Quotulatiousness

May 21, 2015

Jonathan Kay, ebike martyr

Filed under: Cancon,Environment,Humour,Media,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Despite having become the editor-in-chief of The Walrus, poor Jonathan Kay suffers the slings and arrows of all those who condemn and ridicule his ridiculous choice of transportation ebike (especially from his own staff):

City planners think of transportation in terms of its logistical and infrastructural components. That’s also how the issue gets discussed in the context of, say, energy conservation and traffic management. But when it comes to the transportation products we actually buy, our utilitarian calculus is overwhelmed by our aesthetic biases. When the Segway scooter had its great reveal in 2001, few observers cared about its groundbreaking self-balancing technology. All they saw was a nerd standing upright, wearing a funny helmet.

It is a lesson I have learned again over the last year, at great cost in dignity and personal reputation, as I have motored around Toronto on an ebike — a zero-emission electric scooter that travels at speeds of up to 32 km/h. As I noted in an essay last year, ebikes combine the low cost and convenience of a bicycle, while allowing a user to get to work without an ounce of sweat or a stitch of lycra.

In a more perfect world, the streets of our cities would be humming with ebikes. But that is not the world we inhabit. After a year of evangelizing these fantastically useful, earth-friendly contraptions among my peer group, I’ve failed to gain a single new convert.

Just the opposite, in fact: I have become a figure of overt and willfully cruel mockery.

Jonathan Kay - ebike ad

May 14, 2015

Moore’s Law challenged yet again

Filed under: Business,History,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In Bloomberg View, Virginia Postrel looks at the latest “Moore’s Law is over” notions:

Semiconductors are what economists call a “general purpose technology,” like electrical motors. Their effects spread through the economy, reorganizing industries and boosting productivity. The better and cheaper chips become, the greater the gains rippling through every enterprise that uses computers, from the special-effects houses producing Hollywood magic to the corner dry cleaners keeping track of your clothes.

Moore’s Law, which marked its 50th anniversary on Sunday, posits that computing power increases exponentially, with the number of components on a chip doubling every 18 months to two years. It’s not a law of nature, of course, but a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, driving innovative efforts and customer expectations. Each generation of chips is far more powerful than the previous, but not more expensive. So the price of actual computing power keeps plummeting.

At least that’s how it seemed to be working until about 2008. According to the producer price index compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of the semiconductors used in personal computers fell 48 percent a year from 2000 to 2004, 29 percent a year from 2004 to 2008, and a measly 8 percent from 2008 to 2013.

The sudden slowdown presents a puzzle. It suggests that the semiconductor business isn’t as innovative as it used to be. Yet engineering measures of the chips’ technical capabilities have showed no letup in the rate of improvement. Neither have tests of how the semiconductors perform on various computing tasks.

May 13, 2015

Driving a Dymaxion replica … Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 car of the future

Filed under: History,Technology,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 24 Apr 2015

Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 foray into automobiles gave us the Dymaxion Car, and enthusiast Jeff Lane has one of the only working replicas in the world. WSJ‘s Rumble Seat columnist Dan Neil takes the road zeppelin for a spin…or should we say wobble?

H/T to Open Culture for the link … and do at least check out the over-the-top trailer for The Last Dymaxion on Facebook.

Google search history … and you

Filed under: Business,Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Reason, Ed Krayewski points out that you now have a way of discovering (and modifying) what Google’s search engine will reveal about you:

In January Google quietly rolled out the capability to view your entire search history with the online service, download a copy of it, and even to delete it from Google’s servers. The new feature wasn’t widely reported online until earlier this month when an unofficial Google blog publicized it.

You can check out your search history here, including web and image searches, and links and images you clicked on as a result. There’s also an option to download under settings (the gear button on the top left of the page), as well as one to “remove items,” including the ability to remove your recent search history or your entire search history.

Why are railroads dragging their feet over more efficient braking systems?

