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Decaffeinated Europe March 26, 2009

Posted by Brian Pfeifer in History.

Like many people in the industrialized world, I begin each morning with a cup of tea. How many internet startups were fueled by coffee and Mountain Dew? Coffee, tea, chocolate, and cola tend to spark the mind and ease our sagging spirits.

But…there was a time when Europe had no caffeine. No, I’m not talking about the shortages during WWII. Rather, there are no major caffeine sources native to Europe. The Roman Empire and its medieval successor states were caffeine free. They had no quick pick me ups in the middle of the afternoon. Their intellectuals couldn’t hang out at a coffee shop hammering out new models for the universe or human interaction.

My question is, did the arrival of caffeine impact the rate of technological and society changes in Europe? To do this, we first need to determine when major sources of caffeine became generally available. It’s not enough to say when the it started to trickle in, but rather when could the average middleclass man or woman enter a shop and buy a cup of coffee, tea, or chocolate?

Surprisingly, the answer is about the same for all three beverages. Since I’m a tea drinker, that’s where I’ll start. The Chinese consumed tea at least since the 10th Century BC. Tea drinking fueled all of the great Chinese empires. Their monks and other intellectual drank the golden liquor and refined its ceremonies. They passed tea drinking on to their Himalayan neighbors to the south, Mongolians to the north, and eventually to the Islamic nations to the west.
The Portuguese established their first Asian trading colony in Macau in 1557, and soon started sending tea samples back home. Czar Michael I of Russia received a gift of tea from China in 1618. This led to the great camel tea caravans connecting Russia and China. By the 17th Century, the Dutch East India Company was making regular tea deliveries to Holland, and coffee houses were popping up in England and on the continent.

The story of coffee is similar. Ethiopians were drinking coffee at least by the 9th Century. From there the beverage spread to their neighbors, making its way to Egypt, Arabia, and eventually Turkey. A lively cross Mediterranean trade sprang up and during the Renaissance small quantities of coffee appeared in Venice. In 1600 Pope Clement VIII paved the way for the further spread by declaring that coffee was an acceptable beverage for a Christian to drink. By the late 17th Century coffee houses were springing up in England.

Chocolate arrived in Europe courtesy of the Spanish conquest of Central and South America. Chocolate drinking was well established in prehistoric Mexico at least by 1100 BC. After the Spanish massacred the Aztecs, they brought cocoa beans back to Spain along with the rest of their loot. In 1585 a regular chocolate trade sprang up between Vera Cruz and Savilla. Like our other two beverages, chocolate drinking houses appeared in England by the middle of the 17th Century.

All three beverages appeared on the European stage at about the same time. Did these accelerate the pace of change on the continent? Can the spread of coffee to Arabia help explain the flowering of Islamic art, medicine, and scientific inquiry? How important were coffee, tea, and chocolate to establishing the modern world?


Space Startup Scorecard 2009 January 17, 2009

Posted by Brian Pfeifer in ARCA, Armadillo Aerospace, Bigelow Aerospace, Blue Origin, Canadian Arrow, PlanetSpace, Rocketplane Kistler, Space Startups, SpaceDev, SpaceX, Starchaser, Tspace, UP Aerospace, X Class Orgs, XCOR.

The last time I did the scorecard was in 2007. Surprisingly, not a lot has changed. This was caused by two factors. First, not all of the companies are still pursuing private manned spaceflight. Instead Xcor and Planetspace are becoming engine and other parts suppliers to aerospace businesses. Others, like Transformational Space would like to be prime contractors and project managers rather than really hardware guys.

The second reason is that the milestones I have listed are extremely challenging. A few years ago, I don’t think most of us realized just how challenging they would be. ARCA, for example, has had multiple drop tests and balloon flights with various hardware configurations. They’ve also designed and test fired several engines and fuel combinations. They just haven’t fired a rocket after launching it on a balloon. They are progressing, but it’s painfully slow when viewed from the outside.

One other thing became clear as I read over company websites and profiles filling in the scorecards. Almost every one of these businesses submitted a proposal for NASA’s COTS program. We’ll dig a little deeper into that at a later date.

I’ve highlighted the few changes to the scorecard to make it easier to read.

Aerospace Startup Scorecard 2009

Aerospace Startup Scorecard 2009

Houses of the Mind: Part II January 12, 2009

Posted by Brian Pfeifer in Future Development.
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We are still in the very earliest stages of building digital environments, and we have little idea of what their long-term implications will be. Just as moving our activities from the field into buildings, so too will these new structures radically alter how we live and work. One change that is already upon us is an increased ability or need to multitask.

