The US Navy trains dolphins and sea lions to find mines — something I noted, good Lord, over a decade ago! — and recently some Navy dolphins discovered a Howell torpedo off Coronado:
Until recently only one Howell torpedo was known to exist, on display at the Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Wash. Now a second has been discovered, not far from the Hotel del Coronado.
Meant to be launched from above the water or submerged torpedo tubes, the Howell torpedo was made of brass, 11 feet long, driven by a 132-pound flywheel spun to 10,000 rpm before launch. It had a range of 400 yards and a speed of 25 knots.
As a kid, I never wondered what propelled a self-propelled torpedo. The Howell torpedo used a flywheel, like a toy car, while its more successful competitor, the Whitehead torpedo, used compressed air:
The result was a submarine weapon, the Minenschiff (mine ship), the first self-propelled torpedo, officially presented to the Austrian Imperial Naval commission on December 21, 1866.
Maintaining proper depth was a major problem in the early days but Whitehead introduced his “secret” in 1868 which overcame this. It was a mechanism consisting of a hydrostatic valve and pendulum that caused the torpedo’s hydroplanes to be adjusted so as to maintain a preset depth.
After the Austrian government decided to invest in the invention, Whitehead started the first torpedo factory in Fiume. In 1870, he improved the devices to travel up to approximately 1,000 yd (910 m) at a speed of up to 6 kn (11 km/h), and by 1881 the factory was exporting torpedoes to ten other countries. The torpedo was powered by compressed air and had an explosive charge of gun-cotton. Whitehead went on to develop more efficient devices, demonstrating torpedoes capable of 18 kn (33 km/h) in 1876, 24 kn (44 km/h) in 1886, and, finally, 30 kn (56 km/h) in 1890.
Royal Navy representatives visited Fiume for a demonstration in late 1869, and in 1870 a batch of torpedoes was ordered. In 1871, the British Admiralty paid Whitehead £15,000 for certain of his developments and production started at the Royal Laboratories in Woolwich the following year.
This was the crazy steampunk era of rapidly changing naval technology.
Artificial intelligence is always right around the corner. Now deep learning looks like it might deliver:
In the mid-1980s, Hinton and others helped spark a revival of interest in neural networks with so-called “deep” models that made better use of many layers of software neurons. But the technique still required heavy human involvement: programmers had to label data before feeding it to the network. And complex speech or image recognition required more computer power than was then available.
Finally, however, in the last decade Hinton and other researchers made some fundamental conceptual breakthroughs. In 2006, Hinton developed a more efficient way to teach individual layers of neurons. The first layer learns primitive features, like an edge in an image or the tiniest unit of speech sound. It does this by finding combinations of digitized pixels or sound waves that occur more often than they should by chance. Once that layer accurately recognizes those features, they’re fed to the next layer, which trains itself to recognize more complex features, like a corner or a combination of speech sounds. The process is repeated in successive layers until the system can reliably recognize phonemes or objects.
Like cats. Last June, Google demonstrated one of the largest neural networks yet, with more than a billion connections. A team led by Stanford computer science professor Andrew Ng and Google Fellow Jeff Dean showed the system images from 10 million randomly selected YouTube videos. One simulated neuron in the software model fixated on images of cats. Others focused on human faces, yellow flowers, and other objects. And thanks to the power of deep learning, the system identified these discrete objects even though no humans had ever defined or labeled them.
What stunned some AI experts, though, was the magnitude of improvement in image recognition. The system correctly categorized objects and themes in the YouTube images 16 percent of the time. That might not sound impressive, but it was 70 percent better than previous methods. And, Dean notes, there were 22,000 categories to choose from; correctly slotting objects into some of them required, for example, distinguishing between two similar varieties of skate fish. That would have been challenging even for most humans. When the system was asked to sort the images into 1,000 more general categories, the accuracy rate jumped above 50 percent.
Boston is saturated with cameras:
Nine cities — Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Revere, Quincy, Somerville and Winthrop — are all interconnected, and the system is designed to instantly share surveillance images between the municipalities.
If the bomber(s) took public transportation, there’s a good chance those steps can be retraced through video footage. As of 2012 there were nearly 500 cameras in the subway alone, and more on busses. If they drove, cameras on bridges and tolls could help retrace a perp’s steps leading up to the bomb’s placement.
