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Posts tagged: engineering

The Cult of Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla

Brian Dunning attempts to separate the facts from the fictions of Nikola Tesla’s life:

Did Tesla plan to transmit power world-wide through the sky?

It was his ultimate plan, but the farthest he ever got was the partial construction of his famous tower at Wardenclyffe which was intended for wireless communication across the Atlantic. His worldwide wireless power system was theoretical only, employing the Schumann-Tesla resonance to charge the Earth’s ionosphere such that a simple handheld coil could receive electrical power for free anywhere, and everywhere, in the world. Tesla’s idea was innovative, but innovative idea it remained, as debts mounted and the tower was dismantled before it ever got to be used. Now that the nature of the ionosphere is much better understood, physicists now consider Tesla’s concept unworkable, and no attempts to test it have ever worked.

All sorts of conspiracy theories exist, for example that the HAARP research facility in Alaska is secretly a test of Tesla’s worldwide power grid, or some sort of superweapon based on it. The profound differences between these systems become clear upon doing even the most basic of research.

Full Story: Skeptoid: The Cult of Nikola Tesla (Available as both a podcast and an article)

Want to Do Your Own Space Research Project? ArduSat Wants to Help

ArduSat is a (funded) Kickstarter project that aims to launch an Arduino based satellite into space that will run experiments designed by people like you. The idea is that, since it will use open source hardware, you’ll be able to design your own research experiments and submit them to the ArduSat team. They’ll test your experiment and, if everything seems legit, upload your experiment to the satellite, collect data and send it back to you to do whatever you’d like.

Here are some possible applications of ArduSat from the Kickstarter page:

SCIENCE: Meteor Hunter - Small meteors that strike the atmosphere every day created trails of ionized gas in the atmosphere in the upper atmosphere. Write an experiment to try and detect meteor impacts, by listening for radio stations beyond the horizon, reflected by the meteor trails!

ENGINEERING: Your Eye in the Sky - Try writing an app that would synchronize the output of a head mounted-gyro to the steering system on the satellite. If you’re feeling really ambitious, try downlinking the attitude vector in real-time to watch the satellite follow your head - you could even tie-in your head-steering to our program that takes pictures! (Talk to Joel if you’re interested in this experiment!)

ENGINEERING: Point-and-shoot - The following settings can be set on the camera: “exposure, gamma, gain, white balance, color matrix, windowing”. Try designing an algorithm that fine-tunes the settings to take even better pictures or more artistic pictures!

ENTERTAINMENT: Geiger Counter Bingo - Write an app that transmits a message with a random number and letter every time a particle hits the satellite with enough energy. Have a ‘bingo from space’ game between HAM radio amateurs.

ENTERTAINMENT: Photography Competition - See who among your friends can snap the coolest/most interesting picture from space. The eye of a hurricane, sunrise over the Indian ocean, even aurora from space – see what marvels you can capture!

Take Pictures from Space

The satellite is not just for scientific purposes; ambitious photographers and artists will be able to steer the satellite cameras take pictures on-demand of the Earth, the Moon, or the stars. Especially from the Artist community we expect to see some spectacular private space pictures so we all can marvel at the beauty of Earth from above.

The Military-Maker Complex: DARPA Infiltrates the Hackerspace Movement

In a two part essay Fiacre O’Duinn explains why DARPA’s partnership with MAKE magazine to fund 1,000 makerlabs in U.S high schools is antithetical to the maker movement and wonders whether it’s a line in the sand that will divide the movement:

While the MENTOR program involves cooperation, this is done so as part of challenge competitions, in which teams compete against each other for cash prizes. This seems in stark contrast to how maker culture has developed to date. Why is competition necessary? If the goal is truly for education using the hacker/maker model, can learning and exploration not take place merely for pleasure, in a completely open environment, or must it be reduced to yet another lesson in the need to hoard and compete for resources and information?

Third, why has the field of study in these makerspaces narrowed only to STEM topics? What happened to the transdisiplinary focus of hacker/maker communities that make them so innovative? Where are the arts? Where are wearables, knitivism, DIY molecular gastronomy? Why do the challenges involve working on unmanned air vehicles or robots, projects that are of interest to DARPA for their military applications? Shouldn’t we encourage STEAM rather than STEM? Could it be that regardless of their educational potential, these topics have no possible military application? With such a narrow focus, one could ask which culture will win the day, maker or military?

Finally, why are the full details of the Make proposal and specifics of the agreement with DARPA not being made public? Because in dealing with the military, lack of transparency is simply a matter of course. This works well for the military but why is it necessary for a community project involving children? Why was a “Secret” clearance level needed to work on designing modules for the program, according to this job advertisement? This lack of transparency also leaves other questions unanswered. For example, as the program expands to over 1000 schools, will military personnel be brought in to teach? This last question brings me to issues of recruitment, STEM education and the military.

The biggest issue of all may be the use of the the MENTOR program as a military recruitment vehicle.

Make, DARPA and the line in the sand, #1

Make, DARPA and the line in the sand, #2

I’ve long opposed military recruitment programs in schools, but what might the benefits of such a program be? I’ve been thinking lately that in these times of austerity, and given the general difficulty in getting public funding for education and social programs in the U.S even when we’re not in a recession, tying social programs to hawkish programs like defense and law enforcement may be the only way to go.

In his “State of the World" in 2009, Bruce Sterling suggested taking a national defense position on climate change:

If I wanted to be politically effective, rather than visionary, I’d disguise myself as a right-wing Green, probably some kind of hunting-shooting NASCAR “conservationist,” and I’d infiltrate the Republicans this year. […]

So we publicly recognize the climate crisis: just as if we suddenly discovered it ourselves. And we don’t downplay the climate crisis: we OVERPLAY the crisis.

"Then we blame the crisis on foreigners. We’re not liberal weak sisters ‘negotiating Kyoto agreements.’ We’re assembling a Coalition of the Willing tp threaten polluters.

"We’re certainly not bowing the knee to the damn Chinese — they own our Treasury, unfortunately, but we completely change the terms of that debate. When the Chinese open a coal mine and threaten the world’s children with asthma, we will take out that threat with a cruise missile!

That’s our new negotiating position on the climate crisis: we’re the military, macho hard line.

Would it work? Would it be worth selling out the rest of your values for?

I don’t know, but also consider the sorry state of jobs in the country. On the one hand, Newt Gingrich’s moon base idea was justified as a defense measure, but it was widely seen as a proposal as a jobs program for NASA’s home state. Maybe a moon base was too wild an idea, but could something like sci-fi work? Remember, the interstate highway system in the U.S. was actually called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways and was justified as a defense measure. If we want a jobs program to rebuild or crumbling infrastructure, it seems like we could do a lot worse than call it a homeland security program.

So given the sorry state of STEM education, and the expense of setting up hackerspaces and the absolutely dismal state of public libraries (which many suggest turning into hacker spaces), is it time to consider letting DARPA build hackerspaces for the kids, even if it means letting in military recruiters and having the kids focused on making weapons?

I can see the pragmatic benefit, but I still just can’t justify it. As Fiarce points out, the program is just too antithetical to the maker spirit. And although as many have pointed out DARPA has funded all sorts of research over the years, including the creation of the Internet, the MENTOR program will specifically include a competition for designing weaponized vehicles for military use. DARPA may do some good work too, but having kids design weapons for the military crosses a line for me.

So will it split the community? Someone with more knowledge of the history of the computer hacking movement and how the NSA and other defense agencies tried to hijack it might have more insight than me. But it seems that if the maker movement has any momentum of its own, then this shouldn’t be fatal to it. Those who want to collaborate openly and make things other than war planes, and those attracted to the militaristic elements of the DARPA program will go there. Hopefully the maker movement will be able to sustain both strands, much like the computer hacker movement managed to sustain an open source movement.

See also: 3 BIG questions (and lots of smaller ones) about DARPA & Make

Changing Perceptions of Science and Technology in the 19th Century

Jess Nevins shares an excerpt from Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists:

Earlier, “technology” had meant something more accessible to the average man. Elements of Technology, a book published in 1829 by Harvard professor Jacob Bigelow, was essentially a recipe book, more like the “do-it-yourself” manuals of modern counterculture than an MIT textbook. By most accounts, Bigelow, whose job at Harvard was to bridge the gap between Yankee inventors and collegiate research scientists, was the first to use “technology” in its modern sense….

Jess Nevins: Changing perceptions of science and technology in the 19th century

Cyberculture History: A Virtual Reality Concept from the 15th Century

 Giovanni Fontana's Castle of Shadows

In 1420 Venetian engineer Giovanni Fontana created a proposal for the Castle of Shadows. From BLDG Blog:

Philippe Codognet describes the 15th-century machine as “a room with walls made of folded translucent parchments lighted from behind, creating therefore an environment of moving images. Fontana also designed some kind of magic lantern to project on walls life-size images of devils or beasts.” Codognet goes on to suggest that the device is an early ancestor of today’s CAVE systems, or virtual reality rooms—an immersive, candlelit cinema of moving screens and flickering images.

Full sized image at BLDG Blog

(Thanks Bill!)

What would you call a genre speculative fiction based around this period? Venetianpunk?