Tan Le: A headset that reads your brainwaves

We live in the future.

This gal, Tan Le, has developed an EEG headset and software that can learn an individual’s brainwave patterns, without any scalp preparation, and costs only a few hundred dollars.

Don't tell me! Uh, you want me to buy a subscription to the Saturday Evening Post?
Don’t tell me! Uh, you want me to buy a subscription to the Saturday Evening Post?

She is able to train a person on-stage within 8 seconds to manipulate a virtual cube with only his thoughts. She shows video demonstrating fine control of video games, a small remote control helicopter, home lighting, and a wheelchair using this headset–noting that one a brainwave pattern is recognized (say, the one used to wink with your right eye), that pattern can be mapped to any virtual action.  Wow.

We’ve come a long way from 1955, Doc.

This technology has such incredible potential.  On one hand, I hesitate as this might give lazy people one more means with which to keep from lifting a finger.  On the other, this could represent freedom for many disabled people.  Another possibility is the use of the technology to eliminate the need for typing on the computer–what if I could just think about what to write.  Amazing.

Book Review: The Smartest Kids in the World

I just picked up a copy of The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley from my public library.  I was enticed to read it by her article in the Wall Street Journal that I previously mentioned here.  Her basic approach was trying to understand why American kids, in particular, score so poorly on standardized tests compared to the rest of the developed world, especially on tests which measure critical thinking skills.

I really appreciated the book, and I recommend it for anyone interested in what will make or break their kids’ education, or anyone involved in education public policy.  Amanda is a journalist, not an educator or scientist, and this book is not a research study.  Instead, she presents some published data and some anecdotal evidence to back up her points, with detailed endnotes.  Her style is engaging and makes it easy to read, and despite lacking rigor, she makes some compelling arguments.  I especially appreciated the first-hand reports of American exchange students.   I’ll try to summarize some of the main points here, and in some cases comment on them.

The context of this book is that Amanda focused upon three foreign countries which have excelled on the PISA test, which measures critical thinking skills and requires answering open-ended questions rather than multiple-choice.  Those countries: Finland, Korea, and Poland.  She both visited education professionals in those countries, as well as interviewing American students who had spent time there as exchange students.  Each country had its own share of problems, but had several themes in common.

Teacher quality is of critical importance. In each of the three countries surveyed, the path to become a teacher was very difficult, highly selective, and required lots of education.  In Finland, the teacher training institutions are more selective than MIT.  Additionally, a teaching program in Finland is 6 years long, including writing and defending a thesis, and a full year of student teaching.  At any point along this way, poor performers are weeded out before they ever take over a classroom.  In contrast, an education major is often seen as an “easy” major, and many of the schools which graduate teachers are mediocre.  Few American teaching jobs even require a demonstration of teaching a lesson as part of the interview process.  As a result, these more-capable Finnish teachers are able to handle large class sizes (50 or 60 at the middle and high-school levels), are granted far more autonomy (choosing their own textbooks), and are paid significantly greater salaries than their American counterparts.  Notably, all three of the countries had teacher’s unions–I’m not a fan of them, but it is clear that good education can happen where unions exist.

Kids take education seriously. In Korea particularly, there is so much intense focus on education that high school kids practically spend their lives studying.  Parents bend over backwards and risk financial ruin to ensure that their kids get the best possible score on the end-of-high-school/college entrance exam. The government puts electrical workers on overtime the days before and during the test to ensure that there is no chance of power failure at a test site, and ground all aircraft during the English portion of the exam to prevent any distractions.  With all this emphasis, kids KNOW that it is important.  While the Finns and the Poles certainly have a less intense approach, they know that their performance in school strongly influences their lot in life, and treat school as such. Sports were not at all a part of the curriculum (more on this later.) Because they take school more seriously, the kids are given more autonomy in school and expected to perform without handholding or having to have a hall pass to go to the bathroom. In fact, by the high school level, Finnish parents rarely if ever had parent-teacher conferences.  This kind of thing is considered the responsibility of the student.  This leads naturally to . . .

Kids were expected to perform, and allowed to fail if they didn’t work hard enough or persist in trying.  In these countries, all kids were held to a significantly higher standard than in the US.  The kids who struggled, rather than being aggregated in “dummy” classes, were kept in the regular class and given the chance to engage in additional remedial instruction to get them back up to speed in the class.  All of the students were given a challenging matriculation exam before they were allowed to graduate.  Strikingly, not only were remedial students kept with their classes, but also the outstanding ones.  “Gifted” students were kept at the same pace as the others, but pushed to study in more depth and detail.

The amount of money spent per student in those countries was drastically less (50%) of what America spends. Most classrooms that Amanda observed were similar to classrooms from the US in the 50’s and 60’s: desks, chalkboards–maybe a few visual aids–but not much else.  There were few computers, and definitely no smart boards.

