Coronavirus is kickstarting the 21st Century

Sunday, April 12th, 2020

A global pandemic has done what 30 years of internet manifestoes never accomplished — a mass migration into our screens:

Modern meteorology was born 60 years ago

Saturday, April 4th, 2020

Modern meteorology was born 60 years ago, with the launch of the Television InfraRed Observation Satellite, or TIROS-1:

During its 78 days of operation, TIROS-1 successfully monitored Earth’s cloud cover and weather patterns from space.

First TV Picture from Space

This was a potent moment for the field of meteorology. For the first time, scientists were able to combine space-based observations with physical models of the atmosphere that were just beginning to be run on supercomputers.

After World War II, mathematician John von Neumann led development of a computer to crunch through a set of equations put together by Jule Charney and other scientists. By the mid-1950s, Charney’s group began to produce numerical forecasts on a regular basis.

Tiros_1_instruments

All of a sudden, meteorologists had two incredibly useful tools at their hands. Of course, it would take time for more powerful computers to produce higher-resolution forecasts, and the sensor technology launched on satellites would require decades to improve to the point where spacecraft could collect data for temperature, moisture, and other environmental variables at various levels in the atmosphere.

But by around 1980, the tools of satellite observations and numerical models that could process that data started to mature. Scientists had global satellite coverage, 24 hours a day, and forecasts began to improve dramatically. Today, the fifth day of a five-day forecast on the app on your phone is about as accurate as the next day’s forecast was in 1980.

I had always assumed that spy satellites used TV cameras, but the first spy satellites used film:

The Corona satellites used special 70 millimeter film with a 24-inch (610 mm) focal length camera.[7] Manufactured by Eastman Kodak, the film was initially 0.0003 inches (7.6 ?m) thick, with a resolution of 170 lines per 0.04 inches (1.0 mm) of film.[8][9] The contrast was 2-to-1.[8] (By comparison, the best aerial photography film produced in World War II could produce just 50 lines per mm (1250 per inch) of film.)[8] The acetate-based film was later replaced with a polyester-based film stock that was more durable in Earth orbit.[10] The amount of film carried by the satellites varied over time. Initially, each satellite carried 8,000 feet (2,400 m) of film for each camera, for a total of 16,000 feet (4,900 m) of film.[8] But a reduction in the thickness of the film stock allowed more film to be carried.[10] In the fifth generation, the amount of film carried was doubled to 16,000 feet (4,900 m) of film for each camera for a total of 32,000 feet (9,800 m) of film. This was accomplished by a reduction in film thickness and with additional film capsules.[11] Most of the film shot was black and white. Infrared film was used on mission 1104, and color film on missions 1105 and 1008. Color film proved to have lower resolution, and so was never used again.[12]

The cameras were manufactured by the Itek Corporation.[13] A 12-inch (30 cm), f/5 triplet lens was designed for the cameras.[14] Each lens was 7 inches (18 cm) in diameter.[8] They were quite similar to the Tessar lenses developed in Germany by Zeiss.[15] The cameras themselves were initially 5 feet (1.5 m) long, but later extended to 9 feet (2.7 m) in length.[16] Beginning with the KH-4 satellites, these lenses were replaced with Petzval f/3.5 lens.[12] The lenses were panoramic, and moved through a 70° arc perpendicular to the direction of the orbit.[8] A panoramic lens was chosen because it could obtain a wider image. Although the best resolution was only obtained in the center of the image, this could be overcome by having the camera sweep automatically (“reciprocate”) back and forth across 70° of arc.[17] The lens on the camera was constantly rotating, to counteract the blurring effect of the satellite moving over the planet.[12]

