Links of the Week 8-31

Saturday (Space) Stories!



Academic Self-Sufficiency

As you might know, I’m a devoted listener of the EconTalk podcast. Since one a week isn’t nearly enough to fill all the walking that I do, I have also been listening through five years of archived episodes. While they are consistently high quality, this episode blew me away.

In short (very short– it’s packed to the brim with good stuff) Russ Roberts breaks down why trade is awesome because it allows us to both leverage the fact that we are good at different things (a Ricardian perspective) and that there are a lot of us (a Smithian perspective.)

The podcast touches on many things I think about a lot – technology, how to use your abilities best, entrepreneurship, how humanity pulls itself up by its bootstraps, and more.

I was especially struck by the quote: ‘self-sufficiency is the road to poverty.’ I feel like this is an unsolved problem in academia. In this case ‘trade’ is less movement of physical goods or services, but in experience. I can’t count the time that I feel like I’m reinventing the wheel when putting together some part of an experiment. Surely there is someone who has gone through a very similar process, probably right here at Cornell, yet I have no good way of finding them and benefiting from what they’ve already done.

The ability of trade to make everything better for everyone feels very stunted in academia. I think that the academic world meets both of the conditions set forth for beneficial trade – extreme specialization and, with the bloated size of universities, large numbers of participants.

Somehow, though, there isn’t as much intellectual trade as one would hope.

One problem is the huge amount of friction in sharing your work in science. The only officially recognized ‘market’ is publications of peer-reviewed papers, which despite PDF’s and online databases, is still mostly mired in the 19th century. There isn’t enough space in a paper to actually describe the technical nitty-gritty and the format doesn’t lend itself to the reader gaining from the writer’s experience.

The pace of research progress would explode if these sorts of friction were decreased. A first step would be decreasing the amount of time spent communicating via papers (though I do agree that some kind of review process needs to remain.) Beyond that, I’m thinking about other tools that would allow researchers to free themselves of the poverty-shackles of self-sufficiency.

Ditch Day Chronicles: Announcements pt. 1

One of my favorite Ditch Day traditions never occurs on Ditch Day.

You see, on Ditch Day, the seniors arrange dinner for their stacks: taking them to a restaurant, hosting a picnic, etc. Something that never happens is a normal house dinner. Each Caltech house has its own dining hall where the members of the house gather week-nightly, student waiters serve, and the traditions run so thick that you could cut them with a knife (that would then be vibrated and pulled against the edge of the table to display boredom, of course.)

One of these traditions is after-dinner announcements. Having announcements after dinner seems like a pretty straightforward idea – you conveniently have everybody together at the same place and time. But over the 82 years that the Caltech houses have existed, they have become infused with memes, call-and-returns, taboos, expectations, and rules. One of these rules is that the house president (or acting house president in the president’s class-induced absence) must call on each individual making an announcement. One non-president announcer cannot yield the floor to another under the threat of punishment.

Of course, like all rules, there is an exception. A most excellent, exciting exception. When the President calls on an expectant looking senior who raises their hand only when other announcements seem to be done, a hush falls across the over-crowded room. Even those who live off campus come when there is an email cryptically noting that the seniors suggest that it might be a good idea to attend dinner.

Then, all eyes focused on them, the senior delivers an announcement meant to both amuse and convey something about the theme of their stack, followed by ‘I don’t know why you would need to know that, but perhaps –senior name here- knows more.’

To which that senior will respond, ‘I don’t know much about that, but I do know…’ and launches into their own announcement.

‘But Ben, they’re just announcements. Why would people be so interested? What did you do for yours?’

Unfortunately, fully explaining the experience of Ditch Day announcements required some delving into the labyrinth that is Blacker Dinner and I have class tomorrow, so you will have to wait to know, like underclassmen during pre-Ditch Day dinner.

Avast! A preview of next time!

Avast! A preview of next time!

Engineering in Extremistan


What comes to mind when you see the above image? It’s from a CS research paper in which a computer used millions of images to automatically remove the roof from the foreground and fill in the image so that you would never suspect there was a roof in the first place. 

My initial reaction to seeing it during the first computer vision class of the year was of course ‘wow. That’s really freaking impressive. Go computer! (And the people who programmed it.)’


My attitude towards the first day of school has gone, over the course of 20 consecutive years, from “Oh man! Back to wonderland!” to “Oh, it’s Wednesday, guess I should go to class or something.” It’s a stark reminder of how familiarity can make even the most extraordinary experiences seem normal  – always something to keep in mind and fight against.

End Aside.

 The second thing that came to mind though, was ‘wow. Modern engineering is built only for mediocrastan. That’s terrifying.  What can I do about that?’

Mediocrastan is a concept that captures how the world normally works the vast majority of the time. In this world, everything follows Gaussian distributions, so even the random things are predictable through certain tools. Most of our engineering practices and technology depend on that assumption, but that isn’t how the world always works.

