October 27, 2008

New facility

I just set up Alfresco's community edition last night and am finding it an interesting breath of fresh air in my never-ending battle with sloth and disorganization. Watch out, SharePoint.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:16 PM

August 04, 2008

Photobioreactors

In the great race to fix our energy systems, industrial scale algae production of oil is one of the potential major big fixes. No need to change the distribution infrastructure or end use machines, just turn petroleum from something you extract from the ground to something you make industrially. Companies seem to have already cracked the genetic code to manufacture green petroleum so why aren't we popping the champagne corks and churning out millions of barrels of the stuff already? The problem is one of scale.

What we haven't solved is how to make industrial scale vessels that make the stuff in quantities that matter in a commercially efficient way. These vessels, called photobioreactors, expose enough individual bacteria to sunlight that you maximize production while minimizing unexposed volume. Another problem is vessel fouling which gets worse as you increase the surface area of the vessel.

For an amateur observer like me, that's interested in seeing secondary markers, the articles on photobioreactors generally don't even cover what the relevant units of progress are and how close any particular design is to the magic point where you can start popping starter cultures in them and prepping for oil production. That's an unfortunate sign of disorganization, though it's not clear if that's the fault of the scientists making these things or the journalists reporting on them.

Posted by TMLutas at 07:15 AM

February 07, 2008

Thermostat Please

After reading this tale of upcoming solar cooling, it seems obvious that we don't have a clue as to major non-anthropogenic inputs into our climate. Were we to drop the political fight to change global industry and arrest the entry of the third world into the first world, we might just instead have enough money to fund and deploy a global thermostat that could adjust effective solar input by a combination of mirrors shifting extra sunlight towards the earth and shades blotting out undesired solar radiation.

It would be a multi-decade project and we'd need some sort of decent formula to decide how to *set* the thermostat but it would have the distinct advantage of short-circuiting the acrimonious debate by changing the shape of the anti-coalition. The new anti-action coalition would be shrunk as we would have one single discrete project that could be dialed to change its effects from subtracting warmth to adding warmth within the course of a day.

In short, it could mean that the costs of early mistakes wouldn't be borne for generations but rather for weeks or months, a much more acceptable solution.

HT: Instapundit

Posted by TMLutas at 08:12 AM

August 07, 2007

An idea for the next war

What if we combined Kiva's fundraising with the US military's CERP funds to create a mechanism where US citizens could support units by providing little work projects to create jobs and do the reconstruction work that is inevitable in any war? Unit commanders would have money at their disposal that did not rely on the budget process and control who got money and when so we wouldn't be funding our enemies. The local population would get faster reconstruction and help in giving idle young men something constructive to do. And patriotic civilians would get something concrete that they could do to help the war along and bring the military home faster with a victory.

Could it be done in Iraq? There's no reason why not if we're going to stick around long enough for the infrastructure to go through. The infrastructure would largely be Congressional permission to do this sort of thing. The software and aid infrastructure is already largely in place. The only thing beyond legislation is the logistics of giving the funders regular feedback that their donations meant something.

Posted by TMLutas at 04:38 PM

June 30, 2007

The Real iPhone Revolution

Tim Wu is wrong when he says the iPhone is not revolutionary, though he's right when he's in CYA mode in the last few paragraphs:


Sensitive to this point, Steve Jobs claims to have left some room for developing iPhone applications. The iPhone, as we said already, is a miniature Mac, and comes with Apple's Safari browser. Developers will be able to write Web-based applications that will work on the iPhone via the browser.
...
If you're an optimist, the more intriguing possibility is that Apple's iPhone is a Trojan Horse. The iPhone is fatally attractive to AT&T, since it gives the firm a chance to steal tens of thousands of new customers from rivals like Verizon. But Apple may be betting that, once it has its customers, they'll be more loyal to Apple than AT&T. With its foothold in the wireless world, Apple may be planning to slowly but inexorably demand more room. If iPhone 2.0 is a 3G phone that works with any carrier and supports third-party apps, then industry power will begin to move away from the carrier oligopoly and toward Apple and other Silicon Valley firms. Now, that would be a revolution.

The iPhone does to the cellular carriers what iTunes is doing to the music industry, making them money while inducing them, step by step, into shedding their most self-destructive business habits whether they like it or not and mostly while they don't notice or can pretend they don't notice. In this, Apple plays a key role as revolutionary midwife. The point of the technology revolutions that Apple is midwifing isn't to financially break the incumbents but rather to save them from the consequences of their past stupidity. This is why Apple is on the inside cutting billion dollar deals that will change the world while so many other companies are on the outside building useful widgets that won't get wide adoption and don't survive.

Apple knows full well how marginalizing it is to take over too much of a business. The Macintosh has gained its second life because Apple has fully embraced technologies that are in common use and good enough to fulfill their technology dreams. The last uncommon hardware choice for Apple is in being a market leader in embracing Intel's BIOS replacement, EFI. Everything else is stock PC parts, albeit optimized to emphasize unusual traits (silence over speed, heat efficiency over speed, aesthetics over cost).

Apple has lock-in on the iPhone because creating a small browser that fits in a phone and has sufficient market and mindshare that web developers will test their pages on that platform is incredibly expensive. Only Apple can do it because only they had the foresight to bet their web client platform on small footprint software. Both Mozilla and IE have to be cut down to make them fit in phones and that means that developers have to test "regular" IE/Mozilla and their cut down versions.

And the browser/server combination is enough to stoke a revolution. The third revolution, the one where everybody's going to notice, is when the cost of the phones goes down to such an extent that for the same introductory price point you can also host a web server. With that, you can run apps even without a cell signal, even in disaster conditions. Government demand will likely drive that, both civilian and military.

The second revolution is going to be the ability, sometime in the next year or two, to put an alias on the home screen, a tiny little text file that will allow you to kick up safari so that those user generated applications that are coming down the pike will have screen equality with the regular applications that ship with the iPhone. With that, Apple will have essentially gone and created Microsoft's nightmare (the one they killed Netscape over and tried to kill Java and Google over) of a web OS that allows you to do what you like outside of the base OS.

Nobody outside the technogliteratti are going to care that poking the icon on the screen launches safari which launches the app, just as nobody cares when that same chain happens with Java or Flash applications. For the rest of us, that's going to signal the opening of the iPhone and I guarantee you that the functionality is already there, just as the functionality to do all the neat iTunes add ons that have been added was mostly there at iTunes inception.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:48 AM

May 03, 2007

Democrats Against Energy Independence

Democrats killed, on a party line vote a coal to liquid fuels mandate. Now I'm not too fond of government mandates, thinking that the government would do well to stay out of the question of what fuels other people should be buying. If they want to promote the use of certain fuels, they can buy it for their own use (something that the DoD is testing right now). Democrats are nearly uniformly in favor of alternative fuel mandates and plenty of them have provided lip service support for the technology. When they had an actual opportunity to vote for the mandate, they turned their back on it in favor of increased reliance on foreign energy.

Hypocrisy, your name is Democrat.

Posted by TMLutas at 03:30 PM

April 30, 2007

Liquid Coal

It's just a single line in this Business Week article on Peabody Energy Corp but it is key to understanding our likely near-mid term energy future. "Boyce also hopes to build cutting-edge plants to turn coal into a liquid and a gas—a move that has the potential to open up big new markets." Liquid coal is another way of saying Fischer-Tropsch conversion and that means that petroleum's major potential competition, coal is taking a major leap forward into reality.

Tanking up with domestic coal instead of imported oil is an attractive proposition, one that's going to set major political impulses (Domestic energy! Clean energy!) against each other. Bring on the popcorn and three cheers for Peabody Energy.

Posted by TMLutas at 03:44 PM

April 04, 2007

OMB Earmarks Database

Glenn Reynolds notes the availability of OMB's earmark database. He also complains that one cannot search by member. What he doesn't note is that OMB has generously made screen scraping unnecessary by putting the data into CSV file and allowing private entities to do the datacrunching themselves. I don't have the $$ to put up a server to do this though if push came to shove I'd probably have the skills. No doubt somebody will. It would even be possible to create a community around the earmarks to get at the ultimate achilles heel of congressional attempts to obfuscate whose feeding at the trough. For members to get the benefit of earmarks they have to tell their constituents about them, to brag that this or that project was "brought home" by the member. In order to gain the advantage of the franking privilege, such communication really needs to be district-wide. Once you have porkbuster volunteers (preferrably multiple ones) covering every congressional district, the congressmen and senators themselves will spill the beans.

These methods can be evaded by the member using his own money for postage in bragging but that dilutes pork's positive effect on reelection and even paid communications are going to be unreliable at maintaining anonymity. For all my present problems with the Bush administration's competence, this is certainly good work and well thought through. Nobody can protest that the data's being released in CSV format and all the deadly analysis work (so far as porkers are concerned) is going to be done outside the political system. Nice.

Posted by TMLutas at 11:56 AM

April 03, 2007

OSS Manufacturing

I'm headed back to my old habit of trolling the bottom of the TTLB ecosystem and I found this gem talking about an open source car. I found the car conceptually interesting but impractical but the one comment to the story at the time talked about open source cola which seemed a little more possible. Googling found PDF instructions. Even for something as simple as cola, you end up with danger warnings that are downright scary. Do not try this at home with the kids as you may lose one or two of them. As the instructions note "Cola is a harsh mistress, and she is quick to anger."

Indeed.

I suspect from these two examples that the fears of Open Source taking over manufacturing are largely overblown. Fortunately, I'll probably live to see whether I'm right.

Posted by TMLutas at 04:15 PM

October 10, 2006

Traffic Light Remotes

Traffic light remotes already exist of course, for decades. The purpose of these little gizmos is to ensure that emergency vehicles get green lights speeding them to their urgent destinations. Early systems were rather primitive with zero measures taken to ensure that nobody else was using the system or that the system was not being abused by legitimate users for illegitimate purposes.

Enter the information age. What if the system was made more sophisticated? What if you were able to have a two tiered priority system. Emergency vehicles would override all, of course. Fires wait for no man and heart attacks are just as merciless. But what if you made a secondary access that allowed you to bid who got a longer light, within limits? Every light could become a billable opportunity, a little auction for the municipality. The infrastructure for payments could be piggy backed on to the highway tolling systems like E-ZPass or I-Pass with a super transponder/transmitter that would empower you to speed you on your way at the cost of a few pennies per stubborn traffic light.

The establishment of a two tier system would create a serious incentive protecting the emergency vehicle codes because you could get what you really want (faster travel) legally while the money involved would increase the penalties for violating the system. I would imagine that taking a picture of all vehicles using the emergency vehicle codes would be an effective way to avoid that sort of cheating.

Working poor people would often be outbid on these auctions and would sometimes travel slower as a result. They would benefit, though, from the revenue coming into the city. Unlike red-light cameras, traffic light auctions would be progressive in nature while the benefits would randomly accrue to the ordinary joe who is driving next to the Lexus.

Posted by TMLutas at 03:06 PM

October 01, 2006

Original Reporting

One of the great raps against the blogosphere is that it is very weak regarding orignial reporting. There's no inherent reason for this other than the tools needed for that sort of thing have not been developed to a usable level. But what is that toolset?

As an experiment, I'm going to try and figure that out.

Posted by TMLutas at 09:31 PM

August 31, 2006

Corner's Been Turned

UAV fuel cells are starting to get deployed. It's one more sign that the fuel cell revolution is not just hype.

Now back to my hiatus (riiiight....)

Posted by TMLutas at 03:30 PM

August 17, 2006

New Light

I'm fascinated by future technology switchovers. Roaming around the net you can see the future coming and calculate when it's going to arrive. Here's something from the DOE lead me to a bit of calculation on when we're going to start switching our lighting fixtures.

How long will it take before we see energy-efficient, cost-competitive, white-light products on the market? DOE's SSL R&D plan spans 20 years (2000-2020), and includes three components: Core Technology Research, Product Development, and Commercialization Support activities. The good news is that tremendous progress is being made, faster than originally anticipated. Researchers have already improved the efficacy of white LEDs to approximately 50 lumens per watt, almost four times more efficient than incandescent sources. Costs are still high, but continue to drop significantly, from approximately $250/kilo-lumen in 2004 to around $50/kilo-lumen in 2006 (based on manufacturer estimates for volume purchase). For comparison, conventional light sources (incandescent, fluorescent) cost around $1/kilo-lumen.

So we've got a huge drop in costs, 80% in the past two years so light bulbs with LEDs are only 50x more expensive than conventional light sources. That's neat stuff but it seems like we're still a very long way away from LED lights. But there's more:

[A] 75-watt incandescent light bulb typically produces about 1,000 lumens and costs less than $1. The problem is, it only lasts about 1,000 hours and only converts about 5% of the electricity it consumes into light (the rest is wasted as heat). A comparable CFL is 5 times more efficient, lasts 10,000 hours, and costs less than $5. ... Unlike other light sources, LEDs don't typically “burn out;” they simply get dimmer over time. Although there is not yet an official industry standard defining “life” of an LED, the leading manufacturers report it as the point at which light output has reached 70% of initial light output. Using that definition, the best white LEDs have been found to have a useful life of around 35,000 hours (that's four years of continuous operation).
So that LED lightbulb lasts 35x a conventional incandescent and 3.5x a fluorescent bulb. All of a sudden we're looking at needing to drop LED prices by 30% from current, not 98% in order to start seeing a significant market shift. That looks like a reasonable near future event and something to keep an eye on. With lumen per what ratings double what can be produced by incandescent lighbulbs and none of the flicker or color problems of fluorescent bulbs, LED lighting will likely be welcomed by the public and lead to less energy use.
Posted by TMLutas at 03:07 PM

July 07, 2006

Hydrogen's still on track for 2010-2015

This was supposed to be a comment on Donald Sensing's site in response to this article on getting off oil but the comment won't post right so I'll put it here.


Currently, GM has the Sequel, a hydrogen based car that gets an equivalent of 39mpg with <10 sec 0 to 60 times and a 300 mile range. While selling those cars here might not defund Al Queda as much as it will defund Hugo Chavez, if they can be made attractive in other markets, oil sheikh governments will have a significant bite taken out of their income flows. Whether this is a good thing or not is another debate.

As long as I'm here, you might want to take a look at US DOE hydrogen manufacturing R&D targets which currently predict that we're going to have <$3/gge (gallon gasoline equivalent) from hydrogen manufactured on site via electrolysis in the 2010 timeframe that those GM vehicles are going to start coming off the manufacturing line.

We've got a startlingly good transition plan, I think. We seem to be hitting our numbers and in the 2010-2015 timeframe we're likely to see the fruits of this.

Posted by TMLutas at 02:05 PM

May 13, 2006

Air Force Kick Starting GTL?

Gas to Liquid (GTL) processing of various fuel stocks to liquid motor fuels is currently economical. The investment needed to build large plants is slow going because the unpredictable energy market could leave investors holding the bag. What's needed is a big purchaser willing to make a long term purchasing commitment. In steps the US Air Force.

In short, they're testing to verify that the new fuel will work well on their current engine stock and not require expensive retuning. Once that's demonstrated, long-term contracts can be signed justifying the expense of plant building. Once an initial plant is built, it's much less risky to increase capacity and pull in additional customers.

The popularization of new technology can often come on the back of government purchases. Here's hopeing we don't get burned.

Posted by TMLutas at 08:45 PM

April 16, 2006

Timeshifting Outrage

Can you imagine if you could engage people, have them sign a petition, film their reasons why and send them a clip of themselves a week prior to the election? I think that it's obvious that there is an entire class of applications for politics to take events and make sort of a political time capsule for them to open up in the month or three prior to the election when it's time to remember. Of course somebody's going to try to patent this so consider this post "prior art".

Currently, politicians have established a cycle. They do the hard stuff early, let the outrage flow freely, knowing that most will forget by the next election. It's just a basic fact of democracy. There's no reason why modern technology shouldn't leave that little politician's trick alone.

Posted by TMLutas at 11:51 AM

April 08, 2006

SOF Fuel Cells

Special Operations Forces are making the move from batteries to fuel cells with weight savings over batteries, being quieter than generators while giving off no fumes being important factors leading to the switch.

The usual progression is from SOF to general military use and then to civilian use as soldiers don't see why they can't have the same gear on the construction zone that they had in the battle zone (as appropriate).

Posted by TMLutas at 11:15 AM

March 06, 2006

Seat Swap?

Jonah Goldberg is willing to pay more for an aisle seat. He wants the airlines to change their ticketing practices. Instead, maybe he should talk to these people instead? Why shouldn't the guy who has booked early get the extra $5-$20 to sacrifice his comfort?

Posted by TMLutas at 04:28 PM

February 27, 2006

Internet Adoption S Curve flattening

It's becoming clear that the Internet needs a new killer app. Recent data is pointing to a bit over a third of US households being simply uninterested in current Internet offerings. The glory days of ever increasing household penetration seem largely to be at an end with only 2% of the holdouts planning on getting service this year which means that at that pace, it'll take ~18 years to achieve full penetration.

It's clear that if the US is going to get fully wired up, something other than the web is going to have to be the driver. Yet so many people today think that the Web is the Internet that there's going to have to be some serious retooling of public perception before another killer app is going to be able to take over for the Web.

Maybe the adoption of IPv6 will allow for a rebranding. Supposedly there is a USG mandate to deploy by 2008 so explaining that retooling might allow for a new perception of Internet usefulness to take hold. The ability to deliver rock solid audio and video at decent frame rates should probably entice a few more people to take the plunge. High fuel prices will likely bring some in just to take advantage of telecommuting.

