When you have a bunch of smart people with a broad enough charter, you will always get something good out of it. It’s one of the best investments you could possibly make—but only if you chose to value it in terms of successes. If you chose to evaluate it in terms of how many times you failed, or times you could have succeeded and didn’t, then you are bound to be unhappy. There will be some ideas that don’t get caught in your cup. But that’s not what the game is about. The game is what you catch, not what you spill.
Nathan Myhrvold, quoted in “Creation Myth,” by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, May 16, 2011
1945: Arthur C. Clarke begins privately circulating copies of a paper that proposes using space satellites for global communications.
It was a bold suggestion for 1945, as the war was just winding down and most people were undoubtedly more concerned about the necessities of life than they were with beaming radio waves down from space. But Clarke, a physicist and budding science-fiction author, had his head firmly in the future. The paper, “The Space-Station: Its Radio Applications,” suggests that space stations could be used for broadcasting television signals (.pdf).
The Space-station was originally conceived as a refueling depot for ships leaving the Earth. As such it may fill an important though transient role in the conquest of space, during the period when chemical fuels are employed…. However, there is at least one purpose for which the station is ideally suited and indeed has no practical alternative. This is the provision of world-wide ultra-high-frequency radio services, including television.
(Television itself was barely a commercial reality at this point, so that’s some forward thinking.)
Clarke followed up on this private paper with an article published in October 1945 in Wireless World titled, “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” The paper discusses how rocket technology, such as that used in German V-2s during the war, could be turned to peaceful ends by launching artificial satellites into orbit. All you needed, Clarke argued, was a rocket capable of pushing a payload past an orbital-insertion velocity of 8 km/second [5 miles/second].
However, the smallest orbits — such as those that would be used by the Russian Sputnik satellites in the following decade — would circle the earth in about 90 minutes. Because of basic orbital mechanics, the farther out you could get a satellite, the slower its orbit around the Earth would be. At one point, about 42,000 km [about 26,100 miles] from the center of the Earth, the satellite’s orbit would be exactly 24 hours, the same as the Earth’s rotation. Clarke wrote, in Wireless World:
A body in such an orbit, if its plane coincided with that of the earth’s equator, would revolve with the earth and would thus be stationary above the same spot on the planet. It would remain fixed in the sky of a whole hemisphere and unlike all other heavenly bodies would neither rise nor set.
Clarke wasn’t the first to propose such an orbit, known as geostationary, but his essay did popularize the idea. And while it may have seemed far-fetched in 1945, it was less than 12 years before Sputnik and only 17 years before the first TV broadcast satellite, Telstar. Then, in 1965, Intelsat began launching the first satellite system based on geostationary satellites, and there are more than 300 such satellites in Clarke orbits today. The future of communications evolved much as Clarke had foreseen it.
Although Clarke eventually became more famous as a science-fiction author, penning such classics as 2001and Childhood’s End, he regarded his satellite proposal as more significant. I interviewed Clarke for a profile inMobile PC magazine’s March 2004 issue. The headline referred to him as “The Father of the Star Child.” He replied with this note, handwritten on a reprint of his original Wireless World story:
Appreciate the write-up in March … but I think being ‘father’ of the COMSAT more important than the Star Child!
Decades after its birth, the laser is still irresistibly cool.
How many other fifty-somethings can you say that about?
Even though lasers are as common as dirt now, appearing in everything from DVD players to supermarket scanners to computer mice, there’s still a certain appeal to a beam of coherent, monochromatic light. Especially if it’s dangerously powerful.
So it’s no surprise that people can’t resist playing with lasers, building their own, customizing them and, of course, setting stuff on fire with them.
Theodore Maiman probably never foresaw the ways his creation would be used when he first turned it on in 1960. But then again, he might be happy to know that someone has come up with actual laser rayguns.
Pulse Laser Gun Mk II
At the top of the do-it-yourself laser pyramid is this amazing pulse gun, capable of pumping out 1 megawatt of coherent light in short pulses.
As the video shows, that’s enough to punch holes in plastic and, of course, pop balloons. Add a focusing lens and the beam of laser light creates a tiny, intensely hot ball of plasma that can burn holes in aluminum and char wood.
It weighs almost 2 pounds, but has a self-contained battery pack capable of 50 shots. It may not be practical as a weapon, but like other powerful lasers, it’s very, very dangerous.
During our visit to his workspace, the aptly-named Hazardfactory, he demonstrated how two long propane-filled tubes can act as a kind of fiery audio EQ meter. He created a fierce ball of flame in the middle of a hoop-shaped sculpture he calls “The Singularity.” He showed off flame-throwing rayguns (sadly not currently in operation) and talked about how he was organizing a league to play one of his favorite sports, flaming tetherball.
And then, while standing next to several large propane tanks and a lot of gas-filled tubing, a visitor who was helping Oliver lit a cigarette.
No big deal, Oliver shrugged. If someone wants to set fire to the occasional cigarette in his shop, he’s OK with that.
This article is the first in a series of profiles about do-it-yourselfers and people who make amazing things.
Oliver, an artist, got into playing with fire after meeting Mark Pauline, the founder of Survival Research Laboratories, a San Francisco-area outfit that stages violent, destructive robot battles.
“It was the first kind of art I found really gripping,” says Oliver.
That was 10 or 15 years ago. Since then he’s made fire arts into a full-time business for himself. At Hazardfactory, a grungy but workmanlike space in Seattle’s industrial South Park district, he makes his artworks and does fabrication projects for clients, including Gabe Newell, the co-founder of Valve, the videogame publisher.
Oliver presides over the genial mess of his shop in a big leather apron and gloves. He’s got a ruggedly handsome face and the kind of big hands that could easily crush yours in a handshake if you aren’t careful.
When we visited, a few other people were there, sort of helping him and sort of just watching. Oliver teaches welding classes, sponsors power-tool drag-racer-construction workshops, and is organizing that flaming tetherball league.
He also does workshops with teenagers, teaching them how to weld and then setting them loose on a collection of scrap bicycles to see what rideable contraptions they can come up with.
Because Oliver’s sculptures are a little dangerous, he prefers to deliver them as performances rather than permanent installations. Watching him fiddle with the dials on multiple propane canisters, you can see that displaying a sculpture might be tricky.
About “The Singularity,” Oliver says, “I built this for a very specific purpose, which is to see if I could keep a ball of fire static in the middle.”
And he can. The sculpture looks simple: It’s a hoop of copper tubing with nozzles pointed inward toward the center. Propane feeds into it through two separate intakes. After some adjustment, he gets it dialed in.
A blue-white, blazingly hot ball of fire pulsates in the middle of the hoop. Everything else in the room fades into darkness, as we stare into the ever-changing heart of a naked, unchained furnace of flame.
The ball of fire is just a couple feet from our unprotected flesh, warming our faces like a miniature sun. Every time Oliver tweaks the dials, alarming yellow jets of fire bloom upward from the fireball. Somehow the warehouse doesn’t burn down.
He’s not above using fire to startle bystanders. At one recent gathering, Oliver says, he hooked up a propane jet to the bottom of a barbecue where he was cooking hamburgers. Whenever a customer asked for a toasted bun, Oliver would place it over the jet’s nozzle and stomp a foot pedal, triggering the flow of propane. A huge ball of flame would burst out of the grill with a gut-shaking WHOMP! and the bun, now charred to blackness, would go tumbling end over end into the air.
Oliver was also involved in a pilot for a Discovery Channel show called Weaponizers. He and three other builders created fully armed, full-sized, remote-controlled automobiles, which they then pitted against one another in an apparently no-holds-barred desert battle. The first episode of Weaponizers features lots of gratuitous explosions. It’s awesome.
As if fire weren’t enough, one of Oliver’s current projects is an effort to mix flame and high voltage. He starts with two “Rubens’ Tubes,” long perforated pipes through which propane flows, turning into flames at each opening. The pipes are connected to an audio source, and once he dials in the propane flow just right, the flames move in sync with the sound waves, forming a kind of burning EQ meter.
When Oliver runs current through the pipes, it arcs from one to the other and also does something hard to describe to the flames: Their shape changes, they become more compact, and the flames on the top start burning down, toward the lower pipe, instead of going up as flames normally do. Seeing that, you might start to see how electrical fields could be used to put out fires, as Harvard researchers recently demonstrated.
You can get a glimpse of the effect in the video below.
It’s an experiment, Oliver says, but even he isn’t entirely sure what the ultimate outcome will be. Mostly it’s a chance to mess around with dangerous stuff and see if he can produce some cool effects. Getting the best effects, it turns out, takes a lot of messing around.
