Locklin on science

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.

Spotting vaporware: three follies of would-be technologists

Posted in Design, nanotech, non-standard computer architectures, Progress by Scott Locklin on October 4, 2010

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.