I was up at night in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It was well after midnight in Germany, I was 12 years old, and I got special permission from my parents to stay up. I think I was up all night. I learned to dream early.
When I was just 8 years old, one of my friends had a topical encyclopedia, where one book was about the solar system. We didn’t have any high resolution photographs of any of the planets in 1964. So Mars was just a fuzzy red blob.
More than 50 years have passed, and now NASA has successfully flown the tiny helicopter named Ingenuity on Mars. To commemorate the momentous occasion, NASA included a scrap of fabric from the Wright Brothers flyer in Ingenuity. The Wright Brothers flyer was the first powered flight on Earth. Ingenuity was the first powered, controlled flight on another planet. And we got to watch it (after many light minutes of transmission delay).
See the entire experience here:
I am fascinated that we can see mountains on Mars in clear view. It’s an enormous journey from the grainy image in the encyclopedia. Mars is right now 180 million miles away, much farther than the sun, yet, we can see the little helicopter rise.
I needed a voltmeter to check why the dome light in my Jeep isn’t working. Is it because the light is bad, or is it because the wires going there are dead?
Last night I went on Amazon and found this device:
Less than 18 hours after I ordered it, today, on a Sunday afternoon, I had it delivered to my door. The entire bill was $12.90. That includes tax, delivery (I’m on Prime, so I don’t pay delivery separately), and the device.
It measures not only AC and DC voltage, it measures current, resistance and temperature, it can be used to test transistors and diodes, and you can test continuity.
This device was made in China.
How on earth can somebody design a complex device like this, manufacture it, ship it all the way from China, sell it on Amazon and give Amazon a profit, ship it to me in less than 18 hours, pay tax, all on $12.90.
Here is an amazing video of real robots by Boston Dynamics.
If you want to see some of the stunning capabilities of some of their models, look at the video below. The music us missing, but it’s just as impressive.
There are no tricks here, no fancy editing. These are real robots, doing these tasks independently. Obviously, the routines are not trivial, and the programming is complex.
For instance, I don’t know if the dancing in the first video is completely choreographed, or if there was machine learning involved, where the robots are mimicking humans dancing after observing them. Either would be impressive.
I am sure there is a lot of work left to do to make this technology mainstream, but it is coming.
Next Wednesday, May 27, 2020, is a big day. For the first time since July 8, 2011, American astronauts will be launched on an American spaceship from American soil.
When NASA grounded the space shuttle fleet in 2011, I didn’t think it was a good idea, and I never would have thought that for almost 10 years America would not have the capacity to launch humans into space. Of course, I also didn’t think in 1973 that we would not return to the moon for another at least 50 years.
On May 6, 2002, a 29-year-old South African immigrant named Elon Musk started a little company called SpaceX in Hawthorne, California. He wanted to make space travel cheaper so Mars could be colonized. I was a businessman in 2002, and if you had asked me if it was a good idea to start a rocket company I would have said you were insane. If you then had asked me if it was a good idea a year later to also start a car manufacturer in the United States, I would have said you’re insane squared. Musk did both of those things in 2002 and 2003 respectively, and has run both of those companies in parallel ever since. If you want to read a good biography of Musk, I can highly recommend Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk.
The rocket and the spaceship that will launch two American veteran astronauts next Wednesday are built by SpaceX. This will be the first time ever a private company launches humans into orbit. I would not have thought this was possible in 2002. If told it was, I would have bet that the company doing it would be Boeing, or McDonnell Douglas, or Lockheed, but certainly not a startup.
I have been a businessman all my life myself. I have had many product launches, and deployments of new things for the first time. I know what it’s like to bet your company on a single product or a single project, and then succeed. I also know what it’s like that last night before “go live” when a thousand things can go wrong and make the whole project come crashing down. I know that the CEO can’t sleep the night before an important launch. I know how it feels when the pulse races, and the circular thinking at 2:30am does not let you calm down. I know what it feels like when all is at stake.
But even knowing all this, I cannot imagine what it must be like in Elon Musk’s life right now, for the next few days, when all is at stake and all the world watches as two American astronauts sit on top of a stack of highly explosive fuel to go to orbit, something no private company has ever done before. If something goes wrong, people die.
