The town of Oshkosh, Wisconsin is not generally thought of as one of the innovative centers of America. Children's clothing, yes. Trucks? You betcha. But Oshkosh doesn't typically jump to mind as a powerful counter-argument to those who worry that the computerized, modern era has obliterated backyard tinkering, craftsmanship, and forward-thinking innovation.
Except for one week a year.
Each year, at the end of July, the Experimental Aircraft Association has its annual convention at the Wittman Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. 12,000 airplanes and hundreds of thousands of people attend, making the airport, for that one week, the busiest airport in America. Lots of private and commercial pilots fly in to the convention in standard general aviation planes that range from the 1920s to the latest and most current models. There are graceful biplanes that are as much works of art as machines of the air. There are WWI and WWII fighters, tiny little trainers, gliders, seaplanes, and huge military transports. But the show is also a hotbed of innovation and inventive craftsmanship; reassuring to anyone who wonders, or worries, whether we've lost that hands-on, Thomas Edison-like inventor's edge.
The "Experimental" Aircraft Association, after all, was founded to support those who wanted to design and build their own planes. Many of those innovators have gone on to produce and sell hundreds, or thousands, of standardized "kits" of their designs, which are then built by individual owners in their garages. Even in 2009. And the results are often far beyond what exists in "factory-built" airplanes. Some kitplanes go 200 miles an hour or more, on only a few gallons of gas per hour.
But really, the fun part; the remarkable part (and the most inspiring part), is seeing the vast array of new ideas made real in prototypes spanning a broad range of shapes, sizes and levels of complexity. To illustrate, here are just a few:
The ICON -- portable, light, amphibious sport fun
Park in your garage, take off from a runway, and land in the local lake for a morning of fishing--and look cool while you're doing it. ICON has high-tech design and looks, aimed at pilots who want a plane that's relatively simple but as modern-looking as their stereo systems. It's still in test flight, and the plane is limited to two passengers, and 120 mph. But it's clearly not your father's Oldsmobile.
Terrafugia--a high-tech flying car
One of the longstanding problems of using planes for transportation is that you arrive at a destination airport without a good way to get around on the ground. So ever since the early post-war era, designers have tried to figure out how to make a hybrid vehicle that would both fly and drive. Nobody so far has had a lot of success with the concept of a flying car (the requirements of the two types of transport are pretty different, after all), but a team of MIT engineers has entered the market with a high-tech design called the Terrafugia, which they call a "roadable aircraft." (Wings fold to drive on roads.) Will it work? Hard to say. It has flown, but it's had some problems in flight testing that the team is now struggling to work out. But it's a bold try at applying new technology to an old problem.
The Maverick -- a low-tech flying car
Innovation isn't purely the domain of high-techengineers, as evidenced by this bare-bones flying dune buggy. Designed by a missionary pilot named Steve Saint (author of End of the Spear), it's a grass-roots solution to a very common problem in remote third-world areas: washed out, impassable roads. As a dune buggy, it navigates rough dirt roads well. But if a driver encounters an impassable section of land or road, he or she can open a parafoil atop its long center pole, start the pusher propeller behind the buggy, get a 100-foot headstart, and literally "puddle-jump" the washed-out section. It flies 40 miles an hour (so it drives faster than it flies), and is simple enough to be easily repairable in the bush ... even by indigenous people with limited mechanical or pilot training.
The All-Electric Plane
The problems with an all-electric airplane are more complex than a hybrid or electric car, but there are several companies working on the concept. "It's the future," says Jeremy Monnett, whose Sonex company is working on the electric engine/aircraft pictured above. "It's not the near-term future, but it's definitely the long-term future. You know that Chinese saying about "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step? Well, this is our first step." Sonex, a kitplane manufacturer, is testing the 55 kw (75 hp) brushless DC cobalt motor on an existing Sonex kitplane, but Monnett envisions the engine being used eventually to extend the flight time of a motor-glider design or power a much lighter, purpose-designed airframe. (Sonex is also working to develop a single-engine kit jet (see below). When? Ah. Well, when they find a new engine manufacturer, because the original supplier went out of business.)
