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Get Thee to a Spaceport! August 13, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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To many of my generation, the United States has a singular space launch facility, at Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Thanks to my time in the Air Force, I know of at least three others – Wallops Island, Virginia (a NASA complex); Vandenberg AFB, California, and the Kodiak Launch Complex on Kodiak Island, Alaska.  Thanks to my personal interest in space exploration, I know of two more – Spaceport America, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and the Blue Origin launch complex near Van Horn, Texas.

But wait!  There are more.  Elon Musk has his own with SpaceX, of course, on the Texas coast (although SpaceX and Blue Origin use Cape Canaveral for operational launches right now).  Oddly, there is also the Oklahoma Spaceport, Cecil Spaceport in Jacksonville, Florida; and the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert.  The newest licensed spaceport is at Ellington Field in Houston, although it cannot yet support launches or recoveries.

Complicated?  Yeah.

The dynamics of achieving orbit are complex, but like any physics problem, consistent.  There is a small but distinct advantage in launching close to the Equator (at least for east-west launches), in effect using the Earth’s rotation to help propel a rocket upward.  Probably the most efficient is the Guiana Space Center, in French Guiana and within about five degrees of the Equator, used by the European Space Agency for many manned and unmanned launches.  Tyura Tam, in Kazakhstan, is also comfortably close to the Equator.  Tyura Tam (Baikonur), once a part of the larger Soviet Union, is now leased by the Russians for their launches.

Here in the US, the Kennedy Space Center is used for all manned launches (regrettably none over the last several years).  It launches Equatorially, to the east, over the Atlantic Ocean, in order to minimize the chance of failures over populated areas.  Vandenberg and Kodiak both launch into polar orbits, once again over the ocean.

There have been many other sites around the world that have been used for space launches.  China, Japan, and India have all launched unmanned satellites into orbit, and many other countries have designated spaceports.  Certainly over one hundred sites worldwide have either launched vehicles or are capable of doing so.

That begs the question why.  The manned space program has certainly garnered the lion’s share of popular attention, but hundreds of satellites are launched into space every year.  While many of these are launched from Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg, the volume is simply too great for those two sites alone.  Navigation, geophysical and environmental (including farming), Internet, and of course military are just a few of the uses for satellites today.

In an era where the US has largely depended upon commercial firms to deliver satellites and other payloads, the proliferation of US spaceports both lowers costs and gets satellites in orbit faster.  It also helps develop an industrial base in nontraditional parts of the country.

The majority of US spaceports today are that in name only; few if any launches are occurring outside of Cape Canaveral/Kennedy, Wallops Island, and Vandenberg.  But as the need for orbital launch capabilities heats up, some of the others are in on the ground floor.

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Memorial Day 2018 May 28, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I am a veteran.  I served six years as an Air Force officer, separating as a captain.  I wanted to fly; I had my private ticket at 17, but lacked the perfect eyesight needed to fly in the military.  So I flew a desk, got two masters degrees, and eventually got past the stage of my life where flying was important.

I was in San Antonio this past weekend, on a riverboat cruise, when the guide asked how many on the tour were active duty or veterans.  Despite the fact that San Antonio stands on the pillars of multiple Army and Air Force bases, only three of the 50 or so raised their hands (and one of them was a just-graduated ROTC cadet in uniform).  I was at a DevOps conference in Nashville last fall, in a room of 300 mostly young people, where the Iraqi War vet organizer asked how many were veterans.  My hand went up.  Period.

I served my country honorably (the DD-214 says so), but thinking back, I could have done so better.  I may not have been motivated by patriotism, but over the years that initial service has made me a different, and I think better, person.

We’ve had stupid wars (Spanish-American War, anyone?) and we’ve had unpopular wars (Vietnam certainly takes the cake here), and will continue to do so.  That is not for those who have chosen to serve to decide, although as human beings, many I’m sure have had opinions in the matter.  That’s what veterans have helped to protect, current events notwithstanding.

Service to our country would do all of us good.  It does not mean love, or patriotism; rather, it means that we recognize that we could not have our freedoms without sacrifice.  For most of us in the military, the sacrifices are minimal – a regimented lifestyle, a nod to authority, restrictions on our time and efforts.  But service doesn’t have to be in the military; all adults should seek out any opportunities to preserve our freedoms and ideals.

Those who have fallen in battle made the ultimate sacrifice.  I’m pretty sure that none intended to die for their country, but they did, and today is the day we remember them.  We may object to war in general, or government in general, or a specific war or government, but those who have died don’t deserve to be in that discussion.  So for one day, put aside politics and beliefs, and remember those who have died so that we could have the rights and privileges that we do.  Thank you.

More on AI and the Turing Test May 20, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Architectures, Machine Learning, Strategy, Uncategorized.
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It turns out that most people who care to comment are, to use the common phrase, creeped out at the thought of not knowing whether they are talking to an AI or a human being.  I get that, although I don’t think I’m myself bothered by such a notion.  After all, what do we know about people during a casual phone conversation?  Many of them probably sound like robots to us anyway.

And this article in the New York Times notes that Google was only able to accomplish this feat by severely limiting the domain in which the AI could interact with – in this case, making dinner reservations or a hair appointment.  The demonstration was still significant, but isn’t a truly practical application, even within a limited domain space.

Well, that’s true.  The era of an AI program interacting like a human across multiple domains is far away, even with the advances we’ve seen over the last few years.  And this is why I even doubt the viability of self-driving cars anytime soon.  The problem domains encountered by cars are enormously complex, far more so than any current tests have attempted.  From road surface to traffic situation to weather to individual preferences, today’s self-driving cars can’t deal with being in the wild.

You may retort that all of these conditions are objective and highly quantifiable, making it possible to anticipate and program for.  But we come across driving situations almost daily that have new elements that must be instinctively integrated into our body of knowledge and acted upon.  Computers certainly have the speed to do so, but they lack a good learning framework to identify critical data and integrate that data into their neural network to respond in real time.

Author Gary Marcus notes that what this means is that the deep learning approach to AI has failed.  I laughed when I came to the solution proposed by Dr. Marcus – that we return to the backward-chaining rules-based approach of two decades ago.  This was what I learned during much of my graduate studies, and was largely given up on in the 1990s as unworkable.  Building layer upon layer of interacting rules was tedious and error-prone, and it required an exacting understanding of just how backward chaining worked.

Ultimately, I think that the next generation of AI will incorporate both types of approaches.  The neural network to process data and come to a decision, and a rules-based system to provide the learning foundation and structure.

Google AI and the Turing Test May 12, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Software development, Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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Alan Turing was a renowned mathematician in Britain, and during WW 2 worked at Bletchley Park in cryptography.  He was an early computer pioneer, and today is probably best known for the Turing Test, a way of distinguishing between computers and humans (hypothetical at the time).

More specifically, the Turing Test was designed to see if a computer could pass for a human being, and was based on having a conversation with the computer.  If the human could not distinguish between talking to a human and talking to a computer, the computer was said to have passed the Turing Test.  No computer has ever done so, although Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza psychology therapist in the 1960s was pretty clever (think Alfred Adler).

The Google AI passes the Turing Test.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5VN56jQMWM&feature=youtu.be.

I’m of two minds about this.  First, it is a great technical and scientific achievement.  This is a problem that for decades was thought to be intractable.  Syntax has definite structure and is relatively easy to parse.  While humans seem to understand language semantics instinctively, there are ambiguities that can only be learned through training.  That’s where deep learning through neural networks comes in.  And to respond in real time is a testament to today’s computing power.

Second, and we need this because we don’t want to have phone conversations?  Of course, the potential applications go far beyond calling to make a hair appointment.  For a computer to understand human speech and respond intelligently to the semantics of human words, it requires some significant training in human conversation.  That certainly implies deep learning, along with highly sophisticated algorithms.  It can apply to many different types of human interaction.

But no computing technology is without tradeoffs, and intelligent AI conversation is no exception.  I’m reminded of Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation.  It posits that people are increasingly afraid of having spontaneous conversations with one another, mostly because we cede control of the situation.  We prefer communications where we can script our responses ahead of time to conform to our expectations of ourselves.

