Thursday, July 23, 2015

Review -- Elon Musk Quest for a Fantastic Future

by Ashlee Vance.

Each chapter of this book struck a chord with me. As usual this will be a Spinrad style review where I use Vance's book as an excuse to jump on my soapbox.

Winter Is Coming

I often feel like we're trapped in a bleak George R. R. Martin story. Rate of growth may be slowing but the planet's population is still rising. Appetite for consumer goods is climbing as the third world catches up to industrialized nations. In the meantime finite resources are getting harder to come by. Hydrocarbon fossil fuels aren't going to last forever.

ERoEI should be a term on everyone's mind. But policy makers and general populace remain oblivious. What's trending at the time of this writing? Caitlyn Jenner, presidential candidate Trump is saying we need to build a big wall along our southern border to keep out Mexican rapists, Justin Beiber's naked butt on Instagram.

It's like Game of Thrones. Greed, stupidity and cruelty triumph time after time in spite of the hero's best efforts. In slow motion we're watching our derailed train head for a cliff and nobody's putting on the brakes.

A Dream of Spring

But there's a ray of hope. Unlike Martin's gritty realism, Musk seems to be a character from the golden age of Marvel comics. A Tony Stark like character who actually does triumph over insurmountable odds. Vance describes several periods in Musk's life where doom seems imminent. But through sheer tenacity he overcomes one impossible obstacle after another.


Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Describing Musk's childhood on page 38:
… Soon he owned a Commodore VIC-20, a popular home machine that went on sale in 1980. Elon's computer arrived with … a workbook on the BASIC programming language. "It was supposed to take like six months to get through all the lessons," Elon said. "I just got super OCD on it and stayed up for three days with no sleep and did the entire thing. It seemed like the most super-compelling thing I had ever seen."
(Added emphasis mine). OCD is one of my major faults. How many times have I stayed up til 4 a.m. playing Tetris? How many hours squandered in the labyrinth mazes of Zelda? Etc.

But a crippling flaw can also be an empowering strength. Now I feel less guilty when I get lost doing a drawing or obsessed with a geometry problem.

Musk has a peculiar mental make up. Other factors came together for a perfect storm making Musk a game changing personality. His father was a well to do engineer. Musk had the opportunity and will to master several key skills during a time of dramatic change.

Electric Cars

What happens after peak oil? Nuclear might take care of our electricity needs. But what about transportation? Cars and trucks use gasoline.

There's the Prius -- a misbegotten bastard child of gas and electric with extra mass and complexity.

The fully electric cars I had seen were golf carts that needed to be recharged every 20 miles.

Then Tesla blew my opinions out of the water. An electric car with oomph as well as range. Learning of this car's existence filled me with relief and joy.

I was also delighted to hear of the improved energy storage with lithium ion batteries. This makes solar power more viable, another arena in which Musk is fighting the good fight. I still believe nuclear will be our primary source of power. But improved storage means solar will play a more prominent role.

Tesla and Solar City are traded on the stock exchange. For TSLA and SCTY he regarded going public as a Faustian deal, a necessary evil. He explains that shareholders tend to have short range goals, a profitable quarter while he has a more long range agenda. Well, I've gone on E-Trade and bought one share of Tesla and three shares of Solar City. I am one shareholder that endorses Musk's long range goals. Musk managed to avoid going public on SpaceX

Breaking Free of Cradle Earth

For decades we've been spinning our wheels in low earth orbit. Human Space Flight has been the cash cow of near monopolies that don't care about humanity's future. For our elected officials, HSF is a pork barrel program for buying votes.

New Space pundits like Rand Simberg or Henry Spencer have long been advocating a competitive space market. They rightly point out cost plus contracts encourage graft. That savings can be realized with mass production when R&D expense is amortized over many units.

But these insights weren't sufficient to overcome inertia. That is until Musk came along.

