The ship that totally failed to change the world

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Fifty years ago the world’s first nuclear-powered cargo-passenger ship, the 600-foot, 12,000-ton NS Savannah, sailed from the US to Europe on a publicity tour to persuade the world to embrace Atoms for Peace. It was the ship that totally failed to change the world:

Just three other nuclear merchant ships were built — the German oil transporter Otto Hahn; Japan’s freighter Mutsu; and the Russian ice-breaking container vessel Sevmorput. Like the Savannah, they are no longer in service.

Savannah Control Room

The nuclear ship pioneers suffered problems. On its maiden voyage in 1974, the Mutsu started leaking radioactive material 500 miles (800km) off the coast of Japan. It was allowed to return to the port of Ohminato for repairs despite lengthy protests by fishermen and residents. A faulty reactor shield was blamed amid a wave of global publicity.

The Savannah itself experienced similar problems. It was set up to store a volume of radioactive waste that was quickly surpassed. Just in its first year, 115,000 gallons of low-level waste was released into the sea. Storage space was subsequently increased but small volumes of waste continued to be released.

The spectre of environmental damage would always count against nuclear ships. “What can float, can sink and as we have learnt with oil spills, it is not if, but when. And when it does happen, it could be an environmental catastrophe,” says Dr Paul Dorfman, founder of the Nuclear Consulting Group and senior researcher at the University College London’s Energy Institute.

Cost was another downside. A ship with a nuclear reactor is always going to cost more. While the US’s Nimitz-class aircraft carriers are all nuclear-powered, it was decided that the UK’s new Queen Elizabeth super-carrier would use a combination of gas turbines — fuelled with kerosene — as well as diesel engines instead for cost reasons.

The cost concerns of nuclear are obvious. The reactor costs much more to build than a diesel engine. But on top of that, maintenance and eventual disposal of redundant reactors present unpredictable costs.

Targamite TargaBot

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

The Targamite TargaBot looks like it has some potential:

The MSRP of $2,995 seems a bit steep though.

Watch what Jerry Miculek can do with a pair of ‘em:

Cybersecurity as Realpolitik

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Dan Geer, chief information security officer at the CIA’s venture capital arm In-Q-Tel, argues that the US government should buy all security exploits, then disclose them:

Zero-day vulnerabilities are security holes in software that are yet unknown to software makers or to antivirus firms. They’re unpatched and unprotected, leaving them open to exploit by spy agencies, criminal hackers, and others. Once the government purchases zero-days, he said, it should burn them by disclosing them. Showing all of these zero-days to the software makers so that they can be fixed would produce a dual benefit: Not only would it improve security, but it would burn our enemies’ stockpiles of exploits and vulnerabilities, making the U.S. far less susceptible to cyberattacks.

He said that paying big for zero days would improve security because it would allow hunting for vulnerabilities to be profitable without being destructive. “Once vulnerability finding became a job and not a hobby, those finding vulnerabilities stopped sharing,” he said. “When bug hunters find bugs just for fun and fame, they share the information immediately because they don’t want someone else to find it and take credit for it.” But those doing it for profit don’t share and don’t care. He proposes that the U.S. government openly corner the world market on vulnerabilities. Under such a program, the government would say, “show us a competing bid, and we’ll give you 10 times.”

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

Air Waveguides

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Lasers lose intensity and focus with increasing distance as photons naturally spread apart and interact with atoms and molecules in the air.

Fibre optics solves this problem by beaming the light through glass cores with a high refractive index, which is good for transmitting light.

The core is surrounded by material with a lower refractive index that reflects light back in to the core, preventing the beam from losing focus or intensity.

Fibre optics, however, are limited in the amount of power they can carry and the need for a physical structure to support them.

Air waveguides may get around some of these limitations:

Milchberg and colleagues’ made the equivalent of an optical fibre out of thin air by generating a laser with its light split into a ring of multiple beams forming a pipe.

They used very short and powerful pulses from the laser to heat the air molecules along the beam extremely quickly.

