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Posts from the ‘Space’ Category

Lunar Mission: The First Step in Putting the Past Behind Us

Wonderful news today coming out of NASA today:

NASA took the first concrete step toward returning human beings to the moon Thursday, successfully launching the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on a mission to find the best place to build Earth’s first off-world colony.

The 19-story-high, two-stage rocket and spacecraft launched at 2:32 p.m. PDT. As the huge first-stage Atlas V rocket roared to life at Cape Canaveral in central Florida, NASA spokesman George Diller called it “America’s first step in a lasting return to the moon.”

The $500 million orbiter will spend the next year cruising just 31 miles above the lunar surface, employing a suite of seven instruments to identify landing hazards such as rocks and craters. It will be paying particular attention to the largely unknown lunar poles, where previous missions have picked up hints that water ice may exist in some permanently shadowed craters.

Thousands of sky watchers are expected to turn their telescopes to the moon on the morning of Oct. 9, when the water-seeking satellite steers the fuel-depleted second stage Centaur rocket into a crater at 5,600 mph. For those in the western U.S., where the moon will still be up, the plume should be clearly visible with a moderately sized backyard telescope, NASA said.

Time to start putting forty years of the unprecedented embarrassment of the US space program since the late 1970s.  I’m not sure that any other country has so thoroughly trashed such a magnificent technological edge in a crucial field before, unilaterally.

The space shuttle.  The international space station.   Ugh. I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.

Ironically, we may look back and give the Bush Administration surprising credit for finally tilting US space exploration back in the right direction.  (Don’t worry, I’m under no delusion that people will say anything nice about Bush 43 for a while…)

There are tremendous technical and commercial advantages to establishing the first, ongoing presence on the Moon.  It’s a little know fact, but as an independent side project at Harvard, I built out an initial business model and operating plan for financing a private moon base.  It’s hard to think back, but at the time (2000), companies were raising $10B-$15B in private capital markets to fund the build-out of fiber-optic networks across the world.

It wasn’t such a stretch to imagine raising $60B in sequential rounds to fund a moon base, particularly when the economics of a moon base are so strong.

You see, the moon is such a hostile environment, that once you have a self-sustaining and expandable eco-system set up, it’s a natural monopoly.  For quite some time, it will always be significantly cheaper to add on to an existing base, rather than build a new one from scratch.

That difference in cost, which is measured in billions, is an incredibly revenue opportunity, assuming there is demand to establish presence on the moon.

It was 2000, but I believe I laid out at least 10 potential revenue lines for the moon base, to help it become cash flow positive, even across that type of capital raise.

(Yes, I was assuming the US would never ratify the Moon Treaty from the insane 1970s.  Beyond ridiculous.)

In any case, very exciting to see us finally moving down the correct path.  My only regret is that if we had moved down this path in the late 1970s, we’d all be jostling for positions on a fully operational moon base by now.

I’m still optimistic that I will be able to travel to the moon in my lifetime.  The only question now is whether it will be a US or Chinese built lunar city.

A Moment of Silence for the F-22 Raptor

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recommended ending the the long-standing drama surrounding the F-22 (nee, the F-22A) supersonic fighter, capping the program with a purchase of four more planes in 2009, bringing the total number to 183.

F-22

A pair of F-22 Raptors during an Air Force training flight.
(Thomas Meneguin — U.s. Air Force Via Associated Press)

A bit of a sad day for me, really.

There is a nice column in the Washington Post today from the Air Force explaining why they support the decision to end the program, 60 planes shy of the 243 total they had originally estimated to be needed in a post-cold war world, and almost 600 shy of the pre-1989 estimate.

We are often asked: How many F-22s does the Air Force need? The answer, of course, depends on what we are being asked to do. When the program began, late in the Cold War, it was estimated that 740 would be needed. Since then, the Defense Department has constantly reassessed how many major combat operations we might be challenged to conduct, where such conflicts might arise, whether or how much they might overlap, what are the strategies and capabilities of potential opponents, and U.S. objectives.

