Archive for the 'The Future' Category

Technology Gateway Video

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

First the disclaimers: While I do work for NASA, I do not speak for them.  They employ me for my professional capabilities and on occasion my professional opinion. Nothing I say should ever be construed as anything other than my personal opinion. As a NASA employee I am allowed and often times encouraged to say what I think. This and the exceptional people I get to work with every day are what make NASA great and a great place to work.

I wish to respond to a number of things that have popped up on the web in the past few days and weeks. I do this here because I can control the message. Every issue has at least two sides but, only the writer gets to decide how to present them. I do not plan to make discussion of my work on this site a habit and I do not plan to allow any comments to this post. It is unlikely that any email on this topic sent to me will generate a reply. Undoubtedly, bits and pieces of this will be taken out of context and used to support claims and opinions which I myself do not hold.  Such is the nature of the Wild West Web (WWW).   All I can ever hope to do is to maintain the original content and context.  In my opinion, reputable sites will link back to this original content and others will not.

As you have likely already noted, a non-technical video on a patent application for a new technology was made public on a NASA website this past week. It is part of the overall innovation disclosure process.  It is just one of the ways NASA communicates with the public about what we do. As mandated by Executive Order, every civil servant is required to disclose an innovation or invention which may be a of value/benefit.  Google “NASA technology reporting” if you wish to read the executive order and how NASA has implemented it. If a patent application is filed, a video may be produced to inform the general public of the nature of the invention or innovation.  It may be a non-technical piece that communicates what this invention is about and why people might care.  Such is the case of the recent video on Surface Plasmon Polaritons.

As for what people are trying to read into this video, specifically my use of the word “demonstrated”, it is my professional opinion that the production of excess energy has been demonstrated when the results of the last 20+ years of experimentation are evaluated. There has been a lot of work done in the past 20+ years. When considered in aggregate I believe excess power has been demonstrated. I did not say, reliable, useful, commercially viable, or controllable.  If any of those other terms were applicable I would have used them instead. If anything, it is the lack of a single clear demonstration of reliable, useful, and controllable production of excess power that has held LENR research back. As a non-technical piece aimed at the general public, my limited media training has taught me that less information/detail is generally better than more. I did not produce or direct the video. While I saw the video before it was released, I did not learn of it’s release until the email started pouring in Thursday morning.

There have been many attempts to twist the release of this video into NASA’s support for LENR or as proof that Rossi’s e-cat really works. Many extraordinary claims have been made in 2010. In my scientific opinion, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I find a distinct absence of the latter. So let me be very clear here. While I personally find sufficient demonstration that LENR effects warrant further investigation, I remain skeptical. Furthermore, I am unaware of any clear and convincing demonstrations of any viable commercial device producing useful amounts of net energy.

So what does extraordinary evidence look like? As a trained scientist, I have been taught the historical standards for acceptance of experimental results or theories. Experiments and theories go hand-in-hand in what is known as the scientific method.  Both must be independently tested, replicated, or verified.  As a minimum, experimental results must be replicated by an objective and independent party. The nature of the test or replication needs to adhere to the spirit of the original experiment but, should be under the full design, implementation, and control of the independent tester. So, if a device is claimed to be capable of producing excess heat by nature of its operation (i.e., the consumption of fuel via a nuclear process), it must be operated properly. The way power input and power output are measured should be left up to the independent tester. This is standard scientific practice. What would take this to the next level (extraordinary evidence) would be to have the test be an open public test. The nature of the test and specific approach to executing the test should be made public. The conduct of the test should be open to additional 3rd party experts. And finally, the data should be publicly released. Further peer review of all aspects of the independent test is a must. Community consensus is the ultimate goal. Every attempted demonstration of a LENR device that I am aware of has failed to meet one or more of these criteria.

There is one last point I wish to cover. It has been claimed that I no longer give proper credit to Widom and Larsen for their theory. I disagree with that opinion. When I talk to my family, friends, or neighbors about some of my work. I do not cite Widom-Larsen Theory or any of their papers. There would be little point in doing so. Who the intended audience is must determine what you say and how you present the information. If a technically competent person comes across a non-technical presentation they should recognize it as such.  To expect that every form of communication is exactly what you need or want it to be is unrealistic.  The fact that Widom-Larsen Theory (WLT) was not explicitly mentioned in the video fit the intended audience. It is not an indication that I no longer believe WLT is likely the correct explanation behind LENR. I have been consistent in my professional briefings to indicate that I find WLT is likely correct. It appears in every briefing where I have had the time to include it and where the briefing was intended to be technical. I’ll point to my last public technical briefing at NASA GRC as evidence of this. I will continue to do so until such time that WLT has been demonstrated to be flawed. Quite frankly I am baffled that WLT is not receiving more wide spread attention. Applications of the theory appear to go far beyond LENR. The fact that I did not mention WLT in the Aviation Week article was a mistake on my part. It was a technical article to a technical audience. I communicated my regrets on that omission directly to Lewis Larsen and am quite willing to admit that error publicly – mea culpa.

How to Install a Solar PV Array – Part 1: Planning

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

This is the first in a multi-part series documenting what we hope will be the successful design, planning, installation, and evaluation of a residential solar photovoltaic array.  There are two main types of solar power installations: battery systems and grid-tie systems.  I chose the latter since we will not have to purchase or maintain a large number of batteries.  Instead, the electrical grid and our local utility will act as our battery.  This also gives me the ability to produce only a fraction of our power while purchasing what we need in excess of our own generation capacity in the usual way.  Our choice does not affect much of what you’ll see and learn in this series, however.