The first Corona satellites had a single camera, but a two-camera system was quickly implemented.[18] The front camera was tilted 15° aft, and the rear camera tilted 15° forward, so that a stereoscopic image could be obtained.[8] Later in the program, the satellite employed three cameras.[18] The third camera was employed to take “index” photographs of the objects being stereographically filmed.[19] The J-3 camera system, first deployed in 1967, placed the camera in a drum. This “rotator camera” (or drum) moved back and forth, eliminating the need to move the camera itself on a reciprocating mechanism.[20] The drum permitted the use of up to two filters and as many as four different exposure slits, greatly improving the variability of images that Corona could take.[21] The first cameras could resolve images on the ground down to 40 feet (12 m) in diameter. Improvements in the imaging system were rapid, and the KH-3 missions could see objects 10 feet (3.0 m) in diameter. Later missions would be able to resolve objects just 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter.[22] A single mission was completed with a 1 foot (0.30 m) resolution but the limited field of view was determined to be detrimental to the mission.[citation needed] 3 feet (0.91 m) resolution was found to be the optimum resolution for quality of image and field of view.

[...]

Film was retrieved from orbit via a reentry capsule (nicknamed “film bucket”), designed by General Electric, which separated from the satellite and fell to Earth.[30] After the fierce heat of reentry was over, the heat shield surrounding the vehicle was jettisoned at 60,000 feet (18 km) and parachutes deployed.[31] The capsule was intended to be caught in mid-air by a passing airplane[32] towing an airborne claw which would then winch it aboard, or it could land at sea.[33] A salt plug in the base would dissolve after two days, allowing the capsule to sink if it was not picked up by the United States Navy.[34] After Reuters reported on a reentry vehicle’s accidental landing and discovery by Venezuelan farmers in mid-1964, capsules were no longer labeled “SECRET” but offered a reward in eight languages for their return to the United States.[35] Beginning with flight number 69, a two-capsule system was employed.[24] This also allowed the satellite to go into passive (or “zombie”) mode, shutting down for as many as 21 days before taking images again.[11] Beginning in 1963, another improvement was “Lifeboat”, a battery-powered system that allowed for ejection and recovery of the capsule in case power failed.[36][37] The film was processed at Eastman Kodak’s Hawkeye facility in Rochester, New York.[38]

That all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end

Monday, March 16th, 2020

While listening to the audiobook version of Gulliver’s Travels, I came across this explanation — by Reldresal, principal secretary (as they style him) for private affairs — of an old and important controversy that explains the conflict between Lilliput and Blefuscu:

Which two mighty powers have, as I was going to tell you, been engaged in a most obstinate war for six-and-thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion. It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments. During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefusca did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text; for the words are these: ‘that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.’ And which is the convenient end, seems, in my humble opinion to be left to every man’s conscience, or at least in the power of the chief magistrate to determine. Now, the Big-endian exiles have found so much credit in the emperor of Blefuscu’s court, and so much private assistance and encouragement from their party here at home, that a bloody war has been carried on between the two empires for six-and-thirty moons, with various success; during which time we have lost forty capital ships, and a much a greater number of smaller vessels, together with thirty thousand of our best seamen and soldiers; and the damage received by the enemy is reckoned to be somewhat greater than ours. However, they have now equipped a numerous fleet, and are just preparing to make a descent upon us; and his imperial majesty, placing great confidence in your valour and strength, has commanded me to lay this account of his affairs before you.

Patriot Games was notable for subverting the moral ambiguity of the antagonists

Saturday, March 7th, 2020

I somehow managed to go this whole time without reading a single Tom Clancy novel — or watching a single movie adaptation, except for The Hunt for Red October — and only just now listened to the audiobook version of Patriot Games, which was originally published in 1987.

I didn’t remember the character of Jack Ryan, from The Hunt for Red October, so I was a bit surprised to find that he was not a Bond- or Bourne-like super-spy, but a history professor with a wife and daughter — and I was a bit concerned for his family’s safety, in those first few pages, since their deaths could explain and justify a book full of righteous vengeance, but they merely witness the inciting incident of the novel, where our former-Marine hero tackles one Irish terrorist, takes his pistol, and kills another. That seemed…out of character for a professor — even a young one who was briefly a Marine lieutenant — and there really isn’t any further explanation.

