Saturday, July 08, 2006

What's Old Is Still Old II

Established technology tends to persist in the face of new technology. ~ Gerritt A. Blaauw

The other night the Science Channel had a program on amateur rocketry. Well, actually they had a “biker build-off” masquerading as a program on rocketry. There wasn't as much screaming as you get in those fruitcake custom-motorcycle-or-car-that-no-one-can-ride-or-drive shows, but they tried to maintain that sort of ambiance. One so-called rocketeer launched a porta-john; they spent almost an entire segment on this slightly loony character, whose idea of rocketry as a hobby was to stick a small rocket engine on anything. Another group of people were the “hillbilly rocketeers”, one of whom said, “Some of us even graduated high school.” Another guy, who looked like your archetypal homeless wino, launched a cardboard box.

But most of the people were doing serious rocketry and having fun doing it. The show couldn't decide whether this was model rocketry or amateur rocketry, probably because they didn't know that there's a difference. Model rocketry is generally unregulated, utilizing fairly small (under 3 feet long) rockets, which attain respectable altitudes but fall far short of needing to call the FAA for clearance. Because they are ready-made kits, they tend to be reasonably safe, or at least as safe as anything with a small rocket engine can be.

Amateur rockets are a whole 'nother matter. They are bigger, often much, much bigger (like say 10 or 15 feet long). People have actually put little science payloads (and the occasional small critter) in some of these things. They are also much more dangerous, since they are usually hand built, although stock engines are available. It's just that amateur rockets often use several of them at once. People who do amateur rockets spend serious amounts of money, and, even if they call themselves “hillbillies”, they have a sound grasp of how a rocket works and the risks therein.

One of the featured teams, whose name I regrettably forget, built a genuinely serious piece of equipment. Designed to go Mach 2 and reach over 15,000 feet (and probably higher), this was a genuine rocket that any professional rocketeer could appreciate. Best of all, it worked. Not only did it fly flawlessly, it's chute deployed and it's sections landed softly. The team was justifiably proud. Then one of them got carried away.

As they carried the rocket back after it landed, one of them shouted something to the effect that hobbyists were still a source of innovation. Innovation? Let's see what old Merriam-Webster has to say about innovation:

Innovation: Function: noun; 1) the introduction of something new; 2) a new idea, method, or device.

Now, before I start, I want to emphasize that I am not downplaying the work these guys did, but it's important that we recognize the difference between innovation and what they did.

Their rocket would have looked familiar to the gang who used to work at White Sands, NM in the 1950's. It looked like a baby WAC Corporal rocket (where that name came from, I have no idea). There was no sophisticated guidance, just three fins to give the missile a ballistic rotation. Their fuel was standard solid rocket fuel, concocted from a NASA recipe. The body was made from some off-the-shelf (but expensive) composite material. The chute was deployed using a gas cartridge. It was a beautiful missile, but it was still yesterday's news.

Calling that creation an example of innovation shows that we just don't know what real innovation is any longer. If you're looking for an example of innovations from hobbyists, you have to look no further than that device connecting you to this blog. The computer and especially its software were propelled forward by imaginative hackers who juiced up those original dinky Commodores and early PC's into machines that could do more with less. The early programming languages owed much of their development to dedicated amateurs who were looking for ways to do things more easily with minimal resources.

HP and Apple were started by guys in garages soldering capacitors to bread boards by hand.

The modern corporate world is not interested in innovation. So who's going to fund the guys in the garages? Well, it seems that Warren Buffett is going leave $35 billion to, of all people, Bill Gates to put into his foundation. So far, Gates' foundation is doing good works but not doing much to foster new ideas. Buffett spent a career getting rich by ruining good companies. It would be nice if he would decide to atone for that by setting up a fund for innovators. You can generate a lot of new ideas with $35 billion.

Alternatively, he could use the dough to recreate something like the old Bell Labs, a place where people could work on screwy ideas for years without pressure to generate profit-making products every month. Every major corporation that had major pure research centers have folded or severely restricted them. We're in desperate need of those places, derided as “ivory towers” by Wall Street types. Well, these “ivory towers” gave us the transistor, vaccines, the modern computer interface (including a “windowed” interface and a mouse, neither of which came from Apple originally), among other things.

In fact, maybe Bill Gates or his free-spending former partner, Paul Allen ought to be funding such an effort. Well, maybe not. Someone in a think tank might finally come up with a secure operating system that's easy to install, easy to use, and runs on simple hardware. Something like that could seriously reduce the dividends those guys collect each quarter.

Philanthropy is one thing; cutting into their quarterly dividend income is quite another.

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