That New Car Smell

(Reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 5/30/2012)

Once again, I’ve been bamboozled.

Last year I wrote a eulogy on the Space Shuttle and the decaying state of the U.S. space program.  All the political hacks and talking heads couldn’t stop making hay over the demise of U.S. dominance in space.  With the end of the Shuttle, our country no longer had the means to reach the Space Station.  In order to remain dominant, funding to NASA needs to be increased…and so on.

And I bought it.  After all it’s easy to envision a bunch of Washington politicos securing their districts by shifting funds from NASA to food stamps.  Most certainly, our space program is simply just the first victim of Obamacare’s death panel.

What I failed to consider, however, is that a government that spends almost $4 trillion a year, approximately 25% of our total economy, can pretty much get whatever it wants.

Fast forward to last week…The private space company, SpaceX, launched its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.  Without the Shuttle, the Dragon is the only spacecraft in the world capable of returning significant cargo from the space station.  The capsule is 14.4 feet high and 12 feet in diameter, capable of transporting 7,300 lbs to orbit.  Indeed, this space transport system was designed to carry up to seven astronauts at one time.

Other than a slight delay in the original launch date, the mission has been flawless.  This is the first mission of Dragon to the International Space Station, and the first of any privately-owned spacecraft to dock with the ISS.  The docking was accomplished on May 26th, and upon opening the hatch, flight engineer Donald Pettit commented on the cargo capacity of the spacecraft, and the fact that the spacecraft had a “new car” smell.  Right now, the Dragon space craft remains docked to the International Space Station, and approximately a half a ton of payload has been transferred to the ISS, the first significant transfer since the last mission.

So you may ask, what’s my gripe?  I’m just wondering why no one bothered to mention this project when everyone was lamenting the end of the shuttle.  Did no one know about the $1.6B contract with SpaceX and a similar $1.9B contract with Orbital Sciences?  Didn’t anyone read about the test launches that had already occurred?  Of course, they did.  The end of the shuttle can was used to create a crisis.  And what’s the saying…you never want a crisis go to waste?

The crisis that the NASA bureaucracy is fighting is the privatization and globalization of space flight.  Not long ago, NASA held a virtual monopoly on spaceflight.  Today, several countries including India, China and Japan are developing unmanned lunar vehicles.  In addition, twenty-six teams are competing for the Global Lunar X Prize – a contest that will award $20M to the first private company that can land a robot on the lunar surface, travel one-third of a mile and send back a high-definition image before 2015.  The winner will get an additional $4M if they can take a picture of a man-made object.

In response to all this activity, NASA has sent a message to the world, “Please don’t touch our stuff.”

Recently, the agency released a set of guidelines with the objective to preserve important historical locations such as the Apollo landing sites.  Dust kicked up by rovers or malfunctioning equipment presents a risk to the existing hardware and foot prints.  “Only one misstep could forever damage this priceless human treasure,” reads the report.

While it’s no doubt that increased traffic on the moon will have a negative impact on some lunar science, I’m not convinced that lunar environmentalism is the right approach.  Granted, the lunar landing was of great historical importance.  But there is another perspective on the story…

A few guys spent the weekend at Tranquility Base lunar resort.   While there, they went joy riding in a $250M dune buggy.  After a few days, they headed back home.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t take the dune buggy, so they left it with the keys in the ignition and the engine running.  Why should anyone be surprised that some space alien wouldn’t strip the thing and leave it setting on blocks?


