It’s Called a “Laser”

drevil

In the 1997 action-comedy film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Dr. Evil is trying to come up with an evil plan to blackmail the world. In his second attempt at a viable plan, he explains to his minions that he had developed a weather-changing machine in the 1960s, which was in essence a sophisticated heat beam he called a “laser”. He hand signs quotation marks to call out the term “laser” indicating that the technology was not well known at the time, and no one really should know what a “laser” is. Dr. Evil has just been de-thawed after being cryogenically frozen for 30 years so he doesn’t realize that he is woefully behind the times. He proposes to use this “laser” to blast a hole through the ozone layer causing a mass epidemic in skin cancer. One of his minions nervously informs him that unfortunately this too is already old news. To this, Dr. Evil responds: “Oh hell, let’s just do what we always do, hijack some nuclear weapons and hold the world hostage.”

I’ve been fascinated with technology since I was a kid. Actually, it’s embedded in the genetic code of my family. My parents both earned mathematics degrees in college and were self-taught computer programers by the early 80s. Both of my parents started their own companies writing software and developing databases for various clients to help manage their complex logistics and supply chains. And as a result, I grew up surrounded by and engrossed in technology. Throughout the house, I remember piles of technology magazines stacked everywhere-Scientific American, Wired, Fast Company, Consumer Reports, Popular Science, PC World. I would often page through them looking at the pictures with interest. Given my parents’ profession, I also used computers from a very early age–well, at least for my generation. We owned the first of everything, the first Apple II Computer, the first Macintosh, a state-of-the-art dot matrix printer and the first decent PC–long before “normal” people owned desktop computers. Already at the age of six, I had learned basic programming and begun playing the full range of now classic computer games-Space Eggs, Lode Runner, Dark Castle-a habit that has stuck with me into my adult life. I began using Yahoo when it was still called Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web (That’s also B.G. or before Google). I made my first purchase on Amazon when it only sold books to customers in the United States. I learned to program in HTML when it was the primary programming language for internet websites.

Over the course of my life, I have witnessed firsthand the rapid advance of the information and communications sectors. Growing up without wireless Internet, cell phones or online retailers, the Digital Age profoundly changed my daily life while I was transitioning from my teen years into adulthood. When I went off to college, I took my beige-colored Mac with me, and I was one of only a few students with a personal computer. It was shaped as rectangle box containing a monitor and disk drive and powered by 128 KB of RAM. Since the Mac did not have an internal hard drive, I used 3.5 floppy disks with a capacity of 400 KB each to store my data (it’s astounding to compare this to the capacity of my iPhone 5). Today, such computers reside in museum exhibits on the evolution of information technology.

When I first started college, I think my parents might have been hoping that I would major in something “useful” (aka, technical) in college (preferably, math, engineering, science, computer science), which really just meant something they envisioned would lead to a real job. My brother followed in their footsteps, majored in computer science and started his own company to write software for clients. But I was never one to follow any prescribed path (even if genetic), I’ve always preferred the road not taken. So, I studied French, German and Art at Calvin College and eventually majored in German. And I really had no idea if this would lead to a real job. Spoiler alert: It did.

I got my first real job as a translator while I was still studying at Calvin College. From 1996-1998, I worked for a German manufacturing company called RailTec Automation Technology GmbH located deep within Germany’s wine country. RailTec was a manufacturer of high-tech railroad diagnostic equipment. The equipment was uniquely integrated into a single railway tie and designed to detect the temperature and other characteristics of bearings, brakes and wheels as a train passed overhead. If there were anomalies, the system would send alarms, and railway engineers could stop the train to avoid a possible derailment. RailTec was seeking to expand to other markets and needed all of its technical documentation translated from German into English. I was hired to take on this difficult task. This is not something I wanted to get wrong (Headline reads: Translators messes up, train derails, killing passengers). In order to get the correct terminology in my translation, I had to use a specialized technical dictionary. I also spent hours with the RailTec engineers in the lab where they showed me how the system functioned step by step.

After about a year into my work, the President of RailTec asked me to accompany him on a promotional trip to Indonesia and Australia and serve as his interpreter. The trip was led by the Economic Minister of Rhineland-Pfalz and was intended to help medium-sized businesses from the region expand into markets overseas. I wasn’t by any measure a professional interpreter, but I had superb command of the technical language associated with the railway and knew RailTec’s system inside and out. So, off I went, accompanying the CEOs of about 20 medium-sized German companies to meet with government officials and the private sectors of Indonesia and Australia. In Australia, we traveled to Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney and met with the owners of the railway to pitch RailTec’s system as the prime solution for detecting train defects. At one point, the President stopped giving the presentations in German altogether and just let me explain how the system functioned in English. He joked that I didn’t really need him anymore.

After finishing my B.A. in German, I landed my second real job at Leitz Tooling, Inc in Grand Rapids, MI, a American subsidiary of a German manufacturing firm. Leitz Tooling is one of the leading manufacturers of machine tools for processing wood and advanced materials worldwide. These high-end tools included tungsten carbide saw blades, planing tools, profiling tools and routing and drilling tools for CNC machinery. Many of the more expensive tools were tipped with synthetic diamonds. I was hired on as the Marketing Coordinator for North America and Canada. In this job, I was responsible for the company presence at trade shows across the United States and Canada and supported over 50 salespeople in the field with marketing materials I designed. As part of my work, I produced a catalog with technical details for over 500 items.

Now as an expert on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) at National Defense University (NDU), technology continues to be an important theme in my life. At NDU, I am engaged in a research project that explores the impact of emerging technologies such as 3D printing, advanced robotics, nanotechnology and synthetic biology on the WMD threat space.

It should not come as huge surprise that the plots of my trilogy of political thrillers will be driven by several technologies that are predicted to transform society and our daily lives. Two of the technologies featured in The Nuclear Conspiracy (book 1) employ “lasers”in new advanced applications: laser enrichment and selective laser sintering. Laser enrichment is a new technique for enriching uranium for use in a nuclear power plant or a nuclear bomb–cue scary music. Selective laser sintering is an additive manufacturing technique (3D printing) that uses a later to fuse powder material (plastic, metal, ceramic, etc) layer by layer into a 3D object. This technique is being used by General Electric, Boeing, Raytheon and others to manufacture parts for aircraft and missiles. The antagonist in The Nuclear Conspiracy will leverage these new technologies to carry out a nefarious plot to…oops, I can’t say more than that right now, or I would give too much away, and you won’t read my book. Needless to say, I will draw inspiration for my criminal mastermind in part from Dr. Evil.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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