Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category.

Creative Destruction

CFL Bulbs Suck. However, I Like LED's

A number of years ago, there was a push by many Leftish technocrats for the government to mandate a standardized cell phone power cord.  Beyond demonstrating that there is no personal irritation too trivial for some to demand government action, this would have been an awful idea.  Why?  Because when these demands for action came, cell phone power cords were just that, power.  If a standard cord had been mandated, then current designs that use a USB connection for both data and power would have been illegal, at least without the vendor also putting in a connection for the government standard connector as well.  There is always danger to the government setting arbitrary standards, but these dangers are an order of magnitude higher when the technology is still in flux.

So enter light bulbs.  The government has decided to ban incandescent light bulbs and while not mandating them, it has actively encouraged people to purchase expensive CFL bulbs.  The only problem is that CFL bulbs suck.  The light from them has bad color qualities, many take a long time to warm up, they are hard to dim, and they contain toxic substances.  They also have nothing like the multi-year life we are promised.  I have tried CFL bulbs of many, many brands and none have consistently achieved their promised life.

But as much as I hate CFL's, I am coming to love LED-based lights.  LED lights use even less energy than CFL's and last a really long time.  The technology allows for color tweaking better than CFL's, and already the warm white LED's I am buying (color temperatures around 2900K) are better to my eye than CFL's, and there is no fast-flicker problem that gives some people headaches.  Dimable versions are coming out, and prices are dropping but they are still expensive.   About half my house is LED now, and I am told that landscape lighting is quickly going all LED.

The main cost to LED's is that they all have to have a transformer.  LED's run at low voltages, like 5v, so house current has to be stepped down at every bulb.  LED's in theory should run cool and be cheap, but they are expensive and run hot because of the transformers.

Which leads me to wonder whether we may start wiring houses for 12v in parallel to 110v.  When I grew up, nearly everything I plugged into the wall -- lights, motors, appliances -- ran on 110V.  Now, most everything (other than appliances) that I plug in the wall actually needs 5-12v  (computers, cell phones, all my audio equipment except big amps).  I don't know enough about power lines to know if this is feasible.  I am pretty sure the resistance losses for 12V DC would be too high, so it would have to be 12V AC, but a diode bridge and some capacitors is a hell of a lot smaller and cheaper than a full blown transformer.  I know my landscape lighting has long runs of 12V, that seems to work OK.  It is also a hell of a lot safer to work with.

Screwed Up And Updated to iOS6

This weekend I was driving all over the NYC area when I saw that iOS6 was available.  Stupidly, without reading reviews, I updated hoping to get the new verbal turn-by-turn directions  (the old iPhone navigation app was pretty much worthless if you are alone in the car as it did not have any verbal output).

I then spent the rest of the weekend following bizarre side roads, on tiny dirt roads, or getting instructions to turn a couple of hundred yards after I had passed the intersection.  At one point I got send off the highway on a 3 mile detour through some housing tract only to eventually be put right back on the same highway I started, about 100 yards from where it had me turn off.  I am sure that it will improve in the future, but right now the new Apple nav program is a half-baked mess.  My old Android phone was better for navigation three years ago, and I am sure Google has improved it since.  If I had to drive a lot on business trips, I would be back on Android in a second.

Diamond Age

3D desktop printers are really making progress.  My sense is that soon this will be absolutely essential for my hobby (model railroading).

Update:  You don't have to own one, a number of companies emerging that will print your designs for you.  About 5 seconds after I posted the hypothesis that I would soon need a 3D printer for model railroading, I read a model railroad blog post about ordering a custom locomotive shell from this site.  From that site saw an idea I had not thought of - custom Legos!  How often in my young Lego-obsessed days did I long for a special piece of a certain shape that did not exist.  Now, make your own!

Creative Destruction

I thought this was an interesting example of creative destruction.  Five years ago, Time and Newsweek were running cover stories about the "Blackberry" culture and how ubiquitous the device was in modern business.  Now, people are making fun of it for being outdated tech.  If only we could get the average voter to truly appreciate creative destruction.  We might have fewer bailouts and more economic growth.

By the way, Canada says it won't bail out Blackberry, which is good, but is interesting given that it did bail out the Canadian automotive sector just a few years ago.  In terms of total market value I would guess the Canadian automotive sector is way smaller than Blackberry at its peak.  Only a cynic would suggest the difference is that the auto sector is unionized and therefore politically organized to generate campaign donations and grass roots get-out-the-vote efforts, while RIM is not.  That would imply that bailouts were due to political pull rather than sound and consistent economic reasoning, which I am sure can't possibly be true.

PS- there are still good and valid reasons for enterprises, like the Administration and government agencies, to use the Blackberry over smartphones.  Just because they are out of favor with 16-year-old girls does not mean they don't have utility. Oddly, though, given this particular niche and comparative advantage, RIM seems to be obsoleting its installed base of enterprise servers.   I am not an expert, but I think a lot of enterprises would stick with Blackberry for quite a while just out of inertia and lack of desire to change.  But now that Blackberry is forcing them to rethink their whole enterprise platform anyway, it seems to allow other competitors solutions into play.  Or am I missing something?

Update:  Apparently RIM is saying the previous paragraph is incorrect, that the new servers will support all the old devices ... except for email, calendar, and contacts.  Unfortunately, this seems to encompass the entire Blackberry functionality.  I have had one or two of the devices, and you are a nut if you are trying to surf the web on one as your main usage.


I will give a rare kudo to a government agency.  I am sure it cost way too much, but I must say the Curiosity landing and the way it was done is extraordinarily cool.  These concept images help bring it to life.

Cool Tech...

...though not as cool as I thought at first.  I thought the machine actually arranged the bricks, but that is done by hand.  Still, it eliminates a ton of stoop work with people placing bricks at table-top level.  I am sure it is more efficient, though I want the one where the machine arranges the bricks itself.  Video at the link


Steampunk Radar

I thought this was an interesting, pre-radar technology that has a lot of visual appeal.  These are Japanese devices for detecting aircraft approach by listening for their motor

Apple Newsstand is a Mess

I have written before that despite being a PC guy, the iPod 2 is probably the greatest piece of gear of I have ever owned.  I take it with me everywhere.

However, the newsstand is a half-baked mess, and is so bad I can't believe they saw fit to release it in this form.  The navigation is totally non-intuitive.  I am never clear if I am going to go to the store or my list of downloaded magazines when clicking on a link.  The library seems to forget that I own certain issues, and because of the choices Apple made, trying to Kluge the thing into its apps store interface, every magazine is really its own app and the Newstand is actually nothing much more than a folder holding all the apps.  This means that the interface changes radically from magazine to magazine.  In half the magazines, I still have not been able to figure out how to navigate from inside a single issue back to the overall issue list.  And don't look for an integrated issue list across all magazines - there is none.  You have to go into every single magazine app to see what issues are available in that particular product.

Worse, the subscription system does not seem to work for many of the magazines.  I have subscribed to magazines, but that fact  is not always obvious in the interface.  And in many cases, the magazines I get to download seem to have little relationship to whether I subscribed.  For example, I subscribed to PC Gamer but am not offered any of the newest issues to download -- they show up as requiring a full price purchase.

There are other bizarre touches as well.  The newstand has a little red "2" icon in the corner, which in the apps store means there are two apps that have updates.   But I can't figure which of my magazines needs updating -- there is no icon on the individual magazines hinting they need updating somehow, and there is no "update all" button or even a button to see a list of updates available as there is in the app store.  Yes, I know the new issues are theoretically supposed to download automatically.  The NYT does.  A number of magazines don't, and I have had to go into the store and click on them to get them to download.

Finally, looking at my iphone, which should have a mirror of all the magazines I have bought on the ipad (same apple account), only about half the magazines show up.

This is just a big, big disappointing mess, all the more so because the iPad feels like the perfect device to read magazines.  I can only guess this was all driven by a desire to reuse the existing apps micro-payments infrastructure, but the result is very un-Apple.  The only reason one tolerates Apple's closed ecosystem and resulting loss of options and flexibility is because it yields predictability, particularly in the interface.  Apple has thrown that all away with Newsstand and I can't believe their user community is going to tolerate it.

Update:  I just googled the Newsstand and I get pages and pages of positive reviews.  This absolutely has to be Apple fan-boy crap.  Really, the Newsstand interface is really awful.