Source: bautforum.com via Greg on Pinterest

In all seriousness, how is the equipment left on the moon any different than the millions of dollars in military infrastructure that we have abandoned in Iraq and Afghanistan?  As far as I’m concerned, go get the junk, and sell it on eBay.  Until next week, I’m off the grid.  @gregory_a_baker

A $100 Billion Chat Room

(Reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 5/23/2012)

Facebook IPO – Well, we can’t have a technology column this week without a mention of the Facebook IPO, so let’s start there.  Last Friday, Facebook began trading shares on the Nasdaq exchange.  This event has been eagerly awaited by the tech community as a signal that high tech business is back on track.  As it turned out, the IPO turned out to be more of a non-event.  The numbers…after an initial pricing of $38 per share last Thursday, the stock opened at $43 per share but quickly fell to below $39 per share.  The IPO raised over $16 billion for Facebook, making the offering the second largest in history.  The initial $100 billion market capitalization puts Facebook in the top forty of market cap, ahead of established tech companies Amazon and Cisco.  But this is not 1999, and reality set in on Monday.  After its first full day of trading, Facebook closed at $34, down almost 11% from its initial pricing.  Investors are looking careful at Facebook’s revenue potential.  In 2011, Facebook generated approximately $5 of revenue per user.  Compare this to $30 per user for Google.  Given that Facebook stock is valued at approximately 20 times its projected sales, and Google’s price-to-sales ratio is only 6, most analysts seem to think that Facebook has a hard road ahead.

It’s Like Herding Clouds – The Leadership Augusta Class of 2012 graduated last Thursday.  Congratulations to all of you, especially my wife Kari.  You do have an exceptional class, but not the best ever.  (Truly.)  Now, you might ask what all this has to do with technology…absolutely nothing, except for that fact I got to catch up with my 2010 Leadership comrade and devoted Augusta Tek reader Doug Fine.  Doug brings us the Tech Tip of the Week with Week.

It starts like this:  All the free cloud storage products are great…until you hit the maximums amounts.  Then you have to spread your data between multiple services, and trying to keep track of what is where.  It’s like herding clouds.  What if you had an app that would stitch together all the free services into a single bucket?  What you need is Otixo!  Otixo provide you a single application to access all of you online files.  Otixo support virtually all of the major cloud services, including Dropbox, Box, Google Docs, SugarSync, Picassa, MobileMe, Amazon S3, FTP servers and WebDAV drives.  I was able to create an account and get all my personal cloud storage configured in less than 20 minutes.  It’s a very nice tool.

Here’s the catch…a free Otixo account only lets you move a ridiculously small 250MB per month.  To use this in any productive manner, you’re probably going to have to pay the $10 month for unlimited data transfer.

SpaceX Visits the ISS – This past Tuesday, the private space company, SpaceX, launches its Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.  This mission is the first by a private company to send a spacecraft to the ISS.  This is a demonstration missions designed to confirm the Dragon spacecraft’s capability to dock with the space station.  If successful, SpaceX will begin its contract to perform a minimum of 12 re-supply missions.  Without the Shuttle, the Dragon is the only spacecraft in the world capable of returning significant cargo from the space station.  This space transport system was designed to carry astronauts in the future, and the cargo missions will go a long way in providing the flight experience necessary to achieve that goal.

(Note: At the time of writing the SpaceX launch was still T-3 hours away.  Check the website for the latest!)

Until next week, I’m off the grid.  @gregory_a_baker

Mash It Up

(Reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 5/16/2012)

A couple of weeks ago, the newly instantiated Augusta chapter of the Technology Association of Georgia held its first regular meeting.  For all you technology types, you missed out on a great networking opportunity.  TAG-Augusta has attracted the interest of the city’s technology leadership.  This meeting focused on the State of Technology in Georgia and some of the trends that we should expect to see in the coming years.

One topic that seemed to resonate with everyone is the interest in attracting start-up capital from “angel” investors.  The policy makers in Atlanta believe that Georgia is capable of attracting the type of venture capital that current flows in California, Texas and Massachusetts.  Given the concentration of technology companies in the Atlanta area, I can’t argue with the assertion that Georgia has the resources.  I would even argue that Augusta has an IT skill set that would justify an invitation to the party.  However, do we have the collective mindset suitable to engage the high tech industry?

Given the fact that our economy is dominated by safe, low-risk, government jobs, I suspect that it will take some time to acclimate to the high tech environment.  We need to get there, though, so let’s start off with a little bit of education.