The pressure must be enormous.
I will be watching, and I am rooting for SpaceX and Musk.
Here is an informative chart that shows how much garbage floats around in space. I found this chart in Bloomberg Businessweek of December 16, 2019 on page 35:
1mm is about the size of a pinhead and 1cm is about the size of a large blueberry.
According to the European Space Agency, as of January 2018, there are about 29,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters, around 750,000 objects that range between 1 cm to 10 cm and about 166 million objects between 1 millimeter to 1 cm in size (those are the little dots in the chart above, where each dot represents 3,000 objects). Each one of those is big enough to easily puncture a space capsule.
In the summer of 1989, I was one of the first people in computing who bought a 486-33 computer. This is a picture of the machine I took a few years ago before I gave it away for recycling. At the time, it was the most advanced machine on the market. It cost over $4,000, and that does not include a monitor. It had a 5 1/4 inch floppy, two 3 1/2 inch floppies, and I added a tape drive and a CD drive. At the time I was working on a neural network engine for automated license plate reading. The training program that ran all night long on the old XT machine executed in 20 to 30 minutes on this monster, and I was in heaven.
Alas, as computers go, this was obsolete within a couple of years and I put it on a shelf. I never had the heart to throw it out and as Controltec grew from one person to more than 60 over the years, I would sometimes pull out the old machine and show it to young associates as the machine that started a company.
It is now long gone, and this old picture of it is the only thing that remains.
In 1942, the science fiction author Isaac Asimov published Runaround, a short story in which he introduced three laws of robotics:
First Law: A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Of course, in 1942, our most sophisticated imagined images of robots looked something like this picture. Up to today, we do not have any robots to which such laws would apply, and we have no legislation anywhere in the world that applies to robots (that I know of).
When we think of robots coming after people, we have visions of large flying machines attacking humans in apocalyptic movies. The reality is that we don’t have such robots yet. But let’s make no mistakes about it. Robots kill humans right now in 2019.
During a recent trip to Syracuse, I noticed an MQ-9 Reaper drone landing at Hancock Field, which is at the Syracuse airport, where the New York Air National Guard’s 174th Attack Wing is based.
The Reaper is built by General Atomics right here down the street in Poway, California, and costs $15.9 million each. As of 2014, 163 of them have been built, mostly for the United States military, but also used by NASA, the CIA and U.S. Customs. Some have been sold to allied countries.
Here is a short video of a flight.
These drones are semi-automated robots. They can stay aloft for 14 hours when fully loaded. They are actually flown by pilots on the ground in the U.S. but they can be located anywhere in the world. The MQ-9 can attack a village in Yemen or Afghanistan, kill all participants at a wedding or birthday party (because presumably a terrorist was present there), and then the “pilot” can go home at 5:00pm in Syracuse and have a BBQ party with his friends in his backyard. We citizens don’t actually know how autonomous these robots are, but I am quite certain they could fly autonomous missions, without pilots, if we so chose.
Is the Reaper following the First Law of robotics? Certainly not. It’s designed to perform reconnaissance and to kill people. That’s its purpose.
Another robot that recently killed humans by the hundreds is the Boeing 737 Max airliner. Ok, the plane is flown by humans, but the investigation has shown that the humans on the plane were not able to override the flight control system (a piece of robotics). Due to a single faulty sensor, in two separate airplanes, the flight control system pushed down the nose and minutes later all people on board perished. In October 2018, 189 people died in Indonesia, and in March 2019, another 157 people died in Ethiopia. See New York Times article here.
Another type of robot are self-driving cars. People are getting killed in self-driving vehicles. While most experts, as well as insurance companies, agree that self-driving vehicles are safer than human-driven vehicles, we really do not have enough incidents and experience monitoring self-driving traffic and incidents to establish reliable statistics. The bottom line is: we do not know. I personally believe that self-driving vehicles are going to be MUCH safer than human-driven vehicles.
We classify them as Level-1 to Level-5, where Level-5 is fully automated, defined as unconditional (that is, no-limits) automated driving, with no expectation that a human driver will ever have to intervene. Clearly, a Level-5 automated vehicle is definitely a robot. It is only a matter of time before our roads will be full of them. It could be a few years, it could be a few decades. But it is a certainty.
