Nasa Seven Seconds of Terror

I’m exhausted today, it’s been a really long intense week. So while I relax I’m thinking in a different direction: GPS.

I’ve been reading an awesome book called Pinpoint by Greg Milner and it has had me thinking in so many directions. It’s hook says its about How GPS is changing Technology, Culture and our minds. I suspect most reviewers touch on it pretty lightly because some of it is pretty geeky, although it is very readable. What is really scary is how much we rely on GPS for everything we do, which explains why there are so many projects to come up with land-based solutions for PNT.

Because it is Saturday and I am trying very hard to not think about work, I have gone off on a different tangent, which is space exploration. On Earth we now have the capability of measuring the centre of our potato shaped planet to about a centimeter, which makes navigation pretty accurate in 3 dimensions, although this doesn’t mean driverless cars can navigate to that degree, because whilst the car knows exactly where it is, it still requires phenomenal datum to know where the road is, but I’m getting back into work mode.

So when they get into space exploration, as Tomas Martin-Mur, a NASA engineer said, “The symbol I like to use is that we navigate the spacecraft by looking in the rear view mirror.”

I thought to myself that it is therefore obvious having disastrously lost spacecraft going to Mars, that the logical solution would be to invest in putting satellites around Mars and then as they travel further into our solar system, doing the same with other planets. First they can then avoid the seven seconds of terror

and then they can navigate usng the timing signals of Earth and Mars based satellites and then when the have a third planet set up, they will really start to be in a position to navigate accurately.

Why? For a start it means they can land accurately because they know where they are or will be despite the limitations of time and space. Secondly there are potentially all sorts of materials for harvest, potential for scientific research into how we came to be here and lots of commercial benefits.

I think Elon Musk is playing the big game and not just about getting to Mars, but given reduced budgets in the Space Race, he s potentially putting himself in the drivers seat, both for Mars exploration and establishing bases or even hotels there, but also as a forerunner to space exploration.

Isn’t it ironic that the man behind Tesla (the driverless car I’m not talking about because it’s a bit too close to work) is able to fund research that ‘The Greatest Country on Earth’ can’t? Of course as soon as they are successful, the revenue potential for his company SpaceX is astronomical if you will pardon the pun.

Of course on the other side of the world Richard Branson has figured out the same thing. Whilst Virgin Galactic is promoting paid space flight trips and I have friends eagerly awaiting their turn on flights they have already paid for, Branson is also talking Satellites. After all its not good for business to lose a commercial spacecraft full of some of the wealthiest and most influential people on the planet.

As Branson says “This is rocket science.” The video also says that the 700 people signed up is more than have been in space more than have been in space in the history of space travel. It also points out the profound impact that each traveler on the ‘return trip’ will bring back to their communities around the world.

So, its been a fun distraction. It is amazing to me that a few individuals with very BHAGS (Big Hairy Aggressive Goals) are changing the world where Governments appear not to want to look that far into the future, whilst they know they need and want the outcomes. I guess that is the difference between people who are in it until the next election vs people who are committed to the outcome no matter what. When Branson was asked if he came near to giving up after the crash of his first spaceship, he said he never came near to giving up.

I am inspired by people who keep their eye on the prize. It gives me hope that sticking with my minuscule in comparison goals, such as encouraging citizens to use real time travel information to make smarter decisions on their journey plans to minimize the impact on their own journeys and in doing so, ensure that growing cities can prosper even though they are land poor and can’t keep up with the travel needs of their citizens.

We each have a place in society, whether it is the taxi driver, the person clearing tables in a food hall, or an entrepreneur who sticks with his guns despite everyone who says “You can’t do that.” I just wish I could live a hundred years and see where humanity goes. Will we be egocentric or ecocentric?

Are you still with me? What do you think?


Singularity and ESI’s

I always thought of singularity as being when supercomputers end up being able to match human intelligence. One of the early science fiction films that influenced me in my youth was 2001 A Space Odyssey. I loved all of Arthur C Clarke’s books,but HAL 9000 was my first introduction to the concept of a computer that thinks, reasons and has emotions. I’ve often thought  that if a computer reached that level, it would consider humans to be animals to be eradicated as quickly as possible. The way we humans behave is often totally irrational and inappropriate, we are actively destroying our planet and instead of working together to fix it.

So I was somewhat surprised to read of research by organisations such as DARPA working on the concept of singularity as being a combination of genetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. I don’t know why I was surprised. First, the concept of Ubermensch probably goes way back before Nietzsche, perhaps even to da Vinci. Some people consider Nietzsche to be the inspiration for Hitler’s concept of the Aryan master-race.

Over the years we have seen many films such as The Terminator, TV shows like The Six Million Dollar Man and it is only logical that for many reasons, the military, NASA and others need to be able to modify humans to be more powerful. The military can use people who have super vision, night vision, extreme strength and resilience and of course if we are going to send people into space for long periods of time, wouldn’t it be easier if they were able to withstand low or no gravity for long periods of time, perhaps very high gravity, be able to thrive on different diets, different atmosphere etc. Just adding a little justification here.

