Published on 28 Dec 2016
James May is back in his shed, reassembling a Hornby (or is it) train set
January 7, 2017
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.”
December 8, 2016
Scott Adams says that the “Moist Robot Hypothesis” explains why dick pics are a thing:
The Moist Robot Hypothesis also assumes that most, if not all, of our “decisions” are little more than rationalizations for our instinct to procreate in the most productive way. And by that I mean mating with people who have genetic advantages that would make the offspring successful. That’s why people are attracted to beauty, because it is a visual proxy for good health and good genes. For the same reason, women are naturally attracted to successful men that have talent, money, or some other sort of advantage. (Obviously these are generalizations and don’t apply to all.)
Our sex drive is so strong that it largely eliminates the option for rational behavior. And as you know, the hornier you get, the stupider you are. Once a guy reaches a critical level of horniness, his rational brain shuts off and he becomes primal. And when he’s primal, he sometimes signals his availability for mating in the most basic way possible: He displays his junk in full preparedness.
If you think the men doing this behavior are extra-dumb, or extra-rude, that might be true. But it is just as likely that such men are extra-horny. That gets you to the same decision no matter your IQ because the rational brain is shut down during maximum arousal.
It is also true – as far as I can tell from discussions with women over the years – that sometimes a dick pic actually results in dating and sex. I realize how hard that is to believe. But sometimes (maybe one time in 500) it actually works. You would think those odds would be enough to discourage even a man with a temporarily suspended intellect, but that view ignores the basic nature of men: We’re risk takers when it comes to reproduction.
December 7, 2016
… we know that ubiquitous RFID tags are coming to consumer products. They’ve been coming for years, now, and the applications are endless. More to the point they can be integrated with plastic products and packaging, and printed cheaply enough that they’re on course to replace bar codes.
Embedded microcontrollers are also getting dirt cheap; you can buy them in bulk for under US $0.49 each. Cheap enough to embed in recycling bins, perhaps? Along with a photovoltaic cell for power and a short-range radio transceiver for data. I’ve trampled all over this ground already; the point is, if it’s cheap enough to embed in paving stones, it’s certainly cheap enough to embed in bins, along with a short-range RFID reader and maybe a biosensor that can tell what sort of DNA is contaminating the items dumped in the bins.
The evil business plan of evil (and misery) posits the existence of smart municipality-provided household recycling bins. There’s an inductance device around it (probably a coil) to sense ferrous metals, a DNA sniffer to identify plant or animal biomass and SmartWater tagged items, and an RFID reader to scan any packaging. The bin has a PV powered microcontroller that can talk to a base station in the nearest wifi-enabled street lamp, and thence to the city government’s waste department. The householder sorts their waste into the various recycling bins, and when the bins are full they’re added to a pickup list for the waste truck on the nearest routing — so that rather than being collected at a set interval, they’re only collected when they’re full.
But that’s not all.
Householders are lazy or otherwise noncompliant and sometimes dump stuff in the wrong bin, just as drivers sometimes disobey the speed limit.
The overt value proposition for the municipality (who we are selling these bins and their support infrastructure to) is that the bins can sense the presence of the wrong kind of waste. This increases management costs by requiring hand-sorting, so the individual homeowner can be surcharged (or fined). More reasonably, households can be charged a high annual waste recycling and sorting fee, and given a discount for pre-sorting everything properly, before collection — which they forefeit if they screw up too often.
The covert value proposition … local town governments are under increasing pressure to cut their operating budgets. But by implementing increasingly elaborate waste-sorting requirements and imposing direct fines on households for non-compliance, they can turn the smart recycling bins into a new revenue enhancement channel, much like the speed cameras in Waldo. Churn the recycling criteria just a little bit and rely on tired and over-engaged citizens to accidentally toss a piece of plastic in the metal bin, or some food waste in the packaging bin: it’ll make a fine contribution to your city’s revenue!
Charles Stross, “The Evil Business Plan of Evil (and misery for all)”, Charlie’s Diary, 2015-05-21.
November 27, 2016
In February 1939, Vogue ran a major feature on the fashions of the future. Inspired by the soon-to-open New York World’s Fair, the magazine asked nine industrial designers to imagine what the people of ‘a far Tomorrow’ might wear and why. (The editors deemed fashion designers too of-the-moment for such speculations.) A mock‑up of each outfit was manufactured and photographed for a lavish nine-page colour spread.
You might have seen some of the results online: an evening dress with a see-through net top and strategically placed swirls of gold braid, for instance, or a baggy men’s jumpsuit with a utility belt and halo antenna. Bloggers periodically rediscover a British newsreel of models demonstrating the outfits while a campy narrator (‘Oh, swish!’) makes laboured jokes. The silly get‑ups are always good for self-satisfied smirks. What dopes those old-time prognosticators were!
The ridicule is unfair. Anticipating climate-controlled interiors, greater nudity, more athleticism, more travel and simpler wardrobes, the designers actually got a lot of trends right. Besides, the mock‑ups don’t reveal what really made the predicted fashions futuristic. Looking only at the pictures, you can’t detect the most prominent technological theme.
‘The important improvements and innovations in clothes for the World of Tomorrow will be in the fabrics themselves,’ declared Raymond Loewy, one of the Vogue contributors. His fellow visionaries agreed. Every single one talked about textile advances. Many of their designs specified yet-to-be-invented materials that could adjust to temperature, change colour or be crushed into suitcases without wrinkling. Without exception, everyone foretelling the ‘World of Tomorrow’ believed that an exciting future meant innovative new fabrics.
They all understood something we’ve largely forgotten: that textiles are technology, more ancient than bronze and as contemporary as nanowires. We hairless apes co-evolved with our apparel. But, to reverse Arthur C Clarke’s adage, any sufficiently familiar technology is indistinguishable from nature. It seems intuitive, obvious – so woven into the fabric of our lives that we take it for granted.
November 22, 2016
John Tierney on the President-elect’s stated views on science:
What will a Trump administration mean for scientific research and technology?
The good news is that the next president doesn’t seem all that interested in science, judging from the little he said about it during the campaign. That makes a welcome contrast with Barack Obama, who cared far too much — in the wrong way. He politicized science to advance his agenda. His scientific appointees in the White House, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Food and Drug Administration were distinguished by their progressive ideology, not the quality of their research. They used junk science — or no science — to justify misbegotten crusades against dietary salt, trans fats, and electronic cigarettes. They cited phony statistics to spread myths about a gender pay gap and a rape crisis on college campuses. Ignoring mainstream climate scientists, they blamed droughts and storms on global warming and then tried to silence critics who pointed out their mistakes.
Trump has vaguely expressed support for federal funding of R&D in science, medicine, and energy, but he has stressed encouraging innovation in the private sector. His election has left the science establishment aghast. Its members were mostly behind Hillary Clinton, both because they share her politics and because she would continue the programs funded by Obama. Their fears of losing funding are probably overblown — there’s strong support in Congress for R&D — but some of the priorities could change.
Trump has vowed to ignore the Paris international climate agreement that committed the U.S. to reduce greenhouse emissions. That prospect appalls environmentalists but cheers those of us who consider the agreement an enormously expensive way to achieve very little. Trump’s position poses a financial threat to wind-power producers and other green-energy companies that rely on federal subsidies to survive.
November 15, 2016
November 13, 2016
The #gotofail episode will become a text book example of not just poor attention to detail, but moreover, the importance of disciplined logic, rigor, elegance, and fundamental coding theory.
A still deeper lesson in all this is the fragility of software. Prof Arie van Deursen nicely describes the iOS7 routine as “brittle”. I want to suggest that all software is tragically fragile. It takes just one line of silly code to bring security to its knees. The sheer non-linearity of software — the ability for one line of software anywhere in a hundred million lines to have unbounded impact on the rest of the system — is what separates development from conventional engineering practice. Software doesn’t obey the laws of physics. No non-trivial software can ever be fully tested, and we have gone too far for the software we live with to be comprehensively proof read. We have yet to build the sorts of software tools and best practice and habits that would merit the title “engineering”.
I’d like to close with a philosophical musing that might have appealed to my old mentors at Telectronics. Post-modernists today can rejoice that the real world has come to pivot precariously on pure text. It is weird and wonderful that technicians are arguing about the layout of source code — as if they are poetry critics.
We have come to depend daily on great obscure texts, drafted not by people we can truthfully call “engineers” but by a largely anarchic community we would be better of calling playwrights.
Stephan Wilson, “gotofail and a defence of purists”, Lockstep, 2014-02-26.
November 9, 2016
November 4, 2016
In the Economist, a look at a very different kind of wine appliance:
To create a new wine the customer manipulates three sliders on a touch screen attached to the machine. One moves between the extremes of “light” and “full-bodied”. A second runs from “soft”, via “mellow” to “fiery”. The third goes from “sweet” to “dry”. No confusing descriptions like “strawberry notes with a nutty aftertaste” are needed.
The desired glass is then mixed from tanks of each of the four primaries, hidden inside the machine’s plinth. The requisite quantities are pumped into a transparent cone-shaped mixing vessel on top of the plinth. Added air bubbles ensure a good, swirling mix and flashing light-emitting diodes give a suitably theatrical display.
Traditionalists may be appalled by all this, but they should not be. In Mr Wimalaratne’s mind, the function of the Vinfusion system is in principle little different from the blending of grape varieties that goes on in many vineyards, to produce wines more interesting than those based on a single variety. Moreover, if Vinfusion works as intended, it will let people experiment with oenological flavours in a way that is currently impossible and which lets them discover what appeals. A decent sommelier ought then to be able to recommend wines vinified in the conventional way that will taste similar.
In the longer run, recording and collating the requests made to a group of Vinfusion machines might even help restaurants and bars stock bottles that people will like, rather than merely tolerate. And if all this happens, the snobbery and mystique surrounding wine—whether blended in the vineyard or the restaurant—may disappear for good.
The selected “component” wines are chosen for their vintage-to-vintage consistency, so that there’s a lower variability in the wines used to blend your personal selection. This almost certainly wouldn’t work as well with wines from cool climate areas (like Ontario).
November 2, 2016
Online security theatre: “We sell biometric authentication systems to people who need a good password manager”
Joey DeVilla linked to this discussion of the Mirai botnet and the distressing failures of online security … not for the brilliance and sophistication of the attack (it was neither), but the failure to address simple common-sense security issues:
I’ve written about 1988’s Morris worm, and I wanted to dig into the source of the Mirai botnet (helpfully published by the author) to see how far we’ve come along in the past 28 years.
Can you guess how Mirai spreads?
Was there new zeroday in the devices? Hey, maybe there was an old, unpatched vulnerability hanging — who has time to apply software updates to their toaster? Maybe it was HeartBleed 👻?
Mirai does one, and only one thing in order to break into new devices: it cycles through a bunch of default username/password combinations over telnet, like “admin/admin” and “root/realtek”. For a laugh, “mother/fucker” is in there too.
Default credentials. Over telnet. That’s how you get hundreds of thousands of devices. The Morris worm from 1988 tried a dictionary password attack too, but only after its buffer overflow and sendmail backdoor exploits failed.
Oh, and Morris’ password dictionary was larger, too.