Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2004-09-30
  Strange Materials
Besides nanotechnology machines (like accelerometers and micromirrors), the other great play in molecular engineering is in material science. Researchers are either building or discovering nano structures like Aerogel, Airglass, Cerbide, Foamed Aluminum, and Nanosteel (developed in Idaho of all places). My newest discovery is Zeolite.

Zeolite is actually a family of aluminosilicate ceramics which are porous, leading to their use in filters (air and water), molecular sieves (for separating gases or liquids), desiccants (trapping water and keeping the environment dry), or even molecular storage. I ran across it first looking for alternatives to alcohol distillation since standard distillation can only reach 96.8% purity. Zeolite filters however can be acquired with 3 Angstrom openings as a way to separate alcohol and water since water molecules are 2.5 Angstroms across while Alcohol is 4.5 Angstroms.

Various forms of zerolite are being tapped for the chambers their lattice creates. One potential application is the safe storage of hydrogen (requiring neither excessive pressure or cryogenic temperatures). The DOE is looking at zeolite as well as activated carbon as a mineral carrier for hydrogen. One gram of zeolite (ZSM-5) which is like a spec, has a surface area of 430 square meters (4600 sq feet or 1/10th of an acre).

Its property as an absorbent is used in this cool cryogenic vacuum pump, where by cooling the absorbent material, it literally sucks all the air out of a chamber and traps it in its matrix. By heating it back up, it releases all the gasses trapped inside and can be used again. One of these can easily evacuate a 100 liter chamber, and three can do a 200 liter volume in just under ten minutes (by staging them). No moving parts, no electricity, and under normal operating conditions they'll last forever. Pretty darn cool.

Though if you're into cool, you might also check out this self cooling beer keg.

Operating similar to an icy-ball, the zeolite is used as an absorber for water, letting it boil off and chill the beer in the center of the container. Actually, a zeolite/water chiller might make a great alternative to the salt/ammonia

 
2004-09-24
  Learning and Teaching
Having a couple kids around, I spend a lot of time being a parent and some time thinking about being a parent. While in general having been a kid is of limited use, occasionally I remember bits and pieces of my childhood to good effect. Teaching new concepts and skills is one area where it is real hard to find the right balance between showing and guiding. I am reminded of my dad's attempt to teach me how to drive, and his initial approach just to let me discover the physics of driving on my own. After taking me out into the middle of nowhere (where another car was only seen once every ten or fifteen minutes), he handed the car over to me and we got moving down the road. He then decided to let me make a turn.
"How slow do I need to go to make the turn?" I asked.
"Just make the turn and see," he suggested.
"Ok"

I'm not sure what he was thinking I would do, but I decided to see if a toyota pickup could make a hard right turn at about 40MPH. Needless to say this was not a smooth maneuver. Luckily there was flat level dirt beyond the other side of the road so I was eventually able to get the truck back on pavement without incident.

After re-calibrating my leeway, I was able to get further information in response to my questions and I managed to pass my driving test a couple of years later without any serious damage to the truck. (All the damage I inflicted to the truck came later on after I got my license.

 
2004-09-17
  Inductors are cool
I've been reading a bunch about power electronics and I've rediscovered the inductor. Basically, out of the three types of passive components (resistors, capacitors, and inductors), inductors are the hardest to understand, but also the coolest. Back in my early days I was mostly playing with DC voltage where an inductor isn't very interesting. But start working with cycling or pulsing circuits and inductors can do all kinds of cool things.

Basically when you start putting power through, the coil sucks some of the energy to start building a magnetic field. After the field saturates (if you let it), then the coil just ignores you and just acts like a wire. Until you try and cut the current.

Then the inductors says, "Oh no you don't," throwing itself on its magnetic field in order to maintain the status quo. And it does it with a vengance too. Even if you were only powering it with 12V originally, it can generate infinite voltages in an attempt to keep the current flowing (subject of course to parasitic capatitance and internal resistance). A coil without a path to discharge its current can start breaking down insulation, burning through local semiconductors, or even arcing through the air. Now you don't get anything for free: the current is going to be much smaller that before (so that power is constant), but higher voltages and lower currents are actually very handy for reducing conduction losses, so this can be put to good use.

While these are typically used for short term energy storage (milliseconds), scientists are experimenting with creating giant superconducting versions that can store gigawatts. There's even products for evening out temporary spikes in power use for industrial customers.

A much more boring use is using these things for filtering out high or low frequencies, or creating resonant circuits for radios. I mean who cares as long as my cell phone works.

