Hot-Air Blimp

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

N.V. was a freshly minted aeronautical engineer when a famous author, explorer and balloonist, who had made numerous voyages across Africa in helium balloons, asked for his help designing a hot-air blimp:

Your correspondent was soon to learn that it wasn’t a matter of starting with a blank piece of paper. The hot-air blimp’s colourful envelope of polyurethane-coated Terylene had already been sewed up—so pictures could be taken and articles written to help raise money for the planned expedition. The blimp’s long, thin cigar shape would have been fine for an original Zeppelin with its rigid internal skeleton. But it was far from ideal for a non-rigid blimp that derived its shape solely from the slightly higher pressure of the warmer air within the fabric envelope.

Nevertheless, a scale model was duly carved from polystyrene foam, its centre of pressure estimated, and the model set up in a wind-tunnel at Imperial College. A series of low-speed stability tests to measure pitch and yaw quickly determined the size of the control surfaces needed to keep the craft straight and level and pointing in the desired direction.

The results were not encouraging. With no inner structure to brace the enormous cruciform tail-fins and rudder required to do the job, all your correspondent could suggest was to use pressurised hoops made from thin rubber tubing (like the inner tubes of bicycle tyres) attached at various points towards the rear of the envelope. Inflated to high pressure, these would form a reasonably stiff frame for holding the fabric-covered control surfaces in place.

Unfortunately, with no going back to the drawing-board allowed, the design proved much too unwieldy—and the world’s first thermal airship failed to get off the ground. A decade later, Cameron Balloons of Bristol, England, licked most of the problems and is now the most successful maker of hot-air craft in the world, with separate operations in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as well as Bristol.

There are trade-offs between hydrogen, helium, and hot air:

Hydrogen is the lightest of all gases, but has a propensity to catch fire. The Hindenburg disaster in 1937, caught on film and seen by millions around the world, put paid once and for all to hydrogen’s use in commercial balloons and airships. The only reason it was used in the first place was because of the ease with which it could be made (by electrolysis of water).

The next best lifting agent is helium. Though twice as heavy as diatomic hydrogen, helium provides only 8% less buoyancy. Better still, it is inert and a fire extinguisher to boot.

The problem with helium is that there are only 16 plants worldwide for extracting it from natural gas. Meanwhile, supplies are dwindling. Unlike other fossil reserves such as oil and natural gas, which can always be made synthetically if necessary, helium is an irreplaceable, non-renewable resource accumulated over billions of years from the slow radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. The biggest user is NASA, followed by hospitals for their magnetic-resonance imaging machines and flat-panel display makers. The price, currently around $5 a litre, is rising steadily.

Hence hot air. It may have only a third of the lifting capacity of helium, but it costs just a twentieth as much after taking into account the price of the propane burner and fuel for producing the hot air, and the greater overall simplicity of a thermal airship. The downside is that thermal airships tend to be rather large for the modest payloads they can carry. The world’s largest, the 300,000 cubic-foot AS-300 built by Lindstrand Technologies of Oswestry, England, was designed to deposit a pair of botanists onto a rainforest canopy. Fill an envelope that size with helium instead of hot air and it would cost over $40m for the gas alone.

Larry Page’s Secret Flying Car Factories

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

We were promised flying cars, and Larry Page is funding two companies to make that promise come true:

The Zee.Aero headquarters, located at 2700?Broderick Way, is a 30,000-square-foot, two-story white building with an ugly, blocky design and an industrial feel. Page initially restricted the Zee.Aero crew to the first floor, retaining the second floor for a man cave worthy of a multibillionaire: bedroom, bathroom, expensive paintings, a treadmill-like climbing wall, and one of SpaceX’s first rocket engines—a gift from his pal Musk. As part of the secrecy, Zee.Aero employees didn’t refer to Page by name; he was known as GUS, the guy upstairs. Soon enough, they needed the upstairs space, too, and engineers looked on in awe as GUS’s paintings, exercise gear, and rocket engine were hauled away.