Let’s think, for a moment, about ethics of robotics, going right back to Asimov’s three laws. Let’s say a self-driving vehicle is driving down a narrow street and, due to a stalled car crossing in front of it, it has to stop. Let’s say the brakes of the vehicle are failing. I know this should not be happening, but brakes do fail occasionally. The vehicle detects that the brakes are failing, and it now knows that in 0.8 seconds it will impact. But it has a choice to make. I might add here that 0.8 seconds is a long time for an automated intelligent system to “think” about a problem.
Here is the problem: Let’s say it detected that there is a young woman with two small children in the back in car seats in the stalled vehicle. It realizes that if it hits that stalled car broadside at the current speed, it will likely kill all three occupants of that vehicle. But it can swerve to the right and jump up on the sidewalk. Unfortunately, there is an elderly couple walking their dog. The man is in a walker. The woman alongside him, is holding the leash for the dog. The car knows that if it swerves to the right, it will kill the elderly couple and the dog. It has no other choices.
The robot now needs to decide, in less than 0.8 seconds, which three souls it will certainly kill. How should it decide? Clearly, Asimov’s three laws are not sufficient. Does it go for the old people and spare the children and young woman?
I know this is a gruesome example, but this type of thing will happen, and to some degree it’s going on already. Our American lawmakers are certainly not thinking about this stuff right now. Congress can’t seem to make up its mind about what to do about relatively benign ethical problems like illegal immigration and asylum laws. The laws that apply to robotics are an entirely different matter altogether.
Robots are killing people, right now, as we speak, and we as a society are not yet ready to deal with the consequences.
When I was 14 years old, I was into “designing computers.” I bought a book about computers, studied it, and started drawing logic diagrams, cobbled together logic gates to perform the basic arithmetic calculations on notepads. To test them, I used a transformer from my slot car track, bought little lightbulbs and sockets to represent binary memory registers, toggle switches to enter binary data into the system, and wired the various gates using tiny wires and Molex connectors. The stuff was mounted on a 4 by 4 foot sheet of plywood. I got as far as creating a working system to perform multiplication from 1 x 1 up to 10 x 10. I had built a computer.
Today I received the Elegoo kit. This is a kit based on the Arduino processor.
For less than sixty dollars I received a huge amount of components with enough computing power to rival the mainframe computers of the 1960s. The whole thing comes in a nice plastic case the size of a large coffee table book.
Now I just have to build something.
When I was 14, I had all the time in the world. Not so much now!
This is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. It shows Buzz Aldrin on the moon with the American flag on July 20, 1969.
I was 12 years old then, old enough to think on my own and science-minded enough to sit up in the middle of the night (in Germany) in front of our TV at 3:56am local time when Armstrong made that famous first step onto the moon.
The movie Apollo 11 is a documentary of the moon landing, and as we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of this event, it is ever more significant. The entire movie is not narrated or filmed. It is entirely constructed of actual clippings, both video and audio, taken at the time, and put together in a coherent sequence that tells the awesome story in all its glory. There is a minimum of screen prompts, like “Day 3,” that keep the viewer oriented. Other than that, it’s all original material, and that makes the impact all the more powerful.
This is not a movie, but rather a documentary of humanity’s peaceful conquests, and it is told masterfully.
Now that I rated the movie, I have to add my own ruminations about the moon landings.
I am not sure exactly how all those people who were born after this, which is the majority of humanity, think about the moon landings. But I remember clearly reading science fiction in the 1960s when I was in awe of the immensity of the undertaking. I remember a world before humans reached another body.
50 years have now gone by. 77 percent of all people alive today were not alive when the first moon landing occurred. Another 12 percent of all people alive today were younger than age 12 at the time of the moon landing, and therefore probably do not have first-hand memories of the events themselves.
So a full 89 percent of the world’s population did not have the experience of sitting in front of the television that day, watching those grainy pictures from very far away.
