Three Tribes Under One Roof

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

CIA houses several very different cultures under one roof:

The three main tribes are the analysts, the spies and the techies. For outsiders, the analysts are in-house academics and experts who brief and write papers for the President and policymakers. The spies are those officers of the Clandestine Service (now called the Directorate of Operations, or DO) who live overseas and manage human spy networks. They tend to be the cocky jet pilots of the CIA. The techies spend the money and manage huge, sophisticated, cutting edge programs. They are engineers, scientists and visionaries. Housing these three tribes under one roof has always been both CIA’s strength and weakness.

The man who was easily the most damaging individual to American intelligence was one of those techies who became Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner:

Turner was a techie, in Sipher’s trichotomy of CIA cultures; he had headed NSA and, when Jimmy Carter appointed him DCI, he concluded that he could get all the intel a nation needs from technical means (listening posts, satellites) and liaison with friendly services, and so he fired 800 case officers (causing lost contact with their foreign agents) — almost 1/4 of the clandestine service — literally overnight. Turner put out one eye and left the US nearly blind in places like Africa and the Levant. In Iran, the only eye left was through liaisons with the Shah’s intelligence agency SAVAK, which evaporated when the Shah fell and left the CIA completely blind and unable to operate in Iran at all.It was in this environment that the hostage rescue’s clandestine side wound up run by a US Army Special Forces element. Likewise, the US was blindsided by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in part because of the Turner bloodletting.

No roads, no problem

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

Lockheed Martin recently promoted their Hybrid Airship with the motto, No roads, no problem!

Near the end of the video, they share some stats:

  • 10′x10′x60′ Cargo Bay
  • 21 Metric Ton Capacity
  • Room for 19 Passengers

For context, a “small” modern cargo aircraft like the Boeing 737-700C might have a cargo capacity of 3,800 cu ft and 18.2 metric tons.

I’m surprised that the airship’s cargo capacity is so high by weight but so low by volume.

The hybrid advantage, they argue, is that it’s faster than sea or land transport, but more fuel-efficient than other forms of air transport.

Hybrid Airship Advantage

That and they require little to no infrastructure.

Supercritical Carbon Dioxide Turbine

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

GE Global Research is testing a desk-size turbine that could produce 10 megawatts — enough to power 10,000 homes — and, more importantly, spin up in minutes:

The unit is driven by “supercritical carbon dioxide,” which is in a state that at very high pressure and up to 700 °C exists as neither a liquid nor a gas. After the carbon dioxide passes through the turbine, it’s cooled and then repressurized before returning for another pass.

The unit’s compact size and ability to turn on and off rapidly could make it useful in grid storage. It’s about one-tenth the size of a steam turbine of comparable output, and has the potential to be 50 percent efficient at turning heat into electricity. Steam-based systems are typically in the mid-40 percent range; the improvement is achieved because of the better heat-transfer properties and reduced need for compression in a system that uses supercritical carbon dioxide compared to one that uses steam. The GE prototype is 10 megawatts, but the company hopes to scale it to 33 watts.

In addition to being more efficient, the technology could be more nimble — in a grid-storage scenario, heat from solar energy, nuclear power, or combustion could first be stored as molten salt and the heat later used to drive the process.

While such a heat reservoir could also be used to boil water to power a steam turbine, a steam system could take 30 minutes to get cranked up, while a carbon dioxide turbine might take only a minute or two — making it well-suited for on-the-spot power generation needed during peak demand periods.

Tay what?

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

Microsoft’s new AI chatbot, Tay, was designed to learn from “her” conversations with other Twitter users, which she certainly did:

But Tay proved a smash hit with racists, trolls, and online troublemakers, who persuaded Tay to blithely use racial slurs, defend white-supremacist propaganda, and even outright call for genocide.

Microsoft has now taken Tay offline for “upgrades,” and it is deleting some of the worst tweets — though many still remain. It’s important to note that Tay’s racism is not a product of Microsoft or of Tay itself. Tay is simply a piece of software that is trying to learn how humans talk in a conversation. Tay doesn’t even know it exists, or what racism is. The reason it spouted garbage is because racist humans on Twitter quickly spotted a vulnerability — that Tay didn’t understand what it was talking about — and exploited it.

Nonetheless, it is hugely embarrassing for the company.

