Space!

Today seems like a good day to share the space-related news I’ve saved up, as I sit here watching the Orion launch NASA TV.

The first 3D object has been printed in space

History was made on November 24th at 9:28pm GMT, when the first 3D printer built to operate in space successfully manufactured its first part on the International Space Station (ISS). This is the first time that hardware has been additively manufactured in space, as opposed to launching it from Earth.

This is an excellent step forward for space travel – our first steps toward an on-board replicator! I think the best part of the story is that the part they made was a piece for the machine itself.

RadioIIS – Listening to Earth from Space

RadioIIS combines the live HD video stream from NASA’s High Definition Earth Viewing experiment, and using their database of audio streams from around the world, plays the “nearest” audio stream at that moment, allowing you to hear the music of a place as the ISS floats overhead.

Waterfalls are out

Ars Technica has an interesting read on Microsoft’s evolving development practices. The article has a perfect description of the development practices at UNC:

For example, lots of companies develop in-house applications to automate various business processes. In the course of developing these applications, it’s often discovered that the old process just isn’t that great. Developers will discover that there are redundant steps, or that two processes should be merged into one, or that one should be split into two. Electronic forms that mirror paper forms in their layout and sequence can provide familiarity, but it’s often the case that rearranging the forms can be more logical. Processes that were thought to be understood and performed by the book can be found to work a little differently in practice.

Often, these things are only discovered after the development process has begun, either during development or even after deployment to end users.

This presents a great problem when attempting to do all the design work up front. The design can be perfectly well-intentioned, but if the design is wrong or needs to be changed in response to user feedback, or if it turns out not to be solving the problem that people were hoping it would solve (and this is extremely common), the project is doomed to fail. Waiting until the end of the waterfall to discover these problems means pouring a lot of time and money into something that isn’t right.

“We spent money on it years ago and it needs to be implemented” never ends up well.

Survivorship bias

David McRaney wrote an excellent article on Survivorship bias. The crux of the bias is that people tend to make the mistake of only analyzing survivors of a situation or problem, not paying attention to those that did not survive because they’re no longer visible:

Survivorship bias pulls you toward bestselling diet gurus, celebrity CEOs, and superstar athletes… Colleges and conferences prefer speakers who shine as examples of making it through adversity, of struggling against the odds and winning. The problem here is that you rarely take away from these inspirational figures advice on what not to do, on what you should avoid, and that’s because they don’t know. Information like that is lost along with the people who don’t make it out of bad situations or who don’t make it on the cover of business magazines – people who don’t get invited to speak at graduations and commencements and inaugurations.

In short, the advice business is a monopoly run by survivors. As the psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “A stupid decision that works out well becomes a brilliant decision in hindsight.”

My favorite part was his demonstration of the bias with a fantastic story from World War II:

As with the torpedo problem, the top brass explained what they knew, and the Panel presented the problem to Wald and his group. How, the Army Air Force asked, could they improve the odds of a bomber making it home? Military engineers explained to the statistician that they already knew the allied bombers needed more armor, but the ground crews couldn’t just cover the planes like tanks, not if they wanted them to take off. The operational commanders asked for help figuring out the best places to add what little protection they could. It was here that Wald prevented the military from falling prey to survivorship bias, an error in perception that could have turned the tide of the war if left unnoticed and uncorrected. See if you can spot it.

The military looked at the bombers that had returned from enemy territory. They recorded where those planes had taken the most damage. Over and over again, they saw the bullet holes tended to accumulate along the wings, around the tail gunner, and down the center of the body. Wings. Body. Tail gunner. Considering this information, where would you put the extra armor? Naturally, the commanders wanted to put the thicker protection where they could clearly see the most damage, where the holes clustered. But Wald said no, that would be precisely the wrong decision. Putting the armor there wouldn’t improve their chances at all.

I won’t spoil the surprise – even knowing what the bias is, I didn’t guess why it was a bad decision.