In the end, there will be a few who just decide to drop out, just like there are a few households that do not have TVs. I should know, I used to be in one of them...

Posted by TMLutas at 12:56 AM

January 14, 2006

EFI

As I speculated earlier might happen Apple is going with Intel's next generation EFI. This quite likely means that buying a copy of Mac OS X 10.4 in 2007 will permit you to install that OS on non-Apple hardware. All that need happen is for Dell to implement their EFI systems for Vista the same way or a way compatible to Apple so that a little firmware adjustment will allow OS X to run.

There are some neat things that Apple's ported over from its previous firmware system OpenFirmware to EFI. Target Disk Mode is one of them. I can plug in a laptop to a desktop with a firewire cable, hold down the T key and turn it on. It boots as a hard disk. This makes it very easy to recover data on a heavily virused disk because the compromised OS doesn't run at all. It's just another new disk available to the admin system. I hope that Windows will be supporting that too when Microsoft gets around to releasing Vista.

Posted by TMLutas at 11:27 PM

December 17, 2005

Moving to Functional Impairment Tests

Clayton Cramer picks up an interesting meme. The idea is to move from testing blood alcohol levels to testing actual driving performance. Much good analysis ensues but he misses a trick. These tests will really come into their own when drive-by-wire cars are the norm and cheap HUDs come standard. This is because you can pull over and test yourself, in your own car. Long haul truckers will likely have mandatory impairment testing periodically and black boxes not under their control sending the reports back to either their employers, their insurance company, or the relevant state authorities.

Drive-by-wire cars are likely to come into their own when the internal combustion engine goes goodbye, being superseded by an alternate engine. If the hydrogen fuel cell enthusiasts are right, that'll start to come about at the end of the decade. HUD displays for cars are just starting to come out now in high end cars so that's likely to filter down into the main fleet over the next 5-10 years as well.

The federal government could take a proactive stand by allowing states to move to a performance based system instead of a BAC level system and still qualify for highway funds. That legislation will then put the idea on the agenda of all 50 state legislatures.

I really can't see anybody protesting against this. Do you claim that you can drink and drive and the current standard is unfair? Prove it by passing a functional test and may your liver have mercy on you.

Posted by TMLutas at 08:26 PM

November 23, 2005

Just Disappear!

Reading this story on blowing colored bubbles was really entertaining, heartwarming, and inspiring. It also pointed out something that I hadn't thought about for some time, the unique value of the ephemeral. I first thought about this upon reading the history of the sticky note and finding out how much of a revelation it was to work towards an adhesive that wasn't too sticky. Colored bubbles are a similar story.

The original inventor could figure out how to make colored bubbles but his bubbles would stain. On his own, the best he could figure out was something that was washable. The random chaos of bubble landings quickly demonstrated that washable just wasn't good enough for moms. Color had to disappear without effort. The solution created an entirely new class of dyes and colored bubbles turned out to be just the door opener in an enterprise that should be changing our aesthetic world starting in 2006 and for the rest of our lives.

We spend so much of our effort inventing things that will last longer, create lasting value, be a permanent monument to this or that. What if we've been missing an entire world of the ephemeral? What if looking at ordinary things and asking how to improve them by making them temporary is the great overlooked opportunity of our time?

Somethign to think about...

Posted by TMLutas at 12:23 PM

October 27, 2005

Public Service Printers

Glenn Reynolds asks:


But what I'd really like is a wireless printer that will show up on any laptop in range, and print from any laptop in range, without having to load any software or drivers. That way guests, etc., could use it with a minimum of fuss. I don't think that's even possible with current operating systems. Am I wrong?

Glenn, you're wrong. You can do such a thing for your most likely laptop targets, Mac and Windows OS ones. It's not necessarily a bright idea though. Your only security would consist of the transmission strength of your wireless network. If it were too strong, you could have random strangers printing things to your network. If that's what you want, though, you certainly can do it. Whatever print server you're using would just have to have drivers loaded for all the OS targets you want to support. Computers routinely ask the print server if it has drivers for a strange printer and will load those drivers if they can.

What's really fun is the legal conundrum that you've set up. Setting up a system as a public service like this is supposed to be impossible. Let's say that somebody randomly came up to Glenn Reynold's front door, got a signal, and printed an advertisement on Glenn's printer. Right now, that would be a pretty stiff crime if the printer owner didn't want that print to happen but it would be just fine if the owner was ok about it. There is, however, no recognized way for the guy at the front door to examine the open network and determine whether he can use the network resource or not. You've essentially got a property that isn't posted against trespass but there is no reasonable way to knock on the front door without risking some pretty severe legal penalties.

Posted by TMLutas at 09:24 AM

September 30, 2005

Rev Up Those Fuel Cells

It seems that the cost of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel cell use has just dropped by a significant degree Instead of 2000C, water only has to be heated to a temperature of 1000C. This means that we'll be able to significantly lower the cost of cracking hydrogen via its most plentiful, easily handled source, water. Everybody who has been complaining about how hydrogen is too expensive to use as a storage medium for energy just got sent back to the blackboard.

HT: Worldchanging

Posted by TMLutas at 03:24 PM

June 07, 2005

Intel Macs

Apple jumped off of NuBus when PCI overtook that less used standard, it jumped off of SCSI when IDE overtook SCSI for small computer use, and now it's doing the same for its processors as the heat profile of Intel chips actually is looking better than PPC. Wow, reasonable engineering decisions like this is going to make it really tough to sustain the "Apple is a cult company" meme.

One of the really good thing about Apple's hardware is that it used a reasonably sophisticated firmware system, IEEE-1275 or Open Firmware. One of the unresolved issues of the coming new hardware designs from Apple is whether they are going to continue using IEEE-1275 (and thus keep Mac OS X only for their own hardware) or they are going to also shift over to Intel's BIOS replacement, EFI which should mean that any competent EFI geek should be able to make hardware that OS X will run on. That's a big deal because it would mean that Apple sees more profit in shipping $129 boxes of OS X consumer and $999 boxes of OS X server than in shipping Xserves PowerMacs, iMacs, etc.

If this is the case, this is a huge announcement to the entire PC industry that they've been commoditized and the Dell model of cost reduction is king. Apple's exit from hardware would mean that innovation is dead as a business model for major PC manufacturers. The only point of competition would become in software and services.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:59 AM

June 03, 2005

Using Classroom Labor

It seems to me that combining the open source movement with classroom instruction would create a great deal of real world progress. Imagine a coordinated initiative that recruited software engineering class instructors to structure their classes in such a way that they solved real world problems for real world OSS projects. The students are there, writing code, but the code they write is actually submitted for real world use.

If it's good code, they will actually be able to say that they have real world experience on their resume. Their code was considered by their peers to be good enough to put into production use. This would give these students a real leg up in the job market over students who did not participate in such structured coding projects.

For the professors, it would be challenging to restructure each class to solve a new problem but it would also be invigorating and free them from the risk of students passing the answers from one class to the next. Since the problems to be solved would change, the code generated by each class would be useless in solving the next class' assignments.

There are literally tens of thousands of incomplete projects out there in publicly accessible repositories. This source of labor could be used to help finish a great many of them.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:08 AM

May 23, 2005

Eternal Web Life

Michael Williams brings up the idea of eternal web hosting charities. Given current hosting realities, it's realistic to assume you need about $10 a month and the cost is only going to go down. At $120 a year, your web thoughts and projects could stay up forever with a maximum starting capital investment of $12,000. That's likely going to be within the reach of most people so look forward to seeing that as a menu item in your death planning discussions.

Posted by TMLutas at 08:29 AM

May 22, 2005

Future Auto Repairs

Donald Sensing's thoughts about how easy it is to total your car led me off in a different direction. The cost of getting into an accident needs to go down. At a certain point, the value proposition for a large segment of buyers will be in getting the same performance out of a $500 airbag instead of one that costs $1000 not in making a $1000 airbag that is ever so slightly better than the previous year's model.

I can see that 3D printing is likely to be big in repair shops of the future.

Posted by TMLutas at 01:38 PM

April 29, 2005

Apple Tiger: launchd

I'm going through Ars Technica's Tiger review. The first thing that surprised me (in a good way) shows up on page 5, launchd. This really shows the benefits of Apple arrogance and anal retentiveness as applied to longstanding Unix world problems.

Launchd does just that, it manages startup of the various system services in a unified fashion instead of the "patch on top of patch" system that Unix has lived with for decades. As somebody else described it late last year "Launchd is kinda init, mach_init, xinetd, cron, System Starter (seems very nice indeed, drop XML files into a dir saying I want to receive network connects on this port, start at this time, when load is so low etc)". Launchd is represented in the article as an open source project but I couldn't find it. It should be available as part of Darwin, though so the fact that it's not listed separately is not very important.

The absolute arrogance of thinking that you can swim against the tide and change something that basic and functional to the operation of Unix and get enough people to go along with you is breathtaking. It's also a core differentiator and competitive advantage of Apple.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:22 AM

March 27, 2005

The Coming Death of TV

I've pretty much written off TV after the adoption of IPv6 (coming at the end of the decade courtesy of the US Army's mandate for its vendors) as QoS makes time sensitive Internet transport reliable and easy. It might not take that long though. BitTorrent's ability to dramatically lower bandwidth costs has allowed The Strand to be offered for $0.99 an episode instead of the $4.99 conventional stream/download solutions would have priced out at. Those extra $4 in costs spell the difference between an interesting failed experiment and a new revolution in episodic video (EV) distribution, formerly known as the TV series form.

Supposedly, you can't use a macintosh but it's WMV formatted and I'm downloading it now. I'll write later whether it plays straight off, or I had to doctor it.

Posted by TMLutas at 05:54 PM

February 24, 2005

TV's Replacement II

Microsoft has announced that it's entering the TV market to provide IPTV a TV over IP solution for large manufacturers. The idea is to provide some sort of unified solution that provides a trifecta of Video/Data/Voice solutions and high margin value added services.

Microsoft seems to be aiming this at over the wire TV instead of over the air TV but it's unlikely that such a device would succeed without over the air capability. We'll see. Such a big undertaking isn't going to get out of the lab (for technical development)/conference room (for the business negotiations) for a few years. In any case, we're unlikely to see it fully flower until IPv6 rolls out at the end of the decade to provide a sound transport method that provides reliable Quality of Service (QoS) and standard security (IPSEC).

Posted by TMLutas at 07:41 AM

February 15, 2005

<Idea> 0.01

Imagine an idea tag. Whenever you put an idea in an article, you would surround it with the tag. The tag would have all the parameters of the idea inside the tag. What are the parameters of an idea? I'm not sure of all of them yet but they would include constraints, confidence levels of overall truth, and all the other little voices of doubt and hedging that we all have, but usually don't include.

Once an idea tag is promulgated, the problem then becomes how do you parse it and properly represent the parsing. That's another post.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:45 PM

February 07, 2005

PodCasting

I just came across a great description of podcasting the phenomenon of doing radio over the net in downloadable files that you easily transfer to your iPod or other music player. It lays out the groundwork for the current state of the field as well as its potential to become a commercial force as threatening to broadcast radio as weblogs are to print media.

One thing that didn't come across in the article is the potential commute productivity enhancement that this could provide. Imagine a script taking your unread email, having your computer read it, make sound files out of each email, and loading the files onto your iPod so you can listen to your emails while you drive. You can process the information while driving without any more distraction than talk radio would generate (and yes, boys, this paragraph's prior art for patent challenges down the road).

Reading off text is old hat for Mac customers (the capability has been embedded in the OS forever) and there are plenty of good programs on the Windows side to do it too. You just have to figure out how to make .mp3 files and not your speakers be the output device.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:25 PM

January 24, 2005

Battlefield 'Net XI

Daniel Drezner talks about IT weakening terrorism. The cell phone and radio transmitter are the local heroes here. Cell phone SMS messaging is apparently bagging an awful lot of Iraqi terrorists. The problem seems to be on the back end. Since it's going from one cell phone to another, there's no way of identifying good informants who provide meaningful tips on a repeat basis and ones who are cluttering up the system with noise, possibly on purpose as a low risk way of hindering the forces of order.

Convergence will eventually merge the whole thing into one system, with Internet enabled 3G/4G phones providing lots of killer apps like democracy education, the ability to find a job, the ability to make social and political connections in a profoundly disconnected society, but the cell phone has one major advantage. Having one is just wanting to make a call. It doesn't mark you as a stooge for the occupation. You don't have to distribute them. You just have to keep the towers up.

Posted by TMLutas at 08:12 AM

January 18, 2005

Isolated Knowledge Silos

Todd Zywicki writes about the curious backwardness of much constitutional law analysis regarding commercial speech. Apparantly most of what's out there doesn't reference the most important economic works in the field of advertising analysis.

There are a few things that struck me. First, the analysis is crude because the opinions are largely black box. You can't easily ask "what are the economic theories that underly each of these opinions" and get a summary. You should be able to. If nothing else, law school students, in their yearly analysis of these cases could come to reasonable conclusions about the source of the economic theories of these opinions. In fact, they probably already do but nobody's actually distilling that intellectual work and populating a standard database with it.

If such a thing were done, you could then take the results back to the economists and find out how much of our constitutional analysis of commercial speech is based on fundamentally flawed economics. If most of it is, the chances of the Supreme Court reviewing new challenges to the status quo goes up. The chances of getting district and appellate courts to ignore stare decisis rises too.

On the other hand, if a lot of the analysis is based on articles which themselves are based on sound economics, there really is no problem. The difficulty is that with all that yearly wasted analysis going on in law school classrooms, we really can't tell which case is more true.

Posted by TMLutas at 11:51 AM

January 11, 2005

Future Apple III

OK, time to eat crow. Yes, the low cost mac is here. It's a decent machine which has all the long-term implications that Evan Kirchhoff was talking about. The only kicker is whether Apple loses money or makes money on each unit and what's their margin.

There is one thing missing at the intro, a nice USB KVM unit. There will be people who want to swap back and forth between their Windows box and their Mac box, perhaps networking them together over ethernet (it would be really spiffy if Rendezvous could take a simple ethernet cable link, and make Windows shares show up for the Mac).

Posted by TMLutas at 09:18 PM

January 07, 2005

Future Apple II

Evan Kirchhoff ups the ante on his previous Apple speculation, claiming the new, headless Mac at $499 is now at 75% speculation and provides supporting evidence. Unfortunately for Kirchhoff's predictive batting record, there are two long-known Apple corporate traits that militate against the rumor being true. First, Apple has a highly aggressive (many say viciously vindictive) legal department. Apple has always liked suing people, especially over IP violations. They've also had a long-running feud with rumors websites, especially those who won't take down inside info stories that were illegally disseminated. The problem could be as simple as the following quote from the original Think Secret story "The new Mac, code-named Q88, will be part of the iMac family and is expected to sport a PowerPC G4 processor at a speed around 1.25GHz."

If there is a Q88 hardware project that even vaguely resembles that, the above quote is probably the fruit of an inside leak. Apple security could even have discovered the leakers and those might be most of the rest of the John Doe defendants.

Now Q88 might, or might not, be destined for release. You have to remember that Apple has publicly released Darwin for x86, a complete OS, and is widely expected that they have an internal development project with a completely running Mac OS X operating system based on x86 maintained in parallel with their PPC version. That version will never see the light of day unless the PPC consortium dies, something that is highly unlikely with the birth of the new Power initiative. Q88 could be a similar internal project. Q88 could be a project that's exactly as described but to be released at a $599 price point. Both would seriously peeve Apple for good reason.

The major negative effect for Apple is that expectations of a Q88 release will be built into Apple's stock price and non-release or release at a higher price or with lower capability configurations will all mean a hit to Apple's shareholders in the next two weeks. Every time that happens, the desperate anti-mac people (John Dvorak, please call your office) get revved up and the Apple brand takes an outsized hit that they have to work very hard to recover from.

The further rumor of a new Office software suite can also be coming out in many different ways (and it's been widely anticipated for some time). Apple has already struck a major blow by providing .doc file support as a system service. I would expect that this would continue to be improved. I also would not be surprised to find (at this conference or some other) an announcement that replicates the Safari (KHTML) rollout where an open source office application like KOffice gets a major UI upgrade and a version rolled out that is heavily integrated with Mac OS X.

As for Apple stockholders in 2010, I would want Apple will be a more diversified company and to have improved positions in all its segments, including personal computers. I would expect that Apple's consumer outlook will put it far ahead in the race to create home servers, a high margin business that can get rolled into the mortgage for housing. A complete system would require a house LAN and room terminals that would be at least as capable as today's PCs.

You don't need any secret knowledge to predict such things, just some technical understanding of Apple's current offerings as they've unfolded and the logical continuation of current trends. Apple's Rendezvous, Airport, Xsan, Xraid, and Xserve products all have potential applications in a (wireless) wired home initiative and even some of the lesser knowns such as OpenDirectory are probably not just attempts by Apple to assault the corporate purchase gates. When Apple can find a good partner in the building trades to make that sort of deal, they will as it will be highly lucrative to get clumps of a hundred servers here, two hundred there for entire upscale subdivisions. That's the kind of thing that will not only build their brand but will also increase their ability to sell further service offerings into from hardware service to Internet watch filters.

