Manual for Civilization

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

The Long Now Foundation is taking recommendations for their library-sized Manual for Civilization. Kevin Kelly originally called for a Library of Utility:

It would be a very selective library. It would not contain the world’s great literature, or varied accounts of history, or deep knowledge of ethnic wonders, or speculations about the future. It has no records of past news, no children’s books, no tomes on philosophy. It contains only seeds. Seeds of utilitarian know-how. How to recreate the infrastructure and technology of civilization so far.

The idea evolved to include these categories:

  • Cultural Canon (Great Books, Shakespeare, Plato, etc.)
  • Mechanics of Civilization (Technical knowledge, how to build and understand things)
  • Rigorous Science Fiction (Science fiction that tells a useful story about a potential future)
  • Long-term Thinking, Futurism, and relevant history (Books on how to think about the future that may include surveys of the past)

Brian Eno’s recommendations were the first to be shared:

I’m inclined to see Steward Brand’s recommendations as definitive.

Orbital Mechanics

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

The latest xkcd comic, on orbital mechanics, reminds us how powerful simulations are as learning tools:

xkcd Orbital Mechanics

TrackingPoint AR Series

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

I’ve been wondering when TrackingPoint would introduce an AR series:

Mike Judge on Silicon Valley

Saturday, April 5th, 2014

Mike Judge graduated from UCSD with a degree in physics and then moved to East Palo Alto in 1987 to work at a company that made interfaces for high-resolution screens, so he has some experience with Silicon Valley:

Everybody uses all this technology every day but very few people know what it’s like to be a programmer and coding this stuff. I haven’t seen engineer-programmer types portrayed the way I’ve known them to be. The only exceptions I’ve seen were “The Social Network,” which was great, and a little movie called “Primer.” The guy made it in Dallas for like $5,000. It looks incredible and the engineers seem like engineers.

[...]

Back then you looked for a job in the newspaper and I remember seeing a giant ad for Sun Microsystems that said “PUSH” in giant letters, and then underneath it said, “yourself harder than you ever dreamed possible, past all existing goals, up to the level of Sun Microsystems.” It just kind of scared me.

[...]

You look at the houses that a lot of billionaires live in, and they’re not flashy the way Hollywood is. I was talking to a very wealthy guy up there who said the last thing you’d ever do is drive around in a Maserati or something. But because nobody wants to show off any wealth, the whole place ends up looking kind of drab. I guess it started from hippie culture, and these are also introverted people, so there’s this code of behavior where you don’t show wealth. You wear a Patagonia vest and jeans and that’s that.

The Expert

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

What it’s like to be the sole technical expert in a client meeting:

Before the Internet

Friday, March 28th, 2014

Do you remember back before the Internet?

xkcd Before the Internet

Dirigible Drones Will Watch the World From 13 Miles Up

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

The Stratobus aims to fly between UAVs and satellites:

Designed to be about the length of a football field and 25 yards in diameter, the blimp-shaped vehicle’s shell will be made of carbon fiber.

Without a launcher, StratoBus floats to the lower stratosphere at an altitude of about 13 miles where developers say it will be in a perfect position to carry out a range of functions, including surveillance, border security monitoring, communications reinforcement and facilitating navigation — all from a stationary position with the help of two self-adjusting electric motors. The StratoBus will be able to endure missions of up to a year with a total lifetime of five years.

The ultra-lightweight design allows for a plug-and-play payload on the nacelle that can accommodate up to 450 pounds. And because the drone-tellite stays closer to earth, it will be able to take higher resolution images and maintain a stronger communications system. It might even be used to boost GSM network capacity during high traffic periods.

StratoBus will have a state-of-the-art solar power system with panels that rotate to maximize sun access coupled with a power amplification system to handle any surges in expended power.

The StratoBus project is led by Thales Alenia Space with Airbus Defence & Space, Zodiac Marine and CEA-Liten, who say they expect the first prototype within five years.

