Many years ago I came across an article by William Langewiesche in The Atlantic called The Shipbreakers. It contained amazing pictures and an equally remarkable story about the process by which ships are broken down and sold for scrap steel in a place called Alang, India. This is what Alang looks like from space. The ships are driven onto the shore at high tide and then set upon by an irregular army of shipbreakers. Low-tech and dangerous it may be, but it’s also extremely efficient.
Just this month Paul Kedrosky wrote about one effect of the Great Global Downturn: lots of idle cargo ships. One way to eliminate market overcapacity is to destroy the ships in question, and this is happening at breakneck speed, making places like Alang busier than ever. Read about it here: Destroying Market Overcapacity — Literally.
When you zoom into Alang using Google Earth, it’s easy to imagine you’re using a microscope to examine a living (though perhaps unwell) organism. These ships are the red blood cells of our economy, and when they get old, their iron needs to be reclaimed. That makes Alang a sort of global liver. Our livers manage toxic waste, something that Alang is very familiar with, although less skilled at neutralizing. From this vantage point, tiny unseen workers are digesting and devouring the dying hulks, mobilizing the steel for coagulation in some other port. You get a very biological sense of decay watching the process. It reminds me that, though we attach gloomy metaphors to it, biological decay is itself a complex engineering feat.
YouTube is filled with music. There are instructional videos, performance videos, and people simply practicing or showing off in front of their cameras. Find a piece you like and, from the comfort of your own home, you can play with them in a virtual jam session. Ophir Kutiel, an Israeli musician, was doing exactly this one day, playing his guitar alongside a drum video. Maybe it was this one.
And he had a revelation: couldn’t he could find another YouTube video of a guitarist to play with the drummer? He could mix and match a virtual band that never existed. From this insight, he built an entire album of music videos hacked together from dozens of pre-existing videos.
He released it earlier this year under his professional name, Kutiman, and it became a viral internet sensation. It’s really great. If you haven’t seen it already, please please watch it here: THRU YOU | Kutiman mixes YouTube. “The Mother of All Funk Chords” is the mother of all mashups. Kutiman is a virtuoso metamusician, and his instrument is the YouTuba.
Ramsey theory is a mathematical theory built around the idea that complete disorder is impossible. Order is inevitable. Chaos can’t stop itself from knitting a lovely sweater every now and again. Luckless cacophony can only push so far up the curve of diminishing returns. YouTube may look like a bottomless sack of horseshit, but there’s a symphony in there and Kutiman knows how to fish it out.
And so may we all. I find Ramsey theory profoundly comforting. When it seems like everything is going to hell, look around for the magic sparks.
Planes don’t need pilots. At least not the kind that have to sit inside the plane.
For several years now, any observer of military aviation could see that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were going to change combat in the same way that carrier-based aircraft changed naval warfare in the years before World War II. Then as now, the old guard wasn’t looking for drastic change. Air Force generals are pilots, and pilots like to fly. A pilot, like an astronaut, can always be counted on to exaggerate the value of the human in the cockpit. I can’t blame them for wanting to fly, but when it stops making military sense, I’m not so keen to foot the bill. Like an aging photographer praising Kodachrome film, a general may swear that the old ways are the best ways, but only a fool would bet against the UAV.
What’s different this year is that the everybody, including the generals, realizes the change is happening. It often takes a war to force through big changes in doctrine, and between Iraq and Afghanistan we have all the war we need. Here’s US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, speaking earlier this year:
This is one of those inflection points, one of those times when the whole path of history shifts … That’s what’s happening, and the question is whether the United States Air Force wants to be on that wave or left behind.
Now that we’re past pushback at the top, things can happen quickly. There will be new career paths, new facilities, and a better path toward operational excellence. Most exciting to me, as an old aerospace engineer, is the rapidly evolving vehicle itself. UAVs used to be either big model airplanes or regular planes with the pilot pulled out. Now we’ve got bird bots like the Raven, and this remarkable hummingbird-sized flapping bot. And there’s the solar-powered Vulture that can stay aloft for five years. BotJunkie ran a nice gallery of new UAVs to give you a sense of the variety.
Finally, watch this video about military insects. It’s a little George Jetson over-the-top, but something like this is coming sooner than you think. Jane! Stop this crazy thing!
I know that every one of you has your own version of this story, but listen to this. I’m going car camping with my family next week. I bought a new tent. See:
Now where should we go? I don’t really care… it’s going to be a low key trip to someplace not too far away. I buy a book called The Best in Tent Camping: New England. I start reading about the best campgrounds in Massachusetts. After a while, I’m reading about the Mohawk Trail, where the Cold River crashes noisily down the granitic glacier-fractured hillside. Where whispering understory birches are sheltered by towering firs. Now my mouth is watering. I have to go. I am referred to ReserveAmerica, a well-built web site that manages thousands of parks nationwide, and… DAMN! Mohawk Trail State Forest is booked solid. I start researching other nearby campgrounds, and now I’m sucked into the game. Unfortunately, ReserveAmerica lets you pick your campsite from an interactive map, and my book tells you which sites are the very best at each campground. Just when you start to salivate about the perfect spot, your dream is dashed by some early bird camper who’s beaten you to the reservation. You can cycle through this process for hours.
But here’s the thing. There are actually still plenty of campsites, and I’m sure most of them are lovely. We got a nice spot, we’ll have a good time, and we’re only staying for one night anyway. But all that research has filled me with remorse about the perfect spot that got away. Embittered, I’m now planning a little midnight visit to the tent at Site 46 at Mohawk Trail State Forest. I will decorate it with peanut butter and bacon grease. I will do this for two reasons: Site 46 should have been mine, and black bears just love bacon.
My research was making me crazy. In the old days, maybe you’d call ahead and reserve a spot. You’d arrive and they’d tell you where to park. That was that. But now you know what you’re missing.
It occurred to me that I was suffering from information obesity. Prosperity has caused most of us to go from problems associated too little food to problems associated with too much food. Until you adjust to the change, hoarding and binging can make you fat, sick, and miserable. Once I started thinking about information the same way, I could just picture the greasy fat folds in my brain.
There’s nothing wrong with data as such, but please! Lay off the carbs and get some exercise. Make decisions and move on. And remember to wipe down the equipment before you leave.
Answer: it’s a rocket trying to fit in at a lightning rod party.
Real answer: it’s the SpaceX Falcon 9, the biggest rocket ever made by a private company on its own dime. Big enough to carry humans into orbit, she’s down at Cape Canaveral waiting for her debut flight. In the meantime, her guardians are aware of two important facts. One, Florida is the lightning capital of the world. Two, rockets are giant bombs that resemble lightning rods. Accordingly, they have placed their darling in the middle of a lightning rod forest so as to frustrate any naughty nearby thunderbolts intent on tickling her. Here, for example, is a picture of space shuttle Endeavour getting the near-miss treatment.
The three space shuttles that remain (can you name the five original shuttles?) are now 30 years old and due to be retired real soon now. Without help from companies like SpaceX, NASA will be in a bad situation. So rather than competing with SpaceX, NASA is cheering them on. In fact, if you look at the flight manifest, you can see that NASA plans on keeping them busy for a long time.
Last year I was talking about Forvo, a nifty pronunciation site. Via Steve Crandall’s blog (can you pronounce açaí?), I just learned about a related site called inogolo. But inogolo, which derives its name from a Latinate construction meaning “not butchered”, is specifically targeted at English pronunciations. As site owner Stuart Yoder puts it: “The goal is not to mimic Spanish, German, Chinese, and Polish accents, but to provide a tool so that names are not completely butchered.”
When presented with a new dictionary, I always look up the word haruspex. Similarly, when presented with a new pronunciation site, of all the difficult words I could choose, my mind immediately turns to Qatar. Inogolo has it (KAH-tur), but then again, this is intended to be an American English version of the country name. Can we find a native version of the same name? Here’s Slate dedicating a page to the problem: How Do You Pronounce “Qatar”? It’s got some lovely linguistic jargon… The middle “t” is perhaps the trickiest part. It is known as a velarized consonant, which means the back of the tongue must be pressed against the mouth’s roof to achieve the requisite effect. The page even features a recording by an Arabic professor. But the prof’s name is Terri DeYoung. Nothing against the good Doctor, but I’m guessing she didn’t grow up on the Persian Gulf.
I was despairing of finding an instructive native when I came across this segment from the Daily Show. It’s both painful and funny to watch John Oliver correct the Qatari ambassador to the UN on HIS pronunciation of Qatar. And sure enough, when you hear the ambassador say the name, it is an ear-opening experience.
When I was a kid, we subscribed to Scientific American, and it was big fun for me to work through the articles. I didn’t always understand what was going on, but it was clear that the articles were important and written by the people doing the work.
Over the past decade of bookstore browsing, I’ve seen New Scientist magazine becoming more and more prominent on the news rack. New Scientist, a British magazine, is a little bit harder hitting than the soft science journalism you get in something like Discover or Popular Science. But it still has BIG PICTURES, BRIGHT COLORS, and FLASHY HEADLINES (Gaia’s evil twin: Is life its own worst enemy?). In short, it’s sensational hard science. It’s kind of a weird concept, even though the magazine often contains good articles. And it’s clearly selling. From my observations, it looks like New Scientist is winning and Scientific American is going out to meet them. Every year, SciAm gets fluffier and flashier and more like New Scientist. It must suck to be the editor at a magazine that’s losing money fast. As the captain of a sinking ship, you have to make rapid, high-stakes bets on how to attract new readers faster than you alienate your old ones. My guess is that SciAm is sinking fast.
But don’t take it from me. Listen to Brian Hayes. Brian is an excellent science journalist, columnist, and blogger who used to work at SciAm. Here’s what he has to say: bit-player: Sic transit. And where does Hayes work now? At a magazine called American Scientist (I know… these names are all pretty clever, huh?). In my opinion, American Scientist has claimed the mantle that SciAm once had: serious but accessible science, often written by the researchers themselves. Pick it up at the newsstand if you see it and support the old spirit of Scientific American.