Robots playing soccer

An evening pause: This is a clip from a robot competition in 2019 of what are called “kidsized” robots. Short but entertaining, especially because it demonstrates the relative stupidity and slow incompetence of state-of-the-art robots. Future versions might someday get to the level of Terminator, but these robots show that we are fortunately nowhere that close today.

Hat tip Roland.

AI software beats real pilot in simulated dogfight

The Terminator is coming: In a DARPA competition between a number of AI software teams, the finalist AI team, called Heron Systems, went up against a real F-16 pilot in a simulated dogfight and went undefeated, beating him five times in a row.

Heron Systems, a company with just 30 employees, had beaten out Aurora Flight Sciences, EpiSys Science, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Lockheed Martin, Perspecta Labs, PhysicsAI, and SoarTech to claim the top spot in the last of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) AlphaDogfight Trials. This three-day event had started on Aug. 18, 2020.

The software then beat the real pilot.

There is a lot of blather on the website, though there is this interesting analysis by F/A-18 Squadron commander that in the end concludes that we are only a generation or two away from making all fighter pilots obsolete.

Or to look at it from another perspective, we are only a short time away from putting the ability to fight war entirely into the hands of computers and software, with abilities that humans will not be able to match.

Does no one but me see the potential problems with this? Have all of these military experts never seen any science fiction movies or read any science fiction novels?

Hat tip Tom Biggar.

Midnight repost: Buy dumb!

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: The failures of modern technology (shaped sadly by a lot of government regulation) often illustrates well the coming dark age. Tonight’s repost from September 15, 2019 gives one good example, and what you can do to counter this trend.

——————————–
Buy dumb!

The dumb washing machine we hunted for and got
The used “dumb” machine we
paid $285 for that actually
cleans our clothes.

The smart washing machine we threw out
The “smart” machine that we
paid $923 for and sold for $40.

Two years ago our old Kenmore Series 80 washing machine broke down. The repair guy said it would be so expensive to fix that he recommended it was time to buy something new.

So off we went to Sears, where we ended up buying one of today’s modern “smart” machines for a mere $923. As the LG website proudly exclaims,

A Smarter Way to Wash: 6Motion™ Technology uses up to 6 different wash motions to provide a smart cleaning experience that is gentle on clothes and maximizes washing performance.

The problem was the machine never got any of our clothes clean. It also refused to provide enough water. The way it worked was to sense the weight of the clothes you put inside, and determine the needed amount based on this. Routinely, it wasn’t enough, so Diane did web searches to discover numerous owners faking out the machine’s brains by pouring several buckets of water on top of the clothes before turning on the machine, making them weigh more.

The machine also did not have an agitator, the new in-thing among washing machine manufacturers two years ago, probably forced on them by new federal regulations. And though the tub itself did shake, it did it so gently that the clothes hardly moved.

There were also other issues with the machine’s smart technology that frustrated Diane. The machine was boss, and would not allow for any flexibility to its predetermined wash and rinse cycles, even when they made no sense.

Last week Diane had had enough. » Read more

Study: Heaviest social media users enjoy hurting others

A new study of almost 500 college-age students has found that the heaviest users of social media routinely had personalities that tended to enjoy hurting and denigrating others.

A fascinating study of 472 university students tracked their usage on two top platforms for 18-to-24-year olds: Snapchat (2.64 hours per day) and Facebook (2.28 hours per day). Researchers found that users displaying addictive behavior were also more likely to be motivated to be cruel and callous and to use others for personal gain.

“Our results demonstrate that individuals who have a greater preference for these types of rewards display greater problematic use of both platforms,” write the researchers, who note that these traits are also associated with narcissism and psychopathy and have previously been correlated with addictive internet use. They write that social media sites unwittingly “cater to people who seek rewards from being cruel, such as through cyberbullying or various aggressive online behaviors.”

Not only does this study confirm the general behavior of the bulk of all Twitter users, which has become a cesspool of slander, character assassination, and hate, it also describes the behavior of the many trolls one routinely sees commenting on websites (including Behind the Black). Too often such anonymous individuals show up throwing out comments whose only purpose is to either disagree, argue, or insult others. It requires on my part a lot of monitoring to keep such childish behavior off of this website, and this study helps to explain why it happens.

The study also provides some guidance on what adults should be doing to prevent this behavior in their children. It is a bad thing to let young children play on social media endlessly. Their use of computers and smart phones must be monitored, and their use must be disciplined, to teach children to think independently from the social media trends that can easily overwhelm them

Hat tip Ace of Spades.

British Airways retires 747 fleet

Because of the crash in customer demand due to the Wuhan virus panic, British Airways has abruptly retired its entire fleet of 747s.

This retirement had been planned, as the 747 is expensive to operate. The airline had planned however to phase them out over several years. Now they simply don’t need them, as they are flying so few passengers.

I am fortunate that I got to fly on one in 2019, in a vacation trip to Wales with Diane. This might have been the only time I ever flew on a 747, and it was a remarkably smooth flight, both during take-off and landing. It is sad to see this magnificent American achievement finally leave us.

Midnight repost: Switching to Linux

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: My contempt for Microsoft and its terrible Windows operating system is quite well known. I successfully switched to Linux back in 2006 and have never regretted it.

After seeing a number of my posts noting the advantages of Linux (or anything) over Windows, one of my readers, James Stephens, offered to write a series for Behind the Black describing step-by-step the process by which one gets and installs Linux on either a desktop or laptop computer. Below are the links to this series. I have since used it myself as a guide to convert two used Windows 7 notebooks (purchased for about $35 each) to my favorite flavor of Linux, both of which I use regularly as my travel computers.

I wish more people would do the same. I am sure almost everyone has an old computer they don’t use anymore. It will work like new with Linux. Dig it out, follow James’ instructions, and free yourself from Windows. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.

Lego Antikythera Mechanism

An evening pause: From the youtube webpage:

The Antikythera Mechanism is the oldest known scientific computer, built in Greece at around 100 BCE. Lost for 2000 years, it was recovered from a shipwreck in 1901. But not until a century later was its purpose understood: an astronomical clock that determines the positions of celestial bodies with extraordinary precision. In 2010, we built a fully-functional replica out of Lego.

Hat tip Shaun Karry.

A Trip Through New York City in 1911

An evening pause: I’ve posted similar early 1900 film footage for Paris and San Francisco. My one reservation about this restoration is the adding of color. They don’t over do it, but adds an element of inaccuracy to the footage.

Hat tip Mike Nelson, noted some of the same things I did with the previous examples.

What strikes me is how well dressed everyone was, how there was no trash on the streets (despite no obvious public trash cans), no graffiti, no road rage despite the complete lack of traffic control, and the air quality looked significantly worse than today. Other than cleaner air I’m not so sure we can call today a big improvement.

I personally am not sure the air quality was worse either. Watch, and get a sense of what America was once like.

What Happens When an 18 Year Old Buys a Mainframe

An evening pause: This is a bit long for an evening pause, and I myself did not understand a good portion of the terminology, but it is still fascinating and worth watching nonetheless, if only to give you hope for the future. As the last questioner at the end said, “I think you’ve raised the bar on what all of us should expect from our kids now.”

Hat tip Diane Wilson.

The coming small satellite revolution

Today I received a press release from the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), announcing a half-day symposium in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 2020 entitled ““The SmallSat Revolution: Doing More with Less.” The announcement was an invitation for the working press to register and attend, noting that the speakers will include, among others, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator science, Jeffrey Mamber, president of NanoRacks, and Patricia Cooper of SpaceX.

As interesting as this might sound at first glance, I will not attend. For one thing, it is on the other side of the continent, and I can’t afford to fly cross country for such a short meeting. For another, I don’t see the point. I attended a lot of these DC symposiums when I lived in Maryland, and though they were often very educational and the free food (paid for almost always by the taxpayer) was always enjoyable, I routinely found them somewhat lacking in newsworthy content.

Thirdly, and most important, yesterday I attended a much more newsworthy one day conference here in Tucson on exactly the same subject, dubbed the Arizona Academic CubeSat Symposium. Unlike the Washington event above — which will likely be a mostly superficial look at the burgeoning cubesat industry — yesterday’s symposium was focused on letting students and scientists describe actual and very ambitious cubesat projects presently under construction or design.

In less than seven hours I saw the following:
» Read more

Boeing flies 777X for the first time

On January 25 Boeing successfully flew its new giant 777X commercial airplane for the first time.

Originally unveiled at the 2013 Dubai Airshow, the 777X is an advance on the engineering and interior innovations of the 777 and 787 Dreamliner. The twin-engine jetliner is available in the 777-8 and 777-9 variants with ranges of up to 8,700 nm (10,012 mi/16,110 km) and seating between 350 and 425 passengers.

The key innovation of the 777X is its lightweight wing design based on a composite spar made from over 400 miles (644 km) of carbon tape cured in a specially-built autoclave. This allows the aircraft to have a wingspan of 235 ft (72 m) – a span so long that the wings have folding sections at their tips so the plane can fit in conventional boarding gates.

The test flight lasted just under four hours. The pictures at the link illustrate clearly emphasize the lightweight wings, which look tiny compared to the two engines.

Boeing desperately needs a success, considering the string of problems almost all of its major projects have been having recently.

Farmers swarming to buy used 40-year-old tractors

Buy dumb! The market for used 40-year-old tractors is booming, due to the “smart” but expensive-to-repair designs of modern computer-based tractors.

Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it’s not because they’re antiques. Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software.

“It’s a trend that’s been building. It’s been interesting in the last couple years, which have been difficult for ag, to see the trend accelerate,” said Greg Peterson, the founder of Machinery Pete, a farm equipment data company in Rochester with a website and TV show. “There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Peterson said. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.”

Because of the computer software built into the new machines, a farmer can no longer fix it himself. He must call in a service truck, at high cost with long wait times. This extra cost is on top of the high cost to buy the new tractor, which cost a lot more than the used machines.

I predict that the cost for used tractors is going to continue to rise, until some smart entrepreneur realizes the market possibilities, and begins making new tractors without the bells and whistles.

Modern cars automatically invade your privacy

Buy dumb! According to a December 17, 2019 news story, modern cars automatically collect a vast amount of incredibly private information about their owners, especially if the owner uses the installed blue tooth phone and GPS.

[The reporter] discovered that the car was recording details about where the car was driven and parked, call logs, identification information for his phone and contact information from his phone, “right down to people’s address, emails and even photos.” In another example, Fowler bought a Chevy infotainment computer on eBay and was able to extract private information from it about whoever owned it before him, including pictures of the person the previous owner called “Sweetie.”

While GM was the subject of Fowler’s experiments, it’s not the only company collecting data on its drivers. In 2017, the U.S. Government Accountability Office looked at automakers and their data privacy policies and found that the 13 car companies it looked at are not exactly using best practices. For example, while the automakers say they obtain “explicit consumer consent before collecting data,” the GAO says they “offered few options besides opting out of all connected vehicle services to consumers who did not want to share their data.”

There is no justified ethical reason for any car company to collect and keep this information, especially without asking the owner permission to gather it. It simply does not belong to them, under any reasonable definition.

As I said, buy dumb. Better to get a used car without these invasive tools, or disable them if the car has them.

Boeing fires CEO

Boeing today fired its CEO Dennis Muilenburg, citing the need to “restore confidence in the company.”

The company has had a very bad year, with the grounding of its 737-Max airplane, the cost overruns and delays in its NASA Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and the failure of its Starliner manned capsule to dock with ISS this past weekend.

Whether this change will accomplish anything is hard to say. The problems above appear very deeply embedded within the company’s culture, and might require the kind of wholesale changes that big bloated corporations like Boeing are generally loath to impose.

A home-made plane

An evening pause: Another example of someone who decides he wants to do something, and then goes out and does it. This STOL (short take-off and landing) home-built plane, dubbed Draco, was apparently a big hit in the small plane community. Sadly, in September the plane was totaled (no injuries) during a take-off with strong cross winds (video here).

Hat tip Cotour.

A house in the forest

An evening pause: They call this an off-grid house, but that really isn’t true. Though he isn’t linked to either an electric or water utility, pay close attention to the amount of technology he uses to make the house and living there functional and practical.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating and educational to see some of the tricks that people will do to live as they wish.

Hat tip Cotour.

Buy dumb!

The dumb washing machine we hunted for and got
The used “dumb” machine we
paid $285 for that actually
cleans our clothes.

The smart washing machine we threw out
The “smart” machine that we
paid $923 for and sold for $40.

Two years ago our old Kenmore Series 80 washing machine broke down. The repair guy said it would be so expensive to fix that he recommended it was time to buy something new.

So off we went to Sears, where we ended up buying one of today’s modern “smart” machines for a mere $923. As the LG website proudly exclaims,

A Smarter Way to Wash: 6Motion™ Technology uses up to 6 different wash motions to provide a smart cleaning experience that is gentle on clothes and maximizes washing performance.

The problem was the machine never got any of our clothes clean. It also refused to provide enough water. The way it worked was to sense the weight of the clothes you put inside, and determine the needed amount based on this. Routinely, it wasn’t enough, so Diane did web searches to discover numerous owners faking out the machine’s brains by pouring several buckets of water on top of the clothes before turning on the machine, making them weigh more.

The machine also did not have an agitator, the new in-thing among washing machine manufacturers two years ago, probably forced on them by new federal regulations. And though the tub itself did shake, it did it so gently that the clothes hardly moved.

There were also other issues with the machine’s smart technology that frustrated Diane. The machine was boss, and would not allow for any flexibility to its predetermined wash and rinse cycles, even when they made no sense.

Last week Diane had had enough. » Read more

The story behind the computer that made IBM, and computers

Link here. The introduction:

A short list of the most transformative products of the past century and a half would include the lightbulb, Ford’s Model T—and the IBM System/360. This mainframe series forever changed the computer industry and revolutionized how businesses and governments worked, enhancing productivity and making countless new tasks possible.

In the years leading up to its 7 April 1964 launch, however, the 360 was one of the scariest dramas in American business. It took a nearly fanatical commitment at all levels of IBM to bring forth this remarkable collection of machines and software. While the technological innovations that went into the S/360 were important, how they were created and deployed bordered on disaster. The company experienced what science policy expert Keith Pavitt called “tribal warfare”: people clashing and collaborating in a rapidly growing company with unstable, and in some instances unknown, technologies, as uncertainty and ambiguity dogged all the protagonists.

Ultimately, IBM was big and diverse enough in talent, staffing, financing, and materiel to succeed. In an almost entrepreneurial fashion, it took advantage of emerging technologies, no matter where they were located within the enterprise. In hindsight, it seemed a sloppy and ill-advised endeavor, chaotic in execution and yet brilliantly successful. We live in an age that celebrates innovation, so examining cases of how innovation is done can only illuminate our understanding of the process.

Read it all. The story is fascinating, especially in how intellectual honesty made it a success. In one case two computer managers were competing directly against each other for the lead in how the product would be developed. The man that was picked immediately asked the loser to help him build his proposal, a level of honesty that certainly made this company work in the 1960s.

The story also has one bit of real irony. The 360 was a big success because it was compatible with IBM’s previous computer line, and was designed to be compatible across the board.

In the 1980s, IBM lost its entire dominance in the personal computer field when it introduced its second generation PC, the PS/2, which was NOT compatible with their first PC line. Customers fled to independent companies making computers compatible to IBMs first PC, and this loss of business ended up killing IBM entirely.

You would have thought they would have known better.

Hat tip Thomas Biggar.

Children benefit more when parents read to them from printed books

A new study has found that parent-child interactions are more enhanced when parents read to them using printed books rather than ebooks.

The results were starkly clear, with verbal interactions between parent and child decreasing when using either form of e-book. The study revealed e-books and enhanced e-books altered both the activity of the parent and the child’s response to the experience. Parents using enhanced e-books, for example, asked fewer prompting questions to a child while reading, and what conversation there was tended to more frequently be about the device and the technology, instead of the story and characters.

“Parents strengthen their children’s ability to acquire knowledge by relating new content to their children’s lived experiences,” says lead author in the study Tiffany Munzer. “Research tells us that parent-led conversations are especially important for toddlers because they learn and retain new information better from in-person interactions than from digital media.”

The study is not an outright condemnation of ebooks. It is instead a first guidepost for reworking the electronic medium to make it function better, in all cases.

Looking at LPs, CDs, and DVDs with an electron microscope

An evening pause: This video is even more interesting than my title above, in that the guy making it used his electron microscope to make an animation showing what it looks like when a record needle is running through the tracks of a record. Most cool.

And since vinyl appears to actually be making a comeback, I think that even the younger members of my readership will know what a record is.

Hat tip Thomas Biggar.

Update your GPS before April 6 or it might not work!

Older GPS and those that have not recently updated their firmware might not work properly after April 6, 2019.

GPS signals from satellites include a timestamp, needed in part to calculate one’s location, that stores the week number using ten binary bits. That means the week number can have 210 or 1,024 integer values, counting from zero to 1,023 in this case. Every 1,024 weeks, or roughly every 20 years, the counter rolls over from 1,023 to zero.

The first Saturday in April will mark the end of the 1,024th week, after which the counter will spill over from 1,023 to zero. The last time the week number overflowed like this was in 1999, nearly two decades on from the first epoch in January 1980.

You can see where this is going. If devices in use today are not designed or patched to handle this latest rollover, they will revert to an earlier year after that 1,024th week in April, causing attempts to calculate position to potentially fail. System and navigation data could even be corrupted, we’re warned.

Devices after 2010 should be all right, but it is advised to update the firmware to the latest version. Earlier devices might not fare so well.

The issue here is not so much handheld outdoor GPS units, but the GPS in smartphones as well as elsewhere. If you think a device you own uses GPS in any aspect, it is probably wise to update its firmware. The world is not going to end if you don’t, but you will guarantee that you will avoid some annoying inconvenience by doing so.

We are one step closer to the first replicator

Scientists have developed and tested a 3D printing technique that quickly creates entire objects as a unit, rather than building them by layers.

Here’s how it works. First, the researchers use a computer-controlled digital light projector to cast a series of 2D images through a rotating vial containing a photosensitive gel. As the vial rotates, photons entering from different angles meet at selected spots in the gel. Where they meet, their combined energy solidifies the gel. Where that meetup doesn’t occur, the photons simply pass through without altering the photosensitive material.

The approach is fast, able to create complex objects, such as a centimeter-size copy of Rodin’s famous sculpture of The Thinker in just minutes, the researchers report today in Science. It can also make 3D plastic parts around existing objects, such as a plastic handle around a metallic screwdriver shaft. The approach could also be useful for encapsulating sensitive electronics, the authors write.

If you go to the supplementary material for their paper, you can watch several videos showing this process at work, creating both the Thinker as well as a ball in a cage.

I think I have reported on this process previously, but this new paper shows a significant advance. Nonetheless, this engineering here is still very preliminary.

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