That Musk has built a new aerospace company from the ground up is an amazing accomplishment. I had placed my bets a new player would win the 100 kilometer X-prize. But a new kid on the block achieving orbit and remaining solvent? That took me by surprise.

Many of the possible economies Spencer and Simberg predicted have been realized by Musk. Economies of scale. A supply chain distributed through many congressional districts and policies set by committee guarantees waste.  Much of SpaceX parts are made in house. Central management is lean and mean with little or no duplication of effort. Musk has already brought down the cost of getting to orbit.

One of the most exciting SpaceX goals are reusable space vehicles. How much would a transcontinental trip cost if we threw away a 747 each flight? Musk correctly sees quickly and economically reusable space ships as a prerequisite for breaking free of Cradle Earth.

SpaceX is making good progress towards a reusable booster stage. Since the booster is a lot more massive than an upper stage, reusable boosters could make a huge cut in the cost of getting to space. Presently I'm giving two-to-one odds SpaceX will achieve cost savings with a reusable booster.

How about a SpaceX reusable upper stage? I'm betting against it. An upper stage's big delta V budget makes for a difficult mass fraction. If dry mass is 8% or less, it's hard to have robust structure and thermal protection. Re-entering the atmosphere at 8 km/s subjects the space ship to extreme conditions and I can't see the delicate eggshell of an upper stage surviving this abuse.

But maybe I'm wrong! I already have egg on my face for earlier bets against Musk. If I'm right, I believe Musk will find other ways to deal with upper stage re-entry. Maybe he'll look at solutions like extraterrestrial  propellent and/or momentum exchange tethers.

Musk has beat the odds numerous times in the past. I'm betting he'll continue to surprise people in the future.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

My Geoscapes books are selling!


Sales of Dover Creative Haven Geoscapes recently picked up.

Last week saw sales of about 22 books per day. There was a week in March when 46 books a day were being sold. I have no idea what caused this recent upsurge. Three of my friends and relatives have told me they've seen the book on display at Barnes and Noble stores. My daughter and I walked into a grocery store/delicatessen and saw my book on display along with other Dover Creative Haven books.

I'm proud of this coloring book, it explores geometrical themes: perspective drawings, studies of polyhedra, spirals etc.  I'll post a few screen captures.

A tribute to two of my heroes: Da Vinci and Kepler. Leonardo Da Vinci would make open faced polyhedral models composed of beams along the edges. That way he could study the interior of a polyhedra. Around the edges of this page are Leonardo style Platonic dodecahedra. If you extend the edges of each pentagon to form a five pointed star, you get a Kepler solid, the small stellated dodecahedron (center). Besides revolutionizing our view of the solar system, Johannes Kepler did a lot of wonderful exploration and discoveries in solid geometry.

Study of the dodecahedron-icosohedron symmetry group. Top left: Leonardo style dodecahedron, Top right: Leonardo style icosahedron, Center: Interpenetrating Leonardo style dodecahedron and icosahedron showing the duality between these two solids.

Lower three solids are Archimedean solids that result from truncating (slicing off corners) of either the dodecahedron or icosahedron.


I am fascinated with space filling bricks, a.k.a. honey combs. At the bottom are cubes. Cubes are a special case of a rectangular solid, the sort of bricks we're all familiar with. The structure at the top are alternating octahedra and tetrahedra, a.k.a. an octet structure. The octet faces are equilateral triangles. Height of an equilateral triangle is sqrt(3)/2 length of a side, an irrational number. So at first glance it seems like octet structures would be incompatible with cubic structures. But this gulf is bridged by a third type of space filling brick: the truncated octahedron. That's why I call the truncated octahedron the Bridge brick.

A Lego-like construction toy I invented. But instead of cubic structure, this toy would build octet structures (see image and explanation just above this one). And instead of a single male face and a single female face, every face has a hermaphrodite connector. Bridge truncated octahedral construction units might be a way to make my toy compatible with Legos.

Don't know what to say about these interpenetrating spiral structures. Except that they were fun to draw.

