Monday, August 31, 2020

Flying Cars At Last?

 Last week, a Japanese consortium funded by Toyota, Panasonic, and game developer Bandai Namco showed to reporters a video of a one-man flying car as it rose to a height of about six feet (2 meters) and circled an area about the size of a tennis court before landing—successfully, I might add.  No technical details were released, but the leader of the SkyDrive organization, Tomohiro Fukuzawa, says plans are in place for advancing the prototype to a commercial product as soon as 2023.  

Not much bigger than a motorcycle, the SkyDrive vehicle has eight rotors mounted on four struts, two struts on each side of the chassis.  There are what look like air intake or exhaust cowlings at the front and back, which makes me wonder if the batteries need to be air-cooled during the approximately ten minutes of maximum flight time.  The flight didn't break any air-speed records, as you can see on this video.  The main concern seemed to be keeping the thing level and under control, and after rising to flight altitude, the pilot (or maybe software—it wasn't clear who was doing the guiding) moved in what can only be described as a stately fashion in a large rectangle over the paved test area underneath a mesh that covered the top of the fenced-in space at a height of about 7 meters (22 feet or so).  Clearly, the inventors don't want this thing to get loose. 


Safety-wise, the vehicle has a long way to go.  Anybody approaching it while it's winding up to take off risks risks becoming blender fodder in the propeller blades.  And installing enough cowlings, screens, and other protective safeguards to keep the unwary from getting hurt would probably make the thing too heavy and unmaneuverable to use. 


But helicopter blades are dangerous, and we've learned how to deal safely with them, most of the time.  Except in emergencies, however, helicopters don't land just any old place, but on secure helipads where unauthorized people can't be wandering around.  And in fact one of the earliest commercial uses of a vehicle like the SkyDrive unit would probably be for emergency access where there isn't enough space to land a helicopter.  And of course, military uses for such a vehicle abound, but it's going to have to move a bit faster to avoid being a sitting (or flying) duck for enemy fire.


The SkyDrive machine is classed as an eVTOL, for electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing.  Something like it has featured in many future-city scenarios, and I've waited this long in the column to mention the Jetsons, that animated U. S. Hanna-Barbera sitcom that ran for a single season (1962-63).  It was set in some vague distant future in which the family car was replaced by a personal flying machine.


Culturally, the Jetsons show was one of the last bits of foam on the wave of technical optimism that surged through the 1950s but dissipated by the 1970s.  It's fun to imagine flying to work above the myriads of earthbound plebeians who still have to commute on the ground, which is why the very few who can afford to commute by helicopter sometimes do so.  But if everybody took to the air, you can imagine the problems that would arise. 


For one thing, running out of gas in a car is inconvenient, maybe, but most of the time you can make it to the side of the road before anything dire happens.  If you're at five thousand feet, it's a different matter.  Of course, any serious attempt to institute personal eVTOLs as commuter transport would probably automate the entire process, from when you step into the thing until you step out, as I don't expect the FAA is willing to license X million commuters as pilots any time soon.  And as the AI people are so fond of showing us traffic-signal-free two-dimensional intersections that smoothly allow computer-steered vehicles to flow unobstructed without stopping, I'm sure they wouldn't have a problem adding one more dimension, so that Manhattan at rush hour would look like nothing so much as an exceptionally busy beehive.


As with every electrified flying craft, the battery is the critical component.  And if the present SkyDrive vehicle's performance is battery-limited, as it may well be, the whole idea is going to have to wait on battery improvements, which can take a long time to come. 


Of course, some unexpected new compact energy source might come along, in the spirit of "Back to the Future"'s water-powered fusion reactor, and then we could all have our own SkyDrive in short order.  Roadways would still be needed for heavy-load transport—I don't think it will ever be practical to build an electric-powered flying cement truck.  But the addition of a third dimension to transportation on a sort of micro level, rather than the macro level that conventional commercial air transport represents, could lead to a great many changes, most of which could be good if we managed them well. 