Filed under: Government,Railways,Technology,USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

Fred Frailey discusses the U.S. Department of Transportation mandate that all crude oil trains longer than 69 cars must be equipped with electronic brakes by 2021 or they will restrict the speed of oil trains to 30 MPH at all times. The current standard braking system for railroads in North America is pneumatic, which have worked well for decades, but have inherent problems as modern trains have gotten longer and heavier. One of the biggest problems is that pneumatic brakes have a relatively long activation time — when the engineer operates the brake in the lead locomotive, it takes quite some time for that to propagate all the way through the train. This creates situations which can cause derailments as the lead cars begin to slow down, while the rest of the train is still travelling at full speed.

The preferred replacements are called electronically controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP), where instead of the brakes operating by pressure changes in the air line, the brakes would be controlled by a separate electronic circuit that would allow simultaneous brake application in all cars in the train.

It seems electronic braking has no friends in the railroad industry. I find this puzzling. Research I’ve read suggests there is both a safety and business case to be made. One explanation for the bum’s rush being given ECP comes from someone whose career was immersed in railroad technology: “The mechanical departments say the ECP brakes don’t save enough on wheels and brake shoes to justify implementation. The track departments say that ECP brakes don’t reduce rail wear enough to justify implementation. Transportation departments say that ECP brakes don’t save enough fuel to justify implementation. And improved train running times, improved train dynamics, and improved engineer performance are all soft-dollar savings which don’t count. No one ever bothers to sum up total benefits.” Silos, in other words.

So I’ll make the case for ECP. (By the way, the standards were developed two decades ago by the same AAR that now vigorously opposes their implementation.) A train equipped with electronic braking is hard-wired, allowing instant communication from airbrake handle in the locomotive to every brake valve on the cars. The principal advantages are that all brakes instantly apply and release at the same time, the air supply is continually charged, engineers can gradually release and reapply brakes, and undesired emergency braking (dynamiters, they’re called) virtually disappear. In-train forces, such as slack roll-in and roll-out, are greatly reduced, and that lessens the risk of derailment. Moreover, stopping distance is reduced 40 to 60 percent, permitting higher train speeds and higher speeds approaching restricting signals. Longer trains are possible. Longer trains run at higher speeds increase the capacity of the railroad network. Because air is always charging, braking power is inexhaustible; plus, a train can stop and instantly restart. Brakes, draft gear, wheels, and bearings require less maintenance. Existing federal regulations would allow train inspections every 5,000 miles instead of the present 1,500 or 1,000 miles.

Those are a lot of advantages. In a report commissioned by the Federal Railroad Administration in 2005, the consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton estimated the cost of full implementation of ECP at $6 billion and the measurable savings (not including added network capacity) at $650 million a year. Booz recommended that ECP conversion begin with coal trains loaded in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, then to other types of unit trains (presumably including intermodal trains), and finally the rest of the car fleet — all in a 15-year time frame. “As applied to western coal service,” its report stated, “the business case is substantial,” with a recovery of all costs within three years.

[…]

Several things are going on here. Silos are one. Nobody is looking at the big picture, just his or her little piece of it. The boys in the Mechanical Silo could care less about increased network capacity. The occupants of the Finance Silo don’t want to divert cash flow away from share buybacks, their favorite toy. Most of those in the CEO Silo didn’t come up on the operating side and are probably bored by the subject. In a conservative, mature business like railroading, risk taking and even forward thinking are not rewarded. And the cost of hard-wiring the car fleet would primarily be borne by shippers, who own most of the equipment, whereas railroads would reap the benefits. How to share the benefits with car-owning shippers leads to very difficult negotiations.

May 12, 2015

The Sky Was The Limit – World War 1 In The Air I THE GREAT WAR

Filed under: Europe,History,Military,Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 11 May 2015

World War 1 saw several completely new technologies develop rapidly. The airplane itself was only a few years old but pioneering engineers soon saw its potential for military use. For recognisance and later as fighter or bomber, World War 1 had huge impact on aviation and warfare in general. This special episode gives you an idea about the obstacles that had to be overcome.

Step aside, Sun Tzu, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is the new guide to warfare

Filed under: Media,Military,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Popular Mechanics, Joe Pappalardo makes the claim that Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers is replacing Sun Tzu’s Art of War due to its greater relevance to 21st century warfare:

Starship Troopers cover detail

It’s not just generals and soldiers who keep the The Art of War in print. Businessmen, coaches, and lawyers all seem to get something out of Sun Tzu’s 6th century military tome — memorizing and repeating passages that speak to the tactics and strategy of success, whether that’s on Wall Street or in a war zone.

