Right vs Best

In almost any undertaking, there is the ‘right’ way to do it … and a way that works best. The trick to being effective is to realize that the two aren’t always the same, and when that

Often, knowing when ‘right’ is not best comes from experience. In almost any profession, it seems like there is the old-timer for whom the process is more of an art than a science. Think of the machinist who knows exactly when the machine should be pushed beyond its nominal limits, the teacher who knows which students to motivate through praise and which are driven by criticism, or the plumber who knows that sometimes it just needs a good whack.

One of the (many) issues I have with bureaucracy is that it dictates a ‘right’ way it demands be followed, regardless of whether it’s the best way.

I experience this dichotomy all the time (it seems especially prevalent when building things) but two recent run-ins with it inspired this post:

  • Last night I visited Evil Mad Scientist Labs, which is slightly more mundane than the name would suggest, but still freaking cool. All of the clever tricks and tweaks they used to get their products to work made the traditionally educated engineer in me cringe, but that feeling was quickly overridden by the excitement from the by-whatever-means-necessary builder.
  • In order to get the micro-gravity test apparatus working at Ames, I need to find the correct PID gains. The ‘right’ way to find them [warning: irrelevant technical jargon] is to model the system, transform it into the frequency domain, plot the poles and zeros, and create a Bode plot to make sure it will perform as desired. Unfortunately, the system is so far from ideal that such an approach would never work. I’ve learned that in reality, the best way is to essentially try a bunch of different combinations in an only vaguely scientific way.

An open question

An open question that I’ve been struggling with since the conference:

What deep-seated human –need- can space exploration fulfill for a massive number of people?

This question is based purely out of selfishness: space exploration fulfills my basic human need for greater meaning and excitement. But it doesn’t do that for the vast majority of people: it’s pretty clear that if millions of people shared my feelings about space exploration (and maybe even science in general) the world would be a different place.

I would argue that anything with sustained success addresses at least a part of some fundamental human need, whether directly or indirectly. Sometimes I have trouble justifying space exploration along these axes – yes, the awesome factor is a player, but things done simply because of their awesome factor have no sticking power. They’re like empty calories. Space exploration needs to find its veggies and meat.

This is why I want to find a way for space exploration (not just launching satellites) to become profitable. That goal still goes back to my opening question: what human needs can space explorers meet?

Face to Face

An interesting observation: The security guards at Ames act far more friendly when I ride in on a bike than when I’m in a car. I say the same things in the same manner (I believe) but the guards are far more jovial when I’m on a bike. There could, of course, be a million explanations but I think it may have a lot to do with psychology and the fact that when I’m in a car, there is literally a metal wall between me and them that doesn’t exist when I’m on a bike. People subconscious’ react poorly to any perceived barriers in an interaction.  Ask professional communicators and they will tell you that standing behind a podium or desk is considered counterproductive for creating a personal connection.

This is also why good old fashioned face to face communication and thus why transportation technology will continue to be important. Think about it – despite the availability of phone calls, video chat, email and instant messaging, people still spend oodles of money and time to fly across the world to meet face to face every day for both personal and professional reasons.

I often hear the prediction that communications technology is just on the verge of making such travel obsolete. However consider how long it has been since the first predictions like that were made and the continuation of the massive gap between in-person interactions and those through communications technology: regardless of the medium, I feel like you still lose at least 50% of verbal and 75% of the non verbal subtleties (yes, I just totally made those numbers up.) If communication technology ever reaches the point where it can actually substitute for face-to-face interactions, I suspect it won’t be any time soon.

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.

Communication conundrum

Is there a more effective way to communicate new developments in sci/tech?

This is a question that has had me scratching my head for a while now.

I feel like the incentives often aren’t there to really give the full picture to people with little or no prior knowledge of the sci/tech topic: Those in the field doing the work want to make it seem all upside to get more funding/fame; those in the field not doing the work want to point out all the downsides that they can so that their thunder and grant money isn’t taken away; and the media both has imperfect knowledge and wants to sensationalize the development one way or another because a calm, balanced story rarely sells.  This TED talk discusses some of these problems – it focuses on neuroscience, but I think it’s applicable to most fields.

The rare article that does give a balanced picture – like this one on the current quantum computer controversy – is, by necessity, longer than most people have time for if they were to read such an article on each topic they wanted information about.

There has to be a more streamlined way of communicating at least a sketch of the full picture to field outsiders, but I’m not sure what it is yet. A good start (in my mind) would be to have a way to hotlink to the data behind statements so that individuals could delve deeply if they wish. This problem just seems like something that has not yet experienced the firepower of this fully armed and operational Internet.