We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place

Sunday, January 13th, 2019

The interactive book of the future hasn’t caught on, but technology has changed books nonetheless:

Physical books today look like physical books of last century. And digital books of today look, feel, and function almost identically to digital books of 10 years ago, when the Kindle launched. The biggest change is that many of Amazon’s competitors have gone belly up or shrunken to irrelevancy. The digital reading and digital book startup ecosystem that briefly emerged in the early 2010s has shriveled to a nubbin.

Amazon won. Trounced, really. As of the end of 2017, about 45 percent (up from 37 percent in 2015) of all print sales and 83 percent of all ebook sales happen through Amazon channels. There are few alternatives with meaningful mind- or market share, especially among digital books.

Yet here’s the surprise: We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve — I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building — everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t.


Our Future Book is composed of email, tweets, YouTube videos, mailing lists, crowdfunding campaigns, PDF to .mobi converters, Amazon warehouses, and a surge of hyper-affordable offset printers in places like Hong Kong.

Wood-based supermaterial is stronger and tougher than steel

Saturday, January 5th, 2019

A new wood-based supermaterial is stronger and tougher than steel:

In their natural form, wood cells are kept rigid due to polymers known as lignin and hemicellulose, interspersed with nanofibres of cellulose. Wood also contains systems of narrow tubes known as lumina, which run along its growth direction. To transform this structure into a more useful material, Hu’s team first treat samples of wood with a salt solution, which removes most of the lignin and hemicellulose, making the cell walls porous and less rigid. Afterwards, the researchers hot-press the wood at 100 °C, causing the cell walls and the lumina to collapse. This reduces the wood to just 20% of its original thickness.

The compressed substance contains densely-packed wood cells aligned along the growth direction, which results in a strongly-aligned system of cellulose nanofibres. These fibres have hydrogen and oxide groups in their molecular structures, giving rise to strong hydrogen-bond interactions between them. The density of the new material is about three times higher than that of untreated wood.

Once they had perfected the conversion process, Hu’s team set about testing the properties of their new substance. In most structural materials there is a trade-off between tensile strength (resistance to breaking while being stretched) and toughness (how much energy a material can absorb without shattering) — but the researchers saw improvements in both properties in their new material. Its tensile strength is 11.5 times higher than that of natural wood, making it much stronger than common plastics such as nylon and polystyrene. However, the toughness of the new material is also boosted — it is 8.3 times higher than natural wood, making it tougher than most metal alloys.

(Hat tip to Hans Schantz.)

Aluminum normally casts a silvery white light when it burns

Sunday, December 30th, 2018

The green-blue glow that filled the New York City sky was not caused by a transformer explosion, Consolidated Edison clarified:

The extraordinary event had in fact been traced to a voltage monitoring gizmo known as a coupling capacitor potential device — or CCPD if you happen to operate a power grid — that failed to function properly at a Queens substation on Thursday night.

That led to an arc flash in which electricity delivered via a 138,000-volt transmission line jumped from one point to another, ionizing the very air through which it leapt. The energy was too great to be constrained to a straight trajectory, and it began to arc with its own power. The arc grew higher and higher, as did the heat it generated.

“Temperatures can reach as high as 35,000 degrees Fahrenheit,” notes a General Electric fact sheet. “This is hotter than the surface of the sun.”

The fact sheet adds, “Arc Flash temperatures can… liquefy or vaporize metal parts in the vicinity.”

Some of the substation equipment is aluminum, which normally casts a silvery white light when it burns. But at extremely high temperatures such as this bit of sun in Queens, the light generated by the vaporized aluminum was the almost-Tiffany blue that New York City residents saw rise into the sky and spread through the low-lying cloud cover.

Make a radio using simple supplies

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

I’m a bit shocked that I hadn’t stumbled across How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler until just now, while reading about how building a radio transmitter is easier than building a clock:

Historically, humans were able to navigate with two instruments: a sextant and a clock. A sextant is used to measure the altitude of the celestial north pole so you can determine your latitude. The clock is needed to measure the difference between local noon and Greenwich Mean Time so you can get your longitude. Yes, that’s really how it works — here are the details if you are interested.

But how would you build these on your own? The sextant is pretty simple — it’s just a tool for measuring angles. The clock on the other hand, that’s not so easy. I don’t think I could build an accurate clock from scratch even if I knew exactly how it works (it’s not that difficult conceptually).