Local schools had autonomy, but also accountability and clear national standards. I might get this wrong, but I believe that Polish principals can hand-pick the teachers for their school.  Can you imagine what level of performance we could get, if our principals could hire exactly whom they wanted? And then get rewarded if he chose wisely and fired if they didn’t? In the US, there is a massive duplication of effort because of varying schooling standards not only across the country, but also within states and lower levels. School A may teach fractions in 2nd grade; while School B waits until 5th grade.  What happens to a 3rd or 4th grader moves from School B to School A? Right now, many systems just re-teach the same stuff to make sure everyone is up to speed.  No wonder kids think math is boring . . .

I do have a few criticisms of the book.  First, I disagree with her conclusion on school sports.  Sports are a integral part of American culture, and I believe that it is very possible to have both a strong sports program and a strong academic program.  I agree that the resources consumed by sports teams disproportionately go toward a minority of students, and that sports success is often emphasized over academic success, and that should change.  Perhaps participation in sports becomes a requirement which replaces PE classes; perhaps the minimum GPA to participate is raised (providing expectation and incentive to the athletes!) But sports teach the kids who participate in them the lessons that they are not getting in the classroom–the connection between hard work and success, the ability to fail and learn from failure, the value of teamwork and leadership, etc.

Second, I agree in principle with the idea of stopping tracking, but can’t reconcile that with being the father of a child who is well ahead of her peers in school–I do not want her held back because the others can’t keep up.  How do we bridge that gap?

The final note she makes in the book, in an appendix, is a great way to end–she gives advice to parents who need to make their kids education count right now, in the current system.  I recommend this book highly to anyone who is concerned about education in the US or elsewhere.

The Army is Like Microsoft . . . In A Bad Way

I’m going to take departure from the science/engineering oriented things I tend to write about here and address something on the management side of the house.

I saw this article about a month ago in Slate magazine. I’m not going to go in detail about it here, but the article (and the one in Vanity Fair that it references) are worth the read for managers of every stripe. It intrigued me because it reminded me more than a little of the Army’s evaluation system and made me think about the bigger conundrum of employee evaluation and advancement.

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I should note that I’m not the first to make this leap–it was the subject of discussion on LinkedIn’s West Point Association of Graduates page. I should also note that I don’t have an overarching theme for what I’m about to write, so my apologies if it is a bit ramble-y.

The Army’s evaluation and promotion system are similar in concept to Microsoft’s as described in the article; most of the evaluation boils down to a single box check that rates where an officer compares to his peers. The top rating is limited in that a rater can never have given more than 50% of his ratees a top rating, because if he does, all of his rated officers automatically receive a middling rating. Also similar is that promotions happen a long way away from the action and rely solely (in the Army’s case, by law) upon the officers’ written records in a closed-door promotion board. The primary difference that I see is that there are no forced bottom ratings.

Similar to this story from Microsoft, the Army rating system has been a matter of discontentment from at least my earliest days as an officer, but probably longer. Although hard to prove, many have the opinion that the system tends to promote officers who know how to politic and game the system rather than those who are truly good at leadership and warfighting.

Why would two organizations, which at times can be so dynamic and inspiring, choose such a terrible evaluation system? I think it comes from a desire to replicate past success combined with a logical (mechanistic even) way of thinking. Both organizations have had incredible successes (MS with DOS, Windows, and Office; the Army in WWII, Desert Storm, and the Cold War) and both had analytical minds evaluate the success to try to distill it down to its fundamental elements. Where they went wrong, I think, was that they believed that it was a recipe or formula for actions that could be replicated over and over again. Thus, in their opinion, people’s performance could be boiled down to a single factor which quantified how well they followed the formula.

Additionally, both organizations became so large that nobody knew everybody anymore, but those at the top wanted to retain the power of promotion, so selections became centralized and only based on a file. The quantification approach ultimately made things easier on the bureaucracy, since they didn’t have to muddle through tough judgement calls–the numbers could justify everything.

The hard truth, though, is that any highly structured evaluation system with rules and quantification will lead at least some people to game the system for their individual benefit and render actual performance as secondary. It’s a bit like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: the more you try to measure a person’s performance the less useful the information will be.

How do we evaluate people then? We can’t have NO evaluation system–a person deserves written feedback and a record of their performance (for professional development, future positions, future jobs, etc.) Possibly worse is a system in which reports have no mechanism for enforcing honesty, leading to all evaluations being top notch. Google has reported success with the peer and subordinate evaluation system, yet that has some problems as well–namely, that leadership sometimes (often?) means doing the unpopular thing which might disgruntle the same people doing the rating.

