The Rifle Of The Future?

The Army adopted its current battle rifle, the M-16, in 1963.  That’s 55 years ago — the year JFK was assassinated.  That’s an awfully long time by any measure, but an eternity when you consider how much technology has changed and developed since then.

1vjjxjmThe Army has been looking for a new gun for quite some time, and it may just have found it in an inventor’s garage.  The inventor, Martin Grier of Colorado Springs, calls it a “ribbon gun.”  It looks a space age weapon, and it’s clearly a technologically advanced device with a radically different design that would offer soldiers different firing options that could be used depending on the situation.  The article linked above states:  “The specifications are incredible, four 6 mm barrels cut side by side within one steel block. New ammunition blocks fired by electromagnetic actuators that could theoretically give the weapon a firing rate of 250 rounds per second.”  The gun also has a shotgun feature called a “power shot” that would allow soldiers to shoot four bullets simultaneously at the enemy.

The Army has ordered a military grade prototype of the gun for study purposes.  In the meantime, Grier has patented his ribbon gun, which involves inventions that change the nature of the ammunition and the bores through which the ammunition is fired and the method for machining the bores.  It also uses electromagnetic devices to fire the rounds rather than mechanical firing pins and gunpowder.

Inventions in garages are the stuff of American legend, and I’m all for developing new weapons that give our soldiers an edge when they are out protecting our country.  But if the new ribbon gun is the gun of the future, I sure hope its technology stays solely in the hands of the military and doesn’t get out into the civilian population.  Given the mass shootings we’ve endured lately, it’s hard to imagine the kinds of havoc that could occur if a few lunatics got their hands on “ribbon guns.”

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Do Laptops Help Students — Or Hurt?

An economics professor at the Ohio State University named Trevon Logan decided to ban laptops from his class.  The results surprised him: student grades improved significantly.  What’s more, the professor reported that student reaction to the laptop ban was very positive, with students stating that the policy “(1) encouraged them to focus, (2) helped them take better notes, (3) kept them engaged, and (4) increased their enjoyment of the course.”

laptops-lectureProfessor Logan’s experiment is part of a budding movement against student laptop use in favor of old-fashioned pen and paper note-taking.  He was motivated to adopt his ban after reading a New York Times article from a University of Michigan professor, Susan Dynarski, who concluded that “a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them.”

Professor Dynarski thinks there is a cognitive reason for the apparent negative effect of laptops on academic performance.  She has written:  “Learning researchers hypothesize that, because students can type faster than they can write, a lecturer’s words flow straight from the students’ ears through their typing fingers, without stopping in the brain for substantive processing. Students writing by hand, by contrast, have to process and condense the material if their pens are to keep up with the lecture.”  (And these comments do not even mention the other issue with laptops — with the internet a few keystrokes away, how many students are tempted to check on their email and their favorite social media websites during lulls in the lecture?)

I think these Ohio State and Michigan professors are on to something.  Trying to take verbatim notes of a lecture on a laptop, which is apparently what many students do, is more of a typing exercise than a learning exercise.  Handwritten notes, in contrast, require the student to make judgments about what is really important, which in turn requires the student to listen more carefully and assimilate the material.  The combination of active listening and the use of hand and eye to create notes on a piece of paper all facilitate retention — and therefore better grades.

This doesn’t mean laptops are bad, it just means that they aren’t especially well-suited to the unique process of learning.  We should keep that in mind the next time an educational initiative announces, with great fanfare, that every targeted student will be receiving a laptop.  It might be better to hand them notebook paper and a pen instead.

AC Outage

We’re doing a long-distance drive today and — wouldn’t you know it! — mid-trip the air conditioning has gone on the fritz. No matter how longingly I look at the vent, hoping for the arctic blast to which I’m accustomed, only warm, moist air emanates. And, of course, it had to happen on a warm, humid day.

What is this — the ’50s? Time to roll down the windows and hope for a rain shower and a cool breeze.

The Happy Piper And The Colossal Thud

Our modern world of devices and gizmos specializes in sounds as well as visuals and electronic advances.  The acoustic element might be overwhelmed by all of the technological wizardry, but it’s just as crucial to the whole experience — and in my view, pretty intriguing, too.

s-l300I’m not sure who picks the sounds, or what process they follow, but it’s got to be a pretty interesting job.  For example, the remote log-in process for our firm’s computer system requires you to follow several password steps and work through multiple stages of security.  If you successfully navigate all of the safeguards, you get a little audio cue that tells you you’re in.  It’s a rising three-note piping sound that makes you think that Pan is gleeful, perhaps even prancing, about your success in obtaining access.  On the other hand, if you’ve made a false move or mistyped a letter or number in a password, you get the sound of a colossal thud, as if a pallet of bricks has crushed a roomful of outdated electronic equipment and old Blockbuster videos.  It’s the quintessential sound of failure.

