selenite0: (mad science)
The Washington Post has announced:
You can print your own guns at home. Next it will be nuclear weapons. Really.

No. Not really.

A 3D printer can make a gun. So far the ones produced have been oversized single-shot pistols but we can expect that to improve.

The article is fearing nanotechnology. Instead of using a specific kind of plastic or metal to make its products like current 3D printers, a nanotech assembler can mix and match atoms to make whatever design it's been handed. That could include weapons of mass destruction. There are biological experimenters who could make a lethal plague without using nanotech. With nanotech chemical weapons, explosives, and gnat-sized killer robots become possible.

But not nuclear weapons.

3D printers and nanotech assemblers are just building things from the inputs they're given. They can't break or combine atoms to make new ones. Carbon in, carbon out. Creating your own atoms would be picotechnology, and nobody's forecasting that yet.

An A-bomb needs fissile material. Uranium and plutonium are preferred. You're not going to find that at the local hardware store when you buy feedstock for your 3D printer. You can't even settle for any uranium or plutonium atoms--it has to be the right isotope. There are people with the full time job of noticing when someone goes looking for that stuff.

H-bombs also need an A-bomb as their trigger. On top of that they need deuterium and tritium. Sure, you could try extracting that out of your own water supply, but it'd take a long time and be noticable.

So don't be afraid of the neighborhood hacker making nukes. He can make lots of other WMDs, but not nukes. So be afraid of him for that. Be afraid of political science professors who don't know enough to realize when they're making public fools of themselves. And be afraid of editors who don't know how to fact-check technology articles. Politicians listen to them.
selenite0: (Beware the Engineer)
I've been experimenting with various 3D graphics programs searching for one that would let me make models of the spaceship from my novel. My instinct was to look for CAD software, since that's what I have experience with. But my employers paid for that software. The typical free sample version would only last a month and/or have restrictions about using my output commercially.

So I looked at freeware options. FreeCAD is powerful but the documentation lags behind the code too much for me to get anywhere with it. I'm too old and cranky to spend hours fiddling with each option to see how it works. Some cheaper commercial 3D graphics software tempted me but I'd get a little bit in and snarl "Powerpoint handles that better!" before closing it forever.

Then I found Blender. Powerful software. There's great tutorials out there. Katsbits were the best I found (much better than a tutorial linked from the main site which had me telling [ profile] celticdragonfly "This is not a tutorial, this is a final exam"). An evening of going through parts of two tutorials let me make a rough model of my ship in action. "Action" defined as hauling up a cargo container with the crane--it's a freighter.

FF blender model
selenite0: (tell me a story)
Right now my Kindle app has every book in one long list. I can sort and search, but it's still a pain to find something. Especially since I'm very free about downloading a sample and then not getting around to reading it for months. I want folders:

New Books (Unread)
New Books (Partially read, might finish)
Comfort Reading
Writing Reference
Technical Reference
Other Read Books
Samples - Unread
Samples - Undecided

While I'm asking for some changes in the app, how about when I buy a book via the link at the end of the sample, it automatically deletes the sample and opens the book at the place where the sample ended?

Edit Apr 2015 - the second wish has been granted.
selenite0: (Future Worth Fighting For3)
“I think if no one dies going after this prize, why then we’re not going out and truly searching for new ideas.”
- Burt Rutan

TLC series “Science Frontiers”, episode name “Star Fleet”, copyright 1996.
selenite0: (Beware the Engineer)
For the Texas contingent: I'll be giving a talk about the rocket start-up I worked on at the local National Space Society chapter's monthly meeting.
selenite0: (This is Terrible)
Cracked just posted an article on how "Science is Totally Broken". Nice to see outfits more popular than Slate Star Codex noticing that lots of published science papers are terrible. Cracked is still having blind spots. They saved the #1 spot for the horror of science swayed by corporate funding . . . but they don't realize that government funding agencies have agendas of their own and you'd better be supporting them if you want to get enough grants to not wind up on the street.
selenite0: (mad science)
XKCD has figured out a practical application for the Turing Test.
selenite0: (software sucks)
ESR on why women are such a small minority of programmers and other high-tech professionals:
Women, in general, are not willing to eat the kind of shit that men will swallow to work in this field.

Now let’s talk about death marches, mandatory uncompensated overtime, the beeper on the belt, and having no life. Men accept these conditions because they’re easily hooked into a monomaniacal, warrior-ethic way of thinking in which achievement of the mission is everything. Women, not so much. Much sooner than a man would, a woman will ask: “Why, exactly, am I putting up with this?”
If we really want to fix the problem of too few women in computing, we need to ask some much harder questions about how the field treats everyone in it.

I'm all for that.
selenite0: (software sucks)
I want a new HTML command (probably an extension of a/href) that creates a link that I can click on to make my smartphone dial the linked phone number.

This thought brought to you by my Android G1 and tonight's traffic jam on Saginaw Blvd.

UPDATE: Ah, [ profile] gridlockjoe informs me there is an RFC for that. Now we just need to websites to use it.
selenite0: (mad science)
JSH pulls out the data from some glacial ice cores to provide an interesting perspective on current temperature trends.
selenite0: (desire consequence)
The Atlantic has an interesting article on the issues surrounding influenza vaccinations. Makes a pretty good case that the flu shots don't have much effectiveness in keeping people from dying. There's a rebuttal out, of course.

The scariest part for me is the poor quality of the data on flu deaths. Diagnoses are based on symptoms, not tests of the virus, so we don't actually know how many people have been getting sick or dying from influenza. No one's doing well designed experiments to test the effectiveness of the vaccine and one of the big arguments (herd immunity) would be damned hard to test in any case.

I suspect we're not going to have a real grasp of the effectiveness of medical treatments until we give up on the privacy of medical records. If we get to the point where everyone's records are searchable, and detailed to the point where you can tell if a swab test was H1N1 positive or the doc just wrote a prescription to make the patient go away, there's going to be a lot of patterns discovered that'll make irrelevant all the watch-36-patients-for-six-months microstudies that policies get based on now.
selenite0: (desire consequence)
One of the minor flurries in Washington DC right now is a line item in the defense budget an alternate engine for the F-35. Not something I'd care that much about if I wasn't working on that plane. The idea is that having a second company making engines for the plane will provide a back-up against problems and cost savings from competition. Given that both the current and previous administrations have tried to kill that piece of the program it's not that widely held an idea. The case against it is pretty simple--why pay for two designs and production lines when you only need one to get the job done?

So various op-eds are appearing extolling the virtues of competition and offering the historical precedent of the competing F-16 engines. Yes, both companies would have a better incentive to improve on cost and quality as they vie for each year's batch of engines. But everybody offering that argument seems to be just fine with the engines going into a single fighter design produced by one partnership. If competition is such a great thing wouldn't more of it be better? In the absence of those arguments it feels like a typical effort to defense Congressional pork barreling.

I'm not even hoping for someone to question whether it's a good idea for a single plane to replace the F-15, F-16, F-117, F/A-18, A-10, and AV-8.
selenite0: (This is Terrible)
I needed a configuration change for my account on our main database. After a few calls they decided that I wasn't asking for this because I'm too lazy to search on narrow criteria but actually need need to do large pulls like I said. So I got a call telling me that they were emailing the instructions but "it's a long, drawn out process" and feel free to call if I need more help. I felt pretty wary about that--I was expecting "get your manager to fill out form A and then get the Vice President for IT to fill out form B" and such.

Then I get the instructions. Pull file X out of the database. Put in this directory. Doubleclick (it's a .bat). Log off and back on. Done in a couple of minutes.

I shudder to think what kind of users the tech support folks have had to deal with if they're describing that as "long and drawn out."
selenite0: (can't take2)
Bill Whittle celebrated the Apollo XI anniversary by dropping politics for a bit and visiting XCOR Aerospace to look at their rocket-powered aircraft. Part One of the video looks at XCOR's success in converting conventional aircraft to fly under rocket power. Part Two looks at their Lynx suborbital design. I'm a serious fan of XCOR. I'd met Jeff Greason before he started doing professional rocketry and got a chance to present to his crew in Mojave once. They're taking the best approach to developing new technology--incremental steps, getting a working system they can test and operate at each step. The next step is a custom-built vehicle that'll actually exit the atmosphere. I'm looking forward to seeing it fly.


May. 12th, 2009 11:12 am
selenite0: (scales)
Moore's Law of Mad Scientists* continues apace.

* "Every 18 months, the IQ required to destroy the world drops by 1 point"


Oct. 24th, 2008 11:19 am
selenite0: (Sisyphus sign)
The Chair Force Engineer does a great job of summing up my attitude problem at work:
The morale of engineers is directly tied to the work they are given by their management. If you want to keep engineers happy, give them tasks that are worthy of their efforts. When management fails to do that, they have nobody to blame for poor morale but themselves.
He's planning on moving on to non-technical non-government work. I wish him luck. Hopefully he'll discover there's some places in the world where engineers have work worth doing.
selenite0: (Sisyphus sign)
The New York Times discovered that the nation's best engineers are avoiding government projects. Well, sure. I'd be doing commercial work if I had applicable skills. Alas, I've been in the government tarpit for so long I suspect I may never get out.

The article covers the reasons for avoiding government projects on the individual level but completely misses the top-level causes. Yes, projects take too long, waste lots of time, and fall behind the state of the art. But saying "bad management" just begs the question of why with so many successes in the past things keep getting worse (note that the article focuses on military projects, but the problems apply to all big government development efforts).

Most government projects--and all the big ones--aren't about building something. They're about giving Congressmen pork to bring home, giving the bureaucracy something to process, and keeping companies in business. The actual mission is merely a pretext. It has to be a good pretext to bring in votes from Congressmen not getting slices of the pork but it's still just a pretext. The bring-in-votes goal leads to pretexts that sound good rather than actually being useful for the people down in the mud (or wherever the users hang out).

Once funding is approved and the whole thing starts to slide downhill the top priority is ensuring that the butts of all managers associated with it are completely covered. So anyone who might complain gets to add their requirements to the list. Committees are formed to diffuse responsibility for the specs and architecture. Any delay or confusing rewrite is preferable to getting caught in a mistake. Bids get protested and redone until the lawyers can't come up with any more excuses to quibble. Finally a contract is awarded.

And then some poor, sorry SOB gets the responsibility for building the thing. The requirements are the wish list of everyone who could fit at the table. The budget is what Congress was willing to carve out of the other pork projects. The deployment schedule was set to the earliest possible date after the retirements of the proposal team leaders. The engineers who did the preliminary designs are all chasing other contracts. So with limited resources the new project manager has to create a team from scratch and teach them what they're supposed to make.

With all those constraints on him the PM's only real decision authority is over the order that the stakeholders will get fucked over. Congress goes to the end of that list, of course. Piss them off and the program's gone. The bureaucrats, users, and anyone else Congress will listen to go to second-to-last. First on the fuck-over list? Why, his engineering team trying to build the thing, of course. It's not like he can realistically pick anyone else.

Can this happen to commercial projects? Sure it has. If the back story of Windows Vista ever comes out it might look a lot like that with the appropriate names changed. But commercial projects always have one very sharp constraint--someone outside the company has to be willing to give money for this product as a user, advertiser, or whatever. If the customers stop buying the company goes bankrupt. If a government contractor produces a horrible product the troops get issued it anyway . . . or have to keep duct taping the old ones together even if that costs more than replacing them.

If the government completely redid its procurement system it would probably get better results. The engineers working on the projects would certainly be happier. McCain's battery prize proposal could be a step in that direction. But the current system is just going to keep accumulating more sludge in the arteries and smart young engineers will be staying the hell away.
selenite0: (mad science)
Three years ago Pyramid published a gaming article I wrote, The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Panic. It was mostly an excuse to explore the Hysteria Department at Illuminati University, but the plot focused on the invention of a "Fear Projector." I wanted an appropriate mad science gadget to drive innocent bystanders into a panic. Naturally there had to be a bit of technobabble describing how this thing worked:

The students used a combination of strobe lights and ultrasonic
vibration to make a working cannon-sized beamer

One of the problems with writing science fiction--even when you're doing mad science--is that it's hard to stay ahead of the curve. Turns out there is a government contract for just that kind of gadget:
Military funded researchers are preparing to test a nonlethal weapon that combines light and sound. Nicholas C. Nicholas, chief scientist of Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory, told an audience yesterday at a nonlethal weapons conference that in the first half of next year, the lab plans to test DSLAD, the Distributed Sound and Light Array Debilitator. It'll use essentially off the shelf technology to see if combining aversive noises with light produce some special debiliating effects.
I think "Fear Projector" still has a better ring to it than "DSLAD", but they probably couldn't get any good names through their review committee.
selenite0: (can't take2)
Not, amazingly, a meme, though maybe I should turn it into a quiz.

[ profile] montedavis challenges all space cadets to confess Which X-Treme Spacer Are you?

I clearly fall into "Free-Fall Enterprise" and "Skunk Wonks" except I've done too much math to hold to the former and have too many responsibilities (>0) to be the latter.
selenite0: (mad science)
Aubrey de Grey's Ending Aging is a fascinating book. It's not light--I took two Heyer breaks while I was wading through it--but I think it's a very important work. In fact, if I had friends who were in medical research, or undergrads interested in biology, I'd be buying them copies right now. This interview is a good introduction to de Grey and his quest to end aging. In short, he thinks we can stop aging, reverse at least some of it, and have healthy, vigorous lives for centuries. The book gets into the how.

De Grey (and his assistant, Michael Rae) do a damn good job of explaining the intricacies of the metabolic problems behind aging. His proposal is to find ways to fix the damage done over time without bothering explore all of its sources or the precise ways they can lead to death. This, and his other heresies, have made him unpopular among many scientists. He's taking an engineering approach, just wanting results without explanations of everything else in the tangle. He goes through the seven areas in detail. The evidence he lays out includes failed experiments as well as successes, it's not a propaganda piece.

Much of the discussion is on the legal and political issues in aging research. You can't get a grant from the NIH to study aging because it's not officially a disease. For the same reason the FDA won't let you test a drug solely for fighting aging. Fortunately for de Grey's plans there are diseases which are similar to the aging mechanisms, or subsets of them which are recognized as disease. For example, Alzheimer's is a subset of the general problem of junk proteins and other material accumulating on the outside of cells.

Once the various techniques are developed we can be treated to eliminate aging damage, and prevent some of the future damage. There's no guarantee that his proposals will work and he admits it. But the benefits are enough to justify placing some long-odds bets. This conflicts with the cautious attitudes of medical researchers and causes some of the hostility to de Grey (and I could see him being ostracized for his proposed cancer cure alone). The damage doesn't have to be fixed all at once. Give someone an extra ten years and at his next rejuvenation appointment there'll be ten more years of progress to apply. That can get us to "escape velocity", where our lifespans get extended one year every year.

Getting there is going to be tough. Right now the research is still at the level of animal experiments and there's not much funding. The Methuselah Mouse Prize is being offered for researchers who increase the lifespan of mice, funded by private donations. De Grey hopes a breakthrough in rejuvenating mice will create popular support for government funding of aging research. I'd settle for eliminating the government restrictions which prevent some of the research that could be done now. And I'm thinking about how much money I'm going to put into the Mouse Prize myself.
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