Komarov retraction

Paul Raven @ 07-04-2011

Public service announcement: remember the NPR story about Yuri Gagarin’s best buddy Vladimir Komarov I linked to a while back? Well, the book on which the post was based way be rather less accurate than was suggested; the source of the revelations, former KGB officer Venyamin Russayev, appears to be unknown to anyone other than the book’s author at this point.


Space race rebooted? Or, y’know, not.

Paul Raven @ 04-02-2011

All this talk of rocketry and path dependency, and now it looks like we’re going to re-run one of the classic (arguably) bloodless megaconflicts of the 20th Century all over again: Russia is working on a clone-job of the US Air Force’s little-known but oft-alluded-to “spaceplane”, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle!

Stepping away from sensationalist overstatement for a moment (hey, us internet hacks have to attract eyeballs somehow, right?), I don’t think this is anywhere near as big a story as it it’s being made out to be. For a start, all we have to go one regarding the Russian project is a statement of intent, and given the state of the Russian economy (and the alleged state of its government), I’m not sure they’re in any position to pour funding and expertise into a space race right now… indeed, I’d have thought China would be a more potent potential player on that particular gameboard.

Secondly, a similar but less severe problem pertains with the United States, namely the same econopolitical instability that’s so globally fashionable right now (“favela chic, darling – everyone‘s doing it!”). I don’t doubt there’s work being done on the X-37B, but I can’t see it being a significant budget draw in an era of domestic financial woes, long drawn-out “liberation” projects in the Middle East, and an internecine state of polarised political pugilism.

Again, among the nation-state players I’d say China looks like a much better bet for significant progress toward the top of the gravity well in the next decade or so. The commercial space outfits may make some strides as well, but given the sort of characters heading those organisations, I suspect any allegience to the U.S. as anything other than a source of expertise and skills will be more a matter of convenince and expedience than of national pride.

Nonetheless (and as I seem to be saying on a pretty much daily basis of late), interesting times ahead.


Russian corporations plan first commercial space station

Paul Raven @ 30-09-2010

Well, it ain’t quite DS9, and it’s still only a drawing-board plan at this stage, but even so…

Called the Commercial Space Station, the orbiting space laboratory and hotel will be able to host up to seven people at a time. It is being planned under a partnership between the Russian companies Orbital Technologies and RSC Energia.

The companies announced plans for the new space station today (Sept. 29) but did not reveal an estimated cost. The space station is expected to launch sometime between 2015 and 2016. The cost of individual trips may vary based on launch vehicle, duration and purpose of missions.

“Once launched and operational, the CSS will provide a unique destination for commercial, state and private spaceflight exploration missions,” said Orbital Technologies chief executive Sergey Kostenko in a statement. “The CSS will be a valuable addition to the global base of orbital assets.”

Seven people at a time? Well, you gotta start somewhere, I guess… and frankly it’s nice to see that commercial interests outside the US haven’t become entirely immune to the seductive lure of the top of the gravity well.

And once you’ve got one stable base up there, building more becomes progressively easier, if only logistically (or at least, so I assume – corrective links and braindumps very much invited and appreciated from more space-savvy readers).

[ Internet serendipity again; today’s been something of a space riff, no? ]


MBA, RIP?

Paul Raven @ 02-07-2010

This week’s Zeitgeist was brought to you by… growing mistrust of the American higher education system, and of higher education in general! First of all, the business world wakes up from the hangover of the economic collapse and starts wondering whether the ubiquitous business degree was a root cause of the indulgences of the night before [via Bruce Sterling].

The truth is that the relevance of the technical training allegedly offered by the MBA was always overblown. The idea that there is some body of knowledge pertaining to business management that can be packaged up and distributed to the business universe in two-year course-lets—well, it sounded good about a century ago, when it was first conceived. Maybe it still had merit when the schools were turning out only a few thousand graduates per year. But it certainly stopped making sense well before the schools achieved their current level of production of a whopping 140,000 or so graduates per year. The empirical evidence on the contribution of the MBA to individual career performance seems to bear this out—mainly because it doesn’t exist. In fact, if the relevance of an M.D. to the performance of doctors were even half as unsubstantiated, we’d probably be fantasizing about tossing a few physicians in jail, too.

The other truth helpfully revealed in the throes of the crisis is that ethics and integrity and social responsibility aren’t just optional extras for good business management—unless by “management,” you mean “looting.” Managers don’t need to be trained; they need to be educated—in the sense of “civilized.” Unfortunately, a business degree isn’t just irrelevant to that purpose; it’s positively detrimental.

