Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Does this surprise anyone?

Eclipse Aviation Files Chapter 11

Well, does this surprise anyone?

Naturally, they are blaming the current economic crisis. Now I don't want to go saying that aforsaid economic crisis is some sort of small time setback, but I'd like to make the point that when the going gets tough, the tough had better have decent business plans. And when you have a fundamentally flawed model -- and are selling a fundamentally flawed product -- and have fundamentally flawed management and customer relations practices -- you are basically screwed no matter what happens.

Eclipse1.jpgEclipse was a company that might have survived a few more years had the original timing worked out. They'd have launched towards the beginning of the boom and managed to get a few hundred products delivered before the carpet was so cruelly yanked out from under them. Odds are a lot of those little jets would have been repo'd, but that's another story. But I think that a longer life (and more sales) would only have lead to their death by other means -- the fundamental design, production, QA, QC, and customer services issues would have had enough time to come (further) to light and killed Eclipse off just as surely, all be it more slowly, than the economy tanking appears to have.

It is a bit like the arguments that circulate around assisted suicide or on nighttime crime dramas: if you take a life of someone who is going to die soon enough anyway, how much of a murder is it, really?

The missed payroll two weeks ago was the final warning bell, the tocsin announcing that the end was mere days away. I am sad for those employees of Eclipse who were toughing it out until the end, hoping that the dream had been built upon firmer footings. But I've been part of a business plagued by systemic strategic, ethical, operational, and managerial issues just like Eclipse. And you could sort those of us at that operation into two camps: those of us who knew the place was a s&*% hole and were looking for a way out and those of us who knew the place was a s&*% hole and were too scared to take action. Either way, each person's destiny was came down to their own active or passive decisions and pointing at the company's flaws will only get you so much pity, not when the writing is on the wall for anyone to see.

So my best wishes to those of you at Eclipse who were trying to keep the dream alive -- and when things rebound and lessons are learned, I hope to see a new product of your efforts in the air. And before anyone goes pointing this out to me -- I know that Chap'11 isn't the true death of a company. Many concerns have emerged, successful and vibrant, from protection. But it is such a dramatic indicator of failure at so many levels that in this case, I do think, it spells the end of Eclipse as we have known it.

But in the meantime, as ever, aerospace remains a harsh mistress.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The fun of bringing light to the dark -- metaphorically

So I decided it was time to give politics a rest. This isn't, after all, a political blog. It is a blog about odd, rambling things like wind tunnels and cocktails and cipher systems. And so, after the quiescent period following the election, as I slowly bring The Noodlebook back to life, I thought I'd get it going with a little science.

Dark energy, to be precise.

And not even dark energy as such because, let's face it, both my own small skill as an elucidator and the period of time I have available for this endeavor are dramatically inadequate for tackling so deep a mystery. Instead, in the classic talk-about-the-talking postmodernism of blogs, my attention turns to the investigations seeking to understand this phenomena rather than the phenomena itself.

I have, after all, always been much more of an experimentalist than a theoretician.

But to recap, dark energy is a postulated force that would explain some rather odd behavior of the universe. The oddity in question (for there are several oddities about our universe that require postulated things to explain them) is that the universe seems to be expanding at an ever increasing rate. Now that the universe is expanding is not at all odd. We've known about this since Edwin Hubble, a man brilliantly characterized as a "large mass of ego" by Bill Bryson, noticed that all the galaxies in the universe are expanding away from each other. Subsequently, a series of theories beginning with the "big bang" and moving on to modern inflationary cosmology have homed in on the idea of the universe originating at some sort of very small beginning (there are a few variations) and expanding outward from some sort of initial impulse (again, there are a few variations).

This is all fine and good and if you want some ideas about the how/why on that it won't surprise anyone that I now recommend Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos. But this expansion should be slowing -- as the shared gravitational attraction of all the, well, stuff in the universe gathers together and pulls on itself. And for a few billion years, it appears that it did. But then a few billion years ago, the rate of expansion began accelerating again. There is no good reason for this, not with the rule that we've been playing by.

dark_energy_diagram.jpg


It is as if, to invoke a classic Feynmanism, we were watching a chess game, thought we'd got the rules and moves pretty much figured out, and then someone castled. Uh-oh, what the hell was that?

Since then, cosmologists, astrophysicists, particle physicists, and plain old ordinary physicists have all gotten in on the bandwagon to try and explain why. The lure of being the first to explain a new (or dramatically revised) physical force is a pretty big one!

