Category Archives: Technology

Obscure technologies, part 6

The revolver camera from 1938. This is, of course, just a scaled down version of the gun cameras that are still used today on military aircraft to facilitate damage assessment and help evaluate tactics. Unfortunately, this smaller version doesn’t seem to have caught on. I can’t seem to find any information on how well the camera survived the shock of the revolver firing, but that might have been a reason why it was not successful.

Today it should be fairly easy to design a system that would work, though, even possibly one that records video with sound. In fact, it might be a good idea to equip police firearms with recording devices that would help with the investigation that follows a shooting.

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DIY Railroad

What do you do when you have a railroad track but no trains? You build them yourself, of course.

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Time for plan B

From an old episode of Stargate SG-1:

Col. O’Neill: It’s time for Plan B.

Maj. Carter: We have a Plan B?

Col. O’Neill: No, but it’s time for one.

Today the Russians have grounded their entire fleet of Soyuz spacecraft after one of them was destroyed in a crash. This is, of course, the vehicle that NASA is relying on to resupply the ISS since the last shuttle has retired. Currently, there is no backup. The crew of the ISS is stranded in orbit until either the Russians fix the problems with the Soyuz or SpaceX begins commercial flights to orbit.

As I’ve said before, the replacement for the shuttle should have been in service 20 years ago.

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Electronics FAIL

A while back I blogged about a new Navy ship that dissolves in salt water. Did the same engineering team design the radios used by federal agents? A newly released report indicates that it’s very easy to monitor both the conversations and the location of anyone using this kind of radio. Not only that, they can also be jammed by a $30 child’s toy.

How the hell does this kind of crap get selected for government use? The people involved in making the decisions have to be corrupt, stupid, or both.

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Archaeology is fun

Especially when you combine it with computer games. A team at UCSD are experimenting with using a hacked Kinect to rapidly create 3D scans of archaeological sites. This technology can’t come fast enough for me, and I think anybody who has ever painstakingly mapped a cluster of rocks with pencil and clipboard, on the off chance that they might be significant*, would agree.

*It’s amazing how often what appears on the surface to be a deliberate stone ring will prove, upon excavation, to be just a random bunch of rocks. Sometimes the human brain is a little too good at seeing patterns.

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Not-so-obscure technologies, part 1

This is the clearest explanations I’ve ever seen of one of the more crucial technologies of the modern world:

I’m not sure of the date, but it looks like it’s sometime in the 1930s. The filename suggests 1937.

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Obscure technologies, part 5

The Singing Bird Pistol was built as a work of art rather than for any utilitarian purpose. Dating from the early nineteenth century, it is one of the most amazing examples of clockwork animation I’ve ever seen. To really appreciate it though, you have to see this video of it working.

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The evolution of complex systems

Economics writer Tim Harford recently gave a very interesting talk at TED about trial and error in the development of complex systems.

If I can go off on a tangent for a moment, while watching Harford speak, I was reminded Donald Hardesty’s discussion of evolutionary mechanisms in his Mining Archaeology in the American West: A View from the Silver State. (Yes, I’m aware that my brain works in strange ways.)

Drawing on work done by Patrick Kirch on cultural adaptation on islands, Hardesty describes three stages in the development of a mining district. Technologically, the first stage is characterized by low diversity and poor adaptation to the specific environment of the district. During the second stage, there is a great deal of experimentation with new techniques for both mining and milling. By the third stage, most people have begun to employ the best of the solutions worked out during the second stage. Technological diversity drops once again, but it is now much better adapted to the specific needs of the district. This sequence of development can often be seen archaeologically, as well as through historical documents.

Of course, even in the third stage some experimentation is still going on, although genuine improvement occurs at a much slower pace. The evolution of the technology continues as long as mining is still going on in that district. A similar process of technological evolution can be expected any time people colonize a new environment, although it is not always so clearly visible in the archaeological record.

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DIY defense force

Wired has this story of a town in the Central African Republic that has started using HF radios and homemade firearms to defend themselves against raiders. An article in Haaretz gives further details. Among other points, I see here an illustration of a very important, but frequently forgotten, aspect of technology: that a society may well have the knowledge to adopt a new (to them) technology without necessarily seeing any need to do so.

In this case, there were obviously smiths in Obo able to manufacture firearms. But they were clearly not doing so on any significant scale, since the townspeople were not armed at the time of the first raid. Prior to that time, people were presumably able to purchase, or otherwise obtain from outside, the few guns they needed. Afterward, townspeople quite understandably perceived a much greater need to acquire firearms, and so they began local production.

This must also be kept in mind when interpreting the remains of past societies. The fact that a particular group did not, for example, practice agriculture or use pottery in no way proves that they were unaware of these technologies. In many cases, supposing that people were aware of the technology in question but chose not to adopt it may give rise to productive research questions. (Such as, how was the steatite trade along the Southern California coast managed? Steatite was used in that region to produce a number of the types of items that elsewhere were made from fired clay.)

As an aside, one possible way for the government of the CAR to respond to local militias like the one in Obo would be to deputize them. That is, declare them to be part of the National Home Guard, or some such, and give them whatever training and equipment can be afforded, but otherwise let them continue doing what they have been doing. This would allow the government to retain its sovereignty, while simultaneously helping foster trust by making it less likely that the army – made up of local residents – can be used to oppress or terrorize the people of that region. (Of course, this assumes that the government doesn’t want to oppress or terrorize the locals, which, sadly, is far from certain.)

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Obscure technologies, part 4

I just found this Wired story about a futuristic train, made out of aluminum and driven by a airplane style propeller at the rear. The Schienenzeppelin was actually a railcar rather than a train (i.e. it was a single unit, not a set of cars propelled by a locomotive), and made it’s first test run in 1930. In 1931 it set a railway speed record of 230.2 km/hr. That record was not beaten until 1954 and, according to Wikipedia, still has not been beaten by any gasoline-powered rail vehicle.

There were a number of issues with the Schienenzepplin that stopped it from ever going into production, one of the most important of which was the safety of an open propeller at passenger stations. The one prototype was scrapped just before World War II.

Incidently, the Schienenzeppelin was not the first attempt to use aircraft propulsion on a rail vehicle: the Soviet Aerowagon was built as early as 1921, but it crashed on it’s second trip, killing all aboard.

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