The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life     
. . . still studying and learning how to live
Friday, August 18, 2017
Current Affairs ... Society ... Technology ...

I usually avoid offering “real time” commentary on significant national events, as my inner nature is more tortoise-like than hare-like. I try to wait a while and let things cool off, if possible, before making judgments. Given that I graduated from engineering school way back in 1975 (BS Industrial Engineering summa cum laude), and then at age 47 took a half year break from my working career for a rigorous software training program (Chubb Institute’s long-gone “Top Gun” program), I was immediately drawn to the story of James Damore, the former Google software engineer who wrote and distributed a letter questioning Google’s diversity policies.

As you probably know, Mr. Damore was subsequently cashiered from the “Googleplex”. I.e., he was fired for criticizing Google’s vigorous efforts to recruit and maintain female technical and engineering personnel (mostly software designers and coders). These efforts include hiring preferences favoring women over men, on-the-job support programs for women only, and mandatory training for male technical staff warning against both explicit and implicit (i.e. sub-conscious) negative actions and attitudes regarding female techies. What made it tricky for Google was that Damore cited a variety of scientific studies to support his argument that the predominance of male technical staff is “natural” and nothing much can or should be done about it.

Over the past week or so, there have been a whole lot of opinion pieces about Google’s firing Mr. Damore. People with liberal / Democratic party biases generally support Google, while those with conservative / GOP sympathies think that Google was wrong. Also, more men oppose Google’s decision and more women seem to support it. But of course, you can find plenty of cross-over individuals. However, on average . . . ah yes, “on average”. This is at the core of what got Damore in trouble.  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:48 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, June 12, 2016
Current Affairs ... Technology ...

When I was a kid, I really enjoyed building plastic models from Revel kits. Most of the stuff I built was military in nature, because military stuff seemed a lot more technically interesting than the civilian stuff. E.g., a Navy ship had a lot more do-dads than a cabin cruiser or even an ocean freighter ship. And military planes were a lot more zippy than a Cessna or a Boeing 707. I especially like fighter jets. I had my own air force in my room, ready day and night to take on any 1/48 or 1/72 scale enemies of liberty!

So, despite my general opposition to war, I’ve always stayed up on the doings of the US Air Force, especially with regard to its fighter fleet. I have a post from a few years back reflecting on the new multi-service F-35 Lightening 2 jet, and all the troubles it was running into. Well, it’s now 5 years later, and although the F-35 is finally taking to the air in the cause of defending freedom, its troubles have not gone away. In fact, the US House has ordered the Air Force to study the option of building more of the F-22 Raptor fighters, which the F-35 was supposed to more-or-less supersede. (The F-22 is mostly an air-superiority fighter, whereas the F-35 is supposed to do it all, from close ground combat support to bomber interception. However, it is now feared that a jack-of-all trades plane like the F-35 could be vulnerable to the increasingly lethal stealth fighters that Russia and China are now developing, including the T-50 PAK-FK and the J-31.)

Because of financial considerations, most observers do not expect the F-22 to be revived. The F-22 is allegedly a good high-end interceptor and dog-fighter jet, but reviving a very high-tech production line after wrapping up the program back in 2010 would soak up a big chunk of the USAF budget, and cut into its many other procurement priorities (F-35, B21, KC46/KC-Y, C130J, T-X trainer, Minuteman replacement, etc.). But given the increasingly sophisticated fighters that Russia and China are now building, there is legitimate concern that the handful of existing F-22s (186) might not be able to  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:13 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Public Policy ... Technology ... Weather ...

The world today is a really, really complicated place, and it’s hard sometimes to figure out what makes it better and what makes it worse. One confusing issue regards natural gas as a major energy source. There are some big disagreements as to whether we should encourage or discourage the production and use of natural gas. On the plus side for natural gas: as with petroleum and coal, it’s a practical way to provide energy where ever and whenever you like, in large or small quantities; it can be stored without energy loss; it’s relatively cheap and easy to produce, especially given newer drilling technologies such as fracking; there is plenty of it in the USA and in many other places around the world; and it burns relatively cleanly, without smoke and with half the carbon dioxide by-product that coal emits per unit of energy obtained (e.g. the BTU), and 2/3 of what oil emits.

Natural gas requires infrastructure to safely utilize, e.g. a network of storage tanks and pipelines and pumping stations — but most of that already exists in the US. It’s not quite as portable as a petroleum product (e.g. gasoline and diesel fuel), given that gas is harder to contain than a liquid. Thus, natural gas may not be a good fuel for most transportation needs, although there are some buses and trucks that can utilize it. But for many uses including home heating, power generation and commercial/industrial processes, it seems to be superior to both coal and oil.

Given that human-made climate change is now widely recognized and accepted as a real and significant phenomenon, a phenomenon that could have very costly and disrupting effects on human civilization in the coming decades; and also given that climate change is largely driven by carbon emissions from fossil fuel use, it would seem that we should encourage  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 5:22 pm       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Religion ... Society ... Spirituality ... Technology ...

I recently posted a blog about an article that I came across via Real Clear Science regarding whether the human race could become extinct in the foreseeable future. Now I want to ponder another recent article from Real Clear Science regarding extinction. This time the question is whether religion is on the way to becoming extinct, courtesy of the wonders of modern science. The article was written by RCS editor Ross Pomeroy, a zoologist and biologist. OK, with those credentials, you can assume that Pomeroy knows a thing or two about extinction, and about the wonders of science. But is he right that science will inevitably become humankind’s new religion? To me, this smacks of “scientism“, which I have already expressed my reservations about.

Pomeroy claims that science will become the new “faith of humankind”. He notes the writings of Sir James George Frazer, who said that religion, science, and magic are similar conceptions, providing a framework for how the world works and guiding our actions. Frazer said that humanity moved through an Age of Magic before entering an Age of Religion. So, Pomeroy asks, “is an Age of Science finally taking hold?” At the end of his article, he concludes that

One of science’s primary aims is to seek out knowledge that will hopefully better our world and the lives of all who live on it . . . so not only does science dispel religious belief, it also serves as an effective substitute for it.

Given that Pomeroy is a scientist himself, we expect that he will provide empirical evidence to support his claim. And indeed, he does offer some interesting statistics  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:44 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
Current Affairs ... Science ... Technology ...

I regularly peruse the Real Clear Science web site and usually open up two or three articles from their latest daily list of interesting science articles. A frequent theme of the articles that the RCS editors select for their list regards “how the world could/might/will end”. If you are in a gloomy mood, then you can find examples of such articles here and here and here and here and here.

A few days ago, the RCS daily list included an article from the Science20 web site entitled “Could Anything Make Humans Extinct In the Near Future?” The author (Robert Walker, an inventor and computer geek) reviews more than fifteen possible candidates, including climate change, a comet or asteroid strike, pandemics, overpopulation, runaway nanotechnology, nuclear war, etc. According to Walker, the human race is pretty hard to kill. Many of the candidate “extinction events” could severely reduce our numbers and would probably end civilization as we now know it; but somewhere on the planet, a band of humans would mostly likely live on despite all the calamity.

(FOOTNOTE, strangely enough, Walker did not consider an H-Bomb “Doomsday Machine” like the one in the movie Doctor Strangelove. But then again, in that movie, the good Doctor himself came up with a way to save humankind with a scheme to send small groups to live in caves for the next 25 years. So perhaps Dr. Strangelove was just another example of how hard it is to totally eradicate the human species.)

Overall, Walker seems pretty optimistic that the homo sapiens species is quite robust and thus is not headed for extinction in the foreseeable future. However, there is one thing that does seem to scare him. And if  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:30 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Thursday, December 31, 2015
Current Affairs ... Society ... Technology ...

I recently read about how some western nations (including Great Britain and Germany) are teaching elementary school students computer coding and programming as part of their required curriculum. Back in September, Australia made computer coding and programming a required part of the school curriculum from 5th grade on up. These lessons aren’t an occasional project or a one-semester deal; starting from the age of 10, computer programming skills become an integral part of the Australian student’s school-day. In order to make time for this, the Australian schools are cutting back on their geography and history lessons; these topics will no longer be “stand alone” subjects. A new “Humanities and Social Sciences” subject will merge the existing topics of history, geography, economics, business and civics and citizenship into a single learning area from the 5th grade on.

I don’t know all of the details of Australia’s plan, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t like it. I consider myself a science and computer geek, and I’m all in favor of using our education system to prepare today’s children for the world in which they will live (and try to make a living). And that clearly means more emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (“STEM” as the popular acronym goes). And yet . . . we can’t shortchange the classic mission of preparing our youth to be thinking citizens who can appreciate and defend the noble and yet frail ideal of civilization. Perhaps I’m wrong, but the general drift of the new Australia plan seems to put less emphasis into “humanities and social sciences”, by placing a greater share of school resources into science, tech and computer skills.

In my humble opinion, teaching 10 year olds the ins and outs of do-loops and IF/THEN statements and database queries and object instantiation is not going to guarantee them a place in the modern high-tech world. Sure, some introduction into computing logic at that age is needed; schools need to build the learning foundations that future computer people will need. But really — like an 8th grader should or even could become ready for a job with Apple or Google? Or be able to  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:56 pm       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Saturday, December 26, 2015
Science ... Technology ...

In one off my past blog entries from way back in 2004, I admitted my interest in cold fusion, along with my hope that there might be something to it. Recall that cold fusion became a big topic of interest for the public back in 1989 when two chemical scientists named Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons claimed to have come up with an electrically powered table-top device that produced more energy output (heat generation) than would be expected from any known chemical reaction. Their device consisted of palladium metal dunked in heavy water, i.e. water which has a lot of deuterium; deuterium is a “heavy” isotope of hydrogen, because its atomic nucleus contains both a proton and neutron, while the regular hydrogen found in plain water has only a proton in its core. Deuterium is a necessary material in the process of nuclear “fusion”, the process which keeps the sun burning and which converts regular nuclear bombs into super-powerful “H-Bombs”. Fleischmann and Pons made a bold and ultimately unsustainable claim: that they had come up with a simple way to exploit nuclear fusion for small-scale power and energy producing applications.

If you have followed the story of science’s attempts over the past 50 years or so to harness the power of fusion in a controlled manner so as to generate heat and electricity (without blowing everything sky-high), you know that it’s a rather sad story. Since the 1960’s there have been various government and internationally funded projects attempting to devise a commercial fusion reactor; but despite all the experiments and test reactors that have been set up, fusion turned out to be a “wild maverick” that could not be tamed by “standard” technological methods. The standard methods either involve creating a super-hot bottle of gas (a “plasma”) held together in mid-air by magnetic fields, or by aiming a whole slew of laser beams at a small pellet of deuterium fuel and trying to create the crushing pressures and temperatures needed to force the neutron reactions that would break the barriers and unleash the reservoir of energy stored in heavy hydrogen’s atomic nucleus.

Why put all the money and effort into developing fusion? Well, if it could be made to work, fusion would be a relatively low-pollution energy source that wouldn’t need much input fuel; the hydrogen in a gallon of seawater would give the equivalent energy of 300 gallons of gasoline or around 16 barrels of oil. Since the USA now uses about 7 billion barrels of oil  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:31 am       Read Comments (2) / Leave a Comment
Friday, December 11, 2015
Foreign Relations/World Affairs ... History ... Technology ...

I read up recently on international military news. Once you get past all the crazy, never-ending Middle Eastern stuff, you next get a big dose of bad news from China. You’d think that the main Chinese threat would be its huge army, but no more; times have changed. In the past few years, the Chinese have been designing and building an increasingly sophisticated network of high-tech satellites, drones, stealth planes, subs and missiles, with the intent of keeping the US Navy and any of its cronies (especially Japan) far away from its coastline. Thus leaving China to do as it pleases with Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc.

Until recently, the US Pacific Fleet, even with its huge sitting-duck aircraft carriers, could cruise the Taiwan Straits and South China Sea feeling relatively safe. The Chinese Navy generally couldn’t find our ships, as it didn’t have the sea-borne tracking and recognizance capacities that we do; and even if it could, it didn’t have enough modern subs and jets and destroyers to put up a credible challenge. That ain’t so today. What’s even worse, the Chinese now have missiles that can be launched by land or sea which are accurate enough (when coupled with a monitoring system of satellites and airborne radar drones and tracking planes) to hit a ship out in the open sea, thousands of miles away. Nuclear warheads are not needed; these missiles and their guidance systems are so good and so accurate that they can hit a carrier deck out in mid-ocean with a heavy conventional explosive warhead.

So, that’s a big headache for the US. And as if that weren’t enough, you can throw in what the North Koreans and Iranians are doing to develop long-range nuclear missiles, which in a few years could reach the US mainland. Yes, we are building anti-missile systems, but we are not sure if they are ready for prime time yet. As for the Chinese anti-ship missiles, the US Navy has  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:57 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Sunday, November 22, 2015
Current Affairs ... Society ... Technology ...

Driverless cars are now being developed by a number of high-tech enterprises that are out to make a buck . . . eventually (this is not an easy way to get rich quick). The most famous driverless car venture is probably led by Google, which has set-up a small fleet of prototypes and has actually been trying them out in the real world. Some people think that driverless cars will start being sold and regularly used between 2020 and 2025 (5 to 10 years from now). That’s going to be interesting.

I’ve seen a number of articles (e.g., here and here and here and here and here) about the moral quandaries that the designers of driverless cars will need to face. When you make and sell a regular car controlled by a human, you don’t worry so much about the moment-to-moment decisions being made by the driver (although increasingly, automated systems in the car constantly monitor what the driver is doing, and try to warn the driver when they or someone else near them does something really bad . . . like when they are about to ram someone else’s vehicle while backing up in a parking lot, or when they start making a left while an oncoming truck is getting too close). When you design and sell a driverless car, by contrast, you have to program all of the driving decisions into the vehicle. So, in effect it’s you, the builder of the car, who makes the big decisions (through the computer program that you put into the vehicle to run it).

As such, people such as philosophy professors are pointing out that those who program these cars will need to decide what to do in morally conflicting situations. E.g., say your driverless car is cruising down the road, and it detects that a group of four people have suddenly run out into the road  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:33 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Outer Space ... Science ... Technology ...

It looks like the whole “space-plane” idea is not dead, even though the US Space Shuttle program ended in late 2011. The British “Skylon” idea has been generating increased press attention lately (you can see the November bump for it on Google Trends), even though the Skylon idea has been kicked around at least since 2000.

The Skylon spaceplane would be different in many ways than the Shuttle was, although the overall goal is similar (i.e., a rocket that takes off into orbit, drops off a payload in space, and then returns to a landing field so as to be used again). In an important sense, Skylon is even more of a “space-plane” than the Shuttle was; it looks more like a regular airplane than a rocket (somewhat reminiscent of the X-15 “semi-spaceplane” experiment of the early 1960s). By comparison, the Shuttle was just the reverse — mostly a rocket with a plane on its back.

So Skylon’s differences from the Shuttle are significant; one big factor is that Skylon would be a “single-stage-to-orbit” vehicle, something that hasn’t yet been achieved. But these differences might also be seen as an evolution of the overall space-plane concept, and not as a radical shift from the Shuttle’s basic intent. Skylon would be a bit smaller than the Shuttle was, perhaps around half as large. It would be un-manned, and is designed to put a 15,000 kg payload into low earth orbit. The Shuttle, by comparison,  »  continue reading …

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:34 am       Read Comment (1) / Leave a Comment
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