The other day, my wife was knitting. This in itself does not appear to be technology intensive activity, but she was sitting in front of her laptop as she whiled away the afternoon. Why was her laptop important? She was watching an instructional video by knitting legend Elizabeth Zimmermann while she worked. In fact she was following instructions in the video. Of course the knitting took longer than the instructions, so she would pause Mrs. Zimmermann, and switch over to an episode of “Private Practice” until she competed a section of the garment, and went back for more instructions. While switching between video sources, she would pause just long enough to check and possibly respond to emails. Let’s not forget about Facebook. She had to update her status and see what her friends were up to at the same time.

What’s amazing, is not how many things she was doing all at once, but rather how normal it all is. At work, we think nothing of checking the weather forecast between responding to our boss’s email and writing important documentation. As portable networked devices become ubiquitous, this will only accelerate. While waiting in line a Starbucks you’ll check sports scores while writing the next great American novel. At the same time your calendar reminds you of an old friend’s impending birthday.

Will this technology make our world better? It depends on how we employ them. Walls and roofs meant that we could continue to work even in bad weather, and provided a safe place to recover from illness, and store food. At the same time, walls can be built to control our movement, fracture societies, and limit our opportunities. We have it in us to determine the future of our newly constructed environments. But we must take control of them with knowledge and intention and wisdom.

Keeping our Kids Safe Online January 8, 2009

Posted by Brian Pfeifer in News and politics.
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Usually when the media cover this topic it is from a place of either alarmist hysteria or vague theoretical suggestions. Statements like, “the internet is full of dangerous and potentially harmful individuals,” are just as unhelpful as, “parents should be engaged in their children’s online activities.”  Parents need some simple, straightforward, and effective methods for dealing with the confusing challenges of raising children in this digital age.

When I was a child I was bombarded with numerous admonitions. Don’t play with knives. Don’t talk to strangers. Look both ways before you cross the street. Never get into a stranger’s car. Don’t eat the red berries. Of course my parents presented me with these truths whenever necessary, but I also received the same messages from Sesame Street, and the myriad of other children’s television programs, songs, and other media. This is what we need as a first step towards protecting our children in the Internet enhanced world we live in.

I don’t have all of the answers, but we could start with something like, “Ask your parents before giving out your address.” This one is good because it works in physical situations as well as digital ones. Maybe we could add, “introduce your parents to all new online friends.” This would give parents a chance to vet the people their children stumble across in online communities. This is not a complete list, but rather a starting point for the conversation. If we can put together a few effective messages, we can add them to the regular list of admonitions and safety bits included in the popular media or similar places.

That’s just my two bits.

Chasing the Meme January 4, 2009

Posted by Brian Pfeifer in History, Language.
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How do we trace the spread of ideas around the world? With hard technologies this is relatively straightforward. If you find a bronze mirror in a tomb from 200 BC, then you can be certain they had access to bronze mirrors in that location at that time. What about more abstract concepts like time? Linguistics may point to a method for tracking some of these concepts. For what follows I must acknowledge Professor John McWhorter and his lecture series, “Understanding Linguistics: The Science of Language.”

It has been demonstrated that there is link between the way we speak and the way we think in a several particular examples. I’m not talking about the classic Sapir-Worf hypothesis that grammar and vocabulary channel thought in a fairly gross way. Rather the Neo-Worfians have demonstrated less striking but more concrete links between some concepts and language. The two specific examples I know about are representations of time, and the gender of nouns.

To my knowledge the Neo-Worfians have not proven the causal link between the two. It could be that the thought processes dictate language development, or that the language dictates the thought process. They have, however, proven that there is a strong link between the two. For example, in English we have a tendency to talk about time in terms of length, as if you could measure it on a ruler. Spanish speakers, are more likely use terms of volume as if you could fill up a jar with time.

Daniel Cassanto conducted a series of experiments where he showed subjects a lengthening line or a jar filling with water as representations time measurements. The English speakers were much better at estimating the duration when using the line than the jar. The opposite held true for the Spanish speakers. Cassanto went on to confirm that this also holds true for Greek speakers who use length for time as well.

Our language clearly indicates how we think about this very abstract concept of measuring time. It is a theory that is easily testable for any language in the world, and I’m confident we will see it hold true in almost every case. Of course, we will probably find languages that use other methods for describing time, but that will only make the research richer.

Now, all of that was just background so we can get to the meat of this. A survey of the worlds languages can then be used to create a map of time measurement language, and therefore of thought. Who knows what patterns this exercise will reveal. More interestingly, this could be the start of discovering how these two (or more) concepts spread around the world.

Historical linguistics provides many tools for analyzing and reconstructing elements from our linguistic past, and even from dead languages. These could start to create a map of the movement of this idea through time. Thus leading us on the path to tracking down their origins in both time and space.

If this search yields an origin for these time concepts, and creates a distribution, then it will be valuable to research other words with a positive link between language and thought. What else could we look into? Perhaps the language of harvesting, or moving a boat, or anything we do that is more of a technique than a physical tool. For example, we pick fruit, and mow hay. Do our words indicate where we got these ideas from or how we think about the process? I don’t know, but the research tools exist. All we need to do is reach out and grab them.

