Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is part of my own personal enigma. I have shown it to people who don’t know me, who don’t know what I think about, who don’t know much about what I study. Nineteen out of twenty such people react in this matter:

A cold stare with underlying anger for wasting their precious time.

I admit that most of this has happened to captive audiences in the classroom, but it has also happened with family members and colleagues.

Then, time goes by. Lectures. Conversations. Blog posts. And suddenly one day, seven out of the nineteen say something like:

Oh … Aha!

The documentary was, in fact, first shown to me by a person who probably knew me as well as anyone ever has (which I would think would not be too hard but apparently is). That was like this:

“Are you coming over to watch the game?”

“Forget the game. I’ve got a DVD. You’ve got to see this, you’re the only person I know who will totally get it. See you in an hour.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is not the most important documentary or movie ever made, nor the best. It is in my top 20 list of “things you should watch,” but not in the top ten. Watch Little Big Man first. Watch The Corporation first. Hell, watch The West Wing first. But when you do watch Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, keep in mind that if you find yourself not seeing deeper meanings, it is not because they are not there. It is, rather, because you and the documentary are not in tune. That can be fixed, or it can be ignored, no big deal.

One of the ideas discussed in Fast, Cheap & Out of Control has to do with robots. The idea is to produce small (cheap) robots that individually are not especially programmable or diverse in their abilities, but that are numerous. Robotic collective intelligence, emerging complexity, or just plain security in redundancy will make up for lack of sophistication. Combined with nano technology, this could make for an interesting future in which much of our infrastructure is collectively intelligent but made up of four or five tiny archetypes individually unimpressive in size, power, or ability. Collectively they will automatically clean dust off surfaces (monitors, windows) cause snow to slide more effectively off the roof (of the Metrodome?), call for help when paint is chipping or mildew is forming, and replace thermostats and all other environmental sensing devices.

NASA is on board with this, to some extent, with their Small Satellite Missions. Mission FASTSAT stands for Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite, and although I am not certain, I’d bet that this terminology and the name of the documentary come from the same source, directly or indirectly. The current news from FASTSAT is both good and bad. A 100 square foot “NanoSail” packed up to be the size of a small breadbox may have deployed improperly or failed to deploy last week. They’re not sure. But the good news is it only cost a few tens of millions of dollars! I’m fairly sure that the failure of the 300 plus million dollar NASA mission in 1999 (two years after Fast, Cheap & Out of Control‘s release) owing to a Metric/English conversion screw-up was also inspiration for FASTSAT and similar ideas.

The latest news of FASTSAT is here. And here is a bit of information about Fast, Cheap & Out of Control:

Comments

  1. #1 Nemo
    December 13, 2010

    For me the title brings to mind “Faster, Better, Cheaper”, NASA’s motto for the approach they started taking in the 90’s, with mixed results..

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 13, 2010

    Exactly. Mixed results, in my view, because they didn’t go fast enough, better enough, and cheap enough. And, the idea is still very much in play. Remember, with FBC, if half your shit breaks, it’s OK. With BHS (big huge science) if one thing breaks, you’re screwed.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    December 13, 2010

    Of course, a lot of their problems could be fixed with better press releases!

  4. #4 daedalus2u
    December 13, 2010

    A lot of the problem that NASA has is that budgeting for things that have never been done before and which you don’t know how to do is kind of hard.

    The second problem is that the aero/astro contractors who do all the work know that, know the process and lobby their politicians and game the system to suck all the money out of it that they can, even when that results in higher costs and worse performance. For example, the shuttle solid fuel boosters could have been made in one welded piece (no joints to fail like killed the Challenger), but then they couldn’t have been shipped by rail from Utah so Morton Thiokol couldn’t have been the contractor.

    Programs are always under budgeted because that is the nature of political budgeting. You can’t budget something you don’t know how to do.

    Slogans can’t change the immutable rule of engineering; Good, Fast, Cheap, pick any two. What slogans can do is trick people into agreeing to something that does not correspond with reality. Especially if it is a slick slogan, and especially if the speaker of the slogan has charisma.

  5. #5 Barn Owl
    December 13, 2010

    Fast, Cheap & Out of Control is a brilliant documentary, on a number of levels. It’s among my top ten favorite documentaries, along with the Up Series and Buena Vista Social Club. Difficult to convince others of its worthiness, though, if they just don’t like documentaries in general, or aren’t interested in innovative cinematography techniques.

  6. #6 Greg Laden
    December 13, 2010

    One way to trick people into seeing it is to tell them that there will be cute little rodents in it.

  7. #7 Barn Owl
    December 13, 2010

    What I find compelling about each of the documentaries I mentioned is that they’re basically about ordinary people. Those people might do extraordinary things, or have extraordinary and interesting experiences, but you can relate to them in a meaningful way because they’re just normal people, not narcissistic (or otherwise irredeemably screwed up) celebrities.

    NMR are fascinating animals, but I wouldn’t describe them as “cute”.

  8. #8 MadScientist
    December 15, 2010

    As far as NASA goes it’s the rotten management mantra “smaller, cheaper, better”. The people who push that are absolutely clueless of course – some things in space are necessarily big when you use existing and known reliable technology. Small satellites have their uses, but don’t imagine that they can get anywhere near the capabilities of the monstrous birds. Some old timers don’t like the idea of small satellites at all; they call ‘em “space junk”.

    I think the idea of small but capable satellites has been around for over 20 years now (the very first artificial satellites like Sputnik and Vanguard were very small, but the only thing they did was beep). A number of small satellites were built and launched (for example, Australia’s “FedSat”) and that’s great for the owner/client if a small bird can be put up for a few million and get some worthwhile experiments done, but I don’t really see them as anything more than a cheap(ish) method for launching a proof-of-concept instrument. I’d imagine the majority of serious work will still be done by the huge and horribly complex and expensive birds.

    There was a company in the UK specializing in small birds but they have since been bought by EADS and probably no longer exist – I think they were called “Surrey Satellites”. An enthusiast group in the UK is also working on an open specification small satellite and there was an announcement a few days ago about a government sponsored open design for small satellites. We’ll see how these project go. One annoying thing about the industry is that designs must change a lot because parts become obsolete at a crazy rate.

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