 
2004-09-16
  Really big compact flash cards
Somebody hit a bump recently, because the price of compact flash cards just dropped quite a bit. 512MB cards were hovering around $99 for about the last year, and 1GB sometimes would drop down to about $199. Now, think bigger.

SanDisk's competitors must be having a fit, cause they just pulled the rug out. Now 2GB is $136, with the same price/mb prices applied down the line to 1GB and 512MB. (The smaller cards go up a little in $/mb just cause you have to pay for the case & handling, etc.) For some reason the same prices haven't hit USB drives (and the 4GB card is still a little pricy), but I'm hoping that given time they'll get cheaper too. A 1GB SD card is a little higher at $98, but that's down quite a bit too (though I'd rather have 2GB for my hoped for Treo 650).

Strangely, this was not driven at the top end, but rather by SanDisk's attempt to make Flash memory so cheap that it replaced film. Their target was a $9 32MB flash card (which would store about 50 pictures). This makes it competitive with film (especially when you consider the ability to erase junk pictures). They're hoping that people will buy these like peanuts, and just toss them in a shoebox or drawer when they're full. Not sure if that's going to happen, but I'm happy to get 2GB for a little more than a hundred bucks.

Tim is grumpy cause flash is now cheaper than DDR RAM.

 
2004-09-15
  Wonderful way to do business
Dwayne Phillips is quoted from is book, It Sounded Good When We Started:

The best thing that can happen to any software project is to have people who know what they are doing and have the courage and self-discipline to do it. Knowledgeable people do what is right and avoid what is wrong. Courageous people tell the truth when others want to hear something else. Disciplined people work through projects and don't cut corners.

That just sounds awsome. I'm pretty good about doing what is right, even when its not appreciated. I can also be courageous when I believe in something. But under less than ideal conditions, my discipline is not always what it could be or what it should be for the sake of my customers. Dwayne is going to be speaking at the AYE Conference. I really should get my registration in.

Thanks to Niranjani for the quote.

 
2004-09-12
  Cursed buttons
For a long time I was using Ctrl-F4 to close tabs in Netscape which was killer on my fingers (I have a bad habit of using the same hand for the key & modifier). Then, while trying to find someway to save files without bringing up the stupid save dialog box, I found the ctrl-w for closing windows/tabs which works great.

Except that W is next to Q, and ctrl-Q shuts down everything.

Now I was already in the habit of trying to keep bookmarks for open pages and other steps for recovering from a crash, but now I have to worry about shutting everything down on accident when I'm not careful with my fingers.

Its very annoying.

 
2004-09-09
  I am a flower.
Hmm, it turns out that Woolstar is a flower. And a desert one at that.

From the Phlox family. (Isn't that the doctor on Enterprise?)

 
2004-09-03
  Far out trek science fiction made reality
Out of all the ideas in the SciFi universe, one of the coolest sounding was Transparent Aluminum. Didn't really think it would ever happen however, but those crazy material science guys actually made some. Now its actually based on Aluminum Oxide (alumina) but that's still cool. Not stronger than steel yet, but then steel is only 10% as strong as it could be (and people are working on that as well, see NanoSteel).

Thanks to: The Geek-Spot which included other great news such as Open-destination quantum teleportation, Solar Jet causalities, Super Lightning Bolts on Saturn, and Caltech breaks the Internet2 land speed record, transfering 859 GB in 17 minutes. With speeds like that, you could transfer the entire seven seasons of Stargate SG1 in less than 60 seconds (its only 53GB).

 
Life in the middle of nowhere, remote programming to try and support it, startups, children, and some tinkering when I get a chance.

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Blogroll
Paul Graham's Essays
You may not want to write in Lisp, but his advise on software, life and business is always worth listening to.
How to save the world
Dave Pollard working on changing the world .. one partially baked idea at a time.
SnowDeal
Eric Snowdeal IV - born 15 weeks too soon, now living a normal baby life.
Land and Hold Short
The life of a pilot.

The best of?
Jan '04
The second best villain of all times.

Feb '04
Oops I dropped by satellite.
New Jets create excitement in the air.
The audience is not listening.

Mar '04
Neat chemicals you don't want to mess with.
The Lack of Practise Effect

Apr '04
Scramjets take to the air
Doing dangerous things in the fire.
The Real Way to get a job

May '04
Checking out cool tools (with the kids)
A master geek (Ink Tank flashback)
How to play with your kids

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