Friday, May 18, 2012

Building the Enterprise

Recently came across buildtheenterprise.org, a site containing a plan to build a starship like the USS Enterprise from Star Trek. Despite some huge technical issues, lemme just come out first and say THANK YOU. Whoever you are, BTE-Dan, thank you for dreaming big. The world needs people to dream bigger. There's been an awful lack of big thinking ever since we put a man on the moon (over 40 years ago!). Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite authors, describes the problem in this talk:


Just a warning, if you haven't already watched the above - it's kinda depressing. He mentions how "I saw the best minds of my generation writing spam filters." Okay, I might have worked on Gmail.... Point taken, Neal.

Anyway, the Enterprise site lays out a crazy plan to build the friggin' Enterprise.

Image credit - Chris Martin of Evil Starship Factory

It's got some issues, though. One of the big things that I think is completely glossed over is how to actually assemble the thing in space. We've assembled reasonably large structures in space before, but the ISS is only 72.8m x 108.5m x 20m (according to Wikipedia), and that took an awful long time to put together. The Enterprise is almost 1000m long, so it's an order of magnitude bigger. I guess not completely out of reason, but I think the cost estimates are far too conservative ($1 trillion over 20 years).

Another problem seems to be the "gravity wheel", the large spinning wheel to simulate 1g of gravity for comfortable and healthy living aboard. Some various problems I've seen mentioned are:

The gravity wheel is in the wrong plane for control of the ship. Meaning you wouldn't be able to see where you're going, cause you'll be spinning around, so your "forward" is not the ship's "forward", except for a brief moment during each revolution (which would certainly be dizzying).

Well, this criticism only holds if you expect the real Enterprise to be like the fictional Enterprise, with a big window at the front of the bridge. But it doesn't take a lot of thought to realize that any orientation for the spinning wheel would render this impossible. However, who said anything about a window? Clearly this can be solved with a giant, extremely high-resolution digital display showing a live video feed of the direction you're headed, and having the controls also based on the direction you're heading rather than the direction you're actually facing (since again, you're constantly spinning around).

That being said, I do think the gravity wheel is in the wrong plane, but not for this reason. Due to Newton's Third Law, shouldn't the rotation of such a massive wheel spin the ship in the opposite direction (someone please correct me if this assumption is wrong)? If so, you'd want the gravity wheel spinning perpendicular to the direction of motion. However, in the Enterprise-type design, that would leave an awfully strange and unbalanced (even more so) ship. Otherwise, in the current design, one of the engines would need to constantly fire to offset the spinning of the ship, which is a waste of power.

It seems much better to have a simpler design for the ship, for instance something more like the Von Braun Space Station, or a derivative design like this:

Image taken from http://drexfiles.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/ringship07.jpg.

Now that would be a sick design. I could also imagine having the main engine in the center, and auxiliary engines located on the outside of the ring with the ability to move around the ring as needed. This way, it's very easy for the ship to accelerate without tumbling, and in case one or even two engines fail, the ship can still function properly. If the main and one auxiliary fail, the remaining engine can move around the ring at a constant rate, keeping the ship more or less balanced, or since the engines are already moving around the ship, can move into a center location. Plenty of interesting possibilities.

The gravity wheel will be affected by the constant acceleration of the ship. That is, since acceleration vectors are added, the ship's forward acceleration will be added with the rotational acceleration, meaning that "gravity" is different all around the wheel.


Luckily, for the first two generations of the ship, it doesn't really matter, since the targeted constant accelerations are 0.002g and 0.02g, which would be barely noticeable, unless you have an obsession with constantly weighing yourself.

By the time we reach a 1g constant acceleration in the third generation of the ship, well, it should be clear that there's no need for a spinning wheel at all =). At a constant acceleration of 1g, the "back wall" of the ship will already have a nice 1g force acting on it, so that entire surface will be perfectly hospitable to the starship inhabitants. Perhaps the ship's design will work like a giant transformer, putting most of the accessible spaces on this "back plane" of the ship, for a comfortable 1g journey to the next star system.

Anyway, it's fun to think about these things, but in the meantime, I'm beyond psyched for the SpaceX launch to the ISS on Saturday. So awesome what those guys have accomplished in such a short time. Can't wait till I can help the race for the future.
   


Saturday, May 12, 2012

AT&T 4G and The Worst Commercial of 2012

Disclaimer: The below is satire and is for entertainment purposes only.

I don't subscribe to cable. When I moved back to San Francisco last summer, I decided to forgo it, despite my apartment coming equipped with a nice flat-screen tv. I do, however, watch the Daily Show pretty regularly, so a few months ago I decided to upgrade my setup (i.e., watching on a 13" laptop screen) so I could start watching like "real television". A quick Amazon purchase of a 10 foot mini-displayport to HDMI cable with pass-through audio later, and I had achieved an incredible feat of modern technology - I emulated a tv setup from 1995, except this one necessitated a $1200 laptop and an ugly cable draped across the living room. Hooray for modern technology.

Moving on. When you watch a show online with ads, you annoyingly start to see the same ads, over, and over, and over again. On the Daily Show, I have an incessant loop of Jack in the Box ("If you love bacon, make it official"), the annoying Hyundai honking car driving around the neighborhood commercial, Five Hour Energy 30-second infomercials, and of course, the AT&T 4G commercial. Here it is, for your enjoyment:


This might sound dramatic, but to me this commercial does an amazing job of summarizing everything that's wrong with technology these days. If I wanted to make a thirty second video entitled "Dystopian Nightmare with Annoying Neighbors", it would probably look like this. Let's analyze it for fun.

