Category Archives: Technology and Society

Show Me The Numbers!

To paraphrase the Cuba Gooding character from “Jerry Maguire.”

I keep seeing these breathless articles in the popular media, and even the trade press, about reducing sonic boom, with its promise of practical commercial supersonic flight. The latest hype comes from Popular Science (via Clark Lindsey).

Why do I call them hype?

Two reasons.

First, I have never, ever seen a single number in these articles indicating to what degree the boom is attenuated. Maybe it’s just my suspicious nature, but I suspect that if we could see those numbers, we might be less impressed.

Second, there is never any mention in these articles about the other problem that is holding back practical supersonic flight, which is all of the drag associated with the shock. Even if by some legerdemain with vehicle contours they can reduce the boom sufficiently to allow overflight of land, the operating costs will remain horrific and unaffordable to most, because of the tremendous amount of wave drag from the shock system and skin drag from the huge swept delta wings that all of these concepts continue to employ.

That means that at best, it will remain another Concorde, though perhaps one that can fly coast to coast–an expensive ride only for the rich.

I find this topic particularly frustrating because I’ve been aware for a number of years of a technology with the potential to effectively eliminate shock, with both the sonic boom and the tremendous drag associated with it, but there has never been any interest in pursuing it, from either NASA or industry.

Anyway, I’ll take this stuff seriously when I see some quantification of just how much they’re reducing the overpressure, and some indication of understanding of the drag problem, instead of focusing entirely on the boom.

[Update in the afternoon]

Clark points out in comments that they do show some numbers in a slideshow.

Color me unimpressed. There’s never been any doubt that one can reduce boom through body shaping–the issue is whether you can get enough reduction to solve the problem. This graph shows a softer peak, from a little over 1.2 PSF to about 9 PSF. So they’re reducing it by about thirty percent.

Big whoop. Still gonna break windows.

Is there any reason to think that they can do significantly better than this graph would indicate, particularly for a large transport? There’s none provided in the article. In fact, they even admit in the caption here, “Designers of the modified F-5E weren’t trying to eliminate the sonic boom, but prove that aircraft shaping can lessen this signature of supersonic flight.”

Big deal–we knew that.

And as Clark notes, there remains no mention of the drag issue.

Still looks like hype to me, similar to that over hypersonics. It may be beneficial for some military apps, but there’s no reason to think that it will usher in a new era of commercial air transport, or even make supersonic bizjets practical, despite the pretty pictures.

A couple of computer security issues

The latest Crypto-gram is out, and it’s got the usual good stuff in it. Two things that stand out are the Witty Worm, and a letter on computer security (the last one).

The Witty worm is particularly scary because it was so well written (700 bytes!) and so destructive (infected 100% of targeted systems in 45 minutes). The only reason it wasn’t a major story is that the worm targeted only systems running a particular company’s security software, and there were only a limited number of installations.

Who Am I?

Steven den Beste has a long essay on the nature of consciousness and identity (which I hadn’t noticed earlier because it starts out about anime, a subject in which my disinterest is astronomical). In it, among other things, he concurs with my comment a week ago about the late president (not to imply that he read it).

President Reagan’s heart stopped beating a few days ago, and low-level brain activity inside his skull also ceased. But he actually died long before that, from my point of view.

The problem is that we can’t really say when. It is usually a very long and gradual process. How much must you lose before you no longer exist at all? At what point is an Alzheimer’s patient really dead, if not when his heart stops beating?

Of course, that’s not a good criterion either, since hearts can be resuscitated. I’ve written before that, like identity, death itself is a legal state, not an objective scientific one.

He asks an ethical question as well:

Organ transplantation is one of the reasons why medical ethics now is forced to confront the question of when someone has actually died, even though their heart continues to beat. If we conclude they are nonetheless dead, it may be possible to save other lives.

In a case like that of Jon-Erik Hexum, or someone else who has suffered severe trauma to the brain in a car accident or via gunshot, that transition is sufficiently abrupt that it’s more straightforward. But should we consider the possibility of using Alzheimer’s patients as organ donors? And if so, how do we know that the disease has progressed far enough so that they, too, are effectively brain dead? I doubt that anyone will ever seriously consider using Alzheimer’s patients as organ donors precisely because it is such a sticky problem.

There’s a corollary to this question. Suppose we had a way of preserving brains, in some kind of suspension. We don’t know yet how to transplant them, or how to reverse the progress (if that’s the right word) of Alzheimers, but we could remove the brain and put it in stasis in the hopes that the future will both find a cure and the technology to replace it.

If the brain is the seat of the identity and the person, why wouldn’t it make sense to do such a preservation before the brain deteriorated, and the individual was lost forever to information death? Why would, or should, such a procedure be illegal (as it currently is)?

There was in fact a court case like this a few years ago. It wasn’t about Alzheimers–a man with a brain tumor petitioned a court to be allowed to be cryonically suspended if his condition took a turn for the worse, before it destroyed his brain. His assumption was that as poor as the prospects might have been for a cryonic suspension, it beat the odds of having a cancer destroy his mind, a condition that no future technology was likely to be able to repair. And in some sense, he was proposing an organ donation of his brain to his future self.

The court ruled against him, on the basis that he was asking permission to euthanize himself. The irony, of course, was that he was attempting to save himself, while the court was essentially sentencing him to a horrible death. Fortunately, his cancer went into remission, so the issue became moot for him, but the general principle remains. Unless and until we resolve the issues of identity, and where it resides, and what truly constitutes death (as opposed to the current and ever-changing function-based criteria) and differentiate the concept of information death from bodily functions, such issues will continue to be troubling, and in many cases, perverse.

Creative Commons License 2.0

The latest revision of the Creative Commons License has been released. Creative Commons is an attempt to deal with some of the messiness of intellectual property law by making it simple to create a roll-your-own license permitting certain kinds of use and forbidding others. If you create IP, take a look. Creative commons provides a way for you to encourage creative people to build on your work while retaining some measure of control.

Hat tip: Joi Ito

The Benefits Of A Database Nation

Amidst all the angst about loss of privacy in the modern age (a little amusing, considering what a modern invention privacy is), Declan McCullagh has an interesting article on the unsung good things about having your name in databases in this month’s Reason (the one with the customized cover that shows an aerial view of the subscriber’s neighborhood).

One part of the article puzzled me though:

MBNA grew to more than 51 million customers through its aggressive “affinity” program, which let a number of groups — NASCAR, universities, the Atlanta Braves, and so on — market credit cards imprinted with their own logos. Not counting its existing customers, in 2000 MBNA had a database of 800 million names of prospective cardholders provided by affinity groups, but it could afford to send only 400 million solicitations.

Writing in the Duke Law Journal in February 2003, Indiana law professor Fred Cate and Georgetown business professor Michael Staten described how MBNA winnowed its list down to an affordable size through aggressive information sharing. MBNA first looked at public records and then, by exchanging information with its affiliates, tried to evaluate the creditworthiness of the remaining names on the list. The remaining 400 million people received solicitations with the endorsement of the affinity group to which they belonged.

In what country did this take place? Is this worldwide? The population of the US is around three hundred million, last time I checked, and many of them are of insufficient age to be eligible for credit. Where did they come up with eight hundred million names?