Book Review: “Empires of the Sky” by Alexander Rose

Empires of the Sky by Alexander Rose

Even as a long time Helium head, I actually didn’t know much about the history of the original Zeppelin company. I also didn’t know much about the early history of civilian airlines. So I learned a lot from this book.

As Rose makes plain, in the early twentieth century, it was far from clear whether lighter than air or heavier than air transport would dominate long distance travel.  Airships had an initial advantage; at a time when airplanes were small, noisy, short range death traps, dirigibles were carrying tons of cargo and passengers continental distances.  But rapid technical advances quickly changed the balance.  By the 1930s the writing was on the wall, and the competition was over.

Rose’s history is full of politics (Zeppelins are inevitably connected with the first world war), economics and personalities.  Much of this is quaint, steampunk nostalgia.  Zeppelins over South America!  Barnstormers over the Midwest! Pan American Clippers at Wake Island!  The Hindenburg!

But there are a lot of familiar themes for the Internet Age.

It is fascinating to read about the amazing PR of the Zeppelin company, which never made a profit from air operations, but garnered a mega ‘kick starter’ from the German public, garnered years of government subsidies, and racked up impressive merchandise sales.  It seems like Zeppelin was in ‘demo mode’ for most of its life.

Rose points out that airplanes were smaller and cheaper than airships and therefore developed at a much faster pace.  New airplanes came out every year, incorporating new designs and technology at an astonishing clip.  Airships were huge and monstrously expensive, so there could never be very many, and they took a long time to build. Small, agile development won out, big time.

The early history of airlines reminds me of early Internet days. There were swirling currents of public and private enterprise, with public investments and policy having outsized (if not always predictable) influence.  In the US, postal contracts turned into an unintended “pull” that helped boot up civilian air transport.  And everywhere, landing rights were an opportunity for attempted monopoly and, of course, graft.  And, of course, booting up an airline is an example of building a network service, with a lot of familiar first-mover and scale effects.

At the same time, private capital was roaring along, initially unfettered by regulation.  Technology that barely worked, or didn’t work at all.  Airlines with big names and no planes.  Swashbuckling mergers and boardroom shenanigans.  Irrational exuberance and just plain BS out the wazoo.

And when Pan American finally got it together, there was a breathtaking burst of heroic infrastructure building. Amazing new aircraft. Astonishing levels of customer service. A network of new airports, including from-the-ground up complexes way out there  on Midway and Wake.

If there was ever a model for a Mars colony, it would be these early Pacific stations build by Pan Am.  Everything had to be shipped in (except the air).   Building it was one thing, keeping it going was a different story.

A fascination story of a huge technical “inflection point” in history.   Worth a read.

  1. Alexander Rose, Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men’s Epic Duel to Rule the World, New York, Random House, 2020.


Sunday Book Reviews

Bouncing Balls On Ocean Worlds!

We must go to the ocean worlds of our outer solar system:  Europa, Enceladus, and Titan have oceans and chemistry!

One concept for an explorer that NASA is exploring is a bouncing ball—a steam powered bouncing ball!

The Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds—SPARROW—is a small, light mini rover, with a spherical cage [1].  This little ball hops across the surface propelled by steam jets.  The jets can be refueled by melting surface ice.

The mission concept envisions launching one of these SPARROWs to a “science objective”, where it digs up a sample an records data, and then hops back to the base station to hand over the sample and recharge.



Obviously, this notion is simple and robust, which Is good.  It doesn’t look very precise to me, especially compared to a helicopter (e.g., Dragonfly for Titan).  I see this little guy falling down a hole and not getting out.  Or landing on a slope and just rolling away, and away, and away, until it is too far from the base station to get back.

Even best case, I’m thinking that the return hop is going to be really, really tricky.  The target landing position isn’t known precisely, so the return hop can only be approximate.  And if it is carrying cargo on return, that will be both extra weight and irregularly shaped.   So who knows how close the hop will be, and what maneuvers will be needed to reunite with the base?

There will need to be some clever navigation software, ability to move short distances on the ground, and, if possible, ability to maneuver and hover on landing approach.

We’ll see if anything comes from this idea.

  1. Gareth Meirion-Griffith, SPARROW: Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds, in NASA – Soace Tech, March 30, 2018.


Katz on the Value of Learning Stand Up [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

This month Michael Katz writes about “What stand-up comedy can teach us about freelancing” [1].

