How Palmer Luckey Created Oculus Rift

October 20th, 2014

If there is a case to be made that unconventional schooling, without busywork or fixed schedules, helps unleash creativity, Palmer Luckey, creator of the Oculus Rift, might well be Exhibit A for the prosecution:

His mother, Julie, home-schooled all four of her children during a period of each of their childhoods (Luckey’s father, Donald, is a car salesman), but Palmer was the only one of the kids who never went back; he liked the flexibility too much. In his ample free time, he devoted most of his considerable energy to teaching himself how to build electronics from scratch.

No one else in Luckey’s family was especially interested in technology, but his parents were happy to give over half of the garage at their Long Beach, California, home to his experiments. There, Luckey quickly progressed from making small electronics to “high-voltage stuff” like lasers and electromagnetic coilguns. Inevitably, there were mishaps. While working on a live Tesla coil, Luckey once accidentally touched a grounded metal bed frame, and blew himself across the garage; another time, while cleaning an infrared laser, he burned a gray spot into his vision.

When Luckey was 15, he started “modding” video game equipment: taking consoles like the Nintendo GameCube, disassembling them, and modifying them with newer parts, to transform them into compact, efficient and hand-crafted devices. “Modding was more interesting than just building things entirely using new technologies,” Luckey told me. “It was this very special type of engineering that required deeply understanding why people had made the decisions they made in designing the hardware.”

Luckey soon became obsessed with PC gaming. How well, he wondered, could he play games? “Not skill level,” he clarified to me, “but how good could the experience be?” By this time, Luckey was making good money fixing broken iPhones, and he spent most of it on high-end gaming equipment in order to make the experience as immersive as possible. At one point, his standard gaming setup consisted of a mind-boggling six-monitor arrangement. “It was so sick,” he recalled.

But it wasn’t enough. Luckey didn’t just want to play on expensive screens; he wanted to jump inside the game itself. He knew the military sometimes trained soldiers using virtual reality headsets, so he set out to buy some — on the cheap, through government auctions. “You’d read that these VR systems originally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and you thought, clearly if they’re that expensive, they must be really good,” Luckey said. Instead, they fell miles short of his hopes. The field of view on one headset might be so narrow that he’d feel as if he was looking through a half-opened door. Another might weigh ten pounds, or have preposterously long lag between his head moving and the image reacting onscreen — a feature common to early VR that literally makes users nauseated.

So Luckey decided to do what he’d been doing for years with game consoles: He’d take the technology apart, figure out where it was falling short and modify it with new parts to improve it. Very quickly, he realized that this wasn’t going to be simple. “It turned out that a lot of the approaches the old systems were taking were dead ends,” he said.

The problem was one of fundamental design philosophy. In order to create the illusion of a three-dimensional digital world from a single flat screen, VR manufacturers had typically used complex optical apparatuses that magnified the onscreen image to fill the user’s visual field while also correcting for any distortion. Because these optics had to perform a variety of elaborate tricks to make the magnified image seem clear, they were extremely heavy and costly to produce.

Luckey’s solution to this dilemma was ingeniously simple. Why use bulky, expensive optics, he thought, when he could put in cheap, lightweight lenses and then use software to distort the image, so that it came out clear through them? Plus, he quickly realized that he could combine these lenses with screens from mobile phones, which the smartphone arms race had made bigger, crisper and less expensive than ever before. “That let me make something that was a lot lighter and cheaper, with a much wider field of view, than anything else out there,” he said.

From 2009 to 2012, while also taking college classes and working at the University of Southern California’s VR-focused Institute for Creative Technologies, Luckey poured countless hours into creating a working prototype from this core vision. He tinkered with different screens, mixed and matched parts from his collection of VR hardware, and refined the motion tracking equipment, which monitored the user’s head movements in real-time. Amazingly, considering the eventual value of his invention, Luckey was also posting detailed reports about his work to a 3-D gaming message board. The idea was sitting there for anyone to steal.

But, as Brendan Iribe put it to me, “Maybe his name is Luckey for a reason.” By that point, no one was interested in throwing more money away on another doomed virtual reality project.

Then, in early 2012, luck struck again when the legendary video game programmer John Carmack stumbled onto his work online and asked Luckey if he could buy one of his prototypes. Luckey sent him one for free. “I played it super cool,” he assured me. Carmack returned the favor in a big way: At that June’s E3 convention — the game industry’s gigantic annual commercial carnival — he showed off the Rift prototype to a flock of journalists, using a repurposed version of his hit game “Doom 3” for the demonstration. The response was immediate and ecstatic. “I was in Boston at a display conference at the time,” Luckey said, “and people there were like, ‘Dude, Palmer, everyone’s writing articles about your thing!’”

