Saturday, October 21, 2017

Steampunk Computer Rover Heading for Venus?

Today's fun fact is that Mars is the only planet known to be inhabited entirely by robots.

It may be there's another planet that will soon share that title: Venus.  NASA is currently investigating a robotic explorer to land on Venus and explore. Unlike the rovers on Mars, this rover has decidedly steampunk character to it; it's all mechanical.

If there's any planet that seems like a good definition of hell, Venus is a strong candidate with a surface temperature of approximately, 450ºC or 850ºF, which is high enough for paper to spontaneously combust and melt lead. The atmosphere is a mix of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and sulfur dioxide, while the surface pressure is 92 bar or 1,334 psi. The atmosphere is dense enough to crush a submarine.  Some data says Venus' atmosphere undergoes critical refraction and it's possible for light to circle the planet, above the surface.  Ray tracing computer modeling suggests that with a strong enough telescope, a hypothetical astronaut in the right place could see himself in the distance.  

The electronics geeks, hams and experimenters might have had the thought "hot enough to melt lead?  What about solder?" and it is.  Parts can be welded onto a substrate, but "hot enough to melt solder" is an important consideration.  The NASA lab planning the mission, NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Program (NIAC) had developed a conceptual robot based on mechanical computers and WWI tanks because mechanical parts should survive the environment. Called AREE (Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments), the design has been referred to as a Steampunk Robot or Clockwork Rover.  Shades of Babbage's Analytical Engine
AREE was first proposed in 2015 by Jonathan Sauder, a mechatronics engineer at JPL. He was inspired by mechanical computers, which use levers and gears to make calculations rather than electronics.
Sauder said these analog technologies could help where electronics typically fail. In extreme environments like the surface of Venus, most electronics will melt in high temperatures or be corroded by sulfuric acid in the atmosphere.

"Venus is too inhospitable for kind of complex control systems you have on a Mars rover," Sauder said. "But with a fully mechanical rover, you might be able to survive as long as a year."
Venus has had only two robotic missions land on its surface, both from the former Soviet Union, the Venera and Vegas landers.  They were able to function only for minutes: specifically 23 and 127 minutes before the electronics failed in the oppressive environment.  To survive on Venus long enough to do any good science clearly requires thinking well outside the proverbial box.
AREE includes a number of other innovative design choices.

Mobility is one challenge, considering there are so many unknowns about the Venusian surface. Sauder's original idea was inspired by the "Strandbeests" created by Dutch artist Theo Jansen. These spider-like structures have spindly legs that can carry their bulk across beaches, powered solely by wind.

Ultimately, they seemed too unstable for rocky terrain. Sauder started looking at World War I tank treads as an alternative. These were built to roll over trenches and craters.

Another problem will be communications. Without electronics, how would you transmit science data? Current plans are inspired by another age-old technology: Morse code.

An orbiting spacecraft could ping the rover using radar. The rover would have a radar target, which if shaped correctly, would act like "stealth technology in reverse," Sauder said. Stealth planes have special shapes that disperse radar signals; Sauder is exploring how to shape these targets to brightly reflect signals instead. Adding a rotating shutter in front of the radar target would allow the rover to turn the bright, reflected spot on and off, communicating much like signal lamps on Navy ships.
To be clear, this isn't a mission that's on the calendar and being planned, it's one of a few options being discussed.  Mechanical computers are interesting, but incredibly slow compared to electronics for a general purpose computer.  Even a 1970s processor like an 8080 would be orders of magnitude more capable than rotating gears.  Perhaps there might be ways to customize the mechanical computer, but could they do mineral analysis, or some of the other science work Curiosity and the other Mars rovers do? 

A mission like this would be interesting from the technology-geek standpoint, but one has to wonder if there might be ways to cool electronics to get more science done.  NASA's Space Technologies Directorate talks about RTG-powered refrigerators (Radioisotope Thermal Generator - the type of power generator powering the Voyagers and some other deep space probes) has some high level summary. 
Two enabling technologies, RTG powered cooling systems and high temperature electronics, have been proposed to enable long duration in-situ Venus operations. The former is highly complex and requires billions in R&D to cool a small chamber of electronics, while the latter is not close to the integration level required for a rover....

...The automaton rover is designed to reduce requirements on electronics while requiring minimal human interaction and based on the subsumption architecture from robotics, where simple reactions of the rover lead to complex behavior. AREE combines steampunk with space exploration to enable science measurements unachievable with today’s space technology.

In Phase 1 purely mechanical rover technologies were compared to a high temperature electronics rover and a hybrid rover technologies. A purely mechanical rover, while feasible, was found to not be practical and a high temperature electronics rover is not possible with the current technology, but a hybrid rover is extremely compelling. Phase 1 mitigated our highest risks, demonstrating passive signaling was possible, the power budget balanced, and the rover fits within current EDL systems. Building on the design created in Phase 1, the objective of this proposed work is to finalize the trades with regards to implementation of locomotion and signaling systems, develop an end to end rover design, and perform Venus environmental testing of a representative prototype.
That last paragraph makes it sound like the mechanical AREE might be getting close to being approved to go to Venus.  For real.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Bezos' Blue Origin Just Passed A Major Test

In the private Space Race, don't overlook Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' company.  Ars Technica tells us of a successful test of their BE-4 engine which has gathered lots of attention in the industry - although it was a short, three second test and only running at 50% power.
New space company Blue Origin has spent the better part of this decade developing a powerful rocket engine for use in its orbital rocket, New Glenn, and potentially other US-based launchers. This engine, the liquid natural gas-powered BE-4, has been closely watched both within the aerospace industry and in military space because it uses innovative new technology, has largely been developed with private funding, and is fully reusable.

However, while there was great promise with the new engine, it still had to perform. And so the aerospace community has been watching development of the engine to see if it could pass a key hurdle—a hot-fire test. After months of waiting, that's what finally happened on Wednesday at the company's facility in West Texas when the BE-4 engine fired at 50-percent power for three seconds.
When you read that it was a 50% power test, that's still a lot of power with this engine.   The BE-4 engine is rated at 550,000 pounds of thrust making it the most powerful rocket engine developed in the US since Rocketdyne built the RS-68 engine two decades ago.  Half power for the BE-4 was 275,000 pounds of thrust, 45% more than the SpaceX Merlin engine at full power (190,000 lbs. of thrust) . 
(supersonic flow patterns, called Mach Diamonds, in the exhaust stream of the BE-4 - Blue Origin photo)

Did you notice that they state the engine has largely been paid for by "private funding"?  Rumor has it funding was from pocket change found between the cushions in Jeff Bezos sofa.  I know it's a rumor out there because I made it up and emailed it to people, but Ars elaborates on the real story. 
The company's success is all the more significant because it was largely funded by Jeff Bezos, without direct cost to taxpayers. Up until a few years ago, every US-based rocket engine was funded almost entirely through government contracts, such as the Saturn V's F-1 and the space shuttle's main engines. SpaceX changed the model by building its Merlin rocket engine (190,000 lbf) largely on its own, and then using nine of them to power the Falcon 9 rocket. 
Blue Origin is talking about putting seven of these engines - almost 4 million pounds of thrust - on its New Glenn rocket, a massive 82-meter-tall (270 feet tall ) rocket with the capacity to lift 45 tons to low Earth orbit and an impressive 13 tons to geostationary transfer orbit.  It will also be reusable—up to 100 times—according to Bezos. Blue Origin is attempting to position the New Glenn rocket as a centerpiece of a human return to the Moon and is working toward first launch of this rocket by 2020. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Voyager - Looked at From My Home Turf

We talked about Voyager in August, as the farthest objects mankind has ever launched, and the first manmade objects to leave the solar system.

Likewise, I know I've said I retired from a career as an RF (Radio Frequency) engineer, so communications links, like the two Voyagers' links back to Earth are what I spent most of my life doing.  It's my home turf.  We still have contact with the two probes yet their signals are astonishingly, mind-blowingly weak.  Microwaves and RF magazine editor Lou Frenzel reminded me of some of these things in a piece this Tuesday.

Lou starts out by saying the speed of light is too slow.  We used to ask technician job applicants what the speed of light is, and some didn't know, so let me put it here:   299,792,458 meters/second or 186,383 miles/second.  At 186,383 miles per second, Voyager 1's signals take 19-1/2 hours to get to Earth.  Voyager 1 is 13,082,682,600 miles away, give or take a few million in approximation errors. 13 billion miles away.

One of the fundamental problems in communications links is that the signal strength falls off as an inverse squared relationship (1/Distance(squared)).  We use the term path loss to describe how much signal is weakened by this effect.  How much loss is there for Voyager 1's signals?  The number is astonishing:
The free space path loss is computed with the expression:

dB = 37 dB + 20log(f) + 20log(d)

Here, f is the frequency in MHz and d is the distance in miles. The Voyager 1 used two frequencies, 2.3 GHz in the S band and 8.4 GHz in the X band. Using the lower frequency and the previously estimated 13 billion miles distance, the path loss is:

dB = 37 + 20log(2,300) + 20log(13,000,000,000)

dB = 37 + 67.3 + 202.3 = 306.6 dB
That's a phenomenally large amount of path loss; you can say the power is reduced by 10^30.66.  Ignoring the .66, that's 1 / 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000  of the signal getting here.

The next thing we need to do is determine how much signal gets here in power units.  The transmitter on Voyager 1 delivered 23 watts to its antenna at some point.  Whether it does now or not, I can't answer.  It's common for receiver designers to refer to powers as dBm, that is, powers with reference to a milliwatt, 1/1000 of a watt, in 50 ohms.  If that transmitter is still delivering 23 Watts, the power would be expressed as 43.6 dBm.  To be my pedantic, some-would-say AR self, a dBm is a power; a dB is a ratio of powers.

Here is where you find out why we always work in dBs: it turns multiplication and division into addition and subtraction.  We find the power at earth by subtracting the path loss from the power output. 43.6 -306.6 = -263 dBm.  Again, an astonishingly small signal.  For VHF or HF radios that most hams or hobbyists have, they're concerned with signals around a microvolt; millionth of a volt.  Perhaps 0.5 microvolt.  That's -113 dBm, 150 dB stronger than Voyager 1's signal; 1,000,000,000,000,000 times stronger.

The other fundamental problem in communications links is that there's an inherent limit to the strength of a signal we can receive, and that is set by the inherent thermal noise of our components.  If you were to put a 50 ohm resistor on a bench and measure the power it produces from just being at room temperature, you would find it produces -174 dBm.  Much lower than the -113 dBm above, but still far, far stronger than the -263 dBm from Voyager.  Perhaps you've heard of radio telescopes being cooled by liquid helium to almost absolute zero?  This is why.  

How can we possibly handle signals that much weaker than the thermal noise?  We get apparent amplification out of antennas, also called antenna gain, on both ends of the link.  Voyager's antenna itself gives 57 dB gain.  (Antenna gain is worthy of another article itself).
At the receiving end of the link is one or more big dishes. There are several large antennas at NASA’s Deep Space Network stations, such as Goldstone in the U.S., Canberra in Australia, or near Madrid in Spain. There are six antennas—one 26 meters (85 ft), four 34 meters (112 ft), and one 70 meters (230 ft)—each having super cooled front-ends for low noise. Using the 70 meter Goldstone dish gives the signal an 82 dB boost. The antennas can also be arrayed to produce more gain and improved reception.
Adding 82 dB gain from the Deep Space Network to the 57 dB gain from Voyager and we can add 139 dB to the signal from Voyager.  That brings up the level to -124 dBm.

One last concept to introduce; that the noise we get depends on the bandwidth we measure in.
P = kTB 
where k is Boltzmann's constant, T is temperature in degrees Kelvin and B is the bandwidth in Hz  

To really fill in those numbers, I need to know things I don't know, in particular, the modulation scheme used by Voyager and the temperature of their "super-cooled front-ends", but it passes a rough sanity check.  Lou Frenzel says Voyager is transmitting 1000 bits/second or so.  I'll swag a bandwidth of 1500 Hz and say I'd need a signal of -136 to decode Voyager, if the data modulation is similar to others I worked with in the early '80s.  So it looks like we can receive Voyager with some margin to spare.

Hope y'all enjoyed a little trip around the old block for me.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

One Step Closer to "Real Steel"?

The 2011 Hugh Jackman movie, Real Steel, was a fairly predictable story about a "struggling promoter" of robot boxing who takes a gamble on a "discarded robot".  It includes the obligatory cute kid we want to root for as Jackman's son; Jackman's character is a "rough guy with a heart of gold"; a fight scene against the champion; and the beautiful friend who's sort of a romantic interest.  (I could go into details about the actors in this movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I'll leave that lookup to those who care about such things.)

The main idea in Real Steel is that boxing between humans has become obsolete, and the audience (read "gambling") follows robots.  It turns out that might be closer than I thought.

NPR reports that an American robotics company challenged a Japanese robotics company to a duel - to be fought by robots the two teams create.  The fight has already occurred, and might even have been broadcast by streaming video already.
This long-awaited match between the monstrous robots — built by MegaBots Inc. of the U.S. and by Suidobashi Heavy Industry of Japan — will be broadcast on Tuesday via the online steaming site, Twitch. It's billed as the "first ever giant robot fight."

"This is a personal dream of mine come to life," says engineer Gui Cavalcanti, MegaBots' co-founder. Cavalcanti tells Morning Edition host Rachel Martin that it was both "awesome" and "terrifying" to co-pilot the 16-foot-tall, 12-ton robot – named Eagle Prime – during the duel. Cavalcanti, and his co-pilot Matt Oehrlein, were actually inside the robot controlling where the robot went, what its legs and arms did, and deploying its weapons.
(Matt Oehrlein and Gui Cavalcanti, co-founders of the robotics company, MegaBots, with giant robots MK2 (left) and Eagle Prime.)

Unlike Real Steel, in which the robots are controlled from the sides of the rink, in the Real Life version the fighters are inside the robots.  Think of another movie, Pacific Rim where the giant robots were piloted by a team of two as they fought the invading monsters from another dimension.
"We're sitting on top of 430 horsepower Corvette engine," Cavalcanti says. "You can actually feel the robot just kind of shaking and quaking around you as you get punched, as you lean into a turn, as you fire the weapons or throw a punch."
Wait... weapons?  The article just says, the robots "can be outfitted with a range of weapons from cannons to a chain saw". 

Much like the movie,  Cavalcanti says this is about more than just a giant robot fight and a battle for technological superiority.  He says their goal is to form a new giant robot sports league and turn it into the next arena and stadium sport.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

This is a Professional Physics and Science Website?

The website after (I would assume) layers of editorial approval posted a story with the headline, Uranus Opens and Shuts on a Daily Basis.
Modeling the system around Uranus, they found that its magnetosphere occasionally opens up to allow solar wind through. This seemed to happen almost every day, about every 17 Earth hours.

This opening and closing happens around Earth, and it’s called magnetic reconnection – where the magnetic field lines of our magnetosphere and the solar wind align. This produces aurorae at its poles, and it’s likely doing the same at Uranus. But at Earth, this process is fairly irregular. At Uranus, it seems to be much more frequent.
OK, interesting enough, and the video at that magnetic reconnection link is pretty cool, but I could do without the juvenile and misleading headline.  It's not the planet that's opening and shutting, it's the planet's magnetic field.

The site is a bit prone to hyperbole and can't seem to let the juvenile Uranus jokes go by without playing.
Artist's drawing of Uranus and the system.  I think the rings around Uranus are brighter than they'd appear if you were there to look.  Image from

And if you're dying for more Uranus jokes, the Internet's canonical joke list is probably here. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

This Is Not a Parody - Texas State Looking to Hire Social Justice Math Professors

If there is any field where your socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural, or any other factor shouldn't matter, it's math.  I will bet my life that anyone who solves a math problem will get the same answer if they set it up and cranked correctly.

Nevertheless PJMedia links to Campus Reform to report that Texas State University - read that again: Texas State - wants to hire two math professors "committed to social justice"
Texas State University is hoping to hire two Math Education professors with a demonstrated and longstanding commitment to “social justice.”

According to the job postings on Inside Higher Ed, the two new professors must not only share TSU’s commitment to “education equity” and “social justice,” but should preferably also have a demonstrated record of engagement or academic research on the issue.

The openings are for both tenured or tenure-track positions at the “ranks of Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, or Professor,” with different levels of social-justice expertise preferred at each level.

Among the preferred qualifications for the Assistant Professor rank is a “demonstrated knowledge and engagement” with issues including “social justice, equity, access, and multilingual learning,” while the Associate and Full Professor ranks prefer “evidence of research and practices” on such topics.
Back during the dark years of the previous administration, the idea of Social Justice Math came up and in 2011 I downloaded a file called "A Guide for Integrating Issues of Social and Economic Justice into Mathematics Curriculum" by a guy named Jonathan Osler (pdf warning).  It's really hard to ridicule this too much, or to ridicule the fact that it's taken seriously.  I can see "multilingual learning" - maybe - because of the demographics in Texas, but the rest is self-parodying.  

As always, never underestimate the enemy.  Osler has become the founder of a group called Radical Math dedicated to pushing his ideas.  Look around at Radical Math - won't take you a minute.  While I laud the idea that perhaps the math doesn't seem relevant to kids, and it's possible that Osler and his acolytes may take rational approaches to the problems they set up, I'm extremely doubtful any good comes of this.  Maybe they can dress up problems in different ways and get people to pay more attention.  Maybe, maybe by trying to be "relevant" to some subset of students, math teachers may reach more of them, but the last hundred and twenty years of history says this probably isn't a good thing and it makes me a bit sick to my stomach.    

Probably the best known quote about math and statistics is, "figures don't lie, but liars can figure".  Somehow that goes here.
(Just looking for a snazzy looking picture that doesn't necessarily mean anything.  H/T to Peak Prosperity)

Sunday, October 15, 2017

What Did You Get at the Hamfest, SiG?

Funny you should ask.  I bought only one thing, a book on vacuum tube circuit design.
The author himself was there at the hamfest, selling copies for $20, considerably less than what Amazon is asking. 

Why?  First, a story. 

When I first got interested in electronics as a hobby, vacuum tubes were the mainstay of everyday electronics.  I started out testing tubes at the local drugstore to see if it would fix the family TV, as have tens of thousands of others in my generation.  Transistor radios were common, but so were millions of vacuum tube radios - some version or other of the All American Five - that took 20 seconds to warm up and start playing.  I've worked on vacuum tube circuits, troubleshot and fixed tube radios as a hobbyist.  I still have a couple of vacuum tube radios in the ham shack.  They haven't been turned on in a while.

By the time I started working in engineering, vacuum tubes were used only in a few applications where there was no alternative - mostly high power transmitters.  I started out designing in a mix of discrete transistors with a few integrated circuits and over the years, design shifted as semiconductor makers continued to put more and better integrated functions into a single package.  We could replace complex multi-transistor circuits with a single integrated circuit, often in the same area as one of the transistors we replaced.  This did good things for both manufacturers and our customers: more circuit sophistication brought better performance and getting that sophistication with fewer parts brought more reliability and lower prices.  I'm not quite sure when I last designed a discrete transistor circuit into something, but it was probably over 15 years ago.  After that, the only reason to design in one or two transistors would have been to band-aid a circuit already in production or to design a piece of custom test equipment. 

So why the book?  Now that retirement brings some more time (Hah!) I want to look into some aspects of vacuum tube design.  The audio market for vacuum tubes is alive, vibrant, and getting big premiums over transistor amplifiers.  I have no desire to pay those premiums but would like to hear one side by side with the solid state amp I use.  Perhaps designing and building a vacuum tube-based guitar amplifier would be right up my alley. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Hamfest Weekend

This weekend was the annual Melbourne Hamfest and ARRL State Convention and as you can see by that link, the 52nd such get together (not every year is the state convention).  I've mentioned this activity many times, and it's one of two shows we pretty much go to every year, partly because the 1976 Melbourne Hamfest was the first hamfest I ever went to.

This subject should really be broken in two parts.  First off, there's a lot of new hams that frequent the same blogs I do and I don't know if other bloggers have talked about local hamfests.  Should you go?  Well, yeah.  Why should you go?  That's marginally harder to answer because it kind of depends on your local show and you won't know unless you go.  The local hamfest is likely to have lots of used equipment for sale, quite possibly a lot of new equipment and lots of opportunities to learn.  The exact mix of used vs. new depends, again, on your particular show.  Melbourne used to have more new gear than it has had for the last couple of years as the commercial sellers have gone elsewhere one by one.  It's a good place to make meatspace connections with local hams. 

A lot of shows will feature talks by local groups of some sort, contest groups, public service, experimenters, or technical talks by individual hams.  This year featured a speaker from the local National Weather Service office with some storm spotter information and other things to know.  I attended a talk on Software Defined Radios a few years ago and there have been some good technical talks over the years.

All that said, it was pretty lame this year.  None of the big dealers were present, and really nobody selling anything other than new accessories from MFJ (kinda the big name in ham radio "do-dads").  If you wanted some 50 year old ham gear from Collins or Drake, they were there, along with a few Heathkits and other old gear.  I've been licensed since 1976 and there was gear there that was old when I started.   

People have been predicting the demise of the hamfest for almost as long as I can remember; certainly since eBay became a hamfest that's going 24/7/365.  If nothing else, they will evolve and change.  A problem this year was the city, who owns the place the hamfest was held, suddenly changed the rules making the tailgate swap area off limits for overnight camping.  If you're driving from far out of town, expecting to put out a table of gear, and then take it back in while you sleep in your RV, suddenly being told you can't do that is a big impact. 

The big hamfests seem to have a different niche and are doing better.  The Orlando Hamcation is doing well and bills themselves as the "second largest hamfest" in the US, behind the "granddaddy", Dayton Hamvention.  Usually just referred to as "Dayton" by hams; as in "you goin' to Dayton this year?";  Hamvention has outlived the city's HARA arena it has been held in forever and this year moved to nearby Xenia, Ohio.  Behind those two, though, and a handful of large ones, how well they'll do is an open question.   

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Two Conflicting Stories of the Las Vegas Shooting

Last Friday, the generally insightful and funny Mark Steyn was on Fox and Friends and told a story of a contact he had.  Mark Steyn narrates from his web site:
On Friday morning I started the day on the curvy couch with "Fox & Friends" to discuss the latest developments in the Las Vegas attack and the Democrats' push for "gun control". The perpetrator of the deadliest single-shooter massacre in US history is so unlike his predecessors that it seems to me that nothing in his history is coincidental: there is a reason for everything, even if we will never know it - all the way down to, for example, such peripheral details as the fact that he owned property in both Mesquite, Nevada and Mesquite, Texas.

It is also interesting to note that Stephen Paddock apparently cased the "Life is Beautiful" concert in Las Vegas, headlined by the rapper Chance. The victims at that event would have been very different from those at the country music festival, and the press coverage would have been, too: Democrats would have stampeded down the "white supremacy" track rather than "gun control". One senses that the killer, in his cold calculations, was aware, for whatever reason, of all these factors.

Among the many emails I've received is this one, from a gentleman at a London think tank whose job is to focus on "the analysis of economic and political issues and outcomes".
Mark then outlines the case this "gentleman at a London think tank" proposes as Paddock's motive.  The think tank guy proposes that Paddock deliberately conceived and executed the attack to cause the focus on gun control.  I'm going to excerpt parts of it and then tell you why I disagree.  I think there's an alternative explanation that's just as plausible.
The fact pattern in this event is striking for not fitting any known profile. In particular:

The gentleman concerned had no known political or religious affiliations.

The level of premeditation is unusual and crystal clear from his mass buying of guns and the cautious systematic smuggling operation to ferry them to his room together with the illegal modifications and the position of the room he chose and occupied for several days beforehand.
This man amassed (rough figures) 24 guns in the hotel and another 19 at his home - 42 guns in total. He spent some $100,000 on buying them. The guns at his home are one thing but he also spent days filling his hotel room with more weapons and ammunition than he could ever conceivably use along with an array of advanced modifications and accessories.

Everything brand new. And very expensive. And mostly entirely redundant. Representing in effect an enormous waste of money and time and risk.

Except that is in the realm of generating massive publicity. Guaranteed massive publicity.
this gentleman did not simply fail to leave behind a motive; He took substantial trouble to ensure that no motive could be found - or attributed to him. All of which can lead us to only one conclusion:

It has been said that 'the medium is the message'.

In this case that is the literal truth. There is only one plausible motive for what this man did. And here it is:

This man wished to telegraph to America in graphic form the hard irrefutable evidence that guns and gun ownership and the ease of gun purchase in America are an evil and must be controlled.  On that hypothesis everything now makes sense. ... [emphasis added - SiG]
I have two problems with this argument.  First is that it inherently contradicts itself.  How does one say the guy has "no known political or religious affiliation" and then say he martyred himself for a political argument?   His political affiliation is known and on display right there!  The very concept behind his explanation contradicts the idea Paddock has no known political affiliation - unless one thinks of guns as being so universally despised that no political affiliation exists.  Anyone in America knows that's false, and in my mind can only be reconciled by the author from "a London think tank" being anti-gun himself. 

The second problem I have with the argument leans on the first: the author reaches this conclusion because the author already thinks America needs more gun control.  The author is imposing his own agenda on Paddock.

If, indeed, the medium is the message and Paddock was trying to focus attention on gun control, I can argue that there's an alternative interpretation that fits the facts just as well.  Paddock could have been saying that gun control is futile.  He could have been saying, "it doesn't matter that automatic weapons are outlawed or highly regulated; it doesn't matter that we have background checks, it doesn't matter that you prohibit "high capacity" magazines, it doesn't matter that you declare gun free zones, and it doesn't matter what control measures you put in place.  Someone that's determined to commit mass murder can do this".  The problem isn't the gun, it's the shooter's heart so fixing it doesn't start with guns it starts with fixing hearts.  If there are lessons to the last century, this is one of the big ones.

Perhaps Samuel L. Jackson wouldn't mind giving us a good quote to wrap this up tonight.  

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Hurricanes are Nowhere Near as Scary As This

Lost in 24/7 news cycle about a big name Hollyweird producer playing casting couch with any hot young aspiring actress he came across - not to mention assorted fruits, vegetables and barnyard animals - was a scary story out of the Canary Islands.  The Canary Islands, off the NW coast of Africa, are the home to La Palma a volcano that ought to scare the snot out of you if you live anywhere in the Western Hemisphere that's on the Atlantic or on water connected to it and under a few hundred feet in elevation.  If you live inland, and there's a ridge that high between you and the ocean, you're probably OK; otherwise, you might want to pay attention.
The islands of La Palma, Tenerife and Gran Canaria have now been rocked by 50 tremors after a “swarm of seismic” movement of low magnitude between 1.5 and 2.7 were measured. reported on Tuesday the islands, popular holiday destinations with Britons, had been struck by 40 earthquakes in just 48 hours.
This is reminiscent of the earthquake swarms in Yellowstone over the last few months, which prompted a lot of "what if the Yellowstone volcano blows?" speculation.  Similar thoughts go here, but the threat is entirely different. 

The shape of La Palma hints that a likely scenarios is for the southwest slope of the volcano to slide into the sea.  This would create a tsunami that puts the 2011 Japanese tsunami into the "tiny" category.  Perhaps millions of cubic feet of rock and dirt sliding into the Atlantic at hundreds of miles per hour.  Displacing millions of cubic feet of water. 
The physics-based simulations of what would happen have yielded predictions for much of the Atlantic coast line.  Tsunamis behave differently in the open ocean than along beaches and shorelines and the shape of the underwater slopes cause the local effects that will be experienced.  The calculations predict tsunamis of 20 to 30 meters high along the entire US east coast, followed shortly by tsunamis of 10 - 20 meters along the gulf coast.  All this transpires about 7 to 9 hours after the volcano slides into the ocean.

Over the years, there have been many big budget movies based on the idea that some number of people suddenly find out they had days or hours left to live. The one kids talked about when I was in 8th or 9th grade was "On the Beach", about Australians waiting around after a thermonuclear war, knowing they all would die.  Much more recently, "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" both showed society waiting for Earth to be hit by a recently discovered comet.  The reality of a big slide is something like the last two, waiting for the impact tsunami to hit.

Are you in a position where you could get to a couple of hundred feet elevation in a short drive?  How about in under 8 hours?  You'd have to be ready to hit the road the moment you heard the volcano blew.  Every reporting station in the area would be wiped out, but other seismographic stations would report quickly.  Like so many other situations, it would be better to leave an hour early than a minute late.  We've just seen the problem in Florida during the Irma evacuation.  There's really only two highways out of the state.  It seems that being on one of Florida's highest elevations might be enough to survive. 

Either that, if you have a boat, get in the boat and prepare to be buffeted around by currents and floating debris.  From what I recall seeing of the Japanese tsunami in 2011, the "seas" in the sense of waves are not a problem, it's the floating crap and obstacles.  Those are NOT trivial, but nothing about this scenario is. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

This Looks Like a Job For...

Us.  Not a superhero; you, me and everyone around here who knows how to do stuff.

According to Zero Hedge, Home Depot suddenly realized that they were having to hang their business on the millennial generation and few of them knew how to use the products they sell.
While avocado resellers like Whole Foods only have to worry about creating a catchy advertising campaign to attract millennials, Home Depot is in full-on panic mode after realizing that an entire generation of Americans have absolutely no clue how to use their products.  As the Wall Street Journal points out, the company has been forced to spend millions to create video tutorials and host in-store classes on how to do everything from using a tape measure to mopping a floor and hammering a nail.

Home Depot's VP of marketing admits she was originally hesitant because she thought some of their videos might be a bit too "condescending" but she quickly learned they were very necessary for our pampered millennials.
In June the company introduced a series of online workshops, including videos on how to use a tape measure and how to hide cords, that were so basic some executives worried they were condescending. “You have to start somewhere,” Mr. Decker says.

Lisa DeStefano, Home Depot vice president of marketing, initially hesitated looking over the list of proposed video lessons, chosen based on high-frequency online search queries. “Were we selling people short? Were these just too obvious?” she says she asked her team. On the tape-measure tutorial, “I said ‘come on, how many things can you say about it?’ ” Ms. DeStefano says.
As if to underline things, Zero Hedge posts the Home Depot "How to Use a Tape Measure" video.  Let me tell you: it's not a new phenomenon.  Around 1980, I was running the Quality Assurance department in an electronics factory.  I was amazed that adults in my group, 20 or 30-something women for the most part, couldn't read a ruler.   

My first thought when I saw this was, "it can't just be Home Depot; what about all the other companies that cater to Do It Yourself crowd"  What about all the companies for home woodworker's tools?  What about the tool importers?  Sure enough, they report that Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. has started offering gardening lessons for young homeowners that cover basic tips—really, really basic—like making sure sunlight can reach plants. 
Companies such as Scotts, Home Depot Inc., Procter & Gamble Co. , Williams-Sonoma Inc.’s West Elm and the Sherwin-Williams Co. are hosting classes and online tutorials to teach such basic skills as how to mow the lawn, use a tape measure, mop a floor, hammer a nail and pick a paint color. 
To be honest, this doesn't seem like that big of a difference.  For a long time, up until about '09, Home Depot's slogan was, "you can do it, we can help" and they regularly had classes in how to build a deck or put down ceramic tiles.  It seems they're starting a bit lower on the skills ladder, but they've always been in the business of helping the average guy buy their products.
Millennials are naturally the group that Home Depot and other retailers have to appeal to.  It's almost an iron law of demographics, that people spend more in their mid-20s to mid-30s than older populations do.  When a couple is just getting started, they spend more on getting into a house, spend more on fixing it up, spend more on many things than older people.  This slows down for a couple in their 40s to 50s because the older couple is more likely to have already spent their money making their nest they way they like it, or they don't have as many things left they want to spend it on.  Older still, and they're more likely to be deliberately down sizing in preparation for retirement. 
The data here are a little surprising.  As I expect, homebuyers by age tilt heavily toward the millennials; the percentage of homeowners who made improvements in the last year also tilts toward them, but not as strongly.  The other two plots: housekeeping supplies and household furnishings tilt exactly the opposite way, showing a strong lead to boomers, and I just don't expect that. 

Where I planned for this at the start is how we as people who do things can help.  Whether you're repairing your own car's - or lawn mower's - engine, pouring your own concrete, building a backyard deck, welding, or repairing household appliances, you know more than someone who knows nothing about it.  We can help teach.  Zero Hedge linked to an older article on their site full of ideas for things to learn.  I bet between us we've got it covered.

Monday, October 9, 2017

As Promised - An Engine

As promised last week, a running little steam engine.  As I said, the plans and a kit of stock came from Little Machine Shop (LMS). They sell a 2 DVD set of instructions and demos of how to make the engine made by company called SwarfRat . Don't recall if I got the plans from SwarfRat or LMS, but I think it was from SwarfRat.  Since this is pretty much a beginner machining project, if you're buying the LMS kit, you will probably benefit from the DVDs. 

This is my first little engine, and a fun project.  Although I used the CNC mill, it was almost exclusively used as a drill press with accurate readouts for where (in X and Y) and how deep to drill.  Aside from that, the mill was just used to square the two pieces of plate to size.  LMS says the engine can be made with a lathe the size of a Sherline and a drill press; I think that's right.  The majority of the project was lathe work, turning the flywheel and smaller, but more fiddly crank wheel (you literally cut away something like 80% of the aluminum you start with).  The cylinder is machined on the lathe with the four jaw chuck because of the square shape (doesn't go well with a three jaw chuck) and the need to drill and size the cylinder about 1/8" off center of the 1" square block it's made from, and then the cylinder is reamed to a final diameter.  In this case 0.499"  - here's my 0.499 reamer as the cut is starting.
After reaming the cylinder, the chuck is put back to centered, the four-sided cylinder cut to final length, drilled for a single intake and exhaust hole into the cylinder and another hole drilled and tapped one for a long, spring loaded screw that holds it to the upright part of the support.  Finally, the four jaw is replaced with the conventional three-jaw and the piston cut to fit the cylinder. 

Naturally, I did some things wrong and made some mistakes.  I've always said that life, much like working in the shop, is all about recovering gracefully from screwups.  The graceful recovery I get the biggest chortle from concerned a very minor part: a little steel pin: 0.142" diameter that's supposed to be threaded to 6-32 for 0.350" and then cut to be only 0.600" long.  I had only one die for 6-32, in a cheap Hazard Fraught tap and die set, and it simply wouldn't cut the steel.  In an effort to help it out, I trimmed back the pin from.142 to .134, which is probably too small in diameter to thread properly.  The die still wouldn't cut this soft, steel pin and just roughened the end.  In a final test, I turned back a little scrap of 1/4" diameter aluminum to .140 and tried cutting it with the die.  I could feel it cutting, but when I went to unscrew the die, all I found was the end of the aluminum pin sort of gnawed off with a large step in diameter. 

So I had to order a die.  I discovered these dies - with a built in die wrench (the eBay seller - no relation, etc.).  When it got in, I thought that I had messed up the pin too badly.  So where do I get a .140 pin or "rod" of it to cut?  At some point while pondering, one of the voices in my head said, "why not a nail?"  I didn't even know if I could thread a nail, but after a quick test showed that it would cut, I cut off the head and chucked up a few inch long piece of nail from my junk collection.  It was .160 diameter, so I turned it to the right size and threaded the nail.  The new die worked perfectly. 
This is just as I was preparing to cut it to length with the cutoff tool on the lathe.  The pin is in the engine as you see it.

There are more stories from making it, but probably not worth getting into.  While it's "done", I'll probably work on this a bit more.  It has had very little finish work done to it.  I'd like the look of a polished aluminum version, but that means taking it completely apart and lots of sanding time.  Still, it might be worth it.  

I've had it completely built since Friday, but was unable to test it because I didn't have a way to get compressed air from my compressor to the engine.  The last couple of days were spent coming up with ways to do that and rounding up parts around town. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

First, I hope if you're interested in following some quality writing on the Las Vegas massacre that you're reading the Raconteur Report, who has done some really good reporting on it.  I think a worthwhile read for everyone is yesterday's post on a Plea to Stop the Derp.  It's simply too full of weapons-grade snark to quote pieces of.  So just a couple of lines:
1) "I can't believe he got all that crap up to a 32nd floor suite"

That's because you're an idiot, or unfamiliar with Vegas, firearms, and about 48 other facts that many people find to be common knowledge.

We know now Paddock checked in on September 25th, giving him only six f***ing days to get a $#!^load of guns and ammunition to the 32d floor from his car. Seriously, anyone who thinks he carried them out in the open, and up 32 flights of stairs, on his back, is a fucktard. If that includes you, step away from the keyboard.

In Vegas, like many hotels, there are these things called luggage carts:
There's more.  I suspect most of you have seen it since everyone seems to be recommending the blog, but go read if you haven't.

During the power outages from Irma, we ran for a little while on APC Uninterruptible Power Supplies.  One of them seemed to start giving off the unmistakable odor of burning electronics, so it was powered down and sent into a secure isolation facility (the shop).  After running off the battery for a few hours, the smell returned.  I took it apart and started a few days worth of testing the batteries (it seems I spend a lot of my spare time testing and reconditioning batteries).  To discharge these batteries, I ran my AC inverter and a 60W bulb.  I recharged them with my storage and AGM charger.  There will likely be a few cycles to 50% capacity and then recharging, in an effort to recondition them, but they look like old gell cell batteries whose internal resistance is getting too high.  I'll know better after a few more days.

I got an ad from Home Depot in today's email .  In itself, that's hardly unusual.  It was when I clicked on the sale link that it got a little surprising.
Huh.  I would have guessed that Home Depot would localize their ads to the cities or states where people register as living and not just send a national ad.  By coincidence, I was at the local HD store today and I didn't see a single snow shovel, show blower, salt spreader or bag of salt on display. 

I'll take the chance I can extend my record of never needing one for a while longer.  Like the rest of my life. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Is Hurricane Nate A Hurricane?

Trick question?  Nope.  Bear with me.

From the 8PM EDT Statement:
LOCATION...29.0N 89.2W
Winds 85 mph, forward movement North, or 350 degrees, at 20 mph.   Around the time of Irma, last month, I learned that the winds are reported, the forward motion is already taken into account. It raises the question of just what the winds in Nate really are.
In general, the strongest winds in a hurricane are found on the right side of the storm because the motion of the hurricane also contributes to its swirling winds. A hurricane with a 90 mph [145 km/hr] winds while stationary would have winds up to 100 mph [160 km/hr] on the right side and only 80 mph [130 km/hr] on the left side if it began moving (any direction) at 10 mph [16 km/hr].

Note that forecasting center advisories already take this asymmetry into account and, in this case, would state that the highest winds were 100 mph [160 km/hr]. [Note: emphasis in original - SiG]
Consider the geometry they describe:
In this case, the red arrow is pointing north.  The winds on the right (east) side of the storm are reported at 85 mph and that includes the 20 mph forward motion.  That means the winds on the north side of the eye where the forward motion contributes nothing are 65 mph, 10 mph below Hurricane strength, and the winds on the west side of the storm are (WindReported - 2 x (forward speed))  or 45 mph.  That's the weakest wind defined as a tropical storm.  The winds along the south side of the eyewall, where forward motion again contributes nothing to the speed, are 65 mph again.   Stripped of the effects from forward motion, it becomes a tropical storm with 65 mph winds everywhere.

There is only one area in Nate that's a hurricane force storm and that's a small area in the eyewall on the east side of the storm.   Normalized to 10 meters (33 feet) elevation. 

Why does this matter?  Follow the money.  Far more geographical area is going to be affected by Nate than will experience hurricane force winds.  Because this is called a hurricane, it will invoke the higher deductibles homeowner's insurance charges for hurricanes.  That's typically a much higher deductible than if this was treated like a thunderstorm, which can easily generate winds that will be seen in most of Nate.  I honestly don't think Nate should be called a hurricane.  If the 85 mph winds were on the north and south sides of the eye wall, and the east side became 105 because of forward motion, that seems more like a hurricane than a storm with a tiny area that reaches 85 because of the geometry of its path.  Which means the NHC would have to describe the winds as if the storm weren't moving. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Reasonable Gun Laws

Are you as sick as I am of hearing that phrase?  It's not just in the last few days, it's always there to some degree.  I'm sick of explaining there is no such thing as a gun show loophole; there are no laws that don't apply at gun shows or to internet sales.  I'm tired of explaining that we already have background checks on all new guns, we don't do them on private sales because it's an individual selling their own property and the Federal Government doesn't seem to get involved in private sales of private property.  States do; if I sell a car, boat or whatever, I have to do a bill of sales and the buyer pays sales tax.  I know of no place where the does that.  I'm really sick of the "why does anyone need (fill in the blank)?? Which we hear from an alarming number of people who are nominally on our side.  Fudds.  Why does anyone need 42 guns?  Why does anyone need 30 round magazines?  I want to ask why does anyone need 42 books? That's also a constitutionally protected right.  Why does anyone need a TV in every room, or a muscle car or you name it.  BFYTW  It's None of Your F**king Business.

I'm even more sick of late night comedians insisting that you and I, as law abiding gun owners, are to blame for mass murder.  No, Kimmel, you sanctimonious copraphage, the only person responsible is the one pulling the trigger.  Not obeying laws is sort of a minimum job requirement for criminals, and if someone is going to commit mass murder, which usually includes suicide, I don't really think minor process crimes are going to slow them.

So since the start of the reports coming in involved this mysterious new term "bump stock" (Paul Ryan said he had never heard of them), they've been on the chopping block.  Several bloggers have already said they'd gladly trade the bump stock for national carry reciprocity and/or the SHARE act and/or lots of other things. I like Aesop's over at Raconteur Report best of what I've seen but I can honestly feel the fear emanating from Slide Fire.  They're selling a perfectly legal product to perfectly willing buyers and they're going to get run out of business because of a lunatic and the cowardly rush to "do something" even if it's not right.

Regular readers will know this is one of my regular rants, but I have a whole bunch of things I consider reasonable gun laws.

Let's start here.  I just bought my Ruger Precision Rifle (The Precious) online from Palmetto State Armory in July.  Any non-prohibited person can walk into their local sporting goods store and walk out with one of those, or a shot gun, or any other long gun just by plunking down their payment, filling out the 4473 and getting the NICS check.  So why did it have to go through a local FFL's hands?  All that did was raise my price $35.  Why can't I fill out an electronic 4473 online and have it shipped directly to my house?  The local FFL had an electronic 4473 I filled out there, why can't I connect to that server from my home and use that form, or connect to one where I bought the gun?  What advantage is there to society from shipping it to an FFL?  They can look at my driver's license and verify I'm me?   Puh-lease.  With today's computer security and ability to forge documents?

In consumer goods, your local camera shop, say, really does have to compete with the big guys in New York. Gun shops don't have that. I can see how local gun shops might really like this setup. They get an easy 35 bucks for filling out the forms and "receiving" the shipment, but I don't think there's any value added to us or society.  There was certainly no value added to me.

If there's a mandatory 3 or 5 day waiting period for a handgun where you live (Florida waives that for Concealed Carry licensees), why can't you order it online and wait 3 or 5 days for UPS to deliver it?  Again, with today's computer security, you could verify age, do a NICS check - anything the local shop can do - online.  I think the waiting periods are all bullsh*t anyway, just another way for government to yank our chains and make it harder than it ought to be.  I've never seen any data that waiting periods have ever done anything except inconvenience legal purchasers.  But, fine, we'll play your infantile waiting game -- now how does waiting 3 days to pick up a gun in my city differ from waiting 3 days to get it delivered by UPS or FedEx?

What possible arguments are there against this?  We can't guarantee security, we can't guarantee that criminals won't order guns online?  Criminals don't have any problems getting guns now while staying out of the system entirely.  If we use strong security, it's as good as what we have.  One time I posted something like this and a commenter said,  "what if your kids used your ID?"  I wouldn't want my kids buying anything under my ID on my computer.  If you can't control your own kids in your own house, I think that's a bigger problem than what they're buying.  Maybe you should be making sure they don't know the combination to your safe and don't know where to find matches.   

I guess I'm arguing for a complete end to the FFL to FFL monopoly.  Why not?  Along with that, I want complete deregulation of silencers (SHARE makes them subject to the 4473).  This one actually is for the children.  And for anyone who moves next door to gun ranges or clubs and gets disturbed by the sounds.  From what I read, I don't think I'm dropping my hearing protection even if I have the can, but Show Me the Data.  It strikes me as absurd that we require mufflers on cars or motorcycles but prohibit them on guns.  I know it originally goes back to preventing people from poaching the King's deer, but now it's all about the Hollywood mythology that Hillary espouses. 

We should eliminate postal restrictions against mailing of firearms. We can ship them via UPS, or FedEx, why not USPS?  Don't they need every penny of revenue they can get?

Get rid of the stupid “sporting purpose” tests for firearms. The Heller decision makes it very clear that the Second Amendment isn’t about duck hunting. This particularly affects imports.  No restrictions.  

Get rid of the stupid laws on short barreled rifles and shotguns.  The idea that a shotgun barrel 18.05" long is fine, but one that's 17.95" is some sort of monster death machine-weapon is just silly.  It's there simply to create law violators.  It's also one of their most enforced laws - probably because it's really easy to measure barrel length.

How's that for a start?  It doesn't take away enough of BATFE's work to close them down, but maybe downsize them 50%?
There are many competing companies providing improved online ID verification; this one is from LexisNexis, the database giant.  How is comparing all these documents worse in any way than filling out some lines on a 4473 and showing a driver's license to the clerk at the local FFL?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

I Wish I'd Seen This In 2014

Back when we were starting to work on the addition to the house for my shop. 
Even better than 30 years from now, it would be great to mess with some future archaeologist! 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Mass Shootings - A Different View

Anonymous commenter Bob posted an interesting link to my frustrated post about the Las Vegas shooting.  It was a link to FiveThirtyEight for a very reasonable article about gun control and mass shootings.  Of all places you'd never expect to see such a thing, they're one.  I think it's worth reading simply because it's so unusual for a liberal "rag" like them.  The author says mass shootings don't contain much information if the goal is to stop the larger issue of "gun violence" because the only thing they have in common with so-called gun violence is that someone is holding a gun. 

Then author Maggie Koerth-Baker goes places I've never seen liberal sites go.  She admits right up front that almost 2/3 of gun deaths are suicides and people find ways to kill themselves if there are no guns.  She talks about the racial disparity of gun violence victims, with 66% percent of murder victims black.  She concludes with:
If we focus on mass shootings as a means of understanding how to reduce the number of people killed by guns in this country, we’re likely to implement laws that don’t do what we want them to do — and miss opportunities to make changes that really work. Gun violence isn’t one problem, it’s many. And it probably won’t have a single solution, either.
It's almost like she wants to solve the problem, not just "do something" as the refrain from all the late night comics goes.  She brings up the uncomfortable subjects (for the liberals) of violence being more common in young black men.  If she would go get John Lott's research showing the enormous concentration of murders in just a small percentage of the counties in the US, and then realize that most of those places already have draconian gun laws, maybe she'd get somewhere.

I can respect the honesty she shows about the problem.  Nobody wants to see mass shootings like we just had, but those shooters seem to be so atypical compared to the usual murders, and nobody wants to see murders of any kind.  I suspect that gun and non-gun murders have more in common with each other than they do with mass shootings.  Yeah, I'd like to get her to drop the whole "gun-violence" term because murder is murder whether it's done with a handgun or a hammer, and I have several of those gripes, but I can deal with honest questioning a lot better than I can live with politics as usual, like Useful Idiot Feinstein dropping a bill to outlaw bump stocks already.  The guy was literally shooting fish in a barrel.  The bump stock probably made his count lower.  

Shifting gears, I don't have to introduce Bill Whittle to this crowd.  Bill, of course, left PJ Media a while back and started  I subscribed the first month and renewed this past May.  Bill asks us to think about the mass shootings in a different way.  (Sorry, it was members only video or I'd link).  

Most people who have worked in industry have probably heard of Six Sigma programs - I first ran across them in the mid '90s.  The idea is that everything your factory produces should fit within its specification envelope within six standard deviations.  Most "statistical quality control" before Six Sigma said your products should fit within 3 sigma.  The problem is, that makes your factory repair or rework too many rejected products. 

Anyone here saying, "Hold on a minute - what's a sigma?"  The term is used for a standard deviation in a Gaussian distribution - the famous "bell curve" everyone has heard of or seen.
Note that it shows the number of rejected parts in Defects per Million.  In percentages, it looks like this:
Producing something that worked to 3 sigma meant 93.3% of what you built worked right the first time.   If you're producing big assemblies, that might be acceptable to you.  The six sigma movement is trying to make the product work the first time it's tested 99.99966% of the time. 34 out of 10 million would require either scrapping or fixing, depending on the cost to the company. 

What Bill says is that we can consider a mass shooter to be a "defective" human.  How many defects are we producing compared to six sigma?  How many mass shootings have there been in 2017?  I went to this archive, which I know nothing about and found by web search.  I think I recall that the general definition of a mass shooting is 4 or more people killed, and they list mass shootings by more than 4 injured.  By the 4 or more killed convention, I count 16 (by 4 or more injured there are many more: 273).  In a country of 320 million that represents .05 Defects per Million.  That's considerably better than 6 sigma of population being "defective" in that way.   

I don't know if it's reasonable to count this as per year, or just how.  Bill seems to think of it as a potential number of shootings per day.  Which is right, per day or per year, or is neither right?  Beats me.  In a day, there are many hundreds of millions of interactions between people, the vast, vast majority of which don't end up in any sort of violence.  On the other hand, when the people calling this a terrible, depraved place start to get to you, it's a little optimistic to think just how stunningly rare these things are. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Sneak Peek

There is some greater-than-zero chance that I'll be able to show you all one of these running.  Real soon now.  With stories to follow.

Just a couple of pieces left to solve.  Video from the NYC CNC channel.  Need I say "no relationship, just a channel I sometimes watch"?

Monday, October 2, 2017

Here We Are Again

Another horrific mass murder.  Another scumbag who is miserable in life and thinks it's his prerogative to give everyone else his misery.  Unless Isis isn't just taking credit for nothing and he really is one of theirs. 

I'm sickened by not just the attack itself, but by the immediate reaction that it's time for more gun control.  If Weapons Man was right, there's about 600 Million guns in America.  That means all of about 1 millionth of 1 percent were involved in this attack.  So naturally we need to go after all the innocent people who did nothing today.

You know what?  I was going to post some of the idiocy from Hillary, Shannon, and all the anti-gun idiots who are thrilled to be out dancing in the blood again, but I just don't have it inside.  The comments are so appallingly stupid, I just can't even. 

Let's mourn for the dead, let's rally to help the wounded, let's wait for healing to take place.  We'll start the fights some other time. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Another A380 Loses an Engine in Mid-Flight

By now, everyone has heard about the Air France A380 flight yesterday that had an engine break up in mid-flight over the North Atlantic (one report says over Greenland).  The aircraft declared an inflight emergency, was re-routed from its path to Los Angeles and landed safely at Goose Bay airport in Canada.  The pilots handled the emergency well and the plane landed without further problems. 
Passenger photo.

The thing is, this isn't the first engine issue they've had, on an airframe that hasn't flown that long.  Soon after the A380s were delivered to Qantas airlines in Australia, 2010, one of their A380s lost its port side inboard engine to an explosion on takeoff.  The engine threw debris through the wing of the aircraft and could have just as easily thrown debris through passengers.  The pilots handled the emergency expertly and safely landed the aircraft.  The cause was judged to be a quality problem at Rolls Royce Trent engines, and resulted in grounding of several aircraft, including among different airlines to have engines inspected or replaced. 

Are two midair engine explosions in seven years unusual?  That's a little awkward to answer because if you search for any model aircraft, you'll find stories about engine explosions.  Despite that, I'm sure that everyone in the design chain does their best to make sure they don't explode.  Is it worth asking if the A380 system has some issues with its engines?  Not so much that the engines aren't built right, which was the case with the Qantas incident, but if there's something about their operating envelope that wasn't adequately specified?  What I mean is that the engines were specified, designed and then tested to a specific set of requirements, so I'm sure they meet the requirements.  Is it possible that the requirements are wrong? 

It's rough for outsiders to the industry to find real numbers for the number of flight hours, failures per flight hour and so on.  We always have to keep in mind that if two very rare occurrences happen in rapid succession, they might legitimately still be very rare.  People do hit the lotto twice.  It does, however, make me want to keep an eye on the A380 from a respectful distance. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

End of September

It's September 30th, or as we call it around here: August 61st.  The end of September with only one sign that it's not August: the sunset getting earlier every night while sunrise gets a little later every morning.  To be honest, it's not quite August.  Yeah, it has been in the 90s if it's not raining, but over 90 doesn't ordinarily last as long as the high temperatures in August.  Accuweather's long range forecast guesstimate doesn't really predict a overnight low under 70 until Halloween Weekend, but nobody should trust a forecast that far out.  They do show some highs in the low 80s in just two weeks, which is marginally more believable. 

And we're ending the month much as it began, under what the Hurricane Center calls "Invest 99".  (For those who aren't familiar, an "Invest" is an area of investigation, the first stage in the sequence of development of a hurricane: Invest - Tropical Depression - Tropical Storm - Hurricane).  That only means a few more storms and a bit more wind than usual.
Tonight's weather shows the center over NE Florida, with a predicted 20% chance of developing through the next five days.  That area over the Caribbean is given a 0% chance of developing over the next five days. 

 Just think; it's just under 8 weeks from last Thursday will be Thanksgiving. 

Friday, September 29, 2017

Best Thing I've Read on Artificial Intelligence Taking Over the World

By link at an out of the way place,, I ran into this cool article, "Camels to Cars, Artificial Cockroaches, and Will AI Take Your Job?" This is really a well done piece and I recommend you Read The Whole Thing. Best thing I've read on this topic in quite a while, if not best ever. 

CNCCookbook publishes the "Speeds and Feeds" calculator I'm using, GWizard.  The owner is a guy named Bob Warfield.  Bob's an interesting guy; he has founded a handful of companies in the software world, and I think he says CNCCookbook is his seventh company. 
Before I launch into my reaction to these all to common predictions that AI is right around the corner and will take all of our jobs, let me establish my own credentials.  Hey, anyone can have an opinion, but like everyone else, I think my opinion is better!

I have worked in what many would call the field of Artificial Intelligence.  I made the largest return I’ve ever made selling one of my 6 Venture Capital Startups to another company.  The technology we built was able to automatically test software.
Bob points out that AI has been riding the Gartner Hype Cycle for a long time. In last summer's Gartner summary, they put it near the peak.  For the third time.
In fact, all of these technologies are near the peak of being over-hyped:
  • Deep Neural Network ASICs
  • Level 3 Vehicle Autonomy
  • Smart Robots
  • Virtual Assistants
  • Deep Learning
  • Machine Learning
  • NLP
  • Autonomous Vehicles
  • Intelligent Apps
  • Cognitive Computing
  • Computer Vision
  • Level 4 Vehicle Autonomy
  • Commercial UAVs (Drones)
What's different about this time?  Is anything different about this time?  This time we have demos!  We have Deep Blue beating the world's chess champion.  We have Deep Blue beating the worlds Go champion.  Well, yeah, we had demos the other times, too.  In the last peak of the hype we had
  • Medical diagnosis better than what human doctors could do. See Mycin for prescribing antibiotics, for example.  It was claimed to be better than human doctors at its job but never saw actual use.
  • All manner of vision and manipulation. Blocks? So what. Driving cars?  Yeah right.  Turn ‘em loose against a New York cabbie and we’ll see how they do.  The challenge for autonomous vehicles has always been the people, not the terrain.
No matter how many autonomous cars drive across the dessert (talk about the easiest possible terrain), they’re nowhere until they can deal with stupid carbon units, i.e. People, without killing them or creating liability through property damage.

By the way, despite awarding numerous prizes of one million dollars and up, so far the DARPA Grand Challenge has failed to meet the goal Congress set for it when it awarded funding–to get 1/3 of all military vehicles to be autonomous by 2015.  But the demos sure are sweet!
  • Computers have been solving mathematical theorems for ages.  In some cases they even generate better proofs than the humans.  Cool.  But if they’re so good, why haven’t they already pushed mathematics ahead by centuries?  Something is not quite right with a demo that can only solve theorems already solved and little else.
  • Oooh, yeah, computers are beating chess masters!  Sure, but not in any way that remotely resembles how people play chess.  They are simply able to consider more positions.  That and the fact that their style of play is just odd and offputing to humans is why they win.  What good is it? One source claims Deep Blue cost IBM $100 million.
When are those algorithms doing to genuinely add $1 billion to IBM’s bottom line?  Building still more specialized computers to beat humans at Jeopardy or Go is just creating more demos that solve no useful problems and do so in ways that humans don’t.  Show me the AI System that starts from nothing and can learn to beat any human at any game in less than a year and I will admit I have seen Deep Skynet.
One of the marketing gurus doing AI demos says "all we gotta do" is wait for computers that are about 100,000 times faster than what we have, and then overstates Moore's law to say we'll have them in 25 years.  If computers get twice as fast every two years (and the actual clock speeds plateaued around 2006 and aren't going up, but let's ignore that and say we get twice as fast due to architectural improvements) that takes 17 cycles or 34 years for computers to get 100,000 times faster.  It's gonna be a long time before we have Hal "open the pod bay doors".  Besides, I have evidence Moore's Law died in 2012 so we may never get there.

Think about the problem the other way, though, if a computer 100,000 times faster would be as good as human brain (and we still have serious gaps in our understanding of just how the brain works - including whether or not our brains do quantum computing), what would be the comparison to today's computer?  Could we get useful work out of what we have?
So we need artificial brains that are 100,000 times more powerful.  In essence, we can compare today’s AI to brains the size of what cockroaches have.  Yet, we’re worried they’re going to take all of our jobs.

Are you in a job that a cockroach could do?  I hope not.

So far, I am not aware of anyone having harnessed cockroaches to do their bidding, but they are cheap, plentiful, and just as smart as today’s AI’s.  Maybe smarter if their brains are quantum computers too.

Maybe it would be cheaper to spend billions learning how to make cockroaches useful?

I don’t know, but we don’t even seem to be able to make much smarter animals useful.  Are there dogs running machinery somewhere in China?  Is a particularly adept German Shepherd behind the latest quant trading engine on Wall Street?

Decades ago, I read about a drug company that trained pigeons to be Quality Control inspectors on their production lines.  The gelatin capsules coming off the production line would sometimes stick together, so you'd get two tops or two bottoms stuck in each other.  The production inspectors would watch the molding machine's output on something like a conveyor belt and pick out the defective gelatin caps.  The humans would get bored with such a menial task, their attention would wander, and defective capsules would get through.  The pigeons found it interesting enough that they paid more attention.  As a result, the pigeons were actually better inspectors than the humans - they found 99% of the bad capsules.  The only reason they didn't make the pigeons permanent inspectors after this experiment?  They were afraid what the competition would say about them if they discovered they were using pigeons. 

Can you imagine cockroaches on the production line doing this job?  Maybe you pay them with the gelatin capsules they reject.  And can you imagine what the competition would say about having trained cockroaches inspect the medical capsules? 

Again, let me leave you with a quote I've used before, because I think it's great.
William Bossert, legendary Harvard professor, summed it up by saying, “If you’re afraid that you might be replaced by a computer, you probably can be—and probably should be.” While it may not be comforting, it could be a wakeup call for continued education.