Alright, enough of that back-explanation. I said that actually trying to explain dark energy was beyond me. Oh, but it is different from dark matter. I know. They could have come up with some more varied names. Like "The Smuckers Effect" or perhaps "The Universal Choo-Choo." Either one might have been better.

So this dark energy stuff, whatever it is, is suddenly pushing the universe apart faster and faster. Or not so suddenly. Or it remains constant or decreases as a quadratic function while gravity decreases as a cubic function. Sorry. Got distracted again. The point is, we have no idea what this force, this dark energy, is. We can only observe what it does. And that makes it a wonderful place to study and understand the interplay between observation (experiment, if you like) and theory.

Science proceeds, in an idealized and perfect world, as a series of iterative steps. Someone observes a phenomena (say the increased rate of expansion of the universe). That person (and a few others) say "Damn, we didn't expect that!" Everyone then retires to their chalkboards and starts thinking of theories to explain what is causing this phenomena. The theories will span a broad range. Some might involve zero point energy, others extra dimensions, still others giant turtles. As the theorists theorize, the experimenters begin to contemplate the next round of experiment or observation (I think of experiment as an active act -- where we do something, such as at a particle collider -- while observation is a passive act where we take data on what the universe is already up to -- as with a telescope).

Theorists and experiments/observers are different. The former are the ones with the unkempt hair, the latter the ones with the dirty clothes and coffee addictions (particularly in astronomy).

Anyhow, while the theorists are using their imaginations and running the numbers, the experimenters/observers are doing their thing and building the next generation of machines. What proceeds then is something like a lottery. Or perhaps a reality TV show, though I doubt "Survivor: CERN" or "America's Next Top Scientists" or "Theorizing with the Stars" will take off anytime soon.

Any good theory brings a few ingredients to the table. It must offer an explanation for why the phenomenon under consideration occurs. It ideally should offer a mechanism to explain how it occurs. And it should provide some sort of mathematical formula that can fit the observed data to a high degree of accuracy. Lastly, that mathematical rigor should allow for some degree of prediction of as yet unobserved phenomena that can test the accuracy of the theory. This prediction might simply involve taking the measured predictions to a few orders of magnitude more precision. Or it might involve a wholly new physical manifestation. Either way, it provides some way of telling if the theory will have the winning number come lottery time -- the return of experimental results.

We go round and round like this. The results from each round of experiment feed the next round of theory. The predictions of a given round of theory guide the direction in which the experimenters/observers turn their searching. Rarely, however, are things so precisely beautiful as this, like turns in a board game. Usually, after a while, everything gets all out of synch and the experimental and theoretical processes get all overlapped.

But dark energy is new. It was accidental in a wonderful way, and the demands of further experiment have allowed for a long and fruitful phase of theoretical contemplation. And now the experimenalists are about to have their day. And by now I mean in about eight years, because that is how long it takes to get a space mission from budgetary contemplation to launch pad. And then a few more years of taking data.

Science is for the patient, these days.

This whole process of theory-experiment (or observation) is crucial to the scientific quest for understanding. It always galls me when people talk about how scientists don't actually know anything -- they just have a bunch of guesses. This points to a fundamental misunderstanding of what a theory is. It isn't a guess. If it was, there might be some credence to the idea of giant turtles playing a role in dark energy. Rather, a theory is an educated attempt to explain a phenomena. It is a look by a very experienced observer at a set of behaviors, an assessment of what those behaviors might mean, and an attempt to predict what they might mean for the future.

We all form theories all the time. When we spot a car swerving erratically while driving at 2am, we say "Woah, look how that dude is driving. I betcha' he's drunk. Look out, he might miss that turn..." We observed phenomena, offered an explanation, and attempted a prediction. The depth of prediction can be tricky. If we only say "This driver will keep swerving around" it may not eliminate other possibilities such as looking for something he dropped, having an epileptic seizure, or making out with the passenger. But it is entirely possible that a drunk will in fact make that next turn too. Or never intend to take it.

The scientific process is nothing different. It is not (and does not pretend to be) a fixed rulebook. It is an evolving set of understanding of the universe. Science is not a set series of answers as it is so often (and so wrongly) presented. Rather it is a process, a pursuit of those answers.

And so when more accurate measurements gave rise to results that disagreed with the predictions inspired by Hubble's results, the result was not joy and frustration, but excitement at the opportunity to solve a new puzzle. An Asimov quote that those who have read email coming from my work address will recognize summarizes this mood better than anything:

The most exciting phrase in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" but "That's funny..."


