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Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Alignment Charts: it’s a meme

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The Interwebby thing has lots of awful stuff, lots of stupid stuff, and lots of very cool stuff.

And it also has lots of fun stuff, as with Alignment Charts, which play with the notion of how two factors can be combined to categorise different things and how this also describes or maps onto degrees of some third factor.

So you could look at food and talk about the two factors of structure and ingredients, with the third factor arising from their combination being “purity”, with that measure running from “Purist” to “Rebel”.

But bugger explaining it further. Just enjoy these three, though there are lots more such charts

… some of them pretty bloody obscure, although the Lawful -> Neutral -> Chaotic combined with Good -> Neutral -> Evil chart is common.

I have to admit I love the chart for the characters of the American sitcom The Big Bang Theory, mainly because of this line uttered by microbiologist Bernadette Rostenkowski as part of running joke about her lab work.

“It’s not like you crossed Ebola with the Common Cold and then swore never to tell anyone.”

Written by Tom Hunter

June 8, 2021 at 11:42 am

Posted in Humour, Technology

Your Saturday morning explosion (x2)

Who doesn’t like watching explosions? Especially when it’s destroying a wind farm, like this one in New Mexico. It’s also a brand new industry and one with a solid future.

The notes for the video say that having the 90 units felled permitted the wind farm owner to complete salvage of blades and drive-train elements from some of the wind turbines to provide replacement parts for similar units they operate at other wind farm locations.

But given the destruction we’re seeing here I just don’t see how what replacement parts they could be talking about. Enjoy the explosions.

These units look to be only twenty years old, judging by the design, but that does seem to be their lifespan, which is decades less than any other type of power station.

Each state has its own laws for cleaning up old industrial sites, which is probably why the following wind farm in Ohio has not been given the same treatment, instead being allowed to simply rot and make the landscape even uglier than when they were working. What a desolate sight.

I don’t believe there is anywhere in the U.S. where you can develop a mining project without putting up a bond or some other security to pay for the restoration of the site after the mine is closed. Obviously nothing like that was done with regard to the project you see in the video, but then it was probably built and then abandoned by a bankrupt single-purpose developer cashing in on the PTC every time it gets renewed:

“We get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them.” Warren Buffet

Explosive demolition certainly needs to happen to the old, outdated wind turbines in the Altamont Pass that are such an eyesore seen from the I-580 interstate that leads to San Francisco. They look more like the old water pump windmills of American ranches.

Meanwhile over on the Beauty – both Nature and Human post, regular commentator Andrei wrote a paean to the beauty of human machinery and what can happen if it’s not taken care of, so I decided to add to this post with an example of that.

Written by Tom Hunter

June 5, 2021 at 6:00 am

Brave? More like fracking suicidal

Written by Tom Hunter

May 28, 2021 at 4:25 pm

The North Face: an outstanding company

I don’t think I own any North Face gear, or ever have, though I do think their line of outdoor clothing is stylish.

Apparently the company likes stylish things across the board, especially those which let its customers know that it cares about more than just profits, but the Earth itself:

Innovex is based in Houston and has nearly 100 workers in the Permian Basin.

Each year, the company gets a Christmas gift for its employees. This year, it was supposed to be a North Face jacket with an Innovex logo, a company Innovex has ordered gear from in the past.

The company providing the jackets said The North Face doesn’t want to support the oil and gas industry in the same way they’d reject the porn industry or tobacco industry.

“They told us we did not meet their brand standards,” Innovex CEO Anderson said. “We were separately informed that what that really meant is was that we were an oil and gas company.”

[North Face said that it] “thoroughly investigates product requests to ensure they align closely with our goals and commitments surrounding sustainability and environmental protection.”

Take that you disgusting, Global Warming, despoilers of Gaia! Begone from our customer’s ranks! No more will our skiers have to be ashamed at wearing the same clothes as some deplorable oil driller. Virtue and purity hath returned to our world.

Unfortunately for North Face their management turned out to be pretty ignorant about their own products and it didn’t take long for somebody in the fossil fuel industry to strike back – but in an unexpected way:

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association has bestowed its first-ever “Extraordinary Customer Award” on The North Face, saying it appreciates the company for its abundant use of oil and gas.

“To have such a large percent of what they make, probably three-quarters of the mass they ship is actually our product. So, it’s hard to top the all-in nature of The North Face as a consumer of our product,” said Chris Wright, CEO of Liberty Oilfield Services.

