Building the Enterprise? Seriously? Why not?

I ignored this the first time I saw it and then I was going to make  snarky comment that we should just send a bunch of ships to mars instead of building the Enterprise if we’re going to spend $1 trillion. But then I thought, at least look before you ridicule.

I was wrong. I’ve read bit of his idea so far, but he’s not some crackpot trekkie. Instead, this is a thoroughly thought out argument for building a single large ship that will sit in orbit and be reused just like in Star Trek. Whether or not you think it should look like the Enterprise he has a good point about the use of a single large ship. (I know, why not build Serenity…oh, come on, some of you are thinking it. What? Millenium Falcon? Be serious people.)

Engineers are given a goal to get people to Mars on a give cost budget with a given risk level and they  work out ways to do it as cheaply and safely as possible. This site argues that maybe we’re thinking about it all wrong. Maybe the right idea is to build a huge space taxi, that has launchable landing shuttles and artificial gravity and doesn’t ever get thrown away. We really do have the technology for a large ship with cosmic ray shielding and ion pulse drives powered by an onboard nuclear reactor to travel around the solar system. Oh, and high powered lasers even.

What is the argument against this? Surely it can’t be that small, short missions are more efficient since they are more likely to get cancelled and delayed as we’ve seen. In a way this solution combines the best of robotic exploration and human exploration. Some probes can be designed ahead of time and brought in the hold of the ship. Having hundres of people on board allows the engineers to fix or even design new robots as needed. When problems arise humans can fix them on the spot. When something interesting is found they can change focus and go take a look. Sending a once-off ship with 6 people on it means everything has to be designed and optimized ahead of time. When you’ve got 100 engineers in orbit around Mars you don’t need to build so many failsafes into every probe in the same way. Give me a 100 engineers and a huge nuclear powered space ship with lasers and a store room full of spare parts and I can do anything.

Last night I watched the historic launch of the first private corporation sending a vessel up into space to bring equipement and experiments to the International Space Station. The Dragon Capsule rose into the sky atop the Falcon 9 rocket built by SpaceX Incorporated. It was inspiring. Soon, they’ll be bringing up astronauts and maybe even tourists to visit the ISS on those modules. This would have been hard to imagine 20 years ago. Things can change. As more companies get into space lots of things are going to change. So why can’t we think big?

The only problem is money and vision. But any politician who could pull this off cheap would go for it because it makes them look like they have vision even if they don’t. As for cost, it is very possible that a single all purpose, crewed vehicle like this would be cheaper in the long run and allow an order of magnitude more complex missions than a series of individual, custom designed probes.  Currently we conduct a small number of experiences for each generation of scientists each costing billions and some failing. This proposal is to build a platform, not a single probe. One that has people on it who can fix it and improve as needed. It’s not like sending a scout or  a reconnoissance plane, it’s like sending the whole aircraft carrier. Which would be better investment for improving the lot of humanity: building the Enterprise or a building 5 more aircraft carriers?

About the money, I’ll just say this. If money ever stops humanity from expanding its knowledge of the universe then we might as well just give up now. We already know a lot, why are we building these particle colliders, bigger telescopes, gene mapping projects, supercomputers for weather simulations, global climate models, nano materials or exploring the depths of the ocean? Why? We do it because there is always more to know and what we don’t know can kill us. We need to boldly go where no one has gone before. That’s how humanity got this far and we can’t stop now.

I don’t know if Building the Enterprise is the right solution, but it’s worth talking about. So let’s talk about it.


The Science of Solving Problems vs Football

You should read this great article by PhD student Joon Chuah at the University of Florida about the baffling plan to save money at UF by taking the Computer Science department apart while increasing the budget for sports. He explains the place of computer science in a university and society wonderfully. I’m reminded of a great line from a commercial (for BASF apparently) that relates to what he’s trying to say about why Computer Science is important, the tagline goes:

We don’t make the products you use everyday; we make the products you use everyday better.

Computer science is sort of like that. We don’t work out how the universe works, or how genes cause disease, or how to build stronger materials or how to manage the economy; we work out how to turn questions into computations, how to solve huge, complex problems efficiently, we invent the tools that scientists, engineers, economists and anyone else can use to solve their problems.

Sometimes in CS we assume everyone else knows this, that everyone understands the deal we have. I think of CS as a kind of meta-science, like mathematics that investigates common patterns that underlie every other field of inquiry.  We look at the problem of how to solve problems, the answers we find usually turn out to be quite useful to someone, even if it’s not always clear at the beginning quite how they will be useful.  But sometimes I wonder if maybe everyone doesn’t really get it. Maybe the reason people ask you to fix your computer is they don’t think about the difference between engineering, information technology and computer science. Maybe, this is something the field of computer science needs to work on making more clear to everyone who doesn’t know us that well as a field.

