Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bloomberg: "China Wins Order for 100 C919 Jets"

In what was no doubt a hard fought win, state owned aircraft maker Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (COMAC) has managed to sell 100 C919s to state owned and (creatively named) aviation conglomerate and aircraft lessor Aviation Industry Corp (AVIC). Bloomberg's Margaret Conley who I thought was a business correspondent but now appears to be an intern from Bloomberg's Entertainment division calls the deal a "Win" and describes it as "breaking Airbus SAS and Boeing Co.’s stranglehold on the world’s second-largest market for new aircraft."

I guess Margaret is new to the industry but when one company owned by the Chinese government "sells" a product to another company that is owned by the Chinese government it is neither a "win" nor breaking what I imagine is a very sinister "strangle-hold."

The C919, better known as the ARJ21, is a copy of the vintage 1960s DC-9 family of aircraft and is actually being built with the same tools that McDonald Douglas once used to build MD-90s (a derivative of the DC-9). McDonald Douglas, in a fit of terminal shortsightedness, actually moved production of the MD-90 to China for a brief period of time (which is how China got the tooling) before they were acquired by Boeing. It's taken the Chinese a couple decades but with help from numerous foreign aerospace companies they have now cobbled together an aircraft that has a fuselage designed by McDonald Douglas, wings designed by Russian aircraft maker Antonov, engines designed by General Electric, a Fly-by-wire system made by Honeywell and Avionics made by Rockwell Collins. Despite contributing slightly more than nothing to the design China claims that the jet was designed by Chinese with completely independent intellectual property rights... which fits well with the Chinese government's philosophy that if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck... then it is indubitably a chicken... Until tomorrow when the government develops a need for caviar, then it will be a sturgeon.

The disconnect between reality and press release in Chinese aerospace continues to be downright farcical but no one will point it out. Outside of companies owned by China Inc.The ARJ21/C919 has managed to sell a total of two aircraft, both to hitherto unknown Vietnamese carrier Lao Air. I have no doubt that China will eventually become a serious competitor in the commercial aircraft sector but until then why don't we all stop pretending that the C919 is anything but a flying Frankenstein with bits and pieces sewn together from dead foreign designs. And of all companies Bloomberg is the one publishing this trash?? Somebody call the editor.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Is God Evil?

I recently heard a statement that went like this: 
If God knows the past present and future, and hell is real, then God makes people knowing that they go to hell, thus God creates people for hell, thus God is evil.
This statement is supposed to be problematic for theists however it is only problematic if the people who were created by God and went to hell never had a true choice. It does seem that if God both created a being, and knew where its final destination would be then that being could not have had a choice about its destination just as a rock has no say in its destination when it is dropped off a cliff. Thus people mentally frame the issue like this: 
God, by creating a soul, sets off an unalterable chain of events that results in a person going to hell. 
It is tempting therefore to believe that God is evil, until one realizes that we are not talking about the contents of the empirical universe when we speak of God and souls and so we are not talking about an unalterable chain of events. Souls are not bound by the laws of nature and thus stand independent of natural causation, their decisions are not determined by physics and chemistry but by an agency that transcends natural law and truly does have free will as things that are governed by physics and chemistry never can. Because souls truly have the ability to choose, they can truly be held accountable for their actions, if God has pre-knowledge of the soul’s decision it does not mean that the soul did not have the free will to make that decision; thus God did not “make people for hell” and is not evil. 
The force of this statement which at first seems considerable is removed when the hidden assumption of naturalism is revealed, because assuming naturalism for a question involving God and souls is absurd and the statement is not problematic for theists if the souls in question are not constrained to natural causation. So again the force of this statement derives from people subconsciously assuming that the supernatural realm is subject to natural laws of causation, which of course, it is not. Therefore the force of the statement can only be as great as the degree to which the observer is confusing natural causation with supernatural agency.

