Instantaneity of Communication

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Perfection of the means of communication has meant instantaneity:

But the instantaneity of communication makes free speech and thought difficult if not impossible and for many reasons. Radio extends the range of the casual speaking voice, but it forbids that many should speak. And when what is said has such range of control it is forbidden to speak any but the most acceptable words and notions. Power and control are in all cases paid for by loss of freedom and flexibility.

Ceramic Dream Material for Jets

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

A new ceramic dream material is poised to help power Boeing jets:

The metal “super-alloys” that now line the hottest parts of jet engines are heavy, about 70 percent as dense as lead. And engineers can’t increase combustion temperatures because the alloys would melt. Already, today’s engines employ elaborate cooling mechanisms that divert air for cooling that otherwise would be used to power the plane.

Ceramic matrix composites can withstand temperatures 20 percent higher than these metals, and they are one-third the weight.

[...]

As early as 1994 Luthra had zeroed in on what he thought would be the basic chemistry and structure of the matrix — thin filaments coated with a ceramic that is shaped into a lattice. But it took years to find the perfect materials and the best way of putting them together.

One leap forward was a new type of fiber developed in Japan made of silicon carbide. But coating these fibers with a ceramic, each just one eighth the width of a human hair, evenly, was extremely difficult.

“If you don’t do that right you get a ceramic that behaves like china, and if you do it right you get ceramic with metal properties, and that’s the big deal,” he says.

He figured how to apply the coatings to each individual fiber in something called a chemical vapor deposition reactor, but no one made these devices commercially so GE had to build three of its own.

The fibers are then bathed in a polymer that arranges them into a lattice-like structure. Then, like all ceramics, the material is baked. The polymer burns away and leaves behind a strong, light lattice that is later filled with liquid silicon to create a solid structure.

Young Feathers

Saturday, May 16th, 2015

Jetman Yves Rossy and protege Vince Reffet fly around Dubai in a professionally produced video dubbed Young Feathers:

Low Moments in How-To History

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

The hipsters at Boing Boing ironically share this shooting gallery plan as a low moment in how-to history, because shooting BBs at rabbit and squirrel silhouettes is obviously wrong:

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Elon Musk Quotes

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

These memorable quotes from Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future do paint an interesting picture:

We’re all hanging out in this cabana at the Hard Rock Cafe, and Elon is there reading some obscure Soviet rocket manual that was all moldy and looked like it had been bought on eBay.” — Kevin Hartz, an early PayPal investor, describing an outing in Las Vegas that was intended as a time to celebrate the company’s success.

That is no excuse. I am extremely disappointed. You need to figure out where your priorities are. We’re changing the world and changing history, and you either commit or you don’t.” — an anonymous Tesla employee recalling an e-mail from Musk after missing an event to witness the birth of his child.

They got my best [expletive] friend to lure me out of hiding so they could beat me up. And that [expletive] hurt.” — Elon Musk, who said he was hospitalized after one beating and couldn’t return to school for a week. He was living with his father, who was said to delight in being hard on his sons.

He goes into his brain, and then you just see he is in another world. He still does that. Now I just leave him be because I know he is designing a new rocket or something.” — Elon Musk’s mother describing how as a child Elon sometimes seemed to drift off into trances. He wouldn’t respond when spoken to and would have a distant look in his eyes. Musk’s parents and physicians thought maybe he was deaf and removed his adenoid glands thinking that would improve his hearing. It made no difference.

I wanted him to meet me behind security so he couldn’t pack a gun.” — Jim Cantrell, describing his first meeting with Elon Musk. Cantrell was once accused of espionage by Russians, so he was fearful when he received a call from a stranger with an accent asking to help him with a space program. They met in an airport, hit it off, and would later travel to Russia hoping to buy rockets.

If that “no excuse” note seems over the top, that may be because it never happened. Elon Musk replied:

I have never written or said this. Ashlee’s book was not independently fact-checked. Should be taken w a grain of salt.

Internet of Things Reaches Into the Trucking Business

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

The so-called Internet of Things has reached the trucking business:

“It used to be, in our industry, for us to find out what happened with a driver and with a vehicle we had to wait for them to come back to the office,” Brian Balius, Saia VP of transportation, said in an interview. “Now we can see these things happening all day long — as they occur.” In its first year, the program led to a 6% increase in fuel efficiency, which translated to $15 million in savings for Saia. The company said it paid for itself.

