Archive for January, 2009

We can’t put a man on the moon

Monday, January 19th, 2009

It occurred to me a number of years ago that we americans no longer possess the ability to put a man on the moon. And have them come back and still be alive.

Why? Because in the good old days mechanical designs and machinery were simpler. They operated on more basic scientific prinicipals and a LOT of resources were dumped into making it work.

Nowadays if anybody was tasked with getting a man on the moon, they’d use off the shelf parts, plug them into each other, skip over a lot of the basic rigorous end-to-end testing and while it should all work, it would not. Some part would fail, some badly written software would not handle an error condition correctly.

If we were to use the same design plans as we did in the 60’s we could make it work, but nobody in their sane mind would do that nowadays. We’ve come so far. We have computers and better alloys and greater understanding of space, certainly there would be shortcuts to take.

There’s no law of physics that says space travel has to be as easy as the movies make it out to be, and it’s not. You have to do a lot of over engineering if you don’t want something to fail. Given the money that would be available, and the culture of cutting corners to make it cheaper, I am pretty certain that a manned mission to the moon would fail.

I’m a software programmer by trade and I see how it is in my industry. Nobody dies when email is not delivered, nobody’s hand gets chopped off if an error message shows up on the screen. But in space travel, there’s not a lot of room for error, unless you overengineer a lot, and that wouldn’t happen.

There would be a lot of software on any spaceship made nowadays and it would have lots of buggy software on it.

Certainly you’ve heard the story about the ship that went sailing into mars (I think it was mars) because one group did specs in metric and another group used english units? And nobody talked to each other? That wasn’t even a software failure, all the software was correct. That was a project management failure.

Certainly plenty of those to be had in such a complex project as a manned moon mission.

Here’s another example I came across today. Remember the TRS-80 model 100? It was a little portable computer built in 1983, it ran on 4 AA batteries, and had a full qwerty keyboard. It had a little word processor built in (among other things) and you could do your typing for 6-8 hours on on set of 4 AA batteries.

Nowadays, we have laptops that require lots more battery and don’t last nearly as long because they’re ‘better’.  Basically, we can no longer in 2009 do what we did in 1983.

Banks can open and fail, but they can not close.

Monday, January 5th, 2009

I had this neat thought today.

Like everything else in the world, banks are expected to live forever. Because really, the earth is going to exist forever, and so are humans in general and if individual people die, well they can hand off their interest in assets and whatnot to the next generation, but the people will always be there.

The sun is never going to burn out, we’ll never overpopulate the planet, all these things will keep going on forever.

But banks are interesting. Banks create money.

I’ve never started a bank or any other business, but I expect it works something like this:

A group of people take out a loan or hit up some venture capitalists for money to open a retail outlet and hire some people and get carpeting, and have some extra cash left over to lend out as starting money.

People off the street open savings accounts where they get 1% on their deposits, and the bank lends out some number times the amount of deposits and charges 5-10% for use of their money.

Except of course they don’t have that money, the created it.

So as long as the bank does okay, and there’s no runs on the bank everything works fine. This has been going on for hundreds of years at thousands of banks.

But what if you wanted to close your bank. You can’t. In order to close your bank, you’d have to collect all the money you loaned out and give back all the money that was deposited.

Unless you have enough profit to cover giving back all the money in the savings accounts, or plan years ahead so that you stop giving out new loans and wait for them all to come due, you can’t close your doors.

You can, however fail. The FDIC makes it easy, just run your business badly, you go into bankruptcy and the FDIC bails out all your depositors and worries (or not) about the outstanding loans due.


Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Why is it that all the toothpaste makers  that I’ve seen always think they’re getting one over on us. I’ve noticed without fail (though I can’t say I’ve tried every toothpaste in my life) that when you first open the tube and squeeze, some toothpaste comes out, but behind it is a lot of air.

I can imagine some kind of excuse about leaving room for pressure equalization based on the packaging plant and your house being at different altitudes, but somehow I don’t think so.

I think they just want to give you less product in a bigger package.

They’re not fooling me. I know it’s a conspiracy.