The cameras are pretty slick and the information on them is available immediately — they transmit data wirelessly via an Internet connection. “Stored video can be easily shared with other [Police Departments] over standard web browsers using a system protected by a basic username and password,” the ACLU says.
While the Pentagon is busy developing laser weapons, a small California company claims it has discovered a type of plastic that acts as armor against lasers:
Mr. Harlamor’s company developed the material, now trademarked “Laser Shield,” while searching for a plastic that could be shaped by machine tools yet withstand the stress of aerospace applications.
Researchers first knew they had something unusual when they tried to inscribe the new machinable plastic with an industrial laser-marking system. After 10 passes with this relatively low-power laser, the plastic was unscarred.
“There was no penetration,” confirms Gerhard Marcinkowski, sales manager of A-B Lasers, which carried out the marking test.
Laser Shield’s internal structure apparently acts as if it were made up of many tiny lenses. These internal “lenses” can scatter laser energy in a harmless, diffuse pattern.
In tests aboard the destroyer USS Dewey, the Laser Weapon System successfully shot down surveillance drones and fast boats:
The tubular Laser Weapon System (LaWS) is a solid-state laser that’s been in development for six years, at a cost of $40 million. It’s a directed-energy descendent of the the radar-guided Close In Weapons System (CIWS; it rhymes with “Gee Whiz”) gun already aboard surface ships. In December, following the successful Dewey tests, Greenert ordered the laser “out to the fleet for an operational demonstration,” said Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, the Navy’s chief of research. And so next year, LaWS will have its trial by fire, when the Navy puts it on the deck of its new afloat staging base USS Ponce for its maiden voyage to the Middle East.
It just so happens that the LaWS’ ability to track and kill surveillance drones and swarming fast boats matches with Iran’s development of surveillance drones and swarming fast-boat tactics. And it just so happens that the Ponce will spend most of 2014 deployed in Iran’s backyard.
The Navy won’t say just how many kilowatts of energy the LaWS’ beam is, but it’s probably under the 100 kilowatts generally considered militarily mature. The fact that LaWS can kill a surveillance drone and a fast-attack boat has more to do with the vulnerabilities of those systems than it its own prowess. It cannot stop an anti-ship missile, and its beam, about the circumference of a dime, will do little more than singe a fighter jet. And there remain significant challenges with cooling a shipboard high-energy laser, a necessary safety feature.
We need nuclear-powered airplanes, Kevin Bullis argues, not solar-powered ones:
There are some things solar panels are good for, but they’re not good for passenger aircraft. The energy in sunlight is too diffuse. A square-meter solar panel generates less than 200 watts in full sunshine. In comparison, a small, half-meter-wide, gasoline-powered generator can generate 3,500 watts. It can run for 24 hours — at half power — on less than 12 gallons of fuel. The solar panel, of course, stops working at night. If it can generate some extra power during the day, that could be stored in batteries. But batteries store only about 1/100th as much energy as gasoline.
The lowest carbon route could be making fuels from carbon dioxide and water using energy from land-based solar power or nuclear power plants. Eventually high temperature nuclear power plants now in development might be an even better option — their heat could be used to facilitate the necessary chemical reactions more efficiently than electricity could.
The mad billionaire behind GoPro was once a failed dot-commer obsessed with surfing — and coming up with a wrist camera to capture his exploits:
That concept came a few years after college after an online gaming service he started, Funbug, went belly-up in the dot-com crash of 2000-01, taking with it $3.9 million of investors’ money. “I’d never failed at anything before except computer science engineering classes,” he says. “So it was like, ‘Holy s–t, maybe I’m not capable of doing this.’”
To get his head straight again, Woodman lit out on a surf odyssey through Australia and Indonesia, one last big trip before what he figured would become a life of comfortable middle-class monotony. He brought a contraption he’d made out of a broken surfboard leash and rubber bands that allowed him to dangle a Kodak disposable camera to his wrist for easy operation when the perfect wave hit. Close friend and current GoPro creative director Brad Schmidt met Woodman in Indonesia and became one of the first to toy with the strap. One of his first observations: Woodman needed a camera durable enough to take the wear and tear of the sea. Five months into being a surf bum, a recharged Woodman returned to California with the seed of an idea.