The book is a product of its time, and it features the first foreign terrorist attack on American soil. These foreign terrorists are vengeful Irish extremists, and they side with local Marxist revolutionaries belonging to The Movement, a Black Panther-like group. The novel is conspicuously progressive on issues of race and sex. Our hero’s best buddy is a top-notch black fighter pilot — pardon, naval aviator — and the evil Irish terrorists disrespect their more-competent black partners, before turning on them.

The technology is mid-1980s, too, with the “newer” spy satellites using CCDs, which give real-time intel, rather than film, which has to be used up and then dropped back down and recovered for processing. Our hero is oddly rattled by seeing low-res video of a special operations assault on a terrorist training camp.

The coolest gun in the world in the 1980s is the Uzi, which makes an appearance. The pistols offered to our hero include a Colt .45 automatic, a Browning Hi-Power, and a .22 target pistol. The Beretta M9, which was adopted in 1985, doesn’t appear. The grizzled Marine Sergeant Major, Breckenridge, teaches our hero to shoot one-handed, purely for accuracy, before introducing him to the two-handed Weaver stance and “rapid fire” shooting, one shot per second. This is all rather quaint to a modern practical shooter.

When I looked the book up on Wikipedia, it raised a point about it that never occurred to me:

Patriot Games was notable for subverting the moral ambiguity of the antagonists in espionage novels by John le Carré, Len Deighton, and Robert Ludlum. According to Marc Cerasini’s essay on the novel, “Clancy’s sensible revulsion toward the terrorists is so strident and intense…that it verges on the physical.” He added that “the author’s understandable disgust toward his villains is ‘bourgeois’, for there is not a shred of sympathy for these Irish ‘patriots’.”

Yes, terribly bourgeois.

The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple

Sunday, March 1st, 2020

Steve Sailer noted Freeman Dyson’s recent passing and gave a tip of the hat to my recent post of Dyson’s “interesting ideas about all sorts of topics” — and a commenter shared one I hadn’t seen before, apparently from Infinite in All Directions, which I may now have to pick up:

The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple. A good example of a simple technology with profound historical consequences is hay. Nobody knows who invented hay, the idea of cutting grass in the autumn and storing it in large enough quantities to keep horses and cows alive through the winter. All we know is that the technology of hay was unknown to the Roman Empire but was known to every village of medieval Europe. Like many other crucially important technologies, hay emerged anonymously during the so-called Dark Ages. According to the Hay Theory of History, the invention of hay was the decisive event which moved the center of gravity of urban civilization from the Mediterranean basin to Northern and Western Europe. The Roman Empire did not need hay because in a Mediterranean climate the grass grows well enough in winter for animals to graze. North of the Alps, great cities dependent on horses and oxen for motive power could not exist without hay. So it was hay that allowed populations to grow and civilizations to flourish among the forests of Northern Europe. Hay moved the greatness of Rome to Paris and London, and later to Berlin and Moscow and New York.

Freeman Dyson appeared for more esoteric topics

Friday, February 28th, 2020

Freeman Dyson just passed away at the age of 96. He was known for his work in quantum electrodynamics, solid-state physics, astronomy and nuclear engineering — but he appeared here for more esoteric topics, like the Serbian crisis of 1914, Littlewood’s Law of Miracles, religion and public education, global warming, his time in the Operational Research Section (ORS) of the British Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, firestorms, ripping out gun turrets, drums that talk, the other telegraph, heat death, Project Orion, the illusion of validity, building the H Bomb, the most wanted man in China, starship research, aircraft survivability, the origin of Blue Origin, and Gwern’s proposal for an archive revisiter.

Peter Sripol built an RC version of the Soviet-era Ekranoplan ground-effect vehicle

Thursday, February 27th, 2020

Model-maker Peter Sripol built an RC version of the Soviet-era Ekranoplan ground-effect vehicle:

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Adam Savage harnesses Spot to a dog-cart

Saturday, February 15th, 2020

Adam Savage wanted to use Spot, from Boston Dynamics, to take him on a trip, so he created what he called a robot rickshaw — but which I’d call a robot dog-cart:

A mix of neural networks and depth-aware video frame interpolation

Friday, February 14th, 2020

YouTuber Denis Shiryaev took the Lumière Brothers’ 1896 short clip “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” — digitized at 640-by-480 resolution, and 20 frames per second — ran it through some neural networks, and upscaled it to 4K resolution, at 60 fps:

As you can see, it’s not exactly impressive by today’s standards, so Denis used a mix of neural networks from Gigapixel AI and a technique called depth-aware video frame interpolation to not only upscale the resolution of the video, but also increase its frame rate to something that looks a lot smoother to the human eye.

