when a railroad locomotive goes off the track, how do you get it back on? The thing weighs about 170 tons, but if you thought that it required a big crane, you were wrong.
Category Archives: Technology
I though everyone who paid attention in high school science knew how electrolysis works. It’s not that complicated. And it’s one of the more common chemical processes used in industry. So I guess that the engineers who designed the U.S. Navy’s newest combat ship were not among those paying attention. Neither, it appears, were the people who approved the design on behalf of the Navy. That’s the only conclusion I can draw from the discovery that the ship, the USS Independence (LCS-2), is dissolving away.
Honestly, how do you get a job designing ships without understanding the effects of immersing different kinds of metal in salt water?
I sure it won’t be a shock to regular readers of this blog that I am fascinated by the development of technology. One of the ways humanity is different from every other species on Earth is that tools and their use profoundly shape nearly every aspect of our lives. And not just in recent times: the very first anatomically modern humans already possessed a sophisticated tool kit that helped them acquire and process food, manufacture clothing and adornment, build shelters, and perform all the various tasks of daily life. We are the species that interacts with our environment through technology.
That’s one of the reasons that I find the archaeology of the American West so fascinating. It was a time of very rapid change, in technology as well as in many other aspects of culture. The technology of mining and milling advanced rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century, with many of the new techniques being invented in Nevada and California. During that same period, developments in transportation and mechanization transformed a society largely made up of independent farmers into one of widespread wage labor.
At the same time, indigenous cultures were also undergoing profound technological changes. American Indians adopted many Euro-American technologies, but did not necessarily employ them in the same ways that white Americans did. At times, old and new technologies were blended as, for example, in the use of glass telegraph insulators as a material for making projectile points.
Both Indians and white Americans at times adopted new technologies without fully understanding their ramifications – both positive and negative. Both Indians and white Americans sometimes made technological choices that were, in hindsight, unwise. And during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, new technologies helped produce profound changes in both Indian and white American cultures.
Over at the NASA web site there is a wonderful picture of a very sad event – Atlantis being moved to the pad for the last launch ever of a space shuttle. I call this event sad rather than bittersweet only because there is no replacement vehicle. I can’t deny that the shuttle needs to be retired; it has served honorably, for far longer than anybody had a right to expect. It really should have been taken out of service twenty years ago. But twenty years ago, NASA didn’t have anything to use in its place. Sadly, they still don’t.
Straight out of your favorite overpopulated science fiction dystopia, a process developed by a Japanese researcher allows human feces to be reprocessed into meat. This is nothing new, of course. Natural decay processes use human and animal waste to feed the next generation of plants and animals. Nearly everything we eat is made, at least in part, of reprocessed feces.
And yet, even though I know this, I don’t think I’d want to eat one of Dr. Ikeda’s poo burgers.
…while offering no improvement whatsoever in security. I mean, of course, the Future Attribute Screening Technology, or FAST, that the DHS is testing to try and spot people who intend to commit acts of terrorism. How do I know that it won’t improve security? Just do the math. According to the article, in laboratory tests the technology was correct in discerning intentions 70% of the time. Let’s assume that they improve that with a little tweaking. In fact, I’ll assume that they can make it so good that it’s correct 90% of the time.
So they can catch 90% of the terrorists. Great! But how many terrorists is that? Since the implementation of new security after 9/11, the average number of terrorists per year that have attempted to board airlines at U.S. airports (the only ones where DHS has jurisdiction) is… zero. No terrorists have tried to get on to planes. Therefore, no terrorists were stopped by airline security. Were they deterred by the added security that the TSA has already deployed? It’s possible, but there weren’t any attacks in the ten years prior to 9/11 either.
But just for the sake of argument, suppose there was one person planning to attack an airliner. According to the United States Bureau of Transportation Statistics, approximately 786.7 million passengers traveled by air in the United States in 2010. Of these, the FAST machine would identify 78,670,000 people as possible terrorists, if it’s correct 90% of the time. That’s almost 80 million people, 1 of whom is a terrorist in this scenario. Can the TSA realistically stop 80 million people from flying? Of course not. So how do they determine which 1 of the 78,670,000 positive results is really the terrorist, when they don’t actually know that there is a terrorist in the group at all? And even if they do, absurdly, stop everybody who fails the test from getting on the plane, there’s still a 1 in 10 chance the actual terrorist got through.
And, of course, nearly every one of those 78,670,000 will try to fly again the next day. The TSA obviously can’t put these people on the no-fly list, or very soon nobody will be allowed to fly at all. And every time the terrorist tries again, there’s another 1 in 10 chance that he’ll succeed and get on the plane.
The best that FAST could do, even assuming an extremely unlikely 90% success rate, is delay a terrorist attack by a few days. This at the cost of harassing tens of millions of innocent people, disrupting business travel, and largely ending airline travel for tourists (a family of 4 has only a 66% chance of being allowed to board the plane together).
I give you Joe V. Meigs’ elevated railway. It’s sort the way the Disneyland monorail might have appeared, if it had been built in 1886. And this wasn’t just a proposal; a prototype was apparently actually built.
According to this CNN story, an “inventor” in Los Angeles claims to have an electric motor that produces more electricity than it consumes. He wants to sell some unpublished photos of Michael Jackson to finance development. I can’t tell from the article whether he’s a scammer, or just an idiot who flunked junior high physics. Given the straightforward way the story is written, I have to assume the latter applies to the reporter, at least.
Apart from the scientific impossibility, simple common sense says that if he had invented a miracle machine that produces electricity for free, he wouldn’t need to raise any money to develop it. He could walk in the front door of any big utility company and walk out a billionaire.
That said, it’s not the article itself but some of the comments that really make me want to bang my head against the desk. And then pray that those commenters forget to mark election day on their calendars.
While most of the world’s attention has been occupied with other matters, a spaceship with an advanced ion propulsion system has been quietly approaching Vesta, the second largest object in the asteroid belt. Launched in 2007, the spacecraft named Dawn is scheduled to arrive at Vesta in July of this year. After orbiting Vesta for a year, Dawn will move on to the dwarf planet Ceres in order to investigate that body as well. If it works, it will be the first time a space probe has ever entered orbit around one world, and then left it to visit another. All previous multi-body space missions have been quick flybys.
Yesterday Dawn began to navigate by tracking Vesta with its own camera; prior to that it had relied on radio signals from Earth. Space.com has the story, complete with pictures of both Vesta and Dawn.
What makes this seem rather weird to me is that I can still remember the original Star Trek episode Spock’s Brain, in which Scotty stated that ion propulsion was significantly more advanced than the antimatter-powered warp engines the Enterprise used.