Thursday, December 17, 2020

How to Colonize Space: Spaceship Rail Launcher

A major problem with using Rocket fuel to launch objects into space is that the majority of the energy spent launching the rocket is consumed just to lift the weight of the rocket fuel itself.  Only a small fraction of the energy consumed is actually used to launch the real payload.  This is extremely inefficient.

It currently takes about $50,000 per pound to launch a satellite into space using conventional rocket technology.  This is a huge barrier to making space travel practical for large scale development.  This cost needs to be made dramatically cheaper to enable broader development of space.  If we can get this cost down to around a $1,000 per pound or less then space colonization becomes a very interesting very real possibility.

This Wikipedia article has a nice summary of some inspiring out of the box ideas for launching spaceships into orbit without using inefficient rocket fuel technology.  There are even some interesting ideas from NASA referenced here.

There is a lot of good info listed above but most of these concepts are still impractical for resource, cost, and/or engineering reasons.  

While many of these ideas are interesting and inspiring, let me propose the right way to launch spaceships into space.  Are you listening Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos ?  How about you Russia or China ? 

In short divide the work into three incremental phases, and leverage a local mountain range.  For the United States let's say the Rocky Mountains.

Phase 1: Micro Satellites

The goal for phase one will be to launch micro satellites using electromagnetic rail gun technology.  This will be the base technology for all three phases, but the technology will be scaled up in phase two and three for larger payloads.  Meanwhile once phase one is completed it will bring in revenue to fund phase two and then again similarly for phase two to three.

The Navy has already demonstrated rail gun technology capable of launching projectiles 100 miles.  The fact that the gun is too expensive to be practical on warships is immaterial for launching satellites.  What matters for satellites is that the technology is already proven.  

To launch satellites we just need to tilt the gun barrel up a little to get the little buggers into orbit. 😎  OK, maybe we need to harden the satellites for a bit before launching, and make the gun barrel a bit longer for less G forces, but fundamentally most of the technology already exists.  It just needs adjustment.  Space is defined as 60 miles in altitude.

Micro satellites are small satellites that are only a few inches in diameter and weigh only a couple of pounds.  In other words very similar in scale to existing rail gun test projectiles.

Phase 2: Large Satellites

Two major adjustments will need to be made to handle the more traditional larger satellites planned for phase two.  The rail gun will need to handle much larger and heavier payloads, and the gun barrel will need to be significantly extended to enable lower G forces exerted on the more fragile payloads.  This is where the mountain range comes into play.

A mountain or hillside is suggested for this phase to enable supporting a long inclined track of a mile or two.  The longer track will allow for slower acceleration of the payload to reduce G forces as it is brought up to a velocity sufficient to escape the earth's gravity.

An investment in some new machinery to automate building of the barrel tube structure is also recommended.  Refer to some existing large tunneling machinery that simultaneously installs tunneling support walls as it digs for inspiration in design.  Investing in this technology will also be useful as an incremental learning step toward phase three.  As with Phase one, when phase two is complete, it can generate revenue to support the next phase three.

Another consideration in phase two beyond the size and length of the launch tube, is air pressure and air friction.  The target payload should be encased in a heat resistant shell to absorb the heat from air friction.  To help with air friction heat as well as to improve the efficiency of acceleration vacuum pumps should also be leveraged to reduce air pressure in the tube.

Yet another consideration is managing collisions with birds and similar creatures at the exit of the launch tube.  The increased elevation at the tube exit should reduce the bird count.  Nonetheless radars could be used to check the flight path at launch, and lasers could also be used as a secondary precaution at launch time, sighted down the path of trajectory.

Phase 3: Manned Spaceships

The target payload for phase three is humans, which will have an even lower tolerance for G forces than large satellites.  So for phase three the launch tube length should be in the 30 to 60 mile range.  This will require searching terrain maps to find the most suitable site, that contains the desired slope to minimize the required support structure for the launch tube.

The tube should be laser straight and tilted upward as much as the terrain will enable.  Making the tube straight will reduce the complexity and risk involved with managing turns in a gun barrel traveling at 50,000 feet per second.