It's a simple mathematical fact that you can get more stuff through a pipe that is several thousand feet on a side rather than a couple of hundred feet by 13 feet 6 inches (60 meters by 4.1 meters), which is the standard height limit for interstate freeways.  So if  computerized navigation and collision-control software was properly designed, the air above a freeway could easily handle the largest freeway traffic load and it wouldn't even look that crowded.  Weather would be a factor, of course, but maybe things will be so efficient in the future that when it rains, people can just take off a day or so and work from home.  We've learned that lesson from COVID-19 already, and for many types of jobs the change has not been that difficult.


For a number of reasons, I'm not going to hold my breath until I can buy a commercial version of the SkyDrive gizmo, as the battery and safety problems may take years or even decades to overcome.  But it does look fun, and even if they never make it to mass production, I foresee great opportunities in the sports area:  races and stunt flying for mass audiences might prove to be entertaining and even profitable.  Time will tell.


Sources:  The Associated Press article by Yuri Kageyama on the SkyDrive test appeared on the AP website on Aug. 28, 2020 at and was carried by numerous outlets.  A YouTube video of a test flight can be seen at

Monday, August 24, 2020

From Toilet Paper to Laptops: The School Computer Shortage

 A recent Associated Press report says that school districts in at least 15 states are having a lot of trouble getting enough laptops for their students to start classes this fall, which are partly or completely online in many communities.  Once hailed as the revolutionary solution to education's problems, the personal computer has now become more or less as necessary as the backpack for many elementary through high school students.  But many districts are finding that their well-intentioned efforts to loan laptops to students are being frustrated by manufacturer shortages from suppliers such as Dell, Lenovo, and HP. 


Not every district buys or leases a laptop for every student.  But even before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed much instruction online, there was concern that the so-called "digital divide" was creating a two-tier environment in which students whose families could afford a laptop were gaining a seemingly unfair advantage over students who had none.  Many schools have computer labs, but homework is homework, and it's clearly an advantage to have your own laptop to do homework after school hours.


Following the emergency transition to online learning in the spring, hundreds of districts across the country placed orders for tablets and low-end laptops such as Chromebooks.  But in July, the U. S. Commerce Department sanctioned eleven Chinese manufacturers for violations such as the use of force labor, and some of these companies make either whole laptops or vital components for Lenovo and other laptop firms. 


Last spring, HP told California's Morongo Unified School District that their order of 5,000 laptops would arrive in time for school to start on Aug. 26.  Then came the Department of Commerce order, and the delivery date slipped into September, then October.  According to the article, California school districts in general are waiting for a total of at least 300,000 backordered laptops. 


Like most supply problems, this one will get straightened out eventually.  But a combination of crises and governmental actions have conspired to create a shortage of something that was until recently regarded as something of a luxury:  a laptop for one's child. 


I teach engineering students at a state university, and when we suddenly transitioned last March to online instruction, I was pretty confident that all my students had access to a decent computer and Internet connection.  With one or two exceptions, that assumption was justified.  Nevertheless, I have taken the precaution of sending out an email survey asking about their ability to connect to Zoom, to scan papers, and other things that I'd like them to be able to do this fall for the online portions of my courses.


Of course, in doing so I assume that the students can receive emails.  This may not be universally true, and in fact here it is the day before classes begin, and I still have not heard back from some of the students I sent the survey to.  I'm attributing that to last-minute-itis rather than an inability to receive emails, but time will tell.


The school laptop shortage brings up a general question, which is whether government entities such as school districts are under an obligation to provide expensive technology such as laptops to all their students.   This is both a question of justice and a question of charity.


The question of justice goes to the heart of the idea of public schools, which is that a well-run republic requires an educated electorate who share a common minimum of learning:  the ability to read, a basic knowledge of the country's history and governmental organization, and such other skills that contribute to the making of a good citizen.  Education costs something, and so a large share of local and state taxes go to public schools.  If computer use becomes a necessary part of learning, as COVID-19 has encouraged us to think, then it is almost a breach of justice to fail to supply a necessary learning tool to every student who needs one.


There are various practical obstacles in the way to this noble goal, however, of which the current laptop shortage is only one.  What if a family is well enough off to buy their children their own laptops?  Should we reserve the "free" laptops only to those families who can't afford their own?  Or for purposes of software uniformity, etc., should we make everybody buy or use the same type of machine?  These mundane issues have to be worked out with what the theologians call "prudential judgment," which means mainly common sense and wisdom.  Neither of those things is in abundant supply right now, but we still have enough to muddle through each week as it comes along, it seems.


