Thursday, October 29, 2009

Needed: An Isaac Asimov "Mnemonic Service"

I've just finished up my first full day at the 2009 Canadian Science Policy Conference and couldn't help but notice the large number of leading experts on Canadian science, policy and innovation in attendance.

These include Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, John Milloy, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities and Minister of Research and Innovation, Preston Manning (these days with the Manning Centre for Building Democracy) plus the presidents of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), the Ontario Centres of Excellence and about 220 other scientists, engineers, policymakers, industrial R&D managers and others with an interest in the intersection of policy, science and technology.

I'm told that at least two people from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA)  were there as well and it's important for them to attend science policy conferences like this because of the CSA mandate as listed on their website which is:
To promote the peaceful use and development of space, to advance the knowledge of space through science and to ensure that space science and technology provide social and economic benefits for Canadians.
But I couldn't help but notice the overall lack of aerospace, new-space and "just plain space" focused people at the conference (with the exception of the two CSA people, Rachel Woen Tjoen from Bombardier and Kevin Shortt, President of the Canadian Space Society out of a total of 300 attendees).

This seems odd given the recent speech by Claude Lajeunesse, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada (AIAC) at the 2009 AIAC Annual General Meeting on October 14th, where he stated:
A recent AeroStrategy study commissioned by AIAC and Industry Canada on the impact of Globalization on Canada reveals that today, Canada is absent from the top 10 countries in the world for investment in Aerospace R&D, manufacturing and MRO.  Canada has not sufficiently taken advantage of the ‘investment boom’ of the past 20 years.
The full text of the speech is posted on the AIAC website here but it seems that anyone with this sort of concern would reasonably want to meet with Canadian scientists and politicians to discuss these trends and go over options on how to reverse them.

Perhaps Mr. Lajeunesse just didn't know about the event this week or perhaps he was tired and shagged out after the AIAC AGM last week. Maybe he'll attend next year.

Perhaps the real problem is that that organizations tend to focus on conversations within specific narrow specialties ("scientists" or "engineers" or "space agency representatives" or "aerospace business people") but the problems cross disciplines and require multidisciplinary solutions with awareness of issues and debates in multiple contexts using terms of reference from seemingly incompatible disciplines which may not normally socialize, compare notes or even understand each other.

We might need a "mnemonic service."

What's that you might ask? Here's an example, from "Sucker Bait", a 1954 novel by Isaac Asimov:
"Mnemonic Service," said Sheffield, patiently. "Emm-enneee- emm-oh-enn-eye-see Service. You don't pronounce the first emm. It's from a Greek word meaning memory."

The captain's eyes narrowed. "He remembers things?"

"Correct, captain. Look, in a way this is my fault. I should have briefed you on this. I would have, too, if the boy hadn't gotten so sick right after the take-off. It drove most other matters out of my mind. Besides, it didn't occur to me that he might be interested in the workings of the ship itself. Space knows why not. He should be interested in everything."

"He should, eh?" The captain looked at the timepiece on the wall. "Brief me now, eh? But no fancy words. Not many of any other kind, either. Time limited."

"It won't take long, I assure you. Now you're a space-going man, captain. How many inhabited worlds would you say there were in the Confederation?"

"Eighty thousand," said the captain, promptly.

"Eighty-three thousand two hundred," said Sheffield. "What do you suppose it takes to run a political organization that size?"

Again the captain did not hesitate. "Computers," he said.

"All right. There's Earth, where half the population works for the government and does nothing but compute and there are computing subcenters on every other world. And even so data gets lost. Every world knows something no other world knows-almost every man. Look at our little group. Vernadsky doesn't know any biology and I don't know enough chemistry to stay alive. There's not one of us can pilot the simplest spacecruiser, except for Fawkes. So we work together, each one supplying the knowledge the others lack.

"Only there's a catch. Not one of us knows exactly which of our own data is meaningful to the other under a given set of circumstances. We can't sit and spout everything we know. So we guess, and sometimes we don't guess right. Two facts, A and B, can go together beautifully sometimes. So Person A, who knows Fact A, says to Person B, who knows Fact B, 'Why didn't you tell me this ten years ago?' and Person B answers, 'I didn't think it was important,' or 'I thought everyone knew that.'"

