Category Archives: Technology

The Future and the Past

We can’t really predict the future. People like to pretend to know the future of 200 – 1000 years, but we can’t predict the rain.

The calving front of Thwaites Ice Shelf looking at the ice below the water's surface as seen from the NASA DC-8 on Oct. 16, 2012. Note how the water acts as a blue filter.

Sometimes we act by the preventative principle – IF IT IS NEW IT IS SCARY!  By this principle, Europe bans GMO products. But frankly, banning stuff that is a small relative cost is easy. How about banning hard stuff, like cars or Killer Robots.

Killer robots

Ok, should be easy to kill this off – I mean, who hasn’t watched Terminator? But lets look at them more reasonably.
Do we want people to go kill people?
1) first off, we have to designate people 1 as good people and people 2 as bad people. If we consider all those people with guns as bad people, then it is no loss to have them kill each other, but honestly, we don’t.

2) good people have to kill. This isn’t easy for the good people and often leaves them with a lifetime of problems.

3) good people might get killed. The bad people don’t lie down and die, they fight back. The people who are willing to shoulder this burden for their communities are some of the best people in society.

4) SO, we should save our good people, design some controllable “Bad” robots, and send them to kill bad people.

Despite the fear-mongers, these are no easier to build than nuclear bombs. But, maybe we are just marking time till the inevitable Cylon war. We don’t know much about this year, we can hardly predict next year, and 100 years is just plain crazy talk.

We can’t predict the future and we don’t know much about the past. As an example, we always KNEW that stonehenge was about 2000 years old and build by immigrants to England from Europe. The earliest inhabitants that were well considered dated from only 2500 bc. The problem I always had was that the structure was too primitive for the civilization that they believed to have built it. By 2000 bc., there was interaction between the immigrant population of England/Ireland and the Grecian Isles. So I don’t see a long term neolithic civilization surviving and prospering. Since it clearly did, there must have been a separate – well founded – civilization which controlled the central parts of England.

A new study drops the date of English habitation to before 8000 bc. A long-term society had a meeting place at Stonehenge for thousands of years. The evidence suggests that they built a wooden structure first, then the outer stones, then the inner stones. There may have been a structure before they planted the posts, but they didn’t dig it into the ground before 3000 bc. The society there lasted nearly 2000 years. You can’t say they didn’t leave any trace, but it sure is hard to read it.

What do you think, in 4,000 years our great^100th grandchildren will say the same about us. “Sure, there are lots of artifacts, like this rusted piece of iron with chairs in it. But what could they possible have used it for? If only they had left proper memory crystals we’d know something about what they thought!” Remember, whatever stenohaline was before they planted posts – that structure predated writing. For all I know, Writing is a flash in the pan, 3000 bc – 3000 ad. Used for 6,000 years out of 60,000 years of language and we’ll never use it again.

Naval Rail Gun

My college years, at NCSU, were spent playing with thermal-chemical and rail-gun plasmas. Yeah, I got to shoot stuff. I had a 3.35 km/s record. For folks who don’t know, thats medium fast. Modern gunpowder will only get you around  1.3 km/s. My dad (I’m from a family of mad scientists) got a gun to shoot a bit faster than that, but he had the airforce budget. I think their gun topped around 5.4 km/s, but I don’t know precisely. That was back in 1990…ish. So, they solved a plasma traveling problem that I didn’t get funded to fix. It pushes them to the 7 km/s barrier.

Nicely, they are already starting one up. Once you decide to give it fins and a rocket engine, your next stop is 9 km/s. (yeah, I have that design sitting on my desktop now.) The way I see it, in the next decade the smart-fast bullet will be the genie out of the bottle. I wish I were part of the teams designing it. 

The next naval battle looks like this. Imagine with me:
1) Conflict is announced, the two fleets are set up a few hundred kilometers apart. This seems like a reasonable distance, given the usual speed of things. Fleet of aircraft patrol the space between them, seeking missiles.

2) at roughly 1 shot/second, the railgun carriers launch. it should take approximately 2 minutes to target everything interesting in the opponents fleet.

3) at 45 seconds, the ranging shot hits, over the next two minutes 90% of the opponents fleet takes a crippling hit.

4) total time between announcement of hostilities and subdual of the enemy fleet, 5 minutes. Missiles are still in their launch towers, heading toward the bottom of the sea.

Congratulations Rail Gun, Naval Warfare is dead.

A Dirty Bomb

Frankly you have heard about such things for years, without being told what the heck you were supposed to be afraid of. Short answer – nothing much.

