The Space Shuttle, an object lesson in the Sunk Cost Fallacy, has been with us since my early youth. This preposterous boondoggle was originally supposed to make manned space flight cheaper: to the point where getting a pound of matter into space would be as cheap as sending it to Australia. That was the only purpose for building the damn thing in the first place. The idea was, if your spaceship was reusable, it would be cheaper to send people and heavy things into space. If using the same thing multiple times isn’t cheaper, well, what’s the point? Conspicuous consumption, perhaps?
In one of its original incarnations, the Shuttle was supposed to launch like an ordinary aircraft. A jet + rocket powered “first stage” heavy lifter would propel the craft into the upper atmosphere, and the rocket propelled second stage would send the thing into space. Seems like a good idea to me. Jets are pretty easy to fly and maintain cheaply. Jets also don’t have to carry vast quantities of oxidizer. Plus; you get to reuse the whole mess.
Unfortunately, the politicians decided that building the first stage heavy lifter would cost “too much.” Instead they changed the design, and strapped a couple of solid rockets to a beefed up “orbiter” and giant non-reusable fuel tank. That wasn’t the worst of it: those pieces should have still in principle provided for a cheap launch vehicle. In practice, the silica tiles and engines turned out to have very high maintenance costs involving substantial labor, and turn around times were 1/6 of what they should have been, making the thing 6 (though more like 10) times as expensive as it was designed to be.
Really though, it is much worse than this. The shuttle was supposed to cost under $50/lb of launched payload. I can’t figure out how much mass they launched into orbit with the thing, but assuming 3/5 of the total 50,000lb payload capacity per flight (almost certainly an over estimate).
200E9 total program cost/(30,000lbs * 135 missions) = $50,000/lb
Making it a mind boggling 1000 times worse than it was supposed to be. And about 5-10x as expensive as using non-reusable spacecraft.
I guess 5-10x more expensive wouldn’t be horrible if it were incredibly safe or reliable. But as well know, it is neither safe nor reliable. The politician/managers estimated there was a 1/100,000 chance of a catastrophic failure. The engineers rated it 1/100. Both underestimated the dangers. In reality, we got amazingly lucky: hindsight informed us the early flights had more of a 1/10 danger of a catastrophic failure.
I know some wise acre will attempt to pipe up here that the purpose of the shuttle was heavy lifting capabilities, but the only reason anybody thinks this, is because they bought the propaganda. The Titan, a rocket dating from the 1950s, lifted heavier payloads. And yes, it was a lot cheaper and more reliable. In my opinion, it was also the coolest looking, and one of the most interesting rockets Americans have launched, but that’s a topic for another post.
There is an excellent history page on Nasa’s website detailing the political and engineering decisions that led to the Space Shuttle (where I got the images of prototype concepts which are better than what we got). It should be read by anyone interested in the history of launch technologies: you’ll learn about what could have been, and what the design tradeoffs were that led to this abomination. The shuttle could have been awesome; it could have used Scramjets instead of rockets. It could have used titanium instead of aluminum. It could have been designed incrementally, instead of being a multi-billion up front investment we really wish had paid off. The only reason the thing ever flew was politics; dump that much money into something, and it has to “work” -and so the Shuttle ate up NASA’s budget for decades. Rather than making progress, the Shuttle impeded progress for 30 years. It should never have flown in the first place.
What’s to replace it? Hopefully private space vehicles. They won’t be particularly innovative (though carbon fiber rocket nozzles are pretty neat), but they will be better than the shuttle. Personally, I think the 30 year Shuttle boondoggle is a great reason to shut NASA down for good. If they can’t take risks and produce new technologies, they have no further reason for existing. Kill NASA and start a new Aeronautics and Space Administration that actually innovates. Or just give the money to Elon Musk for a year; he could probably do more with one year’s worth of NASA budget ($20 billion) than NASA has done for the last 30, or is likely to do for the next 30 in its present incarnation. He’s already done more than NASA on a fraction of this money.
I’d rather see them develop something innovative (yes, this means taking risks), but they’re not going to with their present culture of time-serving bureaucrats. Something like the DC-X, or, hell, using railguns and scramjets: just make us something cool, guys. For $20 billion a year, I want a little more action than what we’re presently getting, which is zilch. Having a goal would help.
“I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980s and ’90s.