I’ve been watching the performance of photovoltaic (PV) panels improve and their price drop for a few years now.  Commercially available PV panels with efficiencies of 15% are on the market at reasonable cost.  Recent developments in power inverter technology allow for an economical and efficient inverter to be coupled directly to each individual panel.  I’ll address each of these shortly.  The recent federal rebates covering 30% of the cost finally pushed us over the edge and I will be placing a modular, expandable PV system on our home.  This first installment will cover how to set realistic goals for system performance, how to assess your site, and on-line tools to help with some aspects of the system design.

How much power do I need?

We originally had an electric water heater, oil furnaces and average efficiency air conditioning in our home.  I began charting our energy usage month by month beginning in 2007.  That year we used 22,000 kWhr of electricity. Over the next two years we replaced the electric water heater and oil furnaces with high efficiency natural gas units.  We also replaced the Air Conditioning units with more efficient 14 SEER ones.  Our incandescent lamps were upgraded to either compact fluorescent or LED lamps.  Doing those upgrades reduced our annual electricity usage to 15,800 kWhr or by nearly 30%.  I suspect there are other things we can do to lower our usage, like getting rid of the old refrigerator in the garage.  The point I’m trying to make here is that you need to estimate how much power you use in a typical year and that there are a number of things you can do to reduce your usage.  Installing solar power is not cheap and you need to do some homework before you decide to spend money on a new system.  Our power usage has been pretty stable since the upgrades and I feel that I have a good estimate for what we typically use in a year.

The state we live in, Virginia, has fairly good regulation of the utilities and has put in place reasonable laws governing how utilities have to work with residential customers who wish to generate their own power.  This will certainly vary from state to state.  In VA, we cannot generate power in excess of 10kW of what we use.  This means we cannot push more than 10kW of power back onto the grid.  Practically speaking, this means we probably should not plan to generate more than 10kW of peak power.  We are allowed to generate more than we use in any given month with the excess being carried over from month to month.  We are never allowed to carry over more than we use in a year.  Anything beyond that we provide to the utility for free.  You will need to read up on the regulations applicable to your specific location as this information will be used later.  Given the fact that fluctuations in solar energy due to the weather can cause year to year changes of 10% or sometimes 20% in certain locations, I wanted to limit our solar PV systems size so that we produced no more than 80% of what we expect to use in a typical year.  For our system, that meant we want to produce about 12,500 kWhr per year in an average year.

Where to place the array

The next thing you need to determine is just where are you going to put the solar panels.  If you have a heavily wooded lot, you will be severely limited as to where you can locate the solar panels and how big your array can be.  We are fortunate to have a large open lot that gets very little shade, so finding a place to put a large number of solar panels should not be a problem.   What I will call ‘full size panels’ are typically ~36″ wide and ~64″ tall.  These produce 180 to 230 Watts of power in full sun, depending upon make and model of the PV panel.  There are a lot of different ways to mount solar panels.  The two most common are roof mount and pole mount.  Which method you choose will be dictated by your site, structures, and aesthetics.  We want to mount ours on a roof, but none of our roof slopes have a good southern exposure.  Our best sections of roof are oriented with their  exposure to the south west.  I thought this would be huge problem because common sense indicates that you want your solar panels to face south.  I even went so far as to design a “solar shed” that I could place on our property with the proper southerly orientation.  Talking with a number of local folks who have solar panels and doing some simple searches on the web for information on how much energy you can get from the sun, it appeared that our area has an average of 4.6 hours of sun per day on average over the course of a year.  Doing the math (4.6 hours/day x 200W/panel x 365 days/year = 336kWhr/panel/year) told me that I’d need at least 37 optimally placed panels to produce the 12.5MWhr/year that I wanted.  That is roughly 600 square feet of solar panels or a 20′ by 30′ rectangle.  After spending some time with a tape measure in my backyard, I concluded that I had the room for an array of that size.  With those estimates, I wanted to build a new “solar shed” and put the solar panels its roof with the building oriented perfectly to the south for maximum illumination.

Expected performance – PVWatts

Once I got an estimate on what a new building would cost I began to think about how many more solar panels we could buy instead.  It turned out to be quite a few and I wondered if we had other more cost effective options.  Our house is a rancher with a lot of roof area.  The problem is that the house has the corners aligned with the cardinal directions N, S, E, & W, so the slope of the roof is mostly aligned towards the SW direction.  I was going to write a program to calculate how the annual power output varied when you changed the tilt of the panel (slope of the roof it is mounted to) or the orientation of the roof with respect to south, but I thought that someone had certainly already done the calculation.  Indeed they had.  I found a couple of journal articles which concluded that the orientation relative to true south was not too important.  After thinking a bit about the ecliptic, the length of the day as function of season, and how the power output varied with the cosine of the angle between the position of the sun and the vector normal the plane of the solar panel, I could see why this might be true.  A little more searching led me to a really neat online tool called PVWatts that calculates the power output of a solar panel.  PVWatts is extremely useful and pretty easy to use.  By clicking on a map of the US (a version covering Europe also exists) and filling in some values on how big your solar array is and how it is oriented, PVWatts will calculate the average month by month output an total annual energy production at your location.  It even includes the average local weather for cloud cover and the  variations in solar cell efficiency as a function of temperature.  This is exactly what I needed to size my solar array and evaluate the several possible installation locations.  You can save a lot of time by skipping the map clicking if you save the URL of the form that follows.