The target payload should be a small spaceship capable of flying in space once propelled out of earth's atmosphere.


The driving strategies behind this proposal are:

  • Use mostly static methods to increase reliability and efficiency, verses consuming vast quantities of fuel per launch.
  • Use mostly existing technologies instead of relying on the breakthrough invention of radically new materials and/or technologies.
  • Leverage the existing natural terrain when building the very large support superstructure of the launch tube, verses other extreme resource intensive designs such as entire man made mountains.
Colonizing space has been the mainstay of science fiction for decades.  One of the principal barriers to widespread space development is the cost of launching material into space.  This plan is achievable using mostly existing technology and even within the cost budgets of many nations.  It is exciting to think that mankind's push into space is getting closer to reality every day.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Cool Live Stream Webcams

Here are a few cool live stream webcams I just found on the web.  I'm sorry but these are just too cool.  I suppose there will be more and more of these coming online in the future.  Pretty cool way to travel the world without leaving your chair.  

From Truck: 

Live stream from a big rig truck as it drives down the road !  Really ?  Wow.

Lakeway, Texas:  

This is the same lake my cabin is on, but my view is better.  This makes me want to install a webcam after I get my utilities in.

Times Square, New York

London Traffic


St. Petersburg Russia

Webcam Map

McDonald Observatory

This is a Youtube channel from the west Texas UT observatory that hosts live stream events, and has those recorded as well.  Pretty interesting if you're into astronomy.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Video: Powered Parachute Flying by the Cabin

Pretty cool video of someone having a nice sunset float in the sky over Lake Travis.  Taken November 21, 2020.


Video: Felling an Oak Tree at My Cabin

Here is a video of me having fun with my chain saw.  This is one of the several trees we took down around my cabin to make way for new construction.  Luckily I still have lots of good oaks remaining on the lot.


Monday, November 16, 2020

Computer Architecture: Efficient Micro Parallel Synchronization Mechanisms

I have often wondered why modern computer instruction set architectures do not have more efficient parallel synchronization mechanisms.  Current mainstream microprocessor designs currently support two types of parallelism.

  • Very fine grain
    • Hardware based implicit instruction level
    • Implemented via advanced pipeline register renaming.
    • Synchronization delays on the order of a single cycle.
  • Very course grain
    • Software based explicit thread synchronization primitives
    • Implemented via atomic memory instructions.
    • Synchronization delays on the order of tens of thousands of cycles or more.
With CPU clock frequencies beginning to plateau it may be time to revisit architectural synchronization models as a method to continue improving overall program performance.  If we have any bright PHD candidates reading this fishing for a dissertation topic, please consider this.

Parallel Architecture Models

At the process level we have the architectural notion of an interrupt.  But at the thread level this does not exist.  We have to rely on threads spinning in a loop reading and writing a shared memory location together with memory synchronization barriers and no architectural specification about how long this can take.  This is ridiculous.  We can't have efficient parallel programming if the programming model has no mechanism to facilitate it.  We need some data queue or message passing mechanism or interrupt that operates at the instruction architecture level if we are to enable efficient parallel programming.

Explicit Instruction Level Parallelism

I would like to see an efficient software visible instruction level synchronization mechanism.  For example, something like a 'Queue Register'.  Some existing IO registers track read and write state.  I'm thinking some general purpose registers could similarly be architected for managing data flow synchronization at the register data level.  Such registers could essentially stall the execution pipeline on reads until a write to that register has occurred.  So the register effectively acts as a 'data queue' at the instruction execution level.  This would enable software control of fine grain parallelism, opening up potentially more real parallelism than relying on hardware to extract parallelism from an inherently sequential programming model.

Since all compute state needs to be visible in order to stop, save, and later restart a process, status bits will also need to track the read/write data state of each queue register.  CPU pipelines could be redesigned to key off of these explicit reg data states, instead of implicit internal hardware states.  Just like current hardware threads swap in whichever thread has data ready, these new threads could work the same way.  The primary difference being the data ready state is now software architecturally visible.

Further note that these hardware queue registers are effectively thread state ready registers, analogous to ready state flags in operating system thread schedulers.  Since these ready flags are intended for micro data level parallelism, they should be closely aligned to the real register thread state supported by the hardware, as opposed to some arbitrary virtual state that relies on time slicing and swapping threads in and out of hardware.  While time slicing is theoretically possible it would blow up performance by 10000 times, entirely defeating the advantage of micro level parallelism.

So there is a different mind set when programming this level of parallelism.  This type of parallelism should have some awareness of the number of hardware threads efficiently supported by hardware, as opposed to some very course grain parallelism that has little concern about real hardware thread counts.  The implication is that this level of coding is more appropriate for hand coded assembly or for compilers.


Politics: The Political Divide (Urban verses Rural)

The 2020 US presidential election is over and it looks like Joe Biden will be replacing Donald Trump as the next US president.  From what I've gathered from the talking heads on network TV and the internet there is a lot of angst about our deeply divided country.  Some even talk about doing away with the Electoral College.  

When I look at the electoral results map it is blindingly painfully obvious that conservative red districts are rural, and liberal blue districts are urban.  This makes perfect sense to me so I don't get why this is so hard for the major media talking heads to understand.  A rural farmer living on a 100 acre farm by absolute necessity has to be far more self sufficient and independent than a desk jockey living in a high rise condo in a large metropolis.  Duh.  This ain't rocket science. 

If you live on a rural farm, and someone is breaking into your house in the middle of the night, you don't hide in the closet and dial 911, you grab your gun and deal with it.  Waiting an hour for the sheriff to arrive is not an option, especially if you have family.  

When you're plowing your field and your tractor breaks down you get your toolbox and start diagnosing what is wrong.  Why ?  Because waiting a week for a repairmen is not an option for your crop schedule or your wallet.

Global warming ?  That is concerning, but more concerning right now for the working rural poor are their bleeding knuckles and what their family is going to eat tonight.

So can we please stop demonizing the working rural poor who voted for less federal bureaucracy and more job security in their lives ?  Donald Trump may be a narcissistic self serving ass, but that doesn't mean he is always wrong.  Let's not forget there is a reason he got elected for his first term.

And regarding the Electoral College, this is the mechanism that the framers of the constitution came up with to balance out the rural state needs with the urban population focused house of representatives.  Anyone who talks about scrapping the Electoral College without some other mechanism to represent the working rural poor is risking disenfranchising the working rural poor.  That is self serving, oppressive, and potentially grounds for civil war, so uh, probably not a good idea.

So please remember, we don't all live in high rise urban condos and have high paying jobs.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The McLaughlin Group

I miss John McLaughlin.

John McLaughlin brought together opinions from both the left and right in one show in an intelligent, informative, and entertaining fashion.  It seems every news show I watch now is hopelessly partisan and panders to one side or the other.  Listening to just one side of an issue not only impairs your judgement, it can harm your mental health and depress you.  It is literally how brain washing is done.

I notice that the show has recently rebooted on You tube with a new host.

This show has potential, but is not yet as good as the original.  Please keep bringing in new smart faces for both sides of current topics.  Hopefully some new leading personalities will develop.  

Make no mistake.  Both the left and right have have done plenty of evil before and will do so again if left unchecked.  If you don't present both sides of current issues, you are part of the problem, not the solution.  And if you're really cool (like John) you can even make it entertaining.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

AI: Artificial Intelligence

A few thoughts on AI and the future

The Promise of AI
Make a list of the worst problems in the world.  Imagine what would happen if you brought some super intelligence to that problem.  It makes me think the future may really get better.  Fascinating.  For example:
  • Big Problems to solve
    • Poverty 
      • Poverty is a big hard problem that intersects human social behavior, population, and natural resources.  It is important to realize that poverty can never be solved 100 %.  Humans have free will.  The most that can be accomplished is to enable and encourage able and willing persons to help themselves.   Think along the lines of an available Personal Virtual Advisor for every person born.  Even though we can't save those who don't want help, getting good advice from a trusted personal advisor would be a dramatic improvement over the current situation in the world today.  Today countless children are born into homes with parents who are ill equipped to offer any sound advice about important life decisions.  A super smart personal advisor could make a giant difference in poverty and general quality of life for many currently disadvantaged persons.
    • Effective Government Policy
    • Diagnostic medicine
    • Others ?

