Archive for category Technology
I really need to stop being so nosy.
“The world has changed, and not for the better,” I heard an older gentleman say to one of his friends while waiting online for takeout. He was discussing how he never does anything online, because “they always ask for your credit card.”
“It’s not just that, the fundamental moral fiber of the country has changed,” the friend said in agreement.
I’m not saying that I disagree with them, but I do think it’s interesting how people of a certain generation can decry society’s moral degradation when their peers are the ones that caused it.
“Millennials” are often described as feckless denizens of their parents’ basements, willing to sacrifice any freedom in the pursuit of technological connectivity.
That simply isn’t true. While the younger generations are the first to come of age with smartphones in their hands, this situation–and the concept that digital “smart” technologies are a catch-all social savior–was created by the Baby Boomers, who count Steve Jobs and Bill Gates among their ranks.
It’s the same story in politics. It’s easy to reminisce about the good old days of Jacob Javits, and blame Millennials for not being more politically active, when you forget who’s actually in Congress now.
Society has a lot of problems, but idly criticizing it without acknowledging where those problems came from won’t solve anything.
It’s not for keeping out Klingons, though. Officially known as the Air Force Space Surveillance System, it’s used for keeping track of objects in or near Earth’s orbit.
Three transmitting stations in Alabama, Arizona, and Texas emit radio waves into space, which bounce off objects and are received by six stations in Arkansas, California, Georgia (two stations), Mississippi, and New Mexico.
The Space Fence network extends east to west across the 33rd parallel, detecting any object that passes over. The receiving stations are reportedly sensitive enough to track an object the size of a basketball orbiting 17,200 miles above the Earth’s surface.
Those objects include satellites and space junk. More than 10,500 individual objects are tracked.
Having massive radio arrays spread out across the United States, and calling that series a contraptions a Space Fence, seems ripe for conspiracy theory. While the Fence doesn’t track border-jumping aliens, it does do important work.
Objects in space move very fast (about 17,000 mph in Earth orbit), which makes them dangerous. The Fence can warn the International Space Station if a piece of debris gets too close, or help track a deda satellite as it falls out of orbit, plotting where it will crash.
There’s also an intelligence component to the mission: the Space Fence can detect when a spy satellite passes over the U.S., and it can calculate an object’s country of origin from its launch trajectory. Just think of what the NSA could do with it.
The Space Fence was originally run by the Navy, but it’s now administered by the Air Force’s 20th Space Control Squadron (yes, there really is such a thing). The squadron is at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, while the data from the Fence is analyzed at the Alternate Space Control Center in Dahlgren, Virginia.
So in a time when it seems like the government can’t do anything right, the Air Force’s space traffic controllers are monitoring thousands of objects zipping around thousands of miles above our heads.
At least for now they are. The Air Force is planning to shut down the Space Fence,which will reportedly save $14 million a year. The Air Force hopes to replace it with a more accurate system.
Hopefully the INS will be able to keep border-hopping aliens out of the country in the meantime.
When I watched journalist Emily Matchar tell Stephen Colbert about how a new generation of Americans were rediscovering lost domestic arts like knitting and raising chickens, I thought I’d heard the spiel somewhere before. My generation loves the 19th century.
It’s not just the economically sensible pre-industrial practice of making one’s own clothes and food.
Just look at how many pop culture groups, from vampires to hipsters, to whatever Goths are calling themselves these days, rely on a 19th century fashion aesthetic. Corsets, top hats, and facial hair are back in style.
Thanks to the microbrew craze, beer enthusiasts are also using growlers, just like the ones inebriated laborers used to bring to small local taverns every day.
There’s also Steampunk. It’s the largest pop culture movement wholly created by this generation, and a 19th century (specifically, Victorian) aesthetic is its defining characteristic.
Why is this happening? Why are people growing mutton chops? Fifty years ago, Americans observed the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, igniting renewed interest in that conflict and the Wild West era that followed it.
We’re in the midst of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War right now (the Battle of Gettysburg happened 150 years ago last month) but I don’t think that’s the cause of all of this anachronism. Other than Steven Spielberg and the New York Times, no one seems to care about the Civil War anniversary.
In her interview with Colbert, Matchar said the “Great Recession” has something to do with this trend; that people who engage in this new domesticity are either having trouble finding jobs or look to domesticity for a level of fulfillment they don’t get at work.
She also said the trend cross political lines, with both liberals and conservatives taking part. That makes a lot of sense: liberals hate corporations, conservatives have been going on a self-sufficiency kick since Obama was elected, and neither group can find paying work.
So it seems our emerging post-industrial economy could grow to resemble a pre-industrial economy, with 20- and 30-somethings adopting the practices of their ancestors, and wearing their clothes to boot.
While the “New Domesticity” and pop culture trends like Steampunk may not seem connected, I do think they spring from the same mindset. People aren’t overtly nostalgic for the 19th century, but they do seem to think on a similar, smaller scale.
Whether it’s the desperation brought on by tough economic times or the ability to wall oneself off from the rest of humanity with the Internet, today’s youth tend to be primarily concerned with their immediate surroundings, just like 19th century Americans.
One-and-a-half centuries ago, people lacked communications technology or any ties to large corporations that would have required constant involvement in the outside world. Now, we do have those things, but they’re not helping us feel like part of a larger society, as the people of the 20th century did.
The last century saw a rise in communications technology and corporatization, as well as several historical events (two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War) that required large collaborative efforts.
This century has seen the aforementioned recession and the terrorist attacks of September 11, but there was never any great call to unity for either. President Bush told Americans to go back to their normal lives even as the country invaded Afghanistan, and there is still much debate about whether the current economic problems require a large scale solution or whether individuals should figure things out for themselves.
More and more, people are becoming focused on curating their own lives rather than thinking of themselves as part of a larger idea. They chronicle their entire existence on social media, and thanks to an unpredictable job market, they are forced to think of themselves as freelancers instead of workers.
This more individualistic mindset is perfectly suited for a new domesticity, and a Victorian pop culture aesthetic. It makes sense on many political, environmental, and economic levels as well, but I don’t think it would be so appealing for practical reasons alone. Why else would someone randomly decide to can their own food?
Will a retrograde movement solve America’s problems? It’s certainly an anomaly in society’s inexorable technological progression, so anything can happen, really. Maybe bathtub gin and Charleston will be in style again in a few years.
There’s something about the summer that causes magazine editors to compile lists of future technologies that are poised to change… something. The Car & Driver cover story for August features “The Tech 50” for cars, while Popular Science is probing the future of flight in their July issue (both are on newsstands now).
Both the automotive and aviation industries, it seems, could benefit from 3D printing. “Printed Cars” was number six on C&D’s list of paradigm-shifting tech.
Jim Kor, leader of the Urbee printed car project, told the magazine that 3D printing is a superior manufacturing process because it requires less energy, produces less waste, and doesn’t require time-consuming retooling when changes to the design have to be made.
Popular Science was also impressed by a 3D printer’s lack of tooling, noting that aircraft manufacturers already use it to rapidly produce prototype parts.
It seems that 3D printing’s time has come, at least in the media. While there aren’t any cars in production with printed parts, and only a few small items on the spanking-new Boeing 787, the technology seems to have a bright future.
There have been glorious predictions of 3D printers for the price of a cheap ink jet in the tech press for awhile, but now journalists from other beats are developing applications for it. Time to take notice.
Maybe it’s my cynical 21st century media consumer nature taking over, but it seems like every time someone wants to write about the “future” of an industry, they are obligated to mention the hottest new piece of tech.
Whether its phone connectivity or data management, the technologies of centuries past are increasingly expected to absorb new “tech” to stay relevant.
There’s nothing insidious about this, and I have to say I really do like 3D printing. It’s got a whiff of Marxism to it, giving individuals a small chunk of the means of production. It’s theoretical march from startup office to heavy industry is very predictable, though.
Like other aspects of the tech-o-sphere, 3D printing is a very cool, genuinely new technology that hasn’t really found a purpose yet. Hence the endless possibilities being suggested.
If I were allowed to make a prediction of my own, I’d say that these magazine articles will become self-fulfilling prophecies. People will eventually find an ideal use for 3D printing, just as they did for the Internet, and the rest of the world will be subtly warped to maximize that use.
Technologies can become widespread not just because they are useful, but because people want to find uses for them. Will 3D printing follow that trend?
I love learning jargon, and at a recent tech conference in New York City I got to add a few pieces to my collection. Here’s what technologists use to describe what they do when normal words simply aren’t enough.
Tech (n.) Any device incorporating digital technology, and the digital technology itself.
Exp: “This new iPhone is a great piece of tech.”
This is quickly devolving from shorthand for technology into a word exclusively denoting smartphones, tablets, and the bits and pieces that make them work. We say that our society has faith in technology, but many of us seem to actually mean the kinds of technology that come with plenty of silicon.
Unlike a lot of jargon, “tech” is actually a bit non-specific. A smartphone is a piece of tech, but so are the hardware and software that comprise it. Sometimes tech entrepreneurs need to be more specific, which brings us to our next term…
Solution (n.) A product proffered by a tech company for a specific application.
Exp: “Our company provides innovative solutions for in-car infotainment.”
Since a lot of what tech companies produce is non-corporeal software, someone obviously thought it was a good idea to ditch the word “product,” which implies something more substantial; it’s basically the opposite of what the finance industry did. it’s a suitable term for a technology that seeks to insert itself into all kinds of situations, from glasses to car dashboards.
Innovate (v.) To create something new, specifically a new piece of tech.
Exp: “To solve society’s problems, people need to be free to innovate.”
I miss the days of Dexter’s Laboratory and middle school history lessons about Thomas Edison, when scientists and engineerings invented things instead of just innovating. Being innovative is great, but shouldn’t there be a specific goal behind the innovation? A carbon fiber toothbrush would be incredibly innovative, but there wouldn’t be much of a point to it.
Space (n.) A subject, an area of expertise, a topic.
Exp: “Milled aluminum knobs are very important in the home audio space.”
This admittedly, has more to do with the people writing about the tech industry than the people in it. For some reason, when it comes to technology, there aren’t topics or beats, there are spaces.
Maybe it has to do with the way tech takes on different forms to infiltrate into different physical spaces; morphing into intelligent flat screens and TFT speedometers.
Got any tech terms of your own? Post them in the comments below.
Once upon a time, people thought the atom was the key to the future. It may have just been the ultimate threat to human existence at the time, but Cold War engineers thought nuclear power had plenty of utility as well.
Using a small chunk of metal to power a city for decades seems like a good deal, as long as you don’t consider radiation and the occasional bout of China Syndrome. Before people started thinking about those little foibles, they came up with some pretty creative uses for nuclear power.
A functioning nuclear-powered car was never actually built, but Ford toyed with the idea. The company’s 1958 Nucleon concept was a 3/8 scale model intended to show what a production atomic car could look like.
The Nucleon had the cab-forward look of the Dodge Deora (of Hot Wheels fame), but instead of a pickup bed for storing surfboards, it had a rear-mounted nuclear reactor. While it would have made an interesting rival for the Porsche 911, it’s probably best that the Nucleon never made it to production.
During the 1950s, ships took their place in the triad of strategic defense thanks to nuclear power, so it’s not surprising that the American and Soviet air forces wanted to extend that success to their strategic bombers.
Strategic bombers patrolled enemy airspace in anticipation of a nuclear strike, a la Dr. Strangelove. A bomber with the unlimited range of a nuclear submarine would definitely have been an asset.
While a nuclear reactor never powered a plane, both Cold War rivals sent them aloft in conventional aircraft to see if they and their heavy shielding could be lifted. The Americans built the Convair NB-36H, a variant of the B-36 Peacemaker, and the Soviets converted a TU-95 into the TU-95LAL.
General Electric also built a prototype reactor in Idaho for the follow-up to the NB-36H, the X-6, but thankfully it proved unnecessary. Advances in Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) eventually negated the need for a long range nuclear-powered bomber.
If a nuclear wing aircraft couldn’t work, what about one with the Hindenburg’s propensity for spontaneous combustion? The airship was out of vogue by the 1950s, but that didn’t stop The U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Naval Weapons from proposing an atomic version as part of the Eisenhower Administration’s “Atoms for Peace” program.
The Navy reasoned that an airship’s low power requirements would allow it to use a lighter reactor, and that it serve as a “flying aircraft carrier,” defending itself with its own fighter planes.
An even more ambitious proposal appeared in a 1956 Mechanix Illustrated article. Author Frank Tinsley envisioned an airship 1,000 feet in length (nearly twice the length of the Hindenburg) that could be used to publicize the Atoms for Peace program.
Ike ended up building the nuclear cargo ship Savannah instead, and that’s probably for the better. Given large airships’ inability to stay aloft (the entire U.S. airship fleet of the 1930s was lost in crashes), it’s probably best that one didn’t take to the skies with a nuclear reactor on board.
Before GPS, lighthouses were all that kept mariners from crashing into rocky shorelines and underwater obstacles. To keep the lights on, keepers needed to make sure there was plenty of fuel or electricity at the lighthouses’ remote locations.
That must have seemed like too much of a hassle to the Russians, who built a few lighthouses powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), the same type of generator that powers the Curiosity Mars rover.
Unlike nuclear reactors, RTGs rely solely on the energetic decay of a piece of radioactive material. As the material decays, it emits energy that is converted into electricity.
A box of plutonium might generate plenty of power for an otherwise inaccessible structure, but is it really a good idea to leave said plutonium unsupervised?
If you think the all-seeing Predator drone is scary, wait ‘til you meet “Project Pluto.” An atomic nightmare, it was a pilotless nuclear powered cruise missile that could launch its own nuclear weapons.
Known as a Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile (SLAM), Project Pluto’s mission profile exemplifies Cold War desperation. The reactor powered a ramjet, heating air fed into the craft as it moved and expanding it to produce thrust. this would have allowed a Pluto missile to travel at speeds up to Mach 3 and stay airborne for months at a time, allowing it to deliver a payload of hydrogen bombs to multiple targets.
It gets better though: Pluto’s unshielded nuclear reactor would spread radiation as it traveled along, making it pretty dangerous to the country that launched it. Developers believed low altitude supersonic shockwaves could also be dangerous to bystanders, but that didn’t stop them from testing a prototype nuclear ramjet engine in 1961.
In his memoir, Silent War, Navy special projects director John Craven recalls hoping that a defect would be found in the engine, shelving Project Pluto. To his (and my) relief, the military eventually gave up on its atomic death machine.