If the clock is so difficult to make, then don’t make it — that is the idea from Ryan North, and it’s brilliant. Instead he suggests that it would be easier to make a radio and use that for navigation. If you can build a radio transmitter, you won’t need a clock. The key part of using a clock for navigation is to know the difference between local noon (when the Sun is at its highest point) and noon in Greenwich (or any other reference location). If you have a radio, you can just broadcast the time from Greenwich and compare that to your local time. Boom. You just found out where you are. You didn’t even need to wind up a pocket watch.

Now you are thinking — but isn’t a radio even more complicated than a clock? Nope. The clock needs precision and accuracy in the building process. If you understand physics, you can make a crude radio, no problem. That’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to make a radio using just the simplest supplies I can find.

Of course there are some prerequisites. If you are stuck in the past, you are going to need to “invent” some other things first. Here’s what you need (none of these are terribly difficult).

  • Copper wire. I guess it doesn’t have to be copper, but you will need some metal wire. This shouldn’t be too difficult once you get a good forge going.
  • A battery. If you have two different types of metals and an acid, you can make a battery. It’s that easy. In fact, you can even make a battery from several pennies—here’s how.
  • A ferromagnetic material like iron.
  • A radio receiver. I know this seems like cheating, but it’s not that difficult to build. Here is how you can make one. There are other ways to do this that might be easier, but the bottom line is it’s possible to make one.

That’s pretty much all you need. Even a stranded time traveler could eventually figure out these things.

A diode for magnetic fields opens up a lot of new possibilities

Wednesday, November 28th, 2018

Dr. Jordi Prat-Camps of the University of Sussex has demonstrated that the coupling between two magnetic elements can be made asymmetrical:

Working with colleagues from the Austrian Academy of Sciences and University of Innsbruck, Dr. Prat-Camps’ research rips up the physics rule book by showing it is possible to make one magnet connect to another without the connection happening in the opposite direction.

The findings run contrary to long-established beliefs of magnetic coupling, which emerge from the four Maxwell equations dating back to the seminal works of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell in the 19th century.

Dr. Prat-Camps said: “We have created the first device that behaves like a diode for magnetic fields. Electric diodes are so crucial that none of the existing electronic technologies such as microchips, computers or mobile phones would be possible without them. If our result for magnetic fields would have one millionth of the same impact as the developments in electric diodes, it would be a hugely impactful success. The creation of such a diode opens up a lot of new possibilities for other scientists and technicians to explore. Thanks to our discovery we think it might be possible to improve and the performance of wireless power transfer technologies to improve the efficiency of recharging phones, laptops and even cars.”


After several unsuccessful attempts to break magnetic reciprocity, the team decided to try using an electrical conductor in movement. By solving Maxwell’s equations analytically, the researchers very quickly demonstrated that not only could reciprocity be broken down but that, the coupling could be made maximally asymmetric, whereby the coupling from A to B would be different from zero but from B to A it would be exactly zero. Having shown that total unidirectional coupling was possible theoretically, the team designed and built a proof-of-concept experiment which confirmed their findings.

If he mysteriously disappears, we’ll have to assume a secret cabal has taken him out for revealing the hidden truth.

Ion thrusters allow a plane with no moving parts

Wednesday, November 21st, 2018

Electrohydrodynamic thrust, or ion thrust, could power aircraft — silently:

Ionic thrusters are simple in design: They feature one thin copper electrode, known as an emitter, and one thicker tube of a metal-like aluminum called a collector. A lightweight frame supports the wires, which connect to an electrical power source, and keeps them apart—the gap between them is vital to creating ionic wind.

When voltage is applied to the wires, the resulting field gradient pulls electrons away from surrounding air molecules, ionizing them. The ionized air molecules are strongly repelled by the emitter and strongly attracted to the collector. As they move toward the collector, they push the other air molecules around them, creating thrust.


Steven Barrett, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, has now shown that ionic thrusters may, in fact, be perfect for aerospace applications—especially, he says, for surveillance vehicles.

“I first had the idea as an undergrad,” Barrett says, “because it was interesting to me that hobbyists were making small lifters, which showed this worked on some level. And I found out that these hobbyists were all wondering if it could be efficient enough to power a larger craft.” He picked up the project again when he became a faculty member and had more creative freedom.

