Resenting Super-Wizards

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Scott Adams (Dilbert) has dubbed the coming decades the Age of Magic because our smartphones and other technology will soon allow us to navigate our environment as if we are wizards:

Doors will identify us as we approach and unlock for the right wizards only. Lamps will respond to wizard hand signals from across the room. Cars will drive themselves. You get the picture. In about ten years you won’t need to physically touch anything you want to control. Your location and identity will be continuously broadcast from your smartphone, and because of that your environment will respond to your preferences as if by magic.

But here’s the interesting thing. People will have different levels of magic based on income. The top 1% will be like super-wizards, able to control their environments with both technology and money. If you are rich, you have access to more services, apps, clubs and businesses. Additional doors literally open for you as you approach. Stores offer you more services and even special sale prices. Self-driving taxis are never far from you because their central brain recognizes you as a frequent user. Or perhaps you paid extra to never wait more than two minutes for your taxi.

I won’t bore you with a million examples because I think you get the point. The environment will someday snap to attention when a rich person enters the room but it will ignore anyone who can’t afford a smartphone or can’t afford the services of businesses that allow you to control them via hand gestures and verbal command. Rich people will someday walk among the public like super-wizards.

[...]

My point is that if you think the resentment about the top 1% is bad now, imagine how bad it will be when the rich have super-wizard powers and the rest of society does not. In 2014, a top one-percenter can blend in with the crowd. In ten years that might be nearly impossible because the environment will change as rich people enter the space.

To that, I say, “Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.”

The Ultra-Aerodynamic Schlörwagen

Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

The Schlörwagen German experimental vehicle from 1939 achieved a drag coefficient of 0.15 — making it dramatically more streamlined than a modern Prius:

Despite the lack of widespread wind tunnel testing and computer modeling, the 1920s and 1930s were a booming era for aerodynamics. The Czech Tatra 77, Chrysler Airflow, and Mercedes-Benz 540K Streamliner were impressive attempts to limit drag. These cars “conformed to the still fairly primitive understanding of aerodynamics (or streamlining) of the day, which approximates to making a car as close to a teardrop as possible,” says Sam Livingstone, director at Car Design Research and a judge for the World Car Awards. They looked a bit unusual but not loony, and they went into production, with varying levels of success.

Schlörwagen 3

The Schlörwagen was something else altogether. German engineer Karl Schlör, at the Aerodynamischen Versuchsanstalt (Aerodynamic Institute) in Göttingeng, started with a 38-horsepower Mercedes 170H. Inspired by the shape of airplane wings, he redesigned the exterior, setting the windows flush with the shell for cleaner airflow and extending the body over the front wheels. “Basically, the Schlörwagen is a wing on wheels,” says Andreas Dillmann, head of the Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the successor to the Aerodynamischen Versuchsanstalt.

Schlörwagen 1

The result, unveiled at the 1939 International Motor Show in Berlin, was nicknamed the “Göttingen Egg.” It was nearly seven feet wide (just inches narrower than a first-generation Hummer) and had three-row seating for seven.

Schlörwagen 2

The changes worked: The 170H topped out at roughly 65 mph. The Schlörwagen, using the same engine, hit 84. And it needed just eight liters of fuel to cover 62 miles, a 20 to 35 percent improvement. The 0.15 drag coefficient is beaten only by modern designs of less practical cars like the General Motors EV1 and Volkswagen XL1.

Tracking Tease

Monday, September 15th, 2014

Weapons Man got a call from some friends who tried out a new Tracking Point smart rifle, and it lives up to the hype:

  • Best packaged gun any of them had ever seen. In the gunsmith’s experience, that’s out of thousands of new guns.
  • First shot, cold bore, no attempt to zero, 350 meters, IPSC sized metal silhouette: “ding!” They all laughed like maniacs. It does what the ads say.
  • By the day’s end, the least experienced long-range shooter, who’d never fired a round at over 200 meters, was hitting moving silhouettes at 850 yards.

How to Write 225 Words Per Minute With a Pen

Monday, September 15th, 2014

Journalist Dennis Hollier uses a smartpen to write 225 words per minute — but it’s not the high-tech pen that lets him do that:

But [the optical character recognition software] doesn’t work for me, I explain, because even though I’m recording this interview with the latest model Sky wifi smartpen, I’m taking notes using a 19th Century technology called Gregg shorthand.

In many respects, Gregg is even more ingenious than the smartpen. And, although no electronics or gizmos were involved, it was a tremendously powerful and influential technology for nearly 100 years. Now, it’s become the key to my workflow in the Internet age.