The captain said, "That's what computers are for."

Sheffield said, "Computers are limited, captain. They have to be asked questions. What's more the questions have to be the kind that can be put into a limited number of symbols. What's more computers are very literal minded. They answer exactly what you ask and not what you have in mind. Sometimes it never occurs to anyone to ask just the right question or feed the computer just the right symbols, and when that happens the computer doesn't volunteer information.

"What we need . . . what all mankind needs . . . is a computer that is nonmechanical; a computer with imagination. There's one like that, captain." The psychologist tapped his temple. "In everyone, captain."

"Maybe," grunted the captain, "but I'll stick to the usual, eh? Kind you punch a button."

"Are you sure? Machines don't have hunches. Did you ever have a hunch?"

"Is this on the point?" The captain looked at the timepiece again.

Sheffield said, "Somewhere inside the human brain is a record of every datum that has impinged upon it. Very little of it is consciously remembered, but all of it is there, and a small association can bring an individual datum back without a person's knowing where it comes from. So you get a 'hunch' or a 'feeling.' Some people are better at it than others. And some can be trained. Some are almost perfect, like Mark Annuncio and a hundred like him. Some day, I hope, there'll be a billion like him, and we'll really have a Mnemonic Service.

"All their lives," Sheffield went on, "they do nothing but read, look, and listen. And train to do that better and more efficiently. It doesn't matter what data they collect. It doesn't have to have obvious sense or obvious significance. It doesn't matter if any man in the Service wants to spend a week going over the records of the space-polo teams of the Canopus Sector for the last century. Any datum may be useful some day. That's the fundamental axiom.

"Every once in a while, one of the Service may correlate across a gap no machine could possibly manage. The machine would fail because no one machine is likely to possess those two pieces of thoroughly unconnected information; or else, if the machine does have it, no man would be insane enough to ask the right question. One good correlation out of the Service can pay for all the money appropriated for it in ten years or more."
Maybe a good place to start would be to begin attending each others parties, seminars and conferences.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Naive Profs Offer Hack Writers Science Tutoring

When focused on their core competency of providing background on higher education in Canada, the website "University Affairs" is always a useful read but their recent announcement of the opening of the Science Media Centre of Canada (SMCC) under the headline "Canada's science media centre opens doors" should hold particular interest to companies and organizations dependent on a highly educated and intelligent workforce.

The article states that the media centre "will help journalists better cover science and researchers better understand reporters' motivations" and this is all well and good.

But I'm just not sure if it's possible to accomplish what Suzanne Corbeil, vice-president, external relations and communications, with the Canada Foundation for Innovation and chair of the SMCC's steering committee seems to have defined as her personal primary goal. “That goal is accurate and rational coverage of science issues in the Canadian mass media” she is quoted in the article as saying.

Now don't  get me  wrong. I like the idea of accurate and rational science coverage. It's the mention of "mass media" that confuses me.

After all, mass media is dying. Those who aren't aware of this haven't noticed the financial troubles at CanWest Global Communications, or researched how little subscriptions to McLeans Magazine cost these days (at least according to this post on the Canadian Magazine Blog), or read the article "2020 Vision: What's next for News," or seen the documentary "Stop the Presses: The American Newspaper in Peril" or even noticed that there are more than three television stations on the air (several of whom seem to be fighting to redistribute advertising and cable fee revenue perhaps in order to postpone further bankruptcies).

It's quite possible that any formal Canadian "mass media" will slide slowly down the slippery slope towards extinction over the next twenty years so the MSCC might want to spend less time focusing on declining areas and more time in areas of the media that are either stable or growing.

There are obvious identifiable areas of media growth where liaisons like SMCC can perform useful services, especially the multiple areas in independent online and new media (where this blog is a useful example) or with specialty magazines which, unlike traditional mass media, are presently undergoing strong and long term growth.

Unfortunately, the listing of MSCC contributors on their website under the our members tab doesn't list any large media partners except for the Toronto Star, a daily newspaper which certainly can't be considered in any way shape or form as anything other than an old style mass media publication. Of course, the Discovery Channel (which is more of a television specialty channel) and O'Brian Publishing (the publisher of Canadian Technology and Business Magazine) are also included in the list and perhaps over time they will bring a measure of realism to the MSCC agenda.

