Untangling “Hairballs”

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

3M has begun untangling the “hairballs” in its supply chain:

3M Co.’s Command picture-hanging hooks, made of plastic and strips of sticky foam, don’t look complicated. Until a couple of years ago, however, the Command production process meandered more than 1,300 miles through four factories in four states.

3M’s recently retired chief executive officer, George Buckley, branded such convoluted production trails as “hairballs.” The 110-year-old conglomerate is still trying to untangle them to wring costs out of one of the world’s most complex manufacturing enterprises.


The goal is to reduce cycle times — the period needed to go from ordering raw materials to delivering finished goods — by 25%.

Before the war on hairballs, the production process for Command hooks began at a 3M plant in Springfield, Mo., which made the adhesives. Those adhesives were shipped about 550 miles to a 3M plant in Hartford City, Ind., where they were applied to polyethylene foam.

The foam was shipped 600 miles to a contractor’s plant near Minneapolis, where the product was imprinted with the 3M logo and sliced into needed sizes. Then the product was trucked about 200 miles to central Wisconsin, where another contractor bundled adhesive foam with plastic hooks and put the product into blister packaging.

About two years ago, 3M consolidated these steps at its plant in Hutchinson, Minn., one of the super hubs, where Scotch tape, Nexcare bandages, furnace filters and other items are made.

That plant creates finished Command products for the Americas while sending giant rolls of unfinished sticky foam to Singapore and Poland, where they are tailored for Asian and European markets. The cycle time for making Command has dropped to 35 days from 100, Mr. Welsh says.

3M’s Littmann stethoscopes used to be made in steps involving 14 outside contractors and three 3M plants. Now all processes are being brought into a plant in Columbia, Mo. The cycle time will fall to 50 days from 165, Mr. Welsh promises.

Hairballs mean more inventory costs because at each geographically separate production stage a buffer stock of unfinished items is kept to cope with any disruptions in the flow from another plant. Holding that inventory is expensive in terms of space and cash sunk into materials waiting to become merchandise.

Why did 3M let some processes get so complicated? Part of it, says Mr. Welsh, is the company’s risk-averse culture. An old saying at 3M is “make a little, sell a little.” In other words, don’t buy a lot of new machinery and set up plants until a product has proved itself in the market.

So 3M product developers would look around for available machines and expertise even if it was hundreds of miles away. That meant 3M could keep machinery running round the clock more often, gaining efficiency. But it also meant more costs for shipping and longer production cycles. Now 3M’s goal is to ramp up production much faster when it has a hit product and avoid “disjointed supply chains,” Mr. Welsh says.

The Precision Revolution

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Over the last decade, the age of massive firepower has come to an end:

It was only 130 years ago that the introduction of nitrocellulose propellants for firearms and artillery, and high-grade, mass produced metal parts made possible machine-guns and modern (quick firing and quite accurate) artillery. This radically changed warfare, since the side with more of these guns, and ammo for them, had a huge advantage. It began an age of massive firepower.

Thus one of the less noticed revolutions in warfare recently has been the American development of small scale, precision firepower on a large scale, which has rapidly replaced the massive firepower tactics that dominated the 20th century. For most people, American smart bombs, like JDAM and laser guided bombs, represent “precision firepower.” But the concept goes much farther than that. American infantry carry automatic weapons, but most of the time they fire one precise shot at a time. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the locals quickly got to know when American troops are fighting in the area. They are the ones firing single shots. The other guys, fire their AK-47s on full auto. But it’s the sparser American firepower that dominates. Better training, and high tech sights, made the U.S. troops very accurate. This led to wider use of snipers, with up to ten percent of American troops qualified and equipped for this kind of shooting. Snipers alone have greatly changed American infantry tactics. Using night vision scopes, small UAVs and personal radios for every soldier, American units can deploy a dozen or more two man sniper teams that will turns a large area into deathtrap for enemy forces.