But that’s a big problem to solve, one step at a time.

If you want to help reverse this move at UF support this student protest site and let people know how crazy you think this is.

Light Reading: Space Elevators, Brain Uploading and more

I’ve been meaning to get this blog more active, “at least one post a week” I tell myself. But every time I want to write something it always end up being about Canadian Politics. I often start jotting down ideas and then get too picky about being sure and I end up never writing anything. So new rule, if I can’t think of a single new idea to write about I’ll post a short list of interesting articles I read this week and what’s interesting about them:

Reality is all Math : this is a really interesting side topic of philosophy of Math and Science that I think about in my spare time. What is the nature of the universe in relation the mathematics. Why is math so good at describing the universe? Is the universe a computer or is there some beyond computation in the way physics behaves? This article has some interesting news on the latest thoughts from quantum physics about the relation of information and computation to the nature of the universe.

It sounds like there is debate about how central information theory is to explaining the equations of quantum physics. The opinions seem to range from important to central to quantum physics is nothing but information theory. I like that last one, but we’ll have to see what they find. It looks like there is no risk of physicists completely explaining everything before we get workable large scale quantum computers. I am glad to see there is more discussion about why the universe we live in adheres to quantum weirdness rather than just accepting the highly accurate math without any explanation.

Upcoming Technology and Your Job : Andrew Leigh wrote this piece on his experience being that rare thing, a politician who pays attention to science (we could sure use more of those). He presents his list of five technologies that could revolutionize politics in the near future, but really they are disruptive technologies that would widely affect everyone in society. It’s a bit fast and loose but they are genuinely important technologies to keep an eye on, always being wary to look for wide agreement before believing any claims. I’m in favour of anyone who brings up space elevators as a viable technology. Apparently NASA has made some significant advances to powering remote devices with laser that could reduce the weight load for a space elevator cable dramatically.

His discussion of Machine Intelligence is also worth thinking about even if it is jumping the gun a bit. We aren’t exactly near to creating self aware machines or being able to upload our minds into computers. But it is becoming possible to think about computers with the complexity of a human mind so it’s worth thinking through the implications.

He makes the point that replicated minds would be a threat to many people’s job’s as a single person who’ve very good at what they do could farm themselves out to available in many places at once. I suppose this is true but I think there is a much more relevant short term concern of people being made redundant by technological advances before we get to the point of copied human consciousness.

This is one of the topics I’m hoping to blog about here in the future: understanding scientific and technological change from the point of view of the job loss metric. What is the long term viability of your current career? Could it be done by machines or through crowdsourcing the skills of many people? As Leigh points out, typists and human computers in the early 20th Century had a career which would not exist a few decades later. Many factory workers have already found that what they do is fully automatable. Many educators are now starting to wonder if everything they do really needs a live human being present. What is the value of repeating lectures when you could have videos of the best teachers in the world which can be reused over and over?

This is a simple way to make discussion of new advances concrete for the layman and also very relevant. Most people don’t really care about quantum computers, machine vision or robotics. But if you explain how what’s going on in these fields of research could affect people’s jobs down the road, or the jobs which may or may not be viable for their children in the future, then they’ll be more interested in gaining a high level understanding.

If you have other good examples of ongoing research that could make entire jobs obsolete that people should be more aware of let me know.

Women in Computer Science : this article is couple weeks old but it’s worth a repost. Maria Klawe used to be department head at my alma mater doctorum (yes, I made up that phrase, if you know latin then correct me) which has a strong focus on CS Education and making it accessible to womens. She’s done some amazing things changing the CS program at Harvey Mudd to make it more accessible and focussed on solving problems rather than programming for its own sake. They have got their graduation number of female students up to 40% which is stratospheric in Computer Science program terms.

Sure science is great, but how does it make you feel?

A new study indicates that high school teachers in the US overwhelmingly softsell evolution in biology class. Beyond the 13% of teachers that actively teach creationism, apparently around 60% of teachers encourage students to treat this foundation of modern science as a moral belief.  The ‘controversy’ around evolution has been exaggerated to such an extent that teachers who aren’t confident about their grounding in science back off on this essential concept in order to avoid controversy.

This does a real disservice to America’s youth and is one more reason that I just can’t see America continuing to dominate the world for a another generation. Every other schoolkid coming out of highschool and university around the world won’t have any doubts about the effectiveness of science and how to apply it.

