What if we abandon the Station?

On Thursday, 11 October 2018, Nick Hague and Алексей Овчинин (Alexey Ovchinin) blasted off from Kazakhstan on a routine launch to the International Space Station.

It's dangerous, but routine, more are less. Stuff a few humans into a capsule on the top of a Death Machine that turns sparks and liquid combustibles into fire and Δp, and it's completely normal. Right? It's like getting in your car and taking a trip to the deli, except that gas is $2.95M per gallon and you have to use a new car next time.

But this time it wasn't so routine. Somewhere somehow their rocket glitched and they had to abort on the uphill part of the launch.

I think it's interesting when rockets go bad (so long as any with human payloads don't produce casualties) because at Orbital I worked on flight termination systems (blow the rocket up when it goes bad) and launch abort systems (the rocket on top of the rocket that pulls the crew capsule away from a rocket when it goes bad). It's fascinating. Nominally, they're both systems you don't want to use. But when you have to use them you want them to work.

That's not completely relevant to this flight because it wasn't a termination or rocket-powered abort, but close enough. At 2:45 they jettison the launch abort system, at 3:20 you can hear the alarm go off when they drop the first stage. So when they aborted the mission on this flight, there was no launch abort system to rip them off the rocket with big g forces. Instead they separated the capsule from the top, then went up and then down like a lawn dart, to be retrieved somewhere in the steppes of Kazakhstan.

So much for all that. That wasn't even the point of this post, really.

A native Iowan but otherwise good person, Ben Brockert, said this:

The questions stuck in my head.

ISS has been occupied since November 2000. The last pressurized module was added in 2011. If there was a glitch or an abandonment earlier, in the first decade, say, that would be a bigger deal. It would signify that perhaps the project couldn't be accomplished.

But the whole system worked. The thing speaks for itself. By whole system I don't just mean the design and fabrication of hardware, but also the transportation of modules to space, construction and integration, working with frenemies to do it, keeping the orbital supply chain going as new systems came online and old systems were put out to pasture. It was, and is, an incredible feat.

I didn't answer the questions. I think I should answer the questions.

#1: Does it matter? No.

#2: Is it important that humans live continuously in space if you assume that their primary activity is just keeping humans alive in space? No.

Caveat: Assuming the abandonment is temporary.

If the current occupants leave—and they will have to leave eventually, new ride or not, because the propellant stores on the backup Soyuz have a finite lifetime—and if the occasion of their leaving results in a retrenchment in the ISS program... and the Station is truly abandoned... and human spaceflight is abandoned, in the US as least, until name-your-billionaire starts running amusement flights, which will be at altitudes far below Station anyway... and we're just waiting for a commercial with entity one eye on the quarterly report to step up to the plate... The future doesn't look promising, as far as human spaceflight goes.

I don't know what the feeling that accompanies that thought is. I don't think it qualifies as sadness. Disappointment, maybe. A little bit of frustration. Growing up with an interest in spaceflight as a—goal? desire? wish? dream?—it leaves a hole in my heart to think that we could stop reaching Out There. I don't care that much about Station itself, but I do care about the futures that it implies, the futures in which humans take a step away from Earth, and a step, and a leap, and then go so far that we look back on our past selves as the slow and underperforming children we were.

Kurt Vonnegut has had an outsized influence on my life for someone I never met. I don't want to go into it here. But I do want to rip off a few lines from him, from Fates Worse Than Death. It seems appropriate enough:

If flying-saucer creatures or angels or whatever were to come here in a hundred years, say, and find us gone like the dinosaurs, what might be a good message for humanity to leave for them, maybe carved in great big letters on a Grand Canyon wall? Here is this old poop's suggestion: WE PROBABLY COULD HAVE SAVED OURSELVES, BUT WERE TOO DAMNED LAZY TO TRY VERY HARD...AND TOO DAMNED CHEAP.

The objective is to find the objective

The objective is to find the objective. You read that right.

I read this paper last week: Charles J. Hitch. On the Choice of Objectives in Systems Studies. Technical Report P-1955, The RAND Corporation, March 1960. (pdf) (notes).

It's not a hard-math or hard-science journal article, rather just an Old Systems Analyst explaining the casual brutality of how high-level objectives are typically very vague (think: what is the objective of a nation?) but are necessary on some level in order to derive lower-level objectives (think: what kind of defense systems does a nation require?).

As systems engineers, one of our key jobs is to figure out what the hell it is that a stakeholder wants. Stakeholders know quite a bit about what they want, but not everything, and some of the things they think they want they can't put into words, or one thing conflicts with another, etc. So part of the job is helping the stakeholder figure out what the stakeholder wants, which involves some understanding of what the stakeholder's stakeholders want, and so on. (Never mind that I decided to skip an important part of the definition: who or what are the stakeholders—a major unasked question will arrive with its own answers anyway, later, at a more inconvenient time in the life cycle when you thought you were done.)

The obvious thing that system developers try to do is just receive the objectives from on high, Moses-style. Hitch explains three reasons that doesn't work:

  1. Impossible to define appropriate objectives without knowing about the feasibility and cost of achieving them, which is derived from the analysis itself
  2. High-level objectives tend be non-existent or so vague or literary as to be non-operational.
  3. Objectives are multiple and conflicting, and alternative means of satisfying any one are likely to produce substantial and differential spillover effects on others.

So what does the analyst do? If he can't find anyone to give him acceptable objectives, where does he obtain them? The only answer I have is that learning about objectives is one of the chief objects of this kind of analysis. We must learn to look at objectives as critically and as professionally as we look at our models and our other inputs. We may, of course, begin with tentative objectives, but we must expect to modify or replace them as we learn about the systems we are studying -- and related systems. The feedback on objectives may in some cases be the most important result of our study.

It's hard work to figure out what the point of a system is. But it's the most important work. It's a fork in the road you can't come back to later.

A week in review, 2018-W41





Evercrisp apples at Eckert's


Notes from Data for Good 2018

Last Friday, I went to an event called Data for Good, hosted by Washington University's Olin Business School. Here are a few notes from the event...

The most interesting new thing I heard was about the St. Louis Vacancy Collaborative. In short: a group of people started working on a web portal at OpenSTL's 2017 hackathon to use data posted publicly by the city of St. Louis. They did this without permission—my kind of people—using data that was there, then provided the useful results to the city. There's a better description here from STLPR: Vacancy Portal opens door to data on abandoned parcels in St. Louis. Of course, the thing itself is interesting, but even more interesting is the thought that comes with it: there are opportunities to do useful work just laying around out there waiting to be discovered, and you don't have to be picked to do the work—you just decide to do the work. (See also: Seth Godin's latest Akimbo podcast: You're It.)

(More: OpenSTL has a Meetup group. They're still working on the project. Even tomorrow (2018-10-13).)

In the next panel, someone—I think it was Philip Bane of the Smart Cities Council—referred to wicked problems in designing solutions to social problems. Wicked problems are one of those terms that get thrown about without much thought. The term originates here, in a paper you should read if you care at all about solving difficult, intertwined, impossible-to-optimize-for-everything problems: Rittel, Horst W. J.; Webber, Melvin M. (1973). "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning". Policy Sciences. 4: 155–169. (doi: 10.1007/bf01405730, pdf). The thing deserves its own post. In the meantime, here are some notes about it.

At the end of the day, Jake Porway of DataKind gave the keynote presentation. Here are a few recommended resources from his talk:

Notes from Planning for the Human-Digital Workforce

I listened into an MIT Sloan Management Review webinar this morning, Planning for the Human-Digital Workforce, with Mary Lacity. I like to learn more about automation or augmentation or the general idea of What Happens Next when it comes to humans and computers, or humans vs. computers, or however you want to look at it. It's going to happen. It has happened. I do it myself, although in a really unsophisticated way. It's an interesting and anxious time.

Anyway. Here are a few notes from the presentation:

Characteristics of...

  • Robotic Process Automation: structured data; rules-based processes; deterministic outcomes
  • Cognitive Automation: structured and unstructured data; inference-based processes; probabilistic outcomes

Some references:

Some work by Mary Lacity:

Drawing competition

So my wife challenged me to a drawing competition.

I don't know why. Maybe she was concerned that I had developed too much self esteem recently. There's a cure for everything these days.

She had already challenged her parents on WeChat (and won), so I really had to grounds for holding out.

Judge not lest ye be &c.

See, I was trying to go for the I-can't-compete-on-skill-so-maybe-I-can-do-something-interesting-with-minimal-effort angle. Make the lines quick. Decisive. Get at the essence of the bird. The inner bird.

Kind of ended up with the angry chicken look in the end. As my mother-in-law put it: 不是个好鸟 (not a good bird).

A week in review, 2018-W40





Maria Bamford, Psych Ward, This is Not Happening


Lemur at the STL Zoo



Last week I signed up for two blockchain related courses on edX, developed by UC Berkeley: Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies; and Blockchain Technology. Together they add up to a certificate: Blockchain Fundamentals.

Superficially, I'm against collecting certificates because they are, like this one, just tokens without much obvious value. But maybe those tokens can be redeemed by someone willing to pay for the knowledge or potential utility they represent. I don't know.

That's not the driving reason anyway. Mostly I was annoyed at missing out on a Hot Topic™ that I didn't understand. (Although it seems to have peaked.) I think very few people understand it, or even care outside of curiosity about what Bitcoin is. It's not an intuitive concept. And it's fraught with fervent True Believers. But it was driving me crazy to hear about it and not understand anything—had to fix that.

I'm collecting some notes here—Blockchain— and might post some interesting things here from time to time.

Sunk costs

Here's an episode of Seth Godin's Akimbo podcast that has been banging around my head since I heard it a few weeks ago: Ignore Sunk Costs.

The basic idea—although you should listen to the whole thing—is that the time and effort you've spent in the past working on something or becoming something is like a gift from your past self. And you don't have to accept the gift. You can say "no, thank you".

I suppose that's a natural concern for a middle-age human with basic needs taken care of. Am I on the right path? Who knows, anyway, right? Keep on straight ahead, or head left or right at the next fork. It's how I feel about my two diplomas in aerospace engineering. (I haven't seen those in a while... I wonder if they're still in the closet...) It's how I feel about the arc of my career so far. It's how I feel about some organizations and relationships and investments and clothes and habits and so on which just hang on in some niche of my life, and it's not clear always if they're serving me or the other way around.

But thinking about these things as a gift from a past self that I can refuse helps to relieve the pressure. No, thank you; or, still, yes. It can be a new decision. It doesn't have to be an old decision that got locked in forever.

Here's another version to listen to by David McRaney on You Are Not So Smart: The Sunk Cost Fallacy.