Spinel

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015

The US Naval Research Laboratory has created a transparent, bulletproof material that can be molded into virtually any shape:

This material, known as Spinel, is made from a synthetic powdered clay that is heated and pressed under vacuum (aka sintered) into transparent sheets. “Spinel is actually a mineral, it’s magnesium aluminate,” Dr. Jas Sanghera, who leads the research, said in a statement. “The advantage is it’s so much tougher, stronger, harder than glass. It provides better protection in more hostile environments — so it can withstand sand and rain erosion.”

What’s really cool is that unlike most forms of commercially available bulletproof glass — which is formed by pressing alternating layers of glass and plastic sheeting together — Spinel doesn’t block the infrared wavelength of light. That means that this stuff can protect a UAV’s surveillance camera or the lens of a HEL-MD laser without hindering the device’s operation. Plus, Spinel weighs just a fraction of a modern bulletproof pane. “If you replaced that [pane] with spinel, you’d reduce the weight by a factor of two or more,” Sanghera continued.

Can civilisation reboot without fossil fuels?

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels? Maybe:

On the face of it, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that a progressing society could construct electrical generators and couple them to simple windmills and waterwheels, later progressing to wind turbines and hydroelectric dams. In a world without fossil fuels, one might envisage an electrified civilisation that largely bypasses combustion engines, building its transport infrastructure around electric trains and trams for long-distance and urban transport. I say ‘largely’. We couldn’t get round it all together.

While the electric motor could perhaps replace the coal-burning steam engine for mechanical applications, society, as we’ve already seen, also relies upon thermal energy to drive the essential chemical and physical transformations it needs. How could an industrialising society produce crucial building materials such as iron and steel, brick, mortar, cement and glass without resorting to deposits of coal?

[...]

An alternative is to generate high temperatures using solar power directly. Rather than relying on photovoltaic panels, concentrated solar thermal farms use giant mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto a small spot. The heat concentrated in this way can be exploited to drive certain chemical or industrial processes, or else to raise steam and drive a generator. Even so, it is difficult (for example) to produce the very high temperatures inside an iron-smelting blast furnace using such a system. What’s more, it goes without saying that the effectiveness of concentrated solar power depends strongly on the local climate.

No, when it comes to generating the white heat demanded by modern industry, there are few good options but to burn stuff.

But that doesn’t mean the stuff we burn necessarily has to be fossil fuels.

Lewis Dartnell wrote The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm.

Automation Complacency

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

Pablo Garcia suffered from a rare genetic disease called NEMO syndrome, but when the 16-year-old went in for a colonoscopy he started complaining about numbness and tingling all over his body:

At 9 o’clock that night, Pablo took all his evening medications, including steroids to tamp down his dysfunctional immune system and antibiotics to stave off infections. When he started complaining of the tingling, Brooke Levitt, his nurse for the night, wondered whether his symptoms had something to do with GoLYTELY, the nasty bowel-cleansing solution he had been gulping down all evening to prepare for the procedure. Or perhaps he was reacting to the antinausea pills he had taken to keep the GoLYTELY down.

Levitt’s supervising nurse was stumped, too, so they summoned the chief resident in pediatrics, who was on call that night. When the physician arrived in the room, he spoke to and examined the patient, who was anxious, mildly confused, and still complaining of being “numb all over.”

At first, he was perplexed. But then he noticed something that stopped him cold. Six hours earlier, Levitt had given the patient not one Septra pill — a tried-and-true antibiotic used principally for urinary and skin infections — but 38½ of them.

Levitt recalls that moment as the worst of her life. “Wait, look at this Septra dose,” the resident said to her. “This is a huge dose. Oh my God, did you give this dose?”

“Oh my God,” she said. “I did.”

The doctor picked up the phone and called San Francisco’s poison control center. No one at the center had ever heard of an accidental overdose this large—for Septra or any other antibiotic, for that matter—and nothing close had ever been reported in the medical literature. The toxicology expert there told the panicked clinicians that there wasn’t much they could do other than monitor the patient closely.

How did this happen?

As the pediatric clinical pharmacist, it was [Benjamin] Chan’s job to sign off on all medication orders on the pediatric service. The chain of events that led to Pablo’s catastrophic overdose unfolded quickly. The medication orders from Jenny Lucca, Pablo’s admitting physician, reached Chan’s computer screen moments after Lucca had electronically signed them.