Everything Is In the Wrong Place

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

The problem with civilization, Scott Adams (Dilbert) says, is that our stuff is so often in the wrong place:

For example, it bugs me that I pay to heat my house . . . and then I put my refrigerator inside the heated house. That just feels wrong. I want my fridge to have an insulated conduit to the outdoors that senses temperatures and opens when the outdoors is sufficiently cold to help out. And let’s give that conduit a bug screen and an odor filter. This idea won’t happen soon because it requires the homebuilder and the refrigerator-maker to coordinate. I’ll put this idea on hold until I build my well-planned city of the future.

I recently blogged about the idea of consumers hosting computers in their homes and selling CPU time back to the grid. I got that idea about half right. A reader pointed me to a company that has a smarter take, so much so that I laughed out loud when I checked their website.

The company is Nerdalize, and their insight is that computers are also accidental heaters. With their business model you can heat your home for free in return for allowing a computer/heater in your home that is connected to the grid. This way data centers don’t need to spend vast amounts of money discarding excess heat that other people would happily pay for. It’s brilliant if it works. I’m going to add this idea to my city of the future too.

Robots Stand Guard

Friday, March 21st, 2014

The USMC airbase at Twentynine Palms recently became the latest DoD facility to be guarded by robots:

The marines were encouraged by the fact that, since 2011, even a nuclear materials storage site out in the Nevada desert was guarded this way, decided to join in. Slowly, but inevitably, mobile robots (UGVs, or unmanned ground vehicles) are taking over guard duty. It’s become increasingly common for American high-value military bases to be patrolled by four wheeled, 1.6 ton MDARS robotic vehicles. With a top speed of 32 kilometers an hour and able to operate 16 hours without refueling, the vehicle contains radar (LIDAR) and 3-D visual sensors that enable it to avoid obstacles and identify whatever it encounters. One MDARS vehicle costing about $800,000 (depending on sensors installed) can do the work at half the cost of previous, non-mobile security systems. MDARS sensors and software can identify a variety of local animals (usually coyotes, deer or dogs) and birds it is likely to encounter within a rural facility. When it detects an unauthorized human, it alerts its human controller, who checks the real-time video feed and takes action. Current MDARS sensors can identify individuals 200 meters away. MDARS is unarmed, although it could easily be equipped with weapons. In the U.S. potential legal, media and political problems discourage this. But there’s much less opposition to unarmed vehicles. As sensors and autonomous driving technology keeps improving so does the effectiveness, value and acceptability of these vehicles.

The Nazi Smart Bombs

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Precision-guided munitions seem extremely modern, but Nazi Germany developed many missile and precision-guided munition systems during World War II, including the Fritz X radio-controlled bomb and the Henschel Hs 293 radio-controlled guided missile — another glide-bomb, but with small wings and a rocket engine slung underneath it.

They failed as wonder weapons though, if only because the Germans had lost air superiority:

It’s hard to estimate losses caused by the guided weapons. German air raids saturated Allied defenses by combining smart bomb attacks with conventional dive bomber and torpedo assaults, so it is always not clear which weapon hit a ship.

The Allies also tried to maintain morale by attributing guided weapon losses to conventional weapons.

Bollinger counts 903 aircraft sorties that carried around 1,200 guided weapons. Of those 1,200, almost a third were never fired because the launch aircraft aborted or were intercepted.

Of the remaining 700 weapons, another third malfunctioned. Of the approximately 470 whose guidance systems worked, at most 51 — or just over 10 percent — actually hit their targets or landed close enough to damage them.

Bollinger calculates that just 17 to 24 ships were sunk and 14 to 21 damaged.

“At most, only one weapon in 24 dispatched from a German airfield scored a hit or damage-causing near miss,” Bollinger writes. “Only about one in 14 of the missiles launched achieved similar success, and at most one in nine of those known to respond to operator guidance was able to hit the target or cause significant damage via a near-miss.”

“This is very different from the 50-percent hit rate experienced during operational testing,” Bollinger points out.

