Friday, January 18, 2013

The Very Sorry Song

Partially,  I suppose I was never expecting a voluntary admission. An involuntary admission, yes, compelled under oath when subpoenaed for Johan Bruyneel's arbitration hearing, sometime this year. And it's entirely possible that what's happened over the last two nights was prompted by a desire to get out in front of that.

It's also possible that there's some genuine regret in there, too.

The big news, of course, is Lance Armstrong admitting using banned drugs in his campaign to win the Tour de France an unprecedented seven times in a row. One one hand the news doesn't exactly surprise, since it merely confirms what we already knew from last August's USADA decision. But it's one thing to see the facts, and another entirely to see the man himself own up to them.

For myself, I don't feel as if I needed to hear an apology. And I didn't hear exactly what I wanted to hear, although to be fair, that wasn't the right venue for what I wanted to hear anyway. As I've said before, what needs to come out is exactly how it was done. He needs to supply names and detailed information to the relevant authorities, so that it can be made completely clear how he was able to evade the testing protocols for so long and so well. I think it's telling that so many of his former teammates ran afoul of drug tests after leaving his team. That's why I'm looking forward to the Bruyneel hearings, since that's where the rest of the story is liable to break: how his teams were able to subvert the testing process. That's the mojo that former Postal/Discovery riders failed to bring along to their next teams, and it showed. And that was never Lance's department.

For what it's worth, I really do think that he rode clean those last two years, 2009 and 2010. It was clear that he wasn't the same rider he was, before his first retirement. I'd chalked it up to age and being out of the saddle for three years, but lack of "juice" might have had something to do with it, too. And I think he's genuinely sorry, at least to this extent: he had to explain it to his kids. If you have kids of your own, you'll understand. There are few humiliations quite as excruciating as having to explain a failing to your own child. I can only imagine how it must have stung to explain having lived a lie for decades.

On the subject of apologies ... I owe one, to the extent that I touted the legend. I bought it, hook, line, and sinker. Later on, I began to look at it more critically, but at first I was a true believer. I failed to follow my training, and examine all the evidence. I do regret that.

All that said, I still love the sport. It's a magnificent display of human fortitude. There's nothing else quite like it. And it's all the better now, with better, more accurate tests far more diligently applied, both in and out of competition. That's the one silver lining in the storm clouds, that what we learn in the months to come will strengthen the hand of the referees against the cheaters. That will give those of us who watch an assurance that what we're seeing is real, not artificial.

It'll take time. It won't all happen at once. But the sport will be cleaner and stronger for it. And if Lance Armstrong has a road to redemption, it must lie along that path, exposing the dark secrets long hidden. Only time will tell if he has the courage to walk it.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Video Del Fuego, Part LVIII

Last time, I mentioned the progress SpaceX had made, not only in the first private spacecraft to dock with the International Space Station, but in their drive to become the first private company to fly astronauts to and from Earth orbit. All that said, the Falcon 9 is still an expendable rocket, meaning that they have to drop the spent stages into the ocean when they're finished with them. That's changing, though; Elon Musk's goal is for the Falcon 9 to become fully reusable.

They're getting a little closer to that goal.

This rig is a prototype for what will eventually become a fully reusable Falcon 9 first stage. After that, they intend to make the second stage reusable as well.

The importance of this is hard to over-estimate. Space travel is expensive only because it's so expensive to reach low Earth orbit. In terms of energy, once you're in Earth orbit, you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System. If we can make that leg of the trip fairly economical, there's no limit to what we can do.

Besides, that looks like one hell of a ride.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Thirteen for '13

I don't do New Year's Resolutions. I haven't in quite some time. I've found that making up an enormous To-Do list of improvements all at once tends to set me up for failure. It's much better to make those improvements as I notice that they're needed, no matter what the calendar says. That said, the beginning of the year is a good time to take stock, and try to figure out where we're headed.

With that in mind, here are thirteen predictions and observations. Not all of them are for 2013. But they're all things that I expect, and fairly soon.

One: Soon, our cars will more or less drive themselves. It's already happening on a small scale. Where it gets interesting is when it starts to happen on a larger scale. What will happen, when thousands, even millions of self-driving cars hit the roads for morning rush hour? The obvious answer is that the car computers should be talking to each other, so that they can collectively de-conflict one another's routing. Centralized routing would work, in principle. But it would be dependent on a centralized processing system, and network, and the associated infrastructure. It would be far more efficient, and far more robust, if each vehicle were to be in contact with the few dozen or so in its immediate vicinity. That would be enough to co-ordinate lane changes, mergers, and getting on and off a freeway. That information would then automatically cascade up and down the roadway, because each car would be in contact with a different dozen or so, meaning that as traffic becomes congested, a car that's just now leaving the owner's driveway knows to plot a different path to the office that day. Best of all, there's no one point of failure that can be exploited or attacked. It's going to take some time to debug the system until it works properly, but I'm confident something like this will be in place before I retire.

Two: What's more, those cars will probably be electric. An important threshold was crossed last year that you might have missed if you weren't paying attention. The Motor Trend Car of the Year for 2012? The Tesla S, an electric sedan. Hybrids have won a permanent place in the automotive market now, where they were a novelty only five years ago. All-electic cars will soon follow suit. The big problem has always been the batteries: how to get enough of them, how to hold enough power for a decent range. The technology has gotten steadily better, though, and as more of them are recognized as simply being good cars to own, public acceptance will come. Because although gasoline is a convenient energy-storage medium, no one really loves it. An economical, reliable electric car with decent range will be welcomed, once it's available.