Why pursue ionic thrusters? For one thing, Barrett says, they have the potential to outperform current jet engines. In a series of experiments in which Barrett fed electricity to a simple ionocraft attached to a digital scale, which allowed him to measure the exact thrust produced each time the craft left the ground, the model produced 110 newtons of thrust per kilowatt, versus a jet engine’s 2 newtons. Ionic thrusters are silent and, because they give off no heat, completely invisible to infrared sensors.

The system was most efficient at a low velocity, but Barrett explains that this is actually a positive. “You want to produce the most thrust you can at the lowest velocity,” he says.

He recently demonstrated the idea:

But unlike its predecessors, which had tumbled to the ground, Version 2 sailed nearly 200 feet through the air at roughly 11 miles per hour (17 kilometers per hour). With no visible exhaust and no roaring jet or whirling propeller—no moving parts at all, in fact—the aircraft seemed silently animated by an ethereal source. “It was very exciting,” Barrett says. “Then it crashed into the wall, which wasn’t ideal.”

(Hat tip to Jonathan Jeckell.)

A fuel cell that runs on methane at practical temperatures

Monday, November 12th, 2018

Methane fuel cells usually require temperatures of 750 to 1,000 degrees Celsius to run, but a new fuel cell with a new catalyst can run at 500 degrees, cooler than an automobile engine:

That lower temperature could trigger cascading cost savings in the ancillary technology needed to operate a fuel cell, potentially pushing the new cell to commercial viability. The researchers feel confident that engineers can design electric power units around this fuel cell with reasonable effort, something that has eluded previous methane fuel cells.

“Our cell could make for a straightforward, robust overall system that uses cheap stainless steel to make interconnectors,” said Meilin Liu, who led the study and is a Regents’ Professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Material Science and Engineering. Interconnectors are parts that help bring together many fuel cells into a stack, or functional unit.

“Above 750 degrees Celsius, no metal would withstand the temperature without oxidation, so you’d have a lot of trouble getting materials, and they would be extremely expensive and fragile, and contaminate the cell,” Liu said.

“Lowering the temperature to 500 degrees Celsius is a sensation in our world. Very few people have even tried it,” said Ben deGlee, a graduate research assistant in Liu’s lab and one of the first authors of the study. “When you get that low, it makes the job of the engineer designing the stack and connected technologies much easier.”

The new cell also eliminates the need for a major ancillary device called a steam reformer, which is normally needed to convert methane and water into hydrogen fuel.


Hydrogen is the best fuel for powering fuel cells, but its cost is exorbitant. The researchers figured out how to convert methane to hydrogen in the fuel cell itself via the new catalyst, which is made with cerium, nickel and ruthenium and has the chemical formula Ce0.9Ni0.05Ru0.05O2, abbreviated CNR.

When methane and water molecules come into contact with the catalyst and heat, nickel chemically cleaves the methane molecule. Ruthenium does the same with water. The resulting parts come back together as that very desirable hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO), which the researchers surprisingly put to good use.

“CO causes performance problems in most fuel cells, but here, we’re using it as a fuel,” Chen said.

A proposal for an archive revisiter

Thursday, November 8th, 2018

In his long list of statistical notes, Gwern includes a proposal for an archive revisiter:

One reason to take notes/clippings and leave comments in stimulating discussions is to later benefit by having references & citations at hand, and gradually build up an idea from disparate threads and make new connections between them. For this purpose, I make extensive excerpts from web pages & documents I read into my Evernote clippings (functioning as a commonplace book), and I comment constantly on Reddit, LessWrong, HN, etc. While expensive in time & effort, I often go back, months or years later, and search for a particular thing and expand & integrate it into another writing or expand it out to an entire essay of its own. (I also value highly not being in the situation where I believe something but I do not know why I believe it other than the conviction I read it somewhere, once.)

This sort of personal information management using simple personal information managers like Evernote works well enough when I have a clear memory of what the citation/factoid was, perhaps because it was so memorable, or when the citations or comments are in a nice cluster (perhaps because there was a key phrase in them or I kept going back & expanding a comment), but it loses out on key benefits to this procedure: serendipity and perspective.

As time passes, one may realize the importance of an odd tidbit or have utterly forgotten something or events considerably changed its meaning; in this case, you would benefit from revisiting & rereading that old bit & experiencing an aha! moment, but you don’t realize it. So one thing you could do is reread all your old clippings & comments, appraising them for reuse.