These assessments have concluded that, over time, a progressively more sophisticated mix of aircraft, weapons and networking capabilities will enable us to produce needed combat power with fewer platforms. As requirements for fighter inventories have declined and F-22 program costs have risen, the department imposed a funding cap and in December 2004 approved a program of 183 aircraft.

Much has been made of the cost over-runs in the F-22 program, and there is some truth to those complaints.  Of course, they have been exaggerated in recent years since manufacturing planes is a volume business, and the average cost per plane drops significantly as you increase volume and speed delivery.

It may seem strange to wax nostalgic for a super-sonic aircraft, but I remember the F-22 fondly.  When I was in high school, I read Aviation Weekly regularly as one of the requirements for my high school debate research (the topic for the year was space exploration).  I remember at the time the race between the F-21 and F-22: competing prototypes for a new air superiority fighter that would line up against the latest generation MiG fighters from the USSR, and which would be able to deliver Mach 2.0+ speeds without afterburners and with low radar reflection.

It was post-1987, so already the era of disillusionment with the ridiculous mediocrity of the US space program had set in.  But warplanes were still an area of rapid technological advancement, and raw engineering wonder.  It was pre-1991, so the cold war was still there to propel investment in military technology.

The F-22 won the contest, of course.  As fate would have it, about the same time, the USSR lost the contest.  Almost immediately, the plane and the program were caught in an ongoing battle for existence – a battle that lasted almost twenty years.

There are good arguments by better informed people on the merits and liabilities of the F-22 program.  Right now, I’m not really interested in discussing them.

Instead, I want to take a moment to contemplate the wonder and excitement that aerospace used to hold for me and a generation of kids.  A time when the space program was filled with the best and the brightest, and when the best engineers devoted themselves to conquering air and space.

In truth, that time pre-dated me.  But I still felt the echoes of it in the late 1980s.  I was an intern at NASA Ames in 1990-1.  I dreamed of a robust space program, and limitless advancement in aerospace.

The F-22 was my desktop picture for the better part of the 1990s for goodness sake.

Of course, the much less impressive F-35 joint strike fighter program will continue.  And spurred by Space-X and the private sector, there may even be some signs of life in the US Space Program, particularly once we get rid of the generational vacuum that was the Space Shuttle.  The Orion may yet fly, and we may yet have a base on the moon, and land men on Mars.  Twenty years later than I had hoped, but better late than never, I suppose.

A moment of silence tonight, however, for the F-22.  A truly beautiful aircraft.

The Self Organizing Quantum Universe

I’m a big fan of distributed systems – complex networks of an extremely large number of independent entities governed by simple and transparent rules.  Not surprising, really, that I work professionally on next-generation products and services based on the Internet, one of the most successful man-made distributed systems in existence.

As a result, it’s not surprising that I found this article in the latest issue of Scientific American compelling:

Scientific American: Using Causality to Solve the Puzzle of Quantum Spacetime
A new approach to the decades-old problem of quantum gravity goes back to basics and shows how the building blocks of space and time pull themselves together
By Jerzy Jurkiewicz, Renate Loll and Jan Ambjorn

Here is a quick synopsis:

  • Quantum theory and Einstein’s general theory of relativity are famously at loggerheads. Physicists have long tried to reconcile them in a theory of quantum gravity—with only limited success.
  • A new approach introduces no exotic components but rather provides a novel way to apply existing laws to individual motes of spacetime. The motes fall into place of their own accord, like molecules in a crystal.
  • This approach shows how four-dimensional spacetime as we know it can emerge dynamically from more basic ingredients. It also suggests that spacetime shades from a smooth arena to a funky fractal on small scales.