Update#2:  The NYTimes apps seems to work beautifully, but most of the magazines have weird interfaces.  Again, Apple does not seem to have imposed a single interface structure on magazine app developers, so they all have their own.

The Diamond Age

This is pretty cool

NeverWet Fabrics from Ross Nanotechnology on Vimeo.

Note sure why the video just went private. Check out their web site here: See the second video on the video page, never wet on shoes.

Steampunk GPS

Steve Jobs has Passed Away at 56

[source] In some very real ways, the Apple II computer changed the course of my life from being a lawyer to an engineer.  If for nothing else, I owe Mr. Jobs a lot.  Though I have never been a huge fan of the MacIntosh computers (a true power user would never tolerate a computer "for the rest of us"), I have come back around to the Apple family of late, first with the marvelous iPod and later with the iPad, still the greatest piece of gear I have ever owned.

Mr. Jobs got rich off of people like me, but far from resenting it, I feel like he was under paid.  My consumer surplus from many of the products he helped create dwarfs what I paid for them.  He made me wealthier and happier, and the world loses a lot with his passing.

Rapid Obsolescence

My son is taking the Spanish AP exam tomorrow and told me on Sunday he needed a cassette tape recorder for the oral part of the exam -- not one of the mini dictation ones but the kind of cassettes you used to use in your car.

Talk about a ubiquitous technology that has all but disappeared in 10 years!  After a lot of looking, thank God for Amazon same day home delivery, I found one they could deliver in time today  (the item gets good reviews, though the most recent review was in 2002!)

Update: Per the comments, fortunately they are providing the tape.

Japanese Nukes, Michael Crichton, and Frank Borman

I have always enjoyed Michael Crichton's books, but sometimes turn up my nose at his science.  I must say though that the chain of seemingly stupid errors that led to the park crashing in Jurassic Park bear an amazing resemblance to what is going on with the Japanese nuclear plans.  I don't buy his application of chaos theory to the chain of events, but its hard not to see parallels to this:

Engineers had begun using fire hoses to pump seawater into the reactor — the third reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 complex to receive the last-ditch treatment — after the plant's emergency cooling system failed. Company officials said workers were not paying sufficient attention to the process, however, and let the pump run out of fuel, allowing the fuel rods to become partially exposed to the air.

Once the pump was restarted and water flow was restored, another worker inadvertently closed a valve that was designed to vent steam from the containment vessel. As pressure built up inside the vessel, the pumps could no longer force water into it and the fuel rods were once more exposed.

The other line I am reminded of comes from the docu-drama "From the Earth to the Moon."  In the episode after the fire on Apollo 1, they have Frank Borman testifying to a hostile Congressional committee about the fire.  When asked to explain the root cause, he said "a failure of imagination."  I don't know if this is a true quote of his or purely fiction, but it resonates with me from my past troubleshooting work.  Almost every fire or major failure we looked at in the refinery resulted from a chain of events that no one had even anticipated or thought possible, generally in combination with a series of stupid human screwups.  I would describe the Japanese nuclear plant problems in the same light.

Update: Failure of Imagination from Wikipedia

From IMDB, how the line was quoted in the mini-series

Clinton Anderson: [at the senate inquiry following the Apollo 1 fire] Colonel, what caused the fire? I'm not talking about wires and oxygen. It seems that some people think that NASA pressured North American to meet unrealistic and arbitrary deadlines and that in turn North American allowed safety to be compromised.
Frank Borman: I won't deny there's been pressure to meet deadlines, but safety has never been intentionally compromised.
Clinton Anderson: Then what caused the fire?
Frank Borman: A failure of imagination. We've always known there was the possibility of fire in a spacecraft. But the fear was that it would happen in space, when you're 180 miles from terra firma and the nearest fire station. That was the worry. No one ever imagined it could happen on the ground. If anyone had thought of it, the test would've been classified as hazardous. But it wasn't. We just didn't think of it. Now who's fault is that? Well, it's North American's fault. It's NASA's fault. It's the fault of every person who ever worked on Apollo. It's my fault. I didn't think the test was hazardous. No one did. I wish to God we had.

Paging Charles Babbage

This is really pretty cool -- a 1953 Navy training film on the components of a mechanical fire control computer.  Steampunk for our parent's generation -- this kind of gear/sprocket exercise is what my dad studied as a mechanical engineer.