And now the prospect of dark energy is out there, proposing a grand enough prize and an exciting enough pursuit that seemingly everyone is getting into the game. Established scientists, cranks, those hawking ideas from the fringe, conspiracy theorists, random posters on the Internet: each one has some idea, spun slightly to reflect individual specialities and biases, for what might be at work.

The observational guys have been at it just as enthusiastically, constantly devising new approaches to reflect the latest ideas of the theorists and the latest technological developments in measurement apparatus. Dark energy isn't something we can test in a laboratory with a dark-energy-ometer or create with a steel cased apparatus connected to several thick cables. It acts, by all accounts, over vast distances and only manifests to a measurable degree when other forces (namely gravity) are at their most feeble. And so an earth-bound measurement (even if we knew what to look for) seems doomed to be swamped by noise.

This results in observatories. For various reasons, these would be observatories best sited in space, at the L2 point about a billion miles from earth, where it is dark and cold and not much gets in the way. The idea would be to observe, with great precision, the distances and recessional velocities of several thousand (or million) objects in the middle distance of the universe, the distances over which dark energy starts to manifest -- out to about twenty billion light years (117,580,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles).

A few approaches have shown up. The first involved hunting for something called Type 1A supernovae. These moderately rare explosions function through a well understood mechanism that has the handy feature of producing a reliably predictable brightness. The result is something called a "standard candle" -- an object of known intrinsic brightness which allows the estimation of its distance by comparing that source brightness with the observed brightness. That's good -- and Type 1A's are how this whole dark energy thing got started -- but it turns out it is not good enough.

Clouds of gas and dust can get in the way and it always is possible that we don't understand the Type 1A quite as well as we thought we did. So more recent approaches to understanding dark energy have tried to invoke several different techniques of measurement. Acoustic Baryonic Oscillations (I'm still trying to figure out what those are, but they sound really interesting), weak lensing, and a few others have all surfaced. The result is that any dark energy space mission that actually gets flown will end up as a fantastic multi-disciplinary observatory, quite different from the specialist that was originally envisioned.

Picture 14.jpgThe glory of all of these approaches, and of all of the missions that seek to imlement them, is that they will conduct their work through massive "wide and deep" surveys. Taking vast numbers of long exposure images across a large area of the sky, in other words. This is the advantage of a dedicated mission -- Hubble or the James Webb could do the same science, but are general purpose instruments contended over by the entirity of the vast astronomic (and astrophysic) community. But a dedicated mission, running a pre-planned scheme of observation, can produce the staggering amount of data that is necessary for the statistical analysis upon which dark energy studies must be based.

But this vast survey, while intended to specifically test a signle scientific concept, will also have enormous implications for the rest of the community. Currently, we stare through straws, looking across the vast night sky to find things that are interesting. Sometims we do so by chance, but more often we do so by looking at areas that we've already identified as interesting. The terabytes of data coming back from SNAP, DESTINY, ADEPT, JDEM, SPACE, Euclid, or whatever mission or missions end up flying will end up producing an astronomic and astrophysic legacy ready for the picking. A generation or more of astronomers and astrophysicists will mine this legacy to confirm and clarify their theories and hypotheses. And, here and there, they might discover something completely new, something entirely unexpected, something funny, and start the whole glorious process over again.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Final Bumper Sticker Poll

Obama: 8
McCain: 1

Actually, it was looking like an 8-0 blowout until I decided to include the delivery truck with "N0BAMA" written in the dust of its roll-up rear door.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Election night playbook

So in about 48 hours, I'm going to start watching presidential election returns come in. American elections, what with the state-by-state system are so wonderful to watch in the "sporting event" sense. The discreet nature of things (win/loose a state) is so much like the quantum units of innings or downs or holes or whatever sporting analogy you want. Much more fun than just watching a direct volte tally increment like some national odometer.

Problem is, I'm working Tuesday night. Filling in to teach a class. I'l have a couple of hours to watch between job-1 and job-2, sitting in a bar (really) watching the election on the TV while eating a pizza and (probably) drinking a beer. I have this all planned out.

But I wanted some way to organize my thoughts, to know what is going to go down. Because well before the polls have closed nationwide, I'll be in class with a much reduced capability to watch the big show. So to minimize the effort needed to keep track of the election, I've put together my own system for analyzing the election -- and guessing how the end will go.

I ended up sorting states into three categories: the Leaners, the Comebacks, and the Undecideds.

The first category consists of the states that are colored either pink or baby-blue in a couple of predictive maps. They are the close-but-leaning states. Their performance on election night is primarily as a predictor of the accuracy of the predictions themselves. If the baby-blues turn dark blue and the pinks turn red, then the models are pretty accurate and we can expect that other things will go as forseen. That doesn't mean an Obama victory -- but it means that the predictions of McCain's must-win states will be accurate and we can probably shift our attention there.

One or two Leaners going opposite the prediction isn't necessarily a cause for hope or alarm, particularly if there are a couple trading places. But a big sweep of pinks into blue says possible slam-dunk, a big sweep of baby-blue into red says possible upset, and too much back-and-forth could say the whole model is off.

McCain Leaners
Georgia
West Virginia
Arkansas
Arizona
Montana

Obama Leaners
Maine
New Hampshire
Wisconsin
Minnesota
New Mexico
Iowa

The second category are the McCain Comeback states. These are the must (mostly) wins for McCain. A strong showing in these guys (assuming that there isn't some counter effect of a bunch of the pinks going blue which is a highly unlikely combination) is what McCain needs to win. Once two many (probably about 50%) go Obama's way it is probably game-over for McCain.

Comebacks
Florida
Virginia
Ohio
Pennsylvania
Colorado
Nevada

Finally there are the Undecideds. These are just the states that are too-close to call right now. 'Nuff said. Obama doesn't need them -- but if he gets them, he gets to talk about a "big mandate" or something. On the other hand, McCain pretty much does need them. Necessary for one, icing on the cake for the other.

Undecideds
Indiana
Michigan
Missouri
North Carolina
North Dakota

The rest are the almost-guaranteed blue or red states. I'm not worrying about them. Unless things get Truly Strange, they will go in the direction forecast. If the Leaners end up way off -- I might have to start paying some attention here, but probably not.

Based on all that, I can see five scenarios for this election to play out. In (roughly) decreasing order of likelihood, here they are:

1) Obama By-The-Book

Things go more-or-less as the predictions forecast. Obama carries most if not all of his leaners, McCain does the same with his. Obama carries enough of the Comeback states to seal the victory. We'll see this one coming if the pink and baby-blue states end up as forecast and we see Obama starting to pick up the Comeback states.

2) Obama eeker

This one is where there is some degree of Bradley effect (or else a real November Surprise -- and that aunt-as-illegal-alian thing doesn't count). Some of the baby-blue states go red, most of the Undecideds do as well, but there is enough of an Obama lead in the key Comeback states that he carries the two or three that it'll take to win.

3) Obama slam dunk

This scenario is primarily about momentum -- if a few big states go blue early in the night, all of the Comebacks and a few of the Undecideds or pink Leaners -- then there will be a real "why bother" attitude going on for some folks out West. That doesn't make a difference in the far West Coast (we go blue anyway) but it could put states like Montana and eve Arizona in the Democrat column. So if Obama grabs some surprisingly strong early returns, look for a rich-get-richer scenario to unfold regarding his delegate count.

4) McCain eeker

This is much like the Obama eeker -- just a little stronger. He'd need to capture pretty much all of the Undecided states plus a few of the Comeback states. So watch for red results in Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, etc. to set this one up. Chances are slim -- even if there is a percent-or-two of polling error, there are a lot of blue boxes that'd need to turn red.

5) Whisky-Tango-Foxtrot

This isn't really a viable option -- but I always include the possibility of the bizarre. Some real misread by the polls could lead to a strong McCain victory, but it would be pretty obvious right away. Like if New York goes red. If things like that start to happen, then all bets are off: Texas might go blue, California might secede, and it would certainly be an interesting night. I leave this option open just to hedge my bets. But I don't really think it has a chance.

So here's the plan:

Keep an eye on the Leaners. If they are acting as predicted, keep an eye on the Comeback states. Once three or more of them are called in Obama's favor, his victory becomes highly likely and the interest comes from observing the degree of victory (we're choosing between outcome 1 and outcome 3, essentially). If McCain is playing strong there and in the Undecideds, then the result will be tougher to call and upset could be in the cards (the results will fall from outcome 2 or outcome 4).

If the pink-blue count (the Leaners) ends up pretty far off what is expected, then we are going to be looking at outcome 2, 3, 4, or 5. If a lot of them are going Red, that sets up outcomes 4 or 5. If a lot of them are going blue, it sets up option 3. If they are all over the map it probably means number 5 -- and no guesses beyond that!

So there you have it -- a decision tree of sorts, an election night checklist to help monitor what is going down. Now go out and vote, order a pizza or some sushi, pour yourself a beer or a glass of wine, and enjoy watching.