Three: Which leads us to the third point, going all-electric offers a significant set of challenges. I've written at length about this before, so I won't belabor the point again. But there are some encouraging signs out there. The Navy has been quiet about progress on the Polywell project, but what has been released seems to indicate that things are going about as well as they expected. To wit: the results match the theory, and the Navy has continued to supply funding so that the work can continue. There are good things happening in superconductivity research as well, although nothing that would make the headlines. Also, solar panels are getting cheaper all the time. Again, this isn't anything that I expect to break this year, but all the pieces are coming together. We'll have the tools we need, by the time we desperately need them.

Four: We will find an Earth-like extrasolar planet, and soon. At least we will, given a sufficiently generous definition of Earth-like. I'm going to define the term as a rocky planet, within a habitable zone, with mass and surface gravity within plus or minus 10% of our own. Within my professional lifetime so far, we've come from not even being sure that binary stars could even have planets, to finding planets in the star system next door. The techniques get better by the year. Instruments get more sensitive, capable of peering farther and farther into the cosmos, and also of finding smaller and smaller things nearby. We now think that the Milky Way Galaxy holds at least 100 million planets. Given that we also think that the Milky Way holds between 100 and 400 million stars, we now think that planets are at least as numerous as stars. I've written about the Drake Equation before, and I see little reason to revise ... much. I'm starting to wonder if the fraction Fp might be much closer to 1 than it is to my old guess of 0.5. If so ... then we might be able to find a pen pal out there, after all. (Since, by my estimates, N goes from 1.4 to 2.8 if Fp goes from 0.5 to 1.)

Five: 3-D Printing, coming to a corner mall near you! Again, this isn't something I expect for 2013, but I do expect distributed manufacturing to be part of the Next Big Thing. Consider: a shoe company that doesn't have to have factories, or warehouses, or any of that stuff, because the stores themselves have a 3-D printer that makes the shoes as the customers order them. They don't have to ship shoes, they ship raw materials and design patterns. They could undercut Nike and Reebok by 50%, and still make higher profits. Just about any retailer that deals in a line of relatively simple products could take advantage of this technology to radically streamline their logistical chain. To say nothing of the corner auto parts store, who can make weird parts to order, when the customer needs it. Need a water pump for a '53 Studebaker? Sure, pal, but it'll take us an hour or two to print one up...

Six: Two words: Google Glasses. Augmented Reality is coming, with all the benefits and horrors that will entail. But this is really only the next step on the road we've walked as a species ever since we started using fire, a quarter of a million years ago. We shape our tools, then our tools shape us, in an endless recursion.

Seven: Last year, we saw humans plumb the depths of the oceans, and the upper limits of the skies. The most awesome thing about this is that these efforts weren't sponsored by governments, but by private citizens. Don't misunderstand me, I'm no anti-government fanatic, but I think it's just incredible, and a beautiful thing, that the technology of exploration is becoming so democratized. And this isn't the end, not by a long shot. Last year, we saw a privately-financed spacecraft rendezvous with the space station, and begin routine cargo deliveries. This year, the deliveries continue. Next year, or the year after? Seats, man. We're that much closer to being able to buy a ticket. And how great is that?

Eight: I think it's worth mentioning that Elon Musk is responsible for two of the items on this list: the Tesla S sedan, and the Dragon spacecraft. Pay attention to this man. He's building a big chunk of the future.

Nine: The Great Gatsby is coming to the big screen. I'm conflicted ... On the one hand, did we ever need a Gatsby movie? But on the other, if done right (and this one looks like it might be), it could be great. (No pun intended.)

Ten: The Dallas Cowboys won't get any better until they get a new General Manager. Being that the current GM, Jerry Jones, is probably not going to be fired by the owner (also Jerry Jones), the odds of that are the same as the number of R's in "Fat Chance".

Eleven: And yes, it's going to suck to have to face RGIII twice a year for the next ten to fifteen years.

Twelve: The fallout from the Lance Armstrong scandal has been impressive, but the story's not over yet. His former boss, Johan Bruyneel, was also charged in the same matter, but has elected to go forward with arbitration. His case will be heard sometime this year. It will be very interesting to see how that turns out. Lance got all the publicity, but Bruyneel was central to the whole thing. He was the one who knew how to dupe the testers. We know who, what, when, where and why, but we don't yet know how. And that will be a crucial fact to have, going forward.

Thirteen: It's way too early to start handicapping 2016, but let's start throwing some names out there anyway. Hillary Clinton has the inside lane to the candidacy, if she should want another run at it. I don't see a challenger of sufficient stature to make a real contest of it, unless Joe Biden should want a go at it as well. On the Republican side, a lot of the big guns that sat out last time will probably start testing the waters over the next year and a half. We'll also see some newcomers throw down for it, as well. The "It's His Turn" rule says that the nomination is Santorum's to lose, but the fierce desperation of having lost two in a row does seem to change the rules. And of course, a great deal depends on what goes down over the next two years. It'll be interesting to watch them begin jockeying for position.

Happy New Year, everyone!