But until then, while some other SMCC goals may indeed be laudable (such as suggestions of "mostly virtual and completely bilingual centre(s) that will help reporters find experts and get briefings on topical concerns") they may already be happening and SMCC seems to be coming quite late to the party.

Here's an example from a recent panel discussion on new media at the American Association Advancement of Science Science Policy Forum.

Here's the second portion of the presentation:

I'd suggest that the MSCC needs more (and more knowledgable) media partners before it can begin to perform a useful role. I wish the organization luck, (I'll even link to it) but I think it's got a long way to go before it even understands the media landscape, much less is able to influence it.

Technology and space focused businesses make the same same mistakes and we'll get to that in a future post.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Oh Du Lieber Augustine!

Leiber Augistin
According to legend (and this entry in Wikipedia), Lieber Augustin, referred to in the song "Oh du lieber Augustin" lived in Vienna during the Plague period of 1678-1679.

One evening, Lieber hoisted a few too many glasses of wine and decided to nap off his hangover in a pit next to the bodies of plague victims. Next morning he awoke (much to the shock of those who witnessed the event and assumed him dead) so the rumor spread that wine acted as a cure for the plague. 

How does this relate to the present day Norm Augustine, and his current position as chairman of the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee? That's easy. Liber, was given a second chance at life and Norm Augustine has been given a second chance to chair an advisory committee on the future of the US space program.

It's interesting to see how the first Augustine report (written in 1990 and available online here) compares with the current report released earlier today. According to the article "NASA needs Direction? Call Norm Augustine!" from the Daily Planet website:
The 1990 panel worried about a “lack of a national consensus as to what should be the goals of the civil space program.” Still true.

They said “NASA is currently over committed in terms of program obligations relative to resources available.” It still is.

The 1990 report (also) lamented management inefficiencies at the space agency, a graying workforce, and the tendency “for projects to grow in scope, complexity, and cost.” Check, check, and check.
Of course the first Augustin ended up scaring people and driving them to drink (but only as an antidote to the plague, of course).

Only time will tell what the current Augustine ends up doing.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ignoring Innovation While Waiting for Augustine

Michael Swartwout, an Assistant Professor of Aerospace & Mechanical Engineering at Parks College, St. Louis University has written a fascinating article on "The promise of innovation from university space systems: are we meeting it" for the October 12th issue of online publication, The Space Review.

In the article, he states unequivocally that:
The first university-class spacecraft was launched in 1981; satellite number 119 was launched in September 2009. At present, an average of 12 university-class spacecraft are launched each year.
Just off the top of my head, those numbers seem to be more than the CSA (or even maybe NASA) has launched lately and the genesis of these prolific little spacecraft are traced back to one specific location:
Faculty and students in the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Surrey developed the first two university-class spacecraft: UoSAT 1 (1981) and UoSAT 2 (1984). After those successes, they spun off a new company, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL).
This new firm almost immediately became among the very first and most successful of a number of small satellite companies. After a long and varied independent history portions of the firm were sold to SpaceX in January 2005 and then a controlling interest was brought by EADS Astrium in April 2008. The company still functions today as a subsidiary of EADS Astrium and has recently opened a US office.

Swartwout believes that this specific small satellite company is a case study for future space focused ventures and even makes some observations on where the next breakout organizations will come from:
...we now speak of the “Surrey Model”, whereby a university (a) develops an in-house spacecraft capability, (b) advances to more-capable missions, and (c) spins off the program into a profit-making entity. This approach has been adopted by several other programs, including: the University of Toronto Space Flight Laboratory, the Satellite Technology Research Center in Korea, the Technical University of Berlin, and the King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. All are actively building highly capable space systems for national governments, and several have international customers.
The next Surrey Satellite might not even be a satellite company but could perhaps be involved in a number of other space focused areas. It might even be developing engines or components required for manned space flight

Essentially, space advocates have a variety of options available for moving forward in space exploration and don't need to wait by the side of the road for next weeks expected formal release of the Augustine Commissions full report on NASA human space flight (or for its hoped for Obama administration follow-on offering lots of money to maintain the existing NASA infrastructure and jobs).