This system will center on a space vehicle that can shuttle repeatedly from earth to orbit and back. It will revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it. It will take the astronomical costs out of astronautics. In short, it will go a long way toward delivering the rich benefits of practical space utilization and the valuable spinoffs from space efforts into the daily lives of Americans and all people.” -Richard Nixon, a fitting epitaph to a crappy program
I make no secret of the fact that I think real technological progress has slowed in many fields, possibly even reversing itself. There are probably a variety of reasons this is so, most of them fairly depressing to contemplate. In the interests of not causing despair, I’ll try to keep focused on one obvious symptom of the disease: computers.
Of course, computers are good in that they give me a job, and they and their networks allow me to broadcast my curmudgeonry through the whole of the civilized world for free. But computers also ruin a lot of things, such as technological development.
For example: cars. I used to work on cars. Cars are cool machines: they work via hydraulics, gears and fire, more or less. Modern cars unquestionably have many advantages over cars made when I was born; they’re safer, faster and cleaner. They’re also impossible to repair, have more stuff which breaks, and generally embody planned obsolescence. Does anyone believe a modern Benz will be able to drive for 1,000,000 miles the way old ones regularly would? I don’t. Is this an improvement? Well, what I’d really like is a simple old style car with an air bag and slightly better fuel injectors. It’s not impossible to do. Will anyone do this? I doubt it. There is more money to be made using the razorblade model and so, people will continue paying for overpriced garbage with … “technology” in it. Meanwhile, people still drive W-123 cars with 3/4 of a million miles on ’em: made in an era when people still believed in old fashioned engineering, and didn’t put so much faith in computer doodads.
Cellular telephones are another example. When they came out, they worked via analog electronics. Digital was a distinct improvement in reliability. Unfortunately it was also an improvement in capability. Really, all you want your cell phone to do in principle is get phone calls while you’re not at home -which is, in itself, kind of a niche thing -how many people really need to be that available for telephone calls? But, no, engineers need something to do, so they added …. digital features; SMS, 3G, 4G. This is understandable. I used to carry around this giant calculator thing called the HP100LX. Pretty cool thing: it ran Dos-5 (which wasn’t real far behind the state of the art 18 years ago). You could use it to check your email: I often did, because I was too cheap to buy an actual computer. You could even run Lynx on it and get WWW. It even ran emacs (slowly) and allowed me to work on Fortran code while away from my desk.
Now, with fancy pants new telephones, we can do all the stuff I could do with my 20 year old calculator, and we can make phone calls with it without jacking into a phone plug. I loved my little calculator, but I mostly used it as a calendar and calculator. The other stuff was more or less a silly parlour trick. Now I see lots of people buying telephones based, more or less, on these parlour tricks. Amusingly, they don’t work very well as telephones, but people do love them as status symbols and nerd dildos. Can’t stand the things, myself: I think they’ve ruined polite conversation.
I don’t think I need to complain about the use of computer “animation” and “special effects” ruining the cinematic experience. If you never noticed how much this trend sucks, there are plenty of talented commentators on this sad state of affairs.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly: I think computers have ruined the design process. I have already pointed out the catastrophic time lags it takes to develop a modern aircraft in the West. Revolutionary jets like the SR-71 or the 747 took months to design. Regular evolutionary developments like the F-35 or 787 seem to take decades. Why do you suppose this is? I think it’s because people are screwing around in CAD and finite element analysis programs far too much, and not, you know, designing stuff. I’ve seen this at work in my days at LBNL. The “correct way” to get parts made for experimental apparatus is to get a CAD engineer to design it in SolidDesigner over the course of several days. Then the CAD goes to a CAM machinist, who will eventually send it back to the CAD engineer pointing out the 11 ways in which making this object is impossible without resorting to EDM. If you’re lucky and bother everyone on a regular basis, you’ll get your part in a few months. Then it won’t fit because the designer didn’t bother to come look at the machinery it’s supposed to bolt to. Why should he? He has the “engineering drawings” for the rest of the thing! Of course, electrical “drawings” on a computer are not solid objects, so the damn thing often won’t fit. The other way to do it is to grab some blue collar Navy dude with a greying moustache, tell him what you want; he comes and looks at everything with a tape measure and have him deliver it to you, freshly machined from aluminum and 304 steel in a couple of days time. Sure, it will be uglier, chunkier and bigger, but it will work, generally the first time. If it doesn’t, he’ll scratch his moustache, go away and make it work the second time ’round by filing something away or drilling a new hole in the thing.