One of the first areas that the concept of enhanced human beings is a result of the medical world finding ways to aide humans who have had injuries or other conditions, for example having lost an arm or a hand. It is now only mildly surprising to see people with a stump, manipulating a prosthetic hand and managing complex tasks.

The BeBionic Hand in the video above is due for release in June of this year and will make a huge difference to many people. Of course the military and those who can afford it, can add this type of enhancement technology to the able bodied. Imagine having an exoskeleton that would allow you to lift a 200 pound weight 500 times in a row. With millions of dollars of funding from DARPA, Sarcos, a recently purchased subsidiary of Raytheon has built the XOS Exoskeleton which can do that, it’s real technology, not something out of a Marvel comic or a SciFi movie. It’s very real.

They call this a Combat Robot, but imagine the other uses. For example imagine the uses of a suit like this for civil defence emergencies, after an earthquake, or rescuing people from a major motor accident. I’ve said it many times before: Science Fiction is becoming fact at a pace that is mind boggling.

I’ll finish for now with eyesight. Imagine being able to see and focus way beyond what humans can normally do. Did you know that Tiger Woods used to have -11 eyesight, which is about as short sighted as you can get. According to TLC Eye Centres, he wouldn’t have been able to see the ball without glasses until he had Lasik treatment. They say that he now has eyesight significantly better than the average person and that this contributed to his golfing success. According to a story on the Slate website, many athletes are being targeted by marketing offering them an advantage by enhancing their eyesight when there is nothing wrong with it. Last year I wrote about Tanya Vlach who was trying to get someone to provide her with a bionic eye. Checking out her blog, she hasn’t achieved her goal yet, but I suspect she will.

If you’d like to know more about enhanced humans and DARPA, I’ll leave the last word to Wired Magazine who have an excellent article (already 3 years old) about some of the amazing developments that have probably already been dramatically improved on and we haven’t even started on nanotechnology.

I’ve been thinking

Do what you do well, is advice that is often given. Get back to basics. So let’s think about this for a moment from a New Zealand perspective. At the moment our economy, like many economies is looking grim. We are borrowing lots of money to stay afloat. We look to electronics, bioengineering and other things that we are good at, but aside from a few exceptions we don’t seem to capitalise on it. We are great with ideas, but not so good at doing something about it.

We have some success stories sure, wine does ok, lamb was doing ok until they invented food miles and we are pretty successful at controlling segments of milk and fruit, particularly apples and kiwifruit. The legacy of people like Angus Tait (who I had the privilege of working for 7 years) continues, but without his innovative attitude. We have some success stories, but they are really far and few between.

Many years ago, when we all took it for granted, we were an agrarian economy and very successful at it. We’ve been successful food exporters, right back to when the Dunedin, the world’s first refrigerated ship left New Zealand full of frozen meat carcasses, back in 1882.

New Zealand fed many parts of the world for over a hundred years and life was good. Live sheep have been exported for over 100 years, although a number of incidents where thousands of sheep died have had a negative impact on this. My biggest argument, besides the inhumanity of keeping live animals penned up for so long, was that much of the stock was exported for breeding purposes, which of course reduced the demand for our own product.

But I digress. In today’s economy, we seem to have turned our backs on some opportunities, such as creating large call centres to look after communications needs of other English-speaking countries in other time zones, a market that South Africa has made a huge industry out of. We aren’t doing enough in areas such as science and medicine, possibly because the people with the smarts go offshore.

So lets look at what problems the world is going to face in the near future, in fact many parts of the world are facing right now, food! Scarce water resources, growing populations and growing tracts of land that are becoming so dry and depleted that nothing will grow on them. Then of course we also have oceanic dead zones, which are killing fish and other sea life.

Is this something we could look at with a different De Bono Hat on? Oceanic Dead Zones thrive through a combination of fertilisers and nutrients that leach into rivers and down to the sea, causing large algae blooms. These compound as the phytoplankton absorbs available oxygen and pretty much kills everything off.

Could this be another opportunity? When I need some extra energy before a run, I swallow a pile of Spirulina. Spirulina is actually algae. Of course the algal blooms often contain toxins, but there are many algae that can be used as a food source. Perhaps we could turn a bad situation into a good one.

In New Zealand, since we signed the Kyoto protocol, it has become relatively economic to grow forests (which while gobbling up Carbon Dioxide also use up a lot of water). We have lots of land, a good climate for agriculture and a need to find new sources of income. In fact I have heard that NZ can no longer feed its population without importing food. So why don’t we start looking at ways of growing bulk food?

If we want to do the right thing, we could look at product that has low cost to grow, that we can export for a profit and help countries that have problems at the same time. More than 1 billion people (1 in 6) suffer from food deprivation.

Food Science is something we are very good at. Most universities have food science and biotechnology majors and there is even a Food Science Institute. Many people have a problem with GE Food. I don’t personally know enough about it, but one way or another we either have to put production into overdrive or accept that hundreds of millions of people will die soon through malnutrition and starvation.We have a food crisis now. Grain is scarce and with oil running out a lot of people are now growing grain to fuel cars, creating even less food source.

