and creating hazards. Or think in more everyday terms: a dinner table should be easily variable in size and height, impervious to scratches or stains, self-cleaning, and have no legs to get in the way of diners. That may seem a bit ambitious, but the fact is that most things we use every day are far from ideal. Inconvenience is the mother of invention, but invention is not possible without competent engineers. Engineering has been degraded to the art of constructing; so much of what we design is an improvisation, inept, provisional [2].

The first step in resolving this is to recognize our shortcomings. My goal here is to point some of them out. I have some obvious biases, but part of being a good engineer is to get around those in order to create something worthwhile and appropriate, and I strive to do that here. If you think I'm failing, or succeeding, do let me know.

[1] J. Kruger, D. Dunning, "Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 77, no. 6, Dec,. pp. 1121-1134.
[2] D. Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship, 1971
top Incidentally17 December 02006, 2:01
I've recently been recovering from back surgery, which was done to correct this. The surgeon (Dr. Christopher Edwards) did an absolutely remarkable job and I already feel worlds better. For someone with this sort of injury, I would absolutely recommend him and the Atlanta Medical Center (where I had the surgery).

As a side note, if you have Blue Cross/Blue Shield, if you have any sort of affliction at all you're better off buying a gun and shooting yourself in the head - without giving too much away, I'll say that I paid more than double what BCBS paid for the procedure, physical therapy, and doctor visits leading up to the surgery. They have been totally unhelpful and unapologetic during the whole ordeal and I have nothing but ill will toward them. Having BCBS insurance is only marginally better than having no insurance at all. The hospital would probably disagree, seeing as how BCBS only agreed to pay them about 5% of the invoiced cost of the procedure.

Another interesting point to make is that before I decided to have back surgery, everyone I asked who had not had back surgery before said "don't get back surgery unless you absolutely have to," where everyone who had gotten back surgery said "get back surgery NOW, the sooner the better." So I had a microscopic lumbar discectomy (often called a microdiscectomy), and I can safely say I totally agree with the latter camp: my only regret is that I didn't have back surgery 2 years ago, when I injured my back. Lessons learned ...
top My last word on the matter13 November 02006, 23:43
Over the last few years, we've seen a growing trend - an ugly one - the increased use of Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) on airplanes. It's not just passengers bringing more gadgets on to planes with them, either: in 2003, Lufthansa and British Airways demonstrated a cabin 802.11b wireless system for passenger use; Qualcomm and American Airlines demonstrated an on-board mobile phone pico-cell in July 2003; recently, Boeing Connexion has been installing 802.11b wireless systems on Lufthansa airplanes. Even the FAA has been thinking about rescinding the rules requiring passengers to turn off electronic devices during takeoff and landing.

Why is this a disturbing trend? We've all seen people leave their iPods or CD players or cell phones turned on during takeoff or landing with no apparent ill effects.

The rules we have are in existence for a reason, and they may not be strict enough. I've mentioned some specific instances of PEDs interfering with aircraft systems in other posts, but I haven't mentioned the scope or technical aspects of the problem. I'll do that in this post, but beware: this post is a bit more technical than my other posts on the subject.

First, a bit of technical discussion: how could your cell phone have any effect on an airplane? It transmits at different frequencies than the airplane uses, right? And what about a CD player? It doesn't even transmit at all!

In an ideal world, those statements are correct. However, we don't live in an ideal world; in reality, electronic devices can emit Radio Frequency (RF) waves in various seemingly random frequencies, at surprisingly high intensity. This is called Electromagnetic Interference (EMI) and it is the root of the problem. Devices like CD players are called "unintentional radiators," which means that they aren't designed to transmit anything, but certain components they contain may create electrical "noise" that is the same as EMI.

Though aircraft equipment is generally well shielded and protected against EMI, there are still ways that spurious signals can get in to the systems. Aircraft navigation systems use highly sensitive high-performance devices, and high-performance systems are by nature unforgiving: the systems may block out all RF transmissions outside of their designed frequency range, but must accept all RF transmissions inside the range. The two basic ways that EMI makes its way into aircraft systems are called "Front-door coupling" and "back-door coupling."

Front-door coupling

Front Door Coupling

Front-door coupling occurs when PED emissions enter the aircraft radio receiver directly through the receiver antenna. This happens when RF signals from PEDs radiate through windows, cargo and passenger door seams, and hatches to the aircraft's external antennas. The likelihood of this type of interference is dependent on the frequency and strength of the spurious emissions, the path loss between the PED and the receiver antenna, and the sensitivity of the aircraft RF receiver.

In an example of front-door coupling, an avionics manufacturer reported the loss of GPS guidance on three separate GPS receivers during a Piper Cherokee test flight. The interference was traced to the pilot's mobile phone emissions. Further testing by NASA on the same phone model (but different phones) confirmed significant emissions in the GPS band:

GPS interference

Back-door coupling

Back Door Coupling

Back-door coupling occurs when emissions radiated by PEDs couple directly to aircraft wiring and avionics. The primary concern for back-door coupling is from intentional PED transmitters, i.e. mobile phones, wireless RF network radios (i.e. 802.11b), wireless PDAs, two-way pagers, or walkie-talkies. The effective radiated powers from these devices can range from a few milliwatts to several watts: a 2 watt mobile phone can have RF signals of around 15 v/m at 0.5m! Aircraft systems have a wide range of immunity to back door RF coupling; some systems are very well protected but others lack sufficient protection. Avionics systems with failure modes listed as "catastrophic" or "hazardous" that have been certified since the early 1990s should be immune to mobile phone back-door coupling, but tests have shown that while they may be theoretically immune, in practice this varies.

So how often does this actually happen? NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) issued a report in 2004 that compiled data on incidents between 1995 and 2002. These data reflect reported incidents where PED interference was actually verified; the actual number of incidents is likely to be much higher. As stated in the ASRS Database Report Set: "ASRS reports are submitted voluntarily. The existence in the ASRS database of reports concerning a specific topic cannot, therefore, be used to infer the prevalence of that problem within the National Airspace System. [ASRS reports] cannot be considered a measured random sample of the full population of like events. For example, we receive several thousand altitude deviation reports each year. This number may comprise over half of all the altitude deviations that occur, or it may just be a small fraction of total occurrences. [...] One thing that can be known from ASRS statistics is that they represent the lower measure of the true number of such events that are occurring."

Keeping that in mind, let's look at some of the statistics. First, the number of reported incidents, based on the navigation system affected:

Systems affected

From this we see that the majority of reported incidents affected the VHF Omnidirectional Range (VOR) system. The VOR is a commonly used radio navigation system. VORs broadcast a VHF radio signal that pilots use for direction reference. An interesting note here is that the VOR system operates on a radio frequency between 108.0MHz and 117.95MHz, which is in the VHF range. VHF was chosen because it travels only in straight lines and resists bending due to atmospheric effects - this makes it very reliable as a direction-finding tool. This also puts it well out of the reported frequency range of any cell phones, GPS units, wireless data devices, or anything else an airline passenger is likely to have on board. Yet it is the most commonly interfered with. Why? Because consumer devices commonly emit frequencies well outside their approved range (see the earlier cell phone/GPS example). Since there aren't many devices these days that use the VHF band, we normally don't notice this interference.

It's not just old airplanes that are affected, either, though in all fairness the majority of reported cases occurred in older airplanes:


And oddly enough, cell phones aren't the biggest offenders, though they are a close second:

PEDs Identified

All of this begs the question: how are these incidents verified? How do we know that the causes of these incidents are PEDs, and not just faulty aircraft systems? In most cases, it is not possible to objectively verify the offending PED, but pilots do generally try to get an idea of what has happened:


Pilot reports to the ASRS tell the story as well. The following narratives are as reported by pilots to the anonymous ASRS incident tracking system. Though there is a bit of jargon, after reading one or two of the reports it's easy to pick up. I've inserted some comments in red on the reports as a guideline.

Aircraft: DC-9 Undifferentiated or Other Model
DURING CLB [CLB = climb] AND WHILE TALKING TO SDF [SDF = Louisville Standiford International Airport] DEP [DEP = departure traffic control], WE GOT A TCAS RA [TCAS RA: TCAS = Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System; RA = Resolution Advisory; When the TCAS detects another aircraft directly in your aircraft's path, the TCAS will alert the pilots of both aircraft and instruct them on the proper evasive action, i.e. one pilot is told to climb while the other is told to descend. It is imperative that pilots immediately perform the recommended action to avoid collisions.] SHOWING A TARGET AT 12:00 O'CLOCK, LEVEL AND SHOWING A CLB. TCASII COMMANDED A FULL SCALE (6000 FPM) [FPM = Feet Per Minute] CLB AND I AS PF INCREASED CLB RATE TO 3000 FPM (THE MAX WE COULD SAFELY DO). WE CALLED SDF DEP TO RPT THE RA AND ASK ABOUT THE TARGET. HE SAID HE HAD NO TARGET WITHIN 5 MILES OF US, SO I HIT THE TCAS PRESS TO TEST BUTTON. TCAS TEST RPTED 'TEST OK.' I THEN ASKED THE LEAD FA TO DO A PED WALK AND HE RPTED BACK THAT A COMPUTER WAS IN USE IN VIOLATION OF THE STERILE ENVIRONMENT CONDITION. THE COMPUTER, A 'DELL INSPIRATION 8000,' WITH RPTEDLY NO XMISSION CAPABILITY AND NO EXTERNAL POWER PACK, WAS SHUTDOWN FOR THE REMAINDER OF THE FLT AND TCAS FUNCTIONED NORMALLY WITH NO FURTHER FALSE RA'S OR TA'S.

Aircraft: B767 Undifferentiated or Other Model

Aircraft: B737-500

Aircraft: B737-300

Aircraft: Brasilia EMB-120 All Series

Decoding the pilot reports is a bit daunting, but I feel that actual reports mean more than just numbers. What we can gather from the reports, and the statistics, is that during ideal weather and flight conditions, it is easily possible to recover from the interference caused by PEDs. However, those corrections could lead to other hazards (what if the TCAS in the first report had erroneously instructed the pilot to climb in to the path of another aircraft?), and in low-visibility conditions they could cause a pilot to send his aircraft off course, land on an incorrect runway, or miss a runway altogether. Of course this is all speculation, but there is documented evidence that makes such speculation worthwhile: if we are willing to say "better safe than sorry" when we're told we can't bring toothpaste and deodorant on to an airplane, why should we react differently when asked to turn off our electronic devices? There are many more documented instances of PEDs causing potentially hazardous situations than there are of terrorists using mouthwash to bring down an aircraft. Sadly, though nobody had to die for us to recognize the possible hazards of unknown chemicals, I really do believe that we won't hear the voice of reason until a serious incident occurs that is directly traced back to a PED. That incident will terrorize the nation, but it probably won't be terrorism - it will just be us learning that dangers we don't understand do exist and can hurt us.
top On the mend7 July 02006, 18:24
Haven't posted in a while. This isn't necessarily something new, except that normally I have some sort of excuse; I'm busy, I'm out of town, I'm lying unconscious under some knife-wielding wacko, or what have you. But for the last two weeks I've been on the mend after said incident with the knife-wielding wacko, and have been confined to the house (being unable to sit or drive), so really I could have wasted all kinds of bandwidth with mindless drivel. Instead I was lazy.

People I know have probably frequently heard me mention that what I'd really like to do is go somewhere where nobody can reach me, like deep in the woods or up a mountain or something, and do absolutely nothing for a week or two. Well, I've been home, which can be made somewhat cave-like if the blinds are closed, but also had a phone and e-mail and other ways for people to reach me; but being trapped here I've had the opportunity I wanted to do nothing. So I gave it a try.

It's really boring. There, I said it. I've been working from home, which has been the only saving grace. Without work to do, I think I would have gone totally insane by now. I guess I'm just not made for doing nothing. Eh.

On the bright side, I'm feeling much better ... staples were removed from me today (staples! who put those there?!) and I'm generally able to walk around and do stuff (still not supposed to sit though). Thanks to friends who have helped relieve the boredom by coming by and humoring me for a bit. When I can drive, ... something.
top My encounter with the UAE fuzz17 February 02006, 13:22
So I'm in the U.A.E. these days, and I've been meaning to make some posts on random things that have happened so far but haven't gotten around to it. But I did want to put this one up because it was kind of funny.

At road construction projects that are on highways outside of major cities, the construction crews will routinely put up sizable speed bumps to keep people at a more reasonable speed (~10 km/hr) through the construction zone. These are well marked, but still it's not the sort of thing you expect to encounter when driving 140 km/hr down the highway. So a few km before the site, they put these signs:
... which conjure up amusing images of people in dishdashas jumping out from the bushes and yelling "Surprise!" or something. Or maybe it's just me.

At any rate, I thought the sign was sort of amusing, so I stopped the car and got out to take a picture. I was out of the car for maybe 4 or 5 seconds when a police car drives up and parks behind me.

As a quick aside, people react to police very differently here than they do at home. Around Atlanta, when a cop drives by everyone's foot instinctively goes for the brake pedal, even if they're parked. Here it's different; the police have no interest in you unless there are bullets flying from your car. You can blow past a cop going 3 times the speed limit and they don't even bat an eyelid. I don't know how this is relevant to the story, but I just wanted to point it out.

Anyway. So I'm walking away from the car to take this photo and the cop steps out of his car. Then there's the following exchange:

Cop: [something in Arabic]
Me: "Uh ... once more in English?"
Cop gives me a blank stare, then looks pointedly at the camera. I point at the sign; he looks at it, looks at me, and says "uh..."
So I give him the international "just a minute" sign, turn around, and take the picture. Then I hold the camera out to him. He looks at me like I'm some sort of idiot, shrugs, gives me the international "no thanks, I just ate" sign, gets back in the car, and drives off. Kind of funny. I wonder how it would have went if he knew English.

Anyway. There's sure to be more wackiness, so stay tuned!
top *sigh*21 January 02006, 20:52
top Cell phones on planes14 December 02005, 21:10
It seems that people are skeptical about the dangers of operating Portable Electronic Devices (PEDs) on airplanes. I've heard the same tired argument ("but I leave my phone on all the time, nothing bad happens") several times already. Well, sometimes bad things do happen. Usually not "planes dropping out of the sky" bad, but bad nonetheless. Airplane systems (including Air Phones and the like) are subject to rigorous electromagnetic emission standards to establish and provide control of the electromagnetic characteristics and compatibility of these systems. PEDs, however, are not subject to these restrictions, and electromagnetic interference from PEDs carried on by passengers have been reported as being responsible for many anomalous events during flight. Some examples, provided by Boeing:
  • 1995, Boeing 737: A passenger laptop computer was reported to cause autopilot disconnects during a flight. Boeing purchased the computer from the passenger and performed lab tests on the device to see its electromagnetic emissions. The emissions exceeded the Boeing emission standard limits for airplane equipment at several frequency ranges.
  • 1996/1997, Boeing 767: Over a period of eight months, Boeing received five reports on interference with various navigation equipment (including uncommanded rolls, pilot displays blanking, flight management computer/autopilot/standby altimeter inoperative, and autopilot disconnects) caused by passenger operation of a popular handheld electronic game device. In one of these cases, the flight crew confirmed the interference by turning the unit on and off to observe the correlation.
  • 1998, Boeing 747: A passenger's palmtop computer was reported to cause the airplane to initiate a shallow bank turn. One minute after turning the PED off, the airplane returned to "on course." When the unit was brought to the flight deck, the flight crew noticed a strong correlation by turning the unit back on and watching the anomaly return, then turning the unit off and watching the anomaly stop. Boeing was not able to purchase the actual PED, but contacted the PED manufacturer and purchased the same model. Boeing laboratory emission testing revealed that the unit exceeded Boeing airplane equipment emission levels by up to 37dB in several frequency ranges.
In another widely known incident, in January 2001 a Slovenian airliner made an emergency landing after a passenger's mobile phone caused its electronics system to malfunction and indicate there was a fire on board. The plane was a Canadair Regional Jet CRJ-600, a modern and sophisticated aircraft. In another incident, the pilot's mobile phone was identified as the source of interference causing a loss of GPS guidance on three separate GPS receivers during a Piper Cherokee test flight. USAirways has reported that interference from cell phones used during taxi-in caused the emergency lighting system to activate on one flight.