All this talk of free will raises a question for the atheist: 
Do you really believe that you have free will?
He (this sentence would be awkward with gender neutrality) cannot logically answer yes If he has a basic understanding of the sciences here because the assumption of naturalism means that all his actions were ultimately not determined by his free will but by the initial conditions of the big bang and the random outcomes of quantum interactions, neither of which he has any control over. And if the atheist does not believe he has free will but that his thoughts are the result of something he can't control then how can he believe that his thoughts have any validity?

Monday, November 1, 2010

A New Metric for Smartphones

Everybody loves a great design, everybody loves designs that do what they're supposed to do, and do it well. Sometimes coming up with a great design is easy and sometimes it is hard. It's hard when there are conflicting design goals; for instance an airplane has to be light, but it also has to be strong. These goals conflict and finding the optimal balance of strength and weight is perhaps the primary problem an aerospace engineer (an "AE" as they were called in undergrad) faces. Similarly, smartphones also have a conflicting set of design imperatives. They must be small, but they also must display a lot of information and be great web browsers and media viewers. 

Being great browsers and media viewers requires a large screen, but having a large screen conflicts with the design imperative to be small. For the AEs, the solution to their strong-but-light dilemma is the use of efficient structures and efficient materials, which means those materials/structures possessing a high strength/weight ratio. For smartphones the solution is also to be efficient but instead of with weight, with existing surface area. For this reason I decided to calculate the ratio of screen area to total surface area for a number of phones to see what kind of progress we've made in how efficiently our phones fill out their dimensions with big beautiful screens. The factors affecting this ratio are generally:

1. General Design
2. Screen Size
3. Screen Aspect Ratio (shown in bold light grey)

The Android handsets are evolving the fastest and should offer a good look at where we're going. Let's take a look at three milestone (pun intended) Android devices. The ratio of screen-area:total-front-of-phone-surface-area is in orange; I'm going to call it "Areal Efficiency" or "AE" for short.

Phones scaled to equal height

I chose the G1 simply because it was the first Android handset ever, the Droid because it's launch was Android's true coming-of-age, and the EVO partially because it remains (in my opinion) one of the best spec'd android phones out there and partially because I suspected it would score very well in the areal efficiency dept. As you can see the trend appears to be solidly in the right direction, areal efficiency is going up; though unfortunately we'll see later that it's not as clear cut as these three phones make it appear, more on that later but for now lets move on to Android's stiffest competition and the device that ushered in the era of truly smart phones, the iPhone. 

While there are numerous makers of numerous Android handsets there is only one maker of iPhones, and only one new model comes out per year (until this year if the rumors regarding a VZW iPhone finally pan out). Apple is, of course, that maker and they appear to be committed to a fixed screen size and are definitely committed to supporting only one aspect ratio. These self imposed restrictions handicap the advancement of areal efficiency but are there for generally good reasons which we'll explore below. First let's see how the iPhone(s) does in the areal efficiency metric.

Not great but considering that it launched a year before the G1 this is yet another metric that shows the original iPhone to have been ahead of it's time though perhaps the mold was frozen a little too quickly.

Screens have a minimum bezel, that is the screen itself must extend beyond the actual pixels in order to function properly, reducing this bezel is no doubt one of the design goals of screen manufacturers but currently it requires all phones to have dead space between the edge of the screen and the edge of the phones surface as shown by the red line on the left edge of the iPhone 4 image, this (and other practical matters) limit the maximum areal efficiency of all phones to a value below 100%. This bezel does not scale linearly with the screen size however and so the bigger the screen the higher this maximal value of AE is. Apple's choice of a 3.5" screen seemed generous in 2007 but now seems rather small, this relatively small screen size is likely limiting the iPhone's areal efficiency to some degree. On top of screen size, there is also an optimal shape for phones and achieving it is also limiting Apple, lets take a look at how the basic aspect ratio (y dimension over x dimension) of the phone has evolved in the last few decades:

Obviously not to scale

The green outline is to highlight aspect ratio; when phones became mobile they became smaller because (of course) people had to carry them everywhere, but the aspect ratio generally stayed the same until the advent of smartphones when it decreased fairly dramatically. Having a screen with a standard aspect ratio (4:3 or 3:2 in that day) was probably a driving factor in decreasing overall phone aspect ratio and while there is room for further reductions in aspect ratio most manufacturers wisely seem to be preventing their devices from becoming too square. Apple likely has this in mind when designing the iPhone but their chosen aspect ratio of 3:2 has had (what I imagine is) an unintended consequence. In order to prevent the device from being too square, the iPhone has a lot of dead space on the top and bottom that could be filled by more screen but is not, the vertical height of the iPhone's single button creates it at the bottom but there is nothing save perhaps design aesthetics necessitating it at the top. Maintaining the screens aspect ratio is critical for the  continued backward compatibility of apps on the iPhone so future advances in areal efficiency will have to come from eliminating dead space on the sides and top/bottom, I believe Apple has already cut the distance from side-of-screen to side-of-phone to the minimum possible with the iPhone 4 (they've reduced it to a lower point than any other phone I'm aware of save perhaps the HTC Aria) so it will be interesting to see if Android or WP7 handsets really apply any pressure to Apple by achieving consistently high areal efficiency.

Back to the original Android handsets, from the three given it appeared that we were headed straight in the right direction but launches since the EVO have all been steps backwards. Here's a graph:

As you can see, AE peaked with the EVO and has declined since, I had high(er) hopes for the Droid X because it's hardware buttons allow extra space to be saved below the screen relative to the standard capacitive buttons but any savings were lost by including a wide strip above the hardware buttons that displays the VZW logo, despite this, Droid X scores second place out of all handsets. Also mildly disappointing was the Galaxy S line from Samsung which, while they are great phones, would have been better if they wasted less surface area, they unnecessarily mimic the symmetrical dead space areas on the iPhone's top and bottom without also mimicking the iPhone's thin side bezel and are put to shame by Motorola's Defy which is water-resistant, shock-resistant and beats Samsung's 4" screened offerings (AE 58.91%) with an AE of 60.55% on a 3.7" screen. It is possible that hardware constraints unknown to me are reducing AE on these two models but I rather doubt it as circuit boards that have very similar requirements to those of the Droid X or Galaxy S are currently being stuffed into much smaller designs such as Sony's X10 mini. While the Galaxy S and Droid X are a little worse than they could be the most egregiously inefficient design I've seen so far is Samsung's dual screen prototype. Honestly when the primary screen is ("super") AMOLED and you can shut off however much of it you like (making It smaller and reducing it's power draw) having a second screen is entirely pointless. This design annoyed me so much that I thought to myself "there should be some design metric that prevents companies from wasting time on such crappy designs so they can spend more time on good designs"... well here it is.

Just to show that maybe consumers have intuitively picked up on this metric without having consciously quantified it and to show that OEMs should probably be aware of it regardless of what some nobody writes in his blog let's add the iPhone to the above graph of Android handset AE values:

Coincidence that the first Android phone to be truly competitive with the iPhone was also the first one to exceed iPhone's AE? I would say only partially coincidental. Also perhaps indirectly indicative of this metric's possible significance is that Android's top two selling handsets are also one and two in terms of AE. I certainly don't think that making AE ubiquitous is going to change too much but I do think that if smartphone OEMs were a little more conscious of wasting surface area we'd all have slightly better phones.

In conclusion the whole point of this blog post is to make smartphones better, we consumers can have a say in smartphone design if we give the OEMs feedback and apply a little pressure, the best way to do that is to get review sites to grade each phone on relevant metrics, currently they are not graded on areal efficiency but if they were I think it would ultimately result in better designs and happier consumers.

Click here to send review sites an endorsement of AE as a smartphone metric.

Click here to sign a petition to get it included.

If you want to see the exact numbers used to calculate AE values or calculate your own here is the Excel spreadsheet.