Interstellar starships: feasible or fiction?

Enterprise at warp

Enterprise at warp” by 1darthvader is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

This post is based on a research paper I wrote for my Introduction to Astronomy course at Rasmussen College earlier this month.

As the Klingon ship bears down on the Starship Enterprise, preparing to fire a barrage of photon torpedoes, Captain Picard shouts “Maximum warp!” and the Enterprise leaps away towards another star system, faster than the speed of light. Is this scene from Star Trek purely science fiction, or is there truth to the concept of interstellar starships? Although significant scientific progress has been made in the area of space travel, energy requirements, high costs, and the problem of time still present enormous challenges to the vision of interstellar travel as portrayed in Star Trek and other films.

The nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, is about 25 trillion miles away from Earth. At the speed of a typical spacecraft, it would take more than 900 thousand years to cover this distance (Millis, 2008a)! Clearly, one of the first major barriers to interstellar travel is finding a way to achieve the speeds necessary to reach neighboring stars within a reasonable timeframe. This would require traveling close to the speed of light, at the very least. However, the amount of energy required to accelerate a ship like Star Trek’s Enterprise to just half the speed of light would be “more than 2000 times the total annual energy use of the world today” (Bennett, Donahue, Schneider, & Voit, 2014, p. 715). Where would such vast amounts of energy come from? While many ideas have been proposed, perhaps the most feasible of these was Project Orion, a propulsion system experimented with from the 1950s to 1960s which involved continuously detonating nuclear bombs behind a spaceship to propel it forward. Unfortunately, not only would this approach make for an uncomfortable ride, but it would also expose the crew to dangerous levels of radiation (Dyson, 2002). In the words of Aerospace Engineer Marc G. Millis (2008a), “we need either a breakthrough where we can take advantage of the energy in the space vacuum, a breakthrough in energy production physics, or a breakthrough where the laws of kinetic energy don’t apply” (last paragraph).

Supposing that the energy problem were solved, and a ship could achieve constant acceleration over any distance, it would only take about five years (from Earth’s perspective) to reach the nearest star, and thirteen years to reach Sirius (White, 2002). However, as the distance, acceleration period, and corresponding velocity increase an interesting effect known as time dilation starts to become apparent. The greater the ship’s speed, the slower time will pass for those onboard. A trip which takes thirteen years from the perspective of earth would only take seven years for the travelers, and even less time at rates of acceleration greater than 1G (White, 2002). For really long trips, thousands of years could pass on Earth while the travelers only experience a few decades! While this may seem like a beneficial effect, since it would allow travelers to reach destinations much further than otherwise possible, it presents an enormous problem for interstellar travel. What would be the point of sending individuals to other stars if their work would be of no benefit to those living on Earth? Any trip to a distant destination would almost certainly be one-way.

This brings us to the speculative realm of wormholes and warp drives. The special theory of relativity forbids objects from moving faster than light within space-time, but with enough matter or energy it is known that space-time itself can be warped and distorted (Millis, 2008b). In theory, space could be warped or “folded” to connect two separate points (creating a wormhole). Unfortunately, creating the wormhole would require placing a giant ring (“the size of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun”) of super-dense matter at each end of the wormhole, charging them with enormous amounts of energy, and spinning them up to “near the speed of light” (Millis, 2008b). Even if there were some way to obtain the necessary energy and super-dense matter, how would it be placed at the destination end without first traveling there? While wormholes could hypothetically be useful for frequent travel between two interstellar destinations, they do not provide a viable solution to getting there in the first place.

What about warp drives like those used in Star Trek? While the concept may sound impossible, according to a physicist named Miguel Alcubierre space could theoretically be compressed ahead of the ship and expanded behind it, allowing a ship to travel faster than light without violating the theory of relativity (Peckham, 2012). In effect, it is space that moves, rather than the ship. Unfortunately, creating a warp drive like this would require generating a ring of “negative energy,” and whether it is possible for such energy to exist is still under debate (Millis, 2008b). Assuming it is possible, it seems like this would be the most practical method of interstellar travel. It does not require long periods of time to accelerate and decelerate, passengers would not be jolted from changes in acceleration or pelted with particles of interstellar gas, and best of all time would pass at the same rate for the cosmic travelers as well as those remaining on Earth. NASA is currently in the very early stages of investigating whether such a drive is feasible.

