[Photo: Paul Rysz via Unsplash]

Three Things: Eclipsed, Killer Robots, Back to the Salt Mines [UPDATED]

I’ve been trying to write all morning but I’ve been interrupted so many times by people looking for information about eclipse viewing I’m just going to post this in progress.

Mostly because I’m also helping my kid rig an eclipse viewer — lots of tape, binder clips and baling wire.

~ 3 ~

As you’ve no doubt heard, much of the U.S. will experience a solar eclipse over the next three hours. It’s already begun on the west coast, just passing totality right now in Oregon; the eclipse started within the last 25 minutes in Michigan. And as you’ve also heard, it is NOT safe to look directly at the sun with the naked eye or sunglasses. A pinhole viewer is quick and safe to make for viewing. See NASA’s instructions here and more eclipse safe viewing info here.

You can also watch NASA’s live stream coverage on Twitch TV.

We are also experiencing one of NASA’s most important services: public education about our planet and science as a whole, of particular value to K-12 educators. We can’t afford to defund this valuable service.

At this point you may imagine me on my deck holding a Rube Goldberg contraption designed to view the early partial eclipse we’ll see in Michigan — only 77% or so coverage.

~ 2 ~

KILLER ROBOTS: There’s been a fair amount of coverage this week touting Elon Musk’s call to ban ‘killer robots’. Except it’s not just Elon Musk, it’s a consortium of more than 100 technology experts which published an open letter asking the United Nations to restrain the development of ‘Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems’ (LAWS).

I’ve pooh-poohed before the development of new military technology, mostly because DARPA doesn’t seem to be as fast at it as non-military researchers. Exoskeletons are the best example I can think of. But whether DARPA, the military, military contractors, or other non-military entities develop them, AI-enabled LAWS are underway.

More importantly, we are very late to dealing with their potential risks.

Reading about all the Musk-ban-killer-robots pieces, I recalled an essay by computer scientist Bill Joy:

… The 21st-century technologies – genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) – are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.

Thus we have the possibility not just of weapons of mass destruction but of knowledge-enabled mass destruction (KMD), this destructiveness hugely amplified by the power of self-replication.

I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.

Nothing about the way I got involved with computers suggested to me that I was going to be facing these kinds of issues. …

He wrote this essay, The Future Doesn’t Need Us, in April 2000. Did we blow him off then because the Dot Com bubble had popped, and/or our heads hadn’t yet been fucked with by post-9/11’s hyper-militarization?

This part of his essay is really critical:

… Kaczynski’s dystopian vision describes unintended consequences, a well-known problem with the design and use of technology, and one that is clearly related to Murphy’s law – “Anything that can go wrong, will.” (Actually, this is Finagle’s law, which in itself shows that Finagle was right.) Our overuse of antibiotics has led to what may be the biggest such problem so far: the emergence of antibiotic-resistant and much more dangerous bacteria. Similar things happened when attempts to eliminate malarial mosquitoes using DDT caused them to acquire DDT resistance; malarial parasites likewise acquired multi-drug-resistant genes.2

The cause of many such surprises seems clear: The systems involved are complex, involving interaction among and feedback between many parts. Any changes to such a system will cascade in ways that are difficult to predict; this is especially true when human actions are involved. …

The Kaczynski he refers to is Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski, who Joy believes was a criminally insane Luddite. But Kaczynski still had a valid point. Remember StuxNet’s escape into the wild? In spite of the expertise and testing employed to thwart Iran’s nuclear aspirations, they missed something rather simple. In hindsight it might have been predictable but to the experts it clearly wasn’t.

Just as it wasn’t obvious to computer scientists over more than a decade to close every possible port — including printer and server maintenance ports — regardless of operating system so that ransomware couldn’t infect systems. Hello, WannaCry/Petya/NotPetya…

We’ve already seen photos and videos of individuals weaponizing drones — like this now-five-year-old video of an armed quadrotor drone demonstrated by a friendly chap, FPSRussia — the military-industrial complex cannot and should not believe it has a monopoly on AI-enabled LAWS if these individuals have already programmed these devices. And we don’t even know yet how to describe what they are in legal terms let alone how to limit their application, though we’ve received guidance (read: prodding) from technology experts already.

The genie is out of the bottle. We must find a way to coax it back into its confines.

~ 1 ~

SALT MINES: On a lighter note, molten salt may become a cheaper means to reserve energy collected by alternative non-fossil fuel systems. Grist magazine wrote about Alphabet’s X research lab exploring salt as a rechargeable battery as an alternative to the much more expensive current lithium battery systems. Lithium as well as cobalt have challenges not unlike other extractive fuels; they aren’t widely and cheaply available and require both extensive labor and water for processing. Salt — sodium chloride — is far more plentiful and less taxing on the environment when extracted or collected.

One opportunity came to mind as soon as I read the article. Did you know there was a salt mine 1200 feet below the city of Detroit for decades? It’s a source of road salt used on icy roads. It may also be the perfect place for a molten salt battery system; the Grist article said, “Electricity in the system is produced most efficiently when there is a wider temperature difference between the hot and cold vats.” A salt mine underneath Detroit seems like it could fit the bill.

Could Detroit become an Electric Motor City? Fingers crossed.

~ 0 ~

I feel for you folks in states with cloud cover — no good excuse today to take a break outside and slack off beneath the eclipse.

This is an open thread.

22 replies
    • P J Evans says:

      I went with the basic pinhole-in cardboard, projected onto concrete. Also useful as pinhole cameras: leafy shrub and trees, Venetian blinds (a line of crescent suns on my floor!), perforated metal walkways.

      (I learned about pinhole cameras for eclipses back around 8th grade. One of my classmates was careless and had to wear dark glasses for a week.)

  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Killer robots. See, Daniel Suarez: Kill Decision. Fictional plot, realistic portrayal of technology, from several years ago.

    I’d like to believe the recent media reports about top IT ceo’s joining forces to oppose weaponized, autonomous, AI robots. (In Suarez’s fictional version, they were simple, easily made and replaced, capable of swarming in large numbers.)

    But given the mantra about managers owing allegiance only to bringing profit to execs, hrm, shareholders, and given the hundreds of IT firms likely to bid for an increasing volume of defense contracts, I don’t yet see it as anything but distractive window dressing.

    • greengiant says:

      Agree with how the US is such a steaming pile of ineffective shit.  But just about anywhere else in the world people and actors will be much more efficient. Just check out birth rates by sex for example.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    One more Navy fuckup? The old saw was that driving boats was an ensign’s job. Commanding a ship’s company involved a little more, including where to take the ship, what to do with it, and which ensign to assign to duty on the bridge. It looks like both sets of officers are in trouble.

    One would think that after the Fitzgerald incident off Japan, there would not have been a similar incident a few weeks later off Singapore involving the McCain.

    Apart from the obvious memos that would have gone out to all captains following the Fitzgerald incident about doubling down on navigation and ship handling, there’s the ever-present problem that the surest way for a captain never to make admiral, and the fastest route to early retirement, has always been to run his ship aground or into another ship.

    There is a similar concern about the inevitably understaffed crews aboard commercial vessels. One assumes that the Navy would have more crew, better training and more sophisticated equipment to detect and avoid ships and immovable objects.

    Inquiring minds, shipmates and Navy families want to know, WTF?

    • P J Evans says:

      From the damage, which is similar to <i>Fitzgerald</i>’s, it appears that <i>McCain</i> was the hittee rather than the hitter. But they sure should have been aware of the tanker. Isn’t that what radar, sonar, and visual are for? Don’t they have navigation lights on at night?

      (Although having watched a video of a USN task force threatening to take out an unmoving object in their path, which was a Spanish lighthouse, I wonder if the bridge crews are paying any attention at all to the world outside their room.)

    • Rugger9 says:

      The Straits of Malacca are a very busy lane, not terribly wide and not everyone has navigation lights, especially local fishermen (though they usually use what I call “net lights” to help attract fish).  I’ve transited through there several times in my days with Gray Hull Cruise Lines, and it’s sometimes amazing that there aren’t more of these events.

      As far as “right of way” goes, it is more complicated at sea.  If this were in the wide open ocean, it would probably be the tanker’s fault.  However, if the tanker is “constrained by draft” as I would expect it to have been in the Straits it will have right of way pretty much at all times.  The admiralty court will sort out who is responsible, but I suspect it will be the Navy vessel.  These situations are the type where justice grinds slowly but exceedingly fine.

      On the path to the yardarm for their careers: CO, XO, Navigator (maybe), the Officer of the Deck and Conning Officer on watch, the Operations Officer (probable), the CIC watch officer, maybe the Engineering watch officers depending upon how the plant responded to bell changes (even the GTs have someone in charge).

      The investigation of the Seventh Fleet leadership is also pretty normal when a pattern like this occurs, and that admiral’s had his last promotion as well (as well as the admiral in charge of the destroyer group).  I would expect (as much as can be done operationally) a “stand down” to make every ship’s crew crystal clear on how to do this stuff.  Just remember that sometimes your number comes up for bad things.

      What the POTUS* said (“That’s too bad”) was extremely offensive to those who go (and have gone, like he did not) in harm’s way.  It sends the message loud and clear that Caesar Disgustus doesn’t care that ten families will get the visit from the DOD notifications group that they all dread.  Five more will get the only slightly less dreaded visit.  It’s a continuing pattern with Napoleorange, consistent with the report today about the Secret Service running out of money and yet treated like riff-raff:


      Back in my day, as an example of how dangerous this job is, the average carrier battle group lost four sailors on each deployment because it’s guns, bombs, slippery decks (the nonskid is gone after the first jet takes off), etc. even before dealing with the people who would only be too happy to pop a missile into your vessel.

      So, having served and sailed those waters, wait for the investigation to determine whether this was a screwup or a systemic issue.  No detection system is infallible, and we shall see what comes out of this board of inquiry.  At least the USN takes this kind of thing seriously.

      The admiralty court (the USCG would be a likely player) will assign the blame for the vessels, the board of inquiry will be run by the USN (probably the Atlantic 5th Fleet for independence) to find and fix what is broken.

      • Rugger9 says:

        The SF Examiner this morning has an interesting wrinkle on this collision: apparently there is spoofing being done on the GPS systems used for navigation.  As recently as June 22, there was an event in the Med area where the GPS placed the ships involved 20 miles inland.

        This makes sense to me, since a couple years ago the Navy’s “official” means of navigation was returned to using the stars with sextants instead of GPS.

      • oldoilfieldhand says:

        It was crowded before, but now the strait is home (graveyard) to hundreds of ships that are idle due to reduced raw material and energy prices.

  3. SpaceLifeForm says:

    Wannacry. As I have noted before, a lot of computers in Russia are running old, unpatched windows with a bootleg license key and windows update is turned off because of the WGA BS.

    This does not conflict with my theory.


    Russia’s hackers may be among the best, but its computer networks are the most malware-ridden in the world, according to new data from security vendor Comodo.

  4. Larry says:

    I believe Vonnegut was an even greater futurist than he was a novelist and humorist.  Ice Nine, baby!


  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Trump in Affuckhistan.  More troops, more dead bodies, more hate.  No discernible strategy beyond more distraction.  What’s not to like?

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Let them eat spam.

      Bragging about her ability to wear the most expensive clothes and shoes while traveling on the government’s dime to an Appalachian state mired in poverty, which her husband’s boss is making more dire, is so 18th century.

      Lambasting a critic for calling her out is so Republican.

      Bragging about the contributions that she and her former Goldman Sachs, hedge fund manager husband have made to America, while telling her critic to watch a tv show she’s already seen is so fabulous she could be an underwear model.

      The only surprise is that Mrs. Mnuchin hasn’t already married and divorced Donal Trump.


    • harpie says:

      Jessica Huseman‏Verified account @JessicaHuseman [ProPublica]

      Tom Ford sunglasses: $200 / Rouland Mouret pants: $950 / #HermesScarf: $400 / Valentino heels: $1,000 / =More than most American’s entire paycheck.

       southpaw‏ @nycsouthpaw  Retweeted Jessica Huseman

      and that’s before the handbag. 

      eiffel  🗼 айфэл‏ @eiffeldesigns  Retweeted southpaw

      If it’s real (and it likely is) it’s also #Hermes So, at least (AT LEAST) $20,000.

      Hermes White Clemence Birkin 35cm Gold Hardware

      Sold Out
      Hermes white Birkin 35cm of taurillon clemence leather with gold hardware.
      This white Birkin features tonal stitching, a front toggle closure, a clochette with lock and two keys, and double rolled handles.
      The interior is lined with white chevre and has a zip pocket with an Hermes engraved pull and open pocket on the opposite side.

       Alex Kotch‏Verified account @alexkotch  Replying to @JessicaHuseman

      “You’re adorably out of touch,” she wrote…

      • Rayne says:

        I should really write something about this over-privileged immigrant wretch but I don’t know if I want to waste any more of my time beyond a comment.

        She went to private schools; her parents own a castle. She’s got a JD she fished out of a for-profit Cracker Jack box. Zambia was furious over her “white savior” self-representation in her book about her goddamn gap year there. Scotland’s Herald Magazine stupidly inflated her already over-puffed head calling her the “Queen of California.”

        You’d think someone who claims acting will be their lifelong career could at least ACT like she gives a shit about her adoptive home. At a minimum she should read up on what happens to rich girls with “let them eat cake” attitudes when the rabble have had enough.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Slainte.  The thistle stings only those who touch it.

          The quotes Mrs. Mnuchin gave to The Herald Magazine are priceless:

          Acting is going to be my career for the rest of my life.  I would like to still be doing this when I’m Helen Mirren’s age.

          If she ever meets Helen Mirren, that won’t be long.

          Acting requires you to swallow your pride and roll with the punches.

          That and acting must still be works in progress.

          My mother was a genuine altruist….She was down to earth, extremely generous and involved in the Murrayfield Parrish Church.  Her death has shaped me.  It has made me more empathetic and taught me [that you have to be] a kind and humane person and [help] as many people as you can.

          So, naturally, you marry a Goldman Sachs gazillionaire and buy the world’s most expensive clothes.  Mrs. Mnuchin seems to have more in common with her property developer dad than her genuinely altruistic mum.

Comments are closed.