Hydrogen is a bad car fuel, but maybe a decent boat fuel?

Thursday, February 13th, 2020

Hydrogen is a bad car fuel, Toyota has learned from the Mirai hydrogen experiment, but it may make a decent boat fuel, as it hopes to demonstrate with its Energy Observer, a former racing catamaran with some new additions:

The Energy Observer uses a pair of wind turbines and a vast array of solar photo-voltaic cells to both propel the vessel and provide power to its on-board hydrogen-creating electrolysis process. Sea water is essentially zapped into its component parts and the isolated hydrogen is captured to be expended inside the Toyota fuel cell generator. The process emits nothing but oxygen and water out the “tailpipe”.

Toyota Energy Observer

In optimum conditions, the boat is propelled entirely by wind and solar. A rack of lithium cells onboard keep the thing running when it’s cloudy or calm winds, and Toyota’s fuel cell system takes over to produce the boat’s propelling energy at night.

I’m thinking it might be a better airship fuel.

Seymour Cray had a hobby of digging tunnels under his house

Tuesday, February 11th, 2020

Seymour Cray, of Cray supercomputing fame, had a hobby of digging tunnels under his house, Whyvert mentioned, and he found it helpful:

“While I’m digging in the tunnel, the elves will often come to me with solutions to my problem.”

Can you draw a bicycle?

Thursday, February 6th, 2020

We overestimate our ability to explain how things work. Cognitive psychologist Rebecca Lawson at the University of Liverpool measured how well people understand how everyday objects work using the bicycle:

I have given the test to over 200 students and parents coming to Open Days at the University. Over 96% had learnt to cycle as children with a further 1.5% learning as adults and less than 3% never having learned. Also 52% of this group owned a bicycle. Sadly, the figures on actual cycling were low, with just 1% cycling most days, 4% cycling around once a week and 9% cycling about once a month. The vast majority either never cycle (52%) or rarely do so (33%). Nevertheless, even for these non-cyclists, bicycles are a common sight. Secondly, if Rozenblit and Keil are correct, people should greatly over-estimate their understanding of how bicycles work because bicycle parts are visible and they seem to be simple, mechanical devices.

Draw a Bicycle Figure 1

I first asked people to draw a bicycle and I then asked them to select which of four alternatives were correct for the frame, the pedals and the chain, see Figure 1. I used the multiple choice test to check that errors that people made were not just due to problems with drawing or in my judgement of the accuracy of their drawings, see Figure 2.

Draw a Bicycle Figure 2

I looked at three types of errors which would severely impair the functioning of a bicycle (see Figure 3 for examples of all three):

1. drawing the frame joining the front and back wheels (making steering impossible)

2. not placing the pedals between the wheels and inside the chain (the pedals were sometimes drawn attached to the front wheel, the back wheel or dangling off the cross-bar)

3. not putting the chain around the pedals and the back wheel (these errors were almost all because people drew the chain looping around both the front and the back wheel of the bicycle)

Draw a Bicycle Figure 3

It seems that many people have virtually no understanding of how bicycles work. This is despite bicycles being highly familiar and most people having learnt how to ride one. Most people know that turning the pedals drives one or both of the bicycle wheels forward, but they probably understand little more than this.

[...]

One last thing: unexpected sex effects. One finding that I was not looking for jumped out from the data. There were huge sex differences with females making many more errors than males.

[...]

Thus, at least for frame and chain errors, females make around twice as many errors as males. It could be argued that this is still a matter of experience. It is likely that boys cycle more than girls so many males who currently rarely cycle may have, over their lifetime, seen and used more bicycles than females. However the sex difference is even more extreme for those who claim to cycle around once a month, once a week or most days.

[...]

Not only do male non-cyclists make fewer errors than female non-cyclists, they also make fewer errors than female cyclists; whilst male cyclists make almost no errors.

The gun is mounted on an unstable platform

Friday, January 31st, 2020

In Men, Machines, and Modern Times, Elting E. Morison looks at how we learn to live and work with innovation. He illustrates the three stages of users’ resistance to change — ignoring it, rational rebuttal, and name-calling — first with an example from naval history:

The governing fact in gunfire at sea is that the gun is mounted on an unstable platform, a rolling ship. This constant motion obviously complicates the problem of holding a steady aim. Before 1898 this problem was solved in the following elementary fashion. A gun pointer estimated the range of the target, ordinarily in the nineties about 16oo yards. He then raised the gun barrel to give the gun the elevation to carry the shell to the target at the estimated range. This elevating process was accomplished by turning a small wheel on the gun mount that operated the elevating gears. With the gun thus fixed for range, the gun pointer peered through open sights, not unlike those on a small rifle, and waited until the roll of the ship brought the sights on the target. He then pressed the firing button that discharged the gun. There were by 1898, on some naval guns, telescope sights, which naturally greatly enlarged the image of the target for the gun pointer. But these sights were rarely used by gun pointers. They were lashed securely to the gun barrel, and, recoiling with the barrel, jammed back against the unwary pointer’s eye. Therefore, when used at all, they were used only to take an initial sight for purposes of estimating the range before the gun was fired.

Notice now two things about the process. First of all, the rapidity of fire was controlled by the rolling period of the ship. Pointers had to wait for the one moment in the roll when the sights were brought on the target. Notice also this: there is in every pointer what is called a “firing interval” — that is, the time lag between his impulse to fire the gun and the translation of this impulse into the act of pressing the firing button. A pointer, because of this reaction time, could not wait to fire the gun until the exact moment when the roll of the ship brought the sights onto the target; he had to will to fire a little before, while the sights were off the target. Since the firing interval was an individual matter, varying obviously from man to man, each pointer had to estimate from long practice his own interval and compensate for it accordingly.

These things, together with others we need not here investigate, conspired to make gunfire at sea relatively uncertain and ineffective. The pointer, on a moving platform, estimating range and firing interval, shooting while his sight was off the target, became in a sense an individual artist.

In 1898, many of the uncertainties were removed from the process and the position of the gun pointer radically altered by the introduction of continuous-aim firing. The major change was that which enabled the gun pointer to keep his sight and gun barrel on the target throughout the roll of the ship. This was accomplished by altering the gear ratio in the elevating gear to permit a pointer to compensate for the roll of the vessel by rapidly elevating and depressing the gun. From this change another followed. With the possibility of maintaining the gun always on the target, the desirability of improved sights became immediately apparent. The advantages of the telescope sight as opposed to the open sight were for the first time fully realized. But the existing telescope sight, it will be recalled, moved with the recoil of the gun and jammed back against the eye of the gunner. To correct this, the sight was mounted on a sleeve that permitted the gun barrel to recoil through it without moving the telescope.

These two improvements in elevating gear and sighting eliminated the major uncertainties in gunfire at sea and greatly increased the possibilities of both accurate and rapid fire.

You must take my word for it, since the time allowed is small, that this changed naval gunnery from an art to a science, and that gunnery accuracy in the British and our Navy increased, as one student said, 3000% in six years. This does not mean much except to suggest a great increase in accuracy. The following comparative figures may mean a little more. In 1899 five ships of the North Atlantic Squadron fired five minutes each at a lightship hulk at the conventional range of 1600 yards. After twenty-five minutes of banging away, two hits had been made on the sails of the elderly vessel. Six years later one naval gunner made fifteen hits in one minute at a target 75 by 25 feet at the same range — 1600 yards; half of them hit in a bull’s eye 50 inches square.

Now with the instruments (the gun, elevating gear, and telescope), the method, and the results of continuous-aim firing in mind, let us turn to the subject of major interest: how was the idea, obviously so simple an idea, of continuous-aim firing developed, who introduced it into the United States Navy, and what was its reception?

The idea was the product of the fertile mind of the English officer Admiral Sir Percy Scott. He arrived at it in this way while, in 1898, he was the captain of H.M.S. Scylla. For the previous two or three years he had given much thought independently and almost alone in the British Navy to means of improving gunnery. One rough day, when the ship, at target practice, was pitching and rolling violently, he walked up and down the gun deck watching his gun crews. Because of the heavy weather, they were making very bad scores. Scott noticed, however, that one pointer was appreciably more accurate than the rest. He watched this man with care, and saw, after a time, that he was unconsciously working his elevating gear back and forth in a partially successful effort to compensate for the roll of the vessel. It flashed through Scott’s mind at that moment that here was the sovereign remedy for the problem of inaccurate fire. What one man could do partially and unconsciously perhaps all men could be trained to do consciously and completely.

Acting on this assumption, he did three things. First, in all the guns of the Scylla, he changed the gear ratio in the elevating gear, previously used only to set the gun in fixed position for range, so that a gunner could easily elevate and depress the gun to follow a target throughout the roll. Second, he rerigged his telescopes so that they would not be influenced by the recoil of the gun. Third, he rigged a small target at the mouth of the gun, which was moved up and down by a crank to simulate a moving target. By following this target as it moved and firing at it with a subcaliber rifle rigged in the breech of the gun, time pointer could practice every day. Thus equipped, the ship became a training ground for gunners. Where before the good pointer was an individual artist, pointers now became trained technicians, fairly uniform in their capacity to shoot. The effect was immediately felt. Within a year the Scylla established records that were remarkable.

At this point I should like to stop a minute to notice several things directly related to, and involved in, the process of innovation. To begin with, the personality of the innovator. I wish there were time to say a good deal about Admiral Sir Percy Scott. He was a wonderful man. Three small bits of evidence must here suffice, however. First, he had a certain mechanical ingenuity. Second, his personal life was shot through with frustration and bitterness. There was a divorce and a quarrel with that ambitious officer Lord Charles Beresford, the sounds of which, Scott liked to recall, penetrated to the last outposts of empire. Finally, he possessed, like Swift, a savage indignation directed ordinarily at the inelastic intelligence of all constituted authority, especially the British Admiralty.

There are other points worth mention here. Notice first that Scott was not responsible for the invention of the basic instruments that made the reform in gunnery possible. This reform rested upon the gun itself, which as a rifle had been in existence on ships for at least forty years; the elevating gear, which had been, in the form Scott found it, a part of the rifled gun from the beginning; and the telescope sight, which had been on shipboard at least eight years. Scott’s contribution was to bring these three elements appropriately modified into a combination that made continuous-aim firing possible for the first time. Notice also that he was allowed to bring these elements into combination by accident, by watching the unconscious action of a gun pointer endeavoring through the operation of his elevating gear to correct partially for the roll of his vessel. Scott, as we have seen, had been interested in gunnery; he had thought about ways to increase accuracy by practice and improvement of existing machinery; but able as he was, he had not been able to produce on his own initiative and by his own thinking the essential idea and modify instruments to fit his purpose. Notice here, finally, the intricate interaction of chance, the intellectual climate, and Scott’s mind. Fortune (in this case, the unaware gun pointer) indeed favors the prepared mind but even fortune and the prepared mind need a favorable environment before they can conspire to produce sudden change. No intelligence can proceed very far above the threshold of existing data or the binding combinations of existing data.