I’ve been following modern cosmology theory fairly closely for the past 15 years, and I found this approach compelling and refreshing in a number of ways.  It may not be an effective path towards resolving theories around quantum gravity, but there are clear reasons to give it due consideration:

  • The modeling techniques will be extremely familiar to anyone with an advanced background in modern computer graphics approaches and theory.
  • The idea that a few simple assumptions will self-aggregate into the universe that we see around us avoids the never-satisfying anthropic principle fallback.  (The anthropic principle is effectively a circular argument that says, “Well, the universe is this way because if it wasn’t this way, we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.”   It’s about as intellectually satisfying as the movie 10,000 BC.
  • The simplicity of the model scores favorably with Occam’s Razor vs. other competing theories of quantum gravity and string theory.
  • The model is based on the insight that causality (related to the 2nd law of thermodynamics) is a fundamental principle of our universe.

That last bullet was particularly compelling for me, since the idea that time is a dimension with equal fluidity to the spacial dimensions has always conflicted philisophically with the concept that entropy must always increase.  It’s the reason why almost every form of time travel breaks the accounting for mass/energy.

Anyway, read it and let me know what you think.  I had someone at work tease me just last month about reading Scientific American, comparing it to Popular Science.  Personally, I find that articles like this continue to justify my subscription dollars.

Ice on Mars, Found on Twitter?

Very, very strange to see breaking news come through Twitter.

But the Mars Phoenix mission actually has its own twitter feed:

MarsPhoenix

And as the LAist reported just a few hours ago, there was an exciting tweet just 3 hours ago:

Are you ready to celebrate? Well, get ready: We have ICE!!!!! Yes, ICE, *WATER ICE* on Mars! w00t!!! Best day ever!!

I am, in fact, ready to party over this news. Check out more info at the official NASA website.

I feel like I need to have separate aggregations in Twitter now – the streams from friends, the streams from columnists/bloggers, and news/event streams.  I have a hard time seeing a solution other than multiple aggregated lists… How can I see a tweet from a friend, a tweet from Barrack Obama, and a tweet from the Mars Phoenix team and expect anything but a jumble?

Pluto is a Planet, Redux

Looking at my first blog posts has a certain charm to it.  One of the first posts on this blog that ever drove a significant amount of traffic was a post about the decision to demote Pluto as a planet at the IAU conference in 2006.

Pluto is a Planet

Scientific American has a nice article out on revisiting that debate, and the options that will be present at a conference on the topic this summer.  An except:

Pluto lovers, don’t despair: Researchers have not given up the fight for the former ninth planet. Many of them put up a fuss two years ago when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) downgraded Pluto to the status of mere dwarf planet. Now they plan to revive the debate, this time under the banner of public understanding of science.

Researchers on both sides of the issue are set to gather in August at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., for what’s being called “The Great Planet Debate: Science as Process.” The goal, says the conference’s co-organizer Mark Sykes, director of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz., is to teach the public that science is a process of constant revision and refinement. “People should be exposed to that process,” he says. “The IAU process gave the impression that science is done by a bunch of scientists voting behind closed doors.”

In my original coverage, I posted this simple snippet on the Pluto Vote Revolt.   It received thousands of page views in a matter of days:

Pluto Vote Revolt!

In the end, I still agree largely with the comments from the NASA lead on the New Horizons project:

Dr Alan Stern, who leads the US space agency’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and did not vote in Prague, told BBC News: “It’s an awful definition; it’s sloppy science and it would never pass peer review – for two reasons.

Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh pictured in 1980 (AP)

Pluto was discovered in 1930 by the American Clyde Tombaugh

“Firstly, it is impossible and contrived to put a dividing line between dwarf planets and planets. It’s as if we declared people not people for some arbitrary reason, like ‘they tend to live in groups’.

“Secondly, the actual definition is even worse, because it’s inconsistent.”

One of the three criteria for planethood states that a planet must have “cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit”. The largest objects in the Solar System will either collect together material in their path or fling it out of the way with a gravitational swipe.

Pluto was disqualified because its highly elliptical orbit overlaps with that of Neptune.