With all the talk surrounding the possibility of moving starships through space at faster-than-light speeds, it is easy to forget that getting the ships into space in the first place is also a problem. In an article published on Gizmodo earlier this year, it was estimated that the cost of constructing a spaceship like the Starship Enterprise using technology available today would be roughly $480 billion (Limer, 2013). Astoundingly, more than 95% of this cost is simply to transport the necessary materials to space! This illustrates the disproportionately high cost of space transportation technology as it currently exists – putting a starship into space simply does not make economic sense at this point, even if we could build one.

In short, the enormous energy requirements, high cost, and problem of time all present significant roadblocks for interstellar travel. The theories proposed for faster-than-light travel are speculative at best, and far from practicality. While a breakthrough in propulsion allowing affordable, safe, and sustained acceleration could potentially allow us to reach the nearest stars, the problem of time dilation would make it infeasible to go further. Without major scientific advances in the areas of negative energy and space-time manipulation, the possibility of visiting an alien home world appears highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

References

Bennett, J., Donahue, M., Schneider, N., & Voit, M. (2014). The Cosmic Perspective (Seventh ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Dyson, G. (2002, February). The story of Project Orion. Retrieved from TED: http://www.ted.com/talks/george_dyson_on_project_orion.html

Limer, E. (2013, May 17). How Much Would It Cost to Build the Starship Enterprise? Retrieved from Gizmodo: http://gizmodo.com/how-much-would-it-cost-to-build-the-starship-enterprise-506174071

Millis, M. (2008a, May 2). A Look at the Scaling. Retrieved from NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/technology/warp/scales.html

Millis, M. (2008b, May 2). Ideas Based On What We’d Like To Achieve. Retrieved from NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/technology/warp/ideachev.html

Peckham, M. (2012, September 19). NASA Actually Working on Faster-than-Light Warp Drive. Retrieved from TIME.com: http://techland.time.com/2012/09/19/nasa-actually-working-on-faster-than-light-warp-drive/

White, R. B. (2002, August). Space Travel and Commerce using STL technologies. Retrieved from http://www.whiteworld.com/technoland/stories-nonfic/2008-stories/STL-commerce-01.htm

Google, ethics, and Internet censorship

I originally wrote this post last September as a research paper for my Business Ethics course at Rasmussen College. I decided to post it on my blog now since I still feel strongly about the issues of censorship and online privacy, especially in light of recent leaks about the NSA’s top-secret surveillance programs.

What if the websites and other content we want to access online had to first pass through a filter which determines whether or not the content is favorable to the government, and blocks it if it is deemed critical? Sadly, this scenario is currently a part of life in China. All companies and organizations that operate within the country are required to comply with censorship laws and report the activities of citizens to the government. These conditions presented an interesting dilemma for Internet search giant Google, which was forced to choose between cooperating with government censorship laws and letting another company provide search services to the Chinese. While it is important (and ethical) for international companies to adhere to the laws and regulations of nations in which they operate, if those laws come in conflict with greater ethical interests such as human rights or individual freedom it is arguably better to cease operations in the country, rather than assist the government in its suppression of citizens.

“Don’t be evil.” The phrase was supposed to embody Google’s official corporate philosophy. In January of 2006, however, the company launched Google.cn and began censoring search results for Chinese users. How could a company with such a strong corporate culture practice something so seemingly contrary to their principles? The decision was not made lightly. In 2004, Google policy director Andrew McLaughlin was asked to conduct an ethical analysis with the sole purpose of determining whether Google’s presence would “accelerate positive change and freedom of expression in China” (Levy, 2011, p. 277). After nearly a year of research, McLaughlin determined that while “Google’s presence might benefit China,” the experience of working with a totalitarian government would be morally degrading to Google as an organization (p. 279). Google’s approach to this ethical dilemma demonstrated a teleological moral philosophy. In other words, they evaluated the situation based on its consequences – both to the Chinese people and their company.

Although revenue was very specifically not a consideration in McLaughlin’s report, the business prospects of entering China would have been impossible to ignore. With more Internet users than any other country, China presented an unquestionably alluring business growth opportunity. However, cofounder Larry Page remains resolute that the company was only trying to do the right thing for the people of China. “Nobody actually believes this, but we very strongly made these decisions on what we thought were the best interests of humanity and the Chinese people” (Levy, 2011, p. 280). While Page optimistically believed that Google’s services would benefit the Chinese, his partner Sergey Brin was troubled at the prospect of censorship. As a former refugee of the Soviet Union, Brin had personally experienced the burden of a communist government that imposes constraints on personal freedom (p. 274). In the end, however, Brin, Page, and CEO Eric Schmidt weighed the evil of censorship against the evil of not providing any services to the Chinese, and ultimately agreed that censorship was the lesser evil.

But did Google really have no other alternatives? This was not the case. While search may have been the most profitable of Google’s services, it was not their only service. By the time Google.cn was launched, the company already offered email and mapping solutions that were quickly growing in popularity. Additionally, Google could have pursued new business opportunities that would not require censorship (such as music sales or development platforms). While this approach may have changed little from an individual and societal perspective (if Google did not censor search results in China, someone else would), it would at least avoid the organization degradation caused by working with a totalitarian regime. On the other hand, it is also possible that the Chinese people would have more freedom today if Google had never participated in government censorship. During the time Google.cn was operated, the Chinese government progressively tightened Internet censorship requirements. According to human rights activist Peter Guo, China considers Google to be “one of the greatest threats” to the Communist Party (Dean, 2010). If Google had not compromised their principles, the Chinese business market might have looked less attractive to foreign investors, and the government could have been forced to reduce censorship in order to drive innovation.

From a deontological perspective, avoiding censorship at all costs would simply have been the right thing to do, whether it meant pursuing other business models or staying out of the country entirely. Even if unethical behavior is profitable, executives need to consider the kind of world they are helping to create, and whether or not that concerns them (MacKinnon, 2012, p. xxiii). Google could have continued providing unfiltered search results from outside the country, and while the Chinese government would likely block their search engine much of the time, at least it would be the government doing the censoring, rather than Google.

Google stopped providing censored search results in January, 2010, four years after launching Google.cn. Ironically, the incident prompting this decision was a cyberattack, not censorship. Google discovered that the Chinese government was hacking into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists and stealing their personal data (it’s not hard to guess for what purpose). According to Google co-founder Sergey Brin this was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” (Spiegel, 2010).

If there is one lesson that can be learned from Google’s foray into government censorship, it is that compromise is not necessary for corporate success, nor does it improve the lives of citizens. Google hoped that by compromising with the government, the government might eventually compromise with them, but the opposite turned out to be true. While the alternatives to censorship may not be as directly profitable, they can still lead to a net benefit since customers and stakeholders will be more willing to trust and support the company. It is also worth pointing out that if Google was prepared to censor search results for the sake of profit in China, how would they have been prepared to fight similar calls for censorship in the United States (such as the Stop Online Piracy Act)? In the end, I’m glad Google did the right thing by stopping their censorship of Chinese search results. I only wish it hadn’t taken a cyberattack for them to make this decision.

References

Dean, J. (2010, January 13). Ethical Conflicts for Firms in China. Retrieved from The Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB126335402591827235.html

Levy, S. (2011). In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives. New York: Simon & Schuster.

MacKinnon, R. (2012). Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom. New York: Basic Books.

Spiegel. (2010, March 30). Google Co-Founder on Pulling out of China. Retrieved from Spiegel Online: http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/google-co-founder-on-pulling-out-of-china-it-was-a-real-step-backward-a-686269.html

Psychology in Interactive Web Application Development

This post is based on a research paper I authored earlier this month as part of my General Psychology course at Rasmussen College.

Have you ever been struggling with a website or application that is difficult or confusing to use, and thought, “This could be so much easier if it were designed differently”? You may be surprised to discover that there are actually psychological reasons for what makes an interface good or bad, intuitive or difficult to use. This post will explore three areas of good interface design: proprioception, Gestalt psychology, and performance – with a focus on their application to web-based interactive software.

Proprioception

Proprioception refers to our body’s sense of position in space, and the position of various body parts in relation to each other. Because software is inherently non-physical, designers have to provide cues to indicate the user’s position. On traditional websites, these more often than not included breadcrumbs and navigation menus. However, in today’s world of varying device types and interaction methods (including keyboards, mice, and touch), new metaphors are necessary. One solution that is growing in popularity is to provide transitions between various screens (Bowles, 2013). By convention, leftward movement is seen as backwards, while rightward movement is seen as forwards or progression (Ibid). Vertical movement disrupts this hierarchy and can be used for actions outside the normal app flow.