Pablo had a rare genetic disease that causes a lifetime of infections and bowel inflammation, and as Chan reviewed the orders, he saw that Lucca had ordered 5 mg/kg of Septra, the antibiotic that Pablo took routinely to keep infections at bay.

Chan immediately noticed a problem with this Septra order: the dose of 193 mg the computer had calculated (based on the teenager’s weight) was 17 percent greater than the standard 160-mg Septra double-strength tablets. Because this discrepancy exceeded 5 percent, hospital policy did not allow Chan to simply approve the order. Instead, it required that he contact Lucca, asking her to enter the dose corresponding to the actual pill size: 160 mg. The pharmacist texted Lucca: “Dose rounded by >5%. Correct dose 160 mg. Pls reorder.”

Of the scores of medications that the resident would order — and the pharmacist would approve — that day, this was probably the simplest: an antibiotic pill dispensed by corner drugstores everywhere, being taken as a routine matter by a relatively stable patient. Neither the doctor nor the pharmacist could have anticipated that this text message, and the policy that demanded it, would be a lit match dropped onto a dry forest floor.

Both Chan and Lucca knew that Pablo weighed less than 40 kilograms (38.6 to be exact, or about 85 pounds). But here is where worlds — the worlds of policy, practice and computers — collided. The 40 kilogram policy required that Lucca’s original order be weight-based (in milligrams of medication per kilogram of body weight), but the 5 percent policy meant that Chan needed Lucca to reorder the medication in the correct number of milligrams. What should have been a simple order (one double strength Septra twice daily) had now been rendered hopelessly complex, an error waiting to happen. And so one did.

After receiving Chan’s text message, Lucca reopened the medication-ordering screen in Epic, the electronic health record system used by UCSF. What she needed to do was trivial, and she didn’t give it much thought. She typed “160” into the dose box and clicked “Accept.” She then moved to the next task on her long checklist, believing that she had just ordered the one Septra tablet that she had wanted all along. But she had done something very different.

[...]

Since doses can be ordered in either milligrams or milligrams per kilogram, the computer program needs to decide which one to use as the default setting. (Of course, it could leave the unit [mg versus mg/kg] box blank, forcing the doctor to make a choice every time, which would actually require that the physician stop and think about it, but few systems do that because of the large number of additional clicks it would generate.)

In UCSF’s version of Epic, the decision was made to have the screen default to milligrams per kilogram for all kids weighing less than 40 kilograms, in keeping with the weight-based dosing policy. That seemingly innocent decision meant that, in typing 160, Lucca was actually ordering 160 mg per kg — not one double-strength Septra, but 38½ of them.

In a seminal 1983 article, Lisanne Bainbridge, a psychologist at University College London, described the irony of automation:

“The more advanced a control system is,” she wrote, “so the more crucial may be the contribution of the human operator.” In a famous 1995 case, the cruise ship Royal Majesty ran aground off the coast of Nantucket Island after a GPS-based navigation system failed due to a frayed electrical connection. The crew members trusted their automated system so much that they ignored a half-dozen visual clues during the more than 30 hours that preceded the ship’s grounding, when the Royal Majesty was 17 miles off course.

In a dramatic study illustrating the hazards of overreliance on automation, Kathleen Mosier, an industrial and organizational psychologist at San Francisco State University, observed experienced commercial pilots in a flight simulator. The pilots were confronted with a warning light that pointed to an engine fire, although several other indicators signified that this warning was exceedingly likely to be a false alarm. All 21 of the pilots who saw the warning decided to shut down the intact engine, a dangerous move. In subsequent interviews, two-thirds of these pilots who saw the engine fire warning described seeing at least one other indicator on their display that confirmed the fire. In fact, there had been no such additional warning. Mosier called this phenomenon “phantom memory.”

Computer engineers and psychologists have worked hard to understand and manage the thorny problem of automation complacency. Even aviation, which has paid so much attention to thoughtful cockpit automation, is rethinking its approach after several high-profile accidents, most notably the crash of Air France 447 off the coast of Brazil in 2009, that reflect problems at the machine–pilot interface. In that tragedy, a failure of the plane’s speed sensors threw off many of the Airbus A330’s automated cockpit systems, and a junior pilot found himself flying a plane that he was, in essence, unfamiliar with. His incorrect response to the plane’s stall — pulling the nose up when he should have pointed it down to regain airspeed — ultimately doomed the 228 people on board. Two major thrusts of aviation’s new approach are to train pilots to fly the plane even when the automation fails, and to prompt them to switch off the autopilot at regular intervals to ensure that they remain engaged and alert.