Fantastic stuff and now a US state government, Louisiana, has made it official with a resolution passed last week, that recognized The North Face as an “extraordinary customer” of “the Louisiana oil and gas petrochemical industries.”

The resolution highlights the “symbiotic relationship between the Louisiana oil and gas and petrochemical industry and The North Face,” commending the clothing company for “utilizing vital oil and gas resources so important to our state.”

“The North Face continues to offer a comprehensive collection of high-performance outerwear, skiwear, backpacks, duffels, and footwear made with nylon, polyester, and polyurethane, all of which come from petroleum products,” the resolution reads.

Congratulations to The North Face for these well-deserved awards.

In fact I’m so pleased about this that I think I shall go and buy a new ski jacket, and while looking at the products in the store I shall certainly offer voluble and effusive commentary in commending them on their wonderfully high use of fossil fuels.

I’m sure their sales people and customers will also be pleased with my visit.

Written by Tom Hunter

May 14, 2021 at 11:05 am

The Power of Glamour

I’m shamelessly using the title of this book, which I would recommend you read even if you can’t stand the fashion industry- perhaps especially if you can’t stand it.

For the simple fact is that our societies are driven as much by these ephemeral things as by the literal nuts, bolts and electronics of our technological world.

From vacation brochures to military recruiting ads, from the Chrysler Building to the iPad, from political utopias to action heroines, Postrel argues that glamour is a seductive cultural force. Its magic stretches beyond the stereotypical spheres of fashion or film, influencing our decisions about what to buy, where to live, which careers to pursue, where to invest, and how to vote.

The post I put up the other day on cleverly painted water towers reminded me of a couple of other such things that I’ve come across recently.

First up is the emergence of a very rare turbine-powered Chrysler car from the 1960’s.

The 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car was one of 55 that were built to evaluate the use of turbine engines as part of an automobile powertrain and given to real-world drivers for short loans.

The thought was that a relatively simple, smooth operating engine that could run on a variety of fuels would offer a reliable and efficient alternative to piston engines, but poor emissions and fuel economy doomed it to the history books after a couple of years of testing.

All but nine of the cars were sent to the crusher after the project was complete in 1966. Chrysler kept two, five were sent to museums and two ended up in private hands.

Not surprisingly, car nut, Jay Leno, (former host of The Tonight Show back when it had mass appeal) owns one, but the second privately owned one is back on the market for the first time in decades.

It looks very cool on these shots although if you click on the link you’ll see that the front view is not so great: obviously YMMV. But the inside is just gorgeous, right down to the “turbine look” in the centre console.

As crazy as it might have sounded originally, turbines have been used to power other machines, perhaps most notably the US Abrams Tank.

It’s no coincidence that Chrysler was the original manufacturer of the Abrams.

Despite turbines only really being effective when they’re running at constant speed the big advantage is that they can burn any fuel, which was one inspiration for the turbine car. But as the article notes, they’re fuel hogs. The Abrams uses 10 gallons (38 litres) just to start up and the same per hour when idling.

I suppose there are people – likely military people – who find the Abrams glamorous.

The other piece on this subject that I ran across arose from a criticism by Senator Cruz of the Harris-Biden Administration’s decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords. Cruz said that they cared more about the people of Paris than Pittsburgh.

It’s the usual soundbite alliteration beloved by politicians and it rather annoyed right-wing writer Claire Berlinski (There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters), who lives in Paris and took Cruz to task for his populist shout-out:

An American writer named James Lileks, who lives in the Mid-West, acknowledges what Cruz was doing but then gently points out to Berlinski that there are two cities called Paris; the one she loves and defends and …. the newer Paris.

I’m sure there’s some lovely modern architecture in Paris. Few people go to Paris to seek it out. Only the die-hard architectural masochists feel required to make a pilgrimage to the Pompideu HVAC Museum:

I recall reading all the gushing guff published in the 1980’s when this thing was opened: about its “challenging”, “shocking” and (of course) “revolutionary” design. People go to see what’s inside, where it’s not at all like this. But they don’t go to admire the building.

Then there’s the Mitterand Library. The four buildings stand like open books, which is nice. They have a serene, spare quality, and also would not be out of place as the HQ for the advanced species that has colonized earth, eliminated 92% of the population, and now rules with a gentle hand because the survivors know the death rays strike without warning or sound.

Which brings me to this Paris concert hall, and the idea of Europe as synonymous with Grandeur And Splendor Which True Murcans Must Reject.