But Dr Stern pointed out that Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Neptune have also not fully cleared their orbital zones. Earth orbits with 10,000 near-Earth asteroids. Jupiter, meanwhile, is accompanied by 100,000 Trojan asteroids on its orbital path.

These rocks are all essentially chunks of rubble left over from the formation of the Solar System more than four billion years ago.

“If Neptune had cleared its zone, Pluto wouldn’t be there,” he added.

Stern said like-minded astronomers had begun a petition to get Pluto reinstated. Car bumper stickers compelling motorists to “Honk if Pluto is still a planet” have gone on sale over the internet and e-mails circulating about the decision have been describing the IAU as the “Irrelevant Astronomical Union”.

Let’s hope that saner minds prevail, and that the fact that Pluto was “temporarily” demoted from planetary status becomes a piece of arcane trivial from the early 21st century.

Iraqi TV Debate: Is the Earth Flat or Round?

You be the judge.  Many thanks to Boing Boing and Haha.nu for this one.

Here’s a snippet:

Statement by a round-earther physicist: When you watch a ship sailing towards the shore, all you see at first is the mast. Then you see the bow, and eventually the entire ship.

Fadhel Al-Said: When you stand on the beach and look into the distance, everything you see is in the visible distance. In the blurred distance, you cannot see a thing. Later on as the ship gets closer to the shore or the harbor, you see the upper part. How do you see it? The eye, as I have said, no doctor has succeeded in understanding how the eye works.

Can you find the flaws in the flat earth “astronomy researcher”?  My favorite part is where he explains that since the moon covered the sun partially in 1999, he has been able to conclude that the moon is 1/2 the size of the sun.  :)

Just a little fun on a Friday.

Did You Miss the Lunar Eclipse? Gorgeous Photos from Eric.

I was feeling really bad on Tuesday.

A gorgeous lunar eclipse took place that was visible from most of Asia-Pacific, and even stretched to full visibility over California.  But with peak viewing at just past 3:30am, I just couldn’t make it.  One of the liabilities of having two kids under 3 and a full-time gig at a start-up, I guess.  :)

Fortunately, Eric did stay up, and since he is an incredible photographer, I’m feeling better about it.  Tell me that these aren’t gorgeous shots:

Eric’s full post on how he took them is here.  His web gallery, where you can buy his more famous prints, is here.  Full data from NASA on the eclipse is here.

New Horizons Spacecraft Swings by Jupiter. Next Stop, Pluto, Charon & the Kuiper Belt

One of my first posts on this blog was about Pluto, namely the incredibly stupid move to re-classify it as a dwarf planet. For the first month of my blog, that post generated a surprisingly large amount of traffic.

Since then, I’ve posted about the New Horizons spacecraft, and the current mission to send a probe to fully explore Pluto, Charon and the Kuiper Belt.

This is just a quick post to highlight the fact that the spacecraft hit a major milestone today. According to the NASA press release:

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft successfully completed a flyby of Jupiter early this morning, using the massive planet’s gravity to pick up speed for its 3-billion mile voyage to Pluto and the unexplored Kuiper Belt region beyond.

“We’re on our way to Pluto,” said New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Md. “The swingby was a success; the spacecraft is on course and performed just as we expected.”

New Horizons came within 1.4 million miles of Jupiter at 12:43 a.m. EST, placing the spacecraft on target to reach the Pluto system in July 2015. During closest approach, the spacecraft could not communicate with Earth, but gathered science data on the giant planet, its moons and atmosphere.

At 11:55 a.m. EST mission operators at APL established contact through NASA’s Deep Space Network and confirmed New Horizons’ health and status.

The fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons is gaining nearly 9,000 mph from Jupiter’s gravity – accelerating to more than 52,000 mph. The spacecraft has covered approximately 500 million miles since its launch in January 2006 and reached Jupiter faster than seven previous spacecraft to visit the solar system’s largest planet. New Horizons raced through a target just 500 miles across, the equivalent of a skeet shooter in Washington hitting a target in Baltimore on the first try.

