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Nuke the Hurricanes! August 27, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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The topic of dropping a nuclear bomb into a hurricane is currently making the rounds in general purpose journalism and politics.  The theory intrigues many people, in large part because it assumes that humans can exercise a large amount of control over their environment.

Now, I am not a meteorologist, but I think I understand a little bit of the physics involved.  First, a hurricane is likely far too large to be torn apart by a nuclear weapon of modest megaton explosive capability.  There may be some disruption of wind forces, but not at all stop a hurricane in its tracks.  Those who have been in hurricanes (I have been in two Category 1 systems) realize the incredible power of such systems, and how we are just bit players in a cataclysmic event.

Second, the more profound result is the spread of nuclear fallout across wide regions of the world.  The enormous winds of a hurricane will only serve to spread radiation across oceans and continents, endangering people and environment.

Instead, a more intriguing alternative was proposed by fiction writer (and university marine engineering professor) Hilbert Schenck in his 1983 novella Hurricane Claude.  Schenck postulates a hurricane similar to the unnamed 1938 Northeast hurricane (often called the Great New England Hurricane, or the Long Island Express) that wreaked havoc on Long Island, and devises an extremely powerful electrical current from a plane at 30,000 feet to a boat of the surface in the middle of a hurricane.

The problem is with the boat, of course.  Despite being waterproof and presumably unsinkable (of course, it hadn’t been tested in a major hurricane), the pounding taken had the potential to kill anyone on board, even if they are protected from drowning.

But there are still larger problems with Schenck’s concept.  Now, it is not at all clear that an electrical charge, no matter what its intensity, would affect a hurricane.  He presents a compelling case, but I have no idea if it is backed by science (Schenck died in 2013).  And it’s not clear that an airplane and boat can generate the electrical current required.

And even if it did work, would there be a larger environmental fallout?  It’s impossible to tell without trying it, yet the worst case is likely worse than we can imagine.

While Schenck presents an interesting possibility, I’m not sure this can ever reasonably be tested.  But it makes for a better read than a nuclear bomb.


The Future of Flight August 21, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I thoroughly enjoy travel.  Connecting with other regions and cultures only serves to educate me on just how much we all have in common.  Whether the city is a thousand years old (Tallinn) or a couple hundred years old (Helsinki), I marvel at everything and everyone.

As a flight aficionado, I don’t even mind getting there.  I’ve always been fascinated by aviation, and actually enjoy getting on a commercial airline to go somewhere distant.

However, this article from The Conversation, via Quartz, is right about one thing.  Air travel as we know it is unsustainable from an environmental point of view.  We are still burning massive amounts of petrocarbons to get relatively few people from one place to another.  Prominent people from Meghan Markle to Greta Thunberg are being shamed for their jet travel (unjustly, in part because so many more egregious cases abound; remember when GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt had a second corporate jet follow him around the world, on the off chance that the first one broke down somewhere?).

Here are the four solutions proposed, along with my semi-educated take on them.

  1. Limit and meter air travel by individuals. I presume that this will be accompanied by ways to buy flight credits for those with the need to travel more.  I also presume that politicians will exempt themselves.  Won’t work, of course.  It would put dozens of carriers and air manufacturers out of business with far less air travel.  It would hurt other businesses who would not be able to travel to support their business goals.  Further, this would lead back to air travel being a privilege for the wealthy, rather than a right of all.  It’s funny that most solutions proposed by elitists serve to benefit them at the expense of others.This alternative also included high-speed trains as a way to replace air travel.  It works to some extent in Europe and Japan.  However, both have a smaller land area and denser population (Japan especially), and that makes a huge difference.  Even in the dense Northeast, the Acela beyond short distances is problematic.  New York to California will take 2-3 days.  I’ve even tried to work trains into my conference travels, and they simply take too long to work.
  2. Electric-powered aircraft. This one seems intriguing; I used to think torque was a problem in electric motors, until I rode in a Tesla.  But the overwhelming problem here remains weight, particularly battery weight.  Weight is a consideration in cars; it is /the/ consideration in aircraft.  The first electric aircraft may well be hybrids, like cars, but that doesn’t overcome the weight issues.  While there may be opportunities here, they are not right around the corner.In 1988 Hilbert Schenck wrote a science fiction story of a nuclear-powered bomber that heated water to steam to turn engine turbines.  While steam is extremely powerful, it lacks torque, leading to the building of a 20-mile runway in northern Maine (think Loring AFB run amok).  The bomber only got off the ground because of clever manipulations by the command pilot.  And, of course, we can’t go building 20-mile runways all over the place.  And I’m not sure how that solution would work with jet engines.
  3. Bring back the zeppelin. Once again, this is creating a solution by the elite for the elite.  Those who can afford to take three or four days to cross the Atlantic are welcome to it.  But that won’t solve the pollution problem, because most people don’t have unlimited leisure time.
  4. Orbital maglev trains. As near as I can tell from the description, kind of a Jacob’s Ladder with frictionless acceleration and velocity at about 80km above the planet’s surface.  But there’s been no actual R&D here, so it is very much pie in the sky, at least for decades.