The Tech Start-Up lifecycle looks something like this.

  1. Come up with great idea (note that the term “great” is subjective).
  2. Pitch great idea to someone with a lot of money.
  3. Receive funding for great idea.
  4. Develop great idea to a point where you can ask for additional funding.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until an IPO or funding is cut-off.

All tech start-ups begin with a great idea.  Contrary to popular belief, they don’t come out of thin air.  Strategies exist to create great ideas, and here’s one of the most popular: Mash-Ups.  Mash-Ups create a new idea for a web property by combining the features of two existing web properties.  Mash-ups can be created a number of different ways.  One popular method is the “X for Y” approach, where “X”  and “Y” are existing websites, and the new property integrates the best features of each site.

A great example of this method hit the web last week, Pinstagram (pinstgram.co).  This site is the mash-up between two of the hottest properties on the web, Instagram and Pinterest.  For those of you who live under a rock (or still use Blackberries), Pinterest is a virtual pinboard site loved by women to organize and share almost anything you can find on the web.  And of course, Instagram is the current darling of startups.  Last month, Instagram secured a $1 Billion buy-out from Facebook Kingpin Mark Zuckerberg without ever having to generate a dime in revenue.

Given the popularity of Instagram and Pinterest, it seemed like the combination of the two would be a sure thing.  In reality, the project came to its creators, Pek Pongpaet, 35, and Brandon Leonardo, 28, as a joke one Friday afternoon.  They were playing the mash-up game and came to the pairing “a Pinterest for Instagram”.

The story continues on Wired.com (read the full article, http://www.wired.com/rawfile/2012/05/pinstagram/),

While it remained a joke for a while, Leonardo says that he saw something click in Pongpaet, and later that day the wheels started turning.

“The idea really took hold of me,” says Pongpaet.

The next morning Pongpaet got in touch with Leonardo.

“He was like, ‘Dude, you’ll never believe what I built,’” says Leonardo.

It turns out Pongpaet had spent a chunk of the night developing their concept and already had a functional site that had brought their idea to life.

“I’m sort of a shoot first, ask questions later kind of guy,” Pongpaet says.

After Pongpaet’s original draft the pair continued working and on Wednesday morning the site went live.

So there you go – an idea for mash up to internet darling in a weekend.

Now it’s your turn…I’ve given a few examples below to get you thinking.

  • You Tube for Twitter = TwitTube.com – All videos must be 140 frames or less
  • Group On for eHarmony = GroupeHarmonie.com – Great deals on discount dating

The rest is left as an exercise for the student.  Until next time, I’m off the grid.  @gregory_a_baker

Zombie Ants

(Reprinted from the Metro Spirit, 5/9/2012)

Just Say “Hell, No!” – Recently, we’ve heard talk about employers asking job seekers for their Facebook passwords.  Their pretense is company reputation.  If you want to be hired by our company, then we have the duty to make sure nothing in your past will damage our reputation.

Let’s start with government employers.  They should get nothing since the whole reputation pretense is false.  Imagine a City of Augusta HR representative telling a job applicant they needed to verify that nothing in their past would bring down the reputation of the city government.  Kind of makes you chuckle just thinking about it.

Now for private organizations, I have no problem with the request.  It’s their organization, and I fully support their right to ask job seekers whatever they need in order to determine suitability for the job.

That said, I want to be very clear about the answer that I would give.  I want to be clear because this is the answer that you should give as well.

“Hell, No!”

Besides the fact that this is yet another significant invasion into our privacy, I have a rational explanation for my position.  Someone that would willingly give up this degree of privacy for a job without question is either 1) desperate to get a job, 2) docile, compliant and will fold under the smallest bit of pressure , 3) risk adverse since nothing  in their past is incriminating, or 4) a liar with a second, sanitized facebook account just for business.  None of these folks will help a company in its mission deliver services to their customers.  So don’t be one of these people!