PEDs have been implicated in interference with many aircraft navigation, flight control, and safety systems: the VOR (VHF Omni-directional Range), LOC (Localizer), CDI (Course Deviation Indicator), Autopilot, pilot displays, FMS (Flight Management System), TCAS (Traffic alert and Collision Avoidance System), radio communications, radar altimeter, IRU (Inertial Reference Unit), ILS (Instrument Landing System), smoke/fire detectors, and aircraft spoilers, among others. Laptops and cell phones have been the biggest offenders, with handheld game devices and portable TV/DVD players close behind. Boeing also conducted laboratory and airplane tests with 16 cell phones typical of those carried by passengers; the results indicated that phones not only produce emissions at their operating frequencies, but also produce other emissions that fall within airplane communication and navigation frequency bands (such as the Automatic Direction Finder, High Frequency, Very High Frequency [VHF] omni range/locator, and VHF communications and the Instrument Landing System [ILS]). Emissions at the operating frequency were as high as 60dB over the airplane equipment emission limits.

It's not just PEDs, either. In early production runs of a particular Lear Jet, the Radio Direction Finder (RDF) would peg to one side if the window defroster was used, because the little defrosting wires on the glass were right next to the RDF instrument. Were a pilot to follow the RDF when the defroster was switched on, he or she would be flying in a tight circle. This is an extreme example, but more minor examples exist. Interference could cause just enough of a change in an automated system that people wouldn't notice a change in direction but the pilot could land at the wrong airport by accident (this actually happens quite frequently).

Is it possible that electromagnetic interference could bring down an airplane? Yes. A seven month study by the US Air Force completed in late 1998 concluded that "thousands of conflicts" among radio frequencies used by the three branches of the US military had produced grave outcomes. According to Colonel Charles Quisenberry, the director of the study, EMI can "affect the electrons within the aircraft's flight controls as well as its fuel controls ... putting a plane into an uncommanded turn or dive or turning off its fuel supply." Some forms of interference, he stated, "are very, very critical -- some cause aircraft to crash." He gave some instances where this was the case: because of EMI, Black Hawk helicopters crashed and killed their crews five times between 1982 and 1988, with 22 deaths. "The Black Hawk was shielded at a very low level -- it was known ahead of time that its shielding was inadequate." One Army aviator had gone on public record saying that "EMI is causing these aircraft to flip upside down and crash and kill everybody aboard."

Lots of electronic devices put out RF interference in unpredictable ways, and more and more devices come out all the time that are small and light enough to carry on to the plane. The FAA has banned the use of all electronic devices during takeoff and landing because of this uncertainty. Because of strong contrary public opinion, PEDs have not been banned outright on flights, but given the uncertainty, it is probably safest to switch them off as soon as the boarding door closes, and leave them off until the door has opened.
top No talking on the plane30 November 02005, 21:02
I stay in hotels a lot these days, and most hotels that I stay at plop a free copy of USA Today at my door every morning. So I read a lot of USA Today as well.

In today's USA Today there was an article by Kevin Maney in which he discussed the pummeling of people who carry on loud phone or VOIP conversations on airplanes. This is something I approve of, but he also made some flippant remarks about how cell phones really aren't the safety hazards that the FAA makes them out to be. I disagree on that, and wrote him an e-mail saying so. Then I decided that since I haven't posted anything here in a while, I could use that e-mail to waste some more bandwidth. So here it is:

I've just been reading your article in Wednesday's USA Today: "In-flight cell calls can't annoy fliers, but over-the-Net calls can." I'd like to disagree with you on a peripheral comment you make in a couple of places.

I agree wholeheartedly with the main point of your article, that people yammering on cell phones in airplanes should be pummeled. There should be a special kind of abuse reserved for people whose cell phones turn on the second the plane's wheels touch the ground, so they can make the call "Hi! Yeah, we just landed. No, still on the plane. Taxiing to the gate. OK! See you soon." I mean really ... couldn't that call wait 5 minutes? Cripe.

But that's not my issue. You also ask "Who really believes a cellphone signal is going to scramble cockpit controls and bring down a jet?" And later, "...Ryanair's concept says a lot about the dangers of cellphone use on planes, no?"

This is where I disagree. I'm an electronics engineer; I worked as a contractor for the FAA dealing with navigation and landing aids for two years, and during that time I got to see what the reasons behind the FAA's rules are. You've probably seen a label on the back of electronic devices saying that it complies with Part 15 of the FCC Rules, and that it may not cause harmful interference. Part 15 also stipulates that "An intentional or unintentional radiator shall be constructed in accordance with good engineering design and manufacturing practice." Fair enough, but the fact is that with the recent boom in cheap 802.11 and other wireless devices, this is not always the case.

Ideally, your cell phone or laptop won't cause interference that would scramble cockpit controls. However, if the device is poorly designed, or a 1-2 cent component in the RF section of the device is defective, there is no telling what sort of interference it could cause. Aviation navigation equipment is designed to be robust and fault tolerant, but it is also high-performance equipment, very sensitive and very precise, which makes it more susceptible to interference. There is a documented case of a 1 Megawatt mountaintop radar facility being knocked off line by a wireless 802.11b video security camera, purchased for under $50, that was over 7 miles away. The interference was caused by a harmonic over 1GHz outside of the frequency range of 802.11b; the camera was just defective. There are plenty of similar incidents documented, demonstrating that strict rules are justified.

Will an errant cellular phone cause an airplane to fall out of the sky? Not likely. But recent reductions in the minimum separation requirements for commercial air traffic can only be construed as safe if all of the RF-based navigation, collision avoidance, and location-notifying systems are operating correctly. Once the plane is on the ground, different RF-based systems kick in to help prevent ground collisions on increasingly crowded airports.

The FAA, like other government agencies charged with protecting citizens from themselves (CDC, FDA, FCC, etc), are often hampered by public opinion: people are willing to take risks because they don't understand them, and people react violently when things they regard as convenient are taken away in the name of safety. How do you explain the fact that when the boarding door closes and the aircraft begins to taxi, you have to turn your cell phone off, but as soon as the plane is on the ground, well before the boarding door opens, you're allowed to turn the phone back on? Try telling the person sitting next to you that he or she has to wait another 2 minutes before turning their phone back on: then you'll be the one getting the beating. The same goes for your laptop: you're supposed to turn off anything with an antenna, yet as soon as your laptop boots, its wireless Ethernet device is activated and starts scanning the area for access points. Think of the $.05 worth of low-bid electronic components that are supposed to keep your laptop's emissions in check next time you fire it up mid-flight to finish an article. Will you think twice? Or will you dismiss safety concerns as overly cautious? After all, you've used your laptop on the plane before, and there were no consequences. Why should this time be any different?
top And they're off26 July 02005, 10:57
The Shuttle Discovery lifted off this morning! There was a really cool view of the launch from the camera mounted on the external tank. The neatest things about that view were the fact that it was so stable, and also the amazing view of the planet dropping away.

I'm at work, so I had to watch the launch on the TV in the break room, which is perpetually tuned to Fox News. That was unfortunate, but they had live coverage of the launch so it worked out well. It was kind of amusing, because they're suddenly excited about space now, so they were really hyping it up and talking about what an amazing thing it was that just happened, and how we're the only country in the world that can do this (apparently Russia and China don't count) and how it's such a shame that people stopped paying attention to space. I'm just going to stop thinking about this before it gets out of hand.

But anyway, yeah ... Discovery is up.
top Meet Clio!13 April 02005, 21:45

I got a puppy! Her official name is Marchwind Sonrisa de Alegrķa (Marchwind smile of joy), begotten of Ch. Belcanto Eight is Enough and Ch. Marchwind Nicole, but that's a bit cumbersome so I'm going with Clio (who was, for the lazy but curious, the muse of history). She's just about 10 months old, and (coincidentally?) I've been talking like a 10 month old recently. I'll try to snap out of it...
top Misappropriated holidays17 March 02005, 19:24
Every year on St. Patrick's day I have to wonder how a Catholic holiday can come to America and end up as an excuse for binge drinking. And more importantly, why this particular one, for several reasons.

First, a bit on St. Patrick: Irish? Nope. He was actually born in Scotland, and lived most of his life in Britain or France. But that's a minor point, especially given the fact that the Irish tend to hold him in high regard.

Fine. That one I can overlook, but there are better reasons to choose a different saint if you're looking to cut loose and have a bit of fun:
  • St. Patrick is credited with converting the Pagan Irish to Catholicism, but actually many Irish were already Christian; they had just drifted from Catholicism to an apparently unacceptable form of Christianity known as Pelagianism, which (in a nutshell) says that St. Augustine was being a bit pessimistic in his view that humanity is sinful by nature and must rely totally upon grace for salvation. Those heretical Pelagians thought that people were essentially good, and didn't need to go broke supporting the Catholic church to get to heaven. So St. Patrick really saved the Irish from their happiness (and their money) by converting them back to a more strict flavor of Catholicism. Given that cutting loose and having a good time is likely to get you stoned as a Catholic, the holiday as we know it doesn't really make a lot of sense.
  • St. Patrick died in the year 493; the holiday wasn't first publicly celebrated in America until 1737. Why? Why indeed: just what does making the Irish unhappy have to do with Americans? I mean there's not even much sport in that. Perhaps it's because many of the unhappy Irish eventually came here?
  • If you're looking for an excuse to drink, there are better saints to choose from, too. There are three Christian saints that are generally listed as patron saints of brewing: Saint Augustine of Hippo (who was known for wild living and heavy drinking before he converted, and heavy drinking but less fun afterwords), Saint Luke the Evangelist (who as a physician noted that the beer of the time was healthier than the water of the time; Saint Arnold of Metz reached the same conclusion about 500 years later, making him another good choice), and Saint Nicholas of Myra, aka Santa Claus (the red face and beer gut would make him perfect, except that we already have a day associated with him, and doubling up holidays is no fun). Other saints got in to beer as well; Saint Columban miraculously created beer for some Germans as a missionary; Saint Bright changed water into beer to feed lepers (she also brewed beer the old fashioned way each Easter, to supply the churches in the neighborhood); Saint Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow, Scotland, established a religious brotherhood there in the year 540, and the brothers there brewed to supply other groups (brewing beer is still considered the oldest industry in Glasgow). Where does St. Patrick fit in? According to Senchus Mor, the book of the ancient laws of Ireland, he had a priest in his household that was a brewer. Come on ... I mean there are even other Irish saints, like Saint Brigid (who miraculously transformed her dirty bathwater into beer so that visiting clerics would have something to drink), to choose from. So on this angle, I really think you could do better.
I mean I'm not trying to spoil anyone's fun, but can't we come up with our own holidays? We could even keep the "green" theme if we scoot the holiday up a few days, to the first day of spring. There's no reason to make a mockery out of other cultures' holidays; we should really be able to come up with our own.
top Trench: 1, C-130: 022 January 02005, 15:54
Normally, when construction work is being done on an airport runway, there are several safety precautions that are taken. In addition to safe work practices, a large "X" is placed at the end of the runway under construction (sometimes the "X" is lighted), and the airport issues a NOTAM (Notice To Airmen) to inform any pilots that might be landing at that airport that the runway is not in service.


In mid December, a C-23 Sherpa flew into a US operated airfield in Iraq during the day and the pilot saw, much to his surprise, that there was active airport construction and a trench was being dug across his runway (no NOTAM had been issued, and there was no runway marker). Fortunately, the runway was long enough that the pilot was able to land beyond the construction. The flight crew filed a safety hazard report, which was immediately sent along the proper channels and then forgotten.

Until the night of December 29th, when a C-130 was landing at the airport; it was dark, and the pilot did not see the construction, so the plane ran across the ditch. There were several injuries, but no deaths, and the plane was totaled.

As a concerned taxpayer, I'm sure you'll agree that the senseless loss of a cool military aircraft is absolutely unacceptable, unless there are cool pictures of the accident. So here you go:
top Food for thought22 November 02004, 23:46
This would normally be another rant, but it's late and I'm tired so it's going to be short.

Anyway. I was just reading about the Soviet Space Battlestation Skif, which was the Soviet Union's response to Reagan's Star Wars program. What's interesting about it isn't the concept of space-based warfare so much as the method that was to be used to put it in to orbit: the Energia booster rocket, the same vehicle used on the Buran space shuttle.

Why is it interesting? Because that's what the Space Transport System is supposed to be (as I understand it) - a booster platform to loft things in to space. The Shuttle is just something that gets tacked on to the side of it. In all of the talk of what to do about the Shuttle, maybe it's worth noting that the STS is still a nice way to put lots of things into space; not just the Shuttle.

One of the concerns about the early termination of the Shuttle program is what to do with the ISS; well, why not strip the life support equipment out of one of the Shuttles and make it a fully automated box that just goes in to orbit? The Soviets did it with the Buran, and it seemed to be able to get up and down without incident (the problems with the Buran all involved what happened once it was on the ground). With life support equipment removed from the Shuttle, heavier cargo could be lifted as well. And when it's time for people to go to and from the ISS, a crew module could be fit in the cargo bay of the Shuttle. It might seem odd having the Shuttle crew as passengers, but why not? After all, the Shuttle wasn't supposed to be the glamorous part.

Just a thought. I'm off to bed.
top Skydive!20 November 02004, 20:01
Well, I went skydiving today with two co-workers. Skydiving is one of those things that I always sort of assumed I would never do (I mean why would somebody jump out of a perfectly good airplane?).

It was actually pretty fun. There's a lot of waiting involved, and you have to sign several pages of "if you fall and break your leg, don't come running to us with legal documents." After that, you wait around a while. There was a short instructional video, narrated by some guy with a comically long beard, that was about 50% "why you shouldn't sue us" and about 50% "hey, come jump out of this airplane using our patented and totally safe harness; don't worry about any of that other stuff I just said."

We did tandem jumps, which was nice for the first time because instead of having parachutes strapped to our backs, we had trained professionals strapped to our backs (the trained professionals had parachutes on their backs). It was really fun; everyone there was very laid back and seemed to enjoy what they were doing. The worst part was the plane ride up, which was very uncomfortable. The freefall portion was really cool; it was very scary at first, because my brain kept telling telling me "you were just kicked off an airplane 15,300 feet off the ground, and now you're falling toward it at 120mph." Once you remind your brain about the trained professional and the parachute, it's an extremely cool feeling. The harness assembly was bulky, awkward, and uncomfortable, but it did its job quite well and meant that we didn't have to take any sort of classes beforehand. Landing was also relatively easy, though presumably that's a dangerous part. The people not doing tandem jumps were doing some scary looking acrobatics and coming in for pretty hard landings, but they were nice to us first-timers (thanks!).

Overall, it was totally worth doing, and I would do it again any day. In fact, I might do it again at some point.
top How to do space right6 November 02004, 00:10
I visited the Kennedy Space Center tourist attraction last week, which was pretty fun. It's an interesting place to go and look at authentic-looking replicas of cool space technology, and they have a big gift shop.

On the way back, David and I were talking a bit about the space program in general, and it got me thinking about current events in the space program.

In a time when NASA is thinking about retiring the Space Shuttle early, the 35th anniversary of man's first steps on the moon pass by with barely a mention, and Russian Space Shuttles are turning up abandoned in the desert, I think it's important to ask: what's the deal with the space program? Why do we have it? What's the goal? And what do we do the space shuttles?

As I've said before, the Shuttle was a great first step, but it's time to move on.