You can find up-to-date mission pictures and information here on the New Horizons website.

July 2015 is going to be a lot of fun.

Sonofusion: Could the Key to Fusion Lie in Bubbles?

This week’s Science Times in the Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007 edition of the New York Times was just phenomenal. So many things worth writing about!

I’m just going to write one tonight, but I had to give a shout out to their cover story, and one of the coolest technologies I had the chance to investigate years ago, sonoluminescent fusion.

New York Times: Practical Fusion, or Just a Bubble

The basic concept behind sonofusion, also known as bubble fusion, is to take advantage of a unique behavior of liquids when exposed to sound waves. The sound waves can create spontaneous bubbles in the liquid, which then collapse with such force that they actually generate light. This behavior is called sonoluminescence. Here’s the innovative idea: if you use heavy water, which features radioactive forms of hydrogen, it may be possible to actually use sonoluminescence to actually create temperatures high enough to create fusion. And with fusion comes a 50-year dream of using the ultimate form of clean energy, not for weaponry, but for commercial and personal use.

When I was in venture capital, I specialized in software companies, not experimental physics. When you work for a top-tier firm, you get hundreds of unsolicited business plans submitted to you, by email, on a weekly basis. In most cases, an unsolicited submission is the worst possible way to connect with investors.

However, one day I got an email with a business plan for a company in Grass Valley, CA called Impulse Devices. It wasn’t every day I got a plan for a new energy company (this was 2002, and the recent boom in clean energy companies hadn’t begun yet.) Imagine my surprise to find the founders with credible backgrounds, and published material in peer reviewed journals.

Over the course of a few months, I took a few calls with the company, both to better understand the technology and the potential opportunity. It wasn’t a good fit for the firm I worked for, but I was nonetheless curious.

I don’t know if they’ll be able to deliver the addition orders of magnitude improvement in energy generation to generate viable fusion where other approaches have failed. The NY Times piece has a nice summary of current fusion efforts, which, while successful, currently take in more energy than they produce.

Mainstream science is pursuing fusion along two paths. One is the tokamak design, trapping the charged atoms within a doughnut-shape magnetic field. An international collaboration will build the latest, largest such reactor in southern France in coming years. The $10 billion international project, called ITER, could begin operating around 2016 and is intended to demonstrate that all the scientific and technological challenges have finally been tamed. Commercial tokamak reactors could perhaps follow in 10 years.

The other mainstream approach is blasting a pellet of fuel with lasers, creating conditions hot and dense enough for fusion. The National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California is to start testing that idea around 2010. The cost of the center, with 192 lasers, has soared to several billion dollars. Harnessing that approach will also take decades.

However unlikely it is that a maverick approach like sonofusion will be the one to succeed where others have failed, there was a great quote in the article I wanted to spotlight:

“It’s really a shame the Department of Energy has such a narrowly focused program,” said Eric J. Lerner, president and sole employee of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in New Jersey, another alternative fusion company. Mr. Lerner has received NASA financing to explore whether his dense fusion focus might be good to propel spacecraft, but nothing from the Energy Department.

The department is spending $300 million on fusion research this year, and President Bush has asked for an increase to $428 million for next year’s budget. Almost all the increase would go to ITER.

The department supports research for many approaches, said Thomas Vanek, the department’s acting director for fusion energy sciences, but that has to fit within tight budgets. “Since the mid-’90s, it has been a tough environment for fusion energy.”

Some fusion scientists argue that fundamental physics makes these alternative approaches unlikely to pay off. Some agree that financing some high-risk, high-payoff research could be worthwhile.

“I personally think there should be more of these smaller ideas funded,” said L. John Perkins, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore. “Ninety-nine might fail, but one might pay off.”

This is the problem with large, centralized-planning-based approaches to big science, and the reason why private capital markets can be so much more effective at generating innovation.