I remember what I thought that day. I remember thinking that by the time I was “old” I’d be able to buy a ticket to take a vacation on the moon. Not in my wildest dreams did I think that by 1972, we’d stop going there, and by 2019, the United States is actually in a position where it does not have the technology to put a man into space, let alone onto the moon. I recognize that we’re on track to change that soon, with initiatives by SpaceX and Boeing for human-rated rockets underway and both within 12 months of realizing that goal.
Of the 12 men who ever walked on the moon, eight are now deceased. Only Buzz Aldrin (age 88), David Scott (85), Charlie Duke (82) and Harrison Schmitt (82) are still alive as of today.
I would never have thought that a boy in South Africa (Elon Musk) who would not even be born for another two years after the summer of 1969 would be the one that would make it possible for the United States to launch humans into space in 2019, and who would have the vision to take them to the moon and Mars.
The collective will of our nation, and our species, to set goals beyond the next election cycle, has diminished and we are left at the whims of individual politicians with an outlook of a few years at a time. Real goals, like a space program that allows us to leave the planet, are achieved in decades of dedication and lifetimes of focus. Unless we figure that out soon, we might as well continue to ruin our planet and render it unlivable, with no way out.
Perhaps movies like Apollo 11 will inspire us to do more with our time than line our pockets and gratify our immediate urges and needs.
I am a man who flies well over 100,000 miles a year in commercial airliners. I have taken many flights in 737 Max 8 planes. I am also a software engineer who spent a significant time of his early career working on servo motor controls and control systems. So I know a think or two about software controlling machinery, overrides, safety stops, redundant sensor input and the like.
I saw an article in the current Time Magazine titled Second-Hand Safety and chose to show you this excerpt:
Enter the 737 Max. Featuring new engines and aerodynamic changes, the grownup Baby Boeing promised carriers up to 20% better fuel efficiency and lower operating costs. There were challenges in the new design. The model’s new LEAP-1B engines, for instance, are 20 in. larger than the original engines. So Boeing redesigned the 737’s pylons, which hold the engines to the wing, and moved them farther forward. But the more powerful engines in a different location could pitch the jet’s nose upward, creating conditions for a midair stall.
To prevent the stall, Boeing created an automated-flight-control feature called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). When MCAS sensors detected the nose of the plane pitching up, the software controlling the tail’s horizontal stabilizer would automatically push the nose back down. It was a novel fix to a nagging design problem.
But Boeing took a number of steps that blunted the scrutiny the feature could draw from safety regulators at the FAA. In an early report to the FAA that certified the plane as safe to fly, Boeing understated how much the system could move the horizontal tail, according to the Seattle Times. “When the planes later entered service, MCAS was capable of moving the tail more than four times farther than was stated in the initial safety analysis document,” the Times reported. Also, Boeing failed to account for how “the system could reset itself each time a pilot responded, thereby missing the potential impact of the system repeatedly pushing the airplane’s nose downward.” And Boeing said MCAS should not be activated if it received data gathered from just one of two sensors – “and that’s how it was designed” the Times reported.
Just as it understated the extent to which MCAS might take automated control of the plane, Boeing, with the support of regulators, decided against extensive training for pilots on the 737 Max, including in how to disable the software.
— Time Magazine, April 1, 2019, page 44 – Second-Hand Safety
This is scary. When you work on machines that can kill people when they malfunction, it brings the tension and stress to a whole other level. I have a lot of respect for the engineers who are writing the software for the SpaceX Dragon system for manned space flight. I have respect for Elon Musk who will have to watch that first launch with two astronauts on board, whose lives will be at risk. Any one software mistake can result in catastrophic failure.
I do not know the details of the Boeing 737 Max 8 problems, other than what I have read in the popular literature, like all of us. It sounds like the engineers did their jobs. Software will forever control the lives of humans, and the MCAS system is just one of those systems. But not allowing pilots to be trained properly to accelerate sales was negligent. A pilot needs to know that the horizontal stabilizers can act against the flight controls and push the nose down, and pilots need to know how they can disable this if needed. Something went wrong with the software and the pilots apparently weren’t trained to see the failure and certainly they didn’t know how to override the system before catastrophe hit.
This is not good for Boeing.