But how often? And it’s a pain to do so. And how do you keep track of which you’ve already read? One thing I do for my emails is semi-annually I (try to) read through my previous 6 months of email to see what might need to be followed up on10 or mined for inclusion in an article. (For example, an ignored request for data, or a discussion of darknet markets with a journalist I could excerpt into one of my DNM articles so I can point future journalists at that instead.) This is already difficult, and it would be even harder to expand. I have read through my LessWrong comment history… once. Years ago. It would be more difficult now. (And it would be impossible to read through my Reddit comments as the interface only goes back ~1000 comments.)

Simply re-reading periodically in big blocks may work but is suboptimal: there is no interface easily set up to reread them in small chunks over time, no constraints which avoid far too many reads, nor is there any way to remove individual items which you are certain need never be reviewed again. Reviewing is useful but can be an indefinite timesink. (My sent emails are not too hard to review in 6-month chunks, but my IRC logs are bad – 7,182,361 words in one channel alone – and my >38k Evernote clippings are worse; any lifestreaming will exacerbate the problem by orders of magnitude.) This is probably one reason that people who keep journals or diaries don’t reread Nor can it be crowdsourced or done by simply ranking comments by public upvotes (in the case of Reddit/LW/HN comments), because the most popular comments are ones you likely remember well & have already used up, and the oddities & serendipities you are hoping for are likely unrecognizable to outsiders.

This suggests some sort of reviewing framework where one systematically reviews old items (sent emails, comments, IRC logs by oneself), putting in a constant amount of time regularly and using some sort of ever expanding interval between re-reads as an item becomes exhausted & ever more likely to not be helpful. Similar to the logarithmically-bounded number of backups required for indefinite survival of data (Sandberg & Armstrong 2012), Deconstructing Deathism – Answering Objections to Immortality, Mike Perry 2013 (note: this is an entirely different kind of problem than those considered in Freeman Dyson’s immortal intelligences in Infinite in All Directions, which are more fundamental), discusses something like what I have in mind in terms of an immortal agent trying to review its memories & maintain a sense of continuity, pointing out that if time is allocated correctly, it will not consume 100% of the agent’s time but can be set to consume some bounded fraction.


So you could imagine some sort of software along the lines of spaced repetition systems like Anki, Mnemosyne, or Supermemo which you spend, say, 10 minutes a day at, simply rereading a selection of old emails you sent, lines from IRC with n lines of surrounding context, Reddit & LW comments etc; with an appropriate backoff & time-curve, you would reread each item maybe 3 times in your lifetime (eg first after a delay of a month, then a year or two, then decades). Each item could come with a rating function where the user rates it as an important or odd-seeming or incomplete item and to be exposed again in a few years, or as totally irrelevant and not to be shown again – as for many bits of idle chit-chat, mundane emails, or intemperate comments is not an instant too soon! (More positively, anything already incorporated into an essay or otherwise reused likely doesn’t need to be resurfaced.)

This wouldn’t be the same as a spaced repetition system which is designed to recall an item as many times as necessary, at the brink of forgetting, to ensure you memorize it; in this case, the forgetting curve & memorization are irrelevant and indeed, the priority here is to try to eliminate as many irrelevant or useless items as possible from showing up again so that the review doesn’t waste time.

More specifically, you could imagine an interface somewhat like Mutt which reads in a list of email files (my local POP email archives downloaded from Gmail with getmail4, filename IDs), chunks of IRC dialogue (a grep of my IRC logs producing lines written by me +- 10 lines for context, hashes for ID), LW/Reddit comments downloaded by either scraping or API via the BigQuery copy up to 2015, and stores IDs, review dates, and scores in a database. One would use it much like a SRS system, reading individual items for 10 or 20 minutes, and rating them, say, upvote (this could be useful someday, show me this ahead of schedule in the future) / downvote (push this far off into the future) / delete (never show again). Items would appear on an expanding schedule.


As far as I know, some to-do/self-help systems have something like a periodic review of past stuff, and as I mentioned, spaced repetition systems do something somewhat similar to this idea of exponential revisits, but there’s nothing like this at the moment.

The fall of Big Data and the rise of the Blockchain economy

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

George Gilder’s Life After Google predicts the fall of Big Data and the rise of the Blockchain economy:

Famously, Google gives most of its content away for free, or (in comments Gilder credits to Tim Cook) if it’s free, you’re not the customer; you’re the product. That’s the least of it. Spanish has two words for “free”–gratis and libre. In our context it means gratis.