Here is a prime example of a risk that made everyone in the radiation business crazy for a few days. Thieves car-jacked a transport of Co60 between the hospital and the storage facility. It has been recovered, but it was a worry for a few days. Thieves have not been found, but I hope they get medical treatment soon.

Cobalt 60 is a created material. It has a half-life of around 5 years (5.27) and decays into a perfectly normal Nickel isotope. If you have a Co60 problem, leave it alone for a couple decades and it goes away. It is created by bombarding normal cobalt metal with slow neutrons, a percentage of the Co59 gets transformed to Co60 – depending on a whole bunch of very boring variables, and a precentage turns back into Ni60. You do some math and at some point you pull the Cobalt metal out of the reactor or Californium source, or whatever, and put it into a Co60 machine – which is either in a pool of water or a lead box. Since Co60 produces a lovely spectrum of 1 MeV  (or call it 1000 keV) gamma rays, we usually call them Gamma cells. 

This is a picture of a pool with a Co60 source at the bottom. Safe as roses to be up here, but when the pulley drags the source out of the water, well, you’d get dead pretty quick. Which is kind of the problem with stealing gamma cells.

As a comparison, everybody has had a dental x-ray. They run from 20 – 100 keV. So at minimum, the gamma cell is 10 times hotter than a dental x-ray. The technicians wear lead coats to keep the exposure to a minimum, they do a couple dozen shots a day. Maybe a minute or two of exposure, total. Frankly, it was shown that x-rays will give you cancer – by Marie Curie – but she had hundreds of hours of exposure, with no shielding.

Gamma cells are hotter than x-ray machines, so don’t play with them without training. Certainly don’t put them in the back of your car and drive around for a few days. And don’t eat any of the pellets. That is all stupid-dangerous. If you are of the mind to do that, stay away from scissors and other deadly apparatus. (Eating scissors is also bad for you.)

Dirty bombs are what scare the normal folk, that some crazy would blow up a gamma cell, irradiating miles of landscape with “deadly radiation.” Yeah, pretty over rated. Mostly, radioactive materials – when blown up with simple explosive – are not much different than anything else. Yeah, it could take a few days to clean up and  you probably want to protect yourself from exposure if you are going to be handling it a lot, but not really worth “fearing.”

picture 9/11 families for a Safe & Strong America

I mean, a BOMB can kill you. If a terrorist is setting off a bomb, that is scary. So are terrorists shooting guns, or flying planes into buildings. Ok, lets set that – 9/11- as a Scale = 10. Scale = 0 is a bearded guy yelling scary Arabic words at you. Where should a dirty bomb fall? 


The bomb part could still take down a building, with people in it. An act by itself which could theoretically be an 8 or 9) SO, for arguments sake, lets let the dirty bomber blow up the mall at midnight, after the janitors leave, with a Co60 dirty bomb. The mall is ruined and it is a few months of clean up to get back to a parking lot. We’ll call that a 3 for 20 million dollars of property damage and zero casualties. What does the “dirty” add to the “bomb.” Physically? It means that the cleaners will have to wear protective gear, which multiplies time required by a factor of 4. SO, it would mean that the mall was out of action for a year. (and that you would have to endure a year’s screaming from ignorant media about the “deadly attack” even if it didn’t kill anyone) I mean, it doesn’t add a casualty, so I’d leave it pretty much a 3. In my book, the lone gunman with 1 kill is a lot scarier than 40 million in damages, but maybe somebody would say differently. 

Dirty bombs are only effective at making people stay out of areas. This is good for “site denial” attacks, such as shutting down an important bridge and costing people a lot of money. This is good for “Fear” tactics, so long as the media is a bunch of ignorant savages. Frankly, guns are more frightening – if you don’t own one. 

Makers Local

I want to point out first that these people aren’t nuts, but they are technology geeks. There are a good number of people who love 3-D printing, laser cutters, fab machines. They also do some hacking, some EMP, and a good bit of random art projects. I think they have a lot of LAN parties as well. Frankly, I’ve been over to the local group a total of twice, but a good friend of mine donated his laser and has built a couple of fabs.

Why? I’m not sure I can answer this for you. Either the idea of playing with a 3D printer is worth a couple nights out of your week, or you go fishing. Huntsville is a pretty tech-savvy town, but I expect that most cities over 100,000 people support one or more “Makers” groups. Heck, I want to play just to cut steampunk gears. (Using the laser, you can cut them out of a vinyl plastic material or plywood and they don’t weigh like brass. A good paint job (or three) and they look like well-used sprockets.  

Not to drift too far afield, I was bringing them up to discuss this marvel.

The 3D-printed gun that Cody Wilson calls the “Liberator.” Click to enlarge. (Credit: Michael Thad Carter for Forbes)

A single-shot lexan pistol is not going to win a gunfight, but it could be built, easily, in one of those 3D printers. Go ahead and ban the design. Go ahead and ban trading in mp3s and japanese anime while you’re at it. The design is out there. It isn’t an assault weapon, but really, nothing sold in the US is, despite the national media. (Oh, the M16’s that our army sells to Mexico’s army are assault weapons…the fact that those weapons end up on the streets of Mexico City is a big issue…but their issue, not ours.) What is the issue is that this is a single summer’s work from an amature. Get a gun professional and a materials scientist together for 6 months and I expect the results will look a lot like a .38 special.

In 10 years, I expect the printable materials will include high temperature ceramics and metals, the printing materials will be better than 90% of the materials currently used on handguns. With the exception of the barrel, I expect that most towns could start an assembly line of automatic weapons. This isn’t to suggest that we ban … something… or make anything illegal, but we really need to discuss the future of technology. “False shortages,” usually due to government interference, are simply not going to affect the rate of distribution to the populace.

My dad used to tell me stories about putting together cars in the barn on his dad’s farm. In the 50’s, the government didn’t control much about cars and couldn’t mandate headlights, much less seatbelts. Now days, the government is happy to restrict everything about cars, guns, or medicine. 99.9% of that is for the good, but those 50 years of regulation may be coming to an end.

Serious Times

Hard to be light-hearted when a tyrant is threatening to send a nuclear weapon. There are a lot of places he could send it, I suppose I’m personally safe, but I like Japan, Seattle, … I don’t particularly like LA, but I don’t think it deserves to be blown away.

Picture: A view of Hiroshima, one month after the US dropped an atomic bomb on it.

Frankly, there is a lot of damage a small fission weapon could do in knowledgable hands. I guess we are lucky that the losers in NK don’t have any of those hands. I also suspect that this is all a ploy to get the Venerable Senator and Secretary of State J. F. Kerry to send them more money. Kerry doesn’t really care about solutions, he isn’t that type. He just wants to make sure that nothing interesting happens on his watch. If that costs a billion or so, it isn’t important to him.

Sen. John F. Kerry testifies before longtime colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of State.

Picture: JFK testifying before the Senate that we need a “less militaristic foreign policy.”

Understand that no doing something today is worse than making the wrong choice. NK, today, has one or more nukes that probably can’t be missile launched and a handful of missiles capable of reaching our shores. In four years, maybe five, they will have a dozen weapons and twice that many missiles. How many will we have to stop? All of them, of course. A dozen weapons could devastate the West Coast, Japan, and possibly strategic locations. If four years of negotiations get China on their side, we might face a retaliatory strike of over a hundred weapons. What if Iran manages to improve its rockets and NK, China, and Iran become the new Axis, reaching into South America for further allies. Kerry could be the man who decides the shape of WW III. It isn’t a comforting thought.

Given that today is Euler’s birthday, we should celebrate with a Venn Diagram of some sort. I can’t think of one but it should show that WW III would be caused by the intersection of US weakness in response to threats and the ever growing desire of failed regimes to steal more money from us in order to prop up their power for a few more years.

Peace Through Superior Firepower

Lasers on Ships – This is lovely.

Now as I, or any self-respecting engineer, would tell you. This laser isn’t very powerful. I mean, i can take a purple hand-held laser and cook a hole in a paper airplane, light a cigarette, or set gasoline on fire. This laser is … 100,000 times more powerful than that. (but still pretty wussy.)

The biggest sea – danger these days are runabout boats. Basically 1000 Horsepower diesel engines strapped to a plywood gun platform. Their safety was that people have a hard time drawing a bead on a bouncing target moving at 70 knots at an angle to their bouncing platform moving at 30 knots. A rough shot, but a laser has – in computer time – roughly a million years to line up a shot at a gas line. Five seconds later the liabilities of stacking 1/2 a ton of flammable items on your boat becomes apparent.

Drones are a lot tougher than paper airplanes and puppies are cuter than zombies … ya know … Is this is the lowest hurdle you’ve soared over today? Drones catch fire… this indicates that they are not made out of titanium. Modern aircraft are frequently made out of such things as titanium, steel, carbon fiber composites, and rarely aluminum. All of which aren’t catching fire anytime soon with a 100 kwatt laser. (But 20 years ago, 100 kwatt would have been a big improvement over what we could get into the lab.)

The fact is, this is a spiral development. The problems with fielding a laser are being tested … even if the laser doesn’t really fulfill the mission we want it for. The bigger lasers are in development. They may be 20 years away, but someday we will have them, on ships, poking holes in missiles and fighter jets. It really is a game changer…but not soon.

In the next decade, ships that throw shells 100 km at 7 kps will be common. Spare nuclear reactors will be put into future ships, so that they can install rail guns and lasers. Ships will, of necessity, harden themselves to incoming missiles and aircraft; killing their opponents from far over the horizon. Year after year, war advances to the drumbeat of technology. Alfred Nobel knew as much 100 years ago. Luckily, the drum is in our hands. Sleep well and dream of a safer tomorrow.


Yes, I actually went on a vacation. It was almost a mistake, but then … wham!… I was vacationing. I didn’t know what to do. The Memphis Zoo was fun. We spent about 8 hours walking around, my legs fell off, but we saw the whole thing.
The architecture was amusing, a blend of Egyptian, Log cabin, Native American Northwest, and Asian. (And a complete lack of understanding of the difference between Chinese and Japanese themes.)

I got glared at by a gorilla, charged by a grizzly, threatened by an ostrich, and generally made a pest of myself at all the local beasts. My wife will upload all the pictures, I promise there is one good for future blackmail in there…somewhere.

Of course, It would hardly be a party without radiation, right? I went and looked at the neutron generator at a facility I will let go un-named. (They have a state permit, but no need to antagonize the neighbors who probably think they are an electronics store.) They have a standing issue about radiation dose that I promised to give them a hand with. I made some measurements with their Bonner Ball neutron detector. I had some initial idea on what the results would be and I’ll publish them at a later date. They appear to be on track for meeting all their requirements on radiation. Still, it was good fun to be running around with a Ball and running MCNPx code. I’m going to try to make a pretty picture for them… not sure I can remember how. Durn these braincells, stuff I knew how to do a few years ago is slipping away. I’ll just have to spend some time playing with code. (durn)

The ball with the Geiger Counter on its back is a Bonner Ball…though there are other types of them.

I’ll tell you something. If you want to get good at a code, you have to learn to play with it. I suspect the same thing is true with golf or cards. Just using it the same way every time gets you very little advancement. Trying to do something that might be impossible…well… that teaches you a lot. (Like don’t try to divide conical sections with planes – weirdest problem I ever had.) I love to take MCNP and mimic other people’s work, do it backwards, whatever sounds like a fun problem. Then I save those pages for when someone asks me to do something crazy. Suddenly I remember how I did some dose calculations back in …. (ok, long enough ago that you might not have been born) … I look up the old methods, play with them a while, then produce a miracle. (Yes, Mr. Scott was a hero of mine.) If that is too vague a reference, I recommend you go get a dozen episodes of Star Trek – the original series – and play them. If you’ve never seen Star Trek… why are you reading my stuff?

“She cannae take much more of this Captain.”

I also received a letter requesting that I post the link to a link accumulator which has a lot of space links. I warn you off the top that it is a commercial site – obviously it sells Disneyworld tickets – but the links look good so if you are weak on REAL space history – as opposed to fake future history like Star Trek – you should check them out. (and buy me ice cream. I clearly am the loser in that bet.)

What have I left out? Silver Star where Corbin and I busted each other up with live steel. Yep, a real dang sword fight. I also worked on outrunning kids in my full armor all day. Heck of a week of vacation. I’ll get some pictures up, but we only got into town last night at 11 pm, got into bed around 12:30 am, and I was at work at 9 am. (yawn) Just an amazing vacation and the first I’ve had since… well… a long time ago.

I missed Dragon Con 2011

I missed Dragon con and was stuck here talking to myself like a chatbot. Send me your stories and pictures, or I will be forced to pry them from your cold dead fingers… or vocal cords or something. Maybe I know a good necromancer…

Cute post in IEEE – two chatbots talking to each other. You have to remember that the goal of the competition is to prove that the other person on the line is a human or a computer. If a human is convinced that your computer is a human, that is a a Turing equivalent program/machine.

So here is two chatbots in a fight to the death, the winner gets to be a human…or a unicorn or something.

Active Denial System

Sorry for the light posting the last month. Tons of exciting things are going on, but work is keeping me too busy to play around. Not to mention, it is summer and kids are keeping me busy as well. This should take your mind off of all that. Lots of Boom. Yes, this IS hitting a bullet with a bullet. Well, more precisely hitting a missile with an explosive charge…still, same concept.