Relative change on output as a function of tilt

Relative change in output as a function of tilt

I ran a series of simulations for my location.  The first was to see the effect of varying the tilt of the solar panels.  From my reading on the subject, the consensus was that you wanted to tilt the solar panel to match the latitude of your location, in my case 37 degrees.  Other reading indicated that a tilt of less than the latitude would produce the maximum annual output.  My roof has a 10/12 slope or a tilt of 40 degrees. I ran PVWatts several times changing only the tilt of the array from 0 (flat on the ground) to 90 degrees (standing vertically as though mounted to a wall).  The first figure shows the relative monthly energy and annual energy output relative to a solar panel tilted to match the latitude.  What you can see in the figure (click the figure to see the full sized version) is that as the panel tilt is reduced, the power output increases in the summer months and decreases in the winter months.  The opposite it true as the tilt increases.  At my latitude, the sun goes almost directly overhead in summer and the power output of a panel tilted to 90 degree drops close to zero.  The last point on the graph is the total annual power generated.  It shows that over the course of a year, the total energy output varies only slightly for tilts within 10 degrees of the local latitude.  The tilt alters the amplitude of the seasonal variation.  You can use this to your advantage if you wish to change the amount of power generated in summer vs winter.  Based on my power use history, we use 2.5 times more power in the summer than we do in winter.

Relative change in output as a function of orientation

Relative change in output as a function of orientation

My second set of simulations explored what happens when you do not orient the panels to face due south.  The results of this came as a complete surprise.  Summer power production changed very little.  The reason for this is, during the summer, the sun travels over more than 180 degrees of azimuth.  It rises north of east and sets north of west.  The solar panel can only see 180 degrees of sky, so there is a range of orientations where the solar array will receive the maximum illumination.  What happens is that panels oriented slightly to the west produce their power later in the afternoon than those oriented due south.  At my location, orienting them to the west of south actually produces more power presumably due to a diurnal asymmetry in cloud cover and temperature.  My house roof is oriented almost exactly to the SW (221 degrees, green line in the figure).  With this orientation, the power output is reduced by only 20% in winter, but is still more than sufficient to supply almost all of our electrical needs.  The real important result is that putting the solar array on my existing house roof reduces the total annual energy generated by only 7%!  That means we have to add only another 2.5 solar panels to make up for the difference (40 instead of 37).  The extra cost is less than $3000 as compared to 10 times that for the cost of build a new “solar shed”.  This was a huge revelation.  PVWatts also includes some real world parameters for efficiency of the inverter, losses in the power wiring, and light loss due to dirty solar panels.  Based on the results of the PVWatts calculations, we are going to need to size our solar PV array at 9.2kW if we want to produce 80% of our electrical needs.  PVWatts will also calculate the annual savings based on your cost of electricity.

Panels, inverters, & mounts

PV panels come in a wide variety of sizes, voltages, and total power.  Depending upon which direction you plan to orient the panels, the panel length is a critical dimension to consider when deciding which panel to buy.  I plan to have one small array of 12 panels mounted on the garage and another 30 mounted on the house.  The total is 42 panels.  I put together a little spread sheet to help evaluate the panels and how many I could fit into the available space. On the detached garage I can mount the panels upright (Tall side vertical) and have the mounting rails run horizontally.  With that orientation I could fit twelve 230W panels in 2 rows of 6.  Over on the house, I hit a little snag.  Many panels are just a little over 64″ long, not including the required spacing between panels for the mounting hardware.  Standard roof framing has the rafters on 16″ centers.  The mounting rails are to be placed at the 25% and 75% positions along the length and have to align with the rafter (or you have to add stringers between them) for the lag bolts.  Do the math and you’ll soon realize that these long panels can only be mounted vertically unless you can tolerate having a 15″ gap between the columns of panels.  The available area on my house’s roof dictates that my panels have to be oriented horizontally into 6 rows of 5.  Otherwise, if I mount them vertically I cannot get 30 panels on that roof, only two rows of 12 panels.  You would think that the US manufacturers would have figured this out and made all of their panels shorter than 64″ long.  But no, the Asian manufacturers are the ones that make them the proper size.  For the garage, I decided to go with 230W panels made by Solon.  These are made in the US.  On the house, I’ll have 215W panels made by Sanyo.  Total rated power is 9210 watts.

Inverters are what turn the DC power from the solar panels into 240V AC power that you need to power your house.  Until recently, a typical installation had one or two of these in the system.  You would daisy chain you PV panels serially to produce a rather high DC voltage.  600V is not unusual.  There is nothing wrong with this, however in this arrangement, one under-performing panel (perhaps partially shaded) limits the current output of the entire string of panels.  The ideal way to convert the DC to AC would be to have an inverter for each panel.  This is now a viable option with the new micro inverters on the market.  Enphase makes a micro inverter that can be tied directly to the home’s AC power system.  This saves money since the system does not require a separate Automatic Transfer Switch to isolate the solar array from the grid when the power goes out.  These Enphase micro inverters turn off when the grid voltage is interrupted.  The micro inverters can also be daisy chained to simplify the system wiring.