But to where? Over the last couple of decades, when we should have been looking forward, we've been focused intently on low Earth orbit. Without clear goals for the future, we experimented with a few neat ideas, but nothing really took off (so to speak) because they weren't any better than the Shuttle at performing the same tasks, and they didn't really take us any farther than the Shuttle could. So NASA dumped some money at them, learned a few neat things, came up with some nifty ideas, and then pitched them all in the trash. (In theory, all of those ideas are recorded somewhere, but for practical purposes, my guess is that most of them are permanently lost).

So now we're left with aging (and ailing) Shuttles, but nothing to replace them. Our esteemed president has suggested a new mission (first the moon, then Mars), but we don't have the slightest idea how to do it.

How is that possible? I mean we've already been to the moon, right? So we know how to do that, right? Wrong. We've forgotten how, because we've totally ignored it for 20 years. One would assume that all of the data still exists somewhere, but it's more likely that the data has been lost, or destroyed, or purged. And the people who worked on the Apollo project have long since retired or died, and since there was no continuing work done, none of that information was passed on to the next generation. So we have to learn it all over again.

In the last twenty years, we could have been learning how to keep astronauts in space for months on end without any intervention from Earth-based assistance. We haven't figured that out yet - the small crew of the ISS spends all of their time desperately trying to keep the thing working; without frequent supply missions with food, water, and spare parts, the ISS would kill its occupants and come tumbling to Earth. And it's not even technically in space - it sits in the layer of plasma that surrounds the planet. (If this doesn't seem like an important distinction, ask the crew that decided to run the US-built solar panels at 130-180V why plasma is different than space).

There are many reasons for our lack of progress, but I think that it comes down to two main reasons: lack of defined goals and a subcontracting fetish. I'll address the two separately.

All dressed up and nowhere to go

The prime of NASA's existence was when the US was focused on getting to the moon. At that time, the agency had a concrete goal and the means to get there. The best science and engineering in the world was happening at NASA, and because of that they attracted the finest minds in the world. As we made our first stabs at the moon, we inspired a generation of students to become scientists and engineers - through the 80s and 90s we reaped the benefits with amazing scientific discoveries and engineering feats. This is starting to taper off; our generation's inspiration comes from people who dropped out of college and became millionaires in the personal computer industry: hardly positive role models.

Though getting to the moon was an excellent goal and worthy of doing, we went about it for the wrong reasons: once we got to the moon, Americans immediately lost interest and wondered why we needed to be spending all of that money playing low-gravity golf and lugging rocks around space. Indeed, even NASA seemed to have a hard time justifying itself once we had been there a few times, and we cut the number of moon missions short. Thankfully, there were still communists to compete with, so somebody got the great idea of making a reusable launch vehicle (also an excellent goal worth pursuing), and NASA jumped on the task.

The only problem was that while a reusable launch vehicle might be practical, it wasn't all that exciting. Indeed; it was named the "Space Shuttle" precisely to conjure up images of routine, uninteresting voyages in to space: the Shuttle was to be means to an end, a way to haul the interesting stuff in to space. So we came up with the Shuttle, and everybody looked around again for something to do, but couldn't find anything: NASA had already expended all of its political capital justifying the horrendous budget overruns the Shuttle had produced, and explaining why it was so expensive and non-routine to launch, and couldn't get congress to give them any more money until they made it cheaper.

Fast forward twenty years, and here we are still trying to do that: the interesting work has all been done, and all of the great minds that NASA attracted in the 1970s and 1980s have all left to better paying, more secure jobs in the private sector. The underpaid, overworked subcontractors remaining do a great job under the circumstances, but they're doing exceptionally non-glamorous (and mostly thankless) work, with low-level (at best) scientific gain. NASA, once a powerhouse, lies slowly decomposing in the wide-open spaces it once filled.

Government == Bad?

People seem to have an aversion to government employees. I've never understood it, but it's there, and it's hit NASA hard. The end result of this feeling, of course, isn't to reduce the size of government per se; rather the standard reaction is to subcontract out government jobs. This way the size of government is technically smaller, though as a general rule the number of employees doesn't really drop, and the cost generally goes up.
NASA's prime contractor, the United Space Alliance, sports the following scope of work:

At the Johnson Space Center in Texas:
  • Flight Operations
  • Astronaut & Flight Controller Training
  • Space Shuttle Flight Simulator Operations
  • Mission Control Center Management and Operations
  • Mission Planning, Flight Design and Analysis
  • Space Station Operations and Utilization
  • Flight Software Development
  • Flight Crew Equipment
At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida:
  • Vehicle Modification, Testing, Checkout and Launch Operations
  • Support U.S. and Trans-Atlantic Emergency Landing Sites
  • Ocean Retrieval of Solid Rocket Boosters
  • Space Shuttle Logistics Depot - manufacture, repair, and procurement of Shuttle hardware and ground support equipment

... so basically, they do everything. Why do we need NASA again? All they seem to do is manage subcontractors and hand out money.

The fact is, subcontracting isn't the way to do science. Subcontractors spend half of their time justifying their existence, and the other half falsifying timesheets to maximize their paychecks. Despite any claims otherwise, much of the United Space Alliance's often mentioned $400 million per launch savings comes from cutting corners on safety and reducing staff levels in important areas such as pre-launch checking.

Non-governmental organizations, either privately held or publicly traded, are in business first to make money. That's what business is about: profit. At first glance, it seems like an excellent way to save money; if the corporation sees a way to operate more efficiently to save money, it will. Right? Of course: but remember that priority one is making money; safety, quality, and reliability straggle in at distant second, third, and fourth. United Space Alliance (hereafter USA) is not interested in the science. They aren't interested in discovery. They aren't interested in redesigning the Shuttle to be lighter, safer, or stronger. They're interested in removing pre-launch checks to save $20 per launch. They're interested in their award fee. And most importantly, they're interested in keeping their contract when it comes up for review: $12 billion over ten years is what they want.

Steps for success

This is getting long, but I feel very strongly about it. I feel that NASA shouldn't be doomed to irrelevance; there's so much we can learn from space that we shouldn't just abandon it. So how should we proceed? I'm glad you asked:
  1. Start with a clear objective. The moon to Mars thing is good: establishing a permanent base on the moon and then proceeding to Mars is really three parts, all important. Since the moon is several days away, it forces us to actually do it right: stuff has to work, and the base has to be self sustaining, because the residents can't just jump in the Soyuz and head back home if there's a problem. The issue, of course, is that we don't really know how to create a self sustaining environment yet. Remember Biosphere 2? Didn't go over so well. So first we have an opportunity for NASA to do some good science and long-term testing here on Earth. While we're doing that, the rocket scientists can get together and figure out how to carry whatever the biosphere 3 people come up with to the moon, and put it together. That's launch vehicles, orbiters, a few unmanned orbital missions to the moon to select a site, and so on. Once all of that is running, the third mission is to take everything we've learned and use it on Mars. That isn't the simple matter of duplication, since Mars is much farther away, and has very different conditions. All of this is great science waiting to happen, and we'll learn a lot about our planet while we're at it.
  2. Be honest when asking for money. Part of the problem with the Shuttle and (to a lesser extent) the Apollo missions was their huge costs. There's some speculation that these costs were known from the beginning, but nobody told Congress because they knew that Congress wouldn't fund the programs if they knew how much the programs would cost. That tactic worked at the beginning, but it crippled the programs in the end as Congress insisted on massive cost cuts. Start out with realistic numbers, and stick to them as much as possible. Don't make promises you can't keep.
  3. Sell the programs to the public. This is the most important part. A space race with the Chinese would not be productive. Saying "Why? Because it's there" won't work either. And the current president is not the kind of person that can say "we choose to go to the moon." How do you sell it? That's a good question. Let me know if you figure it out. Maybe if we tell everybody that gay Martians are performing abortions, we can talk the American public in to the whole thing.
  4. Let NASA do the work. We've seen what subcontractors can do. The organization will be better, faster, and cheaper if it's a single organization, not a kludge of competing subcontractors.
  5. Don't require outside assistance. The International Space Station is a noble effort, but depending on others is a recipe for disaster (as we've seen with the ISS). That's not to say that we should exclude others; we'll be better off if we can attract the best minds from around the world. However things will go much more smoothly if the entire project is the work of a single agency.
We shouldn't stay on our planet forever. It's human nature to explore, discover, and expand. There's still plenty to do on Earth, but we also need to start making tentative steps off the rock. It won't be cheap, it won't be easy, and it might be a little dangerous: but the payoff will be profound. We can make it happen, but only if we try. Let's get started.
top Gas prices down16 September 02004 14:11
The little yellow guy with his thumb in his ear was lit up this morning when I left for work, so I stopped to fill up with gas (in the rain). Oddly enough, this provided the only bit of sunshine in the day ... the price for Chevron Supreme was down to $0.00342/ccf (cubic centifoot). Less than $40 for the tank! Yessss!
top You know this is how it goes18 August 02004 13:43
Mike Luckovich
top WHAP! GAAAG!5 August 02004 21:18
That's acronym-ese for "We Have A Problem! Good Acronyms Are All Gone!" Acronyms are easy for any kid who knows his ABCs. But which ABCs? Atanasoff-Berry Computer? Automatic Bill Calling? Airborne Battlefield Computer? Activity Based Costing? Agent-Based Computing? Aerospace Basic Course? Approval By Correspondence? Automatic Bar Code? Airborne Communications? Army Battle Command?

(side note: you'll notice a lot of government-related acronyms here ... it's because I work for the government. This is just the sort of thing I deal with all day. In government, everything is an acronym. Add to that the fact that I am an electrical engineer, and electrical engineers are lazy by nature and abbreviate everything, and you have a Real Problem - RP - but not a Rapid Prototype, Recommended Practice, Reuse Project, or Remote Pilot.)

It's a real alphabet SEWP (Scientific Workstation Procedurement, not to be confused with SEWC - the Space and Electronic Warfare Commander, or SEMP - the Systems Engineering Management Plan) out there.

A quick example: Asynchronous Transfer Mode is a high speed voice and data network - people who use it call it ATM, but Doing So (DS is a Digital System, Development System, Distributed System, Design System, Data System, Directory System, Dictionary System, Distribution System, Detection System, Defense System, Deposit System, Dynamic System, Dynamic Simulation, Dynamic Skeleton, Dynamic Situation, Digital Service, Digital Synthesizer, Digital Signature, Digital Speech, Digital Sense, Digital Scene, Data Service, Data Storage, Data Simulation, Data Segment, Database Specification, Design Stability, Destination Service, Double Sided, Defense Software, Digital Scan, Display Station, Delivered Source, Dedicated Security, Distributed Storage, Deep Space, Deployment Schedule, and more) might Inadvertantly DIsappOinT (IDIOT) those who hope that it will dispense cash from your CD-ROM drive. Not Yet, Anyway (NYA). Thank Heavens (TH) ATM won out over the Canadian ISDN standard, Basic Rate Access (BRA).

"MS" means Microsoft. Or Millisecond. Marine Systems. Marine Safety. Material Safety. Material Support. Mission Support. Mission Specific. Management of Software. Major Subordinate. Message Store. Milestone. Most Significant. Modem Sharing. Mobile Subscriber. Modeling and Simulation. Multisensor. Multispectrum. Metered Services. Message Security. Minimum Security. Maximum Security. Miniature Satellite.

But the Absolute Worst For Used-up Lingo (AWFUL): "PC;" there are more than listed here, but I got sick of tracking them down: Procurement Center, Procurement Contract, Principal Contract, Prime Contractor, Primary Cause, Physical Configuration, Physical Connect, Politically Correct, Posturally Correct, Permit Compliance, Personal Conferencing, Program Coordinator, Program Change, Program Compliance, Program Cost, Program Control, Production Control, Parts Control, Private Control, Process Control, Process Controller, Process Change, Program Counter, Pulse Code, Posix Conformance, Photochemical, Photoconductive, Pocket Calculator, Principal Consultant, Printed Circuit, Project Coordinator, Password Call, Policy Creation, Policy Certification, Portable Command, Paging Channel, Peripheral Component, Protocol Council, Protocol Capability, Printer Command, Plug Compatible, President's Council, Packet Circuit, Personal Capability, Probability of Correct, Production Change, and Protected Communication.

Oh -- I almost forgot -- Personal Computer.

Careful Problem Analysis (PA ... or is that Price and Availability? Programmer/Analyst? Program Authorization? Privacy and Authentication? Partial Agreement? Preparing Activity? Pass Along? Product Assurance? Public Address?) ... wait, I got sidetracked. Let's Try Again (TA ... Technical Architecture? Transfer Agent? Traffic Analysis? Target Acquisition? Travel Authorization?):

Careful And Constructive Analysis (CACA) leads me to conclude that the fault, Dear Readers (DR; not Data Requirement, Decision Review, Deficiency Report, or Disaster Recovery), lies not in our acronyms but our alphabet. It's just Too Darn Short (TDS ... Technical Data Storage? Time and Date Stamp?). Only 23,700,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 acronym possibilities; the Department Of Defense (DOD, but not Direct Outward Dialing) probably invented that many Last Week (LW).

If Over Acronymization (OA ... not Obligation Authority, Office Automation, Operational Assessment, Office of the Administrator, ...) is a Problem for Overworked Computer Operators (POCO; Proof of Concept; Point of Contact; Public Operator's Code...), it's worse when you network. Computer Programmers (CP ... or Ceiling Protocol, Certificate Policy, Change Proposal, Command Post, Conditional Priority, Crypto Peripheral) don't speak in English; they do it in MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions). And Speaking of Protocols (SP is a Security Plan? Security Protocol? Software Product?), X (as in X.25, X.400, X.500) should only be used to mark the spot, or videos you can't show your children.

If you're a FED Using Personal computers in a network (FEDUP ... not to be confused with FEDEP, the Federal Execution and Development Process), forget it. If you're asked for "NT," do you install MS' New Technology (or N-Ten) operating system, Network Termination, or Naval Telecommunications?

Working at the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration? Fund Administering Activity? Functional Analysis/Allocation?) is the lazy EE's (Electrical Engineer's) dream ... or nightmare. After all, why Say Something (SS ... not Signaling System, System Specification, Subsystem Specification, Segment Specification, Selective Service ...) when you can Abbreviate It (AI ... Action Item? Inherent Availability? Adapter Interface? Air Interface? Application Interface? Automatic Indexing? Analog Input? Um ... Artificial Intelligence?) After All (AA ... Achieved Availability, Audit Agent, Automatic Answer, Attack Assessment, Approval Authority), what better way to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity than disguising your thoughts in an intimidating and Impenetrable Fog (IF ... Intermediate Frequency, Interface, Intelligence Fusion, Information Flow, Industrial Fund) of abbreviations?

Some acronyms are terribly APpropriaTe (APT). "Broad Agency Anouncement" (BAA) and "Base Standards" (BS) speak for themselves. And what happens when you tell your boss of a problem? A FRACAS (Failure Reporting, Analysis, and Corrective Action System) ensues.

Some are INAPpropriaTe (INAPT). Digital Research Inc.'s Graphical Environment Manager, a graphical user interface, wasn't such a GEM next to oh, say, MacOS or Windows. Are people who use the Tower Operator Training System (TOTS) childlike? Is the existence of an Anti-trust Management Information System a sign of something AMIS? And why did Apple Computer name it's Apple III Operating System (OS ... Open Source? Open System? Offensive System? Operational Suitability? Operational Sustainability? Operational Station? Operations and Support? Operations and Sustainment? Outfitting Support? Official Standard? Organization Standard? Office of the Secretary? Ocean Surveillance?) "SOS?" Hmmm ... maybe that one was appropriate...

