Spaceman by Mike Massimino

“Every generation of astronauts need a storyteller — a person with wit, humor and passion, who has lived our collective dreams of space exploration and returned to tell us all about it. Mike Massimino is that person. He’s that astronaut. And this is his story.”

— Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Why do we send people to space? We do it to further the scientific mission of space exploration — right? But that’s only part of the story. It’s often cheaper to send unmanned probes. The other reason we send people into space is because we can. Massimino says, “The Russians got to the moon before we did. But no one cared because they didn’t put people up there.”  In fact, the budget for NASA didn’t really take off until Kennedy made it a race to put a man on the moon. Then the Apollo program became HUGE (peaking at over 4% of the federal budget). The book Spaceman by Mike Massimino (read by the author) does an excellent job of telling that story of exploration.

But in order for people to really care about space flight, astronauts need to tell their stories. Massimino does just that. Here are my big 3 takeaways from the book:

  1. It’s hard to become an astronaut. As with any expedition, the journey to become an astronaut is an extremely difficult one. Massimino wanted to be an astronaut since he was a six-year-old growing up on Long Island and dedicated his life to the goal. Focused on this, he got a graduate degree at MIT and worked at the Johnson Space Center with the hope that he could increase his chances. While doing this, he was rejected four times. The most serious issue was his unaided eyesight which was 20/350 vs. a required 20/200. He eventually overcame this hurdle as well, spending years going to vision therapy to improve his eyesight within the acceptable range.
  2. Astronauts are heroes. Heroes are people who take a huge personal risk in the pursuit of something greater. When astronauts go up into space, they know they might not make it back. He tells the story of how he dealt with the death of his friend Elon Ramon and the other shuttle astronauts that died in the Columbia disaster. I remember being shocked when the Columbia blew up, thinking “How could this happen?!” But the astronauts knew that they’ve got about a one in a hundred chance of exploding up in space. Their families know that this might be the last time they see them. Massimino talks about the process that NASA has for this. NASA makes sure that each family as an astronaut “family escort” when they go up in space. This is the person who ensures that if things do go wrong, there’s an astronaut taking care of the family and ushering them away. The most telling anecdote is that the family must pack all of their bags before a space flight — even though they’re coming back to the same hotel that night if all goes well.
  3. But that doesn’t mean that the expedition it can’t be fun. It’s fun for the reader when Massimino shares his stories about the Mets or John Glenn. But he also makes the astronaut training fun. For example, one of the big requirements of spaceflight is to spend 25 hours a month flying in a T-38 trainer. That’s the equivalent of 2 round trips from New York to LA each month. But Massimino shows how awesome that can be. You can go up and do acrobatic maneuvers and pretend that you’re in the movie Top Gun. Or you can just head to any airport in the US to grab some lunch. And you’re MANDATED to do it.

Overall it’s a really amazing book. It’s a compelling read/listen and I learned a whole lot. What else could you want in a book?

 

A Very Brief History of Mixed Reality and Disney

When we think about Augmented Reality or Mixed Reality, we’re tempted to think this is a very new thing. Take The Void for instance. You can walk through a space that’s literally “painted” with virtual reality textures. I experienced The Void at Madame Tussauds in Times Square last year and it was awesome!

But mixed reality has actually been with us for quite a while. Take a look at a typical Disney experience. Mickey Mouse literally opens the Magic Kingdom to guests each morning. Of course it’s a man (or woman) in a costume dancing around while the virtual voice is piped in through speakers. This lets you really be part of a Disney experience!

But this combination of real life and cartoons is nothing new for Disney. Take a look at this early Disney movie where a real life Alice is transported in a cartoon wonderland.

But it goes back even further in animation. I just came across the first mixed reality movie The Enchanted Drawing. Not only is it the first mixed reality movie, it’s also the first animated movie!

The Speed of Technology OR Forget Being Thankful for Your iPhone, Be Thankful For the Elimination of Cholera

I just came back from a technology conference. I felt like it was mandatory for each speaker to talk about the speed of technology. The problem is that most people tell this story in a highly boring way.  Some use high level markers like the industrial revolution, the discovery of the telephone, the first TV broadcast, etc. Other people just say things like “Remember, just 10 years ago the iPhone was created.”

