Jul 28 2011

Astronomers show us how it’s done

This is an example of an astronomy paper I can really get my teeth into. First, it’s simple enough to understand. I like papers that I don’t understand, too, because the challenge of figuring them out is wonderful, but relatively simple ones with great information are a joy.

This one has two elements that make it particularly fun. My kind of fun I mean. I will not be upset if it’s not your kind of fun.

First, there is some technology implied and casually mentioned that is _awesome_ and demands further investigation by me. In particular, they have a 60Hz movie recording of the sky all night long that they then process entirely by computer to detect, quantify, and categorize all meteor activity. The fact that we live in a world where that’s pretty much all they need to say is mind boggling — no wonder astronomy is exploding with new information! Consider the level of manual effort that would have gone into documenting a single evening’s meteor activity. And this functionality is, I would venture to guess, well within the budget of an amateur astronomer (though we have admittedly large budgets, often).

The other thing in this paper that I can’t get enough of is great graphics. In this case great in a fairly technical sense, but look at the light curve graphs. At first it’s not all that clear what you’re looking at but as you come to understand it you find the two crucial features of excellent data visualization: in detail, there is more information than you expected and so it invites exploration and interpretation; and in general there is useful information from the gross shapes and positions of the data as a single structure.

In detail, we can see that light and altitude are compared. Looking closer, though, some points on this graph are brighter than others. Though it’s not declared explicitly, the fact that a dark background was chosen suggests to me that what they are doing is summing the hits in a particular place on the graph. So the brighter the point, the more hits from the film were in exactly that altitude/brightness spot. This kind of thing makes me want to dig deeper and deeper.

From a higher level, we can see that the shapes of these plots are similar. They are parabolas with similar widths and heights. They are all oriented the same way. They occur in roughly the same place in ranges of measured values. So this shows instantly that these are from a similar source point in the sky and probably also that they have similar composition. I expect there’s even more in here that I haven’t dug out yet.

So keep on being awesome, astronomers. Keep showing us all how it’s done.


Jan 4 2011

Extreme Amateurization

Speaking of amateurization, how about this: a 10-year-old kid discovered a supernova.


Aug 16 2010

Atomic Rockets

I read this morning that SpaceX is advising governments to make atomic rockets. This is interesting and amazing for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s pretty smart. For a lot of reasons.

SpaceX is in the business of (or wants to be in the business of) lifting stuff off the planet into space. Their technology is directed towards exactly this: getting kilograms out of the gravity well. This is a non-trivial problem and one of the most effective short term solutions is giant chemical rockets. There are better long term solutions, like space elevators, but they mostly involve material science that doesn’t exists yet, so while we want to be thinking and experimenting about these, we don’t want to bet on them just yet.

Regardless, we can call the problem of ground-to-orbit basically solved. We’ll be refining it and SpaceX will have a heavy hand in the commercialization of it (fingers crossed) but we basically know how to do it.

The problem is that a lot of what we want to do next is not about getting off the ground. And the SpaceX dudes have correctly spotted the fact that getting from Earth to Mars, say, is only feasible if you treat it as a totally different problem from getting off the ground. So SpaceX is basically saying that there are really good designs for long-duration space-flight that are not good for getting off the ground, but that for a small fee they will totally launch the pieces of your smart Mars ark into orbit for assembly and launch.

Obviously this is a pretty shrewd business position: NASA, quit worrying about the lift and start building huge long-term projects that assume orbit and rely heavily on some contractor to supply that while you (NASA) work hard on how to travel through huge open regions of space.

And so, atomic rockets. SpaceX specifically recommends a NERVA design (not to be confused with the Roman Emperor) which basically uses a nuclear reactor to superheat hydrogen and shoot it out the back at enormous velocities, giving you thrust. This was first proposed back in the sixties though I think the idea then was to launch the bugger straight from the ground, which we all agreed was a bad idea at some point. High velocity radioactive hydrogen is just not “green”. It also had some serious issues to surmount (material science ones, interestingly) but it looks like we can get around most of these with judicious application of iridium, which is cool because tanks and ray guns are made from iridium in David Drake novels, which I secretly read all the time.

