Quotulatiousness

October 12, 2014

The unique challenges to UAVs in the Canadian Arctic

Filed under: Cancon, Environment, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Ben Makuch looks at the severe environment of Canada’s Arctic and how UAV design is constrained by those conditions:

The rotary-wing UAV tested, and its view from the sky. Image: DRDC

The rotary-wing UAV tested, and its view from the sky. Image: DRDC

“A lot of these systems — UAVs particularly, and rotor-wing (that is to say helicopters or quadrotors) — are even more sensitive. They require a good understanding of what they’re heading in. And by heading, that’s kind of the direction you’re facing,” said Monckton.

And because of those difficulties, finding headings for aerial drones in the Arctic requires stronger GPS systems to establish a “line segment” of locational data, ripped, according to Monckton, from a “crown” of satellites hovering on top of Earth.

In terms of weather conditions, the extreme sub-zero temperatures is devastating on a UAV when you mix in fog or clouds. While crisp cool air with clear skies provides excellent flying conditions, once you mix in ice fog, it becomes a major risk to small UAVs.

“The biggest risk in the Arctic is structural icing,” said Monckton who explained that water in the clouds is so cool that when “you strike it, it actually crystallizes on contact.”

At CFS Alert, the Multi-Agent Tactical Sentry (MATS) UGV travels through rough Arctic terrain during an autonomous path-following test without the use of GPS. The Canadian Armed Forces Joint Arctic Experiment (CAFJAE) 2014 tests autonomous technology for Arctic conditions and explores its potential for future concepts of military operations through experiments carried out August 2014 at Canadian Forces Station Alert, Nunavut.  CAF and Defence Research and Development Canada's (DRDC) JAE work will benefit multiple government partners and centers around a fictitious satellite crash with hazard identification, telecommunication and other search and rescue tasks.

At CFS Alert, the Multi-Agent Tactical Sentry (MATS) UGV travels through rough Arctic terrain during an autonomous path-following test without the use of GPS. The Canadian Armed Forces Joint Arctic Experiment (CAFJAE) 2014 tests autonomous technology for Arctic conditions and explores its potential for future concepts of military operations through experiments carried out August 2014 at Canadian Forces Station Alert, Nunavut. CAF and Defence Research and Development Canada’s (DRDC) JAE work will benefit multiple government partners and centers around a fictitious satellite crash with hazard identification, telecommunication and other search and rescue tasks. Image: DRDC

Unsurprisingly, the wings of a drone being enveloped in ice presents “a major impediment to general unmanned air operations,” Monckton said. In part, because “UAVs are too small to carry standard deicing equipment [as used] on a commercial aircraft. So that’s a major problem.”

For the project, DRDC took a previously manned helicopter and modified it into an unmanned vehicle. They had help from Calgary-based Meggit Canada for the project, a defence and security contractor also responsible for this armed training hexicopter.

As for ground drones, or unmanned ground vehicles, Monckton said weather and temperature were an afterthought. The real challenge, was the actual terrain.

“The arctic has a really peculiar surface,” said Monckton, adding that the high Arctic offers mostly marshlands, rocky outcrops, or elevated permafrost that produces spiky formations. “So the UGV was kind of going between easy riding on sloppy stuff and then getting pounded to pieces on the rough frost boils.”

October 9, 2014

“Political barriers make it harder to innovate with atoms than with bits”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Law, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:30

Virginia Postrel on the barriers that slow down — or completely stop — innovation in far too many non-digital fields:

… I sympathize with science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson and venture-capitalist Peter Thiel, whose new books lament the demise of grand 20th-century dreams and the optimistic culture they expressed. “I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done,” writes Stephenson in the preface to Hieroglyph, a science-fiction anthology hoping “to rekindle grand technological ambitions through the power of storytelling.” In Zero to One, a book mostly about startups, Thiel makes the argument that “we have to find our way back to a definite future, and the Western world needs nothing short of a cultural revolution to do it.”

Their concerns about technological malaise are reasonable. As I’ve written here before, “political barriers have in fact made it harder to innovate with atoms than with bits.” It’s depressing to see just about any positive development — a dramatic decline in the need for blood transfusions, for instance — greeted with gloom. (“The trend is wreaking havoc in the blood bank business, forcing a wave of mergers and job cutbacks.”)

When a report about how ground-penetrating radar has mapped huge undiscovered areas of Stonehenge immediately provokes a comment wondering whether the radar endangers the landscape, something has gone seriously wrong with our sense of wonder. “There’s an automatic perception … that everything’s dangerous,” Stephenson mused at a recent event in Los Angeles, citing the Stonehenge example, “and that there’s some cosmic balance at work — that if there’s an advance somewhere it must have a terrible cost. That’s a hard thing to fix, but I think that if we had some more interesting Apollo-like projects or big successes we could point to it might lift that burden that is on people’s minds.”