Let’s count the ways gratis benefits Google:

  • They are completely immune from any antitrust prosecution and most other regulatory oversight.
  • They can roll out buggy, beta software to consumers and improve it over time.
  • They don’t have to take responsibility for security. Unlike a bank, Google is at no risk if somehow your data gets corrupted or stolen.
  • They provide no customer support.
  • Your data doesn’t belong to you. Instead it belongs to Google, which can monetize it with the help of AI.
  • You get locked into a Google world, where everything you own is now at their mercy. (I’m in that situation.) Your data is precisely not libre.

Note that Google didn’t even bother to show up at the recent Congressional hearings about “fake news.” They consider themselves above the law (or, perhaps more accurately, below the law). They can get away with this because it’s free.

There are some disadvantages.

  • It’s not really free, but instead of paying with money you pay with time. Attention is the basic currency of Google-world.
  • People hate ads. “[O]nly 0.06 percent of smartphone ads were clicked through. Since more than 50 percent of the clicks were by mistake, according to surveys, the intentional response rate was 0.03 percent.” This works only for spammers. Ad-blockers are becoming universal.
  • Google thinks it can circumvent that by using AI to generate ads that will interest the user. No matter–people still hate them.The result is the value of advertising is declining. Gilder does not believe that AI will ever solve this problem. (I agree with him.)
  • Most important–Google loses any information about how valuable its products are. Airlines, for example, respond sensitively to price signals when determining which routes to fly, what equipment to use, what service levels to provide, etc. Price is the best communication mechanism known for conveying economic information. You immediately know what is valuable to consumers, and what isn’t.Google loses all that information by going gratis.Is Gmail more valuable than Waze? Google has no idea. As a result it has no way of knowing where to invest its money and resources. It’s just blindly throwing money at a dartboard.

It’s just plain good science fiction and it satisfies

Friday, October 26th, 2018

I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code — or any other conspiracy thrillers, now that I think of it — but I have to assume that Hans G. Schantz‘s Hidden Truth series reads like Dan Brown’s bestselling novel — but with physics taking the place of theology.

Schantz can credibly weave physics into his story, because he is a trained physicist and “wrote the book” on The Art and Science of Ultra-Wideband Antennas, and the first book definitely made me want to know more about the pioneers of electromagnetic theory — many of whom did die young or inexplicably left the field.

But the real draw — or drawback — of the novel is that it is unambiguously conservative and especially anti-Progressive. This makes it a bit of a guilty pleasure, if you ascribe to Jordan Peterson’s point about art versus propaganda:

Neovictorian reviewed the second book, and I think he reviewed it well:

It’s fun, it’s well written, it’s just plain good science fiction and it satisfies. Also, it’s a practical guide to understanding, infiltrating and grandly screwing with college SJWs. After you’ve read it, buy a copy (of both volumes) for your friends and children at school! Buy copies for younger kids, too. These books show how young people should conduct themselves with honor and perseverance, and not through preaching, but through example.

I may have to read Neovictorian’s own Sanity next.

How precision engineers created the modern world

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018

Simon Winchester’s The Perfectionists explains how precision engineers created the modern world:

The story of precision begins with metal.

And the story begins, according to Winchester, at a specific place and time: North Wales, “on a cool May day in 1776.” The Age of Steam was getting underway. So was the Industrial Revolution — almost but not quite the same thing. In Scotland, James Watt was designing a new engine to pump water by means of the power of steam. In England, John “Iron-Mad” Wilkinson was improving the manufacture of cannons, which were prone to exploding, with notorious consequences for the sailors manning the gun decks of the navy’s ships. Rather than casting cannons as hollow tubes, Wilkinson invented a machine that took solid blocks of iron and bored cylindrical holes into them: straight and precise, one after another, each cannon identical to the last. His boring machine, which he patented, made him a rich man.

Watt, meanwhile, had patented his steam engine, a giant machine, tall as a house, at its heart a four-foot-wide cylinder in which blasts of steam forced a piston up and down. His first engines were hugely powerful and yet frustratingly inefficient. They leaked. Steam gushed everywhere. Winchester, a master of detail, lists the ways the inventor tried to plug the gaps between cylinder and piston: rubber, linseed oil–soaked leather, paste of soaked paper and flour, corkboard shims, and half-dried horse dung — until finally John Wilkinson came along. He wanted a Watt engine to power one of his bellows. He saw the problem and had the solution ready-made. He could bore steam-engine cylinders from solid iron just as he had naval cannons, and on a larger scale. He made a massive boring tool of ultrahard iron and, with huge iron rods and iron sleighs and chains and blocks and “searing heat and grinding din,” achieved a cylinder, four feet in diameter, which as Watt later wrote “does not err the thickness of an old shilling at any part.”

