Sunday, December 4, 2016
Thursday, September 29, 2016
On September 27, 2016, SpaceX finally revealed their Mars transportation architecture (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H7Uyfqi_TE8). It was a very exciting moment. Regular readers will know that I have engaged in idle speculation on the topic, and I was gratified to see I got the details mostly right, though their system is a lot larger (up to 450T cargo!) than what I initially had in mind. If you're interested, see my best guess from 2015: https://docs.google.com/docume
The architecture is designed around the principle of "cheaper is better" which almost always drives "simpler is better". Yes, it is possible to get more mass (maybe) with less fuel if there is an intermediate stage or multiple cores, but the most overlooked handle is the size of the rocket. Mars requires a developing a new super heavy lift rocket anyway, so it may as well be BIG! The SpaceX booster, with a nominal 550T to LEO capacity, fits the bill.
(Click to expand) Left panel: Historical data from robotic missions, showing Mars entry profiles. Parachute descent typically commences in the bottom left at around 500m/s. Central panel: Results from my ballistic motion simulation reproducing behaviour of previous landings, validating the code. Right panel: Entry profiles of several hypothetical future Mars vehicles, with Curiosity for reference. LDSD levels out a little higher (depending on total loading), while Red Dragon needs a significant mass offset to achieve enough lift to not hit the ground. The three curves marked ITA (Interplanetary Transportation Architecture) represent different lift parameters for the SpaceX ship. Horizontal flight represents banked turns to prevent multiple skips out of the atmosphere. Their high lift and high entry speed compensate for their high mass, and they don't get too close to the ground. Mars' highest mountains are >20,000m tall.
The CAD models look great, but clearly represent an early draft. The interior space of the crewed module is a bit spartan (needs bulkheads), while the oxygen feed lines to the 42 raptor engine cluster look a lot like a brain angiogram scan. Getting prop feed to 42 engines that are throttling and pogoing, across a giant thrust structure trampoline, while damping every instability and cavitation, sounds like a nightmare/worthy engineering challenge to me.
This was the most exciting part by far. The reusable architecture calls for single stage return from Mars. It's all very well to draw spaceships (spaceship!) all day long, but when the rubber hits the road, the system requires a monster engine, as well as fuel tanks with practically imaginary mass. That's a good place to start, and that's what SpaceX has been working on.
The SpaceX Mars plan is a compelling vision for moving lots of humans to Mars. A complete system will be much more detailed and probably a bit different, but importantly this lays a technical foundation and is a great starting point for future system discussions.
Sunday, September 25, 2016
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
Last week I returned to Russia, albeit briefly. It was very unexpected and under odd circumstances, but I got sent there for work! Last week was the Eastern Economic Forum, an effort by the Russian government to encourage foreign investment. Because I was taking a detour from the China trip, my sister A got to come along too!
At the end of the China (previous) blog, we had eaten lunch in Seoul. There we got extra security screening, found a transfer desk, a bright green plane, and took a flight to Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East.
Vladivostok is a remarkable city, on the other end of the trans-Siberian Railway. It overlooks the Pacific from a series of gigantic hills which are still not quite overwhelmed by rapidly developing high-rise buildings.
We took a taxi from the airport, found our hotel, and checked in, all without incident. Then we found a nice restaurant just across the road and settled in for a series of small dinners.
I first traveled to Vladivostok about 10 years ago, then again 6 years ago. On both trips I made many friends all over the enormous country, but the very first one I had lost touch with. And there, in the restaurant, was someone who looked just like them. But wasn't, as it turned out when I asked their name! Still, that would have been cool.
We had 5 days in town, due to flights being booked out for the Forum. So we had most of a free day before having to Suit Up and Look Serious. I thought that walking through the whole town was a sensible substitute for breakfast so, raincoat in hand, that's what we did.
It was the first day at school, so the streets were covered in children with flowers for their teachers and bows in their hair. It was rainy and there were puddles everywhere!
We saw most of the town's sights, including cats in Sportivnaya Harbour, the mall, the submarine, and a little church, where the poor babushka couldn't decide to yell at my sandals or Annie's hair first.
We hailed a cab and ventured out of town to my friends place. A2 and A3 I had met 6 years (to the day) previously during a previous trip, and it was cool to find old friends again! They had a daughter, Z, who was very entertaining. A2's English took about 5 seconds to get warmed up and we were back to making rhyming puns, just like old times. They gave us some dumplings and some perspective on how Vladivostok had changed over the previous decade, certainly a lot had changed.
At length it was time to return to the hotel, get dressed for the governor's reception, and take a cab across both bridges to Russky Island, skirt security, and find our way to where the good food and 30 piece Jazz band was. It was a pretty good view, surrounded by all the buildings of the venue, looking across the bay to the main bridge, with a span exceeding 1km!