A few years ago, when I gave a speech, I found some great data in a project by the National Academy of Sciences  Greatest Engineering Achievements of the 20th Century National Academy of Engineering. As part of the book, they showed what things were like before major inventions changed our lives. Some of my favorite examples:

  • Health: At the turn of the last century, indoor plumbing was not common. Raw sewage was often dumped directly into streets and open gutters which went straight into rivers and lakes, many of which were sources of drinking water. Waterborne diseases were the 3rd leading cause of death.

  • Household Appliances: In 1930 a popular women’s magazine asked readers “How many times have you wished you could push a button and have all your household chores performed for you?” This was decades before modern conveniences like dishwashers and microwaves were possible.
  • Cars: In 1904 there were a grand total of 141 miles of paved roads outside of cities. The first crossing of the continent by car, in 1903, required 44 days of hard driving.
  • Telecom: Telephones were initially sold in pairs. The first customer, a Boston banker, leased a pair for his office and home and needed to purchase a private line to join them.

If you like this sort of thing, Tim Hartford has a fascinating podcast called 50 Things that Made the Modern Economy.

When AI Get’s Personal OR You’re Not Supposed to Talk About That!

A few months ago Microsoft released Seeing AI. This is a tool created by a blind product manager to help blind people. It’s trying to using computer vision to replace lost sight.

The most interesting piece is the person functionality. This is a fairly transparent implementation of Microsoft’s Face API. The Face API has a number of characteristics that it can determine including hair color,  emotion,  glasses, facial hair, makeup, smiling, gender, and age. Computer geeks, take a look at Face API, it’s pretty awesome. Here’s an example of the person functionality from Seeing.ai using the Face API.

Microsoft’s Seeing AI

It’s a great party trick to show your friends how AI can figure out all this stuff. The most interesting characteristic is age. Microsoft thinks so too and created an entire website called how-old.net.

So I started bringing it out at parties. But there was the problem. People who skewed older than they really were started saying “Hey, that’s not cool.” I started to realize that the app didn’t have a lot of tact.

It was like a little kid saying, “Mommy, that lady looks 45.”

And the woman saying back, “My Lord! Don’t you have any manners!”

This is similar to a scene in the Netflix series Atypical about Sam, a character with Autism Spectrum Disorder (formerly called Aspergers Syndrome). Sam doesn’t read emotions very well and is often too honest — not taking into account other people’s feelings.

At one point Sam made a list of the Pro’s and Con’s of Paige, his prospective girlfriend. Paige found an imprint of the list and used a pencil to read it.

Paige with Sam’s list of Pro’s and Cons about her.

To paraphrase their conversation:

“Why would you do that? You called me bossy and said I’m always interrupting people,” said Paige.

“But I also said that you had very clean shoes and had a nice neutral smell. So there were some good things in there,” said Sam.

“Ugh. You’re just not supposed to write that stuff down. It’s rude.”

And that’s the inherent problem with the way Face API displays people’s age. Making these things too transparent is just rude.

From all this, I’ve learned 3 things.

  1. It’s kind of creepy how AI can take things from the real world and “know” things about you.
  2. When building a computer program, features like “age” are useful in doing things like matching or making predictions but should generally be hidden from the end user.
  3. It’s much better to use this data for a different purpose, like figuring out which piece of artwork you look like.

Update August 16, 2018: Amazon’s Face API is a lot more sensitive in its demo. It uses the word “seems” and not focusing on a specific age but using an age range.

AWS Face API Demo

 

Questions from a Reader

Hi Everyone!

In this email, I’m answering some questions from a reader.

Rob,

I really like what you put on this site. I’ve tried to blog myself but could use your advice on the following topics:

  1. Why write about something when you know that there’s bound to be someone on the internet that has written the same thing – likely better than you? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just link to that?
  2. How do you decide what to write about?
  3. How can I do what you do? Whenever I sit down to write something, I find that I want to write a treatise and I never get finished with it.
  4. How do I subscribe to your blog?

Best,
Dave

I’ll answer these questions one at a time.

Why write about something when you know that there’s bound to be someone on the internet that has written the same thing – likely better than you? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just link to that?