Woodman, then 27, holed up in the house he shared in Moss Beach, Calif., just over the hills from Silicon Valley. He “checked out” from his normal life, including friends and family, locking himself in his beachside bedroom to build his first prototypes. Deciding that he had to sell the strap, the camera and the casing, he armed himself with a drill and his mother’s sewing machine and strapped a Camelback filled half with Gatorade and half with water to his back (negating the 30-second walk to the kitchen) for 18-hour work sessions. “I’d have a sliding door to the outside so I could just go take a pee out on the bushes out on the side,” Woodman recalls. He gave himself four years to make it work before he would drop his idea and enter the workforce. “I was so scared that I would fail again that I was totally committed to succeed.””After he took off, he was like, ‘I think I’m going to start this wrist strap company for surfers,’” says Schmidt, who was skeptical. Says Woodman: “I thought to myself, ‘If I made a few hundred grand a year, I’m, like, in heaven.’”
Between sewing together old wetsuit material and drilling holes in raw plastic, Woodman was constantly trolling online and at trade shows for a camera he could modify and license as his own. He settled on a $3.05 35-millimeter model made in China, sending his plastic cases and $5,000 on a prayer to an unknown entity named Hotax. Woodman received his 3-D models and renderings a few months later and sold his first product in September 2004 at an action-sports trade show in San Diego.
That was the first validation for Woodman, whose friends thought their former surfing buddy had held his breath underwater for a little too long. Neil Dana, his roommate and first hire, recalls a work-obsessed guy constantly fixated on success. “We would be at a party,” Dana recalls, “and he would come up the stairs and be like, ‘Dude, check this out, this is how we’re going to become millionaires!’ ” Woodman was only three zeroes off.
GoPro grossed $350,000 in its first full year of sales. Woodman was the all-in-one product engineer, R&D head, salesman and packaging model. He and Dana rang up surf shops across the country hoping to get some of their product out of Woodman’s father’s home in Sausalito and into the market. In 2005 he appeared on QVC three times, running into Spanx founder and fellow future billionaire Sara Blakely while she was building her company as well. (“If she remembers me, I’ll be amazed,” says Woodman. “But I’d love to get word to her to give her a digital high-five on crushing it.”)
Woodman eschewed venture capital as he grew — a by-product of his Funbug experience and a desire to work without suits interfering. Says Dana, “He wanted to keep it private for as long as possible so he could get a Lotus for ‘product testing’ and do things and not have to answer to a board about it.” At the outset Woodman dropped in $30,000 of his own money, as well as $35,000 from his mother and two $100,000 investments from his father. The company made money from that point and today boasts profit margins, FORBES estimates, around 15%. It wasn’t until May 2011 that GoPro took on $88 million from five venture firms including Riverwood Capital, led by former Flextronics CEO Michael Marks, and Steamboat Ventures, Disney’s venture investment arm, which allowed him, his family and some early executives to take a good chunk of cash out.
I don’t know what to say about the Bezos expedition to recover the F-1 engines used in the Apollo program, but it does give off a very Jonny Quest vibe.
Babbage’s difference engine is mesmerizing:
How did I just find out that Neal Stephenson is setting out to make a realistic sword-fighting game, called Clang?
While everyone is talking about 3-D printing, Protomold is making mass-production injection molding affordable:
Protomold has stepped in to provide servicing to those makers who need small orders by being able to produce 50-5,000 injection-molded parts in one business day with prices starting at $1,495 for a production tool, and each produced part costing a couple dollars or less. The experience isn’t much different than ordering business cards online. A designer uploads their CAD file, chooses from a few preset options, and shelf-worthy injection-molded parts arrive on their doorstep.
The company has been successful, operating since May 1999, while continuing to grow their service. They’ve just added new materials to their list, including injection molded steel, stainless steel, magnesium, copper. Their newest is the option to mold parts in high temperature, medical grade resins, giving garage entrepreneurs the ability to produce parts for medical devices and high performance applications.
What started as a single engineer looking to solve his own problem has turned into a publicly traded company with a billion dollar market cap and 511 workers filling 160,000 square feet of office space producing parts 24 hours a day.
