Instructional Videos

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

Instructional videos are popular and effective, because we’re designed to learn through imitation:

Last year, it was estimated that YouTube was home to more than 135 million how-to videos. In a 2008 survey, “instructional videos” were ranked to be the site’s third most popular content category — albeit a “distant third” behind “performance and exhibition” and “activism and outreach.” More recent data suggest that distance may have closed: In 2015, Google noted that “how to” searches on YouTube were increasing 70 percent annually. The genre is by now so mature that it makes for easy satire.


A 2014 study showed that when a group of marmosets were presented with an experimental “fruit” apparatus, most of those that watched a video of marmosets successfully opening it were able to replicate the task. They had, in effect, watched a “how to” video. Of the 12 marmosets who managed to open the box, just one figured it out sans video (in the human world, he might be the one making YouTube videos).


“We are built to observe,” as Proteau tells me. There is, in the brain, a host of regions that come together under a name that seems to describe YouTube itself, called the action-observation network. “If you’re looking at someone performing a task,” Proteau says, “you’re in fact activating a bunch of neurons that will be required when you perform the task. That’s why it’s so effective to do observation.”


This ability to learn socially, through mere observation, is most pronounced in humans. In experiments, human children have been shown to “over-imitate” the problem-solving actions of a demonstrator, even when superfluous steps are included (chimps, by contrast, tend to ignore these). Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine, puts it this way: “Humans are fundamentally unique not because they are especially clever, not just because they have big brains or language, but because they are capable of extensive and generalised imitation.” In some sense, YouTube is catnip for our social brains. We can watch each other all day, every day, and in many cases it doesn’t matter much that there’s not a living creature involved. According to Proteau’s research, learning efficiency is unaffected, at least for simple motor skills, by whether the model being imitated is live or presented on video.

There are ways to learn from videos better:

The first has to do with intention. “You need to want to learn,” Proteau says. “If you do not want to learn, then observation is just like watching a lot of basketball on the tube. That will not make you a great free throw shooter.” Indeed, as Emily Cross, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Bangor University told me, there is evidence — based on studies of people trying to learn to dance or tie knots (two subjects well covered by YouTube videos) — that the action-observation network is “more strongly engaged when you’re watching to learn, as opposed to just passively spectating.” In one study, participants in an fMRI scanner asked to watch a task being performed with the goal of learning how to do it showed greater brain activity in the parietofrontal mirror system, cerebellum and hippocampus than those simply being asked to watch it. And one region, the pre-SMA (for “supplementary motor area”), a region thought to be linked with the “internal generation of complex movements,” was activated only in the learning condition — as if, knowing they were going to have to execute the task themselves, participants began internally rehearsing it.

It also helps to arrange for the kind of feedback that makes a real classroom work so well. If you were trying to learn one of Beyonce’s dance routines, for example, Cross suggests using a mirror, “to see if you’re getting it right.” When trying to learn something in which we do not have direct visual access to how well we are doing — like a tennis serve or a golf swing — learning by YouTube may be less effective.


The final piece of advice is to look at both experts and amateurs. Work by Proteau and others has shown that subjects seemed to learn sample tasks more effectively when they were shown videos of both experts performing the task effortlessly, and the error-filled efforts of novices (as opposed to simply watching experts or novices alone). It may be, Proteau suggests, that in the “mixed” model, we learn what to strive for as well as what to avoid.

Crowds and Technology

Monday, October 17th, 2016

Mobs, demagogues, and populist movements are obviously not new:

What is new and interesting is how social media has transformed age-old crowd behaviors. In the past decade, we’ve built tools that have reconfigured the traditional, centuries-old relationship between crowds and power, transforming what used to be sporadic, spontaneous, and transient phenomena into permanent features of the social landscape. The most important thing about digitally transformed crowds is this: unlike IRL crowds, they can persist indefinitely. And this changes everything.