You can find information on all of the hardware mentioned here in Part 1 over at Wholesale Solar.  Next time, we’ll get into the process of producing a system plan, obtaining the permits, and getting some of the preparatory work done.

iPad = IveReconsidered

Friday, January 29th, 2010

I just watched the iPad announcement video. I’m willing to give new ideas a fair hearing and have come to realize that the iPad is not about the hardware as much as it is about the software and the experience. I do not know what I’m going to do, but I think I am beginning to understand what the revolutionary aspects of this device are. My expectation was that that this was going to be a tablet PC. I was wrong. Instead it is something completely different.

The iPad does not need to be a Netbook or Tablet PC.  Those things run traditional software to do traditional things.  The iPad really is completely different.  I do not need an SDHC slot or a bunch of USB connectivity.  Widescreen would still be nice, but most work apps look just fine with 4:3 formatting.  I do not know of a 16:9 projector I can use at work!  The early adopters are going to show the rest of the world just what the magic of this device really is.

TEDxNASA

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

I spent the day at TEDxNASA and wish to share a brief (3000+ word) summary of the presentations and my reaction to them. First I need to set the stage a little bit. NASA is a rare government agency that has the unique ability to capture the imagination of the public and influence the future – some might say that NASA has the ability/charter to create the future. A brief review of the history of NASA shows this expectation is justified. NASA has, arguably, been in a bit of a slump recently. Much of the cutting edge long-term research capability has been traded for near-term developmental work. The shift from exploring possibilities to executing certainty, from embracing risk to meeting schedule milestones, has reduced NASA’s ability to create a wondrous future. With new challenges facing the world – energy, climate change, asteroid impacts, … – each of which having no obvious implementable solution, NASA needs to restore and extend its past abilities to create and innovate. The TEDxNASA event was designed, IMHO, to shock the creative hearts and minds of NASA and its partners. I think it did a very good job at that. I came away unsettled and amazed by what these folks have imagined and accomplished. The message being if they can do that so can we. The TEDxNASA event was a series of talks (some live, some on video), performances, and periods of social interaction between the audience and the “cast”. What follows is my summary and reactions to each of the program elements in the order of occurrence.

The Langley Center Director, Lesa Roe, opened the “conference” with a brief set of remarks. This was a side of our director that I had not seen before. It is hard to put my finger on exactly what she said or, more likely, how she said it that gave me the impression that this is now a different Lesa Roe. Having worked on developing the center’s Creativity and Innovation plan, I can see that she is 100% behind this effort to regain/surpass past research capabilities and impact the world.

Sam Horn introduced herself as the Mistress of Ceremonies and discussed the program and how things were going to work throughout the day. She did an excellent job of keeping things moving along and on schedule. We rarely deviated from the published schedule by more than a few minutes. More on her later.

We then had a “What is TED” video. If you do not know about TED, go to TED.com and catch up on what you have been missing.

Dr. Paul Aravich was the first real presenter and what a great way to get things going. This guy has some energy! In just a few minutes, using real cadaver brains, skulls and spinal cords he shocked us all into the realization that essentially everything we are, the universe, is contained between our ears. What we are and can become is affected by how we treat ourselves. The last frontier to explore is right there in our heads. He talks quite passionately about mental illnesses and whether they were ultimately of physiological origin (as he believes). My main take away messages are that passion enhances communication and focuses the mind to excel. Second, that problems and their causes/solutions are inherently subjective – you interpret things based on your experiences. Others looking at the same thing will likely see different problems, causes, and solutions. Perspective is everything.

The next speaker was Gregg Fraley, a Creativity and Innovation Consultant. He presented us with a set of tools that prepares/allows us to be creative and help others be creative. Creating an environment, both internally and externally, is essential to maximizing the creative abilities present in everyone. Everyone is and can be creative. I’ve been exposed to a lot of Creativity training and tools for the individual (internal) and groups (external). Gregg Fraley’s talk reinforced what I have come to believe is important. It was a good, direct, and practical talk on tools that anyone could employ today to be more creative. Gregg is participating in a one day workshop at Langley on Monday. After talking to him later in the evening after the presentations concluded, I’m looking forward to the workshop.

Next we viewed a video by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist. She talked about what it is like to have a stroke based on her own personal experience of having had a stroke in the left side of her brain. You should really view the video it is well worth the time. I have read quite a bit about the mind-body connections ever since high school. I’ve also read and tried many techniques for quieting the mind to detach from the ongoing mental noise. I never quite understood either the objective or methodology. Her talk brought it all together for me in a moment and I understand this now. I can’t yet do it, but I understand it. The objective is to attain the ultimate state of having surpressed the left verbal, time and space aware, and judgmental portion of the brain in order to just see things as they really are. This is extremely relevant for creativity since in such a state everything is possible, including experiencing things from any perspective. I think this presentation is in my top 3 from TEDxNASA.

Michael Stevens (piano) and Dave Ballou (trumpet) performed a jazz piece. I like jazz and this pushed beyond my envelope of comfort. Having tried to listen to the atonal Keith Jarrett years ago and failed, I found this performance fascinating. As I suspected and confirmed later by talking to Dave afterward, this was pretty much an impromptu jam session. I enjoyed the way the two traded the lead and built on what the other had just done. The piece developed in unpredictable ways as was very free form. What I took away from this was creativity is enhanced by trust in the team member’s abilities, freedom to explore, no fear of failure, and reinforcement/confirmation through adoption. Whatever one of these performers attempted, the other was able to accomplish and extend with a completely different tool/instrument. It was a pleasure to watch two accomplished people be in the moment of creation.