Russian aircraft designers have a saying; на коленки -to work with paper on one’s knee. This is real design philosophy. One which has mostly been abandoned in the West. Western engineers prefer doltish computer masturbation to cleverness, pencils and graph paper. Sure, the computer makes a lot of stuff possible which was previously impossible, but it’s also made a lot of stuff difficult or impossible which used to be easy.
I would imagine only a few people reading this have anything to do with designing physical objects any more, but for the dozen of you still involved in making things which exist in the world, do consider на коленки when you’re making things. Consider whether that computer doodad you’re adding to your project is necessary or useful. And for the love of all that is holy, put your stupid nerd dildo away when you’re talking to people.
When I was a little boy in the 70s and 80s, I was pretty sure by the 21st century I’d drive around in a hovercraft, and take space vacations on the moons of Saturn. My idea of a future user interface for a computer was not the 1970s emacs interface that the cleverest people still use to develop software today, I’d just talk to the thing, Hal-9000 style. I suppose my disappointments with modern technological “advances” are the boyish me complaining I didn’t get my hovercraft and talking artificial brain. What boggles me is the gaping credulity that intelligent people treat alleged developing future technologies now.
A vast industry of professional bullshit artists has risen up to promote and regulate technologies which will never actually exist. These nincompoops and poseurs are funded by your tax dollars; they fly all over the world attempting to look important by promising to deliver the future. All they actually deliver is wind and public waste. Preposterous snake oil salesmen launched an unopposed blitzkrieg strike on true science and technology during my lifetime. I suspect the scientific and technological community’s rich marbling with flâneurs is tolerated because they bring in government dollars from the credulous; better not upset anybody, or the gravy train might stop flowing!
While I have singled out Nano-stuff for scorn in an article I’d describe as “well received,” (aka, the squeals of the ninnies who propagate this nonsense were sweet music to my ears), there are many, many fields like this.
The granddaddy of them all is probably magnetic confinement nuclear fusion. This is a “technology” which has been “just 20 years in the future” for about 60 years now. It employs a small army of plasma physicists and technicians, most of whom are talented people who could be better put to use elsewhere. At some point, it must be admitted that these guys do not know what they are doing: they can’t do what they keep promising, and in fact, they have no idea how to figure out how to do it.
I think there is a general principle you can derive from the story of magnetic confinement fusion. I don’t yet have a snappy name for it, so I’ll call it, “the folly of plan by bureaucracy.” The sellers of such technology point out that it is not known to be impossible, so all you need do is shower them in gold, and they will surely eventually deliver. There are no intermediate steps given, and there is no real plan to even develop a plan to know if the “big idea” is any good. But they certainly have a gigantic bureaucratic organizational chart drawn up. The only time large bureaucracies can actually deliver specific technological breakthroughs (atom bombs, moon shots) is when there is a step by step plan on how to do it. Something that would fit in Microsoft project or some other kind of flow chart. The steps must be well thought out, they must be obviously possible using small improvements on current techniques, and have a strict timeline for their completion. If any important piece is missing, or there are gaping lacunae in the intermediate steps, the would-be technology is a fool’s mission. If there is no plan or intermediate steps given: this would-be technology is an outright fraud which must be scorned by serious investors, including the US government.
To illustrate this sort of thing in another way: imagine if someone shortly after the Bernouilli brothers asked the King for a grant to build a mighty aerostat which travels at 3 times the speed of sound. Sure, there is no physical law that says we can’t build an SR-71 … just the fact that 18th century technologists hadn’t invented heavier than air flight, the jet engine, aerodynamics, refined hydrocarbons, computers or titanium metallurgy yet. Of course, nobody in those days could have thought up the insane awesomeness of the SR-71; I’m guessing a science fiction charlatan from those days might imagine some kind of bird-thing with really big wings, powered by something which is thermodynamically impossible. Giving such a clown money to build such a thing, or steps towards such a thing would have been the sheerest madness. Yet, we do this all the time in the modern day.
A sort of hand wavey corollary based again on fusion’s promises (or, say, the “war on cancer”), I like to call, “the folly of 20 year promises.” Bullshitters love to give estimates that allow them to retire before they’re discovered as frauds; 20 years is about long enough to collect a pension. Of course, a 20 year estimate may be an honest one, but I can’t really think of any planned, specific technological breakthrough developed by a bureaucracy over that kind of time scale, and I can think of dozens upon dozens which have failed miserably to the tune of billions of research dollars. What “20 years” means to me is, “I don’t actually know how to do this, but I wish you’d give me money for it anyway.”
