Real Rocket Science: review of “Fly Me To The Moon” by Ed BelBruno

Belbruno, E. (2007). Fly Me To The Moon: An Insider’s Guide to the New Science of Space Travel. Princeton: Princeton.

With Prof. Gingrich’s possibly ill-considered proposal to build a moon base by 2020, perhaps we should review some real, far out, recent science of space flight.  (I take no position here on any of Mr. G.’s numerous proposals, though I will say that I won’t be voting for him in this lifetime.)

Besides funding, spaceflight requires delta V, i.e., thrust, which requires energy and propellant.  One of the brutal facts of life in space is that fuel has mass, and you spend a lot of fuel just hauling fuel you will need later—leaving only a tiny fraction of the load for the payload.  The Apollo moon missions were mad dashes, and they arrived home with empty fuel tanks and no margin to spare.

If you stick with this brute force approach, the arithmetic of space flight is prohibitive.  The amount of fuel needed to go to the moon and back is feasible (though insanely expensive), and we have sent small payloads to the planets, and returned small payloads from Mars.  But imagine a long term moon base: no matter how you figure it, it would need hundreds of trips, if not thousands.  Even ignoring economics, this is a preposterous input of energy, which would make the enterprise both be fragile and unsustainable.  A few missed shipments could mean disaster.

What can be done?

Professor Ed Belbruno has pioneered some radical approaches to navigating the solar system, using rather than just fighting gravity.  In his enjoyable 2007 book, he sketches the approach.

The essence of the idea is the observation that travelling in space is “ballistic”, the spacecraft is flung at the target, and needs to “fall” safely at the end. The trick is to hit just the right angle at the right speed, to arrive just right.  Furthermore, the closer the trajectory to optimal, the less fuel required to keep on target.

Belbruno’s insight is that, if you can aim just right, taking advantage of gravitational boost and deceleration, it takes almost no extra energy to safely arrive.  Brilliant!  Why don’t we always do this?  Because the desired orbit is not obvious and is ridiculously difficult to calculate, at least for humans.

The transits required are strange looking loops, that take long, indirect routes.  For example, a sketch for a proposed trip to Jupiter’s moon Europa (see Ch. 12) loops around Venus, back around Earth twice, then loops around Jupiter twice before orbiting Europa.  This will take a long time, but robots and non-human cargo don’t mind.

The secret to finding these orbits is kind of cool, and only possible with sufficient computing power.  Basically, you start at the desired end point, where you want to get to.  Working back, calculate what direction and speed would you have to be moving in the last minute (or whatever time increment) to get to the goal.  Back up to that point, and iterate, until you get to a point that is reachable from the start.

Obviously, you must read Belbruno’s book if you want to really understand.  He gives a retrospective on how he came up with the ideas, which were partly inspired by art as well as the mathematics of chaos theory.

For full disclosure, I will note that I met Belbruno in person at a meeting at NASA in 2005 (I believe).  Many of us at the lunch are interested in robot missions with actual scientific value, and consider the International Space Station a giant money pit that is sucking the life out of the space program with little benefit.  Belbruno suggested that if you want a moon base (as recently proposed by Pres. Bush), he could give us an orbit that would gently land the ISS on the moon.  Voila—instant moon base!

Finally, let me note that Prof. Belbruno was supported in part by NASA’s Advanced Information Systems Research Program, led at that time by Dr. Joseph Bredekamp.  This is program has a long history of funding ground breaking information technology, and it was my privilege to receive support from them in the past.  The AISRP, along with almost all research at NASA, has been starved for funds over the last decade, it is effectively dead now.  Appalling.

Grumpy Remarks About “Virtual Museums”

In the past few years I’ve been working with Digital Humanists, particularly folks in the “cultural Heritage”/ Museum business. I really like these folks, and deeply respect the pursuit of knowledge and respect for history.  But the encounter has made me somewhat grumpy about the entire idea of preservation and museums in general.

The problem is the focus on artifacts—objects with a carefully documented provenance, which are put forward as representing something important about human culture. I have serious reservations about this entire project—it is conceptually flawed, and its value is highly questionable.  In short, I wonder if museums are a waste of space, time, and money.

First, lets think about objects in a museum.  Obviously, isolated objects, removed from their original context, are difficult or impossible to interpret.  The information simply isn’t there. That’s why museums include interpretive materials, attempting to sketch what is missing.