He makes several good points

1. Content and delivery are not the same thing.

2. The audience decides what’s funny.

3. The only way to get better is to practice.

And, of course, “The most important, I think, is to just get started.

On the first point, he emphasizes that you need to decide “who you are”, what he case “voice”, for purposes of a specific message.

And the second point is, of course, you need to pay attention to your audience.  And, as they say, the customer is always right, and you have to pay close attention.

The third point is obvious.  But he also notes that there is always more to learn, and a humble, beginner’s attitude goes a lot way toward getting better.

And, of course, doing something out at the edge of your comfort zone is scary.  Screwing up the courage to do stand up to a bunch of strangers is really hard.  But, compared to that, pitching your own stuff, stuff that you really know and care about, should be easy, right?

This is all good advice.

I’d add a deeper point.  Stand up comedy and improv in general not only force you to put your self out there, they force you to act.  Whatever you try to do, but especially something multifaceted like freelancing, you will do well to act the part.   If you act like a talented, confident professional, then people will treat you like one—and you’ll be a step closer to being good at doing whatever you are trying to do.

Speaking as a psychologist, I’ll note that you are acting out roles in improvised little plays all the time anyway.  It’s called life.  So why not study and practice to be good at this skill?

Furthermore, as I have pointed out many times, coworking can be viewed as a form of improvisational theater, in which workers enact “the future of work”, making it up for themselves.  (See the book!)

So yeah, improv is something I would recommend to everyone*.

By the way, I also recommend pretty much everyone learn a bit origami, just because there are so many useful design insights, and it’s 3D and it’s self-organizing and it’s parsimonious with materials and…  You get the idea.

  1. Michael Katz, What stand-up comedy can teach us about freelancing, in Freelancers Union Blog, June 23, 2020.


* Of course, I am far, far too shy to take this advice myself.  But then, I am not a successful freelancer, am I?  Do as I say, not as I do.


(For much more on the Future of Work, see the book and blog  “What is Coworking?”)

What is Cowworking?  What Will Coworking Become?

Demystifying Stablecoins

This month Jeremy Clark, Didem Demirag, and Seyedehmahsa Moosavi write about “Demystifying stablecoins[1].

Yes, please.  ‘Splain away. : – )

“Stablecoins promise the functionality of Bitcoin without the roller-coaster ride of its exchange rate.” ([1], p. 41)

The idea is simple enough, but existing systems are poorly—very poorly—documented.

“Many white papers are obfuscated with jargon—terms left undefined and used inconsistently across other projects and the financial literature. In other cases, system components appear to be mislabeled.” ([1], p. 41)

The researchers examined 25 existing “stablecoin” projects, and present a classification of what turns out to be a spectrum of technologies.

One type of stablecoin is a “backed” coin, which directly or indirectly represents other assets.  Importantly, some stablecoins are “redeemable” in the backing asset and others are not.

The other major type is what they term “intervention-based”.  In this model, the value of the digital currency against other assets is maintained by manipulation of the money supply or speculative bidding.  (I’ll note that the money supply approach recapitulates the history of conventional banking, which abandoned the process long ago because it doesn’t work.)

“In summary, some stablecoins tokenize a low-volatility coin and bring it onto the blockchain. Others generally play one of two tricks: The first is to expand and contract the amount of currency to stabilize the value; the second is to turn two high-volatility coins (for example, of the underlying cryptocurrency) into one stablecoin and one extremely volatile coin. This last trick is similar to other financial assets that do not reduce over-all risk but instead push it from one tranche of the asset to another” ([1], p. 48)

There is one more type of stablecoin that will be coming soon: a central bank issued coin.  This would try to get the advantages of low overhead transactions, while managing the value through conventional “fiat” mechanisms.

This is a really nice article (and there is a longer white paper with more details).

My own conclusion is—watch out!

Watch out—the terminology is murky and there are considerable differences in “stablecoins” that can be difficult to discern.

Watch out –the documentation is horrible and / or fraudulent, so you may not be able to tell what you are getting.

Watch out—the legal and regulatory environment is extremely risky.  Dubious products such as Tether thrive despite serious legal problems, while products that try to be legitimate such as Gemini or Libra, crash on the rocks of regulatory resistance.

So, basically: watch out!