Zee.Aero now employs close to 150 people. Its operations have expanded to an airport hangar in Hollister, about a 70-minute drive south from Mountain View, where a pair of prototype aircraft takes regular test flights. The company also has a manufacturing facility on NASA’s Ames Research Center campus at the edge of Mountain View. Page has spent more than $100 million on Zee.Aero, say two of the people familiar with the company, and he’s not done yet. Last year a second Page-backed flying-car startup, Kitty Hawk, began operations and registered its headquarters to a two-story office building on the end of a tree-lined cul-de-sac about a half-mile away from Zee’s offices. Kitty Hawk’s staffers, sequestered from the Zee.Aero team, are working on a competing design. Its president, according to 2015 business filings, was Sebastian Thrun, th­e godfather of Google’s self-driving car program and the founder of research division Google?X. Page and Google declined to speak about Zee.Aero or Kitty Hawk, as did Thrun.


Sunday, June 5th, 2016

The United States Air Force never really wanted GPS, Greg Milner explains (in Pinpoint):

The 621B program, the precursor to GPS, was underfunded. After it evolved into the GPS program in the early 1970s, the Air Force largely neglected it, to the point of disowning it and defunding it. A few times, it tried to kill its own creation, and GPS was kept alive by the Pentagon’s largesse…

One reason the Air Force was slow to embrace GPS is the space-based projects were never seen as a priority. “The Air Force is not a big user of space,” says Scott Page..”The Air Force gets to build for space, but the Marine Corps, Army, and Navy are much more reliant on actual space services than the Air Force itself is. The budget for space is in the Air Force, but in terms of the number of customers and users, they’re all in the other services.

Tyler Cowen also cites Milner on “death by GPS”:

It describes what happens when GPS fails you, not by being wrong, exactly, but often by being too right. It does such a good job of computing the most direct route from Point A to Point B that it takes you down roads which barely exist, or were used at one time and abandoned, or are not suitable for your car, or which require all kinds of local knowledge that would make you aware that making that turn is bad news.

A Practical Electric Plane for NASA

Friday, June 3rd, 2016

Tom Neuman designed a practical electric plane for NASA’s design contest, and he thought about retrofitting a Cirrus SR22 with fuel cells:

The SR22’s normal power plant is a Continental IO-550-N, a six-cylinder, horizontally opposed, air-cooled engine that weighs 187 kg and provides 310 horsepower (231 kilowatts). By removing the engine and fuel and replacing them with a fuel cell of the same weight, I could possibly produce a similar amount of power. But to do that, the fuel cell would have to provide 500 W/kg of specific power. And at that level of specific power, the specific energy of the fuel cell would be about 400 Wh/ kg, roughly as good as the best batteries I could expect to use, which I already knew wouldn’t let my plane fly very far. To provide a specific energy of 800 Wh/kg, the fuel cell’s specific power drops to 200 W/ kg, well below the power needed to fly at 200 mph.

Vapor Airplane

Unlike combustion engines, electric motors are compact and efficient. These small, light motors can be placed in many more locations on the aircraft than would be practical for a combustion engine. If applied strategically, this tactic can distribute the power production across more or larger propellers. And the greater the area swept by propellers, the more efficient and quieter they become.

I ran yet another analysis and found a sweet spot in efficiency using two rather large propellers attached to a pair of motors. Instead of mounting them conventionally, on the wing or fuselage, I put them in my design atop the plane’s V-shaped tail, where the airflow is cleaner.

This simple strategy not only improved propulsive efficiency (from 85 to 92 percent), it also benefited the plane’s aerodynamics. Now air could flow more cleanly over both fuselage and wing. And although the propellers were large, putting them on the tail meant that I didn’t have to increase the height (and therefore, weight) of the landing gear. Having short gear made choosing retractable wheels much more palatable, and this reduced drag even further.

When I ran the next analysis, I found that this change, combined with some more optimization, decreased the plane’s energy consumption by another 27 percent. Indeed, this design change had lowered the power demand to the point that it became feasible to fly the plane on hydrogen-powered fuel cells. That’s when I dubbed my V-tailed, hydrogen-powered design “Vapor.”

