Published on 23 Aug 2016
Top Gear‘s James May on How to drive a Ford model T
February 18, 2017
February 13, 2017
Charlie Martin explains why the “news” out of Fukushima lately has been mostly unscientific hyperventilation and bloviation:
On February 8, Adam Housley of Fox News reported a story with a terrifying headline: “Radiation at Japan’s Fukushima Reactor Is Now at ‘Unimaginable’ Levels.” Let’s just pick up the most exciting paragraphs:
The radiation levels at Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant are now at “unimaginable” levels.
[Housley] said the radiation levels — as high as 530 sieverts per hour — are now the highest they’ve been since 2011 when a tsunami hit the coastal reactor.
“To put this in very simple terms. Four sieverts can kill a handful of people,” he explained.
The degree to which this story is misleading is amazing, but to explain it, we need a little bit of a tutorial.
The Touhoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, along with all the other damage they caused, knocked out the TEPCO Fukushima Daiichi (“plant #1”) and Daini (“plant #2”) reactors. Basically, the two reactors were hit with a 1000-year earthquake and a 1000-year tsunami, and the plants as built weren’t able to handle it.
Both reactors failed, and after a sequence of unfortunate events, melted down. I wrote quite a lot about it at the time; bearing in mind this was early in the story, my article from then has a lot of useful information.
So what have we learned today?
We learned that inside the reactor containment at Fukushima Daini, site of the post-tsunami reactor accident, it’s very very radioactive. How radioactive? We don’t know, because the dose rate has been reported in inappropriate units — Sieverts are only meaningful if someone is inside the reactor to get dosed.
Then we learned that the Fukushima accident is leaking 300 tons of radioactive water — but until we dig into primary sources, we didn’t learn the radioactive water is very nearly clean enough to be drinking water. So what effect does this have on the ocean, as Housley asks? None.
The third thing we learned — and I think probably the most important thing — is to never trust a journalist writing about anything involving radiation, the metric system, or any arithmetic more challenging than long division.
February 6, 2017
February 1, 2017
Ace put up some shelves recently. He was not impressed with some of the tools he used:
I thought I had a drill that could drill (and drive screws) through studs. I did not. What I had was two pieces of shit which, combined together, made up a collection of shit that took up more space in my tool drawer than a single piece of shit would.
The things could not even push past the first eighth inch of drywall. The easiest part.
It’s like, “Hey, thanks Tool. Thanks for getting me past that first easy eighth inch. I’ll take it the rest of the way, now that you’ve gotten me off to such a swell start. You take a well-earned break, and get back to napping in that drawer. I’ll power through the rest of this with my forearms and my dinky little ratchet.”
I literally was just pushing on the drill to make a small starter hole for the screw, like it was a poorly-balanced nail with a pistol grip.
It’s a poor workman who blames his tools, but I think you can all agree I am a poor workman in the first place, and these really are shitty, shitty tools.
January 29, 2017
ESR performs a useful service in pulling together a document on what all hackers used to need to know, regardless of the particular technical interest they followed. I was never technical enough to be a hacker, but I worked with many of them, so I had to know (or know where to find) much of this information, too.
One fine day in January 2017 I was reminded of something I had half-noticed a few times over the previous decade. That is, younger hackers don’t know the bit structure of ASCII and the meaning of the odder control characters in it.
This is knowledge every fledgling hacker used to absorb through their pores. It’s nobody’s fault this changed; the obsolescence of hardware terminals and the RS-232 protocol is what did it. Tools generate culture; sometimes, when a tool becomes obsolete, a bit of cultural commonality quietly evaporates. It can be difficult to notice that this has happened.
This document is a collection of facts about ASCII and related technologies, notably hardware terminals and RS-232 and modems. This is lore that was at one time near-universal and is no longer. It’s not likely to be directly useful today – until you trip over some piece of still-functioning technology where it’s relevant (like a GPS puck), or it makes sense of some old-fart war story. Even so, it’s good to know anyway, for cultural-literacy reasons.
One thing this collection has that tends to be indefinite in the minds of older hackers is calendar dates. Those of us who lived through all this tend to have remembered order and dependencies but not exact timing; here, I did the research to pin a lot of that down. I’ve noticed that people have a tendency to retrospectively back-date the technologies that interest them, so even if you did live through the era it describes you might get a few surprises from reading.