Posted by TMLutas at 11:11 AM

January 03, 2005

Future Apple I

Evan Kirchhoff takes a stab at divining Apple's future. He analyzes one of those rumors that never die, "the cheap Mac". He gets pretty much everything right until the end when he should have just said that it's a false rumor but he breathes life back into the dead and gives it a 50% chance of being true. It's just not so and I've seen this rumor come up so many times that it's obvious that it's not.

First of all, if Apple wanted to drop the entry price on its computing technology, it would much more likely pair with the new IBM initiative to promote their Power line of chip products and create a $299 satellite computer with a tiny flat screen that would run cut down versions of OS X specially tuned for the "digital dashboard" applications to be rolled out in 10.4 and fitting into a home network. The problem with a $499 computer isn't that it's too cheap for Apple but that it's too expensive.

Apple has garnered plenty of expertise in how to take over market segments by being the low price producer. Try competing with Final Cut Pro, Xserve, or Xserve RAID on price. You can't without getting out of the brand name space. Price out a 50 person workgroup with simple file and print needs using Mac OS X Server v Windows Server. Licensing costs drop the Mac OS X price far below the Windows one.

Whenever Apple has decided to win a segment by entering the low end for that segment, they have always dropped their prices down to crush the competition, never, ever meeting the low cost provider. This rumor would meet the low cost providers. That means it would not only depart from the old "high price, high chic" Apple of the past but also the new Apple "category killer that crushes on price" present.

If Apple goes low, it'll go low in creating a new category, say something in the iMac G5 form factor but wall mountable with a 9" lcd screen that will automatically hook up to mama Mac and provide you with dashboard computing functionality where you want it. Buy a 10 pack and put one in every room in the house (and yes, there will be a ruggedized version for the bathroom). Microsoft can't follow because it doesn't make the whole widget. The x86 clone makers can't follow in Windows because the Microsoft tax won't let them. The Linux folks could follow but won't succeed in the space because the 9" wall mount form factor will highlight user experience, an Apple strength and a Linux weakness.

Now this isn't a rumor. I'm just providing a prediction based on what people want, computing where they want it, when they want it. It will appear when the hardware is ready. Apple's laid the foundation for this sort of thing over the past couple of years, just as they've laid the foundation for their push into the enterprise that you'll see in the next 5 years.

Posted by TMLutas at 11:42 PM

November 18, 2004

Battlefield 'Net X

The Pentagon is planning to create own kind of Internet 2, a battlefield network capable of seeing everything, knowing everything. Now I can see a practical reason for the Army's insistence on IPv6 starting in 2009. IPv6 is a new addressing system that has the address space needed to handle all those new network nodes this new military net will have.

This isn't just of interest to the military but will likely drive the entire civilian worldwide Internet to convert over to IPv6. Even if this new milnet is hermetically sealed away from the Internet, the Army has made it clear that it wants to contract with ISPs who provide IPv6 and those ISPs will, in turn, have that service for their civilian clients as well.

But contrary to the warfighting concentration (to the point of exclusivity) in the NYT article, this will be revolutionary for nation building/peacekeeping as well. Crack off a segment of addresses, create a DMZ zone and you end up with the network backbone for a civilian networking infrastructure. Add language appropriate simputers and you're in Sys admin heaven.

You want to change people's psychological connectivity with the world? Give them an instrument that gives them vital information like how to get a job, where to get food or medical aid, curfew rules so they won't get shot, and alongside that education in how to become a free citizen and not a subject, ways to register their needs and wants and structural aids in how to organize to get them, connectivity to military intelligence, news from around the world, the possibilities are broad and far ranging.

By the time that the GIG starts rolling out, chances are that simputers will have both significantly advanced in capability (they're currently being built on top of a 206Mhz ARM chip running GNU/Linux) and drop in price. You can get 1 unit at retail for $240. No doubt bulk purchase gets you a better price though a solar charger (4.5 volts) and wireless net connector drive costs right back up. If 5 years from now the platform can handle voice, we've got a real winner.

HT: Thomas PM Barnett:: Weblog

Posted by TMLutas at 12:59 PM

November 09, 2004

Betting on Microsoft

An awful lot of websites out there depend on Microsoft technology to function correctly even though the same functionality could have been put in place in a platform neutral way. Unless you're getting paid to do so, there's no legitimate company interest in doing so. What you are doing, in fact, is exposing your company to the financial risk of redeveloping your website in the case of Microsoft losing market share without any conceivable upside to benefit your shareholders.

Up until now, this has largely been a theoretical problem. Microsoft's Internet Explorer sits atop the browser heap with a dominant 90% user market share. But security problems and a slowdown in new development of the IE technology base means that there is an opportunity out there, one that has recently been taken. Firefox is a very good browser. It's impressive, innovative, and has reached version 1.0. So all the executives who have swallowed the MS developer's koolaid will, in the next months and years, be confronted with a new round of web site expenditures, expenditures that are required because customers will be using Firefox and demand support for it or they will shop elsewhere. Once business starts taking a hit, that seemingly simple technology decision to embrace vendor lock-in of the dominant worldwide player will start to look dumber and dumber.

Will they learn for the next round of technology expenditures? I hope so but I'm not confident.

Posted by TMLutas at 09:40 PM

October 18, 2004

Pessimist Propaganda on Hydrogen

Nature has picked up a paper(pdf) by the Oswald brothers published in the journal Accountancy.

I can't recall the blog I first read describing the paper but it looked fishy enough to write and protest that the numbers weren't right. Jim Oswald did respond and his response made it very clear that whatever they were talking about, they were not talking about the hydrogen economy as most people conceive of it.

1. The calculations are for hydrogen burned in internal combustion engines (ICE), not hydrogen fuel cells. Virtually everybody views the hydrogen economy as a fuel cell economy with hydrogen run through the cells to directly create electricity, not burnt in cylinders that drive pistons, that turn a wheel or drive a generator.

2. Like all other ICE type motors, hydrogen ICE are limited in efficiency as they are Carnot heat engines. At realistic temperatures, fuel cells can have 3x the efficiency of ICE. This means that even with hydrocarbon created hydrogen, you lower pollution with hydrogen as everybody except the Oswalds in this scenario look at it.

3. The Oswalds deliberately and artificially narrowed the available sources of hydrogen to nonpolluting sources that are commercially viable today with no technological progress allowed for, nor any thought to how rising petroleum costs would make other sources of hydrogen become viable as energy prices rose.

4. Energy is lost in transportation with the shorter you go, the less you lose. Hydrogen is likely, on average (and certainly for the US & UK) to be produced closer to home than our current oil supplies. This effect is unaccounted for.

When all the constraints and fudges are made explicit and clear, the Oswalds' paper is a somewhat useful teaching tool to drive home the point that a totally clean hydrogen economy is going to be hard work. But that's not how Nature interpreted it and it's not how most people will read it who know nothing but the buzzwords of a "hydrogen economy". While the Oswalds are honest enough to freely admit their constraints when asked, they're not doing their duty to the truth in bludgeoning even science journalists to get the story right about the narrowness of their actual claims.

Posted by TMLutas at 05:04 PM

August 13, 2004

CopterBox

Here's a neat bit of technology, a corrugated box that lets you get from high point a to the ground via autorotating cardboard rotor blades. $300, easy to assemble, the CoptorBox doesn't require much training to assemble and drop.

HT: DefenseTech

Posted by TMLutas at 08:20 AM

July 15, 2004

Invention Musings I

Usually, I get bright ideas for technology when I'm away from a writing implement but this article inspired me especially the following section:


Another problem is the poor state of water pipelines in many communities, allowing leakage, and contamination.

Well, imagine a pipe fixer, it's powered by waterwheel. As water circulates in the pipe, the machine gets juice. It creeps along the pipe system checking for leaks. Where it finds a leak, it either reports in or fixes the leak itself. since these pipes last an awfully long time, our robot repairer doesn't have to move very fast.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:51 AM

July 14, 2004

Hydrogen Fuel Pumps at Retail

It looks like the US is going to get its first retail hydrogen fueling station later this year (other articles put the time frame at September/October this year). Retail filling stations are important because they are the basis for the necessary infrastructure shift to end the age of oil. With a filling station available, not only will vehicular fuel cell applications get a boost but people in the immediate area who want to use fuel cells for other applications can potentially fill up with the hydrogen version of a gas can, relieving them of the need to get their own hydrogen source and reducing the infrastructure spending needed on other fuel cell applications.

I'm looking forward to seeing hydrogen pumps pop up locally as the technology rolls out. GM is partnering with the USPS to deliver hydrogen fuel cell powered mail delivery vans. Since the USPS does not maintain fueling stations for their fleet, retail hydrogen pumps will quickly be followed by hydrogen mail vans, providing the pumps with guaranteed revenue.

As pumps get deployed, we're likely to start getting into that heady area where the small inventor, the tinkerer gets involved in a real way. Once they can get easy access to relatively cheap hydrogen, who knows what ideas will bubble up from our collective creative impulse?

Posted by TMLutas at 10:11 AM

June 30, 2004

Space Elevator Progress Note

Space elevators have been a recurring feature on this blog because it's the sort of disruptive technology that can upset an awful lot of pessimistic predictions about the future. If you can knock two zeroes off the cost of lifting a pound into orbit, many things change, from realistic energy from orbit to space manufacturing, to military implications, cheap, safe access to space changes an awful lot. This isn't even counting the inevitable spinoffs of large scale carbon nanotube production at the strength levels necessary to make the cable and beamed power systems to energize the lifters.

The Liftport Group has long listed April 12, 2018 as their target launch date for a space elevator but now Dr. Bradley Edwards is predicting that it will only be two years to develop carbon nanotube fiber strong enough for the elevator ribbon. That's a real milestone to watch. If the ribbon appears in that time frame, I'd say that it's time to stop scoffing at the possibility and time to start thinking through the consequences of this disruptive technology because it's going to happen.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:06 PM

June 15, 2004

Invisible Cloaks, Invisible Walls

John Cole couldn't think of a legal, moral use for an invisibility cloak. That kind of bothered me and as I was reading another article on the subject, a completely above board use came to mind. Translucent walls would make an excellent improvement in the eastern christian iconostasis.

Another use will be in the fashion world. One thing that is not made very clear in most articles about this technology is that the realistic image projected out does not absolutely have to be what is on the other side of the body. Imagine images that subtly enhance the body image that you would otherwise project. That will be the subtle end of the spectrum but combine this technology with a punk rock sensibility and the sky's the limit.

Posted by TMLutas at 04:24 AM

June 11, 2004

Letter to the Paper XXIV

Steven Den Beste get's enthusiastic support on energy from Reverend Sensing. Unsurprisingly, I disagree:


If exposing the fallacy that conservation would be enough is all that SDB were doing, I would join you in cheering him in his efforts. Unfortunately, that is not all that he's doing. He also attacks the idea of creating new sources of energy both as additions to and replacements of oil on any significant scale. This has several bad effects.

First of all, it is inaccurate. We are fast approaching a crossover point where our current energy creation and use infrastructure is going to be significantly changed. SDB's essays are not consistent with this coming reality. GM does not make a habit of seriously considering pie-in-the-sky solutions for its car platform powerplants, nor do major oil companies rush to rebrand themselves on a whim. Have you noticed lately that everybody's an energy company now?

If SDB is right, we might as well elect the "realism" candidate this November, John Kerry, as there are hard engineering limits that make spreading liberty to the 3rd world (and thus a free market hungry for energy) impractical and destabilizing for us.

Fortunately, SDB is wrong on this issue. He realizes the magnitude of the task but fails to understand that people are meeting the challenges. It's a hellishly complicated and difficult thing, to remake an energy infrastructure. By giving the false impression that it's not merely difficult, but impossible, SDB has turned himself into a nattering nabob of negativism.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:17 AM

June 07, 2004

Future Tech Library

This whole energy innovation thread that Steven Den Beste has written about reminds me of a very basic principle in innovation. There are two kinds of innovation, incremental and disruptive (revolutionary). Incremental advances are the most common. You take your vacuum tube and you make it 3% better. A disruptive or revolutionary technology would be replacing vacuum tubes with solid state transistors.

In the world of incremental technology, SDB's pessimistic world view about the possibility of feasible radical advances is just good sense. Nobody is ever going to build a space elevator out of kevlar no matter how you improve the weave of the stuff.

But there is another world, the world of disruptive technology. It's a world where science fiction turns into science fact because where the author talks about beanstalks made of "unobtanium" a japanese electron microscopist turns unobtanium into carbon nanotubes one day in 1991. And all of a sudden the race is on to realize the high strength potential of this disruptive advance in material science. All of a sudden a hundred boyhood tales from pulp science fiction are no longer mere flights of fancy because material science has caught up.

What I think is missing in the optimists' presentations is in defining their "unobtaniums". If you don't understand that you're really asking for a miracle, you get the idea that making these things happen is just a matter of time. It's not just time but time plus disruptive advances. How much better does energy capture + energy transmission efficiency have to get before solar power satellites become commercially feasible? How low do you have to have sunny location land prices before a terrestrial mirror solar station become practical?

Something complex, like novel energy forms, might well require several different disruptive advances. Solar Power Stations require a revolution in lower launch costs, significant increases in collection efficiency and better orbit to ground transmission efficiency, for example. Core taps require radical improvements in drilling technique both in the ability to drill deep and to drill cheap.

Such advances might be coming from any of several different fields. Laser drilling seems to be the best hope for core taps and that's largely come from impressive work done by defense contractors researching SDI missile defense systems. The oil extraction industry sees laser drilling as a way to improve speed and thus efficiency in deploying very expensive drill platforms.

A few hundred years ago, it would be ludicrous to even try to keep track of all the miracles you need. But, as I've noted before, the rate at which disruptive technologies occur has been accelerating for centuries and it's no longer unrealistic to think that there will be enough new disruptive inventions in our lifetimes to start keeping more formal track of the impractical dreams of today.

Let's take flying cars for instance. We currently have at least Posted by TMLutas at 04:13 PM

June 06, 2004

The End of the Oil Age

The idea of the end of the oil age is completely misunderstood by far too many people. Unfortunately that seems to include Greg Burch You don't have to eliminate all use of oil to end the oil age. In fact, oil usage will continue to happen long after the end of the age of oil much as whale oil continued to be used long after the current oil age (petroleum version) started.

Let's say that average petroleum based motor has a lifetime of 20 years (some more, some less). Let's further stipulate that we count an engine that uses twice as much petroleum twice as much as a smaller motor. Taking this weighted measure means that every year, we're replacing 5% of our oil demand (these are not real numbers). When the age of oil ends, most motors won't be replaced any faster than normal. They'll just run out their lives and be replaced by the new technology, let's say electric motors using hydrogen fuel cells for power with an ultimate source of orbital solar power.

The oil wells will still be pumping for motor two decades after the end of the oil age. They'll still be pumping after that because oil will be needed for lubrication, for plastic production, and for non-fuel uses. Since the Middle East is the world's low cost producer, they'll be the last producers forced to cap their wells because of lack of profits. Making the arabs choke on their oil won't be accomplished by ending the oil age.

But ending the oil age is necessary to win the GWOT in a way that is completely different than what Greg Burch talks about on his blog. We need to end the oil age so that we vastly increase our available energy stream to bring the world into the Functioning Core and out of the Non-Integrating Gap. As states enter the Core, they cease to be terrorist producers and start to be terrorist fighters. We can only win when the terrorists no longer have safe haven states which are pretty much to be found in the Gap and not the Core. The demand for additional energy to fulfill this project far exceeds what we can deliver using current methods even if we go all out and remove most political restraints on energy production. We just don't have enough oil, uranium, natural gas, or coal to manage the huge new demands on energy.

This sad fact is a major reason why we need to shift over to a hydrogen economy, not because it's cleaner (though it tends to be), but because it is multi-fuel friendly. In fact, being multi-fuel friendly is largely what makes hydrogen cleaner. It smoothes out renewable, bursty electrical sources into hydrogen producers that can release hydrogen out when it's needed, not when the sun's out or the wind's blowing and it's a lot better than the current battery alternatives.

Any bright new idea for energy has a much lower barrier of entry in a hydrogen economy. So if you have turkey guts, you convert them to hydrogen and plug your (smallish) contribution into a common energy backplane. No more need to tune cars for different fuels. Everything is convertible into hydrogen and everything can run on hydrogen. No more retooling infrastructure to accommodate advances in energy production.

Posted by TMLutas at 08:50 AM

June 05, 2004

Energy Scaling: Separating Wheat from Chaff

Poor SDB. Apparently every time the USS Clueless enters the wild and wooly waters of alternative energy, he gets inundated with ideas that simply won't scale and won't work. For the most part, he's holding up admirably well but I have my usual nits to pick.

One of the biggest is that just because there are people who provide ideas that simply do not fly, it does not follow that there aren't serious, reasonable methods of going forward with a solution. Mea culpa, I googled up a link that solved the problem of high efficiency electricity to microwave conversion and missed that this particular approach was unlikely to scale (at least according to Steven Den Beste's dismissal). Upon further research, the papers at JUSPS provides several papers examining the specific problem of space to earth power transmission and seems to be an awful lot more optimistic even though they're also realistic enough to know that this is not going to happen tomorrow.

One paper I found particularly interesting was this one from the University of Michigan (PDF) which contrasted the vacuum tube approach that SDB characterized this way:


This is one of the few remaining applications where semiconductors have not yet displaced vacuum tubes. In a modern TV transmitter rated for 500 KW or 1 MW, everything is transistorized right up to the very last amplification stage, which uses vacuum tubes the size of garbage cans.