  1. Jeremy Clark, Didem Demirag, and Seyedehmahsa Moosavi, Demystifying stablecoins. Communications of the ACM, 63 (7):40–46, 2020.


Cryptocurrency Thursday



Resurrecting Zombie Satellites?

Once long ago I was part of a project that contributed in small ways to NASA data systems on the ground.  I used to point out to my students that data from satellites is pretty much free—until it hits the ground, and then it starts costing real buildings, electricity, staff, etc.  Hence, the importance of any good ideas we could get folded into their enterprise.

The idea there is that satellites just keep orbiting (basically, continuous falling) and soaking up sunlight, so they can run a long time without any inputs.

Of course, nothing is totally free.  Many satellites need to adjust their orbits now and again, and that usually takes fuel and reaction mass.  In particular, geosynchronous satellites need to hold a pretty precise position, and need a nudge here and there.  So, these satellite run out of fuel, drift off station, and become useless—even though everything else is still working fine.

These are tagged ‘zombies’, because, of course they are.

Near Earth space is filled with human launched junk.  But these zombies are interesting because they could potentially be used, if there were some way to refuel them.

Nola Taylor Redd writes about the not-at-all-Freudian-named “Mission Extension Vehicles”, which, as the headline puts it,  enables “Zombie Satellites Return From the Graveyard” [1].  The basic idea is to launch a spacecraft that rendezvous with a zombie satellite, mates with it (in a not at not-at-all-Freudian manner), and use the MEV’s engines to maneuver the zombie back into position and stay there.  (This MEV is basically an exoskeleton for the zombie…or maybe a zombie satellite parasite.)


Presumably, the cost of the MEV is low enough that it is paid for by the additional service of the resurrected satellite.

In development now are not-in-any-way-Freudian-either “Mission Extension Pods”, which are smaller, one use, versions of an MEV.

I hadn’t heard of the international guidelines that say a dying geosynchronous satellite should move to a holding area / graveyard orbit 300km above the GEO orbit to get out of the way.  The MEV is designed to bring a satellite back from a graveyard orbit.  The article notes that hundreds of satellites have not followed the guidelines and are clogging up the useful GEO space.   For these, there may soon be ‘garbage trucks’, that pick them up and move them out of the way.

Cool stuff.

  1. Nola Taylor Redd, Zombie Satellites Return From the Graveyard, in, June 18, 2020.


Q3 Roundup

Note:  Blogging May Be Thin This Summer

This quarter marks just under 2400 days in a row of daily blog posts!

This record may not continue.  Due to pressing personal affairs, I may have to suspend regular blogging this summer, effective some time in July.

I will try to continue to blog, but we’ll have to see what happens.  If there is an interruption I will try to return to blogging in the fall.

The Usual Stuff…

This quarter, blog posts discussed many topics of interest to me, including multiple posts about the cryosphere, robots, blockchains, and bees.  And dinosaurs.


As usual, I reviewed books every week, six non-fiction and 16 fiction books this quarter.


Books Reviewed


88 Names  by Matt Ruff
Providence  by Max Barry
Shakespeare for Squirrels  by Christopher Moore
All Adults Here  by Emma Straub
Afterlife  by Julia Alvarez
Wake, Siren  by Nina MacLaughlin
How Much of These Hills is Gold  by C Pam Zhang
The Automatic Detective  by A. Lee Martinez
Tyll  by Daniel Kahlmann
The City We Became  by N. K. Jemisin
Little Fires Everywhere  by Celeste Ng
Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine
Arabella and the Battle of Venus by David D. Levine
Arabella the Traitor of Mars by David D. Levine
The Orphan’s Tales, Vol 1.: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
The Orphan’s Tales: Vol 2.: In the Cities of Coin and Spice by Catherynne M. Valente

 Non Fiction

Istanbul  by Bettany Hughes
Tacky’s Revolt  by Vincent Brown
The Library Book  by Susan Orlean
The Lives of Bees  by Thomas D. Seeley
Unworthy Republic  by Claudio Saunt
How to Hide an Empire  by Daniel Immerwahr


Band Names

Here are some Dave Barry inspired names for bands—all taken from the text of real science papers!