By “an old shilling” he meant a tenth of an inch, which is a reminder that measurement itself — the science and the terminology — was in its infancy. An engineer today would say a tolerance of 0.1 inches.

James Watt’s fame eclipses Iron-Mad Wilkinson’s, but it is Wilkinson’s precision that enabled Watt’s steam engine to power pumps and mills and factories all over England, igniting the Industrial Revolution. As much as the machinery itself, the discovery of tolerance is crucial to this story. The tolerance is the clearance between, in this case, cylinder and piston. It is a specification on which an engineer (and a customer) can rely. It is the foundational concept for the world of increasing precision. When machine parts could be made to a tolerance of one tenth of an inch, soon finer tolerances would be possible: a hundredth of an inch, a thousandth, a ten-thousandth, and less.

Watt’s invention was a machine. Wilkinson’s was a machine tool: a machine for making machines and their parts. More and better machines followed, some so basic that we barely think of them as machines: toilets, locks, pulley blocks for sailing ships, muskets. The history of machinery has been written before, of course, as has the history of industrialization. These can be histories of science or economics. By focusing instead on the arrow of increasing precision, Winchester is, in effect, walking us around a familiar object to expose an unfamiliar perspective.

Can precision really be a creation of the industrial world? The word comes from Latin by way of middle French, but first it meant “cutting off” or “trimming.” The sense of exactitude comes later. It seems incredible that the ancients lacked this concept, so pervasive in modern thinking, but they measured time with sundials and sandglasses, and they counted space with hands and feet, and the “stone” has survived into modern Britain as a measure of weight.

Any assessment of ancient technology has to include, however, a single extraordinary discovery — an archaeological oddball the size of a toaster, named the “Antikythera mechanism,” after the island near Crete where Greek sponge divers recovered it in 1900 from a shipwreck 150 feet deep. Archaeologists were astonished to find, inside a shell of wood and bronze dated to the first or second century BC, a complex clockwork machine comprising at least thirty bronze dials and gears with intricate meshing teeth. In the annals of archaeology, it’s a complete outlier. It displays a mechanical complexity otherwise unknown in the ancient world and not matched again until fourteenth-century Europe. To call it “clockwork” is an anachronism: clocks came much later. Yet the gears seem to have been made — by hand — to a tolerance of a few tenths of a millimeter.

After a century of investigation and speculation, scientists have settled on the view that the Antikythera mechanism was an analog computer, intended to demonstrate astronomical cycles. Dials seem to represent the sun, the moon, and the five planets then known. It might have been able to predict eclipses of the moon. Where planetary motion is concerned, however, it seems to have been highly flawed. The engineering is better than the underlying astronomy. As Winchester notes, the Antikythera mechanism represents a device that is amazingly precise, yet not very accurate.

What makes precision a feature of the modern world is the transition from craftsmanship to mass production. The genius of machine tools — as opposed to mere machines — lies in their repeatability. Artisans of shoes or tables or even clocks can make things exquisite and precise, “but their precision was very much for the few,” Winchester writes. “It was only when precision was created for the many that precision as a concept began to have the profound impact on society as a whole that it does today.” That was John Wilkinson’s achievement in 1776: “the first construction possessed of a degree of real and reproducible mechanical precision — precision that was measurable, recordable, repeatable.”

Perhaps the canonical machine tool — surely the oldest — is the lathe, a turning device for cutting and shaping table legs, gun barrels, and screws. Wooden lathes date back to ancient China and Egypt. However, metal lathes, enormous and powerful, turning out metal machine parts, did not come into their own until the end of the eighteenth century. You can explain that in terms of available energy: water wheels and steam engines. Or you can explain it as Winchester does, in terms of precision. The British inventor Henry Maudslay made the first successful screw-cutting lathe in 1800, and to Winchester the crucial part of his invention is a device known as a slide rest: the device that holds the cutting tools and adjusts their position as delicately as possible, with the help of gears. Maudslay’s lathe, described by one historian as “the mother tool of the industrial age,” achieved a tolerance of one ten-thousandth of an inch. Metal screws and other pieces could be turned out by the hundreds and then the thousands, every one exactly the same.