Anyways, I hope that at least these teachers at least have the sense of fairness to ensure that their doubt filled, “its-not-true-unless-I-feel-comfortable-with-it” generation of students are aware of these other well known scientific ‘controversies’ which were, in their time, sometimes even more vitriolic. Suggest other controversies in the comments section:

  • Where is the centre of the solar system? Kepler and Gallileo say it’s the Sun. But his infallible eminence the Holy Father says it’s the Earth just like the Bible never mentions anywhere. What do you think? It is a little strange to imagine us going around the Sun when it clearly goes around us in the sky everyday isn’t it? Especially since the Moon does go around us. Ha ha ha, well, isn’t the world funny? You need to decide for yourself what you believe.
  • How do we ‘see’ the world around us? Why is it that we only see when our eyes are open? Is it because light is bouncing around the world off of every object and flows into our eyes? Can the thin layer of skin over our eyes really stop electromagnetic radiation that scientists say travelling at 300,000,000 metres for second? Some people, like Isaac Newton, thought that we actually emit light out of our eyes which instantly bounces off the world around us and lets us see. It seems to work right? And just imagine, if we all closed our eyes, then the room would go completely dark. That’s funny isn’t it. Well…maybe its true.  Isaac Newton was kinda smart.
  • Where does heat come from? Some scientists say that heat is the result of the vibration of tiny particles inside all matter. This motion is different than general movement. So this ruler doesn’t heat up just because I wave it in the air but because its ‘atoms’ are vibrating in tiny,tiny,tiny,tiny motions back and forth. Sounds a little complicated, huh? Well, there’s another theory that lots of people believe, who are now all dead. They thought heat is actually caused by an invisible liquid that is all around us called caloric. When more caloric flows into something it heats up and when the caloric flows out the object cools down. That’s why your hot cup of coffee will cool down over time as the caloric flows out into the room. That’s makes sense doesn’t it? Well, this theory has some problems explaining why water boils but hey, you need to make up your own minds. Why not try building your own calorimeter and spending your whole life trying to recreate established experiments so you can see it with your own eyes. That’s the only way you’ll know for sure.

And remember kids, there is no right answer here. The world is whatever you think it is or what your parents drill into your head it is since you were born. As long as they don’t sue me, I frankly don’t care.

Alright class, that’s all for today, tomorrow’s class will be the science of candy, “How do they get the caramel into the Caramilk bar?” Can Science provide an answer?

Another Salvo

New Attack takes down by Operation Payback organized under the concept of Anonymous using thousands of people voluntarily joining a botnet to direct Denial of Service Attacks at enemies of WikiLeaks.

Now, in English…

Anonymous is an adhoc protest pseudonym taken on by various people on the internet.  It relates to the movie V for Vendetta but basically captures the idea of a assigning a generic identity to a faceless mass of people all acting for a common purpose.  There is no known central organizing person for protests by Anonymous but its not surprising that the WikiLeaks conflict would draw people to using the identity since it involves technology, freedom of information and speech.

A Denial of Service attack (DoS) is probably the simplest form of attack there is on a website or computer system.  It doesn’t require any hacking or breaking of codes. The attack simply directs a large amount of traffic to a website or server all at the same time in order to overload the system and bring it down.  In the simplest form this could be thousands of people agreeing to point their webrowser at the offending website at exactly some time of day.  Usually these attacks are actually carried out in a more automatic way using a botnet.


A botnet is a term used to describe a network of computers usually taken over with viruses and other destructive software.  A botnet might be used to scour credit card databases, attack company or government servers or host porn or marketing website content.  The Operation Payback botnet is interesting because people have voluntary installed software on their computer to allow it to be used to orchestrate attacks on organizations seen at undermining WikiLeaks.  People joining such a network should be aware that the actions being undertaken by those directing their computer could easily be construed as illegal, even terrorist attacks.  It is not clear that individuals joining such a botnet would be free from prosecution and they cannot hope that their machine ip and identity will be hidden by the people centrally running it.  However, for law enforcement authorities the truth is also that this kind of attack can’t really be stopped. Just as sharing information is virally unstoppable these kind of attacks can always be reinitiated even if you take down the people centrally running this particular one.  Just as legal attacks on music piracy have led to ever more subtle and unstoppable file sharing schemes like torrents, a concerted effort to restrict organizing and protest of this kind will likely only lead to evolution of more decentralized and unstoppable forms via natural selection.


Note: If there are other computer/technology terms being thrown around regarding the WikiLeaks story (or any story) and Wikipedia isn’t doing it for you, then let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best.

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