In the latter part of the 1980s, the preeminent buzzwords in marketing were “digital”, prompted in particular by the compact disc as a music format, and “turbo”, from the exhaust-powered gizmos auto manufacturers began to use to get more zip out of tiny (compared to V-8s of a few years before) engines. This resulted in these adjectives being plastered on products which had nothing whatsoever to do with either digital technology or turbocharging. In the software world Borland International had a whole line of products called “Turbo Pascal”, “Turbo C”, etc., and “digital” showed up on boxes containing things whose only connection with the word was that they could be operated by fingers. I especially remember ridiculously overpriced “digital speaker cables” which claimed they could better cope with the sound of compact discs.
Well, not to be left behind, I created my own logo in PostScript and started putting it on all of my software projects.... [Read More]
In the early years of the 20th century, there was a craze of medical quackery following the discovery of radioactivity in 1896 and the isolation of radium in 1898. Radioactive quackery quickly spawned numerous products which claimed to have a variety of medical benefits. Many of these products were completely bogus, but some, to the detriment of their buyers, were actually genuine. Radithor, for example, was a patent medicine composed of distilled water containing at least one microcurie of radium salts. Wealthy U.S. industrialist Eben Byers, who ingested large quantities of the stuff, died in 1932 of a variety of cancers and degeneration of his bones. He was buried in a lead-lined coffin.... [Read More]
Well, the Roaring Twenties are finally here, so we shouldn’t be astonished by the wonders of technology and human innovation soon to usher forth. Here’s one that arrived a week early, on 2019-12-24, U.S. patent 10,513,862 [PDF] (text-only version), for a swimming pool or hot tub filled with simulated candy, including “synthetic multicolored sprinkles”. Of course there’s a diving board!
#1 Demographics: “First, it’s good to remember that demographics have a life of their own. That’s not good from the point of view of those of us of European descent. We’re only 10% of world population and falling rapidly. Worse, it seems we’re responsible for all the world’s problems and therefore aren’t very popular.”... [Read More]
Before electronic computers had actually been built, Alan Turing mathematically proved a fundamental and profound property of them which has been exploited in innumerable ways as they developed and became central to many of our technologies and social interactions. A computer of sufficient complexity, which is, in fact, not very complex at all, can simulate any other computer or, in fact, any deterministic physical process whatsoever, as long as it is understood sufficiently to model in computer code and the system being modelled does not exceed the capacity of the computer—or the patience of the person running the simulation. Indeed, some of the first applications of computers were in modelling physical processes such as the flight of ballistic projectiles and the hydrodynamics of explosions. Today, computer modelling and simulation have become integral to the design process for everything from high-performance aircraft to toys, and many commonplace objects in the modern world could not have been designed without the aid of computer modelling. It certainly changed my life.
Almost as soon as there were computers, programmers realised that their ability to simulate, well…anything made them formidable engines for playing games. Computer gaming was originally mostly a furtive and disreputable activity, perpetrated by gnome-like programmers on the graveyard shift while the computer was idle, having finished the “serious” work paid for by unimaginative customers (who actually rose before the crack of noon!). But as the microelectronics revolution slashed the size and price of computers to something individuals could afford for their own use (or, according to the computer Puritans of the previous generations, abuse), computer gaming came into its own. Some modern computer games have production and promotion budgets larger than Hollywood movies, and their characters and story lines have entered the popular culture. As computer power has grown exponentially, games have progressed from tic-tac-toe, through text-based adventures, simple icon character video games, to realistic three dimensional simulated worlds in which the players explore a huge world, interact with other human players and non-player characters (endowed with their own rudimentary artificial intelligence) within the game, and in some games and simulated worlds, have the ability to extend the simulation by building their own objects with which others can interact. If your last experience with computer games was the Colossal Cave Adventure or Pac-Man, try a modern game or virtual world—you may be amazed.... [Read More]
In the near future, autonomous vehicles, “autocars”, are available from a number of major automobile manufacturers. The self-driving capability, while not infallible, has been approved by regulatory authorities after having demonstrated that it is, on average, safer than the population of human drivers on the road and not subject to human frailties such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, while tired, or distracted by others in the car or electronic gadgets. While self-driving remains a luxury feature with which a minority of cars on the road are equipped, regulators are confident that as it spreads more widely and improves over time, the highway accident rate will decline.
But placing an algorithm and sensors in command of a vehicle with a mass of more than a tonne hurtling down the road at 100 km per hour or faster is not just a formidable technical problem, it is one with serious and unavoidable moral implications. These come into stark focus when, in an incident on a highway near Seattle, an autocar swerves to avoid a tree crashing down on the highway, hitting and killing a motorcyclist in an adjacent lane of which the car’s sensors must have been aware. The car appears to have made a choice, valuing the lives of its passengers: a mother and her two children, over that of the motorcyclist. What really happened, and how the car decided what to do in that split-second, is opaque, because the software controlling it was, as all such software, proprietary and closed to independent inspection and audit by third parties. It’s one thing to acknowledge that self-driving vehicles are safer, as a whole, than those with humans behind the wheel, but entirely another to cede to them the moral agency of life and death on the highway. Should an autocar value the lives of its passengers over those of others? What if there were a sole passenger in the car and two on the motorcycle? And who is liable for the death of the motorcyclist: the auto manufacturer, the developers of the software, the owner of car, the driver who switched it into automatic mode, or the regulators who approved its use on public roads? The case was headed for court, and all would be watching the precedents it might establish.... [Read More]
When flying in small, single-engine aircraft, passengers have two persistent worries: what happens if the engine quits, and who’s going to land the thing if the pilot keels over? Modern aircraft engines, especially turboprops and turbofans, rarely fail (the ubiquitous Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6 had, as of 2016, an in-flight shutdown rate of one per 651,126 hours, which means that if you were to fly in a single-engine plane powered by one 24 hours a day, 365/66 days a year, you’d only experience an in-flight engine failure, on average, once every seventy-four years). Besides, most engine failures would occur in cruise, when there’s plenty of altitude and velocity to glide to a sufficiently open and flat area that the plane can be landed, if not totally intact, entirely walkable-away-from by those onboard.
As improbable as it may seem, incapacitation of the single pilot may actually be the more probable circumstance. Garmin, developers of a wide variety of GPS units and avionics, have just announced the latest update to their G3000 integrated avionics suite for light aircraft, which incorporates “Autoland” technology. When the avionics detect that the pilot has become unresponsive or a passenger presses the (flip-up guard protected) “Emergency Autoland” button, the system takes control of the plane, identifies a landing strip sufficiently long and within range, contacts air traffic control, navigates to the landing strip, avoiding terrain, lands autonomously and shuts down the engine on the runway. Here is a demonstration of the system.... [Read More]
On September 19–22, 2019, in a period of 72 hours, the University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center produced a complete, seaworthy boat in a single pass with the world’s largest 3D printer (additive manufacturing machine), developed by Ingersoll Machine Tools. Here is a time lapse video of the entire construction process.
In the early morning of September 29th, 2019 UTC (evening of September 28th local time in Texas, the 11th anniversary of SpaceX’s first orbital launch for a Falcon 1), SpaceX founder and Chief Engineer Elon Musk presented a perspective on the history of SpaceX and its plans for the Starship and Super Heavy reusable heavy lift launcher.
Boston Dynamics have announced that their autonomous mobile robot, Spot, is now kind-of available as a kind-of product. I say “kind-of” because they haven’t yet quoted a price (according to an article in IEEE Spectrum, it’s expected to be in the range of a luxury car), and sales of the limited production will be in an “early adopter program” targeting customers in industries developing applications for such technology.... [Read More]
John Calvin Coolidge, Jr. was born in 1872 in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. His family were among the branch of the Coolidge clan who stayed in Vermont while others left its steep, rocky, and often bleak land for opportunity in the Wild West of Ohio and beyond when the Erie canal opened up these new territories to settlement. His father and namesake made his living by cutting wood, tapping trees for sugar, and small-scale farming on his modest plot of land. He diversified his income by operating a general store in town and selling insurance. There was a long tradition of public service in the family. Young Coolidge’s great-grandfather was an officer in the American Revolution and his grandfather was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. His father was justice of the peace and tax collector in Plymouth Notch, and would later serve in the Vermont House of Representatives and Senate.
Although many in the cities would consider their rural life far from the nearest railroad terminal hard-scrabble, the family was sufficiently prosperous to pay for young Calvin (the name he went by from boyhood) to attend private schools, boarding with families in the towns where they were located and infrequently returning home. He followed a general college preparatory curriculum and, after failing the entrance examination the first time, was admitted on his second attempt to Amherst College as a freshman in 1891. A loner, and already with a reputation for being taciturn, he joined none of the fraternities to which his classmates belonged, nor did he participate in the athletics which were a part of college life. He quickly perceived that Amherst had a class system, where the scions of old money families from Boston who had supported the college were elevated above nobodies from the boonies like himself. He concentrated on his studies, mastering Greek and Latin, and immersing himself in the works of the great orators of those cultures.... [Read More]
A little bit of the Roaring Twenties has just fallen into 2019. Raspberry Pi 4 has just been announced and is now shipping. As soon as the distribution pipeline is filled, you’ll be able to buy one (or fifty, or ten thousand) from your favourite distributor. This is the fourth generation of Raspberry Pi since the introduction of the series in 2012.
Raspberry Pi is a single-board computer, around the size of a credit card, based upon the ARM family of low-power microprocessors. Unlike the Arduino family of microcontrollers, which are primarily used as embedded processors and programmed on other platforms, the Raspberry Pi is a general-purpose computing platform which, with an attached keyboard, mouse, monitor(s), and network connection, can be used to develop software using the tools with which programmers are familiar on desktop platforms, usually based upon the Linux operating system, for which a Raspberry Pi distribution called Raspbian is the most popular.... [Read More]
Ever since I read Gerard K. O’Neill’s The High Frontier (link is to my review when I re-read the book in 2013) in the 1970s, it has been obvious to me that the medium-term human destiny is to expand from using resources on the surface of Earth to exploit the abundant resources of the solar system, where more than 99% of the matter and energy are available for the taking and the constraints of a closed ecosystem do not exist. There were technological barriers to overcome in order to get from here to there, but none of them required technologies we didn’t already understand or investments greater than were regularly squandered on futile wars or counterproductive social programmes.
I thought, “All it would take is a wealthy individual who gets it and is willing to stake their personal fortune on a human destiny which is optimistic and open-ended, as opposed to the claustrophobic vision of the slavers who see future generations confined on one planet, increasingly under the control of masters who worship at the altar of ‘sustainability’ ”. The amount of money required to bootstrap this future would be in the round-off of the government budget of a medium-sized industrialised country, but you don’t get vision from coercive government—just control and keeping everybody in their place.... [Read More]