Do you get the sense of some alien creature blindly advancing on the city, its tentacles dripping with silvery ichor?

Of course it’s likely that there are people who do find these structures glamorous, in the same manner of an Abrams Tank.

Lileks finishes up his piece by pointing out what such things may mean for French society, in the context of Berlinski’s remark about what Cruz’s remarks mean for American society:

She’s right about Paris being the seat of arts and culture. Paris is beautiful, but its beauty is an artifact of its past.

Which brings me back to the idea Claire expressed: the sentiments she gleaned from the remark about the values of the Parisian elect “are not the mark of a healthy and self-confident society.” I think one could say the same about the structure above. It doesn’t just reject the norms and forms of history; it erases them and insists they never were.

Perhaps these are the marks of a society that loathes itself – either for what it was, which it feels was characterized by iniquities and inequities, or for what it is, which is not as great as it used to be when we were awesome. The contradiction can drive one barmy.

You can’t unmoor Parisians from the past, but you can dissolve the bonds that carry the past into the future. The city becomes a bustling pretty crypt, full of altars to gods no one believes in.

What’s left as a belief system? Statism, Art – which is either ancestor worship or institutionally “disruptive” modernism – and the notion of the Perfected Future, in which men in suits and their severe but glamorous wives go to structures like the one above and sit through a twelve-tone opera with a blank face

Written by Tom Hunter

May 13, 2021 at 11:36 am

Posted in Art, Europe, History, Humour, Ideologues, Technology, USA

Tagged with

Charismatic Cisterns

We’re all used to seeing water tanks that look like these ones, particularly in New Zealand and Australia where they’re a common site on farms, although they’re usually no longer in use. These two actually don’t look too bad, probably because the sagging lean of their platforms has added some style to their image, courtesy also of a good photographer.

When it comes to our urban areas New Zealand lucks out with its hilly geography providing an automatic gravity-fed capability. Huge water tanks and cisterns can be buried on the top of hills, perhaps with less than half of the structure sticking above ground.

That’s a good thing because their basic functionality means that they are not pretty to start with.

In other parts of the world where towns and cities are surrounded by hundreds of miles of flat land, the townsfolk are not so lucky. Their water tanks, more correctly termed water towers, have to be raised on a platform to gain sufficient height above the surrounding buildings that they supply. When I first drove through the American Mid-West my attention kept being drawn to these water tanks, not only because I found such structures unusual but because they often looked like the following.

Butt ugly in other words.

Even more so when extra functionality is added by turning them into cellphone towers.

So it was with some pleasure that I discovered that as painting technology has advanced people are no longer willing to accept ugly-functional as the water tank/tower look. There’s even a competition to judge the best ones, Tank Of The Year, which you can view at your leisure by clicking on the link. But here’s some of my favourites

I don’t agree with all the winning selections of course, but here’s my favourite winner, from 2017.

PinInterest also has a nice selection of water tower photos , although it’s labeled “weird” for some reason.

Even the much older concept of cisterns can be prettier than water towers, even if they’re hardly ever seen because they’re underground, like this one in the Peniche Fortress (Forte de Peniche), Portugal.

Bulls Water Tower

Meanwhile back here in NZ, in the heart of the Rangitikei Plains, we’ve got one of our examples of the classic water tower, courtesy of the area being one of the few parts of the nation that are as flat as the American Mid-West.

Yes, that’s the famous/infamous water tower that greets travellers entering the township of Bulls.

I see that it has been de-commissioned because it’s not earthquake proof but has been saved from demolition by a public vote. I realise that architects probably will swoon over it as a classic example of mid-20th century Modernist building style, but I doubt that the old Ministry Of Works architects were thinking that when designing it.

No, it’s functional – and a butt ugly wart on the landscape. Perhaps, having saved the damned thing, the public could be inspired by the links above to apply some creative painting to it.

Written by Tom Hunter

May 11, 2021 at 11:13 am

Book Review: The things that endure

Some years ago I was cleaning out a garage when I came across some old cooking pots my parents had used. They were rusted but I vaguely remembered their shapes and when I examined them closely I found that there were old rust holes that had been mended using some sort of screw/tap device that I suppose was sold at hardware stores at the time.

Nowadays of course we simply throw the pots out since it’s cheaper to replace than repair. I doubt such repair kits are even made any longer. But then my parents had come of age during The Slump; you patched and repaired everything, only stopping when total destruction occurred.

By contrast I worked in the IT industry for thirty years, where you became well aware of how transitory are some of the things that humans build. A computer system might last ten years before it is replaced, the hardware going faster than that.

There are exceptions that prove the rule. In the insurance industry it was quite common to find software that had existed for decades, because the policies it supported, usually life insurance, had not changed, the business still had to be run, and software doesn’t wear out. Back in the late 90’s, while doing a Y2K review in the USA, I found one small piece of Assembler code that had been written in 1967. We were all astounded. Pre Moon Landing! So-called legacy software systems are a story for another day.

So I was interested to come across a book written by a computer scientist turned homesteader, who changed professions mid-career out of a desire to spend more of his time “building things that will last.” Talk about speaking directly to my soul. The book is called Durable Trades, by one Rory Groves, and it can be regarded as a career guide, a history book, and perhaps a philosophical treatise as well:

For too long, work has driven a wedge between families, dividing husband from wife, father from son, mother from daughter, and family from home. Building something that will last requires a radically different approach than is common or encouraged today.

In Durable Trades, Groves uncovers family-centered professions that have endured the worst upheavals in history—including the Industrial Revolution—and continue to thrive today. Through careful research and thoughtful commentary, Groves offers another way forward to those looking for a more durable future.

The foreword by a Dr. Allan Carlson addresses the point a bit more directly:

“While almost every other ‘career book’ buys into the argument that workers will need to completely retrain every five to seven years just to keep a job, this author proves that there are many rich and rewarding forms of labor with astonishing records of durability.

Mr. Groves recovers a profound truth: a job is not an end in itself; it is rather one means – and only one means – toward building a rich and satisfying life, toward human flourishing.”

In defining what he considers a “durable” trade, Groves draws on lessons from the past.

Defining “durable” has not been easy. I wanted to know which types of businesses have been the least affected by external factors throughout history, place, governments, economic cycles, invention, and social upheaval. Which trades have endured for centuries and still exist today? Which trades are the most family-centric? And, of course, which trades do all this and still provide a living? Conversely, which trades are overly dependent on brittle systems and therefore not likely to withstand economic, societal and technological upheaval?

That last sounds awfully tough, given how technological change can hit society in ways we can’t imagine. I’ve also always been a little suspicious of the Back To Nature movement that sprouted with the hippies in the 1960’s, but which has occurred countless times in Western societies and which has echoes in this book. For example in the first chapter, Groves explores the changes that have occurred since the Industrial Revolution began:

“as societies face problems, they increase in complexity in order to solve them

At the founding of our country, there were at most a few dozen distinct occupations,” he says. “Within 100 years that number had risen to over 8,000. Today there are over 30,000 occupations, with dozens of new specialties being invented daily.”

In comparing jobs in 2010 to 1900 Groves notes that in the latter age, agriculture, mining, fishing, and forestry were at the bottom of a pyramid; secondary professions (manufacturing, processes, construction) were in the middle; tertiary, or service, jobs (sales, health care, banking, law) were above that; while at the top, occupying a tiny space, is what Groves calls the quaternary, or knowledge, professions (research, education, engineering).

The pyramid representing 2010 is inverted, with knowledge professions at the top, with the primary professions occupying the smallest portion of U.S. employment.

“Within a relatively short timeframe, Western nations have come to rely on a minuscule proportion of their fellow citizens to supply the vast majority of their needs,

“efficiency became our highest virtue, and with it, generational stability collapsed.” [The factory] “replaced the family as the primary means of sustenance” and opportunities for “apprenticeship, relationship, and cross-generational continuity of values and culture disappeared.”

Ok, this oft-written lament has elements of truth to it and the Industrial Revolution has been slammed from the very start as a process that crushed what it means to be a human. Blakes famous poem, And did those feet in ancient time, with its unforgettable phrase of “Dark Satanic Mills”, setting the scene for such thoughts all the way up to the 20th century and the Unibomber’s Manifesto, the actual title of which is Industrial Society and Its Future:

But the fact is that the efficiency of production enabled by both the technology and the idea of the Industrial Revolution has resulted in human beings living healthier, wealthier, and longer lives than ever before. We do rely on only a tiny proportion of people for much of our needs, but I’ve no great desire to go back to harvesting crops by hand along with hundreds of others in the fields.

The whole question turns on what one considers a rich life! I think we are living a much richer life than our ancestors but I’ll grant you that it may be “rich” only in corporeal terms; more and better food and healthcare for example. Groves’s argument that it has made us poorer in terms of human relationships, particularly the family, is probably true as our world increasingly atomises us. The decline of many face-to-face teenage group activities, taken for granted just a couple of decades ago, in the face of hooking up with a network of friends via phone app, is merely the latest example.

“If quality of life consists merely of the abundance of possessions, if our value to society is based solely on our productive capacity, if money, things, careers and people are perpetually becoming obsolete, what have we profited by gaining the whole world?”

Fair enough and the further we advance the larger that question will loom.

In any case Groves, after studying occupations spanning the past four centuries, developed a five-part scoring system to evaluate the merits of each. Each trade on his list has survived for at least 230 years, “and in most cases several thousand years.” The ranking was based on:

  • Historical stability (20%)
  • Resiliency (15%)
  • Family-centeredness (35%)
  • Income (20%)
  • Ease of entry (10%)

I won’t spoil the book by listing all the results but I have to say that while I agreed with some of his “top-10”, such as cooks and brewers, the number one trade of “Shepard”, which he further defined as rancher, livestock farmer, dairyman puts the methodology in question. Second on the list is “Farmer”, but in both cases we’re talking about trades that have drastically declined in the West as the animals they shepard are increasingly corralled into factory-type settings that can barely be called farms, and crops are grown in ever-more controlled settings such as vertical farming (H/T Ele at Homepaddock)

1 indoor acre = 4-6 outdoor acres or more depending on the crop: strawberries: 1 indoor acre = 30 outdoor acres

Dairy farming has large elements of the factory about it already; rising every single day at 3am to do exactly the same thing you’ve done a thousand times before. Still, a lot of people love it and at least there’s other farming stuff to do, but dairying has continued to push in the factory direction, certainly in the Northern Hemisphere, where cows never walk in paddocks but sit in stalls. New Zealand is a freak in the industry and given the rising capital costs and environmental restrictions you have to wonder how far away we are from following our Northern cousins. There are cut-and-carry dairy units in NZ already.

To be fair Groves does caution that his research focused on historical data rather than projecting which professions might be important in the future. Still, the longevity of professions that made the list are certain to give readers pause before writing off the trades in favor of more modern professions, especially since many of those office jobs are themselves under threat from IT developments.

We also have to consider the possibilities of a post-industrial society, where many of Groves’s trades may become hobbies, backed by a Universal Income Benefit as a result of the wealth spilling over from automated production in which most everything becomes a commodity.

Although he naturally does not explore such things since that’s not the point of the book, I think it’s worth your while to read it, whether you’re a student or a parent trying to figure out career and educational paths for your kids, or a mid-career person who is staring down the barrel of future obsolescence or stuck in a barren career path. Certainly Groves’s summing up is sobering:

“If there is anything that can withstand the nihilistic effects of modernity and the uncertain outcomes of our high towers, it will be families that are reclaiming critical functions at home—education, apprenticeship, discipleship—and working together towards a common vision to which they have been called

[the family economy] has been the context by which parents pass their faith, culture and values on to their children for most of human history.”

Written by Tom Hunter

May 5, 2021 at 12:00 pm

A Thousand Moons

Beautiful isn’t it?

As the photographer explains here:

This image of the Moon is the result of combining approximately 1000 exposures taken with my telescope during different phases to show the full depth of its mountains and craters. One of my most detailed images yet!

There’s also this compilation of forty eight different colours of the moon photographed in a time span of ten years.

I thought of these images the other day when news broke that NASA has made a very big decision regarding its planned lunar exploration:

[NASA decided] a week ago to award SpaceX—and only SpaceX—a contract to develop, test, and fly two missions to the lunar surface. The second flight, which will carry astronauts to the Moon, could launch as early as 2024.

That’s a hell of a vote of confidence in SpaceX given that they’re still developing Starship, but by now they’ve got a track record I don’t think anyone should be denying. The Starship HLS (Human Landing System) will be a variation on the standard Starship model.

The thing that strikes me about this decision is that it could be the death knell of the huge Space Launch System, which NASA has been developing for over a decade now and which has still not had even one test flight compared to what Space X has done in less time.

The SLS

NASA finally has at least hauled the first SLS stage from its test site in Mississippi to Florida where they’ll start assembling the whole thing for a uncrewed flight to the Moon later this year as part of the Artemis Programme.

The first crewed mission might happen in 2023.

Also, just like the good old Apollo programme fifty years ago, everything but the Orion spacecraft on top will be thrown away. Each SLS flight will cost about $2 billion. NASA and its contractors can only build one per year.

By contrast Starship and its Heavy Lifter (the BFR) are designed to be fully reusable. The two Starship flights will cost about $1.4 billion each, but following the SpaceX business model of Falcon 9, more flights would rapidly lower that cost and they’re already building one test-model Starship a month.

Both vehicles will lift about the same amount of mass to LEO (Low Earth Orbit).

This is all even sadder when you consider that the SLS is basically the same rocket as the Ares that started development under the Constellation Programme of the Bush Administration, as is the Orion spacecraft. That programme was begun in 2005 to replace the Space Shuttles, following the loss of a second Shuttle, Columbia, in 2003, and was supposed to have got to the Moon by 2020. Constellation was cancelled in 2011 when it became obvious that it wasn’t working.

Bush’s NASA administrator, an actual rocket scientist, never helped matters when he cringingly described the whole system as “Apollo on steroids”. Ugh! Not exactly the bold leap into the 21st century one would expect of NASA.

More like Apollo on Xanax.

So NASA has basically failed twice in a row. No wonder they’ve gone for SpaceX.

For these reasons the SLS has been nicknamed the Senate Launch System. Getting that NASA money spread around the states by such politicians was how LBJ set the whole thing up to protect the Apollo project, and like similar schemes that LBJ created it has survived to produce things like this that aren’t fit for purpose. But Senator Shelby (R-Ala) has announced his retirement, he was one of the biggest backers of the SLS and his seniority made him the head of the Senate Committee dealing with NASA, so he had a lot of sway. His retirement is another blow to the SLS.

Artists rendition of Starship HLS

Supposedly there will be an SLS lunar landing in 2024. Clearly NASA has now bet that Starship will be ready by then to do the same thing, even if that huge spacecraft is overkill for the task. And if it does then you could see the SLS finally cancelled. The Orion spacecraft may linger on but to what end?

Naturally, because this is America, a couple of the losing contenders have filed legal challenges to NASA’s decision. Undoubtedly they’ve plugged tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars into their design for lunar landers, but NASA clearly thought they couldn’t make it. However the contract will be on hold until the GAO (Government Accountability Office) makes a ruling on those claims.

The underlying message here may be that the days of NASA feeding private contractors cost-plus contracts is over. If they want to land on the Moon they’ll negotiate a contract with SpaceX, exactly as they do for the ISS cargo and crew services.

Written by Tom Hunter

May 3, 2021 at 6:00 am

Well, this is depressing

No need for this level of complexity

Specifically the news that the race is on to build killer robot armies.

They won’t look anything like James Cameron’s famous images from his dystopian hell of The Terminator movies.

(By the way, watch only the first two of the series. After the 1991 sequel they’re totally derivative crap designed only to pull money from your wallet, a warning from friends that I had already guessed at as I avoided them.)

Blonde and here to kill you.

Still less is it going to look like the Cylons in Battlestar Gallactica’s (BSG) such as “Six”, more’s the pity.

No, as is often the way of reality vs fantasy they’ll look a lot more mundane, probably not too different to the sort of drones you can buy off-the shelf nowadays.

And that’s what really frightening about them. Unlike nuclear weapons it doesn’t take a lot of infrastructure or resources to build large numbers of these things.

Also, don’t imagine that an “AI killer robot” is going to have some sort of human-level intelligence, or need to.

That’s not what Artificial Intelligence is really about, despite decades of SF stories like BSG.

The “AI” in this case will amount to little more than the ability to do the following:

  • Recognise a human target, which could be just any human or perhaps using facial or body recognition (or your cellphone)
  • Control flight and/or other movements towards the target.
  • Trigger a lethal munition to kill the target. Lethal meaning something as small as a single bullet.

It should be noted that all these capabilities are here now.

The temptation to open Pandora’s Box is irresistible. In early March, the U.S. National Security Commission (NSC) on Artificial Intelligence completed its two-year inquiry, publishing its findings in a dense 750-page report. Its members unanimously concluded that the United States has a “moral imperative” to pursue the use of lethal autonomous weapons, a.k.a. “killer robots.” Otherwise, we risk bringing a rusty knife to a superhuman gunfight.

Citing the threat of China or Russia leading the global artificial intelligence (AI) arms race, the commission’s chairman, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, urged President Biden to reject a proposed international ban on AI-controlled weapons. Schmidt rightly suspects our major rivals won’t abide by such a treaty, warning U.S. leaders, “This is the tough reality we must face.”

If other superpowers are going to unleash demonic drone swarms on the world, the logic goes, the United States should be the first to open the gates of Hell.

Of course we already have things like the General Atomic Predator drones (“General Atomic”, how 1950’s is that?) and others which have been launching missiles at and killing people for over a decade now. But they have humans in the decision loop and they’re still big and relatively expensive, although much cheaper than a human-piloted fighter bomber.

The attack drones currently on the market are plenty dangerous as is. A good example is the KARGU Loitering Munitions System, currently deployed by Turkish forces. This lightweight quadcopter “can be effectively used against static or moving targets through its … real-time image processing capabilities and machine learning algorithms.”

KARGU’s mode of attack is full-on kamikaze. It hovers high in the air as the operator searches for victims. When one is located, the drone dive-bombs its target and explodes. If the concussion doesn’t kill them, the shrapnel will. Just imagine what a thousand could do.

That last is the future. What we’re talking about here is a swarm of such machines and again – not like SF – these don’t need any centrally organised intelligence, human or AI, to operate. For twenty years now computer simulations have mimicked the swarming movements of schools of fish and flocks of birds with just three rules.

Once you get into such swarms we’re no longer talking about just picking off a few selected targets:


To raise awareness of this imminent threat, the Future of Life Institute produced the alarming, if poorly acted film Slaughterbots. The finale shows dissident college students having their brains blown out by bird-sized quadcopters.

In a 2018 study conducted for the US Air Force, drone specialist Zachary Kallenborn correctly argued that lethal drone swarms should be declared weapons of mass destruction.

Cheap weapons of mass destruction, too.

Even without that miserable conclusion from the USNSC I would have found it hard to believe that various nations could be held back from pursuing development of these things.

In the future how tempted would some future POTUS be by the idea that the entire North Korean nuclear team, military and scientists, could be taken out in one hit by such a swarm, leaving nobody to launch a nuclear counter-strike? Or imagine an Israeli leader looking at the Iranian nuclear group? And that’s in democratic nations. What brakes might there be on the likes of Xi Jinping, Putin and Erdogan?

Of course every weapon system has been countered sooner or later. In this case it may be that in future we’ll each be guarded by a small swarm of counter-drones, starting with the wealthy members of society like Eric Schmidt:

In 2019, PAX published a list of the global corporations most likely to develop lethal autonomous weapon systems. Among the U.S. companies ranked as “high risk” are Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle, as well as Intel, Palantir, Neurala, Corenova, and Heron Systems. It’s worth noting that the top members of the National Security Commission on AI—all of whom support using these murder machines—include chiefs from Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle.

Written by Tom Hunter

April 27, 2021 at 12:26 pm

Posted in General Politics, Science, Technology

Tagged with

A Super-tight voyage

Some astounding photos have appeared showing the passage of a 94m-long superyacht passing through the canals of Holland, including those in the middle of some of the towns.

Apparently this has happened before since such ships (yacht seems a totally inappropriate word for such a vessel) are built at one of two inland ship yards in Holland, owned by a company called Feadship.

This one was built at the yard called Kaag Island.

Only about four ships near this size have done the trip before so why their photos did not appear is unstated, especially since the photographer, Tom van Oossanen, now has himself a very nice gig as a freelance photographer and videographer for super-yachts all around the world.

The thing that had me wondering why the ship-builder got this contract is that it’s dimensions are constrained by this trip. Why would you do that for a super-yacht, particularly when width is a key aspect of stability?

Only after seeing this photo did I read that the sides of the ship are covered with very thin wooden boards wrapped in fabric to protect that pearl-white paint job:

But these maneuvers lead to serious snarl ups on land and water. Got a dentist appointment? “Then you’re not going to make it,” says Oossanen. “Sometimes it takes an hour to go through a bridge, and with the amount of traffic we have in Holland, it soon builds up.”

Feadship recently opened a new facility in Amsterdam that has the capacity to build superyachts up to 160 meters long, and a 140-meter dry dock has been fitted to its Makkum shipyard, allowing for the construction of yachts with wider beams, so perhaps we won’t see another voyage like this, at least from something this large.

Written by Tom Hunter

April 24, 2021 at 1:25 pm

Posted in Technology