It's good that we're not sitting by the side of the road under a tree waiting for someone else to solve our problems.

Just ask these people if you don't believe me.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Science Policies, Space Summits and Great Gossip

It's the fall conference season, that traditional period from late September until late November when we attend conferences, reacquaint ourselves with colleagues, compare notes and stay up late telling terrible stories about mutual acquaintances who are probably really nice people except for one spectacular slip-up during a previous conference.

So with that in mind here are two quick promo's for conferences I'll be attending and reporting on over the next little while.

The Canadian Science Policy Conference is this October 28th to 30th in Toronto and focused on attracting academics and others with "an interest in the intersection of policy with science and technology." Speakers include Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear, Minister for Training John Molloy and conservative populist Preston Manning.

This conference  is specifically targeted at "scientists, engineers, policymakers, industrial R&D managers, association officials, government grant recipients, students, science diplomats, government affairs specialists, public affairs officers, science writers, and others with an interest in the intersection of policy with science and technology" according to their website.

The second conference I'll be attending is organized by the Canadian Space Society, which has just released the speaker schedule for the 2009 Canadian Space Summit at the Royal Military College in Kingston Ontario on November 20th - 22nd.

The Space Summit is expecting to attract a roster of professionals, academics, government officials and enthusiasts interested in this year's theme of "Multi-Use Missions: Opportunities for Collaboration on Space Technologies."

But since I'm chairing the commercial track, you should also know that I'm especially looking for Canadian based aerospace and new-space focused firms interested in business opportunities related to the commercialization of basic science.

If you're attending either of these events, feel free to let me know and we can meet up for coffee and juicy stories.

I'm quite interested in stories from businesses (or even from CSA employees) involved with commercialization and technology transfer through the Canadian Space Agency, especially if you've had exposure to any of the items listed in this document on innovative technical opportunities.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Beating Rocket Shaped Swords into Plowshares

Waterloo, Ontario based Project Plowshares and Superior, Colorado based Secure World Foundation have just released their 2009 Space Security Report on behalf of the Space Security Index.

Partners in the study include the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University and the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non‐Proliferation Research at the University of British Columbia. As well, the project is supported by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Ploughshares Fund and the Erin J.C Arsenault Trust Fund at McGill University.

The report is a useful resource focused on listing the players, their activities and the existing rules governing those activities in near Earth orbit and beyond.

For example, on page 83 the report provides this assessment of the commercial space sector:
The commercial space sector has experienced dramatic growth over the past decade, largely related to rapidly increasing revenues associated with satellite services. These services are provided by companies that own and operate satellites, as well as the ground support centers that control them.

The second largest contribution to the growth of the commercial space sector has been made by satellite and ground equipment manufacturing. This includes both direct contractors that design and build large systems and vehicles, smaller subcontractors responsible for system components, and software providers.

In the early 2000s, overcapacity in the launch market and a reduction in commercial demand combined to depress the cost of commercial space launches. More recently, an energized satellite communication market and launch industry consolidation have resulted in stabilization and an increase in launch pricing.
A healthy space industry can lead to decreasing costs for space access and use, and increase the accessibility of space technology. Of the 49 states that have accessed space to date (see Civil Space Trend 3.1), almost all have been assisted in some way by the commercial space industry.
The full document is available for download at no charge on the Space Security Website in the publications section for those who'd like to take a closer look.

Friday, October 09, 2009

"Kodak" Moment for the Nobel Committee.

Although not officially listed as a formal spin-off of the space industry (having been invented in 1969 at Bell Laboratories and therefore more properly considered as a telecom based spin-off) the invention of the charged coupling device (or CCD) has revolutionized the field of astronomy and space imaging.

Yesterday, Canadian-born Willard S. Boyle and Amercan George E. Smith, were honored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences by being presented with the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention.

Charles K. Kao also shared the prize for his work in fiber optic light transmission.

The usefulness of CCD's is all about the ability to couple them with sensors (such as photoelectric devices) to produce a charge that can be read electronically, then converted into an image or some other data format and transmitted over a distance (say from a satellite in orbit back to the Earth).