Author Nancy Vogl talked about her experiences relating to diversity. The talk also evolved into a discussion of how points of view are often (falsely) rooted in fear or group dynamics. View things/people/facts/events as they are not what you have been told to see.

The “Math Lady from Space”, Brenda Barrow, came out and demonstrated how having fun and exploring different perspectives can facilitate learning – in this case math for young students. Creativity requires constant learning and exposure to new experiences. Some of that includes looking at old things in new ways. I’ve often wondered how I would begin to communicate with an alien. I always start with math.

Renowned space-themed artist Pat Rawlings talked about how he creates his scenes depicting every day life in futuristic settings. The big take away for me was that creativity requires a problem to work on. He stated that if given total freedom he has a difficult time producing anything. He needs to have some constraints before he can release his creative abilities.

A simple solution to an important problem was the subject of the next video presentation, “How to stop disease spread through the reuse of syringes in the third world” by Marc Koska. Simple, design a syringe that has a break away plunger. I’m not convinced that would actually work, since I can think of at least two ways to circumvent the break away feature. Nevertheless, my take away was that big problems can often be broken down into smaller and simpler problems.

We were treated to some real innovative thinking by Dr. Dennis Hong of Virginia Tech. His robotics group has produced some amazing concepts, designs that most people would not have imagined. He talked about the importance of suspending judgment and encouraging fun. Letting people run with an idea and develop a passion for things is essential for creativity.

Break for lunch.

The second block began with an inspirational song by Jana Stanfield entitled “If I were Brave”. Listening closely to the words it was clear that this was about increasing abilities and accomplishments by releasing/overcoming your fears – whatever they may be. For me this meant fear of ridicule, or fear of failure.

Sam Horn talked about her concept of Serendestiny. An interesting concept that involves acting on a hunch to set destiny in motion. Doing things just a little bit differently, or going outside of your usual sphere of activities can be just the thing that starts something big. Interesting idea.

Radio Show Host John St.Augustine is my age and talked about his life-changing experience/memories of the first moon landing. Every time I see that video of Neil stepping onto the lunar surface, it gives me chills – a moment etched deeply into my existence. His point: we have already done unimaginably great things – Imagine, discuss, and then do.

Loretta Whitesides discussed her somewhat idealistic vision of how humanity can take the best of ourselves and spread it across the galaxy as we inevitably expand our presence beyond Earth. An interesting vision of the future many years from now. It is important that you have a deep belief in the importance of what you are working on, that it matters, and will make a difference.

We were originally scheduled to have a live video link to the International Space Station and Astronaut Leyland Melvin, but that fell through. Fortunately they had a back up plan. They showed a prerecorded video of Melvin that started off being narrated by a youngster (very early teens?), Tyler Cole. The content was more of the usual “Earth is one planet” theme and I was more impressed with the performance of Tyler Cole. He exhibited an unusual degree of comfort narrating in front of such a large audience.

A video of Dan Pink discussing the Science of Motivation made some initially surprising claims. As the model for business switches from producing things more efficiently to producing innovations, the old model of rewards as motivation apparently fails miserably. What makes a bigger impact on creativity and innovation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I guess I’ve known this all along, but never knew that I knew it. This talk is also in my top 3 for the day.

Innovation Consultant Steve Shapiro talked about the concept of open innovation. The basic premise here is that stealing a solution from someone else is still innovation. Sometimes the solution to your problem already exists. Someone else may have already solved a similar problem. You just need to be able to see the similarities and have the exposure/awareness to diverse fields. Bottom line: being the very best in a narrow field isn’t enough. You need to be broad (too). I agree with this 100%. There is no substitute for being aware of the world and all of its diversity. As William Gibson has said in various ways “The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed.” This is very important to remember.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Anna McGowan is such a wonderful speaker. An engineer from Langley, she talked about the role of innovation in aviation and its ability to deliver “The World on Demand”. I agree with others who indicate that this may have been too big a topic for an 18 minute time slot. Creativity and innovation often arise in support of a compelling vision. Anna is a very engaging speaker with a vision.

A video, featuring Micheal Pritchard, used the problem of providing safe clean water to billions of people to illustrate that big problems can be made small by asking the right question. Providing potable water to everyone on the planet is a huge problem. The required production and distribution infrastructure is immense and unaffordable to many nations. So think small instead. The practical solution is to develop an inexpensive method that enables a single person to make their own potable water from any source as needed. Take away: turn those big intractable problems into little problems that you can solve.

The next segment was a slide show of the art of Chakaia Booker. Ms. Booker is a walking piece of art in her own right, but the slide show demonstrated what she sees when she looks at an old discarded rubber tire. She dissects and reassembles tires to create shapes and textures that are unexpected. The point: no one sees things the same way that you do.

Guitarist Mike Rayburn treated us to a little of his creativity. He started off by playing a guitar in a way I have never seen before. His motivational statement “what could I do with a guitar that has not been done in the past 500 years” really hit home. He then took us on a quick tour of other things he can do by simply asking what if. That question is very liberating, creatively speaking, and allows Mike to turn many common compositions into unique and delightful experiences (e.g. Led Zeppelin does Dr Seuss – Green Eggs & Ham set to Black Dog). This was very likely my top experience of the day. Just ask what if and see where the freedom takes you.