To translate Canetti’s main observations to digital environments:

  1. The crowd always wants to grow — and always can, unfettered by physical limitations
  2. Within the crowd there is equality — but higher levels of deception, suspicion, and manipulation
  3. The crowd loves density — and digital identities can be more closely packed
  4. The crowd needs a direction — and clickbait makes directions cheap to manufacture

Translating Eric Hoffer’s ideas to digital environments is even simpler: the Internet is practically designed to enable the formation of self-serving patterns of “true belief.”

Chuck Yeager Describes How He Broke The Sound Barrier

Friday, October 14th, 2016

Chuck Yeager describes how he broke the Sound Barrier:

Everything was set inside X-1 as Cardenas started the countdown. Frost assumed his position and the mighty crack from the cable release hurled the X-1 into the abyss. I fired chamber No. 4, then No. 2, then shut off No. 4 and fired No. 3, then shut off No. 2 and fired No. 1. The X-1 began racing toward the heavens, leaving the B-29 and the P-80 far behind. I then ignited chambers No. 2 and No. 4, and under a full 6000 pounds of thrust, the little rocket plane accelerated instantly, leaving a contrail of fire and exhaust. From .83 Mach to .92 Mach, I was busily engaged testing stabilizer effectiveness. The rudder and elevator lost their grip on the thinning air, but the stabilizer still proved effective, even as speed increased to .95 Mach. At 35,000 ft., I shut down two of the chambers and continued to climb on the remaining two. We were really hauling! I was excited and pleased, but the flight report I later filed maintained that outward cool: “With the stabilizer setting at 2 degrees, the speed was allowed to increase to approximately .95 to .96 Mach number. The airplane was allowed to continue to accelerate until an indication of .965 on the cockpit Machmeter was obtained. At this indication, the meter momentarily stopped and then jumped up to 1.06, and the hesitation was assumed to be caused by the effect of shock waves on the static source.”

I had flown at supersonic speeds for 18 seconds. There was no buffet, no jolt, no shock. Above all, no brick wall to smash into. I was alive.

And although it was never entered in the pilot report, the casualness of invading a piece of space no man had ever visited was best reflected in the radio chatter. I had to tell somebody, anybody, that we’d busted straight through the sound barrier. But transmissions were restricted. “Hey Ridley!” I called. “Make another note. There’s something wrong with this Machmeter. It’s gone completely screwy!”

“If it is, we’ll fix it,” Ridley replied, catching my drift. “But personally, I think you’re seeing things.”

The Glow Puck Returns

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

One of professional hockey’s most hated innovations, the glow puck, is making a comeback:

The company has developed new hockey pucks loaded with tracking chips and outfitted the players in the six-team tournament with sensors on their sweaters that track movement throughout the games. The sensors emit infrared signals that allow cameras circling Toronto’s Air Canada Centre to record data like the speed and trajectory of a shot, how fast and how far players skate, who is on the ice and the length of their shifts.

Sportvision had to develop new pucks to hold the sensors. To test them, the company shot the pucks out of a cannon at speeds up to 135 miles an hour, faster than the record 108.8 miles per hour shot by Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara in 2012.

First used during the 2015 All-Star skills competition and game, the sensors are getting their first real-game tryouts at the World Cup, which begins its final round Tuesday.

The sensors also allow Sportvision, which developed the computerized yellow first-down line used in NFL broadcasts and the virtual strike-zone shown in televised baseball games, to graphically enhance visuals for people watching on TV.

Broadcasters use the graphics to point out particularities about hockey that might get lost during games. For example, during a recent broadcast of a Team North America game against Team Finland, Canadian broadcaster Sportsnet showed a replay of goal by defenseman Colton Parayko. “It’s not how hard the shot is, it’s just where it gets to,” said the announcer, as the onscreen graphics traced with a red tail the arc of the shot from Parayko’s stick into the net, displaying the speed at a relatively modest 50 mph.