Such devices are found on almost every current scientific or military space vehicle including the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope. They're considered to be quite an improvement over previous methods of collecting, transmitting and retrieving satellite data such as the low resolution television cameras used in the Ranger program or the techniques used by the Corona series of US military reconnaissance satellites (which required the physical retrieval of small re-entry capsules containing exposed but undeveloped film).

No doubt, the CCD also contributed to the recent decision by multinational Eastman Kodak to no longer manufacture kodachrome film since digital camera's also use CCD's for imaging and have essentially taken over what was once a film based industry.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

ITAR, Dual Use and Export Restrictions

The recent announcement that US President Barack Obama has directed his economic and national security advisers to launch a broad-based inter-agency review of U.S. export controls governing military and dual-use technology transfers (according to the article "White House Announced Export Control Review" from the Space News website) cannot help but remind us that no discussion of Canadian space policy is complete without referencing the various US export control regulations and their effects.

Examples of these regulations include the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and the recent International Emergency Economic Powers Enhancement Act.

As a reminder of why the the Obama administration feels the need to perform a review, we might want to take a look at recent promotional documents like "Coping With The New Export Control Paradigm" published by large American law firm Foley and Lardner LLP (which likely wrote the document to highlight it's expertise in this area). High points include the following statements:
Export compliance for technology requires a different mindset, with the focus as much on the process of creation and the use of the product as the good itself. For example, where software is at issue, the focus is not the physical medium but rather such issues as the method of export (which could be over the internet and thus not involve any good in traditional form) and the potential uses of the software (which might be incorporated into a controlled product by the purchaser). 

Technology also brings into play nontraditional means of export. Such issues as whether there is a “deemed export” (i.e., communication of controlled information to a non-U.S. national, whether by oral discussion, visual inspection, or otherwise), export by access to a company’s information systems, issues relating to the employment of non-U.S. nationals, or even whether the mere exposure of a foreigner to a “data-rich environment” is a violation are all amplified where highly technological goods and services are at issue.
These issues all relate to the potential "dual" or second use of any item as a weapon. Since almost anything can be used as a weapon (even a pen, which was traditionally considered to be mightier than the sword) the US perceives it reasonable to implement and maintain these sorts of sweeping regulations governing possibilities and potentialities.

Of course, many Canadian companies are therefore having difficulties selling into the lucrative US aerospace and defense market but these restrictions also limit trade in the other direction. For example, the article "Allies Rebel Against U.S. Military Trade Restrictions" states unequivocally that:

EADS and other European companies have been working to develop military components that are not subject to a U.S. sales veto. For example, EADS Space Transportation Division boasts it is developing a satellite motor that will be “completely ITAR-free and therefore not subject to U.S. export license restrictions, allowing competitive access to worldwide customers.”

EADS is following in the footsteps of France’s Alcatel Space, which has made it company policy since 2002 to build ITAR-free communications satellites to avoid U.S. control over sales. Last April, Alcatel launched its first ITAR-free satellite on a Chinese rocket.

Morotta, a British maker of spacecraft propulsion and propellant management equipment, advertises that its products “are European and hold ITAR-free status.” And when Surrey Satellite Technology, another British firm, touts the “features” of its satellite propulsion systems, “completely ITAR- free” is at the top of the list.

This is bad news for the U.S. satellite industry, according to a paper published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. U.S. companies, which must adhere to ITAR restrictions, are at a growing disadvantage as the inventory of ITAR-free components expands.
No one in Canada is so far suggesting that perhaps we should be doing the same but lets hope the Obama requested review at least begins to start putting the US house in order.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

This Blog Now Fortified with an Extra Column and New Sources of Funding

As part of the first major update to the Commercial Space blog, you'll notice a couple of changes to the layout including the addition of an extra column on the right side to help organize some of the recently added links and blog feeds.

I'm hoping regular readers will also notice a couple of new links to Canadian specific sources of funding for technology focused start-ups and established firms looking to grow.

Some of these new links include:

Scientists looking to commercialize space focused scientific activities and entrepreneurs looking to build a business are well advised to acquaint themselves with these organizations.

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