Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2004-10-31
  All that waste
I'm a big opponent of waste, and am continuously studying about how to be more efficient with the materials I consume (which is why I bought four different types of compact fluorescent light bulbs at the hardware store today to try out and also managed to find a fascinating article on Refining pyroligneous acid and other by-products from hardword carbonization), but what's amazing is after one starts digging below the surface of our industrial society, one finds that the visible waste around us is just the tip of the iceberg.

Natural Capitol has some frightening statistics on its Chapter on Waste:

The amount of waste generated to make a semiconductor chip is over 100,000 times its weight; that of a laptop computer, close to 4,000 times its weight. Two quarts of gasoline and a thousand quarts of water are required to produce a quart of Florida orange juice. One ton of paper requires the use of 98 tons of various resources.

Even the simple can of soda (of which I consume a fair number) has an exhausting history just to get to my cubbord:

A striking case study of the complexity of industrial metabolism is provided by James Womack and Daniel Jones in their book Lean Thinking, where they trace the origins and pathways of a can of English cola. The can itself is more costly and complicated to manufacture than the beverage. Bauxite is mined in Australia and trucked to a chemical reduction mill where a half-hour process purifies each ton of bauxite into a half ton of aluminum oxide. When enough of that is stockpiled, it is loaded on a giant ore carrier and sent to Sweden or Norway, where hydroelectric dams provide cheap electricity. After a monthlong journey across two oceans, it usually sits at the smelter for as long as two months.

The smelter takes two hours to turn each half ton of aluminum oxide into a quarter ton of aluminum metal, in ingots ten meters long. These are cured for two weeks before being shipped to roller mills in Sweden or Germany. There each ingot is heated to nearly nine hundred degrees Fahrenheit and rolled down to a thickness of an eighth of an inch. The resulting sheets are wrapped in ten-ton coils and transported to a warehouse, and then to a cold rolling mill in the same or another country, where they are rolled tenfold thinner, ready for fabrication. The aluminum is then sent to England, where sheets are punched and formed into cans, which are then washed, dried, painted with a base coat, and then painted again with specific product information. The cans are next lacquered, flanged (they are still topless), sprayed inside with a protective coating to prevent the cola from corroding the can, and inspected.

The cans are palletized, forklifted, and warehoused until needed. They are then shipped to the bottler, where they are washed and cleaned once more, then filled with water mixed with flavored syrup, phosphorus, caffeine, and carbon dioxide gas. The sugar is harvested from beet fields in France and undergoes trucking, milling, refining, and shipping. The phosphorus comes from Idaho, where it is excavated from deep open-pit mines—a process that also unearths cadmium and radioactive thorium. Round-the-clock, the mining company uses the same amount of electricity as a city of 100,000 people in order to reduce the phosphate to food-grade quality. The caffeine is shipped from a chemical manufacturer to the syrup manufacturer in England.

The filled cans are sealed with an aluminum "pop-top" lid at the rate of fifteen hundred cans per minute, then inserted into cardboard cartons printed with matching color and promotional schemes. The cartons are made of forest pulp that may have originated anywhere from Sweden or Siberia to the old-growth, virgin forests of British Columbia that are the home of grizzly, wolverines, otters, and eagles. Palletized again, the cans are shipped to a regional distribution warehouse, and shortly thereafter to a supermarket where a typical can is purchased within three days. The consumer buys twelve ounces of the phosphate-tinged, caffeine-impregnated, caramel-flavored sugar water. Drinking the cola takes a few minutes; throwing the can away takes a second. In England, consumers discard 84 percent of all cans, which means that the overall rate of aluminum waste, after counting production losses, is 88 percent. The United States still gets three-fifths of its aluminum from virgin ore, at twenty times the energy intensity of recycled aluminum, and throws away enough aluminum to replace its entire commercial aircraft fleet every three months.

Since this obviously can't continue once energy prices increase significantly, even my simple can of soda is going to be impacted by the end of the Oil empire. But I'm not frightened by the thought, rather I'm intrigued. Its not like millions of soda drinkers are going to go away—we're still going to want our fix. Its just that something is going to have to change.

