Four-legged bomb detectors still top dog

Paul Raven @ 22-10-2010

After research and development to the tune of US$19bn, the Pentagon concludes that nothing detects bombs more effectively than a well-trained dog; Uxo would be proud.

Despite a slew of bomb-finding gagdets, the American military only locates about 50 percent of the improvised explosives planted in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that number jumps to 80 percent when U.S. and Afghan patrols take dogs along for a sniff-heavy walk.

Technology isn’t the answer to every problem… unless that problem is “how can we squander billions of dollars that could be better used in other ways”, I suppose.


Speculative direct democracy: the cybernetic tax-allocation feedback loop

Paul Raven @ 07-10-2010

Here’s a really interesting thought-experiment from Adam Rothstein, riffing off the no-fee-no-fire-brigade story and the receipt-for-your-taxes idea. I’ll let him explain rather than attempt to paraphrase:

What if after seeing this receipt, taxpayers were allowed to shift where their taxes went? Say, less Pell grants, and more to the war in Afghanistan, if that was their priority. Or less war, and more highways. Of course this would affect their service. The service only gets what the individual public thinks it deserves from their contribution to the tax coffers. It would be easier to go all Henry Thoreau on a war a hemisphere away then it would on, say, your local fire service, because there are fewer people contributing to your local fire bureau than paying national taxes, and you’d see the effect of the latter right away, the former only later. But hey, open it up. Let people pay their share of what they think it important. Let’s think about what would happen, if people could actually control where the money was going.

Other than finally letting individuals control their tax dollars, what this would eventually create is a massive, cybernetic feedback loop. Let’s say you opened up a website with UI controls, so you could adjust your proportional tax payment anytime you wanted, adjustable down to hourly segments of your fiscal year total. (I am assuming you must still pay your full total, you can just allocate the percentages. Otherwise, everyone would obviously opt to pay nothing at all.) And this site updates. So after it first launches, we see (and I am just guessing here) payment for education and arts decrease, and military spending increases. After a few hours of people allocating their own taxes, education and arts are almost at zero. But then what happens as people see these changes? Maybe someone who originally allocated 75% military/25% education, on seeing education spending slide nationally to nothing, decides to allocate 100% education to make up for the difference. How many people do this? Enough to counter the childless militants? What sort of equilibrium is reached? Is an equilibrium reached?

Now imagine, after they open up the API of this system (naturally), third-party algorithms are introduced. Want to help the budget reach 25% for education nationally? Install this add-on, and it will auto-adjust you and everyone else using the add-on in a unified front to make this goal a reality (while protecting your personal data, of course). Or maybe you set it to automatically devote up to 100% of your individual taxes to education, unless highways dip below 5%, and then it re-figures your totals according to your preference. Or, download the Democratic Party algorithm, which will automatically adjust your percentages to match the national tax distribution platform of the party. Download the Support our Troops algorithm, which helps the Veterans and Military budgets maintain a certain consistent ratio to the overall budget depending on how many troops are currently on active duty. Pledge to Support the Dollar, by downloading the FOMC algorithm that will adjust internal infrastructure spending and national debt spending in such a way as to drive the strength of the dollar world-wide. How about an algorithm that scans the news for stories of political scandal, reducing the money allocated to congressional salaries every time there is another ethics violation? Too many fires in your district last month? The Google Map Fire Layer-aware algorithm will automatically up your fire services percentage by an appropriate amount.

Now what would be REALLY REALLY interesting: what sort of equilibrium is achieved, and how far off is it the current balance as it now, without this sci-fi direct democracy scheme? After all the algorithms are factored in, and all the feedback to the results of the algorithms are calculated and re-factored… are we actually any different than where we are now? Is our national desired budget, summed from all the diverse opinion about where we ought to be spending money, really any different from reality? If we let one person tweak the budget, they’d do all sorts of different things. But if everyone’s opinion and rate of pay were weighted together, I’d say it’s a fair bet that we’d end up exactly where we are.

[…]

Is it possible that as bankrupt and backwards as our democracy is, that it actually functions perfectly at doing what it is supposed to do? This function: to obfuscate and abstract our own lack of knowledge and ability, to direct our attention away from our responsibility for our own egos. And is it possible that the government, by echoing the non-sensical desires and demands of a populace that is as fickle as a television programming schedule, is already the representative compass of a society that is ready and willing to sprint directly towards oblivion? This society that would rather wage war across the globe than put out the fires in our neighbors homes, and fix the gas lines underneath our own feet.

Provocative stuff, and no mistake; much like Rothstein, I’d love to see the results of an experimental run of a system like this, though I’m perhaps a trifle more optimistic about the results we might see, especially if there were a good degree of local granularity involved.


Lo-fi wi-fi network springing up from junk in Jalalabad

Paul Raven @ 03-03-2010

Jalalabad FabLab wi-fi reflectorOffered here as an extension of the arguments made by the Prospect Magazine piece I linked to the other week about the lessons to be learned from the last-minute low-cost solutions of slum residents and other disadvantaged social groups, Free Range International hosts a report from an MIT team working in Jalalabad, Afghanistan that describes how an injection of knowledge and expertise can accelerate local progress far more effectively than an injection of externally-managed aid money:

… the irony of the graphic above is particularly acute when one considers that an 18-month World Bank funded infrastructure project to bring internet connectivity to Afghanistan began more than SEVEN YEARS ago and only made its first international link this June. That project, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, is still far from being complete while FabLabbers are building useful infrastructure for pennies on the dollar out of their garbage.

People are smart, adaptable; show them where they need to go, and they’ll find a way. What’s that old saw about giving a man a fish and feeding him for a day?

