The reactor, named Norman, can operate at 60 million degrees Celsius

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

Tri Alpha Energy has been working on nuclear fusion technology for nearly two decades and has just hit a milestone:

On Monday, the company announced that it started up a new nuclear fusion reactor that can achieve the high temperatures needed to continue to validate its technology plans. The reactor, named Norman — after the late company founder and professor, Norman Rostoker — can operate at temperatures between 50 million and 70 million degrees centigrade, which is in the temperature range of the core of the sun.

Commercial-scale nuclear fusion will likely have to operate in the range of a billion degrees centigrade. So Norman, which is the company’s fifth reactor, is just a step along the way.


Norman, which is 100 feet in length and 45 feet wide, is housed at the company’s Foot Hill Ranch facility in Southern California. It can consume a whopping 750 megawatts of power in a short burst when it’s holding the plasma that is needed to create a nuclear fusion reaction.

Because of the high energy needs, the facility has an array of batteries and flywheels on standby that store the needed energy to get the reactor running. Norman achieved what’s called “first plasma” (i.e., it generated plasma in its core) in June.


Unlike the tokamak’s donuts, Tri Alpha Energy is using a design that shoots beams of plasma into a vessel where it’s held in place, spinning, by a magnetic field. The design shares some properties with particle accelerators.

Norman cost $100 million to build, and can fit five times more plasma in it than the previous reactor. At the same time, it can still be housed at the facility that held the previous reactor.

They listen at chipmunk speed

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

The Wall Street Journal notes that “podcast nuts” find the time to listen to so much material by listening at chipmunk speed — which is a cute phrase, but one that doesn’t make sense in the digital age, since we can now speed up audio without shifting the pitch, too:

A fourfold speedup sounds entirely sane to Max Deutsch, 24, who says he has speed-listened to 69 audiobooks this year. The faster the speed, he found, the more engaged he was. “That’s when I asked myself: I wonder how fast I could actually listen?”

The San Francisco tech-product manager, unable to find apps with speeds over 3x, created Rightspeed, a $2.99 app that accelerates podcasts in nearly unnoticeable 0.1x increments every two minutes. A one-hour podcast that begins at 2x, ends at 5x and takes 17 minutes.

“It’s sort of like the Roger Bannister, four-minute-mile effect,” Mr. Deutsch says. “Until you’re told it’s possible for a human to listen at this speed, you just decide you can’t.”

My first thought was, “no thank you,” but then I accidentally set my podcast app to 1.5x and found it entirely listenable — but definitely not relaxing or pleasant.

Even books running hundreds of thousands of words reach your browser in a second or two

Sunday, July 23rd, 2017

Ron Unz has made 150 million words of books available through a new system that promises to be fast and responsive:

I’d think that the vast majority of all the serious writing ever produced exists in the form of books, yet currently there does not seem any fully satisfactory means of reading this huge accumulation of content material on the Internet.

Most of those books currently available are provided in PDF-type format, but this is inconvenient for sustained reading, especially on small-screen devices such as smartphones, and particular parts of PDFs also cannot easily be referenced elsewhere or shared. Meanwhile, closed-design Kindle-type books may not be externally linked, nor is their content generally visible to Google and other search engines. The pure HTML-type books found at Project Gutenberg and other websites either occupy inconveniently large webpages or must be split between numerous separate ones, representing chapters or sections.

Therefore, since the beginning of this year, I have been working on a project to produce a new software system aimed at avoiding these difficulties by presenting even very long books in the form of single HTML webpages, but with the individual chapters or sections hidden by default for reading convenience, but available for display at the click of a mouse. The underlying software technology represented an extension of what I had already developed for the website. As a consequence of my design architecture, the system is extremely fast and responsive, with even books running hundreds of thousands of words reaching your browser in just a second or two, and all subsequent operations usually being almost instantaneous. And unlike books displayed in PDF-type formats, the system should function quite well on smartphones and other mobile devices.

The games get increasingly difficult as the player’s heart rate increases

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Boston Children’s Hospital researchers have developed videogames for children who need to learn how to control their emotions better:

The videogames track a child’s heart rate, displayed on the screen. The games get increasingly difficult as the player’s heart rate increases. To be able to resume playing without extra obstacles the child has to calm themselves down and reduce their heart rate.


The impact of the games was tested in two studies.

In a pilot study, they first tested the game in a psychiatric inpatient unit with children with anger management issues, said Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich, director of the developmental neuropsychiatry clinic at Boston Children’s. They found improvements in just five days and published the results in 2012 in a study in the journal Adolescent Psychiatry.

“A lot of these kids we are seeing are not interested in psychotherapy and talking,” said Dr. Gonzalez-Heydrich, who is head of the scientific advisory board of Mighteor, and said he has a small amount of equity in the company. “But they will work really hard to get good at a videogame.”

In a subsequent outpatient study the researchers randomized 20 youth to 10 cognitive behavior therapy sessions and videogame therapy that required them to control their heart rate, and 20 youth to CBT with the same videogame but not linked to heart rates. All the adolescents had anger or aggression problems, said Dr. Gonzalez-Heydrich, who was senior author of the study.

Therapists interviewed the children’s primary caregiver before and two weeks after their last therapy session. They found the children’s ratings on aggression and opposition were reduced much more in the group that played the game with the built-in biofeedback. The ratings for anger went down about the same in both groups. The findings were presented at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry conference in 2015. The study is currently under review for publication.

Impregnable to the waves and every day stronger

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, described Rome’s concrete as “impregnable to the waves and every day stronger” — which, it turns out, was literally true:

Writing in the journal American Mineralogist, Jackson and colleagues describe how they analysed concrete cores from Roman piers, breakwaters and harbours.

Previous work had revealed lime particles within the cores that surprisingly contained the mineral aluminous tobermorite — a rare substance that is hard to make.

The mineral, said Jackson, formed early in the history of the concrete, as the lime, seawater and volcanic ash of the mortar reacted together in a way that generated heat.

But now Jackson and the team have made another discovery. “I went back to the concrete and found abundant tobermorite growing through the fabric of the concrete, often in association with phillipsite [another mineral],” she said.

She said this revealed another process that was also at play. Over time, seawater that seeped through the concrete dissolved the volcanic crystals and glasses, with aluminous tobermorite and phillipsite crystallising in their place.

These minerals, say the authors, helped to reinforce the concrete, preventing cracks from growing, with structures becoming stronger over time as the minerals grew.

By contrast, modern concrete, based on Portland cement, is not supposed to change after it hardens — meaning any reactions with the material cause damage.

It all comes down to eye glances

Friday, July 14th, 2017

MIT researchers are trying to figure out how people really drive:

In 2012, government-sponsored researchers rigged up 2,600 regular drivers’ vehicles with cameras and sensors in six states, then left them alone for more than a year. The result is a large, objective, and detailed database of actual driving behavior, the kind of info that’s very useful if you want to figure out exactly what causes crashes.

The MIT researchers and their colleagues took that database and added another twist. While many scientists looking to crack why a crash happened might look at the five or six seconds before the event, these researchers backed it all the way up, to around 20 seconds beforehand.

“Upstream, further prior to an event, we begin to see failures in attention allocation that are indicative of less awareness in the operating environment in the crash events,” says Bryan Reimer, an engineer who studies driver behavior at MIT. In other words: The problems that cause crashes start well before the crunch.

It all comes down to eye glances. Sure, the more time you spend looking off the road, the likelier your chance of crashing. But the time you spend looking on the road matters, too. If your glances at, say, the texts in your lap are longer than the darting ones you make back to the highway in front of you, you gradually lose awareness of where you are in space.

Usually, drivers are pretty good at managing that attentional and situational awareness, judging when it’s appropriate to look down at the radio, for example. But smartphones and in-car infotainment systems present a new issue: The driver isn’t really deciding when to engage with the product. “If the phone goes brrrrring, you feel socially or emotionally compelled to respond to it,” says Reimer. The problem is that the cueing arrives with no regard to when’s a good time.

The Yawfle stares and stares

Saturday, July 8th, 2017

The Yawfle stares, and stares, and stares — and aims to provide you, the discriminating and judgmental reader, with all the tech news you could possibly use:

But that’s not enough! We also provide this coverage without the cringe-worthy SJW stylings found on brand X tech news sites.


Here at The Yawfle you can read about the latest software, superhero movies, and space launches and not be subjected to laborious discussion of the minority composition of the teams writing the software, making the movies, or launching the rockets. Here you can see an article about how we might not be about to all drown from rising sea levels by next Tuesday but rather, thoughtful pieces on how computer models actually work.

Amazon is just beginning to use robots in its warehouses

Saturday, July 8th, 2017

Amazon is just beginning to use robots in its warehouses and they’re already making a huge difference:

Amazon acquired Kiva for $775 million in 2012 but only started using the orange robots in its warehouses in late 2014. The deal was expected to make inventory management more efficient. It’s now beginning to become clear by how much.

The “click to ship” cycle used to be around 60-75 minutes when employees had manually to sift through the stacks, pick the product, pack it, and ship it. Now, robots handle the same job in 15 minutes, according to a Deutsche Bank note published Tuesday (June 14) based on Amazon’s metrics.

These robots are not only more efficient but they also take up less space than their human counterparts. That means warehouse design can eventually be modified to have more shelf space and less wide aisles. At the end of the third quarter of 2015, Amazon was using 30,000 Kiva robots across 13 warehouses. Each Kiva-equipped warehouse can hold 50% more inventory per square foot than centers without robots. In turn, the company’s operating costs have been sliced by 20% — or almost $22 million — per warehouse.

If Kiva robots are dispatched to the rest of the 110 Amazon warehouses, the tech giant could save almost $2.5 billion, according to Deutsche Bank. However, since it takes $15-$20 million to install robots in each warehouse, the one-time savings is expected to be closer to $800 million.

Outer appearance simply can’t imply anything about inner character

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Blaise Aguera y Arcas leads Google’s Machine Intelligence group in Seattle, and he has written a remarkably unscientific piece decrying physiognomy’s new clothes:

The practice of using people’s outer appearance to infer inner character is called physiognomy. While today it is understood to be pseudoscience, the folk belief that there are inferior “types” of people, identifiable by their facial features and body measurements, has at various times been codified into country-wide law, providing a basis to acquire land, block immigration, justify slavery, and permit genocide. When put into practice, the pseudoscience of physiognomy becomes the pseudoscience of scientific racism.

Rapid developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning have enabled scientific racism to enter a new era, in which machine-learned models embed biases present in the human behavior used for model development. Whether intentional or not, this “laundering” of human prejudice through computer algorithms can make those biases appear to be justified objectively.

Outer appearance simply can’t imply anything about inner character. That would be wrong.

He goes on to cite a Chinese study that sounds (literally) incredible, but the case that machine-learning is being used to “launder” human biases is rather weak.

Wu and Zhang’s criminal images (top) and non-criminal images (bottom)

Floating tidal turbine off Orkney Islands smashes generation records

Wednesday, June 14th, 2017

A floating tidal turbine off the Orkney Islands generated 18 MWh over a 24-hour period, matching the generation capacity of offshore wind turbines:

The turbine is composed of a floating hull, with two turbines on the lower half of the body which sit just below the sea surface, the prime position for harnessing the energy of tidal flows. The turbines are also designed to fold upwards into the hull of the generator, which reduces transportation costs.

The machine has been designed to perform in areas with fast tidal flows, such as Scotland and Canada, but can be calibrated to perform in areas with softer breaks.

Scotrenewables Tidal Power SR2000

The SR2000 in numbers

Weight: 500 tonnes
Length: 64 metres
Rotor Diameter: 16 meters
Rotor Speed: 16 rpm
Rated Power: 2 MW

Researchers funded by NASA are developing small fusion rockets

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017

So far, no one has built a fusion reactor that generates more energy than it consumes, but researchers funded by NASA are developing small fusion rockets:

The large fusion reactors under development today, such as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), usually strive to generate hundreds of megawatts of power. In contrast, Paluszek and his colleagues at Princeton Satellite Systems are designing reactors meant to produce only a dozen megawatts or so. This humbler goal results in a smaller, lighter reactor that is easier to build and launch into space “for practical robotic and human missions,” Paluszek said.

In addition, these small fusion reactors are much cheaper than larger devices. Paluszek noted that, whereas modern fusion experiments might cost $20 billion, a prototype fusion rocket the researchers plan to develop should cost just $20 million. So far, they have received three NASA grants to fund the project, he said.

The aim for the fusion drives is to get about 1 kilowatt of power per 2.2 lbs. (1 kilogram) of mass. A 10-megawatt fusion rocket would therefore weigh about 11 tons (10 metric tons).

“It would probably be 1.5 meters [4.9 feet] in diameter and 4 to 8 meters [13 to 26 feet] long,” Paluszek said.

Nuclear fusion requires extremely high temperatures and pressures to force atoms to fuse, a process that converts some of the mass of the atoms into energy. The fusion reactors that Princeton Satellite Systems is developing uses low-frequency radio waves to heat a mix of deuterium and helium-3, and magnetic fields to confine the resulting plasma in a ring. (Deuterium is made of hydrogen atoms that each have an extra neutron; helium-3 is made of helium atoms, each of which is missing a neutron; and plasma is the state of matter found in stars, lightning bolts and neon lights.)

As this plasma rotates in a ring, some of it can spiral out and get directed from the fusion rocket’s nozzle for thrust. “We can get very high exhaust velocities of up to about 25,000 kilometers per second [55.9 million mph],” Paluszek said.

The large amounts of thrust this fusion rocket may deliver compared to its mass could enable very fast spacecraft. For instance, whereas round-trip crewed missions to Mars are estimated to take more than two years using current technology, the researchers estimated that six 5-megawatt fusion rockets could accomplish such missions in 310 days. This extra speed would reduce the risks of radiation that astronauts might experience from the sun or deep space, as well as dramatically cut the amount of food, water and other supplies they would need to bring with them.

In addition, the fusion reactors could also help generate ample electricity for scientific instruments and communications devices. For instance, whereas NASA’s New Horizons mission took more than nine years to get to Pluto and had little more than 200 watts of power to work with once it arrived, broadcasting about 1,000 bits of data back per second, a 1-megawatt fusion rocket could get a robotic mission to Pluto in four years, supply 2 million watts of power and broadcast more than 1 million bits of data back per second, Paluszek said. Such a mission could also carry a lander to Pluto and power it by beaming down energy, he added.


Previous research suggested this kind of fusion rocket in the 1960s, but the designs proposed for them would not stably confine the plasmas, Paluszek said. About 10 years ago, reactor designer Sam Cohen figured out a magnetic-field design “that could make stable plasmas,” Paluszek explained.

One drawback of the kind of nuclear reactor that Princeton Satellite Systems is developing is that radio waves do not penetrate deeply into plasma. “We’re limited to something like 10 meters [33 feet] in diameter,” Paluszek said. To generate large amounts of power with this strategy, the researchers have to rely on multiple reactors.

Another pitfall is that, while this fusion reactor generates less deadly neutron radiation than most fusion reactors under development, it still does produce some neutrons, as well as X-rays. “Radiation shielding is key,” Paluszek said.

In addition, helium-3 is rare on Earth. Still, it is possible to generate helium-3 using nuclear reactors, Paluszek said.

Princeton Satellite Systems is not alone in pursuing small fusion reactors. For instance, Paluszek noted that Helion Energy in Redmond, Washington, also intends to fuse deuterium and helium-3, while Tri Alpha Energy in Foothill Ranch, California, aims to fuse boron and protons.

Nick Szabo’s security through obscurity takes a hit

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017

Tim Ferriss calls Nick Szabo the quiet master of cryptocurrency.

Hipster libertarian-neoreactionaries may be tempted to say, “I only like old Unenumerated, before Szabo sold out.”

Coal mines make expensive batteries

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

The growth of not-so-on-demand renewable power sources has people looking at converting coal mines into pumped-hydro energy-storage systemes:

Compared with other types of energy storage, the underground pump concept is expensive but designed to last longer than a chemical battery.

The cost of the German system is about €2,750 ($3,075) per kilowatt-hour. New Jersey-based Eos Energy Storage, a cutting-edge battery company, offers a storage system powered by zinc-hybrid batteries for $168 a kilowatt-hour that can last around 20 years, according to the company’s director of business development, Charles Russell.

“The advantage of pumped hydro is that it’s high capex, but it’s there for 100 years,” said Gerard Reid, a founding partner at Alexa Capital, a London-based corporate finance firm specializing in energy technology and infrastructure.

The engineer’s report described the pump as “long-lasting and virtually maintenance free.”

But there is another problem affecting all types of power-storage systems. Even if an investor fronted the money to build the pump, the low price of electricity on both sides of the Atlantic would make it difficult to turn a profit. For the pump to make money, it needs wide spreads in the wholesale power market, so it can buy power when prices are low and sell when prices are high.

Right now, wholesale electricity is cheap pretty much all the time.

Stratolaunch’s carrier plane has rolled out for the first time

Friday, June 2nd, 2017

Stratolaunch’s carrier plane has rolled out for the first time:

The Stratolaunch carrier plane is designed to launch rockets into orbit from an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,100 meters). Initially, the plane will carry a single Pegasus XL rocket built by Orbital ATK, but the craft will eventually be able to carry up to three of those boosters simultaneously, Floyd said.

Stratolaunch Systems has been quietly designing and building the rocket-toting plane over the last few years.

“Over the past few weeks, we have removed the fabrication infrastructure, including the three-story scaffolding surrounding the aircraft, and rested the aircraft’s full weight on its 28 wheels for the first time,” Floyd said. “This was a crucial step in preparing the aircraft for ground testing, engine runs, taxi tests and, ultimately, first flight.”

Stratolaunch Infographic

Turbo e-Booster

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

The e-booster eliminates turbo lag:

It’s driven by electricity, so it spins up to 70,000 rpm in just three-tenths of a second, providing a boost until the turbocharger gets up to speed. BorgWarner says the cantaloupe-sized device, combined with a standard turbocharger, improves torque by 85 percent at 1,500 rpm, and by 55 percent at 2,000 rpm.


BorgWarner first toyed with this idea in the late 1990s, but decided the e-booster needed too much power, says Verrier. But the recent development of 48-volt electrical systems changed the picture. Providing four times the power of a traditional 12-volt system allows the adoption of all kinds of new technologies: active ride control, electric water pumps, heated seats, and so on. The e-booster requires 5 or 6 kilowatts, something a 48-volt system can supply.