A Schizophrenic Computer

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016

You can “teach” a neural net a series of simple stories, but if the neural net is set to “hyperlearn” from examples, you get a schizophrenic computer:

For ordinary brains, while there’s significant evidence that people do pretty much remember everything, your brain stores them differently. In particular, intense experiences, which are signaled to the brain by the presence of dopamine, are remembered differently than others. Which is why, for example, you probably can’t remember what you had for lunch last Tuesday, but you still have strong memories of your first kiss.

The hyperlearning hypothesis posits that for schizophrenics, this system of classifying experiences breaks down because of excessive levels of dopamine. Rather than classifying some memories as important and others as less essential, the brain classes everything as important. According to the hypothesis, this is what leads to schizophrenics getting trapped into seeing patterns that aren’t there, or simply drown in so many memories that they can’t focus on anything.

In order to simulate the hyperlearning hypothesis, the team put the DISCERN network back through the paces of learning, only this time, they increased its learning rate — in other words, it wasn’t forgetting as many things. They “taught” it several stories, then asked them to repeat them back. They then compared the computer’s result to the results of schizophrenic patients, as well as healthy controls.

What they discovered is that, like the schizophrenics, the DISCERN program had trouble remembering which story it was talking about, and got elements of the different stories confused with each other. The DISCERN program also showed other symptoms of schizophrenia, such as switching back and forth between third and first person, abruptly changing sentences, and just providing jumbled responses.

Andrew Sullivan’s Distraction Sickness

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

Andrew Sullivan doesn’t quite call for a Butlerian Jihad, but he does recognize that he developed a distraction sickness from modern technology:

Since the invention of the printing press, every new revolution in information technology has prompted apocalyptic fears. From the panic that easy access to the vernacular English Bible would destroy Christian orthodoxy all the way to the revulsion, in the 1950s, at the barbaric young medium of television, cultural critics have moaned and wailed at every turn. Each shift represented a further fracturing of attention — continuing up to the previously unimaginable kaleidoscope of cable TV in the late-20th century and the now infinite, infinitely multiplying spaces of the web. And yet society has always managed to adapt and adjust, without obvious damage, and with some more-than-obvious progress. So it’s perhaps too easy to view this new era of mass distraction as something newly dystopian.

But it sure does represent a huge leap from even the very recent past. The data bewilder. Every single minute on the planet, YouTube users upload 400 hours of video and Tinder users swipe profiles over a million times. Each day, there are literally billions of Facebook “likes.” Online outlets now publish exponentially more material than they once did, churning out articles at a rapid-fire pace, adding new details to the news every few minutes. Blogs, Facebook feeds, Tumblr accounts, tweets, and propaganda outlets repurpose, borrow, and add topspin to the same output.

We absorb this “content” (as writing or video or photography is now called) no longer primarily by buying a magazine or paper, by bookmarking our favorite website, or by actively choosing to read or watch. We are instead guided to these info-nuggets by myriad little interruptions on social media, all cascading at us with individually tailored relevance and accuracy. Do not flatter yourself in thinking that you have much control over which temptations you click on. Silicon Valley’s technologists and their ever-perfecting algorithms have discovered the form of bait that will have you jumping like a witless minnow. No information technology ever had this depth of knowledge of its consumers — or greater capacity to tweak their synapses to keep them engaged.

And the engagement never ends. Not long ago, surfing the web, however addictive, was a stationary activity. At your desk at work, or at home on your laptop, you disappeared down a rabbit hole of links and resurfaced minutes (or hours) later to reencounter the world. But the smartphone then went and made the rabbit hole portable, inviting us to get lost in it anywhere, at any time, whatever else we might be doing. Information soon penetrated every waking moment of our lives.

And it did so with staggering swiftness. We almost forget that ten years ago, there were no smartphones, and as recently as 2011, only a third of Americans owned one. Now nearly two-thirds do. That figure reaches 85 percent when you’re only counting young adults. And 46 percent of Americans told Pew surveyors last year a simple but remarkable thing: They could not live without one. The device went from unknown to indispensable in less than a decade. The handful of spaces where it was once impossible to be connected — the airplane, the subway, the wilderness — are dwindling fast. Even hiker backpacks now come fitted with battery power for smartphones. Perhaps the only “safe space” that still exists is the shower.