Wouldn’t you like to know what other sounds were considered for these purposes?  How many thousands of snippets of sound were evaluated and tested on focus groups before the final sounds were determined?  It’s hard to argue with the happy piper, but I wonder whether the initial notes of Trumpets Voluntary, or the first few chords of Ticket to Ride, were among the finalists?  And while the colossal thud conveys, quite effectively, that you’ve flopped, how about a descending two-note foghorn sound, or the crash of breaking china?

And don’t get me started on ringtones.

A Device-Free Summer

When UJ and I were kids, we spent a few weeks one summer at Camp Y-Noah, located somewhere in northern Ohio.  We took hikes, made crafts, swam in a pond, sang around a campfire, slept in a cabin, learned how to ride a horse, played capture the flag, and ate camp food in a large mess hall.  We also shot bb guns, tried to hit a target with a bow and arrow, and used an outhouse for the first time.  As a tubby, bookish kid, I wasn’t a huge fan of camp, frankly, but it was a good experience to try different things.

ssnl-campynoah-2Those camps are still around.  And, surprisingly to some, they remain attractive to kids — even though many of the camps ban the smartphones, iPads, laptops, and other electronic gizmos that kids are supposed to be addicted to these days.

According to the American Camp Association, there are about 8,400 sleepaway camps in the United States, and about 90 percent of them ban campers from bringing personal electronic devices.  And while some kids — and, surprisingly, parents — try to sneak their way around the rules, and camp counselors have to spend part of their time on the lookout for devices that violate the camp rules, most campers apparently quickly adapt to a life that is focused on the outdoors, without texting, or YouTube, or handheld games.  When they’ve got other fun things to do, the urge to constantly text their friends is apparently less compelling.

I’m not a diehard opponent of technology; electronic devices are a reality of the modern world and kids inevitably are going to use them.  But I do think that it’s good for people to step away from constant connectivity now and then, and enjoy some fresh air and exercise.  I’m glad to see that so many camps have decided to stick to their (bb) guns on this issue and take steps to get campers to leave their devices behind and see what nature offers instead.  I’m not surprised that kids are enjoying the break.

Facebook Changes The Rules

For years, I’ve had our WebnerHouse blog set up so that when I published a post on the blog, it would automatically be posted on my Facebook page.  On August 1, however, Facebook changed the rules.  Effective on that date, third-party platforms like WordPress can no longer automatically post to Facebook pages.

Why did Facebook make that change, exactly?

b9-bWell, apparently because . . . it’s Facebook and it can do whatever the hell it wants.  One website posits that the change was made to respond to the Cambridge Analytica debacle and is part of an effort “to remove re-sharing functionality for many apps . . . in order to limit the activities of auto-posting spammers.”

So, apparently Facebook lumps the WebnerHouse blog in with other bot-driven junk that has been filling Facebook pages for years.  Hey, has Facebook actually read any of the WebnerHouse content?  If they had, they would know that no bot or artificial intelligence could possibly come up with the dreck that poor readers find on our family blog.  Really, it’s an insult to Russian bots, Chinese bots, and every other bot out there.

So now, if I want to put a post on Facebook, I’ve got to do it manually.  It’s a pain, to be sure, but I guess it’s worth it to protect those Facebook pages from the Great Bot and Spam Invasion.

NASA Turns 60

Today NASA celebrates its 60th birthday.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 on July 29, 1958.

63a69251ab87b6532a23a84672c0bb66NASA replaced the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, and President Eisenhower viewed the creation of the agency as an historic step, “further equipping the United States for leadership in the space age” and allowing it to make “an effective national effort in the fields of aeronautics and space exploration.”  You can read the full text of President Eisenhower’s signing statement here.

It is not unusual for federal legislation to be hailed as historic when it is signed, but in the case of the National Aeronautics and Space Act that prediction was entirely accurate.  I think it is safe to say that NASA has met, and greatly exceeded, the goal of allowing the United States to make “an effective national effort in the field of aeronautics and space exploration.”  The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the space shuttle and international space station, and the many unmanned probes and devices that have allowed us to better understand our solar system all bear the indelible imprint of NASA.  NASA has taken human beings to the Moon and brought them safely back home and has given us up-close looks at Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons.  NASA’s efforts have also helped to push advancements in science, technology, and other areas that have now become part of our lives and culture.  By any measure, this still-sprightly 60-year-old has been a spectacular success.

Some people reflexively complain about the creation of any federal agency, but NASA is an example of how mobilizing an effort at the national level and entrusting it to knowledgeable people can accomplish great things.  With private space exploration and travel looming on the immediate horizon, and Congress currently considering how to regulate those private efforts going forward, it will be interesting to see what the next 60 years bring for NASA — the little agency that could.