Snipers are backed by infantry that fire much more accurately than their counterparts in World War II did. At the same time, massed artillery fire is now a thing of the past. Many artillery battalions have been disbanded. U.S. artillery units now use a lot fewer precision shells and rockets. For example, the GPS guided MLRS rocket has been in use for several years now. This 227mm weapon delivers a 100 kg (220 pound) warhead as accurately as a 500 pound JDAM. When it comes to bombs, smaller and more accurate is what the infantry prefer. That’s because, once the bomb goes off, the grunts want to get in there and capture or kill the survivors before the shell shock wears off. American cannon (155mm) artillery units are now using GPS equipped “Excalibur” smart shells. Infantry commanders are particularly fond of this 45 kg (99 pound) shell available, as it allows troops to be as close as “across the street” from the target.

This produces another unique battlefield sound portrait. You know American troops are at work when one shell goes off, followed by a few shots. No shouting, American troops use individual radios, hand signals and night vision equipment. They move fast, using minimal firepower, which means less risk of friendly fire, or collateral damage (civilian casualties or property damage.) Battlefields have never sounded like this.

Less fire power also means a quieter battlefield. That enables better trained troops, who know what to listen for, more opportunities to use their ears to sort out what is going on. Silence can be a weapon. Precision weapons also reduce supply problems, especially closer to the battle zone. Less wear and tear on the weapons as well.

Obesogenic Environmental Forces

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

The Institute of Medicine has just released its 478-page report on obesity:

It advances the notion that obesity is not an individual shortcoming requiring voluntary personal reformation, but a societal problem requiring compulsory systemic change. So in addition to exposing what it calls “obesogenic environmental forces,” the IOM proposes a wide range of government policies to combat them, from the sensible (provide healthy food in the public schools) to the seriously alarming (let government dictate the recipes for commercial foods).

Conspicuously absent from the recommendations? Any significant redress for those government policies that have contributed to the problem in the first place. Take dietary advice. According to the Harvard Gazette, “Our ancient ancestors’ diet was heavy on tubers, fruits, and vegetables, and lean meat from game animals. In fact, Lieberman said, if you look at what our ancient ancestors likely ate, you’d wind up with something like the dietary advice coming out of [the Harvard School for Public Health].” You certainly would not wind up with a recommendation that you carbo-load by eating, oh, six to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice, and pasta every day. Yet that is precisely what the federal government’s food pyramid advised from 1992 to 2005. By remarkable coincidence, that time frame happens to overlap the period of the greatest growth in obesity rates.

The IOM report does mention building more sidewalks and scrutinizing federal agricultural policy. But Dan Glickman — a former agriculture secretary who chaired the panel producing the IOM report — rejects the idea of ending government subsidies for the makers of high-fructose corn syrup. “There is no evidence subsidies contribute to obesity,” he says. Yet the IOM evidently thinks more subsidies could help reduce obesity, because it recommends subsidizing fruit and vegetable crops. In the event of a government failure, apply more government directly to the wound.

All this sturm und drang seems odd, or at least oddly timed — because the obesity epidemic has actually leveled off. Rates of obesity in men have remained largely stable for the past eight years. Among white women, obesity has not risen for the past 12 years. And among black and Latino women, obesity has risen only slightly — and “that increase mostly occurred early in that 12-year period,” reports The Washington Post.

So if obesity rates have not changed significantly, what has? Government’s share of total spending on health care — which was 41 percent in 2007 — is expected to exceed 52 percent by 2019, whether the Supreme Court upholds the Affordable Care Act or not. And the government says obesity costs a lot of money: more than $150 billion a year, by some estimates.

Wave Glider

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Liquid Robotics designed its Wave Glider to set a world record for greatest distance by an autonomous wave-powered vehicle:

The Wave Glider’s design is simple: A surfboard-sized float bobs on waves, big or small. That motion is transferred through a streamlined, 7-meter, rubber-and-steel cable to a submarine that cruises in the deeper, calmer waters. “In the rough open ocean, seven meters down, there’s virtually no up and down wave motion,” Brager says.

Indeed, oceanography teaches us that wave turbulence greatly diminishes below the surface of the water. For example, if you have a wave with a 20-foot length trough to trough, the waters underneath will be only 5 percent as turbulent 10 feet below the surface. The Wave Glider exploits this simple fact of physics to transform wave energy into forward motion.

Here’s how it works: When the floating, surface-skimming portion of the Wave Glider attempts to force the submarine portion to flow with a wave, the sub is forced to carve upward through its relatively still waters. As this happens, an array of pivoting wings on the submarine lock into diagonal angles, transforming the bobbing wave motion into zig-zagging forward thrust at around 1 to 2 knots.

Because the solar array on top of the Wave Glider only has to power the rudder, satellite communications and whatever sensors are plugged into the modular payload, the glider, powered by the ocean’s endless undulations, can theoretically last much longer, and travel much farther, than any other ocean-going unmanned vehicle. That means a Wave Glider can go where a boat can — albeit slowly — but with the longevity of a buoy. This makes a Wave Glider an ideal platform for oceanic data collection.

Sharks and barnacles still pose challenges for the Wave Glider:

Some researchers believe that sharks, using their electromagnetic sensing Ampullae of Lorenzini, sometimes become curious about metallic objects and may bite them. But the sharks normally bite the glider’s wings, doing no more harm than scratching off the anti-fouling paint that keeps the hull clean of microorganism growth so it may slipstream through the water. (When Benjamin was removed from the water, barnacle growth only occurred on the sections where this special paint had come off, or on areas left unpainted. This fouling is a major concern for the longevity of a glider at sea, as a dirty sub can lose up to half of its already meager speed.)

Interactive Illustrated Glock Pistol

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

This interactive illustrated Glock pistol demonstrates how the famous device works — but it doesn’t seem to be embeddable.

Benjamin Disraeli on Establishing Democracies

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Benjamin Disraeli shared these thoughts on establishing democracies:

If you establish a democracy, you must in due time reap the fruits of a democracy. You will in due season have great impatience of the public burdens, combined in due season with great increase of the public expenditure. You will in due season have wars entered into from passion and not from reason; and you will in due season submit to peace ignominiously sought and ignominiously obtained, which will diminish your authority and perhaps endanger your independence. You will in due season find your property is less valuable, and your freedom less complete.

Jerry Pournelle adds this:

Government by public opinion poll is about the same as plebiscitary democracy. America was established as a Republic. The States could have democracy if they so chose. The Federal government had not that power and for good reasons, the Framers in 1787 having already known what Disraeli tried to tell Parliament some fifty years later.

Acquired Savants

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

No one really knew how horses galloped — did all four hooves leave the ground at the same time? — until Eadweard Muybridge settled the debate with a series of photographs he made in the 1880s. His obsessive interest in capturing the minute details of bodies in motion — that is, his “genius” — may have come from a blow to the head:

His erratic behavior was blamed on a head injury he’d sustained in a serious stagecoach accident that killed one passenger and wounded all the rest. Now, researchers believe that the crash, which gave Muybridge a permanent brain injury, may actually have been partially responsible for endowing him with his artistic brilliance.

Muybridge may have been what psychiatrists call an acquired savant, somebody with extraordinary talent but who wasn’t born with it and who didn’t learn the skills from someplace else later. In fact, Muybridge’s savant abilities had evidently been buried deep in the recesses of his mind the whole time, and the stagecoach incident had simply unlocked them.

It sounds crazy. But Muybridge is actually one of a number of people who’ve miraculously developed artistic, musical, or mathematical abilities as a result of a brain injury. There’s Orlando Serrell, who was struck in the head with a baseball as a 10-year-old and found he could remember the weather for each day following his accident. There’s Derek Amato, who woke up after hitting his head at the bottom of a pool and became a master pianist at 40, despite lacking any sort of musical training. There’s Alonzo Clemens, whose verbal and cognitive abilities stopped developing at the age of three due to a head injury but who can assemble incredibly detailed sculptures of animals in a matter of minutes.

Against the Infantilization of the Natural History Museum

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Justin Erik Halldór Smith speaks out against the infantilization of the natural history museum:

It has often struck me that no greater misfortune can befall a natural history museum than for it to come into enough money for renovations. These typically take the form of interactive screens displaying ‘fun facts’ directed at eight-year-olds, and they require the removal of anything that reeks of the past, which is to say also the removal of the very idea of natural history, in favor of some eternally present, unceasingly entertaining, Chuck E. Cheese-like arcade.

(Hat tip to Xavier Marquez.)

The Seven Geases by Clark Ashton Smith

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

Clark Ashton Smith somehow failed to make it into Appendix N of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gygax’s list of inspirational and educational reading.

This stands out when you read a few passages from The Seven Geases (1934):

The Lord Ralibar Vooz, high magistrate of Commoriom and third cousin to King Homquat, had gone forth with six-and-twenty of his most valorous retainers… He and his followers were well armed and accoutered. Some of the men bore coils of rope and grappling hooks to be employed in the escalade of the steeper crags. Some carried heavy crossbows; and many were equipped with long-handled and saber-bladed bills which, from experience, had proved the most effective weapons in close-range fighting with the Voormis. The whole party was variously studded with auxiliary knives, throwing-darts, two-handed simitars, maces, bodkins and saw-toothed axes. The men were all clad in jerkins and hose of dinosaur-leather, and were shod with brazen-spiked buskins. Ralibar Vooz himself wore a light suiting of copper chain-mail, which, flexible as cloth, in no wise impeded his movements. In addition he carried a buckler of mammoth-hide with a long bronze spike in its center that could be used as a thrusting-sword; and, being a man of huge stature and strength, his shoulders and baldric were hung with a whole arsenal of weaponries.


Most of the caves were narrow and darksome, thus putting at a grave disadvantage the hunters who entered them; and the Voormis would fight redoubtably in defense of their young and their females, who dwelt in the inner recesses; and the females were fiercer and more pernicious, if possible, than the males.

By the way, geas is the Scottish spelling of an old Gealic word for a magical obligation — and it is not pronounced like geese, but more like gesh:

In Irish mythology and folklore, a geis is an idiosyncratic taboo, whether of obligation or prohibition, similar to being under a vow or spell.

The geis is often a key device in hero tales, such as that of Cúchulainn in Irish mythology. Traditionally, the doom of heroes comes about due to their violation of their geis, either by accident, or by having multiple geasa and then being placed in a position where they have no option but to violate one geis in order to maintain another. For instance, Cúchulainn has a geis to never eat dog meat, and he is also bound by a geis to eat any food offered to him by a woman. When a hag offers him dog meat, he has no way to emerge from the situation unscathed; this leads to his death.

(Hat tip to The Mule Abides.)

Lean Ulysses

Monday, May 28th, 2012

This jolt of lean — as in lean manufacturing — comes from The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant — the general who won the war that spawned our modern Memorial Day:

There never was a corps better organized than was the quartermaster’s corp with the Army of the Potomac in 1864. With a wagon-train that would have extended from the Rapidan to Richmond, stretched along in single file and separated as the teams necessarily would be when moving, we could still carry only three days’ forage and about ten to twelve days’ rations, besides a supply of ammunition.

To overcome all difficulties, the chief quartermaster, General Rufus Ingalls, had marked on each wagon the corps badge with the division color and the number of the brigade. At a glance, the particular brigade to which any wagon belonged could be told. The wagons were also marked to note the contents: if ammunition, whether for artillery or infantry; if forage, whether grain or hay; if rations, whether bread, pork, beans, rice, coffee or whatever it might be.

Empty wagons were never allowed to follow the army or stay in camp. As soon as a wagon was empty, it would return to the base of supply for a load of precisely the same article that had been taken from it. Empty trains were obliged to leave the road free for loaded ones. Arriving near the army they would be parked in fields nearest to the brigades they belonged to. Issues, except of ammunition, were made at night in all cases.

Crucial Naval Developments

Monday, May 28th, 2012

The 20th century saw an avalanche of new naval technology, and it wasn’t always clear which would turn out to be crucial technological developments:

  1. Operations Research
  2. Gyroscopic Compass
  3. Gas Turbines
  4. Battery Technology
  5. Servron (Service Squadron)
  6. Merchant-Ship Automation
  7. Oceanography
  8. Weather Forecasting
  9. Personnel Screening
  10. Scuba Equipment

Incredible Hulk Anatomy

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Glendon Mellow produced this anatomical illustration of the Incredible Hulk’s skull, with inspiration from his mother’s nursing school anatomy textbooks and from gorilla and hominid ancestor skulls:


  • The Hulk Reviewed
  • Points of interest concerning the osteological and muscular systems.

TOP LEFT: The Skull

  • Note muscle-anchoring protuberances and ridges not found in average frontal and zygomatic bones.
  • Enlarged and bifurcated nasal cavities; see Appendix 3.1 for discussion and speculation of respiratory efficiency. See also; ribcage and spinal cord sinuses.
  • Note disproportion of maxilla to mandible.

TOP RIGHT: The Skull

  • Grossly enlarged frontal fontanelle, similarity to Zinjanthropus found in 1959.
  • Three scars unhealed grazing left ocular cavity; unusually, no traces of foreign molecules present.
  • Connective tissue spurs above eyeteeth at gumline.
  • Note complete absence of tooth decay or erosion.
  • Analysis of blood vessel to marrow ratios reveals skeletal system itself surprisingly fragile relative to comparisons with muscle and tissue tensile densities.

BOTTOM RIGHT: Musculature

  • Layers of cartilage and dense marrow-like tumours surround blood vessels; protecting both vessels and braincase simultaneously.
  • Jaw muscles extend to skull ridge homologous to gorilla.
  • Note muscles allowing subject to shut nostrils: unheard of in primates. This trait normally found in desert-dwelling ungulates such as dromedary camel.
  • Jaw may lock while mandible is at any degree of extension.
  • Elasticity of muscle tissues allows striations and contractions on 4-axis per muscle. Eyes and mouth can close using enormous, continuous pressure.

Patient Zero?

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

A Miami police officer shot a naked man on the MacArthur Causeway off ramp as he was eating the face off his victim:

According to police sources, a road ranger saw a naked man chewing on another man’s face and shouted on his loud speaker for him to back away.Meanwhile, a woman also saw the incident and flagged down a police officer who was in the area.

The officer, who has not been identified, approached and, seeing what was happening, also ordered the naked man to back away. When he continued the assault, the officer shot him, police sources said. The attacker failed to stop after being shot, forcing the officer to continue firing. Witnesses said they heard at least a half dozen shots.

The attack took place just south of the Miami Herald building on Biscayne Boulevard, and their surveillance camera captured the event — from too far away to make out much.

Lauren Davis of io9 nervously jokes that this is how the zombie apocalypse starts.

The Most Interesting Man in UFC Returns

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

The most interesting man in UFC returns:

Inbreeding and Dynastic Downfall

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

Charles II, last of his line, was an imbecile:

The Habsburg King Carlos II of Spain was sadly degenerated with an enormous misshapen head. His Habsburg jaw stood so much out that his two rows of teeth could not meet; he was unable to chew. His tongue was so large that he was barely able to speak. His intellect was similarly disabled. His brief life consisted chiefly of a passage from prolonged infancy to premature senility. Carlos’ family was anxious only to prolong his days and thought little about his education, so that he could barely read or write. He had been fed by wet nurses until the age of 5 or 6 and was not allowed to walk until almost fully grown. Even then, he was unable to walk properly, because his legs would not support him and he fell several times. His body remained that of an invalid child. The nature of his upbringing, the inadequacy of his education, the stiff etiquette of his court, his dependence upon his mother and his superstition helped to create a mentally retarded and hypersensitive monarch.

A new PLoS One paper dives into the genetics:

The kings of the Spanish Habsburg dynasty (1516-1700) frequently married close relatives in such a way that uncle-niece, first cousins and other consanguineous unions were prevalent in that dynasty. In the historical literature, it has been suggested that inbreeding was a major cause responsible for the extinction of the dynasty when the king Charles II, physically and mentally disabled, died in 1700 and no children were born from his two marriages, but this hypothesis has not been examined from a genetic perspective. In this article, this hypothesis is checked by computing the inbreeding coefficient (F) of the Spanish Habsburg kings from an extended pedigree up to 16 generations in depth and involving more than 3,000 individuals. The inbreeding coefficient of the Spanish Habsburg kings increased strongly along generations from 0.025 for king Philip I, the founder of the dynasty, to 0.254 for Charles II and several members of the dynasty had inbreeding coefficients higher than 0.20. In addition to inbreeding due to unions between close relatives, ancestral inbreeding from multiple remote ancestors makes a substantial contribution to the inbreeding coefficient of most kings. A statistically significant inbreeding depression for survival to 10 years is detected in the progenies of the Spanish Habsburg kings. The results indicate that inbreeding at the level of first cousin (F = 0.0625) exerted an adverse effect on survival of 17.8%612.3. It is speculated that the simultaneous occurrence in Charles II (F = 0.254) of two different genetic disorders: combined pituitary hormone deficiency and distal renal tubular acidosis, determined by recessive alleles at two unlinked loci, could explain most of the complex clinical profile of this king, including his impotence/infertility which in last instance led to the extinction of the dynasty.

Razib Khan explains:

F, or the coefficient of inbreeding, is critical here. Charles II was not simply the offspring of a first cousin marriage, he was the culmination of a repeated instances of cousin marriage over several generations. [...] In other words, Charles II was moderately more inbred than the average among the offspring from brother-sister matings!

The Spanish Habsburgs had higher infant mortality than Spanish commoners.

This all ties into Daenerys’s first chapter in Game of Thrones:

Despite the seemingly obvious drawbacks of hemophilia, porphyria, and flipper babies, royal incest was a historical phenomenon in many cultures. The Pharoahs of Egypt most closely resemble the Targaryen pattern, although they tended to stick to half-brother/half-sister marriages until the Ptolmys, who went in for direct brother-to-sister marriages. The Incas and the royal house of Hawaii also went in for brother-sister marriages. In medieval Europe, direct incest was both illegal and condemned by the Church, with the bizarre case of Jean V of Armagnac the only case I could find of a brother-sister marriage.

The danger of this practice can be seen in the case of the House of Hapsburg, in both its Austrian and Spanish lines was well-known for “consanguineous marriage,” including one marriage of an uncle to a niece. Even avoiding direct incest of brothers and sisters or fathers and daughters, they still succeeded in increasing the inbreeding coefficient tenfold to the point of parent-child and brother-sister levels. This lead to recurrent problems with deformity, infertility/importance, mental disorders and retardation, and other genetic abnormalities.

Given these problems, it’s surprising the Targaryens lasted as long as they did with so few obviously deformed offspring, given how brother-sister marriage increases the risks of genetic disorders beyond the levels associated with marrying first cousins. It’s possible that, like some royal houses engaged in direct incest, they practiced infanticide to weed out obvious cases of maladaptive traits. This might explain how so many Targaryens are described as having been beautiful (although part of that may be the association between Targaryen traits like silver hair and purple eyes with power and therefore beauty) — although they clearly missed a spot when it came to Maelys the Monstrous. Their track record when it comes to weeding out less obvious conditions that might have affected the mind is less good (although it’s hard to separate nature vs. nuture in these circumstances): Maegor the Cruel, Aerion Brightflame, Rhaegel Targaryen, Mad King Aerys II, the list is hardly inspiring.

The marriage between Daenerys and Khal Drogo brings up an interesting historical point — it’s probable that the Dothraki are patterned not off the Mongols, but rather the Huns, and Khal Drogo himself on that most famous Hun, Attila, and Daenerys off of the Roman princess Honoria. In 450 AD, the willful and infamous lady Honoria, sister to the weak Emperor Valentinian III, sent a plea for help to Attila in overcoming her brother, and offered in exchange her hand in marriage — and half of Gaul. At the time, Attila was one of the greatest warlords in the known world, extracting tribune from Constantinople, laying waste to the Balkans, and smashing Roman armies. To win Honoria’s hand and secure her position, Attila invaded Gaul, capturing Metz, Rheims, and Paris — before being defeated at the Battle of Châlons. When Valentinian III denied him his bride, Attila invaded Italy and practically burnt it to the ground — the city of Venice was founded out in the lagoon by refugees trying to get away from his horsemen. So like Khal Drogo, Attila would lay kingdoms to waste for the sake of his bride — and like Drogo, Attila would die no warriors death, but from a most minor injury — he suffered a massive nosebleed while intoxicated, and choked to death on his own blood.