SAN FRANCISCO — Trust us. We’re not going to screw up Skype.
That was the message Microsoft delivered Tuesday, hours after formally announcing that it was buying the internet telephony pioneer for a staggering $8.5 billion — staggering because it’s more than the Redmond giant has ever paid for anything, and because Skype doesn’t exactly print money.
But in an early morning press conference, as Google strutted for its Android developers in another part of town, an increasingly mobile-minded Microsoft made the Skype acquisition seem like the most logical thing ever. And, it said, it has no intention of messing with the brand which has become a consumer favorite and synonymous with the disruption of the telephone business.
We know what we’re doing, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said on a noticeably small stage he shared with Skype CEO Tony Bates to explain why the merger of their two companies makes sense.
“We’re irrepressible,” said Ballmer. “This Skype acquisition is completely consistent with our ambitious, forward-looking, irrepressible nature. Microsoft and Skype will bring together hundreds of millions — or as Tony said, billions! — of consumers and empower them to connect in new and interesting ways. It’s core to our mission, and it’s core to our technology direction.”
Microsoft’s acquisition of the Luxembourg-based Skype will close this year, assuming it passes regulatory muster, the executives said.
Skype is the poster child for voice-over-internet-protocol — or VOIP — services, which allow customers to place telephone calls using the internet’s infrastructure instead of the phone company’s. Most people use Skype to place free calls to other Skype users. After its founding in 2003, eBay paid $3.1 billion for Skype in 2005, then sold the majority of it to an investment group in 2009 for $1.9 billion.
Skype is popular, especially among people who use its services to place international calls cheaply or for free. But it hasn’t exactly captialized on the social networking revolution and has faced carrier resistance in its efforts to create fully featured mobile clients. Meanwhile, Google acquired a competing service, Grand Central, for a reported $50 million in 2007, eventually launching it as Google Voice in 2009. Google recently struck a deal with Sprint, enabling Sprint customers to integrate their phone numbers with Google Voice.
Microsoft’s purchase of Skype is arguably as much about defense as offense. It denies Skype to, say, Facebook and Google, both of which were reported just days ago to be interested in in partnering with, and possibly buying it. As carriers de-emphasize what are becoming commoditized calling minutes in favor of pricier data bytes, Microsoft’s strategic alliance with Nokia also gives it huge reach in the distribution of Skype-integrated handsets.
However, that seems like a rich price tag for a company that only generated $860 million in revenue in the most recent year and $264 million in operating profit — yet no net profit at all. Microsoft is paying about $50 for each of Skype’s 170 million users, or about $1,000 for each of its 8 million paying customers.
Ballmer seemed optimistic about Skype’s ability to integrate into Microsoft’s current businesses, such as Windows Live Messenger and the corporate-oriented Lync. He said he expected to apply “classic” business metrics to evaluate the success or failure of the new Skype division.
Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research, said that while Skype probably wouldn’t generate much revenue for Microsoft directly, it could be a valuable addition to other internet-based services, in which e-mail, voice and video are all becoming part of the same stream of data.
“Part of the bet that Microsoft is placing is that this technology helps them do a better job of delivering to that river of communications,” Golvin said.
For instance, Golvin suggested, the company could integrate Skype into Xbox and Xbox Live, which — with the addition of Kinect — have become more voice-centric products in the last year.
Both executives sought to reassure Skype customers who might be worried about Microsoft’s ability and willingness to support the multiplatform software, which is available for Windows, OS X and Linux PCs; Android, BlackBerry and iOS smartphones; and even televisions.
“We’re one of the few companies that has actually has a track record of doing this,” said Ballmer, pointing to the company’s Mac support over the years. “Fundamental to the value proposition of communications is being able to reach everybody, whether they happen to be on your devices or not.”
“The commitment from Microsoft to support multiplatform clients is absolutely critical,” Bates said, indicating that Skype got assurances from Microsoft that it would continue to support all of Skype’s platforms.
Finally, Ballmer indicated no intention to take on the carriers in an aggressive attempt to bring VOIP services into Windows Phone 7. Indeed, Ballmer said, “the partnership and collaboration that we have today [with carriers] is fundamental.”
Bates pointed to Skype’s track record of striking deals with carriers to offer Skype services as a differentiating feature.
In other words, expect Microsoft to try to sell Skype to carriers, not use it to bash them about the head with VOIP services that reduce their billable minutes.