That’s a good point Dave. Here are a few reasons why I write rather than link:

  1. It’s not worth comparing myself to others. There’s always someone in the world who’s doing something better than me. But if I’m writing about something personal that means something to me, hopefully, I can bring something new to the conversation.
  2. Some people (like you) seem to be interested in what I write.
  3. To paraphrase Maria Popova from Brain Pickings, “I’m writing for myself. If other people want to read this that’s great. But I’m writing for me and not them.”
  4. It’s fun to write.
  5. The best way to become a better writer is to write more. Jeff Atwood, co-founder of Stack Exchange, has some great advice on how to be a great blogger. He says “If you can demonstrate a willingness to write, and a desire to keep continually improving your writing, you will eventually be successful.”
  6. Having a blog becomes a personal record of your thoughts and ideas. It becomes a record of who you are – hopefully of your best self.
  7. Think about your readers. If you look at my first posts I had a lot of links and quoted a lot of sources. This makes it difficult for your readers who just don’t have a lot of time. Paradoxically, by writing a little more, you’re having your readers read a lot less.
  8. You need to be confident in yourself that you have something useful to say. But you need to have your own ideas – not just parrot the ideas of others.

How do you decide what to write about?

I don’t decide what to write about as much as it finds me. I know it sounds corny but it’s true. I have a post a few weeks ago about the process I’m using.

I keep a prioritized list of ideas. When I look at the top of that list, I find a few things that are really exciting and fun to write about. I generally say, “Wow, that’s a really fun idea I’ve put on my list.”

How can I do what you do? Whenever I sit down to write something, I find that I want to write a treatise and I never get finished with it.

Going back to my previous post about writing, I’ll pick a topic that seems pretty exciting and try to figure out how I can get it across in the shortest amount possible. That keeps the boring stuff a minimum and lets me get done with pieces faster. Then I only write about things while they are still interesting. That’s what keeps it fun.

Another way to think about this is the Feynman Method of understanding:

  1. Describe the topic on one sheet of paper
  2. Simplify it so that it can be read by a non-specialist reader
  3. Repeat until you have gotten it simple enough

By the way, there’s a pretty cool and short video about Feynman’s view on what it really means to understand something.

Can I get notifications of your latest posts?

Yes you can! Just go to the bottom of the right column (on a desktop) or the bottom of the page (on mobile).

Thanks for your questions!

How to Avoid Losing Things at the Airport

I was travelling today, having a quick breakfast in Charlotte, NC, before heading into to work. When I left the hotel room, I had a roller bag with me. I finished breakfast and started heading to work. A minute later my phone rang.

“You forgot your bag at breakfast,” said the super nice Charlotte woman. I went back the 50 feet and picked up my bag.

This reminded me of the most useful travel tip that I know:

  1. Always make sure that your luggage tag has your cell phone on it.
  2. Stick a business card onto your laptop (with your cell phone on it). This is mainly for security at the airport. It’s easy to forget that you’ve taken your laptop out of your bag when you’re in a rush to catch a flight. And if you do remember, it’s easy to accidentally pick up someone else’s laptop.

Bonus trivia of the day! On an airplane, I always hear them talking about “Putting your rollerboard bags in the overhead compartment.” I just learned that the pilot is saying “roll aboard” not “rollerboard.” Now that makes much more sense.

Technology Through the Generations OR What Do You Mean by “Film?”

Alan Kay said, “Technology is anything invented after you were born.” While that makes sense intuitively, it’s hard to see in real life. To make this more tangible let me take you back 8 years.

It was early 2010 and we were in Key West for Jeff and Debbie Katersky‘s wedding. Debbie’s niece Carly was about 8 at the time and was given a single use film camera to take pictures at the wedding. This was her first experience with a film camera.

“How do I know what I’m taking a picture of?” Carly asked, pointing to the back of the screen.

“You look through this viewfinder right here,” I said.

“OK…” said Carly, squinting to look through the viewfinder. “But how do I see the pictures once I’ve taken them?”

“You won’t be able to see the pictures. They’re stored inside the camera,” I said.

“Oh, so they get emailed automatically?” she says, excited that she’s starting to understand things.

“No. They don’t get emailed. They stay on the film in the camera. Then between each picture, you have to turn the knob at the top to wind the film.”

“Why do you have to do that?” she asked, thoroughly puzzled.

“Because all the pictures are stored on film, which then needs to be developed. Because of the film you need to be very careful not to open up the back or all the pictures will be destroyed,” I said.

“So that means they get deleted?” she says as she starts opening the camera.

“No! Don’t do that!” I yelled, running to stop her. “They won’t get deleted. If you open up the back all the pictures will be ruined!”

Carly made it through the wedding taking her pictures. And like all photographers with film cameras, she got 1 or 2 good shots on her roll of 24.