Beyond solving problems a super intelligence could push forward new technologies

  • New technologies
    • Artificial human organs
      • Want to live to 200 years or more ?
    • Artificial super strength human limbs
      • Want to run 30 miles an hour ?
      • Want to pick up a 400 pound box ?
    • Computer to human brain interfaces
      • Just think 'hey Google' to access any information in the world.
    • Artificial super vision or hearing
      • Want a better look at that stranger 100 yards away ?
      • Want to hear that conversation 100 yards away ?
    • Artificial human wings
      • Please please please yes.
      • I really want to be able to fly like a bird with wings I can flap.
    • Energy technologies
    • Spaceship design and propulsion
    • Personalized education
    • Others ?
The Danger of AI 

As some blockbuster movies have shown and some public figures have agreed, the dangers of AI are real.  It is naive to think that we can contain an intelligence 1000 times smarter than any human.  Maybe when AIs are twice as smart as us they will still have empathy for us like we do for apes.  But when they get to be 1000 times as smart as us humans will be like insects to them.  Also be aware they will be able to learn in seconds what takes us years to learn via our biological brains.  So given sufficient memory and compute processors they could learn in minutes what mankind has taken thousands of years to learn.
  • AI is more dangerous than nuclear energy
    • As such we need to think very carefully about how to proceed, particularly as the computational power of new computers approaches the human brain.  Regulating the computational / memory capacity of new computers may in fact be the key to safe forward progress.  
  • Open Source AI
    • Given the importance and danger of AI, making the source code open is important.
    • It seems to me web browsers are pushing the envelope on AI technology.  Many people routinely type questions into Google now to get answers for all manner of questions.  It seems to me we need more / better open source web browsers.
Solution (My Opinion):

Here is my suggestion to solve this problem.
  1. Invest heavily in man machine neural interfaces
  2. Have government limit the computational power of any machine to something along the lines of what a human brain is until our neural interface technology allows humans to interface efficiently with computers and we can optionally evolve into machines rather than being taken over by them...

Sam Harris on AI

Elon Musk on AI

Sunday, September 13, 2020

I'm Retired

Effective August 28th 2020, I am officially retired from corporate life.  I worked for 35 plus years, mostly for various semiconductor companies in Austin Texas.  I split that time alternating between working on instruction set simulators, and core design verification, most recently at AMD.  While I'm grateful for the paycheck these last several years, I have to say I'm happy to have the politics of large corporate America now behind me.

Going forward I expect to spend my time doing three things:

  1. Rebuilding my retirement cabin.  This will be a near term focus as I don't have the energy I had when I was younger for such physical activity, so the sooner the better.  Also the sooner I get it done the sooner I can enjoy it. 
  2. Traveling.  After the pandemic is behind us, and the weather is pleasant (probably next spring) I plan to buy a new van and drive a big loop around the country.  I tend to get bored quickly when I travel but do enjoy some sightseeing particularly when I am doing the driving and can control the pace and schedule.  I've made a smaller loop to the West coast before in my current van and enjoyed it.  I've traveled some in the past, including internationally, but have yet to the see the northwest and northeast corners of the US.  So this seems like a good time to make that long drive.  Anybody have any suggestions ?  From a scenic point of view I especially like the Rocky mountains, but I have already seen them multiple times.  I've also seen the Grand Canyon.  I have yet to see Meteor Crater in Arizona, so that is on my list for this trip. 
  3. RISCV.  As I indicated in a previous post, I'm a fan of this architecture, both technically and politically.  I think this will do for computer architecture, what Linux did for Operating Systems.  So as a way of continuing to exercise my mind, and potentially supplement my retirement income, I hope to make a few contributions here to help push this technology forward...

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Some Pictures

Me: Getting better looking every day.

My awesome cabin where I recharge my batteries most weekends.

Craig helping with Doss Road patio project (2013)
Patio after

Guadalupe Mtns Tx, 2013
Colorado 2013
Colorado 2013