The big dollars, whether they are from large corporations or from governments will always go to the most practical, the most developed, and the most accepted approaches. The idea of funding 100 ideas, knowing that 90% will fail is not something that seems prudent to stewards of public capital. This is what the venture capital industry, however, enables in the aggregate, and society benefits heavily from that 1 in 100 approach that actually does change the world.

I am so excited now for space exploration, because for the first time, the great giant shackles of centralized government planning for the industry are being broken. Vanity contests and start-up capital are generating more innovation in spacecraft and related technology than the entirety of the post-Apollo space program. That same approach is breathing incredible new life into technologies around clean energy.

So, just in case sonofusion ends up being the miracle that brings practical fusion to the world, just maybe you read about it here first. If not, let’s all hope that another 99 ideas as out-of-the-box as this one get funded.

Mission to Pluto: New Horizons Craft at Jupiter

I am a huge supporter of space exploration, and a big fan of the recent boom of entrepreneurial activity around space. For example, I’m the type of person that gets excited when I see that the Blue Origin spacecraft managed a very successful test recently of their new launch vehicle. (Blue Origin is Jeff Bezos’ pet space company).

However, I have a special connection with the ongoing mission to Pluto, dubbed “New Horizons”. The spacecraft has been in the news lately because the ship will soon be passing Jupiter, on its way to rendezvous with Pluto (which is a planet).

The reason is kind of quirky – it has to do with my activity on the Speech & Debate team in High School. I went to a very small high school (less than 200 students), but it had, at the time, a very successful and well-recognized Speech & Debate team. I was successful enough on the team to be both President of the team (about 40 students) and Captain of the Policy Debate team (sometimes called Oxford debate).

I had a lot of success in individual speech events – my specialty were the variants where there was little to no preparation. Extemporaneous speaking was an event where you had 30 minutes to prepare a 7 minute speach on a topic, typically current events or policy. Impromptu, my favorite, gave you only 2 minutes to prepare a 5 minute speech on anything. Literally anything – a quote, a person, a place, an item. One of my best speeches ever was the final round of the Stanford invitational, where I won first place after picking my topic out of a Stanford bookstore bag (it was a condom).

One area where the team had struggled historically had been the annual, official statewide competition for policy debate. Unlike college invitationals, the state competitions tended to have “lay” judges – parents, friends, locals. As a result, winning had more to do with persuasive speech, and less to do with well thought out policy or evidence.

Our senior year, at the qualification tournament at Bellarmine High School, my partner and I had prepared a special case – one that was less technical, inexpensive, and incredibly compelling. It was a secret – we had never used it before at a tournament (we typically did 15-20 tournaments across the country, per year). The topic that year was space exploration.

The policy proposal? Send an unmanned spacecraft to Pluto. It was inexpensive (under $200M), obvious (it’s the only planet we haven’t explored close up), and it had urgency – there was a specific window in Pluto’s orbit that makes it economical to launch only once every decade or so. Pluto goes through a unique atmospheric event every 200 years, and it turned out that sending the craft immediately, in the next decade, made the most sense.

Not as grandiose as a moon base. Not as compelling as a manned mission to Mars. Not as exotic as developing solar sails. Not as economically valuable as beaming solar energy down from orbit to provide clean, inexpensive power.

But it won. And we qualified for the State tournament that year.

We didn’t end up winning the State championship that year, although I did pick up 2nd in the state in Extemporaneous. But I still look back on that case fondly; it was our last one.

That was spring of 1991. And as it turns out, it was a good idea, and we really are doing it. And now the ship is racing across the solar system, due for its rendezvous with Pluto… in July 2015, when my oldest son will be 10.

See you in 2015.

Don Norman in Defense of PowerPoint

How is it possible that I didn’t know that Don Norman wrote a post entitled:

In Defense of PowerPoint

He wrote the post over two years ago. However, I remember the storm over this like it was yesterday. It all started with a New York Times article in 2003 called “PowerPoint Makes You Dumb“. It was written in response to the investigation into the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, which pinned part of the blame on a “PowerPoint Culture” with too little detail.