What is Happening at the Japanese Nuclear Plants

This is the most helpful article I have found yet on the problems at earthquake-damaged nuclear plants.  As one can imagine, it is a lot more sensible than some of the garbage in the general media.

It cleared up one point of confusion I had - I was not sure why there was still heat generation after the control rods slammed down, killing the fission process.  But apparently there are a number of intermediate fission products created that continue to decay for several days, producing about 3% of the heat of the full fission process.  This heat is what boiled away the water in the reactor vessel once flow of cooling water stopped.  It is this boiling that led to the necessity to release steam (to reduce pressure in the reactor vessel).  It was this steam that was partially disassociated into hydrogen and oxygen, which led to the explosion.

One fact that has been lost in all the hype, and may continue to be lost, is that the earthquake alone (which was 7 times larger than the plant was designed for) was necessary but not sufficient to lead to the current problems.  Everything probably would have been fine had it not been for the tsunami knocking off all the diesel generators the plant used in an emergency to keep the colling pumps running.  Apparently the generators they rushed to the site later could not be used due to various incompatibilities, the type of real-world frustrating problem that will be immediately recognizable to any engineer who has a troubleshooting background.

Update: Unfortunately, the author may have been overly optimistic.  The author implied the pile would stop producing new heat after a few days, but that does not seem to be the case, particularly since spent fuel rods apparently have to be kept in water to keep them cool months or years after they were in service.  With the apparent rupture of the main presure vessel around the core, all bets would seem to be off in terms of containing the most harmful radioactive elements.

I did troubleshooting at a refinery for years, and almost every time the worst disasters were from improbable event and/or screwup after improbable event.   The human mind seems to be unable to really grasp just how screwed up things can get.  The novel Jurassic Park was as much about this problem as it was about dinosaurs.

Update #2: This is the piece that was missing from the earlier linked report:

The sharp deterioration came after a frantic day and night of rescue efforts focused largely on the No. 2 reactor. There, a malfunctioning valve prevented workers from manually venting the containment vessel to release pressure and allow fresh seawater to be injected into it. That meant that the extraordinary remedy emergency workers had jury-rigged to keep the nuclear fuel from overheating no longer worked.

As a result, the nuclear fuel in that reactor was exposed for many hours, increasing the risk of a breach of the container vessel and more dangerous emissions of radioactive particles.

By Tuesday morning, Tokyo Electric Power said that it had fixed the valve and resumed seawater injections, but that it had detected possible leaks in the containment vessel that prevented water from fully covering the fuel rods.

Update #3:  Things are slightly better.

OK, This is Actually a Kind of Cool Application of Green Technology

MUCH better than stockpiling food and ammo in some crappy mountain retreat, this is the way to ride out the end of civilization.

Told Ya

Based on past studies of sudden acceleration problems  (e.g. that the vast majority of sudden acceleration problems mysteriously happen to senior citizens) I predicted that many of the Toyota failures would come down to operator error.  The incentives for operators are substantial, even before tort action, both from a psychological and monetary standpoint to blame their own errors on Toyota.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles involved in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration and found that at the time of the crashes, throttles were wide open and the brakes were not engaged, people familiar with the findings said.

The results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyota and Lexus vehicles surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes. But the findings don't exonerate Toyota from two known issues blamed for sudden acceleration in its vehicles: sticky accelerator pedals and floor mats that can trap accelerator pedals to the floor.

The findings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration involve a sample of reports in which a driver of a Toyota vehicle said the brakes were depressed but failed to stop the car from accelerating and ultimately crashing.

The data recorders analyzed by NHTSA were selected by the agency, not Toyota, based on complaints the drivers had filed with the government.

The findings are consistent with a 1989 government-sponsored study that blamed similar driver mistakes for a rash of sudden-acceleration reports involving Audi 5000 sedans.

The Toyota findings, which haven't been released by NHTSA, support Toyota's position that sudden-acceleration reports involving its vehicles weren't caused by electronic glitches in computer-controlled throttle systems, as some safety advocates and plaintiffs' attorneys have alleged. More than 100 people have sued the auto maker claiming crashes were the result of faulty electronics.