Postrel argues that Stephenson’s fix would not work, and that our nostalgia for the early days of the Space Age blind us to the reality that most Americans in that era did not believe that the money for the Apollo missions was well spent (with the brief exception of July, 1969). She makes the point that our culture has changed significantly and those attitudinal changes are much more of the reason for today’s hesitancy and doubt about progress:

We already have plenty of critics telling us that our creativity and effort are for naught, our pleasures and desires absurd, our civilization wicked and destructive. We live in a culture where condemnatory phrases like “the ecosystems we’ve broken” are throwaway lines, and the top-grossing movie of all time is a heavy-handed science-fiction parable about the evils of technology and exploration. We don’t need Neal Stephenson piling on.

The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel. Science-fiction glamour in fact worked on only a small slice of the public. (Nobody else in my kindergarten was grabbing for You Will Go to the Moon.) People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories — not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories — that reinforced this belief. They remembered epidemics and rejoiced in vaccines and wonder drugs. They looked back on crowded urban walk-ups and appreciated neat suburban homes. They recalled ironing on sweaty summer days and celebrated air conditioning and wash-and-wear fabrics. They marveled at tiny transistor radios and dreamed of going on airplane trips.

Then the stories changed. For good reasons and bad, more and more Americans stopped believing in what they had once viewed as progress. Plastics became a punch line, convenience foods ridiculous, nature the standard of all things right and good. Freeways destroyed neighborhoods. Urban renewal replaced them with forbidding Brutalist plazas. New subdivisions represented a threat to the landscape rather than the promise of the good life. Too-fast airplanes produced window-rattling sonic booms. Insecticides harmed eagles’ eggs. Exploration meant conquest and brutal exploitation. Little by little, the number of modern offenses grew until we found ourselves in a 21st century where some of the most educated, affluent and cultural influentially people in the country are terrified of vaccinating their children. Nothing good, they’ve come to think, comes from disturbing nature.

Emphasis mine.

September 11, 2014

Evolution versus revolution in the design of HMS Queen Elizabeth

Filed under: Britain, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Peter Roberts analyzes the design trade-offs of the Queen Elizabeth class for the Royal United Services Institute:

Queen Elizabeth class side and overhead views

Queen Elizabeth class side and overhead views

The most important change in the Queen Elizabeth class is the open acknowledgement of the primacy of running costs at the heart of the project – manifest in crew numbers, unmanned monitoring and power generation. The UK carriers are platforms designed by economists, not warriors.

The largest costs for running maritime platforms are manpower and fuel. In terms of manpower, the Queen Elizabeth will have a crew of 650 with an additional thousand berths available for the air group. By comparison, the American Nimitz class and new Gerald Ford class, which displace around 40,000 tonnes more, are crewed by 6,000 and 4,500 personnel respectively. The French Charles de Gaulle, which in terms of tonnage is about a third smaller its British counterpart, carries a crew of around 2,500. The UK figures were driven by the necessity to avoid increasing the manpower bill of the Royal Navy. As such, the 650 figure is exactly the same as the preceding Invincible class. Allowing the same complement to effectively operate a vessel three times the size of her predecessor has forced some innovative thinking.

The use of automation and remote monitoring has been essential to meet the manpower restrictions. Cameras and monitoring equipment have been built into almost every system in the new ships. From machinery spaces to bilge areas, remote performance monitoring has allowed a marked reduction in the manpower requirements of the ships. Whilst this makes good sense in financial terms, it does not in terms of pure war-fighting capability. Naval vessels differ significantly from their commercial counterparts in terms of damage control and fire-fighting. These roles are remarkably manpower intensive. The experiences of major damage in the Falklands conflict have been reinforced at intervals by peacetime incidents on HMS Nottingham (2002) and Endurance (2008), which required the efforts of the full ship’s complement to remain afloat. The damage-control capabilities of the UK carrier platforms should, therefore, be a primary concern.

[...]

There is one further element that has not been well considered in the Carrier-Enabled Power Projection doctrine of the Royal Navy and the MoD. Protection of these assets from threats has effectively been taken ‘on-risk’, and against all operational analysis. The self defence capabilities of these ships are extremely limited. The provision of close-in weapon systems and automatic small-calibre guns does not guarantee adequate protection against a small scale naval threat, let alone a shore-based one. Naval doctrine instead requires protection of the carriers by destroyers and frigates. This is a cost-effective solution provided that the task group has the necessary units to provide such protection. But there is no evidence that the projected Royal Navy combined frigate/destroyer force could do so.

The Queen Elizabeth class is therefore an interesting example of innovation: rather than in the sense of equipment and capability, it might be more relevant to think about how risk to the platforms is being dealt with in an ‘innovative’ manner.

The second ship in the class, HMS Prince of Wales just reached a major milestone in construction:

HMS Prince of Wales hull sections

Construction of HMS Prince of Wales, the second of two new aircraft carriers for the UK Royal Navy, has moved forward with the docking of two of the ship’s largest hull sections – Lower Block 02 and Lower Block 03.

The movement of the blocks into the dock at Rosyth marks the beginning of the ship’s assembly phase and comes only days after Prime Minister David Cameron announced that HMS Prince of Wales will enter into service, ensuring that the UK will always have one aircraft carrier available.

Ian Booth, Managing Director at the Aircraft Carrier Alliance, said: “Every milestone in the carrier programme is hugely significant and the recent announcement that HMS Prince of Wales will enter service means there is a real sense of excitement as we start to bring the second ship together. Everyone working across the Alliance is incredibly proud of the work undertaken so far, in what is currently one of the biggest engineering projects in the country, and we remain focused on delivering both ships to the highest standards.”

August 28, 2014

Digital “ecosystems”, “platforms”, and sunk costs

Filed under: Business, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:19

The Guardian Technology Blog looks at how digital product vendors attempt to lock you into their own (more profitable) platform or ecosystem:

Depending on your view, the stuff you own is either a boon to business or a tremendous loss of opportunity.

For example, your collection of spice bottles in your pantry means that I could possibly sell you a spice rack. On the other hand, it also means that I can’t design a special spice rack that only admits spice bottles of my own patent-protected design, which would thereby ensure that if you wanted to buy spices in the future you’d either have to buy them from me or throw away that very nice spice rack I sold you.

In the tech world, this question is often framed in terms of “ecosystems” (as in the “Google/Chrome/Android ecosystem”) or platforms (as in the “Facebook platform”) but whatever you call it, the discussion turns on a crucial different concept: sunk cost.

That’s the money, time, mental energy and social friction you’ve already sunk into the stuff you own. Your spice rack’s sunk cost includes the money you spend on the rack, the time you spent buying fixings for it and the time you spent affixing it, the emotional toil of getting your family to agree on a spice rack, and the incredible feeling of dread that arises when you contemplate going through the whole operation again.

If you’ve already got a lot of sunk costs, the canny product strategy is to convince you that you can buy something that will help you organise your spices, rip all your CDs and put them on a mobile device, or keep your clothes organised.

But what a vendor really wants is to get you to sink cost into his platform, ecosystem, or what have you. To convince you to buy his wares, in order to increase the likelihood that you’ll go on doing so — because they match the decor, because you already have the adapters, and so on.

The vendor wants to impose a switching cost on you, to penalise you for disloyalty should you defect to another ecosystem/platform. The higher your switching costs, the worse the vendor can afford to treat you — rather than supplying the best goods at the best price, he can provide the best goods at the best price, plus the switching cost you’d have to pay if you went somewhere else. Or he can offer the best price, but offer goods whose manufacture — and quality — is cheaper by a sum of about the cost you’d have to pay for switching.

QotD: “Intelligent Design” and the paradox of the human body

Filed under: Humour, Quotations, Religion, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The human body, very cunningly designed in some details, is cruelly and senselessly bungled in other details, and every reflective first-year medical student must notice a hundred ways to improve it. How are we to reconcile this mixture of finesse and blundering with the concept of a single omnipotent Designer, to whom all problems are equally easy? If He could contrive so efficient and durable a machine as the human hand, then how did He come to make such botches as the tonsils, the gallbladder, the ovaries and the prostate gland? If He could perfect the elbow and the ear, then why did He boggle the teeth?

Having never encountered a satisfactory — or even a remotely plausible — answer to such questions, I have had to go to the trouble of devising one myself. It is, at all events, quite simple, and in strict accord with all the known facts. In brief, it is this: that the theory that the universe is run by a single God must be abandoned, and that in place of it we must set up the theory that it is actually run by a board of gods, all of equal puissance and authority. Once this concept is grasped the difficulties that have vexed theologians vanish, and human experience instantly lights up the whole dark scene. We observe in everyday life what happens when authority is divided, and great decisions are reached by consultation and compromise. We know that the effects at times, particularly when one of the consultants runs away with the others, are very good, but we also know that they are usually extremely bad. Such a mixture, precisely, is on display in the cosmos. It presents a series of brilliant successes in the midst of an infinity of failures.

I contend that my theory is the only one ever put forward that completely accounts for the clinical picture. Every other theory, facing such facts as sin, disease and disaster, is forced to admit the supposition that Omnipotence, after all, may not be omnipotent — a plain absurdity. I need toy with no such blasphemous nonsense. I may assume that every god belonging to the council which rules the universe is infinitely wise and infinitely powerful, and yet not evade the plain fact that most of the acts of that council are ignorant and foolish. In truth, my assumption that a council exists is tantamount to an a priori assumption that its acts are ignorant and foolish, for no act of any conceivable council can be otherwise. Is the human hand perfect, or, at all events, practical and praiseworthy? Then I account for it on the ground that it was designed by some single member of the council — that the business was turned over to him by inadvertence or as a result of an irreconcilable difference of opinion among the others. Had more than one member participated actively in its design it would have been measurably less meritorious than it is, for the sketch offered by the original designer would have been forced to run the gauntlet of criticisms and suggestions from all the other councilors, and human experience teaches us that most of these criticisms and suggestions would have been inferior to the original idea — that many of them, in fact, would have had nothing in them save a petty desire to maul and spoil the original idea.

H.L. Mencken, “The Cosmic Secretariat”, American Mercury, 1924-01.

April 17, 2014

QotD: User interface design for all ages

Filed under: Humour, Media, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:51

As your body staggers down the winding road to death, user interfaces that require fighter pilot-grade eyesight, the dexterity of a neurosurgeon, and the mental agility of Derren Brown, are going to screw with you at some point.

Don’t kid yourself otherwise — disability, in one form or another, can strike at any moment.

Given that people are proving ever harder to kill off, you can expect to have decades of life ahead of you — during which you’ll be battling to figure out where on the touchscreen that trendy transdimensional two-pixel wide “OK” button is hiding.

Can you believe, people born today will spend their entire lives having to cope with this crap? The only way I can explain the web design of many Google products today is that some wannabe Picasso stole Larry Page’s girl when they were all 13, and is only now exacting his revenge. Nobody makes things that bad by accident, surely?

Dominic Connor, “Is tech the preserve of the young able-bodied? Let’s talk over a fine dinner and claret”, The Register, 2014-04-17

January 13, 2014

Defining glamour

Filed under: Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:22

Virginia Postrel is interviewed at Paleofuture:

I think of glamour as a form of communication, persuasion, rhetoric. What happens is you have an audience and you have an object — something glamorous. It could be a person, could be a place, could be an idea, could be a car — and when that audience is exposed to that object a specific emotion arises, which is a sense of projection and longing.

Glamour is like humor. You get the same sort of thing in the interaction between an audience and something funny. It’s just the emotion that’s different. So when you see something that strikes you as glamorous, or you hear about or see something glamorous, it makes you think, “If only. If only life could be like that. If only I could be there. If only I could be that person, or with that person. If only I could drive that car, fly in that spaceship, or whatever.”

And there are always three elements that create that sensation: one is a promise of escape and transformation. A different, better life in different, better circumstances. The other is there is a sense of grace, effortlessness, all the flaws and difficulties are hidden. And the third is mystery. Mystery both draws you in and enhances the grace by hiding things.

Another way of thinking about glamour is to think about the origins of the word glamour. Glamour originally meant a literal magic spell that made people see something that wasn’t there. It was a Scottish word. A magician would cast a glamour over people’s eyes and they would see something different. As the word became a more metaphorical concept, it always retained that sense of magic and illusion. And where the illusion lies is in the grace; in the disguising of difficulties and flaws.

November 4, 2013

QotD: Software quality assurance

Filed under: Business, Government, Quotations, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:13

The fundamental purpose of testing—and, for that matter, of all software quality assurance (QA) deliverables and processes — is to tell you just what you’ve built and whether it does what you think it should do. This is essential, because you can’t inspect a software program the same way you can inspect a house or a car. You can’t touch it, you can’t walk around it, you can’t open the hood or the bedroom door to see what’s inside, you can’t take it out for spin. There are very few tangible or visible clues to the completeness and reliability of a software system — and so we have to rely on QA activities to tell us how well built the system is.

Furthermore, almost any software system developed nowadays for production is vastly more complex than a house or car — it’s more on the same order of complexity of a large petrochemical processing and storage facility, with thousands of possible interconnections, states, and processes. We would be (rightly) terrified if, say, Exxon build such a sprawling oil refining complex near our neighborhood and then started up production having only done a bare minimum of inspection, testing, and trial operations before, during and after construction, offering the explanation that they would wait until after the plant went into production and then handle problems as they crop up. Yet too often that’s just how large software development projects are run, even though the system in development may well be more complex (in terms of connections, processes, and possible states) than such a petrochemical factory. And while most inadequately tested software systems won’t spew pollutants, poison the neighborhood, catch fire, or explode, they can cripple corporate operations, lose vast sums of money, spark shareholder lawsuits, and open the corporation’s directors and officers to civil and even criminal liability (particularly with the advent of Sarbanes-Oxley).

And that presumes that the system can actually go into production. The software engineering literature and the trade press are replete with well-documented case studies of “software runaways”: large IT re-engineering or development projects that consume tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, or in a few spectacular (government) cases, billions of dollars, over a period of years, before grinding to a halt and being terminated without ever having put a usable, working system into production. So it’s important not to skimp on testing and the other QA-related activities.

Bruce F. Webster, “Obamacare and the Testing Gap”, And Still I Persist…, 2013-10-31

October 31, 2013

Canada’s shipbuilding strategy – the worst of both worlds

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:15

The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) both are badly in need of new ships. The federal government has been aware of this for quite some time and has made plenty of announcements about addressing those needs … but the actual steps taken do not give me hope that the needs will be met economically or in a timely fashion. Canada no longer has a domestic ship-building industry with experience in producing military vessels, and it does not make economic sense to re-create it for the relatively small number of ships the RCN and the CCG actually need.

Politically, it can be a good election ploy to pour lots of government money into new shipyards which will employ hundreds of skilled and unskilled workers. The newly employed will be spending their salaries in Halifax, Vancouver, and Quebec and the visible signs of construction (both of the facilities themselves and of the hulls of the ships) will be a steady reminder to voters that the feds are investing in their cities. From the political viewpoint, it makes lots of sense to design and build the ships in Canada.

Economically, the situation is quite different. None of the remaining shipbuilding firms have the trained staff for either designing or assembling modern military ships. They’ll need to expand their yards and hire new skilled workers to take on the contracts. The civilian economy probably does not have all the necessary trained would-be employees ready to hire, so many would need to be brought in from other countries while training courses eventually turn out enough Canadians able to take those jobs. This will all increase the cost of the shipbuilding program, and delay the already belated eventual delivery of the ships. J.L. Granatstein explains:

The government’s National Shipbuilding Strategy aims to provide Arctic patrol ships, supply vessels and eventually replacements for the RCN’s fine frigates, as well as a large icebreaker and 10 smaller ships for the Coast Guard. The cost, including the frigate replacement, is estimated at $80 billion, and the process involves re-establishing the nation’s shipyards in Vancouver and Halifax, in effect re-creating a defunct industry. Up to 15,000 jobs are to be created.

But this is Canada, so pork and high costs are inevitable. National Defence and Public Works are deeply involved, politicians’ hands are all over the plans, and costs are sky-high. Consider the two Joint Support Ships to be built in Vancouver for $3 billion. They will likely be fine ships when they hit the water, years late. Britain’s Royal Navy, however, is buying four roughly similar ships from South Korean builders for $750 million — for all four. Should the RCN ships cost eight times those of the British? The Dutch navy is buying ships built in Romania; the Danes use ships built in Poland. Why? Because the cost is far less, the quality is good, and the work of installing the armaments and communications systems can be done in home waters, creating good jobs.

Take another case, the 10 small vessels to be built on the west coast for the Coast Guard for $3.3 billion. In 2007, the Danes bought similar, larger ships for $50 million each, ships with an icebreaking capacity the CCG ships will not have. Even with six years of inflation factored in, the CCG ships will cost at least three to five times as much.

But, the government will say, the jobs being created on the coasts are good ones, paying well for the skilled workers who are being trained to fill them. It is true, but will the Canadian public support the RCN and the Coast Guard when it realizes the massive costs involved to create each job? Moreover, no government can bind its successors to follow any policy. Jean Chrétien killed the maritime helicopter project when he came to power two decades ago, and the RCN still has no new ones. A future government might well say that the deficit is too high and the ship projects cannot proceed. After all, governments have killed the shipbuilding industry in this country before — after the two world wars and after the RCN frigate program ended in the 1990s. There are no guarantees in politics, and neither the Liberals nor the NDP seem high on defence spending for anything other than peacekeeping.

However, any time the political equations and the economic equations point in very different directions, you can almost always count on the politicians to go for the most expensive/most politically advantageous answer.

October 25, 2013

The glamour of big IT projects

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

Virginia Postrel on the hubris of the Obamacare project team:

The HealthCare.gov website is a disaster — symbolic to Obamacare opponents, disheartening to supporters, and incredibly frustrating to people who just need to buy insurance. Some computer experts are saying the only way to save the system is to scrap the current bloated code and start over.

Looking back, it seems crazy that neither the Barack Obama administration nor the public was prepared for the startup difficulties. There’s no shortage of database experts willing to opine on the complexities of the problem. Plenty of companies have nightmarish stories to tell about much simpler software projects. And reporting by the New York Times finds that the people involved with the system knew months ago that it was in serious trouble. “We foresee a train wreck,” one said back in February.

So why didn’t the administration realize that integrating a bunch of incompatible government databases into a seamless system with an interface just about anyone could understand was a really, really hard problem? Why was even the president seemingly taken by surprise when the system didn’t work like it might in the movies?

We have become seduced by computer glamour.

Whether it’s a television detective instantly checking a database of fingerprints or the ease of Amazon.com’s “1-Click” button, we imagine that software is a kind of magic — all the more so if it’s software we’ve never actually experienced. We expect it to be effortless. We don’t think about how it got there or what its limitations might be. Instead of imagining future technologies as works in progress, improving over time, we picture them as perfect from day one.

August 28, 2013

Home 3D printers are not quite plug-and-play yet

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:45

Ars Technica‘s Lee Hutchinson finds through actual hands-on experience that “home” 3D printers are still in the “tinkering” stage of development:

I volunteered to put the Printrbot through its paces from the perspective of someone who’s only vaguely aware of home 3D printing as a technology. Before getting my hands on the Printrbot Simple, I’d never even seen a home 3D printer before.

What I found as I dug in was a pit without a bottom — an absolute yawning Stygian abyss of options and tweaking and modifications and endless re-printing. To own and use a 3D printer is to become enmeshed in a constant stream of tinkering, tweaking, and upgrades. It feels a lot like owning a project car that you must continually wrench on to keep it running right. Almost from the moment I got the Printrbot out of the box and printing, I had to start the tweaking. And as a total 3D printing newb, it really soured me on the Printrbot and on the entire concept of low-cost 3D printing in general. “Surely,” I thought, “this frustration is because I’m cutting my teeth on a $299 3D printer intended for early adopters. Surely a higher-end 3D printer is easier!”

And so, in order to see how a higher-end home 3D printer works, I found myself in possession of a much more expensive, much more impressive-looking Makerbot Replicator 2. That device costs $2,200 as opposed to the Printrbot Simple’s $299. The first few things I printed out with the much more expensive device were amazing. It was like leaving the project car in the garage and driving the Lexus to work — you get in, press the button, and go. But then, after perhaps 20 hours of print time, the problems started. Filament would fail to feed. The printer would clog. The printer produced spaghetti instead of actual models, ruining overnight print jobs. I had to replace the plunger-based filament extruder with a new spring-loaded version to overcome a design flaw. I found myself re-leveling the build plate and disassembling and reassembling the extruder way more than I ever had to do with the little Printrbot. All of that was as fun as it sounds.

The Makerbot wasn’t turning out to be an expensive but reliable Lexus. It was turning out to be an expensive and you-better-own-two-because-one-will-always-be-broken 1970s-era Jaguar. It wasn’t just frustrating — it was actually enraging. If I had paid $2,200 out of my own pocket for the Makerbot, I would have been sorely tempted to drive up to New York and fling the thing through the windows of Makerbot’s office.

Update, 30 August: Another thing holding back widespread adoption of home 3D printing is that you need proper designs to use for your 3D printer, and most people are not familiar with CAD or CAD-like design programs. This will continue to be a hindrance for original designs, but MakerBot Digitizer can help you copy physical items:

The Digitizer is about the size of a portable 45 rpm record player — with a laser-shooting accessory attached to the back. MakerBot head honcho Bre Pettis debuted a prototype of the Digitizer at his SXSW keynote address back in March, and now the device is almost ready for sale. The MakerBot Digitizer starts shipping in October.

Here’s how it works. You start with a relatively small object — you’re limited to a maximum weight of 6.6 pounds, and the object has to be less than 8 inches wide and 8 inches tall. Put it on the Digitizer’s turntable, and the device scans it with two “eye-safe” lasers as the turntable spins. After the object has been fully scanned, the Digitizer outputs a 3-D design file. The entire scanning process takes about 12 minutes, according to the MakerBot website — there are 800 individual steps within a full 360-degree rotation.

Of course, this is just a surface scan: hollow objects or objects with interior voids will still need further design processing before you can hit “copy”.

August 23, 2013

The avant-garde is dead, dead, dead

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:03

In Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory talks to Camille Paglia about themes in her new book Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars:

In Glittering Images, you argue that the avant-garde is dead. Are there any artists — be they painters or pop stars — who are making innovative work right now?

The avant-garde was a magnificent and revolutionary phase in the history of art, but it’s completely over. Artists and galleries must (in Ann Landers’ immortal words) wake up and smell the coffee! The avant-garde, whose roots were in late-18th-century Romanticism, was a reaction against a strong but suffocating classical tradition. The great modernist artists, from Picasso to James Joyce, were trained in that tradition, which gave audacity and power to their subversion of it.

But then modernism began to feed on itself, and it became weaker and weaker. As I argue in “Glittering Images,” there has been nothing genuinely avant-garde since Andy Warhol except for Robert Mapplethorpe’s luminous homoerotic images of the sadomasochistic underground. Everything that calls itself avant-garde today is just a tedious imitation of earlier and far superior modernist art. The art world has become an echo chamber of commercially inflated rhetoric, shallow ironies and monolithic political ideology.

In the past year, the only things that sparked my enthusiasm and gave me hope for an artistic revival were in pop music: Rihanna’s eerie “Pour It Up,” which uses a strip club as a hallucinatory metaphor for an identity crisis about sex and materialism, and the Savages’ slam-bang “City’s Full,” which channels the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith to attack (with gorgeously distorted, strafing guitars) the urban parade of faux-female fashion clones. The visual arts, in contrast, are being swamped by virtual reality.

Video games and YouTube.com are creatively booming, even though Web design, as demonstrated by the ugly clutter of most major news sites, is in the pits.

[...]

Earlier this year, you wrote a highly critical article about recent academic books on the world of kink. What do you wish that these academics would say about BDSM?

My principal complaint about those three books, all from university presses, was that their intriguing firsthand documentation of the BDSM community was pointlessly shot through with turgid, pretentious theorizing, drawn from the slavishly idolized but hopelessly inaccurate and unreliable Michel Foucault.

In this tight job market, young scholars are in a terrible bind. They have to cater to and flatter the academic establishment if they hope to survive. Furthermore, they have not been taught basic skills in historical investigation, weighing of evidence, and argumentation. There has been a collapse in basic academic standards during the theory era that will take universities decades to recover from. I was incensed that none of those three authors had read a page of the Marquis de Sade, one of the most original and influential writers of the past three centuries. Sade had a major impact on Nietzsche, whom Foucault vainly tried to model himself on. Nor had the three authors read The Story of O or explored a host of other crucial landmarks in modern sadomasochism. No, it was Foucault, Foucault, Foucault — a con artist who will one day be a mere footnote in the bulging chronicle of academic follies.

You’re such a beloved and divisive figure, I had to solicit questions from folks on Twitter. Here’s a funny one: “Why do you come down so hard on skinny white girls? Your views on sexuality leave so much room for individuality, so why is it so bad if I am attracted to Meg Ryan or Gwyneth Paltrow?”

When have I ever criticized anyone’s fetish? I am a libertarian. Go right ahead — set up plastic figurines of 1950s-era moppets to bow down to in the privacy of your boudoir. No one will scold! Then whip down to the kitchen to heat up those foil-wrapped TV dinners. I still gaze back fondly at Swanson’s fried-chicken entree. The twinkly green peas! The moist apple fritter! Meg Ryan — the spitting image of all those perky counselors at my Girl Scout camp in the Adirondacks. Gwyneth Paltrow — a simpering sorority queen with field-hockey-stick legs. I will leave you to your retro pursuits while I dash off to moon over multiracial Brazilian divas.

August 19, 2013

US Navy’s littoral combat ship (LCS) program under budget threat

Filed under: Military, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:42

The US Navy is betting big on the eventual success of their Littoral Combat Ship program despite the early teething troubles (earlier posts here and here). The more traditional hull design (there are two distinct designs in the same class) is being built by Wisconsin’s Marinette Marine, as a subcontractor to Lockheed-Martin. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports on the latest political hitch in the program:

The littoral program has been dogged by problems, including early cost overruns. The completed ships have suffered from mechanical problems as well as from delays in producing switchable mission modules aimed at making the ships adaptable to varied types of warfare.

Testing has revealed deficiencies with “core ship systems,” according to the July 25 GAO report, which says Congress should consider restricting funding for additional littoral combat ships until the Navy completes technical and design studies.

Littoral combat ships are meant to be fast and capable of operating in shallow waters close to shore in places such as the Persian Gulf.

“We continue to believe that the acquisition approach for this program, with large quantities of ships and modules being bought ahead of key test events, is risky, especially for a new class of ship like LCS,” Paul Francis, a GAO official, said in recent testimony before a House of Representatives subcommittee looking into the program.

“The current LCS program is not the program envisioned over a decade ago,” Francis said, adding the Navy still doesn’t know how well the ships will perform their missions, how well the unique crew and maintenance concepts will work, or how much it will cost to equip and support the ships.

Further, the Navy is still considering changes to the ships and determining whether there are advantages to having two radically different designs — one built by Lockheed and Marinette, and the other by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala.

“These are things the Navy and Congress should know before contracting for more than half of the ships,” Francis said.


USS Freedom at sea. Click for full-sized image at Wikipedia

July 10, 2013

How Avro salvaged a bad design to create the Lancaster bomber

Filed under: Britain, History, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

In Samizdata, Brian Micklethwait goes back to his Airfix modelling days to rediscover his admiration for Avro’s Lancaster bomber. In the process, he discovers just how strange the evolution of that aircraft actually was:

In the late 1930s, believing that bombers would always get through and that they therefore had to have lots of bombers or lose the war, British Air Officialdom had two ideas about how to build a bomber. They accordingly announced two specifications, which different potential bomber-makers were invited to meet with their designs. They wanted a two engined bomber, like those that the Germans bombed Britain with in 1940 but better, or like the Wellington but better. And they wanted a much bigger four engined bomber, such as the Germans never got around to building, and like … well, like the Avro Lancaster.

So, the Lancaster was Avro’s answer to the second requirement? Actually, no. Or, not at first. Britain ended up with three four-engine heavy bombers, the Short Stirling, the Handley Page Halifax, and the Lancaster. But strangely, by far the worst of these three, the Short Stirling, was the only one of the three that was all along intended to be a four-engine bomber. Both the Halifax and the Lancaster started out as answers to the two-engine specification rather than the four-engine one.

[. . .]

In particular, all the work that Avro had done improving, as they had hoped, the fuselage of the Manchester, which had done nothing to improve the Manchester, suddenly came into its own in the new configuration. Ever since I built my Airfix Lancaster as a child, I have wondered about the oddity of that Lancaster fuselage. Simply, this fuselage seemed too small for the airplane as whole. And the wings seemed too big. Not ugly exactly, in fact not ugly at all, but nevertheless a bit like the arms of one of those misshapen body builders with excessive biceps. My Lancaster photo (above) even shows how the wings between the fuselage and the inner two engines go straight out rather than tapering, as if these wings were only widened late on in the design process. Now, all that makes sense. The Lancaster’s fuselage began life as the fuselage of a smaller airplane. No wonder it looked to me too small. It was too small. The Lancaster’s wings look stretched because they were stretched. It is only now, after half a century and more of gazing at the Lancaster, that one looks at the Manchester, and sees its fuselage as too big and its wings as too small.

The birth of the Lancaster illustrates a general point about making airplanes, which explains why successful airplanes often fly on for so long. Consider the airborne WW2 mega-hit, the DC-3 (aka the Dakota), and then later the big Boeings, the B-52 and the 747. The Lancaster didn’t last as long as those hardy perennials, because propeller driven heavy bombers were soon replaced by jet bombers (like the B-52) and by intercontinental ballistic missiles. But even the Lancaster flew on for many decades, in the only slightly altered form of its close cousin, the Avro Shackleton, which only went out of service in 1991!

May 27, 2013

The economic and technical issues with domestic ship-building programs

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:44

The Royal Canadian Navy is supposed to be getting some new ships (eventually), at a proposed cost of $25 billion. But the best way to get the most bang for our buck is not the way the government is going about it … building these highly specialized vessels in Canada does two things: it guarantees that we’ll pay far more money for fewer hulls, and it briefly raises employment in certain fields (metalworking, electrical work, welding, etc.). What it doesn’t do is create a viable industry for building naval or coast guard ships for other countries — because most other countries can either build their own (France, Germany, the UK, and the US) or have the economic sense to buy from friendly countries that can build efficiently at reasonable cost. Even if we pay a significant premium to build frigates or destroyers in Canada, once that job is over the shipyards will close down and most or all of the workers will be looking for new jobs.

Michael Whalen has more:

Given the above, the second, far more strategic, issue to be discussed is: Should we in fact be building warships in Canada at all? What is the long-term benefit to Canada?

The immediate answer from politicians of all stripes is, interestingly, not great ships, but jobs, jobs, jobs. However, the jobs they are talking about may well be far less valuable than we imagine.

There is no standard breakdown of the costs of building a warship, but a recent study by the South Australian government (as part of its input to that country’s proposed 30-year, $250- billion naval shipbuilding strategy) suggests the actual shipbuilding represents much less than half of the cost of a warship, perhaps 30 per cent to 40 per cent.

The rest comes from the design, armament, engines, electronics, etc., which will largely be procured outside of Canada, certainly outside of Nova Scotia. The benefits to Nova Scotia and to Canada will be in largely blue-collar jobs such as shipwrights, welders, electricians and general labour. In a job-poor province such as ours, these are nothing to sneeze at. This massive expenditure will not, however, create a sustainable long-term industry for our province.

To put it bluntly, there is no market for Canadian-built warships. The major buyers, the Americans, the British, the French, the Chinese, etc., build their own. They will never buy a ship from Canada.

Our governments, federal and provincial, will spend billions establishing a small, inefficient industry for which there is no market outside the government of Canada.

There are economies of scale to consider: for a dozen ships, it makes no sense to essentially create an industry from scratch. For a hundred ships, the costs start to be reasonable (but we don’t need that many, couldn’t crew that many, and nobody will buy them from us). We have an infamous historical test of this, too:

There is something of a parallel here with the aircraft industry. John Diefenbaker has been condemned for nearly 60 years for cancelling the Avro Arrow, Canada’s last attempt at building a warplane.

In retrospect, he was right. Instead of spending billions on a jet for which there was no market, subsequent governments invested in companies like DeHavilland and Canadair (both ultimately purchased by Bombardier) and Pratt and Whitney Canada which focused on the growing market for commercial aircraft, particularly small airliners serving regional markets.

Today this country has a vibrant aerospace industry that is among the world’s largest. Canadian-built aircraft fly on every continent and jobs have been created across the country, including many here in Nova Scotia.

Large parts of this industry resulted from the identification of a sustainable, growing niche market (regional airliners) and investing in the components (e.g. airframe design, small turbine engines, landing gear) required to meet that demand. There is no evidence that kind of strategic thinking has gone into Canada’s shipbuilding program.

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