Is there a solution? Of Course (OC: Optical Carrier)! Don't have a COW (Channel Order Wire, Chief Of the Watch). The Solution is Easy (SE? Second Edition? Support Equipment? Science and Engineering? System Engineer?). It should just be illegal to Create, Use, or Posses (CUP, but not a COMSEC Utility Program) an acronym. Period. I don't know what an Appropriate Punishment (AP; Acquisition Plan, Acquisition Program, Active/Passive, Adjunct Professor, Anomalous Propagation, Approval Procedures, Automation Planning, Access Protocol, Analysis Paper, Application Processor, Application Protocol, Array Processor, Adaptive Packet, Advanced Processor, All Points, Arithmetic Process) might be, but I've always wanted to see someone Drawn and Quartered (DQ ... Distributed Queue, Differential Quadrature, uh ... Dairy Queen). Otherwise we'll all just have to ADAPT (Architecture Design, Analysis and Planning Tool) to never knowing what anyone is talking about.
top So what the heck is it, already?22 June 02004 16:13
Since I'm posting stuff, I'm going to ask this again, because I still haven't gotten an answer.

It's a question I have. Actually, it's turned into sort of a quest. Here it goes:

I'm sure you've heard the phrase "it's not rocket science." Or maybe you heard the variation "It's not brain surgery." It's what you say when you're referring to something that isn't insurmountably difficult (and presumably rocket science and/or brain surgery are insurmountably difficult).

Fine. But what does a rocket scientist say when he's referring to something that isn't insurmountably difficult? Presumably he/she won't say "it's not rocket science," since (for all we know) the thing in question may in fact be rocket science. Same goes for brain surgeons.

Anyway, I've been trying to answer this question for around a year now, and haven't had any luck. I've contacted both NASA and the AANS, but didn't hear back from either of them. Recently, I was able to ask an actual rocket scientist this question over the phone (Thanks, Aaron!) but he didn't have an answer. Then later the subject came up in a discussion with a friend of a friend, and she has a friend who is a bellydancer, and the bellydancer's husband, who is a rocket scientist, apparently says "It's not a vertical layered shimmy," which is some sort of bellydancing thing (actually, it probably qualifies as insurmountably difficult, at least for someone as inflexible as me). While that's technically an answer, I don't know if it's really representative of rocket scientists as a whole, so I'd like to do a bit more sampling and come up with some more thoughts.

Anyone? It would really make me sleep better at night.
top Appropriation vs Authorization22 June 02004 16:02
This was in the FAA VOICE newsletter a while back; I just stumbled across it looking for something else but I thought it was pretty neat. The question is, what's the deal with "authorization" and "appropriation" in congress? You hear a lot (at least around budget time) about appropriation bills and whatnot, but I (and apparently others) never really understood what that meant.

Well, Deandra Brooks (from the FAA's Office of Government and Industry Affairs) offered the best explanation that I've ever seen:

"In congress, you have the Budget Committee, authorizing committees, and an appropriations committee. While much of their work is intertwined, they all do something a little different. But, like a 3-legged stool, we need support from each one. This is how it was explained to me; I hope it helps you better understand the distinctions."

"In a family, the dad is the Budget Committee. At the beginning of the year, he sits down and looks at the family's income and bills. He makes a list of mandatory spending - the mortgage, insurance payments, food, utilities, etc., and a list of discretionary spending - new clothes, vacations, restaurant dinners, etc. He comes up with a budget and tells the mom and kids that this is what they can and can't afford. The mom and kids quickly laugh at him."

"The kids are the authorizing committees. They are constantly complaining to mom and dad that they need new shoes, they want money to go to the movies, they should have a bigger allowance to buy the things they want like candy and comic books. They usually ask for more than they will ever get."

"Now mom is the appropriations committee. She holds the checkbook, the debit card, and the credit cards. If mom thinks that dad's budget doesn't include enough restaurant dinners, she'll just put it on a credit card. If mom thinks the kids should have ice cream, they get it; if she decides they don't need it, they don't. Because mom decides who and what gets funded, she has a lot of power."

So anyway, that's the scoop. Because I'm sure you were just dying to know...
top Whoa ...15 May 02004 16:09
I found this flier in the hallway of the apartment the other day: whoa
"Dang, there's just not enough time in the day to bath myself. I wish there was some stranger who could do it for me."

naaah ...
top Decoding15 May 02004 12:34
So I got something in the mail the other day from some random company offering dirt cheap local phone service at about $16/month. At first I was ready to drop BellSouth like a month-dead possum, since I pay almost $40/month there, but I decided to be clever and read the fine print.

The first thing I noticed is that I only pay $17.45/month for service from BellSouth. Huh? I just paid them $38.70 last month. "How," you might be asking yourself, "does that work?"

Rudy Park

So I dug up my phone bill and took a gander. How does $17.45 turn in to $38.70? I whipped out my handy bogometer and waved it over the several pages of bill. Here's what I found:

Federal Universal Service Charge bogometer This one reflects one of the reasons for having a regulated phone industry in the first place. Rather than pricing rural customers out of the market to cover the cost of stringing a pair of wires several dozen miles out to a single-family farm or something, they charge everyone a small amount and spread it around. While this is a federal subsidy, the FCC assesses the fees on the telco, not the end user, so it's up to BellSouth as to how this gets billed. I approve because it's small...
FCC Local Number Portability Line Charge bogometer I think that claiming this is an FCC charge is a bit misleading. The FCC requires phone companies to provide number portability (so that you can keep your phone number when you switch providers), and allows phone companies to charge you for it. But the phone company keeps the money, and the FCC doesn't mandate what the charge should be.
Residential Line bogometer This is my actual phone service - when I signed up, the person said "you'll be paying $17.45 per month." They didn't say anything about the rest of this crap. Oh, and note that it "Includes Touch-Tone." The industry term for this is an "idiot item" - a service that costs $0.
Update 31 Dec 2004: As it turns out, BellSouth offers residential lines that don't include touch-tone, I guess for all of those people still using pulse phones (?). Furthermore, touch-tone costs $0.75 per month more than pulse, so it doesn't even qualify as an "idiot item" (though it is still idiotic).
FCC Charge for Network Access bogometer Whoa! This one pegs the bogometer. Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the FCC doesn't get this money either -- it all goes to BellSouth. This one started appearing in 1984, when AT&T was split. It is a fee that the FCC allows the telco to charge to defray the cost of connecting local phones to the long-distance network. $6.50 is currently the maximum charge the FCC allows. Thank goodness for deregulation? Oh yea, watch for this one to jump soon as the FCC raises the max to $9.
Optional Services bogometer This is just a personal weakness. Caller ID is really handy...
Wait, you mean I have to pay taxes on service charges? Especially galling is paying federal tax on the Universal Service Charge, which goes to the FCC anyway. The saving grace is that it only adds $0.018 to the bill. My two cents?
Federal Excise Tax bogometer This is the sort of tax that really makes republicans foam at the mouth. It was first imposed in 1898 as a temporary tax to help pay for the Spanish-American war, then it reappeared as a 1 cent/call tax to help pay for World War I. It was repealed in 1916, and then reinstated again in 1917 at 5 cents/call. It was repealed again in 1924, but reinstated again in 1932 at a range of 10-20 cents/call; it was changed to a flat 20% rate in 1942 and after a couple of raises, it was set to expire in 1960. Then 1961. Then 1962. Then 1963. Then 1964. Then in 1965 it is set to be phased out over 3 years. Then 4 years. Then it was pushed out to 1973. Then in 1974 a 10-year phaseout plan was adopted. By 1981, it was down to 1% but elimination was deferred; in 1982 it was raised again to 3%, with the understanding that it would go away in 1985. Then 1987. Then 1990. Then they stopped pretending for a while and said it's just going to stay.
My view is, it's just 3%; one assumes we've paid off both the Spanish-American war and WWI, but I'm sure it's being used to slush someone's fund or kick someone's back, or something equally noble. It loses points because it's apparently not spent on anything specific.
GA - State/Local Tax bogometer Eh. More than the excise tax, but I'm not philosophically opposed to taxes or anything.
GA - Atlanta Franchise Fee bogometer BellSouth pays the city of Atlanta this fee in exchange for the use of public rights of way. OK ... fine .
Page 2
Emergency 911 Charge bogometer I'm all for having 911 service. Especially since I heard a gunshot outside while I was writing this. *whimper*
Telecommunications Relay Service Fund bogometer I'm personally not deaf, but I've got no problem helping deaf people.
Unregulated Charges
Total bogometer

So overall, there's only a moderate amount of really rich BS on the phone bill -- they could trim off $10 easy by calling BellSouth's bluff and not letting them stick random charges on. But then that would be like making it regulated. Tell me again why it was bad when it was regulated?
top Remember the Hindenburg!6 May 02004 18:25
The German dirigible Hindenburg burned and crashed in Lakehurst, NJ on May 6, 1937; 36 of the 97 passengers and crew died. But the memory of the Hindenburg lives on, not only as a trite metaphor, but also as a short example in college freshman physics textbooks.
top Chernobyl4 April 02004 18:26
Haven't heard much about it yet, but this day marks 18 years since the explosion and fire in Unit 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.
top More on TMI28 March 02004 10:04
The New York Times has an interesting article from March 29 on the incident. Among other interesting points in the article are the fact that nobody seemed to have a clear handle, even the day after the event, of what exactly went wrong. The vice president of Metropolitan Edison suggested that the accident may have begun with the failure of a valve in a pump in the cooling system, but the manufacturer of the pump (Bingham-Willamette) pointed out that such a valve failure could not have been the cause, because "we have no valve in our pump." (Herbein, the vice president of Metropolitan Edison, was probably referring to the maintenance valves in front of the emergency feedwater pumps that had been accidentally left closed after earlier maintenance). Also interesting is that even despite that, Senator Gary Hart, chairman of the subcommittee on nuclear regulation, said that "some human error seems to have been involved in responding to the emergency situation." This attitude prevailed until the very end, where the hapless operators were publicly skewered by the Kemeny Commission.
top Three Mile Island27 March 02004 23:26
March 28 marks the 25th anniversary of the accident at Three Mile Island! In honor of the occasion, I'd like to go on for a bit about it.

If we learn anything from history, we learn the most from historic failures. History provides us with many spectacular failures, and it is imperative that we learn from them.

The nuclear power industry provides us with some very spectacular failures indeed, and I'd like to ramble for a bit on a very important one: the accident at Three Mile Island.

The near-catastrophe at Three Mile Island (hereafter TMI) started in Unit 2 of the plant on March 28, 1979 and the resulting drama gripped the nation for weeks afterward; as pregnant women and others were fleeing the area, the President of the United States toured the plant as two feeble pumps, designed for other duties, worked to keep the core of the plant from melting (one of them eventually failed).

Unit 2 at TMI had a lot of problems at the end of 1978 when it was set to be started. Nuclear plants are complex, though, so startup problems are not so unusual. Adding to the normal complexity, however, was the fact that the maintenance crews were overworked at the time of the accident because their size had been reduced in an economizing drive. The unit was plagued with problems, and was shut down several times (this was apparently not unusual; after the accident, in 1982, the utility owner Metropolitan Edison sued the reactor's builder, Babcock and Wilcox for building a faulty reactor; B&W fired back with a lawsuit charging that the Edison employees were not competent to run the reactor).

There are two cooling systems in a nuclear reactor. The primary system contains water at high pressure and temperature that circulates through the core where the reaction takes place. This water goes to the steam generator, where it flows around tubes which circulate water in the secondary cooling system. The resulting heat transfer keeps the core from overheating, and the heat from the secondary system generates steam that runs the turbine. The accident started in the secondary system.

Water in the primary system is radioactive, but water in the secondary system is not. However, the water in the secondary system must be very pure, because its steam drives finely-precisioned turbine blades. Contaminants in the water must be removed by the condensate polisher system. The polisher is balky, and this particular one had failed three times in the few months the reactor had been in operation. On March 28, 1979, after operating for about 11 hours, the turbine "tripped" (stopped) at 4:00am. The plant operators did not know why at the time, but the turbine tripped because a small amount of water (maybe a cup) leaked through a seal into the instrument air system of the plant. This system drives several of the plant's instruments. When water leaked into the system, it interrupted the air pressure on two valves at two feedwater pumps. Normally, if air pressure was lost at these two pumps it would mean that something was wrong; in this case nothing was wrong that should make the pumps stop, but they did so anyway (as they were designed to).

But without the pumps, cold water was no longer flowing into the steam generator to cool the reactor, so the turbine shut down automatically. The system that did this is known as an Automatic Safety Device (ASD).

Stopping the turbine doesn't make anything safe, though. The core is still hot, and it needs to be cooled down. No problem, there was another ASD for this purpose -- emergency feedwater pumps started; they pulled water from an emergency storage tank and ran it through the secondary cooling system.

Or at least they were supposed to. But the pipes from the emergency feedwater pumps were blocked -- a valve in each pipe had been left closed after maintenance two days earlier. So the operator verified that the pumps came on as they should, but he did not know that they were not pumping water.

There were two indicators on TMI's control panel that showed that the valves were closed (one was obscured by a repair tag hanging from the switch above it). But at this point, there was no reason to suspect a problem with the valves. Eight minutes later, when the operators were otherwise baffled by the operation of the plant, they discovered the light, but at that point it was too late.

But we're not there yet. Now, just as the emergency feedwater pumps have started, things should be fine, but since there was actually no coolant circulating in the secondary coolant system, the steam generator boiled dry. Because of this, no heat was being removed from the reactor core, so the reactor "scrammed." (When the reactor scrams, graphite control rods drop into the core to absorb neutrons and stop the reaction. In early experiments with nuclear power, the procedure was to "drop the rods and scram" -- hence the name).

But that's not enough to avert catastrophe. The decaying radioactive materials still produce heat (enough to generate electricity for over 15,000 homes); this "decay heat" builds up a large amount of pressure in the 40 foot tall stainless steel vessel that houses the reactor. Normally, there are thousands of gallons of water to draw off this heat: in a few days it would cool down. But of course the cooling system was not working.

Thankfully, there are more ASDs to handle this problem. The first is called the Pilot Operated Relief Valve (PORV), which relieves pressure in the core by channeling water from the core through a large vessel called a pressurizer, and then out the top of it into a drain pipe (the "hot leg"), and from there down into a sump. This water would be radioactive and very hot. The PORV should only be open long enough to relieve excess pressure; if it stays open too long, the pressure drops so much that the remaining water can flash into steam; the steam bubbles (called "steam voids") that would result in the core and primary cooling pipes would restrict the flow of coolant, and allow some spots (in particular, some spots around the uranium rods) to get hot and start fissioning again.

The PORV is manufactured by Dresser Industries; in the aftermath of the accident, Dresser ran TV ads claiming that Jane Fonda, who was then starring in the movie China Syndrome, was more dangerous than nuclear plants. The valve is expected to fail once every fifty usages; this is seen as OK because with any amount of luck, it is very seldomly used. The President's Commission on the TMI accident turned up at least eleven instances of it failing in other nuclear plants (much to the surprise of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and B&W, who only knew of four), including two earlier failures at TMI's Unit 2. It also failed this time, when the emergency feedwater pumps' block valves were closed, the condensate pumps were out of order, and one important indicator light was obscured; the PORV failed to reseat after the core had relieved itself.

This meant that the reactor core, which was heating up rapidly, had a big hole in the top - the stuck valve. The coolant remaining in the core was under very high pressure, and was shooting out of the stuck valve into the hot leg pipe, which went down to its drain tank. When all was said and done, 32,000 gallons (about 1/3 the capacity of the core) went out of the core through that pipe. This was bad news.

But engineers are always thinking. Since it was already known that the valve was a bit touchy (in all fairness, it's hard to make something reliable under such extreme circumstances), an indicator had been recently added to warn operators if it did not reseat. Sadly, the indicator was broken and indicated that all was well. Had there been no indicator, someone might have actually checked to see if the valve had reseated, and some problems might have been avoided. It's just one of those cases where it would have been better to have no indicator at all -- if you can't believe your warning lights, what good are they?

The indicator said that the valve had shut, so the operators waited for the reactor pressure to rise again (it had dropped sharply when the valve opened). The valve stayed open for another 2 hours and 20 minutes until a new shift supervisor, taking a fresh look at the problems, discovered it.

