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My 2 Hobbyhorses Appear in the News Yet Again

November 5, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Judging from my (sporadic) blog posts over the past few years, it would seem that I have two hobbyhorses: peak helium, and transcranial direct-current stimulation (or tDCS).

Both of these topics appeared in the news in the past week, though I wouldn't have known if not for thoughtful readers bringing the articles to my attention.

Yesterday, both Brendan Hong and Terry England brought these posts to my attention.  (And they did so within 5 minutes of each other, according to the timestamps on my inbox.)  Western Digital, a manufacturer of hard drives, has announced its intent to start building drives filled with helium gas rather than regular air (which is roughly 80% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, with trace amounts of argon, carbon dioxide, and other gases).  The idea, as far as I can tell, is to reduce wind resistance for the spinning platters inside the drives.  (Since a helium atom is less massive than any of the atmospheric constituents listed above, moving through a helium atmosphere would require less mechanical work than moving through an atmosphere comprising heavier gases.  It boils down to conservation of momentum, or to look at it a different way, the force (really impulse) required to shunt the atoms or molecules aside.) 

It doesn't seem like such a crazy idea.  They seem fairly confident that this move will enable them to pack more data into a hard drive enclosure.  (Though I wonder why, if the enclosure has to be air-tight anyway, why not pump it down to something approximating a vacuum?  That would offer less drag than even hydrogen gas.  Perhaps it's too difficult to achieve as a manufacturing process for mass-produced objects?  I don't know.)

I do however groan when I see statements like that near the end of the original article, which claims there's a "plentiful" supply of helium.  That might not be the case for much longer, as I've mentioned a few times.  (I also roll my eyes at the suggestion that the use of helium will eliminate the drag entirely.  I… doubt this.)

Meanwhile, reader Andrew Healy pointed me to an article about tDCS in last weekend's New York Times Magazine.  There was also this piece in the same paper, which appeared last week.  While I agree with the statement that tDCS "is not black magic" — I mean, of course not!  It's MAD SCIENCE—I'm troubled by some of the other information put forward in the second article.  One researcher is quoted as saying, “tDCS needs to be coupled with adequate cognitive training," which I find inherently limiting.  What tDCS really needs is to be coupled with a profound Nietzschean Will to Power.

I admit I'm also disappointed that both articles overlook the potential for developing bona fide superpowers.


Steve Halter November 6, 2013 at 6:38 am

The main problem with a vacuum that I can think of off the top of my head would be that the drive heads actually use the air as a bearing and so essentially "fly" above the drive. In a vacuum, some other means of maintaining head "flying height." The height is currently in the range of 3 nanometers.

Ian November 6, 2013 at 8:15 am

I didn't know that!  Thank you for setting me straight.  That's fascinating, and I have to say, rather impressive.

Tengland November 7, 2013 at 2:12 pm

So I assume, then, that the helium also would provide the bearing and be able to hold up the heads. One would assume that the designers have checked to make sure, but sometimes you just never know. And if you store audio files on those disks, will the helium make everyone's voices come out squeaky?

Nice to know there's someone else out there watching for He stories, too.

Steve Halter November 8, 2013 at 6:42 am

 Yes, the helium is still acting as the air bearing. Getting that to work right and sealing the thing properly were probably the two big technical hurdles they had to overcome.

Luckily, they also supply the reverse-chipmunk filter to take care of audio files. :-)

Andrew Healy November 10, 2013 at 3:47 pm

I must confess to not knowing what "adequate cognitive training" is, exactly.  I thought one of the potential purposes to tDCS was to enhance one's cognitive skills, and/or motor skills. 

More so, however,  is my understanding of what profound Nietzschean Will to Power is, as in, I have no idea what this means.  Does it have something to do with a person's strength of will, their desire to achieve a specific goal?  How would one go about testing one's strength of will (which would be interesting on a separate note) unless it was through the speed with which one achieved one's objective?

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