I applaud ways to consider less-unfriendly alternatives to enable travel, but these are pretty much off the charts.  More efficient engines, lighter (composite) aircraft, and better ATC aircraft routings are things we can do today to ease climate change, rather than 50 or 100 years from now.

Minority Report Has Arrived August 19, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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It’s not quite the Tom Cruise movie where the temporal detective is himself pursued for his intent to commit a crime in the future, but it is telling nonetheless.  In this case, the Portland (OR) police department digitally altered a mug shot to remove facial tattoos from a prospective bank robber prior to showing it to witnesses who reported no such tattoos.  This ended up with an arrest and trial of that man, based partially on the doctored photo.

The technology used was not at all cutting edge (it was Photoshopped), but it was intended to make the mug shot look more like the descriptions provided by the witnesses.  It’s not clear that the police and prosecutors tried to hide this fact, but they justify it by saying the suspect could have used makeup prior to the robberies.  The public defender is, of course, challenging its admissibility, but as of now there has been no ruling on the matter.  The police also say that they have done similar adjustments to photos in other cases.  Hmmm.

This specific instance is troubling in that we expect legal evidence not to be Photoshopped, especially for the purpose of pointing the finger at a specific suspect.  The more strategic issue is how law enforcement, and society in general, will use newer technologies to craft evidence advocating or rejecting certain positions.  I don’t expect Congress or other legal body to craft (imperfect) laws regulating this until it is far too late.

I can envision a future where law, politics, and even news in general comes to rely on deep fakes as a way of influencing public opinion, votes, and society as a whole.  We certainly see enough of that today, and the use of faked videos and voices will simply make it more difficult to tell the difference between honest and made-up events.  Social media, with its inconsistent fake news rules applied inconsistently, makes matters worse.

I’m rather reminded of the old (1980s) TV show Max Headroom, in which a comatose investigative reporter lends his knowledge and personality to a lifelike AI that broadcasts in his stead.  The name comes from the last thing the reporter saw before his coma – a sign saying MAX HEADROOM 2.3M.  His head hits the sign at high speed, and becomes his AI num de guerre.

We wonder why so many people persist in believing clearly unsupported statements, and at least part of that has to do with the ability of anyone to express anything and attract a wide audience (“It’s on the Internet so it must be true!”).  Doctored words, photos, and video will eventually make nothing believable.

Your Face Looks Familiar August 17, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I fly a lot, including internationally.  I am very cognizant that I am likely on CCTV cameras on the streets or in shops or buildings minutes after leaving my home.  And it troubles me that I am under surveillance almost constantly in public places.

It gets worse with face recognition. I wrote recently that a vendor has proposed using facial recognition software to identify and track individual people in Manhattan as a part of the congestion pricing plan.  Today, airlines are using facial recognition to streamline the flow of passengers through airports (paywall).  That’s not a bad goal to anyone who has found themselves in long and slow-moving check-in or boarding processes.  The airlines argue that by using facial IDs as opposed to checking passports and boarding passes, planes can board ten percent more quickly.

But it is creepy, at least to me.

Yet to some extent I’ve brought this on myself.  While I don’t live in a major city, I don’t live in a rural area where cameras would be difficult to use (unlike where I was born and raised).  I have a government-issued Real ID driver’s license and passport.  I use Global Entry, where my photo is taken whenever I use an Immigration kiosk.  Online, I try to limit the use of my photo, but the conferences I speak at insist on including my photo with my abstract and bio.

To my knowledge, I don’t commit law infractions that cameras and face recognition software would generally be useful at catching.  Okay, I speed, but stay comfortably within the flow of traffic.  I don’t drive recklessly or run traffic lights.  I don’t shoplift or rob banks.  What does it matter to me who’s looking?