The following day it was time to earn our keep so we made our shoes extra shiny and headed back to the venue, sampled the luncheon, watched some sessions on cargo transportation, and met one of the Hyperloop venture capitalist guys. We were ushered into another room where I took a seat next to the Russian transport minister and the head of Summa Group, a major Russian logistics/industrial company. A few deals were signed and we took some questions on the Hyperloop. I got to say a few words, alas not in Russian, and said something about how we looked forward to a combination of Russian steel and American technology to show the way in moving ship volumes of cargo at aeroplane speeds and ship prices. Fortunately, no-one asked any really difficult questions!
Duty discharged, we breathed a huge sigh of relief, borrowed some bikes and explored the campus. We found a fish market, some chatty volunteers, more dumplings, and our complimentary show bags, which contained lots of books, a (locked) tablet, and various Siberian teas. Eventually it was time to bail out so we headed back to the hotel, grabbed some dinner, and passed out.
The next morning, not all of my washed clothes were dry, so I hung them on a heated mobile drying apparatus - me - and went to the forum anyway. A and I found a session on attracting investment but began to suspect that the formal sessions were a screen for the real deal making that goes on in other, unadvertised, rooms, and decided to get into position for the plenary session. Starting only an hour late, I live tweeted it (https://twitter.com/search?f=tweets&vertical=default&q=%23EEF%20from%3Acjhandmer&src=typd), but it was quite fun. It featured Vladimir Putin, Park Geun-hye, and Shinzo Abe, moderated by Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister. Most of the talk seem directed at each leader's respective domestic television news, but Kevin seems more keen on the UN top job. Shinzo seemed super keen to resolve the Kuril Island dispute and to sell Russia a bunch of tech, while Park continued to publicly ask the UN to enforce sanctions and resolutions against their recalcitrant northern neighbour. Putin was his usual self, keen to point out that Russia will only act in its national interest.
In particular, I thought it was interesting that in the context of the Kuril Island dispute, Putin was at pains to point out that there needed to be a face saving resolution, but that Russia would not trade territory for economic assistance. Of course, since 2014 and imposition of sanctions by the US and EU, Russia has been in dire economic straights. Putin complained about the fickle nature of the international community, in particular (though not explicitly) that the annexation of Crimea was not so different from the formation of Kosovo, but the outcome was rather different. Well, in real politik, Russia's actions in 2014 traded 10+ years of economic stagnation, particularly in the Far East, for some tiny scrap of territory on the Black Sea. So the trade does exist, in one direction, at least. More generally, the Far East's biggest deficit is in human capital. Putin pointed out that for the first time, ever, the Far East birth rate exceeded the death rate. But the emigration rate is still 3.5% per year. The population has halved in the last 25 years. I couldn't help thinking there's a lot of Syrians looking for a fresh start. Why have immigration controls at all, if you want to make up for 200,000 people leaving a year?
That afternoon we headed for the cafeteria, found a talk on the eastern Siberia spaceport, then wandered through all the exhibits picking up all the pamphlets we could ever need. Except from the Crimea-related tents, though they were by far the best funded! That evening we found a restaurant that specialized entirely in dumplings. By this point we realised every restaurant in Vladivostok sold small, cheap dinners, so you could serialize every meal, like Tapas, but with more walking. Dumpings are just a natural extension of this principle. We had to have every dessert on the menu.
The following morning was September 4, the 29th anniversary of my existence, so we spent the morning taking calls from various family, to the point where we missed our usual breakfast of 3D quantities of pancakes and Russian depth. We decided instead to feed the mind and wandered through slight drizzle to a museum nearby, a house which once belonged to Arseneev, a wanderer/adventurer/explorer type who lived there 120 years ago. His whole family died at one point or other from bandits, fires, or post-communist purges, but the house preserves a lot of detail from that period, and some very interesting stuff from his various explorations in the Ussuriland area, as well as some nice furniture.
Pancakes cannot be canceled, only delayed. We found a cafeteria devoted to them and proceeded to uphold the newly formed tradition of gluttonous consumption, followed a mere 30 minutes later by lunch at Zuma cafe, a very upmarket place with a modern Japanese bent and tasty sushi. We enjoyed a conversation with another local couchsurfer, called A(4!), before surveying some of the local shops in town. Soon enough, A2 and A3 showed up (sans Z) and we headed down towards the lighthouse, climbed a building to look at the view, skimmed some stones, and wallowed in nostalgia. It was the place I spent my last day in Russia 6 years before too. I have always liked wild shores, grey skies, slate seas, wind, mysterious sea birds, ambiguity of purpose, and lots of spikey rocks. A good place to celebrate a birthday!