Such rapid heating produced sound waves that took about a microsecond to converge to the centre of the pipe, creating a high-density area surrounded by a low-density area left behind in the wake of the laser beams.

“A microsecond is a long time compared to how far light propagates, so the light is gone and a microsecond later those sound waves collide in the centre, enhancing the air density there,” says Milchberg.

The lower density region of air surrounding the centre of the air waveguide had a lower refractive index, keeping the light focused.

“Any structure [even air] which has a higher density will have a higher index of refraction and thereby act like an optical fibre,” says Milchberg.

Cheap and compact medical testing

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Researchers have developed a cheap and compact electrochemical detector for medical testing:

The device, already in field trials in India, costs about $25 to produce, weighs just two ounces, and is about the size of a pack of cigarettes. It was modeled after the latest generation of inexpensive glucose monitoring devices, which are in widespread use, but whose function is limited to testing blood sugar. In addition to conducting the tests, the new device can send data over the lower-tech cellphones common in the developing world to distant physicians, who can text instructions back to researchers, government officials tracking outbreaks, and others.

[...]

He focused on an electrochemical detector, which measures the voltage or current generated in liquids for characteristic signatures of the liquid’s contents. For example, by applying a small amount of electricity to a drop of blood mixed with a reagent, the device can gauge glucose levels. The same goes for heavy metals in water, malaria antigens in blood, and sodium in urine.

[...]

They created software that converted the data to audible tones so it could be sent — after plugging the device into the phone’s headphone and microphone jack — just as if it were someone’s voice. The data is then sent over the phone’s audio network to a physician, database, or other recipient.

Propane-Powered Motor Scooter

Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

The ProGo 3000 is a (proposed) propane-powered motor scooter that runs on 16.4-ounce canisters:

Technical Specifications

Engine: 25cc 4-stroke
Fuel Type: Propane
Start up: Pull start engine
Acceleration: Thumb throttle
Brakes: Disk
Tire size: 8 inch
Speed: Up to 20 mph
Dry Weight 35 lb.
Frame: Steel
Max Weight: 250 lb.
Run Time: 2-3 hours / 30-40 miles

They plan on retailing them for $449.

ProGo 3000

Movie Film at Death’s Door

Friday, August 1st, 2014

Kodak’s motion-picture film sales have plummeted 96% since 2006, the Wall Street Journal reports — from 12.4 billion linear feet to an estimated 449 million this year:

With the exit of competitor Fujifilm Corp. last year, Kodak is the only major company left producing motion-picture film.

The Flare Pan

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

Oxford engineer Thomas Povey, who designs cooling systems for jet engines, was on a mountaineering trip, struggling to get a pot of water to boil at altitude, when the idea for the Flare pan came to him:

With a conventional pan, explains Povey, the flame from a stove rises up around the pan “and a lot of that heat is dissipated into the environment. With a Flare Pan, the fins capture a lot of heat that would otherwise be wasted.” According to Povey, the pans use about a third the gas and cooks roughly 30% faster than comparable, standard cookware. That means they’re cheaper and quicker to use than conventional pans, a fact that has garnered Povey’s pots a 2014 Hawley Award from the Worshipful Company of Engineers for “the most outstanding engineering innovation that delivers demonstrable benefit to the environment.”

Flare Pan

Plasma Gasification

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

There is value in trash — if you can unlock it:

That’s what this facility in northern Oregon is designed to do. Run by a startup called S4 Energy Solutions, it’s the first commercial plant in the US to use plasma gasification to convert municipal household garbage into gas products like hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which can in turn be burned as fuel or sold to industry for other applications. (Hydrogen, for example, is used to make ammonia and fertilizers.)

Here’s how it works: The household waste delivered into this hangar will get shredded, then travel via conveyer to the top of a large tank. From there it falls into a furnace that’s heated to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit and mixes with oxygen and steam. The resulting chemical reaction vaporizes 75 to 85 percent of the waste, transforming it into a blend of gases known as syngas (so called because they can be used to create synthetic natural gas). The syngas is piped out of the system and segregated. The remaining substances, still chemically intact, descend into a second vessel that’s roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

This cauldron makes the one above sound lukewarm by comparison. Inside, two electrodes aimed toward the middle of the vessel create an electric arc that, at 18,000 degrees, is almost as hot as lightning. This intense, sustained energy becomes so hot that it transforms materials into their constituent atomic elements. The reactions take place at more than 2,700 degrees, which means this isn’t incineration—this is emission-free molecular deconstruction. (The small amount of waste material that survives falls to the bottom of the chamber, where it’s trapped in molten glass that later hardens into inert blocks.)

The seemingly sci-fi transformation occurs because the trash is blasted apart by plasma—the forgotten-stepsister state of matter. Plasma is like gas in that you can’t grip or pour it. But because extreme heat ionizes some atoms (adding or subtracting electrons), causing conductivity, it behaves in ways that are distinct from gas.

Open Learning

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Mimi Ito is shocked — shocked! — that “open educational resources” and online courses are mostly serving already wired, well off, and highly educated families:

I’ve seen this dynamic again and again in my research on ed tech, where well-meaning tech folks are creating goodies theoretically accessible to everyone, but they end up giving more advantages to kids who are already well on their way to being digital elites.

I can’t possibly imagine why this would be. I’m glad Ito gives us the correct answer:

When you’re a kid whose main point of access to the net is your mom’s smartphone, and your only broadband is at your school or library, it’s tough to make it through a series of Kahn Academy videos or a Udacity course on your own to become an awesome coder. And, you probably don’t have coder friends or much as far as school offerings in the digital arts or programming in these days of dwindling school budgets.

As we all know, it would be literally impossible to learn to code, let alone get a Computer Science degree, without owning your own computer and having lots of friends from your same background who code. Impossible.

Making Cannons with Lasers

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Alexander Sarnowski designs fully functional mini cannons that are then manufactured with CNC metal machining and laser wood cutting:

For as long as he can remember, Alexander has been building everything from his own morse code machines to home made rocket motors. For his 16th birthday his father bought him a mid-sized lathe, and since then he’s been designing and cranking out parts every chance he gets.

[...]

Alexander knew his way around a lathe, so the barrels wouldn’t be a problem. The wood carriages however, would have been impossible to make by hand at the scale he wanted. That’s where Ponoko came in:

“My roommate had ordered laser cut parts from Ponoko for one of his robotics projects, so I asked him if Ponoko also cut wood. I had plenty of CAD experience, so discovering Ponoko was the last piece to the puzzle.”

Once he learned what was possible with Ponoko, designing the first prototype “only took me a few hours” he says, adding that “the time it took me to bolt it all together was only a few minutes, thanks to how accurately the laser cut parts were.”

Here Comes the Age of Magic

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Combine wearable tech with the Internet of Things and you have the Era of Magic, Scott Adams (Dilbert) suggests:

I would imagine that people have very specific walking and moving patterns. If you kill me and steal my five wearable tech devices they would eventually deduce by how you move that you are not me and the devices would shut off. That system only works if you have multiple wearable devices that are all synched, so again, more is better.

Having a paired watch and phone is great, but add a ring to the mix and your capabilities double. That’s because you need both a ring and a watch to detect the position of the user’s hand. And you need a ring for one-handed mouse-clicking in the air. Imagine walking to a crosswalk and doing the “halt” hand motion in the direction of traffic. Your ring and your watch can tell by their orientation to each other that you have formed that gesture and so they send a “pedestrian waiting” message to the street light. The lights change for you and you cross. It will feel like magic.

Or point at something in a vending machine and your watch and ring can detect which item you selected, charge your credit card, and send a code to release the item. To an observer it will seem that you pointed at an item and magic released it.

I also imagine that the rules of polite behavior will force wearers of tech glasses to signal what they are up to. For example, let’s say you can’t hear incoming phone calls unless you cup your hand to your ear. The ear bud and the ring would detect that they are in close proximity and release the audio. That way whoever is in the room with you knows you are focused on something remote. It’s more polite.

Likewise I imagine that in order to read something with your Internet-connected glasses you will have to make a gesture as if your hand is a piece of paper and you are reading it. The hand gesture tells observers you are paying attention to something on the Internet. Again you probably need both your watch and your ring to detect that gesture.

Fab Lab

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

A generation ago, schools offered “shop” classes. Now we’re looking at fab labs:

Blair Evans is an alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an entrepreneur. For the past 15 years, he’s been the superintendent of a group of charter schools for troubled kids in Detroit, and in 2010 he opened the city’s first Fab Lab inside one of his schools. The do-it-yourself factories are designed to make it easier and cheaper for ordinary people to turn an idea into a product. Every Fab Lab includes a computer-controlled laser, a 3D printer, and a pair of computer-controlled milling machines — all connected by custom software.

“We’re building people, not just products,” Evans says. “We get better outcomes if the kids can engage in useful work. This is much more effective than having them sit on a couch and talk.” His Detroit lab, he says, “comes up with 20 different ways to customize a bike.” Evans added a water jet cutter to the workshop: “Most Fab Labs don’t have one of these,” he explains, “but we wanted one. It cuts titanium and steel. We use it to make gears for bicycles that we’re creating with modularized components, which allows people to adjust the heights or customize the controls.”

Sounds expensive:

The initial Fab Lab in Detroit cost from $200,000 to $250,000 to assemble, and Evans put his own money behind the project. A second one has opened in another of his schools, and Evans says both have paid for themselves with social-service contracts for youth development.

The fab labs have paid for themselves! (With social-service contracts for “youth development”…)

The Mystery of Go

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

In 1965 New Scientist published I.J. Good’s The Mystery of Go:

Go, the Japanese national pastime, was recently described by Ralph Fox, a Princeton professor of mathematics, as the most interesting game in the world. At any rate many expert chess players, including Emanuel Lasker, who was World Chess Champion for 28 years, have held that Go is more interesting than chess, and it is not easy to think of any third game that is a serious rival. Another, unrelated chess master, Edward Lasker, believes that Go will replace chess as the leading intellectual game of the Occident just as it has reigned supreme in the Orient for some four thousand years.

In Japan the game is known as I-go or Go, in China as Wei-k’i or Wei-Chi, in Korea as Patok. It is played by a high proportion of educated people in Japan, including many Geisha girls, and ability at Go is relevant to promotion in many firms.

[...]

The rules are basically so simple that perhaps a game very much like Go is played in many extra-terrestrial places, even within our own galaxy.

[...]

A weakness in chess is that there is too much knowledge about the openings, and it is constantly increasing. It is not good for a game if its mastery requires much rote learning. In Go, although play in the corners of the board is somewhat stereotyped among masters, one can become a competent Go player by occidental standards with very little knowledge of these so-called Joseki.

In chess, the parrots can be defeated by playing Randomised Chess, wherein the pieces on the back lines are permuted at random. Similarly, Randomised Go could be defined in terms of a random deletion of some of the vertices near the corners of the board. The corners could even be abolished by playing on a cylinder or an anchor ring: this could be done, without using a magnetic set, by identification of opposite sides of the ordinary board, either one pair of sides or both pairs. Another form of Go is that with more than two players, all against all, with one colour for each player. Since it is possible for players to form coalitions, this form of Go bears some resemblance to power politics and is liable to create an emotional scene.

But ordinary Go is fascinating enough for people with an IQ between 110 and 190 — in fact, too fascinating. Sometimes the game becomes an addiction, like smoking, food, drink, television, chess and women. It seems to appeal especially to scientists and mathematicians, because of the emergence of the Gestalt — a unity with a significant pattern — out of a collection of discrete entities and axioms.

Go on a computer? — In order to programme a computer to play a reasonable game of Go — rather than merely a legal game — it is necessary to formalise the principles of good strategy, or to design a learning programme. The prlnciples are more qualitative and mysterious than in chess, and depend more on judgment. So I think it will be even more difficult to programme a computer to play a reasonable game of Go than of chess.

The experienced player will often be unable to explain convincingly to a beginner why one move is better than another. A move might be regarded as good because it looks influential, or combines attack and defence, or preserves the initiative, or because if we had not played at that vertex the opponent would have done so; or it might be regarded as bad because it was too bold or too timid, or too close to the enemy or too far away. If these and other qualitative judgments. could be expressed in precise quantitative terms, then good strategy could be programmed for a computer; but hardly any progress has been made in this direction.

Indeed, hardly any progress was made in computer Go for decades after Good’s article came out, until Rémi Coulom’s Crazy Stone combined a tree search with Monte Carlo methods:

He christened the new algorithm Monte Carlo Tree Search, or MCTS, and in January of 2006, Crazy Stone won its first tournament. After he published his findings, other programmers quickly integrated MCTS into their Go programs, and for the next two years, Coulom vied for dominance with another French program, Mogo, that ran a refined version of the algorithm.

Although Crazy Stone ended up winning the UEC Cup in 2007 and 2008, Mogo’s team used man-machine matches to win the publicity war. Coulom felt the lack of attention acutely. When neither the public nor his university gave him the recognition he deserved, he lost motivation and stopped working on Go for nearly two years.

Coulom might have given up forever had it not been for a 2010 email from Ikeda Osamu, the CEO of Unbalance, a Japanese computer game company. Ikeda wanted to know if he’d be willing to license Crazy Stone. Unbalance controlled about a third of the million-dollar global market in computer Go, but Zen’s commercial version had begun to increase its market share. Ikeda needed Coulom to give his company’s software a boost.

The first commercial version of Crazy Stone hit the market in spring of 2011. In March of 2013, Coulom’s creation returned to the UEC Cup, beating Zen in the finals and — given a four-stone head-start — winning the first Densei-sen against Japanese professional Yoshio “The Computer” Ishida. The victories were huge for Coulom, both emotionally and financially. You can see their significance in the gift shop of the Japan Go Association, where a newspaper clipping, taped to the wall behind display copies of Crazy Stone, shows the pro grimly succumbing to Coulom’s creation.

Robbery Suspect Tracked by GPS and Killed

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Police officers in NYC tracked an armed robber by GPS:

The decoy bottle was among a cache of drugs taken in an armed robbery about 1:30 p.m. from HealthSource Pharmacy, at Second Avenue and East 68th Street, according to a police official, who was not authorized to speak about the investigation.

The suspect, identified by the police as Scott Kato, 45, of Mount Vernon, N.Y., was believed to have robbed pharmacies in New York City on at least four occasions since 2011, three times at the HealthSource drugstore. He served about 12 years in prison for a 1990 conviction for sexual abuse and robbery and spent an additional 16 months in prison after violating parole twice, according to state records.

The police official said the GPS device helped lead the police to the man, who was confronted as his 2007 Jeep was stuck in traffic on a service road beneath the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive at East 96th Street. As officers closed in, the man pointed a handgun in the direction of at least one of the officers; one or more of the officers opened fire, killing the man, the police said.

The episode is the first known case in New York City in which a decoy bottle helped the police identify a suspect after a pharmacy robbery.

The decoy bottles were introduced last year by the police commissioner at the time, Raymond W. Kelly, who announced that the department would begin to stock pharmacy shelves with decoy bottles of painkillers containing GPS devices. The initiative was in response to a sharp increase of armed and often deadly pharmacy robberies across the state, frequently by people addicted to painkillers.

While the New York Police Department was not the first in the state to use the decoy bottles, it was among the first to publicize the program, believing that the publicity could deter prospective robbers. Other police departments chose to keep the initiatives private, concerned that if robbers knew of the GPS devices, the risk to pharmacy workers could be greater.

I was surprised the decided to publicize the decoys.