The last time I went down to Mexico, it was my vision to spend the entire week on the beach, under a palap, sipping sodas and catching up on my reading (no I did not want to take a laptop down to the beach like this poor fool, I'd end up with a keyboard full of sand). The first thing I did when we got to Acapulco was head to the local market to stock up on sodas for the week. Down there the soda didn't come in cans, or even in tacky plastic bottles; it came in glass.

Not the thin disposable replications they sell in the stores these days, but a solid heavy-duty recyclable bottle, heavy enough to do some serious damage if used improperly. They had pint bottles, but I went for the quart size—just enough to hold me over for several hours of relaxation. These things were created once, and then used dozzens of times. Strong enough to take a light fall, be stacked in crates up to the celing, or be banged around in general use; they spread the cost of materials and fabrication out over multiple uses. And when a bottle was too scratched or cracked to use, it was just melted down and formed again.

Oil has not been on the scene that long compared to other things (like wood and coal), and in the beginning it was primarily used for heating and then transportation. All these other uses: plastics, chemicals, fertalizer, medicine; all came much later and in some parts of the world have still not had major inroads displacing previous solutions. Hopefully as oil becomes scarce, we'll just go back to the earlier solutions.

What's my vision of the future: lots of metal, paper, and glass for containers and packaging. More reuse, recycling and reclamation. Cars that run on gengas (from wood), trucks that run on bio-diesel (from corn and other vegatable oils), and trains that run on charcoal and coal. Wax paper and aluminum foil instead of plastic wrap; paper bags and cardboard cartons. Its not going to be fun making the switch, and its not going to be the same as it was before, but I think we will survive. As history has shown, the human spirit will perservere.

Here's to our future.

 
2004-10-30
  Getting close
Well, I called up Sprint to ask when I could order a Treo 650, since it was announced this week.


Now for some reason when I called on my land line I got some very strange results. I would hear the first two or three menu items for the automated attendent, and then there would be a pause mid sentence, and then it would start over again. I don't know if the problem was Sprint or Qwest (though Qwest network routing had also been acting up that day), but finally I got a call through on my cell phone instead and got to talk to an operator. Unfortunately she had not heard of the phone, didn't have it in here system, and didn't even see anything in the flash news archive for the last week. Guess I'm a bit early.

But since I'm not a patient person, i decided to do some more poking around. Thanks to the Google Cheat Sheet I was able to scan the Sprint site for any sign of the Treo 650 and lo and behold, I got a hit: a 360 degree view of the new phone. No doubt intended to be used as an element of the phone's future entry into the online store. So somebody's been working on it.

Still waiting for the ability to actually buy this thing.

[reference]
The search you want to do is: treo 650 site:sprintpcs.com

 
2004-10-28
  The winds of energy
The Winds of Change has a great run down on the state of energy covering everything from fossil fuels to policy issues.

While not all the news is good (Like France pushing ahead on more big nukes, but then it already gets 75% of its power from nuclear reactors which are aging), and some of the news is rather old (like the continuing application of Acoustical Stirling Engines, this time for Space), one gets the idea that there won't be one single silver bullet for replacing oil, but rather a thousand little projects, each providing a bit of energy for us to move forward on.

Unfortunately, on the macro scale, the analysis shows that even with a few major breakthroughs, we're only going to be able to generate energy on par with the world consuption circa 1980. This being the eve of 2005, we've grown a bit more hungry in our energy diet. We're going to have to cut back—way back. While I can get pretty smug about my direct energy usage (electricity, wood heat, limited driving), the reality is that I'm living in a remote city that doesn't naturally support life, and almost everything I buy is trucked in from far away places (sometimes other continents). Food is going to get a lot more expensive, material goods are going to become scarce, and raw materials are going to be harder to get ahold of. Who knows if computer programming is even going to be that much in demand, once running computers becomes a luxury. Its going to be a strange new world.

Its so predictable that we've reached this point. Back in college, our dormatory received a few thousand dollars for being the backdrop in the filming of Beverly Hills Cop 2. It wasn't a lot of money, they only used a hallway as a pretend door that he breaks into (I think using a gum wrapper to foil the alarm), but after the film did well and the check cleared, we had a big house meeting to decide what to do with the windfall.