But for all its long-lasting cultural influence, the book is limited by its lack of specifics. “Know your enemy” and “win without fighting” are all well and good, but such axioms don’t really help today’s GI prepare to deploy with a robotic squadmate or decide what information to place on a digital head’s-up display. Modern warriors, surrounded by sophisticated gear and nuanced rules of engagement, need to meditate on the balance between technology and soldier, man and machine, civilian and veteran. For that kind of wisdom, they must go to military science fiction — and one great book in particular.

Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, published in 1959, is aging remarkably well. The tome chronicles the early military career of Johnnie Rico, who fights alien arachnids while clad in a heavily armed exoskeleton. The troopers drop from orbit one by one to wreak havoc on whatever target the Sky Marshal deems worthy of the attention. It’s a cool adventure novel with a soldier’s eye view that doubles a treatise on modern warrior culture, the limits of military technology, and the awful glories of fighting infantry. There’s a reason military academies like West Point recommend cadets read the book.

Like Sun Tzu’s masterpiece, Heinlein’s abounds with quotable axioms. You may not hear overly intense car salesman quoting from Starship Troopers anytime soon, but here are six reasons why the book is a practical guide to 21st century warfare.

May 10, 2015

“…the Venn diagram circles of ‘scientists’ and ‘Lord of the Rings fans’ have a large overlap”

Filed under: Media,Science,Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In The Atlantic, Julie Beck wonders “What has it got in its academic journals, precious?”

Though at first glance, science and fantasy seem to be polar opposites, the Venn diagram circles of “scientists” and “Lord of the Rings fans” have a large overlap. One could (lovingly!) label that region “nerds.”

Fight me on that if you want, but there’s plenty of evidence that suggests scientists love J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic. Several newly discovered animal species have been named after characters from the books — a genus of wasps in New Zealand is now called Shireplitis, with species S. bilboi, S. frodoi, S. meriadoci, S. peregrini, S. samwisei and S. tolkieni. The wasps bear the names of the hobbits because they too are “small, short, and stout,” according to a press release. On the other side of the size spectrum, paleontologists named a 900-pound ancient crocodile Anthracosuchus balrogus, after the Balrog, a giant whip-wielding fire monster from The Lord of the Rings. There is also a dinosaur named after Sauron, which seems kinda harsh to me. And many, many more, if the website “Curious Taxonomy” is to be believed.

“Given Tolkien’s passion for nomenclature, his coinage, over decades, of enormous numbers of euphonious names — not to mention scientists’ fondness for Tolkien — it is perhaps inevitable that Tolkien has been accorded formal taxonomic commemoration like no other author,” writes Henry Gee in his book The Science of Middle Earth.

May 9, 2015

Everybody panic! The robots are coming to steal our jobs!

Filed under: Economics,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Tim Worstall explains why we can easily disregard the calls to panic about the impending invasion of our new robotic overlords:

Essentially, what [economist Joe] Stiglitz is saying is that under certain conditions the advance of the robots means that we all lose our jobs and the capitalists, the people who own the robots, get to have all of the economy. And one can see his mechanism to get there: if robots become ever more productive then yes, we can see the idea that there will be more robots and fewer people employed by the capitalists and so on. But it’s still impossible for that end state to arrive: simply because we non-capitalists aren’t going to let it.

[…]

So, let’s recast that end state. There’s the 1% (the plutocrats, the capitalists, whatever) and then there’s us, the 99%. Robots become ever more productive and we the 99% all lose our jobs working for the capitalists. Hmm, tant pis in one telling of this story because as Karl Marx pointed out that’s a precondition for true communism, that we overcome the scarcity problem. But even leaving that aside what is going to happen next?