The general purpose of the museum collection is to portray cultures and historical periods through a selection of physical artifacts. The result is that the collection is selected by various criteria—representativeness, excitement, or some other value.  It is not always easy for a visitor to know why things were selected—so we don’t understand the objects, nor to we understand the museum.

This entire notion is very, very problematic.  Let me use an example.

Consider a museum display of Henry Aaron’s uniform (e.g.,  It is  may be lovingly preserved, and carefully documented, lavishly displayed in a glass case.  But what do we gain from all that effort and love?

Does it tell us anything about baseball?  Does it tell us what it is like to play or watch baseball?  Does it tell us anything about what it meant to be a black man playing baseball in the 1960s? In Atlanta?  Overtaking Babe Ruth?

Of course not.

And I would say, if you don’t understand these things, you don’t understand anything important about Aaron or that uniform.

Given these deep misgivings, you can imagine how little I appreciate ‘digital collections’ or ‘virtual museums’, i.e., on-line collections of imagery of museum objects.  The content of the virtual museum is not even the actual artifacts.  They are 2D images, often from only one point of view, totally out of scale.  In other words, even less context than the museum exhibits.

And, sadly, most on-line museum collections are no more than catalogs, collections of text descriptions of artifacts.

Like I said, I’m grumpy about this.

But let me balance by thinking of some of the positive points for museums and artifacts.

Many of the artifacts are selected for preservation because they are irreplaceable, and because they either used to be, currently are, or in the future may be especially meaningful.  Given that there are an infinite number of objects, and an infinite number of reasons why something might be important, it isn’t possible to succeed at this preservation game.  But sometimes this is a good way to think, to help sort out what we think is most important.

Museums invite us to imagine other times and places, sometimes quite radically different from our own life and thoughts.  In this context, the museum’s fetish for careful documentation and provenance is critical—the artifact is absolute proof that the other place and time was real, and was created and experienced by real people not so different from you.  No amount of story telling can make that case as strongly as a real physical object in front of you.

Finally, I like museums because they are places you have to go to.  All the digital collections in the world do not replace actually dragging your behind over to the museum, and experiencing what they have to offer.

What about “virtual museums’? For my money, digital representations can have many useful purposes, including remote access and comparative studies that would be infeasible to do in person.  Also, digital imagery (in 2D and 3D) offers yet another method to document unique or irreplaceable events and artifacts.

But digital representations patently can’t substitute for the “real thing”.  If anything, this is their greatest virtue—they increase the value of the real artifact.

There will always be another meeting

For those of you who are employed, here are some not very helpful observations about everybody’s favorite gripe, meetings, bloody meetings.

A while ago I took leave to complete a book project, one day per week out.  At that time I discovered a scientific law, which I call The Inelasticity Principle for Meetings.  The number of meetings never changes.

In this case, the number of meetings didn’t change, but they had to be jammed into 4 days instead of 5.  This had the side effect that I had even less time to actually do anything.

A corollary of this principle is the rule that there will always be another meeting.  Don’t sweat if you miss a meeting, there is almost no chance that it will be the last one.  (Warning—you can get is a lot of trouble if you advocate this idea at work.)  On a more constructive note, you want to pay extra attention to any meeting that actually will never happen again, it’s probably worth attending. For example, a farewell party.

As long as I’m building moral and improving American productivity, I will note the fundamental observation that everything is obsolete, sometimes much sooner than you expect.  This is particularly obvious in the software sector, where the lifetime of a product may be months, and many times it is obsolete before it is even delivered.

And my favorite motto, if you wait long enough, it won’t matter. (Another warning—you probably shouldn’t say this out loud at work.)

Summary: Some true principles to guide your life (but don’t talk about them at work, or you’ll get in big trouble):

  1. Inelasticity principle for meetings
  2. there will always be another meeting
  3. everything is obsolete, sometimes much sooner than you expect
  4. if you wait long enough, it won’t matter

Book Review: “Reality is Broken” by Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal (2011). Reality is broken : why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin Press.

For background, I should note that I’ve been playing computer games probably longer than Dr. McGonigal has been alive, and certainly longer than computers have had screens and mice.  (Yes, children, you actually can create typewriter-based computer games.) I’ve expended my share of time in games, so much so that I’m pretty much gamed out.