The rest, as they say, is virtual history: Over the next 21 months, Luckey partnered with Iribe, Antonov and Mitchell, launched a Kickstarter campaign that netted $2.4 million in funding — nearly ten times its initial goal — and joined the Facebook empire, thereby ensuring the company the kind of financial backing that most early-stage tech companies can only dream of.

The Oculus Rift is now entering its final stages of development — it’s slated for commercial release next year — and this fall Samsung will release a scaled-down product for developers and enthusiasts, powered by Oculus technology, that will clip over the company’s Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. But Luckey knows that success is by no means assured. “To this point, there has never been a successful commercial VR product, ever,” Luckey told me. “Nobody’s actually managed to pull this off.” Spend a few minutes inside the Rift, though, and one can’t help but believe that Luckey will be the one to do it.

Apple’s Next Big Imitative Leap

October 20th, 2014

Apple is just buying time until its next big imitative leap:

Samsung debuted its first, much maligned and hugely successful Galaxy Note — the first phone with a bigger-than-5-inch screen — in September, 2011. For two years afterwards, Apple was content to present incremental improvements to the iPhone. Compared with the iPhone 5, the iPhone 5s just added a fingerprint sensor and an improved camera (plus a few other features that most consumers didn’t care about).

Meanwhile Apple carefully observed the “phablet” market, watched other handset makers follow Samsung’s example and erode its market share, and experimented with ways to make a big phone easier to navigate one-handed. It struck just when Samsung started posting lower profits, because of the increased competitive pressure.

It was a perfectly-timed attack and, after setting a first-weekend record — 10 million iPhones sold — iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are continuing their rampage. Apple chief executive Tim Cook said yesterday that the first sales month for the two new phones was the company’s best ever “by a lot. A whole lot.”

The iPad Air 2′s most important improvements on last year’s device are, again, a fingerprint sensor and a better camera. As with iPhone 5s in 2013, it may appear as if Apple is stuck in a rut of timid, incremental innovation. My bet, however, is that it’s watching another innovator collect bumps, get bad reviews, then get things right. Once that innovator’s success is assured, Apple will pounce.

This time it isn’t a Samsung product Apple is watching, but Microsoft’s Surface Pro.

Microsoft hit on the idea of producing a tablet-laptop cross in 2012, incurring losses and writing off inventory as it refined the concept. This year, it finally produced a device that reviewers liked — the Surface Pro 3. It’s reasonably convincing both as a laptop and as a tablet, albeit a large and heavy one. Microsoft has not released numbers, saying only that the Pro 3 was its fastest-selling tablet yet — the company underestimated demand, creating shortages in some markets.

The analysis company Gartner puts the Surface Pro in the same category — “premium ultra-mobile” computers — as Apple’s MacBook Air laptops.

How To Think Real Good

October 20th, 2014

After compiling How to do research at the MIT AI Lab, David Chapman went on to write How To Think Real Good, a rather meandering piece that culminates in this list:

  • Figuring stuff out is way hard.
  • There is no general method.
  • Selecting and formulating problems is as important as solving them; these each require different cognitive skills.
  • Problem formulation (vocabulary selection) requires careful, non-formal observation of the real world.
  • A good problem formulation includes the relevant distinctions, and abstracts away irrelevant ones. This makes problem solution easy.
  • Little formal tricks (like Bayesian statistics) may be useful, but any one of them is only a tiny part of what you need.
  • Progress usually requires applying several methods. Learn as many different ones as possible.
  • Meta-level knowledge of how a field works — which methods to apply to which sorts of problems, and how and why — is critical (and harder to get).