The satellite downlink will have to generate and transmit as much RF as a thousand such TV stations. Doing that is difficult. Doing that with 90% efficiency is "nontrivial".


The recommendation of the paper is to use semiconductor components in a decentralized fashion. Apparently the current state of the art for doing the space power to ground is currently 60% efficiency. Losing 40% of your power getting it to ground is no walk in the park but considering that you're gaining over 5x the energy by going above the atmosphere, this is an acceptable loss since your net gain is thus a bit over 3x terrestrial solar energy potential. Distributed conversion also creates larger surface areas for heat dissipation, a real problem for space applications.

Whether the original link that provides a 90% solution can be combined with the decentralized, distributed approach currently rated at 60% is not something that I'm really qualified to judge. I do suspect that the answer to such challenges is much more likely to be in the engineering realm of "tough and challenging" rather than "nontrivial". With cheap enough lift costs 60% efficiency might be feasible today. We don't have enough numbers in our debate to be sure yet where the tipover points are.

I've gotten burned myself on things I thought would "never" happen, or not in my lifetime. In 1978, environmental airheads were touting synfuels as a panacea and I, in my youth, sneered at the idea that I'd ever see anything practical come out of such pie in the sky research. They were extracting tar sand oil for about $40/barrel in 1979. In today's money (2003) that's somewhat north of $101 a barrel. The current extraction cost is $12 a barrel which puts Canada's Albertan oil sands right around Russia's Siberian extraction costs.

The skeptics were right that it was far too little and too late to fix an oil shock that died away in the next few years but the optimists were right to pursue the technology. A few hundred thousand barrels out of Canada (limited only by water availability), and who knows how many other hundreds of thousands of barrels available in nontraditional oil areas (Brazil for example) and you have a significant addition to world supply that isn't going to run out anytime soon.

So one problem is not one of technological difficulty but of time. I think that it will take decades, not centuries to solve the problems because serious scientists are putting out papers showing progress that's going along at a fair clip and they seem to have at least conceptually solved an awful lot of the problems already.

Another time component is that we're talking about a crisis that isn't going to go away after a few years like the 1979 oil shock did. We're talking about a multi-decade effort that is going to roll up the Gap and pull the third world into intimate contact with the first, creating a place where everybody has a stake in the system and there is no place where you can go off and plot for many years to create WMD in some sort of safe haven where the locals are with you.

So if you combine the shortening of time from thousands of years to tens of years on the solution side and the lengthening of the crisis time from the few years that some people (not necessarily SDB) think that this GWOT is going to last to the decades I believe will be the minimum time it's going to take to really solve the problem and you have an inescapable conclusion. Hunting after new energy sources including unconventional sources is an important component to winning the war.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:58 PM

May 30, 2004

Battlefield 'Net VIII

Reading Strategy Page's latest (again, no permalink) on the battlefield net, one thought kept cropping up in my mind. Does the thing have an accessible API and what are the 3rd party application opportunities for it?

A battlefield PDA in this generation handed out to squad leaders and sergeants will be a really cheap piece of occupation tech four generations down the road handed out to native families because it's the cheapest way to provide connectivity and plug them into the Core. The satellite phone may morph into something cheaper or we may get really cheap satellites in the meantime, who knows? In any case, we're not likely to see the original manufacturers make the transition without third party software. One route might be military intelligence wanting to take a few of these and give it to their higher quality assets among the natives. Then, as software comes on line for intelligence work, some people figure out that it's cheap enough to hand out to all intelligence assets. The PR/education corps will see enough of these among the natives to start giving lessons in freedom via FAQ and cheap web apps on a variety of subjects and somebody is just going to open up the whole net to the general public in a country in forcible transition courtesy USAF.

This is something similar to what happened to the Internet and what will happen with Internet 2. Technology is rolled out to a select few and people who used to qualify or almost qualify for access agitate for their inclusion on the list and, with pull, they get it. This just extends the number of people who almost qualify and the process starts happening again.

Posted by TMLutas at 08:17 AM

May 14, 2004

Future Reporters

Imagine a war zone. You can't really send reporters in to a lot of it because they'll just get themselves killed. But what if you had the reportorial equivalent of disposable cameras and could widely disseminate them on both sides of the lines? If you could figure out a secure method of anonymous payment, you could count on a huge increase in the number of reports coming out of the area by participants in the conflict and locals who want to make a quick buck and are in the danger zone anyway.

We're a good 10-20 years out from a world where the technology to do this is affordable, but there are no conceptual barriers for the engineers to conquer. Given an infinite amount of money, you could do it today.

Go Moore's Law!

The reported battlefield would not only change the nature of war reporting but would also change the ability of soldiers to get away with war crimes. With so many potential reporters everywhere, the chance of getting away with it falls to near zero.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:18 AM

May 03, 2004

More Stem Cell Progress

A very nice BBC article on a group that plans to put the tooth implant boys out of business by 2009 using stem cells to grow new teeth. Only one thing wrong with the whole article, it makes no differentiation between adult stem cells and embryonic stem cells. After a few seconds of digging at the company website it becomes clear that these are adult cells that avoid all the nasty moral problems that embryonic stem cells raise. You can get these stem cells with just a bit of liposuction from your own body.

There's nothing morally objectionable about that but I bet you that 9/10ths of the readership won't make the differentiation because they aren't told in the article. They'll likely, and wrongly, associate embryonic stem cells with the advance and view it as just one more bit of evidence that the moralist types are holding back progress. In fact, adult stem cells seem to be much more promising for actual therapies, rather than grant applications for theoretical treatments that all too often seem to go wrong.

Posted by TMLutas at 09:53 PM

April 29, 2004

Liquid Armor

Material science is making its usual unheralded contribution to health and safety. In this case, it's liquid armor. It's a liquid filling to put inside armor or even normal clothing items like boots that remains light and flexible in normal use but stiffens immediately to rigidity under sudden stress. After the stress goes away, it softens right up again. Not only is liquid armor useful in areas like limbs than kevlar with rigid plates it also has potential civilian uses like a steel toed boot replacement.

It also has the advantage of being better against stab wounds than regular body armor, a must for law enforcement/penal operations.


HT: defensetech

Posted by TMLutas at 07:17 PM

April 27, 2004

Battlefield 'Net VII

The Airforce is creating software to allow UAVs to conduct automated airborne refueling. This will help in providing persistence on the battlefield and is important for many reasons. One of these is that it would allow UAVs to serve as airborne wireless network access points. Motorala has a wireless system that has a range measured in miles not feet. Combine that with a flying wireless routing station and you can provide a persistent, inexpensive, generally inaccessible by insurgents, airborne network infrastructure.

Posted by TMLutas at 04:42 PM

April 22, 2004

Apple is Going Corporate II

Thanks to the Peeve Farm for linking to my previous Apple gushing but Brian Tiemann doesn't quite get it right when he says "[t]hat's the enterprise market pretty well covered, if you ask me—Apple seems to be going after the big-iron crowd with a vengeance".

First of all, the 'big-iron' crowd turns its nose up at 20 year old Unix implementations as still being a bit green. Things like CICS, VMS, IMS and the rest of the mainframe alphabet soup that handles a remarkable part of the world of corporate IT is not going to be swapping over to Objective-C and the drinking the rest of the Apple koolaid anytime soon.

But there's lots of room for Apple to come up with new solutions for the enterprise. Here's a few things they're missing (and this is by no means an exhaustive list):

Blade Servers (for when 1U is not dense enough)
4 way + Servers (more power)
Security Appliances (attention to detail is key here)
Large Scale Remote Access Servers (sure Apple has dial-in via Airport but try supporting 500 road warriors that way)
Vertical Application Servers (Apple's only begun to plumb this one)
VoIP applications

In other words, Apple's still in humble phase, and rightfully so. It's got a long way to go before its business strategy fully unfolds. It's just that with the release of Apple's SAN solution, Xsan, negative minded Apple watchers can no longer even pretend that they're just trying to pick off limited vertical markets like video or genetics companies. There's a lot of growth potential left for new hardware and software solutions before Apple's enterprise market strategy has reached the mature phase of limited growth.

Posted by TMLutas at 07:23 PM

April 21, 2004

Apple is Going Corporate

Apple's recent product entries have pretty much let the cat out of the bag for even the most unobservant that Apple does, in fact, have a business strategy. It's one that they've been executing quite well for some time now. They're trying to get into the server room and the network infrastructure business. Why else would they revise their WiFi base station so you can legally put it in the space above a drop ceiling while not having to plug it into a wall socket for power? They're also releasing software and hardware that undercuts traditional application price points by huge margins in certain vertical markets. Avid is losing huge amounts of business to Final Cut Pro for example.

And now Apple's server hardware line, already impressive with its 1U rackmounted Xserve and Xraid disk array solutions are complemented by the new Xsan Storage Area Network software that Apple just announced.

It looks like the Safari experience was not a fluke. Safari, Apple's browser, uses KHTML, a well respected HTML rendering library published by the KDE group intended as part of their Konqueror browser. The various available browser engines were tested and KHTML came out as best.

Xsan is 100% compatible with (and probably borrows the guts from) ADIC's StorNext File System. This means that anybody who is comfortable with the ADIC solution has to seriously consider Apple's hardware. Because Apple's RAID solution is much cheaper than its competitors, it's reasonable that its going to start cranking out a good deal of demonstration units to test Xsan this winter and start making serious sales come 2005. There are no additional licensing costs beyond the $999 software cost per controller server. And the price savings are sufficiently eye opening that nobody can afford to ignore this entry into the field. Apple's total solutions cost for a SAN is around $30k while similar capacity and performance systems run $150k-$200k. That's aggressive pricing by anybody's standards.

Posted by TMLutas at 02:37 AM

April 19, 2004

Battlefield 'Net VI

The US, via DARPA is moving towards cognitive radios. These are software defined radios that are loaded with local rules and search for open chunks of spectrum to use for their transmissions. This permits a much higher use of spectrum without providing interference. DARPA has decided to release the specifications of these radios as an open standard, hoping civilian equipment manufacturers will widely adopt the technology and make military interference in local RF networks a thing of the past as both military and civilian equipment adjusts to stay out of each other's way.

This also has implications on bandwidth licensing. The current FCC structure, for instance, assumes dumb end devices that require rigid spectrum allocation according to very old formulas. With cognitive radios and like minded equipment like cell phones and TVs, such rigid rules can be relaxed in future (if we can get the bureaucracy to loosen its death grip on power).

Posted by TMLutas at 12:38 PM

April 13, 2004

Battlefield 'Net V

StrategyPage, invaluable as usual (despite no permalinks), points out the availability ofcomputerized translation for the armed forces. As Moore's law works its magic, in the next decade we should be seeing the availability of cheap enough solutions so a future occupation could distribute information appliances widely to occupied populations to both enhance security and accelerate the process of convincing people to act for themselves and to form (or re-form) civil society.

This is all first generation stuff so anybody without a sense of tech history will find the scenario I'm laying out a bit far-fetched. But the pieces necessary for including the occupied civilian population in an occupation 'net are rapidly falling into place.

Posted by TMLutas at 08:37 PM

March 27, 2004

Occupation Tech II

I've written previously on this subject and talked up the simputer. Well, now it seems to be available, and not just in India. This is not precisely the configuration I would recommend for an occupation network but it's pretty close, closer than I've seen anywhere else, and the price ($240) is not bad for the number of units you're going to have to distribute. The CDMA/modem circuitry is going to have to get replaced with something that can work with airborne wireless access points but it should be a wash in terms of manufacturing cost and you're going to have to get some sort of distributed power recharger to go along with it.

We're still a long ways away from getting this up and running in an occupation/peacekeeping situation but we're getting much closer than we were even a year ago.

HT: Slashdot

Posted by TMLutas at 04:42 PM

March 26, 2004

Controlling Your Information

A CEO is going to meet with a long-time corporate rival. Within hours, the rumors are flying that there are secret negotiations but secrecy was absolute. How did reporters find out so quickly? It turns out that a reporter bribed somebody at major cell carriers to track the cell phones of industry CEOs and using a bit of GPS magic discovered that the two CEO's cell phones were within 10 feet of each other and they were in a conference room in a hotel without any industry events going on.

This is the kind of location detection conundrum and opportunity that is starting to appear with new gadgets. If you can talk to it, and it's smart enough, any bit of electronics can tell you where it is. And if you don't know that's part of the feature list, you can be broadcasting your location even though you don't want to.

Now often being able to broadcast your location is important but the key is having such broadcasts being under control. I don't particularly see any interoperability standards that will allow individuals to control all the technology that might snitch on them. There's a crying need for such a thing.

Posted by TMLutas at 01:45 PM

March 25, 2004

Looking For a Freeware GUI Style HTML Parser

One of the things that would be quite useful for me is to have the ability to set up automatic pulls of data that can be subsequently imported into a database for further manipulation. I know that there are commercial products that can do this. There are also freeware libraries that do the heart of the job. What I don't see is something that will take non-standard HTML and pull out the data with a nice GUI interface that I can use and script well.

Anybody out there have any experience in this sort of thing?

Posted by TMLutas at 01:32 PM

March 22, 2004

Smarter Maps, Smarter Journalism

Imagine a map on a computer screen. Click on a border and a box comes up explaining how that border was set, when was it established, what treaties led up to it and the conflicts that preceded the current border's establishment. All that information is available today in encyclopedias, history books, and other weighty tomes. But what you don't get is some sort of easy connection between an everyday act (like looking at a map) and all that deep knowledge that you could plunge into if you were just the least bit curious.

I had a colleague who was absolutely gaga over Edward Tufte and especially his book Visual Explanations. At first I didn't quite get what the fuss was all about but eventually he got it through to me that without access to information in an understandable way, information is virtually worthless. And you can have information right in front of you without ever really understanding what you're seeing. The classic example of that is the Challenger tragedy where the managers simply didn't understand that a powerpoint chart they were looking at wasn't just dots and lines and failure rate percentages but a death sentence for the astronauts if they persisted in launching.

But back to maps, they are a highly useful graphical presentation of the world around us. In fact, an entire field has grown up around the use of layered smart maps called GIS (Geographic Information Systems). But these maps are mostly used as specialty tools for planning where to put the sewers and other very practical but highly specialized tasks. What's missing is a GIS system that you can go to when current events bring up places that you've never heard of with histories that you never even imagined and have all the details in all its glorious layers laid out in front of you quickly and comprehensibly in a compact, comprehensible manner.

If we could develop a system like that, the light fluff and commentary driven focus of nightly news broadcasts would be much less pernicious. It wouldn't matter so much that the anchorman doesn't give all the basic facts before launching into speculation and interpretation. If you know them already, well and good. If you don't, you have a freely available tool that the news organization is tying into their report that lets you dig into the background sufficient that you no longer need to be brought up to speed in the actual body of the report.

Posted by TMLutas at 01:57 PM

March 20, 2004

Watchdogging Police Reports

TalkLeft's got a story on police falsifying crime reports either by downgrading them or not reporting them at all. If true, it's a horrible example of a failure in information systems, one that could be easily remedied by simply providing a feedback loop for the crime victim to know and understand what is going on with his case. Simply by creating an extranet that contains the public record portion of all open crimes you have most of the problem solved. You hand the crime victim (or closest appropriate family member or guardian) a serial number and give them an access password so they can keep those who should be informed, informed. So if you file a complaint for rape and see it's filed under misdemeanor assault, you can raise a stink immediately. And that's really the point because once police know that they're going to get monitored, their incentive to make the numbers look good disappears because falsifying a report will look much worse than any possible gain from fudging the numbers.

The dumb ones might still try it but they're likely to get fired, and that's a good thing. The data entry overhead for such a system means it probably won't work for very small towns that aren't computerized but that's likely not where the problem is. The big issue is likely to crop up in cities that are already computerized.

What makes this solution even better is that you could probably organize the victims groups, the civil libertarians, and the police watchdog groups to create a generic program that can be customized, release it as open source, and give it as a gift to the police forces of America. And Mr. Police Chief, Mr. Mayor, why is it that you don't want to accept a free system whose only effect is to give crime victims easy access to information they have a right to anyway? The politics of it make a continued coverup very difficult to maintain.

Furthermore, since the code is open source, the police may have their own ideas about usefulness and add features that actually improve policing by making it easier to enter the data they already have to input. In the end, I suspect that police will find such a system as useful in their job as police car cameras are for the honest cop.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:13 PM

March 18, 2004

RFID is a Two Way Street

Phillips has a new take on RFID and wants to put RFID readers in mobile phones so you can comparison shop. This, along with a bar code reader, would take away a lot of the normal retail strategies that stores use to enhance profits via sales. People go into stores just to get what's on sale but what the retail outlet wants them to do is to buy enough other items so that they increase gross sales and profitability at the same time. Being able to consult a database wirelessly and know that the item you're looking at (or a comparable one) is available for less a block away will drastically change shopping patterns, especially for multiple stores in a category that are close to each other.

If it were little trouble, I would simply submit my shopping list to the database and take the road instructions to minimize my overall cost. Simply enter in your fuel economy (if traveling by car) and how much you value your time and you can cherry pick among two or three stores and know, before leaving, who has what for less. Any impulse shopping would bring out the RFID/bar code reader and you'd see if the next store had that new gizmo or treat for less.