Back in the center of the city we hit the regional museum, though I was saddened to see all the really cool exhibits on La Perouse and bears fighting tigers had been removed or replaced. Last time I checked there was a genuinely awesome museum in Khovd or Olgii, in Mongolia, I hope they haven't been 'updated'! We decided to go on one last walk through town, found the footings of the enormous bridge, examined various fixtures, got blown around, then back to the hotel to pack.
That evening we had built up an enormous appetite so we returned to Brothers Bar and Grill and ordered 7 (tiny) dinners, then ate the lot. The table was already tall and the chairs short. After the meal, our eyes were level with the silverware.
The following day I woke up early to call my fiance C, still at the South Pole, on the occasion of our anniversary. Really inconvenient that I wasn't born a day later, all things considered. A and I did one last walk down to the ship terminal to check for souvenirs, without much luck, and then checked out and headed for the airport. Given how long it took for the cab to show up, he drove extremely fast and cost quite a lot of money - perhaps $20 for the hour long trip.
The airport was new since my previous visit, but the baked-in process disasters were familiar. Two lines for check in, neither able to handle Chinese speakers on a flight to Hong Kong, neither able to handle excess baggage, requiring a detour to two other counters to make sure everything was legit. And some local officials scratch their heads and wonder why it is that the rest of the world goes out of their way to avoid doing business there! The Russian Far East is an amazing place, contains amazing people, and harbours incomparable treasures in mineral, timber, etc, but bureaucratic inefficiency is like a gas, it expands to fill the space in which it is allowed to exist.
The flight to Hong Kong was uneventful. Immigration was swift and painless. We met our cousin A5 at the taxi rank, then went to his 3 story beach cottage on Lantau island, on impressively windy roads. We met A5's lovely wife R, and baby F, which I made sure to steal for a while. We had a terrific dinner, played with the dogs, and headed back to the airport.
At the gate, there was more than the usual trouble as 4 Cathay Pacific agents attempted to determine whether my EAC (temporary green card) was a thing. After 30 minutes, the aircraft was ready to depart, they decided to phone a friend, after which I was ushered onto the plane. On the flight I watched Steve Jobs, XMen Apocalypse, and Batman vs Superman, and managed to cry in all of them. Plenty of Michael Fassbender! Cathay has much nicer screens than American, but they use the in-armrest headphone jack, which gets damaged every time someone slides by, so basically doesn't work. Such a shame!
Back home in LA, I get to go to secondary immigration screening, as is usual. It's pretty late, how bad could it be? The room contains 65 (I counted) other people. Phones are strictly forbidden, I see 8 other people have them confiscated after trying to text panicking relatives. The agents say they can't be sure how long it will take. Some people take days. They just can't tell without looking at the documents, which are right in front of them. If their families are worried, they can get in touch via their embassy, they try to respond within 48 hours. People effectively disappear. I open a travel book to Kamchatka and day dream about running with the bears down rivers alive with salmon. An Indian woman with limited English is accused of lying about her financial resources. The agent threatens to take her 10 year old son into protective services. The guy one window over is trying to explain to his agent that he served 6 months for domestic violence somewhere in Indonesia, but it was 8 years ago. The agent has to check with his supervisor. When/if my green card is ever approved I'll write a detailed blog on the whole process. For all Russia's faults, there's a standardized fee for a business visa, with basically complete freedom of work and travel.
About 75 minutes later, I'm called. What sort of visa am I? Self sponsored, national interest waiver. Very good, welcome home sir. I'm out. Back in the world, where people don't just disappear, where human dignity seems to exist, at least for people like me. I climb into a lyft and, despite it being 1am, get stuck in traffic for over an hour. Welcome home!
Here's where I usually write a summary paragraph of a trip. 6 days in Vladivostok was too long. The world is too big and yet not big enough. It was a mistake to go to the Russian Far East but not into the wilderness. It took 4 days of 12+ hours a night sleep to feel normal again. Still, it was very cool to be able to help push a project which embodies the hope of technology to make peoples' lives better.
Monday, September 12, 2016
My flight was half full, so I immediately staked out three seats and then slept for the entire flight, waking only to eat. I felt that this was a good omen. I watched Captain America: Civil War, which was a real tear jerker. I always cry in films on planes.
Once on the ground I took the maglev into town at 301km/h, found my sister A at the Astor Place Hotel, and immediately headed back out of town to find the Hongqiao High Speed Rail station, which was extremely exciting, as it contained trains, which are some of my favourite things. Here we also found our parents M&D, went back to the hotel, wallowed in history for a bit, then headed out to an extravagant hotpot for dinner, on East Nanjing Road. Conversation was at least 60% how hard all the beds are.