Break and a little mingling: talked to Dave Ballou for a while and watched a tiny robot play kickball with a human.

The final segment started with Dr. Sue Morter. Being a scientist and knowing a few things about electromagnetic radiation/fields and quantum mechanics, I found her underlying message of freeing ourselves from our own self created filters and restrictions overwhelmed by her careless abuse of physical analogies mingled free-form with new age concepts. At least I hope they were analogies from physics. I guess I was able to free myself from my own filters enough to see the underlying message, but it was tough. Perhaps that was the point – letting go of your point of view to experience that of others. Gutsy move including her in the program. I’m still uncomfortable after this one.

A video featuring Nandan Nilekani uses the history of India to demonstrate how ideas create the future. Interesting and informative, but I did not get much out of this one.

Dr. Joel Levine was up next and talked about the science enabled by flying aircraft on other planets. I know Joel very well since he works in the same directorate that I do at NASA Langley. This was perhaps his best presentation I have ever seen. He demonstrated how important questions (focus) and teamwork (trust) can result in innovations – in this case the Mars Airplane – that enable breakthroughs. He included two videos, the first an animation of how the Mars Airplane might be packaged and delivered to the Martian atmosphere, and a second showing actual footage from the deployment and transition to autonomous flight of a scale model being dropped from a balloon at 103,000′ altitude (the point in Earth’s atmosphere similar to the flight conditions at Mars) demonstrating that the concept works. This is the creativity and innovation process NASA-style. Joel managed to subdue his normal tendency for hyperbole to a great extent. Super stuff and it was a tough decision to make, but sorry you narrowly missed being in my top 3.

Back to back videos on inventions (the state between creation and innovation) the Liquid Filled Eyeglasses (Josh Silver’s example of how to turn a big problem into a small one) and Sixth Sense Technology (Pattie Maes’ example of asking what if) came next. Both are excellent examples of how a question or problem is needed to focus creativity to achieve practical results.

Jana Stanfield returned to the stage and sang another song this time accompanied by a sign language interpreter. They sang “I Wish You Strength”. I was engrossed in watching the signer “sing” the song. Seeing the singer and signer perform side by side was a Rosetta stone of perspective. Very unusual performance – definitely a new experience that put me into a different perspective.

Mitch Albom followed and discussed how streams of events (actually lives of two other people) crossed and impacted his own life. This one was a stretch for me. If I had to guess, the intent/message was “do the right thing” or a variation on reward comes in different forms. Perhaps I was just tired after a long day that seemed to go by very quickly.

The last performance was from a 13 year old singer, Jamia Nash (accompanying on piano was Michael Stevens). Before she sang, this young lady demonstrated a presence, thoughtfulness, and maturity of a much older person. She challenged the adults to renew the hopes and aspirations of a younger generation and to teach them how to become the next generation of leaders through example (Hint: the way we’re acting now ain’t cutting it). Holy cow! No pressure here. She then demonstrated her amazing voice by singing appropriately “What a Wonderful World.” She nailed it.

They then did a wrap with the usual thank you’s handed out to the group of dedicated volunteers. Idea to reality in 8 weeks! Well done folks, very well done.

The reception afterward was interesting. I played a game of chess to a gentleman’s draw (much to my relief) while standing and having a conversation. I spent quite a bit of time talking to Gregg Fraley. I had some wonderful bacon-wrapped scallops, and spicy chicken nuggets (real meat not glued together bits of “parts”), and a glass of white wine. I met a few other folks and speakers.

TEDxNASA was a great experiment. I think it succeeded at its intended purpose. I did not connect with everything, but I’m sure what missed me probably resonated with someone else in the audience. I do know that despite the conference subtitle “Space to Create”, a few “personalities” who earn a living out in the blogging world did not get it. Perhaps no one ever told them that NASA is about more than just “space exploration”. They need to understand that space exploration is only one of NASA’s current jobs, those jobs will certainly come and go, morphing into other, as yet, unimagined activities that NASA will likely create itself. The common thread for NASA is to dare to imagine and then create the future – for the betterment of everyone here on spaceship Earth.

LED Lamps

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Two styles of LED lamp

I’ve been searching for some LED lamps to test since I have been less than impressed by the very short lifetime of Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs). The CFLs do not last anywhere near the claimed 5,000, 8,000, or 10,000 hours. I think they might last that long if I turned them on and never turned them off, but that is not exactly my home lifestyle. So, I’ve been watching and waiting for some Suitable LED lamps to test. That day arrived when my wife said she was sick and tired of those CFLs in the kitchen that took 30+ seconds to get bright first thing in the morning. The problem was bad enough that I had switched one CFL back to an incandescent bulb months ago. When you want/need light you pretty much need it now. So I went to LEDtronics.com and bought a couple of R30 and PAR30 lamps.

I bought two completely different styles. One used five high power dimmable LEDs with a narrower 25 degree beam width and a 3000K color temperature. The other uses many lower power LEDs to produce a 5500K beam with a width of 40 degrees and could not to be used with a dimmer. I planned to use the latter in the kitchen where the distance between the lamp and the counter top was about 5′. The high power lamps are going in the ceiling of my family room 16′ above the floor. I selected the specific lamps based on their total lumen of output and their candle rating (includes the effect of varying beam width). My goal was to select a lamp that appeared to result in the same candle rating of the incandescent lamps I was replacing.

LED lamps are very intense, but not all that bright. These lamps in particular have clear lenses and produce a very direct light. The 40 degree spots did not work in the kitchen. We wanted a more diffuse light there. They do, however, work very well in the bedroom and the bath over the spa where they provide a delightful ambiance. Before I installed the high power spots in the ceiling fixtures I ran a quick test by putting them in a work light fixture. They produced a nice bright spot that was easily visible during the brightest part of the day on a wall 25′ away. I have since installed them and am very happy with the intensity of the light when I’m sitting at the computer underneath one of them and very pleased with way the light looks from across the room. It gives the room a completely different look. I’m planning to get two more for the other pair of corners in the family room.

I have to give these a thumbs up so long as they last their predicted lifetimes. The nature of the illumination is quite different from either incandescent or CFLs, so you should not expect that they will perform exactly the same way. In the right situation they perform better. In the wrong one, they can be worse. Given their current cost it will be an expensive experiment.

DeGlobalization

Monday, September 14th, 2009

Here is another timely article on the state of the global economy. This time the subject is deglobalization. It is a good quick read that gets right to the point. Go ahead and read it first. If you still are skeptical about whether this is at all possible – read this too from today’s news (20090914).

Capitalism is broken, perhaps fatally (as is mindless consumerism), and the lack of sufficient quality jobs in the US runs the risk unrest. See my earlier post on the subject of jobs. Globalization has failed mostly due to the inability of the market to raise the standards of living of those countries supplying the workforce and thereby create new markets for US produced goods (exports and the related jobs at home). There are a few exceptions though free trade has, for the most part, made a just few people in those countries very rich. I am a proponent of some of the 11 pillars, but there are a few that (appear to) run too close to neo-socialism (I was going to use neo-communism, but that term has been usurped by the Right to hurl at the Left ever since the term Liberal has lost its impact). Hopefully, if we go this route, we will not end up like France – or worse.

I suspect that as climate change begins to disrupt water and food supplies, degloblization will rapidly take hold. International trade will become more strategic. China is already ahead of the game here as they have been buying up rights to strategic natural resources worldwide for some time now. Whether those rights can be enforced (peacefully) remains to be seen. One thing the article does not address is what deglobalization does to the huge, internationally-held US national debt. If ‘they’ cannot buy/import stuff (like food) and are not allowed to invest in the US, then the debt becomes worthless/uncollectable, the international currency/credit markets collapse (might not be a bad thing in the near-term with a return to something like the gold-standard). International trade will revert to a barter system (goods for goods – not a currency).

No matter how I look at this, the word ‘stability’ does not seem to apply. We need to replace the for profit motivation of the capitalists with something more sustainable (and perhaps even moral) for the post-capitalist system that will replace it.

Innovation, Jobs, and the Economic Future of the US

Friday, September 4th, 2009

I’ve been wanting to write about the economy again, but just could not get my thoughts together when I had the time to write. A friend at work sent me a link to an excellent article that captured most of what I was thinking. You can find the article here at Business Week. The article missed one of my points though. Without innovation defining new products that drive exports, jobs, and investment in the US, the US will become the economic equivalent of an oil well. The rest of the world will maintain/grow the current trade imbalance and pump money out of the US until we run dry. Then they will abandon us and move on. Rather than legislating band-aids, like health insurance reform, the congress needs to be worried about the education of our people (not foreigners), and investing in long-term fundamental research. Growth, jobs, and economic stability will return eventually.

Taxes and Entitlements

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

I’ve recently read a couple of stories on the web that had a common element to them. This one from John Feehery CNN is one I’d like to comment on. Not knowing just how long CNN will keep this link live, I’ll summarize his points here. The title of the piece is “Commentary: What’s driving the U.S. over a cliff?”. In it he addresses 4 questions which he claims are relevant. With one underlying theme being that most people want the government to spend less on everyone and everything other than the benefits they personally rely on. (well Duh! Welcome to America – home of Created Equal, as long as I’m first.)

First, why do we let people retire too early and then expect them to live so long without working? He points out that long ago, before real antibiotics, most people simply died before they retired. They died on average around the age of 52 and those that made it to 72 typically retired. Nowadays, people retire 10 years earlier and live significantly longer. So, how is it that people have come to expect that they should retire so early only to be carried by the government entitlement programs?

This is a very sensitive subject. Quite frankly I think 30 years of service is enough. I’m not talking about the 40 quarters spread over 30 years that qualifies folks for Social Security either – 30 years of work. If you put in 30 years I believe you are tired of working and entitled to retirement. The real rub comes in when you talk about inflation, especially in the cost of medicine, and the fact that folks will continue to live longer and longer. Right now we (the US) live 3 months longer for every year that goes by. Soon, we will be seeing life extension that exceeds 1 year per year. When that happens, a whole lot of people are not going to die except by accident. Tinkering with the Social Security taxes, ages, and benefits will not be able to handle that problem. There needs to be a different solution altogether.

Second, why do most Americans spend so much of their health care expenditures in the last three months of their life? His statistics show that 27% percent of medicare costs are incurred by people in the last 3 months of life. Rightly, he equates this to services that do not work. Medical treatment that does not change the outcome.

