Gut Guidance

The NewSpace 2013 conference gave me a lot to think about, but more than anything, it hammered home the fact that while we would like to think otherwise, humans are driven by their visceral feelings.

At the conference, I listened to several talks and had many conversations where space exploration was thought of as “the cause.” What is belief in a cause except a visceral feeling of support for its goal?  Now, I happen to believe in this cause but unfortunately (in my mind) most people don’t.  A prevalent thought a the conference held that gaining mass support for space exploration was just a matter of convincing people to believe in the cause.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.

Successful endeavors that require the support of many people are able to tap into visceral drives that are already there.   Just look at the support for infant NASA (which turns 55 today) – it was driven by nationalistic pride and fear of the Russians.

This one of the reasons why I am an advocate of private space flight – if space exploration becomes profitable, it can harness the might that is the self-interested pursuit of wealth. While that might seem distasteful, I see nothing wrong with it. In such a situation, everybody wins: those who just want wealth can make money through their investments, and I get to satisfy my visceral desire to see humanity spread to the stars.

Some History Rambling

I find the history of technology fascinating. It’s especially satisfying because more than any other area of history I can see patterns repeated over and over again with relatively little change through time.

 One of these trends is the ability of small, incremental innovations to lead to a discrete technological leap.  When you take a broad perspective, the history of technology is rife with quantum leaps where a completely new technology explodes on the scene: guns completely replaced swords, cars replaced horse-drawn carts, petroleum and electricity replaced whale oil, barrels replaced amphorae, airplanes replace… not being able to fly without a balloon – the list could fill a book. 

 But when you zoom in to the past, or just look at current technology trends, it suddenly looks like everything is progressing only incrementally. Clearly, the incremental improvements have to lead to the discrete jumps, but how can that be?

 My explanation (which might be totally wrong, but that’s what makes history fun to think about) is all about efficiency and tipping points. In my version of the story, changes are always small, but there are discrete ‘lines in the sand’ that make one technology more appealing than another, and once the line is crossed, focus shifts from one to another (or focus is given where it didn’t exist before.)

 For example, look at whale oil and petroleum. People knew about petroleum and its combustibility long before it became the valuable resource it is today. It was instead cheaper to kill whales and drain the oil from a gland in their head so that it could be burned. (Really, who figures these things out?) That is, until whales became scarce enough that we reached a tipping point where it was cheaper to extract oil, at which point development of oil extraction/utilization technology took off.  I’m sure there were many other factors that went into the shift as well.

 These tipping points can occur because something gets more expensive, or because something gets cheaper/more efficient, or because some other technology hit its own tipping point. Regardless, they are very hard to see when you are zoomed in – that’s why the people who do recognize them as they’re happening (or get lucky and then claim they recognized them) tend to become very rich. 

Cable Consumer Consternation

Tl;dr: For the most part this post is a ranty consumer advocacy warning about my experience with Time Warner Cable, but I attempt to tie it back to regularly scheduled blog topics with a bigger point about accountability at the end.

 At the end of June, I received an Internet bill that, with no prior warning, was 20 dollars higher than normal. When I spoke to a TWC representative via the seemingly convenient chat option (beforehand checking the button for ‘I would like an email transcript,’ he told me that my ‘promotion’ had ended, BUT that there was another identical one that he could give me, and would apply it to my current bill. He assured me that while it wasn’t showing up in my account, the new promotion would be retroactively applied and I only needed to pay my normal amount. I thanked him, paid the normal amount immediately and didn’t give it another thought, although it seemed weird that I never got a transcript.

 Then I got this month’s bill. Not only was I being charged the increased rate, but it told me that I owed 20 dollars from last month’s bill. Two more representatives who both said that they were putting notes on my account told me that chat representatives didn’t actually have the authority to give promotions or change bill amounts and I would need to call in the morning. (I only got a chat transcript when I explicitly demanded it from one of them after the previous chat wasn’t recorded either.)

 The first representative I spoke to said he could give me a (worse) promotion for the future, but couldn’t do anything about my past bill. When he transferred me to customer service, I was disconnected. After calling back, the next representative said that he hadn’t applied any promotion but that –she- could and then transferred me to customer service. Disconnected again. I final reached someone in customer service (who you can’t call directly) who finally honored what I was told had been done a month of unawareness, an hour of text chatting and another hour of phone conversations earlier.   