In 1900 Percy Scott went out to the China Station as commanding officer of H.M.S. Terrible. In that ship he continued his training methods and his spectacular successes in naval gunnery. On the China Station he met up with an American junior officer, William S. Sims. Sims had little of the mechanical ingenuity of Percy Scott, but the two were drawn together by temperamental similarities that are worth noticing here. Sims had the same intolerance for what is called spit and polish and the same contempt for bureaucratic inertia as his British brother officer. He had for some years been concerned, as had Scott, with what he took to be the inefficiency of his own Navy. Just before he met Scott, for example, he had shipped out to China in the brand new pride of the fleet, the battleship Kentucky. After careful investigation and reflections he had informed his superiors in Washington that she was “not a battleship at all — but a crime against the white race.” The spirit with which he pushed forward his efforts to reform the naval service can best be stated in his own words to a brother officer: “I am perfectly willing that those holding views differing from mine should continue to live, but with every fibre of my being I loathe indirection and shiftiness, and where it occurs in high place, and is used to save face at the expense of the vital interests of our great service (in which silly people place such a child-like trust), I want that man’s blood and I will have it no matter what it costs me personally.”

From Scott in 1900 Sims learned all there was to know about continuous-aim firing. He modified, with the Englishman’s active assistance, the gear on his own ship and tried out the new system. After a few months training, his experimental batteries began making remarkable records at target practice. Sure of the usefulness of his gunnery methods, Sims then turned to the task of educating the Navy at large. In thirteen great official reports he documented the case for continuous-aim firing, supporting his arguments at every turn with a mass of factual data. Over a period of two years, he reiterated three principal points: first, he continually cited the records established by Scott’s ships, the Scylla and the Terrible, and supported these with the accumulating data from his own tests on an American ship; second, he described the mechanisms used and the training procedures instituted by Scott and himself to obtain these records; third, he explained that our own mechanisms were not generally adequate without modification to meet the demands placed on then by continuous-aim firing. Our elevating gear, useful to raise or lower a gun slowly to fix it in position for the proper range, did not always work easily and rapidly enough to enable a gunner to follow a target with his gun throughout the roll of the ship. Sims also explained that such few telescope sights as there were on board our ships were useless. Their cross wires were so thick or coarse they obscured the target, and the sights had been attached to the gun in such a way that the recoil system of the gun plunged the eyepiece against the eye of the gun pointer.

This was the substance not only of the first but of all the succeeding reports written on the subject of gunnery from the China Station. It will be interesting to see what response these met with in Washington. The response falls roughly into three easily identifiable stages. First stage: At first, there was no response. Sims had directed his comments to the Bureau of Ordnance and the Bureau of Navigation; in both bureaus there was dead silence. The thing — claims and records of continuous-aim firing — was not credible. The reports were simply filed away and forgotten. Some indeed, it was later discovered to Sims’s delight, were half-eaten-away by cockroaches.

Second stage: It is never pleasant for any man’s best work to be left unnoticed by superiors, and it was an unpleasantness that Sims suffered extremely ill. In his later reports, beside the accumulating data he used to clinch his argument, he changed his tone. He used deliberately shocking language because, as he said, “They were furious at my first papers and stowed them away. I therefore made up my mind I would give these later papers such a form that they would be dangerous documents to leave neglected in the files.” To another friend he added, “I want scalps or nothing and if I can’t have ‘em I won’t play.”

Besides altering his tone, he took another step to be sure his views would receive attention. He sent copies of his reports to other officers in the fleet. Aware as a result that Sims’s gunnery claims were being circulated and talked about, the men in Washington were then stirred to action. They responded, notably through the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, who had general charge of the equipment used in gunnery practice, as follows: (1) our equipment was in general as good as the British; (2) since our equipment was as good, the trouble must be with the men, but the gun pointer and the training of gun pointers were the responsibility of the officers on the ships; and most significant (3) continuous-aim firing was impossible. Experiments had revealed that five men at work on the elevating gear of a six-inch gun could not produce the power necessary to compensate for a roll of five degrees in ten seconds. These experiments and calculations demonstrated beyond peradventure or doubt that Scott’s system of gunfire was not possible.