I didn’t find that list as interesting as his pull-out points along the way:

  • Understanding informal reasoning is probably more important than understanding technical methods.
  • Finding a good formulation for a problem is often most of the work of solving it.
  • Before applying any technical method, you have to already have a pretty good idea of what the form of the answer will be.
  • Choosing a good vocabulary, at the right level of description, is usually key to understanding.
  • Truth does not apply to problem formulations; what matters is usefulness.
  • All problem formulations are “false,” because they abstract away details of reality.
  • Work through several specific examples before trying to solve the general case. Looking at specific real-world details often gives an intuitive sense for what the relevant distinctions are.
  • Problem formulation and problem solution are mutually-recursive processes.
  • Heuristics for evaluating progress are critical not only during problem solving, but also during problem formulation.
  • Solve a simplified version of the problem first. If you can’t do even that, you’re in trouble.
  • If you are having a hard time, make sure you aren’t trying to solve an NP-complete problem. If you are, go back and look for additional sources of constraint in the real-world domain.
  • You can never know enough mathematics.
  • An education in math is a better preparation for a career in intellectual field X than an education in X.
  • You should learn as many different kinds of math as possible. It’s difficult to predict what sort will be relevant to a problem.
  • If a problem seems too hard, the formulation is probably wrong. Drop your formal problem statement, go back to reality, and observe what is going on.
  • Learn from fields very different from your own. They each have ways of thinking that can be useful at surprising times. Just learning to think like an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a philosopher will beneficially stretch your mind.
  • If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like an anvil. If you only know one formal method of reasoning, you’ll try to apply it in places it doesn’t work.
  • Evaluate the prospects for your field frequently. Be prepared to switch if it looks like it is approaching its inherent end-point.
  • It’s more important to know what a branch of math is about than to know the details. You can look those up, if you realize that you need them.
  • Get a superficial understanding of as many kinds of math as possible. That can be enough that you will recognize when one applies, even if you don’t know how to use it.
  • Math only has to be “correct” enough to get the job done.
  • You should be able to prove theorems and you should harbor doubts about whether theorems prove anything.
  • Try to figure out how people smarter than you think.
  • Figure out what your own cognitive style is. Embrace and develop it as your secret weapon; but try to learn and appreciate other styles as well.
  • Collect your bag of tricks.
  • Find a teacher who is willing to go meta and explain how a field works, instead of lecturing you on its subject matter.

Altucher on Personal Finance

October 19th, 2014

James Altucher provides a “real education” on personal finance:

A) Don’t save money. Make more. If you think this is not so easy then remember: whatever direction you are walking in, eventually you get there.

B) That said, don’t spend money on the BIGGEST expenses in life. House and college (and kids and marriage but, of course, there are exceptions there). Just saving on these two things alone is worth over a million dollars in your bank account.

C) But doesn’t renting flush money down the toilet? No, it doesn’t. Do the math. You can argue all you want but the math is very clear as long as you are not lying to yourself.

D) Haven’t studies shown that college graduates make more money 20 years later?

No, studies have not shown that. They show correlation but not causation and they don’t take into account multi-collinearity (it could be that the children of middle class families have higher paying jobs later and, oh by the way, these children also go to college).

E) Don’t invest in anything that you can’t directly control every aspect of. In other words…yourself.

In other words:

  1. You can’t make or save money from a salary.And salaries have been going down versus inflation for 40 years. So don’t count on a salary. You’re 20, please take this advice alone if you take any advice at all.
  2. Investing is a tax on the middle class. There are at least 5 levels of fees stripped out of your hard-earned cash before your money touches an investment.

F) If you want to make money you have to learn the following skills. None of these skills are taught in college.

I’m not saying college is awful or about money, etc. I’m just saying that the only skills needed to make money will never be learned in college:

  • how to sell (both in a presentation and via copywriting)
  • how to negotiate (which means win-win, not war)
  • creativity (take out a pad, write down a list of ideas, every day)
  • leadership (give more to others than you expect back for yourself)
  • networking (a corollary of leadership)
  • how to live by themes instead of goals (goals will break your heart)
  • reinvention (which will happen repeatedly throughout a life)
  • idea sex (get good at coming up with ideas. Then combine them. Master the intersection)
  • the 1% rule (every week try to get better 1% physically, emotionally, mentally)
  • “the google rule” – always send people to the best resource, even if it’s a competitor. The benefit to you comes back tenfold
  • give constantly to the people in your network. The value of your network increase linearly if you get to know more people but EXPONENTIALLY if the people you know, get to know and help each other.
  • how to fail so that a failure turns into a beginning
  • simple tools to increase productivity
  • how to master a field. You can’t learn this in school with each “field” being regimented into equal 50 minute periods. Mastery begins when formal education ends. Find the topic that sets your heart on fire. Then combust.
  • stopping the noise: news, advice books, fees upon fees in almost every area of life. Create your own noise instead of falling in life with the others.