Bottlebrush block copolymer photonic crystals
Antarctic Frogs
First Fossil Frog
Eocene High Latitude
Gondwanan Cosmopolitinism
Tape-spool boom extraction system
Flux Lobe Elongation
Magnetic Pole Acceleration
Towards Siberia
Possible common capture events
Radially Symmetric Fertile Parts
Pendicle Bending

A Neat Hummingbird Vision Study

Hummingbirds are already some of the coolest birds.  I mean, how do they do it?

This spring researchers from Princeton and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, report on yet more Hummingbird amazingness: evidence of their vision extends into the UV in interesting ways [2].

Birds actually have four cones (puny mammals hove only 3), which, by the way, suggests that dinosaurs probably had four cones, too.  The fourth cone is sensitive to UV light.

The study is interesting in perception of non-spectral colors:  colors that are properties of the vision system, not the EM spectrum.  In humans, the color purple is a non-spectral perception: there is no “purple light”, the color is perceived by the combined response of two (a red and a blue) cones.

With four cones, a hummingbird might perceive not only “purple”, but also UV+red, UV+green, and even UV+purple and UV+yellow.  What do the birds actually see?

The existence and possible behavioral significance of such subjective colors can only be determined by careful experiments with the species in question.

The research used LEDs tuned to emit “a broad range of bird-visible colors” (p.3).  The field experiment presented a choice, with one color associated with tasty sugar water, and the other with water.  The task is to learn to discriminate the colors.

The participants were “a wild population of broad-tailed hummingbirds (Selasphorus platycercus)” ([2], p. 3)  Over 6,000 visits were recorded.  This was a field experiment, so it is not known exactly which individuals participated in which trial, or to report precise description of the population that participated.  These facts required a Bayesian analysis, estimating the discriminant ability of the whole population.

The trials included pairs of colors that were identical (a control), spectral, and non-spectral.  The hummingbirds were able to discriminate non-spectral colors UV+purple, UV+yellow, UV+red and UV+green, in fact multiple hues of these colors.

How are these colors important?  The researchers compared the perceived colors to databases of bird plumage and flowers.  This showed that 30% of the plumage and 35% of the plants would be perceived as non-spectral colors.  Many of these colors cannot be perceived by puny human eyes.

They conclude that “These results are consistent with the claim that birds are tetrachromats, such that the avian color space … represents a vast range of behaviorally and ecologically relevant colors, many of which humans (or any trichromat) cannot even imagine….” ([2], p. 6)

The researchers note that it is likely that many or most birds (and dinosaurs?) have similar capabilities.


  1. Veronique Greenwood, Hummingbirds Navigate an Ultraviolet World We Never See, in New York times. 2020: New York.
  2. Mary Caswell Stoddard, Harold N. Eyster, Benedict G. Hogan, Dylan H. Morris, Edward R. Soucy, and David W. Inouye, Wild hummingbirds discriminate nonspectral colors. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:201919377, 2020.

Book Review: “88 Names” by Matt Ruff

88 Names by Matt Ruff

You never know what to expect from Matt Ruff (that’s not a bad thing).

88 Names is sort of a cyberpunk throwback, computer geeks caught in stories that leek over into RL.  In this case, the protagonist John Chu is a ‘sherpa’, selling adventures in MMRPG to people with more money than sense.

Stuff happens.  Mysterious clients bribe and threaten him, the intrigue spills over into RL, etc. On the Internet, no one is exactly who they seem, and having sex is weird and psychologically risky to say the least.  Plus there are really powerful hidden forces, corporate, government, and criminal.

We’ve seen it before.  (E.g., This is Not A Game, Halting State [4], Agency, Reality is Broken, etc.)

88 Names isn’t bad.  But a lot of it is gee-whizzing the amazing possibilities of VR gaming, which aren’t new to me, nor particularly exciting.  The plot itself is inscrutable (there are good reasons for that) but fundamentally trite.  And I, for one, don’t enjoy reading descriptions of video game play.  I find the games boring to play, so reading about them is boring squared.

Given Ruff’s undeniable skill and imagination seen in his earlier books (Bad Monkeys (2007) is, um, unforgettable, Mirage (2011) is, um, interesting, and Lovecraft Country (2016) is really scary), I suspect that this novel was a work of love.

He says he’s a long time gamer, so sure, he’s got a right to write about what he loves.  But I didn’t like it very much.

  1. William Gibson, Agency, New York, Berkeley, 2020.
  2. Jane McGonigal, Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world, New York, Penguin Press, 2011.
  3. Matt Ruff, 88 Names, New York, Harper, 2020.
  4. Charles Stross, Halting State, New York, Ace, 2007.
  5. Walter Jon Williams, This Is Not A Game, New York, Orbit, 2008.