From the standpoint of committing a crime or traffic infraction, it probably doesn’t.  But there are a number of secondary effects.  The data can be stolen and used in identity theft, as so much data is today.  It can be sold to third parties to market to travelers, or combined with other data to identify people for other purposes.

I’m old enough such that any use of my photo for identification purposes may not be a disaster.  Various versions of my photos are already available online.  But I am concerned for the generation growing up today.  If all they know is constant surveillance, how will they be able to make and learn from the mistakes of youth without penalty?

Congestion Pricing and the Surveillance State July 23, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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Not many people are aware that New York City is instituting congestion pricing, both to ease traffic (mostly in Manhattan) and to provide additional funding for public transportation.  Both are laudable goals.  This is to be implemented by using one or more cameras to take a photo of each car’s license plate, and generate a bill that can be sent to the owner of that car.  One of the proposals for the technology to implement it was delivered by a company called Perceptics.

Perceptics proposed a solution that included the ability to identify cars not only by license plate number, but also by the characteristics of the car itself.  The car is like a fingerprint, the company says.  It has characteristics that provide a unique identification.

Still okay, but it’s starting to get a little bit out there in credulity.

Then we find out that Perceptics proposes using a large number of cameras across the congestion zone, back-ended by AI-type algorithms and Big Data analytics whose purpose is to determine the number of people in the car, who they are (through facial recognition), where they came from, where they are going, and how often they do so.

Go back and read that sentence again.  To send out congestion pricing bills, they want to know who is in the car, where it is going, and how often it does so, among other things.  Even I know that is some serious overkill for the stated purpose.  But that data can be used for a lot of other things that have nothing to do with congestion pricing.  In fact, it provides a window into almost everything thing that someone who drives into the congestion area does.

London has been wired extensively with CCTV cameras since at least the 1990s.  Today, the best estimate for the number of CCTVs in London is 500,000.  The average person in London is caught on camera 300 times a day.  Today, thanks to facial recognition and analytics, you don’t have dozens of analysts sorting through tapes to desperately find a particular person, but rather an unstructured cloud database that with the right algorithms for searching and finding a particular person in a particular location within seconds.

Those numbers alone should blow your mind.

I don’t know why proposals like this don’t bother people.  I’m guessing that the cameras are unobtrusive, people don’t see them, and can push the abstract thought of surveillance out of their minds.  Further, they reason that they are not criminals, and these types of technology serve to protect rather than harm them.  Kind of the same reasons why they post anything they like on Facebook, without thought of the consequences.

Today, the cacophony of opinion says that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you are silly or unpatriotic to be afraid of the surveillance state.  Wrong.  The algorithms are by no means perfect, and could mistake you for someone else, sometimes with disastrous consequences.  Further, the data could be stolen and used against you.  As a guiding principal, we as free individuals in a free country should not be subject to constant video scrutiny.

Yet here we are.

Is Elon Musk Prescient, or Just Scary? July 19, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Machine Learning, Technology and Culture.
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The headline blared out at me yesterday:  Elon Musk has formed a company to make implants to link the brain with a smartphone.  The article offered no insight on how that might be done, but did say that Elon Musk wants to insert Bluetooth-enabled implants into the brain, claiming the devices could enable telepathy (???) and repair motor function in people with injuries.  Further, he says that it would be used by stroke victims, cancer patients, quadriplegics or others with congenital defects.  It connects via Bluebooth to a small computer worn over the ear and to a smartphone.

The part about helping the disabled sounds really good, but once again, it’s not clear how that might happen.  And telepathy?  Seriously?  It’s not at all clear about how having a smartphone wired to your brain is supposed to accomplish in terms of higher cognitive function.

All this leaves me shrugging my shoulders.  On the one hand, I like the idea of technology that might help the disabled, especially those with brain or motor damage.  On the other hand, it is not at all clear how this whole thing might work in practice.

(I am tempted to go third or fourth hand at this point, but maybe I should use the Gripping Hand).  And then there’s Musk.  He has proven himself to be a brilliant and driven innovator, but also seems less than stable when obstacles lie in his path.

Color me dubious.  There are possibly some advantages here in helping disabled people.  I don’t think they will be all that much, but much more information is needed.  But the idea of anyone, whether disabled or healthy, thinking it’s a good idea to put computer chips in their brain (up to 10, says Musk) seems to be the height of folly.

Then there is the whole question of who owns the data that is coming from your brain?  I don’t even want to touch that one.  If we thought ownership and use of Facebook and Google data was controversial, this takes the cake.

So here is another technology I’m not ready for.  I’ve always been cautious in adopting new technologies, but I think I draw the limit at computer chips in my brain.

A Rebirth, or a Requiem? July 16, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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Here on the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon mission, I’d like to share this image.  In 1973, at my Eagle Scout dinner in downtown Pittsburgh, I (and the other Eagle Scouts) received Man in the Moon, the official recordings of the Apollo 11 journey, back in 1969 (and yes, I still have a turntable to play it).


I have always been a forceful advocate of space travel.  While in the Air Force, I applied to become a flight engineer on the Space Shuttle program (I’m sure my candidacy was met with a good chuckle by all concerned).

Further, I believe in space travel for very abstract reasons.  “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” wrote poet Robert Browning.  But more so, there seems to be an historical pattern of civilization reaching out for a seemingly impossible goal, then retreating from it.

We are in the stage of retreat from space right now.  Certainly, perhaps a dozen or more countries launch hundreds of low Earth orbit satellites yearly for weather, military, scientific, communications, or other purposes.  But that is largely proven (although not entirely reliable) technology today.  We have not tested technical boundaries since the 1970s.

Many say it is too expensive; we have too many problems here on Earth.  But that is a fallacy perpetuated by the ignorant.  The trailblazing work in electronics, software, communications, safety-critical systems and much more would not exist today without the breakthroughs found in our space program of the past.

But there is so much more inherent in pursuing space travel that cannot be readily quantified.  Smart people reaching for seemingly impossible goals stimulate those around them, and society in general.  If we focus inward, we lose sight of the value of interactions with others.  Yet that is where we are.

I was at Cape Canaveral last year.  I saw large buildings and a lot of activity from the likes of Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX.  Every few years, the US government and NASA make loud noises about reviving some ambitious goal, but ultimately back down in the face of cost, complexity, or simply indifference.  The government won’t get us there, because too few people care.  But we are so close to losing space altogether that we should be afraid that future innovation will consist only of better ways to look down at our phone.

I think I said it well here, should you care to read.  Yes, set controls for the heart of the sun.

The Path to Autonomous Automobiles Will Be Longer Than We Think July 14, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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I continue to be amused by people who believe that fully autonomous automobiles are right around the corner.  “They’re already in use in many cities!” they exclaim (no, they’re not).  In a post earlier this year, I’ve listed four reasons why we will be unlikely to see fully autonomous vehicles in my lifetime; at the very top of the list is mapping technology, maps, and geospatial information.

That makes the story of hundreds of cars trying to get to Denver International Airport being misdirected by Google Maps all that much more amusing.  Due to an accident on the main highway to DIA, Google Maps suggested an alternative, which eventually became a muddy mess that trapped over 100 cars in the middle of the prairie.

Of course, Google disavowed any responsibility, claiming that it makes no promises with regard to road conditions, and that users should check road conditions ahead of time.  Except that it did say that this dirt road would take about 20 minutes less than the main road.  Go figure.  While not a promise, it does sound like a factual statement on, well, road conditions.  And, to be fair, they did check road conditions ahead of time – with Google!

While this is funny (at least reading about it), it points starkly to the limitations of digital maps for use with car navigation.  Autonomous cars require maps with exacting detail, within feet or even inches.  Yet if Google as one of the best examples of mapping cannot get an entire route right, then there is no hope for fully autonomous cars to use these same maps sans driver.

But, I hear you say, how often does this happen?  It happens often.  I’ve often taken a Lyft to a particular street address in Arlington, Massachusetts, a close-in suburb of Boston.  The Lyft (and, I would guess, Uber) maps have it as a through street, but in ground truth it is bisected by the Minuteman Bikeway and blocked to vehicular traffic.  Yet every single Lyft tries to take me down one end of that street in vain.  Autonomous cars need much better navigation than this, especially in and around major cities.

And Google can’t have it both ways, supplying us with traffic conditions yet disavowing any responsibility in doing so.  Of course, that approach is part and parcel to any major tech company, so we shouldn’t be surprised.  But we should be very wary in the geospatial information they provide.