To be fair, the technology was new. There were no lasers or fire control computers. The Fritz-X and Hs 293 were manually guided all the way. Operators had to track both missile and target through cloud, fog and smoke, without the benefit of modern thermal sights.

“It was virtually impossible to hit a ship that was steaming more than 20 knots and could fire back,” Bollinger tells War is Boring. “Almost all of the hits were against slow and/or defenseless targets.”

Bollinger hypothesizes that a phenomenon called “multi-path interference,” unknown at the time, may also have hampered the performance of the Hs 293. Radio command signals sent from the bomber to the missile might have overshot the weapon, bounced off the ocean surface below and interfered with the missile guidance signal.

The early jammers were ineffective, but Bollinger believes that by the time of the Normandy assault in June 1944, the equipment had improved enough to offer a measure of protection — and partly explains why German missiles performed poorly later in the war.

Strangely, while the Germans took measures to counteract Allied jamming of their air defense radars, they never really addressed the possibility that their anti-ship missiles were also being jammed.

It’s wrong to blame the bomb for the faults of the bomber. The real cause for the failure of German smart bombs was that by the time they were introduced in late 1943, the Luftwaffe was almost a spent force.

Already thinly spread supporting the hard-pressed armies in Russia and the West, the German air arm suffered relentless bombardment by U.S. B-17s and B-24s. The Third Reich could never deploy more than six bomber squadrons at a time equipped with the Fritz-X and Hs 293.

When the Luftwaffe ruled the skies over Poland and France in 1939, this might have been enough. By late 1943, a guided-bomb run was practically suicide.

German bombers making daylight attacks had to run a gauntlet of fighters protecting Allied ships in the daytime. Night attacks were marginally safer for the bombers but still exposed them to radar-equipped British and American night fighters. The Allies aggressively bombed any airfield suspected of harboring the smart bombers.

“Allied fighter air cover was by far the most important factor,” Bollinger tells War is Boring. “Not only did it lead to large numbers of glide-bombing aircraft getting shot down, it also forced the Germans to shift missions from daylight to dusk or nighttime. This in itself lead to a major and measurable reduction in accuracy.”

Many raids would cost the Germans a few bombers. By the standards of the thousand-bomber raids over Germany, this was trifling. But for the handful of specially trained and equipped Luftwaffe squadrons, it was catastrophic.

Of the 903 aircraft sorties, Bollinger estimates that in 112 of them, the bombers were lost before launching their weapons. Another 21 were shot down or crashed on the return flight, for an overall loss ratio of 15 percent.

“Each time a pilot departed on a glide bomb mission, he had almost a one-in-seven chance of never returning in that aircraft safely,” Bollinger says. “Put another way, the probability that a pilot would return safely after each of the first 10 missions was only 20 percent.”

Drone Ships

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Rolls-Royce, which gets 16 percent of its revenue from its marine division, is considering unmanned ships:

The company’s schematics show vessels loaded with containers from front to back, without the bridge structure where the crew lives. By replacing the bridge — along with the other systems that support the crew, such as electricity, air conditioning, water and sewage — with more cargo, ships can cut costs and boost revenue, Levander said. The ships would be 5 percent lighter before loading cargo and would burn 12 percent to 15 percent less fuel, he said.

Crew costs of $3,299 a day account for about 44 percent of total operating expenses for a large container ship, according to Moore Stephens LLP, an industry accountant and consultant.

I never thought of “life-support systems” on a ship as a costly element, and I didn’t think modern crews were particularly large, either.

I can easily see unmanned ships taking on a crew near shore, in the same way that sailing ships used to take on a pilot.

The military is also considering unmanned ships for sub-hunting.

Prescriptive Planting

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Monsanto, DuPont, and others are rolling out “prescriptive planting” technology to farmers:

Many tractors and combines already are guided by Global Positioning System satellites that plant ever-straighter rows while farmers, freed from steering, monitor progress on iPads and other tablet computers now common in tractor cabs.

