5 Intriguing Things: Thursday, 2/13

A man with two hooks and a gun, fusion, starting cars with phones, what Charlie Chaplin really looked like, and the ancestors of this newsletter.

1. Private investigator and grinder hero Jay J. Armes was one of People magazine's 25 Most Intriguing People in 1975

"The seeds of discord had been scattered unexpectedly the previous day, at a corner table of El Paso’s Miguel Steak and Spirits where Jay Armes sat with his back to the wall regaling the Canadians and two American magazine writers with tales of his escapades, or 'capers,' as he called them.

He talked of the long helicopter search and dramatic rescue of Marlon Brando’s son Christian from a remote Mexican seaside cave where the lad was being held by eight dangerous hippies; of the time he piloted his glider into Cuba and recovered $2 million of his client’s “assets”; of the famous Mexican prison break, another helicopter caper which, he said, inspired the Charles Bronson movie Breakout; of the “Onion King Caper” in which a beautiful model shot her octogenarian husband, then turned a shotgun on herself because Armes wouldn’t spend the night with her—all incredible adventures of a super-sleuth, adventures made more incredible by the fact that both of Jay Armes’ hands had been blown off in a childhood dynamite accident.

He raised one of his gleaming steel hooks, signaling the waitress, still watching the faces around the table. Too much, they said in admiration: how did he do it? “I read the book,” Armes replied enigmatically, “and I saw the play.” That was one of his best lines."

2. A major milestone in fusion power! The National Ignition Facility uses $3.5 billion worth of lasers to heat a tiny capsule of fuel. For the first time, they got more energy out of the system than they put into it. But... 

"Employing 1.9 megajoules in slightly more than a nanosecond, the lasers deliver 500 terawatts of power inside the hohlraum (a terawatt is a trillion watts). A cloud of helium gas holds back the gold plasma that would otherwise intrude as the laser power is translated into x-rays by the hohlraum. These x-rays hit the plastic shell of the capsule, which absorbs roughly one tenth of the energy put into the lasers to begin with. That's enough energy to obliterate the outside shell and drive the fuel together "like a rocket," in the words of Hurricane, collapsing the sphere of fuel until it is one thirty-fifth its original size in almost no time at all, the equivalent of going from a sphere the size of a basketball to one the size of a pea almost instantly. The fuel absorbs roughly one tenth of the energy delivered by the x-rays onto the plastic capsule. That energy and implosion create a high pressure (150 gigabars) region of fusion that is even smaller than the layer of fuel itself—a hotspot that is 60 microns in diameter and shaped, depending on the qualities of the shot, like a doughnut without a hole, or an apple...
It is here in the hotspot that the fuel reaches more than 50 million kelvins (about 50 million degrees C) and experiences 150 billion Earth-atmospheres worth of pressure. The fusion of deuterium and tritium that results under those conditions produces helium and a spare neutron, and releases some 17,000 joules of energy in the process. [Ed: This is not a lot.]
In other words, these ferocious conditions almost three times denser than the center of the sun release the same amount of energy embodied by a downhill skier going 58 kilometers per hour (by Hurricane's calculations). All told, only about 1 percent of the energy from the lasers ends up in the fuel, which then pumps out 17,000 joules’ worth of energy, or less than the energy needed to make the DT fuel in the first place. All of it lasts for 150 picoseconds, or 150 trillionths of a second, before the fusion zone blows itself apart. "

3. 20,000 people an hour are starting their GM cars from their phones. And GM is tracking this.

"GM’s most impressive app, though, was the one it designed itself. Called Vehicle Health Monitor, the app does a complete diagnostic check of the car’s systems, pointing out possible issues on easy-to-read vehicle diagrams. And if it finds a problem it will even offer to book a maintenance appointment with your dealership, searching its appointment book for open time slots.

The Vehicle Health app is an example of GM moving outside the confines of the infotainment system and tapping into the control access networks of the car itself. Other automakers have built similar diagnostic applications, but the difference here is that GM is going to extend that access to developers through application programming interfaces. One day Pandora may be able to automatically select a music station based on how fast you’re driving or whether the windshield wipers are on.

Tapping vehicle telematics systems could wind up being one of GM’s most popular development features if usage of GM’s own OnStar Remote Link service is any indication. Abram said that in January automated digital interactions with OnStar nearly surpassed voice interactions with live OnStar advisors. Because of the cold wave sweeping the country, OnStar is processing about 20,000 remote engine starts an hour from its Remote Link smartphone app, so drivers can pre-warm their cars."

4. I realized that I never really knew what Charlie Chaplin looked like

"A photographic portrait of Charlie Chaplin as a young man, Hollywood, taken around 1916 by an unknown photographer. 

Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin (1899-1977) was an English comic actor and film producer and director of the silent film era."

5. I'd take any of you over Catherine the Great or Frederick II of Prussia.

"Grimm's interest was in what John Milton called a 'fit audience, though few' — but Grimm defined fitness by social standing. He counted among his subscribers Catherine the Great of Russia, Frederick II of Prussia, and several other European kings, princes, and aristocrats. Their interest in the newsletter seems to have been both personal — wanting to be "in the know" about the goings-on in Paris, the cultural capital of their world — but also politically self-interested, since some of the French thinkers took rather extreme political positions which, in the nature of things, were likely to spread to the intellectuals of the rest of Europe.

Moreover, these handwritten newsletters, even though not written in Grimm's own hand, had the personal touch: they were not official publications, diplomatic dispatches, authorized works of scholarship, but confidential and gossipy letters from knowledgable and charming friends. There was something of both stock and flow about them. They brought cultural and artistic news the subscribers weren't likely to get otherwise, at least not in so reliable a form, but they also explained what one should think about, how one should evaluate, the ever-changing, dynamic, rollicking world of Parisian art and culture. La Correspondance may not have had many subscribers, but I bet on the day of any given issue's delivery the readers' pulses were reliably racing."

Today's 1957 American English Usage Tip:

apocrypha. Writings or statements of doubtful authorship or authority. Pl., but commonly used as a singular. (The sing. of the Greek form, formerly used in English, is apocryphon.) When a plural is needed, now apocryphas, formerly apocryphy

One apocryphon, two apocryphy.

All of It Lasts for 150 Trillionths of a Second, Before the Fusion Zone Blows Itself Apart

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