Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Quote of the Moment

"Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria ... says that if U.S. businesses keep prospering while Americans are struggling, business leaders will lose legitimacy in society. He exhorted business leaders to find a way to link growth with job creation at home"
--From an AP story by Pallavi Gogoi.

Will lose?  Ahem, it's possible you have your tense wrong there.  And there's that growth word again.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

We Need to Make Things

Though I hate to end the year on a depressing note, Nick Carey of Reuters wrote a heck of a story about the interlocking effects the collapse of American manufacturing, the fallacy of financial sector growth, the ineffectiveness of the education system, and the current political impotence have had and will continue to have on the economy.

And while I'm on the subject of the economy, I highly recommend the "Toxie" episode of This American Life, wherein some reporters buy one of the now-infamous toxic assets and use it to explore the financial crisis.  It's an utterly fascinating account and some great reporting.  Heck, This American Life has been doing great reporting on financial stuff for a while now, including "Return To The Giant Pool of Money," and "Inside Job."  Not to mention "NUMMI," exploring how GM failed to learn lessons from Toyota, or "More Is Less" and "Someone Else's Money" looking at the health care system.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Watching the Watchers: Who Says the Government Can't Do Humor

In a wonderfully self aware move, the CIA has set up a task force to find damage done by the Wikileaks document releases.  The group is called the Wikileaks Task Force, or as it's known around the office: WTF.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Some Joy and Hope for Christmas

What happens when two awesome things combine to make something even more awesomer?  Reese's cups.  Also this: Inigo and Roberts with lightsabers.  (Yeah, the poster disabled embedding.)

And if that wasn't enough to bring a smile to your face, then perhaps something a bit more serious.  In a section from "The Joy of Stats," Hans Rosling takes us through the life expectancy and wealth changes of two hundred countries over two hundred years.  It's more worth your time to watch than you might think.

Big News from the Small

A virus that attacks the family of plants including tomatoes and tobacco is being put to a more benign and very impressive use: making lithium ion batteries ten times better.  Building off the rigid structure of the virus, scientists are constructing electrodes with much higher surface area, which in turn increases the efficiency of the battery.  With ten times the capacity in the same size, or the same capacity in one tenth the size, electronic devices could become smaller and last longer between charges.  Think smart phones that could go a week or more without needing a recharge.  And of course, smaller batteries mean less waste.

While more efficient batteries are undoubtedly great, that isn't the news that got me fired up this month.  After years and years of waiting, someone finally announced a breakthrough in the green tech I want to see become reality more than any other.  Oh yes, there is finally news on the supercapacitor front.  Scientists working with single-atom-thick sheets of carbon (a.k.a. graphene) have devised a method which makes the energy storage capacity of a supercapacitor about that of a nickle-metal hydride battery.  While that is less than the currently used lithium-ion batteries, it is still quite impressive, and the scientists have not come anywhere near the theoretical maximum of the material yet.  Hopefully advances will continue apace and we can get those things into use.  I still want a battery-free life!

Space: the Veteran and the New Guy

It isn't just science, it's rocket science!

Voyager 1, the most distant man-made object from the sun, reached another milestone.  It has entered a region where the solar wind, outflowing gas from the sun, is no longer at its back.  The solar particles are now a cross-wind, meaning it is nearing the official edge of the solar system.  Already on its mission for thirty-three years, the probe will likely pass into interstellar space in the next couple of years.  The Voyager program remains a markee of the heyday of NASA.  Sadly, it appears the glory days are gone, even as the science continues unabated.

But now there are some new folks picking up the torch.  Space Exploration Technologies became the first non-governmental entity to put an object in orbit.  The test mission ended with a successful re-entry and splashdown from the unmanned craft.  There will be several more test flights as the corporation seeks NASA approval to dock with the International Space Station and eventual manned flight.

Military Tech, on the Way Out and on the Way In

The Harrier Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing jet has made its last flight for the British military.  They are on their way to decommissioning, eventually to be replaced by a variant of the Joint Strike Fighter.  The carrier Ark Royal is likewise being retired.  It marks the end of an era for British aviation, and closes the book on a truly unique aircraft design.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy's railgun program has gone from a record setting ten and a half megajoule shot two years ago to a whopping 33 megajoules, on their way to a desired 64.  It is a long way from being a useful weapon, but it's still impressive tech.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A New U.S. Space Plane Successfully Tested

The Air Force's newest space vehicle, sort of a modern small pickup truck compared to the Shuttle's 70s cargo hauler, has returned to Earth after a seven month test flight.  Speculation abounds about the ultimate purpose of the robotic plane, currently designated X-37B.  Some say it is an orbiting spy platform, others that it could be used in anti-satellite operations.  It began its life as a NASA testbed, and likely continues in that role for the Air Force.  The official word states that it is a continuation of the types of missions the Shuttle has been used for.

In any case, it's nice to see at least some work still going on in creating space vehicles, especially as the Space Shuttle program winds down.

Watching the Watchers: WikiLeaks Edition

I have been darkly captivated by the ongoing saga of the WikiLeaks website, or more precisely the reactions to the ongoing leaks.  The latest document dump revealed approximately zero surprising details while confirming a great many most people would have expected anyway.  Russia has an organized crime problem.  Corruption is endemic in a war zone.  Diplomats communicate like regular people when nobody is looking.  None of this is really shocking is it?

And yet some media outlets are comparing the release to that of the Pentagon Papers, which is patently ridiculous, at least so far.  Nothing that has come from WikiLeaks has had anywhere near the impact the Pentagon Papers had.  However, I find it fascinating that the government and some pundits are reacting as if it did.  It seems quite probable that WikiLeaks will cease to exist as a centralized site very soon as public corporations pull their support and the authorities make life harder on Assange.  It's also just as probable the leaked documents will continue to see the light of day, given the nature of the Internet.

The web was envisioned to allow open and easy communications, and that's a knife that can cut in many ways.