Because they were replicable, they were interchangeable. Because they were interchangeable, they made possible a world of mass production and the warehousing and distribution of component parts. A French gunsmith, Honoré Blanc, is credited with showing in 1785 that flintlocks for muskets could be made with interchangeable parts. Before an audience, he disassembled twenty-five flintlocks into twenty-five frizzle springs, twenty-five face plates, twenty-five bridles, and twenty-five pans, randomly shuffled the pieces, and then rebuilt “out of this confusion of components” twenty-five new locks. Particularly impressed was the American minister to France, Thomas Jefferson, who posted by packet ship a letter explaining the new method for the benefit of Congress:

It consists in the making every part of them so exactly alike that what belongs to any one, may be used for every other musket in the magazine…. I put several together myself taking pieces at hazard as they came to hand, and they fitted in the most perfect manner. The advantages of this, when arms need repair, are evident.

As it was, when a musket broke down in the field, a soldier needed to find a blacksmith.

Replication and standardization are so hard-wired into our world that we forget how the unstandardized world functioned. A Massachusetts inventor named Thomas Blanchard in 1817 created a lathe that made wooden lasts for shoes. Cobblers still made the shoes, but now the sizes could be systematized. “Prior to that,” says Winchester, “shoes were offered up in barrels, at random. A customer shuffled through the barrel until finding a shoe that fit, more or less comfortably.” Before long, Blanchard’s lathe was making standardized gun stocks at the Springfield Armory and then at its successor, the Harpers Ferry Armory, which began turning out muskets and rifles by the thousands on machines powered by water turbines at the convergence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. “These were the first truly mechanically produced production-line objects made anywhere,” Winchester writes. “They were machine-made in their entirety, ‘lock, stock, and barrel.’” It is perhaps no surprise that the military played from the first, and continues to play, a leading and deadly part in the development of precision-based technologies and methods.

Some Russian guy tried it 15 years ago

Thursday, October 18th, 2018

The origin of Blue Origin sounds fascinating:

Jeff Bezos remembers being 5 years old and watching the Apollo 11 moon landing on a black-and-white television. The event triggered a lifelong obsession. He spent his boyhood in Houston and moved to Florida by high school, but he passed his summers on his grandparents’ farm in rural Cotulla, Texas. There, his grandfather — a former top Defense Department official — introduced him to the extensive collection of science fiction at the town library. He devoured the books, gravitating especially to Robert Heinlein and other classic writers who explored the cosmos in their tales.

When he was a junior at Miami’s Palmetto Senior High School, his physics teacher, Deana Ruel, tasked the students with designing a piece of playground equipment. Bezos’ idea was to build one in low gravity. “One day I’m going to be the first one to have an amusement park on the moon,” he told Ruel. He promised her a ticket. For a newspaper profile, Bezos spouted O’Neillian talking points to a local reporter curious about his space obsession: “The Earth is finite, and if the world economy and population is to keep expanding, space is the only way to go.”

Bezos went to Princeton, where he attended seminars led by O’Neill and became president of the campus chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. At one meeting, Bezos was regaling attendees with visions of hollowing out asteroids and transforming them into space arks when a woman leapt to her feet. “How dare you rape the universe!” she said, and stormed out. “There was a pause, and Jeff didn’t make a public comment,” says Kevin Polk, another member of the club. “But after things broke up, Jeff said, ‘Did she really defend the inalienable rights of barren rocks?’”

After Princeton, Bezos put his energies toward finance, working at a hedge fund. He left it to move to Seattle and start Amazon. Not long after, he was seated at a dinner party with science fiction writer Neal Stephenson. Their conversation quickly left the bounds of Earth. “There’s sort of a matching game that goes on where you climb a ladder, figuring out the level of someone’s fanaticism about space by how many details they know,” Stephenson says. “He was incredibly high on that ladder.” The two began spending weekend afternoons shooting off model rockets.

