Kindle Paperwhite

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

Kindle PaperwhiteThe new Kindle Paperwhite, announced today, has a 300 ppi display. Should I finally get one?

I Made an Untraceable AR-15 ‘Ghost Gun’ in My Office — And It Was Easy

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Andy Greenberg decided to make an untraceable AR-15 ghost gun — that is, to finish off an 80-percent-finished AR lower, which isn’t legally a gun yet — three different ways:

I would build an untraceable AR-15 all three ways I’ve heard of: using the old-fashioned drill press method, a commercially available 3-D printer, and finally, Defense Distributed’s new gun-making machine.

The Martian

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

I’ve been meaning to read The Martian, but xkcd may have just given me the push I needed:

xkcd The Martian

Reverse Supply Chain

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Companies now spend an average of 8% to 10% of revenue maintaining reverse supply-chain functions — handling goods once they’re discarded:

LTG is hired by contract manufacturers and vendors of electronics and equipment to collect some 200,000 metric tons of e-waste a year to be destroyed — sometimes under careful watch of intellectual property owners — harvested for components, or broken down into raw materials for recycling.

It’s a complicated science. Some products need to be drilled full of holes before they’re discarded. Others are pulverized and sent to smelters so that valuable metals can be recovered. And different and changing regulations in various countries complicates the process, said Mark Majeske, head of Arrow Electronics Inc.’s global reverse logistics business.


Because equipment vendors no longer sell parts for equipment that is no longer in production, these parts can command higher prices than newer network components, providing a source of revenue for companies like LTG. The company also makes money from processing excess and obsolete parts that were produced by companies as a guard against shortages in the supply chain.

The afterlife of the components of increasingly complex consumer gadgets is rarely considered in design, the experts say, leaving supply chain and disposal experts to figure it out later.


Plastics are an extra complication. The plastic parts of cellphones today are often blended with carbon fiber or class fiber to make the devices lighter. Such materials can’t be broken down without information about the original compound, said Ms. Li, and so many such parts end up in landfills.

Silk Road Creator Ross Ulbricht Sentenced to Life in Prison

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

On Friday Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in creating and running Silk Road’s billion-dollar, anonymous black market for drugs, Wired reports:

Judge Katherine Forrest gave Ulbricht the most severe sentence possible, beyond what even the prosecution had explicitly requested. The minimum Ulbricht could have served was 20 years.

His true crime:

“The stated purpose [of the Silk Road] was to be beyond the law. In the world you created over time, democracy didn’t exist. You were captain of the ship, the Dread Pirate Roberts,” she told Ulbricht as she read the sentence, referring to his pseudonym as the Silk Road’s leader. “Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its…creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”

In addition to his prison sentence, Ulbricht was also ordered to pay a massive restitution of more than $183 million, what the prosecution had estimated to be the total sales of illegal drugs and counterfeit IDs through the Silk Road — at a certain bitcoin exchange rate — over the course of its time online. Any revenue from the government sale of the bitcoins seized from the Silk Road server and Ulbricht’s laptop will be applied to that debt.


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:






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.


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.