Didn’t attend ETech this week, but thanks to a Twitter pointer from Gene Becker, I did take a few breaks to participate in a collaborative future forecasting experiment at the event, organized by Institute For the Future / Signtific Labs. The general idea is to enlist game players to offer Twitter-like short notes with outlier ideas regarding a scenario under discussion, in this case the consequences of inexpensive ($100) 1kg microsatellites (“CubeSats”) capable of high speed networking and remote sensing. The same game framework could be used for any scenario, though. Bonus points are awarded to “Super-Interesting” ideas and ideas that result in additional discussion, which helped me out on the scoreboard.
Gene (“ubik“) won a “Feynman” award on the first day, and I managed to end up with a high score at ETech, thus winning a lab coat to go with my “Genius” label.
Some of my favorite future forecast contributions from “What will you do when space is as cheap and accessible as the Web is today?” (slide summary here):
Jurisdiction-free data haven built with csats full of rad-hard flash memory, hbase-style distributed replication across multiple nodes. Subpoena-proof anonymizers, for better or worse. Alternative, universal internet currency evolves, outside any government’s central bank control. Following forced disclosure of banking client list, Swiss government recognizes anonymous cSat net IDs, followed by Cayman, Bermuda etc.
CSats deorbited in vacant areas of oceans as impulse input to passive sonar imaging. Oceanographers get great maps, submarines lose stealth. Depending on how accurately you can drop a CSat, you can effectively “ping” a region and listen to the return signal through existing arrays. This really messes with strategic deterrence since now subs are vulnerable to first strike. But CSat deorbit is cheap WMD for all. On the positive side, detailed acoustic propagation data leads to new insights on ocean dynamics – bathymetrics, thermoclines, currents, etc. A similar version of dropping CSats on land might yield useful seismic imaging. But these would all be surface impulse, not at depth.
Csat data networks circumvent the Great Firewall of China and other govt access controls, leading to broader/safer citizen engagement online
CSat operating interface is marketed as a toy, like Tamagochi. Recharge, collect interesting data, avoid mean csats, team with friends. Organizations might post cash prize/rewards for things like locating missing ships, oil/trash dumping at sea, smokestack emissions, etc
Commodity traders are early adopters of CSat operator networks. Looking for crop yield data, mine production volumes, freight shipments etc. Among other things, CSat observations could give a more accurate estimate of “floating” oil parked in tankers as well as ongoing demand. Similarly, you’d get a decent idea of iron ore production by watching BHP’s railway in Australia, and the demand side in China, Korea etc. CSat data could improve the market visbility into supply/demand. But one might start creating Potemkin mining/farming operations etc… Sadly, credit derivative risk is not observable via CSat.
Ubiquitous, near real time satellite surveillance. No more privacy outdoors. But really good Google Maps. Ultra high resolution terrain maps of the world synthesized from multiple satellite passes/viewing aspects. Long term studies of effects of erosion, farming, development, earthquakes, flooding, drought, etc. Insurgents, militias, and terrorists get real time tactical data feeds, make use of homebrew UAVs, sensors, and in-field dispatch from afar. Turf wars among poppy and marijuana growers who now know where each other’s fields are. All vehicles – car, truck, rail, container, airplanes, etc – get a sky-facing ID plate. Maybe these should just be really big QR codes with an authoritative registry to foil car thieves from painting on bogus “plates”.
Now I need to figure out how to collect that lab coat.
The Russian Soyuz carrying Korea’s first astronaut, Yi So-yeon returned safely over the weekend, albeit 260 miles from the intended landing zone in what Interfax (Russian news agency) describes as a rough landing, exceeding 10g’s. Any landing you can walk away from is a good one.
Yi So-yeon, the first Korean astronaut, went to the International Space Station today on a Russian Soyuz. She is a bioengineer by training, and will be conducting various experiments during the next nine days.
In addition, there has apparently been a lot of work making Korean food ready for space travel:
The Korea Food Research Institute and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute have spent years turning traditional South Korean delicacies into a form that can be stored and eaten in zero gravity, including steamed rice, red pepper paste, doenjang fermented bean soup, green tea, red ginseng tea, instant noodles, sujeonggwa cinnamon punch and, above all, kimchi – the pungent pickled blend of cabbage, chilli and garlic that is the national dish.
Anyway, it’s pretty exciting for Koreans, although this picture from the CNN article make her look slightly wacky, vaguely reminding me of visits to my aunt’s house when I was a kid.
An excellent and depressing post at Idle Words about the US Space Shuttle and how we got here. (via Anil Dash)
Future archaeologists trying to understand what the Shuttle was for are going to have a mess on their hands. Why was such a powerful rocket used only to reach very low orbits, where air resistance and debris would limit the useful lifetime of a satellite to a few years? Why was there both a big cargo bay and a big crew compartment? What kind of missions would require people to assist in deploying a large payload? Why was the Shuttle intentionally crippled so that it could not land on autopilot? 1 Why go through all the trouble to give the Shuttle large wings if it has no jet engines and the glide characteristics of a brick? Why build such complex, adjustable main engines and then rely on the equivalent of two giant firecrackers to provide most of the takeoff thrust? Why use a glass thermal protection system, rather than a low-tech ablative shield? And having chosen such a fragile method of heat protection, why on earth mount the orbiter on the side of the rocket, where things will fall on it during launch?
Maciej Ceglowski goes on to detail the broad history of the decision making and funding process that led to the current state of the program, and highlights the conflicted goals and politics around US space exploration:
The people who work at and run NASA are not cynical, but the charade of manned space flight is turning NASA into a cynical organization. For all the talk of building a culture of safety, no one has pointed out the inherent contradiction in requiring that a program justified on irrational grounds be run in a rational manner. In an atmosphere where special pleading and wishful thinking about the benefits of manned flights to low earth orbit are not just tolerated, but required of astronauts and engineers, how can one demand complete integrity and intellectual honesty on safety of flight issues? It makes no sense to expect NASA to maintain a standard of intellectual rigor in operations that it can magically ignore when it comes to policy and planning.
Incremental compromises and shifting customer requirements for a major program are all too common in the business world as well. A series of “reasonable” or “expedient” changes are made over a period of time, and eventually the official plan becomes nothing more than wishful thinking. Forcing rational people to operate with irrational assumptions then leads to inconsistent, unexpected, and sometimes disastrous outcomes. Unfortunately, in a large organization, programs (or official strategies) can take on a life of their own, and can be nearly impossible to change or shut down, short of replacing the management or restructuring the company.