Next, The Economist wonders why vocational education is still so frowned upon, even though it would be demonstrably more useful than college degrees [via TechnOccult]:

America has a unique disdain for vocational education. It has supported such training since 1917; money now comes from the Perkins Act, which is reauthorised every six years. However, many Americans hate the idea of schoolchildren setting out on career paths—such predetermination, they think, threatens the ethos of opportunity. As wages have risen for those with college degrees, scepticism of CTE has grown too. By 2005 only one-fifth of high-school students specialised in an industry, compared with one-third in 1982. The share of 17-year-olds aspiring to four-year college, meanwhile, reached 69% in 2003, double the level of 1981. But the fact remains that not every student will graduate from university. This may make politicians uncomfortable, but it is not catastrophic. The Council of Economic Advisers projects faster-growing demand for those with a two-year technical-college degree, or specific training, than for those with a full university degree.

Meanwhile, down in Chennai (formerly known as Madras), the (degree-carrying) head honcho of Zoho (a software-as-service outfit) explains why he makes a point of not hiring programmers with degrees [via SlashDot]:

We started to ask “What if the college degree itself is not really that useful? What if we took kids after high school, train them ourselves?” I talked to a lot of people internally, and one of our product managers introduced me to his uncle, a college professor, who he thought might be interested in hearing me out. As I shared our observations on recruiting, he shared his own experience in over twenty years teaching Mathematics and later Computer Science. It turned out we shared a common passion. He joined us within a month to start our “AdventNet University” as we very imaginatively called it. This was in 2005. He went to schools around Chennai to recruit students. So as not to distract anyone from their existing plans, we waited till the school year ended, went to several schools to ask for bright students who were definitely not going to college for whatever reason (usually economic). We then called on those students and their parents, and explained our plan. We started with an initial batch of six students in 2005, who were in the age range 17 or 18.

That proved to be an outstanding success. Within 2 years, those students would become full time employees, their work performance indistinguishable from their college-educated peers. We have since expanded the program, with the latest batch of students consisting of about 20, recruited not just from Chennai but smaller towns and villages in the region.

And finally, the quasi-legal funding schemes of derugulated Russian universities could be taken to represent an expression of “spontaneous capitalist neoconservatism” – one that other European institutions are keen to copy, even though the evidence shows that an increase in private funding actually leads to a decline in educational quality:

Public universities of the continental Europe (France, Germany) have 8-10 per cent of their budgets coming from non-public sources.[1] Certain UK universities, which are often used as a didactic model by advocates of reform, receive up to 28 per cent of their budget from endowments, tuition fees and other publicly independent sources. Russian universities do not provide the public with statistics of this kind, with excuses such as calculation difficulties or appealing to the principle “it depends on what is taken into account”. Nevertheless, in private discussions administrators of several large public universities and departments indicate a proportion of “around 50 per cent” from private sources, which corresponds quite well with expert estimations of 45-55 per cent given in the early 2000s. Even if university managers always love to get more from the public budget, last year’s State programs and State institutional grants, unknown in the Nineties and even in the first half of the current decade, may result in some indigestion syndrome among university structures.

I’m not sure that mistrusting the value of a diploma is a new thing – my father used to joke about how one should “hire a fresh graduate, while they still think they know everything” – but these questions sure fit in neatly with the current trend for wondering where we went wrong, and whether we might be able to avoid doing it again. Whether we’ll actually make the changes we need to (or even recognise them) remains to be seen, natch.


This monkey’s gone to heaven

Paul Raven @ 31-12-2009

monkey cosmonaut in training?I had to agree with Jay Lake when he Tweeted that Any article with the line “Any monkeys sent into space will be supervised by robots.” is totally FTW’. [image by kiewic]

And here is that article… which is actually just a short post on the Freakonomics blog pointing to a longer piece at the Telegraph, which describes Russian plans to simulate a Mars mission using simian cosmonauts:

The Institute is in preliminary talks with Russia’s Cosmonautics Academy about preparing monkeys for a simulated Mars mission that could lay the groundwork for sending an ape to the Red Planet, he said.

Such an initiative would build on Mars-500, a joint Russian-European project that saw six human volunteers confined in a capsule in Moscow for 120 days earlier this year to simulate a Mars mission.

Mr Mikvabia said: “Earlier this programme was aimed at sending cosmonauts, people (to Mars).

“But given the length of the flight to Mars, and given the cosmic rays for which we don’t have adequate protection over such a long trip, discussions have focused recently on sending an ape instead of a person.”

[…]

If Russia pursues the idea of sending monkeys to Mars, Mikvabia’s institute could become the site of an enclosed “biosphere” where apes would be kept for long periods to simulate space flights.

The Institute said a robot would accompany the first primate to Mars to feed and look after the ape.

Monkeys en route to Mars with their robot overseers? There’s a whole raft of story ideas right there…


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