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.

Sugru for Silence

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Sugru, the magic rubber stuff, has many uses beyond straightforward making, modifying, and mending:

The New Karate

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

In Silicon Valley, product testing is the new karate:

As more young children get their pudgy hands on their parents’ mobile devices, tech and toy industry entrepreneurs are feverishly cranking out apps and gadgets aimed at these digital-savvy youngsters. A side effect of this kiddo-market miniboom is a surge in product-testing sessions relying on tot testers.

Much of this product development is centered in the Bay Area, the hotbed of the startup economy. For local tech-minded parents looking to fill their children’s schedules, product testing is the new karate.

“Instead of going to the playground or gymnastics class, we go to the LeapFrog lab,” says Christy Mast, a mother of two in San Leandro, Calif., whose husband works in the biotech industry.

Machine Guns vs Drones

Friday, May 16th, 2014

Shooting down a small drone — or a large remote-controlled model airplane — with a machine-gun might seem easy, but it’s much harder in real life than in a video game like Call of Duty:

I doubt the hobbyists at Arizona’s Big Sandy Machine Gun Shoot are experts, but neither are most insurgents — or soldiers, for that matter. On the other hand, I doubt most drones are flying evasively, either.

Navy eReader Device

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

The Navy doesn’t allow iPads or Kindles on submarines, for security reasons, so they’ve come up with their own approved e-reader, the NeRD, or Navy eReader Device:

It’s an an E Ink tablet that resembles a Kindle, except it has no internet capability, no removable storage, and no way to add or delete content.


The Navy is making 365 devices at first, with more to follow. The Navy plans to send about five to each submarine to be shared between multiple people. Each reader is preloaded with 300 books that will never change. The selection includes modern fiction like Tom Clancy and James Patterson, who are popular in the Navy, as well as nonfiction, the classics, and “a lot of naval history,” says Carrato.

The Wall Street Journal adds more:

The content consists mainly of newer bestsellers and public-domain classics, as well as titles from the Navy reading list and other texts for professional development. Since publishing partners include Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette and Random House, the lineup is impressive, ranging from contemporary fiction such as “A Game of Thrones” and “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo,” bestselling non-fiction such as “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and bonafide nerd favorites including “The Lord of the Rings” series, Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” and Stephen King’s “The Stand.”

NeRD was developed by the Navy General Library Program (NGLP) in partnership with Findaway World, a Solon, Ohio-based firm that built a platform for preloaded content on secured devices. While the NGLP is providing the NeRD and other library services free of charge to officers, sailors and their families, the device won’t be available to the civilian public.

The Next Age of Invention

Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

The future of technology is likely to be bright, Joel Mokyr says, because past pessism has been wrong:

The first thing to note is that the twentieth century experienced probably as many headwinds, albeit of a different kind, as Gordon foresees for the twenty-first. Industrialized nations fought two massive world wars and experienced the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the rise of totalitarian regimes in much of Europe and Asia. In the past, such catastrophes might have been enough to set economies back for hundreds of years or even to condemn entire societies to stagnation or barbarism. Yet none of them could stop the power of ever-faster innovation in the twentieth century to stimulate rapid growth in much of the industrialized and industrializing world.

Keep in mind, too, that economic growth, measured as the growth of income per capita (corrected for inflation), is not the best measure of what technological change does. True, technology increases productivity by making it possible to produce goods and services more efficiently (at lower cost). But much of what it does is to put on the market new products (or vastly improved ones) that may be quite inexpensive relative to their benefits. Many of the most important inventions of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries are things that we would not want to do without today; yet they had little effect on the national accounts because they were so inexpensive: aspirin, lightbulbs, water chlorination, bicycles, lithium batteries, wheeled suitcases, contact lenses, digital music, and more.

Further, our outdated conventions of national income accounting fail to capture fully the many ways in which technology can transform human life for the better. For instance, national income calculations do not count “leisure” as a valuable good. People who are not working are not producing, and this is simply “bad,” in Gordon’s view, because they are not adding to economic output. But it may well be that a leisurely life is the best “monopoly profit,” as Nobel Prize winner John Hicks already noted in 1935. And thanks to new technology, leisure—even involuntary leisure such as unemployment—can be more enjoyable than ever before. At little cost, anyone can now watch a bewildering array of sports events, movies, and operas from the comfort and safety of a living room on a high-definition flat-screen TV. If the technology of the twentieth century did anything, it vastly augmented our ability to have a good time when we are not working. Yet, while the average individual in an industrialized country nowadays has far more leisure hours and many more enjoyable things in his or her life than the typical person did a century ago, such things hardly show up in the national income statistics.

The Vulgar Mechanic and His Magical Oven

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

In 1605, Cornelis Drebbel moved from his native Netherlands to England, where his “magical” inventions amused the court of James I. He was no scholar, but this vulgar mechanic produced one of the first modern feedback systems, a thermostat, for his magical oven:

t was an L-shaped glass tube filled with alcohol that was topped off by mercury. A metal rod floated in the quicksilver. When the heated alcohol expanded, it pushed up the quicksilver, and the rod rose in the tube. The rising rod then pressed on a lever arm, which adjusted the size of a vent at the top of the furnace. As a chimney designer, Drebbel would have known how flue vents control fires. Flames in an oven can be controlled by the size of the aperture above, which determines the draft. Likewise, the fire that heated Drebbel’s furnace was tempered by the size of the vent hole at the top of the oven, which was in turn managed by the rising and falling rod.

Cornelis Drebbel's Oven

The oven comprised three metal boxes that were nested like Russian matryoshka dolls, with a fire below them. The outer box enclosed a chimney-like passage that swept around the other two and exited out a vent at the top. The next box held water, a heat buffer to protect the center box, which contained a sample to be heated. The base of the thermostat, or “feeler,” slipped into the water-filled box. It registered the fire’s heat and responded to changes by automatically adjusting the valve in a way that curtailed or boosted the heat of the fire. What’s more, a person could set the desired temperature, and the oven would oblige.

Why World War III Could Start In Space

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Near-Earth space is reaching a saturation point, and so, James Clay Moltz suggests, World War III could start in space:

If one tracks current trends and the increasing rate of military spending on space by a variety of countries, one has to worry. These militaries are going to have to engage in mutual restraint if conflict is going to be avoided.

We managed to do so during the Cold War through U.S.-Soviet non-interference pledges, ongoing talks, and a shared belief that satellite security was critical to nuclear stability and arms control. It is less clear that such restraint will prevail in the 21st century. This decade nearly a dozen countries will have the ability to test space weapons and/or attack enemy spacecraft.

Warfare in earth orbit would have lasting side-effects:

China’s 2007 ASAT (anti-satellite weapons) test created over 3,000 pieces of large orbital debris (larger than 4 inches in diameter), which will now continue to hurtle around the Earth at orbital speeds (over 17,000 mph) for some 40 or more years. Or until they finally re-enter the atmosphere and burn up.

Any piece of this debris field could hit a satellite or, worse, a manned spacecraft and cause serious damage, depressurization, and death. A space war involving even just a dozen similar attacks on satellites would create such a large field of hazardous debris that it could render low-Earth orbit too dangerous for astronauts or high-value spacecraft —making near-Earth space essentially unusable.

(Hat tip to Nyrath.)