Weilung Tseng deconstructed 50 common household gadgets — everything from fans to tea kettles — and realized that you could recreate all of them with five basic modules — a light socket, rotating motor, air heater, immersion heater, and a heated surface — and some 3D-printed accessories:
Amazon Prime Air looks like a well-executed April Fools prank:
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I read Dune, Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic — and it didn’t really work for me. If you haven’t read it, it could be described as Star Wars meets Game of Thrones. In fact, it was one of the major influences on Star Wars — it features a desert planet, smugglers, a quasi-religious order with limited mind-control powers, etc. — but the tone is so very, very different. And it lacks Wookiees. Like Game of Thrones, it features treacherous feudal “houses” vying for power. Sounds wonderful. So, why didn’t it work for me? Well, any speculative fiction treads the fine line between credible and fantastic, and too many of the elements struck me as not-so-credible and weird.
A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows.
First and foremost, the plot revolves around the most valuable planet in the Empire, the inhospitable desert planet of Arrakis, known as Dune, that is the source of the spice, melange, which is an addictive drug that extends life and — wait for it — grants its users enough prescience to see safe paths through space-time, allowing Navigators of the Spacing Guild to guide their craft between the stars. That didn’t work for me. Then I found it too on the nose that the scarce substance needed for all transportation and commerce comes from under the ground of the desert inhabited by primitive nomads speaking Arabic. Literally. In that respect, Orson Scott Card finds the 1965 book eerily prescient, as the quasi-Muslim Fremen of Arrakis launch a jihad to drive out foreign powers and use their control of the spice as their strongest weapon.
Science fiction often invokes the rule of cool to mix atavistic weapons with high-tech — usually with some explanation. For instance, the Jedi knights of Star Wars can plausibly use glowing, buzzing swords because their magical Force powers allow them to use their lightsabers to parry incoming blaster bolts. In Herbert’s Dune universe, the Holtzman shield stops any fast-moving object, rendering guns ineffective and bringing blades back into fashion.
In shield fighting, one moves fast on defense, slow on attack. Attack has the sole purpose of tricking the opponent into a misstep, setting him up for the attack sinister. The shield turns the fast blow, admits the slow kindjal!
So far, so good, but then Herbert introduces lasguns, which produce a nuclear explosion if they hit a shield. Everyone uses shields, and no one uses lasguns, because of this. I don’t think that’s how things would play out. On Arrakis, shields go unused because they attract the planet’s giant sandworms, which will swallow spice-mining vehicles whole. Not a bad image, but wouldn’t anyone immediately conclude that they should use small shield generators as decoys? (And how does a skyscraper-sized “worm” travel through sand, anyway?) Further, I found it… odd that the jet-powered flying craft of the Dune universe are described as ornithopters. More central to the setting though is that it takes place long after the Butlerian Jihad, the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots.
Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.
This allows Herbert’s story to be about people, but, when I first read it, it struck me as preposterous: “You can have my Sega Genesis and my Mac SE/30 when you pry them from my cold, dead hands, Skynet!” Now, as an adult, seeing what modern technology does to kids — and adults — I’m not so smugly technophilic. There are tradeoffs. When Herbert wrote the book, jihad was a relatively esoteric term — but what I didn’t realize when I first read the book was that Butlerian referred to a real person, Samuel Butler, author of Erewhon, an early warning of the dangers of new technologies advancing faster than their masters:
Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.
I had assumed Butler was fictional — even though his wasn’t the third name in a list. One consequence of this computer-free setting is that humans have been trained to perform in a computer-like manner. These are the Mentats. Now, the closest thing we currently have to a human trained to perform in a computer-like manner is a computer programmer — ideally one who has also mastered the method of loci and mental arithmetic — but the Mentats of Dune don’t seem the least bit geeky, just very, very good at all kinds of analysis. They’re not Asperger-y; they’re supermen. They’re not without flaws, but their flaws are human flaws.
The other hyper-trained humans are the Bene Gesserit “witches” — members of a quasi-religious order loosely modeled on the Jesuits — who have mastered other, softer skills. Most famous of these skills is the voice — that is, the Jedi mind trick — followed by their skills in acute observation and truthsaying — which are extremely useful skills to master to manipulate political affairs. And that’s just what they do, operating slowly and surely on an almost geological time-scale. Over generations they steer aristocratic bloodlines toward producing the Kwisatz Haderach, and they seed primitive planets with useful superstitions. (Useful to the Bene Gesserit, that is.) That all worked for me.