Having our “AI assistant” conduct many of those conversations for us seems like simply one more step in our abdication as human beings, unwilling to face other human beings in unscripted communications.  Also, it is a way of reducing friction in our daily lives, something I have written about several times in the past.

Reducing friction is also a tradeoff.  It seems worthwhile to make day to day activities easier, but as we do, we also fail to grow as human beings.  I’m not sure where the balance lies here, but we should not strive single-mindedly to eliminate friction from our lives.

5/14 Update:  “Google Assistant making calls pretending to be human not only without disclosing that it’s a bot, but adding “ummm” and “aaah” to deceive the human on the other end with the room cheering it… horrifying. Silicon Valley is ethically lost, rudderless and has not learned a thing…As digital technologies become better at doing human things, the focus has to be on how to protect humans, how to delineate humans and machines, and how to create reliable signals of each—see 2016. This is straight up, deliberate deception. Not okay.” – Zeynep Tufekci, Professor & Writer 

The Privilege and Responsibility of Being an American April 21, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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Today, I feel the need to define what I believe in.

There, I said it.  There are few things I believe in more than these two ideals.  Let me explain.

The privilege.  We have defined rights, granted at birth and irrevocable.  These rights are defined as human beings, and codified to a limited extent in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  Incidentally, these documents are precious though imperfect, as are their authors.  As are all of us.

I disagree with many people, on many ideals and implementations.  I vigorously defend their right to have different ideals and expectations, as long as their differences do not impede on mine.  That is a gray area, of course.  As long as you have privileges on the same level as me, you are welcome to your ideals.  We don’t force them on each other.

Our privilege is to speak freely.  And act freely.  As long as those words and actions don’t impinge upon the rights of others.  Every single American knows best.  The problem is that our best is only the best for us as individuals, not all of us.  We freely acknowledge that our beliefs may not be universal, or even widely held.  And we are okay with that.

The responsibility.  I have the responsibility to defend the rights and freedoms I have.  I know that millions of Americans have died in doing so.  I wish more Americans would consider service to their country at some point in time, because it can teach all of us something, but my wishes don’t make it mandatory.

We have the responsibility to defend the rights and freedoms of all others.  Not just those we agree with.  As long as those rights and freedoms don’t impinge on those of others.  Once again, that is a gray area.  I served so that all could have these rights.  I wish you would too, but I can’t force that, and don’t want to.

We have the responsibility to treat people with respect, even as we disagree with them.  Let me repeat that.  We have the responsibility to treat people with respect, even as we disagree with them.  We may find common ground, and we will almost certainly find that we agree more than disagree.

We have laws.  The rule of law is vital in any society.  These laws are imperfect, and have evolved over time, hopefully to enable all of us to execute our privileges.  We have the responsibility to help uphold those laws.  Some laws require adjustment over time, and we can work toward adjusting them, as we continue to abide by them.

And I allow for much good in other nations and cultures.  I have seen some of that good, and hope to see more before I leave the mortal plane.  Public transportation is better in other places.  Health care may be better, and is certainly less expensive, in other places.  Taxes may be more fair elsewhere.  The sense of history, the depth of culture, and the kindness of ordinary people everywhere is amazing.

But that by no means denigrates what we as Americans have.  We have created an amazing and unique nation and society.  I don’t want to throw it away.  I really don’t want to throw it away.

Today, I think we as Americans have to put a stake in the ground for what we stand for.  This is what I stand for.  I hope we can meet somewhere.

It’s Time to Define Just What Freedom Means April 13, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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There are many ways of approaching this topic, especially in 2018.  I choose to do so through professional football.  I am troubled.  Not by actions, but by reactions.  That is kneeling at the national anthem prior to games, and the attendant responses.

Those that criticize call this inappropriate political protest.  I don’t get the political part.  Politics is where we disagree, and agree to disagree.  I cannot for the life of me imagine how anyone would disagree that black men are being disproportionally killed by police in situations where deadly force is not called for.  This is not a political problem, it is a societal one, one that we need to work together to address.