In this time when “regulations” are being rolled back everywhere, we need to remember that these regulations are there to protect us, from long-term effects of pollution, from longer-term effects of climate change, to very short-term effects of a robot failing and sending an airliner into a nosedive. It is the government’s responsibility to protect us from corporations that have a profit motive above all.
We’re now dealing with the fallout of this lack of enforcement.
Tesla has changed the landscape of the automotive industry. Musk, through sheer vision and will, made that happen. Other people certainly could also have done it, but it would have taken longer. The large automotive firms, like Toyota, Daimler-Benz, BMW, GM, Ford, Nissan, all could have started the revolution, but they didn’t. Just like Checker Cabs could have become the Uber, but didn’t. It takes vision and grit to make a revolution happen. Musk had both, the started something unique, he started something big. In the the end, Tesla might not succeed, but the movement will certainly survive and there will be electric vehicles everywhere.
In Insane Mode, McKenzie guides us through that revolution and gives us the back story. He also shares some of his own thoughts and vision on just what an impactful revolution the electrification of automobiles actually brings, and how much it will change the way we live, work and play.
Insane Mode will change the way you think about electric vehicles. If you have an enterprising mind, it will make you ponder where you might apply your own ingenuity in the tremendous opportunities the near future offers.
Moondust came out in 2006 when Andrew Smith had set out to interview the twelve men who had walked on the moon. At the time, there were only nine alive. Three had already passed away.
Smith has an easy-to-read, colloquial style, and he weaves background stories about the astronauts in with the core interviews and tries to get answers to the most fundamental question we all have: What was it like to be on the moon?
We learn trivia about the intense competition in the early astronaut corps, and what their families went through during those years. We also get to know the men themselves, from the taciturn and almost reclusive Neil Armstrong to the gregarious and visionary Buzz Aldrin, and all the other astronauts that followed them on their journey.
Smith juxtaposes the moon landing over his own life as a boy in Orinda, California, and what he remembers happened to him on that historic day.
Moondust is at times a bit hard to follow. Its structure and the jumps back and forth and from one astronaut to the other sometimes left me guessing and mildly confused, but I was able to get past that. The tidbits of information, the insight, and the obvious awe the author has for the adventure of the 1960s came through and made it a worthwhile read.
Sadly, as I write this, of the twelve men who walked on the moon, only four are alive anymore. That includes 88-year-old Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), 85-year-old David Scott (Apollo 15), 82-year-old Charlie Duke (Apollo 16) and 82-year-old Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17).
In addition to the missions that landed on the moon, there were a total of nine Apollo missions that left earth orbit and went to orbit the moon: Apollo 8, Apollo 10 and Apollo 13.
The total number of men who left earth orbit is 24 and 12 of those are still alive today.
Only 12 people are with us today in the history of mankind who have seen the earth as a pale blue marble in the black of space, and only four of those have walked on a body other than the earth. All of them are now well into their eighties or older.
I was a 12-year-old boy when I watched the first moon landing. I was sure I would be traveling to the moon as a tourist and spending time in a moon hotel by the time my retirement age came around. I was dreaming big, and I was inspired.
Yet, at this time, humanity has not sent anyone to the moon in over 46 years. The United States does not even have the capability to launch humans into space, not even to low-earth orbit. The only two nations that can do that now are Russia and China. The lack of vision and engagement by our people and our government has starved us out of adventures we took for granted 50 years ago.
Moondust by Andrew Smith made me marvel about all this and it fired up my imagination.
I have waited for In Saturn’s Rings for several years and have followed their Facebook page. It took the producers years longer to finish it than they thought it would. It was supposed to be done on December 31, 2014, but was finally finished on May 4, 2018. It is a 42-minute documentary made exclusively from real photographs taken by spacecraft, from the Hubble Space Telescope to the Cassini-Huygens space craft. The movie uses no computer generated graphics (CGI) technology. All images are arrangements of actual photographs.
There are not many places in the country where the film is currently shown. On my visit to New York City I decided to go out to the New York Hall of Science in Flushing, NY, about 30 minutes outside of Manhattan where it is currently playing.
But I was disappointed. Perhaps I am spoiled by the amazing CGI production in movies and documentaries where pictures are enhanced and animations are smooth and stunning. In Saturn’s Rings seemed flat and boring in comparison. But again – I realize that there is value in looking at actual photographs, not made-up stuff. And I give the producer credit for that.