Tractor-Mounted Computers

The same machinery collects data on crops and soil. But many farmers have haphazardly managed the information, scattered in piles of paperwork in their offices or stored on thumb drives clattering in pickup-truck ashtrays. The data often were turned over by hand for piecemeal analysis.

Sellers of prescriptive-planting technology want to accelerate, streamline and combine all those data with their highly detailed records on historic weather patterns, topography and crop performance.

Algorithms and human experts crunch all the data and can zap advice directly to farmers and their machines. Supporters say the push could be as important as the development of mechanized tractors in the first half of the 20th century and the rise of genetically modified seeds in the 1990s.

The world’s biggest seed company, Monsanto, estimates that data-driven planting advice to farmers could increase world-wide crop production by about $20 billion a year, or about one-third the value of last year’s U.S. corn crop.

The technology could help improve the average corn harvest to more than 200 bushels an acre from the current 160 bushels, companies say. Such a gain would generate an extra $182 an acre in revenue for farmers, based on recent prices. Iowa corn farmers got about $759 an acre last year.

So far, farmers who use prescriptive planting have seen yields climb by a more modest five to 10 bushels an acre, the companies say.

Prescriptive Planting

Catastrophic Solar Storm Inevitable, Insurers Warn

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

It is now insurers, rather than geeks, warning of an inevitable, catastrophic, solar storm:

The sun erupted on Monday, releasing a powerful flare that happened to point away from earth, a lucky break for earthlings. In 1859, a similar solar eruption knocked out telegraph systems across Europe and North America, and had Rocky Mountain gold miners up for breakfast at 1 a.m. because they thought it was daytime. Analysts say that another solar storm as severe as that 1859 event is inevitable, will be much more costly — and they note ominously that the sun is now near the peak of its activity cycle.

The consequences are likely to be more severe than in the horse-and-buggy 19th century. According to a new report from SCOR they could include long power blackouts affecting millions of people, and causing trillions of dollars in damage. “The more we rely on the Internet, the availability of all sorts of communication channels, GPS, etc., the more we are dependent on power. That’s the major exposure driver,” said Reto Schneider, head of emerging risk management at Swiss Re, which has also raised concerns about the risk. Lloyd’s last year reported that a major solar storm is “almost inevitable”, estimating the frequency at one every 150 years, and said that 20 million–40 million people in the U.S. are at risk of power outages lasting from two weeks to two years. Of course, it has been 155 years since that last really big one in 1859.

The threat of solar storm is serious enough that in January, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission proposed adoption of new standards to address “potentially severe, widespread effects on reliable operation of the nation’s bulk-power system,” according to a statement. Last year, Commissioner Cheryl A. LaFleur said in a statement, “While there is debate over whether a severe GMD [geomagnetic disturbance] event is more likely to cause the system to break apart due to excessive reactive power consumption or to collapse because of damage to high-voltage transformers and other vital equipment, there is no debate that the widespread blackouts that could result under either scenario are unacceptable.”

The Super Bowl for ICBM Crews

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

Popular Mechanics describes the Super Bowl for ICBM crews:

Three times a year, the Air Force randomly selects a Minuteman III ICBM from the missile fields, removes the nuclear ordnance, trucks the missile to California, loads it with telemetry packages, and fires it at the Kwajalein atoll, 4700 miles away.

Mooconomics

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

MOOCs represent one of the few places in which people are actually studying pedagogy at universities, and trying to improve it, John H. Cochrane notes:

Technology facilitates data collection. Unless you’re in the business, you would be very surprised to learn that college professors receive essentially no training in how to teach, no supervision of their classroom activities, and little feedback beyond a numerical rating at the end of the quarter. Though we are data-oriented empirical social scientists in our research lives, we do essentially no measurement or study of teaching effectiveness. The data collection and analysis that moocs provide may change that. Also, the presence (and necessity!) of a mooc staff means there are people whose job it is to keep up with those pedagogical lessons.