Of course stores would hate this and would not cooperate in creating the necessary database. But they can't hide the receipt and they are unlikely to ban cell phones so the data is going to get entered. There will be attempts to poison or game the database with quick lasting sales or simply putting employees up to entering in false data. It's a war that they are unlikely to win and this will end up changing both day-to-day pricing strategy and store site location as it becomes a more significant competitive danger to locate a store next to your competitor.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:11 PM

March 16, 2004

Train Brakes

Brian Crozier over at Transport Blog muses about train stopping ability a subject that I didn't know much about but this referenced article makes all clear (it pays to read comments). One improvement that presents itself immediately to me is to combine the current air pressure brake signalling system with some sort of electronic communication. Currently, it can take many precious seconds for the back car on a freight train to get the signal to start applying its brakes. The article supplies an example figure of 16 seconds. If there were a parallel electronic system that could achieve sub-second response times, stopping distances would be improved, though how often that would make a difference and would the expense be worth the savings is beyond me. No doubt a trial lawyer will be making that argument at some future date in some tragic case.

Another issue is that brakes are monolithically set so that they do not skid, whether under load or empty. Adding intelligence to the braking system in the form of a type of rail car ABS system would also increase stopping power. The cost of such systems versus the improved braking performance would have to be weighed as well as what happens when you have a bunch of old and new cars mixed together. Anyway, it's an interesting intellectual exercise. Unfortunately, such innovations are unlikely in the US as the dead hand of government regulation has been killing off railroad innovation for over a century.

Posted by TMLutas at 01:18 PM

March 15, 2004

Automated Wall Builder

This should kick up the problem of automation eliminating jobs a notch. A UCLA researcher is getting the bugs out of an automated house building robot that is, essentially a 3d printer working on a building scale and in concrete.

The US, with it's residential preference for wood frame housing is not likely to use it much for standard homebuilding but it should prove popular in Europe as well as commercial construction in the US.

HT: Rex 2.0

Posted by TMLutas at 03:45 PM

March 13, 2004

More Sprawl Please II

I regularly read the City Comforts Blog because I think that we can do better in how we construct our physical space. The author of City Comforts and I have an on again, off again email correspondance going between us. Surprisingly, he was somewhat on my side in my paen to sprawl as a solution to agricultural overproduction.

It seems his major objection to sprawl is that the commercial strip malls are not very walkable and are simply built in a manner that makes them very unfriendly to pedestrians. As somebody who has actually walked these things, I think this is not, at heart, an unreasonable criticism. The problem is how to find a solution that is practical.

Essentially, most of these commercial zones are mostly reached via passenger car and this is unlikely to change anytime soon barring a knockoff of the Segway that undercuts its price by a large amount. So what's being asked for is a reconfiguration of what is so far a very viable commercial public space model to accommodate what is a very small minority of potential users, pedestrians.

The only way that I can see this going forward is to create either a new mode of transport, either Segway or something very much like it, or creating a very low cost way to create and maintain pedestrian walkways, something like the moving walkways in the Isaac Asimov book Caves of Steel but built for all weather outdoors use with low maintenance. The distances are large, usage is low, so costs explode to maintain conventional pedestrian transportation. I think the moving sidewalk is a lot further off into the future. Getting a cheap Segway might not be so far off though.

In consumer electronics and other established economic sectors, certain price points are well understood. You introduce something above that price point and only a few people will buy it. They're generally called early adopters and have the combination of loving new things for their own sake and plenty of disposable income. But if you get enough early adopters, you can scale up production and lower prices. Once you hit the magic price point, everybody wants one.

But what is that magic price point for a pedestrian like transporter that will make pedestrian style sidewalks economical in sparse suburban commercial construction? And when will Segway style vehicles hit that price point? Once you have the answers to those questions, you've generally solved the problem of architects making pedestrian unfriendly commercial malls in suburban sprawl developments.

Architects, once they know that a new mode of transportation is either here or predictably coming within the lifetime of their development, will accommodate it without much debate. Let's say the magically patent unencumbered $599 Segwee is projected to be three years out. Why would anybody design a shopping mall in 2004 that's designed to last 20 years in its current configuration without taking into account a major new shopping reality that's going to be around for 17 of them?

Thus the problem of unwalkability has a simple technological solution and those who care about such things deeply should, by all means create studies to find the price point and assemble prizes for the first person to create a Segway like device that hits that price point.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:42 PM

March 09, 2004

Battlefield 'Net II

The battlefield Internet is moving forward and it looks like it will progress along the same style 'S' curve as the Internet itself into a full fledged occupation net that covers all aspects of an occupation. The new innovation is multilingual chat and this makes possible simplified cross-linguistic communication even when people aren't speaking the same language.

This development can take the grand strategy of Thomas Barnett and rewrite it small in the day to day activities of future US military interventions. With a solar rechargeable simputer like device deployed across the population, information connectivity is pretty quickly achieved because simputers are designed so that you don't need previous computer experience or even literacy. With these two innovations combined, you get near instant connectivity. At first, you just hand them out and announce that security notices, where to get food, and where to get jobs and money will be sent through these systems. You maintain a parallel classic announcement system for notices that can get people killed but quickly move over money, job, and resource announcements through the electronic systems.

Once they are in use for such basic things, you've got a communications pipeline into every home in the occupied zone. Tell the truth faster, more complete, than your opponents propaganda can circulate and you win the propaganda war. Provide the information tools to promote the formation of burkean 'little platoons' and you give a leg up to civil society formation. Create reporting modules so that people can inform the military about rebel movements and hideouts without leaving their homes and rebels can no longer intimidate locals into silence.

Monitor the packets that travel across the network and you'll catch rebels trying to piggyback on your system (with airborne wireless access points, they'll never be able to take over all of it). Create economics modules for trading, education modules for learning the habits of freedom, history modules to learn their own history without the cult of personality the previous dictator is likely to have created during the previous regime.

It's an information matrix that is not very useful for the creation of an empire but will provide a very effective information substrate if what you're after is planting a liberty tree.

Update: Ooops I ommitted the link to the story that made me write this article in the first place. It's corrected above and also the link in this update.

Posted by TMLutas at 09:28 AM

March 05, 2004

Defeating Bunkers

Strategypage (still no permalinks, darn it) has a story on bunker busters and the difficulty that the offense is currently having against the defense. I recall that the oil and gas folks have been experimenting with laser powered oil drilling rigs. A little googling shows that they've gotten very close to deployment with civilian systems based on Reagan era SDI patents coming into operation by 2007.

I don't think it takes much of a genius to see the full circle potential. Take an airborne laser, combine it with orbital beamed power, and you just have to maintain air superiority for the length of time it takes to drill down, using a system that "can slice through rock like a hot knife through butter." There isn't a country in the world that can challenge us in the air and this is likely to continue for some time. With such a system, we wouldn't need nuclear bunker busters.

Beamed power is currently a NASA priority and due to deploy a decade or two down the road. Putting a military application on it would certainly enhance funding and speed up deployment.

Posted by TMLutas at 09:23 PM

March 03, 2004

Fusion News

It seems that sonoluminescence might end up being a real source of energy. Sonoluminescence is the long-known phenomenon that sound waves in liquids can cause random light flashes in air bubbles. The effect was first picked up in cavitation studies. Current studies seem to show extremely high heat being created and neutron releases indicative of actual fusion. The equipment necessary for the study is orders of magnitude less than classic fusion with the most recent work being done on about $1M of equipment (including a Macintosh fx computer!).

Right now, they're looking to scale things up to see if they can get a chain reaction going. Every time one of these things (possible radical advances in energy technology) pops up, it could be nothing, or it could shake up the world and create new realities that change everybody's daily life and the entire geopolitical system.

Posted by TMLutas at 11:39 AM

March 02, 2004

Of Chips and Businesses

Steven Den Beste is back and feeling a bit beset at some of the response he's getting on the XBox's use of the PPC chip. In some small part it's deserved as he's missing a few points but he obviously got an overload of viciousness he certainly does not deserve. Don't the flamers know to ease a guy back into the swing of things?

Regarding the PPC, chip pricing and Apple, things do need to be cleared up, and not just with Steven Den Beste's post but with the original that started things up, an article over at Brian Tiemann's Peeve Farm.

First of all, the original article is too limited to reliably transmit much emotional content at all. Thus I don't think either characterization of "overjoyed (and oversmug)" or "tongue-in-cheek and 'isn't that [w]eird?'" By word count it's a 90% cut and paste from the underlying Inquirer article. It's a real linker not thinker article so it's very thin gruel that SDB is hanging his article on.

But things are a little weirder than the Peeve Farm's noticed. It is quite probable that the custom NT kernel is just updated enough that it'll handle the new hardware. NT for PPC was discontinued at the SP 3 level and according to Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 Workstation went completely out of support on June 30, 2003 so if you have any problems with security, functionality, etc. you're just out of luck.

Microsoft Support Lifecycle policies nowadays are pretty well set out and NT 4 Workstation is just not going to be supported. This is not tolerable for a major Microsoft product line so either Microsoft is going to have to tailor an exception to their support policy or they are going to reintroduce multiplatform compatibility to Windows.

I think that NT 4 for PPC is going to be a very limited release and will be replaced by a more modern and secure version of Windows for the PPC as soon as Microsoft can crank one out. This is a major development effort that requires an awful lot of code cleanup and recompiling so why is Bill Gates doing it? You don't just restart a major platform line just for one product, an SDK to a game machine that you're adopting an inferior chip for as an anti-trust exercise to financially keep alive a semi-moribund competitor (Apple) that will not change their way of doing business so are going to die in the long run anyway.

SDB seems to have come to the conclusion that Apple has not evolved recently. In fact Apple has, and in very positive ways. In product after product Apple is demonstrating that it has squared the circle and learned to love open systems without sacrificing the anal retentive control freakiness that makes end users put up with all the disadvantages of a closed system.

Apple's Safari product is a case in point. Safari is actually just a user interface shell wrapped around KHTML. This is the reason that Apple can tolerate the expense of supporting their very own browser, they aren't really spending the money. They find partners in the open source world with whom they can work, who have engineered good products, they move in and create a secret skunk works version to improve things up to Apple standards.

While Steve Jobs is still on the keynote stage creating his latest reality distortion field presentation, the engineers are in the back rooms doing a massive code dump back into the upstream project, confident in the fact that their code is good and will be subsequently accepted and maintained by the open source geeks, creating both lower costs and a positive network effect. Konqueror wasn't widespread enough to have HTML coders specifically test for compatibility and code to it but Konqueror + Safari + whoever joins in is a different story.

The result is lower costs for development with much higher volume because the engineering interfaces that others interoperate with are not the same as program names. If your threshold for rewriting a site to a browser is 10% of the visitor traffic and Apple has 7% of your hits and Konqueror has 4% you write to the common KHTML engine and both groups are happy.

This is not the Apple I first encountered in the mid-80s or even the Apple of six or seven years ago. It is an Apple that is concentrating on engineering aesthetics as its core product and it expresses that through its operating system and application software as well as its Human Interface Guidelines. Apple's best value proposition has always been its UI and aesthetics and the enhanced productivity that flowed from those choices. They've recently figured out how to purify their offerings so that they don't have to give up control but can radically reduce cost and increase volume via these open source partnerships.

But back to the heart of the discussion which is computer hardware. The decision of a chip line ripples extensively. There is tremendous inertia and a temptation to stick with what was tried and true. This is why chip manufacturing companies create extensive roadmaps so their large customers can make their own long range plans to satisfy their own customers over the next decade. Even if a chip line is currently in first place, if your roadmap stops 3 years out and your message is go remake your own entire product line, a lot of customers are going to jump ship, heading for the exists as soon as they can.

This is the true heart of the problem for Microsoft. Intel has been saying for years now that 32bit will stay on the desktop and 64 bit will be for servers only and very highly specialized low volume workstations. Their solution was to keep on with the Pentium line and to switch to an entirely new architecture, Itanium. The entire Xbox 2 saga is Microsoft's delivery of a message to Intel rejecting its strategy because of roadmap concerns.

They saw how Apple hemorrhaged customers and lost credibility when their chip supplier had a roadmap problem. Microsoft cannot afford to get into that same bind because they would lose decades worth of psychological positioning as the default choice for a wide variety of markets. Microsoft doesn't have to be the best, but it can't afford to fall behind Linux too much or it will lose enough customers that it will, once again, descend to the level of just another computer solution provider with a wide variety of products. It can't afford that because so many people utterly despise them for their past competitive behavior and would love to exit the Microsoft product ecosystem if only they could.

Now this is more than just my naked speculation because Intel, itself, has gone back on its roadmap and surprised everybody (but AMD) with the announcement of a Xeon processor that is x86/64, something that they swore they would never do because it would absolutely kill Itanium.

For years Intel declared that x86/64 would only be a slight improvement and would peter out quickly against alternatives like the Power/PPC combination. As recently as October, 2003 speculation was still rife about whether Intel's secret "backup" project called Yamhill really existed. By February of 2004, Intel was claiming that it meant to do this all the time. This is a orwellian revisionism of the highest sort with everybody expected to flush their old roadmaps down the memory hole and forget all of Intel's previous disparaging talk about x86/64 and its limitations. A good examination of the current uncertainties in the Intel camp can be found here.

So Microsoft going to PPC for its XBox 2 and restarting the Windows on PPC production ramp make sense. IBM's roadmap is clear, the 970 is a cut down Power 4 but Power 5 is already out and the 980 will soon be too with further improvements to the Power line to follow. IBM makes too much money from the Power line not to keep on developing it as a priority. With IBM in the AIM driver's seat instead of Motorola, PPC is a safe choice for Microsoft as a backup to a x86 roadmap disaster that is growing in probability.

Now this disaster is not going to happen in the near future. Intel might figure out a way to avoid problems but even a 5% chance of such an occurrence is enough for Microsoft to be scouting for backup plans and the XBox 2 and the adjustments to MS' OS product line to re-include PPC in their lineup are just as good business as Apple's Darwin-X86 project for the reverse challenge, a PPC roadmap disaster.

The low prices that IBM is giving Apple, though, are likely not from any Machiavellian payments under the table or other such things. The low prices stem from the fact that PPC has tended to have smaller die sizes than Intel chips at comparable levels of performance. For the uninitiated, chips are made in groups on a round silicon wafer that is later cut up with individual chips that have tested good ending up in conventional packaging and sold. The cost per wafer is the same whether you make a big chip or a small chip and simple geometry tells us that you can fit more small chips on a wafer than big chips, thus your cost per chip are lowered as the fixed wafer price is spread out among more chips. Each 'bad' chip, also has a lower cost as you are removing a smaller percentage of the wafer's surface from productive use.

So PPC has always had a unit price advantage at similar chip fabrication technology levels. And Microsoft is not the only company to notice that x86 has the potential to have a roadmap disaster. IBM sells an awful lot of x86 gear in competition with its own Power/PPC gear as well using a variety of operating systems. It has its own reasons to gear up PPC because it has its own customers who need to be satisfied irrespective of whether Intel can get past this rough patch or not.

Much of this is covered in SDB's post but he declares that "Apple probably isn't happy, but had no choice" which is really where I part company with him. Apple gets royalties out of every XBox 2 sold as part of the AIM alliance and it did not do so for every XBox. Apple also gets an easier migration off its own hardware if Microsoft supports PPC. Apple might have historically subsidized software production to sell more boxes but it is doing so less than it used to, witness the phasing out of free updates for its iLife suite of programs. It's still bundled with new hardware but it's also sold separately. That's not consistent with the 'old Apple'.

Apple's opening of their architecture came with the end of the hardware ROMs. That event happened many years ago, long before Steve Jobs came back. In fact it happened some time before Apple opened things up to clone manufacturers. It's unlikely that such an old concession to openness would be withdrawn unless Microsoft ponied up some PPC business to IBM. If Apple went back to proprietary ROMs, it would certainly scare off a lot of the open source advocates that are supporting Apple's software efforts for free these days and provide nothing but bad press. It would also create an awful lot of work for Apple and would kill the Darwin project, a key part of Apple's modern strategy where the core OS (Darwin) is an open source project. That core is where most of the interaction occurs between OS and ROM/firmware so making a proprietary ROM but leaving Darwin open would make reverse engineering relatively trivial.

No, Apple has got to be feeling pretty happy right now. They want more PPC customers because they gain profits on every PPC that ships. Their core value proposition would not be too affected by Microsoft's adoption of their preferred chip and the perception that there is Apple in their own world and then everybody else would be dealt a harsh blow. Hypothetically stranded Apple customers could just load Windows on their macs and replace them with other branded PPC machines in future. The great Apple bugaboo, what to do if Apple dies, would finally have a convincing and final answer.

Posted by TMLutas at 02:50 PM

February 28, 2004

The Free Market Problem of Network Abstraction

It is extremely common to use abstraction as a tool to simplify complex computer networks. For networks of any appreciable size, it is highly common to simply draw a cloud shape for the majority of parts not under examination, slap a label on it and move on talking about the local bits that you actually care about. The biggest of example of 'cloud technology' is the Internet.

Abstraction is useful in that it permits us to talk about things too complex to hold in our heads if described in its actual detail but the risk of abstraction is that the stuff that is left out might just be important. For the politico-economic analyst talking about the Internet, 'cloud technology' is a nasty enemy. It leads people to a great amount of fundamental error. It is perfectly proper to say that no one person owns the Internet. It is absolutely false to say that nobody owns the Internet, as false as saying nobody owns IBM or Microsoft. Yet people do it all the time.