The question of charity, in the sense of merciful and loving behavior toward others, is not much thought of these days.  The very word "charity" is looked down on in some circles as demeaning to the one who receives it.  I recall several high-profile efforts a few years back on the part of various foundations to provide a laptop for every child in certain underprivileged regions.  What at first looked like extravagant generosity has eventually become routine, and now the almost-unheard-of gift looks more like a commonplace necessity.


There must have been a moment in this country when the first public school system bought the first book to be used free of charge by a student, and it was probably controversial at the time.  This attitude that the school is doing you an unmerited favor by letting you use its books has lingered in some forms down to recent years.  I'm old enough to remember feeling vaguely threatened by fines and imprisonment every fall when our teachers handed out the well-thumbed textbooks issued by the Fort Worth Independent School District, with the warning that they were state property and defacing state property was a crime.  I dread to think what happens to the California third-grader who drops his Lenovo on the sidewalk, but maybe it's not as bad as it could be.


Here's hoping that the supply chains get unkinked and that every student who needs to use one finds a laptop somewhere.  My first place to suggest looking is the closet.  I think I saw somewhere that the average U. S. household has about 2.3 old computers sitting around in garages and attics, many of which still work.  So dust those off and give them away to your neighbors with small children, and strike a blow for both justice and charity. 


Sources:   The AP article "US faces back-to-school laptop shortage" by Jocelyn Gecker and Michael Liedtke appeared on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer website on Aug. 22, 2020 at  I also referred to an article at the website at  I have no reference for the 2.3 computers statistic, but go look in your own house and I bet you'll be able to confirm something along those lines. 

Monday, August 17, 2020

Externalities On the Roof: Solar Panels and Recycling

 A recent article by Maddie Stone at warns that in the next decade or three, the world will face a novel but entirely predictable problem:  what to do with millions of square feet of worn-out solar panels.  This problem is especially ironic because solar energy has been sold as one of the most appealing "sustainable" technologies.  But when you widen your vision to see the larger picture, you run up against a familiar problem that economists call an externality.

While less than 2% of U. S. electricity is generated by solar panels that convert sunlight directly into electric power, it tends to be one of the more visible types of renewable energy, covering the roofs of businesses and residences and whole acres of ground in sunny parts of the country.  It takes a lot of area to generate appreciable power from even the most efficient solar panels, so a lot of silicon, glass, aluminum, and copper is tied up in every installation.  And no solar panel lasts forever.  Leaks, deteriorating materials, and other age-related problems mean that the design life of the typical solar panel is about 25 years or less.  The big question is, what happens after that?


Stone says that conventional electronics recycling can't handle solar panels, which pose unique problems. For one thing, a huge amount of stuff is involved—one estimate says there will be about 80 million metric tons of worn-out solar panels to be disposed of by 2050.  From a recycling point of view, the only easily recoverable materials in used solar panels are the metals, mainly copper and aluminum.  The rest is mostly glass, and not pure enough glass to be diverted to many ordinary glass-recycling streams.  The net result is that, in the U. S., anyway, a typical panel offers about $3 worth of recyclable metal.  But it costs $10 to $12 to recover it.  In other words, recycling solar panels is a money-losing proposition.  Consequently, most defunct solar panels today end up in landfills, where harmful materials such as lead and even gallium arsenide could conceivably leach into the soil. 


Now for the economics.  An externality is something that happens in a transaction which affects a third party not involved in the transaction.  In the case of worn-out solar panels, the parties immediately involved are the solar-panel makers and the solar-panel users.  The makers make money selling the panels, the users make (or save) money getting electricity, and both parties get that warm glow that comes to some people from promoting sustainable energy sources. 


But when it comes time to replace the panels, and the old ones get thrown away into a landfill, everybody from now on who might be affected by whatever's in that landfill has a negative externality thrown on them.  And if you want to look at it this way, there are also missed-opportunity costs associated with throwing away something that, with clever enough recycling technology, might become the starting point for a useful product. 