Hoping the people who bought my book enjoy my strolls through strange geometry gardens.

Surreal Visions

Another book I'm proud of is Surreal Visions. But it's still suffering flat sales. I'll post a few images any way:

These rhino monkeys are frolicking about a Klein Bottle. A peculiar object, somewhat like a three dimensional Möbius Strip.

The Riemann Sphere maps the points on the surface of a sphere to a plane (with the exception of the north pole!). Mathematician Chaim Goodman Strauss helped me come up with a related mapping of points from 3-space onto 3-space. Surreal Visions features several images based on this mapping.

And finally one more from Surreal Visions. This image is called Tears.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Review: Declaration by James Patrick Kelly

Spoiler alert: I give away events unfolding in Kelly's story. It appeared in the March 2014 edition of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.

"Declaration" is a thought provoking extrapolation of existing trends. In the style of Spinrad, I will use this review as an excuse to jump up on a soapbox and deliver my own opinions.

In this tale more and more people are dwelling in softtime. Softime is what today's internet might evolve into, a shared online virtual reality. Depending on sophistication of interface, the virtual reality can be fully immerseive.

A significant part of the population are severely disabled and can't interact with the world using their meat bodies. These disabled people are known as stash. They are more or less stashed in coffin like life support cubicles.

The government mandates that everyone spend an allotted time in hardtime, a.k.a. reality. Stash revolutionaries want to spend all of their existence in softtime. The story title Declaration refers to the revolutionaries' Declaration of Independence. They want to sever their connections with the real world.

But would the revolutionaries become independent of hardtime? In Kelly's story, that's not clear. Are the stashed people dependent parasites or do they provide services and do meaningful work? Robots are ubiquitous in the story but I get the impression machines haven't fully replaced humans. There still seems to be need for meat to interact with the world to maintain infrastructure and take care of business. For example the main character turns her stash brother to prevent bed sores, even though the brother has a carebot.

Primitive versions of these interfaces already exist. For example motion capture sensors control virtual puppets in movies like Shrek or Avatar, as well as virtual avatars in computer games.  Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis has implanted a Brain Machine Interface into the cortex of monkeys that they've used to control virtual avatars.

From inner space back to outer space

Virtual avatars aren't the only puppets controllable by motion capture or brain machine interface. Nicolelis' monkeys have also used their cerebral implants to control remote robotic arms. A paralyzed person using a Nicolelis exosuit did the opening kick in the 2014 World Soccer Cup. Surgeons use motion capture sensors to operate surgical telerobots.

Kelly's story has robots as well as a sophisticated brain machine interface. Given telerobots, exosuits, and robotic prosthetics, the boundary between hardtime and softtime blurs. There are hard as well as soft avatars.

Telerobots are becoming major game changers. They are doing work in places too hard to reach or dangerous for humans. British Petroleum uses them to build oil drilling infrastructure on the seafloor. Planetary Resources hopes to use them to mine the asteroids. Paul Spudis and Bill Stone hope to use robots to prospect and establish mining infrastructure on the moon.

Kelly is correct a severely disabled person would want to use a Brain Machine Interface every waking hour whereas a healthy person only a fraction of the time. I believe the severely disabled will be the most practiced users of telerobots. They could be the most intrepid explorers, the most able builders, the heroes of a coming age.

Fashions in Science Fiction

A Brain Machine Interface story from yesteryear was Anne McCaffrey's hopeful and uplifting The Ship That Sang. More recently we have Kelly's bleak dystopia Declaration.

Kelly's story has a lot of currently fashionable themes: overpopulation, terrorism, limited resources, alienation, inevitable decay. More often than not modern SF is gloom and doom exploring catastrophic failure modes of technology. Such storites are worthwhile, we should certainly try to anticipate and avoid possible calamities.

But we also need stories exploring technology's potential for good. I yearn for a return to tales about new frontiers and the triumph of human spirit over adversity.

We need hopeful as well as cautionary tales. Without hope there is no reason to get up in the morning.