I think the bottom line is that the right system will boil down to an emphasis on human judgement, as messy, biased, and imperfect as it is. Evaluations and promotions will have to be decentralized to a level where the manager doing the promotion selections will a) personally know and observe the employee being promoted, and b) have their own performance directly impacted by their selection. Only when a manager has to live with the consequences of their decision–when their incentives and those of their subordinates align–will they make the right decision.

Report: 2nd Asia/Australia Rotorcraft Forum

The is the second post about our recent trip to China.  In the last post I talked about the 2nd China Helicopter Expo, which it appears the ARF was scheduled to coincide with.  The actual meeting days were the 9th thru the 11th of September, and included one day of keynote speakers and one and half days of breakout technical presentations, plus a banquet.

First, I want to recognize the folks who hosted the conference, Dr. Pinqi Xia (western name ordering) and his students and staff from Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.  The did an excellent job of keeping things organized–there were no “Chinese fire drills” as it were.  Everything went according to schedule, the hotel and hotel restaurant were well prepared for us, our packets contained everything we needed–so, well done and 谢谢!I want to especially point out the efforts of Shen Min and a student whose family name escapes me, but was called Junzi.

On the first day of the conference, all the sessions were in a single place, with a few welcome speeches a number of keynotes.  We heard from the VP of NUAA, Xuan Yimin, who emphasized the importance of international collaboration between the universities present.  Cai Yi, the GM of AVICopter, spoke about the importance of Tianjin to the rotorcraft industry in China and the immense potential for growth once the civil airspace opens up in the next couple of years.  Mike Hirschberg from AHS spoke about the challenges facing the rotorcraft industry both in the US and abroad, and encouraged the Asian members of the audience to consider joining AHS and forming a local chapter in order to stay tightly networked with the rest of the helicopter community.  Wu Ximin, the Chief Engineer of the China Helicopter R&D Institute talked about China’s plans to have home-grown helicopters in every category designed and in production by 2020. Dr. Ed Smith from Penn State and Dr. Inderjit Chopra from Maryland, talked about the research and education programs being pursued by their respective universities’ rotorcraft centers, which they each head.  Dr. Dewey Hodges gave a rather technical talk on a theoretical approach that he is working on to allow accurate dynamic structural models with low(er) computation by decoupling different aspects of beam deformation.

Finally, in my favorite talk of the day, Dr. James Wang of Agusta-Westland told us about some of the challenges in the helicopter industry and some little nuggets: A ground-up design of a helicopter today costs about $1 billion and 5 years.  A ground-up tiltrotor typically takes $5 billion and 10-15 years to develop–I think he was cautioning AVICopter to be aware of what they were trying to accomplish by 2020.  Second, there are 12,000 private/commercial helicopters in use in the US today, but only 300 in China.  When the airspace opens up, he projects that there will be 2,000-3,000 by 2020.  Wow.  Most amazing of all, Dr. Wang was the head of Project Zero, which I’ve written about before; he described the engineering process and challenge, in which they wanted to do something hard and also be willing the throw conventional wisdom out the window.

I have to admit that I was not interested as much of the breakout sessions I had hoped.  Most of the presentations we aerodynamics or aeroacoustics related.  I did attend one presentation on rotor blade icing, which turned out to be pretty cool but definitely outside of my area of expertise.  The session in which I presented my paper was designated Control/Design.  There were quite a few interesting papers on system ID, shipborne operations and safety, coaxial rotorcraft handling qualities, and control for a Fanwing.

The most important part of the conference however, was the opportunity to be introduced to some “rock stars” of the helicopter world–Drs. Smith, Chopra, and Wang, as previously mentioned, as well as Dr. Wayne Johnson, who wrote the definitive textbook on Helicopter Mechanics.  Thank you to all of the folks who made the conference a great event.

Report: 2nd China Helicopter Expo

I’ve been out of the loop for a couple of weeks now, as I had the opportunity to travel to China for the 2nd Asia/Australia Rotorcraft Forum.  Over the next couple of posts, I’ll describe some of the things I saw while I was there, plus a few impressions from a novice traveler in Asia.

The first day of the conference was an opportunity to visit an AVICopter factory and to see the 2nd China Helicopter Expo.  Initially, I thought that this was a small expo connected to our conference.  Boy, was I wrong.

This expo was open to the general public; it was held in Tianjin because the AVICopter headquarters and factory is located there.  As the Chinese people might say, it was 人山人海 (renshan renhai), which means “people mountain people ocean”.  I don’t claim to be an expert at crowd estimates, but there thousands.  The expo hall was five hangars long, and took me 25 minutes just to walk around and glance at everything.  The flight line had an area cordoned off with a static display of about a dozen different aircraft, and ideal viewing for the airshow.

