Category Archives: Technology and Society

A Solution To The Ares 1 Problem

A tuned mass vibration damper:

Due to both the immense size of Taipei 101 and the fact that it sits just over 600ft from a major fault line, engineers had no choice but to install one of this size at a cost of $4m. Too heavy to be lifted by crane, the damper was assembled on site and hangs through four floors of the skyscraper. It can reduce the building’s movement by up to 40%.

And only 728 tons. Hey, the vehicle’s already overweight. What’s a little more?

Is Big Government A Mac?

Or a PC?

[Update in the afternoon]

Why we should want big government to be a PC:

You know I love the products, but Apple is a fascist company. I should know — I worked there. Even got personally cussed out by Steve Jobs (may his name be praised forever).

Apple products are based on centralized command-and-control. Apple makes the hardware, software, and — increasingly — many key applications (“everything inside the state, nothing outside the state”). The Apple faithful believe that the computing world dominated by Microsoft is bad (if not outright evil) and must be redeemed. If only everyone changed to their way of computing, we would reach computing nirvana. And society would be changed for the better, too. If only.

The analogy may be getting a little strained.

An Engineering Manpower Crisis

There’s an interesting article over at the NYT about the Pentagon’s difficulty in getting good engineers, particularly systems engineers.

In short, the pay is too low, it’s not seen as exciting as a lot of the other opportunities for new grads (e.g., Google, or other fields such as finance), programs take too long and are technologically obsolescent, and there’s too much bureaucracy. Sounds kind of like the reasons I left fifteen years ago.

This was amazing to me, but I guess that after almost three decades in the business, it shouldn’t be:

Their report scolded the Air Force as haphazardly handling, or simply ignoring, several basic systems-engineering steps: considering alternative concepts before plunging ahead with a program, setting clear performance goals for a new system and analyzing interactions between technologies. The task force identified several programs that, hobbled by poor engineering management, had run up billions of dollars in overruns while falling behind schedule.

I’ve seen this happen at NASA many times over the years, but that doesn’t surprise me because space isn’t important. National defense is, or at least should be. One wonders how to change the incentives in the system to get better performance. Part of the problem is that the services themselves, particularly the Air Force (with which I have the most experience) don’t value procurement highly enough as a career path. It’s a lot easier to become a general via the cockpit than it is through logistics or development. The other problem is that you often having young lieutenants and captains given responsibility for programs of a size far beyond what they’d be managing at a similar experience level in private industry. This is good from the standpoint of encouraging recruitment, but it often means that they lack the experience to handle the job, and even (or especially) when they’re good, they may be promoted up and out of the program. That’s one of the Aerospace Corporation’s primary functions–to provide program support to the blue suits, and maintain an institutional memory to make up for the fluidity of personnel changes of the AF staff.

In theory, it’s a big opportunity for people like me (I actually have a masters degree in aerospace program management), but it’s hard to get consulting work as an individual due to arcane procurement rules. Also (though the article didn’t mention it) it’s a hassle to deal with a clearance, and I’m not in any rush to renew mine, though I’m starting to consider it, because I really do need the income. Blogging just isn’t paying the bills.

Oh, one other thing. The description of the problems above bears a strong resemblance to a certain controversial large NASA project, where maintenance of the job base and pinching pennies seems to take precedence over actually accomplishing the goal. Or “closing the gap.”

[Via Chicago Boyz]

Rewiring Our Brains?

Is the Internet changing the way we think?

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going–so far as I can tell–but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

It’s anecdotal, but I’ve noticed the same thing. I used to read many more books (and magazines, such as The Economist) than I do now. Almost all of my reading occurs on line, and I am much less able to focus than I used to be. But it’s not clear whether this is an effect of aging, or new habits. More the latter, I suspect.