A sample paragraph from the NYT article:

This year, Edward Tufte — the famous theorist of information presentation — made precisely that argument in a blistering screed called The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. In his slim 28-page pamphlet, Tufte claimed that Microsoft’s ubiquitous software forces people to mutilate data beyond comprehension. For example, the low resolution of a PowerPoint slide means that it usually contains only about 40 words, or barely eight seconds of reading. PowerPoint also encourages users to rely on bulleted lists, a ”faux analytical” technique, Tufte wrote, that dodges the speaker’s responsibility to tie his information together. And perhaps worst of all is how PowerPoint renders charts. Charts in newspapers like The Wall Street Journal contain up to 120 elements on average, allowing readers to compare large groupings of data. But, as Tufte found, PowerPoint users typically produce charts with only 12 elements. Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

This issue resonates with me for three reasons:

  1. Don is one of the HCI legends. Even though I now work at eBay, I began my career at Apple Computer, working in the Advanced Technology Group before transferring to the WebObjects team after Apple acquired NeXT. Towards the end, ATG was rebranded the “Apple Research Labs”, and Don Norman was the VP (and Apple Fellow). Don’s book, The Design of Everyday Things, is one of the standard bearers for an education in design.
  2. I find myself using a lot of PowerPoint. It started with my work in venture capital, digesting 6-10 new presentations a day presented live, and an uncounted number over email. Now at eBay, I find that in the end, there is no better way to pitch a new business or a new product strategy broadly than to go through the exercise of producing a truly great slide deck. I wonder sometimes whether I now see more decks at eBay than I did in venture capital.
  3. Don is right. PowerPoint has its place. I love to joke about PowerPoint – I even use some quotes from the article in a lunch presentation I do at Stanford every year as an ice-breaker. But the fact is, there is a time and a place for a PowerPoint presentation. Like any other mode of communication, there are situations where the ability to distill concepts into a short, simple visual presentation is the right answer. I have written my share of 1-page memos, 10-page decks, and long emails. There is a time and a place for each, and if you think any one of them is right for every audience and every situation, then you are not thinking hard enough how to match the best communication vehicle to every situation.

So while I can’t say that I’m proud of the fact that these days I probably produce better PowerPoint decks than Java code, sometimes it is the right tool for the job.

As an aside, I remember the Columbia disaster like yesterday. It was a relatively quiet time for me, as I was home with my wife and our new puppy, Newton, who was only a few months old. I woke up that morning, read the news, and we went to get coffee and a bagel to relax and absorb it. (For those in the Valley, we went to the Starbucks & Noah’s Bagel on the corner of De Anza & Stephens Creek, right near Apple)

Strong Leonid Meteor Shower for 2006… But Not on the West Coast

I love the Leonid Meteor shower.

Every year, at this time, if you are willing to stay up late and drive to an area that is relatively dark, you are rewarded with a great show. It’s always exciting to see a shooting star – it’s even better to see dozens of them in one viewing.
I got excited by this news on Space.com today:

Strong Leonid Meteor Shower Expected This Weekend

On the surface, this sounds like incredible news:

A brief surge of activity is expected begin around 11:45 p.m. ET Saturday, Nov. 18. In Europe, that corresponds to early Sunday morning, Nov. 19 at 4:45 GMT. The outburst could last up to two hours.

At the peak, people in these favorable locations could see up to 150 shooting stars per hour, or more than two per minute.

“We expect an outburst of more than 100 Leonids per hour,” said Bill Cooke, the head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. Cooke notes that the shooting stars during this peak period are likely to be faint, however, created by very small meteoroid grains.

Now, here’s the problem:

Unfortunately for viewer’s on the U.S. West Coast, the peak occurs before Leo rises. Outside of the expected peak, the best time to watch for Leonids is in the pre-dawn hours, when the constellation Leo is high in the sky.

Drat. If you are interested, the Space.com article has great information about the cause of the annual Leonid meteor shower (it’s caused by the Earth rotating through the trail of the comet Tempel-Tuttle every year), and how to best view the shower wherever you are in the world.