In one highly publicised tweet, which has since been deleted, Tay said: “bush did 9/11 and Hitler would have done a better job than the monkey we have now. donald trump is the only hope we’ve got.” In another, responding to a question, she said, “ricky gervais learned totalitarianism from adolf hitler, the inventor of atheism.”

Oh, Internet!

Gimmick Economy

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

Is society now focused on market capitalism because it is a fundamental theory, or because we have just lived through the era in which it was possible due to remarkable coincidences?

To begin to see the problem, recall that in previous eras innovations created high value occupations by automating or obviating those of lower value. This led to a heuristic that those who fear innovation do so because of a failure to appreciate newer opportunities. Software, however is different in this regard and the basic issue is familiar to any programmer who has used a debugger. Computer programs, like life itself, can be decomposed into two types of components:

  1. Loops which repeat with small variations.
  2. Rube Goldberg like processes which happen once.

If you randomly pause a computer program, you will almost certainly land in the former because the repetitive elements are what gives software its power, by dominating the running time of most all programs. Unfortunately, our skilled labor and professions currently look more like the former than the latter, which puts our educational system in the crosshairs of what software does brilliantly.

In short, what today’s flexible software is threatening is to “free” us from the drudgery of all repetitive tasks rather than those of lowest value, pushing us away from expertise (A) which we know how to impart, toward ingenious Rube Goldberg like opportunities (B) unsupported by any proven educational model. This shift in emphasis from jobs to opportunities is great news for a tiny number of creatives of today, but deeply troubling for a majority who depend on stable and cyclical work to feed families. The opportunities of the future should be many and lavishly rewarded, but it is unlikely that they will ever return in the form of stable jobs.

A next problem is that software replaces physical objects by small computer files. Such files have the twin attributes of what economists call public goods:

  1. The good must be inexhaustible (my use doesn’t preclude your use or reuse).
  2. The good must be non-excludable (the existence of the good means that everyone can benefit from it even if they do not pay for it).

Even die-hard proponents of market capitalism will cede that this public sector represents “market failure” where price and value become disconnected. Why should one elect to pay for an army when he will equally benefit from free riding on the payments of others? Thus in a traditional market economy, payment must be secured by threat of force in the form of compulsory taxes.

So long as public goods make up a minority of a market economy, taxes on non-public goods can be used to pay for the exception where price and value gap. But in the modern era, things made of atoms (e.g. vinyl albums) are being replaced by things made of bits (e.g. MP3 files). While 3D printing is still immature, it vividly showcases how the plans for an object will allow us to disintermediate its manufacturer. Hence, the previous edge case of market failure should be expected to claim an increasingly dominant share of the pie.

Assuming that a suite of such anthropic arguments can be made rigorous, what will this mean? In the first place, we should expect that because there is as yet no known alternative to market capitalism, central banks and government agencies publishing official statistics will be under increased pressure to keep up the illusion that market capitalism is recovering by manipulating whatever dials can be turned by law or fiat, giving birth to an interim “gimmick economy”.

If you look at your news feed, you will notice that the economic news no already longer makes much sense in traditional terms. We have strong growth without wage increases. Using Orwellian terms like “Quantitative Easing” or “Troubled Asset Relief”, central banks print money and transfer wealth to avoid the market’s verdict. Advertising and privacy transfer (rather than user fees) have become the business model of last resort for the Internet corporate giants.

AlphaGo

Friday, January 29th, 2016

Researchers at DeepMind staged a machine-versus-man Go contest in October, at the company’s offices in London:

The DeepMind system, dubbed AlphaGo, matched its artificial wits against Fan Hui, Europe’s reigning Go champion, and the AI system went undefeated in five games witnessed by an editor from the journal Nature and an arbiter representing the British Go Federation. “It was one of the most exciting moments in my career, both as a researcher and as an editor,” the Nature editor, Dr. Tanguy Chouard, said during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

This morning, Nature published a paper describing DeepMind’s system, which makes clever use of, among other techniques, an increasingly important AI technology called deep learning. Using a vast collection of Go moves from expert players — about 30 million moves in total — DeepMind researchers trained their system to play Go on its own. But this was merely a first step. In theory, such training only produces a system as good as the best humans. To beat the best, the researchers then matched their system against itself. This allowed them to generate a new collection of moves they could then use to train a new AI player that could top a grandmaster.

“The most significant aspect of all this…is that AlphaGo isn’t just an expert system, built with handcrafted rules,” says Demis Hassabis, who oversees DeepMind. “Instead, it uses general machine-learning techniques how to win at Go.”

[...]

“Go is implicit. It’s all pattern matching,” says Hassabis. “But that’s what deep learning does very well.”

[...]

At DeepMind and Edinburgh and Facebook, researchers hoped neural networks could master Go by “looking” at board positions, much like a human plays. As Facebook showed in a recent research paper, the technique works quite well. By pairing deep learning and the Monte Carlo Tree method, Facebook beat some human players — though not Crazystone and other top creations.

But DeepMind pushes this idea much further. After training on 30 million human moves, a DeepMind neural net could predict the next human move about 57 percent of the time — an impressive number (the previous record was 44 percent). Then Hassabis and team matched this neural net against slightly different versions of itself through what’s called reinforcement learning. Essentially, as the neural nets play each other, the system tracks which move brings the most reward — the most territory on the board. Over time, it gets better and better at recognizing which moves will work and which won’t.

“AlphaGo learned to discover new strategies for itself, by playing millions of games between its neural networks, against themselves, and gradually improving,” says DeepMind researcher David Silver.

According to Silver, this allowed AlphaGo to top other Go-playing AI systems, including Crazystone. Then the researchers fed the results into a second neural network. Grabbing the moves suggested by the first, it uses many of the same techniques to look ahead to the result of each move. This is similar to what older systems like Deep Blue would do with chess, except that the system is learning as it goes along, as it analyzes more data — not exploring every possible outcome through brute force. In this way, AlphaGo learned to beat not only existing AI programs but a top human as well.

DarwinTunes

Monday, January 25th, 2016

Bioinformaticist Bob MacCallum explains the DarwinTunes project, which evolves pleasant tunes using simple algorithms and listener ratings:

Special Computing Subsystem 24

Friday, January 22nd, 2016

The Russian Air Force, now known as the Russian AirSpace Force, has been able to maintain a high tempo of operations in Syria, launching a high volume of precision munitions surprisingly cheaply:

Instead of mounting a kit on an old bomb and lose the kit every time, the Russians mounted a JDAM-like kit, but on the airplane.

Introducing the SVP-24:

SVP-24

SVP stands for “special computing subsystem”. What this system does is that it constantly compares the position of the aircraft and the target (using the GLONASS satellite navigation system), it measures the environmental parameters (pressure, humidity, windspeed, speed, angle of attack, etc.). It can also receive additional information from datalinks from AWACs aircraft, ground stations, and other aircraft. The SVP-24 then computes an “envelope” (speed, altitude, course) inside which the dumb bombs are automatically released exactly at the precise moment when their unguided flight will bring them right over the target (with a 3-5m accuracy).

In practical terms this means that every 30+ year old Russian “dumb” bomb can now be delivered by a 30+ year old Russian aircraft with the same precision as a brand new guided bomb delivered by a top of the line modern bomber.

Not only that, but the pilot does not even have to worry about targeting anything. He just enters the target’s exact coordinates into his system, flies within a defined envelope and the bombs are automatically released for him. He can place his full attention on detecting any hostiles (aircraft, missiles, AA guns). And the best part of this all is that this system can be used in high altitude bombing runs, well over the 5000m altitude which MANPADs cannot reach. Finally, clouds, smoke, weather conditions or time of the day play no role in this whatsoever.

Last, but not least, this is a very cheap solution. Russian can now use the huge stores of ‘dumb’ bombs they have accumulated during the Cold War, they can bring an infinite supply of such bombs to Syria and every one of them will strike with phenomenal accuracy. And since the SVP-24 is mounted on the aircraft and not the bomb, it can be reused as often as needed.

(Hat tip to Randall Parker.)

We are not smart

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

We are not smart, Joe Rogan reminds us:

That’s the scariest thing about life, it’s that dumb people are out-breeding smart people at a fucking staggering pace. And nobody ever even talks about it! We all kinda know it’s happening, and the real problem is; most of us are dumb. We don’t want to admit it, but really, how many of us are really smart? Look, I know I’m stupid. I know. I know I’m stupid, yet I’m smarter than almost everybody I meet! And the real problem with dumb people is, they don’t even know they’re dumb. That’s a part of being dumb, you’re not aware!

There should be a way to tell, like a home pregnancy test type thing. Some shit you take at home and you lick it and you go “Oh, I’m a fucking idiot! Shit! The fuck is this?! It’s broken, gimme another one!” Dudes would never believe it, idiots would have fucking boxes stacked to the ceiling. “LIAR! COCKSUCKER! NO!”

The real problem is, most of us are idiots! We just like to think that we’re not idiots because we use a bunch of shit that smart people have figured out. But how many of us understand any of that shit? Think about the technological level the world operates on, how many of us really understand that? What if everybody out there died, and we had to take over the world? How well would you think we’d do?

[Crowd starts cheering]

“Yeah, terrific! We would do awesome!” Yeah, does anybody really know how any of this shit works?

[Taps microphone]

Why’s that loud, any idea? I’ve been a comedian for sixteen fucking years, I have no idea what’s in there! I don’t know, some loud shit? I don’t know.

[Points at spotlight]

What makes that bright, bright shit? I don’t know. Think about all the stuff you need to run your life. Computers and palm pilots and cell phones, how many of you know how to make any of that shit?! I mean, if I left you alone in the woods with a hatchet, how long before you can send me an email?

We are not smart! We buy shit from smart people! I don’t have a camera on my phone because I’m smart! If you left me on an island for a fucking million years I could never figure out how to put a camera on a phone! I don’t even know what a camera is! I know that I press a button and a picture shows up. What happens between me pressing the button and the picture showing up is anybody’s fucking guess! There might be leprechauns with spray paints fucking gremlins up the ass!

All I know is “megapixel”! Yeah, you gotta say that to get the good shit. I don’t even know what a megapixel is! It’s like a noise you make with your mouth. “Megapixel! Ohhh, you’re clever! You are clever!”

Who knows of people who know that shit? Does anybody know anyone that’s invented anything? Who are they? Is anybody watching them? Making sure they’re alive? Making sure that somebody mixed kids with them? No! No one’s paying attention! I think what’s going to happen is that one day smart people are just gonna die and they’re gonna leave us with a bunch of shit we don’t understand. I think there’s gonna be no warning!

We’re just gonna be sitting around, having a good time, having a couple of drinks, power’s just going to shut off. Everybody’s gonna get out their lighters “Way to go, you fuckin’ idiots! Can’t even keep the power on, what the fuck…” And what do you do when the power goes out? I don’t know what you do, what I do usually is that I sit around and I wait. Cause I figure “There’s a guy fixing that shit. Probably working out it right now…” How long will it take before you figure out all the smart people are dead? It would take years. You would have to run out of batteries, “Dude I don’t know how to make a fucking battery, what do we do? SHIT!”

“Listen, just get together with a torch, okay? Get a torch, we’re all gonna meet in the street and we’re all gonna work this out. It’s gonna be cool.”

Standing out in the street with a torch, “What’sup, fag?”

“Dude, you know how to get the power on?”

“I thought you did!”

“No… alright, keep me posted.”

“You too!”

We’d just be sitting in our houses with out torches. That would work. ‘Till the animals realise we don’t have electricity any more and they start sneaking around, checking shit out. And they realise there’s no loud noises to scare them off any more and bears just start grabbing people.

[Imitating bear attack]

They just realise we’re fat and slow, they don’t even have to catch us. They scare us, we’ll just black out. It’s a matter of time before they start eating us! More evolution! But not me motherfucker, I’ve got guns! I’ve got bullets, I’m gonna be fine! …until I run out of bullets

“I don’t know how to make a fucking bullet, do you? SHIIIITTTT! Dude, there’s bears out there, we don’t even have any bullets, what the fuck do we do?!”

“Listen man, we’re gotta get out of the city, we’re sitting ducks. This is what we should do; we should move back into the caves!” People will live in the caves again!

“Dude, it’s safer in the caves, bro! Just fucking guard the entrance with sharp, pointy sticks!”

“GRRRR”

“AAHHHH!”

We would just get down to a core group of survivors, fighting off the bears. And within one or two generations we would forget EVERYTHING! Trigonometry, calculus, all that shit’s gone! Science, the ‘net, it’s gone! It’s never gonna happen again! It would take thousands of years, you would have to reinvent electricity… Within one hundred years would think the world’s flat and the sun is seventeen miles away. Just like the people that wrote The Bible, that’s what they thought, ain’t that funny?

“GRRRR”

“AAHHHH!”

We would just devolve to a core group of survivors and let them re-evolve and re-discover the earth. How crazy would that be? How crazy would a caveman discovering downtown Phoenix be? Just coming out of the cave with his fucking club, with his buddies.

“Dude, who fuckin’ built all this shit?”

“Bro, it had to be aliens!”

“FUCK YEAH! Fuck yeah it’s aliens! I can’t do that, you do that?”

“Neither can I! What the fuck?”

See, I think this has happened before. I think it explains the pyramids. And yeah, I was reeeallyy high when I thought this up. But it makes sense! If you ever watch a documentary on how they built the pyramids, they have no idea how they made those things.

“Well, we believe they used levers”, but this is all that you really need to know. They know they’re there, so they know somebody made them. But all you need to know about the Great Pyramid of Giza; there’s two million, three hundred thousand stones that weigh between two and 80 tonnes – some of them were cut form a quarry that was that was five hundred miles away! No machines, no trucks, no steel, they had copper tools and they were perfectly cut, you couldn’t even get a razor blade in between these rocks and they were perfectly aligned, true North, South, East and West. And if you cut and place ten of these monstrous stones a day it would take you six hundred and sixty for fucking years to make one pyramid! All brought to you by people who thought the god Ra took the sun across the sky in a canoe and returned later that evening with the moon. They had sixteen year old queens! Cleopatra was sixteen years old when she was running shit. That’s like Lindsay Lohan being Queen of the world!

And they built that?! They built that? Are you sure? Are you sure? Okay, because I have another theory. I think people used to be really, really, really fuckin’ smart! But the dumb ones just out-fucked the smart ones! That’s what I think! I think that we are all the bastard children of the idiot stone workers of Egypt! I think that at one point there was a master race and they were reading each other’s minds and they were free of ego and they were totally honest and they were mapping out the cosmos and behind them, the stone workers just fucked away.

[Mimics stone workers having sex, and giving birth to a child]

“Oh look, he look just like me! That’s my fella right there!”

They just took over. And one day the smart people just die. There’s probably no warning. Just one day the idiots show up at the pyramids “Hello?! Anybody in there?! We’re supposed to get our checks on Friday! Hello?! The boy’s have got overtime coming! The holidays’ just around the corner, have you no heart?”

Then eventually they just realise the smart people are all dead.

“What do you want to do?”

“I think for now we should just move into the pyramids then we’ll figure it all out.”

And that’s what they did, they just moved in. Then they just started lying about it. After a couple of generations, “Who built this?”

“WE DID! We’re the best, we’re number one! Egypt! Egypt! Egypt! Look at that beautiful flat wall! That’s craftsmanship, son! I think I will draw stick figures on it!

[Mimics drawing]

“This.. is a woman… she’s carrying food upon her head… that’s important to document! And this… is a man… but, he has a head of a dog! And he’s evil!”

You sure they made that? They wrote in stick figures, dude.

Modernized Nuclear Weapons

Sunday, January 17th, 2016

The US has been using precision munitions for decades, but it has only recently moved to modernize its nuclear weapons — adding not only precision guidance but also a “dial-a-yield” feature whose lowest setting is just 2 percent as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

B61-12 Diagram. Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, ‘Smaller’ Leaves Some Uneasy - The New York Times - Google Chrome 1122016 100707 AM

B61-12

Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

While untangling the tale of Ada Lovelace, Stephen Wolfram eventually gets to Ada’s paper on Babbage’s Analytical Engine and what might have been:

Despite the lack of support in England, Babbage’s ideas developed some popularity elsewhere, and in 1840 Babbage was invited to lecture on the Analytical Engine in Turin, and given honors by the Italian government.

Babbage had never published a serious account of the Difference Engine, and had never published anything at all about the Analytical Engine. But he talked about the Analytical Engine in Turin, and notes were taken by a certain Luigi Menabrea, who was then a 30-year-old army engineer—but who, 27 years later, became prime minister of Italy (and also made contributions to the mathematics of structural analysis).

In October 1842, Menabrea published a paper in French based on his notes. When Ada saw the paper, she decided to translate it into English and submit it to a British publication. Many years later Babbage claimed he suggested to Ada that she write her own account of the Analytical Engine, and that she had responded that the thought hadn’t occurred to her. But in any case, by February 1843, Ada had resolved to do the translation but add extensive notes of her own.

Over the months that followed she worked very hard—often exchanging letters almost daily with Babbage (despite sometimes having other “pressing and unavoidable engagements”). And though in those days letters were sent by post (which did come 6 times a day in London at the time) or carried by a servant (Ada lived about a mile from Babbage when she was in London), they read a lot like emails about a project might today, apart from being in Victorian English. Ada asks Babbage questions; he responds; she figures things out; he comments on them. She was clearly in charge, but felt she was first and foremost explaining Babbage’s work, so wanted to check things with him—though she got annoyed when Babbage, for example, tried to make his own corrections to her manuscript.

It’s charming to read Ada’s letter as she works on debugging her computation of Bernoulli numbers: “My Dear Babbage. I am in much dismay at having got into so amazing a quagmire & botheration with these Numbers, that I cannot possibly get the thing done today. …. I am now going out on horseback. Tant mieux.” Later she told Babbage: “I have worked incessantly, & most successfully, all day. You will admire the Table & Diagram extremely. They have been made out with extreme care, & all the indices most minutely & scrupulously attended to.” Then she added that William (or “Lord L.” as she referred to him) “is at this moment kindly inking it all over for me. I had to do it in pencil…”

William was also apparently the one who suggested that she sign the translation and notes. As she wrote to Babbage: “It is not my wish to proclaim who has written it; at the same time I rather wish to append anything that may tend hereafter to individualize, & identify it, with the other productions of the said A.A.L.” (for “Ada Augusta Lovelace”).

By the end of July 1843, Ada had pretty much finished writing her notes. She was proud of them, and Babbage was complimentary about them. But Babbage wanted one more thing: he wanted to add an anonymous preface (written by him) that explained how the British government had failed to support the project. Ada thought it a bad idea. Babbage tried to insist, even suggesting that without the preface the whole publication should be withdrawn. Ada was furious, and told Babbage so. In the end, Ada’s translation appeared, signed “AAL”, without the preface, followed by her notes headed “Translator’s Note”.

Ada was clearly excited about it, sending reprints to her mother, and explaining that “No one can estimate the trouble & interminable labour of having to revise the printing of mathematical formulae. This is a pleasant prospect for the future, as I suppose many hundreds & thousands of such formulae will come forth from my pen, in one way or another.” She said that her husband William had been excitedly giving away copies to his friends too, and Ada wrote, “William especially conceives that it places me in a much juster & truer position & light, than anything else can. And he tells me that it has already placed him in a far more agreeable position in this country.”

Within days, there was also apparently society gossip about Ada’s publication. She explained to her mother that she and William “are by no means desirous of making it a secret, altho’ I do not wish the importance of the thing to be exaggerated and overrated”. She saw herself as being a successful expositor and interpreter of Babbage’s work, setting it in a broader conceptual framework that she hoped could be built on.

There’s lots to say about the actual content of Ada’s notes. But before we get to that, let’s finish the story of Ada herself.

While Babbage’s preface wasn’t itself a great idea, one good thing it did for posterity was to cause Ada on August 14, 1843 to write Babbage a fascinating, and very forthright, 16-page letter. (Unlike her usual letters, which were on little folded pages, this was on large sheets.) In it, she explains that while he is often “implicit” in what he says, she is herself “always a very ‘explicit function of x’”. She says that “Your affairs have been, & are, deeply occupying both myself and Lord Lovelace…. And the result is that I have plans for you…” Then she proceeds to ask, “If I am to lay before you in the course of a year or two, explicit & honorable propositions for executing your engine … would there be any chance of allowing myself … to conduct the business for you; your own undivided energies being devoted to the execution of the work …”

In other words, she basically proposed to take on the role of CEO, with Babbage becoming CTO. It wasn’t an easy pitch to make, especially given Babbage’s personality. But she was skillful in making her case, and as part of it, she discussed their different motivation structures. She wrote, “My own uncompromising principle is to endeavour to love truth & God before fame & glory …”, while “Yours is to love truth & God … but to love fame, glory, honours, yet more.” Still, she explained, “Far be it from me, to disclaim the influence of ambition & fame. No living soul ever was more imbued with it than myself … but I certainly would not deceive myself or others by pretending it is other than a very important motive & ingredient in my character & nature.”

She ended the letter, “I wonder if you will choose to retain the lady-fairy in your service or not.”

At noon the next day she wrote to Babbage again, asking if he would help in “the final revision”. Then she added, “You will have had my long letter this morning. Perhaps you will not choose to have anything more to do with me. But I hope the best…”

At 5 pm that day, Ada was in London, and wrote to her mother: “I am uncertain as yet how the Babbage business will end…. I have written to him … very explicitly; stating my own conditions … He has so strong an idea of the advantage of having my pen as his servant, that he will probably yield; though I demand very strong concessions. If he does consent to what I propose, I shall probably be enabled to keep him out of much hot water; & to bring his engine to consummation, (which all I have seen of him & his habits the last 3 months, makes me scarcely anticipate it ever will be, unless someone really exercises a strong coercive influence over him). He is beyond measure careless & desultory at times. — I shall be willing to be his Whipper-in during the next 3 years if I see fair prospect of success.”

But on Babbage’s copy of Ada’s letter, he scribbled, “Saw A.A.L. this morning and refused all the conditions”.

Yet on August 18, Babbage wrote to Ada about bringing drawings and papers when he would next come to visit her. The next week, Ada wrote to Babbage that “We are quite delighted at your (somewhat unhoped for) proposal” [of a long visit with Ada and her husband]. And Ada wrote to her mother: “Babbage & I are I think more friends than ever. I have never seen him so agreeable, so reasonable, or in such good spirits!”

Then, on Sept. 9, Babbage wrote to Ada, expressing his admiration for her and (famously) describing her as “Enchantress of Number” and “my dear and much admired Interpreter”. (Yes, despite what’s often quoted, he wrote “Number” not “Numbers”.)

The next day, Ada responded to Babbage, “You are a brave man to give yourself wholly up to Fairy-Guidance!”, and Babbage signed off on his next letter as “Your faithful Slave”. And Ada described herself to her mother as serving as the “High-Priestess of Babbage’s Engine”.

But unfortunately that’s not how things worked out. For a while it was just that Ada had to take care of household and family things that she’d neglected while concentrating on her Notes. But then her health collapsed, and she spent many months going between doctors and various “cures” (her mother suggested “mesmerism”, i.e. hypnosis), all the while watching their effects on, as she put it, “that portion of the material forces of the world entitled the body of A.A.L.”

How did Elon Musk learn enough about rockets to run SpaceX?

Saturday, January 9th, 2016

How did Elon Musk learn enough about rockets to run SpaceX? Rocket scientist Jim Cantrell explains:

Once he has a goal, his next step is to learn as much about the topic at hand as possible from as many sources as possible. He is by far the single smartest person that I have ever worked with, period. I can’t estimate his IQ but he is very very intelligent. And not the typical egg-head kind of smart. He has a real applied mind. He literally sucks the knowledge and experience out of people that he is around. He borrowed all of my college texts on rocket propulsion when we first started working together in 2001. We also hired as many of my colleagues in the rocket and spacecraft business that were willing to consult with him. It was like a gigantic spaceapalooza. At that point we were not talking about building a rocket ourselves, only launching a privately funded mission to Mars. I found out later that he was talking to a bunch of other people about rocket designs and collaborating on some spreadsheet level systems designs for launchers. Once our dealings with the Russians fell apart, he decided to build his own rocket and this was the genesis of SpaceX.

I knew he read textbooks, but I didn’t know exactly which textbooks: Rocket Propulsion Elements, Aerothermodynamics of Gas Turbine and Rocket Propulsion, Fundamentals of Astrodynamics, and the International Reference Guide to Space Launch Systems.

Hundreds of Flying Robots

Friday, January 8th, 2016

We don’t think about them that often, but above us are hundreds of flying robots that play a large part in our lives on Earth:

In 1957, lonely Sputnik circled the Earth by itself, but today, the worlds of communication, weather forecasting, television, navigation, and aerial photography all rely heavily on satellites, as do many national militaries and government intelligence agencies.

The total market for satellite manufacturing, the launches that carry them to space, and related equipment and services has ballooned from $60 billion in 2004 to over $200 billion in 2015. Satellite industry revenue today makes up only 4% of the global telecommunications industry but accounts for over 60% of space industry revenue.