Now some people wanted to use the money to make improvements to the house (purchase new stuff, etc.) but the seniors and to a lesser extent the juniors didn't want the money spent on something they'd only get to use for a limited time. They thought it was unfair that others would get the benefit longer, or even that people in generations to come would be benefiting. No, can't have that. They wanted to spend all the money immediately on some kind of event or bash so that they'd be present for the full effect and get their fair share. So the entire amount was spent on a ski trip a month later and was gone in a weekend with nothing left to show for it.

What's frightening is that these were not stupid people. These were college seniors, shortly to become our future generation, and all they could think about was getting as much as they could of what was on the table. No thought at all for the future. And that's what's happened on the larger scale with our country, as its used as much energy as it could get its hand on, and even spent the inheritance of its children to be, by running up enourmous deficits.

Click for an enourmous version of this image

On the long term scale, I still have hope for our species. Someday someone just may figure out how to get fusion to work (like the guys at Sandia National Laboratory playing with plasma in the Z Machine pictured above). Combine that with some Nuclear Rockets to get us to the moon and back to pickup a load of Tritium and then its energy so cheap it's not even metered (ok, where have we heard that before). Once we have the energy situation solved, we can then get back to fighting with each other over water or maybe just for the fun of it.

[reference]
For some light reading, try the e-book: The Oil Age is OVER. Free until Nov 2.
Also, a more upbeat analysis, another free e-book: Winning the Oil Endgame

 
2004-10-26
  Scratch, Sniff, Boom
Scratch and Sniff was one of those weird technologies that came out when I was a kid but never really took off. It was based on creating a matrix of microscopic capsules, each containing the aroma desired, some of which would be released when you scratched it.

Its still used in kids books and occasionally for perfumes, but what else is it good for?

Well, every year, after spending a thousand or so to fill up on fuel for the winter, we get a little safety newsletter from Ferrellgas and in the safety section it includes a little scratch and sniff sticker. And it smells just like propane (and is a lot safer than standing around breathing in around the top of an unlit BBQ). So today I had a short conversation with my four year old:

"Hey Max," I said
"Yes?"
"Check this out, its from the propane company, its a picture of how our propane system works and how to check if there's a problem."
"Really?" asked Max.
"Yes, it would be a problem if the gas was leaking out of the pipes."
"What could happen?" asked Max.
"Well if we didn't find it, and a bunch of gas leaked out, it could explode."
"Wow," said Max.
"Yes," I said, "so if you smell it we need to fix it right away. Look, I just scratch this circle right here and you can smell what it smells like."
Sniff
"That's weird," says Max.
"Yes. So if you smell that you come tell me."
"Ok," says Max.
[reference]
Images from the Scanning Electron Microscope at the UK Science Museum
 
2004-10-24
  Creative Conflicts
A favorate quote of mine from the Dynamics of Software Development (no I did not read this book, this particular quote was printed in the game developers magazine). in regards to developer squabbles:

"The only consensus worth having is a creative one achieved in the combat of fully engaged intellects. Such a consensus is born of sleepless nights, fear of rejection, and trials of personal courage. Conflict, which usually presages growth, is the hallmark of such consensus." - Jim McCarthy

 
2004-10-16
  Lingering remnants of history
I resurrected my HP Kayak workstation this week. Having it working again, running X Windows on a HDTV class display, and in general just having gobs and gobs of desktop space is great, considering the machine has been offline for months. The inspiration came when I was replacing the power supply in fourth or fifth whitebox tower machine (Fry's blue light special), and I decided to pop the old one in the Kayak just for grins. Well, the power button didn't actually work, but the machine lit right up. It didn't get very far since I'd pull all the hard drives, and I was too lazy to even hook up power to the DVD drive, but it demonstrated that it would work.

Now I didn't want to put a crappy $10 newegg special in there, cause they're kind of noisy. Its fine for a server room, just not for my basement. Tim had been drooling over a super quiet power supply for his computer, because noise is an issue for him as well and pointed me at a few units he had picked out. Not wanting to spend $80 on model he found, I browsed up the newegg list just a bit to see what I could get for a few dollars more than the el-cheapo.

Turns out I could get a the same 120mm silent fan configuration for about $28. Only thing I'm loosing out on is efficiency. 65% is not great, but I didn't seen any higher efficiency models in my price range so that was it. Unfortunately that means I'm burning 170W just putting another 320W into the CPU & drives—a bit of a waste. But I plugged the new power supply in, which ran quiet as a mouse, and also added in a DVD+-RW(R9) drive which was ridiculously cheap, and for fun a $15 1000bT ethernet card.

Now, the funniest thing about the network card was not its ridiculously low price, but rather the plastic pack it came in. Not only did the plastic pack have space for the PCI card, but it also had this little spot for a historical relic that hasn't been used in over 15 years: a coax T connector.

Setting the wayback machine for the stone age of computers ...

See, back in the early days of ethernet, transport was over this huge triple shielded cable with the designation 10base5. (I don't know why it was called that, go look it up on Google if you really care.)


To connect to the network, each computer had a 15 pin port called the AUI which hooked through a parallel cable (drop cable) to the transceiver that then hooked to the 10base5 cable through what was lovingly called a "vampire tap". And these taps had to be precisely placed at 2.5m intervals so usually the main cable was manufactured with black markings at the appropriate interval. With the main cable costing upwards of $10/ft, the drop cables costing between $100 and $200 and the transceiver right around a thousand; networking was an expensive and complicated undertaking.

While transceivers eventually got smaller and somewhat cheaper, a lower cost solution was needed. Thus was born 10base2, based on a lower cost coax (RG58) cable. At first, an external transceiver was still used, but since there were no special length requirements, and electronics were getting more integrated, it became practical to put the transceiver on card itself, and just have a coax plug sticking out instead of the AUI. Usually however cards still had the AUI as well, just in case there was a 10base5 legacy network to talk to.

This format was a great improvement. Transcievers dropped to less than $100, cards to less than $200 (for PCs), and you could buy the cable cheaply in quantity and crimp the connectors on with a minimum of trouble. Local networks grew in leaps and bounds. Unfortunately as thinnet spread, there were problems.


Yes, I've seen a connection made this way. More than once.

Just because you could unscrew a BNC connector, didn't mean you knew what was going on. The BNC run represented a high frequency radio link between cards, and reflections or bad termination could royally degrade the signal. One area I was working in was computer graphics where we would move large (500k) files around by the dozen. (Ya, we were really pumping the network.) But graphics labs contain a large quantity of video equipment which is also hooked together using coax cable. Not the same type mind you, video used RG59 (75ohm) while networks required RG58 (50ohm); but unless you looked carefully at the printing on the jacket, you couldn't tell the difference. If someone needed an extra section of network cable and grabbed a piece of video cable ... well, lets say things were less than ideal.

The worst problem I ever saw was in one installation where they hadn't run the coax all the way down to the desktop in one office. They just ran it by in the celing, like in the old days of 10base5, then they put a transceiver on it, and ran a 15 pin cable from the transceiver down the wall to the back of the computer. Except they didn't use a big expensive sheilded drop cable like you should. No instead they used some penny-a-foot ribbon cable and two cheap press-on connectors. Still, they might have gotten away from it if the cable hadn't been running right behind a giant neon sign! Needless to say we were less than pleased with what all that noise was doing to the entire network.

So when 10baseT came out, with its immunity to noise, and easily crimped connectors (RG45s are basically 8 pin versions of a RG11 phone plug), and cable runs from each desktop to a central hub (or switch) where problems could easily be troubleshot; we were all over it and so was everyone else in the universe. 10base2 went the way of 10base5 and the dodo bird—extinct, except for the strangle little vestigial relic left in the plastic pack made for my modern network card.

 
2004-10-14
  Right or Not
The guys at HOTorNOT have decided to use some of their fame (and cash) to get people to go out there and vote this November. You win $100,000 if you're picked and you voted for Kerry, and $50,000 if you voted for Bush. Just kidding. Its $100,000 no matter who wins. Aaron put out the word and so I'm signed up. Even better, if you use a referal link and you win the cash, the person who refered you wins too. So click here, sign up, and when you win, I'll get cash too!

BTW, they collect some personal information, but so far no one's received any spam, junk mail, or crank calls after giving away their email, postal address and phone number. Those will be needed to call you if you win ...

 
2004-10-07
  Bigger and better
Besides solar cells, the other big renewable energy form is wind. While you can buy 500W turbines to put up in your yard, the real money is in the big systems. But big is a moving target. Once apon a time a 50kW unit was big, then came the 200kW, then the 600kW, then the 1.5MW. These things were getting pretty darn big. Well now big is 5MW, like the new unit in testing from REPower.