A burgeoning quasi-technological field which is very likely to be vaporware is that of quantum computing. This pains me to say, as I think the science behind this vaporware technology is interesting. The problem is, building quantum gates (the technology needed to make this theoretical concept real) is perpetually always somehow 20 years off in the future. We even have a very dubious company founded, and in operation for 11 years. I don’t know where they get their money, and they manage to publish stuff at least as respectable as the rest of the QC field, but … they have no quantum computer. Granted, many in the academic community are attempting to keep them honest, but their continued existence demonstrates how easy it is to make radical claims without ever being held to account for them.
David Deutsch more or less invented the idea of the quantum computer in 1985. It is now 25 years later, and there is still no quantum computer to be seen. I think Deutsch is an honest man, and a good scientist; his idea was more quantum epistemology than an attempt to build a practical machine that humans might use for something. The beast only took on a bureaucratic life of its own after Peter Shor came up with an interesting algorithm for Deutsch’s theoretical quantum computers.
Now, let us compare to the invention of modern computers by John von Neumann and company in 1945. Von Neumann’s paper can be considered a manual for building a modern computer. His paper described a certain computer architecture: one which had already been built, in ways that made its mathematical understanding and reproduction relatively simple. Most computers in use today are the direct result of this paper. I’d argue that it was engineering types like Hermann Goldstine and John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert who actually built digital electronic computers before von Neumann’s paper, who made the computer possible. In turn, their ideas were based on those of analog computers, which have a long and venerable history dating back to the ancient Greeks. The important thing to notice here is the theory of binary digital computers came after the invention; not the other way around.
Now, it is possible for theory to have a stimulating effect on technology: von Neumann’s paper certainly did, but it is rare to nonexistent to derive all the properties of a non-existent technology using nothing but abstract thought. The way real technology is developed: the technology or some sort of precursor gizmo or physical phenomenon comes first. Later on, some theory is added to the technology as a supplement to understanding, and the technology may be improved. Sort of like, in real science, the unexplained phenomenon generally comes first; the theory comes later. In developing a new technology, I posit that this sort of “theory first” ideology is intellectual suicide. I call this, “the folly of premature theory.” Theory don’t build technologies: technologies build theories.
Technology is what allows us our prosperity, and it must be funded and nurtured, but we must also avoid funding and nurturing parasites. Cargo-cult science and technologists are not only wasteful of money, they waste human capital. It makes me sad to see so many young people dedicating their lives to snake oil like “nanotechnology.” They’d be better off starting a business or learning a trade. “Vaporware technologist” would be a horrible epitaph to a misspent life. I have already said I think technological progress is slowing down. While I think this is an over all symptom of a decline in civilization, I think the three follies above are some of the proximate causes of this failing. Bruce Charlton has documented many other such follies, and if you’re interested in this sort of thing, I recommend reading his thoughts on the matter.
I’ve been doing some writing for Taki’s magazine. Most of this writing will be irrelevant or annoying to people who are interested in Science, Technology and Finance. Taki is an old school conservative who is mostly interested in social and political issues. The article I wrote for him does have social and political implications, which is presumably why he was kind enough to publish it.
I think this particular article is also quite germane to this blog, as it’s about the disturbing slow down in the rate of technological progress we’ve experienced in my lifetime. I realize this is going to be controversial, and it may seem insane since you’re reading about it on my personal little network broadcast system, but it is an important subject worthy of your consideration. Technological progress isn’t what it used to be. Oh sure, the direction is remains generally positive (though not always), but the rate of new innovations and human power over nature seems to have slowed considerably. I don’t think I have any simple answers as to why this is so, but I want people to think and talk about it. As far as I know, there are no voices anywhere in the blogosphere or any other popular media which are saying this, excepting perhaps Charles Murray. Someone has to start the conversation, and that someone apparently has to be me. Sure, you could dismiss this idea as depressive rantings caused by economic apocalypse, but I actually have had this idea in mind since 2003 or so, when I was procrastinating writing up my Ph.D. thesis in the LBL library. I spent a week or so reading the yearly journal, “Advances in computers” -a wonderful experience that was probably more valuable than writing my thesis up. It was also humbling in that there have been very few recent advances in computers which aren’t simply advances in lithography.
If you’re a scientist or technologist, obviously this should be an interesting subject for you. If you’re a financial type: this should be even more interesting for you, as economic progress is ultimately fueled by technology and improvements in human power. I consider it the most important subject of our time. Why aren’t we doing better?