Gregg is a way of compressing language. You are the machine that does the encoding and decoding. And your brain can do it in real time at very, very high speeds. To understand why, you have to know a little about how it works.

Gregg is basically a much simpler and more efficient writing system than longhand English. This starts with the letters themselves. The Roman alphabet, which we use to write English, is much more complicated than is strictly necessary to distinguish one letter from another. To print a lower-case “b”, for example, requires a long, downward stroke with a clockwise loop at the base. Then, you have to pick up your pen to move to the next letter, an extraneous step that takes up almost as much time as the writing itself. Cursive (when was the last time you heard that word?) may seem a little faster, but it actually requires additional strokes, short ligatures at the beginning and the end of each letter. That’s a lot of wasted motion, which is why cursive is actually only about 10 percent faster than print.

In contrast, Gregg’s “letters” are much simpler shapes.

Gregg Shorthand Paragraph

If you wanted to be an executive secretary, you needed a certificate from Gregg saying you qualified at 150 words per minute. If you wanted to be a court reporter, you had to demonstrate you could write an astonishing 225 words per minute with better than 98 percent accuracy. Altogether, millions of people passed through Gregg training and the Gregg certification system.

For nearly a century, Gregg was an essential part of American society. As recently as the 1970s, almost every high school in the country taught Gregg. Certainly, every business school and most colleges offered Gregg-certified shorthand courses.

Ask Peter Thiel Anything

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

Peter Thiel is doing a Reddit AMA. Some highlights:

  • Most people deal with aging by some strange combination of acceptance and denial. I think the psychological blocks to thinking about aging run very deep, and we need to think about it in order to really fight it.
  • The zero-sum world [The Social Network] portrayed has nothing in common with the Silicon Valley I know, but I suspect it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of the dysfunctional relationships that dominate Hollywood.
  • Start with focusing on a small market and dominate that market first.
  • What did you think when you first met Elon Musk? Very smart, very charismatic, and incredibly driven — a very rare combination, since most people who have one of these traits learn to coast on the other two.
    It was kind of scary to be competing against his startup in Palo Alto in Dec 1999-Mar 2000.
  • Is Palantir a front for the CIA? No, the CIA is a front for Palantir.
  • If technology involves doing more with less, than US health care (like US education) is the core of “anti-technology” in this country: For the last four decades, we have been spending more and more for the same (or even for less).
  • At 22, I didn’t think it was important to meet people.
  • In your view, has the Thiel Fellowship been a success? Yes, on both a micro and a macro scale.
    Micro: the 83 fellows have collectively raised $63 million, and a number of their companies are tracking towards solid Series B venture rounds. Almost all of them did and learned far more than they would have in college.
    Macro: we started an important debate about the education bubble. Student debt is over $1 trillion in this country, and much of that money has gone to pay for lies that people tell about how great the education they received was.
  • I like the genre of past books written about the future, e.g.: Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis; JJ Servan-Schreiber, The American Challenge; Norman Angell, The Great Illusion; Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age.
  • In the Soviet Union, chess was considered a sport — and I think that’s the one thing the communists got right.
  • I don’t agree with the libertarian description of the NSA as “big brother.” I think Snowden revealed something that looks more like the Keystone Kops and very little like James Bond.
  • Most people believe that capitalism and competition are synonyms, and I think they are opposites. A capitalist accumulates capital, and in a world of perfect competition all the capital gets competed away: The restaurant industry in SF is very competitive and very non-capitalistic (e.g., very hard way to make money), whereas Google is very capitalistic and has had no serious competition since 2002.
  • PayPal built a payment system but failed in its goal in creating a “new world currency” (our slogan from back in 2000). Bitcoin seems to have created a new currency (at least on the level of speculation), but the payment system is badly lacking.
    I will become more bullish on Bitcoin when I see the payment volume of Bitcoin really increase.
  • What is your view on Neoreaction? Sounds like a self-contradiction — if you’re reactionary, why do you need the “neo?”
  • I think there’s been a Gresham’s Law in science funding in this country, as the political people who are nimble in the art of writing government grants have gradually displaced the eccentric and idiosyncratic people who typically make the best scientists. The eccentric university professor is a species that is going extinct fast.
  • If our great expectations about the future are not realized, then we need to save way more than we are doing today. China (with 40% savings) is perhaps more “rational” than the US (with about 0% savings), at least in a world of general stagnation.
  • Sociopathic investor behavior that worked shockingly well in the 1980s and 90s will work much less well in today’s more transparent and founder-centric world.
    As an investor, I think one must always maintain a certain amount of humility. There is only so much we can do to help the companies in which we invest. And because of this, the act of making the investment (rather than the ability to fix things later) remains by far the most important thing we do.
  • A sense of mission is critical, but I think the word “social” is problematically ambiguous: it can mean either (1) good for society, or (2) seen as good by society.
    In the second meaning, it leads to me-too copycat companies. I think the field of social entrepreneurship is replete with these, and that this is one of the reasons these businesses have not been that successful to date.
  • Biggest mistake ever was not to do the Series B round at Facebook.
    General lesson: Whenever a tech startup has a strong up round led by a top tier investor (Accel counts), it is generally still undervalued. The steeper the up round, the greater the undervaluation.
  • Yes, I think [Henry] George is a really interesting thinker. The idea that we should tax land heavily (and perhaps not tax anything else at all) is very interesting, since many of the bad monopolies in our society involve the unholy coalition of urban slumlords and pseudo-environmentalists.
  • I think Andreessen is half-right: Snowden is both a hero and a traitor.
    It is really unfortunate that there were no internal checks in our system, and so it took something like Snowden breaking all the rules for us to have a serious discussion about the NSA.
  • Even when one understands that exponential growth and exponential forces are incredibly important, it is still hard to internalize this. PayPal was growing at 7%/day at the time of the launch (Oct 99-Apr 2000, from 24 users to 1 million), and we did not fully fathom the rocket we were riding.
  • I do not find myself fully on the side of any of our political leaders — because none of them are fully on my side.