If you do all this you will gradually make more and more money and help more and more people. At least, I’ve seen it happen for me and for others.

How to see into the future

October 18th, 2014

So, what is the secret of looking into the future?

Initial results from the Good Judgment Project suggest the following approaches. First, some basic training in probabilistic reasoning helps to produce better forecasts. Second, teams of good forecasters produce better results than good forecasters working alone. Third, actively open-minded people prosper as forecasters.

But the Good Judgment Project also hints at why so many experts are such terrible forecasters. It’s not so much that they lack training, teamwork and open-mindedness — although some of these qualities are in shorter supply than others. It’s that most forecasters aren’t actually seriously and single-mindedly trying to see into the future. If they were, they’d keep score and try to improve their predictions based on past errors. They don’t.

This is because our predictions are about the future only in the most superficial way. They are really advertisements, conversation pieces, declarations of tribal loyalty — or, as with Irving Fisher, statements of profound conviction about the logical structure of the world.

Some participants in the Good Judgment Project were given advice, a few pages in total, which was summarised with the acronym CHAMP:

  • Comparisons are important: use relevant comparisons as a starting point;
  • Historical trends can help: look at history unless you have a strong reason to expect change;
  • Average opinions: experts disagree, so find out what they think and pick a midpoint;
  • Mathematical models: when model-based predictions are available, you should take them into account;
  • Predictable biases exist and can be allowed for. Don’t let your hopes influence your forecasts, for example; don’t stubbornly cling to old forecasts in the face of news.

The Advent of Cholera

October 17th, 2014

Cholera seems to have existed in the Ganges delta for a long time, but it only spread to the rest of the world fairly recently, Gregory Cochran notes, and two factors interfered with an effective policy response:

[Scientists] concluded that contagion was never the answer, and accepted miasmas as the cause, a theory which is too stupid to be interesting. Sheesh, they taught the kids in medical school that measles wasn’t catching — while ordinary people knew perfectly well that it was. You know, esoteric, non-intuitive truths have a certain appeal — once initiated, you’re no longer one of the rubes. Of course, the simplest and most common way of producing an esoteric truth is to just make it up.

On the other hand, 19th century liberals (somewhat like modern libertarians, but way less crazy) knew that trade and individual freedom were always good things, by definition, so they also opposed quarantines — worse than wrong, old-fashioned! And more common in southern, Catholic, Europe: enough said! So, between wrong science and classical liberalism, medical reformers spent many years trying to eliminate the reactionary quarantine rules that still existed in Mediterranean ports.

The intellectual tide turned: first heroes like John Snow, and Peter Panum, later titans like Pasteur and Koch. Contagionism made a comeback.

Welcome to Our Reality

October 17th, 2014

How do the Swedes recruit soldiers? Like this:

How do Unschoolers Turn Out?

October 17th, 2014

Peter Gray and Gina Riley surveyed 232 parents who unschool their children:

Getting into college was typically a fairly smooth process for this group; they adjusted to the academics fairly easily, quickly picking up skills such as class note-taking or essay composition; and most felt at a distinct advantage due to their high self-motivation and capacity for self-direction. “The most frequent complaints,” Gray notes on his blog, “were about the lack of motivation and intellectual curiosity among their college classmates, the constricted social life of college, and, in a few cases, constraints imposed by the curriculum or grading system.”

Most of those who went on to college did so without either a high school diploma or general education diploma (GED), and without taking the SAT or ACT. Several credited interviews and portfolios for their acceptance to college, but by far the most common route to a four-year college was to start at a community college (typically begun at age 16, but sometimes even younger).

None of the respondents found college academically difficult, but some found the rules and conventions strange and sometimes off-putting. Young people who were used to having to find things out on their own were taken aback, and even in some cases felt insulted, “when professors assumed they had to tell them what they were supposed to learn,” Gray says.

[...]

The range of jobs and careers was very broad—from film production assistant to tall-ship bosun, urban planner, aerial wildlife photographer, and founder of a construction company—but a few generalizations emerged. Compared to the general population, an unusually high percentage of the survey respondents went on to careers in the creative arts—about half overall, rising to nearly four out of five in the always-unschooled group. Similarly, a high number of respondents (half of the men and about 20 percent of the women) went on to science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) careers.

Why is Football More Popular than Ever?

October 16th, 2014

Why is football more popular than ever?

In practice getting people to watch spot advertising means programming that has to be watched live and in practice that in turn means sports. Thus it is entirely predictable that advertisers will pay a premium for sports. It is also predictable that the cable industry will pay a premium for sports because must-watch ephemera is a good insurance policy against cord-cutting. Moreover, as a straight-forward Ricardian rent type issue, we would predict that this increased demand would accrue to the owners of factor inputs: athletes, team owners, and (in the short-run) the owners of cable channels with contracts to carry sports content. Indeed this has basically all happened.

Here’s something else that is entirely predictable from these premises: we should have declining viewership for sports. If you’re the marginal viewer who ex ante finds sports and scripted equally compelling, it seems like as sports get more expensive and you keep having to watch ads, whereas scripted gets dirt cheap, ad-free, and generally more convenient, the marginal viewer would give up sports, watch last season’s episodes of Breaking Bad on Netflix, be blissfully unaware of major advertising campaigns, and pocket the $50 difference between a basic cable package and a $10 Netflix subscription.

The weird thing is that this latter prediction didn’t happen. During exactly the same period over which sports got more expensive in absolute terms and there was declining direct cost and hassle for close substitutes, viewership for sports increased. From 2003 to 2013, sports viewership was up 27%. Or rather, baseball isn’t doing so great and basketball is holding its own, but holy moly, people love football. If you look at both the top events and top series on tv, it’s basically football, football, some other crap, and more football. I just can’t understand how when one thing gets more expensive and something else that’s similar gets a lot cheaper and lower hassle, that you see people flocking to the thing that is absolutely more hassle and relatively more money.

A Referendum On Everything

October 16th, 2014

The Red Tribe and Blue Tribe have different narratives, which they use to tie together everything that happens into reasons why their tribe is good and the other tribe is bad:

When an issue gets tied into a political narrative, it stops being about itself and starts being about the wider conflict between tribes until eventually it becomes viewed as a Referendum On Everything. At this point, people who are clued in start suspecting nobody cares about the issue itself — like victims of beheadings, or victims of sexual abuse — and everybody cares about the issue’s potential as a political weapon — like proving Muslims are “uncivilized”, or proving political correctness is dangerous. After that, even people who agree that the issue is a problem and who would otherwise want to take action have to stay quiet, because they know that their help would be used less to solve a problem than to push forward the war effort against them. If they feel especially threatened, they may even take an unexpected side on the issue, switching from what they would usually believe to whichever position seems less like a transparent cover for attempts to attack them and their friends.

Empire of the Summer Moon

October 16th, 2014

Scott Alexander reviews Empire of the Summer Moon, about the Comanche Indians:

When Mexico took over from Spain and tried to colonize Texas, the Comanches beat them so soundly that they decided to get some “help” by inviting Anglo-Americans to come in and colonize, leading to the Texas revolt, the Mexican War, and so on. Through the first thirty years or so of American Texas, American control only extended through the eastern half of the state, with the western half being totally Comanche and almost totally unexplored. The border was so feared that places like Fort Worth, Texas were originally a line of actual forts intended to protect the Texans from Comanche raids.

These raids were probably the most disturbing part of the book. On the one hand, okay, the white people were trying to steal the Comanches’ land and they had every right to be angry. On the other hand, the way the Comanches expressed that anger was to occasionally ride in, find a white village or farm or homestead, surround it, and then spend hours or days torturing everyone they found there in the most horrific possible ways before killing the men and enslaving the women and children. Sometimes people were scalped alive. The women would usually be gang-raped dozens of times, and then enslaved, carried off to Comanche territory, and gang-raped some more. Children were forced to watch as their parents were raped and tortured and killed, or vice versa.

Their favorite pastime was to find a remote farm somewhere, ride in dressed in full war gear, communicate some version of “Oh, hi, I know what this looks like but actually we’re just stopping by, mind giving us a bite to eat?”, enjoying a lavish feast put on by extremely nervous settlers, and then saying “Very good, in exchange for this feast we give you a five minute head start”, then giving them five minutes to run away before riding them down and torture-killing the entire family in the manner described earlier.

On the other hand, the Comanches fit the classic pattern of hunter-gatherer civilizations of simultaneously being really mean to people outside the tribe while showing deep and heartfelt kindness to everyone within. We know this because sometimes if there were very young children, and the Comanches were feeling a bit low on headcount, they would capture the children and adopt them as full Comanches (after torture-killing the parents, of course) and some of these children would later grow up to write English-language books about their experience. But this practice definitely led to some awkward situations, and the book centers around one of them: the last great chief of the Comanches, Quanah, was half-white, the son of a Comanche chief and a Texan woman who had been captured when she was nine years old.