 Now, nobody gets hurt if instead of there being a bunch of boats behind that roof, there was actually Godzilla rising from the depths, or something equally unlikely.  However, that’s not the case when a wave that, in mediocrastan, should only occur once every 10,000 years or so hits a bridge that was only designed for the 1,000-year waves.

 I’m not advocating that we overengineer everything simply to avoid these rare events. It’s important that people keep in mind these assumptions that engineers make and that technology will fail in extreme circumstances (whatever extreme is for that technology.) I’m interested in how we can change engineering practices to better take into account these unknown unknowns and don’t have a particularly good solution right now.  

Bipolar Technology

Sunday’s post has me thinking about other ways my outlook on technology has changed as I’ve been exposed to more of its underbelly. In particular, how I’ve softened my derision towards technology that doesn’t actually allow us to do anything new.

From what I can tell, there are two main ‘modes’ in which technology moves forward:

  1. By reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ (energy, material, manpower) necessary to do the same things we could before.
  2. By giving us the ability to do something we couldn’t do before.

 Examples of the first mode are everywhere, but one of my favorites is the fact that it used to be a feat of strength to crush a soda can with a single hand while now people do it instinctively. It’s not that we have all become stronger through secret infusions of super-soldier serum, but because functional cans can now be made with far less aluminum.

 I would argue that the majority of innovations fall into this category, a fact that I used to find depressing. Sure, increasing efficiency saved money, resources and time, but it just felt so … boring and uninspired (this is arrogant past-me thinking.) It was like putting a little bit more mud on the mud castle that someone had built before you. 

 The key that I missed was that without the first type of advance, the second would never happen. It is exactly the extra time, energy, and money saved by increases in efficiency that allows us to develop brand-new capabilities. It’s another way of seeing continuous changes leading to tipping points and discrete changes.



Chillin’ in Space

I had an excellent conversation a few weeks ago about how current patent law produces ‘chilling effects’ on software innovations. This got me thinking about what sort of things have these same chilling effects on space innovations and what can be done to reduce them (space is cold enough already.)

Two big space-tech coolants come immediately to mind – ITAR and extreme institutional risk aversion.

Yet another space-tech acronym, ITAR is a US law that stands for International Traffic in Arms Regulations. [Aside: the number of space-related acronyms compared with the number of acronyms in other areas has never been explained to my satisfaction. Any insight would be welcome.] It’s list of technologies that could be used in making devastating weapons, and thus forbids the sharing of those technologies with other countries (regardless of how friendly they are.) And surprise! Most technologies that go into building and launching satellites can also be used to build and launch ICBM’s and spy satellites. ITAR prevents many US companies and researchers from collaborating with international partners. This damping of collaboration in space technology chills the growth of complex idea-sharing networks that drive innovation.

Flight certification requirements have a well-documented chilling effect on space-tech innovation. The institutional risk aversion has been pretty accurately caricatured by the statement “To fly, a technology needs to be flight certified, but you can’t flight certify something without flying it.” Although that is of course not entirely true, there certainly is far less wiggle room for experimentation than in other areas. Of course, that’s in part because a non-flight certified technology poses a risk that could result in a massive loss. 

Thus, the trick is developing systems that isolate the risks posed by unknown technologies – allowing lots of tests, lots of failures, but at the same time lots of successes. I would pose that this will come about not through the meticulous analysis and care currently given to each component of a mission, but through a way to make them cheaper and dirtier.  

With their powers combined….

While looking at the job market for mechanical engineers during my senior year, I often lamented that nobody did cool purely mechanical things anymore. Back in the day, my complaint went, mechanical engineers came up with brilliantly clever things like Reuleaux mechanisms and farther back in time, world changing things like clocks and trebuchets. Now, mechanical engineers, rather than building the exciting thing, design the box that holds the box that routes the wires that run the subsystem of the exciting thing.  (Admittedly, 2010 was an especially abysmal year for mechanical engineering job prospects in general.)

 To me it seemed like all the impactful projects were pure software – simply leveraging computers teach some old hardware new tricks. Self-driving cars come to mind as something that I would have pulled up as an example.

 Thinking about my previous mindset today, I realize how naïve it was.  Purely mechanical projects are clever, but not optimal – it’s basically doing it the long, hard, expensive way just so you can say you did.  However, pure software is similarly limited.

 In the past few years, I’ve had to learn to use a lot of old hardware for jobs that weren’t in mind when it was built. What I had missed as an undergrad (well, one thing of many) was that a new configuration of old hardware for a new purpose is just as novel as a clever mechanism designed from scratch. Thus, I was totally wrong about self-driving cars. The trick is the hybridization of innovations from both soft and hard fronts – new software running on new hardware configurations.

 “But Ben, that’s just robotics.” Yeah ok, it took me a long time to come around to it.

 I’m especially excited about the possibilities of the two-prong approach to space – with the absurd computing power now available to us (even while running redundant programs to mitigate radiation) new spacecraft hardware can perform many tasks that were unthinkable years ago.  In short, space + robotics = possibility ++, even for manned space exploration!

 The slight incoherency of this post brought to you by 3 hours of sleep and the letter T for travel.