This bias grows over time as the computers demonstrate their value and their accuracy (in other words, their trustworthiness), as they usually do. Today’s computers, with all their humanlike characteristics such as speech and the ability to answer questions or to anticipate our needs (think about how Google finishes your thoughts while you’re typing in a search query), engender even more trust, sometimes beyond what they deserve.

The warnings in cockpits are now prioritized to reduce alarm fatigue:

“We work very hard to avoid false positives because false positives are one of the worst things you could do to any warning system. It just makes people tune them out.”

[...]

Because of this process, the percentage of flights that have any alerts whatsoever — warnings, cautions, or advisories — is low, well below 10 percent.

The goal of root cause analysis is to concentrate on system flaws:

Reason’s insight, drawn mainly from studying errors outside of healthcare, was that trying to prevent mistakes by admonishing people to be more careful is unproductive and largely futile, akin to trying to sidestep the law of gravity.

(From The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age, by Robert Wachter. Hat tip to T. Greer.)

Advanced Rail Energy Storage

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Pumped hydro is a simple and effective way to store energy — you just pump water back up over the dam — but building new dams isn’t easy. All the good spots have already been taken, and the regulatory hurdles keep growing. There are other ways to apply the same simple principles though:

Instead of trying to build new pumped hydro facilities, the founders of ARES — William Peitzke, Matt Brown and John Robinson — asked themselves, “How can we do pumped storage hydro-electric, but without any water?” The answer they found was basically the opposite of water: rocks. Or more specifically, rocks on trains.

“We realized the solution was right in front of us,” said Kelly. “The railroad industry had developed an incredibly efficient way to move mass.” One ARES engineer determined that the coefficient friction of steel wheels on railroad track is lower than the coefficient friction of ice skates on ice.

The ARES system uses excess energy from the grid to pull 140-ton railcars up hills (total train weight: 1,350 tons). When the grid needs that power back, they simply let gravity take the weighted cars back down. Regenerative braking — similar to what you find in a Toyota Prius, or in Japanese subways — captures the energy the trains produce along the way

Advanced Rail Energy Storage (ARES)

ARES built a test facility in California to prove the concept, and now they’re in the final stages of building a 50 megawatt facility in Nevada, which will come online in 2016. For comparison, this facility alone will add more energy storage than was built across the entire US in 2013 (44.2 megawatts), according to a recent recent report by US Energy Storage Monitor. The same report suggests that 220 megawatts will be deployed in 2015, twice the capacity of the previous two years combined.

How MOOC Video Production Affects Student Engagement

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

How does video production affect student engagement in MOOCs?

We measured engagement by how long students watched each video and also whether they attempted to answer post-video assessment problems.

We took all 862 videos from four edX courses offered in Fall 2012 and hand-classified each one based on its type (e.g., traditional lecture, problem-solving tutorial) and production style (e.g., PowerPoint slides, Khan-style tablet drawing, talking head). We automatically extracted other features such as length and speaking rate (words per minute). We then mined the edX server logs to obtain over 6.9 million video watching sessions from almost 128,000 students.

The lessons learned:

  1. Shorter videos are much more engaging. Engagement drops sharply after 6 minutes.
  2. Videos that intersperse an instructor’s talking head with PowerPoint slides are more engaging than showing only slides.
  3. Videos produced with a more personal feel could be more engaging than high-fidelity studio recordings.
  4. Khan-style tablet drawing tutorials are more engaging than PowerPoint slides or code screencasts.
  5. Even high-quality prerecorded classroom lectures are not as engaging when chopped up into short segments for a MOOC.
  6. Videos where instructors speak fairly fast and with high enthusiasm are more engaging.
  7. Students engage differently with lecture and tutorial videos.

How the Easter Bunny Got So Soft

Sunday, April 5th, 2015

The price of plush Easter bunnies hasn’t changed since 1970 — the nominal price, that is, meaning they’re much, much cheaper in real terms — yet they’re much softer and higher quality:

“It’s a better product than it was years ago, and it’s not that much more expensive,” said Steven Meyer, the third-generation owner of Mary Meyer Corp., a toy company based in Vermont. Meyer joined the company in 1986, helping his father weather the tough transition to manufacturing in Korea. (“I grew up literally with a stuffed toy factory in the backyard,” he recalled. “It was 30 feet behind our home.”)