Anyway, you don’t want this thing going off on the only planet you own, so you lift the parts into space, put it together, and set it off there. If that works really well, you might want to think about setting up a factory on the moon or something and make a bunch of them. Or at least re-use the first one a lot, because it won’t be intrinsically disposable (like many chemical rocket designs) and just needs a new load of r-mass every now and then to set on fire and shoot out the back.

This would all mean a huge need for a lot of heavy lifting from ground to space. Which is a lot of SpaceX business, I expect. Smart smart smart.

Something that strikes me as amusing is that we may have inverted our previous space strategy with this, and that’s not unusual when people are learning honest lessons from practical experience. That is, it may be the case that getting to orbit is the bit that should be disposable (contrary to the shuttle concept) and then we should not do it a whole lot. Instead, build space-craft with great re-usability in space and shoot people up into them rather than whole spacecraft. This provides an incremental method of space exploration and further feeds into a progression of leisurization of the processes: as lifting transitions from government to commercial domain, deep space travel opens up to the government (this is the SpaceX proposal). Then we expect a similar transition over a great deal of time: as the government establishes science and infrastructure, commerce can take over the travel, transporting science missions for a fee and maybe even exploiting resources in space. Governments can get on with other things (like funding the science I hope). And within all that, there must come an opportunity for leisure and an increase in opportunities for simple labour.

The SpaceX proposal is exactly on the path to real blue collar space, where folks do what they do, it just happens to be in space. Or on the moon. Or Mars. Or Europa.


Mar 19 2010

Amateurizing space flight

Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait has a great article linking a great video about the Virgin Galactic space program.

It’d be nice if the auto-embed feature of WordPress actually worked as advertised. Just write the URL, they say. It’s automatic they say. Look folks, we can put an artist into space now, why can’t I embed video?

Okay. Now that is what I mean when I say “blue collar space”. Sure, one side of it is the industry of individual labourers in a new environment — that’s certainly what I mean by “blue collar” and blue collar work in space is an indicator of the move from government to corporate levels of exploitation, which is a definitive change in technological level in our game, Diaspora. But the other side is that because of the change from government to corporate operation, the technology can become recreational.

And more than that, purely academic, because now someone can go through the usual grants process to do research, and do it in space. Without anything more special than meeting the price tag. This is a serious disconnection from the government scale of operation, which is one reason why it is a technology level change: small groups of individuals decide how to use the technology. And as the technology advances, the number of people that need to be directly involved dwindles. That doesn’t mean you can fly to work on a jetpack — it means your can book a flight, catch a cab, fly, and be at your workplace in London without having to organize a thousand people. The corporate scale is a way of harnessing other peoples’ incidental organization for personal function. When you say “I am flying to London” you really mean that — it’s all about your decisions — even though there are thousands of people involved in making it happen.

So now we are being invited into space on a similar scale of agency. The price tag is still high enough that we are not talking about everyman, but that seems likely to change over time. And I know at least one person is watching that video and wondering if there’s a way to get a paper on classical Greek theatre out of a high altitude launch.


Feb 15 2010

Bolting stuff in space with robots

Okay it’s been a while since I said anything that actually pertained directly to the topic of “blue collar space”. The “space” part has been especially absent. So, go check out this time lapse cupola-bolting video. This is awesome for many reasons.

First, it’s being done by a robot. Almost certainly remote-operated, but nonetheless there is a cardinal rule about working in space: if you can do it and remain inside, that’s the better approach. That’s because it’s nasty outside and you have to wear complicated and uncomfortable suits with unpleasant failure modes. So the reality of our laborious lives in space is robots and hardsuits, not unlike our efforts under the sea. Sure there’s always a time when you need a guy out there with a spanner, but whenever you can you use the robot arm. The ones made in Canada are of course the best. And I don’t just say that because I am Canadian. I say that also because several of my colleagues helped build that thing.

