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.
“Somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25 million books and nobody is allowed to read them.”
You were going to get one-click access to the full text of nearly every book that’s ever been published. Books still in print you’d have to pay for, but everything else—a collection slated to grow larger than the holdings at the Library of Congress, Harvard, the University of Michigan, at any of the great national libraries of Europe—would have been available for free at terminals that were going to be placed in every local library that wanted one.
At the terminal you were going to be able to search tens of millions of books and read every page of any book you found. You’d be able to highlight passages and make annotations and share them; for the first time, you’d be able to pinpoint an idea somewhere inside the vastness of the printed record, and send somebody straight to it with a link. Books would become as instantly available, searchable, copy-pasteable—as alive in the digital world—as web pages.
Film, television, and literature all tell them better. So why are games still obsessed with narrative?
A longstanding dream: Video games will evolve into interactive stories, like the ones that play out fictionally on the Star Trek Holodeck. In this hypothetical future, players could interact with computerized characters as round as those in novels or films, making choices that would influence an ever-evolving plot. It would be like living in a novel, where the player’s actions would have as much of an influence on the story as they might in the real world.
It’s an almost impossible bar to reach, for cultural reasons as much as technical ones. One shortcut is an approach called environmental storytelling. Environmental stories invite players to discover and reconstruct a fixed story from the environment itself. Think of it as the novel wresting the real-time, first-person, 3-D graphics engine from the hands of the shooter game. In Disneyland’s Peter Pan’s Flight, for example, dioramas summarize the plot and setting of the film. In the 2007 game BioShock, recorded messages in an elaborate, Art Deco environment provide context for a story of a utopia’s fall. And in What Remains of Edith Finch, a new game about a girl piecing together a family curse, narration is accomplished through artifacts discovered in an old house.
Will you pay more for those shoes before 7 p.m.? Would the price tag be different if you lived in the suburbs? Standard prices and simple discounts are giving way to far more exotic strategies, designed to extract every last dollar from the consumer.
As Christmas approached in 2015, the price of pumpkin-pie spice went wild. It didn’t soar, as an economics textbook might suggest. Nor did it crash. It just started vibrating between two quantum states. Amazon’s price for a one-ounce jar was either $4.49 or $8.99, depending on when you looked. Nearly a year later, as Thanksgiving 2016 approached, the price again began whipsawing between two different points, this time $3.36 and $4.69.
We live in the age of the variable airfare, the surge-priced ride, the pay-what-you-want Radiohead album, and other novel price developments. But what was this? Some weird computer glitch? More like a deliberate glitch, it seems. “It’s most likely a strategy to get more data and test the right price,” Guru Hariharan explained, after I had sketched the pattern on a whiteboard.
The Hulu show has created a world that’s visually and psychologically unlike anything in film or television.
Call it luck, call it fate, call it the world’s most ridiculous viral marketing campaign, but the first television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is debuting on Wednesday to audiences who are hyper-ready for it. The 1985 speculative fiction work by Margaret Atwood has featured on library waitlists and Amazon’s top 20 for months now—partly in anticipation of the new Hulu show, and partly in response to the strange new landscape that emerged after November 9, wherein women in the millions felt compelled to take to the streets to assert their attachment to reproductive freedom. (When the release date for The Handmaid’s Tale was announced in December, people joked that it would likely be a documentary by the time it arrived on TV screens.)
The president signaled that he doesn’t want a government shutdown after all, and for the second time in a high-stakes congressional negotiation, he saw his bluff get called.
The president blinked.
Donald Trump wants his border wall funded, but he apparently wants to keep the government open on his 100th day in office a little bit more. Facing the prospect of a government shutdown in four days, the president reportedly backed off his demand that a must-pass spending bill include a downpayment for the wall he wants to construct along the nation’s southern border. Trump told a group of conservative journalists on Monday eveningthat he would be willing to accept money for the wall during the next government-funding debate in September, effectively defusing a clash that had been building between Capitol Hill and the White House ahead of the April 28 deadline to avert a partial shutdown.
A lab has successfully gestated premature lambs in artificial wombs. Are humans next?
When babies are born at 24 weeks’ gestation, “it is very clear they are not ready to be here,” says Emily Partridge, a research fellow at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Doctors dress the hand-sized beings in miniature diapers and cradle them in plastic incubators, where they are fed through tubes. In many cases, IV lines deliver sedatives to help them cope with the ventilators strapped to their faces.
Each year, about 30,000 American babies are born this early—considered “critically preterm,” or younger than 26 weeks. Before 24 weeks, only about half survive, and those who live are likely to endure long-term medical complications. “Among those that survive, the challenges are things we all take for granted, like walking, talking, seeing, hearing,” says Kevin Dysart, a neonatologist at the Children’s Hospital.
It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.
This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.
A new paper examines the ways “whiteness” reproduces racial advantages and disadvantages.
Kassie Benjamin-Ficken, a teacher in Minneapolis, discovered her love of math in elementary school. One of her earliest memories is begging her mother to come to school so her teachers could share how she excelled in math class. While earning average scores in reading, she was consistently above average for math—which instilled her with a sense of accomplishment. That continued into middle school, where she recalls asking her math teachers to move her into a higher grade for more advanced content. But she remained in the same middle-school class.
Then in high school, her excitement for math slowly turned to disappointment. Benjamin-Ficken, a citizen of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (a tribal nation in Minnesota), was one of two students of color in her 11th-grade pre-calculus class. When her study partner was absent for a series of days, Benjamin-Ficken began to struggle with the material and barely passed the class with a D-minus. Her senior year in AP Calculus repeated the pattern—lacking support and feeling ignored in the class, she passed with a D.
They’re stuck between corporations trying to extract maximum profits from each flight and passengers who can broadcast their frustration on social media.
Two weeks ago, a man was violently dragged off a United Airlines flight after being told it was overbooked. And late last week, American Airlines suspended a flight attendant after a fight nearly broke out between a passenger and the crew, over a stroller. What did the two incidents have in common? Both stories went viral after passengers’ videos showcased the rotten conditions of flying in coach today. But also, in both cases, it’s not particularly clear that the airline employees caught on camera had many better options.
On the infamous United flight, employees, following protocol, had to call security agents to remove a passenger in Chicago, due to a last-minute need to transport crew to fly out of Louisville the following day. United’s contract of carriage gives employees broad latitude to deny boarding to passengers. On the other hand, it is terrible to force a sitting passenger to get up and de-board a plane. So, the attendants were stuck: Either four people already seated had to leave the plane, or a flight scheduled the next day would have been grounded due to the lack of crew—which would have punished even more paying customers.
Just as Republicans pined for their old foe Bill Clinton during the Obama years, Trump has made Nancy Pelosi and some members of her party nostalgic for the 43rd president.
In February 2010, a series of billboards began popping up around the nation. A grinning, waving George W. Bush appeared beside the phrase, “Miss Me Yet?” The answer was a resounding, Eh, sorta. Bush had bounced back somewhat from his abysmal final approval rating, but while Republicans were feeling rosier about the ex-president, Democrats were not.
It turns out that for some Democrats, the question was not mistaken but merely premature.
Pelosi is the most specific but not the first example of Democrats expressing surprising fondness for the 43rd president. His refusal to endorse Donald Trump, his decision to skip the Republican National Convention, and rumors that he supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election softened feelings about him. Perhaps his alleged reaction to Trump’s inaugural address was the coup de grace: “That was some weird shit.”