In 1999, Stephenson and Bezos went to see the movie October Sky, about a boy obsessed with rocketry, and stopped for coffee afterward. Bezos said he’d been thinking for a long time about starting a space company. “Why not start it today?” Stephenson asked. The next year, Bezos incorporated a company called Blue Operations LLC. Stephenson secured space in a former envelope factory in a funky industrial area in south Seattle. Other early members of the team included Pablos Holman, a self-described computer hacker, and serial inventor Danny Hillis, who had crafted a proposal to build a giant mechanical clock that would run for 10,000 years. Bezos also recruited Amazon’s general counsel, Alan Caplan, a fellow space nerd. (“We both agreed we’d like to retire on Mars,” Caplan says.) These people were more thinkers than rocketeers, but at Blue Origin’s start the point was to brainstorm: Had any ideas been overlooked that could shake up space travel the way the internet had upended terrestrial commerce?

Another early participant was George Dyson, a science historian and son of physicist Freeman Dyson. At the 1999 PC Forum, an elite tech event run by Dyson’s sister, Esther, Bezos made a beeline for George, who had been writing about a little-known 1950s venture called Project Orion. Project Orion sought to propel space vehicles with atomic bomb explosions, and Bezos wanted to know all about it. As Dyson recalls, Bezos saw Orion as “his model for a small group of crazy people deciding to go into space without the restrictions of being an official government project.” (Bezos later reviewed Dyson’s book on Amazon—something he’s done only three times in the company’s history.) Some months later, Stephenson asked Dyson if he would consult for the company. Then he asked him to join Blue.

When Dyson signed on, he says, Blue Origin felt like Wernher von Braun’s Society for Space Travel. Like that amateur group of dazzling scientists, Blue resembled a club more than a company. Its members were obsessed with finding an alternative to chemical combustion, which is a woefully inefficient way to propel rockets on interplanetary journeys. “We went through a long list of not-quite-crazy but way-out-there projects at the beginning,” Dyson says.

Those were hashed out at Blue Origin’s monthly Saturday all-hands meetings. The sessions began at 9 and lasted all day. Bezos rarely missed one. “It was almost incomprehensible how technically engaged Jeff was in every part of the discussion,” Dyson says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’ll leave the hydrogen-flow control valve question to the hydrogen-flow control valve people.’ Whatever the question was, Jeff would have technical knowledge and be involved.”

But as the Blue Origin team experimented with eccentric ways to heave things upward, they began to realize there was a reason big tubes full of chemical fuel had persisted. Every new tack proved infeasible, because of cost, risk, or technical complexity. “You can work really hard and come up with what you think is a super original idea, and you always find out that some Russian guy tried it 15 years ago,” Stephenson says.

Did China use a tiny chip to infiltrate U.S. companies?

Saturday, October 6th, 2018

Bloomberg claims that China used a tiny chip to infiltrate U.S. companies:

A Chinese military unit designed and manufactured microchips as small as a sharpened pencil tip. Some of the chips were built to look like signal conditioning couplers, and they incorporated memory, networking capability, and sufficient processing power for an attack.

The microchips were inserted at Chinese factories that supplied Supermicro, one of the world’s biggest sellers of server motherboards.

The compromised motherboards were built into servers assembled by Supermicro.

The sabotaged servers made their way inside data centers operated by dozens of companies.

When a server was installed and switched on, the microchip altered the operating system’s core so it could accept modifications. The chip could also contact computers controlled by the attackers in search of further instructions and code.

The claims are… incredible:

In emailed statements, Amazon (which announced its acquisition of Elemental in September 2015), Apple, and Supermicro disputed summaries of Bloomberg Businessweek’s reporting. “It’s untrue that AWS knew about a supply chain compromise, an issue with malicious chips, or hardware modifications when acquiring Elemental,” Amazon wrote. “On this we can be very clear: Apple has never found malicious chips, ‘hardware manipulations’ or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server,” Apple wrote. “We remain unaware of any such investigation,” wrote a spokesman for Supermicro, Perry Hayes. The Chinese government didn’t directly address questions about manipulation of Supermicro servers, issuing a statement that read, in part, “Supply chain safety in cyberspace is an issue of common concern, and China is also a victim.” The FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, representing the CIA and NSA, declined to comment.

The inventor who plans to build a city under the sea

Thursday, September 27th, 2018

Phil Nuytten has built submarines and diving suits, but now he’s planning to build a city under the sea:

An underwater city is cool, but I’m not sure how much sense it makes. He does mention siting it on a thermal vent though, for “free” energy via a Stirling engine.

How fighting wildfires works

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

In case you were wondering how fighting wildfires works, this video explains the process: