Coming to DC, One-Day Delivery from Jeff Bezos

If you read this blog you care about government and technology. And whether you’re a technologist or not, you can see the tech forces shaping and sharpening the uses of digital capabilities in accomplishing the ends of government, whether that’s citizen-service delivery and local law enforcement, or global diplomacy and nation-state combat. I’ve worked on and written about them all – from intelligence to space to AI, or the quantification of Supreme Court humor, even “Punk Rock and Moore’s Law.”

Understanding and forecasting that radical pace of external change is difficult for government professionals, and they need help doing that. Let’s say you wanted to tap someone to offer insight. Who’d be on your dream list? At the top of my dream list – my absolute “if-only-I-could-ask” list – would be Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and Blue Origin.

So I’m going to sit down with Jeff Bezos on stage later this month, at the annual AFCEA Intelligence Symposium, for a conversation about areas where technology critically intersects with the nation’s response to enduring challenges and opportunities, such as artificial intelligence, digital innovation, the revolution in cloud computing, and commercial space operations. (I serve as national Vice Chairman of the Intelligence Committee at AFCEA, the 35,000-member Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association.)

photo: AFCEA Symposium Invitation

The 2017 Symposium features, as usual, a stellar line-up of top leaders in national security, with panels on Advanced Conventional Threats, the Contested Environment of Space, Terrorism, Cyber Threats from Nation-States and Non-State Entities, and Gray-Zone Conflicts/Hybrid Warfare (topic of last year’s Defense Science Board study on which I sat). All sessions feature senior thought-leaders from government and industry.

Jeff Bezos might be new in that particular mix, but you can understand why we invited him. He has been TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year (early in his career in 1999), Fortune Magazine’s Businessperson of the Year, topped the Forbes annual list of “World’s Greatest Leaders,” and our rationale for this conversation is his long track record of revolutionary contributions to international technological/economic advance, as well as to US national security. AWS is now of central importance to the public sector (including intelligence), and the broader contributions of Amazon and Blue Origin to the nation’s economic future and success are incalculable.

Jeff Bezos Space

 

If you have a Top Secret/SI/TK clearance, you can attend the Symposium – register. [Update: sorry, 2017 Symposium = sold out]

There’s a longstanding meme that government should be “run like a business.” I typically don’t think in precisely those terms, having been on both sides and recognizing the significant differences in intent and stakeholders.

photo: Lewis Shepherd; Gen. “Wheels” Wheeler (Ret.) of DIUx; Russell Stern, CEO SolarflarePanel on Defense Innovation and DIUx

I’ve been more interested in helping each sector understand the unique contributions of the other, and the complexities inherent in their relationship. (See for example my recent post on DoD Innovation and DIUx in Silicon Valley.)

But the “run government like a business” impetus is understandable here in the United States as a reflection of dissatisfaction with government performance in meeting its own goals, and the expectations of the citizens it serves. President Trump recently assigned Jared Kushner to lead a new White House Office of American Innovation, and Kushner told the Washington Post “We should have excellence in government. The government should be run like a great American company.” Graph - Govt like a BusinessThe Washington Post (coincidentally owned by, yes, Jeff Bezos) ran a piece exploring the history of that thinking, dating its surge in popularity to the early 1980s under President Reagan – a timeline borne out by running the phrase through Google’s Ngram Viewer (see chart).

The last time I invited a smart young billionaire to come speak to Intelligence Community leaders, it worked out pretty well for the audience (see Burning Man and AI: What Elon Musk told me and the role of Art). So I’m aiming even higher this year…

If you don’t have a Top Secret clearance, you can’t get into the Symposium, and won’t be able to hear Bezos firsthand on April 27. But here’s a substitute, nearly as good: this week Bezos published his annual Letter to Shareholders of Amazon. Most people in the business world know about his legendary 1997 “first annual letter to shareholders” in which he laid out an extraordinary long-term vision for his company. The 2017 version is also extraordinary, and I urge you to read it in full. My friend Jeff Jonas, former IBM Chief Scientist for Context Computing and now founder/Chief Scientist at Senzing, calls it “the most impressive annual letter to shareholders I’ve ever read; this line of thinking leads to greatness.”

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For some parting eye-candy, here’s video from last week’s annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, where attendees got a first-hand look at the historic Blue Origin New Shepard rocket booster (first to land vertically after spaceflight, first to relaunch again, and now a five-time-reuse trophy), and an inside tour of the crew capsule with “the largest windows in space travel.”

 

 

Slow-Live-blogging #NASASocial for CRS7 Launch

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I was really giddy at being selected by NASA to participate in the agency’s innovative “NASA Social” program, where social-media personalities are credentialed and allowed to cover NASA rocket launches. Launch is scheduled for Sunday June 28 at 10:21 AM EDT – fingers crossed for good weather :).

I’ll be updating every couple hours or so over the weekend, and will definitely take good advantage of the tweets and photos of my colleague attendees (with credit of course!). The items follow in chronological order:

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InfoViz Cockpit View of Record Space Jump

I recall, one year ago this week, sitting at home on the edge of my seat, intently watching on my wallscreen the live countdown to Felix Baumgartner‘s stunning Red Bull Stratos mission to “transcend human limits” by calmly stepping off an ultra-high-altitude balloon capsule. On the way down he would go supersonic and set numerous records, most significantly the highest-altitude human jump (128,100 feet).

To mark the anniversary, the Stratos folks have just released a well-done information-visualization of his feat, featuring for the first time Felix’s own actual view of the jump – a nicely arranged combination of synchronized views as he hurtled to earth captured by three cameras mounted on Felix’s space-suit, including his helmet cam.  You’ll also see gauges noting his Altitude, Airspeed, G-Force, and “Biomed” (heart rate, breath rate).

A couple of datapoints which stood out for me: After his ledge salute and headfirst dive, Felix goes from zero to 100 mph in 4.4 seconds, hitting Mach 1 (or 689 mph) in just 33.2 seconds.  It’s also fascinating to watch his heart rate, which (exemplifying his astronaut coolness under pressure) actually decreases from 181 bpm at jump to around 163 bpm as he quickly adjusts; it then rises and falls as he encounters and then controls a severe spin.

His chute deploys about halfway into this nine-minute video, but watching to the end is worth it as he masterfully glides to earth, landing in a suave trot on his feet.  Enjoy this look back at a universal Superman.

Video of largest amateur rocket ever launched

When I was nine years old, I spent the early summer of 1969 doing two amateurish things: playing baseball with neighborhood pals on a red-clay diamond set among the tobacco fields of western North Carolina, and building a 1:100 scale three-foot-tall model of the Saturn 5 rocket topped by the Apollo capsule. I was pretty excited that I finished the model before the July Apollo XI mission took place, and I watched with a knowing eye as Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins sat atop the rocket and “lit the candle.”

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Gartner Says, Sometimes Hype is Necessary

Fact: Gartner is taking the same approach they often critique with their normally-solid “Hype Cycle” reports – arguing that “a little cloud hype” is beneficial if it “captures the imaginations of a broader audience of decision makers.”

Analysis: With their annual “Hype Cycle” reports, Gartner usually does a solid job of tracking over-optimistic assessments of the “latest and greatest” in technology and calling out overly hyped “hot new tech” and providing realistic assessments of the projected future of trends in software, hardware, and business processes.

Sometimes, Gartner slips up, and falls prey to the error they ascribe to others.  That’s the only interpretation I can make on a curious blog posting on an official Gartner blog designed to promote their new book “Mastering the Hype Cycle: Choosing the Right Innovation at the Right Time.”  Mark Raskino, the book’s co-author with longtime analyst Jackie Fenn, argues that “We have to simplify the business proposition behind this ‘big shift’,  explain it well and socialize it deeply to convince non-tech business leaders to buy-in.” 

Mr. Raskino makes clear that he wants to babytalk these business-side executives into believing “a little cloud hype” because, in his words, IT leaders and CIOs “need help explaining the fundamental change.”

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WIRED Cracks Cyber-Battle Code

Just a quick note between conflicting conference sessions in different locations around the DC Beltway, to note that WIRED’s premier national-security blogger Noah Schactman may have just cracked the code – or at least “a” code – on where the ongoing dispute over “control of cyber” is heading in national security circles, in his latest DangerRoom post (“Air Force Cyber Command Could Return, with Nukes“).

The dispute has been reported lightly, in places like the NextGov blog (“The Cyber Command Power Play?”), and usually boils down to a perceived battle between the U.S. Air Force and the nation’s Intelligence Community, over control of the increasingly central issue of cyber offense and cyber defense.

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Latest NASA Launch: Viral Marketing

Fact: Aviation Week has a piece today (“Funding Biggest ISS Obstacle“) outlining the budgetary woes of the International Space Station program, noting that the five partnering national space agencies which jointly operate the ISS “say they are eager to use the facility as a stepping stone for lunar and Martian exploration, but they first must find a way to sustain operations beyond the present partnership agreement….The main question mark about extending operations is related to funding and not technical issues. No road map or timetable for prolonging the ISS lifetime can be established until these financial issues have been resolved.”

Analysis: I’m a fan of space research and travel, and I’d like to see more funding and attention go into the American space effort, and with it more American ability to collaborate on international space ventures.

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Pentagon’s New Program for Innovation, in Context

FACT: According to an article in today’s Washington Post, the Pentagon has announced “the selection of six university professors who will form the first class of the National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellows Program. The professors will receive grants of up to $600,000 per year for up to five years to engage in basic research — essentially a bet by the Pentagon that they will make a discovery that proves vital to maintaining the superiority of the U.S. military.”

ANALYSIS: This new program is an innovation from DoD’s Director of Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E), and since tomorrow I’ll be at Ft. McNair for a two-day conference sponsored by DDR&E on Strategic Communications, I’ll congratulate John Young and his staff for the good idea.

But the Post article falls short in two ways: one immediate (it leaves out key information about next year’s program and the upcoming deadline!) and one longer-term (it ignores the overall context of federal support for R&D).  I’ll fill in the blanks below.

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How to Run a State-of-the-Art Technology Program – Quietly

FACT: In the new movie “Iron Man,” defense-contracting billionaire and engineering genius Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) designs and builds a suit capable of individual flight (highly engineered control surfaces powered by an “arc-reactor” – it is Hollywood after all). During his first test flight, zooming straight up from Malibu and stressing the system to its max, he asks his onboard computer, “What’s the altitude record for the SR-71?” His computer responds back, “85,000 feet,” whereupon he zooms past that ceiling.

ANALYSIS: Funny moment, and excellent movie.  In its honor, below I’m going to give you access to a remarkable, recently declassified document describing one of America’s boldest Cold War technical achievements.  If you’ve ever run (or wanted to run) a high-tech company or program, like Tony Stark in the movie, you’ll appreciate the startling scope of the work – and if you’ve recently worked in DoD or the Intelligence Community you’ll marvel at how they did it “in the good old days.”

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Microsoft Research Reclaims Value of Pi

pi-techFACT: Educators in the state of Alabama are chafing as the state celebrates a dubious anniversary: today marks ten years since the Alabama state legislature voted to change the value of the mathematical constant pi from 3.14159… to the “Biblical value” of 3.0.  Ramifications were felt across the state. 
Now, a team of Microsoft Research computer scientists have announced success in a groundbreaking effort to refactor the Biblical value, using modern high-performance computing hardware and machine-translation technologies on the original Old Testament texts.
  
ANALYSIS:  Looking back, an April 1998 issue of Science and Reason newsletter written by physicist Mark Boslough recounts the political and cultural battles which went behind the Alabama legislative change. The legislature of the “Yellowhammer State” justified the change by citing biblical injunction. As one supporter put it: “the Bible very clearly says in I Kings 7:23 that the altar font of Solomon’s Temple was ten cubits across and thirty cubits in diameter, and that it was round in compass.”

The use of “3.0” as the value of pi led to problems in schools, businesses, and local scientific pursuits, including a group of frustrated engineers at the NASA research facility in Huntsville.  According to NASA/Huntsville’s director of special projects “Dr.” Jim Simon (doctorate pending), “We had strayed from using our Microsoft software and instead had been trying to figure out how to use an advanced Google search platform, which was sold to us as a powerful Cloud Computing system.”

Unfortunately, that effort proved frustrating for the “rocket scientists” any time they used calculations involving pi, based on the Alabama-standard value of 3.0, mostly because they were under the mistaken impression that they were contractually barred from using Cloud Computing on any sunny days. Given the hospitable local weather that left them unable to use their computers for an average of 290 days each year.

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