[...]

About two-thirds of active satellites are in Low Earth Orbit. LEO starts up at 99 miles (160 km) above the Earth, the lowest altitude at which an object can orbit without atmospheric drag messing things up. The top of LEO is 1,240 miles (2,000 km) up. Typically, the lowest satellites are at around 220 miles (350 km) up or higher.

Most of the rest (about one-third) of the satellites are much farther out, in a place called geostationary orbit (GEO). It’s right at 22,236 miles (35,786 km) above the Earth, and it’s called geostationary because something orbiting in it rotates at the exact speed that the Earth turns, making its position in the sky stationary relative to a point on the Earth. It’ll seem to be motionless to an observer on the ground.

[...]

A small percentage of other satellites are in medium Earth orbit (MEO), which is everything in between LEO and GEO. One notable resident of MEO is the GPS system that most Americans, and people from many other countries, use every day. I never realized that the entire GPS system, a US Department of Defense project that went live in 1995, only uses 32 satellites total. And until 2012, the number was only 24—six orbits, each with four satellites.

How Useful Is the Theory of Disruptive Innovation?

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

In The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, Christensen and Raynor discuss 77 cases of disruptive innovation. Andrew A. King and Baljir Baatartogtokh interviewed experts on each of those cases and discovered something:

Many of the theory’s exemplary cases did not fit four of its key conditions and predictions well. A handful corresponded well with all four elements (notably, for example, the disruptions by Salesforce.com, Intuit’s QuickBooks, and Amazon.com). However, a majority of the 77 cases were found to include different motivating forces or displayed unpredicted outcomes. Among them were cases involving legacy costs, the effect of numerous competitors, changing economies of scale, and shifting social conditions. Discussions with our industry experts also helped us to identify the most generally applicable elements of the theory of disruptive innovation as well as to define other ways managers can guide businesses through stormy times.

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Before surveying and interviewing experts on each of the 77 cases, we identified four key elements of the theory of disruption: (1) that incumbents in a market are improving along a trajectory of sustaining innovation, (2) that they overshoot customer needs, (3) that they possess the capability to respond to disruptive threats, and (4) that incumbents end up floundering as a result of the disruption.

[...]

In summary, although Christensen and Raynor selected the 77 cases as examples of the theory of disruptive innovation, our survey of experts reveals that many of the cases do not correspond closely with the theory. In fact, their responses suggest that only seven of the cases (9%) contained all four elements of the theory that we asked about.

The Rocket Builder’s Handbook of the Twenty-First Century

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

Elon Musk and his SpaceX team threw out the Rocket Builder’s Handbook of the Twentieth Century and started from scratch with their own designs:

Instead of using a foundation of flight-tested but badly outdated designs, they designed a brand-new rocket, built using modern materials and techniques.

Instead of building high-performance rocket engines with exotic alloys to squeeze out every ounce of performance, they sacrificed some performance for a large reduction in cost.

Instead of building a larger, more powerful rocket engine for the booster stage, they designed it to use nine smaller ones.

Instead of using expensive radiation-hardened computers, they chose a low-cost design using three redundant computers built from ‘off the shelf’ components.

Instead of using flight computers in the uppermost stage alone, they used identical avionics in both stages to facilitate booster stage recovery.

Not only did using nine booster engines provide assurance that a launch would succeed even if an engine failed, it opened up options to recover the booster stages at some later date. By using virtually identical engines on both the booster and the second stage, they would also get more engine performance data per launch while reducing both cost and design complexity.

SpaceX also designed the booster stage of the Falcon 9 to have far more power than was required to launch the most common medium-weight payloads into space. This extra power provided the margin SpaceX needed to develop a recovery system without having to take a future hit on the vehicle’s payload capacity. Even as an expendable launch vehicle, the Falcon 9 is already one of the lowest-cost in its class, putting the company ahead of its competition even without reusability.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Launch Profile

The recovery system that SpaceX finally arrived at was nothing more complicated than fuel, landing legs, grid fins, and updated flight software. This system took advantage of the vehicle’s extra fuel capacity and lighter weight to create a reusable booster stage out of an expendable one. Reusability could then be achieved with minimal structural changes to the existing booster stage.