World Solar Challenge: doing media right

I’ve often pointed out that a solar car team is more like a startup company than anything else. A little like the early days of Google, really. The main product (the solar car, the search engine) is a gigantic money sink, and any cash coming in relates to something else (sponsorship, advertising). Overall success requires multiple skill sets working together. In particular, making sponsorship work requires an excellent media team (as well as a car fast enough to generate lots of good news). A number of teams have a track record of doing this well – Twente, for example, and Punch.

Deufol Technics packs Punch’s car and gear yesterday

An important example of sponsorship relates to transport. Here, the team acts as a kind of giant billboard for a tricky logistics problem handled well. This year, Punch provided a textbook example of superb media handling on this topic:

‘Voor mij is het de eerste keer dat ik voor zo een uitdaging sta,’ zegt logistiek manager Pieter Galle uit Leuven. ‘Het batterijpakket versturen is de grootste uitdaging voor het team. De batterijcellen die wij gebruiken zijn vaak niet toegelaten op vluchten. Om deze toch te kunnen versturen moeten er veel veiligheidsmaatregelen getroffen worden. Gelukkig heeft DHL Global Forwarding, in samenwerking met Deufol als verpakker van de goederen en batterijen alles tot in de puntjes kunnen regelen, zodat wij ons met het team volledig op het wereldkampioenschap konden concentreren.’” (Translation: “‘It’s the first time I’ve faced a challenge like this,’ says logistics manager Pieter Galle from Leuven. ‘Transporting the battery pack was the biggest challenge for the team. The batteries we use are often forbidden on flights. To be able to send them, many safety measures need to be taken. Fortunately, DHL Global Forwarding, in cooperation with Deufol our packer, has managed all the details, making it possible for us to focus our attention on the world championship.’”)

And Pieter Galle wasn’t just engaged in hyperbole there – transporting lithium battery packs really is tricky. In 2015, and again this year, there have been horror stories involving battery packs. I should also point out that some good photos really help the sponsorship game too, like these from Twente this year, or this one from Michigan, or this one from Nuon in 2015:

Nuon’s 2015 flightcase being loaded (photo: Jorrit Lousberg)

Another important sponsorship category relates to the team’s university. Here Western Sydney provides an excellent example, with their 2015 car being part of a major university rebranding exercise:

Western Sydney University’s 2015 car (photo: A. Dekker)

Michigan always does a great job of this during the American Solar Challenge. Their media team generates local news coverage everywhere they go. And the University of Michigan can afford to take the long view. If a 12-year-old boy or girl somewhere in rural America gets excited by the car, and decides to study engineering at Michigan one day, that’s a win. And not just for the university – if the sponsorship money keeps rolling in, the cars keep rolling on, and the fans can keep watching.


Killer robots: it’s not the AI that’s the problem

In a recent open letter, Tesla’s Elon Musk and others called for a ban on autonomous weapons, saying “Lethal autonomous weapons threaten to become the third revolution in warfare. Once developed, they will permit armed conflict to be fought at a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend. These can be weapons of terror, weapons that despots and terrorists use against innocent populations, and weapons hacked to behave in undesirable ways. We do not have long to act. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, it will be hard to close.

Yet autonomous weapons are already with us, after a fashion. And artificial intelligence isn’t actually the biggest problem.

A bullet, during the second or so that it is in flight, autonomously follows the laws of physics. But the world is not likely to have changed much during that time. If shooting the bullet was appropriate, that will still be true when it hits. A cruise missile can fly for several hours, and home in on a precise spot, specified by GPS coordinates – although things may have changed during those hours of flight.

Smarter again is a heat-seeking or radar-guided missile, which can home in on an aircraft, even one doing it’s best to evade the threat – yet it cannot distinguish passenger aircraft from military aircraft. The next step up are systems guided by IFF, which can distinguish friend from foe. After that comes the kind of AI that Elon Musk is talking about.

The ultimate extreme is the “Menschenjäger” of Cordwainer Smith’s 1957 short story “Mark Elf.” The Menschenjägers were built by the “Sixth German Reich” to seek out and kill their non-German enemies (whom they could infallibly detect by their non-German thoughts). Being virtually indestructible, the last Menschenjäger had travelled around the planet on this mission 2328 times by the time the story is set. Since no Germans were alive at that point, there was nobody left to shut it down.

The real problem with the Menschenjägers was not their AI, but their persistence in time. A similar problem arises with that most stupid of autonomous weapons, the landmine. Sown in their tens of millions, landmines continue to kill and maim for decades after the war that buried them is over.

It isn’t really a matter of whether the weapon has AI or not – it’s whether the weapon has an off switch or a self-destruct mechanism. No weapon should keep on pointlessly killing people.

When the towers fell

The World Trade Center towers (photo: Carol M. Highsmith)

I continue to see bizarre and ill-informed conspiracy theories on the Internet about the 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center towers (above). This is in spite of the detailed investigations of, and voluminous reports on, the event.

Steel softens at temperatures well below the melting point of 1400°C

In fact, it has long been known that structural steel buildings like the World Trade Center can collapse due to fire. In 1967, the structural steel roof of McCormick Place in Chicago collapsed because of softening due to a fire. This collapse began only about 30–45 minutes after the fire was reported.