But we're not there yet -- we're still just thirteen seconds into the accident. Just for review; in these thirteen seconds, active problems were:
  1. A false signal caused the condensate pumps to fail
  2. Two valves for emergency cooling were closed instead of opened
  3. The indicator for those valves was obscured
  4. The PORV failed to reseat
  5. The indicator that would indicate the PORV's failure failed
... only #3 in this list could possibly lead to blaming the operators. It should also be pointed out that no single failure there suggests a link to other failures; in fact they are all on different parts of the system. Additionally, none of the problems by themselves would be a big deal - it is what is sometimes called a "swiss cheese catastrophe," where holes in all of the layers of protection just happen to line up so that a catastrophic failure occurs.

Adding to the complexity of the problem, it was later found out that the radioactive water from the hot leg was not even flowing into the proper tank; the tank it ended up flowing into overflowed into the auxiliary building.

But back to the problem. The PORV was open, and would be for another two hours and twenty minutes, and coolant from the reactor core was squirting out of it, which meant that reactor pressure dropped. This is dangerous; if the pressure goes down, the superheated (over 2,000°F) water will turn into steam, which does not cool well (and the bubbles block coolant flow).

But (thank goodness!) another ASD kicked in. One of two reactor coolant pumps started up automatically, and another was started by the operators (still 13 seconds in to the accident). For a few minutes, this appeared to do the trick; pressure appeared to be stabilizing in the core.

But it actually wasn't stabilizing; the indicators only said it was. Why? The operators were not aware that the steam generators were not getting water. When they boiled dry, the reactor coolant started heating up again because the secondary cooling system was not removing heat from the primary one, which removes heat from the core. And since the core was losing water, pressure in the coolant system dropped sharply.

At this point, two minutes into the accident, another ASD (whew!) came on. This one is called High Pressure Injection, HPI, and it forces water into the core at an extremely high rate. This is a key moment in the accident, and the operators' actions here earned them the dubious distinction of being the "cause" of the accident. They let the HPI go full blast for about two minutes, and then cut it way back. When they cut it back, it stopped replacing the water that was boiling out through the (still open) PORV, so the core was steadily being uncovered. This is the worst possible case in a nuclear plant, because if the core is uncovered it will melt through the vessel and may release radiation into the open (the "China Syndrome").

A bit of background on HPI and its relation to the problem. HPI involves the injection of a lot of cold water at a very high pressure into the very hot reactor core in order to cool it. The water goes in at about 1,000 gallons per minute (it would fill an average-sized swimming pool in about 20 minutes). It is viewed by many as risky, because the thermal shock could cause cracks in the core vessel. It could also cause problems if the core vessel fills with water. The dangers here aren't well understood, and there was a lot of disagreement at the time over whether or not it was a good idea to throttle back the HPI. Two years later, however, some substance was added to the danger when the NRC issued a report disclosing that thirteen reactors, some of them only three years old, showed degrees of core vessel brittleness because the radioactive bombardment of the vessel was greater than predicted. Certainly, the injection of cold water into a brittle vessel would be likely to crack it. Fortunately, however, the TMI reactor had only been in operation at full power for about 40 days.

The more widely disputed problem with HPI involves the pressurizer. Remember that the pressurizer is connected directly to the core vessel via the PORV. The pressurizer, under normal conditions, contains about 800 cubic feet of water under about 700 cubic feet of steam. This ratio is controlled by the use of heaters in the tank. The idea is that the steam acts as a shock absorber, so that if there is a substantial pressure surge in the core, the cushion provided by the steam would prevent coolant pipes from bursting. A burst coolant pipe is one source of a Loss Of Coolant Accident (LOCA), which could cause a core meltdown. Under HPI, the incoming water could increase pressure in the pressurizer by flooding it with water, so it would no longer act as a shock absorber. The general consensus at the time was that allowing the pressurizer to be filled with water ("going solid" - solid water with no steam) was a Bad Thing and should be avoided. In fact, the TMI operating manual said, with unusual clarity, that the pressurizer "must not be filled with coolant to solid conditions (400 inches) at any time except as required for system hydrostatic tests."

So the operators of the plant were trained to avoid going solid in the pressurizer by both the manufacturer (B&W) and the owner (Metropolitan Edison). There was never any instruction that suggested that going solid in the pressurizer might be OK -- it would be like telling your kids "sometimes it's OK to put a plastic bag over your head." Actually, such an instruction (going solid in the pressurizer during HPI) was considered and rejected by B&W after an earlier accident at a different plant.

But at this point, about two minutes into the incident, going solid in the pressurizer was a good risk to take, because the reactor core was about to be uncovered.

When HPI was activated, the operators were looking primarily at two dials, which were close to each other on the huge indicator panel. One indicated that the pressure in the reactor was falling, but the other indicated that the pressure in the pressurizer was dangerously high and rising. This was puzzling, because the two are directly connected by a large pipe, and the two dials always moved together. The pressurizer is supposed to control the pressure in the coolant system; that's what it's for. The pressures should always be the same, and to see the dials moving differently meant that probably one was wrong (not unheard of).

But which one? If the reactor dial was correct, there must be a huge problem, because plenty of water was entering the reactor vessel through the reactor cooling pumps (which were still running). Also, HPI was running. Even if there was a small pipe break somewhere, the reactor cooling pumps would easily keep the core covered. On the other hand, since the emergency feedwater pumps were on, the operators thought that the secondary cooling system should be cooling the core, so the core pressure should really be falling. If that was true, then the HPI signal had been wrong. So perhaps the reactor pressure dial was wrong.

The pressurizer pressure dial, though, was a serious cause for concern. High pressure in the pressurizer eliminated a safety margin, and all instruction that the operators had said that the pressurizer should never be flooded. The pressurizer was the first line of defense between the operators and a LOCA. It was easy to see the connection between HPI and rising pressure in the pressurizer - HPI was flooding the core and sending water up to flood the pressurizer.

So the operators cut the HPI way back ("throttled back on the makeup valves"). Pressure in the pressurizer started coming back down, relieving the danger of going solid.

What the operators didn't know was that the emergency feedwater pumps didn't have any water to pump (remember the closed valves), and the PORV was stuck open, so they already had a LOCA, but not from a pipe break. The rise in pressure in the pressurizer was probably due to steam voids which were rapidly forming because the core was close to becoming uncovered. The operators thought they were avoiding a LOCA by throttling back HPI, but in fact they were already in one, and throttling back HPI only made it worse. With the PORV stuck open, the danger of going solid in the pressurizer was reduced because the open valve would provide some relief. But nobody knew it was open.

The Kemeny Commision thought that the operators should have known all of this - instead, the report says, they were "oblivious" to the danger; the two readings "should have clearly alerted" them to the LOCA; "the major cause of the accident was due to inappropriate actions by those who were operating the plant."

More can be said about what the operators should have known, and how they could have known it, but with that damage done the point is moot. Besides, about 4 or 5 minutes into the incident, another more pressing problem arose.

The reactor coolant pumps that had turned on started thumping and shaking. They could be heard and felt from far away in the control room. Should they be shut off? A hasty conference was called, and they were shut off. In retrospect, the noise was a sign of further dangers ahead, because the pumps were "cavitating" - not getting enough emergency coolant flowing through them to function correctly.

At this point, there were three audible alarms sounding in the control room, and many of the 1,600 lights (lights and rectangular displays with code numbers and letters on them) were on or blinking. The operators did not turn off the main audible alarm because it would cancel some of the annunciator lights. It was hard to concentrate, with the main alarm Klaxon going, so many warning lights flashing. There were also few ways to check for status or get guidance: the control room only had one phone line to the outside world. Even the status monitoring computer was far away: although the computer was capable of recording information about hundreds of alarms as fast as they came in, it could only print out fifteen lines of information per minute. The printer fell more than two hours behind at one point in the emergency. In the meantime, radiation alarms were coming on, and the control room was slowly filling with experts; by the end of the day there were almost 40 people there.

Two hours and twenty minutes after the start of the incident, a new shift came on. It was at this point that the new shift supervisor decided to check the PORV, and the operators discovered that the valve was stuck, and closed a block valve to shut off the flow to the PORV. An operator testifying before the Kemeny Commission hearings said that it was more of an act of desperation than understanding to shut off the block valve. After all, you don't casually block off a safety system.

But another problem was brewing. The fuel rods, 36,816 in this reactor, contain enriched uranium in little pills, all stacked within a thin liner. Water circulates through the 12 foot stacks of rods and cools the cladding so it won't melt. If they get too hot, though, the liner (cladding) can react with the water in a zirconium-water reaction. This consumes Oxygen, thus releasing Hydrogen. The Hydrogen bubbles form pockets of Hydrogen gas, and these pockets formed the famous Hydrogen bubble that threatened the integrity of the plant for the next few days. Any spark could have ignited the Hydrogen and brought the entire plant down to a glowing, fiery pile of rubble. There were several warning signs that a Hydrogen bubble was being produced, and that a smaller one had already exploded (the explosion caused a pressure spike that reached half the design limit of the building). With more and more Hydrogen being produced, the gas might have found ways to be vented from the core (whose condition was unknown) into the containment building, where a spark from (for example) starting a pump could have ignited; if that happened near heavy equipment, the shrapnel could have broken through the core or otherwise injured people. Three years after the incident, investigators found that the huge crane required to lift off the top of the reactor vessel had been damaged by missiles from the small explosion of the first Hydrogen bubble; two engineers protested that the crane was not safe enough to use and were fired.

At this point, all is over except the wailing, gnashing of teeth, finger pointing, and (of course) cleanup.

There is much to learn about the interaction of failures in complex systems here. There is also much to learn about the dangers of implementing such a complex system whose failure could cause huge problems.
We also learn that blaming the operators, while often a good PR move, solves no problems. More on this maybe later. Pleasant dreams, all.
top Stupid Useless Vehicles2 March 02004 23:34
Last Thursday, Atlanta woke up to a light dusting of slushy snow on the ground. The city settled into it's normal snow routine, which is to say that everybody panicked. Then they all got in their vehicles and drove, because that's how Atlantans react to everything.

All critiques on the driving skills of Atlanta natives aside, I noticed something interesting on the way to work -- several vehicles that had somehow ended up in ditches, ravines, shoulders, or otherwise off the road. That's not unusual given the road conditions. What was interesting was the fact that one of the vehicles was a sedan, four of the vehicles were pickup trucks, and nine of them were so-called "Sports Utility Vehicles." (yes, I counted. Yes, I'm the kind of nerd who would keep track of that sort of thing.)

Before I get to the more incoherent part of this rant, a bit of history.

In 1996, the Ford Motor Company split the assembly line of their Michigan Truck Plant and started producing the Ford Expedition. This location was chosen because the Ford Expedition is basically a Ford F-150 pickup truck with an extra set of doors and two more rows of seats. This is a critical point which I'll come back to later.

At that time, in 1996, Ford decided that it could build the Expedition for $24,000 and sell a limited number of them at $36,000 - a hefty $12,000 profit per vehicle. It was assumed that the Expedition would be a low-volume (but highly profitable) niche product.

They were right about the highly profitable part, but wrong about the low-volume part. Sales of Expeditions quickly outstripped Ford's wildest dreams, and soon the entire Michigan Truck Plant was re-tooled to produce only Expeditions. Assembly workers started working sixty- and seventy-hour weeks; soon the plant was running 24 hours a day, six days a week. Assembly line workers were taking home $200,000 a year. Ford decided to give a luxury version a try, so they put a new grill on the Expedition, dressed up a few body panels, added some sound-deadening material, bit their tongues, and slapped a $45,000 sticker on the side. They couldn't make enough.

Soon, the Michigan Truck Plant was Ford's most profitable plant. In 1998, the plant grossed $11 billion, of which $3.7 billion were profit. About that time, the Michigan Truck Plant became the most profitable factory of any industry in the world.

What does this have to do with snow? Just wait, I'm getting to that. But first, a bit about safety.

Why do people buy monster SUVs like the Expedition? Security. People feel that having all that metal between them and the world puts them in a safe position. Industry market research concluded that SUV buyers tend to be "insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills."

Auto executives tend to view SUV buyers with a mixture of bafflement and contempt. Fred J. Schaafsma, a top engineer for General Motors, says that "Sport-utility owners tend to be more like 'I wonder how people view me,' and are more willing to trade off flexibility or funcionality to get that." Ford's SUV designers get ideas from seeing "fashionably dressed women wearing hiking boots or even work boots while walking through expensive malls." Toyota's top marketing executive in the United States tells of a focus group in Los Angeles, and how "an elegant woman in the group said that she needed her full-sized Lexus LX 470 to drive up over the curb and onto lawns to park at large parties in Beverly Hills." A senior marketing executive for Ford put it more bluntly: "The only time those SUVs are going to be off-road is when they miss the driveway at 3am."

Behind all of the rationalizations lies the truth: people think that their monster SUVs are safe because they are big and heavy.

Remember when I said that the Expedition is basically an F-150 pickup truck with an extra set of doors and two more rows of seats? This is where that becomes important. When you build a car, its handling and braking need to meet the demanding standards of drivers and passengers. It has to be light and efficient and all of that takes time and money. To this end, cars are built with unit-body construction; they have elaborate steel skeletons with crumple zones to absorb impact. Trucks, on the other hand, are not held by those constraints, so they're a lot easier to build -- you take a rectangular steel frame, bolt an engine to the front, some seats to the middle, and drop a body on top. It's rigid, heavy, but not particularly comfortable or safe. But it's cheap.

But the average SUV buyer looks at that and sees "safe." A reasonably competent engineer will tell you that it isn't so -- in a 35-mph crash test, the driver of a Cadillac Escalade has a 16% chance of a life-threatening head injury, a 20% chance of a life-threatening chest injury, and a 35% chance of a leg injury. The same driver in a Ford Windstar minivan, which is designed (like a car) using a unit-body construction, has a 2% chance of a life-threatening head injury, a 4% chance of a life-threatening chest injury, and a 1% chance of a leg injury. Such a huge disparity is present in any comparison between minivans and SUVs. The "heavy is safe" argument just doesn't hold in reality. Unfortunately, perception is stronger than reality, so we lose this argument.

But even discounting that argument, there's another one. If you were to say that those numbers can't be right (though they are), there's another kind of safety to think about. Features of the construction of your vehicle that affect how it behaves in an accident are known as "passive safety." Features of your vehicle that affect whether or not it will actually be involved in an accident are known as "active safety." Crumple zones are passive safety. Effective handling is active safety. A Chevrolet TrailBlazer takes 153 feet to brake to a complete stop from 60mph. A Volkswagen Jetta only takes 122 feet. That's active safety. The Jetta weighs almost 1000 pounds less than the TrailBlazer, so it can swerve to avoid obstacles at high speeds that the TrailBlazer would roll right in to.

Need more numbers? Try these. The numbers are deaths per million cars, for drivers of a particular model and the drivers of the cars those drivers hit. (For example, in the case of the VW Jetta, for every million VW Jettas on the road, 37 Jetta drivers die in crashes every year, and 23 people die in accidents involving VW Jettas.)
Make/Model Type Driver
Volkswagen Jetta Subcompact 47 23 70
Toyota Camry Mid-Size 41 29 70
Honda Accord Mid-Size 54 27 82
Chrysler Town & Country Minivan 31 36 67
Ford Windstar Minivan 37 35 72
Chevrolet Suburban SUV 46 59 105
Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV 61 44 106
GMC Jimmy SUV 76 39 114
Ford Explorer SUV 88 60 148

So are the biggest and heaviest vehicles the safest on the road? Not really. The best performers in terms of safety tend to be mid-size cars and minivans. We see that drivers of the diminutive VW Jetta die at a rate of 47 per million, the same as the gigantic Chevy Suburban, and just over half the rate of Ford Explorer drivers. We also notice that Jetta drivers only take out 23 people per million when they go, where the Explorer takes out almost three times as many.

How does this work? In a head on collision, an Explorer or a Suburban would obviously plow right through a Jetta or a Camry. The difference is that Jettas (and their drivers) find ways to avoid accidents with Explorers (and trees, and walls, and embankments). Being nimble outweighs the benefits of having weight on your side.