For example, Meyer explained that Korean and Taiwanese toymakers introduced safety procedures, later copied in China, to assure that toddlers’ bedtime companions didn’t contain hidden hazards. “Every one of our toys is put through a metal detector before it goes into a box, and that’s because a little shard of a sewing needle can break off and go into the toy,” said Meyer. “We never thought of that when we produced in the United States.”

More immediately apparent is how the toys feel. A stuffed animal that would have delighted a late baby boomer like me now seems rigid and rough. Today’s toys are stuffed with soft, fibrous polyester rather than the foam rubber, sawdust or ground nut shells of the past. That makes them squishier, as do plush outer fabrics that no longer have stiff backings; the yarns are knitted to one another rather than attached to a rigid fabric like a carpet. As a result, said Meyer, “The whole stuffed toy feels softer and slouchier.”

[...]

The secret to both wickable T-shirts and softer Easter bunnies lies in polyester microfibers. These high-tech textiles have replaced the acrylic and polyester plushes that used to cover stuffed toys as surely as they’ve nudged aside cotton for exercise apparel. They represent a remarkable technical and cultural achievement.

In the immediate post-disco era polyester was the epitome of textile yuckiness — synonymous with the cheap, uncomfortable and out of style. “Pity poor polyester. People pick on it,” wrote Wall Street Journal reporter Ronald Alsop in a front-page 1982 article chronicling manufacturers’ attempts to rehabilitate the fiber’s image. What brought polyester back into fashion wasn’t marketing but years of innovation, with textile engineers on three continents making extraordinary gains in producing ever-finer fibers.

Textile fibers, including polyester filaments, are measured in decitex or deniers, almost equivalent units unique to the business. For reference: Silk measures about 1.1 to 1.3 decitex, while human hair runs between 30 and 50. A microfiber is defined as anything less than 1 decitex.

Although polyester microfibers date back to Toray Industries Inc.’s development of Ultrasuede in 1970, they have only become widespread in recent years, thanks in part to massive plant investments in China that have swamped the polyester market and driven down prices. Back around the time that I was buying stuffed toys for my nephew, polyester fibers of around 3 decitex still “were considered fine,” said Frank Horn, president of the Fiber Economics Bureau, the statistical collection and publication arm of the American Fiber Manufacturers Association. But over the past decade or so, true microfibers have “become ubiquitous.”

Now, Horn estimated, the average is about 0.5 decitex — a reduction of about 85 percent — and some popular microfibers are as fine as 0.3 decitex. The finer the fiber, the softer the final fabric. That’s what makes today’s stuffed animals so extraordinarily silky.

Building the H Bomb

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Kenneth W. Ford submitted Building the H Bomb: A Personal History to the Department of Energy for review, and they ordered 60 cuts, enough to destroy the book, in his opinion:

For instance, the federal agency wanted him to strike a reference to the size of the first hydrogen test device — its base was seven feet wide and 20 feet high. Dr. Ford responded that public photographs of the device, with men, jeeps and a forklift nearby, gave a scale of comparison that clearly revealed its overall dimensions.

[...]

In December, he told the department he would make a few minor revisions. For instance, in two cases he would change language describing the explosive yields of bomb tests from “in fact” to “reportedly.” After much back and forth, the conversation ended in January with no resolution, and the book’s publisher pressed on.

The government’s main concern seems to center on deep science that Dr. Ford articulates with clarity. Over and over, the book discusses thermal equilibrium, the discovery that the temperature of the hydrogen fuel and the radiation could match each other during the explosion. Originally, the perceived lack of such an effect had seemed to doom the proposed weapon.

The breakthrough has apparently been discussed openly for years. For instance, the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 published a biographical memoir of Dr. Teller, written by Freeman J. Dyson, a noted physicist with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. It details the thermal equilibrium advance in relation to the hydrogen bomb.

At his home, Dr. Ford said he considered himself a victim of overzealous classification and wondered what would have happened if he had never submitted his manuscript for review.

“I was dumbfounded,” he said of the agency’s reaction to it.

Dr. Ford said he never intended to make a point about openness and nuclear secrecy — or do anything other than to give his own account of a remarkable time in American history.

Disney’s $1 Billion Bet on a Magical Wristband

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Disney is applying Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to its Magic Kingdom with its new $1 billion bet on magical wristbands:

Go to Disney World. Then, reserve a meal at a restaurant called Be Our Guest, using the Disney World app to order your food in advance.

The restaurant lies beyond a gate of huge fiberglass boulders, painstakingly airbrushed to look like crumbling remnants of the past. Crossing a cartoon-like drawbridge, you see the parapets of a castle rising beyond a snow-dusted ridge, both rendered in miniature to appear far away. The Gothic-styled entrance is teensy. Such pint-sized intimacy is a psychological hack invented by Walt Disney himself to make visitors feel larger than their everyday selves. It works. You feel like you’re stepping across the pages of a storybook.

If you’re wearing your Disney MagicBand and you’ve made a reservation, a host will greet you at the drawbridge and already know your name — Welcome Mr. Tanner! She’ll be followed by another smiling person — Sit anywhere you like! Neither will mention that, by some mysterious power, your food will find you.

“It’s like magic!” a woman says to her family as they sit. “How do they find our table?” The dining hall, inspired by Beauty and the Beast, features Baroque details but feels like a large, orderly cafeteria. The couple’s young son flits around the table, like a moth. After a few minutes, he settles into his chair without actually sitting down, as kids often do. Soon, their food arrives exactly as promised, delivered by a smiling young man pushing an ornately carved serving cart that resembles a display case at an old museum.

It’s surprising how the woman’s sensible question immediately fades, unanswered, in the rising aroma of French onion soup and roast beef sandwiches. This is by design. The family entered a matrix of technology the moment it crossed the moat, one geared toward anticipating their whims without offering the slightest clue how.

How do they find our table? The answer is around their wrists.

Their MagicBands, tech-studded wristbands available to every visitor to the Magic Kingdom, feature a long-range radio that can transmit more than 40 feet in every direction. The hostess, on her modified iPhone, received a signal when the family was just a few paces away. Tanner family inbound! The kitchen also queued up: Two French onion soups, two roast beef sandwiches! When they sat down, a radio receiver in the table picked up the signals from their MagicBands and triangulated their location using another receiver in the ceiling. The server — as in waitperson, not computer array — knew what they ordered before they even approached the restaurant and knew where they were sitting.

And it all worked seamlessly, like magic.

Renewable Energy Looks Swell

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

Australia’s largest naval base now gets part of both its electricity and its fresh water courtesy of the Roaring Forties, westerlies, which blow between latitudes 40° S and 50° S:

Carnegie Wave Energy, in Perth, has been working since 1999 on what it calls CETO technology. Ceto was the ancient Greek goddess of sea monsters, and Carnegie’s particular monsters are buoys that resemble giant macaroons. They float a metre or two below the ocean’s surface, bobbing up and down in the swell and generating electricity as they do so. The current version, CETO 5, has a capacity of 240kW per buoy. Three of the beasts are now tethered to the sea bed 3km from HMAS Stirling, on Garden Island. They also help to run a desalination plant on the base, for fresh water is a valuable commodity in Western Australia’s arid climate.

CETO 5 Wave Energy Diagram

The buoys themselves are 11 metres across, made of steel and filled with a mixture of seawater and foam to give them a density slightly below that of water, so that they float. Being submarine means that, unlike previous attempts to extract power from waves, they are not subject to storms and the constant battering that life at the interface between sea and air brings. As Michael Ottaviano, Carnegie’s boss, observes, savvy swimmers in Australia know to dive under—not through—an approaching wave, to avoid getting smashed. The same applies to buoys.

Reverse-osmosis desalination plants tend to guzzle diesel or electricity, but the CETO 5 delivers water at a high enough pressure for reverse osmosis to happen automatically.

The next-generation CETO 6 buoys will measure 20 metres across and will generate a megawatt each, internally rather than at an onshore power plant, which means no pipe is needed; a submarine power cable will do instead. This could become economical:

Mr Ottaviano reckons that if CETO 5 were deployed en masse, in “wave farms” with a capacity of 25MW, it could produce electricity at a cost of 30-40 US cents a kW-hour, which is competitive with diesel. At a similarly large scale, CETO 6’s electricity would, Mr Ottaviano says, cost about 20 cents a kW-hour. Ultimately, he thinks, economies of scale could bring that down to 12-15 cents a kW-hour for a 100MW wave farm.