Posts tagged ‘Moore Law’

Engineering Intuition and The Media

I don't really want to ridicule Kevin Drum here for thinking out loud.  I really hate partisan Conservative and Liberal team-politics blogs, but I read a few to stay out of the echo chamber, and Drum is smarter and incrementally more objective (a relative thing) than most.

But this is really terrible, awful engineering intuition:

These two things together reminded me about an energy factoid that's always struck me as slightly odd: virtually every form of energy seems to be almost as efficient as burning oil, but not quite.

For example, on either a power/weight basis or a cost basis, batteries are maybe 2x or 3x bigger and less efficient than an internal combustion engine. Not 50x or 100x. Just barely less efficient. And you see the same thing in electricity generation. Depending on how you do the accounting, nuclear power is maybe about as efficient as an oil-fired plant, or maybe 2x or 3x less efficient. Ditto for solar. And for wind. And geothermal. And tidal power.

I'm just noodling vaguely here. Maybe there's an obvious thermodynamic explanation that I'm missing. It's just that I wouldn't be surprised if there were lots of ways of generating energy that were all over the map efficiency-wise. But why are there lots of ways of generating energy that are all surprisingly similar efficiency-wise? In the great scheme of things, a difference of 2x or 3x is practically invisible.

First, we have to translate a bit.  He mentions power to weight ratios for batteries in the second paragraph.  In fact, batteries have terrible power (actually energy storage) to weight ratios vs. fossil fuels, much worse than 2-3x for energy storage per unit of weight or volume.  That is why gasoline is still the transportation energy source of choice, because very few things short of plutonium have so much potential energy locked up in so little volume.  But I will assume he is comparing an entire electric drive system compared to a gasoline drive system (including not just energy storage but the drive itself) and in this case the power to weight ratios are indeed closer.

But here is the problem:  in engineering, a 2-3x difference in most anything -- strength, energy efficiency, whatever -- is a really big deal.  It's the difference between 15 and 45 MPG.   Perhaps this is Moore's Law corrupting our intuition.  We see electronic equipment becoming twice as powerful every 18 months, and we start to assume that 2x is not that much of a difference.

But this is why Moore's Law is so much discussed, because of its very uniqueness.  In most fields, engineers tinker for decades for incremental improvements, sometimes in the single digit percentages.

The fact that alternative energy supporters feel like their preferred technologies are just so close, meaning they are only 2x-3x less efficient than current technologies, explains a lot about why we skeptics of these technologies have a hard time getting through to them.

Vista Still Sucks, But I Actually Found A Mac I Kindof Liked

Now, I won't argue that Vista will someday not suck - after all, give an infinite number of monkeys $30 billion a year in cash flow and they'll code Shakespeare.  Or whatever.  But I have to agree with this post by Glenn Reynolds that Vista is still not ready for prime time.  Now, I wrote this same conclusion over a half year ago, but incredibly, no updates of any seriousness have been issued.  It is still the mess it was then, and Moore's Law has yet to catch up to make the average machine run it acceptably  (particularly with laptops).   When I set up the dual boot back to XP on my kid's laptop, I did not make the XP partition large enough because my kids absolutely refuse to install anything on the Vista partition, which they use only because that is where MS Office is installed. 

Am I a lone wolf on this issue?  Oh my God, am I a Vista denier! Well, check out this announcement from Microsoft reported by ZDNet on June 28:

Microsoft is simplifying the processes via which its PC-maker
partners will be able to provide "downgrade" rights from Windows Vista
to Windows XP for their customers.

Microsoft will implement the first of the policy changes for its
Gold Certified (top-tier) OEM partners within the next couple of weeks.
The company will streamline downgrade-rights policies and procedures
for the broader channel somewhat later, said John Ball, general manager
of Microsoft's U.S. Systems Group....

Microsoft is working on ways to allow the rest of the channel to
take advantage of these simplified downgrade procedures, but is still
in the midst of hashing out the details, Ball said. He didn't have a
timetable for when Microsoft will make its more liberal
downgrade-rights policies available to the rest of its PC partners.

I am not sure this is the sign of a healthy product line when your top customers are demanding easier ability to go back to the old version.

As a side note, I have never, ever liked Macs.  First, I never wanted to be one of "the rest of us" and I enjoy tweaking and upgrading too much to be a fan of Macs.  Also, I thought their historic resistance to some obvious improvements, like the two-button mouse, was just stupid.  All that being said, I will admit that I really like the new iMac I bought my wife.  It is perfect for her, and it is gorgeous.  The keyboard is not great for speed-typing but it looks really cool and my wife is fine with that.  The iMac did a great job with the tough stuff - it immediately recognized the PC's on my network and was able to trade files with them (something our Vista laptop still balks at from time to time) and it set up a network printer on the first try.  And, for perhaps the first time ever on a Mac, I didn't feel like the things was wallowing in first gear when compared to my desktop PC.

It's Not Done 'till Firefox Won't Run

I wrote previously that I think Vista, in its current state, is inferior to Windows XP (particularly for businesses -- Directx 10 will make Vista a must for gamers).  For my desktop computers, I build them myself and can still get Windows XP OEM through NewEgg.  Unfortunately, for my kids new laptop, I had no choice but Vista.  I have not been very happy.  Here are my results so far.

  1. It is way slower than XP, even on a fast dual-core Intel machine with a Nvidia 7900 graphics card.  You may have thought that the reboot and shut down process could not have gotten slower - WRONG!  Shutdown alone takes forever.
  2. Many machines being sold today with Vista are not fast enough to really run it.  In particular, if your laptop is more than a year old or you paid less than $1700 or so for it, it is probably not going to do the job
  3. Um, its pretty
  4. Firefox will not run reliably.  It will install, and run once, and then it will give an error if you try to run it again.  It does not uninstall fully, and once (I tried to install and remove several times) it did not even show up in the uninstall menu
  5. Unlike with XP, networking did not work right off the bat with Vista.  I had to do a lot of fiddling in menus that the average user wil never find or understand to get it running.
  6. Of course, as is usual, Microsoft has felt the need to yet again totally reorganize control panel and the right-click-on-the-desktop menu.  I am sure some day the new organization will seem natural, but for now its just a gratuitous change with no apparent benefit

If at all possible, I advise you to wait for Service Pack 1, and for Moore's Law to let average computers catch up with Vista's requirements.  And don't even think about upgrading if you have old printers, scanners, and/or oddball devices you need to hook up -- there are very few Vista drivers out there for legacy equipmet