My interest in games, especially massively multiplayer and alternate reality games, was reignited by Ed Castranova’s early work.  Castranova is famous for, among other things, proving beyond a doubt that virtual worlds have real economies.  But what got my attention was the results of his 2001 survey of Everquest players, in which 20% said the game is their “primary residence” (i.e, the live in Norath and commute to Earth for work), and another 22% said they would live in the game if they could.

OK, something is going on here, and I’ll regret it if I don’t pay attention.

Jane McGonigal Wants to Hack Reality

McGonigal gives her take on exactly what is going on.

The introduction sets out her thesis and manifesto:  Games are “better” than “reality”. This situation is really not satisfactory:  How can we make “reality” better?  This book, along with her many papers, talks, and games, constitutes a concerted effort to use “games” to make the world a better place.

Games make us happy, she says, because they operate on some important psychological principles, which are not usually found in ordinary life.  These principles are laid out in several chapters, with supporting research, practice, and theory. The chapter titles give you the idea:

      • More Satisfying Work
      • Fun Failure and Better Odds of Success
      • Strong Social Connectivity
      • Becoming Part of Something Bigger than Ourselves

This is a framework for understanding games, and specifically for understanding why they are fun and “addictive”, and why people will spend significant fractions of their life playing, and, also, how they change the player.

If games are so much better than real live (so much so that “reality is broken”), and people are “better” in games, too; what should be done?

McGonigal takes a radical and fearless approach: use what we know about games to make “real life” more gamelike.  This is not to say, let’s make life “meaningless fun”, what she means is let’s solve problems that matter using the principles that make games work so well.

The second section explains her project of “Reinventing Reality”. Basically, using the methods used to create great games to create activities that improve the real world and change real human behavior.

Walking the Walk 

McGonigal sketches some recent games that illustrate this idea. There are lot’s of pointers to interesting games to try out, and perhaps inspire the reader’s own creativity. For instance, she discusses quite a few recent alternative reality games, such as World Without Oil and Cruel 2 B Kind. These “games” are designed to be fun, but have real world goals and, she says, real world effects.

One of the more remarkable games is a first-person account of McGonigal’s 2009 struggle to recover from a concussion. In the depths of this debilitating brain injury, she created the game SuperBetter, which applies the design principles she has described to enable people to create their own environment to overcome illness or injury. She recounts how the game works, and how it helped her.

Not every game will appeal to you, perhaps most will not.  But, as she says, “We can play any games we want”, so it’s up to us to make up better games.  And that’s what she is trying to do with a ‘meta’ game, the ‘Gameful’ web site, AKA, “the secret hideout” (

Gameful is basically a social web site, built on conventional web technology.  The overall theme is, “everyone can and should design their own games (for improving real life)”. However, the basic social web tech is overlaid with a bunch of “gamelike” features, e.g., points and levels that are awarded for actively participating in the community.  So, ‘gameful’ is sort of a game for creating games.  Or something—I’m not sure there is a term for it.


Frankly, I enjoyed earlier works of McGonigal a lot more than this book.  “I love Bees”, and the “Puppetmaster Problem” are great papers and describe astonishing games cum psychology experiments.  RiB is much more serious and ambitious, and far less weird.  Some of the material is pretty basic (e.g., Chapter 1).  I know why she had to include it, but it is a grind for anyone who is already familiar with the background material.

I’m sure there are grounds for criticism of her ideas.  Throughout the book, we can see McGonigal’s own goals and style clearly. The games employ pretty conventional themes (quests, super powers, spy thrillers, etc.), and mostly build on conventional computer and network platforms.  These are a rather limited and culturally biased collection of ideas, mostly the games bore me.

There are certainly a raft of cultural assumptions baked into this very Californian view of  human nature and “the future”, which isn’t going to fit everyone.  For instance, I have to imagine that many religious believers will have their own ‘epic stories’ they want to be part of, and probably significantly different takes on what the world’s problems are, and how to solve them.  But, of course, everyone can use the design principles to improve the world the way they see it.

Overall, this book is both radical and soundly argued, and, as all great leaders do, she is walking the walk. She has to be taken seriously.

I especially recommend this book for folks thinking about what they want to do in life, entering college, or similar.  You may get some good ideas here.

Final summary:  She made me think hard.  I have no higher praise to give.