Old Music Outsold New Music

Thursday, June 2nd, 2016

The simultaneous advent of streaming music and the vinyl renaissance has led to some very interesting recording industry statistics over the past few months:

Last month, the RIAA reported that vinyl revenues outpaced sales from streaming services, despite actual streams vastly outnumbering physical vinyl sold. Now, Nielsen has released data revealing that, for the first time ever, old music (the “catalog,” defined as music more than 18 months old) outsold new releases in 2015.

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen, who also notes this factoid: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon was the third-best-selling vinyl record of 2015.

Light Recycling

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

Incandescent bulbs may make a nanophotonic comeback through light recycling:

But instead of allowing the waste heat to dissipate in the form of infrared radiation, secondary structures surrounding the filament capture this radiation and reflect it back to the filament to be re-absorbed and re-emitted as visible light. These structures, a form of photonic crystal, are made of Earth-abundant elements and can be made using conventional material-deposition technology.

That second step makes a dramatic difference in how efficiently the system converts electricity into light. One quantity that characterizes a lighting source is the so-called luminous efficiency, which takes into account the response of the human eye. Whereas the luminous efficiency of conventional incandescent lights is between 2 and 3 percent, that of fluorescents (including CFLs) is between 7 and 15 percent, and that of most commercial LEDs between 5 and 20 percent, the new two-stage incandescents could reach efficiencies as high as 40 percent, the team says.

The first proof-of-concept units made by the team do not yet reach that level, achieving about 6.6 percent efficiency.

Computers — Threat or menace?

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

“Ready or not, computers are coming to the people,” Stewart Brand wrote in 1972, in Rolling Stone — which explains the context for what comes next:

That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics. It’s way off the track of the “Computers — Threat or menace?” school of liberal criticism but surprisingly in line with the romantic fantasies of the forefathers of the science such as Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, J.C.R. Licklider, John von Neumann and Vannevar Bush.

The trend owes its health to an odd array of influences: The youthful fervor and firm dis-Establishmentarianism of the freaks who design computer science; an astonishingly enlightened research program from the very top of the Defense Department; an unexpected market-Banking movement by the manufacturers of small calculating machines, and an irrepressible midnight phenomenon known as Spacewar.

Reliably, at any nighttime moment (i.e. non-business hours) in North America hundreds of computer technicians are effectively out of their bodies, locked in life-or-death space combat computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens, for hours at a time, ruining their eyes, numbing their fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons, joyously slaying their friend and wasting their employers’ valuable computer time. Something basic is going on.

Rudimentary Spacewar consists of two humans, two sets of control buttons or joysticks, one TV-like display and one computer. Two spaceships are displayed in motion on the screen, controllable for thrust, yaw, pitch and the firing of torpedoes. Whenever a spaceship and torpedo meet, they disappear in an attractive explosion. That’s the original version invented in 1962 at MIT by Steve Russell. (More on him in a moment.)


The setting and decor at AI is Modern Mad Scientist – long hallways and cubicles and large windowless rooms, brutal fluoresccnt light, enormous machines humming and clattering, robots on wheels, scurrying arcane technicians. And, also, posters and announcements against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, computer print-out photos of girlfriends, a hallway-long banner SOLVING TODAY’S PROBLEMS TOMORROW and signs on every door in Tolkien’s elvish Fëanorian script – the director’s office is Imladris, the coffee room The Prancing Pony, the computer room Mordor. There’s a lot of hair on those technicians, and nobody seems to be telling them where to scurry.


I’m guessing that Alan Kay at Xerox Research Center (more on them shortly) has a line on it, defining the standard Computer Bum: “About as straight as you’d expect hotrodders to look. It’s that kind of fanaticism. A true hacker is not a group person. He’s a person who loves to stay up all night, he and the machine in a love-hate relationship… They’re kids who tended to be brilliant but not very interested in conventional goals. And computing is just a fabulous place for that, because it’s a place where you don’t have to be a Ph.D. or anything else. It’s a place where you can still be an artisan. People are willing to pay you if you’re any good at all, and you have plenty of time for screwing around.”

The hackers are the technicians of this science — “It’s a term of derision and also the ultimate compliment.” They are the ones who translate human demands into code that the machines can understand and act on. They are legion. Fanatics with a potent new toy. A mobile new-found elite, with its own apparat, language and character, its own legends and humor. Those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting a leading edge of technology which has an odd softness to it; outlaw country, where rules are not decree or routine so much as the starker demands of what’s possible.

A young science travels where the young take it. The wiser computer research directors have learned that not trusting their young programmers with major responsibility can lead immediately to no research. AI is one of perhaps several dozen computer research centers that are flourishing with their young, some of them with no more formal education than they got at the local Free School. I’m talking to Les Earnest, the gent who went for beer. He’s tall, swarthy, has a black and white striped beard, looks like a Sufi athlete. He’s telling me about what else people build here besides refinements of Spacewar. There’s a speech recognition project. There’s the hand-eye project, in which the computer is learning to see and visually correct its robot functions. There’s work on symbolic computation and grammatical inference. Work with autistic children, ‘trying to get them to relate to computers first, and then later to people. This seems to be successful in part because many of these children think of themselves as machines. You can encourage them to interact in a game with the machine.”

I’ve written about that piece before, but it came up again because Rolling Stone itself is revisiting it:

Brand had something of a knack for staging epochal cultural happenings. In 1966, he co-produced the infamous Trips Festival with Ken Kesey. Thousands of hippies attended this three day event in San Francisco to listen to psychedelic rock and drink punch dosed with LSD.


Brand was equally tuned in to the technological revolution that was rocking the Bay Area at the time. “I discovered that drugs were less interesting than computers as a way to expand your consciousness,” he says.

In 1968, Brand helped the inventor Doug Engelbart orchestrate a presentation at a computer conference that has come to be known as The Mother of All Demos. Engelbart demonstrated video conferencing, the computer mouse, email, hypertext, word processing and a windows-based organizational structure. Basically, he predicted most of the elements of the modern personal computer and the modern workplace.

Qattara Depression Project

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

The Qattara Depression Project is no Atlantropa, but it’s still pretty ambitious:

The depression is a region that lies below sea level and is currently a vast desert. By connecting the region and the Mediterranean Sea with tunnels and/or canals, water could be let into the area. The inflowing water would then evaporate quickly because of the desert climate. This way a continuous flow of water could be created if inflow and evaporation were balanced out. With this continuously flowing water hydroelectricity could be generated. Eventually this would result in a hypersaline lake or a salt pan as the water evaporates and leaves the salt it contains behind.

The proposals call for a large canal or tunnel being excavated of about 55 to 80 kilometres (34 to 50 mi) depending on the route chosen to the Mediterranean Sea to bring seawater into the area.

Or otherwise a 320 kilometre (200 mile) pipeline north-east to the freshwater Nile River at Rosetta.

For comparison, the nearby Suez Canal is currently 193 kilometres in length.

By balancing the inflow and evaporation the lake level can be held constant. Several proposed lake levels are -70, -60, -50 and -20 m.

Plans to use the Qattara Depression for the generation of electricity date back to 1912 from Berlin geographer Professor Penck.

In 1957 the American Central Intelligence Agency proposed to President Dwight Eisenhower that peace in the Middle East could be achieved by flooding the Qattara Depression. The resulting lagoon, according to the CIA, would have four benefits:

  • It would be “spectacular and peaceful.”
  • It would “materially alter the climate in adjacent areas.”
  • It would “provide work during construction and living areas after completion for the Palestinian Arabs.”
  • It would get Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser’s “mind on other matters” because “he need[ed] some way to get off the Soviet Hook.”

(Hat tip to Scott Alexander.)

OkCupid Study Reveals the Perils of Big-Data Science

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

A recent OkCupid study reveals the ethical perils of Big Data:

On May 8, a group of Danish researchers publicly released a dataset of nearly 70,000 users of the online dating site OkCupid, including usernames, age, gender, location, what kind of relationship (or sex) they’re interested in, personality traits, and answers to thousands of profiling questions used by the site.

When asked whether the researchers attempted to anonymize the dataset, Aarhus University graduate student Emil O. W. Kirkegaard, who was lead on the work, replied bluntly: “No. Data is already public.” This sentiment is repeated in the accompanying draft paper, “The OKCupid dataset: A very large public dataset of dating site users,” posted to the online peer-review forums of Open Differential Psychology, an open-access online journal also run by Kirkegaard.

Tinkerer, Prankster, and Father of Information Theory

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

Claude Shannon, tinkerer, prankster, and Father of Information Theory, would have turned 100 a few weeks ago. This old IEEE Spectrum piece makes me wonder if he was the Chuck Yeager of tech geeks:

Who is the real Claude Shannon? A visitor to Entropy House, the stuccoed mansion outside Boston where Shannon and his wife Betty have lived for more than 30 years, might reach different conclusions in different rooms. One room, prim and tidy, is lined with plaques that solemnly testify to Shannon’s numerous honors, including the National Medal of Science, which he received in 1966; the Kyoto Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Nobel; and the IEEE Medal of Honor.

That room enshrines the Shannon whose work Robert W. Lucky, the executive director of research for AT&T Bell Laboratories, has called the greatest “in the annals of technological thought,” and whose “pioneering insight” IBM Fellow Rolf W. Landauer has equated with Einstein’s. That Shannon is the one who, as a young engineer at Bell Laboratories in 1948, defined the field of information theory. With a brilliant paper in the Bell System Technical Journal, he established the intellectual framework for the efficient packaging and transmission of electronic data. The paper, entitled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” still stands as the Magna Carta of the communications age. [Editor’s note: Read the paper on IEEE Xplore: Parts I and II; Part III.]

But showing a recent visitor his awards, Shannon, who at 75 has a shock of snowy hair and an elfish grin, seemed almost embarrassed. After a fidgety minute, he bolted into the room next door. This room has framed certificates, too, including one certifying Shannon as a “doctor of juggling.” But it is also lined with tables heaped with all kinds of gadgets.

Some of these treasures—such as the talking chess-playing machine, the hundred-blade jackknife, the motorized pogo stick, and the countless musical instruments—Shannon has collected through the years. Others he has built himself: a miniature stage with three juggling clowns,  a mechanical mouse that finds its way out of a maze, a juggling manikin of the comedian W.C. Fields, and a computer called Throbac (Thrifty Roman Numeral Backward Computer) that calculates in Roman numerals. Shannon tried to get the manikin W.C. Fields to demonstrate his prowess, but in vain. “I love building machines, but it’s hard keeping them in repair,” he said a bit wistfully.

This roomful of gadgets reveals the other Shannon, the one who rode through the halls of Bell Laboratories on a unicycle while simultaneously juggling four balls, invented a rocket-powered Frisbee, and designed a “mind-reading” machine.

This room typifies the Shannon who—seeking insights that could lead to a chess-playing machine—began playing so much chess at work that “at least one supervisor became somewhat worried,” according to a former colleague.

Shannon makes no apologies. “I’ve always pursued my interests without much regard for final value or value to the world,” he said cheerfully. “I’ve spent lots of time on totally useless things.”

Tech Companies Design Your Life

Saturday, May 7th, 2016

Tristan Harris was Product Philosopher at Google. Now he warns us that tech companies design our lives:

New technologies always reshape society, and it’s always tempting to worry about them solely for this reason. Socrates worried that the technology of writing would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they [would] not use their memories.” We worried that newspapers would make people stop talking to each other on the subway. We worried that we would use television to “amuse ourselves to death.”

“And see!” people say. “Nothing bad happened!” Isn’t humanity more prosperous, more technically sophisticated, and better connected than ever? Is it really that big of a problem that people spend so much time staring at their smartphones? Isn’t it just another cultural shift, like all the others? Won’t we just adapt?

I don’t think so. What’s missing from this perspective is that all these technologies (books, television, radio, newspapers) did in fact radically change everything, we just don’t see it. Each replaced our old menus of life choices with new ones. Each new menu eventually became the new normal?—?“the way things are”?—?and, after our memories of old menus had faded into the past, the new menus became “the way things have always been.”

Consider that the average American now watches more than 5.5 hours of television per day. Regardless of whether you think TV is good or bad, hundreds of millions of people spend 30% of their waking hours watching it. It’s hard to overstate the vast consequences of this shift– for the blood flows of millions of people, for our understanding of reality, for the relational habits of families, for the strategies and outcomes of political campaigns. Yet for those who live with them day-to-day, they are invisible.
So what best describes the nature of what smart phones are “doing” to us?

If I had to summarize it, it’s this: our phone puts a new choice on life’s menu, in any moment, that’s “sweeter” than reality.


And because of the attention economy, every product will only get more persuasive over time. Facebook must become more persuasive if it wants to compete with YouTube and survive. YouTube must become more persuasive if it wants to compete with Facebook. And we’re not just talking about ‘cheap’ amusement (aka cat videos). These products will only get better at giving us choices that make every bone in our body say, “yeah I want that!”


As each player in the Attention Economy invents more and more persuasive tactics to keep people hooked, persuasiveness goes up and agency goes down. Maybe we are “choosing,” but we are choosing from persuasive menus driven by companies who have different goals than ours.


Friday, May 6th, 2016

Gun violence is usually measured in deaths and injuries, but the ShotSpotter system measures shots fired:

Last year, there were 165,531 separate gunshots recorded in 62 different urban municipalities nationwide, including places such as San Francisco, Washington, D.C., St. Louis and Canton, according to ShotSpotter, the company behind a technology that listens for gunfire’s acoustic signature and reports it to authorities.

Even that eye-popping number captures only a fraction of the bullets fired each year. It does not include data from rural areas or the nation’s two largest cities — Los Angeles does not use ShotSpotter and New York City was excluded from the 2015 tally because it did not start until mid-year.

The ShotSpotter system also covers just a sliver of each city that it is in, usually higher-crime neighborhoods. ShotSpotter’s total coverage was 173 square miles last year. And the devices tend to not hear gunshots fired indoors.

Still, the data begins to provide a fuller picture of the nation’s rampant gunfire.

Last year, those 165,531 gunshots were divided among 54,699 different incidents — an average of 150 gunfire incidents every day.

The busiest month for gunfire was May.

The busiest day was Dec. 25, Christmas.

And if you want to avoid getting shot, it’s best to lie low from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Saturdays. That was the busiest hour of the week for gunfire. The slowest hour was 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. on Mondays.


Doleac, at the University of Virginia, and Purdue professor Jillian Carr used ShotSpotter data for Washington to determine how the city’s juvenile curfew affected gun violence.

The ShotSpotter devices were rolled out first in Anacostia in 2006, then Southeast and Northeast neighborhoods and finally north of downtown. The researchers examined gunshots detected from 2006 to 2013.

What they found was surprising: The city’s curfew actually increased the number of gunfire incidents by 150% in the hour immediately after it went into effect.

The researchers focused on the one-hour period when the city’s curfew changed each year, going from midnight every night in July and August to 11 p.m. on weeknights the rest of the year.

During that hour switch-over, they found, gunfire spiked. The researchers theorized that this was because law-abiding juveniles were most likely to follow the curfew. They got off the streets. That resulted in fewer innocent witnesses or bystanders in public, potentially leading to more lawlessness and gunfire.

In another study, Doleac and Carr found that ShotSpotter data showed evidence of “severe underreporting” of gun violence when compared to the traditional metrics of homicides or 911 calls.

In Washington, just 1 in 8 gunfire incidents led to a 911 call for “shots fired” in the covered areas.

“It’s clear most people don’t bother to call 911,” Doleac said.

In Washington, there was one reported homicide for every 181 gunfire incidents.

In Oakland, Calif., the other city that researchers studied, it was one homicide for every 62 gunshot incidents.

They noted with interest that it appears Oakland’s gunfire was at least twice as deadly as Washington’s gunfire. Although the researchers couldn’t come up with the reasons behind this difference (Were Washington’s gunmen poor shots? Did victims in Oakland get to the hospital more slowly?), the difference points to how measuring gun violence with homicides is problematic.

Three Tribes Under One Roof

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

CIA houses several very different cultures under one roof:

The three main tribes are the analysts, the spies and the techies. For outsiders, the analysts are in-house academics and experts who brief and write papers for the President and policymakers. The spies are those officers of the Clandestine Service (now called the Directorate of Operations, or DO) who live overseas and manage human spy networks. They tend to be the cocky jet pilots of the CIA. The techies spend the money and manage huge, sophisticated, cutting edge programs. They are engineers, scientists and visionaries. Housing these three tribes under one roof has always been both CIA’s strength and weakness.

The man who was easily the most damaging individual to American intelligence was one of those techies who became Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner:

Turner was a techie, in Sipher’s trichotomy of CIA cultures; he had headed NSA and, when Jimmy Carter appointed him DCI, he concluded that he could get all the intel a nation needs from technical means (listening posts, satellites) and liaison with friendly services, and so he fired 800 case officers (causing lost contact with their foreign agents) — almost 1/4 of the clandestine service — literally overnight. Turner put out one eye and left the US nearly blind in places like Africa and the Levant. In Iran, the only eye left was through liaisons with the Shah’s intelligence agency SAVAK, which evaporated when the Shah fell and left the CIA completely blind and unable to operate in Iran at all.It was in this environment that the hostage rescue’s clandestine side wound up run by a US Army Special Forces element. Likewise, the US was blindsided by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in part because of the Turner bloodletting.

No roads, no problem

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

Lockheed Martin recently promoted their Hybrid Airship with the motto, No roads, no problem!

Near the end of the video, they share some stats:

  • 10′x10′x60′ Cargo Bay
  • 21 Metric Ton Capacity
  • Room for 19 Passengers

For context, a “small” modern cargo aircraft like the Boeing 737-700C might have a cargo capacity of 3,800 cu ft and 18.2 metric tons.

I’m surprised that the airship’s cargo capacity is so high by weight but so low by volume.

The hybrid advantage, they argue, is that it’s faster than sea or land transport, but more fuel-efficient than other forms of air transport.

Hybrid Airship Advantage

That and they require little to no infrastructure.

Supercritical Carbon Dioxide Turbine

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

GE Global Research is testing a desk-size turbine that could produce 10 megawatts — enough to power 10,000 homes — and, more importantly, spin up in minutes:

The unit is driven by “supercritical carbon dioxide,” which is in a state that at very high pressure and up to 700 °C exists as neither a liquid nor a gas. After the carbon dioxide passes through the turbine, it’s cooled and then repressurized before returning for another pass.

The unit’s compact size and ability to turn on and off rapidly could make it useful in grid storage. It’s about one-tenth the size of a steam turbine of comparable output, and has the potential to be 50 percent efficient at turning heat into electricity. Steam-based systems are typically in the mid-40 percent range; the improvement is achieved because of the better heat-transfer properties and reduced need for compression in a system that uses supercritical carbon dioxide compared to one that uses steam. The GE prototype is 10 megawatts, but the company hopes to scale it to 33 watts.

In addition to being more efficient, the technology could be more nimble — in a grid-storage scenario, heat from solar energy, nuclear power, or combustion could first be stored as molten salt and the heat later used to drive the process.

While such a heat reservoir could also be used to boil water to power a steam turbine, a steam system could take 30 minutes to get cranked up, while a carbon dioxide turbine might take only a minute or two — making it well-suited for on-the-spot power generation needed during peak demand periods.