What he did not say is that in the old days people simply died rather than do everything within their (or the government’s program’s) means to get a little more time. At what level of quality? Is this linked to the decline in morals – which are certainly linked to the decreased importance of religion and the associated increase in the fear of death? We certainly need to have an open discussion/debate of how much effort/expense is appropriate, but once again it is not really the effort, just the expense.

Third, why do so many people pay nothing in federal income taxes? The numbers are pretty shocking. A third of the people in the US pay no federal taxes – at all. The new tax changes working their way through congress could potentially raise that to nearly 50%! This indicates one of two things: either we have a lot of very poor people or some folks aren’t pulling any weight (I won’t get into a discussion of what “their fair share” might mean – you’ll find some of that over at Hooda Thunkit although I’m not quite clear where he stands on the issue).

I think the income and inheritance taxes, both personal and corporate should be scrapped – completely. In its place I would propose a Value Added Tax (VAT). This VAT would also include the costs to government for things like infrastructure (roads & bridges) and other uncovered costs (tobacco and alcohol taxes as well as a carbon tax – not a cap and trade system) so, it would have different VAT levels depending upon the product. This assures that those who spend support the system and those that save/invest provide the growth. Things will and should cost more in many cases – we’ve been living a false sense of wealth or a false low rate of inflation for too long. If you think the projections are bad now, just consider the fact that these same non-tax-paying demographic groups are also those that rely heavily on entitlements and are proliferating more quickly than those that pay the taxes. They vote too so, any change had better come pretty quickly.

Fourth, why is it more profitable to work in the government than to work in the private sector? His fourth and last point is that the statistics show that the average wage/compensation of a public worker is much higher than that found in the private sector. He concludes that public servants are simply over paid.

Show me how many public servants work in fast food restaurants, wash cars, clean houses, or answer phones for a living. Otherwise, make your case for why police, fire, military workers are on the same level and should be paid the minimum wage. Let’s also take the salaries of the president and those in other leadership positions in government and compare them to the CEOs of major corporations. You guessed it. This is simply a case of comparing apples to oranges. No firm conclusion can be drawn from those averages he sites and draws his outrageous conclusion from.

Since I agree with the basic premise of the title of the article – that we are indeed driving off of a cliff – what is the real problem and is there a solution? In my biased view, the problem is that we have shipped a lot of the work out of the country. It has taken a good 20 years to do so, but we have stopped being a producer and become simply the market for the goods of others. The theory that supported this switch was that we needed to send our money overseas so that those folks could raise their standard of living and buy more of our stuff. The problem is that they don’t want our stuff. If you doubt that just look at the trade deficit for the past 20 years. A lot of that money just never makes it down to the average person, but they also do not have the same style of living that we do. They aren’t going to buy a CD or rent a movie or get on a plane built in the US and take a vacation in Las Vegas. It just ain’t gonna happen.

Instead of raising their standard of living we are and have been lowering ours. Some of that is in hidden inflation, but as we are now beginning to see a lot of that will simply be realized through decreased valuations of property (of all types) and a loss of jobs -  for good. The cliff we are driving off of is built out of high expectations. We are not entitled to very much let alone living so well at the expense of others. I had a discussion at lunch recently with a renowned economist, Jeffery Sachs. I had just asked him whether inflation was required to keep the economy functioning – basically whether it was just a giant ponzi scheme. He dodged the question I asked, but said that it was much easier for folks to accept inflation than it was for the system to absorb rapid decreases in prices. I read between the lines of his reply to my unanswerable question and saw that I may have hit the nail on the head. The cost of a lot of things is going to have to come down. Whether this is by inflation or deflation does not matter. The result is that the value in producing those things will require that wages in those related industries to come down or jobs be completely eliminated through automation.

It is a tangled web especially when you, for example, look at the intertwined industries of medicine, insurance, and lawyers. Who could possibly put a price on life? The balance of a market economy is not relevant in this instance. Looking at the long-term budget of the US, the cost of entitlements and their growth is dominated by the growth in medical costs. I seriously doubt whether congress can come up with and pass a plan that will solve this problem. It is our problem only, because we expect too much from the system. We need to change, personally, and not push the problem over to Washington for congress to solve. We must accept the fact that we are spoiled and expect too much.

Except for me that is. (and so it continues)

Capture the moment

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

I’ve been working on a special project at work. I can’t talk about the subject just yet, but hopefully soon. Let’s just say that it has the potential to change everything for just about everyone on the planet. I had the opportunity to present my work to management and it went exceptionally well. I have complete support for the next phase of the project. The events of the day are still soaking in and I wanted to capture the moment – here. This is really great news for everyone. Wish me well and I’ll do my best for you.

Teaching skills not facts

Friday, September 26th, 2008

I was sent this link by a coworker as it sort of applies to one aspect of what I’m working on in my current detail assignment. It paints a rather bleak picture of the capabilities of our youth (which for me is anyone under the age of 35) and our education system. With this ‘No child left behind’ unfunded mandate (or should it be ‘all children left behind’?) we have established a system where the metrics require that we teach our kids what to think instead of how to think. We teach to the test now. When I got my Ph.D. I realized that it only meant that I was self motivated and knew how to think – nothing more, but also nothing less. Please view the video the link above points to. Realizing there is a problem is the first step in solving it.