The following day we got up and took a taxi to Fudan University, where A had been studying Chinese for a few weeks. We ate pancakes for breakfast, A checked out of her accommodation, we got some cash from a convenient ATM, and indulged in terrible puns. A took us for a tour of the campus, including a view from the tallest towers, a large statue of Mao, and some excellent beef noodles.
Not far from the university we found a gigantic shopping mall, which D and I attempted to catalog completely while the women conducted a shoe hunt. We wandered until we had lost all concept of space or time, then we wandered some more. We found the male bathrooms on the 6th level to be unusually clean, possibly because they'd never been used.
Next on the agenda was the silk market. Here the mission, I eventually determined, was to greet earlier vendors and conduct second fittings, to find new vendors, to discover new types of things to buy, to negotiate prices and a settlement to middle east conflict, to thoroughly audit every kind of cloth ever invented, twice, and to obtain a new lower bound for the radioactive lifetime of the proton.
At length we found the exit, wandered through a historical portion of "old shanghai", then headed back to the hotel, where I was still coming to terms with the Great Firewall of China. That evening we found one of the "old" "French" districts, located a place that did Peking duck, investigated fancy houses and a Tesla showroom, and then passed out on an approximately horizontal surface.
The next morning we discovered hotel breakfast in the Peacock Room, which was all you can eat 20 kinds of dumpings, then took a relatively terrifying taxi to the bus station. Here we found a robot that spun on its balls (see photos if you don't believe me!), then took a bus to Nanxun water town, a strategically important town on the grand canal that had existed in some for or other for over a thousand years, with its most impressive architecture dating from the very late 19th century. At one point it had one of the largest libraries in the world, and still retains a few canals, though is surrounded on all sides by the modern city. It is one of the smaller, less frequented water towns. Later that afternoon we took the bus back into the city, ate dinner at the Drunken Seagull or some similar venue, featuring many different kinds of pork. D, A, and I checked out the Peace Hotel Jazz Bar, which is like a time warp except for the price. I washed some clothes and passed out.
The next day a point of considerable anxiety was alleviated as A managed to get her visa to Russia, so she and M headed for the pearl market. D and I walked the streets looking for tetanus and answers. We found an ancient hutong district a few blocks to the north, dating from perhaps 1986, which included several interesting shops, a church, and so on. We headed back down through the city and the bund, specializing in the narrowest of streets, until we managed to home in on the cloth market. Did you know that GPS in China is off by about 1000m, relative to google maps? At the cloth market I found my successfully commissioned bowtie, bought a bunch more stuff, and went to the other French area for dinner. We ate enough to make us the wrong shape, then walked back to the hotel through insane crowds. We packed and passed out.
The last day, we woke early, walked to the metro and found it shut. So we took a taxi to Shanghai Pudong Airport, eventually found the right terminal, and got ready to check in. A ate a biscuit with indescribable gusto, which was (easily) the most entertaining thing that hour. At length we found our Asiana flight to Seoul. During take off the airframe creaked audibly, while loose debris rattled as it rolled to the back of the plane behind the ceiling bulkhead. On landing, it all rolled back to the front. The approach, between dozens of thunderstorms, was bumpy and twisty but we eventually landed with an amazing splash, wandered into the terminal, and found free wifi that was faster than my "best that money can buy" internet connection back home.
Of course, we were en route to Vladivostok for the Eastern Economic Forum, but that will be told in a separate entry!
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
To me, adventure is a setting out, with a degree of intentionality, to encounter the unknown and the inexplicable. A good adventure, like a marriage, has a good deal of mystery in the future, but most importantly, the guarantee of interesting things along the way.
That crystallization of intention, that first step along the adventurous path, is the one that requires the most courage. Today, you leave behind the comfort of the familiar and well trod paths, and set out into the wilds of matrimony.
Some adventures are solo journeys, which can present opportunities for self discovery. Other adventures are more familiar exercises. A close friend, or traveling companion, is a piece of home with whom you can contextualize your dramatic shared experience.
Obviously, one's choice of companion is critical. If you are very lucky, you may meet in your one lifetime, a person with whom you can produce that vanishingly rare hybrid adventure. One where you can self actualize, though without crushing loneliness. One where you can share the full spectrum of life's adventures, but without stifling over-familiarity.
Artemis and Esteban, I have known you both since my first days on this continent, more than five years ago. That you were meant to be together was obvious to most of us, even then. It gives me infinite pleasure to celebrate with you this phase change, this sublimation, of the inevitable.
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
Our first and biggest mistake was to assume it was too early for lunch, so we took a stroll around the airport, had a good chat, and returned to find we no longer had time to survive the queue, eat lunch, and get back on time. At least the plane was much lighter, we cruised back to El Monte in style, bouncing between mid afternoon bumps before executing a nice glided landing on the airstrip.