NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission…

…is actually pretty damn cool. People who are un-enthused by the idea (including many NASA employees) are clearly focusing on the wrong aspect.

Concept of a ARM robotic spacecraft

First, let me give an objective overview of the mission.

“NASA plans to launch the ARM robotic spacecraft at the end of this decade. The agency is working on two concepts for the capture: one would capture an asteroid using an inflatable system, similar to a bag, and the other would capture a boulder off of a much larger asteroid using a robotic arm. The agency will choose one of the two concepts in late 2014.

After an asteroid mass is captured, the spacecraft will redirect it to a stable orbit around the moon called a “Distant Retrograde Orbit.” Astronauts aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft, launched from a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, will explore the asteroid in the mid-2020s.”


So, to summarize: we are going to move a giant space rock from it’s orbit around the sun to an orbit around the moon. A space boulder. We are moving it into orbit around the Moon. Does nobody else think that is a HUGE FUCKING DEAL? The closest thing we’ve ever done is maybe return little grains of dirt from an asteroid. Except this time its an honest-to-god celestial body. That we are moving from one ORBIT to another. Oh, and then I guess we’re sending people to it or something.

Honestly, the manned mission is just shoe-horned in to appease NASA’s mandated directives. The star of the show here is the spacecraft that is moving an asteroid larger than itself (if you don’t count the bag or solar panels — I’m sure the bag can be swapped out for some sort of thermal lance). The advances in electric propulsion and in-space engineering alone will be astounding. Just think of the applications for ISRU (in situ resource utilization) and orbital manufacturing this will provide.

Probes scanning the surface of an asteroid

The ability to drag a study target into an easier-to-reach orbit is stupendous. For one, it means we can send a number of heavier, less expensive unmanned missions to study different aspects of it, with more launch windows and shorter commute times. We can get an extensive profile of the object (even drilling inside), to a level of detail we couldn’t obtain if we were sending a small probe out to the asteroid’s ‘native’ environment.

Having this technology is great for both diverting hazardous asteroids and studying a number of different asteroids at decreased expense. Instead of sending a heavy science probe off using the SLS, we send a re-director up to drag the asteroid close, even into LEO, and then send up a bunch of heavy science probes using cheaper rockets. Alternatively, dragging an asteroid into orbit would be a great opportunity to prototype asteroid-mining techniques.

The point is that if you think putting an asteroid into orbit around the moon is a stupid excuse to use the poorly-thought-out Orion/SLS system, you are absolutely right. An Apollo-style mission architecture doesn’t work for anything beyond a Moon mission, so it’s pointless to think of this mission as “training” for anything. But just because visiting an asteroid with people is stupid doesn’t mean that dragging an asteroid into lunar orbit and visiting it whatsoever is stupid. There is IMMENSE value in an asteroid retrieval mission. Seriously, it’s as exciting as a submarine to Europa or Titan.


Sim State

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. This idea really started when I watched Day[9] play the new Sim City, and then picked up Sim City 4 again. I wanted to create a game which brought the ideas of micromanaging infrastructure and government into a larger scale. The player would be able to control education, government type, military, trade, etc. Eventually it grew into a sort of “third-world country simulator”, since that seemed like the most interesting route to people I pitched the general concept to.

The basic premise is that you are the leader of a small country, recently put in power by a violent revolution. This country is located in a faux South or Central America, but there is also the possibility for having multiple templates: African, Southeast Asian, etc. The player can only really see the small land area he controls, plus some of the bordering sovereignties. There is no global map (and this isn’t a game about conquest), but there are references to current global institutions (or fictitious characterizations thereof) like the UN and US, or WHO, etc.

Winning the game means pulling your country out of poverty and onto the world stage. This requires many parts, including building infrastructure, establishing governmental rule, and appeasing the international community. However, the win condition is gaining control over every province in your nation. Control just means being the dominant power faction. Routes to control include stamping out resistance (militarily) and appeasing interest groups. Thus a large part of the game is balancing political control; keep the military leaders on your side, stop workers from striking, and stay elected. The last one may mean establishing a dictatorship, rigging elections, or spending a lot of resources maintaining public image.

At the start of the game, your country is poor and unequipped. There are two forms of currency: money, and international repute. International repute can be spent on relief or treaties; perhaps getting a foreign oil company to leave your country. On the other hand, if you drive out the oil company by force, some factions in your own country may approve, while the international community may impose sanctions. Similarly, if their are pirate along the coast, you could demand tribute or try to exterminate them at a potentially great cost. If the world catches wind that you are allowing pirates to operate, however, you will lose repute.

The other form of currency is money. A little macro-economics comes into play here, since you have to manage your currency (printing money), and real “world dollars”. Rapid inflation can be bad for your industries, but it attracts tourists (but only to good parts – nobody is going to visit the region controlled by drug cartels). Real dollars come from exports, mainly. One way to get a boost in the beginning of the game is to exploit your natural resources: cut down rain forests, strip mine mountains, etc. However, you have to establish a more mature manufacturing industry at some point, otherwise you will exhaust your resources and fall back down into poverty.

In terms of infrastructure the player has to build, the main forms are education and industry. Industry includes transportation networks and resource collection, as well as processing. Industry also means municipal improvements, since nice cities attract high-tech corporations and commercial companies. Another route to improving the quality of your workforce, reducing crime, and eliminating overpopulation is education. Building schools takes a lot of resources for little immediate payoff, but it will start to improve your country greatly. It is also a great way for dictators to indoctrinate the population.

Late-game opportunities may include hosting Olympic Games or researching nuclear technology.

As you can see, there is a lot of room for expansions; this is more of a framework for a game, rather than a fleshed out game idea. I know there are games like this, such as Tropico. I think this would be more political and deep than Tropico, but obviously I would aim to offer a different experience overall were I to build this.

Programming Paradigms

Computer science is a relatively young field, and it has rapidly evolved ever since its inception. This becomes increasingly evident when you look at computer science being taught versus computer science being used. This is extremely apparent in the misnomer: computer science. CS is more technical art than science.

For a long time, computers had finite computational resources and memory. Today, our average consumer-grade computer is comparable to a super computer from 1985. Thusly, the twenty first century requires programming paradigms far different from those taught in the twentieth century. It no longer pays off to optimize the number of calculations or amount of memory your program uses, unless you are specifically performing mathematically intensive operations. This blog voices that sentiment much better than I can.

So programming now is about implementing an idea. Its easy to rise above the technical nitty gritty details and focus on the concept at hand. Then programming becomes a form of poetry, in which you express your ideas in a structured and rhythmic way. Programming, at a consumer level, is no longer about getting a machine to do what you want; its about empowering people.

Just like a poet spends many hours revising their verses and getting the words to say exactly what is meant, a programmer spends hours rearranging and improving code to fulfill their idea effectively. And like poetry, there are many genres and styles of programming. Unfortunately, programming is also like poetry in the way that many students get turned off to it by the experiences they have with it in school.

Programming should be taught with the main objective in mind: we are here to accomplish a mission. Writing mechanics are practiced and improved, but without an idea behind a poem or story, it is pointless. Algorithms are important, and so is project design and planning. But these are merely implements with which to express the programmer’s idea.

This is why the most successful software is easy to use, is powerful, or grants people an ability they didn’t have before. When you use a program, it doesn’t matter whether all the variables are global, whether the project was built top-down or bottom-up. The functional differences of some of the most disputed methods are miniscule. Optimization is a trivial concern when compared with the user interface. Is the parse speed of one file format more important than the support of a larger number of formats?

Kids want to be programmers because of coding heroes like Notch, the creator of Minecraft. But Minecraft isn’t well-designed. In fact, the program is a piece of crap that can barely run on a laptop from 5 years ago despite its simplicity. But the idea is gold, and that is what people notice. This is why Minecraft and Bioshock, and not COD, inspire people to be game developers.

However, functional programming is the CS taught in schools. Schools need to teach the art of computer science, not only the science. Imagine if writing was only taught, even up through college, in the scope of writing paragraphs. Essays and papers would just be a string of non sequiturs (kind of like this blog). Fiction would have no comprehensible story, only a series of finely crafted paragraphs. Only those who figured out the basic structures of plot, perhaps by reading books by others who had done the same, would learn to write meaningful stories.

In the future, everyone will be a programmer to some degree. At some point data will become so complex that to even manipulate information people will need to be able to interface with data processors through some sort of technical language in order to describe what they want. To survive in a digital world you either need software to help you interface with it, or learn the language of the realm.

Yet children are being driven off in droves because computers are being approached in education from completely the wrong angle. Computers are tool we use to accomplish tasks; the use of computers should not be taught just because “people need to be able to use computers in order to survive in the modern world”, but because children will be able to implement their ideas and carry out tasks much easier if they do have an expanded skillset on the computer. Computer skills should be taught in the form of “how would you go about doing X? Ok, what if I told you there was a much easier way?”

A Problem with Films

The eponymous film industry has been approaching a point of conflict with technology. Especially in recent years, more films have started used framerates that are significantly greater than the traditional 24 fps. This is caused by the increasingly movement from film-based camera to tape (or digital) cameras. However beneficial this switch might be, the public hasn’t received it very well so far. For example, Peter Jackson decided to film The Hobbit at 48 fps, but so far people have found the screened clips unpleasant.

The problem is that faster frame rates tend to take away the “cinematic” aesthetic that separates feature films from home videos and cheap television. Unfortunately, there is no way to fix this; our minds and eyes associate 24 fps with movies. This is a stigma that won’t go away anytime soon as long as movie continue to use obtusely slow frame rates. There will, by necessity, be a period in which all movies look “cheap”. Once the transition is made, however,

The same thing occurred with 3D films. At first people were averse to the concept, because it violated their concept of what the “movie experience” was like. However, more and more films took to the technique, and eventually the majority of moviegoers became comfortable with the feeling. I experienced this recently, when I saw Prometheus and decided to watch it in 2D. Mere minutes in to the film, I already have a faint feeling in the back of my head that something wasn’t right; my eyes have become trained to expect 3D sensations when I sit down in a movie theater.

Historically, this trend of initial rejection has been true for all new advances in film. Color film, synced sound, computer generated graphics, etc. Take, for instance, this excerpt of an article I snagged from IGN. It voices the feelings that movie audiences will be experiencing at some point in the next 10 years. However, I think this is a positive switch.

“I didn’t go into CinemaCon expecting to write anything less than great things about The Hobbit, but the very aesthetic chosen by Peter Jackson has made me very nervous about this film. It just looked … cheap, like a videotaped or live TV version of Lord of the Rings and not the epic return to Tolkien that we have all so long been waiting for.”

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