However, there is too much fluff in the movie. It starts out with the Big Bang and plays images of Hubble of distant galaxies. Then it moves into an odd collage of photographs of science and scientists, wasting a lot of time on those flying and merging still photographs that didn’t add any value to the message or the film itself. There were fillers, and there were too many of them.
The film is narrated in parts, but some of the descriptions of images were subtitled rather than narrated. I found that annoying. The images were there for a short time, and rather than looking at the images, I found myself reading the captions that described what I was looking at while the narrator was silent. Then the images were gone and the next ones came up. I missed them. This happened a lot.
In Saturn’s Rings is an admirable effort but ultimately not worth it. The images you see in the movie would be much more valuable in a book. Buy a book on the Cassini mission and I am sure you will see the best photographs there. You can read the captions in leisure, and then look at the images as long as you want. In the movie, you only have a few seconds before the next one comes along. Having the image move, or zoom in or out is not adding enough value to account for the brevity of the viewing experience.
As coincidence would have it, I was flipping through the channels yesterday and came across the Science Channel and found Space’s Deepest Secrets – Cassini’s Grand Finale. This was a documentary about the Cassini mission and it showed spectacular graphics of Saturn taken by Cassini but it also provided professional narration and interviews of scientists along with the history of the program. The subject was similar to that of In Saturn’s Rings, but done much better.
We forget how empty space around us is. This picture taken from composites of the OSIRIS spacecraft shows how far the moon is away from the earth, and how little it is, yet, it is our nearest neighbor. There were nine manned missions that went to the moon in the history of humanity, of which six landed on the moon. The last such mission was in 1973, which is now 45 years ago! A number of the people involved in these missions are no longer alive now.
Humans haven’t left the little ball on the left since then, and missions to the space station, in comparison, are so close to earth that you could not even see them on this image.
The GOP just voted for a law that allows your Internet service provider to sell your browsing history to anyone willing to pay for it. What on earth are they thinking? What’s the point of this?
Obviously, companies like Google, AT&T, Verizon, all the huge Internet service providers love this since there is a whole new revenue stream now going to those companies. There is no other reason on earth that would justify this. Obviously, the Internet service providers have paid off some congressmen and senators big time.
And this is the GOP, who always rants to us about privacy:
We can’t have a registry of gun owners, since that would be a violation of people’s privacy.
They have no problem not keeping a record of White House visitors anymore, citing privacy.
They don’t mind that Donald Trump keeps his tax returns private.
They want to keep research by the EPA on climate change private.
Mega donors to political action funds can stay private.
However, they don’t give a damn about the people’s privacy, if someone gets to make money off it:
Publishing our Internet browsing history, so we can be more exploited by targeted advertising is fine.
Publishing our emails and chat logs.
Publishing our health history.
Make no mistake about it. Anyone with access to your browsing history can exploit all these areas of your private lives. And now it’s for sale. And the GOP is enabling it.
I think they forgot that they are people, too. You see, for their health plan, Congress has its own and it does not have to live with the same plan the rest of us have to put up with. So they can repeal and replace all they want, and they are not affected. However, on the Internet, we’re all the same, and so are they.
There are already net-neutrality advocates who are crowd-funding initiatives to buy the browsing history of all congressmen and senators and publish it on the Internet. But that won’t quite work.
The problem is that the law will still prevent Internet service providers from selling data that can be connected to specific individuals. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibits the sharing of “individually identifiable” information. However, aggregate customer information can be sold. And that’s where the rub is: There are companies whose specific business it is to match consumer tracking information with identifying details we all publish on Twitter and Facebook, and through this process it is possible to match our personal identity with our browser data.
Now the genius currently occupying the White House is signaling that Obama era regulation is overreach and he wants to tackle this. Oh boy, oh boy.
It won’t be done much legally, but you can bet that the crooks on the Internet will be doing it, and that’s where it’s going to hurt. Do I need to say “Russian bots” to get your attention?
This shows you that our government, the GOP, and Trump, just don’t know what they are doing. Yet, we gave them the keys to our lives.