10 June, 2013

My Lunch With a Radical Futurist...

Over lunch with one of the most compelling and fascinating conversationalists I've ever known (and he's asked me to keep his name out of this), I assumed the conversation would be heavy on sports, as we shared a table in a Houston Buffalo Wild Wings sports restaurant. But no, we had a far-ranging conversation on a few current topics of national moment. Here are some nuggets:

  • More people die in bus-related accidents in India in a week than have died due to commercial nuclear power since the industry existed.
  • [on the "green-ness" of pure electric cars] The best thing folks can do today is to maintain and continue driving whatever cars they own right now. Manufacture and eventual disposal of battery packs for pure electrics will place on enormous burden on the environment. Cash for clunkers, aside from jacking up the price of all used cars, has at least gotten many of the real rattletraps and gas guzzlers off the road. Electric cars' demands for things like rare earths put the US at a strategic disadvantage with China, a condition we needn't exacerbate.
  • Tesla is a technologically advanced electric but still in no way a "people's car" or a practical sole car for average Americans to own. True long-term costs of ownership remain unknown and ephemeral incentives are fueling a "bubble"that Elon is quite rational to reap.
  • China has no intention of conforming to "environmental norms" for the foreseeable future. This seems to be baked into their "cultural DNA" from the individual to the top apparatuses of government and economic power. Look at the pictures of Beijing smog turning noon into midnight that their leaders are trying to suppress. 
  • When you talk about something like adulterating baby formula in China, that wasn't perpetrated by some ignorant-ass peon. Someone with very advanced knowledge of the chemistry and how the product would be tested was required to figure out what adulterant to use, when to introduce it, and how much was permissible.
  • The leadership in Japan is at some level grateful for the atomic bomb. They see that it saved a good bit of the population from terrible slaughter in fire-bombing campaigns such as had been unleashed on cities like Dresden and Tokyo. On a larger scale, they recognize it saved Japan from Stalin and the experience of eastern Europe post-war.
  • On the topic of sports, he did offer that RG III perhaps was "out there a bit too much" with press conferences, etc., and would be better served by "keeping more mystery". He also reports that he's not been to an Astro's game since they switched to the American League.

09 June, 2013



Seems there remains not much new under the sun. Concepts for and actual drones have existed at least since the days of World War II. Granted, these were not the surgically precise death-dealers of today, but drones they were.

Historically drones have been used (or designed to be used) for multiple purposes, among them:

  • Flying active or passive decoys to draw attackers away from "real" aircraft
  • Primitive air-deployed cruise missiles armed with either conventional or nuclear warheads
  • Aerial photography or spy systems
  • "Sniffers" to fly through or around nuclear detonation clouds to sample radioactive debris 
  • Remote control targets for air or ground-based gunnery and missiles. It remains common that conventional aircraft past their prime are converted into drones for this purpose and several of them have lived to perform numerous flights, seemingly unkillable.
Modern drones capitalize on the confluence of technologies that allow them to be more autonomous; higher, faster, longer, and farther flying; reusable; multi-faceted; more perceptive in terms of the sensors they employ; and more accurate and lethal because of the weapons they carry.

Drones can be less intrusive (i.e., quieter and smaller) than a conventional manned aircraft and they can generally be counted on for more persistence over or near a specific location. They certainly ought to be less costly than manned airplanes and, minus the human element, can execute maneuvers that would disable or injure a human pilot. Losing a drone either to accident or enemy fire is not as problematic as losing a human pilot in enemy territory (although recent examples highlight the technological risks of such losses). Most drones today are remotely operated by human pilots. The pilots can be half a world away and their degree of involvement can vary from intensive "stick and rudder" control, setting objectives for a mission, overseeing execution of the mission, to giving final consent to fire a weapon.

Newer and more capable drones can fly their missions completely autonomously, including identifying and selecting targets and making the shoot/don't shoot decision. Therein lies the big moral issue with this new way of waging war: combat without casualties -- except for the bad guys, of course. Recent progress has been made in integrating drones within the hectic and exquisitely coreographed operations of aircraft carriers. Another concern with drone operations is how nicely they can interact with the existing air traffic control system and infrastructure.