So there was a bit of traffic back and forth between America and Comancheria in the 19th century. White people being captured and raised by Comanches. The captives being recaptured years later and taken back into normal white society. Indians being defeated and settled on reservations and taught to adopt white lifestyles. And throughout the book’s description of these events, there was one constant:

All of the white people who joined Indian tribes loved it and refused to go back to white civilization. All the Indians who joined white civilization hated it and did everything they could to go back to their previous tribal lives.

There was much to like about tribal life. The men had no jobs except to occasionally hunt some buffalo and if they felt courageous to go to war. The women did have jobs like cooking and preparing buffalo, but they still seemed to be getting off easy compared to the white pioneer women or, for that matter, women today. The whole culture was nomadic, basically riding horses wherever they wanted through the vast open plains without any property or buildings or walls. And everyone was amazingly good at what they did; the Comanche men were probably the best archers and horsemen in the history of history, and even women and children had wilderness survival and tracking skills that put even the best white frontiersmen to shame. It sounds like a life of leisure, strong traditions, excellence, and enjoyment of nature, and it doesn’t surprise me that people liked it better than the awful white frontier life of backbreaking farming and endless religious sermons.

The Church v the Family

October 16th, 2014

Why isn’t Europe clannish? Ed West explains:

The answer is the Catholic Church. Christianity in our minds is linked to “family values”, as Right-wing politicians used to say before an imminent sex scandal, but from the beginning it was almost anti-family, and Jesus told his disciples to leave theirs. Whereas Judaism had been heavily kinship-based, Christ voiced the view that the noblest thing was to lay down one’s life for a friend – a gigantic moral leap. This universal ideal was spread by St Paul who famously stated that there would be neither Jew nor Greek, “for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”.

Although both large Abrahamic faiths are universalist, western Christianity was far more jealous of rival loyalties, such as could be found in the clan, and wanted to weaken them. St Augustine of Hippo and St Thomas Aquinas both encouraged marrying out as a way of widening social ties, and in Summa Theologica Aquinas objected to cousin marriages on the grounds that they “prevent people widening their circle of friends”. He wrote: “When a man takes a wife from another family he is joined in special friendship with her relations; they are to him as his own.”

The influence of the Church caused Europeans to be less clannish and therefore made it easier for large territorial magnates to forge nation-states.

Another consequence was the nuclear family, which developed in the North Sea region around the turn of the millennium. It was influenced by the western European manor system of agriculture, under which peasants managed their own farms let out to them by the lord of the manor, owing him obligations of work. This encouraged adult children to move out of the family home, whereas in most cultures three generations lived together under a paterfamilias.

With the nuclear family came a move away from group identity and towards the western concept of individual rights and liberalism. It was a revolutionary idea and in parts of the world where the clan still rules it is still an alien one.

Compact Fusion Reactor

October 15th, 2014

Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works plans to develop a compact fusion reactor (CFR):

Until now, the majority of fusion reactor systems have used a plasma control device called a tokamak, invented in the 1950s by physicists in the Soviet Union. The tokamak uses a magnetic field to hold the plasma in the shape of a torus, or ring, and maintains the reaction by inducing a current inside the plasma itself with a second set of electromagnets. The challenge with this approach is that the resulting energy generated is almost the same as the amount required to maintain the self-sustaining fusion reaction.

Compact Fusion Reactor Diagram

The problem with tokamaks is that “they can only hold so much plasma, and we call that the beta limit,” McGuire says. Measured as the ratio of plasma pressure to the magnetic pressure, the beta limit of the average tokamak is low, or about “5% or so of the confining pressure,” he says. Comparing the torus to a bicycle tire, McGuire adds, “if they put too much in, eventually their confining tire will fail and burst—so to operate safely, they don’t go too close to that.” Aside from this inefficiency, the physics of the tokamak dictate huge dimensions and massive cost. The ITER, for example, will cost an estimated $50 billion and when complete will measure around 100 ft. high and weigh 23,000 tons.

The CFR will avoid these issues by tackling plasma confinement in a radically different way. Instead of constraining the plasma within tubular rings, a series of superconducting coils will generate a new magnetic-field geometry in which the plasma is held within the broader confines of the entire reaction chamber. Superconducting magnets within the coils will generate a magnetic field around the outer border of the chamber. “So for us, instead of a bike tire expanding into air, we have something more like a tube that expands into an ever-stronger wall,” McGuire says. The system is therefore regulated by a self-tuning feedback mechanism, whereby the farther out the plasma goes, the stronger the magnetic field pushes back to contain it. The CFR is expected to have a beta limit ratio of one. “We should be able to go to 100% or beyond,” he adds.

This crucial difference means that for the same size, the CFR generates more power than a tokamak by a factor of 10. This in turn means, for the same power output, the CFR can be 10 times smaller. The change in scale is a game-changer in terms of producibility and cost, explains McGuire. “It’s one of the reasons we think it is feasible for development and future economics,” he says. “Ten times smaller is the key. But on the physics side, it still has to work, and one of the reasons we think our physics will work is that we’ve been able to make an inherently stable configuration.” One of the main reasons for this stability is the positioning of the superconductor coils and shape of the magnetic field lines. “In our case, it is always in balance. So if you have less pressure, the plasma will be smaller and will always sit in this magnetic well,” he notes.

The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons

October 15th, 2014

From 2004 to 2011, American troops repeatedly encountered chemical weapons remaining from earlier in Saddam Hussein’s rule, C.J. Chivers reports:

In all, American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs, according to interviews with dozens of participants, Iraqi and American officials, and heavily redacted intelligence documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The United States had gone to war declaring it must destroy an active weapons of mass destruction program. Instead, American troops gradually found and ultimately suffered from the remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West.

The New York Times found 17 American service members and seven Iraqi police officers who were exposed to nerve or mustard agents after 2003. American officials said that the actual tally of exposed troops was slightly higher, but that the government’s official count was classified.

The secrecy fit a pattern. Since the outset of the war, the scale of the United States’ encounters with chemical weapons in Iraq was neither publicly shared nor widely circulated within the military. These encounters carry worrisome implications now that the Islamic State, a Qaeda splinter group, controls much of the territory where the weapons were found.

The American government withheld word about its discoveries even from troops it sent into harm’s way and from military doctors. The government’s secrecy, victims and participants said, prevented troops in some of the war’s most dangerous jobs from receiving proper medical care and official recognition of their wounds.

Sexual Harassment at Restaurants

October 15th, 2014

Scott Adams (Dilbert) adds some context to the report that 90% of women in restaurant jobs that depend on tipping report being sexually harassed at work, based on his own restaurant-owning experience:

I believe it is true that 90% of women working for tips in restaurants are sexually harassed by coworkers and/or customers. That fits my personal observations after working in the industry. But let’s put some context on that and see if your feelings about the story change.

For starters, let’s remove from the stats the folks who take jobs at Hooters and other restaurants that position the staff’s appearance as part of the “entertainment.” I would argue that those employees are signing up to be sexually objectified in return for the promise of easy work and good tips. You can make a convincing case that Hooters should not exist, but I don’t think you can lump the servers at Hooters with the servers at Applebee’s and get a good statistic on restaurant sexual harassment in general.

So let’s say the non-Hooters rate of sexual harassment for female restaurant workers is something like 80%. That still sounds terrible. But I’m not done with context yet.

In my experience, attractive female bartenders and servers are completely conscious of trading their sexuality for higher tips. They talk about it freely. They pick blouses to accentuate their best assets. And some will admit they choose jobs that allow them to trade on their looks. If I were in my twenties and could make money in a job that depended on my looks instead of my muscles I would take it in a heartbeat, assuming I had good looks.

My best guess is that if you remove from the stats the women who are intentionally using their sexuality to improve their income, you get about 50% of women in tipping jobs who get sexually harassed and have done nothing intentionally to inspire unwanted attention. That is still a horrible number.

But 50% is also the rate of men who report being sexually harassed in server jobs. In my restaurant experience, when we had handsome male bartenders or servers the female staff and customers were shameless with their non-stop sexual banter, flirting, and direct sexual offers. And if you thought all of that attention was the good kind, you’d be wrong. It was an ongoing problem for the guys. The handsome gay servers had it the worst because they had no upside potential from the female attention.

So here’s the proper context, in my opinion, based on years of direct restaurant experience: 100% of attractive men and women are sexually harassed at work in the restaurant business. And nearly every one of them took the job knowing that would be the case, but they decided it was worth it for the relatively easy money.