There are references to Unix in here because I am mainly attempting to educate younger open-source hackers working on Unix-derived systems such as Linux and the BSDs. If those terms mean nothing to you, the rest of this document probably won’t either.
January 25, 2017
New and improved fabric technologies haven’t attracted public enthusiasm since the backlash against leisure suits and disco shirts made synthetics declassé in the early 1980s. ‘Pity poor polyester. People pick on it,’ wrote The Wall Street Journal’s Ronald Alsop in 1982, describing DuPont’s efforts to rehabilitate the fibre’s image.
What ended the consumer hatred of polyester wasn’t a marketing campaign. It was a quiet series of technical innovations: the development of microfibres. These are synthetics, most often polyester or nylon, that are thinner than silk and incredibly soft, as well as lightweight, strong, washable and quick-drying. Their shapes can be engineered to control how water vapour and heat pass through the fabric or to create microcapsules to add sunscreen, antimicrobial agents or insect repellent. Over the past decade, microfibres have become ubiquitous; they’re found in everything from wickable workout wear to supersoft plush toys.
Microfibres are one reason the ‘air-conditioned’ fabrics Loewy and his fellow designers foresaw in 1939 have finally come to pass. These fabrics just aren’t promoted in the pages of Vogue or highlighted on the racks at Banana Republic. They don’t attract attention during New York Fashion Week. Their tribe gathers instead at the big Outdoor Retailer trade shows held twice a year in Salt Lake City. There, outdoor-apparel makers and their suppliers tout textiles that keep wearers warm in the cold and cool in the heat; that block raindrops but allow sweat to escape; that repel insects, screen out UV rays and control odour. By establishing that truly weather-resistant fabrics were possible, Gore-Tex (first sold in 1976) and Polartec synthetic fleece (1979) created an industry where engineers now vie to find ever-better ways to conquer the elements. For instance, ‘smart textiles’ originally developed for spacesuits use microencapsulated materials that melt when they get hot, keeping wearers comfortable by absorbing body heat; when temperatures fall, the materials solidify and warm the body.
Looking forward, academic researchers have bigger things in mind. Noting that ‘a large portion of energy continues to be wasted on heating empty space and non‑human objects,’ the materials scientist Yi Cui and his colleagues at Stanford envision replacing central heating systems with ‘personal thermal management’, using breathable fabrics coated in a solution of silver nanowires. The fabrics not only trap body heat: given an imperceptible bit of electric charge, they can actually warm the skin.
Other scientists are looking at ways to make fabric turn body heat or motion into usable energy for low-powered electronics. And some hope to make the temperature-regulating effects of smart textiles work without liquids, whose microencapsulation requires substantial energy use. Shifting the focus from outdoor leisure to indoor life – from fighting the elements to everyday energy use and climate control – dramatically reframes several decades of fabric advances, making textiles part of a larger story about energy and the environment.
January 23, 2017
Interestingly, the dot.com bust does not seem to have slowed down or discredited the geek subculture at all. Websites like http://geekculture.com and http://thinkgeek.com do a flourishing business, successfully betting investment capital on the theory that there is in fact a common subculture or community embracing computer hackers, SF fans, strategy gamers, aficionados of logic puzzles, radio hams, and technology hobbyists of all sorts. Just the fact that a website can advertise “The World’s Coolest Propeller Beanies!” is indication of how far we’ve come.
I’ve previously observed about one large and important geek subtribe, the Internet hackers, that when people join it they tend to retrospectively re-interpret their past and after a while find it difficult to remember that they weren’t always part of this tribe. I think something similar is true of geeks in general; even those of us who lived through the emergence of geek culture have to struggle a bit to remember what it was like back when we were genuinely atomized outcasts in a culture that was dismissive and hostile.
There are even beginning to be geek families with evidence of generational transmission. I know three generations of one, starting when two computer scientists married in the late 1960s, and had four kids in the 1970s; the kids have since produced a first grandchild who at age five shows every sign of becoming just as avid a gamer/hacker/SF-fan as his parents and grandparents.
Little Isaac, bless him, will grow up in a culture that, in its plenitude, offers lots of artifacts and events designed by and for people like him. He will take the World Wide Web and the Sci-Fi Channel and Yugio and the Lord of the Rings movies and personal computers for granted. He’ll probably never be spat on by a jock, and if he can’t find a girlfriend it will be because the geekgirls and geek groupies are dating other guys like him, rather than being nonexistent.
For Isaac, Revenge of the Nerds will be a quaint period piece with very little more relevance to the social circumstances of his life than a Regency romance. And that is how we know that the nerds indeed got their revenge.
Eric S. Raymond, “The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well”, Armed and Dangerous, 2004-12-20.
January 21, 2017
Published on 14 Oct 2016
Easily cook up to 6-strips of regular or thick cut bacon in minutes with the Bacon Express! Vertical cooking drains away grease for healthier bacon! Removable non-stick cooking plate and insulated door liners make for easy cleanup. Making bacon is easier than ever!
H/T to Georgia Reams for the link.
January 18, 2017
Whether they were captives in ancient Crete, orphans in the Florentine Ospedale degli Innocenti, widows in South India or country wives in Georgian England, women through the centuries spent their lives spinning, especially after water wheels freed up time previously devoted to grinding grain. Turning fibre into thread was a time-consuming, highly skilled craft, requiring dexterity and care. Even after the spread of the spinning wheel in the Middle Ages, the finest, most consistent yarn, as well as strong warp threads in general, still came from the most ancient of techniques: drop spinning, using a hooked or notched stick with a weight as a flywheel.
Spinning was the major bottleneck in making cloth. In the late 18th century, the thriving worsted industry in Norwich in the east of England employed 12,000 looms but 10 times as many spinners producing fine wool thread. The demand for spinning was so high, estimates the economic historian Craig Muldrew, that it employed more than a million married women in an English workforce of 4 million, providing about a third of the income of poorer families.
A spinster is a woman who spins. Unmarried women with no children and few domestic chores could work longer hours without distraction, earning as much as male day-labourers and, Muldrew suggests, possibly delaying or even avoiding marriage. Spinning also gave poor girls a more lucrative option than domestic service, leading to complaints of a servant shortage. With labour short and wages high, the eve of the Industrial Revolution was a great time to be a spinster.
But a bottleneck is a problem waiting to be solved, and inventors started looking for ways to get more thread with less labour. Like self-driving cars or cheap, clean energy today, spinning machines seemed obviously desirable. In 1760, Britain’s Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce offered prizes for ‘a Machine that will spin Six Threads of Wool, Flax, Cotton, or Silk at one time, and that will require but one Person to work it’.
Nobody won, but within a few years the northern English carpenter James Hargreaves introduced the spinning jenny. It was, writes the economic historian Beverly Lemire in Cotton (2011), ‘the first robust machine that could consistently produce multiple spindles of thread from the effort of a single spinster’. Soon after, his fellow Lancastrian inventor Richard Arkwright refined mechanical spinning with water-powered innovations that improved thread quality and integrated carding and roving (twisting fibres to prepare them for spinning) into a single process. Arkwright’s mills decisively moved thread production from the cottage to the factory.
It was suddenly a bad time to be a spinster, or a family whose household income depended in part on spinning.
January 7, 2017
Published on 28 Dec 2016
James May is back in his shed, reassembling a Hornby (or is it) train set
January 5, 2017
Drone footage of a collapsed wind turbine in Germany from last month:
H/T to Donna Laframboise, who said:
And on December 27, in neighbouring Germany, a third turbine collapsed completely. After one of its blades failed, the nearly 100-meter (330-foot) structure buckled about 15 meters up. At roughly the height of a 30-storey apartment building, it came crashing to the ground with such force that its gear box was embedded nearly 2 meters (6 feet) deep.
Robert Tunna has uploaded a stunning YouTube video of the spectacular mess (taken with a camera-equipped drone).
We’re told that a June maintenance check on this particular turbine found no issues. Which means that National Geographic’s claim of “nearly zero” operational costs is mistaken. Wind turbines, like other expensive machinery, require ongoing maintenance. Without regular cleaning, dust accumulates and poses a fire hazard. Minus adequate lubrication, mechanical systems overheat, posing a different kind of fire hazard.
Since wind turbines are usually erected in sparsely populated areas, large amounts of fossil-fueled driving from one installation to the next is part of the maintenance picture. Repairs sometimes involve the rental of expensive cranes. In Germany alone, 26,000 individual turbines now require routine servicing. Hauling away tons of unwieldy wreckage isn’t free, either. The economic damage of last week’s incident in Germany is estimated to be half a million euros.
December 29, 2016
Tell me that one about how my home schooled kids aren’t going to be socialized again. I love that one. It’s a hardy perennial. Love that shite. Tell me again about how screwed my kids are because they’re not pressing meaningless buttons 24/7 on an iSlab on their Jitter stream or their FriendFace page.Tell me about how they’ll never be popular enough to be bullied if I’m not careful. They won’t even be eligible to get whooping cough.
Tell me the one about how my kids won’t be able to go on field trips to the museum if they’re not enrolled in school. I love that one, too. It’s totes adorb. It’s my favorite, except for my other favorites, which are my favorite favorites. My children never get the opportunity to be chaperoned by someone on the sex offender registry. Of course that’s better than being left at the museum like the other kid in the same story. I think. Pretty sure. Maybe the kid they left behind actually looked at something on the wall in the museum after the batteries in his iBrick ran out. Hey, could happen.
I’m with you, though; I doubt it. We all know if a school-age child’s iBinky battery runs out of electricity, they immediately lie down on the floor and die.
“Not Homeschooled”, Sippican Cottage, 2015-06-15.
December 28, 2016
The ancient Greeks worshiped Athena as the goddess of technē, the artifice of civilisation. She was the giver and protector of olive trees, of ships and of weaving (without which there would be no sails). When she and Odysseus scheme, they ‘weave a plan’. To weave is to devise, to invent – to contrive function and beauty from the simplest of elements. Fabric and fabricate share a common Latin root, fabrica: ‘something skillfully produced’. Text and textile are similarly related, from the verb texere, to weave. Cloth-making is a creative act, analogous to other creative acts. To spin tales (or yarns) is to exercise imagination. Even more than weaving, spinning mounds of tiny fibres into usable threads turns nothing into something, chaos into order.
‘The spindle was the first wheel,’ explains Elizabeth Barber, professor emerita of linguistics and archeology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, gesturing to demonstrate. ‘It wasn’t yet load-bearing, but the principle of rotation is there.’ In the 1970s, Barber started noticing footnotes about textiles scattered through the archaeological literature. She thought she’d spend nine months pulling together what was known. Her little project became a decades-long exploration that turned textile archaeology into a full-blown field. Textile production, Barber writes in Prehistoric Textiles (1991), ‘is older than pottery or metallurgy and perhaps even than agriculture and stock-breeding’.
Of course, pottery and metal artifacts survived the centuries much better than cloth, which is rarely found in more than tiny fragments. That’s one reason we tend to forget how important textiles were in the earliest economic production. We envision an ancient world of hard surfaces much as we imagine the First World War in black and white.
But before there was gold or silver currency, traders used cloth. In the 20th century BC, the Minoan kingdom on resource-poor Crete swapped wool and linen for the metals that its famed craftsmen, represented by the mythical Daedalus, used to create their wares. In the pre-monetary trade of the ancient Aegean and Anatolia, writes the archaeologist Brendan Burke in From Minos to Midas (2010), textile production was of ‘greater value and importance … than the production of painted clay pots, metal tools, and objects carved from precious metals: everyone depended on cloth’.
Archaeologists often track fabric production by what is left behind. Huge numbers of spindle whorls (usually of clay) survive, as do the clay loom weights that held vertically hung warp threads in tension. By counting the clay weights left from his workshops’ looms, writes Barber, ‘we can calculate that King Midas of Gordion could have kept over 100 women busy weaving for him, which makes him more than twice as rich as Homer’s fabulous King Alkinnoos [Alcinous, from the Odyssey], who had 50. No wonder the Greeks viewed Midas as synonymous with gold!’
December 18, 2016
Robert H. Scales is a retired major general with a few notions to help make US infantry (and marines) more effective in ground combat situations:
Those of us who have spent our lives leading soldiers and Marines in combat agree with President-elect Donald Trump on one major campaign issue: We are fed-up with the defense establishment paying for high-tech fighter-jet programs such as the F-35 that cost more than a trillion dollars when, after 15 years of ground warfare and thousands of dead soldiers and Marines, we still send these “intimate killers” into combat with inferior gear.
Take a closer look inside the Department of Defense’s weapons-buying cabal and you’ll see people mad at work cooking up still more Star Wars–type stuff — from magic electronic rail guns to plane-killing laser blasters to hypersonic space planes. All this future gear would make George Lucas proud. But this stuff is about as far out in space and time as Luke Skywalker.
Has anyone noticed that Vladimir Putin is spending his money on “little green men”? These men are infantrymen serving in Spetnaz, GRU, naval, special forces, and airborne units. They do Russia’s dirty work in Ukraine, Georgia, Crimea, and Syria. Putin’s military is poor by our standards. But Putin spends lavishly on his infantry. His “Ratnik” weapons-development program is uniquely tailored to give his infantry the cutting edge — yet inexpensive — equipment they need to succeed in close combat.
Maybe we should consider following Putin’s lead by buying affordable stuff for the guys who are doing most of the killing and dying in our contemporary wars. We need Popular Mechanics, not Star Wars. The Defense Department can order some of it on your Amazon Prime account today and skip its lugubrious and wasteful acquisition process. Here are some things to add to an infantryman’s Christmas shopping cart.
The stuff described above is on the shelf today. Most of it is made in America.
By the way, anyone with reservations about the veracity of equipping our soldiers and Marines with “cheap and quick” gear should talk to General James Mattis, the soon-to-be secretary of defense. Mattis comes from a service, the U.S. Marine Corps, known for getting the most killing power for the dollar. For as long as I’ve known him, he’s passionately advocated increasing the combat effectiveness of close-combat soldiers and Marines. I suspect, if asked, Mattis will confirm the wisdom of this Christmas list and suggest additional inexpensive ways to get superior gear into the hands of the men we send into harm’s way.
December 15, 2016
Robert Beckhusen on the ongoing attempt to bring a long-ago crashed de Havilland Mosquito back to life:
The de Havilland Mosquito was arguably the best British plane of World War II, the war’s most effective fighter-bomber and one of the most versatile military planes ever built. That’s why it’s strange so few of the wooden, twin-engine machines appear at air shows.
There are currently only three airworthy Mosquitos in the world.
A group of British engineers are trying to change that by bringing a Mosquito back from the dead. Since 2012, the U.K.-based People’s Mosquito project has raised funds and begun working to restore an ex-Royal Air Force Mosquito which crashed in 1949, was buried and then recovered 61 years later.
“A much beloved friend of ours, and our patron, Capt. Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, once said that three British aircraft were preeminent in World War II,” Ross Sharp, the People’s Mosquito’s director of engineering told War Is Boring. “One was the Spitfire, the other was the Lancaster and the third was the Mosquito, and if you had to rank them, you’d put the Mosquito first.”
“That was due, I think, because it performed so many roles and performed them superbly.”
On Feb. 14, 1949, the NF.36 fighter RL249 suffered failures in both engines after takeoff and crashed near RAF Coltishall in Norfolk. Sgt. W.B. Kirby, the plane’s navigator, later died from his injuries. RL249’s remains were recovered in 2010, but the pieces are almost entirely unusable.
Instead, the People’s Mosquito team is building — largely from scratch — a Mosquito FB.VI variant, a highly-configurable fighter-bomber. The plane will thus be a “data plate restoration,” meaning the airframe, wings and engines will be fresh, but it will also contain some non-structural bits from the original RL249.
The original Mosquitos did not contain data plates. But that’s not necessary for the team to get the finished aircraft certified as a restoration.
“Providing you possess everything that is left of that aircraft, legally you are in possession of what our civil aviation authorities call ‘the mortal remains’ — that’s the technical term — and you can then restore it,” Sharp said.
“It’s going to be mostly new parts, of course, which in a predominantly wooden aircraft like the Mosquito is vital.”