The Vision Jet
But while Sonex is years away from a flyable, single-engine kitplane jet, Alan Klapmeier has one already flying. Klapmeier is the founder and mastermind behind the Cirrus Design Company (whose Cirrus aircraft James Fallows has written about numerous times). But not content to rest on his laurels, he's designed, and is working to market, a very sleek but practical single-engine, five+2-seat, factory-produced personal jet for the speed-seeking traveler.
Some of the ideas on display are astoundingly simple; others rely on sophisticated computer design and control. And they may not all work or prove viable, of course. The history of aviation, like any field, is littered with ideas that proved better in concept than in reality. But the EAA show is a reminder, once a year, that that the "old" backyard, hands-on, bold spirit of invention is still alive and kicking, even in the video-game and digital age. And that alone is worth something.
Note--offline: I'll be offline for the next week. Returning August 6th.
After getting shut down late last year, a website that allows free access to paywalled academic papers has sprung back up in a shadowy corner of the Internet.
There’s a battle raging over whether academic research should be free, and it’s overflowing into the dark web.
Most modern scholarly work remains locked behind paywalls, and unless your computer is on the network of a university with an expensive subscription, you have to pay a fee, often around 30 dollars, to access each paper.
Many scholars say this system makes publishers rich—Elsevier, a company that controls access to more than 2,000 journals, has a market capitalization about equal to that of Delta Airlines—but does not benefit the academics that conducted the research, or the public at large. Others worry that free academic journals would have a hard time upholding the rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for.
It was the apotheosis of the outsiders—two candidates, written off when their campaigns began, recovering from defeat in Iowa to deliver resounding victories in the Granite State.
In a year of outsider success, Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary was the apotheosis of the outsiders. On the Democratic side, Senator Bernie Sanders coasted to a huge victory over Hillary Clinton. And for the Republicans, Donald Trump regained his footing after a letdown in Iowa, winning about a third of the vote and notching a huge victory over the rest of the GOP field.
The results for the rest of the field threatened to remake the race, too. Ohio Governor John Kasich, a moderate technocrat who had seemed to lack traction throughout the campaign, saw his decision to bet all his marbles on New Hampshire pay off, as he came in second. Meanwhile, Senator Marco Rubio had a painful night, falling to an apparent fifth-place finish with the vote mostly tallied—a major stumbling block to his momentum. Chris Christie, whose demolition of Rubio during Saturday night’s debate helped knock Rubio down, didn’t get much of a boost and seemed headed for the exits. Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz battled for the third and fourth spots, while Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson lagged far behind.
The Warriors star is the embodiment of basketball’s analytics revolution.
The Golden State Warriors are now some 15 months in to their turn as one of the best teams in basketball history. Last season, they won 67 games, the most in the NBA in eight years, and secured a championship in June against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This season’s Warriors make last season’s Warriors look like a team that hadn’t yet gotten loose. They started the year winning their first 24 games in a row, a record opening, and as of now have won 46 of 50.
Golden State’s brilliance is more than just statistical. The Warriors are a basketball idyll, a paradise of skill and collaboration. Their offense runs on nifty ballhandling, willing passing, and sublime shooting, with their point guard and reigning NBA Most Valuable Player acting as ringleader. A slim 6’3” and 185 pounds, with a bouncy jog and a barely post-pubescent tuft of beard at his chin, Stephen Curry dribbles with the intentional abandon of a card hustler, flings one-handed passes to all sectors of the court, and shoots better than anyone ever has.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
Sanders’s youth movement is powered by the energy of the new campus left. What does it believe?
RINDGE, New Hampshire—Twenty-three minutes into his typically rambling, hourlong stump speech in the arena here, at a private liberal-arts college on the Massachusetts border—after he had decried the Koch brothers and the prescription-drug companies, after he had accused Wall Street of bribing its way to deregulation, after he had called out the corporate media and the political establishment—Bernie Sanders turned to the bleachers behind him, which were filled with college students waving blue signs and chanting his name.
A sly, unusual smile crossed his face. “I feel like a rock-n-roll star!” he exclaimed, taking off his jacket and tossing it to a startled youth behind him. He pantomimed tearing off his sweater, too, prompting a fresh chant of “Ber-nie! Ber-nie!” Then he grinned sheepishly. “All right, nothing else is coming off,” he said, and continued to the next topic—the sins of Walmart.
He’s made the once-impossible seem possible—and now all bets are off.
CONCORD, New Hampshire—“Thank you, New Hampshire!” a somber but clearly gratified Bernie Sanders said to a crowd of thrilled supporters in a high-school gymnasium. The 74-year-old democratic socialist from Vermont had just resoundingly won the New Hampshire Democratic primary, dealing an astonishing blow to the Hillary Clinton juggernaut, casting the race into turmoil, and dramatically highlighting the dissatisfaction of the party base with its establishment.
Sanders’s win, he said, had sent a message to the country: “That the government of our great country belongs to all of the people, and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors and their super PACs!” The contest, he noted, had inspired record turnout, powered by a force that he implied would make him a better general-election candidate than his rival—“the energy and the excitement that the Democratic Party will need to succeed in November.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
For decades the Man of Steel has failed to find his groove, thanks to a continual misunderstanding of his strengths.
Superman should be invincible. Since his car-smashing debut in 1938, he’s starred in at least one regular monthly comic, three blockbuster films, and four television shows. His crest is recognized across the globe, his supporting cast is legendary, and anybody even vaguely familiar with comics can recount the broad strokes of his origin. (The writer Grant Morrison and the artist Frank Quitely accomplished it in eight words and four panels: “Doomed Planet. Desperate Scientists. Last Hope. Kindly Couple.”) He’s the first of the superheroes, a genre that’s grown into a modern mass-media juggernaut.
And yet, for a character who gains his power from the light of the sun, Superman is curiously eclipsed by other heroes. According to numbers provided by Diamond Distributors, the long-running Superman comic sold only 55,000 copies a month in 2015, down from around 70,000 in 2010—a mediocre showing even for the famously anemic comic-book market. That’s significantly less than his colleague Batman, who last year moved issues at a comparatively brisk 150,000 a month. Mass media hasn’t been much kinder: The longest-running Superman television show, 2001’s Smallville, kept him out of his iconic suit for a decade. Superman Returns recouped its budget at the box office, but proved mostly forgettable.2013’s Man of Steel drew sharp criticism from critics and audiences alike for its bleak tone and rampaging finale. Trailers for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, have shifted the focus (and top billing) to the Dark Knight. Worst of all, conventional wisdom puts the blame on Superman himself. He’s boring, people say; he’s unrelatable, nothing like the Marvel characters dominating the sales charts and the box office. More than anything, he seems embarrassing. Look at him. Truth? Justice? He wears his underwear on the outside.
Donald Trump is back, Bernie Sanders is blowing up, and Marco Rubio is battered after the New Hampshire primary.
Trump is back, baby! The man who has made his business career by recovering from disasters did the same in his new political career Tuesday, setting aside his weak second-place showing in Iowa and delivering a commanding win in New Hampshire. The victory sets Trump up as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination once again.
How strong a frontrunner is he? There are still those who think he’s an unlikely nominee, but the wind is at his back for the moment. The next GOP contest is February 20 in South Carolina, where polls show him far ahead. And Marco Rubio, who the establishment hoped could rally an anti-Trump, anti-Ted Cruz coalition, had an awful night in the New Hampshire primary, finishing fifth—well short of his stated goal of second. Suddenly, Rubio seems less like the man who can unify the disparate party forces and more like, well, a robot.
Authoritarian leaders like the Gambia's Yahya Jammeh seem to relish the West's wealth. Why doesn’t the United States use that against them?
For those of us lucky enough to live in democracies, it is comforting to imagine foreign dictators as wholly foreign. The world seems less complicated when an autocrat fits the stereotype: say, wearing a leopard-skin hat and rarely stepping out of some jungle palace. Anyone fine with ruling undemocratically, one might like to think, should have no interest in a culture completely opposed to the practice. Or, at the very least, if such a leader did make meaningful connections with the West, surely his retrograde beliefs would melt away on contact.
Reality, alas, is not so tidy. Bashar al-Assad butchers Syrians despite having lived in London. Whatever Western values Kim Jong Un picked up at boarding school in Switzerland haven’t kept him from perpetuating North Korea’s totalitarian state. And, as I discovered while reporting on the Gambia, the authoritarian leader of this tiny West African country has a soft spot for the United States.