In 1999 Charles Huang and his brother Kai founded Red Octane, which went on to becomes a billion dollar business without any VC funding:
Launching six months before Netflix, the goal was to be the Netflix of videogames. But six months after they launched the dot com bubble burst and so did their business. As funding completely dried up, the capital intensive rental business became unfundable. Of that time Charles said, “It looked like the whole valley was just going to die and go away. So that’s when we scrambled and looked at video game hardware, and eventually videogame software. That was the beginning of what was many lives of Red Octane.”
They were gamers and were playing a lot of Playstation 1 games, especially the pirated stuff out of Japan. Dance Dance Revolution was just making it’s way to the States so they stated selling dance pads. “We realized the dance pads that we were buying and reselling were garbage, because they were breaking down and we thought we could make better dance pads than this,” Charles said. “I literally packed my bags, went to China, visited a few of these factories that made dance pads, figured out how they made them and took a bunch of suggestions that users had given us and incorporated them into new designs and so we started coming out with our own dance pads and believe it or not, that kept the company afloat (from 2001 to 2003).”
Everything was sold online due to lack of cash. “We had to start that way because we couldn’t afford to sell to stores due to cash flow. The way it works is you sell to Gamestop and they don’t pay you for 60 to 90 days. We didn’t have the money to do that, so we had to sell everything online because when somebody orders with a credit card, you get paid in two days.”
The company’s number one rule to survive was simple. Don’t die. “As long as your company doesn’t die, smart people will find a way to make things happen, but if you let your company die, that’s it, you’ll never have another shot.”
For two years the company ran with less than 2-weeks of cash in the bank. Seriously. Every week they hoped to make enough money to make the next payroll. One time Charles had drafted the email to lay the employees off because they didn’t have enough money to pay. They decided to wait until after Thanksgiving and when Black Friday hit, orders poured in. “It was like a gift, like money falling from the heavens,” Charles said. “Like ‘where are all of these orders coming from?’ Then that actually gave us enough money to make payroll and we made enough money over the next month to continue.”
Once they realized that Konami could ruin their dance pad business if they decided to stop selling it in the US, they needed to be more in charge of their own destiny. They took a popular arcade game called “The Groove” and partnered with the developer to bring it to the console. This took their company from $1MM in revenue to $9MM and the profits allowed them to work on their second game, Guitar Hero.
They knew the music genre was working in Asia, but it hadn’t translated to the US or Europe. They took a look at music games and found Guitar Freaks. “We said, man this thing is fun, but if we could just make a few changes, we think that would be a `partnership was perfect. Red Octane made the hardware and Harmonix made the software.
“Guitar Hero was an incredible experience in that in the first day that we talked about it in February, to the day we released it in November, everything about it just seemed like this magical experience. You know, you hear musicians say how sometimes the right songs just flow from your head? It was like that, every idea just came so smoothly.” They demoed the game at E3 in true underdog fashion they weren’t even on the main show floor. They were down in the basement with the other indie games. They won Best of Show awards going up against Madden, Need for Speed, Tony Hawk, and others. The budget for the original game was $1.7MM.
But they were still fighting. Retailers didn’t want to carry the game because the large box didn’t fit on the shelves and there was no precedence for that type of game selling well despite the positive consumer buzz. GameStop was the only retailer to carry the game. “They were almost obligated to take every videogame product because GameStop was where hardcore gamers shopped, so you have to have everything.”
To pay for the inventory, Red Octane tried to raise money again. And while they had done $9MM in revenue the year before, they were unable to raise $3MM. “It wasn’t like we were a startup that was burning cash, we were already profitable. At the time, videogames were just considered an uninvestable category by VCs. So, in order to get the game out, my brother and I took out second mortgages and took on credit card debt and to buy inventory for the launch of Guitar Hero.”
The game launched in November 2005. Best Buy forecast the game would sell 30K units between November and the end of January. The day it launched they sold 3,000 units in the first two hours. Best Buy called that day and wanted 80K more units the next week. Because of the hardware the games were built and shipped from China. That shipping delay turned Guitar Hero into the hardest game to find that Christmas season. They sold $45MM worth of Guitar Hero in the first 11-months and then they were acquired by Activision for north of $100MM.