Not only that, but drivers of small cars are more likely to be careful drivers than those in huge SUVs. Why? When you're in a small car, you're close to the ground, dwarfed by other vehicles on the road, and constantly reminded of the necessity of driving safely. In an SUV, the driver is seated as far from the road as possible. The vehicle appears designed to overcome its environment, not respond to it. Four-wheel drive reinforces this sense, even though the feature causes many accidents when people learn that four wheels gripping might help acceleration, but does nothing for braking, but that extra 2000 pounds has a huge effect on braking -- a negative one.

But SUV drivers don't think of that. They live an a world of learned helplessness, where they assume that accidents will happen despite anyone's best efforts, and it's better to be prepared by being in a gigantic vehicle. Drivers of small cars know that they can avoid accidents; they can navigate around slick patches, avoid oncoming trucks, swerve around the thing that's falling down. SUV drivers are resigned to the fate of getting in those accidents, and believe that their massive vehicle will protect them.

And this gets me back to the point of this rant. Remember the snow? Remember how many sedans I saw on the side of the interstate? One. Remember how many SUVs? Nine. Why do you think that is? If you don't know, go back and read this post again. The driver of an SUV thinks that the bigness of their vehicle will keep them safe through any conditions. That driver will base their driving behavior on that assumption, which is why they will be more likely to end up off the road.

As a side note, on August 9, 2000, the Bridgestone-Firestone tire company instituted the weirdest recall in automotive history -- the recall of about fourteen million tires that had been primarily installed on Ford Explorers. Why? According to lawsuits and senate hearings, defective tires made the SUV more likely to tip over. How did that work? Let's look at some numbers. According to federal records, as of 2001, the number of fatalities resulting from the failure of a Firestone tire on a Ford Explorer SUV was 271. But recall that the number of Firestone tires supplied to Ford was over 14,000,000. The average life span of a tire is 45,000 miles, so with a small amount of math we see that the allegation amounts to the claim that Firestone's tires failed, with fatal results, 271 times in the course of 630,000,000,000 (that's six hundred thirty BILLION) vehicle miles. We should be so lucky! It's also worth noting that in the same 10-year span, almost half a million Americans died in auto accidents. Which means that Congress, lawyers, and concerned SUV owners made such a huge deal out of the 0.05% of accidents that could be linked to an alleged defect in the tires (not the vehicle!).

Should that come as a surprise? In the age of the SUV, this is what people worry about when they worry about safety -- not the risks involving their own behavior, but the risks involving unexpected events. The Explorer was big and imposing -- it was high above the ground, and you could look down on other drivers. You could drive it up on someone's lawn with impunity. According to TV ads, you could drive it up the mountain or through the forest. How could such a horrible thing happen to such a safe, capable vehicle? We have to blame something...
top UltraSPARC sucks13 February 02004 17:58
I have officially decided that Sun's computing platform, and in particular the UltraSPARC processor, suck. Also, there is no good OS to run on it. Solaris is one of the worst operating systems I've ever tried to use, and Linux has horrible SPARC support.

But back to the UltraSPARC, Sun's flagship pile of ass. Here's a chip that has changed minimally, architecturewise, since its introduction. To push the chip's clock speed past 1GHz (when Intel and AMD were tossing out 2GHz+ chips as fast as people would buy them), TI had to use a six-layer copper interconnect process -- the Pentium 4 and Athlon chips only use 4 layers. The fact is, for the last 10 years or so, the UltraSPARC has been the slowest RISC chip out there. Sun has relied on anti-Microsoft and anti-PC sentiment to sell computers, not technical features or performance.

And the UltraSPARC-III? It's just the same as an UltraSPARC-II, except for more more cache, faster busses, and quicker clock speeds (though still not up to par with the competition). And don't get me started on the circular register file. Too late, I'm started:
one ring
SPARC chips expose 32 registers to each program, but the registers are actually a window into the larger set of registers -- the rest are hidden from view until you call a different subroutine, function, or program. The idea was that where other processors would push parameters onto a stack and let the called subroutine pop them off, here the SPARC processor will slide (rotate) the window to give the new subroutine a fresh set of registers. The old and new windows overlap, so some registers are shared. Neat in concept, but not so neat when you actually implement it. For one thing, it's still a finite number of registers, so when you run out it's back to pushing and popping like normal processors. And since you don't have a full view of the register, you can't predict when the register will underflow or overflow, so performance can be unpredictable, especially under heavy loads. Oh, yea, the processor doesn't handle under/overflow in hardware; it generates a software fault instead, so the OS has to handle it (using lots more cycles). Yay! The window sliding method also requires hugely complex multiplexers and register ports so that any physical register looks like any logical register.

Not to mention that the physical register layout is stupid, and requires a huge amount of extra wiring because it forms a ring around a large chunk, but not all, of the rest of the processor, so you've got to run interconnects over, around, and through the register file.

Anyway, the point is that the UltraSPARC sucks. I'll get into this a bit more later tonight, but first I'm going to eat.
top Necessity is the mother of nothing10 February 02004 00:48
You've probably heard the saying "Necessity is the mother of invention" a few times. The phrase implies that necessity springs out of the blue, and that civilization ceases to function until whatever sudden pressing need has been satisfied. At best, the phrase is a tautology. At worst, it is an indication that the speaker of the phrase is the sort of simple-minded fool that spouts trite expressions without giving thought to reality.

If you were to step back and take stock of your surroundings right now, you would be hard pressed to find anything that you need that isn't somehow provided for. You aren't special -- it's like that for everybody. And everybody now isn't special, either: people who lived in the 1800s had everything they needed as well; so did the people living in prehistoric times. The technology and other "things" that exist in a given time define that era; that is to say that our tools are, by definition, adequate for living in our world, just as the tools of cavemen were adequate for living in prehistoric times. Citizens of the world didn't wake up one morning in 1923 and realize that nobody could go on living until the television was invented; they had other perfectly adequate means (such as radio or print) to distribute news and entertainment. The Wright brothers didn't realize, 100 years ago, that civilization would collapse if they weren't able to get an airplane to fly. And, heartless as it may seem, if nobody stumbled across Penicillin, there might be fewer of us around, but we'd still be here.

Some people choose to invert the phrase; they say "invention is the mother of necessity." It's a tempting thought -- first we invent the horse-drawn carriage, then we invent the automobile to replace the carriage, but to make the automobile more palatable, we must invent power steering, cruise control, leather seats, huge stereo systems, radar-assisted parking systems, etc. A more interesting example is that of the tin can. One would suspect that the invention of the tin can would necessitate the immediate invention of the can opener. But while the tin can was first presented in 1810, the first useful can opener didn't appear until nearly 50 years later. In reaction to this, the mind's eye conjures up amusing images of an entire generation of hungry Victorians starving and contemplating the bitter irony of life as they stared at shelves full of canned foods; but fortunately it wasn't so. Instead, people looked at their surroundings and used what they had. For example, a tin containing roast veal carried on the explorer William Edward Parry's Arctic expedition in 1824 included the following instructions for opening: "Cut round on the top with a chisel and hammer." Soldiers fighting in the American Civil War opened their canned rations with knives, bayonets, and even rifle fire. The earliest purpose-built can openers were cumbersome, complicated gadgets that were owned by shopkeepers, which was unfortunate because opening your cans at the checkout register defeats the purpose of having the stuff canned in the first place. William Underwood, who established America's first cannery in the 1920s, advised his customers to use whatever tools were around the house to open the cans.

As Thomas Edison wrote, "Restlessness is discontent -- and discontent is the first necessity of progress." Surely, inconvenience breeds restlessness, and it's not too hard to see that there was no convenient method for most people to open tin cans; this inconvenience was what got Ezra Warner of Waterbury, CT thinking in her spare time, and eventually led to her landmark 1858 patent for a can opener that just about anybody could use. It worked well enough, but its use left cans with sharp, jagged edges. Although a nasty cut to the finger is most often not fatal, it can be inconvenient, and in 1870, because of this, William Lyman of West Meriden, CT, patented the first can opener to use a wheel-shaped blade which made a smooth, continuous edge.

The story goes on, but perhaps you see the point I'm getting at -- necessity is not the mother of invention, and invention is not the mother of necessity. Inconvenience is the mother of invention; necessity is already provided for, or else we wouldn't be here. I make the (bold?) claim that nothing that has ever been invented has been necessary; new items are only invented to improve upon the perceived shortcomings of existing items. Don't believe me? Look around your desk; pick up anything, and think: what need went unfulfilled before this thing was invented? What would people have ever done without it? I assure you, nothing man-made predates man, so somewhere along the line, someone got along without anything that we've invented so far. They may not have liked getting along without it, but that's why it's here today -- because it just makes life so much more convenient.
top Goofy weather names25 January 02004 23:56
We're under a "Freezing Drizzle Advisory."
Freezing Drizzle
top They just don't make them like they used to28 October 02003 19:55
In the past couple of years, national security has been on everyone's mind; laws have been passed, rules have been enacted, and generally life has been made more miserable so that we as a country can feel more secure. Some of the initiatives that we have seen are very visible; airport security, security at federal buildings, and legislation such as the Patriot Act have been widely discussed, and their relative merits are subject to some debate. There has also been much behind-the-scenes work, such as the Container Security Initiative (CSI), which is designed to protect the transportation of the ubiquitous and increasingly important 40-foot containers that bring us much of what we buy. All discussion of the merits of these security precautions aside, we can still say that people are actively working to keep our critical infrastructure safe from attack. But we have been ignoring an important point in the process of securing our national infrastructure, and that overlooked point presented itself to us recently. The recent massive power outage in the northeast provided us an important lesson: decreasing margins of safety and error in our infrastructure place critical societal functions at greater risk of significant disruptions from rare occurrences -- accidental, malicious, or otherwise unforeseen. This is nothing new; it has been going on for decades now, as a series of decisions by policy makers placed the administration of our national infrastructure in the hands of profit-seeking organizations. This is not necessarily bad, but redefining acceptable levels of risk and protections as the world changes is hard work, and needs to be done carefully.

Cost pressures and tight engineering under benign assumptions over the last few decades have lead to thin margins of error in our current infrastructure. This is to say that certain major failures are assumed to be so unlikely that they are discounted during the design process. This way of thinking creates systems that tend to be less expensive, and are optimized to fit the relatively optimistic world and set of basic assumptions. But while optimized engineering leads to most events being of small consequence (because the systems are engineered to tolerate them), some rare events that might otherwise have been relatively benign (or at least tolerable) can now lead to massive disruption. As the margins of safety designed into the large, complex, and poorly understood systems that make up our critical infrastructure (such as the national power grid) are whittled away in the name of cost-effectiveness, the likelihood of massive, uncontrolled failures increases. But while it seems like this might be just asking for trouble, it is seen as "bad engineering" to overdesign a system to tolerate very rare events, or events whose specific causes are not well understood, if that tolerance is perceived to cost more than the failures it would prevent (in terms of expected value to the customer), or if the likelihood of the failure seems very remote -- fragility to extremely rare events is seen as a good business decision. This is why rare disruptions (like power outages) come as little surprise to insiders of highly optimized or complex infrastructures. Building excess capacity and redundancy into a system such as the electric power grid is essential to safety and reliability, but it has no market incentive -- safety doesn't sell.

What the market calls "excess capacity" (note the connotations of "excess"), others call a safety net. When a critical power line fails, parallel lines must have this "excess" capacity to take over the flow, and this safety net must remain intact when lines are out of service for maintenance. Such safety is not cheap. So while adequate margins of safety generally have the side effect of increasing the overall efficiency and reliability of a system, at some point investments in redundancy are seen as extravagant and wasteful to stakeholders, whether they are private stakeholders (i.e. shareholders) or public (i.e. taxpayers). Those who are out to placate stakeholders tend to favor more visible single-point safety or security measures, which tend to cost more in the long run and are generally less effective.

The invisible hand of economics creates systems designed and optimized under optimistic assumptions of relatively benign environments; these systems are at great risk if new or unexpected threats arise, because the margins that have historically made it possible to work around unexpected problems (think of the Apollo-13 near-disaster) are no longer designed in. The development of our critical infrastructure is subject to these economic motivations, so it is already (and will become more) fragile to rare or unexpected events. That's good business paving the road to future vulnerabilities, because the market will not bear the cost of the level of reliability that it expects. The pace of technological change and societal reliance on these systems amplify the uncertainty, urgency, and magnitude of risk here.

After 9/11, we can point out how scenarios that were previously almost unthinkable are suddenly possible, and thus engineered defenses against potential attacks are more strongly motivated. However, to define and quantify threats and their impact, particularly in combination with coordinated physical and psychological attacks and effects, requires deep contemplative research, development, large-scale experimentation, and the like -- all very costly with little to no visible immediate payoff (which makes them politically unpopular). But given the social and economic consequences that arose from the recent power outage, the national power grid is suddenly a large, inviting target for those who seek to disrupt society because it has demonstrated weaknesses and widespread impact. It is impossible to protect all important points of such a large system using the standard paradigms of physical security, which is generally designed in isolation from the system it is protecting, and therefore offers little real protection. Instead we need to fix the basic problems with the infrastructure -- if we can reduce the potential impact of catastrophic events on the power grid by making it more robust and flexible, it will become a less inviting target for catastrophic terrorism. To achieve this, we must accept that we need non-market investments in the design and implementation of safety, security, and robustness in critical infrastructure.
top CAIB update5 July 02003 23:06
Yes, those wacky folks at the CAIB have done it again; on July 1 they released their fourth preliminary recommendation for what should happen before the shuttle fleet is put back to use.

This time, their idea is to have more high-quality, high-resolution images taken of the shuttle during liftoff; in particular they want these shots taken from at least three angles. They also point out that 'mobile assets' (ships or aircraft) could be used to this end.

These are all good ideas; the only bad part is that everything they talk about in this preliminary recommendation will add a significant amount to the cost of launching the shuttle, at a time when great effort goes in to reducing the cost of launching the shuttle. Given the current countrywide financial crisis, I find it unlikely that NASA will get any more money for launches (or anything else) -- which means that there will either be fewer launches, or other corners will be cut, or (most likely) both. Too bad.
top It isn't rocket science29 June 02003 22:54
OK, here's one. You've all heard the phrase "it isn't rocket science," or perhaps "it isn't brain surgery." But what do rocket scientists (or brain surgeons) say to describe something easy? I'd like to ask one to find out, but I don't know any rocket scientists or brain surgeons, so I can't. So: if you're a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon, what would you say? Please tell me ... inquiring minds want to know!
top This person drives the same roads as you29 June 02003, 22:54
Yes; it's sad but true -- this person is probably still driving. I took the following pictures one night a couple of weeks ago outside the Wolf Camera on the corner of 14th Street and the exit ramp of I75/I85 South. I apologize for the low quality of the photos, but they were taken on 200 speed film, which isn't really great for night shots.

I'll note that these photographs are real and unretouched, except that I adjusted the contrast in a few in an attempt to make them a bit easier to see. Anyone who cares to drop by my house can see the originals. I seriously have no idea how someone could have done this by accident. As you can (maybe) see, the back of the car is not dented, suggesting the person wasn't pushed over the wall. Which leaves the option that they got to the wall and put some serious gas into that Oldsmobile to lift it over about 5 or 6 inches of concrete and then drag it several inches across its oil pan before stopping. The car wasn't there the following day when I drove by again, but my guess is that it didn't take too much work to become drivable again, so whoever did this is most likely back behind the wheel. Scary!
top Why the CAIB won't fix NASA27 June 02003, 20:54
Well, the folks at CAIB have been a collective bunch of busy bees the last couple of months, and have now churned out their third recommendation to NASA on what should be implemented before a shuttle launches again. The recommendations can be found here and here.