A Very Merry Christmas at SpaceX December 24, 2008

Posted by Brian Pfeifer in Armadillo Aerospace, Space News, Space Startups, SpaceX.
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Santa has been very good to SpaceX this year. They just received the 1.6 billion dollar Cargo Resupply Service (CRS) contract from NASA. This means that they will start delivering supplies to the ISS in 2010. This also places the company of firm financial footing so they can pursue their plans to ramp up the Falcon 9 production lines to full capacity. With options to extend the contract for up to $3.1 billion, this is a juicy award, and it represents a substantial percentage of NASA’s $16 – $20 billion annual budget.

I don’t know how many SpaceX employees are celebrating though. With their first Falcon 9 arriving at Cape Canaveral in sections, they have a log of work ahead of them. They claim they will complete vehicle integration before the first of the New Year, but I think they have their work cut out for them.

With Falcon 9 at Space Launch Complex 40, White Night 2 performing test flights, and Armadillo Aerospace holding the Lunar Lander Challenge prize, it’s an exciting time for the New Space businesses.

Rapid Response Theater December 20, 2008

Posted by Brian Pfeifer in Future Development.
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I know theater sounds like a “soft” topic, but there’s a lot of technology employed in theater today, and it’s only going to get more tech-heavy as time progresses. Most theatrical performances employ strictly pre-planned lighting and sound cues, and static sets, but what if all of that could be changed on the fly, in the middle of a performance?

During the day, our concert hall is used by the Edutainers to perform plays and musicals for the general public, so it is fully equipped with modern technical theater equipment. At night, we use the space for a quiz game show for our students, as well as weekly opening and closing ceremonies. During these events, the booth operators are often called upon to change things without warning. The MC’s for the quiz game may throw in an arm wrestling or hoola-hoop competition on a whim. When that happens the booth person changes the lighting appropriately. If he has an ipod, he can also rapidly select audio tracks and pipe them out over the sound system.

We also make heavy use of the video projector to show PowerPoint slides during these events. What if you used a few projectors to create backdrops for theater? With appropriately structured libraries, it would be trivial to change the scenery at the same pace as improv artists make up their lines. Digital audio allows for rapid selection of soundtracks or even sound effects ranging from doorbells to explosions. Most professional theaters already employ digital lighting systems, so they are already prepared for dynamic theater.

Video cell phones will change our lives. December 20, 2008

Posted by Brian Pfeifer in Future Development.
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I witnessed something today that presages the future of hand-held video communications. My wife and I were shopping for yarn in Seoul’s famous Domdaemun market. This is a mammoth textile wholesale and retail building with thousands of small vendors. While my wife picked out yarn for her next knitting projects I watched the pair of Korean women next to her. They were having a lively three-way conversation while poring over yarn swatches in the merchant’s product binder.

I did mention that these two women were having a three-way conversation, right? The third member of the group was on the other end of a video cell phone connection. The two women did not point the camera on the phone at themselves, but rather at the swatch book. Obviously their third, invisible partner was selecting the correct color and style of yarn with their help.

From this little tableau we can glimpse the future role these digital device will likely have. Anyone who does purchasing for a business will be able to use the video link to shorten their purchase approval cycle by showing samples to his boss while still out in the field. Speaking of out in the field, can you imagine a junior electrician who spots an oddity on while working on an electrical connection at the top of a telephone pole. He whips out his phone and calls up a senior electrician with 40 years of experience. He shows his senior partner the oddity and asks for advice before he blacks out the entire neighborhood.

Taking a photo and sending it to a friend or coworker is fine, but it is far more cumbersome than live video, even of poor quality, for real time conversations. This will allow us to share some visual information as easily as we share audio information. Personally I look forward to the day when I’m in the grocery store, and I point the camera at the shelves while asking my wife, “they have three varieties of soy sauce. Which one of these do you want?”

Happy Birthday NASA October 1, 2008

Posted by Brian Pfeifer in Uncategorized.
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Wow, you’ve come a longs way… From your early days as a follow-on to the aeronautics research body, NASA, to Lunar pioneers, to robotic explorers, to environmental researchers. You have transformed with the needs of every generation since your inception. I can’t wait to see what you accomplish in the next fifty years. I have dreams of Moon and Mars outposts, but then again, so did Von Braun.

SpaceX Success! September 28, 2008

Posted by Brian Pfeifer in News and politics, SpaceX.

SpaceX finally made it to orbit with their fourth attempted launch. This is the first privately funded spacecraft design and launch to reach orbit. The Falcon 1 Launcher was topped with a dummy payload to demonstrate functional capabilities to their paying customers.

The orbital launch today clears the way for commercial satellite launch for Malaysia later this year, and the first flight of the much larger Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral this winter. SpaceX joins Scaled Composites as the second X-Prize team to successfully put vehicles into space.