There are more applications of proprioception than just transitions. For example, considering the Gestalt principle of similarity (discussed later in the essay), a button that leads to a particular section of an app could be designed and located similarly to the button that exits the section. The user would then understand that there is a connection between the two buttons, with the result that they would more intuitively understand how to navigate within the app. By carefully thinking about the logical location for data and controls within an app, and supplying cues to the user to indicate their position, developers can create an experience that requires less learning and feels much more natural to use.

Gestalt Principles

Gestalt is a German word meaning “shape” or “form,” and it refers to the way visual input is perceived by the human mind (Bradley, 2010). Gestalt psychologists have proposed a number of organizational laws (called Gestalt principles) which “specify how people perceive form” (Huffman, 2009, p. 105). The following section will examine five of these principles: Figure and Ground, Similarity, Proximity, Uniform Connectedness, and Parallelism, and how each of them applies to interactive software design.

Figure and Ground refers to the way humans perceive elements as either figure (the object of focus) or ground (the background which contains or supports the figure). When two objects overlap, the smaller object is seen as the figure against the larger background (Bradley, 2010). When designing web applications, it is important to ensure that there is sufficient padding around figures in the interface, and sufficient contrast between the figure and ground – this will allow elements to stand out make the layout easier to understand at a glance. Consider the following example: the button on the left doesn’t stand out well from the background, and the lack of padding and contrast in its text makes it more difficult to understand at a glance than the button on the right.

figure-ground

The Gestalt principle of Similarity states that objects with a similar appearance will be perceived by humans as related (Bradley, 2010). Similarity can be achieved through shape, color, size, location, and other properties. In interface design, this principle is useful for helping the user to understand which elements are related or part of a group. Designers must be careful, however, to avoid similarity when elements are not related, as users will otherwise perceive an unintended association and find the application more confusing to use.

A third Gestalt principle is Proximity. According to this law of organization, “things that are close to one another are perceived to be more related than things that are spaced farther apart” (Rutledge, 2009). This principle is simple yet powerful, and takes precedence over similarity (Ibid). Once practical use of this law in an interface might be a multi-column layout, where each column is separated by empty space and contains a unified collection of related elements or data. If there is not enough space between separate elements, however, it will be more difficult for users to determine that they are unrelated.

proximity

According to the principle of Uniform connectedness, elements that are visually connected are perceived as related (Bradley, 2010). As a simple example, consider a speech bubble that is connected to a cartoon character by an arrow. Uniform connectedness trumps both visual similarity and proximity when determining related elements. As with the principle of similarity, this is an important tool for interface designers, but care must be taken that there are not unintended connections between separate parts of an interface (whether because of lines, colors, or other connecting elements). As a personal example, when I was recently planning the interface design for a web app, I considered using the same background color for the headings of two separate sections in the interface. However, I was never satisfied with how it looked. After studying the Gestalt principles, I realized that using the same color visually connected the two headings, causing a perception that they were related when they actually were not. This discovery prompted me to rethink my approach to the interface.

The last Gestalt principle I will examine is Parallelism, which states that parallel elements are perceived as more related than non-parallel elements (Bradley, 2010). A practical application of this to UI design could be rotating a less-related element so that its contents are at a different angle to the rest of the interface (consider the screenshot below, where the “Fork me on GitHub” ribbon is angled away from the rest of the content).

parallelism

Performance

No matter how good an application’s layout, visual design, and navigation, it still won’t provide a good user experience if it performs poorly. Users expect animations to be smooth, and apps to respond immediately to their taps, clicks, and gestures. User perceptions of time often don’t match reality, however, and for developers this perception is critical. The more steps remembered in a process, the slower it seems (Tepper, 2012). Therefore, reducing the number of steps required to complete an action will make an app “feel” faster, even if the amount of time involved does not significantly change.

Research has shown that actions must take no longer than 50-100 milliseconds to feel instant (Tepper, 2012). Using an online latency demo (which unfortunately appears to no longer be available), I found that I personally started noticing a lack of responsiveness after about 75ms. Interestingly, users have a much higher tolerance for delays when there is an indication of progress, so if an action could take longer half a second it may be a good idea to give the user some type of feedback (for example, via an animated progress bar or other indicator).