Whilst human population growth is slowing, there were still 74 million new mouths to feed last year. A large chunk of these are in countries where soils are eroding, water tables falling and wells going dry.

Water politics is becoming a new issue and it could be that future wars are fought between countries that share water sources. This is especially likely where low lands are reliant on water coming from highlands. Think Europe, where many of our recent wars have begun. But again I digress.

Can we go back to agriculture as something we are very good at and the world needs? Dairy is currently our biggest export and apparently Fonterra’s income represented 25% of New Zealand’s total export revenue 2 years ago!

So we are good at growing crops, but could we do more? I think so. First, we should be self sustainable. We can’t afford to rely on other markets, especially when things get to a crisis where 1st world countries start fighting over resources. Then we should look at how we can feed the world and get paid for it. As a country surrounded by sea, we do not face the extremes that occur with countries that have large land masses, including our neighbours Australia.

As to Food Miles, I’m all for sustainability, so lets look at this is an opportunity. This can mean focussing on closer markets such as Australia and Asia, but also on biotechnology to get more for less.

Sometimes I think we try to be too clever. Faster computers, cloud computing, cars, planes, rockets, 3D TV, all things I want to continue to enjoy, are meaningless to the ever rowing numbers of starving and malnourished people around the world. Because of our geographic isolation, we became very good at food. Let’s look for more and new ways to exploit this. Lets make sure that if everything turns to dung, we can still feed ourselves, then lets look at how we can help feed the world and pay off our national debt at the same time.

I’ll leave the last word to NASA who have remote sensing technology to monitor conditions affecting food resources and their management:

Dead zones in the ocean

I was talking with someone recently about the Waikato River water that provides some 10% of the drinking water in Auckland. This was approved despite much protest, on the basis that Metrowater would only use it in emergencies. I suspect that Mayor George Wood at the time knew that it would end up being turned on all the time, as part of his deal with his crony mayors.

The water was declared safe by WHO standards, however councillor Joel Cayford, who is now employed by ARC said that it was unsafe. I attended the public meeting where he explained that WHO standards listed a number of quality requirements, but excluded many ingredients such as dioxins, heavy metals, fertiliser and more. In my opinion the meeting wasn’t helped by constant interjections from rent a protester, which didn’t help the cause.

Not long after approval was given by the regional mayors, including the Mayor Bob Harvey of Waitakere who approved it on the condition that Waitakere water would only come from local dams in the rainforest, thus not having to take this water.

What has this got to do with dead zones in the ocean? Well here’s the thing. A lot of the objections against using Waikato river water were because it contains huge amounts of leached chemicals from farms including fertiliser, antibiotics and much more. It appears that these same types of chemicals are flowing from rivers around the world into the sea and several studies are suggesting that the rise in industrial food production is increasing the number of dead zones rapidly.

Oceanic dead zones are areas where the oxygen levels in the water are so low that they kill of almost all forms of marine life. There are now more than 400 oceanic dead zones around the world and they are growing fast.

According to experts, including NASA a major contributor to these dead zones is fertiliser that flows to the ocean from farms both in the form of chemicals leaching from farms and from the animal manure which still contains these chemicals. The nitrogen and phosphorous feeds the algae and phytoplankton, making these plants grow rapidly.

In New Zealand, we have become aware of algal bloom. This is occurring more commonly now both in coastal waters, such as our local Waiheke Island, and also in freshwater lakes, including many in the Waikato, where 10% of our drinking water is coming from.

So what does this mean? We know that fresh water is going to be on of the important issues in the future, both from climate change and from man-made intervention. We know that our oceans are becoming polluted, much of it from man-made waste. We know that the fish stocks are becoming depleted in many parts of the world, due to over fishing, to feed growing nations. But fish are also now seriously at risk from the oceanic dead zones, where oxygen levels are so low that fish and other marine life can’t survive.

We seem to be in danger of creating the ‘unrealistic and unbelievable’ wasted planet that is often depicted on science fiction movies.Am I exaggerating? Well check these examples out:

A dead zone the size of New Jersey of the coast of Oregon and Washington, may be irreversible.

The Mississippi Delta dead zone is one of the smaller ones in the world, only 3,000 square miles. The US Government is investing $320 million to try to slow it down, but as long as the chemicals keep flowing down and farm production is increased, we have a problem.

The Baltic sea apparently contains 7 of the 10 worst oceanic dead zones and it appears that the surrounding countries haven’t been doing much about them. The end result could be the loss of almost all marine life in the area. This map shows how bad it is in places, where the red areas represent areas where the water essentially contains no oxygen.

It appears that the man-made damage to the oceans and lakes in the world could present an even greater problem than global warming and of course one that is compounded by it. If so much water ends up unable to sustain life, how will we survive, especially the poorer areas on the planet, where water is already scarce. The sea’s health is not something we can take for granted, no matter how vast it appears. The attractive colours of algae bloom that we sea coming back each summer in bigger areas, is evidence that we need to change some of our ways, and quickly.

I’ll leave the last word to Joanne from Rocketboom who explains it far more succinctly than I: