Jerry’s second chat with Leo Laporte

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

I enjoyed the second installment of Leo Laporte’s interview with Jerry Pournelle, too:

(This time he mentions HeathKit…)

Tom Snyder interviews Durk Pearson and Jerry Pournelle

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

I got a kick out of this 1979 Tom Snyder interview of not just Jerry Pournelle, but also of Durk Pearson, who isn’t just a vitamin geek, but an all-around übergeek:

In particular, I get a kick out of how mind-blowing a word-processor is, back just before the PC revolution — and how flat-screen TVs are just over the horizon, even then.

Missiles fail, especially air-to-air ones

Thursday, September 21st, 2017

The four Hornet and Super Hornet pilots who flew the mission where one of them shot down a Syrian Su-22 Fitter gave a talk at the Tailhook Association’s annual symposium:

The group of four strike fighters entered the close air support stack (CAS stack) overhead the JTAC and waited for any requests for strikes when a Russian Su-27 showed up and began loitering high overhead.

Mob, who was having issues with his targeting pod, was assigned to keep tabs on the circling Russian fighter while the other pilots continued with their CAS mission. He turned the Super Hornet’s master mode to air-to-air and began tracking the Su-27 and searching the skies around the area for other aircraft.

Then another radar track appeared — a fast moving aircraft coming from the south directly towards him. Although Mob figured it was probably a Syrian aircraft, he moved to intercept the target and eventually made a visual identification on what turned out to be a Syrian Air Force Su-22 Fitter swing-wing attack jet — the same type of aircraft used to deliver the gas attack that led to the Tomahawk missile strike a few months earlier.

Mob made it clear during the presentation that if the Syrian jet just turned away that would have been great as they had plenty to do in support of ground forces, but that didn’t end up being the case.

After identifying the Su-22, Mob got on the radio with an airborne command and control post, an E-3 Sentry, and had them broadcast warnings repeatedly over guard frequency to the Syrian jet. Those radio calls did not result in a change of course by the Syrian pilot. Then Mob “thumped” the Su-22 three times — flying close over the jet’s canopy and popping flares out in front of it before breaking off — to warn him away. That didn’t work either.

By then the Su-22 was in striking distance of friendly forces and it began to dive, releasing its weapons in the process, before making a climb out after the attack. Based on the rules of engagement that were briefed to the naval aviators, Mob locked the Su-22 up from behind with an AIM-9X Sidewinder and fired.

The missile zipped off the Hornet’s wing rail trailing smoke but quickly disappeared. It wasn’t clear why the missile failed to track the Su-22 or where it had gone. Mob quickly selected an AIM-120 AMRAAM and fired once again. He noted how long it took for the missile to fire off the Super Hornet’s “cheek” station located along the outer edges of its air intakes.

Regardless, the missile tracked the Fitter flying just a short distance away and exploded on its backside, pitching it violently to the right and downward. The pilot was clearly seen ejecting from the doomed swing-wing attack jet.

The ejection seat passed very close down the right sight of Mob’s canopy. He noted how live-fire training helped him during the engagement because he knew what to expect and quickly rolled away from the explosion instead of flying through it.

The Syrian pilot’s chute blossomed, it was white, green, and orange in color and his emergency transmitter beacon began going off over the radio.

[...]

What’s also worth discussing is the conjecture surrounding the AIM-9X’s failure in this engagement. By the panel’s account it sounded as if the AIM-9X just went stupid/malfunctioned on its own. There was no talk of the Su-22 launching flares, and even if it had, the fact that many military pundits are definitively claiming that the unique infrared signature of Russian-built low-end decoy flares threw the AIM-9X off course is just silly. Missiles fail, especially air-to-air ones. They are complex devices that get battered around under high gravitational forces and slammed down onto carrier decks and runways throughout their lifetime. And yes, it’s possible that under certain parameters weaknesses could exist when it comes to the AIM-9X’s ability to track certain targets that use certain decoys under certain conditions. Then again maybe they don’t. Regardless, that doesn’t mean that is what happened in this instance or that the AIM-9X is somehow a lousy missile because of it.

I recently listened to the audio version of Alas, Babylon, the 1959 post-apocalyptic novel, in which a nuclear war gets kicked off by a US pilot’s AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missile that goes off course and hits an ammunition depot in Syria.

Surveillance capitalism fuels the Internet

Sunday, September 17th, 2017

In case you didn’t notice, Bruce Schneier reminds us, you’re not Equifax’s customer:

You’re its product.

This happened because your personal information is valuable, and Equifax is in the business of selling it. The company is much more than a credit reporting agency. It’s a data broker. It collects information about all of us, analyzes it all, and then sells those insights.

Its customers are people and organizations who want to buy information: banks looking to lend you money, landlords deciding whether to rent you an apartment, employers deciding whether to hire you, companies trying to figure out whether you’d be a profitable customer — everyone who wants to sell you something, even governments.

It’s not just Equifax. It might be one of the biggest, but there are 2,500 to 4,000 other data brokers that are collecting, storing, and selling information about you — almost all of them companies you’ve never heard of and have no business relationship with.

Surveillance capitalism fuels the Internet, and sometimes it seems that everyone is spying on you. You’re secretly tracked on pretty much every commercial website you visit. Facebook is the largest surveillance organization mankind has created; collecting data on you is its business model. I don’t have a Facebook account, but Facebook still keeps a surprisingly complete dossier on me and my associations — just in case I ever decide to join.

I also don’t have a Gmail account, because I don’t want Google storing my e-mail. But my guess is that it has about half of my e-mail anyway, because so many people I correspond with have accounts. I can’t even avoid it by choosing not to write to gmail.com addresses, because I have no way of knowing if newperson@company.com is hosted at Gmail.

And again, many companies that track us do so in secret, without our knowledge and consent. And most of the time we can’t opt out. Sometimes it’s a company like Equifax that doesn’t answer to us in any way. Sometimes it’s a company like Facebook, which is effectively a monopoly because of its sheer size. And sometimes it’s our cell phone provider. All of them have decided to track us and not compete by offering consumers privacy. Sure, you can tell people not to have an e-mail account or cell phone, but that’s not a realistic option for most people living in 21st-century America.

The companies that collect and sell our data don’t need to keep it secure in order to maintain their market share. They don’t have to answer to us, their products. They know it’s more profitable to save money on security and weather the occasional bout of bad press after a data loss. Yes, we are the ones who suffer when criminals get our data, or when our private information is exposed to the public, but ultimately why should Equifax care?

Yes, it’s a huge black eye for the company — this week. Soon, another company will have suffered a massive data breach and few will remember Equifax’s problem. Does anyone remember last year when Yahoo admitted that it exposed personal information of a billion users in 2013 and another half billion in 2014?

Fact-based hope for our future

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Glenn Reynolds remembers how Jerry Pournelle offered fact-based hope for our future:

But Pournelle didn’t just write fiction. His 1970 book with Stefan Possony, The Strategy of Technology, outlined a strategy for winning the Cold War (with among other things, an emphasis on strategic missile defense) that was largely followed, and successfully, by the Reagan administration. He was a driving force behind the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy in the 1980s that helped lay the groundwork for today’s booming civilian space launch industry. And, for me, his wide-ranging columns in Galaxy Magazine, back when it was edited by star editor James Baen, were particularly influential.

I was a kid in the 1970s, which was not a great era to be a kid. We had Vietnam and Watergate, the Apollo space program quit abruptly, oil prices skyrocketed and so did inflation. Even a hamburger was expensive.

And while that was going on, the voices in the media were all preaching gloom and doom. Stanford professor Paul R. Ehrlich, in his book The Population Bomb, was predicting food riots in America due to overpopulation. A group called The Club of Rome published a report titled The Limits to Growth that suggested it was all over for Western technological civilization. Bookstore displays were filled with books like The Late Great Planet Earth that announced the end times. And if that weren’t enough, most people figured we were heading for a global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. It looked like we were headed for some sort of apocalyptic future in which Charlton Heston would be the only survivor besides a few apes or mutants.

But Jerry Pournelle never bought it. In his Galaxy columns — eventually collected and published in book form, and still in print — he actually did the math. The fact was, he reported, we could not only survive but, in his words, survive with style.

Claims of resource limitations were bunk, easily disproved with available data. And beyond the resources of Earth, there were the effectively limitless resources of the solar system: Energy from the Sun, captured by orbiting power satellites that never had to shut down, materials from the asteroids, and an expansionary frontier that would prevent the growth of damaging zero-sum politics on Earth.

Some people found such claims outlandish in the 1970s, but we’re pretty much living in Pournelle’s world now. The 1970s “Energy Crisis” and its turn-of-the-millennium equivalent, “Peak Oil,” have been undone by technological advances in the form of fracking. Private companies are launching rockets into space at a furious rate — Elon Musk’s SpaceX is on track to launch more rockets than Russia this year — and there are even private companies (companies, plural) working on asteroid mining.

I suspect that a lot of the people working on these things were, like me, influenced by Pournelle’s writing. (I know that some of them were, because they’ve told me so, and I doubt those are the only ones.) At one of the gloomiest times in American history, Pournelle offered not only hope, but a plan. We should all be grateful for that. I certainly am.

They send heat directly into space

Saturday, September 9th, 2017

Stanford researchers have developed a new radiative cooling system:

So Raman and electrical engineering professor Shanhui Fan made panels containing layers of silicon dioxide and hafnium oxide on top of a thin layer of silver. These radiate in a unique way: They send heat directly into space, bypassing the Earth’s atmosphere. The panels do this by emitting heat at infrared wavelengths between 8 and 13 micrometers. To these waves, the Earth’s atmosphere is transparent. What’s more, the panels reflect nearly all the sunlight falling on them.

For the new fluid-cooling system, the researchers made radiative panels that were each one-third of a square meter in area; they attached the panels to an aluminum heat exchanger plate with copper pipes embedded in it. The setup was enclosed in an acrylic box covered with a plastic sheet.

The team tested it on a rootop on the Stanford campus. Over three days of testing, they found that water temperatures went down by between 3- and 5 °C. The only electricity it requires is what’s needed to pump water through the copper pipes. Water that flowed more slowly was cooled more.

As a practical application for the system, the researchers built a model in which the radiative water-cooling panels cool the condenser coils of a building’s air-conditioning system, providing an assist to the system’s cooling fans. The circulating fluid helps siphon more heat from the condenser, increasing efficiency. Water that’s cooled by only a few degrees can make a big difference: In general, the electricity needed for a cooling system is reduced by 3 to 5 percent for every degree Celcius the condenser temperature drops.

The model showed that cooling a two-story commercial office building in Las Vegas with fluid-cooling panels—which covered 60 percent of the roof—cut the building’s electricity use by 21 percent compared with using only a traditional fan-based condenser during the hot summer months of May through August.

Charge your devices

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

FEMA’s Irma checklist ends on a very modern note:

If you don’t already have one, you may want a “power brick” like this RAVPower 22000mAh portable charger.

US Army creates powder that recharges equipment in the field

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

The US Army Research Laboratory has created an aluminum-based powder that produces a surprisingly high amount of energy when placed in water:

The unexpected discovery came when researchers mixed a nanogalvanic aluminum-based powder with water, and noticed that the water began bubbling away. On closer inspection, they soon realized the reaction was the product of hydrolysis, meaning the material was splitting the water into its composite molecules of oxygen and hydrogen.

Aluminum has been known to produce hydrogen in this manner, but it usually requires a catalyst in the form of heat, acid, electricity or other chemicals. But the new nanomaterial turns out to be an efficient mechanism for rapid and spontaneous hydrolysis of water.

“In our case, it does not need a catalyst,” says Anit Giri, a physicist on the team. “Also, it is very fast. For example, we have calculated that one kilogram (2.2 lb) of aluminum powder can produce 220 kilowatts of power in just three minutes. That’s a lot of power to run any electrical equipment. These rates are the fastest known without using catalysts such as an acid, base or elevated temperatures.”

For these initial tests, the team used the hydrogen created through the reaction to power a radio-controlled model tank around the lab. But in future, the team says the material’s energy potential can effectively be doubled if the heat given off is also harnessed.

“There are other researchers who have been searching their whole lives and their optimized product takes many hours to achieve, say 50 percent efficiency,” says Scott Grendahl, team leader on the project. “Ours does it to nearly 100 percent efficiency in less than three minutes.”

Bluetooth

Sunday, August 27th, 2017

Bluetooth LogoWhy would anyone name a wireless protocol Bluetooth?

The name “Bluetooth” is an Anglicised version of the Scandinavian Blåtand, the epithet of the tenth-century king Harald Bluetooth, who united dissonant Danish tribes into a single kingdom and, according to legend, introduced Christianity as well.

The idea of this name was proposed in 1997 by Jim Kardach of Intel who developed a system that would allow mobile phones to communicate with computers. At the time of this proposal he was reading Frans G. Bengtsson’s historical novel The Long Ships about Vikings and King Harald Bluetooth. The implication is that Bluetooth does the same with communications protocols, uniting them into one universal standard.

The Bluetooth logo is a bind rune merging the Younger Futhark runes Hagall and Bjarkan, Harald’s initials.

I actually have a copy of Bengtsson’s The Long Ships on my shelf.

They were warriors out of a very organized society

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

Archaeologists uncovered four ancient ring-shaped fortresses in Denmark in the 1930s and only recently discovered another:

Q: How did you discover the fortress?

A: It’s a bit of a detective story. I’ve been working with these ring fortresses for quite some time, and I came to the conclusion that their distribution didn’t make sense. There were gaps in the network of known fortresses where logically another fortress should have been. I went out looking for landscape features that matched those of the fortresses we knew already, namely accessibility to land and water routes. There were only a few locations in Denmark that really fit the pattern. The Danish state has made a high-resolution LIDAR image of the whole country, so we searched that and found this very, very big feature.

Q: How did it go unseen for so long?

A: The agricultural activity around it was extremely destructive. For hundreds of years throughout the Middle Ages, peasants ploughed and leveled the field. When we came, the fortress’s ramparts were less than half a meter above the average level of the field. You could walk the field, and I might have a hard time convincing you there was anything at all, but the LIDAR image was decisive.

Q: Why did Vikings build ring-shaped fortresses?

A: The ring is the perfect shape for a fortress. It’s the shape that encompasses the greatest area within the smallest circumference. But there’s no need to make it a perfect circle, and that’s what distinguishes the Viking Age ring fortresses in Denmark. Clearly the person who built these Viking ring fortresses—and we think that was King Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson [who united Scandinavia, converted the Danes to Christianity and, more recently, lent his name to Bluetooth wireless technology], whose father was the first ruler of the Danish kingdom—wanted something more. All the fortresses share this strict geometry. Somebody with magnificent land-surveying skills was involved in this building work for no other reason than sheer prestige and to signal command and ability.

Q: Did the they invent the ring-shaped fortress?

A: No, they probably learned it from their own invasions in England. The people there built a network of fortifications about 100 years before our structures as a defense against the Vikings. It worked so well that the invaders could not get a foothold and had to turn back. It was a huge success for the Anglo-Saxon kings. So we believe that when ring fortresses then pop up in Denmark, it’s a copying of that strategy.

Viking Ring Fort Reconstruction

Q: Why are these structures important?

A: These ring fortresses have been the biggest mystery in Viking archaeology since the 1930s. People couldn’t believe the Vikings in their own country built these structures. They thought foreign armies must have built them. But as we found more of these, we found it was indeed a Danish king and his Viking warriors, and for that reason they have been part of the most fundamental reassessment of what the Vikings were all about. They were warriors, obviously, but they were warriors out of a very organized society.

Hitting a bullet with a bullet

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017

Hitting a bullet with a bullet is far from easy, as the history of ballistic missile defense has demonstrated, but the US had some success in the Gulf War:

The Gulf War story is overwhelmingly one of Coalition military and technological success, with one notable exception: the campaign against Iraqi tactical ballistic missiles. Initially this aspect of the war looked to be a lopsided contest pitting Iraq’s outdated missiles against the Coalition’s overwhelmingly superior technology and complete air dominance. But this is not how events unfolded. Despite using nearly every type aircraft in the Coalition’s considerable air fleet against the Scuds, in the words of one participant and student of this campaign, there was “scant evidence of success.” The Iraqis effectively used their Scuds to frustrate the Coalition, seize the initiative, and to apply great political and psychological pressure that had the potential to unravel the alliance. In this way, the Scud campaign was the high point for the Iraqis and low point for the Coalition airmen.

From the outset the reader should realize that the Gulf War was neither the first nor the largest ballistic missile war. These distinctions belong to the German V-2 missile campaign that rained destruction on Allied cities during World War II. The V-weapons campaign was much larger in numbers and much more destructive, albeit shorter in range, than the Iraqi missile offensive. However both campaigns had similar limitations (poor accuracy and small conventional warheads) and were mainly political and psychological in their intent and impact. Forty-five years separated the two operations, but the severe problems, frustrations, and failures experienced by the Allies while defending against German missiles, despite expending tremendous resources, were similar to those encountered by Coalition airmen during the Gulf War. One major difference between the two campaigns was that in the more recent war is that the defenders had an active ground-based defense.

Scud is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) code word for a Soviet surface-to-surface ballistic missile that evolved from the German V-2. It is little improved over the German missile, primarily having a longer range, somewhat better accuracy, but carrying a smaller payload. The Soviets tested the Scud A in April 1953 and deployed it in 1955. Scud B was an improved version that extended the missile’s range from 180km to 300km, and enhanced its accuracy from 4,000 to 1,000 meters CEP but carried only half the 989kg warhead of the “A.” ” It was first launched in 1957. A key feature of this type missile was its mobility, made possible by its wheeled chassis that served as a transporter, erector, and launcher (TEL). In 1961 the Soviets began exporting the Scud A to their Warsaw allies and then in 1973 shipped the first Scud B to Egypt, and later to a number of other middle east countries, including Iraq.

[...]

Casualties were far lower than estimated. The Israelis suffered only two direct deaths from the Scuds, and another eleven indirectly, four from heart attacks and seven 95 suffocating in their gas masks. In addition, probably 12 Saudis were killed and 121 wounded. There were also American casualties. On 26 February a Scud hit a Dhahran warehouse being used as a billet by about 127 American troops, killing 28 and wounding 97 others. This one Scud accounted for 21 percent of the US personnel killed during the Q7 war, and 40 percent of the wounded. A number of factors explain this incident. Apparently one Patriot battery was shut down for maintenance and another had cumulative computer timing problems. Another factor was just plain bad luck. The Scud warhead not only hit the warehouse, but unlike so many others, it remained intact, and detonated. Conversely, one Scud impacted in Al Jubail Harbor about 130 yards from the USS Tarawa and seven other ships moored next to a pier that was heavily laden with 5,000 tons of artillery ammunition. The missile’s warhead did not explode. These are the fortunes of war. Thus, the overall death rate was less than one killed per missile fired.

The Scuds lacked numbers, warhead size, and accuracy to be militarily significant. But General Norman Schwarzkopf’s continued restatement of these facts not only missed the point, it was politically dangerous. The general’s words indicated to the Israelis a lack of America’s concern, and encouraged Israeli counteraction. Scuds had a great psychological and political impact, especially as they were coupled with the threat of poison gas. The Israelis were not about to stand by as Iraqi missiles showered their cities with death and destruction. If they intervened, however, the carefully constructed Coalition could quickly unravel, which, of course, was what the Iraqis intended.100 In sharp contrast to the field commander, the top American leadership, specifically Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman, General Colin Powell, saw keeping Israel out of the war as the number one priority and the Scuds as the number one problem.

Although the Israelis rejected American aid before the shooting started, the first Scud impact changed everything. The Israelis quickly requested both American Patriot missile assistance and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) codes to allow their aircraft to strike Iraqi targets without tangling with Coalition aircraft. The US quickly agreed to the first, but refused the second. However, the decision makers realized that the Scud menace had to be contained to keep the Israelis out of the conflict. One important element in this effort was the Army’s Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM).

[...]

The Army’s Patriot surface-to-air missile formed the last line of active defense against the Scuds. The US was able to airlift 32 Patriot missiles to Israel within 17 hours and get them operational within three days. Patriot deployment to the Gulf eventually consisted of seven batteries to Israel, 21 to Saudi Arabia, and four to Turkey.

Crucial to the active BMD was early warning provided by strategic satellites. Although American Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites were designed to give warning of ICBM launches, they demonstrated the ability to track the lower flying, cooler, short range, tactical ballistic missiles, as demonstrated against hundreds of tactical ballistic missiles during their tests and in two Mid-Eastern wars.111 Before the shooting started in the Gulf War, two young captains at Strategic Air Command (SAC), John Rittinghouse and J.D. Broyles, worked out a system that coordinated information from the satellites, routed it through three widely located headquarters (SAC, Space Command, and Central Command), and passed it along to the user in the field. While the satellite did not precisely indicate either the location of launch or anticipated point of impact, it did give general information. The bottleneck was the communications, nevertheless, the juryrigged system gave a few minutes’ warning to both the defending Patriot crews and people in the target area. During the war, the satellites detected all 88 launches.

One of the main controversies of the war centered on the effectiveness of the Patriot against the Scud, or more precisely, how many Patriots hit Scuds. Of the 88 Scuds launched, 53 flew within the area of Patriot coverage. The defenders engaged most of these, 46 to 52 according to secondary accounts, with 158 Patriot missiles. Schwarzkopf initially claimed 100 percent Patriot success. After the war the manufacturer boasted of 89 percent success over Saudi Arabia and 44 percent over Israel, then in December 1991 the Army asserted 80 percent and 50 percent success, respectively. The next April the official success claims were further reduced to 70 and 40 percent in the two areas.

[...]

This misses the main point: regardless of the exact interception figures, Patriots proved very effective. Just as the Scuds were primarily a psychological weapon, so too were the Patriots. They provided great theater, with live videos of fiery launches, smoke trails, and aerial fireworks made more vivid with a dark, night background that had a positive impact on civilians and decision makers in the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. (There is no indication that any Iraqis saw this very visible performance, and if so, what impact it had on them.) The situation was manageable for the defenders as long as the Scud attacks were limited in number, inaccurate, and killed few people. Missile warning protected civilians from death and injury, while active missile defenses bolstered morale. The Patriots were an important factor in keeping Israel out of the war.

As a woman in tech, Megan McArdle realized: these are not my people

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

Until the age of 26, Megan McArdle was employed as a technology consultant by a small firm that served the financial industry, where she realized something:

I built servers and workstations, mostly for banks, and in a happy foreshadowing of my future writing for Bloomberg View, I installed some of the first PC-based Bloomberg terminals for a Japanese firm’s office in New York.

Finance back then was heavily male, as it is now. And technology, the same. At the intersection of the two … well, I can count on one hand all the women I worked with directly during almost four years of consulting.

It was very male-centric. I heard about client outings, involving strippers, to which I was obviously not invited. And the sexual harassment (entirely from clients, not colleagues), could be spectacular.

Which has nothing to do with why I left. This will make me sound a bit dim, but at the time, it never occurred to me that being a female in this bro ecosystem might impinge my ultimate career prospects. Nor did I miss having women in the room. I liked working with the bros just fine. And the sexual harassment, while annoying, was just that: annoying. I cannot recall that it ever affected my work, nor that I lost any sleep over it.

No, the reason I left is that I came into work one Monday morning and joined the guys at our work table, and one of them said “What did you do this weekend?”

I was in the throes of a brief, doomed romance. I had attended a concert that Saturday night. I answered the question with an account of both. The guys stared blankly. Then silence. Then one of them said: “I built a fiber-channel network in my basement,” and our co-workers fell all over themselves asking him to describe every step in loving detail.

At that moment I realized that fundamentally, these are not my people. I liked the work. But I was never going to like it enough to blow a weekend doing more of it for free. Which meant that I was never going to be as good at that job as the guys around me.

Millennials unearth an amazing hack to get free TV

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

This Wall Street Journal piece seems a little too good:

“I was just kind of surprised that this is technology that exists,” says Mr. Sisco, 28 years old. “It’s been awesome. It doesn’t log out and it doesn’t skip.”

[...]

Mr. Sisco, an M.B.A. student in Provo, Utah, made his discovery after inviting friends over to watch the Super Bowl in 2014. The online stream he found to watch the game didn’t have regular commercials — disappointing half of his guests who were only interested in the ads.

“An antenna was not even on my radar,” he says. He went online and discovered he could buy one for $20 and watch major networks like ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS free.

[...]

Carlos Villalobos, 21, who was selling tube-shaped digital antennas at a swap meet in San Diego recently, says customers often ask if his $20 to $25 products are legal. “They don’t trust me when I say that these are actually free local channels,” he says.

Earlier this year, he got an earful from a woman who didn’t get it. “She was mad,” he recalls. “She says, ‘No, you can’t live in America for free, what are you talking about?’”

Almost a third of Americans (29%) are unaware local TV is available free, according to a June survey by the National Association of Broadcasters, an industry trade group.

[...]

The Federal Communications Commission spent millions on a campaign to educate the public about the digital TV transition and Congress set aside more than $2 billion to help consumers pay for converters so old TV sets could process digital signals. But the focus was largely on older people who already relied on antennas.

William Lake oversaw the agency’s effort. A few years later, when he offered to buy an antenna for one of his daughters, then in her early 20s, so she and her roommates could get live TV, she had no idea what he was talking about.

“She thought it was some modern satellite service or something,” the former FCC official says.

It just has to bring the detonator

Monday, July 31st, 2017

Back before GPS was ubiquitous, a couple decades ago, I thought it would lend itself all too well to sabotage or terrorism. Imagine sending out a fleet of miniature, autonomous Hindenburgs to burn down a dozen targets on a windless night, or dropping lawn darts from the sky.

The Russians figured this out, it would appear:

A precision attack does not need to deliver a massive warhead: it just has to ‘bring the detonator’ to a vulnerable target.

The Ukrainian SBU – the equivalent of the FBI – now believe that the destruction of a giant arms depot at Balakliya in eastern Ukraine in March was carried out by a small drone. The spectacular explosion and fire destroyed some seventy thousand tons of munitions with damage estimated at a billion dollars, though only one person was killed. This destruction is a graphic illustration of the threat posed by small drones, as many other high-value targets may be equally vulnerable.

Balakliya was said to be the largest ammunition dump in the world. Photographs of the site show wooden boxes of ammunition left in the open, making it a tempting target for an aerial saboteur. Several similar strikes have been carried out in Ukraine.

“This form of anti-materiel attack—though on a lesser scale—has already taken place at least two times in South-East Ukraine by Russian-linked forces utilizing weaponized UAS dropping incendiary bomblets,” says Robert Bunker, Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College.

On 29th October 2015, the ammunition depot at Svatovo was hit. Some three thousand tons of ammunition went up, and 1,700 homes were damaged nearby.

This year, on the night of 17th February, an ammunition warehouse in Zaporozhye region was set on fire causing a series of explosions. The same tactics were used the next night at a storage site near Grodovka village in the Donetsk region, but this time the fires were put out. On 14th March a drone attacked another Ukrainian military facility near Donestsk, making three separate sorties and dropping two grenades each time according to Ukrainian military officials.

There had been a previous drone attack at Balakliya in December 2015, when small drones dropped at least fourteen grenades. The grenades started fires in the open storage areas, but the Ukrainian soldiers, showing considerable bravery, put out the fires. On that occasion one of the devices was recovered intact, and was identified as a Russian ZMG-1 mine grenade.

The ZMG-1 is a thermite charge, a specialist tool used for demolition by Russian special forces, which resembles the U.S. AN-M14 grenade. Grenades of this type burn rather than exploding, and are placed rather than thrown, as they must be in contact with the target. They are filled with a mixture of metal and metal oxide which react to produce extreme temperatures – something over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The AN-M14 can melt through a steel plate half an inch thick and is typically used to disable artillery. The ZMG-1 appears to have similar capability. The Ukrainian SBU have previously captured ZMG-1s in caches associated with Russian separatist groups, so they have such weapons, and ammunition dumps are a prime target.

“A weapons depot is such a good target for drones because incendiary device dropped from the drone only needs to act as fuse, using the materiel on the ground for the actual explosion,” says Ulrike Franke, a drone expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

This echoes the warning by T X Hammes of the Center for Strategic Research about a type of attack he calls ‘bringing the detonator’. Where there is a suitably vulnerable target, even a drone with a small warhead can do tremendous damage. It does not need to carry the explosive, because explosive is already there, it is just a matter of setting it off. This does not just mean ammunition dumps.

“Other infrastructure sites that would be particularly vulnerable to this form of attack would be those storing highly flammable substances such as fuel — especially aviation fuel,” says Bunker. “Commercial aircraft parked at an airport laden with fuel in their wing storage cells would also be very susceptible.”

Hammes also mentions parked aircraft as a target. Sites storing quantities of liquified natural gas or petrochemicals, fuel depots and similar locations could be similarly susceptible to such attacks. Storage tanks of other dangerous chemicals might not explodes and burn, but if ruptured they could still have catastrophic effects. Th accidental release of methyl isocyanate gas from a plant on Bhopal in 1984 caused over three thousand deaths. Any risk of a similar incident is likely to result in the evacuation of a wide area as a minimum, even if there are no casualties.

Small drones are readily available over the internet. Unlike earlier generations of radio-controlled aircraft, they are easy to use, and a beginner can fly one out of the box. Grenades of the sort dropped by drones in Iraq and Syria may be hard to acquire outside of a war zone, but thermite is another matter. It is easy to make, and can be legally purchased in the US, UK and elsewhere. Terrorists may have trouble making their own explosives, and often get caught in the process, but they can acquire thermite without attracting attention.

Electron rockets and Rutherford engines

Sunday, July 30th, 2017

At 18, Peter Beck strapped a rocket engine to his bike. Now he’s taking on SpaceX, with smaller, even less expensive rockets:

In 2007, New Zealand’s government let Beck take over a floor, rent-free, at the lab where he’d been working. He now had access to high-end equipment, but he needed money to buy other gear. So he called Mr. Rocket — real surname, first name Mark — a wealthy internet entrepreneur and fellow Kiwi whom Beck had heard on the radio talking about his interest in space. Beck arrived at their meeting with a proposal to launch a cheap rocket every week. Rocket was intrigued enough to start making calls. “When I was pitching the idea to my lawyer and accountants, there were some raised eyebrows,” he says. “It seemed like an easy way to get rid of a bunch of money. But Peter had engines he could show me, and we shared the same vision.”

Beck raised $300,000 from Rocket and some family and friends, then spent two years building a prototype. In November 2009 he and two new hires unveiled the Atea-1 — a nod to the Maori word for space. He arranged to launch the 20-foot-long rocket, which weighed only 130 pounds, from a pad on Great Mercury Island, co-owned by a businessman named Michael Fay.

[...]

Since that first triumphant test, Rocket Lab has become a lean, accomplished builder. The company’s manufacturing facilities, a few low-slung warehouses in an industrial part of Auckland, have a giant assembly area for its Electron rockets and rooms where software engineers fine-tune its Rutherford engines, which are named after the New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford. Rocket Lab conducts engine tests a few miles away, in a patch of pasture near the Auckland airport. Things have gone awry on occasion — like the time a wayward igniter caused a bush fire that shut down the airport — but on the whole, the company has progressed much faster than typical aerospace startups. It has raised $148 million to build out its operations and is valued at more than $1 billion.

There’s a degree to which all viable rockets are the same: thin, metal tubes packed with as much explosive material as physics will allow. Rocket Lab’s primary innovation was to opt for carbon fiber over aluminum, which makes the Electron much lighter than competing models. It’s also much smaller — a sleek, black 56-by-4-foot shell with nine Rutherford engines at the base. SpaceX’s workhorse, the Falcon 9, is 230 feet tall and 12 feet across, and can take a 50,000-pound payload into low Earth orbit, compared with the Electron’s 500-pound limit. Rocket Lab charges just $5 million per flight, though, while SpaceX charges $60 million.

Beck’s goal of launching at least once a week is also more ambitious than SpaceX’s once a month. His target is made more plausible by an additional innovation: Rutherford engines are among the first to be almost entirely 3D-printed, which means more of their parts are fused together and don’t need to be assembled by hand. This lets Rocket Lab build engines practically at the press of a button.

The company will also be able to launch more frequently because it has a private facility — a rarity in the aerospace industry — on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Launch Complex 1 sits at the pointy edge of the Mahia Peninsula. The setting is stunning: a 26-by-26-foot launch pad, surrounded by the grasslands of the 10,000-acre sheep and cattle farm from which Rocket Lab leases its land. All of this is positioned atop a plateau that gives way to sheer, rocky cliffs that drop to a beach and open up to the turquoise ocean. Decades ago, Europeans and Americans had whaling stations here; during World War II, American troops practiced beach landings nearby.

[...]

That Peter Beck and New Zealand have been at the forefront of it all has been unlikely, to say the least. But Beck’s lack of formal training and his home country’s remoteness gave him a unique vantage from which to reimagine the rocket business.