The World Trade Center under construction (photo: Eric Shaw White)

In the case of the World Trade Center, this fundamental problem with structural steel was combined with building-specific design flaws. Still, in my view, concrete construction is simply safer. Concrete resists fire far better than steel, and locating fire escapes inside a thick concrete core assists evacuation, should that be needed. The 9/11 conspiracy theories are just silly, though.

A concrete tower under construction in Australia (photo: Erin Silversmith,)

Gender and glaciers?

There has been some controversy about the 2016 NSF-funded paper “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research” (see here for a detailed analysis). The paper refers, inter alia, to the Forbes/Tyndall debate of the century before last (although I believe it is misinterpreting that saga). But, interesting as that episode was in the history of science, it has little to say about the epistemology of modern glaciology. In the 1800s, observing glaciers required extensive (perhaps even “heroic”) mountain climbing. Today, remote sensing methods and computer models are also important, and we understand glaciers much better than either Forbes or Tyndall did.

I don’t think that the gender studies lens adds anything to our understanding of glaciers. And I suspect that Elisabeth Isaksson, Moira Dunbar, Helen Fricker, Julie Palais, Kumiko Goto-Azuma, or Jemma Wadham would not think so either. Nor are race relations particularly important in studying ice. And as to “alternative ways of knowing,” I would prefer to stick with the scientific method – it’s worked very well so far (didn’t we just have a march against “alternative facts”?). Indeed, to subordinate science to the modern politicised humanities would be to abandon the concept of scientific truth, and to make it impossible to gain widespread agreement on the crises currently facing humanity.

Looking back: 1978

In 1978 I started senior high school (year 11 and 12). That was a year of terrorism – a bomb was exploded outside the Sydney Hilton Hotel by the Ananda Marga group (apparently in an attempt to kill Indian prime minister Morarji Desai), and former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro (below) was kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigades. On a more positive note, John Paul II became the first Polish pope, and helped to chip away at the power of the Soviet Union.

That year also marked the debut of the soap opera Dallas and the comic strip Garfield. In science, James Christy at the United States Naval Observatory discovered Pluto’s moon Charon. We finally got a good look at it in 2015:

In computing, the Turing Award went to Robert Floyd, for his work in programming languages and algorithms. Intel introduced the 8086, the first of the x86 microprocessors which are still the most common CPUs in personal computers and laptops today. The game Space Invaders also had its debut:

The year 1978 also saw the release of the unsatisfactory animated version of The Lord of the Rings, and a number of interesting albums, including The Kick Inside by Kate Bush, Pyramid by The Alan Parsons Project, Dire Straits by the band of the same name, the electronic Équinoxe by Jean Michel Jarre, and Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds:

Of the books published that year, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, the exceedingly dark The House of God by Samuel Shem, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle (below) stand out.

Social Media, Marketing, and the Fyre Festival

In traditional Christian theology, Satan is the ultimate marketing genius. Not being able to create, Satan has no actual product to sell – merely illusions. However, being a fallen angel, he does have supernatural intelligence. He also has a large crowd of “influencers” willing to endorse the nonexistent product. The book and film of Stephen King’s Needful Things illustrate the concept brilliantly, as the main character (played to perfection by Max von Sydow) uses his supernatural marketing genius to con people into trading their souls for useless bits of junk:

Of course, that kind of marketing is an ideal that mere human beings cannot achieve. Beneath the ridiculous Kendall Jenner advertisement, Pepsi has an actual product to sell. It may only be flavoured sugar-water, but that’s not a product to be sneered at – I remember a hot day in rural Thailand some decades ago when it was the only safe thing to drink.

Yet we may be closing in on what Max von Sydow could do. Browser history analysis and sophisticated predictive algorithms can stand in for the supernatural intelligence. YouTube helps to sell the illusion. And Instagram provides influencers galore. The recent Fyre Festival is perhaps the closest approach ever to the ideal. The musicians, accommodation, and food promised to the paying clientele do not appear ever to have been organised (although there apparently were a few waterlogged tents and cheese sandwiches). But the promo was great.

In praise of the codex

Charles Emmanuel Biset, Still life with Books, a Letter and a Tulip

The codex (book with pages) has been with us for about 2,000 years now. Because of advantages like rapid access to specific pages, it gradually replaced the older technology of the scroll:

Christians seem to have been early adopters of the codex technology. The oldest known fragment of the Christian New Testament, papyrus P52, dated to around the year 130, is a small fragment of a codex of the Gospel according to John (with parts of verses 18:31–33 on one side of the page, and parts of verses 18:37–38 on the other):

In 2010, Google estimated that the total number of published books had reached 130 million. At times it seems that e-books are taking over from the printed codex format, but there is a friendliness to the printed book that would make me sorry to see it go. I am not the only one.

Robert Darnton, in The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, writes: “Consider the book. It has extraordinary staying power. Ever since the invention of the codex sometime close to the birth of Christ, it has proven to be a marvelous machine – great for packaging information, convenient to thumb through, comfortable to curl up with, superb for storage, and remarkably resistant to damage. It does not need to be upgraded or downloaded, accessed or booted, plugged into circuits or extracted from webs. Its design makes it a delight to the eye. Its shape makes it a pleasure to hold in the hand.

How true that is!

I ♥ science books!