President’s day early—Abraham Lincoln’s birthday

It’s time to remember that most American President, Abraham Lincoln.  When I read history about Lincoln, it’s cool and amazing to know that he lived and worked in my town, only a few blocks form my house, in fact.

He must have been an interesting guy.  Everything I have read about him suggests that he was so many sigmas off the norm we can’t even measure it.

Let me contribute to Abe-lore with a story from the twentieth century.

A friend at work was preparing for his citizenship test, reading up on US history.  Born and raised in China, way out in the countryside, barefoot doctors and so on.

He was telling me about his reading, and remarked about how amazing George Washington was.  (Of course, the leader of the Chinese revolution did not follow Washington’s example and step down after a few years.)

I had been reading some history, so I commented, “wait until you read about Abraham Lincoln.”  The he told me, “Oh, I already know about Lincoln, we learned about him in school.”

Wow!  Liberate a people and they will teach your name in every village on the planet!

And by the way, I’m darn sure Abe would be really into all the new immigrants from Asia, Africa, all over the world—wanting to be Americans.  And I seriously doubt he would favor the “seal the border and round up all the ‘illegals’” people.

A Computer Scientist Suggests 101 Things Psychologists Should Find Interesting

This week I’ve been preparing a presentation for a “career day” meeting with psychology majors.  Here is an outline of my thoughts at this stage.

From the perspective of a psychologist, digital technology is a giant, uncontrolled, psychology experiment.  Over the years, I have found many topics that are not only technically challenging, but have profound implications and interest for Psychology.  I really wish more psychologists would get involved.

Virtual worlds – Distributed Virtual Worlds, such as Second Life, World of Warcraft, etc. are arenas in which people live significant portions of their life.  These worlds have real economies, and real cultures, though they are based on novel technical mechanisms.

As Castranova points out, people are “migrating” to these worlds, because they perceive they will have a better life there.

Castranova, E. (2005). Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Castranova, E. (2007). Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality. New York: Palgrave Macmillen.

Social media – The explosion of social media raises a plethora of issues surrounding identity and social interaction.

To give a flavor of interesting research in this area, consider Gershon’s work on “Breakup 2.0” (Gershon, 2010)..  She examines a snap shot of emerging social norms about “proper” use of social media in maintaining and specifically ending relationships.  These activities have been going on as long as humans have existed, and today there are many new choices for communicating.

These norms are rapidly evolving. How are various digital media to be used in relationships, dating, breakups, and so on?  When you break up with someone, is it important to talk in person? On the phone?  Via text message?  Via email?  Via a change in status, fto “single”? What about telling your friends about the event?

Gershon, I. (2010). The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Virtual organizations

Networked digital systems enable new forms of collaboration and organization, unconstrained by distance or physical infrastructure.

Digital networks enable sharing of documents, software, and data; live communication; and collaborative production. These technologies were developed in the context of large-scale scientific collaborations and have now become ubiquitous.

Many types of organizations have adopted these technologies, with the goal to enhance existing organizations, as well as creating new, wholly virtual organizations.

Virtual organizations (one of many related terms) have many purported benefits, including low-cost, geographic dispersal, and flexibility. However, achieving the benefits is not automatic, and deploying the same technology in different situations can produce significantly different results.

It is now recognized that social and psychological issues are critical in the  successful to creation, growth, and sustainance of virtual organizations.

National Science Foundation has a program “Virtual Organizations as Sociotechnical Systems (VOSS)

Olson, G. M., Zimmerman, A., & Bos, N. (2008). Scientific collaboration on the Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Alternate Reality Games

Computer games have emerged as a new medium for social interaction within the bounds of a story.  Games are very interesting for psychologists, not least because within a game, people learn complex skills, form teams, and work hard at complex tasks—and pay for the opportunity to do so.

One intriguing variant is “Alternate Reality Games” ( Some people see this a new, better way to organize society, For example, McGonigal is a leading practitioner and advocate; the title of her recent book gives you the idea: Reality is broken : why games make us better and how they can change the world.  There is also a community web site, AKA “the secret hideout” (, 2012).

Kim, J. Y., Allen, J. P., & Lee, E. (2008). Alternate Reality Gaming. Communications of the ACM, 51(2), 36-42.

There are many interesting examples.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken : why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin Press. (I’m not sure this is really working.)