Of course breast implants pretty clearly never caused immune disorders, but that did not stop tort lawyers from bankrupting an entire industry on that theory.  So it is nice that Toyota has the facts on its side, but that may or may not help in court, and almost certainly will not help in Congress or the Administration, whose agendas were always driven more by the desire to help domestic auto companies against a powerful foreign rival.

Pretty Cool

I thought this was interesting, not only for the unified control algorithm, but also just for the lifting capacity of these little buggers.  Via Engadget

Commercial Jetpack!

It would be nice if it were more compact, but they are claiming a 30-minute flight time, which is huge compared to earlier efforts.


It does help to illustrate a different point I make about alternatives to internal combustion.  Note the device uses gasoline.  Nothing else that is so cheap and plentiful has gasoline's energy content to weight ratio.  Which is why it is so freaking hard to replace in cars.

Things That Are Ticking Me Off Today

Overscan.  Yes, I just lost a day of my time to overscan.  Traditional TV sets do not show the entire image they receive from broadcast or DVDs.  They cut off 8-15% of the image around the edges.  This is to make sure there is not black or other border around the image, much like one does in a printing process.  This is fine for an Avatar DVD where one might lose a few leaves in the jungle at the edge, but when I am projecting charts in one of my climate videos, it tends to cut off axes  (when one is working with only 480 vertical pixels (traditional DVD resolutions) it is hard to get detailed charts to project well anyway, but losing resolution to overscan is a further pain.  Making the situation more complicated, DVD's played on a computer or on some (but not all) modern flat screens do have have overscan.

Anyway, I am mostly done, and will post my latest effort here soon.

Some Decent Rechargeable Batteries?

This Is Still A Stupid Idea

I probably have posted on the electricity generating speed bump more times than it deserves, but Glen Reynolds linked this story and I am seeing it linked uncritically all over.  Here was the email I dashed off to Instapundit:

The speed bump / power device at the Burger King in New Jersey is the silliest technology I have ever seen and I am amazed that so many people praise it or write uncritically that it provides free power.  Energy is never free, it comes from somewhere.  In this case, the energy is actually stolen from the car.  The electricity power produced is equal to or less than the extra power the car has to expend going over the bump.

This electricity might be "free" if it is used where cars are braking anyway, say on a long down ramp in a parking garage, or on a suburban street or school zone where speed bumps already exist.  But the Burger King example, and in fact most of the examples I have seen of this installation, are just vampiric theft, very similar to what the US Government does in many of its programs, creating a large benefit for a single user and hoping that distributing the costs in small chunks across a wide number of people makes these costs invisible.

I wrote more about the technology here.

Rated Capacity

One needs to be a careful consumer of information when reading about the "rated capacity" of certain alternative energy plants. 

Take a 1MW nuclear plant, run it for 24 hours, and you get 24 MW-hours, or something fairly close to that, of electricity.

Leave 1MW worth of solar panels out in the sun for 24 hours, you get much less total electricity, depending on where you put it.  On an average day in New York City, you will get about 4 MW-hours.  In one of the best solar sites in the word, my home of Phoenix, you get about 6.5 MW-hours per day.  The key metric is peak sun-hours per day, and some example figures are here.  So, even in the best solar sites in the world, solar panels run at only about 25-30% of capacity.

It turns out, not surprisingly, that the same relationship holds for wind.

It's not like it's a secret that wind turbines are an unreliable source of electrical power. Bryce points out that, "In
July 2006, for example, wind turbines in California produced power at
only about 10 percent of their capacity; in Texas, one of the most
promising states for wind energy, the windmills produced electricity at
about 17 percent of their rated capacity."

That means
that there has to be nuclear, coal-fired or natural gas power plants
functioning fulltime as a backup to the pathetically unreliable and
inefficient wind farms. Moreover, what electricity they do generate
is lost to some degree in the process of transmitting it over long
distances to distribution facilities.

Now, this should not outright dissuade us from these technologies, but since no one has really licked the night-time / not-windy storage proble, it's certainly an issue.   I have looked at solar for my house a number of times, and the numbers just are not there (even with up to 50% government subsidies!) without a 2-5x decrease in panel costs.  Low yields can potentially be tolerated, but capital costs are going to have to be a lot lower before they make a ton of sense.

The Poverty Bomb

Who knew that one small piece of technology could turn a group of wealthy American urbanites into third world refugees.