Locklin on science

Technologies which did not live up to the hype

Posted in Progress by Scott Locklin on May 14, 2017

There are many, many false technological alleys which continue to be pimped as things worth investing time and money into.

  • Automotive Gas Turbines:
    In the 1960s, several car manufacturers made gas turbines. The batmobile, for example. Turbines were supposed to be “jet age” machines of the future. You could get more fuel efficiency and energy per cubic meter out of the things, plus they were simpler in design (in theory, only one moving part), and easier to cool (they basically cool themselves). Unfortunately, gas turbines are lousy at acceleration in stop and go traffic. You might some day have one in your laptop though.
  • Disco Space Colonies:
    Back in the 1970s, when America had just been exposed to its first real energy crisis, a fellow by the name of Gerald Kitchen O’Neill came up with the marvelous scheme of blasting enormous chunks of glass and metal into space (presumably not using fossil fuels), which would produce clean solar energy and beam it back to earth in the form of microwave radiation. O’Neill wasn’t just some looney with a Pete Rose bowl cut; he invented the particle storage ring. His disco space colony idea was related to this in that he suspected the “mass driver” -a sort of particle accelerator for large pieces of matter he also invented, might one day be an important component for construction of such colonies. He also proposed this immediately after the Apollo Space program, which was a huge success, and made space travel look routine rather than extreme. He forgot to take into account that, at it’s peak, the Apollo program was consuming about 1% of the economic output of America. Just to send a couple of freemasons to the Moon, let alone skyscrapers filled with space colonists, giagantor microwave guns and mongo solar panels made of unobtanium the equivalent distance. Amusingly, a guy named Eric Drexler was one of O’Neill’s proteges via an MIT conference on space colonization in the 1970s. I like to think Drexler realized one could make a career out of making scientific sounding honking noises about impossible technology from hanging out with O’Neill.
  • Nanotech:
    I’d first heard of nanotech as a science fiction plot device. I never gave it much thought until I was writing my Ph.D. thesis. Sitting in the library alone with my laptop in my own personal hell, I did a ton of procrastination reading. One of the things I read was Drexler’s alleged science book on nanotech; “Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation.” I figured it would be interesting and inspiring, as it was a very famous Ph.D. thesis, and of course, nano-stuff is gonna change the world, right? Hell, there was a ton of funding coming into my lab to set up the center for nanotechnology (name changed to equally bullshittium “molecular foundry”); maybe I could stick out my hat and capture some low hanging fruit! By the time I was done this book, I finally made up my mind to go into finance and applied mathematics. It is the sheerest science fiction. Almost every assertion he made about what is possible is wrong. Much of the “science” asserted as fact is obvious baloney. Many of the things he waves around as trivial violate the laws of thermodynamics. Matter simply doesn’t work the way he wants it to. I remember running into a very bright surface scientist who had gotten on board the mighty gravy train of nano-nonsense at tea time shortly after reading this book. I was all, “dude; Drexler is smoking crack!” My pal gave a world weary moue, and agreed that one could make a living correcting Drexler. But, the money was good, and there was interesting material science to be done under the rubric of “nano.”
  • Fuel Cells:
    Fuel cells are one of those ideas that’s been around for almost as long as regular chemical batteries; since the early 1800s. The problem with fuel cells has been obvious since then. They’re hugely expensive, big, fragile and they either require extremely clean fuels like liquid hydrogen, or they wear out fairly quickly. There isn’t much that technology can do about this, though mass production may lower the cost some. And nobody likes the idea of driving around with a bunch of hydrogen in the tank of their car.
  • Biotech:
    Biotech provides employment for a lot of my smart friends. None of them have been able to tell me what their work actually does for humanity. In the realm of human health, it has enabled enormously fat people to live longer and eat more sugar, by making humulin cheaper than what they used to extract from dead racehorses. It also allows idiot bodybuilders to inject themselves with human growth hormone grown in toilet water, instead of HGH extracted from pineal glands of cadavers. There are also enormously expensive and mostly ineffective drugs used in certain kinds of cancer. In agriculture, it has provided some modest benefits, and created an entire industry of paranoids who think they’ll grow 8 heads if they eat genetically modified corn (which gets fed to cows anyway). While this could change in the future, I’ve been hearing about how biotech is going to change everything since Genentech was founded in 1976.
  • Stem Cell Research:
    Remember stem cell research? How we were going to cure Parkinsons and chewing with your mouth open using stem cells? How the eeebil Jeebers creeps from the middle of the country were denying the progress of science by keeping the white jackets in test tubes from sticking embryos in a blender? Well, as I recall, nothing ever came of it. It’s not because it was banhammered (it isn’t, mostly); it’s just not useful. I mean, it was politically useful for beating up on people who are classically religious rather than politically religious people who “fucking love science.” But to first order, the political battle seems to have been the main contribution of stem cell research to human culture.
  • Quantum Computing:
    I opined that it was probably a big nothingburger 7 years ago, despite having myself expended some not-inconsiderable time thinking out the semiclassical dynamics of such a device. Nothing has happened since then to revise my opinion on the subject. It’s now been 32 years since David Deutsch had his big idea. He’ll most certainly die before a useful quantum computer exists. I probably will too, as will everyone reading this prediction, making me, alas, unable to collect on the bet. All you need do is look at history: people had working computers before Von Neumann and other theorists ever noticed them. We literally have thousands of “engineers” and “scientists” writing software and doing “research” on a machine that nobody knows how to build. People dedicate their careers to a subject which doesn’t exist in the corporeal world. There isn’t a word for this type of intellectual flatulence other than the overloaded term “fraud,” but there should be.