Too bad. 2 shooting stars per minute sounds amazing.

Orion & The Rebirth of the Space Program

On Friday, NASA announced the selection of Lockheed Martin as the major contractor to build the space vehicle to replace the aging Space Shuttle fleet.

Orion Crew Vehicle
The vehicle is called the Orion Crew Vehicle, and Lockheed Martin will be building eight of the reusable launch vehicles, with an initial launch target of 2014. For those of you following at home, the Space Shuttle fleet is due to be retired in 2010.

Time magazine has a nice piece outlining the selection, and the type of multiple-administration support that the ongoing efforts to establish a permanent manned-presence on the Moon & Mars will require.

This is an incredibly exciting announcement for a number of reasons. The first & foremost reason is that this finally begins to put the unmitigated disaster that was the Space Shuttle program behind us. The last thirty years have been an amazing failure in terms of manned presence in space, largely due to the abysmal failure of the Space Shuttle program to meet any of its estimates for reusability, cost, and scale. Originally promised to have launches that could be turned around as quickly as commercial airliners, we’ve been lucky in years to even have half a dozen launches – and that is ignoring the catastrophic failures that have befallen two of the shuttles.

The Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy & Space has a nice piece on the new Orion program.

Establishing a permanent manned presence in orbit, on the Moon, and on Mars are goals that transcend administrations and nations.

When viewed from the lens of history, it is likely that the decision to firmly establish a timetable and goal of manned presence off this planet will be seen as the most significant of our generation. We can only hope that the administrations to come will not play political football with the most significant of human achievements.

It is sad in many ways that the timeline for this success will be in the 2020s, rather than the 2000s – which it easily could have been if we had avoided the Space Shuttle program. Still, it’s cool to see space get so much attention again. The X Prize, Space Tourism, SpaceX – this is the type of rapid technical improvement that they dreamed about in the 1950s & 1960s.

PS For those of you trivia buffs out there, Project Orion was also the codename for the 1960s concept of a nuclear-pulse propulsion craft that would make inter-stellar flight practical. The concept: a big spaceship with a large metal plate behind it, propelled by small nuclear explosions.

Pluto Vote Revolt!

I love the controversy over this Pluto decision.  I think the NASA lead for the New Horizons project basically sums up my arguments in this article which is surprisingly well written on BBC News.

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Pluto vote hijacked in revolt

Pluto is a Planet

Of course, like everyone, I caught the headline this morning:

Astronomers say Pluto is not a planet – Yahoo! News

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s nice to see people who probably cannot even name all nine planets interested in a story about cosmology and the way we define our neighborhood in the galaxy. On the other, this entire debate to me seems to be missing the point – “planet” is hardly a technical term, which is why they can’t really figure out how to define it. However, the term “planet” does inspire children to look up in the stars, realize that there are different things out there, and most importantly realize that our entire world is really just a small little ball, whirling around in space.

How many children have been excited about the prospect of discovering the “10th planet”? I remember books from the 80s, talking about “mysterious tugs” on the orbit of Neptune, and even conjecture that “something else” might have pulled Pluto & Charon away from Neptune.

Demoting Pluto doesn’t inspire anyone. When the press dies down, in roughly a week, it’ll become an obnoxious fact – a fact that only the most annoying people will bring up every time they go to a classroom, museum, or other location that still shows all nine planets.

What they should have done, instead, is find a way to make Xena the 10th planet, leave Ceres in the asteroid belt, and highlight Charon & Pluto as a unique “double planet”. That would have been inspiring.

BTW I haven’t found any technical journal reporting detailed enough to explain to me why, if the new requirement is that a planet has “cleared its orbit”, why Neptune is a planet and Pluto isn’t… seems to me that Neptune hasn’t cleared it’s orbit either, since Pluto crosses it. The whole idea that Pluto crosses Neptune’s orbit as a reason for demotion seems specious.

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