There are almost certainly elements of racism involved in those situations, but I think the main problem is a lack of training of the police.  Being a policeman (or woman) has to be one of the most difficult and stressful jobs imaginable.  They go into ambiguous situations that either start out as violent, or can turn violent at the drop of a hat.  They can find themselves in life or death situations where an immediate decision may make the difference between them getting home, or getting into a coffin.  I think many lack the rigorous and continual training needed to make the right decisions in those situations.

And I’m not sure I even get the protest part.  Unlike protests from my youth, they don’t take over campus buildings, or block streets.  They do so silently.

There are those who also say that it is inappropriate to take such a principled stand while on the job.  As with most professionals, it is difficult to know quite when football players are on the job.  Especially since they can be punished by their employer for some personal behavior, such as drug use or police altercations, that is definitely on personal time.

But here is my biggest problem, and I think one that is fueled by the fantasy football craze.  Too many fans are geared to see players as a set of numbers in any given week.  With the prospect of legalized sports betting, we could see millions of fans who bet on the outcome of individual plays, which serves only to reduce players to how often they deliver on split-second outcomes, perhaps a dozen or more times a game.  They are like inanimate toy soldiers, ours to select and manipulate for our enjoyment and perhaps profit.

But these players aren’t numbers.  They are thinking human beings, certainly on a similar plane as all of us.  They have perspectives and beliefs that are just as valid as anyone else.  I think it appropriate that we hear their voices.

Now, to freedom.  We live in a country where millions of soldiers, policemen, firemen, and others who serve have died.  I would like to think that they died for a larger ideal.  I believe strongly that that ideal is that we can express ourselves freely.  Declining to stand for the national anthem is one way of doing so.

I am a military veteran.  Not standing for the national anthem is not how I might call attention to an issue.  But I will vigorously defend the right of anyone to do so.  That is what freedom means.

One Experience of a Lifetime April 5, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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Last month, I ran in a race called Gateway to Space.  It was executed on the Space Shuttle runway (known as the NASA Shuttle Landing Facility, because the Space Shuttles never took off horizontally) at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The NASA Shuttle Landing Facility is 15,000 feet long, one of the longest runways in the world (Denver International has a longer one, and there may be a couple of military ones, such as Vandenberg and Edwards, that are similar).  Technically, it is about 1400 feet short of 5K, so we started on the aircraft parking area, and ran a short taxiway out to the runway.

We were told to watch out for alligators and other wildlife on the runway.

There were close to 2000 runners, although many walked it.  We began at the southern end.  There was a Space Shuttle mockup about halfway up the runway, and multiple plaques embedded into the runway designating landing and stopping points for the last Space Shuttle landings.  I have photos of several; here is one, complete with my running shoe, which other people were doing to demonstrate their physical presence.

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The weather was very nice, although it got warm fast, the distance was good, and there were water stops.  At the end, there was plenty of juice to drink.

There may be better life experiences out there, but I will always own this one.  I have always been fascinated by flying, and by space.  I am bitterly disappointed that the US cannot send people into space.  I think our government has dropped the ball, and I hope that private companies can pick it up.

In the meantime, I run the landing facility.  Definitely cool.

It is Time to Say that Uber Has No Clothes December 21, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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A few years ago, I remember hearing a lot about the sharing economy.  Specifically, you need to go somewhere, someone happens to be heading in that direction, Uber will match you up.  While we still hear Uber and sharing economy used in the same sentence, it is nonsensical.  You summon a driver, period.  Whatever happened to the sharing economy?  Oh, I know, it is not profitable.  Of course, neither is Uber.

Credit not me, but Alison Griswold of Quartz for getting it right.  And also credit the European Union for finally calling out the company.  If its users say, “I have summoned an Uber,” then yes, it must by definition be a transportation company.

I do credit Uber for shaking up and transforming the taxi industry, which really needed it.  It clearly met an unserved need.  The technology is generally good and needed, even if Uber’s intrusiveness into our private lives was grossly inappropriate.

But the way forward is not Uber.  I have railed against its antagonistic company culture, but this cuts right to the business model.  Uber will die, despite (or perhaps because of) its $68 billion valuation, which is highly questionable if it ever reaches the open market.

The company itself won’t see another ten years, and that is becoming increasingly clear.  I hope something good comes out of it, but for its successors.