Construction started in April, and they hope to finish by the end of the year (putting together a 200 ton windmill is not a quick job). The unit features a 390 foot tall tower, and required quite a tall crane to lift the 120 ton carbon fiber composite rotor on to the top list last month. Each rotor is over 200 feet long:

To make it easier to get to the main housing for maintenance, a helicopter pad was included in the design. Hope those spinning rotors don't interfere with the airflow too much. Not the kind of house call I'd want to be making on a regular basis.

At a price of $17MM, this works out about the same price as solar panels, though obviously wind is more available in some locations (such as offshore) than the sun. Still with the estimated annual output of 17GWh per year, this is only expected to meet the need of about 4,500 people in the nearby German town. Using these to meet the needs of millions would require thousands of towers and billions of dollars. And lets not even bother with the math for a country like India or China that has billions of people. Thinking about power and construction on that kind of scale is just mind boggling.

[references]
Articles from Renewable Energy and Reuters.

 
2004-10-05
  A totally different universe
Web comics remain a strange thing indeed. Once apon a time, finding anything besides the pop fluf from Marvel and DC was a journey into the back stacks or ordering obscure titles from one line entries in the giant monthly comic purchasing catalog, only to wonder what happened to them six months later. Now, finding original independent art is like a few clicks away.

I've got a regular set of daily (and sometimes weekly) reading. Herdthinners is an anthropomorphic look at life and system administration--Kevin makes a great sysadmin rabbit. Angst Technologies has been mentioned (and shown) here before. Penny Arcade is a sometimes bizzare, sometimes vulgar, but usually funny look at the game business. And then there are other less regular efforts such as Argon Zark and Accidental Centaurs.

Today I made a big mistake and pressed GO on Mega Tokyo. That was a big mistake. Took my conscience three hours to talk me away from the next button. Got about half way through at that point (something like 2 1/2 years worth). This stuff is great. A mix of manga, drama, game geeks in Tokyo, robots, the ultimate evil, insecure guys, insecure girls, more manga, good vs bad, more bad jokes, and stickman.



Occasionally, guest artists help out, explaining many things, such as all the tasks one much master in order to be a web-artist:

And here I thought it was bad when I jumped through the entire archive for Ramblers in one shot. Funny stuff also (the life of the super-seniors and the regular college people who put up with them). Reminds me of Egglston. This is from Danielle Corsetto [warning: home page is not worksafe] who's newest effort launches this week: Girls with slingshots

And I'm supposed to be getting my work done when?

 
2004-10-04
  Alien universe
I was looking at the Google Labs Aptitude Test which is a combination of intellectual problems and essay questions. One of the questions is: how would you make search better?

This is an interesting question, as it asks much about how the applicant thinks. Personally, I'm already pretty good at searching. I think some amount of context would be good (like Froogle when I'm searching to buy something, vs when I just want product information). But I realize that I'm not a typical searcher. As I've mentioned before, most people are just starting to get used to using two words in their searches (up from just one), while I typically am so specific about my searches that I generally only get a few hundred results, and sometimes only three or four. So in order to think like the average user, I'd have to work way outside my normal box.

Just for fun, I tried Google Imaging with the most bland/wide/generic single term I could think of: art. The results were curious, to say the least. My favorate on the first page was this:

Hmmm. Ducks in neon with buggy. Destined to be a classic.

 
2004-10-02
  Scientific Sources
Everyone talkes about how great Wikipedia is, and it is if you think like a geek, or like a geek parent. But the minute you go beyond looking up the elements, state capitols, famous people in technology, or electronic stuff, then you're lost. Like its just about completely worthless for metalworking. I've run into numerous dead ends on Steel Furnaces, Blast Furnaces, Molecular Gates, and even Foundry mentions that while it was once a term for ironworks (a dead link), most people use the word Foundry for chip fabs. Ok, maybe most EEs do, but there's still a lot of people that fire up their Foundry and melt metal.

Even most of the welding stuff is there because I put it there. Things like thoria, thoriated tungsten, a couple different forms of welding (friction stir, more info on TIG, etc), and so on.

But you know the geek factor is at work when you find they do have an extensive entry for Explosively pumped flux compression generators. (Thanks Alaric)

 
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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