Our first stop was to take a look at an AVICopter factory.  We saw two assembly lines, with work ongoing on the AC312 (a variant of the Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin 2) and the AC311, an original utility helicopter with heavy Eurocopter influence.  The biggest impression I got was how clean and empty the factory floor was–there were two assembly lines active, but it looked as if there was space for 4-6 more lines.  I couldn’t tell if this was their “for-show” assembly line or if they just preparing for some future ramp-up of production. To be fair, we visited the factory on a Sunday, so there were not many workers present.

AC312 under assembly in Tianjin
AC312 under assembly in Tianjin
Gleaming, but mostly empty factory floor.
Gleaming, but mostly empty factory floor.
AC311 under construction.
AC311 under construction.

While the factory floor was quiet and sparse, the expo was overflowing with people.  There were in the neighborhood of 100 booths.  I managed to at least stroll by each booth and take photo or two of items that got me interested.  There were several themes that I picked up on; first was a heavy emphasis on piloted simulation.  I saw at least six different booths with simulators, most of which took the form of a cockpit sitting in front of a big screen TV–cool that it seems that the falling price of the flat panels has helped with more than just football-watching.  Another thing that caught my eye was the preponderance of concept models and mock-up, rather than actual aircraft.  This kind of dovetails with the idea I got on the factory floor that there is more potential (and hope) for growth than there is production.  Finally, I got a good look at several unmanned models (and concepts), which I will likely talk in more detail about in a future post.  As an aside, I was a little bit disappointed that Sikorsky, which has sponsored much of my research, had a huge booth that didn’t have anything on display.

One of many simulators at the Expo.
One of many simulators at the Expo.
One of many mock-ups; this one (I believe) was demonstrating safety equipment.
One of many mock-ups; this one (I believe) was demonstrating safety equipment.
UAV for crop dusting.
UAV for crop dusting.
V750 UAV--Interesting adaptation of the Brantley B-2, with two sets of flap hinges and articulation only on the outboard section of the blade.
V750 UAV–Interesting adaptation of the Brantley B-2, with two sets of flap hinges and articulation only on the outboard section of the blade.
An AV-200 UAV--which I can't seem to find any information on.  It is reminiscent of a Eurocopter and roughly the size of a Yamaha RMax.
An AV-200 UAV–which I can’t seem to find any information on. It is reminiscent of a Eurocopter and a little bigger than the size of a Yamaha RMax.
Empty Sikorsky booth. :(
Empty Sikorsky booth. 🙁

Out on the flight line, there were two things in store for us; first, there was a static display of (I assume) the array of helicopters in public service in China.  First, and coolest, was the display of a Z-19 attack helicopter.  This helicopter is a Chinese design, though (again) heavily influenced by Eurocopter designs, most notably the ducted fan in lieu of a standard tail rotor.  Also present were an AC311, a Robinson R22 and R44, and a few small trainer-type models that I had to look up to figure out what they were (AK1-3, RotorWay Talon, and an couple of minimalist designs, one with an open cockpit, that I couldn’t figure out):

The Z-19 in the foreground, plus a glimpse of the people-ocean.
The Z-19 in the foreground, plus a glimpse of the people-ocean.
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A Ukranian AK1-3 Sanka.
An Enstrom, probably for pilot training.
A kit helicopter from RotorWay International, probably for pilot training.
An open-cockpit trainer next to an R22.
An open-cockpit trainer next to an R22.

The second thing out on the flightline was a helicopter aerobatics show.  I was told later that this is illegal in the US as it is too dangerous–and it did seem quite so.  The beginning was a little bit lame, with utility helicopters doing a little pendulum dance, but nothing super amazing.  However, the larger AC313/Z-8 put on quite a show, with two aircraft circling each other nose-in, and a rescue helicopter crew demonstrated a patient recovery via winch.  The Z-19s stole the show, though, with several high-speed passes, formation flight with smoke trails, high performance climbs, and (I’m sure I’ll get the name of the maneuver wrong) zero-G high pitch angle pedal turns.  I don’t have the videos up yet, but I hope to post them on Youtube–stay tuned.

My overall impressions of the expo were pretty good.  I saw lots of ideas & conceptual work in mockup; however, I did not get sense that much real development is going on. I was impressed by the skill of the pilots, given the relatively young age of their helicopter fleet and probably institutional training. Finally, what was intriguing was that there appeared to be real interest in aviation from ordinary people–I suppose I didn’t expect that from the Chinese.  (I do have to make a caveat–Tianjin is so huge that perhaps there isn’t much real interest, but even a small percentage of 13.5 million people is still a lot.) I am quite glad that the ARF was scheduled in such a way to visit this expo, and hope to visit it again when/if we move to China.