The post goes on to highlight the patient and painstaking work of showing the Afghanis that they need to work together to overcome their differences; a carrot and stick operation it may well be, but I’m guessing it’ll do more good than training up and arming local militias, and then expecting them not to fall back into old habits once your back is turned. All depends on whether you want to give these people their freedom or to take control of it yourself, I guess.


Who’ll be next on the Moon now NASA’s doing other stuff?

Paul Raven @ 03-02-2010

The MoonWell, the new NASA budget from Obama and chums has certainly got people talking… mostly about the fact that the dream of returning astronauts to the Moon is off the table for the foreseeable future [image by ComputerHotline]. Wired has snippets from the budget summary:

“NASA’s Constellation program — based largely on existing technologies — was begun to realize a vision of returning astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. However, the program was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies,” the budget summary concluded. “Using a broad range of criteria, an independent review panel determined that even if fully funded, NASA’s program to repeat many of the achievements of the Apollo era, 50 years later, was the least attractive approach to space exploration as compared to potential alternatives.”

However, it’s not a massive close-down operation: NASA’s budget has actually been increased, but earmarked for more practical and pragmatic science research, “sustainable exploration”… and keeping some older projects on the books:

Part of that commitment will involve a reprieve for the International Space Station. Instead of being deorbited in the middle of this decade, the ISS will be treated like a national laboratory, and used to pursue research on materials and long-term human habitation in space through at least 2020, with additional construction, including new infrastructure, planned beyond the end of the shuttle program. The budget also includes money for an extension of the shuttle through 2011, which will allow for the inevitable launch delays in its remaining five missions.

io9‘s Annalee Newitz points out that the prospects of the new budget are actually good for pro-exploration types, because it’s a realistic budget that eschews symbolic white-elephant achievements and glory-recapturing in favour of doing affordable things that will teach us lots of useful new stuff. She worries, however, about the fates of those whose expertise will be surplus to requirements now the Constellation project has been shelved:

One of the issues that concerns me the most is what will happen to all the talented NASA employees who have been working on Constellation and related projects. If NASA’s plan is to outsource the development of space vehicles that can carry human cargo, then thousands of jobs will evaporate. Florida alone anticipates losing 7,000 jobs when the Space Shuttle program ends next year. Earlier today Obama told reporters, “We expect to support as many if not more jobs with the 2011 budget,” but those will not be the same jobs. My hope is that some of this budget money that’s been allocated for private sector companies can also be used to place NASA engineers into private sector aerospace jobs. We need to encourage knowledge transfer from NASA to private industry. That way, aerospace companies won’t have to start from square one as they push humans into orbit.

Paging Ben Bova… Sam Gunn‘s time has come, perhaps. After all, there’s nothing to stop private enterprise achieving a Heinleinian dream and setting up a kind of frontier town based on Helium-3 mining and fast-and-loose land claims… well, nothing apart from the same practical difficulties and vast expense that have kept NASA away for the last four decades or so, anyway. But those difficulties don’t seem to be deterring the people behind the Open Luna Foundation [via MetaFilter], which…

… aims to return mankind to the moon through private enterprise. Initial goals focus on a stepped program of robotic missions coupled with extensive public relations and outreach. Following these purely robotic missions, a short series of manned missions will construct a small, approximately 6 person settlement based on a location scouted by the robotic missions. This settlement will be open for anyone’s use (private individuals to government agencies), provided they respect our ethical conduct and heritage policies.

You’ve got to admire the chutzpah, if nothing else… but I think I’ll hold off investing any money in that operation for a little while yet. But it begs the question: if NASA’s putting the Moon on a back burner, who’s going to make it there next? Private enterprise libertarians like Open Luna? China, India, Brazil? Anyone?


Worlds enough, and time: NASA commitee says Mars too costly, asteroids more plausible

Paul Raven @ 26-10-2009

MarsEven someone who struggles as badly with their personal finances as myself would be hard pressed not to realise that NASA finds it hard to balance its lofty ambitions with the number of greenbacks in the jar on the mantelpiece. Now the Agency’s recently-appointed committee is saying the same thing in plain language: the money for a Mars mission just isn’t there, but more realistic goals like jaunts to asteroids and the Lagrange points can and should be followed up.[image by jasonb42882]

Now, I’d like to see manned Mars missions happen in my lifetime (as I’ve made plain here a number of times), but I’d rather that the planet’s biggest player in the space game got the maximum bang for its diminishing buck. As things stand now, everyone else follows where NASA leads, and while that won’t be the case for ever (or even for long, if you want to be a pessimistic realist about it), and I’d rather see them pushing the envelope steadily than trying to blast heroically through it. Watch the private space companies, as Brenda suggested the other day; those incremental baby steps soon start adding up.

And after all, there’s plenty of interesting stuff to do that doesn’t require a jag all the way to Mars. As the committee’s report points out, asteroids are easier to get to, and there’s still plenty they can teach us. Plus there are resources to be had; maybe NASA could balance the books a bit by slinging some or all of an asteroid back to Earth? A big lump of ice and minerals in close proximity to the home planet is the sort of thing a lot of the smaller fry would pay for a piece of, and it would be a handy thing to have in inventory for your own future works at the top of the gravity well (and beyond). And then there’s the the Lagrange points… depending on your focus, you could either do some good science out there, or get all Ben Bova on our asses with hotels and heavy industry.

Thinking pragmatically, the committee are right: Mars can wait, not just for NASA but for everyone. We should go, yeah, but we should go when we’re ready and able. As this rather charming infographic at BoingBoing shows, our success rate has been improving ever since we started trying to reach the Red Planet… but by trying to punch above our current weight, maybe we’re missing out on flooring some more manageable targets closer to home.


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