Sunday Book Reviews

Sea Ice Conditions In the Weddell Sea

The ice is melting everywhere.

This spring researchers of the British Antarctic Survey report on recent measurements of the sea ice over the Weddell Sea off Antarctica [1].  Bottom line:  the sea ice was at a record low over the summers of 2016-9.

These measurements are based on satellite observations of the ice, weather stations reporting air temperatures, and ocean buoys reporting sea temperatures.

Obviously, sustained low ice is important, especially as the NYT headline put it, “The Iciest Waters Around Antarctica Are Less Icy[1].  Melting sea ice doesn’t directly raise sea level, but it does lower the albedo of the sea, possibly leading to warmer sea water, and follow on effects from that.  And the warmer the sea, the less ice that will form, in a feedback loop.

(This ice shelf is also an important habitat for penguins and seals among others, so lack of ice is really hard on wildlife.)

However, the research indicates that these conditions, while unprecedented “in the satellite era”,  are due to a combination of effects, not necessarily a sustained trend.  This is made pretty clear from their graphs of the estimates for last 40 years, which bounce up and down quite a bit.  The last three years are unusual, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the ice extent bounce back.

Figure 1. (a) The 1978/1979–2019/2020 mean summer SIEs for the Weddell Sea. The x axis values refer to the year in which the December of each summer occurred. (b) Mean annual cycles of Weddell Sea SIE based on daily data for 2013–2015 (black) and 2017–2019 (red). The month indicators mark the midpoint of each month. (c) The monthly percentage SIE anomalies (from the monthly mean climatological SIEs for 1979–2008) since 2013. The year indicators mark the midpoint of each year (From [2])
However, with general warming and feedback effects, it is also possible that the sea ice will continue to melt each summer, which would be a significant indication of major climate change in Antarctica.

So, we’ll keep watching.

  1. Henry Fountain, The Iciest Waters Around Antarctica Are Less Icy, in New York times. 2020: New York.
  2. John Turner, Maria Vittoria Guarino, Jack Arnatt, Babula Jena, Gareth J. Marshall, Tony Phillips, C. C. Bajish, Kyle Clem, Zhaomin Wang, Tom Andersson, Eugene J. Murphy, and Rachel Cavanagh, Recent Decrease of Summer Sea Ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Geophysical Research Letters, 47 (11):e2020GL087127, 2020/06/16 2020.

“High Level” Language for Programming Quantum Computers?

Quantum Computers are weird, and programming a QC is very weird.

To date, QCs are programmed with pretty “low level” instructions, close to the actual hardware operations.

This spring researchers at ETH report on ‘silq’,  a new, “high level” programming language for QC [1].  (Get the code here.)

From the first, we know we aren’t in Kansas anymore.  They explain that  “dropping temporary values from the program state requires explicitly applying quantum operations that safely uncompute these values.”([1], p. 286)

Huh? What?

So the silq language has the marvelous operation, “forget(x[0])”, which I gather causes a non-trivial operation to actually destroy the specified information.

As you’d expect, it’s weirdness all the way down.  Types include ‘classical’ and ‘quantum’ values, and the semantics of statements is definitely not Von Neuman-ish. The resulting syntax is pretty obscure and the error codes are pleasingly opaque.

def solve[n:!ℕ](x:𝔹^n)lifted{    (example code, from the documentation)

Error: Uncomputation Without Const  (from [1], p. 292)

This may be a handy language for QC, I can’t really say. It does seem a bit “higher level” than other QC languages I’ve seen.

But silq is still pretty tightly bound to the quantum operations.  So I dunno if this can be called a “high level” language or not.  (To me, a high level language expresses algorithms is a way that is independent of the actual computation to execute it.)

In anycast , this is an interesting development and a step in the direction of translating human expressions of algorithms into QC programs.

So, yeah, that’s cool.

  1. Benjamin Bichsel, Maximilian Baader, Timon Gehr, and Martin Vechev, Silq: a high-level quantum language with safe uncomputation and intuitive semantics, in Proceedings of the 41st ACM SIGPLAN Conference on Programming Language Design and Implementation. 2020, Association for Computing Machinery: London, UK. p. 286–300.


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