 What does any of this have to do with space, science or history? Not a whole lot except to illustrate what happens when there is a lack of accountability – a bothersome theme that runs through the normal topics of the blog. I had no way of identifying any of these representatives except by their first name. They literally refused to give me any way to verify or confirm what they told me.

 A lack of accountability (or accountability to the wrong people about the wrong things) can often be seen when the government runs things, and is one of the reasons I advocate privatization much of the time. Clearly, private companies don’t automatically equal accountability. 

Links of the Week 7/27

Saturday Stories!

More Musings

Some assorted NewSpace 2013 inspired thoughts that I want to put up while they are still fresh and go into more detail in future posts:

  •  Public Perception/Personal Connection – as much as I would like to be wrong, I believe that a most people feel little connection to space.  When they think of it, if at all, it’s all robots and telescopes and maybe a funny Canadian astronaut every once so often.  Epic or useful space exploration is something that we used to do, but is a relic of the past, like knights and sailing ships. As long as these perceptions persist, it will be an uphill battle to make useful space exploration a reality.
  • Related to the above, another big problem is that space isn’t sexy. Steve Jobs and Richard Feynman made Apple and Physics sexy, but we haven’t quite gotten there for space yet. This is important because in the end, nobody really supports something because of logic, but because of some baser instinct – desire for profit, inspiration, etc. – that may be supported or slightly influenced by logic.
  • And related to that, I feel that many of the self-appointed ‘public ambassadors’ of the future of space exploration actually hurt the cause more than they help it. This is due both to their personal legitimacy and a propensity for the kind of bad exaggeration that leads to jadedness.
  • And related to THAT, it feels like as long as we have to see human space activity as a ‘cause,’ it will be a losing battle.  Someone at the conference said “if only there were a prophecy that we had to go to space.” I responded, “No, I don’t want that, I wish there were a profit-cy.” (excuse the terrible pun.)
  •  I’ve decided that a big deciding factor about which side of the tinfoil hat line an idea falls is the idea of Things That Do Things.  I’m far more open to ideas if someone has done more than just make a pretty picture or write some words – the thing doesn’t have to do a lot, or do it well.
  • Finally, what actually distinguishes a crazy-but-infeasible plan from a crazy-but-feasible plan besides post hoc success and the subsequent story? This question deserves a lot more thought.


Microgravity = Macroawesome

A short post today due to:

 A)   Having a lot of fun tuning the control gains on the MTF (microgravity test facility – the official acronym even though I’d rather call it the MTA: microgravity test assembly), that now has vaguely working feedback.  There’s something very satisfying about the ability to move a huge crane system around by poking on it with the edge of a piece of paper.

B)   A bunch of time spent at the NewSpace 2013 conference. It was quite fun to be around tons of people who also seem to be trying to do a tightrope walk along the tinfoil hat line. My response to a lot of what I saw and heard was “that’s freaking awesome … if it works.” A smattering of examples:

Spacesuit components

reconfigurable, scalable space modules,

space-certified 3D printers,

space industry video games (Sim Private Space Company)

Tea Spaaaace (no seriously, that’s what they call themselves)


Unintended Uses

I’m a big fan of using things for purposes other than those intended by their creators. I’ve used Legos as a reconfigurable experimental setup, a firecracker case as an electronic Palantir, and cardboard for pretty much everything except packing things (ok, I’ve used it to pack things too.)

People repurposing is useful as well – I’ve often observed the value added by an entirely different expertise/background from the rest of a team. Many people think that you are locked into a certain set of jobs by your degree or training – this is only true if you let it constrain you. Instead, the reality is that most technical degrees are pretty much interchangeable pieces of paper that say “I’m smart!”

Of course, repurposing happens all the time with technology.  Most “inventions” are actually just repurposed from an entirely different area. History is littered with examples of this – Henry Ford didn’t invent the moving assembly line, he simply repurposed the idea from meat processing factories.

I’m convinced that repurposing from other areas, rather than directed research will lead to many major advances in space technology as well. This can already be seen in the recent PhoneSats and 3d printing rocket parts. Moore’s law is quickly making expensive, space-specific rad hardened electronics irrelevant because so many transistors can fit on a chip now that you can just use a normal processor and do every calculation several times rather than needing to guarantee that radiation won’t disrupt your single attempt.

It’s always a fun thought experiment to look at things that work well around you and think how they could be applied in space.