I don’t think people should abandon all thought of any of the above subjects. Nor any of the abundant subjects which are presently grossly overrated by futurologists. I do think these historical examples should give any young researcher pause when it comes to devoting their lives to future boondoggles. Do you really want to work in the technological equivalent of macro-economics?

The more hype there is around a subject, the more  marketing personnel and quasi academic mountebanks there are involved in promoting it, the less likely it is to be important or useful. The really important breakthroughs of the last 20-40 years; networking protocols, photolithography improvements, cryptography, various improvements in statistics, signal processing and linear algebra and such; these have been relatively quiet occurrences.

If you want to make a difference in the world, learn some practical math, physics and chemistry. Ignore the wares of humbugs and quacks, keep your nose to the grindstone and read Phil Anderson (greatest physicist of our era);

Feynman’s cryptic remark, “no one is that much smarter …,” to me, implies something Feynman kept emphasizing: that the key to his achievements was not anything “magical” but the right attitude, the focus on nature’s reality, the focus on asking the right questions, the willingness to try (and to discard) unconventional answers, the sensitive ear for phoniness, self-deception, bombast, and conventional but unproven assumptions.

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The Future ain’t what it used to be

Posted in fun, Progress by Scott Locklin on November 1, 2016

I came across this video recently. It is a think piece by the Ford motor company and a long dead electronics firm called Philco showing what the future will be like from the perspective of 1967. It’s a nice imaginative vista from a time of great technological optimism: 1967. They were close to accomplishing the moon shot, and the Mach-3 Boeing SST had only recently been announced. From the perspective of a technologist alive in those days, life could have ended up like this. The set of things people worried about technological solutions and conveniences they thought would be cool are also interesting. It is kind of sad comparing this bold imagined future (only 32 years away from when the video was made) to our actually existing shabby 1999 +17y future.  It’s 21 minutes, so if you don’t have 21 minutes to watch the whole thing, you can read my comments.