Stone points out that in Europe, rigorous life-cycle laws require manufacturers of any electronics to take full responsibility for the recycling of their products.  This is somewhat idealistic in that it requires manufacturers to stay in business at least until the end of a 25-year life cycle, but I suppose the lawyers have figured that one out too, and it may be one reason that people don't start a lot of new high-tech companies in Europe these days.  However, such a law fixes the externality problem right away, because the manufacturers have to build the cost of recycling into the cost of the new product. 


In the U. S., however, we have no such laws that apply to solar panels, except for the State of Washington, so it's up to the solar-panel owners to do the right thing with their used solar panels.  A lot of the used panels are apparently finding their way overseas to less fussy consumers, but that just throws the externality burden onto those countries. 


Stone cites a few research projects that have attempted more sophisticated recycling to extract usable low-purity silicon from the panels.  Anybody who knows much about the semiconductor industry knows that it's a long and arduous road from beach sand to the ultra-high-purity silicon that is used in computer chips, involving energy-intensive and complex chemical purifying steps.  It's a shame to throw all that effort into a landfill, and so if someone could salvage the already-purified silicon from the huge number of outdated solar panels we'll be dealing with in the coming decades, we would be ahead of the game silicon-wise.


But current supply chains simply are not set up to deal with a lot of medium-purity silicon, and so governments or other entities may need to set up incentive programs to encourage innovative ideas such as these.  The one consistent mistake that many ecological doom-criers often make is to neglect the power of human ingenuity.


A good example (good in the sense that it makes the point, not that it has no downsides whatever) is the case of hydraulic-fracturing oil production (fracking).  For decades, forecasters have been saying that we were about to reach "peak oil," meaning that at some point, we will have found all the easy places to get oil from, and after that production will go into an inevitable decline and we'd all better get used to obtaining our energy from someplace else, like solar panels.  I'm sure some people forecast that peak oil was going to happen in the early 2000s.


Then along came George P. Mitchell, the son of a Greek immigrant who, after thirty years in the oil and gas production business, developed a set of methods in the 1990s that manage to extract fossil fuels from places that were either regarded as played out, or were not considered productive enough to develop.  Thus ensued the fracking boom that enabled the U. S. to regain its place as the world's leading oil-producing country, where it has been since 2014. 


Maybe there's another George Mitchell type out there who will say to himself or herself, "there's gold in them thar used solar panels!" and fix this problem without excessive government intervention or subsidies.  Or maybe not, but let's not discount the possibility.


Sources:  Maddie Stone's article "Sun Kissed" appeared on Aug. 14, 2020 on Slate's website at  I referred to the U. S. Energy Information Administration for statistics on the percentage of U. S. energy coming from solar panels, and the Wikipedia article on George P. Mitchell as well. 

Monday, August 10, 2020

Sad Lessons from Beirut Ammonium Nitrate Explosion


On Tuesday, August 4, a warehouse in the crowded downtown port area of Beirut, Lebanon caught fire.  Lebanon has been going through hard times lately:  COVID-19, hyperinflation, and general government dysfunction.  Ordinarily,  a warehouse fire would not be cause for concern.  But this fire was different, because 2,750 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate was stored in the warehouse as a result of a combination of business misjudgment, bureaucratic incompetence, and negligence.


There are YouTube videos that show what happened next.  In one mobile-phone clip shot from a few miles away, an orange-colored smoke cloud towers above the downtown area.  Suddenly a black ball with cracks of yellow balloons outward at unbelievable speed, followed by a larger whitish spray of water that covers many city blocks.  And then the shockwave hits and the phone is apparenly knocked out of the witness's hand.


By the latest counting available at this writing (Sunday), at least 157 people were killed, over 5,000 were injured, and up to 300,000 people have been rendered homeless by the blast, which leveled almost all the buildings in the immediate vicinity and broke windows for a radius of many kilometers. 


How did that much ammonium nitrate end up in the middle of the capital city of Lebanon?  By a series of mishaps and oversights that, taken individually, were fairly minor.  But the end effect was disastrous.


A BBC article has straightened out the tangled tale.  In September of 2013, the Moldovan-flagged cargo ship MV Rhosus set sail from Batumi, a city on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, to deliver ammonium nitrate to an explosives factory in Mozambique.  After traveling through the Bosporous Strait and docking in Greece for about a month, the ship headed across the Mediterranean for the Suez Canal, which would take it to the eastern coast of Africa.


But somewhere in the Mediterranean, something went wrong.  One source said that the ship had "technical problems," but the Russian captain, a Mr. Prokoshev, said that the ship's owner had a cash shortfall, so in order to get enough money to pay for the Suez Canal passage fee, he ordered the captain to pick up a load of heavy machinery in Beirut.  In any event, the MV Rhosus ended up docking unexpectedly in Beirut in November of 2013.  According to the captain, the machinery was too heavy to load, and the owner didn't have enough money to pay the Beirut port fees and a fine.  This is why the Lebanese port authorities impounded the ship and its cargo.


To make matters worse, when presented with this situation, the owners of the ship and its cargo abandoned it to creditors and the port authorities, leaving them with 2,750 tons of dangerous ammonium nitrate and a crew that began running low on food and supplies.


Beirut has an official called the Judge of Urgent Matters, and when the crew petitioned this entity for permission to leave the ship and go back to their various homes, the judge eventually relented.  In early 2014, port authorities transferred the bagged ammonium nitrate from the abandoned ship to a warehouse near a grain elevator in the port to await "auctioning and/or proper disposal." 


No actual crime had been committed, but by a series of messups, the Port of Beirut became the unwilling owner of a warehouse full of ammonium nitrate.


Lower-level officials seemed to know the tremendous hazard that this stuff presented, and the BBC discovered messages from customs officials pleading with the Judge of Urgent Matters to do something about the confiscated explosives.  It appears they tried to get action at least six times in the next three years.  One can question the appropriateness of the judge's title by the fact that the stuff sat there all the way from 2014 until last Tuesday.  Reportedly, the Public Works MInister Michel Najjar was talking about the stuff with the port manager as recently as late July, but again, nothing was done.


Up until the 1970s, Lebanon was one of the more competently run countries in the Middle East.  But things have deteriorated since then, and the explosion last week was the end product of a bureaucratic failure of historic proportions.


As the ship's captain commented to an interviewer, the best thing that could have happened is if the port had paid the ship's owner to take the ship and its cargo away as soon as they could.  It would have cost maybe $200,000, but the port authorities would have been spared having to deal with the hot potato of that much ammonium nitrate.


That didn't happen.  What the situation needed was a person with both the authority and the courage to get rid of the ammonium nitrate, which could have been sold or even donated as fertilizer, which is its other common use besides that of an explosive.  But that would have gone against what may be an all-too-common tendency in some government organizations, which is to deal with the apparently urgent over the truly important but not apparently urgent matters at hand.


One important function of governments is to act as a kind of social immune system, defending the body politic from potential and actual threats that are constantly attacking it.  Beirut's political immune system has been weakened by strife, the war in Syria, economic dislocations, and other factors to the point that a very basic "immune response" of getting what amounted to a time bomb out of the city center failed.  We hope that the citizens of Beirut and Lebanon will now stand a better chance of getting what they've been asking for for years:  more competence in government.  But governments everywhere, even the U. S., can learn from this tragedy that incompetence can have a heavy price.


Sources:  The BBC report on how the ammonium nitrate got to Beiruit is at  I also referred to a report by the Indian Express at and Wikipedia articles on Beirut and Lebanon.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Accused Twitter Hackers Arrested

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about a Twitter hack that made numerous celebrities appear to be offering $2,000 to anyone foolish enough to send them $1,000 in Bitcoin first.  I quoted a lawyer who said that authorities were pretty good about tracing Bitcoin transactions, despite that currency's reputation for enabling anonymous transactions, and that chances were good for an early solution to the case.

Turns out he was apparently right.  On Friday, July 31, the state attorney's office in Tampa, Florida arrested Graham Ivan Clark, a 17-year-old, and will prosecute him as an adult, as Florida laws allow in such cases.  Authorities in California, where Twitter is based, announced that two others, Mason Sheppard of England and Nima Fazeli of Orlando, Florida, are being charged in the case as well.  Fazeli is 22 and Sheppard is 19.

There are now a few more details about how the hack was done.  Somehow the alleged criminals obtained phone numbers for several Twitter employees.  In a technique called "spear phishing," they then tricked someone into calling what probably sounded like a legitimate helpdesk, where the caller persuaded the employee to give them credentials that allowed them into Twitter's critical control systems via targeted spear-phishing attacks on other employees.

One can imagine this playing out rapidly in a movie:  the scene switches back and forth between a teenager's cluttered bedroom in Tampa to the cool, sophisticated environment of a Silicon Valley megacorporation where the kid hoodwinks staffer after staffer, and at last he types something on his laptop and yells, "We're in!"  But Mr. Clark may not have gotten his ideas from a movie.  Just being a teenager may have been enough.

Brain researchers have found that the teenage brain is an odd mixture of sophistication and poorly-controlled impulses.  In a Time article by Alexandra Sifferlin, we read that the brains of teenagers are about as big as they're going to get, but not nearly as interconnected as those of people in their late 20s and older.  In particular, the prefrontal cortex, where planning and forethought occur, is not yet well connected to the limbic system, which deals with emotions and goes through a growth spurt beginning by age 12.  So all the pieces of the adult brain are there, but they aren't connected as well as they will be in an adult. 

Add to this fact that certain kinds of mental activity turn out to be easy for clever teenagers and even children, while other kinds of mentally challenging work isn't.  For example, the world has known of many child prodigies in math (Blaise Pascal was writing proofs on the wall with a piece of coal by age 11) and music (Mozart).  But there haven't been any child-prodigy novelists or statesmen.  I'm not saying Clark is another Pascal, not by a long shot.  But programming and its illegal subset of criminal hacking are activities that smart young people can easily master on their own without undergoing a long apprenticeship.

So couple that native ability with the poor impulse control of a teen brain, and you get situations like the one Graham Clark is in.  Yes, he did a clever thing that got him a lot of publicity and some money.  But now he's facing criminal charges (a laundry list of 30 felonies) that could put him in jail for much of his natural lifespan.

In this case, anyway, crime didn't pay.  But how about Twitter, and how apparently easy it was for the three hacketeers to spoof and spear-phish their way into one of the most prominent Silicon Valley social media companies?

This kind of thing is an IT security specialist's nightmare.  Despite all the encryption, coding precautions, and other software and hardware security you can throw around, any organization of any size relies on interactions among people who trust each other.  And unless all the people work in one room and know each other's names and behaviors (an increasingly rare situation in these COVID-19 times), there is always a chance that a properly-informed hacker could impersonate someone in the organization to steal credentials or other critical data. 

It's hard to think of a way to prevent this kind of thing absolutely, but I bet Twitter is reviewing its IT security rules right now to prevent another such attack.  This is a lesson that engineers, and really anybody involved in dealing with confidential information, can benefit from.  For some of us, it might not be anything more important than a credit-card number, though having your credit card hacked is no picnic (it's happened to me several times). 

For organizations such as Twitter that have extremely valuable credentials to protect, it's hard to say what policies would prevent hacks like the one masterminded by Clark.  Whatever they might be, they would have to partake of a kind of rigidity that goes against the Silicon Valley grain.

For example:  I once heard of a restaurant whose management held so highly the safety and well-being of their customers, that if any of the people who laid out the silverware on the table was caught touching a fork anywhere above the handle so as to get their fingers on something that would later go into a customer's mouth, that person was fired on the spot.  Excessive?  Probably.  But it bespoke a kind of integrity and seriousness that may be in short supply these days.  Nevertheless, such an attitude might go far, if turned into data-protection protocols, toward preventing the kind of thing that happened to Twitter.

Twitter recovered, after some embarrassing publicity.  The alleged culprits were caught, and now people can follow the Kardashians or whoever without fear of getting spurious tweets from them.  So maybe the price of an occasional hack is worth the laid-back atmosphere that allowed a seventeen-year-old to make a fool out of a famous social-media company.  To prevent hacks like this in the future, organizations like Twitter may have to implement rules that are inconvenient or even harsh.  But with great privileges come great responsibilities, and that may be a lesson a lot of us have yet to learn.   

Sources:   The Associated Press article by Kelvin Chan on the arrest of Clark and company was carried by several news outlets, including  I also referred to an an article at  The detail about Pascal's proof in coal dust is from Wikipedia's "List of child prodigies" and the Time article on teenage brains can be found at