Now the other cool thing in there, because the clip spans a long-ish period of time, is the lighting. Precious few movies get this right. While orbiting (spinning around the planet at extremely high velocity) the lighting changes and changes dramatically. Each of those frames is an interesting mood for setting a dramatic space fiction moment. The brilliance of the sunlight and in the depth of the darkness are both extremes rarely found planetside. The dark moments especially made me want to run a game of Diaspora right now — there is so much fertile imagery for a space-horror mash-up.

And then there’s the fact that the ISS is built with such modularity that when it seems kind of cool to observe the Earth instead of outer space, it’s actually more convenient to move the observation dome than to re-orient the vehicle! That’s cool. I hadn’t thought of that. It’s slow but it’s safe — the mechanics of even simply rotating a massive, fragile structure with such long moment-arms are terrifying (and this is why you probably don’t want to extend your heat-exchangers while maneuvering — they are going to tear free as the tips try to accelerate to thirty times the velocity of the bases). Hence the image of ships at rest unfolding like butterflies, their sterile and boring cylindrical hulls slowly sprouting wings and antennae and other spires and spicules.

So go look at what we really do in space and then take it to the table. We are exciting animals.


Dec 2 2009

Making play work

I once did a safety analysis of artificial gravity systems in Traveller spacecraft.

I was tempted to stop there, actually. That’s kind of an article in itself — it’s turgid with meaning and ramifications and questions without even elaborating. Because what I did there (though in the context of play and therefore not nearly as rigorously or detailed as I would at work) was my job, but with a particular kind of science-fiction technology in a particular game setting instead of with my more usual target technology.

This was a great exercise for me. It never actually saw play, but it added a lot of quiet verisimilitude to a game or two — it gave me acronyms to throw around for NPC dialogue that were grounded in a context. It gave me a host of scenarios to explore as play (and really, studying failure modes of technology is practically the definition of plotting a good science-fiction story) and it was fun to do. I guess it helps that I like my job.

It also implied things about technology that I love. For example, there’s a credible argument than in a thousand years we will still use big relays that go THUNK for some things. Here at work we’ve been trying to get rid of them for years, but they remain an incredibly cheap and incredibly reliable way to handle safety-critical switching. There might be something new on the horizon, but beating that much cheap and that much functional is pretty hard.

Anyway, the exercise delivered on three axes: it was fun in itself, it informed play in a way I found fun at the table, and it was useful in the workplace as way to abstract a problem out of its context and think about it from a new angle. So I try to do it when I can.

Another place I get to do work-hobby is in typesetting. I write a lot at work — probably two- to five-thousand words a day. I also build a lot of diagrams, sometimes having to invent new symbology. And so I am often faced with new problems in typesetting to deliver complex material in a useful fashion and that lets me build game-publisher constructions in the context of learning more about my own work. Recent efforts in finding an electronic format that cross-correlates well with print have been fruitful, for example. I have several electronic layouts now that explore the issue from different angles using my work criteria as requirements but my game context as text. Am I playing at work or working at play? It’s a good life, at any rate.

I used to do this in my ungaming period (we call it the Dark Ages around home) as well — I was doing a lot of coding at work and would experiment with new languages and ideas by building gaming tools or IRC robots or something. A lot of code got built and a lot got learned and again I was working-at-play and playing-at-work.

A lot of people don’t do this because their work is not playful. By playful I don’t intend to imply frivolous (see my safety analysis above — the work is as far from frivolous as is possible; lives literally depend on it being right) but rather diverting. Enjoyable. Entertaining. And here’s where I want to link to our Trouble with Lulu recently — it seems likely to me that this lack of play is part of what alienates people from their work to the degree that they choose to become cogs rather than humans in the machine that hires them. But if solving that problem was play, it would have been done better and faster.