The husband of the house is an astrophysicist (working a remote day job on Mars Colonization no less) with a hobby doing … botany. He’s got a lab at home and is trying to breed a super peach with a protective tangerine skin. This is wildly unrealistic, even if they had thought of genetic engineering back then, and as far as I know, nobody is breeding crazy fruits today, let alone doing so as a hobby. Obviously nobody is colonizing Mars. Still, food and novelty was apparently considered important in 1967, so it is kind of endearing they gave the astrophysicist this kind of hobby. Most astrophysicists I know work 80 hour weeks and have hobbies like looking at youtube videos and grousing about funding levels.

home botany experiments

home botany experiments

The house of tomorrow has a central computer where all kinds of stuff is stored in its “memory banks.” There is really no reason why people distribute their data all over creation the way they do now; the future from 1967 looked a lot more sane and safe in this regard.  Memory banks and computers in this video look a lot like the computers, TVs and radios of 1967. They’re kind of cool looking, like a bit CAMAC crate or IBM mainframe.

memorybanks

memory banks of the future have lots of dip switches

The kid (single child to upper middle class parents; good prediction) seems to be homeschooled by  teaching machines. This is quite technically feasible these days, but not so many people work at home in our shabby future of 2016 that this is done regularly.

home schooling technology

home schooling technology

They chat with each other electronically. Their future used a sort of video intercom, which is a lot more interesting than our actual crummy future, where people furiously thumb-type text messages to each other from across the dinner table, rather than video calling from the other room. They also didn’t predict chatroulette.

1967 era instant messaging

1967 era instant messaging

Dinner is pre-processed and stored in some kind of central silo which microwaves dinner for everybody, based on their nutritional requirements and how fat they’re getting; all done in less than 2 minutes. The upside to our shabby future present is people don’t like icky but futuristic seeming TV dinners as much as they did in the 60s. Our shitty future equivalent, I guess, at least in the Bay Area, we have “services” which deliver food to your house unmade, and you have a bonding experience with your significant other following the directions and making the food. Or we just go to the grocery store like they did in 1967. There are probably apps which claim to track calories for people,  but in shitty future now pretty much everyone is disgustingly fat. Oh yeah, in the future of 1967, dishwashers are obsolete; everyone throws their (seemingly perfectly reusable) plates away. Little did they know in 1967, landfills would become a political problem.

making dinner using technology

making dinner using technology

Lots of clothes in the 1967 future will be as disposable as the plates and silverware. The ones that you want to keep are ultrasound dry cleaned using a frightening closet which seems quite exposed to the rest of the house, despite shooting visible clouds of noxious chemicals all over the place. People in the 1967 future weren’t as petrified of chemicals as we are now. Frankly their self cleaning closet gives even me the creeps. I don’t even like using moth balls. Hot link to scary cleaning closet here.

In the 1967 future, the Mrs. of the household can buy stuff “online,” which was a pretty good guess. Of course, their “online” is from some kind of live video feed. The idea of a website (or a mouse or keyboard) hadn’t occurred to them yet. And the bank is also accessible through some other kind of computerized console, as is a “home post office” which I guess was a form of email. Though their email system works in cursive in this example. I am guessing that typewriter style keyboards were seen as a specialized skill in those days, and “push button” was seen as more futuristic.

Amazon shopping in the future

Amazon shopping in the future

The house is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell for some reason, and “pure water” is a useful byproduct. Maybe in the 1967 future plumbing will be depreciated. In their 1967-vantage future, despite breeding crazy peaches and eating all their food from the microwave-refrigerator food dispensing machine, they’ll get strange undersea fruits from hydro-cultured underwater farms. 1960s futurology was filled with fantasies of growing things under water; science fiction from those days seemed to think we’d all be algae eaters in the future. I was never able to figure that out. I guess humanity obviated this with the green revolution, which was not something which was particularly predictable from those days.