Video Conference Seminars

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Is the Minerva Project the future of college?

Minerva is an accredited university with administrative offices and a dorm in San Francisco, and it plans to open locations in at least six other major world cities. But the key to Minerva, what sets it apart most jarringly from traditional universities, is a proprietary online platform developed to apply pedagogical practices that have been studied and vetted by one of the world’s foremost psychologists, a former Harvard dean named Stephen M. Kosslyn, who joined Minerva in 2012.

Nelson and Kosslyn had invited me to sit in on a test run of the platform, and at first it reminded me of the opening credits of The Brady Bunch: a grid of images of the professor and eight “students” (the others were all Minerva employees) appeared on the screen before me, and we introduced ourselves.

[...]

[French physicist Eric] Bonabeau began by polling us on our understanding of the reading, a Nature article about the sudden depletion of North Atlantic cod in the early 1990s. He asked us which of four possible interpretations of the article was the most accurate. In an ordinary undergraduate seminar, this might have been an occasion for timid silence, until the class’s biggest loudmouth or most caffeinated student ventured a guess. But the Minerva class extended no refuge for the timid, nor privilege for the garrulous. Within seconds, every student had to provide an answer, and Bonabeau displayed our choices so that we could be called upon to defend them.

Bonabeau led the class like a benevolent dictator, subjecting us to pop quizzes, cold calls, and pedagogical tactics that during an in-the-flesh seminar would have taken precious minutes of class time to arrange. He split us into groups to defend opposite propositions—that the cod had disappeared because of overfishing, or that other factors were to blame. No one needed to shuffle seats; Bonabeau just pushed a button, and the students in the other group vanished from my screen, leaving my three fellow debaters and me to plan, using a shared bulletin board on which we could record our ideas. Bonabeau bounced between the two groups to offer advice as we worked.

(Hat tip to Al Fin.)

RC Steam Tank

Saturday, September 6th, 2014

A steam hobbyist has taken an RC tank and retrofitted a steam engine onto it:

RC Steam Tank

Peter Thiel’s Contrarian Strategy

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Roger Parloff of Fortune describes Peter Thiel:

A gifted rhetorician and provocateur with a bottomless pocketbook, Thiel has drawn upon his wide-ranging and idiosyncratic readings in philosophy, history, economics, anthropology, and culture to become perhaps America’s leading public intellectual today, assuming a mantle once held by the likes of Thorstein Veblen or Norman Mailer. The conspicuous difference is that Thiel—a libertarian, gay Christian—espouses views that are far harder to anticipate, and he has earned his pulpit largely through commercial rather than literary or scholarly masterworks.

Behind The Squirm

Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Silicon Valley co-executive producer Clay Tarver talks about getting things right:

Mike had heard some comment from Dr. Dre, I believe, where Dre said, “If it plays in the hood, it plays everywhere.” That meant to us that if the people who actually know this world deem it accurate and genuine and funny to them then so will everybody else. It’s the Spinal Tap effect. Nobody loved Spinal Tap more than rock bands. (I know. I played in bands.) They knew it got the shit right and it was a joy to see it on screen.