There are some highly professional cogs too — not cogs in the sense that they are automatable but cogs in the sense that they elect to be automata at work. I’ve met a lot of dentists like this and, increasingly, computer programmers. They don’t love their work and they don’t engage it playfully and eagerly. They may do it well (though my experience is that they don’t) but mostly they do it adequately. They selected the career fundamentally because it seemed likely to deliver a job with good pay. They get no joy from being at work and they cannot imagine getting joy from work. And consequently they generally look to maximise what does motivate them at work — pay. These people sometimes do a lot of overtime, paradoxically, traiding the leisure they do love for even more pay.

Worst of all are people who must be cogs because a human cog is cheaper to employ than a real cog. These people are de-humanised. That makes them easy to dismiss, but it is them I want to address.

This is what automation (in a broad sense) is all about: de-cogging humans. Because a person that is not a cog is free to be at play, and it is at play that our best thinking happens. So in our office, for example, we have a simple rule for everyone from receptionist to, well, the  top: if you do the same thing over and over again, find a way to automate it. Use your skills or call someone who has them, but turn that repetition into a program that does it the same way every time. Play goes up and error rates go down. The guy who loves hacking little scripts does so, and the guy who hates converting Primavera to Excel the way his boss likes it can now click GO and get it done.

And this is where our future must aim: re-humanising everyone. It’s not something we can plan for completely — it’s not a blueprint for yet another Utopia — but it is a goal worth pursuing at every turn. There is good solid work for humans all over our artificial strata of status, but there is also awful, stupid, automatable work that makes some people have to see themselves as un-human, at least for the work day. We should make a place where everyone gets to be human all the time.

I keep smelling whiffs of Marx and Engels. Hrm, mostly Marcuse, now that I think about it. Recall that criticisms of capitalism are separate from the failed blueprints to fix it. Also recall why human rights are important. It’s that first adjective.


Nov 18 2009

What it looks like to work in space

I stumbled on this picture today thanks to Universe Today. It is awesome.

Astronaut replacing the Hubble wide-field camera

Astronaut replacing the Hubble wide-field camera.

This is a picture of a hard-working human in work-safe gear replacing a complicated and massive piece of technology in space. Yes, this is just a guy working hard in outer space. This is a definitive picture of my concept of “blue collar space” and an essential image to understand the underlying philosophy of Diaspora: a place where people are in space to do stuff. Not necessarily world-saving stuff, sometimes not even moral or ethical stuff. Sometimes just stuff that any human would do, but it happens to be in space.

This is amazing not because it looks like it is taking place just anywhere. I mean, look at that picture carefully: there is nothing intuitively “right” about what we see. All out intuitions fail us in interpreting it. That huge piece of machinery on the right is unsupported. The orientation of the worker is artificial — it is relative to a spacecraft and not to any force of gravity. In fact it’s a safe bet that the planet is “above” the astronaut in that picture, but you could rotate the image to any angle and it would still be “correct”. There are further counter-intuitive facts that are not obvious from the picture: that camera is massive and consequently carries all its inertia despite being “weightless” — moving it around is hard work, but not the same kind of hard work that moving it around on Earth is. It’s hard to get it moving and it’s hard to stop it moving, so all resistance to motion is with respect to the object itself rather than with respect to the ground or some other “down”. What’s going on up there is expensive and difficult, and some of that currency is simple sweat. It’s hard, good work up there.

Look how brilliant and clear the light is with no atmosphere. You cannot get anything like that clarity, that sharpness, over a distance of more than a few meters down here on Earth, but everything is crisp and sharp up there. And that crispness is also lethal — everything is white or gold or mirror-surfaced up there because it’s important to reflect away as much of that unattenuated radiation as you possibly can before it enters your instruments or your astronauts. Some of it does anyway — space workers face significant risks from radiation just from the sun.

Doing a hard, dangerous, but technically straightforward job is heroic stuff for me. Deep sea rig divers, miners, tall construction, and similar jobs all thrill me in a visceral way. Porting that simple heroism to space is an achievement that makes us, as a species, more than we were.