0:00-0:03: Presumed husband and wife standing on the lawn of their white picket fence single family home. Nice day outside. But both are furiously typing on their phones, ignoring each other, nature, and the nice weather. Woman says, "This AT&T 4G network is fast". Just as fast as your relationship is disintegrating?

0:04-0:10: Friendly neighbor comes by walking the dog, asks for updates on the game. Husband apparently was not typing, but was watching the game on his phone. "I think it's final seconds. Ooh, down by 2, shoots a 3. Game over." Wife snidely remarks, "So two seconds ago" without even looking up. Definitely slap-worthy.

0:10-0:12: Chance for redemption. Two nice girls walk over looking for the Harrises' son Kevin. It is a beautiful day outside, after all. "Hey Mr. and Mrs. Harris, where's Kevin?"

0:13: Annoying mom, rather than responding with normalcy, proceeds to turn the phone to the girls (apparently she was also fake typing before, cause now she's videochatting with Kevin, who's probably 20 feet away inside), showing them the disembodied talking head of Kevin.

0:13-0:16: Poor Kevin sees what his mom has done. "Hi. ... Mom, put me down. Put the phone down." That's right, in AT&T's vision of the connected world, it's the kids telling their parents to get off the technology. Nice girl number one grabs nice girl number two and pulls her away, presumably to find a real, live human being to interact with rather than a talking device.

0:17: Oh my god. The Harrises' neighbor is even more annoying than the Harrises. She smugly pops up over the hedge to announce, "Hey guys, did you hear?"

0:18-0:20: Mrs. Harris totally cuts off her neighbor and finishes her sentence, cause she's a 4G know-it-all: "The Troys had their baby?" Mr. Harris, now the one to be the dick: "So 29 seconds ago." Random aside: the first 40 times I saw this commercial, I could have sworn she was saying "The Chois", but watching again now, it sounds like "The Troys" to me. Non-Asian name worked better with the focus groups?

0:21: Annoying and now upstaged neighbor: "Well, we should get them a gift."

0:22: The Troys/Chois, back from the hospital with their newborn. "Thanks for the gift!"

0:23: The Harrises: "You're welcome!" Annoying neighbor: "You're welcome!" Wow, taking credit for a gift that you didn't even give? Do you steal their paper and crap on their lawn, too?

0:25-0:30: Voiceover: "Get it fast with AT&T, the nation's largest 4G network. AT&T."

It's nice that 4G provides faster web access than 3G, but why did AT&T decide that "smug people being annoying to their supposed friends and neighbors" was the best way to market this? Ah well, I guess we all have to have the latest and greatest gadgets, regardless of how they affect our lives. Civilized society can take a backseat to 4G download speeds.

Welcome to the future.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Product Review: Transpacific Flights

I'm not sure exactly when it was that my brain "broke", but I find it nearly impossible to view products or services without thinking about why they don't work and how they could be made better. It's a constant obsession of mine, but I like tinkering, so it's all good.

Case in point: I flew ICN-SFO yesterday on one of my least favorite airlines for long flights. Let's call it Airline X. I chose Airline X for this trip specifically because it was significantly cheaper for my multicity itinerary. I usually like to fly Singapore or Asiana, both of which are fantastic, but it was a bit too pricey this time around.

Anyway, the experience on Airline X is consistently poor compared to the market leaders. What strikes me the most about it is that every time I fly them, it seems as if it's the crew's first day on the job. That is, they've clearly done the job dozens, hundreds, or thousands of times, but nothing is smooth. For instance, it's a common site to see two attendants bickering about where to stop the food/drink cart as they're going down the aisle. Haven't you done this before? Isn't there a very specific, set protocol for doing everything?

It's almost as if the crew are told what they're supposed to do, but were never taught how to do it. If I were to imagine a flight attendant training program, it would go over all responsibilities of a flight attendant, along with instructions for the safest, most efficient, most customer-happiness-focused way of doing it. But on Airline X, it seems the execution is just left up to the whims of the crew.

Some fun examples on the two recent transpacific flights:

- Flight attendant comes by with water as I'm watching a movie on my laptop. She literally drops it into my hand a few inches below, spilling water all over me and my laptop. Then she laughed.

- I asked for tea, and was handed a cup to hold, while the flight attendant poured hot water into the cup. This is just some light turbulence away from a lawsuit. Watch how they do it on Asiana (and all other Asian airlines, for that matter): tea cup (reusable rather than styrofoam) goes on tray, flight attendant fills up cup on tray, customer takes filled cup.

- At dinner time, I saw a flight attendant shuttling armfulls of 3-4 dinners from the cart to the row 10 feet away. Who thought this was a good idea, or would even save time? There's a reason most airlines stop the cart at the row and then hand out trays.

- The more fun part of the above is that as a "courtesy" to the passengers, she was removing the plastic cover from the entrée. Of course, this meant that she would drip condensed water over everyone else in the row.

- On the same leg and airline but a different trip, I almost had my legs sheared off in the exit row as a flight attendant attempted to turn around a food cart. This falls under the above category - hadn't he ever practiced it before, and isn't there a set protocol for it?

- The little details: Airline X flight attendants don't lightly place meals down, they drop them without looking. This leaves a bad impression for the customer.

- Timing: Dropping off dinner and coming by for garbage 5 minutes later is just dumb. Coming by with cups of water and not coming by for garbage until 5 hours later is even worse.

- Foreign language training: Seriously, if you're flying to/from Korea (or Japan, or China, whatever), you can take the time to learn a little bit of that language. At the absolute bare minimum, learn the names of the meat in the meals. It's only two words. Since Airline X describes their dinners merely as protein delivery vehicles ("Beef or chicken?"), you can learn those two words in the non-English language. It's not up to the customer to know them.

I'll be waiting for my consulting gig to improve the service on Airline X. In the meantime, next time I'm going back to Asiana.