I’m impressed and humbled by the caliber of people who have read and commented on my blog, so I hope some of you take the time to read and think about this short piece, and maybe leave me some useful comments for or against my thesis. Because I directed the article at a popular audience, I skipped over a lot of technical details. Obviously computers have made possible innovations like Supply Chain and Operations Research type things, which are a form of progress, but not a revolutionary one: things aren’t really much different. Keeping less product on shelves isn’t really progress to my mind. Inventing, say, double entry book keeping: that made stuff incredibly different from how things worked before. Inventing trains and trucks to move product around: that’s real progress too. Blogs are … well, they’re a sort of democratization of technology: very positive, but not exactly progress. Some wise-acre I spoke to had the nerve to use Twitter or other social networking websites as an example of “progress.” If you are tempted to do so, I would assert that you don’t know what the word “progress” means. Anyhow, here is the article:
Edit add: a friend subsequently told me about this guy, who has some similar thoughts on the subject, though he is talking about the “singularity” specifically. Particularly useful is a
PDF timeline charting progress in his and his grandmother’s lifetimes.
Edit Add again:
This article (Thanks John!) examines some reasons why people can make very rapid progress, and why we aren’t so much right now. It also advocates for the use of rapid prototyping tools in research problems: something I’ve dedicated a good fraction of the last two years of my life to:
A friend recommended “Towards the Year 2018” by the Foreign policy association. I reviewed it on Amazon, and reproduce my comments below:
Hilarious view of our decline in technological progress
I recently wrote a magazine article on how the last 50 years of progress haven’t been particularly spectacular. A friend who has actually been around for the last 50 years and involved in the development of new technologies in that period of time recommended I read this book for a view into how people were thinking in 1968. I guess it’s easy to laugh at predictions of the future, and there is a whole lot of hindsight bias in this sort of thing, but this book is too funny to pass up a good natured chuckle at the whole thing.
This book gets an astounding amount of stuff right: they knew that communications technology would improve a lot more than it had. They knew that cheap international flights would change immigration and nationality forever. They knew that people would become more “open about their feelings” -though they had no idea that this would be largely a bad thing. They knew that nations might attack each other without identifying themselves -though they didn’t quite grasp the concept of non-state actors doing the same thing. They knew the United States (which was probably at around self sufficiency at that point) would be out of oil by 2018. They knew microelectronics would improve tremendously. They knew nuclear proliferation would be an important international issue in the future. They also seemed to realize that Fusion and Solar power required huge technical breakthroughs to become practical sources of energy. Finally, they contradicted the widespread idea that overpopulation would cause mass starvation at some point. They were correct: this still hasn’t happened.
Here are some bold predictions which did not come true. One of the authors postulated amazing breakthroughs in physics that never occurred: energy storage mechanisms making possible “disintegrator guns,” anti-gravity technology, they thought robots might fight bloodless wars. I don’t know why this guy thought this kind of insanity might happen (and he did hedge by saying he saw no way these things might happen, but he seemed to think they would anyway). Presumably too much television. Others postulated hypersonic air travel. The picture phone was a fun one; while it was certainly possible by the date they estimated, I guess they underestimated human nature. The chapter on weather and climate control is hilarious. They did worry darkly that adding too much CO2 to the atmosphere might have some effect -but they seemed more interested in actually engineering climate and weather in those days. Now a days, such talk seems like total madness. They also worried about a lot of other climate issues which it seems all get rolled into “global warming” now a days -that sort of speculation gives one pause. Have we eliminated these things? Is carbon dioxide more important than dust bowls and ice ages? I don’t even know how to know this, but it bothers me that they asked such questions in 1968, and everything dealing with climate now a days is deeply politicized. I guess they were right about the idea of weather becoming political, if not the ultimate way it happened. Self repairing machines? Um, no; we don’t have this yet. Nor are we likely to any time soon. The population estimates were ultimately very high. As for widespread exploration and exploitation of under seas resources: this never happened either. We pretty much abandoned the deep oceans in the 1950s, with the abandonment of Bathyscaphe technology. Human beings haven’t been back to the ultimate deeps since then.
I guess it’s wrong of me to lump all the predictions together, as they were made by different sets of experts per chapter, but since they’re all in the same book, I leave it up to the reader to sort the sheep from the goats. This book is really a remarkable document of how huge the technological changes were in the period from 1918 to 1968; they merely assumed the rate of change would remain unchanged. Well, as it happened, progress slowed down rather a lot. “