On the web, optimizing performance and providing feedback can be even more important than in native apps, for three reasons. First of all, web-based applications will be accessed by a much wider variety of device types and performance classes. Secondly, non-optimized apps can increase bandwidth costs, especially when scaling to thousands or millions of users. Finally, actions by one user can directly impact the performance of other users on the same server.

Understanding what makes a good interface and usable application is critical to creating the best user experience. Applying the principles of proprioception, Gestalt psychology, and performance optimization/feedback will enhance usability and create an environment that users will love to use and tell their friends about.

References

Bowles, C. (2013, March 7). Better Navigation Through Proprioception. Retrieved from A List Apart: http://alistapart.com/column/better-navigation-through-proprioception

Bradley, S. (2010, January 25). Gestalt Principles: How Are Your Designs Perceived? Retrieved from Vanseo Design: http://www.vanseodesign.com/web-design/gestalt-principles-of-perception/

Huffman, K. (2009). Psychology in Action (8th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Rutledge, A. (2009, March 28). Proximity, Uniform Connectedness, and Good Continuation. Retrieved from http://www.andyrutledge.com/gestalt-principles-3.php

Tepper, D. (2012, April 3). How to improve performance in your Metro style app. Retrieved from Windows 8 app developer blog: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/windowsappdev/archive/2012/04/03/how-to-improve-performance-in-your-metro-style-app.aspx

Responsive Captcha

Responsive Captcha: A lightweight PHP class for preventing spam

If you’re reading this, you probably already know what a CAPTCHA is. The most common form consists of an image with warped or obscured characters which must be entered into a text field. While these image-based CAPTCHAs tend to be effective at stopping spam, they are also poorly accessible, often slow, and require a third-party service or large font files. Surely there must be a better way.

There is. Text-based CAPTCHAs use simple logic questions to weed out bots while remaining accessible to users with disabilities. I found numerous text CAPTCHA implementations floating around the Web, but I was disappointed that they all either relied on a third-party service or required setting up a database. So I decided to make my own.

The result is Responsive Captcha, a lightweight (currently 11.9 kb) PHP class which generates simple, random arithmetic and logic questions, and can be easily integrated into an existing form.

Some example questions generated by Responsive Captcha include:

  • Which is smallest: eight, sixty-nine, or seven?
  • What is nine minus five?
  • What is the third letter in rainbow?
  • What is eight multiplied by one?

For more examples and instructions for use, check out the project on GitHub: https://github.com/theodorejb/Responsive-Captcha

Making a better IE6 upgrade bar

Leading up to the release of Internet Explorer 9 last year, Microsoft launched their IE6 Countdown campaign, with the goal of getting “Internet Explorer 6 usage to drop to less than 1% worldwide.” A developer-focused page on the site included a code snippet that could be used to easily embed an image prompting IE6 users to upgrade:

Microsoft's original IE6 upgrade bar

Microsoft’s original IE6 upgrade bar

I really liked the idea of displaying an image like this to users of IE6 (and IE7), but I didn’t like the fact that the image had a fixed width and thus could not expand to appear prominently on large displays. Additionally, the JPEG image had noticeable compression artifacts around the text, and despite this compression it weighed in at a hefty 46.8 KB. For these reasons, I decided to try my hand at making a more fluid version of this upgrade bar based on HTML and CSS, rather than an image.

I started by creating separate images for the “stop” symbol and upgrade button, then proceeded to create the markup and style it with CSS. This turned out to be more difficult than I had originally thought, since old versions of IE wouldn’t correctly render links that contained multiple block-level elements. To work around this issue, I placed an empty link below the other elements, then used a negative margin in CSS to position it directly over the upgrade bar. Here’s the final result:

The new upgrade bar

The new upgrade bar

Benefits

As you can see, the new upgrade bar looks very similar to Microsoft’s original image. However, it also has several important advantages:

  1. Unlike an image, the HTML upgrade bar expands to fit the entire width of the browser.
  2. Very small – the combined HTML, CSS, and images is barely 4 KB in size!
  3. Since the text, images, and background are all separate, any one of these can be changed without affecting the other elements.

Usage

It is very easy to add this upgrade bar to an existing website. First, simply include upgrade_bar.html within an IE conditional comment directly below the opening body tag of the document. For example:

(Alternatively, you could simply paste the contents of upgrade_bar.html within the comment.)

Secondly, add a link to upgrade_bar.css in the document head:

That’s it! In case you’d like to use this upgrade bar on your own site, I’ve made it available on GitHub.