That 1% owns all the robots and gets all the production from them. We, the 99%, have no jobs and thus no incomes. We cannot purchase any of that robotic consumption from the capitalists. This is the very point that Stiglitz is making, that the capitalists will own and consume 100% of the robotic output. Well, yes, OK, but what are we the 99% going to do? This new peasantry: do we all just wander around the fields until we keel over from starvation? No, quite obviously we don’t. Sure, the robots are more efficient than we are, produce things for much lower prices. But we don’t have any of the currency with which we can buy that production. So, what are we going to do?

May 8, 2015

Quantum Insert

Filed under: Britain,Technology,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Kim Zetter talks about some of the NSA’s more sneaky ways of intercepting communications:

Among all of the NSA hacking operations exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden over the last two years, one in particular has stood out for its sophistication and stealthiness. Known as Quantum Insert, the man-on-the-side hacking technique has been used to great effect since 2005 by the NSA and its partner spy agency, Britain’s GCHQ, to hack into high-value, hard-to-reach systems and implant malware.

Quantum Insert is useful for getting at machines that can’t be reached through phishing attacks. It works by hijacking a browser as it’s trying to access web pages and forcing it to visit a malicious web page, rather than the page the target intend to visit. The attackers can then surreptitiously download malware onto the target’s machine from the rogue web page.

Quantum Insert has been used to hack the machines of terrorist suspects in the Middle East, but it was also used in a controversial GCHQ/NSA operation against employees of the Belgian telecom Belgacom and against workers at OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The “highly successful” technique allowed the NSA to place 300 malicious implants on computers around the world in 2010, according to the spy agency’s own internal documents — all while remaining undetected.

But now security researchers with Fox-IT in the Netherlands, who helped investigate that hack against Belgacom, have found a way to detect Quantum Insert attacks using common intrusion detection tools such as Snort, Bro and Suricata.

QotD: The barbarians in our midst

Filed under: Quotations,Science,Technology,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… possibly the most dangerous barbarians live in the West. These, by being born there, assume they are Westerners by inheritance or osmosis. They also regard Western civilization as “found”, its goodies a stash waiting to be used or distributed. Nor do they trouble themselves as to its provenance, for there has always been plenty more where the stash came from.

For these barbarians Western civilization and its associated quest for God or Truth are a bothersome impediment, a “white man’s culture”, a hundred year old relic ideology nobody bothers with, some irksomely judgmental superfluity that gets in the way of fun and spreading the fruits to arrivals at the border and various victim groups.

For the barbarian the only reality is appearances. Cargo cultists, for instance, believe that function comes from form. If they build something which resembles an airport then gift giving airplanes will arrive there to bring goodies. The 21st century barbarian completely lacks the attitude of Roger Bacon, who lived in the 13th century. Bacon knew that the truth was not a “white man’s” culture — in fact in his day nearly all learning came from the East — but believed the truth was nature’s culture; baked into reality; another word for what used to be called God. Of barbarian ignorance Bacon wrote:

    Many secrets of art and nature are thought by the unlearned to be magical. … The empire of man over things depends wholly on the arts and sciences. For we cannot command nature except by obeying her.

In today’s post-Western environment, we’ve forgotten Bacon’s adage.

Richard Fernandez, “Sword and Sorcery”, Belmont Club, 2014-06-23.

May 7, 2015

Understanding photography: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO

Filed under: Technology — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

At LifeHacker, Thorin Klosowski has a quick visual reminder of how the basic photography concepts of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO setting impact the photo you want to take:

Photography concepts

April 28, 2015

Professor: New UK railway signalling system is hackable … while he’s also selling anti-hacking gear

Filed under: Britain,Railways,Technology — Tags: — Nicholas @ 04:00

At The Register, John Leyden offers a bit of doubt that Professor David Stupples can really be said to be an impartial observer:

The rollout of a next generation train signalling system across the UK could leave the network at greater risk of hack attacks, a university professor has claimed.

Prof David Stupples warns that plans to replace the existing (aging) signalling system with the new European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) could open up the network to potential attacks, particularly from disgruntled employees or other rogue insiders.

ERTMS will manage how fast trains travel, so a hack attack might potentially cause trains to move too quickly. UK tests of the European Rail Traffic Management System have already begun ahead of the expected rollout.