The Bene Gesserit also master prana bindu, a kind of yoga or t’ai-chi, with even more martial applications. It’s one thing when 15-year-old Paul Atreides, trained by the greatest fighters of his homeworld, can beat a grown Fremen warrior in a knife-fight. It’s another when his mother, unarmed, can disarm the tribe’s greatest warrior with her weirding way of fighting and leave him feeling impotent. It seems neither plausible nor fitting that the Bene Gesserit would master hand-to-hand combat — even if an important element of mastery the enemy is mastering yourself:
I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
Things get far weirder than the weirding way, though. We find that the Bene Gesserit can consciously control not only their nervous and muscular systems, but they can metabolize poisons into safe compounds. Further, they can access the Other Memory — the combined racial memories of all her female ancestors.
The last hyper-trained humans are the aforementioned spice-eating Navigators of the Spacing Guild. The original novel doesn’t reveal much about their abilities.
Most people who take massive open online courses — surprise! — already hold a degree from a traditional institution. Or, as The Chronicle of Higher Education puts it, MOOCs are largely reaching privileged learners:
The paper is based on a survey of 34,779 students worldwide who took 24 courses offered by Penn professors on the Coursera platform. The findings — among the first from outside researchers, rather than MOOC providers — reinforce the truism that most people who take MOOCs are already well educated.
The Penn researchers sent the survey to students who had registered for a MOOC and viewed at least one video lecture. More than 80 percent of the respondents had a two- or four-year degree, and 44 percent had some graduate education.
The pattern was true not only of MOOC students in the United States but also learners in other countries. In some foreign countries where MOOCs are popular, such as Brazil, China, India, Russia, and South Africa, “80 percent of MOOC students come from the wealthiest and most well educated 6 percent of the population,” according to the paper.
In other developing countries, about 80 percent of the MOOC students surveyed already held college degrees — a number staggeringly out of proportion with the share of degree holders in the general population.
“The individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most — those without access to higher education in developing countries — are underrepresented among the early adopters,” write the paper’s six authors.
It’s the strangest thing…
We live in a richer world, Russ Roberts notes, and changes in measured GDP aren’t capturing everything:
I think I got something in my eye…
Lt. Col. A.J. D’Amario, USAF. Ret. found his own way to correct a malfunction on a test flight:
On my first solo flight at K-13, Suwan, Korea, in June 1952, I took off in an F-80 Shooting Star. It was not a combat mission. All I had to do was go up and have fun boring holes in the sky for about an hour and a half.
Immediately after takeoff, I felt the left wing was heavy and determined that the left tip fuel tank was not feeding properly, or at all. Afraid it might fall off and rupture during landing, potentially melting asphalt on the runway, the tower would not let me land with the full tank. I was instructed to make a bomb run and drop the whole tank.
Arriving at the bomb range, I set up my bomb-release switches to release the tank. Flying over the impact area I pushed the button, but nothing happened. I tried a second time and again there was no response. On my next pass, I tried the manual release handle but to no avail. Making one final run, I used the button we called the “panic button” because it allegedly released everything hanging on the airplane. It worked as advertised and dumped everything, save my errant left tip tank.
The tower control officer advised me that if I couldn’t get rid of the tank or its contents, I should give them my location, eject and await pick up. Well, pilots really hate to punch out of a perfectly flyable airplane, and I figured I still had one option worth trying.
The canopy of an F-80 can be opened in flight up to about 220 m.p.h. So, I opened the canopy and unholstered my G.I.-issue Colt M1911. Now, liquid fuel will not burn, at least not like vapors, so I aimed for the part of the tank I was sure would be full of liquid. Firing my first shot I had no idea where the bullet went—perhaps airborne, high-speed physics were at work, or maybe just my nerves. But my next three shots punctured the tank, passed through the fuel, and exited cleanly out the far side of the 24-inch-wide tank.
For the next 30 minutes, I flew with the left wing down in a series of circles to drain the fuel and slowly return to base. By the time I got to the airstrip the tank was empty, and I made a routine landing. As far as I know, I am the only pilot in the Air Force who ever shot his own plane to correct a malfunction.
Thank goodness for my .45.
(Hat tip a` mon père.)
“Downhills are the easiest way to get high up on Strava. You don’t need a lot of fitness, so you can leapfrog the process. Basically, it’s a game of chicken.”
Naturally, it’s Strava’s fault when riders kills themselves — or random pedestrians — while racing down busy “segments” defined by other users.
Broadly speaking, Medium is a blogging platform, meaning it’s a place for people to write and read posts. And Mr. Williams, as its C.E.O., hopes that it will allow thoughtful, longer-form writing to flourish. Mr. Williams frankly acknowledges that the medium of Medium is not new. In fact, he says he’s reaching back to the once-du jour notion of blogging because, in the frenzy to build social communications tools, something has been left behind: rationality.