This was the second stage — the attempt to meet Sims’s claims by logical, rational rebuttal. Only one difficulty is discoverable in these arguments; they were wrong at important points. To begin with, while there was little difference between the standard British equipment and the standard American equipment, the instruments on Scott’s two ships, the Scylla and the Terrible, were far better than the standard equipment on our ships. Second, all the men could not be trained in continuous-aim firing until equipment was improved throughout the fleet. Third, the experiments with the elevating gear had been ingeniously contrived at the Washington Navy Yard — on solid ground. It had, therefore, been possible to dispense in the Bureau of Ordnance calculation with Newton’s first law of motion, which naturally operated at sea to assist the gunner in elevating or depressing a gun mounted on a moving ship. Another difficulty was of course that continuous-aim firing was in use on Scott’s and some of our own ships at the time the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance was writing that it was a mathematical impossibility. In every way I find this second stage, the apparent resort to reason, the most entertaining and instructive in our investigation of the responses to innovation.

Third stage: The rational period in the counterpoint between Sims and the Washington men was soon passed. It was followed by the third stage, that of name-calling — the argumentum ad hominem. Sims, of course, by the high temperature he was running and by his calculated over-statement, invited this. He was told in official endorsements on his reports that there were others quite as sincere and loyal as he and far less difficult; he was dismissed as a crackbrained egotist; he was called a deliberate falsifier of evidence.

The rising opposition and the character of the opposition were not calculated to discourage further efforts by Sims. It convinced him that he was being attacked by shifty, dishonest men who were the victims, as he said, of insufferable conceit and ignorance. He made up his mind, therefore, that he was prepared to go to any extent to obtain the “scalps” and the “blood” he was after. Accordingly, he, a lieutenant, took the extraordinary step of writing the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, to inform him of the remarkable records of Scott’s ships, of the inadequacy of our own gunnery routines and records, and of the refusal of the Navy Department to act. Roosevelt, who always liked to respond to such appeals when he conveniently could, brought Sims back from China late in 1902 and installed him as Inspector of Target Practice, a post the naval officer held throughout the remaining six years of the Administration. And when he left, after many spirited encounters we cannot here investigate, he was universally acclaimed as “the man who taught us how to shoot.”

All the rigidity and strength the pickup needs comes from everything you’re looking at

Monday, January 27th, 2020

Lean-design guru Sandy Munro suggests that the Tesla Cybertruck may only need $30 million in capital expenditures to tool up for production of 50,000 units per year:

Tesla’s secret sauce is the fact it appears the truck’s exoskeleton also act as its body panels. So, all the rigidity and strength the pickup needs comes from everything you’re looking at, and it just needs welding and assembly. The fact there’s no painting involved, just plain stainless steel, is also a tremendous cost-saver, per Munro.

The control tones had to be within the range of normal human speech

Sunday, January 26th, 2020

Those beeps you hear in recordings of astronauts in space have a name — Quindar Tones:

First, let’s be specific about those beeps: there’s actually two different beeps that happen, one a sine wave tone at a frequency of 2.525 KHz that lasts for 250 milliseconds, and one that’s a sine wave tone at 2.475 KHz, for the same duration.

That first and slightly higher tone is called the intro tone and the lower one is the outro. As their names suggest, one is for the start of something, and one for the end.

What that something is related to how the CapCom — that means “capsule communicator” which was what they called the ground control team member (usually an astronaut) who was in charge of talking directly to the astronauts on the spacecraft. Having one person designated to communicate with the astronauts helps reduce any possible confusion and cross-talk.

Since the CapCom would be in the busy, noisy Mission Control room, they’d want to choose when to open their microphones to talk to the spacecraft, so NASA used a push-to-talk (PTT) system.

It’s like how a CB works, if you’re as miserably old as I am and remember that — you hold down a button while you talk, and let up when you’re done.

This is normally not a big deal to implement, but the space program had very unique requirements. In the setup that NASA developed, which used tracking stations all over the world to keep in near-constant communication with the spacecraft, the audio from CapCom to be sent into space was transmitted to the various stations across the globe via dedicated telephone lines.

These lines were just for voice audio — if NASA wanted to send control signals like transmit on and off, they’d need to run a whole parallel set of wires, which would be expensive. So, they came up with a solution: use the same lines for control signals as well!

Because the lines were optimized for human voice audio, the control tones had to be within the range of normal human speech, which is why the tones are audible.