By the 2020s the system will be in full control of trains on mainline routes. Other countries have already successfully rolled out the system and there are no reports, at least, of any meaningful cyber-attack to date.

Nonetheless, Prof Stupples is concerned that hacks against the system could cause “major disruption” or even a “nasty accident”.

ERTMS is designed to make networks safer by safeguarding against driver mistakes, a significant factor historically in rail accidents. Yet these benefits are offset by the risk of hackers manipulating control systems, Prof Stupples, of City University London, warned.

April 27, 2015

Automated epistemic closure

Filed under: Media,Politics,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In Reason, Elizabeth Nolan Brown talks about the time she got blocked by a bot:

The first time I noticed it I merely found it odd: a person whom I had never interacted with in any way on Twitter had blocked me. But then it started happening more frequently; I would click on someone’s handle after seeing an interesting retweet or mention and find myself blocked by yet another stranger.

If you’re not familiar with how Twitter works, blocking someone prevents them from following you, messaging you, and showing up in your mentions. The feature was designed to compensate for Twitter’s notorious inability to really banish abusive users. Unlike other social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter makes it easy to create multiple and anonymous accounts, so someone who violates Twitter’s terms of service can be back on the platform in about five minutes. Blocking gives any user an instant way to tune someone out entirely.

But as I mentioned: my blockers were people I had never tried to follow and never so much as tweeted “hi” at, let alone anything disagreeable, abusive, harassing, or unkind. And I had few to no friends in common with these individuals, making the chance of me being frequently retweeted into their timelines very unlikely. How did these people even know of me, let alone find me odious enough to block me?

And then I learned about the Block Bot. Created by Twitter user @oolon, the Block Bot “automate(s) the blocking for anyone that signs up, so you don’t need to … worry about what trolls are trolling the twittersphere -> they will be removed from your timeline seamlessly,” as its FAQ page states. Subscribe to the Block Bot, and anyone added to the list will automatically be blocked by your account.

Well, isn’t that special? You no longer need to worry about uncomfortable notions getting through your personal social media bubble … you don’t even need to think about it: you just farm out control of your Twitter feed to the crowdsourced notions of what other people think you don’t need to see. I’m sure there’s no possible way this could go wrong…

April 25, 2015

There’s a reason SF writers tend to invent ways to travel interstellar distances quickly

Filed under: Economics,Science,Space,Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At Real Clear Science, Ross Pomeroy sings the praises of an early publication by the pre-Nobel academic Paul Krugman:

Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist, a respected professor at Princeton University, and an outspoken liberal columnist for the New York Times. But first and foremost, he is a huge nerd, and proud of it.

Back in the sweltering summer of 1978, Krugman’s geekiness prompted him to tackle a matter of galactic importance: the economics of interstellar trade. Then a 25-year-old “oppressed” assistant professor at Yale “caught up in the academic rat race,” Krugman crafted his “Theory of Interstellar Trade” to cheer himself up. Krugman’s jocularity is evident throughout the paper, which was published online in 2010, thirty-two years after he stamped it out on a typewriter. Early on in the article, he even pokes fun at his chosen profession:

    “While the subject of this paper is silly, the analysis actually does make sense. This paper, then, is a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics”

The key problem with interstellar trade, Krugman writes, is time dilation. When objects travel at velocities approaching the speed of light — roughly 300,000 kilometers per second — time moves more slowly for them compared to objects at rest. (For a great explainer of this effect, which is tied to Einstein’s theory of special relativity, check out this video.) So the crew of a space-faring cargo ship might experience only ten years while thirty years or more might pass for the denizens of the planets they’re traveling between. How then, does one calculate interest rates on the cost of goods sold? Trading partners will undoubtedly be many light-years apart and trips will last decades, so this is a vital issue to resolve.

Since the speeds of vessels will undoubtedly vary, but both planets should be moving through space at close enough velocities where time dilation wouldn’t be a factor, Krugman contends that the interest costs should be tabulated based on the time shared by the two planets. But what about those interest rates? Won’t they differ? Not necessarily, Krugman argues. Competition should lead them to equalize amongst interplanetary trading partners.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress