Happy Plane

31 01 2012

… will kill you!

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RC “Paper” Airplane

31 01 2012

I recently bought a little remote controlled airplane. I’ve always wanted one but forgot all about it until more recently, kind of like my love of motorbikes.

My procrastinating paid off, because now RC aircraft are much more affordable. And let’s face it, I was better off waiting until *after* I was married to get into this decidedly nerdy hobby.

I bought a little ready-to-fly trainer called the Champ, based on an Aeronca Champion airplane. It is fun and relaxing to fly.

Some people are definitely more in the nerdy side of the hobby; this fellow built a foam airplane in the shape of a giant paper airplane like you’d make out of a sheet of paper.

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See it fly:





Waging War by Machine

27 01 2012

Yesterday the L.A. Times ran a piece regarding the development of another unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), Northrop Grumman’s X-47B.  Unlike other UAVs currently in operation, this one will fly and operate completely autonomously, including identifying amd attacking enemies on its own.

The Times article takes a different tact on it, rather than the usual “ain’t it cool?” angle; they ask, who is accountable for kills (intentional and otherwise) and mistakes with an autonomous weapons system?

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I have a problem with this concept, morally speaking. It is disconcerting to me that militaries around the world are heading in the direction of pilot-less aircraft for warfighting.

There are times and places where it just makes sense to employ  unmanned robotic vehicles – for long-duration reconnaissance over hostile territory, to name but one example.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t want American soldiers, airmen, sailors or Marines unnecessarily put in harm’s way. Quite the contrary; I love my country and I love my countrymen. I don’t want to see the United States decline.  I love my countrymen so much, that I feel we should never put them in harm’s way unless armed conflict is absolutely unavoidable – which it was (it was avoidable I mean) in the case of the Iraq war – and many would argue Afghanistan as well.

However I feel strongly than one of the major deterrents against waging war is the prospect of your soldiers dying in the prosecution of those hostilities.  This leads to an erosion of popular support for war, which can lead to political backlash.

When coupled with other modern military innovations and trends, such as a reliance upon air strikes employing precision munitions and a non-conscripted army, and the general American apathy for the invasion of other counties and waging war in general, we see a potential for widespread and continuous warfare in the coming decades.

When the robots take all of the risk out of warfighting, and the human aspect is removed (unilaterally I would add – it won’t be robots and other lifeless objects that get destroyed and killed on the other side), this disconnect between the general public and the reality of being bombed by robotic aircraft grows wider and wider.

This is bad, people.

The United States must live up to its rightful position in the international community of nations, by being an example to be emulated, and by being a force for good in the world.

We must reverse our tendency to spend more and more money on the national defense budget, which now almost exceeds the spending of all other nations’ COMBINED, including China and Russia.

Think about that for a moment.

Research the statistics if you don’t believe me.

If we spent more of that money on foreign policy, diplomacy and economic development, we would be much safer from foreign threats.

This is my country as much as it is any Senator’s, Congressman’s, wealthly partisan hack’s, millionaire’s, or anyone else’s, and dammit my opinion is as important (if not more so) because mine has a higher probability of a globally stable and sustainable future outcome.

The hawks – in government, in industry, and in think tanks and academia around the country – must be countered and checked. We must not become lax and careless with our nation’s security, but at the same time we can’t afford to police every conflict in the world or seek to impose American economic policy everywhere where it would be financially beneficial for us to do so.

Be wary of the robots entrusted to go bomb our fellow humans abroad. Someday, such weapons may be used against us.

UPDATE Jan. 30, 2012:

The NY Times is reporting that the newly independent Iraqis are pissed about the drones being flown over Baghdad to protect the U.S. embassy staff.

UPDATE JUNE 4, 2012:

The Atlantic weighs in.





Shark Spotting

25 01 2012

They may be closer than you think:

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The Maillardet Automaton

19 01 2012

The New York Times recently ran an article about The Maillardet Automaton, which now lives at The Franklin Institute.

This incredible machine was built somewhere around 200 years ago, by a watchmaker named Henri Maillardet around 1800. It is a machine that uses mechanical memory to write out, in longhand, three poems – two in French and one in English – and draw four sketches: two Cupid-esque drawings, plus a three-masted ship and a Chinese temple.

It operates using “cams”, basically wheels with bumps and notches (kind of like irregular gears), over which a lever travels, instructing the writing hand to move side to side, toward or away, and on or off the page (up and down) – in other words, it is programmed to move the writing implement in three dimensions.

There are much better pictures of this here and here.

Imagine the complexity that exists in such a machine. It is driven by a windable spring, like all clocks and watched were once powered. In programming such a thing, Maillardet had to account for every gesture as a bump or valley in one of the cams.

A couple of interesting details, aside from the fact that it exists at all especially 200 years ago, is that machines such as these were created primarily as an advertising gimmick for watchmakers of the period; they served to demonstrate their makers’ technical prowess, craftsmanship and ingenuity.

This particular automaton’s story is all the more interesting when you hear of its journey to the Franklin Institute. According to the NY Times piece:

It was exhibited across Europe for four or five decades, may have been brought to the United States by the 19th-century showman P. T. Barnum, and was damaged in a fire (perhaps at Barnum’s museum in Philadelphia) before being donated by a local family to the Franklin Institute in 1928.

It was in the Institute’s basement in disrepair for decades before it was recently restored to working (and presentable) condition, in 2007.

The detail is amazing.  In the Times article, they talk about how it has to pause for a moment at times, when the machine shifts the cam/gear mechanism slightly in order to keep writing (when it effectively “accesses more information” stored in its mechanical memory), the boy looks up from his poem or sketch, and the eyes stare out into the distance, as if he’s gathering his thoughts.

Simply (or not-so-simply) superb.  Kudos to Maillardet and his incredible masterpiece.  I bet his watches were equally crafted.





Fun with Google Auto-Complete

18 01 2012

While researching a client’s name today, I found some surprisingly hilarious autocomplete suggestions.

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I have censored the name to protect this person’s anonymity. At first I had only blacked out the first name, but then discovered that the last name plus one of these suggestions revealed the first name after all.

If Google is to be trusted, this person may be a slob, a CPA, or on a chain gang.  Perhaps s/he is all of the above!





PIPA and SOPA should help themselves to a hot cup of STFU

17 01 2012

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Tomorrow, January 18th, 2012, the English language version of Wikipedia will go dark for 24 hours in protest of the so-called Stop Online Piracy Act currently being considered in the American Congress, and its equivalent PIPA in the U.S. Senate.

I must confess that while I have heard rumblings from the free speech crowd over the past six months or so, this was what prompted me to actually read up on it. After all, this blog is a tribute to my trips down the “Wiki hole” as one of my friends describes it – random click on links to articles within articles.

One wants to believe that this legislation is well-intended but misguided, but sometime you have to wonder. The online free speech advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests that portions of both bills are worded to allow for corporations and government departments to shut down websites for highly subjective reasons.

Corporations with conflicting interests could use their newfound powers to stifle free speech if they so desire. An example they give is a cable television company who is also a local ISP (as many are) who blacklist a video sharing site because that site competes against the cable company for revenue. They could block the IP address for the video site, citing these bits of legislation, and basically hide behind the claim of “possible copyright infringement.”

Other companies could use it against open source software developers to snuff out competition.

Worse still, the anti-circumvention clause in SOPA could hinder free speech for a very important constituency, people who live in repressive societies without the right to free speech. So websites and services that allow for anonymous browsing could come under fire if these bills pass, because potentially the same sites could be used for piracy and copyright infringement. 

I heard someone on the radio today make an analogy to that point, stating (I’ll paraphrase):

It’s as if the banking industry told Congress, look, cars are used in committing bank robberies, so we should outlaw cars.

Important recent historical events such as the Arab Spring could not have taken place in the same way (or, some would argue, at all) if not for access to the Internet.

Racing to the Red Light fully supports Wikipedia’s decision to go offline in protest of the SOPA and PIPA legislation, and urges American politicians to resist these ill-conceived attacks on Internet free speech.