I’d had no interest in tech, actually. But the more I learned — the more everyone doing the show learned — the more it became glaringly clear to us that we had to be as accurate as possible. It’s a fucking crazy world as it is. That’s the point. So you can’t take shortcuts or liberties. It really is a matter of trust that you build with an audience. And if you’re bullshitting them every once in a while or, worse, if you’re getting things wrong, then why should they believe anything you do?

Personally, I’ve written many feature scripts based on “worlds.” From hunting to barbershop singing to surfing to basketball. And the strange thing is the real details are always funnier than a bunch of shit a comedy writer would think up. The deeper you dig the more interesting things get.

Furthermore, one of this show’s biggest strengths, I think, is the satire. And maybe satire means something different to other people. But to me it means showing things for how they are by looking at it through a different lens or different point of view. Accuracy and authenticity are critical to pulling that off.

Flatley’s Law

Friday, August 29th, 2014

Over the past 13 years, the cost of sequencing DNA has dropped from $100 million per human genome to only $1,000:

The only thing more extraordinary than the growth rate of the sequencing revolution is that the beneficiary is a single company, Illumina of San Diego, and most of the credit for the rate of change can be laid at the feet of one entrepreneur, Chief Executive Jay Flatley. Thanks largely to Flatley’s leadership, Illumina emerged as the dominant maker of DNA sequencers eight years ago and has maintained 80% market share despite an assault by several well-funded competitors.

Since 2008 Illumina’s sales and profit have both increased 147%, to $1.42 billion and $125 million, respectively, as the stock increased 617% and the company’s market capitalization reached $23 billion.

Knickebein

Monday, August 25th, 2014

A couple years ago Gregory Cochran mentioned The Wizard War, R. V. Jones’ account of his time leading scientific intelligence for Britain during the war, because it had some interesting examples of thick and thin problems — but mostly because it’s so damn much fun.

I bought a copy, under the original British title, Most Secret War — “most secret” is the British equivalent of “top secret” — and recently read and enjoyed it.

The classically thin problem that Cochran cites involves the German two-beam navigation system (Knickebein). From page 97 of my copy:

It may help here if I explain what a Lorenz beam is, for this is what we expected to find. If one arranges a number of aerial units (‘dipoles’, which look like the simplest type of television aerial) side by side, as in a fence and about the same distance apart as they are long, and feeds the radio energy to them in a suitable manner they will generate the beam which emerges broadside to the fence; and, paradoxically perhaps, the longer the ‘fence’ the sharper the beam. But without a fence of prohibitive length, the beam would not be nearly sharp enough to define a target one mile wide at two hundred miles range. The clever trick in the Lorenz system was to transmit two fairly blunt beams, pointing in slightly different directions but overlapping one another in a relatively narrow region which now in effect becomes the ‘beam’ along which the aircraft are intended to fly.

Knickebein Principle of the Lorenz Beam Diagram

The two overlapping beams are most simply generated by two aerial systems pointing in slightly different directions and mounted together on a single turntable. The actual radio transmitter is switched from one of these aerials to the other and back again in a repetitive sequence, so that one aerial transmits for a short time followed by a longer interval, giving a ‘dot’ to anyone who listens to it on a suitable radio receiver, while the other transmits for a long time followed by a short interval, giving a ‘dash’. Anyone so placed as to receive the two aerials at the same strength would hear the one transmit a dot immediately followed by the other transmitting a dash, so that he would think that he was listening to a single aerial transmitting continuously. As he moved sideways into the zone in which one beam, say the ‘dot’ beam, was stronger than the other, he would being to hear the dots coming up above the continuous note, and vice versa with the dashes. By listening for the predominance of dots or dashes he would know the direction in which he would have to steer to bring himself back into the narrow ‘equi-signal’ zone. This zone can be as narrow as one hundredth or even one thousandth of the width of the ‘dot’ or ‘dash’ beam alone.  The aerials are therefore set on the turntable in such a direction that the equi-signal zone passes over the target.  To warn the pilot that he is approaching the target, a similar beam system would be set up from one site well to the side of the director beam, and this second system would transmit a marker beam to cross the director a few kilometres before the target.

The ship that totally failed to change the world

Monday, August 11th, 2014

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

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

Savannah Control Room

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

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

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

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

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

Targamite TargaBot

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

The Targamite TargaBot looks like it has some potential:

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

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

Cybersecurity as Realpolitik

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

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

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

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

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

Air Waveguides

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

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

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

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

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

Air waveguides may get around some of these limitations:

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

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

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

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

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

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