Virtual, Augmented, Mixed Reality – Digital systems have enabled whole new types of interactive media for communication, including Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Mixed Reality.  These media raise fundamental questions about human perception, but also offer rich opportunities for experimentation. Good foundational textbooks: (Craig, Sherman, & Will, 2009; Sherman & Craig, 2003) .

These media are becoming widely used for industrial training and advertising.  How should they best be used?

Digital sensing and realtime data analysis

Contemporary sensors and data analysis enable a number of radical interactive experiences.

Observing behavior  — extremely fine grained observations of human behavior in real life settings, including what is done, where, and with whom.  This opens the way to unprecedented new understandings of human behavior.  E.g., see Sandy Pentland’s work.

Pentland, A. (2008). Honest signals : how they shape our world. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Whole Body Interface, Embodied Computing – totally new interactive interfaces are possible beyond the Windows-Icon-Menu-Pointer (WIMP) paradigm.  Can we interact with a computer or other people via computer, through gesture, dance, music?

England, D. (2011). Whole Body Interaction: An Introduction. In D. England (Ed.), Whole Body Interaction (pp. 1-5). London: Springer.

Pietrowicz, M., McGrath, R. E., Garnett, G., & Toenjes, J. (2010). Multimodal Gestural Interaction in Performance. Paper presented at the Whole Body Interfaces Workshop at CHI 2010, Atlanta.

Schiphorst, T. (2009a). Body Matters: The Palpability of Invisible Computing. Leonardo, 42(3), 225-230.

Van Laerhoven, K., & Cakmacki, O. (2000, October 16-17). What shall we teach our pants? Paper presented at the Fourth International Symposium on Wearable Computers, Atlanta.

Immersive and Telematic art – This technology is now in the hands of performing artists, and challenge existing aesthetics and practice—artists must now create new approaches to music, dance, theater.

Schiphorst, T. (2009b). soft(n): toward a somaesthetics of touch. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 27th international conference extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems, Boston, MA, USA.

Smith, B. D. (2011). Telematic Composition. (Ph.D. Dissertation), University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Urbana.

Personal Fabrication-

Digital fabrication is now available at low cost the means of production in the hands of everyone, e.g, see (Gershenfeld, 2005). This is as much a social movement as a technological one.  It has been ballyhooed as the “Industrial Revolution 2.0”, and certainly has many potential implications for economics, design, and manufacturing.  It also has significant implications for personal agency—learning how to make it yourself is profoundly liberating.

Gershenfeld, N. (2005). Fab: The Coming Revolution OnYour Desktop-From Personal Computing to Personal Fabrication. New York: Basic Books .

Mota, C. (2011). The Rise of Personal Fabrication. Paper presented at the Creativity & Cognition, Atlanta.

In my local town:

Fab Lab:

Maker space:

Cross species interfaces – Contemporary computer technology enables us to create interfaces that can be used by non-humans (pets, domestic animals, who knows).  E.g, we can play computer games with hamsters (Tan et al., 2008). Why would we want to do this?  What are the implications for all participants? See reviews in (Mancini, 2011; McGrath, 2009).

Mancini, C. (2011). Animal-computer interaction: a manifesto. interactions, 18(4), 69-73. doi: 10.1145/1978822.1978836

McGrath, R. E. (2009). Species-appropriate computer mediated interaction. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 27th international conference extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems, Boston, MA, USA.

Tan, R. T. K. C., Cheok, A. D., Peiris, R., Todorovic, V., Loi, H. C., Loh, C. W., . . . Yio, E. Z. (2008). Metazoa Ludens: Mixed Reality Interactions and Play for Small Pets and Humans. Leonardo, 41(3), 308-309.

Happy New Year

Let’s make a gentle start to this blog with a little nothing.

I love New Year’s, it’s a great holiday.  Mainly, I love the feeling of starting new, which even can help old, ongoing troubles.

Living in a college town we actually get a bunch of New Year’s every year.  After the New Year’s day, school resumes The lights come back on, everyone returns to a new set of classes, and a new chance.

In a few months spring begins.  The big thaw and greening is a new year everywhere, and it is difficult not to enjoy it.  Furthermore, school ends, and graduates jump shift to something totally new.

At the end of the summer, a new school year begins.  Tens of thousands of folks suddenly arrive and begin anew.  New classes, new lodgings, new contracts, lots of new people.

This cycle continues, with the churn of people, activities, opportunities. This is one of the best things about hanging out on and near campus.

A personal blog.

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