The Internet is a set of agreements between the various private property holders to, broadly, carry signals between each other both as endpoints of traffic and as pass-throughs, intermediaries. It is all contractual, all perfectly capitalist/free market friendly, yet because nobody can hold the sum total of these agreements and they are negotiated and consummated automatically, some act as if they do not exist and speak of the Internet without taking into account its private, consensual nature.

ICANN some say, runs the Internet. They do not. What has happened is that a critical mass of the property holders who actually own pieces of the Internet have agreed for ICANN to create rule templates to speed the progress of negotiating new contracts between the various owners of the networks.

This has broad implications for net governance and for appropriate reaction to misgovernance. I believe that it is inevitable that there will be a point where somebody who is writing these contracts and embedding them in router firmware will fundamentally err and attempt to push the owners to do something that a viable portion of the Internet infrastructure simply does not accept. When that day comes, the Internet will fragment. In software development terms, this sort of fragmentation is called a fork (think fork in the road). When the Internet forks, it can fork in a way that preserves interoperability, simply changing contracts in the rebel portions and ensuring that bits can pass between the two new networks or it can fork ugly and traffic interconnection will either become slow and congested or fail outright.

The truly funny thing is that from a political standpoint, if there is a comprehensive engineering solution to fork with minimal cost, the incentive is to never push things so far that a fork will ever come about. The 'internet leadership' will mostly consist of determining where the collective owners of the Internet, the shareholders if you will, want to go and to rush ahead of the parade and pretend that they are choosing the direction.

Posted by TMLutas at 09:16 PM

February 26, 2004

Out Of Band Advertising

Business Pundit notes a new company's foray into an idea I've previously speculated on being paid for advertising.

Advertising that is directly beamed at the consumer has several advantages all around. The customer list changes from the consumer, the FCC, the broadcaster standards and practices board, and the advertiser's sales team to the consumer, the ad delivery service's standards and practices board, and the advertiser's sales team. This is a nice pro-libertarian moment as it removes the government from the list and the two standards and practices boards will have different clients of their own (the broadcaster's one is also worried about the FCC and losing its license).

Since the ad consumer becomes a more prominent percentage of the customer, more effort will be devoted to satisfying him. Since entertainment and the income to pay for that entertainment are now decoupled, I predict a staggering increase in pay per view content that tracks the spread of this pay per ad model. Your income goes up, you end up spending some of that on entertainment, and you get the bonus that it's no longer so formulaic that they time scene endings for TV commercial insertions.

Posted by TMLutas at 11:01 PM

Hydrogen's getting cheaper

Hydrogen just got at least 59% cheaper. A new process has been discovered that has dropped the 'best price' for hydrogen creation down from $3.60/kg to $1.50/kg. What's more, the process does not require pure ethanol but works just fine with much easier to produce and transport diluted ethanol. In fact it works better in the presence of water.

One place where the linked article gets horribly wrong is in the stress this will create on our food supplies.

Overall, he says the University of Minnesota research sounds promising, even if some hurdles remain.

One such hurdle:It would require at least 40 percent of the cropland in the US to produce enough ethanol to power the nation, according to the new NRC report.

This is a feature, not a bug. One of the worst challenges we face in maintaining and expanding globalization is agricultural subsidies. If 40% of US farmland were taken out of food production and put into energy production, it would be a huge boon for international relations, as would a similar devotion of crop acreage in the EU states. 3rd world nations would be able to earn a decent living in agriculture and be able to hold their head high and pay their own way instead of being shut out of what would normally be their markets and have to take handouts in the form of foreign aid.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:40 PM

February 19, 2004

Technological Control is Not Enough

Anne Applebaum's column on bioterrorism demonstrates the futility of just erecting a wall between the 1st world and some 'arc of instability' that we consign to permanent disconnectedness from capital, ideas, and economic progress. $5,000,000 and 5 biogeneticists today gets you from a warehouse to a fully functioning biowar lab anywhere in the world and the equipment necessary can be ordered by mail. What's more, the equipment can be cobbled together by picking through the first world's trash bins. It's not cutting edge materials that can be, in any way, realistically controlled. When first rate computational clusters (beowulf clusters) can be assembled from hardware that we ship to the PRC as garbage to be recycled, we're well beyond the realistic possiblity of technical controls.

The only thing available is attitude controls. Such bioweapons are hugely risky. They are not something you just unleash for a petty problem that could be hashed out with lawyers. If the weapons themselves are uncontrollable, it is not inevitable that there will be people so enraged, so disconnected from the rest of the world that they will actually deploy such horrors. And that gets us right back to Core and Gap.

The capability to ravage the world is becoming democratized to the point far below the wealth level of your run of the mill 3rd world business mogul. Keeping them outside is no longer an option. Will we realize it in time?

Posted by TMLutas at 02:13 PM

February 16, 2004

Business Intelligence Logging

One of the great future innovations that is coming down the pike for administrator types like me is the day when full logging systems become cost effective to run. Right now this isn't normally done except when something happens outside of normal events. The reason is simple, it's cost prohibitive in the three areas of processor time necessary, space used for the logs, and analysis tools/time necessary to wade through the resulting data.

All of this is changing:

Processor time shows few signs of slacking off from its blistering progress pace. It's gotten so bad that processor makers like Intel are starting to seriously branch out into creating new applications that will justify buying their new processors.

Space prices are collapsing as well with both magnetic and optical media dropping pretty quickly.

Finally, the business intelligence tool makers are getting better at creating tools that are simple to use and solve the problem of drilling down quickly and getting useful results out of massive data sets.

At some point, somebody with the appropriate programming skills but without the requisite budget will want business intelligence tools enough to either write it himself or hire some inexpensive programmers to write the tools for him. He won't care for the tools as a money maker in and of themselves. Viewing them as a cost center, he'll open source it to reduce his maintenance costs and we're off to the races.

Posted by TMLutas at 09:09 AM

February 09, 2004

Carbon Nanotube Breakthrough II

Carbon nanotubes are incredibly useful and revolutionary stuff. Rapid enough progress on them could do magical things, even make President Bush's space initiative actually come within budget. So, it's always worthwhile to keep an eye on carbon nanofiber progress. But keeping an eye on the actual process of making these structures has been impossible up to now. They are so small that the actual process of their construction was something of a mystery, until now.

Hat's off to the Danes for figuring out how to observe the creation of carbon nanofibers in real time and in detail, allowing researchers in the field to no longer work blind but see what's going on in their experimental process.

This is the kind of enabling research that is likely to kick up the rate of future progress in this field, and in nanotechnology in general.

HT: Slashdot (warning, some material in comments may be adult)

Posted by TMLutas at 10:16 PM

February 06, 2004

The Benefits of Pollution Markets

European scientists have invented smog eating paint. Now in the classic green model, such paint would be mandated by government rule, costs would rise, inspectors would be appointed, and it would be an awful mess in fighting to get the stuff up on actual surfaces.

With the idea of pollution markets (as the US has advocated since GHWB's presidency) the scenario changes. You prove you have x gallons up on an exterior wall, you have a pollution credit worth X dollars. This makes an incentive to subsidize production up to X-1 dollars, which will lower the paint cost and increase sales. If the some coal plant in West Virginia wants to subsidize a house painting bill, even the most anti-green homeowner will take the deal.

The bottom line is that the paint will be far more widely deployed with less hassle and we'll have a cleaner environment using a market mechanism that most of the green movement had the vapors over when it was established.

HT: Oxblog's Josh Chafetz

Posted by TMLutas at 08:25 AM

February 05, 2004

Computer Commodities

I recall years ago when I was just seriously starting out in the consulting business, I noticed somebody putting together a PC in a cube on a Monday. By Tuesday, there were two of them scratching their heads and trying to get the darn thing to work. Wednesday there were three people working on it and Thursday it was finished. There were probably 15-20 consultant hours put on this 'custom' system which had both a CD burner and video capture card.

(All together now) Oooh.

Looking at the umpteenth Dell catalog to hit my mailbox today I'm looking at the systems and realize that the game has changed tremendously since then. For what a decent consultant like me charges, you can get an entire new desktop for the labor price of a day's worth of troubleshooting. In fact, for bottom end systems, a day's labor = two desktops.

For companies who wish to get organized and minimize costs, the lesson is clear, you need to control your desktop configurations and buy in lots, create OS and applications images using Norton's Ghost or one of its competitors and segregate your data so that you can change out desktops as easily as you change light bulbs.

Up to now, it's mostly been the big companies that have used imaging software to control costs and the software environment. But the differential between desktop (and even small server) prices and labor costs to achieve a custom solution, is growing to the point where imaged solutions are going to spread all the way down to even small companies in the 10-20 seat range.

Posted by TMLutas at 05:30 PM

February 03, 2004

Facts of Life Database

A logistics article in StrategyPage just reminded me of a phenomena that I've noticed quite a bit. Things that are taken for granted often change without us ever knowing it. In the article, it was the troop carrying capacity of railroads. In academia, it might be the long discredited marxist theory that a particular piece of literary criticism is based upon. In energy analysis it might be your attitudes about alternative energy and what to do about energy supplier political instability.

Just about every decision relies on underlying facts that people often take into account and then forget that their entire plan or argument depends on those facts staying within certain parameters. In simple situations, you can keep it all in your head but when things get complex, nobody really understands the full implications of basic facts changing until an extensive (and expensive) review process goes on figuring out exactly what other things are no longer true since this new factor arrived on the scene.

This doesn't just help in after the fact adjustment. It also helps in future policy planning. I've lately taken up the hobby of talking about gay marriage. I know from reading that there are hundreds and hundreds of state and federal laws that this policy decision touches. I don't know what they are. I don't know what the motivation was for making marriage a factor in those laws. In other words, I (and everybody else honestly looking at the subject as well) am cast adrift without more than a visceral understanding that this is a very big deal that shouldn't be cavalierly changed, willy nilly, without working out all the consequences. I also get a sick feeling in my stomach as I see the shallow level of analysis on both sides that obviously isn't going through and figuring out all the consequences of such a potentially society shifting adjustment.

So what if you could make a plan, create a system where all your major underlying assumptions would be explicit? What if you could set alarms for a range of values and have some sort of group monitor those values for a small fee? If they values go out of range, an alarm would go out and you wouldn't have the embarrassing (and possibly disastrous) situation of a perfectly good plan being silently rendered useless by changing facts on the ground.

Posted by TMLutas at 04:06 PM

January 30, 2004

Encryption Provocation

The Internet was conceived as a messaging system for the reliable transmission of war orders in the middle of a nuclear conflict. The killer applications that actually promoted it to worldwide must-have were e-mail, ftp, and the web which made it an electronic replacement for the post office, parcel post, and mass media, respectively.

The point of the history is that you never know when you make a basic tool, what higher level application will develop to take advantage of your basic technology and turn your scientific curiosity into a new global essential. One of the things that private key infrastructure (PKI) makers have long pondered is what would make their products universal. After all, who likes to have their mail read? But year in, year out, the vast majority of e-mail users are content to send the electronic equivalent of postcards to each other. The minor hassle of encrypting mail has not been worth it outside authoritarian states that have enough freedom so there is e-mail but are bad enough that there is a broad need for secrecy as a weapon against the government. With the fall of the soviet bloc and the subsequent spread of freedom, that justification died down.

Well, now we have a new villian that will likely drive people to the widespread use of encryption and it's an unlikely villain, big music pushing its IP rights beyond what people instinctively feel advances the arts and sciences have led to a sagebrush rebellion of file swappers opting out of paying for music. And the more that the RIAA and other national artistic associations push, the more that encryption becomes a necessity in the free world. The demand will likely grow to the point where encryption becomes a system level service that is interoperable across computing platforms.

At that point, with the ability to encrypt everything by default, the computing world changes drastically. How that change will play out is anyone's guess. That it will be important and play out differently in different fields is an easy prediction.

HT: Good Morning Silicon Valley

Posted by TMLutas at 03:59 PM

January 22, 2004

FLAC support in iTunes?

iTunes plays its music via Quicktime. Quicktime is highly extensible and is very extensible via its plugin architecture. Now a group of programmers are looking to take the free software audio codec project FLAC and make a free quicktime plugin supporting the lossless codec.

On the one hand, this sort of project is great. FLAC is being supported by some fairly popular bands like Phish who use it for their live concert downloads.

On the other hand, without the ability to add FLAC to the iPod, people are going to be able to buy FLAC songs, play them on their Macintosh and Windows machines, but not their portable music players.

Apple's caught in a bit of a conundrum. They can either open up their iPOD OS to allow independent programmers to add support for codecs like FLAC, they can try to close down Quicktime, or they can follow initiatives like this and code the closed bits so that they are ready when their free programmer collaborators release their code. But sticking with the current situation is the least attractive as it's going to lead to a growth in unhappy customers.

Posted by TMLutas at 11:04 PM

The Need for Digital Signatures: Vatican

Peggy Noonan's current WSJ article highlight the absolute necessity for the Vatican to introduce digital signatures into its official correspondence. Free software such as GnuPG or it's slicker, commercial equivalent PGP are one popular system. Another would be X.509 certificates.

The truth is that the Vatican has an unfortunate history of insider political intrigue. It would be a valuable contribution to honesty and transparency if fully available technical means to verify the authenticity of communications from the Vatican were to be made available.

Posted by TMLutas at 04:03 PM

January 20, 2004

Space Junkman

The junk man makes his money by paying pennies for what some people consider junk and selling it (still cheaply compared to new) for far more than he paid. It's an honest way to make a living, if a bit prosaic. Now the industry's going orbital. An early high profile mission might just be Hubble Space Telescope Salvage.

The idea is to boost the HST to a higher orbit and let it continue to live long beyond its current 2010 lifetime. One intriguing option might be to shift it to the ISS and shift the ISS from being just a white elephant science project to including commercially valuable repair and servicing missions. With a permanent space station, the clock on getting a door unstuck or some other difficult repair done isn't ticking. You need a tool or a replacement part you don't have? Wait a few weeks or months and a resupply shuttle will bring it up. The cost of changing an entire mission profile to make a special trip to service the satellite goes away. Repairs are much more practical and less expensive. This may fill some of the holes in the ISS budget that are likely to be formed as the US winds down government participation.

HT: Slashdot

Posted by TMLutas at 12:48 PM

Manufacturing Science Fiction Turned to Science Fact

Everybody knows that science fiction is influencing a number of fields. What children read in stories is remembered and turned into research projects a decade later. All sorts of neat and interesting things are coming out of the hard work of scientists that were inspired by the buck rogers of decades ago authors.

I just tripped across the manufacturing version.

My journey started at a Small Business Trends article on holonics, a neat technology in itself which holds the promise of greatly reducing international outsourcing in manufacturing, recreating a local geographic advantage.

I had never heard of holonics so I googled and found it is just one instance of a vast project called Intelligent Manufacturing Systems (IMS). This seems to be the international hub of research and development for manufacturing. Some of it is pretty prosaic, like Music XML. Others are high in the gee whiz factor like Holonic Manufacturing Systems (HMS) or HIPARMS.

The membership of this consortium is huge, in the hundreds and stretches all over the 1st world with an open entry policy for new entrants from anywhere. It's very neat stuff in all and neatly contradicts the conventional image of the great age of manufacturing innovation being in the past.

Posted by TMLutas at 02:21 AM

Bush's Space Initiative: Making It Work

There is only one route that I can see making Bush's space initiative work, commercial opportunities on the moon that would reduce much of the cost of getting and maintaining a permanent presence. Otherwise the entire initiative is unlikely to fly for the amount budgeted.

These profit opportunities would come in three different flavors. First, and least useful would be support operations for government initiatives. If you have a government moon base building the mars probe, you could contract out food production to a commercial concern. Profitable? Sure, but it will only reduce expenses in a minor sort of way. Government food production, as the Soviets and everybody else has painfully learned, is probably the worst way to do it. There are probably a lot of support opportunities like that that could be bid out to private suppliers.

The second commercial opportunity is energy production. There is some work being done on beamed power and certainly there is no atmosphere to disperse the energy and plenty of cheap, empty space to lay out the panels. If they can work out the problems, you can have a profitable operation that would pay for itself. This would lower the cost of everything else, including transport.

The third commercial opportunity is manufacturing. All across the world, everywhere there is cheap power there is an aluminum plant nearby even though aluminum is in persistent overproduction. Put cheap power on the moon and you'll draw high energy, high value manufacturing there. This would be for government manufacturing needs (see opportunity one above) but would also work for commercial satellite production, production of those solar cells, and anything else that you would rather not have to haul out of earth's gravity well.

So what would happen if the President had made commerce the focus of his space initiative? What would have happened politically going into the election year? What would have happened in Congress? What would have happened with our relations with OPEC? What would have happened to those who simply do not wish to see free enterprise in space? It would have generated huge controversy, resistance, and greatly increased the chance of political failure to implement the initiative.

There is only one piece missing to make commercial activity a realistic possibility for carrying much of the expense of a permanent presence on the moon. A presidential or congressional directive ordering NASA to contract out whatever a qualified private supplier can offer, eliminating the greatest fear of private space investors, a fat, fully funded government entity willing to drive their profit margins down below zero. If that gets tacked onto the enabling legislation for this initiative and it passes, you can take the rest of the speculative game plan I've outlined above to the bank.

Chance of this being a complete fantasy? 75%
Chance of the budget being blown out if it is a fantasy? 100%

Posted by TMLutas at 12:29 AM

January 02, 2004

Who Swallows Who?

Gerrit Visser posts an intriguing article speculating that the Net is set to swallow the telephone system and pointing to a BBC article that is even more revolutionary, if a little less clueful.