The home gym is fun. It features a medical scanner which scans you while reclining on an Eames style couch and makes exercise suggestions; something that doesn’t exist anywhere, probably never will, despite all the DARPA requests for such a thing. Pretty much the same thing as in Star Trek’s “sick bay.” There’s lots of funny old timey exercise equipment in the gym, some of which has made a recent comeback; exercise clubs, gymnastic rings, chest expander. I don’t think they predicted the come back of such devices: those were probably cutting edge in 1967. Oh yeah, the medical scanner sends data back to the community medical center: HIPPA records apparently don’t apply in 1967 future, as opposed to our present shitty future, because people didn’t think of themselves as living in a sinister  oligopoly careening towards totalitarianism as we do now.

gym

gym

In 1967 future, you video call your far away buddy to make travel plans, just like now on skype. But in 1967 future you could pick between a golf course in Monterey and one in Mexico City for a casual afternoon of golf, depending on the weather forecast. Because in those days, it seemed inevitable that supersonic or even hypersonic air travel be cheap and convenient. They had no way of knowing the oil crisis would come, just as they had no way of knowing you’d need to arrive 3 hours early to the airport because of imbecile US foreign policy hubris. Remember you didn’t even need a photo ID to get on a plane until 1999 or so; you could go to the airport with a bundle of cash and fly anywhere you wanted to; just like in 1967. In a later scene in the video, pals from Philippines and Paris show up for a house party, because, again, supersonic (maybe hypersonic) flight is super cheap in the 1967 future.

skype in the future

skype in the future

Hobbies in the future: the lady of the house has a fine arts degree and makes pots at home. I actually know a few people like this, and suspect there were people like this in 1967, but it’s really more of an upper middle class thing than a future thing. It’s arguably more upper middle class now for the missus to work for a non-profit. Video games in 1967 future seemed to be restricted to chess. 1999 shabby future had stuff like Castle Wolfenstein and was legitimately less shitty than the imagined 1967 future. It’s probably better for kids to play computer chess though.

chess

Parties in the 1967 future looked better than modern parties; people dressed stylishly and listened to decent music while having enlightened conversation. This is pretty rare these days, though I suppose people do often have “parties” centered around the TV the way they did.

party!

party!

The 1999 future as envisioned in 1967 seemed like a nice place. Everything is convenient. People spent a lot of time bettering themselves with productive hobbies; making artistic pots and breeding interesting plants when they’re not doing a man’s work sending people to colonize Mars or playing duets with your child on a giant synthesizer. Friendships were cultivated all over the world, and travel was trivial and cheap. People in the 1967 envisioned future were apparently very worried about getting fat; I can only speculate that this was an actual concern of 1967, which is probably why everyone looks so slim in those old timey “people watching the moon shot” photos. I’m not sure what happened to that; perhaps cheap insulin has made people worry about it less. People in 1967 were also very concerned with overpopulation and foodstuffs to feed the teeming masses, which is why food came up so much in the video, and why the future family only had one offspring. While the 1967 envisioned future seemed preternaturally clean and environmentally sound, upper middle class neuroses now a days are more overtly concerned with pollution and environmental issues. I am guessing the household conveniences of disposable dishes, self-cleaning closets and pre-made meals were some technical reflection on the cultural changes between the sexes brewing in the 60s. In 1967 it probably seemed like you could solve these looming cultural upheavals using technology; just give the missus some self-cleaning closets and a machine which does the cooking. I couldn’t help but think that the Housewife of the future seemed a little bored. Honestly the whole family seemed  pretty spaced out and lost, but perhaps that’s because plot, characterization and motivation in industrial videos is not always a priority.

They did guess that computers would be important in the home, which was far from obvious at that point. They also guessed that some kind of networked computer system would be routine, which was a very good guess, as computer networks were entirely military up to that point. Oh yeah, and unlike lots of science fiction movies, the screens of the future were flat, rather than CRT based.

It would be interesting to find a modern “home of the future” video by a modern industrial concern; maybe there is one by Microsoft or Apple. I doubt as their future is as interesting and healthy seeming as this future. Perhaps some visionary should attempt this, if only for aspiration purposes.

Good riddance to the Space Shuttle

Posted in big machines, Design, Progress by Scott Locklin on July 22, 2011

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

How hackers ruin everything with computers

Posted in Design, Progress by Scott Locklin on January 18, 2011

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.