Zombie Ants – This week, Discover Magazine published a follow-up article on the lives of zombie ants.  For those unfamiliar with zombie ants, google “ophiocordyceps unilateralis”.  In short, zombie ants are ants infected with a fungus that alters the behavior pattern of the ant.  Specifically, erratic movements, wondering in random directions…you know, typical zombie-like stuff.  Eventually, the ant clamps down on a leaf vein with its mandibles.  The fungus then sprouts out of the ant’s body, lashing it to the leaf’s underside, and producing a long stalk tipped with spores. The spores then shower down on unfortunate insects below.

For those that are concerned about the startling similarities between this and the coming human zombie apocalypse, this week’s article describes a vulnerability of ophiocordyceps unilateralis.  It turns out that ophiocordyceps unilateralis is susptible to a hyperparsitic fungi, or another parasite whose host is a parasite.  This second parasite feeds of off ophiocordyceps, killing a majority of the original zombie organisms.  Regrettably, the ant was already dead by the time the hyperparasite took hold.

So the pending zombie apocalypse is still on its way, but at least we now know someone is working to give us all some hope!

Until next time, I’m off the grid.  @gregory_a_baker

Congress Chips Away Another Piece of Freedom

(Reprinted from the Metro Spirit, May 3, 2012)

Congress Chips Away Another Piece of Freedom

Last week, I wrote about the latest attempt of our government to take control of the internet and further diminish the rights provided to all Americans by the Constitution, specifically the 4th Amendment.

This week, I am disappointed to report that the House of Representatives, the People’s House, voted to pass a bill designed to supersede and render ineffective almost a century of telecommunications privacy law.

I am even more saddened to report that the entire delegation of CSRA representatives voted in favor of the bill and against maintaining the privacy of American citizens.

John Barrow voted against protecting your privacy.

Paul Broun voted against protecting your privacy.

Joe Wilson voted against protecting your privacy.

Jeff Duncan voted against protecting your privacy.

Under the guise of “cyber security”, CISPA provides the government an effective writ of assistance to obtain any and all electronic information stored by private organizations.  Proponents of CISPA argue that private organizations are not mandated to provide the information.  The terms of the bill state that information is to be provided on a voluntary basis.  But let’s come back to reality for a minute and ask a question:  If the government asks for information in the name of national security and there exists no legal barriers preventing its release, why would a company refuse the government request?  For companies like Google and Microsoft that are continuously targeted for anti-trust and other regulation non-compliance, CISPA is like a get out of jail free card that can be played time after time after time.

Do you think I’m off base?  Are you unconvinced that private companies would voluntarily turn over private data regarding their customers?

Recall back to 2006 when the NSA phone record collection program became public.  Under this program, it is believed that NSA used call records provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth to create a database of virtually every phone call made within the United States.

Were they required to give this data?  No.

Indeed, it is understood that Qwest Communications declined to participate because it was uneasy about the legal implications of handing over customer information to the government without warrants.

As for the rest, company statements provide no information on the specifics, stating only that they support national security concerns and law enforcement in a lawful manner.

Putting myself in their shoes, though, I imagine that it would be difficult to say no to a government request for information if refusal meant compromising national security, even if it meant substantial fines under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) or other legislation.  It sure would be easier to collect information if you didn’t have to worry about FISA and judicial review.

Hey, guess what…that’s exactly what the House passed!

So here’s my 2 cents to our legislators.  Let’s follow the lead of Julian Sanchez over at Cato Institute.  Stop trying to pass a broadly-worded, ambiguous bill that is open to interpretation by future administrations.  If cyber security really is a high-priority threat to the national infrastructure (of which I’m not convinced, but let’s assume for the moment) , we ought to be able to figure out SPECIFICALLY what information needs to be shared, and then craft a narrow bill to share ONLY that information.  How hard is that!

The fight is not over.  CISPA still has to make it through the Senate, and the President has threatened a veto!  Make your voice heard!  Until next time, I’ll see you in a NSA database.  @gregory_a_baker