Am I exaggerating? A small but detailed 2015 study of young adults found that participants were using their phones five hours a day, at 85 separate times. Most of these interactions were for less than 30 seconds, but they add up. Just as revealing: The users weren’t fully aware of how addicted they were. They thought they picked up their phones half as much as they actually did. But whether they were aware of it or not, a new technology had seized control of around one-third of these young adults’ waking hours.

The interruptions often feel pleasant, of course, because they are usually the work of your friends. Distractions arrive in your brain connected to people you know (or think you know), which is the genius of social, peer-to-peer media. Since our earliest evolution, humans have been unusually passionate about gossip, which some attribute to the need to stay abreast of news among friends and family as our social networks expanded. We were hooked on information as eagerly as sugar. And give us access to gossip the way modernity has given us access to sugar and we have an uncontrollable impulse to binge. A regular teen Snapchat user, as the Atlantic recently noted, can have exchanged anywhere between 10,000 and even as many as 400,000 snaps with friends. As the snaps accumulate, they generate publicly displayed scores that bestow the allure of popularity and social status. This, evolutionary psychologists will attest, is fatal. When provided a constant source of information and news and gossip about each other — routed through our social networks — we are close to helpless.

How does the mass media (including social media) control people?

Friday, September 2nd, 2016

How does the mass media (including social media) control people?

The most obvious way, and which gains nearly all of the attention, is in terms of propaganda. So the mass/social media is full of propaganda in favour of the sexual revolution, against Christianity; in favour of Leftism and against traditional values (e.g marriage, family, biologically functional sexuality) and so forth.

But this is to miss the main point about content — which is the absence of content and the nature of assumptions.

The mass media simply eliminates all serious concerns.


But the main problem is the form not the content. The main problem with modern media addiction is that it shapes the way people think.

For a start, it takes-up attention for a large and increasing proportion of the day.


Then the attention is grabbed, manipulated, switched — again and again, thousands of times a day. This trains the mind positively to expect and want such attention switching, and negatively to become unable to hold attention — and rapidly to become bored by situations that lack this stream of attention-grabbing and rapidly changing stimuli.

The Idea of Improvement

Sunday, August 28th, 2016

What caused innovation to accelerate in so many different industries during the British Industrial Revolution? Anton Howes suggests the emergence of an idea that was even simpler and more fundamental than systematic experimentation or Newtonian mechanics, though it was implicit to each of them — the idea of improvement itself:

I present new evidence on the sources of inspiration and innovation-sharing habits of 677 people who innovated in Britain between 1651 and 1851. The vast majority of these people — at least 80% — had some kind of contact with innovators before they themselves started to innovate. These connections were not always between members of the same industry, and innovators could improve areas in which they lacked expertise. This suggests the spread, not of particular skills or knowledge, but of an improving mentality. The persistent failure to implement some innovations for centuries before the Industrial Revolution, despite the availability of sufficient materials, knowledge, and demand, further suggests that prior societies may have failed to innovate quite simply because the improving mentality was absent. As to what made Britain special, we cannot know for sure without constructing similarly exhaustive lists of innovators for other societies. But a likely candidate is that the vast majority of innovators — at least 83% — shared innovation in some way, while only 12% tried to stifle it. Just like a religion or a political ideology, the improving mentality spread from person to person, and to be successful required effective preachers and proselytisers too.

Lidar on a Chip

Thursday, August 25th, 2016

MIT’s Photonic Microsystems Group has developed lidar on a chip, with no moving parts:

Most lidar systems—like the ones commonly seen on autonomous vehicles—use discrete free-space optical components like lasers, lenses, and external receivers. In order to have a useful field of view, this laser/receiver module is mechanically spun around, often while being oscillated up and down. This mechanical apparatus limits the scan rate of the lidar system while increasing both size and complexity, leading to concerns about long-term reliability, especially in harsh environments. Today, commercially available high-end lidar systems can range from $1,000 to upwards of $70,000, which can limit their applications where cost must be minimized.


Our lidar chips are produced on 300-millimeter wafers, making their potential production cost on the order of $10 each at production volumes of millions of units per year. These on-chip devices promise to be orders of magnitude smaller, lighter, and cheaper than lidar systems available on the market today. They also have the potential to be much more robust because of the lack of moving parts. The non-mechanical beam steering in this device is 1,000 times faster than what is currently achieved in mechanical lidar systems, and potentially allows for an even faster image scan rate. This can be useful for accurately tracking small high-speed objects that are only in the lidar’s field of view for a short amount of time, which could be important for obstacle avoidance for high-speed UAVs.


Our device is a 0.5 mm x 6 mm silicon photonic chip with steerable transmitting and receiving phased arrays and on-chip germanium photodetectors. The laser itself is not part of these particular chips, but our group and others have demonstrated on-chip lasers that can be integrated in the future. In order to steer the laser beam to detect objects across the LIDAR’s entire field of view, the phase of each antenna must be controlled. In this device iteration, thermal phase shifters directly heat the waveguides through which the laser propagates. The index of refraction of silicon depends on its temperature, which changes the speed and phase of the light that passes through it. As the laser passes through the waveguide, it encounters a notch fabricated in the silicon, which acts as an antenna, scattering the light out of the waveguide and into free space. Each antenna has its own emission pattern, and where all of the emission patterns constructively interfere, a focused beam is created without a need for lenses.

Why Olympic Shooters Look Like Cyborgs

Friday, August 12th, 2016

Olympic Shooters look like cyborgs, because they’re wearing a lens, a mechanical iris, and a series of blinders:

Russian Olympic Pistol Shooter

An eye at rest would rather focus on a distant object than one that is near at hand; focusing on something in the foreground requires effort, and can lead to fatigue. Adding just a touch of lens power (+0.50 diopter, for the opticians in the house) to a sharpshooter’s prescription can help her sighting eye bring her gunsights into focus and keep them there, even as she concentrates on aligning them with the target in the distance.

But the lens presents a tradeoff: Bringing a gun’s sights into sharper focus can make the target go fuzzy. That’s where the blinders and mechanical iris come in.

“Your eye is like a camera lens,” says Tom Gaylord, a competitive air gunner known in sharpshooter circles as the godfather of airguns. And if you were armed with a camera instead of a pistol, bringing the target back into focus would be as simple as narrowing the aperture of your lens. This increases the range of distance within which objects will appear in focus (aka “depth of field,” for the photographers in the house). A greater depth of field means you can hold a target that’s 30 feet away and a pair of gunsights hovering at arm’s length in focus all at the same time.

A shooter typically mounts his mechanical iris to his shooting glasses just behind his lens. This lets him control the depth of field of his own vision. Twisting the iris narrows its aperture and reduces the amount of light that reaches the shooting eye, bringing the target and both sites into sharper focus than would be possible without the glasses. “The less light you can tolerate, the greater your depth of view will be,” Gaylord says. (Ever tried the pinhole trick, or squinted to see your alarm clock? This setup works by the same principle.)

The blinders serve a similar purpose by reducing the amount of light entering the shooter’s pupils. But the opaque plastic tiles also work to obscure the movements of other shooters and visuals that might otherwise distract an athlete. “I use them to block the vision of my non dominant eye,” says Jason Turner, a three-time Olympic marksman.

Is transgenderism an autism spectrum disorder?

Thursday, July 14th, 2016

Steve Sailer has a vague hunch that the transgender movement is somehow related to what he calls the Nerd Liberation movement, the most unexpectedly successful identity movement of his lifetime:

It’s not clear if autism, Asperger’s, and/or nerdism is becoming more common, but it’s definitely more of an identity than it once was.