Sadly, their recommendations are fairly worthless. Why? Well, let's go over the three recommendations:
  • Recommendation One: Prior to return to flight, NASA should develop and implement a comprehensive inspection plan to determine the structural integrity of all Reinforce Carbon-Carbon (RCC) system components. This inspection plan should take advantage of advanced non-destructive inspection technology. This recommendation was issued because of the board's finding that current inspection techniques are not adequate to assess structural integrity of RCC, supporting structure, and attaching hardware.
    Well no shit, guys; did it really take you two months to figure that out? Apparently there were failures in the inspection of the shuttle. The fact that this recommendation only refers to the RCC components, and not (say) the rest of the shuttle shows the simple-minded thought process that is going on at CAIB. Inspecting the part that failed seems like an obvious answer, except for two problems. First is the obvious problem that having someone stare at the RCC wingtips for a few hours before a shuttle flight addresses a symptom, not a problem. So the thing broke. More specifically, one of them broke, after being hit by something. If RCC component failure was a common occurrence, it's possible that regular inspections of the components would be helpful, though not as helpful as (for instance) redesigning the components to fail less often. Maybe they could have recommended that every component that has a Criticality Rating of 1 (loss of crew/vehicle) be thoroughly inspected before each flight. The other issue is that shuttle maintenance is performed by the lowest bidder. Someday, people will learn that the lowest bidder is NEVER the best deal, NEVER the most reliable, and NEVER a good idea. Having said that, they will do what they are paid to do. And the odds of them getting more money to inspect the RCC edges is fairly slim, which means that the money will come from somewhere else, so in the end the net gain is zero (at best) or negative (more realistically). What's the least important shuttle maintenance task? Because something has to be cut.
  • Recommendation Two: Prior to return to flight, NASA should modify its Memorandum of Agreement with National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) to make on-orbit imaging for each Shuttle flight a standard requirement.
    In all fairness, this isn't a totally bad idea, but it needs a bit of work. What's good about this is that it bypasses the chain of command that apparently failed during the Columbia flight, where lower level employees requested satellite imagery and upper level employees rescinded the request. But what do they take images of? The top? The bottom? The sides? How many pictures can they take? How much do the pictures cost, anyway? Who pays? Who looks at the pictures? How long are they kept? So what if they find a problem? Is there something to do about it? This requirement in a vacuum (har!) isn't very useful.
  • Recommendation Three:
    • Before return to flight, for missions to the International Space Station (ISS), develop a practicable capability to inspect and effect emergency repairs to the widest possible range of damage to the Thermal Protection System (TPS), including both tile and Reinforced Carbon Carbon (RCC), taking advantage of the additional capabilities available while in proximity to and docked at the ISS.
      Well sure, this sounds like a good idea. Let's just send the next shuttle up with a big pile of heat resistant tiles (there are over 12,000 distinct tiles on the shuttle) and some superglue, and, um, yea, a few of those carbon thingies too. That way if the random photos of the shuttle pick something up, some poor asshole in a 300lb suit can wander out with a hammer and screwdriver and hope to God that the shuttle is grounded to plasma as well as the ISS, and fix it. Right? Hmmm ... I guess they'll need some additional training for that, too. And we'll need some more closet space on the ISS...
    • Before return to flight, for non-station missions, develop a comprehensive autonomous (independent of station) inspection and repair capability to cover the widest practicable range of damage scenarios.
      OK, first of all, and this isn't really relevant, but why do you guys keep saying 'practicable?' Are you too smart to just say 'feasible' or 'practical' like the rest of us?
      Second, just what do you expect the astronauts to replace missing pieces with? Duct tape and bailing wire? JB-Weld? (hell, it works on engine blocks, right?) Or maybe the astronauts can spend their days in orbit precision cutting heat tiles, or mixing glue to fill holes. Yea, that's real good, guys. I'm all in favor of this idea if it means making reasonable EVA suits for the astronauts, but that seems unlikely for some reason.
    • An on-orbit TPS inspection should be accomplished early on all missions, using appropriate assets and capabilities.
      So make sure that one of those random images of the shuttle is a really, really high-resolution belly shot. Seems fairly redundant to me, but whatever.
    • The ultimate objective should be a fully autonomous capability for all missions, [sic] to address the possibility that an ISS mission does not achieve the necessary orbit, fails to dock successfully, or suffers damage during or after undocking.
      Huh? Somebody call an editor, quick!
      As nearly as I can tell, this decodes to mean "The ultimate objective should be to address the possibility that a mission to the ISS fails because the shuttle didn't make it up, made it up but couldn't dock, or something breaks during the docking or undocking procedure." Why is this so vague? What about non-ISS missions? Do you want to be more specific about this amazing capability? And when has anything in space been fully autonomous? It sounds to me like they want to prepare for every specific situation, which is (of course) impossible.
The third recommendation ends with a smug "see, we figured it all out" passage, which again indicates a lack of careful thought in the process. Why? Well let's think about what two biggest problems with the shuttle program are: (see how presumptuous I am?)
  1. The program is seriously underfunded. Contrary to the current dominant political theories, sending something in to space is expensive. I always thought that the recent mantra in NASA of "better, faster, cheaper" (a triumph of sloganeering over engineering) was an inside joke, considering that the phrase has always been "better, faster, cheaper: choose two." NASA needs money to hire and keep smart people, upgrade or replace critical systems, and maybe patch the holes in the roof of the shuttle hangers. Oh, and also to inspect and maintain the remainder of the shuttle fleet. Then they need some time to sort things out. This is more of an internal problem. Don't make unrealistic deadlines! Remember that software engineering for NASA used to be the model, and that software written for NASA could be considered bug-free at v1.0. Now, residents of the ISS spend half their lives flipping through huge binders full of workarounds for software bugs. There's no excuse for that. Do we wonder why no science gets done at the ISS? It's because the ISS in its current form is worthless as a scientific vessel -- it's more of a really expensive, high maintenance proof of concept.
  2. The program is too fragmented. The whole agency is, really. There is too much subcontracting and outsourcing and privatization. Some things just don't work well privatized -- some tasks are too important to be left up to a company whose main concern is the bottom line. Shut down the United Space Alliance! It was a bad idea. The fact is that privatizing doesn't save any money (usually it costs more to do the same amount of work), but privatizing does result in cut corners, overlooked problems, and general cheapness. Stop it!

"Aha," you might be saying, "your solution is to throw money at the problem!"
Well, yes and no. On the one hand, I do think that money is bound to be involved. Nobody works for free. The fact is that science is important because it will help future generations (i.e. "me") fix some of the problems that the current generation is leaving. And sadly, science is often an expensive process with little or no direct return on investment, which is why private scientific enterprise isn't the sort of science that we need. Government and university research is the sort of basic, low-level research that will give us new propulsion systems, clean energy, and whatnot.

In the absence of more funding, we need to take a good, hard look at NASA and decide just what it's going to do, and how much (realistically!) that will cost. How many shuttle missions will fly? What will we do with the ISS? What do we want with the moon? With Mars? Space in general? Let's decide, and do those things well, and forget the rest. Better to do a good job of one or two things than do a half-assed job of lots.

OK, that's enough ranting for now. Maybe next time I'll talk for a while about why we don't need to rush in to the next generation shuttle.
top No shit, there I was ...21 June 02003, 00:31
So a friend of mine was on TV today -- specifically, he was a guest on the show Tech Support on People TV, which is broadcast live to whoever is watching in metro Atlanta. Since it's not everyday that most people get on TV, and there was supposedly room in the studio for 3 friends to watch, I went with two other people to watch David be on TV. Which was going to be fun.

So we get to People TV, and all I can think of is UHF, but whatever -- it was really neat to be hanging around the studio, and we were going to be sitting in the control room watching the show.

At least that was the plan until about 40 seconds (literally) before the show started, when the producer of the show asks us "are you three on camera?" We thought that he was asking us if we were going to be on the show, so we said "no" -- to which he said "Well, you are now," and started herding us through the door into the studio. We were trying to tell him that we weren't on the show until we realized that what he wanted us to do was operate the cameras.

So we operated the cameras, which was cool. Since none of us knew what we were doing, it was a bit interesting at first, but we had lots of fun and really got the hang of it by the end. And we got on the credits of the show, which was neat even though they spelled my name wrong. Plus we learned lots of neat things like how to zoom and focus and roll the cameras around, plus some cool TV cameraman phrases like "I need a two shot, left."

After the show, we were hanging around outside the building waiting for David to take care of some paperwork to get a VHS copy of the show, but he was taking too long so we went inside to get some free pizza and escape some weird drunk guy. So we're eating pizza in the hallway, and the producer comes out and says "hey, do you want to run cameras for the next show?"

Of course we said yes, and this time even got a more active role in the production process, which is really hectic by the way -- especially for live broadcasts.

Oh, and they spelled my name wrong on the credits again, but differently this time. How hard is it? E - l - l - i - o - t - t   P - o - t - t - e - r. Yeesh.

So anyway, definitely an interesting day. I wonder if I can go and operate the cameras more; that was fun. He said we could come back; maybe we can take him up on his offer :)
top The Next Generation4 February 02003, 23:27
As an engineering student, I have always been impressed with NASA because they always seem to have a backup -- backup hydraulic systems, backup electrical systems, backups for backups, plans for contingencies, and backup plans for those. The concept of redundant systems has always fascinated me, hence the draw to NASA. It seemed, until a few days ago, that the guys and girls at NASA had thought of everything.

When the Columbia broke apart, contingency plans were immediately dusted off and deployed -- NASA had planned for this type of event, even though everyone hoped that it would not occur.

While it's good that they were prepared for disaster, what the engineering student in me wants to know is how the disaster could have been prevented -- how NASA, with all of its backup plans and redundant systems, was unable to foresee this event and head off disaster, rather than just reacting to it. This is obviously the question on everybody's mind, especially after seeing that engineers analyzed footage of ice-covered insulation hitting the OV (at roughly 1500 mph), with " the impact analysis [indicating] the potential for a large damage area to the tile ... over an area of about 7 in by 30 in." (see p. 14).

No doubt the questions raised by this will lead to much finger pointing, wailing, and gnashing of teeth in the near future -- what broke, who built it, who designed it, who inspected it, who signed off on what, etc etc etc. This is the process that people like to see, because in the end it lets us point a finger at someone and say "it was his fault." Very clean. I could discuss the issues with this method of problem solving, but that would take too much space so I won't.

I will rant, however, about the fact that despite twenty years of improvements to the Shuttle fleet, we can only perform the most rudimentary actions in space, and the Shuttles are merely big boxes that go up, float for a while, and glide back down. While in space, there is no way to give the outside of the shuttle a look, no way to change its course, and no way to repair major problems if they arise.

It was not possible for one of the crew members of the Columbia to perform an EVA to inspect the vehicle, because the cargo bay was occupied by the science package (so it didn't have a remote manipulator to secure an astronaut), and there are no handles or tethers on the bottom of the Shuttle, and without tethers, handles, or the robot arm, you just can't do space walks. In addition, the Columbia could not reach the higher orbit of the ISS: the OMS and RCS thrusters could not boost it to that level -- the OV was just too heavy. The Columbia never made it to the ISS, and was not even equipped to dock with it.

But let's say, hypothetically, that someone was able to perform an EVA to check out and possibly repair ceramic heat shield tiles on the underside of the Columbia -- fat chance, because each one of the tens of thousands of ceramic tiles on the surface of the shuttle is unique, and fits in only one place. Which means that there would be no way to have the correct tile on board to replace a broken one.

Basically, the Columbia was destroyed because we could only guess at the physical status of the OV while it was in space. Apparently, we guessed wrong.

The bad guess, however, is not to blame in this case. The real problem is that the Shuttle program represents human spaceflight in its infancy; though it seems to be a marvelous technological feat, it's really very primitive and rudimentary. We go up, we come down, and every time it's an adventure because we never seem to be equipped to deal with the problems, small and large, that inevitably pop up.

I've seen people who are normally pretty intelligent use this disaster as an argument that manned spaceflight is not worth the risk. "What have we gotten out of manned spaceflight recently?" they ask, and indeed that might be a good question. The answer is simple -- we have gained experience and data. Without experience and data, manned spaceflight cannot evolve to the next level of visiting nearby planets. While experience and data are not as glamorous as, say, pens that write upside down, they are likely to be much more useful in the end. Saying that there is nothing to be gained by manned spaceflight at this time is dangerously shortsighted, and saying that the risks are not worth the benefits is ignoring a fundamental part of science -- scientific research must be relentless, and we learn more from failure than we do from success. Though this disaster may be a large setback, we may learn more from the failure than one might think. We may find fundamental flaws in the Shuttle fleet, we may find specific problems that are easily solved, or we may find out that certain metals behave in unexpected ways when they've spent a certain amount of time in space. Any of these things will be useful to know.

It pains me greatly to say this, but the Shuttle fleet, while remarkable, is nearing the end of its usefulness. We need to step back now and decide what we need in a reusable space vehicle, and instead of replacing the Columbia with another Shuttle, we should design a new space vehicle which is more than just a Shuttle and an Orbiter. We need a space vehicle that can be quickly launched, stay in space for more than 3 weeks, change its course mid-mission if necessary, be repaired in space if necessary, and be launched in a matter of days, not weeks or months. New space suits should follow -- the current space suits render well trained and physically fit astronauts into clumsy primates, and force them to stay chained to the OV lest they float off into oblivion -- this is as primitive device as the Shuttle that the astronaut is chained to.

The Shuttles have served an important purpose as the world's first reusable space vehicles, but now it's time to move on to the next step. We have gained enough knowledge to create a new revolutionary space vehicle -- let's take advantage of that.
top Columbia2 February 02003, 01:41
I spent most of this morning and early afternoon glued to the radio, listening to reports and commentary on the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia. I tried sitting in front of the TV watching CNN as I had done in September of 2001, but CNN's coverage of the event was sickening. NPR ended up having more intelligent coverage than any of the other news sources I tried.

The train of events leading up to the disaster is posted in so many places that I'm not going to bother mentioning it here. I'm also going to refrain from speculating on the direct cause of the disaster, because I don't have the requisite competence in this area. However, there is one nagging issue that I feel bears a closer look -- that of the piece of insulation that fell off of the OV at launch and apparently impacted the left wing.

What bothers me is not that this appears to be a smoking gun -- as I said, I'm in no position to speculate on that. The part that bothers me is the fact that once the Shuttle had launched, NASA had no way of inspecting the wing to see if it was damaged.

In one of the press conferences, we learned that Columbia was not equipped with an arm, there was no method of getting a view of the sides or bottom of the OV, and EVA was out of the question because even if one of the astronauts could get to the wing (they couldn't), there would be nothing for them to do because the astronauts do not have the training or equipment to make repairs of that nature to the shuttle. Furthermore, if there was in fact visible damage to the OV, the astronauts could do nothing but float around in space, because Columbia would not be able to (for instance) maneuver itself to rendezvous with the ISS, and even if it could it is not equipped to dock with the station. Furthermore, NASA's most optimistic estimate of how long it would take to launch a Shuttle to respond to some emergency is 2-3 weeks -- as long as there is already a shuttle on the pad, ready to go, and there are no crew change requirements. Otherwise, your emergency could have to wait 3-4 months to prepare a vehicle and crew for launch. Hardly a viable option.

Yes, it's true: NASA, which makes backups of backups of backups and contingency plans for contingency plans, has no way of saving astronauts once they are in space. Not only that; they have left themselves a huge blind spot (the physical condition of the bottom of the shuttle).

This blind spot is the cause of much speculation now on the cause of the Columbia disaster -- was there damage to the left wing of the OV from a piece of insulation that fell during launch? We may never know for sure. Any method of showing an image of the Shuttle's wing -- EVA, a camera, whatever -- could have answered many questions, and perhaps saved the lives of seven astronauts. If there are any benefits to be gained from this event, I hope to see:
  • Improved EVA ability. This means better space suits for the astronauts -- suits that allow greater freedom of movement than the current ILC Dover suits (which weigh over 300 pounds). A suit designed for EVA should allow astronauts to move around without depending on tethers and handles to hold.
  • Visual diagnostic ability for a vehicle in orbit. A picture is worth a thousand words. As we learned today, it could also be worth 2-3 years of investigation, and perhaps seven lives.
  • Quicker launch turnaround. No amount of diagnostic ability will get a disabled vehicle safely back to Earth. It is shameful that after 30 years of developing the shuttle, it still takes about three weeks of work at the pad to launch an OV. In 1981, the United States amazed the world by creating the first reusable launch vehicle. What we didn't create was a practical launch vehicle. Twenty two years later, we still have a vehicle that weighs more than 4.5 million pounds at launch, and burns over 3.5 million of those pounds getting off the ground. When the Challenger blew up, Ronald Reagan promised us that we would build another Shuttle, and indeed we got a replacement Shuttle. What we need now is not a replacement -- what we need is a new Shuttle. One that is lighter, stronger, more versatile, and more agile. We need to shock the world again, with the first practical reusable launch vehicle.

    Alas, out of the three items on this list, this is the least likely to happen.
It seems fitting at this point to refrain from drawing any conclusions. Hopefully, we will know more about what happened and what could have been done to prevent it in the weeks and months to come. Only then can a backseat engineer like myself feel confident in providing direction for the future of the space program...
top STS-107 has broken up1 February 02003, 10:15
The Space Shuttle Columbia (OV-102) was supposed to touch down today at 9:16am EST; however shortly after 9am as the shuttle was in re-entry it appears to have broken up. It is now in pieces over a wide area of Texas. All seven astronauts are presumed dead. Columbia was the oldest orbiter in the Shuttle fleet. The Columbia was the first Shuttle to orbit the Earth, on 12 April 1981, as STS-1.

Apparently, a piece of insulation broke off one of the engines during launch and struck the wing of the shuttle. NASA engineers decided that the damage was not bad enough to warrant concern.

More to come later tonight.
top Blatant Plagiarism11 November 02002, 00:00
I've copied this article without any sort of permission from page 84 of the November 2002 issue of Dr. Dobb's Journal. I decided that it would be OK given the subject matter. Also, I thought it was a good article. So there. If there's any problem with that, I'll pull it off.

Do You Copy?

Imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. Theft is. Or rather, copying. Because copying is usually not theft, and not necessarily bad even when it is, it needs to be stated loud and clear in these loud and unclear times: Copying is a Good Thing.

Children acquire the norms of their societal group by copying. Student artists learn to paint by copying the masters. Composers ring the changes on motifs and techniques invented by others. New genres of music are arising based on copying and recombining pieces of others' work. Software developers advance the state of their art by copying and enhancing other developers' algorithms and code. A primary goal of software engineering is code reuse. Software patterns codify practices for others to copy. In engineering, copying gives us standards, predictable behavior, interchangeable parts, and the Industrial Revolution. In science, it's not a discovery until someone has copied your procedure down to the last detail and attained the same results. Copying is essential to innovation. Intellectual property laws arose to place very limited constraints on copying to achieve certain limited societal benefits. The idea was to make sure that there were financial rewards to innovation. The idea was not to stifle innovation.

Over the years, my work has been copied without my express permission, although not necessarily without my tacit approval, by fellow students unwilling to do their own homework; magazine subscribers wanting an archival version of a column; readers wanting to share an idea with friends or colleagues; scholars and teachers and seminar leaders wanting to use the work for classes; librarians and library patrons; compilers of web sites devoted to quotations; computer historians; third-world scholars short on funds; lawyers trying to build a case, not necessarily against me; those people who e-mail 50 of their closest friends twice a week with their latest discovery; those who do the same via fax; book authors facing tight deadlines; researchers who hate doing research; Open Source-minded HyperTalk programmers; folks just trying to find something to liven up the cubicle walls; former writing teachers hungry for examples, good or bad, for future writing classes; advertising copywriters; promoters of causes; fans, critics, reviewers, friends, foes, and indulgent family members.

Not once in the 20 years that I have been making a living from writing did I think that the protection of my intellectual property rights justified outlawing photocopy machines or scanners.

The crowned heads of Hollywood, though, would like to outlaw any drive, format, or algorithm -- any mechanism of any sort -- that can be used to commit intellectual property crime against them. And they consider any copying, even copying that has always been legal, to be a crime against them. Corrupt and stupid politicians are giving them much of what they want, but they want even more.

There is an extremely powerful (and well armed) group that has fought for years against the idea that the mechanism should be blamed for the crime committed with it. Wouldn't it be cinematic to see the NRA take on the MPAA?

Like King Kong versus Godzilla: the apes against the dinosaurs. (Now, now: I connect the NRA with apes only because of Charleston Heston and the Planet of the Apes link; and if you insist that Godzilla wasn't a dinosaur, I guess "lizards" would suit Jack Valente and his pals equally well.) Law professor and open-source advocate Lawrence Lessig said it all much more succinctly: "Creativity and innovation always build on the past. The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it. Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past. Ours is less and less a free society" (http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/policy/2002/08/15/lessig.html).

The most amazing thing is that the media maggots -- er, magnates -- no, I had it right the first time -- intend to use programmers and engineers as the pawns in their game of stripping away the right to copy. Because they want to do more than make copying illegal. They want to make it impossible.

The social cost of what they intend will be huge, and their motives are pure greed. But they need your help to succeed -- and they expect to get it. They intend to use the most innovative people in our society to crush innovation.

Are you going to let them get away with it?

Michale Swaine
top Friday's Rant25 October 02002, 00:00
Anyone who was around for the Reagan years remembers the cold war. For those who are unreasonably young, a cold war is an invention that allows politicians to stay in office by playing on the irrational fears of the public without actually sending non-rich citizens to cold (or hot) places to die.

A cold war is more popular among politicians than a hot war because it's easier for the rich to go unnoticed as they duck out of military duty, and the press is more likely to behave. In the 80s, we were at war with the Russians because they were communists with nuclear weapons. In a cold war, as in a hot war, the friend of an enemy is an enemy to you; this led to several foreign policy blunders such as choosing the turks to be allies.

But I digress.

The way you fight a cold war is by having bigger bombs, faster planes, stronger boats, and better soldiers than your enemy. This leads to a constant contest between the two sides of the war, resulting in the handy notion of mutually assured destruction -- if anyone does anything stupid, both sides will spend several hours lobbing nuclear weapons at each other, secure in the knowledge that when bombs start hitting the ground at least their opponents will blown back to the stone age, too.

The upshot of all this, besides mutually assured distruction, is that both basic science and applied research get lots of money and attention. Remember when NASA was great? The Russians were the reason. Think of all of the money that was spent by government agencies and corporations to prepare for World War III. With the communists gone, but politicians still around, all of that money has gone back to rewarding people for being rich.

The problem is that science and engineering, while good for the country as a whole, provide a very delayed return on investment, if any at all. Research is often uncertain, and it takes strong motivation to convince people to spend money on something that might not result in a big payoff at the end. Communist Russia was the perfect villain because it was a large, well-defined enemy that mere numbers could not overcome -- to win against Russia we would need technology. Furthermore, the Russians often seemed to be just a bit ahead of us, which drove us to spend more time, energy, and money on research.

So how do we convince the frat boys who run our country to spend money on science? Simple -- we need an enemy. I don't mean some asshole terrorist that sends planes into buildings or straps dynamite to his chest and gets on a bus. I mean a clear, well-defined, stationary enemy that we can hate and fear as a country. We need an enemy that will flaunt us with superior technology and insurmountable numbers.

We need the Chinese.

The Chinese would make the perfect communist state for Cold War v2.0 -- they're huge, they have technology, and they don't like Americans. Sure, Wal-Mart would suffer a bit, but that's a small price to pay for advancing science. I have this beautiful dream that Taikonauts land on the moon and kick over the American flag, thus re-igniting the space race and getting NASA back on its feet. In the following decade, we'd get the new shuttle, they'd finish the Superconducting Supercollider, and we would enter the second golden age of technology.

I can't wait.
top Friday's Rant11 October 02002, 00:00
In our rush to fix the problems that led to the recent election-related debacle, several states are trying to implement electronic voting systems to ensure quick and accurate election results. In theory, this seems like an excellent idea -- after all, an all-electronic system means no hanging chads, no butterfly ballots, and no manual recounts. The problem is that so far, we apparently haven't come across a way to do it right.

After the 2000 presidential elections, everyone had an opinion on how our voting system should be improved. Among the worst ideas were internet voting or voting at ATMs. Thankfully, those ideas weren't implemented, but some of what we've seen in 2002 is just as bad. Why bad? After all, an MIT/CalTech press release bubbled on about the wonderful improvement in Florida's voting technology in 2002. "On average," it says, "2.0 percent of Democratic voters recorded no vote for governor in [Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Pinellas] counties ... this is a 35 percent improvement in performance. ... These results are very encouraging."

I cannot begin to apprehend the confusion of ideas that could provoke such a statement.

Democracy has failed if even a single voter is not heard in an election. Period. According to the 2000 census, the seven counties represented in the MIT/CalTech study contain 6,260,142 residents over the age of 18. I don't know how many registered voters are in those counties, and how many of those are democrats, so for the sake of argument, I'll say that 5% of those 6,260,142 residents are democratic voters that went out to vote. (this may be unnecessarily conservative but it should work for the sake of this argument). If this were the case, over 6,200 votes were not counted in those seven counties alone. Over 6,200 votes. This is nothing to be proud of, even if it is an improvement.

Problems that did occur in the seven counties were lightly dismissed by Professor Charles Stewart, an MIT professor working on the Voting Technology Project (which released this statement), as "problems encountered preparing for election day, such as training poll workers." Next time you wonder why your computer is so hard to use, keep in mind that Charles Stewart is a professor at one of the nation's most respected engineering schools. Does he tell his students that user interface design and end-user training are unimportant? That engineers design circuits, and problems with the final product can be attributed to incompetent users? Blaming the user is a common fault among engineers who feel that if they understand their product, so should everyone else. Everyone else isn't an engineer, though, or a computer scientist. Not accounting for end users is the biggest mistake an engineer can make.

Blaming hapless poll workers or poorly funded local election commissions, while easy, overlooks two fundamental problems:
  • The voting equipment was unintuitive enough that the average poll worker was unable to administer it. This is unfortunate because those are exactly the people who must administer it -- they are often the same people every time, so it's not like there was a surprise ("What, you mean old people are going to run these?!"). The equipment should not require any specialized training that cannot be fit, in legible text, on a sticker on the back of the machines. Training seminars should not be required.
  • The voting equipment was unintuitive enough that many voters were not able to operate it. Voting should not be hard. Voting should not require training, or practice votes. My grandmother should be able to vote without asking for directions. People select items from lists every day; it is a conceptually easy task. If the user interface is complex enough that people don't know how to do such a simple task as choosing one item from a list, the user interface is a failure.
Having said all of that, we can't dismiss some of the problems so lightly. Here are some of the more spectacular failures that happened in the 2002 Florida elections:
  • The ES&S voting machines that were approved by the state for use take 10 minutes to boot. Machines designed for visually impaired voters take 23 minutes to boot. This is appalling. There is no good reason for a special purpose computer to take that long to boot. In addition, the machines must be booted sequentially, and many cannot be turned on before 6AM on election day, so a polling place with 20 voting stations, including 2 stations for the visually impaired, won't be fully operational until at least 9:46am.
  • In Union County, 2700 optically scanned ballots had to be hand counted, because a computer bug resulted in only republican votes being counted. Was this system tested?
  • In Duval and Orange Counties, optical ballots did not fit in counting machines. Some election officials took to trimming the ballots with scissors or pocket knives to make them fit.
  • In several precincts in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, electronic voting machines showed over 40% residual (lost or missing) votes, and vote data had to be extracted from backup memory inside the machines.
  • One south-Florida precinct showed a 1200% voter turnout, 12 times as many voters as were registered.
  • A state of emergency was declared to extend the election day by two hours so that people who were unable to vote because of equipment problems (or "problems encountered preparing for election day, such as training poll workers") could do so later. (How is the governor declaring a state of emergency "encouraging?")
  • At the end of the day, some polling place workers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties did not know how to turn off the voting machines and retrieve votes, so an unknown number of votes there went uncounted.
  • Liberty City, a precinct in Miami-Dade, had 1,630 registered voters but only 89 recorded votes.
  • In an election with an average voter turnout of more than 30%, about 60 Miami-Dade precincts showed a turnout of less than 10%. Some showed a turnout of 0%.
  • Miami-Dade county gave its poll workers written instructions for using voting equipment in English. Apparently, some poll workers could not read English; in some cases they could not read at all.

This list could go on, but there is no point in berating the obvious. The fact is that voting should not require training, but apparently it does. Electronic voting systems should fix this problem, but so far they haven't. An electronic voting system needs to meet several requirements:
  • Accuracy. You should vote for someone by pushing a button. Pushing buttons isn't hard, especially if they are large, evenly spaced, easy-to-press buttons. Resistive or capacitive touch screens are not a good solution in terms of buttons. Resistive touch screens don't work well if you press the pad of your finger on them. Capacitive touch screens don't work well if you press with your fingernail. Both methods suffer from long-term durability, reliability, and calibration problems. Infrared touch screens are better. All touch screens need to be cleaned frequently to remove grease, smudges, and prevent communicable infections. Once you've voted, you should be presented with a list so that you can confirm that you voted correctly. There should be an easy way to correct any mistakes. Once the voter is satisfied, the vote must be recorded using at least two methods. At least one of those methods needs to be human readable, for verification and recounts (if necessary).
  • Anonymity. This has been a no-brainer since the early days of voting, where ancient Greeks dropped stones into vases. Now people drop paper ballots into boxes. Exactly how the vote is encoded on paper isn't really relevant, as long as it can be accurately counted, and not be connected with the voter.
  • Auditability. As stated before, there needs to be a human readable output for every vote that can be verified by the voter and securely stored for use later in the event of a computer foulup. There will be computer foulups. There always are. Be ready for them.
  • Reliability. Maybe this should read "failing gracefully." The equipment should fail gracefully, the whole system should be able to handle individual component failures gracefully, and the system as a whole should fail gracefully. What happens if the power fails? What happens if someone accidentally damages a touch screen? What happens if the software crashes? Why did the software crash, anyway? Was it tested thoroughly? What is the defect rate on the equipment? How do you fix problems that occur on election day? Single-purpose software isn't conceptually hard to program, and given a limited number of input methods, it shouldn't be hard to make software that will get through the day without crashing. Having said that, there needs to be an easy way for poll workers to return the system to working order in case it does.
  • Scalability. The same system that handles two candidates needs to handle 12 candidates. The end result needs to be legible and intuitive. It is assumed that the machine will have enough capacity to store every vote made in a day, especially considering that there is a fixed, finite, and readily available number of registered voters for every precinct.
  • Security. Who programs the machines? Who has access to the source code? Who can change the source code? Who confirms that the proper source code is uploaded to the machines? Who supervises the process? Who certifies the source code? How are the results transferred to a central location? Constant supervision is good. Independent code audits are good. Random sampling of the code that is actually on the voting machines is good. Background checks on the programmers is good. Hiring Russians who outsource programming to undisclosed third parties is bad. Hiring people convicted of vote fraud is bad.
  • Speed. Isn't that one of the great features of an electronic voting system? Let's know the results right away. The voting machines, since they are single-purpose machines, should boot and be ready to use in seconds, not minutes. It's not hard. Really.
  • Ease of use. You shouldn't need training to vote! All you're doing is picking someone out of a list. If it's really so hard, it's the fault of the user interface designer, not the voter or the poll worker. You also shouldn't need training to administer the voting machines. The machines should have an "on" switch and a screen. Nothing else. The people at the polling station should have to do nothing but turn on the machines at the beginning of the day, and turn them off at the end of the day.

None of this is hard, or difficult to fathom. However, I've never accused our elected officials of being competent. I say lets go back to dropping stones in vases.