“In the early days, I bought into the idea that the Internet would lead to a better world, that the truth was out there and that we didn’t need gatekeepers,” he said. The idea that he and many others embraced was that an unfiltered Internet would create a democratic information utopia. “Now,” he continued, “I think it’s more complicated than that.”
Medium is Mr. Williams’s version of a gatekeeper, albeit one that relies heavily on technology rather than human expertise or taste. While it has some editors soliciting and promoting some content, the bigger idea is to use algorithms to help identify blog posts that readers consider valuable and to bubble them to the surface.
He’s carrying out ideas he toyed with in his first big commercial venture, which was called, simply, Blogger. He sold that to Google a decade ago, begetting his first millions. Now, he is joining the mini-movement to celebrate long-form expression at sites and apps like Longform, Longreads and the Verge. The oddity is that Mr. Williams helped found Twitter, which is to long form what snacks are to dinner: sometimes a prelude, often an appetite killer.
The short-burst culture has eaten away at the very definition of “long form.” Many articles in Medium, for instance, are hundreds of characters longer than a tweet but tens of thousands fewer than something you’d find in, say, The New Yorker.
And some see little evidence that people want to consume anything that takes much time. “I see a diminishing audience for long form of anything,” said James Katz, director of the division of emerging media studies at Boston University. “The riptide of society is heading the other direction.”
For his part, Mr. Williams said he was disturbed by the swelling cacophony of information that makes it easy to be overwhelmed and hard to know what to trust. Good information, he said, can lose out, and, as he described his new mission, “I want to give rationality a fighting chance.”
“I’m an eternal optimist,” Mr. Williams told me over lunch last week, wearing skinny jeans and long-sleeve black T-shirt. “But I’m a more realistic optimist than I used to be.”
He traced the evolution of his thinking by describing an “epiphany that bothered” him this year. In preparing a speech, he revisited his career’s early days. The exercise made him realize that the Internet wasn’t changing the world as he had once idealized, but that, far less romantically, it had come to be little more than a “convenience.”
The common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.
A team of engineering students from Penn has won James Dyson’s $45,000 Prize for their Titan Arm:
In its current form, the Titan Arm focuses on one mechanized joint — the elbow — giving the user roughly a 40-pound boost in strength. The team settled on a cable drive system which works similarly to the brakes on a bike. The main advantage was that it let the arm draw from a battery pack that could be worn on the back, thus allowing for the mobility they’d set out to achieve. What’s more is that they did it all with just $2,000 or so in components.
“We loved the way it had been executed,” Sir Dyson himself says of the design. “The previous versions of this thing were mounted on the necks and shoulders, or the lower back, but utilizing the whole back was a great step forward. We liked the fact that they’d actually made it work. And the fact that they know how to make it much cheaper than existing exoskeleton arms is really important. I gather this kind of thing isn’t usually covered by medical insurance.”
The “professional engineers working with professional machines for professional clients” at Solid Concepts have 3D-printed a 1911-style pistol — using laser sintering:
If you’d gone to a publisher in 1981 with a proposal for a science-fiction novel that consisted of the world today, William Gibson says, they’d have read your proposal and said, this is impossible:
This is ridiculous. This doesn’t even make any sense. Granted, you have half a dozen powerful and really excellent plot drivers for that many science-fiction novels, but you can’t have them all in one novel.
Fossil fuels have been discovered to be destabilizing the planet’s climate, with possibly drastic consequences. There’s an epidemic, highly contagious, lethal sexual disease that destroys the human immune system, raging virtually uncontrolled throughout much of Africa. New York has been attacked by Islamist fundamentalists, who have destroyed the two tallest buildings in the city, and the United States in response has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.
You haven’t even gotten to the Internet. By the time you were telling about the Internet, they’d be showing you the door. It’s just too much science fiction.
We’re past the computer age, William Gibson suggests:
You can be living in a third-world village with no sewage, but if you’ve got the right apps then you can actually have some kind of participation in a world that otherwise looks like a distant Star Trek future where people have plenty of everything. And from the point of view of the guy in the village, information is getting beamed in from a world where people don’t have to earn a living. They certainly don’t have to do the stuff he has to do everyday to make sure he’s got enough food to be alive in three days.
On that side of things, Americans might be forgiven for thinking the pace of change has slowed, in part because the United States government hasn’t been able to do heroic nonmilitary infrastructure for quite a while. Before and after World War II there was a huge amount of infrastructure building in the United States that gave us the spiritual shape of the American century. Rural electrification, the highway system, the freeways of Los Angeles—those were some of the biggest things anybody had ever built in the world at the time, but the United States really has fallen far behind with that.