Grid computing and enum, and NAPTR, are three revolutions that are likely to spill over into the collective consciousness, each of which are likely to be at least as disruptive as e-mail and e-commerce have been.

Grid computing is timesharing on a vast scale. Currently, we're usually using our computers at only a fraction of their potential. With grid computing, you have the ability to take computing power you didn't even know you had and meld it into a virtual machine that handles tasks quickly, cheaply, and virtually eliminates the wasteful NOP.

Enum is the suite of protocols to marry the classic telephone system to the Internet. It slightly overlaps NAPTR which is an even more ambitious project to marry all addressing systems to the internet so that even the most dedicated luddite might be reached through the net via a NAPTR record containing the appropriate instructions. Meals on Wheels, for example, could add message services along with their meal delivery with a creative use of NAPTR records.

This is a socio-legal nightmare waiting to burst upon us. Radio, TV, books, telephones, they all have different legal frameworks that attend them. By creating this one service, NAPTR creates the temptation for regulators of all these forms in every country (and the rules do tend to vary from country to country) to try to extend their familiar legal framework to this "new version" of their particular field. Book censors in Myanmar will want to have the net conform to their rules, and thus affect radio programming in Canada. by making the net touch everything, the net gains the potential to be a transmission belt of regulative restrictions.

On the other hand, the net has the equal potential to become the regulatory solvent for all these other fields. It really does depend on who is more skillful and aware of the potential for change and is best prepared for the huge cat fight that will burst upon us in the next 10 years.

Posted by TMLutas at 10:00 AM

December 24, 2003

The Anti-Totalitarian Net: Fantasist Debunker

In the network of today and the future, the great battle is, and will be, who owns what. If I own my own computer (in the sense of having control over what it does), if I generally have the right to put packets onto the network and have them delivered uncensored, there is a great future for the net as a moderating force in human interaction.

While it is true that any fool can stand up on a virtual soapbox and yell his head off, if you make statements of fact, you can count on people looking them up, checking you, and calling you on your mistakes and falsehoods if what you say isn't, strictly speaking, reality.

Extremists often carry along other people using a heady mix of emotional exhortation and a confident portrayal of reality that is often at odds with the objective truth of what is going on in the world. You can't do much about the histrionics and rhetoric but modern technology allows debunkers a critical advantage. By creating FAQ lists demonstrating how common distortions are used to mislead, extremists are forced into the same unatractive choices that spammers now have with the advent of bayesian filters. The old stuff is quickly debunked and nobody they debate is falling for it anymore. New stuff is quickly debunked at a pace that exceeds their ability to churn out believable, functional distortions of reality that serve their purpose.

Eventually, everybody, more or less, is forced to deal with the world as it is and not a fantasy world that does not exist. This is something that tyrants and their wannabes are, and should be, profoundly uncomfortable with. The extremists are dangerous mostly when they can peddle their theories faster than they can be debunked. Few will follow demonstrated false prophets and extremism will become less and less of a threat as long as we continue to take that threat seriously.

Posted by TMLutas at 01:10 PM

December 23, 2003

The Anti-Totalitarian Net: Preface

Arnold Kling writes with disdain at the idea that the Dean movement is a smart mob. He further says that such things simply do not exist. With that, he stumbles badly.

You really have to go back to the apes to understand what's at stake. Ape groupings vary in size based on a formula related to brain size. Humanity is about 50% higher up on this formal than the most organized of the primates. But human group sizes only get up between 100 and 500 before they start to go wrong and the most common value for organizational success (even in the modern world) is 150 before you have to sub group. Ape group structures break down before that point with the best organized apes having groups numbering in the 70s (derived number).

Looking at the comparative evolutionary success of humanity compared to the primates and it becomes obvious that anything that can up the numbers by even a bit becomes a world shaking deal. Thus smart mobs become highly important. If you can add even another 75 people onto your functional group size by taking advantage of the asynchronous nature of much of modern communication, you've created a gap between current best practices and the new bench mark as big as the current gap between us and the apes.

But looking past the creation of smart mobs to the claim that the Deaniacs are one. It seems highly dubious that they actually are. It's much more likely that they have tapped into the hype of smart mobs and envisioned that they are one. This does explain something about the Dean phenomenon, the lack of traditional Democrat coalition building. A mob is not a coalition. A mob is consensus. As Arnold Kling is somewhat worried about, sometimes the consensus of the mob is radical and dangerous, the mobs numbers making it difficult to stop.

I heavily doubt that consensus can be extended to the point of getting a majority of voters. Paradoxically, if consensus sweeps too many factions into its monoculture, Madison's Federalist #10 starts playing out in very unpleasant ways as a large republic without a mosaic of bickering factions too small to create a persistent majority on all issues will soon descend into the tyranny of the majority.

I don't think this is going to happen but I believe this is the fundamental source of Arnold Kling's unhappiness.

Posted by TMLutas at 03:39 PM

December 22, 2003

Occupation Tech II

An article in Newsday demonstrates the power of sitting down and trying to understand the people who make up a country you've invaded. But there's also another lesson there, so far unremarked in prior commentary. The technology that Lt. Col. King is using to keep track of tribes could be done so much better and his work could be so much more effective if he were properly supported by a more extensive technology effort.

LTC King is using a palm pilot to keep track of what he finds out about the various tribes. But does that database get regularly injected upstream to the center and filtered back down to all the rest of the officers who could both use that information and could contribute to it? From the story it seems not.

An extensive wireless occupation net would permit this sort of information interchange and more. But while generic Palm software could do a reasonable job, there's no reason why specialized software couldn't be created that would do the job much better. Palm software tends to have fairly fast development times too so we're not talking about something that would necessarily have to wait for the next go around either.

The Pentagon has a lot of whiz bang technology that can trickle down to the civilian sector (the Internet itself being a prime example). Iraq is a practical example of how the technology flow can go the other direction. We civilians have some ability to see that tech flow towards the military broadened and strengthened.

Posted by TMLutas at 06:41 PM

December 18, 2003

Robotic UN Field Personnel?

One of the major problems with current UN operations in Iraq is that the UN is in Cyprus and they are unable to go out into the field, to speak to and talk to people who are not able to get to a telephone. There might be a solution for this dilemma in development. If you add a satellite communication videoconference setup, you might have something that is mobile enough to get out and about without risking your life and if the robot is attacked, it could always send out an position and condition SOS on military frequencies.

I'm quite sure that Sony would be willing to part with the technology for Qrio for such a prestigious role. It certainly would bring them lots of visibility as long as they could figure out how to power the thing in primitive conditions long enough to be useful.

Posted by TMLutas at 07:45 PM

December 11, 2003

What to Do With Cheap Lift

I've discussed space elevators in the past but now Samizdata is opening up a somewhat different question, what do you do when you can go there cheaply. The comments section has all sorts of examples, many of which have previously been discussed here.

One thing that hasn't been covered is the high likelihood that whatever we think it's going to be used for is going to end up being only a small fraction of the actual uses for the technology. The Internet is the ultimate example of this phenomenon but basic building block inventions have this crop up all the time.

Posted by TMLutas at 04:34 PM

December 10, 2003

Low Friction, Small Donation Philanthropy

Imagine if everywhere you saw something wrong with the world, with a half-second's effort you could drop a quarter in a virtual tin cup and better than 24 cents actually made it to help solve the problem that annoys you. That's a future promise of the Internet age that hasn't arrived yet, but still could. This is the intersection between ubiquitous computing, where everywhere you go, you are able to connect to the internet, wearable computers, which would allow you to point out the problem in a way a computer would understand and the technology of micropayments which would allow you to be part of the great tradition of Burke's "little platoons" which are the little voluntary organizations that make free market capitalism actually work and not be the social darwinian hell-hole that its critics always predict.

Armed Liberal's musings over an LA Concert Hall reminded me of this future tech. There's no reason that the Disney Hall needs to be made with government involvement at all. It's just too hard to do it right now so government involvement in such endeavors persist.

Posted by TMLutas at 01:42 PM

December 09, 2003

Carbon Nanotube Breakthrough

Single Walled Carbon Nanotubes are one of those building block kind of disruptive inventions. They can be used in so many ways and they are so much of an improvement over current materials that commercial applications will change a great deal from medicine to the military, space travel to subways. The problem is manufacturing them cheaply, efficiently, and abundantly. Some researchers at Rice University seem to have made a breakthrough that, for the first time, would allow industrial scale applications to occur.

The consequences are profound. Everything from stronger armor for the military, a practical space elevator that would make a whole host of science fiction into science reality, superhard tools, the list goes on and on.

It could take decades for the ripples to die down on this one. Let's hope that the research pans out and we've finally come to the era of cheap, plentiful nanotubes.

Hat tip to Slashdot

Posted by TMLutas at 08:08 PM

December 08, 2003

Getting Close to Right on Gay Marriage

National Review is running a guest column by Maggie Gallagher which is almost right on the issue of gay marriage when she says the following

For me, the first, last and most important question about gay marriage is: Will it help or hurt marriage as a social institution? Is it, in other words, a good idea?

The problem is that even this doesn't get to the heart of the matter. The quote assumes without demonstrating that marriage is good for society. Without the demonstration of why, exactly, marriage is good for society, you don't have the necessary building blocks to create a practical defense of the institution.

Gay marriage strikes at the foundation of a very old, very elaborate structure. We've assumed the foundation for so long we don't really know how to start from ground zero. We should be relearning how to do that no matter how the debate ends up because changing the foundation without knowing what you're doing is a recipe for hurting a great many innocent people with the greatest hurt being children. The people over at National Review ought to rerun their old issue focusing on polygamy. That would be a good start.

Posted by TMLutas at 04:32 PM

December 06, 2003

Halfway to Doing Expired Registration Tickets Right

This article notes how a quick thinking motorist saved himself from being towed for having an unregistered car on the road. He called a friend on his cell phone and his friend registered him online. Since the registration took effect immediately, the tow truck was canceled.

But there's no real reason for the tow truck to be routinely called. Why not just upgrade the policeman's electronics to do the registration? The service charge could be rolled into the ticket and the whole thing run on the driver's credit card.

Let's see, that would save a day lost to getting your car back, keep more money for the city and reduce the amount of cars damaged due to towing. It would be more efficient and everybody could get on with their lives a little sooner.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:20 AM

December 05, 2003

There, There Jonah, TV Will Come Back

The problem of TV heading into a persistent slump is the subject of Jonah Goldberg's latest NRO column. He's concerned that TV's business model is killing off good shows. As he puts it "But the networks can't let go, because every time they cancel an established show, the viewers, particularly the younger ones, vanish. No one thinks it's worth investing in a new show."

This is a function of the extremely high costs that TV networks have to carry. They only have a certain number of advertising slots that produce revenue and if a show doesn't produce enough eyeballs watching that ad, the value of all your ad slots drops and your high fixed costs for maintaining a building, a tower, a legal department and all the other necessary compliance measures you have to do to maintain this thing called a TV network means you can quickly go bust.

This business model is traditional for advertising supported TV but new technical developments mean that it doesn't have to remain so. What if you could could stream programming over the Internet? You could charge for each individual download and the fixed portion of your distribution costs could drop down to almost zero, with the variable cost of each viewer seeing the program being covered by advertising revenue or a very small pay per view fee (at the discretion of the viewer).

Some entertainment content will remain completely free as artist advertising. It worked quite well for South Park (whose spirit of christmas original is still floating around the net) and will likely work well for others.

The best part of it is that with a switch to TVoIP (TV over IP) there are few choke points for ideologically minded censors to keep you out of the distribution channel as long as the Internet remains unfiltered and free. This is the broadband world that we're approaching.

Check out the ifilm site for a preview of how close we're getting to this with present technology. The most interesting part for nonsubscribers is the shorts section.

Posted by TMLutas at 09:59 AM

December 04, 2003

Going to the Moon: Energy Dreams

George W. Bush, famously, is from Texas. Also famously, he gets along well with oil men. So what is he doing saying that he wants to go to the moon to explore for energy? Does he think there were dinosaurs on the moon and there's petrol mixed in with the green cheese? Hardly.

There has been testimony in committee on lunar solar power as well as some media attention. The only other lunar energy theory I've seen involves extracting He3 for the fusion reactors we've already been waiting decades for.

But why do we need all this extra energy? without a gargantuan increase in demand it would certainly make all those Texas oil men profoundly unhappy as the value of their oil sinks to its value as a raw material in plastics production and other chemical products. So why kick your biggest contributors in the backside?

The answer is simple, he's not. He's actually serious about bringing freedom to the third world and with free economies will come the energy appetites that free economies inevitably generate. Conservation won't cure it and, if you do the numbers, terrestrial energy sources simply don't cut it. Those oil men don't want to end up in the middle of global resource wars so we need large new sources of energy. The US has to stretch for a goal that is currently beyond our reach. Historically, that's always been a very good thing for the nation.

Hat tip to Instapundit who worries about how this will be executed. I worry too but am fairly confident that the energy companies won't let the bureaucrats screw this up. They've got the lobbyists, the checkbooks, and the Washington savvy to keep this from being an unprofitable sinkhole. The other reason it won't is that it's too big to fund if it doesn't start turning a profit.

Posted by TMLutas at 09:33 PM

November 30, 2003

Ipod's Future Step

The New York Times writes about Apple's iPod in a fairly decent article explaining why it's the number one portable digital music player on the market today.

One bit really misses by a mile. The speculation in the article is that Apple can't stay on top because it's not supporting the file formats that other stores are putting their music out on.

This sounded like a sea change. But while you can run iTunes on Windows and hook it up to an iPod, that iPod does not play songs in the formats used by any other seller of digital music, like Napster or Rhapsody. Nor will music bought through Apple's store play on any rival device. (The iPod does, of course, work easily with the MP3 format that's common on free file-swapping services, like KaZaA, that the music industry wants to shut down but that are still much more popular than anything requiring money.) This means Apple is, again, competing against a huge number of players across multiple business segments, who by and large will support one another's products and services. In light of this, says one of those competitors, Rob Glaser, founder and C.E.O. of RealNetworks, ''It's absolutely clear now why five years from now, Apple will have 3 to 5 percent of the player market.''

What's missing is that Apple's already demonstrated that it can, at will, add formats. What nobody seems to remember is that AAC and the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) weren't original iPod features. They were subsequently added and the additions were fairly simple, download an updater and run for the iPod and download a new version of iTunes. Voila, you've got AAC (Apple's DRM system) & iTMS.

There is nothing holding back Apple from doing this with any other format out there. The real question is why should it?

If it's the market leader, if it's doing more business than anybody else, why should they open up their API and open up their application for use by a competitor? What is missing is the idea that the iTunes window of music sources is like retail shelf space. If you want in, you've likely got to pay. Customer demand will also get you in but if the integrated company store is selling the same goods, why would customer demand be generated?

Apple already provides a public SDK for iTunes on both Windows and Macintosh. Currently it exposes enough of the API to do far more than create custom visualizer plugins as Apple intended. No doubt that if the SDK doesn't already cover enough code to create new stores in iTunes, it would be simple to provide a few header files to alternative services to create the appropriate plug ins.

So with AAC being the leader in reasonable DRM (you can break it if you really want but the restrictions are so lax that most don't want) and MP3 already on board, Apple looks to maintain its lead unless something comes out that's better. If another format starts to become popular, Apple can add it at will, both validating it and nullifying it as a competitive threat. They don't have to worry about cannibalizing iTMS sales because those sales were never very profitable anyway. It's all about the hardware.

No, the complaints about not playing with others are very much sour grapes by industry players who are stuck dividing up the rest of the market. Hardware manufacturers are stuck outside the AAC world but Apple can maintain this differentiator while adopting any format that starts to become popular by simply releasing a codec firmware update and an iTunes plug in.

That ends up creating a two tier market with commodity players in one tier and Apple sitting pretty in the other. Will the Apple tier shrink to "3 to 5 percent"? I doubt it. The price difference isn't all that much. The number of people who can afford $300 for a portable digital music player but not $400 is not that large.

Posted by TMLutas at 01:03 AM

November 26, 2003

Space Race: X-Prize National Culture Roundup

For those who aren't aware, the X-Prize is a $10M contest with a neat trophy to launch a privately developed and built (no government funds) vehicle that can achieve suborbital flight to a height of 62 miles (100km), land, prep, and do it again inside of 14 days.

The X-Prize current team list consists of a surprising mix of nations as well as some interesting absences. There are 24 teams participating currently. 15 are from the US, 1 from Romania, 3 from the UK, 2 from Canada, 1 from Argentina, 1 from Israel, and 1 from Russia. It makes sense for the US to have a great number of teams as it has a great deal of money sloshing around in its society, is a traditional space power, and has a tradition of exploration and entrepreneurial adventure. The UK, Canada, and Russia entries make sense. These are rich countries or traditional space powers though Russia's entry depends on a partner that seems to be a state aircraft manufacturer branching out into space designs.

Israel, Argentina, and Romania are clearly playing the role of the little engine that could. Israel's space program only got into the launch business in 1988. Argentina has even less of a space history. Romania has more of a space program but the lowest per capita GDP numbers of all the entries. Clearly, these three are punching above their weights, Romania most of all.

But look who is missing. Where is France? They have plenty of money and an established concentration of space engineers to staff such a project. Where is Japan, with its own rich economy, and fairly well established, though embattled, space program. the PRC has Romania level GDP per capita numbers but is 50 times larger and enough wealthy people to fund such a project if they were interested and their government permitted it (I wonder whether it is a failure of popular imagination or stifling government that is the dominant problem). Their space program just had their first manned launch but the Middle Kingdom seems uninterested in creating a competitive atmosphere. And how about Germany? The nation that jump started both Soviet and US space programs does have its own space program but no apparent interest in working outside the public sector with a private X-Prize team.

All in all, the nations of the entering (and the major space nations not entering) teams say something good (or not so good) about their respective national culture, or in the case of the US sub-national culture. Five of the US' fifteen entries are from California, three are from Texas with the rest of the entries scattered across the country.

Posted by TMLutas at 02:38 PM

November 25, 2003

Internet survivability and the Smart Grid

Previous smart grid posts are here, here, here, here, and here but aren't, strictly speaking, necessary to get this piece.

Rensys has put out a significant report on the great US blackout of 2003. Contrary to prior reports that crowed about how the Internet hardly hiccuped, in actuality it suffered significant route outages. The main thoroughfares of the information superhighway were alright but the side streets and byways had significant levels of outage due to insufficient backup power sources.

One of the things that our current dumb grid cannot do is that it cannot provide cheap information about itself. A smart grid which provided information about what was attached and provided a more sophisticated real time power market down to the very local scale would provide such cheap information on the reliability of the Internet to power failure.

An example from the financial world would suffice to explain how this would work. An outsider doesn't have to look at WorldCom's books to ferret out that it's in serious trouble, a >50% stock drop in one day provides that information quite adequately, in a timely manner, and cheaply. You can factor in that financial instability into your telecom purchasing decision making even though this process has nothing to do whatsoever with your investment portfolio. This is an extreme example but financial information, quarterly reports, and other artifacts of a smart financial market enable far more information sharing than is used or needed to make actual investment decisions.

Similarly, a power market could be set up with respect to Internet infrastructure so that information about reserve power levels could be easily embedded into the system and you could use that to enhance reliability. You could know to a much higher level of detail when and how your internet connectivity would cut out in the face of a widespread power emergency. ISPs, knowing that this information is out there would take measures to ensure that adequate backup power would be available.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:05 AM

November 04, 2003

Thanks, Microsoft, for making my Mac cheaper

Thanks to Good Morning Silicon Valley for pointing out that it looks like the XBox 2 is not going to have Intel Inside. This statement makes it clear that the snake and mongoose dance that Microsoft and IBM have had for years is getting a bit more interesting. The CPU chip is likely to be the PPC 970, the same machine that powers the Apple Macintosh top end (marketed under the G5 label).

Chip prices are largely driven by volume. XBox's switchover to PPC will likely drive the cost of the Intel's chips up and IBM's chips down. This will put money not only into IBM's pocket but also into the pockets of Apple and Motorola who helped design the 970 via the AIM alliance that manages the PPC line.

This will also change the software world a bit as it will become easier to port XBox games to Apple's Macintosh that shares the same chip as XBox 2 than to Microsoft's own Windows platform which abandoned PPC around the NT4 SP3 patch level.

Posted by TMLutas at 12:13 PM

October 30, 2003

Elevator Follies

Steven Den Beste has a remarkable mind but sometimes he goofs. His recent article on space elevators is one such instance.

First of all, kevlar just doesn't cut it as a space elevator material and hasn't been seriously considered in years, ever since carbon nanotubes were discovered in the early 90s and their superior theoretical strength properties were documented. This establishes little except that SDB hasn't recently done a literature search. No biggie in itself but this means he's likely been unaware that Los Alamos recently sponsored a conference on space elevators along with the Institute for Scientific Research (in fact, it's the 2nd annual one).

He also probably could profit by looking up the liftport group who are raising funds and conducting research to create a space elevator over the next two decades. The Liftport FAQ discusses the problem of sideways movement in the cable during its week long lift time. The answer, in general terms, is to fire a horizontal rocket when appropriate. From the FAQ marked frequent misconceptions

When an elevator ascends the ribbon, it must be accelerated eastward because the Earth's rotation represents a larger eastward velocity the higher you go. The required eastward force on the ascending elevator would have to be provided by a corresponding westward force on the ribbon, possibly requiring rockets at intervals along the cable. If you go through the math quantitatively, the angular momentum for the climbers requires a few newtons of force over the one-week travel time, and we do that easily with our many tons of material in the anchor and the counterweight. The additional angular momentum will eventually be recovered from that of the entire Earth. The quantities really are tiny, but just to be complete, a climber going up pushes the entire elevator slightly to the east, causing it to lean. However, the ribbon recovers for the same reason that it stays up in the first place. Centripetal acceleration is acting on the counterweight pulling it outward, and the lost angular momentum is replaced very quickly (essentially as fast as it is lost). The ribbon will never loose enough angular momentum to even deflect a single degree, let alone fall. The extra angular momentum is stolen from the Earth's rotation; we will have to worry about this effect slowing down the Earth and making the day longer if we ever decide to ship Australia into space.

I look forward to hearing further posts from SDB on the space elevator. Hopefully, they'll be better documented.

Posted by TMLutas at 06:49 PM

October 03, 2003

Solar Progress?

Hat tip to Slashdot for pointing out this article on a new type of solar power cells. It's a bit of a mixed bag. Radically lower prices mean that solar electricity will become competitive for the first time but the lower efficiency of the new cells means that the space problem of solar power becomes even worse. This should make solar power marginally more useful in rural applications where you need to put in a lot of infrastructure to extend the grid there.

Posted by TMLutas at 01:21 PM

September 23, 2003

Occupation Tech

Let me spin you a tale of a future occupation. The US invades K, an universally acknowledged failed state hosting a variety of terrorist groups with a record as an international basket case stretching decades. The conventional war follows a familiar script with the local army quickly being routed and the government collapsing inside a month.

In accord to the new rules now comes the task of occupation, constitution writing, elections, and standing up the infrastructure of a free society so the US never has to come back there again as K will no longer be part of the non-integrating gap but the newest member of the functioning core. In other words, now comes the hard part.

Imagine this, that every family gets issued something on the order of a simputer. They are told that they can find out where to get jobs, aid, information on curfews and other rules, and other useful features via these computers which come with solar rechargers and wireless connectivity. Since the computers don't require literacy, these basic benefits are universal.

At the same time, other features are available, FAQs describing political models, what are the advantages and the difficulties of free societies, what are the expectations of citizens in the new order, instructions on how to properly and effectively petition for a redress of grievances without violence, and on and on are made available to the entire population. If a particular point isn't understood well, an individual can send an email requesting clarification and this feedback constantly improves the information available.

The result? Scarce translation resources stretch a lot further. Intelligence comes pouring in on regime dead enders because you no longer have to step out of your house and risk discovery by being seen. False reports also spike and then quickly drop off as people discover that their messages are automatically signed cryptographically and they have to explain why they sent troops out on a wild goose chase.

Some bright young local techs start up discussion groups which morph into local civic movements and eventually political parties and the whole society comes crashing into the modern functional world as the ability of old elites to bar the masses from the truth and from power come quickly crashing down.

So, would such a system be perfect? By no means, but it would be an improvement and play to the strengths of modern functioning societies and against the weaknesses of the non-integrating gap elites that we wish to displace. Given the likely low cost of such systems (probably around $300/unit) even shaving a couple of weeks off the time to hand over to a new government would make the systems a net money saver by a large margin.

Such a program could be justified solely by the probable increase in military intelligence, by the increase in organization of food aid, curfews, and other traditional military needs, but the likely big payoff is in political transformation.

Posted by TMLutas at 03:57 PM

September 03, 2003

Custom Parts on Demand

Winds of Change has an article about the US Army's new Mobile Parts Hospital (MPH). While a very useful thing for the military, this will also have civilian implications. Imagine being able to bring in a part for a tool that is no longer manufactured and simply scan it and fabricate it at your local Home Depot. All of a sudden, as I wrote in July, planned obsolescence is dead.

This is moving from the realm of limited material capable items possible to assemble from COTS technology components (3D printers and scanners) to an actual integrated system that can handle a wide variety of components in many materials. Once that military system is viewed by many eyes, visionaries will take it and bring it to the civilian sphere.

The on-site production of parts will have wide implications for many fields. Lots of business models will have to be rewritten. Commercial concerns will take on some of the characteristics of industrial concerns (and how is that going to get zoned?). Mass customization is going to give way to true customization as one offs become cheap enough for the masses to afford. All in all, this is big news everywhere.

Posted by TMLutas at 01:51 PM

August 24, 2003

Cell phone musings

Being a glutton for punishment, Steven Den Beste's provoking some musings again. B-)

He's back from vacation and talking about cell phones among other things and giving very good information about why the system doesn't drop certain traffic and expand basic capacity in case of emergency. One thing that isn't clear is whether he meant bits (Kbps) or bytes (KBps) when he referred to kbps. I'll assume he meant bytes. Update: in email, SDB clarified he meant bits. That means you'd be able to pump 8x more calls in the same bandwidth I originally calculated.

His article reminded me about an old idea I had kicked around for some time, the thought that voice over IP (VoIP) could be mated to a limited cell antenna on the roof and provide the ability to route calls over your broadband connection. There are all sorts of dead zones for cellular coverage, from rural zones that might be able to get broadband but don't have a cell tower handy to the middle of the big city where building reflections create oddly shaped dead zones, there is plenty of opportunity for somebody who is willing to share some of his bandwidth to cell phone customer in need. The number of calls handled by each individual station would not be large. At 8KBps someone willing to share 256Kbps up/down (this would have to be symmetric) would be able to handle 4 simultaneous voice calls. Why would he share it? Two reasons come to mind, he gets some income from it so that his bandwidth expenses go down (perhaps he even makes a buck or two) and being in such a dead zone, he wants his own cell phone calls to go through easily (which is how I got the idea in the first place).

Obviously, you can't be stomping all over these calls with other traffic. You'd need to be on an IPv6 network and have Quality of Service (QoS) turned on so that these voice packets have priority and your Quake slugfest gets a bit of extra lag but that's not theoretically hard and IPv6 is now a sure thing now that the DoD has started the changeover process.

Living in a world where cell reception sites can overlap might prove more of a challenge and require some improvement to current standards so that automatic negotiation can occur with overlapping sites properly negotiating who handles which call but no doubt the cellular carriers will enforce fairness among their affiliate receivers.

The relevant side effect to SDB's post is that such a distributed receiver network would be more resilient. In case of emergency, people would likely be willing to switch more of their bandwidth over to phone conversations and the larger variety of receiver maintainers would ensure that some capacity would be preserved by techno-geeks with hefty backup generators even if the regular towers quickly drain their batteries.

I don't want to cause any confusion that such a system is practical today. IPv6 isn't supported by *any* mainstream ISP that I know of (in N. America at least) and the equipment to throw up such a affiliate tower in an apartment window or a house's rooftop is just not in existence as a do it yourself prebuilt kit. But a decade from now IPv6 will be a mainstream reality, bandwidth will likely be cheaper, and the need for a more robust cell phone network will still be with us.

Update: SDB's riposte was swift and characteristically pessimistic. One thing he didn't address fully was the time factor.

There are three basic ingredients in creating a cell receiver once you take away the problem of finding a location, the human time necessary to design the thing, the intelligence necessary to calculate and process the signals and the physical bits of plastic and metal needed to make the system. Is antenna design a science or an art? I suspect it's science, and very precise science at that. Given the proper software, could the process be automated and take out the human engineering that contributes to the cost? I suspect that if it's not true today, it'll become true during the decade timeframe I established as a minimum necessary for such an innovation to come to pass (remember, IPv6 and QoS needs to happen first). You'd just get shipped a box that you'd place where the antenna will go and turn it on. The box would gather the requisite data of where nearby cells are, etc. and make it ready for processing into a decent antenna design (remember, we don't have to be super-efficient, we're going for antenna volume).

The processing power at the central office needed to process a call is no different if the call is received through a big central tower or through an IPv6 Internet gateway so we can take that out of the equation. Processing power is supposed to follow Moore's law for about the next decade at least so by the time the Internet infrastructure can support this idea, we'll have doubled processing power at a given cost and electricity draw 6 times and be two thirds of the way on to our 7th doubling. That means that whatever the current silicon costs, it'll be somewhere between 1/64 and 1/128th as expensive as today's versions. How much this deflates the actual cost depends on how much of the current cost is electronics and how much is the antenna.

So we have an automated system for determining the best design for your new custom antenna, we have incredibly cheap and powerful chips to power the thing, but how does the actual antenna get made?

If people are currently custom hand tooling the antenna assembly it's likely that a decade from now, the same results could be printed out by the same program that calculates how the antenna should to look. It's not such a big stretch to see 3d printers available in either Home Depot (a do it yourself home products store), Kinkos (a printing and office service bureau), or both.

So, human input, processor power, and antenna fabrication all can have their costs drastically reduced over the next decade. I can certainly see a $200k receiver station being ground down to $1k-$3k in a decade if most of the cost is subject to Moore's law. In two decades it'll be in the hundreds and at a price point where the middle class can routinely afford to put it into place.

Posted by TMLutas at 11:03 PM

August 22, 2003

Distributed Power and the Smart Grid

Thanks to Tyler Cowen of the Volokh Conspiracy for noting this Washington Post article about distributed power.

As the article mentions, 8% of US power is currently generated by distributed means, usually under the label of cogeneration. So we're not talking about rinky dink, pie in the sky alternative power schemes but something that is contributing significantly to today's grid and is likely to increase in future.

Unfortunately, the limits of our dumb grid show up quite quickly in the article too. The University of Maryland had local, distributed generation but when they disconnected from the grid recently due to power fluctuation, they found that they had no way to quickly shut down enough non-essential consumers of electricity (like UPS batteries) and ended up taking their local grid down after 3 minutes due to overload. A smarter grid would have been able to shut down a fraction of the air HVAC plants and rotated what was running and what was not so that temperatures remained tolerable but the grid would have stayed up.

Posted by TMLutas at 11:44 AM

July 28, 2003

The beginning of the end for planned obsolescence

Replacing well engineered, durable parts with cheap ones that break and cost so much in labor to fix that you're better off just buying a new appliance is an old manufacturer's trick. But what if you could make your own replacement parts? The strategy no longer works because with your own parts, you can replace them yourself and not be stuck having to pay for the repairman that is attached to those custom parts you can't order yourself.

This has wide implications all across the manufacturing economy. As these 3D printers get perfected, they will come down in price and win a wider and wider market, reducing the need to hire craftsman (though increasing the need for do-it-yourself classes). It would also tend to reduce the amount of stock that a hardware store has to keep on hand. all they would need would be very large, very efficient 3D printers of their own to manufacture a large proportion of their own stock without the need for wholesalers. Home Depot might still carry highly durable tools that a 3D printer can't make but to some extent the Home Depot of the future will resemble Kinkos, a service bureau.

I'll need to think about it more but it seems that this sort of thing makes disarmament schemes completely impractical in a society with privacy and freedom of speech. You could build your own guns. Volatile components for ammunition might be a problem but I don't doubt that this is something that would be solved fairly easily for low muzzle velocity ammunition.

Posted by TMLutas at 02:17 PM

July 14, 2003

Disruptive Technology I

I originally had a very nice and long note I wrote on disruptive technologies, what they are and some analysis of this article. Movable Type seems not to like articles that long. Read the above referred article, it's great. In short, GPS is going to change our world in ways you might expect and ways that will take you by surprise. It's not just for smart bombs and for soldiers who don't want to read a map anymore.

(UPDATE: I fixed it. --BR)

Most technologies are introduced and work on "S curves" where they increase efficiency over time very slowly at first (often starting out as being less efficient that pre-existing alternatives), then take off very rapidly and finally flatten out their progress as the technology becomes mature. If the steep portion of the S curve is long enough, the technology becomes disruptive, changing the degree of efficiency in its current task so that entirely new kinds of things become possible and old assumptions are better thrown out the window.

I just read an interesting article about one of the less appreciated disruptive technologies of our time, GPS. GPS, for those who are less familiar with it, solves the problem of location, 'where is'. Where am I, where is the border, where is my shipment, where is my wife, all perfectly pedestrian questions but up until GPS came around we were willing to live with very imprecise answers because as a practical matter, you couldn't afford to maintain the effort to answer such questions with precision all the time.

On an intimate note, now we can tell where our children are within a few feet and get that answer quickly, easily, at any time day or night. This gives parents an entirely new set of dilemmas to choose, when should children have 'free' time to start growing and flexing their independence? GPS transponder systems provide the ability to make this dilemma more than an idle fantasy. This is a current future application but it's only the conservative impulse that prevents deployment of such systems today, the technology is ready.

In the commercial arena, this permits a much higher degree of precision in transport, in placing resources from concrete to beehives, and in inventory applications everywhere. Commerce seems to be the current leg of GPS deployment that is entering its major disruptive phase. A key figure is deployment rates (next year, they're projected to deploy as many GPS devices as the previous 25 years have seen deployed).

GPS effects on agriculture will be huge as price comes down. The efficiency effects on 1st world agriculture are high but as it becomes more and more affordable for poorer and poorer farmers, food supplies will be going up as required labor goes down. This is disruptive economically but also politically as rural voting blocs and interests are a common basic building bloc of democratic polities and rural depopulation is a major fear behind the creation and maintenance of the EU CAP for example. Increased food supplies and price crashes also tend to knock the wind out of the malthusians with their overpopulation fears.

All in all an interesting read.

Posted by TMLutas at 09:04 AM