There has been a little research into this subject, breaking trans people up into three main categories:

  1. Effeminate early transitioning male to female trans individuals (ladyboys) are of course not very nerdy at all. They tend to be people persons (e.g., prostitutes) and not big on logic.
  2. Female to male trans are very nerdy.
  3. Late transitioning masculine male to female trans people (the Wachowskis, the baseball stats person, my MBA school teammate, the economist, etc.) tend to be at least as nerdy as the average man and much more nerdy than the average woman.

I’ve found that the third category, which includes most of the celebrities and high achievers, tends to have a science fiction aspect to their interests. They often seem like characters from old Heinlein sci-fi stories.

Heinlein, a dedicated professional writer, believed in fan service and studied the wants of his various kinds of fans. In 1941 he was both guest of honor and de facto host of a convention for sci-fi fans at which he emphasized to the attendees that, sure, they might be social outcasts today, but they would be a world-changing elite tomorrow!

It doesn’t strike me as absurd that Heinlein would have sensed a market for these kind of fantasies among some sci-fi fans as early as 1958, the year of his solipsistic transsexual time travel short story “All You Zombies.”

In general, much of transgenderism seems like a weird flavor of a sci-fi fan’s traditional interest in Subduing Nature through New Technology.

Social Violence Networking

Monday, July 11th, 2016

Social media broadcasting has become central to social violence, John Robb notes, and this has led to a new dynamic that bypasses the “redirecting–calming–slowing” influence of traditional media and the government, one which is raw, unfiltered, and fast, radically increasing both the likelihood and the intensity of social violence:

Violence as performance art. Selfies. Instagram videos. Twitter. We’ve been conditioned to record our experiences using social media. Naturally, we’re are seeing the same thing with violence. Recording violence and showing it to the world, raw and unedited, can be used to “elevate the act” and memorialize it. NOTE: ISIS recently stumbled onto this as a way to motivate people to engage in terrorism. In these cases, the attackers used social media to turn their bloody attacks into both performance art and solemn ceremony. It gave it meaning. We’ll see more of that in the future.

We are bombarded with Instant outrage. We are more vulnerable to emotional manipulation than ever before. Our use of social media has changed us. We are constantly on the hunt for pics, news, stories, and videos that grab our attention and titillate us. Once we find them, we are then quick to share them with others. Few things provoke outrage faster than violence and injustice. It is proving particularly effective when the videos arrive raw and unedited from an individual rather than from the media. These personal broadcasts have an authenticity, a vulnerability, and an immediacy to them that greatly amplifies their emotional impact. This makes them more effective at triggering violence than any sterile broadcast from a traditional media outlet.

Echo chambers. Our virtual networks on Facebook, Twitter, etc. surrounded us with people who think like we do. These networks can easily become echo chambers. Echo chambers that radically amplify outrageous social media videos, spreading the outrage like a contagion. More importantly, it appears that this amplification can trigger individuals on the fence to engage in violence.

Garwin and the Mike Shot

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

In Building the H-Bomb: A Personal History, Kenneth Ford explains how Richard Garwin designed the first H-Bomb, based on the Teller-Ulam mechanism, while still in his early twenties:

In 1951 Dick Garwin came for his second summer to Los Alamos. He was then twenty-three and two years past his Ph.D. Edward Teller, having interacted with Garwin at the University of Chicago, knew him to be an extraordinarily gifted experimental physicist as well as a very talented theorist. He knew, too, that Fermi had called Garwin the best graduate student he ever had.

So when Garwin came to Teller shortly after arriving in Los Alamos that summer (probably in June 1951) asking him “what was new,” Teller was ready to pounce. He referred Garwin to the Teller-Ulam report of that March and then asked him to “devise an experiment that would be absolutely persuasive that this would really work.” Garwin set about doing exactly that and in a report dated July 25, 1951, titled “Some Preliminary Indications of the Shape and Construction of a Sausage, Based on Ideas Prevailing in July 1951,” he laid out a design with full specifics of size, shape, and composition, for what would be the Mike shot fired the next year.

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.